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"Empty the Brain" List

Let's just call this a small tip in the "organizing your thoughts" category.

I find that when I get too many things going at once, I end up with my thoughts going in circles. I'm never fully able to concentrate on one task because I'm thinking about all of them at once. This first happened to me as a Freshman in college, and an older/wiser sister told me to make a "to-do" list.

Since then I've made several "to-do" lists, but sometimes a simple list won't work. If you can't wind down to sleep at night, can't seem to get all of your "projects" done, or can't remember what day it is.....may I suggest creating an "Empty the Brain" list.

Prepare for an analogy: When I'm sorting through drawers, cabinets, boxes etc...I find that it's easier an more efficient to just dump the entire container onto the floor. Of course this is never the first thing that I tackle in a room as I usually have to make floor space in order to do it. If I tried to sort everything while it was still in the container, there will always be stuff that I missed, and sometimes I don't see very obvious connections.

So to apply this same strategy to my thoughts makes perfect sense. Get a pen/pencil (crayon if you have to) and something to write on, and then just go!! Write down everything that is bouncing around in your brain, even if you have to leave one topic to start writing about another because your thoughts are racing. Then when everything is out of your brain (just like the drawer's contents on the floor) you can go back through and sort out those thoughts into: to-dos, goals, ambitions, memories, epiphanies....what have you.

Plus I just think the name is funny....it makes me smile to see "empty the brain" instead of "to-do" at the top of my list.

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Adventures in Organizing

Usually I remember some little tidbit of advice or learn some new technique to share with each space I organize.

This time I was helping an old friend who I had organized for a long time (about 5 years) ago. She & I work well together & got the room done in about 4.5 to 5 hours.
It was a lot of fun because she has a home decor business & had tons of fun stuff to sort through. Plus she let me keep a few treasures from her discard pile.


I found these cute labels and cute baskets while sorting. How lucky am I that they were exactly the labels that I needed for this room?

So for this blog post, I thought I'd share some of our adventures we had that day, and shed some light on why stay-at-home Moms have a lot of hindrances (ie: kids) that slow progress.

Story #1:
My friend had bought a very large (64+ oz) Dr. Pepper. This was her little treat/motivation for the work of the day. She left her drink on the bathroom counter, and we set to work. Her 2 youngest kids were home & fighting each other on the stairs. Then we heard a very large CRASH!!!
Her kids had gotten her drink & spilled it all down the staircase (which had just had its carpet cleaned).....on the 1st floor's wood flooring....even some splatters in the kitchen. So not only did she not get her treat, but she also had to clean up the huge mess. She warned me that with her son, the day was just getting started....


Left side before


Left side After

Story #2:
About 1/2 hour to an hour later, her son starts whining in the hall. She goes out to see what's going on & I hear the following conversation:
Son: "I fell in the toilet!!"
Mom: "You fell in the toilet?"
Son: "I got water from the toilet on me, and then I fell in the toilet!!"

We decided that he must have been trying to go potty, and then somehow managed to fall in. And she had yet another mess to clean up.


Straight Ahead Before


Straight ahead close up Before


Straight ahead After

Story #3:

I had to leave to pick up my kindergartner, and came back to help finish. My daughter kinda played with my friend's son and daughter, but mostly Spongebob entertained them while we tried to finish what we had started. With about an hour's worth of work left, we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves and the progress we had made. Then my friend went to see if her daughter had woken up from her nap.

I heard, "NOOOooooo!!! Don't color on the wall with markers!!"

Apparently her youngest had found a marker, and after marking up her own arms and legs, decided to continue her artwork on the walls. My friend came back to the room we were organizing and showed me her daughter's arms.

I said, "Were the markers washable?"

She said, "That's what they say....I guess we'll find out."

By this time though, we were nearing the finish line, so I suggested rubbing alcohol, and we moved ahead.


Right Side Before

Right side After

Last story: Since most of the mishaps were caused by the children, I know you're thinking that this one is another....but this one was all me.

