Why do so many of us feel like we are spinning our wheels but not reaching our goals? It all boils down to keeping our eye on the prize or “the ONE Thing,” as Gary Keller and Jay Papasan refer to it in their book, The ONE Thing The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Easy in theory, challenging in practice.
As we focus on a task, distractions seem never-ending. We can start on the right path if we write them down to return to the task at hand. Some might even have well-organized tasks and project lists, or maybe even software devoted to staying organized.
Yet after weeks, months, or even years of dedication to our tasks, we can become exasperated when our goals seem as far away as ever. Some may have stopped creating goals altogether because the recurring disappointment is just too painful. Keller says that most of us are doing as much as humanly possible to reach our goals, but the problem is that we should be doing the opposite: we should be “going small.”
Instead of completing all those tasks, we must decipher the most crucial task that gives us the biggest bang for our buck. How often do we stop to identify those needle-moving tasks? When running his real estate company, he found that his high performers were not completing their self-assigned tasks during the week. He created a “Focusing Question” to ask every day, and it made a massive shift in his company, Keller Williams Realty. Perhaps you have heard this question in articles or seminars: “What is the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
Before even asking this all-important question, though, we must address six fallacies that lead us down the wrong path.
“Everything matters equally”
Checking items off task lists feels good in the moment, but where does it lead us? Unfortunately, not far if those tasks were not the best way to move closer to our goals. With great insight, he states, “If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”
Instead of trying to do it all, we need to push the famous Pareto Rule (“80% of outcomes result from 20% of preceding factors,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle) to the outer limits. Once we have determined what 20% of all tasks will result in 80% of the results, we need to narrow it down to the most significant needle-moving activity.
Thankfully, those of us who ever resented that age-old interview question about multitasking (because it was not our forte) have been vindicated. Multiple studies have now shown that multitasking does not work when competing tasks demand a lot of thinking. Keller dives into more detail: we can switch tasks rapidly and do two things simultaneously, but we cannot focus on two things at the same time. Apparently, multitasking wastes 28% of workdays. Additionally, I have read that it takes our brains up to twenty minutes to return to focus after dealing with a distraction. Thus, multitasking truly seems to be a losing proposition.
“A disciplined life”
For anyone who feels guilty about a lack of discipline, fear not. Keller argues that what we enviously witness in others is not a rare quality buried deep in the DNA of high achievers. Instead, what we are seeing is a heavy reliance on habit. High achievers only need enough discipline to repeat the necessary task until it becomes a habit. Their daily routines help them reach their goals. They do not have to white-knuckle it through each day with a massive amount of discipline. What a relief to those of us who never felt like we had giant stores of discipline ready to be used at any moment.
Completing large decluttering projects becomes much easier when we engage in habit formation. Clients and I spend time removing roadblocks and collaborating on realistic strategies. Those strategies sustain habits that not only help reach organizing goals but also keep clutter at bay. (For more information on habit formation, see my articles on The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits.)
Numerous pop psychology articles reference a twenty-one-day time frame to create habits. This number always felt unrealistically low to me, unless we are talking about easily formed bad habits like eating too much junk food or spending too much time on social media. Indeed, Keller references a 2009 study determining that it takes, on average, sixty-six days to create a new habit (some took as little as eighteen days and others two-hundred fifty-four days). Last year I learned that it could take longer for those with ADHD. All this news might feel disheartening if you thought it only took twenty-one days, but I consider it to be good news. While it might take longer than initially expected to create a habit, it now means we have a more realistic timeframe. Hopefully, we will be less likely to quit a new habit on day twenty-five because we erroneously thought it should be old-hat by then.
“Willpower is always on will-call”
Similar to discipline, we cannot always rely on willpower. Keller references studies that demonstrate diminishing returns. The more we use willpower, the less available it becomes. So, it becomes imperative to tackle our most important tasks first, rather than burn through our reserves on more menial tasks.
“A balanced life”
For many years, pop culture touted life “balance.” In Keller’s opinion, one cannot reach outstanding achievements without getting out of balance. We have to invest a lot of time and energy into reaching big goals. It naturally means that other tasks will be left undone. We have to learn to be comfortable with the “chaos” of unfinished business.
Luckily this does not mean that we abandon everything else forever. What good is a life goal if we sacrifice friends, relationships, and health to achieve them? Probably not much, he insightfully argues. Instead, he instructs us to use “counterbalancing”: we cannot get so far out of balance for so long that we lose everything. He argues that it is ok to be far out of balance in work-life to reach lofty goals. In personal life, it is better to avoid those extremes.
“Big is bad”
Many of us fear success because it might mean sacrificing too much: dealing with massive levels of stress, losing social connections, or abandoning health. The good news is that as we work towards that big goal, we adapt. We learn how to manage the stressors better as we grow.
"The Focusing Question"
After addressing fallacies, he dives deeper into the Focusing Question: “What is the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” We might be tempted to drop “such that by doing it” because it feels redundant, but he argues that it is crucial: “This qualifier seeks to declutter your life by asking you to put on blinders. This elevates the answer’s potential to change your life by doing the leveraged thing and avoiding distractions.”
Quite frequently, I advise clients to adorn make-believe “horse blinders.” When decluttering, it is easy to get distracted with related but non-essential tasks. By putting on “horse blinders,” we can more easily focus on the most rewarding decluttering action.
The Focusing Question is adaptable to both large and small goals. We can insert “right now,” “this year,” or other verbiage after the phrase “that I can do” to fit the need. We can also add qualifiers to address different areas of our lives. For example, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do today for [whatever you want] such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Ask this question every morning to stay on track.
The answers to the Focusing question are crucial. Solutions can necessitate “doable” action, “stretch” action, or activity in the realm of “possibility.” Avoid “doable” steps to reach those all-important life goals because they use our existing tools.
“Stretch” activities will take us farther. We might need to research what others are doing so that we can do the same. The task might “stretch” us to the edge of our current skillsets.
Reaching lofty life goals necessitates “possibility” actions that are well outside of our current limitations. Similar to “stretch” activities, the first task is to ask, “Has anyone else studied or accomplished this or something like it?” Unlike “stretch” tasks, the answer to that question now becomes our bare minimum effort. We need to go in the same direction as the best performers and then go beyond or potentially plot an entirely novel course. Whether the goal is personal (e.g., decluttering your home) or professional (e.g., becoming an expert in your field), “possibility” tasks are the ones that will get us there.
