Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Realistic Look at Organizing Shows

Tip of the Week, September 23, 2007

If you’ve been near a TV in the past several years, chances are you’ve seen one of the many shows dedicated to decluttering and organizing, from Mission: Organization to Clean Sweep to Clean House. Though these programs differ, the basic idea is the same: a household in need of clearing out excess stuff and making better use of living space gets a visit from a professional organizer, usually with an interior designer, a carpenter, and other professionals also on hand to help out. In the course of the show, the person, couple, or family works with these pros to dig out from clutter, reclaim their space, and transform their home.

These transformations are pretty dramatic: for example, where once there was a master bedroom overwhelmed by unused kids’ clothes and toys and sporting outdated furniture and d├ęcor, now there’s a newly painted sanctuary with modern fittings, no children’s clutter, and perhaps a new custom closet to boot.

I love these shows because they’re a great source of inspiration—it’s easy to see how different things can be with some time, effort, and good ideas—and because they’ve allowed millions of people to better understand the work professional organizers do. The downside, however, is that they can give an unrealistic sense of how long it takes to transform a space, what’s involved, and what the process is really like. In fact, I’ve had many conversations with clients in which they tell me they were spurred to action by one of these shows, and in which I congratulate them on being willing to make the leap while also making sure they know that I’m not going to show up with a full crew and overhaul their house in a weekend.

It was a great relief, then, to read about a new offshoot of Clean House called Clean House Comes Clean. In one episode, the show’s host and crew explained how long it really takes to create the transformed spaces shown at the end of each show. The figures were eye-opening: on average, the crew spent six days of up to 18 hours each working in a home. That’s 108 hours per crew member!

I read a similar figure on my colleague John Trosko’s blog, Organizing LA ( In a recent post about Clean Sweep Comes Clean, John also gave a figure from Monica Ricci, one of the professional organizers who appears on Mission: Organization. According to the post, Monica spent between 85 and 110 hours with each of the show’s guests she worked with. And that doesn’t take into account the hours put in by the homeowners, the carpenters, and the other crew members.

These figures aren’t meant to scare you away from getting organized, or from keeping up with the organizational habits you’ve already started to build. Rather, I hope they bring a bit of realism to what can often seem like a fantastical process—radical home transformation in 60 minutes!--and give you a better sense of what that process is actually like. Sure, if you bring in a crew of organizers, carpenters, designers, haulers, and yard sale experts, and devote yourself to the task of overhauling your house for a week straight, you can achieve the same stunning results we see on these shows. But it’s just as effective to break that process down into manageable chunks that you can do bit by bit over time, without having to hire a multi-person crew.

I strongly believe that organizing doesn’t have to be (and often shouldn’t be) a radical process to be effective and rewarding. Whether you’re looking to overhaul your entire house or simply to make some organizational improvements in one particular area, breaking the process into reasonable chunks that fit in with the rest of your life will make it much more likely that you’ll succeed over the long term.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Clear Your Clutter with a Garage Sale

Tip of the Week, September 16, 2007

[Note: In honor of yet another successful street sale this past weekend, I’m re-posting this Tip from 2005. Remember, fall is the perfect time to hold your own garage sale!]

Today, as we do once a year, my neighbors and I had a street-wide garage sale. I took the opportunity to cull unwanted and unneeded stuff from my closets, cabinets, and basement, as did my friend Dana, who joined me for the sale. Our efforts paid off: between us, we brought in over $300!

A garage sale is a great way to declutter, give your unwanted things new homes, and make some money in the process. To make sure your next sale is a success, follow these tips.

  • Pick a date and time. Weekend days tend to be best for garage sales, as most people are off work and out of school. If possible, steer clear of holidays and other major events in your area that might keep people otherwise occupied. Time-wise, it's a good idea to start early and end by mid-afternoon; crowds are thickest in the morning, and by the time 3 or 4 p.m. rolls around, you'll be ready for some respite.

  • Go on a treasure hunt. A sale can't be a sale without stuff, so the weeks before your event are the perfect time to go through your house, attic, garage, and basement in search of things to sell. Generally speaking, items that are in good, usable condition sell best, but don't be afraid to throw in a few things that seem like long shots; they really may turn out to be someone else's treasures.

