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Unclutter Your Life in One Weekby Erin Rooney Doland
Simplicity is revolutionary.
Being overworked, overbooked, and overwhelmed is passé.
Right now, you have a choice to make. Do you want to live a stressful life controlled by your possessions and the demands of things that don't matter to you? Or do you want to be relaxed and living a remarkable, uncluttered life?
When I made the decision to live simply, it took me fewer than seven days to clear the physical clutter from my life. Unfortunately, those seven days took place sporadically over six months because I didn't have resources to guide me through the process. I wanted a manual to explain to me the hows and whys of simplifying, organizing, time management, uncluttering, and productivity — but I never found it. I've created this book so that you can unclutter your life in one week. It's going to be hard work, but you deserve to live with less stress and anxiety. You deserve a remarkable life. And, most important, you deserve to experience all the benefits of being an unclutterer.
Unclutterer (un-'kl e-t er- er) n. Someone who chooses to get rid of the distractions that get in the way of a remarkable life.
Distractions, also known as clutter, come in many forms — physical, time management, mental, and bad systems. When your surroundings, schedule, and thoughts are chaotic, it's hard to move through the day. If you're constantly late to work because you're having trouble getting out the door in the morning, then you may have a problem with organization. If your house is in such disarray that you can't have friends over for dinner, then your problem is likely with physical clutter. If you are overwhelmed with eÂ€‘mail at work and laundry at home, then you may be using bad processes. If you are repeatedly missing client deadlines, then you may need some time management help. The list of distractions is endless, and only you know specifically how clutter is interfering with your life. By getting rid of clutter and organizing your work and home life, you will free up time, space, and energy so that you can focus on what really matters to you.
As Albert Einstein explained, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler."
An unclutterer lives as simply as he or she can without making life difficult. For instance, I love books and devote an entire wall of my living room to them, but I don't have more books than I can store on those shelves. You might enjoy television, but instead of being tied to the networks' schedules, you record programs on your DVR and watch them when it is convenient for you. Simple living isn't about depriving; it's about enriching. You're getting rid of what doesn't belong to make room for what does.
The official unclutterer motto has been passed down from generation to generation by parents, teachers, and large purple dinosaurs: A place for everything, and everything in its place. Nothing in your home or office should be without a designated living space. Every pair of slacks should have a hanger and space in your closet to hang without getting wrinkled. Every pen in your office should have room in a cup or a container to rest easily when not in use. Think of it this way: If Oprah were to surprise you and say your home or office was going to be featured on her show, you shouldn't have to run around tossing things into a box to get your space to look the way you want. When everything has a proper place, you never have to wonder where something is or think twice about where to put it when you're done using it. This way of living might sound like a big change for you — it certainly was for me — but you're totally capable of making it.
I can't force you to become an unclutterer or go through the process for you, but I can give you the tools and information you'll need to make it happen. You're in control here, and you're the one who is going to have to put in the elbow grease if you really want to make a change. The benefits of an organized life are so incredible, though, that all of the sweat you invest will be worth it.
If you think making changes in your life is difficult, you're right. Considering an actual life-and-death situation, only one in ten Americans who has had heart bypass surgery changes his lifestyle to prevent future heart attacks. Most patients don't adopt healthier lifestyles because they receive very limited information and minimal support about how to make positive changes. When patients are provided with resources and the opportunity to learn about the benefits of making significant changes to their lives, the statistic improves from 10 percent to 77 percent. Almost eight out of ten people will make significant changes to the way they live if given the proper motivation and information for success.
So why am I talking about the grim realities of bypass surgery patients in a book on organizing? Good question. I mentioned these statistics because change of any kind — the life-and-death kind and the not-so-doom-threatening kind — is difficult. Scribbling "Be more organized" on a list of New Year's resolutions doesn't take much effort, but actually becoming an unclutterer requires change.
This book will be your support system and resource manual as you go through the process of uncluttering and organizing your life. Since I'm taking care of giving you the tools, you're going to have to supply the second ingredient of success: motivation. You need to determine why you want to make a change. What is it that will drive you to keep working even when you're struggling?
Close your eyes for a minute, take deep breaths, and let your mind fill with all the things that make you happy. I know it sounds silly, but do it anyway. Relax and focus on the good things in life.
What came into your mind? Did you see the faces of your friends and family? What were you doing? Where were you? Why did these things bring you happiness?
Now make a list of those things that came into your mind. Group items on your list that belong in the same overarching category. Family, friends, hobbies, personal time, good health, career, vacationing, and spirituality are common groups of items, but your list will be unique to your life. Also, no one but you is going to pay attention to this list, so be honest with yourself — don't list what you think you should list, identify what really makes you happy. This list is your motivation. These items are the reasons you want to become an unclutterer. This list is a reminder to you of what matters most in your life.
Take your list and put it somewhere easily accessible. Fold it up and put it in your wallet or tape it to the dashboard of your car. There will be times when you're ready to give up on the process and looking at this list will quickly remind you why you're making a change. This is the life you want.
One of the things on my list is travel. I want to drink wine in Bordeaux, ski the Alps in Switzerland, and photograph elephants in Thailand. To make these trips, I have to save my money and be able to clear my calendar on short notice. Budgeting my finances and juggling my work responsibilities require scheduling, time management, and planning. The more organized and uncluttered my life is, the easier it is for me to be able to travel. Experiencing the world firsthand is a powerful motivator, and so is time with my husband, family, and friends, and being able to accomplish the other items on my list. Do a bit of soul searching and figure out what and who matter most to you. What is it you wish you could do more often or with improved quality?
When people talk about what matters most and what they hope to achieve through the uncluttering process, I often hear responses that include the phrase "work-life balance." People need to work, but they want to balance that need for income with a rich personal life.
"Work-life balance" is just a buzz phrase in the business world. As far as I can tell, it exists for the sole purpose of making people feel bad. We hear the phrase "work-life balance" and like Pavlov's dog we're triggered into thinking, "Ugh, if only I had work-life balance! I would be happy if I had work-life balance! It sounds so dreamy!"
Um, it's not dreamy — it's bullshit.
Seriously, do you want your work life to sit in perfect balance with your personal life? Do you want to be at work the exact same amount of time as your free time? (And, don't forget, you spend a good portion of that free time sleeping.) Since there are 168 hours in a week, you would need to work 84 hours to keep things in "balance." To keep things equal, you wouldn't have time to enjoy the money you would be making.
Put aside the numbers for a minute and think only about the quality of your work. My guess is that you draw from experiences in your personal life to help solve problems in your work life. You remember something you encountered when you weren't at your office or from your past and it helps to spur an idea that advances your work. You can't flip a switch and immediately stop being Personal You when you're in the office fulfilling the role of Employee You. You're one person, not two, and you can't be balanced.
Stop feeling inadequate about not having "work-life balance" and accept the fact that it is unachievable and undesirable. Instead, aim for something you can attain and enjoy: work-life symbiosis.
Work-life symbiosis is what you achieve when all aspects of your life exist together harmoniously. It's as crucial to your achieving a remarkable life as simplifying, organizing, managing your time, uncluttering, maintaining your ideal level of productivity, and exploring your personal interests. In fact, the work-life symbiosis concept is the basis of how this book is organized. Explore a week of your life and see how you can smoothly transition from personal life to work life and back again. Arrive at work on time. Go hear your friend's band play on a weeknight. Fall asleep without a stream of toÂ€‘do items for work the next day racing through your mind.
As you continue to create your list of what matters most and your vision of your remarkable life, keep this big-picture perspective of work-life symbiosis in mind. Avoid the buzz phrase, and decide what is most important — truly important — to you.
Questions for Your Things
Smart consumerism is another fundamental component of being an unclutterer. The more you know about the things you buy, the better the consumer you'll be. When you know what you own and what you need, you don't make impulse buys in the checkout line. You buy useful, inspiring, and well-made goods — but only when you need to.
Smart consumerism isn't something that comes naturally to me. Truthfully, I hate shopping. For years, I made horrible decisions about what I purchased because I wanted to get in and out of a store as quickly as possible. While I can't stand shopping, I know that many people struggle with the opposite of my problem — a deep love for shopping. A number of my friends have told me that they feel a rush of adrenaline when they enter a mall or a store. Even when they don't need things, they like to window-shop and imagine themselves buying things.
Thankfully, there is a middle ground between deprivation and materialism, where you can respect and care for the things you own and make informed decisions about purchases. You can be a smart consumer and maintain an uncluttered homeand office. As you prepare to clear the clutter from your life, it can be beneficial to ask questions of the things that are already in your space. Just because something has made it into your home or office doesn't mean that it has to remain there. The following series of questions has helped me make informed decisions about the items I own. This list has changed with time, and I expect it to go through some adjustments as my family grows, so feel free to adapt it for your personal needs. If you make changes, though, try not to stray too far from the underlying intent of the list.
Questions for Items Already in Your Home
1. Do I have something else like this that fulfills the same purpose?
2. If this is a duplicate item, which of these items is in the best condition, of the best quality, and will last me the longest?
3. Is this item in disrepair and in need of replacing or fixing?
4. Does this item make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need?
5. Why does this object live in my house, and is this the best place for this object?
6. Do I need to do more research to determine whether this is the best object to fulfill its essential need?
7. If this is a perishable item, has its expiration date passed?
8. Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life I want to live?
While uncluttering, you may even find that you need to replace damaged objects or need organizing and cleaning products. Also, there isn't anything wrong with buying things you want or need as long as you're sure they meet the following criteria.
Questions to Ask Before You Buy
1. Do I have something else like this already that fulfills the same purpose?
2. If I own something like this, am I ready to get rid of the older item since this newer item will have to replace it? (This is commonly referred to as the "one in, one out" rule.)
3. Will this item make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need?
4. Where will this object live in my house?
5. Is this the best price for this object and the best quality I can get for the money?
6. Do I need to do more research about this object before I make this purchase/bring it into my home? Have I researched similar products?
7. If this is a perishable item, when will I use it and what will I do if I don't use all of it?
8. Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life I want to live?
In the past, I've heard criticisms about these questions because they seem to suggest that only utilitarian items — objects that fulfill a duty and provide utility — should exist in a home or office. For some people, a utilitarian-only system might work. I wouldn't enjoy living that way, however. I need objects that also inspire me or make me laugh when I see them. These objects are able to filter into my home through question eight, which asks whether the item helps me to develop the remarkable life I want to live. Just be sure that objects that agree with question eight also pass muster with the others.
With the help of these questions, the information throughout this book, and the projects you're going to complete, you will transform into an unclutterer. Clearing the distractions will make way for a simple, efficient, symbiotic, clutter-free life. Get ready to make room for what matters most.
It's okay if some possessions made your list of what matters most. I know many knitters who would feel like someone chopped off their hands if they got rid of their favorite sets of needles. My brother loves to build race cars and would be lost without his garage of tools. An unclutterer makes room for what matters most, and if certain possessions are on that list, then get rid of clutter to make room for these objects.
Going on a Sentimental Journey
Do you keep ticket stubs after you see a movie? Do you display gifts or use items you don't like out of a sense of obligation to the person who gave them to you? Do you store bridesmaid dresses you wore in your friends' weddings, even if the couple eventually divorced? Do you have TÂ€‘shirts from college parties you attended more than five years ago?
Wanting to keep sentimental objects is a natural desire, especially if the objects remind us of someone we care about or if they are associated with pleasant memories. We can't collect and keep objects associated with every happy memory over the course of our lives, though. It takes time, energy, and space to store sentimental items — and, unless possessions are on your list of what matters most, you need that time, energy, and space for more important things.
