Ah, September… for many, it’s “back to school” time, whether for your own kiddos, grandkids, or the way your morning commute is affected by the change in traffic.

Remember the feeling of a clean slate, having brand-spankin’-new notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils with erasers so clean they didn’t make smudges? That’s why I deem September the perfect month for goal setting and to-do lists. Most folks traditionally think January is the best time, but there’s a lot of “Why bother, I’m just gonna fail” karma associated with New Year resolutions. I’m all about using September to focus on figuring out what needs to get done and doing it.

To that end, On September First I will embark on what I call my “procrastination diet” by compiling a new “30 Things in 30 Days” list. You can read a previous blog post about it here, but in summary, I use an app called “Wunderlist(which was supposed to turn into Microsoft’s To-Do app over a year ago, but is still functioning as Wunderlist) that syncs with my computer and smartphone. It makes a little sound when I check off a completed task AND I can also choose to see the completed tasks crossed off at the bottom of my list. It’s a convenient and gratifying way to hold myself accountable and see what I’ve accomplished.

As soon as I get the Home Solutions’ August edition of the monthly newsletter sent out (TODAY! I vow it’s happening TODAY!) I will work on my to-do list for September. The list doesn’t have to be all biggie-diggie in scope; mine is always a blend of small, medium, and large stuff.

A show of hands: Who’s going on the procrastination diet with me? C’mon, it’ll be fun! Let’s do it, y’wanna?

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It’s not what you think…I don’t have an “organized” garden, nor do I have organized spreadsheets listing all the perennials, the kazillion varieties of hosta, or even the annuals I need to buy… annually. Gardening is a passion of mine that I approach more with emotion and instinct than organization.

BUT! (yes, that’s a big “but,” not to be confused with a “big butt.”) I do approach the process of tending our gardens the same way I encourage my clients to tackle large organizing projects – using BABY STEPS. Yep, baby steps.

When Mother Nature finally delivered Spring weather to us, there was much for a gardener to do: rake, gather winter’s abandoned trash, weed, edge, thin certain plants, as well as some general examining and pondering. If I were to look at that as one giant task, I’d feel completely overwhelmed. Instead, I mentally separate our garden beds into sixteen sections. By breaking things down into sixteen parts and then sub-categorizing each part into tasks, it becomes much less intimidating. I tackle tasks based on my available time as well as the mood I’m in. See? Not particularly organized, but certainly more doable.

My husband and I are homebodies for sure. We enjoy eating dinner on the patio or relaxing in the hammock, cooled by a gentle breeze.  We work to entice birds such as hummingbirds, orioles, and catbirds to visit the feeders and flowers. We’ve even got two raised beds filled (this year) with kale, a variety of salad greens, basil, three kinds of peppers, tomatoes, and snap peas. Gardening isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure is mine.

If you’d like to learn more about my “baby step” approach to tackling otherwise overwhelming projects, you can check out this blog post.

An even dozen – that’s how many senior moves Home Solutions has handled for clients so far this year. This includes services such as creating a floor plan, hiring movers, packing, overseeing the moves, unpacking and settling things in the new space, as well as packing items for shipping to family members living out of state. It also includes handling the disposal of hazardous waste materials and outdated or unused medications, delivering boxes of papers for shredding, and taking loads of items to donation sites. All in a day’s work for Home Solutions.

In addition to handling these projects and other organizing and decluttering jobs, one stands out as more personal than any other. In March, I moved my mom into assisted living. This was a difficult, but necessary decision expedited by Mom’s declining memory issues and her inability to continue living independently and safely in her own home. The plan had been to begin the process slowly in the spring. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…

On February 7th, I visited the site I felt would be the best fit for Mom, and I was right. It had everything she’d need, and it was less than five minutes from my front door. On February 13th, I took Mom to tour the site. On March 5th, I moved her in. In the meantime, she and I sorted through personal belongings, and after trying on clothes that no longer fit, we shopped for a new wardrobe. I purchased furniture and other necessities for her new, downsized space.

Once she moved out of her home, there were carloads of items donated, bag loads of trash disposed of, and boxes of contents for family members, as well as photos and photo albums moved to our house for future sorting. Once that was done, I set up, cleaned, and priced the remaining contents for a small estate sale. The house was emptied and sold in a month’s time.

The biggest reason I was able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time was because I faithfully wore the hat of a senior move manager throughout the process. I heeded my own advice and put blinders on so as not to become overwhelmed looking at the big picture, or distracted by too many tasks at once. Instead, I focused on taking daily steps – baby steps – towards the finish line.

