Sunday, April 26, 2009

Spring Weeding and Swapping

Tip of the Week, April 19, 2009

When I was growing up, my Mom's spring cleaning routines (which my brother and I grudgingly participated in) included tasks like vacuuming behind radiators and dusting the parts of shelves and other flat surfaces that were normally occupied by things. My own spring cleaning is nowhere near that involved, but it does involve a big push to weed out stuff I no longer want and need. Though I try to do a bit of weeding on a regular basis, I find I'm much more inspired to really tackle it when the weather warms up and the days grow longer.

Fifty Things
Those of you who've been Tip of the Week readers for a while know that one of my favorite decluttering practices is inspired by coach Gail Blanke, who wrote an article in Real Simple a few years back that recommended getting rid of 50 things over the span of a few weeks. (New to the 50 Things Challenge? Stay tuned: I'll be running it again early this summer.)

So I was excited to discover that Blanke has expanded her article into a book. Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life covers not only how to go about jettisoning unwanted physical clutter (both at work and at home), but also how to clear out the emotions and thoughts that keep you disorganized and prevent you from living the way you want to. The book is well worth checking out, especially if you're considering taking part in this year's 50 Things Challenge and want a jump start. (Yes, you can start tracking your discards now.)

Throwing Out, Giving Away
Of course, Blanke makes sure to emphasize that the only stuff you actually throw out (or recycle) during this process are things that are broken beyond repair, truly without value, or clearly trash. It's well worth finding good homes for your cast-offs that are still in good condition. Charities--both those, like Goodwill, which re-sell donations to fund their programs and those that use donated items directly with the clients they serve--have seen giving fall off significantly this year, so most will be happier than ever to be the recipients of your stuff. (See my Links and Resources page for some ideas on where to give.)

Another excellent option is to swap your things with friends and neighbors. This is a great way of making sure the stuff you're parting with gets to continue its useful life with someone else, and it's also the perfect reason to have a party.

The May issue of Real Simple features an article on throwing a swap party. Here are a few of their tips for a successful event:
  • Invite friends with similar tastes. They suggest 8 guests as a reasonable group, though hosting anywhere from 3-20 people can also work (space permitting, of course).
  • Set some guidelines about what can be swapped. Laying down some rules about not only the types of stuff folks are welcome to bring (clothes only? housewares only? just books? anything goes), but also what condition they should be in. Generally speaking: if you wouldn't willingly (and happily) take it from someone else, don't try to make someone else take it from you.
  • Clear out space. To give everyone room to display their wares, clean off tabletops, shelves, and other flat surfaces. If you're swapping clothes, consider bringing in a rack to hang things on.
  • Avoid free-for-alls. Rather than simply letting folks have at it (which can mean major scores for a few and big nothings for others), create a fair system. Perhaps people can "shop" for one item at a time, or can choose as many items to take as the number of items they've brought.
  • Have a plan for leftovers. To prevent stuff that doesn't get swapped from winding up as clutter in your house, decide beforehand what's going to happen with it. Perhaps partygoers get to vote on the charity it's donated to, or maybe that decision is up to the host. Just be sure extra things don't have time to take root as clutter.

Get Going!
Inspired? Pick up Throw Out Fifty Things (or borrow it from your library) and then plan your own swap party. I'll be planning my own such party and will do a follow-up Tip later in the spring; if you host a swap fest and would like to be included in my Tip, e-mail me photos and/or a brief write-up of your event.

Here's to a clean, clear, uncluttered spring!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Facing Hard Truths about Organization: Part 2

Tip of the Week, April 12, 2009

Open the cabinet in my office credenza and you'll find my (not-so-) hidden stash of cool and unusual office supplies. The drawer next to the cabinet holds still more paper products, and the supply cart near my desk offers up still more. I am, I admit, a total sucker for a beautifully made folio, an out-of-the-ordinary pad of sticky notes, or a particularly well designed 3-ring binder. (Yes, you're welcome to snicker. It takes a, um, special person to get so jazzed about paper and things that hold it.)

I love this stuff not only because it stands out from the crowd of the more prosaic office supplies I see every day, but also because it's full of promise: the promise of more organized files, the promise of a more efficient day, the promise that, somehow, storing papers related to a project I'm working on in a binder that's a fun shade of green will magically make the project move along more quickly.

Alas, it will come as no surprise to you that this is not quite how things work.

Bags of Containers
I'm not the only one who falls hard for organizing products and gadgets, of course. I've stopped counting the times a new client will tell me that he or she got motivated, went to Target or the Container Store, and returned with bags full of boxes and bins, fully intending to put these containers directly to use in hopes of becoming more organized. I've also stopped counting how many times these heaps of boxes have returned whence they came, though perhaps not until a few months down the line, when the client (or his or her partner) got tired of looking at the unpacked Container Store bag lurking in the front hall closet or the corner of the bedroom.

