Podcast 147: Still not starting

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Hi, everyone. I’m posting one of my early podcasts about dealing with not being able to get started. I’m doing that partly because I feel stressed out and uncreative and have zero ideas for what to write about today. And I’m posting this particular one because I think it’s helpful information for our current situation.

The coronavirus pandemic is causing stress for everyone. Stress induces your prefrontal cortex to shut down. That part of your brain is responsible for impulse regulation, and also for focus and motivation. Not getting much done these days? That’s why.

I chose this podcast to replay because I know many people feel that they should be super productive now when they have all this extra time on their hands. But maybe you should just give yourself a break and realize that your brain doesn’t always know best. I hope this helps.

This is podcast 71 and my topic is starting. I talked about that a few podcasts back, where I gave some ideas on how to get into action when you find yourself continuing NOT to. This time I’ll talk less about technique and more about mindset, or the emotional background to starting. Or not starting.

Sometimes not starting means you’re procrastinating. But whenever you bring up that word, you start talking about what you’re procrastinating about and why you’re procrastinating and then go looking for one of those lists of ways to quit procrastinating. More technique, in other words.

Other times, not starting feels like a deeper issue. It’s not just slacking off, or doing something you’d rather do. It’s about who you are as a person, or it feels that way. I’m having problems with not starting with my artwork so this is on my mind right now.

When I notice I’m not starting to work on art, I’m not inclined to look around for ideas on getting myself to start. No, I’m reflecting inward and observing the void of me not working and making negative judgments about it. I’m grimly remembering how often I have not started in the past. I’m defining myself as a person who doesn’t start.

Needless to say, this does not motivate me to change because I’ve already decided that I can’t start, or at least, I’m pretty terrible at starting. I don’t want to add another black mark to my eternal personal record by not starting again.

This taint spreads to other parts of my life where I eagerly ferret out examples of myself not doing something I should, or need to. By this time, there’s no going back from the downward spiral.

At this point, it’s very hard for me to resist jumping into fix-it mode, for myself and for you. I have a ton of ideas for what might help, what might get things moving and feelings improving. I feel responsible for having the answers and imparting them so I can help people.

I want to stick with this, though, and try to get a better picture of what’s happening. Maybe this happens to you too. How do you feel when you’ve failed once again to declutter your bedside table, which really is not rocket science?

For some reason, we dwell much more on our failures than our successes. Every day, we do a bunch of things pretty well. But if they’re things that “anybody” could do, we don’t value them a lot. We value the hard things, the ones that superior people magically can do. We start painting ourselves into a corner of “can’t do” and the things we actually can do feel very distant and irrelevant.

Although I notice this regularly, I am still always surprised at how black and white my thinking gets. I totally lose sight of the bigger picture. I can only see this awful little corner I’m stuck in, probably forever.

I do find it helpful to observe all this. identifying and expressing how I feel moment by moment somehow allows me a bit of objectivity. Not enough to extricate myself from the corner just yet, but enough to at least entertain the notion that I may in fact not feel this way tomorrow. In this moment, I don’t believe that’s true, but I’m willing to accept that it’s possible.

A further observation is that even if I feel better tomorrow, more motivated, more positive, more energetic, I will feel crappy again in the future. The feelings I have now, feeling bad about not starting, will go away, but then they’ll come back. They’ll go away and then come back. And so on and so on.

This idea is strangely comforting to me. Maybe a part of me stops resisting the negative feelings so much because it seems they’re part of me and I can’t avoid them forever. I don’t have to embrace them or like them. I don’t have to get out my gratitude journal or run out and do a good deed for a stranger. I don’t have to do anything at all. Like ocean tides, these feelings will come and go.

For once, I’m not giving you an action step, except to let yourself, allow yourself, to be aware of what’s happening inside when you don’t start. Whatever you struggle with, whether making art or organizing your life (or both), you’ll be here again. See if you can allow it without judging it.

I want to credit my inspirations for what I’ve presented today. First, a great book called The Creativity Book by Eric Maisel. The author is encouraging and compassionate. Second is the Zen Habits blog written by Leo Babauta. He is great at revealing our human habits and beliefs so we can change them. Third is a book I’ve quoted before, the War of Art by Steven Pressfield, about overcoming resistance.

Podcast 134: Set achievable goals

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This is podcast 134 and it’s about setting achievable goals. We live in a culture where we’re encouraged to set daring goals for ourselves. There’s even an acronym, BHAG, that stands for big, hairy, audacious goal. I approve of goal setting as a way to keep yourself motivated and to be able to tell whether you’ve gotten to the place you want to be so you can stop and acknowledge your progress.

