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One Space, Many Options

Sometimes a client will say to me: “Just tell me the right way to do things.” Seems like a perfectly reasonable request, right?

But that’s the funny thing about organizing: it’s so specific to each individual person. There is no one strategy that works for everyone!

This is because a good organizing system doesn’t just contain stuff: it nudges your brain into patterns and behaviors that will make it easier for you to retrieve and use your stuff. In order to create an organizing system for you, I have to know more about how your brain works and what nudges will get you moving in the direction you want.

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So I thought I’d show you a concrete example. Here is my upstairs linen closet. It stores the extra bedding and towels we keep for guests (we have this much because if we get creative with air mattress placement, we can sleep 7 additional people - and yes, it’s happened!).

This system totally works for me for specific reasons:

  • items are grouped by set, then item type, in a way that makes intuitive sense to me,

  • everything is neatly folded so that I can see it and easily retrieve it,

  • this is a rarely used space, so it didn’t make sense to invest a lot in customizing it,

  • the layout is straightforward enough that my husband, my weekly housekeeper, and I can all use and maintain it.

You may notice that this closet is missing two very popular things in the organizing world: labels and bins! But you know what? I personally don’t need those things to keep this space neatly organized. At this point, it’s pretty second nature for me to fold everything the same way I always do and put each item back where it came from.

That said, for different types of clients, I might recommend labels and/or bins in a very similar space.

Labels are super useful for people who are trying to get used to an entirely reconfigured space. They’re also good for people who are not familiar with living with any sort of organizing system at all and need visual cues about how to train themselves to use things and put them back where they belong. I also recommend labels for spaces that are highly trafficked by multiple people - they just help everyone get on the same page.

Bins are great for people who are easily overwhelmed by options. In this closet, instead of a face full of linens, they would only have to mentally process each item type. Bins are also good for storage spaces that are somewhat open (my closet has a door on it, so everything is neatly out of sight). And of course, the aesthetic of rows of clean, neat bins can also be really appealing!

So, I'm sorry to say that there is no one system that works for everyone! But the good news is that with over five years of experience, I’ve seen enough spaces and clients to be able to quickly and efficiently get down to business, learn about people’s needs and preferences, and build organizing systems that work and last.

Curious about what I could do for you and your home? Book your free in-home consultation here.

LMW

Organize or Containerize?

A friend of mine called me earlier this year, all in a tizzy. “I need your expert advice!” she exclaimed. She went on to explain that she was watching her sister-in-law try to organize her home, and felt like something wasn’t clicking. “She keeps buying all these pretty matching boxes,” my friend puzzled, “and putting stuff in them. But it doesn’t seem to be making a difference for her. What am I missing?”

I knew exactly what was up - I’ve seen it so many times before! And it’s a really common misconception, so please don’t beat yourself up if you’ve done this too.

“You’re right, something IS missing,” I told my friend. “But what she’s doing isn’t organizing. It’s containerizing. And it’s just a short term fix for the organizing issues she’s having.”

Sound confusing and/or somewhat ridiculous? Let’s break it down. 

This space is containerized, but not organized. At this point, the client and I still needed to edit her items and store like with like in containers that made sense to her.

This space is containerized, but not organized. At this point, the client and I still needed to edit her items and store like with like in containers that made sense to her.

Organizing makes life easier. The way it does this is by making sure you can efficiently find and use the things you need to accomplish life tasks, from getting ready in the morning to paying bills to completing home renovation projects. Common tactics include storing like with like and keeping most frequently used items most accessible.

Containerizing is just what it sounds like: placing stuff in containers to make a space look nicer.

You can absolutely organize effectively without containers. It might look a little sloppier than you’d like, but if you’ve set up the system correctly, it should work for you. I went into this in a little more detail earlier this week, and you can see actual pictures there of closets I’ve completed for happy clients that involve fewer containers than most organizing inspo photos on social media.

