From Chaotic Piles to Tidy Files
So you've removed yourself from all those catalog mailing lists. Your newspaper now arrives digitally. Congratulations on stemming the flow before it has a chance to enter your home! Doesn't it feel great?
Now your inbox is tidy, but you're left looking around at the boxes of backlogged papers. You know the drill: "Today's the day I will get rid of those papers from 2012 because I'm so tired of seeing those boxes, and I need the space for a larger workspace!" You sit down with a cup of coffee, open the first box, and then your heart sinks. "Oh yeah, there's that old will that I can't toss yet; that reminds me that I still haven't updated it." Onto the next paper: "Shoot, here's a card I wrote to Sarah that I really should have sent because it was important. Should I send it now? Maybe she would appreciate the sentiment. But maybe it's too embarrassing to send it at this point? But I put a lot of effort into writing it. I don't know." You set that paper down. On and on it goes. Now you have a new pile outside the box, almost as haphazardly arranged, except for the fact that all the papers are now more neatly arranged. "That's progress, right?" you ask yourself. You notice the time and realize you have to be on a call in two minutes. You chuck the papers back into the box with a resounding thud. With an air of defeat, you vow to take care of that box over the weekend.
Sound familiar? Many clients describe that scenario (or some similar version) playing out as they tried to organize on their own before deciding to hire me. They were trying to make decisions on papers in at least ten categories simultaneously: bank statements, birthday cards, home repair bills, legal files, diplomas, parking tickets, letters from loved ones, multiple versions of resumes, IRAs and roll-over instructions for the retirement account yet to be rolled over, and all those articles torn out from AAA Via Magazine so you could recall which road trips you wanted to take. Are you tired just reading all that? Perhaps you felt like a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth among all those categories. It's no wonder organizing papers can be exhausting when done alone and without a structured plan of attack.
Now imagine the weekend rolls around, and you have committed to tackling that box again. Now you're laser-focused. You bring the box to your dining room table and try something entirely different because you're tired of feeling exhausted in a mere matter of minutes. You decide to sort the papers first so you can see what's going on. You create broad categories:
Doesn't that seem a little less taxing on the eyes? You've reduced the categories down to a manageable number, and related papers are together. Now you can deal with each category, one at a time. You've successfully laid the foundation to make decisions as to what to keep. It feels more manageable and less chaotic. You're now well on your way to emptying that box and filing the few papers you want to keep.
Real-World Examples of How to Use Tactics from James Clear’s Atomic Habits to Declutter your Space
Piggybacking to my last article about Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is a synopsis of Atomic Habits and examples of using his strategies to declutter. Hopefully, by presenting them back-to-back, it will leave you with a very robust way to instill new organizing habits and get rid of old ones that work against the goals and dreams you have.
James Clear bases his book on B.F Skinner’s “stimulus, response, reward” system that he developed in the 1930s and on Charles Duhigg’s “cue, routine, reward” system in The Power of Habit. Clear’s four-step model of “cue, cravings, response, and reward” and his “four laws of behavior change” add additional information to the conversation.
Why do I seem so infatuated with habit formation? It’s a large part of my organizing process for those whose clutter has decreased their quality of life. Clients not only want to get organized quickly but want to keep it that way. I could have a blast helping a client declutter, but if we don’t spend some time setting up systems and working on new habits, they can easily land right back where they started in a few months or years.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Clutter and disorganization can sometimes be an outward manifestation of internal challenges like ADHD, hoarding disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. In many cases, though, it can result from bad habits compounding on themselves over long periods of time. If someone goes shopping each time they feel badly, only a small pile will accumulate in a week’s time. As the habit continues, though, the piles continue to grow and impede the ability to use one’s space as intended.
Sometimes we quit a new habit because we don’t see progress quickly enough. James Clear calls this the “Valley of Disappointment,” where you’re working but don’t yet see progress. A big win might be right around the corner, and we miss it because we’re disappointed and stop too soon.
