Monday, July 21, 2008

What Makes an Effective Organizing System?

Tip of the Week, July 13, 2008

For the past few weeks, we've looked at what causes clutter and how to develop a decluttering mindset. This week, let's turn our attention to one of the next steps in the organizing process: creating systems.

An organizing system is anything that helps you contain and control something: a filing system for papers and information, a kitchen drawer for gadgets and cookware, a calendar for events and To Dos, and so on. Each system involves more than just a container to hold things and labels to let you know what's inside. In fact, there are seven components to any effective organizing system. Here's a brief look at each one.

#1: Location
Location may not be everything, but in terms of organizing, it's definitely important. One of the main components of any organizing system is a location that makes sense based on the types of things in your system. Simply put, your goal is to store things close to where you use them, and to clear each space in your home or office of the things you don't use there.

#2: Categories
In any organizing system, whether for papers, kitchen gadgets, clothing, electronic files, or garden tools, you're likely to have more than one kind of thing. Dividing things into categories (for example, in a closet, short-sleeved shirts together, long-sleeved shirts together, pants together, and so on) helps keep similar items together, making them easier to find and put away; it also helps make the system more refined and effective overall.

#3: Guidelines
Related to creating categories for the stuff within any organizing system is establishing guidelines for what goes in each category. If, for example, you've set up a filing system with categories that include Auto, Banking, Insurance, and Legal, you'll then want to decide what belongs in each of those folders. It's a good idea to write down your guidelines once you've decided on them so you'll remember what you came up with the next time you need to get something from the system or put something away.

#4: Containers
Containers alone are not an organizing system, and simply buying containers won't make you organized. That said, having the right containers is an important step in creating an effective organizing system. The containers you choose for each system should hold what you need them to hold, fit the space in which you're using them, and be easy and painless to use (that means no bins whose lids are impossible to pry off and none of those ancient metal filing cabinets whose drawers need to be opened with brute force!). I very strongly recommend not buying containers until after you've sorted and weeded so you can be fairly sure you have an accurate sense of just how much stuff you need to store.

#5: Labels
Labels provide signposts within an organizing system, making it easier to find what you're looking for. In addition to creating obvious labels--such as those on file folders--also consider labeling things like drawers and cabinets in the kitchen (this drawer holds potholders and towels; this one holds utensils), sections of your closets, areas of the tool storage system in your garage, and so on. Labels are especially helpful if more than one person is using an organizing system.

#6: Understanding and Skills
An understanding of an organizing system, and the skills to use it, are important components of any system. To understand why, think of trying to unload the dishwasher at a friend's house and put things in their proper homes. If you didn't have an understanding of the organizing systems in your friend's kitchen, you'd probably need help getting things put away.

If you're using a system you've created, chances are you have the necessary understanding and skills to make it work for you. But if others in your home or office will also be using the system, or if you need to use someone else's system, be sure everyone has enough info to use the system effectively.

#7: Habits
Finally, keeping an organizing system running smoothly requires developing a few habits around using the system regularly and making sure it's up to date. Even the most detailed, finely organized filing system won't stay that way if you don't get in the habit of using and updating it.

Habits are one of the most critical--and often one of the most overlooked--components of any organizing system. Stay tuned for next week's Tip to find out why, and to learn how to integrate organizing habits into your life with as little pain as possible.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Develop a Decluttering Mindset

Tip of the Week, July 6, 2008

In last week's Tip, we looked at four of the main causes of clutter. For the next few weeks, we'll focus on how to tackle clutter by changing your way of thinking, creating effective organizing systems, and developing habits that will help you stay organized over time. We'll start this week with techniques for developing a decluttering mindset.

Changing your thinking
Organizing goes far beyond physically dealing with stuff; it also involves learning to think about your possessions and your space in a different way. Our natural instinct is often to gather and hold onto things in abundance, because, from the standpoint of evolution, humans have learned over time to stock up when the opportunity presents itself. Those who have lived in times of shortages, such as the Great Depression or World War II, know firsthand what it's like not to have enough.

In modern times, though, it's unlikely that most of us need to have or hold onto as much stuff as we do for reasons of survival or because there's any real danger that we'll find ourselves suddenly without basic necessities like food and clothing. Clearing clutter from your life, then, begins with shifting your thinking away from "I need to keep this thing because I might need it someday" and toward "Is this indeed something I really need to keep?"

Use, need, love, find beautiful
One way to start seeing your possessions in a different light is to require that everything in your home or office earn the right to be there. How does an object earn that right? By being something you use, need, love, or find beautiful. Things that don't meet at least one of those criteria probably aren't worth giving your space, time, or attention.

  • Use: This is perhaps the most straightforward category. We can all identify things we use on a regular basis, and that are therefore obviously worth holding onto: the pots and pans we cook meals with, the bath towels we use for drying off, the electronics that keep us connected to others and to the world, the clothing we wear to do whatever work we do. But what to do with those things that serve more specific purposes or are for particular occasions? (Think holiday serving pieces, fancy-dress clothes, and that 10-piece set of matching luggage.) Be realistic with yourself: if you haven't used these items in a year or more, chances are you won't use them again; if you have used them, feel free to keep them around, but be sure they're not hindering access to the stuff you need to get at regularly.

