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Don't let anyone tell you differently: seeming "put together" is hard work. And staying that way is even harder, so I enlisted the help of Maxine Gautier, an organizing guru and the founder of Out from Under Organizing in Boston.
Since November, when I first founded Shoestring, every square inch of my living space and my brain have been working overtime, in exactly three so-called rooms (or 485 square feet). And it was starting to show—especially in the decreasing patience of my man and my hound, and the decreasing number of friends stopping over for an after-work cocktail.
So, I decided to do something drastic. I decided to change.
I'd always dreamed of creating an office in a closet, as I'd seen in this "25 Decorating Ideas Under $100" booklet from 1968 I picked up years ago for $1 on eBay. The idea was retro, fun, and would create a little nook behind a closed door where I could work from home (and hide all the miscellany associated with getting creative stuff done).
More importantly, it fulfilled Shoestring's mission—to make better use of something readily available (a potential workspace) instead of spending more money (by leasing office space or moving to a larger apartment outside the city) and it was also good for the environment (by keeping our carbon footprint small).
But, was there hope for a person like me, who comes from a long line of hoarders (a pack rat by DNA) whose love affair with the printed word (and the ensuing stacks of paper and bound clutter that creates) often interferes with relationships of the human kind? And, was it really possible to fit an entire home office into a closet?
Maxine seemed to think so. Here's how we did it:
Evaluate Your Level of Organization
When Maxine first agreed to help me transition to working from home, and build this closet office, she first wanted to understand who I was on a deeper level from a clutter perspective. She sent me a detailed questionaire, asking things like: What's driving you nuts? (What can't you find, what do you waste money on, what are you tripping over?) Are you a filer or a piler? And, do other people have to participate/use the same space? Maxine firmly believes that you have to get to the root of the organizational issue first before spending a cent. "See if a system works first before investing in supplies or even jury-rigging what you already own," she said. "There are hundreds of standard workflows to go by, but if they don't work for you, they won't stick."
Since I'm a creative professional (one of the worst breeds of clutter-monger, up there with doctors and lawyers, according to Maxine), we started with getting organized mentally. For intangible clutter, we created "idea garages" to corral post-its in a colored folder, so I could keep ideas, random jots, messages, contact info, and to-do lists together and making sense. The literal stickiness allows me to prioritize and re-prioritize easily, which works great for my deadline-driven, multi-tasking reality, but applies to everyone in this 24/7, wired new world we live in. Maxine reinforced how important this first step is for all her clients, and how much time management affects organization for all of us: "Tasks are to time as stuff is to space," she said. "We all have too many tasks to fit into our time and too much stuff to fit into our spaces, no matter who you are or where you live."
Practice Project Containment
For tangible clutter—like category piles and project supplies—we boxed and labeled them clearly, then stuck them under the futon (you could also use a bed or other high-traffic area) nearest to my work space. "Never title something miscellaneous," Maxine said, "or you're guaranteeing that you'll never know what's in there and it will never get done." When you find yourself with an hour or so to kill, pull one out and tackle it. You'll be amazed at how much more quickly they get completed (and how much less guilt you'll have about not finishing them).
Examine Sentimental Saving
Knick-knacks, photos, and other memorabilia can really add up, sometimes overwhelmingly so depending on the person (me? check.) Maxine asked subtle questions, forcing an examination of exactly why I was holding on to each and every object. For photos and cards, I boxed them and labeled them "to scan," since there really isn't room for additional photo albums (and I have this new 1 terabyte hard drive just waiting to be used for digital back-ups and organization). For knick-knacks and ticket stubs, etc., Maxine suggested using a digital camera to snap memories of them (or scan them) and create a nostalgia album, and then hold on to only the most valuable (monetarily or sentimentally). For the remainder, she suggested hosting a yard sale, selling them on eBay or Craig's List, or donating them to a local charity.
Ditch the Guilt and Glut of Information
"We have access to as much information in a day as the Founding Fathers did in a lifetime," Maxine said. "When I'm giving motivational speeches, everyone in the room—whether they commit 15 hours or 15 minutes a week to reading—will say that they feel they don't spend enough time keeping up." I am definitely in this camp, so we worked on streamlining the emails, magazines, and other buckets of content in my weekly regimen to just those that are most important, so that I could spend more time staying focused, on-task, and ultimately, with family and friends.
Positive Inspiration (and Happy Colors)
Maxine works with lots of clients, from corporate executives to homemakers. Insofar as their environment allows, she suggests that each of her clients surround themselves with a pop of their favorite color and favorite images (nature, pets, people, etc.) to keep them motivated and focused on the big picture. "When you're happy, you're more likely to stay organized," Maxine said.
And, here's what we spent:
Now, $130 might seem like a lot to spend on a closet (especially if you're renting your apartment, as we are) but to upgrade from a 1-bed to a 2-bed would have doubled our rent (not to mention moving costs), and office space (even renting a desk in the offices of another company) would have cost at least $300 a month. Plus, now I get to save a little dough on dog walking, too.
What have your experiences been like with getting organized in a small space? Or trying to create a home office on a budget? Share your stories with Shoestringers everywhere by posting a comment on our Facebook page, where you can also see the full album of Before & After closet office photos!
*Special thanks and props to our friend Mark Crowley, master of entertainment and etiquette, for coining the term "cloffice."
All photos copyright by Casey McNamara Photography: CaseyMcNamara.com
All styling credits - Kara Butterfield: MakeReady
Story: Copyright 2008, Shoestring, LLC & Melissa Massello.