Those of us who grew up in certain eras of elementary school education may remember - every year in the first few days of math class being reintroduced (ad nauseam) to the concept of Sets and Subsets. Cute, innocent little graphics that looked something like:
What was up with that? Lulling unsuspecting 3rd or 4th graders into the false sense of security that math was as easy as grouping farm animals together? I wondered why the curriculum gods would ply us with such simple concepts when we all pretty much knew that within a week we would suddenly be plunged into long division and reducing to the least common denominator.*
I’ve come to appreciate those lessons recently, however - and maybe there aren’t as simple as I once thought. For example, how many times have I heard someone say, “I got rid of SO MUCH stuff, so why am I not more organized? I’ve decluttered almost every room! What am I doing wrong?"
Well…decluttering is not organizing. According to Merriam-Webster, decluttering wasn’t even a real word until around 1950 (and spellcheck still wants me to fix it most of the time). Decluttering is, at least in my mind, a subset of organizing. I don’t care how many things you take to the thrift store, how much goes into recycling, how many items you unload on your local Buy-Sell-Trade. It’s not the same as organizing, any more than being neat is being organized. You can have a lot of organized stuff. You can have not much and be disorganized. You can declutter without organizing, but it’s rare that you organize without some decluttering.
I often tell the story of walking into a job from my earliest days as an organizer. It was an office, and it was pretty much spotless. Very atypical - no piles of papers, no sticky notes all over the monitor, not even one excess box of Expo markers. Keeping my composure (but silently thinking, “Oh no, what do I do with this one?!”), I started asking some questions.
As the client and I walked and talked around the room, two issues became apparent. One, they had “cleaned up” for me, and taken lots of things out of the space. Not something I usually recommend, but ok, so far so good. But two, none of what was left was set up in an intuitive layout. Like was not always with like. Items were stored in awkward places. File labels were tough to see. We didn’t get rid of much of anything, but we rearranged and regrouped almost everything. I’ve certainly also witnessed the opposite situation - where someone who had tons of items everywhere was entirely comfortable and knew where everything was.
So while paring down is generally a part of organizing, it isn’t the whole process. Other organizational subsets might be types of planning, prevention or resisting temptation (as in, “No, I’m not going to that garage sale,”), or exploring storage options.
And of course, it's not always about the stuff, it’s about the stuff behind the stuff - not exactly subsets, but maybe rather elements or factors of organization. What’s keeping you from handling items and surroundings efficiently? It could be too many things, but it might also be:
*This post is me going out on a bit of a limb here - I was never really a math girl.
Let’s pretend I’m in a session with a client. Let’s call her Olive. Olive and I have been clearing and sorting with a vengeance. Laughing about the 70s-era label maker or the Rolodex we’ve just unearthed. Dutifully filling boxes for the local free shredding event.
And then it happens.
Aware that we’ve gotten into a symbiotic groove with the work, I hold up a small, seemingly insignificant object that hasn’t seen the light of day in at least two years. Assuming we have an easy decision here, I nod slightly and say, “We can let this go, yes?”
Assumptions are dangerous, right? She stares back at me, her expression a mixture of surprise, apology, and bewilderment. “B-b-but that’s a perfectly good __________[Allen wrench/ponytail holder/bottle opener/pad of paper!!]" - fill in the blank with whatever random item you can conjure up.
Ack. Those words. Sometimes we say them to justify keeping things, sometimes to convince others to keep things. I’ve said them myself, usually in connection with an article of clothing I thought one of my kids ought to be wearing since I had gone to the motherly trouble of buying it. My own mother used to guilt me with those words, always with some piece of furniture or home decor she was tired of, but thought I should appreciate and drag into my own house (“That’s a perfectly good embroidered linen tablecloth, Sara Josephine!” - sure Mom, for you and YOUR iron, maybe...). In organizing sessions I call items like this pivotal objects, because they can become a tipping point in the progress. You either make a decision and move past it, or you get stuck, wring your hands and start rationalizing.
