Much of this content originally appeared in a post back in March of 2018, but I was inspired to rework and update it by some recent requests and questions from readers. The idea: In this time when many of us are stuck inside, what’s a small project that can be tackled without adding to our collective overwhelm? What’s a way that organizing something small could gently tip us over into taking on something bigger? How could the process of bringing order to a manageable space be a calming, almost meditative act? This idea I had two years ago seemed to fit the bill, so I reworked it a little, and here you go...
Show of hands - how many folks out there have some sort of a drawer (maybe several...maybe many drawers?) that you routinely paw through to find what you need? Like a bear in Yellowstone going through a careless camper’s trash, you push the layers from side to side, front to back, looking for the elusive AAA battery, the lip balm, maybe a stray stick of gum. You’re so accustomed to this process that you don’t even stop to think how incredibly annoying and time-wasting it is. You don’t stop to think. You are engaging in some small-scale mindless disorganization.
Large-scale mindless disorganization might be something like having 60+ sweaters crammed into a smallish space in the closet, and digging around fruitlessly to find a purple one. You’re not keen on purple, but it’s your son’s school color - they made it into the basketball tournament that season, and the final game was that evening. Not finding anything suitable, you rushed out to purchase one*. You were mildly irritated because you had the vague feeling that you’d done this before, but you pushed that feeling aside. You also didn't factor in the time and cost that this excursion took away from you - you didn’t go anywhere near that feeling. Thinking about what could have been done with the money or the time just didn't happen. Months later, when you got around to pulling out all of the sweaters (in preparation for your move to another city) you found not one, but three purple sweaters at the bottom - one of which still had the tags. You may have managed to take them to the thrift store, or they might have ended up in the moving box and traveled with you to Nashville (where you still hate purple).
Mindless disorganization doesn’t show itself as readily as countertops covered in the mail or a craft room overflowing with supplies that have no containers. It's the kind of thing that hides and hums in the background of our lives and manifests when we’re looking for that thing we know should exist, but apparently doesn’t (because if we can’t see it, it’s not there). Or when we open a closet, sigh, and just shut the door again. Left untreated, it can snowball into more mindless behavior. It all sounds kind of discouraging, but what if you flipped your awareness around? What if you could reorganize a space, mindfully?
Mindfulness is a thing now, of course. It’s actually always been a thing, but we haven’t been as...well, mindful of it as in recent years now that it’s a popular subject. Here's a definition I like:
Mindfulness - a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
So go back to your drawer. Ask any other members of your household to give you a little space for this experiment. Maybe make this organizing process a bit of an occasion - light a candle? Diffuse some essential oil? Play some music? You don’t have to go over the top to set the stage for successful organizing, but why not do something that sets the time apart and puts it in a positive light? After that, following some simple steps can make this a meaningful process:
1. Take a few deep breaths, and take note of where you are and what the atmosphere is like. Are you hot, cold, calm, irritated? Is there background noise? Plenty of light? Not enough? See if you can either make slight changes, or...accept the atmosphere as it is.
2. Accept and acknowledge that you allowed the drawer to get cluttered, but that you are now in control of the situation. We’re looking forward here.
3. Pull out every single item from the drawer. Everything from the spare change, to the mechanical pencils with no lead, to the ponytail holders. Business cards, LEGO mini figures, travel lotions…whatever. Lay everything out where you can easily see it.
4. Calmly consider each item. No judgment, if possible. Does the ruler with a company logo on it mean nothing, or is it from your dad’s old hardware store? Was your dad a cool guy, or maybe not? What happens to you physically when you pull out an old flip phone? What sorts of thoughts cross your mind? All of this may sound a little silly, but objects have energy and some sort of meaning - even if that meaning is “that was a sick waste,” or “don’t know why I kept that," or "I really love seeing that here." Maybe if you take a little time to pay attention to that energy and those feelings, you can develop an awareness that allows you to clear unneeded things more frequently, or arrange wanted things more thought-fully.
5. Make your decisions about what belongs in the drawer. Allow yourself to trust those decisions (this drawer isn’t high stakes). What’s the best purpose for the drawer, and what goes in it to support that purpose?
6. On the more pragmatic side of things - don’t fill the drawer back up to the top. As mentioned above, for many of us if objects can’t be seen they don’t exist. If you feel it’s a waste of space, ask yourself, “What’s a bigger waste? The area that isn’t crammed full, or the stuff on the bottom that never gets seen or used?”
