Thursday, October 28, 2010

5 Things to Weed to Get Organized for Good: Part 1

Tip of the Week, October 17, 2010

What are the biggest obstacles to getting and staying organized? Nope, not having too much stuff--though letting go of unwanted, unneeded things is a big part of the process--or not having the right supplies and gadgets on hand. Even having incomplete or not-totally-functional organizing systems in place isn't the biggest hurdle.

Rather, what keeps many people from successful, lasting organization is a cocktail of five mucky, unpleasant, limiting emotions and beliefs, from perfectionism to guilt. Overcoming these emotional obstacles is one of the most important things you can do as you work on building lasting organization into your life.

Here's a rundown of the first two of the five culprits.

#1: Shame
With frustrating regularity, I hear from clients, friends, and others about their deep shame around not being organized. For some, this shame comes primarily from within: they have a sense that there's something wrong with them because their home or office isn't as orderly and functional as they'd like it to be. Others have had shame heaped on them by family members, friends, colleagues, or neighbors.

Here's the reality: being disorganized isn't a moral failing. It simply means that you don't currently have the systems, skills, and habits in place to help you achieve the level of organization you'd like. It can be humbling--and, yes, sometimes shaming--to look around and see the way disorganization has impacted your space and your life. But being able to acknowledge that shame and then move beyond it is essential to getting organized in a holistic, lasting way.

#2: Guilt
Organizing-related guilt tends to show up in two forms. First, there's the flavor of guilt that's the bosom buddy of shame--the sense that you're a bad person for not being more organized. And then there's the type of guilt that causes you to hold onto things that you don't use, need, love, or find beautiful, and that clutter your life, because they were given to you by someone else, and because you feel badly about letting them go.

How can you get beyond guilt? If it's the first type that gnaws at you, remind yourself that organizing is like cooking or the ability to balance a checkbook: it's an easy, almost innate skill for some people, but by no means for everyone. Would you feel guilty if, never having been taught how to bake a cake or roast a turkey, you didn't feel comfortable in the kitchen? Rather than wallowing in guilt about not having the knack for organizing, take some concrete steps to develop the skills you need: enlist a friend with those skills, hire a professional organizer, take a class, or pick up a book that can help get you on your way.

If the guilt that's holding you back is around feeling the need to keep things others have given you, a bit of soul-searching may be in order. For example, would giving away your grandmother's china set--which is totally not your style, and which has been sitting, boxed up and unused, for years--really and truly mean disrespecting her memory or distancing yourself from her? Or would you in fact be honoring her more by finding someone who would absolutely love that collection, and who can't wait to put it to use on his or her holiday table this year?

Holding onto things solely (or primarily) out of guilt means not only that they're by-the-book clutter--that is, things you don't want, use, need, or find beautiful--but also that you're very likely to resent them, and perhaps, by extension, to resent the person who gave them to you. Giving yourself permission to let go of the guilt--and then to let go of the stuff that's causing it--will go a very long way toward setting the stage for long-lasting organization.

Identifying and Overcoming
Are shame and/or guilt preventing you from being as organized as you'd like to be? If so, challenge yourself this week to find ways to start to overcome them. Can you get support from a sympathetic friend or family member? Might you try bringing one item you're keeping only out of guilt to your local thrift store to experience what it's like to pass things along to people who'll use them? Is there some other way you can get past these hurdles?

Next week, we'll take a look at three more obstacles that often stand in the way of meaningful, lasting organization.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Rightsizing Bill of Rights

Tip of the Week, October 10, 2010

I recently came across a fascinating, unique, and thought-provoking list: the Rightsizing Bill of Rights, created by Maryland real estate agent Eric Stewart. The term "rightsizing" was coined, I believe, by author Ciji Ware in her book Rightsizing Your Life; it means making changes--to your home, your work, your stuff, and so on--so that your overall environment is more in line with your life as you're living it today.

As with Ciji Ware's book, Eric Stewart's "bill of rights" focuses on acknowledging and embracing the current realities of your life, and on letting go of the beliefs, intentions, and, crucially, things that are no longer important, relevant, or valuable to you.

