Tag Archives: getting organized

It’s been a hundred days

UPSwamp…since the start of my second try at getting my house all cleaned up. How’m I doing? Have I drained my own personal swamp? Is the place immaculate and empty?

Well, no. It’s cleaner than it was, and less cluttered, but there’s a lot left to do. And it’s really nobody’s fault. I’m overcommitted, and that’s part of the problem – but nobody could have predicted, more than three months ago, that I would be still be filling in for our church treasurer, let alone that my father-in-law’s health would take a nosedive.

So what do you do when you have too many things to do, and can’t walk away from the ones that eat up the largest amount of time? You make lots of lists so you don’t forget two-thirds of the things that HAVE TO get done today, and you reluctantly let some things slide that you’d like to do, and you take one step forward after another and try not to trip over your own feet.

And you cook a very simple Thanksgiving dinner, today. Never mind making Thanksgiving “interesting” – we’ll be eating roast turkey, with sweet potatoes, cranberries, salad, and pumpkin pie; just the basics, thank you.

I suppose it’s a good thing that I’m more of natural marathoner than a sprinter. I will have a clean house with no unloved junk in it – but probably not in 2015.

5 Steps to Becoming Very, Very Frustrated

UPSwamp(Plus 2 things to do next, and 5 steps to actually deal with the problem.)

1. Decide it’s time to clean things up.

2. Realize you’ve got a lot of old papers with information that could be useful for ID theft; get a shredder.

(Step one and step two can be done weeks or months ahead of time.)

3. Shred and shred and shred and shred until the shredder bag is full.

4. Take the bag out of the shredder.

5. Spill a small mountain of paper shreds out of the bottom of the bag. Realize the bag is torn wide open.


What to do next:

1. Stare at the ripped bag in horror. State at the pile of shredded paper in more horror. Stare at the bag – you know, the torn one with equally large holes top and bottom; that bag – some more.

2. Take yourself off to look at email and funny cat pictures for half an hour, until you cheer up and your sinuses recover from the dust of sixty-year-old paper.

And finally,

1. Come back and stuff the torn bag into another nice big bag.

2. Scoop handsfuls of shredded paper into the new bag until you can’t pick up any more.

3. Tie the bag shut and put it with the recycling.

4. Get a broom and a dust pan (because you already know a vacuum cleaner won’t do a good job picking up shredded paper; you’ve tried) and sweep up the rest of the mess.

5. Grumble as needed throughout this process.


(This is Day 4 of Five Photos, Five Stories – also, it’s part of the Hundred Day Cleanup.)

The Great Emptying: Expert Advice

UPSwamp…from a certified incompetent: me.

I think we’ve all come across the Number One bit of expert advice on getting cluttered papers under control – “Handle each piece of paper just once.” It sounds so sensible! Don’t waste time pawing through mountains of paper over and over. Take one piece, decide where it belongs, put it there, done. Repeat as many times as needed.

The only problem is, it doesn’t work all the time for everybody. It has never worked for me. When I try to sort through paper piles, I wind up with so many different categories that, before I know it, I’ve lost track of which papers go on which pile, and soon after that I give up in exasperated despair.

If following the rules doesn’t solve your problem, maybe it’s time to think harder about what your problem really is, and invent new rules to solve it. My problem? When I have to invent several dozen categories for scrambled papers*, I get confused and overwhelmed. So, for the past week I’ve been going through the piles gathering bank statements. Nothing but bank statements. It’s easy to sort them based on which account they apply to, and easy to set up one folder for each account and put them there.

Yes, I’m going to need to sort through those same jumbled piles again. And again. But the piles (some of them, at least) are visibly smaller, and now that I can see that I’m making progress, the idea of more sorting isn’t half as scary.

* Scrambling papers is even easier than scrambling eggs. But the papers aren’t as tasty.

24 Bankers Boxes

UPSwampThat’s what I have in my living room right now. Two dozen cardboard boxes full of papers from my mother’s house. Unsorted, miscellaneous, mostly-but-not-all worthless papers, just the way I found them while we were clearing out the rooms. Forty year old bank statements, income tax records, recipes she clipped out of newspapers (thousands of recipes), deeds to property, receipts from her doctor’s office…

And, of course, the usual furniture you expect to find in a living room: chairs, sofa, table, a desk. You can’t get to the desk or sit in two of the chairs at the moment; there are bankers boxes in the way. All in all, it looks like one of those TV shows about hoarders who have piles and heaps of Things, with only narrow lanes left clear to let you navigate through the piles.20150817BankersBoxes

This has to change.

And the problem isn’t only my mother’s stuff. I learned my lessons well – I’ve never been good at throwing things away. It’s time to master that skill, time to sort through all the junk I’ve kept for no good reason and get rid of it. Then I’ll probably need to sort through things I think I do have good reason to keep and dispose of a lot of them. The idea of all that work and decision making gives me the shudders, but looking at the handful of spaces I have cleaned so far makes me happy. Being happier with an emptier house – that’s the goal. Now, how to get there from here?