He also argues that we need to “fall in love” with the process that helps us reach that goal because otherwise, we’re never happy until we reach that goal. It also means that we won’t fall off the habit wagon as soon as we reach that goal. New clients often tell me that they were successfully able to declutter right before company came over but weren’t able to sustain it after the guests left. In chapter 1, he states, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Adding onto this argument, he says that the best motivator is your beliefs about your identity. He mentions a 2011 study by Christopher Bryan, Gregory Walton, Todd Rogers, and Carol Dweck. They found that the more you identify with a belief, the more you’ll act in a way that doesn’t contradict that belief. So, saying something like, “I’m disorganized. I don’t like it, but it’s just who I am” will make it harder to act in a way that doesn’t fit with that statement. If instead you say, “I’m an organized person,” and start to believe it, you’ll begin decluttering and organizing under that new identity. I love his quotation in chapter 2: “In this way, the process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself.”
Habits exist to help us solve problems. In trying not to become overtaxed, our brains always look for shortcuts to save energy. It looks for cues that will help you quickly move away from pain or move closer to a tempting reward.
He makes a great point of addressing those who think that habits (cue decluttering habits) will turn us into dull robots who never have spontaneity in life. He argues that those who have great routines free up more energy and time than those who don’t.
There are four essential parts to habits: cue, craving, response, and reward.
Your brain searches for cues of incoming rewards. When it finds a reward, it will create a craving so that we’re willing to do the hard work of getting that reward. If the reward was worth repeating, the habit starts to form.
His model states that there are “4 Laws of Behavior Change” that make a habit more likely blossom. When you want to start a habit, ask these four questions:
“How can I make it obvious?”
“How can I make it attractive?”
“How can I make it easy?”
“How can I make it satisfying?”
To break a bad habit, do this:
“Make it invisible.”
“Make it unattractive.”
“Make it difficult.”
“Make it unsatisfying.”
Just like we learned in my article on The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Clear notes that we have to notice the cues to change the habit. Without noticing, we continue to repeat the same patterns over and over without even noticing.
How can we start to notice something that we don’t see, though? It sounds like quite the conundrum. You can use his “Habits Scorecard” tactic. Write down every single habit you have from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. Then rate each one as positive, negative, or neutral. If you’re not sure whether it’s good or bad, he suggests asking, “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”
As you’ve probably noticed, one habit can lead to another one. You can take advantage of this effect by stacking routines on top of each other. Charles Duhigg spoke about this concept as well.
Let’s say you enjoy a cup of coffee each morning, and you know that it takes four minutes to brew. You could take those four minutes to walk through your home and find one book you will donate. In 30 days, you could free up a large portion of a bookshelf, thus making space for books currently resting on the floor. Once you’re used to the habit of making coffee and decluttering while it brews, you could create the third habit. Perhaps every Friday morning, directly after you’ve washed your coffee cup, you put on your shoes and drop off your donated books.
Another part of the habit puzzle is to set up your environment to support your habit goals. So many might see a friend and say, “well that person is just naturally good at keeping their home organized, they run marathons, they never eat junk food, they just have a ton of willpower. It’s just in their genes. That’s not me.” Clear argues that it’s not their willpower or their genes, it’s just that they have set up their environment so that they’re less frequently tempted to fall off the positive habit wagon.
Here’s an example: imagine someone who stops by his favorite store on the way home from work each day. He knows that he will feel guilty later because he overspent and doesn’t have space for new purchases. He can start taking a different route home to avoid seeing that store in the first place. He didn’t need any willpower; he simply changed his environment. Just like Charles Duhigg, Clear explains that it’s nearly impossible to eliminate an old poor habit because “the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain.” Instead, work to remove the cue entirely so that the temptation shows up less frequently.
Many of you are familiar with the brain chemical dopamine. Clear remarks that dopamine is released when we anticipate a reward. That dopamine hit helps us take that action to achieve the reward. He suggests “temptation bundling”: link something you have to do with something you already want to do. Perhaps you want to listen to the next episode of your favorite podcast, but you’re feeling frustrated about the pile of clean laundry that always seems to accumulate on that bedroom chair you meant to use for reading. You could create a routine of putting laundry away each week while simultaneously listening to that new podcast episode.
Clear makes an essential distinction between motion and action. Motion is preparing to take action. We can fall into the trap of continuing to prepare so that we can avoid action altogether. Many clients realize that their efforts to declutter have not worked. Sometimes we determine that they moved objects around quite frequently, but they never made actual progress. That is an example of being in motion instead of taking action. As soon as clients start working with me, they move from motion to action. The more we repeat an action, the more durable the new neural pathways become, and thus the stronger the habit becomes, which is called “long-term potentiation.”
