The #WearItAllChallenge – Fall Edition

Earlier this year my friends and I created the #WearItAllChallenge, beginning with #WearItAllJuly. The goal of the challenge is to wear a completely different outfit every day for an entire month. I love this challenge because everyone learns something different from it, and what they learn is often surprising. So we’re doing it again for the month of October!

Here are the basic rules:

Rule #1: Wear a completely different outfit every day for a month.
Rule #2: After you wear a piece of clothing, set it aside. You can’t wear it again the rest of the month.
Rule #3: If you literally don’t own enough of something to accomplish this (for example, you only own 15 pairs of shoes), you can loop back through them after you’ve worn them all once (it’s up to you whether you want to wear through them all again before repeating).
Rule #4: You choose what categories are included/excluded from your challenge, such as hiking gear and ballgowns. You can choose to not care about pajamas, workout clothes, underwear, etc. It’s up to you. The important thing is that once you decide your rules you stick with them.
Rule #5: Your wardrobe is “locked in” at the start of the month. Anything new you buy after that gets put in the used pile and has to wait until next month!
Rule #6: There may be times where wearing something twice is unavoidable, such as with work uniforms or travel clothes. Don’t worry about it. Count the days you want to count.

Here are some of the most common objections I hear and what’d I’d say in response:

“I can’t imagine wearing my snow boots to the grocery store!”

Me neither, that sounds like a terrible idea. That’s why you’re allowed to exclude whatever specialty clothing you want. I personally drew the line at “anything I would have never worn to any job.” It meant I had to include most of my closet, but excluded my fancier dresses, my hiking gear, etc.

“No one would notice if I did this challenge because I’m so boring with my clothes.”

You’re probably right. Our own standards for what’s “weird” aren’t as universal as we think. Most people in my sphere only noticed at the very end of the month, and even then it may have just been because they saw my updates on Instagram. The point is not to get noticed or get attention, the point is to come face-to-face with your own wardrobe.

“I would but I’m traveling/have a work conference/etc.”

Take some cheat days, I know I did. I had a 6-day trip in July where traveling light and re-wearing clothes was a must, so I just didn’t count those days. I still learned a lot during the month and wore through most of my closet.

“I already have to do laundry every week just to have enough clean clothes.”

Do you have to do laundry in order to have enough clean clothes, or just to have enough clean clothes of one category? It’s pretty common to have more shirts than pants, for example, which means you could easily wear through all of your pants all the time, but be skipping over a lot of your shirts. That’s why it’s worth proactively trying!

“I don’t own enough clothes to pull this off!”

I didn’t either. I wore through my entire shoe and bra collections twice. That’s why we made the rule that you can cycle back through any one category once you’ve exhausted it. Remember that people are really bad at self-assessing the volume of stuff they own, so even if you’re positive you don’t own that much, I invite you to go do a physical count. Pull everything out of your drawers and tell me your totals in the comments to prove that you won’t last a week, and I’ll give you a free pass to ignore the whole thing.

“But seriously, I don’t own enough clothes to make it a whole month.”

Could you make it three weeks? Two? I dare you to go as long as possible. I’m not joking when I say you probably have more clothes than you realize, or that I think you can learn something about yourself even if you already have a pretty minimalist wardrobe. A big part of why I did this was because I already felt like I didn’t own much.

“This seems too difficult/complicated.”

You can make the challenge as big or as small as you want, which means it can be as simple or complex as you want. The first time I chose to exclude or be really loose with the rules on pajamas, bras, purses, jackets, and workout clothes. One woman just did the challenge with her lipstick collection and wore a different shade every day. A friend said he wants to do it with just his t-shirts. This challenge is whatever you want it to be.

In summary, whatever your objection is, my response is, “Just give it a try and go for as long as you can.” After all, the worst thing that can happen is you have to end early, and go back to wearing clothes the way you would have worn them anyway.

Happy #WearItAllOctober!

Inbox Zero: Unsubscribe

When I teach classes on helping people get to and maintain Inbox Zero, I will sometimes get a lot of pushback on unsubscribing from things. Here are a few of the most common excuses I hear and why you should ignore them.

1. They’ll just add me back again later

Yes, its true that sometimes you end up being put on the same email lists over and over again. It could happen if you buy another product from the same company, if you sign up for something related, or if your email is on some publicly available list. But just because the problem may return at some point in the future doesn’t mean you have to put up with it in the meantime. You still clean your house even though it will just get dirty again later.

2. It never seems to work – I still get emails from the same company

Rather than having a single, central email list, many companies will have multiple lists based on what info they want to share. One list is for general news, one is for deals and offers, one is for a niche interest, etc. Theoretically these are so people receive the content most relevant to them, but unfortunately most companies start by putting you on every list and waiting for you to self-select out of the ones you don’t like. So maybe you did unsubscribe from the “Offers” mailing list, but you’re still subscribed to the “News” list. It may be annoying when you feel like you’re repeating the same action over and over, but eventually you will make it through each list and stop the onslaught.

3. It’s easier just to delete

In the moment, yes it is easier to just click the trash icon rather than finding the unsubscribe button, getting re-directed to another page where you might have to manually type in your address or uncheck a bunch of boxes, and then going back to delete the original email. But the difference is an extra 15 seconds now in order to never spend 3 seconds hitting the delete button for this company again. Taking the time to unsubscribe pays for itself quickly.

4. If I click unsubscribe they’ll know my address is good and send me more

There was a time when clicking on any link in an unwanted email could cause your address to get used and abused even more. However that’s not really how modern email scams work, and it’s not where the bulk of your unwanted email is coming from. Most of your unwanted email is coming from completely legitimate companies or individuals who are just trying to market themselves and their business. Most are doing so using companies like MailChimp which actively discourage malicious use of people’s email addresses. If you’re still suspicious, just think about the person or company the email came from. Is it really worth it to Target or Macy’s to sell your email to scammers? Or are they just going to auto-remove you from the list exactly as promised, because it’s not worth the negative response if they don’t?

