Today's adults are busier than ever…we are kids' chauffeurs, homework helpers, community volunteers, short order cooks, corporate slaves and marathon commuters. The demands on our time are never-ending. In a world of instant access, we keep trying to cram more and more into the same 24 hours. Then, we fill our homes with stuff we think will make life “easier”...time-saving gadgets in the kitchen, clever electronic devices in our pockets, anti-stress and anxiety medications in our cabinets. Our constant need to “keep up” with our friends and neighbors lures us into an endless quest for the latest fashions in clothing and decor, the newest video games, the best new this, that or the other. Before we know it, our cluttered homes, hectic schedules, stretched budgets, and frazzled nerves seem to conspire against us to withhold from us the one thing that most of us crave: simplicity.
Simplicity is the removal of the unnecessary to make room for peace and clarity. Less stuff, fewer commitments, efficient routines, clearer priorities all both lead to and result from simplicity. So how do we achieve simplicity?
It all begins with greater self-awareness. You cannot remove the unnecessary from your life until you identify what is truly necessary. To do that, answer these questions:
What are your priorities? What most fulfills your sense of purpose? What brings you joy? What activities do you truly need to have in your life to feel whole? If you want to live the simple life, you must build your life around these priorities, not the other way around. Do your career choices, hobbies and volunteer activities reflect your priorities, or arrived at the road you are on simply because it was the path of least resistance? Very often, what feels like the easier path at the beginning turns out to be the more difficult one in the long run. But do not confuse simplicity with ease. Achieving simplicity usually requires change, and change is rarely easy.
What are your strengths? Identifying your strengths enables you to play to them. It also highlights what are not your strengths. Find people with different strengths from your own to help you with your weaknesses. Life becomes simpler when we accept these realities and include them in the planning process. And when we cannot avoid performing tasks that are not among our strengths, modifying our expectations of ourselves...giving ourselves the patience and grace to be less than perfect...gives us the courage to try.
What is your plan for getting where you want to go? Be patient enough to plan. There are no shortcuts. Everything worthwhile takes effort, even simplifying. It’s where you invest your effort that makes the difference. Invest it in making a plan and then executing that plan. If you plan carefully and patiently, knowing your limitations and playing to your strengths while giving yourself the grace to stumble, fall and learn, follow-through becomes much simpler and more straight-forward.
What do you really need that you don’t already have to achieve your goals? You may be surprised at the answer to this question. It is likely not to be more physical belongings. Time. Space. Money. Energy. Confidence. Understanding. Moral support. Knowledge...none of these needs will be met by an Amazon delivery or trip to the store. If you truly want to simplify your life, remove those non-necessities.
What do you already have that you do not really need? Remove the unnecessary to make room for more peace and clarity. Make room in your home for more living. Make room in your head for more thinking and dreaming. Make room in your heart for more caring. Make room in your calendar for more planning.
Our lives are cluttered with extra steps because we don’t plan properly or are trying to be too perfect; with extra commitments because we don’t acknowledge our limitations; with extra effort because we are so rushed we mess up, having to do it all over again; with extra stuff because we haven’t taken the time to figure out what we actually need, versus what we want; and with extra stress and anxiety because we don’t know who we are or how to achieve simplicity.
But we can change all that. With a little planning, self-awareness and some resulting simplicity, even the most cluttered, frazzled life can become easy peasy.
Space truly is the final frontier! Everyone seems to be on an endless quest for it...for space in their homes...on their desks...in their busy lives! Yet it eludes most of us. Just as soon as we find some....poof! It’s gone and the search begins anew. But what if instead of spending all of our space, we kept some of it….empty?!! Today, I’m making a case for space!
First, how is empty space even useful?
Preserving your empty space boils down to choosing space over stuff. You may be asking...if empty space is so valuable, then why do people tend to choose stuff over space? Good question! Clients usually call me when their lack of space begins causing a problem in their lives. They are aware that they need more space, yet still seem compelled to fill it back up again when given the opportunity. Why? Here are some of the most common reasons, along with my counterpoint for each one: Do any of these sound familiar?
