Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Top 5 Organizing Tips: #3

Tip of the Week, August 12, 2007

Over the past two weeks, I’ve shared with you two of my favorite bits of organizing-related advice: allow into your life only things you use, need, love, or find beautiful; and keep things close to where you use them. This week’s tip is a reminder of something we often forget.

Organization doesn’t require perfection
All too often, the word “organized” makes us think of an image from the pages of a magazine: a perfectly arranged kitchen countertop, perhaps, where everything is perfectly in order, a single perfect orchid is the only decoration, and there’s no sign that the space is used for anything ever, much less for a potentially messy pursuit like food preparation. Are there homes that actually look like that and that are indeed well organized? Sure. (Are there also homes that look like that but have drawers, closets, and cabinets crammed full of stuff so that visible surfaces can remain clear? You bet.)

But as I tell my clients again and again, being organized doesn’t mean living or working in a space that’s Spartan, perpetually clean, and free of the stuff of everyday life. I think it does mean taking control over clutter, being able to find what you need when you need it, and having more space and time for the people, things, and activities that are most important to you.

Putting this tip into action
This week, work on moving away from the perfection trap and moving toward your own personal definition of “organized” that’s realistic, achievable, and effective.

  • Read any and all home magazines skeptically. I love home magazines as much as the next person (and possibly more), but whenever I read one, I challenge myself to remember that the photos and articles it contains are more useful as idea generators than they are as strict guidelines. By all means, read whatever home magazines interest you, and use them as a source of inspiration to make improvements to your living space. Keep in mind, though, that unless you have a team of professional designers, stylists, cleaners, interior decorators, and shoppers, your home probably won’t look like the ones you see on the pages of Real Simple or Martha Stewart Living.
  • Define organization for yourself. If organization doesn’t mean perfection, what does it mean? By and large, that’s up to you. Take some time to create your own definition. Start by thinking about an aspect of your home, office, or schedule that feels disorganized. What doesn’t work about it? What does that disorganization make it hard (or impossible) for you to do? What would you be able to do if that disorganization were no longer an issue? On the basis of your answers to these questions, start to define what it would mean for you to be organized. Perhaps you’d never again have to spend time looking for your keys and purse because they’d always be in the same spot. Perhaps the tasks that take up half the day each Saturday would be done in smaller chunks throughout the week. Maybe you’d look forward to getting dressed in the morning because it would be easy to find the clothes you wanted to wear in your closet and dresser.
  • Resist the urge to compare yourself with others. The inclination to want to compare our spaces to other spaces we admire is a natural one. Perhaps you have a friend, neighbor, or family member whose living room always seems to be in perfect order, while yours always seems to be scattered with toys, movies, shoes, and other bits and pieces of life. Before you get down on yourself or your space, do a reality check: does the person you’re comparing yourself with have similar life circumstances and responsibilities? Does he or she have someone who helps keep the house in order? Is the space in question similar to yours in terms of size, function, and things stored there? Does your own space, despite the occasional clutter, function well and generally seem organized? Be wary of comparing two spaces and situations that may in fact be quite different. Remember, too, that organization looks different for different people, so what’s “organized” according to your definition might not be according to someone else’s.

When you let go of the belief that being organized means having perfectly neat and orderly spaces, you may well find it easier to work on whatever organizational project is in front of you. (After all, trying to get started on a project for which the end result is perfection is pretty daunting.) Spend some time defining what organization looks like and feels like for you, rather than accepting someone else’s definition; I bet you’ll be more motivated to get organized—and to stay that way.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

My Top 5 Organizing Tips: #2

Tip of the Week, August 5, 2007

Last week, I shared with you my favorite bit of organizing advice: allow into your life only things you use, need, love, or find beautiful. This week, continuing the series of my top 5 tips, I’ll focus on another organizing guideline I love.

