Wednesday, March 28, 2007

loss, and freedom

Hello, beautiful person! I'm so happy you've stumbled across this blog. This particular post, and all its scintillating content, has been moved to my personal blog, emelgy.com.

mourning a purge

Okay, in the interests of full disclosure I should submit an addendum to my previous post. Sometimes you can feel really bad after a purge.

I remember I once lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time, and while I welcomed the weight loss, I found myself strangely sad in my new, skinny body. I realized after several days that I was mourning the loss of my old body. I've never read a weight-loss book that deals with this subject, although there is a lot of work by Jungian psychoanalyst Marion Woodman on this issue.

Similarly, when we get rid of a lot of our things, we can go through a period of feeling unsettled and unhappy. If we define ourselves at least in part by our possessions, losing them is like losing pieces of ourselves.

I just walked down the street and dropped off a tabla (East Indian drum) at a neighbour's house. His son teaches music in the public school system, and uses hand drums in his inner-city music classes. I'm thrilled at the thought of my drum being used by these kids, but part of me is feeling really sad, too.

The drum was given to me few years ago by a couple of dear friends who knew I was interested in learning hand drumming. I cried when I opened their gift - I couldn't believe that they had cared enough about me to pay attention to my dreams.

And I loved playing my drum; I loved the weight and heft of it when I held it between my knees (not proper tabla technique - but it felt right to me); I loved the feel of the taut skin against my fingers and palms; I loved the deep, resonant sounds the drum made when I played it.

Unfortunately, nobody else liked hearing me play my drum. And now I live in an apartment building where I am loathe to make that much noise. The drum has sat for months on a high shelf, untouched. To me, who loves music so much, that is a crime.

Now the drum will be played by exuberant students, but I still feel a pang at its loss. I need the shelf space for other things, but it saddens me that some of my dreams must die so that other dreams can be fulfilled.

How do we deal with these life transitions? One solution might be to create a small, personalized ritual that somehow gives significance to your experience. A simple action (like writing a story, or singing a song about how you're feeling, or creating a drawing that expresses your grief) is sometimes all that's needed.

Don't let potential sadness deter you from purging, however. It's only when we risk falling that we learn to fly...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

purging

Ah, spring!

Sunshine, warmer weather, and the first sightings of the season: yard and rummage sales! I am a bargain fiend, and I love the eclectic look of flea market chic, so my acquisitive blood begins to flow faster when I know that sale season is just around the corner.

This is also a great time of year to begin unloading items you no longer want or need, by hosting your own sale or donating to charitable organizations' sales. If you don't belong to a religious community, find out when groups in your neighbourhood are accepting goods, and plan your purges to coincide with those dates.

How do you tackle a purge?

The biggest mistake most people make is to try and sift through absolutely everything in their house in one fell swoop. This is an example of how organizing shows (which I generally like) have done a great disservice to TV audiences. Never forget that each one-hour show took TWO WHOLE DAYS to film, with dozens of people working behind the scenes to make sure everything got finished on time. And they only organize two rooms - not an entire house.

It is absolutely unrealistic to think that you can accomplish something similar in one weekend by yourself, even with the help of a friend or a professional organizer.

I suggest you give yourself time to make several "passes" over your possessions. Don't feel like you have to make final decisions on everything in one great purge. Break it down into multiple stages, and allow yourself to reflect and make decisions that you can live with in the long term.

The first pass deals with the unequivocables. Some things you just KNOW you have to get rid of. They've probably been staring you in the face, literally or figuratively, for several months. You can't wait to see the last of them. Gather them up and get them out of the house ASAP.

If you feel emboldened, prepare for a second pass. Work on one room at a time, for three or four hours per session, maximum. Any longer, and the body and mind become overwhelmed by the decision-making process.

The "one touch" rule employed by some organizing shows is a great way to start. Take each item one at a time and immediately decide: pitch, keep, or maybe. Throw out or donate the pitches.

The maybes are your third (and fourth and fifth and sixth) pass. If you can, give yourself a few days in between passes to let the unconscious mind weigh in on the whole process. If you feel little tugs telling you you really need to get rid of something, pay attention. By the same token, if some part of you is resisting a "no-brainer" purge, give yourself time to understand why. In the end you may indeed decide it's time to let the item go, but on the other hand procrastination may be the universe's way of telling you that the timing isn't right.

My least-favorite part of the purging process is the emotional turmoil that results from trying to make too many decisions in too short a time. I've talked a bit about this in a previous post, where I quoted Sarah Suzanka, architect and bestselling author of The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Taunton, 2001).

Suzanka says: "An awful lot of the stuff we have - and I'm not talking about one or two things, I'm talking about 50 percent - we literally never use and are never planning to use again, but can't let go of. They are basically objects in which we've invested dreams that didn't happen. It's very difficult to let go of the dreams, even though we know that they didn't actually bring us the satisfaction we were hoping for."

I've been gearing up for my own purge lately, and it's those dreams and expectations I had for my objects that are making the choices difficult. But I know it's time, because I feel a little itch in my solar plexus that tells me I'm ready to move on.

Do we ever regret purges?

Sometimes. There have been many things I've purged that I later wished I could have back. But I also believe that what goes around, comes around. If I can give freely of something at a certain point in my life, then perhaps later, when I need it, I will receive it again. I would rather live with very little and be surprised by serendipitous finds than hang onto everything and never need any of it. I admire people who can whittle the important things in their life down to one suitcase, and travel lightly.

How much to we really need, anyhow?

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, March 24, 2007

packing for a move

A friend of mine is moving soon, and earlier this week I helped her start packing. (I love packing. Yes, I'm weird.)

Here's a list of things to assemble for a packing job:

  • boxes
  • packing tape and gun
  • newspaper or plain newsprint
  • gloves (optional)
  • masking tape (optional)
  • markers and/or stickers
  • large, clear plastic lawn refuse bags

Before you start, put the rolls of tape, tape gun, and markers or stickers in a small, clear plastic container like one of these, so that you don't "lose" them in the chaos of packing. There's nothing more irritating than reaching for your marker and realizing you can't find it because you don't remember where you last set it down. Just remember to keep putting everything back into the plastic container, and you'll always know where it is.

