7 Tips to Help Someone You Love Make Decisions

Indecision is often at the root of clutter, and while many people do not need or want someone to tell them what to do, they do want someone to help them make decisions. If you are trying to help a loved one de-clutter, you may already be aware of how difficult it can be. That’s because we have our own agendas, expectations, and emotions about the stuff, how the process should go, and how the person should live. It is difficult but not impossible to navigate the relationship landmines of anger, hurt, and shame. We can even come out with less clutter and the relationship intact or maybe even improved. Communication is a key to success, and here are some tips if you are trying to help a loved one make decisions:

  • Leave all agendas, except for the desire to be helpful, at the door. This means that it is not about how you define “helpful” or the kind of help you want to provide. Start with something as simple as “How can I be helpful to you?” You may be told to just be encouraging, or take stuff to donate, or take the kids out of the house for a few hours.
  • If your loved one does not know how you can be helpful, don’t give up. Try letting that person know you will hang out for a little while to see if you can observe a way to be helpful when s/he gets stuck.
  • You can provide feedback based on your observations, such as “It looks like it is hard for you to let go of things other people gave you, is that accurate?” Or, it seems like you are getting stuck on a few items. Would it help to set those aside and move on to easier decisions?”
  • Be aware of any frustration or anger you may feel, especially if you think it shouldn’t be this hard or take this long. Remember, your goal is to be helpful, and in this case “helpful” is assisting that person to come to a decision s/he can live with  and ideally, get better at making decisions.
  • Focus on gaining an understanding  of the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Often people have emotional attachments, guilt, perfectionism, or fear that blocks their abilities to decide whether something should stay or go. Sometimes people can come to a decision once they talk it through with someone else. Try to listen without guiding.
  • Be careful to avoid criticizing or discounting thoughts and feelings. That doesn’t mean you have to agree! You can give your opinion if you can do it in a way that does not criticize or discount. If that is too challenging or it just doesn’t seem to be the right time for your two cents worth, try asking questions. (Tone and intention are very important here!) Questions might be “How does this fit into your “big picture’?” Or “Can you have the memory without the item?” “Will a picture capture it?”
  • Accept that some things will be kept, and that they might not be the things you would keep. Also, accept that the other person might not be used to you helping without judging, and it might take him/her a few times before s/he is willing to give you a chance.

Do you have techniques that work for you when trying to help others make decisions? What about things other people have done or said that have helped you when you were stuck?

How Cluttered Am I?

Why do we have so much trouble judging our own situations accurately? When it comes to clutter, some of us believe we are in one of the worst hoarding situations imaginable because there are some things left out and we have 40 pairs of shoes. Others climb over piles to get from one end of the room to the other and describe it as “not that bad”.

Some of this is simply a matter of perspective. If all the homes we enter and see on TV and in magazines are models of order and simplicity, our homes look like disasters by comparison. And some of this is related to our abilities to tolerate clutter; what I like to call the Clutter Tolerance Factor (CTF). We all know someone who becomes stressed when there is a dirty dish on the counter; they have a low CTF. Someone with a high CTF is comfortable sifting through piles of mail to find a bill that is due. I think nature and nurture work together to create our CTF.

Our distorted views of our own clutter is protective. Believing that our clutter is not that bad protects us from the certain pain of really seeing our clutter…seeing it the way others do. It also protects us from the feelings of guilt and shame associated with letting things go this far. And imagine that we had to see it every day and feel powerless to change the situation. The down side is that not seeing the clutter accurately means we will never take action to address it.

And what about those people who think their situation is worse than it is? They are driven partly by fear. Fear that their appraisal of the clutter is off and that others will see it differently. It’s criticizing yourself before others can. Seeing our situations in a negative light may also be indicative of our harsh inner critic, but that is a subject for a different day.

If you aren’t sure “how bad” your situation is, try looking at one room as if you had just entered a friend’s home. Now what do you think? Or take pictures and evaluate those. It is amazing how we can judge a photo more accurately than we can the real thing. Or you could use the ICD Clutter-Hoarding Scale or the Clutter Image Rating Scales. If all else fails, ask the opinion of someone you respect; someone who is not afraid to tell you the truth and who can be objective.

Even if you can judge your situation relative to that of others or on a scale provided by the experts, the only thing that matters is if the clutter is a problem for you. If you are not losing things, living things in an unsafe environment, or distressed about the amount of clutter in your home, then it doesn’t really matter how it compares to others. Do you have a different opinion?

3 Reasons It’s Hard to Stay Organized

It can feel so good to get something organized. Whether it is a whole room or just a drawer, most people love the feeling of looking inside a drawer where there is order and purpose and not too much stuff. Why then is it so hard to maintain an organized space? Why doesn’t the feeling of joy motivate us to do what it takes to keep it organized? It all comes down to these three reasons:

1. Things change. Our kids get older and the toys that were organized are no longer used and there are different toys to get organized. We go to the grocery store and the things we bring home are not the same shape and size as the things we had previously organized in the pantry. Our time commitments change, and on any given day we are too busy to do more than toss something into a once-organized drawer. Solution: Change your thinking. When things in life change and you have different items to organize in the same old space, embrace the positive aspects of the change. There are good things ahead, so tweak the system you had before. If you had a good system it should be fairly easy to modify it to meet your current needs.

