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Less is more: cleaning up clutter and seeking the remedy for my gluttony

January 6th, 2005 · 2 Comments

links and thoughts on organization and the new year

During the holidays I baked a ham and I became a hamster. How else can I explain this constant cycle of cleaning clutter? I feel like a rodent on a wheel, running nowhere despite valiant efforts and hours of life spent sorting possessions, only to discover more to sort scattered across the living room carpet…

Through the past two weeks, I have examined every closet in the house and tried to tidy as I could. The timing of these episodes of battle with the bulge of belongings, comes now in part due to accomodating Christmas acquisitions, in part due to new energy in the new year, and in part due to my personality which vacillates between white glove and warehouse in the organizational management section of my soul. At the moment we seem to be in a season of spring cleaning in many areas of our lives, despite the January date on the calendar.

So I am asking for suggestions. Anyone have ideas or experience with organizing, especially at this stage of life? Please read below, where I will outline my current attempts and thoughts, and share advice in the comments!

Here are the locations where battles are being waged, even at this hour…

Children’s paperwork, creations and toys

I confess that I have been reading books with various craft ideas, and often vetoing the project after determining that we do not have a proper way to store such a creation. My kids love to cut and color paper. For a while, we have tried storing creations in an “art box” and then sorting through its contents once a month, keeping a few but placing favorites in an art binder and the rest in the trash. Now though my kids are too prolific for a one-month art sort to be a manageable project. This past week we decided to try placing new art in a small accordion folder, to be sorted weekly. I’d appreciate hearing ideas on storing artwork, as well as games, puzzles, and sets (legos, playmobils etc).

After an afternoon of frustrating “tidy time” upstairs last week, I decided to go through the girls playroom (our spare bedroom) and put away some of the toys. Actually I asked each one of them to choose ten toys to keep, while the rest will be donated or rotated. We are trying to teach our kids to maintain some order in their bedroom and playroom. It will help them later in life to learn it now. However, if picking up the toys takes too much time and energy, then perhaps there are too many toys to tidy.

Carolyn at Guilt-Free Homeschooling explained the relationship between sorting toys and solving algebra.

Do you realize that the mental skill used in sorting army men from building blocks is the same mental skill used in sorting variables in algebra problems? […]
When a child can recognize and organize a playroom floor full of toys, he is honing the same skill he will use years later in recognizing and organizing an equation full of x’s, y’s, and xy’s.

She also shared some suggestions for organizing toys, including pictures for kids who can’t read yet.

My kids love to create and I want to let them play. I often examine myself and my motivations. I want to let my kids be kids. I want to have proper expectations for them. I want them to have fun and play. But I also need a certain amount of order for our sanity and to keep the household in motion.

My own papers and other miscellaneous desk clutter

Desk clutter is another area where sanity is required. Last fall I misplaced a bill and paid for it, literally! But I can probably solve this one by applying more of David Allen’s principles from Getting Things Done which I read in 2003. Jeff Sandquist, among others, is a great GTD believer, and started the New Year by linking to helpful posts. I do have an Inbox on my desk but it is not used as it should be. Right now I have a pile of thank you notes in process that don’t fit anywhere else. I also have two stacks of books, one for homeschooling and one for leisure reading. But I plan to eliminate both of these soon. I’ve noticed though, just as I’ve moved the books to read them, how the visual impact of tall stacks of stuff in my side view, affects me.

Liz Lawley has signed up for FlyLady and her example has encouraged me to remember what I learned from the list. I tried it for a while but ended up unsubscribing last fall after feeling that the way to “FLY” required too many changes to my lifestyle, too many emails (IN CAPS!), and suggestions that at times seemed irrelevant (does anyone care whether doors have a little dust?). But I do still scrub my sink each night, and I incorporated many of the cleaning suggestions into my routines. (Note: reviewing my post on FlyLady has inspired me though!)

Letting go is hard work said Scheherazade who is inspiring me with her cleaning. Eliminating items is a FlyLady principle too. First the girls spaces were trimmed and now mine will be the next target. By the way, for any locals, we have many fine used baby products to share (0 – 12 months): email me at harrowme AT yahoo.com if interested! Boxes are collecting in the closets, packed with toys, books and clothes to donate.

