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.