(As an aside, I’ve often heard it repeated that you only have to worry about unsubscribe links that make you type in your own email, not the ones that do it automatically. This actually has more to do with the level of sophistication in their mail campaign program, not anything nefarious.)

5. I’ll just mark it as spam instead

While marking all unwanted emails as spam does generally work, I don’t recommend it because it’s a bit like using a machete instead of a scalpel. You’re relying on your email program to learn what you do and don’t want rather than telling the offending company directly. So your email may not catch everything you want it to, and it may overcorrect and start marking wanted emails as spam by accident. Additionally, if the company sending these unwanted emails changes their send address or mailing program, you may have to re-teach your spam filter that these emails are unwanted. Save the spam button for “Nigerian Princes” and “Cheap Prescription Drugs”.

6. It’s not that big of a problem

It’s easy to dismiss these unwanted marketing emails, or to say you “don’t really see them” and they don’t effect your work. But they do. Anytime your space is filled with something unwanted it effects you and how you live your life. This is especially true if you have any form of notifications set up for your email, such as sounds, buzzing, or badges. Every time you receive an email you get interrupted, and most of the time for no good reason. Even without notifications these unwanted emails are cluttering up your inbox, making it harder to see what’s important. This is especially true if there are some newsletters you actually want to read, because it’s easy to disregard them with everything else.

7. It’s such a big problem there’s no point in trying

Dealing with email, and especially unsubscribing from unwanted email, can sometimes feel futile. But I promise that small changes you make now will compound over time. The more you take the time to hit that unsubscribe button, the more automatic the habit will become. The fewer unwanted emails you get, the more obvious it will be to you when you’re added to new lists, and the more likely you are to keep unsubscribing.

When I working at a real estate brokerage my work email was on many of the same lists that were repeatedly used and sold to marketers and other agents for self-promotion. My flood of unwanted email should have been just as bad as the agents, but it wasn’t. This was because I was ruthless about unsubscribing from every unwanted list starting with the very first offense. This kept my inbox free from unwanted email most of the time, which meant when it appeared it was so obviously out of place that I couldn’t just gloss over it.


Your Mission

  1. Do a search for the word “unsubscribe” in your inbox.
  2. Find one of the worst offenders – either because they send so much or because they consistently send content you find worthless.
  3. Open one of the emails and unsubscribe.
  4. Do a search for that specific offender, most likely by searching for the company name or their email address.
  5. Delete all the existing emails you have from them.
  6. Repeat these steps 4-5 more times.
  7. Bask in a sense of deep satisfaction and revel in your dramatically improved inbox.

Why ‘Spark Joy’ Works, and When It Doesn’t

The popularity of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” has exposed more people to her ideas than ever. Because Kondo has such a clear, codified message and a confident way of expressing it, I find that many are happy to take her tactics at face value. Those that don’t tend to ridicule her. Neither side seems to spend much time trying to figure out why she says what she says, or why it works for so many people. Today I’d like to talk about the core tactic of the KonMari method, and why it is so effective.

If you know anything about KonMari, you know that you are only supposed to keep items that ‘Spark Joy’ for you. Kondo asks that you hold each item individually, ask if it sparks joy, and either keep or discard it based on your reaction. Critics of this method don’t like how nebulous and impractical the concept of “sparking joy” is, while supporters appreciate the simplicity of having a single question to always come back to. So why does it work?

Humans can easily jump onto emotional and logical hamster wheels when it comes to our stuff. We get stuck in repeating patterns that lead us to acquire but never remove, and even if we see this as a problem there’s often no clear way out. So when decluttering we use little shortcuts and tricks to help us. I’ve recommended many on this blog, and seen plenty of others work for people. These are things like turning around the hangers in your closet to see what you wear, getting rid of anything you haven’t touched in a year, packing up all your “maybe” items in a box and donating it after three months without opening it. The point of all of these is to get you off the hamster wheel and thinking about your possessions in a new and different way.

Spark Joy is a sledgehammer of a shortcut. It is a high-grade military tank designed to plow right through your excuses and cut to something visceral: does this make me happy or not. It works because it ruthlessly cuts past all of the “I might need it someday” and “this was suchthoughtful gift” and “I’ve been meaning to get back to this” and forces you to think exclusively about the present. Does this item bring you joy right here, right now, in this moment? If not, get rid of it.

Most of the clutter we hold on to is based on clinging to the past, ignoring the present, or being anxious about the future. Kondo’s philosophy breaks up those negative mental pathways and gives you one singular focus above all others. Most people struggle with living in the present and being true to the life they have right now, and the question “Does this spark joy?” pulls them past their struggles and to the issue at hand.

So that’s why it works for most people, most of the time. But the reason I don’t use Kondo’s methods exclusively is that I see occasions when asking if an item sparks joy doesn’t work as intended. The prime example, which Kondo admits to in her book, is that you will invariably go overboard on some items and regret getting rid of them. I know I did when I first read her book and tried her method on my own belongings. She actually predicts you will regret at least three things, and I can personally think of three things I got rid of when using KonMari that I wish I could get back. Kondo’s answer is that her clients find this to be a more than reasonable price to pay, and that having to replace a discarded item only reinforces in them how much they care about it. I didn’t respond in quite that way, as two of my three items weren’t really replaceable. I still accept my three items as a reasonable sacrifice for the huge gains I got in minimizing as a result of her methods. However I don’t feel comfortable asking my clients to make the same sacrifice, which is why I’m more cautious than KonMari normally allows.

