The SHED Philosophy of Organizing

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SHED cover
I just heard from Julie Morgenstern that her latest book, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life, is now out in paperback. Morgenstern's previous books have focused more on the nuts and bolts of decluttering and organizing. This one delves more into the emotional and psychic issues. You can take a look at it via my Amazon recommendations in the left column, under "I Recommend."

SHED stands for Separate the Treasures, Heave the Rest, Embrace Your Identity, and Drive Yourself Forward. A big obstacle for many people plunging into an organizing project is that so much of their identity is wrapped up in their possessions.

Even if you've made peace with the fact that, say, you're not going to use that snowboard ever again, getting rid of it means part of your identity has changed. You may not be entirely sure who this new person is, and that can be scary.

On the other hand, discovering your new, true self by SHEDding layers that don't suit you anymore can be exhilarating and energizing. Check out this book for great ideas on this process. It's in my Amazon store, right there on the left.

A Conversation about Clutter with Nicolette Toussaint

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I met interior designer Nicolette at a networking event (we are indebted to Irene Kohler, moderator of Linking Northern California, for introducing us) and found a lot of common ground in the subject of clutter. Her clients have needed organization as much as the space planning solutions she provides, so she had quite a few questions for me.
This post, which is a conversation between the two of us, is also up on Nicolette’s site. She has also posted about storage, clutter, and “too much junk.” Below are links to several earlier posts she has written about related topics.

I love the furniture she suggests here! Beauty and organization should go together.

Nicolette: Claire, I admire what you said on your website about your services being confidential and “non-judgmental.” Although I am scrupulous about confidences – I name clients only when they have given me permission and otherwise use pseudonyms – I’m challenged when it comes to being judgmental!
I confess that I once turned down a date with a guy mostly because the floor of his car was awash in six inches of flotsam and jetsam. To my mind, that meant that he wasn’t good relationship material. (Perhaps this was because I had recently divorced someone who filled every nook and cranny of the house with magazines, books, collections, clothes, you name it!)

I think that “Collectors“, like my ex, who can’t bear to part with anything, need to work with an organizer before they even consider interior design. While only a few people fall into my Collector category, everyone you work with needs organizing help. How do you go about working with your clients?

Claire Tompkins, the Clutter CoachClaire: I like to find out what kind of person the client is. Usually I start by asking questions about the space in question:

  • What works?
  • What doesn’t work?
  • Why is this here?
  • Do you use this?

I ask obvious questions because I find that people overlook those themselves. Once I know what they want, I figure out what’s realistic and simple.
I have a client whose home office is also a playroom. This combo works for her because she likes being in the room with her children, and it’s next door to the kitchen so they are nearby when she’s cooking. For someone who needs quiet concentration time, I would not recommend this.

On the other hand, sometimes people set up fancy home offices that they never work in. When I ask why, it turns out that it’s too cold, it’s too far from the rest of the house, it’s too dark, it’s too noisy, they can’t hear the doorbell, etc. Personal work style and preferences have to be accounted for. Just because your house has a room labeled “home office” it doesn’t mean that you have to work there.

Nicolette: Your questions are similar to a questionnaire I use to create the “program” that guides my design work.

EcoSystems Bada table
EcoSystem’s Bada table folds to become a love seat
Bada table folded into loveseat

Many of my clients need to create what I call “hybrid rooms” in their homes. You know, a kitchen-office, or a laundry room-play room. But I haven’t come across a playroom-office before. When I work with these rooms, I often recommend “convertible furniture” – pieces that can serve more than one function or change size.

Claire: Wow, that is some cool furniture! My focus is more on process than products, although I do recommend simple things such as using an artist’s taboret for office supplies because it can roll away when you’re not using it. Some taborets are unassuming enough to stay in view in the dining room and not scream “I work here too!”

Earlier, I mentioned the beautifully appointed office that isn’t used. I’ll suggest setting up a real work area in the dining room (there are often tell-tale items in there already). I like to work with what my clients have, and who they are, and keep it as simple as possible.
I look for ways that dining room workers can store their supplies so that they’re easy to put away. I urge them to get in the habit of stashing everything away in the evening and getting it out again the next day so they can use the dining table to eat.

For those who rely on seeing a pile of paper to do the work, this is a challenge. In that case, we create ways to organize their workflow so they know what to do in the morning.

Nicolette: What common hybrid rooms have you seen? What combinations of activities work well, and which don’t?

