In this episode, I speak with Ellia Harris, a mindful organizing and productivity coach. Through her company Mindful Organizing, she works with professionals who are stressed by their messy homes, and balancing work and family. Working either virtually or onsite, she helps them figure out what lifestyle changes to make so that they feel confident juggling their busy lives.
As an international speaker, her expert topics are mindful goal-setting, creative problem-solving, clutter-busting, and productivity. Ellia is a member of the NAPO (National Association for Productivity & Organizing Professionals) and is a member of the NAPO Education Committee.
In this episode
We talk about:
- Knowing your organizing style – are you an “inny” or an “outty”
- Setting priorities for organizing and focusing on what’s important for success today
- Marie Kondo-mania – do you really have to get rid of most of your stuff to stay organized?
- How to get your kids involved in the organizing process
- Ellia’s top tips for getting and staying organized
Connect with Ellia
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JM: Hi Ellia. How are you?
EH: Hi, Jenn. I’m good. Thanks so much for having me on your show.
JM: I am so excited to talk with you. You and I had connected through Facebook. I had the pleasure of meeting you the last time I was in Seattle. I find what you do to be so interesting and so useful. You are the founder and owner of Mindful Organizing. Tell me a little bit more about what you do within your business.
EH: Sure, I’d be happy to. I’m an Organizing and Productivity Coach. Essentially, what I do is I work with professionals who are stressed by their messy home, their scattered brain, or their project deadlines. I help them intentionally clear the clutter from their home, their head, and their happiness areas so that they have more time, peace, and results in their life.
JM: I love that. How does that translate then? Because I mean, I can understand, if you saw my pantry and my closet, all that applies at home – does that apply in business as well? Do you have people that have you come into their business and work with them?
EH: Typically, what I do is work with business owners – people who run a small business. I don’t do a lot of on-site business organizing although I’m capable of doing that. I actually prefer working one to one with business owners because I think the experience is so much richer for them.
JM: That’s really cool. How did you get into this line of work? How did this start for you?
EH: That’s a really interesting question. I seem to have stumbled into my careers in different ways throughout my life and I came to a point where I was really tired of working for other people and I thought, “What are the things that I’m good at and that actually give me joy as well?” And I decided that they were things like helping teams to solve problems – because in a previous life I was a corporate trainer working with teams. I was also doing executive coaching so that’s one-to-one coaching with people. The third area that I really liked and was good at was project management, how you basically put the jigsaw puzzle together so you get a finished product at the end of a project.
I realized that not only did I enjoy those things, but I’m good at them, and it suddenly dawned on me, “Oh, yeah, people get paid to do this as professional organizers.” I researched it and I just went into it straightaway. I’m the kind of person that trusts the process whatever I decide. I just trust that the right thing’s going to happen, that I’m going to land on my feet and go with it. That was over four years ago and no regrets at all.
JM: I love that. How do you describe what you do to somebody? So mindful organizing and productivity coach. When we talk about coaching, I think sometimes we can sort of imagine that maybe it’s just somebody who’s telling us what to do or giving us the instructions for us to go carry out.
EH: The way I look at coaching first of all, is that it’s my goal to bring the knowledge out in somebody. A lot of times, the knowledge already exists, we know what our preferences are, we know – maybe not consciously – how we work best. My job as a coach is to help people discover things about themselves that they don’t already recognize and I do that through asking questions. I also do it through education because we’re taught how to organize in school and if we’re lucky, we had parents who were good at this and we picked that up from them. But oftentimes, it’s just a skill that nobody bothered to spend time on. So there’s a bit of an education process and there are so many aha moments that my clients get. It’s just some of the basic education that I give them.
I want to talk about mindful organizing because I think that it’s a concept. It’s very comfortable for me because I think it adequately describes what I do but for new people listening to this, let me give them some guidance in what I mean by mindful organizing. First of all, mindfulness works similarly with meditation but the concept of mindfulness is about noticing and being aware, without any kind of judgment, about what’s happening right now, not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. When we’re mindful, we deliberately engage our senses and our curiosity. Oddly enough, this capacity to be open – even if that experience is difficult – does actually seem to reduce stress in us.