  • Clean it up. Though most garage sale shoppers expect a bit of dust and some wear on the things they find, items that are excessively dirty, have mold or other damage, or are beyond repair are likely to turn people away. Take the time to run a rag over anything that needs a bit of brightening up before you present it for sale. The same goes for clothes: the cleaner they are, the better they'll sell.

  • Enlist help. Holding a garage sale is hard and tiring work, so you'll want to have at least one person around to help you out. Asking friends or neighbors to join in the sale with you means you'll not only have a wider selection for customers to choose from, but also that you'll be able to work in shifts, giving everyone the chance to take breaks as needed.

  • Price wisely. One of the biggest garage sale challenges is deciding what to charge for each thing you sell. Guidelines on pricing vary widely based on factors such as the item's condition and age and your location; generally, garage sale pros recommend charging between 10 and 40% of what you originally paid for the item. For example, I bought a stereo in 2001 for $220 and sold it today for $45, or 20% of the original cost, a fairly standard depreciation for electronics. However you decide to calculate your prices, remember that things that are too expensive are less likely to sell, while things that are too cheap won't net you enough to make the sale worth the effort.

  • Get the word out. The more people your sale draws, the more successful you're likely to be, so it's important to advertise. You might put a classified in your local newspaper, list your sale on an online bulletin board (such as Craigslist), or put up fliers around your neighborhood. If you do decide to go the flier route, be sure to check with your local town hall or police department to see what restrictions there are on posting notices; putting signs where they shouldn't be means at best that they'll be torn down, and at worst that you could face a fine.

  • Be prepared. A day or two before your sale, be sure to do three things: get change (singles and quarters are especially important), put prices on your items (to avoid endless "How much is this?" questions from your customers), and decide whether or not you'll be willing to bargain. My haggling skills got a great workout today during my interactions with some particularly bargain-minded shoppers; if you're not willing to bargain, say so up front to save yourself and your buyers some aggravation.

  • Have fun! Your garage sale will be hard work, but to make it truly worth the effort, it should also be fun. Put on some music, chat with your customers, and make time at the end of the day for counting your earnings and unwinding with whoever helped out at the sale.

  • Say a last goodbye. Finally, make time either at the end of the sale or the following day to deal with anything that didn't sell. I tend to sock away a few choice items that are in good condition and seem likely to sell at my next sale; everything else gets either boxed up for Goodwill or put in the "Free! Take Me!" box on the curb. Remember, one of the main points of your sale is to get this stuff out of your house, so be very, very judicious about what you let back in.

Ready to get started? Pick one of the beautiful upcoming fall weekends and use the tips above to plan your own successful garage sale. Your newly decluttered house--and your fuller bank account--will thank you.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Resources for National Preparedness Month

Tip of the Week, September 9, 2007

September is National Preparedness Month, a time to gather supplies and create a plan so you, your family, and your co-workers would be ready in the event of an emergency or a natural disaster. Though it can be unpleasant to even consider the possibility of such events, it’s well worth making a small investment of time to prepare for them; doing so can make it significantly easier to handle an emergency, and can lessen the impact one would have on you, your family, and your place of business.

Here are links to some websites providing detailed, straightforward information on how to be ready in case of an emergency.

Ready America:
Developed and maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is an excellent clearinghouse of information on how to prepare for an emergency. The site features downloadable and printable brochures, forms, and checklists, as well as easy-to-follow, step-by-step information on getting an emergency supplies kit, making a plan for what to do in case of an emergency, and learning more about the types of disasters that could affect different parts of the country. In addition, has information on emergency preparedness specifically for older adults and people with disabilities, as well as a separate site with emergency preparedness info aimed at kids and a site in Spanish.

Citizen Corps:
Citizen Corps was created in the wake of the September 11 attacks to coordinate volunteer activities aimed at safety and emergency preparedness within local communities. The Corps encompasses programs such as CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), the Fire Corps, and the Medical Reserve Corps. The Citizen Corps website includes information about and links to partner programs, tips on emergency preparedness measures you can take right away, and local and national event listings.

