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.)
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.