Saturday, December 29, 2007

how to organize a pile of papers (and other stuff)

I cleaned off my fridge earlier today, and was left with a pile of photographs, papers and Christmas cards that I needed to put away. While I was at it, I also decided to tackle another pile of stuff that needed filing or organizing.

Check out this Facebook album for photographs which illustrate this entire post. You don't need to be a Facebook member to view the album.*

First I put everything on top of my kitchen table. Professional organizers call this a "staging area". Make sure you have a large, clear space to sort your stuff, or you'll get frustrated much more quickly.

Then (and this is the easiest part), sort everything into smaller piles of similar items.

WARNING: This is where most people stop. They sort their piles, and then - overwhelmed by the work involved in actually doing something with each pile - they simply re-pile everything and call it a day. Do yourself a favour, and move on to the next step in the process.

This part is infinitely more challenging: Take each individual pile and DEAL WTH IT. It will help if you have another large, clear surface on which to do the sub-sorting. (In my case, my (large and normally spotless) desk is just steps from my kitchen table. I live in a bachelor apartment, which sometimes has its advantages.)

My first pile of paper was a bunch of letter-sized paper that needed to be recycled - except that each page was printed on only one side, and so would be great to use for scrap paper in my printer when I'm running off rough drafts of documents.

Luckily I have a spot for this kind of thing - in a magazine box near my printer, where I also store plain white paper and a specialty paper I frequently use.

The second "pile" of stuff was actually just one page - a template I use when cutting out the business cards that I print myself. I have a guillotine paper cutter that gives a professional edge - but I need to know how much to cut off. This page got stored in the magazine box with the printer paper.

The third pile was actually a bunch of piles of stuff that simply needed to be filed away in my filing cabinet. I have places for all of it - I was just lazy about doing the actual filing.

My filing system isn't fancy. I have six deep drawers for files, and I use hanging file folders to keep things neat. Each drawer is sorted roughly by category, and within each drawer the files are organized alphabetically or by subject.

Another pile - of church bulletins - needed filing. I have a bad habit of carrying church bulletins home with me rather than leaving them behind at the church. Most of them are actually headed for the blue box.

Ah, Christmas cards. I actually save Christmas cards - on purpose. I reuse them in handmade cards that I sell for charity each Christmas season. I even encourage other people to give me their old cards.

Cards that I'm going to reuse get their fronts torn away from the backs - I only save the fronts. They go in a file folder in one of my filing cabinets.

Cards that I'm going to save because they have special notes in them go in a keepsake box. I also collect stamps for art projects; they go in another keepsake box. The keepsake boxes (as well as sewing and craft supplies) are kept in a large locker which also stores my t-shirts and sweaters, some shoes, and my yoga mats.

There was a small pile of stuff that belonged in my wallet. I wasn't going to clean out my wallet at this time, but as I went to put a Starbucks gift card in one of the credit card slots, I realized I had a bunch of used-up gift cards and expired membership cards.

It's a good thing I started sorting through my wallet - I also found an expired insurance card for my car. Oops!

The expired cards were cut up, and the rest were sorted and put in their proper slots.

My fridge is often a gallery space for drawings that I or my niece and nephew make. I have a file folder in one of my filing cabinets for small artwork like this.

Dad gave me a Sudoku calendar a year or two ago, and I usually tear off a few puzzles every month or so to stick in my date book or my car to solve when I have some time to kill. The Sudoku pad goes back where it came from, into one of the magazine boxes.

I had a bunch more stuff that needed filing, as well as some papers with phone numbers and other time-sensitive info that I usually put into a spiral-bound notebook that I carry with me everywhere. I date the pages as I write lists or staple scraps of paper into it. It's a great, centralized place to keep all those stray bits of information that I need.

I should have mentioned earlier that, when working on my piles, I chose the easiest ones first and left some of the most challenging (or time-consuming) ones for last. Receipts are the bane of my existence. I have to keep many of them to claim for business expenses on my income tax, and normally I try to keep on top of them so they don't pile up.

This year they've piled up. (Somewhat.)

I created four new piles: bank slips, and piles of receipts for October, November and December. These piles of receipts also have a home in one of my filing cabinets - categorized by month. Sometime before I do my income tax return I'll sift through them again and weed out the ones that I don't need.

I got two cameras for Christmas - one an inexpensive "accident reporting" kit, the other a more-expensive Kodak. I can't install on my computer the disc for the cheap one, so I need to ask the person who gave it to me what she would prefer I do with it (return it to the store where she bought it, give it away...?)

I tore down the box for the Kodak (it went in my blue box), and collected into one small plastic baggie all the pertinent bits and pieces that I'm keeping. I store electronic stuff like this in a basket on one of my shelves. The other camera got put in my "holding area," where I store stuff before returning it or donating it.

My biggest chore was sorting a bunch of photographs that I've had out all fall. Now that I have a digital camera, I can file these snapshots away. I have a bankers box where I keep all my photos, and it was actually less of a chore than I'd thought to quickly sort all the photos into their proper envelopes, labeling the ones that didn't yet have labels. The bankers box of photos is stored on another one of my shelves.

At the end of the job I had recyclables and garbage left over. I shred anything with my name and address on it, or anything to do with my finances.

My shelves are once again tidy, and ready for the next onslaught of paper clutter...

*Instructions for viewing the album on Facebook: Click on the first photograph to read the description of that photo. To proceed to the next photo in the series, simply click on the current photo, or click on "Next" in top right corner of the page.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

eco-friendly organizing

I found this online article while doing a Google search of Toronto organizers. Two of my friends and colleagues are mentioned in the story.

Once in a while, even socially conscious granola types can have problems managing clutter. We may be avid recyclers and conscious shoppers with personal spaces that most times at least are warm and welcoming. But sometimes a major life change – whether a pudgy, squealing infant, new home-based business, a death in the family, or illness – can mess things up...

Read the rest of the article here. Included are a number of links to recycling resources.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

organizing magazines

Magazines are a pretty straightforward thing to organize. Most of them have a date somewhere on the cover. Arrange them by date. Arrange different magazines by subject, or alphabetically. Done.

The real issues with magazines are:

1) People rarely have time to read them in the first place.
2) People read them and want to save a particular article, but never make note of it.
3) People make note of an interesting article, but never go back and read it again. Ever.
4) People basically almost never re-read their magazines.
5) If magazines aren't stored accessibly (i.e. on shelves), your chances of actually re-reading them are even slimmer.
6) Magazines can take up a lot of room.
7) Magazines seem to like to live in piles.
8) Piles of magazines seem to like to topple over at inopportune moments.

The easy solution to organizing magazines? Don't keep them. (And if you really don't have time to read them, don't buy them in the first place!)

It's time to get real with yourself. Are you honest about your magazine habits?

If you never have time to read your magazines, why do you buy so many? Could you buy fewer each month? If you realistically can't think of a way to make more time in your life to read two, five, or 10 magazines per month (don't laugh—I used to regularly buy about double that!), consider going cold turkey for a while.

There's an amazing book by Elaine St. James called Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More. In it St. James lists 10 ways to free up miscellaneous amounts of time in your life over the next thirty days, so that you can start thinking about how to simplify your life. Way number three is to stop reading magazines.

Let's say you don't want to stop reading magazines. Can you at least get rid of them once you're done with them? Recycle them, or donate them to a local women's shelter, health care practitioner's office or hospital waiting room. Or pass them along to friends with similar interests. Or donate them to schools for art projects.

If you can't get rid of them, can you only keep the ones you really love—and have space for? I was serious when I said that most people don't re-read their old magazines. That's a lot of dead (and heavy) energy sitting on your bookshelf. Not to mention the guilt of knowing that there are articles you'd like to read again, but you can't find them, and never have time to read them anyhow. That kind of guilt eats away at your peace of mind, and keeps you from enjoying the life you should be enjoying.

I grew up in a house where my mom read a lot of magazines, and she kept all her back issues. When I was really young, the back issues lived in boxes in the basement. They were a treasure-trove of inspiration when I was about 12 years old, and discovered her Good Housekeeping magazines from the late 60s and early 70s (keep in mind I was born in '67, so it's not like they were even vintage by that point). I fell in love with the look of pastel-coloured babydoll dresses and kohl eyeliner, and was fascinated by the romance novels abridged within each issue.

