Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

15. Taking the Risk: Habits and Choices in Organizing

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

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Decisions you make about organizing have results in your environment. Your present state of organization, whatever it may be, is the result of thousands of decisions you’ve made over time. If the environment around you is not what you want it to be, I invite you to look at how you’re making decisions.

Sometimes decisions are made out of habit or tradition. A habit is an automatic response to a situation. It’s a response that is similar to what you have done in the past. If you are acting out of habit, you are probably not considering all the possibilities available to you right now.

As an example, there’s the story of the woman who, every time she was going to cook a ham, would cut the end off the ham before she put it in the oven. Someone asked her why she did that, and she replied that she didn’t know. Her mother had always done it like that. Then they asked her mother why she did it that way and the mother said that she didn’t know either. Her mother had always done it like that. When they asked the grandmother why she did this, she replied “I don’t do it anymore, but at one time I had a small oven, and I had to cut the end off the ham so it would fit in my oven.” The problem with making decisions out of habit is that certain behavior may persist beyond the point where it is useful.

This is not to say that all habits are bad. For example, I have a habit to brush my teeth every night before I go to bed. In this case, this habitual behavior works for me because it’s beneficial for me to always behave in that way. If I were to decide every night before going to bed, “do I want to brush my teeth now?” I might sometimes choose otherwise. I might say, “I am really tired. I don’t feel like it. I can brush my teeth in the morning.” I know it’s better for me to always brush my teeth at night, so I like having this habit because it spares me from having to make a decision each time. It spares me from the possibility that I might make a decision that doesn’t work as well for me. Sometimes habits serve us well, and other times they don’t.

You will make lots of decisions while organizing. You will make decisions about whether to keep something or let it go. You will make decisions about how to categorize stuff. You’ll make decisions about where to store stuff, and you will make decisions about whether or not to put something away.

Organizing decisions, like any other decisions, can become habitual. For example, in my household we get a regular supply of glass bottles, because we buy different types of drinks that come in those bottles. We use these bottles over and over again to store drinks and to take water with us whenever we’re traveling. We formed a habit of keeping every glass bottle that we empty. The problem is, we had continued to get a steady supply of new glass bottles with new products we purchase. The habit of keeping all the glass bottles worked OK up to a point, but eventually, we ended up having more glass bottles than we would ever be able to use, and these bottles took up a lot of space.

Eventually, an action can become so habitual that it’s no longer really a choice. It becomes automatic and unconscious. We stop being aware of other possibilities. This works well as long as that habit yields good results, but if it doesn’t, we then went to empower ourselves by reintroducing an element of choice to the decision-making process. Here’s how to do that:

1. First, notice when a habitual behavior is no longer serving its intended purpose or for some other reason creates a result that you’re not happy with. If there are parts of your environment that you don’t like, that’s a clue that the way you’re making decisions is no longer working for you. In fact, it’s often possible to start with something you don’t like in your environment and trace it back to specific decisions that created that result.
2. Then, the next time you’re making that decision, slow down, take a deep breath, and then take a moment to consider other possibilities, other alternatives to the habitual response.
3. Third, evaluate those different alternatives, and choose which one you believe will work best for you at that time.
4. Finally, notice the results, in terms of how you feel about that choice and the environment that results from it.

Note that you may continue to make the same choice as you did when it was a habit, but now you’ve done so consciously rather than habitually.

Something as simple as introducing an element of choice to what once was habitual behavior will open up the realm of possibility and empower you to act more consciously. And what’s the worst thing that could happen? If you find that the new choice you’ve made doesn’t work for you, you can always go back to the way you used to do it. In fact, you can make a different choice at any moment. Stan Dale, founder of the Human Awareness Institute, said, “Every second, you get a second chance.” A very obscure poet once wrote, “Every moment is a choice point, a chance to break free, we are always at the line between what is and what will be.”

Habitual behavior is comfortable. It feels safe because it’s familiar. Breaking habits is a change, and there’s always some discomfort and fear associated with any change. You are taking a risk. Let’s acknowledge that. You’re taking a risk to make a change.

Are you willing to take some risks? Are you willing to feel the fear and do it anyway? If not, that’s OK. You can always do it later, if you choose to, or never at all, if you don’t feel the need to. If you are willing to take risks, I invite you to acknowledge yourself and give yourself credit for that willingness.

There’s a balance between safety and risk. We don’t want to over-risk, and stretch so far that we regret it. On the other hand, we don’t want to stay so safe that we never change, and therefore stay stuck in behaviors that no longer work for us. It’s been said that a ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.

To illustrate all of this, I’d like to come back to the example of the glass bottles. One day I noticed something in my environment. I said, “Hey! There’s no room for another bottle where we normally put them.” I then noticed that the entire cabinet was completely full of about forty-five empty glass bottles! And it’s not like there were a bunch of different sizes and shapes. They were all identical.

It wasn’t too hard to see that this collection resulted from our habit of always saving bottles. We always automatically saved them without considering how many we need or how many we already had. So what are some other choices we could make? We could give bottles to someone else or put them in the recycle bin. After a quick discussion, we decided to keep fifteen bottles and recycle the rest. This assured us that we’d still have the bottles we need, and it also freed up a lot of space we can now use for other stuff.

We were willing to take the risk to try a different behavior. In this case, there is minimal risk, because we get more of these bottles on a regular basis. So if we ever feel like we don’t have enough, we can always decide to keep more at that time.

My intention in this post is not to say that you should make decisions in a particular way, but instead I hope to bring more awareness to the decision-making process.

14. Organizing Myths

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

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Today, I’d like to address five organizing myths. These are inaccurate or unrealistic ideas that people have about organizing. If you’ve had trouble getting or staying organized, perhaps it’s because you’re adhering to one of these myths about the organizing process.

The first myth is a belief that some people have adopted about the organizing process called OHIO. OHIO sounds like it might be in organizing technique that was created in Cleveland or Toledo. This is not the case. Instead, it’s an acronym. OHIO is an acronym for the phrase “Only Handle It Once.”

The idea behind OHIO is that every time you touch an item you’ll immediately put it in its final destination. There are situations where this works well. For example, if you already have a working organizational system in place and you want to incorporate new items into that existing system, I have no doubt that OHIO will work well for you. If your possessions already have locations they belong, and you are returning items to their homes in order to maintain an existing system, OHIO is great. It’s ideal for maintenance.

However, if you are starting from being completely disorganized, I would not recommend trying to handle every item only once. If you are starting from chaos you will not be able to create the final destination for each object immediately. Even if you imagine a place that might be a good final destination, it’s likely that that location is already filled with stuff, and you would have to move that stuff before you could put the original object in that location. But then where are you going to put the stuff you removed from that location? If your environment is filled with stuff, you can get into a circular gridlock. It will not be possible to put everything in its final destination immediately. Some intermediate steps are necessary. It will be much more efficient to use temporary sorting containers and then find a home for that stuff after it has been sorted into categories and you have room to move into.

Also, there will be lots of items that will need to go to other locations, other rooms in the house for example. If you try to only handle something once, then you would need to immediately take that item to the other room and come back. Doing this a lot will be very inefficient because you will spend a lot of time traveling. I recommend instead, having a temporary container labeled “Other Rooms,” or “Take To Garage.” Whenever that container gets full, you can make one trip to that location and distribute all the items at one time. Even though you’re handling each item more than once, it’s still a lot more efficient.

Even though Ohio doesn’t work in many situations, there are still good intentions behind the idea. I believe the intention behind Ohio is to avoid what I call thrashing. Thrashing is picking something up, looking at it, and then putting it back down again. If you do this, you have expended time and energy, but you haven’t made any progress. Thrashing is wasteful and ineffective. If you can put everything in its final destination, you’ll avoid thrashing, and I believe this is the intention behind Ohio.

But there’s a way to get the benefits of Ohio without the drawbacks. Even though you may handle items more than once, you still want to avoid thrashing. You can do so by making sure you don’t pick something up, look at it, and just put it back down. Make sure you put it with its category, or in a temporary container that’s labeled for a particular destination. That way it’s moving closer to its final destination, even when its final destination can not yet be known. If every action you take moves you closer to your destination, you will always continue to make progress.

