Tips and musings on organizing your way from chaos to calm

Making the Most of Your Time

April 8th, 2011

Most people tell me they feel like they have too much stuff, too many commitments, and not enough time.  I can relate.  When you have your own business, a husband, a two-year-old, and any kind of life, it’s hard to find enough time in the day to get things done.  Throw ADHD into the mix just for kicks and time management is a life-preserver.  Without it, I tend to float aimlessly, spending time on whatever is swept in front of me by the tides.  Being organized isn’t  about being perfect or having tremendous internal discipline.  It’s about being honest about who and how you are, so you can develop strategies that get you to where you want to go.

Here are my 4 fool-proof tips for managing your time (and your life) better!

  1. Always over-estimate the amount of time it will take you to do something.  It’s better to have time to kill than no time to spare.  Bring your reading, mail, or smart phone with you in case you have extra time.  What a luxury!
  2. Forget multitasking.  The research is in and it shows that people who multitask do each task more poorly than if they had focused on each individually.  The old wisdom is true.  You can only do one thing at a time, at least if you want to do it well.
  3. Keep only one calendar (whether it’s a paper calendar or on your computer and/or phone).  Otherwise, you risk forgetting commitments and double-booking yourself.
  4. Write a simple to-do list every day.  Yes, a post-it note is fine.  It may only contain 3 items.  In fact, often it SHOULD only contain 3 items.  It should be a short, current list of the things you need/want to get done that day.  It’s your accountability partner.  Leave it somewhere you can check in with it through-out the day.  Not only will you feel more on top of your tasks, you’ll find you are making real progress toward your goals.

Picture Perfect

January 17th, 2011

If you’re anything like me, it’s very possible that you’ve taken hundreds if not thousands of photos during the holiday season. I think I heard my camera’s memory card cry out in exhaustion, “No more photos!”

The good news?  In the digital age, it’s relatively easy to store and select photos, without having to consume any physical space.

A few easy tips will ensure your photo memories don’t become digital nightmares:

  1. Don’t procrastinate organizing your digital photos.  That’s a sure way to turn something fun into “work.”  The more time that passes, and the more photos that remain to be organized, the more you will feel pressured and avoid the very thing you created.
  2. Create a consistent organizing system on your computer for your photos.  I like to put my photos in folders labeled by month and year.   Within that, I create folders or “albums” based on events, topics, etc.  Whatever system you choose, it should enable you to clearly and quickly find your photos.
  3. Choose a reliable way to safeguard your digital photos.  Consider choosing a laptop with 2 hard-drives.  Or back your photos up to a flash stick or CDs and store in a safety deposit box or fire-proof safe.  My favorite method?  Upload them to a free online photo storage website like Picasa or ShutterflyShutterfly, for example, offers unlimited online photo storage space and a guarantee that they will never delete any of your photos.  By uploading your pics to cyberspace, you avoid losing them if a hard-drive crashes.  And, you’re one step closer to organizng them and sharing them with others, which is half the fun!
  4. Share your photos on-line via social media sites like Facebook, your blog (if you have one), or a photo-sharing site like Picasa.   Save the time, hassle, and cost of printing and mailing photos, and reach more of your friends and family in the process

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

December 25th, 2010

A word to the wise,

As the gifts come to you,

Out with the old,

And in with the new.

Space is a gift,

Even better than a thing,

Remember that motto,

When you do your “After-Xmas” shopping!

So keep your goals clear,

And your vision in sight,

As you enter a new year,

More organized, decluttered, and light!

Wishing you a bright 2011!

Clothes and Prose

November 16th, 2010

Books and clothes.  Clothes and books.  Why are these some of the hardest things to part with?  Well, if you’re like most people, your sense of self - your identity - is wrapped up in your books and clothing.

Now, I could have said that your sense of self is wrapped up in what you read and what you wear, but those aren’t necessarily the same thing.  For lots of folks, clothing doesn’t have to be the right size, color, or trend to warrant some space in the closet.  In fact, they don’t even have to like it.  Books, too, get a free pass despite not having been read in years (or possibly ever).  We often keep these objects around, clogging up our closets, shelves, and garages, despite not using them for their intended purpose.  Books, after all, were manufactured so that the information they contain can be read and learned.  Clothing is created to be worn, not to collect dust.  Instead, we use them in an unintended way, to help us maintain a tangible connection to who we were, who we are, and who we would like to become. We literally see who we were, are, and could be by simply glancing at these items.  And though that is not why we brought most of these objects into our lives, it is way we allow them to remain.

