The Myth of the Drill Sergeant Organizer

Fred has a lot of clutter. It’s getting in his way. A friend notices this, and recommends that he hire a professional organizer. Fred says, with a nervous laugh and semi-mock dismay, “Oh, no! She’ll make me get rid of all my stuff!” Probably due to the tough-love TV organizers and the prevalence of hoarding shows, organizers are seen by many as harsh taskmasters who cart off truckloads of stuff and like to make our clients cry.

That may make for good TV, but it’s not reality. If most professional organizers bullied clients into giving or throwing away their most cherished possessions, they wouldn’t be very successful, because they’d be spending all their money and time in court defending themselves from lawsuits.

No, we organizers can’t make you get rid of your stuff. You own the stuff; the choices are ultimately up to you. But we do have to ask the hard questions: Do you use this? Do you love it? Is its presence in your home helping you or harming you? There are differences to the approach. Some organizers are so gentle, they never even suggest you get rid of anything, and subtly, perhaps Socratically, they guide you to make the decision yourself. Others use a tough love approach. This works for some clients. The popularity of fitness “boot camps” suggests that some people are motivated by getting pushed hard and yelled at. But fortunately, there are enough organizers around for every personality.

For a lot of people, owning lots of stuff – even useless stuff – provides a sense of security. The thought of getting rid of something may provoke a panic: who knows what could happen if you need it later? Even though ultimately the client makes the choices, being nudged in the direction of giving up security can create a feeling of losing control. This is understandable, and this is why an organizer can’t be just a bully. It’s also our role to provide reassurance, perspective, and guidance.

Although I do love a good purge, it’s only one means to help you live a better life in your space, which is the goal of every residential organizer. You should keep the things you own that are meaningful, useful, and make you happy. Our job is to help you figure out what those things are, and help you let go of the rest. No push-ups required.



Lack of Time and “Getting Things to Better”

There are some people in the world* who I can believe do not have enough time to take care of their stuff:

  • Parents of infants, made correspondingly worse times number of multiples (fortunately, this is a temporary situation)
  • Parents of special-needs kids (especially if they’re multiples!)
  • Hospital residents on call
  • Single mothers who work full-time, especially if they’re also taking classes.

People in any of these groups need to rely on their support system and/or hire help to stay on top of things. And if you’re a single mother of special-needs infant multiples who’s working a hospital residency while going to night school, how do you even have time to read this? Get back to work, you slacker.

Time management is not one of my specialties. Just like many of my clients, I sometimes struggle to make time for things that are important, spend too much time looking at amusing things on the Internet,** double-book, and just run out of day before I’ve finished what I meant to do. Also, you may be surprised (or not) to learn that I have difficulty putting work aside and making time to do fun things. So, learning how to make the best use of my time is an ongoing project for me. However, I am adept enough at time management when it comes to managing my stuff, and that’s the skill I want to impart to my clients, because the two are intimately linked.

When people say “I don’t have enough time” as an excuse/explanation for their disorganization, that tells me they are spending too much time on the wrong things. Think about it: How much time do you currently spend doing things that you don’t want to do, that you’re doing out of obligation, that don’t feed your soul, or that are actually damaging for you? One thing I found helpful to discover how I was actually spending my time was to use an app that would let me punch in and out of various types of activities. It may shock you to learn how much time you spend watching TV or using Facebook, for instance. So the first part of time management is to decide what your priorities are, and schedule them first. If having a neater, more functional house is more important to you than editing Wikipedia, then you know what to do. I also find that people who claim a lack of time are usually doing too much for other people and not spending enough time caring for themselves (and then by extension, their space).

Owning stuff is a time commitment. Unless you have a live-in housekeeper/organizer who’s also a mind-reader, at some point, and probably often, you have to make some time to manage the things you own. This can mean:

  • Washing/cleaning/dusting things
  • Putting things away (including paper filing)
  • Sorting things
  • Discarding things (donation/giving, trash, shredding, recycling)
  • Fixing things
  • Reorganizing things (change of place, change of storage, etc.)
  • Shopping for things …Did I forget anything? Did I say “thing” enough times?

