Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Best wishes for 2013 and thank you for reading "The Thoughtful Consumer!"

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Uncluttering: Stuff vs. Art

One of my new, small drawings: graphs created from
significant numbers in someone's life or numbers
derived from musical patterns in favorite songs.

Anyone who's attempted to unclutter understands that our relationship with our stuff is complicated. But too often uncluttering is misunderstood as a process that leaves one bereft of possessions, forced to live an uncomfortable, minimalist existence. Of course, that's not the case at all. Uncluttering just means letting go of things that no longer serve a purpose in your life. Defining what's necessary and unnecessary is a personal, often difficult, decision.

Sometimes having very little is the correct choice for some people. "Vagabond minimalist" Andrew Hyde has chosen the ultra-minimalist route. You may have heard about him last year when he was being publicized frequently as "the guy who owns only fifteen things." Most of us wouldn't be comfortable trying to live with so little and, in fact, I wonder if Andrew might have had a stash of at least a few items awaiting his return from the road. But he certainly seemed content living with his stripped-down-to-the-bone possessions.

But what if you have a huge collection of stuff? It's not just "stuff," and it's certainly not clutter, if it's really a collection, if you display it proudly, if you enjoy it and want to share that joy with others. Jacinta, true collector, has some 5,000 snowmen figures that she cheerfully displays every holiday season. In this video, we see that there's nothing cluttered about her home. Crowded, yes, but cluttered, no! She obviously adores her collection, so even though it may seem a bit much to most of us, if it's affordable for her family, why not continue to celebrate it?

Sometimes people redefine their relationship with "stuff" in a way that minimizes clutter. If you're fed up with our consumer culture, you think long and hard about what you need before you make a purchase. That alone would make accumulating clutter difficult. Katy Wolk-Stanley, who bills herself as The Non-Consumer Advocate, has particularly stringent requirements: she's vowed not to buy anything new. It began when she heard about The Compact, a social and environmental movement that started in 2006 in San Francisco when ten friends promised not to buy anything new for a year. Katy adopted the plan in 2007, but decided to continue -- indefinitely. It's been five years. Again, not everyone would be comfortable making this kind of commitment, but it works for Katy.

Now let's talk about clutter and art. Most artists I know (myself included) have an uneasy relationship with clutter. One major challenge is that almost everything we see has creative potential. Heaven help the poor artist who specializes in collage -- the most extreme example of someone who sees potential art everywhere, even in stuff that's been discarded, often for good reason!

You might think that the very fact that I make art, which is "stuff," is a contradiction: on one hand, I advocate getting rid of stuff and, on the other, I make it. But I never advocate getting rid of something that you find useful or beautiful (to borrow the classic explanation from William Morriss of how to choose what things to have in your home). I can't imagine living without art, so if you find it an important part of your life, I understand completely. That's why I continue to make art and that's also why I've decided once again to have a holiday sale of my original work. If you're interested, click here to go to my art blog for more information.

As we approach the end of the year and that time when we make New Year's resolutions, maybe this year we don't need to resolve (again) to unclutter. Maybe we need to resolve to work on understanding our relationship to our possessions and finally figuring out what we need and love. Then we can apply that understanding not only to what we have now but also to what we buy in the future. Let's start by asking ourselves, about everything that we own: Is it beautiful? Is it useful? If it is, let's be grateful that we have it; if it isn't, let's gratefully let it go.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Too Busy to Unclutter?

© awitikoski at stock.xchng 
I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately by all of the stuff I need to do and I want to change that. I've fallen behind on some things that are current, but what nags at me is the stuff that's been unresolved for ages -- the "postponed decisions" that organizer Peter Walsh says are at the root of clutter: little piles of notes with information on them that I perceive is worth keeping; artwork that needs to be stored rather than stacked; items that need to be donated, not left in a holding area. In an effort to get a grip on my situation and stop beating myself up over it, I reread two articles that I've saved because I think they're so insightful. (And, yes, I have some digital clutter that needs to go, too!)

John Tierney offers this observation in "Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?":

"Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. . . . Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy."

