You’ve been thinking about getting organized and decluttered for weeks, months, years. You just can’t seem to get started, motivated or going. What’s holding you back?
Decluttering and organizing are not unlike other forms of self-care such as eating healthier, getting in shape or reducing your stress. Accomplishing these takes a plan, consistent action and focus.
It can be as simple as setting a goal, breaking that goal into small parts and making sure you have what you need to obtain and meet your goal. Just like walking – taking one step and then another – you are seemingly doing the same thing over and over but the scenery changes as you go.
As you make progress, you will notice other types of change in your body, your brain and your mood. All these changes work on each other to improve your actual, as well as perceived, sense of wellbeing. The same is true for organizing.
The beginning of the year is a great time to resolve to get organized. Even if you are feeling motivated, your chances of success will depend on having a simple, actionable plan. This will help you overcome distractions and reasons to do something else.
Make a Plan
People sometimes hear the word plan and they give up before they start. Planning is nothing more than visualizing yourself doing the task and considering what you would need to be successful.
In the case of organizing, think about what you will need to get the job done.
Imagine yourself doing the task. Break it into small steps. What will you have to do to tidy or organize your desk, freezer, coat closet, tool area? Will you empty everything first? Do you have enough counter space? How will you sort items? Do you plan to donate or recycle or dispose of items you don’t want? Do you need a sitter for your kids? Take a few moments to think it through.
Consider what you’ll need to support you in the task. Just like it’s a good idea to have comfortable, supportive walking shoes when you go for a brisk walk outdoors, as you get organized, you will need things to support your process. This could be things like bags for donations or trash, a dust rag for wiping off surfaces, a clear surface for sorting items, even music if you think that will keep you motivated and energized. Get those things together before you start organizing. Once you gather your supplies once or twice, it will be second nature the next time you embark on a new organizing task.
Gathering your supplies is a form of taking action. Clearing a surface for sorting is also a form of taking action. Even getting your music set up is an action. The secret to success is taking small, achievable consistent action every time you embark on an organizing project.
Aim for action, not perfection. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of progress. This is especially true for physical organizing. Does the surface need to be perfectly clear? No. Do you need to have pretty bins, brand-new containers and chalk board labels? Absolutely not! Most of all, don’t compare yourself with others. Turn off the critic and know that good enough IS good enough.
Treat organizing as a practice not a one-time event. A practice is a series of behaviors that you do over and over with consistency. This will help build what I call the decision-making muscles in your brain. Each time you make a decision about whether or not you want to keep something you own, your decision-making muscles will get stronger.
See yourself as more organized. Getting organized is an action consisting of similar tasks. The more you do the more you’ll develop an “organized” mindset. You’ll start to see yourself as an organized person. That mindset will further propel you to change your behavior. For example, you may think twice the next time you shop or consider bringing something new into your home.
For many this can be the most difficult part of embarking on an organizing project. You have a plan but once the reality of sorting items, making decision after decision and physically moving or transporting items, you will lose focus, get bored and maybe want to give up. Don’t!
Just like walking – taking one step and then another – you are seemingly doing the same thing over and over. But what you are also doing is creating other types of change you might not notice right away in your body, your brain and your mood. All these changes work on each other to improve your actual, as well as perceived, sense of wellbeing. The same is true for organizing.
When you focus on the tasks of physical organizing and decluttering, there are some very real ways you are enhancing your body and mind’s wellbeing.
Improve brain health. Researchers believe the brain’s prefrontal cortex holds the neurons that allow us to sort and categorize. It’s actually a very sophisticated brain process involving assigning categories based on our experience. The act of organizing improves our brain’s health by exercising those parts of our brain needed to accomplish the task of getting organized.
Gain self-awareness. Accept that some areas will be easier for you to declutter than others because of negative associations. If you notice you continually avoid or start and stop an organizing task, ask yourself if there is something about the objects themselves that have a negative connotation. Recognize and accept the association but don’t let it stop you.
Enhance wellbeing. The very act of sorting alone can be a kind of meditation. As you sort, you will notice your mind going in many directions. As you focus, you will become more relaxed and the task of sorting and purging becomes easier. Not only that but the focused actions you take will release the neurochemicals in your brain, called endorphins, that make you feel good.
