28 February 2008

An Interview

The following interview by Geoff Rotunno was featured at www.thebooxreview.com a couple of years ago. It is no longer available at that web site, so I am republishing it here.

Personal chaos got you down? Step into our parlor, the online room of one utterly organized Boox Interview with author and professional organizer Claire Josefine, who spends some time explaining the hows and whys of instructing others in the spiritual art of acquiring order.

Boox: Our initial take on The Spiritual Art of Being Organized was that it is a book that is completely right for the times. Assuming you agree, why would you say that is so?

Given the response to the book that I've been receiving, I'd have to agree with you.

Spirituality and getting organized are both popular topics these days. But I believe The Spiritual Art of Being Organized speaks to a deeper need than current trends. Many of us, especially those who embrace the values of Voluntary Simplicity, are struggling to restore balance, connectedness, and meaning to our lives.

Let me elaborate. We live in a culture that emphasizes acquisition and immediate gratification. Good consumers that we are, we mindlessly accumulate possessions (and rack up debt). Meanwhile, it often takes two incomes to support a household these days. We're working more and accumulating more. Which means we have less time and more stuff taking up our time and space. Is it any wonder that we wake up one day to find our homes crowded with meaningless clutter and our lives unsatisfying? As Ken Blanchard says, "too many of us are spending money we haven't earned to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like."

So here we are, working too much to support too much stuff. And watching television to numb our minds. But wait! Look! Check out these TV shows where people are totally disorganized and an organizer comes in and fixes it all for them. Talk about immediate gratification! Wouldn't it be nice if we could hire a professional organizer to play Mom, to come in and clean our room for us, make it all better — just like on TV?

Except it wouldn't work. Professional organizers are invaluable — they teach us how to organize; they provide support and encouragement and a helping hand. But the allure of having someone else come in to perform a clean sweep through our homes is just another version of our desire for immediate gratification, which is largely responsible for our mindless accumulation of clutter in the first place. Unless we shift our behavior and beliefs — which includes suspending gratification while we make conscious decisions based on our values and goals — we will simply re-create the clutter we've just purged. As I say in the book, chaos is conquered as much by awareness, gratitude, grounding, and breath as by a well-labeled filing system. Simplicity and order are valid — even crucial — choices. And they are found within.

Boox: But in a culture that does place so much emphasis on acquisition and immediate gratification, how do we make that shift? Do you talk about that concept during your consultations?

Josefine: Not everyone is going to — or even wants to — make that shift. I have clients who will continue to conspicuously consume, and there's not much I can do about it. Yes, I can point out the physical limits of their space and ask them how many, say, tablecloths, they need. And I can encourage them to let go of their excess, to share it with those who truly need coats or bedding or tablecloths. But I can't force them to change their buying habits, to delay their desire for immediate gratification. I can't force them to have a spiritual awakening, an "aha!" moment.

On the other hand, some of my clients have had that "aha!" moment where they wake up and say, "Wait, this is all wrong. What am I doing with all this stuff? Where's the balance in my life?" With these clients, yes, absolutely, I talk about making the shift. These are the clients (and readers) who thirstily drink up the 12 Basic Principles of Being Organized, because the Principles provide the tools we need to simplify and organize our lives.

How do we make that shift? We begin by simplifying our lives. We learn to set boundaries, to make choices based in love instead of fear, that we are able to make choices. We learn to practice gratitude, which guides us to realizing how blessedly abundant our lives are. We slow down, pay attention to our actions, bring consciousness back into our daily lives. We bring a structural foundation of order and organization into our lives. And we learn to ask for — and receive — help.

Boox: Of the benefits you list under your "Why Get Organized?" section, you state one good reason for attaining order is "to make money." How can getting organized lead to income?

Josefine: I'm thinking of a client of mine who writes and teaches for a living. We organized all her newspaper clippings and her computer document files for the book she is currently writing. We also created a schedule, carving out specific, regular hours for writing. (Because she works at home, she was having trouble creating a routine and setting boundaries with her time.) These organizational improvements enabled her to find information quickly (instead of taking hours to hunt for it), and helped her to complete her manuscript on time (which allowed her to collect the first part of her advance on the book). It also freed up time for her to work on income-generating projects such as workshops, lectures, and fund-raising.

