Organized? What's that all about?


January 11, 2003

Well, after my husband finished my column in last week's paper, he turned to me.

"So, ready to go to the garage?" he said, challenging me to make good on my resolution to at least start on a job he's been after me to do for many a new year.

"In a little while," I said.

Meantime, I walked by my youngest daughter's bedroom and my blood boiled, as usual, over the chaos I could see from the door.

Conveniently forgetting I had my own issues to deal with, I cracked down on her and told her she absolutely had to do something about her cave.

"This is a health issue," I said, trying to sound ominous enough to motivate her.

Ha! She's way too much like me to be swayed, shamed or otherwise snookered into doing something she doesn't want to do.

I turned to Harriet Schechter, organizer extraordinaire, whose ability to clear clutter out of people's lives is, well, legendary.

"What can I do?" I wailed. I told her I'd heard somewhere that about all you can do is shut a teen-ager's door and move on. But I was sure that she had some advice I could use.

"Shut the door."

Huh? This is the woman whose Web site is www.miracleorganizing.com, who conducts "Letting Go of Clutter" workshops through Learning Annex (the next one's in May). She's not really telling me to ignore this mess?

"It boils down to, unless a person, a teen-ager in this case, sees the benefits in being more organized, more tidy, uncluttered, it's very unlikely she's going to do it."

Well, all righty then.

No-nonsense as always, and equally congenial, Schechter said part of my job, "should you decide to undertake this mission," is to either give up or give Lauren a hand.

Schechter, who's living in Santa Barbara, but is back in San Diego often to lead workshops and work with clients, then read from her tip sheet on Teen-age Clutter Control:

"Identify her activity areas," she said. "Purge areas . . . just don't throw out her stuff for her. Discarding without discussing is dissing.

"That can cause more chaos in your relationship with her than the clutter does."

Hmmm, I could see that. (I remember overhearing my husband telling someone that he'd tossed some of my "must-keep" stuff from the garage, noting that I'd never miss it. I admit it, I don't, but I had this nagging feeling and now I know what it is: He dissed me by trashing my treasures.)

Next tip was to teach the difference between organized and tidy (which I thought were fairly synonymous).

Tidy, Schechter points out, is making things look neat by shoving everything into closets under the beds, any place you can hide stuff away.

Lauren is extremely tidy, I decided. So am I.

"You can tell your daughter firmly, 'Clean your room!' but if you don't provide assistance or direction or organizing tools or a plan, then it's perfectly logical for her to shove stuff away so you don't see it.

Of course, at some point, she'll need to find something, among all that's been shoved away.

"She'll have to pull it all out again."

I began to see Lauren's problem – and mine, too. I listened more carefully as Schechter preached from her bible of being organized.

Lauren needs to attack the room in chunks. She needs big colorful laundry baskets or something like that as she sorts clothing and accessories into one, schoolwork and supplies into another, maybe music and videos and books into another. Along the way, she will have to get rid of stuff she no longer needs/wants. That's the categorizing – "One of the most important things to get across at a young age: keep like things together," Schechter says.

Next comes setting up a new system.

"OK, how should we organize your room so it works for you?" Schechter said, feeding me the words I would use. "Most parents don't have that conversation with their children. Look at the space with her, ask her how it should be arranged so her life is better (given how much of it she spends in that room), so she's happier, so you're happier."

Finally, teaching her how to make the most of mindless maintenance work – talking on the phone while sorting her laundry, that kind of thing – so all this reorganizing doesn't have to be done again in two weeks.

It seems simple enough. Helping her, instead of nagging her. Asking her to help me, instead of pretending I don't have the same problem sometimes. Making sure she knows she's not the only one who doesn't have a "gift," as Schechter graciously puts it, for being organized. Helping her learn how to become more so. And keeping the whole thing in perspective. In other words, don't let a messy room overshadow all the wonderful things about my daughter that I would never trade for a pristine view from the hallway.

"Say to her, 'We can do this . . . together,' " encourages Schechter. And it becomes obvious how this woman has helped thousands of people conquer chaos and clutter since 1986 through her San Diego-based company, The Miracle Worker Organizing Service and the three books she's written on the subject, including "Let Go of Clutter," published last year by McGraw-Hill.

Being organized, Schechter says, "is harder than you think it should be. I've had so many people say, 'I feel so dumb about this.' Why? Organizing isn't taught in schools, so how are you going to learn these skills?"

OK, so I'm ready to teach Lauren these skills (now that I've learned some of them myself, finally). And I'm going to help Lauren see the benefit of being organized. And if that doesn't work?

"Be glad you have a door to shut."

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Jane Clifford is Family editor. Reach her at jane.clifford@uniontrib.com or by regular mail at The San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA 92112-0191. And join her for live discussions of family issues Sunday mornings at 9 on AM 600's "KOGO for Kids."

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.