Sustain motivation. I always ask my clients to imagine the space they want decluttered as already organized. Then I ask them to tell me 1) How it makes them feel and 2) What they can now do differently in the space that they couldn’t do before. Being able to imagine the result is a common strategy used by athletes to keep them focused. Keeping your imagined result, top-of-mind, can be a great way to stay motivated and focused.
For those with cognitive impairments caused by traumatic brain injury, stroke or age-related dementia, you may have a more difficult time with organizing. These conditions often impact your ability to process the information needed to organize your physical surroundings. With support and professional guidance these obstacles can be overcome or diminished.
Organizing physical items in your home – by sorting, editing and assigning where they live – is a form of self-care that improves your body, brain and mood. It may feel difficult, painful or even boring at first but with a plan, consistent action and focus, you will likely feel good, less stressed and happier.
Lis McKinley, M.A., is a certified professional organizer, move manager and owner of LET’S MAKE ROOM, LLC based in Oakland, Ca.
Recently I learned about something called the Intention-Action Gap. The intention-action gap is a term used by people, mainly behavioral experts, who study the reasons why we do or don’t do things that are good for us.
In simple terms, the intention-action gap refers to the difference between what people say they would like / plan to do and what they actually do. For example, people say they want to get organized, or lose weight, or get more exercise or eat healthier but they don’t.
Behavioral experts explain this “gap” between our intentions and our actions in several ways but recently I came across an article written by Ozoda Muminova, a London-based researcher, business and organizational consultant who helped me understand this disconnect between what we want and what we actually do in a delightful and amusing way.
Basically she said that as humans there are certain barriers to changing our behaviors. Things like, habit, unknown impact, feeling isolated and overcoming difficulty. Her answer, in short: make it fun, make it social, make it personal and make it immediately rewarding.
Ozoda created this simple model to explain how to meet every barrier to change, with an enabler of change:
5 steps for turning good intentions into good behaviours. Used by permission of The Good Insight/Ozoda Muminova
I got to thinking about this in the context of why so many of us, myself included, really want to achieve a certain goal like losing weight, exercising more and even getting organized, but can’t follow through. You may start but within a moment you find yourself procrastinating or putting it off again.
Inspired by these ideas of challenging each barrier with a positive enabler, consider this simple 5 step approach to changing old habits that get in the way of your happiness.
For every barrier you have to your goal, whether it be losing weight, exercising more, getting more organized or something else, do what you can to make it fun, make it relevant to you personally, make it possible to see change immediately so you’ll keep going, make it social, that is, look for evidence that others are doing it too and make it rewarding!
Let’s say you want to organize your closet. Here’s an example of how you could apply this simple plan to get it done!
1. Make it fun
Play your favorite upbeat music or ask your best (most fun) friend to help you. Put on your most colorful and silly clothes to get you inspired or set up sturdy bins and practice your awesome basketball dunk or free throw for those items you are sending to donation. The point is, if you make it fun and easy you are more likely to get it done.
2. Make it personally relevant
Be clear about why you are getting organized, in other words ask yourself, what’s in it for me? Will you enjoy being able to see your newly organized closet? Will it make it easier for you to find what you need when you need it? Will it make you feel good about yourself and what you’ve accomplished? If you can equate the task to something meaningful to you – my discarded stuff could help others, getting dressed in the morning will be easy and fun, I will feel good about showing off my home to my friends – you are more likely to get it done.
3. Look for immediate change
Next consider a plan for how to see change immediately. I recommend breaking the task into smaller pieces . Instead of attacking the entire closet, start with just the top shelf or one side before tackling the rest. Psychologically, we are motivated to continue once we see small changes. If you are tackling a larger space, clear off a surface – the floor or a table – as you are more likely to continue when you see clear space versus something you can’t see such as a drawer. Remember you can only climb a flight of stairs, one or maybe two, steps at a time. The point is you’ll still get there.
4. Make it social
If you are unable to enlist the help of your family or friends (or if you don’t want to), consider that you are not alone in your desire to get organized. The popularity of people like Marie Kondo and The Container Store are evidence of the trend in organizing. Why not set up a challenge with an online friend or find a virtual room for other like-minded people to share your progress with on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or FlyLady.net. You could also arrange to have an “accountability” partner. This is someone you know who you can report your progress to with no judgement. I often do this for my clients.
