Pretty Neat

The Buttoned-Up Way to Get Organized and Let Go of Perfection


By Alicia Rockmore

By Sarah Welch

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Negative self-image. Fantasy-induced overspending. Marital tension. A new kind of airbrushed concoction is wreaking havoc on homes and psyches, and Sarah Welch and Alicia Rockmore have a name for it: org porn. It’s in magazines, coffee table books, advertisements, and TV shows, promoting a perfect — and entirely imaginary — world in which everything is always pristine, serene, and flawlessly organized. Pretty Neat is a handbook that embraces the chaotic reality that lies beneath org porn’s glossy veneer, offering pithy anecdotes and candid advice from experts and real women alike on tackling organizational inertia. Funny, irreverent, entertaining, and helpful, the book covers all facets of clutter-control, from tried-and-true tips for conquering to-do lists and wrangling family schedules to ideas on excavating inboxes, eliminating excuses, and delegating housework. Most importantly, Pretty Neat insists that women need to stop holding themselves to impossibly high standards, and focus instead on defining their own, realistic organizational goals. Full of engaging examples from everyday women, Pretty Neat offers readers unorthodox, surprisingly simple methods to reduce their org porn–fueled stress, insisting that perfection is impossible — and unnecessary — in this messy, unpredictable world called real life.


For Gardiner, William, and Lachlan—I love you infinity.
For Adam, who is always there and supports me in everything I do.
To Lucy, who is the shining light in my life and an amazing young girl.
I love you both so much!

Negative self-image. Fantasy-induced overspending. Marital tension. A new kind of airbrushed concoction is wreaking havoc on our homes and our psyches: a little something we like to call "org porn." What is it? Well, we define org porn as that glossy, airbrushed fantasy world where everything is pristine, serene, and perfectly in order, sort of like Playboy, but with chore charts and name-plated cubbyholes. It's everywhere you look these days: in magazines, coffee table books, advertisements, and TV shows. And when consumed in excess, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, binge spending on organizational products, and even marital discord. We have interviewed hundreds of women on the topic of organization and an astounding 80 percent of them feel they fall well short of the mark when it comes to getting organized.
Don't get us wrong, gazing at beautiful images of meticulously organized rooms, perfectly displayed collections, color-coordinated closets, flawless family schedules, pristine kitchens, tidy mud rooms, and picture-perfect work spaces can be titillating. There's a reason we call it org porn! But when it becomes the primary standard by which you measure your own general state of organization, it is unhealthy. An airbrushed land of perfect organization cannot be sustained in this messy, unpredictable world called real life.
Chasing perfection fuels something we call "organizational inertia," a type of paralysis that makes it virtually impossible to get started. All too often, the most difficult part of getting organized is knowing where to start. If perfection is the objective, that paralysis makes sense. Keeping your house, work, and schedule magazine-ready requires a superhuman effort to achieve and constant superhuman vigilance to maintain. The goal of getting organized isn't necessarily to have everything picture-perfect, but rather to eliminate inefficiency so that you have more time to do what you actually want to do.
Instead of holding yourself to an impossible org-porn standard, we advocate ditching perfection and instead focusing on why you want to get organized in the first place. Remind yourself that org porn is merely entertainment and an escape that few, if any, actually achieve. If it helps you, use those org-porn images to focus on the benefits you are trying to achieve: calm, efficiency, etc. Once you are clear on the real objective, then you are free to define your own rules for achieving that goal (and what that will look like for you).

