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Are you a clutter bug?

Call it what you like, cluttering, being a pack rack, a finder/ keeper, messy, or disorganized, some people like to refer to themselves as clutter bugs and others are shocked to think that they are considered clutter bugs, they just have a lot of stuff and there’s nothing wrong with that, right? There are two very different ends of the spectrum here, from severe hoarding to a few piles here and there, some things out of place and people have a hard time placing themselves on the scale accurately. Have you gone to a friend’s house and the first thing out of their mouth is an apology about their home being a “huge mess” when it looks magazine cover worthy to you? Some people thrive in an environment when they are surrounded by their stuff and others get stressed out when shoes are kicked off willy nilly in the entryway and not placed properly on the rack that is reserved specifically for shoes. There’s obviously a lot of interpretive license when it comes to identifying what is a little and what is too much.

When is it too much clutter? When spaces in the home aren’t functioning like they are supposed to, when day to day tasks become much larger chores, and when other members of the household are affected negatively. If you feel emotionally, physically and spiritually drained, have difficulty imagining joy in your home and feel robbed of a sense of peace. You may feel judged by others, embarrassed or ashamed. It may also be that there are other members of the home contributing to the disorganization or situations like having a new baby, home renovations or having an elderly parent come to live with you.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your clutter:

• Are you afraid to open closet doors because there is a potential avalanche just waiting to pour over you?

• Do you constantly find things that you had completely forgotten you owned? Do you own multiples of something
because you couldn’t find that something so you just went out and bought another?

• Does the thought of moving to another home paralyze you because the idea of how to pack everything up is similar to
the idea of climbing Mt. Everest?

• Can you spy with your little eye flat surface spaces that don’t have piles, that are free and clear?

• Do you find retail therapy very comforting? Is it difficult to resist sales, freebies by the side of the road, yard
sales and bargain items even if you don’t have a true need for them?

• Is dirty laundry mixed with clean laundry and difficult to put away because there’s no room for it?

• Are you renting storage space for rarely used items?

• Do you consider your belongings all being of equal worth no matter the functionality, monetary or sentimental value?

• Are you a great caregiver, doing lots for others even when your home is in disarray, enough so that you can’t find
time for pleasurable leisure activities?

• Do you feel a strong sense of perfectionism, the idea that if you are going to do a makeover of a space, it’s got to
be done just right?

If these questions resonated powerfully with you, you might have a clutter problem. This is not a diagnosis but just some challenging questions. There are plenty of reasons why the home is in the state that it is and those reasons are the WHY behind the stuff. Clutter bugs may dedicate themselves to clearing out the excess and have success but it’s always advisable to try to get to the core of WHY they find clutter comforting. WHY is it so difficult letting go? The WHY behind the stuff may require professional help in the form of mental health counseling because clutter clearing may just be a temporary band-aid if the reason behind the cluttering isn’t addressed. Yes, there may need to be some deep work to be done but it can be really freeing work. You may come to realize that you’re not lazy, you and your situation isn’t hopeless, you’re not a bad person and you don’t have to be ruled by material possessions for the rest of your life.

Knowing that others struggle with the same thing you do can be very supportive so reading blogs, self-help style books or listening to podcasts can help you identify with others. There are online groups where you can share your experiences among like minded people and find inspiration in some of their stories. You might find they have unique strategies as to how they dealt with their stuff in ways that really embraces out of the box thinking. Maybe your situation is not nearly as half as bad as you thought it was and with some tips and tricks, you feel motivated to dig in and begin the clearing process, reclaiming your spaces. Some people reach out to professional experts like me while some can buddy up with a non-judgmental friend and take turns helping each other declutter. Surrounding yourself with positive people and watching others commit to and achieve their goals is poignant and motivating.

Something a clutter bug once said has really stuck with me: “You’re ready when you’re ready and until you’re ready, you’re not ready” It’s very possible to build new habits, to learn to identify things that you really need, use and love and achieve the goals you thought were impossible. Best of luck in your decluttering endeavors!

What IS a professional organizer?

