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.
A few years ago, I was doing a walk-through with a client when I came upon their beautifully arranged bookshelf. My first thought was, "Pretty!" My second was, "I wonder if they can easily find their books." I had seen this rainbow organizing arrangement frequently in the media and online, but this was my first encounter "in the wild."
Naturally curious, I remarked on the beauty of the bookshelf that had been so artfully arranged for them and asked if they could easily find books when needed. I no longer remember the exact answer, but I recall that it was not a resounding yes. I wasn't surprised.
Here's the thing about rainbow organizing. It works well for some, but not all, situations.
Humor me as we conduct a little experiment. Close your eyes and visualize three books that you own. What comes to mind first: categories, words, colors, or perhaps even size? Now imagine you asked someone to retrieve those books. How would you describe them?
"It's the bright orange one. There's also a knight in shining armor on the cover."
"It's Conquering Chronic Disorganization by Judith Kolberg. Over by the C's."
"I can't remember the name or color, but I know it's on the bottom right side of the bookshelf, near the other organizing books."
(Some readers might have to get a little imaginative with this exercise. If the bookshelf is overflowing, there might be piles of books scattered throughout the home. If that's the case, imagine that you only have as many books as fit on the bookshelves.)
With that exercise, you can see that it's not so black and white. There are basic organizing tenants, but how we group items might vary from person to person. I set up systems for clients that make the most sense to them, not me or anyone else. So if your brain remembers colors before words or categories, then organizing by color can be a great way to find what you need quickly. It can be more nuanced, though, as most organizing is.
Here's a personal example. I don't typically remember authors or book titles, except some standouts such as Dostoevsky's fantastic book, Crime and Punishment. Sometimes I remember color before anything else—for instance, Judith Kolberg's book. I just so happen to remember the words because it's a classic, and we share a first name. Even if that were not the case, though, it's hard to forget the cover's bright orange color. So you would think ROYGBIV would be an excellent system for me. In this particular case, it would work because the entire book is one solid color.
Here's a less cut and dry example: Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. I often forget the title and authors' names. Still, I distinctly remember tomato red and light blue being involved (as well as the fact that it's a book about ADHD).
I enjoy its aesthetically pleasing cover because although they rewrote it in 2011, it looks like it could be hot off the press today. I even mentioned it to a colleague once: "you know, the red one." So, one might conclude that I would do well to organize this book into a red category. Have a look at the accompanying photo. You'll see that the spine contains both white and olive backgrounds, not red or light blue. I would have hunted all over the red section exasperatedly thinking, "I know it's around here somewhere!". I probably would have given up long before remembering to look in the white or green section. So if you're organizing your bookshelf by color, it's more important to remember spine color than those on the front cover, even though the latter might be easier to recall.
So let's go back to your visualization and check your recall. Did your memory serve you well, or were you thrown off by mismatched colors on the spine and front cover? If the latter, rainbow organizing might sound like a great idea but serve as an impediment to finding what you need.
Let's move this conversation to the closet, where rainbow organizing might be less contentious. Let's take shirts, for instance. Most of us are no longer slaves to 80s fashion. (Well, at least those of us who are old enough to have experienced it the first time around.) So, unlike many books, our tops have matching sleeves and "front covers." It makes sense to sort by color, right? If you were to find me helping a client organize their closet, you would see me sorting by color at some point in the process. That sort might even stick around in the final edit. Again, it's more nuanced than at first blush (or merlot, if you're more of a Fall colors type).
In what type of climate do you live? Is it relatively temperate, or are there distinct seasons? Are you indoors 99% of the time, rendering weather patterns irrelevant? If you consistently wear the same types of clothes each day, then perhaps your first decision is what color you want to wear. In this case, organizing by colors of the rainbow makes a lot of sense.
If you or your geography experience temperature fluctuations, organizing by color first could waste time. Let's say you went to the black section of your closet. You would waste time scanning through all the short sleeves to find a thick, long sleeve shirt in the dead of winter. In this case, your first level of organization would be by clothing type, not by color.
