Saturday 31 December 2011

The organiser declutters herself

I know, I know: happy new year, make your resolutions. I have plenty of my own - and you may be surprised (or not, depending on how well you know me) to learn that they include some serious decluttering and organising of my own.

In this case, specifically, my wardrobe. As a result of fluctuating constantly across three dress sizes over most of my adult life, I've got three times as many clothes as I could possibly want. Things were crushed together; I was depressed by the presence of so much I couldn't wear; so I have spent a bit of the 'quiet time' between Christmas and New Year (with help from my darling husband) doing some serious weeding.

There is a pile to keep - clothes that I do not fit into at present - but we're not talking a need to lose three stone here, but a matter of a few pounds. There's the stuff for charity shop and for selling - in both cases, these have been a matter of finally accepting that even when I'm closer to the size I want to be, I will never again be the size that I was twenty years ago, and it's foolish to pretend otherwise (it wouldn't suit me, anyway!). And, given the panic that is induced by being dissatisfied with one's shape, there are a fair few items - mostly off bargain rails and charity shops - that come under the heading of "what the **** were you thinking when you bought this?"

The 'wear' pile has gone back in the wardrobes, with more room to hang neatly, and easier to see. The 'keep' pile - those clothes that I know I have a realistic chance of getting into again - are stored away ready for that day (which will come; I've done it before, I can do it again). The 'sell' pile is ready to take to a local 'good-as-new' shop - I haven't the time or energy to ebay them; and the charity shop will be restocked hugely in the new year.

You see, I am great at advising other people about this stuff, what it means, why we accumulate it, how they might be able to change these habits. Am I perfect myself? Far from it, as you can see. But then, you probably wouldn't want a paragon of perfection, never a hair (or a foot) out of place, helping you with your overload of 'stuff', would you? This is all about real life; it happens; and as long as we deal with it before it drowns us, and don't beat ourselves up for it, it's not the end of the world.

As it happens, I truly believe that this has been an educational process for me. One of my recent clients proudly showed me her wardrobe after she'd cleared out (without my help) a huge amount, and I was stunned by how much she'd managed to achieve. (We'd worked together in other areas of the house, other furniture usage and purchase, and from that process she'd 'got it' - and was able to progress further on her own. That's the way it should be.)

The point is, she was an inspiration for me. I looked at her newly cleared wardrobe - with the same delight as I'd surveyed her kitchen after we'd worked together to sort that out - and thought I want that for myself. I spend so much time concentrating on the help that I can give to others - practical, motivational, physical, inspirational - that I myself sometimes get left out of the equation. More than once I've come home having left a very happy client behind, and thought I really could use one of my own organising colleagues to help me...

Be that as it may: it's made a big difference to me. If you feel that you could benefit from a major clear-out - whether it be your wardrobe, desk, kitchen, garden shed, attic or whatever - but simply don't have the strength to do it alone: call me. Not only can I provide an extra pair of hands, ditto pair of eyes, motivation, ideas, suggestions - I've also been there myself. I know how it feels to let go of something to make room in your home, your heart or your head for something else. I know how it feels to look at the problem and feel you don't know where to start. That's why I can help you.

So - if your new year's resolution for 2012 is to 'get it sorted' - call me. And we'll get on that journey together.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Scan and save

As a keen photographer and confirmed geek, I take great delight in combining the two in various ways to preserve my favourite images. Photobooks, and the various related gifts and products one can create, are a wonderful way to preserve the best of your memories, and I'm very proud of some of the items I've made for theatre groups, friends and relations, clients and more. They make perfect gifts for all occasions - especially appropriate as we dive into our Christmas preparations.

I'm delighted to have had published today an article on this very subject. Please visit the splendid Fab After Fifty for more details... and reclaim your favourite memories!

(Oh, and if you'd like to see some examples of books I've made, you can see a few on my page at here.)

Monday 31 October 2011

Facebook: will you be my friend?

I'm seeing quite a few business colleagues who have normal 'personal' profiles being used as business pages. Apart from the fact that you run the risk of Facebook suspending your account if you do this, there are very specific benefits to doing things the 'right way'!

I accept people as 'friends' on my personal account because they are - guess what - friends. I know them personally. They might, indeed, be friends that I have met through my business activities, networking events and so forth, but I know them as individuals, and am happy to share with them the things that are personal to me. I don't expect to be a 'friend' of a business; I don't want a business to see my personal postings, nor to see theirs. I am interested to see what they post as a business. So I'm much happier 'liking' a business page than I am asking them to be my friend, if that's not what I am. (Asking somebody you've never actually met before to 'be my friend' feels too reminiscent of the playground for my taste!)

If you're a business, and feel that you need a Facebook page, but you really don't want to be visible on Facebook to your real-life friends, you can always create a Business profile. You won't use Facebook as a 'friend', but you simply have access to your Business page and all that goes with it.

However, if (like me) you have two faces on Facebook - your personal and your business side - you can simply create a business page and set yourself as the administrator. It gives you a head start on acquiring 'likes' for your page, as it's likely that many of your real 'friends' will support you in your business, or even have been on the receiving end of your services. If it's appropriate, you can post as your business and then share that post to the wider circle of your friends.

So, if you do have a presence on Facebook, but you're actually using it only to promote your business, I'd strongly recommend that you convert your profile. Facebook now has a tool to make this straightforward.

And if you need help, just let me know!

Monday 19 September 2011

Chinese Whispers on Facebook

Another hoax springs up this morning, and one that is especially sad.

According to a posting doing the rounds on Facebook:

The Royal British Legion are not selling poppies in certain areas this year. This is because some minorities say that it will upset them. The poppy is a symbol of reverence for our fallen heroes of all the wars the BRITISH military have fought in. BRITAIN STAND UP AND SAY 'WE WANT THE POPPY SOLD EVERYWHERE IN THE UK'. THIS IS OUR RIGHT TO REVERE OUR FALLEN.. Copy and paste this if you think poppies should be sold everywhere... R.I.P fallen soldiers

If it were true, that would indeed be shocking. However, once again, this is a hoax. What's happened here is that one news story about poppy-selling (the problems relate to local council red tape and have nothing whatsoever to do with minorities of any kind) has been picked up and expanded into an excuse for anti-minorities propaganda. The very useful That's Nonsense site gives the story, and includes a link to the original report in The Telegraph.

If you can't be bothered to follow the links and read the full story, the truth is quite simple.

Simple, isn't it? A bit of red tape to disentangle, some commonsense and sensitivity from other charities, and the whole thing is resolved. Not a dickie-bird about 'minorities' being upset. Yet this bit of crap is presently flying all over the social media networks in a frenzy of self-righteous indignation.

It's too easy to believe this sort of thing, and to get very upset about such stories... and the anger and indignation would be reasonable if they were true. The knee-jerk reaction is to repost, to cut-and-paste, to get this shocking message out as soon as possible.

Please don't. Please consider every posting - just for a few seconds - before you throw it into that great melting-pot of speculation, rumour, deliberate falsehood and manipulation of public opinion that is the internet. That is, by the way, the same internet that is also a source of inspiration, valuable information, sharing, generosity and the highlighting of genuine concerns.

It isn't hard to find out which of those categories the latest alarmist posting belongs to. Truly. Try it.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Facebook: whose postings can you see?

Oh, lovely. Another lot of tosh that's doing the rounds at the moment.

This one says:

"Facebook has changed its News Feed AGAIN, so that by default, you can only see updates from people with whom you've recently interacted. To change this, click on 'Account', then 'Edit friends' then at the top left, click "All Friends.""

NO. The Account > Edit Friends setting is simply to display the list of friends you want to see listed at that time. It's a way of conveniently filtering your contacts - helpful if you want to find somebody quickly (e.g. by group, recently added, recently interacted or whatever). It makes no difference to updates you see on your wall. You can prove this by going back to the setting after you have ostensibly changed it (go back to your wall, then back to the Account > Edit Friends setting again); you'll find that it still says the same as it did before.

To change the 'who you see postings from on your wall' setting, you need to click on where it says 'most recent' (as opposed to 'top news') on your front page; choose Edit Options from the drop-down list; and *there* you'll see the choice between 'all friends' and 'those you interact with the most'. That's the setting that will make a difference to what you see on your wall.

PLEASE - check these messages properly before reposting. This one is inaccurate, but I've seen it several times in the last few days.


I do get a bit uptight about these postings. It seems to be that they are most prolific when the users can scream 'FACEBOOK HAS DONE IT WRONG AGAIN'. Don't get me wrong - I completely agree that there have been many occasions when the default settings could potentially compromise privacy; when they've made yet another change to the interface without giving suitable guidelines; and much more. However, this sort of run-round-in-circles-screaming nonsense doesn't help anybody - especially when, as in this particular case, it's completely inaccurate and misleading. The funny thing is that the business about 'whose updates you see' is a genuine issue, and was correctly flagged up as such on postings a while back. Why on earth, then, do people feel the need to put up incorrect advice like this?

Like all other 'send this to all your friends' postings, I always beg, plead and request on bended knees: DON'T. At least, not until you've taken the trouble (and it truly doesn't take long) to establish the truth of it. If you're not sure of the verity of a posting - be it a virus warning, a setting on Facebook or whatever - then find somebody who will know. There are plenty of excellent sites - HoaxSlayer, FaceCrooks, Snopes and the rest - who will probably be able to help you out; and most of them have groups or pages on Facebook, so you can easily post a query there, and somebody will be able to help you.