But I think there’s a balance too. Perhaps giving into the chaos here and there , as Jenny resolved, is better than expending energy fighting it and the kids constantly. I do like to workout but my hamster legs are gettting tired. I need wisdom to know which battles are worth the war. I want to build relationships with my kids, not break them. I want everyone to feel at home in our home.

Halley Suitt’s concept of going home comforted me:

My idea of home is about something simple, clean, cozy, relaxed. If it’s so perfect you can’t put your feet up or fart — forget it. If it’s so messy, it’s chaotic, that’s not good either. I do a lot of tidying up and tossing out.

With a kid, there are always so many little GI Joe army boots and stray Lego pieces and motorcycles who’ve lost their action figure riders and art projects lying around, it’s a tough row to hoe to keep things tidy.

And the clutter wars will always be with us.

Any tips for keeping home home while keeping clutter to a minimum?

Keeping up with email and blogs

The other area I am struggling to manage is how to spend my precious hours of on-line time. I find that David Allen’s 2-minute rule does not eliminate many email messages for me. I either want to reply with some thought and care to a commenter or friend, or I need to read the email digest thoroughly in order to have time to explore all the links and goodies within it. I’m often behind on email. Each night I find I must choose between writing posts or writing emails; I often don’t have time to do both.

Like Susan Mernit and her red shoes, I am often dancing my way through my aggregator when another batch of posts hits the jukebox button again. It’s perpetual motion. Like Richard and Roland, I would like to have a goal and reduce my subscribed blogs down to a certain number. At least below the FeedDemon warning. Yet every time I go to delete a feed from my aggregator, I have a hard time saying goodbye.

I confess I have had a thought like this one too [post found via Doc Searls]. I did unsubscribe to someone, figuring that if this blogger posted something I should read, I’d hear about it from others. Soon after I removed his feed from my aggregator, however, Ted told me that I should be reading his blog, citing new posts that would interest me. Hmmm…experiment soon disproved….

And there’s no substitute for getting the news straight from the horses mouth, to use the expression (apologies to those who think it may apply to them ;-)).

While many people may follow popular bloggers and post about them, there’s often a bit of telephone game going on. I appreciated William Golding’s description of communication between reader and writer: there are twenty modes of change filter and translation between us. Relying on other bloggers to act as filters or relay interesting information works some times but doesn’t work other times. To eliminate all posts linking to popular bloggers would certainly result in faster reading through the aggregator, but would also eliminate the conversations. Some bloggers do post a simple link. But many times commentary and critique are added. I don’t think most bloggers or popular bloggers want to play a boomerang game, with their own words coming back to them on the wind. They want to dialogue and debate. They want to participate in conversations, in the rich way posting provides. Choosing not to read popular bloggers is not a solution for me for many reasons.

And so I justify keeping my most favorite dozens of dozens of feeds… so I can read every word and drink every delicious drop of dialogue…

Yet I do need to use my aggregator in a different way. Or get another aggregator. It’s not efficient enough and doesn’t fit my lifestyle now. (Suggestions for any of the above issues?)

I wonder whether I suffer from digital obesity and need to lose some weight. Scott Rosenberg linked to the BBC article describing how Britain has become a nation of information hoarders with a ferocious appetite for data and also Rajat Paharia:

I’m finding that the “digital photo effect” is starting to make its way into my music and video experiences as well. What’s the DPE? My ability to produce and acquire has far outstripped my ability to consume. Produce from my own digital camera. Acquire from friends, family, Flickr, etc. This has a couple of ramifications:

1. I feel behind all the time.
2. Because there is so much to consume, I don’t enjoy each individual photo as much as I did when they were physical prints. I click through fast.
3. Because of 1 and 2, sometimes I don’t even bother.

Scott Rosenberg summarized the digital overabundance (if not obesity) Finding time to absorb it all? There’s our rub.


Time itself is a resource to manage. One might believe that a mom who is not employed would have plenty of time to accomplish whatever she wished. Or so I did.