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself."
Rosemary Biagioni has a cherubic face, sparkling eyes, and a zest for life. She works full time as a finance director for a start-up in New York, runs a household single-handedly, and somehow never misses a beat in the lives of her two sons, Sergio and Nicholas. Interestingly, she only considers herself moderately organized.
She's not alone.
Cindi Leive, the glamorous-in-a-totally-approachable-way editor in chief of Glamour magazine, juggles a lot: a high-octane job, motherhood, marriage, friends, family, and charity work. When we asked her if she'd be willing to be interviewed for this book, Cindi noted wryly, "I'm not sure I can contribute anything useful. I think I might be more of an organizational 'before,' than an 'after.'"
We heard the same thing from women everywhere we went: "I wouldn't really consider myself super organized. Are you sure you want to talk to me?" Angela Harris, busy mom of two, joked, "People think I'm organized because I juggle things. But my car, my gym locker, and my office tell the real story."
Even those who described themselves as very organized, even anal, were quick to point out their flaws and shortcomings. None felt remotely qualified to have their organizational tricks held up as examples of what to do.
Why on earth, we asked ourselves, did these women feel their "imperfect" ways left them short of the mark organizationally? Perhaps it's because perfection has been held up as the gold standard when it comes to organization. We think it's high time for a new standard of organization: an imperfect one.
What does it mean to be imperfectly organized? Foremost, it is a mindset. It means making a conscious decision to let go of the notion that everything must pass inspection by the organizational police, and instead permit yourself to keep the gears of your life turning in your own unique way. Even if it involves shortcuts and a little messiness that might horrify your mother or mother-in-law, the goal is to have enough structure in place to avoid missing important things, yet remain limber enough to handle the inevitable curve-balls that get thrown your way. And unless you have enough time to make organization a full-time job, you'll need to embrace shortcuts and imperfect approaches to getting organized. Remember, organization is not an end state, it's an ongoing fact of life—a process. Color-coded family schedules, name-plated toy cubbies, and pristine closets are nice to have and even nicer to look at in books and magazines. But if you don't have them, it doesn't mean you're not truly organized. Imperfect approaches to organization work. The tips we've collected are straightforward enough to be useful to almost everybody. And even better, they've been road tested for effectiveness.
As you read this book and begin to formulate your own definition of successful imperfection, keep these questions in mind:
• Do I feel at peace when I think about the activities and belongings in my life?
• Do I waste energy worrying about things that might not get done?
• What am I sacrificing in order to complete a particular task? Time? Money?
• Why is it important to get this done?
• How would I feel tomorrow if this task was still not completed? A week from now? Six months from now? Why do I feel this way?
When it comes to getting organized, there is only one thing that matters: your own sense of having it together. Focus on defining what that means to you.


In spite of protestations to the contrary, we were sure that women like Cindi, Rosemary, and Angela used a great deal of intelligence in their approaches, however haphazard those might appear. How else could they be leading such rich, full lives? We had a hunch that, at least subliminally, they and the hundreds of other women we interviewed had embraced the concept of imperfect organization. In other words, they knew which organizational battles were worth fighting and how to shortcut their way to success. As Rosemary puts it, "I just try to live by the credo, 'Don't major in the minors.'"
Person after person we spoke with had novel yet highly effective ways to cut organizational corners, saving precious time and energy. A lot of people were sheepish about the imperfect nature of their solutions. But while they often traded picture-perfect outcomes for functionality, their imperfect ways of getting things organized were anything but short of the mark. Here is a sampling of great ideas we heard from people like you.
A Pretty Neat Tip
When it comes to filing complex things, like tax prep stuff, accountant Susan Bachtelle has an imperfect system that seems to work perfectly. "I think there's a tendency to over-filing, which can actually cost you more time in the long run. I have one hanging file for tax documents, with two manila subfolders: one for income/expenses and another for deductions. I put the hanging file in the very front of the filing cabinet so that it's the first thing I hit when I open it. That makes it easy for me to throw my receipts into the appropriate folder throughout the year. It's so easy to deal with, I don't procrastinate on filing. Then at the end of the year, I'm set."


May Kamalik has a down-and-dirty way of dealing with paper clutter. "I have a hutch desk with a top that closes, so you can't really see what's inside. It's where all the mail and paper clutter get dumped: magazines, mail, coupons, gum—you name it, it goes there. It's a disaster. But I shut the top and it magically disappears. Every Saturday morning, I wake up with a cup of coffee and clean out as much as I can. If it gets to the point where the top won't close, I'll devote a few hours to thoroughly cleaning it out."


