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Time at Home, Not Time Wasted

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins what I believe is one of the most well-written chapters in all of literature. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens was writing about the stark contrasts during the time period of the French Revolution, a time that brought both despair and joy. I wonder if someday we might look back at this extended time we’ve had at home during the Coronavirus pandemic in a similar way. This time has brought despair to many – uncertainty, furloughed or lost jobs, sickness, and death. But it’s also been a time of joy – more time with family, lighter schedules, time to reflect on our priorities, and good people rising to the call of the needs around them. 

This prolonged time at home has had many consequences. While some rejoice at the additional time, others sadly resign themselves to hours of boredom. Some may be able to point to a list of projects they finally had time to accomplish, while others will celebrate having binged on all of the episodes of Friends. Again. Deciding how to spend the extra time isn’t a moral dilemma. There is no productivity police force. Trust me, if there was, I’d be the police chief. There is certainly value in relaxation. However, if you are anxious to accomplish a long procrastinated home project, this is a golden opportunity. Here are a few suggestions of home projects that are often ignored because of a lack of time. If by the time this article is printed the social distancing restrictions have been loosened and your schedule has gotten busier, you can use these same suggestions for any free blocks of time. 

Declutter Anywhere 

If you’re a regular reader of my column, you knew I’d have to at least mention this, didn’t you? What’s driving you crazy right now? What area in your home do you look at, sigh, and just walk away because it’s a disaster. That’s probably where you need to start. If nothing comes to mind immediately, just pick a room, a closet, or even a single drawer, and get rid of anything you don’t use and love. If you find something that belongs in a different part of the house, take it there. If you have time, pull everything out, get rid of the clutter, sort the remaining items into categories, and put them back grouped into categories. Even if you only spend 15 minutes a day doing this, you’ll make a lot of progress! Since the days are warmer, it’s a great time to declutter the garage. Attics and basements are also great candidates for decluttering while you have a lot of time. Donation centers aren’t really encouraging donations right now during the pandemic, so just queue them up somewhere until you can take them. But give yourself some kind of reminder so you don’t forget about these donations until next May. 

Make Small Home Repairs

At any given time, there are a handful of these annoying tasks that we tend to put off. I’m talking about things like a running toilet, holes in window screens, painting touch-ups, sealing your deck, or fixing a ceiling stain. The list of possibilities is long. Pretend you’re a potential buyer looking at your home. Walk around every room, starting at the front door. Ask every family member what needs to be fixed, and you may get more suggestions than you would imagine. Make a list of all of these issues and a plan for how and when they’ll get accomplished, and then just work on them one at a time. While it may not be the most fun pastime, you’ll be glad you got these tasks done. And should you decide to move soon, you’ll have less items on your to do list. 

Organize Your Printed Photos

This is one of the most procrastinated tasks of all. Here’s the usual scenario in my clients’ homes: multiple containers of photos with no idea how or when they will ever get around to putting them in order. Or maybe they have some vague plan to organize them when they retire, or while they’re recovering from a surgery that they might have many years in the future or when they’re trapped at home during a snowstorm or when the children leave for college (and now the “children” have children of their own) or “someday”. You get the idea. 

I’ve got news for you. You finally have the time now! Here’s a very simple plan to get you started:

  1. Get all your photos into one location.
  2. Figure out your end goal. If you could wave a magic wand and have the photo organizing completed, what would it look like? 
  3. Pick a box and get started with an ABC sort. This makes great binge watching work by the way! 
    1. The A photos are the best of the best, the photos that you would mourn if they were lost. This pile should be the smallest of the three when you finish the box. 
    2. The B photos are good photos. You can’t quite let them go, but they aren’t necessarily the ones you’d choose to frame or put in a scrapbook. 
    3. The C photos are photos you don’t really need. C photos include doubles, blurry photos, photos of people you don’t even remember, photos of a zoo animal, mediocre photos of a place that you could find with a quick Google search. This pile should be the largest pile by far. 
  4. Plan to have your A photos (and maybe some of the B photos) scanned as soon as possible before they get damaged. Keep your A and B photos (store them separately from each other until you’re finished the sorting). Throw away your C photos. 
  5. Keep going with this process box by box. When you’re finished with the sorting, start working on your end goal with the A and B photos. 

If you’ve got a goal that’s beyond your ability or motivation to accomplish, don’t be afraid to ask for help! There might be someone in your network of friends who’s working on the same task, and you can help each other. If your goal involves decluttering or organizing of any kind, Shipshape Solutions is now offering virtual organizing services. Rates are 50% off through May 15th. With our expertise and your work, you’ll be able to make any area of your home shipshape. 

I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful and that you’re able to get a few things accomplished. Stay safe and healthy! 

 

Beginnings: My Business and My First Book

teal typewriterIf you had told me even as recently as three years ago that I would someday write a book, I might have laughed at you. 

I was just finishing my third year of working as an elementary school instructional assistant. Although I loved working with children and found the work enjoyable, I wasn’t content. 

My professional life has taken many twists and turns to say the least. Having always been interested in science, I received a B.S. in Biology at Tennessee Technological University. I worked for the first year after my undergraduate degree in a research lab position at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. I then pursued a career in education by attending Georgia State University and receiving a high school teaching certificate. It didn’t take me long as a high school science teacher to realize this was not my true calling. 

I returned to my original goal of pursuing a career in medicine, earning a Master of Medical Science from Emory University and working as a pediatric physician assistant. The coursework and the job challenged me, and I enjoyed it. But by this point, my husband Eric and I had been married for 7 years, and I was ready to start a family. Although Eric wisely argued that it would be advantageous to work as a PA longer to gain more experience before devoting myself to raising our children full time, I would not be swayed. I was sure that I would have plenty of time to work before that stage of my life began. But God had other plans, and so after a very short career in medicine, Eric and I were thrilled to welcome two beautiful, healthy girls into our family. 

