By Susan Caplan McCarthy
I’m recovering from surgery I had last week to remove part of my thyroid which had nodules too large to biopsy (just had the follow-up appointment and there were no signs of cancer). This was my second surgery this year (in March I had a hysterectomy). Before this year, the only surgery I’d ever had was to remove my wisdom teeth in 1982.
I spent the first three months of 2018 going to multiple doctor appointments; having multiple ultrasounds, much bloodwork, and an MRI before having surgery that confirmed I did not have ovarian cancer.
Throw in five or six colds and this has been a draining year. I wasn’t surprised in October when I was told that I should have part of the thyroid removed … I’d had multiple doctors during the year look at my neck and say, “Huh, I can see that standing over here. What’s your doctor doing about that?” And now, it’s out.
So, did I meet all my personal or professional goals for the year? No way. I’m disappointed by some of the failures, most of which involved distractions that I inadvertently turned into priorities.
My Resolution for 2019
I’ve been intrigued by bullet journaling for a while but each time I dip into learning how to keep this to-do list/planner/journal system, I’ve ended up overwhelmed by the terminology and the variety. I’m spending some time between now and the end of the year figuring out how to get started for 2019.
Some of the things I find appealing about bullet journaling are the daily reflection on goals, the habit trackers, and the open-ended quality of the system. There’s no need to fit my life into someone else’s idea of a planner and I can create what will work for me. (I find the open-endedness both appealing and intimidating; weird, huh?)
I realize that creating and using a bullet journal will encompass other goals and keep them on track, so to keep myself focused on what I want to accomplish, I’m thinking that my goal for 2019 will be to keep a bullet journal.
Do you keep a bullet journal? I’d love to hear your tips or learn about your favorite blogs or vlogs.
A Year of Decluttering
I hope that you’ve enjoy the free program, A Year of Decluttering. Although you’ll continue to receive the daily emails with the task of the day until the end of the year, you can now download the entire year as a pdf book. I’ve included a couple of checklists to help you track your way through the program, if you want to do it again or if you joined late in the year.
You can track yourself day-by-day or by themed groups of items. And, of course, now that you can see the entire year, you can go at the pace that works for you.
I’ve had a few questions about what I’ll be doing in 2019. I’ll start a new Year of Decluttering, just not as a daily program which took MUCH more work than I envisioned. Each month will have a theme (self-care, paper, digital, small spaces) that will be the focus of weekly articles and may include a checklist to help you stay focused on the tasks during the week.
Other weekly articles will focus on goal-setting, habits, motivation, creativity, and productivity – skills that help you understand why you want to declutter and keep you motivated because you can see life beyond the stuff in your closet.
Create Space for Your Life
I’ve been a teacher for over twenty-five years, mostly in non-conventional settings. Teaching works with one of my strengths, a love of learning, which usually looks like this – read tons of books and articles, take copious notes, winnow it down into a class, and teach that class.
The first course I’ve created for A Less Cluttered Life is a self-directed program called Clear Your Clutter and Create Space for Your Life. I’m pleased with this program because it doesn’t just talk about eliminating stuff around your home but focuses on helping you to clarify your goals.
While talking to people throughout this year, I found that individuals express overwhelm, embarrassment, and confusion when they talk about the clutter in their home. I realized that telling people to box up the stuff they haven’t used in six months, regardless of what it was, was going to add to their stress.
So, this program is about you. Your goals for your life. Your vision for your home. Your schedule and priorities. Your stuff and the things that you use every day. Your family and the others who live with you creating solutions that keep the clutter at bay.
Will you end up with a home that’s empty but for a few pieces of furniture? Only if that’s your vision for your home (and everyone else in the house is up for living in a minimalist space). My hope for you is that this program helps you clarify what’s most important to keep and allows to release the things you know won’t benefit your life.
To learn more, about Clear Your Clutter and Create Space for Your Life, click here. Curious if you’re clear on your reasons for decluttering? Download this free 12-page workbook.
I have a few more programs in the works that focus on goal-setting and keeping as well as being productive as opposed to merely busy. I’ll be releasing them throughout the winter.
When I was trying to think of a name for my business and website, I adopted A Less Cluttered Life because I saw that it could come to encompass not just stuff but schedules as well. I think that living a simpler, less cluttered life doesn’t involve eliminating goals and dreams along with physical stuff but decluttering the things, thoughts, habits, and activities that don’t help us do the things that make our life personally meaningful.
I think that when we create space in our life for what has purpose and meaning, instead of what merely keeps us busy, we can better help others, as I hope to continue to help you on your journey to declutter what isn’t essential.