But for many people, setting a BHAG for everything we want to do in life is just stressful. Big goals demand a lot of attention and energy and if there’s not room in your life for one, you may just end up feeling overwhelmed and disappointed in yourself.

Goals don’t have to be big to be effective. I’m putting out this podcast episode now for all of you who have time off from work during the holidays who may have a big audacious plan to organize the entire garage. I’m here to tell you that if you’re not sure that’s do-able, you can bite off a smaller goal and I will still give you the Clutter Coach seal of approval.

I suggest picking a smaller organizing project. It could be your bedside table, or your kitchen junk drawer. I did a whole episode on the junk drawer a few years ago. There are several reasons I like the idea of picking a smaller, very do-able goal.

First, you will accomplish it! It’s not cheating to pick a project small enough to be totally confident you’ll finish it. Stack the deck in your own favor! Keep those training wheels on your bike until you can pedal without them!

I’m a big believer in being motivated by the carrot and not the stick. I want to feel good about myself because it makes me more receptive to doing things that are harder or that I don’t really want to do. I’ve already succeeded at something so my confidence is high.

Second, working toward a goal you know you can reach is much less stressful. Stress can certainly stimulate people to stick with their goals, but when you can work toward one without stress, you have time to pay more attention to what you’re doing. You have time to reflect on why the things you find on your bedside table are there, whether you want to keep them there and where a better place might be to keep them.

Organizing isn’t a race. It works better when you understand the concepts you’re applying and think carefully about how they work in your life. Maybe you had a plan to read all the books stacked on the nightstand, but it doesn’t seem to be happening and the pile is getting higher. You could choose to renew your commitment to reading, or you could whittle pile down to a less challenging height, or you could give the books away because you realize that you only read on your Kindle now.

Any of those decisions is based on you noticing what’s happening and making a decision about it, even if the decision is to leave things as they are. One of the points I make over and over in this podcast is that you can’t be truly organized if you aren’t aware of all the things you own and have committed to having them in your life.

The third reason I like small goals is that they encourage a regular organizing practice. Organizing isn’t a one time thing, no matter how much we might like it to be. Neither is decluttering. Even if you did that big hairy entire garage organizing and declutter project, you’ll have to do it again next year. Such is the way of stuff.

I find it simpler to do a little here and there on a regular basis, just the way you maintain other parts of your life. Think of little doses of decluttering as being like doing the laundry. It may not be your favorite way to spend time, but you do it anyway. It’s clear to you that it has to happen and has to happen regularly.

You don’t want to keep wearing sweaty clothes or sleep on dirty sheets. It’s not so much that those consequences inspire you to do the laundry; it’s simply an accepted part of life. If you can get to the point of treating organizing and decluttering that way, you are winning.

My advice for spending your time off is first, play and have fun and rest. Then, spend a little time on a small project you know you can finish. Feel good about that. Feel so good about it that you won’t resist doing it again next week, and the week after, etc.

What you can do right now: Pick that little project. Here are some more ideas: kitchen counter, dining table, front hall entryway, linen closet or medicine cabinet. No matter what you pick, you’re getting the Clutter Coach seal of approval!

Idea > Decision > Action

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For many people, it’s easier and more fun to think up new ideas than to take action on the ones they already thought of. Buckling down and focusing on one idea and making it happen can make them antsy.

Sometimes the project you take on is very large and there are so many things to address that you’re tempted to start them all at once. When it comes to organizing, this can get you into trouble.

The process is this: have an idea, make a decision, take the action.

For example, the idea could be “organize the bottom shelf,” the decision is “only have notebooks, pads and file folders there,” and the action is getting those items into the spot and finding other homes for anything that doesn’t fit those categories.

Here’s what happens when you leave off the action part.

My client, Annie,* is a big picture kind of gal. She’s very good with coming up with ideas and making decisions. The action part, not so much. She’d rather move on to the top shelf, or the counter above the shelves, or the table on the other side of the room.

She had numerous shopping bags with things sorted into them. Some of them were marked, some not. There were also piles and collections of items on which decisions had been made. This is definitely progress, but it’s not enough.

We needed to spend some time moving the physical stuff around.

For Annie, this was the tedious, low priority part. But not doing it was impeding our progress. It was like having puzzle pieces all over the floor and knowing exactly where each one went, but not assembling them into a completed picture.

