Saturday 9 December 2017

Organise to minimise pain

My dear dad passed away last Monday. It wasn't unexpected; it wasn't even un-wished-for, in the saddest sense. He had started to show signs of dementia in around 2011, went into a care home in 2013, and in effect we had said goodbye to my father many years ago. For four years he had been increasingly vegetative, immobile and (mercifully) asleep.

He was a systematic, pragmatic, organised soul; no prizes for guessing where I got it from. As I have for some years handled all financial affairs under a Legal Power of Attorney for both of my parents, I have all their paperwork, some of which is in an old metal hanging-file box that lives under my desk. Dad loved figures and paperwork, and would spend happy hours reconciling his bank statements (he viewed it in the same way as Sudoku and crossword puzzles); he liked to know where things were and where he stood.

When, two days ago, I needed to go to the registrar, the check list suggested I take various documents. They were all in the metal box. NHS card: check. Birth certificate: check. Marriage certificate: check. The lovely registrar thanked me for making his job so easy.

As I caught my breath, waiting in the car to meet my husband after the registrar's visit and before clearing my father's room at the home, I took this photograph of the three civil registration certificates that spanned my father's life.

When I later messaged the photo across to my sister (who lives in Spain) she replied "I'd be impressed if they were the originals." I replied "They are."

My point about this post is that I have enough to deal with at the moment: my own emotions (grief + relief), caring for my bereaved mother, arranging the funeral, notifying friends and relations and authorities. For this task to be made so much easier due to my father's careful, clutter-free systems, and my own instinct for organisation, is a blessed relief.

This applies to everything we do. When life throws us a curve-ball - and we know how often that happens - you need all the resources you can get. If the basic processes of your life are running smoothly, you can focus your attention on dealing with a crisis.

Don't wait. Let me help you to sort those papers, clear that clutter, achieve that calm; so that whenever your own particular curve-ball hits, you'll have just a bit more fuel in the tank to come through.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Hidden treasure

A recent session with a client involved sorting through several large boxes and bags of paperwork - scooped up from car or house and dumped 'to sort later' over a period of some months (possibly years). One box yielded all the good things shown in this photograph: £25, €50, £22 in valid Tesco vouchers, and several usable first and second class stamps.

Not to mention two in-date gift vouchers for meals in favourite Norfolk restaurants, a probably-valid £20 gift card for Amazon, two more store gift cards and three Oyster cards which may have credit on them (all still to be checked) - and finally, a brand-new-in-packet 8GB SD card for her camera.

What treasures might you have buried under the useless receipts and old bank statements?? Get in touch today if you would welcome some help getting started...

Saturday 16 September 2017

What's it worth to you?

I'm a great user of charity shops - both to buy and to donate. Some of my best clothing bargains have come from an assortment of splendid places around my beloved Norwich; my paperback habit is easily indulged at minimum prices.

Of course, my clients' discarded-but-still-useful items (not to mention my own) also find their way there. Not only does the charity benefit - whether it be Oxfam, the British Heart Foundation, the Cats' Protection League or any of hundreds of others - but so too do buyers like myself, happy to source a book for £2 instead of £9, a skirt for £3 instead of £30. And best of all, when the time comes to dispose of those items - decluttering the bookshelves or the wardrobe, either so the present items are less crowded or (perish the thought) to make room for more - the cycle of generosity continues.

However, I thought I'd try a different approach today. I'd been sent an online voucher by a friend to try out a 'book resale' site. You scan the barcodes, they make an offer for your item (books, DVDs, video games, CDs), they pay the postage, you parcel the items up and print the despatch label, and hey presto - money in your bank account. There are several such organisations springing up around the place, complete with their smartphone apps.

I had a major declutter of the 'novels' bookshelves. (I do this every so often: I'd say that at least 50% of my paperbacks are treated as magazines, read once, enjoyed but not retained.) I gathered around 40 items - mostly paperbacks, a few DVDs - and started scanning.

