Some tips on decluttering

I’m not inclined to give advice about decluttering — but since someone asked…

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Decluttering tips in action: I’m long past the “low hanging fruit” stage, but emptying this outbox (which can sometimes take me 2-3 hours depending on how full it is) utilizes a mix of categorical (papers, mementos) and spatial (office, papers from storage bins in basement) strategies — and yes, the process of emptying this outbox is definitely therapeutic for me!

Recently, someone who was planning a possible move in the not-too-distant future asked me for advice about how to get rid of enough things to be ready for this move if it happens. I was reluctant at first to provide advice because that has never been the intention of my own 1000 things projects.  My writings about the projects are meant to be descriptive, and I don’t want them to end up as prescriptions for how others should do their own journeys.  But, since I was asked for advice, here are some of the ideas I shared about how I would proceed under her circumstances based on my recent experience and stories from others.

Go for the low hanging fruit first — In effect, this is the first stage in the culling process: pick out the obvious stuff first. For someone who’s planning to move, the most likely pivotal question is, “do I want to move this or not?” In this particular situation, this person wants to keep some things but not necessarily move them right away, so the process may involve deciding what to keep, what to pitch, and what to put in temporary storage.  I’ve had other people tell me that when they’ve done this and gone back to their storage, they realized that the things they kept in storage they really didn’t need after all. If you go this route, your experience may be similar — or different.

Mix spatial and categorical strategies, that is, go back and forth between spatial areas (for example, a corner of a room, a closet, a shelf of boxes, a file cabinet drawer) and categories (books, clothes, mementos, etc.) when selecting where to declutter next. I’m not a big fan of using just one of these strategies exclusively; it didn’t work for me when I tried it, and I liked the variety of going back and forth between areas and categories. One possible drawback of this mixed approach is that it’s harder to get that feeling of progress from noticeably altering a spatial or categorical area more quickly. So I used the counting of items I got rid of to get that sense of progress instead.

Your experience might be very different if you’re in a greater hurry, though. In that case, you might find it more effective to cull the low hanging fruit by space, for instance selecting the obvious items to get rid of first in a room or closet or section of the house, or by category, for instance by identifying pieces of furniture or clothing that you want to get rid of first.

Do your decluttering in two- to three-hour segments, or sprints — I got this idea from reading the book SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life (my review of the book is here), and I’ve found it works well as a guideline. I should say up front that I am generally incapable of following a rule like this for an extended period of time. For example, I will use the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes on task, five-minute break) now and then to structure a stretch of tasks during my workday, but I can almost never do more than two or three of these at a stretch, and sometimes I can only do one. So while I say that doing your decluttering in two- to three-hour segments is an effective strategy, that doesn’t mean I do it very well. So what does that tell you? Perhaps it tells you to try something and then adapt it to your needs.

I will say that I’ve been able to use the idea of “sprints” effectively. This idea comes from the world of software development and refers to a set period of time of focused work on a project, often with the goal of completing a specific set of work. The key elements are focus, time boundaries, and (to a lesser extent for me) some sort of goal. I tend to set a numerical goal such as getting rid of x number of things (or preparing x number of things for ‘disposal’) within a time period.  Someone who’s trying to move more quickly might find a spatial focus to be more effective here, for instance clearing out one file drawer or a closet or a corner of a room.

Use decluttering as therapy — This idea comes from a friend of mine who recently described to me how she spent a few hours cleaning out a closet in her home that was bothering her. The process made her feel much better when she was done; in fact, she described it as therapy.  Hearing this story was an ‘aha’ moment for me: decluttering can be great therapy!  I took her idea and ran with it a little bit more — imagine your home as being, in effect, a collection of therapy sessions-in-waiting: convenient (do them at a time of your choosing), effective (that feeling of release when you see a space that is clutter-free, organized, liberated even), and, perhaps best of all, free! No need to spend $175-200 on formal therapy when you can create your own therapy session; all it requires is your time and attention.

Create a staging nest to start with — This is the place where you put the things you’ve culled but can’t yet get rid of them at that moment. You could start with more than one; I’ve generally had several staging nests at one time, but this particular person did not have a lot of free dwelling space to set up multiple staging areas. Having just one to start with is still good; even though I’ve found that staging nests do not work well as motivators — I’ve looked at staging nests for months at a time without doing anything about them — they do work well as part of a larger process, especially for getting rid of large numbers of things or identifying items which require special attention. More on that in my next post…

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Paying Attention: The Root of a Solution

The next time I go to Amazon to reflexively save a few bucks on a purchase, first I will pay attention…

More specifically, I will think about the intersection of these two articles: The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp, and To Get at the Root of Spending, Pay Attention. Here are some excerpts from the first article:

“the company’s fulfillment centers are not sweatshops..At the same time, we are living in an era of maximum productivity. It has never been easier for employers to track the performance of workers and discard those who don’t meet their needs… [which] means showing up to work every day with the knowledge that you are always disposable…and yet …this precarious existence now represents one of the only remaining potential paths to a middle-class life.”

I’ll think about the Amazon worker story not because this is a story about horrible working conditions or outrageous exploitation or even moral clarity. The appropriate response is not immediately clear to me: do I stop shopping at Amazon and exhort others to do the same out of righteous moral indignation? Somehow, I find it easy to imagine a large group of warehouse workers who would exhort me NOT to do that. They would say that having their job may be a “precarious existence” but is still better than nothing; like Jeff, they would believe that they have at least a foothold on a path up, even if they literally die trying.

Which made me think of this second article that I read recently, in particular the following excerpts:

On my next trip, I made a point to pay attention to how much I spent for my lunch…I didn’t do anything with this information that day. I just noticed it and found it interesting… [an] outward focus on tips and tricks to control our spending might be important, but what is far more important is the inner work we can do by paying attention to what we do with our money… I just noticed what I was doing with my money and, for me, things changed.

What if spending without noticing what we’re doing is at the root of our problem with overspending? If that’s true, then the simple act of noticing what we’re doing is at the root of the solution.

Thoughtless consumerism (for lack of a better term; feel free to suggest one!) is a similarly ambiguous situation. Thoughtlessness can be a good thing; indeed, as individuals and as a society, we utterly depend on it. I’ve sat here typing these last 400+ words without giving a single thought to the multitudes of people who have made it possible — designers, manufacturers, transporters, salespeople, and others who have brought me my computer and the desk it sits on and the chair I sit in and the clothes I wear — including, quite possibly, someone like Jeff who snatched one or more of these items off a shelf in some faraway warehouse.

The issues, as usual, are boundary issues: when does thoughtlessness become harmful, even toxic? In my case, I have the luxury of not having to be particularly watchful about my spending, which makes it even easier to be thoughtless. But my 1000 things projects experiences have taught me that being thoughtless about my consuming has its perils.

The NYT article offers an antidote which I’ve found helpful: the simple act of noticing does change things; it is the root of a solution. So, the next time I go to Amazon to reflexively save a few bucks on a purchase, first I will pay attention. I’m not sure what I’ll think next: will I decide to purchase somewhere else? Will I decide not to buy anything at all? Will I come to some clearer sense of how my actions affect a few people working in an obscure fulfillment center? Will I decide to try to make a purchase that I think will somehow be a healthier one for those whose job it is to fulfill my purchase? I don’t know yet — partly because paying attention also opens the door to a potentially exhausting complexity of decisions.

One example: my last online purchase was some bath towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I deliberately chose them instead of Amazon because they had a better selection and because it was not Amazon. I briefly had a passing thought of moral superiority because I forewent choosing Amazon. But now that I’m paying attention to that purchase retrospectively, I realize the foolishness of that thought: just because I’ve heard bad things about Amazon’s fulfillment practices doesn’t mean that BB&B’s are any better.

Paying attention to one’s purchases is a tricky bastard; the root of a solution is not a solution. But just noticing what I do with my consuming is the root, and the route, to a better place…