Seeing Through Your Values

Posted by suevenman on Mar 6, 2017  


When you’ve lived in one house for most of your life, you accumulate an interesting and varied collection of stuff. But when it’s time to downsize, figuring out what to keep and what to let go can be brutal.

Beth and Jim, a couple in their early 70’s, called Breathing Space for help downsizing. After sorting through the contents of one corner of their basement, they had a pile of items they no longer needed. But because many of the items either had value or were potentially useful, Jim and Beth had difficulty letting them go.

Looking around for a way to motivate this next step, I remembered seeing pictures of a young child in their living room. When I asked if she was a grandchild, they smiled and nodded, saying Casey was, “as precious as any grandchild.” Beth and Jim met her through the Fresh Air Fund and she’d been part of their family every summer for almost a decade.

Their love of this “granddaughter” gave me an idea. I asked, “What inspired you to open your home and your lives to a stranger?” At first, they were puzzled. Then they reflected, “We are so grateful for our family and the beauty around us. They’ve taught us that when love is shared, it grows. Inviting Casey into our family was a no-brainer.”

I then asked them to reassess the basement pile in light of the values which brought Casey into their lives: gratitude, service, beauty and generosity. Seen through the light of these values, the pile took on a different meaning. Jim and Beth realized that the items in question could make a big difference in other peoples’ lives. In this light, letting go of the pile became a reflection of their values.

By reminding us what we hold most dear in our lives, our values help us identify what is important to keep and what we can let go of. We clarify and strengthen our values by reinforcing them in this way. And when we’re faced with tough decisions, using our values as a lens helps us stay aligned with our truest selves.

If you’re stuck trying to decide whether to keep or let go of an item, ask yourself these questions:

1.   Do I use it?

2.   Do I love it?

3.   Is it a treasure

4.   Does it reflect my values?

Curious what Jim and Beth did with their pile? Stay tuned: you’ll find out next week!

And if you’re interested in exploring your individual values, take the questionnaire VIA Survey of Character Strengths on the Authentic Happiness site. The results may surprise you! But a value identified is a value worth living!

Happy Organizing!

Clearing your Closet Clutter

Posted by suevenman on Nov 7, 2014  

Along with the first frost oCloset Clutter Af the season comes my perennial hunt for turtlenecks, wooly socks and cozy sweaters. I found my shirts in the back of a drawer where I’d shoved them last spring to make room for t shirts. The socks had remained in the unsorted sock box because there’d been no room in my dresser. And I found the sweaters in the closet, wedged between a dress I’d worn to my 40th birthday party and a lime green linen jacket, complete with shoulders pads. This year, I promised, I’d follow my own, best advice.

My clothes hunt reminded me of my client Jenny. Jenny has plenty of clothes, but can never find anything to wear. She lives in an old farmhouse built in the days when tiny closets easily accommodated your Sunday Best and a couple changes of weekday wear. But Jenny has more than a Sunday Best: she has summer and winter versions of her professional garb, leisure wear and a couple dozen pants, blouses and vests, all crammed into a space the size of a diminutive dollhouse.

Jenny’s morning search for an acceptable outfit became an exercise in frustration akin to finding a parking space in Manhattan. All Jenny wanted was to easily find the clothes she needed when she needed them, without plowing through ski wear, beach wear and her daughter’s prom dress from 2005.

Sounds familiar? Unless you have endless closet and drawer space, you’ve likely dealt with this organizing issue. Here’s a simple seven step solution to Jenny’s dastardly dressing dilemma: it’s called the Seasonal Swap.

1)   Clear. We took everything out of Jenny’s drawers and closets.

2)   Sort. We set criteria for what to keep: any garments that were ripped, stained or hadn’t been worn in a year were set aside.

3)   Love it. From what remained, Jenny kept only the clothes that made her feel great or which she wore regularly, like her gardening grubbies.

4)   Separate & Store. We separated the remaining clothes into winter and summer wear, boxed up and labeled the warm weather garments and stored them safely away for next summer.

5)   Re-shelve. Without the additional clothes, there was plenty of space for Jenny’s seasonal wardrobe. And, as a bonus, she knew the closet was full of seasonal clothes that made her feel like a million dollars.