Keep things close to where you use them
This sounds blazingly obvious: of course it makes sense to store things near the spot where you’re most likely to use them! If you take a close look at the spaces in your home or office, though, you might be surprised at how often the items you need for a particular task are located somewhere other than the spot in which you normally do that task. This means it’ll take more time to do the task at hand, as you’ll need to retrieve the supplies you need before you can get started; it also means that clutter is more likely to build up, as it’ll take an extra step to put the supplies away when you’re done with them, and many of us (yours truly included) often skip this step.

When things are stored close to where you use them, you’ll be able to do things more efficiently and prevent clutter. You’ll also make better, smarter use of the spaces throughout your home or office.

Putting this tip into action
Often, we set up our spaces once (generally right after we’ve moved into them) and don’t make significant changes to these set-ups over time. This means that if we’ve put something in a particular spot (perhaps because there was room for it there, or because it seemed like the best spot at the time), it’s likely to remain there, whether or not that location turns out to be effective. As such, the first step in putting this tip into action is to do an audit of what’s where throughout your home or office.

  • Take a tour. Start by walking through each part of your space and making a list of what you do there. Your kitchen, for example, is likely where you store food, cook, clean, and eat, and perhaps also where you take care of family business. In your office, there are probably specific spots where you use the computer, take and make phone calls, store papers and files, store books, and perhaps meet with visitors. During this tour, also note anything you’d like to be able to do in a space that you don’t currently do there.

  • List what you need. Once you’re clear on what you do (or would like to be able to do) in each space, make a list of the items you need in order to be able to do those tasks. If, for example, the family room is where you read newspapers and magazines and clip coupons and articles, you’ll need your reading materials, scissors, and a recycling bag. If there’s a particular stretch of countertop in the kitchen where you do most of your food prep, items like knives, bowls, spoons, peelers, and cutting boards should be close at hand.

  • Look at what’s where. With your list of spaces, their functions, and the supplies you need for each in hand, repeat your tour, this time noting the things that are currently stored in each space. Are they the things you need, or are they items that get in the way of the tasks you want to do in that space? Use your list to start moving things around so that each room (or each part of a particular room) stores primarily the supplies related to what you do in that room. Though it’s not always possible to get everything exactly where you need it (especially when dealing with small spaces) or to limit all rooms to storing only the things explicitly related to tasks that happen there, aim to keep each room as “pure” as possible in terms of what you keep there.

  • Label. Finally, consider labeling closets, drawers, cabinets, and shelves with their contents to help you acclimate to the new locations you’ve chosen for things. This can also help others in your household or office figure out where to find things and where to put them away. You might also want to create a simple storage map, which is essentially a list of the storage spots in a room and what’s in each one (such as “lower cabinet to right of stove: pots and pans, lids, food storage containers”). Keep this storage map posted to the inside of a closet or cabinet door, or in the front of a file cabinet, to make it easy to find what you’re looking for.

This week, reacquaint yourself with the spaces in your home or office and what you do in each, then take a look at what you’re storing there. You might be surprised at what’s where, and equally surprised at how easy it can be to increase your efficiency and make tasks more enjoyable when the supplies you need for each are close at hand.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My Top 5 Organizing Tips: #1

Tip of the Week, July 29, 2007

My aunt recently told me she enjoys reading my weekly tips but was curious to know whether I had a favorite bit of organizing advice—one single tip that beat out all the others. I told her I did (read on to find out what it is), and her question got me thinking about the organizational tips I give clients, friends, and family members again and again. These tips have such staying power because they’re simple, effective, and applicable to a wide range of organizing scenarios.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be detailing five of my favorite organizing tidbits and providing information on how to make each one work for you. First up: my all-time favorite bit of advice.

