How To Tidy Up

SOLO 133 | How To Tidy Up


Peter McGraw loves to tidy up. He invites Suzette Smith, a professional organizer with ten years of experience, into the studio to discuss Marie Kondo, motivations to tidy, and best practices and pitfalls. Suzette is the owner of White Space and is a member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals and A proud Solo. She enjoys swing dancing, motorcycle riding, and spending time with her 21 nieces and nephews.

Bonus material is available to the Solo community. Sign up to listen at: https://petermcgraw.org/solo/

Listen to Episode #133 here


How To Tidy Up

I invite Suzette Smith, a professional organizer with many years of experience, to talk about a topic that is dear to my heart, tidying up. Suzette is a member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, and she’s the owner of White Space. A proud solo, she enjoys swing dancing, motorcycle riding, and spending time with her 21 nieces and nephews, as I call them, nibblings. It’s a great conversation and an inspirational one. We discussed the steps to tidying up, motivations, challenges, best practices, and Marie Kondo. Bonus material is back. Suzette is a member and special contributor to the SOLO community. She has her own channel where she writes about her musings in response to episodes as part of the bonus material, which you can find in the SOLO community. We discuss her experiences and she shares some of her favorite episodes. You can access that conversation by signing up at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started. 

Welcome, Suzette.

It’s great to be here.

We are here to talk about tidying up. You are a follower of the show.

Yes. I love the show.

That’s so kind. You know how much I like tidying up.

Yes, I do. I love it, too. That’s why I’m here.

I was once called persnickety by a member of the SOLO community. I wasn’t entirely insulted by that. I love a good reinvention. When people are interested in reinventing themselves, I like to encourage them to begin by tidying up. 

I agree.

You tell me why you agree. 

I agree that tidying up is the way to begin. What I have seen in my years of working is it clears your mental space. Even Marie Kondo says so, although I have my issues with Marie Kondo. She says the same thing, the first step to the rest of your life. That’s what she says. I say it clears your mental space. If you have too much stuff and clutter, you know it’s there, whether it’s in a storage unit, whether it’s in your back bedroom, whether it’s right in front of you, your head knows it’s there. When it’s cleared out, your head is cleared out. That’s what I’ve seen.

I like it because it’s an easy win. It’s an easy way to make a change for the better. It gives you a building block. It’s like a fresh start of sorts. Whether it’s to clear your head to start the rest of your life or to start with a win, tidying up is a good place to reinvent yourself. You don’t need to be involved in a reinvention to begin this process. Before we get to that, you mentioned Marie Kondo. We have to talk about it. This is the 800-pound gorilla of organization and tidying up.

Sparking joy and tidying up.

I’m sure she’s good for business. For this episode, I’m going to rely pretty heavily on the SOLO community. I found you there, obviously, and thankfully. If the readers are interested in getting more involved with people like you and getting to get involved in the community, they can go to PeterMcGraw.org/solo and sign up. In this episode, I’m going to be interjecting questions and comments from the SOLO community.

Your peers have asked questions. I’m going to start with one, which is more of a comment. “I’m a Marie Kondo devotee. The method works perfectly. I haven’t had to tidy my spaces in the past four years since doing the full program outlined in her book. I’ll be excited to hear the episode, though. Tidiness is a real game changer. When you do it right all at once following Kondo’s method, you never have to do it again. It helps me clarify so many other aspects of my life.” Suzette, I want to ask you, for the one person reading this who doesn’t know who Marie Kondo is, who is she? Is she good or bad for business? 

Marie Kondo is an organizer. She’s Japanese. She put out this little book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which has been huge. Personally, I don’t see her method or her ideas to be any better or worse than other organizers, but she had a great marketer that got this book up and out there. That’s great. The more information about organizing, the better, but I personally don’t think she has the perfect method, but she’s got some great ideas.

I would not dissuade you from reading the book. She’s been great for organizers across the world because our profession is well-known now. For the person who wrote, they’ve never had to tidy up in four years, I would say false. I can’t believe that. Maybe if this person took me to their house and said, “I haven’t tidied up in four years,” I don’t know. That has not been my experience.

I’m going to form a bridge between you and this person because you’re going to encounter them on the Slack channel. My guess is your definition of tidying up might be different. 

No offense. I’d have to see your space. That’s not been my experience.

I told Suzette to be authentic and we are getting the full treatment. Let’s jump on to this. Let’s start by talking about some of the motivations and some of the benefits of tidying up beyond the ones that we’ve already mentioned. I want to know why people do it. What’s their motivation? I’m going to say it another way through the voice of someone in the Slack channel. This person writes, “I’m so impressed with all of you clean and tidy solos. I’m hugely disorganized. When I finally get to live alone, it will only get worse, but who knows? My question would be, how do I make myself care about tidiness? I’ve always been this way from my locker in high school, to my desks at work, and all over my home.” Suzette, help this solo. 

I certainly have thoughts on how to get yourself to care or rather what to do about not caring, but do you want to talk about motivations and benefits first, or should I jump in and answer this person’s question?

Let’s start with the question, then we can dive even more deeply into those. 

My answer is, how do you get yourself to care personally? From the years of experience I have, it’s hard to make yourself care about something that you don’t care about. I would suggest outsourcing things that you don’t like, can’t do well, or don’t care about. You can outsource it through, if it’s just clutter, through maids. You can certainly outsource it through organizers. There are professional organizers everywhere. However, if you don’t want to do that, you probably will never learn to care about it, but you might be able to teach yourself to do it by scheduling, by breaking it up into small steps and putting it on your calendar. How we do anything we don’t like is we schedule it. I don’t know that you can care about it.

If they don’t care by the end of this episode, they’re probably not going to care. I do like that idea. You have to care enough to be willing to hire someone to do it or to start to make it part of your routine. It may be unpleasant. It may not be a lot of motivation, but there might be some reasons to start to care that this person hasn’t considered yet. 

