A house of clutter
Barbara's house appeared orderly and serene, but behind the tidy façade lurked chaos. Julie Morgenstern helps a wife and mother solve the mystery of why she needed all that stuff.
"I've been trying to get organized forever, and getting nowhere," 40-year-old Barbara told me. But in the photos Barbara sent, I saw a warm, pleasant three-bedroom house that she shares with John and their two children. I didn't see the mess. The rooms were clutter-free, and even the closets were orderly, with rows of uniform containers. "My house looks organized on the surface, but its chaos underneath," she explained. "I've bought every container by every manufacturer ever created. I just don't know what's in them."

Neat on the surface, clutter underneath—ah, don't you wish that were your problem? At least you could have guests over. If you've ever jealously ogled a friend's home, consider that she may be like Barbara—masterful at hiding the mess. And though the problem doesn't seem nearly as urgent as blatant visual clutter, it can wear your psyche down in profound ways.

What was Julie's plan of action to resolve the chaos?
Before designing a plan of action for any client, I try to determine whether I need to teach her organizing skills from scratch or help her reconnect to a derailed ability. Was Barbara never organized? During the breathless overview she had given me of her life, she mentioned that her father died when she was 12. So now I asked, "Was your room messy before your dad died?" For the first time, the nervous agitation disappeared from Barbara's demeanor. "No," she said simply. "In fact, my room was always neat. I never thought of that." Pause. "Isn't that weird?"

It didn't sound weird to me at all. When her father died, Barbara would have felt a huge emptiness inside. And though she wasn't conscious of what she was doing, she began collecting things to fill the void. Living with neatniks—first her mother and then her husband—she'd felt guilt and shame about her piles. She'd never had time to make decisions about her belongings, much less gain comfort from them. Instead she just scooped everything up and put a lid on it.

One of my favorite gadgets of all time is the egg separator, a spoon-like contraption that catches the yolk while the white dribbles through a series of slots. I asked Barbara to keep this image in mind as she sorted through each container, separating essential objects from the comfort ones.

Was there really an organized woman inside of Barbara? 
Liberated by the knowledge that her only job was to sort, with no pressure to purge or find homes for objects, Barbara sped through every container in her closet. On impulse, Barbara moved all comfort items into a small sitting room, dubbing it her Hellhole Room. The room wasn't in anyone's way—no one could nag her about its appearance. Now she was free to take on the rest of her house and then decide, in her own good time, what to do with her comfort objects. It was a powerful strategy: Create a shrine to her buried grief, separate it from the rest of the house so she could see it, honor it, and give it its proper place apart from the stuff of life.

Our final task on this organizing journey was to establish a home information center for the supplies. She'd clean out her spare kitchen cabinets and then divide the space into zones: financial, communications, tools, gifts. Two days later, I opened my e-mail to a brilliant display of her work. The results blew me away. One by one, I clicked open the photos. Barbara was a born organizer! In- and out-baskets for bills? Beautiful! Color-coded financial supplies? Gorgeous! Eight nail clippers in a designated drawer divider? Yes! If she needed something now, she knew where to look, and it was there every single time. In less than two weeks, Barbara had emerged from under a 28-year-old blanket of clutter.

Whether your mess is visible or hidden, organizing is rarely the hard part. Knowing what's holding you back, and recognizing that it's a part of you to be embraced instead of condemned, is the key to a breakthrough. If you, like Barbara, have been shoving things into containers for years, try taking the lid off—there could be an organized person inside you just waiting to see the light of day.


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