/ 12.1.11 / 10 Comments / Organization
Solving Chronic Organizational Problems
Recently, I spent a day helping a friend who had some organizational problems in her home and we had a lovely tea to celebrate our accomplishments as I mentioned here. While I was driving to her house, I was mentally counting up the houses that I had helped ‘make-over’ with organizational issues over the last ten years--my Mom’s house, Lisa’s unpacking ‘block’, Laurie’s filing system, Mary’s bathroom and closet, Dad’s house, Grandma’s house, Laurie’s home school book shelves, Mary’s kitchen and even my own sewing/craft room/office. I think that’s eight different people’s homes. Add to that the 23 different homes we’ve lived in and you are talking about some serious organizing experience. But really, I’m just an organizer by nature. I’ve been at it since I was about eight.
So, of course, I’m always glad to lend a hand if a friend feels stuck in a particular room and things aren’t functioning well. It’s a little nerve wracking..and yet exciting… to walk into someone else’s home and try to ‘see’ what they need, how I can help, and what maintainable solution I can come up with, whether it’s for the whole house or just a closet.
Identifying the Problem
Before you can organize anything, you have to figure out what the problem is, unless you already know what you need fixing. In one home where I helped, the daily chores (dishes, laundry, mail, garbage) were not being done, in another, the problem was hoarding. For one home it was a matter of usage—and needing to rotate large sets of books by school year-- sometimes it’s lack of space. The first step to solving an organizing problem is to answer the question, “What is bothering you---the most?”. If the daily clutter isn’t bothering someone, then I’m not going to help them with that. I have to stay focused on what’s really getting to them, and sometimes they don’t actually know what that is at first.
My friend had not told me what she wanted in particular--just that she needed help. After a little chatting, I looked around but couldn’t see any major problems. Her house was NOT a big mess, and she wasn’t a hoarder. Those are really difficult challenges to solve. She served lunch and seemed to have all her kitchen systems running smoothly. What I did notice were the papers in small piles on the dining room table and as we chatted it became clear that her real problem was being able to find papers for her husband when needed. She expressed a lot of anxiety over the papers in her house. When someone calls to audit or you have to return a large item, or handle medical issues, the resulting need to find a specific paper can become a crisis quickly.
Identify What is NOT a Problem
Most friends who call me are having trouble with getting sidetracked by things that LOOK like the heart of their problem but really aren’t. This is called ‘not being able to see the forest, for the trees’. They get easily distracted by the obvious-- like piles of old papers, old clothes, boxes of items that need to be de-cluttered. Since we had limited time, I decided to tackle her CORE problem first and then spend the rest of the day dealing with the files. With a system in place, she could go on from there.
We toured her house but I didn’t see any major crisis. She showed me the family’s various piles and explained how they came to be there, but I was listening for what HER needs were. Then she showed me the office/craft room/school room/hubby’s room. It got used for whatever any family member happened to need at the moment, but it wasn’t being used for an office. I could hear the anxiety level rising as we toured this room. The files were in crates, neatly labeled but not in any particular order and stacked along the walls. Thank goodness, the file cabinets, of which she had plenty, were fairly empty. So all we really needed to do was organize all of her files. But files for papers are never really a crisis. It’s just an organized way to store past transactions of daily living. She wanted me to tackle the filing system first, because it LOOKED like the biggest problem. But I knew the solution to that was simple and could be quickly solved.
Start with the ‘real’ Problem and then find a solution
If you are feeling anxiety about any particular area, that is the place I want to start helping you with first. Once you deal with the truly important things, it will free up your mind to deal more constructively with the rest of your home. It’s hard to work on de-cluttering if your finances are in a state of crisis. Get your bills, paid..and you can concentrate on the rest.
Peggy had been faithfully working on trying to develop systems for different paperwork needs like bills, college searches, taxes, coupons, frequent flyer points etc. But each system she had set up was in a different part of the house—for safe keeping from the daily clutter of other family members. The problem with piles is that soon, the piles all looked the same, so she found more safe places to tuck away important parts of their paperwork routine. That was good news as she really did have some systems for dealing with things in place. But she was feeling nervous, because all the papers in the house really looked important. That meant it was hard to throw anything away. And it was difficult to find important papers when needed. Family members all had papers in odd places which added to the confusion-- making her even more nervous.
Designating a Place – Getting Focused
Before you can organize any area or implement solutions to problems, you have to decide what function that area should serve or where the items need to be put.