While the article focuses on how how decision fatigue depletes your energy to make choices while shopping or trying to stay on a diet, I'm convinced that it also contributes to an inability to tackle clutter effectively. When you postpone decisions about your clutter, it's not simply because the decisions are difficult to make; there are also probably too many of them for you to handle comfortably and they probably fall into too many different categories -- papers, clothes, sentimental items, etc.-- each with their own unique excuses that trap you and prevent you from moving forward. Thus, you feel decision fatigue, and it becomes easier not to decide, and go do something else. Like write a blog post.

As the article points out, there is a biological price extracted -- it's not just "all in your head." So perhaps the best way to handle dealing with those postponed decisions (assuming you're not hiring a personal organizer to blast through the process with you) is to tackle them in very small quantities. Forgive yourself for having allowed the clutter to accumulate and tackle only a decision or two a day. Work on uncluttering when you're rested and well-fed, so you'll be less likely to succumb to feelings of pressure or despair that you'll ever complete the job. If you have an average clutter problem, not a clutter crisis, eventually you'll gain the upper hand.

There's another related issue that many people face and Tim Kreider calls it "The Busy Trap." From his article:

"If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: 'Busy!' 'So busy.' 'Crazy busy.' It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: 'That’s a good problem to have,' or 'Better than the opposite.' . . . The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it."

I've known plenty of "crazy busy" people and many of them don't seem to get much joy out of their busyness. Some don't seem to get much done, either, other than treading water. The things they say they want to do are always put on the back burner to enjoy sometime later, but also on the back burner are their problems, including dealing with their clutter. Being productive is the focus of their lives and uncluttering, while they might acknowledge as a useful task, is low on their list of priorities. The idea of doing nothing is incomprehensible to them.  Kreider says all this busyness is to avoid an existential problem: the feeling of the meaninglessness of everything we do. Maybe, but maybe it's not quite that bleak. Maybe it's just another way to avoid making decisions about things that make us uncomfortable.

I fall into the "being productive" trap sometimes and, when paired with decision fatigue, that can result in doing things that are faux productive. For me, that usually means reading and looking at interesting things online. It's engrossing and can feel like I'm doing something important when I'm learning something new, but I'm really just entertaining and distracting myself. I don't truly need to know all those obscure facts about esoteric subjects. (I'm delighted that you're reading this blog post, but if you have a clutter problem, please go do something about it as soon as you're done!)

It seems that if we want to take control of our excessive busyness, we need to make choices that allow us some genuine down time. Not paralyzed by decision fatigue time, not distraction time, but quiet time that allows us to regenerate our enthusiasm for life. As Kreider points out:

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

Tim Kreider thinks that life is too short to be busy. I'd add that life is too short to live it surrounded by clutter, whether it's in your living space or stowed away in closets, drawers, and storage units where it remains as clutter in your head. So, fortified with a decent night's sleep and a good meal, I'm off to make a decision or two about my supposedly important scraps of papers. Then, I'll allow myself a little quiet idleness. It should be a genuinely productive evening.


"All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone."

~ Blaise Pascal

Friday, September 28, 2012

Stuff in Quantity

Letting go of unnecessary stuff is usually a process that evolves over time. Not many of us can slash our possessions to the minimum on the first try. Here's some motivation to continue to rethink how we relate to our stuff: Click here to read about Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji's exhibition of 100,000 unwanted toys collected over the past thirteen years. The pictures are thought-provoking.

Click here to learn how one New York City Sanitation Department worker has turned a collection of trash into a gallery of sorts. “It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it,” says Nelson Molina, the collector.

Click here to see a list of the top five collectibles you may have bought in the '90s -- not necessarily the best investments if you were expecting to retire about now with the money you'd make from selling your Beanie Babies!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

More on Marketing Manipulation

Photo Credit: Asif Akbar at stock.xchng
Consumers are easily manipulated. No matter how savvy we think we are, we fall for many of the tricks advertisers and marketers use to sell products to us. We don't believe those "Going Out of Business Sale" signs that are permanent fixtures in some store windows, but we will succumb to just the right color, the right descriptive word, or perhaps the right scent. Here are several articles that may make you rethink just how sophisticated your choices are when you make purchasing decisions.