Let’s give you the benefits, reader, so that then you can start to care more.

I like to say this, I teach marketing and I say, “People don’t buy a vacuum. They buy a clean rug.” When you know the value of a clean rug, then you seek out what that solution might be. Let’s talk about why the rug should be clean or why the space should be tidy. Where do you want to begin? 

Let’s start with our heads. The idea is that your head is clear, that you can focus, feel more peace, and potentially more happiness. I don’t know if you have anything to add to the space, your space then moving to your head, but that’s the first one.

I feel the same way. I’ll be honest. I tidy up as a way to cope with the chaos in my world. When I feel like things are a little out of control, when I feel stressed out, when my to-do list is too long, we’ll clean up my space. It’s a way to feel like I have some control over a world that’s uncontrollable. When I’m done, my shoulders drop a little bit. I breathe a little bit easier. Again, it’s a win. I’m going to be in that space trying to tackle those other things. I find it helps me clear my head, have a sense of control and accomplish something when I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed by the world.

That’s all, to me, in your head. The second reason would be money. It costs them money to be disorganized. You’re late. You lose things. You’re always rebuying things that you can’t find. That would be another motivator to get organized. You could save money.

I’ve never thought of it that way. We did an episode on how to save money. The one thing that we talked about was that you should, as an experiment, consider eating everything in your refrigerator and cupboards before going to the supermarket again. I could see how you might rebuy spices, rice, or things like that, that you have readily available. 

People rebuy toiletries constantly. Things like your lip balm, your batteries, things that you go to get that you’re like, “I need batteries.” You know you have them, but you can’t find them. You go out and buy a whole bunch more.

It’s easier to buy them than it is to find them in your cupboards. 

Also, your level of disorder can then slow down that productivity. It’s the same thing. You’re not as productive because you don’t have your notes ready or you don’t have items ready. You’re late because you can’t find things that you need to go out. That’s more of a maybe productivity side of things, but it also feeds into money and relationships too.

You talk about the value to productivity. How so?

You’re much more productive if you create your home with the flow so that as you’re leaving, your sunglasses and your keys are at the door instead of upstairs in your bureau. It makes that easier. If you sit down at a work meeting and know where your notes are and all the pieces, you’re ready to go. If you have a pen and scissors within reach, things like that, it helps in general. We can go to entertaining too.

I’m eager to talk about that one. I do agree. I get made fun of for my tidy piles. When I write a book, I’m analog. Forgive me, folks, but I will eventually recycle all this paper, but I’m analog. I have a pile for every chapter. Each chapter is set into a different set place for each section of the book and so on. I know when I’m working on this section, I know exactly where to go. That’s why I don’t spend time fumbling around, looking for an idea. I’ve never thought about it that way.

You’re not recreating it over and over again. When you see something, you put it in the pile that it belongs in, so then you’re not searching around for the quote. It’s there.

You’re going to even love me. I have a pile to be filed into piles. Once it gets a certain amount of notes, then I go and do them all at once. 

It’s like the landing spaces, I would call it. Everything lands in one space and then it gets distributed. That’s how you should do your mail, too, everybody out there. You have a landing space for that mail, but don’t let it stay there.

We’re going to finish by some best practices too. There might be some other of these kinds of tips. Talk to me about entertaining. So far, what we’ve been talking about is the benefit to the self, the benefit to the tidy person.

I’ve seen this with my other single girlfriends, particularly. They’re like, “I don’t want to have anyone come over because I don’t want them to see that I’m a mess.” There’s a sense of confidence that can come from tidying up. Come over. We may have a couple of dishes in the sink, but at any moment, if someone like my girlfriend came over to have a good cry with me, I was like, “Come on over. Everything’s in order.” If you have a date and you want to come back for any reason, you don’t have to think about it or say, “Give me fifteen minutes to throw everything in one secret room.”

There’s a level of confidence that comes with the ability to say, “Guys, come over. Come back to my place. Have a drink.” Also, when you’re entertaining, there’s a lot of work that goes into entertaining. If you have to tidy your space, clean everything up, and then do the entertaining on top of it, it could be overwhelming.

I have so many reactions to this. I’ll start with a quick story. This is in my mid-twenties. I had a crush on this woman. We’ll call her Daisy. We were out at a party and I was the designated driver. I didn’t drink. I drove all the drunk people home. Daisy was a part of the ride. She invited me to come into her apartment, which I was excited about. I had one step into her apartment and I realized I had made a huge mistake because it was like a bomb had gone off in her apartment. I had never seen anything quite like that at that point in my life, especially from someone that young. I remember making out with her with one eye open, looking around the room.

I had to say to her, “This has been fun, but I got to get going.” I did not want to go into the bedroom. I couldn’t imagine what the bedroom was going to be like. I hit the eject button in that situation. That’s a worst-case scenario, where someone’s excited to see you, and then they’re moonwalking out of the door. This came up in the Clothing the Solo episode, where I made a case for how dressing yourself well has an inner benefit and an outer benefit. People who are well-dressed make the world a better place. They’re essentially making the world a more aesthetically pleasing place.

What I say in that episode is it should not matter what you wear. It should not matter what you wear in terms of how people treat you or what kind of person you are or whatever, but unfortunately, it does. To ignore the fact that it does is irrational. It’s the wrong hill to die on because you’re hurting yourself because people will judge you negatively, consciously or unconsciously. That’ll have a negative effect on you. There’s a University of Michigan research paper that looked at cleanliness.

What these researchers did was they randomly assigned subjects in the experiment to visit an office of a researcher that was either clean, somewhat cluttered, or messy. After that interaction, these participants in the experiment received a survey that asked about the researcher’s personality and then asked a variety of questions related to the big five.

The big five is the standard personality scale. I won’t go too deeply into this, but there were three elements of the big five that showed up in a negative way as a result of that. The first one is the person was seen as less agreeable. They were basically seen as less of a positive person, which is interesting.

