One of the best books on writing – and life itself for that matter – is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Among the pearls of wisdom she offers in her funny, witty style, is to take baby steps. Apparently, when she was a child, her brother was facing writer’s block as he attempted to write a book report on various species of birds. He was overwhelmed, realizing there was so much to do, and didn’t know where to start. Her father advised her then 10-year-old brother to, “Just take it bird by bird.” 

Wiser words were never spoken, and not just about overcoming writer’s block. The same can be said of how to get organized. One of the biggest obstacles that people face when attempting to ‘get organized’ is that they bite off more than they can chew. They forget that it took them years to get disorganized, and that they should allow ample time to reverse the trend. If you truly want to get better organized, the bottom line is that you have to be willing to make changes in your systems and the way you are doing things (or not doing things), and you have to be prepared to act – to put the principles in place. Be ready to put in the time to make or break habits – psychologists say it takes approximately 18 days to do so. Organizing is a way of life that requires maintenance and ongoing effort until it becomes second nature. Remember that change is a process, not an event. Don’t try to change everything at once. Pick one area of your life that needs changing the most and focus on it first.

So, how do you take it ‘bird by bird’ when organizing? First, do a ‘brain dump.’ This is when you put down on paper (or on your computer, in your iPhone, etc.) every organizing problem and challenge you face, all of the tasks and activities you need to accomplish to have a more organized home, office and life, and what your organizing goals are. Next, get your calendar out, and start scheduling organizing sessions with yourself. At the very least, map out one thing you intend to do and what steps it will take to do that, then schedule them.  Even if it takes you six months of scheduling, in six months from now, you’ll be better organized.

In order to stay motivated while organizing, post your goals in a conspicuous place, especially if you are a visual person. Before and after photos also help many people get and stay motivated. Reward yourself along the way as you would with any other behavior modification program. For example, when you finish a certain portion of your organizing project, treat yourself to some stylish new organizing products, like bins or baskets (or any other dangling carrot that works for you!). Play music while you are organizing. Not only will it help you keep moving, but it can also serve as a great timer so that you don’t overdo it and spend too nuch time organizing and burn out. When your favorite CD is over, so is your organizing session. Lastly, consider working with a buddy (perhaps as a couple?) in a team/group effort (a family project?), or go to the pros and hire a professional organizer. Involving others is often a great motivator and keeps you accountable!

Where and how do you start organizing? Attack what’s visible first. For most people, this serves as the best motivator, gives them a sense of accomplishment and, therefore, offers the most ‘bang for the buck.’ Sort one section at a time, room by room. Try to finish an area, project, or room before moving onto the next. Remember, the space often looks worse before it looks better. The process of organizing is messy, as you have to pull everything out to sort, purge, and create new systems. Stay focused by making a separate box labeled “action” and tend to it later. Also, create an “out” box near the door of the room you are organizing for items that belong somewhere else in the home or work place. Do not leave the space you are organizing to go put things away!

I know it’s tempting to try to tackle the whole house, office, or your life, but exercise some restraint. If not, you will most likely be setting yourself up for failure. Trying to do it all generally leads to feelings of overwhelm and inadequacy. Then you will wonder why you ever tried to get organized in the first place, and stop trying at all. Instead, just take it ‘bird by bird.’