I’m happy to report that Mom is quite content and happy in her new place. She’s always been a very social person and hadn’t realized how isolated she’d become at home, despite having friends and activities in her life. She’s eating much healthier now, three “home-cooked” healthy meals every day. Her medications are managed for her, no more mixups or missed doses. She goes to exercise class each day, attends movie night, participates in the daily social circles, and even played Wii bowling last week!

This was not an easy decision, nor one we, as a family, entered into lightly. My out-of-town brothers were very involved in and supportive of my efforts throughout the transition.

If you’re wondering if it’s time to “have the talk” with a loved one, here are some suggestions:

  • Take a peek “behind the scenes” at home, looking in closets, cupboards, and drawers:
    • Are clothes kept clean and somewhat tidy?
    • Is there expired food in the freezer, refrigerator, or pantry?
    • Are medications up to date and being taken as prescribed?
    • Is the daily mail being opened and processed?
  • Talk to friends and neighbors about their observations. I was surprised at the number of people from her community who attended the estate sale and expressed relief to know she’d moved to assisted living.
  • What’s the status of finances? Many seniors are taken advantage of by charities seeking multiple donations per year; observe the number of return address labels, free notepads and calendars lying around.

Sometimes, a family member is emotionally and physically able to participate in the downsizing process. Other times it’s too overwhelming and I recommend getting them situated in their new space before dealing with the house and its contents.

If it’s time to tackle the task of moving a loved one to independent or assisted senior living, you don’t have to put your own life on hold and do it yourself. Visit www.nasmm.org and enter your zip code to find help in your area. Senior Move Managers are skilled and experienced with all aspects of the job, and hiring one can be a real lifesaver.

 

We’ve all had clutter creep into our lives at one point or another. Sometimes it can overwhelm us. Fear not; I bring you tidings of great joy – well, maybe not of great joy, but of hope. No matter how big your clutter issue is, it’s not hopeless.

It might be a month of unopened mail or many years of paper piles, and there comes a point when the idea of tackling it becomes daunting.

Maybe there’s a closet of clothes you may or may not wear or a spare bedroom overflowing with excess clothes, and you can’t muster the energy to separate what fits and is flattering from what’s outdated or no longer appropriate.

Here’s the thing. The longer you wait for the “perfect” time or “enough” time to tackle the entire clutter project – whatever it may be – the longer it’s going to build and build and nothing will get done and trust me when I tell you: clutter has negative energy that affects you mentally, emotionally, and physically. It can damage relationships and sometimes tears families apart.

Instead of making a vague New Year’s resolution to “get more organized” or “tackle all the clutter,” try this: start the year by breaking down those big clutter projects into specific, smaller, manageable projects. Clutter’s ability to overwhelm you diminishes when you chip away and make progress. Remember that fable about the tortoise and the hare? It’s true: Slow and steady can win the race.

Instead of negatively thinking, “I’ll never find the four hours I need to open and process my backlog of mail,” try this: “Each day I will open and process today’s mail PLUS ten pieces from that big ol’ pile.”

If there are paper piles everywhere, gather ‘em up. Fill a bin or two or ten. Start with broad categories:  Shred/Recycle/Toss/File/Pay/To Do and dig in. Put on some music that calms or energizes you and focus for a set period of time. See how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes and try to break your record by doing a little more tomorrow. Instead of just watching your favorite TV show, use that as a timer and sort papers. TV AND progress – win-win!

Don’t focus on the entire closet or roomful of clothing. Get up 15 minutes earlier each morning to try on three or four items. Decide if it’s keep, sell, or donate, then move on with your day. Wash, rinse, repeat.

If it’s a hodgepodge of clutter, choose a category and gather “like with like” – all wrapping paper, all books, all seasonal decor, all toys, all garbage – whatever it is, gather it up and attack that clutter one category at a time. Where should those books live? You can’t put something away if it doesn’t have a home…

By incorporating some of these suggestions into your daily routine rather than making vague, doomed-to-fail resolutions, you’ll be creating new habits that will serve you well in the long run and help keep clutter under control.

iStock tall stack of papers

Stacked Files

I work with many clients setting up filing systems and sorting through years and years (and YEARS!) of accumulated papers. The question I’m asked most often is, “How long should I keep paper stuff?”

As a former accountant, I’m comfortable answering. I add this disclaimer, however: when in doubt, seek advice from your tax preparer or financial advisor.

I recommend shredding documents you get rid of in these common categories:

Utility bills: Unless you take a home office deduction, there is no reason on God’s green earth to keep these. You can access your history online. I’ve automated utility bills so I get ZERO in the mail. The only papers in my “utility bills” folder is a bill from each provider with our account number and their emergency contact information.

Bank statements & credit card statements: In theory, you get your statements, you reconcile their numbers with yours and… that’s it. You don’t need to keep the statements.  Pull copies of tax-related cancelled checks and pop them in your “tax return info” folder.