Claire: Guest rooms are mostly underused, in my experience. Either they’re wasted space, or they become storage rooms, the bed piled high with boxes of Christmas ornaments, old tax returns, etc. I’ve recommended that clients ditch the bed and get a convertible sofa instead. If the mattress isn’t that comfy, they can top it with an Aerobed. That makes space to use the room for something else, such as an office or playroom. If a room is in use, it’s less likely to fill up with junk.

Nicolette: As a designer, I find that it’s not only important to have enough storage, but that the convenience of storage is also an issue. When I design a room, I make sure that the things that a person uses daily can be accessed without crawling on the floor or climbing on ladders. Recently, I planned a layout for a couple who was moving into a condo, and in the early stages of the project, I visited their old, pre-move apartment. Every available surface was piled high with books and papers. This is exactly how the offices of the attorneys I worked with years ago — at a nonprofit, public-interest lawfirm that shall remain nameless — looked. I was afraid to walk in for fear of knocking over piles of “discovery” papers.

But they knew what was in the piles.messy-office-03
I saw this as a symptom of poor planning, not as an indictment of their behavior – they seemed organized in other areas of their lives. But they really didn’t have places for newspapers, for books, and for projects that involved writing and reading papers. In their new space, I made sure that they had about a dozen baskets that would hold 8.5 by 11 inch papers and would fit neatly into their bookshelves. I also recommended hassocks that could be used for storing newspapers and books, and I used credenzas as room dividers. So far, their new place has remained neat.

Can you tell me how, as an organizer, you help people who are drowning in papers?

Claire: The biggest challenges my clients have regarding paper is that they won’t put it away for fear of forgetting about it, or they resent doing the work of putting it away. So, making it easy and/or keeping it visible is paramount. Open shelving, literature sorters and stacking trays can help. For reading material, open baskets and containers near seating (where they will read) works well.

I like the Pendaflex Pile Smart line of office products. They have a binder clip with a big label area on it. That way, you can pile papers, but they can be clearly marked with the clip. The label area is re-writable too. I am not against piles. I’m against not being able to find things.
Labeling containers is also helpful. I like your idea of having baskets on the bookshelves. For a unified look, they’d probably be all the same size and color.

Labeling is good so it’s easy to see what goes in which container. I also think labeling has a motivating effect. When you see the label Dwell Magazine, you want to look around for one to put in there. It’s like doing a puzzle. Not everyone needs labels, but I have had clients whose lovely baskets eventually turn into miscellaneous catch-alls.

Nicolette: In some ways, designing interiors that help people to live happier and healthier lives is a bit like herding cats. I have owned cats for years, and I have had quite a bit of success in training them. For example, they trot off to their “den” at night when I give them the command! The secret is to observe and understand what they are inclined to do naturally, then bend that native behavior in desired direction, rather than trying to counter it. People are not all that different.
I got the idea of shaping a room’s interior around the occupant’s habitual behavior after reading a book written by journalist Amy Sutherland. Amy used reward and non-response to condition her husband to perform chores, and then wrote a book about it. It’s called What Shamu Taught Me about Love, Life and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers.  Here’s a cool coffee table from BoConcepts. I love how papers can be tucked out of sight inside.Bada coffee table from BoConcepts

I recently told a client to “observe the animal called Lena for the next week and tell me what her habits are.” I wanted her observations because if I understand my client’s natural tendencies, and learn what features of the built environment are helping or hindering a desired change, then I can re-design the room accordingly. In Lena’s case (that’s not her real name) she needed a place to hang book and gym bags that was near the door – not a dozen steps across the room and in a closet that was already too crowded.

Claire: What you told Lena is similar to what I tell clients when I coach them to “become a detective of your own life.” The idea is to watch yourself when you come in the house. Where do you put the keys, the mail, your bag, the newspaper? Does it all go in one place? What about your jacket? Then where do you go?

Make things easy for yourself. If you have a front hall, put a table there that’s big enough to accommodate the mail and your bag. If you don’t, set up an incoming-outgoing station as close to the door as possible where those things can be parked.

Nicolette: Many of us here in the Bay Area live in small spaces. Do you have any special advice for us?

Claire: Well, the first step is always paring down. Deciding that you really can live without the spare blender in the back of the cabinet, the stack of magazines you’re going to read this weekend, etc. People keep a lot of stuff “just in case” or because they stopped using it but never got around to getting rid of it. As for occasionally used items, you should ask: Could I borrow or rent one? Could I make do with something else?

