Monday, January 31, 2011

Just a Little Bit of Clutter

I just watched an episode of professional organizer Peter Walsh's new show, "Enough Already." Whenever I watch that kind of television program, I'm always concerned that the people whose homes are being uncluttered are not getting the psychological help that they need in order to make the kinds of changes that are necessary to live uncluttered lives. I hope that there's some work done behind the scenes with professionals who understand on more than just a cursory intellectual level how and why the subjects' lives became consumed by clutter. As much as I'd like to believe that the uncluttering experts onscreen can transform lives, I have serious doubts.

I'm also amazed by the quantity of clutter that the subjects have acquired. With the exception of television shows devoted specifically to hoarders (we expect to see tons of stuff surrounding them), these programs feature average people whose clutter simply has overwhelmed them. Cluttered homes that look like the ones we see on TV are chosen because of their dramatic impact. No one would be particularly interested in watching a show about dealing with just a little bit of excess stuff; we like to see people in extreme situations, confronting demons larger than the ones we face. But the majority of clutter sufferers are not living in a state of chaos; we're living in a state of constant irritation. That's demoralizing, too, and can be surprisingly life-inhibiting.

"It's just a little bit of clutter," we say dismissively, as if it didn't really bother us. But it does. The reasons we tolerate our small amount of clutter can vary but, whatever they are, we end up accepting it as an annoying, yet "normal" part of life. However, "just a little bit of clutter" can cause us quite a lot of stress and anxiety. We shuffle it around to get it out of the way, hide it if friends are scheduled to come by, and curse it as we berate ourselves for our inefficiency. How much better would our lives be if we simply dealt with it? For example, I have a few small piles of papers that I can't seem to sort, file or toss. They sit in wicker trays, tormenting me whenever I look at them. I realize that they represent, as Peter Walsh likes to say, postponed decisions. And yet, I keep postponing.

What if I looked at my situation differently (and you looked at your situation differently, too)? What if we tried the Clean Slate method suggested by Jeffrey Tang, who blogs at The Art of Great Things? In a guest post on Leo Babauta's blog, ZenHabits, Jeffrey explains that rather than working to unclutter by subtraction -- removing things that are unnecessary -- we could try working by adding what we need as we need it. We would do this by literally boxing up all of our clutter and then pulling out what's needed at the time when we're going to use it. Eventually, the unnecessary stuff will be left in the box for an extended period of time and we'll figure out that we can let it go. This is a bit like the process I describe in my book, Sorting It Out, in which I suggest that we take an inventory of what we need rather than what we have and then use that list to help us make decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Jeffrey's system requires more heavy lifting, but for some of us, that may be what's required. There's a simplicity to this approach that's appealing, too, as well as the immediate gratification of a cleaned-up home.

Even more dramatic is the "nuclear option" which requires packing up stuff and getting it out of the house, period. There's no intermediate step of letting it sit for awhile in case we need to pull something out of the box later. If it's not in use, it goes. The nuclear option for papers is the shredder. Don't analyze, just take a cursory glance (in case there's a bill or a check in the stack), then shred. Sounds rather exhilarating, doesn't it? And maybe a bit scary.

Often the real problem in dealing with these small quantities of clutter that most of us keep around is that this is the stuff that causes us the greatest attachment anxiety. With things, the issue is usually sentimental; with papers, it's that they're "important." So, even though we don't know what to do with the stuff, we cling to it mindlessly, allowing it to occupy space in our homes and our heads. Of course, if we truly valued the items in question, we'd display them or use them; if the papers were truly important, they'd be appropriately filed for easy access.

So, what if we just let it all go? What's the worst that would happen? Regrets, perhaps. What's the best that could happen? Relief. Empty space. The ability to move on. Focusing on the moment, not the past. Life.

Will we let "just a little bit of clutter" continue to burden our minds, distracting us from things that are important to us now, or will we confront the annoying stuff and liberate ourselves from its tyranny? Making that decision sounds just as dramatic as anything I've seen on TV. Tune in next week . . . .

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Harry Fodor at stock.xchng

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Consuming Time: Kids and Adults Overwhelmed by Technology

I can think of few people who don't suffer from some kind of problem with effective use of their time but the issue is especially pronounced among those of us who are regularly online. As much as I enjoy the benefits that technology offers, I know that the Internet can be a giant, if fascinating, technological time sink. Anyone who has a smart phone has added techno-pressure to stay connected. This burden of constant connectivity has created a hot topic of conversation, resulting in an effort to convince people to unplug for at least a short period to take a break and reconnect with their real world.

