New Year Challenge: Throw Out 50 Things

Regardless of what resolution you've made for 2012, life coach Gail Blanke says starting the year right begins with ridding the clutter in your life. She speaks with host Michel Martin about her book Throw Out Fifty Things.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, to those dreaded words, New Year's resolution. It's true, many people are thinking about changes that they'd like to make in 2012. It might be eating better, getting more exercise or getting your finances under control.

Well, our next guest has an idea for you that she says could be the key to all those other things you want to do. Gail Blanke is the author of "Throw Out 50 Things." She's also an executive and life coach and she's with us now from New York.

Gail, how are you? Thank you for joining us.

GAIL BLANKE: I'm really good. How are you, Michel?

MARTIN: I'm great. Well, so "Throw Out 50 Things," the title is. Clear the clutter, find your life. Why 50?

BLANKE: Well, a funny thing happens. A really good thing happens when you throw out 50 things and, by the way, that can be stuff, physical stuff. It can be emotional stuff, but when you hit 50, a funny thing comes over you and it's a new mindset. You become the kind of person who consistently edits her life. You're no longer the kind of person, at that point, who lets - I call it life plaque - who lets all that life plaque build up around you so that you can barely move. I mean, when you think of all the stuff we've got packed around ourselves in terms of the emotional and physical clutter, it's a wonder we can get up in the morning.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you said that you had an early start in this, an early training in this because your mother was an inveterate organizer, but for people who don't have that experience, how would you suggest that they get started?

BLANKE: Well, a lot of people have a hard time with it. Listen, I think that smart people have a tendency to make things hard. You ever notice that about yourself? It's like, how hard could I make it? And so we want to make this as easy as we can and one of the things we want to remember is - I hear so many people say, oh, yeah. I'd really love to do that, but you know, I just don't have the energy to do it. I'm overwhelmed. I can't do it.

And the great thing about letting go of stuff - and when I say throw out, by the way, I mean recycle, donate or sell and in the book is a whole resource guide about how to do that.

But when you decide to do that, it actually turns out to be energizing, not exhausting.

MARTIN: Well, I hear you saying that the first thing to do is just decide to do it.

BLANKE: You've got to decide.

MARTIN: You've got to decide to do it, but now that you've decided to do it, tell me what's the first actual step to take.

BLANKE: OK. Don't make it hard. Don't make a big deal out of it. Spend 10 or 15 minutes. Go into that drawer in the kitchen.

MARTIN: I do know that drawer.

BLANKE: OK. So you know what's in it. There are dead batteries. There are those twisted things for garbage bags. There are old receipts from heaven knows when, there's loose change, there's dried up tubes of crazy glue, there are keys in there that haven't opened up anything in - what - decades? You don't even know what those keys are for. All that stuff can go.

And when you clear that stuff out, you really feel good. In fact, my husband did that with his drawer in the kitchen, and he had to show it to everybody. Hey, you want to see my drawer? But then you get the energy to move on, like maybe to the medicine chest.

MARTIN: Why do you think people have such a hard time throwing things out?

BLANKE: Because...

MARTIN: I mean, because, you know, this is relatively new. I mean, the field of kind of professional organizers and things like that is relatively new. I mean, I know that my parents were of the generation - well, my father, particularly - was of the generation that, you know, if he saw a rubber band or a washer on the street, he would pick it up and put in his pocket. And I understood that because he was a depression era baby.

BLANKE: Sure, absolutely. But why the rest of us. Yeah.

MARTIN: Exactly. Why everybody else?

BLANKE: And I really do think it's because we're overwhelmed. A lot of people really are. Hey, it's been a really tough year and I think it's time for us to stop asking that question that seems to have swept the country. How bad could it get? And start asking the question: wait a minute, how good could I make it?

And what we need is our energy and our optimism back. And a good way and an easy way to get that is to let go of the past.

MARTIN: Have you noticed, with the people that you've worked with, that they might be really organized in one area and have a really hard time letting go of something in another area?

BLANKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And why is that? For example, like some people are really good about their closets, but their books are a disaster.