I spent the majority of my adult life caring for our children and volunteering in the school system and other community groups. I wouldn’t trade those years for any career opportunity or any amount of money in the world. I was exactly where I needed to be and enjoyed those years immensely.

During the last few years of my time at home, I participated in many volunteer projects. One of those projects involved organizing the storage area of a local community theatre. Since I had been practically obsessed with organizing for as long as I could remember, volunteering for this project was an easy decision. While knee-deep in a jumbled heap of costumes and props, I said to my friend who was organizing with me, “I wish I could do this every day!” Little did I know how much that experience would foretell. 

I did some research into organizing, and when I found out that some people organize as a profession, I was ecstatic. But I was also intimidated, because this job was not the kind where I could just fill out an application and potentially be hired. It would require literally starting my own business, including every step: licenses, insurance, finances, marketing, etc. I knew that I could do the work of organizing, but the prospect of starting a business was so daunting that I moved on to something that seemed safer. I took a job as an elementary school instructional assistant. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of becoming a professional organizer. 

Eric and I had engaged in numerous conversations over the years about me starting an organizing business. I would get excited about the possibility, but end up deciding that I just wasn’t ready. In the spring of 2016, after our youngest daughter was finishing her first year of college, the timing was finally right. On the Silver Comet bicycle trail in Georgia, we had a landmark conversation that would change my life. Eric said something like this: “I know you’re afraid, but I really believe you are perfect for this. I don’t want you to have any regrets or to wonder years from now whether you would have been able to succeed. I am 100% behind you and will do anything I can to help you make it happen.” 

So in August of 2016, I finally took that leap of faith and launched my business, Shipshape Solutions. It has been both one of the most terrifying and most gratifying endeavors of my life. The challenge in the first few months was to spread the word about my business and to gain clients. I knew that many new business owners use blogs to help market their business. So I started writing blog posts about my business and about organizing. I continued this practice as I started working with clients. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I got with it, and the more I enjoyed it. 

While reading my favorite magazine, RealSimple, I noticed that every issue of the magazine included an organizing article. Of course this was my favorite part of the magazine! I wondered whether a regular organizing article would be of interest to readers of our local newspaper, the Kingsport Times News. I had been contributing articles to the food page of our newspaper for about a year, so I thought perhaps this would give me a bit of leverage in asking. After a few months of leaving messages with an editor and then a bold in-person request, I was granted a regular column. 

I gained more confidence with each article I wrote. I’ve never had trouble coming up with ideas because there are so many ways to approach the topic of organizing. Since my article is published on a monthly basis, each article must be able to stand on its own. I have always tried to make them relatable to a large audience of readers and to contain practical information that could be used immediately. 

Eventually, I began to think outside the box of the monthly column. I had proven to myself and my editor that I could write 1,100 words on one topic at a time. What if I weren’t restricted by a word limit? What if I could write more? Knowing that there are hundreds of organizing books on virtually every topic imaginable, I didn’t want to duplicate something that already existed. I wasn’t sure I would have anything unique to contribute, and I was hesitant to begin such an overwhelming task. But just like my dream of starting an organizing business, my dream of writing a book wouldn’t die. 

I began brainstorming topics. I had several possibilities, and it took me a while to settle on one. Three factors led me to choose this topic. First, even though thousands of organizing books have been published, very few of them touch on the spiritual implications. I didn’t want to just write another “how to organize” book. I wanted to expound on what I believe is the core issue, the most crucial lesson we need to learn when facing the facts about our clutter. Second, I had the privilege of giving a presentation on this topic several times over the past few years. Each time I gave the presentation, I not only fine-tuned it, but I wanted to share more. I felt a strong sense that I had only begun to scratch the surface. Third, I have personally seen the spiritual impact that coming face to face with clutter in all its forms can have in my own life and in my clients’ lives, and I was eager to help many others experience this same freedom. 

Having decided on my topic, I set out to write. But the daily tasks of running my business and life in general left little time to write. Sometimes getting away from the normal routine is the only way to dedicate time to a project that requires intense focus. And so, when Eric and I spent a month in Missoula, Montana in July of 2019, I was finally able to dive into writing the book. My prayer for this book is that God will speak through me to help readers see how clearing our clutter can free us to live the purposeful, fulfilling, and abundant life God has planned for us. 

 

How to (Really) Work from Home

IMG_1530The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed so much about our home and work lives. Because of the need for social distancing, many more people are working at home, some for the first time. While some excel in adapting to this new setting, others struggle to remain productive. My husband Eric began working remotely in 1998, well before it was so commonplace. Over twenty years of experience with remote work has given him valuable insights that can help those who are still settling into this new normal. For this article, I asked Eric some questions about how to work effectively from home. 

You started working from home before it was widely utilized. How and why did your remote work begin?

While we were living in Atlanta in 1998, Seattle-based RealNetworks offered me a job, but I didn’t want to live on the West Coast because of family ties in Kingsport. After telling them I wanted to work for them but didn’t want to live any further from Kingsport, they offered to let me work remotely, and I have been working remotely ever since then. I worked for RealNetworks from 1998-2013 and have worked for Groupon since 2013. 

What are your top strategies for productively working at home? 

  • The most important one in 22 years of remote work is to have a regular start time and end time every day. 
  • I’ve always insisted on a dedicated space for work. When our daughters were young, I worked in an office built into a detached garage. Being in a completely separate space was very helpful. Even now in a small loft apartment, I don’t just work from the kitchen table. I have a desk that’s specifically for work. 
  • I always dress for work. Working at a tech company is fairly casual, so I don’t have to dress up. But I still dress as if I were going into the office.
  • I over communicate to my employer. For example, I have a worklog in a Google doc that I share with my manager. At any time, he can see what I’ve been working on every day. 

How has the practice of working remotely changed over the years? How has your own practice changed over the years?

  • The biggest change has been technology. I have so many more tools to stay in touch with my colleagues than when I started. 
  • When I first started, I decided to be very rigid with my schedule. I worked 8-5 and didn’t do anything else during those hours. Later I relaxed a little bit and would occasionally trade a few minutes of running an errand for a few minutes of extra work at the end of the day. 

