Adaptability. Flexibility. Resilience.

At the best of times, these are important traits. In times of uncertainty, they become survival necessities. Our ability to ‘roll with’ changes and move in a new direction when necessary is critical to our success, personally and professionally. That ability is probably going to be tested in the coming weeks and months in ways that few of us have ever experienced before. Work, home, school, relationships, routines – everything familiar could be thrown into chaos.

In my house, my husband has traveled Monday thru Thursday for the past three years, and my older daughter has been away at college for two years. Now, my husband is working from home full-time at least thru the end of May, and my older daughter is finishing her sophomore year online from home. Meanwhile, my younger daughter is starting her final term of high school junior year via computer with no extracurricular activities while I am working to adapt my business to help clients virtually. Yesterday, our county issued a stay at home order. That’s a LOT of change in less than two weeks. And it has certainly tested our flexibility.

Flexibility and Order

When life throws us big curveballs, even the most ordered life can be turned a little upside down. And if your life wasn’t that ordered to begin with, you’ll feel it more acutely. Given the big curveballs headed our way – or already here for some – how can you minimize the chaos in your home? 

Be Prepared

If you have time before big changes take effect, do what you can now to get ready for them.

  • If you’re going to be working from home, figure out where your ‘office’ will be. Make sure that you have a comfortable chair and a desk or table with access to power outlets.
  • Likewise, if you will have children learning from home, make sure that they have a place to work. Consider their age and technology needs. Do they need outlets? Do they need to be within your line of sight, or can they work independently?
  • Check your internet connection and determine if it is sufficient to support multiple devices all day long. Google offers a free speed test, or you can do a quick search and find dozens of other options.
  • Stock up on a couple of weeks’ worth of food and necessary household supplies. Around me, chicken breasts, toilet paper, and disinfectant wipes are incredibly difficult to find right now.
  • Refill any essential prescriptions. You can do without a lot of things but not necessary medications.

Set (Reasonable) Expectations

If your family is all going to be at home, establish some ground rules. Start by determining what everyone’s situation is going to be. Who will be working or going to school? Who will suddenly have more free time on their hands, and who will have less? How long is each person’s situation expected to last?

Then, decide what are the essential things that need to get done to keep your household running. And here is where the ‘reasonable’ part really needs to come in. Now is not the time to raise your standards. In extraordinary and stressful circumstances, your children are not going to suddenly become neater than they have been, or better about doing chores. Your spouse probably won’t stop putting their coffee cup next to the sink instead of in the dishwasher.

When I work with clients in their homes, we talk a lot about the other people who live in the house and what the client expects them to do. And, we talk a LOT about ‘sphere of influence’. You can only do so much to influence others’ behavior at the best of times, so pick your battles wisely. For now, talk together and decide what the bare minimum is that everyone can live with. Then, assign responsibilities based on availability and ability.

Communicate and Adapt

Check in with everyone in the household regularly. See how things are going, what challenges they’re facing, and if they’re struggling. My family had a 30-minute meeting on Sunday afternoon. We talked about:

  • my younger daughter starting online school the next day and what her concerns were;
  • where in the house everybody was going to work and what they needed;
  • what snacks we wanted from the grocery store; and
  • movies we wanted to watch together during our downtime.

We’ll probably make these regular weekly meetings. Things are probably going to change frequently for the near future, and we will need to adapt and practice our flexibility regularly. Communication is always key to an ordered home life. That is especially true now.

Wherever you, and your family, are on this roller coaster I wish you good luck!

Paper Clutter and How to Have Less of It

Paper Clutter and How to Have Less of It

Fact: Paper creates clutter. There is just no way around it. Paper takes up physical space. It usually ends up being handled multiple times throughout its useful life. And, it typically overstays its welcome.

Where Does All of the Paper Clutter Come From?

  • Junk Mail – The US Postal Service delivered 142.6 BILLION pieces of mail in FY 2019. Only half (71.4 billion) of that was First-Class mail. So, a LOT of mail is coming into your house and half of it is probably advertisements, unsolicited mail, circulars, etc.
  • Purchases – Every time you buy something, it generates a receipt. Larger purchases come with a manual, a warranty card, advertisements for other products, etc.
  • Healthcare – A single medical procedure can generate bills from multiple medical providers, plus explanation of benefits statements from your insurance company.
  • Bills – Most of us receive monthly bills from a wide variety of places. Mortgage or rent, utilities, car payments, student loans, credit cards, etc. really add up.
  • Life – Sometimes, it seems like you can’t go anywhere or do anything without acquiring more paper. The kids come home with announcements and permission slips from school. You go grocery shopping and come out to find a flyer under your windshield. Between their sophomore and senior years of high school, both of my children received what seemed like a metric ton of mail from colleges.