This is a question I get all the time, what is it that I really do? Some people think I organize events like 5K runs or protest marches and a number of people are surprised that there is an industry devoted to my profession. Basically put, I help people in their homes or offices. Help how? I help my clients deal with a myriad of possessions including clothing, books, paperwork, furniture, tools, heirlooms, photos, keepsakes, kitchen goods, kids toys, collections, filing systems, anything that you find in most homes, garages, storage units and barns. I also help clients with productivity, time management, chronic disorganization and how to manage their homes so that they will hopefully lead a calmer, more streamlined and prolific life. I also help people with hoarding tendencies.

Older generations are wondering how this profession ever became a profession in the first place. Homemakers in the 1950’s didn’t seem to have trouble keeping their homes neat and tidy and certainly weren’t drowning in paper, clothes and a vast accumulation of “stuff”. Times changed, women joined the work force, people worked more hours and our society equated success with top notch belongings. Keeping up with the Joneses became a saying for a reason. Things were cheap, stores popped up everywhere and brand loyalty slipped away.

Now we have so much stuff, especially clothes and paper, that we don’t know what to do with it all! A common theory is that those who grew up during the great depression kept everything out of necessity and they passed that ideal down to their children and so on and so forth. Sure there is some truth to that but it’s been quite a while since food was rationed and things like metal and rubber were hard to come by. So an industry was born. The National Association of Professional Organizers was founded in 1983 by a group of women who were offering organizing services in Los Angeles and decided it was ideal to exchange ideas and network. Today, with approximately 4,000 members, NAPO is recognized worldwide as The Organizing Authority®

The number one reason why potential clients reach out to me is because they are overwhelmed. They have a lot of things that are disorganized and they don’t know where to start. We are losing all sorts of time looking for lost keys, papers, and other items. We can’t park in our garage because there’s no room; we buy things that we already own because we forgot we owned them or can’t find them. The offsite storage industry is booming as people rent more space to store things. Putting a cluttered home up for sale will take longer to sell than a home that is orderly and will probably sell for less. The average American receives 49,060 pieces of mail in their lifetime; 1/3 of it is junk mail. We are stressed out, overloaded with information, working harder, not necessarily smarter and a number of us are dealing with the estates of our aging parents.

Lucky for me, I get to help! I visit my client’s space; I listen to their story and understand their goals without judging them. Together we come up with a plan of attack and then we dig in, sorting thing into categories such as toss, recycle, donate, sell, return to original owner, shred, give away and of course, keep. It’s often times more than decluttering; it’s actually downsizing the amount of belongings and keeping the remainder in a way that is systematic and logical. Some clients have lived in the same home for 25-50 years and the time has come to move into something smaller, more efficient, perhaps nearer to adult children or into an assisted living facility. My clients are combining households, moving out of their city residence to live full time in the country or are two families that will be living as one. People that have rented a storage unit thinking it was temporary become tired of paying to house stuff that they no longer need or love. Even though you keep hearing the term “paperless” so many of us are still holding onto to bank statements from 15 years ago or receipts that have faded beyond recognition over time, boxes and boxes of them. It’s not all cut and dried; there are emotions, sentimentality and a lot of decision making. The work can be physically tiring but more so, it’s mentally fatiguing. I’m there as a cheerleader, the voice of reason, the expert who has dealt with similar situations many times before. I help to keep us focused, to work in a productive manner and most importantly, to get things done!

Helping my clients achieve their goals is satisfying but being allowed into their lives, to enter their personal space, to hear the stories behind the inanimate objects and to help them to move forward is extremely rewarding. There are interesting finds, lots of “Oh, that’s where that is” or “I thought it was lost forever”. There are some tears, hugs and laughs. Shoulders that have carried heavy weights are relieved, spaces that were practically useless become viable again and people become mindful of what they use, want, need or love in a new manner even if it’s as simple as knowing where the extra batteries are.

Depression and Clutter

If there ever was a catch-22 conundrum, it’s depression and clutter. It can become a never-ending cycle of chasing one’s own tail, around and around, one step forward, one step back.

