As a working mom with four school-age kids, Sarah Cronin knows the difficulty – and the rewards – of maintaining a well-ordered home.
That doesn't mean a perfect home, said Cronin, owner of Simply Inspired Home Organizing.
"I'm a recovering perfectionist," said Cronin, who studied engineering before switching her major and becoming a teacher. She admits her quest for perfection used to be paralyzing. "It came to a head after I had my first son and came home. I was depressed, and clutter was piling up."
She discovered an online organizing tool and learned that "big-picture organization is all about little systems. It's problem-solving." Now, as a professional organizer and member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, she uses those systems in her own Savage home and to help her clients "ditch the perfection goal" and focus on a few simple fixes that support a broader goal, such as harmonious family living – "organized enough to get out the door without yelling."
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"My clients are relieved to hear when I share my challenges," said Cronin, who works with a lot of families with young children. "They say, 'The only reason I'm letting you in my house is that yours isn't perfect, either.'"
Cronin has developed a five-point strategy for tackling home-organization:
1. Gratitude. Feeling overwhelmed by stuff is a problem of abundance. Recognize and appreciate that. "Start from that place," Cronin said. "People often start organizing when they're frustrated or mad and cranky." Take a deep breath, and tell yourself, "We have enough shoes," for example. "We can give some to other kids who need them. Flip the lens. There's all kinds of research showing that (gratitude) is healthy. It changes brain chemistry, releases dopamine and physiologically calms your system."
2. Setting inspired goals. You're more likely to succeed at organization if your goals align with your other priorities. Cronin once set a goal to have a completely clean kitchen every night after dinner. "But to achieve that, I found I was not hanging out with my kids or with my husband, missing out on quality time with my family," she said. "What I need is to have the table cleared and the island countertop cleared. The rest can flex, and I can be present to my kids and husband in the evening."
3. Getting started. Begin with baby steps, Cronin advised. Start with organizing one thing, whether it's the silverware drawer or the pots and pans. "Work for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. You don't have to have a six-hour chunk." If you're waiting for a whole Saturday to devote to organization, you'll likely wait a long time – and become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
When sorting items and making decisions about whether to keep them, put a bin for items to donate within arm's reach. When sorting clothing, take it out of the closet and lay it on a bed or table. "It's easier to leave it on a hanger," she said. "There's gravity holding things where they are."
4. Going gradually. "Focus on one room a week," Cronin suggested, addressing what needs doing there without letting yourself be distracted by other rooms and tasks. Work in short chunks – set a timer. Keep going – gradually – even when you're feeling discouraged or overwhelmed. "A lot of people struggle with unrealistic expectations," Cronin said. "It will take time to learn new habits. Be aware of all the little victories. Focus on those. Not big failures."
5. Asking good questions. When deciding what to keep and what to part with, ask yourself helpful – not guilt-inducing – questions about their value. "One question that gets too much weight is 'How much did it cost?'" Cronin said. "Not wanting to waste money by getting rid of something expensive is common," and lecturing yourself, "I shouldn't have spent money on that," isn't productive.
Better questions: Do you love it? Do you need it right now? Do you have something else that performs the same function? If you aren't using it, or don't love it, it probably shouldn't be taking up valuable space in your home. Instead, "Donate it to a charity that speaks to your values." Even if it's something you think you might need down the road, such as baby gear or clothing, if you don't have space for it, let it go. Clothing may not fit the size or season of the next child, and there are other sources for bigger items, such as thrift stores or swapping with other parents. "Trust that we will have what we need, when we need it."
When Cronin is working with clients, asking questions is part of the process. "Being a good organizer includes asking questions without judgment: 'Tell me more.' 'Does this help us reach our inspired goal?' Not, 'Why do you have this?'"