As I’ve mentioned a time or three, I intended to start this project last New Year’s Day. I was supposed to spend a hundred days cleaning out my own house and be finished by early April. Instead, my husband and I kept working on my mom’s house and bringing more and more boxes home with us, while I got more and more exhausted.

Well, now that my mother’s house is finally cleared out and sold and off my hands, and now that I’ve had a few desperately needed weeks to rest, I can start that long-delayed project. We’re in the middle of August now, and in 100 days it will be Wednesday, November 25. So I ought to be all done the day before Thanksgiving. Good timing. I don’t plan to cook a turkey dinner while I continue with major housecleaning – and being done with the Great Emptying would certainly be something to be thankful for.

I wonder if there will be snow on the ground by the time I finish cleaning?

Best Laid Plans (2)

UPSwampIn short (but it didn’t feel short, not at all), it took two cold icy slippery winters separated by a hot, sweaty summer to clear out all that junk. And after that, the house desperately needed a good cleaning – it’s been years since my mother had the strength and energy to keep up with dirt, and it upset her to see anyone else (me) doing what she couldn’t do. Scrubbing woodwork and walls was even more exhausting than clearing out junk.

20150626grandmasvasesBut at last it’s done; some of the usable things went to an auction house to be sold, while others went to Goodwill (we gave so much to Goodwill that the staff at the store in her area started to recognize us). We probably have a buyer for the house. And only a few weeks ago, when we thought all the stuff behind stuff had been cleaned out except for a few books that the auctioneer rejected after they sat on the same shelves unread for the past forty or fifty years, I found two old brass vases hiding behind the books! They’re fairly ugly, but they belonged to my grandmother, and I’m keeping them.

Oh, and the Great Cleanout I had planned to start last New Years? It didn’t happen. Yet.

But it will, soon. After another week to rest and recover, I’m going to start throwing things away here. I had planned to allow myself more time off – but looking at the mess is getting on my nerves. (That’s a good sign, right?) My living room is so full of boxes that came from my mother’s house that it could be featured on one of those TV shows about hoarders. Boxes have come and boxes have gone, but for the last month I’ve been too tired to cope with them, and boxes have stayed. Time to make them go away.

Best Laid Plans (1)

UPSwampAbout a year and a half ago, I started cleaning out my mother’s house, and almost immediately learned that keeping stuff “because I might need it someday” or “because it’s too good to throw out” is a bad idea. Clearly, it’s time to dejunk my own home – but I had to finish my mother’s first. Days and weeks and months went by, and my husband and I kept filling up trash cans and lugging dozens of big black trash bags out to the end of her driveway to be hauled away. Over and over, I thought we were almost finished; we never were. As soon as we cleared away one mess, we found another hiding behind it.

But at last, when 2014 was almost over, the end seemed in sight. And I had such great plans. I knew exactly how I was going to spend the winter – at home, cozily busy indoors, discarding piles and piles of my unneeded, unwanted, unloved junk. Bags and boxes on top of bags and boxes, out the door and gone with the trash collectors. And when spring came, I was going to look back on months of accomplishment and look forward to a new, streamlined life.

So much for plans.

The trouble was, even after a year of work, I still didn’t realize how cluttered my mother’s house was. There was still stuff behind stuff, all sorts of stuff, three different types of stuff. Some of it, my parents valued but I don’t have enough room to store it or any desire to own it – but maybe someone else would. Then there were perfectly good things I don’t think they realized they had, like half a dozen can openers, ten or twenty or thirty years old (judging by the price tags), still in their original store packaging. (These first two categories were easy; they could be given away or sold.) And finally there was stuff, lots of it, that they might have valued once, and shoved out of the way someplace or other, and never touched again while it deteriorated and became unusable.

And I had no time or energy left to tackle my own mess. Instead, this house got more and more cluttered as we brought home boxes of papers – as many boxes as the back of the car would hold – that I didn’t have time to sort through while we were at my mother’s house.

So much stuff, and so little of it any use to anybody.

The Hundred Day Cleanup: One Step Forward, Two Steps Sideways

UPSwampHere we are, at around 8 in the morning on the thirty-fourth day of 2015. That’s as close as you can get to one-third of the way through the first hundred days of the year. And how am I doing with the enormous cleanup project?

Some progress, and a lot of running in place. There’s some good news since I gave up on carefully spelled out plans and started just doing the most obvious things first. I’ve recycled piles of paper bigger than I am, and thrown out a smaller but impressive amount of junk that can’t be recycled. Nice.

I'm sure my grandmother knew who she was...