I was loading up my treasures from the pile that she was taking to the local charity, I liked some glass bottles, and she gave me some ideas of how to decorate with them. I put them in a box, then started to head out to the hall.

My friend had gotten rid of a lot that day, and I was so proud of her. Since her truck was currently loaded up with things to be taken to charity, she had made a (very large) pile in her room so that she could load up again later after taking the first load. As I was walking out to the hall, dodging this and that, I looked down at a cute plate. With my eyes so averted, I didn't see the corner of the wall and hit it with my shoulder. If there had been a camera on me, what happened next would definitely be on YouTube by now. I teetered a little, shifted my weight, and had my self settled. Then I made a miscalculation in the distribution of my weight, and started swaying again. It must have taken a full minute for me to finally fall with a very loud CRASH onto the pile of stuff in her room.

She rounds the corner, and asks, "Do you want me to take a picture of this for your blog?"


Let's just say that I was really lucky not to be the punchline from a Seinfeld episode ("Million to one chance, Doc")

*side note: as I was typing this blog post, my daughter cut her hand open with the broken ceramic handle of a toy spoon. She had to get 5 stitches. Isn't it great to be a Mom?

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One Way to Get it Done

One of the hardest parts about organizing is maintenance. We all get lazy sometimes. Even with a place for everything, sometimes you just don't feel like putting things where they go.

This is one of the biggest reasons that I make a distinction between dirty and cluttered. A lot of us have clean albeit cluttered homes. My kids' rooms have the opposite problem.....they are fully organized, but they just won't stay clean.

After helping my friend organize and rearrange her daughter's room, I decided that one way get my kids to clean their room was to redecorate. We usually rearrange the rooms every January. We like to try new furniture placement, and reevaluate whether our systems are working or not, and sometimes even change the function of a room. But being out of school for summer, and getting ready to go back, we really needed good motivation to clean the rooms. And when you involve a little kid in the rearrangement of their room, they feel so empowered and creative (and will actually help).

view from door before

The view from the doorway before. This is one of the reasons I decided it was time to redecorate. How would you like to walk by this everyday?

view from door zafter

The view from the doorway after. The bow organizer got moved from the pink wall. This is one of those placement reevaluations. I thought the bow organizer would make a very cute design element on the wall. In reality, the kids kept knocking it off the wall. They never put the bows back on it so there was always a pile of bows on the floor in front of it. Solution: off the wall and on the floor.

side of bed before

The view of the side of the bed before. When I bought and refinished this side table, I made my daughter promise to keep it nice. It usually gets cleaned off, but this small walkway usually gets trashed. I figured it was because there was no reason to keep the bed made or beside the bed clean. I had never bought my kids a comforter when I moved them to a queen size bed (used to be a guest room bed), they were just using an old quilt.

side of bed zafter

Side of the bed after. Solution: I bought a new comforter and made a big deal about it. We went to several stores searching for the cutest (and cheapest) one. Then I made a small change of switching the way the bed faced. Now it takes up less room so there's more room to play on the floor. Also it looks like a giant day bed. With the pillows at the top, I can fold back the comforter instead of trying to shove it between the bed and wall. The girls thought this made their bed look really cool. I also put one of their buckets beside the bed for all their blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals that they like to keep on their bed.

(side note: my oldest girl picked out the saying on the wall. She had vinyl on her wall before but it was white and didn't really show up. This is sparkly black and I thought her saying was very cute and creative.)

dresser view before

Corner view before. One problem I noticed was that the girls' room was "visually cluttered". I use this terminology all the time when I'm organizing for others.....and all I'm really trying to explain is that when there is too much for the eye to look at all at once, it gives the area a feel of being cluttered even if it is not.

dresser view zafter

Corner view after. Even though I was the one to paint all the crazy murals before, I still had to talk the girls into letting me paint over them. We left some on the opposite wall, and moved a picture from the opposite wall to fill the blank space. My oldest daughter loves busy, bright, brash things....but even she agreed that this just looked better.

Hopefully, seeing that the plumber's toilet gets clogged too (so to speak) will help motivate you to tackle your own spaces. And if you want to involve your kids, or just give yourself extra incentive, remember that the cleaning and organizing is secondary to the fun of redecorating.