When getting out of bed and trying to get through the average day takes every ounce of energy, there isn’t much leftover for dealing with the mail or folding laundry in the super specific method of Japan’s organizing phenom, Marie Kondo. Trying to keep a shiny sink and the dust down to less than 1/2 inch thick is like running a marathon, when you’re out of shape

Oh come on Julie, you may think, you’re surely exaggerating. I am coming from a place of not just professional experience but personal experience as well. I have suffered from depression for years and am grateful to say it’s mostly been under control for the past decade or so. My first extreme situation was postpartum depression after my daughter was born. I’m so lucky that I’ve had dysthmia for most of my life, which is a mild, persistent disorder; clinical (major) depression and seasonal affective disorder — the trifecta! As I write this column, I have what’s called a “happy” light blaring 10,000 lux of full spectrum lighting on my desk to keep away what people commonly refer to as the wintertime blues.

Professionally, I have dealt with clients who have suffered personal losses, are having trouble with the aging process, have been through the wringer with medical illness and injury, have experienced trauma, are going through divorces or are just grappling to get through life because of a chemical imbalance in their brain. It’s not just a pile of old magazines here or too many shoes as a result of retail therapy there. I help people who have to go through the possessions of their loved ones who have passed away, decide what to do with the stuff that the spouse abandoned when he or she left the marriage, deal with the childhood room of a son or daughter who is now in college or off in the world. Sometimes we have to adapt the home for a household member who is now wheelchair bound or for an elderly parent who can’t climb stairs anymore.

Women especially feel embarrassed or ashamed that they haven’t been able to keep up with the household because in our society women are in charge of taking care of the family and the nest. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but my female clients who lack a sense of organization or how to maintain an orderly environment can’t understand why the Martha Stewart gene was left out of their DNA. It’s particularly hard for them to ask for help.

Depending on how severe someone’s depression is, keeping house can be just a little challenging all the way to “nothing a stick of dynamite wouldn’t fix” because clutter is never-ending. If you’ve read a magazine cover or saw a home improvement show profess that you can kiss clutter goodbye forever, they are seriously pulling your leg. Stuff comes into our lives no matter how much of a minimalist we attain to be. This is where having a good defense is the key to having a good offense when trying to keep clutter at bay. Not letting it cross over your doorstep helps tremendously.

Overwhelm is a top reason people reach out to me for help and overwhelm is one of the most innate emotions people with depression suffer from. Overwhelm and hopelessness is like the backbone of depression. My clients feel overwhelmed frequently because they are looking at the mess or disorder in their home as one big picture and therefore knowing where to start is perplexing. Of course, I’m not a therapist nor do I have any medical training, but when I’m doing an initial phone consultation with a prospective client, I often hear keywords within their story that leads me to believe they may be dealing with some form of depression.

At some point they may volunteer the information. I like to be open about my experiences because talking with someone who knows how you’re feeling can create a sort of an immediate bond and I do end up bonding with some clients at some point. It may sound cliché, but if I can help one person by sharing my struggles, it’s worth it.

People are frequently surprised; “you, depressed?” they exclaim. That’s the thing, depression reminds me of some homes — painted a cheery color on the outside, beautifully decorated inside but down in the basement, toxic mold grows in the dark, floorboards are rotting where there is a leak and it’s like home away from home for a troll.

Coming out of a deep depression is like a dark, black curtain being lifted. There is joy to be found in little things, energy that was once almost impossible to corral now abounds, you may feel ambitious for the first time in a long time, but most importantly there is hope, hope for the future. It’s not easy to ask for help, but if there’s just one thing you can do for yourself or a loved one, it’s seek help from a medical professional and know that you’re not alone.

Organizing for the New Year

A new year can be exciting for so many reasons, it’s a fresh chance to start over, to redefine our ambitions and set new goals that somehow seem more attainable because we’re committing to those goals along with millions of others. We declare our intentions with resolutions and getting organized is a popular one!

The top resolutions every year seem to include losing weight/getting in shape, quitting vices and getting organized. One reason so many of us seem to fail at keeping resolutions is that we take on too many. It would be a pretty significant shift in our behaviors if we gave up sweets, cocktails, tardiness and impulse buying in one fell swoop. Focusing on just one of the stumbling blocks you come up against frequently may be a better game plan. Besides, we can commit to a resolution at any point in time during the year; it need not be Jan. 1. We can start anew at the beginning of every month perhaps or carry over the same resolution multiple years in a row. I’ve been maintaining a commitment to keeping my office floor free and clear of any obstructions for three years now.

