5 Tips to Declutter with the Zen Organizer

BL00 - Mindful Organizer

By Regina Leeds, guest contributor

You can ignore your physical space, but you can’t hide the story it tells. Like a friend with loose lips, your environment reveals all. Some people try and fake it. The public rooms, for example, present a story of perfection only to be betrayed by total chaos in the bedroom. Others hide their detritus behind closet doors, under beds, and in drawers already bursting at the seams.  The greater the chaos, the deeper the emotional wound. A college student whose parents never taught him how to do laundry may create a messy dorm room because he lacks simple life skills while a newly divorced person may fall into a deep depression that makes organizing seem Herculean. Life is varied, and so are the myriad reasons we invite chaos.


A young woman asked me how to handle an organizing dilemma she had experienced all her life.  It seemed every time she gave something away, she would need it within two weeks. I reminded her that Jesus said it best: “It shall be done unto you according to your word.” As long as she held this belief, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I like to unearth the origins of erroneous belief systems. Had she ever been robbed? Had an airline ever lost a checked bag? Had she ever dropped something precious into a lake? I tried mightily to unearth the cause but she rejected all my suggestions. Here, I thought, is the anomaly: a belief not subject to cause and effect. And then my friend the Feng Shui master began to ask her questions.

Within minutes a story emerged.  When she was five years old, she was excited to go on her first sleepover.  She packed her tiny suitcase and while she was away, her brother accidentally burned down the family home. The next morning she had no home to return to and all her worldly belongings were in one tiny suitcase. We helped her see the connection.  Who wouldn’t be averse to giving anything away after such a trauma? I suggested a few counseling sessions to help free her and consciously change her belief system.

The Magic Formula

When I started organizing clients 31 years ago, I was afraid someone would present a project I had no clue how to tame. It didn’t take long to realize that all organizing projects followed the same protocol. The material in my hands changed (clothing, paper, pots’n’pans etc.), but the steps I took were consistently the same.  They were in fact so utterly bulletproof I called them The Magic Formula. They are: Eliminate, Categorize, and Organize.

It may be apocryphal but I read that Michelangelo believed the statue already existed inside the marble.  He had only to chip away until he released it. I believe that a peace-filled, calm version of your home is waiting for you once you eliminate the items you no longer need, want, or will use. Those are the questions I ask every client.  An item that is destined to stay is identified with ease. The ones that present a challenge always have a complicated story. Once you identify your emotional attachment, you can begin to set a new belief in motion.

I organized a famous actress years ago who was known for her work in comedy.  The clothing she was hurling out of her closet onto her bed, however, was black or dark brown and heavy in texture.  We were in Los Angeles but this growing mound would be suitable for a New York winter. Finally I had to ask if all of these clothes had been purchased at the same time. “Yes,” she said.  “I bought them when I was going through my divorce.”

As we eliminate items, we also identify those that are destined to stay.  I keep everything in related categories. They provide instant inventory control and make you more powerful by eliminating the need to search for whatever you intend to use. Closets and pantries offer the easiest to relate to categories.  You want dresses, suits, slacks and shoes to be together just like your soups, condiments and snacks want to reside next to each other. Categories are everywhere.

When the last item has been identified as a toss or keep and we have our categories, it’s time to organize.  It isn’t until then that we can decide which if any organizing tools we need. My completed projects are always beautiful, functional and easy to maintain.

Preparation is Key

The engine that runs the organizing train is decision-making and it will drain you if you don’t take steps to stay focused. I count a nourishing meal, healthy snacks, adequate sleep and exercise as my key preparation tools. It’s also important to calculate the amount of time a particular project needs to reach completion.  If you toss the contents of your closet onto the floor (something I am against!) and you have to leave home in two hours, you’ll be negotiating that pile for a few days. What a waste of time and energy not to mention the newly created drama of wrinkled clothing.

I like to imagine an old time doctor’s bag by my side.  If my clients or I start to feel overwhelmed, I check to see which tool I can pull out to rectify the situation.  Has my blood sugar plummeted? Am I dehydrated? Would some aromatherapy help me focus? What about a few minutes of meditation?

The literal process of getting organized offers us an exquisite opportunity to be mindful. “Stuff” will drag us into the past just as the hope of a newly organized space will propel us into the future. Mindfulness keeps us anchored in the here and now. Staying present makes the organizing process not only easier, it elevates it to a spiritual practice.

As a professional organizer, I create for my clients an environment that literally nurtures and supports them to do their best work in life.  Stuff and chaos are noisy and distracting. They make hearing the still, small voice of Spirit more difficult. A calm, peace-filled environment supports you in finding and fulfilling your life purpose. We all have the same number of hours in a day.  You are free to spend two or three of them frantically searching for lost keys, glasses, your phone, important papers and the remote. You can flush your system with cortisol and then spend more time utterly exhausted from these senseless searches or you can decide to devote your energy to the work you feel fulfills you and for which you were born. Your organized environment works in concert with you always offering what you need when you need it.

I knew from the start that my completed projects felt differently. I was chatting with a client one day about the change and wondered how I could describe it as I wanted to write a book.  “Oh!,” she said, “You mean it’s Zen like.” And there it was! Zen is a word that everyone associates with peace and calm even if they have never done a Zen practice. My first book was The Zen of Organizing, my style is called Zen OrganizingTM, and I am the Zen OrganizerTM.  A casual conversation gave direction to my life’s work.

Rules & Regulations

When it comes to organizing, most of what I read is neither practical nor particularly useful.  Some pros want you to remove one item from your closet when you purchase a new one. What does this arbitrary action accomplish or teach us? Nothing. I read about another pro who suggests you gather 12 items for giveaway every three weeks. What does that mean? I would soon develop a phobia about my possessions.  They would represent loss to me because I would constantly be looking for expendable items.

The idea that removing an entire category from any area and dumping it onto the floor will be of service is in reality counter productive. You have now effectively robbed yourself of invaluable workspace. In the case of a closet, for example, I narrow my focus to one area and move item by item making decisions as I go along. The giveaways practically hurl themselves onto the floor into the donation pile. I find that literal trash like all those nasty plastic bags and wire hangars from the dry cleaners exit without a fight. Items to be repaired, dry cleaned, laundered or given to a special friend are eager for the attention.

It’s the items that represent emotional attachment that make us struggle.  It isn’t the item we care about; it’s the emotional story that binds us to it. It is as if tossing the item will be the equivalent of tossing the experience or the person we associate with it. Perhaps we feel shame for spending an exorbitant amount of money on a dress we wore one time.  Or perhaps the memory of a special trip we took with a late parent is embedded in a hat we wore. It’s never about the stuff. It’s about the unrecognized emotion that binds us. It is in this recognition that we find freedom.

Getting Started

If you are at square one in your organizing journey, here are 5 simple steps to launch you into a Zen Organized Life:

1. Create Positive Habits

We think of habits as things we have to create but in truth, our lives are run by habits.  The issue is this: are they positive or negative? Putting your keys in the same spot the second you enter your home is a positive habit that will save you time and energy.  Flinging them into the space with no regard to where they land will deplete your energy and rob you of time. Each action takes about three seconds to perform. You get the idea.

Here are my all-time favorite habits to get you started.  I would do no more than two at a time so you aren’t overwhelmed with new tasks.  Repeat for 21 consecutive days before you add additional habits. Ultimately you can string a few together and create personal rituals. And remember habits for our purposes are repeatable, physical actions.

  • Have a landing spot for keys, remotes and your glasses.
  • Wash dirty dishes rather than let them stack up in the sink like airplanes at LaGuardia. Put them away when dry whether that’s by hand or from the dishwasher. Small tasks become overwhelming when we ignore them.
  • Make your bed every day! It puts a period on your sleep experience and signals a new day.  It’s important to honor beginnings and endings.

2. Do a 10-Minute Purge

Set a timer.  Eliminate all distractions.  Do not answer the phone, check email, or have the TV on in the background.  You want to give 100 percent of your focus to the task at hand. Limit your work to one room.  Move like your hair is on fire and you can’t stop. Have a sturdy trash bag in hand and fill it with items you know you no longer need.  Head to the trash can when the alarm sounds. If this is an area ripe with items you can donate, do a second round and then get them to the charity of your choice ASAP.

This exercise lightens the energetic load in a space by eliminating items you can live without.  You will feel inspired to do more and you will have begun building what I call “the trash muscle.” Right now, your “save muscle” is working overtime.

3. Who Lives Here?

Very often we move in unconscious ways in our environments.  This exercise gives you an opportunity to see your space as others do. Exit your home and whether you go off to work, the store, or just take Fido around the block, be ready upon your return to see the home as if for the first time. Can you tell how many people live here? Are they messy or tidy? Do you easily see the piles and stacks of stuff and how they block life in the space? Do the occupants have hobbies? Pets? Do not engage in judging the space, rather use “witness consciousness” and simple observe in order to learn and be inspired.

 4. Honor Your Work

Getting organized requires a commitment of time, energy, and very often, money. It’s too easy to slip back into our unconscious ways when we’re done and in no time life is once again chaotic.  The engine that runs the organizing train is decision-making. The process that keeps it all intact is honoring what we created with each and every decision. Let’s say you have always taken off your clothing at the end of the day and tossed it onto the floor into a heap.  After getting organized, you must decide if the garments go into a hamper, the bag for the dry cleaner, or if they can be re-hung to be worn another day. Once again, the difference in time is minimal, but the result is optimal living.

5. Learn to Say “No”

Too often our lives are thrown into chaos because our well-meaning hearts prompt us to agree to a request we know we can’t handle. We must cultivate self-care by refusing to give our time or energy when we must take care of family members or ourselves.  I am not suggesting you become selfish but rather wise. When we don’t have a knee-jerk response to requests, our yes response is more valuable and treasured by others. You will find no one dies when we say no. They just move on to the next available person.

The Bottom Line

Getting organized is generally viewed as a tedious task that must, however, be done periodically.  I find the experience to be fun and enormously creative, and it contributes to every aspect of my life.

In the epilogue to my New York Times bestseller One Year to an Organized Life, I tell the story of my bout with cancer 17 years ago. My best friend at the time taught me to use the way I helped clients get organized to navigate through the months of treatments and uncertainty.

“What is it you teach clients, Regina?” she asked. I had no clue what she was talking about.  She said: “You teach them that the whole of anything is overwhelming, and they need to break things down into small, manageable steps, right?” I nodded.  “Well, when you get up tomorrow you don’t have to prepare for a hysterectomy and six rounds of chemo. You just have to prepare for surgery. And in three weeks when that’s behind you, you’ll have time to prepare for the first round of chemo, and so on until you are done.” I swear lights when on in my brain, and I knew if I lived how my life’s work would change.

Organizing a home or office gives us an opportunity to practice in time and space a skill set we can use to tackle everything life throws at us from remodeling a home to planning a safari or negotiating surgery and chemotherapy treatments. Organizing mindfully is about self-care and fulfilling your life purpose every bit as much as it’s about having a tidy closet or junk drawer.  

Regina Leeds, known as the Zen Organizer, is a professional organizer and founder of Get Organized! by Regina. She is the author of several books, including The Zen of Organizing, NYT bestseller One Year to an Organized Work Life, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Decluttering, and has been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers, as well as campaigns for major corporations. Regina lives outside of Los Angeles.
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