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The Difference Being Planning and Doing

When I was a young thing in the big city, with two fresh, thoroughly useless music degrees I set out looking for a way to pay my rent.  This was in 1983.  The big companies, law and investment firms were incorporating what was then bright new technology – a little green blip on a tiny black screen manipulated by clunky keyboards that hurt my wrists.  I easily mastered those first simple word processors.  First there was Wang, and then came Word Perfect (anybody out there remember WP?) and then Microsoft rocked our world.  The first version of MS Office was full of holes, requiring more patches than my Granny’s old quilt.  The temporary agencies who kept my fridge full couldn’t keep up with the versions of MS being rolled out every year.  But my agency supervisors had pegged me as someone alone in the world and desperate to stay afloat.  So, they sent me out to the jobs nobody else wanted, to work on versions of computer applications I’d never seen.  “We told them you know Microsoft 2.1 cold (As I said, I was there at the beginning).  Don’t worry – you’ll pick it up by the end of the day.”

This is all by way of telling you that I have always jumped into situations head first, with very little planning.  And I have learned much through painful failure.  Most of us have – but many of life’s hard lessons were learned a long time ago and we can’t remember them because we block out those unsavory experiences as soon as possible.  At some point, we view the skills we’ve learned as having magically been there all along; it’s as if we’d always known how to use a computer or cook or dance or…

I’ve attempted to teach many kinds of skills to people of all ages and demographics.  What I’ve noticed more and more over the years is that the major obstacle many of my students and clients face is one erroneous belief: that they should be able to learn anything new without discomfort and without failure.  A couple of years ago I wrote a newsletter about Getting Things Done by David Allen.  I remember this newsletter as being a very enthusiastic endorsement of a well marketed system which touted a life full of smooth sailing.  Of late,  I’ve come to believe that this and other complex productivity bibles only feed into a mistake we are all making.

We have come to believe that with the right “how-to” manual – whether it be fixing our plumbing or getting everything on our to-do list done – that we will be able to circumvent the daily screw-ups and hassles that inevitably halt our perfect plan.  Has anyone else noticed that with the onslaught of DIY shows and books we are doing less and less?  Isn’t it more fun to just watch “Clean Sweep” and talk about how we are going to get organized rather than going into the bedroom and clearing out our closets?

My best friend told me yesterday that Mark and I have moved to Green Acres.  Do you remember that show?  In every episode, Clueless Eva Gabor made a fool of herself learning to be a farmer’s wife and Eddie Albert, while perhaps a little more motivated and in earnest, didn’t do much better as the farmer.  I have learned so much this year in my new life in the country – but not without daily struggles that include feelings of inadequacy and lots of mistakes.

The most successful people plugged right through apparent failure and humiliation so well that most of us never know about it.  I’m not one of those people but I would aspire to follow their example.  To date, I have not come up with any action plan that makes my life smooth sailing.  Rather, it is a perpetual cycle of messes and clean-ups, breakdowns and fix-ups.  I hide the messes as well as I can – usually with the help of a big curtain.

Organization, Simplicity or Both?

My by-line has always been simplicity – but what has that meant for me and for my clients? Granted my experience in this field is relatively short; my business is barely three years old.

However, one general trait I’ve noticed with people who seek out help from organizers is that, in one way or another, they share an underlying belief that more really is more. Most Professional Organizers, when pressed, will tell you that, in fact, less is more – there’s no way around this truth.

When working with clients, in order for me to be true to myself, and my clients I have never circumvented this truth. There is a crucial difference in being sympathetic to and supporting a client’s belief that any kind of overconsumption is healthy or in any way helpful. I cannot support the belief that anyone really NEEDS 20 black dresses or enough office supplies to open their own Staples (even though one day all of the Staples close and there is no other way to find a three ring binder).