Before Shelves
The second step is maximizing storage. This is a dance of using that hard-to-get-at space vs. being able to access things easily. Naturally, people want to just pick something up off a shelf without climbing up a ladder. The trick is to identify the things they want to keep but don’t use often. I had some clients who have a huge book collections and many of the books are over-sized; art books, coffee table books. They installed a bookshelf about 18 inches down from the ceiling that went around the kitchen, down the hall, and into the office. They have a portable library ladder to reach them. This saved two large bookshelves worth of space.
Shelves above the doorframes

I have used that trick too. Many older Bay Area houses have high ceilings, and it’s often quite easy to put a bookshelf above a door frame, or extend it across two door frames. The frames even help support the shelf. It’s not like you need to look at that photo book about the museum’s Samurai Exhibition every day.
But if you’re going to use that high space well, you need to be clear about what you’re going to store there. I’m going to specify a different width lumber for a shelf that holds over-sized art books than I would for paperbacks.
Then again, a high shelf like that is great for things that are bulky and lightweight, such as guest pillows or towels. If I know that we’re going to store linens, I will probably specify an enclosed cabinet or a shelf that can hold storage baskets, because linens usually aren’t going to make good display items…
Claire: As a first step, it’s important to find out how clients want to use their space. Many times clients want to rush out to the Container Store and buy some cool containers. You probably run into this too. Clients who want particular pieces of furniture regardless of how they’re going to fit in or work with their lifestyle. I’ve often worked with folks who already went out and bought a bunch of baskets or boxes and they turned out to be completely useless. But they looked nifty!Nicolette: Oh, yes! I had a client run out and buy a wonderful desk, only to discover that once it was in her office, she couldn’t open the drawers wide enough to get things in and out of them. And then there was the family of seven who didn’t have enough living room seating for everyone – but they did have an over-stuffed Chesterfield chair that had a footprint as large as a loveseat that would seat three people!Claire: Encouraging clients to be realistic about how much time and energy they want to spend on organizing is really important. If they want their home office to look like Martha Stewart’s, they need to realize that she (or her assistant, more likely) spends a lot of time keeping it Martha-ized. I suggest that “done” is better than “perfect.”

Nicolette: Some people – I call them “Collectors” – have trouble getting rid of anything. (I alluded to one, my ex-husband, at the beginning of this blog, and I wrote about Collectors in an earlier post.) Have you encountered them? If so, how do you help them?

Claire: I write haiku poems about clutter. Here’s one about Collectors:

Museum loversCreate their own collectionsBut lack the warehouse.

When Collectors really can’t part with anything, no matter what condition the things are in, it doesn’t work to apply logic. As you mentioned, this is a tricky topic. I will ask if there are other family members who would want some of the heirlooms. Sometimes I suggest photographing them. These days you can make lovely coffee table books yourself and that would be a great way to preserve and honor the memories associated with the possessions. Sometimes it works to sort the things and then have the client select the ten best from each category. Another tactic is to buy a display cabinet for the objects and then choose only what will fit inside it.
The dragon that disrupted the honeymoon home

The collection is about the past. I had a client who consulted me because his sweetheart feared there was no room for her in his life. His home was still full of stuff that belonged to his deceased wife. We worked on ways to honor his previous marriage, while still welcoming the present and future.

Nicolette: (Laughing) I have a very similar story about a newlywed couple who had quite a contretemps over a Mexican sculpture called a “alebrije.” Even though he liked primitive art, he hated this particular little dragon of hers. He knew that it was a souvenir of a trip his new bride had taken with her old boyfriend, and he just couldn’t stand to have his rival in a place of honor on the mantle of the fireplace!

Claire, I love your haiku. It’s so uncluttered! Did you know that I often end my blog posts with a bit of poetry? Would you mind being the poet laureate for this post?

Claire: Not at all!

Resource Links


The Haiku of ClutterIf I kick that box
Under the desk one more time

I’ll just have to scream.

Storage Ottoman from Improvements


A Finnish art student decided to inventory every object in her 250 square meter home (about 2,700 square feet) and present it as her thesis. Using archaeological methods, she found that she owned 6,126 objects. Here’s her analysis of how often she used each object:

  • Never used objects – 1457
  • Objects used less frequently than once a year – 2209
  • Objects used once or twice a year – 1411
  • Objects used every month – 587
  • Objects used every week – 401
  • Objects used every day – 61

Multitasking: Not

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The word has been going around for years now that multitasking does not make you work faster or more effectively. Still, the myth persists, maybe because people have so much to do that they can’t imagine getting it done unless they do many things at once.Goddess multitasking

I wrote about this a few years ago in my previous blog, with a link to some of the scientific research. A new book is coming out on the subject this month called The Myth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw. There’s a link to it in my Amazon store in the left sidebar.