5. Make it rewarding
Finishing an organizing project is its own reward. I know the satisfaction I feel when I complete a large organizing project for a client and sometimes I want to celebrate my accomplishment with my crew. We may go out for dinner or to a local tap room for a beer or I may just go home and take a luxurious hot, bubble bath.
The intention-action gap explains why we can’t overcome our resistance to change or existing habits. Understanding the 5 barriers to change and replacing them with these 5 “enablers” of change can turn bad habits into new behaviors that lead to a happier and more satisfied life.
I believe getting organized is about making room in your life for what you enjoy the most. So now that you’re done, go do something just for you or do it with others so you can celebrate your success together!
Sometimes, with all good intentions, your to-do list will just be one more thing to add to your to-do list.
Today, with all good intentions, I had a plan to get mine done. Even a professional organizer who considers herself pretty good when it comes to managing her time can get thrown for a loop.
In between appointments, while out giving my dog a quick walk in our neighborhood, I heard a child yell out to me, “hey, is that your dog?” pointing to a small scruffy little dark-grey pooch across the street. My heart sunk. “No,” I said, “this is my dog.” pointing to my Chihuahua safely in my control, on her leash.
For a moment I could hear the voice in my head say, you could help this dog, assuage the look of concern on this child’s face or tell the kid sorry, it’s not my dog, and simply walk away.
“What’s your name,”I asked the little boy as we tried together to corral the scruffy little pooch close enough to us to see if he had a collar. He did not of course. “Ricky,” he said wearing an oversized Oakland raiders shirt and a du-rag on his head.
Alas, I knew what I was going to do.
Together we started calling the non-emergency police lines on our cell phones as well as the local animal services. To our frustration we just got stuck in a voicemail loop, each location instructing us to call the other. I reassured him that I would do what I could. He looked worried.
In the meantime, I was taking photos of doggie and getting them posted to Nextdoor, a neighborhood social networking site, while waiting (in vein as it turned out) for a live person to answer Oakland’s non-emergency police phone line. I knew I had appointment in an hour and a long list of other items I had to get done and was trying to figure out in a split second how I would get this dog to a shelter in time for my appointment. I told Ricky I would take the dog around the corner to my house since it was obvious there was nothing more he could do and his grandmother, he said, couldn’t take the dog.
Fortunately, my husband, the child of parents who used to keep a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, in their backyard, was on his way home. When he drove up to our house, I persuaded him to take the little guy – the dog, not the kid – to the local animal services shelter.
He handed me the chicken breasts he’d picked up at the store for dinner on his way home and I handed him the stray dog. Between us we struggled for a bit to get this sweet, albeit terrified dog into his car, coaxing him with treats.
After my husband drove off, I went back around the corner to tell little Ricky that the dog was okay and was safely at the local shelter. He seemed relieved but also unimpressed, as if this kind of thing happened to him all the time. He looked at me for a moment and I thought he was going to say thank you. Instead he asked, “do you know if there’s a Chinese restaurant near here?” The question took me by surprise. He had clearly moved on.
My husband arrived home. No microchip he told me. Well at least this sweet dog wasn’t running around the street anymore.
Every so often I have to declutter something in my home.
I don’t want to lose touch with what my clients experience and I like what it does for my peace of mind. It frees me of some amorphous burden I sometimes experience in other parts of my life. It’s like a form of exercise or meditation for stress relief.
Today’s lesson is brought to you by hair conditioner.
You see, I have very thick, wavy hair that gets tangled easily if I don’t use some kind of detangler or conditioner. Years ago, maybe once when I was a child, I was washing my hair and I’d run out of detangler. The next thing I knew, my mother was doing her best to detangle my matted mess and causing me much pain and anguish in the process.
I never thought about it until today but while I was decluttering my bathroom and utility cabinets I noticed I had a lot of hair conditioner. Even more striking however was how much I resisted letting it go, even though I wanted to declutter. I thought, “How many bottles of hair conditioner do I really need?”
In fact, I thought about all the rationale questions I ask my clients:
“If it disappeared could it easily be replaced? YES.”
“Do I love this particular bottle? NO.”
“Did I have enough already? ABSOLUTELY!”
So when it came down to really examining my own resistance to letting go of an abundance of hair conditioner, I had to trace it back to that moment of pain. I never wanted to be caught without it again. “Doing so,” my brain told me, “would surely lead to pain and suffering.”
