A New Way of Looking at Organizing
If I asked you to describe an organized space, what would you say? From most people, I hear things like "neat and tidy," "spare," "minimalistic," and "boring."
But an organized space has nothing to do with these traits. There are people whose homes and offices appear neat as a pin on the surface. Yet, inside their desk drawers and kitchen cabinets, there is no real system, and things are terribly out of control. By contrast, there are many people who live or work in a physical mess, yet feel very comfortable in this environment and can always put their hands on whatever they need in a second. Could they be considered organized? Absolutely.
Being organized has less to do with the way an environment looks than how effectively it functions. If a person can find what he or she needs when he or she needs it, feels unencumbered in achieving his or her goals, and is happy in his or her space, then that person is well organized.
I'd like to propose a new definition of organization: "Organizing is the process by which we create environments that enable us to live, work, and relax exactly as we want to. When we are organized, our homes, offices, and schedules reflect and encourage who we are, what we want, and where we are going."
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ORGANIZING
Misconceptions affect the way you think about any process, poisoning your attitude toward it and eroding even your best efforts to succeed by convincing you before you start that you're bound to fail.
Here are some of the most common beliefs about organizing, and the debunking facts that will change your thinking.
Misconception: Organizing is a mysterious talent. Some lucky people are born with it, while others, like you, are left to suffer.
Fact: Organizing is a skill. In fact, it's a remarkably simple skill that anyone can learn. How do I know? Because I was once a notoriously disorganized person myself. In fact, everyone who "knew me when" is amazed at the irony of how I make my living today. A few summers ago, I went to my twenty-fifth summer camp reunion. Naturally, as we all got caught up on what everyone was doing with their lives, I spoke with pride about my work. Since professional organizing is such an unusual field, all of my old friends found the concept absolutely fascinating. One brave soul — dear, sweet Martin G. — put his arm around me, discreetly pulled me off to the side, and whispered politely, "Uh, Julie ... I don't remember you ever being particularly organized."
From the day I was born until I had my own child, I lived in a constant state of disorder. I was a classic right-brained creative type, always living in chaos, operating out of piles, spending half my days searching for misplaced papers, lost phone numbers, and missing car keys. I'd permanently lost everything from little stuff to big stuff: passports, birth certificates, cameras, jewelry, shoes, and clothing. I'd lost things that belonged to other people. I once spent four hours searching for a friend's car in the parking lot at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, because I hadn't paid any attention to where I had left it.
I was one of those people who lived "in the moment": spontaneous and charming, but never planning more than one minute into the future. As a result, I was always scrambling at the last minute, and frequently didn't get things done on time, either because I forgot I had to do them or because I couldn't find whatever I needed to get the task done.
My day of reckoning came when I had a baby. When Jessi was three weeks old, I decided it'd be a beautiful day to take her for a walk by the waterfront. When she got up from a nap, my husband went to get the car and I went to get the baby. Suddenly I realized, hey, I should probably take along a few supplies. What did I need? Let's see, diapers, a blanket ... Oh, yes, a bottle of water, and maybe a toy or two. I started running around the house, gathering items. Every time I thought I was ready, I'd think of something else to bring. The Snugli, a sweater, and how about a tape to listen to in the car on the way? By the time I was packed up, more than two hours had passed and Jessi had fallen back asleep. I realized at that moment that if I didn't get my act together, my child would never see the light of day.
I decided to organize the diaper bag. Dumping out all the items I had gathered for our outing, I began by grouping all the supplies into categories that made sense to me: things to keep her warm with in one group (blanket, change of clothes, sweater); things to feed her with in another group (water bottle, pacifier); things to change her with in another (diapers, wipes, powder); and finally things to entertain her with (toys, a tape for the car).
Then I assigned each category of items a particular section of the bag, so that I could quickly get my hands on items when I needed them and know at a glance if anything was missing. I ended by tucking an inventory of all the supplies into a special pocket in the bag as well, as a tool to make restocking the bag easy. What a victory! From that day forward I was in control, packed and ready to go at the drop of a dime, confident that I had everything I needed at my fingertips.
That diaper bag was the first thing I ever successfully organized. And though it sounds small, it was truly the beginning of my path to organization. After that, I tackled other areas of my house, my drawers, my closets, papers, and so on, always using the same basic approach I used to organize that diaper bag. The rest, as they say, is history. I had happily discovered that organizing is a very straightforward skill, learnable even by the likes of someone as once hopelessly disorganized as me.
Misconception: Getting organized is an overwhelming, hopeless chore.
