The best books, articles, and Web sites for helping you organize your life.

What Slate writers are reading.
April 5 2008 7:10 AM

The Great Uncluttering

The best books, articles, and Web sites for helping you organize your life.

Ah, springtime: new beginnings and all that. Lately, I've been trying to streamline my life under the tutelage of Unclutterer, a blog devoted to "getting and staying organized." The site's writers have given a lot of thought to "pocket clutter," "inherited clutter," landing zones (the places where you drop your stuff when you come in the door), and more abstract notions such as uncluttering your social life. Where does all this uncluttering lead? Erin Doland, the site's editor-in-chief, wrote about the satori-like state she achieved through her efforts. So far, I've achieved a rather intense relationship with the Container Store.

Unclutterer is part of the blossoming "lifehacker" movement, which takes the ethos of computer hacking (elegant solutions to knotty problems) and applies it to life skills. What's the best way to drink coffee to maintain optimal brain performance? "Consume in small, frequent amounts." How do you stop wasting time by clicking around? Install a program that analyzes your Web use and calculates the hours you've spent watching NBA highlights on YouTube. The epicenter of the movement is Gina Trapani's Lifehacker blog *, and the site's best hacks are collected in a new book, Upgrade Your Life.

One hack that I'm fond of—but have failed at—is the efficient idea that every e-mail you send should be five sentences or fewer. Outside my inbox, brief writing is thriving with the publication of Not Quite What I Was Planning, an anthology of six-word memoirs. Amusing examples abound ("Most successful accomplishments based on spite"), and more than a few have a melancholy kick ("He left me for good eventually"). Wired editor Kevin Kelly points out the boomlet in brief-review sites, such as The Four Word Film Review and Paul Ford's six-word music reviews. But none of these match the wit of their more long-winded ancestor, the Guardian's The Digested Read. When you need to skewer a pretentious book in six paragraphs, only an Englishman will do.

The appeal of brevity is that it will help us cope with the avalanche of music, movies, books, magazines, television shows, and blogs. On the site lifehack.org, writer Dustin Wax suggests that our moaning about information overload is misplaced: "What you need less of is input—all the crap that flows at you masquerading as information." He outlines a plan for a "high-information diet" in which you forgo the "comfort food" of reality TV and Perez Hilton for sturdier stuff that imparts useful knowledge.

Fair enough, but reading Proust can be hard work. Why not outsource it? That's the advice of the newly minted lifestyle guru, Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. Ferriss went so far as to outsource his online dating, but in his milder moments, he makes the case that hiring a virtual assistant to summarize your e-mails and keep a schedule isn't so far-fetched. Yet if having some guy in Bangalore read your mother's e-mails doesn't jibe with your idea of economic justice, there's an easier lifehacking tenet to embrace: Do one thing at a time. Start your newly focused life by reading Walter Kirn's haunting, hilarious essay in the Atlantic "The Autumn of the Multitaskers," the story of "one man's odyssey through the nightmare of infinite connectivity."

Correction, April 7, 2008: This article originally misspelled Gina Trapani's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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