Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cyber-Clutter and Digital Disorganization

I am surrounded by little scraps of paper with notes on them. There's also a small pile of business cards scattered across my desk. Atop my handy little rolling cart sit several pages filled with scrawls of important information. The common link between these papers, all begging for my attention: each one contains data that must be entered into my computer. E-mail addresses, obviously, but also phone numbers and snail-mail addresses because, like many people, my primary list of contacts is online. Yes, I have a small Rolodex next to the most often used land-line phone, and it provides easy access to the phone numbers and addresses of people contacted regularly. But if I ever decided to upgrade from just a plain old cell phone to something like a snazzier BlackBerry that could organize absolutely everything, I'd no longer need my retro-Rolodex.

Of course, no matter what kind of electronic brain you're using, at some point the information does need to be put into it, by you, or, if you're lucky, by your hapless personal assistant. I am sans assistant, so I'm the one stuck typing this stuff into my online address book. And, alas, in the long-running battle of Me vs. Paper Scraps, the scraps won a mighty victory, so now the amount of data entry required to catch up looks pretty daunting. But this issue is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to managing one's life online.

How many of you have innocently hopped online for a quick check of your e-mail, only to discover when you looked at the clock that two hours had mysteriously disappeared? For many of us who rely heavily on e-mail, all that time could have been spent reading and responding to it. But most of us get side-tracked by a quick and easy detour, perhaps to check out that eye-catching news headline, and that story usually contains a link to another interesting story, containing a link to yet another interesting story, etc., etc., etc. Or the links could have been provided within the body of our incoming e-mails, for example, friends pointing out sites or articles they've discovered that you absolutely "must" see or read (I confess that I am guilty of this, but only on rare occasions or during contentious political elections); links to special offers from companies with which you do business regularly; or notices of program expirations or financial transactions that you don't want to link to directly, just in case you're getting fooled by some slick cyber-con, but which then require you to open a new window and go to the site in question to see what the real scoop is.

Some time ago, when my incoming e-mail quantity became unwieldy, I began using a system of folders for it. I've heard rumors that truly efficient people peruse their e-mail and pop each one immediately into an appropriate folder to deal with later. I fear this concept of "later" because if that e-mail isn't right out there, staring at me, probably with a big star or check mark by it indicating that it requires follow-up, I may never think of it again. This is the curse of a visual person. If it's filed, it's gone from my mind as well as my inbox, so I'd better make sure I handle it before I stash it away.

Dealing with cyber-stuff requires just as much brain-power as dealing with any other paperwork so it must be approached with the same determined and ruthless frame of mind. Entering data is similar to sorting and putting away important information in a filing cabinet; sorting and acting on e-mail is really no different than handling the same task in paper form. None of this qualifies as fun, in my book, but at least there's some small satisfaction in hitting that "delete" key to obliterate a useless communication. And there's greater satisfaction in having all that "filing" existing only in digital form so that it doesn't take up physical space in the house. But, as with the old standard metal filing cabinet full of bulging hanging files and over-packed folders, keeping things up-to-date and properly organized must be part of the routine.

Just a quick aside: I recently discovered a device that could further cut down the amount of paper in those cramped filing cabinets and I'd like to point it out to you (again, no financial gain for me, just an interesting tip). It's called the Neat Receipts Scanalizer. It allows you to scan "receipts, bills, medical forms, business cards -- everything. It scans, analyzes and organizes your papers and stores everything in a database on your PC." I suspect that it comes with its own set of cyber-quirks, but if any of you have tried it, please let me know.

There are just a few tips I'd like to suggest when facing our current cyber-challenges. While at your computer, try using a little kitchen timer set at half-hour intervals to keep you alert to the passage of time (it's a good idea to stretch and walk around a bit for a minute or two). Just as with incoming paperwork and mail, quickly discarding anything that's not absolutely necessary simplifies your online life immensely; remember, you can find information about almost anything you can imagine using a search engine. Setting up and using a filing system to corral the rest of the stuff is mandatory.

And now I must face my digital dilemma of the day: it's time to go through that e-mail file sadly labeled "Miscellaneous."

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Dear Subscribers: My Blogger account is still having some sort of difficulty; I see that it sent out another old post from 2006 earlier today. Again, please accept my apologies. I'll ask the tech support people to help me figure out what is triggering these e-mails. Thank you for your patience.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Emotional Sponge and Clutter

I've recently discovered a great blog called Psychology of Clutter by Dr. Amie Ragan, a licensed clinical psychologist who often works with people who have difficulty dealing with clutter. I was particularly interested in her posts about "Emotional Sponges."