Fact: No matter what you're organizing, no matter how daunting the task or how huge the backlog, getting organized boils down to the same very simple, predictable process. Once mastered, you will discover organizing to be an incredibly cleansing and empowering process — an exhilarating way of freeing yourself up and maintaining a steady life course in a complex world. You'll even consider it fun because it produces a gratifying sense of clarity, focus, and accomplishment.
Consider this reaction from newly organized speaker Connie Lagan:
Cleaning out the clutter has magically, maybe even miraculously, released creative energy within me. The first evening after I completed my own business spring cleaning, I sat in my office chair and stared. I could not believe how energizing it was to see "white space." My eyes had places to rest and my spirit had found a home once again in the place where I spend most of my waking hours.
Misconception: It's impossible to stay organized.
Fact: Organizing is sustainable, if your system is built around the way you think and designed to grow and adapt with you as your life and work change. It is when your system is a poor fit for you that maintenance is a difficult chore. In addition, like eating well and staying fit, organizing is a way of life that requires monitoring and ongoing effort until it becomes satisfyingly ingrained. Instructions on how to maintain your system are an integral part of the organizing process presented in this book.
Misconception: Organizing is a nonproductive use of time. People in my workshops often say to me, "I want to get organized, I try to get organized, but I always feel like I should be doing more important things with my time — calling on customers, attending meetings, going to seminars, writing proposals, spending time with family and friends, relaxing, even catching up on my sleep."
Fact: Life today moves more rapidly than it did fifty years ago and will continue accelerating in the years ahead, presenting us with more opportunities and ever-greater demands on our time and ability to make choices. In an environment like this, those who are organized will thrive. Those who are disorganized will feel overwhelmed, unsure of which way to turn, and flounder. You can no longer afford not to be organized. Organizing has become a survival skill for the modern age, and Organizing from the Inside Out, second edition, is your handbook for getting there.
ORGANIZING FROM THE OUTSIDE IN
My years as a professional organizer and my own background of disorganization have taught me that most of us approach organizing from the wrong direction. When we are ready to get organized, it is usually because we have reached the breaking point; the clutter is driving us crazy and we want instant relief. Due to the accumulated stress of being disorganized, our knee-jerk reaction is to attack first, ask questions later — to just dive in and do whatever we can to gain control quickly.
We don't spend any time analyzing the situation, and typically we do very little planning — basically putting the cart before the horse. We search madly outside ourselves for the answers to our predicament and grasp wildly at anything we think will "save" us from it. See if any of the following behaviors strike you as familiar:
You go shopping for containers to get your clutter problem under control without having measured, counted, or examined what and how much you have to store.
You go on impulsive purging sprees, ruthlessly getting rid of as much as you can to create a spare existence, then discover too late that you tossed out something that was important to you.
You "adopt" organizing tips from friends, magazines, and books with no thought as to whether they mesh with your personality or fit your situation and needs.
You tackle the bits and pieces of your organizing problem without ever looking at the big picture.
You grab on to mantras like "reduce your possessions 50 percent," or "touch every piece of paper only once," or "if you haven't used it in two years, get rid of it," in the hope that they will change your life forever.
This leap-before-you-look approach is what I call organizing from the outside in. It fails to look at the big picture before seeking quick solutions, grabbing at all kinds of random tips and techniques. Don't get me wrong: Using the clever tips, smart techniques, and snazzy containers on the market is a critical part of the organizing process, but there are several steps you need to go through first in order to know which ones are right for you.
At best, this piecemeal approach creates an incomplete patchwork organizing system, leaving you with lots of holes. After buying a new container or implementing a new tip, you are excited by the novelty and experience a moment of hope, but this feeling soon wears off when the reality sinks in that information and objects are still falling through the cracks.
At worst, organizing from the outside in leads to selecting all the wrong systems, ones that just won't work for you. You try to force yourself to use them, but the effort is too great; after a few weeks you give up, watch the mess return, and consider yourself organizationally hopeless.
Organizing from the outside in fails time after time because it doesn't take into account how you think, relate to the world, pace yourself, like to operate, or your sense of visuals — the total picture of yourself that your organizing system should ultimately reflect.
ORGANIZING FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Organizing from the inside out means creating a system based on your specific personality, needs, and goals. It focuses on defining who you are and what is important to you as a person so that your system can be designed to reflect that.
Successful organizing forces you to look at the big picture, not one small section of the frame, so that the system you design will be complete. It is a nurturing process that helps you focus on discovering what is important to you and making it more accessible, rather than haranguing you to throw out as much as you can and organizing what's left over.
