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August 30, 2005

How to Make Lists

One of the things that I see people doing wrong all the time is making unusable to-do lists. We've all done this: you decide to get your life in order and sit down and make a list of everything you have to do, and then you try to do it all in a couple of days. You burn out, and the list gets shunted off to the side.

My more practical way of dealing with this is to make extremely short to-do lists. The list contains at most five items, all must-do items, and all reasonable to finish in half the time you have for tasks in the day. Why half? Because the other half of your time gets lost on distractions, bad traffic, mistakes, other things that come up, and what have you.

The critical element of this is the ability to prioritize tasks. You should be able to look at something that needs to be done and know how important it is that it get done today, by the end of the week, or by the end of the month. When you know how important a task is, you can figure out the order in which you need to do things. If you know when the task needs to get done but it's very far in the future, write it on your calendar a few days before you have to start it, to remind yourself. If you want to finish it earlier, you can look at the calendar and see if there's anything ahead of it in urgency. Some people use a tickler system with folders and so forth to remind them, but I find my calendar is more useful because I look at it every day, and it's a single place to look for things I need to do. Your mileage may vary.

When a new task appears on the horizon, I ask myself if it can be put off until tomorrow or later, and put it on another day's to-do list if I can. If not, well, it's one of those time-eaters. But in general, if you're working through your daily to-do list regularly, a single drop-everything priority appearing is not too much of a setback. I try not to fill to-do lists more than a few days in advance, because that's a bad road to be going down: if you pack your schedule you have less time to adapt to new things coming on the horizon.

When I finish the items on my to-do list, or on days when there's not so much stacking up to get done, I might fill it in with less important tasks. Like refilling a prescription or organizing a dresser drawer, or anything else that can be done pretty much any time. I pull this task off a sort of backlog to-do list that I call the can-do list. The can-do list is huge, containing all the little tasks I have sitting around, low priority, waiting for me. When I realize I have to do something, but not right away, I'll add it to the can-do list.

The key to staying sane is to not let the can-do list take priority. The can-dos are things you fit in around everything else. They may eventually turn into must-dos (you should know when that's going to happen), but until they do they should be lower in priority and they should have to wait for the to-dos to be done. It's nice to check them off, but if you're spending your time ticking off items that are low in priority while the high-priority stuff falls by the wayside, you're not going to be getting much benefit from your lists. My can-do list is spread all over my calendar, roughly in the time frame when it gets more critical. When I'm low on to-dos, I just look forward in the calendar and work on to-dos or can-dos from days in the future.

For example, here's a bunch of tasks that came up today:

  1. Fill prescription
  2. Cancel daycare for Rosie during vacation
  3. Buy campus parking permit
  4. Work on design for class web site

I figured out when each item needed to get done:

  1. Fill prescription (must do by Sept 22)
  2. Cancel daycare for Rosie during vacation (must do by Sept 4)
  3. Buy campus parking permit (must do by Sept 10)
  4. Work on design for class web site (no set deadline, want to have it done by Sept 18)

So the first thing I did today was cancel the daycare. I did it before even thinking about whatever else had to be done, because it was the earliest-priority item.

Tonight I will buy my campus parking permit, because I need to get that done before we leave for vacation (we won't be back in time for me to do it afterwards), and I'll probably drop off the prescription to be filled, too, because it's fast and I don't want to forget, which is likely after a vacation.

I probably will not get around to working on the web site, but I've been planning to work on that after we get back from vacation, anyway.

Note that these are all items from my personal life. I keep professional to-dos separate from personal ones right now, because that works well with this particular internship. When I'm in school, school to-dos take over the list, but I always save one or two spots for personal things.

To summarize:

  • Limit the number of things you try to do in a day

  • Know when things need to be done

  • Do things in the order in which they are due

  • Do the most important stuff first

  • Don't let unimportant stuff clutter up your time

August 26, 2005

No More Excuses

One of the difficulties people have in decluttering their houses is really, deep-down wanting to get rid of stuff. Because you cannot declutter a house and not take anything out of it; clutter is unnecessary stuff, not critical stuff that is just in the wrong spot or not organized.

