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Marcy: Organizing means pushing through temporary chaos

This advice column originally appeared in the Times Union on Sunday, November 8, 2020.


Dear Jes,

I decided to dive into decluttering, organizing, and deep cleaning my guest room/craft room/catch-all room last week, and it has made my house feel even crazier than it was before! I am knee-deep in everything, and there are piles everywhere. There is a lot in here that belongs to other people in my house, so I have a pile for each person. Additionally, I have the usual keep, toss, and donate piles, and I am trying to sort what I am keeping into categories. In short, there are piles EVERYWHERE.


Sheesh, decluttering feels like a lot of work and added aggravation. Part of me regrets even starting this project. I'm beginning to think the clutter was preferable to this mess. Do you have any tips to make this process feel less overwhelming?


Feeling Crazed in California


Dear Crazed,

You are experiencing what I have termed temporary chaos, a phase of decluttering projects that is unavoidable. Temporary chaos can be a deterrent to both starting and finishing a decluttering project. How can we set ourselves up for success when temporary chaos makes our project feel so daunting?


What causes temporary chaos? A space becomes cluttered and disorganized because items have become co-mingled: imagine a single drawer full of papers, old art projects, miscellaneous cords, nail polish, store loyalty cards, random jewelry, a dog leash, and two mismatched socks. Decluttering is the process of sorting many co-mingled collections to create an organized space - one where all like items are stored together. When you declutter, you empty the co-mingled space and categorize the contents. This is when temporary chaos ensues. It can look and feel exhausting but don't throw in the towel just yet!


Here are some tips to make the process less stressful:

Plan for Temporary Chaos: The two biggest mistakes I see at the beginning of a decluttering project are underestimating how much time the project will take and not planning for the inevitable temporary chaos. Simply expecting that the space will look and feel worse before it looks and feels better can be helpful. And remember, you don't need to tackle an entire room all at once. Consider breaking the project into smaller chunks, and the resulting temporary chaos will be more manageable.


Remove Items Quickly: Items that are being tossed or donated or that belong in other rooms should be removed in a timely fashion as you declutter. Remove all trash daily. Ask your family members to sort and remove their piles each day as well. Commit to dropping off donations frequently. If items belong in other rooms, utilize a laundry basket to shuttle items back to where they belong at the end of each decluttering session. The quicker you can reduce the volume of stuff inhabiting the space you are working in, the less chaotic it will feel.


Keep Sorting Categories General: Resist the urge to create too many categories when you begin sorting; instead, start with broad categories. For example, if you have a lot of items that belong in the bathroom, sort them into one "bathroom" pile instead of individual piles of sub-categories like "cosmetics," "first aid," "nail care," "extra toothbrushes and toothpaste," and "travel toiletries." It will be easier and more efficient to determine sub-categories and proper storage when you know exactly how much you have of each item.


Commit to Making Decisions: Not sure where to put something or what category it belongs in? Just make a decision and move on, even if it might not ultimately be where the item ends up. Indecision prolongs the temporary chaos phase.


Take Pictures: It is important to remember to take a picture before you begin and at the end of each day. It can be hard to see progress through temporary chaos, but many clients find this photographic record motivating and validating.


Keep Moving Forward: The only way to deal with temporary chaos is to commit to keep moving forward. Spending as little as 10 minutes a day working on the space even when you feel paralyzed by the chaos will make a huge difference. When you complete the process, you will be left with an organized space, free of chaos and excess, a space that you love. And right now, it's never been more important to create these spaces in our homes.


Jes Marcy, of Poestenkill, is a professional organizer, clutter coach and space consultant. Send her your home organization questions to PrioritizeYourSanity@gmail.com.

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