I’ve written previously about how the Broken Windows Theory applies to organizing. In a nutshell, if you have a little bit of a mess, it’s easy for it to become a big mess because your standards are already lowered.
Almost three years ago, I started a pile in the corner of my bedroom. Specifically, I placed a box of files there. The contents of the box were my father’s papers. We had just placed him in assisted living, and I was no longer visiting his home once a week. So we gathered up the papers I had meticulously organized and filed in his desk, and brought them to my home.
My father passed away just a few months later. I continued to access the papers for a while, but then I didn’t need to anymore. And the pile grew. Other boxes got placed on top of it. There was the box of old family photos that I had removed from one of his photo albums and sent away to be digitized so that could share them with my cousins. When the photos came back, that box went on the pile. Then there were the boxes of my own negatives that I had sent away to get digitized. They went on top of the pile, too.
“Clutter is postponed decisions,” declared my wise colleague Barbara Hemphill. And the pile in the corner of my bedroom was my own pile of postponed decisions.
The pile in the corner came to my attention recently as a result of a plumbing issue in the bathroom adjoining my bedroom. The building handyman came up to tell us that there was a leak in the apartment below ours. He isolated it to the pipes behind the wall of my sink. A couple of days later, a crew came in to demolish my bathroom to replace the leaky pipes. They had to drill through tiles, and dust was everywhere — not just in the bathroom, but in my bedroom as well. It took a full week until the bathroom was fully repaired, and then we spent a day laundering linens and dusting every surface.
As I dusted the pile in the corner, I felt ashamed that those boxes were still there. I knew I needed to do something about them!
The next day, I tackled the pile. Of course the most time-consuming — and the most emotionally fraught — was the box of my father’s files. To make it more palatable, I took the box into the living room and put on some music. Then I sat on the floor and dug in.
When I was done, I had six bags of shredded paper to recycle. I kept the most important papers and found room for them in my file cabinet (which resulted in me disposing of some files of my own that I didn’t need anymore).
Now, when I pass that corner, I do a double take. I’m not used to it being empty. It’s a great reminder to me to manage clutter — and tackle those postponed decisions — before they grow into larger piles that will be even harder to control.