Sunday, December 20, 2009

Organizing and resolutions

I’ve been writing a lot about why January is such an appealing time to take stock of one’s life and feel the freedom to make some changes for the better. Many people’s resolutions involve organization in some form, such wanting to manage their time better, deciding to clear out a closet, wanting to finally finish a long-delayed project, or having a garage sale. 

I highly encourage people to add organizing to their list of resolutions (or their to do list), but to do it in a highly specific way. Don’t put “get more organized” on your list. Put something like “go through file cabinet and shred anything that isn’t needed anymore” (or maybe a few things like that). That is a tangible task that you’ll know if you’ve completed. I strongly advise you to put an action verb into each resolution. By taking action, we make change. If our resolutions are intangible, we can’t have the satisfaction of pointing to something and saying, “I accomplished that.”

When it comes to change and making our lives better, fear is something that holds a lot of people back. I implore you to not let that happen to you. In my profession, I meet a lot of people who are paralyzed with fear. Calling a professional organizer is a huge step for them because they’ve done the very serious emotional work of preparing to make a major change.

People can be scared to hire a professional organizer even when they know they need to because if they have a professional come in and make changes, they worry that even then they won't be able to change themselves, or they won't be able to maintain it. Once they have the professional help, if they can't keep the organization up, they feel they've failed. So they avoid that step entirely.

I hate the word failure, because to me it implies the end of something. I think every time we don’t succeed entirely at something, it creates another opportunity, not the end of the road. Not maintaining organization is a problem, but attacking the problem head on is the first step to change. You can’t be afraid of something that might or might happen in the future.

So take action. Put action verbs in your resolutions for the new year. Declare that you will go through your closet and get rid of all the clothes you don’t wear, you will recycle all the plastic containers in your pantry that don’t have matching lids so they won’t be spilling out every time you open the cupboard, you will hire a professional organizer to come in and help you with your filing system because you just won’t/can’t/don’t have time to do it on your own. Good luck!

Creative Commons photo posted to Flickr by sflovestory

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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My resolutions

The two biggest keys to making and accomplishing one's resolutions are specificity and accountability. The more specific you are about what you want to do, the easier it will be to name the steps needed to fulfill the resolution and the easier it will be to see if you've succeeded. Accountability speaks for itself. If you tell other people your resolution (such as writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days), you'll have a support system encouraging you to keep on the path to your goal, and you'll have the satisfaction of being able to show those people that you did it! So, in the interest of accountability, here is a recap of my 2009 resolutions and how I did with them, and a partial list of 2010 ones.

My 2009 resolutions were:
  • Go camping
  • Seek alternate headache treatments
  • Sell a piece of writing
  • Visit Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory and the LA Zoo
How did I do?
  • did not go camping, mainly because I don’t have a tent. But I realize that’s not a great reason, as I could have bought or borrowed one. I think I’m going to have to go with Gretchen Rubin and take this one off of my list, since this is the second consecutive year on there. As soon as I take it off, perhaps a way to do it will appear.
  • I suffer from biweekly migraines. They have lessened in intensity this year because of some alternate treatments, mainly strong doses of black tea. The caffeine seems to help, but they haven’t gone away completely. I think that counts, though.
  •  I did not sell a piece of writing. At the beginning of the year I thought I might start making my living from writing. Instead, I started my professional organizing business and have been writing as a creative project. Both choices have been great for my life. So I’m content with not having achieved this one as my priorites shifted and I accomplished so much more.
  • I did go to Griffith Park and Griffith Observatory and while I didn’t go into the zoo, I parked in the parking lot there to do the LADWP Festival of Lights, so that counts, sort of.

My 2010 resolutions are:

  • Refresh my apartment by de-cluttering and rearranging the space (even professionals have to make a point to do this once in while)
  • Learn about and use more of the features of my digital camera and look into editing the images in some kind of effects program
  • Revise a piece of writing to a point where I'd let other people besides my sister read it
  • Buy more produce from the farmer's market and less from Ralphs
Of course, I've got a ton of other little and big things on my 2010 to do list, at this point mostly things I want to do to promote and expand my business and things involving my upcoming wedding. The beauty of ushering out an old year and beginning a new one is that it truly feels like anything is possible. Even if we plan out the year and what we want to get done in it, there are still surprises along the way, and we may end up in a place in December that we couldn't have imagined in January. What are some of your resolutions?