What are your biggest distractions?

It’s easy to start reading the news and suddenly find that an hour has gone by, so I try not to open any news while I’m working. Of course social media like Facebook and Twitter are “weapons of mass distraction”, so I almost never open those while working. But really just the normal activities around the house are the biggest distraction – packages being delivered, laundry needing to get done, contractors dropping in for home repairs, travel planning, online shopping, etc. Really, my personal to do list is my biggest distraction. 

What do you see as the biggest advantages and disadvantages of working from home?

Advantages: When you work in an office setting, there’s always a social expectation that if someone drops by, you’ll stop to talk. This is built-in wasted time. You get that time back when working from home. Another advantage is that there is no wasted time commuting.

Disadvantages: It’s hard to remain socially connected to coworkers. You really have to work at it. You don’t know any of the scuttlebutt or water cooler talk around an office. That talking time isn’t all bad. Sometimes that kind of talk can lead to useful technical discussions. You have to plan those kinds of conversations when you work remotely. Another disadvantage is that work life balance is much harder. You’re tempted to work all the time. 

Do you find that you are more productive or less productive when you travel to the Groupon offices as compared to working at home?

I am much more productive at home, mainly because at the office, I feel the need to have scheduled time with many different people plus some general social time. 

Do you find that people are respectful of your time, or do you often have requests to do non work-related tasks during work time? How do you handle these requests? 

Early on, I started applying what I called the “Eastman Rule” not only to myself but to others. When I was deciding whether or not to do a household job/task/errand in the middle of the work day, I would first ask myself: “If I was working from an office at Eastman, would I do this now?” If my answer was no, I wouldn’t do it. I applied the same rule to family and friends. When I got requests, I would say, “If I were working at Eastman right now, would you ask me to do this? If not, I’m not going to do it. 

What advice would you give to people just beginning to work from home? 

  • Be as rigid as you possibly can with your schedule at the beginning. You can always ease up later.
  • If possible, have a dedicated room for work. If that’s not possible, have a dedicated desk or space that you only use for work.
  • If there are young children at home, you need clear signals for when you’re working and when you’re not, and you need to communicate clear expectations for your family and friends. 

		

Should I Buy It?  Shopping Tips to Prevent Excess

saleI’ve written many articles with an emphasis on decluttering. I’ve shared plenty of tips to encourage us to let go of what we don’t love and don’t use. I realized recently I haven’t yet written much about the other side of the equation. We could theoretically continue to declutter consistently but not make much of a dent in our excess if we keep on bringing too much into our home.  An influx of items can come from items people give us as gifts, either for special occasions or just because they feel we need something. But the main influx into our homes is primarily of our own making. We are simply buying too many things we don’t have room for and don’t need. I’d like to share some tips to help us change that habit and to be more mindful of our shopping habits. 

Stop Shopping “Just for Fun”

Are you rolling your eyes or muttering, “Yeah, right” under your breath? If shopping is a favorite pastime, I realize this isn’t an easy change to make. Ideally shopping should be an intentional activity in which you set out with a list of specific items you need and shop for only those items. Yes, it’s possible to enter a store to “just look”, but more often than not, it’s pretty easy to justify a purchase. If shopping with a friend is a favorite activity primarily because of the companionship, why not consider going for a walk in a park together instead? You’ll enjoy the companionship but will also benefit your health. 

Don’t Add the Item to Your Cart

When we’re shopping and see an item we like, it feels effortless to just toss it into our shopping cart without thinking. Then when we get to the cash register, we buy it without further consideration. One of my clients shared her new shopping practice that will counteract this tendency. When she sees an item she likes, she pauses briefly to look at it but then keeps moving. By the time she’s finished shopping, if she hasn’t thought about that item again, she realizes it’s not a necessary purchase. If she continues to think about that item and its use in her home, she’ll go back and get it. This simple tip has decreased her shopping tremendously. 

Put it on a Wishlist

What if you’re considering a purchase and you aren’t ready to make the decision, but you don’t want to forget about the item? Add it to a wishlist of some sort. You can always reconsider the purchase at a later time. Also, if your birthday, Christmas, or any other gift giving holiday is approaching, you’ve got gift ideas ready to share. This is also a great strategy for parents when shopping with children. Many times when shopping with my daughters they would see something they wanted to buy. I would often say, “We’re not getting that today, but I’ll add it to your wishlist,” and they knew they might receive it another time.

Don’t Let a Sale Cloud Your Judgment

It’s hard enough to resist a purchase if an item is at regular price. But there’s something inside us that just can’t resist a sale, especially if it’s 50% or more off the regular price. Keep in mind that many times items are marked up just so they can later be marked down. If you can’t truthfully justify a purchase, don’t let the fact that it’s on sale pressure you into making a bad decision. 

Carefully Consider a Purchase

If you are making a purchase for someone else, you need to be just as vigilant about making good choices. We want to not only solve our own clutter problems but also be mindful not to contribute to others’ clutter. Are you sure the person would really love and use it? If it won’t ruin some kind of surprise, text them a picture of the item and where you saw it. If they don’t reply, just move on. If you’re shopping locally, you can always come back later (or they can). 

If you’re shopping for yourself, here are a few questions to ask yourself before making a purchase: 

  • Can I afford to part with this money? Or is the money better spent on something else that is more critically needed right now? Another way to look at it is to consider the cost in terms of how many hours you have to work to earn the money for it. Let’s say you earn $25 per hour and are considering purchasing an outfit that costs a total of $200. Is that outfit worth the 8 hours you worked to earn it? This consideration may give you a new perspective. 
  • Is this item better than a similar item I already own? If clutter is a real issue at your home, I highly recommend having a “one in, one out” strategy. For every item you bring into your home, commit to removing one item of that category (or preferably more than one) from your home. 
  • Do I need this item right now? Or can I wait until later, and if I still need it, I’ll reconsider? 
  • Do I know exactly how and where I will use this? Is there room for it in the space I intend to use it? 
  • Will this item add value to my life? If it doesn’t serve a purpose or bring me joy, it doesn’t add value. 
  • Do I have time for any upkeep this item will require? The monetary cost of an item isn’t the only cost. Items require space to store along with a host of other possible requirements, such as maintaining, cleaning, feeding, watering, protecting, replacing, charging, repainting, accessorizing, taking care of, replacing the batteries, and more. Is this item really worth all of the time and cost associated with it? 