7. Once the drawer has what it needs to succeed, discard or relocate the other items. Arrange the needed items in a way that makes sense for pulling out and putting back.
Take a little time to take in what just happened. Where else could this process take you?
And when you go searching again for the gum, or the key to the safe deposit box, or even an ugly purple sweater, pay attention to how it feels to find it quickly and easily. It may even be a little startling if you’re accustomed to a struggle every time you look for something. That’s something to accept as well, and factor into your next mindful organizing adventure.
What kind of mindless disorganization holds you back? If you give this idea a try, I’d love for you to share what came up for you in the comments.
*Ah, remember those days when we could just rush out to the store? Maybe being quarantined gives us an opportunity to practice thinking before we rush. Can we keep that mindset going when things go back to “normal”?
What to write, what to write? Scrolling through my various feeds for the last several days has had me floating around in a soup of distress, ingenuity, grief, and encouragement. Some of the posts resonate and make me laugh, and some of them turn my stomach, and some of them, incredibly, don’t acknowledge anything - like we can pretend none of the virus stuff is happening. I confess I felt some fear this morning when I woke up. But rather than allowing myself to operate from that fear, I decided to see where it might be nudging me. As a result, this is not a post that will remain “evergreen” (at least I certainly hope it won’t).
I have some clients who have found a sense of equanimity in all of the disruption, as things that perhaps once seemed “urgent and important” are now less so. No carpools, less time-wasting meetings, and fewer errands have opened up the possibility of creating some new routines that better serve goals and values. They’re free to try things differently. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on my front porch in the dark. It’s 5:35 am, and the stars are still out, and I’ve never written this way before. It’s funny that in all the time I’ve understood that this is my favorite time of day, and this porch is my favorite place to hang out, I’ve never put it together that I could write in this particular time and space container. What else have I been missing?
This time on the porch is also reminding me that although it’s rough out there, the cycles are still running. The birds are going nuts right now, and the faintest hint of dawn is kicking in to my left - that rhythm won’t be ending any time soon. And there will be a time when we go out without our disinfecting wipes, and have gatherings in person (can you imagine if all of this mess was happening pre-Internet?), and resume work and school and the purchasing of toilet paper whenever we like.
I’d like, if you’ll indulge me, to play with what that time might look like. I know we’re supposed to be all up in the present moment and mindful and stuff, but I’m following my gut here. I have no crystal ball, only the instinct to see where the musings might go - and see if they can help to set a hopeful mood. If you’re experiencing difficulty beyond my comprehension right now, and this experiment seems tone-deaf, you can totally close the page.
What will tomorrow be like? Will you take lots of naps to cope, or head into your job at an essential business, or clean out another cabinet? Will you journal, or try reading poetry, or optimistically set a new daily schedule for yourself to have a sense of regularity? Will you take your online classes and write a paper, or deliver groceries to your neighbor? Or will you pull your hair out, just a little, and hide from your kids in the bathroom instead of homeschooling? What can you do, and how can you do it?
What will a week from now be like? Will you, having finished every worthwhile Netflix series (and some not so much) turn to old movies you’ve already seen, or start working out, or plowing through the stack of books on the nightstand? Will you be bored, and out of sorts, and sick of the confinement and disruption and endless news? Will you be pacing, and ruminating, and searching through closets to see if there’s a puzzle you’ve forgotten? Will you shake yourself a little, and plant seeds for a summer garden? What’s that going to look like?
What will a month from now be like? Will we all have settled more into the new normal, and having done so, begin to change? Or accept that we already have changed? What might that change look like? Do we have some new opportunities to explore, or ways of thinking we might never have imagined? Will you reach out for some assistance, understanding that taking care of your brain and heart is as important as checking off to-do list items? Will necessity be the mother of invention, and what will those inventions be?
What will six months from now be like? In my research, I was dismayed (although not entirely surprised) that no expert really wants to predict how long this pandemic will be running its course. But let’s assume, for the sake of the experiment, that we’ll be seeing signs of improvement. Will we be testing out some brand-new business ideas? Starting a new job, or picking up the pieces of an old one? Figuring out how to reconfigure portfolios? Will we have resumed scheduling weddings and milestone birthday parties, and express more gratitude in being able to do so? What will the first day of school be like? Will we be mourning, and have a heightened sensitivity to others who join us in that mourning? Will we slow down? What will “productivity” and “being organized” mean for us at that point?