There's value in grouping by color if that is a daily consideration. It also serves as a visual cue when you have too many of any particular category. My closet has one or two rainbows involved. But I typically would not organize every hanging item into one large rainbow unless that is the first decision a client makes when getting dressed in the morning.
So what's my verdict on rainbow organizing? I think it serves a purpose. If your brain first recalls objects by color, ROYGBIV might be just the right solution. If not, please don't feel pressured to keep up with the organizing Joneses or whatever they're called these days.
Color can play an important role in sorting objects, but only if it gets you to the desired result of finding and putting away those objects as quickly as possible.
If you have a rainbow bookshelf that is working well, by all means, stick to it. There's no need to waste time fixing something that serves you well. I bet your bookshelf is a beautiful sight to behold!
If you find yourself swearing every time you try to locate a book, then it's time to dismantle the system. You can then sort by genre, alphabet, or even the Dewey Decimal System! (I've worked with quite a few librarians over the years.) Whatever your system, it needs to work for you and anyone else who accesses those items frequently. You want to work with, not against, your natural sense of organization. Now, who's ready to tackle those stuffed bookshelves and overflowing closets?
Some of you wanted to see if I’d catch that typo, right? Some of you were hoping that I had created some miraculous organizing wizardry that involved a nice glass of wine or massive amounts of booze and party supplies. Alas, no.
Sometime in the not-to-distant past, I invoiced a client and typed “drunk drawer” instead of “junk drawer.” I had to laugh; was it a Freudian slip? Was I itching for a cold cocktail? It was about 90 degrees in my apartment on that hot September day in San Francisco.
The typo gave me pause, though: is the proverbial junk drawer what a drawer would look like if professional organizers put it together during the end of a drawn-out cocktail hour? Why do so many of us have junk drawers, to begin with? And where did the term originate?
According to WordSense, the term was referenced as far back as 1912 in William D. Tracy’s “Notes on Practice.” As far as I can tell, he was writing about tools in a dental practice.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot more information online that I could easily find. Except that, did you know that eBay sells vintage junk drawer lots? There is truly something for everyone. Before some of you get excited, though, remember that you would have to keep that precious space occupied for 50 years before it POTENTIALLY became worth anything. Even then, it probably wouldn’t be as valuable as the cost of that square footage being used for thumbtacks, broken figurines, and rusty staples. I found the webpage quite fascinating, although definitely curated (no broken toothpicks to be found).
Junk drawers seem to creep up over time. They might have started as tidy utility drawers: a stapler here, a few twist-ties there. Perhaps a few rolls of tape and an old screwdriver, unworthy of the toolbox.
In time, it becomes the catch-all for items that have no home. The Island of Misfit Toys, if you will. Sometimes they get so packed that they no longer close (or fully open). Sometimes we’re afraid to stick our hand in, for fear we’ll stab ourselves with an errant staple. (Organizing rule #1: never ever stick your hand into a dark drawer packed with unknown contents. You could come out with a nasty injury if a razor blade or open boxcutter is buried amidst the ancient band-aids and crunchy rubber bands.)
So we eventually decide it’s time to tackle the junk drawer. But it’s overwhelming. There’s just so much tiny STUFF! What if we fail? What if we get it WRONG? What if we accidentally throw out some unknown part and then find its mate weeks later and exclaim, “I KNEW I shouldn’t have thrown that out!”
“What if? What if? What if?!” We’ve all been there: not sure how to proceed for fear of making a mistake. It’s normal. It’s also pernicious. It also perfectionism: it can eat away at our confidence, stifle our creativity and inhibit our ability to move forward. It can be a massive stumbling block when we want to organize our homes to live more comfortably. I am ever vigilant of it lurking in the corner and watch out for it to rear its ugly head. When I catch it, I call it out to the mat, and my client and I figure out how to acknowledge those what-ifs and still make progress.
So the next time you become afraid to start an organizing project such as the junk drawer, do this: remind yourself that you WILL make mistakes, and that is ok. It’s part of the process. As the saying goes, sometimes we win, sometimes we learn. We cannot make progress without making mistakes. It’s just not possible. It’s tricky to remember and sometimes even harder to emotionally reconcile. It’s definitely possible, though. I’ve seen many perfectionists bloom as we work together. They become comfortable with errors because they know that the overall goal is so much more important than the mistakes they might make.