Taking “possibility” action net more significant rewards in the distant future, but how do we avoid the temptation of less critical tasks that net immediate (albeit smaller) rewards? Use his
“goal setting to the Now” technique to connect emotionally to distant future rewards, rather than to the smaller immediate reward.
We connect someday goals to immediate goals through a series of questions.
He argues that we cannot skip any of these steps because each phrase keeps us emotionally connected to that bigger goal, rather than menial feel-good tasks that take us off course. Avoiding this necessary technique is “why most people never get close to their goals. They haven’t connected today to all the tomorrows it will take to get there. “
So now that we know precisely what that ONE Thing is, how do we commit to it amidst competing distractions? We use time blocking. We block off sufficient time on our calendars to devote to the ONE Thing. Everything else needs to happen around this time block.
To make blocks work, we need to “get in the mindset that they can’t be moved.” First, we block out free time since we cannot sustain arduous effort without rest. Then we block off four hours to devote to the ONE Thing. He used the popular 10,000-hour theory to create his calculation of four daily hours. (For those who have not started decluttering because it is far too intimidating, try starting much smaller. Even fifteen or five minutes of decluttering a day is better than no minutes, and the fear of starting with just fifteen minutes is much smaller than four hours!)
There are a series of moves we can make to protect our time blocks:
We need to have the mindset of mastery to stick to time blocks. This essentially means “becoming your best,” which is a life-long process. When the ONE Thing becomes this important, we are more likely to commit. Additionally, we cannot stop when we reach the current limits of ability. We should use the Focusing Question to determine what we need to learn or what we need to do differently to achieve big goals.
Last but not least, we need to beware of the four “thieves” that can take us off track:
"A Life without Regrets"
In summation, he argues that the best way to live a "life without regrets" is to strive towards those lofty goals. To do that, we must always focus energy and time on that One Thing that will help us get there.
So how about it? How many tasks are on your to-do list today: are there too many to realistically complete? Are you setting yourself up to feel like a ping-pong ball in a match between Olympic athletes? Give the Focusing Question a try. You might end your day feeling great instead of exhausted because doing the ONE Thing helped you get that much closer to your most important goals.
"Peace of mind" is one of the most frequent answers I receive when asking prospective clients why their organizing endeavors are so important. It is also the typical phrase clients use to describe what they feel more often as we reduce their clutter. It is one of the most sought-after feelings that individuals hope to experience as a result of getting organized.
What, then, is our tactic when nostalgia comes knocking as we attempt to let go of the excess to gain peace of mind?
We slow down. Nostalgia can be honored rather than ignored or feared. So, we let it in. We let it tell us what it has to say. Sometimes in being heard, it releases its clutch on the object of its affection.
It does not mean, though, that it has to overstay its welcome. It does not have to become such an overbearing houseguest that peace of mind is relegated to a nearby motel or, worse yet, has to leave the vicinity altogether.
We can hold mental space for the desired feelings of peace of mind, even amidst detailed decision-making. I would argue that it is critical.
I know that this is no easy feat. Even as a professional organizer, I am not immune to the occasional feeling of nostalgia when clearing space for new objects in my home. Emotions can come in strong and fast and take us for quite the unexpected ride. In stepping on the breaks, we not only hold space for nostalgia but also keep our overall goals in mind so that we can achieve them.
Thankfully, we do not have to part with every piece of memorabilia to reach our decluttering goals. Sometimes nostalgia hits, we decide to keep the object, and that decision does not hinder our overall objectives. Nevertheless, we need to slow the pace enough to remember why we are letting go in the first place. Otherwise, when push comes to shove, peace of mind might go packing as nostalgia temporarily floods the circuits.
When you pick up that old dress, your senses might become flooded. As you touch the material, you might remember how amazing it felt when you wore it to that memorable event. You might fondly recall your confidence or all the happiness that you experienced that day.
Maybe the stitching on that baseball hat’s logo transports you right back to the ballpark. Perhaps you can almost smell the hotdogs and still get goosebumps as you recall that fantastic last inning.
So, by all means, reminisce and let the nostalgia in, but slow down enough to remember how great peace of mind feels. You might feel a bit tired when nostalgia packs up to go home, but you can rest easy, knowing that you welcomed it into your home. You did not let it overstay its welcome, and you can now enjoy peace of mind’s company as you sit in your favorite chair to relax.
A few weeks ago, I was driving home from a client appointment, feeling happy with the progress that we had made. After organizing items in a shelving unit, we used temporary labels so that the client could test the new system.
Just as scientists test hypotheses before coming to conclusions, individuals can test new "homes" for objects before affixing permanent labels. Locations might change after a bit of interaction with a new system. Using masking or painters' tape can be a great way to aid our memories as we familiarize ourselves with new set-ups. Apparently, it can also be a great way to annoy a cat who has exactingly high standards.
You can imagine my surprise and ensuing laughter when I received this photo from the client (shared with my client's permission). What a determined little kitty!
Cats can sometimes be mischievous during organizing sessions. They frequently like to plop down into the middle of any space that is being organized. Sometimes they even insist on sitting squarely on top of a pile that is being reviewed. In these cases, we banish them to another room for the remainder of the appointment. In this case, though, I was quite surprised. This particular cat is traditionally well-behaved and utterly uninterested in our organizing efforts.
This amusing fall-out from our organizing session perfectly illustrates the need to ask a critical question before affixing labels. What elements will the labels face, and thus, which should we use?
Is it time for young children to start putting their toys away, even though they cannot yet read? Do the labels need to withhold the stress of enthusiastic little hands? If this is the case, you can print images representing bins' or shelves' contents. Then you can laminate and attach them. Alternatively, you could print photos of the actual contents that will resonate with the eager little helpers.
Below are other scenarios that you might want to consider.
(I have included links to various products to give you some ideas, but I am not endorsing these products. You will be testing them at your own risk. Thus, you will want to ensure that the labels work for your particular surfaces, especially those that might be delicate.)
If the labels will be used outdoors or will need to withstand heat and cold inside garages, basements, and attics, you could give "extreme" Post-It notes a whirl: https://www.post-it.com/3M/en_US/post-it/products/~/Post-it-Products/Extreme-Notes/?N=4327+8750143+3294529207+3294857497&rt=r3.
Are you looking for something quick and easy that will not break the budget? How about painter's tape? You might be surprised at how many options are now available. Here are just a few:
Exterior" weatherproof" tape: https://www.lowes.com/pd/Scotch-1-Pack-1-41-inPainter-s-Tap/1002260746
If you like the chalkboard look, you could use chalkboard tape: https://www.scotchbrand.com/3M/en_US/scotch-brand/products/catalog/~/Scotch-Chalkboard-Tape/?N=4335+3293692109+3294529207&rt=rud.