Angela Harris takes a less than perfect approach to organizing family photos, but it works. "Someday I'll create incredible photo albums; let's be clear that I haven't let go of that fantasy completely. But in the interim, I have created a simple solution, although it's not exactly the most cost-efficient. Everything is digital now, so I order pictures electronically in really big batches—it could be six months to a year's worth of photos at a time. I also order a few easy, slide-in photo albums at the same time. Then, when I'm watching TV, I'll slide photos in and get them done. As I said, it's not cost-effective or particularly beautiful, but I've let go of that. What counts is that we have albums we can pull out and look at."


Liz Gruszkieviz has three children—a toddler and twin nine-year-old girls—the requisite mountain of toys that accompany them, and rudimentary rules for keeping them somewhat corralled. "We have a finished basement, which is where the toys really should be. But you can't really expect kids to confine their play to one area. I keep a big basket in the living room, but it is always overflowing. When it gets really bad, the girls help me schlep everything back downstairs. In addition to the toy baskets upstairs, I have a rule that no new toy can come into the house unless two other toys go out. The only time that gets tough to enforce is birthdays!"


Marci Miller gets around her tendency to create piles with something she calls the One Look Rule. "I totally rely on the One Look Rule . . . look at it and then take care of it. Immediately. No ifs, ands, or buts. Because I know if I stick it in a pile, I won't ever get back to it and the pile will just sit there forever, mocking me."


Rosemary Biagioni long ago gave up the fight against what for many is an Achilles' heel—the daily onslaught of mail. "I can't have mail and stuff like that cluttering up my counters. That would make me nuts. But it's relentless." Rosemary uses a perfectly imperfect approach to dealing with it, but on her terms. "I switched to e-statements for all of my accounts, and I pay all my bills electronically, so I never have to worry about those getting lost in the shuffle. I also put two bins near my front-door mail drop. The first is for magazines and catalogs and the other is for mail. If I see a letter from school, I'll open that immediately. Otherwise, I don't feel guilty about going through the two big baskets only once a month when I have the time and energy to plow through them."Her approach, she admits, is not beautiful, but it works."Somehow, when it's all contained in those two baskets, it doesn't bother me in the slightest."


Many moms—particularly those with more than three children—develop a healthy acceptance of their kids' messy rooms. Marie Adele Dennis, mom of six, put it eloquently: "To function well, I really need my space to be orderly. But once my kids were older than two, I was able to accept that their rooms were a total disaster. It was their space. If some of their clutter invaded my space, I didn't argue with them about it. I just put it in their room and closed the door." Eileen Opatut, an outgoing television executive and mother of three, told us, "I grew up in a perfectionist household. Now that I have teenagers, I have a different state of mind—if nothing is growing in their rooms, I just shut the door. The kids are much more willing to clean up, especially if I don't force them. All the mess used to make my blood boil. Now I just let it go."


