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How I Finally Got Organized and Learned to Love my Closet

I wrote began a long series about my TOTAL INABILITY to have tidiness be a regular guest in my home/car/life. It started with AN OPEN LETTER TO THE EVANGELLICALLY ORGANIZED and ended, well, nowhere, and never because of my aforementioned TOTAL INABILITY TO BE TIDY.

Now? I am a very organized person, in a tidy house that could welcome visitors shamelessly with 0 – 10 mins prep time. I am HAPPIER. I am CALMER. This WORKED for me. Warning: It is a BUTT PAIN. And it may not work for you. *shrug* But if it helps even ONE PERSON who wants to burn their own house down and let the cat poop in the ashes…worth it.

Okay so, to understand if my solution will work for you, you need to know WHY I could not be organized. It is because at any second, I can stop being aware of a physical object, EVEN IF THE OBJECT IS IN MY HAND. I have no control over this phenomenon.

I can be on a mission to go PUT THE REMOTE on the SHELF BY THE TV, a mere four steps away. Two steps in, a THOUGHT will occur to me and my eyes will flip inward and I will go to a Made-Up Place.

Ten minutes later, I’ll find myself in the kitchen, washing an apple I didn’t know I had, with no memory of where the remote went. (Hint: probably inside the bag of apples. Or in the bathroom that I don’t remember visiting. Or on the floor midway between the couch and the shelf.) And I don’t even LIKE apples.

And here I must channel Der Arnahhhllld, because that may sound worrying to some of you:

It really isn’t a toomah unless I have had brain cancer for 40 years. I have ALWAYS been this way. The cost of the FLEET of retainers I left on my lunch tray in High School and threw away could have covered my children’s impending college educations. Does this sound like you?

SO! Systems guaranteed to make folks like us organized do not work, because we cannot reliably pick up an object and take it directly to a designated area and set it down. Like the system where you are supposed to put your keys in the same place every day when you get home—-yeah. I have TRIED to form that habit, but I so often forget my keys exist between USING THEM and stepping inside.

Scott has found my keys in my underwear drawer, in the pet supply cabinet, in the piano bench, and ONCE, after three days of irritating keylessness, in the freezer, under a bag of peas. Twice in the last six months, people have found my YMCA ID scattered like a single petal on the hiking trail I use when I walk over to work out. I forgot I had it in my hand. Now I have to take a bag and sling the bag over my shoulder, where I can forget it exists with no consequences.

My other handicap to organization is that, if I do not PHYSICALLY SEE an object for a few days, it ceases to exist. At my old house, there were cabinets and closets, basement storage rooms, and a 2 car garage with NO ROOM for a car. These areas all sat behind doors I never opened, and I GENUINELY had no clue about what might be in them. In that house, I forgot I owned an air popper so often that at one point we had FOUR of the dern things. Does THIS sound like you?

So, how did I become organized? It was a two-pronged approach.

1) Move to a smaller space. Our new house is just over half the size of our old house, and it has ALMOST NO STORAGE. No garage. No basement. A small closet in each bedroom, a linen closet, and a pantry. A single small attic room for seasonal things like CHRISTMAS deco and my books. It has TONS of built in shelves and glass-fronted cabinetry, so I can SEE most of what I own.

In fact, as we house shopped, our realtor brought us to a house that she believed was perfect for us. It hit almost everything on my list, but I turned it down, immediately. “Too much storage,” I said, and she boggled, sure she had heard me wrong. I eventually chose a house so storage-free that if I buy a new pair of shoes, I have to give a pair away. No room. Which leads me to prong the second.

2) I got rid of 80% of the things I owned. Since I had NO storage in the new house, and since if I PUT a thing in storage, I would forget it existed ANYWAY, this was a no brainer. It was hard to clean out and pack up and reduce—- I found things I LOVED, but then I would say to myself, “SELF, you have had this beloved thing in this box in this room for NINE years and you did not remember it existed until today…You wil be sad to put it in the charity pile, but be at ease – in two weeks, you won’t remember that you gave it away. In three, you won’t remember that you ever owned it.”

Now, after seven months in the new house? The THREE LARGE TRUCK LOADS OF STUFF we gave away to charity, the small truckload of stuff we gave back to my mother, AND the enormous vat of trash we used to ruin earth by putting it all into a landfill—it is all a misty PILE to me.

I can’t have sorrowful nostalgia for that which has ceased to exist for me.