Another way to make habits more likely to stick is to make them as easy as possible. (Make bad habits difficult.) Clear references researchers who estimate that habits drive 40 to 50% of our daily activities. So by changing our habits, we can truly change our lives in significant ways. We need to make the barrier of entry very low. Clear talks about the “Two-Minute Rule”. The premise is to do the desired activity for two minutes to get accustomed to the action, and then we’re more likely to repeat it.
Finally, he talks about the need to reward new habits directly after the action. It helps feed into motivation, and you’ll be more likely to do the routine again. Habit tracking can be a helpful visual reward because you see your progress immediately after the action takes place. Clients and I brainstorm lots of ways they can immediately reward themselves after a decluttering session. It can do wonders.
On the flip side, you’re also more likely to continue a bad habit if there’s no immediate punishment, so keep that in mind and his “make it unattractive” mantra in mind as you try to break bad habits.
Eventually, the long-term rewards resulting from new habit formation will appear, and you won’t need to rely on the immediate rewards as much.
Once you’ve established your habit, you’ll keep it going by making sure that it doesn’t become too easy or hard to maintain. You can experiment with moving the reward timing around, but you will get bored at some points, so you will have to “fall in love with boredom.” Boredom sounds like a turn-off, but if you think about all the free time and energy that your good organizing habits are freeing up, you’ll have more time in your daily life for fun and relaxation; and spend less time decluttering!
The key is to continue to show up for your daily habit, even when you feel like it’s the last thing you want to do. You’ll master the practice if you show up, even on the hard days, and you can then focus on leveling up to your next goal or activity that interests you.
Reflection also helps. If you can spend some time multiple times a year reflecting on what goals you established and what hasn’t gone so well, you can then course-correct and move forward. That will help you stay on track.
I was happy to note that I already implement many of these practices with clients. Since adding others listed here, I’ve seen clients succeed in new ways. So with this new knowledge, what will you now do as you work towards your decluttering goals? If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’ve lost track of how many times you have fallen off the decluttering wagon, it might be time to give me a call so you can get support. Forming organizing habits isn’t always easy, but you can get incredible returns on your investment. Those returns might look like having family and friends over, having a relaxing home environment, having space and time to devote to hobbies, or having more energy for your valued goals. I would say that’s a huge win.
What is virtual organizing?
When I officially started this incredible career in 2015, I would occasionally get quizzical looks after mentioning that I was a professional organizer. Even though tv shows like Clean Sweep had long come and gone, professional organizing still wasn’t entirely well-known. Best-sellers like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning introduced more of the public to the frequently life-altering endeavor of decluttering. These days, I rarely have to explain what it means to be a professional organizer.
Now the question is, “What is virtual organizing? Was it just created because professional organizers’ bottom-lines came to a screeching halt in 2020?”
I’ll explain the former and emphatically exclaim, “No!” to the latter. I’m guessing it will take some time for this valid method of organizing to catch on. I’m hoping to speed up the process for those of you who need help today.
Virtual organizing has been around for quite some time. It started with phone organizing and largely transitioned to video with technological advances like Skype. It was well established by the time I started organizing, but I initially couldn’t wrap my head around it. “How does it work? Do clients get the same great results as on-site organizing? What about the technology? Why would a client opt for virtual over on-site unless geography was an issue?”
Over the years, I found answers as I took online NAPO courses and spoke with colleagues. Virtual organizing is a different vehicle for delivering the same great results as on-site organizing. Instead of meeting on-site, the organizer meets with the client via videoconferencing technology such as Zoom. It’s a relatively easy set-up, even for self-proclaimed luddites. (I know this to be true because I’ve instructed those clients, and we happily made progress after brief instructions and practice.)
I have offered virtual organizing since 2015. Most of my clients have been in San Francisco, so they opted for the on-site work, but I have worked virtually with clients as far away as Europe.
Fast forward to 2020. For various reasons, I got an unusually late start with my goal planning. I had been increasingly interested in the benefits that virtual clients gained more quickly than on-site clients. As I fleshed out my goals for the remainder of the year, I created a plan to grow a broader virtual organizing practice. Cue global pandemic.