The next one you won’t be surprised is if they were seen as less conscientious. That’s an obvious one. The last one is interesting because it goes in the opposite direction. They were seen as more neurotic. I would have said clean and tidy person. Nonetheless, it’s not the specific things. In general, when you’re in a cluttered office, you don’t feel good and now you’re interacting with someone and you’re not feeling good. The tendency is, “I don’t feel that good around this person. This must not be a good person.” Regardless of the weirdness of those reactions, essentially, you’re perceiving this person in a less positive way.

It’s the perception. With the clothes, it shouldn’t matter what they’re wearing or even what their house looks like. The person themselves has value, but there’s a perception that goes along with how your space looks. That matters.

Before we get into talking about some of these challenges, I want to add one more and I want to get your reaction to it. I’ve talked to real estate agents who list homes. A good real estate agent should help you maximize the value of your house. It’s in their best interest too. They will often hire a staging company to come in and do this. One of the common things that I’ve heard is that they will remove 10% to 25% of the furniture from your home, if not more.

What that does is suddenly, the house feels bigger, more airy, more spacious, more open, and more welcoming. I have a suspicion when we get to these best practices, there are the big things and the little things. There are the batteries, but then it might be the case that your couch is way too big, or your dining room table is way too big or something that is having this oppressive feeling to you.

When I started organizing, I named my company White Space for that very reason, because we need to create that white space, that negative space where we don’t have stuff so that we can create in our heads, we can create in our life, we need to open up the space. That’s why I named my company White Space right away, because I’m like, “Everybody needs some white space in their lives, in their head, wherever.”

For someone who’s not familiar with the term white space, it’s essentially like the background, the canvas.

Most people use it in editing or printing books where the space in between the text is called the white space. In your home, your white space is going to be the space where your stuff is not. It’s nice to have white space so you can breathe.

Obviously, you can have too little and you can have too much. There are these pictures on Reddit of a single men’s apartment, with a television on the floor, a lazy boy, and a TV tray. Too much white space.

Those people don’t hire me.

Daisy needed a lot more white space. I don’t think that motivation or even convincing people of the benefits for the average person is that necessary. Cognitively, they know that, “I ought to do this.” Yet, despite those motivations, they don’t. I’m going to start with a question from the community about these challenges. “Why is it so easy to attend to making other people’s homes tidy and lovely and seemingly impossible to do for myself? How do I deal with the total paralysis that comes from trying?”

This is a great question. I love it because it has to do, in my opinion, with individual personalities and emotions. I’ve told you this when we originally talked, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to learn all the steps in Marie Kondo or any other organizing book, which are many good ones. It doesn’t help you to learn those if you don’t understand what’s holding you back.

The person who sent in this question is saying, “There’s something in me that’s holding me back from my own things.” Addressing that is going to be key to anyone who wants to start organizing. Clearly, this person, I don’t know what exactly, I’d have to ask them many other questions, but they obviously like to organize and they obviously can organize, but they’re not doing it.

If I had to guess, I would guess they have a lot of sentimentality around their own things. People get attached to things that are in their life. Those things begin to represent their life, accomplishments, who they are, and who loves them. They can become overly sentimental about those things. The thought of tidying up starts to feel overwhelming emotionally. You can also feel overwhelmed or sad, like, “I’m a failure because I’m not tidy.”

Those emotions get in the way, or, “I’m getting rid of all these things. Therefore, I’m a failure because I didn’t do them. I spent my money foolishly and I now have too many things.” Those kinds of emotions can get in the way of even getting started. Until you address those or at least recognize them with an organizer, you can do that. I’ve got a page on my website you can look at to do that, a therapist or a friend to help you think through some of those emotions, or you’re not going to be able to put a plan in place because your emotions are always going to hold you back.

I’m glad you started with emotions. Early in my career, I’ve been studying emotions a lot of times and was researching the interplay of emotions, judgment, and choice. How do people’s choices and judgments affect their emotions? How did their emotions affect their judgments and choices? You outlined a couple of interesting ones to me, if I may. One thing is when people are sad, they want to try to fill themselves up. They tend to consume more. That feeling of sadness works against purging and pushing away. Anger is good at getting rid of stuff, like people throwing their ex’s clothes out of windows.

I was about to say burning pictures.

It’s an angry act, but sad people don’t expel. Sad people want to hold things in. They tend to consume more. Sadness is a bugaboo when it comes to tidying up. This notion of sentimentality can’t be overlooked because, for some people, these become sacred items. They have connections to family, childhood, and achievements.

The item is not sacred. The connection and the relationship are sacred, but the attachment is overly connected to the item.

Human beings are associative machines. It’s one of the most fundamental elements of being human. That is, we’re good at making associations. We can make emotional associations and cognitive ones. It saves us a lot of time. It’s the foundation for our memory systems and for understanding the world. For the most part, it works well for us, but because we’re good at it, we can connect a sentimental moment to an item. That item comes to represent it.

To throw that item out or to donate it or give it away or sell it can feel immoral for a person. We can talk a little bit about some ways that you can overcome that. You mentioned another one. It goes by this name in behavioral economics called sunk costs. I bought this shirt. This shirt costs $100, but it never fits right.

You never liked it, but it cost $100. It feels immoral to throw it out.

What people don’t like to do is to take losses. That feels like a loss to put that in the donation bin or to give it to someone else or whatever it may be as this result. The idea, though, is you’re never going to get that $100 back and you’re going to continue to pay that price with that thing hanging in your closet, reminding you that you wasted $100. Have the moment of pain in order to have all that pleasure and that extra white space in your closet that you can leave white, or you can fill with a shirt that makes you feel fabulous. 

I will add to you by adding a word of caution to people who want to recoup that cost by selling it on Poshmark, Facebook Marketplace, or eBay, generally, it’s not going to be worth the time you will take to sell that item, generally speaking. Sometimes, if you have high ticket items, consignment shops can work, but people hold onto it saying, “I will take the pictures.” They’re determined to recoup some of that $100.

