Organized and Picture-Perfect Are Not Equal

A beautifully-staged kitchen. Who knows what’s behind the pantry doors?
Julia Child in her well-organized kitchen. We have proof it worked for her!

It has taken me a long lifetime to learn that a clean and organized house where real people live will never look like those wonderful houses on HGTV and beyond. Real people are messy, and the secret of an organized house is that neither messiness nor obsessive order are allowed to intrude on the joy and peace of mind of the people who live in it.

Overwhelmed by the amount of work that it will take to put my house in order, I turn on Hoarders to enjoy a moment of schadenfreude–a secret pleasure in someone else’s misfortune because, I say, “There, but for the fact that I am not a TOTAL nut case, go I. “Then I flip on Fixer-Upper to indulge another sinful pleasure–coveting one of Joanna Gaines’s beautifully staged fixed-up houses before the lucky owners move in and mess it up.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for getting organized. If it works for you, then it works. If, however, you have a feeling that “it” (whatever “it” is) could be working better, you may benefit from learning a few principles of organization and having a few rules of thumb to help you along. I’m not going to teach you those principles and rules of thumb because you can find them in abundance in books and blogs, but I am going to share a few tricks and tips that have worked for me and hope that maybe they will work for you to help you cut down on the time you spend searching for lost objects, re-organizing and cleaning, and spend more time doing things you really love to do.

  1. Ditch those pictures in your head. Look honestly at what you and your housemates do at home and maybe some things you would like to do if you had the right space for it. Then decide what you need so that you can happily do whatever those things are.
  2. Start small. If you’re the kind of person who can pull everything out at once and then put it in order without getting overwhelmed, you can ignore this suggestion. I like to make a huge mess and then clean it up, but the truth is that this method doesn’t work for me, so I’ve learned to work on one space at a time–whatever I think I can finish in the time that I have. It may be a bathroom, a drawer, or a corner. Finishing something, however small, gives me a sense of accomplishment.
  3. Acknowledge that you’ll never “get caught up.” For much of my life, I’ve lived in the fantasy that someday in some mythical future, I would finally “get caught up” and then life would be marvelous and I could get some rest. Life, it turns out, is always a work in progress. If you think you are caught up, you should start a project so you don’t get bored. However, if you work on getting organized, you can have more stress-free days no matter what you’re doing.
  4. Identify and deal with clutter before you start organizing. If you still have issues to deal with about letting go of material things and you have a reasonable amount of available space and a fair number of boxes, quickly clear away things you don’t use and pack them in boxes. A little proactive procrastination can help you get to the more urgent business of organizing things you use before you tackle harder issues involving sentimental clutter.
  5. Designate places for everything you need, use, or want. “A place for everything and everything in its place” is an old saying. If you have a place for everything, putting it away is much quicker and easier. Things that are used often should be within easy reach. Infrequently used objects, like Christmas decorations, can occupy less-convenient spaces. Before you buy anything at all, mentally give it a place in your house. If you don’t have a place for it, you probably shouldn’t buy it!
  6. Use containers and labels. The Container Store is one of my favorite business establishments, but I try to avoid the temptation of spending way too much money there (1) by minimizing the possessions to be contained and (2) by re-purposing used commercial containers like coffee cans, shoe boxes, and sturdy plastic containers. Labeling is a real time-saver and well worth the time it takes!
  7. Get professional advice (but take it with a grain of salt). I can’t afford to hire a professional organizer, but I do look for advice online and in books and magazines. However, advice should always be tailored to your needs and wishes. Marie Kondo, who has a lot of good advice to give, says thirty books are enough. I say, “You don’t know me, Marie!”
Here are some ingenious organizing hacks from Good Housekeeping. If you seriously declutter first, some of them will be unnecessary!
One hundred tips for organizing your house


  • Do you regularly spend extra time looking for things like your keys or your phone?
  • Are you often stressed and overwhelmed by tasks like getting dressed in the morning, making a snack, or cooking a meal?
  • Do you find yourself too often in need of totally re-organizing your desk, refrigerator, pantry, closet, or other space that you use a lot?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you would probably benefit from some work on your personal organization. If you are productive and efficient at work and contented and effective at home, you may already be organized, even if your house and workplace don’t look like photos on Pinterest or staged houses on HGTV. A house or workplace with real people living and working in them will not look like that. It will probably not even look like your crafty stay-at-home grandma’s house, but if it works for you, it works. Some people are more relaxed in the middle of organized clutter; others work better in zen-like surroundings. Few people, though, can do their best in the middle of unorganized surroundings and with unorganized minds and spirits.