Is this a sticking point for you? Look around and see if you’ve collected some piles of decisions that need a nudge to get to the next step. If taking the action seems dreary and monotonous, approach it like washing the dishes. It’s a chore that needs doing and you don’t really need to like it.

The good news is that you’ll stir up some good energy by moving things along. You’ll also see some inspiring progress when you see the results of all that decision making!

* Not her real name. In fact, whenever I write about my clients, I’m usually combining events and compositing people.


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What is clutter?
Clutter is anything that gets in your way or is in the wrong place. Sort of like weeds in your garden. Clutter can be last week’s newspaper, clothes you never wear, bits of random in information in your head, volunteer activities you feel compelled to do.

What does it mean to be organized?
You are organized if you can find everything you have when you need it and you are clear about what you’re doing  and you’re not worried about what comes next because you know you’ll be prepared.

Why can’t I get organized?
There are many possible reasons. Here are some popular ones. You don’t make time regularly to get organized. Your stuff doesn’t have a regular place to live. You don’t put things in logical (to you) places. You think it’s too hard or too overwhelming so you don’t even try. You put off small tasks until they become unmanageable.

Why can’t I stay organized?
The most common answer to this is that you don’t make time. A good organizing system should require little effort to keep going, but it does require some effort and regular effort. If you have a lovely mail sorting area but you only sort once a month, it’s going to get disorganized. The mail comes every day and piles up quickly.

What if I can’t get organized by myself? Am I dumb?
No, of course not! Getting organized isn’t rocket science but it is a skill. It can be easier to learn a skill like this with the help of a professional organizer (like me!) than from a book.

The Seven Deadly Organizing Sins: Pride

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the organizing sin of pride

This is sin #6: pride. I’ve already written about gluttony, wrath, lust, greed and sloth.

Now, being proud is not always a sin. Pride has to do with self-worth. The problem, or organizing sin, comes in when your self-worth derives from stuff you have rather than who you are.

Pride drives people to buy fancy cars, huge houses and designer goods. They might really want or need those things. Or they might want to impress the neighbors and keep up with the Joneses. Worse yet, they want to be better than the neighbors (and their credit card bills are enormous!).

If you find yourself buying something because of how others will think of you when you own it, you’re in organizing sin territory. When you drop references to expensive items you have or celebrities you’ve hobnobbed with, you’re trying to look more important; hey, the sin of pride!

How should your possessions make you feel? I like the William Morris quotation: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Your things should make you feel good, based on your own needs and desires, no one else’s.

To avoid sin: Reflect on your motivation when you’re faced with a buying or acquiring decision. Ask yourself: do I truly need or want this thing because it’s immediately useful or I feel that it’s beautiful and it makes me happy? Make sure you’re not deciding based on impressing others or one-upping them.

How to hire an organizer and be happy about it

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sweaters folded by an organizer

When I’m stumped for blog topics, or I just want to see what people are saying about organizing, I go online and surf around. Today I came across a post from someone who had a bad experience hiring an organizer.

If you’ve had this issue or have read about it and been scared off hiring someone, read on.

A couple with a self-proclaimed “huge problem with Stuff” hired someone to help them maximize their storage, but not pare down. That’s what they asked for.

Working with a couple is tricky. Usually, one member is more organized than the other. I’ve gotten calls from people who want me to come organize them, but really it’s the caller who wants me to organize the other person. This does not work.

Problem #1: the writer says it’s his wife who doesn’t want to get rid of things but he does.


Before I meet with a couple, I clarify what they both want and note that I’ll consult each of them on every decision. Sometimes one will defer to the other. Most of the time, compromise is necessary (that’s what it’s like living with someone, right?)

The organizer they hired turned out to be pretty intent on getting them to get rid of stuff. Although it was uncomfortable for the wife, they decluttered significantly. However, no systems were designed to prevent the problem from happening again.

Problem #2: the scope of services was not clarified upfront.


Is the organizer helping you declutter, use storage better, design new storage, develop clutter-free habits, or all of the above? They don’t necessarily all go together.

Only three out of eight rooms were organized and the process felt rushed. It seems that they called a halt to the project because they weren’t happy. I’m speculating here, but the organizer may have bid the project based on organizing two rooms per day.

Problem #3: An estimate that makes you rush pell mell through a project should be abandoned.


Clients are right to want estimates, but there is no sure way to know how long an organizing project will take. Why? First, decision making can be a snap or agonizing and slow. Second, if you don’t know what’s in that box, the organizer certainly doesn’t. It could be miscellaneous paper and take two hours to sort, or it could be some books and a broken blender that you instantly deem to be trash.