Some of the resistance is just low-energy. I know that I've had whole months when I ignored a stack of things I needed to go through and deal with because I just did not feel like it. There are many techniques for learning how to declutter around that sort of depressive energy level, mostly involving breaking the task down into small pieces and making consistent if slow progress.

But some of the resistance is the belief that this stuff is important. There are any number of common justifications for why this stuff has to be sorted and organized rather than thrown away or given away.

The Environment

This is my favourite, because it's so completely ironic. Usually I hear this one about a stack of margarine containers that reaches the ceiling, or a sack of plactic grocery bags. The argument goes like this: "I need to save this to keep it out of the landfill, or because reuse is better than recycling, or some other bogus reason." OK, yeah, I have a bad attitude about this excuse.

Reuse is better than recycling, but reducing is better than reusing. If it bothers you that margarine tubs might end up in the landfill, don't buy margarine in tubs. Buy it in sticks and mash or whip the stick into a tub yourself, if you must have whipped margarine or butter or whatever all that stuff in the tubs is.

The key is to not bring the stuff into the house to begin with.

Once you've got your leaning tower of containers, you have to deal with the consequences of your actions. Find a plastics recycling place or just throw the things out, but get rid of all but a couple, if you actually ever use any. If, for some reason, you should need more plastic containers, you can always buy some more margarine or just buy a plastic container.

Caretaker of the Inheritance

This is another good excuse. It goes like this: "I don't like this armoire, but my kids might need it when they get a home of their own, so I'm keeping it." This is funniest when the kids in question are not born yet, but you also hear it when the kids in question are 35 and obviously have no need or desire to take the armoire.

There are two things at play here. First of all, your house doesn't have to be a storage facility for your children. If you hate the thing, get rid of it. Either sell it, give it away, or store it offsite, although the latter is an extreme measure, only to be used when the item in question is a priceless heirloom. If the kids are grown up and might want it, ask them. If they say they want it, deliver it to them; if they don't want it, get rid of it.

Second, not every piece of furniture or dishware or anything is worthy of being an heirloom. Even a piece with a lot of sentiment attached to it might not stand the test of time; I had a nice little chair that had been in our TV room when I was a kid, and I dragged it around with me for years until it literally fell apart. Yeah, it was part of my childhood. No, it was not worth throwing time and money into repairing.


Which brings me to one of the biggest reasons people have for resisting getting rid of stuff. "It was my grandmother's!" or "that was a wedding present!"

The first step beyond this excuse is to realize that you can love somebody and remember them without filling your house with everything they ever gave you, or trinkets and bric-a-brac that they accumulated in their lifetime. When somebody gives you a gift that is just not your style, thank them kindly and get rid of it discreetly. The worst possible scenario is that every time you look at that ugly vase you are reminded of your favourite aunt and feel guilty for hating it so much. Getting rid of the thing lets all your thoughts of your aunt be happy and fond, rather than bad and guilty.

The next step is to find your positive mementos and make them shine. Ha! Bet you didn't expect that! Yes, you should have things you love and that remind you of people and events you loved around your house. Don't hide them behind lots of stuff you don't love: clear out the clutter and bring them to the front. If you have fourteen thousand photos in a box, and there are two great shots in there, getting rid of the 13,998 photos that are at odd angles or too far away or fuzzy or grainy and then framing and displaying the two you love will make you life and house a lot better.

Last summer I threw away about 2,000 old photos. Not just the photos, but the negatives, too, because why do I need to save the negatives for shots that didn't work out? I saved the 20 or so images that I really loved, and their negatives, for framing and hanging on the wall. I also threw out a few dozen playbills and ticket stubs from events years ago that I barely remembered; I never recheck those or even look at them, and they were taking up space. In their place I put my sketchbooks up on the shelf they had been occupying, where I can take them down to look through for inspiration.

There can only be so many areas of focus in a house. Make yours count.

Archivist for the Ages

The last, and most compulsive, excuse I hear about clutter is that "this has historical value," or worse, "it's a collector's item."

If you want to invest in something that will make you lots of money, buy stock. "Collectibles" are a gamble that other people will not be saving this stuff, and it will be both rare and desirable in your lifetime. From what I can see of the market, if the people who made so much money on Star Trek memorabilia had instead bought Proctor and Gamble stock of the same value and held it as long, they would have made many times over what they made on selling the junk they were toting around, and they would not have had to store it in their living space in the mean time.