My resale site, to start with, rejected most of them. ("We have plenty of this title already and can't buy it today" being the gist of the message.) That was fair enough - most of them were pretty commonplace authors (an awful lot of Philippa Gregory historical stuff, to start with). However, I became a bit disheartened when, finally, the first book came up as accepted, the offer was 10p. TEN PENCE? Now, I might have paid £3-£4 in a supermarket for it, or £1-£2 in a charity shop; but at this rate, to reach my minimum of £5 worth of books, I would be getting rid of an awful lot.

In the end, I found 8 items they'd accept, with a total of a little over £5. (The highest value item was less than £3.) My online voucher means I'll be credited with just over £10. That's all very well; but then I looked again.

Most of those charity-shop items had cost, as I mentioned, around £1-£2. If Oxfam, or Dr Barnado's, could sell my Philippa Gregory novel for £1.50, that's a big markup on the 10p that I'm being offered. At my calculation, the pile of rejects - some 30 paperbacks - might, if they'd bought them, made me around a fiver if I was lucky. But at an average of (say) £1.50 per book, my charity shop could turn those 30 paperbacks into some £45. And I'd sooner that a good cause received £45 than that I received the price of a supermarket lunch.

In the end, I decided to sell those eight items and take the money; but only on condition that the remaining 30 books go to the charity shop next week. And, to be honest, because I was being offered a 'free fiver' voucher for trying out the service in the first place.

I'm sure that such sites do work well for some folks - especially if their book collections are a little more commercial than my own. However, when it comes to donating for best effect, it's seldom hard to find a charity shop nearby (and if you're a tax payer, you can gift aid your donation too).

As for me... I'll be dropping off those 30 paperbacks when I'm in Norwich next week - and will possibly find two or three new items of reading matter while I'm there. Double win.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

The clothes that won't let go

A conversation on Facebook recently echoed more than one similar discussion with clients. “I struggle to get rid of clothes… how do I decide?” In fact, I probably hear this question more than almost any other. ("How do I stop drowning in paperwork" is probably the one that comes closest.)

I might add that I’m very well qualified to talk about this. Not only am I pretty good at decluttering clothes, but I’m also very experienced at acquiring them. I can never resist a charity shop. I’ve been all sizes from a (fairly) small 12 to a (very) large 16 in my adult life. I’ve bought for purpose, for comfort, for distraction, for reward, and out of sheer blind panic. I’ve moved house and been subject to excruciating embarrassment at the number of items being hauled around by the long-suffering removal men. So I’ve been there and bought many t-shirts – in lots of different sizes.

There are countless reasons / excuses / validations for this challenge (and I'll likely write about more of them soon), but here's one of the most common. Does it ring bells for you, too?

I want to be able to wear it again. I’ve put on weight over the last six months / year / five years / ten years; I want to lose the weight, then I’ll be able to wear it again, so I must keep it.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard this argument, but one particular episode sticks in my mind. The lady in question had been through a pretty terrible time with illness, divorce, breakdown – the whole nine yards. More to the point, she’d told me many times that she had no wish to take any part in the life that had been left behind with the ex-husband. So we looked at these clothes, which were very definitely part of that ‘old life’. I asked her to imagine herself at the size she was when she wore them, and then whether she’d wear those clothes again on reaching that size. There was a pause as she visualised it, and then she burst out “Of course I wouldn’t wear them again. I don’t even like the colours. Or the fabrics. Or the occasions they were for…” She’d become so fixated on the fact that she wanted to be a size 12 again (or whatever it was) that she’d equated the size of the clothes with their suitability. Suddenly she realised that their style would be completely redundant in her new life, and as such they were no use to her – no matter what her size. Needless to say, the next time I saw her, the gaps in her wardrobe had been filled with comfortable linens, cottons and softness, in colours that she loved – and which were nothing like the items she’d given away.

I’ve done the same thing. In an earlier life (which for me finished in around 2004, which was the last time I worked in a formal office environment), I loved my sharp suits. It’s a style that looks good on me – being curvy, a tailored look is flattering – and I did have some really lovely outfits that were perfect for a senior office management / PA type role. But was I ever going to wear them again?

