Build your uncluttering and organizing skills by helping others

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.

20 Comments for “Build your uncluttering and organizing skills by helping others”

  1. posted by VeritySa on

    This is a great article, and it makes some points I had not thought of!

    Though not naturally organized, I have read so much on your blog and others that I’ve come a long way in my own home. I’d wanted to go practice some of my new skills elsewhere, but I’ve repeatedly balked – intimidated by the knowledge of my natural shortcomings.

    I’m sure this article will motivate a lot of people like me to push themselves to help their friends and families and further their own organizing skills!

  2. posted by Leanne on

    Thank you for this post! I’m just starting my own photo organizing business (and finished my first client’s project last night) but I’ve been stalling getting the word out about my services because I know how much I don’t know (and not giving myself credit for what I do know).

    I saw this post as a personal pep talk to help me overcome my fear of not being perfect. Thanks for giving me permission to continue to improve…while helping others.

  3. posted by chrisbean on

    I’ve always been kind of a grammar nerd, but my big moment came when I was studying German.

    It’s a funny language because the vocabulary is not super-challenging; most words are very similar to english. But the GRAMMAR: they decline the nouns! You know how French and Spanish conjugate verbs? German does too, and declining is to nouns what conjugating is to verbs. That means you would use a different adjective for “THE ball rolled across the table,” “I rolled THE ball across the table,” etc. When you say “I don’t know HER” and “I haven’t seen HER,” you use two different pronouns for “her.” There are four different form of “the” or”a/an” for every single noun. And if you’re modifying those nouns with adjectives, you need to use the correct ending for each adjective too. And that’s on top of remembering whether the nouns are masculine, feminine OR neuter. Crazy, right?

    Well, someone recommended I check out a book called “English Grammar for Students of German.” And I learned more about english grammar from that book than from my entire life up to that point. I mean, you can have a very strong grip on english grammar without knowing the difference between a transitive and an intrasitive verb, but you can’t make a coherent sentence in german without that knowledge. If you’re the kind of nerd who enjoys diagramming sentences, t’s a great read even if you’re not studying any foreign language.

  4. posted by Steve on

    Teaching always seems to clarify thoughts and concepts. In order to explain something to someone else, you really have to understand a topic. If you don’t understand it — you’ll be forced to go and find answers (as you discovered) and before you know it, it is the teacher that is learning!

  5. posted by Gilda on

    Great Post. Great idea. And I think I could use it in both areas… for learning how to write correctly (my grammer and syntax and everything, a bit of a mess) and for decluttering/organizing!

  6. posted by snosie on

    Oh I still try to avoid the preposition ending sentence. Really interesting post (more so on the wordsmithing, interestingly, even though I can’t imagine ever searching out a blog about writing). Thanks

    I totally agree that learning you a language also teaching you more about your own language.

  7. posted by Daphne Gray-Grant on

    You were taught well if you learned that it’s sometimes better to use the passive rather than active and that it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions. Many teachers are unaware of these “rules!” By the same token, it’s also okay to begin a sentence with “But” or “And.” You would not believe how many people are unaware of this!

  8. posted by customic on

    This article is even more interesting for a person who is both teaching AND learning English. Thanks, Erin!

  9. posted by ChrisD on

    The prepositional rule is a rule up with we should not put.

  10. posted by ChrisD on

    Stephen Pinker’s, the language instinct also has a lot of interesting information (about language, not uncluttering!). For example, he deconstructs a few grammar mavens who have newspaper columns and show that at least some of them have no idea what they are talking about and don’t give enough credit to the speaker (in one example the speaker used non-linear in terms of the mathematical concept, a point the maven completely missed).
    Add to this the fact that some grammar teaching is simply very bad; teaching a simple prescriptive rule is much easier than helping people understand the nuts and bolts of a language that we speak instinctively.