In California recently, thousands of people have lost their homes to wildfires. I know from my experience as a professional organizer and from friends who have lost their homes in fires, that going through extreme trauma and loss can be devastating. The recovery process is long, complicated and fraught with real fears of attachment and letting go.
I once had a client who had survived the loss of two homes through fire. Her collection of emergency supplies could fill a small garage.
Fear, I’ve learned, doesn’t have to come from a big trauma. It can come from small events too.
Fear lives in your body and your psyche for a long time. Fear of loss, fear of change, fear of re-experiencing pain. Fear is such a strong and powerful emotion, it doesn’t matter how much time goes by or even what caused it in the first place; It continues to rule our behaviors and our habits.
So what can you do when you notice fear ruling you at a time when you need to feel strong?
Let’s say you need to downsize your home because you are moving to a smaller space. When it comes to doing the simplest decluttering, pay attention when you see yourself holding on to something for apparently no obvious reason. Notice what emotions come up.
Ask yourself,”what does this item remind me of?” Don’t minimize it, no matter how silly it may seem. If a memory gets triggered, allow yourself to review it.
What in that memory may be getting in the way of your home organizing goals?
Is it a fact that whatever you remember will or could happen again?
Is it probable? If it did, how would you cope?
Imagine letting go of the item and see what comes up and what you would do if it happened.
There is amazing information in our brains that can help with not just the act of organizing or decluttering but can also give us insight into ourselves to help us heal from our biggest traumas or even small ones. The pain is real.
The question is can you control how you react to it now? Doing so will empower you to take control of the fear.
Once you can objectively examine the real benefit of getting to where you want to go, you will realize the real price is holding onto an old fear when you no longer need to be afraid or even better, when you know you’ve survived.
Anyone who juggles life’s internal and external demands, whether that be a promise to stay healthy or a need to get things done at home or at work, will recognize themselves in at least one of these 10 little lies.
The lies themselves are a kind of time rationalization, says Dr. Ari Tuckman, author and subject expert on adult ADHD. The lies people tell themselves keep them disorganized or stuck in bad habits. How close in time something has to be done is what determines whether or not we take or avoid action.
For example, if a deadline is looming within days or hours, we may be more apt to take action then if it’s weeks or months away. The closer something is to the present the more we see and feel its impact. This can either be felt as pleasure, such as a having our favorite food nearby or painful, such doing our taxes or preparing to move.
In essence we are constantly asking ourselves, “Is it better to suffer in the present to experience joy in the future or should we aim to enjoy the present moment at the expense of possible future consequences?” It is an ongoing tug-a-war between the pleasure-motivated side of our brain and the executive function that helps us to make wiser choices that can also feel inconvenient or downright painful.
How many of these 10 little lies do you tell yourself?
I can do that tomorrow
I’ll put that away later
I don’t need to get organized; I remember where everything is
I don’t have to write that down. I’ll remember.
This will just take a minute
Sorry, I was late….traffic!
I’ll just start after a quick break
I’ll just work twice as hard tomorrow
I’ll get to that in a minute
I don’t need to do that now
People fall somewhere on a continuum between complete impulsivity (those with attention issues) and overly diligent (those with obsessive tendencies). Those with better self awareness fall somewhere in the middle, says Dr. Tuckman. When you find yourself using one of these little lies, Dr. Tuckman advises stopping to pause and visualize the outcome as both your “today self” and your “tomorrow self.” Introducing that momentary pause and visualization can sometimes cause you to do something – like scheduling that appointment – and make the difference between staying on track or going off the rails.
Need help getting organized? Call us to schedule a free project assessment, by phone: 510.846.1976
I’m going to tell you a short story about a lobster to illustrate what happens to us when we experience change and more importantly when we are called to take action when we want to change something about ourselves or our homes.
As a lobster ages and grows, it needs to shed it’s shell. It does this by finding the safest place it can in the rough surf of the ocean and far away from other predators. As it matures, its shell starts to constrict around it’s body. If it didn’t shed its shell, it would suffocate and die. This means that until its new shell hardens, the lobster will be completely vulnerable to the elements. It has an instinctual need to risk its life in order to grow and thrive.
For many of us “change,” even when it’s for the good, such as when we decide to get organized, makes us feel like that lobster. We know we need to move forward but sometimes the thought scares us as much as being thrown into a violent ocean current. Not changing can also mean suffocating in our own shells. It’s no wonder facing change and taking action can be so overwhelming.
Change, though not a linear process, is like the lifespan of the lobster. It involves a process of feeling uncomfortable enough to make a change that will bring us to know ourselves better. It involves several phases which I’ve narrowed down to six.
The Six Phases of Change
1) Passive discontent
2) Naming the problem
3) Getting help
Phase 1: “Passive Discontent”
This is the phase marked by general feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo. It’s a kind of restlessness combined with a heightened level of awareness. It may come about after you’ve read a book, seen a TV show or heard someone talk about something that makes you uncomfortable, angry, sad, frustrated or overwhelmed. Those close to you may have even hinted to you that something was wrong. You’ve been feeling “not yourself” but you’re not ready to take action yet.
The sad part is some people stay at this phase forever. This happens when the pain of changing exceeds the pain of the status quo.
Such is the case for some people with severe and chronic disorganization or Chronic Hoarding Disorder This happens when people pose a risk to their own (or other’s) health and safety by retaining extreme levels of indoor and outdoor clutter.
Unfortunately, the anxiety they feel when they consider letting go of possessions, no matter what condition, can exceed the pain of living in spaces that are completely unusable. Thus they remain stuck in a kind of limbo until forced to make a change against their own will. Most people who feel disorganized are not “Hoarders.” Instead we all fall somewhere along a spectrum from minimalist to severe acquirer. Most people are somewhere in the middle.
Phase 2: “Naming the problem”
When you ask yourself the question, What needs changing or what needs organizing? You are at this phase. This is where the soul-searching begins. You start thinking about resources for answers but you’re still apprehensive about verbalizing your thoughts or asking for help. Early attempts to express your dissatisfaction may result in your retreating to your shell especially if you are feeling unsure of yourself or if you are concerned about the judgment of others.
Phase 3: “Getting Help”
At this point you may be ready to look for some information or answers to help you better understand your feelings. These are actions that would include talking to friends and family as well as gathering information through research, online searches or consulting with professionals. You may start reading or attending talks or asking for advice. You’re dipping your toes in the water but you’re not yet ready to dive in. You’ve started to realize you can’t make the change you want by yourself and you may even start to feel some hope as you move to the next phase of being ready to take some action.
Phase 4: “Readiness”
You are now committed to using the physical, emotional or financial resources you have to start making some changes. You’ve hired a professional, received some good advice, or resolved to take action yourself. You may be feeling both relieved and impatient as you realize you want to make change happen sooner rather than later.
Phase 5: “Doing”
During the “Doing” phase, you experience the ups and downs of progress. Slip-ups may occur and you may feel discouraged. Motivation is replaced by the need for habits and contingency plans. Your ability to achieve your desired change is dependent upon your ability to withstand the disappointments, backsliding and obstacles. This is where planning is so critical to the process of change. If you don’t have a plan of action, you may get to this part of your journey and want to give up. Having a plan is something you should have in place by this phase. This is where hiring a professional organizer is worthwhile because he or she will have the expertise to help you plan for all contingencies, anticipating problems and suggesting alternatives.
Phase 6: “Results ”
Circumstances change from inside and out. Making small changes can have a big impact on your life. As a result of the changes you make and the actions you take, major events may occur. You can experience these as both “good” and “bad”. You’ll gain greater clarity around goals and desires and your energy increases but you may also see the unexpected consequence of the actions you’ve taken. People around you may behave differently towards you. Some may try to sabotage you. If you need to, seek some outside advice from friends or professionals who have tread the same path or who can advise you about how to manage unsupportive people. When you get to where you want to be, you can reflect on how far you’ve come.
Recently I’ve been thinking about things. Not things in a colloquial sense but literal things, objects: the computer; my grandmother’s sculpture; the four pairs of eyeglasses I own. I’ve also been thinking about memories. What it means to have a memory? What it means to lose your memory? What it means to lose your memories, as thousands of people did last week when they lost their homes in the Northern California fires, just about 90 minutes from my home in Oakland.
I work with people nearly every week helping them decide what to do when they want (or need) to let go of stuff. Not just the things that remind them of who they once were, or places they once visited but also regular things too; Things they find useful or once did.
