I know. Terrifying. It gets worse.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am Abby, the newest member of the Done and Done team – writer of the blog, organizer of business matters, back-up during onsite jobs, and general jack of all trades.
I am new to this business. By that, I mean not only am I new to the business of professional organizing, but I am new to the business of having an organized life. My life used to look something like this: do dishes only when my fiancé threatens to move out, pile school papers willy-nilly into one, un-sectioned filing box next to my television, ignore something we like to call the “scary laundry corner” which is self-explanatory but no less terrifying. Oh, and I’m a cosmetics hoarder – who doesn’t really wear makeup. The irony is not lost on me.
My failsafe was, of course, my best friend Kate, self-identified obsessive compulsive and co-owner of this fair business. When stuff got too real, I could always call her, and within hours – if not minutes – she would come into my apartment and put things right. Immediately, I could feel the effects of this: my heart rate was lower, I was less irritable, I could breathe.
Kate and Ann invited me to join the Done and Done team on the business side, which is more aligned with my work experience. I did so, happily. It wasn’t until a couple months in that, slowly but surely, I was asked to work with them onsite and experience the nitty gritty of professional organizing firsthand. While I could document my experiences being a rookie Done-and-Doner on the job in an entirely separate blog post, I will just say here that it is the most exhausting work I have ever done, though deeply gratifying.
But a sort of cognitive dissonance arose when I returned home from these amazing, exhausting nine hour days to a messy apartment. What was once a “working” system of madness started to feel, frankly, dishonest. How could I work alongside professional organizers and still struggle under the weight of clutter and unmanageability at home? Furthermore, both my fiancé and I started to feel like the walls of our one bedroom apartment were closing in on us. We were faced with the choice of spending thousands of dollars to move to a bigger apartment, or stay put and simply clear away the debris in both our living space and our minds.
So, we scheduled in a Saturday to complete “The Purge.” Channeling the spirits of Kate and Ann, and applying everything I had learned onsite at Done and Done, Dan and I spent the whole day – a full twelve hours – sorting, clearing, tossing, donating, labeling, and boxing every single thing we owned.
We have a guitar. Who knew?
Here is what we learned, distilled into handy bullet-points which can be referenced by any novice organizer undertaking the dreaded apartment purge.
Break up your day into manageable chunks. At the beginning of the day, the two of us were panicked about the task ahead of us. Our apartment is not large, but it held a shocking amount of stuff, and we really didn’t know where to start. First, we made a list of everything we had to do (which included things like sorting through old school papers, or go through the DVDs and see which ones we would like to keep, make a small pile of makeup I do use versus the huge barrel of Sephora samples that go untouched). Dan put his name by tasks that appealed to him, and I did the same. We set timers for one hour each so that we could check in with each other regularly. This prevented us from asking the other for help in the middle of their organizing groove, thus derailing a project.
Invest in a good step stool: I hate folding step stools, mostly because I find it tedious to take them out of the closet, un-fold, use, then fold it back up again. It frustrates me even to describe it. There is an amazing step-stool made by Scandinavian-American designer, Chuck Mack, called the Giraffi. It is brilliant because it’s so attractive and well proportioned that you don’t need to put it away every time you use it, and so hopping up to clear out the Northern limits of our kitchen cabinets was no great feat with this clever thing.
Duplicates: To say “get rid of duplicate items” might seem obvious and easy, but it’s not – It’s harder than it looks, mostly because of FEELINGS. We have three types of cheese planers, which essentially function the same, but I have very particular emotional attachments to each one. One I stole from my parents, one I bought at my favorite design shop in Stockholm, and the other was given to me for Christmas when I moved into my first apartment in Brooklyn in 2007. But, spoiler alert, I DO NOT NEED THREE CHEESE PLANERS. Same with potato peelers, truffle shavers, wooden spoons, razors, toothbrush carriers, and round blush-brushes. Inevitably, there is one that you favor, so pick it, and give away the rest.
If you don’t know you had it, you probably don’t need it. Have you gone four whole seasons without wearing a certain dress, or sweater, or silk onesie? Donate it. Do you have “one day” clothes that no longer fit you, but you’re hoping they might? LET IT GOOOOOO. Not only will it clarify your space and make you feel light of heart and spirit, but aspirational clothes are a self-esteem killer, and don’t actually help you create change in your life.
Leftovers: We are all pretty idealistic about leftovers. Best case scenario, they’re good for one more meal and then you’re done. If you have a bunch of extra food left, portion out one serving for yourself, and give away the rest before it becomes a science project in your fridge.
The Good, Bad, and Ugly truth about open shelving: I am a huge fan of attractive exposed shelving – it’s modern, clean-looking, and even those few inches open up the space in an apartment. The catch is that it works for some items and not others. Those items that are uniform and easily stackable — like kitchen plates — look very nice on exposed shelves. Cosmetics, toiletries, and hair products, on the other hand, do not fit into that category. However neatly you may arrange them on the first day of your organizing spree, they will be mussed by the time you use them. Also, the space is too convenient and will become a dumping ground for anything that you need to get out of your way fast. Instead, get a small cubby to to store your cosmetics, or stackable trays that provide a work surface for your makeup and can be rearranged easily.
The Freezer: Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re not using that steak within one week of freezing it, 8 months later you will have to contend with an unappealing grey ice-carcass. Use your freezer as a temporary weigh-station for food. For example, if you cook every Sunday and store your food in single-serve containers for the rest of the week (like a smarty), discard the food that you don’t eat the next Sunday – no exceptions.
Batten down the hatches – Emotions are high. Hands down, the most difficult part of this process was the sense of loss. It was challenging to throw away all of my college papers, because I had this fantasy that I would want to look at them in 30 years and be like “damn, I was smart back then.” Realistically, that would mean lugging 50 lbs of paper with me from apartment to apartment, and taking up precious New York square footage for the next 30 years. For my fiancé Dan, the challenge was saying goodbye to the knick knacks and trinkets that lined our bookshelves, which gave our apartment character but also made it chaotic and cluttered. Since I was kind of ruthless and unsentimental about eliminating the chotchkies, I underestimated how much Dan enjoyed the “lived-in” feel of the madhouse bookshelf, and when everything became orderly and neat, he didn’t feel it was cozy. If you live with people, it’s important to discuss what you want the apartment to look and feel like before you get rolling on the purge, so you can work hard together to maintain your individual senses of “home.”
It’s marvelous to use eating surfaces for eating.
As many of you might expect, the big lesson in my experience with this apartment purge wasn’t about clearing away stuff, it was about maintenance. A 12 hour marathon cleaning session is peanuts compared to the challenge of implementing this stuff in daily life, but it certainly is a start. And, like with many other aspects of our lives, we do it a day at a time. Budgeting helps us maintain our clean space — we have to think through every purchase and are no longer bringing home compulsively purchased gadgets and gizmos and several new mascaras.
When we are at our best, we go through a 5 minute pre-bedtime routine, where we hang up our coats, clear out our shoes from the living room floor, start the dishwasher, and stash all clothes in the hamper. These few minutes save us from having the weekly NEED-TO-CLEAN meltdown that was a staple of our past lives.
The great impact the purge has largely been a spiritual and emotional one. As someone who often works from home, a cluttered apartment deeply impacts my ability to think clearly and creatively, to feel like I can breathe in my space, cook dinner, raise healthy plants, care for my pet lizard, and be present for my relationship with my fiancé. Being organized goes beyond the mechanics of being an effective person to the experience of living with a clear heart and mind.