For a 12-year-old, the pack-rattiness of my mother's magazine habits was a boon. But for my mother—who didn't have a lot of storage space—the magazines became a burden. Eventually she threw them out. (I know, I know. People would probably pay good money for them today. Which reminds me—if you have truly vintage magazines, you can probably find a place to donate or sell them. Here in Toronto, I know a man with a costume warehouse who will take old clothing catalogues and clothing patterns, as well).

My mom still buys magazines. And still has lots of back issues hanging around. At least now she usually gets rid of them when they're about a year old.

As a teenager, I incessantly bought fashion magazines. And as I grew older, my interests broadened and I brought home a huger range of titles every month. When I was 26 I bought myself six IKEA Billy bookcases to store my collection of back issues (as well as my collection of books).

When I ran out of shelf space, I started storing things (magazines, books) in boxes in the basement. I also collected old newspapers, by the way. For the photographs. I was an artist, and loved acquiring images of people, especially faces.

My back issues and newspapers got out of hand. There were so many things I wanted to keep, but I didn't have space for them. I didn't want to throw them out, either. I liked to cut up magazines for collages—just think of all the raw material I would be losing if I got rid of everything!

Eventually I realized that, even if I could find the time to go through all my back issues and newspapers and clip everything I wanted to save, it would take me years to get through all the boxes.

And that wasn't how I wanted to spend my time.

So I recycled most of it. And felt amazing afterwards. I still have magazines—approximately 32' of shelf space worth of them (including 30 years of National Geographics). But I do have space for them. And I actually use them. And I get rid of things when I run out of space and want to add new books or magazines.

If you've read this far and you still want to keep your magazines, make sure you have room. You need proper bookcases or durable storage furniture. Magazines are heavy. I recommend storing magazines vertically on shelves, in cardboard (or plastic) magazine holders. The holders make it easy to pull the magazines on and off the shelves without the other magazines slithering all over the place.

When you run out of shelf space, don't add any new magazines unless you remove some old ones.

And believe it or not, you may eventually decide that you don't really want to keep magazines anyhow. I’ve let go of a lot of titles that I would once never have parted with. And whenever I move again, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the rest won’t make the cut.

(Which reminds me of a funny story from my move last September. My boyfriend and his best friend were helping out, and when the best friend looked down at the labels on the three large boxes he was dollying to the elevator, he did a double-take.

“I can’t believe I just moved Oprah,” he exclaimed.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

phone numbers

I had a scary moment last night while standing at a client's front door waiting to be let in for an evening work session. When there was no answer to my repeated knocks, I pulled out my cell phone to call the client's home number (maybe she was upstairs and couldn't hear me knocking? She'd already told me the doorbell didn't work).

I reached back into my bag to pull out my datebook... and realized with a sinking feeling that I'd left it at home on my desk. Luckily I still had my all-purpose notebook with me, into which I usually enter all client info. I easily found her number and dialed it. But the episode gave me pause: What if I had really left home without that phone number?

Many people rely on PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) - those small, hand-held electronic calendars and information databases like Palm and Blackberry - to manage their address books and phone numbers. When combined with mobile telephone and wireless internet functions, they literally allow you to have the world at your fingertips.

For the less-digitally-inclined among us, however, there is still old-fashioned paper. (In fact, it's always a good idea to have paper back-up for those times when the electronics fail. And they WILL fail...)

But how do you realistically (i.e. easily) manage all the phone numbers you need on a day-to-day basis? And how do you ensure that you always HAVE the numbers you need, close at hand?

I ran into a problem a couple of weeks ago when I was delayed at a client's and realized I was going to have to cancel a date I'd planned for later in the evening. My new friend and I had exchanged cell phone numbers, but I hadn't transferred his number to my datebook or cell phone - it was still sitting on my computer, in an e-mail he had sent me. (Luckily he called MY cell phone at the time we were supposed to meet, and I was able to cancel without too much hassle).

I now enter numbers into my cell phone as soon as I get them. I can easily delete them when I no longer need them. My new process is as follows: When I get a phone number (usually from a voice message left on my phone), I write it on a Post-it Note along with the name and other pertinent information.

The Post-it goes into my go-everywhere notebook. I then MAKE TWO COPIES OF THE POST-IT - one for my datebook, and one for my home address book. And I put the number into my cell phone. Odds are I won't loose ALL of those resources all at once. (Knock wood.)

My home address book, by the way, consists of THREE three-ring binders. One contains active personal numbers, a second contains active business numbers, and the third is an archive. Each book has alphabetical tabs, and one page for every contact. It's very low-tech: I just punch holes in a scrap piece of printer paper from my recycling tray (reduce, reuse and recycle!), staple a business card (if I've been given one) to the page, and stick Post-its with contact info onto each page as well. The full page gives me lots of room to make notes if I need to (handy when I'm keeping track of appointments or significant dates).

I haven't had much need for a computerized contact management system yet (although I sense that need is coming). At that point I'll probably add a spreadsheet step to whole the process.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, July 21, 2007

e-filing for dummies

I came across a product on the Sympatico homepage today that I'd never heard of before: Organize My Electronic Filing Cabinet for Dummies. Right now they're offering the basic package as a free download, and for $29.99 you can upgrade to the professional version.

I don't own this product, nor am I necessarily endorsing it, but I can imagine that it might be helpful for people who are overwhelmed by their electronic files.

It looks like the Dummies program offers a basic template of file categories, into which you can sort all your personal, household, and business electronic files. It also claims to be customizable, which in my eyes is a good thing. I have never met anyone who could get along with a "standard" organizing template.

How can you create something like this for yourself?

Start by browsing through your electronic documents. Write a list of all the document categories you can think of. My list would include the following:
  • Alexander technique
  • downloaded program updates
  • financial
  • images
  • music
  • POC
  • Word documents

Within each of these categories I may have several sub-categories, with documents from a variety of applications (Word, Excel, Finale) in each folder. Under "financial," for example, I have separate folders for all my different businesses, a folder for my personal finances, a folder for resumes and CVs, etc.

Under "personal finances" I have more sub-folders, including bank accounts, budgets, correspondence, gifts, income, income tax, and research on big-ticket items I'd like to purchase.

You can see why it's imperative that a filing system be customizable. No two people are the same, and we all have unique organizing needs.

Once you've come up with your own list of the types of documents you store, divide them into broad categories (like my first list), and subdivide them as necessary. You can choose to keep your lists alphabetical, or in any order that makes sense to you.

When I was reorganizing my e-mail folders in Outlook Express this past winter, for example, I tried a few different categorization systems before settling on something that actually corresponded to the way my mind filed all the categories inside my head.

I started with an alphabetical filing system - in fact, I still use that for my online e-mail accounts. I can quickly transfer new e-mails from my inbox, or access old e-mails by finding and clicking on the alphabetically-filed name.

For Outlook Express, however, I wanted something more structured. I spend most of my e-mailing time in OE, and I refer back to old e-mails all the time. I chose several broad categories:
  • Alexander technique
  • business
  • church stuff
  • clients
  • computer
  • e-newsletters
  • friends
  • POC
  • volunteering

Within each folder (which I always keep in the expanded or "open" position) I have an alphabetical list of the different recipients, and I store all their e-mails (and my responses to them) under the recipients' names. Filing new e-mails is quick and easy - I just drag and drop.

The hard part comes when you have to actually transfer files to the new filing system - especially if they're scattered all over your hard drive. Yes, it can be time-consuming to put everything where it belongs. But the end result will be a filing system that works much more efficiently, and hopefully makes your life easier in the long run.

My biggest challenge as far as e-filing goes is choosing good names for my document files in the first place. Back in the days of DOS, it was a lot trickier - nowadays file names can be much longer, and the file extensions (.doc, .jpg, .xls) are tacked on automatically.

Should you file by date or alphabetically, though? Or a combination of both? I need to do a major sort of my own Word files - I have too many documents mis-labelled with the date before the subject (i.e., rather than In this case, it's more important for me to have similar files grouped together by subject rather than date.

I can't emphasize enough: Organize your files in a way that makes sense to you. Only you know how your mind works. Only you can decide the best system for your own needs.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

"have you always been this organized?"

Yes. Eat your heart out.

(Just kidding - about the heart part, anyway.)

That's the one question I'm most often asked by clients (usually right after they've seen my organizing kit or my car's trunk). (The second most popular question: "Is my house the worst you've ever seen?")

(To which I'm inclined to want to answer (but don't): "Do you WANT it to be?")*

Yes, I've always been this organized. But that doesn't mean you can't be organized, too. There's a difference between being organized and being a professional organizer - and I'm here to help you with the former. Don't even worry about the latter.