So sell off the collectibles now and invest in something of real value. Having a bunch of stuff in your house that you can't use lest it lose value is a horrible thing. The big test is this: will you take it out of the box and throw the box away? If not, it should get out of the house.

The other big trap is the historical items trap, and I know this one well myself, because as we restore our house we keep finding all sorts of detritus left behind by previous owners and even the people who built the house. It's tempting to keep it all and somehow display it in the house, but who wants to live in a museum? And that's what it would be like if we set up glass display cases and filled them with things like rusty square nails and razor wrappers from 1876.

We chose a few things that seemed whimsical to us: a chisel somebody dropped into the wall in the front bay during the original construction on the house, a few nails, some bottles dug out of the trash pits in the yard. The rest we're either giving away or throwing away. After all, we have the house. We don't need to save every bit of ephemera that came with it.

One of the things people who are afflicted with the obsessive need to save ephemera (playbills, ticket stubs, letters, and so forth) forget is that the value of that stuff from the past lies in its very disposable nature. A letter that survived seems more important because it is rare; a huge collection of letters quickly loses any excitement. Our lives, day to day, are actually quite dull, and they only seem exciting when we pick and choose the good parts to save for posterity. So feel free to edit your ephemera: lose the boring letters about what the climate is like in England from your old pen-pal, but keep that love note from your first boyfriend who ended up in a political scandal.

There are a million excuses for keeping clutter around. Most of them are just excuses, not really good, justifiable reasons. When you're not sure whether you're just making excuses, examine why you're justifying keeping the item. Is it because you really love it and can't bear to let it go? Or is it because it's "neat," or you feel guilty about getting rid of it, or you think it has value to some other person? Looking at your reasons for the reasons can help you get rid of stuff.

August 23, 2005

Engineering a Wardrobe

It occurred to me, after writing about packing for a trip, that half of knowing how to pack lightly is having worked out a reasonable wardrobe.

If you want to make you life simpler, reduce the hassle of trying to put together an outfit in the morning, and reduce the amount of effort you expend in maintaining a wardrobe, Jay Gatsby's example is a good one. Fitzgerald's playboy had a wardrobe full of exactly the same outfit. While that is a bit of overkill, the systematic purchase and use of clothing is the goal.

I've always been fascinated by lists of what clothes you should own, with details like how many pairs of socks and underwear, how many dress shirts, and so on. But the reality is that determining what you need is so personal that you really cannot rely on a list made by somebody else. I spend my days in one of two modes: standing in a studio making models all day, or sitting at a desk drafting all day. If you're a trial lawyer or construction worker, the wardrobe that works perfectly for me is not going to work for you. My hobbies are large and extremely messy; if you do needlepoint you may not need to change your clothes at all.

So start by making a list of the things you do that require changes of clothing. Here's mine:

  1. Work or school
  2. Messy projects
  3. Exercise
  4. Out to fancy event
  5. Sleeping/Lazy time

Pretty simple, no? That's because "Messy projects" encompasses everything from gardening to making plaster molds or repairing plaster. And work or school require pretty much the same outfit; I could dress more casually for school or more formally for work, but I don't because it's simpler not to.

Then create a "uniform" for each type:

  1. Work or school: black pants, long-sleeved t-shirt, black shoes
  2. Messy projects: older clothes from work or school
  3. Exercise: t-shirt, leggings, sneakers
  4. Out to fancy event: fancy top, black skirt, black shoes
  5. Sleeping/Lazy time: pyjamas

There are a couple of important things in that series of uniforms. The first is that I've chosen a "neutral" colour to use as a base: black. This means I only need to buy shoes and purses and stuff that match black, which is hard enough, but easier than having black, various shades of brown, a burgundy, and so on.

The other is that I'm recycling the clothes I wear to work or school for use in another activity. The more you can move clothes up from one activity to another, the less you need to buy and maintain separate sets of clothing.

