People often ask why I don’t take more before-and-after pictures of my work or why I don’t have more beautiful pictures of my organizational projects on my website. I always have the same response: Actual organized pantries, closets and drawers don’t look like the staged photos we see online or in magazines. I could post pictures of real-life spaces that are perfectly organized, but they won’t look as spectacular as people expect them to look. And if I send out images of perfectly arranged, color-coded shelves, it perpetuates an unrealistic standard that no one can live up to.
Real people don’t live in staged spaces. To get organized, you don’t have to suddenly become perfect; you just have to figure out how to make your own reality more functional, predictable and logical for you and your family.
My job as a professional organizer gives me unusual proximity to people’s relationships and routines and, therefore, important perspective about how an organized home looks, the struggles people experience trying to manage frenetic lifestyles and the legitimate problems they have trying to stay organized.
All of my clients are intelligent and accomplished and consider themselves incredibly lucky. But that does not mean their lives are without struggles. Here are just some of the challenges I see in my work and the tricks people use to overcome them.
I work with a lot of women, and some men, who are completely overwhelmed with managing their households, their children and their own lives. They may be working at home, primarily taking care of their children, or working part- or full-time. Regardless, they have packed and ever-changing calendars that can be almost impossible for even the most organized person to manage. Their spouses may work long hours or travel frequently for work, leaving them with most of the responsibilities. I always tell them this: Many people are struggling with the same thing, and no one does everything perfectly. Sometimes good enough is good enough.
One woman has found that waking up 30 minutes earlier so she has time alone to map out the day makes her feel more in control. Another keeps a bin of extra snacks and water bottles in the trunk of her car, removing two items from her long to-do list each afternoon. And another has become devoted to significantly editing and limiting what comes into her house. When you have less, there’s less to clean up and keep organized.
A space that feels orderly to one person may feel cluttered and disorganized to another. Differences of opinion about how a house should be kept can cause a lot of stress and resentment for couples. Communication and compromise are key here. I know one couple who shared a home office for years, but the wife couldn’t stand the mess her husband made, so she converted a large hall closet into an office. I also have clients who make rules about specific rooms. Maybe they’ve agreed that the dining room table should be free of clutter or that their children’s toys are not allowed in the living room.
Another common issue for families is when one person has a hard time parting with one or several types of items. A spouse may become frustrated with their partner for never throwing away newspapers or magazines. Or frustration boils over when one person doesn’t have enough room to store their books, shoes or baseball hats, but won’t get rid of any of them, even though they’re not being used. Again, compromise is the answer; coming to an agreement can be difficult, but once one has been reached, there’s usually a healthy level of competition for each person to keep up their end of the deal.
One couple I work with has decided that the husband can keep newspapers for a week. Once the newspapers have been around for more than a week, they must be recycled. Another client has decided to compromise on the number of shoes she stores in the closet she shares with her husband. She’s agreed to discard shoes that have not been worn in a year and store her out-of-season shoes underneath their bed.
Other organizational challenges arise as a result of a significant life event such as illness, death, a move or divorce. When circumstances overtake normal routines, it can take weeks or months to get things back in order and people are understandably overwhelmed. Bills have piled up, laundry bins are overflowing, and every surface is stacked with things that haven’t been put away in their proper place. It can be hard to know how, and where, to start getting things organized again when your surroundings feel chaotic.
When you feel overwhelmed and distracted, it is best to set small achievable goals that will help you stay motivated.
I recently helped a woman pare down after her husband died. We set up several two-hour appointments, and each time tackled a specific project (i.e. books, hall closet, medical supplies, artwork and other collectibles). Another client who was diagnosed with breast cancer wanted to prioritize organizing her home office. She wanted to feel ready to get back to work in a neat and soothing space after her surgery. I’ve also had two clients who were each worried about how long it would take to get settled into a new home. Instead of trying to do everything at once, one decided to focus on unpacking and organizing the kitchen before moving on to other spaces. The other woman decided she needed to get everyone’s closets set up first.
We’ve heard much of the challenges kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can have in school. But when attention disorders follow a person into adulthood, everyday organizational tasks become challenging. Some of these people are good at organizing certain aspects of their lives. Perhaps their closets and kitchen are tidy, but they can’t stay on top of incoming mail and bill paying. Or maybe their office is functional, but they can’t ever find what they need in their kitchen.
One longtime client sets a timer for 10 minutes at the end of each workday and cleans off her desktop. She files papers, puts supplies away and leaves a list of things to do the next day. Another client has created a checklist for her son with ADHD to complete each morning before he leaves for school. He checks the boxes on a whiteboard to confirm he has his backpack, lunchbox, water bottle, homework and phone. Tasks such as these work well for people with attention disorders because they don’t require much time, and they are specific and the same every day.
Nobody’s house, including my own, regularly resembles the tidy and colorful precision we see in the media. Real life is sloppy, imperfect and constantly changing.
It is important to acknowledge this reality before you try to get organized. Don’t strive for magazine perfection. Figure out what works for you, and work to achieve it. If new habits have made life easier and more functional for you and your family, then that should be your measure of success.