I’ve come to actually appreciate pivotal objects because they can teach us a lot if we take a little time with them. It may be that suddenly the previous purging frenzy might not feel as comfortable as you’re letting on. Maybe you should actually be keeping all that stuff in the closet…maybe, OMG maybe this has all been a big mistake! Or perhaps there’s guilt, shame, or a wish that something was different than it is. Sometimes there’s a complex, fascinating story behind your 5x7 ceramic picture frame or a package of toner cartridges.
When pivotal objects are small, like a bottle opener or the dreaded branded pad of paper, they seem innocent enough. That perfectly good box of toner doesn't take up much space (never mind that you don’t own the printer anymore)...what’s the harm in keeping it?? No harm at all, unless one perfectly good pivotal object starts turning into thirty.
And perfectly good for who or what? Breaking it down a bit - “perfectly" implies that something has been working or functioning at its optimum level. It can’t get any better. It’s flawless. “Good” seems obvious enough, but if you look it up in the dictionary (and assume that we’re talking about the adjective), there’s a lot to digest.
Is Olive's ancient ponytail holder really functioning at its highest level, and conforming to the moral order of the universe?
If a pad of branded notepaper sits in the bottom of the desk drawer, and no one is there to scribble their "to do" list on it, does it still exist? Is it perfectly good for the space it occupies?
Am I pressing on the flower print dress I bought for my daughter without her input (as if I went temporarily insane and thought she was still 4) because it’s perfect for her? Or because I’m a little ticked at myself for spending the time and money on something - and sad that her tastes are growing up without me?
I don't force the issue with a pivotal object. I hold it, and we talk about it, and examine it from lots of different angles. Sometimes the Allen wrench stays, sometimes it goes. But from there on out Olive is usually relaxing and making easier decisions.
What sort of weird little object have you gotten hung up on? What happened to it?
p.s. I eventually found the resolve to start turning down my mother’s many offerings, and discovered she and I both survived my pushback just fine. Well, ok, except for the books. I always went for the books.
p.s.s. And oh geez, that was out loud - now you guys know my middle name. :-/
I'm seeing and hearing about a lot of people working on their homes right now. It’s a new year, and there’s another craze inspiring this work, and I think that’s a good thing for the most part*. I hope and trust that the progress people make with letting go, making decisions, and creating comfortable spaces will serve - although you can bet it won’t be static or final. Organization waxes and wanes, even in the most efficient, mindfully purged/folded/filed homes.
I had been thinking about this flurry of national decluttering activity when I came across O’Donohue’s words. They pretty much leaped off of the page I was reading. It’s tough for me to comment on the quote (it already says everything so beautifully), but it resonated so intensely I decided I was supposed to try to make something of it. So...
I take comfort that everyone’s home is "un-neutral," biased, maybe even weird - at least in some way. Mine definitely is. Being comfortable with this “un-neutral” idea seems to take some of the pressure off.
I’m privileged to be in all sorts of homes, all the time. Are they ordinary? Are they unusual, typical, exceptional? I don’t know - it’s in the eye (and heart) of the beholder, isn’t it? It’s not for me to say. I can attest that they all have “subversive inner happenings,” because how could they not? All those swirling motivations, compulsions, conflicts, emotions, tragedies, comedies. The stuff that occupies the home space always reflects these very personal happenings in some way. We spend a lot of time talking about the things in the home, instead of the people who are the minders, users, curators, and discarders of said things.
A recent New York Times article about the heaviness of clutter is a sobering look at the effect of our belongings on our selves. The article recounts a study where people who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home tended to have increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) throughout the day. Notice it said, “perceived.” Again, disorganized stuff is in the eye of the beholder (or audience), not in the eye of the stuff itself. From my experience, too, it’s interdependent: stressed people often create disorganization, and disorganization generally creates stressed people.
So most of all, I appreciate the idea that a home (or even a workspace) can be a laboratory. Without meaning to sound flip, aren’t we all conducting a bit of an experiment with ourselves?
What sort of hypothesis could you test out, in your subversive, self-effacing, un-neutral home?
*No, I have not watched the show. I probably will someday, once all the fuss has blown over. I’m contrary that way.
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, coach, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. Excited to be in the process of becoming a Certified Organizer Coach. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?