Do You Need All of that Paper?

Personally, I am anti-paper. I have a single file drawer in my desk with paper in it, and it’s not even half-full. I sign up for electronic billing, online statements, and e-mail or text notifications whenever possible. My scanner and shredder are some of the most frequently used appliances in my house.

Of course, not everyone is on board with the paperless way of life; some people are just more comfortable with hard copies. Even if you aren’t sure how paper-free you are ready to be, let’s take a few steps to help you dramatically reduce your paper clutter.

Ruthlessly Evaluate Every Piece of Paper

  • Have you ever needed this information? If you’ve been holding onto this paper for a long time, but have never looked at it, reconsider whether or not you need to keep holding onto it.
  • Under what circumstances would you ever need it? For example, if it’s a critical record that you haven’t needed in a long time, but would if you sold your house, it needs to be filed. However, if you can’t think of a single circumstance where you would need that paper, let it go.
  • Is the information readily available elsewhere? If you’re a true technophobe or Luddite, you can take a pass on this one. Otherwise, odds are that you could find the information in that pile of paper clutter faster by looking it up online.
  • Has it outlived its usefulness? Is that really a manual for a blender you gave away six years ago?? Never mind, just please throw it out.

Sort the Paper That You’ve Decided to Keep

Make one stack of papers that you need to deal with. For example, put the bills you need to pay, invitations you need to respond to, dates you need to add to your calendar, etc. in this pile.

Make a second stack of papers that you need to file. For example, financial statements, medical records, tax documents, etc. go in this pile.

Deal with the first stack ASAP

Pay it, sign it, respond to it, commit to it. Whatever you have to do to make that paper obsolete and disposable, do it now. If you can’t do it now, schedule a time (and make sure to write it on your calendar!) within the next week. Once you’ve dealt with that paper clutter, move it on. Recycle or shred it if you’re done with it for good. File it if it’s something you’ll need long-term (for example, a paid bill that is tax-deductible). Or, put it in a temporary holding place if you’ll need it again short-term (for example, tickets to an upcoming event).

Move that Paper Clutter Along

File everything you need to keep. Consider whether you want to maintain hard copies, or scan and create electronic copies. Either way, make sure that you file everything in a way that makes sense to you, and that will make it easy for you to find what you need, when you need it.

Shred anything sensitive. If you definitely don’t want to keep something, and it has any personally identifiable information on it, shred it before recycling it. I err on the side of over-shredding – identity theft is all too common, and it is absolutely miserable to deal with, so better to be safe than sorry.

Create a System for Ongoing Maintenance

  • Try to deal with paper as soon as it comes into the house, whenever possible. Sign permission slips; fill out forms; respond to invitations; add dates to your calendar the first time you see them. When you open your mail, drop the anonymous junk into the recycling bin; shred what needs shredding; and file the rest, or put it in a designated place to scan.
  • If you just can’t seem to manage that, set an appointment on your calendar at regular intervals to go thru this process again. It can be weekly or monthly depending upon how much paper comes into your house.
  • Limit the amount of incoming paper wherever you can. Get off of mailing lists that don’t interest you; unsubscribe from magazines you never read; and sign up for electronic bills and notifications. The FTC has a number of suggestions for reducing unsolicited mail, email, and phone calls.

You will be amazed at how much more organized your house will look after you take control of your paper clutter. And if it’s more than you can handle on your own, we are always available to help!

The Power of Etcetera

The Power of Etcetera

Etcetera – From the Latin ‘et’ meaning ‘and’ and ‘cetera’ meaning ‘the rest’

The word ‘etcetera’ is typically used at the end of a list to indicate that there are additional, similar items that you aren’t going to bother to name.

Does Etcetera Have a Place in Organizing?

At first glance, ‘etcetera’ seems to run contrary to everything we have learned about organization. Isn’t organization supposed to be all about ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’? Doesn’t dumping unrelated things together undo the whole point?