Take some time to reflect on last year and try to identify what went wrong, what areas of your home and work you would like to improve on. Recommit to resolutions that you weren’t quite able to nail. Here are some organizing and productivity tips you can use at any time of year:

• Breaking down the overall resolution into smaller, doable tasks allows us the opportunity for mini-accomplishments and nothing feels better than succeeding.

• Get realistic. Getting organized is a lot like getting in shape. It doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t disperse years of clutter in a few hours just like you can’t cut out junk food for a day and expect to be vastly healthier. Clutter can accumulate slowly and there’s nothing wrong with picking away at it, a little bit at a time. Fifteen- to 25-minute blocks of decluttering are an ideal time to dig in, maintain focus and then retreat to refresh and regroup. It can be a lot of brain work making decisions, so reward the tasks you’ve completed with a short walk, play time with your pets, a few pages of a current book you’re reading, maybe a quick phone call with a friend or family member.

• Define goals in a very specific way. Instead of “I want to get organized,” try “I want to sort and address my snail mail every single day” or “I always want to know where my car keys are.”

• Map out the area that you are devoted to utilizing in a better manner. Perhaps you want to keep a clear space around your computer keyboard and the “prime real estate” area of your desk. Create a no clutter zone using painter’s tape and as you achieve keeping stuff out of the zone, widen it until you reach your ideal.

• Forming habits can take some time and dedication. It’s easier if you replace an old habit with a new one. For instance, instead of bringing the mail in and just placing any on any flat surface, put it in a dedicated spot that you’ve labeled “incoming mail” or even better, do a quick sort as soon as you enter your home. Labeling can be really helpful if you’re trying to get other members of the household to adapt to new systems.

• Are you hanging on to certain items that were gifts but you don’t actually like, need, want or use them? Once the gift has left the hands of the giver, you should have full rights to do whatever you would like to do with it. Embrace the good intentions and consider donation or re-gifting. I believe that re-gifting is perfectly acceptable; again, once the gift leaves the hands of the giver, they have given up their ownership rights. It also helps to ask yourself if the gift giver would want you to be hanging onto something that made you feel guilty or obliged; probably not.

• Some people excel using visual clues, so you may have more success with posting reminders in the areas you’re working on improving such as “No dishes in the sink overnight please” or “Suzy’s backpack goes here.”

• Taking the time to purge paperwork and files is a great way to create space for the inevitable paper that will come your way throughout the year. Lose old magazines, unnecessary memos and owner manuals to things you no longer own, greeting cards that aren’t keepsakes and archive files that are inactive from your desktop or filing system.

• Don’t forget to organize your schedule to save yourself lots of time all year long. Go through your calendar, whichever version works best for you — paper or digital — and reserve time every month for backing up your computer and decluttering your desktop and office. Mark birthdays, anniversaries, significant events like weddings or reunions and even what month you need to get your car inspected.

• Is this the year you want to handle less paper? Consider signing up for automatic payment with electronic receipts for utilities, rent/mortgage, vehicle payments or insurance premiums. You don’t have to do everything all at once if you’re not sure if paperless is right for you; try one or two accounts first.

May you have a new year full of positive experiences, the gift of simplicity and the ability to embrace your material treasures while letting go of the extraneous stuff.

Fall preparations for your home

The nights have become chilly, people have closed their pools for the season and before you know it, we’ll be in the grips of Father Winter soon enough. It’s time to put summer to bed and be sure that your home is ready for what’s ahead. My number one priority is what I call “hassle avoidance” so any proactive measures I can take to be ready for the change of seasons is one step further away from having a crisis when it’s bitter cold and the snow is deep. Here are some tips to help you batten down the hatches:

