Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Preparing for every day: Freezer

Being prepared is not just about being ready for emergencies, it is also about being able to face the more mundane challenges of day to day living. I've written about getting your desk drawers, purses, and now freezers prepared for every day.

Did you know that freezers work more efficiently when they are filled up? Mark Bittman a.k.a. The Minimalist writes eloquently about freezer use in this fantastic NY Times article. It is a must-read! The following items are great to have on hand for last minute dinners, guests and to supplement your pantry. Freezing is a time saver--next time, make twice as much pizza dough as you normally would, and freeze the rest for a few weeks from now when you're too tired to make dough from scratch. It feels good to know that even if your fridge is empty, you'll have something edible in the freezer.

The 12 things that should be in every freezer:

  • ice cube trays (some filled up with water, some available to be used for leftover coffee, juice, or to save herbs, citrus, etc.)
  • vodka (great for spur of the moment cocktails, pie crust and other cooking)
  • frozen peas (makes a good ice pack in a pinch)
  • ground meat frozen in meal-sized portions
  • leftover pancakes (can be microwaved or re-heated in oven)
  • frozen juice concentrate
  • homemade chicken stock in single-recipe portions
  • homemade pizza dough (I like Bittman's recipe)
  • store-bought puff pastry (a little expensive, but highly useful)
  • pie crust (store bought or homemade)
  • over-ripe bananas (peeled, to be used for banana bread)
  • ice packs for on-the-go food chilling and minor injuries
And around every freezer, you should keep:
  • Sharpie for labeling (name and date each item that goes in there!)
  • Good quality freezer bags
  • Good quality plastic or glass storage containers

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Monday, July 27, 2009

Creativity and organization in the workplace: creative writing

I’ve been writing about how every work place is made up of three basic elements:

  1. Work space: consisting of surfaces, fixtures, furniture and walls
  2. Storage space: consisting of flexible elements that hold all the necessary tools needed to do the work
  3. Stimulating space: consisting of non-functional items that foster creativity and inspiration

Let’s apply this concept to a specific work place, that of a creative writer. In addition to my professional organizing business I also write fiction, so my desk and work area have to do double duty. It is a place where I accomplish the dozens of different kinds of tasks involved in running a home-based business, as well as where I sit to create stories out of my imagination. Here's how I’ve approached the second half of that equation by addressing the three elements of my work space, and how I would begin to advise someone else doing the same type of creative work with their space:

Work Space: Being comfortable and functional is key. You probably don’t need tons of clear table space, but an ergonomic computer set up is essential. So, the basic fixtures will be a table or desk with computer, keyboard and mouse (all-in-one-printer and back up hard drive are also useful). If you have a desktop computer, get one with a large screen (I have a 24 incher). If you have a laptop, invest in a separate fully functional keyboard and two-button mouse with a scroll wheel, which are faster and easier to use than a small laptop keyboard and track pad. A comfortable, ergonomic chair is possibly the most important thing. Get one that is highly adjustable and sturdy. I recommend desk chairs without arms, as they tend to get broken and in the way. Easy access bookshelves are useful for elements two and three. Good lighting cannot be overemphasized. You should have overhead lighting as well as localized desk lighting to provide softer light. Think about your computer screen, windows and glare when planning your lighting scheme. Noise canceling headphones are a great way to seal out the sounds of the world when you want to immerse yourself in your work.

Lots of dictionaries

Storage Space: Writers tend to have a lot of reading material, paper, and writing implements, so places to store loose paper as well as binders and notepads are necessary. Books go on bookshelves. Enclosed desk drawers are a great place to keep empty notebooks and office supplies. File cabinets for drafts, articles, story ideas, interviews, contracts, PR, etc. are essential, though if you like to have notes within your reach or line of sight, then a bulletin board or desktop stacking trays are a good additional option. Dictionary, thesaurus, other reference materials also go in the bookcase. Depending on the amount of research for each book or story a separate box for reference material may be needed. You want to keep your current projects closest to your work area. You will likely have tons of information, bookmarks etc. on your computer as well that should be labeled according to project and backed up frequently on an external hard drive.

Stimulating Space: While people vary in terms of how much busyness they want in their line of sight when they write, I think a pleasant color on the walls, some art and a few favorite books within arm’s length is a good start. If you want to get crazy, you can put some inspiring quotes on a bulletin board, put up some photos of loved ones or yourself doing writerly things like going to conferences, book fairs, signings, and with other authors. I like the idea of drawing or finding a picture that represents to you what your project will look like when it’s done—whether it’s a drawing of you accepting an award, selling your book or an idea for what it looks like when it comes off the press, putting your visualizing into tangible, pictorial form can be very powerful.

Over time, we’ll continue exploring how breaking down the three elements of any work space can help give us a lens through which to improve organization and inspire creativity.

