by Susan Caplan McCarthy
I’d like you to look at decluttering and organizing a bit differently.
Grab a pen and paper (or sit with a blank word processing document) and list what it means to be organized.
Now, review your list. Is it filled with end results – clear kitchen counters, an organized closet, neat desk, toys put away?
But, what does an organized person do to keep things neat and clutter-free?
If you’re thinking, well, they cleared the kitchen counter and filed the papers on their desk, you’re getting warmer.
What specific actions cleared the kitchen counter? They
Notice that all these how-to tasks need to be repeated. Every time the blender gets used it will need to be put away. The dishtowel needs to be hung each time it’s used. It’s this maintenance, the habit of keeping stuff organized, that’s more difficult and more important than the initial decluttering.
This is nowhere near as exciting as, say, posting before and after pictures of your kitchen or garage on social media.
However, cleaning out the coat closet won’t make a lasting difference if you don’t hang up your coat.
So, what does it mean to be organized? It means that you can maintain the order you’ve created without a lot of fuss or effort. It means that you know why it’s important to hang up your coat so that you don’t argue with yourself or give yourself an excuse to skip this habit. (“You’ve had another tough day and it doesn’t matter if you toss your jacket over the back of this chair again.”)
So, You Want to Become Organized
Look at the list I asked you to write. You’ve noted actions that an organized person would take.
Select one small action that you want to do daily (sort the mail, hang up your coat, remove the receipts and spare change that gathers in your purse). Decide when you’ll do this (either a specific time – 7:30 p.m. – or after a task that you already do daily – you walk in the house and take off your coat).
You’ll have to remind yourself to do this for a few days and then you can add another small action (ideally one that flows with this series of actions - after hanging your coat, you immediately sort the mail into recycling or an inbox).
Instead of focusing on setting goals that last for a moment (an organized closet, a clear dining room table), consider that habits support your larger decluttering and organizing efforts and its these actions that will help you to become an organized person.
Coming in July 2019 – the free 7-day e-course Distraction-free Decluttering. Sign up for emails to be the first to receive this e-course.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Decluttering is a challenge. No matter whether you declutter for 15 minutes a day or once a month for eight hours, it is a task that’s more than physical – it’s also mental and emotional. Do I use this? Do I want this? Do I even like this? How often do I use this? Where should I store it?
All these decisions are draining.
But there is that moment when you walk into the house and you see the clear counters and tabletops. You feel a glow of accomplishment. More important, you feel that after all your hard work, life will be different from now on.
A few months later you have guests coming over and you “suddenly” see the clutter that has crept back. You’ve noticed a few things weren’t getting put away and you’ve bought some stuff that you thought would help with your personal goals. It didn’t seem like a big deal. Until now. You grab a trash bag and dash around your home, tossing in everything from the magazines that arrived in last week’s mail to your spouse’s shoes which were kicked under the coffee table. You shove the bag into a closet, to deal with “later.”
Throughout this frantic process of hiding your new clutter, you criticize yourself for thinking you could ever be anything but disorganized.
Is It Possible to Stay Organized?
Decluttering is a challenge. A bigger challenge is staying organized.
I struggle with this myself, personally and professionally. When I see that a space that I helped a client clear is once again cluttered I wonder, Did we keep things that could have been decluttered? Are they buying things without following the one in/one out rule? Did they not connect to the reason why they wanted to declutter and so aren’t really motivated to stay organized?
Why aren’t they maintaining their hard-won order?
I realize that I’ve been wrong about decluttering.
Changing How You See Yourself
I was reading James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits and encountered the line, “The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.” (the italics are mine)
I kept mulling over this idea in relation to organizing. What if it wasn’t about clearing the dining room table but about becoming the type of person who wouldn’t think of leaving stuff piled up on the dining table?
I realized that I had to stop thinking of goals - clearing that dining room table - and instead focus on helping create an organized mindset. And, with an organized mindset, it may be easier to make all those decision about your stuff while decluttering.
Focusing on becoming organized isn’t a “fake it ‘til you make it” or “act as if” technique. You can’t think, “I’m an organized person” while stepping over a pile of dirty laundry and believe the statement.
Organized isn’t a finish line to cross. You won’t hang up your jacket and think, “well, there it is, I’m organized” because the next time you wear your jacket, you’ll have to make the decision to hang it up (or not) and then actually hang it (or not). Acting they way an organized person would act helps make you an organized person.