  • First thing is first, is your furnace clean and ready for the heating season? Do you need to order heating fuel, arrange to have the heating ducts or chimney cleaned? Call for servicing before the busy season hits. Wood stove owners are cutting or receiving wood and stacking away. Be mindful about stacking wood directly against your home, it’s an invitation for rodents and insects like termites to nest and is also a fire hazard.
  • Drain and store hoses and check any outside faucets for leaks. Drain any underground sprinkler systems. Some outside water connections (like mobile homes or summer only cottages) may need to be hooked up with heating tape and insulation to keep pipes from freezing.
  • Check for overgrown foliage which can damage siding or branches hanging over roofs or power lines. Trees or shrubs too close to your home are not only a good place for burglars to hide but can keep you from seeing damage to your foundation and make maintenance difficult
  • Water can cause some of the most difficult problems so check windows, thresholds, and sills for any signs of unwanted water. Check that weather-stripping, caulk and glaze is in good shape and isn’t split or worn away.
  • Clean gutters and downspouts. Plan ahead for ice dams buy purchasing a snow roof rake for lower roofs you can reach and by having the information handy for calling on the professionals in case of ice dams. You may remember last winter was nothing short of an ice dam nightmare for many home owners and can be very dangerous for you to try to resolve yourself. Ice dams cause roofs to leak which cause ceilings to leak and water can also flow down walls between studs and dry wall or lathe.
  • All year round you should be prepared for power outages but especially so come winter. Check your supply of batteries, flashlights, candles, headlamps, camping lanterns and oil for oil lamps if you go old school. You should have an emergency preparedness kit on hand and a “go” bag packed. www.FEMA.gov and www.Ready.gov offer comprehensive information as well as the Red Cross, www.RedCross.org which has excellent emergency checklists.
  • If you don’t have a carbon monoxide detector, now is the time to get one. Every winter it seems we hear of some tragic event where occupants die from exposure to carbon monoxide. Of course always have batteries on hand for both your carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. You’ll be changing them out at daylight savings time which ends November 6, 2016 at 2:00 am.
  • Reverse your ceiling fans so the blades run in a clockwise fashion which will create an updraft to push hot air down.
  • Run or drain the last bit of gas out of any lawn mowers, weed whackers or leaf blowers as gas that sits during the winter can cause mechanical problems come spring.

Lastly, as you put summer away, take notice of what summertime things you didn’t use at all this year and why. No one played badminton because the net was ripped and no one had the time to fix it? Maybe it’s time to let the broken net go and get a new one next spring. If no one had ambition to fix the broken Adirondack chair this summer, will it be any different next year? The sundresses, bathing suit or short shorts didn’t fit this year but by George they will next year! Perhaps so but will the elastic still be good, will they still be in a style that you’ll wear or will it just be depressing that they didn’t fit. As we swap out seasons, it’s a good time to lose the stuff you haven’t used, didn’t need and didn’t love.

Shakers, early organized minimalists

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing were known to “the world” as Shakers.

A small religious sect that came to America from England in the late 18th century to escape religious persecution, they were led by a woman, Ann Lee, whom they believed was the second coming of Jesus Christ. The first settlement was in Watervliet, NY and later on 18 more communities were formed mostly in the East, but extending as far west as Kentucky and Ohio.

By the mid-19th century, there were approximately 6,000 men and women who lived as Believers, practicing celibacy, pacifism, equality of the sexes and living as simple a life as possible, putting their “Hands to work and hearts to God”.

While their spirituality was of high importance, in order to remain self-sufficieny they farmed their land and produced goods for sale to the outside world as a form of income. They were known for high quality garden seeds, herbs, tinctures and remedies, furniture, house wares, preserved foods and candy, bonnets, cloaks and fancy hand sewn goods. Everything made, be it for them or the world, was of the highest standard as work was a form of worship. Everything was to be simple and functional and extravagance and elaborate decoration was looked down upon.

“Where there is no order, there is no God” was a cornerstone belief and all work was considered of equal importance, no matter how lowly the task.

Society members were allowed personal possessions, but upon entering the communal order, most belongings and property were given over to the community. Of course in those days most possessions were integral to day- to- day living such as tools, farm equipment, livestock and some home goods. The Shakers embraced the premise of working smarter not harder and if there wasn’t a tool or a trick to get the job done, they invented one such as the flat broom, an early clothes washing machine and held patents on a number of designs and products.

Unlike the Amish, Shakers embraced technology and advancement in the work place. Workshops were neat and tidy, like the rest of every Shaker village, with tool boxes, cabinets and work benches where tools were cleaned and put away at the end of each work day. Large numbered cupboards where garden seeds were kept were well labeled, journals were kept about everything that went on in the dye house, sewing desks were built with lots of little drawers for all of the scissors, needles and bobbins and ice was cut and stored in orderly squares or rectangles to fit snuggly into the ice house.