I’m sure my grandmother knew who she was…

The bad news? That was all stuff that we brought home from my mother’s house; boxes and boxes of old papers. Junk mail ads that my mother stuffed into plastic grocery bags and never disposed of. Birthday cards and phone bills that my grandmother received or paid in 1964. Photos of people I can’t identify, taken decades before I was born. (Actually, I haven’t persuaded myself to throw out the old photos yet.) And sorting all this paperwork is no fun at all when you’re allergic to dust.

Worst of all, when I clear out one batch of boxes that’s making it hard to walk around the living room, that doesn’t mean I’ve freed up any space. No. It means we can unload more boxes from the back of the car and lug them inside to sort.

Of course, the original idea of this project was to spend a hundred days getting rid of things I’ve been saving for no good reason. How am I doing with my own stuff, the things I should have thrown out years ago? Well, I’m not making much progress with the excess paperwork and books and clothes and who-knows-what that was here anyway. Most days, I don’t find time to deal with any of my own mountain of trash.

This might wind up being the two hundred day cleanup.

The Hundred Day Cleanup: How Not to Do It

UPSwampI’m already twenty days into my big clear-out-the-house-in-100-days project, so things should be starting to look good, right?

Wrong. I haven’t made much progress at all in draining my swamp. It’s time to figure out why and decide how to do things differently. Let’s see, the first thing that went wrong – back in the first week of January – was that I had to spend two days (there were problems) updating the financial and payroll software on the PCs at my church. Things like this happen a lot – I have a habit of accepting responsibility for all sorts of stuff that later makes demands on my time.

What can I do about this? Right now, not much. One of the skills I need to learn is how to judge how much time I have that’s unclaimed. Meanwhile, there are various things I promised to do that people are depending on, and I’ll just have to work around them.

Then I tried to catch up by following the suggestions in one of my how-to-get-organized books – the Don Aslett one that calls for spending two days working as hard as you can. And that tipped me over the edge into what was probably a mild case of flu. So much for most of the second week of January.

What to learn from that? Pretty simple: know my limits and respect them.

Wellll – respect my limits when I can. Last Thursday was devoted to the usual trip to work on clearing my mom’s house, a project that set me right on the ragged edge of physical endurance several months ago and has kept me teetering there.

And this is another unfortunate situation in which I’m not free to learn anything, or at least not free to apply what I learn. The house has to be cleaned out so we can put values on what’s left and pay the state of Pennsylvania its estate tax; they want their money by the end of next month. It’s the kind of situation in which you just sacrifice whatever else you can sacrifice and force your way through to the end.

After the trip to my mom’s, as usual, I wasn’t good for much for the next day and a half. By then, it was the afternoon of the seventeenth. All right, said I to myself, let’s do something that isn’t strenuous; I started trying to follow Marie Kondo’s advice to clean out and organize everything in a specific problem category at one time. I’m overflowing with paperwork, some of it mine, some my mother’s, and some paperwork of my grandmother’s that my mother never disposed of after she finished settling her mother’s estate, thirty-five years ago.

So much to shred.

So much to shred.

Oh, there’s a lot of paper.

Too much paper, it turns out, for me to start with the Kondo method. (Though I’m still fond of Kondo’s book – probably because she tells you, step by step, how you ought to clean. Yes, I do need that level of detail right now.)

I’ve seen houses that are messier than mine is at the moment, but not many. There isn’t enough room to work. I can throw paper away, but there’s no space to sort and organize the keepers. After a few days of fighting with the mess, I was frustrated, angry, exhausted, and depressed. What to do, what to do?

Time for a little creativity. If I can’t get the house clean and organized by forcing myself into working strenuously for several days, and I can’t make any progress by dealing with all of one problem before moving to another, what can I do?


I can do the easy stuff. I can grab an armful of my own papers, and throw most of them away. Do that a few times and I’ll have an empty shelf to work with. I can take the books that are lying here and there and put them back where they belong. I can find the things I was too hopelessly exhausted to clean up last fall, at my low point, and take care of them. And as more space opens up, I ought to be able to tackle problems I can’t even make myself think about yet, like how to file the estate paperwork appropriately.

We’ll see how well it works.

Looking for expert help

UPSwampDecember is flying past…it’s almost time to start the Hundred Day Decluttering. Now, what’s the best way to go about it? I know lots of ways to fail to bring my house under control. What I need now is a way to succeed.

I’ve been looking at various books that promise expert advice – just what I need, since I definitely don’t know what I’m doing! So I think I’ll start off with my untested and not necessarily fair  reactions to some of them.

Lose 200 Pounds this Weekend: It’s Time to Declutter Your Life by Don Aslett

This book needs to be decluttered! There’s some information about how to clear out your house in the introduction and in Chapters 4 and 5 (out of seven chapters plus an Introduction and Afterword). The rest? Pep talks about cleaning your house, and sales pitches for his other books. The pep talks might be useful, maybe, if you aren’t sold on the idea of doing all this work.