San Francisco Emergency Preparedness:
Though some of the information on this site (such as guidelines on what to do during an earthquake) is specific to San Francisco and its surrounding communities, much of it is applicable no matter where you live or what emergencies you might face. The site provides information on creating an emergency plan, building kits (including first aid, food and water, and pet care kits), and getting involved in emergency preparedness activities locally. (While this info applies primarily to San Francisco, there are links to programs in other Bay Area communities.) The site is comprehensive, easy to navigate, and entirely printable with one click, should you want to have the info available offline.

Unclutterer’s series on storing valuable information:
Finally, the blog has some excellent posts on how best to store valuable information, whether on-site or off. In the first post of the series, the author answers a reader’s question about what to store in a fireproof box in his home, and she also offers suggestions about what not to store in such a box and why. In the second post, she provides guidelines on what to look for in a fireproof box or safe, as well as information on how to safely store digital media such as photos and electronic files. Both posts are detailed without being overly technical, and together they provide a comprehensive overview of how to keep important documents and other information safe in case of an emergency.

Take some time this month to visit these sites and to create kits and plans that will help keep you safe should disaster strike. The effort you put into being prepared could pay off many times over should you ever find yourself faced with an emergency.

Monday, September 10, 2007

How to Finish Tasks and Projects Once and for All

Tip of the Week, September 2, 2007

Take a look around your home or office. How many partially completed projects can you count? If you’re like most of us, there are at least a handful of tasks that you’ve started but haven’t finished, from doing the laundry to creating a scrapbook to writing, distributing, and following up on a report at work. Unfinished projects tend to hang over our heads, requiring more thought and causing more stress than they’re actually worth.

The good news is that it’s entirely possible to get those tasks completed once and for all. Here are a few techniques to help you cross things off your To Do list and move on to other tasks.

Recognize that many projects require more than one step
To be sure, there are some tasks that can generally be done in one burst of effort, such as taking out the trash or calling a friend whose number you already know. Many others, though, actually require multiple steps. For example, doing laundry involves gathering the things to be washed, pre-treating stains, emptying pockets, and washing, drying, ironing, folding, and putting away your clothes. Often, the process stalls somewhere along the way, and the longer it’s at a standstill, the harder it becomes to start it again.

It’s not always feasible to combine steps—washing and drying will always be two distinct tasks—but there are ways to make multi-step projects more efficient. If possible, schedule them for a time when you’ll be able to do all of the steps in sequence so your attention isn’t diverted from the overall project for long stretches. Another option is to delegate some of the steps to others. In the case of laundry, for example, you might assign different steps to different family members so that more than one person is invested in seeing the task through to completion. Even when others are involved, though, it’s best to try to finish a project during a short stretch of time.

Train yourself to see and plan for these multiple steps
Before you add a project to your To Do list, take the time to think about what’s actually involved in getting it done. What’s involved in shopping for groceries? Writing a list of what you need, gathering coupons (if you use them), choosing where you’ll shop, doing the actual shopping, bringing things home, and putting them away. The same holds for other tasks that might, on the surface, seem fairly straightforward, such as cooking meals, paying bills, and planning a night out; more complex projects (including many work-related tasks) generally have even more steps involved.

Train yourself to start taking these steps into consideration when you put a task on your To Do list and plan when you’ll do it. If a task involves multiple complex, time-consuming steps, list those steps, not the overall task, or it will be weeks (if not months) before you can cross it off your list.

Make sure you have what you need before you get started
How many projects have you started but been unable to finish because you didn’t have the supplies or information you needed? The number for me is higher than I care to admit. Starting on something you’ll be logistically unable to complete increases the amount of time and effort a task will require, and also increases the chances that that project will remain uncompleted. It’s worthwhile, then, to invest the time upfront in making sure you have what you need. This includes not only supplies, but also information (data from a co-worker, phone numbers, ideas on hotels for your upcoming vacation, and so on). A bit of prep time before you begin will save you from having to stop and start again down the line.

