Too Much Clutter, Too Little Time?

Cindy’s Weekly Wisdom

Today’s column is an answer to an email I received from my friend Jennifer:

As I look around and see stuff just overwhelming me, I am working on paring down what I own.  My question is that much of the stuff becomes clutter because I am interrupted and do not get to complete a project (or I under estimate how long it will take me to complete said project).  How are you managing not to continue to have things out of place?  I have gone through and organized things only to find 6 months or a year later that they are disorganized again.

Although Jennifer has posed this as one question, I see two problems here 1) she is interrupted while decluttering or underestimates the commitment, so the project is not completed and 2) things fall back into disorder.

Problem 1: Biting off more than you can chew

Any large-scale decluttering and organizing adventure can fall into this category. When you pull everything out of a closet, you’ve just made a commitment. Here at 365lessthings, we advocate decluttering one thing at a time, one day at time, because it’s a lot harder to get overwhelmed and in over your head that way, but I know that reality isn’t so simple. I often declutter a large amount one day, and “credit” myself for the rest of the week. In fact, in my 8 months of decluttering, I have eliminated more than 1600 things, clearly more than one item a day.

Nonetheless, if you’re feeling unsuccessful after repeated starts and stop, I recommend trying just one or two things a day. When there’s less to dig through and make decisions about, it will be easier. And go ahead and get it out of your house. Jennifer, like a lot of people, lives in the country and does a lot of errands at once when she sets out. Putting the now-decluttered items directly into the car allows them to be dropped at the thrift store while erranding and eliminates the possibility of them being reincorporated into the household mix.

Another technique for the overwhelmed is to do just one shelf, drawer, or basket at a time. If you’re working on the bathroom towels and you find things that don’t belong there, drop them in the corner, and finish the towels. Then put all other items where they belong (or where you best estimate that they should belong) and leave them there. Do not feel obligated to tidy these areas too. Remember, for this day, keep your eyes on the prize of the towels. Run out of time even to put the misplaced items away today? Fine, make that your chore for the following day.

When you’ve completed every shelf in the bathroom closet, go back through the whole thing and refine it. Now that the obviously misplaced and no longer needed items are gone, you can see what remains more clearly. Maybe you have too many towels or duplicates of useful items. The second time through is when you’ll really get the cabinet into shape.

Problem #2) Falling to disorder

The fewer things you have, the less disorder there will be. I’ve definitely seen this in my own home. In addition, the most important rule for keeping your home clutter free is to give serious consideration before you buy something new. The less you bring into the house, the easier it is to keep it from being junked up. This is Colleen’s Key #4 to successful decluttering:

Decluttering is a complete waste of time if there is as much stuff entering your house as there is going out. Limit your purchases to the things you really have put a lot of thought into, whether you will get good use out of it, or if it really suits your needs. Don’t wonder aimlessly through the stores looking for stuff you didn’t know you wanted. And try to convince your friends and family not to buy you gifts unless they are consumable in some way -  Fresh flowers, chocolates, beauty treatments and the like.

Finally, it’s important to realize that no decluttering job lasts forever. Like housekeeping and tidying, it’s an on-going process. The children grow, hobbies change, people knock things over when they reach for something else, duplicates are accidentally purchased or discovered. Maintenance is inevitable, but remember, the less you have, the easier it is.

Today’s Declutter Item

I am making headway with natural decluttering of the paper craft supplies. Slowly but surely the myriad of adhesives are starting to dwindle down to a manageable few.Adhesive refill 9FEB2011

I am grateful from anything that brings me joy. Below are five things that gave me joy today.

  • Joining the last fragment of soap to the new cake – I love to use things up completely.
  • A day out with the kids – I think we took in about 500,000 calories between the Max Brenner Chocolate  Bar and the fish and ship shop.
  • My daughters plane was on time.
  • I went for a brisk early morning walk with a friend and her dog Max.
  • That it was cool enough again today to enjoy a warm shower after my walk.

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow.

