Cleaning up

So this post isn’t really about anything but it’s one that I’ve wanted to write about for some time: hoarding and clutter. One of the things that has been hard about moving back to my parents’ house is that they aren’t hoarders per se but they tend to have a lot more stuff around the house than I personally care for. It drives me a little nuts. Also, I’m obsessed with the tv show Hoarders (I’ve had the show on for the past few hours while I did some chores and inevitably I end up feeling icky and wanting to clean things after watching this show). So this seems like a good time to write on this topic.

Part of it admittedly is my own fault. I moved a whole apartment’s worth of stuff back to my parents’ house so there is just a lot of stuff to store. And I will be the first to admit that I exhibit hoardy behavior myself– not sure how much of that is biological and how much of it is sociological from being raised by my parents. But I feel like seeing how my parents tend to be and having some sense of self-awareness and wanting to fight impulses to hoard has made me want to really stay on top of it and try to minimize this habit when I’m relatively young and capable of making a difference in my own life.

So: what do I hoard and why? One running joke with my friends is that I hoard soap. Yes, soap. So I can talk about the genesis of this habit. During my first job, as a department assistant at a market research company, one of my coworkers returned from a trip to NY with a bar of soap that she had bought from Barney’s for me. It was a fancy-schmancy soap and it was such a little treasure so I thought: I’ll save this for a special time. She bought me another two fancy soaps and I saved those as well. When I’d go on business trips, I’d keep the soaps from the fancy hotels b/c… well, b/c I’m Chinese and you don’t waste things and I had remembered a statistic about how much soap gets wasted in the hotel industry.

So I held onto all those soaps, continuing to buy regular soaps, until it hit me a few years ago: I have a ton of soap. And generally just a lot of little toiletries from hotels. And thus began my attempt to remedy this habit– something that is rather silly but that I really try to monitor. More recently, I had been using coupons strategically– no, I’m not an extreme couponer, but for some reason, getting a good deal on soap really makes me happy. For example: my biggest coup was using a $1 off coupon on Ivory Soap. At Walgreens, it is normally $1.99 for a three pack. Then it was on sale for $0.99. I used my $1 off coupon on this item and basically only paid $0.08 (sales tax) for three bars of soap. Yes, this is ridiculous but it made me really happy (again, I think, because I’m cheap and I got such a bargain.)

The soap story is an innocuous example–I’ll use up all the soap and it’s not a big deal. But the same habit extends to some degree in other facets of my purchase behavior. I have a lot of shoes. I had a lot of clothes. I had a lot of books. I have a lot of stuff.

So here is where I want to make sure you understand: it is not nearly as bad as anything that shows up on Hoarders. I probably have as much stuff as most people so it’s not like my room is bursting with crap. But I also feel like as Americans, consumption has really gotten out of hand. One thing that, I believe, has really impacted our perception of how much stuff (namely clothes and shoes) we should own are the reality shows of rich and famous people. Whether it’s Coco (wife of Ice-T) or the Real Housewives of {insert city here}, I think we have this distorted sense of how much stuff we really ought to have. So my point is: I am in line probably with what other regular people have but I think that everybody these days has more/much too much.

A few months ago, I attended a webinar put on by my graduate school about clutter– the tie to career was tenuous at best. But being interested in this topic, I thought the webinar was really helpful. The speaker talked about reasons that people surround themselves with clutter:

– “Just in case” — holding onto something b/c you might need it in the future
– Identity — It holds you to a certain period of time, memories etc
– Inherited — Something that you are given that you can’t bring yourself to get rid of
– Suppress emotions — An action that you do and keep doing to distract yourself from things you really should be focused on

There were others but these stood out. The impact of clutter is that it confuses you, it stagnates you, it costs you money. Most people don’t tackle clutter b/c they don’t know where to start and it’s easier to disregard something than start at the bottom and work it through to the end. Also, there’s the fear of disrupting something because you never know what will happen when you come to the end of a new road.

Now, I don’t want to lecture. I have a couple of friends that I think are legitimately hoarders (and they are my age too, which makes me wonder how the problem will resolve itself as they get older). I said/say my peace to each of them but ultimately, I realize that it’s a personal matter and that nobody from the outside can convince a person to live their life differently. For me, wanting to tackle clutter, I’ve had to decide why I hold onto some things and then devise plans to get rid of stuff that I don’t need. So here have been my strategies to get the process started. I’m hoping I keep to this and that I don’t keep acquiring stuff.