You can containerize without organizing, but it will not make your life easier in the slightest - and might even make it more difficult! How? Well, visualize a cluttered space in your home. Now imagine that instead of crowded shelves and surfaces, there are matching baskets full of all the stuff that currently occupies that space. Sounds amazing, right? Ok, now imagine that you need to find one single item: a Sharpie. Where is it? If you just put stuff willy nilly into containers to make the space look nicer, you are going to have no actual idea where the Sharpie is, and you’ll have to ransack each and every basket in order to find it. Not so amazing after all!

Now, there’s no shame in liking to put stuff in containers. I definitely use wire baskets in my laundry room, drawer dividers in my closet, and canisters for dry goods in my kitchen. But in order to use containers of any kind effectively, you’re going to need to organize the stuff that goes in them first.

This is why, when people ask me if they should buy bins or tubs before they start working with me, I say absolutely not! There’s no way to know how we should containerize your stuff until we organize it first.

Got lots of containers and still feel overwhelmed in your space? Get in touch, I can help you get organized AND containerized!

LMW

Perfectly Imperfect

For the first few years of my business, I operated in a bubble of my own making. I served my clients, I learned from them, and I deepened and refined my own ideas about organizing. I did this rather intentionally: I wanted to develop my own voice, rather than glom on to someone else’s ideas.

This is an organized closet. The client can find and use everything. It’s just not a picture perfect closet, and that’s ok!

This is an organized closet. The client can find and use everything. It’s just not a picture perfect closet, and that’s ok!

And then I gained some confidence in my skills, got on Instagram and started following other organizer accounts and… hoooooo boy. The extreme precision and decoration on a lot of organizing layouts, sometimes seemingly to the detriment of actual usage of the system, really threw me for a loop. (Want to know what I’m talking about? Search #organizinginspo on Instagram.)

I’m glad I spent that time in my bubble, because it didn’t cause me to question my own work or become jealous of others’ success. Instead, I was able to approach this very powerful (and very pretty, it must be admitted) organizing trend from an inquisitive place. Why did I have such a visceral reaction to some of these pictures? Why did I instantly know on a gut level that this was not the kind of work I wanted to do?

It comes down to the whole reason I started my business in the first place: I fundamentally believe that the point of organizing is to make life easier. And organizing doesn’t have to mean custom labels ordered off Etsy, rainbow order everything, or matching baskets for days. Organizing means a system of dealing with stuff that works and lasts.

I was explaining this with no small degree of passion and hand waving to my business coach last week, and he looked and said, “besides, if something looks too perfect, you don’t want to use it and mess it up.”

This is also an organized closet. Using boxes for the sweaters on the shelf would actually have discouraged this client from using them!

This is also an organized closet. Using boxes for the sweaters on the shelf would actually have discouraged this client from using them!

I mean, he really hit the nail on the head there. Imagine setting up this big, beautiful organizing system in your closet… and then you wake up the next morning and need to get dressed. What do you do? Are you comfortable with taking down baskets to get out a pair of underwear, flipping through hangers, unfolding knits? Or are you so bummed in advance about the idea of this system getting messed up that you just grab what’s closest to the front and leave everything perfectly in place? I have to tell you, I don’t rainbow order my clothes, because I know I’m not going to maintain it. And I have a lot of practice with using and maintaining organizing systems!

It’s kinda like what I talked about last year regarding using things up and wearing things out. Of course, we shouldn’t treat our belongings carelessly, but we should also actively use them if we love them so much! As much of a bummer as it is to totally thrash a pair of shoes, all the joy taken in wearing them is irreplaceable, and the vision of them sitting perfectly untouched in the closet couldn’t ever come close.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that organizing is for real life. And real life is imperfect! That’s why I focus so much on the actual function of the systems I set up for my clients, and when I do consider the aesthetic of a setup, ensure that it blends seamlessly with the client’s existing home and style.

Later this week… what happens when you put the aesthetic first, rather than the system? Hint: it’s not actually organizing!

LMW

Ask A Professional Organizer #2 - Is my home as organized as you think?