I hope that these tips have given you a new perspective on evaluating your purchases. Always remember that if you bring in more than you take out, you’ll never be able to conquer your clutter problem. 

Shopping mindfully with careful consideration can slow down your accumulation significantly. I’d love to hear about any other tips that have helped you prevent purchasing items you don’t need! 

Organizing Your Media

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In my work as an organizer, I regularly help clients make decisions about their belongings. One category of belongings that we regularly encounter is media. By media, I am referring to music, movies, “home movies”, and books. How do you decide what media you need to keep and which ones to let go? How do you best organize and store media that you keep? What should you do with media in outdated formats? This article will address all of these questions. 

The way we listen to music has changed drastically over the years: albums (vinyl), cassette tapes, 8 track tapes, CDs, MP3 players, and music subscription services. When making decisions about your music, the most important consideration is how you prefer to listen to music now and whether you intend to continue listening this way. If you still listen to CDs, you can save space by ditching the plastic cases and slipping the discs into pockets in a binder. If you have a music subscription service like Spotify or Apple Music and you plan to always use one, there is no reason to keep your physical CDs, and certainly no reason to keep even older formats. For some of the old formats, you may not even own the devices on which to play them anymore. For example, how many of you still own an 8-track player? With a subscription service, you can listen to almost any music anytime. According to late 2019 studies, 80% of Americans are using music subscription services, and no doubt that trend to digital will continue. If you’re not using them, let them go. 

The way we watch movies has also changed drastically over the years. Remember going to Blockbuster to pick out a movie? Netflix and Redbox revolutionized the way we way we watch movies at home, initially still utilizing physical discs. Redbox realized that most people, with few exceptions, watch the most popular movies exactly once shortly after their release on DVD. If you haven’t watched that DVD your cousin gave you last Christmas yet, then odds are you won’t. So get rid of it. 

Most of us now choose to rent movies by streaming them at home. Though there are streaming services aplenty now (like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus), none of them are all inclusive, so we can’t necessarily count on being able to watch any movie or TV show anytime. The availability constantly changes. So if you want to be able to watch your favorites anytime, you might want to keep them. Again, you can save space by getting rid of the cases. 

Having said that, I still believe we should save very few of our physical movies. Why? For the most part, when we buy a movie, we watch it quickly after purchase and never again. There are certainly exceptions, favorite movies we watch over and over. Those are the ones we need to keep. If you still have VHS movies but no VHS player, that’s a no brainer. Let them go. 

Paying $3.99 or so to rent a movie is still better than paying $2 to buy the physical movie but not ever watching it again. Don’t forget that your local library has a good collection of movies you can borrow at no cost. If you still feel the need to purchase a movie, I strongly encourage not buying the physical movie. If you must buy, purchase it digitally so you can watch it on any device. 

Do you have home movies on VHS, 8 mm, mini DV, or other formats containing some of your most precious memories? If you haven’t converted them to digital format already, you are in danger of losing those memories forever because those formats are already degrading. Getting this media converted not only saves them from damage but also allows them to be more easily viewed and shared. Few people have the requisite equipment or expertise to accomplish this task. Companies like Legacy Box, Dijifi, iMemories, and Southtree specialize in this process. If you aren’t willing to risk your media being lost or damaged during shipment and would rather use a local company with personal customer service, I highly recommend Bays Media in Johnson City. Give yourself some peace of mind by converting your media. 

With movies, we are used to the model of paying to watch by renting instead of buying. Why don’t we use this same model with books? Why buy books if you aren’t likely to read them again? We are even less likely to read a book again than we are to watch a movie again; rereading a book requires a much greater time commitment. You can save money by checking out a book from the library in physical or digital format (ebook). If you must buy a book, consider buying the ebook to save space. Give away books you won’t read again. If you are unsure whether you will read it again, err on the side of discarding it. Then if you decide you want to read it again, check out or buy the ebook. 

I bet some of you readers are struggling with this advice. Nothing brings out the ire of a reader like suggesting they let go of their books. I can hear you complaining. “But she doesn’t understand. I like to hold a book, not read it on a screen. And I just can’t get rid of my books. I love them so much!” 

I understand. But consider these facts. Unless the book is a real favorite, it is very unlikely you will read it again. The book that is sitting on a shelf unread isn’t benefiting anyone. It’s much better to get it into the hands of someone who will read it. 

Our public libraries are a tremendous resource. Use them! Public libraries often take donations for book sales, the proceeds from which allow them to continue to offer their services. You can support your local library by donating books or purchasing books at these book sales. Book resale shops like Mr. K’s in Johnson City are another great option for donating and purchasing books, movies, and music at a reduced price. By trading in books you’ve already read for other books, you can utilize resale shops much like a library and keep just a few at a time. 

Everything you own belongs to you. You get to make the decisions of what stays and what goes. But if clutter is an issue, take an honest look at your media. Even thinning out a bit can help reduce your clutter and free up space. 

 

Make Smart Organizing Resolutions

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Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

 

Happy New Year! By the time you read this, we’ll be a few days into 2020. Whether or not you have made any New Year’s resolutions, most of us will be thinking about them. If you’re like most people, you may be thinking something like, “I probably should make some kind of resolutions or goals, but I don’t usually do well keeping them, so why even try? I think I’ll just skip it this year.” While it’s true that success rates for keeping New Year’s resolutions aren’t great, it’s also true that people who make New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to meet their goals than people who want to change their behavior but don’t make resolutions. So obviously setting goals is still a good idea. 

