It’s time to sell your home, or your parents home. Only problem? It contains 30, 40 or more years worth of stuff. Your real estate agent says, “I can’t list this house until you declutter!”
The good news is that if you live in an area that’s in high demand, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, you’ll probably sell your home for a lot more than you or your parents paid for it.
Of course, recent interest rate hikes mean a smaller pool of buyers. If this means delaying the sale of your home, this could actually be a good thing. If the house is filled with 30, 40 or more years of stuff, you’re going to need time to get the job done. You can start planning for the “big downsize” and perhaps by the time you’re ready, interest rates will have flattened or lowered.
There’s a formula about time and money that’s significant here.
If you just have time, you have options.
If you have both money and some time, you have more options.
More time means you can chip away at the process of decluttering your home. It could take weeks, months or even years depending upon how much stuff you have and your habit (or lack thereof) of decluttering over time. With a plan, however, it can be done.
If it all feels too overwhelming, you can always hire an organizing coach to help you come up with a plan you can execute alone or with help. You can also hire a solo professional organizer to work with you over time. Just don’t expect one organizer to get your home decluttered in a week if you haven’t done anything in years!
Money and a little time
If you have less time to spare but expect a good return on the investment you made in your home, there is a relatively quick way you can get rid of years of clutter. This is a good option if you are pressed to get your home on the market soon. Keep in mind, this is the more costly option. Think of it as the price you pay for keeping years and years worth of stuff you didn’t need, never used, never purged or kept “just in case.”
This solution involves hiring a professional organizing company that offers a team-based or crew-based approach to getting your home decluttered. When you go this route you are multiplying the hands-on help and expertise you could get from one professional organizer.
Think of this as the pre-remodel phase of getting your home readied for sale. I call it the “pre-model.” How long does it take? It depends on how large and how cluttered your home is AND how quickly you can make decisions and how much energy you have.
What organizers can and can’t do
What organizers can’t do is tell you what to keep. This is not their job. That is your decision. You still have to make hundreds if not thousands of decisions. That being said, most good organizers make this process easier by pre-sorting and supporting or even humoring you to help you make decisions along the way.
If you’re in mid-life, you may have enough energy to make decisions, with the help of a great team, for several hours. Seniors and those with cognitive conditions can take longer or only have enough energy to make decisions for a shorter time. A qualified professional organizing company will take this into account when planning your project.
When you hire a company that can thoroughly and efficiently get your home downsized, this doesn’t mean you can go off to Tahiti while they work. It means that the organizers will take care of most if not all of the physical and logistical demands of getting your home downsized and decluttered.
This could include everything from arranging for haulers, scheduling charity pick ups. selling your unwanted items, purchasing supplies, ordering dumpsters, arranging for document shredding and re-organizing all your retained items until the movers come. It also means sorting and containing everything you don’t want or need from donated items to trash.
What will help you?
Keep only what you enjoy, what you use or would seriously miss if it disappeared. Your new home may be half the size or your current home. Remember you are doing this for a reason. No object is more important than you are.
When I tell people I’m a professional organizer, they almost always ask, “is your house immaculate?”
In the early years of my career as a professional organizer, I dodged the question because I didn’t want others to think I wasn’t perfectly organized.
Over time I came to realize that there is no such thing.
When it comes to having a fulfilling, organized life, perfection will get in the way every time. I don’t want to be model of perfection. More importantly, I don’t want my clients to expect that of themselves.
Having a home that you enjoy, where you can spend time relaxing, enjoying time with family and friends, pursuing your interests and taking care of the business of your life, is far more important than having a perfectly organized life. There is no such thing. Life is messy.
The question about how organized I am in real life prompted me to think about other truths about my personal approach to organization.
So here are 13 confessions about me as professional organizer that may surprise you:
My house is not organized perfectly. It’s tidy and I can generally, though not always, find what I’m looking for. My home is not a Pinterest post or a cover of Architectural Digest. My style is to organize for my real life, not a fantasy life that I could never achieve let alone maintain.
I don’t have an opinion about what my clients keep, donate or toss. The only time I do care is when I see them make decisions that seem contrary to their goals. In that case I will ask their permission to gently point it out.
The papers I keep are contained in three places in my home. One is a small file box. Another is an old suitcase that belonged to my mother. The third is a single file drawer. My paper supplies are kept in a drawer and on a shelf.
