What’s in it for me?
C’mon, admit it. Most of the everyday responsible actions you take...from getting out of your warm, cozy bed on a cold morning to going to the dentist or getting a flu shot are because there’s something in it for you. You get to keep your job, keep your teeth, and keep from getting sick, to name a few. I mean, how many people do you think would actually pay their taxes just because it’s the right thing to do if they didn’t also see keeping their freedom as a pretty major benefit? It’s human nature to want something in return for your inconvenience and sacrifice. Even kids understand this concept from a young age, as evidenced by my son who once offered to pull out all of his teeth for the tooth fairy if she’d just bring him enough money to buy a Lego death star. (Little did he know that, with a little patience, she’d end up with all of them eventually anyway.)
We parents teach our kids this notion of hardship eventually leading to a payoff when we incentivize them to behave, to do their chores and their homework, and to sacrifice for others. Be it sticker charts, extra privileges, or even just heaping on the praise, we are reinforcing this idea that doing the right thing, even when it’s hard, yields positive dividends. Even when we want to improve our own behavior, we promise ourselves little rewards for rising to the challenge. And there’s nothing wrong with that, just as long as we select a prize that won’t end up sabotaging our efforts. (A new outfit for your slimmed-down body is probably a better reward for sticking to your diet than a celebratory cake...just sayin’.)
But incentives only work when we consciously identify what they are and specify the actions required to earn them. Case in point: I figured out a long time ago that a tidy, uncluttered environment keeps me calm and reduces my stress level more than just about anything else. I have two teenagers, so it’s a given that I’m going to feel stress in my life. But I know that the visual peace of a neat home and knowing exactly where to find everything will allow me to better manage all the anxiety that naturally accompanies the thought of paying for college, not to mention my babies driving and dating. That’s a reward that is well worth spending an extra minute here and there to put things away...even things that were left out by others. It’s the thing that motivates me to regularly clean out my closets and get rid of all the excess stuff I don’t really need. Just knowing that I will have sufficient room to house and conveniently access my well-thought-out purchases is all the enticement I need to avoid making impulse buys I might struggle to put away when I get it home. That effort is a gift I give myself because I’ve already determined that the payoff is huge. I don’t keep my home organized for the benefit of guests or my family. It’s for me. Which is good, because these days I rarely entertain, and my family couldn’t care less how tidy and organized everything is as long as they can find their remotes and locate the router when the wifi needs resetting.
So what’s in it for you to have less stuff? What do you get out of purging your excess...passing up a great sale...forgoing freebies and hand-me-downs...giving away some of those sentimental objects you have stored away but will likely never use?
Might some of these benefits of streamlining help you pare down?
Take some time to think about your top ten motivators for cutting back your belongings and write them down. Then dangle that carrot where you can see it clearly. Review it regularly to remind yourself what’s in it for you to tidy up before bed, to find a home for everything you own, to stop acquiring, or to donate or recycle all the stuff you can do without.
With a little awareness and the right incentive, even discovering the more of less will be easy peasy.
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Several years ago, a neighbor friend of mine who knew that my husband and I wanted to get in shape offered us--FREE--a treadmill that had been sitting idle for some time in her basement. We were ecstatic! That treadmill was just what we needed to transform ourselves from couch potatoes to svelte beach bodies by the time bathing suit season rolled around (well okay...give or take 50 pounds). Best of all, the price fit right into our meager (read: nonexistent) budget. We’d have to be crazy to say no to that...right?
While impulse purchases are a real thing, most of us actually do weigh the cost vs. benefit before we acquire something new. Thus, something free + something we want = YES! So why are our closets and garages so crammed full of stuff we never use? Clearly, we are miscalculating something. Perhaps we're leaving something out of the equation. I propose the correct formula should be:
Financial cost + Space cost + Convenience cost + Opportunity cost = True Cost
Most of us don’t see past the money and never even think about the last three components of this equation, probably because they are difficult to quantify. But omitting them from the equation altogether is how we wind up feeling disorganized, frustrated and suffocated by all our stuff. Let’s take a closer look:
This is usually the primary and often the only cost we consider when deciding whether or not to acquire something new. If you want proof, look no further than the ridiculously long checkout lines at your local Dollar Tree. How many times have you bought something just because it was “such a great deal”? And note that I keep using the word "acquire". That's because considering the cost of something applies even to--especially to--items for which we paid no money at all. Interestingly, the more money we pay for something, the less willing we are to part with it once we realize it was a poor purchase. And the longer we keep it in some vain attempt to “get our money’s worth” out of it, the more it ends up costing us...in space, in convenience, and in opportunity. As my husband and I would eventually discover, that $0 treadmill was most certainly not free, after all.