Two of my close friends lost their home in the Northern California fires. They lost everything they owned. They had just enough time to escape with their dogs and the clothes they must have quickly put on since it was 1 a.m. when they evacuated. My friends are extremely resilient. They’ve chosen to move forward, not look back. I know it must be hard. I wonder how often during the day they face the inconvenience of no longer having small things, or feel the waves of grief flow over them when they think about the loss of more important stuff.
I’ve heard many of my clients say to me, “I can’t let that go. It reminds me of ….” I sometimes ask, what would happen if (blank) should disappear? Would the memory go with it? In some cases it could and it does. I think this is what is so profoundly difficult about the process of getting organized, downsized or as I like to call it “curating” your life’s contents.
A long time ago I was hired to clear out a small storage unit belonging to a woman who had died and whose family was not interested in claiming the contents. There was in fact nothing of significant monetary value left behind but there were “memories.” Commemorative plaques; a community service award; several family photos, a child’s simple drawings as well as knickknacks and other personal items. Things that were obtained, given, created for her and about her. Without her, I realized they didn’t mean much to me but they meant something to her.
People who lost everything in the Northern California fires last week and for that matter from the storms in Texas and Puerto Rico just days earlier, are heard in the news saying how “grateful” they are for having their families, for having survived, for knowing how “lucky” they were. It’s an amazing testament to their humanity that they can recognize this at one of the lowest points of their lives. And I have no doubt that they too are grieving the loss of their memories and possessions.
I’m not sure what all this has taught me as a professional organizer or even just as another human being. Of course, like many, I’ve considered what I would do and feel if I was in a similar circumstance. As a professional, I wholeheartedly encourage planning whether it be creating a safety plan with your family, an emergency kit or getting your most treasured memories and important documents digitized.
Being prepared also means helping those you love be better prepared to grieve by making your wishes known ahead of time, like a living will. This type of document lets others know what matters most to you when you can no longer make those decisions yourself. A dear friend did this about six months before she passed away and it made a world of difference to her closest friends and family. She wrote her plans down. At the top of the page she’d written the title, “End Of Life Matters.” The irony was not lost on either of us.
Last week my crew and I helped a couple downsize their home of twenty plus years. It’s something I’ve done many, many times yet each experience is different. Together and separately my clients made literally thousands of decisions in just a few days. Some of those decisions were easy. Many more were not. Even the most seemingly benign objects brought back memories of family gatherings, professional obligations, personal triumphs and poignant losses. Without context they are just things but for them they represented the meaning of their lives.
When my clients let go of things sometimes the memories go with them. I see my clients resist and I feel that struggle. Sometimes I even feel it directed at me though I know it’s not. I tell them, “I don’t have an opinion about what you keep. I do, however, have an opinion about helping you get to where you want to go.”
Letting go of things can sometimes feel like choosing to let go of memories. And who chooses to let go of their memories?! At least with my clients the choice is theirs. This wasn’t the case for the people in the recent fires. Do their memories go with them even when they have lost everything?
At 8:00 this morning, I had my own private celebration. It took place in my head.
An hour earlier I was driving and thinking about how terrifying it must be for some of my clients to do the one thing that scares them the most; To finally confront what’s kept them from moving forward in their lives because they feel overwhelmed and stuck and it’s showing up as piles of papers, boxes and who knows what else, on their desks, on the floor, in their drawers, everywhere.
I was thinking about what it means to do the one thing that scares you the most and to have the courage to do it anyway because you know you have to. Because you know not doing so will have far greater consequences.
For people who are chronically disorganized, the consequence of not facing their fears can be enormous. For some it’s a loss of control over their lives. For others, it’s isolation. I know people who have lost their children, their spouses and their very security because of their inability to face their fears head on. I also know people who have shown great courage and have discovered the meaning of making room in their lives.
My fears are about public speaking. And yet, as a small business person I know the value it brings to others in the form of information and sometimes even inspiration. But I do it quite frankly because I have to. Working with people in their homes and in their offices or helping them move is tactical but it’s also very personal. I know that if people see me and feel I am someone they can trust, and recognize I have the expertise to help them, then they often will remember me when it comes time to organize their offices, or their bedrooms or help them plan and oversee their move to a new home.
This is what I was thinking at seven o’clock this morning, on my way to speak to a group of fifty small business owners and entrepreneurs about how to face their fears, specifically about how to confront their own Paper Monsters. I did this presentation a few weeks earlier and it had not lived up to my expectations – perfectionism, my monster, rearing it’s ugly head, yet again – and now I was getting ready to face him again. Was I scared? Petrified, which is why at that moment I started thinking about my clients.