Perhaps another way to look at this benefit is to see how being organized helps you avoid losing money. Let's look at a hypothetical independent consultant who's disorganized. Her disorganization can result in lost income because she forgets to invoice her clients (or follow up on collections), because she is unable to access information quickly enough to provide a timely and acceptable bid for a job, or because clients perceive her as unreliable and are reticent to trust her.

Becoming organized can remedy these pitfalls, can remove obstacles to making money. We spend less time looking for our tools, can put our hands on information more quickly, and can provide the desired product more promptly. The better organized we are, the more productive. And the more productive we are, the more we are profitable.

Boox: In your chapter called "Think!" you talk about how we seem to have a knack for sprawling horizontally rather than employing vertical solutions for our excess. Any idea why we default to the more scattered of the two?

Josefine: I think that horizontal sprawl becomes the default for two reasons. One is a lack of boundaries. The other is our innate laziness. Picture a bowl of water, but without the bowl, how it spreads outward along the available surface. When we're setting down pieces of paper (for instance) we're likely to behave like that water, spreading the papers out along an available surface. To store them vertically — in file folders or wall pockets, for example — requires work. If the vertical containers are already in place, and they are easy to access, then we are likely to use them. But because installing the vertical containers requires effort, it is not our natural — or default — solution.

Boox: What is the most common of all the states of client disorder you see upon initial consultation?

Josefine: There are two common problems. The first is a lack of clearly defined zones. A kitchen cabinet might have canned food, coffee cups, and kids' schoolwork all shoved in willy-nilly. Or a dresser drawer might have underwear jumbled up with socks, blue jeans, loose aspirin, unpaid bills, orphaned earrings, and bandages.

The second common problem involves the bane of our modern-day existence: paper! Many of us have not been taught how to handle the barrage of paper that enters our life. As a result, it invades every surface of our home, and maybe even our car. Piles of old mail, unread magazines, unpaid bills, paid bills, invitations, advertisements, notices, newspapers... On the kitchen table. The kitchen counter. The table by the entrance. The desk. The shelves. The dresser. The bathroom counter. The bed. The floor. Paper everywhere, except where we can find it!

By the way, I don't subscribe to the "handle paper only once" school. Expecting immediate and full action to be taken on every piece of paper each time is unreasonable. Yes, we want to make an initial assessment of the paper when we pick it up, rather than shuffle it from one pile to another. But I prefer the "all paper is F.A.T. — File, Act, or Toss" philosophy. By asking ourselves why we are keeping the paper, how we plan to use it, we can determine where to put the paper. If we are keeping it only for reference or legal documentation, it can be filed. If we need to act on it, we put it in the action file (to pay, to answer, to review, etc.). If we don't need to keep it, by all means, toss it! (Well, recycle it. But saying that all paper is F.A.R. doesn't have the same mnemonic appeal.)

Boox: What sort of feedback do you hear most often from clients who have embraced your techniques and discovered a holy state of order in their lives?

Josefine: I'm not sure any of my clients have ever discovered a "holy state of order." But they certainly have experienced marked improvement in their lives.

The most common feedback is an expression of gratitude for the help they've received and the hope they now have. Where they used to feel inept and ashamed, they now feel empowered. They understand how to organize, they experience the value of being organized, and they see how their spirituality supports being organized.

I received an amazing letter from a reader not long ago. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was faced with not wanting to leave her 3600-square-foot home filled with 35 years of collecting for her family to deal with. She happened upon my book, and was transformed. She wrote to me: "You accomplished the impossible. You see, I have always detested neat, highly organized people. They are not like me. They made me feel faulty, inadequate, guilty, and so I pronounced them without creativity, spontaneity, or passion. But, from what I could learn about you from your writing, I began to like you, a person who alphabetizes spice bottles! This amazed me. ... I would not have been reached by a simple list of handy hints for organizing. What you had to reach was my deepest being, and you had to convince me to like you and trust you before I listened to you. That there was something in neat, organized, spice-jar-alphabetizing you that connected on a deep spiritual level with messy, chaotic me opened my mind. ... Thanks to your extraordinary book, the best imperfect person I can be has begun."