How about dry erase tape for those labels that will need to be changed frequently? https://www.scotchbrand.com/3M/en_US/scotch-brand/products/catalog/~/Scotch-Dry-Erase-Tape/?N=4335+3293692116+3294529207&rt=rud.
Are you looking to avoid eventually dealing with hardened tape residue? How about reusable labels that slide directly onto the edge of a shelf? https://www.containerstore.com/s/office/labels/shelf-clip-labels/12d?productId=11011586
Will labels need to be changed frequently on kitchen jars and Tupperware? Perhaps Jokari erasable labels will do the trick: www.jokari.com/products/erasable-food-labels.
Need to label finicky surfaces like rattan baskets? How about bin clips? https://www.containerstore.com/s/office/labels/white-bin-clip-labels/12d?productId=11003245
You can change categories in a flash with vinyl adhesive reusable labels: https://www.containerstore.com/s/office/labels/smartstore-adhesive-labels/12d?productId=10034526.
If none of those will do the trick, you can always use a trusty label maker. They can work wonders if your penmanship leaves others wondering whether you assigned a specific spot for alfredo, potatoes, or tomatoes. Consider yourself warned, though: labels take a fair amount of time to create when using a label maker. If you have a large volume of tags to make, do yourself a favor and overestimate how long you intuitively think it will take to finish the task.
Label makers have come a long way. Remember manual label makers with large circular dials? I am shocked that they are still being produced, especially given how long it takes to create a label, not to mention how painful those label corners can be when they jam under a fingernail: www.walmart.com/ip/DIY-Manual-Label-Maker-for-9mm-Embossing-PVC-Label-Tapes-Portable-Label-Printer-Mini-Handhold-Typewriter-2PCS-9mm-Embossing-PVC-Label-Tapes/874543719.
As for electronic label makers, I prefer QWERTY-style keyboards so that the buttons line up in the same fashion as a computer keyboard. Although faster than the circular dial label maker, they can take longer than a Sharpie and tape. On the flip side, they might last longer than the tapes listed above. Label makers now come with all sorts of bells and whistles: lovely fonts, symbols, colored tape, borders, and bar code creation. Some models can even embellish ribbon and washi tape. For you crafters who already give Michael's a run for their money, please back away from your favorite search engine before it's too late!
There are label makers that connect to computers via cable or wifi, which should translate into time-savings: https://www.brother-usa.com/products/ptd600.
Some can connect to both computers and phones. Studies have shown that dictating can be three times faster than typing. Suppose you typically hen-peck text messages and are willing to use your smartphone's microphone feature. In that case, you could potentially save even more time than typing on a computer: https://www.brother-usa.com/ptouch/cube/family.
I have seen an increase in thermal label makers on the market in the last few years. The resulting labels look like those on packaging envelopes. If speed is what you are after, this type of label maker might suit your needs. This one apparently prints a whopping 71 labels per minute: https://www.staples.com/dymo-labelwriter-450-turbo-label-printer/product_796630.
If you absolutely cannot bear to use unsightly technology, I doubt you will find anything on the market that is cuter than these label makers: https://phomemo.com/.
Whichever label you use, think about how long it will take to create the tags, how much money you are willing to spend, how long they need to last, and what pets or children might test their longevity.
Whatever label you use can be immensely helpful, especially when sharing a home. Imagine the eternal bliss that could result from the absence of hearing those dreaded words for the umpteenth time, "Mooooooomm" or "Honnneeeeeeeyyy," "where can I find the scissors?"
It can be exciting to discover a convenient resource for donating unwanted goods. When this happens, we might pat ourselves in the back for diverting items from landfills. Perhaps we even assuage any lingering guilt for impulse buys that did not work out.
A few years ago, I was excited to discover that DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse) had a used shoe program. It allowed participants to exchange used shoes for discounts on new ones. On the surface, it sounded like a great program.
After some initial online digging, I decided to test it out. I hoped that it would become another helpful resource for clients. Since I did not have any shoes to donate at the time, I spoke with clients who were offloading their own. They were more than happy to participate in my experiment. I loaded my car with their cast-offs and made my way to the store. It was not entirely convenient, but still worth the time and effort because of the potential payoff for clients in the future.
After a fifteen-minute drive to the store, I hauled the stash to the checkout counter and waited ten minutes to speak with a salesperson. Contrary to the information I had found online, the DSW program was not user-friendly. They only accepted “very” gently used shoes. Many individuals use shoes past the “gently used” phase, which eliminated a lot of this program’s usefulness.
I knew that I could collect $2.50 per shoe. Still, the salesperson informed me of what I considered to be another complication. I was not previously aware that they would only give credit for one pair of shoes in any given 24-hour period. This last complication was the dealbreaker. In my estimation, a program participant would lose money on increased gas usage from all the additional mileage and heavier-than-average carload. I also imagine that the extra fuel consumption would partially offset some of the environmental benefits of diverting the shoes from landfills.
Imagine you had ten pairs of gently used shoes. Let us also imagine that your feet do not sport a dainty size 5. Trunk space can be precious, especially in places like San Francisco. You need hidden space to avoid “smash and grab” car break-ins that occur when possessions are left in plain sight. Are you willing to sacrifice a good portion of your trunk for a measly $2.50 per day?
Will you also be willing to drive to DSW ten times to donate all ten pairs? It took 25 minutes to donate one pair. I imagine four hours of your precious time is worth more than a $25.50 discount. That is four hours that you could use to clear out additional clutter so that you are:
All this is not to say that I believe landfill diversion is not a worthy cause. Many simple programs make a positive impact. However, everything can be taken to an extreme that decreases the ability to enjoy a space. Many landfill diversion programs sound great until we look under the hood. Then we find out how many hoops we have to jump through and how much time we will need to devote to it.
Here is an excellent question to ask yourself when examining donation programs: is the offloading project important because you value sustainability, or is it a sneaky case of perfectionism? If your answer is the former, I would like to play devil’s advocate. When cast-offs sit around long enough to collect dust, perfectionism might be at play. Suppose sustainability is such a significantly held value. In that case, I imagine it would be a top priority to remove the items before they degraded to the point that the donation program could no longer accept them. (I frequently see this degradation happen and have to be the bearer of bad news.)