After I chose my "neutral" colour, I chose a set of highlight colours that work for me. I buy shirts in dark red, dark green, and purple. I might branch out and get something that is a little lighter in colour, or more orangy than red, but I pretty much stick to my uniform because those are the colours that work on me and for me. It means that everything I own works together: my jacket always matches my shirt well enough, and any accessories also work with everything I own. It also makes buying easier: I find a shirt style I like and buy it in those colours. There's enough variation that I don't always feel like I'm wearing the same clothes, but not so much that getting dressed in the morning takes more than five minutes. Perfect.

Something that's hidden is the systematic support clothing. Find a kind of underwear, a kind of sock, a kind of tights, and so on. Buy them in bulk. Not only does this reduce the amount of time you spend doing things like pairing socks (you don't need to pair them at all if you don't want to), but it means that you always have what you need and they can all be cleaned together. Not having to run fourteen different tiny loads of laundry every week makes a huge difference. And buy enough so that you can put off laundry reasonable amounts of time, but not so much that you have no incentive to ever do the wash. I think I have about two weeks worth of socks and underwear, for example; probably a bit more. I do a load of laundry every week, so if I don't do the one with my underwear in it that week, I'm still fine. More than that is probably way too much clothing; storage space is limited.

Speaking of laundry, start reading labels. Make a decision about what level of cleaning you're willing to do, and only buy clothes if they fit that. Don't even try the clothes on if they don't fit your criteria, because it's no use falling in love with a blouse that requires more care than you are willing to put into a blouse.

My criteria are pretty straightforward (I've been working on this for years):

  1. If it's worn daily, it must be machine washable on regular cycle
  2. If it requires the delicate cycle, it must be something I only need to launder monthly
  3. If it requires dry cleaning, it must be either something special, or something that gets cleaned seasonally

I own about six or seven items of clothing that require dry cleaning, and one of them is my wedding dress. The rest are fancy clothes that I wear when we go out to eat or to formal events. When the event is over, most of those can be brushed clean and hung back up in the closet. Not having to run lots of clothes to the cleaners regularly is a real time-saver and reduces the amount of stress in my life -- I hate getting things dry-cleaned. If I had a job where I had to wear a suit, I would probably have enough suits that I could make only a monthly visit to the cleaners.

A friend of mine decided to simplify his clothing by buying twenty work shirts and having them laundered at the cleaners. This means he has an absolutely astonishing number of wire hangers, but it also means that once a week he drops shirts off and picks up clean ones, and he never has to wash, iron, or otherwise maintain them. He has enough shirts that if he's late by a day or misses a week, he's fine. It works nicely for him.

When you're engineering your wardrobe, whether to simplify your life or to make mornings easier, or just to get rid of the random weird clothes that you never seem to be able to match with anything else, the important thing is to remember that this is for YOU. You are not trying to turn yourself into me, or anybody else. You have to make the system work for you or it will not work at all.

August 15, 2005

Extreme Decluttering Measures

Sometimes, getting order into a room or house requires some extreme measures. You can spend what feels like forever sifting through drawers trying to decide what can go away, and make very little headway because it's hard to know what you really use on a day-to-day basis. But there's another strategy worth trying, and it only takes a month. I call it the Move or a Fire method.

When I moved to San Luis Obispo to go back to school last year, I took almost nothing with me, except studio supplies that I knew I would need immediately. Every weekend for three weeks, I would make a list of what I needed from home, and bring it down. Eventually I ended up with a stable collection of the bare minimum things I need to maintain a household, without a lot of extras.

If moving 250 miles away from home in a minivan is not on your agenda, you can get the same benefits by creating a mental move. Take everything out of a particular room -- kitchens and bathrooms are the worst culprits for random "I might use this" clutter, in my experience -- and put it in another room.

These are the rules:

  1. Choose a small amount of stuff to keep in the room: maybe a bowl and two sets of silverware, or one place setting for every member of the household -- something very small. Definitely no appliances.
  2. Everything else gets boxed up and moved to "offsite storage" -- another room or the garage or somewhere out of the way. If you have a storage locker and put it there, you have the right idea, but don't go rent one just for this.
  3. Give the room a thorough cleaning. Start out on the right foot.
  4. Live in the room for a couple days. If you need something, write it down on a piece of paper and get it the next day. The only exception is first-aid supplies or fire extinguishers. For everything else make yourself wait to get it.
  5. At the end of each week, go through the boxes left behind. Be honest with yourself: there's plenty there that you never use and should get rid of. Nothing can come back at that time: it can only leave the house altogether.
  6. After a month, go through the boxes and sort out the stuff that gets used only seasonally: turkey pans, christmas cookie cutters, that sort of thing. This does not belong in the room you use everyday. Put it away in a box marked with what it's used for and get it out of a main traffic path.
  7. Everything else gets thrown away or donated.