Boox: That's some terrific and immediately gratifying feedback! Do you find that you are consciously attempting to reach clients at more than the usual business relationship level, or is that just a good thing when it happens on its own?

Josefine: I don't try to reach clients on a more personal level; it's just who I am. I'm friendly and open and honest, and my clients tend to open up and trust me. (In turn, I honor their trust by keeping their identities confidential.)

Also, organizing is very intimate work. As an organizer, I can't help but see my clients' secrets, be it their bankruptcy papers or their cross-dressing wardrobe. And, as an organizer, I'm very accepting of the secrets I find. I think this vulnerability, coupled with my easy-going acceptance, facilitates a personal bond.

You know, I resisted writing this book; at first I was going to have a friend ghost-write it for me. But I realized that the book had to be in my own voice, so I hired the friend to coach me, to hold my hand through the process. Now I find that it's my voice that reaches the readers. When I showed the above-mentioned letter to a friend, she commented that several of her colleagues read the book as a way of spending time with me — and they've never met me in person. This amazes me, that I'm able to reach people on a personal level, that they come to like me and want to spend time with me, through my writing. And through a book on organizing. Who woulda thunk?

Boox: Which of your 12 principles do people typically have trouble with the most, and why?

Josefine: Hmmm.... No one's ever told me that they're having trouble with one principle or another, so I'm not sure! My guess would be, based on observation, that implementing new habits and routines is most difficult. (I know it's hard for me.) When I asked a couple of friends, they quickly and unanimously replied that K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sweetie) was hardest, which surprised me, because that one comes so easily for me. But then, being innately organized, perhaps it makes sense that my sticking points differ from those of my clients.

I'm guessing that different principles are challenging for different people. An AD/HD client might have trouble with K.I.S.S. or Be Realistic — or with Slow Down and Pay Attention — while another client might have trouble with Ask for Help. It's going to depend on the person. Which one do you find most challenging?

Boox: Asking for help has always been a personal challenge as well, so it does seem to depend on who you are. Why do you ask your clients, "What brings you joy?" Are there any other questions that you regularly pose?

Josefine: I believe that each of us has gifts to offer, talents to share that make the world a better place. And I believe we each have a duty to share those talents, to do the work of Tikkun Olam — a Kabbalistic concept that means Repair of the World.

Now, some of us know what our gifts are and plunge right in, doing our work. Others of us are unsure. (It took me until my late 30's to figure out what my gifts were.) I ask people "what brings you joy?" because — I believe — this is where we connect with our higher power, our Source. This is how we discover our path. I have a quote from Buddha by my desk: "Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it." Discovering what brings us joy leads us to discovering our work, which leads us to doing the work of Tikkun Olam.

Identifying our sources of joy also helps us clarify our values and goals, which helps us winnow out those items and commitments that detract us from our path.

As to other questions that I regularly pose... of course there are others! I'm a teacher at heart, and teachers ask questions. Besides, questions are a wonderful tool for finding answers. Probably my two most common sets of questions are: "Why are you keeping it? How do you plan to use it?" and "Do you like it? Does it make you smile?" And then there's the ever-pragmatic "Where will you put it?" ("I don't know" is not an acceptable answer.)

04 February 2008

The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties

In response to my talk on Earth-Friendly Organizing, given at the Eureka Public Library last Thursday, one of the audience members sent the link for The Story of Stuff to me. About the same time, a fellow organizer posted the link to our Simple and Sustainable Organizers Yahoo! group. The video is making the rounds, and with good reason.

Watching The Story of Stuff, I was reminded of an article I wrote on consumerism. Here it is:

A Brief History of Consumerism

Once in a rare while, I'll venture into a K-Mart or Target or such, only to be astounded by the excess of consumer goods filling the shelves. (As an organizer, I find a plethora of these same goods cluttering people's homes.) Such material abundance didn't exist 100 years ago. So, what happened? How did we get here, to a world suffocating under so much stuff?

