My Thoughts

Who's Responsibility Is It, Anyway? Couple Struggles Part 3

For more on organizing for couples and the issues that come up, check out the earlier posts in this series!

  • Part 1: Every Couple Struggles

  • Part 2: Who’s Really “The Organized One”?

Today, we’ll explore what happens when one partner either doesn’t acknowledge that organizing is a problem, or doesn’t want to participate in the organizing process. It’s really tough to organize your home when one half of your partnership doesn’t want to get involved in the process or see any value in the result! I actually see quite a bit of this, and the pattern is fairly similar. 

One partner is responsible for the upkeep of the home, and they’re at the end of their rope. It might be because they don’t have enough time, they’ve outgrown their skill set, or life circumstances have added complexity to a routine that used to be comfortable. Either way, their home isn’t working for their family, and it’s stressing them out big time.

The other partner isn’t stressed at all! Their day to day experience hasn’t changed much, so they don’t see the problem as significant, or something that requires their input.

I’ve been working with one couple to declutter an all-purpose storage room and garage in preparation for a remodel to create a home office. The husband is really successful, driven guy whose career demands that he spend very little time in the home, so it falls to the wife to run the household. She’s also incredibly busy with growing her business and parenting two young children, and she feels a significant amount of guilt and shame that she’s allowed parts of her home to become cluttered.

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At the beginning of our first organizing session, my client and I couldn’t walk very far into the room. About halfway through the second session, we started discovering boxes of the husband’s old school work, papers, and memorabilia, and by the end of that day we had cleared approximately 3/4 of the floor space.

I encouraged the wife to show him the progress, and ask him to take the time to go through his own belongings to contribute to the success of the organizing project. She was realistic - he doesn’t have time, she explained, and when he’s home he wants to be with the kids. All fair, I told her, and we’d organize the space no matter what happened with his stuff. But as I left, I encouraged her again to invite him to participate in his own way.

When I arrived for the third organizing session, the room was even clearer - the husband had been impressed by our progress and inspired to contribute! He had sorted through all of his papers and downsized the collection significantly.

This only happened because we showed him what was possible in the space, rather than trying to convince him of the value of organizing or forcing him to participate during the organizing sessions. We respected his ownership of his own things, and inspired him to engage.

As a matter of fact, I still haven’t met this husband, and that’s ok! The point is that the space that was completely stressing out my client is getting organized, and enabling her to move forward on the remodeling project.

It’s not for me to dictate who should handle what in a household - those sorts of negotiations are not in my scope of work! Instead, it’s my job to meet each member of a couple where they are, and to move the project forward productively while respecting each of their time, needs, and belongings.

LMW

Who's Really "The Organized One"? Couple Struggles Part 2

If you’re just joining us, take a peek at my introduction to this series on how differences in how people approach organizing their homes can cause relationship strife!

Today, I’m tackling the most common flavor of imbalance between partners when it comes to organization: the partners have accepted their roles as The Organized One and The Disorganized One, and The Organized One is in total control.

But, you might say, doesn’t this make sense? The person who’s better at something should be in charge of it! Well… not necessarily.

In many cases, the more organized person blames the less organized person for 100% of the clutter. Guys, if there’s one thing my mom taught me, it’s that it takes two to tango. Sure, it’s possible - even likely - that one person contributed more to the clutter than the other, but I have never worked with a couple in which one person was in fact perfectly organized.

This is a pile from a day of organizing in my own home - I never show my clients’ dirty laundry without permission!

This is a pile from a day of organizing in my own home - I never show my clients’ dirty laundry without permission!

One couple I worked with was dealing with what they affectionately referred to as “The Pile.” This was an ever growing and changing heap of things they didn’t know what to do with and didn’t have time to think about. The wife was suffering quite a bit of guilt about it and using humor to deflect… and the husband wasn’t exactly absolving her of that guilt! They both were totally devoted to the story that The Pile was her fault and hers alone to deal with.

Well, imagine both of their surprise when we found quite a few items belonging to the husband in “The Pile” - and not only that, but things that mattered to him that he had been looking for.

No one’s perfect, especially when it comes to organizing. And this is a key component of my work: showing my clients what’s really going on in their homes, and how everyone who lives there can contribute to creating a more organized environment no matter their natural organizing aptitude.

In the case of the couple above, the root of the problem was that they didn’t have designated homes for all of their stuff in places that made sense to both of them. During our time together, we edited their collection of belongings and created systems that both partners committed to using together. Was the process tension-free? Certainly not! But when I arrived at their home a year later to reorganize their spare bedroom for their new baby, most of the systems were still working.