These days, my decluttering ‘uniform’ has to be practical: usually jeans and a t-shirt or sweater. If I go to help a client with their computer, it’s a bit smarter, but still nowhere near formal. If I attend a business networking event, it’s definitely ‘smart casual’, not ‘intimidating power dressing’. My leisure life involves the local theatre, music-making, long walks, photography, relaxed meetings with friends. Sharp suits? No. So out they went. I now possess one black jacket and trousers (in case of funerals) and one rather fine red Jacques Vert skirt suit (charity shop bargain)… just in case. (It's beautiful and a wonderful colour, but think I’ve worn it once. There’s every possibility of it being decluttered in the next major cull.)

And what about size? As I say, I know all about this, too. On my last really drastic declutter, when I was about half a stone off my target weight (and with the help of a wonderful style consultant), I retained just a few items (about 8, I think) that were very nearly the right size but not quite; realistically attainable; and (most importantly) still matched my lifestyle. (I called it my ‘keep and hope’ pile.) To my delight, I did manage to fit into them all within a few months; but guess what? Even some of those went to charity or ebay in the end, as when I reached the size that matched the clothes, I realised that my style / shape / attitude had shifted still further – and they weren’t quite “me” any more. (I don't know about you, but my definition of "me" changes with the passage of time.)

Also consider: exactly how long have these clothes been in your wardrobe waiting for that magical weight loss? If it's a few weeks or months, that's fair enough. But it's very common for people to tell me that a dress or a pair of jeans was last worn, say, twenty or thirty years ago. Not only do fashions change (would you wear your 1980s shoulder-pads - or lycra - today?) but would you truthfully want to be the weight you were when you were (say) eighteen? Healthy, toned slimness is wonderful to see at any age; a desperate striving for "my younger weight" may well not be desirable. I know that my ideal weight at 54 is most definitely at least ten pounds or a stone heavier than it was when I was 24; any less and I start to look decidedly gaunt.

It’s also worth saying that while I have occasionally experienced an episode of “that’s a shame – that skirt would have looked nice on me now”, it’s no more than a mild regret. It's not a traumatic moment worthy of Sarah Bernhardt. In today’s world, we are drowning in choice of shapes, colours and fabrics, and finding an appropriate substitute for the occasion is seldom the cause of deep pain - more a cursory shrug and an “oh, well”. The decision lies between the pleasure of an uncluttered, functional, flattering, enjoyable wardrobe, and the moderate discomfort of realising that an item (out of, let's be honest, dozens of the things) might just have "come in useful" after all. You make the choice.

Your wardrobe needs to reflect your everyday style. We all have a few seldom-worn items: serious posh frocks, funeral formality, fancy dress party and so on. Fine.  But the other 90%? They need to suit the size you are now, or at least very close to it (come on, be honest); but (more importantly) the life you are living today.

Don’t buy for the life you want until you’re living it. Think tomorrow morning, or next week, or the ‘do’ you’re attending next month, or (at the most) next season. Beyond that, who knows what may have changed in your life?

(A brief aside on the above question: I’m presently reading How to be Free, a splendidly entertaining, anarchic and provocative book by the redoubtable Tom Hodgkinson, from which I could pinch soundbites by the dozen. I especially like “We all know the Jewish joke: How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”)

What are your greatest challenges when you consider getting rid of clothes? Post a comment, ask a question, and I’ll help. Or if you’re ready to bring your wardrobe (or any other part of your life) under control, and create it for today, rather than for the past or the future, get in touch - and we’ll get cracking!

Wednesday 2 August 2017

What to do, who should do it

One of the greatest challenges faced by a large number of my clients is paperwork. We know the theories: action, file, junk. Separate and action. But how many of us actually want to do this, and does the thought of the work involved make your blood run cold?

It's like any other vital life activity. If it has to be done, you have three choices: (a) do it yourself or learn how to do so, (b) pay somebody else to do it or (c) muddle along without anybody doing it at all. The same applies to paperwork as to ironing, cleaning, gardening and other areas of maintaining a comfortable life.

