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?

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?


Is Black Friday Sabotaging Your Organizing Efforts?

Black Friday! Cyber Monday! Get this whatever before it’s gone. You will never see a deal like this again! Do you feel the sense of urgency and adrenalin rush? That can feel good. That good feeling, the shopper’s high, is challenging for some people to resist and it can lead to financial and clutter troubles. If you are trying to de-clutter or downsize, you don’t need the temptations that is offered at this time of year to add more.

So how do you manage to get through what has become the shopping season? Here are some tips to help you:

  • Keep your goal in mind. Does shopping really fit into that goal?
  • Know that “Black Friday” is also “Buy-Nothing” day. You can choose which you support
  • Avoid all things shopping-related: ads on t.v. and in print, stores, email offers, and people talking about their deals
  • Explore other things you enjoy – time with friends and family, games, walking, etc.
  • Consider whether you need more things, have a place to store them, want to maintain them, and have no other goals for your money
  • Think about some of the negatives associated with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, like crowds or the ease of losing self-control
  • Remember that most good deals come again

What other things keep you from letting Black Friday Sabotage your organizing efforts?

What Do Cognitive Distortions Have To Do With Clutter?

Isn’t it fascinating the way the human brain works? I love trying to understand the way people think and how they get from point A to point Z in their brains; it’s like driving a car from one place to another. Most of the time people’s brains drive them safely to their distinations. Sometimes, however, cognitive distortions, or thinking errors, drive people into a ditch.

Cognitive distortions are faulty, irrational ways of thinking, and many are frequently demonstrated by people who need to de-clutter and even more so by people who hoard. The one I hear most often in coversations with my clients is black-and-white thinking. Examples include:

  • Thinking that it is a failure if they didn’t de-clutter the whole house
  • Believing they must not really care about the environment because they did not recycle every piece of paper
  • Not being able to let something go because they cannot find the perfect charity

We all display this and other cognitive distortions from time to time. The problem arises when we believe these un-helpful thoughts are true and we cannot move ourselves from them. I have a great bumper sticker from Northern Sun Enterprises that reads “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.

So what can you do if you frequently drive into the black-and-white thinking ditch?

Step 1: Just notice it. Monitor your thinking and catch yourself thinking in this polarized fashion. Don’t judge yourself for it, just be aware that you are thinking that way.

Step 2: Try to discover if there were factors led to faulty thinking. Were you tired, hungry, or already upset about something else?

Step 3: What was the result? Did you end up content and closer to your goal? Or more likely, did you end up angry, sad, or anxious?

Step 4: Fight to stay out of the ditch! Challenge black-and-white thinking with rational and more helpful thinking. Ask yourself questions to see if your thinking is accurate. For the examples above:

  • Are you really a failure if you only got part of the house de-cluttered? In order to not be a failure (never mind successful) do you have to do everything 100%? Would you judge your friends by the same standard?
  • Can you care about the environment and not recycle? Are there other ways to show you care? Is recycling most things better than recycling none?
  • Who benefits by your generous donations if they never leave your house? Is it better to get donations to a charity that is good enough or to no charity at all?

What other questions do you ask yourself to help your thoughts stay on the road? Do you agree with the bumper sticker “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”?


References: Beck, A.T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
Burns, D.D. (1989). The feeling good handbook: Using the new mood therapy in everyday life. New York: William Morrow.



Who Says Organizing is Boring?

My daughter, that’s who. Here’s how it happened. I am not one who has an unlimited supply of topics to write about. When I need a blog topic, I often turn to expert talkers like my daughter. She suggested I write about why organizing is so boring. Once I got past the thought that she was trying to get a reaction from me, I really had to think about what she was telling me. I know there are people who do not enjoy it and people who are not good at it, but I never really thought about the possibility that some might find organizing boring. Clearly my daughter finds it boring. How is that possible? There is mental stimulation in trying to figure what to put where and in what container. There is emotional stimulation in encountering items that evoke memories of good and bad times. There is physical stimulation as you move things around an area. There is even a level of suspense. Will I be able to fit in my closet everything I want to keep? Will I have enough time to finish? Will this system work better for me than what I had?

With all that stimulation and suspense, how could organizing be boring? I asked my daughter this and she offered this profound response “It just is”. I guess when you’re young some things are that simple.

For the rest of us, maybe “boring” is code for other feelings that we want to avoid. There might be fear of failing to complete the organizing challenge, or fear of not completing it to perfection. Maybe the fear is that the organization won’t last. There might be an avoidance of the feelings that are invoked when going through memorabilia. Maybe the avoidance is of what you tell yourself about the level of disorganization that has existed. Do you tell yourself you are stupid, incompetent, or lazy?

If any of those are true for you, there is an option other than avoiding. Usually the anticipation, dread, and fear are worse that the actual event. And if you want to lose the boredom factor, make it fun. You may not be able to change much about the organizing task itself, but you can make just about anything fun. Turning it into a game, playing music, rewarding your self for small steps, and inviting a friend to help or keep you company are all easy ways to make organizing more fun.  What are your creative ways to keep organizing from being boring?