"Quarantine has led to a decluttering boom"

A pro organizer's take on a year of pandemic life at home

It has been a year. That’s a long time to be hunkered down in the same place with the same stuff. As someone with an abiding interest in humans’ material lives, I’ve been wondering: How has a year of pandemic living changed the way people feel about their things? Are we all maximalists now?

I decided to ask an expert: Heather Cocozza, the founder of Cocozza Organizing + Design LLC, a boutique firm in the DC area that works with individual, corporate, and institutional clients. Heather serves on the board of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO), and she’s a Certified Professional Organizer (CPO®).

When I was working on CLUTTER: AN UNTIDY HISTORY, I talked to a lot of people on the front lines: first responders, junk haulers, and pro organizers like Heather. She was a key source, generous with her expertise and experience. I’m grateful to her for that and for making time for this Q&A, which we did via email in early March 2021.

Read on for Heather’s insights on how decluttering and organizing can be a help in tough times, how a Zoom-ready work-from-home office is “the new business suit,” the Instagrammable vogue for ROYGBIV organizing, whether workers will ever go back to open-offices plans, and more.

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JEN: Many of us have been stuck at home—living, working, and going to school in the same place—for a year now. That puts a lot of pressure on domestic spaces. Has quarantine life led to a decluttering boom, or are people too overwhelmed just trying to get through the day/week/month/year? How busy have professional organizers been in 2020-21?

HEATHER: Quarantine has led to a decluttering boom, as shown by a two-month waitlist for charity donation pickup services and the launch of many new junk-hauling companies.

Because of the pandemic, as much as people wanted to get organized, they also wanted to protect themselves and their families for not having too many people in the home. However, with the release of the Netflix series “Get Organized With The Home Edit" in August 2020, people were incredibly inspired, and professional organizers were busy again if they chose to work in homes.

Even though the pandemic is overwhelming at times, organizing can give a sense of control that can be empowering in a tough time like this. However, many professional organizing companies [in the DC area] are still not fully operational, as sections of the DMV remain in only Phase 2 Reopening.

Lastly, many professional organizers were able to still be employed through the pandemic by pivoting slightly and redirecting their services to move coordination and unpacking to support moving, as 2020 was a record-breaking year for the U.S. housing market.

“Even though the pandemic is overwhelming at times, organizing can give a sense of control that can be empowering in a tough time like this.” 

JEN: What are the top three things—projects, particular spaces, categories of stuff—that clients want your help with? Has that changed over the last year? 

HEATHER: The top three things, which are all a change from pre-COVID times, are move preparation/move coordination (for residential and commercial spaces), Instagrammable kitchen pantries, and downsizing/donating & selling (for residential and commercial spaces).

JEN: Even before COVID, it felt like minimalism was on the wane. Newer trends like  #cottagecore and the New Maximalism celebrate having stuff rather than getting rid of it. Suddenly it's not such a bad thing to have a closetful of old craft projects and art supplies. Are we more comfortable with clutter than we used to be?

HEATHER: I will not be surprised if people go full-tilt tacky, because who cares? No one walks into our homes anymore, and after living through a pandemic, people are much less judgmental. “Decor” is what makes you happy.  Did I tell you my neighbor has a blow-up inflatable unicorn and leprechaun bigger than his house currently on his front lawn? And I actually don't care.

Yes, I know people buying green sofas and going glam.  Who knows, I might even maxi my office—just not the side people can see on Zoom. :)

Marie Kondo espouses the idea that if you declutter, you don’t need to organize, because it is so simple no systems are needed. I would say we’re not more comfortable with clutter but we’re not minimalists either.

Minimalism has never been a very realistic option for our clients. In wanting to provide long-lasting and effective solutions for our clients, minimalism was rarely ever the answer, then or now. A client might like the look but wouldn’t be able to keep it up. There is nothing wrong with a closet of art supplies, as long as it is organized, and you get Instagram bonus points if it is sorted in rainbow colors (ROYGBIV).

A post shared by THE HOME EDIT ® (@thehomeedit)

JEN: Do you think the pandemic will lead to any permanent changes in how we organize our homes and what objects we decide to keep—or to get rid of?

HEATHER: Permanent change would be work from home (WFH) space for those who's jobs remain at least partly remote. The WFH office is becoming the new business suit, so to give off a good impression to clients, you will want to keep it organized.

