Things Can Really Hang You Up the Most

The content of this post was written by my friend, Paul Overton, teacher, creator, seeker, writer,  Renaissance man, and as you’ll soon read, active liberator of spaces. He shared it on facebook earlier today, and it kind of blew my mind. It has been reproduced here in its entirety with his permission. You are invited follow him at https://www.facebook.com/dudecraft.

It’s five a.m. and I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment with a shirt in each hand, trying to decide whether to keep either of them. I have been doing this for ten minutes, and god knows how long it might go on.

I’m supposed to have a simple rule in place that keeps these things from happening: If I haven’t worn it or used it in the last two months, it goes. But the practical side of downsizing is always more complicated. The first few items are easy. Stuff I haven’t used, worn, or looked at in a year or more goes without a second thought. “Good job!”, I tell myself. “You’re really editing now!” But when you get down to three or four-hundred possessions, your stuff starts to put up a fight, and what seems like a straightforward “stay or go” proposition can become so fraught with emotion and nostalgia that a sort of object paralysis sets in. I can spend hours weighing the pros and cons of a potato peeler if I’m not careful, and the importance of that decision can balloon in significance until it seems as crucial as choosing a university or investing in the stock market.

It sounds insane. And it is, in a way. It’s addict behavior. I am asking a part of my brain to do the opposite of what it has been conditioned to do and, unsurprisingly, it’s fighting me every step of the way…inventing justifications and playing on my emotions to prevent me from simplifying my life. But, why? Why are my attachments to things so hard to break?

Aside from the obvious social conditioning that we have all been subjected to that tells us to constantly consume, rather than pay attention to what’s actually important, I think it has to do with fear. My brain knows that if I get rid of all the non-essential possessions in my life, then my focus may shift from thinking about what I might buy next to what I might do with all the freedom that comes along with voluntary simplicity…and that is terrifying. “What happens then?”, says my brain, as it’s flipping out about the unknown and imbuing things like lemon zesters with inflated significance. “What happens if you fight your programming and become radically free from the urge to hold onto useless things? Then what will we do?”

My brain, in actuality, would rather not know the answer to that question…because it would mean a foundational change in my way of being…and that means a lot of work. My brain hates to break habits when I ask it to, and this would be the biggest one I’ve ever set it to work on.

It also knows that by making big shifts that appear to be abnormal by society’s standards, my relationships may be affected, and my brain is afraid of being seen as a weirdo, or rather, MORE of a weirdo. It just wants me to assimilate and be comfortable with the routine. Work, buy stuff, keep an eye on the Joneses, blend in, etc. But that’s not what my gut, or soul, or higher self is interested in. My soul, for lack of a less woo-woo word, wants to see what’s possible. It knows that stuff is meaningless and that, out there beyond it, is something infinitely more interesting. It knows that shedding objects may be the first step in shedding a multitude of other fears, self-limiting beliefs, and habits that my brain has been steadfastly maintaining for decades…and it has a strong suspicion that if we can manage to get over this hilltop, we might see something that resembles the truth and sets us free.

This is the thought that I’m keeping in front of me as my brain tries to convince me that because a shirt says Brooks Brothers on it, it has some kind of intrinsic value beyond its “shirtness”. Twenty minutes in, I’m fed up and I quickly stuff both shirts in the Goodwill bag while my brain isn’t looking, and then throw the bag in my car before it has a chance at any further protest. I might regret it, but I probably won’t.

Like it or not…we’re doing this, brain.

GSD: An alternative productivity acronym

Me: What’s the hardest thing about tackling certain projects or items on your to-do list?

(If you have a list, I think I know what you’re going to say.)

You: Getting started.

(If you don’t have a list, I think I know what you’re going to say.)

You: I should probably have a list.

(Yup. That’s what I thought.) Continue reading

Zen and the art of disruption

The topic of this post was nowhere on my running list of things to write about, but sometimes life or the random or unplanned event zips itself to the beginning of the queue, screams for attention, and ends up being shared like this:

I usually experience the before-during-after of home remodels, construction, and the like through the eyes and emotions of my clients. As the calm and practical voice of reason who can see where they are, where they’re going, and how to bring them back to center, I’m called on to help with the preparation, navigation, and resettlement img_7428of their spaces and minds.