The Hard Truth: Organizing Gadgets Don't Equal Getting Organized
Just as a beautiful set of pots and pans won't make anyone a better cook unless she also sharpens her kitchen skills and a new workout outfit won't bump someone into better shape unless he actually works out, organizing products alone are not enough to get anyone organized. In fact, sometimes they actually hinder the organizing process by adding more clutter or by giving the illusion that if something is in a box, it's organized. (Not so, not so--at least, not in all cases.)

We can't buy ourselves organized any more than we can buy ourselves fit or buy ourselves the ability to speak another language. Organizing supplies and gadgets, be they containers, office tools, or furniture such as shelves, are often important parts of an organizing system, but they're never systems in and of themselves. Simply moving a bunch of unsorted, quite possibly unwanted stuff from a tabletop to a box won't make it organized; taking the time to sort through the stuff, ditch what you don't need, and then store it in a container that's the right size and shape for it is a much better bet.

By the same token, my having a stash of beautiful file folders doesn't automatically mean I have an effective filing system. I first have to decide which papers belong in that system, which categories they belong in, and what to call those categories. Having sturdy folders and clean labels makes me more enthusiastic about using my filing system, but in the end, they're the icing on the cake.

The Lesson
When you're faced with your next organizing project, wait until it's well underway (or, at the very least, until you've sorted and weeded) to go out and buy organizing supplies. When you have a clearer idea of what you need to store, how you need to store it (e.g., can it be loose on a shelf or should it go in a box?), and where in your home or office it will ultimately live, you'll be in a much better position to purchase containers and gadgets that will actually work for you, rather than ones that may turn out to be too small (or large, or square, or round) to hold what you need them to or that you simply don't need.

While choosing and using organizing gadgets can be among the most fun parts of any project (witness my treasure trove of office supplies), remember that supplies alone won't get you organized. Resist the siren song of the Container Store or your local office supply shop until you've got the basics of your organizing system in place; you'll save time, hassle, money, and clutter.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Facing Hard Truths about Organization: Part 1

Tip of the Week, April 5, 2009

A few years back, I did an organizing needs assessment for a woman who felt overwhelmed by the amount of stuff in the apartment she shared with her husband and their daughter. (I've changed a few details about this client to protect her privacy.) Her husband collected model trains, and the apartment was full of them, including one entire room dedicated solely to trains, accessories, tracks, packaging, and so on.

The couple's daughter had bin after bin and shelf after shelf of toys. Her playthings had taken over not only her bedroom, but also the living room, which was also cluttered with videos and DVDs about trains and, not surprisingly, more model train parts.

In the bedroom the client and her husband shared was her workspace: a very simple, very small desk pushed against the wall and covered with papers, sewing projects, wrapping paper, and what she described as general clutter. The supplies for her projects and hobbies (including sewing, participating in the PTA at her daughter's school, and generally keeping the household running--while also working a full-time job) were either crammed in boxes under the bed or piled in a corner on the other side of the room.

After we finished our tour of each room in the apartment and talked a bit more about the client's goals for her organizing project (among them: a much less cluttered home, designated space for her to work on projects, and better overall use of the space), I wrote up an organizing project plan for the client, then sat down with her to review it.

A Hard-to-Swallow Recommendation
As with many of the organizing project plans I create for clients, this one had some recommendations about what to weed, how to decide what was truly worth keeping, how to break the project down into chunks so it wasn't overwhelming, and so on. These the client seemed to take in stride.

But then we got to a recommendation that seemed to trip her up: I suggested that she claim the landing at the top of the apartment's stairs--a space that was roughly 8 feet by 10 feet--as her workspace, a designated spot in which she could not only keep her desk and store her files and supplies, but also work in relative peace, away from the room where she slept, dressed, and relaxed.

Claiming this space as her own would mean asking her husband and her daughter to remove the trains, toys, and other stuff they were currently storing there, and to store these things in the spaces they got to claim as their own (the husband's office and the daughter's bedroom). This, as it turned out, was a request she was unwilling to make. She told me she didn't feel right asking to use this spot, and said she knew her husband and daughter needed the space. I gently pointed out to her the parts of the organizing project plan that detailed setting up more efficient storage for the trains and toys throughout the house and reminded her of how frustrating she'd told me her current workspace was, but she held firm.

