It’s increasingly strange for me to answer the question “How long have you been an organizer?”.
17 years in, I’m still learning so much about organizing, human nature, motivation, happiness, and more with each passing year. Sometimes in the moment I know that a certain realization or exchange with a client will be something I'll share here, and other times, it’s not until months later that I jot down the revelation as its significance hits me.
This summer I started this list for 2018. As always, I never look back on previous years’ posts, for fear that they'll intercept the incoming new lessons. Please enjoy, and please share in the comments anything you learned about organizing in 2018!
1 - We think we need time, but what we really need is focus.
When I sat down to write the post How one of my clients systematically (and simply) dismantled her piles, I realized that my work sometimes feels like an exercise in tricking people into focusing. Though the example shared in the post was my client’s brainchild, it had me reflecting on the countless ways clients focus so clearly when we’re together.
As I sit to write this, I’m struggling with focus! There are carpenters cutting new hardwood steps just feet away from me. Christmas gifts that need wrapping. The world wide web just one click away. A to-do list of small things that require far less focus than this post! It feels impossible, until I strong-arm myself through it and get into the writing groove. To use these posts as an example. What I put off seldom takes as long as I expected, once I FINALLY focus.
With classic paper sorting projects, so much of my time is spent passing small pre-sorted piles to my client. Figuratively, and sometimes literally, I sit between them and the mountain of paper that has been in their way. Getting started is never pretty, but if you want to know how the sausage is made, imagine me finding a bag of paper. From there, I naturally create crude piles in my lap and on any surface surrounding me. These often look like:
Probably trash, but I need you to glance at it first.
Then, I pass these micro piles to my client. Within these piles can still lie a lot of chaos, but to have a client focus on a single category at a time is profound. Projects usually contain countless loose ends and stress-inducing threads of life. When they focus on any of these, singularly, inertia breaks.
The mere fact that organizing sessions are 3 hours, forces a level of focus. What we accomplish in 3 hours is sometimes more than has been accomplished in years of spinning wheels.
The loudest wake up call I’ve had on the topic of focus was when I read a post on Cal Newport’s book coming out in February 2019, Digital Minimalism Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Cal Newport authored the Bible on focus, Deep Work. He preaches that we are capable of so much more than we realize, but few of us are willing to do the work it takes to focus at length without distraction. He’s not a fan of social media, multi-tasking, or even email. When I want to poke holes in his theories, I remember that he’s younger than me and has written 6 books, and is a tenured Georgetown professor. Books to my name: 0. (Wait, I wrote an eBook!) In Digital Minimalism he will teach us how to take a radically different approach to how we use our boundless digital tools. I’ve never agreed with anything more, but still have been unwilling to take his proposed “30 Day Digital Declutter.” I’ll share this again in the new year, but please read this book preview by Eric Barket in the meantime.
2 - A major reason why I love to help people organize is to keep stuff out of landfills.
Sometimes an organizing project involves a slow un-doing of a lifestyle that has fed on more, more, more. In doing this, we can be faced with the paradox of filling endless trash and recycling bins. Sure, recycling helps, but evermore I’m aware of the importance of reducing our environmental footprint by allowing fewer things to come through the front door. The dark side of minimizing can be coming to terms with how much you felt you needed to…just be you.
Yes, it’s imperative that we responsibly offload what we’ve acquired (and its packaging), but the onus needs to be on saying “no” to the the myriad of useless (and unused) things that enter our homes. When I think about having helped over 600 clients change their buying habits, then I realize that maybe one of the most significant side benefits of professional organizing is keeping the earth a little cleaner. The fewer things we say “no” to, the fewer things to organize, the fewer things using fossil fuels to journey to our front door, the fewer things sent to the landfill.
Anyone can be a “minimalist” as long as things cycle out as fast as they come in, but even sparse homes can hide wasteful Target and Amazon habits, buying food in packaging, and shopping patterns that fill trash and recycle bags just as fast as in any other “cluttered” home.
As we fill those trash bins, my mind can’t help but wonder if this is what one average American tosses, my goodness, how does our beautiful land handle it 300 million times over? I just keep my eye on the prize of helping this one person reach their very noble goal of living with less. This, right here over these trash bags, is one way that big change starts.
3 - Attention has become a commodity.
