When You Leave the Nest But Your Stuff Doesn’t

Do you still have stuff at your parent’s house? Maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy.

In The Hiding Places, I reviewed the various places our stuff is stashed and often forgotten about. Whether we are 18 or 48, our parents’ home can be a seemingly safe  repository for the stuff we wish to keep but allow to be out of sight, out of mind. 

After you initially leave, some of your possessions remain at home as an innocent default. You move out of state and can’t bring everything at once, aren’t sure whether you’ll be moving back, know you’ll still have stints back home between college semesters, or simply don’t have the room in your new digs.

In your mind, there will be a time when you have a bigger home. You probably will. But that’s about all you know. You don’t know how or if your preferences will change. You may think your parents want to keep your stuff in honor of you, or that they don’t mind being your storage unit. What you don’t know is that they may secretly be counting the days until you finally pick it all up or they can throw it all away. Or perhaps they really do hold attachment to it, as a way of holding back time, wanting to feel a connection to your youth. 

You may be storing a few curated items or there may be mystery boxes awaiting pick up. There might be a bunch of childhood items scattered throughout your old room and other areas of their home that you visit on occasion. You never feel like going through your stuff while there, though you may “discover” an artifact of your youth, gushing, “Oh I remember this!” It makes you feel really good. That good feeling is remembered and associated with a reunion with your stuff, so any thought of getting rid of such stuff is resisted because why in the world would you give up an opportunity to feel good? Postponing the inevitable need to deal with our temporarily stored “stuff” may feel okay in the moment, but finding a more sustainable solution could feel even better. Most importantly, this saves time and headaches for everyone in the long term.

Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • If your parents threw out all your stuff without asking, would you be heartbroken, annoyed, or relieved? 

  • What is the point of keeping something for ten or twenty years that you may only use one day in the future? 

  • If it is a useful or important item, shouldn’t someone else have the opportunity to experience it’s value? 

  • If it is a purely sentimental item, is it that important to retain even though you don’t co-habitate with it?

Everyone I know who doesn’t have kids seems to see their homes as transient. Even if they’re 30, or 35 or 40 and they’ve been away from their parents’ homes for two decades. In fact, having kids and a house sometimes still does nothing to alter this default. This rite of passage is seldom traversed if there isn’t another impetus for change.

Parents’ downsizing may be the stimulus for change, which is quite funny if you think about it.  Delaying the inevitable leaves you at the whim of your parent’s timeline to finally go through such things, and this timing may not be convenient for you. Best to get ahead of this situation. Then there is the much sadder transition, where one’s parents pass away, and children must tend to the dismantling of a home and it’s memories, and tend to take on their parent’s items as their own, reversing the cycle. 

Consider this: There are other things your parents can do with the space you’ve been occupying. Or you can become a good example for them; clearing out your possessions may prompt them to begin sorting through theirs. It may alert them to the fact that they have a much bigger home than they need. It will ensure that when they choose to downsize or move, there is no time dependency with you to get your stuff, or added stress for them. 

It’s tough to say good-bye to our safety nets, especially when they used to be our homes. You  don’t have to say good-bye completely: you can preserve carefully selected items in a memory box, take photos of items you don’t plan to keep, or incorporate some items into your current home. But addressing the stuff we keep in our parents’ homes is an easy way to help our parents while no longer holding onto the past.

Icky Stuff

Gross things invade our stuff when we’re not looking. From creepy crawlies, to dust and mold, our possessions are not as protected as we imagine. The seldom touched tend to suffer the most. Areas that easily succumb to flooding are a close second. Being organized and clean are not one and the same, but a basic level of cleanliness and attention to potential insects, rodents, and mildew is necessary in any home. This affects both your health and the items you believe you’re preserving.

Let’s start with poo. Mouse and rat feces may contain viruses (such Hantivirus), diseases, and harmful bacteria. This is serious. No more storing items in cardboard boxes in attics, basements, and garages where these infestations are more likely to occur and you are less likely to notice them. If you think you couldn’t possibly have this problem because you’re quite clean, I’m here to tell you that even clean households are subject to these infestations. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real phenomenon.

Bugs, both dead and alive, are commonly found when I help clients organize. Clients know I’ve found them based on the shriek emanating from my direction. Some of these findings are everyday stuff not to worry about, but infestations of insects like termites can be terribly destructive. Bugs also have (very small) feces. Cockroach feces, for example, can be inhaled along with dust and cause allergic reactions or asthma, or even spread Salmonella. Gross.

Mold and mildew are types of fungus. Allergic reactions like cough, itchy eyes, and rashes are the most likely health affects. Mold and mildew grow in damp environments: where you haven’t noticed a leak because of items obscuring the area, items not properly dried out after a flood, or items exposed to the elements in a garage. While the mold or mildew grown on items can sometimes be removed, this is a time consuming and tedious process. Is this how you’d like to spend your time? If not, best to do all you can to avoid it’s growth entirely or risk having to dispose of items.

And, lastly, we have dust. As it turns out, the best way to avoid dusting, is to minimize dusting surfaces. The more objects on a surface, the more surface area to dust. Best not to allow hard to reach or commonly unused spaces collect dust either. Dust causes allergies, asthma, and dermatitis. Plus, dust mites!

Are you seeing the bigger picture here? There is a cost to everything. Each thing you own. To the point in may affect your health, certainly your time, and you may have to throw out the items you’ve been tucking away anyway. Many people delay going through items, or keep stuff because they have the space and it “doesn’t hurt.” There is a sense that if we already has something and can keep it, that there are no consequences. The icky stuff I’ve described are examples of the potential consequences, some of which can be avoided by how items are stored, but not entirely. They also exemplify the ways we have spaces we don’t use and boxes we don’t open for so long that these problems have the invisible time to manifest.

You’ll have to confront these issues at some point. Better do it now when there are fewer health risks and you are healthy enough to do it on your own. Writing about this stuff- and seeing it in otherwise clean homes- makes me squeamish, but I hope I scared you a bit too. This is a call to action, not a task that can linger on your list. Get up now and investigate your problem areas. For any more involved next steps, come up with a plan and execute swiftly.