Or find a passing friendly geek-queen. Like me. I don't bite.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Stuff and storage

One of my clients sent me a link she thought I might be interested in. Published on the BBC website, it expresses the concerns about the 'craze' for self-storage.

People are leaving their possessions in self-storage warehouses for longer than ever. But why are people paying to store stuff they rarely use? It's a monument to our acquisitive society - the brightly lit shed on the edge of town offering "storage solutions".

This rang lots of bells. I've written on this topic in this blog before, last April. Everything I said there still holds true: I still firmly believe that, used appropriately, storage options are a valid way of helping us to deal with 'stuff' - as long as it's with a realistic approach. When either the practical or the emotional considerations mean we need time and space - physical and mental - then this is a sensible option; when we simply don't have the room in our living quarters to accommodate items that we have valid reasons for keeping, renting storage space is no different from renting a garage to keep your car safe.

However, this article flags up very correctly the other side of the story - and the reason for it being an increasing pitfall in modern consumer society. My fellow apdo-uk member, Cory Cook, is quoted in the article:

"More and more stuff comes in and it's not going out. I want to say it's a throwout society, but it's not the case because people are keeping their things around."

Exactly so. We might be living in a recession, but that doesn't mean we are buying less 'stuff'. On the contrary: my observation of the 'stuff' that I help my clients to sort through is that we're more likely to buy more items of a lower value. It can give a lift out of the doldrums induced by dismal economic times, terrible summer weather and back-to-work blues: hey, look, I've got a new toy! And if that 'toy' - whether an electronic gadget, an item of clothing, a kitchen gizmo or a DVD - has been bought at a cheaper price than we might previously have afforded, it's often less likely to last than its slightly pricier alternative.

We all know the scenario in the wardrobe: given the choice, would you spend the same amount of money on one well-made, classy item, or on ten things from the sale rail? And before you ask, I'm as guilty of this sin as the next woman. The obvious result - after the adrenalin rush of I've got a new toy - is that, at a later date, the multiple items are not only more likely to be thrown away (how many of your favourite clothes came from the sale rail?) but there are more of them to be disposed of - when you eventually get round to it.

The matter of whether we store unneeded things or not is a worry; the roots of why this kind of storage is necessary at all is a far greater cause for concern. It's usually because we've bought it in the first place... and we are slaughtered with guilt about how much stuff we have. If we do manage to get rid of it, it feels like a waste. "I couldn't possibly throw that away - it cost me good money." Disposing of the item is like admitting that we got it wrong in the first place.

It's also true to say that there is a lot of association with our identities: we are, often, our stuff. In the same article, this valuable observation is made by Oliver James, author of the superbly-named Affluenza:

Our identity has increasingly become associated with products, and not just the mortgage and the car, but smaller items. "We've confused who we are with what we have," he says. It explains why we're so reluctant to throw things away. "We feel it might come in handy one day. It feels like it's a little part of yourself even though it's just tat. You wouldn't want to throw yourself away, would you?"

This isn't a new scenario. During a recent holiday in France, I visited an eighteenth-century château, complete with the authentic furnishings, décor and bric-a-brac of that era. The Victorians were just as bad: their homes were full of clutter and dust-traps. However, these indulgences were the province of the wealthy. Now, with the help of the high street and the pound-shop, we can all surround ourselves with 'stuff'. And we do.

So: how do we deal with it?
  • We accept the purchasing mistakes we've made in the past, and put it down to experience
  • We pass on the stuff we really no longer need (or, in some cases, even like) to benefit somebody else - and refrain from fretting about the money we paid out for it
  • We use the learning when we next shop for something - and we shop mindfully, not emotionally
  • We take a long hard look at the space we are paying for - whether it's in the context of the house we're renting or mortgaged for, or external space - and ask ourselves whether it's genuinely worth it
We might not get it right all the time. I certainly don't.

But it's well worth a try.

Thursday 18 August 2011

A secure session on Facebook?

Here's another Facebook frightener that is doing the rounds again.

"Apparently Facebook has changed and said nothing (again). Take a look at your URL (top box on your screen.) If you see "http" or just "www" instead of "https" you DO NOT have a secure session & can be hacked. Go to Account Settings - Click Security on the left top corner - click Edit, Check box (secure browsing), click Save. FB has automatically set it on the non-secure setting! Do everyone a huge favour, copy & re-post."

Here we go again. For a start, Facebook has not 'changed and said nothing' - the inference here is that it was previously secure and it isn't now. In fact, it's the other way round: Facebook introduced the ability to have a secure connection (https) as an additional feature in early January 2011. Before that time, all Facebook browsing was http (non-secure) and there was no choice in the matter. This useful article on Mashable gives the full story.

NB: If you do choose to use an https setting (as explained in the Facebook help pages here) there are some applications that will not work (for example, I can't play my favourite word game of Lexulous on this setting).