I rarely scan anything. The only exception when I need to scan or upload a document to share.
If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. I have no short term memory.
I can’t fold a fitted sheet like Martha Stewart. (Believe me I’ve tried dozens of times). However, I can make it tidy in a linen closet.
If it’s trash, I don’t feel bad about tossing it. I do my best to donate or recycle it but the world is not set up yet for zero waste and that’s not my fault. I appreciate sites such as Stopwaste.org when I want to recycle something less typical.
I don’t watch TV shows about organizing or hoarding.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I don’t decant into containers. If you want everything in your kitchen, pantry or home to be labeled in pretty, matching ceramic containers, as organizers we are happy to do it.
We don’t have a garage. The previous owners of our home took it down to put in another room. We use it as a TV and exercise area. It has a large storage cabinet we use for holiday supplies, camping, memorabilia, sporting goods and games. Behind it is where I store all my supplies for work. My car is parked in a driveway.
I never liked the term “professional organizer.” Unfortunately they haven’t come up with anything better.
My team organizes better than I do but I know what works and I am great at managing projects, people and getting things done.
When I cook, my kitchen becomes a disaster. I am not an “organized cook.” I guess that’s because I’m focused on the food itself, not on the dish that didn’t get washed, the counter that didn’t get wiped or the container of cream that didn’t get put away. My husband is an incredibly organized cook.
If you have household items or unsorted paper on your floor in boxes or bags, chances are you have a clutter problem. That’s because bags and boxes are not furniture, not permanently anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, bags and boxes have their place in organizing. I use them all the time to carry out donated items, to contain trash or recycling or to pick up my groceries. It’s fine to keep a small supply but they are “temporary” containers, not permanent fixtures.
As a professional organizer, coach and move manager, boxed and bagged “clutter” is a common problem for many of my clients.
I’m not talking about items you have stored in a closet, garage or attic. These too may need to be “gone through” – usually when you’re planning to move or sell your home.
It’s sometimes an issue of time management, motivation or other more pressing priorities. Conditions such as ADD, anxiety or depression can also make it difficult to focus on the task at hand.
Whatever the reason, bags and boxes usually signify a “holding” place for your stuff, instead of a “home.”
Here are 10 easy steps to manage the bags and boxes of stuff in your home:
If you have both unsorted paper and physical items, start with the physical items. You will see results quicker and feel motivated to continue.
Sort the items on a clear surface, such as a card table, counter or ironing board if that’s the only surface available.
As soon as the box is empty, break it down and place it by your recycling bin to see space right away. It’s important that you see see results right away to stay motivated.
Now it’s time to make decisions. Look at each item by category and decide if you are using it now or whether it’s something you love. If you wouldn’t buy it in a store, don’t love it, haven’t used it, or it brings up negative emotions, let it go. If it feels good to keep it for yourself, then keep it.
Most clean and usable items can be donated to conventional charities such as Goodwill, Salvation Army or a local thrift shop. Be sure to check days and times they accept donations. Since COVID, many charities have limited their donation drop off times or require appointments.
Don’t spend a lot of time on where you donate your items.This is a form of procrastination. Some haulers now will take items for donation. Two of my favorites in the San Francisco Bay Area are NixxitJunk.com and Remoov.
If you have high value items consider consignment, or online platforms to sell them. Do whatever is easiest or makes the best use of your time.
If you plan to use your empty boxes for donations, be sure you can carry them. You are better off using a double paper-bag or reusable shopping bag for donated items.
Now the fun part: Look at what you kept and decide where it should live in your home. Like you live in your home everything in your home should have a home. An item’s home gets determined first by asking, What room would I look for this? Consider also, where will it be contained? For example, a certain piece of furniture, a specific closet, drawer or a type of bin? Don’t worry if these areas are already cluttered themselves. Get them closer to home!
Do this for each item you’ve decided to keep before moving on to the next bag or box.
Did you get through at least one bag or box? Did you toss or recycle them to make more room for you? Good job!
Aim to do one bag or box as often as you can and before you know it, your floors will be clear of clutter and you’ll feel great!
Too much stuff to do it yourself? Having difficulty focusing or feeling overwhelmed? Consider hiring a professional organizer to help you.
