After being told by a teacher in high school that my writing was “average, at best,” I set out on a mission to improve my writing skills. I studied and practiced during my free time, which was an odd pastime for a teenager, and I pushed myself to learn whatever I could. I found I really enjoyed writing, and ended up pursuing a journalism degree in college. In graduate school, I kept with the writing theme and produced my master’s thesis on how to help non-native English speakers acquire vocabulary words based on morphemes to improve their writing and reading comprehension. Studying texts, taking classes, researching the brain and how it stores and uses languages were all fine methods for acquiring information about writing, and my writing did improve — but it wasn’t until I stepped into a classroom and taught 15-year-old students how to improve their writing that I truly blossomed as a writer.
My first year of teaching, a student wrote on a worksheet the following misquoted phrase from The Great Gatsby: “the cocktail yellow music.”
I knew “the cocktail yellow music” wasn’t grammatically correct (nor was it how Fitzgerald had penned it), but I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to mark it wrong on my student’s worksheet until I was sure I could explain to her why it was wrong. I tracked down an accomplished linguistics professor, and she explained to me that adjectives in English have a preference order. As a native English speaker, I instinctually used adjectives in the correct order but had never once thought about it. The adjectives simply flowed out of me in the way that sounded correct. Obviously, the phrase should be “the yellow cocktail music,” which is how it appears in the original text. The grammatical reason it should be this way is because color adjectives are listed before purpose adjectives. Yellow (a color) needs to come before the purpose for the music (the cocktail party). (If you’re curious: More information on adjective order in English.)
Three or four times a week, a student would ask me questions I couldn’t yet answer or make mistakes with their writing I knew were wrong but didn’t know why. I was pushed to learn why the word it takes the possessive unlike other words in the English language, why we say beef when talking about eating cows but don’t have separate words for eating fish or vegetables, why our brains go blind to overused words like said when we read, why it’s now acceptable to split infinitives but wasn’t always, how the passive voice can sometimes better convey information than the active voice, why it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions, and thousands of other specific quirks related to English communication. Teaching young adults how to improve their writing significantly improved my writing. Then, practicing these skills daily has helped me to retain what I learned.
I’ve found the exact same thing to be true with uncluttering and organizing. The more I help others to unclutter and organize their spaces, the better I become at doing these tasks in my own home and office. When I help others, my skill set benefits.
If you’re having issues in your own spaces with clutter and disorganization, help friends to unclutter and organize their homes and offices. Share what knowledge you have (which is probably more than you give yourself credit for knowing) and be open to learning through the process and from your friend. Seek out answers and solutions, and also absorb what you can from those around you. Practice, practice, practice your skills with your friends. Then, if you have good friends, they will return the favor and help to mentor you as you go through your uncluttering and organizing projects. You also may feel confident after your experiences to simply take on your projects alone.
If your friends aren’t game for such an activity, donate some of your time to a charity to clean out and organize a soup kitchen pantry or a game room at a women’s shelter or a clothing closet for a group that provides clothes for job interviews. Mentor your children by bringing them with you to sort materials at a charity’s donation site. You don’t have to work with people you know to build your skills, and it’s often easier to work with items void of your sentimental attachments.
Get out there and help others, which will in turn help build your uncluttering and organizing skills.