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Making Spaces in Cluttered Houses and Cluttered Lives

Aug 19, 2009 • general

In a world of increasing social media, work, activities, and other obligations, it's easy for our lives to become quickly cluttered. Just last week an old friend wrote and explained that she was finally listening to some of my podcasts and really enjoyed them. In particular, she listened to the podcast with Ricardo Amigo about technical writing, in which I explain some of the new tools (i.e., Flash and Illustrator) I'm trying to learn.

My friend asked how I have time to do all of this, because given her contract work, her side job, caring for her parents and other obligations, she didn't have time for practically anything.

I'm not going to pretend that I have time for it all. If I somehow give away that idea, don't believe it. For example, in the Ricardo Amigo podcast, I said I was learning Flash. Well, I'm still learning Flash. I had to postpone my learning of Flash for a while to focus on another project. Also, my side projects have suffered, and I've let other things also deteriorate. My constant stream of posts is only because of a priority I've set.

However, last week I listened to a podcast that made a lot of sense to me, especially about the question of making time. In Everything Creative, Robin Pedersen, a professional organizer (yes, that's really her title), explains that she helps people with cluttered houses learn to organize their things (for example, their overflowing closets) to bring order and peace back into their lives.

The podcast made me want to clean my own house and start organizing all the loose papers and junk I have floating around. But while the topic of organization has merit on its own, Pedersen opened up a parallel for me, from tips to organizing my house to tips to organizing my life.

Asked about organization strategies, Pedersen explained that one of the first things you must do is "make a space for everything." If you have a lot of papers floating around, you need a filing cabinet. If you have junk on the table, you need a little bin or basket for them somewhere. You can't organize your house if you don't have a place to put things. That makes sense.

Jane likes to say more or less the same thing when she cleans: "A place for everything, and everything in its place." I hadn't thought much about the first line -- a place for everything, but it's key, because the same holds true in life. We need a place for all our activities to fit. If we don't have a place for them, we shouldn't allow them into our lives. If we do, we end up with a cluttered-filled house -- and as a result, we're always misplacing things and boxing ourselves in with junk in every direction, so that we can hardly breathe.

My life is often like the cluttered house that Pedersen describes. Only instead of papers on the desk, miscellaneous junk in a bowl, a book next to a toothbrush next to a diaper on the counter, with my life what I have laying around is my full-time job, my three daughters, my witty wife Jane, my calling with scouts and Sunday school, my WordPress projects, my involvement with the STC, books I'm reading, blogs I'm commenting on, podcasts I've scheduled, blog posts I'm writing, my Writer River project, my basketball nights and other exercise, camping excursions, budget goals,  favorite TV programs such as the X Files, and so on.

If you were to figuratively draw the clutter of my life, it would look somewhat like the order of the house I described. Things here, things there. Some of it put away, clean, and organized. Other things loosely scattered about, messy, and mixed together with absolutely no organization at all.

Putting Pedersen's advice to practice, step one is to make a place for everything in our lives. Figure out where it belongs. Just as you can't organize a house if you have no where to put things, you can't organize your life if you have no way space for the activities. If something doesn't fit, it's time for a trip to the figurative Salvation Army (we call them Deseret Industries here). In other words, simplify.

We're used to stripping away excess words in our prose, right? In "Omit Needless Words," Leo Babauta applies Strunk and White's minimalism philosophy to life. He explains several ways to omit needless things from our lives:

Doing: Do less. Make everything you do count. Look at your to-do list and see what's really important. In fact, examine your work life in general and see whether you're really making every day count. Omit needless activity.

Goals: Do we really need 101 goals? Can we do with just a few, or even one? By focusing on less, you can really pour yourself into it.

What you produce: If you produce something, whether it's writing or music or software or clothing, see if you can simplify and keep it more focused. If you create a website, can you give it one single purpose, with one call to action? Can you do that with your writing or music? Figure out what that purpose is, and edit ruthlessly so that everything that remains counts.

In the same way that our houses get messy because we don't have places for all our things, our lives get messy because we crowd them without thinking about whether we have space for the activity. When we start thinking from this analogy, we're less likely to try to allow so much in. (And yes, I have found that writing this post is much easier than actually living it.)

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.