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An Experiment

I think I have hit upon a brilliant idea, but I need some help testing it out.

It occurs to me that when we say we don't want to let something go because of all the memories attached to it, this is not exactly the case. So assuring you that the memory doesn't leave with the object doesn't really cut it as far as motivation goes. It seems to me that the problem is really that these items trigger the memory. We come across items when we clean, organize, or move and these memories (that we weren't trying to actively recall) present themselves. And usually the memories are of fun times, accomplishments etc.

So the reluctance to let these items go springs more from the fear that without them we won't have a reason to recall these fun times. (not that we won't be able to remember them)

Here's where my brilliant idea comes in: How about when you are contemplating getting rid of one of these "memory triggering" items, you write down the associated memories in a special journal. Then when you feel like reminiscing, you can pick up your journal instead of poking through all of the boxes in your basement.

I think this will really help free up some of the space in your house as well as in your mind (remember everything in your house is in your brain). In addition, this journal is a wonderful way to start your own personal history. If you were gone, and your children were to find your special items, would they know why the items were special?

I'm really excited about this idea, and I think it could be a great way to share your memories, reclaim the spaces in your house, free your life (and mind) of clutter, and create something unique for you and your family.

If someone takes a chance on this idea, please, please, please email me or comment so that we can see if this idea can really produce its intended results.

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Classic Little Girl's Room

Yesterday I got to help a friend "gut out" (her words) her daughter's room.

full room before

View from the doorway before

full room zafter

View from the doorway after

I think we all assume that at a certain age, our children are capable of cleaning their own room. We ask, bribe, threaten, what-have-you to get them to straighten their rooms and keep them in some semblance of clean. Then when we can take it no more, we decide to clean it ourselves. This friend called me because she was overwhelmed just stepping in the room. After we cleaned it you could actually feel that it was lighter.

We started in the closet, and just went through everything. The whole room only took 3 hours because this friend was not being sentimental and made decisions very quickly. It was great!! She had actually set aside different drawers for certain items, so once we had the closet cleared everything went a lot faster since it had a place to go to.

closet before

Closet before

closet zafter

Closet After

2 lessons I took from this room are:

1. Don't underestimate children when it comes to "stashing". Check every corner, under the bed, in the closet, behind the door, etc. These kids are creative, so get creative when you check their rooms.

left side before dresser

Dresser Before

left side before under bed

Under the Bed Before

(I actually had to pick the bed frame up to move it since the little girl had stuffed it to the gills)

2. When your child runs out of socks, don't buy her more. Make her clean her room instead. My friend and I must have found at least 20 pairs of socks in her child's room. She had just bought her all new socks because her daughter couldn't find any to wear.

left side before

Left side of the room Before

left side zafter

Left side of the room (and dresser) After

A small tip

I used to love watching the old "Cheaper by the Dozen" with the father who was an efficiency expert.

So here is my small contribution to the world of efficiency....

I don't know when or if I came up with this, or saw someone else do it, but ...

I was tired of cutting my kids food, especially syrupy pancakes and waffles that never would cut nicely. And I was tired of not getting to eat my own breakfast until it was cold. So instead of cutting them after they have syrup on them, I tear them into bite-sized pieces before hand. It may not be as pretty, but it's faster and the torn pieces are easier to pick up with a fork.

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School Part II

Most large projects take 6 to 8 hours and that is why I have my "make the time" rule. This however was a HUGE project.

It seems that sorting my friend's things goes rather quickly when that friend actually purchased, and 'put away' those things. But going through her stuff, a retired teacher's stuff, and a no-longer-working-there-teacher's stuff takes a really long time.

The trick seemed to be to go through everything and work in zones. It was very important that we took the time to do this now at the end of the school year, so that my friend can enjoy her short summer (we do year-round school), and focus on next year's plans. I knew that if we left it as it was, she would fret the entire 3 weeks before the next school year, and be too overwhelmed to complete it. That would probably work out okay, but her stuff would just go on top of what was there and eventually we'd have an even bigger mess. (not to mention how hard it would be to concentrate in such an unorganized room).