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Continue reading with these posts:

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  • Large area declutter ~ Minimal disruption This post is all about breaking down, into steps, the task of decluttering a large cluttered area of your home without causing undue disruption. I am going to use the kitchen as my example […]
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  1. I feel like I was misreading the question from Jennifer. My problem is not getting interupted while trying to declutter. My problem is not getting to finish whatever other project I have started, indeed due to under estimating time needed or something comes up and I never get back to it. Usually this happens with a craft project, since that is the only kind of project I am likely to do. Then months later, the unfinished project, or the remains of the supplies, surface and I am discouraged. Right now I also suffer from having more stuff than I have an AWAY for. It is difficult when I do manage to finish a project to find a place to put the remains. And most of the time I have to choose between doing a project or decluttering. Not a fun choice since either will weigh heavy on my mind when I have chosen the other. Should I just not have any fun things in my life until I manage to dig out and have a place for everything?

    • Rachel, You absolutely should not stop having fun until you get decluttered. Decluttering can be a long process if done slowly and carefully, and we don’t want you not to have any fun for the long. On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like even your craft projects are making you happy right now.

      You sound like you’re in the bind I was in for years: the constant slide back to disorganization and chaos. (Colleen started from a place of complete organization but way too much stuff. I started with stuff over every surface and way too much stuff.)

      My take on this is that some degree of decluttering should be your first priority. It feels awful to be surrounded by too much stuff and not enough away. You (and I) got surrounded by too much stuff a handful of items at a time, and that’s how you’ll get out too. I think you should start with a high-use area like your kitchen or dining room table. It will feel good to have one surface clean, so that you can eat without having to shove things around, or you can start a craft project on a tidy surface. Just have a box or bag ready to transfer the project into so that when you have to move on, your table goes back to being clean. You might even transfer everything on the table or counter into a laundry basket or sack so that you have a clean surface right away (quick reward) then make it your daily mission to deal with each item in the bag.

      Having too much stuff doesn’t mean that you love all that stuff, that it’s valuable to you, or that it benefits you in any way. It just means that you have too much stuff, and some of it has got to go. Good luck!

      Interesting – I just understood how you interpreted Jennifer’s comments. You’re right; I assumed that she was interrupted while decluttering, but she very well may have been interrupted while doing some other sort of project. I wonder which she meant. I’ll report back!

      • Hi Rachel,
        in addition to all that great advice from Cindy I just wanted to add one more thing. I think it could be helpful to you to set up a priority/reward system. Getting your house in order should be your priority while having a little craft session is your reward. In order to earn a little reward time where you can sit and enjoy your craft you must first spend time taking care of the priority task of decluttering one small section of your home. I am sure you will enjoy the reward time all the more because some of the weight of clutter guilt has been lifted from your shoulders. Maybe you will even find that your craft projects are getting completed as well once you start to adopt better routines in the rest of your day.
        Good luck Rachel I hope this advice helps. Please check back in soon and let us know how you are progressing.

    • Hi Rachel, Before I found this blog I was in much the same place as you, I think. The beauty of a thing-a-day is that you can still have time for a life too. In fact I’ve also read about making time for crafts by doing a little bit every day (written by the editor of a craft magazine, no less!). Now I TRY (it’s not easy to change habits) to do a bit of both decluttering and a hobby, every single day, so that I feel like I’ve had some time for me but made some progress on the clutter too. As I say, I am still working on this balance, but I feel better as I see the progress. Sometimes decluttering and cleaning are even – dare I say it? – fun? Well, rewarding, at least! Jo

      • Thanks for sharing your wisdom and encouragement Jo.

        Every year, I make a a photo calendar for the grandparents, a project which I do not enjoy, mostly because I always have to re-remember how to do it since a year has passed since the last time. This year, I vowed to add new pictures once a month, as each month passes. I hope that it will be one less thing on my plate at the end of the year and that I won’t find it so frustrating. Slow and steady wins the race!