2. We crave completion. We want that sense that we put in the time and effort for a good cause and it is now done…finished…Phew! And now we can move on to the next challenge. If we have to keep going back to maintain a place we already organized it feels like it wasn’t worth the effort. Why bother if it is just going to get disorganized again? Solution: We all know that life is a journey, not a destination. So is organizing. Enjoy the time maintaining with some music or quiet reflection. Be aware that keeping a space organized really takes a lot less time than it did to get it organized.

3. We love novelty. Organizing a closet the first time is fun. We start with the creative planning part, deciding what stays and what goes, figure out what goes where, and dream about how great it will be to have a closet worthy of a magazine photo. We get rid of clothes we haven’t worn in a long time, hang items by season and color, line up our shoes, and maybe even get to shop for an organizing product to make the closet work better. We are activating the pleasure center in our brain. Sadly, the novelty fades when it comes to maintaining that closet. Somehow, the maintained closet pales in comparison with the newly organized closet. Solution: Focus on the joy, even if it is not as great as it was before. Engage your brain’s pleasure centers by making up games to play while keeping something organized. Race against the clock, find 5 things that don’t belong, or see if you can figure out a creative way to repurpose something to help you stay organized.

Staying organized can be hard, but there are ways to do it. How do you do it?

My Mother Should Fire Me

My mother should at least think about firing me as her organizer…though not as her daughter. In many ways, I am a great daughter. I help my mother in any way I can. I try to help her simplify so she can remember things better, and I live by some of her rules, like making my bed every day.

My mother won’t let the family hire any in-home help beyond the every other week cleaning lady. Her house, her life, her rules. I respect that. So when I visit I gather like items and organize them in homes that work for her, I get rid of old food, and when we are out shopping I remind her of the things she already has plenty of.

So why should she think about firing me? Because I can’t be neutral like I can with clients. I get frustrated and even a little angry, and I know that it shows. I question and judge her choices. I know in my professional organizer brain that her aging mind and body are really struggling, but my daughter brain and heart just want her to be her previously organized self…or at least maintain things I do for her.

My mother should think about firing me because even though I am helping her in some ways, we spend time together having fun, and the no-charge price is great, the stress it puts on our relationship may not be worth it. I often see people turn to family and friends for help de-cluttering and organizing. Sometimes it works great. More often than not, it fails. It is hard enough to help another person make decisions and work at a pace and style that might not match our own. When you add in all the emotions involved in a family or friend relationship, everything gets more complicated.

So what do you do if you are in a situation like mine where your family member won’t accept outside help or if you are the one trying to decide whether to use the help of family or friends?
1. Look for a good match of personalities. If the helper is likely to express judgment, work at the wrong pace for you, or has their own agenda, look for a skilled professional organizer.
2. Keep planting seeds about the value of using an outside person. Every now and again I tell my mother how having a paid person means she can have someone help her on a regular basis.
3. Respect a person’s right to choose what is best for them. When there are risks of falls, fires, or other health problems you may have to go against their wishes to maintain safety.

Unless and until my mother decides to allow someone else to help or her safety is a factor, I will do my best to make helping her fun, to look for opportunities to learn more about her, and to keep my emotions in check. If I am truly trying to help her, it is not about me.

Are you trying to help a family member? What do you do to make it work?

7 Reasons to Hire An Organizer

We don’t hesitate to hire someone to fix a leaky faucet, help sell a house, or teach us to play an instrument. But there are other common tasks that still seem to carry a stigma when you don’t do them yourself. How do you feel about people who don’t do their own grocery shopping, laundry, or organizing? If you can’t de-clutter or organize your own stuff, does that make you stupid or lazy or filthy rich? If you are disorganized does it mean there is something wrong with you? If I can’t change the oil in my car, does it mean I am flawed? Of course it doesn’t!

Personally, I think everyone should weigh time, money, and enjoyment factors to determine which chores they do themselves and which they hire someone else to help. Here are 5 reasons hiring an organizer might not be such a bad thing.

1. The organizer has no attachment to your stuff, making it easier to help you make decisions about what stays and what goes. Breaking through the indecision will move you forward in less time.

2. No one is good at everything. I am not mechanically inclined, and if I had not married someone who is, I would have to pay a lot more people to do things for me. An organizer can simply help you get a project done, or teach you organizing skills you can use on your next project,

3. Working with an organizer saves you time and frustration. I could probably learn how to change the oil in my car, but I don’t want to invest my time in that. I recognize how long it would take me to learn the skill and how frustrated I am likely to become. For me, it is worth it to pay someone to do it, do it right, and do it quickly. Even if you are skilled at organizing, working side by side with an organizer gets the job done in less time than it would take you alone.