We usually think of consumer behavior as decisions we make about buying stuff, but we also consume time itself. (I prefer the concept of "consuming" rather than "spending" time. We take in entertainment and information and that process consumes our time, too. I never use the expression "killing time" - what an appalling way of thinking!) I feel an acute shortage of time almost every day and I can blame much of that on my use of the Internet. While it's necessary for me to be online for some portion of the day, I'm just as easily seduced as anyone else by interesting links that lead to other interesting links and on and on.

It's difficult for adults to handle time management in relationship to technology, but it's harder for kids even though, and perhaps because, they're technologically more sophisticated than many of their elders. But I hope your children, if you have any, are in better shape than the subjects interviewed for the article "Growing Up Digital; Wired for Distraction" because there are concerns beyond the obvious distractions technology can provide:
". . . computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

"Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

"'Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,' said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: 'The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.'"
One intelligent boy with a low GPA who was mentioned in the article "plays video games 10 hours a week. He regularly sends Facebook status updates at 2 a.m., even on school nights, and has such a reputation for distributing links to videos that his best friend calls him a 'YouTube bully.'" A 14 year old girl "sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month [emphasis mine], her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying." A 14 year old boy, "an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school."

A quote from another boy offered insight that reflects on adult behavior, too:
"'Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.' He concludes: 'My attention span is getting worse.'"
The Washington Post reported the following results of a poll:
"Youth are spending more time with every form of media than ever, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They spend more hours on the computer, in front of television, playing video games, texting and listening to music than an adult spends full-time at work. According to the study, children ages 8 to 18 are now spending more than 53 hours a week (7:38 hours/day) using entertainment media. Ten years ago, that figure was 43 hours a week."
Of course, every generation for decades has lamented the potential to waste time offered by technological advances from radio to motion pictures to television. And perhaps to some extent they were right; it has always been easy to waste time listening to or watching entertainment on those media, but computers are different. Knowing how to use them has become a crucial skill that kids must master. Parents once might have been able to restrict their children's exposure to television, but computers are often required for homework, are used in many classrooms, and can be the key to future employment. They can't be ignored. And parental restrictions weren't working too well anyway ten years ago if that Washington Post poll is any indication -- 43 hours a week is still a huge amount of time devoted to entertainment media.

It's not just kids who are affected by ever-present technology. Steve Holt commented on Technorati's Soapbox Musings about its effects on adults:
"We keep pads of paper beside the bed to write down everything before we forget it. We look for more things to help us organize and prioritize our 'information,' to help us store it, sort it, filter it, and keep it safe. Because, after all, bad things will happen if we don't, right? What eventually happens is that we are bombarded with so much information, and so many choices, that we can't process everything. So we do the only thing we can do... we shut down, or more specifically, our brains shut down. We no longer spend time thinking critically and processing things. We stay 'shallow' with everything and everyone we come in contact with, and we wonder why we can't remember anything anymore."
Ron Geraci reported at Reader's
"'Technology is allowing us to do things we've never been able to do, and it's positively incredible,' says Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of CrazyBusy. 'The downsides are that it's addictive and you can become tied to it in ways that are exhausting.'

"There's little evidence that the rapid pace of technological innovation has made life markedly more enjoyable. In fact, it may be doing the opposite. Consider a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that 48 percent of Americans feel their lives have become more stressful in the past five years. Then consider that all our electronic communication hasn't slowed the raging flood of snail mail, memos, books, magazines and other print matter that most people read to keep up on the job. No wonder that more than a third of those surveyed by the APA said a major factor feeding their stress was work encroaching on personal time."
Clearly there's a balance that we need to find that allows us to reap the benefits of technology without losing ourselves to our computers and gadgets. The Reader's Digest article also offered several suggestions to help us regain control, including setting limits on how and when we're accessible; sticking to a schedule for everything from answering e-mails, texts, and phone calls to recreational Internet use; and recognizing that there's no such thing as multi-tasking on anything that "takes dedicated brainpower to perform optimally." Easier said than done, I fear.

Are you feeling overwhelmed by technology? Have you tried a plan to find that balance in your life? How's it working out for you? And how's it working for your kids?

I'll check for any comments later. Right now I have to update my Facebook status . . . .

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob