Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Overcoming Organizing Paralysis

Tip of the Week, February 13, 2011

I recently worked with a client who had given up her home office and writing space last summer to create a room for her new baby, and who was hoping to reestablish a workspace in her partially finished garage. As we looked at the area she was planning to transform into an office, she told me she felt overwhelmed each time she contemplated the process of getting the space organized.

The more we talked as we walked through the space, the more I recognized the source of her overwhelm. It wasn't that the garage was hopelessly cluttered--in fact, it was relatively sparse--or that the client lacked organizing skills; indeed, she already had several systems in place that worked fairly well for her.

Rather, what caused her to feel paralyzed each time she walked into the garage intending to work on organizing her work area was the sense that she had to tackle the entire project in one go, from clearing off her desk to reorganizing things on shelves to weeding through old files and papers. Figuring she couldn't possibly get everything done in the time she had available, she'd quickly get overwhelmed and would wind up in retreat.

One Bird at a Time
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares a story about her brother, who, at age 10, having put off writing a school report on birds until the night before it was due, sat at the kitchen table surrounded by books and binders, near tears at the magnitude of the task ahead of him. His father sat next to him and gave him this bit of advice: "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

It's such simple advice, yet so easy to forget when we're faced with complex tasks and projects. Every undertaking has to start with one step, one small action, but so often we find ourselves thinking that we need to begin and finish a project in one fell swoop, which, of course, can lead straight to a sense of overwhelm so strong that it stops us in our tracks.

Getting Unstuck
When you find yourself paralyzed and unable to get started on a project, step back for a moment and remind yourself that all you need to do is begin. What I suggested to my client was that she start by simply moving off her desk anything that already had a designated home, such as cd's and picture frames, both of which already had spots on nearby shelves. Once she had done that, she could start going through her papers and files one small stack at a time. I also recommended that she take each pile upstairs to sort it so that she wouldn't be distracted by reminders of what still remained to be done down in the garage.

We broke down the rest of the project into similarly small chunks, each one independent of the next, and clarified what her desired end point for the first phase of her garage reorganization would be: creating a comfortable, functional workspace. She confirmed that the other phases of the project--including sorting through stuff that was already stored on shelves and clearing out another part of the space to make room for a car--could wait.

Finally, she decided that a reasonable commitment for her, given everything else happening in her life, would be to spend 30 minutes per day on the project. This gave her the sense of structure and discipline she found helpful and, at the same time, freed her from having to worry about spending hours at a time on the project.

At the end of our session, she reported feeling much clearer about how to approach the work ahead of her, as well as feeling like she'd moved past the point of paralysis. She no longer felt like she needed to complete the entire project at once, and the approach we came up with gave her the reassurance that by taking small steps, she'd be able to get everything done that she wanted to.

The next time you're struck by overwhelm when facing an organizing--or, really, any--project, remember the bird by bird approach, and then start with a single step.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stop Clutter & Disorganization Before They Start

Tip of the Week, February 6, 2011

Benjamin Franklin wasn't talking specifically about organization when he said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," but his words apply perfectly to keeping disorder and excess stuff at bay.

When it comes to organizing, we tend to focus on clearing out existing clutter, trying to juggle an over-full schedule, or recovering from being overwhelmed by paper, possessions, or tasks.

But what if we turned that model on its head and instead focused on ways of preventing clutter and disorganization before they become problems? Here are 5 straightforward ways to put Ben Franklin's words to work in the organizing realm.

#1: Say No to Tasks & Activities Before They Overtake Your Schedule
It can be tricky to say "no" when someone asks you to take on a responsibility, attend an event, or handle a task, but it's a lot harder to try to get those excess commitments off your calendar once you've agreed to them (and, of course, it's harder still to try to do absolutely everything). Before you agree to take anything else on, whether it's a seemingly simple errand or a complex project, take a look at your calendar and your To Do list and determine whether you really have the capacity to do it. If not, politely but firmly say "No."

#2: Think Carefully About What Makes It Through Your Door
Have you ever brought something home only to realize that you don't really need it (and maybe don't even particularly want it), and that you don't have the space to store it? You're not alone. The good news: you have the power to change that. Starting now, promise yourself that before anything comes home or to the office with you, you think carefully about it: do you really need it or want it? Do you have a place to store it? If not, it doesn't make it across your threshold.