If you choose option (c), the consequences can range from the inconvenient to the illegal. Ignoring the letters from HMRC will result in stress, fear, panic and possibly financial loss if you're fined for failing to submit your return; and failing to tax and insure your car is definitely a bad idea.. Ignoring the needs of your garden isn't against the law, but might make you unpopular with the neighbours, and it's not easy living cheek-by-jowl with a jungle. Ignoring the laundry could cost you a fortune in new clothes.

The point is, we are not all book-keepers, gardeners, cleaners or whatever - but we expect ourselves to be. Some of those skills will cause you no difficulty at all; others might send you screaming for the hills. The trick is to identify how vital (or not) those unwanted responsibilities are, which of them fall naturally and without pain into your own scope of interest and skill, and whether the peace of mind and time bought by outsourcing them is worth it.

I worked with a client some years ago whose hatred of paperwork borders on the pathological. Her in-tray was a dumping ground for tomorrow, and tomorrow never came. She's brilliant at her vocational job, a wonderful mother, a delightful friend and a superlative hostess; but she was constantly distressed by her hatred of and inefficiency with dealing with paper - whether it was for business or household. We did some major decluttering of her desk, and she was delighted when it was all brought under control (and she ended up with a very small pile of 'action' items on the desk); but when I next visited, that 'action' pile had grown, and nothing had been actioned.

So she got help. Not from me - I'm a troubleshooter rather than a long-term PA - but from a lovely local girl who loves paperwork. She took huge pride in taking my client in hand, taking on all the hated admin jobs, and relieving her of the burden of stress, allowing her to get on with the business and the mothering and the entertaining that she was best at.

Now, you may say "that's all very well, she had a business, she could afford it" - which is true. However, that doesn't change the fact that we all have to face up to options (a), (b) and (c) at some point. Moreover, you don't need a full-time secretary to keep basic household paperwork under control; an hour or two each fortnight might suffice. If (like me) you have no interest, ability or motivation for gardening, a few hours each month costs (on average over a year) around the same as a night out at the cinema plus dinner and drinks. For peace of mind, I'd sooner have the gardener than the night out.

And then there's option (a). Learning to do it yourself may well not be such a huge issue after all. I've set up systems for clients using (for example) spreadsheets which they have then continued very ably to populate without help from me or anybody else. An outside pair of eyes on a new process, a little computer training, some shortcuts and ideas, and who knows? - you might even enjoy it. There's nothing worse than struggling with a computer programme because you don't know how to use it to its fullest advantage. You wouldn't expect to drive a car without lessons, would you? Why do we expect to use computers without help?

Take a bit of time to review those jobs that are causing you grief.
  • Does it have to be done? Will the world end, or at least will your health or finances suffer, if you simply don't do it? If the answer is no, then save yourself the aggravation and remove it from your life. You have a finite number of years and days and minutes on this earth; use them wisely.
  • If it has to be done, due to financial or health consequences if you don't, can you learn to do it yourself? Don't muddle along and get discouraged; ask an expert (even if it's simply in a book). Ask for recommendations among friends, on social media or elsewhere. "I need to learn to do x. Can anyone recommend a book / a trainer / a consultant who could help me?" One of the biggest benefits of social media, for all its irritations, is the potential for sharing and support. Use it.
  • And if you decide that it must happen but that you really can't, under any circumstances, bear doing it yourself, find out what the real costs are - and what you're able / willing to pay. If the cost of a couple of bottles of wine will buy you an hour of a cleaner's time, how would that feel? If you sacrificed that evening out I mentioned in exchange for a few hours' gardening, which would you prefer? And in the time you might reclaim by outsourcing, you may be able to invest some of it in people or activities that are more precious to you.
Life's too short to spend being stressed - or distressed - by things you don't do because you really hate doing them, or things that you think you can't do because nobody's ever shown you the easy way. 

  • Get clear in your head the difference between can't, won't and don't know how
  • Be honest about whether the activity is vital, important or optional
  • Once you've worked out those two elements, you can make decisions about whether you do it, outsource it or leave it
And don't forget to ask for help! If you're ready to take action on streamlining your life, your surroundings and your workload, contact me today for support, motivation and practical help.

