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“Container Concept” Helps Us Set Limits

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I love containers. I love the variety: boxes, baskets, bins, drawers, crates, jars, folders, tins, and…well, you get the idea. I love all of the different shapes and sizes and colors and textures. The Container Store just might be my favorite store. By the way, I really want a Container Store in the Tri-Cities area (the closest one is in Charlotte, NC), so if you have been wanting to open a store, you have my full support and promise of lots of business. As an organizer, my love of containers should come as no surprise. I do spend quite a bit of time figuring out the perfect container in a situation. But when I use the word “container”, I often mean so much more than just a “receptacle in which something is held or carried”. I am referring to a principle called the container concept.

I first heard the term container concept in a podcast called A Slob Comes Clean by author and blogger Dana K. White (click here for one of her podcast episodes on this topic). I use this concept myself and with my clients just about every day. It has been one of the most useful organizing principles of all, and I hope you find it helpful as well.

If the basic definition of a container is something that contains (just as a baker is someone who bakes), then let’s look more closely at the word contain. According to dictionary.com, contain can also mean “To hold or keep within limits; restrain. b. To halt the spread or development of; check.” You may be asking why I am teaching this grammar lesson, but bear with me. When we choose a container, we aren’t just picking something to make a space look good; we are also giving limits on how much of something can fit inside.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example. Let’s say that I am packing for a trip. I choose my suitcase based on how long the trip is and what I think I will need for the trip. The suitcase is my container, and as such, it limits the amount of items I can take. If I pick too many items and they won’t fit, then I have to either choose a bigger container (suitcase) or take a second one.

The container concept doesn’t just apply to a traditional container. Let’s consider this example. I am organizing my kitchen cabinets when I notice that I have 73 coffee mugs that occupy 4 cabinet shelves. I realize that I am running out of room in my cabinets, and I admit that it’s probably unreasonable to use 4 shelves for coffee mugs alone. I decide that one shelf of coffee mugs should be enough, and so I spread out all 73 mugs and make some difficult decisions. I keep only the amount of mugs that can fit on one shelf, and I let the rest go. That one shelf is my container, and it limits how many mugs I can keep.

Now let’s expand the concept even more. If one shelf can be a container, how about a whole room? Consider your kitchen as a container for all food-related items. If all of the items that should be kept in your kitchen can’t fit in the kitchen, then what do you do? You could store some kitchen items in alternate locations. Sometimes this is a reasonable alternative for seldom used items such as a turkey roasting pan. Since you likely only use this at Thanksgiving, it’s not a bad idea to give this item a “home” elsewhere, like a closet or the basement. But what if your kitchen cabinets are completely stuffed full of items and you also have multiple boxes of kitchen items in other locations? Then I think you need to apply the container concept in this situation. It’s probably time to pull everything out of your cabinets, take a hard look at each item, objectively evaluate what you really use, and get rid of some things. (By the way, if you decide you’d like to rearrange things a bit for better kitchen efficiency, click here for a handy reference for organizing your kitchen cabinets.)

Ok, time for another expansion of the concept. If one room could be considered a container, what about your whole house? What if you have too many items to fit into your house? This is a pretty common problem. Most of the time, instead of taking the time to consider whether everything is really needed, we simply expand our home, buy a bigger home, or rent storage space. On average, 10% of Americans rent space in a storage unit. There are some situations in which this makes sense temporarily. If you are in the process of moving to a new home and you have to move out of your current home into a smaller space before the new home is ready, renting a storage unit makes sense. Unfortunately, situations like this are the exception, not the norm. It may not seem that expensive to spend $90 per month for a 4 x 10 ft. storage space (actual price at a local storage facility in Kingsport), but over a year’s time, that cost adds up. I’m sure you can think of a better use for that $1,000 a year. A much better and frugal alternative is to apply the container concept. Your house is one giant container. Limit yourself to what fits in your home.

I’m going to expand the concept one final time, but this time in a theoretical sense. Instead of thinking of a container just in terms of a physical space, consider using the container concept with reference to your time. A 24 hour day or a 7 day week could be considered a container of sorts. There are only a limited amount of activities we can fit into a day. When we try to stuff our days too full, we end up exhausted, stressed, and scrambling for excuses. When our weeks are filled to capacity, we may run out of time to do the things we enjoy that give us fulfillment because we only have enough time to do the things we have to do. If our time is a container, maybe we need to take a hard look at the way we are spending our time. There are probably some optional activities that need to go. Sometimes we need to let go of good to make room for better. Psychologist and personal trainer Jill Conyers expresses this idea well: “Let go of what doesn’t serve you to create space for what does.”

I love hearing from readers! Send me your thoughts on this topic, your organizing challenges, or ideas for future articles.

Happy organizing!

 

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When the Organizer is Disorganized

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Sometimes a story is just too funny to keep to yourself, even if it paints you in a slightly unfavorable light. I had been looking forward to attending my first NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) conference for years. NAPO is an organization of 3,500+ members who are dedicated to helping people and businesses bring order and efficiency to their lives. I have been a member of NAPO from the very beginning, even before I officially launched my business in August, 2016. I had taken online classes, read their daily email discussions, and had corresponded by email and phone with several organizers from all around the US. When I decided to attend the NAPO 2018 conference in Chicago, I just couldn’t wait to finally interact with other list-obsessed people like me.

As the date approached, I paid special attention to all of the emails concerning the conference. I had chosen my class sessions, connected with my conference buddy (NAPO assigns a buddy to every first time conference attendee), and had packed everything on the suggested packing list. On Thursday, April 26, my wait was finally over. My flight was scheduled to leave at 5:55 pm. We pulled up to the curb at the airport at 5:00 pm, I opened the trunk to get my suitcase, and it wasn’t there. Yes, you read that correctly. I had left my suitcase at home. And I was headed to a conference for professional organizers. Talk about irony.

Although my husband Eric made a valiant attempt to retrieve the suitcase in time, I didn’t make that flight. I wasn’t able to leave until 6:00 the next morning, but I still made it to the conference in time. Somehow I was able to stay calm and to laugh about this turn of events, and it definitely made for a great conversation starter at the conference.