  • Need: The stuff we need might not ever actually be used, but it's stuff we'd be wise to keep around regardless. For example, we all hope we'll never actually have to use our past years' tax returns and supporting files, but the IRS requires that we keep them around. And here's hoping none of us ever needs an earthquake, flood, fire, tornado, or other emergency kit; still, it's a smart idea to keep one on hand.

    Be careful, though, of falling into the "I might need it someday" trap when determining what to keep around. Will you really need that collection of wrapping paper bits and pieces, that stack of newspapers, that bag you haven't used in five years, the empty photo album you've never gotten around to filling, that half-burned candle, that bulging file of magazine clippings, those out-of-date catalogs, or those clothes that went out of style before the dawn of the Internet? I bet you won't.


  • Love: The things we love aren't necessarily the same as those we use or need. For example, I have a tiny milk pitcher from the old Boston and Maine Railroad that was given to me by my grandmother, who herself inherited it from her father, a true train aficionado. I don't use it to pour milk, and I certainly don't need it, but I love it: it connects me to my grandmother, who has been a strong force in my life, and to my great-grandfather, whom I never knew. Holding on to things we love allows us to honor connections like these, to put our mark on our spaces, and to keep our lives vibrant and interesting. Be mindful, though, of overusing the word "love" here; I recommend reserving it for a relatively small number of things that really, truly have meaning for you.

  • Find Beautiful: Last but not least are the things in our lives that we find beautiful. These might overlap with the things we love, but they don't have to. Items you find beautiful might include certain pieces of artwork, personal photos, decorative objects, or even household gadgets. Things you find beautiful are those that make you glad each time you see them. Remember, though, that there's always the possibility of having too much of a good thing: a mantel crammed with beautiful objects will simply look cluttered, and the beauty of each of the items will be diminished. Things you truly find beautiful deserve to be displayed and treated accordingly, which means not crowding them out.

Getting into the habit of making the things in your life earn their keep will help you not only clear out existing clutter, but also prevent new clutter from accumulating. It may take some time to develop this decluttering mindset, but once you do, you may well find that staying organized is much easier and less stressful than you might expect.

Monday, July 07, 2008

What Causes Clutter?

Tip of the Week, June 29, 2008

One of the biggest complaints I hear from clients is that they're overwhelmed with clutter. It takes over their homes and workspaces, causes stress, and makes it difficult to do everyday tasks.

Effectively tackling clutter starts with understanding what causes it. Sometimes, yes, it's the result of laziness. More often, though, the roots go a bit deeper. Here are four of the main causes of clutter.

#1: Having too much stuff and/or not enough space for it
When we say that a room looks cluttered, we mean, generally, that it seems too full. It's no surprise that a small space fills up--and thus becomes cluttered--much more quickly than a large space; the amount of stuff that might make a studio apartment seem crammed to the hilt might not even register in a house with multiple bedrooms.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to how much stuff it's reasonable to own, so it can be difficult to know exactly how much is too much or how much is just right. One useful guideline, though, is how much space you have in which to store and use your stuff. If your rooms and closets feel cluttered, there's a good chance you're over-stuffed for the amount of space you have available, plain and simple.

#2: Delayed decisions
Getting and staying organized involves what's essentially an endless stream of decisions: what to keep, what to get rid of, where to store things, how to use each space, and so on. Putting off making these decisions can result in clutter build-up.

Let's say, for example, that when the mail arrives each day, you take a minute to sort through it, asking yourself, "Do I want or need this?" for each piece and then recycling or shredding everything for which you answer, "No." By the end of the week, you'll have a much smaller stack to deal with than you would if you didn't do this daily decision-making.

Delaying or avoiding decisions may seem tempting in the short term--after all, some of these decisions can be hard or painful to make. But in the long run, putting off decisions can result in overwhelming clutter.

#3: Fear, insecurity, and sadness
"But what if such-and-such happened and I didn't have this thing?" "I know what it's like not to have enough or to have to do without." "I'm worried that if I give up this gift from my uncle, I'll also be giving up the memory of him."

Very often, stuff is far more than just stuff; it's also security, a feeling of being prepared, a memory, a reminder, or a symbol of something much greater. Sometimes we hold onto things we don't really want, use, or need because of the fear, insecurity, and sadness behind the thought of getting rid of them.

#4: A lack of systems
Finally, if keeping clutter at bay involves, among other tasks, putting things away when you're not using them, it follows that clutter will build up if there's no "away" space in which to put things. Not having homes for things makes it nearly impossible to put them where they belong, because you have to decide anew where they should go each time you encounter them.

In many cases, my clients are surprised to hear me say that what's behind their clutter isn't an overwhelming abundance of stuff or a lack of organizing skill but, very simply, a lack of organizing systems. Once we get those systems in place, it becomes much easier to maintain a more comfortable, functional home or workspace.

Now that you know what's behind clutter, keep reading over the next few weeks, when I'll offer suggestions on how to tackle clutter and how to create organizing systems that will help ensure a more clutter-free existence.