I introduced my video series to you a couple weeks ago, and the second installment is here! Please enjoy my dorky self answering another question - or really, a statement - that I hear a lot. If you like the video, I would so appreciate it if you would subscribe to my channel, click the thumbs up to like it, and potentially even share with friends you think might also like to peek inside the world of professional organizing.

Is There Hope For Teens' Messy Rooms After All?

You guys, I’ve discovered a secret super power. I love working with teenagers to organize their rooms, and it seems that they like working with me too!

When I started working with this 17 year old on her bedroom, we couldn’t see the floor!

When I started working with this 17 year old on her bedroom, we couldn’t see the floor!

There could be a few things going on here. For one thing, I think it makes a difference that I’m not a parent. I have a lot of friends who are parents, and I hear from them about their struggles, so I can definitely empathize with parents’ frustrations with their teens’ messy rooms. At the same time, I’m not a parent myself, and so in some way I still self-identify as someone’s daughter rather than someone in charge. This allows me to relate directly to my teen clients.

In addition, from the very beginning of my business, I have maintained that my client is the person who lives in the space I am organizing. This may be the person who is paying me, but not always. This means that when I’m working with a teenager, I’m talking directly to them, and listening to their needs and desires for the space. 

Here are a few things I’ve noticed when working with teens and their parents - perhaps these observations might inspire you to approach your teen and their room situation from a new angle!

We affectionately dubbed the top of this bookshelf her “smell-good station.”

We affectionately dubbed the top of this bookshelf her “smell-good station.”

  1. No matter how messy a teen’s room or how long it’s been that way - they may hate it as much as you do! Just because someone lives in a disorganized environment doesn’t mean that’s their preference, they may just not have the resources or energy to change it. So often a teen needs help getting started and tools to keep going, rather than discipline.

  2. Teens learn how to live in a home from their parents over the course of their lives. So, if your home has perpetually disorganized areas, it should not be surprising that your teen’s room follows suit. And as a result, they’re going to be pretty resentful if you ask something of them (a clean room) that you don’t ask of yourself. Think back to your teen years - didn’t you hate hypocrites like none other?

  3. The teen years are all about the struggle for control. Teens feel like they’re ready to be adults, and parents are totally freaked because they know decision making skills have not yet been… refined. The good news is that a teen’s room is a pretty safe space to give them practice with taking ownership. If you let them organize their room the way they want to - even if it doesn’t map exactly to your vision - you very well may get a tidier space and a happier kid.

Above all, if you are the frustrated parent of a teen with a messy room, I beg of you: please, please, please DO NOT declutter and organize the teen’s room without their participation. It will totally backfire on you. Why? By doing so, you’ll break their trust. And trust, as we all know, is a really hard thing to get back.

 If you have questions about how to help your teenager get started on organizing their space, let’s talk!

LMW

Little Adjustments, Big Impact

I am not a fan of productivity hack culture. I find most of the ideas hawked by self help authors, podcasters, and vagabonding entrepreneurs to be less impactful than they seem and more work than they’re worth. I’m especially skeptical when it becomes obvious that the productivity hacker in question doesn’t have a clear vision of why they’re saving all that time. They just seem to be wedging more work and more hacks into the day, rather than taking that extra time and using it on something meaningful to them.

However, there are three tweaks to routine that my husband and I have made together that have moved us forward on three important shared goals: to read more of higher quality stuff, to get more, better sleep, and to spend more, better time together. If you share any of these goals, I’d recommend considering the following small changes to your routine.

1) No phones in the bedroom.

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I resisted this one HARD, you guys. And I made all the excuses you’re probably thinking of. My phone is my alarm clock! We don’t have a landline! I like to check email and social media in bed as a transition into my day each morning!

But the fact of the matter is that having access to our phones in bed meant that we were accidentally staying up too late and spending lots of time technically in the same space but ignoring each other. Plus, I was more likely to run late in the mornings because I got distracted scrolling through somethingorother before I even got out of bed.

We used the occasion of moving into our new master bedroom to start with a clean slate - and light assisted plug in alarm clocks. I have read more books in the last year than I probably did in the three preceding it, but I have to confess… if it’s a REALLY good book, I WILL stay up!

2) No drinking during the week.

I have never been particularly concerned about my relationship with alcohol. So when I read an article about the idea of only drinking on weekends, I resisted this idea too - what fun would it be to give up the pleasure of sharing a glass of wine to unwind at the end of a rough day? 

A little moderate abstention makes The Best Martini In The World all the more delicious!

A little moderate abstention makes The Best Martini In The World all the more delicious!

But the fact is that two things are true. The ritual of drinking causes me to check out mentally with the first sip - which means that any time after that is a wash in terms of any meaningful activity, including reading. And even one drink makes me more sluggish in the morning.

So, I brought up the idea to my husband and he agreed to give it a go. We have used the same rules from the article - abstain on school nights except for social events and vacations - and the better evening and mornings are totally worth it. I even dropped about five pounds without thinking about it!

3) Close the office door on evenings and weekends.

I have a nasty habit of retreating to my home office whenever I’m bored to check email, scroll through social media, and basically doodle around and waste time. I hate that I do this, but I couldn’t find a way to stop myself. Until that is, I was having coffee with Alexis Haselberger, a time management and productivity expert, and she told me that she physically closes her home office door to be able to focus on her family and personal life.

We’re still testing this one out, but early signs are good. We’ve been spending at least a couple evenings a week curled up on the couch with the dog between us and either noses in books or both looking over a laptop to do some planning. A far cry over retreating to our separate spaces to consume separate sources of media!

What seemingly small adjustment have you made that had a big impact on your life?

LMW

Master Bathroom Reveal

Designing a bathroom is a little more complex than installing a closet - as I found out first hand! The room isn’t a blank canvas of a neat box, but instead more of a puzzle of plumbing, structural issues, and of course, organizing needs.

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Before we started the design, I knew exactly how I wanted to organize the space. We wanted a separate tub and shower, as well as a water closet with a door, and double sinks. I have found that double sinks are one of those little luxuries that really cut down on minor spousal squabbles! And I wanted both individual and shared storage areas, since many toiletries are person specific but you also need a spot for medication, first aid supplies, and other things everyone uses.

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I worked closely with both my architect, Stuart Hills of Apparatus Architecture, and my contractor (no website, booked for the next 3 years, that’s life in San Francisco) to create the design. I picked out the herringbone floor tile and marble counter top, and suggested the black on white tile frames on the opposing walls. It was my contractor who suggested turning a negative (an extremely thick foundation that runs along the back wall of the entire room) into a positive (the continuous counter top that gives us an extra deep sink area and provides a shelf in both the shower and tub areas). And it was Stuart who steered me away from a tile backsplash (too dated) and suggested instead that we mount the medicine cabinets and light fixtures on a mirrored surface.

There are, as ever, trade offs whenever you design a space. In order to get the aforementioned double sinks, we had to sacrifice vanity storage space. So, we went with medicine cabinets for our individual toiletry needs, and use the drawers in the middle of the vanity for shared products. The under sink areas each have pull out drawers where we store backup and travel sized products. 

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I’m really big into uncluttered surfaces in my own home. So, everything that you can see out on the countertop has a purpose and was specifically selected. In the shower, that means only the products we use daily are there. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but totally unnecessary, to pick a single brand for your shower - hey Kiehl’s, if you were to make a shaving cream for ladies, that would really completely my picture here - it’s just important to edit down to what you really need. I’m also a fan of buying larger containers where possible to cut down on the amount of plastic you use overall.

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Clutter free living in a bathroom also means that my medicine cabinet has to hold all my skincare and hair products. Since this photo was taken, I have actually also moved all my makeup here as well - the mirrored storage unit on the counter by the tub was bugging me! I manage this by maintaining a high quality, tightly edited collection. Although I’m actually quite a product junkie, following new releases and keeping a list of things I’d like to try, I follow a hard and fast rule: I can only have one of each type of product open and in use at any one time, with no more than one backup stored for when it runs out. No, I can’t buy everything shiny, new, and pretty to hit the market. But, what I do have is everything I need at my fingertips and a truly enjoyable primping experience because I love each and every product (well, maybe not the zit cream…).