So that’s it for my impressions on the drunk/junk drawer. Take a stab at it; you’ll be finished in no time and it will no longer be the graveyard of delayed decisions. You'll be left with something much more useful than detritus. Just don’t blame me if you can no longer properly say the words junk and drawer together!
Perhaps you have thought about hiring Twilight Organizing to help you dig out from underneath the clutter. Perhaps you hesitated and wondered why you would hire a trained professional organizer who charges more than a house cleaner, gardener, or new organizer you found on Craigslist.
Most of my clients struggled with decades of clutter. Some kept their homes relatively organized but could not keep a home office useable amidst paper piles. Some grappled with disorganization for the vast majority of their lives. Still, others have hoarding disorder and were ready to roll up their sleeves and create a new life for themselves as they cleared the clutter. Each client situation has been unique, yet they all have at least a few things in common:
Some called organized friends and concerned loved ones to pitch in, and they might have had initial success. Perhaps there was no progress because of competing ideas, and everyone went home licking their wounds. On occasion, individuals felt whiplashed (some even describe it as traumatized) after a whirlwind clear-out. It took years to build up the courage to reach out again for assistance.
Individuals find their way to me after self-help efforts and guidance of well-meaning friends, family, and lovely yet untrained organizers haven’t worked. Clients realize that they need to step up their game, and so they decide to invest in themselves to improve the quality of their lives. They might have valued my training, enjoyed one of my presentations, or related to clients who gave testimonials or referrals.
They’ve told me that help from “naturally organized” loved ones were no longer cutting it. They want a trained professional by their side, guiding them through the entire process so that they are no longer overwhelmed and quit before they begin. They want to clear out the clutter and figure out how to keep it at bay. For those who commit to the process, it can be life-altering. I’ve lost count of how many individuals have let go and moved on to the next chapter of their lives, whether it be:
· moving to a new part of the country
· enjoying retirement or hard-earned weekends
· having have friends, children, grandkids, and relatives over again
· discovering new passions and hobbies
Even with all these benefits, some are still hesitant. I want to dispel two myths that might help.
“I SHOULD be able to do this by myself!”
I frequently hear this frustration from clients. So many feel that they “should” be able to get organized without outside help. As a result, they carry an uncomfortable burden of shame. I explain to them that organizing is a soft skill. There are no organizing courses taught in school (at least that I know of). Sometimes it is not taught at home either: parents might never have learned how to organize when they were young. Perhaps they struggled with undiagnosed hoarding disorder, depression, ADHD, or other challenges that made order challenging to master and teach to their children. If organizing were easy for everyone, the professional organizing industry would not exist.
“Professional organizers charge too much!”
I know the feeling of wanting something helpful and then becoming frustrated when I saw the price tag. I initially felt like I couldn’t afford the service. When I looked more deeply into the situation, though, I realized that there was no way I could afford NOT to invest in the help of experts. Sometimes we’re stuck on a merry-go-round of effort, and we need a hand getting off and getting on a more constructive path.
In comes the trained professional. With continual education, she consistently improves upon solutions for those who face complex or long-term challenges.
A trained professional organizer (who invested in coursework through the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, attended annual conferences and meetings related to hoarding disorder and chronic disorganization, and read many books) will charge a fair price for their value. They won’t, though, be the cheapest option on the market. When I started organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2015, rates for this type of organizer typically started near $100/hour and went well above that. There are many ways to work with a trained professional organizer, some less expensive than others. Clients can significantly decrease costs when they learn the process and do independent work between sessions.
(A special note to those who struggle with hoarding disorder: as you look for a professional organizer, be sure to ask what education and training they have. Sometimes well-intentioned but untrained professionals can do more harm than good.)
So if any of the following sounds like your situation, it might be time to give me a ring:
If any of these situations resonate, it might be time to schedule a free consultation call with me. Let it be your first brave step to conquering your clutter once and for all!
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.