More to the point, do you need the secure browsing setting? It does (as the Mashable article explains) protect you from hacking in an unprotected environment: "Without it you’re exposed to sniffing attacks on the network; for example, if you’re using a public Wi-Fi to access Facebook via plain HTTP, someone using the Firesheep add-on for Firefox can easily retrieve your data. HTTPS makes it a lot harder to do that." However, if you're sitting at home, using your own password-protected wifi network, this is not the case.

I'm not saying that you should be cavalier about your security settings - far from it. There are plenty of hazards lurking on Facebook (and in many other places on the internet) - hoaxes, phishing attacks, malware and much more - and we all need to be clued up about them. However, this means that misleading and sensationalist postings can (in the manner of the 'boy who cried wolf') deflect our attention from the genuinely dangerous stuff. It's much important that you realise what these settings really mean - rather than perpetuating the myth that 'Facebook does everything wrong', 'they never tell us anything' and the rest.

Please, please - before copying and pasting these warning messages, take just a minute or two to have a proper look at the facts. Type the phrase into Google, look in the Facebook Help section, or ask a passing geek. Then make your decisions based on facts, rather than on a game of Chinese Whispers.

It would, by the way, be far more accurate to post:

"Facebook has implemented a new security measure, which you can take advantage of if you want to. Take a look at your URL (top box on your screen.) If you see "http" or just "www" instead of "https" you do not have a secure session, and it's possible that you may be hacked [but only if you are using an unsecured public network; this doesn't apply if you are using a password-protected private network]. Visit the FB help page for more information here: Please note: FB has automatically set it on the non-secure setting, as many applications do not work on the HTTPS setting, but you can change it if you wish."

You wouldn't try to drive a car without understanding the rules of the road; you wouldn't base your navigation, speed or behaviour on hearsay, rumour, part-truth and guesswork. Why should using your computer be any different?

UPDATE: Here's another useful link with more information on this situation. Of especial interest is the highlighting of the fact that "it is important not to be lulled into a false sense of security under the assumption that you are safe from attacks because you have opted for the HTTPS option, because in reality this option makes no change in the risks involved whilst using the social networking site."

Friday 3 June 2011

Help for the clergy

Being married to a parish priest, I have first-hand experience of the daily working lives of the clergy. It's not uncommon to find that the person who has been "trained and ordained" to be a pastoral support, a liturgical leader, a preacher and a carer of souls is also, by default, required to be an accountant, administrator, legal advisor and business manager. If none of those roles has ever featured in their professional lives before, the pressure can be enormous, and the help of an organiser and declutterer can be of great benefit.

I was thrilled to receive this testimonial from one such client that I worked with some months ago.

I have benefitted greatly from the advice and support you gave during your stay here. Further to the work we did together I have reordered my study by taking out some surplus shelves, moved the desks and created a sitting area which is calm and restful – perfect for seeing people for conversation, saying the Office or reading.

There have been periods when the paperwork has looked menacing, but now I am beginning to learn that if you allow a little time for the new system to do its work, the volume is broken down into manageable chunks. It also reveals when there is simply too much asking to be done – far better to acknowledge this and do what one can than harbour an unrealistic expectation that somehow it can be done.

All of this has happened since you came – change which is both physical and psychological, so thank you.

And better still, a more recent email confirms that things are still on track:

Life is good here – incredibly busy at the moment, but working on helping people share responsibility so it bodes well for the long term.

I was privileged to be given the opportunity to help in this way.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Tax - a nasty surprise?

I was so sad today to catch up with some local news. Our small sub-post office (tiny area, nine villages, 1,400-population) had been experiencing difficult times; and sadly the postmaster has been jailed for mis-appropriating funds from the business.

One of the personal bills quoted as causing him difficulty was his tax bill. We all know how nasty these can be. When I first worked for myself, 'way back in 1997, I had a highly unpleasant time dealing with my first tax bill: I simply hadn't understood the whole setup and what I would be required to pay (including the need to pay in advance to cover the next bill). Having got through that by the skin of my teeth, I swore never to get caught out like that again - and I haven't.

We all have unexpected bills to deal with. The car breaks down at the most inconvenient time; petrol costs escalate; oil prices go through the roof; the computer dies. None of these can be predicted. However, the tax bill can and should be predictable; and anybody who has income that is not covered by PAYE needs to get that prediction right.

It isn't rocket science. Put simply, any business, small or large, has income. It has expenditure. The first sum minus the second shows the profit (or loss) of that business. You're allowed to earn a certain amount before you are taxed on it. The rest is taxed. That's pretty much it.

After that nasty shock, back in 1997, I set up a spreadsheet for myself. I entered all my client income, all business-specific expenditure (e.g. rail fares), and a pro-rata calculation for expenses that were part personal, part business (e.g. mobile phone). With a couple of automatic sums, I can see at any time how much money I should have stashed away ready for the next tax bill; and for the last few years, I've always been prepared within a few pounds of the actual total.