Find one in your area at the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals or NAPO.net and search by your zip code.
To celebrate the end of 2021, (phew) I looked back over my blog posts from this year to dig up individual pearls of wisdom I could share again to inspire you for 2022. Do any of these resonate with you?
Treat organizing your home as a practice, not a one-time event
Home organizing, whether it be your guest room, junk drawer or home office, is as much a mind-set as it is a habit. Practice organizing and over time you will develop an organizing habit. That means, keeping an eye on high clutter areas like your clothes closet, office or garage. Continuously ask yourself “do I want/need/love this item?”
Aim for progress not perfection
Don’t expect your home, office or storage area to look like an ad for “the most organized Mom in the world!” You do not have to spend hours refilling matching containers with cute “blackboard” labels if that’s not who you are. (I know it’s not who I am.) Better to do a small action then let yourself be paralyzed by the enormity of a perfectly organized space.
The less you have the less you have to organize and the easier it is to maintain
In a consumer culture, shopping can be a competitive sport or even a form of therapy. It’s difficult to keep a lid on the stuff coming into your home. One of the best things you can do is prevent those things from cluttering your space in the first place. Cancel those subscriptions, stop the junk mail, don’t buy in bulk if you live alone, don’t keep something just because it’s useful.Only keep it if you use it!
Consider your time, privacy and convenience
It’s great to pass along things to friends, family, neighbors, even strangers. I love the “Buy Nothing” sites as an example where you can give away everyday items you no longer want to people in your neighborhood. It’s also a great way to keep things out of the landfill. But as my client’s often hear me say, “Don’t let the small stuff get in the way of the big stuff.” If you have a roomful of items you no longer want, consider the easiest option for letting go of most items all at once. If you’re stuck, it’s always great to ask, “Is it worth my time?”
Sort it into categories that resemble the aisles of a department store
Clothes with clothes, shoes with shoes, office supplies with office supplies, games with games, tools with tools, etc. Think about categories you would find in a department or hardware store. Don’t make any decisions about keeping or tossing until you’ve staged all the categories. By the way, you may need a folding table or two. Seeing your items sorted, and by category, helps you make quick decisions about what to keep. Do you really need all 26 screwdrivers?
Just because something is usable doesn’t mean you have to keep it
There are no clutter police. Almost everything is usable but if you don’t use it, don’t keep it. Ask yourself did I use this in the last year and do I intend to use it in the next year? (e.g., Holiday decor falls into this category). If your answer is no, let it go.
Your home does not have to look like a cover from a lifestyle magazine or a social media post if that’s not who you are. It bears repeating!
If you are not sure whether or not to keep something, ask yourself, “If I saw it in a store, would I buy it?”
We keep things out of habit, delayed decision making, guilt and a host of other reasons. If you are trying to declutter or simplify your life, this is a great way to know if it stills has value for you.
Honor the memory, person or experience with something meaningful
When you walk through a museum or someone’s home and admire painting or an object of art, do you take it home and keep it? Hopefully not – unless you want to end up in jail. Sometimes you can simply enjoy the memory of a person, place or experience without having every item that reminds you of them. Pick one or two things that truly honors the person or best represents your experience.
Only the owner of the item gets to decide about whether it stays or goes
I have a rule when I work with couples. Only the “owner of the decision” has the say about keep vs. go. The non-owner does not get a say unless explicitly asked. I’ve avoided many arguments with this rule. The only exception should be if one member of the couple delegates the decision making to their spouse. In this case, the delegating spouse has to set the parameters very carefully. No coming back later and saying, “I wanted that!”
When you’ve got to get it done quickly, efficiently and expertly, hire a professional organizer
About six months ago, we were getting ready to remodel our basement. I had to move my collection of record albums to another storage area and as I did so, I thought, “why am I still keeping these?”
I didn’t bother to wait for the answer. Instead, I put them away for safekeeping and walked away.
About two months later, with the remodel complete, I moved the albums back into the storage cabinet and thought, “why am I still keeping these?” This time, it occurred to me that if I took pictures of all the album covers I could check to see if they were available for streaming online, something I would have suggested to my clients.
It took about 30 minutes to snap a picture of all 115 albums, a mix of mostly rock, folk, R&B and some classical. Then I walked away.
