The Promise of an Organized Life
Shira Gill and friends offer an antidote to the overwhelm.
I feel a kinship with Shira Gill, in part because we both live in small homes with two children and pets—and also because I love to organize, which is Shira’s stock and trade. The other reason? Shira doesn’t believe you need to acquire more in order to appear like you have less—while I can self-soothe at the Container Store with the best of them, and recognize the right tool or container can help contain chaos, I recognize that like a vast amount of Americans, I already own far too much stuff. Part of the solution to overwhelm is to consume less…not to fill my car with more plastic. Shira agrees, explaining below: “The field of home organization is predicated on a culture that has acquired more than it can comfortably contain, and our collective excess has led to a range of problems including consumer debt, overstuffed homes, physical and mental stress, and an environmental crisis. Perhaps due to the significant amount of time spent culling through other people’s clutter, my colleagues universally expressed a longing for less.”is a not only a professional organizer—she’s also a Life Coach, an extra layer of training she pursued because she recognized that the things we surround ourselves with—and their quantity—says a lot about our lives. You can’t just sort and tidy peoples’ living spaces without potentially touching deeper wounds, wounds attached to belonging, status, and safety. You don’t have to watch Hoarders, or be a hoarder, to understand that we ascribe a lot of value to our things—and, in turn, our things telegraph our values.
Objects have their own energy—Shira calls it “visual pollution”—when I feel over-stirred by clutter I struggle to sit down and do creative work. Or any work at all. It’s simply too much to process, extra drag and weight on my brain. Shira can relate, offering that when every object is out and deemed important, nothing is.
Shira’s first book, Minimalista, is excellent, and her second book, Organized Living, is just as great: It’s actually ingenious. In it, Shira vists the homes of 25 of her peers in the home organizing space: Some are Zero-wasters, others are Nomads, some live in much bigger homes, some in tiny apartments—they are all full of invaluable advice for living with less.
ELISE: What led you to become a professional organizer?
SHIRA: Fifteen years ago, I turned my passion for organizing into a business because everyone I spoke to (regardless of occupation, income level, or lifestyle), was overwhelmed by clutter, and I knew I could help. As a young child, I discovered organization as an effective method of self-care. Setting up my personal space in a way that felt good helped me claim a sense of calm and control in a world that often felt broken and fractured. As a teenager, I made a hobby out of helping friends unlock the hidden potential of their spaces by editing down to the essentials and neatly arranging what remained. I saw firsthand how organizing one’s space had the power to boost confidence and clarity as well as propel people towards their bigger goals. I was hooked. Years later, when I became a mother, I embraced my own version of minimalism, one that enabled me to resist the constant societal pressure to consume without limits while still embracing all the things I love (hello, vintage denim!). When other moms asked how I avoided the clutter trap that often accompanies parenthood, I showed them. That’s how my business was born. I had no business plan, no bigger vision, and no training whatsoever—truly nothing but a strong desire to help make other people’s lives a little easier by sharing the daily practices that had become second nature to me.
ELISE: After Minimalista, what was the impetus behind Organized Living?
SHIRA: I wrote Organized Living as a love letter to the field that launched my brand, and to my friends and colleagues who show up every day and help other people get their homes and lives in order. I wanted to break down misconceptions about professional organizers and promote my belief that organizing can (and should) look different for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all way of organizing or being organized, and I knew it would be illuminating to go behind the scenes and showcase the actual homes of my colleagues from around the world—ranging from minimalists to maximalists, zero-wasters, nomads, and everything in between. I selected a diverse group of twenty-five organizers to interview, and I personally visited each expert’s home with my longtime collaborator, photographer Vivian Johnson. By featuring 25 organizers, sharing their home tours, and highlighting their tips, tools, and ideas, my intention is both to inspire people to make positive changes in their homes and lives, and to show that not only are there many different paths to get there, but many different versions of what there’s looks like.
ELISE: After all your research and conversations with other professional home organizers, is there one central practice or tip commonly shared?
SHIRA: The field of home organization is predicated on a culture that has acquired more than it can comfortably contain, and our collective excess has led to a range of problems including consumer debt, overstuffed homes, physical and mental stress, and an environmental crisis. Perhaps due to the significant amount of time spent culling through other people’s clutter, my colleagues universally expressed a longing for less. Some experts had already gone through a significant downsizing process themselves while others were simply trying to simplify in small ways, including consuming less, repairing before replacing, and being more mindful with their shopping habits. One tip that felt universal was the value of forming strong, local community relationships (neighborhood, parenting, or buy-nothing groups, as well as e-waste, creative reuse, and textile recycling centers) so that client and personal donations can go to a good cause instead of straight into landfills.
ELISE: Can you expand on the concept of “visual pollution”— how does it affect us mentally and emotionally?
SHIRA: Visual pollution is the mental overload that results from having too much to process visually, or seeing things that are out of place and distracting. Research shows that an overly cluttered, disorganized environment can inhibit creativity and productivity, and has been linked to anxiety, depression, and sleep loss—especially for women. A simple example: if you walk into a bedroom with a bed, a nightstand, and a book, there is very little for your brain to process—three things in fact. Conversely, if you walk into that same room but it’s filled with laundry, coffee mugs, stacks of paper, and piles of unfinished projects, your brain has much more to process, which can feel (even subconsciously) overwhelming. Important: I am not inferring that anything other than just the very basic essentials is clutter. Each person has their own clutter threshold, and as individuals, we need to work with our own feelings in a space and determine the exact right amount of stuff for us. Some people thrive in an environment filled with art, books, and objects (like my dear friend, Tinka Markham Piper, who is featured in the book), and others feel a more minimal environment is ideal for them. To get started, ask yourself: which items in my home are adding value to my life, and which are simply creating clutter and distraction?
ELISE: How do you recommend involving children in the organizing process in a way that allows them to appreciate the results rather than resenting it as a punishment or chore?
SHIRA: It’s never too early to get your kids involved in the organizing process, and there are so many ways to make organizing feel empowering, creative, and fun. Organizing is really about decision making, and ironically kids are often much better at this than adults! As parents, I believe it is our role to set clear and loving limits for our children, but it’s always best to give them agency when it comes to the decision making within those limits. I recommend setting up clear physical boundaries (e.g. 5 large bins for toy storage in the playroom) but giving your children the freedom to decide which items they choose for each bin. Warning: it might be a major bummer when your kids reject all the beautiful wooden toys you bought them in favor of a vat of slime—but try to just go with it! Another example: Say your child loves collecting sticks and rocks but you don’t want your living room to turn into a nature conservatory. You can help them set up a box or bin that serves as their “nature treasure box” and lives in their bedroom. They can fill it up with their favorites, decorate it, and claim full ownership over it, with the understanding that sticks and rocks only belong in the bin (and not all over the living room).
ELISE: Preserving sentimental items while maintaining an organized space can be challenging. What guidance do you offer for finding a balance between cherishing mementos and decluttering?
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