Sunday, November 20, 2005

Show Your Stuff Some Tough Love

Tip of the Week, November 13, 2005

Let's face it: almost all of us have more stuff than we'll ever use. Though it can be comforting to be surrounded by things, far too often they become a source of stress, clutter, and unhappiness.

Getting organized always involves making decisions about what stays and what goes. Sometimes those decisions are easy and obvious, but when they're not, being willing to part with stuff requires some determination and some tough love. Here are three of the most common excuses for holding onto things, along with ideas on how to overcome each of them.

"But I might need it someday"
We've all said this at some point or other, no matter how obscure or ridiculous the "it" at hand may have been--a bin full of untouched knitting yarn, the leprechaun-themed serving platter, ten unopened bottles of rubbing alcohol. Almost anything can qualify as potentially useful, depending how you look at it.

That said, the vast majority of stuff that "might be needed someday" causes more trouble than it's worth, and winds up never being needed at all. Yes, you might someday decide to pick up knitting again, although you haven't done it for years and have taken up new hobbies in the meantime; but until you do, that bin of supplies will be lurking around, taking up space, causing needless guilt, and collecting dust. By letting it go, you clear out room for the things you actually enjoy doing now, and you let go of the stress born of feeling like you should be putting the supplies to good use.

"But I paid good money for it"
Investing a hefty chunk of cash in something that turns out not to be as appealing or as useful as you originally thought can bring up all sorts of emotions: stress, anger, guilt, annoyance. It can also strengthen the desire to hold on to the object in question; after all, who wants to relegate a valuable object to the Goodwill pile?

If you're keeping something you don't use--or even necessarily like--solely because you paid a lot of money for it, chances are good that the object is serving as little more than a reminder of a purchase you regret. If, every time you look at this thing, you ask yourself, "What was I thinking?" or feel a flood of guilt wash over you about wasted money or an unwise purchase, it's time to bid the object adieu. Selling it, giving it to a friend or family member who will use and adore it, or donating it and taking a tax write-off (if applicable) will let you get rid of both the thing and the mental clutter that went along with it.

"But it reminds me of [person, place, or thing]"
Sentimental clutter--the stuff that reminds us of people, events, or places we love--can be the hardest to wade through. Far too often, it can seem like getting rid of an object related to a memory requires getting rid of the memory as well.

Sorting through sentimental stuff requires that you be honest, gentle, and firm with yourself, all at the same time. First, promise yourself utter honesty about why you're holding on to the object: is it really a reminder of a pleasant memory? Is it a reminder of an unpleasant memory? Is it a way of escaping something difficult or unpleasant in the present? Unless it summons a positive memory--one that can't be summoned by any other means--there's a good chance the object isn't worth keeping around.

As you go through sentimental things, don't berate yourself if you get teary, exasperated, wistful, angry, or sad--all of those emotions are to be expected. Be gentle with yourself and you'll be more likely to make clear, honest decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. At the same time, be firm: don't let yourself slip so far into nostalgia that you find you're keeping things you don't like, or that are associated with negative memories, or that make you feel bad about yourself or others.

Sorting and weeding involves decision after decision after decision, making it one of the hardest parts of organizing. While the tough love tactics above may not make weeding fun, they can help make it more effective and less agonizing. Reminding yourself that you--and not your things--are in charge will give you a clearer sense of what's worth keeping and what's taking up too much valuable space in your life.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

10 Quick Clutter-Clearing Projects

Tip of the Week, November 6, 2005

Getting organized doesn't need to involve hours and hours of work; as with exercise, you can make a positive impact with small chunks of time. The ten projects below can each be done in about half an hour and can offer a hearty dose of satisfaction.

