“Have you seen the …?”
“How do you ever find anything?”
“Why do you keep all this?”
“You need a system!”
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve had similar things said to you, or said them to yourself. Effective personal organisation is part of being a “grown-up” and yet so often we revert to being the teenager with the messy bedroom…
You know, life is complicated. We’re surrounded by “stuff”. Stuff we’ve bought, stuff we’ve been given, stuff we’ve been sent, stuff we wear, stuff we use, stuff we love and stuff that’s just “stuff”. More stuff arrives daily on our doormat or in our inbox; every week or month we buy more stuff and every year people give us more stuff for our birthday and Christmas.
In the UK we have a reality-type TV show called “The Hoarder Next Door”. You’ve probably seen similar: serial collectors who have completely lost control of their stuff. Their homes are piled high, their kitchens and bathrooms are unusable and their lives are a misery for them and the people around them.
“That’s not me!” I hear you say, “I could never get like that.” Maybe not, but the plight of these people (who undoubtedly suffer from a very real mental illness) shows what can happen if things get too far out of control. Allow the cupboard to go un-tidied for too long, let the pile of papers on your desk get too high or push too many letters and bills in the drawer and sooner or later you’re afflicted with the curse of I Need It But I Don’t Know Where It Is.
Of course, you might be some sort of tidy-Ninja with all your ducks permanently in a row. If so, this area of Self-Improvement isn’t for you. But for the rest of us, here are seven simple secrets to sorting your stuff and some techniques to help with each:
1) Stop buying stuff
Most of us have some sort of weakness when it comes to buying stuff. For some it’s dresses or handbags. For others it’s kitchen equipment or CDs/DVDs. We might dress it up as our “hobby” and so allow ourselves to buy any amount of fishing equipment, knitting needles, running shoes or guitars. In my case, I tend to buy too much technology: laptops, tablets, phone, smartwatch. I have a thing about gadgets. They are my stuff.
Kept under reasonable control and regularly culled, a collection of this stuff is fine. Indeed, I would encourage anyone serious about Self-Improvement to develop new hobbies and interests. But there comes a point where enough is enough. My mum says, “You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time.” The more you think about that, the more profound and potentially life-changing it becomes!
The space in your home is finite. Stuff takes up space. Figure it out: stop buying stuff!
2) Find your stuff
You can’t organise your belongings unless you know about everything you own. You probably think you have a good idea of what you have, but are you sure you’ve remembered everything in every cupboard or drawer? What about the closet under the stairs? The bedside cabinet? How about the garage? And when was the last time you went into the loft or cellar?
If you’re really brave, you could empty the contents of every single storage space into one place in your house and then look through it all at once. But that’s an extreme solution! More likely, you can make a list of every hiding place in and around your home, and then go through them one by one. This “eating an elephant” (bit-by-bit) approach is one I recommend for many aspects of Self-Improvement. Breaking down larger tasks into smaller, bite-size chunks is a great way to boost your productivity in many areas of life and work. But one way or another: find your stuff!
3) Assess your stuff
Whether you’ve just emptied the entire contents of your life into an enormous pile on the lounge floor or whether you’re just working on the contents of your first cupboard or drawer, you need to assess your stuff. There is a simple decision for each item: keep it or get rid of it. But to decide between retaining or disposing of something, you need criteria ,and this is where you can come unstuck…
Some decisions are easy. Toothbrush? Keep it. Empty biscuit packet? Throw it. But others can be more complicated. Do we use it? Do we like it? Will we need it again? Is it “important”? Does it have sentimental value? Questions like these will leave you staring at your pile of stuff for hours. So here are some ideas to get you moving:
- How many times have I used (worn, looked at) this in the last 12 months? It doesn’t matter how expensive that coat was: if you’re not going to wear it then it has no value to you. Even if that ornament belonged to your deceased grandmother, if it’s not to your taste and you’re not going to display it, then let someone else enjoy it. Grandma would agree.
- If you didn’t own this item, what would you pay to buy it and keep it right now? Being realistic about the perceived value of your stuff can help you decide if something is worth taking up space. We place value on our stuff using a range of different (and often illogical) criteria. Quantifying this value in cash terms can help clarify the decision.
- If I throw this away, could I buy it again if I needed it? Keeping stuff just because it might come in handy in the future is seldom a good idea unless the item is rare, expensive or irreplaceable. If by throwing away twenty items today you have to buy one of them again in two years’ time, consider it as two year’s rent for all the space you created in both your home and your mind.
