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De-Junk Your Life

DIRTY SECRETS

Getting a handle on the problem areas that drag you down doesn't mean you have to turn into Ms. Hospital Corners. In fact, a lived-in living room or a chock-full kids' playroom can be a source of warmth and connection for you and your family. "The world around us is messy. Mess isn't a black-and-white war between order and chaos," says David H. Freedman, coauthor of A Perfect Mess. And you may be more organized than your desk or countertop lets on. "People naturally tend to keep and place things in an order that fits the way they think and do things," says Freedman. That means that even if the messy piles on your desk are confusing to everyone else, they probably make sense to you in a way a color-coded file system wouldn't.

More evidence that (some) mess may sometimes be best: Hyper-organizing can get expensive and requires a lot of time. While working on their book, Freedman and his coauthor, Eric Abrahamson, were shocked to discover that people living in ultra-organized homes tended to spend three to four hours per day straightening and organizing. Who has time for that? Besides, living in a comfortably cluttered home can stir up creativity. "If you have a lot of information around you, it's easy to make connections between things," says Freedman. For example, a book that's set at the beach paired with an article about saving money on travel might spur you to plan a vacation. Point is, when you let some of your stuff hang out, you're giving yourself the mental permission to be flexible, make mistakes, and try new things — and after all, it's your stuff that makes a house a home. Believing and appreciating this is the first step to identifying — and tackling — those areas that truly do need a new order.

TAMING TROUBLE SPOTS

To take the dread out of de-cluttering, grab your to-do list and follow Morgenstern's simple (but not always easy!) steps.

  • Watch the clock. Assign a time estimate to each activity. Say, this weekend you plan to organize your vacation photos and put together a spring yard sale for the stuff you no longer need. Next to each item on your list, add a rough guess as to how long the activity will take. "Once you quantify a task, that anchors it into your schedule," says Morgenstern. "But you have to be honest with yourself." For example, factor in the time it takes to sort through photos, date them, and put them into albums, and you may discover that what seemed like a two-hour project could take more than five. Knowing that, you can then make the choice to either devote an entire afternoon to the task or break it down into hour-long chunks that would realistically fit into the next several weekends. 
  • Trim away to-do's. Look through your list for any project you can downsize or outsource. Instead of arranging all your vacation photos, pare down the job to organizing just the ones from the trips you've taken in the last year. Feel overwhelmed by the thought of a garage sale? See if you could hire an enterprising teen to run it, and split the proceeds.
  • Share the responsibility. Are you really the only person who has the skills to take used clothes to the donation box? Says Morgenstern, "By asking yourself that question for every task, you can begin to delegate — and focus on what's really important, like spending time with family."

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