As shelter in place rolled out, clients who were open to exploring virtual collaboration continued to make tremendous progress.
Extensive virtual organizing training became a no-brainer after COVID. I learned an incredible amount of nuance that helped clients get even better results than before. I had known that virtual work contained some benefits that on-site organizing couldn’t provide (at least not as quickly), but I was shocked by how quickly my clients made progress, integrated skills, and gained confidence.
One of the most significant advantages of virtual work is quicker habit formation and confidence. Transferring skills is incredibly important in both on-site and virtual organizing. Clients not only learn the crucial concepts of organization during our virtual sessions, but also actively clear out clutter while we are together. Additionally, I support them between sessions while they are continuing to declutter. They are also equipped to keep clutter at bay because they understand how to organize in a way that works for their lifestyles.
As we work together, I aim for clients to feel confident, uplifted, energized, self-reliant, and ready to tackle anything after meeting organizing goals.
In virtual work, I’m no longer splitting my attention between object manipulation and teaching. Clients gain skills more quickly, which means increased efficacy and ability to maintain progress.
New organizing habits are vital to nearly all client success. New neural pathways, critical to habit formation, are created with virtual sessions and between-session support. It also happens during on-site work, but more slowly since part of my focus is devoted to sorting and similar tasks.
Some clients prefer the structure of virtual work. Shorter appointments mean less fatigue. Clients feel good about progress during weekly sessions, and the project stays top of mind amidst competing priorities that pop up during the week.
Virtual organizing can be an excellent alternative for those who want to work with me but feel nervous about having someone in their home. The goals are more granular than on-site organizing, which can elicit less fear. Additionally, a client can choose to solely show me the area that we’re working on rather than other areas that I typically see during on-site organizing.
It has been inspiring to witness individuals progress and complete projects with virtual organizing that we had started on-site. By taking the plunge, they reaped the rewards of meeting their goals and gained a new sense of self-efficacy and confidence.
Virtual organizing is not for everyone. Like on-site organizing, a client needs to be ready and committed to doing the work, be open to real change, and amenable to being guided through the process. It can be too challenging for those with mobility impairment unless an on-site helper is willing to take my direction. It’s also not ideal for those with memory issues unless a helper is on-site.
On-site and virtual organizing methods are both incredibly effective ways to get help from a professional; their pros and cons differ. Hiring a trained professional organizer to work on-site or virtually can make the difference between struggling to tread organizational water and completely transforming one’s home so that it supports activities, goals, and dreams.
Are you ready for your transition? Let’s schedule your consultation so you can stop struggling and start relaxing in your newly organized space!
I once worked with an individual who cleverly referred to organizing books as "procrastireading." I'd like to report my findings from relevant titles so that you can avoid the reading and get to the doing.
This week’s “procrastireading” corner is devoted to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I read this book nearly six years ago. I realized how valuable it was not only for me but also for my clients: when decluttering, it’s essential to prune and organize possessions. It's also crucial to set up systems and habits that will support ongoing organization.
When working with a client, I collaborate to create customized systems that will work for their lifestyle. Part of the discussion revolves around daily habits. We identify self-sabotaging habits and work to replace them with those that better serve their goals.
Here’s an excellent example of how habit comes into play with decluttering. I do quite a bit of paper organizing with clients who want a home office that is calm and supportive of their activities. As we go through piles of paper, we examine flow from the moment they come through the door to the moment they leave. We drill down on daily routines and roadblocks. We strategize how to replace old habits, such as piling unopened mail. We create game plans for new habits that will make paperwork easier to manage.
Here are key takeaways from The Power of Habit that you can put into practice today to aid your organizing efforts.
Charles Duhigg spends time explaining brain functions. Habits allow our brains to do routines without thinking about them, which frees up energy for other thoughts or activities. They play as big a part in our lives as memory and reason. The basic premise is that there is a cue/trigger, a craving, a physical or mental routine, and a reward. The cue triggers our brain to crave something. We then an automated series of actions or thoughts that lead us to whatever reward will satiate the craving.
According to his research, we can’t necessarily entirely eliminate bad habits. Still, we can change our behaviors if we put a new series of actions or thoughts into the middle of the habit cycle.
It’s necessary to understand the craving behind our actions. Without that, it’s hard to create lasting change. Once you identify the urge, you can typically find an alternative series of steps to alleviate said craving.