I’m so happy with how our master bathroom turned out, and I feel like I’ve settled into a nice groove of being able to get ready efficiently every day. Because that’s what organizing is all about in the end - making life easier!

LMW

What. The. BLEEP.

I follow a lot of other professional organizers on Instagram - it’s fun to see what people are working on and get inspiration from their projects! But something I saw the other day really shocked me on a visceral level.

Below a picture of a spare pantry shelf featuring neatly categorized snacks in open wire baskets was a caption with a “pro tip”. The organizer suggested that to give your pantry a desirable, high end look, you should purchase attractive snacks and fancy water (SmartPop and Fiji were mentioned by name), store them in pretty rows and wire baskets, and then… Never. Eat. Them.

WHAT?? Guys. Wait. No. Seriously??

The first pantry I ever organized - nicely labeled and containerized, but still very functional!

The first pantry I ever organized - nicely labeled and containerized, but still very functional!

Let’s unpack this for a second. I’ve been processing this for a few days now, and I’m still just staggered that this organizer is suggesting you devote storage space to things that you do not need and will not consume in order to create a certain look. In a room in your house that NO ONE EVER GOES IN.

First of all, we’ve got the straight up waste. I don’t know about you, but food waste really bothers me. It’s not just a waste of money, but also of the resources used to grow, manufacture, and package the food. Food waste is also a huge environmental problem, taking up space in sewers and landfills. And there are hungry people in this country for goodness’ sake - it’s just extraordinarily poor taste to flaunt never-to-be-touched food in a public forum.

Second of all, this is an epic case of Keeping Up With The Jones’ (or Kardashians, if you’ve seen the pics of their cookie jars that no one eats from). It’s another example of mindless consumption at its least constructive. If you actually eat SmartPop and drink Fiji water, and have large enough pantry in which to store them in pretty wire baskets with lots of white space, awesome! But if you don’t, create your own custom version of a well organized food storage area and live your truth. I find it extremely ethically suspect to recommend that people put on a facade of a lifestyle they do not live. It can only lead to feeling more empty behind that false front.

Another straightforward pantry I organized for a busy young family.

Another straightforward pantry I organized for a busy young family.

And third, we’ve got the total perversion of the entire point of organizing a home. The reason to get organized is to make your life easier. Full stop. Organized living means you spend less time and energy dealing with your stuff, and instead devote those resources to the relationships and activities that truly matter to you. A pantry full of pretty uneaten food contributes to an easier life in exactly zero ways.

I’m just… I’m agog. It’s all well and good to create an aesthetically pleasing home. But to go to this degree in a PANTRY? Where no one goes except the people who live in that house? Just so you can post pictures on social media? Of measuring up to somebody else’s idea of what “high end” is and why that is desirable? I am so squicked out by the whole idea.

I’ve now been helping people organize their homes for over five years. And I can tell you conclusively that happiness does not come from more stuff, or fancier stuff. It comes from feeling love, connection, and contribution. A fake “high end” pantry will not make anyone any happier.

LMW

Overwhelmed by Creativity

Creativity comes along with a lot of stuff. One of my very first clients absolutely loves scrapbooking. She has a ton of backlogged projects and is always finding new inspiration. She also has all the latest and greatest scrapbooking tools and a bountiful supply of card stock, paper, ribbon, washi tape, etc. for when the creative mood strikes! As you might imagine, all this equipment and material takes up an awful lot of space and is relatively complex to keep organized. 

A little #organizationporn for all my needleworkers and color enthusiasts!

A little #organizationporn for all my needleworkers and color enthusiasts!

When I work with highly creative, inspired clients, I’m still doing the same thing I always do: helping them to edit their belongings so that we can create a streamlined organizing system that supports their goals and is easy to maintain. This does mean that I help my clients edit their raw materials and project ideas. And edit is a pretty word for delete, or throw away.

This may sound like I’m trying to limit my clients’ creativity in the interests of creating a gorgeous organizing system. And I can see that perspective. But here’s why I believe that even the most creative people benefit from careful editing.

