What the Problem? (Part 2)

The worst way to solve a problem is to not define it correctly, as we discussed in my previous post. The best way to rectify the problem with problems and solutions is to recall something you used in grade school called the scientific method. The words scientific and method, I know, do not fill you with inspiration, excitement, or even hope (unless you are scientist, maybe?). But everyone wants to save time; it’s your most precious resource. So let’s take advantage of the work scientists have shared with us.

We’re going to adapt the scientific method for our purposes. Traditionally, the first step is to define a question and step two is to gather relevant information. We’ll loosely call this the problem(s) you defined through my previous post. Next, create a hypothesis. In this case, devise a solution that directly solves your problem (or component of the problem). 

The next few steps are to test the hypothesis by performing an experiment, collecting data, and analyzing the data. The experiment in this case is testing out the solution you created. Let’s say you struggle with mail management and other papers coming into your home, missing bill payments and misplacing important papers. The problem isn’t that you’re simply overwhelmed or too busy when you walk through the door as much as there is no system in place for you (and perhaps your partner) to follow. The hypothesis is that with a new system in place, you will be able to adapt your behavior and be organized. The experiment you create involves getting a mail sorter and recycling bin which you place by the door. The mail sorter is labeled with categories that seem appropriate given the type of mail you receive and papers that make their way in. Whoever gets the mail recycles anything clearly not needed and organizes the remaining pieces of mail and papers into the sorter. 

The next scientific method action is to draw conclusions. Did the experiment work? Work a little? Or not at all? Often times this serves as a starting point for a new hypothesis and the last step which is retesting. You may need to retest multiple times, tweaking along the way. Maybe the categories didn’t capture your needs even though the process worked well, so you adjust the categories and test again. Maybe you find that only one of you is good at or more available for this job so one of you takes full responsibility for paper handling. Maybe you find that the process is helpful but the shear volume of mail makes it too time consuming and inefficient, so you work on ways to reduce your mail volume (ex. more e-statements and bills, remove yourself from mailing lists). Keep tweaking.

In the end, you will have a tailored solution to your well-articulated problem. Life experiments are an effective way to change your situation for the better. It’s an iterative process which may even lead you to discover that your problem statements weren’t accurate. Redefining your problems can offer clarity about your situation. 

Be the creative scientist of your life to find the peace and organization that you seek.

What’s the Problem? (Part 1)

You know that you have an organization problem in your home or office. But what you might not know is that you also have another problem: you haven’t articulated your true problem or, in your haste, you misdiagnose it.

When you look around your home or office, do you experience the following thoughts and feelings?: overwhelm, chaos, giving up hope, don’t know where to begin, don’t have the time, embarrassed, afraid of judgement, hard on yourself, disgust, at a loss, “if only …”

These reactions are the beeping red lights, the warning sirens, the cold splash of water on a just woken face. They are strong and often defeatist. But they aren’t the problem statements best associated with your organizing challenge. Experiencing these reactions may be reflective of a multitude of problems. The activity of articulating the true and deeper problems may be more complex and frustrating than looking at what you call clutter. It’s easier to shut the closet door instead. 

But this time you won’t. 

Parsing out the true problem(s) and root causes is your next step so let’s take a closer look.

What are the internal problems? The nonphysical things about you and your lifestyle that are problematic, from which the feelings perpetrated by looking at your mess stemmed from? These may be casualties of personality traits and life choices that you either embrace or desire to improve? For example, feeling more busy than you really are because you don’t manage your time and schedule well.

What are the external problems? The more physical pieces of your home that have either separately or intertwined with the internal struggles caused your home or office or basement to irk you to no end? For example, choosing to live a much bigger space then you actually need (and then filling it with stuff) because you thought it would make you happy. Don’t forget about the day-to-day processes: bills payment, time spent trying to find an overdue library book, email management, meal planning and preparation. These activities relate to living a simple life even though they have less of a physical manifestation.

Review your list. Does it seem too long? It’s not. Does it seem in impossible? It’s not. Is it cutting? Let go of the pain as a reward for doing the tough work. You’ve begun the process of defining your problems. They’re likely similar to what you thought your problems are but perhaps with a deeper level of insight and a couple surprises. 

If the list says: “I’m disorganized” than dig deeper and try again. The problem may be that you are too tired at the end of the day to put things away. It may be that you have plenty of time to put things away, you just don’t know where to put them. The problem may also be that you could organize but you have too much stuff that you give up. Or it might be that you have a poor memory but no system to get your home and life administration in order. 

If the word should found it’s way into your problem statements, use it as an indicator that your problems aren’t clearly defined. A should is focused on an “other” and their problem, a cultural influence, a guilt. Be wary of should’s.

Why all this focus on articulating problems when you have a decent idea of what they are? You just need to get rid of some stuff and organize, right? Your time spent and strategies chosen will be far less efficient and less accurate if you take that approach. You can always buy a one size fits all tee-shirt. It may be better than no tee-shirt at all but getting the right size is way better. So let’s take a little extra time now to save you time and frustration in the future.

With well-defined problems, which are really just questions looking for answers, we can devise more appropriate and specific solutions. My next post will focus on how to find these solutions.

 

 

Organize Versus Simplify

Organizing and simplifying are not synonymous. They are certainly related and sometimes exist simultaneously. But there are notable differences between having an organized home and living a simple life. I focus on the goal of simplicity in order to prioritize peacefulness, freedom, and meaning. Organizing is merely a tool that can help build a Less Equals More lifestyle.

Imagine multiple bookshelves full of artfully arranged texts (by color for visual appeal) along with delicately placed decorative items purchased purely for color coordination. It would be easy say it’s organized. But how does it help the person living there who, perhaps, is keeping half the books by default? Some they never will read and some they read by didn’t like in particular. The objects taking up space on the shelves aren’t heirlooms or odds and ends from travels. There is no meaning or special quality about them. Because of the sheer number of books inhabiting the shelves and the color system being troublesome to navigate, it’s a missed opportunity for simplicity, efficiency, and meaning in deference solely to organization. This is a very basic example. There are far more unnecessary complexities and inefficiencies lurking in our offices, bedrooms, and garages.

