This is an instructional post about how to inventory your stuff while you pack for a move. I’ve done this a bunch of times and it’s what works for me. I based it on the concepts from the Paper Tiger, a justifiably famous book about a system for filing papers.
The basic principle is this:
Put a number on a box. Write down the contents under that number.
Move on to the next box and repeat.
Don’t worry about - and this is the hard part - don’t worry about any more complicated system. The only things you have to worry about are making sure you don’t duplicate numbers and that anyone else who packs with you is on board with the system.
There is only one Box #1. There is only one Box #19.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if a box has logical categories of contents. The idea here is that if you’re looking for something specific, you can figure out what box it’s in. If the boxes are clearly labeled, then you have a good chance of finding that box and getting your precious thing back out.
If the boxes have been packed in roughly the order that they were numbered, then you probably even have a rough idea of where each box is!
Also, if you’ve packed in one direction, from one end of your dwelling to another, then the boxes probably got loaded into the truck in the opposite direction. What was first shall be last, and what was last shall be first.
When the boxes are unloaded into the new place, the direction reverses.
Your numbered order is, then, roughly the same all the way through.
This is pure mysticism. Don’t try to understand it, just accept it and meditate on it. Or visualize someone pulling into a parking space and then backing out again.
Moving is often the catalyst for chronic disorganization. A household is moving and they fall victim to the Planning Fallacy. This is the basic cognitive inability of the human brain to accurately estimate how long it takes to do complicated things. Everything is behind schedule and over budget because even highly trained experts and professionals are subject to the Planning Fallacy. No escape.
The household that has not planned the move with expert precision suddenly finds itself in panic mode. Every spare person who can be enlisted to help shows up and starts throwing things into boxes. I can tell you from experience that professional movers will put full wastebaskets into boxes and tape them closed. Same with wet laundry, according to lore. Random friends, relatives, and neighbors can be expected to have even less experience. They just want to get it over with and go home.
The result is a bunch of randomness multiplied by randomness. Fifty cardboard boxes of different size, dumped in whatever room had the most space, all labeled MISC (the dreaded misc).
Trying to settle into the new house feels like a disaster. Every box has items that properly belong in different rooms. Every box has loose hardware, coins, crayons, bits of small toys, and office supplies. Every room is likewise full of similar boxes of MISC (the dreaded misc). Where to start??
Most of these boxes will still be sitting in their miscellaneous form until the next move, which will be even more disastrous than the last.
Living in this kind of cardboard chaos is demoralizing in the extreme. It’s like being surrounded by Dementors. I know it because I can feel them flying out when I show up to help, and it isn’t even my stuff.
The Box Tiger method works because you can read through an inventory as you plan to unpack. You can pull a specific box because you know you need those items and you know where you are going to put them.
Box Tiger also works if you are able to maintain the placid mindset and take the extra few minutes to write down what’s in each box. Everything is under control, you breathe, and tomorrow will come. Soon this chaos will be whipped into shape by the strength of the orderly, problem-solving human mind.
I can imagine this into shape, and since I can imagine it, I can make it happen.
I can look at other people’s pinboards for inspiration.
A lot of people fantasize about having a sewing room one day, or a canning room, or a mud room, or something cool like a guitar-making workshop. What is so appealing about all these visions is that they reflect order, an ability to find the right tool for the right purpose on demand.
A whole house can be this nice.
Know where everything is. Do it one item at a time.
Box Tiger is easier for me for a few reasons. One, it’s my own system, I like it, and I’ve put it into practice. I trust it. I trust it because I’ve used it to find important items during a move, and that feeling is a huge sigh of relief and a two-inch dropping of tense shoulders.
Two, Box Tiger is easy for me because I’m a minimalist and I purposely don’t have much stuff. Why would I? Stuff I don’t use and don’t need? It doesn’t look cute and it just gets in my way.
Three, Box Tiger works well because my home works well. Keep things near where they are used, that’s the basic rule, and when we do this it makes it easier both to pack and unpack. Towels in the bathroom, towels in one box, towels in the new bathroom. Put in the extra 10% effort to carry small items to the room where they make the most sense, and that pays off in a more streamlined move.
Leave random items skewed and scattered everywhere, and that effect is multiplied with each move. Total disorganization reigns supreme and everything is hard to find.
Rationally, if something is important and useful to me, I should be able to find it and use it. If I love it and I love looking at it, then it should be easy to see as often as possible. I can’t make a case for not being able to find or see my stuff.
Box Tiger is the reason I’m able to finish unpacking 95% of my stuff in three days. I can make a move as streamlined as possible and go back to our regularly scheduled programming.
It’s also worth mentioning that minimalism enables us to fit in smaller homes, pay less rent, and live in more desirable neighborhoods where standard-size homes are unaffordable for most people. Every time we move, we downsize a little bit more, because it has always paid off.
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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