What is it about being more organized in a space (or in a system) that helps us, truly makes a difference for us? Is it being able to find things quickly and easily? Is it the way the space looks? The sense of accomplishment? Lack of excess? Feeling more environmentally conscientious and responsible?
It certainly can be most all of these things. But I think there is one key idea that gets overlooked: control. I tried googling the terms “organizing” and “control,” and came up with pretty much nothing (other than an intimidating sounding book about German corporate management systems). Perhaps control has some negative connotation in our society that makes us shy away from a connection. We do talk about people being “controlling,” or someone wanting to control a situation in a manipulative sort of way. Some more positive synonyms include (depending upon whether you’re using it as a noun or verb) mastery, handle, manage, authority, oversee, curb, adjust, supervise.
I happen to think that when we organize a space, no matter how large or small, we give ourselves some time and ability to be in healthy control (authority) of something. Think about it: too much in the way of stuff or commitments causes overwhelm, yes? How many times have I heard clients say something like, “I feel like everything is out of control!”? So why wouldn’t we want to create conditions that would help us get back into control? If we choose to donate a pile of novels we know we won’t reread, we are controlling (managing) both our decision to let go (a good thing if the books are taking over the living room) and to some extent, controlling where the books go (also a good thing for someone who will eventually enjoy them).
Years ago, when our daughter was born prematurely and spent some time in the NICU, much of the birth process was taken out of our control. I had been so careful during the pregnancy, taking those vitamins, resting, eating well, going to all of my doctor appointments. But for whatever reason (we will never know why) - she decided to show up early. Zero I could do to influence the situation, and as it turned out, nothing much that all of the medical professionals at the UNM hospital could do to alter it either. We didn’t get to go to birth classes, have our choice of music in the delivery room, or even decide when we could take her home.
The day after she was born (healthy, thank God, if small), I left her side for a short while, went down to the hospital cafeteria...and called into my office at work. I checked in with three colleagues who were handling my projects, all of whom expressed shock that I would even think about dialing in. I explained at the time that it just helped me to feel normal, but upon reflection, I think what it really did was help me to feel some measure of control during a time that felt so uncertain and unsettling. Alternatives to my calling into the office might have been…oh, I don’t know…scarfing down donuts, or staring at the TV for hours, or worse. I certainly didn’t spend all of my time working from the hospital, but I was actually kind of - dare I say it?? - productive. I felt better, and I think our daughter deserved a mom who felt a little less inept.
So when we're staring down a pile of medical paperwork after a lengthy illness, or a closet full of memories after a death, or a garage of boxes after a move, taking just a few steps needed to process the items helps to not only clear out the clutter but also regain some trust in our own ability to manage something. Ticking off a to-do list item, even if it’s just one, can reassure.
As I write this, we are experiencing myriad situations in our world that leave us feeling helpless. I get that clearing out a few files or labeling the garage bins isn’t going to change any of those things, but could it give us a tiny little slice of peace? Help us to feel competent, and maybe get us ready for bigger challenges?
What could you take control of today?
In celebration of ADHD Awareness Month.
Almost four years ago I started taking a closer look at the clients I was serving, who I most appreciated working with, who was consistently calling, who was making progress, etc. I was a little bit surprised (and pleased) to discover that roughly 70% of my client base consisted of adults diagnosed with ADD/ADHD*. After the first client who uneasily confessed their diagnosis to me years ago, I went after as much information as I could find about working on organizing skills with ADD clients - classes, books, websites, conference sessions. I guess the information-gathering paid off, and today the vast majority of my clients are diagnosed with either ADHD, some other brain difference, or at least suspect that they have a difference that affects their ability to organize and be on top of their productivity game.
All that said, I can’t say I always consciously think about specific organizing skills when I meet with someone. It’s not like I tell myself, “OK, s/he has ADD, so I’d better get out the Anti-Distraction Tools and put on my Focus hat.” I have to shake my head a little sometimes at well-meaning "Get Organized" articles and tips that people share with me. Things like: get a planner and write your top three priorities down on each day. Color code your filing system. Use eye-catching labels. Good Lord - if it were all that easy I wouldn’t have a gig.
There are some common things I suggest to ADD clients before starting an organizing project:
OK, so really, these are good practices for all organizing projects. So what’s different when I’m with my clients? The answer is one reason you don’t often see me blogging specifically to ADHD:
My clients are all different, and I take my cues from them. I recognize and acknowledge that the process will take as long as it takes (sometimes creeping progress, sometimes hyper-speed momentum, most often periods of both). I (hopefully) lend a calming presence, and cheerlead, because it’s way more fun and productive to be positive - my clients generally have had enough negativity.
