So far I have failed to make it past the first episode of any organizing show other than Hoarders. I keep thinking I’ll find them motivating, or that they’ll teach me something new about coaching clients. This time, I might keep going, because The Home Edit is good for my marriage.
I turned to my husband after watching the show and somehow not noticing the transition to Episode Two.
“Do you know why I foisted this on you?”
He paused for a beat and then said, “Because you don’t have any of that stuff.”
“Got it in one!”
The Home Edit seems to find time to help two households per episode with one area of their home. The first episode happened to include two women’s closets, and then the second episode had... a woman who needed help with her closet.
There are a lot of things I like about the show and about The Home Edit in general. I love that it’s a woman-owned business and that they’ve done so well for themselves, moving from consulting to the book to a product line to their own television show. I love the rainbows. I also went so far as to organize my own refrigerator based on their methods.
(My husband loves it, by the way - it’s the only organizing job I’ve ever done that he has particularly noticed or commented on more than once).
There are some things that I think are funny across the Home Edit universe:
The pantries in these homes are the size of what used to be big walk-in closets.
The closets in these homes are the size of... literally my entire bedroom.
People are paying big bucks to professional organizers to sort things that I don’t even own.
I thought about this a lot because my holdout friend finally called me for help. I have a local friend who I knew immediately was “one of mine.” I told her about my work and offered to come over and help her for free - because I love her and I’m nice that way. She wouldn’t even let me see her place, much less accept my help. (And then she got evicted twice in a row, from two different apartment complexes, for failing the habitability check). We talked on the phone for an hour, and then she sent me photos. Level 2. Then she busted her butt like a maniac, all by herself, and got rid of 80% of the hoard in her living room - in like five days.
I think about people like her when I see these shows that celebrate standard consumerism. For my people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators, it tends to lead to even larger hoards. They believe that buying more stuff - organizers, matched sets - will solve their problem. Then they find out the hard way that they have 10x more stuff than will fit in the organizers.
Every time I did a home visit, I would fit “organizers” with the price tags still on. Bins, tubs, boxes, drawer units, and definitely clutter-busting books!
Getting Organized is aspirational. I didn’t realize, when I started, that what I really hankered for was an upper-middle-class lifestyle in an upper-middle-class home. My tiny, dark apartments were never going to look like the spacious, well-lit houses in those photos. There’s a reason a celebrity like Reese Witherspoon has multiple closets the size of my living room, and it’s because she can afford them.
Ever go around The Container Store and price out your ultimate shopping list? For most homes, it would easily be a couple grand. Not everyone is going to be able to spend $200 on organizers for their fridge and pantry, or specialty hangers and storage boxes for their ultra-closet.
Maybe spend that on new furniture instead, if you can?
There are two reasons my holdout friend finally started getting rid of her hoard. The first was love - her dad was coming to visit for the first time in many years and she was beyond excited to see him. The second was money - she started her own business and she’s probably earning at least triple what she was when we met. Those simple shifts, from isolation to hospitality and from scarcity to prosperity, are very powerful and effective.
I wonder if now my friend will take an interest in things like The Home Edit?
If you’re looking for a clutter book, they tend to come in three types. There’s the type written by the ‘born organized’ person who loves label makers; there’s the reformed hoarder; and then there’s the seen-it-all professional who has clearly borne witness to all kinds of family drama. Peter Walsh is that third type. Let It Go is the book to get if your struggle with clutter is easy compared to the struggle over it with your relatives.
By the way, that first type of organizer? Is a lot like a young trainer at the gym who has never had an injury or carried extra weight. They may have studied hard and they may have a lot to offer, but there’s a certain level of emotional connection that may not happen.
What distinguishes Let It Go from other clutter books is that it has guidelines for how to have certain types of discussions with family in specific situations. Walsh even offers some personality types that are relevant in all scenarios, not just dealing with clutter, and will undoubtedly provoke some amusing reactions. This may be a “mind blown” perspective shift for a lot of people who know their family makes them crazy, they just aren’t sure exactly why.
Any organizing book can tell you to sort your stuff, toss some, and donate the rest. These books are very helpful for the literary type who aren’t hindered by emotional attachments but more by executive function issues, like categorizing or sorting what “belongs” in which room. This book stands out because it has so much solid advice on, frankly, negotiating with the family wingnuts.
