OK, it doesn’t look like a lot for 2 hours of work, but if you look carefully to the right of the chair you can see a whole big pile of papers is gone. That’s the problem with papers – it takes a while to go through them, and the results don’t look like much. This is where patience and dedication come into play.
If put important and unimportant papers into the same pile “for now” then the risk that I’ll toss something important is real, and I will be sentencing myself to the drudgery of having to go through them carefully in the future.
Lesson: DON’T mix unimportant and important papers together. Get rid of the unimportant papers daily. File the important ones. Make a list if I’m afraid I’ll forget but for God’s sake don’t pile them together as a way of “remembering.”
In hoarding, “someday” and “when I get a chance” never come!
OK, I didn’t get into this mess overnight and it’s not going to get cleaned up in a day. My strategy is to to clear a usable workspace first, so that I won’t have to work in the living room or bedroom anymore.
The office has two desks. The regular one is piled a couple of feet deep with crap, so I decided to tackle the computer desk. Last year I cleared it off (mostly) and sorted a bunch of files for my lectures, separating and tossing the old material. That’s pretty much where the current folders stayed after the class ended, but mostly everything on the desk is teaching-related. So that seemed like the most promising place to start. The picture above is the “before:” how it looked when I walked in there.
I set a timer and got to work. I told myself I would declutter for 20 minutes, then work on my lecture. Typically for me, I got sidetracked and started mixing the two jobs together. I started going through a tub on the floor where I had dumped class-related stuff during an earlier pass at the room in August.
So after 30 minutes, as you can see from the second picture, it didn’t look like much. It’s OK though, because I had located some important papers – like the texts of next week’s lectures! I continued to put them in piles that made sense, and I threw away a whole bunch of surplus papers. At this point it’s important to congratulate myself for going in there and working at all, even if I’m not doing it very well yet.
I had to stop decluttering and prepare for class, but at the same time I was able to put the papers in something like an order, ready to be worked on the next day. After a couple of hours it looked pretty decent. It’s inviting, and I know where I need to start the next day. That’s important too. Hooray for me! I’m eager to come back the next day – let’s see if I do it.
Yeh, I did it. I got rid of the hoarder fetish item, the computer box. How did I talk myself into it? I used a technique from Buried in Treasures called “the Downward Arrow.” Basically you or someone else helps you to explore the logic of your thinking about your possessions so you can make a mindful decision about keeping or tossing.
Here’s how I did it, with the help of my husband:
Me: My computer is four years old, but I’m afraid to get rid of the box. What if it breaks and I need to ship it for repairs, and I have no box?
Dearly Beloved: What would happen if you had to ship it and you had no box?
Me: Well, I could take it to the Apple Store for repairs. But what if they needed to send it out?
DB: Well, what would happen?
Me: I guess they have ways of wrapping them. Im sure it wouldnt be the first time a customer brought in a machine without a box. Maybe they would only need to send a part. But what if I needed to sell it? What if we had to move?
DB: You know we’re not moving.
Me: Yeh, that’s unlikely.
DB: When have you ever sold a computer?
Me: Umm, never.
DB: What would be so bad about that, if you had to sell it without a box?
Me: Well, I guess I could find other materials to wrap it in. I’m pretty resourceful. But it would be more desirable if it had its original box. And what if I had to ship it?
DB: What if you did?
Me: Well, I guess I’d just have to sell it locally. We do live in a well-populated area, so I’m sure I could find a buyer nearby.
DB: If you ever really did need a box there are shipping places that will even do it for you.
Me: OK, I made up my mind: I’m tossing it.
Guess what? It feels really good to not have to walk around that giant box.
Update, Sept. 16: It’s still outside and I’m SO not tempted to take it back in. It still feels great!
Listen: I’ve passed the midpoint of the number of years I can expect to have on earth – I’ve got to start deaccessioning my stuff. It’s killing me, it’s annoying me, it’s crushing my spirit. It’s making me feel like a loser, and it’s keeping me from doing cool things and, dare I say, keeping me from being who God intended me to become.
I thought I wasn’t a hoarder. We’ve all seen TV hoarders: elderly, declassé, lonely people who bury themselves in beanie babies, ugly tchatchkes, and towers of newspaper, or 147 desperately ill-kept cats. Hoarders aren’t like me: highly educated, creative, down-to-earth, functioning. They don’t win awards, volunteer, take classes, write articles, have happy marriages, interesting careers, and fun social lives, like I do. At least that’s what I thought.
