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Home Organization: Cleaning Your Home Through Responsible Consumption With Amanda Sullivan
I am super excited to have a special guest on the show, another fellow professional organizer. Her name is Amanda Sullivan. Welcome to the show, Amanda.
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Amanda is coming on from Manhattan and we are both trying not to freeze our butts off because we are in New York, in the tundra. I want to go ahead and welcome you to the show. Thank you so much for being here. I want to let everybody know that Amanda, besides being another organizer since 1999, is the Founder of the Perfect Daughter: Chaos Control. She is also the author of Organized Enough: The Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting-and Staying-Organized which we’re going to chat about. You live in Manhattan with your husband and your three children. How old are your kids, Amanda?
The oldest one is nineteen. He’s not around so much. I have fourteen-year-old twins.
Are they boys or girls or one of each?
One of each.
Let’s talk about that. I have a five-year-old son and a seventeen-year-old daughter. How are you handling these twins at fourteen?
With all the wisdom I gained from my now nineteen-year-old. It’s a lot about anti-perfectionism and letting go. My work and my personal life have a lot of relation to one another. Breathe, have faith, don’t be too controlling.
I feel like that’s so funny that you said that because I’m starting to learn how to let go of some of my control with my seventeen-year-old but I’m not going to lie, it’s hard.
It’s hard but sometimes they rip off the Band-Aid for you.
I find it fascinating because despite the fact that I’m organized but my husband is not, each kid is totally different and unique. I used to say my older son was pretty organized for a boy. My younger son is neat. He’s not perfectly neat. He’s a fourteen-year-old boy but there’s methodicalness to him. My daughter is super creative and when she was little, she would gather from all over. I’d say to my son, “It’s time to put away the toys.” He’d put all the Legos back in the Lego basket. I’d say it’s time to clean up to my daughter. She would throw herself down and sob. I’d look and I think, it’s much harder for her because on this doll stroller she has a doll, my evening bag, a whisk, her brother’s Lego, she spent the entire game gathering from all over the house. It was much harder to put it away. She’s super creative. They’re all their own people.
It’s good practice for clients, right?
That’s right and vice versa.
You started your business in 1999. I started my business in 2001. We’ve been doing this for a long time and so much has changed. One of the things I was cracking up, I have to tell you this, on the back of your book, Organized Enough, it says, “You don’t need a sock drawer that brings you joy or a kitchen that looks like it came out of a design magazine. What you do need is to be organized enough to feel in control and serene.” I totally relate to that. What cracked me up when I read that is how much things have changed in the twenty years that we’ve been in this industry. When I read that statement, it reminds me of this whole debate over Marie Kondo and everything needs to bring you joy. People are also comparing themselves when you said about the design magazine, we’re looking at perfect pictures every day because of Pinterest and Instagram. Let’s talk about that. What’s your take on how far we’ve come? Has it gotten better or worse for people?
People are looking at all these images on Pinterest thinking their houses should look like that, but those images aren't real. Click To Tweet
When I first would tell people in the playground that I was an organizer, they’d say, “Labor union.” Now, people know what I do. People say, “Do you work with Hoarders? Have you been on TV?” People get what I do. Honestly, when I started doing this, I thought I’ve made it up. I didn’t think it existed. Marie Kondo is a great yardstick for jewelry, tchotchkes. Why keep a tchotchke if it doesn’t bring you joy? Your screwdriver, your car seat, that’s the perfect example. Does it bring you joy? No. Would you have a tragedy if you didn’t use a car seat? Maybe. You have to keep the car seat but it’s changed. When I was young and all the girls were starving themselves and they said, “Don’t even look at Vogue. It doesn’t help you,” it’s the same thing. People are looking at all these images and thinking their houses should look like that but those images aren’t real. I’m sure you’ve been on those photoshoots where I organize the garage but outside of the frame of the picture, there’s still a whole other pile that is either going to go back or it’s not really what they show you on the photo shoot. The photoshoot is unrealistic. It’s a myth. We need more realism.
