Accountability – Nasty or Nice?

This word – accountability – has troubled me sometimes.  Too often someone wants to impose his or her version of it on someone else.  Even the definitions I’ve found fail to communicate a strongly positive connotation.

  • From Miriam-Webster: the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions
  • From the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable

Although they’re not necessarily negative either.  There’s a weight to being accountable, you are agreeing to be responsible.

In my coaching classes, we talk about accountability a lot.  Yet, it’s in the context of helping our clients define what accountability looks like for them.  And then, what they want from us around their definition of accountability.  They create the entire experience – according to what works for them.

Sometimes I feel a bit cynical, that the world is becoming filled with people who tend to blame others.  “If only, he or she didn’t… then I wouldn’t…”  Other times I think we’re reluctant to reveal the extent of the responsibility we each feel for things – to be that vulnerable.

Making changes is hard.  Plain and simple.  There are philosophies abounding about how to make them happen.  One of the most successful tactics for realizing changes is to tell people about your intentions.  This makes us most likely to follow through – there’s an accountability built in.  We’re making ourselves accountable by telling other people about our goals.

This is exactly like in our coaching practice (and many organizing clients) – our clients share their intentions and we follow up and see how they are coming.  Of course, we also spend time talking about the details making it specific.

Yet, what happens when someone is critical of our not succeeding in making those changes?  It undermines our efforts.  We’re less likely to broadcast our goals again.

We need to make sure we find supportive people to share our goals with – people who will encourage us at the same time that they won’t let us off the hook easily.  Hence, hold us accountable.  You need to define what that looks like for you – how do you want to be held accountable?  Ideally, even if you don’t manage to meet your expectations, the result is not criticism, but curiosity, “what happened?”

Accountability can certainly develop negative connotations depending on whom you’re sharing things with.  In essence, accountability is a positive concept.  We all need it to some degree, just in our distinct, personal way.  When I think about accountability in this way, whether for myself or for those I work with, I appreciate the value it has.

Maintenance – Everything Needs It

As I was edging the lawn this week, I found myself thinking about how fast and easily the dirt and grass overtake the sidewalk.  And I used to procrastinate doing it.  Yet almost everything in our lives requires some maintenance – at least if we expect it to last.  If you think about it, there’s plenty of things you are happy to maintain – your relationships, your job, what else?  What are the things that you take care of in life?

When we start to think about it, there are many things that need our attention and care.  Our cars need to have oil changes and the tires need air.  Our clothes need to be laundered and dealt with – hung up or folded.  Our dishes need to get washed.  Our homes need to be cleaned periodically.  Some of these can feel like work, yet we manage to get them done – at least most of the time.

Maintenance is work – even when we realize the value of it.  Even if these are things that are inconsistently done, you recognize the value of it.  Life is full of things aren’t easy.

What I have come to realize is that virtually everything in our lives requires maintenance.  Each piece of décor needs to be dusted eventually.  The knives in my kitchen need to be sharpened.  The clocks on the walls need batteries as well as to be changed twice a year.  The lawnmower that helps me with the grass needs to be cleaned and sharpened.  The heater needs a new filter regularly.  The list goes on and on.

It’s a decent argument for limiting the amount of stuff that we bring into our lives.  How much time and energy do we want to spend maintaining that?  Is that item worth the maintenance needed?

Yet, we also cannot eliminate all things from our lives.  We need things – I appreciate my dishes and the food that I put on them.  I wouldn’t want to go around naked.  I like sleeping on my mattress and box spring – even if I need to rotate the mattress regularly.

We need things and therefore need to maintain those things.  Therefore, consider these questions in reference to maintaining things:

  • What comes more easily for you?
    • What makes that easier for you?
  • What takes work to maintain; yet you still do it consistently?
    • What makes that worthwhile for you to work on it?
  • What are you willing to do?
    • And then what are you potentially willing to give up to maintain this or that?

There are no easy answers to maintaining things – or rather to developing new patterns of maintaining things.  I encourage you to recognize the things that you already maintain.  Then you can use that knowledge you can gain from these successes and apply them to new areas needing maintenance.