The funny thing is that sometimes a simple life means not spending time to organize a group of items or delaying the activity until a better time for any variety of reasons. Being thoughtful and logical in your approach is key. Efficiency honors your time and effort.

One of my clients has a plethora of old letters, notes, and other written memorabilia. She tossed most of them in various bins in her basement, office, and bedroom before we met. As we worked together, we’d put any notes we found or that were newly acquired into one of the existing bins, without much regard to any sort of organizing. That’s because organizing would have been a waste of time. Her intention post-retirement was to read these one-by-one. She thought of that as an activity unto itself. And as she goes through them in the future, she will recycle them after reading. She may end up keeping a couple handfuls of these as her most special and meaningful mementos but any sort of organizing at this point would be inefficient and mostly useless. While organizing would free up some space now and possible allow her to hold all of the bins nicely in one place, labeled, and lining walls, that would prioritize organizing over simplicity. 

It’s easy to mistake organization for simplicity because sometime it’s easier to organize than simplify. Undoing complexity takes time and mental energy and can be difficult to de-knot, especially if you have become accustomed to it. But if you follow through on the undoing, you will have a more efficient space and systems which will save you time in the long run, more than making up for your de-knotting efforts.

So while I’m professionally an organizer, and an organized person by nature, my goal with clients (and friends, and family, and basically everyone I ever meet) is to undue complications and invite simplicity. Organizing is one of many tools I use, but it’s not the driving force. I invite you to pay closer attention to whether your actions are meant to organize or simplify, whether you’ve consider the most efficient tactics, and whether all of these efforts together address what is most important and meaningful to you.

The Container Store is Not My Version of Heaven

I receive a handful of similar questions and assumptions when I disclose my profession to people I meet. Number one is whether I’ve worked with hoarders (the answer: I have not and I would not, except perhaps under the direction of a therapist specializing in this work). Number two is the assumption that the Container Store is my favorite place. I sense that I let people down when I say it’s quite the contrary.

That’s not to say I haven’t found myself slowly stepping through the aisles of this store, a bit excited by the look and feel of these different organizing mechanisms and products. They’ve come up with some clever solutions and I love organizing as well as good design. But solving a stuff problem with more stuff just isn’t my way. And stores, while at times useful, can never fill me with joy. They tend to instigate a lot of questioning about whether any of this is worth it and a desire for less. It can also be a bit overwhelming.

Client inquiries about where to get closet shelves and other similar product recommendations remind me that I’m not a typical organizer. I don’t have a go-to answer for large scale organizing solutions because I find they are rarely needed and often very specific to the client. 

At the beginning of a project, clients often ask me what they need to buy. The answer is almost always nothing. We are completely focused on addressing the causes of disorganization and downsizing all the things they no longer need. The organizing part comes at the end once we see what remains and have worked through goals, priorities, and needs. 

If I suggest an organizing product purchase, it tends to be something small like a file storage bin, mail sorter, or the occasional photo box. Most other needs are almost always addressed using the storage, organizing products, and furniture the client already has. One time I suggested that a client purchase a jewelry holder, but only after paring down all her jewelry that was scattered among different containers. This is one of the few examples where purchasing something can be helpful: one organizer, with a specific purpose, to address all of your needs that can’t easily be met by things you own. It was also the more precious stuff- jewelry- that requires greater care. In this case, she could take advantage of the ingenuity and creativity of the product designers to find something special.

We can take advantage of products that meet our particular needs. In fact, a really well designed product that solves a particular problem we are struggling to overcome can be incredibly worthwhile. After all, organizing is meant to maximize efficiency. I’m not against products wholesale, nor do I view organizing products as inherently problematic. It’s simply that we must first complete the more difficult work to get our lives down to our essentials and be able to articulate the specific problems that a product can answer. Only then can a trip to the Container Store to get that item be heavenly.

Putting Things in a File Cabinet Drawer is Death.

A client once said this to me. I repeated it back to her as I jotted it down, thinking it’d make a good blog topic, “Putting things in a file cabinet drawer is like death.” 

“No,” she corrected, “Is death.” She’d always had a way with words and I couldn’t argue with her persistence on metaphor versus simile. 

My client had just turned 87. I may be an expert organizer but she had the wisdom of years and was at a time of reflection and transition. She may have also been my most organized client but her little office had too much furniture, a few too many tchotchkes, and lacked some key systems. She had four very, very, deep file cabinet drawers that were relatively organized but packed full for lack of consistent culling. Plus, she had a small flat file drawer that had looser organization within, two accordion files, and six file trays. So, a fair amount of paper corrals.

One of these accordion files was composed completely of recipes and had a sidekick file in her file cabinet. All of these recipes were recycled because they were never used. She also had reference material in the file cabinets; the kind that seems interesting when you first lay eyes on it and want to set it aside for later use. Over time, these snippets become massive paperwork headed straight to the recycling bin. But they are difficult to let go of because you chose them (unlike the other paperwork of life). 

The file cabinets were also coffins for old boring files, the kinds of paperwork headed straight toward the paper shredder: doctors’ bills, explanation of benefits, policy updates, and outdated banking documents you never wanted to see in the first place. They hang in there because it’s easier to leave them than sort through what to keep and what to let go. You never wanted to see these papers in the first place, making them even easier to ignore. That’s why it’s best to determine a set of rules for what paperwork should be kept, for how long, and then schedule regular paper culling moments. I know that sounds terribly boring, but once you do it, it becomes easy, and a little something you can take care of while watching Netflix.

Knowing which papers to keep is efficiency’s key. And while erring on the side of caution when reviewing financial and property documents is a good thing, every decent piece of information is less useful than you think it is at the moment you read it. Consider the way you collected and retrieved information in the past, and how you want to in the future. Part of this is not holding on … to information. Minimalism is not solely about objects or possessions. It’s about streamlining our information consumption and systems so that you have enough information to help yourself without being weighed down.