  2. Doing things one drawer, one shelf at a time is something I picked up from Flylady a few years ago and I’m forever passing it onto people. It is less overwhelming that way if you DO get interrupted by someone coming over, an important phonecall etc.

    I’ve also taken your advice on buying less to heart and am in fact trying not to buy anything non-essential this year! Sounds very ambitious I know but I find it much easier when I stop to think of your mantras such as “do I want to clean this”, “do I already have one like it/does the same job”, “would I pack this up and move it across the sea?”

  3. Lesley, it sounds like you are doing fantastic. Good job! On my to-do list today is just one surface – my desktop, which unfortunately has become a bit of a repository for misc. items. Looks pretty cluttered right now, but I bet it won’t take 1/2 hour to bring it back to order.

  4. Jennifer, good question, and I’m with Rachel on what it in fact means to so many of us, and for so many of us! – the decluttering projects are in fact the easy bit, with all the instructions and inspiration we could ever need coming from Cindy and her blogees. My understanding is that this is about the creative and domestic projects (in fact just about any kind of project!) that we take on in everyday life – like those big jigsaws of old, they’re left out and/or around while we slowly pieced it all together, over days if not months, if ever. Jennifer and Rachel are daring to speak about the elephant in the room – or at least the ‘pending piles’ that seem to take up as much room! These are the jobs and pleasures that we start but stall on. For me, it’s about living in a world of possibilities where everything seems to have a re-use or should at least be retained (or adopted from it’s previous owner who has since abandoned it!) until such time that a use becomes apparant. Jennifer, Rachel. You are not alone with your run-out-of-time-and-ideas clutter. Hang in there, we can, in every sense, get this sorted

    • Hi Jane,
      I don’t recall receiving a comment from you before so I must say welcome to 365lessthings. It is good to add your voice to the group and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
      I am a doer myself, always with some sort of project on the go. It only take a visitor in the house for a couple of days to throw me out of balance and put me behind. I have had trouble just getting to answer the blog comments this week. This is why I have learned over the last thirteen months not to adopt things from their previous owner who has since abandoned them! They would get just as neglected here as they did there and better that they should be rescued by someone with the time to give them the attention they deserves. I only look out for the possibilities that I know I can fit into my schedule these days and ignore the rest. Taking on more than I can chew especially when it comes to stuff is a sure fire recipe to send me back to where I was thirteen months ago. That jigsaw you mentioned can be a never ending task if we are to keep adding pieces to it.

  5. I love your reminder that maintenance is an important part of the process to keep from getting into the mess all over again. Cindy, you and Colleen help keep me motivated!

  6. You are so right that decluttering requires constant maintenance. Maintenance of what’s already there (Second Law of Thermodynamics) and maintenance of what comes in to the house.
    I like Colleen’s 5 minimissions. I also make my own list of what I know needs to be done and check them off my little list.
    Rachel, if you have a lot of stuff to declutter, then an occasional marathon will inspire you as long as you remind yourself that marathons aren’t run everyday. Do your marathon decultter one day and then take some walks and do some sprints until your decluttering muscles recover.

  7. Any other Harry Potter fans out there? Mad Eye Moody is always reminding wizards “Constant Vigilance!” That’s what we need in our fight again clutter, too.

  8. I emailed Jennifer to see what she really did mean in her question, and Rachel was right. Here’s what she said: “I actually did mean stuff that gets left out because I get interrupted (or under estimated time) not because I am in the middle of decluttering. Trying to declutter all at once is too overwhelming and I am trying to focus on just one thing.”

    Bummer! I hate it that I got it wrong, but what a great moment of learning. I can see that the topic of getting out a project and then having it become clutter is a problem that needs to be addressed.

  9. One thing I am learning is that I have too many things on my list of things to do so that interruptions make me fall behind. So I have started a new way of working on things. I prioritize everything just like I did when I was working on big projects at work. I give them “weight” based on when they need to be done, their importance, and how long it will take to do them. I know that decluttering, while very important to me, is a long term, medium weight item. That means I know that if I only get one item or one small area decluttered a day I’m doing well.

