Shopping: The Misguided Search for Happiness

In my 12 years of helping people de-clutter and organize their lives, I know one thing for sure – Americans have too much stuff. Even though our houses are, on average, 50% bigger than the average house in the 1950s, we still need storage units to hold some of our belongings. Come on people, what’s with all the stuff! Is it making you happy?

I recently watched a TV show on which a financial planner was helping a couple develop a strategy to get out from under their credit card debt. The wife (I can’t remember her name, but I’ll call her “Janet”) went to the mall every weekend with her mother and sister and employed a shopping strategy whereby she “saved” money by buying things on sale that she didn’t need. The financial planner referred to  Janet’s strategy as “spaving” – the misguided notion that spending money to save money on things you don’t need is a viable financial strategy. As it turned out, Janet got as much pleasure from being with her mom and sister as she did from making the purchases. She revised her behavior so she would simply enjoy the time with them without making any purchases. In the long run, she got more happiness from reducing her financial burden than from spaving.

I’ve worked with a particular client (I’ll call him “Joe”) for quite a few years – he’s on an eternal quest to make his condo less cluttered so visiting family members can stay overnight in his spare bedroom. Unfortunately, that bedroom is filled with “bargains” from shopping adventures. As much as Joe loves the idea of having an inviting home, he can’t get over the thrill of the bargain hunt, and his hunting “trophies” have taken over his guest room. Joe justifies his purchases by saying he’ll be giving them as gifts to those same family members he can’t have over, and he feels good about how thoughtful he is. Sadly, the gifts never seem to make it to their intended recipients. Joe is fed up with his situation – his bargains and his intent to be thoughtful sure haven’t made him happy. By the way, you may be surprised to know that statistics suggest that almost half of over-shoppers may be male.

I’m fortunate to have an inherent dislike of shopping, so I’ve never found myself in Janet or Joe’s situation. But I certainly do understand it. In my training to become a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, I learned that over-shopping is sometimes due to an unmet emotional need. If you think you may be shopping for that reason, ask yourself what you’re really shopping for. Like Janet, are you shopping for the social aspect? Are you trying to add some excitement to an otherwise boring day? It might be helpful to document how you’re feeling before, during and after you go shopping to see if there’s a pattern or common trigger.

The media certainly doesn’t make it any easier to resist the lure of shopping – magazine ads, TV ads, billboards, and even the content of TV shows and movies all tell us that more is better. If you can’t resist this external stimuli, turn it off – get off the catalog mailing lists (try to make it easier), turn down the sound and walk away from the TV during commercials, unsubscribe from e-mail notifications from stores, etc.

You might also enlist the help of a supportive friend to keep you on track – is there someone you can call when you’re feeling tempted to shop who might fill the emotional void you’re trying to fill? Maybe you could take your support person with you when you absolutely have to go to the store to help keep you from straying into dangerous over-shopping territory. In addition to support from a friend, here’s a resource you may find helpful: Stopping Overshopping, LLC

In the words of writer Eric Hoffer, “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.” Best wishes as you search for what truly makes you happy.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Own Less and Gain More

Family sitting in living room smilingA recent Oprah episode included an interview with multimillionaire director Tom Shadyac, who decided to simplify his life by letting go of his mansion and many of his belongings. His former home had 17 bedrooms (although he wasn’t quite sure how many!) and 13 bathrooms. He downsized to a mobile home with three bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, and has never been happier. It was fascinating to hear him describe how freeing it was to let go of so many material things as he felt the weight of his former lifestyle lift off his shoulders.

I can certainly relate to his sense that the traditional measures of success – possessions and busy lifestyles – weigh us down. After all, I spend my days helping people pare down their belongings and simplify their schedules. I see first-hand how much time and energy people devote to shopping and caring for things, as well as working to pay for them, but they aren’t necessarily happier for owning them. I see their jam-packed schedules, filled with activities for themselves and their kids, although often just sitting quietly at home reading a book or enjoying their family would make them happier.

I know it’s not easy or realistic for most people to simplify their life to the extent Mr. Shadyac did, but I do know there are plenty of people who would like their life to be a bit less complicated. Years ago I read the book Your Money or Your Life, which presented the concept of viewing expenditures in terms of how much of one’s life energy would have to be expended to cover each expense. For example, how many hours would I have to work to earn enough money, after taxes, to buy a new pair of shoes? Before making the purchase, I’d be wise to determine if I was willing to work x number of hours to afford them.

Although I’ve never been one to strive for owning a lot of possessions, when I do shop for things other than groceries, I often ask myself if they’re worth the amount of life energy I’d have to expend to obtain them. I use this technique when contemplating expenditures on entertainment as well – is it worth it to me to work x number of hours to be able to attend a particular concert, play, sporting event, etc. I’ve certainly made some purchases that I’ve regretted, but overall I can say that my conscious consumption has made my life simpler and happier.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried simplifying your life – how successful have you been? Are you happier than you otherwise would have been?