6)   Pass it on. Clothes Jenny no longer needed were donated, sold or added to the textile bin at her local recycling.

7)   Celebrate: Jenny celebrated her success every morning when she quickly and efficiently found clothes for the day that fit, looked great and were perfect for the season.

This simple seven step solution works no matter how many clothes you have. It also gives you a chance, twice each year, to ask, “Does it fit? Does it make my heart sing? And, do I love it enough to rent it space in my closet?”

Happy Organizing!

The Magic of Garlic, Part 2

Posted by suevenman on Jun 19, 2014  

Spring Garlic BLast November I posted a piece on planting garlic bulbs. An odd topic for a coach-organizing blog? Perhaps.  But the lesson that “cropped” up was more organizational than culinary: time spent culling and organizing in the present saves time, energy and frustration in the future.

Examples of this age-old lesson abound. A short amount of time nesting flower bulbs in the autumn soil results in a spring bouquet of color; working out regularly helps insure healthy, happy years to come; and money invested wisely in the first decade of your career grows into a robust retirement portfolio. Similarly, the time you spend organizing results in time saved and frustration averted in the days and weeks to follow.

Last week a client lamented that her family teased her for “wasting time” alphabetizing her herbs and spices. Yet the 15 minutes it took her to put the jars in order saved her the familiar frustration of digging through the jumble of jars in her cupboard for the oregano, marjoram or dill. Did she save hours and hours? Not in the short run. But over time, a few minutes here and a few minutes there add up. And personally, I’d rather be spend time digging in my garden than digging through my cupboards for more thyme.

My garlic is growing beautifully: a testament to careful spacing (which is a code word for organizing). But few things stay organized forever. I’ve already weeded the bed twice. If I ever thought that gardening was a “plant-grow-harvest” proposition, without commas in-between for weeding, then I was sorely deluding myself.

Once and done is an organizing myth. Whether it’s putting the herb jars back in order, a quick re-sort of your top desk drawer to pare down the pencils that have reproduced in the dark, or the relentless battle against junk-drawer-creeping-chaos, every organizing project needs occasional restoration and maintenance. If you find an exception to this rule, please notify me immediately.

The trick is not to let the garlic, herbs, desk or junk drawer devolve to their former states. When you notice that something is out of order, it takes just seconds to return it to its proper place. But if you ignore this necessary maintenance and wait until you can no longer find the safe deposit key, the celery salt or the garlic among the weeds, the 30 seconds becomes an hour of dedicated time that could have been spent reading a good book.

So, whether it’s weeding or alphabetizing herbs and spices, maintaining what you’ve worked so hard to organize is like money in the bank – or garlic in the spaghetti sauce.

Happy summer!

For the next couple months, I’ll be revisiting some favorite Joanna posts from years gone by: tips worthy of a second run. Enjoy!

Inch by Inch

Posted by suevenman on May 15, 2014  

luggage full and ready to travelLast week when I was in the throes of final packing for a trip, I called my dear friend, Joan for moral support. After gently listening to my overwhelm, she reminded me of my own organizing advice: do one small area at a time. I’ve shortened that to Inch by Inch (after my favorite David Mallet song).

Elaborating on this sage advice, Joan shared with me her recent decision to deal with the most challenging clutter-area in her life: the mountain of mail underneath her dining room table (I can hear several of you groan in sympathy). She decided that she could and would deal with just three pieces of mail at a time. She knew she could handle three because it would take less than five minutes.

And she did! By dealing with just three pieces at a time, and then the next three, and then the next three, over the course of a week, she reduced the mountain to an empty box!

So I climbed my own mountain, reciting the mantra: Inch by inch. Inch by inch. Starting with just my socks, and moving, one by one to each area of my wardrobe, I reduced my mountain of overwhelm to a packed suitcase.

This Inch by Inch strategy can be used to make sense of just about any organizing project: from a linen closet (one shelf at a time), to a bedroom (first the top of the dresser, then the top right hand drawer), to the garage (gather and sort all the garden tools, then move on to the automotive supplies). There’s no single right way to break down a project; any way that makes sense to you is the right way.