I think about my client’s metaphor and let it expand a bit. The more we allow ourselves to be weighed down, by emotions, life administration, objects, and ideas, we are living less. Meaning, we allow ourselves to creep closer to it’s opposite. At 87, my client may be grappling with the ideas of life and death more than most, but I’m happy that with the paper-weight of the past lifted one sheet at a time, she’s a bit more alive.

What if Your Home Was Robbed?

I was talking to a man in his late thirties. He lived alone in a two bedroom condo full of stuff. When he found out my profession, he began to discuss his situation.

He acknowledged that he tended to keep, rather than get rid of, things. There was meaning in many of these personal objects. Some he thought were just plain cool, or were related to seldom practiced hobbies. He held onto them while recognizing that many no longer had functional value. He kept them because he could and liked having them around. But then he said something that surprised me. He said that if he came home one day to find that he’d been robbed, he wouldn’t be upset. In fact, he’d be relieved.

Relieved? 

While he experienced some emotional attachment to things that represented memories, it wasn’t overbearing or clingy in nature. He really liked his things but didn’t love them. He saw value in them, but also recognized that they were just things. 

I wondered if there are two kinds of people: those who would be devastated if their homes were robbed and those who’d be almost grateful. Knowing where you fall on this spectrum is another vantage point from which to understand your relationship with stuff. It may also reflect your personality type and how you tend to deal with problems. Do you take things head on and like to exert control over your environment or did you tend to get overwhelmed and bury your head in the sand when you are on overload?

I ask this question to people I meet now and while majority would be closer to the devastated end of the spectrum, I’ve found a surprising number that would rather it just all go away. This may mean that people are far less attached to stuff than meets the eyes. Some just don’t want to deal with it. And for some, it’s the experience of initiating the separation that’s tough. 

I used to think about the experience of separation a lot as a young, quiet, and shy person. Not with stuff, but with words and feelings. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say or that I wasn’t willing to share, it was that the act of separating those thoughts from inside me- the act itself- was painful. Sometimes it was confusing and it was always overwhelming. Even knowing that I’d be happy with the results afterwards, the separation was stressful. I see a similar challenge with those struggling with too much stuff and disorganization. They see the value in the end result but the act of placing a once used object in a donation bin opens up too many questions and feelings that it seems easier to live in chaos. A burglar would save one from the trouble, just as a glass of wine can let the words flow out.

Pretend for a moment that most of your stuff vanished. How would you feel? Where do you fall on this spectrum? Allow yourself time to reflect on what your answer means, one way or another, and how this new understanding can guide your downsizing or organizing project.

The Organizing Problem with Labels

In the context of organizing and downsizing, the word label may provoke images of label makers or a method to categorize groups of items. But label has another meaning when we are trying to, yet resist, simplifying our lives. 

Consider for a moment: You look around and call it clutter. You label it which makes it a bit easier to ignore. When we label something, we make the decision not to pay attention to what it really is. We choose not to investigate. We choose not to look deeper.

It is easy to call something clutter just as it’s easy to call someone sensitive or stubborn or to label something impossible. It’s a sort of easy way out. Labels are the human mind’s way of putting things in quick, simple categories. While a useful strategy at times, this often leads to a misunderstanding about the world and ourselves.

When you label something as clutter, you feel badly about it but simultaneously let yourself off the hook. It’s like when you say you need to get up earlier or exercise more. Sure, those things may generally be true but you haven’t investigated why they are true and the real challenges behind them. By labeling so quickly and flippantly, you are almost saying that it doesn’t matter.

Labeling yourself is just as problematic. When you identify as a disorganized person, you may assume that means you can never be organized. We all come with natural proclivities at a young age but if we adhere to the labels, we never give ourselves room to grow or get better. No one is born with the immediate ability to write War and Peace. An author, even with a flair for writing at a young age, still must work diligently to hone their craft, perhaps for decades. Also, we are all organized and disorganized with different things, to different degrees.

I often see clients (and friends and family) who very organized in one or two aspects of their lives or homes, but not in others. There is a spectrum of abilities.

When you identify as a busy person, to the point where everyone around you reinforces that label, taking the time to do something like unpack unopened boxes, get your bills in order, or excavate your attic would be antithetical to your persona. You almost can’t do these important, home-based functions as they would call into question whether you really are this busy person you pose to be. Labels limit more than they simplify.

We all choose how we want to spend our time and what skills we want to hone. We all prioritize (intentionally or not) how we want to divvy up our 24 hours. I’m not encouraging you to become an expert organizer. But if you’ve found yourself labeled or tend to label the stuff around you, reconsider how labels have served you and whether it’s time for a new approach. Labels can be helpful shortcuts but they undercut your ability to make true and lasting change.

On Moving

My first post, written just over two years ago, was about moving. I had just sold my house, left my job of a dozen years, and launched Less Equals More. It was a time of transitions; too many to count. I downsized my already small amount of possessions into a studio apartment while launching a business about downsizing. A little life imitating art, of sorts. 

I had the advantage of moving in town so could bring items like my full spice jars and oils, some of the maybe’s I wasn’t quite read to address, and stock of items like tea lights. This gave me time to put off sorting through some of the minutiae and also not be wasteful. Now I’m moving out of state so must address it all fully. My Honda Civic is the strict volume of what I can bring. Even after paring down a bit more over the past two years and selling all my furniture, it’s going to be a tight squeeze and long drive from Washington, DC to Austin, Texas.

I weigh the cost and benefit of packing relatively inexpensive generic items versus buying then again upon arrival: a fire extinguisher, a step stool (at 5’2”, it’s practically a necessity), and part of my glass jar collection (an integral part of a zero waste kitchen). There are also items I want to keep but may need to wait on: a memory box of letters, a stand mixer, and a ceiling-hung bronze lantern given to me by a close friend. I’m not a fan of storage, except in very particular circumstances, so anything I leave behind must be temporary and picked up on the next visit.

It’s funny to give material items this much attention. But I spent the time addressing each item the way I’d advise my clients. I focused on resale, donation, and giveaways for items I no longer want so they will be used again, and properly disposed of anything that needed disposing. I took a discerning look through items like photos, keeping only the ones I really want, rather than holding onto the two organized photo boxes wholesale. I only kept one box in the end.