According to the video on his website, the book goes over all that evidence that multitasking doesn’t work. He then adds a new wrinkle, which is that people can always tell if you’re doing something else while talking to them (that includes driving). This is bad for your personal relationships and for your business relationships. If your relationships suffer, your business and your life suffer too.

The Goddess of Multitasking from jurvetson’s photostream.

Get My Ebook: 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized

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Cover design2This ebook will help you get organized. What exactly will you get out of it? Lots of creative, helpful and immediately useful tips, including:

  • You’ll get more time. Time to spend the way you want to
  • You’ll be in control of your environment
  • Your life will be simpler
  • You’ll save money. No more replacing lost items
  • You’ll be prepared for the unexpected. Because it’s going to happen!
  • You’ll experience zen-like calm because you can lay your hands on what you need, when you need it

If you use the tips in this book regularly and make them part of your daily life, I guarantee you that your life will become organized and stay that way. Yeah, it’s a commitment, but you can go at your own pace and incorporate only the tips that work best for you.

In the first half of the book, the tips are action oriented and in the second half, they’re are about your mindset. Thinking about your environment and how you interact with it is a huge part of organizing. Make sure you use tips from both sections. You can do it!

Below is the link to buy the book.

Add to Cart

Tidy Up as a Meditation

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Cover design2 Here’s a chapter from my ebook. I’m posting them every once in a while. Like it? You can buy the ebook here.

Simple Way #10

Tidy up as a Meditation

Routine physical tasks can be good opportunities to multitask, since you don’t have to think about them while you’re doing them. They can also be a great time to take a break mentally. There’s a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Being present and mindful is being enlightened.

Now, you don’t have to become a monk, but you can give your mind a break by simply paying attention to your physical actions and not letting your mind obsess and worry. When you release the stranglehold you have on your brain’s workings, you often find that new ideas and solutions will bubble up effortlessly.

Right now:
Decide that when you wash the dishes tonight you will feel the warmth of the water and the slipperiness of the soap. Listen to the water spraying.  Observer the colors and shapes of the dishes. You just wash the dishes and nothing else.

The Six Styles of Procrastination

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Hey, it’s like a quiz! Don’t you love taking quizzes? Identify your particular procrastination style and try the suggested solutions. Or try any of the solutions that appeal to you, even if you don’t match the style. If it works, it works.

These definitions come from the book It’s About Time, by psychologist Linda Sapadin, condensed by me. You may have characteristics of several types; that’s okay. Pretty normal, actually.

The Perfectionist
These people don’t want to finish, or even start, a project that they fear won’t be perfect.  They waste time refining and honing their work, but adding no value.

How to overcome:

  • Set absolute deadlines.
  • Devise other criteria and adhere to it.  Remember that anything can be improved infinitely.  There’s no ending point for improving something.  You have to pick an end point and stick to it.
  • Most of the details you’re worrying about won’t matter in the end
  • Keep in mind how much effort you can afford, given everything else that’s going on in your life.

The Dreamer
These people are better at ideas than execution.  Actually doing the work seems tedious and boring.  They are vague about how to make things happen and tend to believe they’ll be magically rescued.

How to overcome:

  • Make plans in writing
  • Talk to others regularly to “test your reality”
  • Give yourself specific tasks to do, some routine and some that make your dreams reality
  • Use a timer to keep yourself on track and honest.

The Worrier
These people fear risk and always worry “what if?”  They put off acting if it means doing something unfamiliar or uncomfortable

How to overcome:

  • Remember that avoiding decisions is still deciding
  • Motivate yourself by focusing on the positive outcome you desire
  • Break down your tasks as small as possible to circumvent fear

The Defier
These people hate feeling controlled by others.  The feel oppressed by mundane chores.  “You can’t make me” is their line.

How to overcome:

  • Realize that people are requesting you to do something, not demanding it
  • Don’t take it personally!
  • Do what you know is right, even if it means “giving in.”

The Crisis Maker
These people are adrenaline junkies.  They thrive on and even create near disasters because they’re exciting.

How to overcome:

  • Don’t wait to feel excited about a project.  That might not happen until you get involved in something.
  • Satisfy your need for speed in more benign ways, like speed cleaning your kitchen.
  • Before you act, focus on how you’ll feel later, not just in the moment.