OK, big stretch here. What will a year from now be like?
Sun’s up now, and my toes are cold, and I see a neighbor heading off to work. Time to go inside and begin again.
I struggled a little with what to write this week. There have been a lot of great posts already, giving advice and tips and reassurance during this strange time the whole world finds itself in. Spending time connecting with others is a strong theme that emerges - we are obviously in need.
For some reason, I got to thinking about the first years after I graduated from college when I was a middle and high school band director. Yeah, that was a thing that happened. I was quite the workaholic in those days, which is an ever-present danger no matter what career I've dived into. The final weeks of each school year, as any teacher knows, were a stress-filled blur of tension between our need to put an impressive stamp on all of the students' hard work, and their increasingly waning interest in anything we had to say or offer. In my case, the push actually started in January with intense preparation for various competitions. It progressed to at least two overnight trips (always, always with a theme park involved), solo & ensemble preparation, spring concerts, awards (sometimes with resultant cranky parents), final grades, and preparing for summer. I was on what was called a 10+2 - essentially a 12-month contract - so yes, I had to teach summer band too.
Not that this was a bad thing. I was quite lucky to have a 10+2 - it was one example of the tremendous support that the school system had for the arts. But what it meant was I had exactly two weeks between the year of 12-hour work days before I had to show up with a smile and teach brand-new kiddos how to produce their first squeaky sounds and empty their spit valves. Whip out the show tunes and pop songs for the older ones. Start looking at marching drills, and stand in the Tennessee heat shouting counts through a megaphone with the high schoolers.
I had two weeks to recover before I was to begin this cycle again. The first week, as soon as I locked the bandroom door, I would shut down and blissfully engage in what I would describe as unproductivity. I slept until I woke up. I ate leftover Chinese food, or maybe pizza, for breakfast. I read when I wanted to, napped when I wanted to (sometimes 3x's a day), went to Blockbuster and rented 3 movies, two of which I usually didn't even watch. I did not work out, or make a list, or shop, or clean anything, or call anyone, or learn anything. Sometimes I went to antique stores or to the library and just wandered around. Mostly, I did nothing.
Once, I went with another teacher friend to Florida the minute school let out and we did this unproductivity thing in tandem, near the beach. I recall eating a lot of turkey sandwiches (because we had little motivation to fix anything else), and trying out meditation (a transformative experience). I read A Prayer for Owen Meany for the first time. We placed zero expectations on each other, barely even engaged in conversation, because we both "got it." That is a rare friend. We lost touch, and I often wonder how she's doing, if she ever gets the opportunity to do similar things.
For my Eisenhower Matrix-knowledgable friends, I guess this was all Quadrant IV stuff (or was it?). All of this unproductivity was way before husband, children, dogs, business, mortgage, IRAs and 529s, etc. so it's been a hot second since I've thought about it. Perhaps I am only just now appreciating the luxury of it. The first year my Unproductive Week happened, it was unintentional. Thereafter, I made it a ritual, because oh my gosh the after-effects. Once the week was over, and I slowly started to morph back into "Ms. Smith," wow, did I have ideas. I was able to think with this amazing clarity and feel enormous hope and motivation. I was excited to see the kids and hear those squeaks as joyful noise and come up with creative lesson plans. New ways of teaching a rhythm or technique would materialize for me, seemingly out of nowhere.
So when I see all of the posts and articles now inviting everyone to clear out closets and exercise and register for webinars and pet their dogs and update their websites and play board games and paint the kitchen cabinets, I have to pause. All of those cheerful posts inquiring, "What will you DO with your gift of time??" - I wonder about them. I guess it's all cool if you have this open time, and it feels good for you to get more stuff done. And if you have young children, I understand it's difficult to just let everything go (although why not let them eat pizza for breakfast?). Like many, we had to cancel our spring break trip plans, and I found myself reflexively and unconsciously trying to decide how best to utilize my newly-cleared week. It's my automated response to stress, but I somehow I had the presence of mind to stop, and ask: What does it say about us that even in times of collective, forced, unstructured time we feel like we have to start making all the lists?
Other than this post, I'm doing nothing of any consequence today. And when this mess is over (and it will be, at some point), wow…will I have some ideas.
I hope that you all are staying well and safe. Stay tuned.
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, dog-lover, author. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?