Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bridging the Organizing Divide

Tip of the Week, January 18, 2009

It's no secret that disorganization can make a home or office less comfortable and more stressful. This is especially true when there's a divide between how one person in the space--say, half of a partnership at home, or someone on a work team in the office--feels differently about organization than someone else who's also using the space does. What might feel painfully cluttered and out of control to one person might feel normal and comfortable to someone else. Bridging that divide is a critical step in maintaining harmony both within your relationships and within your spaces. Here's how to make peace with the differently organized people in your life.

Give up on Right and Wrong
For those who are very organized and who feel that they reap the rewards of that organization day in and day out--more efficiency, no time wasted looking for things, and so on--it can be tempting to think that less organized folks just need to see the light. On the flip side, people who are comfortable with spaces and systems that on the surface might not seem to be quite as organized may wish that the more orderly folks in their lives would lighten up a bit.

Both sides will find tough going--and possibly some serious resistance--if they try to sway others to their view. Sure, those who are somewhat disorganized may be willing and able to learn a few new organizing skills, and those who have organization running through their veins may be OK with making peace with a bit of disorder, but it's not accurate to call one side "right" and the other "wrong," and it's productive to expect either side to change completely. Acknowledge that organizing styles are informed by our histories, our personalities, the logistics of our lives, and dozens of other factors, and do what you can to accept the others in your life as they are organizationally.

Allot Each Person Space
When I work with couples or co-workers who have very different organizing styles, one of the first things I do is help them identify spaces in their homes or offices where each person can let his or her own organizing style run rampant. Ideally, these spaces are separate rooms, or at least clearly delineated spots, with doors that can be closed or dividers that can be put up--a home office, a den, a basement workspace, a cubicle. Each person gets to do whatever he or she wants within his or her space, whether that means spreading things out on each surface and letting stacks pile up or putting everything away in a labeled drawer and maintaining a Zen aesthetic. These spaces are criticism-free zones: if you don't like the way your partner or co-worker uses the space, retreat to your own space.

Meet in the Middle on Common Areas
In most cases, organizationally different couples or co-workers will need to share at least a few common spaces. These spaces require a good deal of compromise: the more strictly organized person in the equation may need to develop a sense of comfort with having the occasional jacket tossed over the back of a chair or mail and keys stacked on a hallway table, while the more loosely organized person may need to make a bit of extra effort to become aware of that jacket and stack of mail and take the time to put them where they belong.

I'm also a big fan of extending the "allot each person space" technique to common areas, by way of storage furniture like bookcases, cabinets, and drawer units. In a common area, you might have a cabinet in which each person gets to do as he or she pleases, whether that means storing things in a very particular order or simply opening a door and dropping stuff inside. Again, your challenge here is to focus on maintaining your own space/furniture just as you'd like it and to allow your partner or co-worker the same opportunity.

Dealing with Severe Cases
Though the techniques above can bring harmony to many relationships in which there are differing ideas about organization, there are some cases that likely require professional help. If you live or work with a hoarder or severe clutterer--someone who accumulates vast quantities of things that have little to no use (hundreds of margarine tubs, scraps of wrapping paper, hundreds of old newspapers, and so on) and who has severe difficulty letting go of anything--it will likely be impossible to allot that person his or her own space and maintain a neutral middle ground in common areas. Hoarders require specialized mental health care, and until that care is in place, you, as the person's partner or colleague, will likely feel hopeless against the situation. For more information on hoarding and finding help, visit the website of the NSGCD (National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization).

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If you live or work with someone whose organizing style is very different from yours, try putting these techniques into practice. Over time, they can help eliminate stress from your relationship, bring more harmony to your space, and bring a greater sense of calm and balance to your everyday life.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Get a Jump on This Year's Tax Prep

Tip of the Week, January 11, 2008

I'm willing to bet that getting started on your 2008 taxes is not the #1 item the list of things you'd like to do in mid-January. But I'm even more willing to bet that it'll be an even less appealing option in early April, when the days are longer and the weather more spring-like, beckoning you outside to do something--anything!--that's not related to sorting papers.