Those Random Items

Do you have a ”junk drawer”?  Or several?  It’s these places where things collect that don’t have a better place to live.  We all have items that don’t quite fit in with another category.  These things can eat away at us or simply accumulate in a particular space (or everywhere).  They can cause a lot of frustration and might even stymie us from moving forward on those things we could deal with.

There’s no question these things are annoying.  It can make us feel stuck and sometimes stupid – why can’t I figure out how to deal with them?  And we all have these things – we get to a point that we aren’t quite sure what to do with them.  What do I do with this?  Where do I put that?  Often we then just throw them altogether somewhere – hence the junk drawer.  Or, in my case, I have a folder in my file cabinet called “Etcetera” and no junk drawer.

The first question to ask yourself is how do you behave when a space starts to get cluttered.  We all have a different approach.  I tend to become bothered by it and find time to go through it.  I regain control of that space fairly quickly.  On the other extreme, some people are either rather blind to it or are so frustrated by it they ignore the growing mess.  And we easily keep adding things to that pile or file so it does keep growing.

Most organizers are adamant that you never have a junk drawer or an “Etcetera” file.  Although I understand their point, what is more important is how you responded to the question above – “How do you behave when a space starts to get cluttered?”  If you avoid dealing with that space and keep adding to it, then it is a better idea to find a different way to handle those random items.

I don’t recommend a junk drawer generally – even if you are someone who deals with it promptly when it starts to fill up.  Undeniably, figuring out what to do with those things can be frustrating – for all of us.  Before you tackle handling these random things, organize the things that are more clear and straightforward.  The oddball things are best saved to the last in the organization process.

So, you want to figure out how to deal with those random things?  Ideally you want to pull them all together.  Also, if you have other things that need organizing, deal with that first.  You want to avoid having too much around you when you work on the puzzling, random things.

  • What kinds of things are they?
  • How many do you have like it – i.e. can it be grouped with any other category of things?
  • How many have commonalities between them – i.e. do you have 2 like items among the pile of oddball things?
  • What is the next action that you are going to do with it – i.e. you need to make a phone call or are waiting until you see someone or you simply want to save it?
  • What is this things purpose for you?

As with all organizing, it’s about figuring out various factors that I sum up with the term categories.  This is defined by how we use things, where we use them, how often we use them, and on and on.  The idea is to have the categories “big” enough to make it worth making a category – for instance, it rarely makes sense to have a folder in your file cabinet with 1 piece of paper in it.  While on the other hand, you want it to be “small” enough category that things won’t get lost amid all the other things – for instance, a work file is often too large since there are so many different facets and it would be more effective to have it subdivided.

When you are looking at those random things, consider what categories they might fit into.  Sometimes this means thinking more broadly – you didn’t consider that this could be memorabilia or whatever.

There is value in walking away sometimes from trying to figure out the place for these random things.  When we are frustrated, it’s more challenging to think clearly – and it’s better to set it aside for a while.  You can make a list of these things and look at periodically and consider options.  Or ask a friend or two for their ideas on how to categorize them.

I recommend a basket or bin for those unknown electronic components and items that belong to something else but you can’t remember or find – then they are all together when you figure it out.

Don’t let those random things stop you from organizing what you can.

Paper Retention

A while back I was working with a social worker and had to write up case reports on the progress being made with the client.  Early on in one of them I talked about the continuing struggle with papers and how common this is.  After talking with the caseworker, she requested I rewrite my report – saying that the struggles with papers would make the client seem incompetent.  Huh? Apparently, her superiors are under the impression that struggling with papers is uncommon and a sign of greater challenges.  I offered to speak with all of them to explain how extremely common it is and I was completely flabbergasted that anyone could think that way.

Struggling with papers is quite possibly the most common thing I encounter with my clients.  This doesn’t necessarily mean bills or mail, although it can.  Papers are virtually endless, there are always more of them and we cannot be rid of them all ever.  Also, they can be difficult to organize in a way that makes them easy to find when you need them.

Papers are also extremely important.  We need them for taxes and for work and the list goes on and on.  Sometimes they are unique and finding them again – like on the internet or library (i.e. if we got rid of them) – isn’t simple or possible.  We’re not always comfortable with the internet – accessing financial information – and that doesn’t mean the information you’d need is available.