It is liberating to let go of perfectionist goals that once drained you of energy and goodwill. Amy Hill, mom and full-time lawyer, used to compare herself to her friends, each of whom seemed to juggle a million and one obligations and keep a perfectly organized house without breaking a sweat. That is, until she realized she was being too hard on herself.
"One day, I walked into a friend's house and realized that her House Beautiful home was that way in only three rooms. All the toys, junk, and clothes were shoved away behind closed doors in the back part of the house. She wasn't totally together, but she was an expert in hiding the flaws. That was the turning point for me. It was so therapeutic to realize I didn't need to stress anymore over the fact that I wasn't measuring up."
Many women we interviewed have let go of things that used to make them crazy, like imperfectly folded clothes or messy children's rooms. But they are often unclear on just how they arrived at that aha! moment of realization that they needn't hold themselves to a perfectionist standard. For the majority of women we interviewed, it seemed to have happened gradually and subconsciously. Marci Miller, a lawyer and mom of four children, ages five to thirteen, struggled with feelings of organizational inadequacy. "I never made any progress, and I always felt guilty and bad about myself. I just didn't know where to begin to get everything together. One day, and I'm not sure exactly when, I simply surrendered. It was a turning point, and it felt great not to try to be perfect. I found it was okay to let people see my chaos. My friends, it turns out, are also a lot less organized than I thought they were, and that bonded us together."
Most people think they have to wait for aha moments to come to them. But that's not necessarily the case. You can speed up the process with two exercises.
Imagine you have only thirty minutes a day to get everything done. Grab a sheet of paper and quickly write down what you would do during that half-hour time slot.
Don't think about it, just write—make it stream of consciousness. When you are done, examine the list. What is on it? What is not? More than likely, this is a fairly complete list of what matters to you and can be the first step in letting go of the rest.
Sometimes, a little distance from a problem is the key to insight. Others in your life may have a better perspective than you on the scope of what you do to stay organized. Interview a few close friends and family members and ask them to step into your shoes. What would their priorities be if they were you? What tasks would they let go of? This very simple exercise may help speed your aha moment of becoming imperfectly organized.
Having an aha! moment is a crucial step toward embracing imperfect organization. By "aha!" we mean a moment of insight in which your intellectual and emotional centers simultaneously "get it," enabling you to let go of opposing thoughts that once caused tension and stress (such as, "I'm too busy to get x, y, and z organized, but I'm a failure if I don't get x, y, and z organized"). Aha!'s are the key to change. When you have one, you can let go of previous beliefs that once held you back and adopt new ones that will carry you forward in a more positive way. As a result, you're rewarded with a rush of relief and a general lightness of being.


Remember Amy Hill, the busy attorney who experienced her aha! moment insideafriend's not-so-House-Beautiful home? Her first clue that she needed to redefine her view of organization came when her son, Lincoln, was born. "As a new mom, I couldn't do it all," she admits, "but I had trouble figuring out what to let go of from my old life. It took me a few months, but I realized there were things I could live without, like having a clean car all the time, and things I could not give up, like my workouts. It was a bit of trial and error, but over time I got there. My list is not static. If I have a trial to prepare for, things fall by the wayside for a few weeks. That's okay because I get to the important things eventually."
You certainly don't need to wait for a major life event like having a child to reevaluate your own definition of organized, but you do need to take a structured approach. Our goal in this section is to help you define it in a way that will enable you to do a better job of managing the things you love to do, not do more organizing. Taking charge may feel strange at first—old habits die hard. But it is worth the effort. It's tempting to define organizational solutions tactically, such as "set up a filing system" or "get toy bins." But unless you take the time to (1) identify your real organizational issues, (2) understand the root causes of those issues, and (3) consciously arrive at a clear understanding of a "good enough" goal, you're likely to fall back into your old habits. Take a few minutes to do the three exercises below, which are designed to help you do just that.


Think about the way you organize the important things in your life. What works well for you? What needs just a small tune-up? What needs a complete overhaul? Write your answers in a list like this.
MealsOfficePersonal time


For each of the areas you listed under either the Needs a Tune-Up or Needs an Overhaul column, take a moment to articulate what you think being organized should look like. "Shoulds" are, by definition, part of your problem; the very word should implies that someone has expectations of you.
Understanding that you are working to someone else's standard can be illuminating. Consider where that should came from. Your mom? Images of others' homes? Magazines?
OfficeNO papers on the desk, important things filed away, pens and pencils in holder, books in bookshelf next to desk vs. on desk.Mom, my fantasy (probably inspired by ors porn)


Now, take a deep breath, accept that life is messy and unpredictable, and embrace your vision of imperfect organization. For each of these areas, outline what you really need to do (versus what you think you should do) for a problem area to cease being a problem. While you're at it, outline some actions that can help you attain that good enough goal.
DeskOnce a month give it a clean slate.Set a recurring 45-minute appointment in your calendar for the second Thursday of every month. Use that time to give your desk a clean slate.
Once you have set your good enough goals, do not apologize to anyone for the shortcuts you take or the chores that might not get done.


