How I Finally Got Organized

Six years ago, I was taking 80 year old wall paper off my walls, repairing lathe and plaster, and painting walls. Three rooms of a six-room house were involved, so the place was chaotic. To top it off, I had recently moved in the house with 3000 books and an amazing array of other stuff, such as a piano and six violins. Pianos are heavy.

I also had my chronic problems of not knowing how to maintain a calendar, not knowing how to get large projects done, not knowing how to keep the house clean or even halfway decent. These issues have plagued me since I became an adult. They were problematic even when I was a kid but in those days, the consequences weren’t so bad.

As I sat amidst plaster dust, paint spatters, and little pieces of aged wallpaper, I knew something had to change. I just couldn’t mentally take the chaos any more. Around that time, I saw an article about a website run by a woman who called herself “Flylady.” The people who subscribed to her e-mails were “Flybabies” and the e-mails consisted of reminders and testimonials. I was hungry for the testimonials, for the idea that people could get themselves out of chaos and into a relatively orderly life.

One of the main ideas that the Flylady promotes is the idea of doing something for small amounts of time. Instead of doing a massive cleanup, you do a little bit every day-fifteen minutes. This made complete sense to me, and I started the first of many attempts to put this into practice when I first subscribed to her e-mails.

The other idea, though, was radical. Declutter. If you don’t use it, get rid of it. I had boxes and boxes of stuff in the spare bedroom. I had a whole lot of emotional clutter, too, feeling that I had to hang onto stuff or… I don’t know what. Somehow I would get in trouble for not “taking care of my things.” The problem is, there were way too many things to take care of. Most of them needed to be somebody else’s things.

Cleaning and decluttering took place in various fits and starts. Like any creative, disorganized person, I would jump in with both feet and burn myself out very quickly. I would create these complex lists of things to do on Monday, do a lot of them on Monday and Tuesday, but by Friday, not be doing anything because I was exhausted. I do have to admire my optimism every Monday!

There is a wonderful children’s book, The Quiltmaker’s Gift which has spoken to me during this process. In it, a greedy king eventually ends up giving things away and begins to feel happier. That’s what I did.

Twelve hundred vinyl LP records went to a music library. More than a thousand books went to two different university libraries and the rest went to the public library in my town. The books I own are stored in a beautiful old bookcase that belonged to my father. China that I never used and a glass case to display it in went to a friend. Barrister book shelves went to another friend. The piano went to a family with four kids who wanted to play. Un-played violins were put into the hands of people who would play them. Thousands of odds and ends went to thrift stores.

I didn’t make any money on it-but the freedom that I gradually started to feel was wonderful and worth every penny anyone thinks I lost on the deal. I had thought that I needed artifacts for my memories but I didn’t. In fact, the artifacts were weighing me down. I felt guilty about all the stuff in unpacked boxes across years and all the stuff that had a layer of grime on it because I could not get it together to keep it clean the way it should be.

It took six years to get to the point where I had taken my last large truckload to the Salvation Army. When my church had a yard sale, I had to kind of scratch around to find stuff to contribute. That was a great feeling.

It is a lot easier to take care of a house when stuff can be put away and rooms are not filled with furniture. The rooms look spacious because they are not full of clutter. I feel better, too.

In the meantime, I also attacked my poor organizational skills, since this problem went along with the clutter problem. My huge to do lists were the main issue: they were overwhelming and disheartening, particularly since every item that I got done generated two or three more items to do. I felt like the woman in the Civil War era song:

Last night in my dreams I was stationed forever

On a small little isle in the midst of the sea.

My one chance for life was a ceaseless endeavor

To sweep o’er the waves ere they swept over me.

Some time, after years and years of trying every format of to do list I could think of-paper, electronic, organizer, etc., I hit on making a list of ten things I wanted to work on in a given day. For example, on a day when I have a class to teach, that is one of the ten things. Other things might include cleaning or reading students’ writing. In other words, my list has a limit (ten things) and I don’t have to finish things in order to check them off. I just have to work on them.

I feel like after years and years of struggle, I have hit a sweet spot in my life. I feel competent because my life is reasonably well-organized and people can visit my house anytime. People may think that six years is a long time for this process, but when you consider it had taken more than forty years to collect stuff, then six years is hardly anything. And I learned a lot in the process.

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