Women’s magazines want us to do two things: LOSE WEIGHT NOW and GET ORGANIZED. I have some problems with this. First, we’re expected to look at widespread cultural problems as personal failings. Second, the exact same magazines that exhort us to lose weight will have frosting-covered desserts on the cover, and sell this image of ‘organization’ alongside numerous ads for THINGS to clutter up our homes. (Not to mention the magazines themselves; from the way my people hang on to old magazines, one would think they were priceless illuminated manuscripts). I’m a minimalist, both in home furnishings and in physique, but I think almost all the advice we’re fed by the popular press is misguided and ineffective. Don’t organize it. Get rid of it!
The mass-market way to “get organized” is to ADD STUFF. I haven’t had a client yet who didn’t have unopened organizing doodads and gizmos still in the package. We have no idea how to approach our excessive, disorganized possessions. That’s why there are so many books and articles on the clutter crisis. That’s also why there are entire retail chains based on drawer dividers, tubs, totes, bins, boxes, trays, and containers of every size, pattern, color, and description. I’ve fallen for the seductive call of shiny new organizing gewgaws many times. I once bought two sets of magnets with the days of the week printed on them, and I’m not sure why. I suspect these things outgas a hypnotic dopamine-stimulating aerosol.
Here’s the deal about getting organized. It’s a state of mind. We feel anxious and unsettled when we’re late, can’t find important items, and have unmet obligations. Chaos is stressful. What we’re looking for is a sense of mastery and preparedness. Just once, we’d like to get out the door in the morning and have everything go smoothly. Every time something falls through, like a late bill, an overdrawn account, an unplanned trip to the gas station or grocery store, or a missing form, it’s like an individual papercut on the brain. There truly is a difference between organized people and disorganized people. It took me about 30 years to figure out. Organized people have systems and mental templates. They can turn disaster into sense almost effortlessly. It’s not genetic. If a chronically disorganized, ADHD-natured person such as myself can learn it, by gosh, anyone can, and I’m not kidding.
The core element is to have a clear vision of How Things Should Be. Organized people keep their personal environments a certain way. It’s a tired cliché that less orderly people will move the possessions of organized people, then laugh when they immediately notice and put them back where they were. When we see order and routine as boring, OCD, or anal-retentive, we fail to see anything that organized people have to teach. Surgeons, NASCAR pit crews, CSI detectives, and top chefs are all orderly, organized people. What we’re all looking for in our home environments is a way to relax without the constant interruptions of lost, overdue, or spilled things demanding our attention. That’s what ‘organized’ means. It doesn’t have to mean everything we own is alphabetized and displayed at 90-degree angles.
What needs to get organized? The key elements are finances, appointments, information, essential daily items, and work areas. We pay bills on time and maintain a savings cushion, because the alternatives are fines, fees, bounced checks, higher interest rates, and damaged credit. That’s obvious. Everyone likes money. We manage our time so that we can get to work and appointments as agreed, because the alternatives are being late, having a reputation for unreliability, having to hear the word ‘tardy’ (and you think ‘moist’ is bad), a sense of anxiety and dread, and a karmic ripple. The benefits and drawbacks of managing things the same way we manage money and time may be a little hazier. In my mind, they are all interlocking. When our homes and desks are cluttered and disorganized, it can easily result in wasted time and money. We’re late because we can’t find things or we have to clean up a clutter-generated mess. We waste money when we have to buy extras because we couldn’t find the first one when we needed it; we’re paying for a storage unit (or two) every month; we’re throwing out spoiled food; we’ve bought things we don’t have the room to use; we’ve bought yet another magazine on HOW TO GET ORGANIZED THIS WEEKEND.
It’s actually not that hard. We need:
A list of contacts (maybe)
A meal plan and a grocery list
A daily bag with keys, glasses, lip balm, tissues, ball peen hammer, etc.
A household routine
A few dedicated work areas
A spending plan
That’s it. Everything else about getting organized is basically about building a retaining wall to hold back the tidal wave of unnecessary material objects with which we surround ourselves. Get the stuff away from the front door, off the dining table, off the desk, off the bed, off the nightstand, off the bathroom counter, and off the kitchen work surfaces. The rest of it doesn’t matter. All we really need is to be able to come and go, maintain personal hygiene, dress appropriately for the weather and our continued employability, prepare and eat meals, pay our bills, manage our personal bureaucratic infrastructure, and find certain magical objects such as keys, glasses, and pens.