I’ve been thinking about clutter and minimalism lately because a friend of mine finally called me for coaching after a three-year standing offer. Why? Her elderly dad is coming to visit for the first time in many years, and she wants to impress him. It wasn’t getting evicted for failing her habitability check that did it; it wasn’t the offer of free help; it was love. This is what we should keep in mind when we sort our stuff: Who are we doing it for, and are we as careful to preserve the stories as we are the heirlooms? Are we keeping the right legacy alive?
Many items you need to shed are firmly glued to you with a sticky layer of memories, sadness, anxiety, and guilt.
Always remember that the stuff you own influences how you think.
Early in lockdown, I almost bought $300 worth of shoes. They were seriously on sale!
I never buy stuff right away, though. I put together a shopping cart, and then I go through it again the next day. Most of the time I scrap the whole thing. I’m an under-buyer and I usually feel major buyer’s remorse when the physical item shows up.
This time was different. I had these shoes in the cart, and then I thought, where would I wear them??
Months later, this feels prescient. Indeed, where would I wear a variety of new shoes?
I actually hate wearing shoes, at all, at any time. I am obviously barefoot as I write this. I only wear shoes because I don’t want to cut up my feet when I go outside. (Although I did once step on a nail that went right through my shoe, fat lot of good that it did me).
Purses are in the same category of Stuff I Only Use Outside. I put my work bag in my closet a few months ago, and it’s only come out a few times. I don’t miss it at all. I used to hang it on my desk chair, but it won’t stay on my new office chair, and it would annoy me while I work all day for no reason.
Not only am I not contemplating buying any purses or shoes, I’ve been thinking of getting rid of more of what I already have.
I have a donation box going right now. I have yet to drop it off because I rarely cross the threshold of our apartment for any reason. I don’t want to carry it off only to realize I need to make a second trip. There is a pair of shoes in that basket right now. I liked how they looked, but they gave me blisters. I would wear them on vacation and get mad at them. Then I would unpack them and forget that these were Hurty Shoes. Then I would pack them the next time we went on vacation, and the cycle would repeat. Finally, as I was doing the classic self-isolation closet re-org, I pulled out the Hurty Shoes and said, “Never again!”
The next time we go on vacation, it’s going to be so exciting, the last thing I will want to do is to mess it up by giving myself blisters.
There are a couple other pairs in my closet that are a little tight. Why do I still have them?
I instituted a practice in my life over 20 years ago. That was the concept of the “cost per wear” that I picked up from Your Money Or Your Life. (If you buy something for $20 and you wear it 20 times, it costs $1 per wear). In my mind, I still aim for a $1 cost per wear even though inflation has gone up significantly since then. Therefore, I tend to punish myself by continuing to wear things I don’t like all that much until I feel like I’ve run out the dollar-meter on them.
The other reason is that my feet got a half-size bigger after the year I trained for my marathon. It took me a while to realize that this was not just a fluke of individual item sizing. Also, vanity.
I work from home. This is almost certain to continue through the calendar year. In fact, it may be forever. It turns out a lot of people at my company were commuting over 3 hours a day, and a few live so far away that they only go home on weekends! WFH has meant all these people can sleep in an extra hour and *still* be significantly more productive.
Also, they can work barefoot. Or who knows what else. We’re only on camera maybe an hour every couple months.
Right now, nobody is looking at anyone’s feet. If anything we’re checking each other for proper mask fit.
I was on camera last week with a guy in an office in another city, and he clearly hadn’t had his hair cut since before lockdown. This guy has a PhD and while I am sure nobody cares about his coiffure, I also wonder if anyone besides me even noticed.
Are we all going to have a permanent reset in our expectations about street clothes and business dress?
I wonder. I think it will polarize.
I suspect a lot of people are dressing up far more than they normally would because they are bored and lonely. Being on camera all the time and seeing yourself tends to lead to self-conscious fixations. (Personally, I find seeing myself on Zoom all the time to be extremely exhausting and demoralizing, which is why I accessorize with my enchanting little parrot. They’re not looking at me, they’re looking at her).
This is probably going to continue “when all this is over.” There will be a sense of ceremony, and a lot of people are going to want to rise to the occasion by going out and getting a haircut and then dressing up.
But then a lot of us are going to realize that our pre-lockdown clothes don’t fit quite the same way...