You can read all of Stewart's Rightsizing Bill of Rights here. Below are 5 of the entries on his list that resonated most strongly with me--and why.
  • "You have the right to live your life forward." One of the major causes of clutter and disorganization I see in my clients' lives is that they're holding onto far too many things related to their pasts: items related to jobs they once did (but no longer do), goals they once had (but never met), or hobbies that once interested them (but don't anymore), along with excessive memorabilia. Keeping all of this stuff can not only clutter up a space, but can also prevent make it difficult to focus on what's happening in their lives now. Making a conscious choice to live your life forward doesn't mean forgetting the past or tossing every last bit of memorabilia; it simply means giving more space, time, effort, energy, and attention to the things that truly support your life as you're living it today.
  • "You have the right to own your possessions and not have your possessions own you." Do you worry every day about the things in your home? Do you find it incredibly stressful to think about making decisions about what stays and what goes? Do you have to spend more than a few minutes a week moving, dusting, storing, or otherwise caring for the things around your house? If so, there's a good chance your possessions are possessing you. You owe it to yourself to reset that equilibrium.
  • "You have the right to furniture that fits comfortably in your living room." And your kitchen, your bedroom, and your den. Just because a piece of furniture--or, by extension, any object--once worked well in your home and your life doesn't mean you need to keep it around forever, especially if you've moved or gone through big life changes. Keeping, say, a sofa that's much too big for your current living room, that makes it hard to navigate the space, and that you don't particularly care for means you're likely to be frustrated every time you walk in the room. You deserve better.
  • "You have the right to throw away old copies of Reader's Digest." The same holds for National Geographic! Every single item in your home or office should be there only because it deserves to be, because you need it, use it, love it, or find it beautiful in your life as you're living it now. Keeping things like old magazines because they seem like they might potentially be useful or have value someday ("Hey, I might want to go back and read those articles from 1985!") means you're crowding out the stuff that's truly valuable to you today.
  • "You have the right to simplicity in a complex world."Every time I pick up a newspaper, I'm reminded just how many things in this world I can't control. The one thing I have utter dominion over, however, is my own home and the environment I choose to create there. This holds for you, too. If you're longing for a simpler, more pleasant, more meaningful, more organized life, know that it starts with you.
Instead of fretting about all that you can't change around you, focus on what you can change: the piles of stuff looming over you each time you sit at the kitchen table. The coat closet you can't use for coats because it's packed full of craft supplies you might need someday. The living room so cluttered with stuff you're embarrassed to have friends over. The garage packed with who-knows-what that prevents you from sheltering your car from the elements. The stacks of fancy china in your dining room that you haven't used in 10 years but are holding onto out of guilt, obligation, or fear.

You have the right to take back your home from stuff, to simplify not only your surroundings but also your day-to-day life. You have the right to get rid of anything and everything that doesn't support your life as you're living it now.

What will you do this week to exercise these rights?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Systems & Habits: The 2 Halves of Organizing

Tip of the Week, September 26 and October 3, 2010

One of the most jarring realizations many people have as they work to get organized is that the process involves not just systems--weeding out what's not needed and then creating effective storage for the stuff that is--but also the development of habits that will keep those systems running smoothly and working like they should over the long term.

Finding the perfect sheets and comforter for your bed doesn't preclude making the bed each morning, and working with a personal trainer to develop a customized exercise plan doesn't mean you don't actually have to get yourself to the gym on a regular basis. By the same token, even the greatest organizing system will fall apart--quickly--if you don't get in the habit of using and maintaining it.

Here's a look at three common types of organizing systems, along with some basic maintenance habits, to get you thinking about organization as a two-part process.

System #1: Mail Processing System--those baskets, letter sorters, inboxes, or other containers you've labeled and placed near the door to collect mail that arrives.

Habits:
  • Get rid of the junk immediately. Rather than letting pieces of mail you know you don't want (such as store flyers, credit card offers, and unsolicited catalogs) to clog your system, recycle or shred it ASAP.
  • Schedule time to go through what accumulates. Losing bills and other important mail because they linger forgottten in your mail processing system is no different from (and no better than) forgetting them because they're in a pile on your desk. Take a few minutes at least once a week to look through and deal with the mail that's come in.
System #2: Clothes Closet System--that neat setup with rods, drawers, and other clothes-organizing gadgetry.

Habits:
  • Remove dry cleaner bags. These are notorious for causing clutter, trapping moisture on clothes, and making it hard to see what's what. Keep a few around for storing clothes in when you travel if you'd like, and bring the rest back to your cleaner for recycling.
  • Put stuff away at least three times a week. Too zonked to hang up or fold and stash your clothes at the end of the day? Cut yourself some slack, but do make it a habit to get things back where they belong every other day.
  • Cycle out seasonal clothes. Spare yourself from wading through shorts and sundresses to get to your winter-weight pants by moving out-of-season clothing to the back of the closet or into storage elsewhere.
System #3: Time Management System--your calendar (whether paper or electronic) and list of tasks and priorities.