I’ve done research on how long it’s recommended we keep our important papers.  It’s surprising how there are different opinions on various types of papers while there are agreements about others.

For papers that relate to taxes, the IRS has guidelines (of course!).  It’s gotten more detailed since the last time I reviewed them, scroll most of the way down the page to “How Long to Keep Records.”  In general, it’s recommended that you keep your returns indefinitely, although you can discard the supporting documentation eventually.

When we’re dealing with other papers, here’s several resources with their recommendations.  The best idea is to ask your tax preparer for their advice, as they know your personal situation.  You can always make a list of questions for the next visit if it’s not convenient to contact them more frequently.

Everyone handles their paperwork differently – from keeping bills of everything for a while to throwing away bills as soon as a new one comes in.  When it doesn’t deal with taxes, it really is up to you how you handle them.  If papers plague you – know that you are not alone.  It does not make you incompetent either, despite what some people might believe!

Safety – consider your beauty products

Just before I got married, I decided it would be fun to get a makeover and test make-up out for the wedding.  I eventually bought a handful of items.  Then I resumed my typical make-up habits, wearing little to none most of the time.  Yet, one day I put more on.  And the strangest thing happened, my eyes swelled up and became quite red – the skin all around them.  I’d reacted to the make-up.  It wasn’t me as it turned out.  Make-up expires, I discovered after calling the manufacturer.

The thing was that this wasn’t the first time that I used make-up that I had purchased a while back.  I also tend to buy the same brands.  It was the first time I ever reacted to make-up.  I’ve always tried to use common sense – does it look and smell funny?  Yet this last time, it hadn’t been that long and nothing raised the warning flags.

Make-up is easy to collect – it’s pretty small and is easy to have in different locations.  I find that it can be challenging to part with – “I spent all this money to buy it, I should use it.”  Yet, how much do you use all of it?  Does it sit there waiting to be used?  Here’s a picture of the pile of make-up I dumped out of a bag a while back – before I went through it and purged my collection.

Pile of make-up before sorting

Pile of make-up from a bag I found as I’m about to go through it

There are two ways they measure the time of make-up expiring – from the production date and the period after opening (PAO).  Unfortunately there’s no real regulation on cosmetics though the FDA does oversee it somewhat.  Although the smell can indicate something might no longer be good, it’s not as clear as the perfume that’s gone bad and is suddenly quite stinky.

Although it’s often convenient, storing make-up in the bathroom can contribute to it’s going bad more quickly.  The moisture and humidity can shorten the life expectancy of make-up.  Ideally, temperature and humidity will be controlled to maximize how long the make-up lasts.

Some people struggle with the feeling it’s so wasteful to toss those beauty products that have been around – “I’ll use it soon.”  After my puffy eyes for a week, I’m more reluctant to push the limits now – even though this was several years ago now.  That’s why when I found another bag of make-up, I emptied it out and threw most of it away – here’s what I kept, mostly brushes and a pencil sharpener.  It was challenging to face the waste I’d inadvertently created and throw it away – yet red, puffy eyes are not something I want to risk again. 🙂

Pile of make-up after purging

Pile of make-up after purging – mostly brushes, mirrors, and pencil sharpener remaining

Consider your own beauty products – how many do you have that you don’t use regularly?  If you’re not using them, use the money to get something else you will actually appreciate and in the process avoid any risk to have a reaction to products that have gone bad.

Donating Process

Last week I talked about how organizing is really a process and therefore is never finished.  There’s always more to be done.  If we don’t continue the process of keeping things organized, our homes easily become overrun with clutter – in the purest sense of the word.  We need to discover the process that will work for each of us and for each thing that needs a process – creating the routines for organization.

For many people the process of getting rid of still good things can be the most challenging – especially once you’ve reached that relatively organized state.  Also, making it part of the flow of life means continual work.

“How do I know it’s time to get rid of this?”

Sometimes I struggle to get rid of things – they’re not broken, or torn, or worn out, or stained – they are still quite usable.  Yet, do I use them?  I’ve gotten to the point that if I am not actually using them and cannot imagine using them (sometimes from trying to force myself to make it usable) they go into my donate pile.  The thing is that if you are not using it, is there a good reason to keep it?  I find that I am using things I love and appreciate, so if something isn’t getting used, it’s more likely that I don’t love it.

