Are you looking for a way to eliminate problems and annoyances?

One of my Twelve Commandments (see left column) is “Identify the problem.” I’ve realized that often I’ll put up with a minor problem or an irritation for years, simply because I haven’t taken a minute to consider the nature of the problem and how it might be solved.

This rule seems so obvious that I’m surprised that it has proved so tremendously helpful. Nevertheless, it has.

Here’s an embarrassing example. I was always slightly annoyed by my need to run around the apartment getting this or that—a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, some Advil. Finally, light dawned, and I realized that as an expression of my love of clearing clutter, I was an over-consolidator.

What’s an over-consolidator?

I’d consolidated all the tools in the toolbox, all the scissors in the office-supply drawer, all the medicine in the medicine cabinet. Not a good idea. Some items SHOULD be spread around.

I put a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, and a bottle of Advil in the kitchen. I scattered scissors throughout the apartment. Etc. How did I not figure this out earlier?

Here’s a solution to a trickier problem. I’d been feeling weighed down by all the adorable drawings the Big Girl brought home from school. I loved them, but I didn’t know what to do with them. They were everywhere.

Finally, I said to myself, “Take a minute. Identify the problem. What am I going to do with these drawings?” and I came up with a great plan.

I chose the twenty best drawings. The Big Girl and I sat at the computer, and she dictated an explanation of what was going on in the pictures (not always quite obvious). I printed out the captions, glued them on the drawings, took the drawings to Kinkos to be color-xeroxed and bound. Then I threw away the originals (an important clutter-clearing step).

The whole process took weeks, and the color-xeroxing was surprisingly expensive, but it was worth it; now the drawings are preserved forever, and I gave copies for the grandparents and great-grandparents, who loved the gift.

So whenever I feel fretful, I instruct myself, “Identify the problem.”
Therese Borchard has a blog on beliefnet, Beyond Blue, where she writes about “the daily spiritual journey of life with depression and anxiety.” We come at the subject of happiness from different angles, but obviously, we’re both deeply interested in the question of how we and other people can be happier. Therese was nice enough to run an interview with me.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I agree with the “scattering”, and have done that for as long as I can remember. But I can’t believe you actually threw out the originals of your daughter’s drawings. I would have made the copies, as you did, but bound the originals into a scrapbook of sorts. The originals can NEVER be duplicated. I must confess to actually gasping when I read this.

  • Flavia

    I’d suggest you keep Itoya folders ( It will be a lot easier, they’re flexible (you can interchange her favorite drawings at any time) and you keep the originals. Also they make the pages look pretty good.

  • Biscuit

    Fantastic idea with the drawings. I can sympathise with the anguish at throwing away originals, but you can’t keep all that “stuff” forever however precious it may seem.
    At least by publishing them you’re keeping them. I’m going to do the same and come Christmas time make the book up for family.

  • I know it may seem heretical to throw away originals. But the whole point of the exercise was to clear clutter and to have a keepsake, and if I made a bound book, then still had the originals around, I would have just added to my mess.
    With kids, I find that I just cannot keep everything. Also, now that I’ve highly edited what I’ve kept, I find that I actually look at it more — if there’s too much, it gets stuck in a box and tucked under a bed, never to be seen again.
    But people differ on this…I have to confess that I also throw away other people’s Christmas cards, right away, though I do love looking at them for a few minutes. I have friends who keep EVERYONE’S Christmas cards for YEARS.
    It may also have something to do with living in New York City. The space constraints are much different when you live in an apartment. If I had an attic the way my parents did, I might well be squirreling away every scribble.

  • Jean

    My parents would be horrified to know that I practically open greeting cards and Christmas cards over the trash bin, but some of us are less sentimental and more practical like that. To be Buddhist about it, the stuff is just stuff, don’t get overly attached.

  • ben

    I’m with Jean, I’m teaching myself (and it’s not easy) to let go of “stuff.”
    When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, it took two weeks to go through her house and clean out her “stuff.” And almost none of it was worth keeping. She collected things like junk mail. Literally, piles of advertisements for cars and insurance and video rentals.
    I (actually we) decided we did not want to follow that particular path. Some things are certainly worth keeping – and I do have a ton of things the kids have created – but we’ve become much more brutal about looking at something and going “Why do we have this? Do we need it?”
    Sorry to go on so long, but I’m quite proud of removing the clutter. And I’ll think about the selective scattering of things like scissors and screwdrivers, which we have consolidated mainly for child-safety reasons in places that aren’t easy to get to. Hmm…

  • I have a suggestion for the most useful “scattering” I think I’ve ever done. It had seemed an unfailing rule that my reading glasses were upstairs when I was downstairs and downstairs when I was upstairs. Finally, it occurred to me that I could have two pair of reading glasses, one for each floor. Such a simple solution that eluded me for ages!
    Regarding your daughter’s drawings, I applaud your decision to select only the favorites to keep and think it’s wonderful that you had her dictate her thoughts about them. But I’m an artist and it pains me a bit that you decided to throw away the originals. Since you were keeping a copy of the bound book for yourself as well as making additional copies for other family members, I would have bound the originals and kept those. One book takes up the same amount of space, whether originals or photocopies. I’m wondering if the size of the drawings was a factor in your decision, if perhaps you needed to reduce some of them.
    Also, if you have a scanner, that’s a great way to preserve an image that might deteriorate over a period of years; both original drawings and photocopies are vulnerable to this. At least those digital files won’t crowd your apartment!

  • I live in NYC, too, Gretchen (I think I’m right across the Park from you!), and my space — especially storage — is very limited, so I, like you, completely understand the need to get rid of clutter. I’m with Cynthia Friedlob, though, in that it pains me to think of originals of artwork being tossed.
    One area where I am quite militant is with greeting cards. I only save those in which the person has written something tailored specifically to me. If someone just writes his or her name inside, or a standard “Happy birthday!”, that card doesn’t get saved. Same goes with holiday cards. I am extremely unsentimental about those in particular — and, oddly enough, the ones with photos of the family I find very easy to discard.
    Hey, no one ever called me *consistent*. :o)

  • When my kids were at the age they were bringing home a lot of artwork, I would frequently grab a handful of manila envelopes and address them to various relatives. The kids could choose what went to whom. The relatives got to see the artwork first-hand, and I always let them know they did not have to keep it. I kept the best/favorites for myself in a box/bag for each year. I have also used “extra” kids artwork/schoolwork as packing material for family gifts.
    I second the idea of having several sets of scissors, tape, screwdrivers, etc. Especially since someone was always using the scissors and not returning them to ‘their spot’.
    My most useful scattering is hair rubber bands. I have long hair, and I’m always wanting to put it up at the end of the day. By keeping a 99c baggie of hairbands in several discreet places, I never have to run upstairs to ‘my’ bathroom in the middle of cooking/homework/yardwork. (They’ve also come in handy for other purposes, too. They’re great for marking which cup belongs to whom.)

  • I just wrote a post recently about my packrat tendencies and fretting about what to do with the mounds of preschooler art I am collecting. Someone suggested taking digital photos of the art, tagging them and loading them onto Flickr. I *love* this idea, and am planning on taking some time on the upcoming holiday weekend to set it up. Before that, I was trying to keep each boys’ art in his own three-ring binder, but I was falling behind.