Yes, it's probably too early to actually file your taxes, as you'll need to wait a while for your tax forms to reach you and for late-2008 transactions to clear so you can take account of them. But it's a great time to get last year's financial files in order and to get a handle on things like expenses and donations so that, by the time April rolls around, you're not scrambling to get things done. Here are a few relatively simple tasks to tackle throughout the rest of the month.

Gather Financial Statements from 2008
Depending on how you do and file your taxes (on your own, with a CPA, online, on paper), you'll have different needs for the amount of supporting documentation required to get your returns ready and sent off to the taxing authorities. But taking the time to gather any and all of the records you think you might need will make it easier to refer to them when it comes time to complete your return, or to archive or shred them if you don't need them.

If you have your account statements filed (or piled, or otherwise grouped) by year, simply pull out everything from 2008. If your records aren't yet organized, you may need to do some preliminary work (like opening envelopes and dividing 2008 from other years) before gathering stuff together.

Create an Overall 2008 File
Once you've mined your files for records from 2008, create a file for them. I like to use a closed-side, expandable file folder or an accordion file to corral this stuff; these folders can handle hefty chunks of paper and help ensure that small things like receipts don't get lost. As you gather additional papers over the coming weeks, and as tax-related forms start to arrive in the mail, simply add them to your file so everything you need will be in one spot.

Tackle Receipts
First things first: the old shoebox full of receipts, it must be said, is much better than no receipts at all, and also better than multiple plastic grocery bags full of crumpled, half-legible receipts (which I've helped several clients go through). But still, unless those receipts are already accounted for somewhere else--on a spreadsheet, say, or in an account program--chances are you (or someone you pay or cajole) will need to go through and organize them before they'll be of much use to you.

Are your receipts in bags, boxes, pockets, drawers, glove compartments, and elsewhere? Use the next few weeks to start to extricate them and, if nothing else, get them into envelopes or a box. If you're starting with the shoebox, grab a handful of receipts at a time and sort them into envelopes labeled by month or with the expense categories you use on your taxes (Education, Medical, House Expenses, etc.).

Truly, truly hate dealing with receipts? You're not alone. Find someone who's willing to tackle them for you, either for pay or for trade. Several CPAs I know tell me that they won't actually sort through boxes of receipts for their clients, especially as tax season draws closer, as it's just not an efficient use of their time. Even if your CPA offers this service, chances are you'll pay a good chunk for it. Save yourself some cash and your tax preparer some agony by finding a way to get your receipts sorted before you hand them over.

Start planning now for what you'll do with the extra time you'll have in April, when others around you will be scrambling to get tax work done. An hour or two of tax prep this month can save you several more--not to mention great piles of stress--a few months down the line.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Finding Motivation in Unusual Holidays

Tip of the Week, January 4, 2009

Happy Get Organized Month! Perhaps you already knew that January--the start of a fresh new year, and a time when many of us have set goals to improve our lives--is also officially GO Month (for us in the world of organizing, at least). But did you know that it's also Be on Purpose Month, Clean out Your Closets Month, and National Hobby Month?

There are literally hundreds of odd and unusual holidays throughout the year. Some of them--National Love Your Pet Day, Make Your Bed Day, and Date Your Mate Month, for example--celebrate stuff I hope happens every day; others, such as Lumpy Rug Day, Fool's Paradise Day, and National Blueberry Popsicle Month (huh?), seem like holidays we could perhaps do without. But sprinkled throughout the next twelve months are a good handful of holidays that can be great motivators to tackle organizing and other life-improvement projects.

Over the next year, I'll be highlighting a few of these each month. Here's what's on tap for January, and how to make the most of each holidays.

Get Organized Month
Each year, "get organized" is among the five most popular new year's resolutions. In honor of this, NAPO has declared January Get Organized Month. While I, of course, believe in organizing year-round, I know that GO Month is a great time to get a jump-start on your organizing goals for the month. Organizers throughout the country are offering special events--workshops, panels, classes, even "Coffee with a Professional Organizer"--all month long; visit the NAPO website to find an event near you.

