At a time when minimalism and simplicity are rising in popularity, I’ve purged those topics from my life.
For almost 10 years, I was editor in chief of Unclutterer.com — one of the hubs of online articles covering the topics of simple living, home and office organizing, and productivity. In addition to my daily advice wielding, I wrote books and magazine columns and even dished advice live to Kathie Lee and Hoda on the “Today” show. I had clients (celebrity clients whose names I would drop here if it weren’t for non-disclosure agreements) and a loyal fan base and helped thousands of people find some level of order in their lives.
Then, five months ago, I quit.
One day I looked in our editing system and realized I’d written 2,000 posts — not including books or magazine columns or interviews — totaling about a million words. A million words about organizing. I was burned out. So I picked my replacement and took a job at a software company where not a single person cares about my opinions on how to fold fitted sheets or what daily planner I recommend.
Often after a day of working with clients on an organizing project, they would comment that they felt lighter. And lighter would be the same word I would use to describe how I felt when I changed careers. It wasn’t until I walked away that I realized how much pressure I put on myself to keep a perfect home, to always be on time, to never let a ball drop. I had to walk the walk. It was mentally and physically exhausting to try to be Martha Stewart — or my imagined version of her — all the time. (I wonder whether she feels the same pressure to live up to her cult of personality?)
I look forward to the first time I walk into someone’s home and they don’t immediately apologize for (what is usually nonexistent) clutter. When you’re a professional organizer, everyone you meet assumes you’re judging them for how disorganized or chaotic their lives are. “I’m sorry for the mess!” “You must think the worst of me!” One day, maybe, when I arrive at a friend’s door she will simply say: “Welcome. Come in.”
Then there was the biggest issue of my previous career: I didn’t like thinking about stuff, but I spent nearly a decade constantly thinking about it.
I’ve been asked recently whether I felt my previous career was akin to selling snake oil. I never thought that. I’ve seen how clutter and disorder can cripple people socially. And I’ve witnessed how getting rid of unwanted stuff and becoming more organized can improve the quality of people’s lives.
But — and here is a big confession — I also learned that simple living isn’t for everyone.
Some people can function just fine with a cluttered desk. Some people never lose their keys, even when they put them in a different spot each time they come home. Some people make better connections when they have hundreds of things pinned to a wall than having those same things alphabetized and shoved into files. I don’t know how they do it, because my brain doesn’t operate that way, but they do and their lives run more smoothly because of/in spite of it.
In general, though, I found there were nine fundamental truths — themes that played into every piece of advice I gave:
1. Buy what you actually need and use; don’t buy a lot of other stuff.
2. Except for mortgage, education and car loans, try your best not to use credit unless it’s a real emergency.
3. Before you buy anything, know exactly where you’re going to store it. Otherwise, that object will always be out of place.
4. Finish what you start: Laundry isn’t done until it’s put away. Dinner isn’t over until the dishwasher is loaded.
5. Write tasks down.
6. Do the tasks you’ve written down. (Of everything on this list, this is the hardest item for most people.)
7. You can’t win at organizing, so keep organizing systems as simple as possible.
8. Establish routines for all the chores in your life; the less you have to think about them, the more likely they are to get done.
9. Being uncluttered isn’t a destination; it’s merely clearing a path so you can do something more worthwhile with your time and energy.
Remember, too: It’s easier to be at the top of your organizing game when you’re healthy and happy and in a stable and comfortable situation. If those things don’t currently apply to you, being organized is much more difficult for you than for others. If you’re looking for permission to let some things slide, this is your permission. I’ll even give you permission if your life is puppies and rainbows.
I still hang my keys on a hook in my hall closet and sort my mail (trash/recycle/file/act) before I bring it into my house. I keep a to-do list and calendar and tackle my daily responsibilities. I almost exclusively wear solids (navy blue, black, gray, white, red and green) because I can get away with owning fewer items of clothing that way.
But there is laundry in my dryer that I have fluffed twice over the past three days, and I will probably fluff it one more time before I fold it. My toddler tore up a piece of paper, and the shreds are still in the pile she left them in this morning. (It’s now 9:30 p.m.) Mud is caked on my boots from this weekend’s hike and will remain there until I go hiking again. Because the pressure of perfection is a form of clutter, too. And it’s got to go.
Erin Rooney Doland is the author of “Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter” and “Unclutter Your Life in One Week.” In addition to her day job with a software company, she writes romance novels at night (which she publishes under a pen name). She lives in Northern Virginia.