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How to Get Organized and Stay Organized

What does being organized mean to you?

Not your neighbor, Not your children, and definitely not the magazines that tell you every month they have 687 quick tips on how to finally get organized.

Be clear on what you consider “organized” to be. Will you be able to find everything quickly and easily? Will you be able to work on projects, cook, read, and sleep without mountains of stuff in your way? Will you be safe? Healthy? Will it be easy to clean? Will it be easy to keep up with your systems? Will it be aesthetically beautiful and pleasing?

So why aren’t you organized already?

  • If you suffer from unrealistic expectations, it can be surprisingly hard to clear the clutter. Many people feel that if they can’t achieve the perfection they desire, it’s better to do nothing, to wait until somehow it becomes easier. Or they find the magic wand that will finally enable them to clean it all up with no effort or expense.
  • Are you still listening to the voice in your head telling you to clean up your room? Sometimes we do nothing because we don’t want to feel like we’re being told what to do. “You’re not the boss of me!” we tell that voice. Trouble is, the mess remains.
  • Are you just way too busy to declutter? Are you busy making sure you’re way too busy so you don’t have to declutter?
  • Do you have too much stuff? Inventory must conform to storage, and if you have more things than you can fit in your space, the math doesn’t work.
  • Are you storing stuff for other people? If you choose to do that and have the room, no problem. If you’re worried about what they’ll say, it’s time to take back your space.
  • Are the secondary benefits too strong? How do clutter and disorganization serve you? What do you get out of doing by telling people you’d love to but you just have to get this mess under control first? What would you have to do that feels scary if you got rid of the clutter? How would you fill the time if you weren’t endlessly sorting?

So how do you get organized?

Many of us would like to get organized and know the first step is reducing clutter. Been there, Kondoed that, read the books, magazines and blogs a thousand times. But somehow despite all the insight, the clutter remains.

There are good reasons to head for a trusted therapist’s office to untangle the threads that got you to this point (check out my interview with local therapist Sonja Hellman here) but all too often, investigating the phenomenon replaces actually getting rid of the clutter.

So how do you get started when anxiety and overwhelm have you in their grip? The single most helpful piece of advice I have is for you to really take this on board:

Organizing is a PROCESS, not an EVENT

Write it on sticky notes and post them all over the house. Yes, on all the piles of clutter too.

Why would that matter? Because if it’s an event, it’s got to be done all at once, and our imaginations can fill in the rest – endless hours, hot and uncomfortable, shame at all the trash outside, repeated tiring trips to the thrift store to donate enduring judgmental eyes (although actually, they’re thrilled to get all this stuff for free they can make money from to help people). The sheer size of the task is daunting, whether it’s that room full of old magazines you call your office or the kitchen table covered with dog toys or the whole damn house.

But if it’s a process, that’s a whole different kettle of fish/ball of wax/insert your own corny down-home motto. We don’t send our kids off to their very first piano lesson and then get mad they aren’t playing Beethoven sonatas by the end of the week. That would be silly and unfair. Why do the same to ourselves? And so don’t look at that mess all over the house, spreading from the hallway, along the stairs up into every room and down to the basement too and expect to snap your fingers and have it all taken care of right then and there. It’s going to take a while. And the fact that you’d like it done yesterday doesn’t cancel out the fact that it’s most likely been this way for years already. You can take your time.

Just shifting the view from event (get it done now whatever the cost) to process (beginning, middle, end), can help your brain calm down a little bit. It’s like my son, sitting for an hour on the beach with a handful of breadcrumbs and calmly, patiently waiting for the seagulls to come closer, closer, a little closer, until they were brave enough to finally hop on his hand and take a crumb or two. No sense scaring ourselves about this decluttering thing. We’re just going to get started a little at a time, establish a habit. Coax ourselves into getting started.

But how do I get started?

Joyful Surroundings Mom here:

  • Eat first if you haven’t recently. Ideally something with protein, but anything’s better than nothing.
  • Fill a glass or a bottle with some water and take it with you where you’ll be working
  • Go use the bathroom. Even if you think you don’t need to.

Alright then, let’s get started.

Set your timer for 20 minutes.

Take three breaths just for you. Nice and slowly, just breathing.