What are you waiting for?

Saturday 8 October 2016

So happy to help

It's a real delight when a client sends feedback like this. And it's a pleasure and a privilege when what is needed and what I can offer coincide so well.

"Thanks for your email and the attachments. You were worth every single penny.

It was a real honour and quite amazing to have you going through my Stuff with me yesterday, and I noticed I got quicker at deciding what to hurl or keep as we went along. Thank you also for cooking lunch and talking to me about the Cooking and Nurturing Food Thing! I had clearly been trying to go about things the wrong way round, both with clutter/storage and my general approach to the diet and life I deserve - which was a great learning curve for me.

After you left, I went straight out and bought salad + stir-fry vegetables and had a bit of a cook-up for lunch today, eating mindfully. Soooo satisfying! It was all very very helpful - physically, mentally and emotionally - and yes, I slept an untroubled long sleep after a gorgeous warm shower. I'm very much calmer (and less agitated, considering high mood-swing) today. Top stuff, Cassie!

One of the added bonuses was that I was so pleased to wake up today, to a lovely bedroom again, with just little jobs here and there that I know I can manage in minutes or half-hours at a time; every day a little something. I did clear the bedside tables last night and was actually keen to get up and go this morning.

Thanks so much for helping me to be a lot less household-crazy ... and you can quote me on any of this!"

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Peak Stuff

You might have picked up on this phrase recently. It's been a busy old Twitter hashtag (#peakstuff) and it originated with a discussion with a senior member of the IKEA team. This article summarises the situation pretty neatly (and saves me writing it again). It was written by the inspirational Jen from Wiltshire, who runs a blog called My Make Do and Mend Life.

As a professional organiser, one of the main services I'm called upon to provide is the assistance with decluttering. (The organising of what is kept is usually a separate issue. Some clients don't have, in fact, enormous amounts to dispose of, believe it or not; it's their arrangement and accessibility of 'needful stuff' that is challenging.)

However, it's also common to find myself supporting clients through the disposal of excess. There are the clothes that either no longer fit or that are simply never worn due to a change in lifestyle. There is paperwork (one of the greatest problems for many of us), most of which is accessible online, and outdated information is usually more dangerous than no information at all. There are overstocks of food (BOGOF deals, anyone?) to the extent that it goes to waste as it goes out of date before it can possibly be eaten. And so on. And, of course, all this excess 'stuff' has to live somewhere, and most people don't have unlimited space or storage.

Jen's key point in her article is this:

"We are still being cajoled by the advertising companies that our lives will be better, and happier, and easier, if we had the latest shiny new thing. But maybe, just maybe, we’re all finally starting to cotton to the fact that this is actually just advertising bullsh*t designed to keep us spending, and that our lives are not any better, happier or easier, even after buying a whole heap of latest shiny new things. Maybe the message is sinking home that current levels of consumption are unsustainable, and our planet does not in fact have finite supplies of everything we need."

Exactly so. Less stuff means:

  • more space
  • more money to spend on experiences rather than things
  • less dust
  • less pressure to conform
  • more clarity
  • less confusion
  • more efficiency

If you're wondering, there are areas in which I'm as much at fault as the next man, or woman. I'm still a bit of a clothes addict - there's nothing like succeeding in losing nearly three stone to seduce one into buying unnecessary items just because it's hard to believe that things look good. However, I have about 35% of the quantity of clothes that I had two years ago (largely because I had a wardrobe spanning three sizes). I hate to think of the amount of money that was wasted on that one. My husband's equivalent is the books: far more volumes than he could ever, conceivably, read in a lifetime.


So what do you do with the #peakstuff when you decide it's time for it to go? To start with, don't panic about landfill. Almost nothing that I, or my clients, dispose of goes there. Recycle, give to charity, Freegle (like ebay but without money), give away, car boot sale, Gumtree, Ebay... so many places. I've created a page of suggestions here that you might find helpful.

And if you need support - physical, motivational, or just ideas and suggestions - contact me, or one of my colleagues from APDO, and we'll be delighted to help.