Subtitle: "Take a Picture - It Lasts Longer"
My father made the difficult shift from living in his home to assisted living several months ago. I'm betting this event is a rite of passage familiar to many of you. In fact, I've heard about it so much from clients and friends that the process, and it's accompanying stress level, seems almost cliché. Making the decision to put his home on the market was delayed a bit, but gradually Dad came to the decision that the stuff left behind needed to be dealt with, and the house prepared for sale. For any of you who've been through this with a parent, you know that there are many overwhelming details to address.
I figured I'd be ideally equipped to help with everything. First, the house is not the one I grew up in - so no sentimental attachment there. Second, my parents moved a LOT in their adult lives, so clearing out excess items was fairly routine for them. It's not like the house had 50 years of greeting cards, receipts, and Better Homes & Gardens to go through. Third, my father was quite easygoing about not keeping much stuff (not a materialistic man). Finally, I do this for a living, right? I help people sort, purge, categorize, and organize lifetimes of acquisition. I SO had this...
Once he was settled into his new digs, Dad encouraged all of us (kids and grandkids) to go through the old house and pick out whatever we wanted. Furniture, mementos, paintings my mother had done, whatever. Stickie notes with names were placed on items until they could be collected, and we were fortunate in that no one quibbled over anything. Still a very smooth process, but way more was left behind than was claimed (are you listening, those of you hanging onto stuff "for the kids"??). I talked with my brother and father about the possibility of an estate sale, and Dad readily agreed. Again, smooth...a decision made. Piece of cake, this transition thing.
Until it wasn't. Shortly before the sale, I insisted that we (my siblings and I) go through the house one more time. My mother had a fondness for hiding things she thought were valuable - these things could be anything from a pair of gold earrings to a list of the expenses for a home they built in another state forty years ago*. Perhaps meaningful, perhaps not. I just wanted to be sure that we weren't overlooking anything, so armed with trash bags and boxes we went in for the attack. And that's where I got totally stuck. The first stumbling block was an ancient suitcase extracted from the attic, which contained pictures I'd never seen, my mother's autograph book from the 7th grade, and my list for Santa from 1971. Oh. My. Gosh. I won't bore you with all of the things that continued to come out of that attic, but my brother and I just got lost in it all for a while.
And then there was this gem:
I used to stare at this book for hours as a kid. It had synopses of all of the famous operas, plus music for the most popular arias in each. Maybe I was just a weird little girl, but I thought it was fascinating. Given that memory, I must really need to hang on to it, right? Rescue it from the horrid fate of being sold at the estate sale for $5.00 by giving it a place of honor in my home? But as I held it, I came to a critical realization (my "aha" moment): I didn't want to own it. I wanted my mother to own it again. In her own home, with her other books, the way it used to be. With me sprawled on the floor trying to make sense of Italian lyrics.
Which of course, friends and neighbors, can't be. We can't go back into the memories, although we can hold them close (and often that's enough). I kept a few pictures, and the Santa letter, but I let the book go along with many other things that didn't need to worm their way into my home. The sale was successful, my father was pleased, and I have spent very little time thinking about what went away.
What has been your experience in letting go of things that represent your family history? Did you have any "aha" moments?
*p.s. I did find something my mother hid - two video copies of Cats (VHS and DVD), which someone in the family had been hoping to find. I'm pleased to report they are now happily reunited.
When I first started organizing (as a vocation, not just for my own cracked way to have fun), I imagined that I would focus almost solely on home or workplace offices. You all know I’ve moved through a variety of work settings. Whether it was a cubicle or a corner of a studio apartment, I’ve always enjoyed arranging those settings in my own way as much or more than any room in my home. So it always kind of breaks my heart when I see a home work area that doesn’t live up to its potential (or worse - no area at all!). Since my early PO days, I’ve happily moved on to organizing all sorts of rooms, but the office will always be a particular favorite. Following are five of the most common mistakes I see when I’m out and about, so read on and see if you’re making any of them...