I really need to buy some pants right now - the weather is cooling and I only have like three pair that fit - but there is probably going to be a lot of shipping back and forth. Pants have never been an easy fit on me. I remember one trip when I tried on 38 pairs before I found a single one that fit. Either I have short legs, big thighs, wide hips, and a long waist, or pants are too long and too wide?
Or maybe it’s time to bring back the toga after all.
Whatever happens, when we finally start going out again, it will have been a long time since the last time a lot of us tried on new clothes. It’s going to feel weird. It’s probably also going to look weird.
Might as well reexamine what we have right now. Is this really what we think we’re going to celebrate in? If it isn’t comfortable enough to wear and use around the house, does it pass that test for the outer world either?
I’m playing around with a bit of reverse psychology right now. The idea is that I can’t have a backlog of anything anymore. If anything has been hanging around in my backlog for longer than, say, three days, I need to either deal with it or decide that I never will, and
This is something I have tested over and over again on my clients, and it makes steam come out of their ears. There’s a glinting ember of something in here that really has my attention. Why are we so bad at letting things go even when they drive us crazy?
My case is unusual in that I thought I was dying only a few months ago. I spent days in bed, too ill to sit up, too weak to hold my phone to my head. All I could think about was all the things I’d never said, the things I’d never done, and the stupid remnants of my life that my poor husband would have to sort when I was gone.
It was sad, but it was also embarrassing and annoying. I got really frustrated with myself.
This? This was going to be my dying epiphany? That I should have enjoyed life more and lived in the moment and not procrastinated so much?
When it was starting to look like I was going to make it (before the next lung infection that challenged that idea), I understood that I had a chance to use this suffering for something. I did two things. I decided to treat myself as Version 2 and act as though I had physically died and started over as a new person. I let go of anything from my “previous life.” I gave myself permission to shrug off any residual feelings about that stuff.
(Confession: I never finished reading The Aeneid in my summer Latin class, even in English, so that happened).
The second thing was that I mulled over what I wanted to do with my new chance, my second bite at the apple. That was that I wanted to get a day job again and then go to grad school.
Spirit acts fast sometimes. The opening for the job that I have now showed up in my husband’s email that same week. Everyone who has heard about my desire to get a fellowship and work on my PhD has been encouraging.
I’m very lucky in this new job. Most of the people in my department are morning people; quite a lot of them clock in at 6:30 AM. We’re on 9/80s so we work long days. I worked it out with my partner that she does mornings and I do afternoons, so I work 8-6, and then we alternate Fridays. The two of us can cover nearly twelve hours a day, five days a week. This has built in at least an hour a day, and a full day every two weeks, when almost nobody is around. I can tie up any loose ends from the day, and then from the week. I’m almost always able to start Monday with a clean slate.
It’s a nice feeling, something I’d like to get used to.
Now that I’m gradually recovering and approaching my baseline energy level, I’m steadily working on things that didn’t get done while I was ill. This is where the reset comes in.
The world shut down quite suddenly, as I’m sure you recall. Probably like most people, I had various things in progress that simply stayed that way, on hold. It’s a bit like those mystery stories where the people leave with half-eaten meals still on the table.
A bag of stuff to take to the donation center, pictures to hang, that sort of thing.
While I made a magical decision on what I thought was my deathbed, it didn’t magically whisk anything away. Everything I had thought about was still in the same condition as it had been in March. The major difference was that my email and DMs had continued to accumulate.
This is where we get to the technicalities of this whole “Do it or dump it” idea.
We start with two rough personality sorts.
There are three main phases of action: initiation, maintenance, and completion. Most people tend to prefer one of these phases and dislike another one.
There are two main moods of clutter: looking forward and looking backward. Some people prefer to anticipate the future and others cling to the past.
Put these together in various combinations and see if they remind you of anyone you know.
Are they stuck in a rut because they can’t get started, or because they don’t want something to end? (Not launching a business vs. not finishing their degree).
Do they have a thousand projects because they like starting something new, but then get bored? Or are they surrounded by heirlooms and unsorted boxes because they can’t let go of the past?
“Do it or dump it” applies to clutter like this. If you haven’t used it in the last year, ask for help and get rid of it. End of story. This applies equally to unfinished craft projects, unread books, clothes that don’t fit, broken stuff that you haven’t fixed yet, workout equipment, untested recipes, and supplies for remodeling or baking or whatever.
