Being organized: A learned behavior

Reasons people give for being disorganized usually align with being too busy or a life changing event (new baby, death of a loved one) or general laziness. These are reasonable explanations and are obstacles that can be overcome.

Every once in a while, however, someone will try to explain to me that they are disorganized because of their genetic makeup. They use phrases such as, “I come from messy people” or “I couldn’t be organized if I wanted to.” Yes, some families are pack rats over the course of multiple generations, but those are learned behaviors. There is not a gene as far as any scientist has found that predetermines a person’s affinity for organization.*

Can growing up in a household of highly disorganized people affect your perceptions and habits? You bet. But does it sentence you to a lifetime of clutter? No!

As with any life skill — time management, cooking, walking — those necessary to maintain an organized life can be learned. You may need to practice these skills, the same way you practice a musical instrument, but you can eventually work to a level of mastery.

I haven’t always been organized. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I used to be the type of person who held onto every object I deemed sentimental. I eventually realized that holding onto so much stuff came with a lot of stress, worry, and financial expense, and that I wanted a different way of life. So, I learned organization skills, practiced them, and implemented them throughout my life. You can learn them, too.

If you’ve convinced yourself that you are destined to a life of disorganization, try changing that attitude! Put in the time, effort, and practice necessary to become the more organized person you desire. No need to go overboard, just find the best level of organization for you that allows you to live the remarkable life you desire.

*I want to note that there is something actually called a Disorganization Gene, but it has nothing to do with clutter. It’s about birth defects and cellular mutations involving the actual genetic code of an animal becoming disorganized. || Image courtesy of wikipedia.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Possessed by possessions

PossessedThe documentary Possessed is a fascinating look into four different individuals and their struggles with hoarding. If you have 20 minutes to spare, take the time to watch this short documentary. Hoarding is a terrible psychological affliction that can render someone trapped in a extremely cluttered home. Martin Hampton does a great job in documenting the extremes of these four individuals.

To see these people talking about their problem puts a personal perspective on this condition. The subjects of this documentary obviously know they have a problem, but find themselves powerless to overcome their addiction to accumulation.

For more information about hoarding and advice to help a hoarder you may know, here are some great books:

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Can someone be a collector and be uncluttered?

The quick answer to the question posed in the headline is yes. Being uncluttered and being a collector are not mutually exclusive states.

I will be the first to admit, however, that being an uncluttered collector is not an easy task. The temptation to collect beyond one’s reasonable limits is high, and can thwart even someone with the best of intentions.

An uncluttered collector, by definition, takes pride in his or her collection and displays it fully and respectfully. A collector wants to enjoy his or her collection and share it with others. Conversely, a collection is clutter when it’s stored out of sight, in a disrespectful manner, and for no other reason than just to have more stuff.

So what does an uncluttered collection look like? Unclutterer Jerry wrote about PlasmicSteve’s memorabilia office in our Workspace of the Week feature. I see this office as a perfect example of how someone can be an uncluttered collector and honor the things he or she chooses to collect:

Are you a collector? How do you display fully and respectfully your collection? Or, are you storing your “collection” in boxes in your attic in less-than-desirable conditions?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Reader suggestion: Use it up!

Reader Elena sent us a terrific tip on our contact page that I wanted to share with you:

I sometimes impose on myself a “Use it Up” challenge where I find a stockpile of something (e.g. body wash) and do not allow myself to buy more of that type of item until I use it up. That way, I don’t end up with a huge supply of stuff I don’t need.

Elena’s advice is a great way to get started on the one-in-one-out rule. I find this especially helpful with bathroom items, like she mentioned. Shampoo, body wash, perfume, and lotion have a way of multiplying with very little effort.