Becoming Organized with A Less Cluttered Life
While I still feel that I can help by teaching you about decluttering and organizing, I realize that helping someone reach a goal that changes their life and home for a moment isn’t as satisfying an idea as helping people leave behind their identity of being scattered and struggling to creating a new identity as an organized person.
What does that look like for A Less Cluttered Life? Fewer articles about how to declutter and more about the habits that will make you an organized person (although most of July’s articles on decluttering small spaces are already written and scheduled, so not much change for them).
I’ll be tweaking the outline of the e-course I was getting ready to make videos for so there is an emphasis on becoming an organized person instead of doing decluttering. In my organizing work with clients, I’ll spend more time helping them figure out systems that will make it easier to become and stay organized.
Ironically, while I’m very good at organizing materials, time management and planning tasks are not among my organizing strengths. Becoming organized (as opposed to simply organizing) is a journey that I’ll be taking as well.
Do you know someone who is tired of yo-yo decluttering? Help them take a step toward becoming organized by forwarding this email to them.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
It can be all too easy to treat our vehicles as storage for things we don’t quite know what to do with. However, it isn’t fun (or safe) to have items rolling along the floor or becoming potential projectiles if we hit the brakes.
A car salesman acquaintance told me about a woman who returned to the dealer after buying a car because she couldn’t figure out some of the functions. The two of them couldn’t sit in the car at the same time because she had filled the backseat and passenger seat with so much stuff that it couldn’t be easily moved – within two days of spending thousands of dollars on a new vehicle!
I was flabbergasted by the story and I felt sad for this woman. She made a huge investment in a car that she wasn’t treating well from the start. If she ever got into a car accident, would irreplaceable items or papers get strewn over the road? How much time did she waste each day trying to find things? Had she ever tried (on her own or with someone’s help) to purge unnecessary items or sort items into the many specialized organizing tools made especially for cars?
Let’s face it, driving can be stressful so keeping the environment of the vehicle as calm and organized as possible can release a bit of the tension that comes when you take a turn and then hear something in the car tip over and roll into something else.
What to Keep in Your Vehicle
What items you keep in your car all the time really depends on who drives in the car, where you live, how much driving you do, and where you travel. If you do a lot of driving with kids, then keeping toys, games, and other forms of entertainment will be useful (and you’ll have something to bring into waiting rooms and restaurants).
What’s useful when driving far distances might not be necessary when your daily drives are close to home. If you’re not certain what would be useful to keep in your car, you can purchase emergency supply kits and augment them with additional items you find appropriate or assemble suggested items (like from this list on the AAA website) based on your needs.
Two or four times a year, you’ll want to check your inventory of non-perishable food, water, first aid supplies, batteries, lightweight jackets, and anything else that may have been used.
Schedule a reminder in an online calendar or on a paper calendar so you don’t have to think about checking on these supplies. Of course, you can also link this activity to decluttering your car.
Decluttering Your Car
If you won’t have enough time to declutter your entire car at one time, you can think of different areas of your car and aim to do one each day.
Your car is a small space and so the clutter can quickly make the space feel chaotic. Figure out a system that works for you – a quick declutter each week or every few months.
Please share this article on social media if you think others will benefit from an organized vehicle. Thank you!
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Me? Nope, I’m tactile and I like paper. However, I have limited the amount of paper I keep in my files. I have a single file box for personal and home reference materials and a fire-resistant box for important documents. I also have a desktop file holder for current projects because I find that I work better with a printed document than reading the words on my computer screen.
I meet a lot of people who grew up with paper and slowly transitioned to online banking and bill paying yet still print out copies of statements and bills they can get copies of online. Instead, if you want a backup, save the document to your computer, in an appropriately labeled folder (say, “2019 Electric Bills).
If you are overwhelmed by physical paper, this action can save you money on paper, ink, and the time it takes to print and file these bills and statements.
Going paperless is less about your goal of eliminating paper from your house and more about your systems for labeling files, organizing documents, scanning papers, and retrieving what you want when you need it.
Manipulating your digital information should come easy for you. For example, you
Keeping Important Papers
I remember gasping (loudly) when someone said they’d shredded their divorce decree as part of their paper decluttering efforts. I’m sure, if they need one, they can get another. However, I think that even if you go paperless, keeping important documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, the title to your car, death certificates, etc. is a wise move.
Yes, you can get a new copy if you need one, but this hassle can create delays in completing any task that requires these documents – particularly if you live in a different state than the one that issued the original.
I know there are people who want to be 100-percent paperless and even their original birth certificate is an affront to that goal. Telling you to keep these papers is my opinion so talk to your lawyer or financial advisor before shredding documents that mark major life events.