In and out.

In and out.

In and out.

Now pick an area that’s bothering you and start sorting. Think in very broad categories. If you’re sorting random piles, you’ll make piles like “home office,” “kitchen,” “bedroom.” If you’re sorting your office, you’ll have categories like “office supplies,” “papers to deal with,” “books.” Don’t try to get any more specific because that’s like walking across quicksand. We’ll drill down later but for now, the broader the category, the better.

Did the timer ring already?  Great, you’re done for today. Don’t worry about how it looks – after all, you already didn’t like how messy it was. Now it’s messy on the way to not messy. Big difference.

To finish up, take a drink of water and smile as big as you can. Doesn’t matter if you’re faking it, just beam with radiant sunshine. You’re doing it!

Now look at tomorrow’s schedule – what do you have going on? If it’s a super busy day, that’s okay, but if you can find a spare 20 minutes, write it down on the calendar. “2 pm, decluttering.” Set an alarm on your phone for five minutes before 2 pm, to give yourself time to get ready for your decluttering appointment.

Continue to sort each day for 20 minutes. Always stop when the timer rings. And outside those 20 minutes, if you come across a spatula on the bookshelf, and it’s easy, you could take it over to the kitchen pile. No big deal, just if you’re passing.

Why does this lessen anxiety?

  • Creating a ritual (eat, get water, use the bathroom, set the timer, breathe, sort, drink water, smile) helps you get started a little bit easier each time. It eases you into the process.
  • It’s slow enough to calm your brain down. Nice broad categories help because otherwise we’re going to get bogged down into 56 different categories for types of baking pans and all the piles will topple over and get mixed up again.

Keep Going

If you declutter 20 minutes a day, you’ll soon start to see progress. And more importantly, you’ll get a clear sense of how much you have of each thing. When you can see you have 56 wooden spoons, it gets easier to pick out your favorites and let the rest go.

As you gather like with like, you’ll naturally begin to see what serves you and what’s had its day. Keep what you love, want and need and let the rest go.

How to get things out of your house

  • Give up the idea of finding the perfect home for everything. Don’t live in a landfill to save the planet.
  • Take the trash out daily. Get larger cans if needed.
  • Drop off extra recycling weekly. Don’t let it sit.
  • Schedule a weekly (or monthly) pick up from your favorite thrift store.
  • Set deadlines for other people to come get their stuff out of your space. Let them know you’re sending it to the thrift store if they miss the deadline. Follow through.

Assign homes

  • A place for everything and everything in its place is a good rule of thumb but let’s go one better: A logical place for everything and everything in its logical place. That means keeping things where you use them and storing things you use more often closer than things you use once a year.
  • Use sticky notes to label where things are until you get a clear mental map of where everything is. That makes it so much easier to find things and to put them away too.
  • This is the space you live in. Stop storing and buying things for the next space – live where you live.

Staying Organized

  • Address overshopping. As we all know, there are many reasons to go shopping and few of them have much to do with needing something right now. Remember what they say: you can never have enough of what you don’t need.
  • Let the store be the store. It’s okay to run out of things sometimes. Compare the cost of saving a little by buying in bulk with the costs of paying more upfront, storing, cleaning and maintaining all the extra stuff.
  • What can you borrow/share with friends, neighbors and family so everyone doesn’t have one of everything taking up space?
  • Let go of the need to be prepared for every single eventuality. There are stores out there for a reason.
  • If it takes less than two minutes to put something away, do it right then and there.
  • Keep your goals in mind. When you’re tempted to dump a pile of clothes on the floor of your closet “just for now”, remind yourself of your goal to have a calm, welcoming island of serenity in there.

Want more help?

Read my blog for weekly decluttering tips and strategies.

If you’re in the Boulder County and Longmont area, hire me to help you declutter and get organized. Call Lucy Kelly at (720) 526-2114 to schedule a free 30 minute in-home consultation.

Further afield, you can find listings of organizers near you at findmyorganizer.comnapo.net or challengingdisorganization.org.

I hope this guide was useful to you. Of course, this is an inspirational guide with suggestions for action. Actions you take as a result of reading it are yours to stand by. That’s just common sense.

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