With her 35-year crusade, organizational guru Pam Young has made it her mission to declutter the world.
Pam Young is a reformed slob who used her own domestic challenges to create a career out of helping other people become organized. In her opinion, every family (usually) gets one born-organized child. The others typically struggle with completing even the simplest of domestic tasks. And evidence seems to support this theory, when you consider that according to a 2010 survey conducted by the administration of the ongoing Health and Retirement Study, 60 percent of people have more clutter than they want in their homes and offices. Young calls such organizationally challenged people sidetracked home executives. “They are often creative, charming, flexible, optimistic and good conversationalists,” Young explains. “These are their gifts, and they’re wonderful — but they spend more time interacting than acting.” Along with their positive traits, disorganized home executives unfortunately lack direction regarding housework, often lose track of time, are collectors of worthless items and are childlike in their love of fun and excitement. They have lots of friends — and many excuses for not completing household tasks.
At one time in her life, these descriptions fit Young and her sister, Peggy, to a -tee. That is, until their lives hit rock bottom one desperate day back in 1977. Young was surrounded by 157 moving boxes, all marked miscellaneous, and her sister had sent her husband off to work with his hair washed in Woolite and his face dyed blue with fake aftershave because she hadn’t gotten to the store to buy his usual kind. Young realized she had to take organizational charge.
With wit and good humor, she turned her affliction into a crusade, demonstrating how it’s possible to become more organized — even if it’s not second nature. She suggests small changes to your routine, such as putting one’s purse away in the same place daily, sorting mail over the recycling bin upon its arrival and setting a timer for one hour to complete cleaning tasks without distractions. To dejunk, she advises, “If it’s something you haven’t hooked up; turned on; eaten off of; covered up in; sat in or on; looked out of, at or over; mailed; watered; or read in the last year, dare to dump it!”
Growing up, Young wanted to become a minister. Today, she hopes that her work serves as a helpful sermon in its own way. Since she launched her crusade, her practical steps to organization have helped millions of people. She’s appeared on at least 100 TV shows including NBC’s Today show, Oprah and CBS This Morning. Her first book, Sidetracked Home Executives: From Pigpen to Paradise, was published in 1979 and has sold 1.5 million copies — and it’s still in bookstores after three decades. (She says, “Don’t be too impressed by that number. I’m positive that 750,000 disorganized moms bought it, lost it and had to buy it again.”) That book was followed by six others. Her latest, The Joy of Being Disorganized ($15, Good Impressions Inc.), reveals that if your house is cluttered, you’re in good company. Abraham Lincoln was a total mess. So are Will Smith and Steven Spielberg, according to Young, who offers up a list of celebrities who are disorganized, along with their secrets for coping successfully. She recalls the time that Katie Couric pulled Young aside before the Today show to say that she once borrowed a friend’s coat to wear home. Later, she wore the coat while walking her dog and eating a chicken drumstick. Finishing the drumstick, she put the bone in her coat pocket so the dog wouldn’t get it. A year later, her friend called to ask if Couric still had the coat. She took it to her, never thinking to check the pockets. The friend called after discovering the dried-up leg bone. When Young left her purse behind after a TV appearance on Oprah, Oprah herself visited her hotel room to return it, confidentially admitting that she, too, struggles with being a slob.
So, how do you know if you’re organizationally impaired? One way is if your kitchen and bedroom functions aren’t confined to a specific room — food is eaten in more than one room, clothes are in more than one room, etc. With an office, this could be that the “to be filed” pile hits the ceiling, the “to do list” is on five different sheets of paper and old Post-it notes cover every inch of a desk and computer screen.
In her latest book, though, Young says that being disorganized is actually a gift. She explains, “So you had six kids and only planned two. When you sit at the table and see those four happy extra faces, it’s time to celebrate!” When Young got organized back in 1977, she wanted more playtime. She wanted to be a happy homemaker with a peaceful, clean home who made enough money to do what she loved to do, such as talking on the phone with friends and regaling them with her humorous take on life. “When I took that first step out of the pigpen, I questioned my zeal. Now I know I was energized because I was committed to getting organized for the right reasons,” she says. “I knew I’d be happier when the laundry was done and the dishes were clean and put away. Having a home that was 10 minutes away from being able to invite unexpected guests in would make me happy because I’m a social animal.”
Remembering her days as a divorced mom, she also wanted to inspire kids to keep their rooms clean. She created the House Fairy (www.housefairy.org) based on the premise that if kids adore Santa Claus and are extra good around Christmastime, why wouldn’t a loving, grandma-type fairy inspire them to be good year-round? In a mile-high white wig, Pam plays the House Fairy via Internet videos to an audience of almost 20,000 families. If children follow the Official House Fairy Rules, she inspects their good deeds while they sleep or are out and leaves a surprise (and a little fairy dust doesn’t hurt). Young offers the inspiration; parents provide the prizes.
For adults, Young suggests de-junking one room at a time. “Once you’ve established peace in that first room, take a break whenever you’re overwhelmed. Go to that room, light a candle and re-remind yourself what you really want,” she says. “It took a long time for things to get out of order, [so] it will take time to declutter. Be patient with yourself, and don’t give up.”
Looking to add a little order to your life? Pam Young offers the following suggestions:
1. Get (and use) a day planner, and wear a watch.
2. Make time to declutter. Set a timer for 15 minutes — because 15 minutes a day keeps the clutter away.
3. Put things back where they belong when you’re through with them.
4. Finish tasks that you start.
5. Never leave a room before closing closets, cupboard doors and drawers.
6. Pick it up, don’t pass it up — then put it away.
7. The real secret to paper is to never pile it — drop it into the right file or wastebasket now.
8. Ask yourself, “Would I buy this dishcloth, sweatshirt, purse, bathrobe, etc., at Goodwill?” If you wouldn’t, dump it.
9. When you buy something new, get rid of something old.
10. Choose a method for keeping contacts (i.e., in a Rolodex or contact-management system), rather than keeping business cards.
11. In deciding whether to keep something, ask yourself, “Do I use it or will I use it again? Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I have space for it? How easy is this to replace should I need it again? Is it of good quality?”
12. Pare down the historical or sentimental items in your office. Choose one or two things that mean a lot to you and stand out. Honor those rather than keeping 15 or 20 trophies or plaques.
13. Have a family filing cabinet with a file for each child. Keep doctors’ appointment cards, soccer schedules and other information there.
14. Keep only this month’s and last month’s issue of each magazine — past issues are available at the library or online.
15. According to behavioral scientists, it takes about 21 days to establish a new habit. If it’s not a habit for you to get a good night’s sleep, that’s where to start.
Carolyn Campbell has written more than 800 articles for publication such as People, Ladies' Home Journal and Family Circle