Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A place for everything

I decided a couple of weeks ago to empty out my email in-box.

I didn’t intend it as a symbolic gesture, but, as sometimes happens with clean-up projects, it took on a larger meaning once I got started. It wasn’t that I expected to delete all of the sixty-two messages in my in-box; I just wanted to sort them all into folders. In general, I’m pretty good about using email folders for work-related projects and volunteer committee work, but so many correspondences seem to defy easy classification. And so I just let them sit there in my in-box.

It occurred to me that perhaps, that signified a bigger problem. It didn’t seem like I should have any correspondence that I had no way of classifying. So I resolved that I would put every single in-box correspondence into a folder. Anything I felt I needed to keep was hereby required to be assigned some kind of identity. And no cheating by using “Miscellaneous” or “Random” labels either, I told myself.

But some emails just contained little intriguing quotes from my daily inspirational email subscription. Okay then, I decided, there would be a label for “Inspirations.” And some were emails complimenting articles I’d written. Well, then, why not a folder for “Compliments”? Confirmations of items I’d ordered but not yet received became “Pending orders.”

What I quickly discovered with this simple exercise was the beauty of taxonomy, of determining that there’s a place for everything, even if it’s a virtual rather than material place. From that point, it was easy to make the analytical leap to conceding that anything that defied labeling probably wasn’t an email I needed.

Once my email in-box was empty, I resolved to go through the same exercise every day. That part was easy. But then I took a critical look around my house and wondered if the same principles that worked for virtual correspondence could be applied to household clutter. In theory, I already had a designated place for everything that mattered: recipes, pay stubs, pet medications, office supplies, tickets to upcoming events, musical instruments. And yet still, random items piled up on shelves and tables, in closets and in corners, just as they do in everyone else’s house. Is it possible, I asked myself, to make a rule that if I can’t figure out where it should be stored, then we probably don’t need it?

It strikes me as a fairly aggressive approach to household clean-up, and we’re not quite there yet. I still can’t figure out where to put empty candy boxes that Holly has decorated with ribbons and stickers, or vacation postcards whose images I want to admire just a little longer, or a pretty bottle that once held olive oil. But just thinking about it this way helps a little. If it really matters, figure out where it goes, I tell myself, and within minutes, the ever-accumulating clutter piles have been reduced.

True, those piles grow back, just as my in-box accrues new emails every day. It’s not a perfect system. I still lose emails because I can’t remember how I labeled them (but gmail makes it easy to search by sender or topic), and I certainly haven’t quite defeated the clutter problem in our house. But it’s an interesting way to approach the problem, and I haven’t given up yet.

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