Allow into your life only things you use, need, love, or find beautiful.
So much of what looks and feels to us like disorganization—cluttered spaces, trouble finding what we need, the sense that there’s not a home for all of our things—stems from the fact that, by and large, we have way, way too many things in our lives. It’s easy to think that more stuff means more security, an enhanced sense of well-being, and an increased ability to plan and prepare for whatever the future holds, but none of those things is necessarily true. All too often, the stuff we gather and hold onto weighs us down, prevents us from being able to do what we want to do, increases our worries, and gets in the way of living life in the present.

When I’m working with clients, they’ll often pick up or point to an item and say, “I hate this thing,” or “I don’t know why I still have this; I never use it.” These words are sweet music to my ears, because it means the person is able to acknowledge the things in her space that don’t contribute to her life in a positive way; these things are often the first to go in the bag headed for charity, recycling, or the trash. The more things we get rid of that aren’t used, loved, needed, or beautiful, the easier it is to access and enjoy those things that are.

Putting this tip into action
I’m willing to bet that almost everyone reading this tip (and, truth be told, the person writing it as well) has stuff in his or her space that could be weeded out. The challenge, of course, is to determine what stays and what goes. Here, then, are my takes on what it means to use, need, love, and find beautiful the things in your life—the things, that is, worth keeping.

  • Use: This is perhaps the most straightforward category. We can all identify things we use on a regular basis, and that are therefore obviously worth holding onto: the pots and pans we cook meals with, the bath towels we use for drying off, the electronics that keep us connected to others and to the world, the clothing we wear to do whatever work we do. But what to do with those things that serve more specific purposes or are for particular occasions? (Think holiday serving pieces, fancy-dress clothes, and that 10-piece set of matching luggage.) Be realistic with yourself: if you haven’t used these items in a year or more, chances are you won’t use them again; if you have used them, feel free to keep them around, but be sure they’re not hindering access to the stuff you need to get at regularly.
  • Need: The stuff we need might not ever actually be used, but it’s stuff we’d be wise to keep around regardless. For example, we all hope we’ll never actually have to use our past years’ tax returns and supporting files, but the IRS requires that we keep them around. And here’s hoping none of us ever needs an earthquake, flood, fire, tornado, or other emergency kit; still, it’s a smart idea to keep one on hand. Be careful, though, of falling into the “I might need it someday” trap when determining what to keep around. Will you really need that collection of wrapping paper bits and pieces, that stack of newspapers, that bag you haven’t used in five years, the empty photo album you’ve never gotten around to filling, that half-burned candle, that bulging file of magazine clippings, those out-of-date catalogs, or those clothes that went out of style before the dawn of the Internet? I bet you won’t.
  • Love: The things we love aren’t necessarily the same as those we use or need. For example, I have a tiny milk pitcher from the old Boston and Maine Railroad that was given to me by my grandmother, who herself inherited it from her father, a true train aficionado. I don’t use it to pour milk, and I certainly don’t need it, but I love it: it connects me to my grandmother, who has been a strong force in my life, and to my great-grandfather, whom I never knew. Holding on to things we love allows us to honor connections like these, to put our mark on our spaces, and to keep our lives vibrant and interesting. Be mindful, though, of overusing the word “love” here; I recommend reserving it for a relatively small number of things that really, truly have meaning for you.
  • Find Beautiful: Last but not least are the things in our lives that we find beautiful. These might overlap with the things we love, but they don’t have to. Items you find beautiful might include certain pieces of artwork, personal photos, decorative objects, or even household gadgets. Things you find beautiful are those that make you glad each time you see them. Remember, though, that there’s always the possibility of having too much of a good thing: a mantel crammed with beautiful objects will simply look cluttered, and the beauty of each of the items will be diminished. Things you truly find beautiful deserve to be displayed and treated accordingly, which means not crowding them out.

For the next week, challenge yourself to be more aware of the items throughout your home or office. Which of them do you use, need, love, or find beautiful, and which are simply taking up space? Letting go of the things that fall in the latter category makes it easier to access and appreciate those that fall in the former categories—and that’s one of the most powerful benefits of organization.