So when I talk about mindful organizing and productivity, I describe mindful organizing as being aware of your surroundings and how you interact with them, and mindful productivity in terms of being aware of how you work and whether it still serves you well. Being aware of your surroundings is about what stimulates you or over stimulates you. We can be over stimulated by the clutter in our house and we get that over stimulation reflected back into our brain so we’re constantly over stimulated. That’s one of the reasons that I say to clients, “Close your closet doors and put your things away because it will help you maintain that sense of peace.”
In terms of mindful productivity, being aware of how you work is, like I was saying a few minutes ago, understanding what your preferences are. For instance, some of us learn better by what we see – we look at charts and we understand those charts. Other people prefer audiobooks, for example, and still others need to spend time processing the information that they’re taking in to see how it fits with them in their belly. I help people work those things out.
Sometimes it just takes little tweaks to figure out what’s going to help you work better in terms of creating a system or a process for how you get out the door faster in the morning or how you get to a project with less stress.
JM: That’s amazing. There is so much more to what you do than I imagined. I mean, I knew there was a lot to it but it’s pretty incredible, it sounds like it’s a lot of really customizing to the individual and how they learn and what they need to accomplish. I have a question for you, are any caseS hopeless? I’ve not always been a great organizer, I’ve had to really practice at it. I mean, are there times where that is not a teachable skill or is your goal to just kind of continually check back with somebody or do you want them to eventually have that skill for themselves?
EH: That’s a great question. There are some people that will have trouble taking the concept of decluttering and organizing on board. They get so overwhelmed and the people that really cannot cope are the ones that generally, and I’m not saying that is always the case, will have some kind of a mental health issue. For example, we all know about hoarders. The one thing that’s been discovered through research is that hoarding is often the result of PTSD, a traumatic incident that happened in somebody’s lifetime. Now luckily we’re not all experiencing that so for somebody who’s not used to organizing, it’s a matter of practice, it’s developing new habits and there are different views on how long it takes to create a new habit. It could be anywhere from thirty times to ninety days, take your pick. It’s when that action becomes second nature, you no longer have to think about it, you no longer have to put it on your calendar to remind you.
The other thing about it is that one of the approaches that I use with clients is to say organizing is like peeling an onion. You get through the first layer and you take a break, and you get through the second layer and then you go on to the third layer. Let me give an example of what that might look like. Say you have tons and tons and tons of papers on your desk, and I know that’s not the case for you, but say, you do have a lot of papers that are disorganized. If you sort those papers into main categories, that could be things like home, business, health and then the next layer is to take one of those categories like home and separate that into subcategories like insurance, shopping, home maintenance, and then you take the next layer out of that and within the home maintenance category you decide that you’re going to put together a calendar of things that you want to do on an annual basis so that it’s like keeping your car in shape, you want to do the same with your home. That’s what I mean by peeling the onion.
JM: I love that. That’s amazing. What is kind of the length of your engagement? I know you said that sometimes it could be you know thirty days, ninety days depending on how much repetition somebody needs, do you come to somebody’s home frequently or do you visit with them frequently? What is your goal in terms of the time that it takes for them to sort of pick that system up?
EH: Sure. Everybody is different. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two sessions on-site and people are on their way, they only have one room that they need to clear and so it’s done and dusted. In other cases, on things like productivity issues, I often work virtually with people through video calls.
For example, there’s one client that I worked with last year, she’s a senior executive in an international company. She runs a family nonprofit and she recently got married and she wanted to make sure that she wasn’t dropping any balls. She’s felt a lot of responsibility to each of these areas so we reviewed her goals. I helped her figure out what her values are in relation to those goals and how to set up the medium-term and the short-term goals to be able to get to that key lifelong goal. We got together once a month through a virtual call for about seven or eight months and at the end of it, she decided that she was capable of flying on her own and that’s, for me, music to my ears because it means I’ve done my job well so I can then move on to the next person. Really, it depends.
With another client that I was doing on-site organizing with, we started with her guest room. She’s a busy professional. She’s been busy for twenty years and her guest bedroom reflected how busy she was. We had a mountain of clutter to get through. We worked once a week on site and it took a couple of months to get through that and then we moved on to the rest of her house. I worked with her for about a year and it was not necessarily every week but on average about twice a month. Because I recognized that some people need more help than others in terms of my involvement, I do offer discounted packages. I recognize that they’re making that commitment to me and to that process, it’s a little bit of a reward to give them that discount.