Back from my trip, I’m using Inch by Inch in reverse. I’m unpacking my bags, first all the clothes that need to be washed, then everything that goes in my top drawer, followed by the next drawer down, and the next, and finally, all the clothes that need to be hung. But that still leaves my books … How many did I think I could read in 4 days away???

Inch by inch: That’s the magic!

How Venus Became Fred

Posted by suevenman on Apr 30, 2014  

Not long ago, I was working with a decluttering client named Sophie. As we were closing our session, Sophie spent an exhaustive 10 minutes listing her overabundance of commitments: board meetings, her daughter’s Bat Mitzi, a large vegetable garden, a book group … It was the list that would never end.

Among her many commitments was Venus the turtle. A beloved childhood pet of first a nephew and then her daughter, Venus now basically lived forgotten in a corner terrarium by everyone, except my guilt-laden client. Venus didn’t demand much. But for my client, turtle care felt like that one-too-many-straws the camel dreads.turtle2

Clients are well used to my suggesting re-homing when something is no longer used or loved. I make regular trips to the Hospice thrift store – dropping off boxes of give-away items in good shape for clients who don’t have time to make the trip. I love the win-win-win: clients get more space, purchasers get good, low cost stuff and Hospice gets much needed funds.

Occasionally, when a client gets rid of an item which I know someone specifically needs, I’ll ask permission to deliver it. A very snazzy dog leash is still being gratefully used in its re-home. An iron which had seen better days was re-homed at a crafts collective for melting batik wax.

But I think we topped the charts last week.

Sophie and I had finished working. On my way out the door I mentioned a friend who not only loves turtles but is the region’s turtle expert. Sophie gave me the go-ahead to ask if he knew anyone who might offer Venus her next loving home.

The timing was miraculous: the best friend of a daughter of a neighbor had been asking for a water turtle for months, and her birthday was the following Saturday! My turtle-expert friend had been searching, but the girl’s parents had given up hope of finding a turtle in time.

The email I received the other day was as good as it gets. The birthday girl had wished for a boy turtle named Fred. And it turns out that Venus was exactly that! Good-bye Venus, hello Fred! That’s what happens when you have a turtle expert on board.

When you look around your space, what do you see that could be re-homed? One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Or, one person’s Venus is another person’s Fred!

Happy re-homing (with gratitude to Joanna).

P.S. Fred’s new family is thrilled.



The Dastardly Donation Dilemma

Posted by suevenman on Apr 17, 2014  

Box PileThere are times of the year when my garage-barn (affectionately called the barnarge or the garn) looks like a Salvation Army warehouse. I have boxes of books for the library sale, bags of old towels waiting until my travels take me past our local animal shelter, a bag of torn and stained clothing for the recycle textile bin, clothing in good shape to donate to either the hospice thrift shop or the church yard sale. I’m fortunate to have a tolerant husband and plenty of storage space; but the stuff still backs up like traffic on the GW Bridge at Thanksgiving.

After working so hard to clear and declutter, it’s discouraging to see bags and boxes clogging up the barnarge, basement or back porch. Transporting the no-longer-needed stuff to its donation destination is definitely a dastardly dilemma.

But it can be done. Here are strategies that have worked for clients:

  • Enlist your partner, spouse or driving-age child to be the official Transporter-of-Goods (capitalizing always make titles look official). You sort and separate items by donation site; the designated Transporter hauls them away.
  • Team up with a De-Clutter-Buddy. You may not have a large enough load to justify a trip to Experienced Goods, but when you add your De-Clutter-Buddy’s donation, bingo! I had one client who planned a monthly donation run with her De-Clutter-Buddy. They’d load up the car with their accumulated items, make the rounds of donation sites and then reward themselves with a lunch out.
  • Call the donation site to see if they provide pick-up services, especially if you have furniture or a large volume of items in good shape. And having a pick-up date on the calendar is a great motivator.
  • Schedule a neighborhood yard sale. Have each household contribute $10 toward advertizing expenses. Whatever money is left goes to the neighbor who either starts with the most or finishes with the least stuff.
  • Set a goal to get rid of 100 things a month. Reward yourself with a night on the town or a day of lazing in the hammock.

What works with your dastardly donation dilemmas? Share your suggestions on the Breathing Space blog page.

Happy donating!