Boxes.
You can buy new boxes from moving companies, moving supply stores, or many storage rental facilities. You can also get free boxes from grocery stores or liquor stores, but I don't recommend it, since the boxes will be all different sizes and will make packing the truck more difficult on moving day. The ideal is to have uniform boxes in two or three sizes: smaller ones for heavy items like books, and larger ones for lighter and bulkier items.

I've always had success buying used boxes from box brokers or recyclers. Many of the "used" ones aren't even used - they're overruns from packaging companies. They're also much cheaper than retail. Look in the yellow pages under "Boxes - Used" or do an online search using the keywords "used boxes."

Packing tape and gun.
Hearken to what I say: do not be a cheapskate when it comes to packing tape and packing guns. I bought a six-pack of Staples' least-expensive tape when I first started my organizing business, and it was a decision I regretted whenever I used the stuff. I still have a couple of those rolls kicking around, and they are the source of much under-the-breath cursing every time I lose the end of the tape and have to spend five minutes scraping up the (frequently splitting) edge with my fingernail.

Splurge on the expensive brands. Your nerves with thank you.

By the same token, a cheap tape gun will also drive you up the wall - the tape will stick to the mechanism, or it won't roll freely on the spindle. Do you actually need a tape gun? Yes. It's much quicker and neater than applying the tape manually, and the cutting edge saves you the endless contortions of trying to find the scissors you've lost somewhere on the floor underneath your piles of stuff.

If you really don't want to spring for the tape gun, try this little tape dispenser from Staples; it comes with one roll of the horrible Staples tape (I recommend pitching the latter - or gifting it to someone you dislike), but I love the minimalist design of the dispenser, and it really does the job.
Some notes on tape gun form (don't laugh, but I've seen too many people use the guns awkwardly or improperly): touch the end of the tape where you'd like to begin taping (I recommend you give yourself a good four or five inches of tape on the sides, before you come up and over the top), and press down on the box with the roller as you begin to draw the tape along the centre line where the two flap edges meet.

Roll the gun a few inches down the opposite side, and press down with the guard to tear the tape against the cutting edge and flatten the cut end. The beauty of a tape gun is that you only need one hand for the entire action; if you find yourself doing anything more with your other hand than holding the flaps or keeping the box steady, you're probably doing it wrong.

You also shouldn't need more than one pass of the tape over the opening, unless the first line was crooked and didn't catch both flaps evenly. The exception is if the box is going to hold something heavy (like books or magazines, or a rock collection); in that case, add a few extra swipes of tape (parallel to the centre line) on the sides of each flap when you're closing the bottom.

Make sure that all the tape ends are adhered; if they're loose, they'll catch on something at an inopportune moment and pull the entire strip of tape off when you least expect it. Whatever you do, don't fold the box (top or bottom) shut with that nifty, tuck-in-the-four-corners technique you were so proud to master as a kid: it weakens the cardboard, and is less structurally sound than folding the flaps flat.

And don't even think about moving open or lidless boxes. Shame on you.

Newspaper or plain newsprint.
You can buy plain newsprint wherever you buy new boxes, but if you're wrapping items that won't be stained by the ink, it's okay to use newspaper instead. I recommend using gloves (see below for details), especially if you choose the newspaper. Your hands are going to get very dirty from the dust on your things and the newspaper ink, and if you don't wear gloves you're going to get VERY cranky by the sixth or seventh time you wash your (now-chapping) hands.

Paper is necessary not only for wrapping breakable items, but also (crumpled into balls) for cushioning them, and for filling in empty spaces in all the boxes.

My dad worked as a mover when he was in his early 20s, and one of the best skills he ever taught me was how to pack a box. Above all, make sure that the boxes are packed "square": fill every nook and cranny with crumpled newspaper, so that the cardboard won't sag and damage the contents, or cause the boxes tip over when they are stacked miles-high on moving day.

I always make sure I have way more paper than I think I'll ever need; you don't want to be in the middle of packing one night and realize you've just run out.

Gloves.
I like those surgical-style latex or nitrile ones you can buy in boxes of 100. You can never have too many of them - they're handy for all sorts of odd jobs around the house.

Masking tape.
Because I always save my moving boxes and reuse them for other things, I don't like to write with a permanent marker directly on the box. Instead I use a strip of wide masking tape on the top of each box, and write a label on the tape with the marker. Afterwards the tape can be pulled off without damaging the box.

*later addition to this tip (got it from my sister after she moved in July 2007): You can also write directly on the clear packing tape with a Sharpie marker. Then when you remove the tape, the label is gone at the same time.

Markers and/or stickers.
I use Sharpies for marking. I hate them because of the VOCs (volatile organic compounds, aka smelly solvents), but they do the job.

If you want to get fancy and print labels for your boxes, go ahead. Myself, I find it takes too much time, plus I like the flexibility of handwriting the information on masking tape. Some organizers recommend using colour-coded stickers to indicate which boxes came from/go into which rooms. This is especially useful if there are multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and your movers aren't going to want to take the time to interpret directions such as "the smaller bedroom" or "the north-east ensuite." Post the corresponding colour on the door of each room, and it's a no-brainer.

When labelling a box I also like to include a brief description of its contents. This saves time when I'm unpacking and I want to get the essentials out first and save the less-important stuff for later. It also helps if you need to unpack a particular item very quickly, since you don't have to go searching through several boxes before you find the one thing.

Large, clear plastic lawn refuse bags.
These bags are one of my all-time favorite organizing items. (Click here for another use I mentioned in a recent post.) They're quick, large, lightweight, versatile, and re-usable - plus when you use the clear ones (rather than opaque garbage bags) you can immediately see what's inside.

I love them for moving, and have used them to transport clothes (just don't pack them too full, or they'll be too heavy), wicker baskets, hangers, bedding, pillows and cushions, and some of my fabric and yarn stash. I've also used them to wrap large items like ironing boards, lamps, and brooms or mops. Just don't pack anything breakable in them - although the great thing is, if you use clear bags, at least you can SEE that the items are breakable.