Dr. Ragan describes an Emotional Sponge as someone who engages in "the act of soaking up what other people throw at you (criticism, negativity, problems) without ever questioning whether or not you need, want or deserve it." (Words in italics are mine.) I'd like to add: whether or not there's anything you can do about it. We all want to be compassionate listeners and helpers to our friends and loved ones, even in situations where the best we can offer is a sympathetic ear. But some of us take on the responsibility for "fixing" a situation when we're not the ones who can fix it.

Unless you're under attack by one of Dr. Ragan's "Psychic Vampires" (a person who actually enjoys making you feel bad about yourself, in which case, please turn and run immediately or at least carry a psychological wooden stake!), chances are that you'll get caught in the unfortunate position of being an Emotional Sponge occasionally, primarily thanks to the folks I have unceremoniously labeled the Deadly Dumpers.

We've all encountered people who seem to specialize in unloading their personal problems on others. These are not people who are going through a rough patch in their lives; they are people who see life as one gigantic rough patch. You probably have noticed that these people have the remarkable ability to suck all the energy right out of a room. Your primal response is to try to avoid them just to save yourself. These Dumpers usually present themselves as ever-suffering victims of circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes there are what we all would agree are "valid" reasons for their unhappiness and depression, but I suspect that Dr. Ragan would want to help them rework their thinking about those circumstances, whatever they might be, so that they could function more effectively and more joyfully in their lives.

There are also people who seem to specialize in focusing on the "doomed" state of everything from office politics to the fate of the world, unloading their despair or cynicism on all who will listen. Again, these are not people pointing out specific problems in order to have a thoughtful discussion about them; these are people who will squash any notion that there is even hope for a satisfactory resolution and insist that all efforts are pointless. Obviously, they are equally capable of sapping the energy from anyone they encounter. Most often they also are seriously depressed and in need of psychological help. But, oddly, I've noticed that sometimes someone who falls into this category is not depressed or even particulary personally disturbed, but instead actually appears to enjoy the process of lamenting the state of things and "proving" that the situation is utterly hopeless. I wonder if this isn't some rationalization that allows them to remove themselves from any responsibility for taking action to facilitate change, or perhaps their cynicism is an effort to seem "sophisticated" in the way that a young teenager might affect discontent as a demonstration of "maturity." I'll leave the professional analysis of this phenomenon to Dr. Ragan and other trained specialists.

However, in each case, we innocent, unwitting souls, just trying to get on with our day, dealing with our own challenges, finding joy where we may, easily can fall prey to these Deadly Dumpers. If we have the unfortunate tendency to be Emotional Sponges, we will absorb all the negativity they unload and stand there feeling horrible. But they will walk away either trapped in their own, narrowly focused agony or, in the latter case, no worse for wear because dumping all that negativity doesn't bother them. Either way, it's not a good deal for the Sponge.

Dr. Ragan's clever solution to help you stop being an Emotional Sponge is to think of yourself as a bowl rather than a sponge. I love this imagery which allows you to hold on to whatever comes your way, then pour out whatever you don't want to keep, whenever you want to do so. Clearly there are some people you'll still want to avoid, but should a Deadly Dumper be thrust upon you in circumstances where you can't duck out a side door, extricate yourself as quickly as you can, then pour out the unpleasant and totally useless negative contents of your bowl. Ah! Relief!

And how does all this apply to clutter? Let's consider an Emotional Sponge as someone who retains possessions out of sentiment, feelings of obligation, perhaps even fear of loss or change, someone who must be uncomfortably "squeezed" to release stuff. A "bowl" (I think I'll use the term "Beautiful Bowl") understands that all possessions, no matter what they are, no matter what their value, are only temporary, most certainly in the larger sense. Therefore the Beautiful Bowl is able to use them up, enjoy them while it's appropriate, and release them - pour them right out - without great difficulty when the time is right. A Beautiful Bowl can pour out lovely things, too, to give away to others, again, when the time is right. Most importantly, a Beautiful Bowl remains beautiful by not being filled to the brim with unappealing contents.

And what does a Beautiful Bowl do with its most special contents, its favorite memories and the love of family and friends? Let's think of one more kitchen analogy. Great chefs know that you never, ever scrub a wok or a cast iron skillet after using it. You wipe and clean it gently, but you allow it to build up a coating, a patina referred to as "seasoning." I like to think of those special contents as the patina that's never washed away from our well-seasoned Beautiful Bowl; those memories and that love will stay with us forever.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, April 13, 2007

Tax Procrastination and The Black Box

The PBS television series adapted from Agatha Christie's famous books about Belgian detective Hercule Poirot features a familiar cast of characters one might expect to find in a charming British mystery. We have the clever, eccentric detective; the devoted, helpful sidekick who is consistently amazed by the detective's brilliance; and the fallible Inspector who requires the detective's special insights and unique abilities to solve the crime. But in the Hercule Poirot series, there is another character who is also clever, eccentric, brilliant and downright fascinating: Miss Lemon.