Organizing from the inside out means taking a good look at the obstacles that are holding you back from being organized so you can identify and remove them once and for all.
It means mastering strategies to speed up and simplify the organizing process, so you are sure to reach the finish line, not quit halfway there.
And it means organizing before buying any fancy new storage units or snazzy containers, so that your purchases will have meaning and be a perfect match for your particular needs.
Organizing from the inside out feels counterintuitive. It's not natural to stop and reflect when disorganization is at its peak. The impulse is to just dive in and attack. But if you invest a little time doing some thinking and analysis first, you will be able to zero in on just the right solution for you.
I once had a client named Carol. At first glance, she was an amazingly accomplished woman. She headed a high-profile arts organization and managed a staff of seven. She'd circulate at cocktail parties attended by important donors and celebrities, winning over one after another with perfect poise and confidence. She was dynamic, charming, and articulate. In the spotlight, she was brilliant, but behind the scenes her professional life was out of control.
Buried under an avalanche of letters, faxes, and e-mail from all those she had charmed, Carol was surrounded by a mountain of unanswered correspondence. With her very hectic and public schedule, she rarely made time to go through the mail, and often it went unopened for months. Grants were lost and opportunities to work with important artists went to other institutions.
Carol tried endless solutions to get and keep herself on track. All of them seemed quite logical: having her secretary open all the mail for her and type a summary sheet of the day's correspondence; sorting the mail into folders marked Extremely Urgent, Very Important, Important — Can Wait, and Less Important — FYI; holding calls for a half hour every morning to go through the mail. Unfortunately, none of these "solutions" worked because the problem was being approached from the outside in.
When Carol called me, I began by talking to her about how she felt about her mail, and why she thought she wasn't taking care of it the way she should. I mentioned that she seemed to be at her best face-to-face. She agreed, telling me that she thrived on human interaction, ideas, and problem solving. She found dealing with written communication painfully boring and isolating. Carol clearly needed a new system for dealing with correspondence — one that appealed to her personality, style, and need for human contact.
I began by encouraging Carol to make a mental shift: to begin viewing those mountains of letters, faxes, and e-mail messages not as paper but as real people who had come into her office with problems they needed her to solve.
I then suggested that she change the name of the time she spent dealing with correspondence from "the mail hour" to "the decision hour." This simple name change had an immediate impact on her because it sparked her love of ideas and action.
Finally, to counteract her feeling of isolation, I suggested her secretary stay with her as she worked through the day's correspondence. Carol could dictate replies, bounce ideas off her secretary, and have the kind of give-and-take that made her excited to be working.
Carol's relationship to correspondence changed completely. What had been a chore became energizing and gratifying, all because she had become organized from the inside out.
Easy as 1-2-3
Organizing from the inside out is a method that accommodates your personality, needs, situation, and goals rather than forces you to change. By following these three straightforward but very important steps you will be able to meet any of life's organizing challenges and achieve lasting success:
Analyze: Step back to take stock of your current situation by defining where you are, where you are going, what's holding you back, and why it's important to get there.
Strategize: Create a plan of action for the physical transformation of your space, including a realistic schedule for making it happen.
Attack: Methodically dive into the clutter, sorting and arranging items to reflect the way you think, making sure you see visible, dramatic results as you work.
Equipped with your new view of organizing, you are about to embark on a great adventure that will lead you to enjoying the freedom of organized living forever. Throughout, I will be your guide, coach, and sounding board, providing you with ideas and examples of other people's systems to help stimulate your own thinking.
Now let's get to it.CHAPTER 2
What's Holding You Back?
"You can't fix it till you know what's broken."
Whoever first said that neatly summed up one of the most fundamental principles of organizing from the inside out: understanding the cause before seeking a remedy. It's actually a pretty logical step. After all, isn't that how we approach all of life's problems?
If you aren't feeling well, you go to your doctor and describe your symptoms. Let's say you've been suffering frequent headaches and an upset stomach. Your doctor doesn't just automatically prescribe pain relievers and antacid. She knows your symptoms may be caused by a variety of conditions and illnesses, from stress to food poisoning to something even more serious. Your doctor asks you more questions, examines you, and runs diagnostic tests to determine your illness. Only after this exploratory exam will treatment be prescribed; otherwise the medicine might only mask your illness — a dangerous situation that could lead to an escalation of your condition. The same is true of organizing. You need to identify the cause before seeking a solution.