Investment statements: It helps to understand why you keep the ones you keep so you can better understand why it’s ok to get rid of the rest.

Certain investment data is necessary for preparing a tax return. BUT. You only need the annual statement that summarizes investments you bought or sold, interest and dividends you earned, along with details of any contributions or withdrawals to/from IRA accounts that are reportable on your tax return.

Therefore, you can shred monthly or quarterly statements from investment accounts when the new ones arrive.

Keep statements that show purchase details until you sell an investment; you’ll need purchase cost and sale price to calculate a capital gain or loss on your taxes. If your investments have been with the same firm, they’ll have that historical data. If you change firms, give them purchase information for any investments you’re transferring so they have it for future reference.

If the concept of shredding any of these on a monthly basis is too far outside your comfort zone, try keeping one year’s worth and then shred.

Consider signing up for electronic statements for any of the categories I’ve mentioned. (resist the temptation to print or you’re right back where you started!)  You can still file e-statements in an electronic folder, but it significantly cuts down on the daily flow of paper into your life, and who wouldn’t love that?

Save

Save

I don’t know how holiday meals work at your house, but around here we do NOT mess with tradition!pumpkin-pie_thumb.jpg

It actually makes things easier because I know exactly what we’ll be eating – no new recipes to learn, no new ingredients to buy – therefore, I computerize my shopping list for each holiday meal.

My lists are simple Word documents, nothing fancy. I keep notes about the size of the turkey/tenderloin/ham I need depending on the number of guests, and what time to put the pies in the oven.

My Thanksgiving list, in part, looks like this:

Stuffing:

  • ___ 1 bag seasoned croutons
  • ___ 1 carton chicken stock
  • ___ Celery
  • ___ Onion
  • ___ Butter
  • ___ Salt
  • ___ Pepper
  • ___ Sage

Squash:

  • ___ 2 medium-sized butternut squash
  • ___ Butter
  • ___ Brown sugar
  • ___ Nutmeg, cinnamon

Whipped ­­­­­­Cream:

  • ___ 2 cups heaving whipping cream
  • ___ Sugar
  • ___ Vanilla

You get the picture, right? Before I go shopping, I look in the pantry and refrigerator, putting a check mark next to items I already have. As I shop, I check things off the list since I usually spread the shopping out over a few trips.

It might seem silly, but it saves me time AND money. How?

  • I, don’t forget anything, so there are no frantic, last minute trips to the store.
  • I don’t buy items I already have. Spices are expensive, and I don’t need multiple containers of sage.

Speaking of spices, here’s a helpful chart regarding their shelf life.

I’m in favor of anything that makes life easier as we head into the busy holiday season, how about you?

Here’s an interesting NY Times article on clutter with a different spin on it.

Where's the car?

Where’s the car?

I think the author has, to a degree, taken a tongue-in-cheek approach, but I get it. Clutter and “stuff” isn’t an issue… until it is; until the stuff accumulates to the degree and in a way that affects the quality of your life and your ability to function on a daily basis. Do you currently co-exist comfortably with your stuff, or does it cause you stress? Do you invite friends into your home, or are you embarrassed by your clutter? There is no one-size-fits-all rule for how much stuff we should have in our lives.

I love books and have lots of them. But they live on three bookshelves in our living room. Those shelves define how many books I get to keep. Books don’t earn a spot on the shelves until I’ve read them AND enjoyed them, (or disliked them so much, I must keep them for reference, should someone try to convince me of their goodness) so unread books live in the two beautiful baskets – my reading runway, so to speak – they’re waiting patiently to be chosen. In order to make room for newly-read books on the shelves, I periodically clear out a few and donate them to the library’s book sale. Some people like to get books from  the library. Yay them. I don’t. I like – no, need – to own the books I read. Quirky? Maybe, but that’s how it is with me and books.

A simplified version of the criteria I suggest for assessing stuff when working with a client goes something like this:

  • Do you love it?
  • Do you use it?
  • Do you have the space to keep it/properly store it?

If you love your stuff, if it brings you joy, if you come home at the end of a long, hard day and revel in the presence of your stuff, rock on. Don’t get rid of things just because a magazine article says you should. By the same token, don’t hang on to stuff that weighs you down, causes anxiety or guilt, or is preventing you from sitting on the comfortable chair you know is under there somewhere.

password securityDoes the idea of changing all your online passwords overwhelm you? Take a deep breath and remember my mantra: Baby steps.

If you have dozens and dozens of online accounts for things like banking, investing, shopping, playing, music, watching movies, social media… set a goal: change five or ten a day, a week…whatever works for you, but change them.

