Please don't tell anyone, but I spent the first five days of the New Year holed up in my apartment, well dressed in my best pj's -- cleaning out my life. Part of what inspired this deep dive into my computer chaos was the creeping feeling of overwhelm I had at entering 2018 struggling to find things on my desktop.
Over the years I've read a slew of books on the art and science of cleaning and organizing. Recently I received a review copy of a newly released The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.
The book is based on the Swedish term Death Cleaning, which refers to the process of removing unnecessary things and making your home orderly when you think the time is coming closer to your leaving the planet.
If that sounds slightly sad, or even depressing, Magnusson offers a more practical way to think about Death Cleaning. "Your loved ones wish to inherit nice things from you," she says, "not all things from you."
But the even bigger context of the book is that cleaning up should be an ordinary, everyday job that frees up your time, energy and space (literally and physically) to focus on your personal and professional life.
As I said I've read at least ten books on the topic, and most offer the same or similar advice. Magnusson's book has some good points, on everything from cleaning out clothes to cookbooks.
In its own way the book is charming, but the writing is often stilted and over simple, and the ideas presented are not always fully flushed out. Still there were some nuggets I was able to extract and use as I moved through my own winter cleanup including:
Start with the larger items in your house or office, and end with the smaller. For example: Magnusson says that starting with photographs, cards and letters is almost always a mistake since they carry so much emotional weight. Instead begin with the bigger stuff -- clothing, furniture, books, files, etc.
Hunting for misplaced things is never an effective use of your time.
Magnusson tells a story in the book about how she and her husband created a cubby system for their five kids. The system was a way to organize all their boots, mittens, coats, toys, etc. It involved color coding, hooks, pegs and other organizational tools.
The most important goal for my computer cleanup at the beginning of the year was to stop wasting time looking for documents. It took three days, but I finally got there. Specifically I achieved the following:
- Processed 3,500 emails in my inbox, and after much sifting, sorting, filing and flinging, I got my inbox to zero.
- Went through all the messy files on my computer desktop and deleted duplicate copies, old and outdated documents and unnecessary bits and pieces.
- Organized a new filing system on my computer desktop for the future processing of incoming emails and documents.
Was it worth it? As my friend Michelle is fond of saying, "Hells to the yes." Since the big clear-out I have found that I'm spending significantly less time looking for things than before.
For example, I had a potential client contact me about creating a branding strategy for their nonprofit. Within less than five minutes, I was able to locate the notes I use for drafting this type of proposal.
Prepare now for the inevitable later.
For many of us, we are beginning to face the fact that our parents are aging and sooner, rather than later, won't be around. Along with this knowledge comes the concern that we are going to have to deal with not only the grief at their passing, but their stuff as well.
Magnusson says one way to deal with this is to begin a conversation with your older parents. Questions she suggests asking include:
- You have many nice things. Have you thought about what you want to do with it all later on?
- Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of this stuff?
- Is there anything we can do together in a slow way so that there won't be too many things to handle later?
Last year I sat down with my mom and had a version of this conversation. My mother had a garage stuffed to the brim with art, records, books, tools and even reams of old computer printouts -- don't ask.
It took an entire three days to clean out the garage, at least four trips to the used book store and a huge dump truck.
After a week in my apartment, I did my hair, put on makeup and went outside to face the big wide world - with a clean slate behind me and an organized year in front.