So why am I telling you this story? Why am I admitting that although I pride myself on organization, I am by no means a perfect example? I firmly believe that humility is a good thing, and I also believe you can learn a lesson from my mistakes. I remember thinking years ago that people who dropped their phones and ruined them were just ridiculous. Until I dropped my iPhone in a toilet. I heard a story years ago about a friend who was traveling to Haiti on a mission trip. He got all the way to Miami before he realized he had forgotten his passport and had to fly back home. My story ranks right up there. I often say, “Add this to the long, ever-increasing list of stupid things I have done.”

I am guessing that at least a few of you read my articles about organizing and figure that I must be 100% organized in every possible way. Now you know that’s not true. Don’t get me wrong; my home is pretty organized. But when it comes to time management and routines, I have a lot of room for improvement.

What valuable lessons can you learn from my story?

  1. Remain calm when you realize your mistake. In the midst of the mini crisis at the airport, I am so glad I was able to maintain my composure. In a stressful situation, this is critical.
  2. Prepare early. In the vast majority of cases, being in a hurry contributes to the problem. My daughters and I often tease Eric about needing to get to the airport so early. We have always thought his insistence on arriving so early was overkill. I learned the hard way last week that leaving early allows extra time for situations just like this one.
  3. Give yourself a break. Everyone does stupid stuff sometimes. But don’t just say, “I am officially an idiot”, or “Oh well, that’s just how I am.” Laugh a little, and then learn from it.
  4. Create a checklist or a system for any repeated task. Taking the time to do this will make the situation much easier in the future and decrease the odds that you will make the same mistake again. Many of my best checklists or systems have been created as a result of mistakes I have made, sometimes over and over again. Because I have left way too many things in hotel rooms over the years, I do an extensive double check of the room before I check out now. As a result of many forgotten items, I now have a packing list for bicycle rides and a general packing list. The night before I work with a client, I go ahead and set out my work clothes and pack everything I will need in the car. I have been doing this until now by just thinking of each item, but it would be much more effective to create a checklist. You’ll be interested to know that my newest checklist is called “Last minute trip preparation”; the last item on this list is “Load suitcase into car.”

What about you? Are there routines in your life (either at home or at work) that could be made less stressful by creating a system or checklist? As soon as you identify something, jot down as much as you can while it’s fresh on your mind. Later, when you’re not in as much of a hurry, think through the situation completely and complete the checklist. You may need to get input from other team members for this step. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. You can always add or subtract items as you evaluate what’s working and what’s not working.

I hope this information has been helpful for you. We all fall short sometimes. Taking the time to evaluate what went wrong and establishing a better system for the next time is definitely worth the investment.  

Happy organizing!

 

Upcoming Fee Structure Changes

If you haven’t figured it out yet by the 1,762 times I’ve said it already, I LOVE my job! There are so many different things that I do, and I love all of them, but not equally. My favorite parts of my job are organizing with clients, giving presentations, networking, and writing articles about organizing. My least favorite parts of my job involve making the myriad of decisions related to running the business, especially financial ones. But alas, the costs of running a business can’t be ignored: taxes, insurance premiums, licenses, memberships, marketing, training, etc.

After much deliberation and advice from several organizers and business coaches, I have decided that I need to change my fee structure effective July 1, 2018. You can read all of the details of the how and why on this page of my website.

If you have considered hiring me to help you organize, now would be a great time before my rates increase.  Any session booked before July 1 (even if the session occurs after July 1) will be billed at the current rate. Click here to book a session online.

Don’t forget, I now offer a $50 one hour DIY Organizing Consult for those who need help with ideas of how to get started and how to make best use of their spaces.

If you have any questions about the changes, please contact me anytime. Thank you for your understanding.

Reflections on my First NAPO Conference

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On a Sunday afternoon at the end of April, I was on a plane headed home. As always, there was a safety video playing with detailed instructions about how to operate your seat belt, the importance of identifying the closest exit (“keeping in mind that the closest exit may be behind you”), and how to find an inflatable lifejacket in the unlikely event of an emergency. Since my husband and I love to travel, I have watched this video and listened to this message countless times. But that day, I was particularly inspired by one of the opening lines of the video. “At Delta, we believe a good trip is not about the destination, but about the people you meet along the way.” I couldn’t agree more.

The destination for my weekend trip was a retreat center in St. Charles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The facility was great: plentiful meeting rooms that were clean and well-maintained, scenic hiking trails nearby, friendly and professional staff, and delicious food available just about anytime. Yes, the Q Center was nice. But the people? Oh, the people I “met along the way” were truly outstanding.

You see, this was my first NAPO Conference. NAPO, the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, is an organization composed of thousands of people from all areas of the United States (and a few other countries) whose work involves helping people organize their belongings, their time, and their lives. As a new organizer (I started my business, Shipshape Solutions, in August 2016), I was eager to attend my first conference. I knew that the class sessions would give me information vital to increasing my knowledge and skills as an organizer. But I’ll have to admit that I was also a bit apprehensive. After all, many of the organizers attending were seasoned veterans. Having read books, listened to podcasts, and followed email and social media discussions about organizing, I was anticipating meeting some of the “rock stars” of the organizing world and hoping I wouldn’t appear so “green” as to be laughable. Because I don’t live close enough to attend a local NAPO chapter meeting, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to count on having a friend to sit with in the dining room or during sessions. I envisioned a scenario not unlike the junior high school cafeteria, when I would nervously walk away from the cash register with my tray, hoping and praying that I could find a seat at one of the “cool” tables.

After checking into my room, it was time to head down to the conference. According to the schedule, it was time for lunch. Oh, great. I’d have to start with the dreaded cafeteria scene. I got my food and started that slow walk. “Look for a smiling face,” I thought, “and just hope for the best.” Since most every person was smiling, I just randomly chose a table, sat down, and introduced myself. By the end of lunch, I knew that it was all going to be ok. Without fail, every single person at the lunch table that day was friendly, encouraging, and eager to make me feel welcome.