Decide how to track progress on long-term projects
Of course, there will always be projects that can’t be done in one fell swoop, such as work reports, home repairs and renovations, and event planning. These projects require bits and pieces of effort over longer periods of time. As such, it’s key to have a way of tracking what you’ve done, what’s ahead, and what you need to see the project through. What you use to track this information depends on the type and complexity of the project, your working style, and whether there are other requirements you need to take into consideration. Many work projects, for example, come with certain requirements for the frequency and format of progress reports, while projects you undertake on your own probably won’t have these same guidelines. In the latter case, even a basic way of keeping various pieces of information about the project in one place can save you time and headaches. Whether you choose to track your project with a computer program, in a simple file folder, in a 3-ring binder, or with some other tool is up to you.

Increase your chances of seeing projects through to completion (and getting them off your To Do list for good) by putting these steps to work. You’ll find that a bit of effort up front will mean less effort and less stress overall.

My Top 5 Organizing Tips: #5

Tip of the Week, August 26, 2007

For the past month, I’ve shared with you some of my favorite organizing tips, with ideas on putting each one into action. This week, I’ll finish off the series with one final gem.

Focus more on the why of organizing than the how
Often when I meet with a client for an assessment, one of the first things he’ll ask is what needs to be done to get the organizing process underway. It’s an understandable question: because we’re working to create order and calm, it makes sense that the client wants a logical sequence of events to get from Point A—disorganization—to Point B. Ultimately, I create an organizing project plan for each client, but before I do, I ask him to take the time to explain why he wants to get organized in the first place. I find (and clients often do, too) that this information is crucial to creating systems and habits that will stick over the long term, rather than coming up with quick fixes.

Though it’s important to have a plan before you start the organizing process, it’s equally important to focus on why you want to get organized. Once you’re clear on that, the steps that follow will be easier, more meaningful, and more effective.

Putting this tip into action
This week, spend some time thinking about how disorganization is impacting your life and why getting organized is important to you.

  • Remember to define organization for yourself. In a conversation with some new professional organizers last week, my friend and colleague Josh made an excellent point: there’s often a difference between being tidy and being organized. Often, people will think they need to get organized (or others will think this for them) because there are occasional piles around their home or office or because their space doesn’t always look neat, even if they have easy access to the things they need and don’t find themselves overwhelmed by clutter. Being organized doesn’t necessarily mean that your space must look minimalist and tidy, so propelling yourself through the organizing process simply to gain a neater (but not more functional) home or office will do little more than frustrate you.

  • Don’t get organized solely for someone else’s benefit. Trying to get organized only because someone else thinks you should or has asked you to—or because you believe you should for that person’s benefit—is a losing proposition. It’s entirely reasonable to keep others in mind as you go through the organizing process; indeed, many of my clients have expressed to me the hope that by getting organized, they’ll show more respect to a boss, spouse, or partner, or will provide a more nurturing and stable environment for a child. That said, the decision to get organized should really come from you, not from someone else, if the process is to be effective over time. Other people can be a great source of motivation and support, but be sure you’re the one in control.

  • Write down and reconnect with your organizing goals. As with other habit changes, it’s often easier to get and stay organized if you’ve set specific goals. Take some time to think about what your general organizing goals might be: perhaps you’d like to be able to invite guests into your home without embarrassment. Maybe you’d like to use your time at work more efficiently, working toward a promotion (and pay raise) in the process. Perhaps you want to lose the feeling of overwhelm you get each time you open a particular closet or enter a certain room. Write down these broad goals, and then add specifics to them—keeping the living room free from clutter, for example, or creating a filing system at work that prevents you from wasting time looking for the papers you need. Keep this list of goals handy, and refer back to it throughout the organizing process.