Sometimes the craving is so intense that you need outside help in changing the behavior. Cognitive-behavioral work with a therapist, peer support models such as AA, or working with a professional organizer could all act as supports that help you to change your behaviors.
It’s also essential to believe that you can change. If you believe that you have always been disorganized (or a bad cook, or a “luddite,” or terrible at exercise, etc.) and that’s just who you are, then there’s not much motivation to change. We have to suspend disbelief to change some of our most ingrained habits. I’ve worked with clients who were willing to disbelieve that they were inherently disorganized. They were able to move mountains and were shocked at how calm and relaxing their homes became as they learned how to become and stay organized.
You’ll do well to establish “keystone habits” that seem small but allow us to believe that we are capable of change. They set off a cascade of other good habits that can start a positive seismic shift in our lives.
Let’s pretend John’s keystone habit is decluttering five minutes a day. It’s not half as bad as he thought it would be. Before he knows it, he has cleaned out his spare bedroom that was initially supposed to act as a home gym. He started hopping on that treadmill that was no longer posing as a makeshift closet. After a few months, John is feeling healthier and more confident than ever. He decides to throw a dinner party (play along with me, COVID shelter-in-place can't last forever). One of his guests brings a friend, and John hits it off with her. Eventually, they fall in love, get married, and travel together, and John even feels confident putting on his swimming trunks again. All this is thanks to the keystone habit of decluttering five minutes a day! Way to go, John!
Charles Duhigg mentions willpower being the most important habit you can create. I’m a bit conflicted because I have read literature that shies away from willpower and advocates the idea of setting up your environment in such a way that you don’t have to rely so much on willpower. I don’t want my clients to white-knuckle it through decluttering sessions because I want the process to eliminate anxiety and support simple maintenance. I haven't done exhaustive research, but it’s something to note. I do agree that it is helpful to do scenario forecasting. You decide beforehand what you’ll do when a cue tempts you to take the “wrong” action. (E.g. If I have to run to the grocery store when I’m hungry, what will I do when my nose is overwhelmed by the taunting smell of freshly baked donuts or fried chicken, and I want to impulse shop?)
Ultimately, he argues, “You have to decide to put in the hard work to identify the cues and find different routines, and believe that you have control over it and be self-conscious enough to use it.”
The Appendix dives into more detail. Start by identifying the routine because this is the easiest part of the habit to change. Charles was gaining weight because he would walk to the work cafeteria in the afternoons, grab a cookie, and chat with coworkers.
Then identify the cues/cravings that start the habit, which can be difficult to do. Instead, you can experiment with various rewards to see if they satiate the craving. In Charles' example, he tried substituting walks, donuts, coffee, and apples. He spent weeks trying out various scenarios that tested his hypotheses.
Record the emotions you feel right after testing each reward and then see if the craving is still present after fifteen minutes. If it’s still there, the hypothesized reward wasn’t the right one. If you ate the donut but still craved the cookie, then you weren’t craving sugar. If you drank the coffee and still craved the cookie, then an energy boost wasn’t what you needed. If you chatted with coworkers and your craving dissipated, then social interaction was what you were after.
Keep track of the location, time, emotional state, other people, and anything that preceded the action that might have cued the habit. Charles realized that he craved the cookie between 3 and 4 pm, and it wasn’t due to hunger or low blood sugar. He realized that he wanted a distraction from work. Talking with others for a few minutes alleviated that craving.
Once you have determined the cue and the reward, you can work towards a better series of actions or thoughts that will lead you to that same reward. Eventually, Charles was able to create a plan so that every day between 3 and 4 pm, he would talk with someone for a few minutes. His craving was satisfied, and he was no longer gaining weight from eating cookies.
So what “bad” habits are you hoping to change? Perhaps your mail has been piling up for months, and you want to create a habit of dealing with it before it creates so much anxiety. Maybe you have a tendency to leave items out to remind you of tasks, but the system has broken down because there are too many items out, and reminders are not leading to action. If you’re flummoxed, take a play from Charles Duhigg’s playbook: create a system of support, whether it be finding a clutter buddy or hiring an organizer like yours truly. We can create new habits that will alleviate stress and reward you with additional time and energy to spend on activities that you enjoy much more than decluttering.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.