I sorted my physical clutter long ago. Now I’m down to digital clutter - mainly email newsletters and [checking] 45 GB of podcast episodes - and pending projects.
Here, “do it or dump it” means deleting anything over a certain age (or size, or from a certain source, or whatever works), or canceling something. I will never finish that illustrated “Bride of Godzilla” story I wanted to do because after I started the sketches, I learned about aggressive copyright protection.
What is it that makes some of us cling to old, outdated stuff for so long, even after we’ve already demonstrated that we aren’t interested enough to engage with it? What are we thinking? Why do we do this to ourselves?
I’ll share my motivations, which may or may not overlap with yours. I get attached to the potential of various future versions of myself - a version of me who can, for some reason, speak several languages while playing ukulele on a unicycle - and I don’t like admitting that some of it will never happen. Also, I have serious FOMO about anything I haven’t read but wanted to. Whenever I think about not having time to read every book in the world, my eyelid starts twitching.
There are people who are quite good at the “do it or dump it” philosophy. For instance, I once worked with a young woman who had an empty email inbox 99% of the time. She said that she found having even a single message sitting in her inbox annoying. My husband is the same way with having a packed closet. When he gets a new shirt, he - I am not making this up - immediately gets rid of an old shirt.
If you know someone like this, or even someone who has a different pattern of attachment than you do, there’s a simple solution. Go to this person and tell them about your predicament. “I can’t stop saving old receipts because I keep thinking I’m going to categorize them in my finance app one day.” The incredulous gaze of this unattached person should be very helpful in giving you the motivation to go ahead and either do it, or dump it.
Or ask them to do it for you. They’ll probably think it’s funny. Then you’ll be free to do whatever you want - as free as, in fact, you already are.
How many of us ever thought we’d wind up needing a desk for every person in the household? So suddenly?
This is a subject that tends to come up a lot, because everyone at my work was sent home to work for the indefinite future - with no notice. They’ve been continuously hiring, too, so all the new people like me were expected to provide all our own equipment.
Can I just say that sitting in a wooden folding chair for two weeks was a great way to bond with my work partner?
And also to perhaps permanently alter the shape of my caboose?
(Not sure about hers)
(Never seen it)
We’ve all been told to plan to work from home at least through the end of 2020. Personally I plan on things remaining more or less how they are through the beginning of 2023. I’d rather be wrong, of course! But it’s psychologically much easier for me to plan just to keep on keepin’ on for three years.
Same apartment, same job, same schedule, same... furniture?
I’ve heard a lot of stories about the truly pitiful situations that a lot of people have found themselves in, and the time has come to acknowledge them and take action.
By this I mean, yes, of course, we can’t have hundreds of thousands of people evicted and living in the streets. What utter nonsense. Just restructure everyone’s debts, from the banks and the mortgages on down. If I owned rental property right now, I’d definitely rather have a grateful, loyal tenant keeping guard over my biggest asset than an empty shell crying out for squatters, vandalism, and who knows what else.
That being said. This is about all the office workers and students who are suddenly finding themselves trying to get a full day’s work done amid a total and complete lack of ergonomics.
I’ve spent the last three months working full-time in a corner of our living room that is precisely four feet square. I measured it.
It doesn’t take much square footage to get in the zone and get some quality work done. It does, though, take a flat surface and somewhere decent to sit. This is quite clear in my mind as I gaze lovingly at the office chair I bought with my stipend from work. I assembled it before bedtime, since it arrived at 9 PM, because I couldn’t bear to wait for it one more day. My poor flat and striped bottom.
You know I used to work with hoarders?
One of the things that always boggled my mind was how so many people could fill rooms from floor to ceiling with ‘bargain’ items, all bought for $1-5, and then feel like they Could Not Afford anything. Anything! I would point out that if you have a hundred things you bought for a dollar, then in one way or another, at some point, you had a hundred dollars. If you had twenty things you bought for five bucks, then you had a hundred bucks. If you in fact had five hundred things (balls of yarn, sets of markers, stuffed animals, shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, etc etc etc) then you probably had enough cash flowing through your life to buy a nice piece of furniture.
What would it be?
A replacement for your lumpy, sagging old mattress? Or a bed frame to get it up off the floor?
A big bookshelf?
In this particular case, I’m changing the frame on this a bit. The concept here is not that there may be enough money for something nice, rather than a large pile of small objects. The concept is that there is probably enough space in the home for a desk of some kind, if some other objects are removed.