Once the sessions began, the rest of the weekend was pretty much nonstop. Every presentation was of top notch quality, and I learned so much valuable information. My eyes were opened to the vast opportunities for growth within the organizing profession. Besides general organizing in homes and offices, organizers can write books, install closet systems, teach workshops, help with productivity and time management, produce podcasts, plan complex events, and collaborate with any number of professionals to help a client. Presenters urged us to use our gifts, talents, and skills in unique ways to make our business uniquely our own. Participants freely exchanged ideas, discussed challenges, and encouraged each other to grow.

My mind is swimming with possibilities. I have a long list of new things I want to try. I am inspired and challenged to take my business to the next level. I’m so glad I made the decision to attend the 2018 NAPO conference. I can’t wait for NAPO 2019: Education is Bigger in Texas!

Are You Ready to Reclaim Your Garage?

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Happy spring! I hope you’ve been able to enjoy some time outdoors on the warmer days. Lawn mowing season is in full gear, and many people are working on their vegetable and flower gardens. Or maybe like me, you’re enjoying trips to the Kingsport Farmers Market, where you can enjoy the fruits and vegetables of someone else’s gardening efforts. As you enter your garage for supplies to begin these tasks, odds are that over the fall and winter, your garage has accumulated some clutter and may need some attention.

Garages are definitely a household hot spot.  Sometimes we work so hard on the common areas of our homes that it leaves us no time or energy to work on the garage. Consequently, the garage becomes a cluttered, neglected mess. If you deposit enough stuff in there, you end up with no room to park one (or both) of your cars, and you end up avoiding the area altogether because it only brings you feelings of guilt. Like a household receptacle, if you don’t know where to put something, it usually winds up in the garage. It’s also the repository for our “delusions of grandeur”, like that sports activity, home renovation, or yard improvement you were just sure you were going to get around to soon. If that’s the case, be realistic about your chances of actually participating in that activity. It may be time to let these things go guilt-free so that someone else can get some use out of them.

Does the thought of organizing your garage fill you with dread because it’s a complete disaster? I am thankful to Lisa Woodruff of Organize 365 for her excellent podcast (https://bit.ly/2qK127C) as well as fellow organizer Vicki Norris’ of Restoring Order (https://bit.ly/2HGlW17). Are you ready to reclaim your garage? I suggest that you block out a day (or at least 2-4 hours) when most of the family can participate and follow these steps. I promise you it will be well worth the effort!

  1. If your car(s) are parked in the garage, drive them out of the garage and empty them out. You are going to use both cars for this project. One will deliver items to donate, and the other will deliver items to people that you have borrowed them from or to a consignment shop.
  2. Gather some large sturdy trash bags (the black heavy duty ones work best). The bags can be used for trash or to donate some items. You may also need a few empty boxes or bins to take donations.
  3. Empty everything out of the garage into the driveway.
    1. As you pull things out, if an item needs to be recycled or thrown away, go ahead and put it in the appropriate container. One item I see a lot of in garages is empty boxes from shipping. They can take up a lot of space! It doesn’t take very long to break them down to be recycled. If you just can’t part with them, at least break them down and store them flat so that they take up less room.
    2. If an item needs to be returned or donated, go ahead and put it in the appropriate car. When a car gets filled up, one person needs to make a delivery and come back. You need to be ruthless in this stage in order to really get big results. If you don’t have a specific plan for how and when you’re going to use an item, let it go! Get rid of all of those “what if” items that have been crowding your garage for years.
    3. Put everything that you plan to keep into categories. It might help to use sidewalk chalk to delineate the areas (plus it will give the kids a fun way to help).
    4. Continue this process until everything is out of the garage. Give the garage a good cleaning; break out that Shop-Vac for those leaves, spider webs, and dead bugs.
  4. As you work, make a list of things you need or things you have plenty of and don’t need to buy. Examples might include: “Replace the broken broom”, “We have 23 pairs of work gloves, so stop buying them!”, and “We’re almost out of windshield washer fluid”.
  5. Now that you’ve got an empty and clean garage, before putting everything back in, carefully consider whether the way it was organized before was functional and make a plan for the space. What issues were you having in the garage? Get everyone’s input on the plan if possible.
    1. You might want to establish several different zones. Perhaps one wall could be purposed for children’s items (riding toys, sporting equipment, etc.), one for household tools, and one for gardening tools. A lot of this decision will depend on what activities your family enjoys and the ages of your children.
    2. Keep in mind that items you use frequently should be easily accessible. I love Vicki Norris’ suggestion of having a “grab and go” area of the garage for items that are moved in and out of the car frequently. This may change seasonally.
    3. Items for long-term storage or items only used occasionally can be stored on upper shelves.
    4. I really like either plastic or metal sturdy adjustable shelving and clear labeled bins. With this arrangement, it is very easy to see the contents of the bins and very easy to move them around on the shelves.
    5. Make good use of wall space to get as much as possible off the floor. You may not realize how much can be hung on the walls of your garage. A few years ago, my husband installed a FastTrack system (https://bit.ly/2qTYow3). Now we have 3 bikes, our wheelbarrow, and many of our tools and sports equipment hanging on the wall. We love the versatility of attachments that can be hung on the rack. It has freed up lots of floor space and shelf space. FastTrack is made by Rubbermaid and is available at Lowe’s and Home Depot. There are other similar brands of these easy to install systems.
  6. This is also a good time to consider what habits have contributed to the problems in your garage and how you will change those habits. For example, if you tended to come back from a shopping trip, vacation, or sports tournament and just drop things in the garage without putting them in their proper place, consider how you can change that habit in the future. One suggestion for this particular problem is to block out a period of time after these activities for proper unpacking.
  7. When you finish, you will be amazed not only at how much better it looks, but also how much easier it is to find things and move around in the space.
  8. Enjoy your organized garage!

