Get Organized

I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a past time, if we will live simply and wisely...

Our life is frittered away by detail... Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!

- Henry David Thoreau

Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.

- Isaac Newton

See also: American Heart Association

Put things away, not down! Pay your bills as they arrive and file the receipts right away. That growing pile of "things you'll take care of" will eat away at you with time. The average piece of paper put down will be handled several times before being acted upon (or tossed).

Throw away what you don't need. Be honest. Keeping piles of old journals or boxes or other items "just in case" is a waste of space, time, and energy. If you must hoard, put things into boxes with a "destroy by" date clearly marked. If the date arrives and you have not used the items, throw them away.

Take a minute to organize the few things you do need. Old tax returns and documentation, birth certificates, wills, family photos obviously all need to be stored in a safe place. Have some sort of system, make a trip to the Container Store, and put some time into getting those things in order. Get a fireproof safe and/or a safe deposit box. Make a copy of important documents and store them in a separate location. Tell a loved one where they are. Hint: if it's not worth filing or getting its own dedicated container, it's probably not worth keeping.

Cancel the subscription for any magazine or newspaper you have not read regularly. If they are piling up, unread, they will only make you feel guilty. Save time, space, trees, and money, and either go to the library or read on-line versions of your favorite periodicals.

Use a pigs-at-a-trough approach. If several pigs are feeding at a trough and a new one comes along, one of the pigs must be displaced. Take the same approach with any new purchase. If your living space is getting cluttered, promise to discard, give away, or sell any old items every time you buy a new one. For example, if you buy a new pair of shoes, donate (at least) one old pair to the local thrift store. If you feel that your oldest pair of shoes is too new to give away, perhaps you shouldn't buy that new pair in the first place!

Automate, automate, automate! Have your bills paid on line wherever possible. Sign up for automatic checking account drafts for your mortgage, power, etc.

Make progress at the margin…. a small daily change can lead to enormous progress. Instead of promising yourself to clean up all your clutter on one day (that never arrives), pick up one piece of mail or put away one item from a pile every time you enter a room. A minute here, a minute there, and over time the piles will shrink and furniture you may and not have seen for years will re-appear.

Associate pleasure with simplicity. Make a game out of it. Envision how much less time you'll spend looking for things (since the size of the haystack is smaller), feeling guilty, or beating yourself up for all the clutter. Make your living space for living, not storage.

If you must pile… at least put the most important things on top. If you attend only to the top few things each day, assuming they are properly sorted, you will by definition be knocking out the most important items first.

Get into the habit of visiting your local thrift store or donation center. You get a tax deduction for the value of your junk, and feel good about giving back to society. Perhaps those purple pumps you were once won't ever grace your feet again, but maybe they are just what someone else is looking for.

Use it or lose it. Go through your house periodically and take inventory of things you have not used for years. If it hasn't been used by you, chances are it won't be, and perhaps it could be used by someone else.

Throw a yard sale. If you really want immediate gratification from turning your old stuff into cold, hard cash, then put it out on your front lawn and sell it. What you can't sell, donate. If you're tech savvy, go on-line and sell your stuff on eBay.

Understand the emotional reasons for clutter. Try to figure out why things get cluttered. What emotional or psychological obstacles prevent you from throwing things away sooner? Guilt over having purchased them in the first place (then be vigilant about future impulse buys)? Anxiety that you might throw away something, only to find you actually needed it (then reality test this, asking yourself how many times this has happened in the past, or if you really could not find another if you needed to)? Fatigue and a desire to defer going through your mail, bills, and "stuff" (then try to envision how less tiring it would be to have a clean desk or counter or living room, and so much less "stuff" to wade through)?

Understand your urge to splurge. We are deluged with messages that consumption - spending money on things - will make us happy. There is little empirical evidence to support this, and indeed a wealth of evidence to argue against it. Buying a hundred dollars worth of clothes may give us some pleasure, but this is often short-lived and offset by the emotional and financial costs of the new purchases. Separate needs from wants. You need a pair of shoes, but you probably want the 29th. Substitute a healthier, free activity (driving to a park and watching the sun set) that does not lead to the accumulation of more stuff. Simplify, simplify, simplify!


- Mark Vakkur, MD