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bridget Jones's resolutions, an analysis

The wonderful book Bridget Jones’s Diary famously starts with a short chapter titled "New Year’s Resolutions" and two lists: “I Will Not” and “I Will.” Bridget is sometimes motivated by the negative list and sometimes the positive. To hedge her bets, she puts some things on both, as in “I will not smoke,” and “I will stop smoking.” Some of the items are vague, and she’d benefit from being more specific about actionable steps that could get her to her goals. For instance, she writes, “I will make better use of time,” without detailing what constitutes a better use. In other areas, she’s more specific, such as detailing the sorts of men she will not fall for, including “alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives…etc.” Some of her resolutions are so grand as to evoke a smile even among the most ambitious, such as “I will form functional relationship with responsible adult.” And of course, she has several, as many people do, that relate to organizing her life, such as “I will not allow in-tray to rage out of control,” “I will purge flat of all extraneous matter,” “I will give all clothes which have not worn for two years or more to homeless,” and, of course, “I will put photographs in photo albums. “ That last one is on my list as well!

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

About New Year's Resolutions

I’m spending the holidays out of town and won’t be posting to my blog at the end of December, but  I’ve been thinking about the massive year that’s almost over and the fresh new one peeking around the corner a lot lately, so I want to write a few posts about the transition, and why it’s such a good time for those things we call New Year’s Resolutions.

The year that was 2009
This was the most eventful year of my life, both in terms of actions I took and things that happened to me and the people around me. It's been a fabulous year, but in some ways an overwhelming one, and I’ve been thinking a lot about priorities, about how I’m going to bring with me all of the positive energy generated in 2009, while leaving behind the uncertainty, exhaustion and limited free time.

The year to come
When I was in school, I always looked forward to the two weeks we had off in the wintertime. We got out of school the Friday before Christmas and went back the Monday after New Year's Day. I loved the fact that I got presents and then had time to enjoy them before the hustle and bustle of the regular year returned. I also felt like every time I went back to school in the new year, it was like being given a gift of a fresh start. Even though my classmates and teachers hadn’t changed, I felt like I could change. 

I remember one year I received as a Christmas gift a very soft, pure white sweater. I felt so fine walking around in it, as if the snowy white sweater cleansed me, gave me a chance to be a different person in a new year. I wasn't unhappy about who I was already, it just felt liberating to leave the old behind and welcome in the new, both figuratively with a new attitude and new goals (resolutions) and literally with new clothes, shoes and playthings. I felt like I could remake myself and that gave me a sense of power over my own destiny. 

I like that feeling, and I think many people do, which is why making resolutions is such a popular pastime. Making the resolution is naming the problem, taking its power away and making us feel in control. The fact that many of us forget, ignore, or give up on our resolutions doesn’t mean that making them is a useless activity. But think about how good the act of making a resolution makes you feel, and then think about how good you’d feel if you kept that resolution.

About resolutions
As a child, I remember my mother asking us what our resolution for the new year was. We only had to pick one, and it was a fun game to play on New Year’s Eve as we ate our traditional split pea soup and played Monopoly. For some reason at some point during college, I decided not to limit myself to one resolution and instead made a whole list of things I wanted to accomplish in the new year. It has taken me some time to realize that there is a difference between a list of resolutions and a to do list. 

Resolutions, at least in my view, are a way of exploring who we want to be as people, and aspiring to a different, better way of life through things we can control, like our actions, our bodies and our minds, while a to do list of stuff you want to get done is a helpful document to keep going year round.

Approaches to resolutions
There are at least four approaches to making resolutions.

  1. One resolution. This is when you make one grand statement, such as “I resolve to lose weight,” or one smaller, less ambitious but still just as important statement, such as “I resolve to finish that Abraham Lincoln biography that’s been sitting on my nightstand for six months so I can talk about it with my grandfather.” If you are new to the resolution game, or don't want the pressure of a large list, this is a great way to go. Plus, if you finish your book by March, there's nothing stopping you from making another resolution at that time.
  2. To do list. This is when, under the guise of making resolutions, you actually make a to do list of all the stuff you want to accomplish in the year, most of which was probably stuff you wanted to accomplish last year but never got around to, such as “Clean out the garage, go on a trip to Mexico, repaint the bathroom, get my colors done, look into starting a 401K, have necklace fixed, etc, etc, etc.” I think this is a great to have, in addition to at least one more personal resolution.
  3. List of goals. This is somewhere between a to do list and list of resolutions. You have a list of things you want to have accomplished by the end of the year with no clear path set out to get there, such as “Learn a new language, save for retirement, expand my client base, improve my relationship with my sister.”
  4. List of resolutions. Resolutions are about concrete things that you want to do, and they are also aspirations for a better way to live. So one resolution might be “Cook dinner for my spouse more often,” and another might be, “Don’t let small inconveniences annoy me as much.” 
The point is there's no wrong way to set about trying to have a better year than the one that's just fallen away.

Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project blog posits that resolutions, made right, can increase your happiness. I definitely agree with her and her guidelines for making effective resolutions are well worth a read.

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas card containment

Often the best solutions are the simplest. I love getting mail, and Christmas cards are so cheerful and festive that they are warmly received in my household. People often have anxiety over how to display Christmas cards and what to do with them after the season is over. Here's my advice:

    • Get a shallow bowl or basket and collect the cards inside. You can shuffle through them periodically throughout December and enjoy reading their messages.
    • Use the opportunity to update your address book with the return addresses included on the envelopes and update any notes you may have about a particular person, such as an engagement, marriage or new baby in the family.
    • Keep those cards that have particular special notes or are from particularly special people and feel free to recycle the rest or use them for art projects. Many people simply use store-bought cards and sign their name. No need to hang on to those past New Year's day.
    • Don't feel anxiety about sending cards in return. If you have the time and inclination to send out cards to friends and relatives, go for it. Otherwise, there's no life rule that says you must send holiday cards or you are a bad person. If you do want to send someone a card but don't want to go to the expense of buying and posting it, consider an e-card, which is enjoyed once and then never becomes paper waste or clutter.
    Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    Organizer's blog digest: Christmas

    Okay, two weeks until Christmas and I'm not sick of it yet. That's a good thing. I've been trying to do Christmas in small doses this year, as my love for the season and the holiday can make me go overboard with the cookies, gingerbread houses, tree decoration and Christmas music too early. This year I've had a more measured approach. I don't even have a tree this year because I won't be home on Christmas day. I haven't missed it, and a string of Christmas lights around my windows and a pine-scented candle is enough to get me in the spirit. This is Southern California, after all. We've always had to use our imaginations at this time of year, when people in other parts of the country are actually able to expect a snowy, picture-perfect holiday.

    I've been inspired to enact more simple season by my fellow professional organizers and organizing-minded blog friends. Here are some of their best holiday preparation posts, many of which are part of a series, because having a successful, organized Christmas usually takes some guidance.

    One of my favorite new blogs is D.E.C.I.D.E. to be Organized by professional organizer Lisa Montanaro. She always has really well-written, thoughtful posts. Here's one called Managing the Chaos of the Busy Holiday Season: A Survival Guide. In it she talks about setting goals and dealing with an overloaded schedule. She also advocates re-gifting, a controversial policy, but one that I agree with, if the item is new, or almost new, and is something the person you are giving it to really wants. Chaos to Order blog also think re-gifting is fine, and posts some guidelines here.

    SimpleMom has an entire series of posts on Christmas called 12 Weeks to a Peaceful Christmas. While you could probably get away with less than 12 weeks of preparation for a single day, the posts contain really useful information. This one on food gifts has tons of links to great consumable gift ideas and recipes for a healthy dose of holiday gifting inspiration.

    Paula Constable at Organizing Tips and Thoughts for Moms blog has a Countdown to Christmas series chock-full of good ideas and useful tips. I love her tips for getting your holiday cards and packages ready to send and dealing with shipping them. I've spent my share of time in lines at the post office this month, so it pays to think ahead.

    Finally, Aby at Creative Organizing Blog, whose posts are always inspirational, has a lovely post about getting into the holiday mood, putting the holidays in perspective, and the joys of drinking hot chocolate.

    Creative Common photo posted to Flickr by tedmurphy, part of a set called Christmas Lights

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

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Tips and tools: Magazine management

    I love to read and stay current in a few fields like music, movies and design. I also like to make collages out of colorful images and text. Magazines are a fun way to accomplish both tasks. However, between subscribing to them and also getting free alumni magazines, AAA and Costco publications, interesting catalogs and the Sunday paper's magazines, it can be easy to get overrun with so many magazines that you can't keep up with them anymore and they just pile up, a glossy pile of reproach.