Habits:
  • Review it daily. One of the main purposes of a time management system is to remind you of what you need to do each day and when you need to do it. Let your system do its job by taking a look at it first thing in the morning to see what's ahead.
  • Update it constantly. Whenever you (or someone else whose activities you're tracking, like a partner or child) commit to something scheduled, add it to your calendar pronto to prevent double-booking, missed appointments, and the like.
  • Keep it uncluttered. Have a task list that's longer than your arm? Take a close look at it and move to another list anything that's not really a task (such as notes, addresses, and other data), or that you don't need to think about or focus on this week.
You get the picture: every organizing system you have in your home or office, from the utensil drawer in the kitchen to the filing system at work to the shelves holding tools and sports gear in the garage, requires some essential maintenance habits to keep it working like it should.

This week, give some thought to the habits you can put in place to keep your systems free of clutter and running smoothly, and then challenge yourself to adopt a few of these habits by the end of the month.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Different Approach to Decluttering

Tip of the Week, September 19, 2010

A few months ago, I helped a friend pack up her apartment here in San Francisco in preparation for her move to New York. Before she put anything into boxes, most of which she would ship once she'd gotten settled in her new home, she weeded out many things she no longer wanted or needed. In the end, she wound up with 26 boxes that would eventually make their way to NY, along with 5 that she took with her as luggage.

Fast forward to last week, when these 26 boxes were due to arrive at her new apartment. Contemplating their arrival, she posted this to Facebook: "Outside the 7 boxes of kitchen stuff, it's hard for me to remember what's IN the other 19 boxes. And even harder for me to picture actually NEEDING much of it. ...Having lived on 5 boxes for close to 4 months, I'm wondering what i could possibly gain at this point from adding another 19 boxes of stuff to my life."

Going Beyond "Pretend That You're Moving"
A piece of advice I sometimes give clients and others who want to declutter is to pretend that they're moving, which can help change their perspective on the things they choose to keep: when you're moving, chances are you won't want to pack up stuff you don't need, use, love, or find beautiful, especially if you have to pay to have that stuff transported to your new home.

But sometimes even "pretend that you're moving" isn't quite enough to spur you to pare down as much as you'd like to. Why? Because when you're holding something in your hands and trying to decide whether to keep it or part with it, it's often very easy to come up with reasons for keeping it--and, on the flip side, very difficult to get a realistic sense of what life would be like without it. Would you miss the item? Would you find that you did in fact need it? Would you completely forget that you ever owned it?

When stuff is out of our sight, though, as were the items in my friend's 26 boxes, your relationship to it changes. If you've been keeping something because you're convinced that you need it and use it, and yet can go for several weeks or months without it, your perspective on it shifts.

How to Put This into Practice
Good news: you can put this out-of-sight technique into practice without having to pack up your entire home or office. The trick is to take things out of circulation a bit at a time and then see what you truly wind up needing. Here's how.
  1. Choose a spot or type of thing to focus on. Start by deciding what you'd like to declutter: your bookshelves? Your kitchen drawers? Your kids' play area? Aim for an area or a type of thing that's not too overwhelming (i.e., not the entire living room) but is significant enough to make an impact.Pack it up. Next, pack up the contents of your decluttering spot. Stash books into boxes. Empty the contents of your kitchen drawers into Ziploc bags, storage containers, or empty shoeboxes. Pack the kids' toys into lidded bins (or, for stuffed animals, clean laundry bags).
  2. Get it out of the way. With your stuff packed up, move it to an out-of-the-way but not completely inaccessible spot, such as a garage or basement, the bottom of a hall closet, or a guest room.
  3. Retrieve only what you need. For the next few weeks, take from storage only the items you realize you truly want or need; these things will earn a permanent space in their original storage spots. If you've packed up your kitchen gadgets, for example, but realize you need your garlic press for a dish you're making, retrieve it, use it, and then put it back in the drawer from which it came when you're done with it. But don't fall into the trap of pulling other items out of storage while you're fetching the garlic press: until you actually have a need for something, it should stay packed up.
  4. Review and reconsider what remains. After a few weeks (two or three might be enough, though more will be extra effective), take a critical look at the stuff you didn't unpack. Set aside anything you didn't use during this trial period but know for sure you will within the next six months, such as the holiday-themed cookie cutters you know you'll pull out come December. For everything else, ask yourself, Did I survive these past few weeks without this? Did I miss it--or even think about it--at all? Is it worth moving this item back into the spot it came from, or will it just become clutter?
I recommend taking the very tough love route here. Remember, your goal is to clear out the things that don't enhance your life in some way. If you've lived happily for a month or so without them, and don't have any specific plans for them within half a year, how much do they really add to your life?

Putting stuff out of sight is an interesting and effective way of changing how you look at it--literally and figuratively. Try the experiment above with a spot you'd like to declutter; you may well find, as did my friend, that the result is a much clearer sense of what truly deserves space in your life.