Interview with Alison Lush, Professional Organizer

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Alison Lush
 is a certified professional organizer CPO-CD®, CPO® in Montreal, Canada. She recently took the time to discuss the challenges of dealing with clutter; how “spring clearing” can offer an opportunity for people to redefine their relationship with stuff; her approach with her clients; and what all those letters mean after her name. Here is her interview, conducted via e-mail with Janet Hulstrand.

Janet: First of all, I’d like to ask how you came to be a professional organizer. What motivated you? Was there a specific life event, or moment of awareness, that made you realize this was a good profession for you?

Alison: I had a career in catering–was very successful, loved it, was at the top of my game–when I realized at age 45 that the food industry did not offer much for my future growth and advancement. When I told my best friend I was looking for a new career in April 2010, she said “professional organizer,” and I literally replied, “What’s that?”

I jumped right in, joining the Professional Organizers in Canada, and becoming a subscriber to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. I started volunteering right away, which was a great move in hindsight: I started building my professional network, developing my own reputation, and learning from others.

During the classes I was taking, while learning how to work successfully as an organizer, I was personally affected. My understanding of the power of my possessions, and my relationship with my possessions started to change. I realized that I had a lot to gain by becoming my own first client.

Janet: You asked me to change my use of the term “spring cleaning” in the intro to this interview, to “spring clearing.” Why is that?

Alison: I’m not a fan of spring cleaning: too much guilt! I prefer to say “spring clearing,” which is an opportunity to create new awareness of our relationships with our stuff and our space.

Janet: What do you love most about your work? What do you find the hardest?

Alison: I LOVE being called in when someone is

  • discouraged about their stuff;
  • curious about how they ended up where they are;
  • and ready for change.

Through discussion, while we’re working through their stuff, we can shed light on the various elements of these things, develop an understanding of the causes and consequences, and develop alternative strategies. I love to empower the individual while breaking through the backlog!

What I find the most difficult is when my clients have decided that a thing may leave their home, but conditionally, that is, they are only willing to let a thing go if they either get a certain amount of money for it, or if they find someone who will cherish it. I certainly respect this need, but I find it difficult. I would so prefer that we invest our energies inside their homes!

Janet: You recently were interviewed for an article in New York magazine with the tag line “When You Love Clutter and Your Partner is a Minimalist.” First of all, I’m curious: do you think anyone really loves clutter? 

Alison: Perception is everything here.

I’m looking at a pile of stuff to deal with at the side of my office.  Aesthetically, it can be called clutter because those things do not belong together,and none of those things belong there.

But that pile also represents other things.

  • Time: it will take me time to deal with each of those things.
  • Decisions: each of those things will need to be considered, which is work.

I suspect that most people live with clutter because it is WORK to deal with it.

Some people surround themselves with great volumes of possessions and truly want to keep it all, but in my experience, those are in the minority.

 Janet: It says in that article that you are “a born clutterbug” who comes from a “chronically disorganized background.” What does that mean? And how has this helped (or maybe hindered?) you in your work?

Alison:It has helped me in my work because I have successfully reprogrammed myself and changed my environment quite dramatically. I am therefore truly convinced that many other people are capable of this as well. I am very enthusiastic for them!

 Janet: Many times the people we call “keepers” in our book need and want help in decluttering, but they don’t want to be shamed, scolded, or bossed around. What is the best way for professional organizers–or friends and family, for that matter–to work with people who theoretically want to declutter their lives, but find it extremely difficult to do so in practice?What do you think are the most important qualities for professional organizers to have?

Alison: Empathy, humility, and respect. This is not primarily about the stuff. It is about individuals and how they feel in their lives. They are the experts in their lives. Their values are the ones that matter. Their emotional readiness needs to define the speed of progress. A professional organizer is there to encourage, to support, to help, to make jokes, to offer alternatives, and to work.

Helping move stuff around is easy, and anyone can do it. But helping an individual who has a backlog and some emotional attachment is challenging and sensitivework, and many people are neither skilled nor emotionally prepared for this role.

Choose your helpers with care. My primary goal is “Do no harm.”

Janet: What should people be able to expect of someone who is in the business of helping others declutter their lives?

Alison: Professional organizing is still an unregulated industry. Organizers who are members of their professional association, who have achieved industry education, who volunteer for the industry, and who are insured demonstrate the highest standards of professionalism and engagement.

