Winter in the Pacific Northwest. The near-constant cloud cover brings the sky low and drapes the landscape in shadows. Often it’s dark when we wake to leave for work and dark once more by the time we return home. For most of us, the colder, wetter, gloomier weather means more time spent indoors. In January, once the festivities of the holidays are over, the winter season can mean a rest from activity and an increase in more contemplative pursuits, like reading by the fire with a warm cup of tea. Just as we are driven indoors, our thoughts may be marked by a greater deal of interiority and reflection.
This season often brings with it time to notice those things that might benefit from change, both within our dwellings and within ourselves. More time inside means you might notice crowded cupboards, broken drawers, and cluttered countertops. And as you reflect on the previous year and look forward to the year ahead, you might also notice areas of your life where you desire more simplicity, balance, or healthier habits.
If you’re looking to make space for change in the New Year, but you’re not sure where to start, or if the thought of getting organized is overwhelming, it might be wise to call in a professional for encouragement and advice.
I joined Monika Kristofferson, professional organizer and productivity consultant, at her home office in Lake Stevens. Over a cup of tea, we discussed strategies for making space in our homes and in our lives for accomplishing personal goals in the New Year.
At one point during our interview, I couldn’t help marveling over her smart, practical advice. “Your friends must love you,” I blurted out. She’s the kind of person who knows just what to say or do to solve a problem without being a know-it-all about it, and she is as compassionate toward messes and mess-makers as she is vigilant about getting things cleaned up and sorted out.
According to Kristofferson, January is an excellent time for this sort of work. “I think you get through the holidays and the year has just wrapped up,” Kristofferson said, “And it does seem like a natural time to think about where you’re at and where you want to be. It’s an exciting and promising time to set goals.”
SIMPLIFY YOUR SPACE
If you want to make changes to your home and to your life, it helps to make space and take stock. Simplifying things can help you see more clearly. It’s an important first step for getting organized and setting goals, and it even saves you time. Kristofferson shared this terrifying statistic from Mary Anne Lessley’s File Anything In Your Home: “When someone must search 15 minutes per day for an important document or possession, they lose 11, eight-hour days per year.”
Kristofferson recommends targeting common trouble spots for clutter. If you go after these organizing “big wins” that require minimal effort, you’ll experience the reward of visible progress. Trust us, it will feel really good to do these simple things.
Many people begin their day by stumbling into the kitchen and fixing a cup of coffee or tea. When you’re still bleary-eyed and in need of caffeine, you want selecting a mug from the cupboard to be as simple as possible. You shouldn’t have to worry about setting off an avalanche of precariously stacked mugs.
“It sounds silly,” Kristofferson said, “But people tend to have an unmanageable amount of coffee cups that are just spilling out of the cupboard, even though they have favorites that they prefer to use on a daily basis.”
Select only the mugs you need and donate the rest. If you have a large family or regularly host large tea parties or don’t wash dishes frequently and really need extras, consider purchasing a cabinet shelf organizer, which will provide an additional level of storage for neatly and safely stacking coffee cups.
Likewise, a calm and tidy vanity for getting ready in the morning can help set a positive outlook for your day. Many people store make-up in a single drawer or basket, which makes it a great project to tackle in just an hour or two.
The clutter of unused products can quickly add up. Start by throwing away duplicates and expired products. No need to keep clumpy mascara or old, thick nail polish. Next, part ways with lipsticks, eye shadows, and liners that just didn’t work out. You shouldn’t feel obliged to keep something you won’t use just because you spent money on it.
“Women tend to get samples or purchase new colors that don’t work out,” Kristofferson said. “By just pulling all of that out and seeing the volume that you have and keeping only what you need, it will help you feel better first thing in the morning if your drawer is in order. And you’ll be able to find things faster, which will make your morning routine more efficient.”
Once you have your make-up storage under control, you might just feel compelled to take a quick peek underneath the sink, too, where shampoo, hair spray, and lotion bottles can accumulate. Again, don’t feel bad about the products that didn’t work out. Better to remove them from your space, and feel good about using the products you love.
Most people pause to collect the contents of their mailbox before entering their home at the end of the day. Once inside, you may feel too tired to sort through bills, catalogs, and credit card offers. Stop this energy drain by going after its source. Even if you don’t feel ready to sort through existing stacks of paper lurking in your home office or filing cabinet, you can still take several easy steps now to reduce the amount of paper coming into your home.
“Mail is its own beast,” Kristofferson said. “That’s probably the number one thing I hear from people. They’re overwhelmed by all the paper.”
Several popular websites make it easy to unsubscribe from junk mail. Visit dmachoice.org for junk mail and catalogchoice.org to manage communications from retailers. There are also resources online for controlling unwanted mail if you have an aging parent or loved one living in your home. For example, there are do-not-contact lists for caregivers and persons who are deceased. “Often people receive mail for a deceased relative for many years,” Kristofferson said, which can be both overwhelming and distressing.