It turns out that I didn't take good before pictures, and I really must start taking more. The problem is that I never know which area of the room will actually show the most progress. And after I get started, it's too late for snapping pictures of what it looked like before. But just to give you an idea--the room has many cabinets, cupboards, and drawers. Every one was very random. Sometimes there was an idea behind the contents, and sometimes there were duplicates.


This was the only picture I took of a long wall (North Side) of cabinet/counter space. It was completely filled.



The same counter space after. The cabinets are open to show that the insides are sorted and neat.

The easiest thing seemed to be to start with the biggest cabinets, take everything out of them, and assign them a purpose. The cabinet on the right now houses the craft supplies, and the one on the left houses games and teaching tools. Once we had them working for us, we could go through other cabinets and find a new place for them.


The long cabinets (left side of the picture) after our big sort. It turned out to be a big help to organize these first, so that we had room to move other things as we came to them.

We had spent 3 or 4 hours previously, and this day we spent 9 hours. It was a little tough because my children were misbehaving, and we had to be quiet because testing was going on in the adjacent room. We got a lot accomplished though, and here is another after pic. This is the East Side of the Room.



East Side of the room was another row of cabinets and drawers, with a sink. These mostly housed painting supplies as the laminate floor and sink were good for clean up.

I took home all of the crayon bins (from the right side of the above pic)and spent the next day cleaning them all out. My advice for these are--Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (love it!)


Left bins = AFTER Right bins= BEFORE

Then I went back on the third day because I had seen a cabinet with books in it. They were crammed every which way. My friend needed some of these books as references, but had no way of telling what books were there. Since bookshelves are one of my favorite things to organize, I just had to get my hands on this cabinet. Also on this day, I did a few small cabinets. My friend's teenage daughter was amazing!! She helped us on the first day, and on the third, she went through all the lower drawers/cabinets and cleaned the dirt and dust, and pulled out all the toys in the bins and steamed them to disinfect them. I spent only 2 hours at the school on this day.


Book cabinet AFTER. I put the books into categories by subject (Reading, Math, Art)
I hated not being able to help finish, so I left a note for my friend letting her know that I would love to help her sort all of the papers. Since papers are my least favorite thing to sort, I usually leave them for last. So the room was coming together with maybe a few more cabinets and drawers to be gone through, but on the opposite side was a ton of boxes with papers. The retiring teacher had left her copies for my friend to use. The problem was that the retiring teacher sorted her papers by weeks, and my friend was going to use a different curriculum and so couldn't use the papers in the same way. Since printing copies is a major expense for teachers, she wanted to use as many of the copies as she could, but she needed to be able to find them. She brought them to me and I spent a good chunk of the weekend going through them.


7 Bins of Papers BEFORE


6 Bins of Papers AFTER (may not look like much, but I went through every single paper and sorted and collated them. It was a lot of work!!

So lessons:

1.Take the time to sort beforehand, so that you don't end up with this big of a job.

2.When tackling this big of a job, allow yourself several days...but don't put it off. You've got to keep your momentum. (I estimate that I spent 35 hours on this project, and I'm sure my friend and her daughter spent just as much time)

3. Work in stages, and give yourself a cleared-out space to sort into.

4. Take some of the things home with you (if you're sorting for work). Things like craft supplies, papers, and even cleaning crayon bins can be done while watching TV or a movie.

5. Don't get discouraged. You can do it, and you deserve a great big pat on the back when you're done.

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School Sort Part 1

A good friend of mine will be teaching in a new classroom next school year. The problem was that the classroom had belonged to a teacher who retired and was now occupied by a teacher who had not had time to organize the classroom when she came in and would not be at the school next year.

I went in for an evaluation and we ended up asking the occupying teacher if we could help her organize a little. We did get her desk pretty much sorted.