Posted by suevenman on Mar 28, 2014  

You’ve sorted the stuff and separated the Keeps from the GottaGoes. You’re left with a box of puzzling pieces which, in the right hands, could have a useful second life. But where do you find those hands? This was the conundrum facing Cynthia and me during our organizing session last week.

Among the items under consideration were several Styrofoam coolers in which frozen meats were shipped, a bag of fabric scraps fromstyrofoam 2 Cynthia’s quilting days, a working 5-year-old printer and a box of frayed but serviceable towels.

It took some research and several calls, but we found that Meals on Wheels could use the coolers to keep drop-off meals warm. The quilting scraps and printer found homes at the Senior Center and the animal shelter took the towels. Success!

Letting go becomes so much easier when you know that a once-useful item is needed by someone else. We all have our favorite donation sites. But now and then I come across something I’ve never tried to find a home for, such as the Styrofoam coolers.

In times like this, I turn to my stuff guru, Sue Anderson. Sue runs an online service called The Stuff Stop. The byline says it all: Where your unwanted stuff meets a need. Sue seeks out donation requests from a variety of organizations; from a nonprofit that provides free Hallowe’en costumes to underprivileged children, to a birding club in need of binoculars (of which I have 5 pair – Mom was a birder). You can search by state or by item. At this writing, there are no donation sites listed in Vermont. Perhaps that will change when you let your favorite nonprofits know about this great opportunity.

The Stuff Stop is the definition of Win-Win-Win: you win when you lighten your life, agencies win when they receive items they truly need, and Mother Earth wins when less of our stuff ends up in landfills. Thanks, Sue!

Next week: Getting donation items from your garage to the people who really need them.

And, if you’re wondering what to do with your Styrofoam coolers, check out these links which Sue recommended:

Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

Posted by suevenman on Feb 19, 2014  

Marge, a 60-something professional with a Masters in Social Work sought my help to get through a difficult organizing project. Despite years of guiding people as they made tough decisions, she was overwhelmed with all the decisions she needed to make as she cleaned out her late mother’s attic.

We cut through much of Marge’s overwhelm by following the organizing steps I laid out in my January posts (if you missed them, scroll down to the January posts, starting with January 10th).

Following these steps, we divided the contents of the attic’s 50-plus boxes into piles:Box w Letters C

  • Keep
  • Donate
  • Throw Out or Recycle
  • Don’t Know

Later, as we were hauling out the accumulated pile of garbage, I picked up a cardboard box that had been thrown into the pile before I arrived. From the denominations of the stamps in its corner, it had clearly been around for a while. I asked Marge if she’d been through the box. She dismissed it saying it was full of cards and letters her mother had received from her grandchildren in the 80’s and 90’s.

A light bulb went off in my head: Teaching Opportunity!

I set the box aside until we had a dust-free moment (which accompanied a cool and very welcome glass of iced tea). I pulled out the box and suggested to Marge that when we’re faced with the difficult task of figuring out what to do with someone else’s possessions, one of the questions we need to ask about each piece we encounter (except the frayed dish towels and the 60 years of collected National Geographics) is, Whose story does this tell?

Most of the time, stuff is just stuff. But now and again, stuff tells a story. If it’s your story: I won this vase at the State Fair and gave it to Mom for her birthday, then you get to decide what to do with it. But if it’s someone else’s story: for example, cards and letters from beloved grandchildren, then deciding what to do with the item in question is not your job. What is your job is reconnecting the stuff with the storyteller.

Sorting through another person’s possessions is a huge, and not always welcome responsibility. Asking the simple question, Whose story does this tell? breathes space into the task, and with the space, a bit more clarity.

Hats off to those of you facing this daunting job.


Go for It! Part 2

Posted by suevenman on Jan 31, 2014  

Get Ready, Get Set, Go!

 The bottom line is, if it’s too hard to put something away, you simply won’t do it – not because you’re lazy, but because you have more important things to do with your time.   ~ Julie Morgenstern

I recently received an email bemoaning the futility of organizing: “I spend all this time cleaning out the junk drawer, but 2 weeks later, it’s back where it started – a hellacious mess! How do I stop this vicious cycle?”