As a long-time renter, and unlike many homeowners, I had yet to experience the temporary life-interrupting effects of residing in my home while contractors did their thing. Leave it to some defective paint issues in an old Victorian to provide such an opportunity. Continue reading

Chaos to clarity

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Describing what they face as the familiar clutter, mess, chaos, disarray, congestion, roadblocks, or the unique paper salad (one of my all-time favorites) or landscape of piles is a state of disorder that is real for and relative to each and every client I meet.

One person’s chaos is another person’s bliss and vice versa. I will never forget a phone call from a woman who confided that photographs of super tidy kitchen drawers made her extremely uneasy. She was most comfortable with a degree of “stuffedness” that would frustrate or overwhelm someone else.

I appreciate the diversity of and challenges for every person who invites me to enter their home, the bravery it takes to call for help, the transformations that happen within and around them. Everyone has muscles to stretch and new things to experience.

So it will come as little surprise I was filled with intrigue when I was invited to be the guest lecturer for an experimental weekend workshop titled “Chaos to Clarity: Finding Order in a Disorganized World,” at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (a.k.a. the d.school). The invitation also included an offer to attend and participate in any or all of the workshop. Knowing this was a rare opportunity, I opted for the latter. Continue reading

How to tame your paper piles

IMG_1982I’ve written about paper before, and I’m writing about paper again. Why? Because one area of life people routinely wish to get under control once and for all is the overwhelming array of papers that congregate in any number of places around the home.

While paper can cause feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, you’ll be happy to know that once it’s reined in, the very same paper can also produce calm and control.

For many, paper congestion begins at the mailbox, and I’ve got a handful of steps you can take to curb the influx, increase the paper flow, and create greater clarity and control. Continue reading

A donation for a favor

“Paper is a big challenge. The mailman always brings more.” I hear some version of that sentiment quite often. Even after they have gone through the process of opting out of credit card and insurance offers, a large percentage of my clients struggle with an influx of unsolicited mail. Envelopes filled with pre-printed return address labels, bundles of cheesy seasonal cards, calendars, and the occasional random penny or nickel, yield slippery piles of unruly papers. And all the senders of these “gifts,” invitations, and pleas want is a donation for their good cause. Ninety-some-odd percent of the time, their attempts result in generous contributions to recycling bins and short-lasting relief on the faces of these clients.

Mind you, I’m all for good causes. I spent many years working in the nonprofit educational realm – art and natural history museums in NYC and San Francisco – and volunteer in my spare time. Nonprofits depend on the support of individual donors, and I’m happy to contribute to their betterment of our world and ways each year. But I had a lapse recently when, for the first time ever, I became a museum member. (One of the great benefits of museum employment was free museum entry at any reciprocating institution. I miss that.)

Weeks after my membership welcome arrived in the mail, so too did a solicitation from another museum. Oh dammit. That’s right. Nonprofits sell our information to other nonprofits, and in my case, the unsolicited mail cycle was resuscitated. I stopped that train mid-track by phoning both organizations to ask that my name be removed from all mailing lists and to request they do not sell or distribute my information. The unwanted mail ceased.

As we find ourselves in the midst of the season of giving, sharing, and storytelling, my hope is this little tale can contribute to the betterment of your desk, entryway, dining room table and/or countertop as the new year begins.

It is extremely rare to find a “donate” page on a nonprofit’s website that provides a box for you to specify if your donation is in honor of someone/s, write a note or message to the organization, and/or allow you to opt out of being added to their mailing list. So here’s what I do. I resort to a tried and true approach and mail a check with a letter. The basic version goes something like this:

To whom it may concern,

Enclosed please find my donation to [awesome nonprofit]. I am happy to donate because of the meaningful and vital work you do.

In exchange, I wish to ask the following: Please do not add me to your mailing lists or sell my information. I hope you will honor my desire to provide support without being inundated by mail that I do not wish to receive. My mailbox is on a diet : )

Sincerely,

P.S. Perhaps you’ll consider adding a box to the main donation form page on your website for donors like myself to donate quickly while providing us with an opt out option at the same time. I bet it could help save you time and resources in the future.