With regards to objects, there was A LOT of bulk buying in the beginning of the pandemic, even by professional organizers, because 1) so many thing were out of stock and 2) we were warned that the pandemic would interrupt the supply chain of getting goods, so business owners were told to stock up. It will take a long time for folks to work through the wipes, water, hand sanitizer, and masks, so these items are here to stay for a while. Establish an organized system for these pandemic products so that you know what you have.

Lastly, multi-generational housing has become a thing, along with families with pandemic-born babies becoming first time home owners moving out to the suburbs. The pandemic gave people a new appreciation for families, so I believe we will continue to help consolidate and organize multiple households into one home.

“The WFH office is becoming the new business suit, so to give off a good impression to clients, you will want to keep it organized.”

JEN: You and I have talked about digital clutter, like the thousands of family photos I keep meaning to organize. How big an issue is that for your clients? Do you spend more time on digital organization now than you used to? What's the next frontier for professional organizers?

HEATHER: The WFH model increases people's need for “digital fluency” and the management of digital files. I anticipate an increase in requests from clients to help with digital organization, because now it’s been over a year since the WHO announced the pandemic. People can sometimes keep their files organized for one year, but after that, it all starts to build up and it gets harder and harder to find their files.

JEN: You work with institutions and companies as well as with individuals. With so many employees working from home, have your business clients changed how they want or need to organize their workplaces and systems? What trends do you see emerging there?

HEATHER: Cocozza Organizing + Design has been advising clients on how to downsize, but COVID-19 has put another twist on office downsizing. The open-office concept was all the rage to increase communication and build community. One year later, we are living in a very different environment that discourages face-to-face interaction, requests six feet of social distancing, and encourages barriers.

Business owners are starting to pivot their commercial work spaces to reduce their overall office space footprint, de-densify the office space that remains, and declutter to facilitate cleaning. We have helped businesses achieve this downsizing goal COVID-19-style, through project planning, office furniture liquidation, records management, and hands-on organizing.

Even as vaccines become more widely available and the threat of COVID-19 is perhaps diminishing, many businesses are still choosing to downsize. Working from home for a year has shown them how their business might work without a traditional office and how much money they can save by doing it.

In work situations where paper files are still needed (e.g., case files, contract files), companies still have restrictions on how often and how many people can be in an office space at one time. The result of this is that paper files which are still being used need to be extremely organized, because now people need to find exactly what they need very quickly. We are still helping clients organize these files.

“The open-office concept was all the rage to increase communication and build community. One year later, we are living in a very different environment.”

JEN: What haven't I asked that you'd like to talk about?

HEATHER: Our residential clients who are seniors I think are really missing that face to face interaction in their home. Physically handling their stuff and going through it together—there is an art to it. It is somewhat intimate, and the trust has to be there.

We aim to make them feel comfortable with a task that sometimes causes anxiety or stress, and that’s a delicate task. We’ve done pretty well transitioning that to phone and Zoom, but we and our clients would both agree it’s just not the same! It will be good to develop those special kinds of relationships in person again. We miss it.


Happy pandemic decluttering, readers, if that’s your thing. And if you’re all about embracing clutter these days, I won’t judge. Keep masking up and social distancing, get vaccinated when it’s your turn, and we’ll get through this.

Cheers,

Jen

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Let it snow

An update from Fortress DC

It’s snowing here in DC, for the second time in a week. That would be unremarkable in many parts of the country, where two snowfalls in seven days is just called winter. But this morning’s fall of fat feather-pillow flakes on Capitol Hill feels like a gift. After the Capitol Insurrection of Jan. 6, after two months of attempts to steal a free and fair election, after four years of that guy and his minions, we needed a little bit of peace and beauty. The snow’s barely sticking, and it will be gone tomorrow, but it’s here now.

That’s DC’s flag, which we started flying last year as a way to keep local spirits up during the quarantine and the election. We’ve seen too many flags around here lately, hateful flags waved by and wrapped around hateful bodies. This one stands for local pride and the hope that DC’s residents will someday have full representation in the People’s House that our fellow citizens invaded last month.

The afternoon they stormed the Capitol, I walked over to see what was happening. Stupid, maybe, but I needed to see. I took this photo at 2:26 p.m. on Jan. 6. I didn’t know it then, but the rioters had already breached the building.

Behind me, a young woman out for a walk with her dog chatted with a couple of middle-aged women in MAGA hats, telling them how pleasant she’d always found the president’s supporters. Across the street, a man with an American flag wrapped around his shoulders yelled at police that THE REVOLUTION IS HERE, MOTHERF*CKERS.

There was a loud BANG up near the Capitol doors. The crowd surged. I got scared and went home.