A month ago, I went to put away our outdoor chair cushions for the winter. As I did, I saw the record albums in the cabinet meant for the cushions. We really need the whole space for the cushions, I thought, so I took the records, divided them between four, double-bagged grocery bags, and left them in the basement on the floor.
“When I get rid of these, it will be easy to carry them away.” Then I walked away.
About a week ago, I went downstairs and spotted the four bags.
So I started asking myself the kinds of questions I ask my clients:
Do I love these? – I love the music and yes, some of the albums themselves.
Would you miss them if they disappeared? – Not necessarily, as long as I could get the music again.
Would you buy the albums again if you saw them? – Definitely not.
So what do you want to do?
I immediately went to my phone and created a post to sell the albums on a popular website. Then I created a shareable link that included the photos of all the album covers I had taken two months ago. Within minutes interested buyers responded with offers.
Being able to share the photos right away really helped since buyers could scan the collection before making an offer.
Proud of myself for finally moving forward I told my husband, “Guess what? I posted my albums for sale.” He replied, “are you keeping any?”
Suddenly a swell of emotion came over me. How did I not think of this?
As an organizer, I always ask my clients who have collections they want to sell, which, if any, do they want to keep? Somehow in my eagerness to get the job done, I forgot to ask myself the same question.
Since no one had actually bought the collection yet, I thought, “I’ll set aside the ones worth it to me to frame and hang,” but as I did so I realized I didn’t want to hang any of them. One by one I quickly went through the four bags of albums. That’s when the memories started flooding back.
Dancing with my friends to Blondie’s Parallel Lines in college. Singing to Joni Mitchell’s Blue in my bedroom as a teenager. Recalling the first time I felt the power of Janis Joplin’s gravelly voice on Pearl. Pining for an old sweetheart while listening to Billie Holiday. Remembering the very first record I ever played on my parent’s portable record player, Getz/Gilberto. I knew the words to The Girl from Ipanema when I was six.
I put all the albums back in the bags and took the best offer.
The buyer arrived that day – a 30 something guy who worked as an environmental scientist but had a love of albums and a small hobby-business selling them. I sat with him while he went through each of them to check their condition. As he did, I heard myself talking like the typical late middle-aged music fan I am, reminiscing about seeing Sly and the Family Stone at Madison Square Garden and how I really wasn’t a huge fan of The Beatle’s Abbey Road but the cover was so iconic.
These albums were the soundtrack of my life. And that’s when it hit me. “I’m not just selling my albums. I’m giving up part of myself.”
It wasn’t just the albums I was saying goodbye to. It was me, Liz – the way I spelled it then – the white, middle class, introspective, New York City kid who felt the sounds of Marvin Gaye and Aretha in her bloodstream. The one who played Fleetwood Mac and Rickie Lee Jones, over and over again in her dorm room or rocked to the sounds of the The Pretenders, The Kinks and Cream in her first apartment.
She was me, the student who stopped one day on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, a freshman at Boston University, and paid the astronomical sum of $10 to a street vendor to buy the album It’s A Beautiful Day with it’s iconic cover of the young mountain girl, her hat and dress pushed by the wind.
“Prophetic,” I thought. The band was from San Francisco, the place I would find myself moving to almost ten years later.
Back in my basement, I watched as each vinyl record passed through the buyers hands as he inspected them. After we agreed on a price, he asked me, quite generously, if there was anything I wanted to keep? Should I have said, “Yes! I want it all back. The years and the time?” I didn’t.
Instead, I picked up the last record he’d looked at, It’s A Beautiful Day. He hadn’t heard of it until I started hum-singing the band’s most famous track, “White Bird” the song about a bird trapped in a golden cage, on a winter’s day, in the rain. Then, of course, I had to tell him the story of how I bought it.
Last year you spent a week, month or a lot of money, to organize your home, or one area of it, and now it’s back where you started.
During Covid, you coped last year by shopping. You got into a new hobby. You inherited items from your family. Either way, you got some new stuff. It may even be better than the old stuff but the old stuff is still there. The stuff you had and the new stuff didn’t get put away or it piled above other stuff you already have.
In addition, all those great storage systems for containing your stuff stopped working for you or your family. You started to fall back into old habits. Now you’ve got more stuff than before.