Just because you've decided to let something go intellectually doesn't mean it will be easy. Take Rebecca Saliman, for example, a hyperorganized middle school teacher from Los Angeles who grew up in an immaculate home. When she moved out on her own, she instinctively adopted her mother's definition of organization.
"From when I was a little kid, my mom taught me that everything had to have a home," she explained. "Our house was so orderly, no item was ever 'homeless.' She was famous for tossing the newspaper before any of us kids had even rolled out of bed. I remember spending many Sunday mornings digging through the trash bin looking for the comics. Gross! Back then, it definitely felt like my mom was extreme, but now that I'm an adult, I find myself behaving the exact same way without even thinking about it!"
Although she admits it wasn't easy, Rebecca learned to let some things go and is beginning to accept organizational imperfection on her own terms. "Papers are a huge pet peeve of mine, but here I am in my home office, staring at a thick pile of paperwork just begging to be filed. I see it, and I say, 'I'm a teacher, and summer will be here soon.' Instead of obsessing about the massive pile, I can work on more important things, like tomorrow's lesson plan."
Rebecca does two things well. First, she has a mantra. Every time she looks at the pile, she says to herself, "Pile, I see you, and I am ignoring you for now." It's a conscious decision on her part, one that acknowledges there is a problem that will be addressed at a later date. The second thing she does well is set a time line: "I have a summer to-do list and that pile is on the list. I tell myself, 'summer will be here soon,' and I mean it. If I were ignoring it forever, that would stress me out, but if I know it will get done in the near future, then it's fine with me."
A Pretty Neat Tip
Once you start embracing imperfection you will find that certain things may still try to claw their way back on to your to-do list. Reward yourself for making progress. Get a glass jar with a lid and each time you resist the urge to do something you have agreed to let go of, put a dollar in the jar. After a few weeks, use the money in the jar to reward yourself. It is a simple but important reminder that by embracing imperfection and NOT doing something, you are saving yourself time, and time is money.
Overcoming the perfectionist model you learned as a child isn't easy, and there will always be a voice—whether it's your own or somebody else's—pointing out the flaws in your approach. The trick to sticking to your plan without guilt or feelings of inadequacy is to own the imperfections in your approach. That requires a little advance planning.


We often struggle with accepting an imperfect mind-set because we are afraid of what others will think of us. They may think we are not good mothers, wives, or women if we suddenly stop striving for perfection. We need to stop doing things for others, believe in who we are, and let go of the devil on our shoulders. This is very simple to do.
Meet: Juju Chang
Family: Married mother of three
Occupation: Anchor, ABC News, Good Morning America
Q: What does "being organized" mean to you?
A: Well, my whole life is what I like to call organized chaos, and that's best represented by the little piles that are all over my house (not just my desk). I have one pile of bills; some paid, some waiting to be paid. Another pile of school forms; some finished, others not. And so on. I put sticky notes on them with the deadline so I know when I have to get it done by, and as long as I'm not late, I consider myself to be organized.
Q: You are such a champion of the "imperfect" on GMA. It sounds like you're that way when it comes to organization too, which is great. What was your aha! moment?
A: I wasn't always comfortable with imperfection. I was always the kid who needed to be graded. I was the one striving for that "A," first in school, and then later I transferred that to my work. But in real life, there is no one grading you but you.


On Sale
Oct 26, 2010
Page Count
184 pages
Seal Press

Alicia Rockmore

About the Author

Prior to co-founding Buttoned Up, Inc., Sarah Welch spent half of her career as a New York advertising agency executive and the other half as an independent marketing consultant and entrepreneur, working with agencies like J. Walter Thompson, Ammirati Puris Lintas, and M&C Saatchi, before striking out on her own in 2000. She also co-founded Mindset Media, a growing internet media company. Sarah has a BS from Georgetown University.

Alicia Rockmore is a self-proclaimed organizational maniac who seamlessly juggles a fast-paced career and full home life. Prior to co-founding Buttoned Up, Inc., Alicia worked as a CPA, then marketed well-known brands like Wish-Bone Salad Dressing, Ragu Pasta Sauces, Total Cereals, and Wheaties. Alicia received her BA from Claremont McKenna College in economics and her MBA from the University of Michigan.

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