FORM HEALTHY HABITS
Kristofferson is quick to caution that simplifying your space isn’t achieved overnight. It’s important to break big goals into manageable, achievable steps. Aim to develop processes and habits that help you achieve your goals over time.
“Organizing is a process not an event,” she said. “Once you organize a space it will not stay that way unless you maintain that space.”
One of Kristofferson’s genius recommendations for maintaining an organized space is to keep a box or bag that’s designated at all times to collect items you no longer use or wear. Periodically take this box or bag to charity while you’re out running errands. You don’t even have to wait until it’s full. Encourage your family members and housemates to use the box or bag, as well. It’s even a good life lesson for kids to develop the habit of periodically decluttering, according to Kristofferson.
The best thing about making good decisions about your stuff and your life is that it benefits your neighbors and the planet, too. If you no longer appreciate, use, or wear something, then it’s better to pass it on to someone who needs it. Kristofferson provides her clients with a helpful list of community organizations that accept donations. Be sure to send your stuff where it will do the most good. Similarly, by reducing the amount of junk mail you receive, you help conserve natural resources.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to get rid of things,” Kristofferson said, “because it cost them a lot of money to purchase them.”
She encourages clients to develop preventative purchasing habits. Before you make a purchase, consider how you will use and store it. “They say we wear 20 percent of our clothing,” Kristofferson said. “It causes stress, frustration, and feelings of guilt if you have to bypass the other 80 percent of items taking up space in your closet to access what you want to wear.”
The key here is to purchase and keep items that you love. As Marie Kondo puts it in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.”
Finally, as with any habit, sometimes you need a good coach to help you really develop. It’s important to recognize when you would benefit from the help of a professional. Kristofferson said that clients often reach out to her during times of transition. Perhaps a loved one has passed away, maybe they are going through a divorce, or downsizing after children have moved out, or consolidating homes with a new partner.
One of the key benefits of working with a professional organizer is that they are a neutral party. When you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and stuck, it’s hard to make progress alone and you need support. But family members who want to be helpful can sometimes cause feelings of guilt, shame, or anger that complicate the process of change.
“When I’m working with someone, I’m checking in with them to gauge their emotions. I try to alleviate tension and encourage them with photos of the progress we’re making. I want to be a cheerleader,” Kristofferson said. “And I never push them to keep working, if I can tell they would benefit from a break.” In fact, she recommends only decluttering and organizing in short sessions, up to two or three hours at a time.
Eliminating the material clutter taking up space in your home can be instructive. It may just become a habit of mind and a way of being.
As it turns out, learning how to say “no” to the objects you no longer need or want is good practice for saying “no” to other aspects of your life that no longer serve you. As Barbara Hemphill puts it in her book Taming the Paper Tiger at Home, “Clutter is postponed decisions.” Organizing your home by making decisions rather than postponing them can actually empower you to feel more confident taking charge and making decisions about your life.
Kristofferson has created two journals for her clients to use as tools for change: A Small Journal of BIG Goals and Little Book of Balance. They are covered with inspiration. Literally. Their covers bear phrases like: breathe deeply, embrace selfcare, love yourself, dream big, set goals, and create good habits.
In fact, maybe you should pause right now and re-read that list. Take a deep breath. Now, don’t you feel inspired to begin?
In her journal, Little Book of Balance, Kristofferson writes, “One of the keys to living a balanced life is embracing the difficult task of saying ‘No,’ when it’s appropriate. The second key is learning to say, ‘Yes,’ when it’s appropriate.”
At the start of the year, it is a good time to reflect on what that means for you. Perhaps it means limiting interactions with a toxic friend who drains your energy. Maybe it means excusing yourselves from volunteer commitments that no longer excite you.
Just as she imparts wisdom on parting ways with stuff, Kristofferson offers tips on how to say no gracefully. Among my favorites: “Thank you, but this isn’t a good fit for me right now,” and “I would love to take that on after I drop something else from my schedule.”
Resolving to cook healthier meals, exercise more frequently, or sleep better means little if you are trying to add to your routine without making space in your schedule to accomplish these goals. Just as with managing stuff, it’s important to both add and remove things from your life for balance.
Finally, here is some practical, compassionate advice: “Remember, you don’t have to be perfect,” Kristofferson said. “Being organized is about having systems so you can restore order quickly.”
When it comes to simplifying, finding balance, and developing healthy habits, the goal is never perfection. So as you consider resolutions this New Year, resolve to make progress. And remember, often with goal setting it’s just as important to think about how you want to feel as it is to contemplate what you wish to accomplish.
With each day of the New Year, the light is returning. In the midst of fog and chilly rain it’s possible to overlook it, to miss the signs of daylight increasing by minutes as the sun rises earlier and sets later. Make this a time for reflection, and find the inspiration you need to embrace the promise of the year ahead.