Read an Excerpt
Organizing from the Inside Out for Teens
What's Holding You Back?
If you're reading this book, chances are that you think you are a disorganized person (or someone you know thinks you are). You've been sometimes lovingly, and other times scoldingly, referred to as a slob, mess-aholic, or pack rat.
We're going to bust a lot of myths about getting organized, and here is the first one. Organizing is not about discipline. It's about design. If your system is a custom fit for you, maintaining it will be a breeze. You don't have to change who you are to get organized. You have to work with your natural habits and goals. You design the system to support you, not to change you.
Myth: Organizing is the same as being neat.
Fact: Organizing is not about how a space looks, but how it functions.
In the game of organization, substance is what matters, not style. Many people keep their rooms looking so neat and clean, you'd think you could eat off their floor. However, when push comes to shove, they can never find anythingbecause inside their drawers and closets, it's utter chaos. Others have rooms that are all piles, a stack of papers here, a mountain of clothes there, but when it's time to look for something they need, they can find it within seconds.
Messy does not equal disorganized. It doesn't matter if people think that your room looks like a disaster area. Here's the definition of organizing this book is based on: If you know where your stuff is, are able to find what you need when you need it, and are comfortablein your space, then you're organized! If you're happy with your schedule and comfortable with where your time is spent, then you are a good time manager. In that case you probably don't even need to read any further. But be honest with yourself. Take the following self-assessment to see if your piles are a help or a hindrance and if you're really as organized as you'd like to be.
DO YOU NEED THIS BOOK?
Take this assessment to determine if you are as organized as you'd like to be:
If you answered "false" to three or more of the above questions, keep reading. This book was written expressly for you. It will teach you how to organize your life so that you can succeed in all your goals and still find enough time to enjoy yourself.
Myth: Organizing is a talent you're either born with or not.
Fact: Organizing is a learnable skill.
You've tried to get organized in the past. Many times. Well, at least you've thought about it. You've spent marathon weekends sorting through the clutter in your room, getting rid of as much as you can, yet within days you're right back to the way it looked before. Your parents have doled out big bucks for every kind of calendar, Palm Pilot, and pager ever invented, alarm clocks that sing your favorite show tunes ... but you still find yourself racing behind the clock.
You're envious of the kids who seem to have it all together, who fit in a million after-school activities, get straight A's, are never late for anything, and always know where their keys are.
Is organizing a mysterious talent some lucky people are born with, while the rest of the world's poor, unfortunate souls (like you) are left to suffer? The truth is that organizing is a remarkably simple skill that anyone can learn. We have both learned it. And you can, too. That's what this book is all about.
Say it out loud: I am not a disorganized person! The fact is, everybody is organized somewhere. No matter how messy your room is, no matter how often you have lost your library books or scrambled at the last minute to do your homework, there's no doubt that somewhereburied under the piles, hidden inside the chaosthere are some systems that are working for you. Right now, before reading any further, take a moment to define where you are organized by consulting the "Where Are You Organized?" assessment on the following page. Why start there, you ask? Because it builds confidence. It gives you energy. And it's the truth.
WHERE ARE YOU ORGANIZED?
Everybody is organized in some parts of his or her life, disorganized in others. Start this process on a positive note by identifying the areas in which you are organized: is it your homework, clothes, bedroom, memorabilia, collections, social life, time, photos, sock drawer? Then move on to the areas that need improvement. Examples:
Lilly Y., 17, GeorgiaWhat's organized: My clothes and social lifeWhat's not: My school stuff and studyingJonathan S., 15, New YorkWhat's organized: My homeworkWhat's not: My bedroom and sports gearAriela N., 16, FloridaWhat's organized: My photos and memorabiliaWhat's not: My papers and school suppliesYour turn:What's organized: ____________________What's not: __________________________
Myth: Organizing is about throwing things away.
Fact: You can keep everything that you want and still get organized.
"Look at all this junk!" "I gotta get rid of this clutter!" "I've got way too much stuff!" Many of us believe that organizing is about getting rid of as much "junk" as we possibly can. But organizing is never about throwing things away. It's about discovering what's important and giving yourself access to it. So instead of looking at organizing as a punishing process, like being stripped of all your treasures and gold, think of it as identifying what's important toyou and honoring it by giving it a place in your space or your schedule.