As an addendum to this category, I should mention that I've also used clear plastic disposable drop cloths (I get them at paint stores) to wrap really large items like mattresses.

Finally, I love using large plastic totes for moving, but you might not want to go to the expense of buying them for a single use (the move). If you know you need more storage bins, by all means buy them before the move and use them for storage afterwards. They're great because they stack well and pile high.

copyright 2007 Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Thursday, March 22, 2007

paying bills

On Tuesday night I attended the Professional Organizers in Canada (POC) Toronto chapter meeting, where the speaker was Tammy Laframboise from the North York branch of The Berkshire Group, an investment and financial planning company.

Tammy's subject was surviving the ups and downs of the "feast or famine" nature of self-employment. She had a lot of valuable information to share, but in this post I want to talk about her advice on bill-paying.

According to Tammy, when it comes to bills you have three options:

  • make a date
  • do it now
  • pay it early
Make a date.
Pay all your bills at one time every month. Pros: You don't have to deal with the bills when they arrive - just stash them in a central location and pay them all at once at an assigned date and time. Cons: If you break your "date," your bills might not get paid. Not a good choice if you're a known procrastinator, or you hate the structure of doing something at the same time every month.

Do it now.
Pay the bill when it first enters your hand. You're going to have to pay it eventually - why wait? Keep your chequebook near your favorite mail-opening spot (or open your mail at your computer, if you pay bills online), and fire off the payments right then and there. Pros: If you're a procrastinator, this breaks down the bill-paying into small, manageable bites. Cons: You might not have enough money in the bank when you receive each bill.

Pay it early.
Paying your bills before they come due may not seem very appealing. I mean, why give away your money when you don't have to? But it might be a smart idea if you receive large chunks of cash a few times a year, and then little-or-nothing for weeks at a time in between (think: real estate agents, or artists and craftspeople who sell their work at shows). Pros: Your bills get paid when you have the money; when you don't have the money, your bills are already paid. Cons: You lose the potential interest you might have earned if you had hung onto your money.

To Tammy's list I would add:

Sign up for automatic withdrawals.
Many bills can be paid through automatic withdrawal from your bank account or credit card. Pros: You don't have to remember to pay your bills. Cons: You do have to remember to keep enough money in your account to cover the withdrawals. NSF is always a danger.

Whatever you decide, make a choice that fits your personality, your financial circumstances, and your lifestyle. Don't be afraid to try out a few alternatives before you settle on one strategy that seems to fit best. And try to make it fun. If bill-paying is a chore, find ways to enjoy it. Play your favorite music. Sip a glass of wine. Treat yourself afterwards.

But do pay your bills. It's good for your peace of mind, and a powerful antidote for insomnia...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the end of the fast

Last night at sunset (7:29 pm) was the official end of my fast (see my entry from March 2, 2007 for more details).

(I actually cheated and broke the fast a little early; I was at a business meeting in the late afternoon, and they served a meal - pizza and desserts. Since the end of the Baha'i fast is usually marked by New Year's celebrations and a feast, I felt entitled to improvise. Besides, I'm not really Baha'i - I was just doing this to better understand my boyfriend's religion.)

I feel bittersweet about the end of the fast, though. In many ways I couldn't wait for it to be over: I was tired of my late afternoon blues from feeling starved, and I hated the bad breath that accompanied my fasting hours. Plus, until the time change, it was a hassle to make sure I ate and drank enough before 6:30 every morning.

But I found comfort in the rigidity and structure of the fast (I'm usually a grazer - I eat little bits of food all day long), and I enjoyed becoming reacquainted with my self-discipline.

(Too bad I didn't lose any weight - THAT would have been a nice perk.)

During the past 19 days I made a concerted effort to eat very consciously, and I really enjoyed each bite of food that passed my lips. I was amazed to discover how little I needed to feel full; I normally eat until my plate is empty, and often take second or third helpings without thinking.

After the first few days of the fast (during which I was exhausted and cranky), I experienced a profound sense of physical well-being and health. I had much more energy than normal. I felt slim (even though I didn't lose weight), and I faced a lot of my emotional demons when I couldn't anesthetize them with food.

Now I'm experiencing some fear surrounding the return to "regular" eating. Last night was sobering: After days of eating consciously, I compulsively scarfed down too many slices of pizza, a can of (full sugar) pop, and two butter tarts. So much for enlightenment.

I need to make peace with the fact that I can slip up sometimes; it's not the end of the world if we stray from the path every now and then. The same applies to organizing: Once we've got systems in place, a week (or even a few months) of non-maintenance won't kill us.

The trick is (I think) to make sure we find pleasure and satisfaction in the new, more desirable behavior. Whether we incorporate regular rewards into our schedule, or find other ways of making the desired behavior more enjoyable, we reinforce the positive changes and make the new path smoother for ourselves.

Do you know what motivates you to stick with a program? It might be worth your while to figure that out...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Sunday, March 18, 2007

packing for weekend trips

Since I started dating someone in another city, I have become the master of the weekend road trip. (Thank heavens I kept my mileage low in the first three years of my car lease - I'm adding kilometres at a frightening rate these days.)

I fancy that I have honed to a science the art of packing for a weekend. I'm a minimalist - although I haven't always been that way. At the beginning of this relationship, I would bring along tons of food (because I like home-cooked meals, but didn't want to burden my love with the chore of shopping or cooking for me).

I also packed way too many clothes, and brought way too many books or magazines to read in my spare time.

Then I realized that I NEVER HAVE spare time when I visit my boyfriend. (Besides, he has lots of books, should I feel like reading.)

After several trips where I got tired of lugging too many coolers and bags back and forth (and if you don't think this is a chore, remember I live in an apartment building), I wised up. These days I carry my purse (which is actually a nice, roomy bag), my suitcase, and my laptop case. And I really shouldn't carry the latter, because I HAVE NO SPARE TIME at my boyfriend's. It's next on my list of things to stop bringing (see below).

How does one pack lightly?

