Coming in to the world of clutter after being a therapist for 17 years gave me an eagle eye perspective on over-accumulating, collecting and obsessing over stuff. I came into the world of Professional Organizing in Southern California's South Orange County. People love their stuff, they love to wear it, show it off, display it, fondle it and focus on it. Stuff is what makes the world go round here. The first clients I worked with had enormous amounts of clothing, shoes, bags, knick knacks, crafts, books, collectibles, toys, gadgets, kitchen stuff, make-up, you name it. Many of them wanted me to "just deal with it" and to "put it way neatly." Client's with clutter thought hiding the stuff would solve their piles, stuffed drawers and their disorganized lives. They swore to me and the universe that they would stop shopping, ordering and stuffing their closets ever again. They swore they would fold and put away. They swore they would keep it up. They hoped that they would tame their chronic disorganization forever. Other clients wanted to throw all their stuff out the window. They wanted it "Out."
The two biggest questions most people have when dealing with their stuff is, "What do I do with it? and "What stays and what goes?" I wanted to help. I am a helper, that's what I do, help. But inside I was screaming "Help!" I wanted to be effective. I wanted them to be fixed. I am a fixer. So after using all the techniques I could find, in every kind of organizing book, none of them cured clutter permanently. The popular organizing solutions were temporary fixes. I knew there was a better way and I was determined to figure it out.
Folding things nicely, making things neat and tidy, and putting things away does not mean people will stay organized, long-term. Purging did not mean that people would not collect more and clutter again. I started to look at people's relationship with their stuff. I realized helping clients decide what to keep, rather than focusing on what to get rid of was a step towards chronic organization. Focusing on what to keep was not a popular idea but the "expert's" "get rid of it" philosophy was not working for my clients or me.
The main thrust of the Professional Organizing industry is to "get rid of stuff." One of the first networking meetings I ever attended, a very vocal organizer exclaimed "I made this woman get rid of almost everything today." I shuttered, thinking, wow, I wouldn't like that." I heard a lot of organizers expressing that they were hell bent on making sure client's pare down, eliminate, purge, edit, and donate. Organizers were as obsessed about having their clients get rid of stuff as their clients were about keeping it. I thought to myself, this tug of war philosophy over stuff is wrong and harmful. I wanted a different approach that focused on what was going to be kept, how it would be stored and easy to access. For goodness sakes we are talking about stuff not surgery. It's not my personal property, and therefore not my decision to tell someone what they can keep and not keep.
I became acutely aware that the clients who claimed that they wanted to get rid of "a lot" of their stuff were the ones that released the least. Other clients, hesitant about the process of purging gave away "the farm." From talking to a client I couldn't tell who was going to purge or cry, "I'm keeping it all."
The funniest technique in my organizing industry is to make piles. One for donate, one for keep, one for sell, one for give away, and one for "not sure." The piling and sorting process slowed us down. The clients and organizers were left overwhelmed and confused. I quickly realized whoever came up with the pile idea was literally insane. I kept searching for answers to an easy organizing process.
I laid awake one night to hear a loud thought, "Categorize." It made sense. No more piles, no more sorting, no more figuring out which pile was which. Most importantly, no more involving the client in the initial processing of their stuff. I would be responsible, as the organizer, to make it a seamless and easy process. So the I-Deal-Lifestyle method was born.
The method is simple. Clear the space, then categorize every single object. Then sub-categorize until all like objects are with like objects. Then, bring the client in to go through each category to decide what they will keep. When people see how much they have of each category and like items together it is easier for them to decide what they want to keep. When people are not being pushed to get rid of things they can make good choices. If people want to keep everything that is fine with this method. At the end, whatever is kept is contained and put away properly. What you use the most stays closest and what you use the least goes furthest away.
The stress of working with clients dropped 100 notches. The clients were fascinated by the rapid clearing of their space. They loved the process of seeing us categorize. They were happy with a criteria for what to keep.
I-Deal-Lifestyle Criteria for what to keep:
1. Is it used? How often
2. Does it serve a purpose?
3. Is it sentimental
4. Do you love it
Some clients who have large amounts of a particular category want to know how much to keep. I came up with the idea of asking them "What is a reasonable amount?" When you own 14 umbrellas, 60 picture frames or 12 pairs of black pants ask yourself, "What's a reasonable amount?" One client wanted all 14 umbrellas, but had a good reason to keep them. Her family visited her Oregon vacation home in droves. They all loved to go for walks, picnics and outings. It made sense to my client to keep all the umbrellas for those occasions.. It made perfect sense to me. My other client with the picture frames realized 60 was not a reasonable amount for her. She had meant to frame pictures of her kids, family and friends but after a divorce and a split in the family she decided that was "Never going to happen." So she kept a few and donated the rest. That made sense to me too.
The last part of the I-Deal-Lifestyle method is to say goodbye to what you no longer want to keep. Sometimes there is a little sadness for holding on so long, but the joy of staying organized for good takes over.
Marla Stone is an expert Self and Space Organizer in Orange County, California
Her website www.i-deal-lifestyle.com has tips and suggestions for your organizing projects.
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Marla is known as the Declutter Your Strategy™ expert. Marla earned her BA in Psychology and a Master's in Social Work and is the founder of