A couple years ago I had the great joy of meeting writer and business coach Jeffrey Davis. Jeffrey’s consulting business, Tracking Wonder, teaches people how to infuse their brands and work with soul and integrity. This summer he asked a question of his readers:
How do you love the world with your work?
My answer came rushing in quickly. I sent this to Jeffrey:
I love the world with my work by giving people my full attention. When I work, nearly all of the time, my phone is nowhere in site. I also rush through client’s side conversations less and less these days because I realize that we all crave another’s attention. Perhaps unbeknownst to us, it’s a commodity even worth paying for. I can’t even say that I give my husband this level of attention - 3 hours at a time - no phone in sight. When arriving to a home or office, I tend to hit the ground running, aware of my hourly rate and that the clock is ticking. I have a new client who says, “Just relax. Ignore all of this for a minute.” as she’s winding up and watching me flutter into her home in busy-body organizer mode. After hearing it a couple times over, I’m giving in, better able to drink tea and talk about our weeks and lives, even with the clock ticking and the piles sitting untouched for a bit.
4 - You have to become ok with throwing out good information.
“Just because it’s good information doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever.” is something that came out of my mouth in at least three client’s homes this year. I shared all about it in my post A mantra to help information junkies let go. Here’s a snippet:
For years now I’ve told some clients that they can keep something if they have a good reason to - not just any reason - but a good reason. Note that I reserve this for the folks who I know want a strong force in the face of their clutter. (Some just want a gentle nudge.) This has evolved this year into addressing the double-edged sword of “good information.” We live in a time where we are drowning in good information. We buy it. It comes in the mail. We find it online. It lands in our inboxes.
How good is the information if you’re buried in it? How good is it if you are so overwhelmed by it that you never make time to absorb it, let alone sit in a clutter-free room to enjoy it? How good is it if piles of it are unsightly in your closet, on your floor, or on your desk? How good does it have to be to keep it amidst the barrage of newer, better information that will sure come at you later today? How good is it if you never make time to process it into something that positively affects your life?
Lots of folks wrote me directly after this post saying it was helpful, or that they forwarded it onto an information junkie loved one! I’ve expanded it since, saying to my clients and to myself:
Just because it was a gift, doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever.
Just because it was expensive, doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever.
Just because your child made it, doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever.
Just because it was from an important event or milestone, doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever.
And on and on…
5 - The little things are the big things.
“The little things ARE the big things!” my client exclaimed as she realized we had spend much of our office organizing time that day clearing off the top of her bedroom dresser. The pull to that dresser, one room away, was magnetic. She thought she needed me to overhaul her home office, but instead every few minutes we found ourselves talking through photos, trinkets, and gifts, some from her soon-to-be ex husband. Today, more relief was to be found in a clear dresser top than in seeing her office floor again.
This was no cop-out. She had led me to some of the hardest work to be done in this house. She was apologetic though, asking if it was ok that we were doing this. Of course it was ok! We were letting her intuition guide us to where we needed to be the most. As I kept trying to find the words to reassure her, she blurted out what has become my motto for the year:
“The little things ARE the big things!”
I used this with so many clients after that session.
There was the woman who had been living amongst boxes stacked to the ceiling from a years-ago move following a painful split with her partner. She insisted on working on her to-dos and scattered handwritten notes before breaking into a single box. I reassured her - “The little things ARE the big things!”
There was the World Bank economist who was working through some pretty big personal goals that could conflict with her vibrant, burgeoning career. We constantly found ourselves working on the tedium of her emails and to-do lists, as well as building in some daily rituals to bring in little oases of sanity. She marveled at how these seemingly small changes resulted in palpable peace of mind at work and home. Here’s why - “The little things ARE the big things!”
There was the sound engineer who tours the world with famous bands who just was swimming in a sea of receipts to expense, deduct, and trash. His exciting professional life stood starkly in contrast to the table before us, covered in years of the scraps of his fascinating life. Why had these bits of paper weighed on him (and his wife) so heavily? Because “The little things ARE the big things!”
Next time you’re down on yourself for being too smart, too creative, too conscious, too interesting, too caring to be so affected, or even stalled, by the little things, remember that the little things ARE the big things. This is such good news. Since this is true, the littlest, quickest changes can bring instant hope and joy. I see it happen every day.
“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” - Kurt Vonnegut