We’ve Seen Your Clutter; We’ve Brought Help

Friday, October 11, 2013

Last week we talked about filling your closet with the right stuff for fall. (And one lucky reader nabbed a free book out of the deal!) This week, let’s focus on putting those clothes — and shoes and bags and boots and all the other clutter — in their rightful place. Time to finally get those closets in order, people. And organizational expert and best-selling author of Unstuff Your Life Andrew Mellen is here to help us kick the clutter habit … this includes the Mountain of Paper right there in the corner of your kitchen. Yes, we can all see it.

UYL! Cover, Final

Q: How did you get so organized?
Andrew Mellen: I was always organized about the things that matter to me. Which is what I’ve discovered in my work as a professional organizer — that people can get and stay organized in those areas where their values are engaged and there’s a clear buy-in for them around organization. For example, when I was a kid I collected baseball cards and matchbox cars. They were always neatly organized.

My mom basically cleaned my room. She did the wash so whether I dropped the clothes on the floor or put them down the laundry chute, magically they arrived back in my room clean, pressed and folded. So clothes weren’t really on my radar.

At this point in my life, I have a deep commitment to using my time as strategically as I can – and the easiest way to do that and to manage that is to stay organized. That way, when I’m working I’m as efficient as I can be, and when I’m playing I can relax without stressing about my to-do list.

Q: What’s the most important thing to know and remember when one sets out to “unstuff” one’s life and simplify?


AM: The  two most important things are:

1)  Getting and staying organized are not the same thing. They work in concert with each other but they are separate activities. So you could apply these principles going forward and never create more clutter, but that doesn’t address the clutter that you’ve already accumulated. That needs to be accounted for and addressed. The promise there is that if you are successful at staying organized and deal with your historic accumulation, you’ll never have to do it again.

2) The Organizational Triangle® is the foundation of both getting AND staying organized:  One Home For Everything, Like With Like, and Something In, Something Out.

One Home For Everything means exactly that — everything has one home and only one home. There’s no rule about where that home is, meaning where your keys live doesn’t have to be where my keys live. My keys live in a dish on a table just inside my front door – your keys might live on a hook just inside the door from the garage. The only rule is that the keys are either in your hand unlocking something or they’re in their home.

Like With Like means all like objects live together. Not most, but all. All the office supplies live together, all the tools live together, all the small appliances live together, all the outerwear lives together.

These two principles will clean up 90 percent of anyone’s disorganization.

Something In, Something Out is about achieving stuff equilibrium — having enough of everything that serves you and nothing that doesn’t. So when you get to stuff equilibrium, when you’ve eliminated everything that no longer serves you and you have enough of everything that does, you’re no longer in the business of accumulating. You’re replacing, upgrading, swapping… Whatever you want to call it. But you’re no longer bringing home random things  just because they are pretty or shiny or cheap or a bargain, etc.

Q: Is there an overriding philosophy to which we can subscribe?
If you consider The Organizational Triangle® a philosophy, then sure. If not, then I would just suggest paying attention, being mindful. Clutter is nothing more than a series of deferred decisions. Let go of “someday” and “later” as time-management tools and you’ll never create clutter again.

Q: We’re all busy. Parents barely have time to say the word “busy.” Is there a “shortcut” to getting organized?
AM: Sadly, no. Getting organized takes as long as it takes to deal with that historic accumulation. Staying organized takes no time at all.

Q: With your clients, is there a common mistake that you see? If so, what’s the solution?
AM: The most common mistake is the degree of denial or magic thinking. It goes back to the fantasy that “someday” and “later” exist and are some sort of “get out of jail free” card. We all get the same 24 hours so spending them doing what’s important is what we’d all like to be doing, but many of us get distracted by what’s urgent and set aside what’s important thinking you’ll eventually have enough time to get around to it. But by the time someday or later arrives, either one arrives with its own agenda and commitments. The notion of free time that’s uncommitted magically appearing in our schedule is probably the biggest trap that most people fall into.

