Podcast 123: More baby steps

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This is podcast 123 and because of the July 4th holiday, it’s a rerun of one of my favorites: Baby Steps.

Today’s podcast is based on Simple Way #21 in my book. It’s about taking baby steps to advance whatever project you’re working on. When you’re procrastinating on something, this is an excellent way to get over the hump of fear or intimidation or worry about starting. Because you’re just taking one tiny step forward.

Here’s how it works: If you can’t get started on your project (or back into it after a break), chop it up into little parts that you can do one at a time. You’ll be surprised at how small those bits can be. And how effective it is to focus your attention only on the very next small task you have to do.

What’s important is getting into motion and continuing to move forward. If your progress slows or comes to a stop, make the steps even smaller until you can find a way back in. Strive to keep moving because when you stop, it’s much easier to be seduced by distractions. That danger can exist between steps too, so as you work, start thinking ahead to what the next logical task will be so you can smoothly segue into it.

Years ago, I read advice about this from SARK, an inspirational writer. She wrote that if your project is to organize your closet and you just aren’t getting to it, maybe it’s because you feel overwhelmed. If so, let your first step be simply to open the closet door and look inside. That’s all! Then you can stop and make a cup of tea. Come back to the project on another day and take the next small step.

I love this because it acknowledged that some projects are daunting, but that’s okay because you don’t have to do them all at once. In fact, you can’t. This is why you must never put projects on your to do list. Projects are not do-able. To do’s and tasks are do-able.

This is important because you might be feeling bad about how little you get done from your list, when it’s not actually your fault. The problem is that you’ve but a big project on the list instead of the very next small step that advances the project.

Write that step down on your to do list using action verbs. Instead of writing “closet organizing” you’ll write “sort through the box of shoes.” It’s specific and it’s also telling you what the physical action is.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you think of your entire project, or how much work you need to do to get done. Remember that you can only do one thing at a time. That means your project has to get done one step at a time. This is a law of physics, my friends! Don’t let it get you down.

Here’s more wisdom about that from writer Anne Lamott:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

You do need to know where you’re trying to go with your project, what the end result you want is, such as an organized closet. However, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know upfront all the parts that need to be done. You only need to know the very next step so that you can keep moving forward.

You don’t have to plan out each step in advance. Do that if you prefer to work that way, but remember that plans can change as your project evolves, so don’t be too attached to that plan. You’ll discover more information as you move forward and you’ll make new decisions based on that information, information that you just don’t have yet so it can’t be accounted for.

For a project like organizing a closet, capitalize on the natural hierarchy of steps. You won’t be able to get to the boxes at the back until you deal with the ones in front. Let the process flow naturally.

As long as you are taking baby steps with that goal in mind, you are getting closer to it.

When you narrow your focus simply to the next task you need to do, you can make progress without being distracted. Every project is a series of steps.

Right now:

Find a project you’re having trouble with and see if you can figure out one thing to do on it.

Podcast 122: Do I hate it?

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This is podcast 122 and it’s about adding a third question: do I hate it? I’ve written about Marie Kondo’s favorite question: does it spark joy? And about my version, which adds a question: Do I love it? Do I need it? Now we’ll add that third question that comes in handy in some situations.

A friend suggested this new question. She had an oversized armchair that was in excellent condition, but it took up a lot of space in the bedroom. And she didn’t like it. The reason it was in such good shape is that she never sat in it!

Still, the chair had been there for a long time. It was serving a purpose. And it had cost a lot of money. We often justify keeping something because we don’t want to accept that we might have wasted money on it. All those are reasons for it to remain where it was.

There’s also the inertia effect. The property of inertia states that matter continues in its existing state of rest unless that state is changed by an external force. It’s safe to say that inertia is why clutter can be so hard to get rid of.

It can be bracing to confess that you hate something you own. It definitely doesn’t spark the least bit of joy. It’s very different from noticing that you don’t need it. Need is rational. Hate is emotional, as is joy.

