Working with someone who gets overwhelmed easily when trying to make a decision about what to keep and what to get rid of has an easy solution. Make it so he or she does not have to make many decisions. This is how I did it. I am going to call my client Bill in order to protect his identity.
Bill’s partner had died recently and he was in a grieving mode as well as needing to deal with a complicated situation where it wasn’t clear what he could keep because of confusion with the will. He also had many details in his life to take care of that had been put off due to the long illness of his partner. Plus, the three bedroom house was one where there were only narrow paths to walk in. Clutter was abundant and had been building up for the past thirty five years.
The first thing I did was reassure Bill that if he would let me sort out the stuff I would not throw anything away except for totally obvious trash. He did not want to let go of plastic bags, packing materials, small boxes or junk mail. Because I came to him with good references from a trusted friend, he trusted me to keep my word, and I did.
I was okay with not throwing things away because I know that just the process of sorting and boxing up things makes a huge amount of space and order.
Bill was also very nervous because there were two sets of important papers he was looking for. This was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but because of my long experience in organizing, I knew that if the papers were around, I would find them. And I did find them! Those were joyful moments.
The reason why I could find the papers within three days of looking was because of the boxing/sorting technique described below.
First important step was to get as many boxes as we possibly could. I think we started with about 40 boxes obtained from local grocery stores who did not smash their boxes right away. We got various sizes. Especially useful were the square egg boxes for heavier things like papers, magazines and books. Hauling around heavy boxes is not good for anyone’s back. Really large boxes like toilet paper boxes were good for light, bulky things. Banana boxes and larger egg boxes are great for medium sized items.
The next step to find a room where there is the least amount of clutter and out of the way. We quickly located a back bedroom. I started quickly boxing up things in the following categories:
3. office supplies
4. Misc. stuff: medium and small
5. Misc stuff: small
6. High priority possible valuable stuff for Bill to look at
7. soft stuff like clothes, sheets, and even some shoes and hats.
8. soft stuff like packing material and plastic bags that might be thrown away later.
9. Potential organizing containers
10. Already packaged and labeled items that could be stacked easily like a juicer.
Here’s how I went about the sorting:
I would just start at any accessible place and put the items into the various categories with boxes near by to put the stuff in.
1. Clothes took up a lot of space so they quickly went into plastic garbage bags and taken out of room to be piled in a shower that was not being used. That freed up a ton of space right there.
2. The categories listed above were put into boxes, labeled, and stacked.
3. Bulky, awkward items like a walker, a shoe shelf, and other things were put into the garage. The garage was piled high with stuff and you couldn’t even walk into it–but I knew we would be taking care of all that later so a higher pile did not hurt anything.
Within five hours, with Bill helping, we had the room in order. There was now more room to put stuff from other rooms.
The rooms that Bill suspected that the important papers were in were my next goals. First I tackled the large living room. I was able to put some of the stuff in the back bedroom so that I could more easily make paths in the room so things were accessible. I mentioned earlier that the house was so cluttered that there were only paths to walk through. But I forgot to mention that the garage, living room, and another back bedroom had no paths at all! They were the biggest challenges.
I used the same technique in the living room as I did for the back bedroom, with the exception that since there were specialty items like videos, decorations, and medical stuff, I made a few more categories since there were so many of the same items. I made a fairly quick job of getting through the living room in about seven hours by myself, touching everything once in order to see if the papers were around. I knew I would need to come back to refine the space, but finding the papers were top priority. I did not find the papers in this room, so I proceeded to the second back bedroom.
The second back bedroom was really a challenge because it was packed almost to the ceiling with stuff. But I used the hall way and the master bathroom as staging areas to start sorting stuff. Bill was not available to help me to carry things out, and so it was much more time consuming. If there had been a team of people working, the synergy would have cut my time down drastically. But I kept plowing through and within ten hours I had made a huge amount of progress and I found the two sets of papers that Bill was looking for.
Conquering the garage was a whole challenge in itself because the garage door would not open and there was no way I could organize it without being able to put things outside. Fortunately my former husband and best friend (I know–doesn’t quite sound like this fits but it is true) is a handy guy and he fixed the garage door.
I did get permission to throw away the ruined, moldy, wet stuff that had accumulated due to a water leak from the washing machine. There was also a mountain of cardboard that needed to go.
I have been working at Bills’s place any where from 8 to 20 hours a week for the past six weeks and a huge amount of progress has been made. At one point I took a break from finding the lost papers and helped Bill order his immediate living space–kitchen, dining room and den. I have felt so encouraged by how he keeps his space clean. We are still working on creating systems to prevent clutter, but the transformation so far is pretty impressive.
I figured out that if I had a crew of people who I could quickly teach how to sort, label, and stack all the stuff, as well as be there to supervise and answer questions–I could have done all the work I did in a day or two depending on how many people were in the crew. The thing that takes the most time is trying to maneuver around all the boxes and make space to put things once they are sorted. Having many hands helping to quickly make space would make a huge difference.
I am visiting a number of Christian intentional communities during July 2013 and I am hoping that they might like to try out an experiment and have me head up a team of volunteers who would like to both help their neighbors or community members–and learn about this pretty simple system.
I said in the beginning of this story that Bill had a hard time making decisions. Well, I am happy to say that now that we have decided to have a yard sale, Bill has worked two eight hour days making decisions about what to sell at the yard sale, what to show to a person who can give informal appraisals, and what to keep. He has done a fabulous job of sorting through the things that I had pre-sorted so as to make the decisions easier to make, and we are both very happy.