 

Organizing in Mexico: A Unique Challenge

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Last week I had one of the most unusual and challenging organizational projects ever. I am sharing this experience with you because the principles I learned hold true for any organizing task.  My husband Eric and I were in Cozumel, Mexico volunteering on the campus of Ciudad de Angeles (City of Angels), Ciudad de Angeles (https://www.ciudaddeangeles.org/) is a Christian children’s home that provides a permanent home for orphaned, abandoned, abused, and needy children in Mexico. Our family has been involved with Ciudad for about 13 years, and we visit yearly to spend time with the child we sponsor and to help with improvements to the campus. Our “Mexican daughter” isn’t a child anymore; she’s actually now 20 years old and a student at the local university.

As the team of volunteers was gathering materials for the various projects that needed to be completed, the team leader approached me and said, “I heard you were an organizer. We’ve got a job that’s perfect for you!” I love organizing so much and was excited for a chance to use my skills there. The building that needed work was a small storage area for construction materials. As is often the case, because it is used by many different people and no one is in charge of maintaining it, it was in quite a state of disarray. The shelves and floor were almost totally covered with various supplies, but there appeared to be no order to where things were placed. There was also quite a bit of trash and empty containers scattered around. More materials needed to be brought into the space, but doing so in the current state would only make matters worse. The goal was to remove anything not worthy of saving and to put the remaining contents into order so that materials could be found easily. This solution would save the home both time and money.

There were several things about this project that made it considerably different from other organizing projects. First of all, usually when I begin a project, I spend a lot of time speaking to the primary user of the space to find out about their goals and preferences. Although most of the staff at Ciudad speaks both English and Spanish, the construction workers spoke only Spanish. As the primary users, they would be the most important ones to ask about how items should be arranged, but since I speak very little Spanish, I wasn’t able to have that crucial conversation with them. With multiple projects going on at the campus, there wasn’t time to enlist someone’s help to translate, so I just had to arrange things in the way I thought best. I had several “angels” (a few older children who live at the home who just happened to be on a break from school) to help me, and their English was good overall, but it did create an additional challenge. Secondly, funds are limited at the home, so I wouldn’t be able to buy any new organizing supplies. I would need to limit my choices to what I had available to me. The third difficulty was that I wouldn’t be able to label the shelves or containers after I finished because I didn’t know the Spanish term for the objects.

My helpers and I got started immediately by removing any obvious trash and unusable items from the building. This part of the process took the longest since there was so much that needed to be removed. I had to occasionally check with a Ciudad staff member to ask whether an item was valuable enough to save. After everything that didn’t belong in the storage building was removed. Then we pulled everything out of the building and swept off the shelves and then the floor.   

As we pulled items out, we started grouping them into categories. Sorting, the process of arranging like with like, is always my favorite part of the organizing process. Even with the language difficulty, the angels were excellent with this task. I was very thankful that my husband Eric was able to join me on the second day of the project. He has much more knowledge about building materials than I do, so he was able to help with the decision about whether something needed to be saved as well as with the sorting process. Once we had everything sorted, we started making decisions about how to arrange everything. We wanted to keep heavier materials (like buckets of paint and large tiles) on the floor of the building under the bottom shelf. Items that would be used regularly needed to be stored in an area that was easily accessible. We also wanted to keep as much of the floor clear as we could to allow space to work and for bringing in additional materials as needed.

Only at this point did we start thinking about whether we would need to use containers. We looked at each grouping of items to decide if it needed to be placed into a container. Since we couldn’t buy anything, we looked around to see what kind of containers we had available. Since painting and construction are constantly taking place at Ciudad, we had an abundance of empty 5 gallon buckets as well as a few random plastic containers. I usually like to use clear containers with lids for organizing because they allow you to see the contents and the container can easily be labeled. Eric had a great suggestion; we used 5 gallon buckets turned on their sides for a few items so that they could be corralled into one place but also be seen easily. Once everything had been arranged, we were able to bring in some additional supplies (wood scraps) that had been stacked nearby until the building was organized.

I was so pleased with the results that we took a few pictures. I was wishing I had taken “before” pictures so that you could see what a big difference we made. The Ciudad staff was thrilled with how much better the building looked. But the true test of whether an organizing project is successful isn’t based on how a space looks but whether or not it is functional. Toward the end of the process, a construction worker came into the building to look for some electrical wire, glanced at the shelves, and quickly found what he needed. I am not sure whether he would have been able to find it before, but I was encouraged by watching to see him find it easily now.  

When I reflected on this experience later in the day, I realized that there was much to be learned. Here are some of my thoughts:   

  • No matter what the situation or what type of items are involved, the basic steps of organizing are always the same: reduce, arrange, and maintain. First, remove anything that doesn’t belong in the space (reduce). Next, group the remaining items into like categories and determine the best order for them (arrange). Finally, figure out a plan for how the items can be kept in order in the future (maintain). I guess only time will tell as to whether the order will be maintained, but hopefully if we arranged it in a functional way, maintenance won’t be a difficult challenge.
  • If you’re on the fence about whether or not to keep an item, err on the side of purging. I am glad I was given permission to use this criteria. One of the biggest reasons that clutter develops is because we keep too many things “just in case”. But the “just in case” usually doesn’t happen, and we’re left with a huge amount of unneeded stuff that clutters our spaces. A good basic rule is to only keep something if there is strong evidence that it will be used for a specific purpose in the very near future. Make purging your default mode, and you will have much better long-term results. Be ruthless!
  • Wait until the very last step of the process to even think about what containers you might need. This is the opposite of what most people do. So often, people will decide to get organized and immediately go and buy a bunch of storage containers. Until you have removed what’s not needed and sorted items into categories, you have no idea what kind of organizing products you will need. Besides, most of the time, you already have everything you need for organizing. The 5 gallon buckets and plastic containers that were lying around in various areas of the campus weren’t the ideal solution, but they worked just fine. I find this to be true the vast majority of the time with clients here as well. Organizing doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t have to buy specialty products. Common household containers such as shoe boxes and baskets can be used to group items.