We hear of famously unorganized, bad-tempered, abusive, and perpetually stressed-out geniuses. Some of them have famously died early and unhappily. We hear of them, but, although I have met a few unorganized narcissists who fancied that they were geniuses, I can’t recall ever actually knowing an authentic productive genius with those unfortunate characteristics.

There is no single standard for good organization, but all of us can benefit from observing and listening to people who are good at getting things done while they remain healthy and free of unnecessary stress.

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. 1 Timothy 6:17-19

January 2020

Teaching is frustrating and often chaotic, but I loved the fact that every year I got to clean the blackboards, clear my desk and look forward to a fresh start in September. January holds a similar promise at home. After the usually joyful chaos and clutter of the holidays, it’s time to put away the lights and ornaments, re-calculate my journey, and maybe pack a bit lighter for the next part of the adventure.

Early in 2019, I started to organize Coffee Talk, an eccentric and eclectic collection of random writing, into a magazine format, mainly so that I would have some goals and deadlines to keep me on the path. Everyone should pause to smell the flowers along the path, but after I retired, I found myself pausing most of the time!

Coffee Talk is still very much a work in progress, but I have been encouraged by knowing that I have a few readers, and your comments and questions have lifted my spirit and my motivation.

I am moving to a more blog-like production schedule, posting on a selected theme throughout each month instead of the once-a-month magazine style which felt familiar to my last-century mind and so was a good way for me to start.

The theme for January is “A Fresh Start.” I want to wish you a Happy 2020!

This Month in Coffee Talk

Why Not Go Shopping

What Is An Organized Space?

Nana Didn’t Know the Word Minimalist, but She Was One

Who Needs to Get Organized?

Organized and Picture-Perfect Are Not Equal

Why Not Go Shopping?

It is a novel idea and a liberating one. Stop shopping, or rather stop going shopping. Decide what you are going to buy, where you are going to buy it, how you are going to pay for it, and where you are going to keep it before you ever leave your house. It’s that simple, but it’s not always easy!

The goal of advertising is to make us unhappy. Ecstatic joy over a brand new iPhone or Lexus is interrupted by the announcement that the NEW iPhone with MORE features is available and that there is a car that is better than your brand new Lexus for showing the world how successful you are at being whatever it is that you want to be.

Coveting is big business in the United States of America. Far from being considered a sin, it is sanctified as The American Dream. It is woven tightly into every waking hour and creeps into our dreams.

I have never been what you would call well off. Daddy was a blue-collar wage earner, and Mama stayed home cleaning and cooking. We had a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, but I knew that there were much grander houses with a lot of stuff that we didn’t have. I knew because my grandma lived in one of those houses, and so did the McCalls where my mother had baby sat when she was younger and whose daughters gave me their hand-me-downs with Neiman-Marcus labels.

Neither Daddy nor Mama had a clue about how to manage a family budget, so they could never seem to “get ahead,” as Daddy used to say. They passed their cluelessness on to me, and I followed their footsteps into my own adult life, always thinking that everyone else must be making more money than my family did because many of them did seem to “get ahead.”

One reason my family could never get ahead was that Mama’s favorite form of entertainment was “going shopping,” and I learned to love it almost as much as she did.

Shopping and trading have been human activities for milennia, but “going shopping” has been around for fewer than two hundred years. Even in the early twentieth century, people decided what they needed or wanted, and then went to specialized shops where those needs could be met.

“Going shopping” consists of going out to see what is for sale and buying for the joy of buying, being tempted as at a fair, by the many things for sale at department stores, supermarkets, malls, and one-stop big box stores like Wal-Mart. We are thoroughly prepared for the experience by a constant stream of advertising, encouraging us to covet not only our neighbors’ possessions but also the possessions of the rich and famous and the possessions and lifestyles of paid models who don’t even own the things or live the lifestyles that they so artfully tempt us to covet.

We meet our needs, of course, but we also acquire an enormous number of things that we don’t really need or even want. Then we spend inordinate amounts of time shuffling those things around, dusting them, storing them, maybe eventually selling them in garage sales or becoming hoarders.

Since I stopped going shopping, I not only save time, money, and storage space, but I really enjoy the things I buy because I have identified a need or desire, planned for it, and set aside the money to pay for it.

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