I used to do this thing I called “libra cleaning.”

It involved gathering up all of the mess in a room, throwing it in a closet or drawer, and then shutting the door to hide the disorder and feign a clean home. Looking back, I’m not sure that libra cleaning had anything to do with me being a libra, but for some reason that’s what I called it and the name for the task stuck.

I bring up my past organizing method not to say, “holy shit, I can’t believe I was ever such a fill-in-the-judgy-blank,” but rather to look at why that style of cleaning worked for me at the time. In the height of my libra cleaning, I was deep in a clinical depression that would end up laying me up on my couch for most of a year. I was also what I call an “active alcoholic,” drinking very heavily and often (I got sober in 2013). The people who I was closest to, my then roomate and my partner at the time, knew that I was incapable of expending the energy on a deep clean, and they were more interested in my healing than my swiffering. So, while I wanted things to look nice for visitors, procedural organization simply wasn’t my priority.

The moral of this story is that your level of organization doesn’t have to look like any ideal version. You might prefer things to be outside of a stereotype of “order,” or the reality of your energy, time, finances, and other resources might limit your ability to organize or encourage you to organize in a intentional way. Also, your personal relationship with organization can change: you may experience seasons of cleanliness and seasons of disorder.

This blog post staunchly maintains that there’s no right way to be organized, because personal organization is literally personal organization (get it?). However, if you’re currently unhappy with the way organization functions in your life, I’d love to share three effective habits that have helped me to shift from libra cleaning to low-key, manageable organization.

Personalize Your Organizing Goals

Remember, your organized home doesn’t have to look like some Instagram post from a celebrity. Ask yourself, What kind of organization feels good to me? Be honest! If you really appreciate things being in assigned places and you thrive in your definition of an orderly space, then own it. But if you function fine with some clothes on the floor and some dishes in the sink, own that, too!

Next, ask yourself: What could a different style of organization offer to me? You don’t yet have to know how you’ll make it happen, but this is where you can list your priorities for any organizing changes you’d like to make. Would it save you time? Energy? Peace of mind? Would you be able to finally use an entire room that you ignored for a whole year because it had become a place where you stacked the random BS you didn’t know where else to put? (I see you, 2015-2016 Kate.)

Now that you know what your interest is in organization and what benefits it could offer to you, let’s look at how to organize the damn thing, both in small steps and with help.

 

Break It Down & Make it a Habit

My Sweetie often says this phrase: make the best thing to do the easiest thing to do. For me, the best organization happens when I break it down into small, regular, purposeful actions. Here’s an example: my nightly routine includes doing dishes after my bath and before I head to bed. Doing my dishes like this has three purposes:

  1. Because I work on my dissertation from home in the mornings, I want to make my morning as smooth and cheerful as possible, and a clean kitchen totally does that for me.
  2. When I leave my dishes to pile up in the sink for a few days, it takes more energy that I can muster at the end of a day to wash them.
  3. I really don’t like washing dishes (it’s my least favorite chore), so limiting the task to a handful vs. a sinkful makes it go by quicker.

I’ve further sedimented the practice by making it a habit with the cue-routine-reward method: Finishing my bath (CUE) signals that it’s time to do my dishes (ROUTINE), after which I get to enjoy checking out Pinterest or magazines in bed (REWARD).

 

Ask For Help

My chronic pain limits the way I can organize and clean into small, intentional bursts. Thus, when I have a big task on hand, such as reorganizing an entire room, decluttering, or preparing for a move, I need to ask for help. For me, this looks like hiring a professional.

My professional personal organizer is April Dunlop, who runs The Whole Nest. Here’s a portion of April’s description of her work that really drew me to hire her, but I encourage you to read her whole statement and be as moved and held as I was by her approach to her work:

By combining my knowledge of design and organizational systems with my emotional support skills and anti-oppressive ethos, I have developed an approach to home organization intended to hold space for the many challenges that people face around order, “cleanliness,” and all aspects of home-making.  My methods are not prescriptive, but collaborative.  My ultimate goal is to help you create the space you need and desire.

I’ve worked with April multiple times over the years, but I recently had two sessions with her, each with a partiful purpose: 1) my goal to make my front office room accessible and comfortable for me to use when I have chronic pain flare ups and 2) my goal to declutter my closet, a part of my home that overwhelmed me when I tried to address it solo. I’d like to walk you through both processes so you can see how asking for April’s help allowed me to accomplish these goals.