The Hard Truth: Organizing Requires Taking Risks
Though this client was more than willing to weed out her own stuff and to make real effort to organize the areas of the house that were under her control, she wasn't willing to take the risk of asking for support--and a bit of sacrifice--from her husband and her daughter. I met both of these family members, and while neither seemed as motivated to tackle an organizing project as my client did, they certainly weren't hostile to the idea, and even asked me for a few organizing tips related to their spaces and stuff.

I don't know why my client wasn't willing to ask them to clear out their stuff from the landing so she could use it as a workspace, and, after my initial attempts, didn't continue to press her on the issue. What I do know, however, is that her reluctance to take even the small risk of requesting that this spot be cleared of the other family members' stuff made reaching her organizing goals much, much harder. In fact, when I spoke with her a few months later (she opted to use the project plan to tackle the organizing on her own), she reported that she had cleared out a few things but hadn't made much progress beyond that. The landing was still a general catch-all spot, and she still didn't have a functional workspace.

The Lesson
While organizing can often be simple--the basic steps involved in almost any organizing project, from clearing out a kitchen drawer to overhauling an office's filing system, are roughly the same--it's very rarely easy. Getting (and staying) organized can require making difficult decisions, doing boring tasks, tackling some tough emotions, and, of course, taking a few risks. If you're willing to face those sticky issues and are committed to working through them, you'll be far more likely to succeed and to achieve a level of organization that works for you and that lasts over time.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Setting SMART Organizing Goals

Tip of the Week, March 29, 2009

Getting organized is much easier when you've set a goal for what you want to achieve. Often, though, the goals we set are too large, too vague, too broad, or otherwise unhelpful. Learning to set smart--and SMART--goals will make it more likely that you'll succeed in your organizing projects, as well as in other tasks you undertake.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. To help you set your own SMART goal, we'll look this week at a sample goal and will explore how to make it SMART.

Here's our sample goal: "I want to make my living room uncluttered and inviting so I can have people over for a 4th of July party." Now let's get SMART.

Any goal, no matter what it relates to, is bound to be much more powerful if it's specific. As you set your goal, answer the question, "What, exactly, do I want to accomplish?"

For our sample goal, let's say the answer is this: "I will clear the clutter from the coffee table, side chairs, and the floor around the sofa so that guests have a place to sit and to put their plates and glasses." With that level of detail, you'll be better able not only to gauge your progress, but also to determine when you've achieved your goal.

Setting standards of measurement for your goal will also help you know when you've truly accomplished it. Another benefit of these standards is that they can serve as sub-goals or milestones to reach on the way to your full goal.

Measurements for our sample goal might look something like these:
  • There will be nothing on the coffee table other than a few books.
  • There will be nothing on the side chairs other than throw pillows.
  • The floor around the sofa will be totally clear.
  • We'll know that we haven't fully accomplished our goals if these standards aren't met.
One of the most common reasons goals can be so hard to reach is that they're not realistic. To be effective, your goal needs to be one that's realistic to achieve based on the amount of time, effort, energy, and resources you're able to commit to it. If, for example, your goal requires six hours of time each week and you know you can't give it more than four, chances are slim that you'll accomplish it. To determine whether a goal is achievable, ask yourself, "Is reaching this goal realistic right now? What resources do I need to reach this goal? Do I have those resources?"

For our sample goal, the answer might be, "Yes, it's realistic. The resources I need are two hours a week to sort through and weed out the stuff that's currently in the living room, space to store the things I want to keep, and a way to get rid of the stuff I'm letting go of. I have all of those resources."

A relevant goal is one that's significant to your life and meaningful to you. Relevance can be a great motivator as you work to achieve your goal; on the flip side, you'd be very unlikely to want to devote time, effort, and other resources to a goal that didn't have any bearing on your life or wasn't important to you. As you set a goal, ask yourself, "Why does this matter to me?"

For our sample goal, the answer to that question might be, "It matters because I haven't had people over for several years due to the shame I feel about my cluttered apartment, and I really want to change that." Knowing that something of real importance is driving us toward this change will help keep us on track.

Finally, it's important to set some sort of time frame for your goal; without this general schedule, there's a chance you'll put off working toward achieving whatever it is you're setting out to achieve. Depending on the nature of your goal, you might set a specific date, a general end time ("before the end of the year"), or a rough deadline based on another event or activity ("by the time Kate comes to visit in May").

Because our sample goal already has a deadline built in, we need only to add a bit more detail: "I want to achieve this by the third week in June so I can send party invitations in time for July 4." Now we're clear on when things need to be done, and can work backwards from our deadline to create a more detailed timeline.

Setting SMART goals, whether for organizing projects or in other areas of your life, can position you for much greater success, and for much more clarity as you work to accomplish your goals. The next time you create a goal, take the time to ask yourself the questions above to ensure that the end result is SMART.