At some point in your career as an assistant, you will need to organize a space.
Maybe it will be a small space, such a tiny file cabinet, or maybe it will be a larger space, such as an entire estate.
No matter what the task, here are some tips that can help you keep a sense of calm despite whatever mound of clutter you find yourself needing to bring a sense of order to.
Goals and wish list items
Before you can start diving in, you need to know what the goal of the space is. For example, in one home I worked in, the family had books that had no order to them at all. The goal was for me to categorize the books and then alphabetize them within each category.
Going beyond the goal, there might be one or more wish list items. Basically, the person you support might be hoping to have space for an additional usage. However, if the space is a total disaster, sometimes you are unable to determine if that wish can be met until organizing is underway. Jot down those items and do your best to make them work.
Find out if the space includes sentimental, confidential or important items that you might need to keep an eye out for. It will save you the headache of digging through the recycling or trash later on.
In addition, since some of those items might be personal, there could be a level of involvement that's needed on your principal's part. I have seen this many times when it comes to photo albums and scrapbooks. Be sure to book time in their calendar in advance if this is the case to ensure the project keeps moving along on schedule.
While you are in the information-gathering phase, you will also need to gather details to determine how the person you support is hoping the space will be organized. For example, if you are organizing a closet, is the preference for some clothes to be stored away (ex: winter sweaters) or do they want everything out? Do they want everything to be on hangers do they prefer to have some clothes folded? Ask as many questions as you can and get granular. It will help you to refine your piles and make sure everything is put away exactly as they envision later on.
This is the messy stage. The piles will be different depending on the space, but there will most likely be the following general piles that you will be working with:
The "trash/recycle" pile is pretty self-explanatory, however, I want to give a few words of caution. Keep an extra watchful eye out for items that might seem like trash to you but might be important items to the person you support (see the above "Important items" section above). Add those items to the "to ask" pile if you are unsure. Also, if there's an item you are sure is trash but has confidential information on it, consider using a shredder.
When it comes to the "donate" pile, find out if the person you support needs you to keep an inventory list for tax purposes. Before you drop off the donations, show them the list to double check there isn't anything on there that they might have wanted to keep if they didn't have time to scan the pile in person.
The "to sort" pile is the star of the show. This is where all of your granular questions from the "Details" section above will help you to make the most optimal piles based on the information you gathered. Often times it takes a moment to get into the groove but once you get a flow going, this can be such a fun stage! As you sort you might revisit piles that you had already sorted and do some refining; it's all part of the process.
Finally, the "to ask" pile is another obvious one. I do want to mention that this is one that you might also revisit a few times. As you get in the groove of the "to sort" pile some of the questions might end up answering themselves so the pile might end up shrinking itself.
Once your piles are complete you can start strategizing or physically move the piles around the space (depending on how large they are) so you can plan how everything will be put away. Some items will be ready to go as is (ex: books in a bookshelf) but some items will require additional containers to keep the items better organized.
Think outside the aisles
It's time to hunt for the right container, which can be fun! The best thing to do is to measure the size of the space and the items that need to be contained and to not limit yourself to the room you are organizing. For example, I have found the best general containers for one person's kitchen in the closet section of the Container Store (they were supposed to be shoe boxes). You don't even need to go into the store, though; I'm a huge fan of the Container Store, and one of the reasons for this is because of their online chat. You can give the rep the measurement of the ideal container you are looking for and they help to narrow down the options for you; it's such a time saver!
I am a huge fan of labels! Not only do they make it easy for everyone using the space to find things but they also help to maintain the organization that has been set up. Even though I mentioned I'm a fan, I do think they look nicer when they are out of direct sight. For example, when they are placed on a shelf or tray on the inside of a cabinet (instead of on the outside of a cabinet).
It's great to get a space in top shape, however, there's no point if it's going to go back to its old disheveled state in just a matter of time. It's important to talk to the main person (or people) using the space to get a complete understanding of how it is used so you fully understand the flow. Once that's known, do your best to establish systems to maintain its organization. Typically an inbox system can be used as a catch all, although don't think of it as a typical rectangular inbox tray that you see on someone's desk; think outside the box (literally). I'll paint a picture. If you are organizing someone's mudroom, for example, maybe the family's shoes pile up on the floor and there needs to be an "inbox" for the shoes. You could find a lovely bin or shoe rack that fits in the space that is easy to use that will solve the pile up problem.
Sometimes little tweaks will need to be made down the road to the organization of the space and established "inbox" processes as uses of the space change over time. Change is part of life and the way we use spaces changes as well. Keep tabs on the flow and see if new piles pop up, items seem to start rearranging, and any other signs that the space needs to be revisited.
Taking on the task of organizing a space can seem like a daunting task at first, however, once it's broken down, it can be quite fun. Giving a space a makeover not only makes it look better but also can help the person you support to be more efficient and maximize that particular area. I hope these tips help you to remain calm and feel the sense of satisfaction that any completed organized space brings!
What is the biggest organizing project you have had to tackle? Please share in the comments below!