A second reason the question of joy may not work for a person is that they struggle to define joy for themselves. Kondo has a very specific order for going through possessions that’s designed to increase your awareness of joy and make it easier to find that feeling. I believe her order is sound and generally works well to train people in the skill of finding joy. But depending on your relationship to certain objects like your clothes or your collectables, you may not respond as well as others. You might also find that outside circumstances make finding joy difficult or interrupt your ability to assess your own emotions accurately. Suffering from depression, dealing with a new job, trying to adjust to an empty nest – these are all things that can distract you away from joy and push you back on to that emotional hamster wheel.

Finally, looking for that spark of joy can be really difficult for certain items. Sometimes the meaning we derive from objects isn’t about joy or happiness. Documents detailing the death of a child. Notes from divorce hearings. Inherited objects from a parent we weren’t on good terms with. The relationships we have with these objects are complicated, and can create concrete walls that even the sledgehammer of Spark Joy can’t get through. Sometimes, the right decision is to get rid of these items and the pain they remind us of. Sometimes it’s not, because beneath the pain is a reminder of the strength we developed as a result. And sometimes it’s just a matter of time and distance. Notes from the divorce hearing may grow more or less important over time depending on the relationship you’ve managed to maintain with your ex. With these items, Spark Joy can’t easily find the heart of the problem, which is why you may struggle to let go even though you can say with certainty that the object doesn’t bring you joy.

Kondo disagrees with the use of smaller shortcuts because they rely on outside judgement about what you should keep, rather than letting the decision come from within. And those other quick fixes have their limitations (sometimes we wear things we don’t actually like, inactivity doesn’t always mean we don’t want something, we love things for irrational reasons, etc). However I employ these shortcuts myself and with clients because I know that they are all still tools, and they can come in handy when implemented in the right way. When you’re working by yourself and aren’t used to thinking critically about your relationships with your belongings, an extremely powerful tool like Spark Joy is really useful. I still recommend it to people all the time. Just remember that no single strategy works perfectly for all people at all times. There’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t make Spark Joy work. You may just need a different set of tools.
Photo via O-Tres Organization

On Journals & Journaling

A few years ago I started to acknowledge that I had a lot of unfinished journals and notebooks. Specifically, I had a number of blank journals, a collection of nearly-full ones, several half-full ones, and too many with only a few pages of ambitious thoughts. I used to carry a journal with me everywhere in high school. I would write down all sorts of things. The journals weren’t for long-form writing as much as collecting. I filled them with quotes and fun combinations of words, ideas for things that ought to exist, and sometimes just the lyrics to a song that was stuck in my head. But I rarely took pen to paper and wrote full sentences like I do on the computer.

The one occasion I specifically remember writing something in full was probably the summer before my senior year. I was in the middle of my first real relationship and I wrote several pages on the general topic of love. I know how dreadful that sounds. I myself have no interest in reading the ramblings of a 17-year-old talking about her ill-conceived notions of love based on her first boyfriend. But I distinctly remember reading over the pages later and thinking it was some of my best work.

Less than two months later, my car was broken into and the journal stolen along with everything else. I was crushed. This was my first real experience as a victim of crime. My first real understanding of the difference between material value and personal value. The thieves couldn’t have gotten much money out of 30 used CDs, but it represented my entire music library. They might have gotten some money from my graphing calculator and maybe even the backpack itself, but they certainly didn’t need the entire Key Club roster that I had spent weeks compiling. And as for my journal, the one that was only a few pages away from being complete and therefore retired to a safe shelf at home, the one with the six-page musing on love that I was exceptionally proud of, that item they most definitely threw in the trash.

I think part of the reason I kept all of those blank and half-filled journals is that I was hoping one day to get that stolen one back. Not literally, of course, I will never get that specific object back. I’ve already grieved for it. But maybe I was waiting for the day when I’d take up journal writing again, and potentially pen a few pages on love. And unlike the lost pages that were most certainly not as good in real life as they become each time I remember them, these pages would be truly fantastic. The whole journal would be fantastic. I would be fantastic.

My unused and half used journals were about potential, and it’s hard to give up on potential. But it was time to acknowledge that I wasn’t that person anymore. I didn’t engage in my creativity that way anymore. At the same time, it felt wasteful to toss perfectly good journals with perfectly good blank pages. So I came up with a different plan.

A few years ago I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which teaches the practice of Morning Pages. Morning Pages are three pages of handwritten journaling you do first thing in the morning. There are no rules, no expectations, and no stopping. You just try to keep the pen going until you’ve filled your pages. I enjoyed the practice and decided it would be a good way to use up my loose journals. I started with the smaller ones since that meant shorter pages, but gradually worked my way up to the full sized spiral notebooks. For the ones that were half-filled I just started where I’d left off. Some only had a dozen or so pages left, and I filled those up too. (As a side note, it was a great way to use up old pens as well.)

When I came to the end of a notebook I set it aside and started on the next. After a few months had passed, I went back to read what I’d written. Enough time had passed that I felt like I could evaluate the writing honestly, but not so much time that I felt nostalgic. If I found something good, I typed it up on my computer in a document dedicated to highlights from my Morning Pages. And then I ripped out those pages and recycled them.

For the pages that I’d filled years before, I read through them looking for anything worth keeping. Much of it was old notes from my college classes and not really worth anything to me anymore. Occasionally I would find something I wanted to keep. I’d rip out the page, scan it, and recycle the original. Very rarely I would find something I wanted to keep in its original paper form, in which case I’d rip it out and add it to my file of paper mementos.

