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Reducing Clutter: Ooh, Me! Me! *raises hand frantically*

Beth at Fake Plastic Fish has sent out a general call for assistance with regards to her office clutter. I get so excited about this topic, but I have a rule that I don’t bring it up unless someone asks. So when I read her post, I literally swooned a little bit with excitement.

I have fought a long, protracted war with clutter for at least the last 10 years. At the low point, I was living in a marvelously clutter-free apartment… and paying $150/month for a 10×12 storage locker which was literally packed to the rafters with Stuff.

When I moved from a 1,200 square foot apartment (which I shared with a roommate [but he was never home {and he had barely any Stuff anyway}]) into my current 400-ish square foot cabin (“ish” because it depends on how you count the bedroom loft, under the eaves) I had a problem. I had approximately 800 square feet of Stuff, which I now had to cram into half the floor space.

Here’s a picture that I tried to pretend was the day after moving day. The truth is, it was taken about a week later. And it looked like that for at least two months. Decluttering was a long slow process, and one which is very much still in play.

Everyone’s clutter is different. My favorite clutter book is It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh. I found his “profiles of clutter” useful, because it helped pinpoint what kind of clutter I tend to generate. In my case, clutter takes the form of “things which don’t have a home,” and “things which have a home, but I have to do something with them first.”

Here’s what I’ve learned from my Magical Journey Of Too Much Crap:

1. Get rid of at least 50%. I am not even kidding about this. It sounds scary, but it feels great, and you’ll be glad you did. Take categories of things – books, DVDs, clothes in the closet – and for each one you keep, put one on the “out” pile.

You don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think you do. I swear it.

2. Guilt is not allowed. Pretend it’s someone else’s stuff if you have to. Focus on the fact that you’re working to fix the problem, and don’t let yourself get dragged down into that pit of helplessness and self-loathing. Be clinical about it.

3. Some practicalities: tackle one small area at a time. Give yourself a deadline. Plan a reward for yourself upon completion. Dedicate a block of time beforehand, and don’t allow distractions. It’s better to take one small area and work it all the way through to completion (i.e. including a trip to the thrift store and recycling center) than to half-finish several larger projects.

4. Before you begin, take some time to do a top-level analysis of what you’re tackling, and why it’s sitting there in the first place.

Is it a drawer full of things which are in the drawer because they don’t have a designated home?

Is it a pile of papers that theoretically should be filed, except that you don’t have a filing cabinet or a box of manila folders?

Is it a big pile of paid bills that you’re keeping because you have the vague idea that you ought to, even though you know deep in your heart that you’ll never ever refer back to them?

Is it a book shelf so filled with books that you’ve had to double-shelve them, and books are spilling out in stacks on the floor, and also little knick-knacks have accumulated on the very very edge?

If you can put together a clear picture of the WHY, you will already have the answer to HOW.

Here’s a cheat sheet for the above scenarios, just to give you a warm up:

1) For anything that could have a home (like a screwdriver should live in a tool box), put it there. Dispose of the rest.

2) Get a filing cabinet (every thrift store has one) and a box of 100 manila folders from the office store and get filing with your mad self. If it’s important enough to keep, then it’s important enough to file properly.

3) Shred them, every last one. If you really really must, then keep only the last 3 months’ bills on a rolling basis. Every month when you put in a fresh one, remove and shred the one from 4 months ago.

4) Donate or sell half the books, and get rid of half the knick knacks. You may keep only as many books which will fit neatly on the bookshelf.

Beth has kindly – and bravely – posted pictures of her office space, which I examined closely. Moving from left to right: I see a vertical filing system, which is a good start, but clearly not enough. Beth needs a proper filing cabinet. (In the lower picture of the full office, I see what may be a filing cabinet at the far left. If so, I assume things haven’t been filed because the filing cabinet is full. In which case, shred/recycle 50% of the filing cabinet’s contents, and file away all the loose paper in the resulting free space.)

I also see stacks of CDs and/or DVDs, some of which live on the spindle, others of which are stacked in a precarious pile of paper sleeves. Note that earlier I said if you’re buying things to de-clutter your home, you’re doing it wrong. However, this is a good example of when you SHOULD buy something. Office supply stores sell cardboard boxes meant to hold CDs and DVDs. That is where the discs should live. Also, 50% of them should be gotten rid of before filing.