“If they can have the courage to hire me, then I can damn well find the courage to face my fears as well, ” I thought. And so I did. And it went fine. It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. And that’s good enough. But to be honest, I’m glad it’s over. At least for today I can celebrate.
What would you do if you learned you only had a year to live?
Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to me (at least not today) but I recently compiled a list of ten things I want to do in my life. I shared my list with a group of about 40 other women who also shared theirs during a monthly women’s social group I attend.
The idea of a “Bucket List” was made popular by the movie of the same name starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. The movie is about two terminally ill men (portrayed by Nicholson and Freeman) on a final road trip with a wish list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.”
I haven’t seen the movie but I would bet that the movie character’s lists don’t veer too far from what I heard from the women in my group. Sure, there were some creative and unusual wishes: “Get the keys to every major museum in the world (and) go in at night and wander around with an art historian,” to “Witness a contact from outer space,” but mostly I was struck by how similar our lists were.
The most common themes included the desire to experience the natural world (animals, landscapes, oceans, parks); travel; grow old to see our children (including nieces and nephews) and grandchildren thrive; be healthy or live healthier (presumably as compared to how we are now); do something creative or adventurous; learn a new skill; contribute to our communities in a meaningful and lasting way; and most, if not all wanted to experience more love in our lives either toward those closest to us, toward those we hope to meet and not surprisingly, toward ourselves.
With the possible exception of growing older in health, it was reassuring to realize that just about all these themes are achievable and for the most part, well within our control.
Yet, sadly, many of us never even get close to living our dreams. Instead we get caught up in the demands of daily life, the burden of keeping up with too much stuff and too much information (seemingly urgent but rarely important) and the false belief that our heart’s desires can only be achieved through some miraculous intervention or enormous compromise.
I am a victim of this belief as much as anyone. So much so that when I tried to imagine how I would achieve my greatest wish – to take a trip on the famed Orient Express from London through, Strasbourg and finally to Paris and back, the only way I could imagine my wish becoming reality was to wait until I was diagnosed with some terminal disease and then cash in my retirement money to pay for it (since I probably would no longer have a need for a “retirement.” )
Here is my “bucket” list if you’re curious:
Take a week long vacation on the actual Orient Express – London, Strasbourg, Paris, and back.
Visit a wildlife preserve in Africa
Vacation in the North Italian coastal region of the Cinque Terre
Write and have a book published by a major publishing house
Meet Joni Mitchell
Be on television, featured for my expertise.
Learn to speak Spanish
Go to Esalen at Big Sur and soak in the hot tubs overlooking the Pacific
Get a dog
See the Aurora Borealis (aka the “northern lights”)
The absurdity of my realization is the essential dilemma we all face. Do we choose a life of practicality, security and presumed “peace of mind,” or do we throw the dice and risk losing it all (whatever ‘all’ is) to experience our dreams but at the possible expense of our long term survival?
I wish I had an answer to this question. I don’t. All I know is that I only have one life to live (excuse the soap opera reference) and at the end of it I’m not going to wish I’d spent more time regretting what I never did.
The famous comedian, Groucho Marx once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
I grew up with a family of non-joiners. This got passed down to me in many ways. I never was a Girl Scout (or a Brownie) as all my friends were. I didn’t attend Sunday school. I never played team sports, except one summer when I joined my camp’s co-ed softball team and they put me in left field hoping I’d never have to catch a ball. I never joined clubs in high school. I didn’t even attend my high school graduation, although once I volunteered to MC a high school fashion show but was replaced by a young Puerto Rican kid who wore jeans with sharp creases that I envied. My mother never ironed any of my jeans. She was too busy working a full-time job as a copywriter.
So when I started my own business, I learned quickly that getting business meant I was going to have to renounce my family’s anti-social culture and become ‘a joiner.’
The first group I joined was the one for my industry, the National Association of Professional Organizers also known as NAPO. I have been a member of NAPO for almost three years. Just learning there was a group for organizers was a huge relief. It meant that I wasn’t crazy to think I could make money helping people avoid or at least reduce chaos in their lives. I was always good at this, but getting paid for it? Sign me up!
