Last week, The Coastside Women’s Club or CWC invited me to speak about the organizing process. CWC is a 501(C) (3) non-profit organization, whose mission is to provide social, charitable, and educational activities for the women of the San Mateo County coastal communities. They raise funds for local charities and scholarships for Coastside high school seniors. It was a pleasure speaking to the group. I agreed to share my notes on organizing here.
Coastside Women’s Club presents: Organized at Heart by Alys Milner
Although I find organizing intuitive, for others it can be a struggle. In some cases, people grew up in a chaotic environment or they were simply never taught organizing skills. Others struggle with ADD or ADHD which can have a huge impact on their ability to establish or maintain systems that work for them.
In the most extreme cases, there is a profound mental illness that prevents an individual from letting go of anything in their environment, including old newspapers or rotting food. At that level, individuals require help from a mental healthcare provider along with the assistance of a professional organizer. You can read more about chronic disorganization here. The good news, is that most of us fall somewhere in the middle. The process of organizing and maintaining systems is teachable.
I made up an acronym to describe my approach to organizing. You may be surprised to learn that organizing is the final step in the process. I call it ASSESS for:
- Set aside planning time
- Schedule it on the calendar
- Evaluate everything
- Send it out into the universe
- Save and organize the rest
Analyze the situation needing organizing
Do you have a $50,000 car in the driveway while storing a broken fish tank and a stack of dusty boxes in your garage? Are you storing items for ‘one day, someday’? Do you have clothes hanging in your closet sized small, medium and liar? Have your children flown the nest, leaving behind boxes of stored items? It’s important to analyze your situation, and then come up with a plan.
Set aside time for planning
Large projects take time and unlike the TV shows, projects are rarely accomplished in a weekend with a large crew on hand to help. Gathering the materials you’ll need will help you succeed. Cardboard boxes, large garbage bags, post it notes and markers, a pair of scissors and anything else you might need for success.
Success requires scheduled chunks of time to accomplish various tasks. Each task will ultimately lead you to an organized space. If your goal is to park one or two cars in a garage, currently filled with something else, you’ll need to break it down into manageable pieces. If you have a party or a vacation coming up, you’ll want to realistically plan around that as well.
Schedule time on your calendar to complete the various stages of the project
In other words, make an appointment with yourself. I do this with exercise, phone calls, and other items I need to get done. There is something about writing it down (or typing it into your smartphone or computer) that makes it tangible. Going back to the garage example, if you have a three-day weekend approaching and no plans to go away, think about scheduling four hours to work in the garage, followed by something fun Treat yourself to an afternoon at the movies, or time in your favorite chair with a hot cup of tea and a good book. Placing the reward at the end of the session will help keep you motivated.
Evaluate: Every item within your physical space or operational system should be evaluated
Evaluating what you have is often the hardest part. All items are not created equally. We often defer decisions because they’re painful. They can be boringly painful, like sorting through junk mail, or they can be emotionally painful, like sorting through letters of a deceased loved one. When you defer a lot of decisions, you end up with clutter. If you have boring decisions to make, you can usually move through those decisions quickly. Setting a timer works really well for this activity.
Challenge yourself to plow through a box of paper work in 15 minutes, knowing the timer will ring and you’ll be off the hook. It’s amazing how rewarding this can be. If you’re exhausted at the end of the process, then move on to something else. If not, set the timer for another 15 minutes and keep going.
Discomfort or Fear
Some decisions are uncomfortable or perhaps fraught with guilt. Your mother-in-law may have died several years ago, leaving you a box of ugly china. That china is now collecting dust and taking up valuable real estate somewhere in your home. Maybe an acquaintance gave you a framed picture of Elvis as a wedding gift. They love Elvis and they meant well, but it’s not to your liking or taste. We hang on to these things because we either feel bad “getting rid of them” or are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.
If you change the mindset from “getting rid of” to “passing on” or “letting go” it can go a long way toward making this task easier. You’re not honoring anyone by keeping a gift or a hand-me-down that makes you feel sad, guilty, angry or uncomfortable. Give yourself the gift of letting go. Some decisions might feel like they aren’t yours to make. Your son or daughter left home, but they’re storing high school yearbooks or dolls clothes in your garage. If they’re away at college, it’s understandable, but if they’ve been out on their own for a while, it’s time to make the call.
Send it off into the Universe. If it’s not useful or beautiful, it doesn’t belong in your space
I think this is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. Finding a new home, where possible, for the items you no longer want or need. Here are a few from my own community. Challenge yourself to locate resources where you live.
- Sacred Heart Community Services (bedding, including sheets and blankets, warm coats)
- Charity thrift stores (Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers/Hope) and others: gently worn clothes, toys, furniture and appliances. The larger stores offer pick up.
- The Humane Society or other animal rescue group: newspapers, old towels and washcloths
- Join a Free cycle group in your area: it’s a great resource for board games, small toys, tools and other small items that may not be practical to donate elsewhere
- Metal recycling free at the curb
- Computer Recycling centers or school drives in your area
- Library used book sales, Little Free Libraries in your community and art studios love receiving books
If you’re still not sure, search for resources in your area under “how to recycle” or “where to donate.”
Save and organize the rest
Albert Einstein said, “Out of clutter, find simplicity.” Once you’ve reduced your clutter, it’s time to put your systems in place. This is true for an entryway closet as well as your desk top, your kitchen or your collection of photographs. It might involve space planning: removing excess furniture, or different placement of what you already have.
- A physical item like a purse
- A physical space like your garage
- A collection (photographs are an important one)
- A home office, requiring a system of work flow
“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with—that’s poverty—but how efficiently we can put first things first. . . . When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar. ” ― Victoria Moran, Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty
“Organization isn’t about perfection; it’s about efficiency, reducing stress and clutter, saving time and money and improving your overall quality of life.” ― Christina Scalise, Organize Your Life and More