Tea MugsI'm a pretty aggressive unclutterer. Once, when I was about 12, I cleaned out my cardboard desk (the legs were hollow, so it held a lot of crap) and never looked back. Yeah, I know – it's not quite normal. Still, there are things that I let pile up, even though I know better.

I'm a tea hoarder.

It's not exactly a reality-TV level problem, but I buy a lot of tea. Money's not the issue, although I have some Grade 5 rose petal tea that came in what looks like a dime bag and I'm pretty sure cost more, ounce-per-ounce, than heroin. The problem is that it piles up, some of it for years, and before I use up the old stuff, I rush out to buy something new and exciting.

Every time I look in the cabinet, I'm reminded of years of past commitments, and how I somehow didn't live up to them. It sounds melodramatic, I know, but it's funny how the little things in your life can become symbols of larger problems.

I can't solve it overnight.

I'm good at cramming, but I can't drink 500 cups of old tea in a week (or, at least, I probably shouldn't). I also can't cram reading 30 books that are collecting dust, organizing a 3 year back-log of files, and on and on. These things take time – small bits of it every day for months, in some cases.

Mentally, it's a bit exhausting. I want to clear out the debris of the past, but I'm not about to keep a spreadsheet of every piece of minutiae in my life. I needed a simpler solution – a nudge to move in the right direction without hiring a personal assistant just to manage my tea habit.

So, I made a rule.

It seems simple now, but I have a unique form of thick-headedness. The problem isn't the old stuff – the problem is when I run out and buy some new thing without dealing with all the old, perfectly good things (that I excitedly ran out to buy last week/month/year). So, I decided I can't buy any new tea until I use up the old tea. I can't buy any new books until I make a dent in all the old books (and on and on).

It's a one-two punch of carrot and stick to make me act like a grown-up. On the one hand, there's that negative of not getting new stuff, but on the other hand, I'll look forward to that new stuff more (and guilt-free) when I've dealt with all the old stuff. Plus, there's nothing to remember – if I want to drink some tea or read a book, the pile's there waiting.

It's silly, but it works.

As I use up things and make way through my reading list (I've finished 10 books in the past 45 days and am midway through 2 more), I just feel better. I know these sound like small, ridiculous things, but they're bricks in a bigger wall, and I can feel it crumble a bit more every time I deal with something from the past.

So, what's weighing on you? What part of the past could you deal with if you just gave it 30 minutes a day or put your own No-Buy rule into place?

Image licensed from iStockPhoto (Lukasz Pabian, ©2009)

15 Feb – Sean

I use a similar but slightly different process when dealing with massive amounts of dirty dishes. When the pile of dishes gets to be overwhelming, usually after I cooked something complicated, it seems like a daunting task. I then get in the rut of washing the dish I need which just keeps the pile the same level. I then realized the amount of effort to clean one dish is really no different than cleaning two or three. So if I am washing one utensil, I wash three. Instead of one bowl, three bowls. It doesn't take long for the massive pile to reach a level that it doesn't appear impossible and I can tackle the whole thing at once.

If you forced yourself to use two before buying one, you'll reach a point of equilibrium.

I've also been fascinated by the concept of using space restrictions as an organizing method. Setting aside a specific area in your cabinet for tea and you can't have more tea than fits in that area. Or books, or gadgets, or whatever it is that is your thing. I don't know if I have the right willpower to employ that method, but it is intriguing to me as the idea of being organized and living in a neat and tidy home is very appealing to me.

15 Feb – Dr. Pete

@Sean - I like that - if you wash 3 dishes for every one you use, you'll eventually come out ahead. It reminds me of the rule my Scoutmaster had that we always were supposed to leave a place cleaner than we found it. If everyone did that, there'd eventually be no litter.

I'm really interested in this general idea of nudges that we can use to keep ourselves on track. If the system gets too complicated or draconian, it's going to fail. Plus, it's really hard to reward and/or punish yourself in any way that really sticks. As an adult, what counts as a "reward" (without having some other downside, like being fattening) is sometimes tough to pin down.

15 Feb – Sean

I've also never been that good at 'punishments'. As soon as a negative consequence is a possibility, I tend to fixate on it. I'm not trying to accomplish my goal, I'm trying to avoid the negative thing, which gives the whole thing a less than happy feel. Accomplishing goals should be happy and its own reward. Obviously we choose to reach for these goals because the goal itself is a reward. Having new teas to drink without giving over your entire kitchen to storing them is a great rewarding goal. Life also has enough built in punishments that we don't need to pile more on top of it. The punishment of failing to meet your goal is you don't get the benefit of the goal.

I think the campsite rule can be applied to so many things. I didn't think of it in terms of organizing my life.

15 Feb – goodnewscowboy

I feel your pain with the book addiction Pete. Mine got to the point of my wife alloting me 12 shelves. Period. They're all mine but whatever doesn't fit on them is fair game for her and the trash can.

I'd really like to say that it's made me a neater more disciplined person, but all its really done is teach me how to stack books 2 and 3 deep.

15 Feb – Dr. Pete

@GNC - Actually, running out of shelf space was kind of what got some of this going, although my wife's as bad as I am. We bought a Kindle as part of the solution, but I'm trying to tame the shelf before I rush off and buy 50 digital books.

17 Feb – Succeed Online

Too bad that my "e-book shelf" doesn't fill up like my normal bookshelf. I think the read what you've got before you buy more rule is great. I find way too many suggested books that I purchase and then never get all the way through them. Hopefully this will change that. Or I could at least do a "read three before buying another" and eventually catch up without limiting my "have-to-have" books.