It helps to make a list each time you unpack from a trip. Be vigilant about noticing what you don't use. And make another list, of things you wish you HAD taken along.

Here's today's list of things not to bring again:
  • my laptop
  • so many magazines (yes, I'm a slow learner)

Here's the list of things I want to remember to take next time:

  • a nicer toothbrush (the one I've been using is too hard)
  • one bag for all my toiletries (I've been trying to make do with two: my usual cosmetics bag, supplemented by a toiletries kit I only use on trips - but it's becoming a hassle to remember which things I keep in each bag)
  • my cell phone recharger (I remembered it this weekend, but I forgot it the last couple of times)

Here's what the minimalist usually packs in her suitcase:

  • one pair of pants for each day I will be there (not including the day I arrive, when I will be wearing that day's pants)
  • one t-shirt for each day I will be there, plus one extra in case of spills or stains
  • one pair of wool socks for each day I will be there, plus one extra pair
  • one pair of underwear for each day I will be there, plus one extra pair
  • one wool sweater (which I usually wear to travel)
  • a pair of slippers
  • my toiletries kit, which contains: hand lotion, toothpaste, toothbrush, and a small bottle of baking soda (which I use as a deodorant)
  • my cell phone recharger
  • condoms and personal lubricant
  • pads or tampons if I need them
  • lots (LOTS) of plastic bags in all sizes and shapes, stashed in an outside pocket of the suitcase: grocery bags for dirty laundry, Ziploc bags for holding underwear or condoms, and large, clear lawn-waste bags for anything extra (like the laundry I take to my parents')

In my purse/bag I carry:

  • my keys
  • my wallet
  • my cell phone
  • my day planner and a small notebook
  • my cosmetics bag (which contains: a small date book, emergency tampons, lip balm, cover stick, hand sanitizer, dental floss, toothpaste, travel toothbrush, nail clippers, a small mirror, Zeel homeopathic salve (for bruises), Bach Rescue Remedy Spray (for when I'm stressed), earplugs, a pen, a small tape measure, an eyeglass cleaning cloth, lozenges, and Advil Extra Strength Liqui-Gels (in case I get a migraine))
  • my digital recorder (for taking notes while I'm driving)
  • a bottle of water
  • a couple of clean facial tissues
  • a small shoe horn
  • a tuning fork (don't ask)

I try not to carry an extra pair of shoes or boots (besides the ones I'm wearing on my feet when I travel). I normally wear yoga pants and t-shirts, but if I need something special for a night out, or extra work clothes if I know I'm going to get dirty, I try to keep it simple - as few extra pieces as possible.

I don't pack pajamas, since I either wear nothing to bed, or (if I'm someplace where I want to be more modest) I wear the clothes I've worn that day (yoga pants and t-shirt, remember?).

I stopped travelling with shampoo/conditioner and soap years ago, since everybody I visit always has plenty to share. I don't have a skin-care regimen, so I don't need facial cleansers or moisturizers.

I always wear a sports watch with a built-in alarm, so I don't need a travel alarm clock.

When I take my laptop, it goes in the laptop case along with the adapter and mouse, and a couple of books or magazines. The entire case often fits inside my not-full suitcase, which cuts down on the number of bags I have to carry.

That's it. If I could get it down to even less without compromising my comfort, believe me I would.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

more tax tips

Why do we hate income tax season so much?

I was visiting my hometown on the weekend, and it just so happened that a friend of mine has also been working on her income tax. She moaned about how much she disliked it, so I pumped her with questions, trying to figure out why. Since she's self-employed like I am, I figured she might also have strategies I wasn't aware of.

I discovered that she's already pretty organized: She files her receipts regularly, and keeps them in an order that makes submitting everything to her accountant pretty straightforward. After some probing I realized that what she hates is the amount of time it takes to find, sort, and itemize everything. What's surprising is that she's already doing everything possible to keep the information she needs sorted and in one place.

She uses a well-labeled accordion file for her receipts, and each year she simply has to itemize them. Sometimes she (or her husband) periodically itemizes things during the year, so it's not so much of a chore at tax time.

(Yet she still hates it.)

I love her idea of using the accordion file, and I think I'm going to try it myself this coming year. The system she uses is portable, but you can also find expanding files that will fit in your filing cabinet drawer. Check out staples.ca for details.

Her labels are alphabetical - an older version of the Statement of Business Activities list I mentioned in my previous post. She got it from a past copy of Personal Tax Planning, which is published by the Certified General Accountants Association of Ontario. (It's also available online.) Needless to say, this will only help you if you file income tax in Ontario.

It's a good idea to read through publications like this every now and then - my friend told me she discovered an eligible deduction this year that's going to save her a bit more money.

I don't recommend you do what I do, which is file your own return without an accountant's input. I like the control and challenge of doing it myself, but I may be costing myself money in unclaimed deductions. Get a professional's opinion!

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Thursday, March 15, 2007

it's tax time

For too many weeks now, I've been putting off the inevitable. I need to start working on my 2006 income tax return.

(Yes, even organizers can procrastinate - although you will notice it's still only the middle of March. Some procrastination, eh?)

For me (and others who are self-employed), the biggest chore is keeping track of my expenses. I have no trouble saving receipts - everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) gets cleaned out of my wallet every day or two, and stashed in a file in one of my filing cabinets. If the purchases on individual receipts are not clearly itemized, I try to make notes directly on the receipts before I put things away, so that I'll remember the purchases later.

Periodically (ideally once a month, when I reconcile my bank statements), I weed through the receipts and pull out anything that pertains to my businesses. I then sort them by category, intentionally mirroring Revenue Canada's Statement of Business Activities. This makes it easier to fill out the form at tax time.

As I mentioned above, I put everything in a file in a filing cabinet. I know people who have also had a lot of success with a memo spike (see the image at the beginning of this post) - it keeps the receipts in reverse chronological order, and prevents them from slipping and sliding around.

And don't laugh, but the proverbial shoe box is also a great alternative, especially if you have a lot of receipts that would take up too much room in a file. There are plenty of organizing boxes on the market - pretty photo or video storage boxes, or various plastic boxes with lids. You might even want to keep two boxes: one for receipts as you get them, and another for receipts that have already been itemized.