The second myth I’d like to address is that gadgets and products are the answer to an organizational challenge. Many times, when people decide to get organized, the first thing they do is go out and buy drawer dividers, shoe racks, plastic storage bins, shelving units, over-the-door hooks, and desk organizers. I strongly recommend against doing this, especially as the first step, for three reasons.

First, the majority of people are disorganized primarily because they have too much stuff. If you are one of those people, then to go out and buy more stuff is actually moving in the wrong direction. It’s taking you further from where you want to go.

Second, you may already have these items. As I was organizing Natasha in San Francisco, I found, in various locations all over the house, the equivalent of an entire closet full of drawer dividers and plastic baskets, most of them unused. She would go out and buy these items, but they would get mixed in with lots of other stuff and she would forget about them. Then later she would go out and buy more, until she had accumulated more than she could ever use. I have found that if you have a lot of stuff, practically everything you need will show up as you’re going through it. So as you get organized, you may find that you don’t need to buy anything after all.

Third, until you do sorting and simplifying, there’s no way you could know which products will work. If you buy products at the beginning of the organizing process, it’s likely that you won’t spend your money very effectively. If you’ve read this blog before, you know I recommend following “The Three S’s of Organizing,” simplify, sort, and store. You cannot know which products will be effective until after sorting and simplifying, until the third step, store. There are times when products can be useful and effective. However, there’s no way that you can know which products will be effective until late in the organizing process, so please, please, please, do not go out and purchase a bunch of organizing gadgets and products as step one of your organizing process.

The third myth I would like to address is that organizing is synonymous with decluttering. Although decluttering can be an important part of the organizing process, decluttering and organizing are not the same thing; they are different processes with different goals.

I have met people whose environment was very cluttered, however they were still organized, meaning they knew where everything was, and they were able to find and access everything they needed to do what they wanted to do. I’ve also met people who were uncluttered but disorganized. Their surfaces were all clean and their environment had a Zen simplicity that was beautiful to look at, however, they couldn’t find anything, and, beneath the surface, inside their drawers, random objects were thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

Decluttering is either getting rid of unnecessary objects, what I call simplifying, or clearing surfaces and tidying up. Either of these may be part of organizing, but organizing is much more than decluttering. Organizing is the process by which, through introspection, you become really clear about what is important and what you most want to accomplish at this stage in your life. Then, you arrange your possessions to make it easy to accomplish those things. You want to be able to spend time on what really matters and not be distracted by stuff that doesn’t really matter. You want to be able to find and access items when you need them. So organizing is a larger process than decluttering, and an important part of that process is internal. See earlier posts for more information about that.

The fourth myth is once you get organized, you’re done. In reality, after you are organized, if you continue with the same behavior you had you were disorganized, you are likely to re-create that same disorganization. Staying organized requires a change in habits, a change from the habits that created the disorganization in the first place. I will talk more about this in the future, but for now, just know that after you become organized, you’re not finished, you must still maintain that organization.

The fifth myth is that the ability to organize is genetic — you were born with it, and either you have it or you don’t. I know from personal experience that this is not the case, because I was not born with it. When I was in college, living in a college dorm room, every morning I would wake up and move all the stuff from my desk to my bed so I could study. Then every night, I would move all the stuff from my bed to my desk so I could sleep. Meanwhile, my roommate would watch me and laugh. He was very neat and organized. He had bad eyesight, so he had to have each of his belongings in its place because otherwise, they couldn’t find them. He had become organized out of necessity. Organization is a skill that is learned and can be developed. Organizational ability relates more to habits, choices, and lifestyle than genetics.

In addition to these five myths about the organizing process, I’d also like to address two myths that people have about professional organizers. This comes from a personal place. Sometimes people make assumptions about me because of my profession, and I would like to respond to the ones that are incorrect.

I’ve heard people say, “I want to see your home — it must be immaculate!” I can assure you this is not the case. In fact, right now, there’s a stack of papers and other clutter on my desk. If I have an important project, like taxes, I tend to be very focused on that project and neglect maintaining my organizational system. This is a deliberate choice, because at that time, the taxes are more important than staying organized in other parts of my life. So, I am situationally disorganized, and it really works for me to be that way. I’m not anal and I don’t expect myself to be perfect. So, no, my home is not immaculate.

The second idea that people project onto me as a professional organizer is “You’ll make me get rid of stuff I want to keep.” Well, no, I would never try to coerce someone into doing something they don’t want to do. Not only is that not the person I want to be, but it’s also not effective. Forced interventions do not work. I may invite you to question whether possession is supporting you, how it’s contributing to your life. I may invite you to look at your relationship with that object and the beliefs you have about it, and about yourself. I may challenge you to make different choices than you have in the past, but I will never try to force you to get rid of something you know you want to keep. I will also never shame, criticize, or judge you for the choices you make. I just try to bring as much consciousness and awareness to that decision-making process as I can.

13. “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind”

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

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Previously, I introduced “The Three S’s Of Organizing” and discussed the third ‘S’, store, which is to find a home for this stuff so its well-positioned for future use. There’s a fear that people sometimes have about storing. The fear is, “if I store this somewhere, I’m afraid I’ll forget about it.” “If I put this away, it will be off the radar.” “Out of sight, out of mind.” Someone who would make these statements is depending on visual cues, or visual reminders, to keep track of the things they need to do. They are afraid if they can’t see it, they will forget about it.

We all have a lot of things we need to keep track of. In fact, when you think about it, the number of things you have to do and keep track of on an ongoing basis is really quite extensive: pay bills, buy groceries, change the oil in the car, pick up the kids from school, vacuum, take out the trash, change the burnt out light bulb in the garage, get the mail, arrange to have food on the table, plan for a vacation, plan for retirement, exercise, pay the rent or mortgage, keeping contact with friends. The list goes on and on, and this list doesn’t include all the things we need to do for work. Most of us have more things to do and more projects to keep track of than we could remember in our minds.

Some of these things have a built-in reminder system. For example, if a light bulb goes out, the darkness that I see after I flip the switch is an instant reminder that the light bulb needs to be changed. When I was in college, when I put on my last pair of underwear, I knew I had to do laundry, and soon! We generally notice when the car is running low on gas before we end up being stranded on the roadside.

We have all developed systems of reminders to supplement our own memory in remembering things, and keeping track of which of them are most important. One example of such a memory aid is using visual cues, where there is a physical object you can see to remind you of each thing you want to keep track of. I call this using visual reminders.

If you are someone who does this, I’d first like to ask, “How is it working for you?” Does it help you keep track of and effectively address the things that are most important in your life? As far as I’m concerned, there’s no right or wrong answer, there’s just what works.

And there are instances where using visual cues does work, but in most cases it doesn’t, it doesn’t because a system of using visual reminders has four limitations. First, it is short-lived, and becomes less effective over time. Second, it doesn’t scale well. Third, it results in misplaced priorities, and fourth, it creates stress. Let’s take a closer look at each of these limitations.

I have noticed, from my own experience, and from years of working with other people, that the more we see something, the less we notice it. The more we see a visual cue, the less effective it is as a reminder, so its value as a reminder decreases over time. I used to work with a guy who, when he encountered something he wanted to take home, he would put it right next to the door. His reasoning was that when he was leaving, he would see the item on the way out the door, and remember to take it home. However, throughout the day, he would go out the door several times, and see that item many times, so by the time the reminder was actually needed, the item was completely off the radar. Inevitably, at the end of the day, he would walk out the door leaving that item behind. This illustrates the first limitation of visual reminders, they are short-lived and decrease in effectiveness quickly over time.

Visual cues can work if you have a small number of them, a small number meaning less than ten, for example, but there’s a limit to the number of items that can be visible at any one time. Once you get more than that, the reminders get stacked up, thereby obscuring one another, so they’re not all visible. If they are not visible, they can’t function as a reminder. So the second limitation of visual cues is that they don’t scale well. They work well in small scale, but not in large-scale. A small number of visual reminders can work OK, but once you have a large number of them, the whole system breaks down.