When we make New Year’s resolutions (or any type of goals) and aren’t successful in achieving them, we usually blame ourselves. This blame starts us on a vicious cycle of self-condemnation that never serves us well, and makes us even less likely to set goals in the future. But maybe the problem isn’t you. Maybe the problem is that you’re not making the right kind of resolutions. Maybe your goals are unrealistic, too vague, or just not well suited to your life. We all want to reach our goals, so let’s talk about how to make the kind of goal we can reach. 

Getting organized is a very common New Year’s resolution. In fact, it usually makes the Top 10 list of resolutions every year. I’m so glad that it’s on the forefront of so many people’s minds, because I definitely believe that getting more organized is one of the best uses of your time! However, setting a goal of getting more organized is just like setting a goal of being more healthy. It’s way too broad, can’t really be measured, doesn’t include a plan, and is kind of overwhelming. 

So what makes a good goal? The best kind of goal to set is a SMART goal. SMART is an acronym for 5 specific qualities of an effective goal. The most effective goals are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound. 

  • A specific goal says exactly what you’re going to do. 
  • A measurable goal is one for which you can easily tell when you’re making progress on it and when you’ve achieved it. 
  • An achievable goal is one that can realistically be attained. 
  • A relevant goal is one that will benefit your life, making you happier, healthier, or more successful. 
  • A time-bound goal includes some kind of schedule or time frame. 

If you want to set an organizing goal with the best chance of success, make sure your goal includes all 5 of these criteria. This really takes goal-setting to a new level, doesn’t it? It takes some time to think through all of these principles. I guarantee you that this thinking and planning is worth every bit of time and effort. 

Now let’s talk about a common organizing goal and evaluate it based on the SMART criteria. 

  • Goal: “I’m going to organize my house.” 
    • Problems: This goal is probably relevant, but it’s probably not achievable. It isn’t specific or measurable, has no plan, and isn’t time-bound. 
  • Better Goal: “I’m going to organize my garage so that there’s nothing on the floor and I will be able to park both cars in it.”
    • This is a little better. It’s more specific, measurable, and relevant. But it still doesn’t include any plan or timeline. 
  • SMART Goal: By the end of February, I will organize the garage. I will know I’ve succeeded if there is nothing on the floor, and I am able to park both cars in the garage.
    • This goal is specific; the garage is the one area to be organized. 
    • This goal is measurable. It will be easy to tell if the goal has been met because the floor will be clear and two cars will be parked in the garage. 
    • This is an achievable goal. Limiting the goal to one room makes this goal attainable. 
    • This goal is relevant. Being able to park both cars in the garage and having a clear floor will improve his/her daily life. 
    • This goal is time-bound; it will be completed by the end of February. 
  • Now that this goal has been adapted to make it SMART, now what? I can’t just sit back and wish for it to happen. I need a detailed action plan. Here’s an example of a garage organizing action plan:
    • I will set aside a Saturday on my calendar.
    • I will pull everything out of the garage, grouping items into categories as I go.
    • I will eliminate anything that I don’t love and use by selling or donating.   
    • I will purchase and install some shelving. 
    • I will purchase and install a wall-mounted track system.
    • I will place items that I am keeping either in clear labeled bins on shelves or hang on the track system. 

If you’re thinking, “Wow! That’s a lot of work for just one goal!”, you’re right! It does take a lot of work to think through your goal, make sure it’s a SMART goal, and to come up with a detailed plan. Taking the time to complete all of these steps is key to being successful in reaching your goal. 

The fact that it involves a lot of work is a good reason not to make too many goals in the first place! You may have a lot of areas you want to organize, and it’s ok to make a list of all of them. But you stand a much better chance of success if you will just focus on one goal at a time. 

You could even start with something very small. Conquering one small area can give you the momentum to keep going. Even with a small goal, make it a SMART one. 

  • Problem: The junk drawer is a jumbled mess. It’s so full that the drawer always gets jammed, and I can never find anything.   
  • SMART Goal: I’m going to organize my junk drawer by the end of the weekend. I will know I’ve succeeded if I can easily open and close the drawer and can find what I need when I am finished.  
  • Now make a detailed action plan, and get busy organizing! 

What if your home is so disorganized that you don’t even know where to begin? I recommend that you get some help! If you don’t have family and friends that can help, give me a call. I’d love to help you reach your goals! 

 

Stop Giving (Meaningless) Christmas Gifts

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I fully expect some controversy with this article. I may even be likened to Ebenezer Scrooge, that archetype of misers, for daring to write it. Though I don’t relish negative reactions, I believe Joel Waldfogel’s 2009 book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holiday is worthy of inclusion in a discussion of holiday gift giving. (By the way, I am only scratching the surface of this well-written, interesting, and comical book. I recommend a full read.) I promise to also include practical tips outside the scope of this book. My ultimate goal is to lead you to smarter purchases that could decrease clutter, increase the satisfaction of your gift recipients, and even contribute to world well-being. A lofty goal indeed. 

We’ve all given and received non-ideal Christmas gifts. Some of them may have been regifted or donated, and others may still be contributing to the clutter in our homes years later. No one ever intends to give an unwanted gift. Certainly none of us enjoys that awkward moment of publicly unwrapping such a gift. But year after year, those uncomfortable scenes repeat in households everywhere. Can we do better? I believe we can and should. If we’re going to give Christmas gifts (and despite this book’s title, I believe we will), why not strive to do it well?

In the early 90’s, Waldfogel, an economist and college professor, having observed the trend of unwanted gifts responded by doing some research. He surveyed his students about the gifts they had received, how much they valued them, and what the giver had paid. Not surprisingly, he found that gifts others buy for us are usually poorly matched to our preferences and are rarely valued equally to the amount paid. Add to that the fact that many of us go into debt to finance Christmas purchases, and you’ve got a recipe for vast economic waste. This trend isn’t limited to America, and it doesn’t show many signs of slowing. Despite the bleak reality, Waldfogel offers hope. 