My advice to you: Don’t be discouraged. It may be time to examine your thinking, perspectives and habits when it comes to obtaining and organizing. Remember, sometimes life gets in the way and your priorities change.
First and foremost, consider it a learning, not an opportunity to shame yourself!
How often do you say to yourself…?
I’ll get to it later
I’m keeping it just in case
I’ll just put it here, for now
My family isn’t cooperating!
I couldn’t find it so I bought another
I’ll go through it tomorrow
I may need it some day
It belonged to my parents. I just couldn’t toss it!
Everything in life is an experiment
Remember that great feeling you had when everything had a “home” and it was so neat and tidy?
It didn’t happen by accident and whether you did it yourself or had help from friends or professionals, chances are you learned something you’ve just forgotten. When you forget, your old habits return.
It’s like other things we try to change in our lives. (Believe me. I know this firsthand!)
For example, imagine you need to get to a healthy weight. It’s going to take action and consistency. Not just once, not just for a week, but every day or at least more days than not. You’ll also need a plan based on your strengths, needs and goals.
The same is true when you want to develop an organizing habit.
Know your strengths
Are you visual? Consider “envisioning’ what an organized space looks like for you. Draw or design it or find a picture online or in a magazine that inspires you. Look around and start to notice what you like about your space, not just what bothers you.
Are you tactile? Go around the space, from right to left, and mark all the items you want to get rid of with some painters tape. Touch the items and decide if they still hold meaning for you or not.
Are you a great listener? Consider watching organizing videos online, listen to podcasts or attend a free organizing talk in your area. Organizers often speak for free at retirement communities, real estate groups, community centers or libraries as a way to promote their services. Better yet, get some free advice
Are you physically agile or strong? You may be able to work alone and declutter yourself. Perhaps you can build yourself new storage systems or shelves. This type of strength is called kinesthetic.
Are you intuitive and pretty self-aware? This will help you to edit what you have. Ask yourself key questions that make it a whole lot easier to feel in control and less overwhelmed by your clutter.
Do I love this?
Does it bring in negative emotions or bad memories?
If I saw it in a store, would I buy it again?
Has it been more than a year since I used it?
If it should disappear would I miss it?
Do I know someone who would enjoy it more than I do?
Would it give me pleasure to give it away?
Am I truly honoring the person or their memory by keeping this?
Consider your needs
Sometimes we just don’t want to do something. We “don’t feel like it.” Other times it’s the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. Your needs are the basics of what makes life possible for you. For some it may be survival needs for others, they may be linked to your highest values. In general needs are the pre-requisites for functioning at your best. Consider your needs and how they fit into these four questions:
Is this something that’s important to me now?
Will having this space more organized help me get up in the morning or improve my day to day life?
Would learning a new organizing habit make me feel better about myself or change the way I perceive myself now?
What would happen if I left things as is? What would be the consequence?
Reflect on your WHY
Take a moment to identify what you want, how you’ll know you got there and why it’s important to you right now. This could be a short-term goal or a long-term goal. The short-term goal can tie into the long term goal but it should be satisfying in and of itself. For example, if you want to get your garage organized again, start with organizing one cabinet or the tool box. If your guest room has been overrun with stuff and is now a storage area, start with just the things on the floor and leave the surfaces, closets and closet organizing to later.
Achieving small successes will have a big impact on your ability to meet your larger goal. Along the way, you will also want to clarify why this is important to you so you can feel and be motivated to take actions that move you closer to your goal. Try asking yourself these four questions:
If everything were organized just the way I imagine, what would that bring me?
What would I be able to do that I can’t do now?
How would it feel to know that I have reached my goal and am maintaining it?
Besides me, who in my life would be most impacted if I did or did not develop this habit?
Change is certain when you know who you are
The process of change and developing any habit is not impossible. As a professional organizer, move manager and personal advocate for those who want to make change in their lives, I can tell you I wasn’t a “born organizer.” My home is tidy but not a magazine showpiece. I learned to be more organized as I discovered my strengths, needs and what was important to me (and what wasn’t).
It works for me and my husband. We each have our shared and separate responsibilities to keep up with it and I don’t take for granted that I can share those tasks with someone else. If I lived alone, I know it would be harder but not impossible. I also know I would need to make choices about what I could accept and live with.
