Monday, September 28, 2009

The Hunger Challenge and a Kitchen Clean-out

Tip of the Week, September 20, 2009

This week, I'm participating in the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, a program designed to raise awareness of hunger issues. The challenge? Eat on $4 per person per day, or $28 per week--the average amount that food stamp recipients in California get.

As a lead-up to my participation in the Hunger Challenge, I decided to embark on a kitchen clean-out, clearing out stuff that was past its prime, that I no longer use, or that was taking up precious pantry space that could be used for stuff I'd actually want to eat. Here's how I went about that clean-out, and what I learned in the process.

Step 1: Take "Before" Photos
Before I weeded anything from my fridge, freezer, shelves, or cabinets, I snapped a "before" photo of each spot. Looking at these photos gave me a different perspective on what's in my kitchen than the perspective I get every time I open the fridge, say, or survey what's on my shelves. They're also good counterpoints to the "after" photos I took.

Step 2: Create Weeding Guidelines
Next, I did some pre-weeding planning, setting guidelines on what deserved to stay in my kitchen and what it was time to toss. I worked backward from my ultimate goal--to have a kitchen stocked with fresh, healthy food--and decided that anything that was expired or just plain old, anything that was a one-time-use ingredient I'd never turned to again, and anything that was overly processed or packaged would go.

Step 3: Clear It Out
With those guidelines in mind, I started weeding. This was, I admit, something of a challenge. First, it seemed odd to be planning for a hunger-awareness project by getting rid of food that was (at least hypothetically) still edible. But I realized that every item on my hit list could not respectfully be passed on to someone else (because it was in an open package, for example, or was well past its sell-by date) and was lingering around my kitchen not because I truly planned to eat it, but because I felt guilty about throwing it out. So I did what I always ask my clients to do: I acknowledged that guilt and then let the stuff--and the mucky emotions--go.

There were also a few items that had been hanging around because they represented "someday, I'll..." intentions: "Someday, I'll use that shortening to make another pie crust from scratch." "Someday, I'll identify that mystery spice blend and put it to use." Here, too, I challenged myself to practice what I preach, admitting that those "somedays" were unlikely to come--and if they did, I could easily get another stick of shortening or a replacement jar of spices. Out they went.

Step 4: Clean It Up
As I weeded each space, I took a few minutes to clean it up, wiping down surfaces, dusting off stuff that needed to be dusted (!), consolidating partial containers of things like flour into one, and generally tidying things up. Finally, with the spaces looking spiffy, I shot some "after" photos.

Lessons Learned
Challenging myself to make the sometimes-difficult decisions I ask my clients to make about what to keep and what to get rid of, and getting over the guilt about a bit of wasted food, were both tough. But once the unneeded and unwanted stuff was gone, I felt inspired to tackle some new recipes and to refocus on healthy eating. Now it feels like my kitchen better supports the way I cook and makes it easier to eat healthfully and inexpensively.

Inspired to undertake your own kitchen clean-out? There's no time like the present: September is Hunger Action Month, and is a great time to donate unopened, unexpired, non-perishable food items that might be cluttering your pantry to your local food bank or soup kitchen. Want to follow my adventures during this week's Hunger Challenge? Visit my blog to keep up with what I'm learning about trying to eat well on a budget and some of the realities of hunger.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Creating a Functional Workspace at Home

Tip of the Week, September 13, 2009

I was interviewed recently for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on setting up a workspace at home. (Read the article here.) This week, I want to expand on some of the tips in that article and offer a few extra suggestions for creating the most comfortable, functional, and efficient workspace you can.

Choose a Space
Before setting up your workspace, decide where it belongs. The ideal is a spot that's away from the most highly trafficked areas of your home--especially if you'll be using the space for work that's not related to running the household. This might a corner in a less-used room like a living room or guest bedroom or an otherwise unused nook (such as the space under a staircase or a spacious hall closet). If at all possible, avoid having your office space in your bedroom, as it's harder to turn away from work when it's staring you in the face as you try to relax. Bedroom the only available spot? Use room dividers to wall off your desk, or opt for an armoire so you can close up your workspace entirely.

Furnish the Space
Though you don't need to spend a fortune on home office furniture, if you'll be doing more than paying bills there, it's well worth investing in a few functional, comfortable pieces for the space. At the very least, you'll want a desk with enough surface space to allow you to do the work you need to do and enough drawer space to store essential supplies (see below). A comfortable chair and good lighting can go a long way toward making your home office much more pleasant to be in. And in almost all cases, a sturdy, well constructed filing cabinet--whether it's a petite 2-drawer pedestal or a hefty lateral cabinet--can help prevent paper pile-ups and MIA files.