Creative commons photo posted to Flickr by General Wesc

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Creativity and organization in the workplace: work space

In my view, every work place is made up of three basic elements:

  1. Work space: consisting of surfaces, fixtures, furniture and walls
  2. Storage space: consisting of flexible elements that hold all the necessary tools needed to do the work, from paper to zip drive
  3. Stimulating space: consisting of non-functional items that foster creativity and inspiration, such as art on the walls or one’s favorite coffee mug

Whether the workplace is meant for a creative writer or a CPA, the elements are the same. Each element will be different depending on the person who works in that space. They must be designed to flow together and work for the occupant of the space in order for the occupant to get the most value out of the space in terms of productivity, quality of work and efficiency.

This work area needs an overhaul in all three areas!

When it comes to organizing a work space, the actual work space/empty space part is probably the most overlooked of the three areas, since organizing and storing tools are the usually the primary focus, and decorating is usually considered the fun part. But the bones of the space allow you to create the best storage solutions, so they must be addressed first. If your desk is the size of a postage stamp or your chair is so uncomfortable you get neck pain after ten minutes at your computer, then how can you be expected to produce your best work?

Look around your space right now. Do you have open, clear space on which to spread out and use your hands to make something new? Is your computer hardware arranged in a way that makes sense for your body, eyes and ears? Do you have a distracting window view or a depressing water-stained wall to look at? Do you have adequate lighting or does its harshness give you a headache? Become aware of the tangible aspects of your work place from floor to ceiling, disregarding for a moment the actual stuff in the space. Think about what's working and what isn't, and how you can make changes to the physical layout that will provide more comfort, storage space and support for your work style.

I'll continue writing about these three elements of the workplace and apply them to specific forms of creative work in the next few posts, so stay tuned.

Creative Commons photo posted to Flickr by aliwest44

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creativity and organization

One of my favorite books about organization is Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. In it, she talks about how simple changes and solutions add up to big organizational payoff. I love the part of the book where she talks about what holds people back from organization. One of these is "Fear of Losing Creativity."

Morgenstern argues that instead of choking creativity with structure and order, "Being organized releases rather than restricts creativity." This is something I wholeheartedly believe. It is impossible to be as effective in any area of one's life, including creative work, when one is disorganized. As she says, "[organization] gives you immediate access to all the materials you need to do your work more effectively."

I think a lot of the same mental blocks that prevent people from being organized are the same as those that keep people from expressing themselves creatively. A person afraid of being creative might say, "I don't have the right environment to be creative. My desk is too organized/too messy/too small/too precious." A person afraid of being organized might say, "I need chaos and mess in order to create. My work space can't be rigid/clean/compartmentalized." Neither of these people has an attitude that will enable them to create to the fullest of their potential. Creativity can happen in any setting. Setting limits on what you must have in order to create is an artificial barrier protecting you from your fear of failing at your creative endeavors. However, as a professional organizer (and a creative person), I think being organized can only help, not hinder, the creative process.

Concrete examples of creative work spaces that can benefit from organization to follow.
Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My organizing kryptonite: photos

Since the rain kept us indoors most of the time I was in Maine, my family and I took on an organizing job that could be done inside that I normally avoid. Even though I’m passionate about organizing and actually find it fun most of the time, like Superman I have one weakness: photos. I love taking pictures, looking at pictures, sharing pictures and forcing my friends and relatives to sit through slideshows of my pictures, but when it comes to organizing, labeling and displaying pictures (especially old fashioned hard copies), I lose my enthusiasm. I think that is mostly because I just have so darn many of them!

My photo drawer--neat, but not organized.

Right now I have thousands of digital pictures on my computer and back up harddrives, thankfully organized by year and subject because I force myself to do that much every time they get downloaded to the computer from my digital camera. I also have an entire drawer filled entirely with glossy photos from my entire life, and also a few inherited photos that are a great deal older. None of these are in albums. Hardly any are labeled. Most of them aren’t in any kind of order whatsoever. I made myself cull out the bad ones a year or so ago, which made room for the photos that I acquired this summer.

This post isn’t about how to organize photos, but I did want to share how my family and I approached two giant Rubbermaid boxes full of photos this summer. Some of the photos were damaged. Those went straight into the rubbish pile. The blurry, dark and pictures of people nobody could remember also went. I’ve been a digital picture taker for so long, it shocks me that people had to print out an entire roll of photos to get a few good ones not so very long ago. Anyway, throwing away the bad ones was the easy first step.

Since most of the photos were my mother’s, she had first dibs on which ones she wanted to keep. I gathered a pile from the box, gave them to her. She looked through them and sorted them into toss or keep piles. My sister and I then gave the toss pile a look-through to see if we wanted any of those. Then, we each looked through the keep pile to see if there were any photos there that we just couldn’t live without. Though it was slightly tedious, it was more rewarding to do it as a group and we got through the boxes in less than two hours. My mother then spent some extra time sorting her pretty large keep pile into smaller groups by subject, which she put into labeled Ziploc bags until she has time to put them into albums or some other display. We also kept out eye on the ball and didn’t spend too much time reminiscing over the weddings, first days of school and Halloweens that the photos reminded us of.