With all the time they spend, if they get $25 for the shirt, they probably spend another $75 of time posting it. I would caution people away from trying to sell things on those platforms because it’s been my experience that you don’t recoup the cost that you so desperately want, but cut it to what you said. The sharper the knife, the less you cry. That goes for relationships and shirts. Let it go.

Donate it. It’s going to now be in the hands of someone who’s going to be happy with that shirt. Goodwill or The Salvation Army will make money as a result of doing that. The last thing about emotions that I want to chat about is that you were talking about these connections earlier in life and this feeling of failure. I bought the accordion because I was going to become a world-class accordion player. I never got into the lessons that I don’t have the talent and yet there it is, tormenting me.

I want to say this especially pairs well with the reinvention because the idea is this is like the accordion playing is in the past. It’s a chapter to be closed. When you close that chapter, it allows you to start a new one. The idea that you recognize that there’s some loss, failure, or mistakes goes from being a bug to being a feature because reinventions are about being the phoenix arising from the ashes. You need some ashes and fire. You need to purge.

You need fire and ashes, or there is no phoenix.

The idea essentially is the fact that you feel bad about these things is a good thing. It suggests that a restart is going to serve you in more ways than one. What else do we have besides these dang emotions?

Emotions definitely get in the way. The other two things that I would probably jump out would be schedules and system problems and then expectation problems.

Take those one at a time. What’s a scheduling problem?

Scheduling problems, organizing takes time. To maintain your organization takes time. It’s an ongoing thing. Certainly, it takes time. If you don’t schedule in the time, you’re not going to do it, even I who do it intuitively and have an organized space block in time for more micro organizing of drawers and cupboards.

People underestimate the time it takes. That’s the scheduling problem. It’s like, “I’ll do it on Saturday.” Will you do it all day on Saturday or could you do two hours on Saturday? Mailing in that time and not underestimating that it’s going to take the time that you’re going to need some breaks, you’re going to need some water, and it’s going to be a thing. That’s a whole bag.

Let’s do a little bit of expectation setting, if I may. Suppose someone has a one-bedroom apartment that has never been tidied and they’re going to set out to tidy it up, but let’s assume it’s average. It’s not me. It’s not Daisy. It’s somewhere in between. Are they looking at a full day? Are they looking at a weekend? 

I would say a weekend. It depends on to what extent you want to micro-organize. Do you want your spoons and your pens and your pencils all lined up in their own category? Do you want to put all the silverware in one drawer? Those are two different things, but I would say one-bedroom apartments are going to take a weekend if you haven’t done anything to it. The things to expect are you’re going to get hungry, lonely, and bored before it’s over. Invite a friend over or plan for a lunch break or an outing. Most people will get everything out of the cupboards and their stamina will fail them, or hire an organizer to work with you. It will solve all three of those problems.

You should invite me over. I’m great company when it comes to this. First of all, I love my friends. I love spending time with them. We don’t have to be doing something hedonic to enjoy ourselves. I have a saying. I like to give advice. I like to take advice. Helping someone organize, I get to give a lot of advice. I’m decisive.

You might put a mentor shock.

I’m not going to be a bull in a China shop, but I’m going to press you a little bit. Find your Peter. Find your Suzette. It might be an amateur. I believe in professionals. I don’t cut my own hair. I don’t change my own oil.

At the very least, put on the ‘80S tunes because then you can have some motivation.

I’m going to make a confession. My drawers and cabinets are not as tidy as you would expect. Everything is in the right place. I know exactly where everything is, but you open up a drawer and it’s not everything exactly in the right place kind of thing.

I’m the same. I have what I call bins for things like shorts and t-shirts. All the t-shirts are in a bin, but they’re not necessarily folded by color.

Find your right tolerance. The nice thing about it is no one’s ever uncomfortable in my space because they’re not seeing the private stuff. It’s all in the right place, but it’s super ultra-organized.

That feeds into my other limitation, which is expectations where I disagree with Marie Kondo. Marie Kondo is like, “Do not feed your personality into it. Just do these steps.” It’s all about your personality because you’re going to organize to the level of your comfort. There’s this line somewhere, which is like between Daisy and other people.

Below a certain line, organize the level of your comfort. If you don’t want a junk drawer that has every tiny thing micro-organized, you just want to throw it all in there, that’s okay. You can have some latitude. The expectations can get in your way and trip you up. If you think you want to micro-organize but can’t maintain that level, your expectation will trip you up. Learn to be okay.

We have micro-organization and macro-organization. The macro is like the furniture and the big stuff. 

It’s like I have a file where I put all my bills for 2022, whereas some people might put their phone bill, their utility bill and their house payments into separate folders. That’s micro-organizing. Macro would be like, “Here are all my bills from 2022,” in one big file.

Pick what works for you, but you’re looking for improvements. I could see how getting started would be intimidating. There’s never a good time. You never have the energy. You don’t know where to begin. It’s all that kind of thing, but then I can also see the flip side of that, which is trying to keep this exactly as it was done can feel a little oppressive.

Don’t expect more than you know you can maintain. Don’t have an organizer come over and create the most immaculate filing system for you down to the color and letter if you’re not going to maintain that level of detail. It’s okay. There’s something wrong with you. You’re organizing to the level of your comfort, like a massage.

You also mentioned the system problem. What is a system problem? 

The best example is your work desk. Some people are like, “I need a new desk. I can’t fit everything into the desk I have.” You may have a system that isn’t working. I am an everything-away person. I like a clean desk with note piles. I like to have the pile that I’m working on. Other people might need an L-shaped desk because they need 4 or 5 piles of what they will do during the day. That’s sucking everything out person. They need that constant reminder. You may have the wrong system. You may be in everything out person want to seal your papers, but your desk is too small.

