Being organized makes life easier

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to go see a radio show being taped in San Francisco tonight. Seats for the show disappeared within a day, so I was lucky to get one. In addition to luck, I was also prepared to make the necessary quick decision as to whether or not I wanted to attend the event when the tickets became available.

  • I had my goals for the year already defined. One of my goals is to get out more, putting aside work and having fun, and taking advantage of all the area has to offer. So I knew that this opportunity fit within my goals.
  • I had my finances organized, and I knew how much I could afford to spend on a ticket.
  • I had my calendar up to date, and I knew I didn’t have any scheduling conflicts.
  • I’d recently exercised my decision-making skills, and making one more decision was pretty easy.

Being organized has helped in many other areas of my everyday life. I’m having a couple family members over to the house on Saturday. I’ll do some extra cleaning before they arrive — don’t we all do that before company comes? But because the house is basically organized, I don’t have to fret about this being a big deal or plan on throwing a bunch of stuff into a closet or room that no one will see. And, I know I have the supplies I need to do the cleaning.

I moderate a Yahoo Group with over 2,000 members. In this group, the same types of problems come up time and again. These problems require me to write to certain members and explain what they are doing wrong. Since I took the time to set up some snippets in a text expansion tool — I happen to use Typinator, but there are plenty of others — I can respond much more quickly to these repeat problems and be sure I’m saying exactly the right thing.

And this year, I’m up-to-date on my bookkeeping and my scanning of tax-related documents. Next tax season will be much less stressful than in the past, when I’ve let myself fall behind.

I see the same kind of day-to-day benefits when I talk to other people, too. Artists who have their supplies organized can put their fingers on those they want when they begin a new project. Shop owners who are organized can find the inventory they need to restock their shelves. I have a friend who is both a painter and a gallery owner, and she’s always showing off to me when she puts a new organizing tool in place.

I’ve seen people with overflowing kitchen cabinets, full of stuff they don’t use. Once those cabinets were uncluttered and organized, meal preparation became much less stressful since everything needed was easy to find.

Organizing isn’t an end unto itself; it’s a way to make it easier for each of us to live the life we want to live.

A place for everything and everything in its place, well, for the most part

At Unclutterer, we usually support the organizing standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” However, there are occasions when adhering to this motto is inefficient and might best be put on hold.

For example, most of the year our family eats meals in the dining room. During the financial year-end though, the dining room table turns into a horizontal filing cabinet for a couple of days while I prepare our income tax returns. During these few days, our family eats in the kitchen or in the living room on TV trays while the paperwork stays out on the table. This is a minor inconvenience for our family compared to the time-consuming task of packing up all of the paper work and re-filing it into the filing cabinet everyday. All of this paperwork does have a long-term place, but for this period of time it has a short-term place on the dining table.

You may decide there are other times when the standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place” should be temporarily ignored or when a short-term home should be established for specific items.

From time-to-time, your children may take on projects with their toys that are too much fun to go away after just a single play session. If your child is building a space station with blocks, confine the construction to a certain area of the room and let the building continue for a few days. A doll’s excessive wardrobe and shoe collection could be out for a few days and then sent to the “dry cleaners” (cardboard box) that can be easily moved so that housekeeping can be done. If you notice the projects haven’t been worked on in awhile, that is a good indication that the toys are ready to be returned to their permanent homes.

Rather than trying to obtain one those picture perfect houses from the magazines, think about how to manage your projects efficiently. When is it a good idea for you to ignore the “a place for everything and everything in its place” motto?

Being an organized executor

An executor is the person appointed to administer the estate of a person who has died. Being named as an executor is a privilege, but the title also comes with a significant amount of responsibility. Sometimes it may take several years to finalize an estate if it is complicated or if there are disputes among the beneficiaries.

If you feel you cannot adequately perform the duties of the executor (perhaps you live across the country or you have extensive personal commitments), it is important that you do not start. You will need to speak with the lawyer handling the estate as soon as possible so a new estate administrator can be appointed.