One problem was that the same craft supplies could be found in multiple locations throughout the room. This may have worked for the retired teacher, but would not work for my friend. And if there was one thing we learned from the occupying teacher, it was if you didn't take the time to sort before you start teaching, it would soon be too overwhelming a task to undertake. Because we couldn't move anything until school was out, I asked my friend to bring me the craft supplies for sorting. Just by grouping "like objects" together, these craft supply drawers are more visually pleasing and will be more practical for use.





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INFO meeting

Our 2nd INFO (Ideas Necessary For Organizing) meeting was a "closet clarification". One member of our group offered her closet for a purging exercise.
Often, I find that the difficulty in getting rid of things with sentimental value or significant monetary value (like nice clothes or books) is not wanting to appear wasteful. It's hard to "throw away" something that is still practical even if we have a surplus of this item. In such situations, most people are seeking permission to get rid of these things that are cluttering their lives and homes.

Another hindrance is an emotional attachment that we form to objects. It is important to remember that while these objects may have produced real emotions; they do not have real emotions.

To overcome these hurdles, we decided to throw a farewell party for the clothes. We gave them a proper send off and they were donated to a good cause so they were not wasted. As far as permission: if my authority was questioned, we went to our panel. I equipped the panel with signs that said "stay" or "go".


Our panel gave us great advice and some new ideas while also learning from our hostess' example and receiving motivation to go home and clear out their own closets.
Some areas we discussed were:

Clothes that no longer fit.
Let's be honest. If the clothes don't make you feel good, you're not going to wear them. If you do put back on weight that you've lost, wearing clothes with extra room is only going to allow you to eat more...not motivate you to lose weight again. Some of these clothes were kept and put in a pile to be tailored. If they cannot be altered or if she does not take them to get altered, she has to throw them out.





Clothes that went out of style that you think might come back in.
There are a few classic styles, however styles that "come back in" usually do not come back in the exact same way. When in doubt, ask a friend (or a panel) - if it's dated then it'll be obvious.
Clothes with sentimental value that you never wear.
In this category are maternity clothes (when your children are all grown up) and funeral wear. For the maternity clothes, you usually have plenty of pictures with you wearing your favorites. As for the dress you wore to your parent's funeral, I'm definitely against keeping. Why keep something that will make you sad and take up room in your life? We did let her keep a scarf that went with the dress as a smaller and not so dreary memento until she's ready to let that go as well.
Clothes that you might wear once a year to a holiday or fancy party.
The panel made an excellent point here. If you wear an outfit to every holiday party, then your coworkers/friends/family have seen it, and it's time for something new. Here I let her keep a few things that were still fashionable, hadn't been over worn, and were fancy enough for a holiday party.
Clothes that duplicate.
Our "victim" (big thanks by the way) had several black skirts. We let her keep most of them because she could give us a reason for them and she actually wore them. But we did make her get rid of 2 that she hadn't worn and couldn't foresee an event that she could wear them to.





Some other ideas our panel came up with were:
-some items our hostess gets to keep for a year and then reevaluate whether she wears them or they're wasting space.
-there comes a time to dress in what suits you instead of dressing for an image that you're trying to portray.
-try on the clothes that you haven't worn for awhile and see if they might be worn in a different way/for a different occasion.
Thanks group! That was a lot of fun.


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Space/Time Continuum

Last week I made an exception to my "take the time" rule.

A friend of mine has four small children including a baby which means she has maybe 20 minutes at most in which to work by herself. She asked for my help in organizing a basement room that had been set up as a storage room. Because we had less than 2 hours, we decided to work in zones.

Like most other homeowners, the objects stored in this room could be sorted into 3 or 4 categories. The trick is to go through the piles and identify the categories. Then if the room is designated for storage, you can create zones. In this particular instance, we classified 3 areas: crafting, holiday decor, and short term storage. Since eventually my friend wanted to use this room as a craft room, we decided to tackle the crafting supplies first.

We were able to go through the bins and coordinate her supplies, clearly mark the bins, and stack them in one corner in a way that allowed easy access.