Once you’ve divided your stuff between ‘keeps’ and ‘throws’ you will need to decide where each item goes next (don’t leave it in two piles on the lounge floor.) Some of your keeps will have a natural home (don’t put your toothbrush in the garage) but for the rest you still have some choices to make, so assess your stuff and let’s move forward…
4) Get rid of stuff
Hopefully you’ve made a large pile of stuff to dispose of. Now it’s time to decide whether to Sell, Give Away or Throw Away. Again, some decisions are easy: you can’t sell that empty biscuit wrapper on eBay. But some items will take more thought:
- Sell – newspaper and shop ads, junk sales, auction houses, collectors’ shops and auction websites like eBay are all good ways of raising some welcome cash from your pre-loved stuff. But make sure the effort is worth it: if it takes you seven hours at a car boot sale (that’s probably only a UK thing) to earn enough to buy lunch, it’s pointless. Your time has more value than your stuff, because you can never get it back once it’s gone.
- Give Away – relatives, friends, work colleagues, charity shops and homeless people on the street might all appreciate a donation of your stuff, provided it’s what they need or want. But well-meaning givers can cause problems: when people started to replace their old CRT televisions with flat panels, our church built up a collection of around fifteen TVs that it had no use for! Donors thought they were being generous, but all the TVs needed taking to the waste disposal site, costing the church volunteers time and expense. Remember: if there’s a reason why you don’t want something, that reason might well apply to others, too.
- Throw Away – this is often the safest option. If anyone berates you for binning something of value, offer it to give it to them instead. (They will rarely accept, and if they do, it’s a Win-Win.) You may need to pay to have larger items removed but it’s money well spent.
Disposing of things you no longer want or need can be wonderfully cleansing and refreshing. It provides more uncluttered space in your home, your mind and your life (just be careful what you fill it with next!) So don’t delay: just get rid of stuff!
5) File stuff
When you need something, some items are easy to find (I never have any trouble with the fridge.) But others are more tricky, either because they are small (guitar pick) or because you have lots of them to look through (recipes, DVDs). Having highly-organised filing systems might seem obsessive to some, but they work wonders when it comes to saving time.
What is the purpose of a filing system? To put things in order, right? Wrong! The purpose of a filing system is retrieval. Filing things that cannot be found later is pointless. Your best filing system is one that enables you to find things quickly. It doesn’t matter if you sort things in date order, colours, alphabetical, numbers or whatever – as long you can retrieve them efficiently. Don’t let anyone else dictate your system: choose the one that makes the most sense to you. But one way or another: file stuff!
6) Scan & save stuff
What do you do with all your old bills, receipts, invoices, payslips, instruction manuals, insurance policies, certificates and bank statements? I used to have a four-drawer filing cabinet and multiple box files, but now most of my documents are on my hard drive (and backed up on the internet.) This saves a good amount of physical space and I can access anything I need in seconds. Documents I want to keep are scanned into Evernote. I also forward important emails to my Evernote email address or just type notes and ideas straight into Evernote.
Its search facilities are superb, so (although you can) it’s not necessary to set up multiple notebooks and tags. I just dump everything into one notebook and use full descriptive titles such as:
- letter from United Utilities about water charges refund July 2015
- credit card statement Nat West Visa February 2014
- invoice from Joe Bloggs for replacement windows at 34 Bond Street November 2013
The small extra amount of time it takes to type longer descriptions makes searches bullet-proof: I now have over 1000 items stored in Evernote and I can always easily retrieve what I need.
My Evernote files are saved to my Dropbox, so they are securely backed up and I can access them from my PC, phone, iPad or any internet connection anywhere in the world. There are other ways to do it, but for me Evernote and Dropbox combine to make the ultimate file-and-retrieve system. However you choose to do it: scan and save stuff!
7) Keep control of your stuff
Once you have control of your stuff, don’t lose it again…if you’ve tidied out one cupboard, make sure you keep it tidy while you’re tidying out the next one. Periodically scan your storage spaces for stuff that has crept its way in under the radar. Items that were “important” last year or last month may not be so any more and perhaps you can create even more space. As you become better at de-cluttering, you will find a second look at your stuff yields a new batch of items to throw away. As part of your Self-Improvement, strive to be more and more ruthless and surround yourself only with stuff you find useful, valuable and meaningful. Don’t let your stuff control you: keep control of your stuff!
The benefits of getting in control of your stuff go far beyond just feeling cleaner and more organised or creating a better impression for your visitors. David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done methodology, points out that un-filed and un-processed documents and objects around us hold onto a piece of us that is not released until we deal with them. Taking control is critical if you want to clear your mind-space. Having a clearer mind-space paves the way to increased productivity and creativity which are key to successful Self-Improvement.
Like many areas of life, sorting out your stuff is simple in principle but not always easy in practice. So take a systematic approach, eat your elephant one piece at a time and be prepared for emotions to emerge as you work through the task. It may take several passes through your belongings to get things fully under control, but it will always be well worth your effort.
What are your experiences with sorting out your “Stuff”? Are you a Hoarder or a Thrower? What tips do you have for keeping a tidy home and a tidy mind? Please get in touch, or add your comments below!
To our continued Self-Improvement and success!
The Self Improvement Guy