“I won’t have time to drop this off at a nonprofit for a while.”

If you’ve ever heard me present, I talk about how we’re not finished until we get the things out of our home, out of our garage, out of our car.  This is true – if it’s still in your possession you are not free from the things.  Although this is not a good reason to stop yourself from moving things further along in the process of getting it out of your space.  More important than being able to quickly get it out of your space is to ask how much you’re accumulating that’s waiting to leave?  If you have a lot (and you get the define that for yourself), then you need to make time – schedule it – to get the things out of your space.

“I don’t have time to go through [insert space in your home] to purge things.”

First, theoretically your spaces aren’t in need of a major overhaul – we’re talking about maintaining organizing as part of the normal life.  If we integrate the process of organizing into normal living, we find a way to naturally purge things that are ready to go to their next home.  If you are standing in front of your closet and recognize a shirt that no longer fits, is stained, you now dislike, whatever the case may be – pull it out right then.  The same thing applies in any space – when you see something and recognize that it’s no longer useful to you, it’s time to remove it from that space.

“I can’t believe how much has accumulated so quickly.”

First, congratulations on noticing – that’s great and means that you can take steps to deal with it.  After noticing, the next step is to deal with it and create systems to help limit the accumulation in the future.  This is when systems are important – a way to create a flow for things to leave rather than collect.  From my experience, things collect – period.  If we don’t stay on top of it, the next time we look, it’s grown: kipple is the name I always think of (and wrote about).


The way that I deal with the process of getting rid of things is to have a box in one room – near a door, yet out of the way.  Each time I come across something that is no longer used or loved it makes it’s way to the box.  Once the box begins to fill up, I spend time listing the items in the box for tax purposes and close the top of the box.  Often I do this after I get a call from a charity that is scheduling pick-ups in my area – and I do this regardless of how full or empty the box.  If we’ve been busier with the purging, it really is once the box is full and then I evaluate whether I want to wait for the next phone call for a pick-up or if I want to drop it off myself.

It’s a great way to help kids learn the process – put a box in a corner or in the closet and involve your kids in deciding what they’ve outgrown – both clothes and toys.  I find a box placed strategically the easiest in helping the process of moving things out – whether that is one box or a box per room or per floor.  Remember, whatever works for you and helping you keep things moving through.

Organizing – a process not an end point

Sometimes people I know personally are self-conscious about letting me see their spaces – afraid I might critique their systems.  Other times, I get requests for ways to tweak and improve on things.  Fortunately I love what I do and am happy to talk about ideas and even get hands on.

Recently I was with some family and she was probably a little of both of the above – a little concerned I might critique things and probably more excited at my ideas and help.

Now, let me preface everything else with admitting she does not really need much organizing help.  Her spaces are relatively uncluttered and organized.  Yet, this is part of my point – just because you have good systems in place doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth analyzing and tweaking.  This is the exact thing that is often missing and a struggle for people – it takes work to sit down and look through things are already mostly organized.  And this is how clutter can get out of control!

One of the spaces we did some physical hands on work with was on the garage.  I took some before pictures – what do you think about how it looks?

Is this really a before picture?

Before or after?

The challenge of organization is that it’s never really finished.  It’s about creating a system in order to simplify the process as life continues.  If we keep adding clothes to our closets and dressers without pulling anything out – we become overwhelmed with all the clothes we’ll need to go through to get organized again.  And of course, we need to pull out enough clothes to make up for what we’re adding.  This is one of the reasons the idea of “one in, one out” is so popular – it makes the process automatic and simple.

As I’ve said, I dislike absolute rules.  They don’t work for everyone.  I strongly resist the idea that I would have to get rid of a book or CD every time I brought a new one in, although I’d be OK with getting rid of something else entirely.  I think we need to follow guidelines that work for us and that respects what we value.

This means that we need to stay attentive to what is gathering around us.  First, we have to notice what our surroundings look like, including the insides of closets and drawers, as well as our basements, attics, and garages.  Second, we have to make time to deal with things once we’ve noticed them.  Third, are there ways to simplify the process of getting rid of things?  My husband and I have a donate bin that we throw things into as we come across them and once it’s full I list the items and get it out of the house.

