It is difficult enough for one person to be organized and maintain that state of organization on a daily basis. Now imagine being thrust into a living situation with a person you have never met before, who is not a relative or even a friend. A person with different sleeping, grooming, eating, and studying habits, who may be from a different background or culture, and who has a different schedule and interests to boot. Enter the college roommate. When described in the abstract, the college roommate situation reads like a recipe for disaster. Yet, thousands of college students manage to live successfully and harmoniously every year with a roommate who, just days before the beginning of the semester, they had no contact with. Often times, this exercise in living is a wonderful entrance into the “real world” for college students and can serve as an example of the importance of compromise and flexibility that will serve the student in years to come.

Two such young women decided to work with a professional organizer and life coach, hoping to not only improve their living situation, but their overall lives and habits as well. Let their experience serve as an inspiration to all roommates, college or otherwise, who find themselves living in close quarters with a person they’ve never shared a space with before.

Meet Marta and Maria: So Alike and Yet So Different

Marta Anderson-Winchell and Maria Boere found out they were each other’s roommates about one week prior to heading to college. They had never met before.  In many respects, Marta and Maria have a lot in common. Both entered Pace University in September 2003 as freshman and reside on the Briarcliff, New York campus, in the suburbs of New York City. Both attend Pace on a soccer scholarship, are interested in pursuing a career in human services, maintain good grades, and consider themselves family oriented. Yet, there are many differences between the two young women. Marta not only plays soccer for Pace, but also basketball, which forces her to engage in some serious time management. Marta’s family lives within an hour’s drive from campus, which means being able to head home every two weeks to do laundry. Maria isn’t so lucky, as her family resides in Nashville, Tennessee. Maria shared a room back home with her older sister, while Marta never had to share her space before. Although in the same year of college, they are almost an entire year apart. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the two have very different habits when it comes to organizing and maintaining their space and lives.

When I first visited Marta and Maria, I was struck by how small their dorm room is, but isn’t that par for the course in college? What separates organizing a college dorm room from a traditional house bedroom is that the college dorm room must function as a lot more than just a place to sleep. If you split the dorm room into zones, you realize how multi-functional the space must be. There is the sleeping zone (bed and dresser), the dressing zone (armoire style closets), the food zone (mini-refrigerator and dry food storage), the studying zone (desk and bookshelf), and the hanging out zone (television and chair). That is an awful lot of stuff to cram into one space, but then you also need to double almost everything in order to accommodate two people. It’s no wonder college students are often disorganized – there’s too much stuff in one little space!

Maria is a self-professed procrastinator. She likes things clean but let’s the chores go until she cannot stand it anymore (sound familiar, all you procrastinators out there?). In fact, she will let her laundry pile up until she runs out of undies (if she runs out of clothing such as sweatshirts, however, she often steals Marta’s!). She admits that this stresses her out and she’d like to “change her ways.” Marta does more of the general straightening of the room on a daily basis, while Maria actually does more of the cleaning, such as sweeping and mopping the floors. Neither really likes to or has time to cook, so they usually eat in the cafeteria, but they do keep some food staples in their room (although not near the fridge, but we’ll get to that later).

Doing Better Than They Think But There Is Room For Improvement…

So how are they doing? Not bad. Not bad at all. For two people who have never lived together before, Marta and Maria have managed to figure out a way to make it work. Instead of working against each other’s weaknesses, they compensate for each other. Heck, some married couples could learn from these two! But before we give them a freshman-student-living-together-harmoniously-award, let’s focus on what can be improved.

The actual room set up and design is working. However, Marta and Maria have a huge bean bag chair in the middle of their room. When asked if either ever really sit on it, the answer is once in awhile. Do guests sit on it? Sometimes. How often do they have guests? Not that often. Thus, we discussed storing the chair under Maria’s bed where there was adequate space. That would give a sense of openness to the small room. When guests drop by, they can just take beanie out from under the bed. Interestingly, once we discussed moving the bean bag chair from its precious center room location, the two confided during a later visit that they have been using it more often! Sometimes, when faced with the prospect of purging or relocating an item, a person realizes its value and begins to appreciate it and use it. At least now, however, when it is not being used, it has a “home” to go to that is a bit more out of the way.

Another design flaw of the room organization is that the dry food and cooking supplies are stored on the sole shelving unit across the room from the small fridge. I recommended moving the food and cooking supplies to an open area next to the fridge, which is now unused space. It is a narrow space but there is a lot of room vertically. Often times, vertical space is sorely underutilized and can provide the answer to a storage problem.  So we used a narrow, but tall, clear plastic drawer unit with 5 smaller drawers on top, and 2 deep drawers on the bottom. All of the food easily fit in, as well as the few cooking supplies. Now, they have an actual “food zone.” An additional advantage to this reorganization is that it freed up the shelves where the food used to be for storing things like videos, CDs, photo albums, and their toiletry carts (the bathrooms are down the hall, which means carrying toiletries back and forth). We stored those items in pretty open wicker baskets of varying sizes with removable cotton muslin lining for ease of cleaning. The design provides easy access as the baskets are open, and add charm to the space. We used a matching, but smaller, wicker basket to store extra videos that they watch more frequently on top of the television.

The clothes inside their small armoire closets are pretty well organized. However, their shoes are actually on top of their armoires. They claim they can easily see and reach the shoes up there, and they do not want them in the bottom of the closets so the shoes can air out properly after use (remember we are talking athletes here…). One thing organizers know to do is to work “with” the client, so we left the shoes up there as the system works for them.

As for Maria and her laundry, I recommended setting aside one night per week after soccer practice as “laundry night”. Using positive association, I offered up Thursday night as she can put in her laundry before Friends begins, watch the half hour episode, and then switch the clothes to the dryer. She can then take an hour or so to check and reply to e-mail, and then fold the clothes while listening to she and Marta’s favorite radio show, the Delilah show (which they bonded over when they first moved in together and realized they were both huge fans) while winding down before bed. Using positive association will help Maria not dread laundry, but instead think of it in association with fun television shows, e-mailing friends and family, and winding down with music and perhaps a chat with Marta. Having her laundry done every week will also avoid the pile up that stresses her out and causes her to run out of clothing. She gave this a try and said it did help somewhat. I reminded her that it takes time to make new habits, so she plans to keep at it. I have no doubt she will improve her laundry situation as she is motivated to change this behavior, despite her tendencies towards procrastination.

What Does the Future Hold?

Marta and Maria plan to continue living together as roommates in their sophomore year. They already heard that they are moving to a different dorm. Their actual room will be smaller (yikes!), but it will be part of a suite with another room for two other students, and a common living room and bathroom for all four to share. I have no doubt that they will make the smaller space work, and I plan to check in on them to see whether they have been able to maintain the organized systems we put in place. And when I do, I imagine they will whip out the bean bag chair from under the bed for me to sit on. After all, I may be their professional organizer, but I am also their guest.

This article originally appeared in Balance magazine in 2003.
Copyright © 2003 Lisa Montanaro of LM Organizing Solutions, LLC.

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Copyright 2003. Lisa Montanaro is a Productivity Consultant, Success Coach, Business Strategist, Speaker and Author who helps people live successful and passionate lives, and operate productive and profitable businesses. Lisa publishes the monthly “DECIDE® to be Organized” e-zine for success-minded individuals, and “Next Level Business Success” e-zine for entrepreneurs. Subscribe today at www.LMOrganizingSolutions.com. Lisa is the author of The Ultimate Life Organizer: An Interactive Guide to a Simpler, Less Stressful & More Organized Life, published by Peter Pauper Press. Lisa also publishes the DECIDE® to be Organized blog at www.DecideToBeOrganized.com. Through her work, Lisa helps people deal with the issues that block personal and professional change and growth. To explore how Lisa can help take your business to the next level, contact Lisa at (845) 988-0183 or by e-mail at .

About Lisa Montanaro

Lisa Montanaro is a Productivity Consultant, Success Coach, Business Strategist, Speaker and Author who helps people live successful and passionate lives, and enjoy productive and profitable businesses. To receive her free Toolkit, Achieve Powerhouse Success with Purpose, Passion & Productivity, visit www.LisaMontanaro.com/toolkit. Lisa is the author of "The Ultimate Life Organizer: An Interactive Guide to a Simpler, Less Stressful & More Organized Life" published by Peter Pauper Press. Through her work, Lisa helps people deal with the issues that block personal and professional change and growth. To explore how Lisa can help you be purposeful, passionate and productive, contact Lisa at (530) 302-5306 or by e-mail at Lisa@LisaMontanaro.com.

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