Even though my photos are waiting patiently for the day I take them out and put them in some kind of useable order, at least I know they are all ones I truly want to keep and look at or pass down one day. I have my eye on some Kolo achival quality albums, so maybe the next rainy day in southern California I’ll make these my project.

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ruminations: The problem with storage

We met some interesting people when they came buy to pick up the items we'd posted on Craigslist. One of the people who came stopped to talk awhile about his storage problems. He said he and his ex-wife own a huge, two-story warehouse filled with stuff! The stuff had been accumulated while they managed properties, things like bathtubs and sinks, plus personal items collected over both their lifetimes. He says he isn’t sure what they’ll ever do with it all, but for now the warehouse just sits there, draining resources, because they can’t figure out how to remove all that stuff from their lives.

Stories like this are common, and this one brings to mind two thoughts. One: if you think you have a ton of useless stuff and can’t imagine being able to get rid of it, there are people out there with even more than you do, which puts your task in perspective. Two: though he probably doesn’t see that warehouse and its contents every day, or even think about it every day, it is a very real drain on mental and physical resources (including cost of not using the warehouse for something profitable, property taxes, security risk, etc.). Letting a huge building full of things sit there won’t make it go away. This man also told me he has five children. What happens if he never does anything about that warehouse? The problem will eventually become a burden to them.

Sometimes the things weighing us down seem too big to face, but inaction is much more harmful than doing something about it, even if you take tiny steps. They'll add up to true change over time. Take action today!

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Monday, July 13, 2009

Of yard sales and storage units

While I was in Maine I was planning to help my family members put on a large-scale yard sale, in the hopes of clearing out a barn, a storage unit and a basement all full of stuff. As you may have heard, New England has had a pretty rotten streak of summer weather, and it rained every day, prompting us to scale down our efforts. Instead of a two-day, three-family yard sale, we decided to sell the larger items individually on Craigslist and then put on a smaller yard sale on a weekend when rain wasn’t the predominant forecast.

The long view--about half the unit's contents pulled out.

When faced with a 10 by 20 foot storage unit absolutely packed to the gills with boxes and furniture, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but three of my family members and I forged ahead and were able to reduce the contents by a quarter, either by throwing away what was deemed as trash four years after putting it in the unit, setting it aside for yard sale and then donation if it didn’t sell, and by selling large items on Craigslist. We also donated a fair amount of furniture and dishes to a cousin who was setting up house in his own apartment for the first time. Of the 10 items we put on Craigslist, we sold six of them for the asking price and they were taken away within a week. (Caution: Craigslist is an invaluable tool, but beware of scams. Only deal in person and in cash—someone tried to scam us!) The other four items were sold at the yard sale. On the whole, it was a success, as divesting oneself of that much stuff all at once is difficult to do physically and emotionally. Since the owner of the storage unit lives out of the country, it will be a multi-step process to whittle it down to only the essential items.

Destined for yard sale or dump.

Though the idea of pulling things out of a storage unit, sorting them, throwing things away, taking pictures of thrown items that want to be remembered, and putting what’s left back in an organized fashion may not seem like an ideal way to pass one’s vacation time, I had a blast. More thoughts and stories from the trip to come in posts later this week. Be sure not to miss them by subscribing to this blog in your RSS reader right now!

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Just because it's there doesn't mean you have to read it

I'm getting back in the swing of things at home and with my business after almost three weeks of traveling. Having a break from the normal routine always helps me gain perspective about my life and what is important to me. When I got back, I was thankful that I'd taken the time to clean my house thoroughly before I left, including laundry and refrigerator, so that even though I returned home with a suitcase full of dirty clothes I had some clean ones in the closet and even though I had to go out and buy the essentials almost immediately, my refrigerator wasn't moldering with food gone bad.

I had a lot of great organizing moments during the trip that I look forward to sharing with you. While I'm getting my photos organized and settling back in, I wanted to share one quick insight. I follow lots of blogs through Google Reader, and in my "organizing" folder I follow 79 blogs alone! I love reading what other professional organizers are writing about (and share some of them with you in my Friday Blog Digest feature), but after twenty days of not scanning the feeds, I had over 500 to-be-read items waiting for me. Though I'd like to be able to go back and read them all, I forced myself to scan just today's and yesterday's. I'm using the genius "mark all as read" feature to give myself a clean slate. I know I don't have time to read all of those 500 posts, and I'm not going to put extra pressure on myself to do it anyway. It's amazing that I have all of that information at my fingertips, but sometimes its worth remembering that just because we have access to so much, we don't have to actually access it.

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email