Ah space…the final frontier! Most people completely underestimate the value of empty space. We see it as something to be consumed instead of recognizing the important role it plays in keeping us organized and sane. Every single item you own--from vegetable peeler to king-sized bed--costs you valuable space. Like money (and cake), you cannot keep (have) it and spend (eat) it too. Overspending your space--or cramming as many objects into your empty spaces as you can--leads to clutter, visual noise, stress, and sometimes even guilt. The more spacious your environment, the easier it is to maintain and control. Purging items you no longer need/use makes it infinitely easier to see, access and keep organized the things you do. That “free” treadmill ended up costing us significant space in our small basement.
Life gets really inconvenient when you lack space. If you’ve ever watched one of those hoarder shows, you’ll be struck by how much more effort it takes them just to accomplish everyday tasks like cooking a meal or taking a shower. When your access to the items you need is restricted, it takes more time, energy and effort just to get them out and use them...much less to put them away again when you're done. Pretty soon, you stop bothering to put things away at all. This leads to clutter, chaos, frustration and a sense of defeat as you either lose items or they continually get in your way.
Also, the more stuff you accumulate, the less visible everything becomes. If you can’t see what you have, you’ll either buy it again or you won’t use it at all. So why are you keeping it? And owning too many belongings makes you less nimble...the sheer inconvenience of moving all that excess stuff out of the way in order to make home improvements or repairs can lead to procrastination, sometimes causing or worsening damage and costing even more money in the long run. Before you know it, you’ve increased the financial cost of ownership well beyond your initial investment.
Remember our treadmill? Well, we had to sacrifice some of the space we had been using for sorting and folding laundry just to make room for it. This made doing the laundry an even bigger chore than usual. Laundry baskets often ended up stacked up on the treadmill because there was no place else to put them. Talk about a motivation killer! If you think I’m going to do laundry first just so that I can exercise, think again! In my book, Exercise + Laundry = Forget it! The convenience cost of that treadmill in doing laundry was huge, not to mention that actually being able to use the treadmill itself was so inconvenient, it ended up just sitting there collecting dust for months. So why keep it? Good question!
What are you missing out on because you’ve acquired too much stuff? If you had just said NO to some of those “great deals” would you have had the money to go on a weekend getaway with your sweetie? If you could've just made do with fewer kitchen gadgets, might you have more space to share your love of cooking with your grandchildren? If you cleared all the “some day maybe” stuff you paid good money for out of the guest room closet, would you be more likely to entertain overnight guests?
It was summer when we said yes to that treadmill, so we forgot that the only spot we had available to put it in is where we normally put our Christmas tree...right across from the fireplace, next to the big recliner where my husband reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to the kids every Christmas Eve before bed. There was no room for our tree in the basement that year. No enjoying the beautiful lights by the warm glow of the fire. That treadmill ended up costing us a valued family tradition that Christmas, and it was truly a bummer.
The good news is that you can mitigate the costs of the things you own if you just ask yourself a few simple questions before you acquire anything new:
We’ve all made mistakes in saying yes when we should have said no, but that doesn't mean you have to keep paying the price for your error. That treadmill? We gave it back to our neighbor and joined the gym instead. You see, we concluded that the financial cost of a gym membership was worth what we would save in space, convenience and opportunity. Don’t let what you paid (or didn’t pay) for something interfere with righting what's wrong.
With a little honest contemplation about the true costs of ownership, even saying no to a blowout sale can be easy peasy!
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Everyone has excess stuff. (I know I do!) And the first step in effectively organizing any space is to eliminate as much of the excess as possible. Unfortunately, just like doing the laundry, cleaning, eating right and exercising, this need to purge your excess is ongoing. You have to keep doing it if you want to stay in good, orderly shape.
One of the biggest deterrents to ridding ourselves of the fat in our home is all the guilt that wraps itself around each unwanted, broken, useless, ill-fitting piece of surplus in our closets. Some people have storage units stuffed to the brim with that guilt. It comes in the form of gifts received but never used, deceased loved ones' belongings that we don't know what to do with, clothes long out of fashion that used to fit, broken furniture or toys we always meant to repair but never did...all good intentions and fond old memories that are now saturated in guilt. If this sounds like you, it's time to bring that guilt into the light, recognize it for what it is and purge it once and for all.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you confront your guilt:
Memories cannot be donated. We often keep items because they trigger a fond memory for us. But unless you encounter that object, the memory isn't getting trig gered. My readers know that I'm big on re-purposing, not only because it saves money and reduces waste, but because it often enables you to place a memory trig ger in the midst of everyday life. There it can do its job much better than if stuffed into a bin in the garage. But if you can't find a use for it, consider documenting the memory in some other way. Take a photo of the item or write about it in your journal before donating it to a good home.