"Does This Smell Clean to You? - Products Bring Aromatherapy To Household Chores; Don't Say 'Banana'"

"Forget lemon and pine. People are fumigating their homes with exotic essences of ginger and hibiscus while scrubbing floors and bathtubs. That's because packaged-goods makers, in their endless hunt for the new and improved, are ramping up the complexity of product fragrances. Adding an elaborate bouquet that consumers crave to a product line helps build loyalty, marketers say. . . .Mr. Clean has New Zealand Springs, promising 'ferns, forests and glacier-carved waterfalls.' No matter that consumers may not know what a glacier-carved waterfall actually smells like. 'They're fanciful. You want to evoke a feeling or emotion, like when you're out in a meadow,' says Deborah Betz, a senior fragrance development manager at International Flavors & Fragrances, an industry supplier. 'It doesn't have to smell like an actual meadow.'"

Read more here to learn how the colors you see on the fashion runways and foods that are currently popular also affect the scents in cleaning products. It's a safe bet that these same factors influence personal hygiene products and cosmetics, too -- even organic ones.

"7 Reasons Why Diamonds Are a Waste of Your Money"

"Ira Weissman is a diamond industry veteran with a decade of experience at one of the world's largest diamond polishers. He has traveled the world buying and selling diamonds and now dedicates his time to helping consumers make the most of their diamond buying decisions."

The focus of the article is on the diamond engagement ring: Long-standing tradition? No. Great investment. No. Good way to stall when avoiding a marriage commitment? Possibly. Read the list to see if you want to rethink how you feel about diamonds in general.

"Cheap Clothing Costs a Lot More Than You Think"

I've posted in the past about the complex dilemma of cheap products produced under horrific conditions in foreign countries and sometimes in the U.S. (here's one previous post).  Elizabeth Cline is the author of a new book entitled “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” (I have not read it yet) in which she explains that the high volume/cheap labor/cheap materials business model has resulted, as most of us already know, in human suffering and negative environmental impact. "Cline states that 'There are very few middle-market brands and retailers and everything has become very cheap or irrationally expensive on the other end.' Leaving little room for quality products that don’t cost a fortune, most of us fall victim to clothing items we know aren’t the best sourced, yet we buy them anyway."

The article promotes, a website offering free shopping links and information about "stylish, eco-friendly and ethical alternatives to top name brands." My personalized recommendations look good enough for me to investigate further and probably purchase a few items. Read more here.


And one final note: The Thoughtful Consumer blog celebrated its 6th anniversary on August 3rd. Thanks to all of you who read and comment!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cluttered Life in the 21st Century

Regular readers know that both The Thoughtful Consumer blog and my book, Sorting It Out, were inspired by my own uncluttering efforts several years ago. Like many people, I had been busy working and living and accumulating stuff until one day I had to acknowledge that my formerly simple, uncluttered home had become crowded and uncomfortable.

I'm a firm believer in a philosphy held by Blaise Pascal: "All of man's problems stem from his inability to sit quietly alone in an empty room." I wanted that quiet, empty space again -- or at least a room that was uncluttered enough to feel relaxing. That meant facing some "postponed decisions," as professional organizer Peter Walsh calls clutter.

The process of achieving a reasonably uncluttered state was challenging, and those challenges continue. I still hold on to some things that I honestly can't justify keeping. I still face temptation to buy things that I don't need. I still haven't conquered all of my organizing dilemmas. And, judging from the popularity of uncluttering books and workshops, and the burgeoning field of professional organizing, a lot of people have the same issues.

So, let's take a look at three recent, useful links to posts on that basic topic of clutter:

From the L.A. Times: "Clutter and Other Family Problems of the 21st Century"

"An interdisciplinary group of researchers — archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists — found that mothers who described their houses as messy or cluttered experienced higher rates of a depressed mood in the evening. This correlation was one of many findings on human relationships and behavior with material possessions in the book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, which was published in early July...Among the many findings, researchers discovered that families are generally over-scheduled, with less time being spent outdoors or eating dinner together. The families paid a lot of money renovating and remodeling a house, only to spend much of their time in front of a TV...About 75% of the garages in the study held so much overflow from the main house that a car no longer fit."