Organization is a skill that can be taught, and even the most disorganized person can learn some basic tools to create and maintain more order in his or her life. So please don't feel defeated when you see people who seem to have their acts together, and admit to having been that way their whole lives. (This would include most professional organizers. We're a strange breed.)

You, too, can live an organized life. There is hope.

A good place to start is to spend some quiet time with yourself, thinking about the way you'd really like to live. Do you have a friend or acquaintance whose life you admire? When you look at pictures in books or magazines, what kinds of homes appeal to you? What kind of lifestyles make you feel truly good inside? Do you pine for a fast-paced, hectic life, or one that's mellower - more laidback?

Pay special attention to the things you yearn for. If we truly love something, we are more inclined to do the work necessary to manifest it. Beware of trying to create environments you feel you "should have" or "should want." Are you happy living in comfortable clutter? Maybe you don't even need to do anything about it. Only if your life is negatively affected by some aspect of your disorganization should you even consider making a change.

If you're convinced you really do want to change, consult with a professional organizer who can help you prioritize your needs and create your action plan. Based on your budget and your time frame, you can then begin to address your organizing challenges.

*I have to admit that that line is not original to me. I heard it from a breakout session speaker - an American professional organizer named Lynne Johnson, who specializes in helping the chronically disorganized - at last year's Professional Organizers in Canada conference in Toronto. She was a terrifically funny woman, with a deadpan delivery reminiscent of Ellen Degeneres.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

eco-friendly cleaning - my new blog

I've created a new blog that deals exclusively with eco-friendly cleaning. The URL is

When I started the blog you're reading now (an organized existence), I intended to combine tips and advice on professional organizing and eco-friendly or "green" cleaning. I've since realized that environmentally-friendly cleaning is such a huge topic that I wanted a blog devoted exclusively to green cleaning, and the greener cleaner was born.

I plan on "recycling" some of my eco-friendly cleaning posts from this blog on the new blog. But from this date onward, all new green-cleaning posts will be found at the greener cleaner.

Hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

so, what are michelle lynne goodfellow's specialties?

The majority of my experience is with residential organizing. I got started in the field while working at my previous business, an eco-friendly home-cleaning company. Clients (particularly seniors) would ask me for advice and help with moving or downsizing, and my new business was born.

I've spent several years working intimately with people in their own homes, which is possibly why I prefer residential organizing. But having been at the helm of several small businesses, I also understand the needs of the business sector - especially small office/home office setups.

My background in Home Economics (B.Sc. (H.Ec.) '89 from the University of Western Ontario) has given me special insight into the design of living and working spaces, and I am currently training in a kind of bodywork called the Alexander Technique which further helps me evaluate the ergonomics of spaces. I'm also a longtime yogi and meditator, interested in helping people create calm, soothing and regenerative places in which to live and work.

I have extensive experience working with seniors - they are a population that is dear to my heart. I have a lot of insight into their special needs and (I hope!) a lot of patience to deal with their fears and resistances.

I also have extensive experience working with young families, meeting the needs of children as well as their working parents. I am a foodie who loves to cook and (that Home Ec. experience again!) organize a kitchen.

I love the drudgework of sorting and purging a client's chaotic clutter - and being a visual artist, I have an eye for organizing things to pleasing (and functional) effect.

I'm fast - in fact I often have to curb my tendency to rush - but I can slow myself down for a client who needs to take time to weigh decisions. People are often amazed at what I can help them accomplish. I especially love to educate and coach my clients in organizing strategies, and I get the most satisfaction from knowing that I've passed along useful tools that will keep clients organized long after I've left.

I have a passion for organizing, which is why I write about it so much. I want to share what I know...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Monday, May 21, 2007

so, what do professional organizers do?

Answering this question might seem unnecessary. Except - more than once - I've had a potential client ask it.

If you check out the Professional Organizers in Canada website and use their "Find an Organizer" function, you will notice that for every organizer there is a list of services which they provide. Organizing is a huge field, and many organizers will specialize in "niche" markets to set themselves apart from other organizers.

The two broad categories are business and residential organizing. An organizer who specializes in business organizing may do information organizing, which could include organizing computer systems and training, organizing files, organizing systems, bookkeeping or financial organizing, organization of procedures or manuals, and records management. They may also offer virtual-assistant services.

A business organizer usually organizes any general office spaces. There are also several sector specialties: legal, medical, associations/non-profits, corporate, SOHO (small office/home office) and retail spaces or stores. Specialized business services could also include Human Resources tasks and organization.

Residential organizing focuses on homes and families. A residential organizer may help organize information in the form of files, paper flow, and financial management or bookkeeping. The types of spaces organized are much more varied than in the business sector: closets, attics/garages/basements/storage lockers, kitchens, and other general home spaces.

Specialized residential organizing services include estate organizing and garage sales. There are also a number of specialized categories that encompass both business and residential organizing. Organizers may have experience in working with ADD or ADHD individuals, or what's known in the profession as the "chronically disorganized." Other special populations include creative individuals, people with health or mobility challenges, and seniors.

Organizers may offer services in other languages, including French. Organizers may offer coaching or training in organization. Some organizers do event planning or offer concierge services. Some organizers specialize in downsizing or moving/relocation, as well as home sale preparation or home staging. Other organizers may have specialized training or experience in wardrobe consulting, interior decorating, ergonomics, feng shui, or alternative healing modalities and new age disciplines as they apply to spaces. Some organizers actively help clients achieve a work/life balance.

Experienced organizers may also do public speaking or lead seminars and workshops on organizing. Some organizers have published books on professional organizing, or regularly write about organizing topics.

Curious about what an organizer does? Ask him or her. And ask about related training or experience - and references - if you're considering hiring an organizer.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Friday, May 18, 2007

is michelle lynne goodfellow perfectly organized?


In fact, on some days, I feel like I've lost a brain cell or thousand. (And I haven't even hit peri-menopause yet. Heaven help me!)

But what makes me a great professional organizer is that I'm really, really good at troubleshooting. My mind loves a puzzle, and I enjoy tracing a problem back to its source - then rectifying it.

(I also adore the drudgery of sorting and purging - especially when it's other people's stuff!)

So how do I keep myself organized during my own day-to-day existence?

I'm pretty low-tech. I have a paper datebook. Small enough to fit in my purse. With a weekly page-spread, so I can see my entire week at once. If I could get away with a monthly spread, I would - but I occasionally have too many activities each day for that.

I write client information (addresses, telephone numbers) on Post-it Notes and stick them right in the datebook on the pertinent week's spread. They usually stay in there forever unless I need them for a later week, or the information ceases to be relevant.

I write clients' billable hours right in the datebook as well, and later transfer them to an Excel spreadsheet.

I keep a separate, small spiral-bound notebook in which to write notes. Anything that needs writing down (including endless To Do lists!) gets put in there. I date every single entry, and I archive the notebooks when I finish them. The one I'm using now goes all the way back to my apartment search last summer.

I also staple stuff - handouts, lists I've made on other paper, business cards, labels and UPC codes from my favorite products, MapQuest printouts, etc. - and stick Post-it Notes in there, too. The notebook is small enough to go in my purse and with me everywhere.

I try to make a point of looking at my datebook and notebook at least once a day. Usually the only times I've really screwed up are when I've relied on my memory and not checked the books first.

I have a place for everything and make a point of putting everything away in its place every day. (This includes e-mails in my Outlook Express program, and files for my other online and computer activities.)

I've travelled a lot in the past year, and I've learned to plan backwards in time from end of any trip or prolonged activity. I got that tip from my ex-boyfriend (a travelling actor and singer - check out his website here). If I'm away for more than an overnight, I write down every activity I will be doing from the end of the trip to its beginning, and making sure to pack everything I need for all those activities.

I prepare healthy food ahead of time in bulk quantities. I'm a vegetarian with some dietary restrictions; when I'm hungry and don't have food prepared it often results in junk food binges. So I always have several days' worth of brown rice, hard-boiled eggs, beans and soups in my fridge or freezer.

Those are pretty much my basics.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Thursday, May 17, 2007

what to expect from a professional organizer

So you're taking the plunge and hiring a professional organizer. What can you expect from him or her?

For starters, nine times out of ten it's going to be a her. This is a predominantly female industry. But, providing you live in a major metropolitan area, you'll have quite a choice - everything from grandmotherly types to hip young urbanites.