Although it usually isn’t the best bargain, I’ve found that buying smaller bottles of these items works best for me. Yes, a gallon jug of shampoo may be the most cost effective option, but after six months of using the exact same shampoo I get bored, buy alternatives, and then have three bottles of shampoo in my shower. If I buy smaller bottles instead, I will use up all of the product before I tire of it. And, with items like lotion, I need an extra strength one in the winter and a light one in the summer. Instead of storing two bottles, I buy the smaller size and use it up during its appropriate season.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Overwhelm yourself

My wife and I have accumulated quite a collection of glassware over the years. It is quite ridiculous, to tell you the truth. We entertain on occasion, but we have no need for the amount of glassware currently in our possession. Even when we do have a party we only use a small fraction of the glassware.

As I have mentioned in the past, we are downsizing our living space and we must reduce the amount of stuff that we have. The kitchen was the room we tackled last. I came up with the idea of removing every last item from the cupboards to assess what we had on our hands. The end result was quite overwhelming.

You don’t really get a grasp of what you have stored away in those cupboards until you have it lying out for display. I got the same feeling when we had our yard sale. I asked myself, “Where did all this stuff come from?” The accumulation of stuff is gradual, and it tends to sneak up on you. My wife and I have been married for almost nine years now and we have just recently become more conscious of all of the things we have brought into our home.

It is much easier to prepare a plan of attack when you can see the whole of your problem. The final result was a successful paring down of our kitchen inventory. If you’re having trouble uncluttering, try overwhelming yourself. It might be the incentive you need to let things go.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Is ‘trading up’ your space worth it?

Are you in constant pursuit of a bigger, better home? Do you think that more space will solve your problems or alleviate the stress of storing all your stuff? Are your eyes set on the biggest house you can afford?

If you answered affirmatively to any of the above questions, you may want to take a few minutes to read Daniel McGinn’s article originally published in Newsweek in 2008, “Extreme Downsizing: How moving from a 6,000-square-foot custom home to a 370-square-foot recreational vehicle helped quell one family’s ‘House Lust.’

The family featured in the article was getting ready to buy a home on land and give up their RV after two years on the road. They learned a number of valuable lessons over the two years, but this one stuck out to me:

“Debbie makes it clear that their next home, while smaller, will still be nicely appointed. It’s not as if she’s forsaken the American dream altogether; she has just realized that the endless cycle of ‘trading up’ to nicer homes isn’t very fulfilling. ‘It was this constant “This will be the answer.” Then you’d come up empty at the end,’ she says. ‘It was this searching thing, and I think I’m done with the search.'”

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Organizing around the world

The Power of the Organizing Habit by Connie Jeong

Last year I had the opportunity to attend the NAPO conference. While I was there, I met organizing and productivity professionals from many different places. Some of these professionals are NAPO members, others are members of associations in their own countries.

It was very interesting to discuss perspectives on organizing and productivity with people from all over the world. Here is what I learned.

Ingrid Jansen from the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers (APDO) in the United Kingdom, informed me that while their association was formed in 2004, many people are very private and still reluctant to hire an organizer. However, now it is becoming more accepted and organizers are being recognized for the value that they bring to their clients. In many cases, adult children no longer live in the same area as their aging parents and organizers are called in to help people downsize. It is beneficial for families to have an impartial advisor when making decisions about possessions.

In the Republic of Korea, the Korea Association of Professional Organizers (KAPO) have a great philosophy — they promote Freedom of Emptying, Corrective Filling, and Joy of Sharing. In Korea, organizing and productivity professionals are recognized more and more as a valuable resource in restoring work-life balance. Organizers help their clients build their “clean muscle” so the clients are able to organize on their own. They teach their clients to think like “space gardeners.” Just like a gardener routinely extracts weeds from a flowerbed to keep the plants flourishing, we must keep our homes uncluttered by removing items that are not used. Additionally, KAPO’s professional organizer training program requires members to volunteer their services to sectors of the population that normally would not be able to afford professional organizing services.