Now, whenever you have a large number of visual cues, how do you choose what is most important? How do you choose what to do first? Typically, people choose based on what happens to be at the top of the pile, or what happens to be the most visible. This is not necessarily the thing which is most important, so you end up doing unimportant things before you get to the important things. So the third drawback of using visual cues is that it tends to lead to incorrect priorities.

The fourth, final, and most important drawback of using visual cues is that they create stress.

A reminder works well when it reminds you about something at a time when you’re able to act on it. With a system of visual cues, however, you are getting these reminders at times when you’re not able to, or don’t want to, act on them. You are getting these reminders all the time. For example, suppose it’s the end of the month, and you have to pay bills. You have a very busy schedule but you’ve set aside enough time to pay your bills, and you absolutely have to complete this task. It’s your most important priority at this time.

However, as you sit down at your desk, you see reminders of other things you have to do. You even have to move reminders to make room to pay your bills. At this point, these other reminders serve no benefit. They are not helping you get things done, instead they are interfering with what you need to get done. The visual reminders have become visual distractions.

The only way for you to succeed in paying the bills is to ignore these reminders — to block them out — and this makes them ineffective as reminders in the future.

Now suppose, on another occasion, you’ve had a long, busy day at work, and you really want to come home and just relax. Relaxation is an important part of a balanced life, and sometimes relaxation is, and should be, the most important priority. In this situation, “Out of sight, out of mind” is a blessing. If your environment is filled with visual reminders, these reminders will interfere with your ability to relax. As you want to escape from all responsibilities and forget everything, you will be reminded that:
• You have library books to return.
• Your father’s birthday is coming up.
• The electric bill is due.
• You haven’t even started on your taxes.
• You need to get more ink for the printer.
• You are behind schedule on the project for work.

All these reminders of things you have to do, at a time when you just want to relax, serve no beneficial purpose. They just create stress. The visual reminders have become visual stressors.

The problem gets compounded if you start beating yourself up for not having done them sooner, or criticizing yourself for being in this situation. This can have a negative impact on your self image and quality of life.

Again, the only way for you to succeed in your goal (which, in this case, is relaxation) is to block all these reminders out, and this makes them ineffective as reminders in the future.

Overall, the only way for a system of visual reminders to work is if, first, you learn to block them out at times you don’t want to be reminded, and second, you still notice them when you do want to be reminded. You must also develop the habit of, when you are ready to act on these reminders, scanning them all, even the ones that are buried, and choosing, out of all of them, the most important ones to act on it that time. This is what must happen for a system of visual reminders to be successful.

If you use visual cues, and it works well for you, then continue to do so. If it doesn’t, you might want to consider developing a different habit. I recommend freeing yourself from a dependence on visual cues. There are other ways to accomplish the same thing. There are other ways that are more effective and take less effort, the simplest of which is a “to do” list.

If you find yourself feeling resistant to establishing a new habit, remember that we all have habits, it’s just a question of how well these habits are working for us. It requires a change to establish a new habit, and any change can be uncomfortable, but if you’re willing to take the risk to face that temporary discomfort, your quality of life will be improved in the long run. You will find yourself more empowered to live the life you have imagined.

12. The Third ‘S’: Store

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

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Previously, I introduced the “Three S’s of Organizing,” and have discussed simplify and sort. This brings us to the third ‘S’, store, which very simply means to position these categories for future use. The goal in storing is to find a home for your categories in such a way that you can find, access, and utilize your possessions when you need them.

The good news is that storing is generally the easy part. After sorting and simplifying, most people find storing to be quite simple.

There are four factors to consider when deciding how to store your stuff. The first, and most important, is how often you use it. It’s most efficient to have possessions you use very often be right at your fingertips, while the things that you don’t use so much could be in deeper, less-accessible storage.

I found it helpful to have some kind of classification related to how often something is used. One way to do this is to classify items as active, reference, or archive. “Active” means you use it every day or at least several times a week. Things I would consider active are car keys, pens, a stapler, and, most likely, a toothbrush. “Reference” means you use it occasionally, but it is very important to be able to access it when you need it. A phonebook, dictionary, or users manuals are good examples of “reference” material. Something you use rarely or never, but still need to keep, can be considered “archive.” Archive material could include old tax returns, tire chains, or holiday decorations. Of course, there are many different ways you could classify possessions in terms of how often they’re used. I have found this classification works well because it’s so simple.

In storing, you want to position the categories in such a way that the ones you use most often are most accessible. Items that are “active” can be on your desktop or in your most convenient drawers. Items that are “reference” can be in less convenient drawers, in a closet or cabinet, or in some other location where they can be accessed when necessary. Reference material should be accessible but it doesn’t have to be right at your fingertips. Items that are “archive” can be stored on the very top shelf of the closet, in the basement, or in a garage.

The second factor to consider when storing is that you want the size of the category to match the size of the storage area. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to store pillows in a desk drawer or paper clips in a three-gallon storage container.

Thirdly, you want to store the category near the place where it will be utilized. For example, it would probably make sense to store office supplies in the office and automotive supplies in the garage.

The fourth and final factor is what is familiar. If you’re already using your top left desk drawer for office supplies, and that’s working well for you, and it satisfies the other three criteria, you may wish to go with what’s already comfortable. However, since you’re reading this blog, it’s possible that what you’ve been doing up until now isn’t working for you. In that case, it would be better to change it than to maintain a broken system.

Those are the four factors to consider when deciding where to store your stuff. They are general enough that they will apply to anybody. This blog is reaching a large audience, and so I’m not able to tailor the advice to specific situations. But your storing project is unique, because the number and size of your categories, as well as the size and location of your storage spaces, will be different than anyone else’s. It’s a matter of matching categories to storage spaces. Generally, doing this is pretty straightforward, however, if you’re having difficulty, it may help to make a list of your storage places and sort them by how accessible they are. Then, assign “active” categories to easily-accessible storage, “archive” categories to deep storage, and “reference” categories to storage places that are somewhere in the middle. Or, if you’re having difficulty, you may wish to enlist the help of a professional organizer.

I now have two bonus suggestions you can use when storing.

The first bonus suggestion is to make extensive use of containers. Rather than having a bunch of loose items on a shelf, place them in a container instead, and place the container on the shelf. This makes the category easier to move from one location to another. By retrieving one container, you can bring everything you need to work on a project into your workspace and to replace it when finished. It’s also easier to clean, because instead of having to move a bunch of loose items, you merely have to move one container.

Also, containers are easy to label, which brings me to the second bonus suggestion which is to make extensive use of labeling. Labels can be words, pictures, icons, or a combination of these. Labeling will help you to know what’s inside a container without having to open it. Label everything, even temporary sorting containers. Some people don’t label clear plastic bins because they can see the contents. I recommend using a label anyway for three reasons. First, the process of creating a label will help you understand and remember more clearly how your possessions are categorized. Second, if for some reason you ask a friend or family member to retrieve something for you, they may not be able to recognize the contents, and the label will help them succeed in their mission. Third, after years of putting things into and taking things out of a container, the specific items visible from the outside may no longer accurately represent the contents. Labels are clearer and less confusing.

If you buy in bulk, like at Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ’s, you must have a strategy for storing wholesale purchases. When you buy toilet paper, for example, you end up bringing home a quantity of fifty rolls or more. Of course toilet paper is a very important item, one that you will use often, however fifty rolls is more than you would want to store in your bathroom vanity. The solution is, of course, to separate the quantity into an active supply and an overflow supply. The active supply would be in the bathroom vanity, and the overflow can be in deeper storage, like a garage. When the active supply starts to run low, merely restock the active supply by retrieving from the overflow.

I’d But like to make one more point about storing by using an example. Andy — not me, a different Andy — created eight copies of a really important document and put each one in a different location in his office. He thought that he would then have a greater probability of finding that document when he needed it. Do you think it worked? Well, as you might be thinking, it didn’t work. I’ve never seen an example where it does, and it’s pretty easy to understand why.

The reason it didn’t work for Andy is because he never created a home for the document. It needs to have a definitive location where it is stored all the time. If it has a home, and is always returned to that home, he will always be able to access it without having to look through a bunch of stuff.