Don’t you feel like we try to show this Pinterest-perfect world? Everybody’s getting exhausted from doing that and they’re starting to become more real. We’re starting that beginning of the next climb up the hill where we’re going to say, “We’re done being perfect and we’re going to start showing the real side of everything, whether it’s wearing no makeup and taking a selfie.”
I always have had that aesthetic. The more I’ve done this, the more I’ve become an environmentalist hippie because I feel like I’ve thrown so much stuff out on behalf of my clients. We try and try to give it away. Sometimes, a client will look at me and she’ll say, “I can’t make another trip to the Goodwill. Can we throw some of this out?” It’s hard when people are going through 40 years of clutter. It’s exhausting. At a certain point, does the Goodwill can even get rid of all this stuff? I am practicing trying to help the clients on the other end. How do we not take so much into our life? How do we change our habits so that we consume more carefully and more responsibly? How do we say it’s okay if something is weathered? Does everything have to look completely new? I grew up in the ‘70s, so there was a weathered aesthetic that was okay. Now, you just throw it all out and buy new. I feel sad about that.
It does make you definitely more of environmentally-aware. I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t know where to give it besides Goodwill or Salvage.
They become pickier. Mostly, I work in Manhattan where they have a lot of rules for storage like wood furniture because of bedbugs. They don’t control how much you can bring because people tend to bring a shopping bag at a time. I’ve worked for some clients out in New Jersey where they were very strict about what you could bring because people would come up with trucks. They’d move and they’d load up a truck and try and dump it all on the thrift store and the thrift store couldn’t handle it. When the thrift stores don’t want your stuff, we’ve got a problem.
Out of curiosity, as a professional organizer for several years, what do you think the answer is to getting the right things in the people’s hands that the people that need it the most? I constantly am saying there’s no reason in this country that anybody should go without. I see how much stuff that’s sitting in the closets, attics and basements.
There are a couple of things. Sometimes people think, “I should sell this because I spent a lot of money on it.” I say, “Take a week. If you can sell it in a week, sell it. If you can give it away in your neighborhood listserv, that often works better, so give it away. If you can’t give it away there, then take it to the thrift store,” which is tricky. There are some places like Dress For Success, there are organizations in the city and all over that take your old bridesmaid’s dresses and use them for prom dresses for low-income kids. I was talking to a friend who’s a social worker and she says, “First of all, it’s so cheap to go to Target and buy stuff for somebody who’s moving into new housing. Second of all, they feel much better if they’re moving into their first house that’s actually theirs to have some actual new stuff, not just everybody’s secondhand cheap stuff.” It’s complicated and I don’t want to say you’re poor so you have to have the cheap China. I’m a hippie so I should have cheap China. It’s a tricky question but I do think you have to look. Again, there’s exhaustion when it’s years’ worth of clutter. If you can get on top of it. Sometimes I’ll say to clients, “Let it all go to the thrift store now and then going forward, you can be more careful about taking that to textile or cycling, that to electronic recycling, that to the housing works and that to Salvation Army.”
In your book, you start out with chapter one talking about Go With The FLOW. The first part of FLOW is forgive yourself. The FLOW stands for Forgive yourself, Let stuff go, Organize what’s left, Weed constantly. The first is to forgive yourself. I want to talk about that. What we’re talking about is these perfect images and all of the things that have happened in this industry growing to show behind the scenes. Has that made so many people feel like this is supposed to be easy, they’re supposed to be able to do this in their sleep? Is that part of the forgiving yourself?
It predates that. I’ve been doing this for a while and a lot of my clients are older, so a lot of my clients aren’t on any of this media. A lot of women struggle with perfectionism. I have male clients too but I’d say that my female clients are more riddled by the problems of perfectionism and they think they should be doing it right. A lot of times, there’s perfectionism that’s getting in the way like, “I should be keeping these papers and this file the way my father told me to in 1940.” The world has changed but people are still hanging on to ideas about saving paper and documents from a different era or perfectionism about how they look and the shoes that have to match the bag and this thing that we don’t do so much anymore, at least not in Manhattan. Forgiving yourself predated the Instagram thing and it will go on. Some of my clients are so hard on themselves. They live in New York City. Most of them are pretty successful and they will speak about themselves in a way that you would think that they were living on the streets from complete failure because they don’t understand their inability to conquer this problem when they are so successful in so many other areas.