Isabelle Lamy is an APDO member originally from France. She indicated that many of her clients do not know where or how to dispose of items. Charity shops may not accept certain goods and municipalities may not accept them into their waste streams. Professional organizers can help because they have built a network of charities and business that accept items for donation or disposal. Professional organizers research storage solutions and can provide best options for your space. It is great that many people have the “do-it-yourself” attitude and but they can save themselves much time, effort, and money by consulting with a professional organizer for advice.

Japan Association of Life Organizers (JALO) was founded in order to help people in Japan to improve their social lives, to be healthier as well as to create better and higher quality living spaces. Their president, Mayumi Takahara, indicated that the minimalist movement is building. Younger people especially have realized that shopping is not a solution to their problems and they want to clear space in their homes for a more meaningful life. Marie Kondo’s book is very popular and clients request assistance in the Kondo method of organizing.

I spoke with many organizers from around the world who are also members of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD). These organizers are specialists in helping clients who chronically disorganized or facing other organizational challenges such as hoarding.

Most of us think of uncluttering and organizing as something we do with the stuff in our kitchens and closets but organizers help their clients with technology as well — from uncluttering and arranging computer files to digitizing family photos. They can also recommend apps and websites to keep their clients productive whether at home or at work.

It would appear that people everywhere need assistance with uncluttering and organizing — at least some of the time. For those do-it-yourselfers, we at Unclutterer have over 1000 posts with organizing tips, almost 900 on home organization, well over 300 on office organizing and over 200 on time management. For those needing a little more assistance, consider hiring a professional organizer for a consultation.

Organizing is knowing what you want

Fifteen year ago I started my organizing business. After three years of helping people clear the clutter out of their lives enough to see what they really wanted in life, I realized I had cleared out so much clutter in my own life that I could see that Toronto was no longer my home. I followed a childhood dream of living in southern Europe and more than a decade later I am still living that dream.

During the past ten years, however, I’ve learned as well that not everyone comes from the privileged place that I did and cannot always follow their dreams, no matter how clearly they see that dream. Family, health, or economics may impede achieving or even acknowledging that deeply secret desire.

I made a life-altering change when I cleared the space to allow the dream to reveal itself. Not everyone needs that. Sometimes, clearing mental, emotional, and physical clutter reveals that you are in fact living the life you want and no extreme changes are necessary.

Professional organizing as a profession is just beginning to appear here in Spain and people wonder, over and over again, just what it is. Some people have called it a form of interior decorating mixed with psychology. Others believe it is a type of coaching. And yet others call it “selling smoke” — an expression in Spanish that would best translate into English as “snake oil salesmen,” modern day charlatans selling cure-alls.

When people ask me, however, I tell them that at a deep level, professional organizing helps people reduce what they don’t need, figure out what they really want, then determine how to get it and maintain it.

If you look at every single article here on Unclutterer, you’ll see that even the most practical “let’s clean out under the kitchen sink” articles focus on one of those three principles, in the case of the kitchen sink specifically helping you save time and energy when it comes to cleaning so that you have more time and more energy for what’s important to you.

This is why there is no one way when it comes to organizing, and why there is such a proliferation of books, manuals, and methodologies. We are each looking for a way to streamline our lives down to what will make us glide through life without scraping against everyone and everything we pass by. Whether that’s with a 5000 sq. ft. house full of knick-knacks or a 50 sq. ft. apartment with just the bare minimum.

Often in my articles here, you see links to books, to other websites, or even to other articles here on Unclutterer, but this time I’m not going to do that. Today, I ask you to look inside you. Forget the advice, forget the rules, forget the obligations and the responsibilities and ask yourself the following question:

What do I want?

If you can’t answer it, you have some more uncluttering to do. Go find that book, that article, that professional organizer that will help you clear away layers until you have the answer to that question.

And if you know the answer, determine what you need to get there, including what help and how much streamlining is left for you to do. Then stop reading, stop planning, stop consulting and go fulfill your dream to the best your circumstances allow.

Letting a corner of clutter slide

The more attuned I am to practicing simple living, the fewer places in my home have hidden corners of clutter. There are some places, though, where disorder thrives and I realize that I am completely okay with it. In fact, these areas serve as little humbling reminders that I am human and am far from perfect.

