Our expert helps a woman unclutter her life. Photo by iStock

Want to find time for your most important life goals? In our new feature, Timehacker, we match readers with the right coach to help them find that time, develop new habits and get started. Then we check in on Day 21 to see how it’s working out.

THE SUBJECT: During her years working as a special ed teacher, Penny Church-Pupke, 65, of Gainesville, Florida, was always the super-organized one who could put her hands on anything. But once she retired, she found herself putting stuff down, thinking she’d get to it later. “But later never came.”  Eventually, she was surrounded by clutter in her house and her car. “I panic that I may have missed an appointment. Everywhere I look is clutter,” said Penny, who now writes for pleasure. “I’m too tired to hang my clothes up. I haven’t eaten a meal at my dining room table for … I don’t know how long,”

THE GOAL: Penny felt stressed at all her teetering piles of stuff everywhere and too embarrassed to invite people over. “I get really angry at myself,” she said. “I just want to get my life in order.”

THE TIME HACK: Penny began to work with coach Melissa Heisler, of It’s My Life. She  suggested five Timehacks:

 

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1. Start small. Penny was overwhelmed by the mess and didn’t know where to start. So Heisler had her start the first week by only handling the mail. Once that was under control, Penny could move on to tackling her car, then finally her office. Penny had begun writing short stories as part of a writing group. But she had hard copies of her stories and various revisions in piles all over the place.

2. Set up a system. Heisler worked with Penny to figure out how to handle her stuff – including deciding what to toss and where to put what she decided to keep, so she could easily find things when she needed them. Heisler sent Penny online links to folders and files that she could order to help her sort her stuff.

3.’One touch’. When Penny picked up a piece of mail, Heisler had Penny decide on the spot whether to recycle it, or keep it, and immediately put it in one of the folders or files she’d set up.

4. Fifteen Minutes. Heisler told Penny to spend no more than 15 minutes a day on her mail, then move to all the stuff in her car, then to the biggest challenge: her office.

5. Weekly check-in. To keep Penny on track, Heisler asked for a weekly email reviewing the week, celebrating wins and taking time to understand the challenges Penny might need more help with.

THE PROGNOSIS: “The biggest issue for people like Penny is they are underwater –under a pile of papers  –and making a change seems daunting,” Heisler said. “She was relieved and motivated with the suggestion to only work on cleaning and organizing 15 minutes a day. By taking on manageable chunks, she feels the change can happen. She is not a hopeless case. I think she needed a few tools and some motivation.”

DAY 21

Penny was skeptical when she started the Timehacker project  about whether she’d really be able to follow through this time. But when I caught up with her after working with Heisler, Penny had cleared so much clutter that she was finally able to eat dinner on her dining room table. “There is real joy in being able to do that,” she said. “I feel Unstuck.”

Penny worked 15 minutes a day, first on the mail, then on clearing the car, and when all that was done, then the office. At the end of three weeks, Penny had clear kitchen counters, a neat folder for all her upcoming bills, folders for directions and other papers she wanted to save and a filing cabinet with hanging folders for her story revisions – Heisler told her to keep the most recent three revisions, and toss the rest – and she did.

“Starting out small is what made the difference for me this time,” she said. “Rather than thinking I had to do everything all at once, we started with the mail, something doable and easy. Then, I’d think, ‘Well, I proved I could do that with the mail, maybe I can do the same with the car.’ It’s amazing what you can get done in 15 minutes when it’s focused.” She also found the weekly emails she was assigned to write Heisler gave her time to reflect. “I was, in effect, really being accountable to myself, and what I really wanted,” Penny said.

Penny found a pair of shoes she’d been looking for when she cleared out the piles in her car, and even has room for passengers. “I can vacuum the car now. It’s amazing what you can do when your floor boards are clean,” she said. She’s begun recycling papers she used to save, like grocery receipts she didn’t need. She isn’t wasting so much time sifting through stuff to look for what she needs, and has more time for what she enjoys, like riding her horse, training for her first 5K race, and writing.

“I still catch myself with the mail. Sometimes, I’m not thinking and I’ll just put the mail down. But then, I think, ‘Wait a minute. One touch’,” she said. “Or, as I start to close the car door, I’ll say, ‘Whoops, I’ve still got something on the passenger seat.’ This is all not quite a habit yet, but there’s certainly more of an awareness.” And she’s hopeful.

Now that she’s less scattered, she said, her writing is getting better. “I’m thinking more clearly now that my desk is clear,” she said. “I just feel relieved. I look around and I feel … proud.”

 

TACKLING CLUTTER! Melissa Heisler’s Top Tip: “Break overwhelming tasks into manageable chunks. And do a little bit everyday. Just 15 minutes a day can start to make a big difference over time.”

Photo Courtesy of Penny Church-Pupke
Voila — a clean desk! Photo Courtesy of Penny Church-Pupke

 

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