There’s nothing like an attempted coup in your neighborhood to drive home that we’re always living through history. Fortress DC will be with us for a long time.


I didn’t set out to write about politics this morning, but the events of the last couple of weeks and months have saturated everything: the news, my neighborhood, my Twitter feed, my thoughts. (Yours too, I’m sure.)

I’d been scheduled to do a Virginia Festival of the Book Shelf Life event on Jan. 7, in conversation with my good friend the historian Meredith Hindley, but we were too rattled—it’s hard to talk about clutter when the fate of the nation hangs in the balance—so we bumped it back to the following week. If you missed it, you can catch the video here.

The Festival also did an author Q&A with me:

Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?

When I’m stuck, I like to get outside and take a walk or spend time in the garden. I probably solve more writing problems when I’m in motion than I do at my keyboard. I often listen to music when I write. What kind of music depends on whether I need to calm my brain down or rev it up. It could be anything from piano sonatas to Bill Evans to the Japanese House or The 1975 or Post Malone.

I also went on the Free Speech TV show “Rising Up with Sonali” in late January to talk with host Sonali Kolhatkar about consumerism and the ecological cost of clutter:

I’ve also recorded a couple of podcast interviews that should be out in the next month or so, so stay tuned for those (if you’re not sick of hearing me talk about clutter).


My publisher will be annoyed with me if I don’t put in a buy-my-book plug here, so please buy my book! You can get a copy directly from Belt Publishing (yay independent publishing), via Bookshop.org (yay indie bookstores), at that big place online, or at your favorite local book joint. It’s also cool if you ask your local library to carry it. Library sales are still sales.

Another great and much-appreciated thing you can do: Go on Amazon and Goodreads and say nice things about the book (assuming you like it, that is).


Beyond promoting Clutter, I am reading and note-taking and scheming and dreaming about what comes next. I’m hungry to get another book under way. Time’s a-wasting! I hate the intellectual restlessness of these in-between-writing periods, but I’ve also learned that I need them. They punctuate the process and fuel it.

And after the traumas of the last four years, 10 months into a pandemic, less than a month into a new administration that actually seems to give a fuck about democracy and about people, a pause to catch up, catch a breath, feels absolutely necessary. Then it’s back to work.

What I’m reading:

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. I read one or two of these short essays before bed each night, and while some work better for me than others (isn’t that always the way?), I love her ability to see and appreciate non-human lives and phenomena in an exceptionally humane way.

Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, by Chris Myers Asch and Derek Musgrove. This is research for a possible project. It’s also filling in serious and shameful gaps in my historical knowledge about the city I live in and what a central part it has played in the history of slavery in this country. I’m reading it in e-book form, trying out the highlighting feature on the Kindle app.

Audiobooks are newish territory for me as a reader, and I haven’t fully figured out how best to work them into my life. I don’t have a commute these days, so I listen during workouts and on long walks, with mixed results in terms of attention and absorption. I need to write about that more at some point.

Still, imperfect a listener as I am for them, audiobooks have been good company during quarantine. I just finished Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, narrated by Shayna Small. I didn’t mean to buy the audiobook; I was trying to get it as a gift for my sister-in-law, heh. But it was a happy mistake. (I kept waiting for a catastrophe that never came, though; maybe I’m just that kind of reader.)

Now I’m halfway through V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, narrated by Julia Whelan. Not a short book, but linguistically rich, with a neat setup that I want to get to the bottom of. Never pray to the gods that answer after dark….

I hope you’ve got a good book (or two or three) going, regardless of the format.

Cheers,

Jen

P.S. If you have read this far, you are my hero. Do you own a copy of Clutter: An Untidy History (if so, thank you!)? Would you like a personalized bookplate? Email me and I will happily put one in the mail to you. And, because I love you all and want my lovely local East City Bookshop to get through this pandemic, I will order a copy of the book from them for the first person who asks for one. Thanks for reading!

What We Save

Lists, leaf litter, and Thanks/giving

The last couple of years, I have been obsessed with excess and detritus, the things we need to get rid of but can’t or don’t—clutter in its many forms. The last few weeks, I’ve noticed a turn in my thoughts toward something that feels new only because it’s been so long since I felt hopeful enough to contemplate it: what matters enough to save.

I realized this week that my list of things worth saving, one of the lists I carry around in my head, has sprung to life again. It includes all manner of items small and large: tiny scraps of ideas, beneficial insects that overwinter in leaf litter (why not leave the leaves?), a damaged wooden table I turned into a sideboard for our patio-slash-old-garage-slab, American democracy, the planet. On and on it grows, this list in my head, no longer a set of rearguard actions but a sense of possibilities that point in new directions.