You might be having kittens at the very thought. If book-keeping isn't your thing, then hire a book-keeper. If you can't bear to touch your accounts at all, you need a fully-fledged accountant. However, if you think you could do it yourself, but don't know how, get me or some other similar business to show you.

But never, never let that 'scary' bill be scary again. Life throws enough unknowns at us; give yourself a better chance of dealing with those by being in control of the known quantities.

Please. Do it for you. And if you need my help, contact me today.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Working Order in the press: Norfolk Voice

Delighted to have been featured in Norfolk Voice - a local business magazine. To see read the article (you'll find it on page 44), click here. Many thanks to Jenna at MediaJems for the opportunity!

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Summer clothes: the agony and the ecstasy

I was delighted to be asked by Ceri Wheeldon of the excellent Fab After Fifty website to contribute a blog posting, with the coming summer focusing our attention on the wardrobe. It turned into a rather more personal experience than I was expecting - and proves the point that declutterers don't always practice what we preach!

You'll find the article here. I hope it's a useful insight - and if you haven't come across Fab After Fifty before, make friends with them too!

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Thank you, Erma

I've posted a few times (such as here) about how important it is, in my field of work, to maintain a sense of perspective: the perfect (hard to attain, impossible to maintain) versus the workable.

Having no particular reading matter on the go at present, I picked up one of my favourite browsing books: Frank Muir's fabulous compilation The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose. This morning I revisited an old favourite, and it chimed in perfectly with the above sentiments.

I've never been a mother, but I can so easily understand the pressures to 'get it right' that add immense stress to an already challenging role. Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) was a superb humorist, and it's her wonderful "What sort of mother would... " article that Frank Muir introduced me to. If you've ever been tempted to think that you're not good enough, read it here on the equally encouraging Parenting Reality blog.

Once more, the message is loud and clear: declutter when the changes will help you to live your life with comfort and relaxation. If some simple changes in procedure and environment can lower your blood pressure and give you more opportunity to enjoy your time on this mortal coil, that's when the decluttering profession is here to help you make them. But don't put it off because you feel you're never going to achieve perfection. Do it to make things better for you - and those you love.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Clutter: a relative term

Our new apdo-uk Facebook page is already proving a valuable source of information. One of our members has today used it to point me towards an article in today's Guardian by Oliver Burkeman.

On the face of it, it would appear to be a somewhat cynical attack on what he describes as "Britain's burgeoning anti-clutter industry". However, a complete read of the article reveals that what he's actually saying makes a great deal of sense: he's urging a rational balance, an appreciation of what constitutes clutter and what is simply a part of the life you lead.

I'm delighted by the rationale in this paragraph: "..."clutter" is inherently subjective, denoting a certain kind of problematic relationship between you and your things, rather than things themselves... Clutter exists only when those things exert a mental drag, or get in the way of living, in line with the old Afrikaans proverb, "Alles wat jy besit vat van jou tyd" — "Everything you own snatches at your time.""

I couldn't agree more. I have worked with many clients over the years, and there's no doubt that one client will start where another left off: in other words, problems with clutter are those of the perception of the individual, and an acceptable state of 'approximate order' to one person might be unacceptably chaotic to the next. [I blogged about exactly this distinction in this entry last year.]

I've walked into houses where my first thought has been "what on earth do you need my help for?", only to find that the cause of the problem is, by my own personal standards (which of course are not relevant in this context), a cupboard in a very mild state of disarray; but if that's causing confusion, inefficiency or distress to the owner, then it must be addressed, and that's when I'll do my best to come up with working solutions for them. Conversely, I have brought clients from a state of complete helplessness - no clues about the location of a single thing in the house - to an improved, more efficient, but certainly far-from-minimialistic state - and that state would probably appear, to the impartial observer, 'worse' than the starting point of the previous scenario.

"Compulsive hoarding is a favoured topic of reality shows and human-interest magazines, but it's easy to imagine the opposite psychological disorder: the compulsive expunging of stuff." Quite. Just as a popular TV show, Supersize vs Superskinny, demonstrates that it's not just the obese that are at danger from ill health but also those whose dysfunctional attitude to food expresses itself in the opposite way, the same can be said of decluttering.

If we are, naturally, of the mindset that allows us to live like Henry David Thoreau, then fine; but most of us, in real life, have 'stuff' that both serves us and, to a certain extent, defines us. To remove the real clutter - the detritus that "snatches at our time" (I love that phrase) - will be liberating, will allow us to concentrate on things that really matter; but to "compulsively expunge" is as likely to leave us bereft and without structure or definition. The key is to find the balance between the two; and this is the sort of assistance that should be provided by the best decluttering consultant. Not judgement, nor imposition, but a set of ideas and possibilities, a toolkit of suggestions and challenges, and the personality to motivate, guide and encourage our clients to reach a state of comfort with their surroundings, allowing them to live, work and play without distress.

