The organizing and productivity phenomenon has reached the point that lately I’m feeling a little push back. A book by two guys who call themselves The Minimalists starts with, “Organizing should be a dirty word…” They believe that the craze for organization is simply an excuse to be a thoughtless consumer and maintain a bunch of unneeded stuff, albeit in a tidy way.
I’ve never believed in organizing without purging. One study says the average American has 300,000 discreet objects in her home — that’s a lot of time and money spent on maintenance and the other costs of overabundance, space and freedom, for example. When I took a class in New York City with Julie Morgenstern, at that time probably the most famous professional organizer around (she’s worked with Oprah), she told us organizing is not about letting go; that we organizers can work with clients and never toss or donate one thing.
Two light bulbs went off for me. (My brain is a strobing disco of randomly illuminated ignorance; epiphanies ignite like the paparazzi camera flash around the entrance of the Chateau Marmont circa 1978.) “Yes, I get it,” I thought. “I can categorize and label and containerize so that a client can find everything without pitching a single receipt into the round file.”
Then the second bulb, a bit brighter: “That’s not going to be the way I work; I want to help people lighten up.”
I’m not a minimalist. I have what I consider a lot of stuff. But I’m constantly editing and maintaining my organization of it all. I admit, sometimes a toothbrush and a one-way ticket to Spain sound like a good idea, but most of the time I’m super content with my little world.
Never was I happier to be organized than during the horrible Valley Fire. When I got the news that we might have to evacuate, I knew just what to pack. It’s a great idea to have an “in case of evacuation” list so that when your heart is racing during a crisis you can gather your essentials more easily.
This was not my first fire. When I lived in San Francisco in the early 1990s, I heard crackling outside my third floor window and looked out to see flames climbing up to the sill. I only had time to call 911 and grab a new down comforter I’d spent $300 on and race out the door. I considered just packing toothbrush-husband-cats during the Valley Fire, but I had the luxury of time and I’m really not ready to be a complete minimalist unless I absolutely have to be.
Everyone’s idea of what is essential will be different, but here’s what I did. First, I started with a completely empty car. I had a stack of empty, clean large plastic bins in the garage and a good amount of sturdy tote bags — I happened to have these supplies for clients, but they came in super handy and I’m going to start keeping a few around at the ready for myself.
I began with the obvious: filling water bottles and putting boxes of my favorite food bars and necessary medications, phone chargers and eyeglasses into a tote. I put cat food and the cat supplies into another tote (if you have a dog, you’ll want to have leashes and essentials all in one place, larger animals need more advance planning for emergencies). I zipped my computer and its charger into its bag and put all of this into the car and parked the car facing outward, ready to go.
Next, I stacked the trays of toiletries from the bathroom drawers into a plastic bin and on top of those I stacked the trays of jewelry from the safe and piled some stacks of clean socks and underwear around it and snapped the lid on.
In another tote, I put folded stacks of work clothes and a couple of my favorite outfits. I got out the cat carrier and trapped the cats in the bedroom in case I got the word that we had to leave (catching a scared cat is nearly impossible).
I put a container full of photo albums into the car. Having photos organized into albums is probably the most requested project by my clients, and indeed it pays off huge in this kind of situation. I didn’t have the stress of having boxes of unorganized photos buried in a deep closet or up in an attic.
I didn’t pack any furniture or art. I did grab my files of receipts for those objects and a file of other important documents. My operating manual for my business (which contains all my essential information) is backed up online.
The whole process took about an hour, and I could have done it faster (though a little sloppier) if I had to. When I got word a day later that the possibility of evacuation where I live was now extremely remote, it took me just an hour to unpack the car and put everything back. I had a great sense of peace about how prepared I was. I’d had plenty of time to answer the dozens of texts and calls coming and going between friends, family, neighbors, relatives and Nixle. Being prepared helped me get into ready position to help others.
A note about helping others: nobody wants your old socks. Donation sites are overwhelmed with junk they have to throw out. Of course, they get a lot of wonderful things too, but for every great side table Goodwill gets a garbage bag full of old socks and underwear.
During the Valley Fire, after the evacuees came over the mountain into Calistoga, we called around to see how we could help. My husband bagged up some of his old jeans and socks to take to the donation center at the fairgrounds for the evacuees.
“No one wants your old stuff,” I told him.
“They lost everything!” he insisted and headed out.
He returned half an hour later. “They want new socks, still in the package,” he said.
And then I couldn’t help saying the phrase that’s probably causing organizers everywhere push back:
“I told you so.”