Many of us have a dark secret: Our lives are a mess.
Maybe it’s the spare bedroom we close off when company comes.
Maybe it’s the utility closet too crammed to be utilitarian. Maybe it’s the stacks of papers we regularly move from kitchen table to counter and back again.
Clutter doesn’t necessarily make us slobs, but it can make us crazy.
“We live very cluttered lives,” says Sharon Lewis, a family life specialist with the Ohio State University Extension Service, who works in Akron, Ohio.
Part of the blame lies with our materialistic society, she says, and part with our busy schedules.
Most of us can’t control clutter because we treat the symptoms instead of the cause. All the tidying in the world won’t keep the clutter from coming back unless we do some preventive work: take stock of what we have, get rid of what we don’t need and create a system for storing things.
“What clutter is,” says Nancy Hudson, another Ohio State extension agent who teaches clutter clinics for the organizationally impaired, “is not having a place for everything and not having everything in its place.”
Maxine Roten has a place for all her papers. It just happens to be her kitchen and dining room tables.
A secretary in a high school guidance office, Roten has a problem common to many of us: too many stacks.
“I know where everything’s at,” she insists, “…but if anybody messes with the stacks, it’s chaos.”
When company comes, she boxes everything and moves it to the bedroom of her Copley, Ohio home.
“So I have boxes that have been there since last year,” she says with a laugh.
Roten has good intentions. She plans to sort through everything eventually but says she’s reluctant to throw anything away in the meantime, because “you never know when you’ll need something.”
To home organization experts, those are fighting words.
“You never know” is one of the most frequent excuses Peggy Jones hears for the stuff people keep.
“It’s all good intentions; that’s all it is,” says Jones, half of the wisecracking “Slob Sisters,” a kind of Betty Crocker-goes-vaudeville act from Vancouver, Wash.
Along with her sister, Pam Young, Jones writes books and appears on talk shows to mix humor with home-organization advice - advice dispensed by a couple of people who’ve been there.
Jones and Young have a strict system for accomplishing that. They allow only one hour at a time for working on it, which ought to eliminate a lot of excuses.
The system works like this:
Get three boxes, such as produce cartons, and lots of trash bags. Label one box “Give away or sell,” one box “Put away,” and the other “Store.”
The trash bags are self-explanatory.
Set a timer for one hour, make sure your answering machine is on so you won’t stop to answer the phone, and play some lively music or a book on tape on a personal stereo with headphones.
Have some masking tape and a pen handy. (We’ll get to that later.)
Work on just one room at a time - “Pick the room you’re scared of the most,” Jones advises - and, starting at a given point such as the doorway, work clockwise around the room, from the ceiling down.
Then go through everything, sorting items that don’t belong in the room into the boxes and trash bags. When you come to a drwer, don’t pick through it; dump it, then decide what you want to put back in.
Here’s where the masking tape comes in: Put a price on anything you intend to sell BEFORE it goes into the “Giveaway or sell” box.
“If you’re going to sell it, the idea is not to make money; it’s to get it out of your house,” Jones says.
When the timer rings, stop working and put away the items in the boxes. One hour of sorting should generate about 10 minutes’ worth of put-away work, Jones says.
One of the hardest parts of the sort-and-toss stage is the tossing - especially items we think we’ll need someday.
But the reality is, we probably never will. And if we do, we can ususally borrow it.
“If you haven’t used it in two years, it needs to be gone,” says Hudson.
You can keep a list of favorites books or useful journal articles in you computer; if you want to read them again, borrow them.
Old papers, bills and canceled checks don’t need to be kept for more than seven years “unless there’s a really good reason other than ‘I’m afraid,” Lewis says.
If you’re having trouble deciding on an item, Jones advises holding it in your hand and asking yourself, “What does this mean to me?” Chances are, not much.
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