Today's post is the first of a series responding to YOUR suggestions of topics - I hope you'll take a little time to join the discussion!
One of the most common questions I get when I speak to groups is:
How do I get my _____________ (husband, wife, son, daughter, mother-in-law, co-worker, neighbor, etc.) to be more organized? How can I get them to get rid of all of their clutter and stay on top of things?
The short answer: you can’t.
I know, not what you wanted to hear. Plus, it makes for a boring blog post so o.k., let me back up a little.
You might be able to force some short-term decluttering or organizing. You might be able to nag, or cajole, or even bribe someone you care about into letting go of some things. Or you might even convince them to hire some assistance or read a book with some solid organizing methods. You might sneak into one of their spaces, purge a few things, and they won’t even notice…or they will, and some distinct unpleasantness will ensue. But what you push onto your loved one likely won’t stick.
Think about it - how receptive would you be if your spouse or other family member pulled you aside and said, “Hey, I’ve been noticing you’ve been eating waaayyy too many boxes of Girl Scout cookies, and I think you just need to stop. You need to eat one a day like I do. Or maybe even less. I’ll help you if you like! I’ll take all the boxes away and hide them, or we could maybe even sell them or give them to someone else. You’ll feel so much better and healthier when you’re not eating all of those cookies.”
How’s that landing? I don’t know about you, but I’m picturing myself with a two-fisted vice grip on my box of Tagalongs screaming, “Over my cold, dead, peanut-butter-saturated body. And fool, don’t you know Thin Mints are vegan?!” Rationalization is a great defense. And think about it - aren’t you already fully aware that eating box after box is not the healthiest thing? Did you need someone close to you to point that out?
I conducted a short survey recently in preparation for my upcoming presentation at the annual NAPO conference. It was meant to give me some data on discomfort and organizing, but one unexpected thing that stood out was how resistant respondents were to the idea of reaching out to a family member for help with their organization. 53% reported it to be “difficult” or “extremely difficult” to contemplate asking for help from a friend or family member, vs. 25% finding it difficult to consider asking a professional organizer for assistance. Good news for my profession, I suppose, but it underscores the fact that familial organizing is a touchy subject. It also reconfirms that the object of your organizing wishes is well aware that they have challenges, without you even bringing it up.
It’s such a common experience, too. I’ve never worked with any couple where both partners had the same idea of what constituted “organized,” or what was an acceptable level of “stuff.” Wonder Couple, maybe you’re out there somewhere - if so, I’d love to chat with you and learn your secrets. I’ve also often been witness to uncomfortable conversations between children (adult and not) and parents about belongings - some of those conversations were with my own parents. In most cases a loved one is well-intentioned, genuinely wanting the best. But good intentions are not enough.
So what’s a caring family member to do when they’re watching someone routinely misplace important paperwork, or when they’re tripping over someone else’s boxes of collectibles, or imagining what they’ll go through someday when they’re left with the aftermath of years of accumulation? All hope is not lost, in my experience. Here are some ideas to test out:
Set the example - o.k., o.k., I know - you do. Or do you? Physician, heal thyself. I can’t really bug my son about his laundry escapades if I always have my paperwork all over the kitchen counter. Often when one person begins to improve their organizing in the home (and most everyone can improve in some way), it’s contagious. Even if it isn’t, you’re going to be better off than you were before if you work on your own stuff first.
Watch, and listen for openings - a sigh when something is lost, some head-scratching upon entering the garage, maybe even an expression of complete overwhelm when everything tumbles out of a closet or cabinet. In my observation, despite a resistance to make changes there’s an underlying discomfort, like a low-grade fever. But it’s tough to admit that you are powerless in the face of your own clutter, so if you observe it…
Don’t talk - ask questions. “What would be helpful?” or “How could we set this up to be easier?” is a whole lot better way to open up a dialogue than “Well if you could just get rid of some of that junk you’d be better off.” It may take asking more than once, but holding back on the advice-giving and judgment sets the stage to try out...
Zones. I don’t think I invented this concept, but it resonates. It works like this: each person has their “zones,” or spots that they control in a home or office. Control is determined by who uses the space, and how. For example, whoever does the majority of the cooking controls the kitchen zone and sets the rules for its organization. Whoever spends the most time puttering in the basement gets the say on how it’s set up and maintained (or not). Zones like a family room require negotiation, or maybe even mini-zones, like Dad’s reading area or Susie’s Lego corner. This approach is dependent upon being able to let some things be, a pick-your-battles kind of organization. And remember, disorganization is in the eye of the beholder. So if your teenaged daughter has clothing everywhere in her room BUT the closet - as long as there are no sanitation or safety hazards - you have to let it go. Of course, she also has to comply with the zone rules in the rest of the house. Maybe it will be easier to enter her room if immediately after you can go to your immaculate office, where you make all the organizing rules. Where you can take a deep breath and bask in your own intentionally-created peace.
The good news is, I know families can improve together when there’s some understanding, and compassionate discussion. When you take the pressure off, you may even find your dearly disorganized summoning up the courage to ask for a little help.
Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. - Albert Einstein
I'm often in organizing sessions where a client will say something along the lines of:
They're saying these things in a jokey way, but I know there's a little defense mechanism sentiment behind them. They're getting out ahead of me possibly making some organizerish judgment call. We may be looking at a rock their school crush gave them in 5th grade, or a massive collection of concert t-shirts, or a folder full of articles about seahorses that they've curated over the years.
Skeletons in closets? Shoot, that's nothing compared to some of the unusual objects or pieces of paper that folks hang onto. I recognize it's a vulnerable moment when someone shows me their own personal skeletons - things that are kind of weird or funny or over the top. So I don't take the sharing lightly. I was cleaning out a container in my own home not too long ago and found the entire stash of boards I broke for Taekwondo belt tests years ago. All the boards. Why all the boards? Organizers keep odd things sometimes, too (plus, I'm thinking we have too much storage in this house).
I'm also not in the business of forcing someone to let go of all of their unusual stuff. What, just because most people don't keep an E.T. rubber mask, or a collection of Star Trek action figures in their master closet, you should get rid of yours? If you have the storage to store things properly, and that is:
...I don't see the harm in keeping things you care about. Regardless of how unusual they might be, or my opinion of them.
Along those same lines, sometimes someone will apologetically show me something they've devised to create their own organizing system. For example, maybe they've repurposed items like using a rickety old ladder as a bookshelf, or used things differently like S-hooks and a towel bar for necklaces. Systems created uniquely, especially by repurposing and without the pressure of conforming, are often the perfect solution.** If they ask my opinion, my usual response is to ask how it works for them (and their usual reply is that yes, it's a great system).
You obtained it, saved it, created it, devised it...why not own it? Why fix what's not broken? When I work with people to improve their organization, I'm working to help their environment support who they are, not trying to change who they are. If you need to modify habits that got you into trouble with your stuff management, that's one thing. But one of the aspects I love most about what I do is learning about other people's unique personalities. Party quirks, if you will. It's interesting to find out that someone is really into genealogy, or entering the annual neighborhood holiday light competition. Or that they've figured out that putting lists on the refrigerator under that special Dunder Mifflin magnet will help them to remember things.
If it's working for you, let your own weird way of organizing shine through.
*Pet peeve time - the term 'woo-woo.' It's unfortunate that we are reluctant to talk about various branches of spirituality, and have to reduce it to a slightly diminishing colloquialism to make it acceptable. Maybe that's another post.
**As a result of my research for this post, I'm now a little obsessed with finding and upcycling an old card catalog for my office. Hey librarians - anyone out there with a lead? Anyone?
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?