Diving into the true feeling you have about a possession is liberating. You don’t have to pretend anymore! All the pretense falls away.

People often feel trapped by their possessions. They feel as though they are the custodians of their stuff and therefore responsible for it. The moment a new thing comes into your home, it starts to develop kind of stickiness, cementing it into place among all of your other possessions.

This is the reason that I always recommend removing items from their spots before you organize and purge them. If you thumb through your clothes while they’re still on the closet hanging rod, trying to pare down, you’ll get rid of far less than if you took everything out and laid it on the bed and looked at each garment away from the closet.

In the closet your clothes have that cemented in quality, or that stickiness. Change their environment by putting them on the bed breaks that association. You can focus on each item in turn.

You’ve also changed the atmosphere in the closet because everything you put in is something you love. Now it’s not a motley collection of some loves, some hates and some indifferents. The more the closet is populated with clothes you love, the harder it is to put something in there that you hate.

My friend had an easier time embracing how much she hated the chair because she’d had to move out of the apartment for renovations. Her goal for years had been to create a more spacious feel to the bedroom but the chair’s inertia was a big obstacle.

When she moved the furniture back in, it became glaringly clear that it took up too much space. Even though it was back in the room, it had been moved. Some of that sticky spell had been broken. That was fortuitous.

The energy of her feelings about the chair motivated her to post a photo of it right away to some friends, and one responded that he’d take it within a few minutes. She decided the chair had to go and she immediately took action.

The other benefit of using the energy of a strong emotion is that it can inspire you to move forward even if you don’t know what will happen next. My friend said part of her decision was to create space, literally, for the solution to the spot-to-pile-clothes problem to appear.

Another aspect of inertia is that when something is useful, we’re reluctant to give it up no matter how many negative aspects it has without having a substitute ready. That can put you in a push and pull situation where you’re going back and forth between half heartedly seeking a better solution and grudgingly holding on to the so-so solution.

Let yourself feel! Love your things and keep them. Or hate them and get rid of them. Have enthusiasm in both directions. It helps you make decisions faster and more resolutely.

What you can do right now. Find something you own that isn’t really doing what you need it to but that you have luke warm feelings about. Try on hating or loving it and see if that stimulates you to make a decision.

Podcast 121: The pop out effect

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This is the podcast 121 and it’s about the pop out effect. The pop out effect occurs when you look at a screen of green circles and can easily identify the one red circle. It’s the only one that’s not green so visually it pops out at you. You don’t have to think about it. It’s immediate.

The effect is also seen in criminal lineups. People who identify a suspect by saying that the face just popped out at them, or they just recognize the person and they don’t know why, are more often correct than people who say they somehow narrowed down the field or compared faces to make their decision.

And of course it’s used in marketing products. The more different packaging looks from the packaging of other similar products, the more likely a potential buyer will notice it. That’s certainly the first battle in marketing, getting consumers to notice what you’re selling.

In the visual perception field this effect is generally tested using items that are different colors, different shapes, different sizes and different orientations. Kind of simple and pretty easy to distinguish visually. Apparently, the effect is not as pronounced with, say, human faces.

Still, I assert that you can use the strategy to help you keep your space tidier. Here’s the concept. You arrange a space the way you like, uncluttered, serene, useful, and ideally, beautiful. You take some time to become used to how it looks, which means maintaining it for a period of time. I like to think of it as taking a mental snapshot of what the space looks like.

Let’s take the example of your kitchen table. You have a napkin dispenser, salt and pepper shakers, maybe a centerpiece. So once you establish that look, anything else that appears on the table should pop out in your visual field as something that does not belong. I’m talking about things like a stack of mail or some random magazines or some stuff you pulled out of your pocket or purse and just stuck there.

This can be an effective way to help you tidy up. If you can train your visual mind to recognize a handful of items that do not belong on the kitchen table but often appear there, you can zero in on them visually and scoop them up. That is a more streamlined method than looking around at everything and being overwhelmed by all the clutter.