The stage was set during the industrial revolution, when our ability to produce goods magnified immensely. (The changes in production capacity brought up an interesting debate at the time: should we focus on producing more stuff, or on having more time? More stuff won.) Then came The Depression, when people shut down and held back, went into scarcity thinking. They pulled into themselves, tight like a scrunched-closed fist.

After WWII a number of things happened, encouraging people to sigh a collective "phew!" and open up into an expansive mode again. I call these phenomena The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties. It was this fork that fed our modern-era consumerism.

Prong #1 was government programs. The Highway Trust Fund financed the creation of our Interstate Highway System, which fueled the development of urban sprawl. In addition to passing through downtown areas -- which encouraged automobile-oriented development patterns -- the expanding cobweb of highways made for easier distribution of foods grown by centralized, mass-production farming. This freed up farmland for suburban sprawl and shopping malls.

FHA loans enabled people to buy those suburban houses. The G.I. Bill also helped people to purchase their starter homes. And all those houses, of course, needed to be fully equipped. As William Kowinski wrote in The Malling of America, "As they traded their ploughshares for power mowers, suburbanites created an ever-expanding market for consumer products. All those houses had their own kitchens and laundries, living rooms and dens, and typically a bedroom for each child. The suburban dream clearly included refrigerators and ranges, washers and dryers, plus all the detergents, polishes and other support and maintenance products.”

Prong #2 was the proliferation of television and advertising. Besides being a venue for advertising, television portrayed (and continues to portray) upper-middle class as normal, making us think that what the well-to-do have is what we should all be having and what's wrong with us that we don't? Meanwhile, advertising started using psychology to create both fear and desire in us, compounding our sense of inadequacy.

Prong #3 was personal debt. Suddenly, it became easy to borrow money. (What's that commercial? "Life takes Visa." Or is it that Visa takes life?) Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Cold War, government and industry began equating democracy with the freedom to purchase, recasting materialism as patriotic. (And President Bush, in response to 9/11, encouraged the country to go shopping. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.) Not long ago, if we didn't have the money, we didn't buy it. Now, if we want it -- and it's our patriotic duty to buy it! -- we just put it on the credit card.

Prong #4 was planned obsolescence. This has three faces to it. One is where producers intentionally build things to fall apart. After all, there are only so many toasters you can sell before everyone who needs one, has one. If you want to continue selling toasters, you better make them chintzy and irreparable. The second face of planned obsolescence takes its lead from the fashion industry, where things go out of style long before they cease being functional. Witness automobiles, furniture, kitchen decor, technology... . The third face is one of manufactured scarcity. Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "We try to create an attitude that, if you see it, you ought to buy it because chances are it ain't going to be there next time. You're going to come in and find that maybe we have some Lucky jeans that we're selling. You come in the next time and we don't have those jeans but we have some Coach handbags. That's the treasure-hunt aspect. We constantly buy that stuff and intentionally run out of it from time to time."

The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties fed our culture to create the bloated, consumerist world in which we find ourselves today. But just because this is where we are doesn't mean we need to stay here. We are products of our culture, but we are not victims to it. We can choose to step out of mindless consumption and into simplicity. We can choose to live consciously, to take back our power and live in harmony with our values. We can choose to walk out of K-Mart and Target and such, empty handed. We can even choose not to walk in.

And how more simple can we get than baking our own bread? I cooked up a couple of loaves Sunday night, and thought I’d share the recipe.

2 cups warm water
2 Tablespoons yeast
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Once it’s proofed, slowly work in:
2 Teaspoons salt
1 Cup whole wheat flour
½ Cup oat bran
4 to 5 Cups white flour

Knead until smooth and silky.

Coat with olive oil, cover, and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, between 2 and 3 hours.

Punch down, break in half and fit into two bread loaf pans.

Coat with olive oil again, cover, and allow to rise a second time (until they look load-size).

Bake at 375 until done. (Sorry, I didn’t notice how long this took.)

Remove from loaf pan and allow to cool.