Even if you live alone, are a single parent, have learned to cope with a physical or cognitive challenge or are recently retired, know that you already have certain strengths that can help you to develop and maintain an organizing habit, enjoy your life and get more done.
Organizing, like meditation, is a practice. It starts out feeling strange and unfamiliar. Over time it becomes the opening to a new way of being.
Over the years I’ve dipped into meditation but never with any consistency. I considered myself a meditation failure.
A few months ago I started again with the help of an app called Ten Percent. I pay for it but not much. The app was inspired by the book Ten Percent Happier. Its author is a journalist named Dan Harris. Harris experienced a very public panic attack while delivering the news on air one day. For more on his story, which is worth reading, visit www.tenpercent.com
When I first heard him at a conference on happiness, (yes you can roll your eyes), I liked him right away. First, he is a reporter, not a “wellness guru.” He is a self-proclaimed “non believer,” critical thinker, funny, Jewish, cute – hey it doesn’t hurt – and about as far from woo-woo as I could imagine.
He describes himself as workaholic. I once heard him say that since he started meditating his wife thought he’d become “less of an asshole.” He sounded like the right teacher for me.
So one day I started. That was 89 meditation sessions ago. (The app helps you keep track.)
The Good Side of Failure
Meditation is not hard but it’s not easy either. It helps if you have a guide and a structure; A thought or phrase to focus on like your breath. I also had to learn that meditation is not about “clearing your mind.” That’s impossible nor the goal. Instead, I learned that failing at meditation is the whole point of meditation.
You focus on something, for a second, lose track of your focus, notice you’ve lost track and get back on track.
It’s in the noticing of when you’ve lost track, that helps you to become more aware. What struck me is that it is the in the moment of “failure” where you gain the most awareness.
We live in a culture and a country that fights failure at all costs. Like vultures at a carcass, we go after people when they fail. Simone Biles withdrawing from the team events at the 2020 Olympics for her own mental health is one recent example. Worst of all, we are ruthless when it comes to our own failures. My inner critic almost made my therapist jump out of her chair recently.
Failure, fear of failure, shame, guilt. I see it so much in the coaching and organizing work I do.
Our clutter – both the mental chatter and the physical stuff – is the manifestation of our sense of self. It’s like being in a self-driving car that’s lost control. By the way, being in a self-driving car is my worst nightmare.
Meditation has shown me the good side of failure. That is, in the moment of losing track, comes the new way of seeing, the shift in perspective. In that moment, it feels like your inner bully is in full force, but that’s where the self-compassion comes in.
The Sting of Self Compassion
Is it easy to find self-compassion when our critical mind is attacking us like a swarm of bees? It’s almost as if the medicine is worse than the pain. But that in fact is the opening, the antidote to the sting if you will.
I have to admit I’m not great at this, yet. I’m still working on turning up the volume of my self-compassion and turning down the volume of my critic. At least I am more aware of it now. I have an opponent I can see a bit better. With time I hope I will be able to hold us both, in the same space, not as my enemy, but with kindness and forgiveness.
Editor’s Note: Cara Lanz is a freelance writer, digital marketer, and self-proclaimed word nerd. She is also a god-send to me. This month she is my guest blogger. When she isn’t creating digital content for clients across the country, she is blogging on MidwesternHomeLife, her own lifestyle website. She loves to share simple and (sometimes) healthy recipes, debt-free tips, and inspiration for creating a happy home in the heartland. You can find Cara at https://midwesternhomelife.com/.
I knew I needed to declutter my dishes when it came down to a math problem I just couldn’t solve. I had two people in the house and a dinnerware cabinet brimming with — among other things — 21 dinner plates, 12 salad plates, 17 saucers, and 20 soup bowls.
Now, in my defense, they were all matching– well, as matching as Fiestaware can be — and neatly organized. No haphazard piles or plastic containers shoved in there. So, on its face, it didn’t really appear as though I needed to declutter my dishes.
But the math just didn’t work. Plus, I had other cabinets bursting at the seams with things I wanted to move into my dinnerware cabinet.
How would I go about deciding what to keep and what to get rid of?
Enter Lis McKinley, owner of LET’S MAKE ROOM. As an organizational expert, she’s helped hundreds of others figure this very thing out.