The email was well timed, because this week we’re finishing up the series, Get Ready, Get Set, Go! which lays out the steps to any organizing adventure.

If you’ve been following along these past few weeks, you’ve had drilled into you that, without Planning & Preparing (Step #1), your chances of successfully completing any project is significantly reduced. Once you’ve completed Step #1, you moved on to Step #2, Clearing & Cleaning, followed by Step #3, Sort & Purge. Each is explained in previous posts. If you missed them, scroll down.

UU Closet 03Step #4, Create involves designing the space you’ve just cleared and cleaned to best accommodate the items that, in Step #3, you determined belong there. The organizing principle, Containerize and Label comes in handy here. The more you can break down larger spaces, like shelves or drawers, into smaller spaces, the easier they will be to maintain. Containerize (I know, it’s not a real word) like items in appropriate sized boxes, such as shoe or check boxes, or purchased units designed for this purpose. Once you’ve created the space, label the containers. This may seem like overkill (and you will get teased), but trust me, labeling spaces increases the chances that the right thing finds its way home to the right space.

You’re finally ready for the last Step, #5, Practice. Why practice? Because we all need time to get used to any new system, and until it’s been tested, we won’t know if it works. If it needs tweaking, so be it; but give it a 3-week trial run before making any drastic changes.

So, there you have it, the, Get Ready, Get Set, Go! of organizing in 5 simple steps. You can download a PDF map of these steps by clicking here.

If you have comments or questions you’d like to share, please do so below.

Next week: Sue’s 10 Best Reasons to Get Organized.

Go! Proceeding on to Success

Posted by suevenman on Jan 23, 2014  

GoIf you’ve been reading the last two weeks’ posts then you know that “Go!” is preceded by a couple of, “Stop: Do not pass Go” warnings. Jumping in feet first may be good for some activities like the Polar Plunge, but it’s not very effective when you’re tackling a project.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, your chances of successfully completing any project will increase exponentially if you take the time to plan and prepare before taking the plunge (If you missed the plan and prepare posts, scroll down to read them). And because planning, preparing and taking action each requires a different mode of thinking, you’ll maximize your energy and efficiency if you separate them into three separate sessions.

Once you’ve planned your project and prepared your space and yourself, you are (finally) ready to take that plunge.

Organizing any space can be broken down into 5 steps.

  1. Plan & Prepare
  2. Clear & Clean
  3. Sort & Purge
  4. Create
  5. Practice

This week we’ll look at the second and third steps.

Step #2 is Clear and Clean – no mystery here! It means to clear out everything from the space you’ve chosen. If you have limited time or energy, you may want to break a larger space into sections. For example, work on one shelf in the closet or one drawer in a dresser. Emptying the contents of the space can be messy work. If you lay out an old sheet on the floor, table or bed, you’ll avoid dead bugs on the rug.

Once you’ve cleared, time to clean; and if you’re a shelf-paper type person, it’s time to cut and paste. Now your space is clutter-free and shining. Time for …

Step #3: Sort & Purge. This is often the most difficult step for folks. So, take a deep breath and let’s get started. You’ll need 5 boxes, labeled:

  • Keep – things which belong in the designated space
  • Goes Elsewhere – things which need to be put away someplace else in the house (don’t put them away until you’re done with your organizing session – it’s too easy to get distracted)
  • Give Away or Belongs to Someone Else
  • Recycle or Sell
  • Don’t Know – for anything you’re not sure you’re going to keep or just don’t know what to do with

And, of course, a Big Black Garbage Bag!

Now (drum roll, please) pick up the item on the very tippy-top of the pile, ask yourself what it is and where it belongs, and put it in the corresponding  box. In order to avoid being left with only the tough-to-process items, I recommend that you work from the top down.

Once you finish the pile, pat yourself on the back and distribute each box’s contents appropriately. Don’t put back the items that belong in the space you are organizing until you complete step 4, which involves creating a space to suit the stuff. We’ll discuss this and finish off the organizing cycle with step 5 next week. If you can’t wait until then, check out Joanna’s wonderful little book, Decluttering 101.

So congratulations! You’ve just completed the first 3 steps in your organizing adventure. You deserve a break. A hot cup of cocoa would taste great about now. Do you like marshmallows?