The exception about buying things is when you are buying something a specific home. Mass dumping grounds like bookshelves and plastic storage cubes are strictly forbidden. They only make the problem worse.

The drifts of paper are the most noticeable feature of Beth’s desk. I peered at it, but I had trouble making out what everything was. Beth says “to do notes, meeting notes, contact information, flyers, business cards”. In which case, that paper largely represents reference materials.

Reference materials should be filed away. You know, for reference. Contact information and business cards could usefully be inputted into a computerized contact management system, and the paper recycled.

And now, at the far right, we come to something that made me smile when I saw it: the little wooden cabinet with tiny drawers. This is a great example of something NOT to own. Anything could go in those drawers, and anything will, and it will never ever come out again. We call them “organizers,” but really they are “crap magnets.”

Beth, I’m going to guess that 2 or 3 of those drawers hold things that you use on a daily basis. Paperclips, ink refills, whatever it may be. And the remaining drawers haven’t even been opened in at least six months. Time for some tough love:

1. Pull out the drawers that you have opened in the last two weeks. Set aside.

2. Pull out the other drawers. Empty them into a cardboard box. Don’t look! Just dump them in there.

3. Take the cabinet to the thrift store.

4. Tape up the box. Write today’s date on the box. Put the box in another room. Periodically, you will find yourself tracking down the box to fetch something that you need.

5. Three months after the date on the box, get rid of it. Don’t even look inside. Write “FREE” on the side and set it on the sidewalk. I am not even kidding.

Specific to the business cards, I’d give those the same three month rule. If you haven’t consulted a business card in three months, you never will. If the information on the business cards is important enough that you will need to reference it, then it’s important enough to enter into a computerized (i.e. paperless) contact management system, and the cards recycled.

On an ongoing basis – and something like this is always “on an ongoing basis,” set rules and boundaries and stick to them. Once a home (like a filing cabinet, bookshelf, or toolbox) has reached its capacity, I go to the “one in/one out” rule. If I buy a new DVD, I have to get rid of an old one. The same goes for knitting books (which have their own designated area), general books, burned DVDs, and so forth.

I also like to randomly play the “five things” game. I usually do this once a month, to coincide with my monthly trip to the dump/recycling center:

1. Look around your home and pick out five things – things you don’t need, things you don’t use as often as you thought you might, things which are broken, whatever.

2. Get rid of them.

And don’t just put them “in a box to go to the thrift store,” either. That’s a trap! Actually take those things to the thrift store that day.

Well, now I’m starting to feel bad. But is the dentist picking on you when she says “You need to floss”? Nevertheless, Beth showed us hers, so I’ll show you mine. Here’s a blog-honest shot of that same area, circa five minutes ago.

I’m not too troubled by the stuff on the coffee table. It gets good turnover, I tidy it empty at least twice a week. The same goes for the small pile of clothes on the chair – that’s where dirty clothes hang out before I can carry them up the ladder to the bedroom loft. (I used to ball them up and throw them up into the loft – until I broke my right wrist. Now I have to carry them up when I go to bed at night.)

But we can clearly see one problem here: I have no place to put dirty handknit socks which require hand washing. Thus, the pair of orange socks off the upper left-hand corner of the coffee table.

And a second, much larger problem: the shelving unit. This is a great example of something which is sold as an “organizing tool,” when it is actually a “crap magnet.” Compare this picture with the one at the beginning of the post. Nothing which was there at first is still there now. It’s experienced 100% turnover in the last three years. Which means that nothing there now needs to be there.

I’ve been eyeing this rack for the last two months, promising myself that I’ll declutter it now, while my wrist is broken and I can’t knit. Great way to while away the evenings, right? Yeah, you can see how that’s working out.

18 comments to Reducing Clutter: Ooh, Me! Me! *raises hand frantically*

  • Erika

    Oh, and regarding the pile of newspaper behind/beneath the chair under the ladder: that’s kindling for the wood stove. It lives in a nice metal basket, which you can’t quite see.

    Unfortunately, one of Brady’s hobbies is clawing the paper out of the basket, then making himself a little newspaper nest beneath the chair.