Admittedly, some moments sorting through my already sorted possessions felt harder than expected, like I had an emotional delay button that was finally turned off. I promised myself I’d remember, really remember, the tougher moments of this exercise, to draw upon when working closely with clients: pottery I wheeled in 2001 that didn’t make the cut, only taking part of the tea cup/saucer set that my grandma passed down to me, and a beautiful drape that I haven’t used in two years but is just so darned pretty and reminds me of setting up my first home. The emotions and memories items hold are fascinating. 

Moving tends to be catalyst for possession re-evaluation. All the feelings and status quo’s are shaken up. It’s a tender moment and, for many, a justification to finally spend time on getting rid of things.  Our lives change more than we think from year to year and moving, or other times of transition, shines the light on this truth. While downsizing without the pressure of a move is ideal, taking the time to address the things you can typically ignore allows new perspectives to emerge and a bit more freedom to manifest.

I can’t wait to hit the road. My car will be heavy, but I’ll feel much lighter.

 

Take Stock of What You're Stocking

During our first session, a client explained what brought her to need my services. For a time, she felt she needed everything in arms reach but recently realized that she was stock piling stuff that she didn’t need to store in her home. It’s as if there were actual stores in her home. What was the point or necessity of this? 

She was ready to undo these accumulations, such as her office closet. She said she should let Staples do the job for her. Let them keep all the office supplies there until she needed them. It’s not as if she was going to have an office supply emergency.

There were many items in this closet that were unused. She bought them thinking she’d use them for an impending project, bought them on sale, or bought multiples when she only needed one. While she’s the type to collect things, she isn’t a wasteful person. Many items were previously used: folders from conferences she attended, old binders, and items she tried but no longer wanted. The results were a closet full of stuff that she (mostly) didn’t need. 

This is a common problem beyond office supplies. Stocking up on food can be an issue too. Sales and trying too many new items at once can lead to too much food in our homes. Tastes change and most food items have expiration dates. Even batteries expire and we often don’t need as many as we think we do. All of this exacerbates organizational challenges and makes us believe we need more space when we don’t. We think it’s harmless, or even helpful,  but it ends up being more wasteful than just taking in what we need and making those items easier to find. Avoiding stocking up minimizes those guilty moments when we stare at products we don’t want to use anymore but feel like we should. Or the guilt we have when throwing away expired or half-used bottles that no one else will want.

I spent two sessions working with a client to undo the stockpiling of beauty products in her second bathroom. Instead of buying one of a particular item, she’d buy two for convenience. But she wouldn’t have a chance to use it all up because her beauty regiment would change before she had the chance. She’d collect cool new products to try, freebies, and travel-sized bottles creating redundancies. Her situation is common. 

Some of this stockpiling even happens inadvertently. For example, we accept the dentist’s “goody bag” and find ourselves with more toothbrushes and floss than we may ever need. My sister once went through a post-dentist repository of toothbrushes to find over twenty just taking up space, despite her family using only electric brushes.

It’s not to say that wholesale stores like Costco can be great cost saving resources, especially for families. For items you’ve consistently used in the past or that you go through incredibly quickly, careful selection can allow for less shopping trips and lower bills for food and household items. The key is to be strategic, aware of your tendencies, and acknowledge that we change, both our preferences and life circumstances. We can’t predict the future and our purchasing should acknowledge this.

With the occasional exception aside, stock piling only furthers our need for space, increases disorganization, makes it more difficult to find what we need, promotes unnecessary spending, and causes wastefulness. Go through your stock piles now, donate what you no longer want, be aware of what you’re storing, and begin to change your stocking up habits.

Calm the Pulse of Impulse Buying

Do you feel caught between two messages? One from advertising and our culture to get the new cool things, provoking a belief that you want these things because they will make your life better. And the other that tries to remind you, despite this barrage, that you want your life to be simpler, to have less stuff, and to be more careful where you spend money (the things that would actually make your life better). The latter comes in different tones: from books, listicles, inspirational videos, and the voice deep within you. And yet, in the moment, it’s hard to resist a seemingly special thing that you’d like to wear, or a new watch to add to your collection. Or perhaps you want to buy something less flashy, more practical, but still not needed. 

There is an impulse and then a chain reaction. You are quick to ignore the voices, and affects on your bank account, and the growing closets. The chain reaction happens differently for different people. Yours might start with a protest, saying,“no” to the impulse, or an attempt to reason out of it. And then comes the, “… but on the other hand,” where the rationalizing begins: 

“But I’ve worked hard, I deserve this!” (You may have worked hard, but that doesn’t qualify you for a brand new car.)

“But it’s really great quality and I’d wear it all the time!” (That’s what you said about the last thing you bought which sat in your closet. Or maybe you would wear it but that doesn’t negate the fact that you don’t need it.)

“It’s such a great price, I can’t miss a deal like this!” (Deals are figments of our imaginations; sales are relative. 80% off something you don’t need is still 20% more than you need to spend.)

“I love the new colors, styles, blah, blah, blah, of the season. It’s about to get cooler and I need to be prepared.” (Did you make it through last season to be here now? You are already prepared.)

You might skip the steps of rationalizing and go directly to purchasing or you may go through a longer version of rationalizing. Either way, the chain reaction may result in regret or shame. At best, it’s just some stuff that may offer you a momentary sense of happiness. This isn’t true happiness, just a faint nod at what actual happiness feels like. You might get some use out of your purchase, but is it worth it? Why spend time, money, and your energy with this endless routine?

It’s time to change perspective so you can retire from these negotiations. There are some key strategies you can use in the moment to prevent these purchases but they require the use of your imagination. If you’ve only begun your downsizing project, it’s more difficult because you haven’t seen the results yet. The results tend to be holistic and deep, not just visual. No number of photos of perfectly organized homes can truly convince you of the benefits, nor do they represent most of the benefits. I find, as with most things, it’s best to trust the process and end goal while treating it as a life experiment. Just like trying a new diet, it takes time to see the results and even to see if it’s the right diet for you. But if you don’t commit yourself to it for a period of time, acknowledging that bumps and growing pains are part of the process, you’ll never see the benefits. If you ever learned to play an instrument, learned to knit, or played sports, you know what I’m saying.