It’s brutal, but if you have the kind of brain I have, and you are tired of chaos and sturm and drang, if you feel like your house owns you instead of you owning it…

THIS. METHOD. WORKS.

Downsizing = Peace, for folks like me. If you stay in your same area, you can save money, even, moving to a smaller home, and all the stuff you give to the Salvation Army will go to people who need it, and it’s a tax deduction.

If you are ALREADY in the smallest space humanly possible, you can skip the move and just get rid of 80% of your belongings.

BONUS: My house looks so NICE—-since the area is so small, we only kept our most favorite pieces of furniture and art. All the “filler” pieces and hand me downs are GONE.

Yes, I still lose things out of my hand, but I find them very quickly, often without help, as there are VERY FEW PLACES they could be that I can’t see just by looking around with my eyes.

And as for the things I DO have put away in closets? Well…

Soon after we moved here, Scott came up to me and said, “Do you know if we have any safety pins?” and then he caught himself and started laughing because I NEVER KNOW what we have and where it might be.

I turned to him and said, “My closet, left side, top shelf, sewing box.”

His jaw dropped so far, his chin hit his knee.

When he could speak, he said. “How on earth…?”

“Baby,” I told him, “I only own 126 things. I know where all of them are.”

Miracle, ya’ll.

18 comments to How I Finally Got Organized and Learned to Love my Closet

  • I’m jealous…unfortunately this strategy will not work for me because my sweet, loving and wonderful man thing is a borderline hoarder with the inability to FORGET anything he owns. He is blessed with prodigious memory loss in every other category except possessions. (PS – Does this post mean there’s a Gangnam video is coming soon?)

  • It’s bizarre to read this while my partner and I are in the middle of this very process, with many of the same aims. I’m glad to hear that there’s light at the end of the decluttering tunnel!

  • Actually, I totally get this. For the first time ever, we live in a big house. Well, big for us. Though, my closet is abysmally tiny. My sister has been house shopping and all I could think was, “If I buy again, I buy smaller.” There’s just too much of it. It gets filled, and then I have all this stuff and I don’t know where the stuff I actually need has gone to.

  • I don’t struggle with organization. I struggle with tidiness. See, my closets are nice and organized as are the dressers, and cabinets and drawers and pantry and fridge and the attic. MY room, on the other hand, is the place where things with no place go to die. I have more things than places to put them and when I straighten, the things with no place go in a bag that gets put in my room (out of sight) to be dealt with later (never happens) resulting in a rather hoarder like state in which there are trenches to walk through the crap that lines the walls. I HATE MY ROOM.

    So I’ve been very slowly ridding myself of things I don’t need or want. I recently thinned out my craft closet and it feels great to get rid of SIX GARBAGE BAGS full of things-I-thought-needed-keeping-at-the-time-I-decided-to-keep-them-only-to-never look-at-them-again. Things like EVERY SINGLE PAPER my kids brought home from their 3 years of preschool each, and five years of elementary school between them.

    I keep thinking I’d like a bigger house. I mean, I’d really like a spare bedroom for my parents or in-laws to stay in when they visit (or my brother to live in whenever he gets fired and needs a place to live), and I’d like for the two rooms my kids occupy to be a little bigger. But then I look around and remember how little we had when we bought this house 9 years ago, and I see how it seems to bulge around the edges. I look at these cute little bungalow type houses and wonder how anyone fits all their things in such a place, and wouldn’t it be nifty to have just the right amount of things for a smaller space?

    So my plan for this year (I refuse to call it a resolution because I believe the actual definition of resolution to be: grandiose plans made to begin a radical change of oneself that will immediately be discarded in favor of cupcakes and chocolate.), is to simplify. SIMPLIFY. It’s my new motto.

  • I love this idea, and I regularly threaten to implement for every other family member. (Bonus: I have three other people plus a dog I can blame when I misplace something.) But what do you do with all your books? Is the attic kind of like your walk-in library? When you buy a new one does an old one have to go? Or are you turning to an ereader to store them?

  • Linda J

    I reached a point where I can say I need nothing. I have found peace with what I have. If I’m not sure then I pass. Then usually a few months pass and I think gee, didn’t I look at a thingy a while ago I wonder if I have one. Most of the time I do. If I have lived this long without the going crazy need for something then I’m good to not need it.