Many of us are collectors at heart. Fortunately, organizing doesn't mean saying good-bye to all our treasures. You don't have to live like a monk to be organized. Instead, celebrate all your worldly possessions by arranging them in one place. For instance, you can keep your vast collection of concert T-shirts folded on one or two easy-to-reach shelves rather than leaving them strewn about your closet and stuffed in random drawers. Or, consolidate your zillions of photos into a matching set of boxes and albums so you can actually enjoy looking at them. After all, what's the point of gathering all of those wonderful treasures if you can't find them when you want them?
You may be wondering: If organizing is a skill that anyone can learn, why am I so disorganized? Most people believe that clutter is caused by laziness, sloppiness, or pure incompetence. That could be the biggest myth of all. All messes are not created equal. There are actually more causes for clutter than you can imagine, and none of them have to do with your being lazy (even if you are sometimes!).
Rather than beating yourself up and dismissing yourself as a hopeless case, take a look at the ten most common causes of disorganization described below. The good news is that every problem has a cure. By pinpointing the real reasons for your chaos, you'll take the first steps toward solving the problem and save yourself lots of time and energy in the process. Read through the following symptoms and see if you can get to the root of your clutter.
I never put things back in the same place twice.
I have new clothes, games, papers, or books and can't figure out where to put them.
There are so many things I want to do, but I have no idea when to do them.
DIAGNOSIS: HOMELESS ITEMS AND TASKS
The bottom line is, you can't put something away if there's no place to put it. And you won't be able to plan a friend's party or finish your chemistry lab work if you haven't set aside time in your schedule to do it. If your room is overrun by piles and clutter, one reason may be that you have not designated homes for many of your things. As a dynamic and changing person, you probably acquire new possessions on a daily basis: every new year brings new interests and the accessories that go with it; every new class involves a new set of books. Your to-do list grows right alongside your expanding commitments. You end up with so much stuff to do and track, you get to the point that you don't know where to put anything anymore. So, you drop things anywhere, tuck tasks into any available pocket of space, and end up not getting to a lot of things.
Create one single, permanent home for each item (or category of items) that you own. For example, pens, pencils, and markers could go in the top desk drawer; calculators, compasses, and rulers in the middle; spare paper and stationery in the bottom, permanently. That way, if you are in the middle of math homework, you know exactly which drawer to look in for your graphing calculator. It's actually not so complicated to designate a home for every item. Chapter 2 will give you a memorable and clever way to figure out what goes where so you'll never forget.
This rule also applies to your to-dos. You need to assign a specifichome (or time) to each task on your to-do list. Pick the particular day and the time you will do various projects and take care of responsibilitiesbeing specific will ensure they won't be forgotten. Part 3 of this book will teach you more about finding the best times to do various tasks and how to keep track of your plans.
I can't reach places where things belong.
My doors, cabinets, and/or drawers are stuck.
My bins are piled too high.
I find that it becomes too hard to put things away.
DIAGNOSIS: INCONVENIENT STORAGE
More than half the time, you have designated a home for your belongings, but those homes are just too hard to get to. The shelves are too high to reach. The dresser drawer is broken and too hard to open. The closet door is blocked by a big chair, which you have to shove out of the way just to hang up your clothes. The hamper is down the hall in the bathroom. No wonder your dirty clothes are piled on the floor of your room!
Nobody will put things away if it's too hard. You've got to make the process more convenient. The secret is to store things where you use them, not necessarily where they fit. And fix or remove broken doors and drawers. This entire book is full of tips and suggestions for relocating items within arm's reach of where you use them.
Julie's Work Journal: Amy's Story
Amy, who is five feet two inches tall, was looking for a place in her room to store her board games. Many of the boxes were big and chunky and some were long and flat, and she decided that storing them on the long top shelf of her closet (seven feet off the ground) would be a good idea. Seemed logical at the time. But unbeknownst to Amy, this location was destined to cause problems.
Every time she wanted to put a game back where it belonged, she had to drag the desk chair to the closet and risk life and limb trying to keep her balance while plumbing the farthest reaches of the shelf. This system didn't hold up for long, and pretty soon she (and her friends) were tripping over game pieces scattered all over the floor. We moved her games to an underbed drawer on wheels. That placed her games right next to where they were used. Easy access, easy cleanup.
My filing system is way too confusing to me.
I have boxes inside boxes inside drawers on my shelves.
I tried organizing my CDs with number codes, but I can't remember what the codes mean.
I have too many drawers and cubbies to remember what goes where.
