Mess Stress

Does clutter control your life?

Respond "true" or "false" to the following statements:

T F It often takes you a few minutes to locate something among the molehills of papers, books and files around you.

T F Sometimes you want to file or put something away, but you don't immediately have an appropriate place to store it.

T F You pay bills late, because you have forgotten about them.

T F You lose your keys, at least twice a week.

T F You vacillate between pointing out that clutter is considered a sign of creativity and apologizing to visitors for the mess.

If you've answered "true" to three or more statements, vow to organize, one space at a time, using the tips below.

You vow for the last time: You're going to be a more organized, efficient person. And for a few days, you are. Then, you lose your keys. Or a bill gets buried. Or papers pile up around you like mini Leaning Towers of Pisa.

When clutter overtakes order, your feeling of control isn't all that gets a shake-up. "When you have a system that's not working for you, you can lose confidence in yourself and your ability to create a system that does work," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out (Henry Holt/Owl, 1998). Factor in the stress that comes with feeling overwhelmed, and disorganization becomes more than a nuisance: It's detrimental to your well-being. And when you waste time putting out fires caused by disorganization, important things fall by the wayside. You meant to sign up for that series of dance classes, but missed the deadline. Or you swore you'd commit to your evening gym workouts, and instead got stuck catching up on work buried on your desk.

The good news is that being organized isn't a talent you're born with. Most people have just never learned how, says Morgenstern. Here, get-started steps to gaining peace of mind:

1. Don't binge and purge. "The most common mistake is waiting until you can't take it anymore, then attacking without forethought," says Morgenstern. Two symptoms: rushing out to buy containers and other organizers, or diving in with a fierce determination to throw lots of things out. Neither creates lasting results. You don't yet know enough about what to keep, so you buy the wrong containers, says Morgenstern. And you also don't know enough about what to get rid of. Organizing is identifying what not to throw away, and giving those items a consistent home.

2. Start with the room you use most. Many people clean out the garage first but don't spend enough hours there to feel the benefits of their work and wind up feeling like they've wasted their time, says Morgenstern. When you finish organizing your work space or living room, your life feels instantly improved, and you'll be encouraged to take on the next space.

3. Stick to one room at a time. When you're organizing any space, give yourself a "belongs elsewhere" box, so you won't be tempted into another room -- and a project for another day. Deliver stray items when you finish.

4. Think kindergarten. Morgenstern uses the same model for any space: a kindergarten classroom. "Kindergarten is a very organized place," she says. Five-year-olds can find things and put them away, because the room is divided into activity zones and each activity is stored at its point of use. Start by noting all that you do in a room and where. If you do work in bed, keep glasses and pens in your night stand. If you read magazines in an armchair, put them in a basket beside it. If you drop your keys as you walk in, hang a key hook by the door.

5. Make it fun to put stuff away. Buy a beautiful basket to store newspapers in. If you do paperwork at the dining-room table, get filing cabinets that match your decor, or file boxes that fit in a sideboard. Group color-coded folders by subject.

6. Schedule un-fun stuff. Mark on a calendar two dates a month to pay bills, respond to notes, etc. "It won't get done when you feel like it, or in your spare time," says Morgenstern.

7. Maintain your system. Spend a few minutes a day in each room putting away mail or anything that can accumulate, says Morgenstern. Reassess your system often to prevent the formation of piles to sort through. Finally, pat yourself on the back for creating a new less-mess, less-stress life.

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