Appearances Can be Deceiving…

A number of years ago, in the early days of my organizing career, I went on a consultation to a prospective client’s home. She had expressed to me that she was looking to de-clutter various areas of her home with the intention of eventually downsizing and putting her home on the market.

When I arrived at her lovely, spacious house, I walked into a space that looked absolutely immaculate. Gleaming, empty kitchen counters, all living areas beautifully decorated, sparkling clean and clear of any clutter. I thought to myself, “why on earth has she called me?” Then she began opening kitchen cabinets and drawers, closets, and her home office desk and filing cabinets. They were packed to the gills with stuff. So much so that, when she opened some cabinets, things literally began falling out on our heads because they were crammed so full that the stuff inside just couldn’t be contained. She looked at me and said, “I find visual clutter so disturbing that I will do anything to just get it all out of sight. When all of my spaces LOOK clean and uncluttered, I feel better. But, I have no idea where anything is, what I have and how much, and what to do with it all. Just the other day, I tried to do something as simple as wrap a birthday gift.

Now, I KNOW I have multiple containers of scotch tape, but I had to go out and buy yet another one because I just couldn’t find any when I needed it. I’m so frustrated and so overwhelmed, I don’t know what to do or where to begin. I’m wasting time, stressed out, and had enough.” In short time, I discovered that the ILLUSION of a clean, uncluttered space was completely false. Yes, the surfaces were beautiful and inviting, but her home was utterly dysfunctional.

Over the years, I’ve experienced the same thing more than a few times. An office will look beautifully organized – desktop surface clear of any paperwork, no visible paper piles. Yet opening file cabinet drawers is almost impossible because they are so overstuffed with paper that they’ve become useless. Desk drawers are crammed with dried-out pens, old receipts, boxes and boxes of paper clips, half-used memo pads and broken staplers. One overwhelmed manager said to me, “Having a clean, neat office is a huge priority for my boss, so at the end of every day, I just shove everything into drawers, under my desk, and into my supply closet so it all LOOKS organized. But the next day, I can’t find anything. Then I waste time digging through the drawers looking for important documents and paperwork so I can get my projects up and going again.” His efforts to make his space LOOK organized completely sabotaged any efforts at improving his productivity, since under the pristine surface the space was, again, dysfunctional.

Beautiful, uncluttered surfaces, all items stowed in matching designer bins and baskets, file folders all neatly labeled in the same font, can make your space LOOK organized, but unless there is a system of organization in place in all of your “hidden” spaces – cabinets, closets, drawers, filing cabinets and desks, it’s merely a deceptive illusion. Magazines and TV home shows are expertly created to show you perfect spaces, with all of the “right” accessories in place so that everything appears organized. Let’s not forget that their primary purpose is to sell stuff, and the more alluring they can make it look, the more desirable all those organizing products become. They have us convinced that if we buy the perfect basket, or those color-coordinated folders and desk accessories, we will magically become organized! But “perfect” does not necessarily equal “organized.”

An organized space is much less about physical appearance and much more about functionality. Can you accomplish simple tasks like wrapping a gift, packing a lunch, getting an outfit together for work, or paying a bill with a minimum of effort? Do your invoices get sent out in a timely fashion because the paperwork is easily accessible? Can you find what you need when you need it? Do you know what you have in your space and how much of it – and do those things serve your life as you live it today? Or do you waste your time rooting through overstuffed filing cabinets, drawers, and closets? Do you spend time at work spinning your wheels because you just can’t put your hands on the right paperwork or that specific e-mail in a reasonable amount of time? Does your physical desktop look uncluttered and free of paperwork, but your computer desktop looks like a sea of random documents and “mystery files?” While visible, excessive paper piles and mounds of stuff in your space will definitely inhibit your productivity, banishing everything from sight without a system in place will also stifle your productivity and be just as destructive. I’ve been in homes and offices where spaces may look a bit cluttered, but indeed, they serve their inhabitants well because there is an underlying system of organization in place.

It’s about function, not form! Don’t let appearances be deceiving – what lies beneath is far more important to helping you lead an organized life both at home and at work.

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