Disaster struck my little household a week or so ago. It was like an earthquake, short in duration but dramatic in impact. Just like an earthquake, we got through it more easily because we were prepared. Out of everything else we organize, our ability to come and go quickly is perhaps the most important.
I happened to be working on a presentation about “getting organized” when my husband suddenly got a severe eye injury. This is why it was on my mind. There’s a lot of Hurry Up and Wait in any crisis, and an overnight in an emergency room includes many hours of time for reflection.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. What would any of them have done in a situation like this?
Imagine you walk into your front door covering your face because you’ve hurt your eye, and you can’t see. What do you do?
Can you easily open and walk through the front door?
Can you make it to a chair, or somewhere to sit?
Do you have a first aid kit? What’s in it? How long does it take you to get to it?
(A first aid kit was actually not helpful in this case; nor was ice, although my hubby was able to put together a baggie of ice cubes for himself. In case of a corneal abrasion, just go to urgent care or the ER as soon as you can).
The tricky thing about our situation was not so much that we each had to know where our own stuff was. I had to be able to find *his* stuff. In particular, I needed his wallet and his health insurance card. It’s easy to imagine the reverse situation, where he would have to get into my purse.
Not being able to find your identification is one of the endless hassles of the chronically disorganized. Photo ID? Social security card? Birth certificate? Often what could have been a simple bureaucratic chore can take weeks, because my person has to go back and fill out forms and pay extra fees for additional copies of documents that they already have. Somewhere.
Our stuff is either in our wallets or in the fireproof safe. Simple. I knew right where to go.
Some people can get deep into the weeds of organization. I call it “alphabetizing your socks.” The goal is perfection. Really, the goal is efficiency: Can you get what you need the moment you need it? Like when you need emergency instructions on how to save someone’s eye?
This is why we called the advice nurse rather than rushing straight out the door. First, we needed to know if there was something we could quickly do at home to help the eye. Second, it turns out my hubby was worried that if we went to the ER without the proper authorization, we could wind up on the hook for thousands of dollars of bills. We talked about it later and realized that if we had been on vacation when this happened, it could easily have been financially ruinous.
(Here we were lucky. A corneal abrasion is off-the-charts painful, and it can indeed result in permanent vision damage, but with the right treatment it can heal in 24 hours. Because of the type of injury, we could afford to delay).
It turned out we had about forty minutes to DO ALL THE THINGS while on hold for the advice nurse. My temporarily blind husband sat with the phone on hold, since he was in too much pain to do much else anyway. Every other thing that I did to get ready involved... stuff.
Basically the level of organization of our entire apartment.
Needed the insurance card. It was in the drop zone, right where it belonged.
Needed to make a quick meal for hubby and grab something for myself. Fridge and freezer were stocked. I was able to throw something in the microwave and grab a clean plate and fork with about five seconds of conscious thought.
Needed to clean up after our sick dog. Had gloves and enzyme cleaner right where they were supposed to be.
Needed to give a pill to the poor sick dog. Knew where it was and which bottle it was in. There was a trick here, because they have to be cut in half and I had to do it with a knife. Apparently our pill slicer had broken and been thrown out without being replaced. Who would have thought something this minor would ever be a matter of urgency?
Needed to take the dog out. His leash and baggies were right there in the drop zone. He had his harness on and he knows the drill. Good boy.
Needed my keys, since we live on the fifth floor. Yet another item that was right in the drop zone.
Needed to get out of my workout clothes, shower, and throw on something for cold weather. This was another sticking point, because we were planning to do laundry the next day and I only really had one clean outfit. But all I needed was one.
When it was finally time to go, I did a bag check on both our bags. Usually I only need my own bag, with my phone, purse, wallet, and keys. This time I also needed to track someone else’s stuff. It was all there... right in the drop zone.
A drop zone, if you haven’t figured it out, is the area where everyone in your home drops their stuff when they come in. For chronically disorganized people, there is no drop zone. It might be different every single day. Each person might drop certain items (shoes, backpack, glasses, inhaler, hoodie) in different rooms. Someone else might kick something under a table, or drop something on top of it. Nobody knows where anything is because nobody formed a memory when the thing got dropped. When the entire house is a drop zone, nobody can ever find anything truly important, like the keys, the health insurance card, or the first aid kit.
It feels simple and easy to drop stuff “wherever,” and that’s why it is such an easy habit to develop. In reality, having no drop zone can create endless chaos. Designing a drop zone and training everyone in the house to use it, including young kids, can feel like running up the down escalator. After that, though, the most important stuff is streamlined. Getting ready to go somewhere is a matter of minutes, and nobody cries.
Our drop zone is the top of a bookcase, as close as we could get to the front door. There’s a wooden crate, and my hubby literally drops his stuff into it when he comes in. I keep my stuff in my bag and hang it on the chair by my desk. That’s all. Nothing fancy. One chair, one flat surface.
It’s true that this particular disaster of an evening involved several housekeeping systems. The kitchen, the bathroom, the linen closet, the laundry and the groceries and even our dog’s few possessions were all involved. We could have figured out how to get around a systemic failure in any of these areas. The really important things were the wallet with that pesky insurance card, the phone, and the keys.
The art of the drop zone can transform any home, no matter how many people live there, whether it’s a tiny apartment like ours or a sprawling five-bedroom. Try it, and then make a game out of practicing your emergency preparedness skills.
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.
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