Miss Felicity Lemon may be the most organized secretary in the world of fiction. (Pauline Moran portrayed the nearly flawless Miss Lemon with the requisite poise and dignity, and, when required, with a sensitivity that made the character so likeable.) Miss Lemon's office was always tidy. She remained unruffled in the face of any of Poirot's business concerns. Most significant was her impressively detailed and highly sophisticated filing system in which every item was ultra-efficiently cross-referenced, allowing her instantaneous access to any information her employer might require.

Alas, that is not my system; sadly, I am not remotely like Miss Lemon. And every year at tax time, oh, how I lament my fate and wish I could emulate at least a few of her admirable organizational qualities. Instead, I sit with my piles of unsorted receipts and face the frustration of re-assembling the past year of my life so that I can even begin calculating my taxes. Naturally, I wait as long as possible to commence this sorry ritual. But I've always assumed that I was not alone in procrastinating at tax time, so I decided to make an effort to learn more about why people procrastinate. This interesting task also allowed me to procrastinate further.

According to an article on, the most obvious motive for procrastinating is that preparing taxes is an unpleasant task and, because people prefer to feel good rather than bad, they tend to postpone anything that they know will make them feel bad. Money coach and author Ruth Hayden offered her assessment: "Usually, any form of procrastination is either fear or rebellion. How much am I going to owe? Are 'they' going to take it away from me? What if I can't do this?"

Whatever the reason, it turns out that tax procrastination is so common that Intuit, manufacturer of the popular computer tax software program Turbo Tax, has created an annual list of the top ten cities with the largest number of last-minute on-line tax filers. This year, the phrase,"Houston, we have a problem," takes on new meaning as that Texas city earned the dubious honor of achieving first place, with the largest number of tax procrastinators. Here in Los Angeles, we've fallen off the list at last, finally coming in with a ranking of number twelve. Obviously, I did nothing to help that ranking, although I use H&R Block's TaxCut, so I wasn't being counted anyway.

Now, I confess that was an unusual, seemingly contradictory decision. I don't know what possessed me, but a few years ago, after receiving another substantial bill from our accountant for preparing my very straightforward tax return, I decided that I would try to do it myself. To my utter amazement, TaxCut was easy to use (no, I'm not getting paid to promote the program; I just think that if a tax-phobic person like me can use it without exploding my head, it's worth giving it a plug). The problem that remained was assembling all the information before I could use it. An organized person would suggest a simple filing system or perhaps a program like Quicken in which I could easily track my expenses. I've tried the filing system, in numerous permutations. I've tried Quicken. Both options are fine solutions in the hands of someone who doesn't detest doing the actual work and avoid it as if it were the plague.

Probably most surprising in my procrastination research, however, was discovering the number of people who simply don't file taxes at all. These are the ultimate tax procrastinators. However, reports, "According to the IRS, 1.8 million individuals who failed to file a tax return in 2003 left a total of $2.2 billion in unclaimed refunds in the coffers. Half of those non-filers would have received a refund of more than $611." If you're one of these folks, you might want to consider catching up a bit. There's a deadline for claiming that cash, so if you owed no taxes in 2003, you have until April 17th of this year to file and get whatever refund is due. Of course, you have to file for all the intervening years, too, so it looks like you'd better get to work!

Is there a solution for those of us who abhor managing the paperwork required to handle our tax preparations? One suggestion I'd like to offer is that, as usual, most of us keep too many papers in the first place. It's yet another example of excess stuff making life difficult. Of all the papers we get throughout the year, what papers do we need to keep for tax purposes? Receipts for all deductible items (or potentially deductible items such as medical expenses, car expenses, charitable donations and anything else appropriate if you've spent enough that it's wise to itemize). It is not necessary to keep such items as register tapes from the grocery store, multiple credit card cash advance offers, booklets full of coupons you'll never use, neighborhood flyers for swimming pool repairs if you don't own a pool, advertising supplements from the newspaper for stores where you don't shop, or all those enclosures that are tucked into probably every one of the envelopes that held your bills. Keep cancelled checks, if you still get them, or a legible check register showing payment for other deductible items that didn't generate a receipt. It is not necessary to keep cancelled checks for the car wash, the daily newspaper, or a $10 loan to your sister. Keep W-2 forms, when they show up in the mail, and 1099 forms, if you get those, as well as mortgage and investment brokerage information, of course (but not all the enclosures and solicitations that your lender or broker probably send you regularly). Hang on to your annual statement of IRA or other retirement information, even if you're not drawing out funds yet. That's pretty much the lot. You'll be amazed how easily your pile of tax receipts shrinks if you toss out the useless stuff immediately rather than let it accumulate to sort "later." We all know that later means "never," or at least "not until tax time."