The fact that you work in Manhattan, I know that means you work with a lot of people that live in smaller spaces. I’m just wondering because it’s funny how a lot of times people want bigger homes and then they fill it up with more stuff so the story goes. Is it easier for people to live in a smaller space now? How can you be pickier about what they keep?
When the thrift stores don't want your stuff, you've got a problem. Click To Tweet
There is a way in which living in New York City keeps you honest because even if you have a very big for New York City apartment, it probably doesn’t have an attic or a basement. You have to call the organizer before things get too bad. I’ve occasionally gone to a house in the suburbs and thought, “I could spend a year here because there’s so much stuff in the attic or the basement.” It keeps you more honest but people clutter and sometimes there’s a logistical problem to it being so small. If you have so much stuff, it’s hard to even box it up. It slows us down because the stuff that’s going out to the thrift store becomes an obstacle in the middle of the living room or whatever. That’s challenging but it keeps people more honest. Sometimes when people moved into a bigger apartment before they had kids, they didn’t really have a plan. When people move into a tiny apartment, it makes them think about, “What’s going to go where?” Whereas when they move into a big apartment, they’re like, “I’ll throw this in this closet.” Ten years go by, and now there are three kids and there’s no rhyme or reason to any of the closets even though there are plenty of closets. Sometimes, a smaller space makes you more conscious.
I can see that for sure. That leads me to my next topic I want to discuss and it’s a simple one for getting organized but it’s an important one to mention. You talk about it in the book, Organized Enough. It’s the power of one. I see that a lot. You mentioned in the book how a lot of people are keeping more than one of something and when you narrow it down, you’ll always know where that one is. Let’s talk about that.
There’s this idea like it’s everything. One time, I remember I thought to myself I’m down to my last hair elastic, I should get some more. It was summer. I was busy all summer long for three months. I knew where that one hair elastic was because I only had one. You keep track when you only have one. I also see it with papers. I would have clients thinking, “I should make a copy and put one in X file and one in Y file.” I say, “No if you can’t remember, look into files. It’s better to just have one because otherwise, you’re expanding how much volume of stuff you have, whether it’s paper, hair ties, black sweaters or whatever.” I really believe in less is more. It often comes from fear too. “I have to have two in case one breaks,” alarm clocks, whisks, or whatever it is. I say, “Don’t be so frightened. You won’t die if you don’t have an alarm clock for a day. You won’t die if you don’t have a whisk for a day.” I have people to try and live with less.
That goes into the fears you mentioned in the book, fear creates clutter, which is absolutely true. You talk about the fear of waste, the financial fear, the fear of relocation, the fear of not being able to find it again, which is so funny, fear of needing it again. There are so many fears that do create clutter. What do you think after all these years doing this? Where’s all this fear coming from and how do you work with clients that are facing the fear? What is your best piece of advice for those that are reading?
First of all, identifying it as a fear and saying, “That’s a fear.” Is it a rational fear? Can you call the accountant and find out how many years they think you should keep your back taxes because you need to keep the return forever but you don’t need to keep all the other stuff forever? Sometimes, we’ll do that. How many years do you need to keep your retirement fund statements and all these different things? I asked them and we went through and looked at the fear and sometimes, it’s more emotional and less rational. We could talk through it and they can say, “I can see your point and I can’t let go of this, but maybe I’ll let go of that.” I can’t get all the way there, but I can get them a little bit further and to look at the fear.” Often, what happens is the first time I’m with a client, they’re very resistant and they’re very nervous and then they realize they didn’t miss anything, nothing changed. Everything was okay. They didn’t need to be afraid. They’re much more willing to let go the second time.
I see that too. We can provide as professional organizers freedom from that fear. Like the one example you just gave about the taxes, once people know the facts that fear don’t play and they have more freedom but a lot of times they don’t know. You’ll be teaching them.