Fear of being without something you may need (clothes, paper towels, shoes, serving dishes).
Counterpoint: If you run out of something, you can go shopping, do laundry, borrow from a neighbor, order online. If none of these are possible, you will likely find a way to make do in an emergency. Such emergencies will be very rare and far outweighed by the everyday benefits of having more space. Think up a back-up plan in advance if that makes you feel less afraid to part with something. (Personal aside: At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis when toilet paper was difficult to find, I came up with multiple contingency plans for if/when we ran out. I never had to use any of them, but now that I have them, I don’t feel a need to use up my valuable space hoarding toilet paper.)
Avoiding a deep-seated (and usually misplaced) perception of poverty and/or a misperception of “wealth”.
Counterpoint: Having more stuff doesn’t make you rich. It actually costs you more in the long run. Would you rather be “rich” in stuff that gets in your way, or rich in time and energy that can be spent on having new and meaningful experiences, learning more about the world, and forging/maintaining important relationships? Which will matter more at the end of your life? Remember, the old adage “You can’t take it with you” refers to your material wealth.
Unwillingness to make choices (aka decision deferral).
Counterpoint: Making decisions gets easier and quicker with practice and takes less time when you do it on a daily basis. Developing a habit of making decisions in the moment takes effort but will pay huge dividends in the long run.
Need to fill up the other aspects of life that feel empty (relationships, self-esteem, productivity, sense of control).
Counterpoint: Space gives us freedom. We need space to live in, move in, fill up with the people and activities that bring us joy. When we do that, we will not feel emptiness; we will feel fulfilled.
So how do we create and maintain empty space?
Simple: Choose space over stuff. Now that you understand the value of empty space and why you may have chosen stuff instead in the past, it will be easier to make more intentional decisions in the future. There are three key components to this:
With a little conscious decision-making and a few good habits, even holding onto empty space can be easy peasy!
When it comes to saving space - and money - nothing beats the power of multi-taskers. Getting in the habit of investing only in items that serve a double-duty function can yield some big dividends when it comes to creating more space in your home.
So what does this look like? Well, consider the many areas of your life where you can get double the usefulness objects:
The key is to get into the habit of brainstorming how you can use your belongings in more ways than one. Before you buy something new, look around to see if you already have something else that will fulfill your need. You'll be surprised how much space (and money!) you'll save...and trips to the donation dropoff too.
With a little creativity and a few multi-taskers, even creating more space in your home will be easy peasy.
Even if your house doesn't look like this, you may still have too much stuff. Every object you own comes with overhead costs. Too much stuff = steep overhead costs that lower your quality of life over time. Your stuff may be costing you more than you realize, and far more than you wish to spend!
How to identify it
Do any of these statements describe you in your home?
If any of these describe your living situation, you have too much stuff! Ideally, you should be able to easily find and access objects you use regularly and be able to verbalize why you are keeping any object in your home without hesitation or sputtering. There should always be a little bit of additional “room to grow” in your cabinets, closets, shelves and drawers so that new purchases or gifts can be put away as soon as you get them home. Most importantly, your home should feel like the calm, comfortable sanctuary you deserve.
How to fix it
Just like diet and exercise, decluttering and purging is an ongoing, lifelong necessity. I know, I know...that’s not a declaration most people want to hear. However, creating and maintaining adequate space in your home doesn’t have to involve endless hours of drudgery. The key is getting into the habit of streamlining as you go. As soon as you begin to see any of the signs that you have too much stuff, it’s time to take action. That action can be as simple as pulling out just a few unwanted items from your closet or cabinet and dropping a bagful of them off for donation or scheduling a pickup. You’d be surprised at what a noticeable difference eliminating just a handful of items can make. Think of it as a maintenance diet for your home.