After all those benchmarks, pay attention to how you feel when you are with the organizer. The goal is to develop a partnership. You should feel encouraged, supported, and not judged at all.

Janet: What do the people looking to declutter need to bring to the process? 

Alison: People looking to declutter will get the most out of it if they are willing to be curious about their relationship with stuff, and to consider change.

For example:

  • Every spring and fall, the person has a big job to swap out all their seasonal clothing;
  • The person feels burdened by these tasks, resulting in procrastination and guilt…twice every year!
  • Questioning one’s clothes systematically helps to identify whether that work is necessary;
  • Start by examining the cut, colour, and condition of each item. Raise the bar!
  • Reducing the overall volume of clothes (through higher standards) will render the seasonal task more manageable, and may even reduce it to just outerwear and footwear (as in my home).

Janet: Finally, can you tell our readers what the letters CPO-CD® mean after your name? What kind of training is involved in earning this professional credential, and what additional knowledge or expertise does someone who has had this training have to offer that other organizers may not?

Alison: CPO-CD®means Certified Professional Organizer specializing in Chronic Disorganzation, and represents several years of specialized education from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, plus mentoring. It culminates in an examination by a panel of peers.

The CPO-CD® program was the best professional and business decision I made. We learn best practices for helping people living with the most complex challenges concerning their belongings. We study multiple underlying causes that may be contributing to chronic disorganization. We demonstrate the philosophy, language, and behaviors that are respectful and humanistic. Curiosity, empathy, and professionalism are nurtured.

If I needed to hire a professional organizer, I would look for a CPO-CD®!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. Alison Lush is a professional organizer in Montreal, Canada. You can learn more about her here.

 

 

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A Spring Sale on Our E-Book!

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When our book first came out, the Cleveland Plain Dealer review said, “The best time to read this excellent book is before you need to…with simple honesty and sensitivity, the authors describe the range of emotions families feel when it’s time to clean out and sell the family home.”

But Moving On is useful in many other life situations, from moving, to spring cleaning, to general decluttering. We encourage people to do “proactive downsizing” – which means, basically, that whatever your age, whatever your situation in life, NOW is the time to start getting rid of stuff, so it won’t be such a daunting task for you or your family later on.

And now, for a limited time only* we are offering our e-book for $4.99, 50% off the regular price of $9.99.  

If you’ve never read an e-book, this would be a great time to try. Why? Well, here are a few reasons:

  • The e-book is an updated version of our 2004 book, and the only version that has been updated.
  • Our helpful resource section provides live links to a wide variety of sources of information about how to appraise, sell, donate, preserve, recycle, or otherwise deal with all the stuff you are going through.
  • An e-book will not add one more book about decluttering to your bookshelf!
  • You don’t need a Kindle, a smartphone, or a tablet to read an e-book. You can read it on a desktop computer.

You can see some of the nice things people have had to say about our book here.

And if you want to take us up on this great opportunity to save 50% on our book, you can get started here.

Sooo…if you don’t mind our asking: what are you waiting for?

*Now through May 31, 2018.

The Joy of a Junk Drawer Decluttered

It all started when my oven stopped working properly. Food would cook or bake faster on the left side, sometimes even burn, while food on the right side was not yet done. This had gone on long enough and it was finally time for a new oven.

The new one would be a gas wall oven, just like the old one, but the new one would have an electric starter. That meant having to make a connection under the counter to an electrical outlet on the other side of the cooktop. Before the new oven was installed, I was told to empty out the cabinet beneath the oven, my serving dishes, and to the right of it below the cooktop, my pots and pans. I also emptied out the cabinet above the oven just in case, the one with all my baking pans.

Where to put the stuff? I put paper down on the dining room floor and laid everything down. What an awakening it was to see how much cooking equipment I had. There were so many things I didn’t need and I knew, for sure, I wasn’t going to put them all back. This was the perfect time to downsize and declutter.

To start, I put aside the dishes and pots that I use regularly or at least often enough to warrant keeping. The next step was to ask my kids to take what they wanted. Then my husband sold a couple of pots on Craigslist and I offered some serving dishes and utensils to a non-profit. And finally I donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to prepare meals.

It is wonderful to work in a kitchen with fewer items that are more easily accessible. But my joy was tempered somewhat because I have this junk drawer that sticks each time I open it because it’s so overstuffed. Yes, this is a long story of how I finally, after more time than I care to remember, have decluttered my junk drawer.