While it is possible to reduce the size of your off-season wardrobe with bags that shrink wafer-thin (and suck the life out of your clothes) and it’s possible to double the size of your rod space with skinny hangers, there is a larger question which needs to be addressed. Here it is: how do all those things you struggle to keep under control in your space – how do they relate to your life in a larger sense? Are they helping you to accomplish what you want in life? Do they help you to relate to your family and your friends? Do they help you to fulfill your purpose?

I will now go out on a limb and say what I believe: overconsumption, in any form, whether it is activities, stuff or information, is the root of disorganization. Simplicity forms the basis for being and staying organized.

Simplicity is the antonym of complexity. For many people the first is synonymous with boring and the second, with exciting. Simplicity also means clarity, to see clearly what is important and what is not. How to spend the limited amount of time we have here on earth, to relax and enjoy what’s available to us right now, to listen and care for other people, to accomplish what we set out to do, every day.

Simplicity is not simple – it requires discipline, self-examination and honesty. Is this something that a professional organizer is equipped to help you with? This is a question that I and many of my colleagues struggle with and, perhaps, have not yet answered. I could never offer my services with integrity if I did not continue this struggle. Such questioning forms the basis for growth and change, for me and for my clients.

BEAUTIFUL THINGS

I love beautiful things.  So do my clients.  So does everyone I know.  I go into homes every week that rival the best Village boutiques and the most well appointed Dumbo antique lofts.  Living in New York City for the past 30 years has been wonderful and terrible.  If you live on the Upper West Side, as I did for many years, going out for a morning walk was like being a kid in FAO Schwartz.  The abundance of boutiques, full of handcrafted items from the global community, the small jewelry retailers with one-of-a-kind pieces, the amazing clothing boutiques are all outside your doorstep.  Electronics suppliers have anything you saw in last month’s “Computer World” in the store, in stock ready for the taking.  The street vendors are out year-round now; selling things you’ve never seen before and never will again, so buy one of each while you can.  Let me stop now!  Friends and neighbors, the rest of America subscribes to magazines, surfs the net and watches movies and television to see and experience second-hand the luxury offered in our beautiful town.  Then, it spends lots of money to come here for just a brief moment to access all of the opulence we experience every day.

So, when we consider the expense of living in New York City, not only must we take into account covering the absolute necessities that translate into astronomical rents, unaffordable co-ops, pricey food and endless entertainment.  We must also consider that we are living in Emerald City, Disney and every marketplace in the world all rolled into one and then carry on with daily life undistracted.  In my own limited situation, I spent my youth in New York City spending the balance of all my paychecks on unusual, splendid items, which came into my home – and eventually left.  Did I need any of them?  No, I rarely needed anything I bought.  Could I really afford to give my expendable income away on a regular basis?  Well, what do you think?

The problem I have found in my quest for the best and brightest in the Big Apple is that there was always MORE.  The beauty never lets up and what I get is always overshadowed by the next wonderful thing that catches my eye.  Maybe not the next day or even the next week but soon enough I’ll be lusting after the latest mobile device, sweater or piece of jewelry.

After a while, it became evident that I would have to curb my insatiable appetite for “eye candy” or forgo ever having a home or a retirement fund.  How did I do this?  Well, I started to consider the fact that I have a limited capacity to enjoy the beauty I collect and with which I surround myself.  The more I get, the harder it is to see and experience what I have.  There is only so much time and energy to look at, wear, care for and experience all the great stuff you own.  I also notice that in foregoing buying more and keeping only what I really love, somehow increases my enjoyment.

I also have examined the real elements of beauty that I seek in my acquisitions.  One is color.  I love rich colors – they make me happy.  I finally figured out I can actually look at the sky on a beautiful day or the fall foliage in the park to get just the boost I need.  Or even when window-shopping, instead of thinking about how a dress would look on me (when I have a very nice one that is quite similar in the closet at home) I can focus on the color and the pattern.  As long as I remember that I already have everything I need and want I can even go into the store and pick up that dress, examine the texture of the fabric, see how it’s sewn, and maybe even try it on.  Then, I walk out without a shopping bag, feeling somehow enriched.  Yes, there’s always the option to buy.  But it’s no longer an imperative.  As long as I leave “I want” out of the equation I can really enjoy everything this Eden has to offer.