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Reduce Your Stress During the Holidays

Holiday stressShopping, baking, more shopping, wrapping gifts, hosting guests – this busy time of year is often more stressful than joyful. Expectations are high, crowds are plentiful, time is limited, and funds may be as well. As you may have promised yourself so many times, how about actually making this holiday season the most wonderful time of the year?  Here are some ideas to help you consider converting your to-do list to a “to-don’t” list:

 Reevaluate your expectations. The proliferation of TV shows and magazines suggesting that the holidays aren’t complete without a beautifully decorated home, the smell of cookies baking in the oven, and perfectly wrapped gifts for everyone who crosses your threshold, might have you believing that you have to spend every waking moment imitating them. I’d like to suggest that the holidays should be whatever you would like them to be, rather than a contest to see who can claim they’re busier and more exhausted.

 Reevaluate everyone else’s expectations. Have you ever asked your family what they enjoy most about the holidays? You may be surprised that it isn’t that the bow on the front door is perfectly crafted or that holiday cards are addressed in calligraphy handwriting. You may find they just enjoy spending time together appreciating the positive energy generated by this festive time of year. While you may think you’re creating the holiday of their dreams, you may be creating a holiday that zaps you of energy and the positive spirit that’s important to them.

Here’s a link to my newsletter where you’ll find additional ideas to help you reduce your holiday stress.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

When Does Enough Become Too Much?

Too many choicesA  few years ago I entered the produce section of my newly remodeled grocery store to purchase some tomatoes, only to discover that it was going to take quite an effort to fulfill my mission. The new and “improved” produce department was at least double the size of the old one, and it took me 5 minutes of intense searching to discover where the tomatoes were located. There were dozens of tables displaying bin after bin of all types of fruits and vegetables, and I became increasingly annoyed at each bin that didn’t reveal the object of my quest. While some of you may have enjoyed such a hunt, it nearly brought me to tears – so many choices and so much floor space to navigate left me feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

 It turns out I’m hardly alone in my reaction to having too many options – numerous studies have concluded that satisfaction level drops as people are given more choices. For example, a joint study by researchers from Columbia and Stanford Universities concluded that “people actually seemed to prefer to exercise their opportunities to choose in contexts where their choices were limited” and “they even performed better in such limited-choice contexts.” Translation: less choices lead to greater satisfaction and better performance.

So what does this have to do with organizing? I wonder if having too many possessions leads to a similar decline in satisfaction. One of the steps in the organizing process is to pare down the number of items one has so that only things that are useful or meaningful are kept. Many of my clients have an abundance of items yet resist letting any go because they are sure they will need them “someday.” For example, they may have a closet packed with clothes and be reluctant to let go of any because each one has the potential to be just the right choice for an upcoming occasion. Does having to choose which of the 11 pairs of black pants to wear, or which of the 53 pairs of shoes is just the right one, at least on some level, lessen one’s quality of life? If closets aren’t your sore spot, what about your overstuffed bookshelves, overflowing craft room, or an impassable basement?  Although they often insist otherwise, I imagine that this seemingly endless possibility of choices might actually cause people to be less satisfied than they realize.

So when does enough become too much? I’d love to hear your take on how the volume of items from which you have to choose impacts your satisfaction.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Neatening Isn’t Organizing

Horrified womanI recently encountered a situation with my client, whom I’ll call “Ann”, which exemplifies how some people think neatening is the same thing as organizing, and how detrimental that can be.  Ann has several chronic medical conditions that generate lots of paperwork, leaving her buried in piles and overwhelmed. She also tends to be an over-shopper, buying things because they’re fun or pretty, not because she’ll necessarily use them, although she says she intends to give them as gifts someday. In addition, she has emotional attachments to gift boxes, greeting cards, stickers, ribbon, and other gift-giving supplies. Ann also envisions herself as being a great cook some day, so she stockpiles recipes and cooking supplies. I’ve worked with Ann on and off for several years to set up systems for her paperwork and create space for the emotion-evoking things that fill her small condo.

When we work together, Ann tells me that  she hates her cluttered home, but although her head tells her she should let go of many of the unused things that fill her space, her heart won’t let her release them. I’ve been using motivational interviewing techniques and guidance from the book Buried in Treasures to slowly help Ann release things that aren’t giving her joy. We had been making slow but steady progress until “Linda” (not her real name) entered Ann’s life.

