Jeff Bredenberg has some news for you: the Queen of England is not coming for tea.
Did you think she was? Do you insist on having everything in perfect order at all times, just in case she drops by?
Today's world no longer requires that, says Bredenberg, known in some circles as the "Guru of Dirt," and most recently the author of "How to Cheat at Organizing: Quick, Clutter-Clobbering Ways to Simplify Your Life" (The Taunton Press, $14.95).
When it comes to organizing, he said in a telephone interview from his home near Philadelphia, the all-or-nothing, top-to-bottom philosophy is antiquated and unnecessary. What you need is a pared-down, organized-just-enough lifestyle. What you need to do is create enough order that you will be happy with it but take shortcuts every chance you get. In other words, he said, what you need to do is cheat at organizing.
"By shaking loose a few ingrained habits and attitudes and not striving for perfection, the battle is won," he said. "By thinking in broad strokes and employing simple techniques, you'll be transformed into a cheater of the highest order."
If you doubt the viability of that approach, he said, consider that "organizing experts say that if a task takes you, say, 10 hours to complete, you get 90 percent of it done in the first five hours. The second five hours are devoted to futzing with the spit-and-polish details fixing the fine points."
So, he advised, why not shoot for getting 90 percent organized. "Compared to chaos, that's pretty darn good. Most people could be pleased with that and you will have 50 percent of that time, which you can then use to play games with your children or read a book or lie in a hammock."
Bredenberg is a former journalist, "so I spent a lot of time finding people who had the information that people need. That's the same approach I take with my how-to books. I love finding ways to help people find good solutions to life's hassles, whether it is talking to experts or to clever homeowners who have found ways that work. I like to help people eliminate the things that waste time and money or are based on misconceptions. I hope I can add some relief and sanity that can save hours and hours of time."
His book deals with all aspects of home and life, from living areas, closets, kitchens and wardrobes, to life at the office, to personal finances, schedules and special events.
And while there are specific tips for each of these areas, there are also some overriding principles that will make them work.
"The main reason people aren't more organized," he said, "is that their organizing systems are too invalid, too hard to maintain and don't fit their lifestyle." Keeping the systems in place is more bother than it is worth, and people soon go back to their slovenly ways.
"There are simple ways to have a home you can be proud of, that don't make you work too hard," he said. Consider the Queen, again. "A lot of people cling to the out-moded notion that they need a formal living room, and so they set aside this dysfunctional room that looks pristine, but no kids and no pets are allowed. "
It makes more sense, he said, to have a casual room where you can flop on the couch, leave a paperback book on the table, where friends are more relaxed.
"The same thing applies to every room in your house. The 90 percent rule applies. Relax a bit. Forget the standards that are set by slick magazines, TV shows and movies. Those are artificial environments. Don't let them be your goal or standard."
Another point to remember is that you don't have to have it all. "As a society one of our biggest challenges is that we live in a hyper-consumer mode. We constantly get messages to buy things. We are bombarded with buy, buy, buy. Those messages are not equalized with messages that we don't need to buy, that we need to celebrate getting rid of things."
Do you have clothes that you haven't touched in two years? Find a system to get them out of the house, he said. Other people may be able to use them. Too often, he said, kids will pull out a T-shirt, decide they don't want to wear it, drop it on the floor for mom to come along, pick it up, wash it and put it back for the cycle to start all over. Instead, give kids an "I'm done with it sack," where they can put clothes they no longer want or that don't fit. When the sack is full, donate it.
Another way to eliminate is to have a yearly yard sale. "Identify objects that are not functioning in your life. Store and collect them for a year, sell them for next-to-nothing and move on. Yard sales aren't to make money, they are to eliminate."
What about collections? What about things you might have inherited but don't fit in your life? Evaluate them. Maybe you have fond memories of that horrendous buffet cabinet from when it was in your grandmother's house. Gather the family around it, take a picture, hang the picture on the wall, and get rid of the buffet.
On the other hand, maybe you love it. Maybe it serves its function. "You are in charge. You set the priorities," Bredenberg reminded. "I'm not your mother. Just make sure that whatever it is is pulling its weight and that sentiment is not taking over."
Maybe you can't eliminate furniture. One thing you can get rid of, however, is paper stuff. "Some experts advise opening the mail over a trash can, so the junk goes straight into the trash. Even better, have a trash can located in your path from the mailbox to your door. You can dump the junk and not even let it get in your house."
What about catalogs? Are you constantly processing the same catalogs over and over for things you won't buy? Call their 800 number and ask to be taken off their list. "This might seem like a small thing, but over the course of the year, you might eliminate 20-30 catalogs," he said.And that's what it's all about, he said: small steps that can make big differences over time. "Organizing is not a single project. It's an on-going thing." Find ways that are easy to maintain, or that maintain themselves, he advised. Find ways to cheat.
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