If you have chosen to act as an executor, organization and careful record keeping will keep the task from becoming overwhelming.

It is important to set up a good filing system. You will need to keep copies of everything you have sent to and received from banks, the government, creditors, and beneficiaries, etc. It is a good idea to use a small portable filing box to set up the estate’s filing system so it is separate from your own house and business.

The folders should include the following:

  • Vital Records. This includes birth and marriage certificates, citizenship status, divorce decree, social security card, passport, etc. of the deceased.
  • Legal Papers. You will need the original and multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Also keep copies of the will, codicils, and living will, etc.
  • Employment Documents. This folder would contain all of the documents relating to the deceased’s employment and employment benefits. If the deceased was retired at the time of death, retirement and pension documents would be stored here.
  • Financial. The estate must have its own bank account, separate from your personal account and separate from the deceased’s accounts. Keep all deposit and withdrawal records, as well as statements. You will also need to keep proof of account closures and receipts for any debts paid (e.g. for the deceased’s credit cards).
  • Government. This folder would contain all documentation relating to the deceased’s income taxes, government pensions or other benefits.
  • House. If the deceased had a home, it should be made secure and the home insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Keep all bills and receipts pertaining to the house in this file.
  • Automobile. If the deceased had a car, it should be located and secured. The car insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Beneficiaries should not use the vehicle until it is clear that they are entitled to use it and that appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Other Assets. Keep records of other assets. You may wish to have a separate folder for larger assets such as a cottage or recreational vehicle. Smaller assets such as art or jewelry could be combined in the same file.
  • Estate Management Costs. If you have used any of your personal funds to administer the estate, such as purchasing postage stamps or paying for parking while at the lawyer’s office, keep the receipts. You may be able to claim this against the estate.

If you will be doing much of your communication via email, create an email address specifically for the estate. You should also set up a separate section or even a separate account on your computer, specifically to deal with the estate. To simplify organization, the names of the folders on your hard drive should mirror the names of the folders in your filing box.

Remember to save all email attachments to your hard drive especially if they are receipts or proofs of account closures. If the receipt is in the body of the email itself, print the email or save it to permanently readable, but non-editable format such as PDF.

Keep a journal documenting the work you have performed for the estate. A notebook is ideal for capturing this information. Record the dates and times you visited or phoned lawyers, bankers, and other estate advisors. Take notes during meetings. This will help when you need a reminder of what was discussed. You should also write down when death notices were sent and when accounts were marked closed. This alert you to outstanding tasks. Should there be any question about what you did and on which date, you’ll have your notebook to refer to.

Patience is crucial as an executor. You may be held personally liable if you rush and miss crucial legal steps. Many people wish to distribute the assets quickly, but it is usually against the law for you to do this until you have proper legal authorization. This authorization, or probate, varies widely across jurisdictions so it is very important to get advice from the estate lawyers before proceeding.

Although many people think they should pay bills as soon as they come in, they should not necessarily do this. In most cases, creditors (e.g. the electric company) are notified of the death and must wait for payment until the probate court prioritizes the list of creditor claims. Additionally, it’s important to remember not to let Cousin Bertha even take her favorite salt and pepper shakers from the estate until the authorization process is complete, and creditors have been paid.

Having an attorney who knows the rules in the deceased jurisdiction is essential. Attorneys can also help mediate beneficiary disputes, which can sometimes become unpleasant.

The role of executor can be challenging but working with attorneys and other professionals as well as keeping organized and detailed records, can ensure that the estate will be settled smoothly.

Have you had the experience of being an executor? What organizational tips do you suggest?

More organizational systems that changed history

Image circa 1967 from the Special Collections of Queen’s University Library, Kingston, Ontario Canada

Image circa 1967 from the Special Collections of Queen’s University Library, Kingston, Ontario Canada

Up until 150 years ago, only wealthy and well-educated people visited libraries. Librarians, who knew exactly what books were on what shelves, served these privileged patrons. By the mid-1800s, more and more people received an education and libraries became open to the public. Librarians could not serve everyone and patrons were expected to search for their own books.