You need a bigger desk. All you would need is to get a bigger desk and create those piles because you know you like to see what’s coming up, or you might need a magnet board, so everything’s on the floor. If you got a magnet board, everything would be up on the wall and you could see it easier, or you might need a file with a lid on top so you can close it and put it away at the end of the day. Those are what I call systematic problems or you don’t have the right organizing stuff to fix your problems.

That’s an excellent idea. Also, it’s a little counterintuitive because you might need to add some things in order to be more tidy. This has to be the case with the rise of remote work. Suddenly, people are living in spaces that they bought for one purpose to live and now are using for two purposes to live and work. You may have to be even more thoughtful of what might have been what you thought was a temporary situation and might now end up being permanent.

Sit down at your desk and think about, “What is it that’s bothering me? Is it that I can’t reach the stuff? I don’t have enough room for the stuff.” Look at the boxes, the bins, the filing systems, the computers. Where are they? How are they situated? You may need someone to come over and talk it through with you to say, “I cannot work at this desk. Help me figure out what’s wrong so that I can fix that one thing.” Don’t spend more money until you know what you need for sure.

You can experiment before you do a major investment. What are some other challenges? 

We talked about, I call them systems problems, but they’re more furniture problems. Expectations we talked about, schedules and also overcoming the inability.

It’s called pride.

You literally can say out loud, “I don’t like organizing. I need to do a trade with my friend, Peter, or I need to hire someone, but I don’t like to do it and it’s okay.” I have my own therapist, my own hairstylist, my own lawn mower, a variety of things. It’s okay if you’re not good at it and if you don’t like it to get past that piece and be able to be okay with asking for help, whether it’s professional help or a friend’s help.

I love that idea of trade in a sense. A good friend is going to treat this communally. They’re going to be like, “Let’s hang out. We’ll order some food. We’re going to put on some good music. We’ll take an edible or have a cocktail. We’re going to have a nice time doing this.” I also can recognize that you might not have that right friend that’s there. It’s also nice to offer something to that person. They’re giving you valuable time and energy in order to do it beyond the fact that they might find it enjoyable. I have a friend, Michael. We still laugh to this day. He’s five years younger than me.

He had a woman who was going to be visiting him for the weekend or whatever. We basically swung by his apartment. I walked into the apartment. I was like, “You cannot have this woman visit you. We’ll make some changes.” He had these gross pillows. I don’t know how long he had had those pillows. To make sure that he got new pillows, I took them off the bed and jumped up and down on them in a fit of rage that these pillows were on his bed. We still laugh about that moment. Sometimes a new set of eyes is going to spur this.

SOLO 133 | How To Tidy Up
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Maybe you have a friend who does something that you like. For example, I love costumes and I have a friend who’s a seamstress. I organize for her and she sews for me. You can do trades for things like that.

I’m asking for a friend. Can you be too tidy? One of the members of the community also writes, “I have a friend who shames me that I love a day of cleaning in my house over going out. I find it therapeutic, but when does it cross over into life avoidance?”

I would say you can never be too tidy, but I do think that perhaps. You can love it so much that you avoid other things because you’re like, “I got to clean out my sock drawer tonight. I got to reorganize the paper goods.” I don’t know that you can be too tidy, although you might get annoyed with people who are too tidy. That’s your own situation with your own relationships. I would say crossing over that to me is about pushing yourself to do hard things. We all have hard things to do. Sometimes the hard thing is organizing.

Sometimes the hard thing is going out. I would encourage people to give a push to whatever is harder for you and let it stand. If it’s hard for you to go out, maybe challenge yourself and push a little bit there and let the sock drawer go. If the reverse is true and you like to go out and party all the time and your house are full of last night’s purses, then perhaps push yourself on that side to get a bit more tidy.

I like to say live on your edge. You’re encouraging people to lean into their edge. This person, I understand. I can identify with the fact that it’s therapeutic. You should also leave the therapist’s office sometimes and go live life.

Lean into your edge.

As a way to warm up for some best practices, I have another question. What I love about these is there is some editorializing also. This person writes, “Since becoming solo and having 100% control over my stuff, I’ve learned to love cleaning, but I’m a minimalist who intentionally owns little and only what I love.” This is condo-esque. “Interesting topics since I spent most of the day doing detailed cleaning and felt so good when it was done. My question is about junk mail. How important is it to shred junk mail that has my name and address on it, or is it okay to throw it away? Moreover, how can I avoid receiving junk mail, to begin with?”

I would say shred. Anything that has your address on it, shred it. Not everybody has room in their house for a shredder or wants a shredder. Put a box in the back of your car, fill it up and take it to UPS once a month or whenever it gets full. UPS will shred. Most places have a UPS store near them. I keep my glass recycling and my paper shredding in the back of my car because I don’t have either one of those. When they start to get full, I swing by the place and drop it out. I would say yes to shred.

How to avoid getting mail in the first place is a little bit trickier, but I sent you this thing, Peter, called how to stop junk mail. There’s a website. It’s called DMA, Direct Marketing Associations. You can go on to the DMAChoice.org website and have your name permanently removed. You can either deal with throwing that away, or you probably will have to do some level of battle with the direct marketers.

I’ve done this battle. A little bit of background on DMA, the Direct Marketing Association, is essentially the professional organization for the companies that send direct mail more or less. This was a response to government action. They’re required to do this by regulation. Essentially, what you’re doing is you’re putting yourself on these lists to be removed from the rosters and so on. It’s been a long time since I’ve done it. There’s a free option and there’s a paid option. The paid option gives you more benefits maybe as longer or whatnot that’s there, but it does work. It just doesn’t work right away.

You can buckle down and do it, get off the list, or you can put a box in the back of your car and take it to the shredder, either way.