Some professional organizers have a strong business or administrative background, while others (like myself) are born entrepreneurs with an unconventional bent. Many organizers are very artistic or creative, believe it or not. This came as a shock to me when I first joined the Toronto Chapter of Professional Organizers in Canada (POC). I think the assumption is that organizers are very logical, left-brained thinkers - and they can be - but many of the organizers I know excel at the right-brained stuff, too.

And it kind of makes sense. Organizers have to be able to see the big picture as well as the little details. We're usually excellent troubleshooters who also love the drudgery of sorting.

Will your professional organizer do things just like the organizers on TV? Yes and no. Everyone has their own style - although a good organizer will be sensitive to your needs and adapt their methods to your particular situation.

Hiring a professional organizer can be a huge expense, and if money is an issue, you can cut corners on supplies and billable hours. Which means you might not get the pretty storage solutions you see on TV, or the leagues of helpers waiting in the wings to clear a room in a weekend.

Most organizers I know carry a small kit of "essentials" to their jobs. This can include anything from markers and labels to measuring tapes and hammers. Some go all-out and provide boxes and garbage bags for sorting and purging; others will expect you to pick up this expense. Ask ahead of time so you know what to expect.

Depending on your situation, your organizer will probably suggest a plan of action that may take several organizing sessions. An individual session is usually very low-tech, especially if it's a purge: The organizer will show up in "work" (i.e. get dirty) clothes, probably wear rubber gloves (against dust - you wouldn't believe how dirty our hands get otherwise!), and possibly don a dust mask.

Purges and sorts usually make your home or office look much worse before it looks better, especially if you have a lot of clutter. Your organizer may ask to clear a "sorting area" where you can go through your possessions together. Some organizers will cart away your "give-aways" for you, while others will expect you to dispose of things yourself.

When it comes time to reorganize what you've got left, most organizers will suggest various storage options, but let you make the final decision. Some will purchase storage containers for you, and others will expect you to acquire things on your own. As you might expect, the more you ask an organizer to do, the more you will likely pay for his or her services.

Give your organizer frequent feedback on how well he or she is satisfying your needs. Organizing can be a very difficult, emotional process. There will likely be tense moments. But in general things should feel like a good fit. If they don't, talk it over - and don't be afraid to hire another organizer if the first doesn't work out. Not everyone will be perfect for you.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

extreme purging

Are you inspired by reading about organizing and organization?
One of my favorite books about the voluntary simplicity movement is by author Elaine St. James. In Living the Simple Life she tells the story of a family who lost their home in a fire. When the time came to begin replacing their possessions, they suddenly realized how few of their former things they really needed.

They had experienced a shocking loss, yet were able to see the silver lining in their tragedy. They got a chance to start all over again, creating a life (and a home) that was a true expression of their values.

If your house was on fire and you had only moments to escape, what would you take with you?

Most of us have at least a few irreplaceables: photos, mementos, family heirlooms. But stop a moment and think. How important are those things, really?

What I've found as I've done layer after layer of my own purging is that there is really very little that I can't live without. I'm fond of my favorite possessions, yes - but my life will not be diminished by their loss.

There's something very freeing in this attitude. If my things don't matter, I can spend more energy on the stuff that does - like friendship, and joyful activities, and personal development.

I moved last fall, and I've helped others move in the months since. Every time I lug a box full of stuff that I know won't get unpacked for months - if ever! - I question the sanity of our culture (and my friends and clients).

Sometimes I entertain a fantasy: What if I moved to Europe? What if I couldn't take more than a couple of suitcases with me? What if I lived my life with everything I needed, packed into a carry-on bag?

This is extreme purging. And I'm feeling the pull. Every time I let go of another thing I once thought I could never live without, I feel like I've lost 20 pounds. (Do I smell a reality show somewhere...?)

Monday, May 14, 2007


In my line of work I am constantly faced with the rampant consumerism and materialism of our society.

Whether it's a Depression-era client who can't let go of a collection of rubber bands, or a young urban professional who can't let go of a wall full of videotapes, we are drowning in stuff, and most of us can't appreciate how meaningless are the things to which we cling.

When I'm working with clients, I walk a fine line between supporting and encouraging people's passions, and really putting the screws to them as far as their clutter is concerned. The trick (or art, if you want to think of it that way) is knowing when people are ready for change, and when they just need some gentle nudging.

As far as my own philosophy goes, I espouse simplicity - even austerity. The older I get, the more impatient I become with my own clutter. I spent years acquiring more and more and MORE... now my constant refrain is: How few [fill in the blank: clothes, books, CDs, etc.] can I get away with?

And I have to say, each layer of my life that I shed leaves me feeling lighter and freer.

There is a whole movement devoted to this. You may have heard of it: Voluntary Simplicity. One of my first introductions to the Voluntary Simplicity movement was nearly 20 years ago, through the "More with Less" books published by the Mennonite Central Committee. Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre became my favorite bedtime reading one summer when I was cooking for a treeplanting camp in northern Alberta.

A few years later I found Janet Luhrs' The Simple Living Guide, and it fueled my downsizing dreams for several months. Then I ran across one of Elaine St. James' books at a client's house, and there was no turning back.

Simplicity means different things to different people, but at its core is the desire to lead a life that has meaning and richness, filled with connection to others and to one's own deepest desires. To live deeply implies that you spend much time on few things. Too many possessions become a distraction: They require constant attention in the form of cleaning, care, storage (or working to pay for storage), and organization.

My own attempts at Voluntary Simplicity are a work in progress. If you're inspired to read more, check out the website The Smart Woman's Guide to a Simple Life by writer Gretchen Roberts. She lists many other current resources for simple living.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Sunday, May 13, 2007

eco-friendly shower curtains

Conventional store-bought shower curtains are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petrochemical product that is toxic in its manufacture and use (it outgases a suspected carcinogen and hormone disrupter). It is being phased out of toys and household products in Europe, and hopefully North America will soon follow suit. Because it is relatively inexpensive to make, it's found in a huge variety of items. Read more about the dangers of PVC here.

Alternatives to vinyl shower curtains are available commercially in the form of fabric curtains. Most are also made from petrochemicals, however. Hemp and organic cotton shower curtains are available, but expensive.

I decided to make my own eco-friendly shower curtain out of a large piece of gauzy 100% cotton from my fabric stash. All I had to do was hem it to the appropriate length and add twelve grommets to the top. Because it's so lightweight, it dries quickly and doesn't attract mold. It's easy to wash, and can be dried by re-hanging it while still wet. It looks great in my bathroom, adding to the natural spa effect of white tiles and stainless steel fixtures combined with natural materials such as wood and wicker.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

how to hire a professional organizer

So you think you need a professional organizer. How do you go about hiring one?

I recently had a potential client call me; she was looking for an organizer to help her with a garage sale in the fall. She's downsizing, and wanted someone experienced in the disposal of a large number of items.

She had the right idea: She did her homework ahead of time, and knew what she wanted.

Evaluate your own situation. What kind of service do you need? Clients have hired me for jobs as varied as helping them sort for a downsize, helping them purge unneeded possessions, helping them rearrange an interior space or organize a specific area of their home, helping them pack and organize for a move, helping them categorize a collection, re-systematize their files and workspace, or choose storage systems.

Hiring an organizer can be expensive; many organizers in the Toronto area where I work charge upwards of $50 an hour for their services. It pays to know exactly what you need.

Let's say you're overwhelmed by a cluttered basement. You have boxes piled everywhere in your family room, which you'd ideally like to use as a space for relaxation and entertaining guests. Do you need help sorting through the boxes? Do you need advice on how (and where) to store the things you decide to keep? Do you know where you're going to put things? Do you know who will take the things you no longer want?

Let's say you decide you need someone to help you with the sorting and purging. Do you need them to hold your hand through the entire task, or do you just want someone to jump-start the process? Are you willing to do "homework" if the organizer assigns it?

Once you've defined your needs, write them down. This will help you when you begin talking to prospective organizers.

Where do you look for an organizer? Start by asking friends who may have hired professional organizers themselves. Most of my colleagues get their clients through referrals and word of mouth.

If you don't know anyone who's hired an organizer, check out professional organizing association websites such as Professional Organizers in Canada (POC) and the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) in the US. Members of these organizations must adhere to a code of ethics, and often will have had training in professional organizing. Both sites have a "find an organizer" function which will generate a list of organizers in your area.

Ask prospective organizers about their background and training. How long have they been organizing? Do they have a specific area of expertise? Do they provide references? Are they insured?