You probably already experienced the opposite of pop out effect. That’s when items in your immediate environment are not even visible to you because they have all been there for so long they become part of the background. If you can’t see something you are not likely to tidy it up. This is also why it is hard to find things when you have a lot of clutter. Each item of clutter serves as a distractor preventing you from seeing the one thing you’re looking for. A visual field with fewer distractors is easier to find stuff in.

I want to talk about what I mean when I say clutter. What I don’t mean is a home that is full of, say, dolls, pillows, photos, souvenirs and tchotchkes. Some people love that style of decorating and others find it visually cluttered. But in that case we are just talking about décor. We are talking about items that only fall into a few categories and can easily be identified by that category.

A pillow is a pillow is a pillow no matter what it looks like. You don’t need to expend fresh visual energy identifying pillow number four once you’ve seen the first three. You can see 40 more and they all get quickly slotted into the pillow category, not worthy of your mental attention.

The kind of clutter I am talking about is the kind that is quite varied in looks, purpose and provenance. It’s like Noah’s ark, one of each kind of thing under the sun! I know I said earlier that the opposite of pop out effect is fade into the background effect, but that’s not completely true. Your poor little brain is actually taking in all that visual information and trying to sort it like a giant dryer load of socks.

In order to use this concept successfully, your clutter needs to be somewhat under control. It’s hard to get any one thing to pop out of a field if there are too many distractors. You can start small, as I often recommend. Tackle your kitchen table or counter, or your coffee table, some small area that tends to collect stuff that doesn’t belong there. Set it up the way you want and take that mental snapshot.

What you can do right now: do a visual sweep of each of your clutter spots and quickly identify what doesn’t belong there. Return those items to their assigned spots. Using the pop out technique, it’s easy and stress-free to identify those items.

Podcast 120: Rewarding yourself

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This is Podcast 120 and it’s about rewarding yourself. It seems logical that having a reward to look forward to would motivate you to complete a task. You tell yourself, once I finish writing my book, I’ll take a nice vacation. Once I complete the bike marathon this summer, I’ll buy those new shoes I’ve been wanting.

Tony Robbins believes your brain gets positively conditioned by rewards. That the draw of the reward is great enough to overcome an resistance to doing a task. This is basic psychological reinforcement. To do this conditioning, you have to be consistent in giving yourself rewards, or you become like one of those neurotic rats in a maze that sometimes gets a pellet of food and sometimes gets an electric shock.

Rewards don’t always work, though. As Gretchen Rubin points out, a reward can signal that it’s time for us to take a break, permanently. Rewards you give yourself at the end of a task are the ones to watch out for.

Once you complete a project, there’s a natural period of emptiness that follows. You’re no longer putting in a few hours a day training or spending every morning working on that book. Your schedule is disrupted. It has a big hole in it. That creates a vacuum which is reinforced by the reward that often further knocks you off the productive course you were on.

This is one reason I like to have several project to work on concurrently. That allows me to procrastinate on one as long as I’m making progress on another, or work on the one that feels most inspiring to me. It also means that I’m never completely at the end. When one project is finished, the others are still in progress. That helps me avoid the vacuum.

Do kids still suffer from senioritis? This strikes during the last semester of high school and ramps up considerably once you’ve been accepted to college and your biggest exams are over. You lose motivation, big time. If students were being monitored until the last day of school by their future colleges, senioritis could be avoided. But it’s human nature to stop doing something once it’s complete, unless you’ve already lined up your next project.

So that’s another way to use rewards. Enjoy them, but have a specific project lined up to start after that.

Pay attention to what rewards work for you. They don’t have to be elaborate. They just have to make you feel, well, rewarded. I will often work for an hour on a long project and then give myself permission to stop. That’s the whole reward. I can forget about this project for the rest of the day and go on to something else. For me, it’s important to be able to let something go for awhile, even if it’s not finished and even if it doesn’t seem to be going well. Tomorrow is another day.

