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.



Saying Yes to Mess?

Posted by suevenman on Apr 24, 2014  

Minus the question mark, this was the title of a New York Times Home & Garden article by Penelope Green, which I rediscovered while combing through my files in search of inspiration. Ms. Green discusses the mess-apologist movement in light of David Freedman’s clutter treastise, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. In it, Freedman explores the high cost of neatness and jokes about the country’s obsession with decluttering containers.

While I’m not a mess-advocate, I’m also not a clutter-busters-buy-containers groupie. My stance is somewhere in the middle.

For me, it all comes down to whether or not the space you inhabit helpseinstein-quote-clutter you be who you want to be and do what you want to do. If you’re happy in your space, your household isn’t rebelling and the fire department hasn’t declared your home a hazard, then let it be; even if the Martha Stewarts of the world are tut-tutting.

The degree of acceptable messiness is not about what your mother, your neighbor or your Uncle George consider acceptable. It’s all about what allows you to thrive and what helps or hinders a life of joy and serenity.

Now, I’m a very visual person and happiest when surrounded by order and beauty (which is why I have 5 daughters).  I like looking at the spaces I occupy and cherishing what I see. When things get too cluttered I get grumpy and can’t think straight.

On the other hand, my husband is very content in his (somewhat messy) study, where he talks with colleagues, works at his computer and gazes out onto the back yard pondering his next garden project; all while happily surrounded by what I consider clutter. To paraphrase Green’s article, he’s able to find what he needs and be creative amidst the chaos. More power to him.

If you work well in a mess, call it creative clutter and carry on! There are many more important things in the world that need attention. But if you need more order and find that clutter clogs your path to happiness, then by all means, de-clutter, de-clog and de-light in your new space.

It’s all about you!



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:

Packing the Possibilities

Posted by suevenman on Mar 21, 2014  

Spring has sprung, the grass has riz;
I wonder where the birdies is?

Robin in SnowThis poem has nothing to do with my post today. It simply celebrates this first full day of spring. Although given the kind of weather we’ve had, it should be revised to read:

Spring has sprung, the birdies fly;
I wonder why the snow’s so high?

Spring brings with it my yearly spiritual retreat: a time of refreshment, renewal and rest. Yet whenever I go away, on a retreat or business trip or family vacation, I spend far too much time figuring out what to pack, afraid I’ll forget something vital.

Clothing is a guessing game at this time of year. Up in the mountains the weather can swing from a blissful day of sunshine, to overnight ice, to a heavy blanket of snow – all within 24 hours. So, basically, I bring everything, minus the bikini.

However, the STUFF is more complicated.

All travel is a lesson in letting go and trusting. Yet when the Piles of Endless Possibilities stare you in the face, your mind races to the What-if’s? What if I feel like drawing? What if someone invites me to cross country ski and all I brought were snowshoes? What if Just-the-Right-Book remains at home on the shelf?

But packing for every possible What-if? adds up to heavy bags, sore backs and the chaos of too much stuff.Suitcase

So how do you let go and trust that what you need will be there when you need it? Here’s a simple process that helped me let go of the worry without packing for every possible contingency.

Start by walking away from the packing frenzy and clearing your head: it’ll be easier to consider what you truly need. Sit someplace quiet with paper and pen in hand. When your heart is no longer racing, try these 3 steps:

1) Breathe deeply and bring to mind the intention of your journey. Write down 3 qualities that capture its purpose. In the case of my retreat, rest, nature and connection best captured my hopes.

2) List 5 categories of items that you’ll need. For my retreat, I’d need clothes, books, outer gear, writing supplies and snack food.

3) Now focus on one category at a time. Ask what items in this category will support each of the 3 qualities listed in Step 1. For example, what clothes will I need for resting? I’ll want clothes that are comfortable and loose fitting. What clothes will I need for time in nature? Snowshoes, sturdy boots and a day pack enable this quality. Should I pack my dress shoes? Only if connection means I’m going out to a fancy dinner.

When you follow these 3 steps, you set aside the What-ifs and focus on the I-wills; you support your travel intentions rather than encourage your packing overwhelm. And with a clear head, a lightened suitcase and your plans penned in the celestial travel notebook, your trip cannot help but be an adventure.

Don’t forget your toothbrush!







To Do, or Not To Do?

Posted by suevenman on Feb 28, 2014  

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.      Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Back in my hurried and harried days, I judged my importance by the number of keys hanging from my key chain and how many Xeroxed pages I was toting around in my backpack. Sad? Sad. Whether keys or copied documents or yet another meeting, I now get it: more is not always better, sometimes it is just more.

Listchecklist-154274_150 Scenario: You have 15 things on today’s to-do list; everything from picking up cat food to talking to a colleague about the new product idea you’ve been pondering. At the end of the day, you accomplished 14 of the tasks. Work well done? Perhaps. But what if the remaining task was the most important and time sensitive of the lot? Work well done? Maybe not.

Leading a less harried life and reducing the “more” to less takes commitment and courage. Because prioritizing isn’t just about deciding what to do. It’s also about deciding what not to do; and we’ve all found out that saying, “No” takes a strong spine.

So how do you decide when to say, “Yes” to and when to say, “No?”

To make a sound decision, you need criteria. Have you ever seen one of those egg-size sorters? The egg rolls down a shoot with graduating holes, smallest to largest. If the egg’s the right size, it drops through the hole (presumably onto something soft), leaving the larger eggs to keep rolling. Task criteria are like sizing eggs: well thought through criteria will objectively sort the least important tasks (the smallest eggs) from the most import (the duck eggs).

To develop sound criteria, consider:

  • Consequences
  • Risk, and
  • The human element


  • What will be lost or gained as a result of choosing to work on one task versus another?
  • For example, not paying a credit card on time has a costly consequence; but there is little consequence if you postpone planning your summer vacation when it’s still the beginning of January.


  • Is there the risk of a negative outcome if any one of the tasks is not accomplished?
  • For example, if you delay ordering the rare book you finally found after a 10 year search, will someone else snap it up?

The human element:

  • Who will care about your decision if you do or don’t do this task, and how important are their feelings?
  • For example, if you insist on finishing every last task on your to-do list, you’ll be late for your child’s birthday party. Does it matter? Maybe not to you; but your child will be crushed if you don’t show up.

Lesson: there are times when you need to put down the to-do list and take up the more important things in life. Chances are, the list will still be there when you return.

Here’s to making your to-do list a playground, not a prison.