But, I wondered: Would she finally be the one to pry my superfluous Fiestaware from my gripped fingers, or would I be the one and only person she has not been able to help? I really had no idea which way this was going to go.
So we set up a Zoom meeting.
My Virtual Organizing Call with Lis
When I first got on a call with Lis, I noticed two things right away. She’s warm and welcoming and made every crazy organizational dilemma I had seem like it was totally normal, and she’s heard it a million times. She’s also extremely decisive in that teacher kind of way that just made me want to do what she said because I knew she knew what she was talking about.
She laid out our plan for exactly what we were going to do during our time together. She even had a clever acronym for her process: S.P.A.C.E. She gently took the time to explain what each of the steps meant and made sure I understood them.
For the next hour, we:
Here’s what that looked like.
To get started, I pulled all my dishes out of the cabinet and put them into like piles. Bowls with bowls, plates with plates. Not only did this help me to see with clarity exactly what I was dealing with, but it also gave me an empty cabinet, aka, a clean slate, to start all over again.
The goal of purging was to make decisions about which items I wanted to keep, based on four criteria: Do I love them, want them, need them, or use them? We had really thoughtful conversations and she asked me things like, “If you saw that in a store, would you buy it again?” We also discussed how often we entertain, how many adults and kids, and which dishes we need to accommodate them. Then we pared down from there. It all made perfect sense.
We also sifted through things that I knew just weren’t going to go back into the cupboard. These super fussy 2-part martini chiller/chilled appetizer glasses, for example. Also, some heirloom dishes that are pretty enough, but I’m just not using them.
During the assign process, I had to find a home for everything. To figure that out, I had to think about where I would most likely look for things if I needed to use them. So a good amount of my dinnerware was assigned back to the cupboard.
Those fussy 2-part glasses — and other things I’ll never use again — went straight into the “Donate” box. The heirloom dishes went into my “Ask Mom If She Wants Them Back” box. But that wasn’t the end of it. Lis made me pick a date when I would drop off the “Donate” items and send a pic to my mom of the items that were potentially going to boomerang back to her. So, now I was accountable. But, it was all on a timeline that I chose.
Now it was time to put things back. Contain my pared-down dishes into the cupboard. But it wasn’t just, “Okay now put everything back.” Lis asked me to think about each item I was putting back and where it would be best to put it. We had discussions about things like, “Well, we really use these bowls more than those bowls,” and “I can’t reach those plates very well when the dishwasher is open.” So it was super strategic, and I could tell it was going to set me up for long-term success.
Also, Lis knew one of my goals was to get rid of so much stuff in this cupboard that I could free up my entire top shelf, drop it down to a level I could actually reach, and transport items I use all the time from another hard-to-reach cupboard. So while Lis sat in the Zoom room, I hauled over a bar stool, climbed up on my counter, and dropped down that top shelf. Just like that, that cupboard became 33.33% more useful to me!
During the equalize phase — this was the tidying up at the end of it all — I easily put things back where they belonged. Lis explained that the process of assigning and containing is what makes it possible to equalize, because I had already established a home for everything.
I had a pile of plates and bowls that were going to be put away into my pantry for when I needed them for a large party. I had certain dishes I only use for my food blog that needed to go where those things live. At last, everything was where it should be.
My Dishes, Decluttered
By the end of our hour and a half together, my cupboard was whittled down to a svelte 10 dinner plates, 10 salad plates, and 10 soup bowls. Zero saucers. Lots of room for everything we need, in the places that make the most sense. AND a completely empty shelf ready to take on the overflow when I use the S.P.A.C.E. method to clear out my next cupboard.
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.
Stuck at home. You’ve had your morning coffee, read the gloomy newspaper or scanned your social media apps. You have something pressing to do but avoid it and mindlessly start shuffling papers on your desk.
You wander around aimlessly, straightening pictures, moving a pile of books from one surface to another, throwing out an obvious piece of trash. You know you’re barely making a dent but somehow it seems important in the moment.
You look around your home and feel the familiar pang of shame that comes from knowing your house is more than a “bit of a mess.” Books and knick-knacks piled two-deep on shelves. Your cabinets and drawers packed full with a lifetime of items that meant something to you once but now you can’t even remember where half of them came from.
Almost every surface covered with the residue of the week.
Don’t Go It Alone!