Joining NAPO was a great way to embody my new organizer identity and meet other like-minded professionals who, like me, discovered their passion for helping people find the space in their homes, offices and lives to focus on what truly mattered to them.
After NAPO, I joined another related group called the Institute for Challenging Disorganization or ICD. ICD started as a subgroup of NAPO in 1992 but eventually split off to become it’s own organization. It’s focus is education and research about chronic disorganization, more popularly known as “hoarding.” Their mission is to help people with chronic disorganization, but they are also a great resource for professional organizers and other related professionals such as mental health counselors. ICD offers its members free teleclasses on a variety of subjects related to the understanding, treatment and support of people who have been impacted by this sometimes crippling need to acquire and hoard. For me, as an organizer, it has helped me better understand my clients tendencies toward disorganization as I believe the seeds of hoarding exist in all of us.
I am also part of a group called EBUG. For months I couldn’t remember what the acronym stood for so I just called it East Bay Uncommon Girls. It’s actually East Bay UNITED Gals though I’m not sure exactly what unites us other than we are all women looking to have some more fun and friendship in our lives.
EBUG, which currently claims about 200 members, was started by a group of four friends so they would have more opportunities to socialize and feel less isolated after a long day’s work. EBUG is known as “the book club without the books.” It’s perfect for someone like me who hasn’t read a piece of fiction since Clinton was in the White House. EBUG meets roughly once a month for all kinds of interesting and fun member-led events such as chocolate and wine tastings, kayaking, outdoor hiking, palmistry and Tarot card readings, movie nights, barbeques and belly dancing.
I originally joined thinking it would be a great opportunity to network without the usual pressure to collect business cards but it’s turned out to be so much more. I’ve made some great new friends (who thought that would be possible in mid-life?) and after nearly 25 years of living in California actually feel part of a community, not a geographic one but a community of smart, savvy, fun-loving women. Now that I think of it, maybe that’s why it’s call United gals.
Earlier this year, I went to a networking event sponsored by the Mount Diablo Business Women, or MDBW, a group whose mission is to enhance it’s members “business, social, professional, and personal well being.” I first learned about this group from someone I met at EBUG.
I confess, I went initially because it was held at a really nice hotel. I figured if the meeting was a bust I could still walk around the elegant, marble-floored lobby and pretend I was a guest. Instead, what I discovered was another great group of women, only these women, had taken the plunge to start their own businesses, like me. MDBW is not so much about exchanging business cards as it is about developing relationships and learning new skills and perspectives as fellow travelers on the road to success. Besides, that the food is really good!
Then, this past September you could say I really drank the Kool-aid. I joined BNI. BNI stands for Business Networking International. It is the networking group of all networking groups. Their whole philosophy can be boiled down into their two word motto, “givers gain” or to give it a more street interpretation, ‘I watch your back, you watch mine.’
According to it’s website, BNI generated business referrals resulting in $2.8 billion worth of business for its’ members in the past year. It was founded in 1985 by Dr. Ivan Misner, an author, columnist and networking guru.
I joined BNI for one reason. I wanted more business. The meeting format is not for the faint of heart. Some have even called it ‘cult-like.’ I prefer to think of it as enthusiastically supportive. Each group works on a one-profession-per-chapter model to eliminate competition or the perception of it within each group. Before I joined, I almost joined. Two years earlier I had learned about BNI from someone I knew through EBUG. I submitted an application (yes, one needs to be approved by the individual chapter members) then subsequently withdrew it because I just wasn’t ready.
Membership really depends on your ability to make referrals, and that requires knowing people and being in situations to know more of them. It also means being a serious business owner. The cost to join is steep (about $1000 a year) for a sole proprietor but I expect to make back my investment soon. So two years after I almost joined, the stars aligned to let me know I was ready this time around. It came in the form of another organizer who told me there was an “opening” for an organizer at my group, which by the way, meets at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. every Tuesday. Still, I have to say that I am really glad I joined. Partly because I genuinely like the people – people’s true colors are vivid that early in the morning – and partly because they have a great track record of upholding the ‘givers gain’ model. It’s like knowing you got the best seat in the house or got picked to play on the winning team.
Having never been on any team (with the exception of that camp softball league) I have to confess, in spite of my anti-social upbringing, I like it. With all due respect to Groucho and my family, being a joiner, afterall, ain’t that bad.