So if you’re The Organized One and frustrated with The Disorganized One, it might be time for a little self-self-examination about how you might be contributing to organizing problems. And hey, Disorganized One - you might have more desire and talent for organizing your space than you thought!

Next up: what happens when one partner just doesn’t see what all the fuss is about?

LMW

Organize a Closet for the Present: How To Handle Changing Sizes

Like many women, I hate clothing sizes. I hate how inconsistent they are from brand to brand, I hate how they tell you absolutely nothing about fit or proportion, I hate that only a certain range is considered normal for an adult woman, and more than anything I hate the power they have to affect my confidence and self worth.

I know I’m not alone, because in my years of organizing, the subject of clothing sizes continues to be one of the most delicate, emotional things I handle with my clients. An awful lot of women (and many men!) have a visceral hate-hate relationship with the size tags on the clothes in their closet. 

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Body dysmorphia can come at you from every angle. I’ve worked with thin, fit women who see a much larger person in the mirror and can’t really believe that their old clothes are falling off them. I’ve worked with women who have gained weight suddenly and still try their old clothes every morning hoping against hope that they’ll fit again. And pretty much every woman whose closet I’ve worked in has recited a laundry list of things she hates about her body and how it looks in clothes.

How do I help? I encourage my clients to love themselves now, just as they are, and curate a wardrobe that makes them feel their best today. After all, the entire purpose of organizing a closet is to make sure that getting dressed is an easy and pleasant experience! 

And clothing that doesn’t fit doesn’t exactly arouse pleasant feelings. Clients who have made a weight change that’s positive for them dread a return to their old size, while clients who have made a weight change they perceive as negative feel guilt and shame that that they can’t wear their old clothes.

So, I recommend that if a weight change has been recent and/or sudden, that clients do store a wardrobe of things they love at a size they are likely to return to within the near future. I suggest that they give themselves a reasonable time limit, and if the clothing still doesn’t fit at that time, to donate it.

 However, if the weight change has been maintained for a longer period of time, I do encourage my clients to donate all clothes that no longer fit, even if they were once loved. This process is usually difficult, but it allows the client to focus on the present, and living with and loving the person they are here, today.

After all, that’s what I’m trying to help my clients do: be present!

LMW

Couple Struggles Part 1: Everyone Has Them

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There is a fundamental truth I have learned: if there is a couple that exists, one person will be more organized than the other, and this discrepancy will cause strife.

I’ve lived this conflict in my own relationship! I’m sure you can guess who the more organized person in our household might be… and it used to drive me crazy that it seemed like my husband was either blind to clutter or just didn’t care that he was living in the middle of a disorganized whirlwind. 

Notice that I said “seemed.” Because how we perceive things in our own heads is very rarely the same as the way other people see them! What to me looked like disorganized chaos looked extremely unremarkable to my husband, and he was completely confused as to why I was so upset by something as simple as stuff.

If you’re curious about our personal story, I talked about it here, way back in 2016!

So, given the fact that I am, well, me, you might assume that I always side with the more organized partner when I’m working on organizing a space with a couple. You would be wrong! I treat each client with same respect and trust and take that responsibility very seriously. This is just as relevant across projects as it is across household members within the same project.

So, for the next couple weeks, we’re going to take a deep dive into the various delightful flavors and variations of organizing imbalance in couples, the kind of trouble it can cause, and some strategies to help you rebalance the concept of home organizing in your own relationship.

Everything in this series is based on my professional expertise and my experience of organizing homes for couples over the past nearly five years. I’m not a counselor or therapist, I’m just sharing what I’ve seen in my work in hopes that it might help you!

First up: the classic story of the couple consisting of The Organized One and The Disorganized One. Surely it’s all The Disorganized One’s fault… right??

LMW

Don't Buy Random Crap for Your Loved Ones

You’ve heard of The Five Love Languages, right? If not, the basic premise is that people tend to prefer to give and receive love in one of five ways: words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, gifts, and quality time. Once you and your loved ones figure out your individual love languages, it can help you show love to each other more effectively. In fact, if you’re not sure what you prefer, there’s an online quiz you can take to find out!

Recently, I’ve watched my clients struggle with the gift giving love language. Specifically, they have family that lives very far away and misses them very much, and shows their love by sending them inexpensive gifts regularly. While I haven’t met the gift givers in person, it’s clear to me that these gifts are sent out of an abundance of love, with absolutely no ill intent.

However, there are serious side effects to a regular gift giving routine.

  1. Those gifts add up fast. In thinking of one client in particular, her mom likes to send her costume jewelry, cloth bags, cute glasses and dishware, and general tchotchkes. My client, like many of us here in San Francisco, lives with her boyfriend in a one bedroom apartment. It’s plenty of space for them and their cats, but there just isn’t enough storage to accommodate the constant inflow of gifts. 
  2. Those gifts cause serious guilt. My clients tell me that they don’t want to donate these gifts because they know that if the giver found out, they would be hurt. The gifts, in effect, become an emotional burden and an extension of the guilt my clients already feel over living so far away from their loved ones.
  3. Those gifts can cause relationship strife. I have a couple of clients who deal with continuous gift giving from both of their moms. They are each uncomfortable with dealing with so much stuff from their own mothers, but end up taking that frustration out on each other and the other’s mom. While this is so common for all of us as humans - we redirect anger at a person we can’t confront to the people who see us every day - it’s completely avoidable in this case.
This is what years of inexpensive gifts looks like after I've helped a client decide what's important to keep... and what's not.

This is what years of inexpensive gifts looks like after I've helped a client decide what's important to keep... and what's not.

People whose love language is gift giving (and I am one of them, so I know of what I speak!) sometimes struggle with the idea that a gift could be a bad thing, and they often don’t know how to communicate their love in other ways that feel just as effective. So, I have a few suggestions!

  1. Take a picture of the cute tchotchke, send it to your loved one, and tell them why it made you think of them. How fun is a random loving message in the middle of the day? You get all the benefits of gift giving, like reminding someone that you love them and showing that you understand what’s special about them, without any of the downside. This also gives you the opportunity to see whether or not your loved one actually wants that item! If they text back “hahaha, love that, I miss you too!” then the thought was enough. But a text that says “OMG I need this!” means you have the green light to send a gift!
  2. Give experiences rather than objects. This is something my family has wholeheartedly embraced as part of our gift giving tradition and we all absolutely love it.  You get the gift giving experience - opening something, the surprise, the feeling of being special to the giver - and then you get to extend it by talking about the upcoming event, planning for it, then doing it and reminiscing about it after the fact. My sister gave me a trip to Jackson Hole for Christmas a couple years ago and it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten!
  3. Direct your gift giving energy to people who are in need. Every holiday season, my husband and I adopt a family through Compass Family Services, and take great joy in making their Christmas magical. I love giving to friends and family, but it's even more rewarding to give to people who truly need and appreciate the gifts.
  4. Save your gift giving effort (and budget) for select occasions. Often, people send many cheaper gifts because they feel that the number of gift giving occasions should be maximized but they don’t have the funds to purchase high quality gifts that often. When it comes to gifts, like many other things in life, I recommend going for quality over quantity. Two high quality, beautiful gifts per year will give your loved one all the surprise and delight you crave, and because you have the extra time and money to spend on selecting it, chances are much higher that they will use and love the gift.
  5. When in doubt, just pick up the phone and say “I love you.” Because that’s what we’re all really trying to do with gift giving, right?
This not my family's Christmas, but the gifts prepared for our adopted family this past holiday season!

This not my family's Christmas, but the gifts prepared for our adopted family this past holiday season!

I, personally, will never stop loving the process of opening a present that someone has selected just for me, and then watching them open something I know they’re going to love. But I love it even more when it’s a truly special moment and not just a regular thing.

LMW

My Most Difficult Organizing Job

Last week, I was explaining my work to someone, and they asked me a question I actually had never been asked before. They wanted to know what had been my most difficult job, and why.

I have been so fortunate to have absolutely wonderful clients over the past few years. There really have not been any horror stories - my clients have listened to me, trusted me, and been honest with me. I value the relationship I have with each client, and remain incredibly grateful they have allowed me into their lives to help them.

That said, one job does come to mind. The client wanted me to help unpack following a move - which is a great time to get organized! However, this person was also absolutely unwilling to consider changing any habits or getting rid of any items at all whatsoever. This person believed that I could wield some sort of organizer magic to make the stuff they owned take up less space and look prettier, without requiring them to put in any effort to change.

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that’s not what it’s about. I do not wave a magic wand, and I do not do cosmetic fixes. I create an organizing system that works for each of my individual clients, and then I make it look beautiful. People come to me because they realize that their space is not working for them, and I do my very best work when they are willing to undertake change.

Plus, when you come right down to it, organizing and storage are limited by the rules of physics. There is nothing I can do to make a certain number of shirts suddenly take up less physical space. I cannot bend the space-time continuum! This is why I always tell people that organizing is not about the storage, it is first and foremost about the stuff.

So there you have it: my most difficult organizing job. And if that’s all I’ve had to deal with, then I count myself very lucky indeed!

LMW

On Long Term Love

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a relationship expert. I’m a professional organizer, which means I’m much more qualified to tell how to store your sweater collection than how to recognize true love.

What I can tell you is that I’m lucky enough to be living in a truly fulfilling marriage, one that just turned eight years old today. I can also tell you that the first indication that I’d found the love of my life was so simple that at the time I didn’t think much of it.  

It’s ridiculously simple, in fact: when I told friends and family about my relationship, the phrase “it just works” came out of my mouth.

From the first time I hung out with my husband, he fit into my life. There was no worrying over whether or not he liked me, no strategizing over how to get him to commit, no counting of pros and cons.  I had spent my high school and college years striving and searching and pining for love, and then when I met my husband, it felt like, “Oh, there you are. That wasn’t so hard.”  It. Just. Worked.

Nearly thirteen years after we first met, we are still just two ordinary people who were lucky enough to find each other and smart enough to hang on to each other. No Great American Novel will be written about our love... and if you grew up obsessed with the great literary love stories, as I did, the sheer normalcy of a real, lasting love may at first feel like something of a come down.

Photo courtesy of  Timothy Teague Photography

Photo courtesy of Timothy Teague Photography

But I promise you: the love that just works is worth everything.  It will give you new depths to find in yourself where you least expect them, challenge you to be your best even when life is monotonous, teach you how to give more to another person than you thought you ever had in the first place, and give you a bedrock of security from which to conquer the world in your own way.

Thank you, AVW, for all of it.

LMW

On Imperfection

I will not be the first or last person to talk about imperfection. Insert trite truism about our social media airbrushed perfection image driven society blah blah blah here! Plenty of people smarter and more articulate than I have written powerful pieces on the topic.

Instead, I want to tell you what imperfection means to me. Specifically, I want to tell you about my skin.

Hangin' out in the skin I'm in at The Peak, Hong Kong

Hangin' out in the skin I'm in at The Peak, Hong Kong

I’m super pale. I come from a long line of people so pale that some of our freckles are white. For most of my life this has been distinctly unfashionable, so in my teens and twenties I absolutely hated my pale skin and tried to tan. Emphasis on "tried." 

I’m covered in freckles and moles, because see above: pale skin and sun damage. Some of them are cute (my mom used to refer to the crop of freckles that would appear on my nose every summer as brown sugar sprinkles), but a lot of them are bumpy, uneven, and weird (yes, I get my skin checked from head to toe by my dermatologist every 6 months).

I have cellulite. I’ve had it since I was about twelve years old. No matter how much I weigh, no matter how much I exercise, no matter how well I eat, the skin on my butt and the backs of my legs is lumpy and dimpled.  I spent a lot of time when I was younger tying sarongs over bathing suits and being sure that no photo ever captured me from behind.

In all my pale, freckly, cellulite-filled, scarred glory from a bachelorette party this spring!

In all my pale, freckly, cellulite-filled, scarred glory from a bachelorette party this spring!

I have a few scars. There’s a line on my lower abdomen from my emergency appendectomy in December 1995 (in Nairobi, Kenya - it’s quite a story). My bellybutton is a little wonky from an ovarian cyst removal in 2007 (it was 10 cm in diameter and my best friend named it Alvin - good riddance!). I have a long keloid on my inner left arm from the removal of a melanoma in 2016 (it had not spread, I’m lucky). 

There are a plethora of self tanners available, even ones that don’t make a person as pale as I am look orange. I could have larger moles removed if I wanted to. There’s a procedure to fix cellulite. My dermatologist has even offered me a shot to make my scars less prominent. For reasons that are only starting to coalesce to me now, I don’t do any of the above.

To me, my skin is part of my story. Yeah, it might look a little gross in places, but the human body is a little gross. That, and it makes me look interesting. No one else on the planet looks quite like me.

I love to be active and try new things, whether it’s a new workout, travel destination, or clothing style. In the past, caring about my imperfections has hindered that. These days, I put on my sunscreen and wear my workout clothes or bikini, and get on with it. The more time that passes, the fewer f*cks I give about whatever anyone thinks of my pale, moley skin with cellulite and scars. I can’t say I totally love it - at least not yet - but I’m getting there!