Beauty is everywhere.  Revel in it – just don’t try to gather it all up and hold onto it.  You only have two arms.  Hold onto, love, use and share what serves you best.  Then, from a distance, enjoy the rest.

Sharing Space

Recently, I read that since 1950 the average new house has increased by 1,247 square feet.  Yet since 1970, the percentage of households containing five or more people has fallen by half.  Overall, the average number of people per household decreased from 3.14 to 2.57.  What is it about this phenomenon that is so telling of the change in the psyche of our culture? As to the downsizing of the American family, one could point to population growth, change in gender roles, increased mobility and dispersion between generations, the economy, and countless other factors.  I sense a paradox. Why is there a need for increasing amounts of square footage required by, and allotted to, each family member? Would it not follow that given the decrease in bodies, decrease for time families spend together and increasing amounts of alienation in our society that we should desire to be closer to loved ones – that we should require less space? In the past 50 years or so, movies, TV, music, and books have alluded to a growing lack of connection between people. We are all familiar with the problem. I dare say many of us would be uncomfortable admitting this influence in our own lives. Ever growing use of technology as a means of relating, eliminating the necessity of any contact, is creating a new population uncomfortable with physical contact, one that often prefers Facebook to “face time.” I have traveled a few times with my husband Mark to his homeland, the former USSR. I learned that there was no Russian word or idiom for “personal space” nor has there (until recently) been any need for the concept. Togetherness – close proximity, visibility, being within earshot – has always been the normal state of affairs. Remember the old TV commercial that exhorted us to “reach out and touch someone?” That was quite a while ago and the dictate was only figurative (i.e., call your mom!) Today, it would be quite a leap to take that literally. So – how could any American family go from a McMansion to a “junior 4” apartment? Aside from economic downshifts that would force such a drastic move or the inevitable population squeeze that in the future may necessitate such a trend on a global level, are there any unseen benefits? Is there a way to re-frame downsizing as a means of re-establishing connection? Between our marriage in 1991 and 2001, Mark and I progressed from my tiny bachelorette pad to owning our first co-op apartment, a beautiful space that was palatial by New York City standards. We reveled in the expanse even as we struggled to pay for it! Being well-informed homeowners and looking to the future we flipped our large apartment and downsized to one roughly two-thirds the size. The first year was at times quite painful. Besides the necessary “content purge” to get us and our two very large dogs into our new home we were suddenly much, much closer to each other – and not always for the better. However, I can honestly report that the diminished physical square footage has enhanced my life in many ways. First, it has forced me to work out differences with my husband. Without the luxury of being able to avoid my partner in a large space, I face the reality of conflict. Like a grain of sand in an oyster, conflict is a motivating irritant, which if borne patiently can yield a pearl – a closer and more communicative relationship. Second, sharing a smaller space has opened me up to the idea of letting go of territory. Third, being in constant and close proximity to Mark forces me to consider the needs of another, who has his own perspective and opinions on what is, and what is not, important. I have become more flexible about my living environment; I am able to see it more as a process rather than a static result. Last and most important, sharing space has led me to an inner space which stills all preconceptions of how everything should be and which invites in other ways of being, other points of view, and other people. I believe that this new awareness has been the most precious gift, borne of the necessity of sharing a small physical space. I believe that the ability to open up to the ones closest to us – our families and friends – is the beginning of compassion and understanding for everything and everyone else. To say that loving my husband leads to loving all of humanity may sound ridiculous. Then again, I did not coin the well-worn phrase: “charity begins at home.” Love begins and grows when we are willing to share space with those we profess to love and need. That, even if taken no further, is an achievement worthy of a lifetime.