Clean off Your Desk Day (January 12)
True confession time: my #1 organizing challenge is keeping my desk clear. I constantly have piles of something or other stacked (neatly, but still) on my desk, and man, are they annoying. And distracting. (Hey, don't I need to do something with that article I just ripped out of a magazine? Did I copy the phone number from that business card into my contacts list? Gotta remember to send that thank-you card.) If this stuff is still here come the 12th--which it's likely to be, alas--I'm committed to tackling it and doing something with it once and for all, and then setting myself a goal to keep my desk clear of stuff I'm not currently and actively using.

Be on Purpose Month
Though I'm not sure what this designation officially means, my take on it has (of course) an organizational bent. In our everyday lives, we tend to accumulate--and hold onto--stuff that we're only vaguely aware we have, or that we don't think much about. This month, challenge yourself to keep stuff only on purpose, because you need it, use it, love it, or find it beautiful. Take the time to reconnect with a different batch of stuff each week--books one week, say, and kitchen gadgets the next; examine each thing and make a conscious, purposeful decision to either keep it in your life or to let it go. This simple practice can help you clear out things that aren't serving you or that no longer fit your life.

Ditch New Year's Resolutions Day (January 17)
Finally, a bit of levity. By mid-month, you'll probably start to have a sense of whether the resolutions you set for yourself at the turn of the year are realistic, important to you, and worth pursuing or whether they're better left by the wayside. The 17th is your chance to bid adieu to those that don't seem quite so appealing anymore, and to retool those that are too easy, much too hard, too broad, or otherwise uninspiring. Remember, whether in mid-January or some other time during the year, it's never too late to change course toward the life you really want to live.

(Want to check out organizing-related and other unofficial holidays throughout the year? Visit Online Organizing's Annual Calendar of Organizing Holidays and Events and Holiday Insights' list of Bizarre and Unique Holidays, where you can find out how to create your own holiday.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Smarter Way to Make Resolutions

Tip of the Week, December 21 and 28, 2008

There's an interesting change that happens in magazines come January. Those titles whose December issues were bursting at the seams with ads and articles about the holidays slim down markedly the following month, with more austere covers and, invariably, at least a few articles on achieving your New Year's resolutions.

As go the magazines, so go our lives: after the stuffed busy-ness of the weeks from Thanksgiving through December, January finds many of us slowing down, paring back, and thinking about the year ahead. It often feels like a chance to catch your breath after running a long (if joyous race).

Though we're still right in the thick of the holidays, when it can be hard to find a moment to sit still--let alone think deeply about anything--I encourage you to set aside some time over the next few weeks to consider the year that's ending and the one that's ahead. What went well in 2008? What do you wish had gone differently? What would you like to do in the coming year that you didn't do this year?

Your answers to these questions can help determine what goals to set for yourself in 2009. (Call them resolutions if you'd like, provided that word isn't bogged down with negative connotations from past years.) These goals will be easier to commit to, and easier to achieve, if they truly spring from something that's important to you, rather than simply being things you think you should do.

My Goals
I've already done a bit of thinking about the new year (yes, during times when I probably should've been tackling other tasks--but those magazines were oh-so-inspiring!), and the two goals that rise to the top for me are exercising more consistently and making some small but critical changes to my business.

The exercise goal is fed by the fact that while I'm in the habit of doing at least something physical most days of the week, sometimes whatever I'm doing isn't enough to give me the shot of energy and feeling good that is what convinces me to exercise in the first place. If I'm going to move my limbs, I may as well get that positive jolt, no? So I'm joining a gym, which will expand the options of the workouts I can do and will prevent me from having to forego exercising if it's dark, raining, or cold out.

And I'm inspired to make some changes to how I do business by the frantic pace of much of this year. I love what I do, am energized by the work, and am often inspired by my clients, but I'm not of much use to anyone if I'm burned out by working fourteen days back-to-back with no break. So I've hired a business coach to help me make a smart and ambitious but achievable plan for where to take my business in 2009 and beyond.

Take some time over the next few weeks to look back over your own year and then into the year ahead, setting goals that will help make 2009 an even greater year than 2008.