    I guess technically this is clutter, but every time I pick the paper up and put it back, he does it again. I’ve given up that fight.

  • Awesome. Truly, truly great. I LOVE this post. It’s going in my BlogHer article with as much praise as I can generate when I write my post at the last minute (because I always write my BlogHer posts at the last minute [except for this time I because I called out to you guys for help a week ahead {but I still won’t write it until the day it’s due.}])

    I soooo love all your embedded parentheses.

    Okay, one thing. You’re actually wrong about my little wooden drawer cabinet, which I love. Those drawers (mostly) have specific supplies in them: markers, highlighters, paper clips, binder clips, staples, batteries, rubber stamps & ink, etc. Yes, there’s some extra miscellaneous stuff, but not much. Mostly the crap is very visible — and you pinpointed it.

    That tall wooden file cabinet is full. I just need to clean it out. There are art supplies in the top drawer that I will probably never ever use. I should donate them to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse so a classroom teacher can use them. And I need to empty out old files.

    My stuff also falls into the two categories you mentioned: “things which don’t have a home,” and “things which have a home, but I have to do something with them first.”

    I need a better “to do” system. I have numerous “to do” lists. I could (and do) spend all day consolidating the lists and never getting any of the actual work done.

    I LOVE the 50% rule. I’ve actually been doing it with clothes, books, CDs, etc. In fact, I really believe I’ve been getting rid of more than I’ve been collecting. It’s really the paper that’s the challenge. And bicycle supplies. I haven’t had a place for them since I got my bike last year.

    I love your tiny little cabin. What a challenge it must be to live in such a tiny space. (The rug is fabulous.) Thank you for posting the picture!

    Okay, now honestly, should I buy that book or will it just be one more thing?

    :-)

  • Erika

    You’re so welcome! And alright, I shall grant an exception for the wee little cabinet.

    “It’s All Too Much” is a seriously great book. I bought a copy and keep it for loaning out to people. You’re in luck, it was just returned to me a few months ago!

    Send me your address and I’ll be happy to mail it to you!

  • Yeah, my desk/office look like Beth’s, only worse. I just requested that book from the library. Maybe it will help…

  • Melsa

    Oh how I yearn. I’m living with my inlaws right now. Saving up money for a down payment rather than renting. In the meantime though, everything I have for a home of my own is kept in two smallish rooms. One of which is my bedroom. I want to declutter but every time I start I think but what if I need this!? Oh well, unpacking in a new home will be a good way to toss anything that doesn’t fit/ isn’t needed.

    P.S. I love that there’s a cat on the couch in both pictures. I’m looking forward to having cats again too in that day over the rainbow… :P

  • Erika

    “What If I Need It” has a whole sub-section in the book! I don’t suffer from this too badly. I was able to get past it by giving myself permission to re-buy it, if it turns out that I do need it in the future.

    Which, hand to god, has not happened ONCE in the last four years. Food for thought.

    Peter’s specific advice for “What If I Need It” basically boils down to: this means that you’re thinking in the future tense. Can’t blame you for that. But in the mean time, you’re living in the present tense, and that shit is in your way.

  • Steven

    This is brilliant – the one in/one out rule in particular. We currently use the Piles Of Crap Organizing System ™ which has serious drawbacks. This is a better idea.

  • Katharine

    Is there something in the air or what?! I just finished packing a huge load of stuff into the car tonight for a trip to the charity store tomorrow. I still have a long way to go before I am happy with the level/amount of things in my house. I have a spouse that is a sedimentary geologist and that is how things tend to get filed and stored. ACK! I have one rule for myself, if I buy a new piece of clothing, then one piece has to come out of my closet and into the thrift box. This has really worked for me.
    Thanks Erika, excellent post! :)

  • My favorite organizing motto is “You can’t organize clutter!” I say that to myself whenever I’m having a hard time tidying up. I take a hard look at what it is I’m trying to ‘organize’ and become strongly suspicious that it may, in fact, be ‘clutter’.

    This motto has served me very well.