My client, June,* is a bubbly, thirty-something stay-at-home mom of three.  June hired me to help her declutter her bedroom and transform it into a place of, “peace and passion.”  I first headed towards the closet, anxious to make the most of that space.  I immediately noticed that about half of the closet was filled with formal business attire.  June explained that she wore this clothing regularly about 8 years ago, before she had children, and when she was employed full time in a corporate setting.     They had no role in June’s life as present, weren’t June’s current size, and, in June’s words, made her look “frumpy” and “out of date.”   “So why keep them?” I pressed.  “It’s just so weird to think of not having them, I used to wear them all the time.  I know I don’t look good in them anymore.    But they are from such a special time in my life, right after college before marriage, and kids and all that.”    Bingo.  So, ironically, the clothing gets a lifelong invitation in June’s closet because it connects her to a simpler time in her life – a connection she fears she will lose without holding on to physical reminders.  We can all relate to this.  How many of you still have your prom outfits (or dates…gasp!)?

Dorothy,*a different client, had a bookshelf in her front living room  on which she tastefully displayed some rather serious looking books on history, politics, and the like. I was, therefore, a little surprised when I walked into her  bedroom and saw stacks and stacks of romance novels on, around, and under her bed.  Embarrassed, Dorothy explained, “This is what I really read.”  “Why, then,” I asked, “dedicate prime real estate on your living room bookcase to books that you don’t read?”  She responded, “Well, because I SHOULD read that stuff.  And I can’t have people see THESE” (pointing to the romance novels and the…shall we say… rather amorous artwork on the cover :) ) Dorothy’s sense of self (and her fears about how others would view her) resulted in Dorothy’s public space (the living room) having the illusion of calm, while her private space (the bedroom) revealed the chaos resulting from this lack of self-acceptance. She spent most of her time at home in her bedroom, where she felt most comfortable, and avoided the living room, which she described as “cold.”

Are you keeping things around because they are connected to who you remember being or who you fantasize about becoming? Do you keep waiting to become the sort of person that will wear these clothes and read these books?   This can result in depression and self-criticism, since inevitably there will be a gap between who you are and what the books/clothes symbolically represent.  Letting go of a symbol isn’t discarding a memory or giving up on a dream; rather, it’s about accepting who you are now, knowing you can always do something different later.  That’s freedom.

June has been able to let go of most of the clothing, donating it to a local charity she feels really good about.  We dedicated one beautiful memento box to the rest of the clothing, as well as some photos of her wearing some of her favorite outfits.  We  placed it within eyesight and easy reach in her closet, for whenever she wants to go down memory lane.  Dorothy and I relocated her romance novels, except for a few by her nightstand, to the bookcase in the living room (don’t tell the neighbors!).  The “books that make people think I’m really smart” were donated to the local library in the hopes that people will just think Dorothy is really smart anyway.  So far our plan is working :)

*All client names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Pump up the volume

November 1st, 2010

Today I was washing dishes in the kitchen, keeping one eye on my toddler, and the other on a football game on TV.  Over the course of about 15 minutes I tried to pay attention to the game, keeping track of who had the ball, where they were on the field, and what ref was making a bad call.  You know, the usual.  But I was totally unable to keep my focus, and had the undesirable choice of having no idea what was going on in the game or interrupting my husband (once again) to give me a summary.   With so much distracting stimuli around me (the sound of the dishes and water, my son’s voice and movements, etc.), it was like being at a cocktail party, where you only hear parts of conversations and get the gist more than the details.  No interaction lasts very long.     This is, I’m sure, a typical ADHD experience.

When you have ADD or ADHD, it’s like you have 100 eyeballs on your head and you can see clearly with each one.  So, on the one hand,  one of the great assets of ADD/ADHD is the power of observation.  On the other hand, the challenge is telling our brains what to notice and how  much attention to pay something.   Add what’s going on in our heads (you know, one thought after another) to the mix and it’s a formula for frustration and confusion, if not disaster.

Clearly I wasn’t at a cocktail party, I was in my kitchen, so I called to my husband, “Honey, can you turn up the volume?”  And, then, “No, even louder – pump it up so I can really hear it.”    Suddenly, amidst the din of environmental and internal noise, the game emerged, with the colors of the players’ uniforms lighting up the screen against the backdrop  of green turf.    I found myself gesturing at the screen and analyzing the coach’s strategy.  I was finally paying attention to the game because I made it loud enough for me to hear it.