Keep in mind, I have lived in a space smaller than 800 square feet for the past five years. Currently we are at 650 square feet.
Three apartments back, I gave away a bookshelf on Craigslist to make space for the little secretary desk that I have now. There was no room in our apartment otherwise. My choices were: in front of the oven (blocking the fridge), inside the bathtub, or in front of our door. Or simply get rid of the bookcase and make space for something I use every day. Our next apartment was even smaller, so the commitment and the trade paid off.
I had a desk before, of course. It was made from a top I bought at IKEA for $12. I bought it because it was the biggest desktop I could find, which made it obsolete when we downsized.
See, I would never suggest that someone else do something I am not willing to do myself.
I got rid of something that was once very important to me, a bookcase I assembled myself and moved half a dozen times. It used to contain my cookbook collection, which I have since digitized. In the physical space where I had that bookcase, I now have a little desk.
It’s possible to put together a makeshift desk, or create a study/work area, without using a piece of furniture. One of my coworkers has a TV tray that she uses on the couch. I’ve seen photos of other people working in the driver’s seat of their car - not driving for a living, just sitting out in the driveway for some privacy - or on cushions on the balcony.
A lot of people are using their dining table. I know from my home visits that about 90% of dining tables are used for storage 364 days of the year. This is what I mean by trading for a desk. If all that stuff goes away, then someone has somewhere to sit and work. My husband, stepdaughter, and I have all worked together for days on end, sitting at the same dining table, and that location alone might solve a lot of problems for a big family.
My bestie and I both have bathtub trays, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we both have the habit of sometimes working while we soak. (Me, on personal projects - her, I won’t ask so I don’t have to tell).
A lot of households have completely viable furniture that could be a desk for someone. Maybe something weird, but still something about the right height that has a flat surface. An end table, a coffee table, a dresser, a kitchen counter, a rolling toolbox? An actual desk? A lot of households also have plenty of square footage for someone, either in the garage or an extra bedroom or some other place. When I was a newlywed in my first marriage, I had my desk set up in the walk-in closet next to the bathroom. Bookcase and filing cabinet in there, too.
Stephen King wrote Carrie in the laundry room. Thomas Wolfe was very tall, so he stood and wrote his books on top of his fridge.
The thing here is to value humans and human activity over any random pile of stuff.
Marie Kondo told everyone to make sure your stuff ‘sparks joy.’ I say it’s more important to build your personal environment around the stuff you like to do. Everyone in the house should have physical space to sleep, bathe, eat meals, stretch, relax, make things, and (now, alas) study or work at home. Any clutter that is in the way should be removed so the people can simply do their thing.
If there isn’t room for you or for anyone else in your home to get your work done, look around and figure out where it could happen. We might be here for a while.
Project 333 is the kind of great idea that doesn’t even feel like an idea. People tend to forget that someone like Courtney Carver actually innovated something. The more simple and elegant a solution is, the more it seems obvious - yet it sure wasn’t!
The premise of Project 333 is to take a break from what might be an out-of-control closet and only wear 33 items for three months. That’s where the ‘333’ comes from.
I know precisely one person - one of my clients - who probably has fewer than 33 items in her wardrobe.
Then there’s my husband. I just asked him, and since we’ve been WFH he has been using:
5 pairs of shorts
1 pair of shoes
= 11 items.
Carver’s book includes 33 chapters (of course) exploring the technicalities of the project. She offers a few examples of people who have tried it out, with lists of which items they included and what color.
This is fascinating stuff, and there could probably be a companion volume to Project 333 of just color grids of various people’s capsule wardrobes.
I used to be an inveterate thrift store shopper, and I had so many clothes that my closet rod snapped and dumped everything onto the floor. It turns out that being ‘organized’ and cramming everything in on special hangers is... heavy.
So was the unconscious burden of keeping clothes across six sizes, never knowing which size I’d be wearing three months later.
The more I worked with my people, the chronically disorganized and the hoarders, the more clarity I got about my wardrobe. I had a lot in common with my clients.
Buying things for the pattern or the fabric even if I didn’t wear them
Keeping gifts even if they didn’t go with anything else
Hanging onto old clothes even if they didn’t fit
Trying on several things, not realizing that most of them always wind up back in the pile
Always having a reason to keep something and never having a reason to let something go
I call this the ‘bottom up’ method. Look at what we have and work from there. What I gradually learned was a more systemic ‘top down’ method, figuring out what is actually needed.