How Our Homes Become Filled with Wallpaper

The tricky thing about wallpaper is that regardless of it’s color and pattern, we see it but, over time, cease to notice it. The same way you can hear something but not truly listen to it. Wallpaper can blanket the walls but disappears the second we blink our eyes.

The same is true with our stuff.

What’s in your home? Most of my clients have only a partial answer to this question. They can no longer see what’s in their space. If they could, there would be items they put to good use, have an opportunity to admire, avoid purchasing duplicates of, or have gotten rid of years ago. Not knowing what is in our homes, regardless of how much stuff we own, can be a waste in and of itself.

If approaching with honesty, we can see the general laziness in this. The couch is positioned in the way it’s always been. This kitchen drawer is wonky but we continue to struggle with it rather than get it fixed. The bookcase was always there and remains there. Perhaps it’s contents have changed- opening up space- but we view this open space as something to be filled rather than to question the bookcase’s stature. There are the old boxes we see peaking out from a closet’s corner. We are used to this sight but aren’t sure what is in them. Wallpaper can line anything.

Our knick-knacks are orchestrated in a precise manner and yet we don’t care about half of them anymore. Perhaps some get in the way, but we keep the status quo because they were always there. Always isn’t always a long time. We adapt to our circumstances quickly.

There is great value in setting aside time, perhaps on a scheduled basis or when a rut is coming on, to rub our eyes and see the wallpaper. Consider how your lifestyle has evolved, preferences skew differently, functionality needs changed, or trouble areas have been identified. Your space isn’t set. Allow it to mirror your fluctuations. 

I’m not referring to full-fledged downsizing or organizing. That’s a more involved project. I’m talking about a layer, one that addresses what’s in view, what is not and how your space is arranged.  Perhaps with this movement you can fulfill needed functionality without buying a single item. Maybe getting rid of a piece of furniture or using it differently can do the trick. Shop in your own home. Keep it fresh. The outcome of removing the wallpaper, typically, is a space that is a bit downsized and organized even though that isn’t the sole purpose of this project.

If this feels too big at the moment, pick something smaller and more contained. Perhaps review the items on your refrigerator. You may barely notice them anyway, so what’s the point of them being there? Or take a look at just one shelf or the arrangement of furniture in just one room. Take a step in this direction and notice the results.

Don’t succumb to leaving your space as is just because it has always been that way and is comfortable and familiar. We all need some jostling to stay sharp and understand what’s in our space. Unlike the wallpaper that remains on walls for decades due to the difficulty in removing it, this version of revamping doesn’t cost dollars and painfully slow peeling. It takes some thoughtful and meaningful time- and is well worth it. 

I Got a Bike (Part 2)

In Part 1, I recounted why I purchased a bike and the fear I overcame in the process. The how was tricky too. I wanted to buy a used bike, both for the cost savings and because, typically, reuse is better than purchasing new from a sustainability standpoint. It was also my first, so I was less discerning and wanted something inexpensive to try. One of the reasons I live a simple, downsized life is because I dislike shopping. I don’t like bargain hunting (though I do it), I don’t like the time it takes, I don’t like to spend money on material goods. But for the type and size of bike I needed, buying used would be tough and would only exacerbate these problems. So after research, chats with biking friends, and good old fashioned shopping, I bought a new bike. 

It was one of the few purchases I’ve made that I felt excited about. It was a death defying thrill to ride it back home from the store, after purchasing a helmet and bike lock before I left. That was only part way through the additional shopping needed. More choices, more money. 

I ordered a front and rear light so that I can ride at night. But there were problems with them and much back and forth with customer service. They had to be returned and I bought a different set. Shopping can take much more time than we expect it to involve.

A bike allows me to replace short car trips; the trips that are a bit too long to walk and that don’t take too much longer to bike than driving. One common trip like this is grocery shopping, so having the ability to transport groceries was essential. After some consideration, I decided on a simple basket attached to the rear rack that I had installed. This would make it easy to throw in any of my existing bags, grocery or otherwise. Turns out, these baskets have fallen out of favor in the biking world.  There were many other options: panniers, grocery bags that hook on front/rear baskets, saddle bags, etc. Finding what I wanted was very time consuming and frustrating. Has this happened to you before? You decide on exactly what you want, and then you quickly realize the world has conspired against you? Another reason I dislike shopping. Fortunately, I was eventually able to locate the rear basket I wanted.

The stuff doesn’t end there. There are other possible accoutrements like mirrors, bells, bike tools, bike pumps, water bottle holders, phone mounts, etc. I feel myself tense up at the thought of more shopping. To keep a downsized, simple home, it’s best to live with something for a while before deciding what else to buy. This reduces the chance that you’ll purchase something you don’t need and better the chance that if you buy something, it will specifically address your needs. I had been riding around for a bit before even deciding on the rear basket. 

When trying to make a sustainable, healthy, cost-effective choice, buying stuff can be a pain. But I look for this balance, just as I try to maintain balance on my bike, feeling that freedom and meaning that keep me pedaling. 

I Got A Bike (Part I)

When I was a kid, my brother and sister and I rode around our street and parts of the neighborhood on our bikes. It was childhood fun, until it wasn’t. When riding down a large hill next to the nearby lake, I fell and crashed and my bike was destroyed. A wheel over here, a handle bar over there. I wasn’t injured; only a few scrapes. But my cautiousness around bike riding suddenly became justified and I didn’t ride much after that.

As an adult, my desire to ride was reignited. This time, it wasn’t about fun. Instead, it fit sweetly into my sustainability values. As an eco-friendly form of transportation, it was a great option … that I was still fearful to attempt. I knew that riding on my childhood suburban streets was far different from really riding on roads, especially in Washington, DC and it’s neighboring areas.  I also had other fears, like the “helmet hair” that my big curls were destined to encounter.

And yet, more and more of my friends and colleagues rode bikes. Some were avid cyclists, some commuted to work, some rode trails on weekends. Several of my years working at the U.S. Green Building Council involved creating and launching LEED for Neighborhood Development (a certification for green neighborhoods). It emphasized urban planning and I learned about the cycling community, concerns of cyclists, pros and cons of bike lanes, how to increase ridership, and yet had no direct experience of my own. 

