Vanessa McGrady is a writer and blogger. She is the creatrix and editor of www.40licious.org, a blog that navigates money, relationships, style and health issues of women in their 40s.
March 14, 2011
Part 5: Zen of Organization
When I started my desk organizing project a month ago what I really wanted was to just clear off the clutter that so easily accumulated. I’d use the mess as an excuse not to blog, or work on my book, or do projects that I’d promised people. And then I’d feel sorry for myself because my life is sooo busy and I’m sooo tired at night when I come home from the day job and I just couldn’t even begin to think about working on my own stuff because my desk was so messy.
Above: Vanessa’s desk before the clean-up…and after.
As in any heroine’s journey, I met people along the way who helped – beginning with readers who offered advice. Angela Kantarellis of AK Organizing, my perfect friend Joanna and my professional organizer cousin Elizabeth McGrady all helped me to understand that each thing has a place based on frequency of use and accessibility.
Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it’s part of a bigger whole of which I am not yet aware, but I also started meditating regularly in the last month. That helps me be less scattered and more focused, and lo, my desk has been clean every day. I’ve kept to a process that helps me just concentrate on doing one thing at a time, and doing it well, whether it’s something as simple as filing materials for a story I’m working on, or monumental, like organizing paperwork for our adoption.
I have spent the last 15 years doing yoga, where the teaching is to be mindful and pay attention to what you are doing, and observe yourself doing it. This leads to clarity. But somehow it took a desk organization project to really make it sink in.
My mindfulness around my work area has had happy halo effects for the kitchen and my clothes (I have a little bit of OCD and change my mind about my outfit at least once every morning). I also gutted and reorganized our linen and tool closet. Our house has no major mess drama anymore. Except the shoe closet. But that is another story for another time.
March 8, 2011
Part 4: I’ll show you my drawers
Faithful readers will recall that last week’s Project: Desk was rudely interrupted by a medical issue, and I had to traipse off to the urgent care clinic with my drawers all akimbo. I know what you are thinking. But also, my DESK drawers were akimbo with no relief in sight.
Cut to: A week at home with little or no extra curricular activities, except for painting my hallway under the influence of Vicodin. It hurt to sit and it hurt to get up. Which meant puttering, and lots of it. In that time, I managed to separate things to toss, things to recycle and things to keep. I put mystery electronic equipment in a separate box, which I will date and squirrel away. If in one year I can’t use or match any of that stuff, it goes.
But then I was stuck on the process for how to decide what to exactly do with my stuff, so turned to one of my favorite people, who happens to be very nonjudgmental. She also is a professional organizer. And she is my cousin, Elizabeth McGrady. She told me these essential tips:
*Only things you use daily go on or in the desk.
*If you use things weekly store on a shelf, closet or in a drawer.
*Things you use monthly can be stored away in an attic or basement.
*Keep an in-out box and update it weekly.
“Things have to earn the right to be where they are — so look around see if the daily, weekly or monthly tips apply,” she said. “The idea is to make your desk welcoming, not something you fear, stress or get apprehensive about when you come closer to it.”
The drawers look good now, especially with the help of two bamboo silverware organizers. Things I reach for daily go on the right side; electronic cords and chargers etc. go on the left. My husband Steve told me to tell you he fixed the shelf so it is flush against the wall as Ikea intended. And I also bought a pretty rug so I don’t do further damage to the floor from rolling my chair around.
Next stop: The hundreds of DVDs, CDs, envelopes, cards and different kinds of papers I have smushed in an antique sheet-music cabinet. But today, I love my desk.
Part 3 - Emptying the Drawers
Part 2 – Decluttering the Surface
Part 1 – The Problem
February 28, 2011
Part 3 – Emptying the Drawers
So I embarked on my next installment of Project: Desk – cleaning out my drawers – with great hope. It was a shiny clean day. I had a pot of tea ready. I would celebrate my birthday within 24 hours. I had a mind full of purpose after conferring with professional organizer Angela Kanatarellis, who has great tips about where things should go and what to toss and keep.
I didn’t take a lot of my dad’s things when he died. He was also a writer, with similar organizational issues to mine. I did keep his Electrolux letter opener, a silver pen and a pair of black-handled scissors, and found all those in the chaos of my drawers. The discovery felt like it was his way of saying “happy birthday” to me from wherever he is now.
Then my proverbial sky started to darken. I was horrified to see that somehow I’d accumulated about 200 pens and magic markers, half of which were functional. Three of them had feathers and/or lit up. Two of those didn’t work: Winnie-the-Pooh in a drag boa, and the green feather pen that appears to have escaped from a bordello. I did keep the pen with a light-up pig on it that I got for enrolling my husband in the Bacon of the Month club.
I had three bags and two boxes for separating what would be kept, relocated, recycled and trashed. I was in my groove of testing pens and putting cell-phone chargers from three phones ago in the e-waste bag, when I was toppled.
I felt excruciating pain from a lump on what we will just call my upper thigh to keep it simple. I ended up in urgent care, getting the thing poked and drained and learning that I had some kind of staph infection. Upon being released from the clinic, my husband took me out for chicken soup. And it was either that or the Vicodin that made me too high and sleepy to complete the desk reorg project for the week.
Hoping to use that letter opener today on a birthday card or two, though.
Part 1 – The Problem
Part 2 – Decluttering the Surface
February 22, 2011
Part 2 – Decluttering the Surface
The background: My desk has historically been an impending avalanche. The problem is not only that there is stuff piled on stuff, but I don’t know what to do with the stuff once I want to put it away. Here’s last week’s post.
Since I embarked on Project: Desk a week ago I started noticing some things about myself. Which are not all that attractive. One thing is that I don’t have good follow-through on tasks. Or maybe more accurately, I follow-through, but not in chronological – or even logical — order. So I’ll start an email, then go make a cup of chai, then pick up the living room, and then go back to the email. My desk is in between the living room and the kitchen, so all kinds of things end up on it while I’m distracted by the next item on the to-do list.
This happens in the kitchen too. The other night, surrounded by salad greens on the floor and all over the counter, I pointed out my realization to my husband, Steve. “Why do you think I call you Edward Scissorhands?”
A change in my behavior that will lead to my redemption. The union of thought and action will help me overcome this chronic disorganization, which puts me in a bad mood and makes me too stressed out to go to yoga.
I learned two major things this week. The first – great advice came in from comments on the first blog entry — is about shredding and tossing things you don’t need. I had dinner with my friend Joanna, who is basically perfect. She’s a brown-eyed blonde beauty, a supersmart former corporate VP-turned-shrink. She has a rich spiritual life and laughs at my jokes and is probably one of the best advice-givers I know. But the annoying thing is that she is also very well organized. She told me, as she gripped a cilantro-ginger shrimp with her chopsticks, that she normally just puts each thing in its place when it comes through. She doesn’t even think about it. When she’s too busy, she has everything in a grocery bag that she can stash and then tackles it on Sunday.
The other thing I learned is that I don’t mind cleaning up as long as I have a little reward for myself. I only watch two TV shows, 30 Rock and The Office, which happily, are available online. So I’ve made a new rule: While I’m cleaning my desk off, I absolutely must also be watching something I enjoy. Or the other way around.
So today I’m sitting at my newly clean desk, with some tulips and a Valentine’s Day card in the feng shui relationship area. I have a lot more to do. Empty out drawers. Get rid of adaptors for long-gone electronics. Sort through a giant redwood tree’s worth of clean paper and envelopes. Figure out where to store the books I need to read and review for 40licious so they don’t get all mixed in with my Latin primer from college. Why am I keeping a Latin primer from college anyway? That is another story that involves books as a cultural shorthand to a person.
What I’m realizing is that I don’t have to do it all in one day. If I break Project: Desk up into phases and really think about what’s next and why, chances are I’ll make some changes that really work.
PS – In case you were wondering, frēti fidē tuā nōn timēbimus means “Relying on your trustworthiness, we shall not fear.”
February 15, 2011
Part 1 – The Problem
You know how it’s only when addicts plummet to the bottom that they can begin to rebuild their lives? So it goes with my home office. Which I, over the next many weeks, hope to transform into a beautiful, functioning workspace where thoughts will soar and inspiration will flow in like a spring breeze.
I thought the antique sheet music storage would be good for my paper organization. Apparently not.
Some background: I live in a delightful two-bedroom 1947 condo in Southern California with my über-supportive and well-meaning husband, Steve. We are not terrifically messy people, but we’re not completely compulsive either. What the architect intended to be a dining room is my workspace, open for all to see. There’s a desk and several bookshelves. And in an attempt to be organized, I have purchased many holdy-things: snappy cardboard boxes in attractive colors and prints, a file rack that goes on the wall, desk organizers and under-desk storage. I thought it was a genius move to commandeer a cedar hope chest as a filing cabinet and stick one of those press-on lights to the inside of the lid, but I have not opened it since I tucked away papers I apparently can’t live without two months ago. Steve tried to put up a shelf but ended up with a precarious installation that seems like it’s trying with all its might to escape the wall and go back to Ikea. There is a lot of glue where I think screws are supposed to go.
This shelf is defying all known physical laws as it pulls away from the wall and still stays up. Hopefully there will be no animals or people nearby during an earthquake.
I think I may have all the tools for effective organization, but there is a user-error issue here. My office is where I write magazine stories and work on my blog. There is always an impending avalanche of paper. My tax guy told me to save all my receipts, but I honestly do not think that the IRS cares that I spent $26.29 on sheep’s milk gouda, Valrhona chocolate and lavender-scented laundry detergent at Trader Joe’s. My desk is covered with menus and brochures from travel story research, “inspiration” pages torn from magazines, photos that are not important enough to frame but too dear to toss, mortgage re-fi paperwork, postcards from the vet reminding me that my dog is due for a dental cleaning – you get the idea. Pretty much everything.
I found this perfectly good inbox in my neighbor’s trash. I put wedding invitation stationary in it. I got married in August so I hope I won’t need it again any time soon.
Once I hired a woman to help me organize my office, and after her two-hour show of folding and tossing and filing, I thought, “Well that was easy enough. I didn’t need to pay anyone, I could have done that.” And then everything went to hell the next week.
These are my desk drawers. I like to play a little game called “find the scissors.”
The issue is that I need a system. I need to know what to do with each piece of paper, each electronic accoutrement, each business card and bank errata that passes my way.
How do you do stay clear and organized in your workspace so that you can actually produce? Welcoming all suggestions, and I thank you in advance.