Is Going Paperless Right for You?
Although we were told that computers were going to eliminate the need for paper, that obviously hasn’t happened, and it won’t be happening anytime soon. Consider why going paperless is the best option for your life (maybe you travel a lot and want access to all your files, you move frequently, or you live in an RV or tiny home that doesn’t have space for paper storage).
You can greatly reduce your reliance on paper reference materials by going digital – just remember that even digital information needs to be organized.
So, have you gone or would you try to go paperless? Tell us in the comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Digital file folders do the same thing for your computer as physical file folders do for your home office. Folders group information together so you can retrieve it more easily when you need it. Folders can also eliminate the visual clutter of looking at a list of individual documents.
You don’t have to set up digital file folders. If a document is clearly labeled, then you can go into a search box, type in key words, and locate the information you’re looking for. And, if you’ve grown up around computers, this may be the way you naturally use to locate a document you have saved on your computer or in the cloud.
On the other hand, if you didn’t grow up around computers and instead spent years (successfully or unsuccessfully) slipping pieces of paper into manila folders, then trying to locate what you want from a screen full of random documents may cause stress.
If you are used to the action of putting paper into folders, grouping digital files into folders can eliminate visual clutter on your computer screen and help make the vast amount of information on your computer seem less overwhelming.
Creating Digital File Folders
Following is the way I’ve set up files on my computer. Is it the only way? Nope. Is it better than other methods? Probably not; but it works for me. The moral of my dithering – do what works for you (unless you are setting up files that multiple people will have access to, then you’ll also want to consider how others will go looking for the information).
Concerned that you’ll do something wrong that will cause information you want to disappear? Start with backing up your personal files to the cloud or a flash drive. If at any point you don’t know what I’m talking about, get help from a tech-savvy friend or family member.
Imagining Digital Information as Physical Objects
One: Start by imagining a file cabinet (or several). Each drawer belongs to a different topic. For example, I have a “drawer” for house-related stuff, another for family, and another for work.
Just as you don’t have hundreds of physical file cabinets in your home, you want to limit the number of digital folders you have at this level. These have a very general label (say, House).
Two: Within each “drawer”, I have my “hanging file folders.” These are big topics – say, home renovation or wedding photos. Digitally, you won’t have an icon that looks like a physical hanging file folder, it’s just an illustration of a file folder. However, if you imagine that physical file cabinet, you can envision how some information will get grouped together.
Three: Next, you move down to the manila folder-level. This is a specific topic that’s part of a more general topic.
So, if we imagined a physical file cabinet, I’d have a drawer for “Home.” Within that drawer, I might have some hanging file folders labeled with topics such as, “Renovations,” “Insurance,” “Product Manuals,” “Mortgage Payments,” etc.
Within the “Renovation” folder, I’d have manila folders labeled as, “Bathroom,” “Kitchen,” “Roof,” “Gutters,” “Electrical,” etc.
Four: Within each folder, I have the documents related to the topic. (Think of these as the pieces of paper you’d slip into your manila folder.)
How many folders is too many? If you have one piece of information in a folder, you may be more specific than you need to be. I don’t need a folder labeled, “Shower Door” to hold a copy of the receipt for that item. That document can simply sit in the “Bathroom Renovations” folder.
I like grouping information into folders because when I open a folder, I’m looking at more folders, which represent groups of information. I don’t feel inundated by individual documents. It’s not until I get more specific that I start seeing individual documents. For example, when I returned to my computer to edit this article, I clicked open five folders to get to this document:
Work > A Less Cluttered Life > Blog Posts > 2019 > June > Digital Folders (the name of the document)
I don’t mind clicking open all these folders to get to the document I want. Each time I open a folder, I’m looking at less than a dozen items. I feel like I’m moving along a path to my destination. Yes, I could go into a search box and type the name of the article and go straight to the article.
However, my meander through my digital files keeps me in touch with other areas that might need some attention. It works for me.
How do you locate the files on your computer? Do you organize files into folders or use a search box? Leave your comment below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you carry a smartphone or tablet with you, you can tuck digital decluttering into random moments of your day:
What to declutter?
Remember, you don’t have to delete digital information (in the same way you don’t have to eliminate physical possessions). If your hard drive or cloud service is full, you can always purchase additional storage, but do you want to devote more time working in order to make money that you’ll then give to a company that will allow you to store meaningless information?
You can decide to delete information when you realize that sitting at your computer or picking up your smartphone causes you to feel stressed and pulled in multiple directions. Electronic devices are tools that should work for you.