How much do they charge? Is there a fee for the initial consultation? Do they have an hourly rate, or will they charge a fixed fee per project?

Some organizers may ask you to sign a contract, outlining the specific work to be done and any conditions they may have regarding cancellations or payment. Some organizers may also ask permission to take "before" and "after" photos for their portfolio. Don't be afraid to assert your own needs and preferences.

Having an organizer come into your home is a very personal and intimate experience. You may feel vulnerable about revealing your perceived disorganization. Know that most professional organizers have probably seen it all before. We are generally compassionate, caring people who delight in helping others achieve their dreams.

Look for someone with whom you feel comfortable. Most organizers are committed to satisfying their clients. We want to know if you're unhappy. We'll help you find someone to meet your needs if we can't.

What happened to the prospective client I mentioned at the beginning of this post?

I was honest and told her I don't have a great deal of experience organizing garage sales. I know many other organizers in my city who do, so I gave her the names of two who specialize in downsizing and estates. The client was thankful for my help, and we had a lovely conversation about her situation. She hung up the phone feeling encouraged in her efforts.

Seek to feel good about the situation, and good feelings will follow...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow


On Tuesday, May 1, several Toronto POC (Professional Organizers in Canada) members volunteered at a Toronto NOWeek (National Organizing Week) event, organizing a storage locker for Red Door Shelter.
Red Door collects donations of used furniture and household items, and distributes these items to clients (abused women or new immigrants) who are setting up new households. The storage locker was in desperate need of organizing: it was full-to-bursting with mattresses, beds, dressers, chairs, sofas, and tables which had been piled haphazardly without any order.

TPOC members (left to right in photo above) Aleya Gibson, Lilian O'Meara, myself, Karen Shinn, and Helen Melbourne helped Red Door staff Nancy and Iris sort and purge the inventory.

Part-way through the day a scrap metal dealer named Michael Mazerolle (416-732-7910) showed up to carry away the metal trash, and happily he and his assistant were able to help us assemble some industrial shelving inside the storage locker, to hold small items like cushions and end tables.

Despite the chilly weather and the occasional sprinkle of rain, we were able to complete the sort and reorganize the locker by the end of the afternoon. Red Door driver Myaya, who delivers the furniture to its new homes, was there to see the final result and was very impressed by our work!

If you live in the Toronto area and have furniture to donate, Red Door picks up within the boundaries of Bathurst to the west, Highway 7 to the north, Markham Road to the east, and the lake to the south. Their contact number is: 416-915-5671 ext. 222.

A couple of things I learned during this project:
  1. Please don't donate crappy stuff to charities. They probably can't use it. If you wouldn't give it to a friend, don't think that someone less fortunate than you will be happy to have it.

  2. Volunteering on a project like this with other POC members is a lot of fun! We all have different organizing styles, but it's great to see how other people work, and it's wonderful to make connections and build relationships with colleagues.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


At various times in my life I have been a faithful Oprah viewer, and through her show I have been introduced to some amazing, life-changing ideas.*
Something that has stuck with me for years is cultivating an attitude of gratitude. With the recent popularity of the Law of Attraction (as explained in books such as The Secret), the value of gratitude has become even more apparent.

Years ago, the best-selling author Sarah Ban Breathnach recommended keeping a gratitude journal in which to record all the things for which you are grateful. At various times I have made gratitude lists, and last fall I started an art journal dedicated to gratitude.

For months I wrote in it only occasionally, but lately I have become almost obsessed with gratitude. I have so much for which to be thankful, and I love looking back over what I have written. It makes me happy.

As Oprah says, "The more your praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."

*In fact, it was an Oprah show that originally introduced me to professional organizing, via Oprah guest Julie Morgenstern.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

post-it notes

I recently had an initial consultation with a new client who is struggling with the burden of too many tasks to accomplish. As we talked about his situation, he asked how he might begin to organize all his projects so that he can get the "big picture" and prioritize everything more effectively.
I shared with him my favorite brainstorming tool: a pack of Post-it Notes.

I'm very visually oriented (hence my parallel existence as a visual artist), and I like to see everything in front of me when I'm working. If I have a lot of ideas to organize, I sit down with some Post-its and start jotting down ideas - one item per page - then stick them to a large area like a blank wall, a door, or an empty tabletop.

It's easy to move things around as patterns begin to emerge, and after about fifteen or twenty minutes I have a visual chart of the subject I'm brainstorming. I can then transcribe all the Post-it jottings as bullets in a spreadsheet or Word document, and begin formulating my action plan.

My visual orientation also means that I shun PDAs, because I like to see everything all at once. If it's not on the page in front of me, I can't remember it well. If I had room to carry around a desk-blotter-sized "month-at-a-glance" calendar, I would. As it is, I make do with a "week-at-a-glance" day planner, and a monthly wall calendar for tracking my financial life (accounts payable, etc.).

I love Post-It Notes. I keep pads of them everywhere, and jot down "to do" lists whenever I think of something. I can stick the notes in my day planner, include them in my business files, or stick them on highly visible surfaces around my apartment to remind me of things. Thank heaven for 3M...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, April 21, 2007


I've been watching with interest as many businesses have been jumping on the "green" bandwagon. Just today I was grocery shopping at Loblaws and noticed a large display of their new President's Choice Green products, including eco-friendly cleansers for laundry and bathrooms.

I bought a bottle of their President's Choice Green Coldwater Laundry Detergent. I've been using eco-friendly laundry cleansers for years, and I'm happy with my current methods, but it's always nice to try something new and be able to give people feedback about the products that are on the market.

Many people don't realize how manufacturers have manipulated our opinions about cleaning dirty laundry. We've become convinced that our clothing is full of dirt and germs, and nothing short of the most powerful cleansers, bleaches, and fabric softeners will give us the brightest, whitest and fluffiest results.

The truth is, we don't really need their products. In many cases they actually make our clothes dirtier, or wear out our fabrics faster. Most people, for example, add too much detergent to each load of laundry. It can't be properly rinsed away by the end of the cycle, and when you add liquid fabric softener to your wash, or throw fabric softener sheets in the dryer, you create a waxy build-up on the fabric that attracts even more dirt.

Try a simple experiment. Take some clothes straight from your dryer and stick them back in the washing machine with a tablespoon of TSP (trisodium phosphate), which you can find at most hardware or paint stores. Run the load again without adding any detergent or bleach, and have a look at the water after the machine has begun to agitate. The water will be a dirty, scummy mess. And those were your "clean" clothes!

The biggest problem with most laundry detergents is that they are made from petrochemicals, which use non-renewable resources in their manufacture, and pollute our waterways when they are sent down the drain after each load of laundry. They are mildly caustic, and are a frequent cause of household poisonings. The residues they leave on our clothing can cause skin and respiratory irritations in people with chemical sensitivities to the dyes, fragrances, or surfactants they contain. Many detergents also contain chemicals that are suspected carcinogens.

There are plenty of sustainable, non-toxic alternatives to conventional laundry detergents. A quick look through the organics section of most grocery stores will reveal a range of choices, including Nature Clean and Seventh Generation products. I've been using Nature Clean's All-Purpose Cleaning Lotion for years. I love it because it's multi-purpose - it does everything from dishwashing to general household cleaning to laundry. When washing my clothes, I add about a tablespoon of the cleaning liquid to a full load of laundry, and add vinegar to the rinse water to soften the clothes, which I then hang to dry.

When washing linens (i.e my sheets and towels, which are white or natural 100% cotton), I use a combination of washing soda and TSP, and again add vinegar to the rinse. I would use washing soda for all my laundry, except it can occasionally leave a powdery residue on dark fabric - especially if it's washed in cold water. When buying washing soda, avoid Arm & Hammer if you are sensitive to fragrances, since they scent their product.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


How many of us deal well with change? I like to think I do, but the honest truth is, you often have to carry me into change kicking and screaming.

I've made some huge changes in my life in the past year: I started a romantic relationship, changed singing teachers, applied for and was accepted into an Alexander Technique teacher-training program, closed my eco-friendly cleaning business, moved to a new city, started school, started a professional organizing business, and returned to a freelance writing business I'd set aside years ago.

Change? Piece of cake. Life was full, rich, exciting and interesting. I took everything well in stride. Or so I thought.

Then I broke up with my boyfriend.

Now I find myself coming home to an empty apartment. I check my voicemail. I hear Jim Carrey's voice in my head, reciting his character's line from The Cable Guy: "Nobody loves me."

I cry.