  11. posted by [email protected] on

    A very timely post for me. I’ve been organising my own home and life for over 3 years now. Yesterday I decided (and acted upon) that it was time to give a helping hand elsewhere. My parents have both become infirm rapidly and at the the same time. My next project is organise their home and try and make things easier. Organising space where you can be more objective breathes life into your own efforts. You see your own home differently. It is also invigorating and motivating.
    p.s – loved the back story – very interesting!

  12. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    A friend of mine came over and helped me re-organise my house. She suggested things I would never have though of (as far as furniture placement goes) and they all work. Another friend taught me a system of keeping papers together that I am now teaching my oldest son (12) so that he can keep control of all the papers he just cant bear to throw out. I love learning from other people – I think its what makes life richer : )

  13. posted by Anna on

    I would definitely agree that teaching really helps you learn. I tutored mathematics at university and would often only begin fully understand a concept half way through explaining it…there is a huge difference between remembering a concept and understanding it. Once you ‘get it’ you don’t have to rely on your memory quite so much as the concept seems quite natural and logical.

    Maybe I need to start organising someone else’s house to get improve my skills enough to manage my own house!

  14. posted by Elizabeth on

    Interesting post.
    I sympathise with the difficulties in teaching grammar and syntax which seems second nature which makes it difficult to explain mistakes. I had a similar situation with my ex who had never really been taught punctuation or grammar. He would proudly show me business pitches that he had written and I would end up going through with a red pen – major rows ensued because I couldn’t explain why commas or semi-colons were in the wrong place but I just knew they were. Then the brilliant book ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ came out. I bought it for him as a joke for Xmas one year, he sat down and read it cover to cover and it saved the relationship (for a few more years anyway).

    By the way I understand that the different words for meat vs live animals comes from the Norman conquest (1066) onwards. The French became the rulers and were presented with meat in dishes so we got French names (boeuf, porc etc – but strangely not lamb) and the Anglo-Saxons herded the livestock which would become the meat so we got their words for the animals (cattle, sheep, pigs etc).

    I agree too with the commenter about the usefulness of German in learning grammar – I learnt more from German than I ever did from Latin (which I was forced to learn in an attempt to benefit from grammar). I’ve done Russian too which is even worse for nouns and verbs.

  15. posted by Kate on

    Interesting, I first read that phrase “the cocktail yellow music,” as the cocktail describing the type of yellow, as in Homer’s “wine dark sea.”

    Language is fascinating!

  16. posted by MelD on

    That’s really interesting! I am a native (British) English speaker and was lucky to have a good education where I thought we had learnt some grammar. Until, after spending most of my childhood abroad and becoming multilingual and then bringing up three daughters in German (actually Swiss-German, but they do high German at school), I was surprised to find I can rarely explain to my girls and others why something is correct or incorrect in English, even at quite a low level… my parents, language teachers (French and German) can do this, as they had to learn the grammar for teaching but also because they had Latin at school, as did my husband: that seems to be the key.
    I absorbed my languages from an early age, so also can rarely tell you why something is right or wrong in French or German, either, just that I “feel” it! Learning Italian as an adult has helped somewhat to get my grammar rules sorted, but nothing like the level of grammar my girls have learnt in their own language, German, simply from going to school here – there is much more emphasis on their own grammar than we were ever taught and I have to guiltily admit to amazed Swiss that we tend not to learn English grammar at school (nowadays even less so than years ago)… and having said that, I was amused by your story because my youngest just brought home a practice paper about preferred order of adjectives in German!! It’s so obvious to her… LOL

  17. posted by S on

    @Natalie in Oz, I’m interested in your paper-keeping method! How does it work?

  18. posted by Brenda on

    I recently helped a family memeber with a clutter issue. It was much easier to handle clutter when there was no emotional attachment to it.
    The experience has helped me look at my clutter in a different light.

    @Natalie in Oz, I am also interested in your paper-keeping method!
    Just think how much you can learn by sharing it with us 😉

  19. posted by Matt Baier on

    Great post! Makes a lot of sense.

  20. posted by S on

    This a great idea…benefit others which will in turn benefit us.

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