I knock on the door and wait. It takes awhile for new organizing client, Sarah to navigate her way to the door. Slowly the door opens… just a crack. Sarah cautiously peeks out to make sure that it’s me at the door and not someone else. Sarah takes a breath and opens the door wide enough for me to squeeze through sideways… because that’s as far as the door will open. I venture in and stand in about a two-square foot of cleared space by the door. I’m unable to go any further without having to climb over a continuous mound of stuff that has overtaken Sarah’s once beautiful home.
Sarah looks at me with shame and embarrassment. “This is the worst you’ve ever seen, right?” she asks with downcast eyes. I reassure her that I’ve seen homes like this many times before, and that she would be surprised to discover how many people struggle with this very same issue… extreme clutter, chronic disorganization, hoarding. I also tell Sarah that it is a true sign of strength and self-love to ask for help. By making the call to me and allowing me into her secret world, Sarah has taken the first step toward reclaiming her life and her home.
Sarah confesses that she knows she has a serious problem when it comes to clutter. Upon further exploration of Sarah’s life, I find that she has suffered some significant losses and also struggles on a daily basis with focus, concentration, decision-making and procrastination. Sarah says she just can’t stand to live like this anymore, but feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff to sort through, and fears the “letting-go” process as she has developed emotional attachments to almost every item in her home.
Sarah tells me that she has made many attempts to clean up her home but just ends up churning the items around from pile to pile with next to nothing actually leaving her home. She also tells me that many times she feels overwhelmed and just doesn’t know where to start, so she will leave to get away from the mess... often going shopping or to garage sales, bringing home her “bargains” only to toss the unopened bags on top of the already existing mound. On the days she doesn’t leave the house, she will often lose hours of time in cyberspace perusing ebay and ordering online.
Sarah wonders if there is really hope for her. I reassure her that there is because organizing is a skill that anybody can learn. I also explain to Sarah that the most effective approach to solve her problem is to begin with “extreme cleaning” followed by an aftercare plan of routine maintenance. I tell her I will help her every step of the way.
I define “extreme cleaning” as the “SOS” of cleaning. These are situations that have become so out of control, that the person feels completely overwhelmed and hopeless. In a living environment so incredibly compromised, the person’s spirit, soul, and body suffers thereby diminishing their overall quality of life.
One of the keys to successfully digging out from under the mess is one’s psychological preparation. What is the motivation level? Why organize now? I find many of my clients are very self-motivated because they are just sick and tired of living in the chaos. Sometimes the motivation to change is externally driven, such as the person is facing legal consequences (i.e., property citations/violations, eviction, or child/adult protective services involvement), the individual is unable to secure or renew homeowners’ insurance due to the condition of the home, or necessary repairs cannot be made because service personnel cannot access the home.
Another important indicator of a successful outcome is the person’s ability to recognize, challenge, and change a self-limiting mindset and belief system about the meaning he/she attaches to his/her things and the resulting feelings about giving away or throwing away those things. This is the time for the person to face these fears and concerns related to de-cluttering. For example, the fear of letting go often manifests as statements such as:
- “I might need it someday.”
- “It belonged to [fill in the blank].”
- “I paid good money for that.”
- “Someone else could use that.”
- “I don’t want it to end up in a landfill.”
- “It can be recycled.”
- “I don’t want to waste anything.”
- “My things help me retain memories of events, people, trips, etc.”
Many times a mood disorder, such as depression and anxiety, can play a debilitating role in a person’s ability to move forward with their organizing plan affecting their ability to process through their possessions, focus, and make decisions. Attention deficit disorder is also a common feature of many people with chronic disorganization and hoarding issues. In these types of situations, a person can often benefit from working with a psychotherapist and psychiatrist (if medication is warranted), as well as a professional organizer.
The Nuts and Bolts
Begin with a clear vision of how becoming organized will positively affect your life. Visualize your home clean, free of clutter, and neatly organized. Visualize yourself moving around in your space freely and unencumbered. Imagine how you will feel in this space… relaxing, cooking, working on projects, and entertaining in a space that is inviting and organized. Keep in mind that statistically, organized people generally are happier, less stressed, and have more time and money as a result of being organized.
Set “SMART” goals to bring your vision into reality: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely (“Attitude is Everything” by Paul J. Meyer). Goals that meet these criteria are more likely to be reached.
After setting your goals, put “feet” on them by creating your action plan for execution. Your action plan should break your goals down into small increments of activity that can be accomplished on a daily basis. For example, a goal for your extreme cleaning may be a living room makeover. The actions steps may include “declutter, deep clean, organize, and redecorate the living room.” Your first daily action step toward your goal, therefore, would be to declutter the living room. The second daily action step would be to deep clean the living room, and so forth.
Physical preparation is important for successfully tackling a large organizing project. Adjust your organizing goals according to any physical limitations, if any, and the daily ebb and flow of your energy level. Be sure to get a good night’s rest. Eat a healthy breakfast and keep yourself adequately hydrated.
If you feel like you just can’t go it alone, don’t hesitate to hire a professional organizer to provide hands-on assistance. Folks who struggle with chronic disorganization often have a diminished ability to focus and make decisions. A professional organizer will work along side of you and provide guidance for your project. Professional organizers can also help facilitate your decision-making process, provide focus, and keep your task moving along in a timely fashion.
Once you have chosen an area to begin organizing, use what I call the “three boxes and a bag” technique of sorting and purging. Designate the boxes as Keep, Elsewhere, Donate, and the bag for Trash. Using this technique keeps you in the area until it’s finished and eliminates unproductive zigzag organizing. Move onto the next room ONLY if you’ve finished the one before. Implement a daily “10-minute tidy” to maintain the rooms already organized and cleaned.
Take things one step at a time. It’s really hard to clean the entire house in one fell swoop. It’s much easier to break it down into smaller pieces and have a plan to tackle one room at a time. Try not to get distracted—work on that room until you’re done, then move on to the next.
When in doubt, throw it out. We all have things that are just taking up space—clothes, toys, knickknacks that we just can’t seem to find a place for. Consider each item and ask yourself, “Is this something I can’t live without?” If you’re really not sure, think about donating it. You’ll make space and do something good at the same time.