Integrating bike riding into my transportation options is a reflection of my values. While I walk a lot, take public transportation, and try to minimize car trips, there are trips that would be best suited for a bike. When I meet with clients, I typically drive. While often necessary due to distance and lack of public transportation options, it can feel a bit off center. Less Equals More is about living my values and sharing this way of life with others. It may not be hypocrisy to drive but it’s not aligned either.

Then I moved to Austin. Texas is not known for it’s urban planning acumen or carless transportation options, but in this new city, I felt ready. The city is smaller and feels more accessible, and I’ve noticed that drivers are less stressed and irritable than in the DC area. Also I find that once I acknowledge a fear that holds me back, it becomes a focal point for me on this long path toward fearlessness. So I bought a bike and biked to a client for the first time a couple weeks ago, fulfilling a dream and my values.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because minimalism makes space: space via time to explore different pursuits, space to investigate our fears, space in the form of the unenclosed natural world. This also reflects the perspective of meaningful minimalism which looks at the why behind each choice and item we own to ensure they’re matched with our values and enrich our lives.

In Part 2, I will detail my experience purchasing a bike and all the unexpected “stuff” involved.

Do the Work

The proliferation of listicles and tips and hacks make me question the prominence of the easy way out. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like to waste time on areas of life that aren’t important. For some problems, a small bump in strategy is all that’s needed. But while these quick fix approaches have their value, they can distract us from doing the hard work required to meaningfully and thoroughly change our lives. Sometimes confronting- full force- one difficult truth can be all that stands in our way of significant growth, or even greater happiness.  It is a more difficult process but, typically, it is more effective and efficient. Sometimes an on-the-surface solution takes us in the opposite direction.

Doing the work is what downsizing and simplifying your life is about and it’s what I emphasize with my clients. This is where the transformation takes place, and it lasts far longer than my work with them or even their time in their home. Yes, there are many short cuts that can make your space more organized and accessible. They’re not all bad. Sometimes we need them on occasion as crutches to get through a moment. Being aware of this allows us to refocus on doing the real work. 

Doing the work is the internal searching for and acknowledgment of unhealthy patterns. This is the unveiling or, perhaps, excavation that leads to true understanding of ourselves. The problems we thought we had (along with the assumed solutions) may not be correct. When we take time to figure ourselves out, focusing on what matters most to us, and articulating our tendencies, we’re more likely to get the solutions right, thereby improving our lives and saving time.

Doing the work can be tedious. Some of this work isn’t particularly meaningful, or inspiring or life changing. It may be picking out just the exact tools and home improvement items that will be used and getting rid of the rest. It may be collecting all of the things that require repair and making sure that work is done (or coming to terms with the fact that you don’t care to make the repairs and acting accordingly). Going through your photos, digital and hard copy, to decide which ones are worth keeping rather than keeping them all and rarely looking at them may be part of this tedium as well. All the work is message if listened to; don’t get yourself into this mess again.

Doing the work involves countless decisions and some decisions take a lot of time. As I wrote about in Cascading Decisions, decision-making ad nauseam is part of the downsizing process. There are ways to minimize this (ex. hiring a professional, making sweeping decisions that address multiple issues at once) but the decisions will still be there. If you ignore them, the struggle, dissatisfaction, uneasiness, and overwhelm associated with your home space will continue. 

We become clever about ways to avoid the work: feigning ignorance about the details of what needs to be done (ex. finally dealing with the emotional weight of a parent’s death), convincing ourselves we’ll get to it later, or assuming it’s not important now because enough of it is out of sight, out of mind. But when you dedicate yourself to digger deeper, you are giving a gift to your future self, while building strength and understanding in the present moment. We all tend toward laziness sometimes. Make sure this time you don’t succumb to it.

What Minimalism Means to Me

What I’ve wanted most in life is freedom. Freedom is so important to me because it is me. Freedom is the ability to be who I am, do what I want, and experience life through my values. I know that no matter what happens, the one thing I will always have is me. Everything else is ancillary. I must be able to depend on myself, continue growing, and become stronger and more resilient.

I see each item, each system, each decision, and each relationship as either a pathway toward freedom, or an obstruction to it. Money is a source of freedom, to an extent, so I focus on responsible money management. If I want to pick up and go to a show, take a class, or take a trip, money will be the thing to get me there. With the money I have at any given time, I highly prioritize the ability to do what I want, instead of to buy something that perks my interest. I know that the purchase, maintenance, and eventual discarding of an item hampers freedom. From this vantage point, stuff can so easily be a hindrance. Some items, of course, promote a certain level of freedom and ability to do something (ex. a camping tent or a suitcase) so I prioritize these types of items. But if I know I will use them infrequently, I investigate ways to borrow, rent, or substitute.

Sustainability is one of the values I have the freedom to include in my life and it, fortunately, is well supported by a minimalist lifestyle. To live lightly on the planet, I try to use just the resources I need. Buying green products and fixing items rather than discarding is a more environmentally friendly approach than the status quo but still involves the responsibility of owning items and still has environmental consequences. When I do without, or use objects for multi-uses, I’m side stepping many environmentally negative outcomes.

Minimalism is also my way to focus on what is most meaningful in my life. With that focus, I keep myself away from useless distractions, become more centered, and my heart becomes fuller. Highlighting meaning as central to my daily decision-making process is paramount to authenticity.

I like to remind myself and others that minimalism is not a dogma; just a convenient word to describe doing the most with the least. It can be called voluntary simplicity, essentialism, simple living, living a downsized life or whatever. I don’t care much for labels or trendy credos. To me, it’s about finding what is most meaningful in my life, only incorporating material goods that best support it, with a focus on financial and environmental sustainability, and most of all, freedom.

My purpose in describing my minimalism motivations is not convince you of a particular definition. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I encourage you not to accept the definition you think you should follow or assume there is only one path. I don’t believe minimalism an ideal to be achieved. It is not something seek outside of yourself. It is a mindset change that rests in the depths of who you are. 

Perhaps minimalism isn’t right for you, but you want to adopt a simpler lifestyle than you currently maintain. It may concentrate on one or many attributes: freedom, meaning, organization, sustainability, saving money, better habits, efficiency, peace, aesthetics. Whatever your approach and your reasons behind it, I encourage you to discover what works best and continue to iterate until you find the balance that is most “you.”