If the item doesn’t have a home, looking for it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Andy created eight copies of the document and put them in eight different places, without really creating a home. Now, instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, he’s looking for eight needles in a haystack, and, at the same time, he has made the haystack bigger. It’s been my experience that it’s better to have one document in a place where you definitely know where it is then to have eight copies where you’re not sure where they are.

To summarize, storing is to create a home for each category in such a way that the things you use most often are most accessible, that the storage space matches the size of its contents, and that stuff is stored near where it is utilized.

When storing, sometimes a fear arises which can be expressed as, “I’m afraid if I put it away I’ll forget about it.” My next post, “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind,” coming up soon, will be devoted to a discussion of this belief.

11. The Second ‘S’: Sort

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

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Previously, I introduced you to the “Three S’s of Organizing,” an easy and effective three-step approach to getting organized. The “Three S’s of Organizing” are simplify, sort, and store. I’ve already discussed simplifying and some simplifying challenges, and today, I’d like to move onto the second S, sort.

Even though I’ve talked about simplifying the first, and then sorting, they do not have to be done in that order. You can do either first, or you can do them both together. I would estimate that 50% of the time it works better to simplify first, 50% of the time it works better to sort first, and 50% of the time it works best to do them both together.

If simplifying is easy for you, I recommend simplifying first because then you don’t spend time sorting items you’re just going to get rid of anyway. However, if you find that simplifying is difficult or time-consuming for you, or you’re getting dragged down in it, it may be easier to sort first. After sorting, it’s easier to comprehend what you have. It’s easier to take stock of your possessions and see what’s unnecessary. It will then be easier to simplify. If you view a possession in isolation, it may be hard to really know if you need it or not, but when you view it in the context of all the other stuff that’s similar to it, it’s easier to see redundancies and to see when the quantity of possessions is out of proportion with their value in your life. In general, if it is easy to let something go, let it go immediately, otherwise, sort it.

To sort means, very simply, to create categories of similar items. It means to put like things together. You can even think of the word sort as an acronym, for “Similar Objects Remain Together.”

There are a number of different reasons to sort your stuff. I’d like to point out three of them.

First, when you sort your stuff, it becomes more comprehensible. Imagine a room with 4587 unsorted objects. It’s nearly impossible for your mind to be able to comprehend what objects are in that room. On the other hand, if all those objects have been sorted into categories it’s much easier to get a sense of what’s there. Your mind can comprehend 24 categories much easier than it can comprehend 4587 individual objects.

Second, when you sort your stuff, it becomes easier to find and access. Suppose you want to find something in the aforementioned room, like a stapler, for instance. You know it’s there somewhere, but you can’t remember specifically where. If the room is unsorted, you’ll have to look through 4587 individual objects to try to find it. But if the contents of the room have been sorted, you merely have to look through whichever category corresponds to the stapler, which might be office supplies, for example. This will undoubtedly be much easier because the category contains a much smaller amount of stuff than the entire room.

So these two benefits come from having your stuff sorted, even if your stuff was sorted by somebody else. But, beyond that, you get a third benefit from actually going through the process of sorting. This is because memory is associative. Your mind keeps track of information through its associations and connections to other information. When you sort, you are building associations and recognizing similarities and relationships between objects. You can’t help it — it’s an inherent part of the process. Regardless of what categories you create and how you place different objects into those categories, just the process of sorting itself will help you keep track of what you have.

The process of sorting is quite simple.
1. Go through the belongings to be sorted.
2. For each item, decide which category you want it to belong to.
3. Physically place the item in that category. If the category doesn’t exist, create it. Use temporary sorting containers if necessary.

When you sort, categorize based on how you think about the objects. There can be a large amount of creativity and flexibility in how you sort. One person might put blank CDs with music, another might put them with computer supplies, while someone else might categorize them as office supplies. You might sort shirts by dress or casual, by short-sleeved versus long-sleeved, by type of collar, by color, or by a combination of these. One client I had stored clothespins with laundry, and another one stored them in the kitchen, because she used them mostly as chip clips. You sort based on how you use that item, and consequently how you think about it.

Sorting is a skill that, like any other skill, gets easier with practice. There is no wrong answer. There is no “standard” sorting system, and I wouldn’t recommend it if there were. There is no perfect or best solution; there is only the way you use an object, and how you think about it. Furthermore, there is no wrong answer because just looking at an object and consciously evaluating it is going to help you remember how it is categorized, and that, ultimately, is the goal.

As you’re sorting, there’s one thing to watch out for. Make sure you don’t pick something up, look at it, and then put it down again. If you do this, you’ve invested time and energy but you haven’t made any progress. Make sure you put the item with its category. If no category exists, create one. When you first start to sort, you may need to be a category-making machine, but after you create an infrastructure of categories, the process will go more quickly.

I offer the following four recommendations to help your sorting flow more smoothly.

First, start with categories you already have. It’s likely you have some categories already, and it’s better to use them than to start from scratch.

Second, keep it simple. The simpler your categorization is, the easier it will be to create, use, and maintain. And especially, make sure you don’t spend more time categorizing items than you will save when you access them.

For example, I used to have just one file folder for all my credit card statements, even though I had credit cards from several different companies (this was before I went paperless). I could’ve sorted the statements by bank and then by date, but I didn’t — I just threw them all in one folder. This worked really well because I didn’t ever access the statements. I just shredded them at the end of the year. It wouldn’t have been a good use of my time to spend an hour sorting and categorizing these statements since I wasn’t going to save any time accessing them. If, on the other hand, I had used the statements more regularly, it might’ve been worthwhile to create more refined categories to allow me to access a statement without having to look through so many others.

Third, start with broad, general categories, and then, if and when it becomes necessary, further refine those categories into more specific subcategories. In other words, do macrosorting before microsorting. This will keep you from getting too wrapped up in details at the start of the process.

Fourth, separate between sorting and processing. Sorting is categorizing only. Processing is taking some action on the stuff you are sorting, like reading, making a phone call, sending email, or fixing something that is broken. For example, if you’re sorting articles, it’s important to not read all of the articles that you’re sorting. If you do, the process of sorting comes to a grinding halt. If you are sorting articles, read only enough to determine how to categorize the article, ideally just the title. Similarly, if you’re organizing the papers on your desk, and you end up spending a lot of time making phone calls, you’re not likely to get organized. It’s more efficient to focus first just on sorting. If you mix sorting and processing, you end up not doing either of them very well.

When you do encounter things you need to do, and you know you will, I suggest you add them to a list. After you are more organized, you will be able to do two things you would not have been able to do earlier. First, you will be able to look over the list and see which responsibilities are most important, and start with the important ones first. If you take care of tasks as you encounter them, there’s a risk you may be spending time on tasks that are unimportant while failing to complete those that are more important. Second, after you are more organized, you will be able to take care of those tasks more quickly and efficiently, because you will be able to find everything necessary to complete those tasks.

The most common question clients have asked me about sorting is, “What do I do when I encounter an object that could belong to two, or more, different categories?” The short answer is, “Put it in whichever category matches the item most closely.” Consider how it fits into the first category, then consider how it fits into the second category, and then decide which is a closer fit. Regardless of which category you choose, the process of considering and deciding will help you remember, in the future, where the item is. In this case, the mental process you go through to choose a category is more important than trying to find the “correct” category. There is no “correct” category, there is just how you think about the object.

If you have considered the alternatives, and feel like the item applies equally to both categories, then pick one! The act of consciously evaluating the different alternatives and choosing one will help you remember how you categorized it.

But if you’re still not sure you’ll remember, for some additional reassurance, you could create something called a cross reference. A cross reference is a note, picture, or some other pointer to the object and its location. For example, if you’re not sure whether to put blank CDs with music supplies or with computer supplies, you might put them with music supplies, and then place a note in computer supplies that says “blank CDs are with music.” Now once you make this decision, and then create the note and place that cross reference in the other category, you will almost certainly remember where the object is, without even needing the cross reference, but it is still there, just in case. If you happen to look for it in the other location, you will see the reminder of where it is.