Decide What Belongs
No matter what type of work you'll be doing at your desk, there are only certain things that need to be there in the course of an average week. Much of what often gets stored on, in, or around home office desks--such as extra office supplies, archived files, and reference books--could safely go elsewhere. When setting up (or revising) your home workspace, edit ruthlessly: anything you don't use regularly should be stored somewhere other than your desk.

Stock the Space
On the flip side, just as having too much stuff in your workspace will make it less efficient, so will not having the things you actually do need. If you're constantly having to get up and go elsewhere in the house for a working pen, a roll of tape, or printer paper, say, you're wasting time (and possibly breaking your concentration in the process). I recommend stocking each workspace in the home--yours, your spouse or partner's, and your kids'--with its own supplies so that what you need is available to you at all times.

Set Some Office Rules
Finally, whether you run your own company from home, occasionally telecommute, or use your workspace primarily to run your household, it's well worth establishing a few basic home office rules. Set some office hours for yourself so you don't find work creeping into evenings and weekends. Let the other people in your household know if there are times during the day when you can't be disturbed, just as you would by closing your door in an away-from-home office and turning off your phone. Finally, don't let your workspace become a gathering spot for things that aren't related to the tasks you do there, such as laundry, home repair projects, DVDs, and non-work books.

Your home workspace doesn't need to be elaborate or expensive. Put these tips to use to create a simple, comfortable, and efficient spot for getting things done.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Digital Diet

Tip of the Week, September 6, 2009

[Note from Emily: This week, I'm pleased to share with you a Tip from guest authors Victoria Katsarou and Sara Jew-Iim. They've got some great ideas on saving space and time by going digital with papers, photos, and other common sources of clutter. Enjoy!]

We all know the feeling: you buy a fancy drawer and shelving system, and two weeks later it's bursting with paper records, photos, cards, pads of paper, and old bills. Somehow no matter how much extra storage space you add, it always seems to fill up before you can run out to the Container Store for more.

If you live in a small space, accumulating clutter can turn into a real nightmare. It undoubtedly makes your home look smaller and messier and will take away from any "look" you're trying to create (forget about minimalism!). On the practical side, this stuff gets in your way, stresses you out, and leaves no space for the things you really want and need. And don't even think about moving: packing will take about three times longer than you thought and once you get to your new home you'll realize half of the stuff you brought over is practically useless...

Winning the Clutter Battle
So is there any way to turn back the tide? What if your house could look as tidy and stylish as when you first moved in, giving you extra space for things you've always wanted, like a craft table for the kids, or a plush chair to lounge in while you read? What would you do with an extra 10 square feet of space...and a pristine desktop?

Fortunately, a cornucopia of simple new web services--many of them free--has arrived to help you handle all of your records and papers digitally. Sweep it all up onto the web, and never worry about running out of space again.

You'll also discover all kinds of added benefits to going on a "digital diet." Just like a normal diet, switching to digital documents can make you faster and nimbler: search it all with a few keystrokes -- no need to dig through mountains of papers looking for those old notes. You'll also feel more flexible: if you ever need to move you'll have a lot less to worry about. Whether you're relocating next door or across the world, things like your photos, music, notes, planners, and recipes will come with you; all you need to bring is your password. Putting your stuff online means it's easy to share your calendar, budget, shopping list, and photos with your family (even the grandparents across the country) in a couple clicks.

Getting Started
Here are a few ideas for getting started on your "digital diet":

#1: Replace the kitchen calendar with an online calendar that is shared with your family
  • Square footage saved: 2 (on the wall or fridge)
  • Service and cost: Google Calendar (, free
  • Extra benefit: Seeing your entire family's shared schedules online makes it much easier to plan ahead. And text message reminders for appointments can be life-savers.
#2: Turn those shoe boxes full of old photos into digital pictures
  • Square footage saved: 3
  • Service and cost: ($50 for 1000 scans) or ($0.16 to $0.45 per photo)
  • Extra benefit: Easily share digital photos with friends and family via email or the web. Services like Picasa (cost: free) can even organize your photos by who is in them.
#3: Create an online recipe book with your favorite kid-tested recipes and toss the dozens of books and hundreds of magazine pages you've been saving over the years
  • Square footage saved: 1
  • Service and cost: Google Docs ( or (both free)
  • Extra benefit: You can easily share your recipes with your friends and family for feedback and ideas. Chances are your mom will have some good tips on how to make your signature dish even better!
#4: Keep your meeting notes, to do lists, family budget, and grocery list in online documents and spreadsheets
  • Square footage saved: 3
  • Service and cost: Google Docs, free
  • Extra benefit: Access documents from any computer or your mobile phone, and share them easily with spouse, family, and business associates
#5: Instead of letting your CDs gather dust, try online music services
  • Square footage saved: 2
  • Service and cost: upload your CD's to your computer (free), download songs for about $1 (iTunes,, or listen online for free with Pandora
  • Extra benefit: Enter a few songs or artists that you like, and Pandora will find more music to play, based on your tastes. It's the most fun way to discover new music.
#6: Set up online bill pay instead of filling your mailbox and kitchen table with paper bills
  • Square footage saved: 1
  • Service and cost: Available through most banks and service providers (phone company, utility company, etc.); free (they may even give you a few dollars back as you're saving them money)
  • Extra benefit: You get to save some trees! Many sites also let you set up automatic payments, so you'll never get charged late fees again
As with any diet, incorporating even one or two of these changes can have healthy benefits -- for your space, your sanity, and your schedule. Give a few of these tips a spin and enjoy less clutter, more time, and easier access to the things and information that really matter to you.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Creating Effective Storage Space

Tip of the Week, August 30, 2009

Recently, I've been working with a couple who are in the midst of a home remodel, and one of the things we've been focusing on is making their closets, cupboards, and other storage spaces more efficient. For as long as they've owned the house, these folks have lived with a laundry room with nowhere to store detergent and supplies, a pantry with a few rickety shelves, a master bedroom closet with the standard rod-and-one-shelf setup, and a hall closet with one single solitary shelf, to name but a few of their inefficient storage spaces.

Not surprisingly, it's been a challenge for this couple to stay organized. And they're definitely not alone: I've worked with many people who are challenged, to say the least, by ineffective storage in their homes and offices.

I'm a big believer in the power of simple shelves and closet systems to transform even the weirdest spaces into more useful storage spots. This week, I offer some tips on putting the closets, walls, and other spots in your home or office to better use.

Step 1: Weed, weed, weed
You knew this was coming first, right? The truth is that even the most elaborate closet system or set of shelves is powerless against an excess of stuff, so before anything else, take some time to weed out what you no longer want, use, or need from the area you want to tackle. As a bonus, clearing out clutter makes it much easier to determine just how much storage space you'll need, and to create a more effective plan.

Step 2: Decide what should be stored in this space
After you've weeded, do some thinking about what you'd like to store in the area in question. Are there things you've kept here before that should really be elsewhere in your home or office? On the flip side, is there stuff socked away somewhere else that should make its way here? Make a list of what you'll need storage space for in the area you're working in.

Step 3: Measure, and then measure again
Save yourself some future anguish by taking thorough measurements of the space you're working with. Take into account not only the basics--the height, depth, and width of the space--but also where the doors are (if applicable) and how they open, whether there are any obstructions to be aware of (such as molding or baseboard), and whether there are any odd architectural features in the space (like a sloping wall). You might even consider snapping a few photos to go along with your measurements, especially if someone else will be helping plan how to use the space.

Step 4: Choose a general storage system
Next up, decide whether you want a closet system, free-standing shelves, built-in shelves, or some combination of the above, based on what your space is like and what you'll need to store there. In my work with the couple I mentioned above, we've done a bit of everything: in the laundry room, there are free-standing shelves that make good use of an odd space under a window and next to an electrical box. In the pantry, we've used a basic wall-mounted shelving unit. In the home office closet, we went with a combination of free-standing shelves in the otherwise hard-to-reach corners and some wall-mounted shelves in the middle of the closet. The master bedroom closet features a closet system with lots of rod space and shelving, along with two free-standing drawer units in the corners.

Step 5: Plan and install your system
When you've decided what components you'd like your system to have, start planning. You might want to enlist help for this step, especially if you haven't tackled a task like this before. Some hardware stores have employees who can help with this, and there's always The Container Store, which has trained specialists (both in stores and on the phone) who are pros at configuring storage systems for all kinds of spaces. And, of course, a Professional Organizer can be a great help if you want someone on-site to help you make the most of the space.

You might also want to delegate at least part of the installation to a pro, particularly if you're working with tricky building materials (like old plaster or metal studs) or if your storage system has large or bulky components.

Step 6: Put things in place
Finally, it's time to store stuff! Use this opportunity to put stuff onto your new shelves or into your new closet system in a way that's organized and logical to you, rather than simply putting things wherever they fit. This can also be a good time to bring in other organizing gadgets (such as storage bins and boxes) as needed to keep the space feeling truly functional and efficient for you.