  1. A human being only has so much time and energy. Many incredibly creative people I work with can think of more projects in a day than they could complete in years. And the more projects you add, the more stuff accumulates… but the more projects remain unfinished, or even un-started. Which leads me to…

  2. The feeling of accomplishment when you’ve finished a creative endeavor and send it out into the world - whether it’s submitting a book for publishing or just getting that photo you’re so proud of framed and hung - is incredible. It’s rewarding, and it fuels you for the next project. If you have too many ongoing ideas, you’ll never actually get through any of them, and you’ll rob yourself of the opportunity to be proud of your finished product. And anyway…

  3. There’s freedom in limitation that can lead to all kinds of surprising inspiration. It’s like kids who play for hours with the box a playhouse came in and don’t seem all that interested in the house itself - the blank canvas of a box, although it has fewer features, gives them more room for imaginative play. Plus, there’s a dark side to endless possibilities…

  4. I often work with clients who feel a sense of guilt or inadequacy from knowing that they are not following through on some great ideas. I ask them the question: will it feel better to keep this project around and know that it’s available to you to work on, or will it feel better to acknowledge that you don’t have the time and energy to complete it and let go of the idea to focus on other projects? It’s often not until I voice this question out loud that they realize how much a of a burden some projects have become!

I have to admit, I identify  and sympathize strongly with many of my creative clients. As I build my business, I’m always coming up with new ideas and projects! But I have to remember to focus on delivering my services to the very best of my ability every day, and add only those things that I truly have the time and energy to maintain.

So, creativity is not the opposite of organization! In fact, a great organizing scheme can really support your creative projects and help you bring more of those brilliant ideas to fulfillment. 

LMW

Rethink Your Approach: A 3-Step System for Organizing Paper

What if I told you that the average adult couple needs just one standard size file drawer to store all the paper they require for their personal lives?

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Many people I talk to about organizing immediately bring up their struggle with paper. From the influx of mail to all the paper that comes home from school with kids, the sheer amount of paper in our lives can be really overwhelming. Yes, even in the year 2019, when we have theoretically gone digital!

There’s just something about paper. Maybe it’s a holdover from an earlier age, when every single piece of paper was potentially important… and also irreplaceable. Maybe it’s because we’ve been burned by digital storage in the past. Maybe it’s because we still don’t fully trust the privacy of digital storage. I suspect that for many of us, it’s a combination of the above. 

No matter why we struggle with paper, we can’t avoid it, so we need a way to deal with it! And in order to get to a place where we have only the paper we need, we have to reframe the way we think about it. 

I’ve developed a three-tiered system for addressing paper that I use in my own life, and that serves as the basis of paper management systems I set up for all my clients.  It works like this: when a piece of paper comes into your home, it can fall into one of three possible categories:

1) This is an important record that must be kept in paper format (e.g. mortgage paperwork, car title)

> All important records should be kept in a neatly organized filing system. I personally recommend a drawer because it is less likely that files will get banged up or rearranged. 

Pro tip: if you have a folder labeled “Miscellaneous” - you’ll never find those items when you’re looking for them! File documents the way that you would think to retrieve them.

2) This represents an action item (e.g. pay a bill, RSVP to an invitation)

>All paper action items should be kept in one location within your field of vision where you usually take care of these sorts of tasks. The idea is that you will constantly be presented with these items so you won’t forget to do them, but they won’t be spread everywhere creating clutter that overwhelms you.

Pro tip: once you’ve done the action item, toss the paper immediately and enjoy the feeling of relief!

3) This can be tossed immediately

>Anything not in the above categories can be thrown away. Notice that I said, “can,” not “must.” I encourage all my clients to reframe their perspective on paper and let go of the pieces they don’t need, but I also acknowledge that everyone has a different comfort level and may need to move to a low-paper lifestyle over time.

Pro tip: most of the paper that comes into your home fits in this third category!

If a deluge of paper is overwhelming you and your household, try on my three tiered system for size and let me know how it goes!

LMW