Getting Organized in January

Get Organized illo

It’s a natural time to want to get organized, isn’t it?

January, the month right after you got all that new stuff that needs to be organized, the month right before many of us have to start buckling down on organizing for preparing taxes. The month when it’s often, in many parts of the world, a good time to stay home, where you are safe, warm and dry. But where you also can’t help but notice the need to organize. 😦

January is such a naturally good time for organizing that NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, has designated it as #GetOrganized Month.

I thought it would be fun, in honor of Get Organized Month, to feature links to a few posts by professional organizers I particularly admire.

But then something interesting happened this morning when I opened up my computer and saw a new post by a friend who has recently started a blog. The title of her latest post is “Stuff.” Naturally, I had to read that one!

In it, she talks about how she came to the realization that she’s got too much stuff; how it came to be that way; and what she plans to do about in the future. (She also shares a wonderful video clip of George Carlin talking about “Stuff.”)

So, although Sara is not a professional organizer, I thought sharing her post would be a good place to start. You can read her post about “Stuff” here.)

Next I decided to visit the website of Alison Lush, a professional organizer who lives in Montreal. I enjoy following Alison on Twitter, and she often makes insightful and appreciative remarks about the posts on our Facebook page. So I figured that her blog would have a good post to share, and I was right! Here’s a post she wrote last year, about her family’s “new normal.” I think this is a nice companion piece to Sara’s, since it is written several years after the decision to somehow get in control of “all that stuff” was made, and it gives a good sense of how good it can feel to have made those changes.

Another favorite professional organizer of mine is Nettie Owens. Nettie lives in Havre de Grace, Maryland. I really like her philosophy and approach to organizing, so much so that I interviewed her for this blog.  Recently I asked Nettie to share some of her favorite posts with me, so I could in turn share them with our readers. Here’s one, appropriately posted in January (last year).

Next  on my list was a visit to the Marcie Lovett’s blog. We recently shared this post by Marcie, a professional organizer based in Olney, Maryland, in which she shares her favorite tip about “how to begin” decluttering, on our Facebook page. (No, I am NOT going to tell you what the tip is: just visit her blog! It’s easy. 🙂 )

I have often also enjoyed and appreciated  posts by “Erin the Organizer,”  a Chicago-based professional organizer.  Here’s a nice one she did this month, with suggestions for good projects to tackle in January.

I hope you’ll enjoy learning from these experts! Wishing you all a productive, happy January, and all the best in your organizing efforts!

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

Gifts That Have Meaning

Gifts that have meaning_art

Much has been made lately – the topic seems to come up every year – about gift giving in this season of so much stuff. Do we buy too much? Do we have too much? Are gifts really necessary?

Here’s a look at some gifts that have meaning and resonate far beyond the gift itself. A gift of a donation to one of these groups, or to so many other worthy causes, is a gift that can have a lasting impact.

Gifts that help the environment and its creatures

Although we can and do applaud the United Nations Climate Agreement that was signed this month in Paris, there is still much to be done to protect our planet.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $2-for$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, triples the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer Foundation helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Projects that help people here and around the world

A favorite place of mine to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here are a few suggestions from his columns over last few years.

Red Cloud Indian School is a private Lakota and Jesuit school educating 600 children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On the website, click on the Gift Shop for handmade items.

Buy a rat! In Angola, “Hero Rats” have been trained to sniff out land mines and save the lives of humans who used to do the job. At Apopo Foundation you can adopt a rat for $7 a month.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

A gift of food for those in need

We all love to eat and the season from Thanksgiving through the New Year provides so many opportunities to eat wonderful food – and often to overdo it. Not everyone gets to share in this bounty. Here is a way to help those in need.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season by choosing gifts with meaning. Let’s make a difference this holiday season by choosing to help those in need.

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

3 Things That Make Downsizing Hard, and Tips for Getting Through It…

1. All those memories. 

Lots of people get stuck before they ever get started with downsizing, because the whole house is just so full of memories. Or so it seems.

But it’s not actually the house that holds the memories, it’s our minds–and our hearts. Often aided by pictures, letters, pieces of furniture, and so on.

You can keep the memories, and you can keep some of the pictures and letters too. You can even keep some of the furniture (though you may not want to keep it all). And you can still get rid of a lot of the things in the house, and even the house itself.

You’re not saying goodbye to the memories. You’re saying goodbye to some of the things in your house, so you can make room for other things, or just to free up some space. That’s not a bad thing. And there are ways to go about it that will actually help seal, preserve and celebrate the memories that are so important to you.

2. All those things.

Some of the things are (or may be) valuable. Some of them are clearly not (like chemicals under the sink and in the basement and garage), but you don’t know what to do with them.