The same holds true for visual sources of attention/distraction as well.    Often my ADD/ADHD clients tell me that they keep To Do lists, write tasks on post-it notes, keep index cards in their pockets, or use other methods to try to remember to do things.  Yet, often, they fail to get things done or at least get them done when they need to.    Understandably, they’re frustrated by their inability to follow through, especially since they made an effort to remember.  The problem?  When you are ADD/ADHD anything and everything can draw your attention, from a commercial for a new supplement to a thought in your mind about your mother.    So many things are of interest and garner your enthusiasm, you have difficulty focusing your attention so you end up giving little attention to anything or, often, a lot of attention to the easiest thing rather than the  most important thing.

The solution?  Try pumping up the volume by enhancing your visual reminders and making them more “in your face,” like the loud volume on my football game, so you can’t avoid seeing them and being held accountable to them.  Sure, you may have a To Do list, but does it have 87 items on it in no particular order.  Prioritize your list, putting the high priority or hot items in red, the medium priority or warm items in orange, and the low priority or cool items in blue.  If that’s too fancy, just use the old-fashioned bold button or ALL CAPS.  It works – really.  One client I worked with liked to write reminders to herself on her bathroom mirror with a dry-erase board marker, so she would see them first thing in the morning.    Very effective.  Want to remember to take your returns back to the store or give Lucy that book back?  Designate a “can’t miss” area in your house, possibly near the front door, for action items.  Put it in a pile and it’s as good as invisible.

I love the creativity and speed and  multiplicity of ideas that comes with ADD/ADHD.  Yet, it’s these very things that can also make it hard to see, hear, or act clearly.   Metaphorically, it’s like having to clear a path through a forest of thoughts.  So, if you’re anything like me, then find ways to pump up the volume in your own life so you can be sure to devote attention to what you want, when you want.  Now, about that cocktail party…

Claim your power and use it!

September 15th, 2010

I recently came across this quote by Alice Walker: The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

I work with a lot of people who feel powerless when it comes to their stuff.  How many of you feel like the clutter has “won?”  Do you feel like it’s often a pointless effort to try to tackle your stuff since it seems to come back and multiply?  So the stuff wins and you lose.  What’s wrong with this equation?

It’s easy to understand how overwhelming our things can make us feel, and so we either avoid them,  hide them, , or leave them out in the open,  reminding us of our shortcomings.  At the end of the day, though, we’ve got to remember who’s in charge.

Every object that is in your home is a guest. Even invited guests can overstay their welcome.  Grab a pen and notebook and stand in the middle of each room in your home.  Look around and decide what items in the room you’re still really happy to see, which ones have worn out their welcome, and which ones are strangers and have no meaning for you, and donate/recycle accordingly.

Another good question to ask is not whether you paid “good money” for the item in the past, but whether you would buy it right now.  If not, let it go and don’t give it another thought.  If it’s not worth your money, it’s certainly not worth your time.

I like to think of things as tools that enhance my life.  If a tool isn’t working well or is rarely used, it’s not serving its purpose.  We organizers like to say that one should only keep things that are “loved, used, or admired.”    If you are holding on to objects because of who gave them to you, how much they cost, or how long you’ve had them, you’re letting feelings of guilt, obligation, and shame dictate your actions.  In other words, you’re holding yourself hostage to your stuff.

I encourage you to take a fresh look at your things and think about if/how they support you now and going forward in your life.  You’re in charge of your stuff, not the other way around.  So claim your power – and your freedom!

The “Gazebo Convo-Resolve” Mystery

August 26th, 2010

I love The Onion, (okay, my husband loves it and sends me funny links every so often). You know, the satirical newspaper founded at the University of Wisconsin – Madison that pokes fun at everything from politics to sports.   Recently, they featured the following article: “Area Man Has No Idea Why He Wrote ‘Gazebo Convo-Resolve/Tues (!?)’ in Planner Six Weeks Ago.” LOL.   With my poor  hand-writing (I tend to think faster than I write) and my, let’s say, “creative” note-jotting in my planner, I can relate.  It’s not that I’m disorganized.  It’s more that I tend to toward impatience and distraction, so I don’t take the time to worry about neatness or clarity when I write things down.  I think I sometimes even secretly look forward to playing investigator later and deciphering my scribbles.  So The Onion’s piece totally hits home.  I mean how many of you relate to this?

“I was flipping through my planner for a phone number I wrote down a while back, and this mysterious gazebo-convo-Tuesday message turned up,” the 42-year-old Woller said. “I had absolutely no clue what it meant.”