It’s education and also there’s so much more paper. Their parents may indeed have kept everything to do with their taxes forever and ever but they had much less paper. Our world has become so much more. I give my clients little tips. FLOW is not only an acronym, it’s also a metaphor. It’s this idea of things that come in and things that go out but everything comes in and goes out on a different schedule. There are certain papers that might go out once a year. What is your trigger? I talked in the book about habits and a habit needs a trigger. When you do your taxes, is that also a good time to get rid of various other papers that you are holding on to for a little bit but you really need to keep even if they aren’t specifically tax-related? What’s your trigger to get rid of your old insurance policy when the new one comes? Getting these into FLOW so that things are coming in and you have a time at which they leave, whether that’s in a week for the school fair notice that’s on your fridge or in seven years for your backup taxes, whatever it is.
It’s a very good point. Knowing these simple little tips and tricks that will stick in your mind is what keeps you organized throughout the year. On page 29, I’ve been thinking a lot how you mentioned that we rush to make money. We rush to buy, we rush to organize our possessions and then we start over again. You say it’s like being on a hamster wheel, which I 100% agree with. We’re working so hard to make money to buy more things and when we get these things, it doesn’t always bring us happiness. It just brings us more work and more stress and it takes up more time and space. Now, we’re starting to understand that. It’s better to face our fears and let go of some stuff in order to gain the valuable things in life. I feel like that was a really good way that you put it in the book. Do you want to speak about that?
The first half of the book is ways of thinking about clutter. That chapter is about slowing down and trying to be more present and more conscious because it’s almost like eating junk food and you’re not even thinking about it. You’re not even tasting it. That’s how our consumption is now, so I want people to be more careful. I try to throw up roadblocks. Can you say you’re only going to buy stuff made in the USA? Can you say you’re only going to buy stuff that that doesn’t need to be dry cleaned? It’s whatever bar that you want to put up. It’s you put an obstacle to shopping because it’s too easy with the internet and you can do it so quickly. You get this little rush, but then why? There’s this slow-food movement about food that’s grown organically and then you cook it slowly instead of everything popping in the microwave and slug it down on the way to practice. I’m into this idea of can you be more conscious? Can we have less but better? Can we be more conscious consumers? I’m not saying you can’t buy anything but slow it down and think about it rather than making it that it’s almost like a reflex.
You’ll be more intentional if you stop and even spend 30 minutes thinking about what you want in your life to look like and writing down a picture of that, a vision of that. When that client goes on, comes up with the Google search bar, whatever you’re looking at, you’re not just clicking the button. You’re like, “That doesn’t go along with my new intention or the new vision for my life.”
Go with the FLOW - forgive yourself, let stuff go, organize what's left. Click To Tweet
I forget which some blogger that did a thing on don’t buy anything for 24 hours, just put it in the shopping cart and go away. Nine times out of ten, you’ll be like, “I don’t really need that.” There’s a great book called A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy that I mentioned. She was in debt. She’s an artist. She decided to draw something every time she wanted something. She painted a picture of it and wrote about why she wanted it. It was like, “I think this dress reminds me of a dress I had when I was sixteen and it was great summer. That’s why I’m attracted to this dress.” She didn’t buy it as she made this beautiful artwork out of all the things she didn’t buy. It’s so great because sometimes, “Why do I want that? Why do I think I need that?” You don’t really. I also am big advocate for myself of going into the store to try on clothes because what happens is if you order them online, you get them and it was so easy. Maybe they don’t fit quite right but they’re fine. You go into the store and you’re looking in the mirror and you’re like, “I could do better and you don’t buy it.” Whereas once they’re in your house, it takes more effort to return it. I say, go into the store and you’ll buy less than the first place.
I 100% agree although you have a lot of good options where you live.
This is where the perfectionism can play your way. None of the jeans look good enough when I’m in the store. Therefore, I only have two pairs of jeans.