However, I’m finding that life with three young kids means living with less, and I don’t mean finances. Going from A to B requires extra calculations, it’s not as simple as slipping on a pair of shoes and coat while dashing out the door. It can take more time to prepare the children to leave the house for a trip in the van (fulfilling the necessary pre-boarding requirements of bathroom visit, coat, shoes, hats, mittens…) than the amount of time needed to drive or complete the necessary errand. I am realizing that I have to give myself at least 15 to 20 minutes to get ready to go out the door, since there are four of us. We are an eight-legged beast with four neural-processing-centers. We go slow. If I have to be somewhere on time, such as Abigail’s ballet, I have to plan well in advance, blocking out the schedule to prepare for our departure: it is stressful. I am starting to accept the amount of time it takes to be timely and tidy. And I am even starting to accept that sometimes I make mistakes: we might be late or the kids might be wearing bits of breakfast that I missed.

So Ilona’s perspective encouraged me:

Of course I was pregnant and nursing during many of those years. And I now know that if you are in that portion of your life…. all the extras that are expected from you are unfair. In this lopsided silly culture of ours.

yes, I did say silly. I think I mean that, too. I just haven’t fully thought it out.


What I meant to comment upon was the forever tyranny of the time management theories. Those were death for me. And yet the world runs on schedules and you will never be the good mom you are required to be without lots of those schedules lording it over you.

I was happier when I gave those clucking disapprovals of society to the wind. When I and my children were a little more barefoot and a little more mud-pie busy …. and lots less presentable.

Susan Kitchens drew my attention to 43 Folders, a blog that distributes practical implementations and commentary on David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Ted has linked to this blog and I do look at it from time to time but I need to read it more. I read GTD about a year ago and it worked for me for a while. But then, I confess, I got a little lazy. Emotional issues overwhelmed my time. And I’ve found I need to make some adaptations for my lifestyle. I suspect too that, as with any book or method, as time passed, I forgot some of the details and suggestions. The 43 Folders post Susan highlighted reminded me to make projects and commitments small and manageable.
By the way, I’d love to see GTD for the Homeschooling/Unschooling family! Susan also linked to Mark Taw who shared a helpful list of ways to get things done, including separating work from life. Although I believe in integration and flow between homeschooling and life, perhaps setting time limits for intense work on “school” would help me – and the girls – rest more. Taking intentional time to take a break could be better.

And I think that’s true for blogging too. And all areas of my life. I have to accept limits and constraints.

Less is more

Listening to IT Conversations mp3 of Barry Schwartz’s talk at PopTech Less is More confirmed these feelings. We can’t have it all, and worse yet the desire to have it all and the illusion that we can is one of the principal sources of torture of modern affluent free and autonomous thinkers. After describing how a profusion of choices produced a kind of paralysis in one study, and listing many decisions Americans must make, from shopping for salad dressings (175 varieties) to college studies, marriage and religion, this Swarthmore psychologist then said

what really…really…makes people happy is close relations to other people…(relationships) constrain, they don’t liberate. Your choice is limited by the fact you care about other people and other people care about you.

He expanded this thought to include an economic application

…in the modern world…anything that constrains choice is itself a benefit…

From what Scott Rosenberg wrote, it would seem that less is more because we can absorb it better. Less is more because we can enjoy it better, said Rajat Paharia. And Barry Schwartz would add that less is more because we feel overwhelmed by an abundance of choices.

Amidst the muck and clutter of the closets, I’ve felt overwhelmed and frustrated by this stage of life I’ve chosen. On an exasperating day, it’s easy to go down the trail of woe-is-me-the-mommy. After all, if I had made different decisions in life, if I wasn’t homeschooling three kids, I might have less clutter, and more time. I’m reaping what I’ve sown, in a sense. For if I had taken another path, I certainly wouldn’t have a playroom strewn with plastic pieces, stacks of books and workbooks teaching gravity by falling off the closet shelves, or drawers overstuffed with drawings…

But I’m glad I made the choices I made. It’s easy to see a loss of choice as a loss to be mourned. Barry Schwartz’s talk inspired me to see my limits as benefits. Life is complex and simple at the same time.

The Redhead pondered complexities: I thought life would grow more complicated as I grew older, but really the complexities have simply shifted.