People in the process of emptying a home that’s been lived in for a long time come up against a myriad of perplexing questions, many of which require expert knowledge that most people just don’t have. (Is this a valuable antique or a Goodwill donation? Can I throw this in the trash, or is there a better way to dispose of it? and so on…)

You can hire experts to take care of it all for you. Or you can do it yourself. (Or better yet, with the help of family and friends.) If you do the latter, you’ll need plenty of time to sort through it all. So start now! Do just a little bit every day. Or focus on it once a week.

Figure out a schedule that works for you, and then ignore the voice that keeps whispering (or shouting), “This is impossible!”

It’s not. You can do it!

3. Someone could use this…”

People make fun of this one, but they shouldn’t. It’s true that a lot of the things we don’t want anymore could be well used by someone else. Clothing, furniture, kitchen items, even old photographs and magazines.  Finding “new homes” for the things you’re discarding is not crazy, it’s admirable. Some things may help those in need. Other things may help preserve local history for the community, or provide materials for community groups of various kinds. Given enough time and thought there’s a way to find good new uses for many of the things cluttering up your home.

But you have to actually do it!

Our newly updated e-book has very specific advice for how to approach these three common obstacles to downsizing the home; helpful tips from others who have been through the process; and links to other resources that can help you find the expertise you lack as you work your way through this process.

Professional organizers and senior move managers, as well as lots of other people, have told us that our book helped them and their families or clients–we hope maybe it will help you or someone you know as well.

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

New e-book for a new year offers new approach to decluttering

“Aren’t there really just three words that need to be said about this topic?” my son asked. “Throw? It? Out?”

And I had to tell him, no. Those are not the only three words needed to help people who want to get rid of clutter take what is for some of them a really big step–and actually do it.

And yet this is more or less the advice offered by many of the books that promise to help people with too much stuff get rid of it.

In fact, the central message of many decluttering books can really be boiled down to a refrain that goes something like this: “Throw it out, throw it out, throw it out!” These books offer all kinds of perky rules for getting rid of the clutter: “If you haven’t worn it in a year…” “If it isn’t either useful or beautiful…” And so on.

The problem is, many people actually can’t “just throw it out.” They need help in overcoming a variety of both practical and emotional reasons behind their reluctance, and a book that tells them to “just do” what they can’t do is not going to help them get rid of all the excess stuff that is cluttering up their lives. It is just going to add one more decluttering book to their shelves, where it will gather dust.

The problem with many decluttering books is that they don’t really address the reasons why people have difficulty parting with certain kinds of objects.

What if the “dress you haven’t worn in a year” is one that belonged to your grandmother, that she wore on her wedding day? You don’t want to keep it, but does it really go into a paper bag, and off to the thrift store, along with your children’s outgrown playclothes from last year? Or is there a better new home for it, and if so, where might that be?

What if the sculpture your daughter made for you when she was in first grade is, to be honest, neither very useful nor all that beautiful (at least anymore), but you still are loathe to let go of it?

What if you have absolutely no emotional attachment to the electronic gadgets cluttering up your basement or closet, but you know that it is ecologically irresponsible to just throw them in the trash? What do you do with them?

What if you can admit that you don’t want a particular item, but you are haunted by the thought that “someone could use this”?

All too often, these are the kinds of stumbling blocks that keep people–good people, kind people, well-meaning people, and people who really would like to live in a less cluttered home–trapped in an ever-growing pile of things.

Well, we have good news for the New Year: our new ebook is available, and we think it has something to offer that most decluttering books do not.

Our book has helpful suggestions for ways to approach each of the kinds of obstacles listed above, suggestions that professional organizers, senior move managers, and just “ordinary people” have told us really work to help break the impasse, to get things heading out the door without breaking the hearts, or the spirit, of the people who find letting go hard to do.

Our book acknowledges and respects the fact that sometimes there are very good reasons why people hesitate to just “throw it out,”  and offers ways to help get them over the hurdle, to get those things to places where they can be appreciated, used, or properly and responsibly disposed of. It also has great basic advice for how to properly care for the things that you don’t want to get rid of–family heirlooms, for example–and our list of resources shows those who need more detailed information where they can find it.

We hope you’ll take a look at it and that maybe it can help you–or someone you know–to overcome all the good reasons for not just “throwing it out”–and find ways to live a less cluttered life as well.

Now that would make for a Happy New Year, wouldn’t it?

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

My Brother, a Keeper


In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about how, when it comes to downsizing, the world seems to be divided, more or less, into two main categories of people—Keepers and Throwers.

My brother, who died two months ago, was emphatically a Keeper.