Step one is simply saying yes. Yes, I’ll try this out and commit to this new approach.

Step two is simply saying no. No to all the shopping and collecting of things, free or otherwise. Practice it like scales on a piano. It’s a bit boring, sure, but it’s an exercise that should be no sweat. By switching the mindset to automate on no, you’ve minimized decision fatigue.

Step three is to work your way through the stuff you have and doing away with what you no longer need. And then, if you feel good about what you did, and want more freedom, get rid of more stuff. This will reinforce your resistance to bring in more; you don’t want to give yourself more work to do. Also, if you do allow some exceptions to the automated “no,” you are more likely to bring in stuff you actually need, now with a clearer inventory of what you have.

Some startegies that will help after enacting these steps: 

Stop exposing yourself to temptation. Being subscribed to catalogs, store newsletters (not worth the coupons they send as a reason to stay subscribed), and using online “window shopping” as a way to cure boredom, are invitations to feel denied. If you’re trying to watch your weight, hanging out at an ice cream shop drinking water probably wouldn’t be the best use of your time.

Start noticing the effects. Take note of what’s working for you, how you feel, how your bank accounts are doing, whether you have extra time, and how that time feels. And then tweak your new lifestyle accordingly. 

You still have some beautiful days of summer available before you. Get out of the stores, go offline, and enjoy yourself in whatever clothes you happen to be wearing.

Erase Embarrassment

There are many blocks that may prevent you from beginning or continuing a downsizing project. Embarrassment is one.

I hear from clients, even the ones who I’ve worked with for a while, that they feel embarrassed. They still worry about being judged. They are concerned with disappointing me, and clearly, themselves. This is an emotional process no matter the person, the project, or the circumstances. Because it’s not about your stuff or being disorganized. It’s about the core of you, your life, your fears, your mistakes and mishaps, your past, present, and future.

When I’m contacted by a potential client, I’m filled with excitement. The simple fact that someone out there really wants to change their life for the better is energizing. Someone is willing to step outside their comfort zone and dedicate the time and resources to enact change. This serves to inspire me. Most people settle for the status quo. We all do at some point. It takes something: a time of transition, an “aha moment,” or an inner strength seeping outward. When someone is finally ready to address the fundamentals of their life rather than continue to be wrapped in the distractions that got them here, it’s a time for celebration.

And this is a person I want to get to know. I want to find out what series of events lead them to me. What was the breaking point? The moment of realization? Most people don’t stop, move aside, question their reality, and then actually take the first step to do something about it. This is an action with many consequences they have yet to realize. It isn’t easy to announce this to themselves and to me, and probably to some others as well. And yet, here I am in their home, listening to their stories, and beginning to put together a plan of how to recreate their space from the inside out.

A couple sessions in, a new client said to me that she was embarrassed that she hadn’t accomplished her in-between-sessions work. That all of this felt so heavy. She was incredibly accomplished but had many recent transitions in life. She wanted real solutions, not band-aids, to propel her forward. She knew stuff was not the answer. This, I told her, was inspiring and one of the reasons she never has to feel judged. She’s doing the tough work that few people dedicate themselves to do. She could feel proud of herself instead of hurting herself with negative thoughts. There is no set time table for progress, only motion in the right direction.

There is a reason our home spaces become disorganized swaths of stuff. We couldn’t find certain answers in our lives so it was easier to let the questions escalate. We create these piles of shame, and discarding them is not as easy as throwing out the trash. Yet, the process of removing them is far more gratifying and liberating.

By slowly peeling back the layers of embarrassment, one can free themselves from a weighty form of procrastination. Shame is deep but exists only in our minds. Being self-conscious is a distraction. If you are ready to make a change, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. You can be proud.

 

Space for the Special Stuff

In honor of my brother’s birthday this month, I reflected on the list of attributes I value in him and in our relationship. He is sincere and caring. He brings me to almost tearful, deep laughter. He always gives me a big hug (which involves him bending a bit given the ten inch difference). Sweetly, he ends every phone conversation with, “I love you.” He has always accepted me for who I am and supports all my decisions. He has even let me help him organize his home, despite the many things I’ve suggested getting rid of (ex. a large chocolate Redskins football, entire pieces of furniture, and his beloved sushi set that he has never used).

To this list, I’d add that on my 20th birthday, he made me an incense burner. I know it was my 20th birthday because he inscribed the date via blue marker on the back of it, along with his initials (who else would have made me such a thing?), and “Happy Birthday!”

I don’t keep much. In fact, I made a business out of it. I spend a fair amount of time telling clients, friends, family, and anyone who will listen, to get rid of most of what they own. With them, I dust off old treasured objects re-found. I work deeply to unpack the sometimes complicated emotional attachment they have to their possessions or the guilt associated with disposing of something someone gave them. I remind people that love and memories make up relationships, not objects.

Despite this, my message is not meant to be completely unbalanced. It’s nice, on occasion, when it’s particularly meaningful, useful, or lovely, to keep items with the capacity to fulfill us more than the average Amazon purchase. But given my perspective, I wonder if people have begun to think of me as completely unsentimental or heartless. While there are many special people in my life, current, from the past, or passed away, my thoughts of them are rarely intertwined with objects. But sometimes they are. 

Take the drawing my grandma made that I framed and hung on my wall. After she passed away, I went through some of her stuff with my mom and sister. There was a plethora of scarves, and purses, and other beautiful things. But when we came across this in one of the boxes in her closet, it felt like discovering her true self.

It was signed with her maiden name, representing the short period in her life that she wasn’t married to my grandpa. She had gone to a special high school for art but before going to art school for college, she found out her parents could not afford to send her. This was a dream she never fully realized. So her drawing is a daily reminder to fulfill all my dreams, of my creative potential, and the tremendous love I still have for her. It still manages to inspire me, in part, because it is one of only a few items I have hanging on my walls. Minimalism provides a clear back drop so that we can emphasize the special things in life, even if they are material in nature.

