One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was a stay-at-home mom was to tackle one extra mess a day. This is a great thing to do if you've got a toddler, because it doesn't require running all over the place, and it's kind of limited, as was my time and attention span. One day I'd clean the silverware drawer. Another day I'd put all the blocks in one place. Another day I'd sort a dresser drawer.

It felt satisfying (at the time, I felt like it was the ONLY thing I was getting done - my dissertation certainly wasn't moving very fast). And after doing it every day for a while, I found the house was more or less CLEAN - even in those odd, out of the way corners. Small things add up.

Reducing Cognitive Load By Simplifying Categories

I was thinking about that yesterday as I sorted table linen. Last July, I wrote a piece on the cognitive underpinnings of hoarding called Cutting Clutter: The Problem of the Ugly Coffee Cup. In it, I discuss two issues that make it really easy to accumulate "stuff" and really hard to throw things away.

  • Surviving By Bluff: It is hard to get rid of things that work "pretty well," might come in handy once in a while, but we really don't need. 
  • Sorting Is A Complicated Decision-Making Process: Deciding what to throw away requires you to categorize things across multiple dimensions. Typically, people who have a hard time de-cluttering — and especially those who hoard — have more complex cognitive sorting schemes and thus take much longer to sort things out than do others.

In Cutting Clutter, I lay out a three category system that can help simplify the sorting process. You start with sorting things into three categories:

  • Things to toss
  • Things to give away
  • Things to keep

Put everything in those categories that are straightforward. I describe how to do this in more detail in Clutter. This should leave you with a relatively small pile of things that you'll have to think harder about.

Sorting Linen

The three category system works really well if you've decided you're on a 'de-clutter' mission. For example, it's great for cleaning a garage or attic. It can be hard to implement, though, to fight the "survival by bluff" problem. My table linens are a good example.

Three background details. When I first got married, I read the Sylvia Porter Money Book — a useful read for two struggling, new graduates living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Lots of important things went right over my head, but one thing I did take away from it was Use cloth napkins. Cloth napkins, Porter argued, cost more in the short term, but are both more economical in the long term and add a touch of class to your impoverished existence.

I've done so ever since.

Second, I am a complete cheapskate. I grew up on hand-me-downs and thrift stores, and take great pride not buying designer labels. Like many academics, during the first several decades of my career, I was riding just above or below the federal poverty level. I love second hand. Thrown away stuff on the street? Scavenger heaven. I come from and married into families with the same thrifty values.

Hence my problem: Too many tablecloths.

The dresser I keep my linens in was crammed to overflowing. Yesterday I tackled it. I pulled out all the napkins, innumerable placemats, and the tablecloths I own.

  • A confession: I had a lot of them.
  • A second confession: In my whole life, I have bought maybe 12 napkins and 12 placemats. I have never bought a tablecloth.
  • A third confession: I own(ed) dozens of napkins and placemats and (much to my surprise) almost 20 tableclothes. This is embarrassing. 

Why so much stuff, since I didn’t buy it? Because no one else in my family uses cloth napkins, so whenever my family cleared out their clutter, they gave it to me. Because I got them as gifts. Because I really am bad at that whole 'survival by bluff' thing. Yes, that tablecloth has a big stain on it, but I can probably hide it with the Christmas turkey platter and it could be useful in the future. You can always use another lace table cloth, can’t you?

Finally, and most importantly, I have too much linen because I never look at everything at one time. That is exactly the place where Survival By Bluff thrives.

Pulling Out Everything At Once Simplified The Decision-Making Process

We look at lots of things in our life one item at a time. We use dishes, was them, and put them away. We rarely take them all out and look at them together. We wash our laundry and put it away as we use it. We put away tools that way too. Because of that, it is difficult to decide when to throw away something that is 'good enough'.

Taking all of the same class of things out at the same time really changed that.

Suddenly I could see that of the dozens of napkins I owned, half of them were really too ratty or stained or small to use - certainly to use for company. That made it easy to employ the three-category system. Some went into the rag bag. Some that were okay, but clearly not great, went to Goodwill. The rest got folded and stuck the drawer. Easy.

Same with the placemats and especially the tablecloths. (Someone must have had a Christmas party at some point in the past, because when I pulled everything out I found I owned four red table cloths and 2 green ones - more than any sane person needs. Goodwill again.)

Pulling out all of one class of goods simplified the cognitive load of decision-making by making it clear that:

  • I had too much of everything, but not enough of anything. In other words, I had lots of stuff, but most of it was barely useable, and should clearly be tossed. This is explained why my dresser was full, but I could never find enough linen to set the table when my in-laws came over for dinner.
  • Some things are better than others. Survival by Bluff works because we think we don't have enough and may need that marginal object in time of shortage. For example, I feel I'm short of placemats, so even though that particular one is ugly/dirty/shrunken/torn it may work well enough in a pinch. Putting everything out at once allowed me to see that I had enough better things that I could throw out the really lousy ones and give away the functional ones that I would probably not use.

Interestingly, pulling everything out also helped me figure out that the reason I felt like I was short of some things: I really was. Despite all my napkins, I did not have enough to set the table when we had company. With all the 'stuff' I had jammed in the napkin drawer, I could never bring myself to buy new ones (adding to clutter) because it seemed extravagant. After throwing and giving away the things I did not need and keeping what was good, I realized that I actually should splurge and buy another four napkins.

And now they all fit in my dresser, because I've gotten rid of most of the mess.


A Plan For Many Categories

Places that tend toward clutter fall into two categories: when we have lots of similar items and when we have a group of items that get stored together because of their function. Stationery, books, dishes, clothes, tools and toys all fall into the first category.

Taking all of a set of things out so you can easily compare apples to apples makes it easier to use a simple categorization system to help fight off Survival By Bluff.



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