Stuff as Identity

Your home and all the items in it may represent the person you used to be, you think you should be, you wish to be, you want others to see, or all of the above. We allow this misidentification through our stuff or allow our stuff to meld with our identity. Either way, stuff and identity are a poor paring, but this problem is common and difficult to undo.

Since we tend to gather and hold onto things, this is hard. It is overwhelming to consider sorting through our past lives and aspirations. It is heart-wrenching to say goodbye to the person you used to be, as the piles continue toward toppling. This excavation is also time consuming so the gathering and holding onto becomes the default.

Since we tend to get lost in memories, this is hard. Antiques and objects passed down from previous generations and relics from our childhood are memory dead weights. They’re artifacts in the museum of our lives. The emotional pull of memories is almost enchanting, and the spell keeps us holding on.

Since we tend to struggle with change, this is hard. As I wrote about in We Change, But Our Stuff Doesn’t, the overabundance of stuff in our homes is a symptom of not addressing or recognizing the changes in our lives. Many struggle with change because it feels uncomfortable and we tend to seek the things that make us feel most stable. You must recognize that you’ve changed, reopening the discussion of identity with yourself, in order to get rid of the stuff that no longer serves you.

Since we tend to struggle to define ourselves and use stuff as a placeholder, this is hard. How many times have you completed the rest of this statement, “I am a …”? Tinkerer, avid reader, musician, crafter, fitness junkie, baker? To be these ideals, you must have the stuff that supports the associated activities. When you move away from those activities and interests, you don’t want to lose your “I am a …” You keep the stuff so you can keep the title that serves to define you.

Since we tend to buy something rather than do the work, this is hard. It’s simple to decide to learn Portuguese, build a bench, or become a skier. We go out right away to purchase the relevant equipment, which may sit around, since buying something is easy and feels like an accomplishment. We avoid doing the hard work of improving ourselves, learning something new, or completing a project. If we don’t get on the slopes to practice, we may feel guilty about the purchase and keep it around, thinking that someday you’ll get around to the work. But we don’t.

Since we tend to seek external validation, this is hard. Sometimes we keep a bookshelf full of interesting books (whether we liked them, or read them, or not) and collectables from our travels so that guests think we’ve smart and well-traveled. It’s not for us, it’s for them. 

How do we undo these patterns? As with most challenges, we must first recognize the problem. That simple acknowledgement will allow for a new perspective as we look around our homes. It’s a new filter that invites a specific type of investigation into the ways stuff has mixed with your identity: how you define yourself, holding onto the past, a future that will never come, an image of yourself you want others to see. By analyzing how this has played out in your life, removing the stuff becomes a bit easier and more targeted. Untangling stuff and identity will ensure that your stuff supports you, rather than weigh you down.

None Equals More

The name of my company, Less Equals More, was the three-worded vehicle most apt to describe how less material items and unnecessary activities can help us get to whatever “more” we are looking to achieve: more time, more freedom, more meaning.

It’s tricky to use the word less because it comes with a not-so-great connotation. U.S. culture lauds more, bigger, and unrestricted growth of all sorts. So less feels undesirable, at some level anyway. It presents as lacking rather than making room for something. It appears to be almost at a loss for something, certainly not a gain. Less hurts a little, until you unpack the context and shake off preconceived notions.

What happens then, when we talk about none or nothing? A completely empty spot where something could or did reside. It challenges us more. We may feel empty too. Or we wonder how it could be that something that we assumed must take up space, in fact, does not. Maybe it never did. This causes a certain tenderness. We avert from that which gives us any pang of discomfort. Try staying with it this time. If less is hard, none is harder, but it is a greater release toward freedom.

If this sounds abstract, it is, by design. When we become too close to things, to objects, we lose focus on the bigger picture and our collective sense of tunnel vision emerges. First, we need to look at the language we use and the breadth and depth behind it.

The challenge of none means that there are entire sections of your life that can be cut out. Instead of spending time and effort weeding through belongings, consider whether you need that type of belonging at all (or the activity to which it belongs). Instead of trying to determine the best version of an item to buy, don’t buy such an item; time, effort, and money saved. Rather than including practices in your life that you think you should experience (a book club, running, certain people), delete them entirely if they don’t serve you well. Negotiating with yourself is a tiresome effort with minimal payoff. Saying good-bye to things can be painful but that pain is fleeting. Staring into emptiness can be painful too. But it is also fleeting because you end up filling the space, time, and energy with that which you actually care about and enjoy. 

Let’s turn to the practical. Look at the large categories of items in your life: clothing, shoes kitchenware, sporting goods, technology, papers, furniture. Can any of these categories go away wholesale? Probably not, though it’s always worth making the case for why to keep them. Then, move on to the second tier. Within shoes do you have high heels that always feel uncomfortable or dress shoes that require polishing? Say good-bye rather than negotiate why you should keep them just in case. In your kitchen, do you have rarely used baking equipment? Say good-bye to it all wholesale. Buy your baked goods and, if needed, borrow a cake pan once a year when you’re in mood to bake a cake. Do you have barely used fitness gear? Focus your time and money on your gym or specialized studio membership. Donate your equipment because you are just not the type to do this at home. All of these are mundane examples that may or may not apply to you. But the logic is the same and can be applied to everything you own and do. You can pick through stuff, employing the less strategy, but always first consider the none of the above option. 

Look for areas in your life to eradicate. Be an exterminator of the unpleasant pests of your mind and space. Be honest about what actually provides you with happiness and fulfillment. And if you are lacking the connection with your true self to understand what does, make that your focus instead. Something isn’t always better than nothing, unless that something is yourself.


The "I" in Intention

Why do you make each decision you make, from the tiny ones to the big ones? Do you find yourself on decision-making autopilot where the why behind your choices is cloudy? Do you make choices because you’ve always made them or because everyone else does, and you didn’t realize there was another way?

As I wrote about in Mindfulness = Minimalism, being aware in the present moment allows you to see your life as it truly is, rather than the stories you weave about it. This awareness enables you to become more intentional, which creates a seamless path toward minimalism. How you live is then completely directed by you and tends to result in having less things, typically only  items that are very functional or very meaningful. When each item you own is selected and maintained for a distinct purpose, you are keeping the bigger picture of your life and values in mind.

Recently, I heard a couple of stories about people who adopted a minimalist lifestyle and made all the decisions they thought they were supposed to make, adhering to some sort of lofty ideal. They now regret it a bit and realize they got rid of things that were useful to them, functionally or otherwise. As a result, they questioned the value of simple living rather than how they chose to implement it. They saw this as a cautionary tale. It seems to me that they weren’t acting consciously. They weren’t teasing apart the roots of their decisions to adopt the lifestyle that worked best for them. 

If you downsize without your specific needs and goals in mind, you are accepting someone else’s version of minimalism. Don’t accept mine, or another blog writer’s, or professional organizer’s. Don’t attempt to mimic pretty Instagram pictures or Architectural Digest minimalist design photos. If you do, you can get lost in the ideal and not it’s true practice. Also, as our lives change, our needs and preferences do as well. It’s okay to acquire a few more things as time passes, that doesn’t mean your adoption of minimalism was misdirected. Just be sure to be purposeful about the additions and continue the practice of paring down. Look at the why behind everything. Begin with your intentions.

This practice is the antidote to the subliminal messages of the status quo. The status quo is tricky. We may think we’re in control but probably haven’t looked deeply enough. In Just Say “No” to the Status Quo, I specifically question such basics as shampooing my hair. But you can apply this to anything you’ve taken as a must-have rather than questioning it.

For all of these reasons, I use a process with my clients that leaves lots of space for their individual requirements, personality, and values. There are different solutions for everyone because there are different intentions. Leading with purpose is universal.

Often in yoga class, we are asked to set an intention. This produces a more meaningful and directed experience. I propose applying it to your life, both as it applies to downsizing and your day-to-day choices. You can be specific or general. You can choose a different intention each day, week, month or year. By practicing intentionality this way, you will naturally become more deliberate with all of your decisions.

Be the best version of yourself. Be intentional.

The Hiding Places

Your office, parent’s or friend’s home, your car(s), storage unit, a second home- these are the hiding places. You have many mechanisms of possession distribution which makes it easier to not quite identify all the stuff you have to your name. We tend to consider what we own to only be the stuff we hold in our living spaces. This is only part of the story. Without acknowledging (or possibly remembering) the reach of our stuff tentacles, we can’t fully address the complex issues, underlining stories, and tendencies, in order to make more efficient and appropriate choices.

Our homes hold hiding places too. Occasionally we can bury something so deeply: into a crawl space, an attic, or a completely out of reach corner of a closet. The rationale is that we forgot. But if we wanted to remember, we would have made a different choice about where to put these items or address them head on instead. It’s typically the addressing part that we attempt to avoid. Minimalism and downsizing are about no longer avoiding, about being clear and deliberate.

As you attempt to downsize or pursue a more minimalist lifestyle, ignoring the hiding places will become a hindrance. We need all the facts to correctly solve a problem. Having too much and in the wrong places, and all the stuff in between, makes your life less simple. Time to investigate.

When I walk through my organizing process with clients, after defining the problem and re-visioning their space based on goals and priorities, we conduct a cursory inventory. This is not meant to catalog each item but to more accurately define the breadth of stuff. We tend to tell others only half the story. Never intentionally, but merely because things are often “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s why this step is necessary.

The resolution is two-fold: (1) make every effort possible to eliminate these hiding places and;  (2) for those extra spaces that are necessary, include them in your stuff story and as part of your cursory inventory when beginning to downsize. Something should only exist outside of your home if it has a purpose in that specific place. For example, in your car you may need a phone charger, quarters, and jumper cables. You don’t need camping gear, old flyers, or jackets. In your office you may need relevant subject matter books and some inspiration, like photos. But probably not a collection of shoes or an array of tchotchkes. Storage units occasionally are needed for something very specific, like an artist’s inventory, but not overflow or “I might need  this one day when I have a bigger place” stuff. Keep clear on your intentions.

Unearth the hiding places to be more honest with yourself and welcome greater freedom. When we don’t acknowledge something, it is still there and still has an affect, even though we convince ourselves it doesn’t. No more hiding.

Don't Get Used to It

Comfort is the soft and cuddly throw blanket. It’s the hat you wear everyday or your favorite hoodie. It’s warm soup your mother used to make. It’s the routine you don’t desire to disturb.

Ahhh. Don’t the thoughts of such comforts feel reassuring?

The problem is that we allow the idea of comfort to always be a positive one. While the comforts we enjoy can be wonderful and fill us with gratitude, they have the potential to provoke a blind eye. For comfort, is a reason given to do something. But this justification isn’t always warranted.

It’s a comforting thought to keep the keepsakes passed down to us, the gifts given by someone who has passed, the old trinkets of our former youth. Seeing them evokes a comfort of familiarity, by way of identification with the objects. We see our pasts through them and we like this because we know our pasts. These stories are comfortable because we’ve heard them before. They may not outwardly prevent personal growth but nor are they essential in the physical form of these objects to keep us grounded in our true selves. 

When I was in college, the dorms had terrible mattresses. Most students would buy layers of foam and padding to turn these into soft and luxurious sleeping vessels. My closest friend was a master of this. My reaction? I don’t want to make my bed too comfortable or else I will have trouble getting out of it in the morning. I’m not kidding. I had this thought and lived by this rule. I was a good sleeper and tended to have earlier classes so this seemed like a practical idea, albeit an incredibly weird decision for an 18 year old to make. It certainly was the root of some of my earliest minimalist tendencies and realization that comfort was not always good for me.

My closest friend lived with me in the dorms sophomore year. She still jokes about how I would immediately pop out of my bed the second my alarm would go off with almost robotic precision. I get it, I was (am) a bit unusual in some ways. But I bring up this story only out of real world application. We drown ourselves in comfort at the expense of, well, expenses. We pile up stuff, old and new, to feel that sense of familiarity. But there is a downside: from overspending, to distraction … to oversleeping. The more sparse our belongings, the more clearheaded and directed we can be in our actions. The more living we can do.

It also allows some space for luxury. When we do experience that thing of contentment, when we do allow space or that special something to create relaxing conditions, we appreciate it more. It stands out and we can experience greater gratitude. This is a reason not to get used to it, not to get used all the things around us and potentially take them for granted. Seeing the other side of comfort dismantles the narrow view of an idea that doesn’t always serve us well.

Be Careful What You Care About

The minimalist approach creates a thoughtful balance around what is worth care and concern. My method is meaningful minimalism: finding what provides you with meaning and forgetting about the rest, choosing just the stuff that supports your goals and priorities, and letting the space that remains highlight the few things of meaning. As I wrote in Space for the Special Stuff, I own some items that represent aspects of my relationships that are significant to me. I find some value in this. Minimalism doesn’t have to be austere or heartless.

But as I repeat to myself and others after the frustrated thoughts, the discussions, and sometimes seemingly endless ruminations: it’s just stuff. To spend the time researching an item, shopping for it, maintaining it, moving it, deciding later whether to keep it, and then deciding how to discard of it, is an incredible imbalance and misappropriation of time.

Then the other day I saw a picture of myself in a navy blue polyester jacket that I wore through much of high school and college, and a bit beyond. It was one of those prized thift store finds and I thought it was cool as hell. It was the sort of thing where it almost represented me: subdued, simple, retro, and representative of my low maintenance values. And it fit. 

Reminiscing, I felt a bit sad that it was gone. A little more than a little. Why did I give it away? Probably because I hadn’t been wearing it much for years and didn’t want to resew the hole that kept emerging in the armpit again. Damn. Why did I have to be so annoyingly pared down in my possessions? But then it hit me: I don’t want an item of clothing to mean that much to me.

I don’t ever want an item of clothing to mean that much to me. 

It’s just clothing. It doesn’t matter. My feelings are my feelings and that initial pang of missing is perfectly normal and lovely. But if a navy blue polyester jacket, or set of cheese knives, or a knick knack, or book begins to rise to a level of really caring, caring the way we do that’s best reserved for people or personal progress, then there is a problem.

The incense burner made by my brother and framed drawing from my grandma certainly mean more to me than any piece of clothing. I’d be temporarily bummed if they were ever lost, stolen or broken, but I would have gotten from them what I needed and could let go. Why grasp onto objects? Why ever let any one of them mean that much?

Taking a step back from the specifics of the stuff, you can see that reality. Why would you ever want a thing to mean that much to you, let alone spend the time (so imbalanced) to acquire and eventually dispose of it? At a certain point it gets silly. 

It’s true with people, success, money, and stuff: be careful what you care about.

Reduce, Reuse …. and Then Recycle

I hate to be a downer. After all, I engage in a downsized, simplified, and organized life because of its positive and joyful benefits. Most strategies I employ to reduce my impact on the environment are things I like to do and have other benefits (like being healthier for me too). But I’d like to share some perspective on recycling and other strategies that seem green but aren’t as much as one might think. Not to stop you from taking these actions, but to connect the dots on why having less stuff, really and truly, is better for the environment and yourself.

A quick history: While recycling paper has been around since ancient times, it wasn’t until World War II that the U.S. saw more deliberate and widespread collection campaigns for tin, rubber, steel, and paper recycling. In the 1960’s curbside pickups picked up stream which continued through the 1970’s and 1980’s but we didn’t reach a 30% participation rate until the late 1990’s. That rate hasn’t grown much since. At first we recycled out of necessity; now we do it to address our overwhelming waste stream. But it’s not enough.

When I talk to people about being environmentally friendly, most everyone says that they recycle. Recycling is seen as an environmentally proactive choice. Instead of the landfill, an item has a chance for a second life. It’s the better choice between the two but only marginally so. After plastic has been recycled once, it cannot be recycled again. If there aren’t buyers for recycled materials, they go to the landfill. Often in the collection and transport of recycling, a fraction of these materials become litter because of wind and carelessness. 

Believing something will be recycled may lead to not so environmentally friendly actions. For example, someone buys a case of single-use plastic water bottles. They know that plastic isn’t the best for the environment but …. you can just throw them in the recycling bin when done! This somehow eases the concern about making the purchase.

From my perspective, buying a so-called green product is similar to recycling. If you are going to acquire a product regardless, better to go with the more sustainably sourced version. But buying a green product is still buying a product. And, similarly, you may have skipped out on the product altogether but, since there is a green version of it, you see that a green light to buy it.

Green products are  touted as “saving the planet,” but how could a product save the planet unless it was adding something positive back to the Earth? It’s much the opposite. Consider the energy used in it’s extraction, manufacture and transportation, and the natural resources from which it’s made. A green product may be better than a conventional one, but be aware of whether that encourages you to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t buy.

A single-use, organic yogurt cup placed in the recycling bin is still wasteful, it’s just less so. If you make your own yogurt instead, you save money, resources, and probably have healthier yogurt. For so long, we used bars of soap. Then, liquid hand soap became popular in homes in the 1980’s and now they are ubiquitous (and more expensive). A liquid hand soap dispenser filled with organic soap still comes in a plastic bottle or bag. Better to just buy a bar of soap that’s package-free. These are more minimalist approaches the basic needs in life.

Minimalism sweeps away so many possible decision points and trade-offs. Simply by having less and a more basic or handmade version, you don’t have to figure out which product is the most environmentally friendly because you’re not acquiring the product in the first place. Yes, it’s better to recycle than not, but it’s far better to reduce and reuse.


The Temptation of Surfaces and Defeat of Junk Drawers

A warning bell goes off in my mind when surveying a new client’s space: Oh no! So many surfaces! 

By surfaces, I specifically mean countertops, shelves, and furniture tops. Surfaces are magnets for stuff, and the stuff tends to stick. The more surfaces, the greater the temptation of clients to occupy them with stuff, intentionally or not.

Then I am on high alert, looking for what I expect to see next: a junk drawer (or two or ten). It says it all in the name. Junk is defined as discarded items that are useless or of little value. So why dedicate a drawer to these pieces? Why hold onto them?

And what is a solution to clearing a surface? Pouring the contents into a junk drawer. These two areas of the home are closely intertwined.

Another term for junk drawers (or bins, shelves or file folders) is miscellaneous, a troublesome word and solution. Naming something miscellaneous does not promote wayfinding or clarity; it invites accumulation. Suddenly you have more miscellaneous possessions because you have a drawer specifically for them! Using miscellaneous as a category promotes the retention of items that aren’t important or useful because it is a pseudo organizing system. Examples are freebies that unintentionally make it into your home, duplicates, loose batteries, flyers or coupons, etc. 

