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.

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 possibly 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.