I took everything out of the drawer and again put it all on paper. Many organizers emphasize the importance of emptying out a drawer or closet completely in order to see what you have and I couldn’t agree more. It’s so much easier to work that way, and we’ve talked about this process in a previous post.

And, strange as it might be to imagine, it was also a time for reminiscing. I found so many books of matches. When candle lighting is called for I always scramble to find matches. Not any more. I discovered more than two dozen matchbooks that had been shoved to the back recesses of the drawer, most of them from restaurants where we had enjoyed meals. It was fun to remember the happy occasions, like Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that has now been reinvented; family celebrations, like those at Belgo and City Crab, places that are long gone; and casual times at a neighborhood joint, Plate 347, that is no longer there. A particularly bittersweet memory: wonderful dinners at Windows on the World, with its spectacular view of the city.

But, back to the present. The next step was to put like things together, something we say often in our book. It’s amazing to see how many different spatulas, whisks, and measuring spoons I had. Were they really different or were they the same? I kept the ones I liked best or used most often and let go of the rest. Some went to my kids – one wanted my melon baller – and the rest went to the thrift store.

My junk drawer now opens easily and I can see what I have without moving things around. It may not be as neat as the one in the photograph, above, with custom-made dividers, but it works, smoothly and efficiently. I own fewer items now and many of the items I no longer need have found new homes.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Of Spring Cleaning, Gently Used, and Landfills

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As spring cleaning time draws near, I’m having a bundle of thoughts about the relationship between spring cleaning, the words “gently used,” and landfills.

What do these three things have to do with each other? Well, actually quite a bit.

Spring, of course, is the time that many people aggressively go about decluttering their homes and getting rid of the things they don’t need or want anymore. And this is a good thing.

Much of what goes out of our homes goes either to organizations that can pass our “rejects” on to others who can use them; or into recycling receptacles; or into the trash. (And sadly, the stuff that ends up in the trash goes on to landfills… 😦 )

So the best thing to do, from a community health and an ecological point of view is to try to minimize the amount of stuff that ends up in the trash.

And the best thing, from the point of view of those who sort through our “rejects” in thrift stores, churches, shelters, libraries, and other places where people donate used things, is to not have to spend a lot of time sorting through stuff that really should have gone into the trash. This is why these organizations tend to stress, beg, cajole, and otherwise urge people to only donate those things that are “gently used.” And this is completely understandable. (Moldy items, for example, create unhealthy fumes for those people who are sorting through the stuff to breathe while they’re sorting, and may also contaminate things that are still usable with things that are not. This is not okay!)

But one of the big problems is what to do with the stuff that is between “gently used” and trash. We have written several posts on this blog that can help people find ways to recycle hard-to-recycle items, such as textiles, shoes, carpeting, and so on. Here is the link to a section of our blog where you can find some of those posts.

We also wrestled with this problem when we were writing our book, and what we found is that if people are committed to finding ways to reuse items that are more than gently used rather than trash them, there are ways. Just one example of this is the idea of donating old towels to an animal shelter. (The dogs. Don’t. Care!!!)

I suspect that not many people are aware of the magnitude of the problem of too much clothing going into landfills. Earth 911 reports that “the EPA estimates that Americans discarded over 14 million tons of textiles in 2010…about 5.7% of the total municipal solid waste (MSW). And while 5.7% may seem like a ‘small’ percentage, that is still 28,000,000,000 lbs. of clothing that could have been reused or recycled – every year.”  Earth 911 points out that the textiles dumped in landfills burden the environment and artificially decrease the lifespan of the products. This, they say, is where clothing recycling comes in. You can learn more about how to recycle clothing  here and about some of the initiatives businesses are taking to encourage reusing garments here.

I think it may also be time for all of us to think through the consequences of rejecting  items, whether clothing, books, or furniture, as soon as they are “gently used.” Do we really need to give away, or trash things the minute they are no longer “gently used”? And do the standards really need to be as high as they are at some of the places we donate things? Do we really imagine, for example, that one slight stain on an otherwise very serviceable (and attractive) garment, or (perfectly comfortable) chair, means that it should be trashed? That it could not still prove useful to someone? Do we really imagine that a “well-loved” picture book cannot be enjoyed just as much by a young child who has it at second or third (or even fifth?) hand, as much as they would enjoy a “gently used” one? After all, what is the most important thing about reading a picture book to a child? It is the pictures, right? And the closeness? And the voice of someone reading to them? And all of that can happen quite easily with books that are definitely more than “gently used.”