Sentimental clutter can be the hardest type to conquer. When an object offers such wonderful memories, the obvious fear is that getting rid of the object would mean losing the memory or the connection to the person who gave it to you. It's important to remember the past, but an unclutterer chooses not to live in it. Literally.
Before you start your week of uncluttering, I want you to remove the sentimental clutter from your life. Your basement, attic, off-site storage space, and/or closets are likely filled with these things. You don't have to part with everything (some of the sentimental items you have may not actually be clutter), but think about paring down what you have. When I sorted through my stuff, I found three grocery sacks of notes from middle school and high school, a pair of my grandfather's overalls, and invitations to every wedding I've ever been invited to. When viewed in terms of the questions I posed earlier, these items don't seem like they could hold much sentimentality — but they did. You'll likely find similar types of clutter in your spaces.
Remember the list of questions I recommended you ask about the items already in your home. Keep them in front of you and use them as a reference as you sort through your sentimental things. Set limits for yourself, stick to these limits, and aim for quality, not quantity.
Tips for Handling Sentimental Clutter
Picture Perfect. An image of an object can be as powerful as the object itself. Take digital photographs of the items before you get rid of them. When you upload the image to your computer, type in the memory you have associated with the object into the file's "Notes" field. (For example, I had my picture taken wearing my grandfather's overalls in an alfalfa field on his farm before I repurposed the fabric.) Be sure to back up your computer's hard drive so that you don't have to worry about losing the images.
Simply the Best. If you inherit a set of something like your grandmother's china, you don't have to keep all of it. Display one place setting or even just a teacup and saucer.
Digital Revolution. Scan papers and pictures and turn them into digital files. It's a lot easier to store a computer hard drive than it is to keep boxes of memorabilia. Feel like you have no time to do this on your own? Hire a company for this task, like ScanMyPhotos (scanmyphotos.com) for pictures or Pixily (pixily.com) for documents.
Share the Wealth. After scanning papers and pictures, give the originals away to friends and family. This is what I did with my collection of notes. Once I scanned them, I sent a few of the gems off to their original authors. My childhood friends read the notes, laughed, and then shredded the evidence. You also could throw a party where guests are instructed to take any of your old pictures they want — this is especially nice to do with family photographs at reunions.
Repurpose. If your dresser is filled with TÂ€‘shirts from college, cut them up and make them into a quilt. You can enjoy the warmth of the blanket all winter long and also make room in your clothes drawer.
Buddy Up. Researchers at Ohio State University found that touching an item (even something as ordinary as a coffee mug) creates an emotional connection to that item, and the longer you hold it, the stronger the bond. Enlist the help of a buddy to hold up items for you in order to keep the duration of exposure to a minimum and make parting with items significantly easier.
Pass It On. When someone gives you a gift, it's because they want to make a connection with you and bring you happiness. Unfortunately, not all gifts are things we want. If someone gives you a gift that doesn't work with your space, say thank you and feel no guilt regifting or donating the unused object to charity. The gift giver (if he or she has any tact) won't ever ask you what you chose to do with the item. If the person does ask, respond that you don't currently have the item out on display. The person will get the hint and drop the subject, and life will continue.
Make It Speedy. If the sentimental clutter is best suited for recycling or the trash, get it out of your sight as quickly as possible. Repeatedly walking past the clutter in a trash can or recycling bin will make it even harder to say good-bye.
Whatever sentimental objects you wish to keep you should display and/or use in your home. Nothing sentimental should be stuffed in a box in your basement or attic gathering dust. Why keep something that doesn't reflect the remarkable life you want to live?
When I initially went through the uncluttering process, I wanted my life to be instantly clutter free. So I took a shortcut and got rid of some of my boxes of sentimental clutter without opening them and properly sorting through their contents. Since I hadn't opened the boxes in years, I assumed that there couldn't be anything I wanted or needed inside of them. This was a huge mistake. One of the boxes I blindly threw away turned out to be a box from my move that I hadn't ever unpacked. Inside of it was my passport and Social Security card.
Copyright © 2009 by Erin Doland
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