Perhaps you have many “pounds” to lose first, though? Rest assured that even if your entire house is stuffed to the gills, you can still start small. The important thing is just to start! Pick a cabinet, closet, shelf or drawer that is really bothering you and spend 15-30 minutes identifying stuff you no longer need. Chances are good that there are a lot of deferred decisions and objects you’ve kept by default in there.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect, keep the process as simple as possible by breaking down the job into three easy steps I like to call The Three D's (Decide, Divide, Dispose):
Step 1: Decide - Pull everything out of the space (drawer, shelf, bin). Then pick up each object and choose between two options: 1) Yes, I need it and will use it; or 2) No, I can live without this. Don’t bend yourself into a pretzel trying to justify keeping it. Don’t think right now about whether or not this is the proper place in your home to store it. Don’t worry that you could maybe someday find an alternative use for it. Don’t puzzle over who else might want it during this step or agonize over how much money you spent on it or whether so-and-so would be hurt that you got rid of his gift. Just answer Yes or No to needing/wanting it. Put the Yes-es back in the cabinet or drawer. You can better organize them later or designate a new home for them another time. Step 1 is just about deciding between keeping and not keeping.
Step 2: Divide - Place your Nos into three categories: 1) trash/recycling; 2) donate; 3) sell. First, a word of caution: Do not even think about selling unless you are 100% sure you are going to invest the time and effort that involves and are willing to set a deadline for seeing through that goal. Selling requires you to have a game plan for when, where, who and how much. Sometimes it just isn’t worth the effort. Too often, you end up procrastinating and holding onto items with the best of intentions for far too long. My advice is to limit your sell category to only those items likely to yield enough money to make it worth your time. Place the sell items into a box or bag and write your deadline on it. If you don’t meet the deadline, these items should be donated as soon as possible after the deadline has passed.
Step 3: Dispose - Place trash and recycling in their proper receptacles. Drop off donations at a local charity as soon as possible or schedule a pick-up. Find an out-of-the-way place in your home to temporarily stash your “for sale” items after entering the appropriate action reminders on your calendar so you don’t forget about your deadline.
How to prevent it
Over-accumulation usually results from a combination of two things: Impulsiveness and Deferment. We buy things (or say yes to others giving us things) without first asking ourselves the right questions. Do I really need that? How/when (specifically) will I use it? Where will I store it so that it won’t be in my way? Do I really have room for it? What is my Plan B for it if Plan A doesn’t work out? Our default setting when it comes to acquisition is Yes when it should be No. That's the Impulsiveness.
Then when we are faced with tough decisions on what to do with something when its usefulness comes into question, we attempt to delay making any decision at all by keeping the status quo. That's the Deferment. What we fail to recognize is that merely keeping the status quo is a decision...it is a Yes when it often should have been a No. All these Yes-es eventually add up to clutter, disorganization, frustration, claustrophobia, discomfort, embarrassment, and stress and end up costing us time, money, and opportunity.
Make more purposeful decisions about what to keep and what to acquire, and you will soon find yourself with more space for living! With a little forethought and discernment on how to best “spend” your space, even clutter-free living can be easy peasy!
"Isn't it adorable?! And wow...you just can't beat that price! I'd be a fool to turn down such a steal!" If you struggle with clutter and this sounds like you, read on!
If you've ever watched one of those hoarder TV shows, you already know that compulsive shopping often leads to big problems with clutter. But what about impulsive shopping? While it may not lead you into bankruptcy or land you on an episode of "Hoarders: Buried Alive", making purchases without thinking them through beforehand could be unraveling all of your grand plans to get organized.
The first step in any organization project is to purge items that aren't really needed to create more room for the ones that are. One of the most common comments I hear from clients during this process is "But I paid good money for this and never even used it," or "I'd definitely use that if only I had a good place for it." Worse still, "Oh, I totally forgot I had these and just bought more last week."
Plan before you buy!
Whether it's a new armchair or a new paring knife, knowing when, where, and how you will use it and store it are decisions that should be made before you even get to the cash register. Without a plan in place, you run the risk of adding to your existing clutter and possibly wasting your time, effort and money. Consider the following scenarios:
Freebies aren't really free!
These questions also apply to all those freebies you collect and bring home. You'd be surprised how much less appealing all those giveaways appear when they are cluttering up your drawers and surfaces. The truth is, nothing is truly "free"...it costs you space and overhead. One of my favorite quotes from a fellow organizer is "Treat everything like a gallon of milk and put it away as soon as you get home with it." If you truly follow this rule, you won't be as likely to buy on impulse. If you don't know where its designated home will be at your house, perhaps you should leave it in the store for now. Next time you clean out your closets (or your car), you'll be glad you did!
With a little impulse control, even decluttering can be easy peasy!
Each January there's an outbreak that reaches almost epidemic proportions. Professionals like me are inundated with requests for house calls to try to eradicate it from homes like yours...I call it 'Gift Guilt", and it can be debilitating, especially for the organizationally-challenged.
When it comes to purging unwanted "stuff" during the organization process, gifts rank high on the hard-to-part-with list. Whether we realize it or not, there's a sense of obligation hidden inside every gift box...the obligation to like the gift and appreciate it and keep it FOREVER. What many people have difficulty understanding is that the thing we are obliged to like, appreciate and keep is the sentiment, not necessarily the object representing it. This is a hard concept to embrace, and since not everyone is able to innoculate themselves from gift guilt, there are precautions gift-givers can take to help defend recipients from this malady.
Chances are that when you give a gift, you focus primarily on whether or not the recipient will like it. That's great, but not enough. Just because they like it doesn't necessarily mean they have room for it, or wish to go to the effort to dust/clean/iron it, or know where to store it or how to use it. Each of these issues can harbor the gift guilt bug inside. Consider instead a consumable gift that will only need to be stored temporarily until used up.
Here are a few suggestions:
Services - Give a gift certificate or make a coupon that offersyour help with one of these:
Food/Beverages - Bake a batch of cookies, package up a mix (with instructions for finishing it), buy a bottle of their favorite tipple. Just be cautious about food allergies.
Charitable Donations - Make a donation in their name to a worthy cause that touches their heart. Guides like the United Way's Guide to Charitable Giving can help you select an organization that will make the most of your giving dollars.
An extra added bonus is that most of these are easier to wrap and require less paper than most traditional gifts.
No one ever intends to give a burden as a gift, but sadly, a gift can become just that if the recipient can't use it or doesn't have room for it. With a little imagination and the right attitude, gift-giving and receiving can be easy peasy.
If you really stop and think about it, the decision to get organized is a hopeful one. We hope that by decluttering our homes, sticking to a new routine, managing our time more efficiently or writing a To-Do list, we will finally, FINALLY gain control over the uncontrollable and attain peace of mind in our chaotic world. I may be a professional organizer, but as the mother of two (three if you count the big kid I'm married to), I am the first to admit that "being organized" is a matter of relativity. There's no such thing as a "totally organized" life, and even if there were, I seriously doubt you'd want to live it.
One of the most common issues I uncover when I go to a new client's house is that they have at least one large, unwanted, unneeded object sitting right in the middle of the most important area needing organization...their minds. The object is a negative thought that they keep tripping over. It takes up space that could be put to much better use. It obstructs easy access to other things sharing the space. It inserts itself into every task, and creates unwanted "noise". It detracts from the peacefulness of the space and, let's face it, it can be downright unappealing.
Obviously, the first step is to remove this negative thought from your mind. Do any of these sound familiar?
Let's just face it: keeping up with everyday life is not for sissies. No matter what your station is in life...student, professional, parent, retiree...your must do/should do list always seems to outweigh your available time.