You look around at the 20 or 30 years of accumulated stuff. You wonder if you have the resources to hire a professional organizer who would somehow magically transform your home into a picture straight out of Real Simple Magazine. You know this is impossible now. Money is tight and you’ve just paid your property taxes or your son’s tuition or an unexpected medical bill from a procedure you had last year before something called Covid-19 stole your “normal” life.
Momentarily the thought disappears as your alarm reminds you it’s time for your weekly Zoom call.
During the meeting you happen to mention your desire to get decluttered and curiously ask if anyone else is feeling the same. All at once, hands shoot up in the air. You let out a sigh of relief and recognition. You are not alone in this struggle and that’s when it hits you. “Why not start a clutter support group?”
The idea came to C.J. during a recent Zoom meeting she was conducting with her clients – mostly other self-employed people. C.J. casually mentioned she’d like to be more organized and asked if anyone else was experiencing the same thing.
“Half the hands in the room shot up” C.J. told me recently by phone. She then posed the question to the group, “Maybe we should form a pod? That’s how it started. It was totally spontaneous.”
Within a few days C.J. had come up with a group structure — action oriented, not just a support group – a name, The Decluttering Divas and a schedule. They meet virtually once a week on Monday mornings and keep their computer’s microphones and cameras turned on so everyone else in the group can “get the visceral sounds of decluttering.” C.J. gets the group going but it is strictly peer-support that keeps everyone on task.
Tame Your Inner Critic
Perhaps the biggest value of the group has been the way it helps silence everyone’s inner critic, including C.J’s.
“She tells me this is too big a job and I’ll never be able to complete it. But I keep telling her that as long as I break it down into manageable chunks, and have support, I really can.”
The group shares another bond – that of facing the many challenges of life as baby-boomers. Several of the group’s members juggle their lives and their businesses, often with competing responsibilities for aging parents, adult children and the self-imposed pressure of changing attitudes towards the things they own. For some, decluttering runs into direct conflict with their parent’s depression-era views of save everything
In C.J.’s case, that meant, among other things, coming across a collection of old hair accessories and incredulously wondering why she had kept them. “The last time I had hair long enough to wear hair ornaments was probably in the mid-90s!”
Join A Worldwide Movement
It turns out Decluttering Divas is not alone. A search of other decluttering groups on the popular Meetup.com website found 71 groups consisting of nearly 18,000 members in 62 cities across 16 countries around the world.
While it’s unlikely the Covid-19 pandemic, with more and more people being sequestered at home, lead to the phenomena of worldwide clutter groups, as well as popular topics such as minimalism, online selling, tiny houses, and home editing, it’s probably one of it’s few silver linings. Even C.J.s group has one participant from the United Kingdom.
The reasons people join a decluttering group are as varied as their stuff. In “Decluttering Divas,” one member was dealing with the clutter left behind by her parents who lived with her for many years but who have since moved on to retirement communities or passed away.
Another is an artist who wanted more time for her art and hobbies and was getting too distracted by her clutter.
For C.J. herself it came down to being able to be more productive at work as a busy entrepreneur who travels extensively as well as to be able to relax at home.
Even her husband, without prompting, caught the decluttering bug.
“One day I came out of my meeting and found a bunch of cups and glasses on the counter. He decided it was time to clear out a kitchen cabinet.” Together they got rid of most of them, offering them for free to neighbors through the popular site, Nextdoor.com
Applying what you already know to get organized
While not a professional organizer herself, C.J. had worked with a few in the past, and had read several books about organizing and several of her clients are professional organizers.Along the way, she’s learned techniques and strategies for decluttering but it’s been her coaching and group facilitation experience that turned her casual question into a satisfying reality.
When the group first met, C.J. posed three “focusing questions” to ensure each member had a real action-oriented purpose for being there.
The focusing questions asked members to set and share a specific and attainable goal, explain why they had chosen that goal and set a deadline for completing the goal. Members who could not set a realistic deadline were asked to scale back their goals until they could.
To keep it “manageable,” there are a total of 8 people in the group though other peer-lead groups around the country, according to MeetUp.com show as many as 600 members.
During meetings, members of the group share their goals and even post before and after pics. Offline the group shares or exchanges resources such as where and how to get rid of things, especially useful during the current health restrictions when many charities are not accepting or limiting their donation services.