#3: Practice One In, One Out
What about the stuff you deem worthy of bringing home? Keep clutter in check by adopting a one in, one out habit: for each new item that comes in, at least one older one of a similar nature goes out. So if you buy a new book, choose an older book to donate to charity or sell back to your local bookstore. New item of clothing? Remove an older one from your closet for donation.

#4: Stop Junk Mail and Catalogs Before They Reach You
The daily mail is a frustratingly common source of clutter, packed as it can be with unwanted catalogs, credit card offers, and other unsolicited correspondence. While it may not be possible to put an end to junk mail altogether, there are a few simple steps you can take to significantly cut back: visit DMAchoice to opt out of marketing offers and ads; submit a request through Opt Out Prescreen to stop receiving offers of pre-approved credit cards and insurance; and use Catalog Choice to get your name off of catalog mailing lists.

#5: Do 5 Minutes of Organizing Maintenance Every Day
It's always much harder--and far more frustrating--to have to spend hours dealing with several weeks' worth of clutter or disorganization than it is to take the "little and often" approach to staying on top of things. Taking as little as 5 minutes a day to tackle simple organizing tasks like putting clothes away, clearing unwanted papers off your desk, emptying the dishwasher, and recycling the day's newspaper will keep you from having to devote more time to those tasks once they've snowballed after a week or two.


Adopt Franklin's "ounce of prevention" mindset to stay in control of your space, stuff, time, and tasks with much less effort than you'd have to expend if you were to focus on the cure once things had gotten out of control.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

How to Donate or Dispose of Almost Anything

Tip of the Week, January 23, 2011

More and more these days, we're conscious of not wanting to send usable items to the landfill, and of trying to recycle as much as possible. This is definitely a big step in the right direction, though it can get tricky if you've got stuff cluttering up your space that you're holding onto only because you're not sure where or how to responsibly part with it.

The good news is that there are now charities and companies that will take almost anything you might want to donate or recycle, from clothes to computers to construction materials. Here are some of my favorite resources for clearing out your unwanted stuff without sending it to the dump.

Think Outside the Bin
The ladies behind Think Outside the Bin, a professional organizer and an "eco-educator", have created a fabulous and wide-ranging directory of recycling and donation resources. Ever wondered where to donate Bibles? Used animal cages? Old Halloween costumes? They've got ideas for you! Keep an eye on this site: the owners are committed to posting something new every day in 2011, which will make for an even more impressive directory by the end of the year. Take a look at Think Outside the Bin.

Officiency's Recycling and Donation Resources
Officiency, a professional organizing company started by K.J. McCorry, has an amazingly comprehensive list of options for donating or recycling everything from appliances to luggage to Tyvek envelopes (like those used by FedEx). K.J.'s list also includes links to recycling resources in Colorado (where she's based) and throughout the U.S. Check out the list here.

How to Recycle or Reuse Anything from Real Simple
Real Simple's editors have collected information from past issues of the magazine into an online directory of all sorts of donation, recycling, and reuse tips, including guidelines on what can be recycled, how to decide whether something can safely and responsibly be donated, and where to find new homes for the stuff you're ready to part with. As a bonus, there are also ideas on ways to reuse stuff that may not be recyclable or donatable, such as Ziploc bags. Visit Real Simple's recycling and reuse directory here.

Freecycle
If you like the idea of getting your unneeded things directly into the hands of people who'll use them, you'll love Freecycle, a world-wide network of people dedicated to passing along cast-offs to others in their community. Here's how it works: visit the Freecycle site to find a group near you (there are more than 4,900). Once you join (it's free!), you'll be able to post e-mail announcements to your group listing the things you're ready to part with. You'll get replies from interested parties and can then make arrangements for pick-ups. Freecycle is consistently praised for being a great way of finding new homes for hard-to-donate stuff like mattresses and toys. Visit the website and find a group near you.

The Organized Life's Recycling & Reuse Resources
Finally, of course I'm a fan of the recycling and reuse resources I've collected on The Organized Life's Links & Resources page! While several of these resources are specific to the San Francisco Bay Area (including county-by-county guides), many are country-wide. I'm always looking to expand this directory, so if you have a favorite donation or recycling resource, leave a comment and let me know.