Sorting through these items is tedious because it involves minutiae you don’t value, decision fatigue, and thinking more deeply about each item’s purpose and where it’s used your life. If you take time to dismantle miscellaneous, you’ll likely get rid of most items, put a few with other like items, and possibly create a new, better defined category as well. 

If you are beginning to look around your home’s covered surfaces and junk receptacles nervously, you probably arrived at this point because you suffer from the following:

  1. Things without a home. Every item needs a place to rest it’s head at night. Most surfaces are not a well-defined home. There are exceptions to this of course: books neatly aligned on a bookshelf or a coffeemaker on a kitchen counter. But these items tend to become obscured by all the other stuff. A defined home is a specific place that is acknowledged by everyone in the family. This home should allow for easy retrieval and return so the item isn’t plopped down on some surface or junk drawer, which leads us to ….
  2. Lack of processes and good habits. Why did you initially put something in a drawer or randomly on a surface? Any good habit begins with a thoughtful decision about what the routine should be and then training yourself over time to create a habit. If you decide on a thoughtful home for your mail, create an easy process to deliver it there, and a process to review it, you can save time, frustration, and surface space.
  3. Tendency toward default. If you had junk drawers in your former homes or don’t regularly re-evaluate the organization of your home, it will be easy to continue this bad habit. Defaults are devoid of thought. The solution is acting with intention.
  4. Occupying space you don’t need. While some people live in small spaces, many have homes that can easily store and support everything they need … and more. As a result of this feeling of abundance, space isn’t used efficiently or logically. Spreading out your stuff can make finding items more difficult. If you have more space than you need in your home, consider leaving drawers empty and top shelves free. Avoid the tempting invitation of surfaces.

Of course, having less things makes this approach far easier but it does not fully solve the problem. Acting with intention, implementing clear homes, and initiating a bit of discipline, is the other side of this approach. As I wrote about in the The Unfulfilling Desire to Fill Space, space is what allows us to pause and gives us a little bit of freedom. It can lead to less feelings of overwhelm and promote just being. Minimizing, and keeping clear, surfaces and drawers lightens your physical space and your mind space.

It's About Control

It’s funny how little we exert control over what comes into our homes. From accepting all gifts (whether desired or not), hand-me-downs out of guilt, freebies that flood in, and unwanted mail, much of what we have wasn’t invited. It’s like our homes need their own bouncers just to manage the influx of stuff.

But once an item blows past the threshold, the tentacles of control slowly emerge. It is now your stuff. You are the owner of this grand variety of things: from a marketing flyer, to holiday cards, to the results of your latest shopping spree. Purely because of this ownership and your stuff’s occupation of your space, you find yourself with both a responsibility for it all (whether it stays, goes, or where it goes) and varied levels of attachment. From little control to complete control, it’s a quick turn of circumstance. 

Why does this happen?

First, something means nothing to you, or not all that much. It was something that just got passed along. Or maybe you bought something because you “loved” it, but that love and excitement fades. Or you purchased something for practical reasons, it served it’s purpose, yet you can’t let it go. You are in control of and responsible for these things, even though you may feel out of control or overwhelmed at times because of how much stuff you have. Then, you become attached and identify with your stuff. Attachment can be quick and quite strong.

As I wrote about in Non-Attachment, suffering is caused by forming attachments to things (or people, circumstances, and desires). Attachment is the opposite of accepting the temporal nature of life; the fact that all in life is impermanent. This can cause stress or unhappiness. When we resist letting go because of attachment, we are trying to control. This is where the suffering occurs and why we end up keeping more than we need. Attachment is the false veil of security. 

The tendency toward unnecessary control and attachment extends beyond the borders of your home. When it comes time to loosen your grip, you may say, “I can do without this. But surely someone else will love it just as I did! It’s such a wonderful thing!” You’re ready to part ways but not until you know who the receiver will be or at least that there is a worthy receiver ready to accept this former treasure of yours. Some items seem too important for the donation bag. This attempt to control an object beyond your ownership rather than just letting go doesn’t support one of the main purposes in downsizing: recognizing that it’s just stuff and any sort of attachment is not helpful to living a life of freedom.

This tendency is the inverse of landfill purgatory, when you hold onto something you no longer want because you would feel bad sending it to the landfill. You essentially make your home a makeshift landfill intermediary by delaying the inevitable out of guilt. Either way, you are trying to control (or delay delivery to) the end point. 

There is a distinction between control and responsibility. Once you let an item, big or small,  pass your threshold, you make an informal agreement to oversee it. It’s next place in the world is your responsibility, but don’t take that too far or else you are in the confines of the control trap. What was once a good thing for you may not hold that value for someone else.

Shift your focus on controlling what you let in your home. Become the tough bouncer, with a keen eye on everything. Then, when it’s time to let go, really let go. Be responsible without attachment.

We Change, But Our Stuff Doesn't

Personal evolution happens at a much faster pace than ecological evolution, as the not-so-fossil remains of our past hobbies, relationships, and career changes serve as evidence. The overabundance of stuff in our homes is a symptom of not addressing or recognizing the changes in our lives. It’s not only that we have too much stuff for our current needs, we still have items that were meant to support past needs. Maybe they did the job well, but they no longer do. It’s time to move on. 

Of course, this isn’t so simple. If it were, clearing out this old stuff would be easy or not there in the first place. When we change and our stuff doesn’t change with us, it becomes wallpaper. It’s so familiar and constant that we can’t really see it because we see it all the time. It is ignored unintentionally. 

At the opposite end, there’s the stuff that we’ve convinced ourselves is still useful because we think we haven’t changed (even though we have) or believe it will be useful once we re-engage with a past activity or aspect of our lives. All of this is reinforced by the three most prevalent challenges: what ifs, emotional attachment and identifying with our stuff. 

What Ifs

Some what ifs relate to hobbies, methods of cooking/baking, or exercise equipment that we tried only once or maybe even used regularly. We’ve mildly convinced ourselves that we will engage with them again someday. But we’ve changed, and that someday is likely not going to come. And if it does, in ten years, is it worth keeping these items along for the ride? Finding space for, maintaining, moving them? Using the what if argument with yourself does little to recognize that it’s time to move forward in your evolved life.