DIAGNOSIS: OVERLY COMPLEX SYSTEM
An overly complex system becomes a black holethings go in but they never come out. Trust in your system disintegrates faster than a sumo wrestler in quicksand, and you stop putting things away because you're afraid you'll never see them again.
Erez was working on a community service project that he was really excited about, but keeping track of all the paperwork was a huge challenge. There were flyers and announcements for volunteers; letters to the city to ask for special permissions; plans and invitations for fund-raising events; phone numbers and e-mail addresses for all the volunteers; multiple copies of meeting notes. He created a new folder for every separate piece of paper he acquired, and pretty soon he never knew where to look. His filing system got so complicated, he stopped using it, and all the papers ended up in a big pile on the floor next to his desk.
When it comes to time management, disorganization can result when you take an overly complex approach to certain large projects. Ariele had an oral history project to do. Although she was only required to interview three people, she decided to interview ten. In preparation for each interview, she also decided she needed to read five or six history books. Once she finished interviewing so many people, it would take her months to weed through and interpret all her data. She had unnecessarily overcomplicated it.
The solution here is to simplify your system. When it comes to stuff, always look for the broadest categories to sort your belongings into. When it comes to overwhelming projects, you need to learn how to break them down into small, manageable steps. The kindergarten model in Chapter 2 will help you simplify both organizing and time-management systems so that there's only one logical place to put or find any item. Part 3 on time management will give you lots of specific examples of breaking tasks down into smaller parts.
All of my drawers, closets, and shelves are filled to capacity.
My containers are bulging with overflowing contents.
My to-do list goes on for six pages. I have way too much to do, but not enough time.
No matter how busy I am, there's still so much more to do.
DIAGNOSIS: MORE STUFF THAN SPACE
If your dresser is buckling under the pressure of crammed drawers, your closet is packed to capacity, and even your windowsill hasn't seen the light of day in years, you may be suffering from a clear-cut case of object overload. This can happen in a little room or a big room but the feeling is that your stuff is squeezing you out. If your to-do list never stops and you barely have time to eat, you may also be suffering from an unrealistic workload. We don't need to tell you: a teen's life can be very hectic and demanding. Things may have been pretty calm and manageable in elementary school, but once you hit junior high school, BLAM, the pressure started to pile on. Too much work, too much responsibility, and too many expectations.
There are two main ways to tackle this situation:
1. Reduce the amount of stuff/activities.
2. Maximize the amount of storage/time in your day.
Getting rid of things can be one of the hardest parts of organizing, but there are ways to make it easier if it's really necessary to make sure you still have room for your bed! No matter how large or small your space is, making a little space go a long way is one of the crucial organizational skills this book will help you acquire.
In every chapter, you'll learn how to sort through your items and decide what to keep and what to toss. You'll also discover new ways of stretching space and finding storage where none seems to exist.
On the time front: When your workload gets too heavy, you needto learn how to say no, how to delay certain tasks and maximize your energy and time every day. Part 3 of this book is entirely devoted to giving you the time-management skills needed to find the right balance, eliminate procrastination, and work with your natural rhythms and preferences to get the most out of each day. You may actually have enough time on your hands, but simply need to use it better.
I'm afraid if I put anything away, I'll never find it again.
If I can't see things, I forget I own them.
I leave things out to remember to do them, but forget they are there.
DIAGNOSIS: THE"OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND!" MIND-SET
Many of us are afraid that if we put things away in a closet or a drawer we will forget they exist. So we leave things out to remember them, a visual to-do list. For example, you stack the overdue library books by your door so that you'll remember to grab them before you leave for school. On your dresser, you may have a pair of jeans that need mending, a sweater that you have to return to your friend who left it at your house last time she slept over, and a permission slip that you have to get your mom to sign. Visual reminders are great if they actually work. However, for most people, leaving everything out in the open makes their sight go blurry. Piles blend into one another, making visual reminders virtually invisible, and you begin to ignore them.
If the piles are not doing their job to keep you on track, the solution is to find a new, more effective reminder system. This usually involves combining a simple storage system so your stuff is always inthe same, reliable place, along with a to-do list, planner, or calendar to tell you what you need to do. The kindergarten model in Chapter 2 offers a foolproof way of organizing spaces so you never lose or forget what you own. Chapter 7 will teach you how to select and use a to-do list, planner, or agenda to remind you what you need to do and when you need to do it.
I share a room with a disorganized sibling.
My stuff keeps getting taken by my sister/brother.
I want to move to the atticany space that's just mine.