How did I go from being loved and cherished (and telephoned at least once a day by my beloved) to being alone? I want a do-over.

Strangely enough, I received a pertinent e-newsletter from Yoga Journal in my inbox today. It began:

How is it that when life is spun around by circumstances, benign or otherwise, some people flail while others sail? Why do some of us wallow in that place where we're so shocked and unhappy about an unexpected turn of events that we resist reality and find ourselves mired in bitterness or fear or hopelessness? Instead of accepting change with grace, we dig in our heels and suffer through each day of things not being what we think they should be. What's the secret to riding each new wave gracefully?

I was ashamed to recognize myself in the above paragraph. (The "mired in bitterness, fear, or hopelessness" part, if you must know.) Turns out that yoga mindfulness practices can help with the emotional fallout of change. Two quotes jumped out at me:

Accept Impermanence. Every day, repeat a gatha (mindfulness verse): "Great is the matter of birth and death; impermanence surrounds us. Be awake each moment; do not waste your life."

You can separate your feelings from your response to them. By distinguishing your core emotions from those that pile on afterward, you don't limit your emotional life; on the contrary, you unclutter it. As Boccio says, it's the clutter that leads you away from your true experience and into murkier territory.

I (who make a living from reducing clutter) had never thought about uncluttering my emotional life. What a concept.

You can read the entire article yourself, here. See if you don't start to look at change in a new way...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Monday, April 16, 2007

the need for order

I've been living in chaos for the last few weeks, as I try to purge some of my possessions from my bachelor apartment. I love a clean, spare look in interior design - but I have a lot of stuff! Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the two.

One thing I know for sure: I feel better when things are neat, tidy, and organized. My living space is multi-purposed - it has to serve as bedroom, living room, dining room, home office, and artist's studio. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I need to have accessible on a daily basis.

It's easy to get bogged-down by a large number of material possessions. And when they are scattered around our spaces without any clear "home," they can drain our emotional energy as we find ourselves constantly searching for things, or moving things from pile to pile, or avoiding piles we're afraid to touch for fear they might tumble over.

My organizing solution has been to create a wall-o'-shelves that holds most of the things I regularly need. I married two of my favorite design themes - industrial chic and European rustic - by acquiring sturdy wooden utility shelving, and arranging an eclectic assortment of natural baskets and vintage wooden soft drink crates on the shelves. You'll also find a boom box and my computer equipment tucked in there, as well.

The floor-to-ceiling shelves maximize the storage space, allowing the centre of the room to be left clear and open. In fact, almost every inch of wall space in my entire apartment is utilized for storage, whether it's bookshelves, grey storage lockers, or the abovementioned utility shelving.

When everything is put away, there is nothing on my dining table/work table, and nothing on my desk except my laptop computer. I have almost no knick-knacks (I hate dusting). Only baskets, baskets, and more baskets...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, April 14, 2007

plastic shopping bags

I decided to sort and dispose of all those plastic shopping bags I mentioned in my previous post. It was an eye-opening task; I consider myself pretty eco-conscious, but I couldn't reconcile my green efforts with the number of bags I found in my closet.

I started sorting them by size: grocery-bag-sized (and larger), or smaller bags (the kind you get at the video store or the drugstore - which is where I got mine).

About half-way through the sorting I realized I have WAY more bags than I imagined. I counted them: 121 large bags, and 42 small ones. It's only taken me seven-and-a-half months to acquire them - and I'm pretty frugal. I don't shop much. Plus I make good use of cloth bags and plastic bins whenever I shop for groceries. (Or so I thought - turns out most of the large bags are, indeed, grocery bags.)

I can't believe I have so many. Me - the eco-warrior!

I plan not to accept any more. I have plenty of cloth bags I can use when I shop. But what am I supposed to do with the ones I've already got?

There are the obvious uses:
  • re-use them in stores
  • use them as garbage bags
  • give them to a friend with a dog or a cat (for scooping poop)
  • donate them to a thrift store or a church rummage sale (which is where I think mine are going)

I figured there must be more creative uses for them, so I did an online search. has a "frugal-living" guide, and one article discusses plastic shopping bags. Reader's Digest has its own list, as does Real Simple. Or you can try your own internet search, using the keywords "uses for plastic shopping bags."

Some of my favorite ideas:

  • use them to wrap brushes or rollers if you have to stop in the middle of a painting job - they will keep the paint from drying out for up to two days
  • use them as packing material instead of Styrofoam peanuts
  • use them to hold wet things (like compact umbrellas in your purse, or towels from your gym workout)
  • use them to hold dirty laundry when you're on a trip

Some grocery stores also accept the plastic bags for recycling - so if they're full of holes and not good for anything else, don't throw them in the garbage!

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

the midst of chaos

How is organizing like childbirth? You might find yourself at the most difficult part, wishing you could change your mind about the whole darn thing.

How is organizing NOT like childbirth? With childbirth, there really is no turning back.

One more way organizing's like childbirth: the worst part won't last forever.

All of this is hard to remember when you're smack dab in the middle of a purge. As I am right now. I'm paralyzed by all the things that need to be done and the choices that need to be made. So you see, even professional organizers aren't immune. We feel the labour pains, too.

My biggest challenge at the moment: I'm trying to do too many things at once. My goal today was to clean out my "closet of shame," also known as the eighty-cubic-foot BLACK HOLE. Open the door at your own risk - heavy objects are guaranteed to fall on your head (while empty plastic grocery bags spread like confetti at your feet).

But I couldn't tackle the closet first. I had to work up to it. So I washed the breakfast dishes... and wrote a blog entry... and had a snack... and washed my snack dishes... and fed my compost worms... and discovered my compost worms were too wet... and shredded new paper bedding for my compost worms... and decided to add the shrivelled-up tulips a friend gave me a month ago to the worm bedding... and dug up the tulip bulbs, and bagged and labelled them to give to my ex when he shows up later today to pick up something else... and wiped off the table where I'd made a mess of the tulips...

I finally opened the door of my closet and took everything out. I wanted to sweep the closet floor, since I had kept some lavender sprigs in there, and they'd dropped lavender buds everywhere like mouse spoor.

So I went to get the Swiffer... and realized I'd piled all my junk too close to the door of the closet... so I moved everything further from the closet... and swept out the closet... and got distracted by the mops I kept in the closet, which I never use... and I called up my friend who just moved into a new apartment, to see if she wanted a mop... and I realized I'd never heard back from my ex about whether or not he was actually coming today, so I had to call him too... and then I freaked out because my apartment is a mess, and I don't want him to see it like this... and then I remembered all the other things I need to give him when he comes, so I raced about, collecting them...

Then I decided I was hungry (even though it's not really lunchtime, and I've already eaten breakfast AND a snack this morning). I sat down in front of the computer to eat my lunch, and that's how I ended up writing my second blog entry of the morning.

Organzing tip: Try not to get sidetracked.

Reality check: If you get sidetracked, learn how to shepherd yourself back to the primary task.

Epidural, anyone?

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

kitchen utensils

Take me to Williams-Sonoma or the IKEA kitchen section, and I'm like a kid in a candy store. The Pampered Chef? Don't even go there. I drool over kitchen utensils the way seven-year-olds drool over penny candy. I'll take one of these gadgets here, and a couple of those tools over there...
But eventually the voice of reason must step in - I mean, how many wooden spoons does one woman actually need? (Especially when I don't even use wooden spoons?)

Have you ever wondered how FEW cooking utensils can you get away with using? It's a great question to ask if you want to do a purge.

Take a look at what you actually use on a daily basis. I'm betting you have one or two favorite knives, a favorite spatula, a favorite cooking spoon, and a favorite scraper. What if you got rid of everything else?

I know, I know - that melon baller might come in handy if you're ever making a fruit salad for guests. But how often do you actually make fruit salad for guests?

I'm not suggesting that you get rid of the things you really use. Just give careful thought to the objects that are taking up precious space in your kitchen.

My personal weakness is rummage sales - I love vintage utensils with their charming patina, and it takes all my self-control to resist buying every wooden rolling pin in sight. (I don't even bake.)

I've created a few ground rules for myself. I try to buy nothing that isn't stainless steel or wood. (That means no plastic, no silicone, no aluminum.)

I've weeded my utensils down to the few I really use, and remind myself every time I'm in a kitchen store that NOBODY NEEDS ANYTHING. (Well, okay - maybe it's just me that doesn't need anything.)