Emphasize the ease of finding and using what you want while deemphasizing digital objects that aren’t important.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering: June - Digital Decluttering
Have you ever taken a book off a shelf and found a bookmark tucked between the pages? Did you experience a moment wondering when you’d started reading the book? Or, maybe, you even wondered when, or why, you were interested enough in the topic to purchase the book (or, if you’re like me, several books).
I have the same experience when scrolling through the list of bookmarked webpages on my phone and computer. Hmmm… I apparently spent part of an afternoon looking up non-stew recipes for stew meat. And cookie recipes using pie crust. Oh, and more bookmarked pages on bullet journals, organizing books, developing habits, productivity, a sculpture art exhibit I’d like to visit this summer, a photographer who sells packages were she takes vintage-look images of her subjects, countless yarn-based crafts for a kids’ art class I’m teaching this summer, recipes for aioli, optical illusions, and a handful of pages related to websites mentioned in articles I’d read.
Obviously, when looking up a topic, I save multiple pages, apparently assuming I’ll compare my options later (sometimes, yes; oftentimes, no).
Decluttering bookmarked webpages are a low-effort/low-attention project. When you find yourself waiting – in a line, at a doctor’s office, at the mechanic, scroll through your saved bookmarked pages on your smartphone or tablet. (Go through pages on your computer while watching television or take the computer with you someplace you know you’ll be waiting for a while.)
Many bookmarks you’ll be able to delete without going to the page. For some, you’ll want to see what you saved.
In most cases, these pages reflect a momentary interest, something you figured you’d investigate later. If enough time has passed, you may realize that your interest has dwindled. Delete those casual, passing interests.
And, if you want to keep those bookmarked pages, a create a folder for each distinct topic and sort those pages. One, you’ll streamline the look of your bookmarks, creating less visual clutter. Two, labeling the folders will help you see where your current interests lay. And, three, you’ll have an easier time locating information you’re really interested in accessing.
Decluttering this saved information can be done at any time and is easy to maintain (bookmark a webpage/delete a bookmark (or two).
Why bother doing this? It reminds you that some of your interests are transient. When you’re decluttering physical items from your home, you may find things related to past (or undeveloped) interests. You may feel that you should hold onto these objects in case you decide to return to this interest.
However, reviewing bookmarked webpages reminds you that your interests change. While it can be more challenging to eliminate a physical object related to an interest, bookmarked webpages may help you see that you’ve already moved on from a previous interest.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering: June - Digital Decluttering
I hear time and again about people who have thousands of emails saved in their account. Do you really need to save every email you receive? Probably not, even when work-related.
Often, the individual insists that each email requires an action and so they can’t hit ‘delete’ until they’ve completed the action. But, at some point, the need to act is negated by the time that’s gone by. You can’t accept an invitation to a party that occurred two months ago.
However, not opening the email ignores the most basic action step – view the content so you can see what next action is required.
Productivity expert, David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, tells us that one of the most important (yet overlooked) steps to being productive is to identify the next action you need to take for a project.
What is an email really asking of you? Shop this sale? Set up a lunch date with a friend? Read this article or blogpost? Attend the meeting mentioned in the email? Pay the bill? Learning to identify the next step can reduce your stress because you are no longer dreading the nagging thought that you need to do something.
Email Action Steps
Personal Correspondence – Open emails from friends, family, your boss, coworkers. Identify the action they are asking of you and respond, even if to say, “I’m still working on [this section] of the Carver proposal,” or “Let’s meet at the coffee shop this Saturday at 10 a.m.” If the email contains the date for an event or meeting, record the day and time in your calendar and reply (if necessary) that you will attend.
Reference Materials – If an email contains information that you want to hold onto for future reference, create a folder with a specific name (“Carver Proposal” not, “Work”). Filing the information was the next action you needed to take. Don’t leave reference materials in your inbox, which suggests that you haven’t identified what you need to do with the information.
Stores – If an email is from a store and you weren’t already planning on purchasing something from the company that day, delete the email. Consider if you could unsubscribe to avoid the one or more daily emails from that business. Unsubscribing to emails doesn’t mean that you’ll never shop at that store or site again.
Spam – Delete obvious and suspected spam. Don’t click on ‘unsubscribe’ if you don’t remember engaging with this person or business (to limit the chance that you’d get a virus from the link).
Articles and Blogposts – If the email links you to an article or blogpost and you don’t have the time to read it now, learn how to create an email folder, label it “To Read” and move those emails into that folder. Then, and this is the most important step, decide when you’ll read them.