Now, even for those of us who aren’t medical resident single moms of multiple special-needs kids, mostly, our lives are pretty full. Jobs and kids take up a lot of time. I get it. I have one of each. A big chunk of free time almost never just happens on its own, so it takes a lot of planning to be able to devote several hours, for instance, to clean out the garage.

This is where, in my observations, people get tripped up. There is an unspoken, even unacknowledged, assumption that if you don’t have enough time to organize an area entirely and perfectly, doing anything will be useless. What’s the opposite of my overcommitted single mother? Let’s say it’s a child-free person living in a Zen monastery. Well, unless I’ve just described you, these magical chunks of time won’t often come along.

Most people do have the time to be organized; you just need to know where to look for it, and develop the habits to integrate it as an organic part of your everyday life.

Most of my own organizing at home is done in small steps. My philosophy is to “get things to better.” An example: If I need to do laundry but I feel like I don’t have the time right now, I leave my laundry bag at the top of the stairs. Next time I go downstairs, I bring it down, and leave it by the basement door. Then, the next time I’m in the kitchen and have a couple of minutes (like, I’m waiting for some food to heat up), I take it down and start the laundry. I might transfer the laundry during a TV commercial break.

This method isn’t foolproof. Sometimes the process gets stalled at one point. Sometimes I forget a load in the washer and it gets a little musty. I do not stress out about this (usually). Also, this method of wrangling stuff in stages will only work if your space is clear enough that visual reminders can have the desired effect: You have to notice the location of the laundry bag, and that will be your cue for the next step.

Another way to get things to better is to move an object closer to its proper home. So if you take off your socks in the living room, throw them into the hallway in the direction of the bedroom (or wherever the hamper lives). The next time you pass, you can kick them into the bedroom, and later on throw them into the hamper.

Hopefully the other household residents will be on board with this, and can either help by moving a thing to the next stage, or at least not give you crap about your dirty socks being in the hallway. If your dog is likely to eat your dirty socks, don’t give up! Maybe you can put a small lidded hamper in the living room. If you live with a monkey who can open lids, I can’t help you.

Objects out of place can be moved to the correct floor, part of the house, room, part of a room. Imagine that any existing group of a type of item has a gravitational pull to attract the rest of its “friends,” little by little. Even if a thing doesn’t have a home yet, you can get it to better by grouping it with similar things in a box or bin and labeling it. Then put it as close as you can to the area where you want to keep those things.

I am also giving you permission to put things away messy. It may mean putting up with a few more wrinkles in your clothes, or taking a little more effort to find a specific piece of paper. So be it. Later on you can take a little time to start improving from there. Just make it better.

I have many clients who are suffering from severe depression that makes even the smallest task seem impossible. I’ve been there. In my experience and that of folks I know, doing self-care (which this is) does not make depression any worse, and sometimes even lightens it. Start where you are. Maybe getting things to better, for you, means taking a few seconds extra to throw trash in the can instead of dropping it on the floor. Next you can start taking out the trash when the can is full. Judge and celebrate your successes by how difficult the task was for you, not how you perceive it would be for other people.

If you Google “five minute organizing,” you will find many ideas for things you can do that take very little time. They add up. After a while, getting things to better in your house will become something you do without conscious thought, like adjusting your steering and speed as you drive down a twisty road.


*Assuming a healthy, functional person and a manageable number of belongings, that is.
**Reading this blog, however, is an excellent use of your time.

Plastic Leftover Containers

It’s a rare home that has all its plastic leftover containers neat and tidy. Why is this?

First of all, most people way overestimate the number they’ll need. To find out if you do, I’ll ask you a question: Have you ever run out of clean ones? Perhaps you had to make do with a less-than-ideal size or shape, but I bet there was always a container in the cabinet for you, even with a sink and dishwasher full of dirty dishes, and a fridge full of leftovers.