Photo_060209_001 basementbinsafter

Because we assigned the other side of the room to be for holiday decor and the closet for short term storage (such as winter clothes), we were able to give the homeowner room to work in. We also created one space that is organized which gives her a bright spot to look at and motivation to finish. Now, when she finds a little time, she has a game plan for how to sort the rest of the room.

This week I was reminded that sometimes we need a fresh pair of eyes when deciding on the best layout for our rooms. When we move we often put items in the same space as they occupied in our old homes without consideration for the new set up. When you get overwhelmed, ask a trusted friend to have a look and give you some ideas. You can also map out your room on paper. Then work in small predesignated zones to keep you motivated.

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Basement Guest/Storage Room Organization

Thanks to my friend who asked me over to help her organize. I know that it is hard to let people see your rooms when they've become overwhelming, but I'm so glad that she let me help.
Some challenges from today include:
1. A well-meaning spouse who likes to put random objects together in bags or boxes & transfer them to the basement in an attempt to clean the main floor. This created nice "surprise bags".
2. Gifts bought ahead of time (which I may have to start next year) that were spread across two closets.
3. Hand-me-downs with no clear space to sort them into bins.
4. Furniture and toys clogging up the space.




For four hours we:
Sorted through all the surprise bags and put like items together in bins.
2. Put all the gifts together-- fully utilizing the space in one closet.
3. Put the clothes in the other closet thus "containing" them until the home owner can sort through them & put them into bins according to size. Now that there's free floor space, it's a perfect room for the sorting task ahead.
4. Moved the furniture around so that the "bedroom" furniture was on one side of the room & the toys on the other. This helped to visually unclutter the space by creating "zones".




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A few Garage Sale tips




I love going to garage sales and have been "junking" most summer Saturdays since I was 12. I had held a few garage sales with other people, but never had much luck. Last year, I decided to work backwards--to hold a garage sale the way I as a junker would love to find. The result was success!

So this summer I shared my tips with a neighbor who had mostly clothes to sell. I was a little doubtful since I usually pass on garage sales with mostly clothes, but she got a lot of traffic & sold a ton of clothes.

1. Signs-- Use the same color (preferably neon) for all your signs.

Don't put an address or a time. Nobody is going to slow down & try to read it. Put "Yard Sale" and a nice big, visible arrow. "huge", "multi-family" and other adjectives are mostly ignored b/c they're rarely true.

Place the sign up high on the same side of the road as you want people to turn. Nothing is more infuriating that going all the way into a right lane because you spotted a neon sign, only to see the arrow pointing left.

2. Set up-- Nobody wants to dig through your boxes. Take the time to do some sorting & put your best items on tables.

High visibility/high appeal items should be placed out front or facing the curb to attract customers.

Clothes are best put into sizes. We got the most sales after we had sorted the clothes so that customers could go right to the bin they wanted instead of having to dig. One thing I would've done differently in hind sight is to put the bins at a distance from each other. A few customers took clothes from one bin & just threw them into the next one.

If you don't have many items to sell, ask neighbors to join you or wait til the next year. If these are not possible, place your items on the front 1/2 of your driveway to make them appear to fill the space.

3. Pricing--This is the area where I used to trip up. I used to pay whatever the asking price was, and expected others to do the same if I set the price low enough. Not so.

Nobody expects to pay listed price at a garage sale. You've hauled these items out, and as a customer I know that you don't want to haul them back in. Decide what your lowest price will be & then mark it higher. Don't go too high or people will think your expectations are to high & will not even try to bargain.

Example: If you want $20 out of an item mark it $35. If your willing to take a dollar, mark it $2 or even $5. Just remember that people usually come to garage sales with $20 or maybe $40 and they are not prepared to spend much more. For high ticket items, try the classifieds.

By 12:00, some junkers are tired or hungry and aware that most of the best deals are gone. The hard core junkers know that by this time the home owner is ready to deal. If you're serious about letting go--mark most items for $1 or half-price and put a sign out. And be prepared to be offered very little.

Have fun! (& remember to invite me to come & shop)


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I'm a stay-at-home mom of 3 who likes to organize, craft, & read (among other things)