The concept of designing a wardrobe was totally lost on me. This whole idea of choosing only things that work on my body type and interchange with each other... huh? How do people do that??
I’m exactly the audience for a book like Project 333.
Courtney Carver is right. Working with a minimal wardrobe really is better and easier. There are so many more interesting and important things to think about rather than what we’re wearing every day. Especially first thing in the morning, it’s a huge improvement to be able to grab something and feel right about it on the first try. Getting ready to start the day is one of the toughest times for the chronically disorganized. Project 333 is an ideal way to cut down on complications and have at least one area of life go smoothly.
Dress for the life you have right now, and you will move through it with more ease and grace.
This is Marie Kondo’s best book. I read it with a certain amount of trepidation, because I found several ideas in her previous books to be impractical or actively dangerous. It also amazes me that her clutter work is so broadly popular, because I have yet to see a hoarder like one of my clients actually complete the KonMari method. Joy at Work, on the other hand, should work for anyone.
Where this book shines is in its focus on time, rather than stuff. The reason for organizing papers or office supplies is to free up time, which can both improve one’s professional reputation and allow for an earlier end to the workday.
Joy at Work also highlights relationships and communication more than Kondo’s earlier books. Most of what constitutes “work clutter” is probably more about people irritating each other than about the arrangement of physical objects. This approach would be great for another household management book, if she ever chooses to write one.
There is a section on meeting management which obviously comes from someone with a full calendar. Here is an area where even one reader who is willing to share this material can delight everyone else in the office. Yes, let’s all have fewer and shorter meetings and excuse anyone who doesn’t need to be there.
The only thing that Joy at Work is missing, in retrospect, is a section on telecommuting. That could really be a book of its own, with chapters on how to balance homeschooling, electronic device sharing, and varied schedules. Maybe it could be called Joy in Spite of It All.
Organized people usually don’t understand why other people struggle to be organized. Punctual people not only can’t grasp why other people are late; they take it as a personal attack and some kind of moral crime. I see both as missed opportunities.
If you’re always on time, maybe you can help teach other people your secrets. If you’re organized, maybe you can help others.
Or maybe it’s harder than it looks? Maybe we start to realize, when we try to help, that what comes easily to us isn’t necessarily easy at all?
If you do want to help someone else, the first step is to learn how to be a good body double.
A body double is someone who sits with someone else.
It sounds simple, and it can be, but there are also a million ways to mess it up!
There are a lot of reasons why someone might be chronically disorganized. Many of them are situational, such as working twelve-hour shifts, having the flu, or raising tiny kids. The person knows what to do, but there’s too much going on at the moment. Help with even one single chore or errand can help this kind of person get it back together. Sometimes we can help just by taking over for a couple of hours while they take a nap.
For others, it can be more complicated. Some of my people come at the puzzle of organization from the perspective of autism, attention deficit, baby brain, remission from cancer, or simply having no idea what to do.
(Has anyone ever mentioned that by 21st-century marketing standards, probably 80% of people are “disorganized”?)
For most people, the answer is stunningly simple.
They can’t work alone.
A lot of people suffer under the delusion that a desk or office will help with their organizational difficulties. They may spend quite a bit of time and treasure setting up such an area, only to find it impossible to sit there and get anything done.
The real problem is that if they’re alone in a room, they shut down. They can’t work in isolation.
This is where a good body double comes into play.
This is what I think, although I can’t prove it without specialty equipment. I think that when two people are working side by side, they can amplify their ability to focus. I think it’s related to how birds and animals will take turns keeping watch while the rest of the group eats. In one way, we can relax when we have social proof that it’s okay, that nothing alarming is going on. In another way, I think it has to do with how people start to walk in step, or how singers can harmonize. Entrainment.
It’s worth trying, if you have roommates, colleagues, etc who aren’t much for taking the initiative to clean up. Often one person cleaning will spark others into pitching in. Rearrange chairs, wipe down a counter, or start putting things away, and others may silently participate. This works best if you treat it like a butterfly resting on your knee. Appreciate it, but don’t startle it.
This phenomenon, like many others, can be quickly destroyed by a single unrestrained facial expression or sarcastic remark.