BLANKE: Oh, books. It's funny that you say that because books are a major problem for a lot of people. I think that people feel it's not nice to throw away books. And, of course, we're not throwing them away. What we're doing is passing them on and it'd be great, and it'd make you feel great, to take those to a library or take them to a community center, which is what we do, so that somebody else can read them.

But there are those areas that people have a tough time with. The stuff in the attic.

MARTIN: Is that the hardest thing? I was going to ask you that. What have you noticed is the hardest thing for people to get rid of, of the people that you've worked with?

BLANKE: Memorabilia. Your grandmother's dishes, the letters that your father, who is now gone, wrote you. And the thing is that, in terms of your grandmother's dishes, if you don't use them, give them to somebody else so they can use them right now. In terms of the letters, you might want to keep them, but the thing that we have to remember - and this is really important - is that the memories are not in the stuff. They're in your heart.

MARTIN: You've got what you call a ridiculously simple test for deciding what to keep and what to let go. Do I really love it? Do I need it now? Can I imagine myself or anyone in my family ever loving or needing it in the foreseeable future?

You know, I think you could use that as an excuse to keep just about anything, don't you? Like, you know - like your kid's second grade homework or something like that.

BLANKE: Yeah. Well, I mean, if it makes you happy. I mean, the key thing - does it make you happy to have it? I mean, really happy? Or are you just keeping it because you think you should? There's a big difference there and you might think, oh, yeah. I'll pass this down to my kids, but are they really going to want it? And so you say, hey, you know what? They can do without this. And then again, somebody else can use it right now, which is a key thing.

MARTIN: Yeah. Maybe you don't really need their spelling homework from second grade.

BLANKE: You probably don't.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As we kick off the new year, we're talking about how to clear the clutter with Gail Blanke. She's the author of the book, "Throw Out 50 Things."

OK. So you've said, first, make the decision. Second, keep it simple. Do you really need it? Can somebody else use it? You know, get rid of it.

But you also talk about attacking the mental mess, you know, clearing out...

BLANKE: Oh, that's my favorite.

MARTIN: ...the commitment, the anxiety, bad relationships. Now, that seems a lot harder than donating an old shirt, so I'm going to ask you the same question. How do you get started?

BLANKE: Well, the wonderful thing is that throwing out the physical stuff is really the lead-in to the emotional stuff. And, you know, you throw out a too tight sweater. You can begin to think about throwing out a too small view of yourself. So if a person - if a memory makes you feel bad - what about the old grudges? What about the old fears, the so-called mistakes you think you made that you haul out at three o'clock in the morning? You know, delete those.

MARTIN: How do you do that?

BLANKE: I really envision myself floating on this raft in the middle of this loving river and casting aside the things I think I should have done differently, any old anger that I have; or what I call stored anxieties. And you really want to envision yourself casting them - I do - overboard. And you have to practice. Some of this stuff, you have to practice and, if you practice, you can let it go. You really can.

MARTIN: Well, Gail, how often do you do a de-clutter in your life?

BLANKE: I kind of try to do it on a regular basis. I certainly do it this time of year and I do it in the spring, but I try to do it on a regular basis. And I hear so many people say, I'm just going to wait. This isn't the right time for me to do it. I'm just going to wait, you know, before I really get on with my life, which is what we're talking about. And I said to a woman, so what are you waiting for, again? She said, well, I'm waiting for my son to be older, she said, for some reason. I said, OK. So how old is he now? And she said, well, he's 30, but you know, I'm still just waiting for - so you know, some people are waiting for this sign, you know, like there's going to be a sign.

And a woman blogged on "Throw Out 50 Things" that she'd been driving by this church in the southwest and in front of the church is a sign and the sign said, if you've been waiting for the sign, this is it. So this is it.

MARTIN: This is it. Gail Blanke is the author of the book, "Throw Out 50 Things." She is also a life coach and the founder and CEO of Life Designs, which is her executive and life coaching firm, and she was with us from NPR New York.

Gail, thank you. Happy New Year.

BLANKE: Thanks a million, Michel. Same to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, one of America's finest poets has put together a new collection of 20th century poetry. Making the cut was not easy.

RITA DOVE: They had to be great poems. I mean, I wasn't going to choose anything just because it fit a little bill or anything like that.

MARTIN: Rita Dove tells us more about her life, the power of writing and the new "Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry." That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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