In case you didn’t notice the theme, I ripped apart every single journal once it was full. There’s something ceremonial about destroying a used journal. I often recommend to clients that if they are having trouble with the physical act of tossing a used journal, they should consider burning it or burying it, which are common ways to properly dispose of sacred texts. I kept the full journals from high school and a couple half-full ones from college that have sentimental value. But all the spiral notebooks are gone, as are the cheaper, less attractive journals that I never got around to finishing. What’s left on my shelf now are blank journals that slowly disappear as I fill them up with morning pages and then destroy them a few months later. I’m really looking forward to the day when I have to go out and buy a journal again.

I know that the thought of ripping apart old journals or keeping scans instead of originals is frightening to some people. I get it. Like I said, I kept some of the older ones that were completed in full. But the only thing those half-finished journals did was make me feel guilty for not being the person I was in high school. And that’s silly. Because I’m glad I’m not the person I was in high school. I’m happy that I’ve grown and developed over the years, that I express my creativity differently and use my possessions more wisely. I’m glad that I stopped being the person that feels she needs to start a new journal every few months just because it’s been “too long” since she wrote in the old one. And I’m glad to have that room on my shelf back, free from guilt and ready for new books, new journals, and new ideas.

Your Mission

Take a look at the half-used journals on your shelf. What’s in them? Don’t just assume you know – start thumbing through them. What made you stop writing? What will make you start again? Sorting through journals can take a long time, because you’re likely to want to read through every page and get lost in the memories. If you have a lot of journals to go through, you may be better off setting aside some time every day or every week to thumb through a few. I can’t give you a single, prescriptive answer on what to do next. Each journal is different, as is each writer. All I ask is that you pay more attention to the Future You than the Past You. Take forward into your new life the things that will make you happy. Leave the guilt behind.

Or better yet, burn it.

The #WearItAllJuly Challenge

On July 1st I posted a picture of myself on Instagram with the following description:

Can you wear entirely different clothes every day for a month? My friends and I are challenging each other to do this, not only to put on things we don’t wear that often, but to learn what we really use (and what we could let go of). Plus, it’s a fun game! Think you can do it?

A good look from co-creator @gavinverhey

Rule #1: Wear a completely different outfit every day in July.
Rule #2: After you wear a piece of clothing, set it aside. You can’t wear it again the rest of the month.
Rule #3: If you literally don’t own enough of something to accomplish this (for example, you only own 15 pairs of shoes total), you can loop back through them after you’ve worn them all once.
Rule #4: You choose what categories are excluded based on your own wardrobe and what you’re hoping to get out of the challenge. You can choose to exclude specialty clothes from your rotation, such as hiking gear and ballgowns. You can choose to not care about pajamas or underwear. It’s up to you. The important thing is that once you decide your rules you stick with them.
Rule #5: Your wardrobe is “locked in” at the start of the month. Anything new you buy after that gets put in the used pile and has to wait until August!
Rule #6: There may be times where wearing something twice is unavoidable, such as with work uniforms. Don’t sweat it – you’re doing your best, and that’s what counts!

Participants are encouraged to share some of their outfit creations with the hashtag #wearitalljuly

My friends and I all started the challenge with different goals in mind. For me, I liked it because it was the opposite of how I normally approach this kind of thing. I’m usually the one doing challenges that ask you to pair down and minimize your options, like with Project 333. And I pack extremely light, essentially forcing myself into a capsule wardrobe every time I travel. This challenge was completely different. Rather than limiting your options, it forces you to take all of them. None of us knew what to expect, and I don’t think any of us could have predicted the learnings we got from it. Here are a few of mine:

We were joined by others on Instagram, including user @jenn.rych

Clothes are meant to be worn – I know that when you work from home you should always get dressed, even if you aren’t going to leave the house. But I had been breaking that rule constantly. I realized it was because I felt like I was “wasting” my clothes by wearing them when no one would see me. It’s true that every time you wear and wash an item you are wearing it down a tiny bit, but I realized that I was still doing that to my pajamas by wearing them all the time. I have to wear something, and getting dressed really does make you more motivated to get work done.

Embrace discomfort – I’d been prioritizing comfort so much, I forgot what is and isn’t comfortable and to what degree. When I started to run low on shoes and pants I had to embrace Anti-Casual-Monday and wear a dress and heels to my writing group. And you know what? Heels aren’t that bad. Dresses aren’t that bad. Sure they aren’t the most comfortable things in the world, but if it’s only going to be a few hours of mostly sitting, who cares? And if you’re working from home, flowy skirts and dresses are a great option to stay cool on a hot day.

Co-creator @kristinahorner showing off some of the diverse looks we had to come up with over the month

Every day is a day worth dressing up for – I have this beautiful pink and white skirt that I love and always get complimented on, but I rarely wear it because it never feels like a fancy enough occasion to wear it. But this month I found myself wearing skirts to casual get-togethers and dress slacks to coffee shops.

Your first choice isn’t always the best choice – The first time I thought seriously about cheating was when I realized I was supposed to go to a Mariner’s game and I didn’t have any jeans left. I couldn’t fathom wearing anything but jeans to watch baseball. To me, sports = cold. But the weather report for the evening said it would stay warm past the 9th inning, and I had one more pair of shorts left in the drawer. This turned out to be perfect, as I was too hot for most of the bus ride down to the game, and perfectly comfortable the whole time I was in the stadium. I didn’t even have to zip up the hoodie I was wearing and never bothered with the additional long-sleeve shirt I brought to layer. By forcing myself to make the “wrong” choice, I was way better off.

Some of my outfits from the later half of the month

Hoodies4Life – Speaking of hooded sweatshirts, have y’all worn one of them lately? Because apparently I stopped wearing them ten years ago and I forgot how incredibly comfortable they are. No wonder I used to live in them.

