How to Spring-Clean Your Life
Expert advice on how to de-clutter your schedule, your house—and your mind.
Getty ImagesIt's one of the greatest ironies of life: We're too frantically busy to deal with the stuff that makes us feel frantically busy—the to-dos that overwhelm us, the clutter that eats up our homes, the niggling personal and professional issues that preoccupy our minds. Tackling them might feel like a someday project, the kind you'll get around to when you have the time. Right.
The key to a calmer existence, experts say, is finding bite-size, everyday solutions for stressors and releasing what we can, be it physical or psychological clutter. "When you start to let go, your life lightens up because you have less to think about and less to maintain," says Geralin Thomas, a professional organizer in Cary, N.C. "You finally feel in control." The payoffs don't end there—you can sharpen your focus and even lose weight, too. These are the strategies that will ease your load and let you enjoy life a lot more.
Clear your schedule
As we juggle it all, we're often fueled by an I-can-do-it! sense of pride. But we might be deluding ourselves, suggests a study in the Journal of Communication that found that people misperceive the emotional high they get from multitasking as productivity. And we're not even as good at it as we may think. Another study, published in Psychological Science, revealed that women's ability to keep track of several tasks at once dipped significantly during ovulation, when estrogen levels are high (and can mess with brain function).
Technology sometimes hampers us more than it helps, adds Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. "Time speeds by when you're on your smartphone e-mailing," she says, "even if you're really not doing anything important."
What to do:
Suss out time sucks. For one day, every couple of hours note down exactly what you just did, including things like "Read Facebook updates for a half-hour" or "Scanned catalogs for 15 minutes after opening mail," says Vanderkam. "You start to see the time periods that you're not using as well as you'd like."
Stop the auto-yes. "Everyone lives in an optimistic world and thinks that if we say yes we will find the time, but the truth is we are in denial," says Julie Morgenstern, one of the top organization and productivity experts in the country. Instead, experiment with saying, "Let me think about how I can do that," says Morgenstern. "This way you can step back and evaluate if you really can do what is being asked."
Have a plan. "Most people's to-do lists actually create fatigue, because they don't clarify how, exactly, they are going to handle Mom's birthday, so tasks feel bigger than they are," says David Allen, a productivity expert and author of the best seller Getting Things Done. Take a second to jot down how you'll tackle something. Feel better already?
Just do it. Allen regularly tells clients to follow his Two-Minute Rule: If something can be done in two minutes, go ahead and get it done. Explains Allen, "It will take you longer to look at it again than it would take to finish it the first time you think of it."
Reconsider rewards. Carefully examine your commitments, says Morgenstern, and decide which ones energize you—and which deplete you. For the tasks that send your misery Geiger counter off the charts, pinpoint whatever reward you get from them and find a better way of scoring it. One client of Morgenstern's wasn't really enjoying volunteering for the PTA because it took time away from her kids, but she kept at it because she thought it showed her children she considered school important. Ultimately, she switched over to running the occasional fun class activity and giving her kids more hands-on help with homework. "These things took less time," Morgenstern notes, "and she and her family got more out of them."
Next Page: Clear your clutter [ pagebreak ] Clear your clutter
Dusting, mopping, vacuuming: That's easy. Getting rid of all the junk you have to dust, mop and vacuum around? Not so much. "Giving things up is tough because it's not so clear-cut when they're no longer useful," says Morgenstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life. You don't stop wearing jeggings on a Tuesday at 4 p.m.; you just gradually stop doing so, even as they languish on a hanger.
The thing is, those pile-ups of possessions can create anxiety; a study at UCLA found that just looking at clutter elevated women's stress hormones (although, no surprise, the men's cortisol levels remained unchanged). Motivation to get going on cleaning house: You may look better, too. As Geralin Thomas points out, "One big change I see in clients who have de-cluttered is weight loss. Once they have shaped their environment, they're ready to shape up themselves."
What to do:
Think small. "We know from research that little acts of neatness cascade into larger acts of organization," says Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. Forget about organizing the entire kitchen; focus on, say, the plastic containers taking over your cabinets. "With random de-cluttering, there's always more that you can do," notes Thomas. "When one category is tackled, there's definitely an end point."
Be a regular. Perhaps you dedicate, say, 10 minutes a weekday to an organizing project. Or you commit to doing a couple of hours for a few weekends in a row. The point is, be consistent and attentive; turn off your cell phone and schedule child care. Thomas does a weekly "Trash Eve" de-clutter: "The garbage in my neighborhood is picked up on Wednesdays, which makes Tuesdays the night I make an easy supper and clear the decks!"
Decide what's treasure and what's toss-able. Ask yourself just one question before you start purging any collection of stuff, recommends Morgenstern: "If everything was stolen, what pieces would I go out and buy the very next day?" There you go—the costume jewelry, canned goods and linens you truly want and need.
Pre-arrange pickups. About 40 percent of people who purge never manage to get the stuff out of their homes, per a poll of 23,000 people on Morgenstern's website. Avoid becoming a hoarder statistic by scheduling a pickup before you start to clean your house. Try salvationarmyusa.org, goodwill.org or excess access.org, a not-for-profit that connects people with local schools and charities in need of specific goods.
Next Page: Clear your mind [ pagebreak ] Clear your mind
It's not just that we have a lot to keep track of—it's our DIY mentality, says Orit Avni-Barron, MD, director of Women's Mental Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "I hear women say, 'My husband is so great, he helps me,'" as if our partners are our sous chefs instead of co-cooks. Another issue: Women worry twice as much as men, research shows. "Worrying impairs concentration and memory," says Robert Leahy, PhD, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. "You can't tend to the present and worry about the future at the same time. It's overwhelming."
What to do:
Pop annoying thought bubbles. Psychologists talk of the Zeigarnik effect, named after a Russian shrink who realized that a waiter could more easily recall incomplete orders than served ones. The follow-up study showed that people are 90 percent more likely to remember undone tasks than those they completed. "Tell your brain when you'll get a task done," says Carter. "It kills the worry loop."
Control what's possible. "When we don't know how something will work out, we worry to get certainty," says Leahy. Yet one study at Penn State University found that 85 percent of things people fretted about had neutral or positive outcomes. To quell anxiety, throw yourself into what you can accomplish—say, writing the introduction to the PowerPoint document instead of ruminating on the presentation. "You'll feel good about the present and put other thoughts on pause," says Leahy.
Be hands-on. Weed, knead dough, do a craft, says Gayatri Devi, MD, associate professor of neurology at New York University. "When you think about something tangible, you stop thinking about the theoretical."
Grade perfection on a curve. "We have reached a tipping point in perfection. People are realizing we can't do it all at the level that we used to," says Morgenstern. That means you, sister! Start with the obvious: Divvy up more responsibilities with your partner, even if he does them differently. And try Morgenstern's Minimum, Moderate, Maximum strategy: Decide what level of effort you can give tasks (and get away with). As she says, "You may be surprised to find that everything works out OK."