As a working mother, my list seems to grow exponentially with each item I cross off. I've found that the key to keeping your sanity is organization, and the first step in getting organized is to trick yourself into a sense of control over your environment. Quieting the "visual noise" that surrounds you will help you focus on what you need to do to actually take control. Are you with me?
No matter how messy your house is or how much you have on your plate, spending just 10 minutes each day to tidy up first will help put you in the right frame of mind and allow you to turn your attention to more important things on your list. Start with the things that will make a big visual impact while requiring little time/effort:
"Instead of spending time being bothered by things that you cannot control, invest your time and energy in creating the results you desire." - Jensen Siaw
I recall the look of complete amazement and bewilderment on the face of my British friend as I described to her, sometime back in the late '80's, how a drive-thru bank worked. I'm not sure if she was impressed by the ingenuity of such an idea or astonished at the sheer laziness of an entire culture where such a phenomenon would even be needed, much less commonplace.
Indeed, we Americans seem to be almost obsessed with an ongoing demand for more and more "convenience". As though drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies and dry cleaners are not enough, we now have curbside pickup, hands-free concierge service on our cell phones, and remote controls that open our car trunks for us from 50 feet away. Of course, being the queen of laziness, I love it all and can't wait for the day that someone invents an exercise machine that allows me to burn calories and tone muscle while napping.
But if we aren't careful, our never-ending quest for convenience can become downright inconvenient, particularly when it comes to all those "convenience" kitchen appliances: juicers, bread makers, rotisseries, countertop grills, food dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Look around you. Are the appliances that are intended to conserve your time just consuming the valuable real estate in your home?
As with anything else, it's all about choices. Choose which convenience you want...drive-thru burgers, or easier homemade burgers? Vacuum packed groceries you can freeze for fewer trips to the store, or door-to-door grocery delivery? Be realistic and consider your lifestyle and current needs to determine which you will really use. If you want to keep the food dehydrator, fine. USE IT! Commit to it. Let go of that notion that you'll use it "someday". If "someday" ever does come, the newer models will be better, even easier to use, and probably worth the cost of buying a new one, so there's no need to keep this one around and in your way until then (unless it's Grandma's old ice cream maker and you are keeping it for sentimental reasons...but that's another post). Realize that there is nothing convenient about having to move the juicer every time you need to find a glass for your store-bought juice. ALL conveniences require some type of sacrifice--time, money, space, accessibility--so choose wisely.
I have a bread maker I bought about 15 years ago but rarely used because it was too big to store on the counter and required too much effort to get it out when put away. Storing such a large and infrequently-used appliance in my tiny kitchen was a luxury I could no longer afford, so I gave myself an ultimatum: either start using the bread maker regularly or get rid of it. Thus I re-organized my kitchen to make it easier to access my bread maker and have started using it at least weekly to make homemade dough for pizzas, pita bread and hamburger buns from pre-measured, homemade mixes I toss together once a month or so. I am choosing the convenience of having easier homemade pizza over the convenience of ordering pizza delivery, but that's a personal choice. The point is, you need to evaluate your current needs and priorities and stop allowing your convenience appliances to inconvenience your life by either finding a way to make using them easier or getting rid of them to make room for a different kind of convenience.
By the way, unused space is a pretty versatile convenience of its own. Just saying.
Update 1/5/2014: It's been five months since I originally posted this and I'm happy to report that I am continuing to use my bread maker very regularly. If you have a bread maker that's collecting dust, start using it to make home made pizza dough, rolls and pita bread from one of our EasyPeasy Mixes. You'll save money and will be amazed at just how quick and easy it is. Trust me! You'll never go back to eating that store-bought cardboard again!
Have you ever noticed that things always tend to break when you are broke...and when you really, really, really, really need them the most?
That's what happened this morning. My husband returned home from his first night shift back at work after a much-needed two weeks off and reported that the brakes in his car were making that dreaded grinding sound. You know the one. It means "Cough up at least $250 immediately" in car language. And of course it didn't happen while he was off and we didn't need both cars so that each of us could get to work. It happened right in the middle of a particularly tight budget week.