LMW

The Joy of Empty Closets

I have empty closet space in my house. 

Does that statement seem strange to you?

If so, let me explain.

For many people, and pretty much all of my clients, there is a direct relationship between the amount of storage in their home and the amount of stuff they have. Specifically, the amount of storage dictates the amount of stuff, and when space runs out, they seek to obtain more storage.

In my personal life, and when working with clients, I flip this around. Forget the storage space you have - whether it’s closets, shelves, a basement, an attic, whatever. Instead, focus first on the stuff. What do you actually need and use? What do you love that brings you real joy? And why would you have anything at all that doesn’t fall into either of those two categories?

Then, only then, do we talk about how and where to store the stuff.

This is our laundry cabinet - everything we need, nothing we don't, and space if needs change. The cabinets above are empty, too!

This is our laundry cabinet - everything we need, nothing we don't, and space if needs change. The cabinets above are empty, too!

Leaving empty storage space is also about acknowledging that time is an important dimension of organizing. The process of living an organized life is ongoing. You need to maintain your home organization systems every day (it takes just a few minutes if your systems work well) , and adapt them as your needs change.

If there's one thing I know, change is a constant in this life, no matter how much we may fear or resist it. So, given that, why not leave yourself both the physical and mental space to accommodate that change? Future You might take up a new hobby and need a place to stash the equipment. Future You might throw a party and want a coat closet to accommodate guests. Future You may work from home and need a place to set up a work station, and Future You may bring home a baby with all of the gadgets, gizmos, outfits, and diapers parenthood brings.

This is our entryway coat closet. We love to entertain, so there needs to be space for coats and bags so people can settle in and feel at home!

This is our entryway coat closet. We love to entertain, so there needs to be space for coats and bags so people can settle in and feel at home!

By completely stuffing all of your storage space full, you are creating serious problems for Future You! Under likely time crunch and performance pressure, Future You will have to cobble together a solution for their new venture, rather than having the space and energy to comfortably and easily fit it into their life.

In so many ways, living an organized life is about investing time in the present to free up more time in the future to spend on the activities and relationships that really matter to you. What kinds of amazing future projects could you make room for if you left yourself some empty storage space?

LMW

The Clutter/Shopping Death Spiral

Which came first, the disorganized home or the shopping habit?

Let me introduce you to the phenomenon I call the clutter/shopping feedback loop. In a disorganized home, clutter accumulates, which prevents you from efficiently finding and using the things you own, which leads to more purchases of things you may already own, which you then try to store in a disorganized environment, which then leads to more clutter… and around and around and down the death spiral we go.

An actual LMW Edits original: please ask before using this image!

An actual LMW Edits original: please ask before using this image!

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

People often think that they just need to stop shopping in order to resolve this downward clutter spiral. True, this is one way to disrupt the feedback loop, but it’s actually pretty difficult. Plus, you can never let up - if you slip back into the shopping habit, the clutter will just start accumulating again.

Why do I say “just not shopping” is the more difficult solution? Because as humans, we have limited willpower, and marketing is in our faces literally 24/7.

I keep a spare “junk” email account for online shopping and ordering. I was sick of all of that stuff cluttering my main inbox (I'm always working towards the holy grail of Inbox Zero) but I still wanted access to deals. I rarely pay full price online because there’s always a coupon code or sale going on!

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Here’s a screenshot of my trash folder from this afternoon. Literally every email is screaming at me to “buy buy buy!!” All of these messages arrived within a 8 hour period. And that’s a curated list, I unsubscribe from mailings from any store I know I won’t shop. AND that’s even before I go online or outside to do, well, anything essential to modern work and life.

How can any human be expected to just go cold turkey on shopping when a) they need things and b) it’s so incredibly easy to just buy them? It requires way too much willpower!

The good news is that there’s another way to disrupt the clutter/shopping feedback loop: organize your space. By organize, I don’t mean move things around or put them in pretty containers - you still can’t find that thing you ordered on Amazon last week if it’s at the bottom of a very delightful woven basket! By organize, I mean take yourself through the whole process of decluttering, setting up systems, storing items appropriately, and maintaining your organization through simple daily habits.

If that sounds overwhelming, that’s why I’m here to help. I’ll guide you through the whole organizing process so that you can finally live clutter-free - and laugh at all of those promotional emails as you mass-delete them!

LMW