Sometimes I keep the train on the tracks. Sometimes we take breaks when it all gets too overwhelming. I coach around stuck spots, like when we run across a purchase never used or a sentimental item. I don’t push my ideas if they don’t seem to resonate, or try to impose some sort of rigid system. I encourage their instincts. I give space for them to try new systems and tweak as necessary. I don’t take offense if the system I suggest doesn’t work the first time around.
Mostly, I do my level best to listen. If you are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD you want an organizer (or another organizing buddy) who listens, who supports you in pulling out your own best solution to organizing challenges. Because all of the traditional stuff generally doesn’t stick (but you already knew that).
I had someone ask me once if it was ok if they kept a basket or bin in their living room where they could put things if they got in a hurry and didn’t put them back in their “spots.” Then if they couldn’t find a particular item (flashlight, reading glasses, cheese grater, whatever), they would know to look in the bin. Once in a while, when it got too full, they would take time to put all of the things away.
I asked them if this system worked. Why yes, yes it did.
Well then, of course it’s ok.
Just because it doesn’t make it into a list of Top Ten Productivity Hacks or show up on a Pinterest board, doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid organizing solution. So perhaps that is one key - being open to a wide range of options for what the definition of “organized” might be for an ADD client. Being willing to experiment.
I might just create a living room basket for myself.
*I’m using the terms interchangeably throughout the post because regardless of the official terminology, most people seem to have their own preference.
You’ve likely seen the hashtag. Besides just plain-old #goals we have things like “#relationshipgoals,” “#fashiongoals,” and of course we can’t forget, “#closetgoals.” I’ve been thinking about goal-setting a lot lately, partly because it keeps coming up as a topic in my work with clients (it’s weird how these things seem to come in waves), and partly because I recently set a big goal of my own.
Some people like to use that SMART method for goal-setting. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound). That works pretty well when you’re starting out learning or refining your technique. But when I first got the inkling and defined my big goal, I decided to quietly put it out to the universe, do my best to keep my mouth shut about it, and get busy. Talking incessantly about my goals often backfires on me, and there’s even some evidence to suggest why that is.
Some of my clients have given up on setting goals because pretty much everything they think about doing seems like good intentions that never happen (think getting that garage or basement finally cleared out). Or some avoid goals because they might happen - then they would be successful, and being successful is scary (“OMG, what now??”). Some clients don't ever set them at all, because the concept has never been discussed or taught. It doesn’t occur to them, it’s not on their radar. Or for some people, perhaps goals sound too much like work.
Some experts suggest you should never set goals, because the minute you do you self-sabotage your way out of achieving them (like New Year’s resolutions). So if you just DO all the time without thinking too hard about the future, you’ll be better off. But where does that get you? Being in the moment certainly has advantages, but perhaps it’s more a matter of what word we use to define how we want to go about accomplishing something.
The end. Hmmmmm. Sounds pretty final to me, and sort of discounts the infinitely valuable journey. If “goal” doesn’t work, what word could? I’m open to suggestions.
The magnitude and gravity of goals can shift and change over time, and depending upon needs. One month you might have a goal to start drinking more water and leave it at that. Next January you might aspire to spend the year gradually purging and preparing your home for sale so that you can downsize - a goal that would require more planning, checking in, reminding (like lots of mini-goals). In either scenario, how do you begin without some sort of an end in mind? I think where we often go off track is in letting the process get in the way of the product. It can be a little intoxicating to walk through some new way of accomplishing something, checking things off of the latest list app, shopping for a shiny new planner. If those things help, fine. But if they aren’t supportive of you actually working through and making it to that final “whatever,” they’re just more window dressing.
I do like to have a road map for things. When you’re setting a course for a particular location, it’s helpful to have some idea of how to get there. If you use a mapping app with GPS, you often see two or three choices of how to get to your destination - with highways, without tolls, etc. - choosing your route depends upon the time or money you have to spend, the level of curiosity you have, maybe even what kind of shape your “vehicle” is in.
Is there value in throwing the map away occasionally and just wandering around to see what you might find? Sure. You might stumble across things you would never have seen or considered otherwise. Interestingly (at least to me), when I started writing this post I didn’t have a particular destination in mind. I just knew that the “goals” thing seemed to keep popping up in conversation, in thought, and in various media I was reading, so why not explore it a little bit and see where it took me?
I think it’s taken me here:
- Call them whatever you want, but there are definitely times and situations where goals are appropriate.
- There is a difference between a Big Goal and the steps required to accomplish it. The steps, in and of themselves, can also be goals.
- Writing, thinking, talking, listing, and planning can be helpful (but not always essential).
- None of any of the above matters without taking action.
And finally, there's an idea, a journey (with or without a plan and cool tools), and a conclusion - whether a goal is achieved fully, or partially, or not at all.
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?