I’m feeling it a lot lately. It’s so funny. I was at a clothing swap with a bunch of girlfriends. We usually do it once a year. It’s so funny how I seem to have better luck doing that because I’m around stuffs so much that when I go shopping, I’m not excited anymore. To get myself to purchase something and pay for it, I won’t even like it in six months or a year. It’s not worth it to me. The clothing swaps are something that we have fun with. We get sick of our clothes but we like each other’s clothes. It’s a win-win.
Clothing swaps are great and that whole idea is great and also into the more meaningful thing, we’re coming up to Christmas time and I believe in this idea of can we give experiences rather than stuff? Can you ask grandma for a museum membership instead of another plastic toy that maybe they’ll play it with for a couple of weeks if you’re lucky and then we’ll add the landfill? What can we do to make it more about experiences and can we make things, can we go someplace special together rather than having more and more stuff?
I talk about that all the time because as the grandparents pass on, these are the memories you’re going to have. I have no recollection of any Christmas presents I got from my grandfather that passed away. I only think regularly about the memories and we need that when we have grandchildren in our lives too. Let’s wrap up with a couple of things. What’s the biggest blessing of this career path that you’ve chosen that you didn’t even see coming?
All my clients are so interesting. I love all my clients. They are the yes people. They’re creative people. A lot of them are very aesthetic, they have great design sense. I just love spending time with them and being close and getting to see the insides of their lives. There’s another blessing in that a lot of my clients are a lot more affluent than I am. I get to see if the grass is never ever greener. They have different problems with their teenagers and kids that I have with mine. We all have problems and their stuff is more expensive but everybody has too much stuff. It’s a challenge for all of us. There are so many blessings, not to mention all the technicalities of getting to control my own schedule and all that. I love what I do. I’m happy when I go to work. I’m happy to help people. It’s fulfilling. I always tell my kids when they were little and I’d help them clean their desk and they’d resist, I’d say, “People pay me money to do this and they’re grateful and you’re getting it for free and you’re whining.”
I’ve got to 100% agree with everything you said. In my opinion, it’s the best job in the world. One of the things that you said is so true and everybody needs to hear it. The grass isn’t always greener and just because you might have better cars, a nicer house or better paying job doesn’t mean you’re necessarily happier. We’re all trying to find our piece of contentment in this world. We’re all on the same page when it comes to that. Tell the audience where they can find you if they want to learn more about you or if they’re in the Manhattan area.
The easiest way is to go to my website, which is ThePerfectDaughter.com. I also have The Perfect Daughter Facebook page. Down at the bottom of my homepage on the website, you can link to my Twitter and my Instagram. That’s easier than listing them all. I send out a weekly newsletter which people love because it’s different things I’ve been thinking about organizing. The 314th is going out so if you like one, there’s a whole lot more to come.
I’m sure there are a lot of amazing organizing tips. I thank you for being on the show, Amanda. I wish you the best with your business and with your book. Keep up all the good work out there in Manhattan. Thank you so much for being on the show.
You’re welcome. For everybody reading, I hope you have a wonderful day and that you enjoyed this episode. Take care.
- Perfect Daughter: Chaos Control
- Organized Enough: The Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting-and Staying-Organized
- A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy
- The Perfect Daughter Facebook page
- Twitter – Amanda Sullivan
- Instagram – Amanda Sullivan
About Amanda Sullivan
Amanda Sullivan is a Professional Organizer, Founder of The Perfect Daughter, and author of Organized Enough: the anti-perfectionist’s guide to getting- and staying- organized. Amanda has been creating order out of chaos since the seventh grade when she tackled lockers and desks before dreaded inspections.
After college, she segued from working for a temp agency to organizing the temp agency. In 1999, she went into the organizing business full time, founding The Perfect Daughter: Chaos Control. She has since helped hundreds of clients, from hoarders to celebrities.
Amanda has appeared on Good Morning America and Living it Up with Ali and Jack with Jack Ford and Ali Wentworth Stephanopoulos. Her advice has appeared in national print magazines such as Woman’s Day and Fit Pregnancy, as well as on popular Web sites such as Next Avenue and About.com.
Amanda also leads workshops on de-cluttering to try to empower more people to let go of clutter and embrace her Organized Enough philosophy. Amanda lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
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