Having too many is the first problem; the second is the never-ending search for matching tops and bottoms. Unless you buy only a certain brand of container so they all nest together, the best way to eliminate this problem is to store them already assembled. “What?!” my clients say. “But then we’ll be able to fit so few in there!” Well, see problem number one. You probably have too many.

Take 20 minutes and play the plastic container dating game. Match them up, tops and bottoms together. All the “plastics without partners” go in the recycling bin or trash. See what you have left. If it’s too many for the space, then stash some emergency back-ups in a labeled container in the basement. (You can also place down there the sizes and shapes that you only use once in a while, like the containers made for deviled eggs, or the lemonade pitcher that you only use in the summer.)

I’m curious to hear about your experience with plastic leftover containers. Oh, and P.S., I know there’s controversy over whether it’s safe to store food in certain types of plastic, but that’s beyond the scope of my blog!

Extras, Extras, Read all about Them

Just so you all don’t think I’m advocating some kind of impossible austerity from that last “Just One” post, I’d like to talk about having extras!

There are some good reasons to have extras of things:

  • It’s something you use regularly
  • It’s something that gets used up
  • It won’t go bad or expire before it gets used
  • It’s less expensive overall to buy many of something at a time

And finally, it needs to be stored effectively:

  • It fits easily into the storage space
  • It’s accessible enough for how often and immediately you need it
  • You’re consistent about putting it away in the same place


So, for instance, here’s what we regularly buy in bulk from Costco:

  • Toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues (we use cloth napkins, or we’d buy those there too)
  • Boxes of chicken stock
  • Cans of tuna
  • Multi-packs of organic ground beef, chicken breasts or thighs (we freeze these and cut off a pack as needed)
  • Cleaning products that we use all the time (floor cleaner, scouring powder, dishwashing detergent, etc.)
  • Pet food and kitty litter
  • Toiletries that we know we like and will get used up (shave gel, shampoo, soap)

It’s tempting to buy lots of extra frozen food to have on hand for emergencies, but in my experience at my own house and with clients, the food in the freezer doesn’t stay on our radar very well after the door is shut. And even with two freezers, a Costco run can easily leave them overstuffed. We keep a (mostly accurate) running list of what’s in the basement chest freezer, and when cooking, we often make an effort to incorporate stuff in the freezer that has been there a while. (I really need to use up those bags of cranberries from two autumns ago, but it requires some creativity to go beyond muffins or sauce.)

Another category of extras is items that need to be represented in more than one place at a time. For instance, here are some of mine:

  • Flashlights (in each bedroom, plus bathroom, kitchen, and basement)
  • Lint rollers (with two cats and a dog, I keep one in bedroom, one in front hall, and one in car)
  • Eyeglass cleaning cloth/sprays (one in desk, one in purse, one in bathroom)
  • Duplicate cleaning supplies for different bathrooms, plus kitchen
  • Water glasses (one in my bedroom, one in kitchen, one in bathroom)
  • Cat toys (yes, they are strewn all over the floors, but they have baskets both in my bedroom and in the living room in which they can be put away)
  • Clocks
  • I don’t need these yet, but many people need reading glasses in more than one place

The important thing with these sorts of extras is that you always know where to find them, in whatever room you’re in. I keep my kitchen water glass on the windowsill above the sink. The front hallway lint roller is in the drawer with the hats/mittens or sunblock/picnic blanket. And when we run out, the item is replaced in the same spot.

A common reason clients tell me that they keep extras of something is that they keep losing them. That can’t end well. If it were only one type of item, like reading glasses, that might work okay. In an otherwise tidy and organized house, keeping several pairs of glasses scattered around makes it likely that you could find a pair in any room at any time. But what happens when there are extra glasses, umbrellas, pens, nail files, pads of paper, scissors, AND cat brushes? Then things are much more likely to get lost amid the clutter, and having extras make things more difficult, not easier.

You probably have only one set of everyday keys. You may sometimes have difficulty finding them in your home, but you eventually do. This is because they’re important and very hard to replace. So that means that the only thing preventing you from keeping track of any particular item in your home is the way you think about that object. If you only owned one pen, you would damn well keep track of where it was, wouldn’t you?