Alas, there are no easy answers for where to put the rest of our stuff. Our homes were not designed around the number of small appliances and consumer electronics that we use every day, much less the masses of clothes, craft supplies, collectibles, books, decorations, and holiday ornaments we acquire. The money we would need to buy nice furniture to “organize” these things has been spent on the stuff itself. The space we would use to put said furniture is likewise filled with stuff. One thing every interior design and curb appeal show on HGTV has in common is that there is no clutter. The rooms and furnishings speak for themselves. Our ordinary, cluttered homes are more along the lines of trying to wear all our clothes, jewelry, and hair clips at the same time. We’d do better to edit. There truly is no way to “organize” triple or quadruple the amount of stuff a house was designed to hold.
What constitutes clutter? Junk mail. Paperwork that needs to be processed but hasn’t been. Anything involved with a procrastinated task or project. Reading material we’ve assigned to Future Self. Things we meant to return, whether to a store or a person from whom we’ve borrowed. Gifts we haven’t put away because there is no ‘away’ to put them. Bushels of clean and dirty laundry that won’t fit in the available closets, drawers, and hampers. Likewise, clean and dirty dishes that won’t fit in the available cabinet or sink space. Dozens or hundreds of individual objects that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary and homeless. It’s pretty obvious where to put a toothbrush, a fork, or a pair of socks. It’s not so obvious where to put hundreds of pounds of loose randomness.
Much of what we keep has to do with postponed decisions and with future aspirations. We know we don’t need all of it, but we’re not sure which ones to keep or cast aside, and we don’t have the mental bandwidth to make a firm choice. We don’t have any kind of system. We’re going to use it or wear it or read it, one day, really, not today but eventually. We like all of it and we feel deep emotional attachment to these ever-so-attractive things that will never like us back. We don’t like it at all, it pollutes our space with toxic memories and emotions, but it’s all cursed and releasing it would deflate our very souls. Time does not pass while we regard our things. We step into an enchanted cave somewhere outside temporality. It starts to feel like insulation.
What we do is to start to wake up. We gather our wits about us. We claim power to make executive decisions about our lives, our surroundings, and our stuff. We put up a flag to mark our territory, starting with one square foot. We clear a space. We mark it out as hallowed ground. Any unnecessary object that wanders into that cleared space is summarily removed. (A rabid skunk that wandered onto the lawn of a preschool comes to mind; Animal Control was called). As any area of our lives starts to make more sense, to be more streamlined, it starts to be a little more obvious what can be done in another area. I clear the bathroom counter and make a bedtime routine. I realize that I could clear a bit of kitchen space to pack a lunch and get my breakfast ready. My morning starts going more smoothly, and I see how clearing a bit of space in my closet would be nice. I stop feeling so frantic. One day, I come home with a little extra mental energy, and I clear a little space on my desk. Time passes. Another day, I come home, and there is nothing that needs doing other than eating a fine hot meal and chillaxing all evening.
This is the story I tell myself. I go to bed at a particular time because I love sleeping 8-9 hours a night. If I stay up too late, the world starts getting too noisy before I’m done dreaming. I wake up well rested and share breakfast time with my parrot, which, if you met her, you would definitely want to do as well. I work, because I like it and it’s my calling. I do about 40 minutes of housework and putting away laundry, five days a week, because that means my weekends are free and my house never has time to get messy. I do anything that can be done in under 5 minutes as soon as it comes up, because I hate having the dread of incomplete tasks hanging over me. Every object I bring home has to have a specific place where it will be stored and an obvious way to be cleaned, or it’s not crossing my doorstep. The only time I really worry about “getting organized” is either when I’m writing, as I try to explain how it’s done, or when I’m planning a big trip somewhere, because it’s annoying to forget important details. Much of my life is spent reading, wandering around the neighborhood taking pictures, playing with my pets, or generally being indolent and doing whatever I want.
Everyone gets the same 24 hours a day. Some of us spend most of that time feeling frazzled and burned out. Others spend their free time laughing, talking to friends, cooking, and making art. Some of us spend our time in a futile search for missing paperwork or shoes or prescription bottles. Others never do. I believe it takes about the same number of minutes to cook a healthy meal as it does to wait in line at a drive-thru and unwrap all the excess packaging. I believe it takes about the same number of minutes per day to clean an orderly house as it does to search for lost things and shift piles back and forth. Washing dishes at each meal takes documentably less time than letting them crust up and congeal first. “Getting organized” seems like a grueling ordeal, when viewed from the bottom of the well, but it’s really the fastest and easiest way to live life.
What helps is to stop thinking about “getting organized” and instead think about what comes next. Get organized why? Get organized because what? I want my time back. I want to be able to lose myself in leisure and recreation without feeling guilty or harried. I want space to get ready in the morning, to cook meals, to work on projects. I want to feel like a competent adult. I want a promotion. I’m smart enough to pull this off. I can cut away anything that is unnecessary. I can make room in my life for what is important, for what I value most. I can learn what it feels like to manage the flow of information and stuff in my world, and still have personal essence left over for myself.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.