Thursday, January 18, 2007

Attacking the Attack on Clutter - Part Two

Professional organizer Jeri Dansky kindly provided a link on her site (see comments on my previous post) to the December 28th "NPR: Talk of the Nation" program featuring David Freedman, one of the authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, in conversation with pro organizer Kathy Waddill. I found it to be an interesting show and it further confirmed my belief that there is absolutely nothing perfect about a mess. It also confirmed my suspicion that it's helpful to explain what we mean by the term "organized."

On the broadcast, Ms. Waddill made an important point by stressing that organization is not about neatness so much as it is about function. Most of us who struggle to get organized are not suffering from some sort of neurotic need for rigid orderliness; we just want to be able to find what we want when we want it, then we want to have sufficient space to use whatever it is that we just found. If I want to bake a cake, I want to be able to get out the cake pan without having to empty my entire kitchen cupboard. Then I want to have enough room on the kitchen countertop to work there without having to relocate a week's worth of mail, a sweater, and an accumulation of expired coupons. Otherwise, I'm annoyed. To avoid being annoyed, that means that I must not allow a bunch of extra plastic containers to accumulate in my cabinet where they will just be in the way; I must have a more appropriate place to stash my mail; I must have a place to hang up my sweater; and, in my particular case, I must forget about saving coupons because I seem to be incapable of remembering to use them -- I applaud those who do remember, but because I don't, it's better for me to skip the mental torture of consistent failure on this one small task.

"Organized" is a word that has unfairly acquired a negative connotation. It often seems to be used to define to some mythical state of perfection that we'll never achieve anyway and it's usually applied snidely to people who seem to be compulsively neat. If we simply substitute the word "functional," or some variation of it, we can better indicate what most of us are trying to achieve. "Organized" sounds final; "functional" sounds fluid, flexible, as if changes still can be made as a process unfolds. Having a functional home and office is a realistic goal, because life is not static. A functional home and office are not always ready for a photo-op, but they can be made ready fairly quickly because they are set up to function efficiently.

"Messy," on the other hand, is a condition that interferes with good functioning. The fact that a few rare souls are able to function amidst a mess ("The mortgage papers? Why they're three inches down in that big pile behind the potted palm, just to the left of the orange crate full of Junior's old toys.") does not mean it's a desirable condition. It's simply a situation that lacks a functional system.

Every household has systems of some kind for just about everything that goes on, but for some, they're disorderly, inefficient systems that result in a dysfunctional household. Here's a small example: if your "system" is to toss the mail wherever there's an empty surface to "deal with it later," chances are you're going to lose track of some of your mail. Probably there will be some bills in there that won't get paid. This could get your phone turned off, affect your credit rating, or just be embarrassing the next time you go to your doctor's office and are told in front of a full waiting room that your payment is overdue. It's a system that doesn't work, so you need a new system. If you decide that you want one and can't come up on your own with something that works, chances are you'll consult a book (or many, many books) about organizing, or perhaps hire a professional organizer for help. Systems must function for individual personalities within the context of their living and working situations, so you'll have to figure out what system will function best for you.

But what's the first thing any useful organizing book or any pro organizer worth her color-coded manila folders would tell you? Get rid of any unnecessary stuff before you set up your system so that all you have left to organize is what you truly need. Unfortunately, this particular crucial issue didn't get discussed on the NPR show, but it is the underlying problem that creates most messes: we simply have too much stuff.

So, once again, I suggest that you not get caught up worrying about "organizing" and, instead, focus on eliminating everything that you don't need to function. In your home, that doesn't mean that you must throw out every single one of your decorative items or your favorite collections; in your office, it doesn't mean randomly bagging every pile of papers and trashing them (no matter how tempting that may seem!). It means that to begin your process of setting up functional living and working systems, you must determine, honestly, what you need. You'll find that you need less than you have!

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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