1. Not prioritizing the space. “Oh, I have a spare bedroom - I’ll just set up the card table,” or “No one uses the dining room, so I’ll stack all of the supplies in there,” just doesn't get you quite far enough. Those spaces can both be great options for an office, but who wants to work in a location that’s essentially an afterthought? Coming up with a list of what your true needs are and thinking through how to set up for comfort and ease of retrieval will make a huge difference in your productivity. A solopreneur photographer is going to require very different items, supplies, and space planning than say, a non-profit board member. If your budget is tight, there’s still no reason why you can’t think through the furniture you need and how it can be arranged. Take that card table - maybe it’s going to have to suffice for now, but make sure it’s centrally located and not covered in other stuff (like the unfinished world map puzzle you got for your birthday). Find a chair that puts you at a comfortable height for working at it. Sit down, channel your inner Captain Kirk (or Picard, depending), and see if your bridge works for you.
2. Conversely, overdoing the space. The lure of office supply stores can be mesmerizing for some of us, but don’t go out and spend big $$$ on things you don’t need or are overkill. Promise me, promise me, that you won’t go anywhere near that store without a list. It’s neat to get a big whiteboard and all sorts of markers, but will you actually use them or will they end up being utilized for your 8-year-old’s Pokemon-inspired graffiti? Organizing your office is much easier when there’s not too much to organize, so cool it on the BOGO paper clip offer and the giant pack of printer paper that you won’t use up in three lifetimes. Splurging on furniture that looks fab in a catalog can be dangerous, too, and I’m a firm believer that office furniture needs to be “test driven.” If you see a really sleek desk, go sit down at it and make sure there’s room for your laptop, charging station, files, or whatever else you need to be productive. Sometimes things that look good aren’t very comfortable or functional, and you might do just as well or better repurposing Grandpa’s old library table.
3. Not having enough (or the right kind of) light. You may have escaped the corporate world recently…remember those humming fluorescent bulbs? Or did you work in a space with four walls and no windows? Yes, it’s all coming back to you now. So why did you park your new desk in the darkest, drabbest corner of the bonus room? While it may be the only nook in your home for work, you have a golden opportunity to plan a comfortable, well-lit environment, so don’t squander it. Various studies indicate that worker satisfaction and productivity is tied to adequate light (with natural light being best). If there is any possible way to take advantage of a window or skylight, use it. If not, I love and often recommend Ott lights for task lighting - or you can experiment with some of the lamps you already have and see what keeps you bright-eyed when you need to work.
4. Having no document plan. Whether you are in charge of the family finances or running your own company, thinking through what paperwork to keep (and how you’re going to keep it) goes a long way towards reducing clutter on the desk. And the floor, the kitchen counter, the futon... Talk with trusted advisors like your accountant, financial planner, and/or attorney about what pieces of paper are critical for the long haul. You may be surprised at what you really don’t need to hang onto, or what could be maintained in a digital format. Whether physical or digital, be sure that files are labeled and you can make sense of those labels (“DD” could stand for “Due Diligence”, “Direct Deposit” or “Donald Duck”, so try not to use acronyms). Additionally, preventive measures like unsubscribing from print publications you don't read or signing up for electronic delivery of statements cuts down on unnecessary paper.
5. Skimping on aesthetics. This is so often overlooked, especially if the selected area has become pretty much a dumping ground for papers and “things to process". Once you get your space arranged and organized, why not treat yourself to a plant, framed pictures (I’ll bet you have some old ones gathering dust in the garage), or a nice area rug? One of the cheapest things you can do to perk up a room is a fresh coat of paint, and if you’re just using a corner or wall the paint can be used to help delineate what is office space vs. the other functions of the room. Studies show that blues and greens promote focus and effectiveness, so choose your color carefully. When I recently rearranged my office, I was a little dismayed to rediscover that the back of my desk had, well, no back. I’m not a sewer, but I found some inexpensive upholstery fabric and just nailed it to the rear of the desk. It really perked up the space, and as you can see, Ringo totally approved of it.
So take a long look at that home office and see if you’ve been neglecting an important part of your living space. What goofs have you made that are holding back your productivity?
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, and serial list-maker. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?