Don’t forget to download your two free item – the pdf book of A Year of Decluttering and the 12-page workbook on clarifying your reasons for decluttering. Happy New Year!
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Several years back, I opened an Etsy store. As a yarn crafter, deciding to market my projects meant that I COULD BUY AS MUCH YARN AS I WANTED! I hadn’t heard of minimalism and I was still of the mindset that as long as I kept things organized I could have as much yarn as I wanted. Because, you know, it was a business expense.
I had boxes and bins of yarn that fit into a spare closet. The boxes didn’t even take up all the space in the closet, so, it wasn’t that much.
A few times, I’d go online and order one skein of yarn in EVERY color of a particular yarn. I still get giddy thinking of that. It’s embarrassing to admit, but, damn, it was fun to open a box and see all those colors.
I made dozens of different items. Four different style fashion scarves. Crocheted necklaces and bracelets. Coasters. Washcloths. Coffee cup sleeves. Little round makeup remover cloths. Zippered pouches. Phone covers. Tablet covers. Hats, fingerless gloves, winter scarves. I opened a second Etsy shop to sell crocheted cat toys – balls, mice, pretty things to tease your cat with, fish, twisty spirals, and other catnip-stuffed items. I’m probably forgetting some things.
I lined part of a wall in the second bedroom that acted as my office with 18 and 30 qt. plastic storage bins that were well-labeled with the specific category of items in each bin. Like I said, I was organized. I wasn’t paying attention to all the stock I’d created. I’d taken to heart the advice I’d read about keeping my shop well-stocked.
Along with the Etsy shops, I rented space in three different gift shops and spent weekends at craft fairs. After a few years, I burnt out. Other things demanded my attention. I pulled out of the rental spaces and the craft fairs. I closed the Etsy shop with the cat toys. And, then, I closed my main shop. I gave away the items that were left.
For a few years, I tortured everyone I knew with gifts of crocheted food and animals. I made a hundred hats, donated them to charity, and started working on a new batch.
And, then, this summer, I thought of re-opening the shop.
But, this time, I didn’t want to go crazy.
I decided to stick with beanie-style hats crocheted with two strands of multicolor yarn held together. I go all relaxed and meditative with this pattern, so there’s a bonus for me. To keep things simple, I created a list of rules to follow.
When I wrote a series of four articles about decluttering, organizing, storing, and then maintaining art and craft supplies … and then still had enough to say for a small book, I was coming from a place where I knew what a lot of art and craft supplies shoved into a room looked like.
I reopened the shop, Wee Cat Creations, a couple of weeks ago so I can be all smug about following my rules so far. However, I know that I’m coming at running a craft business from a different angle than before. Simpler doesn’t equal boring. More doesn’t equal better. Organized doesn’t equal useful. Right now, I’ll go for less equals more.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
When I started cleaning out my parents’ house, several years ago, I knew it would be a lot of work. They were hoarders who couldn’t get rid of anything that was potentially useful … even if they never used those things.
So, although I knew they had a lot of stuff, I had no clue as to exactly what they had. When I went up into the attic, I was flabbergasted by the number of sets of dishes I found. I found bags filled with blankets, bedspreads, sheets, curtains, and towels, many which I could never remember us using. I realized that my parents had allowed their home to become a repository of other people’s stuff.
Every time a relative moved, my parents received all this “useful” stuff. Perhaps the relatives decided that since my father was one of those frugal New Englanders, those pink blankets, curtains, and towels would be useful. (I have no clue whom the ‘pink’ relative was but these items didn’t exactly coordinate with the 1970s color palette of the house.)
I also found three tea sets, numerous sets of flatware, enough glassware to stock a bar (my father drank beer from a can; my mother didn’t drink), numerous serving platters, and ten or so sets of dishes. Oh, and there were tchotchkes galore. Were any of these things more special that the others? I had no clue.
One afternoon, I returned to my apartment and started chatting with a neighbor about the dishes and knickknacks, I said that I didn’t know what to do with it all.
She suggested that I wrap up everything and move the boxes to my storage space in the apartment’s basement until the day when I had my own house.
That comment snapped me out of my doubt about what to do with all my parents’ stuff.
Yes, transferring boxes of stuff from my parents’ house to my home would save me from making decisions. But, I’d found items wrapped in 40-year-old newspaper. My parents had obviously moved the items into their house and never looked at the stuff again. If my parents felt any of these items were important, I couldn’t tell.
If I boxed up these items to take to my own home, I would subjugate the items to another forty years in a box. Leaving it to whomever had to clear out my estate to wonder if this stuff was important to me. I decided to break the cycle.