I think if we can all just become a bit more aware of what happens when we lose sight of the things we’re letting go of, and what the long-term consequences are of what we do with them, hopefully we can all become a little more thoughtful, a little bit less picky, and a lot more “green.”

Out of sight may be out of mind, but it shouldn’t be. It’s good to know that we’ve done the best we can to ensure that when we’re done using something, it doesn’t turn into a problem for someone else.

Happy spring cleaning, everyone!!! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Interesting Questions to Ask your Parents and Grandparents

“Uncle George went to Indiana because he was put on an orphan train,” my cousin told me in a recent phone call. Conversations with family members can lead to the most interesting stories! That’s how I learned that our great great-uncle, our great grandmother’s youngest brother, was taken on an orphan train from New York City to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had visited Uncle George and Aunt Ann in Indiana but I never knew what the circumstances were that had brought him there.

What questions didn’t we think to ask? Unfortunately, far too many.

What did we learn when we did ask questions?

I remember the questions my kids asked when they interviewed a relative for a school assignment. My younger daughter, who talked to my husband’s aunt who grew up in Eastern Europe, asked what her favorite chore was and found out she liked going to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.

My older daughter asked my father what he recalled about one of the major headlines of the day. He told her he remembered the exact spot where he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What a way to make history real for her.

Interesting, open-ended, thought-provoking questions can spark meaningful conversations and help keep the family stories coming. Everyone has a story, and many of them turn out to be more interesting than you might think.

Lots of sites have lists of questions to ask. Here are a few that spoke to me.

From A Place for Mom’s list of questions:

Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?

What an out-of-the ordinary question and what a wonderful story it will evoke.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Sharing recipes is such a wonderful way to keep the family history alive, and how great to share the stories that go with the foods, whether the food was a gourmet triumph or a total disaster.

From a genealogy website:

Did you and your friends have a special hangout where you liked to spend time?

So was it a friend’s backyard, or the ice rink, or the local candy store? What a wonderful question to help bring to mind stories of your parents’ youth.

What was the funniest thing you can remember that one of your children said or did?

Little kids say the darndest things and your family will love to hear those stories.

From a blog:

What was your second choice for my name?

This was always my daughter’s favorite question – she wrote an essay in school about our answer – because my husband had a way-out, hippie choice and I had a elegant, old-fashioned name in mind, and I prevailed.

What was the best trip of your life?

It could be leaving everything and heading to Alaska, or collecting seashells along the shore of an exotic island, or it could be visiting a grandparent. All good stories.

What haven’t you asked your parents? What do you still need to tell your kids?

We want to come to understand the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. We want to realize that stories are more important than any object that was left to us, or anything we could leave to our kids. The stories are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

When is it really NOT “all just stuff”?

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Most of the things in this photograph I got rid of, and I do not miss them at all. (Okay, I still have the chair, hand-caned by my grandmother.)

It is frequently observed, by people who have just finished the process of downsizing a family home, that although the process was not exactly fun, and that some of the getting rid of things had been hard to do, these people had to admit (or had come to realize) that really, “it’s all just stuff.”

And while that is to a large degree true, I have been thinking a bit lately about when it is NOT true.

This is probably because I am one of those people who is currently keeping a certain amount of my stuff in a storage locker.

Yes, “True Confessions” time on a downsizing blog!

We’ve written a fair amount, both in our book, and on this blog, about the pros and cons (mostly cons!) of paying for extra storage. All too often, for many of us, it is just a procrastinating technique for keeping all manner of things that it makes no sense to keep anymore. There are so many stories about storage lockers kept for multiple years and then emptied out and all, or nearly all, the things inside given away or trashed.

But in one of our recent posts, we outlined a few of the situations in which keeping a storage locker for a temporary period of time can actually be a good thing.

I am currently in such a situation, since I am halfway into a probably-permanent (but not yet certain) move to another country. And getting my stuff from Country A to Country B has proven to be expensive and bureaucratically complicated.

And so, reluctantly, I have been continuing to spend more money than I would like every single month, to keep some of my stuff in storage. For now.

But I can’t honestly say that it it’s really “all just stuff.”

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Take the items in the photograph above. These are a few of the things I was able to take with me from Country A to Country B the last time I was able to take a trip to my storage locker.

There is a drawing of me at a younger age by my husband.