This optimism, if I’m brave enough to call it that in this of all years, surely has something to do with the election. I don’t talk a lot about politics in this space, but it’s often on my mind. How could it not be, these past four awful years?

The ongoing trauma of the Trump years motivated me to get more involved this time around. I’m not much of a phone-banker (talking to strangers on the phone? Hello, anxiety spiral!). Instead I wrote 105 get-out-the-vote letters to voters in Florida and Pennsylvania under the auspices of Vote Forward—a wonderful and well-run organization—and 50 postcards to voters in Wisconsin.

I loved writing these letters and cards, because I felt I was doing something that might be useful, and because to put pen to paper feels inherently like an act of connection. Ink connects to paper, words connect with readers, and the Postal Service connects a letter-writer in disenfranchised Washington, D.C. with people she will never meet in faraway towns she will never visit.

Writing to these strangers felt to me like a hopeful act, not unlike publishing a book—the hope being that the work and care put into it will make some kind of difference to somebody out there. If this sounds corny, well, it’s been a long and punishing four years for so many reasons, and I’ve given myself permission to try on a little hope and see how it feels.

It feels … good? Risky? Maybe, given how much needs fixing in this world. Here’s a photo of my living-room ceiling as a metaphor for the state of the country the last few years:

Fear not, America! We are in the midst of a full roof replacement, which will take care of the leak that caused all this damage, which will need to be repaired, which will not be cheap or easy. First things first: Stop what caused the damage.

I hope (there’s hope again) that you find time this week to do more than just contain the damage. That you save a little space for joy, carve out a little time for appreciation or just a tiny bit of relief, even if gratitude looks and feels different this year, even if you can’t share it as you normally would with the people you love. There’s a lot to fix, and a lot to save and savor.


Holiday housekeeping: Your local indie bookstore would really love to get some of your gift-buying business this season. Help them out and buy a book (or two, or three….)

Buying books directly from small and independent publishers is also a great thing to do. (My book is currently on sale at Belt, hint hint.)

And if you buy a copy of CLUTTER and want me to personalize it for the recipient, I will happily put a signed bookplate in the mail to you. Just drop me a line.

Thanks for reading, be well, stay safe!

Cheers,

Jen

Cleaning House

Time to take out the trash

What do I have to say this week, friends? What can I say, with Election Day almost here? And not just any election day, but one that has a good claim to being the most consequential election day you and I have yet lived to see.

You all have already voted early, or have your Election Day voting plans in place, yes? Good.

Be kind to yourself and take breaks from the news, from Twitter, from the generalized anxiety that besets us. Here in my house we have done what we could do. We have voted (by mail) and written letters and postcards to voters. And we have superstitiously, faithfully upheld our daily rituals:

Yes, that’s a wine glass with an engraved outline of DC on it to the right there. Democracy and my liver may not survive this election.

But maybe they will. I have hope. I hope you are hopeful too. Whatever happens on Tuesday, there will be a lot to do afterward.

Time to clean house.

I think about this scene from “The Last Action Hero” more than I probably should:


Weirdly enough—or maybe not weirdly at all, given that so many of us are stuck at home with our stuff—clutter has been a hot topic this year, luckily for me and my book. Funny to have so much to be grateful for in this clusterfuck of a year.

I’ve been interviewed for Curbed (“Your Quarantine Clutter Has a Long and Distinguished History,” by Alexandra Lange), the Guardian (“Cluttercore: the pandemic trend for celebrating stuff, mess and comfort,” by Morwenna Ferrier), and Vox (The new maximalism,” by Rebecca Jennings), about #cluttercore and the new maximalism and how the pandemic has affected our relationship with things. I just did an interview via email for the Spanish newspaper El Pais’s magazine, S Modo, proving that clutter transcends borders. (That story hasn’t run yet.)

I’m not used to being on the other side of the interview, but these conversations have been fascinating and wide-ranging and substantive. More to come, I hope.