Do you deserve a reward? You do if you’re honest about your accomplishments. You may not intentionally be lying to yourself, but people are susceptible to feeling a sense of achievement before it’s warranted. According to Kelly McGonigal, whose book, The Willpower Instinct, I’ve quoted before, when you take note of progress you’ve made, your brain says hey, I did it, I can stop now. And then it starts focusing on the other goal it wants to achieve, which is the reward.

When study subjects who’ve made progress on a goal are asked how much progress they’ve made, they’re much more likely to reward themselves in a way that actually negates some of that progress. On the other hand, when those subjects are asked how committed they are to their goal, they easily resisted.

This brings up how you feel about your goal and what you need to do to achieve it. If you really want to climb a mountain but view the daily practice to get in shape as drudgery, you may be inclined to reward yourself more often, which can reinforce the fact that you are not enjoying yourself. It’s a tricky thing, but finding a way to connect your desire to reach the goal with what you have to do to get there probably works better than rewarding yourself.

Back to the honesty point, the kind of thing I’m talking about is feeling so good that you’ve actually written a to do list that you no longer feel compelled to do any of the tasks on it! I write quite a bit about how to give yourself small, doable to do’s and pay attention to your own behavior so you can manage your attention and energy and calibrate your to do list accordingly. Meaning, make tasks as small as you need to to actually get them done without procrastinating.

I’m kind of on the fence about rewards. What about you? Here’s what you can do right now: experiment on yourself. Pick two tasks that you don’t particularly want to do. For the first one, give yourself a reward after you do it. For the second one, simply take a break, relax or shift your attention to something else, which is much more low key and has the added benefit of helping you be more productive later. See which one works best for you.

Podcast 119: Having stuff

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This is podcast 119 and it’s about having stuff. Many of my shows are about this topic, of course. A lot of the time, I encourage you to have less and to get rid of things that you don’t need or really want anymore. Especially things that are broken or out of date  or that you haven’t used in a million years. I advocate having the items you love and need, the ones that spark joy and the ones that keep your life running smoothly without extra effort.

Back in podcast 101 I said, stop acquiring. What I meant was stop acquiring mindlessly, or aspirationally. I’ve never suggested you refrain from shopping. Shopping is fun. Just do it in a mindful way. That means avoiding shopping as an activity in itself. If you’re into the joy of the hunt, make it an observational safari, not one where you feel compelled to drag home a trophy animal.

I read James Clear’s newsletter this morning, about the Diderot Effect. The story is that French philosopher Diderot suddenly acquired a lot of money and upgraded some possessions. Then he saw that his old things looked pretty shabby in comparison and that sent him on an upward spiral to upgrade everything, whether he actually needed to or not. The effect can also occur if you buy something that has lots of go-withs, lots of accessories.

If you can afford all these things and truly want them, I don’t see a problem with this. Clear, who I admire a lot, advises avoiding temptation to buy more stuff, imposing limits on yourself and resisting buying new things. Those ideas make sense.

He has one more suggestion that I disagree with though, and that’s to let go of wanting things. To me, that’s shutting off life. Life is about discovery and expansion and the delight of the new. Sure, it’s about appreciating what is here right now as well and wanting what you already have.

But to keep yourself stagnant, stationery, in terms of having new things in your life feels stingy to me. And really not fun!

To his credit, he does also mention getting rid of things to maintain balance. “Always be curating your life to include only the things that bring you joy and happiness,” he writes. Totally agree. I put that idea at the top of the list.

Many times I’ve also talked about the joy of new stuff. The fresh energy of a new puppy, a new dress, a new car or a new plant in your garden. New things can brighten our day and open up new possibilities. Newness is sparkly and uplifting.

Don’t disparage retail therapy. It’s a real thing. It has proven psychological benefits. Buying things allows us to feel some control over our lives. Buying something beautiful makes us feel beautiful as well. Getting a new thing can mark a transition in your life too. I have a friend who gets a tattoo to mark each big life occasion, like adopting her daughter. 

