Updated: Jul 25, 2019
It’s January, the time of year when many of us evaluate ways in which we can improve ourselves in the coming year. Getting organized is a pretty popular New Year’s resolution, but can seem really daunting, so I have a couple of tips to help you make the process a little less painful. To start with, let’s break down the forces behind our desire to be organized — more order, less confusion, less burden. Some of the major keys to doing this are consistency, visibility, and predictability and accessibility.
Having less stuff also makes all this easier. If you’ve ever read Marie Kondo’s books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, you probably had the intense desire to throw everything in your house away and live in a Zen-like state of simplicity. And then you’ve gone about tackling the mountain of stuff in your home and possibly come close to ending up in the fetal position in the middle of your closet. While I highly recommend both of these books as they are chock full of great ideas and strategies, if you were inherently disciplined enough to truly follow them to a T, you’re probably kinda organized already. Nevertheless, even a cursory stab at these methods will greatly simplify your life.
That being said, here’s my takeaway from those books and others like them. Excess stuff is a burden. Strive to eliminate it where possible and be mindful of the new objects you invite into your home and life. Get rid of the stuff you hardly ever use — it’s taking up mental and physical space that could be used more wisely. And don’t sabotage your efforts with the “but I might need it one day” argument. The truth is, yes, you might find a use for it someday, but it’s not worth keeping on the off-chance that you could find a use for it eventually. If you have multiples of things, keep the one or two of them you love and use the most, and ditch the rest. Go through your wardrobe and keep only the things you would try to save in a fire — these are the things that have meaning for you or that you feel amazing in. This concept is called a Capsule Wardrobe and you can read a great how-to article about it here –it will change your life. If you look at something and wonder if you really like it that much or not, you don’t. Ditch it.
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Photo: Emily Dinwiddie
Now, what to do with the things you have decided are useful and/or beautiful? Organize them! I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m disorganized, forgetful, and slightly undisciplined and have used this knowledge to streamline my organization strategy. That strategy in one word is “containers.” They are fantastic. Containers are capable of holding a small amount of chaos in an easily accessible and organized way. You can dump an entire category of things into a container without really organizing them and still have them easily at hand. The key to these vessels, though, is that they need to be easily identifiable at a glance. These will be the cornerstones of your organizing efforts.
Let’s dissect some of the basic principles of organization, the first being consistency. What’s one thing that you notice about photos of beautifully organized pantries, garages, and attics?
Photo: The Social Home
The storage system is consistent; it’s not visually cluttered by 30 different shapes, sizes, and colors of boxes, bags, and baskets. The containers are preferably modular and share similar dimensions so you can stack various sizes tightly and cleanly. Yes, this means that you potentially will need to go out and buy all new containers if you have some disparate things already doing the job, but here’s the scientific justification for that so you don’t feel incredibly wasteful or frivolous. While having everything match looks nice to the eye, it also has another benefit inside your brain. Our brains are constantly compartmentalizing the things we see so we can process the world faster. There are recognizable paradigms that our brains plug into when we see and experience predictable things so that we can dedicate more headspace to the dynamic and novel things happening around us. Rather than having to individually process each and every different mismatched storage container and then think about what you’ve got stored inside it, consistency takes that whole step out of the process so you are less overwhelmed. And it looks better.
The second pillar is visibility. You want to be able to visually identify something quickly and easily for this to work well. Have you ever “cleaned up” and then can’t remember where you put anything because you basically hid it from yourself. If you had X-ray vision, this would not be a problem, but you don’t so, let’s keep moving. I have used Sterilite clear containers for years because they meet many of the module criteria above and they are see-through, but my current favorites are the Samla from IKEA (big surprise there). They are the most versatile and compact to pack and have flat lids that nest and support stacking with stability. Plus they are affordable. Whatever kind you decide to use, just make sure you can get more of them at a later date because you will eventually want or need to add to your collection.
IKEA Samla Bin
Filling and stacking clear bins like this in a garage or attic is perfectly fine and works well. But, what about areas where you don’t want to see a bunch of plastic staring back at you, like on a bookshelf or other visible area? Consistency is still your friend, but this is when you want to bring in the more decorative storage containers like baskets and boxes. Decorative containers work best with things you access all the time because you use them frequently enough to remember where they are, so having a container that you cannot see through isn’t a problem.
