After working as a professional organizer for more than 20 years, I thought I'd seen it all, until I had the opportunity to work on the season premiere of Hoarding: Buried Alive for TLC. I met a woman whose life had spun so out of control that she filled two homes on the block to the point that she had to crawl through the bedroom window to sleep at night. Since she couldn't stand up inside the house, she had to change clothes out in the driveway of her suburban Chicago home. It was a sad example of a life shut down, never picking up the pieces—literally. Life seemed normal on the outside—Mary was well put together, sweet, kind and gentle—but on the inside chaos ensued.
Though many of us would never escalate to such a grand level of accumulation, it was, nonetheless, a clear picture of a common aspect of American culture: We love to collect and over-collect. We pile possession upon possession to the point of overwhelming complication. We hang on to stuff as if excess and accumulation can isolate us from the problems of our lives. We hold on to so much stuff, in fact, that storage facilities are the fastest growing sector in commercial property over the past three decades.
Of course, most of us don't become hoarders, but what causes us to over-collect and complicate our lives to the point that we feel out of control? Why do we hang on to so much that we are overwhelmed by material possessions? We shouldn't associate accumulation with success. Barry Schwartz, in "Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness" talks about how happiness doesn't rise in lockstep with wealth. In fact, he says, it begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. After all, you can't take it with you, so why not lighten the load and enjoy people and experiences rather than things.
If you desire a simpler life—one that's more focused on enjoying people and experiences rather than the accumulation of stuff—it's not as unattainable as you might imagine. The work required is all within your reach. It's a matter of paring down what you have and how much you do. So where do you start?
Paring down your life
The most important first step to simplifying is the purging process. As a professional organizer, my job is to coach and guide clients through the painstaking process of what to keep and what to eliminate. An important part is asking trigger questions to help you make decisions about your stuff. How often do you use it? When was the last time you wore it? If you were moving, would you pack it up and bring it along? Mary, from the Hoarding episode, with her sweet, giving personality, was so tied to the possibility, though infinitesimal in chance, that she might need that particular paintbrush, or the green caulk, that she was unable to let go of anything.
Complicating the issue even more is sentimental attachment. Working with Mary, I learned that a devastating divorce caused her to hold on to fond memories of past Christmas memories. There were more than 300 boxes in addition to countless bags filled with decorations, old and new. She couldn't pass up the urge to purchase Christmas decor, and many items were still in the bag with receipts, never having been displayed. She still felt the need to hold on.
It's okay to hold on to some things for sentimental reasons, but make sure to set boundaries on what you can realistically keep, and what you have room for. Remember, if you keep too much, you can't find what's truly important. Maybe keeping a piece of furniture is too much, so holding on to a digital image and writing a story about it might be a good compromise. After all, when you're gone, do you think your kids will also hold on to it? Probably not.
We tend to get overwhelmed and complicate the process when looking at the big picture. So how do we pare down and simplify from where we are right now? It may be easier than you think. Here are a few suggestions to get you started in the direction:
1. Let go
To stay organized, you must have an outflow system. If you bring something in to your home or office, you need to eliminate something else; otherwise clutter will pile up. For every item you bring in, get rid of two.
2. Say no
You may always be adding to your to-do list, but what can you subtract? You can't keep piling things up without eliminating others. Be choosy about how you are going to spend your time and energy.
3. Use your calendar
A 24-hour day is all anyone gets, so use your time wisely. Determine where time gets wasted and keep track of it. Schedule as much as you can on the calendar. From meetings to free time, have a plan and stick to it.
4. Don't overcommit
Giving bits of yourself to many different things will leave you feeling empty and exhausted. Look at the big picture, determine where your sweet spot is, and make commitments around that.
Don't go through your daily tasks scattered about. Have a plan. Prioritize to ensure the most important things are accomplished.
6. Use a timer
Somehow when you know you're on the clock, you view time differently. To dig into something overwhelming, set the timer for 10 minutes and dig in. You can make great progress by pacing yourself and breaking a big project into bite-size pieces.
7. Set Boundaries
Knowing your limits and sticking to them is important in anything you do. Juggling work, family, and other interests is a balancing act, and the better you get at having clear boundaries, the easier it will be to manage them all.
You may not have a personal assistant to hand things off to, but enlist the help of people around you. Work together to help lighten the load. By the way, don't forget to delegate what you can appropriately to the kids.
9. Establish Habits
Creating a few good habits to maintain order in your life will pay future dividends. Determine some simple habits that you can instill and get them to stick.
What our stuff means
Pick an item or two from the list and try to incorporate it into your life. Mary did the same and today she still holds on to more than she should, but she did come to realize that it's not always about the stuff; it's sometimes about the meaning behind the stuff. Do some searching and see what the root is of what you're holding on to. It may be the key to a more simplified and more meaningful life.
Monica Friel is president and founder of Chaos to Order since 1990. Monica manages and trains a staff of professional organizers who specialize in everything from household clutter to corporate chaos. Get daily organizing tips by following Chaos to Order on Facebook, Twitter @chaostoorder, and Pinterest.