Many individuals, especially in the Bay Area, struggle to let items go into landfill or recycling because it feels like a failure. When these piles of unwanted items sit in the home for more than a few weeks, they become “stale.” They create unnecessary tension. Each time we see the pile, we remember that we wanted to “do the right thing,” but the mere thought of jumping through all those hoops like a circus dog is exhausting. Thus, the pile continues to collect more dust.
Meanwhile, our homes turn into mini recycling centers. We can no longer use spaces for other vital activities in our lives. It may feel a bit controversial to read, but I will state it anyway: not only is it ok to avoid finding the “perfect” home for unwanted items, but, in many cases, it is imperative.
Whether you live in a mansion or a studio apartment, your space is valuable. How much of your precious (and sometimes expensive) square footage are you willing to devote to items that do not deserve a spot in your home? On a square footage basis, how much money are those cast-offs costing you each month?
Additionally, whether you are working your first full-time job or are years into enjoying retirement, your time is valuable. How do you want to spend it?
Think of these questions the next time you have a complicated donation project. If the offloading project is truly worth the time and effort, make it a top priority and get it out of the home within a week. Then it will not stall progress on decluttering. After all, organizational goals do not typically exist because of some moral imperative to be “organized.” In my experience, individuals create these goals so that personal spaces no longer wreak emotional havoc. Other times, individuals set the goals to enrich their lives on a profoundly personal level. And these goals, in my opinion, are worth the time, effort, and money that we spend to reach them.
When clients find me, they are typically tired, frustrated, dejected, angry, or all of the above. They have tried organizing on their own, but for various reasons, they were not successful. They feel deflated and wonder what went wrong. Often, they conclude that they just do not have the “organizing gene.” So, they resign themselves to living amongst frustrating clutter until they find me.
These clients are initially quite dubious when I tell them that they will gain confidence in their ability to organize if they commit to the work. During the process, they discover their roadblocks and learn how to course correct.
Many “a-ha” moments arise as processes click and practice takes shape. Towards the end of our work together, clients who reflect on the journey are typically shocked: they see a vast chasm between their initial doubt and resulting confidence.
There is no magic involved. These individuals simply decided to learn the process, commit to the work, and practice new skill sets. This is not to say that simple is easy. (If it were easy, the professional organizing industry would not exist.) Sometimes decluttering is one of the biggest challenges they will ever face, but they stick to it and experience massive shifts in their lives as a result. It can be incredibly cathartic.
So, if you have thought that you just do not have what it takes or that you will never get out from beneath the clutter, please challenge that thought because it does not have to be true. I believe that you can do it!
“Yeah, yeah,” some might say. “Those people are unique. They are not me. They had a special hidden knack that was unearthed in the process, and that is something I know do not possess.” Here is the thing: I have lost count of how many people thought that they did not have what it takes and were thrilled to discover that they unequivocally did. They just needed to have customized systems, learn how to do the work, and stick with it as habits took shape. You, too, can do it. Start with a drawer, part of a drawer, or even one or two objects a day, and see how your confidence grows!
Years ago, I had a particularly inspiring home décor idea involving a large plant. Its long leaves would gracefully arch over my armchair, carving out a tranquil reading corner in my humble San Francisco abode. I could almost feel the relaxation as the image came into focus. Those types of plants, though, had wince-inducing pricetags. “Too expensive,” I thought and banished the flash of inspiration from my mind.
A year or so later, I came upon a five-foot-tall bird of paradise in the unlikeliest of places. It was tucked away in the far recess of a massive store and on sale for an unbelievably low price. I felt like destiny was knocking. I left the store, grinning from ear to ear.
As I reached the parking lot, I hit my first snag. This lovely plant was almost too large for my car. That should have given me pause, but I was determined to bring my idea to fruition. So, with some struggle and a bit of spilled soil, I worked it out. Perhaps at that point, I should have known that this was the beginning of a complicated love affair.
As with so many budding relationships, it started effortlessly. I placed it behind my chair, and, voila, my vision came to life. The leaves were slightly too low, so I purchased a pedestal to elevate the plant a foot off the ground. That little corner provided quite a bit of joy over the coming months.
Flash forward a year and a half. Just like all relationships, the initial euphoria wore off, and reality set in. Due to the nature of my warm apartment, the plant thrived and quickly outgrew that corner. The leaves blocked enough light in the evenings that it could no longer serve as my reading corner.
Knowing that no good relationship comes without effort, I plucked it from the corner and moved furniture to accommodate its new home. The relocation worked, but the unsightly container was an eyesore. “No problem,” I thought as I headed out to purchase a ceramic pot within my price range. The simple task quickly blossomed into a large project: everything was too small, too large, too heavy, too expensive, or too unattractive. After a disheartening search, I finally discovered a quaint outdoor nursery and discount container store with exactly what I needed. I did not want a saucer to mar the planter’s aesthetic, so the nursery staff suggested using silicone to plug the drainage holes.
This was a more complicated task than I had assumed. At the hardware store, an employee suggested that I use rubber plugs instead of silicone. When I arrived home, I attempted to hammer them into place, but the rubber proved uncooperative. On to plan B: I cut them to size. Unfortunately, they did not create a water-tight seal. By then, I had run out of time and wondered when I could finish the project, given the busy week ahead.
There sat my lovely plant, beautiful dark green pot, hammer, toolbox, rubber stoppers, and a bag of rocks for the bottom of the planter. That pile of clutter was a big nuisance and taunted me all week. What started as a simple impulse buy turned into a big headache. Between shopping for the pot and the additional supplies, I ended up going to more than six stores. Repotting also took a fair amount of time, given the plant’s large footprint and my small kitchen.
After all that work, though, it looked lovely in the new planter. I enjoyed it for many more months as it continued to grow. Eventually, it reached the ceiling and became too large. Additionally, it no longer looked as healthy as it had in the original spot. I came to terms with the fact that we had to part ways. I extracted a small shoot and sold the rest of the plant, but not before removing some of the soil because it was otherwise too heavy to carry. That little shoot grew even faster than the original plant and meant I had to sell it long before I was ready. That was a sad day. I had invested an incredible amount of time and energy into making my vision a reality. The plant had brought me so much joy, but the breakup had to happen much sooner than I ever would have predicted. We just were not a good fit for each other.
Why do I share this story?
So, the next time you are tempted to purchase on impulse, do yourself a favor and stop a minute. That allows you to decide it is truly worth the time, space, and effort that it will usurp from your life. Feel free to recall my cautionary tale so that you can leave an impulse buy on the shelf and instead spend that time cozying up in a chair with a good book.
“I’ve been looking for that!” No matter how many times I hear this phrase, it still makes me smile. Clients often exclaim this as we dive into the back corners of drawers and the dark recesses of cabinets.
Some very organized and well-intentioned individuals ask how the item was lost if it was so important. A simple explanation is that often there are more items in a designated space than can adequately be stored.
When cabinets and drawers stretch to capacity or shelves start to bend under heavy loads, one additional item can ruin the entire organizational system. It can be exasperating: an individual might spend a lot of time organizing objects “just so,” yet it is still not working.
I typically see this during my first appointments with clients. They show me their organized (yet filled) cabinets and wonder out loud why the system is not working.
In these cases, deeper cuts are necessary because the excess volume is the culprit. You might be setting yourself up for failure if you have to spend more than a minute or two putting items back in their respective homes. If you do not see any empty space on the shelf or in the drawer, your system is vulnerable to collapse.
If you free up enough space, one more apple will not upset the apple cart. You will spend less time fighting to retrieve items. You will also spend a lot less time “Tetrissing,” as I like to call it. The less time you spend maintaining your organizational systems, the more time you have for far more enjoyable activities.
Additionally, you will use those remaining objects more frequently because they will no longer be blocked from view. You might part with three seldom-used kitchen gadgets and instead make sufficient space for your tried-and-true utensil that never fails you. With fewer items in the area, you will readily see your objects, remember where they live, and more easily retrieve them when needed. So even though you have fewer items, you will be able to enjoy them more than you could before pruning your collection. Then you will be less likely to exclaim, “I’ve been looking for that! What was it doing here?” It means that you are probably spending more time enjoying your possessions and less time searching for them. That is what I call organizational success.
Removing a Band-Aid can be a painful but necessary process. As you wait for a wound to heal, perhaps the Band-Aid starts looking ragged or begins to fall off. Right before ripping it off, we might feel a jolt of anticipatory dread and think, “This is going to hurt!” However, we remember that the pain usually subsides pretty quickly. After all, if the deed were that bad, we would never use them and consciously decide to suffer the consequences. Instead, we remember that the pain is bearable. So, we continue to use them, rip them off, and keep Johnson & Johnson going strong.
Starting an organizing project is not that unlike ripping off a Band-Aid. Clients tell me that they avoided it for many years because they anticipated a horrible experience, remembered failed attempts, or worried about becoming overwhelmed. So, they avoided the organizing project, sometimes until the consequences became severe, such as threats of evictions and divorces.
Family members might feel exasperated and wonder why a loved one procrastinates. Fear can be a potent motivator for avoidance. It is only natural to avoid a task if we anticipate that it will result in negative consequences, especially if we remember painful past attempts.
In the online course, Learning How to Learn, Barbara Oakley explains that the brain’s insular cortex lights up when we predict that a task will be unpleasant. It calms down once we start performing the task. Essentially, the anticipatory fear can be worse than the actual task itself. (You can read more about this process here: https://www.tes.com/news/how-to-stop-procrastination.)
This science is helpful for those who avoid decluttering projects. If one remembers the insular cortex, it will be easier to start the task that is perceived to be unbearable. It is similar to occasions when we rip off Band-Aids. We know that we will experience momentary pain, but we will be better off for having done so.
So how about it? Perhaps you are looking around your home and are dismayed by what you see. Maybe you also know that procrastination is becoming an impediment to your overall enjoyment of your home and potentially causing other issues as well. So why not rip off the Band-Aid today and get started? You can even employ James Clear’s Two Minute Rule: https://www.twilightorganizing.com/blog/real-world-examples-of-how-to-use-tactics-from-james-clears-atomic-habits-to-declutter-your-space.
I am only a phone call away if you cannot start without an experienced guide. Clients are surprised to recall initial anticipatory dread before our first session and see how vastly different they feel after gaining traction. It is not uncommon for them to say that they look forward to future decluttering sessions, whether with me or on their own. Once we rip off that Band-Aid, we’re off to the races.
Have you heard the phrase, “clutter is the result of delayed decisions?” Sometimes delaying decisions about possessions results in small piles of clutter. They might only be an occasional annoyance. Other times, though, they can take an enormous financial toll.
Can you put a financial cost on delayed decisions? Absolutely. How about thirty-nine and a half billion dollars?
You might now know that the self-storage industry is enormous. Perhaps you have even seen enjoyable treasure hunts on Storage Wars. According to sparefoot.com (https://www.sparefoot.com/self-storage/news/1432-self-storage-industry-statistics/), the storage industry is now worth $39.5 billion. That number is staggering. It is nearly 40 billion dollars, much of which is the result of delayed decisions.
If that number feels too big to be relevant, maybe three thousand, ten thousand, or twenty thousand dollars would feel different? If one only focuses on a monthly fee, those numbers might seem far-fetched. They are real, though: many well-intentioned individuals initially plan to rent units for a few months. Months fly by and unobtrusively turn into years. Many individuals reach out to me when the fees reach those numbers.
Storage units are not inherently bad. They can be excellent solutions for temporary situations. Temporary storage, though, does not sap finances the way that long-term rentals can. In helping individuals close their storage units, I’ve noticed a few patterns that stymie them many times over:
How many times have we forgotten overstock items housed in cabinets above refrigerators, in garages, and basements? It is easy to do. It is hard enough to check the pantry before we run to the store. Looking on garage shelves after checking the pantry sounds like a good idea but often does not happen because it takes too long.
Telescope this “out of sight, out of mind” effect to an off-site storage facility. It takes even more time to gather items from a storage unit. They are definitely not in sight and easily out of mind.
In other instances, individuals are painfully aware of those monthly fees. Still, they pay attention to other urgent tasks, even those that might not be important. (It can be tough to focus on non-urgent yet important tasks when so many urgent tasks compete for our attention.) Also, it is not as if the storage unit is going anywhere. It patiently waits. Once a month, it very quietly whispers, “Hey, I’m here”: the monthly fee unobtrusively appears as a small line item on recurring financial statements.
Regardless of whether a storage unit is mostly “out of sight, out of mind” or naggingly present at the corners of our consciousness, it can feel overwhelming or downright exhausting to think of emptying it.
Sometimes units become flooded, and we wince at the thought of discovering items damaged beyond repair. It is often daunting to think of downsizing sentimental items, whether reminders of past passions, hobbies, careers, relationships, or deceased loved ones. Sometimes it is painful to realize that the items are not nearly as expensive as the units that house them. These distressing thoughts can make it easy to delay the decision-making process and keep the storage units indefinitely. It is no wonder that seemingly innocuous metal boxes, tucked away in hidden corners of cities and suburbs, rake in billions of dollars every year.
Clients call me when they are fed up with taking the monthly financial hit. They are frustrated but also tired at the mere thought of starting. The effort is worthwhile, though. It is exciting to witness clients walk up to the self-storage office, plunk their locks on the counter, and proudly state, “I’d like to close my storage unit.” I can almost see the weight lifting from their shoulders. Not only have they stopped spending cumulatively large sums of money, but they have plans regarding how to use the re-acquired funds.
Even though it can be eye-opening and sometimes painful, calculating the total cost of the delayed decisions is a valuable exercise. It can be motivating to then think of all the better ways to use those funds.
You may be one of the millions of Americans who had the best of intentions when opening a storage unit. Initial months turned into multiple years. It does not have to stay that way, though. You, too, can be one of the many who feel that rush of excitement as they tell the front desk staff, “Hi. I want to close storage unit number 509, please.”
Excepting “preppers,” whoever thought that pandemic pantries would become the norm? I know I didn’t. Yet here we are, slightly more than a year out from the start of a global pandemic, with pantry shelves straining under the weight of the increased load of canned goods and sundries.
Were you one of the many who rushed to a grocery store right before the mandatory shelter-in-place started, wondering when you would return? If you live in San Francisco as I do, you too witnessed one of the strictest shelters-in-place in the United States that initially made many of us wonder how we would tackle activities such as grocery shopping. Most of us were entering new territory, never having lived through a pandemic. We wanted to ensure that we had enough food to sustain ourselves for however long this unknown virus might stick around.
As we ease into some sense of normalcy, it is a great time to take stock. What hides in your pandemic pantry? Initially, mine included a few cans of vegetables that I would not have purchased in pre-pandemic days. Like others, I was unsure how long I needed my produce to last between trips to the store. I dutifully ate that food, but one can of vegetables sat on my pantry shelf for quite some time before I was ready to bite the bullet (green beans, in this case).
How much of that shelf-stable food have you used? Is it usurping so much space that meal prep has become challenging? Are canned goods or bags of dried bean soup mixes collecting dust because, realistically, they will not be used? How many items are approaching expiration? It can be painful to think about wasted money and food, but those early pandemic purchases continue to cost precious real estate on pantry shelves.
Luckily, there are various options to unload extra food. You can try your local food bank. Another option is to post a note on your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook. You could host a food swap and finally see non-pixilated versions of your friends and family. Everyone could bring their neglected shelf-stable food and swap it for items they would use. A guest could donate the leftovers. Think of how nice it will feel to open your cupboards and only see ingredients that you love!
I hear three little words so frequently that I can finish clients’ phrases before they pronounce the second syllable.
Here is the scenario. Client “Sarah” and I are decluttering during a virtual organizing appointment. Thanks to our Zoom sessions and her practice of newly learned skills, she has become so decisive that she makes decisions in a fraction of the time that it previously took. It is remarkable, and we are both excited to see massive progress towards her goals. We finished organizing her closet and are now tackling her second priority project: the kitchen. We have decluttered and organized her glassware, mugs, bowls, plates, serving ware, and are moving on to the pantry.
The fast pace suddenly declines. See, Sarah is a great cook. Her creative culinary skills wow her friends, family, and community. She concocts unique combinations of ingredients that others would never think to employ. She is also conscientious about food waste.
Her pantry is overflowing to the point that she can no longer access it. Instead, she uses whatever ingredients are sitting on the floor in front of its entry door. It curbs her creativity to the point that she no longer enjoys her evenings that used to be filled with creativity and joy.
Not only is she saddened by the lack of creativity, but she also feels guilty about food waste. Delicious ingredients become rancid before she has a chance to use them. In the past, she tried to declutter the area. She would get started, remember the expired food, and become overwhelmed with a wall of guilt. She would typically shut the door and defeatedly pick up the newest bag of flour off the floor and bake uninspired desserts for her friends.
As you can imagine, this combination of creativity and conscientiousness made it challenging for her to declutter the pantry independently. Employing newly learned strategies and keeping her goals in mind, she is now determined to compost expired food and impulsively-purchased ingredients that usurp precious shelving space.
She makes peace with composting long-expired food. Out go rancid specialty oils, still sporting bows and tiny birthday card messages. Next, she composts long forgotten tea, remarking that it is probably about as tasty as sawdust at this point. She even finds a can hiding in the back corner that feels unusually light. She laughs to realize that the contents have dried out.
We give each other virtual high fives and let out “woo-hoo!”s as space opens and she moves items off the floor. We celebrate her ability to reach more shelves with ease. She’s on a roll again. Until she isn’t. . .
She pulls out a green jar; so vibrantly green that it seems to defy nature. “Pepper jelly,” she says, as I see the energy drain out of her face. This jar has flummoxed her for years. She once experimented with a similar brand and didn’t like the flavor it imparted. She regrets shopping on an empty stomach, which led to low blood sugar and brain fog: in a moment of weakness, she purchased a second jar, thinking the new brand would taste vastly different. It is now Sara against the green pepper jelly. Even with all her culinary wizardry, she cannot fathom a practical use for it.
Her initial gut reaction is to keep it. “I’m sure if I give it enough thought, I can find a way to use it. I think I’ll keep it.” She follows this up with three dreaded little words that can derail progress in disproportionately large ways: “Just in case.”
“Just in case” bubbles up during most organizing sessions. (It is closely related to its equally destructive cousin, “just for now.”) It starts innocently enough. If uttered too frequently, though, progress comes to a screeching halt. If we are not careful, we can easily justify keeping any of our possessions “just in case”:
“I never quite figured out how to use this kitchen utensil. It has taken up one-third of this drawer for three years now, but I paid good money for it. I might use it in the future. I’ll keep it just in case.”
“I never liked saffron-garlic infused oil, but I feel guilty tossing out this gift. Maybe I’ll cook a meal for someone and simultaneously make myself something else to eat. I’ll keep it just in case.”
“Oh wow, I totally forgot about this bag of wooden skewers! I remember buying them eight years ago before I switched to metal. I gave away my grill last year, but I’m sure I will be invited to a barbecue next year. Even though summer is ten months away, I know I’ll remember these and make vegetable skewers to bring with me. I’ll keep them just in case.”
We’ve all been there. There’s no shame in it, and some of us pride ourselves on diverting almost all items from landfill (that sense of pride and responsibility can wreak its own havoc, but that is a story for another time). Using those three little words too many times can mean the difference between a useable room and keeping so many possessions that one more incoming item will throw a disorganized room into full-blown chaos.
So many sneaky reasons can hide behind that phrase: guilt from an unused gift, trying to be ecologically responsible, being frugal because we never know when we’ll need an item again, not wanting to uncomfortably admit to ourselves that we wasted hard-earned money, etc. “Just in case” mentality needs to be challenged when it is blocking progress.
In Conquering Chronic Disorganization, Judith Kolberg describes sorting unconventionally. She and a client sorted by past, present, and future. It became evident to her client that he was robbing his present self of the ability to enjoy his home. Items from his past and those for his future self were hogging most of the space.
You can use this tactic just by scanning your room. How many items from your past or items for competing potential futures usurp so much space that the present you (who is currently reading this article) has no room to breathe? It can be an eye-opener.
Back to Sarah. I explain this concept, and she realizes how much precious space these “just in case” (but most likely never to be used) items are taking up at the expense of her love for cooking. I ask other tactical questions and use various tools to help her come to a conclusion one way or the other. She decides to donate the green pepper jelly. Realistically, she knows she will never use it. She shrugs: “Maybe there’s someone out there who absolutely loves this stuff.” We continue the process until she has made decisions regarding all items in the pantry. Now she can walk into it, reach her shelves, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that she cooks even more creatively than before we started the organizing process.
Later that month, she sends me photos of an incredibly enticing spread for a dinner party. She told me about the many homemade dips, cornbread, and other appetizers she created from scratch. Then she rolled out the rest of the Southern-themed dinner, and it was a roaring success. Even though there was no green pepper jelly to be found, the meal was so delicious that guests reminisced about it for years to come.
("Sarah" is a figment of my imagination, but her story is representative of the vast majority of individuals who seek my help.)
Summer is fast approaching, but this one definitely feels different. Not only are temperatures rising in much of the US, but many counties and states are opening up from COVID lockdowns for the first time. The excitement is palpable. This summer will be exceptionally sweet for those who are now venturing out with family and friends.
Decluttering and organizing had a banner year: the media wrote countless articles regarding individuals who spent their lockdowns decluttering. I worked virtually with individuals who became increasingly bothered by old stacks of paper, home office disorganization, and general disarray. Even my go-to donation centers consistently close earlier than advertised because their trucks fill by early afternoon. For those who could handle it, decluttering became a coping mechanism to wrestle back some control in a year that lacked so much of it.
Virtual clients not only reached their goals but also addressed underlying causes, navigated roadblocks, and began using organizational systems that supported their lifestyles. Before working with me, some had neglected one of many critical components of organizing: they didn't carve out enough time in their busy lives to do the organizing.
Professional organizers are prone to say, "the clutter didn't appear in one day, so it most likely won't disappear in one day." It takes time and consistent effort to replace old habits that don’t support our lifestyles. Some ask for my guidance due to situational disorganization, such as dealing with a large volume of items that come with having a baby. Most, though, have struggled with clutter for many years. It is not a magical, quick-fix situation, so one must be willing to devote sufficient time to the task. That time needs to be held sacred, or it will fall by the wayside when urgent matters pop up.
As summer rolls around and those of us in lockdown venture out into the world, we look forward to more social gatherings. It is only natural to want to pay attention to enjoyable activities rather than decluttering, especially during the beginning of the process.
If you successfully carved out weekly decluttering sessions during the last year, it is crucial to hold those time slots sacred. As we venture out, there will be an increasing number of temptations vying for our time and energy. It is best to think of decluttering sessions in the same way you would a doctor's appointment that you would not think of missing. You will enjoy newfound freedom, but not at the expense of your organizing progress that you deemed important enough to commit to in the last year.
If you schedule sessions on a recurring time date and time, you'll have an even higher chance of sticking to them. In the past chaotic year, clients have cleared space and solidified organizing habits to ensure that new relaxing environments endure; the results have been nothing short of amazing. Multiple individuals have purged papers dating back 40 years. We have created such user-friendly filing systems that some have even remarked that they now actually enjoy filing. We pruned closets, created more functional kitchens, made living rooms ready to receive company; the list goes on. If you had similar success, give yourself the gift of working your new social calendar around organizing sessions. Those sessions made your home much calmer, enjoyable, relaxing, and supportive of your life goals. By this time next year, you will not only feel uplifted from social interactions but also feel amazing when you return home to recharge your batteries.
You’re feeling tired but hugely satisfied after a successful decluttering session in the closet. You look down in triumph at the aftermath of your battle: four massive trash bags stuffed full of cast-offs that you’re ready to donate. Hopefully, you’re celebrating with the visual reward of all that extra space, and looking forward to getting dressed more easily tomorrow, now that you no longer have to contend with gnarled hangers.
Ecstatic from vanquishing the clutter, you drag the bags out to the car so that you can drop off your donation.
Not so fast! There’s a crucial task that you must do before you leave.
Are you the type of person who comes home and hurriedly hangs up your coat in the closet, or the type who fastidiously checks all pockets for essential items before you hang it up? On a recent bout down the podcast/youtube rabbit hole, I laughed when someone remarked that they purposefully leave $10 bills in their jackets so that they can be pleasantly surprised next year when they pull it out again. Your future self might thank you. Here’s the only issue with that strategy: if you are not detail-oriented, you might eventually donate that coat without checking the pockets. Maybe $10 won’t break the bank, but there might be something much more valuable lurking inside. Either way, it’s best to check pockets and bag compartments as you go rather than have to do that task after the cast-offs are already in a big pile.
I’m a thorough organizer, and it has definitely paid off over the years. When working with a client, I generally check clothes pockets and purse compartments (unless the client informs me that they never leave anything in them, so it would be a waste of time to double-check). On virtual sessions, clients often hear me reminding them to “Check the pockets!” as they walk off-camera to dump the item into the donate bag. Most of the time, I find Kleenex, loose change, gum wrappers, and ancient cough drops ensconced in sticky papers. Sometimes, though, we find items that clients had lost hope for long ago. It can be pretty exciting. Additionally, it’s courteous to empty pockets and purses before you donate, so nonprofit employees don’t have to do it for you.
So before you drive those bags to your local nonprofit, be sure that you’ve checked the pockets and compartments first. You might gain even more than a new workable closet. If I can’t convince you of this task’s worthiness, maybe $42,000 will: https://kfor.com/news/local/norman-goodwill-employee-finds-42000-in-donated-sweater/.
1. Clear the home from all the stuff, and the problem is solved.
Hoarding disorder can be quite complex and often debilitating. There is extensive comorbidity with depression and significant comorbidity with anxiety and other disorders. The “stuff” is just the outward symptom of what’s going on underneath the surface. Without addressing root causes, coping mechanisms, behaviors, and habits, “clearing out” is like putting a band-aid on a wound that needs further medical attention.
2. A fast clear-out is the most effective way to help someone with hoarding disorder.
Thanks to tv shows like Hoarders, the quick clear-out tactic is well known. Many situations necessitate clear-outs, such as looming evictions or the ability to return home safely for recovery from major surgery. However, an unfortunate side effect can be reaccumulation to previous levels in less time than it occurred before the clear-out.
When the situation is not so dire, a steadier approach can be helpful. The individual has time to work with a therapist (or support group such as Buried in Treasures). They learn the “why” behind the acquiring behavior and the inability to let go and use healthier strategies to cope with difficult emotions.
Simultaneously, they can work with a professional organizer, such as yours truly, who obtained specialized training to work with those who have hoarding disorder. As they work with me, they put their new coping skills into practice to decrease the volume. They’re able to challenge the gut-level reactions (that tempt them to keep too many objects) that compete with goals such as having grandchildren over again. They gain competence and the ability to discern what is truly important.
3. People with hoarding disorder are just stubborn and could quickly get rid of the stuff if they wanted to.
To family and friends, it can seem that their loved one is just belligerent. There is a lot more, though, than meets the eye. Many who struggle with hoarding disorder have experienced trauma. While trauma doesn’t cause hoarding disorder, it can make the symptoms more extreme. Some clients have told me how the hoarding behavior helped them cope with challenging feelings before working with therapists and support groups to find better coping mechanisms.
Additionally, many people with hoarding disorder have low insight. (One 2018 presentation showed that less than 20% had excellent or good insight. More than 65% had either poor or only fair insight.) Until individuals gain enough insight, treatment options will have limited success. Fortunately, there are various ways to help reduce ambivalence about behavior change. Non-clinicians can even use some tactics.
4. “I have hoarding disorder because my parents grew up in the Depression.”
Some say that they have hoarding disorder because their parents needed to save everything during the Great Depression. While there seems to be a familial link, researchers are still unsure if it results from genetics or learned behavior. At that same 2018 conference referenced above, I learned that there is no link between “material deprivation” and hoarding disorder. While the Depression must have been challenging and individuals certainly needed to save items as much as possible, hoarding behavior did not suddenly become the norm. During the later years of the Depression, newspapers published the sensational (and quite sad) story of the Collyer Brothers. If hoarding had become commonplace, that story would never have been newsworthy. Traumas such as living through a depression can undoubtedly exacerbate symptoms, but they don’t cause the disorder.
5. There’s no help available for those with HD or their families.
Thankfully, there is help available for those who struggle with hoarding disorder and their families. One can start by reading helpful books such as Buried in Treasures and Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring. Hoarding task forces throughout the country work to help those in local communities who struggle with the disorder.
Additionally, therapists and clinicians (who have extensively trained in this area) can be of great help. Individuals gain insight and work towards less detrimental behaviors. Peer support groups work as well. Some of the most effective groups are based on Buried in Treasures (often referred to as BIT groups).
Lastly, Friends and Family support groups focus on helping those affected by their loved one’s hoarding behavior.
6. “They’ll never notice stuff that I toss out when they’re not looking.”
Throwing items away might appear helpful, but it can backfire in significant ways if there’s no prior consent. One of the best ways to erode trust in a relationship is to toss items without permission. If someone notices missing items, they will most likely become less trustful not only of the individual who threw things out but also of trained professionals who might otherwise be helpful in the future.
Untrained professional organizers have the best of intentions but can do more harm than good. I’ve witnessed those repercussions at conferences when people share their experiences and how they feel afterward.
It can be rough for friends and family members who the behavior has hurt. I find it helpful is to imagine how I would feel if someone started throwing away my possessions without my input or guidelines. It’s not a pleasant feeling, by any means. If you’re struggling to avoid tossing without permission, this visualization might be helpful.
7. People with hoarding disorder must not be smart to let situations get so seemingly out of control.
I have worked with incredibly bright individuals who have held down high-level jobs while secretly struggling with this disorder at home. Those who work with me have usually have good insight and intellectually know that the behavior doesn’t make sense on the surface. That doesn’t make it emotionally easier to conquer. We all have various battles in life where we intellectually know the behavior isn’t good for us. Still, we struggle to stop doing it anyway because of the strong emotions involved.
8. You can tell that someone has hoarding disorder just by looking at their home.
While visible signs can point to hoarding disorder, it’s never a sure bet. Before a clinician can diagnose it, other disorders with similar symptoms have to be ruled out. Someone might have a lot of clutter in the home, but it might be due to a motivational struggle due to depression. Perhaps someone is having a hard time touching items because of unchecked OCD symptoms (hoarding disorder is no longer considered a form of OCD). Maybe the individual is dealing with dementia or a traumatic brain injury. In any cluttered situation, hoarded or not, knowing the root cause gives one the capability to apply the appropriate strategies to reduce the clutter.
9. “I’m just a packrat.”
Many describe themselves as “packrats” or “collectors.” Clutter might be due to these reasons. It’s also entirely possible, though, that the “pack rat” tendencies they are struggling with are symptoms of undiagnosed hoarding disorder. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to review the definition of the disorder, along with the requirements of diagnosis: https://hoarding.iocdf.org/professionals/diagnosing-hoarding-disorder/.
10. “It’s hopeless; I’ll never change.” Or “It’s hopeless; they’ll never change.”
Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. I have witnessed clients make massive transformations as we work together and as they continued to work on the emotional underpinnings with trained clinicians and support groups. That’s not to say it’s easy. It might be one of the most demanding endeavors they face. As they commit to the work, though, they experience the massive value it brings into their lives. I’ve witnessed clients clear out the excess so that they feel relaxed at home, so they can close multiple storage units that cost tens of thousands of dollars (and more) over the years, so they can spend more time with family and on hobbies, and generally get their lives back. For those willing to commit to the work, it can truly be transformative.
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.
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.
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.