I’m so glad I got an opportunity to organize in Mexico. I know I was also helpful with other projects I assisted in last week, like weeding a landscaping bed and shoveling gravel into wheelbarrows to be moved to other locations on the campus. But it’s always nice to find a place to use your skills and passion in a way that benefits others. I hope that the principles I learned during this job are helpful to you.

Happy organizing!

 

Homeless Clutter

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When it comes to my job, helping people deal with the clutter in their homes is my bread and butter. Clutter is defined as a collection of things lying about in an untidy mass. Clutter can accumulate anywhere in a home, but what I encounter most often is cluttered surfaces in the common areas of the home like the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. Sometimes clutter piles up because we simply don’t take the time to put items back in their proper place. Taking a few extra seconds to return items to their home instead of placing them somewhere quickly easily solves that problem. But what if an item has never been assigned a proper location, or home? What do you do with it when you finish using it? More often than not, that item will end up on a kitchen counter, desk, coffee table, or some other surface. When that same outcome occurs frequently, before you know it, the surface is no longer visible or usable.

I heard the term “homeless clutter” on one of my favorite organizing podcasts recently (https://bit.ly/2G0lcUx). Cassie Aarsen, professional organizer, author, and owner of ClutterBug in Ontario, Canada coined the term, and I think it’s a perfect name because it reminds me of the most fundamental principle of organization. Keeping your home organized is all about finding a suitable home for every item and keeping that item in its home. Although no two homes have exactly the same types of clutter, there are a few categories of clutter that frequently wind up as homeless. Cassie’s list of homeless clutter is pretty much spot on, so I am using her list but adding my comments and descriptions.

If the key to organizing is assigning a suitable home for each item, what constitutes a suitable home? And how do you decide where it should be? The best advice I can give is to ask yourself this simple question: If I were looking for this item, where is the first place I would look? If possible, put the item in that place. Ideally, the item should be kept close to the place where it is used. If multiple people in the home use the item, get input from everyone when choosing the home. Also keep in mind that each category of items should ideally have only one location, not multiple ones scattered all over the home.

Following is the list of items that frequently end up as homeless clutter, along with a description of where I keep them in my home and other sensible locations.

  • Keys
    • This is homeless clutter than can really wreak havoc. How many times have you or someone you know been running around in a panic, late for an important event and frustrated because you can’t find your keys?
    • My husband Eric keeps his in his pocket or on his bedside table. I keep mine in a particular pocket of my purse. Occasionally if I need to quickly run to my car, I’ll put them in my pocket temporarily, but I always try to put them right back in my purse when I return. Occasionally this doesn’t happen; see above note about this situation wreaking havoc.
    • Hanging keys on a hook by the door is also a pretty good solution.
    • I have some friends who share keys to a car for some reason instead of each person having their own key. I have never thought this was a good idea, because invariably there will be some situation where someone needs a key but the other person has it. See above note about havoc. Get your own key, people. Seriously.
  • Purse
    • Not having an established home for your purse is pretty much just as serious as for the key. I think almost every woman’s blood pressure goes up a notch just hearing the words, “Where is my purse?”, even if they are holding their own. And those words are almost always spoken with a fair amount of despair, and occasionally with tears.
    • I keep mine on the doorknob of the door closest to the stairs to the garage.
    • I definitely think the best home for your purse should be close to the kitchen and living room so that you can get to it quickly. Women generally need to put something into or get something out of their purses about 27 times a day, give or take.
  • Pens//scissors/tape/other frequently used office supplies
    • Mine are in various locations on the main level of the house. This is probably not ideal, but it works. I don’t have a “junk drawer”, as I feel this would be unbecoming to a professional organizer.
    • It’s not necessarily illegal to have a junk drawer. If you did choose to have a junk drawer and you can keep it semi-organized, these items would probably belong in it. They probably need to be in the common areas of your house. If you have an office, some will most likely need to be kept there as well.
  • Items to be repaired/returned to someone/etc.
    • This category is for anything that needs to go out the door for any reason. It ends up as homeless clutter because we are afraid that if we don’t leave it out somewhere we can see it, we’ll forget to take it with us. And if we go ahead and put it in the car, we might drive around with it for months but never get it to its destination.
    • I keep mine on the floor under my purse that’s hanging on the doorknob. The idea is that I will see it when I get my purse and immediately pick it up and take it with me the next time I leave my house. This plan usually works.
    • Eric keeps his on the kitchen island, which is close to the stairs leading to the garage. The problem with this is that I am obsessed with keeping the kitchen island cleared and wiped off. This means I will move the item(s) multiple times until it is removed. Yes, I realize that I am a bit obsessive.
    • The best home is probably close to the door closest to your car. Some type of surface is probably better than the floor. Putting the item into the car is also a good choice, but you may need some sort of reminder to actually take it to the appropriate place.
  • Mail and other active paper
    • By active paper, I am referring to any paper that requires action (bills, forms to fill out, receipts, party invitations, etc.), not the kind of paper that needs to be stored long-term (like a birth certificate, old tax information, etc.).
    • Our active papers end up on the kitchen island temporarily until they have been put into their proper location. If the paper doesn’t need to be dealt with quickly, I have a basket on the kitchen counter that I put it in until I get around to dealing with it properly, which will always be less than a week.
    • Figuring out a system for dealing with paper is critical for preventing clutter and for managing a household. I highly recommend a system called The Sunday Basket, the brainchild of Cincinnati organizer Lisa Woodruff (https://organize365.com/the-sunday-basket/).
  • Items to be recycled (paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, etc.)
    • We have a small trash can in the floor of my pantry for ours. When this container fills up, we take it downstairs to put in the recycling bin.
    • If the recycling bin is on a different level than the kitchen, a stair basket might be another good option.
  • Loose change
    • I keep mine in my billfold in my purse and just try to get rid of loose coins as I can to prevent them from building up. I have never gotten into the habit of collecting them like many people do.
    • If you keep them in a container of some sort, my only suggestion is to occasionally go and cash them in unless you are saving them for a particular reason.
    • When I help people organize, we often find loose coins in virtually every room of the house. I am always surprised by how many locations it shows up in.
  • Lost socks
    • I keep mine in the drawer where the rest of my socks are, and I keep them there for a little while until I have given up hope of the mate reappearing. Then I eventually assume that the mate has gone to that unknown land where all lost socks go.
    • A container in the laundry room for lost socks isn’t a bad idea. But at some point if it gets too full, the odds that you will actually take the time to search through it when you find another random sock get pretty slim.
  • Business cards
    • I keep mine in the back of the container where I keep my own business cards. Every few days I get them out and enter them into the free app CamCard. With a quick picture, CamCard pulls the information from the card and saves the image.
    • I highly recommend that you figure out a system for organizing these. They pile up quickly, and you’re likely to forget why you even got the card in the first place.