1) Guilt. As I mentioned before, I am Chinese and my parents have raised me to be really cheap. So part of holding onto things is getting the maximum use of items and feeling bad getting rid of them before that point. So what ends up happening is I have a bunch of midway used up stuff and new stuff resulting in too much stuff. So one thing that I have to do is assign thresholds to products– some kind of objective point at which I feel comfortable getting rid of an item and once that threshold has been crossed, I get rid of it and I don’t look back. For example, I had recently purchased a pair of red wedge shoes but already had a pair of red wedges (slightly different) at home. When I bought the new pair, I made a promise to myself that I would go home and see if I could throw out the old pair. I deeply examined the old pair and noticed that the sole was slightly broken and in an overly ritualistic step, I placed it in the garbage. It sounds melodramatic and nutty– I know– but these are the things I need to do in order to get over habits that I have learned.

2) Love/Don’t Love. In that webinar that I attended, the speaker used one question to help people assess whether to keep or get rid of something : Do I love this and am I using it? I use this question (Do I love it?) when I’m at the store and I have to say: it’s been really effective in helping me walk away from mediocre products that I really don’t need. Sometimes, I buy products and decide whether I love it later; in these cases, it’s important to me to hold onto the receipt and return the item when I realize it’s not something that I absolutely need. It’s also something that I’ve been using at home to justify getting rid of clothes and books. I have a stack of about 10 books from my personal library that I’ve never read and that I have been methodically reading and getting rid of books for the past few months. My goal is to have a library of books that I actually love (and would consider re-reading) and at this point, I think I’ve gone through and vetted about 20-30 books thus far.

3) Now vs. “Later”. Another thing that I consider when looking at products in the store is when I will use the item. Really. Like truly and honestly: when will I use this item. I tend to buy things thinking “Someday, when I am….” and this has led me to accumulate a lot of stuff for a make-believe life that I do not live. One of my friends holds onto stuff thinking “Someday when I lose weight, I will wear these clothes.” Now, I don’t know if she will or will not lose the weight and fit into the clothes; she might and if she does, then yay for her. But I think there is an honestly that we have to have about what our bodies look like, what our lifestyle entails, what we will do today and tomorrow when we are building up our arsenal of stuff. So this is something that I have to stop and ask myself when I’m purging items from my room and when I’m out and about shopping (and again, I think I have been very successful in not purchasing new stuff using this strategy.)

4) Rethink collections. When I was younger, I was an ardent sticker collector. It was the days of Lisa Frank and my collection was robust and amazing. More recently, I’ve found my old sticker collections and honestly: it’s all crap. I mean, fair enough: as a child it brought me joy. But think about it: if you are doing something that you were doing when you were 7, without the realization that it’s just a mountain of crap that you are collecting, then yah, you need to stop and think a little bit. This is not to say that I don’t have little collections of things. I have little trinkets that I’ve bought from my travels. I have old shirts from important phases of my life (that I’ve recently considered having made into a quilt. Food for thought.) Like I’ve mentioned, I have a small collection of books that I really enjoyed reading. But I would say that’s generally all the collections that I have. Oh yeah, there’s the soap. But I use that. Everyday. But I don’t think that there is anything that I can say I am avid collector of and I do think that that’s for the best.

5) Just do it. I think the final thing that has been important for me in tackling my personal clutter is to just take a moment and look at the things that are junking up my space and my life and devising systems to bring order to it all. Some people are naturally good at this– like robots, they know how to purge and organize and I’m really jealous of people for which this is so easy. This is not me. When I’m busy or when I’m not focused, stuff just collects on the floor and in my personal space and like some kind of weird tunnel vision, I never see it. So I go long periods without taking care of some matters and then I go berserk and then have to get things neat and done in a short period of time. It’s better than nothing but clearly, something that is more consistent and routine would be better. As a related aside, I should note that I think my dad has some OCD habits. He hits a point where his anxiety goes haywire and then he ends up cleaning like a crazy person. And to be honest, I do this too. So admittedly: I think I do have some low level OCD behavior but at least it’s not creepy habits (like jumping 10 times before opening the door).

So I’ll spend a day (like today) doing all the stuff that I should have managed in small batches. I have a filing cabinet that at any given time is pretty immaculate. I have all my tax stuff organized. I have pay stubs, manuals, all my health stuff in folders. I have every checkup that my car has undergone in a binder. On some levels, I am really neat. But to get there, I will spend hours going through piles of papers, using a label maker and stapling, clipping and sorting through paperwork to get it all organized.

Another thing that was mentioned as a clutter inducer is arts and crafts and I am guilty of this. Clutter typically occurs from in-progress projects and things that slightly ADHD people like myself don’t finish. So today, I finished two scarves that I had halfway finished a few months ago. I sewed the arms onto these knitted dolls that I made. I also cleaned the bathroom. I ordered prints from a trip I went to a few years ago so that I can complete that part of my photo album. I went through all the magazines from the past few months and am ready to recycle them or give them away. I was really productive and it feels good to see piles of stuff that I am ready to part with.

So that’s it from me for now on this topic. I’ll probably bring it up again in the future b/c it is a topic that I continue to struggle with and that I feel the need to communicate milestones thereof.



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