Photo: Simply Kiersti
Dollar stores aregreat places to find inexpensive storage items for your pantry. They generally have a number of container options in identical colors so you can coordinate, and they typically have the same shapes and sizes available over the long haul, so if you need to augment your collection you can buy more later. Of course, there’s always Target, but be careful if you choose a trendy color there because it probably won’t stick around for more than a few seasons and you’ll be out of luck if you want more matching containers s. If you want to go higher-end, check out The Container Store. They have so many options your head may explode, but they also generally carry the same systems ad infinitum so getting more as you need them won’t be a problem. If you can’t decide on the right color at any of these stores, opt for white: it is timeless and will always be available.
If you use opaque containers for less-frequently-used items, I recommend labeling them in some way so you can tell what’s inside with a glance rather than having to pull them out and open them. There are a lot of visually pleasing ways to do this, but some that I like are library-style label holders, plastic label sleeves that can be adhered to the front of a container, write-on/wipe-off stickers, chalkboard stickers, small chalkboards that you can attach to the container, and decorative wooden or paper tags that you can attach with a pretty ribbon. Consistency is important here as well. If you pick one or two types of labeling systems, your brain isn’t having to process the package the information is coming in along with the information on the label. Cutting out visual noise in this way streamlines the process. If you have impeccable penmanship, go ahead and hand-write the labels. If not, use your printer or a labeler so the text is a legible, consistent font and size.
Giving these containers a home in a way that works when you need to retrieve things you need is the next step: this is accessibility. Think about how often you will need to access the contents and then the difficulty of wrangling each particular container from its home. If solving a Rubik’s Cube requires fewer steps than it takes for you to dig out the bin in the back of the closet, your organization system isn’t very usable.
As you start to load your containers into your storage furniture, predictability is your friend. Put “like with like” so you have zones of similar things and you know all of the X’s live in the garage on the left and all the Y’s live in the pantry near the bottom, etc. You can do this on a smaller lever if you have lots of small similar things that can be kept in a box together. I like to classify things by their utility, rather than the name of the object. Like I put scissors, X-ACTO knives, and rotary cutters in a box labeled “Cut.” Put tape, glue, stickers, and labels in a box labeled “Adhere,” and pens, pencils, highlighters, markers, etc. in a box called “Mark.” You may find that you have some items that are too bulky or oddly shaped to fit into your container of choice.
While keeping like things with like, I would recommend putting more cumbersome items in a designated area rather than trying to work them into your container matrix. You don’t want the leaf blower next to the food processor obviously, but the food processor, coffee maker, and the blender should all live on the same shelf in the pantry rather than each next to the foods it is used with. For these types of items, the rule of thumb is A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place. To make an item truly usable, don’t skimp on the space around it. Allow each object enough personal space that you can easily remove it with minimal moving of other things around it, especially if it is something that you will want to access more than once a month. Take into account the weight of the object: don’t put the crock pot on the top shelf –you’ll be cursing it every time you have to lift it over your head to take it down or put it back. If like me, there is no possible way for you to do this with the current amount of stuff you own and the space available to you, it’s probably time to whittle down your collection – see references to Marie Kondo and William Morris above to help you decide what makes the cut.
“A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place”
Once you’re totally organized, sit back and enjoy the jealous looks on your friend’s faces when they see your ridiculously ordered life. No, that’s not the motivation here (although it is a satisfying thought). Organizing is a little like the difference between a diet and a lifestyle of healthy eating. One is short term and usually for looks, while the other is a lifestyle commitment. To muster the amount of motivation you will need for this kind of task, you have to find something that inspires you from within. With organizing, that motivation is freedom. Freedom from stuff, confusion, and overwhelming clutter. We are so often held hostage by our belongings without realizing it; we have so much stuff we don’t even know what we have. Our brains can’t keep track of it all so we feel like we’re constantly missing something. Once you have eliminated the excess and ordered the necessities, you will feel such a burden lift from your shoulders. Only having one of something useful or none of something relatively useless (think pineapple corer from Pampered Chef or a donut-making griddle) will simplify your daily living in a profound way. Getting rid of excess is just as much a mental relief as a physical releif, and that is a huge stress reducer for all of us.
So think of getting organized as not just an exercise in getting things cleaned up because you’re an adult and you have to, but more as an act of self-care. Love yourself more than your junk, and take care of yourself by getting rid of what’s weighing you down.