Emotional Attachment 

Sometimes we feel good recalling our pasts through representative objects. Sometimes emotional attachment begins with this happy feeling, sometimes a sad or even painful one. But, often, keeping items we are attached to is the default rather an intentional exception here and there. We may have an old uniform or tee shirt and are attached to the good memories, but it’s no longer useful because we have changed. Sometimes we choose to keep the things we failed at and remind us of tough times. These are our piles of shame. They may be the most difficult to address when we change. Tracking our failures can be a real drag and not allow us to fully embrace our new life.

Stuff as Identity

You may think of yourself as a collector of artwork. Or a gamer. Or a musician. Or a crafter. If these labels become part of your identity, rather than simply something you do or have done, releasing the associated items is counter to your identity and therefore makes it incredibly difficult to move on. First, we must recognize how closely our identities are intertwined with our stuff. And then we must unwind them.

We also change as a product of our environment; moving from the city to a rural area, adapting to new technologies, etc. While more external in nature, these changes can lead to unnecessary stuff in our homes. We must recognize these changes too and address them head on.

There are things in life we can mark as N/A- not applicable. If we do, we have a shorthand for downsizing in a practical way that is quick and more clear cut. Disassociating our identity from our stuff, addressing our emotional attachments (positive and negative), and recognizing that we hold ourselves hostage with what ifs are all pathways toward this shorthand. 

Our stuff should never be a hindrance, tie us down, or be meaningless to our current lives. Our stuff and the space we live in should be built to support us instead. It’s time for a change.


My Favorite Organizing Slogan

As someone who tends not to buy things, advertising and marketing are far from my mind’s eye most of time. But occasionally I’ll come across a clever marketing ethos that is just so good I can’t help but integrate it into my lifestyle.

When too busy analyzing logistics or dwelling endlessly on the emotional aspects of an organizing project, you can easily waste time considering all pathways and issues. Even if this occurs in pursuit of increased efficiency or ease, you’ve diverted energy from executing your project. Whenever I find myself in this Bermuda triangle of inactivity, this Nike slogan re-emerges: Just do it.

In pursuit of the perfect moment, the perfect way, nothing gets done. Or maybe you are simply procrastinating. These common hurdles have derailed many downsizing projects from even starting. Either way: Just do it.

Don’t talk about, ruminate, or cry about it. Don’t think about how it’s impossible, or overwhelming. Or even revisit the point of it. 

Just do it.

Don’t come up with elaborate project plans, or read blogpost after blogpost (ahem), or set up schedules. Yes, all of these activities can be helpful but …

Just do it.

“But, wait!” You may say, “That’s easier said than done.” No, it isn’t .

Just do it.

A mantra (phrase repeated often or that expresses someone's basic beliefs) is a useful tool to connect you to your purpose and remind you of the actions you must take to make your life more whole and simple. The “Just do it” slogan may not fit your personality as well as it does mine. Perhaps there is a similar mantra you can employ to cut through the inner chatter. Pick one. Just do it. But remember the reason behind “Just do it.” It’s a clear call to action. It’s even minimalist in it’s concise vocabulary. Mistakes happen all the time, and we can never plan against all of them. We can, however, get out of our own heads and begin to take action; the sort of action that has a real, immediate, and visual affect. 

I invite you to get to work.

I Love You, But I Want To Throw Away Your Stuff

Couples, whether new or long-time committed, have a bevy of things to disagree on, fight about, or be annoyed by. How much stuff they have, what the stuff is, and how it’s organized (or not), is a common topic of such discomforts.

I’m usually hired by only one person in a couple. In these situations, one of two situations always occurs: (1) The partner who did not hire me has nothing to do with the project, and is generally resistant to the idea; (2) Both are engaged in the project but each finds a moment to privately tell me how the other partner is actually the really disorganized one. 

I try to play this straight-faced. Mostly, because I understand. There are reasons we keep the things we keep and why other things drive us mad. Some hate items on the floor … but maybe this only disturbs their sensibility in certain rooms. Some tend to keep things “just in case,” while others love the latest gadgets. Some are minimalists, others are maximalists. While we tend to differ in our preferences, we are likely similar at the root: we value certain items over others and prioritize time spent organizing (and the method for doing so) differently. Priorities and values are important to respect and diverge at all levels of life choices and preferences. But, as they relate to stuff, they can be just as divisive. Respecting your partner’s perspective, which includes making the effort to understand it, without judgement, is key.  

Your partner is not patently wrong, messy, or disorganized. Everything is relative. You might not enjoy their preferences. In fact, they may drive you crazy or tempt you to throw away their stuff when they’re not looking. But remember, that is your hang up, and a reminder that you haven’t yet fully dealt with your own issues. Perhaps it’s the unopened boxes with college papers or memorabilia your parents handed off to you. Just because they are tucked away in the back of the closet doesn’t make you right and your partner, who leaves their old tee-shirts scattered on the bedroom floor, wrong. We are all just different sides to the same coin. 

How partners inhabit the same space, creating the nest they both want to live in, is always tricky. But the “stuff” problem is highly magnified when we move past our own personal and emotionally laden issues, to dealing with our partners’. This is a place to become very sensitive to their needs, to their emotionally laden issues. This is where honesty versus lecturing or blaming is key to a healthy home and relationship. The place to start goes back to values and priorities. You may disagree at first, but then make your way toward common ground. There may be areas where you agree to disagree or find compromises. But as with most relationship issues, these are best addressed when not in the heat of the moment, when you are tripping over your partner’s unfinished project or can’t find something in the closet. Carve out some time to discuss calmly.

To all relationships we come with baggage: our past loves and all the messy things that make up our personalities. We also come with bags of stuff, the way we are used to being and all our preferences (the powerful ones and the silly ones). We need to be gentle with our partners and recognize that we aren’t as different as we think. Our preferences may manifest uniquely, but we all have idiosyncrasies, and complicated pasts. With time spent seeking to understand and calmly compromise, your partner can help you on this path toward less stuff, rather than be another obstacle.


What's 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.