    Tip 1: Don't get them
    The best way to solve this is to let your subscriptions to the magazines you don't read run out and request to be taken off mailing lists. I have only subscribed to one magazine every year since I turned 16, a biweekly magazine that I actually do read cover to cover (eventually). While buying magazines at the newsstands is hardly cost effective if you'll be reading a certain title every month, you can get so much information and so many of the articles online, there's really no reason to spend money and valuable coffee table space on more than your most beloved publications.

    Tip 2: Contain them
    If you do have more than one subscription, which is not uncommon (one member of my household has three separate car magazine subscriptions), you might be at a loss for what to do with the magazines before you have a chance to sit down and page through them. I recommend a sturdy, shallow basket or tray placed near where you go through your mail. The magazines collect there, and when that tray fills up, you're signaled that you need to read, recycle, or archive the contents.

    Tip 3: Archive them
    The same person who has three car magazines delivered to our home every month has every one of those magazines from the past fifteen years archived. He uses plain white magazine holders from Ikea, with cute labels pasted to the front made from the subscription cards that are stuck into the pages of the magazines to identify which title is stored in each holder.

    If you must keep your magazines, I suggest you do something similar, if you have the space on shelves. Shallow plastic storage boxes area also a good option. The smaller the better, as a large plastic box filled to the brim with magazines becomes very heavy.

    Tip 4: Reuse and recycle
    Personally, I like to read the magazines, put them in a single magazine holder and when that fills up, make a project of flipping through them. I save a few notable issues every year, and the rest get turned into scraps for my collage projects and recycled. You can also pass on interesting magazines to friends, sometimes donate them to libraries or get rid of them on Freecycle. Magazines make great art project supplies, so ask at your local elementary school as well.

    Don't feel guilt or anxiety at your unread magazine pile. Simply contain them and peruse them when it makes sense. No one will berate you for not reading the latest issue of Westways magazine, so just recycle it and be done (you can read back issues online anyway!).

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

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Simplicity is revolutionary

    One of the highest profile and most helpful organizing-related blogs around is Unclutterer. The editor is Erin Rooney Doland, and lately Unclutterer has been taking its web presence to the next level with the launch of Unclutterer Forums, an awesome resource for starting a discussion about a specific organizing problem, as well as the publication of an old-fashioned book: Unclutter Your Life In One Week. I haven’t yet read the book, but I have heard only good things about it. Yesterday, Unclutterer announced the opening of an Unclutterer store, to sell PDF worksheets to go with UYLIOW as well as t-shirts. Though my initial thought was why should a blog that encourages simplicity and less clutter offer stuff, particularly t-shirts, which the world has plenty of already, I realized that people like to support causes with money, and often by showing solidarity with graphic tees. And if you don’t want one, you don’t have to buy one.

    The shirts come in two styles, each with a different phrase. One says "less is more," which is pretty self explanatory and meshes well with the Unclutterer philosophy. The other says "simplicity is revolutionary," which is a bolder statement, but after reflecting a little on what that means, I have to agree.

     In the contemporary United States, even in the wake of the great recession and the so-called “new frugality,” simplicity is still something that is foreign to many people. Our lives are overflowing with commitments, obligations, drains on our time, energy and resources. Many people feel that they are living their lives to the fullest by packing them with things to do, places to go and people to see. To take a stance on the side of simplicity, which can mean choosing to do without, with less or with fewer, is revolutionary. Our country is founded in part on the pursuit of happiness, on the American dream of rising above whatever station we were born to, which has come to mean an aspiration to owning things, to living a life complicated with stuff to a point where that which we thought would make us happy is instead weighing us down and causing us problems.

    Simplicity, to me, just means that instead of an endless search for more, we take a step back, decide that not doing something or having something can be more valuable that doing it or having it. There must be a balance. Choosing simplicity implies we have enough, we aren’t needy, we have shelter and food and love, but we recognize that having enough means activity avoiding having more. Simplicity rejects dealing with excess which, perhaps fun to indulge every great once in a while, is a tiring way to live one’s entire life.