  • Build your hows off your whys. Finally, as you create a plan of attack for getting and staying organized, use the reasons why you want to be more organized (that is, the goals you set above) to help determine how you’ll get more organized. For example, if your goal is to decrease the amount of clutter in your home—but not necessarily to eliminate piles and stacks altogether—you’ll want to focus on deciding what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, but won’t have to worry about finding out-of-sight storage for everything you choose to keep. If, on the other hand, you want to create and maintain a living room that’s always ready for guests, your organizing process will include both decluttering and coming up with storage solutions. In the end, your organizing project plan should cover only those tasks you need to do to achieve your goals.
How you go about getting (and staying) organized is important, but even more key is why you want to get organized in the first place. Create organizing goals that are meaningful and inspirational and you’ll be far more likely to stick with the organizing process long-term.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

My Top 5 Organizing Tips: #4

Tip of the Week, August 19, 2007

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about a few of my favorite organizing theories and how you can put them into practice. This week, I want to share a guideline that’s as applicable to organizing as it is to many other positive changes we make in our lives.

Organizing is an ongoing habit, not a one-time event
I’ve seen a number of people compare organization to weight loss, and there are indeed similarities between the two: both can have benefits far beyond what you see on the surface, both require support from others, and both involve a fair amount of discipline. But the most telling similarity, I think, is that, like weight loss, organization isn’t something that happens once and then remains forever; staying organized requires developing new systems, habits, and attitudes.

It’s because of this that so many people find it more difficult to stay organized than to create a more orderly life or space in the first place. But when you prepare yourself for success by building in the habits that support and maintain organization, you’ll find that it doesn’t take a giant effort to keep up the work you’ve already done.

Putting this tip into action
This week, make sure your organizing goals are realistic, achievable, productive, and bound to stick over the long term.

  • Take time to plan before you jump in. If you try to start a healthy new eating plan while your kitchen is still full of chips, cookies, soda, and ice cream, chances are you’ll find it much more difficult to eat the foods that will nourish you without unnecessary calories. On the other hand, if you take the time to clear the junk from your kitchen, plan healthy meals, and shop for the right foods, you’ll be much more likely to set yourself up for success. The same is true of getting organized: rather than pulling everything out of your closet (or your desk, or your garage) and trying to weed through it and bring perfect order to the space, step back and do some planning. What is it about the space that doesn’t work or feels frustrating? How would you like the space to be? What steps can you take to get the space from what it’s like now to what you’d like it to be?

  • Think small and manageable. Once you have a plan, break the tasks within it down into reasonable chunks. For example, instead of trying to weed all of your clothes in one afternoon, choose one type (shirts, pants, etc.) to start with. You’ll be much less likely to burn out, and more likely to maintain the progress you make.

  • Build habits into the organization you do. Organizing involves not just sorting and weeding, moving things around, and finding the right containers and storage; a significant part of the process is establishing new habits to make sure you don’t undo the progress you’ve made. Back to our closet example for a moment: in addition to weeding the clothes you don’t need or want, put everything back in the closet in an order that makes sense to you, and brought in some containers to help corral things that otherwise wouldn’t have homes, it’s crucial to develop some maintenance habits. For example, you’ll want to be sure you put things back where they belong when you’re done with them; you’ll also want to avoid buying clothes you don’t truly need, especially if you don’t have room for them. These habits will allow you to keep up the progress you’ve made.

  • Don’t give up entirely if you fall off the wagon. Finally, don’t ask yourself to be organizationally perfect every single day. Just as an eating and exercise plan designed for realistic long-term weight loss allows for occasional slip-ups (like an extra slice of cake at a party, or a few days without exercise while you’re on vacation), so must any realistic organizing plan involve a certain degree of slack. Perhaps you don’t open your mail for several days running, and find yourself with a hefty stack on the kitchen table by the end of the week. Or maybe you’re too tired at the end of the day to want to hang up and re-fold the clothes you take off before bed. Don’t give up and assume you’ll never be able to stay organized; rather, allow yourself some flexibility. Earmark 30 minutes on the weekend to deal with the mail. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll put away your clothes in the morning, when your energy level will be higher. Build organization into your life rather than trying to build your life around organization.
The initial thrill of seeing order emerge from disorder is a great feeling, but remember that organization isn’t just a one-time event. By establishing some solid, realistic organizational habits, you’ll increase the chances of successfully maintaining the progress you make.