I'm a vegetarian foodie who avoids Teflon pans. Here are my basics:
  • one chef's knife
  • one bread knife
  • one paring knife
  • one pair of utility scissors
  • utility snips

In my utensils drawer I keep:

  • a vegetable peeler
  • a combination can-opener/bottle opener
  • a jar opener (it releases the vacuum and makes opening new jars easier)
  • a garlic press
  • small tongs
  • measuring spoons
  • two stainless steel bag clips
  • pliers (great for breaking up cinnamon bark or cracking nuts)
  • a fine wood rasp (amazing for mincing fresh ginger or grating parmesan)
  • a large, flat grater
  • a small ladle
  • a wooden citrus ream
  • a honey "spoon"
  • a pastry brush
  • a tiny funnel
  • a cheese slicer
  • a pizza slicer
  • tea balls and strainers (I'm an herbal tea fanatic)
  • a ball of string
  • a vintage candy thermometer (it's just so cool)
  • a rolling pin (can't get rid of it yet)

In a large clay flower pot I keep my long utensils handy:

  • two wooden stirrers with flat edges for stirring pots (I use them more than anything else in my kitchen)
  • two stainless spoons with flat edges, one with holes for drainage
  • a larger, flat ladle with holes for drainage
  • two other ladles in different sizes
  • a wire whisk
  • two sizes of tongs
  • a vintage potato masher with a wooden handle
  • a spatula
  • an ice cream scoop
  • a vintage crank-style egg beater

That's it. It sounds like a lot, but only takes up one narrow drawer and eight square inches of counter space. How low can you go?

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Friday, April 13, 2007

the "i don' wanna" demons

Even the most conscientious of us fall into the procrastination trap from time to time. I feel your pain. I need to finish a purge of my apartment soon, so I can donate everything to my church rummage sale (Church of St Timothy, Anglican) by next weekend. I'm in the middle a heart-breaking split from my boyfriend. I'm cranky. I can't focus. I don't want to do anything that challenges my brain.

I've had many clients with similar emotional or mental resources - running the gamut from ailing seniors to disorganized chronic-fatigue sufferers. How do you deal with the "I don' wanna" demons? Try the following suggestions:
  1. Get help. When all else fails, if you really can't muster the energy or inspiration to do it on your own, ask a friend for help, or hire a professional.
  2. Know your peak energy periods during the day, and make good use of those times.
  3. Start small. Set the timer for half an hour, and stop when it goes off. Do this often enough, and you will reinforce the idea that sorting and purging isn't that difficult after all.
  4. Start with the easy stuff. It may sound like a cop-out, but if it gets you moving...
  5. Take a break when you get tired. Get away from the mess. Get out of the house. Go for a walk. You'll return with a fresh eye and renewed energy.
  6. Reward yourself for a job well done. We're more likely to continue behaviors that are positively reinforced.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Thursday, April 12, 2007

sorting other people's stuff

At various times in our lives we may find ourselves sorting through other people's things. You help a friend move - or you clear out a relative's house after a death. When I had my eco-friendly cleaning business, I felt it was a sacred trust to be invited into people's most intimate spaces. And in my organizing work I am continually reminded of how careful I must be not to abuse anyone's faith in me.

But I still find myself fascinated by the things that people hold onto. Last night I was sorting through some papers that a friend gave me to dispose of. They were mostly photocopies of vocal music that another friend had studied over the years; she had given them to him thinking they might be of value to his teaching studio, but he prefers to work from legitimate original scores. Besides, he didn't want to take the time to sort through four thick binders full of paper.

So I did the work for him, patiently flipping through the songs to see if there was anything worth keeping. In the end, most of it went in the recycling bin. (Photocopying sheet music without the publisher's permission is illegal, after all.)

I find it very humbling to go through other people's things. I've studied singing myself, so I was familiar with much of the classical repertoire I looked at last night. It felt so personal, seeing this woman's handwriting on the pages. Musicians often mark up their scores, but I think singers do the most: breath marks, phrasing marks, translations of foreign words, reminders of how to pronounce certain vowels - and my favorite, the forests of exclamation marks and emphatic arrows pointing all over the place.

Looking through this woman's scores I could "read" her bad habits and her weaknesses. I could hear the comments her teachers made to her. I could feel her struggles with each song. Those photocopies were a record of her vocal development, and it seemed a sacrilege to throw them away.

When my brother died ten years ago, I helped my mother go through some of his things. Realistically, you can't keep it all. But it was my brother's running logs that touched me the most. In his engineer's tiny, precise handwriting he had recorded week after week of daily runs - weather, mileage, pace, heart rate. Running meant a lot to him, and it was an interest I shared when I served as his support team for his first (and only) marathon.

I didn't want to let those books go - even though I never looked through them, and kept them packed away in a box in the basement. Finally, years later, I was able to say good-bye. I kept his marathon medal, and that was enough.

I think what gives us pause is the thought that what matters most to us won't matter at all to the people we leave behind. And if a life can be reduced to a few recycling boxes' worth of paper, what does that say about the value of our lives?

More and more I think the value of a life is the personal connections we make with other people - the little ways we show love, and caring, and compassion. And none of it is ever lost. Love, once expressed, feeds the love of the universe.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

donating versus selling

Sometimes when we're faced with getting rid of something, we balk at donating it or giving it away for free. It's understandable, especially if we've invested a lot in the object, and it has maintained its value or appreciated in value.

A case in point: I recently sold my crystal singing bowl, which was worth $400 new. I couldn't rationalize giving it away, so I listed it on craigslist, and was thrilled to sell it for $200 to a musician who uses singing bowls to accompany dancers.

On the other hand, I've known clients who couldn't get rid of their clutter - even though it was interfering with their lives - because they couldn't find buyers for their things and they refused to let the stuff go for free.

I had one client, for example, with several boxes of craft materials that cost hundreds of dollars. There was no obvious market for the raw materials in her small community, but she could not bear to lose her investment. So she stubbornly hung onto the stuff, dreaming of the day when she would get her money back - in the meantime weighed down and hampered by the things, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.

Entertain the possibility that the old maxim, What goes around comes around, might be true. If you can generously and without remorse give your possessions to the natural flow of universal energy, you will be repaid in kind somewhere down the road.

Find a recipient who makes your heart feel lighter. I rediscovered the benefits of this when I recently gave away my hand drum to an inner city music program (read the details here). My initial reaction was sadness at the loss of a treasured possession, but now I can honestly say that I'm thoroughly delighted with my choice.

Give it a thought. Give it away.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Monday, April 09, 2007

the cooling-off period

I'm in the middle of a purge (my own - not a client's), and I'm reminded that when we're getting rid of stuff, we need to give ourselves a chance to change our minds.

We won't always choose to keep something that we originally planned to give away. But if you're really not sure (and sometimes even if you are), listen to your heart and put the thing(s) in a safe place until the decision to let go seems right.

A case in point: In an earlier post I said I wanted to get rid of an antique white china wash basin. I don't use it and I didn't have room to store it.

But something in me just couldn't give it away. I may get rid of it someday; for now I want to keep it.

So I compromised: I made room for it on one of my shelves by getting rid of some other things instead - namely, a wok and a copper bowl.

A frequently-mentioned organizing tip is to box up whatever you want to purge, and then store the box in a safe place until a certain date - say, six months or a year from now.

Then when that date rolls around, if you haven't gone into the box to find something you needed, get rid of it without even opening it again.

My nemesis is books; I love to buy them, but I have only a finite amount of shelf space. So I weed through them every now and then, but then procrastinate actually getting rid of the books I've pulled off the shelves.

After several years I realized I need time to re-evaluate the book-purging decisions. Sometimes I go through the books again (usually after a couple of months) and confirm that I really don't want them anymore. Other times I put a few of them back on my shelves. The only downside is that I really don't have room to store them in the meantime.

Use your own best judgement. Don't let yourself be bullied into getting rid of everything quickly if that's not what you want. You have choices, you know.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Saturday, April 07, 2007

removing stickers

How do you get those %*&#@! stickers - you know, like price tags and UPC codes - off of things? I just bought a new coffee pot and wooden bathtub rack from IKEA, and both had very tenacious UPC code stickers on them.

Here's my trick: A two-part strategy to foil even the stickiest goo (and this also works for things like labels on bottles and jars).

First, gently try to pull the sticker off. If the manufacturer is kind, the adhesive will have a low tack, and the whole thing may come off without any residue.