    As far as organized goes, it took me a while to realize that in the chaos of raising 3 rabid a$$ crazy boys I knew that everything important needed a place for it to belong. Need a bandage? go get the wound bag in the bottom kitchen drawer. Tweezers? top bathroom shelf. Flashlight? on hook in hallway and in bedroom. Extension cord? behind iron in towel closet. If nothing else I know where these things are. The same goes for paperwork, sewing supplies, even my kitchen cabinets are like this… Everything has a place and that is where it goes. Is my house clean? HELL NO!!! I’m down to one son at home now and his bi-polar dictates when he gets his stuff off the book shelves. And don’t even get me started on my old man…

    It is nice to know that I’m not the only one who can pick up her purse next to the door and loose it by the time she gets to the car door!!!

  • Wow. That’s me, almost exactly. And we did that once, moved from a nice big house in the city to a tiny townhome in the suburbs. And now we’re busting at the seams (we added 2 children, too). Time to load up a truck and haul it off to Goodwill!

  • jeanette in peculiar

    You just gave me hope.
    And reinforced my Big Plan.

    I once lived in a nice big house. It was always a wreck. Then I got divorced (BEST decision EVER) and moved to a much smaller place. It was always clean. I swore up and down that I never wanted to live in a big house again. Got remarried. (Trumped previous BEST decision EVER.) After a few years, we got confused and believed we were too cramped in the small neat house we bought, so we foolishly bought a bigger house. It is always a wreck. It’s not even so much about the amount of stuff, just too much space. Vacuuming stairs is worse than cleaning toilets. And speaking of toilets, cleaning three bathrooms is like an all day job, and I have the attention span of NYT best selling author Joshilyn Jackson. Mr. Wonderful Husband and I have a Big Plan. In 2 more short years, Wonderful Daughter will be off to college and we are already planning on selling the big house, purging 80% of our crap, moving a couple hours south to the beautiful Ozarks and buying a much smaller house. I have been telling myself that when we once again have a smaller house, we will once again have cleaner toilets and crumb free floors and smaller piles of laundry. (I wanted to add in “cat hair free furniture” but that is asking for a little too much.) THANK YOU for convincing me that I have NOT been lying to myself about my promise of a cleaner, more organized future.

    Oh, and I once spent over an hour looking for the “lost” remote control for the television. Found it on the arm of the sofa, UNDER the cat!! And Mr. Wonderful Husband, who is a mailman, has twice lost the keys to the postal vehicle while walking his mail route.

  • Love this Joshilyn! We downsized as well, and storage is a challenge. We have also given much away. The trouble is that I am a collector and caretaker of family heirlooms (costume jewelry, books, quilts, china, artwork, whatnot). When you inherit things, you are entrusted to their care. You cannot flippantly give these things away, but you can pass them down. So, the day I will be able to clean out is the day all girls move with their childhood treasures and my sentimental hoard. Then I will be free.

    As I contemplate this cleansing of the house and soul, I pause to wonder whether I passed on the collecting habit to my poor daughters. I suddenly panic. What if they don’t want to take this stuff? What if I have to take care of it forever?

  • Brigitte

    This is exactly why I have never understood the appeal of all the McMansions around here.
    Though I have to say, with regards to my actual desk-y type stuff, it may look like a mess to the uneducated eye, but I know right where everything is. And I must have some hoarder tendencies, because I’ll still bemoan some things I got rid of decades ago.

    That said, I think my space would be SO much tidier if I was a lonely, wealthy widow (just say). Especially after reading the organization advice that said if you dont’t absolutely either LOVE it or NEED it, get rid of it. I was like “Oooh!”, then realized 90% of the stuff wasn’t even mine and I had no power to do anything with it. Hmph.

    Also, Mr. Husband thinks all HIS stuff is awesome, while constantly denigrating and telling me to get id of MY stuff, like my comfy-around-the-house-clothes and my book collection. Yes, he is obviously insane. Again, hmph.

  • Erin

    Couldn’t agree more! This is not *exactly* me (my mind doesn’t wander away, leading me to misplace things), but I am not great at being “tidy” at home. We moved from Ohio to Texas last year, and decided to rent a small apartment for a year while we got our bearings, before buying a house (this summer! Our first house! EEEEE!). It was the SMARTEST decision we ever made! We’ve got a small storage unit to house the things we want to keep, but have no room for here at home (Christmas decs, extraneous kitchen items we actually DO use periodically but cannot fit into our 16-square-feet of kitchen, memorabilia, etc.)–but before moving it across the country and paying to store it, we asked ourselves whether we “needed”…EVERYTHING WE OWN. And, of course, we didn’t need most of it, so we gave it away or sold it.