At tax time, I double-check each receipt against its expense list (I keep a separate spreadsheet for each category), and then tabulate them all in another spreadsheet I've created that's laid out exactly like the Statement of Business Activities.

Am I too organized for my own good, or what?

So why do I procrastinate? It's still a chore. And sometimes life intervenes, and I don't get the spreadsheets completed every month. That means inputting several months' receipts all at once, which can take a couple of hours.

(And then yesterday night the mouse on my old computer, where I keep all my financial records, froze. I'm starting to input everything into the new computer - which is another several hours' work.

Need I say more?)

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

more home-staging tips

I was talking to my sister on the phone last night, and she reminded me of some more home-staging tips I want to share.

In your kitchen, clear everything - magnets, photos, memos, kids' art - off the refrigerator. My sister did this on her own without being told, and even she (who loves a fridge covered with her family's stuff) admits the fridge looks better without all the clutter.

Clean off the top of the fridge while you're at it; you'll improve its efficiency (by allowing air to flow around the top and back of it) at the same time.

This next tip is something my sister heard about years ago: When you're showing your house, always keep a couple of large, empty Rubbermaid-type bins handy. Just before a showing, do a quick sweep of the entire house, putting all stray items into the bins. Then close the lids and stash them someplace inconspicuous.

After the showing you can return everything to its rightful place. Keep the bins empty until the next time you need them.

Be aware of your house's smell. Ask a good friend or family member about it if you're not sure what your home really smells like. If you have pets (especially dogs), make sure you take care of any strong odours. You might be inclined to bring out a bunch of artificial air fresheners, but be considerate of those who have chemical sensitivities. Better to stick a tray of Pillsbury Ready To Bake! cookies in the oven half an hour before a scheduled showing. Nothing says "home" like the aroma of fresh baked goods.

Don't be afraid to repaint your rooms and replace worn or outdated elements such as flooring. I once cleaned for a family who were trying to sell their house. The walls were painted with a sponge finish in a very dated peach colour, and the floor in their eat-in kitchen was a dingy and scruffy brown vinyl from the 70s.

The house was on the market for months without any serious offers until they repainted everything in a soft, clean white, and replaced the vinyl flooring with a neutral, contemporary pattern. After they de-cluttered, and addressed a strong dog odour in the house, the home looked immaculate and sold quickly.

Ask your realtor for advice about tweaking your home. He or she should know what to do to improve a home's value and selling price. Realtors can also refer you to established home stagers if you require more in-depth assistance.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Monday, March 12, 2007

introduction to home staging

My sister and her husband are building a new house, and they'll soon be putting their current home on the market.

I want to help her out (being a good sister and a professional organizer and all), so I recently sent her a home-staging checklist.

If you're unfamiliar with home staging, it's a marketing strategy created by American real estate agent Barb Schwarz in the 1970s. Schwarz was tired of selling cluttered, unkempt houses for less than top dollar, so she convinced her sellers to invest time and energy (and occasionally money) in presenting their products - their homes - in the best possible light.

Here's a definition from Wikipedia:

Home staging is the act of preparing a private residence prior to its going up for sale in the real estate marketplace. The goal of staging is to sell a home quickly, and for the most money possible. Staging focuses on improving a property to make it welcoming, appealing, and attractive to the largest generic audience of potential homebuyers. Staging often raises the value of a property by way of repairs, re-decorating, renovations, and landscaping. For vacant homes, rental furniture will accent very nicely. Properly executed staging leads the eye to attractive features while minimizing flaws.

Home staging involves seeing your house through the eyes of the buyer. Schwarz emphasizes that once you put the home on the market, it is not really yours anymore. You are trying to convince potential buyers that it is their home.

If you are interested in the subject of home staging, check out Schwarz's book, Home Staging: The Winning Way to Sell Your House For More Money.

Here's the checklist I sent to my sister:

  1. This may sound like a no-brainer, but make sure the house is clean. And not just a quick vacuuming - make sure there are no marks/smudges on the walls, doors, and door frames; address any stains on carpets or furniture, and make sure that everything is in good repair (i.e. replace burnt-out light bulbs, patch walls, etc.).
  2. De-cluttering is the big thing. Reduce knick-knacks everywhere to a minimum. A few well-placed things are much better than a jumble. Pack and store everything else.
  3. In the kitchen, make sure the counters are as clear as possible. Put away any appliances you normally keep on the counter (toaster, coffee maker). Clean out all the cupboards (including pantry), and keep only the necessities. This is the place to start packing; people will look through cupboards and closets to see how much room there is, and you want things to look spacious. Make the buyer believe that there is more storage space than anyone could ever need.
  4. In the laundry area, keep the machines clear and clean, and have only the bare minimum of detergents/fabric softeners on the shelves. Everything else should be out of there.
  5. In the bathrooms, keep the counters absolutely clear (as in the kitchen). A soap dispenser and a towel or two are okay, but everything else should be out of sight (even in the kids' bathroom - and BTW, hide the bath toys, and keep the shampoo to one or two bottles, max). If there are things in the cupboards that you don't often use, pack them up and store them elsewhere.
  6. In the family room, make sure the kids' toys are out of sight, and don't clutter the mantel.
  7. In the living room, be careful about cluttering the tables with knick-knacks, candles or photographs. In fact, put away all family photographs (everywhere in the house) that aren't hung on the walls. It's important that people viewing the house be able to imagine themselves in the space, and family photos detract from this.
  8. Purge the front hall closet and/or mud room. Keep only the coats and shoes or boots that you are using right now. You could have a basket or two on shelves for hats, gloves, and scarves, but that's it.
  9. The dining room will probably be one of your nightmares (only because I know you depend on it to hide all the overflow). Clear it out, leaving only the table, chairs, and hutch. Clear off the top of the hutch, leave only a few items (like a candle or two). Make sure that the things behind glass doors are neatly arranged. Pack up anything else that's clutter inside the hutch.
  10. I don't know what to suggest about the basement, but basically have it as tidy and as clear as possible. If it's unfinished you can't hide that fact, but you can make it look warm and appealing.
  11. In the kids' rooms, empty their closets of any clothes they're not wearing right now, and then use the extra space to put their toys neatly. In the rooms themselves, there should be NO clutter (especially on the dressers and floor). This may be tough for the kids, but tell them it's only temporary.
  12. In your room, try to purge your closet, or at least pack up a lot of your stuff and store it elsewhere. Again, people will be looking in the closets, and you want to give the impression of abundant space. If you can, have all the hangers the same, or grouped by type. And hang your clothes neatly, by type or by colour (so that they look appealing). In the room itself, get rid of all knick-knacks and photos. Have only a few well-chosen things on the dressers and bedside tables. If you can find inexpensive, bright/pretty throw cushions to match the bedding, do it.
  13. It might get costly if your house is on the market very long, but try to have fresh flowers strategically placed in the family room, kitchen, and master bedroom.