4. Hiring an organizer means you have scheduled the time to work on organizing, making it far more likely to happen with someone counting on you to be there. And if you thrive on an accountability system, you can ask for homework to do in between sessions.

5. Because you pay for the service, you devote your attention and energy to the task at hand. You won’t pay to have an organizer at your house and then spend time watching TV or talking about your favorite recipes because you are paying for the organizer’s time.

6. An organizer can help you get unstuck. You may want to maximize closet space but not know how, or want to donate an item but not sure where, or set up a process for incoming paper but you are paralyzed by uncertainty. An organizer brings the expertise of creating efficiencies, the knowledge of resources you can use, and a variety of tools to help you get more organized.

7. Hiring an organizer might actually save you money. Being organized means no late fees, an end to buying things you already own but can’t find, throwing out expired food less often, and sometimes even finding un-cashed checks!

Recognize your strengths. Accept your weaknesses. Remember that there was a time not too long ago when hiring someone to clean your house seemed like an invitation for people to judge how you spent your time and money. How long will it be before hiring an organizer to help move, downsize, set up paper and electronic information management systems, or organize a room will be commonplace?

Dogs Aren’t the Only Ones Who Hate Mail Carriers

If it were “allowed”, would you too chase away the mail carrier by barking and growling? Would you sacrifice the possibility of receiving checks and beautiful cards if it meant you would never again have to deal with the mail? You are not alone. In fact you might be surprised to know how many of my clients struggle with the mail. I have seen coping strategies that include leaving it in the mailbox until nothing else will fit, going to the mailbox every day and only pulling out the interesting pieces, putting all the mail in a bag or box and putting it in the closet, and leaving it all in the car. The interesting thing about these strategies is that none of them involve throwing out, recycling, or shredding. None make an attempt to reduce the amount of mail that comes in. Fortunately, most of my clients have already established electronic bill paying so there are not financial consequences to their disdain for and avoidance of the mail.

Why would some people choose barking and growling at the postal workers to keep the mail away? It’s fear – fear of making the wrong decision about what should be done with the mail. Can the junk mail  be recycled or does it have to get shredded or thrown out? The retirement fund constantly sends prospectuses and notices of privacy practices, so they must be important, right? Am I the only one who doesn’t understand all the numbers other than the part that says what I used to have and what I have now? And the coupons! Am I going to go to that store or restaurant before the coupon expires?

Imagine being afraid of making the wrong choice and not knowing if there will be dire consequences. It’s paralyzing. Now imagine that the thing igniting your fear happens every day…except Sundays and national holidays.

What can you do if you are a person who cringes at the sound of the mail truck?

  • Recognize your fear. Don’t try to be less afraid, and don’t berate yourself for it. Just notice it.
  • Establish some guidelines you will follow. For example, shred anything with your social security number or account numbers; recycle anything addressed to “neighbor’ or “resident”; and keep anything tax related.
  • Realize that even if you discard something you shouldn’t have, the consequences are not usually dire. Unpaid bills generate second notices, and you can request a copy of many other documents.
  • Establish a home for papers you need to keep long-term. Scan and save an electronic copy or establish a filing system.

If these step are too challenging for the level of your fear and avoidance, ask for help. Sometimes having another person review your decisions for a while can make it easier. Seek out professional help if the anxiety is debilitating, and consult experts in record retention guidelines. Take steps to reduce incoming mail by getting important information sent to you electronically and getting your name off junk mail and catalogue mailing lists. If all else fails, ask a friend to mail you cards or notes of encouragement and compassion. It might just have the same effect as a mail carrier giving the barking, growling dog a bone.

Are You Using the One-In One-Out Rule?

There is probably no time better than the gift giving season to follow the one-in, one-out rule. In case you are not familiar with this rule, the directive is that when one thing comes into your house, another goes out. We get into clutter trouble when the number of things that enter our homes exceed the number that leave; a common situation this time of year. The two best things about following the rule are:

  1. If you assign a defined amount of space for every type of item and you don’t already have too much stuff for a given space, you never will.
  2. It helps you make decisions. If you have room on the shelf for 50 books and you have 51, you only have to decide which one book is not preferred over ANY other book.

So how do you follow the rule with kids? You seize the valuable opportunity to teach them that space is finite and life is full of hard choices. They get x amount of space for toys. You get to decide what “x” is. It could be a room, a closet, a toy box, or a shoebox. Then the kid gets to decide what stays and what goes. If they have a toy box, for example, they can keep all the toys they want as long as they fit inside and the lid can close. You can learn a lot about kids from this! Do they try to fit as much as possible inside regardless of what is preferred? Do they prioritize their toys and let the space determine what the cut-off is between staying and going? Do they spend time trying to change the rule?

Even though this is a “rule” you can modify it to meet your needs. If your closets and drawers are bursting, you can start by reducing the amount you have to fit the space and then follow the rule. Or you can ease into it with a one-in two-out or three-out rule. Are you using this rule? If not, how can you be creative and make it work for you?

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