Everyone in my family is a pack rat.
My house is too cluttered to bring friends home.
Every time I set aside an hour to tackle one of my to-dos, my parents ask me to do something else.
DIAGNOSIS: DISORGANIZED FAMILY
In your quest for a sane, peaceful, and organized environment, living with a disorganized family can be one of the most difficult hurdles to clear. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to establish orderin a room you share with a sib who is only too happy to live out the rest of his or her days in a pigsty. It's equally frustrating when you have your supplies really well organized, and family members keep borrowing them without returning them because they can never find their own. In a chaotically run household, everything often happens at the last minute, making it very hard for you to make and stick to any plans of your own. If everyone in your familyfrom your grandfather on down to your parents, aunts, and unclesis disorganized, carving out your own little oasis of order can present a major challenge.
Aspiring to neatness in a disorganized family can be like trying to lose weight in an overweight familythere can be lots of guilt and anger on both sides. Recognize that organizing can start with just your space. In fact, if your family seems disinterested in getting organized, give up trying to motivate them to see things your way and focus exclusively on your own individual area. Let everybody know that you're not trying to convert them. You just want your space to be organized.
If you are sharing a room, try subdividing the space in a way that gives each of you your individual sections. Screens, beads, and furniture can all work well as room dividers. Label your supplies with a label makerand start charging your sib a lending fee every time he or she has borrowed things without returning them. Also, give special consideration to who's in the front half of the room and who's in the back. If you can't stand looking at the clutter, think about taking the half of the room closest to the door. If you prefer the privacy, you can go in the back and let your sibling have the front so that your sib doesn't have to walk through your space to get to his or hers.
I am fearful that getting organized will squelch my creativity.
I love spontaneity and unpredictability.
I find structure too confining.
Part of my charm lies in the fact that I am disorganized.
DIAGNOSIS: FEAR OF LOSING INDIVIDUALITY
Perhaps being disorganized is your fun and kooky trademark. You can often be heard complaining about how scattered and disorganized you are, but deep inside you're kind of proud of your charming and offbeat lifestyle. Maybe you're even afraid that getting organized will transform you from a free spirit into a tense obsessive-compulsive type ... your creativity will disappear, you won't be as dramatic or as interesting, people won't like you as much, and then where will you be?
Relax. An organizational system does not mean taking leave of your personality. As you'll see in the chapters to come, a good system can both reflect and encourage your creative, dramatic, and impulsive side by being just as creative and visually stimulating as you are. If you've never tried organizing, it takes a leap of faith to discover that you'll find even more time for your creative projects if you're organized. Just think of how many ideas you never get to pursue because you can't find the tools or the time you need. The fact is that you're a creative person and your brain is going to keep generating all these ideas. The question is, are you going to be organized enough to take them on?
I can't stand the repetitiveness of putting things away.
I jump from one exciting project to the next without taking time to clean up.
Cleaning up feels like a complete waste of time that could be spent having fun.
Entering info into my Palm Pilot is so dull I never end up doing it.
DIAGNOSIS: BELIEF THAT ORGANIZING IS BORING
OKlet's face it. "Tidying up" can seem about as exciting as watching paint dry. And sometimes, if something's not fun, it's awfully hard to motivate yourself to do it. So, what can you do to combat this resistance based on boredom?
First of all, don't try to convince yourself that cleanup is fun and exciting. But instead of concentrating on how boring the process is, think about how great it feels to find things when you're looking for them. So you're really not putting things away; you're just preparing them for the next time you need them. Or consider how calming and grounding it can be to find time for all your activities. When life is really chaotic, organizing your time and schedule can be a welcome break from the chaos and a very soothing experience. You can also find motivation in self-bribery. Promise yourself that as soon as you put everything away or stick to a schedule, you can call a friend, curl up with a book, have your favorite snack, watch your favorite show, take your dog for a run. In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, you'll find techniques for designing your space so that it takes only three to five minutes to clean it upno matter how messy it gets. So if you have a favorite TV show, straighten up for five minutes before it starts and then watch the show as a reward for a job well done. Once this becomes routine, you'll be surprised how easily it sticks.
I can't bear to throw anything out.
I am emotionally attached to every object I've ever owned.
I feel like I am throwing out part of myself when I get rid of things.
I can't imagine giving up my art class. I've been taking it with my best friend since I was six.