Please comment if you found it interesting or useful, or if you disagree with me, or if you feel like sharing your experience with keeping extras of things.

One is Enough

This morning in the shower I was using my shower cap, the only shower cap I own. I started thinking about how I only needed one shower cap, since I can always find it (it lives under the sink with the towels), it’s unlikely to fall apart any time soon, and I could walk to the drugstore in five minutes to get a new one if necessary.

That got me thinking about how people often feel the need to have backups of things, in case something gets lost, breaks, or just runs out (in the case of consumables). And I wondered what other things I only have one of. I’m not talking about big-ticket items like a house, computer, or car. But I’m thinking of the kinds of things that someone might be tempted to own extras of “just in case.”

So here are some things I only have one of:

  • Purse
  • Pair of glasses in my current prescription (I save the most recent old pair as backup)
  • Pair of sneakers
  • Nail clippers
  • TV
  • Wristwatch
  • Comb
  • Bathmat (although I’d like to get one more so I could have one in the laundry and still have one to use)
  • My iPhone has eliminated the need for a digital camera, alarm clock, notepad, and GPS (can I have negative numbers of things??)
  • Cat brush (for two cats)
  • One face powder container, one mascara brush (I have two eyeliners but I mostly just use one).
  • Floor mop
  • Fever thermometer

I’m sure there are more, but that’s just a few things off the top of my head. I’m curious to know what you only have one of, even though a person might easily have multiples.

[Later edit] I’m thinking about the psychology of “only having one,” and I think it comes down to a matter of trust in the universe, and in your own strength.

When you put all your eggs in one basket, you become vulnerable. If you lose that one thing, you lose it all. But the important question is, “and then what?”

Being completely out of toilet paper really sucks, especially if you discover this while on the toilet. But doubtless it has happened on more than one occasion to the people reading this, and life has gone on. Your source of strength is your self, not your stuff. Also, to have only one of a thing implies a trust and faith that after a thing is lost, broken, or runs out, that it can then be fixed, recovered, re-bought, (without damaging expense), or re-found.

If something is vital to one’s survival, then of course having some extras makes sense. My daughter’s diabetic friend recently misplaced her blood sugar testing kit at our house, but she had a backup one at home that she could use until we found it. Anyway, moving on….

Thoughts from “It’s Hard to Make a Difference…”

Julia Kholodenko recently shared her thoughts upon reading the book I like to recommend, It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys:

“So far I have learned two key concepts: (1) the limiting factor to the amount of stuff you have is the amount of time that you wish to devote to keeping it organized, and is not simply determined by how much you can store and (2) there is a difference between an organizing habit, such as regularly cleaning up your desk, and an organizing system, such as the filing system in which you put those files which have been piling up on your desk. I think I always assumed that if there was a system, then the habit would be automatic. But I realize that for me, I have to start with habits and think about what habits I am willing to adopt (and often make sure my husband will adopt them too) and then design my systems accordingly.”

She put this so succinctly that I asked for permission to pass it on, so there you are.🙂

How Many Extras? (not hurricane-related)

When my clients are trying to decide how many extras of things they will need, I ask them to consider a few questions:

–How expensive is the thing? Would the cost to replace it be insignificant or a major outlay?
–How easy is it to obtain the thing? Is it available in stores close by? Would friends have one to lend you? Or do you have to travel a great distance to get one?
–How immediately would you require the thing? Toilet paper is a good example.🙂
–Does having extras of the thing add to a bad household clutter situation, which will make it more likely that you won’t be able to find the thing anyway and therefore buy more of it, which will add to the clutter, etc.?
–Do you have enough room to store extras of the thing? (Seems like that’s a big part of your decision making process). Limiting it to a certain volume is good.
–Have you historically gone through them frequently (using up, losing outside the home, or breaking) or needed multiples at once? Power strips/extensions are an example of needing several at once.