Let’s talk about best practices here. One thing is, we’re talking about tidiness, but there is this issue of cleanliness. I want to focus on tidiness, but I do want to point out that they both matter. I have a grad school experience with this where I had a friend who said, “Peter, you’re neat, but you’re not clean.” I was like, “I need to pull this together.”

The idea is we tend to think about cleaning, cleaning the toilet, cleaning the sink, vacuuming the carpet, and so on. I want to say the cleaning becomes way easier when your space is tidy. Cleanliness especially has an element of welcoming people into your space. That’s there. Know that they’re siblings in a sense. They go together in a lot of ways, but we’re going to be talking about tidiness mostly. What do you got?  

I better not tell my siblings to read this because they will say the same thing, “You are not as clean as you are tidy.” I try, but I’m not as clean as I’m tidy. Let me start with some high-level best practices. One would be to envision your space before you get started. Know where you’re going. We may have talked about this with the condo. Are you just pulling everything out of the cupboards or do you want to get rid of stuff? Do you want to move stuff around? What is your end goal? Think about what you want the room to do for you functionally and what you want it to look like before you dive in. That’s one big arching best practice would be to envision the space first and then always purge before you go into arranging.

What do you mean by purge exactly?

Purge is to get rid of stuff. Get rid of whatever you’re going to get rid of first before you arrange what’s left.

What you’re basically saying is there are two elements to this. There’s finding the right place for things, and then there’s finding the right things for that place. A lot of people, when they are thinking about tidying up, they don’t recognize these two steps, which is one is to get rid of as much stuff as possible, like the things you don’t need, the things you don’t use in this way in order to then have fewer things to find a place for.

Some of the things will go back into your closet and some of the things won’t.

Some things will go into storage.

You don’t know what’s going to go back until you know what you don’t need.

It seems like this is probably obvious, but you don’t want to take everything out of everywhere.

Not at all at once.

Condo suggests starting with the closet. Does it matter? 

The kitchen and the master bedroom are the two key places. Those are good places to start, but you could go in whatever order, in my opinion.

You need a win.

Do an easy win.

Where are you going to find a win? That might be in your kitchen, laundry room, or garage. We haven’t even talked about garages. Here’s my public service announcement, if you can’t fit your car in your garage, it’s time. 

Unless your garage is specifically used for something else.

For most people, parking your car in the garage is a good thing for the car and for your experience. It’s not blazing hot when you walk out in the afternoon. It’s covered in snow and so on. Condo be damned. Get a win.

It’s probably not going to be your garage. It’s probably going to be your laundry room.

That’s a good place to start. Let’s talk a little bit about purging. What are some best practices for that? We highlighted a whole bunch of reasons that people find it hard to get rid of stuff, but let’s give them some solutions for how they might overcome that.

Decide a place where you’re going to take those things that are meaningful to you. If that place is the women’s domestic violence shelter, then take them there. If that place is a children’s center, so have a place in the end, so you feel like you’re giving your stuff somewhere that you like, but don’t pick too many places because then you’ll trip over yourself. Pick one place that you love and bring your donations to a place that’s meaningful. That’s one thought.

I had this experience. It’s worth looking at. There are donation places that will pick up, which is pretty incredible. You can schedule a pickup, and they’ll pick it up off the curb, your front porch, or your driveway. For someone who’s having trouble scheduling, has a busy life and so on, it can also provide some motivation. If you schedule your pickup for Monday morning at 8:00 AM, guess what’s going to have to get done that weekend? That’s there. Prior to doing my leave of absence, I was going to be renting out my place. I had been living in it for several years. Despite my best efforts, I accumulated a lot of stuff. I essentially created in the basement three piles, or wherever I was working, three piles. What were the piles?

Keep, maybe, and donate. That’s what I would guess.

I was good. I got rid of the maybe.

I feel like that’s the breathe easy pile. Some people need the maybe pile. They have to have it.

That’s a wonderful idea. I didn’t quite need it. My donate pile broke into three separate piles. There was a straight up throw it out pile, there was the recycle pile, and then there was the donate pile. For example, there were t-shirts that turned into rags. That’s my recycle pile. There were shirts that got donated, for example. One thing to recognize is that this is a taxing process because you’re making lots of decisions. These decisions are going to wear on you. I found the process to take a lot longer than I expected and a lot more tiring than expected because emotions involved. That maybe pile, though, is pretty amazing because what I ended up doing for some things is I put them in a box. I’ve heard people use this thing where they put the maybe stuff in a box. They put a date on it. 

They don’t open it

Within a year, they just donate the box unseen. 

That’s hard for people, but it’s a good idea.

It’s like a task.

The maybe pile speaks to your point of how tiring and hard it is. You’re making a decision. Do you want this or do you not want that? With some of the emotion that’s attached to these things, it’s like, “Do I hate my grandmother or do I love her today?” These decisions get huge. The maybe pile allows people to have a little bit of a breather to say, “The decision could be maybe.” You can box it up and look at it in two weeks, or tape it closed and put a date on it. If you don’t ever get in there, donate it without even looking. There are lots of ways to deal with the maybe pile. Sometimes the maybe pile then turns into round two of the purge because then you’re on a roll.

Back to what we’ve already talked about, if you have someone with you, so much easier because you can sit at the table with a snack and say, “Yes, no,” and someone else can be holding it up and moving the items around, whether it’s a professional organizer or a friend. It saves you that second task of boxing it or doing away with it, putting it in the bag, and tying it up.

I’ll come over in my dirty shoes and jump up and down on your maybe pile. 

You won’t want that maybe stuff anymore.

People will sometimes take pictures of things. You mentioned that earlier. What does that mean to take a picture of something? Why do people do that? 

It’s a way to remember it and to hold onto that sentiment. I say to people, “If you want something, keep it. That’s fine. Put it in a shadow box, hang it on the wall, put it under a glass table for display purposes, but don’t just put it in the attic because then it isn’t that important to you. If you want to get rid of it, take a picture of it and then put it in your picture album and then you can see that item.” A lot of these things are gifts from people. People give you a gift. You want to be grateful, but you feel like if you get rid of it, you’re not grateful.