And whenever I burn incense, a habit I still continue on occasion, I think of my brother in his adolescence carving and painting wood to create an object for me that he knew I’d use and appreciate at the time, but likely never expected me to keep.

A Place for Mess

Sometimes I worry that I’m sending the wrong message, and that people find these ideas about minimalism and organizing lacking room for fun, creativity, and life just happening. Or, perhaps, that these ideas are too strict and, therefore, restraining. 

I think it’s the opposite.

This approach is all about freedom. As I wrote about in This Is Freedom, with less, you have less to maintain, less time spent shopping, less time working for more money to buy things, less time cleaning up, and less obligation.

This approach is also about space. Once each item is resting in its home, everything neatly organized, surfaces cleared, one might find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not wanting to disrupt this delicate balance. One might have fear that spreading out projects on the kitchen table would ruin this immaculate space created. Do you resist using this newfound space because you are concerned about spiraling back to the disorganized world you just escaped from? 

Life can be messy and that’s not a bad thing. I encourage you to enjoy it. Another benefit of adopting a more minimalist lifestyle is to give yourself unencumbered room to just live. Space is where we can create, experience peace, and use our imaginations. In this space, we have the perfect spot for letting life happen organically and without constrictions. Not a space that mingles with other messes or gets subsumed by them, and no longer a permanent one. Instead, a new one and a temporary one. This can be for a few hours, a fews day, or maybe a few weeks. The point of having this newfound space in your home is to actually enjoy your home and feel like you have room to breath.

You don’t need a bigger house for this type of space. You can create it by doing away with the stuff in your life that distracts, doesn’t bring you meaning, and that you can simply do without. Less stuff equals more space.

 

Downsize Like a Project Manager

To downsize any area of your home, from hall closet to attic, thinking like a project manager will be an advantage. While project management may sound like the only thing more painful than organizing your home, these two pieces combined can really make your life simpler and streamlined … I promise!

In my previous post about Cascading Decisions, we looked at how downsizing projects require thoughtful but quick decision-making that can be assisted through clever planning. This planning also involves enumerating the steps required to meet a clear goal, and being creative and flexible to adjust as needed. Using a project management approach can supplant some of downsizing’s in-the-moment mini-decisions and create a bit of emotional distance which will help you avoid getting stuck. It is also a mindset that encourages time management.

Don’t think you can do this? If you’ve found yourself managing projects within your career or through social event planning, you’ll be using similar skills to those you’ve already developed. While this may not come to you naturally at first, begin to draw parallels between your project management experiences that may be applicable. You can do this.

In Cascading Decisions, I described how time awareness and “organizing your organizing” can help, as can clear goal setting. Taking this a step deeper, think about what is driving you to make this change: to save time? money? feel more relaxed in your home? The intention behind it all will ground your planning and decision-making.

Set a clear goal. Instead of dreaming about a Martha Stewart-like home or a minimalist space you’ve admired in Dwell magazine, make sure your goal is realistic. Splitting your goal into parts keeps you reaching for the best version of your life while giving yourself concrete and manageable chunks to focus on. 

Break each goal into major tasks. These can be more general (ex. look through all the papers on your desk) or more specific (ex. organize your tax files by year and shred all unneeded papers). Whatever works for you. Maybe try a mix. Don’t be too specific or spend too much time on this. It is an iterative process.

Give yourself deadlines. Fortunately, there is no boss here breathing down your neck or birthday party surprise to fail at. But you still need to keep yourself on track and accountable. Make deadlines realistic and give yourself some flexibility to push them back when needed. But take them seriously and, perhaps, give yourself rewards for meeting them.

Enlist help. A project manager typically has a team of people that each bring a specific skill set to the group. Pick your team: a very organized friend, a family member who works hard, a professional organizer, a junk removal service, or (reluctant) spouse. Consider your team members when creating a timeline to ensure their availability and to take advantage of their potential contributions.

Adjust as needed. The process of moving toward a simple home can be full of discovery, both inside your home and inside yourself. Work with these surprises, not against them. Your project goals may adjust, you may develop new ones, and your process for doing the “grunt” work may improve. The key is to be aware, intentional, and focused no matter how the project evolves. Don’t look for excuses to give up!

Bask in the glory of your achievements. Not all project managers get this glory moment. But you will, because this is all about improving your life through simplicity. You will get to live it each day moving forward.

Think of project management as another team member of sorts. It’s easy to get lost in a tucked away shoebox of old photos or a seemingly endless stack of papers. Your project plan will help bring you back to your center, remind you of why you are doing this, and be at hand with a clear next step.

Cascading Decisions

Downsizing and organizing projects, no matter how seemingly small, are a series of cascading decisions. Most are mundane, many are tiring or tricky, and some are emotionally weighted.

No wonder most people quit, if they’ve even managed to start.

Decisiveness is not everyone’s strong suit and not everyone is adept at making certain types of decisions. Maybe it’s easy to decide what career to pursue or where to go on vacation. But you may be paralyzed by the thought of choosing a new health insurance plan or deciding between the chicken and the fish. Decisiveness comes in different shades.

Beginning a project with the acknowledgement that you will be confronted with a stream of decision points is best. Understand that one decision may hinge upon the next. Your project may start small and narrow, and then expand when you move one item into another room to, let’s say, put it on a shelf, only to discover that said shelf is packed too tightly and you need to remove items from it. In doing so, you rediscover a book left by an old friend you always meant to return. But finding their address is difficult because they moved recently and you only have their old one. You don’t want to reach out because a phone call will eat up another hour. You know they take a long time to respond to emails and don’t want to wait because now your living room has piles on the floor and you know you won’t be able to make it to the donation center for two weeks. These pesky, relentless decisions have cascaded down and you give up. That’s one way that disorganization happens and stays that way: the paralyzing nature of too many decisions. 

I don’t say this to dissuade you. It is necessary to highlight the truth in the pursuit of a solution: a little planning, a little patience, and a little rule making can go a long way.