“Convo… convo…,” Woller said. “Conversation? Convention? Convocation? Convoy? It’s got to be convention. But I haven’t been at a convention since last fall, and it had nothing to do with gazebos.”

“Woller’s confusion and dismay over the note has been exacerbated by the presence of a small, unchecked box beside it, suggesting that the task, whatever it is, remains uncompleted.”

“Directly adjacent to the note, in the page’s margin, is a small doodle of a fish and a series of interconnected diamonds. Woller said he has carefully analyzed the drawings for clues that may help him solve the riddle.”

“The fish leads me to believe that the gazebo could be near a lake or river. Or possibly a seafood restaurant,” Woller said. “Or it could just be a random doodle. I don’t know.”

After a frustrating day in which he completed little work, Woller continued his investigation at home Monday evening.

Bolting awake at 4 a.m. Tuesday, Woller theorized that “Gazebo” could be the name of a business and resolved to pore over the yellow pages first thing in the morning.”

In the scheme of things though, I mean in the scheme of life, such investigations and anxieties serve no real purpose.  Sure, it would be nice if I could keep my planner perfectly pristine – with no cross-outs or scribbles or half-legible phone numbers filling the margins.  But at 36, I’m coming to realize that’s just kind of the way I function.  My hand-writing could be mistaken for an adolescent’s and my tendency to do things quickly, with enthusiasm, and while I’m doing at least one other thing, results in these gazebo-like mysteries every now and again.   Occasionally, I beat myself up about it (“You really should be more neat and organized with your notes and planner given that you’re an organizer, Eve!).  Mostly though, I laugh,  knowing that the value of my life has nothing to do with the state of my day-planner.   And a little imperfection just means I’m human.   The world won’t stop if the mystery of “Gazebo Convo-Resolve/Tues (!?)’” is not solved.   Anyway, a little mystery keeps life interesting, don’t you think?

The Stuff that Dreams are Made of

August 11th, 2010

I live in a pretty small house (1170 square feet to be exact).  It’s one of those 3 Bedroom, 2 Bath post-WWII ranches, perfect for the nuclear family and a relatively simple mid-twentieth century lifestyle.   It’s got lots of windows and bright light but not much storage space.  Frankly, I kinda like it that way.  It keeps me honest.  It prevents me from holding on to stuff that I don’t love and serves no meaningful purpose in my life.  I prefer less stuff to bigger closets.

When my house was built in 1955, people  didn’t have so much stuff, although that soon began to change.  So how did stuff happen to us? The 1950′s was a  time of great innovation and transformation.  New appliances drastically reduced the time and effort home tasks liking cooking and laundry required, plastic vastly increased what was available to the average consumer, and a strong post-war economy encouraged Americans to spend, buy, and be happy.  Open up any magazine from that era and advertisements boast of new gadgets and products that promise to make life easier.  “If you use this detergent, then your husband’s collars will be white,  he will be successful in his job, and a happy husband is a happy marriage” type advertising was the norm.  And so you bought the detergent because of the dream.

In 2010 this seductive consumerism is out of control.  The other day I stood in a room full of clutter with a client.  She was befuddled by why she keeps buying objects that, when she brings them home, make no real sense in her house.  I told her that recently I had been flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog, attracted to this one particular image of a beautifully made bed presented in front of a large window, with transparent curtains gently blowing in the background.  A part of me thought to myself, “Ooh, I should go to Pottery Barn and see what they have .”  Then a new thought occurred to me, “You want the lifestyle but all you get is a  pillow.” Marketing gurus get paid big bucks to figure out how to appeal to consumers and tap into our wants and fears.  And consumers rationalize,   “Life is short, what’s the harm,”  “It’s on sale!”  “I had a hard day and deserve this,”  “I can always bring it back.”  So we buy the pillow or the purse but our life doesn’t change.  We just have one more thing to find a place for (or hide in the junk room).

When I work with people who severely hoard I often find all kinds of objects that seem to have no relationship to each other located in a pile.  One client of mine had everything from garden hoses to nail polish to stuffed animals to frying pans in a large, messy pile on her bed.  As she and I worked to eliminate this pile from her bed, I realized that what all of these different things had in common was that they were bought as part of a fantasy.  The perfect hose that wouldn’t kink up and leak, the “right” shade of nail polish, etc.  Out of context they served no real purpose and, in the home of someone who already struggled with managing stuff, they simply became more things to deal with “later.”  That’s the tragic side of stuff – when the stuff becomes a project, a burden, or even a source of shame. When the fantasy becomes a nightmare.