Like all decluttering efforts, this one requires two things of you, and they are not easy. The first is that you have the will and energy to keep at it, to not give up and drag those boxes into the kitchen and make a bigger mess than you had to begin with. The other is that you be honest. If you can't do the whole room honestly, do one drawer, or do one cabinet. Don't try to do the whole kitchen and then keep cheating by sneaking stuff back in. The person you are cheating is yourself; I don't have any reason to care whether your room is clutter-free and easy to work in, but you do.

Most decluttering advice urges slow and sane work, eating away at clutter the way you built it up. There's a lot to be said for that, and in the long run it works really well. But if you want to make a huge difference in one room in a relatively short amount of time, the Move or a Fire method works well.

August 10, 2005

Traveling Lightly

Several years ago I had a job where I had to travel quite a bit, and the experience taught me a lot about how to streamline the process of preparing for a trip without forgeting just about everything I needed to bring with me.

The first thing I did was pin a piece of paper to the bathroom mirror. On it I wrote every item I used in the morning and evening in my normal routine. After a few days, I used that list to assemble a travel toiletries kit. Initially I bought sample-sized bottles of stuff, but in the years since then I have switched to little travel bottles meant to deal with the pressure changes in an airplane. The kit was left, packed, in the bathroom. When I got home from a trip I would replenish it, so it was always ready to go.

Clothing is pretty easy, too: for every day I pack one shirt, socks, and underwear. Depending on how long I will be gone I will bring one or two extra sets. Also depending on how long I will be gone, I might bring an extra pair of pants. If I'm planning to go out, I bring one simple evening outfit (a long black skirt that never wrinkles, nice shoes and tights, and a dressy top).

Then there's the other crap.

For whatever reason, going on vacation seems to be a time when we lose all sense of what we actually do on a daily basis. People haul along games, sporting equipment, musical instruments, half their library, and a dozen odd electronic devices. This stuff is heavy and bulky and as far as I can tell half of it doesn't even get used, and the other half only gets used because it happens to be there.

When I travel, I bring the following extras: my cell phone, my iPod, one or two books, and the digital camera. If I read the books and need more reading material, I give myself permission to buy magazines or more books. The iPod is actually a recent addition to the crew, and I'm not sure it's going to stay; I like listening to radio shows, but it takes up room and is one more thing to worry about losing, damaging, or having stolen.

The next step, after you've pared down, is fine-tuning your packing. This means that when you are travelling, if you need something, write down what it was. If you end up having to buy something (like, say, deodorant), keep the one you bought in your travel kit.

But more critical than adding to the pile of stuff you carry everywhere is subtracting. There are some things I've just stopped carrying with me. They were things that I thought were important for a long time, but when I looked at my own behaviour on trips, it turned out that they were not. Things like lots of little packets of pills for various ailments (it turned out that most of the time I didn't use them and they expired, and when I did need them I could easily buy them where I was), or sunblock (which I rarely use). Also, I no longer pretend I will keep a perfect travel diary. I used to lug along a little blank book and it would sit, unused, for the entire trip. Sometimes just subtracting that much stuff makes it possible to put everything in the overhead bin and travel with no checked luggage.

After every trip I go through the toiletries kit and consider the other things I brought. If I used them, they probably get to stay, although if I only used them because I brought them then they might go anyway (bringing my own stash of tea with me was one of these things). If I didn't use them, they probably go, although there are afew things I haven't used that travel with me anyway (like my inhaler).

Paring down the stuff I travel with, while also making sure I have everything I need, has really changed the way I travel. I can pack for a weeklong stay abroad in fifteen minutes, for one thing, so there are no hectic nights before departure. And I remember (almost) everything, so there's not as much feeling like a total moron at my destination. Most important, though, is the feeling that I carried only what I needed to bring and that when I needed something, I had it. It makes travelling less hectic and disruptive, and it means that I can really relax and enjoy my destination. Not to mention how much easier it is to get through airports and train stations and taxi queues with one or two smaller bags.