In that era, libraries placed books on their shelves based on when the library acquired the book and the book’s size. Imagine going into a library and trying to find a book that the library acquired the previous year, that is about 10 inches tall with a blue cover and silver lettering.

In 1873 Melvil Dewey created a classification system to organize published works by fields of study. There are ten main classes (000 – 999), which cover the entirety of human knowledge. Each main class is divided into ten divisions, and each division into ten sections. Each book is assigned a Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) number based on its subject matter. This makes it possible to find a book using its DDC number and return it to its correct place on the shelves.

Classifying a work with the DDC requires determination of the subject and the disciplinary focus, and the author’s intent. This enables works that are used in the same way, to be found in the same area. For example, a book about disease transmission statistics written by a mathematician would be classed in medicine, not mathematics, along with other works on disease control. Librarians use subject keywords, author name, and book title to create the famous card catalogue in which patrons can look for books in which they are interested.

Today the Dewey Decimal Classification system is used across the world. It is continuously revised to keep pace with knowledge and has been translated into over thirty languages. Most people assume that the Dewey name is in the public domain. However, the OCLC Online Computer Library Center holds the trademark on the Dewey name and classification system.

Not so long ago, back in the mid-1990s, only a few technologically savvy people were using the Internet. At that time, tech companies hired human librarians to catalogue the information on the Internet and create directories. This was a slow, cumbersome system that required the end user to click through many pages to find specific information. Additionally, there were billions of web pages and they changed so frequently that librarians could not keep pace.

Two gentlemen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin imagined that computers, not humans, could do a much better and faster job of searching websites all over the world. Page and Brin started looking at patterns of data and how the data were connected to each other. They used that information to create a better search engine and in 1998 introduced the world to Google.

“Searching” may not be considered a “traditional” organizational system but as John Battelle explained, “[Google] clarified and cleared up the clutter of the Internet and made it possible to find what you were looking for quickly and easily.”

Melvil Dewey, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin may have created different organizational systems for information, but the end result was the same, and more knowledge is more easily available to more people.

Two more organizing myths

A while ago, I discussed five common organizing myths in a post on Unclutterer. Since then, I’ve come upon two more myths that you should watch out for when tackling the clutter in your home.

This [insert product or system here] will solve all of your organizing dilemmas.

There are many amazing organizing products available. Some products and systems will benefit almost everyone, but some will only benefit a unique few. Organizing products and systems are dependent on the way a person thinks and in how he/she works. Other factors that influence how well a product or system will function are:

  • The lifestyles of the family members
  • The floor plan of home or office
  • Sense of style and design
  • Fondness of technology

There are as many organizing products and systems as there are people who wish to be organized. Think carefully about your lifestyle and your preferences before you invest in specific products or systems.

This organizing system works perfectly now so it will work perfectly forever.

Can you imagine packing your family and a week’s worth of camping equipment into the sports car you had in college? As your lifestyle changes, your organizing systems will change, too. Some factors that cause current organizing systems to fall apart include:

  • Changes in employment; a new job or a change in daily hours
  • Family members; new babies, children going to, or returning from college
  • Renovations or moving to a new home or office
  • Changes in health

Even small changes such as your municipality changing your trash pick-up day may require you to alter your organizing system. A food company’s decision to change the package size of your favourite cereal box might require you to re-organize your kitchen cupboards for greater efficiency. Whenever your system becomes cumbersome or ineffective, re-evaluate and make adjustments.

If you think you might have fallen for one or both of these myths, consider what steps you can take to get things back on track.

Organizational systems that changed history

When thinking about organizing, you likely don’t consider it to be world changing or revolutionary. However, the history books would suggest differently. For example, there are two scientists who reorganized information and created organizational systems that allowed humans to make significant advancements in the fields of science and technology.