I have seen examples where, instead of creating a cross reference, someone will instead duplicate an item or a category. I strongly recommend against this and I’ll give you two examples to illustrate why. First, I’ll continue with the earlier example of the blank CDs that could be categorized either with music supplies or computer supplies. If you were to put half of them with music and the other half with computer supplies, it’s likely that over time you will start to use only one set of these and forget about the other. Eventually, you may end up buying new CDs because you mistakenly thought you had run out, when, in reality, you had a whole bunch more in another location.

Now imagine, for the second example, you have a ten page document that could belong in either of two different file folders. If you copy that document, and place one copy in each folder, then this duplication causes the document to take up twice as much space as it otherwise could. Furthermore, suppose you want to modify this document. You’ll take the document out, write some notes on it, and then re-file it. Either you need to remember about the other copy and update it in the same way (which is more work to maintain), or else one copy will be out of date, and possibly have misleading or inaccurate information. This defeats the purpose of having multiple copies. So to avoid the pitfalls of duplicating items or categories, use a cross reference instead.

I’d like to wrap up this discussion of the second ‘S’ by giving a quick review: sorting is creating categories. Put similar items together based on how you use them. If a possession could fit in multiple categories, pick one category to be the home for that item, and create cross references if necessary.

10. Three More Simplifying Challenges

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

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Let’s look at a few more challenges you may face when deciding whether something should stay or go. The challenges I describe, and the reasoning behind them, are all based on examples I have seen while working as a professional organizer and discussions I’ve had with clients.

Part One

Mrs. Zimmerman said, “I don’t want this thing, and I don’t intend to ever use it again, but I don’t want to get rid of it because I don’t want it to go to waste.” Hmmm. “Don’t want it to go to waste…..” I believe waste is when something’s not being used to its full potential. If you’re storing something that you’re not going to use, it’s effectively being wasted. Not only is the item itself being wasted, but the space it takes up is being wasted, the time and energy you spend moving and cleaning it is being wasted, and the time you spend looking around it to try and find something else is being wasted.

Furthermore, it’s possible that someone else out there is looking for an item just like yours right now. If you keep yours, unused, in the back of your garage, then that person is going to have to go out and buy a new one, therefore causing energy and resources to be unnecessarily wasted in its production.

If you keep something you’re not going to use, it’s effectively wasted. If you throw in the garbage, it’s wasted also. The best way to ensure that the item is not wasted is to get it into the hands of someone who can use it.

Ways to do that include donating, to Salvation Army, Goodwill, schools, reuse organizations, other charities, or friends. It could also include selling the item at a yard sale, on eBay, or on craigslist. Or it could include giving the item away on FreeCycle or on craigslist. I will devote a future post to the best ways to get unneeded stuff into the hands of people who can use it. Until then, you can use the extensive list of resources on our website.

Part 2

Occasionally, I’ve noticed someone may hesitate to let something go because of some kind of an unrealistic notion of value. Let’s look at two different ways this might show up.

The first is valuing an object based on what you paid for it or what it was worth in the past. For example, Michael said “I don’t want to let go of this camera because I paid $700 for it in 1995, and it’s still brand-new; I’ve hardly used it.” Michael feels like he made a big investment in a possession, and since he hasn’t used it very much, he feels like he didn’t get a good return on that investment. When I asked him if he would ever use it again, he replied “No way! I’ve got a digital camera now. If I used that old film camera, I’d have to pay for film, pay for developing, and I couldn’t even tell if the picture came out until after it’s developed. It’s too expensive and inefficient.”

Well, you know, there will be times when we realize that an investment we made didn’t pay off the way we had hoped. With the financial crisis, there’s been a lot of talk of “toxic assets.” A toxic asset is something that is worth less now than what you paid for it. Well, maybe this old camera has become a toxic asset!

If you’ve ever said, “hey I paid good money for that!” You may be evaluating an object based on its past value, rather than its present value. If something is not important in your life, the fact that you paid a lot of money for it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not important in your life. The investment you made in the acquisition has already taken place. The question is do you want to keep investing time, energy, and money in this object to store it and maintain it, when you’re not getting any benefit from it?

The second counterproductive notion of value is evaluating an object based on market value as opposed to its value to you personally. Randy said, “I’ll never use this, but I could sell it right now for $500.”

There’s a difference between the market value of an object and how it fits into your life. This may sound shocking, but I contend that the market value and what you paid for it are irrelevant to the question of whether it should stay or go. The only thing that matters is how valuable the item is to you, how much benefit you get from it, how it supports what’s important in your life.

So when you’re deciding whether something should stay or go, make that decision based on its value to you personally, rather than its market value. After you do decide to let something go, then you can of course use the market value to decide HOW to let it go. Based on an item’s market value, you may make different decisions about whether to donate it to a charity, give it to a friend, or try to sell it.

Part Three

In your collection of possessions, there may be objects that are broken, that you intend to fix some day. This is an example of what I call a project, something in which you must invest time, effort, money, or all of these before you can get any benefit from it.

For example, I’ve heard:
“I should fix the broken lamp in the basement and then use it in the office.”
“I have all these supplies so that I can make a scrapbook and give it to my cousin as a gift.”

It’s been my experience that most people have more projects on the back burner than they will ever actually do. Therefore, the same way we make decisions about which belongings to keep and which to let go, we also need to make decisions about which projects to hold onto and which to let go. If there are other activities in your life that are more important than fixing this lamp, then every minute you spend on the lamp is less time you have available for those other, more important parts of your life.

Also, when you consider a project, is a passion, or an obligation? Is it something that you feel excited about doing, or do you feel it’s something you should do? Please, be particularly careful about the obligations, about those projects you don’t really want to do, but feel you should. It’s been said that if you have too many “shoulds,” you start to live in a “shouddy” world. Please take care to “should” on yourself as little as possible.

It’s been my experience that projects that are obligations never get done, because there’s always something more important or more enjoyable to do. So I suggest you take stock of all your projects and eliminate any that are “shoulds.” Then, for all the projects that you really do want to do, let go of all but the top three. After all, if these projects really were that important to you, you would’ve already done them.

9. Simplifying Gifts

Friday, January 8th, 2010

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Since it’s just after the holiday season, I thought it would be great to talk about gifts in simplifying. Specifically, have you ever said, “I don’t even like this thing, but it was a gift from a dear friend”? As a professional organizer, I have heard this often.

Let’s be very clear about what’s happening. There are two sets of feelings that sometimes get confused. First, there’s the way you feel about the gift itself. Second, there’s the way that you feel about your friend, the person who gave you the gift. Let’s distinguish between these two feelings so that we can find a way to honor them both.

Let’s first take an objective look at just the gift itself, at just this particular item. Does it support what’s important in your life? Is it something that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful? If you were in a store today and you saw it on the shelf, would you be attracted enough to this item that you would be willing to pay full retail price to buy it and take it home? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then by all means, keep it. This item serves multiple purposes. Not only is it a reminder of the friendship you share, but it’s also worthwhile in its own right.

However, if the answer to those questions is “no,” then you don’t value the gift itself very much. Therefore the only reason to keep it is as a way of remembering your friend, and the fact that they got you this gift. But think about what it is you are remembering. You’re remembering that they got you a gift you don’t like. This sounds to me like a negative association. If your goal is to honor your friendship and appreciate your dear friend, this may not be the best way to do it. How is keeping something you don’t like honoring to them? I’m sure you could find ways to honor your friends in ways that reflect more positively on them and what they mean to you.

Right now, take a moment to think about someone in your life whom you love. What is it you remember about them? What thoughts bring a smile to your face?

Mostly, when people have fond memories of their friends, those memories are about experiences they’ve had together, laughter they’ve shared, or intimate communication they’ve had. They remember when they supported their friend in a time of need, or when their friend supported them. When you think of a list of the five most treasured memories of your best friend, I would be surprised if the fact that they bought you a particular item even falls in that list at all.

Because we tend to not communicate very intimately in this culture, we often show our love for each other by giving gifts. As the recipient, we want to receive the love and the gesture, but we don’t want to harm ourselves by accumulating stuff that’s not important to us.

I have a friend named Bob who, due to health reasons, is unable to eat much sugar. Once, when I was at an event with him, I offered him some cookies. He replied, “I consider an offering of food to be an act of love. I’ll take the love, but I can’t eat the cookies.” We’ve all heard the saying “it’s the thought that counts,” and Bob has a really tactful way of honoring the thought, without having to compromise himself by consuming stuff that’s not good for him. Receive the love, but don’t eat the cookies. Receive the love, but don’t take up valuable space to store an object you don’t like or will never use. Receive the love, but donate the purple and yellow polka dot shirt.

I believe that people, in general, have the intention to give gifts that the receiver will appreciate. Even with the best of intentions, however, it sometimes happens that a gift we receive, doesn’t work for us. This doesn’t mean that the gift-giver was not being thoughtful. Possibly circumstances in my life have changed in a way that they couldn’t have known about. Maybe I would’ve appreciated it a year ago, but don’t today. Maybe I’ve redecorated, so the gift no longer matches the decor. Maybe I’m no longer pursuing the hobby associated with that gift. Maybe my priorities have shifted, and I’m focusing on different things that are important in my life.

If I give a gift to someone that they don’t appreciate, I personally would want to know about it. In this way I get to know that person better, and in the future can choose gifts more appropriate for them. And I know this is a radical concept, but if someone gets me a gift that I don’t like or can’t use, I will tell them. This may seem impolite to some people, but consider the alternative. Pretending to be pleased when I receive it, saving an item I don’t like, and perhaps even retrieving it from storage and displaying it every time they visit, seems like a lot of energy to invest in something that is inherently dishonest.

There’s a bigger principle involved here, that applies not only to organizing, but to life in general. The bigger question is “how authentic do you want to be with people?” Personally, I value having people in my life who are willing to be completely honest with me, even in those times when they’re telling me something they think I don’t want to hear. I also value having people in my life who want me to be honest with them even if I am saying something I think they don’t want to hear. Even though being honest may be a bit uncomfortable at times, it invariably results in deeper, more authentic connection, greater intimacy, a closer friendship, and the deeper knowing of both myself and the other person.

Now I have a bonus suggestion. Let’s come back to the situation I describe at the top of this podcast. You’ve received a gift you don’t like. You found a way to receive the love and honor the gesture, and you’ve considered telling the person that this gift doesn’t work for you and why, but you’re still not quite comfortable letting it go altogether. Why not take a picture of it? You can store the picture in a photo album or with other memorabilia, or in digital format on your computer or on a CD. This way you still have a representation of the gift without having to store and maintain the object itself.

I hope the ideas in this podcast will help you make decisions about simplifying that serve yourself as well as honor your relationship with the gift-giver. May you be open to seeing and receiving the true gifts, the eternal gifts, of this, the holiday of giving.

8. “I Might Use It Someday”

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

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There’s one phrase that professional organizers probably hear more than any other when working with people who are simplifying. “I might use it someday.”

Let’s first take a look at what this phrase means, and the types of objects we apply it to. I’ve never heard this phrase applied to things we use on a regular basis. I wouldn’t say “I might use it someday” about my car or my computer because I use them both often. When you say, “I might use it someday” you’re most likely talking about something you have used rarely, if ever, in the past and will use rarely, if ever, in the future.

There are two key words in this phrase, “might,” and “someday.” Let’s look at each one individually. First, “might” indicates that the likelihood of using the item is far from certain. It’s possible that it will be used, but it’s probably just as likely it won’t be. Second, it’s been said that “someday never comes,” but even if “someday” does come, it’s uncertain how far into the future it will be when this happens. “Might” and “someday” are two types of uncertainty compounded upon each other.

When someone keeps one item because they might use it someday, it’s very unlikely that this is the only item they are keeping for this reason. It’s far more likely the rationale is applied throughout their lives and with many different possessions. It’s been my experience that if you keep one item because you might use it someday, you end up keeping a whole bunch of stuff because you might use it someday.

Therefore, the phrase, “I might use it someday,” is a very dangerous phrase. It’s dangerous simply because it’s possible to fill up three houses and seven storage units with stuff you might use someday. So please, please, please, pay special attention to any time you use the ‘M’ word in the same sentence with the ‘S’ word.

Here are some examples of things you “might use someday.”

• Clothes that don’t currently fit. You might be keeping clothes that are too small in case you lose weight in the future.
• An extra blender or two, in case the one you currently use breaks.
• Contacts. For example, I had a client named Jerry, who for years had saved all the junk mail he received, a quantity amounting to boxes and boxes. He said he was saving them in case he might use them someday, and when I asked him to be more specific, he said “if I ever need a gardener, for example, I can go into these boxes, and I know I’ll be able to find a contact of a gardener.”

So for Jerry, the junk mail represents a resource, an opportunity. It’s important to know, however, that this is not the only resource at his disposal. For example, I can think of a bunch of possibilities for what Jerry can do if he does ever need a gardener.
1. He can ask friends and neighbors who have used gardeners for a recommendation of someone they’ve had good experiences with.
2. He can find a gardener who is Diamond Certified.
3. He can do an Internet search for gardeners in his area.
4. He can get a recommendation from the local Better Business Bureau.
5. He can get reviews from websites that offer reviews like yelp.com or Angie’s List.
6. Or, he can look through his boxes for a gardener who did a bulk mailing five years ago. The company may no longer be in business, their contact information may have changed, or they may have a reputation for doing poor-quality work, but Jerry wouldn’t know that from this piece of junk mail.

Of all these possibilities, which presents the best opportunity? Which is the most empowering? Which is most likely to yield the best results? Of the six options, number six, the one that Jerry is doing, is not only the least effective, but also the one that takes the most space and the most effort.

I want you and Jerry to realize how resourceful you are. And by resourceful I mean “full of resources.” Each of your possessions is a resource, but beyond that there are lots of other resources as well. When you view your possessions in the context of the full range of resources available to you, you can make decisions about simplifying that will better serve you.

Now, I have to address the reason a lot of people give for not wanting to let go of items they might use someday. I’ve heard people say, “I let go of something, but then almost immediately, I needed it.” For example, Bob said, “in 1996, I let go of a battery charger, and then I needed it the next day.”

This is quite a coincidence, isn’t it? When someone makes the decision to let go of something, it’s because they haven’t used it in a while, and they don’t expect to use it in the near future. So this person went from not using an item for long time to suddenly needing it right away. What’s going on here? I believe that it’s not really about the usefulness of this particular object, but more about the ability of our minds to keep track of our stuff. Let me explain.

If you haven’t used something for a long time, you may forget that you own it. If you remember that you own it, you may not remember where it is. If you remember where it is, you may realize that it would be hard for you to get to it. In any case, the awareness of this possession and what it can be used for is going to be buried in the clutter of your consciousness. It’s possible that even if you did have a “need” for this item, the thought would never occur to you.

On the other hand, imagine that you are organizing and you encounter this object. You may have a thought like “Look at that. I forgot I owned that,” or “oh, that’s where that is!” Then you spend time considering this object, what it’s used for, how useful it is, how often you use it, and how important it is to you. Finally, you make the decision about whether this item should stay or go. All of these considerations have the effect of bringing this possession to the foreground of your consciousness, so now, when you encounter a situation where this object could be used, it’s much more likely to occur to you. It’s sort of like how after you buy a new car, you notice more of that type of car on the roads. There are not actually more cars of this make and model, you just notice them more.

Let’s take a look at an example of this in real life. Remember Bob, who let go of a battery charger but then needed it the next day? If Bob had forgotten that he owned a battery charger, he would’ve probably just made arrangements to charge his battery some other way, like jumpstarting it using a pair of jumper cables and his wife’s car. But since he had just encountered it the day before, he remembered the battery charger, and very reasonably thought that this would be a perfect occasion to use it. Bob may have needed that tool several times in the past five years but didn’t ever use it, but now that it’s fresh in his memory, he regrets not having it.

It’s reasonable for Bob to regret not having it, especially since this would be an ideal situation to use it. However, if Bob uses this experience with this one possession in order to justify keeping a lot of stuff that he doesn’t use very often, it’s likely that he won’t be able to actually use that stuff whenever he does have a need for it. I believe that our minds can keep track of a certain number of items, and people who have a lot of stuff, especially if it’s disorganized, tend to lose track of it.

So when you’re about to keep an item because you might use it someday, I invite you to also consider the following questions:

1. Is there another way you can accomplish the same objective? For example, Bob can achieve the same end by jumpstarting his car as he could with the battery charger. When I was a student in France, I had a good friend who was Ukrainian. I still remember him sharing his impressions of America. He told me once that he had heard that in America, there’s a device for everything. “I’ve heard,” he said with outright incredulousness, “there’s even a special tool you can use to scratch your back!” In some sense, my friend was right. We have tools to peel an orange, to peel garlic, to crush garlic, to slice eggs, to cut apples, to hold corn-on-the-cob, and to scratch our backs. If you use these conveniences, that’s great. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But, although the companies who sell these devices will claim you can’t live without them, you can usually find some other way to do the same thing.

2. If you do need it in the future, how likely is it you will be able to remember, find, and access that tool at that time? Remember that the more stuff you keep because you might use it someday, the less likely you’ll actually be able to use it when needed.

3. If you do need it in the future, how likely is it that it will still be usable? Michael kept a whole box of computer cables, but when he needed them, he realized they no longer were compatible with his current computer. Jerry kept the names of companies he may want to do business with someday, but many of these companies went out of business before he ever called them.

4. Does the benefit you get from something you might use someday justify the cost of keeping it? In “The Hidden Cost of Stuff,” I discuss this question further.

5. For each item that you might use someday, is there someone out there who really needs it right now? If so, the satisfaction you get from donating an item now may be more than the benefit you might get from it someday.

6. If the item is information, is it available via other sources, like a library or over the Internet?

7. If you donate this item, and later discover that you do really need it, how hard would it be to replace it? I would never recommend donating something you think you’re going to need, but for an item you might use someday it may be worth the risk to let go, knowing you can replace it if it does become necessary.

There are more and more reuse organizations popping up all around the country. They allow you to combine the benefits of donating and ease of replacement in order to reduce the amount of stuff you need to store for yourself. A client Phyllis is a perfect example of this. Phyllis is an extremely creative artist, a sculptor. When I met her, her studio was full of unusual objects that she thought she might use them some day in an art project. However, her studio was so full of these objects that she had no room left to work. All the stuff she might use someday was keeping her from being creative now. I told Phyllis about a local reuse organization called SCRAP. SCRAP stands for the Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts. As the name implies, it’s a huge warehouse full of objects that someone could use in art project. Knowing about SCRAP benefited Phyllis in two ways. First, she was able to all the unusual objects to SCRAP. This gave her more space to work, gave her a tax deduction, and made these objects available to others who could make better use of them than she could. Second, when Phyllis does need something in particular for an art project, she can go to SCRAP and most likely find something at the time she needs it. After all, the selection at SCRAP is much larger than the selection she could keep in her studio. Rather than storing her own warehouse of stuff, Phyllis decided to use SCRAP’s warehouse instead. Creative reuse places, like SCRAP, allow you to change from keeping a bunch of stuff you might use someday to being able to obtain the items you need when you need them. Such resources are now all over the country, and I will talk more about them in a future podcast.

Ultimately, at the deepest level, I believe that a reason people keep stuff they might use someday is because they are afraid that when they do need to do something, they will lack the resources they need to accomplish it. I believe this underestimates our resources, and I believe that our best resources are not our possessions, but our creativity, our resourcefulness, our intelligence, and our friends and families. Letting go of objects you might use someday will help you to enjoy, appreciate, and benefit more from what’s important in your life right now.

This wraps up our discussion of the phrase “I might use it someday.” Have you ever said, “I don’t like this item, but it was a gift from my dear friend”? The topic of my next post will be simplifying gifts. Until then, make you realize how resourceful you really are.

7. Emotional Challenges While Organizing

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Listen to this in Podcast format

Previously, I gave an overview of the practice of simplifying. Simplifying is making life more simple by letting go of stuff that no longer serves you. In this post, I’ll discuss a common challenge you may encounter when simplifying, emotional responses to your possessions. I will also make recommendations about how to respond in a way that honors these emotions and still lets you make progress organizing.

Have you noticed that it’s easier to organize other peoples stuff than your own? Think about why this is. Other people’s stuff is just objects. Hence, when you work with other people’s stuff, you are completely objective. However, your own stuff is not just objects. Instead, it represents memories, failures, accomplishments, regrets, relationships, and even entire stages of life. We have emotional relationships with many of the objects we own, and so many emotional relationships of so many objects can become overwhelming, even paralyzing.

I have heard many, many examples, like these:

“Oh look, a love letter from my ex.”
“That statue given to me by a friend who died.”
“This is the project that got me my promotion.”
“This box of papers relates to a legal battle with my former business partner.”

Karen had saved all the paperwork related to a disagreement she had had with her boss at a previous job. In answering some questions I asked, and through her own introspection, she realized she was holding onto this paperwork because she was still harboring anger and resentment about the situation. When she became aware that this possession was bringing up unpleasant feelings in her and lessening her quality of life, it became easy for her to let it go.

Caroline had also saved paperwork from her previous job, even though most of it was irrelevant to her current position. As she described the paperwork and the experiences that correspond to it, a common theme emerged. At her previous job, she felt recognized and appreciated. Now, although she still does quality work, she doesn’t feel validated or appreciated by her current supervisor in the same way. She realized that she was holding onto this paperwork because the memory of that past recognition helped her to feel more confident and capable in her current job. With this realization, the criteria for deciding whether to keep something or let it go were changed. Instead of keeping everything, we kept only those things which most recognized her ability, including awards, honors, and letters of appreciation, and we put them in a folder labeled “Confidence Boosters”.

I could literally go on for hours with many different examples, but I think this is enough to illustrate that our possessions can bring up any kind of emotional response in us, including joy, sadness, confidence, grief, fear, anger, regret, pride, shame, and love. This is common and completely natural. I have seen many examples of tears and laughter during organizing.

Most people agree that if you lose someone you love, you will have to go through a grieving process. We recognize that the experience of this emotion, grieving, is actually a process that takes a certain amount of feeling and a certain amount of time. We recognize that if we don’t grieve and don’t complete the process, the grief will stay with us, you might say as unfinished business, until the process is eventually allowed to complete. Only after it’s completed will it be resolved.

I believe that all emotions are like this. I believe that emotions that are not acknowledged and felt will stay with us, part of our consciousness, until eventually allowed to complete.

So if you’re organizing and going through your stuff is bringing up emotions, you don’t want to ignore or suppress these emotions, because that can keep them stuck. On the other hand, you don’t want to get so wrapped up in feelings that you become overwhelmed and unable to make progress organizing. I created an approach which I believe is a good way to both honor the emotions and still reach your organizing goals. I summarize this approach with three words: breathe, acknowledge, and decide. Just remember B. A. D. Yeah, I know, that spells BAD. Perhaps it’s an unfortunate acronym. In any case, let’s take a closer look at each part.

1. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Any paramedic will tell you that when they encounter someone who’s in a panic state, the first thing they say is “take a deep breath.” Just taking a deep breath can significantly change someone’s emotional state. You may have a tendency, when you start to experience strong emotions, to constrict your breathing and tighten your muscles. Consciously taking a deep breath will help relax that tension, create more openness, bring you more into the present, and empower you to move ahead to part two, which is acknowledge.

2. Acknowledge. Acknowledge any feelings you experience. The easiest way to do this is just to say to yourself “I’m feeling angry right now,” or “I’m feeling sad right now.” You could say it internally or aloud. If you’re working with someone you feel comfortable with, you could choose to say it to that person as well.

I recommend using the phrase “I’m feeling angry right now” rather than the phrase “I am angry.” Do you see the difference? Saying “I am angry” tends to create an identification with the emotion, and makes it harder to separate between you and the anger. On the other hand, saying “I’m feeling angry right now” creates a separation between you, who are feeling the emotion, and the emotion itself. After all, you are not the anger; you are just experiencing anger in that particular moment in time.

Here’s an example of acknowledging emotions. I have a friend who taught his young son to say hello to any emotion he becomes aware of. Just to say hello to it. The boy will say “hello, fear” when he feels afraid. It’s very cute. Just being aware and recognizing an emotional response is often all that is necessary to put the feeling in perspective and allow you to move forward with part three, decide.

3. Decide. After you acknowledge the emotional impact the item is having on you, then make the decision about whether the item should stay or go using the full range of decision-making faculties at your disposal. We all have many faculties we can use in decision-making, including emotions, gut instinct, objectivity, reason, intellect, and collaboration. Collaboration is asking opinions of other people. Other faculties are your desire and determination to reach your organizing goals and an awareness of what is truly important in your life. We want to acknowledge the role that emotions can play in decision-making, but call on our other faculties as well. You may have heard the advice “feel the fear and do it anyway.” This phrase captures the idea, but I would state it more generally as “feel the emotions and do it anyway.” “Feel the emotions and then move ahead anyway with your decision of whether this possession should stay or go.”

Let’s look at a few examples of this. I know from my own personal experience that I feel fear and nervousness before every presentation I do. But of course, those feelings don’t stop me from doing the presentation. When I call on my other resources, like the preparation I’ve done, my knowledge of the subject, my experience, and my passion for the topic, my confidence and motivation becomes greater than my fear and this helps me to move ahead with the presentation.

As another example, I still feel some grief when I think of how my mother passed away at a fairly young age. After the death of any loved one, it’s important to allow time for the grieving process. But eventually, there comes a time when it’s important to get their affairs in order. I still feel a closeness with my family members when I remember how we were able to feel the grief and still make decisions about what to do with her possessions.

To review, breathe, acknowledge, and decide is my BAD approach to going through emotionally-charged possessions. In addition to that, I also have a bonus suggestion. Previously, I introduced the three S’s of organizing, which are Simplify, Sort, and Store. The bonus suggestion involves the second S, sort. My suggestion is to sort or categorize the item based on the emotion. For example, you might create containers labeled “good memories,” “makes me laugh,” “I’d rather forget,” or “pisses me off.” In this case, acknowledging the emotion is actually built into the sorting process.

After you sort stuff in these categories, it’s easy to look over these categories and get a sense of how much emotional energy you are devoting to a category. For example, you might say, “I didn’t realize I was keeping so much stuff that pisses me off. I’m not sure I want to keep such a huge box of stuff that makes me angry.”

Feelings are often evidence of healing. Making a decision about an object can actually be a way of helping to heal the emotional relationship it represents. It’s been my experience that organizing your possessions can facilitate the healing of whatever unresolved emotion the object brings up. For example, letting go of a card that makes you feel angry can help you resolve and heal your feelings about that past experience which is the ultimate source of that anger. Deciding to keep a photo of a deceased loved one can be a way of honoring that person’s memory and what they meant to you. Letting go of a gift from an ex can help create closure and let go of unresolved feelings about that past relationship. Letting go of and healing your relationship with past events will help you live more fully in the present.

That about wraps it up for this comprehensive discussion of how you can organize stuff that’s emotionally-charged. Looking ahead, my next post will be devoted to the phrase I hear a lot when working with people who are simplifying, “I might use it someday.” If you’ve ever used that phrase, I think you’ll get a lot out of it, so I hope you take a look at it. Until then, may your emotions be your friend and ally on the path to getting organized.

6. The Hidden Cost of Stuff

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Listen to this in Podcast format

Typically, an important part of the organizing process is to let go of things that don’t serve and support what’s important in your life. This process I call simplifying, because reducing the amount of stuff makes organizing and everything else more simple.

Often, when people are deciding whether they should keep something or let it go, they only look at one side of the story. They only look at “what do I lose if I let this go?” They forget that there’s another side to this question, namely “what do I gain if I let this go?” “What am I losing by keeping it?”

Sometimes, there’s a belief about the object that could be expressed like this, “I already have the object, so it’s effectively free. I’ve already paid the money to buy it, or received it as a gift, so at this point it doesn’t cost anything to keep it. I have nothing to lose by keeping it, and everything to lose by letting it go.”

I’d like to point out that this belief doesn’t take into account everything from a big picture perspective. I’d like to point out that there is something that you lose when you keep an object. There is a cost associated with every object. There’s a cumulative cost to keeping lots of stuff, and a corresponding cost associated with each individual object.

Sometimes this cost is obvious. For example every item takes up space, and there’s a cost to the space that it takes up. If you’ve run out of space, you may need to buy or rent more space or a bigger place to make room to store it. It’s not uncommon for people to pay $200 a month or more for a storage unit.

If you’re moving from one location to another, the cost of every object becomes quite clear. There’s a significant cost in terms of time and energy and money that you will have to invest in packing up every object, transporting it to the new location, and unpacking it and arranging it on the other side.

Every item kept can make everything else harder to find. I’ve heard people say, “I have so many things that are unimportant it’s harder to get to the things that are important.” If you’re not organized, looking for items is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the most important factor in how long this takes is the size of the haystack. Furthermore, if you lose track of bills in that haystack, there could be the additional cost of late fees, penalties, and possibly even a damaged credit score which could make it harder to buy a home or a car.

There can be an additional cost of buying things that you already own. Sometimes people forget they already own something, or they may remember that they own it, but realize it would be easier to buy a new one that to find or access the one they already have. In this case, they spend money that they wouldn’t have to, while at the same time bringing in even more stuff and compounding the problem by making other stuff harder to find and access. It can be a self-feeding cycle.

All the costs I’ve mentioned so far are obvious costs, however there are many other more subtle costs that while not requiring a physical outlay of cash still lessen the quality of life in some way or another. Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” I would restate that as “The cost of anything if the amount of life you put into it.” With that in mind, let’s look at some additional costs, including emotional costs, social costs, and other quality-of-life costs.

How do you feel in the area where you spend most of your time? If you don’t feel supported by your environment, in other words, if you don’t feel pleasant, relaxed, even inspired in the places where you spend most of your time, then your stuff could be negatively impacting your quality of life. Some people don’t feel comfortable inviting guests into their home, so the stuff can have social costs as well.

In addition to the physical space occupied by an item, there’s also the emotional space the item takes up. I will have future podcasts dedicated specifically to stress and emotional complexity, so for now I’ll just say that people who have an overload of stuff tend to be more stressed and have less clarity.

Most things that you have need to be maintained in some way in order to maintain their condition and usability. Objects need to be cleaned and used at least occasionally or they tend to deteriorate over time. Pests like moths and mice are attracted to areas that are undisturbed for long periods. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across items that one time were very valuable, however after decades of no use, they deteriorated to a point where they couldn’t even be donated, and were fit only for landfill.

There can be an additional emotional cost in the self-criticism that can sometimes accompany a state of disorganization. It’s one thing to have an environment that doesn’t support you. It’s even more harmful to beat yourself up for it in a way that erodes your self-confidence and joy of life.

Finally, there is an opportunity cost associated with each of our possessions. The physical space, emotional space, and energy invested in that object could be invested in something else that is more important to you. One of my clients told me he wanted to take up woodworking, but he had no room to either do this activity or to store the necessary supplies.

Space is freedom. If a particular storage space is filled with an item, that amount of space is only used for one thing, to store that item. Of course, if that item supports something important in your life, then that’s an appropriate use of that space. Consider however that if that space is empty, the possibilities are endless. You have the freedom to use that space for anything that you could imagine or envision, or for something you haven’t even thought of yet. And the same way that space is freedom, also time is freedom. Having some free time in your schedule gives you the freedom to do anything, or nothing, with that time.

I spent this entire post looking at the cost of our objects, both obvious costs as well as costs that might not be so obvious. There is a cost associated with every object. This of course doesn’t mean that you should get rid of everything. We just want to ensure that the benefit you get from an object, in terms of what’s important in your life now, justifies the cost of keeping it.

In addition to looking at what you’re letting go of when you get rid of something, also make sure you look at what you’re letting go of by keeping it. You may be letting go of space, simplicity, uncluttered spaces, clarity, a better social life, new activities, or any of the other things I’ve discussed in this podcast. If what you’re letting go of by keeping an object is more important to you than the object itself, then it’s time to let it go.

In the next post, I’ll look at some challenges in simplifying, including one of my favorite topics, our emotional attachment to our possessions. Until then, may the benefit you get from each of your possessions justify the cost of keeping it.