It’ll be fine even when it doesn’t work – The second time I considered cheating was when I was invited to another baseball game. I had absolutely no pants or shorts left, and as much as it pained me to wear a skirt to a baseball game, I did it. Honestly I did it mostly because the people I was going with all knew I was doing this challenge and would have totally called me out on cheating. They of course all noticed and commented that I was pretty fancy for baseball in my long black skirt, but it was fine. I was maybe a little cold during the last few innings, but it wasn’t bad. And honestly if they hadn’t all known about the challenge, I wonder how many of them would have even noticed.

Nobody notices and nobody cares – Over the course of this month my friends and I put together what we thought were some pretty disjointed and weird outfits. But when the pictures showed up on Instagram everyone looked…fine. Even the very weird and dressy stuff at the end of the month probably would have escaped everyone’s notice if we hadn’t been watching for it. I think we all get these ideas in our heads about what works and what doesn’t, and they are way more restrictive than they need to be.

A week’s worth of outfits from participant @adarosefaery

No seriously, your first choice isn’t always the best choice – The final time I considered cheating was when I had to see a client on the very last day of the month. I normally wouldn’t dream of wearing a skirt when working with a client because I never know if I’m going to be reaching around awkward piles, moving furniture, crawling around on the floor, etc. But I’d been wearing a pretty sensible skirt and tank top combination all day, and it was still very hot outside when the time came to start our evening session. This was a client I’d seen many times before, and while you never know where the day will take you, I knew his house never seemed to involve a lot of manual labor. So I wore the skirt, and it was the best decision. I could still easily do my work, and I never got too hot despite it being well into the 80s while I was there. I never would have chosen the skirt, but it was the better choice.

All the photos included in the post are pulled from people who participated on Instagram. Check out the hashtag #WearItAllJuly to see more! And who knows, there may be a #WearItAllOctober in my future…

Inbox Zero #1: Defining the Problem

The most common kind of digital clutter I help people with is email inbox management. Most people don’t even realize that this is an area where change is possible. They assume that email just is what it is and will always be a source of worry and stress. But it doesn’t have to be. You can take proactive steps to improve your email inbox just like you can improve a physical space in your home. And you’re likely to find that with a clean, clear inbox comes a feeling of freedom and clarity.

A Mailbox, Not a File Cabinet

The first step is to define the problem, which means defining your email. Have you ever stopped to think about what email actually is? It’s a way for the outside world to get to you. In the same way a physical mailbox is a way for the postal service to deliver your mail without having to step into your home, the email inbox is just a place for email to arrive. Nothing actually belongs in the inbox, just like nothing belongs in your physical mailbox.

At its core, email is someone else’s demand of your time. It is someone in the outside world asking you to put your time and energy into their interests, problems, and concerns. This is true whether it’s a company wanting you to read about their latest products, or a customer hoping to buy something from you. Every time you open your inbox, you are asking the rest of the world how it would like you to spend your day.

The Psychology of a Messy Inbox

The management of any space ultimately comes down to the habits you have in that space. Here are some common habits that tend to generate negative inbox relationships, and what might be reinforcing them.

1. Checking your inbox dozens/hundreds of times per day

The human brain is primed to respond to novelty. The experiences you get from novelty don’t have to be universally good, so long as they sometimes are and you don’t know when to expect them. Many modern systems feed on this idea, including all social media (this is why I recommend people turn off as many notifications as possible across all devices). When you go to your inbox there is often something new. Sometimes that new thing is a good or fun or interesting thing. Sometimes it’s not. But you’ll come back, over and over again throughout the day, hoping to get that good thing again. In this way your email inbox is no different than a slot machine. The risk you take in letting this slot machine control your life is exactly that – it controls your life. Not you.

2. Never deleting anything

Many people hesitate before deleting an email because they are worried they might need it later. This stems from the same compulsion to keep possessions long after they’ve outlived their usefulness. You imagine a future “someday” in which an item might come in handy, so you feel like you need to keep it just in case. You don’t have clear parameters for what useful emails look like, so you keep everything. The risk you take is allowing your inbox to fill up with junk, getting in the way and distracting you from what actually matters.

3. Never filing anything

Theoretically once an email has been dealt with you should be able to get it out of the inbox, but that often won’t happen because you don’t know where to put it. You have folders for each organization you belong to, for certain individuals or projects, for stuff you want to reference later. But the lines between these folders are blurry. You don’t know where to put something that fits in multiple places or doesn’t belong in any. So you make more and more folders with increasing levels of specialization, until there are so many it’s too much work to find the right one. And the email stays in the inbox instead. The risk you take is not only allowing completed tasks to clutter your inbox, but in wasted time and effort trying to find all those poorly sorted emails later when you actually need them.

4. Leaving items in the inbox

Even when something isn’t trash and isn’t looking for a place to be filed, you may still end up leaving it in the inbox. You may even open it, read it, then mark it as unread to help you “remember” to deal with it later. This is often because you are subconsciously deferring a decision. You don’t know how you want to handle this particular email or aren’t sure how to proceed, so you don’t do anything. It’s as though you opened a letter, read it, put it back in the envelope, and stuffed it back in the mailbox for you to find again tomorrow. It’s not doing you much good, but it frees you from the immediate pain of having to consciously deal with the situation at hand. The risk you run is that there’s no set moment when you will switch from deferring the decision to acting on it, meaning things can get forgotten or dropped. Even if they don’t, you’re letting them sit in your inbox the whole time, nagging at you and stressing you out.

Question Your Incoming Emails

In the coming months I’ll cover different tactics and strategies to deal with all of these negative habits. But for now, you need to start questioning what you have. Rather than looking at each email individually for what it’s asking of you, start looking for patterns and categories. Generally, your email will fall into one of these five groups:

1. Tasks (including reminders for tasks)

2. Pertinent Info (no action is required but you need to know it right away)

3. Low-Priority Info (good info that isn’t time-sensitive, such as newsletters)

4. Reference (information you’ll need in the future)

5. Things you shouldn’t be getting (junk mail, as well as items that should have been sent to someone else or shouldn’t have come via email)

Thinking about your emails in terms of the categories they fall into helps to break the negative habit cycles you have, and forces you to take action more often. If you find a reference email but have no where to put it, perhaps you need a better system for keeping reference info. If you get a task but don’t do it right away or put it on your to-do list, perhaps some part of you is questioning whether or not this task should be done at all. If you find some junk mail, perhaps you’ll stop to unsubscribe and prevent more of the same emails in the future.

Your Mission

Open your email inbox, but don’t check your email. Instead, start at the top of the list and try to put each email into a category (it might help to get out a piece of paper to keep track). Ask yourself what you felt compelled to do with the email, and then consider if that’s the best option for the category the email is in. Here are a few suggested actions to consider:

Tasks > do it if it will take less than 2 minutes, otherwise add it to your task list

Pertinent Info > Read, then archive the email

Low-Priority Info > Read if it will take less than 2 minutes, otherwise add it to your task list or a “To Read/Review” folder

Reference > Confirm that it has the right keywords you’ll need to search for it later, then archive

Things you shouldn’t be getting > unsubscribe and delete junk, delegate things that aren’t your job, clarify with sender if you wished it wasn’t an email (maybe by setting up a call or meeting instead)

Set a timer for 10 minutes to do this activity. You don’t need to make it through your whole inbox, just enough to find emails from multiple categories. Good luck!

A Solution (or two) for That Drawer of Mysterious Power Adapters

Nearly every home I visit has a drawer, a bag, a box, or a pile of power adapters for unknown electronics. Power adapters usually don’t have many identifying marks on them to tell you what device they go to, and there’s no universal standards for plugs, which means some adapters work on multiple devices and others don’t. Once separated from their original device, usually the only way they will ever be returned is if you want to use the device and go searching one by one through the drawer until you find what you’re looking for.

The thing is, the bulk of what’s in the mystery adapter drawer is no longer needed. The electronics that you actually use have their adapters plugged in throughout the house. This drawer contains only power adapters for things you rarely use, or more often, things you don’t even own anymore.

There are two ways to handle this drawer. One is an easy way that lets the problem persists but will help in the long run. The other is a lot harder but will allow you to get rid of the mysterious adapter drawer permanently.

Let’s start with the easy answer: adding dates. When you know for a fact that one of the random adapters in your drawer is 10 years old, it’s a lot easier to part with it. But because you don’t know what they’re for, they all look the same, and they show little signs of age, the ones you got 6 months ago are indistinguishable from the ones you got 7 years ago.

So do your future self a favor and add dates to all of them (I usually use painter’s tape and a sharpie). Since you don’t know how old they are, you can start with today’s date, since they are at least that old. Or if you know you haven’t touched this drawer since last September, you could put that date instead. The point is that next time you come across the drawer, whether it’s one or three or six years from now, you’ll know that everything in it is at least as old as today.

The more difficult but ultimately permanent way to take care of this drawer is to gather together all of your electronics together. And I do mean ALL of them. Go through every closet, into every drawer, behind every piece of furniture, and across every shelf in the garage. You’re on a hunt for anything electronic that may have needed a power adapter at some point. You can ignore electronics that you use regularly and are currently plugged in, since you already have those adapters. You’re only looking for the lesser-used items.

Once you have all your electronics together, it’s simply a matching game. Find a device with no adapter and start plugging each one in until you get a match. You’ll likely end up with several adapters that don’t go with any device, which you can confidently send to the electronics recycler knowing that they don’t match anything in your house. With everything else, you can now store the adapter with the device itself, rather than jumbling them all together. I would even suggest you label the adapter itself with what device it goes to so that if ever it gets separated again, you’ll be able to match it up easily.

However I’d also suggest that this is the perfect time to cull some of those miscellaneous devices you found throughout your house. Consider how deep you had to search to find it, how long it’s been since you’ve used it, and how likely you are to ever need it again. With electronics specifically, the longer you hold on to it the less useful it will be to anyone else. A device that could go to Goodwill today will barely be of use to the electronics recycler five years from now. Many people feel guilt over throwing things out. The best way to avoid that guilt with electronics is to make sure your unwanted items leave your house in time to be wanted elsewhere.

Your Mission

Either put dates on every adapter in your drawer this week, or match them with all your current electronics. The first task shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes. The second one depends a lot on the size of your home and how much you own, but even with large homes shouldn’t take more than an hour if you stay focused on looking for electronics and don’t let yourself get sidetracked with anything else.

On the Subject of Books & Belle’s Library

You may have noticed a particular affliction among some of your friends, especially common in people born between 1981 and 1991. I call it Belle Library Syndrome.

Belle from Beauty & the Beast is an incredibly aspirational character. She’s smart, beautiful, self-sacrificing, brave, and demands respect from all the condescending men in her life. And she’s got the most amazing library in the world. It’s four stories tall and full of rounded walls and spiral staircases. Belle’s insatiable need for the written word finally meets its match when the Beast gives her free reign of the royal library. And as a little kid you watched her face fill with joy, and you had only one thought: I wish I could have a library like that.

I want to make something abundantly clear right now: if owning hundreds and hundreds of books truly brings you joy, then by all means fill your shelves with them. You know the costs of ownership and you’re fine with them. This article isn’t about you.

For the rest of us, the problem with Belle Library Syndrome is that we strive to match her library without nearly the same benefit. We collect more and more books, buying additional bookcases or at least wishing we could. We spend thousands of dollars on the books themselves, and thousands more over time on moving and storing them. And instead of joy, they bring guilt. Guilt because there are so many we still haven’t read. Guilt because we just bought more anyway. And if ever we dared to do the math, we’d realize that the rate at which we are acquiring books far outpaces the rate at which we read them. The sad truth: most of the books on our shelves will never be read at all.

Sometimes we place a sort of impossible reverence on books. Don’t get me wrong, books are an important and vital part of a learned, civil society. But not because of the physical object. They matter because of what’s inside: the stories, the wisdom, the ideas. It’s the reading the matters, not the books themselves. Books exist to spread knowledge. And I would argue that keeping a huge personal library that no one ever touches is, at its heart, antithetical to the idea of spreading knowledge through books.

If your concern is to revere and honor books, consider that sitting on a shelf, never to be opened or picked up again, is not the true calling of any book. Books are meant to be read – ideally read often and by as many people as possible. Books get read when they are out there in the world, getting bought and sold and donated and gifted.

I’m reminded of a different part of Beauty & the Beast, when Lumiere is singing to Belle at dinner:

“Life is so unnerving
For a servant who’s not serving
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon
Ah, those good old days when we were useful
Suddenly those good old days are gone.”

Your books have hopes and dreams and purpose just like you. They want to be out in the world. They want to be passed from person to person. They want to be read. So if you aren’t going to read them, considering letting them go free. Let them run out into the world to find a new love.

Your Mission:

Create a personal book policy. This is a set of principles you set for yourself that make it easier to decide what to hang on to and what to let go. Personally I have a few sentimental books, a few active reference books, and a set of principles to guide everything else. They are:

1) If there’s a book you want to read, get it from the local library. If it’s a particularly popular book, just request a hold on it and read it whenever it becomes available.

2) Don’t buy books for yourself. If you want to own a book or there’s a book you want that isn’t at the library, put it on your Christmas list for someone else to get you as  a gift.

3) The moment you finish a book you own, decide its future. If you didn’t love it, put it in the donation box. If you enjoyed it so much you feel confident you will re-read it within five years, it can go back on the shelf.  If you liked it but won’t re-read it soon, decide immediately who in your life might like it, and give it to them as gift next time you see them.

These are just my personal rules. You can use them or change them or throw them out to match what you want from your books. The point is to sort your books with intention, and be willing to let some of them go.

Ticket Stubs

For most of my life I have been obsessed with holding on to things, chronically things, tracking things. I kept every Christmas card I ever received, even the ones from my bank. I kept all my old school papers and every program from every play I saw. Most importantly, I kept all my tickets stubs.

I’m not just talking about plays either. I kept movie stubs, I kept those little raffle tabs they give you at small events. Even when they didn’t have any identifying markers on them, I kept them. For 28 years I kept them.

It never occurred to me that I was engaging in a kind of isolated hoarding, because I still hadn’t exceeded the capacity of the jar I kept ticket stubs in. It turns out ticket stubs are small, and you can fit a LOT of them in a jar. But just because I can fit them all doesn’t mean I need to keep them all. And the practice of keeping every stub meant I could never just toss a used stub in the recycle: I had to go open up the jar and stuff it inside. It was extra work every time, and work I didn’t have to do if I stopped keeping every stub. So I stopped keeping, and I started sorting.

Some stubs brought up memories. I found the ticket from the first time I saw Anything Goes at The 5th Avenue Theatre in 2000, and from when I saw it there again in 2013. In 2013 my 27-year-old self noticed something that my 15-year-old self didn’t: that play gets weirdly racist at the end. I’m not sure why they keep doing it, except for maybe a burning urge to sing “It’s De-Lovely.” I threw out both stubs.

There were so many stubs from the UW School of Drama. I was an undergrad there, and the School of Drama productions were mostly performed by the grad students. So I was never in them and only casually knew the actors. But I still remember the show names perfectly after seeing them plastered on every wall and hearing my undergrad friends talk about running tech or getting supporting roles. She Stoops to Conquer, Big Love, Twelfth Night, The Quick Change Room. For all of these I have only a sliver of memory. Perhaps they were good productions, but I’ve seen so many good productions. I can’t hold on to them all. A few I will keep, because something about them really rings in my ears, even if I don’t remember all the details. I remember liking The Bacchae, though I also remember a lot of people hating it. I loved Arcadia, though that was probably Tom Stoppard’s fault. I know that Antigone was beautiful. The memories stay, but the stubs can go.

I had movie tickets that were ripped in half so you could only see the date and time, not the name of the film. Those got tossed. But that time I got to see the Dalai Lama speak? I’ll keep that.

I kept Young Frankenstein, which I adored. I tossed Spamalot, which was funny but not nearly so memorable.

I am positive I never actually saw Exorcist: The Beginning. Some vague memory says I was once handed the wrong ticket to a movie, but didn’t notice until afterwards. I know that whatever movie I saw, I saw it at around 10:40PM on August 22, 2004. But beyond that? Who knows. Plenty of good movies came out in 2004, including many I know I saw, and several that might have been playing in theaters that day. It seems strange to keep a piece paper that holds such a phantom of a memory. In the trash it goes.

I tossed a lot of ticket stubs for Mariner’s games, but I kept the one from that day my boyfriend and I saw the only combined no-hitter in Mariner’s history. Though regular no-hitters get all the glory, combined no-hitters are actually more rare, since a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter is rarely removed from the game.

In terms of keeping a stub I should have tossed, the winner was a ticket for US Airways from Seattle to Las Vegas. It wasn’t even my ticket stub – the ticket was for my friend Chelsea from college. I messaged her asking if she knew why I might have her ticket stub. She said she thought she remembered me randomly finding it in a library book that she had apparently checked out before me. Perhaps that’s why I kept it. It must have felt like fate at the time.

These stubs, like all the memorabilia and mementos I save, have a common thread. It’s right there in the name: memory. These are the physical objects that are supposed to trigger those memories in me. But for years they just stayed in a jar. They didn’t trigger anything, they merely took up space. There was a certain pride in being able to say I’d kept every stub I ever received, but to what end? What good are mementos if those memories never leave the jar?

Ultimately the deciding factor on what stayed and what got tossed was how immediately the paper conjured up a memory. Anything that took too much work wasn’t worth keeping around, including one movie stub so wrinkled and faded that I could no longer make out a single word on the stub. Perhaps that memory would have been great, but it’s gone now. All the stub is (all the stubs ever were) is me clawing after something that once was, based on the assumption that the worth of the past is sacred and unchanging. But I think some memories are meant to dissolve, just like the paper they’re printed on.

“I Might Need It Someday”

One of the most common excuses we have for keeping things we don’t use is that we “might need it someday.” Someday it might be useful to have this costume jewelry. Someday I might need this half-used box of crayons. Someday I’ll have a problem that can only be solved by eight sets of takeout chopsticks.

We can store an almost unlimited number of things in Someday, because it doesn’t actually exist. Someday is, by definition, a day that we never get to live. When we say that we need to keep something because we might need it someday, we are not just holding on to the object, we’re holding on to the potential. And potential can be very difficult to give up.

Rather than imagining an amorphous Someday with all its potential and all it’s needs, imagine your specific future self and the exact situation that might come up. Keeping asking questions about that future self and situation until you come to a confident answer: either you should definitely keep this item, or you obviously shouldn’t.

Here are some questions to get you started:

What is the exact situation where I will need this item? You’re not allowed to say that it “may come in handy”, or that it “seems useful”. Plenty of objects in the world are useful, but that doesn’t mean they are useful to you. I once got a set of fun cocktail garnish toothpicks as a gift and kept them for years before admitting that I was never, ever, going to host a party where I served fancy cocktails.

How likely is the future need? You still have the Allen wrench from when you put your Ikea dresser together. It was very useful at the time, but will you ever actually need it again? Do the screws in the dresser ever loosen, or have they stayed tight in the years since you first bought it? And how many identically sized Allen wrenches do you have anyway? Is there really going to be a time in the future when you simultaneously need two of the same sized Allen wrench?

Why did I stop using it? Perhaps you have some jewelry that you liked when you bought it but haven’t worn in awhile, or eyeshadow palettes that you haven’t opened in months. But you might use them again someday, right? There’s a reason you haven’t worn these things in a while. Maybe the jewelry is too flashy for your taste, or the colors don’t look good with your complexion. So what will be so different Someday that hasn’t happened yet? Will your complexion change? Probably not. Will your style change? Perhaps, but there’s no reason to believe it will change in the direction of the pieces you already have but don’t wear. In fact, it’s probably the least likely direction you’ll go, since some part of you has already proven you don’t like it.

Why haven’t I needed it already? You’ve got a box of cables and a bunch of power adapters because maybe you’ll need them in the future. But you’ve been using all the electronics you own just fine without them. Is it possible that these are all adapters for electronics you’ve already discarded? Or extra cables that were included but never needed? If you know why the items haven’t been used yet, it might tell you whether they will ever be used at all.

Will I actually want this when the time comes? Many people find themselves with stashes of certain free items, such as hotel toiletries, pens, USB drives, etc. The giveaway versions tend to be of a lower quality than what we’d buy for ourselves. So even if you do run out of all your current chapsticks, you won’t actually want to use the cheap version you got for free. You’ll just go buy new chapstick.

Is this just an inferior duplicate? Similar to the question above – I find this is most often an issue with clothing, such as pajama pants with loose elastic that have shrunk into high-waters. They’re functional as PJs, sure. But you never reach for them. You’d rather wear the better PJs you already own. Imagine if all your best pajamas were gone and this pair was all you had left. How long would you wear them before you bought replacements anyway?

How often do I get more of this item? I understand keeping a couple pairs of unused takeout chopsticks in the silverware drawer just in case you order takeout and the restaurant forgets to include them. But the reason you already have spares is that you’re usually given too many. They are easy to acquire. So you can ditch most of them, secure in the knowledge that more will arrive at your house soon – whether you like it or not.

How easy/cheap will it be to replace? A popular rule of thumb is that if it would take less than 20 minutes and $20 to replace, go ahead and get rid of it. The time and money you’ll save in aggregate by getting rid of your excess will make up for the few occasions when you’ll actually need to replace something.

Do I really need so much of this? Certain categories of just-in-case items make sense to keep for some people, such as an active crafter keeping spare fabric, paint, and supplies. The problem is not that you’re keeping extra stuff around, just that you’re keeping too much. If you rarely dip into your spare fabric, you probably don’t need five bins of it. In this case, I often encourage clients to choose a designated amount of space they want to devote to the category (two drawers, one bin, a single bookcase, etc), and pick out only the best items to keep until the space is full. This also makes it easy to keep the collection in check, since you’ll know you have too much when it doesn’t fit in the designated spot anymore.

Will I EVER use this much? When items are smaller, such as bobby pins, it’s hard to use the Designated Space solution. In this case, I think about lifetime usage. Even if you regularly use and regularly lose bobby pins, if you have hundreds of pins it will take you years to get through them all. In fact, the more you have of something the more careless you will be with it. A person with only 20 bobby pins is more likely to keep track of them than someone with 500.

Ultimately, there are two possible futures in front of you: one in which you still have your Someday item, and one in which you don’t. One in which your house is filled with items you almost never use, and one in which you occasionally kick yourself for getting rid of something too soon. Choose the future that brings you the most happiness.

Your Mission:

Pick at least one of your “I might need it someday” areas this week and ask yourself the questions listed above. Can you believe in your Someday event all the way through to the bottom of the list?