Q: What room seems to need the most help when it comes to parents and families?
When it comes to parents and families, I’d say it’s common areas – either kitchen or family room. It’s typically where everyone is hanging out, where everyone brings their stuff, and where everyone leaves their stuff rather than putting it back in its home.

Q: For parents with school-aged kids, what’s your best advice on tacking the dreaded Mt. Paper? All the incoming and outgoing pieces of paper parents gather up from school, where can we put it all?
AM: Remember that math homework is not a sentimental object. You definitely want to establish what I call “command central.” That’s where everything entering the home from school goes first. Then paper can get sorted based on what it represents.

Is it a permission slip, which is an action item, meaning it needs to get processed and returned to school ASAP?

Is it a report card which needs to be reviewed, possibly signed off on and returned to school?

Is it an art project that, if exceptional, gets hung on the wall – and if not, gets sent off to relatives (for them to discard after they’ve enjoyed receiving it)?

Is it a schedule or calendar that needs to be referenced throughout the school year, so kept handy on a wall or cork board?

All paper is not created equal — you need to be able to distinguish trash from treasure with a cool eye and clear guidelines.

If  you moon over every scribble and mark your child makes on a piece of paper, you need to think carefully about what you’re communicating to your child. Some children will naturally gravitate towards sentimentalizing  everything they come in contact with. You can be a power of example to show them that some things are more important than other things, some things are worth keeping and others are just part of the process of learning — where they begin to see that sometimes the experience itself has greater meaning than the milestones of progress we create as we gain that experience. For example, when artists do sketches before creating a painting, some of the early sketches are discarded – they were experiments but not meaningful in relationship to the final painting. Other sketches, that seem to be studies of that future painting, are retained as a more focused roadmap for the artist as well as the viewer who’s intrigued by the artist’s process.

Q: What about with teaching our kids to get organized … is there a way for parents to help their kids pick up de-clutter habits from early?
AM: Any child over the age of three can grasp The Organizational Triangle®.  Remember also that your kids are watching you. They are far more likely to mimic your behavior then comply with your rules and suggestions.

Q: How about parents who like to hang on to everything from their kids (baby socks, bibs, artwork, first this, first that, etc.), what’s your advice for them? How can they de-clutter when sentimentality comes into play?
Get really clear on whether you’re keeping these things for yourself or for your children. Remember that your children lived their childhood — they are great teachers about being in the moment. They may want a few mementos to memorialize a particular event, but more likely than not, the experience of being there was superior to the experience of freezing it in time. Imagine leaving your parents’ home for your own home and they hand you random school lunch menus and your 3rd grade math timetables as “souvenirs” of your childhood?

If the things you’re holding onto are for you, be a thoughtful curator. Again, you have an opportunity to distinguish trash from treasure. Choose a pair of baby shoes not every pair of baby shoes. Choose one Halloween costume rather than all of them.

Q: Best way to get stringent about “Keep It/Toss It” decisions when de-cluttering?
AM: Be clear about what you value. Return to your core values and use those to inform what stays and what goes. Vague will never be your friend when it comes to making these kinds of strategic decisions. The more specific and intentional you can be, the better your results will be. It’s seldom a good enough answer to say when asked why are you keeping something: “because I like it.”

Put yourself on trial and defend your choice — that’s where the rubber meets the road. If you can’t convince your unemotional self that there’s a good and specific reason to hold onto something, it’s pretty clear there isn’t a good reason to hold onto something.

Q: If you had to boil it down to four key tips to getting organized (for good), what would they be?
AM: I’d say you only need The Organizational Triangle®. Apply it  liberally and consistently and you will get and stay organized. For good.


Giveaway time! Do you want to unstuff your life? Leave a comment below about your organization challenges and you might walk away with a free copy of Andrew Mellen’s book.