Still, Aslett’s basic idea – set aside one weekend and devote it entirely to throwing things out – sounds promising, if I can keep going through it. (After a year of clearing out my mother’s house, I get exhausted fast.) An actual weekend won’t work for me – I’ll be at church half of Sunday – but I could try Friday and Saturday.

The 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno

Kind of famous – and kind of disappointing when you read how he applied the idea. The goal, supposedly, is to trim down to living with just 100 possessions, though some people have creatively redefined “possessions” so that, for example, all their socks are one “possession”. I mentioned the hundred thing challenge a few weeks ago and joked that, personally, I could make the job easier by lumping all the books in this house into one category. Imagine my reaction when I found out that Bruno actually does this – he has his “library”! And almost all the furniture in his house doesn’t count either, since his family uses it too. True, it would be silly and unfair to make his wife and kids sit on the floor for the sake of his little list – but leaving out all the shared household property makes his big experiment easier than it looks at first glance.

For my amusement, I think I’ll see how few possessions I have right now if I chunk them into umbrella categories of Bruno’s kind – but this no-challenge challenge won’t help much in making my house livable.

One Bite at a Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler by Tsh Oxenreider

I actually got this book months ago, long before I realized I needed to get serious about my house. Oxenreider offers a project a week you can tackle, in whatever order you choose, so you can – just like it says – simplify your life. Well and good, though not all projects will apply to all households; for example, my children are grown and gone, so number 33, “Streamline your kids’ art collection”, is beside the point here. The real problem? I’ve tried several of her projects, and her approach doesn’t seem drastic enough to fix major messes like mine. One Bite at a Time may be fine for people with minor to moderate disaster areas, but it’s not going to revamp your entire house.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Organized

Well, it seemed like a nice general-purpose how to do it guide. Unfortunately, a lot of the book sets goals and then encourages you to stretch them until they’re comfortable – and shapeless. Might work for people who are already experts on organization. A genuine “complete idiot” on the subject like me needs more structure to follow.

Seven by Jen Hatmaker

Now, here’s a book I was prepared to dislike. Live with a luxurious hundred things? Bah. Jen Hatmaker set herself the task of living with only seven things (in a specific category, like food, clothes, places to shop…) for a month. Come the next month, she moved on to seven things in a different category, and so on for a year.

I was more than inclined to sneer at the whole idea. It seemed like a pointless exercise in showing off how virtuously minimalist you can be, and unworkable besides without special circumstances. For example, seven items of clothing for the whole of February? Well, she lives in Texas. A warm part of Texas where she can manage with no coat. Here in New Jersey, my February wardrobe would have to devote three of my seven pieces of clothing to a coat, a hat, and a pair of gloves. Include a pair of shoes, and four out of the seven are spoken for – I’d be left with just three changes of clothes to wear all month long. That’s taking austerity beyond reason.

As I read further, though, I came to realize that this wasn’t about decluttering or minimalism for the sake of minimalism. What Hatmaker is really up to is living out her Christianity by learning something of what it’s like to be poor, and finding ways to help the poorest people around her. I found it interesting and admirable – but, really, not much use for giving me advice on how to reorganize my stuff.

The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Now, this one’s different. I liked it for two reasons: First, Kondo focuses on how to declutter, in great detail, with very little psychologizing about why we have too much stuff or why we can’t get rid of it. And she – very deliberately – organizes the project in an unusual way.

Most books on decluttering, when they give you any advice at all on how to do it, tell you to work room by room, and within rooms area by area. (For instance, in the kitchen The Complete Idiot’s Guide tells you to organize the sink area, and the refrigerator area, and the pantry area, and also – separately – the stovetop area and the oven area.) Kondo focuses not on places but on types of clutter: organize your clothes, organize your papers, organize your books, and so on.

Will it work? I’ll just have to try it and see.

The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life by Francine Jay

And here’s one I really don’t know what I think of. Good: I was brought up to keep everything, and a writer who holds that less is better might just help me out of the “throw nothing away” trap. Bad: Sometimes Jay goes too far, past simplicity to austerity and all the way to deprivation for the sake of deprivation. I haven’t finished reading it yet; once I do, I’ll be able to tell whether there are useful ideas in there.

* * *

So I’ve consulted all sorts of experts on decluttering (and people who have thoughts that fit around the fringes of the subject). I’ve got a little more than a week to figure out how I want to approach the project. Next step: Figure out which ideas from the books above to try out, in what order.

Wish me luck. I’ll need it.

Tired tanka

You shouldn’t notice
Where your bones run. Muscles ache,
Shoulders, elbows, wrists.
Fingers, not to be trusted.
And yet more work still to do.