Linda is Ann’s cleaning woman. She told Ann she could whip her place into shape in four hours. Ann, being emotionally vulnerable and helpless, agreed to have Linda work her self-described magic. Unfortunately Linda, who was great at cleaning, wasn’t so great at organizing. She embraced the same philosophy kids often use when you tell them to clean their room – getting things out of sight is the goal. Linda shoved things wherever they would fit – cooking supplies were jammed into kitchen cabinets; recipes were shoved onto shelves; excess paperwork was tossed into large lidded bins; potential gifts were placed into boxes stacked from floor to ceiling; and gift boxes were stacked to go to recycling.

When Linda excitedly showed Ann the neat-as-a-pin results of her work, Ann was horrified. She could no longer see the things she loved, find the important papers that were previously stacked on her dining room table, or easily access the few pots and pans she used regularly. Even worse, the gift boxes that meant so much to her were unceremoniously awaiting their execution in the recycling bin.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, where you just want to make things neater and better for someone (including yourself), be sure to respect their feelings and recognize that neatening and getting things out of sight isn’t the goal of organizing – making it easy to find things when you need them and being surrounded by the things you love is what matters.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Organizing Lessons from Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3As I did around this time last year, I just saw a Disney-Pixar film that offers some great organizing lessons. This year it was Toy Story 3 that lured me from the comfort of my couch. The premise of the story is that Andy, who we met as a young boy in the first movie of the series, is getting ready to go to college and must decide what to do with his toys. This story tugged at my heart not only because I have son named Andy who’s in college, but also because I see many of my clients face the same struggles as Andy while they move towards creating a new, better life for themselves. Here are my observations:

The oldies but goodies are goodies for a reason. Andy had a large number of toys that he had enjoyed throughout his childhood – he didn’t seem to be constantly bringing in new toys. What oldies but goodies do you own? While they may not give you the thrill of being new or offer the excitement of finding bargain, there’s probably a good reason that you prefer these things. Whether it’s a pair of pants that fit you just right, a paring knife that makes life in the kitchen easier, or a piece of artwork you enjoy pondering, many things in our life are hard to replace – so stop trying. Don’t make impulse purchases, or even conscious purchases, if you already have something that suits your needs – you’ll end up having less clutter. 

It may be easier than you think to let go of things you don’t need. Molly, Andy’s sister, had a bedroom filled with things that were no longer meaningful to her. Until her mom prompted her, she hadn’t taken the time to pare them down. Once she got started, however, Molly had an easy time letting go of a lot of things she didn’t want or need. Her mom’s encouragement gave her the motivation she needed to move things to the donate bin or even the trash, so she could surround herself with things that were meaningful to her now. Is there someone who can encourage or help you let go of the things that no longer make your life fulfilling? If you’re a parent, can you help your kids learn to set limits by helping them evaluate their belongings?

Here’s a link to my newsletter where I offer additional observations on Toy Story 3 – I’d love to hear your thoughts. In case you missed it or want a refresher, here’s a link to my newsletter on last year’s movie, Up.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,


Buy Needful Things

PAYThis week’s blog is from guest blogger Gretchen Rubin, a best-selling writer whose new book, The Happiness Project, is an account of the year she spent test-driving studies and theories about how to be happier.

“I’m an under-buyer (as opposed to an over-buyer). That means I have trouble prodding myself to buy things, even things I absolutely need, like contact-lens solution. When I do buy, I buy as little as possible (even though this means I have to buy again before long). I often procrastinate about buying essential seasonal items, like mittens, until late into the season. I use things for too long, past the point at which they’re used up or worn out. Sure, a pair of old khakis is nice, but at some point, I really do need a new toothbrush.

“As an under-buyer, I’ve developed some resolutions to help me buy, and the most important of these resolutions is ‘buy needful things.’ I force myself to stop at the drugstore to pick up the supplies I need. I prod myself to buy three tubes of toothpaste, not just one. I ask myself if we have an emergency supply of cereal and light bulbs. I ask myself, ‘Do I need this?’ and if I do, I buy it (or at least I’m supposed to buy it) without saying, ‘I’ll pick this up another time.’

“As Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘To live in perpetual want of little things is a state, not indeed of torture, but of constant vexation.’ It’s no fun to be in a household that’s constantly running out of toilet paper.

“Over-buyers, of course, have the opposite problem. They spend too much time and money buying things that they don’t really need. ‘We can use that. This might come in handy. That would make a good gift…for someone.’

“For over-buyers, the resolution to ‘Buy needful things’ is also useful, because it reminds them to ask, ‘Do I really need this? Right now? Or do I just think I might need it?’

“To find out if you’re an under-buyer or an over-buyer, take this quiz.”

Hi – Sue here. I’m a “just right” buyer. I value my time, so I’ll buy multiple bottles of contact lens solution and other things I know I’ll use. As someone who doesn’t like to shop, my challenge is dragging someone to go clothes shopping with me to help me stay motivated. I’d love to hear how you did on the quiz and what buying challenges you face.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you,