Sunday, March 28, 2010

More Motivation for Uncluttering

A few links and a few thoughts to help keep you motivated:

Spring cleaning doesn't do much good if you haven't done spring uncluttering first. That's what Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger learned when she personally tackled "Ditching 800 Pounds of Clutter."  Her six-week experiment to clean out and clean up turned out well in spite of some frustrations during the process. There are a couple of good before and after pix to see at this link, too. (Thanks to for pointing out this WSJ article that was published last week.)

"The Story of Stuff: Cycle of Consuming and Dumping Creates Heavy Baggage," by DeNeen L. Brown in Saturday's Washington Post, was prompted by Annie Leonard's new book, The Story of Stuff. Yes, Ms. Leonard is the same person who made the engrossing twenty minute video of the same title that many of you probably have already seen. The WaPo article talks about not only the crisis created by our cultural obsession with consumerism, but also the emotional connection we have with our stuff. An aside: I was amused that Ms. Brown referred to how we used to be able to fit all we owned in a Honda Civic; my generation remembers and probably fantasizes about how we used to be able to fit all we owned in a Volkswagen. The vehicles change, but the sentiment remains -- although there's more room in a Civic! (Thanks to friend and former neighbor, Rachel, for the article link.)

Ultimately, our relationship with most of our stuff is pretty indefensible for one simple reason: you can't take it with you. I've been hanging onto the link to this LA Times article for quite awhile: "Selling What the Dead Leave Behind". Okay, it's not a cheery topic, but it's worth thinking about. You may have heirs that will deal with all your possessions (whether they want to or not is another issue), but what happens if no one is around to sort out your stuff after you've shuffled off this mortal coil? In Los Angeles, the county auctions your belongings to the public. This article provides an informative and poignant look at the process. It's a good reality check for all of us.

We're mid-Discardia right now; it continues until April 14th. I mentioned in my previous post that I'm using this "holiday" to help motivate me to unclutter what may be the final layer in my own archaeological dig through stuff that now seems superfluous to me. I also mentioned that I needed to figure out when my sense of obligation to unclutter was legitimate, not just something I felt I "should" do. What I'm discovering is that I don't have as much left to let go as I thought. I'm not exactly streamlined, but I don't feel the nagging sense of being burdened that I used to have several years ago. If "The Big One" hit LA and we were shaken and rattled out of our home, never to return (Heaven forbid, of course!), there are only a few things I'd miss. Photographs and some handmade mementos are all that I'd be truly sorry to lose. I can't do much about the mementos, other than continue to enjoy having them for as long as the ground remains steady, but I can do something about the photographs by posting them in online albums. That will be a good use of some of my time.

Of course, I'll continue to sort and toss whatever things are left that need to go, but I'll do it gradually. The most significant clutter I'm going to part with immediately is that sense of obligation to be "done." I think letting go of that will allow me to move forward with some current projects that I've been putting on hold until the magic state of "done" had been achieved. I regret to confess that this desire to be done is an excellent example of perfectionism getting in the way of living. To quote Discardia creator, Dinah Sanders (italics are mine):

Discardia is celebrated by getting rid of stuff and ideas you no longer need. It's about letting go, abdicating from obligation and guilt, being true to the self you are now. Discardia is the time to get rid of things that no longer add value to your life, shed bad habits, let go of emotional baggage and generally lighten your load.

Turns out that my useless mental baggage is more bother than my remaining tangible stuff! It's time to let it go, too, and adopt Dinah's motto in my home, my head and my life:

Make room for awesomeness.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: asifthebes at stock.xchng

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Cleaning and a Free Book

Spring is a sign of renewal so it's not surprising that we cling to the concept of spring cleaning, even though the messy coal-burning stoves that prompted the ritual are long gone from our homes. If you live in a climate where you have winter, those first days of warm sunshine still make you want to celebrate the season in a clean home. Those of us here in sunny SoCal don't experience a dramatic change of weather at this time of year, but I must have some kind of spring fever anyway because cleaning up is exactly what I want to do. My problem is what I call "The Final Layer of Clutter" and it's in my way; at least, it's in the way in my head.

I've spent the last several years sorting, tossing, donating and generally unburdening myself of a lot of possessions. And burdensome is exactly how they felt, even though some of those possessions were beautiful antiques I had inherited and had enjoyed living with, familiar things I grew up with that brought me fond memories, and lovely newer things I had acquired with great enthusiasm at the time of purchase. I don't know what flipped the switch in my head, but suddenly I wanted to feel liberated in a way that I couldn't if I was responsible for all that stuff.

The notion of responsibility for our possessions isn't hard to understand; we worked hard, and our families worked hard in the past, in order to have all the comforts and luxuries we enjoy. It doesn't take much introspection to generate feelings of gratitude for having these things and the sense of obligation to care for the stuff properly kicks in quickly, too. If we inherited things, whether valuable or not, that puts an extra layer of responsibility on us. But the notion of being the caretaker of the family history in the form of ownership of stuff can be perceived as a welcome privilege or an oppressive weight, or anything in between.

Because I don't have children who would inherit the family furniture, dishes, etc. (and, believe me, not every child is thrilled to inherit every item we each deem important), I had to make a decision about what to do with most of my sentimental stuff. Yes, I did keep some things that are particularly significant to me and that still bring me joy; for the rest, I opted for what I called my "pre-estate sale." This allowed me to be the one to make choices about where I wanted things to go. That did not necessarily make it easy to let go of these items because, even though I was well aware of how much I wanted to feel that sense of freedom, I didn't simply turn into an unsentimental person. Even now, I can still get a little twinge at times when I think of all that I parted with, but, fortunately, a moment of reflection puts me back in touch with the certain knowledge that I did the right thing.

However, The Final Layer of Clutter is not only a small amount of remaining sentimental stuff. In fact, much of it doesn't have any sentiment attached to it at all. But it does have that sense of obligation hanging over it: I know I should do something with it. Often the sense of obligation is totally misplaced, so I need to make sure I really do need to do something with these things and, if I do, I need to act on it. Do I need or truly want to organize and scan my family photographs? Yes. Do I need or truly want to keep a stash of old costume jewelry? No.

I think I had battle fatigue after letting go of so much truly important stuff and then making sure I reached my goal in last year's 365 Item Toss Challenge (I exceeded it!). And now I face The Final Layer. My solution? I'm preparing to celebrate one of my favorite holidays again: Discardia. I first heard of Discardia from blogger Jeri Dansky on her popular blog, Jeri's Organizing and Decluttering News and I've posted about it in the past (here and here). The short explanation of the holiday, according to its founder, Dina Sanders, is that Discardia is about "letting go of stuff and ideas that you don't need." It's celebrated between the Solstices & Equinoxes and their following new moons. The next Discardia begins on Saturday, March 20th, and ends on April 14th. Even though Discardia is strictly a no-pressure holiday, I'm going to use it to motivate me to do my best to deal with The Final Layer of Clutter during that time. I'm also going to make a major effort to unload some of the useless mental baggage that I cart around.

To help motivate you, I'm going to give away a copy of my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff. All you have to do is leave a comment telling me what kind of spring cleaning and uncluttering you plan to do. Are you at the beginning of your uncluttering efforts or have you made lots of progress? Do you have sentimental stuff that's holding you back or are you simply swamped by everything? Do you already have your house in order and live the life of a thoughtful consumer? Whoever you are, please join the discussion. I'll use a random number generator to choose the winner (assuming more than one faithful reader responds!) and I'll announce the name in the comments of this post next Saturday, the 20th, day one of the spring Discardia celebration.

Let's see if we can make spring cleaning fun! Okay, that's probably too much to ask. Let's just make this a fun contest!

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo by littlekata at stock.xchng

Thursday, March 11, 2010

FBI Scams and Social Network Schemes

The FBI offers continually updated alerts online about consumer scams and I encourage you to read the entire current list for details. You can even sign up for e-mails if you'd like to be notified immediately about the latest trickery afoot. Undoubtedly, the Nigerian prince who desperately needs your assistance to claim his inheritance is still prowling around, but there are always other nefarious characters brewing up new schemes. Below is some general information about just a few favorite scams that target all of us.

Bogus Charities: It's hard to believe that a tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti would bring out scammers, but it did, just as other tragedies have in the past. Fraudulent charities with familiar-sounding names solicit help via e-mail, a much more efficient system than in the old days when they had to rely on phone calls or snail mail. You'd think that anyone receiving a solicitation would check to make sure the charity was legit, but apparently that's not the case. This is still a profitable scam that harvests credit card information and sometimes cash and check payments. Solution: Verify the legitimacy of any charity before you make a donation. Charity Navigator can help you do this; the site also provides rankings of charities that show you how efficiently donations are being used.

Scareware: Have you ever seen an abrupt and usually noisy pop-up while you're online, warning that your computer is "infected with a virus?" That's scareware and it's a scam to get you to buy fake software. Download the advertised "virus protection" program and you could end up installing viruses, Trojans or keyloggers instead. (Keyloggers are particularly insidious; they allow the scammer access to your passwords.) The FBI estimates a loss of over $150 million to victims of this kind of scam. Solution: Make sure you have real virus protection software installed on your computer. If you do encounter one of these pop-up notices, just close your browser and run a virus scan in case there are any problems resulting from the pop-up.

Economic Stimulus Checks: Some clever scammers have sent e-mails purportedly from the IRS, stating that the recipient is eligible for an economic stimulus check from the government. Considering the sorry state of the economy and the lure of getting a piece of the well-pulicized but apparently little-understood stimulus package, this could easily hook an unsuspecting consumer. Of course, the recipient has to provide all kinds of personal information, including bank account numbers, before the "stimulus check" can be issued. Solution: Never give any personal information in response to an unsolicited e-mail; the government and financial institutions never send requests for such sensitive information via e-mail.

Numerous other scams are circulating online right now, including fake work as a "mystery shopper" (there are some legitimate mystery shopping sites, but you must find out which ones they are); fake greeting card links that install a virus if you click on them (cards sent from legitimate sites always identify the name of the friend who sent the card); work at home scams that involve "processing payments," "transferring funds" or "re-shipping items;" numerous scams trying to get personal financial information by using the names of government officials in the e-mails in order to look official; even a scam in which the e-mail recipient is told s/he has been selected to appear on Oprah Winfrey's "Millionaire Show" and all s/he has to do is buy a plane ticket, a show ticket and provide some personal information. Solution: Verify, verify, verify and remember the old adage that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Social networking can be great fun but it also has created a friendly new system for scammers to exploit. Here's a quote from the FBI's update page (italics are mine):

Fraudsters continue to hijack accounts on social networking sites and spread malicious software by using various techniques. One technique involves the use of spam to promote phishing sites [phishing: trying to get sensitive information illegally], claiming there has been a violation of the terms of agreement or some other type of issue which needs to be resolved. Other spam entices users to download an application or view a video. Some spam appears to be sent from users' "friends," giving the perception of being legitimate. Once the user responds to the phishing site, downloads the application, or clicks on the video link, their computer, telephone or other digital device becomes infected.

Another technique used by fraudsters involves applications advertised on social networking sites, which appear legitimate; however, some of these applications install malicious code or rogue anti-virus software. Other malicious software gives the fraudsters access to your profile and personal information. These programs will automatically send messages to your "friends" list, instructing them to download the new application, too [further contaminating the pool of the social network's users].

I enjoy using Facebook to keep up with friends, many long-lost, and to share links to stories or websites I find interesting. But I've avoided all of the Facebook applications, even the "legitimate" ones, because they allow the application to access to my friends' information. I'm a fairly public user of the site because I also use it to promote my blog and website which, in turn, promote my book and art that are for sale. However, I still don't want my information provided to any applications and I certainly don't want my friends' information provided to them, even if the applications seem to be sending only harmless little "gifts." One Facebook user I'm aware of has had his identity hijacked and his entire list of friends was spammed yesterday with several bogus messages -- an annoying and potentially embarrassing situation. Solution: Think twice before automatically clicking on an advertising link on your social network page or on a video supposedly sent by a friend. And remember that there's no such thing as a free iMac!

[An aside: Of course, Facebook and other social networking sites aren't the only possible sources of annoying and embarrassing spam attacks on one's friends. I've had my e-mail names cloned on both services that I use and a couple that I don't. Apparently "I" haven't spammed my list (I'm certain someone would have informed me), but I do occasionally receive spam at my own addresses from "myself!"]

There's certainly nothing new about people using trickery to steal from other people, but the Internet opens up opportunities of unprecedented scale. A dedicated online scammer can target many thousands of marks in the time it used to take a snail-mail fraudster to address an envelope. Solution: Be very thoughtful before you click.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: sqback on stock.xchng