Case in point: My sock drawer.

Did I just hear you gasp? Are you completely horrified? Are the hairs standing up on the back of your neck as you compose an e-mail to me offering to organize my sock drawer for me? Take a deep breath and move your fingers off the keyboard. It is going to be okay.

You should know that all of the other drawers in my dresser are beautifully organized (imagine the successful use of separators) and contain little to no disarray. It really is just my sock drawer that looks hideous. My husband’s sock drawer is ordered by type of sock (dress or sport) and color coordinated (a helpful activity for those who are color blind), which is strange since I’m the one who often folds and puts away his laundry. My sock drawer is messy, however, and the whole world has not collapsed around me.

I’m mentioning my sock drawer because people can have the misconception that being organized means that every single minute aspect of one’s life is in pristine order. Order is a goal, yes — but so is sanity. Being organized and living simply is about removing distractions that get in the way of a remarkable life. Right now, my sock drawer is not a hindrance to the life I want to lead. Maybe one day it will be, and I will buy some dividers and establish order in my sock drawer. Until then, it is one of a small handful of places where disorder exists in my home, and that’s okay. Really, it is.

Do you have a space where disorder reigns, but the whole of your organization system isn’t collapsing as a result? Feel welcome to tell us about it in the comments. Get it off your chest. You are, after all, only human.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Don’t give up on getting organized

As much as I like this xkcd comic (licensed under Creative Commons), I hope most people don’t feel they need to “just give up.” The following are some alternative suggestions if you’re feeling overwhelmed:

Adjust for health issues that may be getting in your way

If you’re dealing with ADHD, you might appreciate books that provide organizing solutions tailored to those with attention deficit issues. ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life and Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder are two that might give you some good ideas.

If you have a chronic illness or disability, you may well be familiar with the Spoon Theory regarding the energy you have available for daily tasks. Some days you may not have any “spoons” available to tackle organizing work, and that’s to be expected. But hopefully you can establish systems that allow you to get and stay organized — perhaps with help from family, friends, support groups, or paid professionals — while minimizing the demands on your energy.

Realize that situational disorganization will pass

All of us are likely to have times when our life situation means we’re not as organized as we normally are and like to be. You may be adjusting to a new job or hitting a particularly demanding time at an existing one. You may be dealing with a temporary medical issue: recovering from surgery, for example. In these and similar situations, it’s important to identify the organizing tasks which must be done, such as making sure the bills get paid. You can then let other things slide for a while, without feeling nervous or guilty.

Experiment with different approaches

Judith Kolberg wrote, “Chronic disorganization is the result of the bad fit between people who organize unconventionally and the very conventional organizing methods which exist for them to use.” If you’ve been fighting disorganization for a long time, you might find some useful ideas in her book Conquering Chronic Disorganization.

Are you a rebel, too?

Quite often Gretchen Rubin’s interviews inspire to me to write posts here. These posts have got me thinking about Rubin’s Four Tendencies, specifically the tendencies that resist expectations. Taking Rubin’s quiz, it turns out that I’m a Rebel, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. My inner teenager maintains a firm hold on my ability to get things done which means I will do something for two reasons only:

  • Because I decide it’s a good idea
  • Because I want to avoid getting into trouble

Before doing the quiz, I thought that perhaps I would end up being an Obliger, fulfilling others’ expectations but not my own, however it turns out that any obliging tendencies I may harbor have more to do with wanting to avoid a scolding than wanting to please people. This avoidance of negative reactions doesn’t just emerge when it comes to external expectations; I act the same way about my own inner expectations, getting things done to evade an internal scolding.

Knowing this, I have to ask myself what having an inner teenager at the helm means for being productive and organized?

Well, for one, to get myself moving, I have to see a benefit. A teenager doesn’t get out of bed unless there’s internal passion, or at least a decent reward of some kind for completing the task.