One friend couldn’t begin unpacking from their move…because she hadn’t yet decided where things should go and she got completely bogged down. She was a little depressed at the time too, so this made sense. All I did for her was help her to understand that she needed to unpack—ONE BOX AT A TIME. If an item didn’t have a place, then she needed to make one. Using sticky notes to designate spots temporarily is a big help here. If you change your mind, you can move the note.
The Solution: Dealing with the Daily Crisis
Usually the real culprit in organizational problems is what to do with ‘growing work’—i.e. Mail, Dirty Dishes, Laundry, School books, clutter. I knew that what she needed was a safe place to deal with her daily mail, that wasn’t on the dining room table--a place where bills to pay would not get lost amid the family’s clutter.
We needed to make the office/craft/school room…a real office that was SAFE because her systems were all in that room. Step one was to declare this room ‘off limits’ to family art activity, clothes, shoes, and miscellaneous, including a recent paint project. I told her—this room needs to be YOURS. Let the family make messes in other rooms, but your papers and bills need to take priority. At the moment, the whole house was available to anyone and she had no safe place to put her paperwork. This room was perfect.
Make Room for The SOLUTION Once you have identified the problem, the solution is usually fairly obvious. But often, it is impossible to implement because there is too much stuff! Our homes are often like those little slide-y puzzles. We can’t put things where we NEED them, because something else is in the designated ‘ideal’ or logical spot. Once we knew what the solution was—a designated office space--, we went to work to clear out the unnecessary.
Peggy had already made progress…the files were empty, she had shuffled a lot out of the office. She just hadn’t realized that the whole room and desk—should be for her paperwork yet. We put away all the misc. and clutter that actually belonged in the adjacent school room, daughter’s craft space, bedrooms, etc. What was left BELONGED in an office. I cleared off the desk and then had Peggy begin retrieving her boxes, crates and buckets from various safe places in the house. They would all be housed in convenient drawers of HER desk--in the logical place for a paperwork system—the office.
Working with How THEY think and function—Not YOU, so the New Solution will WORK.
If my solution requires learning new habits, it’s not going to work. I have to work with what makes sense to the person I’m trying to help. The same thing will be true in your home. If your biggest organizational problems have to deal with how other people function, no solution is going to work unless it is EASY to do and MAKES SENSE to them.
Most people aren’t going to change their habits over night. For example, I tried to get my kids to quit putting dirty dishes in the right hand sink where I had set up a dish drainer for air-drying rinsed dishes. They had been putting their dirty dishes in the right hand sink for years. I finally gave up. That’s the same reason that I put baskets where hubby and the kids naturally dump their stuff. Then the stuff doesn’t look so bad, and I won’t get needlessly frustrated.
In trying to help one friend with her filing system, I looked at all her files which were well labeled and neatly stacked, and suggested ‘the obvious’ to a former secretary like myself, filing A-Z. Her eyes kind of glazed over and I saw a rising panic. How would she ever find a file..when it had never occurred to her to file A-Z in the first place? She was an artsy decorating type and A-Z was never going to work.
We stacked her files in four huge piles…one for taxes (thick folders for each year),warranties and deeds, one for business papers, one for personal papers (songs, artwork, hobbies) , and one for home school files. I didn’t bother alphabetizing them, but at least those myriad of file folders were separated by life functions or big categories into four different drawers. Now when she went to look for a folder on Wars in England..she knew to at least look in the SCHOOL cabinet. We posted stickies to help her remember what each drawer was for. No A-Z needed.
She called another friend and I to help her organize her books. The friend, who was very artsy indeed, suggested pretty baskets and vases to hold the children’s school supplies. I saw that familiar panic rising again. Three busy teenage boys were not about to neatly put their stuff in dainty baskets, when they had spent years throwing their stuff in a drawer. I came to the rescue and suggested large but pretty bins.
Celebrate!! It Worked!
Well, as you know, we celebrated our day with tea and when I talked to my friend on the phone this morning, she was happily sorting her bills and mail into the proper places at her newly cleared desk. She had her most used files right in a drawer at her left hand and the rest divided in similar large categories as described above. We even made a ‘hubby’ drawer so as not to disturb hubby’s papers. She sounded so happy. :o) Hopefully, by listening in on our organizing day, you can solve some of your own organizational problems.
If you are having problems with your bill paying or paperwork. Please check out these posts where I went into detail on how to set up a daily financial system.
Linking to Life in My PJ's Pajama Party
and Raising Homemakers
What’s your biggest organizational challenge?