From Yahoo Homes: "Why Clutter Matters and Decluttering is Difficult"

"Clutter matters, [pro organizer Jennifer] Hunter says. It matters because it takes up space — not just in your surroundings, but in your head. Of the two, the psychological effect of clutter is the most important. 'When we clear the clutter out of a space, people breathe a sigh of relief.' The mood changes instantly. People feel lighter, more serene, more focused."

From Parade Magazine: "Is Your Stuff Weighing You Down?" Adapted from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. Published by Random House, a division of Random House Inc. © 2012 by Anna Quindlen.

"At some point desire and need became untethered in our lives, and shopping became a competitive sport...I fooled myself into thinking that House Beautiful should be subtitled Life Wonderful...Now that I’m nearing 60, I understand the truth about possessions, that they mean or prove or solve nothing. Stuff is not salvation."

In the uncluttering workshops that I teach occasionally, I always ask my students to identify what they would save if they had to leave the house immediately because of a disaster (in earthquake country, that's a particularly salient concern). They usually answer in the same general way that Anna Quindlen did in her article in Parade: grab some photos and the dogs and go. Protecting your family and the family pets is primary on everyone's mind in a crisis, so I have no doubt that even the photos would be abandoned, if necessary.

And yet we cling to so much more -- not just the necessities, not just a few important sentimental things, not just comfortable little luxuries we enjoy, but stuff that's useless, worn out, and weighing us down. "Possessions mean or prove or solve nothing." Will we ever understand that? When we do, and when we accept it wholeheartedly, we'll finally be able to stop postponing our decisions and act.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Potpourri: Big Homes, Advertising, Recycling

I have a backlog of interesting items on various topics that I'm condensing for this post.

Big homes: I was distressed to learn that, in spite of all the favorable press small homes have been receivingespecially the ultra-small "tiny houses,"people are opting for larger new homes. From The Wall Street Journal:

"KB Home says the average square footage of houses currently under contract is 2,079, an increase of 13% from last year. And more KB buyers are picking models that exceed 3,500 square feet...The return to bigger houses—which has taken industry watchers by surprise—indicates that the housing downturn paused, but didn't kill, America's love affair with supersize abodes...A major driver behind the bigger-home trend is record-low interest rates, under 4% for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, which allow some buyers to move up without necessarily making larger mortgage payments."

Advertising: Soon there will be no escape from advertising. Here's the warning from the LA Times:

"A company called Novo Ad has developed technology that can turn a public bathroom mirror into an electronic display for video advertisements...The mirrors are actually LED screens that have an internal hard disk and "very sophisticated proprietary software," according to a spokesman for the company."

The technology hasn't arrived yet in the U.S., but efforts are being made to find partners and advertisers to get it here as quickly as possible.

Recycling: On a cheerier note, in the Netherlands, recycling has been elevated to a new level of cultural awareness and change. The New York Times reports from Amsterdam about the "Repair Cafe" phenomenon:

"Thirty groups have started Repair Cafes across the Netherlands, where neighbors pool their skills and labor for a few hours a month to mend holey clothing and revivify old coffee makers, broken lamps, vacuum cleaners and toasters, as well as at least one electric organ, a washing machine and an orange juice press...'The Repair Cafe is an effective way to raise awareness that discarded objects are indeed still of value,' Mr. Joop Atsma [the state secretary for infrastructure and the environment] wrote in an e-mail...Marjanne van der Rhee, a Repair Cafe volunteer who hands out data collection forms and keeps the volunteers fortified with coffee, said: 'Different people come in. With some, you think, maybe they come because they’re poor. Others look well-off, but they are aware of environmental concerns. Some seem a little bit crazy.'"

I like the Repair Cafe idea, but I may be a little bit crazy.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Co-opting Cultures for Consumer Goods

A post by Lisa Hix on Fresh Type, "Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans," brings up some thought-provoking concerns about co-opting another culture to create art or design for general public consumers. The most recent example of  this was Urban Outfitters which headed into the 2011 holiday season with a "Navajo" line. The result was a lawsuit by the Navajo Nation. The basis of the suit has to do with trademark infringement. From NPR:

"What they did here was they went and sued them on the basis of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which says it's illegal to produce a product that says it's Indian made when it's not Indian made. So the Navajo Nation is saying that the products that the company is producing makes it appear that Navajos had some part in the production of these products and therefore that's against the law."