Think of your possessions as a flow, as a collection in flux. The more freedom you have to acquire new things, the less stress you feel about discarding the things that no longer serve you. Because acquiring isn’t a good idea if you are never discarding.

Here’s where the tricky part comes in. If you can think of all your possessions as temporary, it’s easier to let them flow in and out of your life. Strive to be lighter about things in general. When people are asked what they’d take when fleeing their burning house, they say things like photos and pets. That’s it. They don’t say the designer end table or the coat they just bought. They don’t say the exercise bike or the Instant Pot.

It’s a delicate balance, being able to appreciate and love what you have, yet not be attached to it. Zen, baby! That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s not contradictory to love shopping and also love letting go of the old and unnecessary. In fact, this is freedom.

My aim as an organizer has always been to help my clients declutter and get organized to make their lives simpler and more fun. Simpler doesn’t mean barren or sparse, it means that your life doesn’t require so much management that you run out of time for fun.

What you can do right now: next time you buy something, especially something minor like a new toothbrush, let yourself enjoy the shiny newness of it. Get a fun color or shape. Give yourself that simple thrill of novelty. And then happily ditch the old toothbrush.

Podcast 118: What to do when you’re overwhelmed

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This is podcast 118 and it’s about what to do when you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes, “just do it,” the subject of my previous podcast, isn’t going to work. There are days when stressful situations pile up to the point where you really can’t function, or you can see that you’re operating way below normal and really not getting anything done.

Overwhelm can come from work, your personal life, the world, anywhere. Usually it’s a combination of those things. If you have several big things going on at work, you can get relief at home, where things are orderly and calm. If a relationship issue is stressing you out, diving into work can be a blessing.

Then there are those times when a challenging situation with a colleague is compounded with a cold that won’t go away, depressing headlines in the newspaper and the dog next door that prevented you from sleeping later past 5 am.

Here’s a little sidebar. I just listened to a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal about how stress can be good for you. She wrote a book about this too, called The Upside of Stress. In the talk she mentions a study that showed that the connection between higher risk of death and stress was actually a connection between higher risk of death and the belief that stress is harmful! That’s pretty trippy.

That knowledge alone can help reduce your stress. Your body responds to stress in ways that actually help you get through it rather than harming you. Here are some more ideas to deal with this kind of overwhelm.

Find a way to distract yourself. When you’re at that point where you are no longer contributing, then switch gears. Do something completely different. At the very least, get into motion.

I don’t know about you, but I used to think it was cheating to seek out distractions. Shouldn’t I just keep sitting here and powering through? Gritting my teeth and sticking with it until the thing was done? Stopping felt like giving up, failing even.

Physical activity of any kind is a great distraction from mental or emotional overwhelm. It directs some or all of your attention to your physical body, attention that is now diverted away from the stressful situation. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing, just paying attention to your breath, not breathing in any particular way, will help. That derailment is what we’re looking for.

However, the more demanding the physical activity, the better, because it will occupy more of your attention. A book or movie or TV show that really absorbs you will work too. Ones that take you completely into their world so that your completely forget about the stressful situation.

Here are some specific ideas:

  • Experience nature. Either a walk in the park or a plant or cut flowers to gaze at.
  • Meditate. Close your eyes and do a one minute body scan.
  • Reach out. Call or text someone. Ask how they are, or if they know any good jokes, rather than spending the time talking about your stress. Remember, derailment.
  • Write it out. I’m a huge fan of journaling. Putting thoughts into words and recording them forces me to make my thoughts somewhat coherent and that’s less stressful than the chaotic jumble they feel like in my mind.
  • Shift to a different task. Even if you’ve run out of steam, you may be able to knock out a less important task, and get a boost from checking something off your list.

I suggest keeping a list of overwhelm busters handy; a list on your phone or in Evernote. Or even on a Post It where you’ll see it often. It’s great to have a collection of go-to ideas to relieve stress, but it’s just as important to train yourself to recognize when you’re getting overwhelmed.

In fact, take that a step further and use all these ideas regularly, no matter how you feel. They’re all great ways to maintain your emotional and mental health, not just get it back when overwhelm overtakes you. What you can do right now: start making that list. Tailor it to yourself and your lifestyle. If you have a backyard, that can be your nature option. If you have an upbeat person in your life who’s always happy to hear from you, that person can be your reach out option.

Podcast 117: Just do it!

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This is podcast 117 and it’s called Just do it! I guess I have to mention Nike so they don’t sue me for co-opting their slogan. Here’s some weird trivia for you. That slogan was inspired by murderer Gary Gilmore’s last words before he was executed: “Let’s do it.” Maybe “inspired” isn’t quite the right word there. Anyway, strange, huh?

What I mean by that statement is similar to what I talked about in my podcast “Make decisions, then take action” in January 2017 (if you want to look it up). It’s not enough just to make a decision. If you don’t act on it, you’re still stuck. In The Two Minute Rule episode from September 2016, I talked about getting those little tasks off your list fast instead of procrastinating.

Yesterday I worked with a client on a giant pile of mail she’d put off even opening, much less sorting and processing. She was eager to get to it because the cabinet it was in was now full and a new pile was starting on top of her printer. About a third of the mail went straight to the recycle bin without needing to be opened. By the end we had a small stack to file and a smaller stack of action items. More than 80% was done away with.

I’m making an example of her because of a rebate offer we encountered in the pile. It was for $3 off a bottle of wine. She had the receipt clipped to it but hadn’t filled out the little form. She sighed and said, “I have to do this form, and then I have to get an envelope and then get a stamp.” This was why she’d put it off; it seemed like it would take a bunch of time and energy. Time and energy she predicted she’d have in the future when she saw the form again. Yes, we tend to do this! Unfortunately, we’re usually wrong!

I encouraged her to just fill out the form, stick it in the envelope and put a stamp on it. It would take about two minutes. She wrote out her address. Then she saw she needed the UPC code so she searched around her kitchen for several minutes looking for the bottle. Found it. Added the code. Examined the receipt for the purchase date; not always easy to find, and she’d forgotten by now. Then she dug up an envelope and a stamp; her last one!

I congratulated her for getting that task done, even though with the cost of the stamp she’d really only get about $2.50 back. She looked at the form and smiled but then suddenly frowned and said ‘oh, no!” Turns out the offer expired two weeks ago. So we actually just wasted about ten minutes on it.

And this, my friends, is why you should just do it.

Here are the takeaways. If she’d done it the same day she bought the wine

  • she would have had the bottle handy to get the code from
  • she wouldn’t have had to scrutinize the receipt for the date
  • it never would have gotten into her to do pile
  • she wouldn’t have wasted time over the past three months seeing that form multiple times, pondering filling it out and deciding to pass it over once again. Every time you look at a task and put it off, you create a little anxiety seed that becomes a field of anxiety weeds.
  • Finally, by doing it right away it would only have taken two minutes, or less, without all the searching and agonizing that made it take much, much longer

When you commit to doing tasks the moment they come up, you circumvent resistance. Resistance, according to author Stephen Pressfield, is the strongest force on earth. Resistance comes up when we are confronted with a task that seems hard, or time consuming, or challenging. Every moment we put it off, those negative feelings grow. You may not be entirely conscious of it, but a pile of undone to do’s gnaws at you and erodes your sense of being a productive and competent person.

Conversely, seizing on a task immediately doesn’t give you time to activate resistance. It can also forestall procrastination, the cousin of resistance. According to the Procrastination Research Group (you can look that up online), we suffer from “cognitive distortions” that make us procrastinate, meaning that we routinely misjudge tasks. We think they’ll take longer than they actually will, we believe that we’ll more motivated to do them tomorrow and we’re convinced we have to be in the mood to do them.

What you can do right now: look at your to do list, or an old one that has tasks you’ve been putting off for awhile. Pick the first one that you are capable of doing right now and just plunge in and get through it. Focus on the action of just doing it.

Podcast 116: The perils of storage space

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This is podcast 116 and it’s about the perils of storage space. Are you scared? You should be!

I came across a post on the website Becoming Minimalist, which has some great tips on downsizing for families. This post cited statistics about how much stuff people own and how much room it takes up. Here are some of them.

The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years. That’s from a story on NPR‘s All Things Considered. The story is from 2006 though. From what I’ve seen where I live here in northern California, I think home sizes may have increased even more than triple.

Most of my clients, indeed, most people I know don’t park in their garages because they’re full of stuff. I’ve had people tell me that their perfectly good, medium-sized house is so small that they need the whole garage for storage.

Despite these McMansions, 1 out of every 10 Americans rents offsite storage—this is the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. That’s from the New York Times Magazine. This statistic is now old, ten years old, and once again, I’ll bet the percentage of storage renters could be higher. Here’s why I think that:

On the Spare Foot website, which is a news site about the storage industry, I discovered a US Census Bureau graphic of how much is spent on construction of self storage. In 2015 it was about $1 billion, where it’s been hovering since 2006, and three years later it was $5.5 billion and headed straight upward. Crazy!

The United States has upward of 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. Of those who rent off-site storage, 65 percent have a garage, 47 percent have an attic, and 33 percent a basement. That info is from the Self Storage Association.

No wonder people are overwhelmed!

Do you remember that show from several years ago, Storage Wars? In the show, the contents of storage units that people had stopped paying rent on got auctioned off, sight unseen. In a lot of those cases, this means people paid good money to store things they weren’t even using and then …. they just let them go. All that money they spent, and now they have nothing.

So, I have one thing to say about renting outside storage space: don’t do it! Please! Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I will say that sometimes it’s allowable. Here are a few examples. If your home really is tiny, like a studio apartment, and you need storage for seldom used items such as camping and sports equipment, off season clothes, holiday décor and memorabilia. If you are living somewhere temporarily (maybe you had to move without much notice for a job, or got divorced) but you have concrete plans to move somewhere big enough for your stuff.

I thought I could think of another reason but I can’t. unfortunately, a lot of those temporary situations turn out to drag on and on. The hard decisions that need to be made about what’s in storage get put off and meanwhile, you’re racking up bills.

Here are things you should not be storing; inherited furniture that you don’t like well enough to have it in your own home, clothing that doesn’t fit (unless a child will grow into it soon) and that treadmill you never used. I once had a client who had many pieces of inherited furniture in her garage.

I asked her what her plans were for it and she had none. I suggested that she get rid of her current living room furniture and put these items inside the house. She looked at me with horror. Oh, no, I’d never want this stuff in my house! She said. She didn’t even like it.

Clothes that don’t fit don’t fit in your life anymore. A few boxes of clothes in storage far away probably aren’t going to inspire you to lose weight. If you do lose weight, why not treat yourself to some wonderful brand new clothes? And that treadmill? If the reason you put it in storage is that it was mostly being used to hang clothes on, it’s not faring any better in a storage unit.

The funny, and sad, part of this mania for storage is that people don’t want to be wasteful by getting rid of perfectly good stuff, yet they waste tons of money storing and not using it.

The author of the Becoming Minimalist post I mentioned at the beginning says he was initially motivated to pare down when he was cleaning out his garage on a lovely afternoon and his neighbor commented that maybe he didn’t need to have all that stuff, stuff that was taking his attention away from playing with his kid and enjoying the day.

This is the crux of it. If maintaining your stuff takes time that you’d otherwise use to have fun or do something meaningful, it’s time to reconsider.

What you can do right now: If you have a storage unit, evaluate its contents ruthlessly. Make a list of pros and cons of spending money to stash all that stuff. Consider decluttering your home to make room for what you really want to keep. Treat space as finite, meaning its contents are also finite.