This is another unheralded issue between the “organized” or “punctual” person and everyone else. Criticism. What might never have become an issue is now an area of perpetual power struggle, simply because the “good one” won’t leave it alone.
Sometimes people need a little time and space to get started.
I stay out of it. As an organizer, I’m learning more from my people than they are learning from me. It always amazes me how singular each person’s situation is. Sure, they have things in common, like unsorted bags or scattered coins, but otherwise their personal distribution of space versus stuff is completely unique.
I’m good at what I do partly because I approach my work with gentle curiosity and compassion. I’m also good at it because I know how to sit quietly for many many hours and keep my opinions to myself.
Sometimes, yes, I am thinking to myself GROSS! HOW CAN YOU LIVE LIKE THIS?? I recognize this voice, though, as a troll’s voice. One. Single. Comment. Can permanently etch someone’s confidence or willingness to tackle a difficult project. Let it never come from me.
I only act as a body double when it’s clear that my person is working confidently. What I’ve found is that most people can work for hours on end, skipping meal breaks, not even wanting to stop for basic biology. They’ll go for twelve hours if the mood is right.
They just won’t do it on their own and they won’t do it in a room by themselves.
I like these quiet times. Very little is asked of me other than to 1. Avoid critical comments or facial expressions and 2. Sit quietly, exuding companionship and concentrating on my own stuff.
I can catch up on so much reading!
It doesn’t work as well if I get up and actually start working on something else. If I’m sitting four feet farther away, working at my keyboard, the spell is broken.
What works is for me to sit there, meek as a little mouse, simply available.
I can hold my phone, or maaaaybe a book or my tablet. Usually I sit somewhere that seems temporary, like the floor, or the edge of a chair.
The goal is to create a sort of timeless fog. Nothing is happening. Nothing is going on. Nobody is doing anything. No seagull incursions or distractions of any kind. Nothing to do but sort this box, sort these papers.
When there are simply two adults in the room, this is easy work, and it can carry on uninterrupted for many hours. When there is even one little kid involved, it can go completely haywire. Kids can sense when someone’s attention is elsewhere. They need to feel like someone is WATCH THIS or YOU KNOW WHAT at all times. Here, the body double needs to be able to reassure the child without distracting the working adult. Can there be a third party who is responsible for entertaining the little one(s) for half a day? A weekend?
The great thing about sorting and organizing is that once a working system is put into place, the work doesn’t need to be repeated. A good system explains itself and becomes its own reward. Having, or being, a good body double can be a key part of this kind of automatic system.
The reason there is still a market for books on clutter-clearing is so many people are still buried in clutter. There’s another reason behind that, and that is that most of these books are written by methodical people who think the process is simple. Just get four boxes and start sorting! Tracy McCubbin knows better. Making Space, Clutter Free arose from years of working directly with people and understanding why almost everyone finds the process so emotionally challenging.
Making Space, Clutter Free is built around seven “Clutter Blocks.” I have seen all of these in play with my own clients (and many of them I have experienced myself). No amount of physical effort, no amount of bins or tubs or boxes, no approach is going to work until these blocks are identified and acknowledged.
The good news is that, in my experience, this emotional work can be done anywhere, at any time, and you don’t have to have a duster in your hand to do it. It’s much easier to do the inner work and go in prepared, having developed the interior certainty that it’s definitely time for this stuff to go.
Making Space, Clutter Free is the book to read if you’re still stuck, if you’re working through someone else’s things, if you’re having power struggles with your family, basically in any situation in which the whole “spark joy” thing isn’t working.
We use shopping as a shorthand for doing the work.
We imbue objects with tremendous power.
“I can love and hold their memory and still let go of their things.”
Instead of thinking of buying the item, think of buying the option of that item.
Invariably, these people are kicking the clutter can down the road because they don’t trust their judgement.
None of us want to be contributing to landfills, but that is no reason to let your home become one.
Don’t give your power away by thinking you need someone else to show up and get this done.
He opened the box. He closed it again. He opened it. He closed it.
This went on, from time to time, for nearly ten years.
I barely gave it any thought. When the box turned up in our lives, we had tons of storage. Not only did we have a walk-in closet, we had an office and a two-car garage with a loft. I doubt I even knew where this box was kept.
It wasn’t until we downsized for the fourth or fifth time that the box had nowhere to go. It sat in our bedroom for months. I had to move it over and over again just to clean the floor. Time to do something.