A rebellious teenager’s favorite question is “why?” and teenagers also tend to reject history, thinking that they can invent and discover new ways of doing things that their elders (being old and slow) have never thought of.

At work, I’ve always been able to channel this rebellious attitude into productive outcomes, looking for new and more effective ways to do things, rejecting “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” out of hand, only accepting traditional ways if they prove to be the most effective.

In my personal life, however, I don’t look for new and productive ways of doing things. Instead my conflict-avoiding teenage attitude tends to rule over me and it can get me into trouble. I don’t communicate enough with my partner, either doing what I want without any sort of consultation or turning into a people-pleaser because I feel that doing anything else will end up in confrontation. Of course, what the teenager is not capable of understanding is that this avoidance strategy only creates more conflict in the end.

Staying productive, motivated and organized, therefore, requires and understanding of the following:

  • I can’t force myself into any action or I will do the opposite.
  • I need to know the benefits of any course of action.
  • I need to remember that conflict avoidance just creates more conflict.
  • The more I streamline processes, the more likely I will do them.

Have you taken Rubin’s Tendencies Quiz? Do you know yourself well enough to work with, rather against yourself?

What could be secretly hidden in clutter?

Last week my daughter lost her AirPods. She said she was wearing a particular jacket when she last had them. On examination of the jacket, we found a small hole in one of the pockets and the AirPods had fallen through the hole and were trapped between the jacket and liner. Fortunately, that jacket had not yet passed through the washer and dryer!

This incident made me think about some precautionary measures to take while uncluttering.

Before donating or disposing, we certainly should examine the pockets of clothing but if the pockets have holes, or if we find the pockets have been repaired, we should make sure that nothing is trapped between the layers of fabric. We don’t want to be like the woman who donated her husband’s old shirt in which he had hidden $8000 cash. Luckily, she was able to retrieve the shirt and the money, but what a stressful experience!

When examining clothing, always check inside mittens and gloves. Did a ring slip off a finger and remain trapped inside? Is something trapped in the lining? Look inside the brims of hats as people have been known to stick cash and receipts up there. Due to the notorious lack of pockets in women’s clothing, some ladies have placed money, important receipts, and jewellery inside their bras. Check inside shoes too, underneath the insole and deep into the toes.

Verifying all the compartments of purses and wallets is pretty obvious but again, check between the purse and liner for any items — especially if you find holes in the lining or see that the lining was repaired. Hand stitching on mattresses or other furniture may be a clue that something could be hidden inside.

At a NAPO conference I attended, one professional organizer mentioned she found a diamond tennis bracelet like this one, (but with real diamonds and worth thousands of dollars) in an inside pocket of a suitcase to be donated. As well as pockets, always check the bottoms and lids of suitcases and briefcases for hidden compartments. If suitcases have linings with zippers, open them and check within.

For centuries jewellery boxes had many secret compartments to thwart thieves and the tradition continues today. Completely empty jewellery boxes and give them a good shake to ensure you haven’t missed a hidden niche. Once, when doing an estate clearing, I found cash hidden behind the liner of a jewellery gift box so do check inside all items that may have contained valuables.

Secret safes may be overlooked while uncluttering. There are book safes, safes that look like food containers, hairbrushes, and even surge protectors. This Pinterest board shows some amazingly creative hiding spots for valuables!

When you’re uncluttering someone else’s things, especially elderly people (who may believe their mattress is safer than a bank for storing cash), and anyone with dementia or other mental health issues, it is helpful to think about how a spy would hide their secrets. We don’t mean to suggest that anyone has nefarious motives but there are times when honest, upstanding people put items “away for safe-keeping” and then forget where that is. For example, a recycling plant employee found $100,000 cash hidden in the back of an old television. Fortunately, the money was returned to its rightful owner who had forgotten he had stashed it there many years before.

If you’ve found something interesting or valuable hidden in clutter you were about to donate or dispose, please share it with our readers so they know what to look for.