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Like most people who enter the professional organizing industry, I have always been an organized person. I was the kid who color coded her class handouts and alphabetized the books on my bookshelf. I always knew where to find that board game, Barbie, or baseball glove. Over the years, I have learned (and continue to learn) valuable lessons that continue to inform how I organize. This is one of them.

Welcome to the Chaos

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, she had what seemed like four million Disney Princess dolls (in reality, more like a dozen or so). Naturally, each one came complete with outfits, shoes, hair accessories, etc. Every play session ended with her playroom looking like a disaster scene. Dolls were flung around the room in various stages of undress, and princess paraphernalia was strewn from one end of the room to the other.

A Stroke of Genius

I decided to use my favorite Container Store shoeboxes with a self-adhesive pocket attached to the front (like these). First, I took pictures of each doll with all of her accompanying accessories. Next, I used photo editing software to create a color-coded bar at the top of each photo with the name of the doll. Finally, I printed the photos and placed them in the pockets. After playing with the dolls, my daughter and I made a game of cleaning up and returning all of the pieces to the appropriate boxes. My daughter would match the items with the pictures to find the correct box. She even began recognizing the corresponding letters in the dolls’ names which helped her reading skills. Great organizational idea, right?

Or Not…

As my friend Molly says, ‘Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back’. It turns out, as long as my daughter and I were the ones playing with the dolls, the shoeboxes were great. But when she had friends over, many of them were not nearly as enamored of our system. They didn’t mind helping to get the mess off of the floor. But they didn’t necessarily want to take the extra time to match items with containers. I wound up dismissing the children’s and/or parents’ offers to clean up, and my daughter and I would do it after they left.

The Problem Becomes Clear

After just a few playdates, the drawbacks to our system became very obvious. 

  • First, I was making more work for myself and my daughter – We were spending precious time after each playdate cleaning up and organizing.
  • Second, I was creating a double standard – It did not escape my daughter’s keen eye that the rules were inconsistent. I expected her to help clean up when she visited other kids’ houses, but I didn’t ask them to reciprocate at ours. If you have ever known any small children, then you know that “NOT FAIR” is a BIG deal.
  • Third, I was discouraging responsibility on the part of our visitors – Most of the kids (and parents) were more than willing to do their part to help clean up. I was the one waving off the offers.
  • And finally, I was sending an unwanted message to my daughter – It was more important that it be done our (OK, let’s be honest, my) way than that her friends share the chore of cleaning up the mess they’d made together. NOT what I wanted her to learn.

Lessons Learned

I decided that it was more important to maximize play time vs. clean-up time, and to let the kids chip in to clean up too. After all, if Cinderella’s shoes spent a few weeks hanging out in Belle’s box with Jasmine’s crown, the earth was not exactly going to spin off of its’ axis.

Once a month or so, my daughter and I would go thru and gather up all of the dolls, clothes, accessories, etc. First, we grouped everything together, referencing the picture on the front of the box. Second, we hunted down any missing pieces. Finally, we returned everything to its’ proper box.

In between those times, I decided to be satisfied as long as it was all off of the floor. I focused more on the benefits of encouraging fun and cooperation between my daughter and her friends. And I enjoyed spending the extra time on something that had a greater impact on our quality of life.

The Moral(s) of The Story

That experience still informs my approach to organizing, both in my own home and in my clients’.

  1. Always keep your ultimate objective in mind. What is the real reason you’re creating this system? What problem are you trying to solve? The answer may be different in various areas of your life. The goals for your workplace filing system and your home refrigerator front won’t be the same. Be crystal clear on what you want this system to do for you.
  2. Think ‘What is the simplest way to accomplish that?’ Generally speaking, the easier it is to do something, the more likely it is that you will do it. Most of the time, complexity is not necessary to accomplish your goal.
  3. Make sure that everyone who needs to use the system, can and will. It doesn’t matter how attractive, or even logical, it is if nobody follows it. Know your audience. When I work in common areas in homes or offices, I always start by talking with all parties who will be using the system to get an idea of their style of organization. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by being realistic upfront about who and what you have to work with.
  4. Be flexible. Honestly assess what is working, and what isn’t. Take the feedback that you get from others and evaluate it. Be willing to change things up to get the results you want. Remember that the goal is to be organized, not right.

Are there areas of your life that are overly complicated and out of order? Ask yourself, ‘Where could I simplify?’ Or you can ask me.