  • 1
    Skye says:

    My biggest challenge is that I am a “get rid of” person, and my son is a “sentimental” person. As much as I role model my personality’s way of dealing with too much stuff, I don’t know that it’s a good fit for his personality’s way of dealing with it.

    • 1.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      That’s interesting. (How old is your son?) Wonder if you could help him get comfortable with some of the tips above, like Something In, Something Out. Basically start with one aspect of organization and add from there…?

      Good luck, and thanks for the comment, Skye!

    • 1.2

      Thanks, Skye, for your comment. While I get exactly what you’re describing as the differences between you and your son’s relationships with stuff, I wonder if there are ways to engage him in sharing the things that he loves with other people he’s close to — family members, friends, etc. — so he can see that things aren’t just being “let go of” but are increasing someone else’s happiness, too?

      • 1.2.1
        Skye says:

        Ms. Mack and Andrew, thanks so much for your comments. He’s 6 now. When he was younger, we had a great system that did rely on sending things to friends and family. I took digital photos of everything, kept a very few precious things, and then periodically I’d have him help me pick out pieces to mail away, either with thank-you notes for presents, or just because. It was fun. We have an art wall in the kitchen where we hang 6-10 pieces he picks out, and replace them as new things get made.

        Something changed, though, and he started resisting – at first just a little, then very strongly, even when he’d made like 30 of one kind of thing. His art/scratch paper suddenly got very important to keep in a way I don’t emotionally grasp.

        So now we have this ever-accumulating pile of papers in a plastic bin, and occasionally I require him to sit down and go through it, to much complaining by him and exasperation by me. (Not proud of it, working on being better about this.)

        We do Something In, Something Out with toys and it works pretty well, he’s usually willing to pick even 5 things to put away / get rid of if he gets just 1 new thing. But the art and other papers are a sticking point.

        When I wrote my first comment, I said he was a “sentimental” guy because he also likes to keep greeting and birthday cards he gets, and ticket stubs from plays, etc. I connected that with the art-hoarding. But now I’m wondering if I’ve missed something because there’s a pretty obvious difference between those, and things he’s made. I think it’s time to have a calm exploratory conversation when we’re not in the middle of being frustrated with each other about it.

          Andrew Mellen says:

          Skye, thanks for the clarifying comments. I’m not a therapist so please take this with several grains of salt — I actually think your son’s attachment to these things is related. And I’m thinking some reading about OCD may help you when you have that conversation with him.

          I’m also thinking that what you’re dealing with is his emotional life — so not something that logic and reason will necessarily be successful at altering or controlling easily. Finding useful resources to help guide the conversation and learning from other parents and adults who have lived through this development in either a child’s or their own life seems like it could be helpful. I’m certainly wishing you all the best!

          Ms. Mary Mack says:

          Skye! Good news: You won! Please send me your mailing address and we’ll get the book right out to you. get[dot]msmack[at]gmail[dot]com

          Thanks for the comments!

  • 2
    Laura says:

    My biggest challenge is finding time and space to organize everything. I do well in some areas, but filing bills? Not so much lately since that requires time in a room where I can’t supervise my kids as easily. It drives me nuts, the piles of papers, so I really need to get on it.

    Loved all the tips above! I have been taking pictures of some of my son’s kindergarten school work and plan to do a couple photo books through Shutterfly with some of the items that were cute but we didn’t hang on to. Plus, I’m going to mail some work off to relatives like Andrew suggested above. Great idea!

  • 3
    Ms. Mary Mack says:

    Thanks for the comment, Laura. Yes, the photo book is great idea. Same with mailing off some of the special artwork to relatives.

    I don’t do well with clutter, especially paper. For your bills, have you considered going “paperless”? Setting up bill payments online will save trees and your sanity! Another idea is creating a “command central” in an area of the house that is not “away” from the center of the house. Maybe a corner in the kitchen you can have an inbox or in-basket, and build your *little* paper system from there?