    I’m also learning to put a weight to interruptions. I ask myself what kinds of things interrupt me and how important are they. I’ve learned to tell people who call that I can’t talk because I am in the middle of something very important. I have learned to ignore the email coming in. I’ve learned to tell my mother, who lives with me, that I can’t help her right now (or listen to her ramble) because I am in the middle of something important. Once you have decided a “weight” for your typical interruption it is amazing how you are able to decrease the amount and duration of interruptions.

    I also like the idea of not letting myself get off track while decluttering (or cleaning) because I find something out of place. I have trained myself to not leave a room until I am done with it by designating a holding area where I place items that don’t belong in that room. I put them in that area (or basket) and carry it from room to room. I don’t take the item to the room where it belongs until I actually go into that room to clean/declutter. It means that the basket has a everchanging amount of Stuff as I go along. Works great for me.

    I make cards and scrapbook. It is very easy to have a mess when you can’t finish a project in the time you have alloted for it each day. I have a clear scrapbook container that I put things in when I have to leave it for a time. With it being clear I can see what is in it and it stays neatly together. I always put it where I will notice it so that it doesn’t get forgotten. By having it all together, I can work on it when I have little bits of time if needed.

    Finally, I am learning to keep things decluttered over time by using the “everything has a place and put everything back in it’s place” rule. It has taken a long time for me to get to this place along with a lot of expirimenting to find the right places to put things and things to keep them in. But it is very much worth the time it took. As life changes I have found, like Colleen, that my storage containers can be reused for other things. I have some containers that have been used in the kitchen, shed, office, and bedroom. I will admit that there have been a few things that I eventually passed on to others, but I never felt they werew a waste of money. I get long use out of most things like that before I pass them along.

    • Wow Deb J, that was a great blog post all unto itself. So much useful information. Thanks for sharing. -Cindy

    • Hi Deb J,
      there was a lot of helpful advice there so I have pasted that comment in to the favour five for Friday so no-one misses it. Well done!

  10. Dear Jennifer, I used to live in a very, very cluttered house (not my choice) and I know it can be a quite overwhelming task to bring it to order. Can I suggest that, along with tackling one small area at a time, confining yourself to one room at at time helps too. If you can make one little oasis of sanity for yourself and try very hard to keep clutter out of there, you will find the rest of the task easier. Another thing that helped me with all the “i’m going to fix it up/sell it/sew it/whatever” piles I had, was to realise that *I* didn’t need to be the one to do them – that it was OK to let half-finished stuff leave my life and enter someone else’s via eBay, freecycle or the op-shops. Take a hard look at those half finished projects – are they really “you” anymore? Most of mine were not, and the relief I felt whan I moved them on was enormous.

    • Wise advise about letting half finished things go, Calico Ginger. Something you own may need to be repaired, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be repaired by you.

      I like to do needlework and tried cross sticth for the first time a couple years ago. I hated it! Fortunately, my work was tidy, and I was able to sell my partially completed project on Ebay, which really surprised my husband.

    • Hi Calico giner,
      that was good advice, thank you for sharing.

  11. Thanks for all of the support and suggestions. I live in a small apartment with every surface covered with *supplies,* books and papers (not, thank God, newspapers.) I just spent Sunday and part of Monday making over 60 valentines. I needed to buy the base papers, but had stickers, rubber stamps, envelopes, etc that I had had for as long as 20 years that I was able to make a dent in using up. I think it was this blog where I got the suggestion to put the materials onto a tray to move them aside and be able to use the table for dining. I am most excited that the project is FINISHED. And there has been a net reduction in supplies. It was fun. About once every 15 years I get myself organized enough to send valentines to all of my family and friends. But the unfinished projects still far outweigh the finished. I want this completion feeling more often. Thanks for the reminder that it needs to be one day and one step at a time.

  12. As a former art teacher, your left over bits from craft projects are often welcomed at school.