Write them a lovely thank you note because the gift is about caring. Tell them how much you appreciated it and how much you appreciate them caring about you. You can let the item go if you want to because the relationship has been reconciled in a way like you said your thank you. You appreciated the gift, but you don’t have to keep it.

Sentimental people have to struggle with this more so than the Peter McGraw robots of the world. 

There’s a little bit of hoarder in all of us. I find myself looking at something and saying, “I am the most organized person I know. Why do I still have this?” It gets the better of everybody. If you are a sentimental person, then obviously, it’s hard. Bring in a buddy.

Here’s the other flip side to it. The eagle scalp person who wants to be ready for everything, that’s me, too. That’s where my attention is. “I could maybe use the shirt for a Halloween costume. What if I have a party with this theme, then I could use whatever the lights or whatever it is?” That ready for anything person struggles because they don’t want to throw anything away because they’re like, “I’m going to regret it if I need these tiki torches for this party that I want to throw.”

That’s a hard one for sure, but if you have good organized boxes for everything, then you can keep it. If you have a Halloween costume box, then put it in the Halloween costume box. If you don’t have a Halloween costume box, you probably won’t be able to find the item that you’re looking for on Halloween anyway. Cut your losses. When it comes to emergency preparedness, I live in a tiny house, so I never have more than six rolls of toilet paper at any one time in my house. However, there’s a Target within walking distance. Remember, if you can replace it in less than twenty minutes and it costs less than $20, then let it go.

That’s a risk-reward situation, which is every single day until that imaginary party, it’d be a better day than that pang of I wish I had those tiki torches still.

If you have a place to put them, then put them there. If you don’t, you probably won’t be able to find them and you’re going to want the new tiki torches with the correct wicks in them when you have that party anyway.

Let’s get into the sorting stuff. We’ve hit some of the blocks to purging, which is where you’re starting. Do you recommend doing all the purging or should you get the win? You should purge your laundry room or your closet and then you should sort and order it, I assume. You shouldn’t purge everything.

I will go against Marie Kondo. She says purge everything at once. That’s too overwhelming. I go with what you said, purge your laundry room, then sort it and organize it, then move on to the next thing.

Can I add a tip about pictures? 

I’m about to talk about paper.

I like this idea of take a picture before, take a picture after. It’s rewarding. If you’re going to get fit, take a picture before and then it gives you something to strive for a picture of it. It gives you that nice feeling. I’m not saying you need to put it on Instagram, but that picture of the closet before the picture of the closet after. It’s easy to forget how far you’ve come in a sense. It’s the money shot of any home improvement show, any make-over. This is a make-over. You’re making over your space. I like the idea of pictures before and after.

I thought you we’re going to say picture books because I’m about to start talking about memorabilia and paper.

Let’s go. 

Never start with paper, but don’t leave it until the end either. I’m talking not bills. I’m talking your journals, your notes from different things, your awards from grammar school, your awards from college, all those papery kinds of things. They are dense.

Would you include books? 

Books are a little bit different, but because paper is dense that you will be overwhelmed by how much of it there is. I cannot overestimate. I cannot overstate how much paper there is. Go slow and don’t start with it because it’s not going to be your win. Ease into it because once your space looks gorgeous, you’re going to want to box up all the memorabilia and the paper and throw it in the attic because it’s overwhelming. Don’t leave it until the end. Little bits at a time and file it in a way that people understand what it is and be able to appreciate it and use it. That’s my thought on paper.

Can I say this about attics? Attics, closet, storage units, basements, garages, whatever. If you don’t have what it takes to do this, you’re asking someone who you love to do it when you die. You’re basically asking a grieving individual to go through your crap after your death, which is not a nice way to go.

Someone who you don’t know. Don’t hire someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t care about you. Most of it will end up getting trashed. If you want that stuff to be like, “Here are my Uncle Peter’s favorite papers from grad school.” You know what it is and what it has, then you have one file.

By the way, if my niece or nephew has read one of my papers, I will give them $1,000. They have not read my papers.

That’s an example. If you hit the age of 50, the only thing you should be doing is getting stuff out of your house constantly. That’s all you should be doing from age 50 until the day you die.

I’ve thought about this. Life can be short. My sister is going to be going through my apartment and having to deal with this stuff. She’s going to be like, “I love how tidy my brother was. I miss him, but I’m happy he was tidy.” What are some other sorting and ordering tips?

Buy things only after things have been sorted and ordered.

Don’t buy all your tubs and bins.

Buy them after, not before. You can put them in bags or put them in piles. When you know how much you have or what size you need, then buy them. That’s one tip.

Do you have a preferred place to find these kinds of things? 

The container store is fantastic. It also is a little bit more expensive. Check out Target and IKEA before you go anywhere else. They have great organizing stuff. If you want to start getting fancier, you can go up to a container store or places like West Elm. They have furniture that’s more like drawers and things, rather than just your IKEA squares or a plastic slide-out if you wanted to get pieces of furniture you might like. You can patronize whatever places you want to patronize. Walmart is another place. I don’t have any of those close to me because of the big box stores where I live. They have laws against them.

The usual suspects, if it’s a literal organize your shoes, buy something that’s inexpensive. If it’s something like your jewelry that you want to have presented, you want it to be out and look nice, maybe buy a nice small piece of furniture that you can put in your bedroom or on your dresser or something.

Make the piles, make all your decisions, then buy the stuff. 

Buy the stuff after you’ve made your decisions. If it feels good to buy something, it feels like a win, but it’s not the win until you get some other little wins in there first.

If I can, as a behavioral economist, say this is that as Americans, especially, we’ve been taught to solve our problems by buying things. There are many other ways to solve our problems. Someone wants to get fit and then they say, “I’m going to buy a membership to the gym.” You could start by walking. Walking is free and gyms are expensive. Note that what your first inclination, which is to consume to bring more stuff into your place.

