Books on Uncluttering

By Virginia Roberts

Most people engage in spring cleaning. I do. But I also believe in a full, plentiful and productive harvest—starting with my living quarters. Now, I am a packrat. I won’t go so far as to say I am a hoarder on the level of those folks found on reality television or in Homer and Langley, a novel by E.L. Doctrow based on the lives of two brothers who were found dead in New York early in the last century, essentially victims of their own mad collecting—but what my home contains is well, rather intense. (And the aforementioned are really good inspiration to clean out closets).

I am not ashamed to say my book and media collection is larger than the local library. This is what happens when a librarian marries a literature professor and they breed. When the shelves were outgrown in the formal living room, more were built elsewhere. Closets have been taken over. Books line stairs, and are stacked against walls (they make exceptional insulation). I justify my yarn and craft item stash by giving away most everything created from it. I cannot justify three generations of shoe and clothing collection. Except to say most was given to me.

That is how it often happens. I am a stuff magnet. People know I know how to give it away. And I do. It is almost a second job. I have many area charities and shelters programmed on my cell phone. Local schools, libraries, churches, and most of the adults and children I know have been recipients of windfalls of items that have no use at my work or in my life (with consent—I always ask). No one seems surprised by the amount of stuff.

But let’s be honest. What to do with all this stuff? Well, there is lots of stuff advice out there. Some good and some, well, completely useless.

First, some practical advice, don’t buy the “organize your stuff” books and vids, borrow them. I am not saying this because I am a librarian. I am saying this, because in the land of the chronically disorganized the organizational media rarely takes priority.

But, if you are looking for a justification for your mess, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess:  The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly-planning make the world a better place will make you feel better. They discuss the messy but organized strategies of millions. They also believe messy is the root of creativity as well as invention, and that oldie but goodie: a clean house (or desk) is the sign of someone with too much time on their hands. They do give great tips on how to optimize your messy (organizational) style, and how not to look a mess. So, even they recognize the psychological truth that it just isn’t socially acceptable to live in a fire hazard or have your life a walking designated disaster.

But<gasp>there are TONS of books on the shelves of the library! So now organization is overwhelming!  Well, for a traditional approach, I recommend Organizing from the Inside Out by Julia Morgenstern, which contains several different styles, levels of organization, and bullet points. It also has a very good what works and what doesn’t section at the end of each chapter. She recommends schedules for when to do things and using lists of supplies, either preprinted or in an designated area, to organize shopping so over-purchase—and therefore clutter does not occur. Now, to be fair, almost every one of these books offers a certain amount of this, but Morganstern is realistic about the amount of prep time and the actual time organization can take. She is less realistic about the skills and cost required to organize your space. Her latest book When Organizing Isn’t Enough—SHED your stuff, change your life explores the emotional connection with personal belongings at length, and how to separate the wheat from the chaff and easily chuck the stuff from life that might be a drag.  I like this book. I like it a lot. It offers personal stories. It gives excellent reasons and allows time for someone to get used to the idea that the stuff needs to move on. And then it offers encouragement to remove the stuff. Because removing the stuff does change you. A weight can be lifted.

There is an Idiots Guide for organizing and a Dummies book on the same topic. The Idiots Guide by Georgene Lockwood is a comprehensive guide that is sympathetic to the plight of being disorganized, and its various permeations. She examines organizational goals by areas of life rather than where you live. While there are clear rules of engagement, she also gives endless possibilities based on different styles so it’s not a lock on how organization has to take place. The For Dummies book by Eileen Roth is more like that famous organizer and housecleaner (and pitchman) Don Aslett in that it has less exploration of the emotional wheres and whyfors and more on the this is your space, this is your mind, and this is how it should be organized. This book does offer some neat tricks and gadgets (you can buy more stuff!) to organize the stuff. If operating with very clear boundaries is the goal, this is the book for you.

HGTV Mission Organization is for those folks who have no time to read a book but do have time to sit in front of a video. Host Gail O’Neill works with individuals and spaces. As reality television, this series strikes me more as inspiration rather than a how to, unless you want to purchase or make stuff to organize your stuff.

For the paper-challenged there is also a website that offers tips, tricks, and if you email her, personal encouragement. While there is an online shop, that is not her purpose. The first message you see on her site is the question: “Do you live in CHAOS (Can’t have Anyone Over Syndrome)?”  She literally has a “baby steps” tab that which begins with the suggestion you “shine your sink” daily because if you can clean that every day, other cleaning is sure to follow. She isn’t kidding. I cleaned under my sink (after shining it) for the first time in 10 years. The stuff that didn’t get thrown out, and did not go into immediate circulation landed at a local shelter. I don’t need 100 small containers of stuff or 15 tubes of lipstick—and before you get upset, they were less than a year old and unused, beyond that, I am not saying.

For more specialized or different models of organization that are not just for the specified audiences—Organizing the Disorganized Child by Martin L. Kutscher and Marcella Moran is a short, readable book for parents. It discusses different learning and organizational styles and encourages parental involvement. The authors stress life skills, visual organizers and planners, the importance of routine and the possibility that some other factors may be in play, like ADHD.  There is also Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder by Susan C. Pinsky. It’s a great place to start, with its bold font and one tip per page. Pinsky lists the rules of organizing in the front of this thin completely useable volume and stresses  visual organization and routine—clear bins, stuff on shelves rather than cabinets (easy enough to do—remove the doors), papers kept in clear files and binders and placing things like mail and keys in the same place every day—so needed items are seen rather than stored.

Ultimately, you alone determine what to harvest, what to store and where to send your surplus. But as a nation, the bulk of us cannot travel with our houses on our backs anymore—or even in a house and storage unit—and wouldn’t know where to start if we tried. So it might be good to plan a little fall harvest, even if you don’t have a vegetable garden. Next month, books regarding a more traditional harvest.

Virginia Roberts is a library director, currently embroiled in an organizing frenzy, in a small, rural, northern great lakes village where she enjoys wind, water, and the abundance of the seasons.

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