“OK, Mr. Smart-Guy economist. They don’t call it the ‘dismal science’ for nothing. Thanks a lot for ruining Christmas. Do you at least have any sage advice?” 

Indeed, he does. Here are some of his suggestions: 

  • The better we know the recipient, the more likely we are to hit the mark on choosing gifts. Since we know our young children so well, of course we should continue giving to them. They expect and love Christmas gifts and would be very disappointed to lose them. 
  • The same applies to close friends and immediate family members if we know their preferences well. If you don’t have to surprise the recipient, a wish list or gift registry can be a lifesaver. 
  • For people you don’t know well, the best hope is for your gift to be as close to cash as possible. Gift cards are a great solution in this situation, especially if you know where the person likes to shop. Ditto on the wish list. 
  • Regarding gift cards: 
    • One problem the author discusses with regard to gift cards is the large number of unused or lost gift cards, resulting in economic loss. The author’s novel solution is a great one. He proposes that stores issue gift cards that at time of expiration, the remaining balance is given to charity. While I don’t think that exists yet, there are many charities that will accept unused or partially used gift cards. 
    • Some companies donate a small percentage of the sale or make a separate donation to charity for every purchased gift card. For example, through the end of 2019, Williams-Sonoma will contribute $5 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for every eGift card purchased with the design featuring artwork by a St. Jude patient. 
    • There are also gift cards such as Charity Choice where the recipient gets to choose the charity that receives the money from the purchase. The author recommends a purchase such as this (or simply a donation to a charity in their name) for recipients that either have everything they want or are very self-disciplined and don’t want to receive gifts. 
    • Although most people like getting a gift card, many people don’t like giving them, claiming they feel too impersonal. One way I recommend to combat this is for the buyer to purchase an item that can be easily exchanged, either online or in a store. In that way, it can function in a similar way to a gift card. 

Following are some of my own additional suggestions: 

  • The more I help people organize and declutter, the more I live by the motto of experiences over things. Giving experiences instead of physical gifts provides the priceless intangibles of time and memories. How about gifts like these: a ticket to a concert, a play, a movie, or other performance; membership to a gym, a zoo, or a museum; money towards a special vacation; contributions to art or music lessons? There are so many great possibilities for thinking outside the (gift) box. 
  • In a similar vein, what if a couple or a group of people decided to spend the money they would have used to purchase gifts to enjoy an experience together? Eric’s extended family still talks about the year we stayed at a cabin together relaxing, talking, and playing games over the holidays. Again, while no one opens any physical gifts in this scenario, everyone enjoys the gift of relaxation and time together, truly gifts that keep on giving with the special memories created. 
  • I love this wonderful idea from a friend. Every Christmas, each member of their extended family chooses a charity and puts the charity’s name into the hat. They draw the charity names out one by one, and the person who entered that charity explains what the charity does and why they chose it. Each person donates a set amount of money, and the last charity drawn wins the pot. When asked about the rationale and effects of this family choice, my friend explained, “It just didn’t make sense to financially overburden extended family members to buy presents for people they only see once or twice a year. Everybody gives a little bit and the gift is compounded with other’s gifts ‘for good’ rather than wasteful gifts that may get re-gifted later. Plus it gives the ‘winning’ family member a chance to explain their charity and why they think it is worthy. It causes us to reflect on our blessings and shifts the focus away from self-centered to community-centered.”

Here’s to a Merry Christmas and better gifting!  

 

The Declutterer Declutters: What I Learned from my Downsize

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My husband Eric and I recently moved from our home in Preston Forest in Kingsport to a downtown loft. While our daughters were living with us, this home was perfect. But when we became empty nesters, we realized we had much more space than needed. So we started discussing what kind of space would best suit our future needs. We wanted a space just big enough for the two of us and occasional guests, but no bigger. We wanted to walk and bike instead of driving as much as possible, and we didn’t want a yard. A downtown loft met all these requirements.

The timing of our downsize correlated almost perfectly with the launch of my organizing business. In the spring of 2016, while still on the fence about starting my business, I listened to the audiobook version of Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I was so inspired that I immediately began the tidying process in our home. It was great preparation for our downsize. Not only that, it would prepare me to help clients declutter and give me experience in using Kondo’s methods. I followed her process exactly and loved every minute of it. We got rid of quite a bit of unneeded belongings. This was Declutter #1

Preparations began in earnest in early 2018. We put our house on the market and began another round of decluttering. Since we knew our new home would be much smaller, we knew that we would have to get rid of a lot. Fortunately, we had two extended family members in need of furniture, so we were able to give them much of our unneeded furniture. Although our daughters didn’t live with us anymore, they still had some items at the house. We told them we would only have room to keep one bin of mementos and a few books for each of them. We went through everything we owned and got rid of even more. This was Declutter #2

When our house finally sold and we began packing, we entered another round of decluttering. We got even more ruthless with each stage, comparing the levels to DEFCON levels. It was amazing how much we were still able to shed in Declutter #3 as we started putting everything into bins and boxes. We had to consider every single item individually and ascertain whether its value was worth the space it would occupy. 

I am sharing the most important lessons I learned because I believe they are applicable to almost everyone. 

It’s never too early to start decluttering.

I believe this advice is true even if you don’t plan on moving soon (or ever)! We started decluttering 2-3 years before we moved. Neither Eric nor I have a bad habit of keeping things unnecessarily. So I really didn’t think we had much clutter. I now wish I had measured the number and/or weight of items we discarded because it was much more than I would have predicted. 

You don’t have to be planning a move in order to declutter like you’re moving. A friend from high school has a very effective annual decluttering practice. In late spring of every year, she and her family walk around the house and look at every item, asking only one question: If we were moving, would this item survive the move? If not, they let it go. I love this technique! 