Friday 8 April 2011

To declutter - or to store?

In the decluttering-and-organising industries, there are many related services that are helpful in our work. At the recent apdo-uk members' seminar in London, we heard from three such businesses: a home stager, an ebay sales company, and a storage-and-removal firm.

This last industry caused some head-shaking and discussion among our membership. The removal element, certainly: we're often asked to help people 'get it sorted' before they move home. But storage? Surely that flies in the face of all that we, in the decluttering world, are trying to help people achieve? If we encourage our clients to use storage facilities, aren't we just opting for the easy get-out to show a visible change without addressing the underlying problems?

So it would appear. And in many circumstances, that's undoubtedly true. It would be so easy to simply ship all extra belongings off-site, leaving a beautifully clear home - but the underlying clutter would remain, un-dealt-with. (It reminds me of a story I heard - and even if it is apocryphal, I'm certain it's founded in truth - of the business that had a 'clear desk policy', which resulted in every employee storing huge piles of untidy paperwork UNDER the desk.)

However... I wonder. I thought back to a period of my own life (nearly twenty years ago) when storage facilities were vital, and I worked my way through the reasons. They fell into two very specific categories: the practical and the emotional.

My first marriage was over. It was nobody's fault; it was simply a marriage that should not have happened in the first place. It was sad, it was painful, but it was inevitable, and in the end, all for the best. However, the practical issues that arose from the split were especially hard. We sold our home; my ex-husband rented a small flat, and took what furniture and belongings he wished to keep; and I moved back to my parents' home for a few months to get my life in order. (I was made redundant at the same time, just to add insult to injury.)

My parents lived in the small maisonette in which I'd grown up. They had no extra storage space for the furniture, white goods and general houseware that I'd accumulated during seven years of co-habiting and marriage. I knew that I would, in the not-too-distant future, be returning to a place of my own - that I'd buy or rent a flat. I had no need of the table & chairs, the cooker, the china, the microwave and the rest while I lived in my childhood home - but I knew I'd need them some day, when I once more had a home of my own. So it was a no-brainer: storage was needed.

The second part of the equation was the emotional side. Yes, before I left the marital home we'd had a good de-junk. It was easy to deal with old catalogues and newspapers, garden rubbish and broken kitchen equipment - that was fine. But what about the other stuff? The letters, written in better times? The photos - oh, goodness, the photos? The wedding album? The marriage was over; but I didn't want to erase that whole period from my life. Including our time at college, it covered a whole decade - not to be dismissed lightly. Should I throw out everything relating to that period?*

The fact remains that I wasn't ready to deal with that stuff, and I knew it. There was no way that, in that emotionally raw and fragile period of the few months (or even, as it turned out, years) after the breakup, that I was ready for that sort of decision-making. I wasn't working in the decluttering industry then, but my personality was geared up for efficiency and organisation - and even I couldn't manage that.

So in came the storage. In my case, I was fortunate enough not to have to find the money for it: my belongings were boxed up, labelled, and deposited in the attics and garages of three or four kind and understanding friends around south London. But paid or unpaid, that storage was vital. It meant that I could concentrate on reordering my life, finding my emotional stability again, the practical elements of finding a new home.

I left my childhood home after a six-month breathing space, and rented a tiny (and I mean tiny) part-furnished studio flat for the next year. At this point, I cleared some of my belongings; but many of them remained in those garages and attics until, finally, I bought my own one-bedroomed flat. Eighteen months after the marriage breakup, I reclaimed everything from my kind friends, and got my life back on track again. I was ready to refit, restart, and declutter.

My point in telling this story is that there are two major reasons for a legitimate use of storage facilities in the decluttering process. On the practical side, your life might take you anywhere. A business posting overseas; a member of the family travels on a gap year; university; relationship breakdown; the death of a parent.

On the emotional side, one needs to be ready for decluttering. There are some decisions that can't, and sometimes shouldn't, be made instantly. If storage helps you to achieve clarity in your living space, allowing you then to gradually filter the more difficult belongings back in (or out), then there is nothing wrong with that.

One of my clients had a major storage area in the house. It related to an incredibly difficult, painful and public divorce. That one room was used to hide the past until she was ready to face it. And face it we did: we worked together, for (if I remember rightly) two long, solid days, sorting into charity-keep-sell-recycle-dump. There were times that my client was distressed by what we found (we had a nickname for these items: UXBs, or UneXploded Bombs, that might jump up and explode in her face at any time). This was several years after the event, and it was hard for her then. Imagine how much harder it would have been when she was still punch-drunk and raw from the break.