After posting this, I happened across this web site, which has similar advice (if somewhat more extreme) and offers some good reviews of luggage.

August 05, 2005

Dealing With Low Energy

One thing I have fought against while trying to get more stuff done and get my life in order is depression or general lack of energy. It's hard to get started, and the mess around you just makes you more depressed. So I've developed a series of strategies for coping with low energy.

Sometimes when the house is a wreck and I just want to get things tidier so I can calm down, I do one large, easy task that fits into a lot of rooms, like going around and gathering magazines and catalogs and dumping them in the recycling. It makes a uniform difference in every room. I used to clean just one small spot, but it turns out that I feel better when I see improvement on a larger scale, rather than when there's one tiny clean spot in a huge house.

On the other hand, when the mess is really contained to maybe one room, I might just want to have one clean area to start from, so I choose a square yard of space (usually my desk) and just work on that. Nothing on either side of it until it's done. Often the boost of getting that cleaned up will help me do another one. This is how I clean up after a major project, too.

Another thing I do when things are piling up and I'm suffering from great overwhelmedness is to put off decisions. If I see a pile of papers and know I need to go through them to clean an area, I'll stuff them in a box and put a date on it (at most a couple of days later; bills must be paid!), and on that date, I go through that box and that box alone. It means I can defer making decisions about everything, and move on to larger-scope cleaning without getting bogged in the details. (Of course, you have to actually go through the box on that date.)

These strategies can be generalized into something simpler:

  1. Break a large problem into several smaller problems
  2. Reduce the scope of your focus to a small problem
  3. Deliberately ignore problems outside the scope of what you're working on now

These are some basic project-management techniques for getting a grasp on a large, complex project, and they work remarkably well for households and your personal life.

August 04, 2005

Born Organized

One of the things I see in various communities for getting one's life in order or decluttering is the concept that there are some people who are Born Organized. That is just so wrong.

First of all, it's definitely possible to have developed systems for managing one aspect of your life that work really well, while other parts of your life are in total chaos. It's not about being born to one level of organization or not, but about how successful the systems you developed as you were maturing happened to be. Because we develop these systems before we really need to put them to the test, we have no way of knowing which ones are the right ones or not, unless we happen to have parents who recognize this and help us develop good systems.

Here's my example: Noel is a very tidy person, instinctively. He tends to fuss about cleaning things up, and moments after we finish eating he'll be stacking the plates up to take to the kitchen, no matter whether we're in the middle of a conversation or not. He likes a nice, tidy house, and he pushes me to keep the house that way. I, on the other hand, am a very untidy person. I've learned new tidy habits as an adult, and certainly have come at the decluttering thing from the cluttered/collector end of the spectrum. For me, keeping the house tidy is a real effort, and I had to develop systems with very strict rules. I had a side business for a few years where I helped other people declutter their homes, because that helped me keep on track with my own work.

On the other hand, I naturally keep track of time commitments in my head, know what's on my calendar for today, tomorrow, next week, etc. at any moment without checking it, and know how long it will take to get there. This is something I do without really knwoing how I do it. This skill is a huge struggle for Noel, who ended up having to adopt a set of strict rules and an external reminder system (he uses Franklin Covey's Seven Habits system), and in fact has become an instructor so he can teach the system to others.

A lot of people look at Noel's use of the planner and are amazed at how natural it seems, as if he were born using it. But it took a great deal of effort on his part to find the right system, and learn it and practise it until it was internal to him. He still falls off the wagon and has to get back on. Many of my former clients looked with awe on my ability to show them how to remove clutter and clear out large areas of their homes, but it has been a real effort for me to manage my own clutter and find the things that can leave the house without pain. I still find myself hoarding things, and have to correct that. Getting back on the wagon definitely gets easier with time, but it's not natural by any means.

The reality is that nobody is completely Born Organized, and the moniker is one that is most harmful to the people using it. If organization is something you are born with, then no amount of system creation can make up for that. But the reality is that all of us have some part of our lives that is totally chaotic and harmful to us, and we all have systems that don't work that we could improve on. We do tend to notice when people have systems that work better than our broken ones, but somehow we seem not to notice when other people are unable to manage something we find easy. I had to learn how to understand Noel's schedule issues because the idea that somebody could not keep their calendar in their head was foreign to me.