During my visit, she and I spent a little less than 2 hours working in the garage.  By the end, we had created 3 small bags of trash and had about 2 small bags for donating.  Many things got moved around – grouping like items together.  Now, we did not literally go through every box and bin though we did look inside every one.  As I already stated, she was already pretty organized so the boxes and bins were what they looked like.

As you saw, it didn’t need an overhaul, but it did appreciate some refining of things.  And although I work with people in much more extreme situations, I also have clients closer to this situation – wanting some help in tweaking the relatively organized stuff already in the space.

Remember, organizing is not an end point – it is the continual process we need to incorporate into our lives.

Treasures from Others

I enjoy trying to share my excess stuff with others – friends first and then to one of the stores.  I approach friends and ask, “Is this something you’d like to have?”  With one particular friend, let’s call her Joanna; she almost always takes whatever I’ve offered.  After a handful of months, I noticed stacked in a corner the sugar and creamer containers Joanna had taken most recently. The last thing I want to do is add to someone else’s clutter.

Stuff from other people comes into our homes – one way or another – from gifts or sharing or inheritance.  We all have them – things from those we love that don’t quite fit our personality or style.  Sometimes these are the most difficult items to make decisions about.  It holds some value in one way or another for us.  Is it simply the memory?  Is it guilt?  Is it a sense of obligation? Or is it something else entirely?

When working with clients, I often ask them after hearing that it’s from someone else, “Do you think this person would want to add to your clutter?”

I know this is the last thing I would want – it turns out I gave a gift to someone who was bothered by part of the design of it, I told them emphatically to pass it along to someone else, PLEASE.

William Morris known partially for his involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” If something is not useful or beautiful to you, wherever it came from, is there a reason to keep it?

The last time I visited, I saw it sitting in a corner.  On some level it made me sad since they shared how they don’t love it, yet because it was a gift from me, it stays.

Maybe I have too noble expectations of people – that they too would not want to contribute to anyone else’s clutter.  It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would want someone to keep a gift that isn’t adding value to his or her life and space.

We each get to make decisions for our own life – is it worth it to have things around that don’t make you happy?  Keep the lovely memory of the gift, the care from the person giving the gift, and let the item itself move into someone else’s life who might treasure it dearly.

Consider Changing Your Routine

I’ve probably said this before; I like routines.  It’s soothing for me to have a plan.  This doesn’t mean I won’t (or can’t) change my plans; nevertheless I enjoy making rough plans.  For years, Thursday and Friday were my prime laundry days.  I certainly had to change that for vacations and when the days filled up with other things, yet I would simply choose another more fitting day for that week.  When I started taking a class, it made sense to completely change my laundry plan.  I decided Tuesday and Wednesday would work better.

The strangest thing happened – at the end of the week I felt tremendously lighter.  It was like a load had been lifted (no laundry pun intended!).  I was no stricter with myself about being flexible.  I was simply less stressed.  And I don’t have an explanation.  Yet not understanding the logic of this doesn’t make it less true.  I feel tremendously better and months later, it holds true.

This is something I would not predict – for myself or anyone else.  We all have things we have to accomplish each week and each month.  This is true whether we plan for those things or not.  I certainly believe that we each have our own way of approaching things – from planning to how we handle our chores.

It can be amazing the effect of making some small alterations to our behaviors. They cannot always be predicted or even predictable.  This is one of the reasons I am a fan of trying things out, looking at things like an experiment and seeing what the effects are.   Years ago I did this with mowing the lawn.  I varied all sorts of factors from the basics of whether I mowed the front or back yard first, to directions and height.  This also revealed something rather strange to me – doing the backyard first left me more tired at the end.  I see no logic to this, yet it held true over and over.  If I had not experimented, I would not know this.

Have you ever noticed a difference in your energy level when you are caught up – when you don’t have tons of things left on your list to do?  This is what I think about with the “eat the frog” idea – you do the most important and hardest things first each day.  When I apply this, I feel more on top of things – I don’t have them hanging over me, knowing I still need to get to them.