Session 1: Office

Here’s what our process looked like from start to finish:

  • We sat and talked and April asked questions and genuinely listened to me when I described my struggle and what I wished I could have, as well as why I thought I hadn’t been able to create it.
  • When we went into the office, she offered guidance with kindness and attention to my preferences, and her suggestions were extremely practical and tied to long-term management, something I’d said I wanted.
  • She also helped me with all of the physical aspectsmoving clutter to another room, going through piece by piece, separating items out to donate, recyle, trash, or designate for a new, intentional home. She was prepared for everything, from bringing her own labeler so we could label containers to looking up whether or not you can recycle Post-It notes (PS: you can), to taking the donate piles WITH HER WHEN SHE LEFT! I cannot emphasize how amazing that part of April’s services was, both because I know she will be sure that my belongings make their way to a hospice shop or are given away freely and locally, but also because I saw real change at the end of our session.
  • She later emailed me a write up about our session with the explicit “to do” tasks she and I had discussed during our session.

Session 2: Closet

In our next session, after we checked in on how the office was going (thumbs up!), I asked April to help me declutter my closet. I had put off closet organization for a few reasons:

  1. I struggled to let go of a few high end pieces that I had gotten as hand me downs but which didn’t fit me and I wasn’t going to wear. I had held onto them for over a year because they were so expensive, even though they would not fit my body type and I had zero interest in changing my body type. But a scarcity mindset had prompted me to hold on to them.
  2. I struggled to let go of some other hand my down items because I knew they had meant a lot to the people who gave me them, but again, I wasn’t using them.
  3. The physical labor of organizing my closet would have zapped perhaps a whole day’s worth of spoons.

Having April’s guidance through the process helped me with all three of my problems. The presence of her calm soul holding space and listening as I told her why I had struggled to let go of a piece, but knowing that someone would love it more than me, was the ticket to releasing the sticky items with a peaceful mind.

As with my office, April listened, guided kindly and intentionally, and assisted me with the physical labor: taking the clothes out of my closet and laying them on the bed for me go through piece by piece, putting them in piles, rehanging or folding them for me, and then TAKING THE DONATIONS WITH HER! Because April took care of most of the physical labors that I had been wary to do, I was able to focus my resources solely on the task of culling items into donate, trash, re-hang up, launder (then hang up) and store for another season. I felt *amazing* when we were finished.

I plan to hire April again as I prepare for my big cross-state move later this summer, because I know she’ll bring her non-judgmental, guiding, hands-on approach to helping me cull, pack, and clean. Knowing that I’ll have her help when I cross that emotional, laborious bridge is a truly calming gift.

If you live in Western Massachusetts and you’re interested in hiring April to assist you in your decluttering, reorganizing, deep-cleaning, system-setting goals, you can contact her via her website and book a consultation on her sliding scale.

 

Remember that personal organization is personal organization! Your home does not need to look like a minimalist barnscape advertised in Goop in order for you to be a successful, talented, beautiful, worthy person. That necessity being said, if you would like to shift your organization practice, here are some practical tips.

Give Yourself Permission…

To Take a Break: You know how I said that doing dishes daily helps me to feel calmer and energized? Well, sometimes I just cannot bring myself to do them. It could be due to a pain flare up, or feeling tired, or having a total grumpalump mood, but every now and then I give myself permission to skip my nightly dish duty. And I don’t beat myself up about it, because I get back on the dishes the next night (or I ask for dish help when my Sweetie or a friend is in my home). 

To Mix it Up: If you have a particular organizational chore that you really dislike and you aren’t able to cajole yourself into completing it, could you ask your roomate, partner, kid, or friend to do it for you? If they cohabitate with you, offer to do one of the chores that they don’t enjoy doing. If you don’t live with them, ask if they’d like to trade doing your dread-chores together when you visit one another.

To Try New Things in Small Ways: Curious about the Marie Kondo method but worried about the commitment or the time/energy/focus it’d take? You don’t have to dump your entire house on the floor; just check out a Youtube video on how to fold your clothes a’la Konmari and give it a try in a low-stakes way. Want to learn about minimalism or slow living? Before you commit to a whole book, listen to a podcast by an expert such as Brooke McAlary of The Slow Home. It’s okay to just try or like one part of a method or practice without signing up for the whole shebang. See what works, and give yourself permission to personalize your personal organization practice!