The Over Doer
These people are indecisive and unassertive.  They say yes to everyone and then get stuck.  They over commit and burn out.

How to overcome:

  • Realize you aren’t superwoman, and you’re fine the way you are now.
  • Don’t let the priorities of others take precedence over your own.
  • Remember that you are already in control of your time.  You are choosing what happens to you.  Let that empower you to make positive decisions.

Still stumped? You could get a few customized tips to deal with your particular brand of procrastination during a free 20 minute consultation. I’m offering this for another week or so. Jump on it!

Must You Keep a Gift?

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Cover design2 It's book chapter Wednesday. Here you go! Like it? You can buy the ebook here.

Simple Way #7

Unwanted Gifts

Don’t hang onto gifts you’ve received just because they were gifts. Anything that does not please you or have an important use to you is not worth keeping in your life. Of course, it’s important to be tactful and not hurt the giver’s feelings. However, there’s no point to feeling guilty about not wanting a gift.

What is a gift? Ideally, it’s an expression of gratitude or friendship. That’s the most important part. When the giver and receiver participate in this exchange, they both win. Once you accept a gift and give thanks, you are free to do whatever you want with it. The same goes for gifts you give.

Try to avoid getting stuck in believing that it’s your responsibility to find a good home for an unwanted gift. That’s what recycling centers and thrift stores are for. Your job is to get it out of the house as fast as possible.

Right now:
Find a gift in your closet that you’ve been saving because you feel guilty getting rid of it. Put it in your donation bag or pass it on to someone you know will appreciate it.


Reduce Gift Clutter

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Cover design2 It’s book chapter Wednesday (um, Thursday). Here you go! Like it? You can buy the ebook here.

Simple Way #8

Reduce Gift Clutter

Request non-cluttering gifts such gourmet food, show tickets, donations in your name, wine, flowers, etc. It may seem awkward at first to tell friends and family about your new policy; after all, they’re giving you a gift! But it can also help them to know that you’re going to like what they give you and they don’t have to try to read your mind. There may always be an Aunt Martha who insists on giving you an unwanted fruitcake. Refer back to Simple Way #7 for advice.

Make it your policy to give clutter-free gifts yourself. Ask what they want. Develop your own selection of gifts such as memberships, special excursions or a personal service that you provide.

Right now:
Make a list of gifts you’d like to get so when people ask you, or when holidays are coming up, you can suggest them.


How to Organize Books

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I like an organic approach to organizing books. By that I mean that I suggest paying attention to how you use your books and what works well with your current set up before rearranging them.

  • You may find that books you use a lot are already on the most convenient shelf. If not, that's a good place to start. It doesn't matter if those books are on different subjects and are different sizes, keeping them as handy as possible is a good idea. If you have a visual memory, returning your books each time to the same spot makes it easier to find them next time.Bookshelf
  •  If you like a fun, decorative look to the bookshelf, arrange your books by the colors of the spines.
    When I first saw this method it seemed silly to me, but then I realized that it would be easy to start remembering my books by their colors.
  • If your bookshelves are spaced far apart, maximize the space by putting
    your books on the shelves horizontally. This also makes it easier to
    read the titles.
  • Use loosely grouped categories where needed. My bookshelf has several sections: professional reference, travel, decorating and home care, and gardening are some of them. Not all the books are categorized. It makes sense to categorize them when I'll refer to more than one at a time.
  • Once you start reorganizing, make sure you really want and need each book. People often find it very hard to get rid of books, but just like anything else in your home that you don't use, books can be clutter. Release the ones that aren't serving you anymore.

Gorgeous bookshelves courtesy of chotda's flickr stream.


Organization = Self Respect

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I read an excerpt from Sandra Felton's recent book, Organizing for Life, on Amazon today (and I put it at the top of my Amazon list in the left column). I have quite a few of her books and I like all of them. As a reformed "messie," she brings insight and compassion into the problems disorganized people face.

Felton book
Felton's theory is that messy people treat themselves poorly by not being organized. They say they don't want to spend the time and energy to put things in order, but they then relegate themselves to lives full of chaos. She writes: "They are happy to show you how they do without the things other people who recognize their worth and dignity provide for themselves."

Being organized, then, isn't about doing things "right" or living the way others expect you to. It's about respecting yourself enough to create and maintain an attractive and supportive home and life. It's something you do because you are worth it.

I recommend Sandra Felton's books. She has lots of original, clever decluttering tricks, such as the Mount Vernon method for tidying up a room.