JM: That’s really cool that you do that. It’s funny, I think everybody has that kind of secret stash in their house where everything goes like I have that spare room too where it’s a busy week and you have company coming for dinner and that’s where all the toys get shoved, that’s where the magazines that I haven’t gone through and recycled them go. It’s where everything kind of goes. When somebody has that kind of lifestyle where you are pulled in a lot of directions whether it’s a high power career or you’re balancing caretaking, whether it’s kids and/or parents, which is my situation for a while, we were balancing multiple businesses, taking care of my dad who was living with us and two kids and it was crazy for a while.
What are your top two or three tips that you can give to somebody in that situation where you feel like you barely have time to breathe in the day let alone, for me sometimes, having the super organized Pinterest-y house, you go on Pinterest and you see like the perfect pantry and everything’s put into beautiful containers and I’m like, “That’s what it should look like,” but that is so far from my reality. What are the top few tips for somebody like me who is an entrepreneur and just feeling overwhelmed? How do you get started? Because I really know that peace and contentment that comes from having things put where they belong and being able to easily find them but it feels so challenging to get there sometimes.
EH: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great question because a lot of the people that I work with are in that situation. They have these big jobs and family responsibilities. They may also be postgraduate students, they’re doing caregiving at both ends of their family. Here are a couple of things that I would recommend. First of all, forget the past and just focus on what you can do going forward. Don’t worry about clearing that pile of magazines, you’ll get to it. If you can figure out a system that’s going to help you now moving forward, then that will lead you back to the pile of magazines that you haven’t yet been able to get through. You’re going to be building up your confidence. A lot to do with organizing is about making decisions and having the confidence that you’re going to make the right decision. That’s what can be so overwhelming for people. Don’t even think about the past, just think about what you’re going to do to go forward.
Another tip I have is comes from a book called Essentialism and it was one of the resources that I sent to you that I think you’re going to put in the show notes, which is a book by Greg McKeown. One of the concepts that he has in there is What’s Important Now, and I love the acronym, it’s WIN. What is my WIN for today? It helps me to create a to-do list for the week and then that helps me to create a to-do list for the day. It helps me to focus on what’s the most important thing for me to either just get through today or to help me meet my goals.
Something else I would say is to look after yourself, take time to look after yourself. We don’t stop as a culture to take time to sniff the roses. Make sure you plan mini-breaks into your day or at least make sure you take mini breaks and it could be a five-minute walk around the block. It could be putting music on and dancing your heart out for five minutes, listening to music and some nice symphony, one of your favorites. It could even be just staring out the window and looking at nature because nature has a calming effect on us. Those are some things that I think can help us. I always say to clients, “You’re not going to be able to help other people unless you’re in good shape it’s the concept of putting on your oxygen mask first.”
JM: I love that. I think that’s so, so important and it’s really hard especially, I feel like when it comes to organizing, it’s one of those things where I feel like I have to do it all at once and I don’t stop to take a break and I don’t think about the fact that by the end of the day, I’m going to be ready till I kill everybody around me and it’s so, so hard and I think sometimes it is that feeling too of by the time I get this room straightened out, somebody has come behind me and destroyed the last thing that I cleaned up so it feels very self-defeating sometimes so I love the idea of really prioritizing some things as being the most important things for success today and making sure that you’re giving yourself those breaks so that you’re not completely losing your mind like I do sometimes. I have a question for you, are you familiar with Marie Kondo? She’s got the Netflix show and she comes in and helps to organize.
EH: Oh, absolutely.
JM: I’m curious what you think about that because on one hand I think we are this very consumerist culture sometimes and I think there is more awareness around minimalism and upcycling and recycling and purchasing things used instead of new. But I wonder sometimes if that isn’t sort of too extreme a philosophy where people are like, if this doesn’t bring me extreme joy, you think it and it moves on, where do you kind of fall on that spectrum? I mean, do you strive for minimalism with your clients? How do you help somebody decide when they have too much and it’s time to thin it out and then when is that thinning out process done?