I really could go on and on with this topic. Other items I could have included are batteries, charging cords, small tools, sunglasses, lip balm, first aid products, and medication.

Look around at your common areas. Are there lots of items scattered around on the surfaces? Do you have a disorganized junk drawer or two? Take the time to assign a home for each of them. Dealing with your homeless clutter can really make a big difference in your home.

 

Book Review: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson

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“Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.” -Leonard Cohen, The New Yorker

From the first time I heard about this book until its publication in English at the beginning of 2018, I had eagerly anticipated reading it. There had been much buzz about it among organizers since it is a topic that is well-known to us. Written by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist and widow who is “somewhere between 80 and 100”, this book details a common practice in Sweden called death cleaning. The title alone is quite an attention grabber. Perhaps you assume that it means cleaning someone’s home after they die. This is, after all, a very common occurrence here in the U.S. The tradition of Swedish death cleaning is an attempt to completely prevent this situation from occurring in the first place.

Here are the basics of Swedish death cleaning, (or döstädning in Swedish). As described by the author, “…it is a term that means that you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.” The benefits of completing this practice are numerous for both the aging and for those left behind. Regarding the loved ones left behind, Magnusson speaks candidly: “Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to take time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them. Let me help you make your loved ones’ memories of you nice—instead of awful.” This may seem harsh, but if you have ever had to deal with someone else’s things after their death, you understand completely. I am often contacted by clients who have just gone through a family member’s possessions after their death, and they now want my help because they don’t want to burden their children with this same task. The longer you wait to deal with your accumulated possessions, the more difficult it will be. On top of the sheer volume of items, you may be dealing with health issues that could limit your physical or mental ability to do the work yourself. It is never too early to start the process.

While you may be motivated to death clean for the people who are left behind, there are just as many rewards that you will reap for yourself. Going through all of your belongings will give you pleasure because you will be able to find meaning and memory in many of the items you kept. You’ll be able to reflect on those items and how they were part of the story of your life. And when you find items that you don’t remember why you kept (and you will likely find many of these), it should be much easier to part with them. Beyond the memories, sorting through and organizing your things will definitely make your life run much more smoothly. If every item has a home, everything is simpler. Many people are “forced” to go through their belongings when they downsize, and clearly this is an ideal time. However, I caution you against just waiting for this time. You may decide to stay in your current home indefinitely. Or you may keep putting it off, wait too late and not be able to do the work.

While the theoretical portions of the book are inspiring, I believe the most useful sections are the ones with practical advice. In the section entitled “How to Begin”, the author wisely warns the reader that it will take quite a bit of time, so that sooner you can start, the better. I especially love her advice about how to involve friends and family. “Tell your loved ones and friends what you are up to. They might want to help you and even take things you don’t need and also help you to move things that you cannot move alone.” I love this piece of advice: “Perhaps a grandchild or someone else you know is about to move into their first apartment. Invite them over and you can show them your things and chat about them, telling them stories about the objects (or perhaps even your life) that they do not know.” I cannot stress enough how wonderful this process could be if you take this advice to heart.

The bulk of the book is filled with practical tips to tackle different areas of the house, including clothes, books, the kitchen, cookbooks and family recipes, tools, collections, gardening tools, and photographs. The author wisely advises readers to start with an easy category. “An easy category is one with many items to choose from and without too much sentimental connection.” Another principle she suggests is to start with large items and finish with small. People are often overwhelmed with the prospect of going through everything, but once they get started and see progress, they are often encouraged will build up the momentum to continue.

One unique suggestion presented in this book is to create a “Throw Away” box of things that you want to save for yourself only. “When I find things like these, things that have absolutely no value to anyone else, but enormous value for me, I go and get my “Throw Away” box. Once I am gone, the box can be destroyed. I know the first thing my children will do is check the contents of this box. But they can also choose not to. I have decided what others can throw away with a clear conscience.”  

From my own experience as an organizer, I offer this word of caution. If you have saved a large number of things for family members, take the time to ask them if they actually want the items. It could be that many of the items you are hanging on to aren’t needed or wanted, and that will make parting with them easier. Keep in mind that just because they don’t value something you are offering them doesn’t mean they don’t value you. Younger generations in general look at their belongings much differently and value different things than their parents’ generation.

What if it’s not you who needs to worry about death cleaning, but your parents? How can you bring up the topic sensitively but purposefully? Again, the author comes through with practical advice. She suggests paying a visit and sitting down to gently discuss the topic by asking these questions:

  • You have many nice things, have you thought about what you want to do with it all later on?”
  • Do you enjoy having all this stuff?
  • Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of this stuff that you have collected over the years?
  • Is there anything we can do together in a slow way so that there won’t be too many things to handle later?

You could point out that some items may pose a safety hazard. You might also offer to go ahead and take anything you would like to have that they aren’t using. Above all, be patient and loving. Make sure they know that your motives are pure; you truly want to help them. It may take several conversations, but in the end, it will be worth a few moments of awkwardness to bring up the subject.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. Although the author is not a writer by trade and some of the wording is awkward, I believe the principles are very sound. I think this is clearly a message we all need to hear. In fact, we don’t just need to hear it; we need to make a decision to act.

