Recently, I had a one-on-one with Lisa Montanaro, a certified professional organizer and business and life coach as well as author of the upcoming book The Ultimate Life Organizer: An Interactive Guide to a Simpler, Less Stressful & More Organized Life. Montanaro combines a lifelong passion for creating order with her skills gained as a lawyer, educator and performer to enact positive, proactive change that I find to be both extremely helpful as well as motivational. And, right about now I could use some motivation to get it together and feel more organized.
What is the first thing someone should do to get more organized at home? At the office?
First, ask yourself if the current systems are really working. Unless your current systems are 75% or more effective, start from scratch and set up systems that truly work! Ask yourself how frustrated you are with your physical surroundings, your inability to manage time, and the clutter in your life. If something is really bothering you, chances are you'll know it.
While there are general organizing principles, there is no "cookie cutter" solution to getting organized. Don't let that depress you. Quite the contrary. It should give you hope. For an organizing system to stick, it must be built around your personality type, work style, physical environment, and needs and goals. So, be sure to tailor everything to make it work for you. Yes, you should use the general organizing principles, but always in a way that is personal and authentic to you.
There are an ever-increasing number of products and services designed to help a person get organized. First, however, you must determine the areas in which you want to improve, known as your organizing goals. These might be filing, clutter control, time management, maximization of storage space or juggling projects and priorities. Once you have a handle on your organizing goals, you can slowly and methodically tackle each organizing project. Take it slow, or you are bound to get overwhelmed.
How do you keep the organizing momentum going?
Organizing is a way of life that requires maintenance and ongoing effort until it becomes second nature. Integrate a daily and periodic maintenance program into your routine, but keep it simple.
You've heard the old adage, "A place for everything and everything in its place." Well, it goes a long way if your goal is to maintain organizing systems. Put things away at the end of each day at home, and at the office. If you start something, complete it if possible. If not, put the project items off to the side so that they do not become clutter in your way. If you use up the last of an item in the house, replenish it (at work, give notice to whoever stocks the supply cabinet). If you open something, close it. If you take something out to use it, put it away when you are done. Make this "finish it" policy a rule that that all users of the organizing systems follow.
What do you do if you find yourself slipping back into old habits?
In organizing lingo, we refer to slipping back into old habits as "backsliding." Just like any behavior modification program (weight loss, smoking cessation, etc.), you should not strive for perfection. Why? Well, for one, this may be an unattainable goal, even for a certified professional organizer! Life is messy and unpredictable, made up of constant transitions and changes, all of which make it difficult to be perfectly organized at every moment. Strive for being well organized most of the time. Remember that being organized is the means to help you live a fruitful, high functioning, meaningful life. It is not the goal in and of itself.
Want to maintain an organizing system? 15 minutes a day keeps clutter at bay! Once you've created an organizing system that works, take 15 minutes a day to keep it that way. If it needs much longer than that, chances are it is too complex of a system, or you are still in backlog mode with too much clutter. If so, then you need to focus on continuing to declutter and setting up simple, user-friendly organizing systems. Schedule in a recurring appointment on your calendar that prompts you to do 15 minutes per day of maintenance of organizing systems at home and at work.
What do you do with the stuff your kids leave behind when they go off to college or their first apartment/house? Is there a proper way to tell them to get their junk out of the house?
This is a common problem we are seeing now with kids leaving behind their childhood possessions and never coming back to reclaim them. First, ask yourself if your kid is the one that can't let go of these items, or you. Often, it is the parents that hold onto the kids' possessions and are attached to them emotionally. If so, acknowledge that, and determine how much you can eliminate. Only hold onto the items that are truly important to you.
If it is your son or daughter that can't let go, have him or her go through the items and take what is important or will serve him or her in this stage of life. You may have to box things up and ship them if they live far away, or box them up and out into storage at home or elsewhere. One tip: set an expiration date. If your son or daughter does not come and sift through the items by a certain date, you will either donate the items, ship them to him or her, or take some other action. The key though is to stick to the deadline with no guilt! Their clutter shouldn't become your clutter unless you truly want it to. And if you do, it should take its place of honor in your "memory box" and not be in hiding.
What do you do at home to stay organized? What does your home and/or home office look like?
Many clients ask me, "What do you do?" I invariably reply that what I do is irrelevant. Sure, I often share my personal organizing systems with clients, otherwise known as the "secrets of a professional organizer." I also share tried-and-true systems I have successfully used with hundreds of clients, as well as tips and tools of the trade. However, the key to whether a system will be maintained almost always lies in how customized it is, whether the client is an individual or an organization. The system has to make sense to you.
However, I do practice what I preach. My home and office are organized. I happen to have a low tolerance for clutter so I keep my horizontal surfaces clear, and maintain organizing systems that keep the clutter at bay. I probably do not have as many possessions as the average American, but I do not live a completely minimalist existence either. The key is constant vigilance. I don't walk around with my organizing cap on at all times, incessantly obsessing over everything. But, I am efficient and action-oriented and, therefore, very productive.
I know that our society has a love affair with paper, but I try not to let paper take over my home office. I use technology to my advantage, shredding and scanning as needed, storing items on my computer and in the cloud, and only filing what is absolutely necessary to retrieve again in hard-copy form, which is approximately 20% of what most people file. This allows me to have only a few small filing cabinets in my home office. I also had the closet in my home office converted to all shelving, so I can store business and office supplies in there and close the door, which helps to maintain the clean and streamlined look I crave. My home office has red painted walls, and black painted wooden furniture, with framed black-and-white photos of Europe that my husband took on our travels. I love it! And when you love the look of a space, you tend to keep it more organized.
I also choose to live in a modestly sized home. It is not teeny-tiny, but it is not a McMansion by any means. It has enough square footage to live comfortably without a lot of wasted space. We tend to fill up space if given to us, so I try not to have too much extra space to begin with.
For me, staying organized is the key to living a balanced, fulfilling, and more peaceful life. If someone came to my home, they would see that it has possessions I love and enjoy, without a lot of extraneous "stuff." I try to let the cream rise to the top so I am surrounded by the things I love, need, and use often.
If you meet someone at a party and they beg for one piece of organizing advice, what do you say?
Getting organized is about making progress, not achieving perfection. Don't be daunted by the prospect of getting organized. Just take it one step at a time. You'll have more chance of success if you break the overall project into manageable tasks, tackling a little bit at a time. The key is to get started and stay focused. You can do it!