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.

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

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

stack-o-cats.jpg

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.