It’s not the right answer. Go for a different win.

Depending on what you buy, that is going to affect your decisions. 

Exactly. Whereas once you’re done sorting, you can buy the right thing and just buy one of them.

Other things about sorting and ordering? 

I don’t think so. Like things go together, is that too obvious?

Give us an example of that.

Your kitchen. Cups go together, plates go together, silverware goes together. They all go either near the dining table or near the dishwasher. Like things. When you’re getting dressed, can you see all of your clothes are all in the same general space? Your dresser in your closet right there together, then shirts go together and pants go together. If you’re good, colors go together.

That’s a good idea because this gets back to the productivity and this time-saving thing. For example, the top two drawers of my dresser, on the left is underwear, on the right is socks. The reason is I tend to be putting on my socks after I’ve put on my underwear. If you’re a pants on then socks person, then your socks might need to be near your pants or your shoes. Thinking these things through. If you have a coffee maker, have your mugs above, below, left, or right, so you don’t have to walk across the kitchen.

Always have your keys and your sunglasses together near the door that goes outside.

I have a landing zone. I don’t know if this is something that you teach your clients. As I come into my apartment, I have a wall of hats. I have these pegs. I take my hat off and I hang it on the peg. I have a space where the keys, sunglasses, backpack, and wallet goes, as well as some drawers there if some of those things could go into drawers as needed if I have guests coming and whatnot. As I continue on, then the laptop and notes go on the desk. As I come into my space within 20 feet, everything drops off of me. As I’m leaving within 20 feet, I’m gathering all this stuff up.

It’s very much about functionality. Things go together, but like functions go together. You should have scissors in every room because there’s functionality for scissors. Scissors in every room and empty your purse every night when you come home. Men don’t usually carry purses, but women often should have purses.

I have a backpack for when I’m walking around in the morning.

Backpack, same thing. Empty it out. Come home. It all gets emptied out and then hung it up.

The form and function also are important. For example, my hats. I went out and bought nice wooden hooks. They’re almost like towel hooks. They’re round and they look nice. They’re spaced out. There are nine of these things. Instead of having a piece of art there, I have these hats, which serve the same purpose, but it’s more personalized in a sense. It’s a good design if I can compliment myself.

If you can see my purses, I do a similar thing. No one else can see my purses, but Peter can.

Other best practices as we start to bring this to a close?

Obviously, you can go on and talk about sorting your spices, sorting your jewelry, but those are all individual things. The big things are to know yourself and figure out what’s holding you back. These big chunks, like we talked about, which is envisioning your space, purging, ordering, making sure things go together, buying last and maintaining. Maintaining is important. For those who don’t like to organize, recognize that that’s part of the gig. Once you’ve got it all settled, you’re going to have to maintain that. You can’t go back to throwing things on the floor again. It has to be maintained. It’s certainly part of the organizing or you’re going to hire someone to maintain it for you. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that either.

No, not at all. It’s good for commerce. When you say maintaining, this might be creating some habits where maybe when you’re having your cleaning done, you might tidy first. Let’s say if you have cleaners coming over, but before the cleaners come over, you’ll tidy first, or before any time you clean your place, you’ll tidy first. It’s easier to clean a tidy place than a non-tidy place. 

Bringing things out of the house as much as you can. If you have one shirt that needs to go to Goodwill, get it out. Get out your paper recycling. Things are coming into your house every day. You carry stuff home every day. Things need to be going out as well. That’s part of maintaining.

I want to ask you about one last best practice. I’ll be honest. I’m surprised you didn’t say it. That is reward yourself for this. I already mentioned one, which is the before and after photos, but shouldn’t you be celebrating that you did this challenging thing? You’ve taken the first step to reinvention.

For me, the organization is its own reward. Some people do need rewards. A reward could be whatever you want. Have someone over if that’s a reward for you. Maybe it’s not. Show them what you did. Take a minute to brag about yourself and say, “I did this thing. It’s hard.” Certainly, you can brag about yourself on Instagram, Facebook, if that’s rewarding to you or go out and do something you enjoy. Don’t buy more stuff. You could, but don’t fill your stuff back up.

The reward could be you can get a massage or you could treat yourself to a nice solo dinner or whatever that is. That might be the case. Don’t buy more. Don’t buy a trophy for yourself. We’ve gone through the motivations, the challenges and the best practices. You work with people every day, creating white space for them. You are the delight. Yet I also have to imagine that you are, at times, can be a little bit stern and straightforward when needed. Any parting thoughts for the person contemplating doing this who wants to get started?

I will add one piece about my profession is that I no longer go into people’s homes, but I do my work virtually, like helping people work past their barriers, that’s what I do, as well as some project management in my full-time job, a point of clarification. As for parting thoughts, I want to be encouraging to people as I part and say you can do this. You’re fine. You’re normal. You might be reading this and having anxiety. That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself, go easy on yourself, and take small steps.

Maybe the first thing you want to do is call your Peter, call your Suzette, and say, “I have a desire to get more organized.” If that’s your baby step, then do the baby step. I want to encourage you to break it down, read this a couple of different times, and break down those steps, but you’re totally normal and okay. You can do this. You can do the organizing or you can have people help you. I want to be encouraging at the end.

Feel free to join the SOLO community and share your before and after photos. We would love to see them. Suzette, thank you so much for spending some time with me and talking about this topic I care so deeply about.

It’s been fun. Thank you for having me

Thank you for making the world a more open, welcoming place for all the people who will tidy up as a result. Cheers.


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About Suzette Smith

SOLO 133 | How To Tidy UpSuzette Smith is a professional organizer with ten years of experience. The owner of White Space, she is a member of the National Association of Productivity. A proud single she enjoys swing dancing, motorcycle riding, and spending time with her 21 nieces and nephews.