Before you begin a project, be clear on your intention and how it connects to the broader goals and priorities in your life. Come up with corresponding rulesets. For example: I will use the library for books from now on. I will only keep books that I use for reference and that I haven’t read yet. I will donate all other books to the library because giving back to my community is an important priority in my life.

Pick a time to organize when you know you have some wiggle room if things go awry. Build in some minutes at the end of your session to clean up. Pre-assign bags/piles/boxes in the following categories for quicker follow through on your decisions: donate, give to a specific person, sell, trash, recycling, special disposables (ex. household hazardous waste, scrap metal, bulk items), and a “to do” box (ex. get batteries for an item, bring something to the dry cleaners). Acknowledge in your plan that, once your items are sorted into these categories, you will need additional time for follow through.

Decisions can be sticky but don’t let yourself get stuck. Get into the mindset and rhythm of decisiveness, even if that’s not your proclivity. Attitude is something you can adjust along side proper planning. Become a decision-making machine. It gets easier the more you do it and, with all the little decisions you make, you are sure to get in your practice.

Landfill Purgatory

Regardless of project scope, the size of a client’s home, or their sustainability awareness, no one wants anything to go into the landfill.

At first, I was happy and encouraged to hear this. People are willing to spend the extra thought and time to give items to friends, to donate, and even inquire about recycling options. All of this is a sustainability positive move and part of the experience of letting go. 

But there is another side to the “but I don’t want it to go in the landfill!” conundrum. You have things that you don’t need: either because you bought them, out grew them, accepted them without thinking, or snagged them without reason. While it’s important to think about where your stuff goes next, it’s more important to prevent them from coming into your possession in the first place. The hard truth is that you should have thought of that first. The more significant hurdle is not to stop holding on, it’s to not grab hold. The focus is on the wrong side of the equation. Don’t wait to see the problem until after the fact.

Understand that keeping items in your home that you no longer need or really want, is simply landfill purgatory. Keeping this stuff is only delaying the inevitable; you aren’t truly avoiding the landfill. It doesn’t help from a sustainability perspective. So putting those destined-for-the-landfill items in the trash (if there aren’t viable alternatives) is an important part of this process. It’s part of the undoing and coming face-to-face with the consequences of our actions. It is a lesson often best learned the hard way.

Giving something to a friend or donating it doesn’t mean it won’t go to the landfill either. You may be convinced your friend wants that thing, but they were actually just being polite. Or maybe they thought they wanted it at first but a couple months later, it’s in the trash bin and you are left with a false sense of landfill diversion. Donation centers don’t resell everything they receive for various reasons. In other words, people want your stuff less than you think.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle, reuse, donate, or give stuff to friends. Anything you can do to avoid the landfill and get more use out of a product, especially if it means not purchasing another one, is the right move. But understand that you can avoid this conundrum in the future by understanding today that so much stuff will take up residence in the landfill in the end despite your best intentions. It’s better for you to make smarter purchases to begin with and collect as little as possible.

The Burden of "What If?"

“But what if I need this someday?”

I hear this question constantly. Any little thing in our home, even if dust covered, recently found, or presumed to be junk, suddenly becomes so important we can’t bear to part with it. 

Why is this so common? It relates to the general difficulty of getting rid of something once we have it. Once something is in our home, we own it. We associate with it and then it may begin to creep into our identity. This is when we begin to lose control over what we have and tend to keep things around as a default. It is less about what we want in our homes and really a misunderstanding about what we should keep. Let your home only include just the things you would want if starting from scratch.

“What if’s” manifest our fears because we put so much importance on stuff in general. Sometimes we forget that we are creative and that having the perfect thing at the perfect time is completely unnecessary. Occasionally, you may be minorly inconvenienced but there is likely another way to accomplish what you want to do without the perfect item. Occasionally, you may find that there is a financial cost sometime in the future but that it’s miniscule. Each person’s maximum replacement cost threshold is different. Some say $20 is a good rule of thumb while others say $10. Perhaps for you, it’s $2. Respond to this based on your financial situation, following a rule of thumb that is most comfortable for your current lifestyle. But keep in mind that in most cases, you don’t need to worry about a replacement cost because in the future you would not buy it again. 

So while a few of these “what if’”s are more reasonable (ex. the item is unique, very expensive), most are not. What is the likelihood of the “what if” scenario coming true and what would be the consequence of it not being true? These are the more helpful questions to ask. If you dig a bit deeper beyond your assumptions, you are more likely to let go. An organizing project will take much longer and result in you keeping more stuff than you need unless you address the “what if” problem head on. Instead of framing the question as “what if” I need this someday, ask yourself how bad the negative consequences would be to not have it. In other words, assume you are getting rid of it, unless you are able to make a bulletproof case for keeping it. 

Having some rules of thumb about true cost of replacement and how many multiples of items to keep are helpful in speeding up the decision making process. In the end, “what if’s” are a deterrent and distraction. By asking better questions, you can reassert control over your home space.

On Zero Waste, Part 2

I gave an introduction to zero waste in a post last year and would like to explore further how one can implement zero waste principles. To this end, I interviewed Erin, a former client, on the zero waste path. I say path, because zero waste is less of a destination and more a series of actions that you can slowly introduce into your life.
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Dara: What were the first steps you took to go zero waste?

Erin: I first switched from tea bags to loose tea. I love tea and drink it everyday, so this left me with a positive feeling. Next, I began buying as much as possible from the bulk sections at a variety of grocery stores. I brought my own glass jars (some of which I bought for this purpose). 

I learned that not every cashier is used to it dealing with brought-from-home jars and other customers stop to ask me questions about what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like an ambassador for zero waste!

Dara: What were the most difficult changes to make?

Erin: For me, it was difficult to move away from bottled shampoo. I tried baking soda and vinegar as well as a shampoo bar but they didn’t work well enough for me so I found myself going back to bottled shampoo.

Dara: Where should someone new to zero waste start?

