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Book end: Contest reveals the secrets of demolishing cluttering

SALT LAKE CITY — It would be a glorious fight — a contest to test our mettle. My coworker at the Deseret News, Ryan Morgenegg, and I were about to push the limits of decluttering endurance.

Every workday each of us would bring in a book from home until one of us bookaholics, hopefully Morgenegg, would cry uncle.

The loser would buy the other lunch.

Along the way we both learned a lot about why people hold onto things like books. Many secrets of getting rid of clutter hit home and are now starting to affect other areas of our lives. They can also help other people eliminate book and other clutter in their lives. By having less and concentrating more on other areas of life, better purchases can be made that don't clutter.

Our wives are amazed. Our friends are astounded. Our other coworkers want to get at our pile — almost eight months worth of books.

"I never dreamed it would go on for so long," Morgenegg says. "I got rid of about one-third of my books."

Tipping point

Ellen Jovin in New York wasn't about to get rid of her books, however.

"Books, for me, are a connection to the whole life of the mind," says Jovin, who runs Syntaxis, a communications skills training firm, with her husband. "Books are the manifestation of all this great thought over the centuries."

So every time she moved, she moved her 60 boxes of books as well.

"I was reluctant to even get rid of the ones I didn't like," she says.

But then she moved into a smaller apartment. With less room, she started feeling like a slave to the books, especially the ones she had already read and wasn't likely to ever read again.

"It was like a graveyard of books," she says. "Each one like a little tombstone showing what I have done in the past."

It was enough.

She decided she needed to cut back, not just on books, but on other possessions, as well.

Alison Kero, a professional organizer in Brooklyn, N.Y., says the tipping point, the moment someone decides they need to change, is different for everyone.

"Sometimes it is because someone moved and no longer has space," she says. "With one person it could be a small thing that makes them want to declutter. Another person may need the apocalypse knocking on their door before they do something."

Changing thinking

Examining the way a person thinks about certain items is one way to prepare to get rid of books and other clutter

Kero says books are often symbolic of larger issues. For example, people may buy books to help them improve something in their lives. The book becomes a symbol of an unfinished project.

"And people hold onto unfinished projects," Kero says. "If you buy something and don't use it, you feel guilty. You don't want to admit you are a failure in that thing."

And so people hold onto the book thinking that some day they still will read it: "But you don't have to read everything you own," Kero says.

Kero knows what it is like, and admits forcing herself to read books she hated just to finish that "project" aspect.

Morgenegg found that the book contest forced him to evaluate the books he was keeping — many of which had good information in them. But the concept of BABLE helped him pare away at these things.

BABLE stands for "Books Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy" and was coined by writer and editor Susan Tunis on her blog "In One Eye and Out the Other." Basically, as interpreted by Morgenegg, it means that there is a limited amount of time to read books. Eventually, people have more books than they could read in a lifetime.

"And next year brings a whole new crop of books," he says. "It is not like there is a finite amount. There are thousands of books. You have to tell yourself you will never experience all of them."

Respect the book

Kero says people need to set boundaries to help them get rid of things. One way to set priorities is to be honest and calculate how many books could be read in one year.

"How much time do you really have?" she says. "Yes, we all wish we had more time, but knowing what you truly want will help you let the rest of it go. You don't have to try to be and do everything."

Morgenegg calls this getting rid of the stuff that is mediocre and going with the best of the best.

Steve Savage in Silicon Valley, Calif., hit his clutter tipping point after his divorce and began, as he says, to clean up a lot. Savage, a program management professional and author on geek culture, says the first rule to stop clutter is respect.

"A book is something very important," he says. "We treat them too casually. We should respect the book and what it can be."

The idea is that if we look at books as being important, our purchases would be more careful. Savage says when people buy books, they should consider how the book is going to eventually leave their possession, as well.

"What will happen to it?" he says, "Will you donate it? Regift it? You respect the book by planning ahead."

Space solution

Kero also mentions the idea of having respect for books and treating them well. Part of that idea applies to all the things people own. If they are not treated well, the reasons for having them diminish.

To treat things well, there needs to be space for them. One of Kero's organizing clients kept a storage unit for 12 years. Inside were 25 boxes of books. They went through the books in small groups of 10 at a time, and divided them into "keep," "donate" and "can't decide yet."

"You really need to be honest with yourself," Kero says. "Do I have space for this book? Do I really love this book? If you can't take proper care of it, it shouldn't be in your home."

Morgenegg and I used the idea of space in our contest. The goal was to reduce the number of books that could fit in the designated space in our homes.

Going through the process helped Morgenegg whenever he thought about buying a new or used book, or even picking up a free book people wanted to give away. He says he used to get the books with little thought; now it takes a great deal to get him to add to the books at home.

When a space is filled up, the plan is for every book brought in, another most go out.

Clutter contest ends

As month after month of the great book clutter contest continued, Morgenegg began to notice something unusual. As the books stacked up and were put in an empty closet at the Deseret News, he forgot about them.

"Honestly," he says, "I never thought this would happen. I haven't missed them and never would have read them ever. The books I really want to read are on my shelf at home."

Kero says that clutter is a sign of something inside a person's mind.

"If you have clutter on the outside, there is clutter on the inside," she says. "Holding on to stuff that no longer serves you is usually based on fear. It may be a fear of a loss of knowledge or a fear of letting go of the past or a fear of change. You have to let go of it internally to let go of it externally."

Ultimately, Morgenegg lost the competition. By eliminating the clutter of books, he has begun to tackle other areas in his life. He also collects board games and has the goal of reducing the number to fit in a particular closet at home. He's making his collection, like his books, the best of the best.

"I feel great, even though I lost," he says. "When getting rid of things it is almost like breaking an emotional attachment that causes pain. But once it is done there is a relief; there is a peace that comes."

And sometimes, a free lunch, as well.


Twitter: @degroote