EH: It’s interesting that Marie Kondo comes from Japan. Because of that, you’re looking through the lens of: the culture of homes there is that people live in much smaller spaces than they do here in the US. Our homes are so much bigger even in modest terms compared to some cultures and Japanese homes are very small, they don’t have space for a lot of clutter so that’s the background to all this. At the same time, I think that we have a natural tipping point, each of us, for what is enough and what is too much. The concept that she uses of what sparks joy is one approach to how to decide what to keep and what to discard.
Every organizer works in a different way. I tend to use terms like, “Does it still fulfill a purpose for you? If you didn’t have it, how difficult would it be to replace it? Can you get this item online or do you need to keep this piece of paper?” It’s also about what people prefer. For example, in organizing terms, people are either an innie or an outie. What I mean by this is that if you’re an innie, it means that you prefer not to see the visual clutter, you want everything behind doors, indoors, you don’t want to see it out. An outie, on the other hand, needs to see things so that they’re reminded that they have to take their medication, that they have to return a book to the library, that they have to do this project so they need those visual cues.
JM: That is totally me. It’s so funny, I’m a little bit of both.
EH: I want to come back to something that you said a moment ago because you actually brought up a good point that I was hoping I was going to be able to weave into this. You were saying that you almost burst into tears when first of all, you spent your day organizing and you just want to throttle somebody at the end of it and I get that. Then the other part of that is that somebody comes up behind you and destroys it all. So I wanted to raise this concept of working with kids and the rest of your family because as I said, we’re generally not taught how to organize. This is a great teaching opportunity for kids to help them make decisions and get them involved in the process and make a game out of it and have them to get involved in their own organizing. I would encourage that.
JM: I am curious, since you have really kind of put the fine point on dealing with kids and making it fun, which, oh, I sure try, but I have a child who struggles with executive functioning skills and for a long time I thought it was that he’s weaseling out of cleaning his room and it’s difficult, I mean, I have a lot of guilt about it after working with our therapist because I mean, yes, they do want to weasel out of cleaning their bedrooms for sure, but more often than not, the bigger issue at play is that with executive functioning skills, which there are many, but in our particular situation, it was not being able to think about the endgame and then kind of work backwards like I think as adults that we sort of developed the scale where it’s like, “Okay, I have this end outcome I’d like to get to,” and I know that I want the floor clear so I can see the floor, I want all the Legos picked up and put on one spot like I can see that but he cannot. He can’t sort of figure out what are the steps and in what order do they need to go.
What suggestions do you have when working with somebody that has that situation? Because try as we might to make it fun sometimes it just isn’t because he’s really struggling with step one, step two, step three. How do you deal with that when it comes to helping somebody get organized?
EH: Yeah, good question. I’m going to talk in general terms because I don’t know the specifics of your son’s skills. I would say focus on what he’s good at and what he enjoys and try and find a way of bringing that into some of the tasks that he can do, so choosing something that you know he’s capable of and that doesn’t cause him stress. There’s a concept in organizing of starting with a low-hanging fruit, the things that are easy. Start with the easy things and then build up from there.
Another thing too, is that kids learn from watching, so as much as you are able to model in what you do in terms of your organizing, your kids will just naturally pick that up as well.
JM: I love that. That’s really, really great advice. Let’s switch gears just a little bit, I am curious to hear more about how you grew your business. We got a little bit of a history on how you developed sort of all of those different skills that are required to be good at what you do. What are some of the challenges or frustrations you have had in growing your business?
EH: Yeah, sorry to chuckle there, I knew what was coming. Oh, no – I have to re-live all of this stuff!
JM: It’s everybody’s favorite part of the conversation.
EH: I’ve given this some thought because I knew you’re going to ask me. I think that if I was going to talk about three challenges, one would be how to balance the joy of being my own boss with the other side of that which is that I can’t do everything and therefore I have to outsource some things, which means that I have to do my due diligence and I have to trust my gut when it comes to choosing the people that I’m going to use externally to support me. In most cases, it worked well, in a couple of cases, it did not. I regret those decisions but you learn from your experience. I see those instances as learning experiences.
