I have a standard question that I’ve always asked towards the end of initial conversations with potential clients:
“What’s a system or space that’s working well for you right now?”
What follows is a long pause. A really long pause. Then, often (actually, almost always), a response of:
“Absolutely nothing. I can’t think of a single thing.”
I ask the question for several reasons. One, we’ve just talked through a litany of everything that’s going wrong - clutter on the counters or floors, overflowing mail piles, constant lateness, never finishing projects, feeling overwhelmed - they did contact me for help, after all. It’s great to talk all of those challenges out and clear the air, but having a question that stumps people for a moment or two puts things back in neutral before shifting gears.
I tell people that if we can find one or two things, no matter how small, that work well, we can learn from them. If someone describes to me that they like how a particular room feels or how the colors affect them, that’s useful information to build upon. How might we recreate that feeling? If they always manage to find their keys because they have a hook for them right next to the back door, then that is a successful system. Where else can we find ways to locate items ideally?
But mostly, being an irritatingly optimistic and positive person, I’m always drawn to find that one single, little, happy tidbit in someone’s life. It’s a breeze to figure out what’s wrong…so what’s right? It’s startling when people realize that even in the craziest of environments and schedules, there are cracks of order that open up if we take time to look for them.
You may have heard of negativity bias - the tendency for our brains to focus and ruminate on everything that isn’t working or feels threatening. It’s harder work for our minds to think through every situation or event that isn’t ideal, and so we tend to remember more about them. Experts say that evolutionarily speaking, we are created this way by design so that we are better able to survive. Perpetually gazing around the cave with rose-colored glasses might result in underestimating - or even completely missing - that saber-toothed tiger lurking at the entrance.
I have to admit that even with my glass-half-full mentality, I often overlook things that make my own life flow more easily. I decided to make an effort to look for solid systems in my world - not just in my home but in the things I encounter every day. Here’s a sample:
This is a system my son and I came up with to help us all remember little tasks that get dropped (and sure, I forget tasks sometimes) - putting a reminder sticky note on the coffee maker where I'll see it first thing. Since letter-writing isn’t as much of a thing these days, I will often forget to grab stamps even if the task is on my list. But I will always remember coffee. With this arrangement, stamps got purchased, and the thank you notes got mailed.
I had to bring refreshments for a meeting I was in charge of recently. I knew there would be no coffee maker, so I ordered some to pick up ahead of time from the local breakfast place. No joke, I was kind of dreading picking it up because I figured I’d have to grab a bunch of cream, sugar, etc. (which I personally don’t ever use) and balance all of it awkwardly to get it to the car, probably dropping or spilling something along the way. I’ll do just about anything to avoid making more than one trip for something, and I found myself debating whether or not the coffee was even worth it (!). There’s that negative thinking coming right into play. But I pushed through, and check out what was waiting for me: these excellent little coffee jug saddlebags full of cups and accessories. No issues carrying it all, and having what everyone wanted or needed. I totally geeked out (and also got the inspiration for this post).
And finally. Yes, the picture below is in Target - not an advertisement, just an observation. How many times have you walked right past it without paying attention? People sometimes don’t believe me when I tell them they can drop off old cell phones and printer ink cartridges at Target, and they actually have an impressive corporate sustainability program. But even beyond that - look at those bins, people! Bright, contrasting primary colors, lettering and symbols that are clear and easy to see, and usually located right where you walk in or out. I’ve been known to pull purchased items out of the plastic bag and walk it straight over to the bag recycling bin. Every little bit helps, right?
What are the themes we’re seeing here? Convenience, ease of use, intuitive processes, matching up things that work together. Where else can you find order you’ve never noticed before, and what does it tell you?
Back in my early adulting days, I used that old trick of testing spaghetti doneness by tossing it against the wall (actually, in my case, the kitchen cabinets). You know, throw a strand or two against the surface, and if it sticks, it’s done? The flagrant disregard for pasta water splattering everywhere, the slight risk of burning myself, and the faint outline of the spaghetti left on the cabinet appealed to my sense of 20-something rebellion. Plus, if you tested it too early and it fell to the floor, you got to snicker and try again! The process was something my mother NEVER - even in her wildest dreams - would have done. I was so wild, y’ all.
Perhaps this is why I’ve used the phrase “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” more than once in my organizing journey. Really, all my journeys. When I started organizing professionally I wasn’t sure how or if I might want to specialize, or which ideas or techniques might work best for clients. I tried and tested lots of things out, and eventually yes - some things did stick. Working with adults with ADHD, speaking, writing, and coaching have emerged as the sticky pieces of my career pasta mix - although some of those pieces are certainly still a little “al dente.” The things that didn't stick either went back in the pot, or into the garbage.
But do you ever attempt to throw lots of things at the wall, and feel as though nothing is sticking? Especially when you’re trying to get a space, or spaces in order, or improve the way you handle tasks, or prioritize responsibilities? Do you assume that someone else’s suggestions about how to “be organized” should stick for you just because they work for them?
One of my favorite books is The Four Agreements, by don Miguel Ruiz. The “Agreements” are based upon ancient Toltec wisdom, and examining the source of self-limiting beliefs that can lead to suffering. The thought is that if you can manage to follow all four (which is tougher than it sounds), you can essentially live your best life. The Agreements are as follows:
Number three is the one that has always “stuck” with me because it’s exactly where I often witness clients getting tripped up (and myself as well). An assumption is, of course, a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof. Predicting an absolute outcome without evidence. To quote from the book:
“If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions."[emphasis mine]
Do some of these assumptions sound familiar?
It’s like looking at the spaghetti in the pot (without the benefit of a timer, a wall, or even a spoon) and just telling yourself “Oh yeah, that's totally ready.”
So what questions could we be asking ourselves to help us understand what might stick and what might not, what is reality and what have we made up in our heads? “Does this method make sense to me?” “Am I really inept, or am I a little confused and need some clarification?” “What might happen if I talked to my boss?” “What else could I try?” "Do I have enough information to know whether or not this will stick?"
Sometimes it’s helpful to keep throwing lots of things at the wall. Sometimes, you might just need to keep stirring the pot.
*the spaghetti analogy fits in rather nicely here too.
With apologies to Laura Joffe Numeroff.
If you give away two old sweatshirts,
you’re going to have space
to store your favorites.
When you look in the drawer
you’ll also remember that you still own them (“oh, hey…!”)
You’ll pick up the blue one and think,
“I could wear that to the gym today.”
And then you’ll actually go to the gym, because you were able
to find both the nice blue sweatshirt
and a clean pair of socks.
At the gym, you’ll lift some weights,
and maybe run three miles for good measure.
When you hop off the treadmill, you’ll run into your doctor
who reminds you that you need to reschedule
the appointment you missed two weeks before.
You'll get back to your car, and you’ll open your planner
and call for a new appointment.
When you look at the calendar,
you’ll also see that you have a lunch date set with your mom.
You would have forgotten, but now you can go (sushi!).
When you get back from lunch,
you’ll probably want to take a nap.
You’ll see a pile of books and papers on the couch,
which are in the way.
Most of the paper is probably trash and
most of the books fit on the shelf.
You’ll take a few minutes to sort it all
With the recycling bin
and a box for giveaways close by.
When you clear the couch you’ll stand back to look at it.
Looking at the couch will remind you that often,
it’s not as tough to declutter as you imagine it might be.
You’ll take your nap.
When you wake up you’ll remember
how nice it was to have a clear space.
And chances are, if you remember that...
you’re going to go into your closet
and give away some more sweatshirts.
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?