Podcast 115: Interview with Gretchen Rubin

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This is podcast 115 and it’s my interview with Gretchen Rubin, author of the brand new book Outer Order, Inner Calm. The subtitle is “declutter and organize to make more room for happiness.”

I’m excited because this is the first time I’ve done an interview for the podcast and it turned out great. Gretchen was delightful to talk to. She could definitely have a second career as a professional organizer! You can find her book in my Amazon store. And here’s the interview.

Podcast 114: Organizing systems for growth

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This is Podcast 114 and it’s about organizing systems to cope with growth and change. I’m about to start an office organizing project. This small company is growing fast and they’ve increased their office space by a little more than half. And suddenly chaos is busting out all over.

In fact, they’ll probably have to move out of their current space entirely in a few more months because they’ll outgrow it. I don’t know what the new space will be like, so I’ll focus on creating strategies they can use anywhere.

Where did this chaos come from? Part of it is a common problem that most businesses face when they grow past a certain point. This is the problem of formalizing and codifying.

When a company is small, especially if it’s just one person, procedures and methods happen organically and are easily learned by everyone. Mistakes or gaps in information are caught and corrected quickly. Filing systems can be fairly eccentric when only a few people need to use them.

At a certain point in a company’s growth, that simplicity becomes a complication. New people don’t understand the filing system and there are no written guidelines to help them. Work starts piling up because new people need to be trained to do things that previously everyone just seemed to know how to do. That training takes time that hasn’t been budgeted for and during the growth phase, people aren’t likely to have spare time.

In this particular office, many of the cabinets are empty, yet things are piled on desks and tables. No one knows where to put them or who to ask about it. The office manager is now managing a space and population more than twice the size of the previous one so her capacity is maxed out.

It seems like a simple thing, right? Just figure out a spot to put the copier paper and tell everyone. But there are a lot of variables here. Is there any logical space near the copier? If so, is there room in there? If there’s not, can something be moved to make room?

If it’s a cabinet, with doors, how do new people know where the paper is when they can’t easily see it? Is it easy to access? That last question is really important. If something is difficult to put away, people are inclined not to do it.

There’s also the company culture question of whether it’s okay to have things out and visible or they should be put away. This is another issue that gets worse when populations grow. A handful of people creating a few stacks here and there may not bother anyone, but the more people and things and procedures there are, well, the clutter can grow exponentially.

That means decisions and policies have to be set up for how a space is organized and maintained. Ideally, there’s buy in from all those involved. Again, making it as easy to maintain as possible while still achieving the desired uncluttered look is what you aim for.

Responsibility also needs to be assigned for maintaining this look. If you ask everyone to do something, no one will. They’ll all assume someone else will do it. It will probably fall to the office manager to do the maintenance, or to direct specific other people to do it.

In this case, the facilities manager is emphasizing that employees only keep what they truly need and love to have around, but strive to minimize. This office, like many these days, is open plan. That means that everyone sees everyone else’s stuff, all the time. If you have a cubicle you can get away with more clutter since you’re the main one who sees it, but not when you’re sitting in the open.

Whether people realize it or not, visual clutter is distracting and stressful. Almost every time I do a decluttering session with a client, she looks around in wonder and breathes a sigh of relief. She feels calmer. All the stuff we decluttered had become background noise. she saw it but didn’t really see it, so it was hard for her to grasp how much pleasanter the space would be without it.

Ideally, we’ll be able to come up with a clutter level policy that everyone is happy with, so they’re more likely to comply. Just like organizing in a family or a couple, there will be negotiating to do on either side.

The parallel situation for people at home is any big change: new baby, kids going to college, new career, new house, etc. Such changes often throw your organizing systems into chaos. Maybe it’s time for some formalizing or codifying in your home. A simple example is the family chore chart, which lists chores and assigns them to specific people at specific times.

What you can do right now: think about comparing your home to a company that’s growing. Are there places where it would be helpful to have a system to do things, so they stay more in control and create less work for you?