Book review: Unclutter Your Life in One Week


There are two ways of looking at clutter, and they're equally important to getting a handle on it.

The first (which for most people ends up being the second) is the under-the-hood way: what's really going on between you and all that stuff you've stockpiled? What holes are you trying to fill, what anxieties soothe, what fears hold at bay? What, in other words, on the inside needs a little thought and attention. This is the kind of root-causes stuff that shrinks use to help facilitate change, the thought being (I think) that for many of us, identifying the root of the thing helps to illuminate the path out. (Or at the very least is that bell in your head that cannot be unrung.)

It's what I'd call the "inside-out" way: like Method acting, you work on the interior landscape first, which helps you to project the truth of the character on the exterior.

For this kind of examination, I fall firmly in the camp of my friend Brooks Palmer's clutterbusting ethos, as outlined in his excellent book and blog*. And there is a beautiful sort of symmetry to a decluttering methodology that is as spare and quiet as an uncluttered room itself.

The other way of looking at clutter, it follows, is an "outside-in" way.** This is the route traditional organizers have taken, before we all started drowning in so much shit that cramming it in ever more tightly-organized compartments became unfeasible.

The new wave of outside-in people definitely nod toward the inside-out folk, in that they recognize a lot of the attachment issues we have with stuff. But they're chiefly concerned with the mechanics of getting on with it.

For my money, and like most of us, I'm paying closer attention to it these days, Erin Rooley Doland's new book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week is an outstanding example of the practicality school of decluttering. By her own admission, Rooney Doland was a wretched clutterer before a desperate plea from her spouse woke her up; since then, she's worked assiduously to change her ways, and been quite methodical in her examination of useful techniques and the order in which they need to be done.

She's also really good at documenting and explaining them. Part of that, no doubt, comes from her conversion, but I think she's just a damned fine writer and thinker, besides. Her blog, Unclutterer, is daily proof of that, as well as of her generous attitude and cheery disposition. (Never underestimate the motivating powers of generosity and cheer when facing a self-made mountain of crap.)

Unclutterer, the blog, abounds with useful advice, and is a nice way to dip your toes in the waters of decluttering before you're ready to plunge in (and to keep you honest afterwards). Unclutterer, the book offers a detailed map of how to get there from here.

As the title suggests, it covers the decluttering process by breaking it down into days. The weekend counts as one, so there are six chapters devoted to step-by-step stuff, plus one that introduces the basic concepts ("a place for everything and everything in its place" figures prominently in the catechism) and another to prepare you for the aftermath (a.k.a. the rest of your life).

Rooney Doland admits that some of the tasks will take you longer than a day; having looped around this hill a few times, I think most of them would. But there are excellent exercises and ideas, along with detailed charts and checklists, making this one of the most actionable books on any self-help topic, not just decluttering. Some of the more interesting and potentially useful items in the book include:

  • a quiz to determine the way you process information (visual, auditory or kinesthetic), which in turn reveals the best ways for you to order things for peace and sanity in the future
  • an extensive system for re-thinking and reorganizing your paper filing system
  • the most thorough and well-thought-out plan for processing stuff as it comes into your house I've ever seen (her "reception station" puts my landing strip to shame)

Having come from a blog, with its ruthless schedule of post post post, probably accounts for the wealth of juicy tips studded here and there throughout the book. There are scads of these little "lightbulb" tips, from creating triggers for certain tasks to a regular event she dubs the Sock Purge, which I am instituting immediately.

No system will work unless you're willing and ready. Once you are, though, you'll want to find a guide that really speaks to you. If you're an outside-in type, or looking for some help that elaborates on the core directives of a Clutterbusting approach, this might well be the book for you.


*First-runner-up prize goes to Peter Walsh, who is the slick and edgy snarkster to Brooks' sly, gentle charmer. Not a bad thing, and his style has worked remarkably well for some people. Brooks' methodology was what made the tumblers fall for me, though.

**For those of you into the acting analogy, this is more of what the British school of acting is like. Yes, they care about the underlying emotions, but they spend a great deal more time working on the externals, movement, voice, etc., with the idea that creating the right external parameters informs interior behavior. The female cast of the magnificent Mad Men (an American program!) has said that you absolutely act differently in the trussed-up, high-maintenance clothes of the mid-century middle-class Western woman.

Image by Ssmallfry via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.