If you're thinking about tackling a storage space-planning project, now's a great time. Through October 18, all of the Container Store's shelving, including both free-standing units and Elfa systems, is 25% off. (See the entire range here.) In addition, check your local hardware store for deals; here in San Francisco, for example, Cole Hardware is featuring discounts on some of its shelving units.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Taking a Closer Look at Hoarding

Tip of the Week, August 23, 2009

I generally have mixed feelings about TV shows that deal with organization, as they tend to present a slightly (and sometimes radically) inaccurate picture of what it takes to get and stay organized. So I was a bit skeptical about "Hoarders", a new hour-long show on A&E about compulsive hoarders, who struggle much more with disorganization than others do. I'm happy to report, though, that based on the first episode of the show, it seems committed to presenting a realistic portrait of what's behind hoarders' behavior, and what it takes to overcome hoarding.

Inspired by the show, this week I want to share with you some facts about hoarding, dispel some myths, and offer some resources if you or someone you know is struggling with hoarding.

What Is Hoarding?
In my experience, there's quite a bit of confusion about what hoarding is (and isn't) and who qualifies as a hoarder. I've had potential clients describe themselves to me as hoarders because they had a handful of unpacked boxes from a move a few years back, for example, or because they had a few particularly crammed and disorganized closets.

The most important thing to know about hoarding is that it goes above and beyond disorganization. According to Dr. Randy Frost, a professor of Psychology at Smith College and a hoarding expert, "Compulsive hoarding is the acquisition of and failure to discard possessions that appear to be either useless or of limited value. This behavior is quite common, and only becomes a clinical disorder when the behavior or resulting clutter presents problems in living."

Hoarders aren't just packrats or folks who have a few too many things; they're people, often with some sort of mental health issues, who feel the need (or compulsion) to gather and hold onto things that have little to no value, from bottlecaps to old newspapers to empty toothpaste tubes to clothing. The thought of getting rid of their things, or of not bringing in more things, can be physically painful to hoarders.

How Is Hoarding Different from Disorganization?
Generally, when I work with a client, we go through a series of questions during the sorting and weeding phase of our project to determine what the client truly wants to hold onto and what she's ready to let go of. While some of these decisions can be very challenging, most clients are able to come to logical conclusions about why they do or don't opt to keep something. They might realize, for example, that the information in the stack of newspapers they've been keeping is out-of-date, and that they can go online if they want to research past articles. Or perhaps they'll decide that there's no good reason to hold onto the extra set of dishes they haven't used in several years (and never actually liked in the first place).

This logic chain isn't effective for hoarders, who are very adept at coming up with excuses (for themselves and others) for why they need to keep much of what they've collected and who can find it truly agonizing to even contemplate getting rid of any of their possessions, no matter how useless or valueless they might be.

Furthermore, for many hoarders, compulsive acquisition and keeping are long-term struggles with deep psychological roots, whereas more common "situational" disorganization often stems from a specific event or life change, such as moving, changing jobs, getting married or divorced, or having a child. Situational disorganization can often be conquered by clearing out what's not needed, putting new systems in place, and developing habits to support those systems. Hoarding requires more intensive treatment.

What's the Treatment for Hoarding?
Because of the mental health component of compulsive hoarding, it's critical that the treatment of hoarding involve some sort of mental health work, generally involving therapy and, depending on the severity of the psychological issues each hoarder faces, possibly also including medication. Many mental health professionals who work with hoarders collaborate with Professional Organizers, giving the client both psychological support and the assistance of an organizer who can help with the hands-on work. This is known as collaborative therapy.

In the first episode of A&E's "Hoarders," both of the subjects featured--a young couple from Louisville who are in danger of having their children taken away due t the condition of their home, and a woman in Milwaukee who hoards food and is at risk of eviction--receive mental health support in addition to two days of intensive work with teams of organizers. This is one of the things I like best about the show: it doesn't shy away from showing just how involved the process of helping people overcome hoarding can be.

Where Can I Find Help?
The Treatment page on the Hoarders site offers links to organizations that offer hoarding treatment programs. The NSGCD (National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) has a directory of Professional Organizers and related professionals who have training in working with hoarders. In addition, many cities have mental health associations (San Francisco's MHA has a website here) that offer treatment programs and support groups for hoarders.

I encourage you to check out an episode of "Hoarders" (you can watch online). I hope the show continues to offer a balanced portrayal of the challenges hoarders face, and I hope it inspires folks who struggle with hoarding--or who know others who do--to seek help.