My plan to organize my receipts for next year is the boldest one yet: one fairly large black box with attractive metal corner details that sits on top of a filing cabinet (yes, I do manage to force myself to file a few things, but the effort usually requires chocolate, and plenty of it). Every receipt will be placed in that box at the time I receive it. It will be a chronological record of the year. Of course, this type of record will be utterly useless at tax time, but at least I will no longer torture myself with recriminations for not faithfully filing by category throughout the year and having to gather receipts from several locations labeled, "To Be Filed." No, I will embrace my new system, accept myself as a non-filer, and simply confront the tax-paper challenge once a year, confident that all my receipts are in one place.

I feel better already. And I'm proud to report that my 2006 taxes were filed "early" this year, appropriately enough, on Friday the 13th!

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Zero Is the New Black

If you haven't already heard about NoImpactMan, you will. Colin Beavan, his wife and young daughter live in a small but swanky New York City apartment where they've been enjoying a very comfy, sophisticated urban lifestyle without giving any thought to how that lifestyle was affecting the environment. Now, in a fit of upper-middle class guilt, they've decided to give it all up (except for the apartment - whaddayou, nuts?) during a year-long experiment to reduce their impact on our planet's resources to the absolute minimum, thus the moniker, "NoImpactMan."

Their plan is a radical effort to cut back gradually to the bare essentials required to survive in the city and it's caused quite a stir on-line and in the press. Is it possible to live in a major metropolitan area without creating trash, eating only locally grown organic food, using no subways or cars, no elevators, buying nothing in plastic packaging, watching no television, and much more (or much less)? Controversy rages on numerous websites and within the comments on the NoImpactMan blog: Is this the noble experiment of a modern-day Thoreau or nothing more than a physically demanding publicity stunt? Is there a contradiction between trying to have no impact while simultaneously filming a documentary, planning to publish a book, as well as using a computer to blog regularly? And, let's get right to the most often asked and debated question: How (and why) does one survive without toilet paper?

The personal hygiene issue I addressed on this blog in a lengthy response to a comment on my "Ethical Spending" post in which I was introduced to NoImpactMan. Suffice it to say that I am not in favor of any choice that jeopardizes one's own health, that of others in the family, and perhaps the larger society in the name of "simplifying" life. Sometimes progress is just fine with me, thank you, with or without impact.

But I'm always fascinated by the questions raised by people willing to push the concept of minimalist living to the extreme. Exactly what would we be willing to give up if we felt it would help sustain the Earth? How do the realities of city living affect our decisions? How do we determine what areas of sustainable living are our personal responsibilities and what areas are corporate or government responsibilities? When does righteous protest against consumerism tip over the edge into slightly loony behavior that makes even the most devoted environmentalists cringe? These are questions worth pondering.

Amidst all the brouhaha surrounding NoImpactMan, what I consider to be the most encouraging response is the subject of a commentary by marketing expert Seth Godin on his blog. "Zero is the new black," he pronounces. It's simply no longer cool to live large and have too much stuff. As people become more aware of the significance of the choices they make, the more absurd some of those choices seem. We know that people may not always be motivated by social responsibility but they are quite reliably motivated by the cool factor. And once marketing and advertising get involved, you can bet your big old SUV that very soon, throughout our society, "more" will be "less."

Of course, for people living in homes still packed to the rafters with excess possessions, it's hard to imagine the changes the Beavan family has committed to make. Just creating some livable space is enough of a challenge. But by making a space livable, isn't that making a contribution to a sustainable culture? Okay, tossing out tons of trash is adding to the landfill, but we are all recycling whenever we can - aren't we? And what about all those donations of clothing, furniture, toys, dishes, collectibles? That's just recycling on a larger scale. More importantly, unburdening ourselves of all that unnecessary stuff and enjoying our new-found freedom will make us more thoughtful about our future purchases, most likely reducing them to what's necessary.

And that, of course, always leads us back to the main challenge: defining what is necessary. How much do we need to live? How much to live "comfortably?" Everyone will have a different answer to those questions, but they are the heart of the issue. As we already know, for most of us the honest answer will be: less. But now, less is not only more, as architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said; finally, less is also cool.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob