"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.
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!
“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.
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!
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/.
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.
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?
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.