Was he a hoarder? Certainly he exhibited some of the traits connected with hoarding, and certainly he kept a great many things that it made no sense to keep. I know this because after his death I spent considerable time helping my sister and brother-in-law empty out the very large storage locker into which he had loaded many of his possessions several years ago, when his illness (cancer) forced him to move out of his apartment and into assisted living.

There was a lot of junk in there, things that just simply needed to be thrown away or recycled, and never should have been kept in the first place.  Through the years of his slow demise, my sister tried—gently—to help him see this, and offered to help him do it, but he was intransigent on the subject. She—bless her heart—did not push him beyond the point of his tolerance. She could see that he had too many problems, and didn’t need one more.

That meant that the task would be left to us. She knew that, and she accepted the burden. I live far away and wasn’t able to help with the bulk of it. But I went there after he died to help as much as I could, for as long as I could. Though my sister is more of a Thrower than I am, we worked well together, and the process of cleaning out that storage unit was strangely therapeutic, I think for both of us, in a way that is hard to explain. Certainly we both felt close to my brother and to each other while we were doing it. I know I felt that we were helping him in a way that he needed help, and that he would have appreciated.

Many people feel resentful of the Keepers in their lives, especially when the Keepers leave behind storage lockers (and houses) full of stuff for their survivors to go through. I do understand their resentment, and I suppose it is pretty well justified. But, though it was a tedious, dreadful, and very sad task going through all the things my brother had left behind, I have to say I didn’t feel an ounce of resentment.

For one thing, though not as far along on the continuum as my brother was, I am a Keeper too. (So were my mother, and to a lesser degree my father, and many other members of my family. It runs in the family.) So I’m not inclined to cast stones in that direction.

For another thing,  I came to understand even better than I already had, as I read through some of the notebooks my brother had left behind, that people who can’t get rid of things really can’t do it, for some reason, or more precisely, reasons—psychological, emotional, maybe even physiological/biochemical. Not without just the right kind of help, anyway, and sometimes not at all. The process is so incredibly difficult and confusing for them that it may as well be impossible. It is also so deeply upsetting that they would rather bear the scorn of others and risk all kinds of social, emotional, and sometimes even legal consequences, than do what everyone knows needs to be done. People who are challenged in this way need understanding, help, and compassion–not criticism or ridicule.

So, yes, there was a lot of junk in that storage unit. But there was also a lot of material there that was definitely not junk—never-worn clothing, for example, and boxes and boxes and boxes of books. There were even a few (I think) valuable antique items—board games my father grew up with, for example, still in pristine condition. Also the first tricycle for both me and my brother. Wooden rocking horses made by my grandfather (now delivered to a cousin who has young grandchildren who are enjoying them). And hundreds? Yes, perhaps hundreds, of the die-cast model cars he adored.

Each of these categories of things represents a different reason for why some people have difficulty in getting rid of things. Compulsive shopping habits. Deep emotional attachment to the memories that objects evoke. The knowledge that “someone could use this.” The fantasy of  “someday” (“Someday I will have a house where I can keep all these things I love. Someday I will be able to read these books. Someday I will not have cancer anymore.”)

Then there was the note I found somewhere in all the confusion, a note he had written to Santa Claus when he was a little boy:

Dear Santa, I thought you might be hungry, so I left a snack. Would you hide my present in the liveing room. Would you sign your name here             . Your friend, John Hulstrand  P.S. The snack is on the bar, and in the wholes [sic] of the carton Christmas tree.

In the blank space he had drawn a rectangle, in which Santa had signed his name in handwriting that was uncannily very much like my mother’s.

This was one of many small gifts we discovered in the process of going through the things he left behind, my sister and I, in the weeks before Christmas last December.

We had to get rid of most of his personal papers. I gave some of the letters back to the people who had written them. Sometimes I felt a pang of regret or doubt as I placed things in the recycling bag, most of the time I did not. But I kept the letter to Santa.

I brought it home and put it in the book in which I am storing our family’s Christmas memories, and put it in the section for this year. This is the year we lost my brother at Christmas-time: this is the year we found his letter to Santa.

Does that one precious note to Santa justify the whole huge storage unit full of deferred decisions that my brother left behind? Does it make the fact that he also kept years’ worth of old bills and receipts that we had to plow through make more sense, somehow?

No, it doesn’t.

Could we have lived happily for the rest of our lives without having discovered that letter? Yes, we could have.

Did it provide some special insight into my brother’s life that nothing else could have? I can’t honestly say it did.

All the same, I’m glad that first my mother, and then he, kept it all those years. And I’m glad I was able to find it, and put it, once again, in a safe place.

me and my brother

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