But it is what it is, and there was no getting around it. We needed that car and couldn't avoid the necessary repairs, so we put our heads together and came up with a solution within five minutes. I was so proud of my husband (aka "Mañana Man") for facing the issue head on instead of avoiding it the way he has often done in the past. I used to tease him about how whenever he noticed the car making a funny noise, he'd just turn up the radio so that he didn't have to hear it anymore. Job done...right?!!
We all have stuff we avoid. I avoided our finished basement for years because the carpet and sofa were stained, the kids' toys had taken over, and it was dark and dingy and ugly, and I didn't have the money to get new carpeting or a new sofa. I found myself trying to fit all my stuff into the main level of our house, making that more cluttered than I wanted, just so that I didn't have to go down there as often to get the things I needed. I dreaded doing the laundry, because it meant I had to spend time in that depressing environment. I refused to hang out with my husband or children down there. It felt like a dungeon.
Eventually, I got so annoyed at having to relinquish the use of one-third of my house just because it was ugly that I finally decided to do something about it. I painted it, bought slip covers and new drapes, purged all the toys the kids had outgrown and re-organized the rest, and cleaned the carpet. When I was done, I not only liked it again, I spent most of my days working down there. I even made sure we had a Christmas tree down there so that we could open up our gifts in front of the fireplace. It was awesome, and I was left wondering why I hadn't done it sooner...why I had wasted all that precious time avoiding the thing that would lead to such a positive outcome. The work and inconvenience of it was far worse in my head than it was in reality and was well-worth it. It took about three days but I have now been able to enjoy that part of my house for over a year. Winning!
One of my favorite shows on TV is "Buried Alive" on Discovery Health Channel. If you haven't heard of it, it's a show about extreme hoarders who decide it's time to get the psychiatric and organizational help they need to clear up their clutter. Avoidance is the main M.O. for practically all of them. They have developed hoarding behaviors as a means of covering up, or avoiding, their emotional pain. They avoid cleaning up and putting things away. They literally build up barriers of stuff to avoid dealing with their nagging spouse or kids. They avoid the reality of their financial issues by continuing to shop for more stuff they don't need with money they don't have. They avoid making repairs in their home and thus often go without power or water for years. Then they begin avoiding relationships because they have to hide their hoarding problem. Life eventually becomes so miserable, the smallest tasks so cumbersome, the mess so paralyzing and their self-esteem so low that they are forced to confront the issue and fix it. And most of them do and then can't believe how wonderful it is not to have maggots all over their kitchen and to be able to take a shower in their own bathroom or sleep in a bed again. They spent so many years bathing in the sink or eating takeout and robbing their kids of their childhoods that they couldn't remember how incredibly easy normal life could be in comparison.
One of my clients this week told me that she found herself avoiding looking at the new "Action" folder we set up for her incoming mail and other papers. After asking her several probing questions to get to the bottom of the issue, it came to light that she was afraid she'd make a mistake in filling out a form or would not be able to find some important document she needed in order to submit her health insurance claims. I pointed out to her that there are very few mistakes in life that cannot be corrected, and there is almost always someone somewhere who has a copy of any missing document or who can help you figure out how to achieve your goal without it. Perhaps it will require some inconvenience or may cost time or money you think you don't have, but there is always a solution as long as you look for it instead of avoiding it. But more importantly, finding the solution is how we grow and learn, and isn't that the whole point of living in the first place? To avoid the problem only avoids finding the solution, which in turn avoids learning and growing and living.
The old adage, "Never put off until tomorrow that which can be done today" really means, "Never put off the relief and joy and sense of accomplishment you feel when overcoming an obstacle if you can experience it today". So next time you find yourself avoiding an unpleasant task, realize that you are also avoiding the sense of freedom that only comes from having completed it.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.