I developed a deep interest in the Shakers when I worked at some of the local Shaker Museums and sites in my younger years, such as when I was a demonstrative cook and interpreter at Hancock Shaker Village. As someone who believes that clean and tidy is essential to a productive workspace, seeing how the Shakers had built their homes, workshops and farms impressed me immediately. It’s easy to admire furniture that was built to last with simple lines, chairs that are lightweight and easy to hang upside on the famous peg rail so it’s easy to sweep or better yet, drawers built directly into the wall therefore not allowing dust to settle as it would on the top of bureau. Kitchens were state of the art: vast kettles with fireboxes built underneath them, huge ovens with rotating racks inside, running water in the 1830’s and lots of windows to allow natural light.

It’s not just the physical and material aspects that were kept orderly, the communities themselves were overseen by the Central Ministry at Mount Lebanon and each village was guided by ministry leaders. Precise and dedicated journal and bookkeeping helped Trustees to manage the financial aspects of each village and has allowed us to learn a tremendous amount about all sorts of matters – some temporal, some spiritual.
In the later portion of the 20th century, as the Victorian Era was in full swing, some Shaker villages loosened up their plain and simple guidelines somewhat and even some buildings were updated with some Victorian flair. I can imagine some Sisters might have been less than enthusiastic about trying to clean around bulky, overstuffed arm chairs and heavy, tasseled window curtains. Membership had been in decline for many years and some aspects of the villages that had not already closed were looking a bit rough around the edges, sadly dilapidated.

With the industrial revolution and western expansion, few people were interested in living a deeply spiritual, celibate, communal way of life. Other Utopian societies such as the Oneida colonists had failed and even though the Shakers continued to take in orphaned children, many of them left to seek their fortunes in the world. Today just one village remains with just a few members at Sabbathday Lake, Maine but their legacy is carried on by the numerous museums which were once original Shaker communities.
Sisters sewing room
I have embraced so many of their philosophies and dictums, but the one you’ve probably heard more than any other comes from a song “ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free “ – an idea for us all to contemplate, minimalist or not.

Trends aren’t always for me

I’ve never been much of a trend follower and I can’t help be critical of things that I deem problematic, especially trends for the home. Some of it is just preference like blackboard labeling, I can’t stand blackboard anything. To me it seems messy and it’s a textural thing, I can’t tolerate frosted glass either, it just gives me the heebie jeebies. Most of my dislike of certain things like wall to wall carpeting and stainless steel is because I’m not a big fan of spending my time cleaning and definitely not a fan of working harder not smarter.

Carpeting is harder to keep clean especially when you have a pet cat who pukes somewhat frequently and stainless steel just attracts smudges and finger prints like Coachella attract guys with man buns wearing toe shoes. All stainless steel appliances aren’t made of the same grade steel that industrial stainless steel is made of. It often times dents, scratches and can develop light rust stains that will need to be scrubbed out. I know black appliances aren’t trendy but they’re very forgiving if you have kids and pets.

Those white porcelain farm sinks that were and probably still are the rage? I hate them. Those beautiful showers that are entirely glass? Ugh. Open kitchen shelves are great if you like that fine layer of grimey dust covering everything. Most things made from wood pallets look like things made from wood pallets to me. Curated subscription services like Bark Box, Birch Box, Loot Crate, great if you’re into collecting clutter and unconscious consuming. Dollar store stuff like plastics, home goods, tools, toys and what not? Generally it’s just not for me, it’s cheap stuff that has a very good chance of breaking, not working in the first place and eventually ending up in the garbage.

To prove I’m not a negative Nancy, there are some trends I can totally get behind like cat hammocks, vertical gardening, non-toxic cleaners like baking soda and vinegar, real wood furniture, built-in hidden storage, tiny houses, capsule wardrobes and Himalayan salt lamps. Agree or disagree, I just want our lives to be easier, healthier and for us to have the time to do what matters most to each of us. Binge watch Netflix, take naps and criticize half of everything on Pinterest.

Feng Shui

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Feng Shui as: a Chinese system for positioning a building and the objects within a building in a way that is thought to agree with spiritual forces and to bring health and happiness. This ancient practice is based on flow, (feng) wind and (shui) water, two elements that swirl, moves and circulates around the world. The essence of energy Read more