These are some of the ways I notice changes happening around me.  And those changes can have profound effects on me.  As I’ve talked about before, embrace change – the freedom to play with it in your life can open up doors you didn’t even recognize before.  This doesn’t mean you need to regiment your life into routines (who wants that degree of control?), yet experiment and find your own way to be lighter and happier.

So Little Space

I remember with some embarrassment how excited I was about our house before we moved in.  Walking through the spaces, imagining how spacious most of it seemed.  The full bath was admittedly tiny, yet just across the hall was a big linen closet.  Many of the spaces seemed full of potential.  Using the spaces wasn’t quite as simple.  Whether you realize the space limitations before or after you move in, you still want to make the most of what you have available.

When you space is physically small, the first thing to consider is going vertical with your storage options.  Although many of our rooms are small, the taller pieces make the most of the available height – from our over 6 foot tall bookshelves to the tall and narrow “lingerie” dressers.  In the bathroom, we had a new medicine cabinet and matching cabinet installed over the toilet – creating some good depth and enclosed storage options.  Using the vertical space can mean furniture although it can also be simply installing some things onto the wall higher up.  Is there room for a stand-alone pantry?  Remember if you go vertical, keep in mind how easy or hard it is to access those things on top, and opt to store lesser-used items in the hard to reach places.

Small bathroom- medicine cabinet and cabinet over the toilet

Small bathroom- medicine cabinet and cabinet over the toilet (no room for an over-the-toilet rack and pedestal sink so no storage room underneath)

When dealing with a physically small space, one of the main tasks is to figure out what is critical to have in the space.  What can live elsewhere?  In our tiny bathroom, it felt luxurious when we got the cabinet over the toilet installed; we suddenly had this additional storage space.  Only the frequently used items live in the bathroom, and the rest are divided between the linen closet and the half-bath upstairs.  The bedroom linens don’t live in the linen closet at all – it made more sense to store those upstairs closer to the bedroom in a chest we have.  What absolutely needs to be kept in the limited space available to you?  Where can you store the back-up items or lesser-used items?

That linen closet I was so excited about is too deep and the fixed shelves too far apart for our ideal use.  To deal with this, I started with those items that could be stacked in front of each other – the towels have two stacks, so once we get through the front stack, it’s easy to access the second stack.  This is surprisingly not uncommon – I have seen this too frequently, it makes me wonder what people think when designing closets.

There are several options for making the most of closets and pantries – consider a Lazy Susan, maybe even a double tiered one – these can be especially useful in closets or pantries that go around corners, which can be challenging to use effectively.  Any tools that are double-tiered can be useful, as long as you don’t need to get behind it for things.  Depending on the items and placement, an under-the-shelf basket can help utilize the space well.  Often what helps is to put the front items into baskets, bins, or containers of some kind.  If you use this, you can pull out the container in one movement and easily get at the things behind them.

I’m a big fan of thinking non-traditionally.  Where can you store things that aren’t a “normal” place?  I’ve shared before how I purged some shoes to make room for the partial bookshelf in the bottom of my tiny closet – this isn’t where you’d typically think of putting books.  I’m currently using part of a bookcase to store office supplies – they are behind closed doors so it’s not obvious and they’re in a different room from the printer and mail supplies.  You’ve probably heard or seen people storing various items in their hutch – from photo albums or kids art supplies, not your traditional table linens, china, or silver.  We sometimes think of under-the-bed storage as an option – and with the canvas bags this becomes more of an option when your bed isn’t high enough for the traditional bins.  You can apply this same idea to under your dressers and other furniture – and keep it relatively hidden.

One of the popular ways to store things is to use the basement or attached garage.  I’ve seen people install virtually floor to ceiling shoe racks – using both non-traditional storage options and thinking vertically.  The basement and attached garage can also be useful for those back-up items – you move things from there into your home when needed and stock back up to the garage or basement.

There are such a plethora of options for how to make the most of your limited space.  Of course, you need to make sure you have exactly what you need and use – there’s frequently an opportunity to purge, even if it’s just a handful of things.  We almost have too many options for storing things – it can be tricky just sorting through them.  Also, you want to think about how you use things, make things work for you – despite much acclaim for storing cleaning supplies where you use them, this is often problematic when you have limited space.  Can you embrace the challenge to make the most of the space you have?

If not, call me!  I now offer virtual organizing. 😉