There is a beautiful handcrafted ceramic tile created by a dear friend.

There are baby pictures of my two sons, and me; a bracelet I received as a gift on Valentine’s Day; a wooden heart with a Swedish prayer painted on it; an index card with my son’s handwriting; and a green scarf given to me by a friend who declared she had found the perfect color for me when she presented me with this gift.

Although I did not really notice it until I was writing this post, there are a lot of hearts in that picture. Heart-shaped picture frames; a bracelet with hearts; a heart-shaped wall decoration with a Swedish prayer.

So I guess there is an underlying theme here, of “things I love, from people I love.”

But to get back to my original point, I maintain that none of these things are really “just stuff.”

Could I live without them? Certainly.

But. I must say that these few items have brought a great deal of quietly joyful moments to me since I managed to stuff them into my suitcase and bring them over to my new home in Country B.

In fact, just a few days ago when it became quite cold here, I was thinking about how sad I was that I didn’t have my pretty green scarf anymore. (I did some really radical giving away of things before my move: there is nothing like an unfunded, independent international move to inspire draconian getting rid of things…)

And so I didn’t remember that I had actually kept the pretty green scarf, and that it had been rescued from the locker and added to the treasures in my suitcase on my last trip. What a delightful surprise it was to find that indeed I had kept it, and here it was, right here in my closet!  I put it around my neck when I went outside the next time, and I felt instantly warmer in more than one way!

There are a lot of other things still in the storage locker that are much bulkier than these few special items. (If there weren’t I wouldn’t still need the locker!)

But those things are not “just stuff” either. In that locker are many more works of art by artist-friends, by my children, and quite a few boxes of books I’ve edited, and of photographs, letters, and journals that I am not ready to let go of.

So what is the point of this essay, especially on a downsizing blog?

I think the point is this. When you’re going through the (for many people, often) painful process of getting rid of “all that stuff,” give yourself (or those you are feeling impatient with) a little bit of a break.

Realize that you don’t have to get rid of everything. And you don’t have defend every decision.

You can keep a few things “just because.” And those items may serve to cheer you in ways you can’t know until experience them.

It’s a question of balance.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living by Design, Not by Default

When I read the introduction to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book about best business practices, I immediately thought that what the author was writing about could also apply to downsizing and decluttering.

And then in the first chapter McKeown does, in fact, make the analogy: Just as our closets get cluttered with clothes we never wear, so do our lives get cluttered with well-intended commitments and activities.

Yes, this is an author from whom I want to learn more.

McKeown goes on to show how an Essentialist, his word for someone who practices essentialism or living by design, not by default, would approach that closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate. “Do I love this? Do I look great in it?”
  2. To deal with the ‘maybe’ pile, he suggests asking: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  3. To keep your closet tidy, you need a regular routine for organizing it.

His approach sounds so similar to what we’ve suggested over the years as best practices for downsizing and decluttering.

McKeown begins each chapter of his book with a quote and many of these relate to decluttering, too.

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. ≈ Madeleine L’Engle

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. We cannot forget that we can make choices, that we must make choices.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. ≈ John Maxwell

Very few things in our lives are exceptionally valuable. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you are downsizing the family home and want to save every precious-to-you item left by your parents.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. ≈ Pablo Picasso

Take your time. “Take a breath, look around, think,” says the CEO of a marketing company. Good advice for downsizing, too.

No is a complete sentence. ≈ Anne Lamott

The freedom of setting boundaries is so important, with our possessions as well as our commitments. We can identify what doesn’t work for us, but we also have to eliminate it. McKeown reminds us that the Latin root for the word decisioncis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ≈ Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Have a plan.

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. ≈ Doug Firebaugh

Mark your progress. Start small and get big results. What I say in my talks is: Work for 20 minutes a day three times a week. Set a timer. Do what you can in 20 minutes: empty one drawer, one bookshelf, sort through one category of clothing, shoes or scarves, for instance.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. ≈ W.H. Auden

Having a routine, the right routine, one that “enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless,” is a powerful tool. It’s what McKeown calls “the genius of routine.”

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. ≈ Thick Nhat Hanh

Staying in the present moment, not thinking about what happened before or what may happen in the future, helps us keep our focus. What’s important now?

Greg McKeown concludes the book by saying, “As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.” We can become a different, better version of ourselves.

We can certainly endorse working towards a better version of ourselves, of our closets, and of our lives.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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