I’ve been sensing life’s complexities, even in the little things. Lying across my desk at the moment I am typing this post are my keys, a broken toy turtle, a DHL missed delivery form, eyedrops for my contact lenses, a shopping list my daughter wrote for her craft projects, drawings from my four year old, a pile of unsent thank you notes and envelopes, a pile of photos to be framed and filed, Christmas ornaments to be boxed, Ted’s flight information for Friday, coupons to file, a small pile of paint samples, and two stacks of books, including one featuring two kids defiantly Hopping on Pop….

My work tonight seems clear. And complicated. I haven’t mentioned the folders filled with bills and the thickness of my “in progress” file (yes, that one needs to be split out into others, as well as my bulging “homeschool” one – ).

But all the complexities in my home and life can shift into simplicity when I remember my goal:


Halley wrote

Emotionally home has a climate as well. You should be loved at home. You should be hugged at home. You should be able to laugh and let your belly hang out at home.

It’s not the items in my life or even the time in my life which should be important to me. This I know intuitively, emotionally and spiritually. Barry Schwartz’s talk confirmed from a scientific perspective that relationships matter most. Some of what I have is necessary. I need to be able to pay bills, cook meals and dress my family in clean clothes.

Asking myself questions

But I am beginning to wonder what I do need. I’m asking myself questions. Is digital gluttony perhaps a better word than obesity? Why am I accumulating so much stuff in my life, whether documents or digital files or dress patterns? How many papers from my kids should I keep? How many feeds should I read? What do I need? Why am I doing what I am doing? I want to enjoy life. But I also need limits in order to enjoy it.

How can I help the people in my life to know they are loved? To have and to hold, as I vowed to Ted. To hug and laugh, as Michaela reminds me.

If, as Halley said, the clutter wars will always be with us, then how do we live in peace despite the wars? Where does the compromise come?

When do I say enough is enough with stuff, both tangible and virtual? When do I learn to let go? When do I decide that I shouldn’t even try to get it done?

Katherine decided she didn’t want to clone herself after all.

It didn’t take me too long after wishing for multiple clones of myself to remember that I’m not supposed to be accomplishing more than one of me can get to. God isn’t asking me to do more than just I can do (with Him). Whatever I can’t manage, well, it wasn’t supposed to get done, or I wasn’t the one to do it. It’s okay.

To begin with, we have limits as human beings. We can only be in one place at one time. And love accepts limits. Love accepts less.

Relationships constrain us. But loving people is worth the price to be paid.

While planning for 2005, I realized that I have some goals. I don’t like making resolutions. But I am trying to make changes in the way I live each day. I also am looking forward to a few events. Skimming through 43 Things, which I saw linked on many blogs in this new year, I found myself smiling, imagining other goals I could enjoy such as taking a bath in champagne…or even tea…

What do you want to do with your life? asks the site. As I’ve thought about this question with the advent of the new year, the passage of the previous one, and the intense tsunami loss, I had time to remind myself what matters most to me. All I want to accomplish is to love God, my family and people in my life. What I need to get done is whatever will help me have more energy, time and clarity for love. Less is more if less means more love in my life.

So, any suggestions?

yes, I realize the irony of a lengthy post labelled less is more…but it’s only an indicator of the intensity of the problem…thanks for reading this far!

Tags: journal

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 elizabeth grigg // Jan 6, 2005 at 9:34 pm

    the tyrrany of items

    Julie Leung has put a great deal of thought into snapshots of her organizational life. I love this kind of pondering. For the person who is there, it seems overwhelming, but somehow I find it refreshing. Look where all you…

  • 2 bonnie // Jan 6, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    Simple, clean, cozy, relaxed…I like that…I do encourange the putting up of one’s feet, but, alas, I try to discourage the farting! ;~)

    I limit myself to 30 minutes a day on my computer (including writing my blog). There are a handful of edifying blogs that I try not to miss…yours is one. Good luck with your organizational trials and changes. May I say that, for me, these matters get sorted out as the children grow and become truly competent and organized because they want to be?!

    Also, what a beautiful New Year’s dinner!!

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