DIAGNOSIS: SENTIMENTAL ATTACHMENT
Often, it's hard to let go of things we aren't using anymore because we infuse them with a tremendous amount of meaning. It becomes harder still if you add feelings to your inanimate objects. You're ready to throw away the bunny, but you're afraid his feelings will be hurt.
Hanging on to some symbols of your past is important. But it's all a matter of quantity. If you are saving so much from your past that there is no room for the new, it's time to reconsider just how much you are saving. In times like these, it's important to remember that our identity comes from within, not from what we own.
Give yourself permission to let things go. Your interests and hobbies are changing all the time. Because teen years are a time of such tremendous and constant change, once a year take a day to look around your room and figure out what no longer fits in. Review your schedule and see which activities you're holding on to for purely sentimental reasons. None of this is to say that all of your old stuff needs to go. Keep a few symbols from each important time in your past and throw away the rest. Chapter 6 will help you select and organize your memorabilia so that you can actually enjoy it while still making room for new things in your life. This way, you get to save some of the stuff that reminds you who you were, but you still have room for the new expressions of yourself.
Getting Beyond the Boredom
When I was eight years old I had an eye-opening experience that gave me the hope that I could actually get my room into shape. As a professional organizer, my mom had organized my room numerous timeseverything had a place (one of the cardinal rules of organizing). But my room would still become messy, because I didn't put anything away. This, of course, was as frustrating for her as it was for me. It so happened that she was giving an organizing workshop on National Take Your Daughters to Work Day, and I decided to attend. I never could have predicted the outcome.
In teaching the class, my mom focused on how important it was to design your system based on the way you think, taking into account your natural habits and needs. I decided that not all hope was lost. On the way home from the workshop, I told my mom that we just hadn't found the right system for me yet.
"Do you want my help?" Yes was the answer. "Let's set up an appointment." We agreed to meet the following evening.
During the consultation, I was treated as a client. My mom asked me what I needed places for and where I thought those items should be placed. As I scanned the room, I realized it was in fact already set up pretty well. Then came her next question: "If everything is where it should be and it's grouped the way you think, what do you think the problem is?"
"I guess I just don't like to put things away," I evaluated. "Is it OK with you if you don't put things away?" "No, I can't use my room." "So, if you don't like putting things away, can you think of something you do enjoy doing?" I responded, "I like going on-line."
Her suggestion was to set up a reward system. I was offered a coupon for fifteen minutes of AOL time for every day I cleaned my room. I asked, "Can I save them up so that I can have a twenty-four-hour marathon?" She said yes.
This system really worked. The key was that it was my goal and my reward system. We used this system for a couple of months. Then I got used to cleaning up automatically and started to enjoy the fact that I could find things. The reward system was a bridge to a new set of habits.
I don't know how to choose what's important and what's not.
It's hard for me to prioritize.
I feel interested in so many thingsI'm overwhelmed.
I'm not sure in what direction my life is going.
DIAGNOSIS: UNCLEAR GOALS AND PRIORITIES
Obviously, if you know what your goals are, figuring out what belongings you need and how to spend your time to accomplish them will be much easier. However, as a teenager you may not yet know what you want to accomplish in your life. One day you're playing guitar and hoping to be the next Jimi Hendrix; the next day you're thinking about inventing a better computer and giving Bill Gates a run for his billions.
Even if your interests aren't set in stone, it doesn't mean that you can't be organized. While you're trying to decide what you're going to do with the rest of your life, you should organize your time and space to reflect who you are right now. Ask yourself: What's important to me now?
If you can't think of any good answers, think about how you spend your days. What brings you the most happiness, gives you a sense of accomplishment, and generally makes life enjoyable? Answering these questions will give you a good idea of what your interests are today.
Sometimes we have a hard time admitting what's important. We may secretly know the answer but feel shy or insecure about our desires. We aren't sure if it's OK to want these things. It may be differentfrom what our parents, friends, teachers, and relatives want. The formula in this book is based on giving yourself permission to be who you are and designing a system to fit your current ideas about lifenot the ideas you had two years ago or the ideas you think you "should" have.
Organizing from the inside out is a way to dig deep down into yourself, learn about who you really are, and build your confidence in a sometimes overwhelming world. The entire process is built around finding and expressing your unique gifts. Ultimately, it frees you to be your best self and can help boost your self-confidence.
Now that we've busted a lot of the organizing myths and figured out what's been holding you back, it's time to start getting organized! Let's get going!
Copyright © 2002 by Julie Morgenstern and Jessi Morgenstern-Colón