So after a long day at work I happily return home to my tiny house with the mindset of keeping only what I need or love, and nothing more.   I tap into that satisfying feeling I get when I clear a space in a client’s house and a room opens up.  It has taught me to value space more than stuff and be mindful of the role things play in my life.  I shop with a different perspective now.  Oh, and I removed myself from Pottery Barn’s mailing list.  If I want a good fantasy, I’ll watch one of my favorite episodes of Dallas :)

Perfectionism (or how to get nothing done and drive yourself crazy at the same time)

June 13th, 2010

I’m outing myself.  I’m a perfectionist.  It’s true.

As a professional organizer, I work with lots of perfectionistic clients who aren’t able to accomplish what they want to as a result of their perfectionism.  I help them work through this, reminding them that, “Good and done is better than best.” I point out the ways that their high standards prevent them from getting started.  They tell me,  “I can’t organize my papers because I don’t have the ‘right’ folders or system, because all my papers aren’t yet in one place, because I don’t know where things are.”  And I typically respond by giving them permission to get started anyway.  “Let’s just use these folders to start, let’s work through the papers on your desk, let’s organize what we can find.  It doesn’t have to perfect,” I say, “Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity.  It stops us in our tracks and undermines our ability to move forward.”

All true.  How do I know?  Because it takes one to know one.  Take a careful look at this blog.  I launched it in March 2009.  March 2009!  It has taken me over one year to begin posting to my own organizing blog (she says as she  hides tail between legs).  Why?  Because I delayed and delayed, making such a project of this blog in my mind that I began to tell myself I would need hours and hours of uninterrupted time to blog and that it had to be “perfect.”  I avoided my own blog like the plague – it became a pressure, an albatross around my neck, a burden, something to be dreaded – even feared.

Now, finally, in  June 2010, here I sit stealing a few minutes to blog while my 17-month old son is napping.  What changed?  I decided to get started and get real.  I decided that action is the best antidote to anxiety.  And for me, my perfectionism is wrapped up in anxiety (I’m my own harshest and most demanding critic).  So I gave myself a good talking to, reminded myself of why I started this blog in the first place, and kicked my you know what into gear. I let myself off the hook and decided to just be me.  And a blog post is emerging as we speak!

Perfect is an impossible standard to achieve and it depletes the spirit.  It sabotages, rather than helps. It breeds avoidance.  It is a negative, not a positive.   Because perfect is unattainable, seeking it automatically sets you up for failure and disappointment.   The more realistic I’m able to be about my available time, energy level,  interest, and skill-set, the more successful I am and the happier I feel.   But it’s an on-going battle, since I seem to be a hard-wired perfectionist (you know, the kid that stayed up until 2AM in 7th grade working on a school project so it was perfect, even if it meant utter exhaustion the next day.)  So I work on it and I manage it every day, imperfectly, bearing in mind the following principles:

  • My value is based on who I am, not what  I accomplish
  • I am a finite resource with limited time and energy
  • It’s not helpful to internalize external standards and expectations
  • Avoidance is a sign of fear, pain, or self-judgment
  • Perfect is the enemy of good
  • Just do it

So I challenge you to give yourself a break, stop being your own worst critic, and just get started on something you’ve been avoiding.    If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel lighter and brighter for doing so, and probably wonder what the big deal was in the first place.  Kind of like this blog post.  What the heck took me so long, huh?

Welcome to The Tranquil Organizer!

March 13th, 2009
Enjoying a little quiet in the Cinque Terre, Italy

Enjoying a little quiet in the Cinque Terre, Italy

As a professional organizer and owner of Organized Tranquility  ( I work with a lot of people who feel STRESSED OUT!. My clients include folks from all walks of life: overwhelmed moms, busy seniors, exhausted small business owners, burnt-out kids, and folks in life transition. The one thing they all share in common? They wish they had more time and a shorter To Do list. Many of them want to be happier and more productive, so that they can spend time doing the things that really matter to them in life – guilt-free.

I learned early on that organizing is one part clutter, one part emotion, and one part time-management. If it were simply about “the stuff,” one spring cleaning would solve the problem. But it’s deeper, more complex than that.

So bring your sense of humor and an open mind. Imagine calm and relaxation replacing chaos and anxiety. It’s time to organize your way to your best life! Let’s get started…