On this #GivingTuesday help someone move from a tiny home to a room of her own

Moving is often an overwhelming process. In addition to all the planning and the temporary inconvenience, packing up and then unfurling belongings in a space one has yet to become acquainted with is always a tad discombobulating. Moving interrupts the groove and flow of daily life to which one’s become accustomed, and recreating logical spatial layouts and rhythm that support day to day needs can take some time and a little assistance.

It was overwhelm that led a couple of friends to reach out and ask if I had time and interest to lend my organizing expertise to help a client of theirs with her new space. When they told me they were members of the client’s neighborhood-integration support team and that the client had recently moved into a tiny house in our Mission District neighborhood, I was intrigued. This was not just any tiny house but a Transitional Sleep and Storage Shelter that is part of a pilot program of Saint Francis Homeless Challenge.

1sm

The client was a homeless woman, a disabled firefighter, who had timed out of one of the City’s Navigation Centers. Rather than going back to the street while she awaits more permanent housing, she is residing in an all volunteer-built abode with the dignity of a solid roof over her head and what a tent on the sidewalk or street doesn’t offer: a lock on her door. They sensed she was bit overwhelmed trying to figure out how to fit her belongings into her new home and thought a little input from a neutral third party would help.

After saying yes, I immediately reached out to my organizing colleague, Amanda Kovattana, tiny house dweller herself, to see if she would be willing to join me and lend some firsthand insight and experience to this unique pro bono opportunity.

The morning we were set to meet, my friends were on hand for initial introductions. Our client was amazed to learn that Amanda and I make our living helping people with their stuff, and that the people we serve are at all socioeconomic levels and house sizes – from low income seniors and studio apartment dwellers to millionaires with multiple residences. They, too, experience situational spatial and organizing challenges she was struggling with.

2smAmanda posted quite a bit on Facebook during her process of building and outfitting her tiny house, and I was thrilled that she brought along an album of photos documenting her journey to share with the client. Things got real when she and the client sat on the house’s exterior storage unit and flipped page-by-page through the book exchanging reflections on the experience of prioritizing and downsizing life. Moving from a tent where things could be spread out to a walled space with rules per the agreement with SFHC was a challenging exercise in temporary rightsizing.

3sm

The tiny home includes a built-in sleeping platform, a bench seat at the foot of the bed, and a series of deep shelves at the head of the bed. In addition to a variety of safety features, it also has a solar powered charger that keeps a phone and other small electronics operational. There is no plumbing. Impact Hub SF, the property owner that is hosting her, provides  24/7 access to bathroom facilities and a kitchen in their building.

When it came time to step inside the cozy 5 x 8 x 8′ interior our creative organizer minds went to work. We talked about the importance prioritizing the placement of essential items for day-to-day living in the most prime real estate as opposed to less frequently used items that could be housed in the either the locker or the client’s offsite storage unit. We were pleased to see there was adequate space beneath the sleeping platform to accommodate storage bins or crates. At the time of our visit, the bins in this space were underutilized, and we recommended they be used in a drawer-like fashion for clothes, packaged food items, and other frequently used belongings. The shelves were covered with an array of personal items, but they were far from optimized. (Note: Due to privacy issues, photographs of the interior are not being shared in a public forum.)

The shelves were extraordinarily deep with lots of space between them, and one would have to stretch very far to reach items on the back of a shelf, likely knocking over things in the front along the way. Amanda and I recommended the client’s team add a couple of shallower shelves to increase storage possibilities, but also make the shelves more useful and efficient. Plastic bins with drawers would be super helpful on the deeper shelves, too. Ways to maximize the limited vertical wall spaces in the tiny house were also discussed. A hook added high above the bench would provide safe bicycle storage. Installing a row of hooks above the bed platform for hanging clothes, towels, or bags of essentials would be mighty handy. The addition of a plexiglass panel affixed to the inside of the door would create transparent side organizer pockets using the door studs as partitions for stowing small items. These little modifications and adjustments may be integrated as standard features for future tiny homes. They are inexpensive, easy to implement, and provide increased functionality to a very small space.

As far as those plastic drawer organizers, I sent a request for donations to the local NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) chapter of which Amanda and I are long-time members. Any and all Sterilite-like plastic drawers and an array of basic small, medium, and large lidded plastic storage bins would help outfit this client’s tiny home and future tiny homes. In the course of our work, clients routinely divest themselves of excess or de-commissioned containers, and they can be utilized in a move from a tiny home to an SRO and help individuals maintain a sense of order and control when they transition. The friends who got me involved in this awesome endeavor have offered to store such donations in their work studio until they can be distributed. (If you live in or near San Francisco and have some bins to donate, drop me a line and I will be happy to pick them up!)

And then there’s the issue of this woman going from unhoused to tiny housed to housed in what could be a proper room of her own. The tiny house is not meant to be a permanent solution. It’s a step toward greater security and independence.  Since we met her, our client has created a fundraising page through HandUp for a security deposit for actual housing. On this Giving Tuesday (and in the weeks to come), perhaps you’ll be inspired by her story as much as we were. I dare you to visit her fundraising campaign, become acquainted, and make a contribution toward her next big goal.

Amanda and I plan to stay involved with SFHC as needs for our skills and expertise arise. Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places, including these words of wisdom our client found on the street and has since installed on the outside of her tiny home:

 

6sm

Interested in helping more broadly? Donations can also be made to Saint Francis Homeless Challenge, a member of Intersection for the Arts.

When an organizer goes off script

In all things organizing, like many of my colleagues I employ standard long-established practices for their inherent benefits of safety, efficiency, and optimal results. I’ve learned my ways (and what aren’t my ways) by reading the myriad how-to books,  from trading tips and tricks with others in conversation and by working together, and through trial and error. Our underlying skills are the same, but the differences are in how we present, use, and experiment with them.

A case in point is something so incredibly mundane: how I label bags.

At the beginning of an organizing session where triage of things is about to occur, it is quite common to prepare a bunch of receptacles – usually bags, boxes, or bins – for collecting outbound items or things to be redistributed around the house. Many times floor space and piles with aforementioned designations suffice, but for the sake of this post, let’s focus on physical containment.

When using containers that are similar but not easily visually differentiated from one another, labeling them clearly is key. Destination categories might include “donate” (or be designated for specific local donation venues), “return” (if the likelihood of items belonging to others will be unearthed), “elsewhere” (in the house), “recycle,” “trash,” “sell,” “giveaway,” “shred,” etc.

I do a fair amount of home office triage projects, and there are usually three primary categories: recycle, shred, and trash. To help both me and my clients remember which bag is which: I line them up in alphabetical order: R – S – T.

IMG_0289
(Bags courtesy of a client. Apologies for the Whole Foods advertisement!)

But I’ve experienced and observed a problem with this system. The majority of my clients sort their desks, files, and piles from the comfort of a chair. When sitting and looking down on the bags, it’s really hard to read what’s written on their sides.

So last year I deviated from the script:

IMG_0299

I started labeling them on the inside. I haven’t seen this in an organizing book…yet. Maybe I should start writing my own script.

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

chaostoclarity_headerimage

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