A grab bag of CLUTTER-related links:

“Our Anxious Relationship to Stuff” (Jessa Crispin’s “Public Intellectual” podcast)

“PAWcast: Jennifer Howard ‘85 Explains the History of Clutter” (Princeton Alumni Weekly’s podcast)

“Coming clean: mess as an emotional and cultural problem,” by Beejay Silcox (review in the TLS)

“Jennifer Howard’s Clutter Is a Call to Clean It Up,” by Eve Ottenberg (review in Washington City Paper)

And, most unexpected and delightful, this wild and lovely series of collages by Brooklyn-based artist and poet Christine Hou, each based on a line from CLUTTER:

A post shared by @christinehou
October 16, 2020

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Vote, stay sane, stay safe, and I’ll see you on the other side of Tuesday.

xoxo

Jen

P.S. If you haven’t ordered a copy of the book yet, it’s on sale now from Belt. If you have ordered a copy and would like a personalized bookplate, I would gladly send you one. You can find me on Twitter (DMs are open) or at jh@jenniferhoward.com.

September Song

Launching a kid and a book into this crazy world

**Warning: Contains self-promotion.**

Hello, friends! Hope you are staying safe. We’re not even halfway through the month yet, but September has been quite a ride so far. Amazingly enough, even in the midst of the fire-ravaged, virus-plagued hellscape of late summer 2020, I have a couple of launches to be happy about, and I am hella grateful. Here goes:

Launch Number One: I sent my firstborn to college. We moved L into her dorm last Saturday, in a truncated (masked-up, time-limited) but still meaningful version of that watershed parent-child transition.

I could fill several newsletters with all the mixed emotions the move stirred up for me: joy, loss, excitement, mourning, anxiety, optimism, a keen sense of things ending and things beginning. I’d be feeling all of those things in a normal year (remind me what a normal year looks like?). This year has amplified all the anxious feelings, but also made me savor happy ones even more. As the print in my kitchen reminds me daily:


Launch Number Two: My first book is a real thing in the world. CLUTTER: AN UNTIDY HISTORY made its official debut Sept. 1.

I was a bundle of nerves in the run-up to publication, but when the day finally arrived, I felt like it was my birthday as much as my book’s. It felt … good, liberating, to see this thing I’ve lugged around in my brain for so long take tangible form, finished (enough) to be set loose in print and other formats and put in the hands/on the devices of readers.

And it is finding readers! That part thrills me the most.

Kirkus had already given Clutter a glowing pre-publication writeup (“a keen assessment of one of society’s secret shames and its little-known consequences”), and highlighted it in their fall preview of notable books. Then The New York Times Book Review featured it in their Aug. 30 “New & Noteworthy” column—the first time a Belt title has made it into the NYTBR, I’m told, but surely not the last.

So thrilled to see CLUTTER featured in the NYTBR’s “New & Noteworthy” column this coming Sunday! (Glad to see @downpourdw’s beautiful cover featured too.) #clutter #clutterbook #decluttering #NYTBR #bookstagram
August 27, 2020

This week, a Washington Post reviewer declared I’d out-Kondo’d Kondo and written “a stern and wide-ranging manifesto” on decluttering. That surprised me: I wasn’t aware I’d written a manifesto at all, much less a stern one. Readers will have to judge the tone for themselves; I promise I didn’t write the book in anger. But I learned a long time ago that books read their readers as much as vice versa, and I’m honored that the book got serious review attention in the WaPo.


The review attention helps, but my favorite response so far came via the contact form on my website, from a reader I don’t know. They wrote the loveliest note:

Although I am, like you, a child of someone with someone with tendencies toward clutter, I will definitely be recommending this book to everyone I know regardless of their relationship with clutter. Your writing reminded me of Rebecca Solnit at her best--effortlessly tying together personal narrative and overlooked histories, while also recognizing and celebrating previous scholarship in the subject area. One of the best books I have read this year.

That’s the kind of note that makes an author feel the struggle was worth it.

I’ve also been touched by and grateful for all the pre-orders, the Insta and FB and Twitter posts that feature CLUTTER out in the wild (or atop piles of stuff), the Goodreads and Amazons reviews, and the general outpouring of bookish support from friends, colleagues, and people for whom the topic resonates. You all ROCK.

Another change: I’m answering rather than asking questions these days. I’ve been interviewed for some podcasts and print things that should be out soonish, and I will be doing an online event in October with East City Bookshop. Stay tuned for details.

In the meantime, a couple of Clutter links for your perusal:

“Do we have Victorians to thank for consumerism?” (An excerpt from Clutter in LitHub)

“Discomfort can be really useful to a writer; it pushes you to experiment” (My Q&A with book blogger and author Deborah Kalb)

Thanks for reading. Find joy where you can. And don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t spent the last six months madly pandemic-decluttering your house.

I’ll leave you with Lou Reed singing Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” These precious golden days, I’d like to spend them with you….

Cheers,

Jen

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