We all develop these systems for managing our lives when we are kids, then have to rely on them as adults. Some systems work better than others, and we can all learn from that (though some systems that work well for one person don't work as well for another). Other systems clearly do not work, and the only way around that is to develop a new system to fix the problem. We should not focus on putting ourselves down for not having a perfect system for everything, and definitely should not imagine that there are some other, perfect people out there who somehow have it all figured out naturally. That's a defeatist attitude and it just so happens to be flat out wrong. We're all human beings with flaws and perfections.

Simple Rules for Crafters

I've been a crafty person since I was a small child. I love making things, learning new crafts and skills, and trying stuff out. But that can really play havoc on a household. Just about everybody knows the perpetual crafter whose projects are all over the house, most of them damaged from being left out in an unfinished state. In every house where I have ever helped anybody declutter, there has been at least one box full of random bits and bobs for making stuff from.

Crafty doesn't have to equal messy, and it certainly doesn't have to equal disorderly. If you want to make things, being organized about it will actually help you make more things, and enjoy them when you do.

Several years ago I sat myself down and had a nice long talk about all the sewing pins in the couch, and how I wanted to live my life. I came up with a set of simple rules for craft projects.

  1. I buy materials for a project I am about to start, not for possible future projects or because I like them. No stashing!
  2. I keep materials with the patterns/diagrams for the project. I have a bunch of canvas grocery bags that are useful for corraling a project, or if it's something big like sewing a dress, I keep everything on the table where I'm working. We have a large house, so I can afford to take over a whole table every now and then for a project, especially because I have the next rule to help me get it done faster.
  3. I work on one project of any type at a time, no matter how tempting starting another one is. Which means that if I'm knitting something and want to start another project, I have to finish the knitted thing first. This is to keep UFOs (un-finished objects) from proliferating around the house.
  4. I work in one place on the project (though sometimes that place is anywhere there the knitting bag is) and do not carry materials or patterns or anything to another place for any reason, so I don't end up losing bits and losing ground.
  5. If I get bored of a project and decide to stop, I throw it away or give it away to somebody who does want to finish it. If I'm not prepared to do that, I stop working on anything for a while until I'm ready to finish again.
  6. When a project is done, it either goes to the intended recipient or gets put on the gifts shelf for a future holiday gift (or gets worn or used by me!). I had to take a good hard look at the things I was making and whether I wanted them or just wanted to make them, and ended up dropping a lot of projects because while making them would be fun, having them was not as interesting to me.

Don't get me wrong: these rules are hard to keep to. But it's worth it to me to not have stashed supplies poking out of every corner, and to not be stuck with pins on the couch when I want to read a book, and mostly to have the satisfaction of finishing a project rather than having two hundred half-done things lying around. I find I get a lot more done this way than I did with the Old Way (start everything as soon as you get the idea, work until you're bored, then toss under the bed and ignore for ten years).

To get started, I had to de-stash a ton of fabric and yarn, and throw away or in a couple cases give away projects in process. I also gave away a bunch of things I had finished, like a pair of ball gowns I had hand-sewn for fun, but never wore, which I donated to a charity auction. Some other projects that I definitely wanted to finish I lined up in order and finished one by one.

As far as difficulty in decluttering, craft items are a hard one. It's hard to accept that you're not going to finish everything, or even that you don't want to. But if you make some rules like mine that are acceptable to you, it really will help you be a better crafter.

What This Site is About

Ducks in a Row is my attempt to both share and collect my accumulated information on how to get my life in order and reduce the total chaos that can come from multiple hobbies and creative outlets.

These are strategies that have worked for me, and some of them have worked for other people I've helped get organized. Some of them have not worked for others, and if they don't work for you, well, try something else. I'm not here to create a cult or anything like that.

I'm starting this site by seeding in some postings I've made on various message boards or other fora, with some additional information to give context. After that I'll post about once or twice a week on topics around getting your life in order, usually things that have been on my mind. You're welcome to send me any suggestions for topics, or questions or other feedback at ducks@blue-room.com.