Three organizing lessons I learned 30 years ago

I’m not one of those people who obsessively organized her books, clothes, or toys as a child — but I do thank my family, and one of my first bosses, for teaching me some valuable lessons as a child and a young adult. The following are important life lessons they taught me, years before I became a professional organizer:

Perfectionism often doesn’t pay

I have distinct perfectionist tendencies, but over the years I’ve learned that they don’t always serve me well. The story that really highlights this happened when I was in middle school.

I had a homework assignment that involved listing the rivers found in a number of the 50 states. I sat at my desk with a big atlas, and wrote down every single river in those states. There are a lot of rivers, and this was a very time-consuming task.

My parents insisted that the teacher really just wanted the biggest rivers and that I was going overboard — which, in retrospect, I certainly was. But there was no convincing me, and I missed an annual family outing to the local cider mill — something I looked forward to every year — so I could complete the assignment to my ridiculous level of detail. I gave up delicious cider and fresh-cooked doughnuts, and no one cared about my very complete list of rivers except me.

I didn’t learn my lesson back in grade school, but the story has since become my touchstone when I find myself veering back into unnecessary perfectionism. “Are you doing the river thing again?” I’ll ask myself.

Keep up on maintenance

My family lived in Michigan, and I had a beloved aunt, uncle, and three cousins who lived in Florida. Much to my delight as a grade-school kid — and much to my mother’s horror — these relatives would sometimes take road trips, which included coming to visit us with almost zero notice.

I remember getting a phone call from my aunt telling me that all five of them were at a certain intersection, and asking how to get to our house from there. She was about a five-minute drive away.

As I grew older, I understood why my mother went into a tizzy when she got such calls. And the lesson I took away was to always be ready for unexpected (but very welcome) company.

While I’m far from being a neat freak, I do want to keep my life and my home organized enough — no perfectionism here — that I would always be delighted to get a call like the one from my aunt. It requires doing maintenance tasks (like putting things back in their homes) on a regular basis.

Focus on one thing at a time

I remember a day in one of my first jobs when I was feeling totally overwhelmed. My boss came by and coached me through it. “What’s the first thing you need to do?” he asked. Then he had me ignore everything else, and only work on getting that one thing done. Then I moved on to the next thing and the next, until it all got done.

The same strategy can apply to other situations, like an overwhelming backlog of papers to sort. You pick up just one piece of paper and decide what to do with it. And then the next and the next — and after a while, the paperwork is complete.

8 Comments for “Three organizing lessons I learned 30 years ago”

  1. posted by Ed on

    My wife grew up near the Franklin cider Mill – we usually drive in each year from Chicago for Thanksgiving and it is one of the highlights of every trip.

  2. posted by Katy on

    Oh my! Franklin Cider Mill — I grew up near there and we had countless trips. There’s nothing better in the world than a cup of fresh cider and a paper bag of donuts!

  3. posted by danielle on

    On your third point, I try to remember the joke: Q. How do you eat an elephant? A. one bite at a time.

  4. posted by Janice on

    I know it’s silly, but I’m kind of sad that the teacher didn’t care (or, apparently didn’t even notice) that you went to such great lengths to list all those rivers.

  5. posted by Julie Bestry on

    I think these are the kinds of lessons we have to relearn, over and over, in different contexts. Thank you for giving us such clear, concrete examples. And now I want those doughnuts.

  6. posted by Vicki on

    Thanks, Jeri, for sharing your organizing lessons that you learned a long time ago. I learned about avoiding perfectionism from my mom when I was in 6th grade. I was trying to make a chart (by hand, of course, in the late 1960s) about some topic (it really does not matter what topic). Every time I made a mistake in drawing a line, I threw away the sheet of paper and started again. By the time my mom entered the room, I was ready to cry. She told me to keep working on the assignment and ignore the little mistakes. She said that no one else will see them. As it turned out, she was right. Thanks, mom!

  7. posted by Stephanie on

    As simple as it can be focusing on one thing at a time for organizing does help to prevent half done projects or cleaning which leads to more mess.

  8. posted by Patty@homemakersdaily.com on

    Oh, yes. This is how I live:

    “While I’m far from being a neat freak, I do want to keep my life and my home organized enough — no perfectionism here — that I would always be delighted to get a call like the one from my aunt. It requires doing maintenance tasks (like putting things back in their homes) on a regular basis.”

    Having things in reasonable order makes life so much easier – especially when someone drops by unexpectedly. My house isn’t always perfect – but it’s good enough that I don’t need to be embarrassed. And it’s because of my daily maintenance routine.

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