If beneficial to you, set an alarm or calendar notification to go off at the designated time you want to read the articles. If you learn a valuable tip or technique, write it down and determine when you’ll act on this next step (to try the technique). Then, delete the email linking you to that article. Set a limit as to how many emails you’ll keep in this folder. If you can read ten blogposts during the designated time, then avoid storing a backlog of twenty or thirty emails linking you to articles you’ll never manage to read.
If you have weeks, months, or even years of past blogposts sitting in your email inbox, delete them and start fresh with the newest articles that will arrive. You can always go to a website to read older articles or blogs.
And, if your interests have changed, unsubscribe from email lists.
Two Steps to a Less Demanding Inbox
ONE: Identify what the next step is (read today’s emails, watch the video, move the article into your ‘to read’ folder).
TWO: Identify when you will _____ (read your emails, watch the video included in the email, read the linked article, take that e-course, etc.).
If you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, there’s no quick and easy way to go through them (beyond hitting ‘select all’ and then ‘delete’). Set a goal number for each day and establish a start and end time for doing the task. Avoid dwelling on past emails that you feel you should have responded to. (If a response is the next action you need to take, then plan to do so.)
While it can be overwhelming to go through so many emails, remember that your reason for tackling this task is to feel calmer when you open your inbox.
What's your best tip for keeping your email inbox under control? Share in the comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - June: Digital Decluttering
Storage capacity is always expanding, so, is there any reason to declutter the invisible information stored on your computer, smartphone, (and) or tablet? Technologically speaking, no.
However, if you’ve felt uptight because you couldn’t find a document you knew was on your computer, or you regularly feel overwhelmed by the files and documents filling your screen, the endless emails, and the randomly bookmarked pages, then you can delete, or at least organize this information and make your digital world a calmer space.
In the same way you don’t have to fill every cabinet, closet, and shelf in your home with physical objects, just because you have the space, you also don’t have to store meaningless information in the cloud.
When keeping digital information, consider your reason for doing so. Are you really going to reread (or read) that eBook, make those recipes, return to those bookmarked webpages, review the handouts from that course you took three years ago?
Just as with tangible objects - Do you need this piece of digital information? Do you want it? Do you enjoy it? If you’d declutter the physical version, why would you keep similar versions in digital form? (And, I’m not talking about the papers you can shred because you know you have them backed up on your computer.)
For example, a few years ago, I noticed that I never used the crochet patterns I’d so carefully printed from the Internet, slipped into page protectors, and sorted into five(!) 2-inch binders that I stored on my bookshelves.
One evening, I slid each pattern from its page protector and popped it into the recycling bin. I kept a few of the printed patterns because I was going to make those items. A year later, most of those papers were binned, the projects unmade.
Last week, while preparing to write this series of articles about digital decluttering, I opened my “Crafting” folder, clicked on “Craft Patterns” and realized that I was hoarding hundreds of crochet patterns. Most I’d downloaded for free from online. A few I’d bought. There were several free downloaded books of patterns, each with a dozen or more patterns within its pages.
Most of the patterns reflected my good intentions – I’d never made most of the items. I’d used maybe ten-to-twenty percent of the patterns I’d collected.
I had computer space to spare, so what harm were these patterns causing? None. Still, I deleted all but two patterns. Most of the patterns I’d downloaded from big yarn companies and if I needed the pattern, I could download it again. Of the patterns I’d bought, in most cases, I could go to the designer’s website and download the pattern again simply by signing into my account. Chances are, I won’t.
Although I’d tossed nothing tangible, I felt lighter. Although I couldn’t see these patterns unless I clicked open a file, I felt relief. I no longer expected that I’d need or use all those crochet patterns.
I’m not saying that I’ll never need another crochet pattern, that I’ll never craft a gift for someone I know. But, as I’ve decluttered my possessions, I realized I couldn’t keep gifting items, particularly handmade items that someone might hesitate to toss or donate.
While friends and family had received many practical items – afghans, hats, scarves, gloves, shawls – I’d veered toward funny animal hats and crocheted food and animals. Fun for me to make, but I wanted to stop burdening the people I cared about.
Doing a digital declutter reinforced decisions I’m making in the tangible world.
So, this month, we'll clear emails and bookmarked pages, set up folders and label files so you can find them when you want them. Start now by considering what information is important to you – do you look up information that you’ve saved on your computer or do you do a new search on the internet? Leave a comment below, listing some of the information that you suspect you could delete and never miss.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.