    Now, our apartment is small, but we’re both happier because we don’t feel so weighed down with STUFF. And because it’s small, we try to keep it neat because…well…it’s SMALL! Even a little bit of clutter or mess makes it seem like a total disaster.

    When we DO buy a house this year, we’re not going to be trying to find the BIGGEST one, that’s for sure–just big enough for what we need, and no more!

  • jeanette in peculiar

    I just wanted to add that IF I could keep a well organized bin of kittens somewhere in my house…….WOW!

  • susanvl

    When I am angry with the people who live in my house I have a recurring fantasy about running away and living with only the littlest dog in a very small house with just enough room for my art supplies. The kind of place you can clean top to bottom in an hour. Sigh…

  • Elizabeth

    You ladies are awesome! (And it is all ladies in the comments, thus far, isn’t it?) We’re house hunting, and I am shopping with Joshilyn ideal in mind: my husband and father-in-law-who-lives-with-us will each have his space. And when their spaces are full, there is no overflow into my serene, nearly empty space. Husband gets an office and the garage, FILWLWU gets a large bedroom and sitting area. Shoulda started this policy sooner…but it’s never too late. (Or at least, I hope we find a house before the dementia gets much worse.)

    It’s a mental health/peace issue for many of us, isn’t it?

  • Brittany

    This is a great post and a great motivator! I am moving into a studio apartment tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow! Unfortunately, I have been plagued with a sentimental personality. I still have ALL of the notes and papers I wrote in college — even from those stupid math and science classes they made me take. (Ain’t nobody with an English degree got time for that!) I graduated in 2008, so they should have already gone to Paper Heaven. I’m reaching the point where I don’t even care anymore though. Like you, in a month, I’m fairly sure I will not even remember owning anything I throw away. Luckily, my boyfriend is very good about assuring me I will never need things like expired packets of Tylenol ever again. We shall see how it goes and if my determination wins.

  • I’ve enjoyed hearing about your process, Joshilyn, and the comments are great. My husband and I raised three children in a small house [under 1000 square feet] and I learned quickly how to manage/organize/de-clutter. There was always plenty of room and storage space. We actually moved to a larger house once the kids moved out, but it’s a house with all living space and little storage space. My motto became “use it or lose it” because I have a fraction of the closet space/storage space I had for thirty years. This house works now because there’s plenty of room when the kids come home to visit, although I don’t appreciate cleaning three bathrooms either:)

  • Elizabeth

    I *do* want three bathrooms, though. I don’t want to use my FILWLWU’s bathroom, and I don’t want to subject guests to using that one, and I feel it is just weird to ask them to use the master bathroom. TOTALLY a first world problem, I know. But I still want three bathrooms. I plan to lock the guest bathroom door unless we actually have guests, so that it will stay clean and not be used by FILWLWU because it is more convenient than going to his, as we have asked. So that’s actually like 2 bathrooms… until we have kids, when it turns into 3 bathrooms.

  • DebR

    What Trisha said. My mind doesn’t work the same as yours, Joss, but still, lately I’ve really been wanting to declutter and downsize. We’ve been trying to sell our house for ages and no one is biting but I, in my foolish optimism, am convinced that someday it WILL sell and I don’t want to move and find new places for all this STUFF. With a very few exceptions (Books!!) I have this new-for-me mindset that if I haven’t touched it in a year, I don’t want it anymore.

    Sadly, my darling husband is not on board with this revised mentality at ALL. He’s clinging tightly to the borderline hoarder ways we formerly shared. It doesn’t matter to him if an object hasn’t been touched or used in a year or TEN years, he’s utterly and seriously convinced that if we give it away or sell it, it will be EXACTLY what we’ll need 10 minutes later and we won’t have it anymore. Nothing I say changes that mindset and he does NOT forget what we have, even those long-ignored items lurking in the basement. At the moment, we’re at a standstill on this issue.

    The ironic thing is that when we helped his hoarder-ish parents move 20 years ago, he was one of the big instigators of getting rid of a bunch of their useless crap behind their backs. (And to be fair, as far as I could tell they never missed a single thing!!) It was ok when it was THEIR stuff, but God help me if I would do that to HIS stuff. Gaaahhhh!