The big thing is, the place shouldn't look like your home anymore. And that will be tough, because you still have to live there until it sells. But pretend it's a really beautiful holiday rental - everything impersonal, clean, and simple. You want buyers to forget that anyone else has ever owned this house.

I visited my sister this past weekend, and she did pretty well. Her house is usually uncluttered, so it wasn't a nightmare to purge; the weakest areas are the children's rooms and the basement, where there are still too many toys scattered everywhere. And she still has too many family photos on the dressers in her bedroom. Her walk-in master bedroom closet also needs tweaking.

They're calling a realtor this morning. May they sell well!

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, March 10, 2007

the difficult stuff

I don't have to tell you that organizing gets difficult, sometimes. (Maybe all the time?)

When you're in the middle of a righteous mess, and you don't know where to start or what to do next, it can be a challenge to stick with it and not give up.

What sees us through the rough patches?

Having a larger vision for your life can help, which is why I've been spending so much time on the subject of clarifying passions and dreams.

When we know what we value and want for our lives, we can make better choices about what we do with our time - choices that hopefully align with the aforementioned dreams and passions.

Even master organizers can get bogged down in the middle of a sort. It's hardest for me when I'm dealing with my own stuff. I remember my move last fall; after two or three days of unpacking I was ready to call it quits - and I was still only half done!

If you want to begin an organizing project, keep it simple. Don't imagine that you can fix your entire life in one headlong, all-out blitz of a weekend. Those TV organizing shows are great, but they're not an accurate representation of real life. Very few of us can afford to hire the legions of helpers needed to successfully complete such a huge project so quickly.

Think instead of one area that - if it was organized - would make a big impact on your emotional well-being. This is very personal - it will be different for every individual. Some organizers suggest that you begin organizing the core or hub of your house and work outwards, but maybe for you it's more important to have a restful haven where you can renew yourself at the end of the day - in which case, it might make more sense to start with your bedroom.

What isn't working in your life? Where do things begin to fall apart? If you want a serene bedroom retreat, and instead find yourself constantly surrounded by the clutter of your clothes - scattered on the floor, piled on every surface, spilling out of the closet - try to identify the real problem.

Do you have too many clothes for your space? Maybe you just don't like to put things away. Maybe you hate laundry and can't follow through with all the steps involved (picking up your clothes, taking them to the laundry area, washing and drying the clothes, folding them, bringing them back to your room, putting them away). Maybe you feel you don't have enough time to take care of household tasks. Maybe you can't afford to hire somebody else to clean your bedroom for you.

What is the real reason? Maybe you resent the amount of work you have to do, and a messy bedroom is your way of rebelling. Maybe you're a shopaholic. Maybe you can't let go of gifts, clothes that no longer fit you, or clothes that are out of style. Maybe it comforts you to have a full-to-bursting closet.

Maybe you don't need to organize your bedroom after all. But wait - you said you wanted a serene space to unwind at the end of the day!

Which is more important: Your reason for having clutter, or your desire to have clear space?

(It's okay to decide on the former, by the way. We don't have to organize everything. I want to write a separate post about this soon: Knowing when to organize, and when to leave it be.)

Let's say you want the serene bedroom more than the clutter. Once you've figured out why you have the clutter, you can address the root of the problem and make changes.

If you have too many clothes for your space, get rid of the ones you no longer wear. You'd be amazed at how little of your wardrobe you actually use on a regular basis. Without all the excess, you might find you have plenty of room for everything, and when you have a dedicated place for each item, you'll enjoy putting things where they belong.

If you don't like doing laundry, find a way to get somebody else to do it, or figure out how to make the job more appealing.

If you're being passive-aggressive about the cleaning, or realize you're a shopaholic, invest some time and energy into healing your issues. (You may want to seek out counselling, too.)

If you feel obligated to keep things that other people give you, or you just don't have the heart to let go of clothing mementos (your wedding dress; the suit you wore on your first date) or clothing dreams (those size six pants that you want to wear again someday; that great party frock that would look amazing on the red carpet - except you never go out) take a reality check.

Keeping a few key mementos (provided you have the space) is one thing; hanging onto everything is self-defeating. Clutter is stagnant energy, and many people find they get "stuck" in all parts of their lives when they can't let go of things and allow the natural flow of energy.

When you finally decide to act, set a realistic pace. I never recommend working more than two or three hours at a time on any organizing project. Even an hour once a week is fine. Resolve to get rid of ten items of clothing. Bag it up and get it out of the house. Repeat until you're done.

And get help - from family, friends, professionals - if you need it.

Finally, reward yourself for everything you do that brings you closer to your dreams. This step is important. We're more likely to enjoy - and keep doing - activities that are positively reinforced. It doesn't have to be a big thing.

Just show yourself that you care...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Thursday, March 08, 2007

the power of dreams

Sometimes we get stuck in self-defeating ruts where we can't see that something different is possible for our lives.

My boyfriend made a comment to me last night that blew me away. He said, "Just think, if you hadn't met me, you would still be cleaning houses in London."

The power of dreams: They can change everything.