If there's still some paper left behind, either soak the item in warm, soapy water, or if the item can't be immersed, dampen a small cloth (like a dish rag or a facecloth), and put the cloth over the paper sticker for several minutes, until you can easily scrape the paper off with your fingernails.

(If the item is glass, you can also use a razor blade in a safety holder to scrape the sticker off.)

If the paper comes off without any problem but there's still some sticky stuff left behind, you can use a product like Goo Gone - but if you want an eco-friendly alternative, try using a pure citrus essential oil.

Citrus oil is the active ingredient in a lot of the newer eco-friendly cleansers, and it's a great solvent for nasty, petrochemical-based gunk (I've used it successfully on adhesives and tar, as well cooking-oil stains and oil paints).

I prefer to buy Aura Cacia essential oils because I trust that they are 100% pure and high-quality. Put a few drops of the essential oil (I like to use lemon) on the sticky areas, and gently rub with a damp cloth until the adhesive is removed. It may require several applications of essential oil if the adhesive is especially stubborn.

If the item is to be used in the kitchen, just remember that essential oils, while preferable to products like Goo Gone, are not food-grade. If you decide you want to use a solvent on items that will touch food, use your own best judgement, weigh the risks, and if you decide to go ahead and use the essential oil, do everything you can to remove all traces of it from the item afterwards.

One last caveat: Essential oils can degrade some plastics - so when in doubt, test the oil on a small, inconspicuous spot first. I once used a citrus solvent on a plastic shower door, and it ate away the surface of the plastic, leaving behind a hazy, pebbly mess.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Friday, April 06, 2007

just throw out 50 things

I read a great article ("The Motivator" column) in the latest issue of Real Simple magazine (April 2007). It was written by life coach Gail Blanke, author of Between Trapezes: Flying Into a New Life With the Greatest of Ease.

Says Blanke:

"...when I coach people, I always ask them to throw things out. But not just a few things. At the end of the second or third session, I ask everyone I work with to go home and throw out 50 things.

"In fact, I not only ask them to throw out 50 things but also ask them to make a list of what they're throwing out, so they can look at it later and actually feel lighter. Here's why: When you start throwing out a lot of physical clutter and you get on a roll, a new urge kicks in - the desire to clear out all the clutter in your mind."

Blanke goes on to say that it's easy to get into the swing of throwing things out - just start with the obvious. Her mother once offered some sage advice: "If you don't know what to do with it, or where to put it, or why you ever bought it in the first place, or if looking at it depresses you, throw it out," she'd say. "Never keep anything that makes you feel heavy or weighs you down."

That single sock you've been hanging onto for years (just in case you ever find its mate - or wear out one half of another pair that matches it)? Gone.

That coupon for herbal tea that you keep in your wallet because your friend gave it to you - because she knows you used to drink herbal tea (but you don't anymore - although you probably should, but that would mean finding a place to keep the tea, and really, your cupboards are too full already - besides, you never liked the taste of herbal tea anyhow)? Recycle it.

What about those pennies? You know, the ones that reproduce on the top of your dresser, or in the corners of your desk and kitchen drawers. Maybe you're "organized," and keep a colony of them in a jar in your closet. Gather them up (along with the rest of your small coins) and take them to the automatic counting machine at the grocery store (which reminds me - I need to write a separate post on those machines - I love them!), or dump them into a charity coin box (which is what I do with all my spare change as soon as the cashier hands it to me).

I've already started my list. It looks something like this:
  1. Antique white china wash basin. I bought it at a rummage sale because I loved it, but I have no place to put it. And I never use it.
  2. Inexpensive black platform flip-flops. I love how tall they make me feel, but I can't walk more than 20 steps in them (they're too wide for my feet), plus the fabric on the uppers is starting to fray.
  3. Miniature roulette game I won as a door prize two months ago at a business meeting. Need I say more?
  4. Beautiful, large, cream-enameled colander. It drains food perfectly. But I worry about the enamel being hazardous to my health when it scratches and chips off. Plus I own three colanders - including a narrower, higher, stainless steel (read: non-toxic and recyclable) one that fits perfectly in my bar sink.
  5. A grilling plank for fish. I'm a vegetarian. I never eat fish - haven't for 21 years. Another rummage sale find, which I thought I could use as a cutting board. But I own two other cutting boards, both of which I love, and both of which are bigger and easier to use.
Once you're warmed up, start thinking of all your mental throwaways - you can even add them to your list of 50. Blanke describes them as "the old convictions, fears, negative assumptions, past "mistakes," and depressing "voices" that weigh you down." Then commit to eliminating them from your day-to-day thinking.

I'm kind of excited about my list of mental purges:
  1. My ex-boyfriend was "the only one" for me.
  2. I'm never going to find a man who truly loves me.
  3. I always mess up my relationships.
  4. I'm too needy.
  5. Life without romantic love is hopeless.

(Gee, I'm sensing a theme here.)

I think you get the drift. It's spring - the time for renewal and regeneration. Make room for the new growth in your life by cutting back the deadwood.

Make a list.

Enjoy knowing that those things are gone from your life. Then welcome what comes next...

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I helped a good friend move across the city yesterday. Her home is no longer a tiny basement apartment in a bungalow, but a beautiful two-bedroom second-storey apartment in a heritage building with not one, but (count 'em) TWO balconies! I'm excited for her, although I can only imagine how tired she is this morning.

The move went very smoothly, even though she hadn't been able to rent a truck to transport everything. Instead she depended on a handful of friends with vans and cars. In the end, that was probably the best choice, since her new street is a very narrow one-way, where street parking is at a premium. Finding a spot to unload a big truck would have been a headache.

As the day went on I found myself reflecting on the subject of moving. I've compiled a grab-bag of tips which, while not exhaustive, will hopefully point people in the direction of a less-stressful move.

Book your truck early.
My friend waited until moving week to make her call, and by that time everything was already taken. When I moved last September, I called the truck rental company four weeks in advance, and had my choice of trucks and dates.

Don't book a U-Haul for a self-move. I hate to say it, but anyone I've ever known who has tried to rent from U-Haul has had problems with this company. Read more frustrated consumer stories at Don't Use UHaul (a site I just discovered as I was writing this post).

A friend of mine booked a U-Haul for a move a couple of years ago, and when he showed up the morning of the move to pick up his truck, they had nothing for him. They didn't even help him find a location where he COULD rent a U-Haul. He ended up driving clear across the city, scrambling at the last minute to find a truck, leaving his helpers cooling their heels amongst the piles of boxes at his old apartment.

Go with a local, established truck rental company. When I moved from London, Ontario I was very pleased with my choice, Bennett Truck Rentals. They don't overbook their trucks, they're very strict about return times, and they bent over backwards to address all my questions and concerns. Renting their beautifully-maintained vehicles cost more than U-Haul, but I considered that a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Their experienced staff were also able to recommend the best size of truck for me to take, based on the kind of move I was making.

Purge early.
I promise you that on moving day, you don't want to be transporting anything superfluous. Each unnecessary box you have to pack, carry, and unpack is a supreme waste of your time, energy and money.

Not everyone is as lucky as a client of mine who moved after a divorce. For several months she and her son stayed with her parents while her new house was being built. Luckily the parents had ample storage in their basement for all her things, because she decided to wait and purge after she moved into her new house, when she knew how much space she really had. She hosted a yard sale after the final move.

All I can think about is the stuff she moved TWICE before she finally got rid of it. I know how difficult it is to purge. If your mind is already swimming with a million details, trying to make well-thought-out decisions about your possessions can seem like a ticket to insanity. Do try, though. The friends who help you move will thank you for it.

Pack early.
If you have the time, pack as much as possible, as soon as possible. If you're like most of us, you have a LOT of stuff. It's going to take a long time to pack - probably two or three times longer than you think. Save yourself the headache of doing it all at the last minute. The mind balks and becomes fatigued after three or four hours, so don't plan on doing all your packing the day before you move, when I can guarantee you'll be up for twenty-four hours straight, brain-fried.

There's going to be some stuff you can't pack until the last minute - your regular dishes and cooking supplies, your toiletries, the things you use every day. Keep those aside, and pack everything else. Your necessities are good candidates for storage totes or bankers boxes, which have lids and can be reopened as needed.

Pack your suitcase.
Pretend the last few days before the move are a "vacation." Pack a suitcase with everything you would need for a trip, and then the morning of the move you won't have to scramble to pack your last-minute toiletries and clothes. Just pop everything in the suitcase and you're good to go - plus you'll know exactly where to find these important things at the other end.