Erin: Just pick one thing (ex. rice). Get into the habit of buying it in bulk with a reusable container or bag. It takes time to figure out a system but once you have it set up, it’s just as easy as your former routine. It becomes just what you do. 

Also, get tips from someone else who is working toward zero waste. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Set up your systems slowly. 

Check your perfectionism. Don’t expect to only fill one mason jar with your landfill trash.

Dara: Was it difficult to get your husband and kids on board?

Erin: They like the idea of reducing their waste as long as they can have the delicious things they like. As a result, we still buy some packaged foods. But they enjoy some of our zero waste practices.

Dara: What keeps you motivated?

Erin: I’ve been doing this for about 9 months and I’m still working on it. 

So many things in life are ambiguous but this is very satisfying, very tangible, and concrete. For example, I really enjoy composting and making veggie stock. Getting to be in touch with the cycle of life is very fulfilling.

Dara: Why did you decide to create an Instagram page about your zero waste journey?

Erin: I was struck by how perfectionist the zero waste ethos can be sometimes. It is better to approach it imperfectly than not at all. So I started my Instagram page because I wanted to do a fun and creative project, and share advice. It is sort of my secret project- until now!

Dara: Any specific advice you’d give to others?

Erin: The perfect is the enemy of good. Big sustainability issues are difficult to affect, so we think: what’s the point? Try to get away from that line of thinking and begin taking steps.

Plastic-Free Is Where We Need To Be, Part 2

Last year, I wrote about seeing plastic waste wash up on a beautiful island. The immediate visual impact of those two unlikely images coalescing was harsh, and the repercussions can be daunting and haunting.

We never stop to think about the persistence of plastic after use. It’s made for durability so it won’t degrade in our lifetime. The only type of plastic that may decompose in this timeframe is the kind marked at “1.” But that is in ideal conditions and plastic cannot actually biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Despite being a durable product, 33% of it is used once and then discarded. (Plastic Pollution Coalition)

You’ve likely been taught that recycling is the solution to the plastics problem. But recycling plastic is a “less bad” action. Plastic can only be recycled once and into a material that cannot be recycled again. In the U.S., only 8% of it makes it into the recycling stream. The rest ends up in landfills or becomes litter, and a small portion is incinerated. (Plastic Pollution Coalition). Not using plastic is the only environmentally positive thing to do. 

Aside from its persistence in our ecosystem, plastic affects human health. Chemicals leached by plastics are in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments. (Plastic Pollution Coalition)

These are only a couple of problems with plastics, affecting us and our future generations directly. But, as with most environmental issues, even if you know it’s a problem today and even if you can see how the problem will be worse in the future, it is difficult to undo your daily lifestyle to accommodate this information. It’s difficult because you grow accustomed to the way things are and finding the impetus to change is tough.

The good thing about the plastics issue is that it only involves tweaks to your day-to-day routines to get closer to a plastic (almost) free life. It’s hard to stop using a car when your life infrastructure is built around it but it’s not too difficult to replace plastic bags with reusable ones.

For this Earth Day, instead of making changes related to numerous environmental issues, let’s focus on just this one. Here are some habits to upgrade:

  • Always refuse plastic bags. Keep reusable bags in your car, if you have one, and a few in a place in your home where you can easily grab them. If you’re only purchasing a couple things on-the-go, consider holding everything in your hands.
  • Replace sandwich and larger, sealable bags with reuasable sandwich bags or containers.
  • Don’t purchase single use plastic drink bottles. If you didn’t bring a refillable bottle of your own and are going to pass out from unexpected thirst, choose a drink in a can or glass bottle.
  • Bring your own takeout containers or eschew take out/delivery. Homemade is better anyway! 
  • Always say “no straw” when eating out. If your teeth are sensitive to cold, ask for no ice too.
  • Don’t use plastic wrap. Use a reusable container or cover with a plate. 
  • Be aware of food packaging at the grocery store. Try buying in bulk with reusable containers or choose products that are not in single-use plastic containers.
  • Don’t buy products made of plastic if alternatives exist.

Start slow and set up systems that work well with your current habits and routines. New habits will soon seem like second nature.

Remember: Plastic is cheap but it’s still not worth it.

 

The Unfulfilling Desire to Fill Space

We’ve all been in social situations where we’re suddenly struck by a moment of awkwardness, or strange silence. It feels like something has gone wrong or we’ve mistakenly turned into a dead end. Then, we look for an action as a solution, forgetting that doing nothing is also an action. So we begin to tell a story, or ask a question, or talk about nothing, really. We try to fill the space because empty space can feel both uncomfortable and incorrect. Something must be done about it. The way we fill the space tends not to be meaningful or representative ofourselves, but we do it anyway. There is space and it must be filled, like there is a glitch in the system.

We may look at undeveloped land and think of it as a waste. Why would land, perhaps with a great view, in a great climate, or in a great location, just “be.” Something must be done to it. There must be some human interaction to improve it. That’s part of our unsustainable system of growth. And it leaves us at a loss for wild places and does not allow nature to inspire and surprise us.

We’ve all looked at a new home’s vacant rooms and saw them as empty spaces in need of filling. That’s the word we use: empty. Not full of potential memories, or places to expand ourselves, or a warm shelter. If a space is considered too empty, it needs “something” so furniture in brought in to solve the problem (which eventually gets covered or stuffed with stuff). Even when our homes are overwhelmingly full and disorganized, we may determine that the solution must be a purchase or an addition of something. Often times this is just a cover up of the underlying problem.

We seem to have the instinctual need to fill space: whether in conversation, out in nature, or even (especially) in our own home. How about looking for space, rather than trying to fill it? Let’s widen our stance and stretch out our arms, rather than to box ourselves in. My goal is not only to assist people in organizing their homes, it’s to help them create space. Space is what allows us to pause. Space is where we can find joy, where we can reflect, where we can just be. Space is a little bit of freedom.

One of the most beautiful experiences many of us have had is sitting in a comfortable silence. We describe it this way because most silences are uncomfortable. We tend to define our relationships on just how comfortable our silences are. When we don’t have the desire to fill space, we are happy, and we can just be. Your home can be this way too.