From the Fresh Type article:

"The problem," says Jessica R. Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and doctor of Native American studies who teaches at Arizona State University and blogs about Native American fashion designers at Beyond Buckskin, "is that they’re putting it out there as 'This is the native,' or 'This is native-inspired.' So now you have non-native people representing us in mainstream culture. That, of course, gets tiring, because this has been happening since the good old days of the Hollywood Western in the 1930s and '40s, where they hired non-native actors and dressed them up essentially in redface. The issue now is not only who gets to represent Native Americans," Metcalfe says, "but also who gets to profit."

But, as the article continues to explain, this is hardly the first time a culture has been used in products by designers who are not a part of it, for consumers who are also not a part of it.

"For example, the pattern we think of as 'paisley'—now most commonly seen on ties—was once a holy symbol of the Zoroastrians in Persia. And throughout fashion history, designers have been swiping motifs from other cultures—from China and Japan in Victorian times, Egypt in the 1920s, and West Africa and Latin America in the '60s."

I found the story about the long intertwining of the Pendleton company with Native Americans to be fascinating. Also interesting was learning how young Native American fashion designers are using the Pendleton blanket:

"It’s really cool to see how they reinterpret the blanket," Metcalfe says. "For Sho Sho, she’s using very vibrant colors and the bold graphics of the Pendleton blanket and giving it this hip-hop vibe, by making these hoodies for men and women. She's made the wearing blanket something cool for Native Americans to wear again."

Wait a minute. Hip-hop vibe? That's cultural appropriation, too.

Complex issue, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Digital Clutter

Although I have no statistics to back me up, I suspect that digital clutter plagues as many people as physical clutter does. Crowding on our desktops or in our e-mail inboxes may not take up physical space, but it does take up space in the most important location we all deal with daily: our heads. We're inclined to notice the discomfort if we're lugging around an overstsuffed backpack, but too often we dismiss the nagging weight of too much burdensome stuff on our minds. Digital clutter at its worst is evident in hoarding behavior.

Wall Street Journal: Hoarding Goes Digital

"Digital clutter doesn't beget mice or interfere with walking around the house," says Kit Anderson, past president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, a nonprofit in St. Louis, that studies hoarding behaviors. "But it's more insidious because no one else is going to insist that you get help."

Hoarding behaviors in the digital world are likely to be as difficult to handle as in the physical world, but most of us can tackle our digital clutter in the same way we tackle our real world stuff. If you Google "digital clutter," you'll find many links devoted to solutions to the problem. Some of them require mastering software that's designed to help you get organized. But using this software is rather like buying more storage containers for the stuff that's cluttering your home: it doesn't deal with the problem itself. The real solution: let it go.

After you've tossed the excess, some of those organizing programs can help you sort what you've decided to keep and prevent digital clutter in the future. But, just as in real life, the real trick is to avoid accumulating more stuff that you don't need. And if you do slip, remember that the delete key is your friend.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Clutter and Collections

Most people define clutter as too much stuff, which is certainly accurate, as long as you can define what's "too much." Quantity is flexible; function is the more important issue. Is it physically in your way? Is it a constant annoyance in the back of your mind? I'd say that you have too much when your stuff gets in the way of living your life the way you want to live it.

Some people can amass a ton of stuff and be quite content: collectors. They enjoy what they own, they care for it, display it (as much of it as they can), and are eager to share it and their experiences collecting it with others. Here are two completely different examples of collectors: one is quite traditional, while the other collected cast-offs to create art.

Archaeologist Andrea Ludden’s collection of over 40,000 pairs of salt and pepper shakers is housed in two museums, one of them created by her and her family. Click here to read more and be sure to view the excellent slide show of examples from the collection.

High school teacher, writer and artist Victor Moore constructed his Junk Castle from salvaged items such as sheet metal, tin, washing machine parts, dryer doors, miscellaneous housings, bedsteads, and the door from a '52 Oldsmobile. Another interesting slide show is at this link.

Is your stuff as well cared for, as beautiful, or as useful as the items in these collections -- or is it just clutter?