The Clutter Problem

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Never-Ending Inbox

I store unopened mail because I'm too scared to toss it.

"I know lots of people have a table covered in envelopes and catalogs and circulars and junk, but I'm much worse: When my table gets completely full, I move all the mail -- still unopened and unsorted -- into boxes, which I store in the basement!" says Judy Davids, 53, Royal Oak, Michigan. "I'm too lazy to go through it all, and too overwhelmed even to know where to start, yet I'm afraid to throw it away. The mail is just such a chore. I set it aside, intending to deal with it later when I have time, but then I don't. I fish the bills out, eventually, though I'm often late, but the rest just accumulates. I keep everything that comes from a bank, because I worry that it's important, even though most of it is actually junk. And every day more mail arrives. I feel like it'll take hours to deal with it all, so I don't deal at all."

The Experts Step In

Judy's behavior is incredibly common, Paxton says, and not just among bona fide hoarders. "Tons of people do this," he says, "and it's not just mail -- they hang on to newspapers and magazines, too. I call it 'information hoarding.' There's all this glossy, important-looking stuff coming into the house every day, and you feel like you've got to go through it carefully if you want to stay on top of things. Busy perfectionists are the worst offenders -- they worry that they'll throw the wrong things away and that they'll never have time to catch up with the mail."

His advice? Toss it all. "That stuff that's been in the basement for months? Forget it," says Paxton. "They'll resend bills if they're urgent."

After clearing the slate, a new system is in order: For bills, go paperless and set up automatic payments. Then change the way you deal with the paper that remains. "Devise a system where you sort the mail right by the door and have a shredder and a recycling bin right there," says Abramowitz. "If you get a thank-you note, read it and recycle it on the spot. Only stuff you really need -- invitations, bills, checks -- gets to come in the house."

Judy's Spring-Cleaning Success

"I did switch to online banking and it's great. We just refinanced our house and I had everything I needed at my fingertips without a single piece of paper. I was too scared to just throw everything away, so I scheduled a Saturday, gritted my teeth, and attacked all the mail. It didn't take nearly as long as I thought and I realized that 80 percent of what I'd saved was worthless. And I realized, as I did this, that the mail is actually manageable. After all, unlike e-mail, it only comes once a day. Can't I take five minutes a day to stay on top of it? When I thought of it that way, it seemed easy. It feels so good to be able to see my dining-room table."


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