The other thing is that I’ve come to trust myself when I need to decide it’s time to turn to the experts, I trust that I’ve made the right decision that yes, it’s correct that I can’t do this myself and I do need to bring an expert in. Or to own up to the fact that I’m just avoiding it, that really I do have the expertise to handle this myself. I know what I’m doing, I may not consciously know what I’m doing but hey, I studied this stuff long enough, I should be able to do this so let me test that theory. I might make some mistakes along the way but probably what I do is going to be good enough and good enough is a phrase that I use with myself and with people who I see are tending towards perfectionism because we can continually get caught up in that, “I need to learn more. I need to research more. I need to make sure that I’m making the right decision.” We don’t have that much time in the world so we just have to get on with it and trust ourselves to make that decision so I have to know that I am enough.
JM: That is fabulous.
EH: Then the third thing is that I build credibility. It’s hard to build credibility on a shoestring so I’ve been doing that by sharing my story, by sharing my expertise and doing that through blog posts and Facebook posts and wonderful interviews with people like you and doing public speaking and working with the contacts in my network. I’m just kind of spidering out and doing the things that I know I can do well. I am focusing on my strengths, I have weaknesses and those are the things that I can farm out to people so that’s how I manage it, that’s how I’ve been managing it and so far it’s working.
JM: It’s great insight really because I think so many women entrepreneurs can relate to a lot of what you just said and I think, I really love that you said learning to trust yourself because that is hugely important. I think it’s a great way to start working on imposter syndrome. I was just watching a documentary last night that talked about, I think it’s Dunning-Kruger syndrome, I’m sure I’m saying it wrong and somebody will let me know when they listen to it, but Dunning-Kruger is when somebody knows very little, they give themselves a lot of credit for knowing a lot, they’re very confident in their position and then those of us that have been studying something for a very, very long time and really are the experts at it, for some reason we just kind of go down this rabbit hole and feel like there’s no way that we’ll ever know it all, it’s imposter syndrome, we feel like we’re a fraud, we’re a fake. I think so much of overcoming that is to realize that you can trust yourself.
For me, personally, I have suffered from severe anxiety and a lot of it is around my career. There’s definitely some in my personal life but there’s some around my businesses and I finally had to get to a place where I’m like, “Okay, you’ve been doing this since 2005,” had to talk with myself, “Self, you’ve been doing this for a very long time and you’ve never let yourself down, you’ve never let a client down, you’ve never knock on wood, you’ve never missed a deadline,” there are all these things that you sort of like look back at the evidence for being able to trust yourself and I think that is such a key foundation to being successful as an entrepreneur. I really appreciate you sharing that insight. I know it’s always a little scary to talk about those challenges but we talk about it because so many people feel that way and it’s good for them to hear from somebody who’s been successful in what she’s doing and knowing that they’re not the only people that feel that way.
Ellia, it has been pleasure talking with you. Can you tell us how people can reach you? Because I think that people when they hear this are going to want to reach out and learn more about getting organized, such a valuable skill.
EH: Thank you. I really appreciate it. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can go to the website mindfulorganizing.net and contact me that way. I’m on Facebook: Mindful Organizing USA. Facebook gave me that name so they recognize that I’m going to rule the US market.
JM: I love it. It’s a good sign.
EH: Also, a little giveaway, if you go to the website, you will see a pop-up box and you can sign up to receive a copy of My Secret to To-Do List Mastery. That will come up every day if you miss it the first time.
JM: Fabulous. I just jotted that down. We’ll make sure that we have that in the resources in the show notes. Make sure that you visit Ellia at mindfulorganizing.net and there will be a pop-up so that you can get to her, it’s called My Secret to To-Do List Mastery, that’s awesome. We will make sure that’s also in the show notes so if you’re doing other things, you don’t have to stop what you’re doing, you can head over to brandwithcatalyst.com and you can get the show notes for all of our episodes.
I, of course, would love to hear from you as well so if you’re poking around on the website, be sure to head over to the contact page and drop me a note, I’d love to hear from everybody. Ellia, thank you for your time. I appreciate it and for sharing your expertise.
EH: Thank you, Jenn. It was really insightful. I love the questions that you asked and I’m happy to take questions from anybody as a result of this podcast.
JM: Fabulous. Thanks, Ellia.
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