    Simplicity is revolutionary because people don’t understand it at first. They think you’re missing out or unambitious or perhaps stingy. There’s nothing wrong with being careful how you spend your time. It’s the one thing you can’t get back. In this season where excess is all around, and people decry it every year even as every year they participate in it, think about being revolutionary. Think about simplicity and how it can be applied to your life. But don’t think about it too much. You have better things to do, like spending time with your significant other, reading a book for pleasure or just taking a walk around your neighborhood.

    Image from

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

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Tips and Tools: Electronic information

    Receiving, storing and finding information that is printed on paper is a constant struggle for all of us. Most of the problem stems from our worry that if we get rid of something, we won't be able to get it back again. Yet much of the paper we are bombarded with we are likely never going to look at or need, but we have a hard time giving ourselves permission to get rid of it for good.

    It is time that many of us realize how much information there can be had online. Not only can you stop paper statements and get your billing information online, but you can access so much more. There is no reason to a keep a paper copy of something that you *think* you *might* need at some point down the line (and probably won't) if you can get it electronically on demand when that mythical day should come. I'm talking about manuals for appliances, restaurant menus, contact information for businessess, maps, directions and those fat prospectuses and quarterly reviews that investment companies send you and you never look at but feel guilty throwing away. Yeah, you can get all of that stuff online. Why use your precious resources to store these items when you can use the magic of the Internet to let someone else store it electronically? And since it's "in the cloud" you don't even have to worry about backing up the data. Plus, information changes so quickly that most of the printed stuff is out of date very quickly. When you look at a piece of paper and ask yourself if you could easily get the information on it should you need in the future and the answer is yes, send it to the recycle bin.

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

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    Preparing for every day: Gift wrap station

    Even though we don't wrap gifts literally every day, the same way we use our purses, freezers, desks and glove compartments nearly every day, many of us still have occasion to wrap something in pretty paper and put a ribbon on it a few times a year, if not more often. To make those times more pleasant, it pays to keep a gift wrapping kit assembled and stocked at all times, so you aren't scrambling around to find tape and scissors half an hour before you are supposed to be at a baby shower or your child's friend's birthday party armed with a gift.

    I hardly ever actually buy ribbon or wrapping paper, instead I save the good stuff that I receive from birthdays and holidays. I find the recycled stuff looks just as good as new, and I've saved myself the expense. Ribbons, in particular, if well-made, can be reused over and over again. My recommendation is to keep one box worth of wrapping paper and one box of ribbons, bows and tags. To make large wrapping projects easier, look into getting a box long enough to hold tubes of wrapping paper. Vertical tube holders don't work well in my experience. I recommend long, flat, clear plastic boxes to hold the following items.

    The 9 things that should be in every gift wrapping kit:
    • Transparent tape, the kind that comes in an open, weighted dispenser rather than a disposable dispenser as it is easier to use with one hand.
    • Good quality, large scissors.
    • Tissue paper in various colors.
    • Wrapping paper in various colors.
    • Ribbon in various colors.
    • Gift tags or card stock for creating tags.
    • Single hole punch for threading ribbons through tags.
    • Sharpies, of course! I recommend at least black, but silver Sharpies add a festive touch at holiday time.
    • Post-its. I like to use Post-its to remind me what is inside a wrapped package and who the recipient is if I am wrapping several items at once and might mix them up, or if they are awaiting tags or cards.
    It's also a good idea to keep your gift wrapping boxes near your greeting card stash, as you often need one with the other. I find wrapping a bunch of gifts at once is made more enjoyable by putting on a good movie to play while I do it. Also, the most important thing to remember is to label everything! You don't want to end up at the end of the day with a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages and no idea what's inside them or who they are for!

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

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009

    Tips and Tools: Feed readers

    I've written about Google Reader on this blog a few times before. I use it to keep track of all the other amazing organizing-related blogs out there, and there are a lot! I'd wager than most people use feed readers to keep up with blogs that they like to read, not just blogs that they have to read for work or to keep current in their field, but here's a quick tip to make reading through your feeds less of a chore. I like to salt mine with blogs that I know post quick and funny entries. In the morning when I fire up Google Reader and I see 66 new posts in a single folder, I know that at least one of them is going to make me laugh. Flipping through and scanning the other posts until I get to the fun ones keeps me informed and the funny posts are little rewards for staying on task.

    My favorite fun blogs: Cake Wrecks, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, The Happiness Project Blog (also very useful and interesting), and There, I Fixed It. What are yours?

    Also check out my posts about how to use Google Reader and a few other Reader tips.

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