Biology

Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) was not the first scientist to recognize that different species could be grouped together based on some common characteristics. However, until Linnaeus’s time, scientists arbitrarily gave the species they classified complicated Latin names that they changed whenever they wished, depending on what other species they were classifying at the time. This meant that two different scientists could be using different names for the exact same species.

In 1735, Linnaeus published the revolutionary book Systema Naturae. It outlined his scheme for classifying all known and yet-to-be-discovered life forms. His system was simple to understand and apply, and it could be easily modified to accommodate changes and new developments. Linnaeus’s method of organization was accepted as the scientific standard by the early 1800s.

Chemistry

In the early 1800s, scientists attempted to organize chemical elements by listing them in order of atomic mass, but that method didn’t adequately explain the relationships between the elements. And, scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) realized that there was a recurring pattern relating the physical and chemical properties of elements to their atomic number — it wasn’t chaotic.

In 1869, Mendeleev re-arranged the elements. He moved them from a list into a table. He placed the elements into horizontal rows in order of their atomic number and placed those with similar properties into vertical columns. By organizing the elements in this way, Mendeleev allowed scientists to classify, systematize, and compare all the many different forms of chemical behaviour.

In science classrooms all over the world, posters of his Periodic Table of the Elements hang on the wall.

Organizing can change the world. And, although organizing your wardrobe or kitchen cupboards may not win you a Nobel Prize, it just may make your life a little easier.

Six steps to establishing order in your home after an inevitable dip into chaos

This week has been one of those weeks where I never found my rhythm. You’ll notice that Tuesday’s post ran on Wednesday and then there wasn’t a Unitasker Wednesday post. I forgot my son’s weekly swimming lesson, which has been at the same date and time this entire year. All day yesterday, I kept making plans for today as if it were Sunday. There are a handful of other examples, all proving that my head has not been attached to my shoulders this week.

As is the case for most people, as my mental space has become chaotic, so has my physical space. Mt. Laundry has erupted in my laundry room. I’ve been rushed, so things haven’t been put away as I’ve used them. It has also affected my kids, since I’m not giving them time to clean up before we run to the next activity. TMZ could do an expose with intense music and tell-all photographs with the headline “And she calls herself the Unclutterer!”

In the professional organizing industry, we refer to these times as “falling off the wagon.” It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I have to find a way to chase down the wagon and get back on. The following steps are what I do to keep the chaos short lived:

  1. Cut yourself a break. Everyone, even professional organizers, find themselves in a cluttered state occasionally. It’s inevitable because life isn’t predictable. Don’t beat yourself up over the chaotic times or feel guilty about them. Rather, simply recognize you’re off course and then reroute yourself at the first possible opportunity.
  2. Invite people over. When things are in disarray, my usual response is to invite people to my house. This gives me a set deadline for when things need to be back together. Fewer things get me as motivated to clean, organize, and unclutter as knowing my friends will be stepping foot in my house.
  3. Tackle one room at a time. I like checklists, and the floor plan of my house often operates as one. (I do this mentally, I don’t have an actual printed floor plan, but you could if you like.) Kitchen, dining room, living room, office … I work through each room and mark it off as I go. I always start with the common places, where guests will certainly see, and then finish with my bedroom. This is convenient, too, because I’m usually ready for a nap after a whole-house reordering project.
  4. Get rid of stuff. One of the reasons I can do a whole-house reordering project in a couple hours is because I don’t have a lot of stuff and our house is relatively small (<1,300 sq ft). Less stuff equals less mess. As I clean and organize, I also get rid of stuff. If it's out of place, it might be because it doesn't have a permanent storage place. Things without permanent storage places are usually purged (recycled, donated, trashed, etc.) so they don't keep making a mess. If I don't purge it, I find a permanent home for it, no exceptions. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
  5. Take a picture. My eyes tend to gloss over things that have been out of place for awhile. I call this clutter numbness. If I take a picture of a room and study the image, however, all that clutter catches my attention. I do this after I’ve had my nap and I almost always find entire patches of stuff I missed on the first pass.
  6. Call in reinforcements. Whenever things get chaotic, I call in a professional cleaning service to scrub my floors, counters, and bathrooms. They also dust and do any other deep-cleaning work that needs to get done. I schedule them for after I’ve done the whole-house reordering project but before my friends’ arrival. This is my reward to myself for razing Mt. Laundry and getting the house back on track. It’s not an everyday thing, but a couple times a year it’s nice to have someone else clean the toilets.

After these six steps are complete, it’s a lot easier to get my head back on my shoulders. Similar to how mental chaos can lead to physical chaos, physical order can encourage mental order. What do you do to establish order in your home after you’ve fallen off the proverbial organizing wagon? Feel welcome to share your process in the comments so others in our community can get even more ideas.

Organize a personal board of directors

A few years ago I learned two important lessons from a business class. First: I have the natural business sense of a potato. Second: it’s a great idea to organize and maintain a personal board of directors. Years later, I’ve realized this strategy is applicable to much more than business. Home organization, parenting, and, yes, career decisions can all be advised by a qualified team of your own choosing.

When the school I worked for closed in 2009, I found myself jobless in an economy that was not friendly to the unemployed. After failing to quickly find a new job, I decided to peddle my skills and go to work for myself. A friend suggested that I take a class offered by a small business development firm in my neighborhood. It was the best advice I got that year.

This group helped me devise a plan, identify my marketable skills, and refine what I had to offer. It all culminated in making a presentation to a small board of professionals: which I bombed. It was humbling. After the smoke cleared, the group’s leader pulled me aside. “You just need some focus,” she said. “I think I can help.”

She and I spoke a few times and that one-on-one help was terrific. I went on to meet other people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. Five years later, I have a group of five or six people I can call on when I need guidance. Each excels in an area that’s troublesome for me. Most importantly, they’re not afraid to tell me, “Dave, that’s a very bad idea.” You do not want “yes men” on your personal board. You want honest, intelligent people who’ve got your interests in mind.

Now as I said, this needn’t be restricted to business. As it relates to organizing your home, office, or life, hire a professional organizer or look for groups that meet up with some regularity (meetup.com is a great way to do this) or even find a friend who has an extremely good set of organizing skills to help you. Ask questions, discuss your troubled areas, brainstorm, and then try out the suggestions. Search through old posts here on Unclutterer and see if we can spark some ideas to discuss with your organizing board.

Maybe you want to discuss parenting, personal productivity, or whatever section of your life is causing you stress. Calling on your personal board of directors is a great way to go to learn what they’re doing and what strategies they think may be able to help you. Perhaps you’ll even fill that role for someone else and return the favor.

Preparing for an organized and fun summer

A friend of mine teaches in a small Kansas town and the school where she works starts summer break today. The school is having major reconstruction done to it, so instead of subjecting the kids and faculty to a dangerous work zone, they put in longer days to get in the required hours this year and ended the school year early.

Our kids don’t begin summer break until the last week of June where I live in the D.C. area. But, irrespective of when it begins for you and/or your family, now is a great time to organize your summer plans (if you haven’t already).

Set a budget

Our first step in summer preparation is to set a budget. Once we know how much money we can spend, we then make decisions about vacations, camps for the kids, concerts, dinners, and other adventures. Working on percentages, we may decide to spend something like 40 percent of our summer fun budget on family vacations, 40 percent on camps, 5 percent on special projects, and the remaining 15 percent on everything else (movie tickets, ice cream, dinners with friends).

Create a plan

In April, we created a large calendar of the months May, June, July, August, and September and hung the pages up on the wall in the hallway by our bedrooms. We used sheets of reusable vinyl whiteboard to make the calendar because it’s easy to move around and stores nicely when not in use. Then, as we have made plans, we have been writing them onto the calendar along with locations and times: camps, weddings, festivals, vacations, etc.

We highlight activities based upon their attendance — who is involved (one person or everyone) and importance (something we could do vs. something we are doing). We also have a plain sheet of vinyl whiteboard where we note things we would like to do but haven’t yet scheduled.

Keep a project jar

This idea came to our family from fellow-Unclutterer contributor Dave Caolo in his post “Charting summer vacation success.” However, instead of calling ours a boredom jar, we’ve made three jars and named ours Project Jars (one jar for each person in the family who can read). We have a dozen or so special projects we all want to accomplish this summer. Mine includes sticks for things like making my daughter’s baby book and sewing a dress for me to wear to my sister-in-law’s wedding. If we owned our home, I’d most certainly have building a firepit in the backyard as one of my items.

Whether a project jar or a boredom jar, both are helpful for answering the question “what can I/we do?”

Make special summer routines

Keeping routines will help you to feel like you have accomplished things at the end of summer — you won’t feel as if the opportunities that come with warmer months simply pass you by. Obviously, keep up with your chores and morning hygiene routines, etc. What I’m mostly suggesting is that you put other routines in place to help you do the fun things of summer — every Friday meet friends for drinks or have another family over for dinner, attend the weekly free concert series provided by your local parks department, go for a run every morning, play basketball with your kids every day after work, take a family walk each night after dinner, etc.

List it, schedule it, and reserve it

Whether packing lists or lists for activity bags, you can get started now making lists of stuff you’ll need to have with you. It’s also a good time to reserve rental cars, make dinner plans, and schedule back-to-school doctor appointments for the kids. If something on your summer schedule requires prep work, you might as well do it now.

I save most of these items to Evernote so I can access them from home or when we’re on the road. I also use the To-do app on my phone that is part of the phone’s standard operating system — it’s nothing fancy, easy to use, and I can email lists to my husband.

Have fun organizing your summer plans and let us know in the comments about the steps you take to have a chaos-free summer.

Estate organization

No one likes to think about dying, but disorganization and lack of planning while you’re alive can lead to family disputes and large tax payments after you’ve passed away. The following are a few tips to help you get organized in case of an emergency.

List what you own

Create a home inventory listing everything you own. Most lawyers suggest you include everything with a value greater than $100. However, if there are sentimental items valued less than $100, list those as well. Non-physical items should also be inventoried. This would include digital music and movie collections and computer software applications.

Include other assets in the inventory such as savings accounts, life insurance policies, investments, and pension plans at various past places of employment.

List what you owe

List all of your debts including car loans, mortgage, and outstanding balances on credit cards. Create a list of any institutions or organizations you pay on a regular basis, for example your monthly payment to your gym or annual donations to a favourite charity. Include on this list any places that may have your credit card information on file such as your iTunes or Netflix accounts.

Simplify and unclutter

Once you’ve completed your inventory, you may decide that it is better to liquidate some of your assets while you’re still alive and well. You will be able to see the joy in people’s faces as you pass along some of your treasured items that you are no longer interested in keeping. If you have a certain collection, (e.g. Star Wars collectibles) ask your family members who would most appreciate receiving it on your death. You don’t want to burden your family members with something they would consider clutter. If you can’t find anyone, consider leaving instructions for selling it.

Get professional financial and legal advice

Each jurisdiction has its own laws, rules and regulations regarding estate planning, so it is extremely important to get professional advice. Lawyers and estate and financial planners can tell you which accounts should be made joint and which ones “transfer-on-death.” They can also provide advice on which accounts beneficiaries need to be listed. These professionals will provide information on what your executor would be expected to do when you pass away and what options are available for beneficiaries.

Choose an executor (estate administrator)

An executor is someone who administers your estate after you’ve passed. This person (or people) is responsible for locating and probating your will, making your funeral arrangements, paying taxes owed by your estate, and distributing your assets to beneficiaries. This can be a daunting task for many people so it is important to choose your executor carefully. Discuss your estate with potential executors. You may decide to choose co-executors, such asa family member and a lawyer.