What an organizer can guarantee is that she will explain the process and concepts behind her actions, facilitate decision making, make suggestions for maintaining the organization based on your preferences and abilities, and check in with you to make sure the project is on track.

That last part includes noticing how much has been done in the past two hours, for example, and making sure the client understands why it’s taken that time. The pace should make the client feel confident in making decisions and inspired by the level of progress.

The writer warns that after the organizer leaves, “it’s up to you to keep it up,” meaning that stuff doesn’t stay organized by itself.

Problem #4: The organizer didn’t explain properly to the clients that maintenance is their job after she leaves.


For clients with huge stuff problems, learning how to overcome them and then putting that learning into practice takes time and commitment. If the organizer also acts as a coach, she can help the clients stay focused and on track.

Many organizers offer maintenance visits and/or telephone coaching for that reason. Otherwise, it’s like coming home from the fat farm and going right back to your old eating habits. Now, that’s a waste of money!

Good communication is key when working with an organizer. The above problems could have been avoided with more communicating and explaining. What do you think?

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

The hidden side of getting organized

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How does it feel to be disorganized? Not so good, right? I’ve heard people say embarrassed, overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious and desperate.

Here’s the thing. It can be really hard to make a change when you’re in the grip of such negative emotions.

If you act from those emotions, every decision will be agony and you’ll feel so tired and disheartened that you won’t get very far anyway.

This is one reason why I start my clients off with clarifying their vision of what they want. The vision focuses on the good stuff; the calm, serenity and ease they want to feel. That’s where the power comes from.

Making that emotional journey can be a challenge.


Organizing itself is not so hard. Having a vision and staying motivated to bring it to reality is the hard part.

That’s why many people find it hard or impossible to get organized on their own. It’s not the spice rack alphabetizing that stops them, it’s the habit development, commitment and willingness to keep getting back on the horse.

It’s okay to get help. Organizers know about containers and filing systems, and they also know about how to keep their clients inspired and on track.

The first bits of information you can get from a book. For the others, you need someone who’s on your side, troubleshooting and encouraging you. So, reach out. What’s stopping you?



Embrace your personal organizing style

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“I can’t be organized.”

“I never learned about organizing.”

“My mom was a packrat and so am I.”

“My father was super neat and always gave me a hard time about my mess.”

“My grandparents lived through the Depression so they keep everything.”

Have you said any of those things? If so, here’s the truth:

Your ability to be organized has nothing to do with your genes.

It may have to do with your personal history, but only if you want to stick to that story.

Sandra Felton, the founder of Messies Anonymous, says that messies can come from “cleanie” homes or messy homes or any combination thereof. Whatever your experience was, you have the capacity to become a cleanie, or at least move in that direction.

One of my clients told me that her cleanie mother tried to teach her organizing skills and she just didn’t get it. She felt hopeless and dumb. Her story brings up another aspect of being organized.

There’s not just one way to be organized.

Isn’t that great news?

Your thinking style, learning style and personality style all factor into how you organize your world. Your mother may be organized but also visual and sentimental. She crowds tabletops with family photographs. If your style is more “hider”, you won’t grow up with any clues on how to organize in drawers, cabinets or closets because you didn’t witness it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you haven’t learned how yet.

We are suckers for systems that lay out exactly what we should do for success, but then we blame ourselves when they don’t work. Here’s the thing: you need to hack the systems to suit you. Discover and embrace your own organizing style, based on who you are today, right now, and how you like to live.

The Sublime Thrill of an Empty Box

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It’s said people are motivated by two things: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Of course, we also want to make a difference in the world, be compassionate and kind to animals; that’s the big picture.

Those big picture motivators don’t always work so well when it comes to finishing an organizing project.

Sometimes we just don’t wanna do it and that’s that.

Discovering what motivates you in terms of pleasure and pain can help you over that hump. One of my clients noticed how excited and pleased she felt when she emptied a cardboard box and tossed it over to the door for recycling. Whee!

She realized how important it was to celebrate her “little victories.”

It gave her a ton of encouragement to go on, just seeing one more box leave her apartment for good. She exulted in the empty spot where the box had been taking up space.

What about avoiding pain? That can be pretty motivating. Finally setting up automatic bill pay after racking up way too many late fees is an example of that. Another one is installing a hook near the front door for your keys so you can stop being late to meetings.

What are some ways you’ve motivated yourself to do something that you really want to do, but are having trouble staying committed to?