  • Clean out your e-mail Inbox. Delete the messages you've read and no longer need, move those you want to keep into folders, and get rid of out-of-date newsletters, store offers, and articles.
  • Weed your junk drawers. Attack the "catch-all" drawers in your kitchen, your desk, or your hall table. Toss the takeout menus you don't use, the pens that no longer work, and the expired coupons you never had the chance to use.
  • Sort your medicine cabinet. Take everything out, give the cabinet a good wipe down, and weed through the contents before you put them back in, disposing of expired medications, used-up cosmetics, and personal supplies that are past their prime.
  • Straighten your sock and underwear drawers. Dump the contents of these drawers out onto your bed and be ruthless: anything you haven't worn lately--or have worn so much it's begging for reprieve--gets tossed. The rest of the stuff gets grouped together according to type and neatly put back in. If ever you're tempted to add drawer liners or dividers, now's the perfect time to do so.
  • Clear out your fridge and freezer. Give those mystery leftovers, well-intentioned but unused condiments, and wilting vegetables the boot, then take a cloth and mild detergent and clean the shelves, drawers, and doors.
  • Unearth your under-sink areas. The space underneath kitchen and bathroom sinks seems to be a magnet for stuff that goes in and never emerges. Reverse this trend by pulling everything out, ditching what you no longer need or use, and re-stashing the stuff you do need neatly.
  • Organize your car. Bid adieu to those food wrappers, empty water bottles, and other bits of flotsam from life on the road. Don't ignore the glove box or trunk; if these areas seem to be organizational disasters, consider picking up a few gadgets to help corral the stuff you need to keep in the car.
  • Purge your pantry. Sort through your non-perishable foods, whether you keep them in a separate pantry or in cabinets in the kitchen. Get rid of anything that's damaged, expired, or no longer appealing, and put stuff back in so it's easy to find when you need it.
  • Prune your reading basket. Take a look through your reading basket, magazine rack, or newspaper bin. Recycle old catalogs, magazines you're not interested in, and newspapers more than a few days old. (If you haven't read them yet, chances are you won't get around to them, regardless of good intentions.) Keep only a few issues of magazines; older copies in good condition can be donated to hospitals or libraries.
  • Weed your desktop to-dos. Take a look through the papers on top of your desk, whether they're piled, stashed in a letter sorter, or reclining in an Inbox. Toss anything you no longer need, act on the stuff that needs immediate attention, and add to your To Do list anything you'll need to deal with in the coming days or weeks.

Choose one (or more) of these simple projects each week and watch your clutter start to disappear. With a modest dose of effort, you'll see some great results, and you'll still have plenty of time left over for the stuff you actually want to do.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Pre-Holiday Organizing

Tip of the Week, October 23 and 30, 2005

Don't look now, but stores are already trotting out their holiday goods, even though it seems like the winter festivities are still months away. Before you stock up on holiday wares--or even start planning for the celebrations ahead--take some time to do a bit of pre-holiday organizing. The three ideas below will get you started.

Look back, look forward
In the thick of the holiday season, it can be challenging to make clear-headed decisions about the activities and rituals you enjoy and those you could happily do without. These next few weeks, before things really get going, are the perfect time to do some thinking about ways of celebrating that are meaningful to you--and those that aren't. Take a few minutes to look back at past years and make a list of what went well during the holidays, what didn't, and what you'd change if you could.

For example, perhaps you love the tradition of having a large Thanksgiving dinner with close friends, would skip any and all work-related holiday celebrations if you could, and generally enjoy your family's Christmas rituals, though you wish they involved less gift giving. Knowing all of these things will help you prioritize when it comes time to plan your celebrations this year, which in turn can help reduce the stress of the season.

Take inventory before you buy
It's often tempting to pick up new holiday tableware, decorations, and gadgets when you see them in stores, especially if they're on sale. But buying new stuff without knowing what you already have--or whether you'd really have a use for that menorah-bedecked tablecloth--can be a recipe for wasted money and frustrating clutter.

This year, make a deal with yourself to take inventory of the holiday supplies you have before buying anything new. This might involve unearthing the boxes of stuff that got socked away in the attic or retrieving the gadgets that made their way to the back of your highest kitchen cabinets at the end of last year. Of course, this is also a perfect time to weed out unused stuff if you're so inclined, but the main idea is to get a sense of what you have and can use before you bring anything else into the house.

Be sure to think creatively, too: for example, why not use the plain orange tablecloth you already own to decorate your Thanksgiving table, rather than having to buy a turkey-themed cloth you'll only use once a year? Making stuff do double (or triple) duty can help you save space, money, and time.

Spread out your organizing tasks
The desire to get your house, your family, and yourself in top organizational shape before the holidays arrive is a common one, and it's true that being organized can help make busy times less stressful. But it's important to take a realistic look at what the months ahead hold for you and to schedule your organizing tasks accordingly.

For example, if you're hosting Thanksgiving this year and will be responsible not only for cooking most of the meal but for entertaining out-of-town guests, it may not be feasible to organize your house from top to bottom before the end of November without running yourself ragged. However, you can definitely aim to get the kitchen under control so it's less cluttered, easier to cook in, and generally more pleasant. Likewise, if you'll be doing a lot of travelling over the coming months, it might make sense to focus on organizing how you process mail and pay bills so that you don't run the risk of late fees or overwhelming piles of mail while you're away; doing a full-scale sort-and-purge in each room of the house can wait until your schedule returns to normal.

Whatever organizing tasks you choose, make sure they ultimately help you focus on what really matters over the course of the holidays, rather than becoming the focus of the next few months.

Use the next few weeks to savor the last bits of fall and to do some simple organizing. That way, when the season really heats up you'll be ready, and can head into it with as little stress and as much enjoyment as possible.