Ideally, the executor should have enough free time to complete all of the tasks. (It can take up to three years to completely settle an estate). The executor should be organized and be able to keep complete and accurate records of all transactions pertaining to the estate. If you have assets outside of the country, your executor may have to obtain a passport and visas to deal with those assets. If you spend much of your time online (banking and investing), consider choosing an executor who is tech-savvy.

Getting it all organized

All necessary documents should be accessible by your executor when you pass away. I am the executor to my aunt’s estate and she has a folder in her filing cabinet labeled, “What to do when I’m dead (or almost).” I know that I should look in this folder should anything happen to my aunt. This folder contains important information such as:

  • The key for the safety deposit box where the legal documents are stored (Will, Power of Attorney, deeds, passport, birth certificate, etc.)
  • Names and contact information of lawyers, financial advisors, banks.
  • Home inventory list
  • List of people to notify of death (friends and neighbours)
  • Funeral arrangement details and contact information for funeral home

A file folder is a good option if the management of the estate is fairly straightforward, but if your estate is larger and more complicated there are a couple of organizational alternatives.

Portavault is a binder that holds hundreds of pages of documents in easily identifiable categories. It comes with a water-resistant case and lockable zipper that makes it secure and easy to transport in case of emergency. It comes with a list of handy tips and tricks to help you organize your documents.

For those who prefer a non-paper-based solution, The Doc Safe allows you to keep copies of your documents online. The advantage of a cloud-based system is that it is accessible from anywhere there is an Internet connection. If your executor is computer-savvy, this might be the best option to choose. However, you need to ensure your executor can access the system and is comfortable with it while your still alive.

Regardless of which system you choose, an organized estate may be the best legacy you can leave your beneficiaries.

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.

Identifying a collection

Collections aren’t inherently bad. The first book collectors helped create libraries and the first collectors of antiquities helped establish museums. Collections help us identify with the world around us and introduce us to like-minded people. However, labelling a group of similar items a “collection” does not automatically make it one. The following are guidelines to help you identify a collection:

Intention. A collection is intentional. There are certain items that meet the criteria for being a part of the collection and others that don’t. For example, when you collect “vintage pig salt and pepper shakers” you wouldn’t have brand new salt and pepper shakers or vintage cow salt and pepper shakers in your collection.

Time. You are able to spend time managing the collection without sacrificing the time you spend on your job or with your family. You take the time to ensure the items are clean, in good condition, and properly stored. You enjoy spending time with other collectors discussing the collectibles, trading, or buying and selling pieces.

Money. Your collection does not put your financial security at risk. You know the value of the items, know how much new pieces cost, and where to find the best deals for new acquisitions. You may also have prepared a budget for your collection and have ranked new pieces in order of priority of purchase.

Space. Your collection does not take up so much space that it impairs the normal functioning of your home. Because your collection reflects your life, you’ve taken the time to arrange the pieces to complement the beauty of your home. There may be many pieces to your collection but each one is has a special place.

Investment. The investment in your collection should be the joy that it brings you. You might be able to sell a few pieces for a profit but you’re not counting on it for your retirement savings plan. The last time I checked there were over 2700 Star Wars figurines for sale on ebay and 95 per cent of them were selling at less than $100 each.

Future Provisions. You’ve made some decisions on what should happen to the collection when you are unable to care for it. If you’re giving it to someone, that person has agreed to take care of the collection and enjoy it as much as you have. If no one wants to take the collection, you’ve made appropriate plans to sell it.

Overall, the collection should be a joy to own. Seeing it should reduce stress and bring peace-of-mind. The collection should bring a feeling of peace and contentment and reflect part of who you are. If your collection is taking up too much time, money, or space and/or if it isn’t bringing joy to your life, it may have crossed into the clutter category and it may be time to let it go.