If you’ve got a cheat sheet for keeping them all straight, you should “password protect” that document if it’s stored on your computer. Don’t display your passwords on sticky notes stuck to your computer monitor or in a folder labeled, “COMPUTER PASSWORDS,” which is the equivalent of a flashing neon sign directing someone to your list.

Here is a link to an article from CBS News written in December 2013, offering some tips on how to create secure passwords. One suggestion that appears in just about every article I’ve read says do NOT reuse the same password over and over again, especially for email, banking, and social media accounts.

Microsoft used to offer a free site where you could test the strength of your password, but they charge for that service now.  Kaspersky offers an educational option to test strength without typing in an actual password, just something that mimics the format you use.

The bottom line? The effort you put forth to protect yourself online will undoubtedly be time well spent.

People sometimes assume that as a professional organizer, every aspect of my existence must be, well, organized. A lot of it is, but life happens and things fall through the cracks, even for me.

photo albums

Right before the holidays, hubby went to the cabinet that houses our photo albums – one album per year – and couldn’t find anything more recent than mid-2009. “That’s not possible!” is what I wanted to say, but the albums didn’t lie. I hadn’t printed any photos since June 2009; that’s…holy cow, four and a half years of photos that needed to be uploaded to the computer and organized into folders, then uploaded again to Shutterfly, the online photo storage and printing site I use.

Instead of letting the magnitude of the job overwhelm me, I tried to mentally break it down into manageable segments:

Part 1: upload everything from the camera and cell phone to the computer
Part 2: sort the uploaded photos into half-year folders for easier handling and identification
Part 3: upload the contents of those folders to Shutterfly
Part 4: order a copy of each photo (minus the duds that got deleted, of course!)

 Right after the holidays, I got started. In less than a week, spending an hour or so at a time, I completed all four parts.

When the order arrived from Shutterfly, there were more than 500 pictures in one very fat envelope. BUT! Thankfully, they were in chronological order so we simply had to slide them into a slot in the appropriate photo album. Hubby and I tackled that job together as we watched Discovery Channel’s mini series, “Klondike.” A glass of wine, a roaring fire, an interesting TV show and a partner to work with turned what initially felt like a monumental undertaking into a fun project.

I just put the finishing touches on the albums, labeling each by year with my label maker. And now, taking my own advice about developing new habits to maintain something that’s recently been organized, I hope to tend to this task twice a year moving forward.

Many of my clients have good intentions of creating the perfect family photo archive by scrapbooking, which adds a whole other dimension to things. However, very few seem to get beyond the point where they spend hundreds of dollars on the scrapbooking supplies. My advice? If there’s a backlog of photos looming in your life, cut yourself a break and just get them organized into albums or boxes with some sort of identifier – either the year, the event, the person or place – and move on. Someday, perhaps you’ll go back and create the scrapbook of your dreams; until then, you’ll at least be able to enjoy the photos and the memories they invoke.

I will spare you the humorous horror of my online search results for an image of “a pile of photos” to use with this blog post. In its misguided eagerness to please, google  gave me “photos of piles” – and when I say “piles” – think in medical terms.

 

I recently posted this tip on the Home Solutions facebook page:

buried in papersHere’s an idea: before you file something away, ask yourself, “Why am I filing this? Do I actually need to keep it for anything?” If the answer is no, work on breaking that habit. It’ll save you time, and it’ll save space in the file cabinet. One good example for many folks is utility bills. Everyone files them, but nobody knows why.

When I present an organizing seminar, I ask folks in the audience, “How many of you file your utility bills after you’ve paid them?” and invariably, hands shoot up all over the room. When I ask them, “Why?” I am routinely met with a roomful of shrugs and quizzical looks.

Sometimes we do things out of habit without re-examining the reason, and the reason for keeping certain papers in our file drawers may be overdue for review.

Perhaps you keep utility bills because you take a home office deduction on your income taxes. However, you can see an on-line history of utility bills paid, so again, why keep the monthly statements?

I stopped getting utility bills, bank and investment statements, and car loan statements in the mail and instead, receive them all online. I reconcile my accounts and pay my bills online, too, so there’s no need for me to print these statements.

If that’s too far out of your comfort zone, how about keeping one year’s worth and shredding with the start of a new year?

When your year-end investment account statement arrives, it has all the information for the year and you no longer need the monthly or quarterly statements, right?

Once you see the transactions on your bank statement, you can shred ATM slips and deposit receipts.

At the end of the year when you get your W-2, you can shred your paystubs.

In my July 23rd blog post, I talk about receipts – which ones to keep and which to toss.

We are inundated with an onslaught of papers on a daily basis. If we reduce the quantity of what we get and what we file by eliminating things we’re keeping out of habit rather than actual need, it’s another small step towards organizing and simplifying our daily lives.