The best time to declutter is always now. Even if you only followed this one tip, you’d make a great start. Put an empty box in an easily accessible location near your most used rooms in your house. As soon as you see anything that you don’t need, put it in the box. When the box is full, take it to the donation center of your choice. Repeat the process over and over. This practice alone takes very little time but pays huge dividends.  

Getting money from your belongings feels right, but it’s usually not worth the effort. 

We generally donate most items we don’t need, but we occasionally make exceptions. Eric had a jacket from every Apple Worldwide Developer Conference from 2012-2019. He had seen these jackets sell for $200 each on ebay, so he listed them. They didn’t sell as a set, so he listed them individually. They still didn’t sell. 

Often when someone intends to sell something, they don’t even know how, so it sits untouched. Rarely does an item bring the financial reward we think it deserves. You also have to consider the time to price it, take and post photos, respond to queries, and ship it. 

I sometimes made the same excuses as my clients. 

For the most part, I didn’t have much trouble shedding my possessions, but it wasn’t always easy. I found myself saying exactly the same things as my clients say when they struggle in their decluttering efforts. Here are a few phrases that I recall saying during this process: “But ____(special person)___ gave it to me!”, “I worked really hard on that!”, “But I might need it,” and my personal favorite, “But it’s special!” 

When in doubt, err on the side of letting go. 

Eric and I have had some practice living in a space of this size. We took advantage of flexible jobs and our empty nest by living in a different part of the country for one month of 2018 (Bend, Oregon) and 2019 (Missoula, Montana). We rented a small home or loft, taking only a very small amount of clothing, basic toiletries, and a few items for leisure activities. Even then, we ended up having more than we needed. I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed having just a few options as far as clothing. Living with a minimal amount of stuff was very satisfying. 

We need so much less than we think we need! It might be a very eye-opening experience to list your absolute requirements to get by on a daily basis. Then walk around your house and compare what you see with your list. 

Letting go brings freedom. 

I have seen this principle to be true not only personally, but also for my clients. Everything you own requires time to purchase, store, clean, and maintain. In the words of Tyler Durden in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, “The things you own end up owning you.”

After 3 years of decluttering, I have rarely thought twice about anything I let go. Even then, I have no regrets. I love this more simple lifestyle. 

 

Process Your Paper to Prevent Piles

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Now that most communication occurs digitally, you would think paper disorganization would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In my experience, almost every person who struggles with organization of any type also struggles with keeping papers in order. It’s not unusual to find piles of paper throughout the home as well as multiple containers of paper when I visit a client. Without a good system for organizing and maintaining paper, there is little hope of change. The system of paper organization I have used for many years and have helped clients establish is extremely effective. This article gives step by step instructions for implementing this system.

First, you need to understand the difference between active papers and archive papers. Archive papers are usually long-term, don’t need to be consulted often, and are often filed. Examples of archive papers include social security cards, insurance forms, mortgage information, tax files, and birth certificates. Active papers are usually short-term, need to be consulted frequently, and often require action. Examples of active papers include coupons, invitations, receipts, bills, and forms. This system of paper organization is for active papers only. Organizing archive papers is also extremely important but won’t be included in this article.

Gather your household paper 

Gather ALL of the papers around your house. Look everywhere. Paper can hide in unusual places! (drawers, cabinets, family Bible, behind or under furniture, etc.) If you have files of archive paper, don’t include those papers in this step. Put all papers into one container if possible. 

I call this step Paper Palooza. The word palooza is often used for big festivals. It denotes an exaggerated one-time event. If you use this system correctly, you shouldn’t need to complete this step again!

Sort all papers into archive or active

You will need 4 containers: one for recycling or trash, one for shredding, one for archive paper, and one for active paper. Start sorting through the container(s) one paper at a time, dividing into archive or active. As you complete this first simple sort, discard any unneeded paper. Save shredding for later. I have found that using an identity theft prevention roller stamp (about $20 on Amazon) is much quicker than shredding. You can also take advantage of bank free shred days or outsource the shredding to an office supply store.

I am convinced that we don’t need 80-90% of the paper we keep! If you are doing this sort correctly, your recycling container should fill up very quickly. How do you determine whether you need to keep a paper? Here are a few criteria:

  • Does this require action?
    Just because you receive information—even if it’s from your boss—doesn’t mean you need to keep it!
  • Does this exist elsewhere?
    • Finding the same information online is most likely going to be easier than finding this paper later!
    • Library
    • A home file 
    • Book or manual
  • Is this information recent enough to be useful?
    • Information quickly becomes outdated. 
  • Can I identify specific circumstances when I’d use this information?
    • “Just in case” is not good enough! 
    • How likely is it that you will need it? 
  • Are there tax or legal implications?
    • Here’s where “just in case” works. 
    • What is the worst thing that could happen if I did not have it?
  • Does anyone else need this information?

If you end up with only a few archive papers and have a good filing system, go ahead and add these papers. If you have a lot of archive papers, save organizing them for a later time. 

Set Up Your Paper Processing System

Now it’s time to set up your paper processing system. Sort all active papers into categories. Your categories will be determined by your preferences and your life stage. You can choose action words like Pay (bills), Contact (people you need to contact), Complete (forms), File (papers for archives), and Wait (pending items). You can choose any categories that work for you. Other examples include Church, Neighborhood, Upcoming Events, Coupons, etc. You’ll be able to figure out your categories as you go. I like to use Post-It notes or index cards to write down categories as I sort. I will sometimes add, subtract, or combine categories as I go. Group each category (I suggest about 5-10) into a labeled file folder. 

This paper organizing system has two basic critical components: one container and one day a week. 

  1. Keep all active paper into one container. A vertical tabletop file box is ideal. Whatever you use needs to be able to hold 5-10 letter-sized file folders. Don’t use a much larger container because you will be tempted to store papers that don’t belong in it. This container should be kept in an easily accessible area, ideally the room in which papers usually accumulate or the room where you usually work on papers. 
  2. Go through papers one day a week.
    1. Choose one day a week that will be easiest for you to commit 30 minutes to 1 hour. Committing to this one day a week is of paramount importance to maintaining the organization. If you will be traveling that day, take the container with you if possible. If you get behind, catch up as quickly as possible and recommit to one day a week. I can’t stress this point enough. 
    2. On your scheduled day, empty the container completely and go through every paper one at a time. 
      1. For each piece of paper, ask, “Can this wait until next week?”
      2. If no action is needed now but you still need to keep it, replace it into the folder.
      3. If action needs to be taken this week, set the paper aside into a To-Do pile. 
    3. When you have gone through every paper, you should wind up with one To-Do pile for the week, with the rest of the papers back in the container in their proper folders. 
    4. With each paper in the To-Do pile, either act on it now or schedule it. This is an ideal time to plan your weekly schedule. Examples of actions from the week’s To-Do pile: bills (pay), invitation (RSVP, schedule on calendar, schedule gift buying), forms (fill out and mail), errands (schedule), appointment slip (make sure appointment is on the calendar), solicitation for charity donation (pay online or mail check), etc. 

I guarantee that if you set up this system and are diligent with weekly paper processing, you will see a tremendous improvement. Feel free to contact me with questions. If you have more papers than you know what to do with, contact me. I’d love to help you! 

 

A Recipe for Organizing Your Recipes

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In 3 years of professional organizing, I have observed that many clients have a large collection of rarely used cookbooks, hundreds of recipe cards, and countless photocopied or handwritten recipes scattered in multiple locations. This is the perfect timing to write about this topic because my husband Eric and I just finished organizing our own recipes. 

My own recipes weren’t in terrible shape before we started. From a previous organizing attempt a few years ago, I had two binders with dividers for different categories containing recipes on matching cards. It looked great but was neither comprehensive nor sustainable. I also had several rarely used cookbooks, a folder with printed recipes, and lots of disorganized recipes from websites. When it was time to cook, I couldn’t remember where to find the recipe I needed. Often I would just search online for a recipe because it was easier. I decided that I needed one place for all of my recipes. Since we are downsizing and space will be at a premium, we chose an all-digital organizing system. 

I imagine some of you are rolling your eyes already, thinking there’s no way you would choose to go all-digital. Before you disregard that possibility, consider the advantages of using a digital system: 

  • All your recipes in one place 
  • No more valuable space taken up by cookbooks, binders, card boxes, etc.
  • Easily add online recipes
  • Easy sharing of recipes
  • Easy searchability 
  • Access your recipes from anywhere on any device

Here’s a real-life example of how having your recipes organized digitally could benefit you: You’re at the grocery and want to make a particular dish. You don’t remember the recipe’s name, only that it has mango in it. You pull up the app and search with “mango”. Within seconds, you find the recipe, add all ingredients to your grocery list, and begin shopping for those ingredients. 

There are multiple digital solutions for organizing your recipes, including Paprika, BigOven, and Yummly. I have used the app AnyList for years. Upon learning that AnyList also has extensive features for recipe organizing, the choice was easy. As with any choice, each app has its own unique features, advantages, and disadvantages, so you might want to do a little research before choosing. I highly recommend AnyList for ease of use, connecting to your grocery list, ease of sharing, ease of importing recipes from websites, and the ability to add or remove items from your grocery list using your smart home device, such as Amazon Alexa. 

If you’re ready to organize your recipes digitally, here’s a step-by-step plan using the same 3 steps (reduce, arrange, maintain) that I use to organize anything:  

    1. Reduce (discard unnecessary recipes): 
      1. Cookbooks: Find any recipe you routinely use and mark it in some way. Be honest with yourself – if you haven’t looked for other recipes from this book in years, you aren’t likely to in the future either. 
      2. Recipes cards and paper recipes: There is no shortcut; you’ll have to sort through these one at a time. This is good “TV work” as I call it – turn on a mindless Netflix series and quickly sort them, keeping only those that you recognize, have tried before and loved, or that you are drying to try. If you’re doing this correctly, the stack of saved recipes should be much smaller than the discarded ones. 
    2. Arrange (put recipes in order): 
      1. Choose the digital tool you will use, whether it’s AnyList, Paprika, or another, and set up an account. 
      2. Cookbooks: For the recipes you’ve saved from cookbooks, it’s likely you can find them online by searching under the name of the cookbook and recipe. If you’re using AnyList or a tool with easy recipe import, this is a breeze. Sometimes this step requires an additional tool (for example, with AnyList, if you’re using a Mac, you’ll need a free Chrome extension). Once you’ve imported a recipe, you can choose a category (or multiple categories) for the recipe (dessert, salad, bread, etc.). If you can’t find the recipe online, you can enter it manually. Although this is more time-intensive, it doesn’t take as long as you might think. And I promise it will be worth it! After entering all the recipes, donate the cookbooks.
      3. Recipes cards and paper recipes: For those you have saved, unless you know it’s a unique recipe, try searching online first. It may surprise you to learn that Aunt Ginny got “her” famous cinnamon roll recipe from Betty Crocker. If you can’t find it online, enter manually and put it into the appropriate categories.
      4. Online recipes that you’ve saved: This is the easiest category of all. Simply import and categorize only the recipes you recognize, have tried before and loved, or that you are planning to try soon. 
  • Maintain (keep recipes in order):  
    1. When you get a new recipe, simply enter into your digital tool and categorize it as you did the others.
    2. Every once in a while, scan through your recipes and delete any you still haven’t tried, tried but didn’t like, or can’t use anymore because of changes in preference or diet. 

What if you prefer not to go all digital? I still highly recommend that you go through the step of reducing. Then figure out one system for all recipes, whether it’s recipe cards, a binder(s), or files. You can still incorporate cookbooks and online recipes into this system. Include a card or page in the appropriate category with the name of these recipes and where to find them (which cookbook or website). 

I’d love to hear about any recipe organizing success stories or challenges. If you need assistance, I’d love to help you!