 

Organizing Your Purse

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I have always had a love/hate relationship with my purse. I love the convenience of having what I need with me all the time. But I hate digging frantically in my purse to find something, my purse strap falling off my shoulder, too few pockets, too many pockets, a purse that’s too heavy, a purse that isn’t heavy but doesn’t have everything I need, a purse that’s so compact that finding something is torturous because my hand can’t move around, etc. I could go on. Reading those two sentences, it looks like my relationship with my purse is generally much more hate than love. I have labored for years under the delusion that someday, I will find the perfect purse, the purse that will end all of my purse complaints. When I buy a new one (usually only after the old one is completely worn out), for about a week, I think it’s finally happened, and I walk around blissfully thinking that I have finally found it, the purse that’s all love, no hate. Within a week or so, however, I have already identified a weakness of the purse. Or two. And within a month, I have full-blown buyer’s remorse. Can you relate?  And before you all write in to tell me about the purse that really truly is THE PERFECT purse that I need to order today, let me just say that your idea of a perfect purse and mine are probably completely different. And I am a wee bit picky, to say the least.

What’s a woman to do? Well, I may never find the perfect purse, but if I can get my purse organized and keep it that way, that’s just about as close to perfect as it will ever get for me. If you really want to make a difference in your daily life, spend some time organizing your purse. I guarantee it will simplify your life, save you time, and make you feel like cussing less. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? So, without further ado, here’s my step by step plan for organizing your purse.

  1. Find a large flat surface and dump everything out. Yes, everything. That includes all of the pockets and all of the items inside your billfold.
  2. Thoroughly clean the outside and the inside of your purse. For the inside, hold it upside down over a trash can and shake out all of the crumbs and anything else that accumulated in there. Wipe the inside out with a damp cloth, a wipe or anything that won’t damage the material. Wipe off the outside safely (or wash by hand or machine if possible).
  3. Start grouping all of the purse contents into categories. Here are some of the possible categories: trash, cosmetics, snack items, receipts, medications, baby/kids, receipts, pens/pencils, etc.
  4. Decide on anything that you can purge. There will be a few obvious things that can be thrown away, like wrappers, wadded up notes, used tissue, etc. There may be some duplicates that can be taken out. For instance, no one needs 13 pens and 7 pencils in their purse. There might be 6 different tubes of lipstick, including 4 that you never wear. And there will likely be a few things that really don’t belong in your purse in the first place. Get everything out that you can. Decreasing the number of items and the weight of your purse (it really shouldn’t be more than 10 pounds at the most) is critical. Be ruthless! Maybe some items that you use only occasionally could be left at home or stored in the car instead of your purse.
  5. Some of the grouped categories might be better off in a small bag. For example, all of the cosmetic related items could go in a small zippered pouch. Cards not used frequently could go in a small container separate from your billfold.
  6. Assign each item (or category of items) a home. Spend some time thinking about which items you reach for most often. For me, that includes my phone, lip balm, keys, billfold, and business cards. My solution is for each of those frequently-used items to have a home in an outside pocket or an easy to find inside pocket. Which items do you need to be easy to find? Granted, many items will just end up in the main part of your purse, but if you prioritize items used most often, it will really help.
  7. Reload items back into your purse, taking care to prioritize those frequently used items.
  8. Figure out a plan to keep your purse organized. Do you need to schedule it on a calendar on a regular basis, such as once a month? Maybe you can just occasionally take a few minutes to organize your purse while binge watching a Netflix show. Organizing your purse is only part of the battle. Keeping it organized is just as important (or more).

Here are a few of my favorite helpful products or apps that you might find useful for organizing your purse:

  • If you’re tired of carrying around so many loyalty or membership cards, I recommend KeyRing. The information from the card can be scanned or entered manually into this free app. At the store, the information can be easily scanned at the register. This has drastically decreased the number of cards I have to carry.
  • If you love your paper calendar, I get it. I really do. But I am so glad I converted to a digital calendar. I love Google calendar! No more “I’ll check my schedule when I get home and let you know”, no more double booking, no more paper reminders of events. And I can have access to other family members’ schedules as well.
  • How about all of the random lists you carry around, like your shopping lists? I highly recommend converting to something like AnyList or Evernote. They are free apps that can keep track of any number of lists. You always have your list with you, you can share them with other family members, and if you have an Amazon Echo or Dot, you can use it to add items (“Alexa, add skim milk to Kroger list”).
  • For replacing other frequently carried pieces of paper, I love using the Reminders app. It can remind me of something on a specific day, time, or location. I would be pretty lost without it. And I don’t have to worry about losing the paper reminder. I can use Alexa or Siri to add to it as well.
  • For coupons, there are plenty of great free apps like SnipSnap, Coupon Sherpa, Yowza, etc. Most groceries have their own digital coupons as well.
  • I love using Velcro cable ties for charging cords and headphones I carry in my purse. It keeps them neatly wrapped and free of knots. You can buy them many places (Best Buy has a pack of 8 multi colored ones for $5 http://bit.ly/2o6nVRb) or you can order on Amazon (http://amzn.to/2EzG9kv).

I hope you have found this article helpful. By the way, you can use these same principles to organize just about anywhere in your home or office! Just follow that step by step list, and you’ll be able to bring order to any space.

I’d love to hear about any interesting items you happened to find in your purse, how your purse organizing went, and any organizing challenges you would like me to address in my column. If the idea of organizing your purse in a group setting with other ladies appeals to you, I have a purse organizing workshop that I can schedule with a group. Drop me a note at angie@beshipshape.com.

Happy organizing!  

 

My Top Tech Tools for Organizing

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This week’s article is a break from the usual topics of decluttering and home organizing. As a lover of technology, I am often amazed at how much I rely on it to keep my life organized. My husband Eric is a computer programmer with Groupon and has always been quick to utilize technology, while I have tended to resist. He may have felt at times like he was dragging me kicking and screaming into the digital age. Although I still tend to utilize notes on index cards for daily reminders, I have mostly transitioned to digital tools for almost everything. In this article, I will highlight my favorite tech tools for organization.