Obviously, if you throw everything you own into one big pile, labeling it ‘etcetera’ is NOT organizing (no matter how aesthetically the labeling is done). But it is also true that labeling everything you own in a hyper-specific way is not organizing either. Sometimes, ‘etcetera’ IS a category. Let’s take a quick look at the process of organizing to see how it fits in.

General → Specific

When you organize an assortment of items, you typically sort them into broad, general categories to begin with. For instance, in a garage, I would start by grouping together Yard Care items, Automotive items, Home Maintenance items, and Sports. Yard care might include gardening tools, potting soil, fertilizer, extra line for the weed eater, etc. Automotive items might include motor oil, car washing supplies, replacement wiper blades, etc. Home Maintenance might include tools, hardware, replacement light bulbs, etc. And Sports would include all sports and recreation-related items.

For most people, a broad Automotive category is sufficient for what they keep in their garage. But if I’m working with a client who is an auto hobbyist with multiple vehicles, that would not work. They might have dozens and dozens of items that fit in that Automotive category. We might need to have several specific sub-categories for parts, paint, and tools unique to each car. Similarly, a do-it-yourself enthusiast is going to have a lot more nuts, bolts, screws, and washers than someone who calls a handyman to change a lightbulb. The former is going to need to sort and label those to be truly organized.

How Many Categories Do I Need?

That will be determined by what you have. Continuing with the garage example, we might have a large pile of related things that don’t fit into any of the established categories. For instance, in smaller homes, garages sometimes serve as overflow storage for infrequently used items. So, there might be a bread maker, a large stock pot, some serving platters, etc. that we could group together in a Kitchen category.

What we would NOT do is create a category for Bread Makers, or even Appliances, if there are only one or two items that would fit in that category. The point of categorization is to make it easier to find what we need by grouping like with like. When the categories become too specific, they lose all meaning.

What About All of This Other Stuff?

So, what do we do when everything has been sorted into reasonable categories and there is still a small pile remaining? Nothing in the pile fits into any of our established categories, but we still need to organize it. 

The first question to ask is, ‘Do I need to keep these items at all?’ Maybe the reason they don’t belong anywhere with your other things is that they’re excess clutter. Often, when something doesn’t fit into your space, it’s because it doesn’t fit in your life. Let it go.

The second question is, ‘Are these things similar to each other’? Do they form a category of their own that makes sense? If the pile includes two dozen items, all related to your birdwatching hobby, then it probably makes sense to store them all together under a Birdwatching label.

The third question is, ‘Do these things need to be in this location?’ Sometimes, the reason that pile of stuff doesn’t fit into any of the categories in, for instance the garage, is that it doesn’t belong out there. If any of the items in the pile are obviously part of a category in another location, the easiest (and most organized) thing to do is to move them there. Group like with like.

Enter Etcetera

After you answer all of these questions, there will almost certainly still be a small pile of things. Maybe there are only a couple of them, or they are rarely used, or they are highly specialized items. Whatever the reason, they are what is left over after you’ve taken care of the obvious things. How to deal with them?

That is your ‘etcetera’ pile. Don’t waste time agonizing over how to label the items in that pile. You’ll only end up creating ridiculously specific categories and labels that won’t make that pile any more organized. Deal with it by putting it in a drawer, bin, or box; labeling it ‘etcetera’ and moving on. 

This is the philosophy behind the junk drawer. EVERYBODY has a junk drawer in their house. Mine has a pair of scissors, a box cutter for opening Amazon boxes, spare house keys, a couple of charging cables, a small container with a few rubber bands and paper clips, and lens wipes for cleaning glasses. All of those things could be stored somewhere else, but the junk drawer is in the most frequently used area of the house, the kitchen, and that’s where we are 95% of the time when we need those things.

In short, ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’ is an excellent rule. But sometimes the place for something IS the junk drawer/box. A junk drawer is NOT a sign of being disorganized. As long as everything in there is functional and necessary, a junk drawer can be your best solution to objects that aren’t easily classified.

Embrace the power of etcetera, close that junk drawer/box, and move on to the next project.

Lessons in Keeping It Simple

Lessons in Keeping It Simple

Like most people who enter the professional organizing industry, I have always been an organized person. I was the kid who color coded her class handouts and alphabetized the books on my bookshelf. I always knew where to find that board game, Barbie, or baseball glove. Over the years, I have learned (and continue to learn) valuable lessons that continue to inform how I organize. This is one of them.

Welcome to the Chaos

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, she had what seemed like four million Disney Princess dolls (in reality, more like a dozen or so). Naturally, each one came complete with outfits, shoes, hair accessories, etc. Every play session ended with her playroom looking like a disaster scene. Dolls were flung around the room in various stages of undress, and princess paraphernalia was strewn from one end of the room to the other.

A Stroke of Genius

I decided to use my favorite Container Store shoeboxes with a self-adhesive pocket attached to the front (like these). First, I took pictures of each doll with all of her accompanying accessories. Next, I used photo editing software to create a color-coded bar at the top of each photo with the name of the doll. Finally, I printed the photos and placed them in the pockets. After playing with the dolls, my daughter and I made a game of cleaning up and returning all of the pieces to the appropriate boxes. My daughter would match the items with the pictures to find the correct box. She even began recognizing the corresponding letters in the dolls’ names which helped her reading skills. Great organizational idea, right?

Or Not…

As my friend Molly says, ‘Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back’. It turns out, as long as my daughter and I were the ones playing with the dolls, the shoeboxes were great. But when she had friends over, many of them were not nearly as enamored of our system. They didn’t mind helping to get the mess off of the floor. But they didn’t necessarily want to take the extra time to match items with containers. I wound up dismissing the children’s and/or parents’ offers to clean up, and my daughter and I would do it after they left.

The Problem Becomes Clear

After just a few playdates, the drawbacks to our system became very obvious. 

  • First, I was making more work for myself and my daughter – We were spending precious time after each playdate cleaning up and organizing.
  • Second, I was creating a double standard – It did not escape my daughter’s keen eye that the rules were inconsistent. I expected her to help clean up when she visited other kids’ houses, but I didn’t ask them to reciprocate at ours. If you have ever known any small children, then you know that “NOT FAIR” is a BIG deal.
  • Third, I was discouraging responsibility on the part of our visitors – Most of the kids (and parents) were more than willing to do their part to help clean up. I was the one waving off the offers.
  • And finally, I was sending an unwanted message to my daughter – It was more important that it be done our (OK, let’s be honest, my) way than that her friends share the chore of cleaning up the mess they’d made together. NOT what I wanted her to learn.

Lessons Learned

I decided that it was more important to maximize play time vs. clean-up time, and to let the kids chip in to clean up too. After all, if Cinderella’s shoes spent a few weeks hanging out in Belle’s box with Jasmine’s crown, the earth was not exactly going to spin off of its’ axis.

Once a month or so, my daughter and I would go thru and gather up all of the dolls, clothes, accessories, etc. First, we grouped everything together, referencing the picture on the front of the box. Second, we hunted down any missing pieces. Finally, we returned everything to its’ proper box.

In between those times, I decided to be satisfied as long as it was all off of the floor. I focused more on the benefits of encouraging fun and cooperation between my daughter and her friends. And I enjoyed spending the extra time on something that had a greater impact on our quality of life.

The Moral(s) of The Story

That experience still informs my approach to organizing, both in my own home and in my clients’.

  1. Always keep your ultimate objective in mind. What is the real reason you’re creating this system? What problem are you trying to solve? The answer may be different in various areas of your life. The goals for your workplace filing system and your home refrigerator front won’t be the same. Be crystal clear on what you want this system to do for you.
  2. Think ‘What is the simplest way to accomplish that?’ Generally speaking, the easier it is to do something, the more likely it is that you will do it. Most of the time, complexity is not necessary to accomplish your goal.
  3. Make sure that everyone who needs to use the system, can and will. It doesn’t matter how attractive, or even logical, it is if nobody follows it. Know your audience. When I work in common areas in homes or offices, I always start by talking with all parties who will be using the system to get an idea of their style of organization. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by being realistic upfront about who and what you have to work with.
  4. Be flexible. Honestly assess what is working, and what isn’t. Take the feedback that you get from others and evaluate it. Be willing to change things up to get the results you want. Remember that the goal is to be organized, not right.

Are there areas of your life that are overly complicated and out of order? Ask yourself, ‘Where could I simplify?’ Or you can ask me.