I was happy in London. I had a satisfying business, and I loved my clients dearly. They were (and are - I still write them regularly to let them know how I'm doing) like family to me. But I was struggling with the physical side-effects of a labour-intensive job; I had almost constant back pain and knee pain, and repetitive strain injuries in my wrists and hands.

If you had told me a year ago that I would find a new boyfriend, move to a new city, start the Alexander Technique training program (www.alexandertechnique.ca), heal my body, and begin rewarding new businesses as a professional organizer and freelance writer, I would have laughed at you. I didn't know my own strengths and resourcefulness. Just think what might have (not) happened if I hadn't dared to dream!

I get many daily inspirational e-mails in my inbox, and a few days ago I received a gem from Debra Lynn Dadd:

Set your sights high, the higher the better. Expect the most wonderful things to happen, not in the future but right now. Realize that nothing is too good. Allow absolutely nothing to hamper you or hold you up in any way.
~ Eileen Caddy

Life is too short to be anything other than your best self. Get started on it today...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

remember to play

I've been working too hard lately - writing proposals for new business, tending to all my volunteer commitments - and when I fall into bed at night, I'm exhausted.

(Oh, wait - I'm also fasting. No wonder I'm so tired!)

I love what I do (organize, write, and study the Alexander Technique), but sometimes I forget to take a breather and really play.

Tonight I was busy at the sewing machine, making some dress-up clothes for my niece for her fifth birthday. She's a princess, and she loves to dance around in the things I create. I can't wait to give her these gifts: two capes sewn from silky lining material, and a wedding veil I made from some old tulle I had lying around.

Sewing is not really playing for me - I have a Home Economics degree, and sitting at the machine feels like more work - but my imagination is delighted by the colours and textures of the fabric. As I picked through my stash tonight looking for something to give Meghan, I felt like a kid again. I, too, loved to play dress-up as a child; wrapping myself in luxurious fabrics, I was a fairytale heroine.

These days when I want to play, I colour - like a kid - with crayons. Among the million other things I do, I'm also a trained artist, but - as with sewing - trying too hard to make "art" feels like too much work. So I give myself license to be entirely free with the crayons, and I'm often amazed at what I make when I'm not really trying to do anything.

Don't forget to play. When you're organizing your life, make room for your own grown-up equivalent of dress-up clothes and crayons. And then lose yourself in the playing...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Monday, March 05, 2007

know thyself

I'm still fasting. This may be the longest 19 days of my life.

One of the silver linings, however, is that I am continually forced to face my own habits. I can't run from what I am feeling in the moment.

I never realized how much I used food and drink as an anesthetic. Whenever I am feeling uncomfortable, the first thing I want to do is put something in my mouth. Now that I can't put something in my mouth, I truly have to deal with my discomfort.

(And I am - kind of. I've also found a new anesthetic: sleep. Naps are good. I'm having no difficulty rationalizing them, either, because I need lots of sleep now that I'm weak from not eating during daylight hours, right?)

Many of my posts over the last month have dealt with recognizing our dreams and visions for ourselves. Once we know what moves and inspires us, we can begin to think about taking action to create more fulfilling lives.

It's also important to know yourself. Know your habits. Know what makes you tick, know how you habitually react, know your common defenses, know how you sabotage yourself. If you don't know, you can't change.

Many spiritual disciplines (especially eastern ones) speak of developing your ability to witness your own life. That's what meditation is for, at its core: becoming aware of what is. Other disciplines (I'm thinking specifically of the Toltec path, www.miguelruiz.com) encourage us to become hunters or trackers of our own minds. If you're tracking an animal, you need to have intimate knowledge of the animal's habits. In a similar fashion, it can be valuable to know your own habits.

Try tracking your energy cycles. When do you have the most energy? When do you have the least?

I know that I have a lot of energy in the morning. I seem to wake up more easily than many people, and I enjoy being awake very early (five a.m.) in the day. If I do physical work at this time, I feel well-coordinated and enjoy what I'm doing. If I sit down and do mental work I have energy for a while, but it starts to taper off by mid-morning (10 a.m.).

Noon is my absolute slump time. If I stop moving, I fall asleep. When I had my own cleaning business, I would park my car somewhere safe (preferably near some green space, like a park) and have a catnap during my lunch break. I always woke up feeling refreshed.

These days I save any activities that need a sharp mind for late afternoon or early evening. This is when I love to write, and I can often work for hours into the evening without fatigue.

The joy and the gift of being self-employed is that I can use this knowledge to organize the tasks of my day.

What do you know about yourself? And how do you use that knowledge?

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, March 03, 2007

the simplicity of kindergarten

The fast is going well. I'm getting migraines from low blood sugar, but I can handle that.

In my altered mental state, however, I crave simplicity. Nothing complicated, nothing strenuous, nothing extraneous.

I want to go back to kindergarten.

One of my favorite organizing authors, Julie Morgenstern, uses the kindergarten analogy when talking about organizing.

(See Organizing From the Inside Out, page 59 - Julie's Secret Weapon #1: The Kindergarten Model of Organization.)

Remember kindergarten? Lots of fun stuff to do. Every activity had its own little area, and everything you needed for that activity had a clearly designated home nearby.

It's hard to go wrong with the kindergarten model. It's comforting, it's reassuring, and most of all it's easy - if you remember to put things back in their homes when you're done. Maybe what we all need is a kindergarten teacher to remind us to take the time at the end of each activity to clean up.

Why do some of us hate this last part so much? Me, I love putting things back where they belong. My boyfriend, on the other hand, leaves stuff everywhere. Mail from the mailbox, for example, makes its way to the living room coffee table, where it sits forever.

(Okay, not really forever. It just seems like forever when I'm inhibiting the impulse to tidy up after him.)

Where is mail's home? Where does mail belong?

The simplest solution is to put mail in a special spot on your desk, and keep everything you need to deal with the mail in close proximity: letter opener, cheques or computer (for paying bills and other correspondence), recycling bin, shredder, and filing cabinet(s).

But what if you like to read mail in a different place from where you pay your bills or file your papers?

You have choices, and this is the not-so-simple part. You could have a series of mail "way stations": a place by the door where you immediately put mail when you come inside; a place by your favorite mail-reading chair; a place in your desk area; and the final place (which could also be multiple places: the recycling bin, the shredder, the filing cabinet).

You run the danger of "losing" mail if you rely on too many mail homes, however. Even I am occasionally vulnerable to this. Just yesterday, I was sorting through my date book and found the bank slip from my last GST remittance (paid in January!) stuffed under the back flap. Oops.

Where's my kindergarten teacher when I need him?

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Friday, March 02, 2007

are you ready to get rid of everything?

At some point, many people with a lot of material possessions just want to get rid of it all. All of it.

Just let it go.

The problem is, sometimes getting rid of everything isn't the answer.

I'm feeling really out of it right now - light-headed and woozy. My boyfriend is Baha'i, and today is the first day of the last month of the Baha'i calendar. During this last month of the year, Baha'is fast between sunrise and sunset - kind of like Islam's Ramadan.

I'm not Baha'i, but I thought it would be a nice gesture to fast along with my boyfriend, even though we don't live in the same city.

(The longer I go this first day without food and drink, however, the stupider this gesture is beginning to feel. Wait, was that my outside voice?)

I'm drawn to the spiritual significance of the fast: These nineteen days are a reminder of our strong desires for the material world, and through fasting and prayer we give ourselves the opportunity to explore different (preferably spiritual) choices.

Done without consciousness, however, I suspect this exercise would be futile.

It's not enough to simply deprive ourselves - or get rid of all our material possessions. Anyone can be disciplined for 19 days (yes, I have to do this for 19 days!), but at the end of it, what have you learned? Without introspection and consciousness, you'll have starved yourself for a while, and then most likely return to your pre-fast habits.

I don't want to finish this fast the same as when I began it. I've struggled with disordered eating since adolescence, and I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to finally face the insatiable demon inside me. You know, the one who would have me eat an entire bag of cookies in one day.

(I'm betting many of you are also acquainted with Mr. Cookie Demon...)

Here's the heart of it: My desire for a cookie (or a new outfit, or the latest techno-gadget) does not rule me. Desire is fleeting and hollow. There is something larger than the desire - call it God, The Universe, love, the creative source, the true Self, whatever you will - and each time I turn away from material desire, I expect to run into something better, head-on.

What has this got to do with organizing?

(Yes, please tell us, Michelle. My sugar-starved brain is starting to hurt...)

Getting rid of everything is too easy. If you don't confront the desire to clutter up your life, sooner or later you'll end up back where you started.

It's hard work to get really clear - about each and every object in your life. It takes a lot of strength, and courage, and patience to do the work of clearing out the things you don't truly need. I would say it takes even more strength to make decisions about what to keep - and what to acquire, because you know, we can't stop acquiring stuff.

But you can start becoming conscious. You can ask yourself: Does this serve my highest good? Is this contributing to the essence of my life? Or detracting from it?

Clarity.

It's an ongoing adventure...
copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Thursday, March 01, 2007

what do you want from your space?

This post relates to an earlier one from last year (feeling like "home", Sunday, October 29, 2006). Take a moment to consider the following questions:

How do you feel in your current space?

How do you want to feel?

Calm? Rested? Energized? Soothed? Healed? Strong? Powerful? Peaceful? Loved...?

Really think about it. This may sound crazy, but I find that a lot of people arrange their rooms based on how the spaces will look, or how the spaces will be seen by others. I've had many clients who've decorated their houses to please society's idea of what the space should look like, rather than please themselves.

Living rooms should have couches, coffee tables, and big pieces of art on the walls, right? Bedrooms should have bedroom sets. Family rooms should have televisions, and big, comfy furniture in which to become a potato.

Actually, they only have to look that way if that's what you really want. You have choices, you know.

I'm always saddened when I see cold, unused formal dining rooms in people's homes. They may look beautiful, but if they're only used to hold a bunch of beautiful stuff (that - just maybe - you don't even like), and not really used... well, enough said.

I'm thinking of an elderly couple - former clients of mine - who never ate in their dining room. It became a clutter magnet, full of tschotkes that covered every horizontal surface, including the table. They started keeping their unread newspapers in there, and the only reason they entered the room was to deposit or remove piles of newspapers. They ate in the kitchen, and never had guests over for a meal.

To me, the energy in that room was horrible. They kept the drapes closed, so it was always dark - even in the middle of the day. Jammed with furniture (two hutches, one cedar chest, table and chairs, and two occasional tables in a room 10'x13') and objects they never bothered to enjoy, it became a room full of obligation: We need to keep this stuff because it's ours and it's "beautiful," and it's what "belongs" in this room.

In the basement, the husband kept a huge number of houseplants under grow lights. His plants and his outdoor garden were his life's joy, and you could see that he lovingly tended these living things every day. Many of the houseplants were African violets, and he had several different colours: pink, purple, white, blue...

Going into their basement was a thrill for me. The flowers were gorgeous, and the man's love and care permeated the space like a exquisite scent.

Now here's a revolutionary thought: What if they kept the flowers and the grow lights in the dining room, and relegated the dining room stuff to the basement (or better still, got rid of it!)? They would have natural beauty close at hand every day. The husband wouldn't have to climb up and down the stairs so often on his bum knees. His hobby would be elevated and respected for the art it truly was.

But no. Dining rooms aren't greenhouses. What if he got dirt on the carpet?

(What if they got rid of the carpet - a tatty, 40-year-old eyesore - instead?)

Don't become a slave to your rooms. Don't become a slave to public opinion. If you love violets, let those violets really bless your home.

I live in a bachelor apartment. When the super's wife first showed me the suite, she gushed about how wonderful it could look with the right furniture. A bed could go on this wall, hidden by a nice screen. This spot by the window would look great with a cute area rug and a loveseat.

I smiled and murmured polite "mmm-hmm"s. She's a dear woman, and she couldn't have known that the 700-square-foot room was going to have to be bedroom, sitting room, library, home office, work room and art/music studio all rolled into one.

Oh, and dining room. :)

Enliven your rooms with your passions. I know of no other fulfilling way to live...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow