Letting Go – The Savers

“before” image of my client’s desk

“You mean that candy wrapper
shouldn’t go in the scrapbook?”
~ my client, New Jersey

Okay, so my client was half-joking when the above statement was made.  He uttered these words a few days ago as we reached the end of five full days of cleanout – what I’ve been calling the Office Cleanout Extravaganza – that took place as Phase One of the home office redesign.

It was an incredibly good feeling to hear him make that statement with a smile on his face, knowing that he was finally at the stage where he could finish up on his own, without nudging, and without the swell of regret he initially felt when having to negotiate the state of every random piece of paper we found in the office.

Last week I brought up the subject of hoarding – an extreme form of “stuff-gathering” that affects millions of Americans. My client’s not on the far end of that spectrum, but he’s close. And I’m not trained in this field (as a designer, or as a psychologist) but I do know that when stuff starts to overtake one’s life, it needs to be brought under control.  So when I started working with him and his wife on the redesign of their home office I knew – from my first visit to the space – that we would need to spend a lot of time sorting through everything first before we even started planning the design of their new space.

This week I’d like to talk a bit about where to start – how do you assess items that have a strong emotional attachment for someone without making them feel threatened that the items will be thrown out without care or caution?  It’s tough.  But I have learned a few things working with him.  Let me state that with every client there is some degree of organizing and sorting of items at the beginning of the project.  But in some cases – like this one – it’s a bit more difficult and items need to be “reviewed” (a kind way of identifying this exercise) in order to move forward.  Here is my informal list of steps for you (the client) and your designer / friend to take when approaching a project on the high end of stuff-saving:

Step 1: Find A Helper

Besides the fact that it’s almost impossible to objectively evaluate your own stuff, tackling an organization project on your own can be overwhelming.  A Helper lends an outside perspective to the project, acts as a sounding board when deciding the fate of individual items throughout the project, and, in general, having a Helper just makes the whole process a lot more fun.

Now, who makes for a good Helper? The ideal is to hire someone (Professional Organizer, Designer, or Assistant) so you are kept on-task and take the job seriously.  If you can’t or don’t want to take this route, a friend or neighbor is a good option – a mutual exchange of services is a great way for each of you to benefit from each other’s free labor.

Now, is there anyone who doesn’t make a good Helper?  Yes.  And here is where I will provide a very strong word of caution – a Helper can be a friend, neighbor, or hired professional.  A Helper can not be a spouse, partner, or any type of significant other.  Trust me, this stuff gets messy, and trying to sort it out with this individual will only lead to fights, broken negotiations, and backward steps in the process.  Hire out, or exchange labor to get the task done.

Step 2: Assess the Space

Once you find your Helper, pick a day (perhaps a Saturday morning), prepare your best coffee, and pour a cup for each of you as fuel for the first real assessment of the space. You, as the client, have done your part, and now it’s time for the Helper to step up.  Helpers, here’s some advice for you.

During this step, you want to get an overall picture of what you are trying to accomplish – take my client as an example. During my first visit, we talked about his goals for the space (he recently retired and needs a fully-functioning home office, his wife’s the one in charge of the family finances and records and needs space to complete these tasks) and determine why the current setup isn’t working.  There’ll be a lot of talking during this phase so have your clipboard or notebook handy as you hear what’s not working.

Next, you want to get down to specifics – to really figure out what’s currently occupying the space.  Pick one part of the room to start – the desk drawers for example – open them up and have a look.  Be kind and thoughtful of the space as you do so, knowing that exposure leads to excuses (“oh, that drawer isn’t usually that messy” or “I know it may look cluttered but I know exactly where everything is in there”).  We all have dirty laundry somewhere, and you have now exposed your friend’s “unmentionables”, so reassure him/her that you get it, you’ve been there…you get the picture.  Laughing and joking help things along quite a bit during this step.

Start to jot down what is currently in the drawers and ask questions about the contents. (Do you use these items frequently?  What doesn’t work about this particular space? What would work better for you?).  Start like this and slowly make your way around the space. To keep the process going, I suggest simply taking notes as you move from one area to another – keep your friend talking, you can worry about organizing all of your notes later. This process may take a while, so approach the task with this in mind (along with your large cup of coffee).

Step 3: The Three-Day Approach

Armed with the knowledge of what currently occupies the space, you’re ready to get down to it.

Everyone approaches a project differently, but during this step there are a few givens:

  • Have the tools of the trade at the ready – several Sharpies (for color-coding and bold identification), binder clips (several sizes) and rubber bands, sticky notes, notepad and/or computer, and yes – a large box of trash bags.
  • Choose a few easy tasks first – if your friend hasn’t emptied the trash in two weeks, or you notice a pile of shredding that needs to be done, you can start with that.  It’s simple, requires no thought, and will get the ball rolling.  You can also choose to assign these tasks to your friend as you start to tackle another area of the room.
  • As the plan unfolds, make it explicit – whatever you decide to tackle on that first day, and every subsequent day, be sure to call it out to your friend. Remember, you are in someone else’s space, so make sure they know what you are doing, as you are doing it, and take a temperature-check along the way. They should feel in control of the project (even if it’s the other way around). You want to help them reach their goal, not push them to the point that they change their mind about the project entirely. If they seem uncomfortable or hesitant to make a decision, that’s okay.  Just move on to something else for the time being to keep the momentum going.

I suggest the three-day approach for a reason.  Mostly, I find that three full days (or sessions) allow you to get a good sense of the specifics of the project along with your friend’s ability to make decisions on each task or item.  As you move through each day and your friend becomes more comfortable with the project, attitudes may start to shift – decisions that were a bit reserved on day one suddenly start to come a bit more easily. Items that were on hold get put in a decision pile. And you’ll start to get a sense of how much can truly be accomplished in the end.  Calling out small victories is important during this stage (statements like, “hey, the top drawer is done!” can really go a long way). At some point, you’ll be able to push your friend a bit more – as the goal comes into sharper focus, you can dangle that carrot to encourage decision-making.  But always keep in mind how personal this is for your friend (or client) – he/she is trusting you to help with this task, so respect for that must be kept top-of-mind.

Next week we’ll carry this discussion into the next phase, when organizing and inventory come into play.

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