Google tools: Calendar, Documents, Sheets, Slides, and Numbers (iOS, Android – free)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you probably know about Google as a search engine. But you may not know about all of the free tools that Google offers. The fact that all of these are cloud-based means that I can get to any of them any time on any device in any location.

I mentioned before that I was a latecomer to a digital calendar. Now I can’t imagine ever going back to paper. With a digital calendar, there is no more, “When I get home, I’ll check my calendar and let you know.” I love the fact that I can share a calendar with other members of my family so that we can stay informed about each other’s schedules. Being able to color code different events by category really appeals to me visually as an organizer.  

I use Google Documents to create, store, and share documents. Groups of documents can be placed into different folders, much like a file folder system. It is easily searchable and sharable, no matter what kind of computer someone is using. When sharing a document, you can choose whether the person can view, comment, or edit the document. No more having to email yourself Microsoft Word documents to get them to a new device. It’s also great when a group of people (like a volunteer committee) need to jointly edit a document. Plus, you never need to hit Save – it is always saving all of your changes as you edit.

When I give group presentations, I love using Google Slides to create and store the presentation. It is easy to use, and since the information is stored in the cloud, I don’t have to worry about whether the venue at which I am performing has the proper connections for my laptop; I can simply use the machine that is already hooked up to the projector.

Reminders (iOS – free)

I truly cannot imagine what I did before being able to rely on this app. The fact that it can be tied to specific days, times, and locations via GPS is my favorite feature. I use it to remind me of a variety of things: from one time events to repeating ones, work and home-related tasks, from the critically important to the trivial. Here is a partial list of things that I have used my reminders app for just in the last few days: turn in my next Times News article by Tuesday, use my gift card at Panera, post a Monday motivational quote on my business Facebook page, put a new Kleenex pack in my purse when I get home, update my business spreadsheets every Saturday, etc. The thing I like best about using this app is that I can get all of those “I need to remember to…” items out of my head (because it is physically impossible to remember them all) and record them into a trusted system. I can also use Siri and my Amazon Echo (“Alexa, remind me to call my Mom in an hour”) to add items to my Reminders app.

AnyList (iOS – free)

Gone are the days of a paper grocery list. With AnyList, I have my grocery list with me all the time. I use AnyList not only for a grocery list, but for any store I frequently visit. So the next time I happen to visit Target for a specific item, I can look to see what else I need while I’m there. Items can be added to the list by scanning a product’s bar code. Best of all, since I can share the list with someone else, Eric always knows what we need at the grocery store. And I love being able to say, “Alexa, add bananas to the Kroger List.”

Trello (iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows – free)

Although AnyList is useful for most of my lists, Trello is more useful for higher level organizing or for groups. I use Trello to organize all of my To Do lists for my home and my business. Each broad category can have a different board, and items on the list can be prioritized in order of importance. This is where I store all of the ideas I want to work on in the future. Documents and pictures can be attached to items on each board. Multiple people can coordinate tasks and communication using Trello, and because it is Cloud-based, all of the information can be accessed from anywhere and is updated in real time. Evernote is a similar tool that is also easy to use and very highly rated.

CamCard (iOS, Android – free version for up to 200 cards)

It didn’t take long as a new business owner for me to realize that I needed some kind of tool to organize all of the business cards I was collecting. I knew I didn’t want to carry them all around, nor did I want to manually enter all of the information from each card. With CamCard, I can take a picture of the card (which is stored on my phone), and it also pulls all of the information from the card. The information can then be grouped and added to my contacts. Some cards that have dark backgrounds or unusual designs or fonts can be tricky for CamCard to correctly identify all of the information, but it doesn’t take long to check and edit as needed.

Unroll Me (Web-based – free)

This tool helps me organize my email simply because it significantly decreases the volume of emails I receive. UnrollMe will automatically identify any email subscriptions and give you the option to Keep, Unsubscribe, or Roll Up each one. If you select Keep, you will continue to receive emails from that subscription as a separate email. Unsubscribe doesn’t technically unsubscribe you (this requires going to the individual page, clicking Unsubscribe, which then takes you to another page asking your reason for unsubscribing). With UnrollMe, Unsubscribe means that an email from this subscription will be automatically directed to the trash.

Key Ring (iOS, Android – free)

I like the perks I get with loyalty cards, but I don’t necessarily like carrying them around all the time. Granted, if it’s a card that requires physically punching or stamping it, carrying the card is necessary. But for cards with a number and barcode, that information can be entered into an app like Key Ring by either scanning the barcode or manually entering the numbers. When making a purchase, simply open the app, scroll through the list to find the appropriate store, and the barcode can be scanned at the register. Key Ring has decreased the size of my keyring and my billfold substantially.

Focus Keeper (iOS, – free)

Focus Keeper has vastly improved my productivity by keeping me on track during work that requires mental focus. The principle underlying this strategy is that an auditory cue (the sound of a timer) can serve as a reminder to stay focused for a specific period of time (25 minutes). At the end of the 25 minutes, the user is rewarded with a short break (3-5 minutes) before another period of focused work. It’s a simple tool that has proved quite useful for me.

Mile IQ (iOS, Android, $5.99/month or $59.99/year)

Keeping track of mileage traveled for business purposes is one of a myriad of details that must be managed by a small business owner. For the first few months, I relied on paper to log my mileage, but this shortly proved cumbersome. MileIQ is a wonderful app that allows me to quickly record each trip as either business or personal. I know I’m going to be very glad to have this information readily available when I am working on my taxes. This is one of the few tools that isn’t free, but the time I save makes it worth every penny.

1Password (iOS, Android, MacOS – $2.99/month or $4.99/month for family of up to 5 users)

Passwords are a necessary evil when it comes to online security. Although it simplifies things considerably to use the same password for everything, this is not the most secure approach. But who can remember a different password for every website and app? Simply keeping a paper or digital list of all the passwords is easy but not secure. Password managers like 1Password allow you to remember only one password that will give you access to the many different passwords you need.

There is no doubt that tools such as these have greatly simplified my life. I hope this information is useful in your efforts to organize your life.

Happy organizing!