Normally I wouldn’t interfere. Someone else’s box of memories is their business, not mine (unless they ask me for help). Sometimes this stuff takes time to process. In this case, though, I knew the box was full of medals and ribbons and other marks of achievement. I truly couldn’t understand why anyone would hesitate to “deal with” what looked very much like a box full of success.
I asked him about it.
“It feels like a moral hazard,” he said.
What, to acknowledge that you worked really hard for several years? That participating in these things built you into the person you are today? That the values that earned you these trophies are values you still hold forty years later?
It’s okay to admit that you worked hard and you did a good job!
This whole situation was hilarious to me. I work with chronically disorganized people, and almost always their situation stems from accumulated trauma. They have trouble sorting their stuff, partly for cognitive reasons, partly because it physically wears them out, but mostly because it’s sad.
I share some of this to help people see their issue from a more clinically removed perspective. Putting things in the third person or giving some other type of emotional distance can often help them to make decisions. It can be easier if you see yourself as Someone, a generic person facing a slightly more abstract dilemma. Hmm. What should Person X do about Box Y and Box Z?
I also like to try to help my people see themselves as the endearing characters they so often are.
Here before you is a grown man, afraid that admitting he was once pretty good at swimming might turn him arrogant or vain.
Usually, when I start probing into how someone feels about a particular box of clutter, I’ll venture a version that doesn’t quite fit. I might share how I think I might feel in that situation, or I might mention a different client’s situation. The reason I do that is that it helps the person in front of me right now to get more specific. No, what I said isn’t how they feel at all. It’s actually...
Something quite unique, as it turns out!
The reason someone keeps a fork or a pencil or a set of keys is pretty consistent. “I need it.” If we get rid of these utilitarian objects, we’ll just have to replace them. We don’t have to explain why we have towels, unless we have like a thousand towels.
It’s much more interesting when someone explains why they have something that nobody else has, or why their emotional reaction is different than anyone else’s.
Do other people have boxes full of trophies or medals or ribbons or newspaper clippings of all the times local reporters interviewed them? I sure don’t! I only won my first trophy a little over a year ago.
It turns out that the reason the box was so hard to open was because of where it came from. My mother-in-law presented it to my husband a few years before her death, when her cancer came back. It was impossible to detach the contents of the box from their archivist.
She was so proud of you, I said. She must have shown all of this stuff to all her friends.
I was wrong about this box and its contents. It wasn’t entirely full of ribbons and medals. There were also quite a lot of photos, some of them framed. And? Homework and artwork from first grade on.
A lot is happening during the sorting of an archive like this. There are the rushes of various emotions, with the knowledge that at least some of them will be surprise sneaker waves. There are policy decisions: what to keep, what not to keep, and what do we do with it all? Where does it go?
What do we do with the stuff we want to keep? Frame or display it? Scan it? If we digitize it, do we also keep the originals?
Is there anything we should send to someone else? (Example: a funny newspaper photo attributing my husband’s name to another boy).
What do we do with the stuff that’s going away? Recycle it? Throw it in the trash? Shred it? Burn it?
The main thing I recommend, after sorting it all, is to set it aside until the next day, when all the emotions that have been stirred up have time to settle a bit.
My position on my husband’s box of stuff was that he should keep most of it, at least long enough to show his interns. They would really get a kick out of the pictures of him with a mullet! I also recused myself, because I had sorted, scanned, and burned my own stuff several years prior.
(That’s the problem: the two of us did that ritual together, going through stuff from our divorces, but this box wasn’t around at the time).
This is what he actually did. He kept the photos and the ribbons and medals. He elected to throw out the homework, with one exception.
Apparently, at some time back in the 1970s, my man had set aside a brain teaser and never finished it. Never mind that he has a master’s degree. He wasn’t going to let this incomplete homework assignment hang on as an open loop. He sat back and figured out the puzzle.
It took him ten minutes, which to me legitimated how challenging the question was. It seemed fair to me that a child would struggle if an adult aerospace engineer did.
“You know you’re allowed to have been a kid, right? You can’t blame yourself for not being grown up yet.”
I get it, though. Few of us can forgive ourselves for being young and making a young person’s mistakes. We judge our child-selves for not being adults yet, for not knowing how to make the decisions we would make today.
This is why it’s so hard to let go, because we can’t forgive ourselves even for being little children. We can’t be proud of ourselves even when we win.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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