Less paper to manage yields more time for things that matter. Think of all the things you can do if you minimize your time shuffling unwanted mail.

And that, my friends, is my gift to you!

There are few more checks to be written over here…

Unexpected thoughts on the label maker

Old school Dymo label maker

Behold the mighty old school label maker! I found this little red beauty while helping a senior client organize a bookcase filled with office supply treats. Asking the usual questions when such a unique artifact appears, I learned that she neither uses it nor has tape for it, but she likes knowing it’s there just in case.

The more high-tech versions of these devices have been and continue to be the topic of many conversations with colleagues and clients alike. For many, the label maker is a staple in their daily work/life diet and the thought of being without one is unimaginable. Others, like myself and my fella environmentally conscious organizer colleague, Miriam Ortiz y Pino, CPO®, of More Than Organized in Albuquerque, NM, have a different perspective. We combined forces and wrote an article, “Unexpected thoughts on the label maker,” for NAPO News, the bimonthly publication of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). It was published in the September/October 2014 issue, and is republished here by permission.

Continue reading

Earth Day Special: On Environmentally-Conscious Organizing

self-portrait with compost, recycle, trash signsat solar living instituteA famous amphibial puppet speaking of the color of his felt famously sang, “It’s not easy bein’ green; It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.” “Green” has seeped into so many things – far too many – that the word has been overused to the point of being meaningless. This is precisely why, two years ago, a group of professional organizers decided to redefine their specialty from green organizing to the more ecologically- and holistically-infused environmentally-conscious organizing.

Steeped in the traditions of voluntary simplicity and sustainable living, this work stems from the values and ethics associated with helping others adapt simple lifestyle changes that support them wherever they are on the environmentally-conscious path. It’s about building awareness and engaging in dialogues to guide clients to a place where they can observe and effect change in the choices they are making each and every day.

Most of us are already working to reduce, reuse and recycle whenever possible, and environmentally-conscious organizers encourage these practices and more. What will create more impactful and lasting change is exceeding these foundational R’s and allowing ourselves to go deeper.

Take, for example, the multi-faceted practice of reducing. Choosing the path of less packaging, reduces the need to recycle or throw away resources. This is especially powerful when you consider that 25% of landfill contents in the U.S. is product packaging. By reducing consumption of single-use disposable plastics (i.e. packaged and bottled water), we reduce the need for more fossil fuels while reducing the risk to ecosystems from oil drilling and transport of these resources. Reducing the need to store cases of plastic bottles creates more physical space while having the added health benefit of reducing your family’s exposure to bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor found in certain plastics. The effects of our choices can be cascading.

When we begin to make time and allow ourselves to rethink our choices, refuse what we don’t need, repair what needs fixing, and let food waste rot into nutritious compost, we’re moving closer to what’s most important in our lives. That’s often the end goal of organizing for many of our clients: creating the time and space to do what matters most.

Each of us has the power, through small acts each day, to make ripples of change in the places where we will see and feel those shifts most directly – in our homes and communities. As Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote in her book, Green Washed, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, “…consciousness is a starting point, not an end point.” As we stand on the precipice of Earth Day 2014 (April 22), where are you going to start? Hint: It takes one small step.

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This piece was originally written for and posted on NAPO’s Get Organized Blog.
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Organizing gift cards and their little friends

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They quietly enter our homes by way of auctions, thank yous, prizes, presents, the mail, and even purchases. Infused with good intentions and the hopes of putting them to use sooner than later,  gift cards, gift certificates, store credits, coupons, and promotional cards often wind up sitting around longer than we ever intend.

Between my own house and those of my clients, I’ve encountered small collections of these papers, plastic cards, and torn- and cut-out coupons languishing in baskets, stuffed into folders, magnetized to the refrigerator, shoved in overburdened handbags, tucked into jacket pockets, lost in piles ‘important’ papers, lost in piles of things to sort, stuffed into bags of mail, and waiting in the foyer. Continue reading