I wish my mother had heard of Swedish Death Cleaning, but her idea of organizing was to put things in boxes until walls were lined with boxes … and then complain about the small house.
The experience of decluttering my parents’ house led to a personal decision. Except for holiday decorations, I refuse to put anything in a storage box. If I have it, it is on display or it’s stored in a dresser, cabinet, or closet, ready for use. I constantly revaluate the things that I own and know that useful doesn’t mean used.
I realized that I had to make the decisions my parents hadn’t been able to make with the piles of stuff stored in their home. It took four 20-yard Dumpsters, a yard sale, and countless trips to the local donation center to make those decisions.
Have you been able to get rid of items that you felt obligated to hold onto? Please share your story in the comment section.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
When I started A Year of Decluttering on January 1, 2018, my thought was that I could help others declutter their homes by breaking the project into small, daily tasks. By encouraging participants to limit their action to 15-minutes, I figured this would create a game-like, doable challenge.
In some cases, I’d already done a task. (Years ago, I’d uploaded my CDs to my computer and then sold or donated the physical disks.) In other cases, I knew I could give another look at a category of stuff that I’d sorted through a while ago. In some cases, I was abashed to realize I’d been ignoring items that I kept moving around my home.
Challenges with Decluttering
While I like simplicity, my husband is fond of stuff. An example, when we got a new 8’x8’ shed, he decorated it with numerous signs and four flag poles. Only the back wall of the shed is unadorned (because it backs up to trees).
We have numerous tchotchkes throughout the house. He started me on both a squirrel and dragon collection. There are shelving units in the living room where I can count my belongings on a single hand (with fingers left over); the rest is his stuff.
As someone who enjoys empty spaces, it is frustrating to see stuff everywhere. It’s also a reminder that not everyone wants to declutter and that questions such as, “Do you use this?” and “Do you like this?” are answered with, “It’s mine.”
However, doing and writing A Year of Decluttering has made me realize that I still have a lot of my own stuff to clear.
Clearing Stuff Day-by-Day
Okay, this isn't a day-by-day accounting as no one wants to read about the minutia of 180-odd days. Here's some of the things I've worked through during the past six months.
Day 2: Smartphone Apps – Day 158: Bookmarked Pages – Day 179: Phone Contacts – Instead of scrolling through Facebook during bored moments, I’ll look to see if I still use the apps I have, and I’ll check that bookmarked pages and downloaded documents are still useful for me. It’s so easy to save stuff that has no relevance.
Day 3: Mugs – Out went 18 mugs.
Day 4: Baking Pans – Seeing the popover pan that I’d used only twice prompted me to start baking popovers once a month.
Day 10: Expired Condiments – Day 17: The Refrigerator – Day 22: The Freezer - I was appalled when my nephew pointed out that the A1 sauce had expired a couple of years ago! I replaced some condiments and realized there were other things that could get used before they expired. I’m good about using up stuff in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, so I still don’t know how I ignored looking at the contents of the refrigerator door.
Day 36: Photos You’ve Saved - I moved three photo albums of vacation photos from my bookcase to the seat of my husband’s (unused) exercise bike. For a few months(!) I kept telling myself to flip through the albums or toss them. I checked that the pictures were backed up on my computer, but the albums still sat there. And sat there. And, then, one day, I popped them in a trash bag. No regrets as I hadn’t looked at the albums for years; but, why did it take so long to get rid of them?
I recently scanned the photos from two albums of photos of my pets from back before digital cameras. Out when the prints that I never looked at after I put them in albums.
Day 42: DVDs – This task prompted me to watch seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then pass the series to a friend’s adult daughter who was also a fan.
Day 56: Excess Glassware – The nice bartender gave us a beer glass? I got a pair of etched wine glasses as a gift? Each time, a glass on the shelf had to go so everything would fit in one cabinet.
Clothing (multiple days) – I have a small wardrobe and so I wear things even if I don’t like them. However, that shirt with the overly large neckline (is it supposed to keep sliding down and revealing my shoulder?) finally had to go.
Day 112: Articles You’ve Printed from Online – I started taking online courses about organizing and productivity and I was printing the handouts as well as saving them to the computer. When I went to print the handouts on a class entitled “Going Paperless,” I realized I had to stop printing these documents.
Day 126: Garden Tools – Day 154: Damaged Garden Ornaments – Day 169: Pots from Garden Plants – As a new gardener, I was building up a collection of things I thought I should have if I was going to garden. Sigh. Owning items that I wasn’t using wasn’t helpful.
Day 134: Broken Patio, Lawn and Beach Chairs – A month after this task, I “suddenly” noticed one of those quad camp chairs sitting in its carrying case and leaning against the wall of the patio. It looked like the thing had been infested by caterpillars. Last year. Ick. Out.
Day 148: Old Mop or Broom – The worn-down broom left by the previous owners is still in my basement. And why am I keeping the sponge mop that I haven’t used for two years?
Days 174 & 175: Materials from Former Interests and Hobbies - Since I crochet when watching television, I tend to have bags of yarn surrounding the couch and half-finished projects crowding the area where I sat. I worked through my yarn, making hats that I donated to charity, until I was down to a single small bag of yarn. I got rid of the knitting needles that I was rarely using. I recycled a few coloring books (although, after my March surgery, I spent a lot of my recovery coloring, it wasn’t a habit I engaged in at any other time).
Six More Months
So, how are you doing with your daily decluttering tasks? I know, not all tasks apply to everyone, so remember that you can always return to a task that requires more time or sort through some digital clutter. If you know someone who’s complaining about their clutter, tell them about A Year of Decluttering. Yes, they can still join and it’s still free (and they can always go to past tasks if they have the time).
Also, I realize that one of the challenges with decluttering and getting organized is trying to maintain that order. I’ve written an eBook, Why You Can’t Stay Organized: 18 Tips for Decluttering and Staying Organized, that’s available at Amazon.com for only $0.99! If you are frustrated that you are fighting against the tide of clutter in your home, these habits and mindsets can help.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
I knew that I’d need to rest and recuperate after surgery*. In my mind, I thought that would mean sitting at the dining room table or on the couch with lots of time to write. I didn’t think that small tasks – wiping down the kitchen counter, reading and answering emails, folding my laundry – would leave me so tired.
Ninety-minute nap tired. Cranky-toddler tired when I’d push myself to do one more thing … thinking it would just take a minute, no big deal.
One of the things that was (is) driving me crazy was that no matter how drained I felt, a corner of my brain kept jabbering at me, reminding me of tasks I didn’t get to before my surgery or that I thought I’d have the energy to work on after the surgery.
I remembered a productivity tip that suggested writing down tasks sort of settles the brain because now it knows you’ve acknowledged the task.
How to Be Productive When Your Brain Is Spinning
1. Do a Brain Dump – Write down everything you must do. Yes, even small tasks, like making a phone call. You can also write down the fun things you want to do, like go out for coffee with a friend. Don’t be surprised if this takes you an hour to do … and then you keep adding to the list over the next few days.
If there is a deadline attached to an action, note it next to the task. Yes, this is a mega to-do list. List things you want to do around the house as well as things you need to do at work.
2. List the Steps Necessary to Do a Task – Okay, if I want to catch up on some podcasts, I’m not going to list steps like, ‘sit at computer, put on headphones, click play button…’ but I will list each individual podcast I want to listen to. If I see “catch up on podcasts” on my to-do list, I’m left with a vague sense of overwhelm because it isn’t clear how many episodes or how many hours will be involved in getting that one item off my list.
If I list the five episodes individually, when I listen to one, I can remove it from the list and feel a sense of accomplishment. If I want to meet with my boss, the first thing I need to do is schedule that meeting, which means a phone call or email is a task that needs to go on my list.
3. Break Down Actions into Turtle Steps – Author and life coach, Martha Beck, often talks about breaking tasks down into tiny turtle steps. So, when I think I’ll sit down and write for two hours and find myself stopping after two sentences, I call that a fail and get upset with my post-surgery lethargy.
Beck suggests breaking a goal in half and checking your body for any tension in connection to accomplishing the task. So, If I think I should be able to write for one hour, I feel some anxiety because I know I haven’t had much luck focusing for that length of time either. Thirty minutes? Hmmm. I decide that 20-to-30 minutes is doable.
4. Give Yourself a Treat – If you’re like me, you’ll want to expand that turtle step because it doesn’t seem as if it will allow you time to accomplish anything. However, writing for 20 minutes is more productive than me deciding that if I don’t write for two hours then I just shouldn’t bother.
To acknowledge that you’ve taken a step toward completing a task or reaching a goal, give yourself a treat. This treat could be stepping away from the computer to get a glass of water. Or, treating yourself to a bottle of sparkling water that usually seems like an unnecessary indulgence. Your treat could be rubbing your hands with hand cream, putting on a favorite song, stepping outside for two minutes, doing a few stretches, writing a gratitude list, writing a brief email to a friend, etc.
The treat isn’t extravagant, but you should give it to yourself right after you’ve completed your turtle step of a task. If you’ve completed several turtle steps to wrap up a project, you could give yourself a slightly larger reward – watch a couple episodes of a favorite television show or go out for coffee or an inexpensive meal.
So, with all this in mind, I pulled out a stack of 1-1/2”x2” Post-It Notes and wrote a single 30-minute task on each piece of paper. Okay, some tasks are an hour (those podcasts) and writing and posting a blog post contains numerous steps (that I have listed on a master checklist instead of a dozen Post-It Notes).
I’ve already felt some satisfaction after peeling a few Post-It Notes from the back pages of my planner and crumpling them into recycling.
Are you ready to be more productive? Check out some of my past articles:
*So, surgery. My apologies as this is probably too much information, but I haven’t yet figured out how to simplify all this. I’d had a pelvic ultrasound in December to locate my IUD, which had shifted. The ultrasound also located what appeared to be an ovarian cyst. This kicked off a series steps: bloodwork for ovarian cancer (negative), an MRI, a second ultrasound, three more blood tests for cancer (negative), and, finally, surgery. It turns out that I had a fibroid on the uterus that was nearly as large as the uterus and so was in front of the ovary, causing the unusual appearance. Or, at least, this is my non-medical interpretation of the situation. I went into surgery thinking I’d likely be getting an ovary removed; instead I ended up with a hysterectomy and a much longer recovery.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
In October, I strained a tendon in my foot and was told to stay off my foot, so it could heal. No problem, I thought. My husband shook his head in doubt, insisting that I never sat still. Of course, I did. Oops, I never appreciated how many times I jumped up to do small tasks.
Pneumonia in November, slowed me down. In December, I went for a physical and pointed out it was time for my IUD to be removed. She sent me to the GYN office across the hall. The IUD had shifted, so I needed to go for an ultrasound, so they could locate it … and they found a mass. Next, an MRI, a blood test for cancer (negative), another ultrasound with a doctor who insisted she knew what the mass was and that it was bad, more blood work (all negative), and an appointment with a GYN-oncologist.
And, tomorrow, laparoscopic surgery to see what the mass is attached to so to determine what needs to be removed.
So, with my brain going in five thousand directions, I thought I’d tell you some lighter things about me.
One: I fold my underwear – Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy made me do it … after reading her suggestion, I gave it a try and really liked how much space it gave me in the drawer.
Two: When I take eggs from the carton I remove them from opposite ends and always keep the eggs visually and physically balanced. I’m not normally this obsessive; I have no clue why I do this.
Three: I’m a stress cleaner. When I was told I needed surgery, I went home, emptied and washed every cabinet in my kitchen. Cleaned my bedroom. And the living room.
Four: To keep my hands busy when I’m watching television (or, sometimes when I’m sitting at the bar with my husband), I crochet hats. The pattern isn’t elaborate, but I do like mixing colors to make them look more interesting. For years, I’ve donate over a hundred hats a year to charity.
Five: I’ve been a nature teacher for over 20 years. Once, when I told someone I was a teacher-naturalist, they mistook it for the word naturist … they thought I taught people to go around nude. After that, I started calling myself a nature teacher.
Six: In the animated movie, Up, the dogs wore special collars that translated their thoughts into human speech. Several times, while making serious speeches, the dogs would suddenly turn their head and say, “squirrel!” Mac thought this was hilarious, and said, “you get distracted like that all the time.” That year for Christmas he gave several squirrel-themed gifts. Squirrels cover the top of my dresser. I call it my shrine to squirrels.
Seven: I love reading young adult fiction. My favorite is fantasy, but if someone recommends a book, I’ll add it to my to-read list.
Eight: I’ve watched every episode of The Simpsons … some, multiple times. No, I can’t recite lines from the show, my brain just doesn’t work that way.
Nine: For my fiftieth birthday, my brother and sister-in-law gave me a Cricut, a die-cutting machine. I started making birthday and holiday cards … sixty or seventy cards a year. Want me to send you a card? Email me your name and address at Susan@ALessClutteredLife.com. No catch.
Ten: In high school, I rearranged the art department’s supply closet. I was the one who organized store shelves, assorted supply rooms, a library at work, an education supply room, and another art supply room.
Eleven: My parents were hoarders (as I’ve mentioned in some articles). Having lots of books and never getting rid of anything was normal for me. I was always trying to get organized and never understood why I kept failing. In my forties, I realized I needed to get rid of things that I didn’t use or didn’t like.
So, that’s some of my quirks, some quirkier than others.
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.