The rest of her house was immaculate. I mean, immaculate. Beautiful, decorated with exquisite taste, planned with intelligence and creativity. She had her haven, and the past was in storage - albeit in the same house. Only when she was ready, and she needed that extra room for other purposes, did she turn to getting professional help; and the process was, in turn, made much easier by the fact that the rest of the house was under such excellent control.

There is one other excellent reason for hiring storage space: you need an extra room for one specific purpose, and it's a more cost-effective solution than moving home. I have heard of people who have extraordinary collections of items, which are precious, valuable and interesting to them, which simply won't fit in their home. The rental of a storage space - especially if it's one of those that is easily accessible on demand - keeps the home as a home, the collection safe and sound, and the financial outlay for such storage keeps in mind the value of such a collection. Let's face it, it's no different from renting a garage to keep one's car in (my father rented a garage for years in the basement of a nearby block of flats when he wasn't happy leaving a motor at the mercy of on-street parking in East London).

My decluttering colleagues can stop panicking. I'm not recommending that clients should push things out of sight - into a room at home, or one that is rented (which is effectively what storage hire is). Many people are ready to dive right in, get it sorted, save space and save money. What I am saying is that storage facilities are not the work of the devil, or the antithesis of our work to help people to achieve calm and ordered living spaces: they can be, for practical and/or emotional reasons, a necessitous breathing-space, an opportunity to think and make decisions, and a vital aid in seeing the wood for the trees.

*If anyone is interested, yes, I do have just a small amount of items relating to that decade. There are photographs - and yes, I still have my original wedding albums; there are a couple of diaries; there is a little envelope full of rather clever cartoons that my ex-husband, a talented humorist, used to leave on domestic notes, which even today make me smile. These are recollections of good times in a ten-year period that was still an important and valued part of my life.

Monday 4 April 2011

Tidying the children

A 'mention' on Twitter just now got me thinking:

Perhaps @workingorder has tips for tidying up children as well as homes & offices.

First reaction: good grief, no. How on earth does one do that?

Second reaction: how would I know? As a non-parent, I've never been there, so how would I dare to comment?

Third reaction: well, actually...

It's been clear to me, throughout my experience of 'stuff management', that young folk are often very receptive to a structure for organisation. And before you fall about laughing, I don't mean that they have a natural dispensation to the minimalistic. What I mean is that they like life made as easy for them as possible (and I can empathise with that sentiment, believe you me).

One household of my acquaintance had an adorable toddler: a little lass of about two years old. Part of our work was to create a special area for her in the side area of the kitchen - a sort of breakfast area, half-divided off from the kitchen proper but visible to mum. As a result of our work, a sideboard was relocated in there (from the dining room, where it had taken up too much room so the doors were unopenable, and the stuff stored inside inaccessible as a result).

At the perfect height for Small Person, we stocked it with little plastic baskets: one for Lego, one for dollies' clothes, one for Precious Things... you get the idea. On the top surface stood larger toys: the doll's house, the toy train. The point is, Small Person loved this. Putting the right stuff in the right box became as much of a game as working through a jigsaw, and built into the bedtime routine it gave her a natural sense of order.

Ah, you say, but what about teenagers? Here we can appeal to their sense of values. I was thrilled on a revisit to a family to learn that the young teenager had (with no help from me, but with inspiration from what I'd done for mum) set up her own eBay and PayPal account (with parental help & permission, of course). The deal was that, if she sold an item on eBay, the money went into her personal PayPal account... and when there was enough money in there, she was free to spend it on whatever she wanted - usually once again on eBay. Desperate for some reasonably expensive item - an upmarket item of clothing, a game for the Wii, whatever it was - she sold everything that stood still long enough. Result? The item that she really wanted was hers, and an unnaturally tidy bedroom to boot.

The key to all this, however, is always simplicity. There's no point in micro-organising (as I've said in other posts); children or adults, few of us (myself included) have patience for keeping things in a perfect and rigid order. I have no time for filing CDs by composer; if I want to find my recording of Kander & Ebb's Chicago, I know it will be somewhere along the two shelves that contain (loosely speaking) songs-from-the-shows. If I make my life easier in this way, the organising is far more likely to get done than if perfection is insisted upon.

Let kids put books on an easily-accessible set of shelves, but with no more ordering than that, and it's far more likely to happen. Have the laundry basket in the place it's most likely to be used, rather than through a door and into another room. If they won't put shoes tidily on a rack, have them chuck 'em in a box the minute they get through the door.

One final example. One of my favourite clients was a delightful chap who has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and his wonderful wife. He taught me just as much as I was able to help him: the simpler the system, the easier it is to do, the more likely he is to do it. If I'd said "put your bank statements in chronological order", it would never have happened; but saying "just put them in that drop-file with the other statements from the same bank" still narrowed down where he'd find them, and the process was far more likely to happen. "Putting his books away" meant "sling them all in that space of two shelves", not "put them in order". Bite-sized chunks - very large ones - were the order (pardon the pun) of the day.