I have a clutter problem. Maybe not full-blown hoarding (whatever that is) but a serious problem. A first world problem, I acknowledge, but a problem nonetheless. I concluded a while ago that my stuff was a burden. It’s in my way, literally and figuratively, and I know it’s worse than most people’s. Hours spent looking for last year’s lecture. A low-interest student loan award lost because I’d buried the paper and forgotten about it. Not being able to have anyone over. My kids ashamed to have anyone over. Buying stuff that I already have because I didn’t know I had it. Clothes I discovered that I’d completely forgotten about. A moth infestation. Receipts I didn’t itemize in my taxes because I never came across them. Bulging closets. Filled storage. Books and books and books and books.
I feel the drag. I’m sick of pawing through stuff. I know I don’t “need” all this. I’m sick of spending time dealing with stuff like dishtowels or a broken shovel or some toys the kids haven’t played with in years, when I could be using the time to do something cool, to create, to help others.
So I’ve been making stabs at cleaning it all up. It would work for a while, but even Flylady, God bless her, hasn’t been permanent solution, although her motherly encouragement has done wonders for my state of mind. I was frustrated. I knew it was hurting me, hurting my family, but I didn’t know what to do about all this junk. The specter of my great aunt hung over me – it had taken me and six other relatives three days and half a dumpster to clean out her one-bedroom apartment. We found an entire dresser drawer full of used Kleenex, boxes full of neatly filed junk mail, yellowed clothing, a broken-off wax doll’s hand from the nineteenth century, probably, and a refrigerator jammed with two month’s worth of rotting takeout dinners still in their foam containers. Could that happen to me?
My husband “collects” stuff too, and we agree it’s too much. He can’t get to his tools – it adds sometimes half an hour to a minor repair job. We own an apartment and we can’t renovate and rent it because it’s filled with crap: stuff from his job, stuff from my old job, stuff from the homes of two elderly relatives who died a few years ago. We want to get rid of it, but we haven’t gotten further than a brief, energetic attack on the storeroom last summer. We figure our clutter is costing us hundreds of dollars a month in lost rental income. More when you count our time, and lost opportunities – like paying off a six-figure grad school loans for a degree I still don’t have partly because (I’m convinced) my mess made it nearly impossible organize my materials and complete my dissertation.
And that’s not even counting the psychological cost of clutter. We keep our public areas – kitchen and living room – pretty clear. But I’m ashamed of the rest of the house. I feel like a loser every time I walk into my study. I’m irked every time I can’t find a paper, every time a bunch of boxes falls on me in the pantry when I’m trying to get a spice. I despair every time I pile my clean laundry on top the dresser because there’s nowhere for it to go, or re-iron out a wrinkled suit that’s been crushed by an overstuffed closet. I’m convinced my clinging to stuff has kept me from finishing my PhD (see above) and getting a better job because it robs me of confidence. I walk out of the house and somewhere inside, my dirty secret is galling me: I must not really be competent because if I were, there wouldn’t be such chaos at home.
I’m headed down the path to becoming a hoarder. A couple of weeks ago I came across the International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center pages. It’s thorough, with info for clinicians, hoarders, and the people who care about them (even though hoarding is about to be decoupled from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and listed as its own disorder). What I read there, and the videos I saw, gave me pause. It gets worse as you get older. Visiting my great aunt as a kid, I saw she had one room filled to the ceiling with junk, that no one was allowed to enter. As she aged it got completely out of control, spreading to the garage, and her bedroom. Even a move to a much smaller place in assisted living didn’t help – her clutter took over the apartment. I have a couple of rooms that are almost like that, and it scares me. Is a fridge full of poison and a pile of used Depends under the bed the future I’m headed for? Reading that website was sobering.
I’m a lot worse than I realized. I read everything on the site, then bought Buried in Treasures, a self-help book by some leading researchers on the problem of disordered acquiring, saving, and hoarding. (Yes, I know, I approached my clutter problem by buying something. But bear with me for a moment.) I started reading and did some of the exercises in the book.
It confirmed how disordered my thinking is about my stuff. I was shocked to recognize my behaviors and thinking in its pages. Not good. No, it’s not normal to go through your children’s trash after they clean their rooms to make sure they haven’t thrown out anything “good.” Yes, it is a bullshit excuse to say “I don’t have time.” My trusty mantra turns out to be a classic excuse given by people in complete denial about their severe clutter problems. I’m grateful that I was able to accept this valuable if painful realization about myself. Now I have to do something about it.
I created this blog to help me beat hoarding. Or saving, or acquiring, or collecting, whatever you want to call it. The authors of Buried in Treasures say about half the people who use the book show a good bit of improvement. I want to be free of all this stuff, and the blog will help me do it. So let’s get started.