  • The cat has changed position. That counts in the “something has been done” category… ;)

  • I love this post! As a person who is living with her boyfriend in a tiny apartment, I can totally relate. (We both came with an entire set of furniture – and it is a 1 bedroom apartment). Fortunately we were able to pawn off the extra bed and table on some reluctantly willing relatives to store until we were ready for them, but we still have 2 entertainment centres, 3 tvs, 2 couches, 2 rocking chairs, 2 desks, 2 computers, 4 bookshelves, 3 dressers, our kitchen table, 4 chairs, a deep freeze, and your other basic home appliances shoved into a tiny apartment. Luckily we managed to wedge it all onto walls, so there is still walking room but our current problem is that while in the winter, we can take the front wheel off our our (2) bicycles and shove them in a closet with a blanket over it (to keep the clothes from getting greasy), they are currently sitting in the middle of the living room with nowhere to go.

    Hm. We could definitely benefit from the 50% rule… except, my BF refuses to throw anything out. I finally managed to convince him to throw out old clothes he hasn’t worn in over a year – but he insists that while its cluttered now, it will save money in the next place we move to. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I hope to hell that I can afford to buy something that isn’t quite so… cheap, for when we get a 2 bedroom place… :)

  • This post … physically pains me. Get rid of 50% of books and DVDs? :O:O:O I spend my life *collecting* and cherishing those books, and watching those DVDs. Well ok, I don’t spend my life watching the DVDs, but I do watch them all a lot.

    I kind of gave up on the organising thing because they invariably break/fall over/disappear. Everything ends up on the floor anyway despite my best efforts, so I might as well save myself the boredom of tidying it away in the first place.

  • meg mcg

    wonderful post!

    For about 5 months my husband, and infant and I stayed in my inlaws 400 sq foot studio and my son had a room upstairs. It was great! We put more stuff into storage rather than taking it out! Now we live in a 1000 sq foot house with about 800 feet of living space. We do have an attic that has way too much stuff but its not terrible. I am not clutter-free by any means but I do have some successes.

    My song I chant when I clean is ‘its ok to throw away’. And I had a rule when I moved, if it cost less than $25 to replace I could get rid of it.

    The best thing I did for this move was to take an Ikea armoire that had our computer in it and put video game stuff,, art supplies and kids toys in it and stick it in the living room in lieu of a bookcase, a storage cabinet and basket. Everything is accessible and out of sight at the same time.

    Your storage shelf Erika would make me crazy. My eyes can’t proceess that stimulation, I would need everything either in pretty boxes or behind doors. I would probably hunt down an armoire or buy those particle board cube things from tagret and fit them under the stairs. Did you ask for advice? lol!

    Now I am a crappy filer and only get to it once in a great while and I’m not good about going through my mail. Thats a mark against me. And I have a hard time getting rid of books but I’m getting better.

    I used to have a lot of bottles of STUFF, cleaning supplies, shampoos, makeup etc..Now I can’t get a new thing till one is all used up. That has helped a lot!

    One last thing. I store my yarn in a $60 glass ikea curio cabinet thingy. If I were you Erika, I’d keep my yarn in something like that at the foot of my stairs and use the plastic bins for stuff from the shelf that couldn’t fit under the stairs. Pretty stuff is visible, not pretty stuff is hidden.

    Its hard to live in small spaces, for sure, but it’s also fun to be so squirrelly!

  • I’m pretty good about bring one home, let one go – in everything but books and yarn and guess what’s taking over my house? The best I can do at this point is use the library as much as possible and knit from my stash. (Although the latter? hahahahaha.)

  • I think I need that book… piles are growing around all the edges of my office, and I’m beginning to feel like a crazy hoarding lady.

  • The WHY: because I moved the contents of my 3BR home into my parents’ 3BR home during the last days of my Mother’s illness, and it’s a combination of my clutter and the inherited clutter (with sentimental value attached along with huge doses of guilt).

    The HOW? Good question! (I have the same book, BTW…)

  • kellys

    Love this type of post, Erika. I was thinking we need to start whittling away at stuff so it’s not crazy when we move next year.
    Just a note–Noticed teh same green mug on the table. Obviously, an in-use object:)

  • […] One of the most helpful came from Erika Barcott who wrote a whole post in response on her blog Redshirt Knitting and recommended the book, It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less […]