So yes: there are ways to get some buy-in from the younger members of the family. And, who knows? Some of these ways might just apply to the bigger people in your life as well.

Sunday 27 March 2011

Applause for inspiration

I am presently collapsed in a little heap at the end of a madly busy but hugely enjoyable and inspiring month - which in its turn followed an equally enjoyable and creative time directing a show! A cold seems to have come and got me as soon as I paused for breath, but that's par for the course.

This period of insane activity was concluded in huge style by my attendance at The Big Jelly - a one-day seminar across in Telford, Shropshire: "A chance to meet other business owners, freelancers and home workers to learn, work, chat and collaborate". The speakers were superb, and I was privileged to facilitate one of the six lunchtime 'breakout' sessions.

This splendid photo was taken by the lovely Phil Barrett of PB Artworks - a sensationally talented photographer whose work I have admired ever since I bumped into him on Twitter, and I'm chuffed to bits to have such a great image and his permission to use it.

The photo is taken as I'm applauding the inspiring talk given by Daniel Priestley. Together with the other speakers, he's overcrowded my brain with great ideas and motivation to make much better use of my skills and abilities, my blog and my website, and much more. By the end of my 'breakout' session I realised that I had so much more that I hadn't had time to share: this blog will become the platform for sharing all the stuff I'm so passionate about.

Watch this space over the next few weeks as I start to put these ideas into practice, and to share valuable ideas and inspiration with you.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Unnatural disasters

The events of the last few days in Japan prey upon all our minds, and so they should. Human suffering and the fury of nature to such devastating effect must take us out of our 'normal' lives (as a friend on Twitter put it this morning, "Someone irritated you? Broken hoover/washing machine? Cat sick on carpet? So what - you could be in Japan.")

I am sitting here on a Sunday morning (unusually for me - I'd normally be up and about by now) but as I'm in London, in between two events - social and business - I'm staying with a colleague. I am comfortable, unhurried, in a warm bed with a cup of tea, my laptop, and the prospect of a lazy day. I enjoyed a reunion with colleagues of two decades back on Friday, and laughed much and hugged greatly. I ate well, drank wine and slept well; spoke to my husband back in Norfolk and know that I am loved much. I am, in short, very, very lucky indeed.

Prayers are being sent out for those who are affected, and so they should be. I'm not about to get into a discussion about the efficacy of prayer here: all I will say is that my prayers are never for divine intervention, but for the strength, opportunity and inspiration to do the work ourselves.

However, when the appeals go out on Facebook, whether it's for awareness of cancer, Alzheimers, mental health or anything else, I am always inclined to add the website links for the charities supporting those people; if the readers make donations, that will be wonderful; if they simply read and understand better, excellent.

In this case, my mind wanders as I consider the 'charity' route. I have just read a painful comment on a query about charitable giving to help those in Japan: "Forget about your own sick and homeless people - help other countries first." It's a fair point: it's Red Nose Day next Friday, and I cannot help wondering whether this regular and spectacular event will lose support as our focus is elsewhere.

But it shouldn't stop us at least considering how we help, and who, and where. If disasters of these proportions - Christchurch being just a short time ago - bring into sharper focus the need to think outside our own comfort zone, and then to choose wisely the way we use our own resources, that must be good.

I am a regular supporter of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People; it's my 'favourite charity' if I'm asked. When I was involved in the arrangements for the 'reunion' mentioned above, I suggested to the group that any unused funds from the payments we made for food and drink for the event go to charity, and they kindly allowed me to make the choice. In the event, I will split that surplus between my original promise to Hearing Dogs, and to ShelterBox (see below).

So, if you've stayed with me through this rambling Sunday morning thought, here are a few ideas for ways to help that seem appropriate now. I've linked to all their websites. They're all on Facebook and Twitter. Follow. Read. Link. And, where you can, give.
  • ShelterBox provides "emergency shelter and lifesaving supplies for families around the world who are affected by disasters". ShelterBox was 'on the ground' in Japan within 24 hours of the disaster.
  • The British Red Cross "a volunteer-led humanitarian organisation that helps people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are". This well-known and long-established and trusted charity has launched a special appeal for the victims of the Japanese tsunami.
  • Comic Relief helps "poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged people across the UK and Africa". Its unique combination of celebrity and anonymous help, of supporting those at home and those abroad, has been educating us in 'fun ways to give' since 1985. Long may it continue.
Our own economy is in poor shape. As a sole trader, these are not easy times for me. But any concerns I have about my own money, time or lifestyle are as NOTHING to what happens in the rest of the world, and around us here in our own country.

If you are saying prayers for Japan, include prayers for us all to look around us, both further afield and closer to home, at all times - not just in times of newsworthy disaster.