True gifts are emotions, not tangible items. No one ever intended to give you a burden as a gift. The physical object they gave you only represents the true gift of their love, appreciation, friendship...and those are things you cannot get rid of simply by donating them. Often, the giver will not even remember the specific object that represented their real gift, much less realize that you parted with it.
A purchase is not a lifelong commitment. Yes, you may have spent "good money" on it. True, you may have loved it once upon a time. If you are not using it and no longer need it, then getting rid of it now does not change those facts. Hopefully it served its purpose at the time you acquired it, but even if it didn't, depriving yourself of the space it occupies now will not make it so or increase its value.
If you're gonna fix it, fix it NOW! Stop procrastinating. If it is important or valuable enough to warrant keeping, make it useful again. Otherwise it is just broken stuff getting in your way. If you haven't fixed it by now and aren't willing or able to do it today, you probably never will. Give yourself a firm deadline for getting it done and pitch it if you don't meet it.
Sharing is honorable. Perhaps there's an item that reminds you of someone special. If you don't need it or can't use it or display it, why not honor that person by sharing it with someone who can? Preserve the memory with a picture or journal entry and pass it along...perhaps to someone else with a connection to that same special person.
New memories await creation. Don't allow your desire to hold onto old memories squeeze out the opportunity to create new ones. You need space to live and grow and collect tomorrow's keepsakes. Give away that guilt to make room for something better.
I'm not suggesting that you can't keep anything just for its pure sentimental value. But you owe it to yourself and to the simplicity you need in your life to keep it manageable and meaningful. Decide in advance how much space you are willing to devote to that category and once it is full, it's time to purge something or stop collecting.
With a little courage and pragmatism, even purging your guilt can be easy peasy.
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What do weight problems, financial troubles, and clutter management struggles all have in common? They each stem from an imbalance between intake and outflow.
Sure, banishing clutter from your home requires getting rid of your excess stuff, but just as with weight and financial challenges, it doesn’t end there. Real long-term success also depends on how carefully you monitor and regulate what’s coming in, as well as what’s going out.
If you’ve ever experienced a toilet overflow, you know that the crucial first step is to immediately turn off the water supply before you even reach for the plunger. Failing to prevent more water from accumulating while you work on unclogging the backup can lead to an even bigger mess that takes longer to clean up. But what happens if you don’t even know where the shutoff valve is?
Thanks to reality TV shows that highlight the issue of hoarding, most of us already know that compulsive shopping can lead 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 wrest control of your home away from your jumble of belongings. These decisions are the leaks that need to be plugged in order to better regulate the flow of items into your home. But where do these poor choices originate? Well, let’s see. Do any of these sound familiar?
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with keeping some extra toilet paper on hand (as I think we all learned earlier this year), but knowing when to stop buying it is vital. It’s okay to take advantage of a great deal...on something you were planning to buy anyway. But there’s a big difference between seizing an opportunity to save money on something you need and simply accumulating more stuff you don’t need because it was on sale. And that difference is forethought.
Before you make a purchase, ask yourself:
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Every item in your home should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, it is only in your way and should be purged. That goes for your paper keepsakes as well. The purpose of keepsakes is to preserve moments from your past that reflect who you have been, are and will become. So many people struggle to maintain control over this category of items because they lack a clear vision of what that means. The bad news is that there is no one-size-fits-all description I can give you, because it varies from person to person. The good news is that you don’t need me to give you one, because you can create one for yourself. It’s not the specific parameters that matter...it’s that you have some.
Think about your paper keepsakes like artifacts in a museum, where you are the curator. These are items that you select that tell a story about your life. Another way to look at it is to imagine that your stash of keepsakes is a time capsule you are sending to your future self and those you leave behind. What is most important to remember? What are the milestones, achievements, values and memories that have shaped who you are? Who were the people that mattered to you or impacted your life?
I recently combed through my own enormous stash of disorganized keepsakes and made some tough decisions about what to keep and what not to. I was able to pare it waaayy down from four oversized plastic bins to four small boxes (one for each member of my family). It was a lot easier once I laid some boundaries. Here are some examples of the ground rules I followed in case they may help you in setting your own guidelines:
Those were my rules. Yours may be completely different. The point is to decide what they are first. Write them down as a guide for when those really tough decisions arise...and they will. While you are unlikely to miss anything you ultimately decide to toss, making the decision to toss it can feel in that moment like deciding to chop off your own arm. Be brave and remember that avoiding that unpleasantness is probably how you ended up with such a big pile of stuff to go through.
Try some of these strategies to make it easier:
When you take the time to define what’s meaningful, you honor your past without hindering your ability to live comfortably in the present and to make new memories for your future. With a little perspective and a few basic parameters, even controlling your keepsakes can be easy peasy.
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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, that old adage “You can’t take it with you” refers to your material wealth, aka your "stuff".
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!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.