Well, January is over. Raise your hand if that New Year’s resolution to be more organized is still in place!
We’ve all been there. Our lofty January 1st ambitions have a way of running up against the reality of everyday life on January 2nd – 31st. If we’re not careful, February 1st can find us demoralized and unmotivated, resigned to just accepting things the way they were pre-resolution – in other words, slashing those other three tires.
So, today is an excellent time to think about how you approach getting organized. Here are some key things to keep in mind so that you can stay motivated, and get back on track:
- Getting – and being – organized IS a learned skill. Yes, some people seem to work that way naturally, while it’s a constant struggle for others, but everybody can get there. The key is to find the right way for YOU, and to stick with it.
- No resolution is an on/off, all or nothing proposition. You are committing to the PROCESS of change, and most processes are not linear and straightforward. Just because your kitchen counter is currently buried under two days worth of mail and paperwork does NOT mean that you have failed. It just means that you got a little bit off track, and it’s time to get back on.
- You have a life, and life does not always cooperate with your plans. If you’ve had unexpected emergencies, illnesses, demands on your time, etc., it’s completely understandable that your new undertaking might have taken a back seat temporarily. Keep up with what you can and, as soon as it’s feasible, recommit to your plan, but be kind to yourself in the meanwhile.
- The more organized you are, the less you have to work at it. In the beginning, it takes a lot of effort – decluttering, sorting, labeling, remembering to put things away where they belong – but the beauty of any good system is that it starts working for you. You’re better able to roll with the unexpected when your day-to-day is running smoothly.
- Remember WHY you started on this journey in the first place. Revisit your promise to yourself. Reflect on the tangible and intangible benefits that motivated you to make it. Then recommit to it.
When my oldest daughter was small, she had what seemed like a million Disney Princess dolls (in reality, more like a dozen), complete with outfits, shoes, hair accessories, etc. I labeled a plastic shoebox for each doll, with the name and picture, as well as a list and picture of all of the accompanying accessories. After we played with her dolls, we made a game of cleaning up and returning all of the pieces to the appropriate boxes. She would match the items with the pictures to find the correct box. As she got older, she began recognizing the corresponding words which helped her reading skills. Great organizational idea, right?
Well, yes, as long as she and I were the only ones playing with the dolls. When she had friends over, they were not nearly so enamored of our system. They didn’t want to take the extra time to match items with containers, so I would just dismiss the children’s and/or parents’ offers to clean up and my daughter and I would do it after they left. After just a few playdates, I realized that I was making more work for myself; discouraging responsibility on the part of our visitors, who were willing to help clean up; and sending the message to my daughter that it was more important that it be done our (let’s be honest, my) way than that her friends share the burden of cleaning up the mess they’d made together.
I decided that, if Cinderella’s shoes spent a few weeks in Belle’s box with Jasmine’s crown, the earth was not going to spin off of its’ axis. Once a month or so, my daughter and I would go thru and return everything to its’ proper place after playing and hunt down any missing pieces. In between those times, I decided to be happy as long as it was all off of the floor. I decided to be happy about encouraging cooperation between my daughter and her friends. And I decided to be happy spending the extra time on something that had a much greater impact on my quality of life.
There are several morals to this story:
- Keep it simple enough 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!
- Always keep your ultimate objective in mind. What is the real reason you’re creating this system? Is there a simpler way to accomplish that?
- Be flexible. Honestly assess what is working, and what isn’t; and be willing to change things up to get the results you want.
Where could you simplify?
I’ve just finished reading Daniel Levitin’s fascinating book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. In the chapter on Organizing Our Homes, he proposes two neurologically-based steps for setting up home information systems:
- “The categories you create need to reflect how you use and interact with your possessions. That is, the categories have to be meaningful to you.”; and
- “Avoid putting too many dissimilar items into a drawer or folder unless you can come up with an overarching theme. If you can’t, MISCELLANEOUS, JUNK, or UNCLASSIFIABLE are OK.”
That first step makes perfect sense to everyone, right? It is the basis for every good, sustainable organization system. But what about that second one – did he really just say that labeling a drawer, box, or cabinet “WHATEVER” is perfectly acceptable?? Yes, he did, because it absolutely is!
I like to think of it as “the power of etc.”
In any project, we begin to lose steam once we’ve done the easy part; and we begin to get bogged down in the details. When organizing, you can group and sub-divide the majority of items in the space into easily identifiable categories; label them; and put them in the appropriate spot. But by the end, there is always a group of objects that is not so easily classified. Maybe there are only a couple of them; maybe they are rarely used; maybe they are highly specialized items. Whatever the reason, they are what is left over when the obvious things are taken care of. Why obsess over them?
It makes no sense to take an entire box and label it “collar stays” to contain the three that are in your closet, plus a separate labeled box for the two “extra buttons”, and a third for “safety pins”. There is nothing wrong with having one box labeled with whatever word you want to use to describe the assorted extras that we all have. There is nothing wrong with designating a catch-all drawer somewhere in your home.
Repeat after me – “junk” drawers are not inherently disorganized. As long as everything in there is functional and necessary, a junk drawer can be your best solution to objects that defy easy classification.
In short, “a place for everything, and everything in it’s place” is an excellent and apt rule, but sometimes the place for something IS the junk drawer. Embrace “the power of etc.”, close that drawer, and move on to the next project.
It’s that time again. As the old year draws to a close, we look ahead to the new one. We examine our lives and identify opportunities for self-improvement. We make a list of resolutions which, for too many of us, will be forgotten or abandoned by Spring.
Among the most common resolutions (after losing weight, getting in better shape, and improving our health) are getting organized, and reducing stress. Just as we recognize the tremendous positive impact that better eating and regular exercise have on our physical health, we recognize that having order in our life greatly impacts our mental and emotional health which, in turn, affects our physical health as well.
Unfortunately, many people approach resolutions in a way which practically guarantees that they will fail. Simply writing “Lose weight”, “Eat healthier”, “Exercise more” or “Get organized” does nothing to ensure that will happen; without insight, goals, commitment, and at least some form of a plan, those extra pounds, inches – or stress and chaos – will remain a part of your life.
- Consider why you want to get your life in order. If you’re only doing it because your boss, spouse, roommate, guilty conscience, etc. says you need to, you will find it hard to succeed. Motivation for any change has to come from within, so find yours.
- Determine what areas of your life are in order, and which aren’t. Are you paying late fees on overdue bills? Are you constantly scrambling to meet deadlines at work? Is getting dinner on the table every night a challenge? Do you miss events or appointments? Do you dread opening your closet? Identify the things that always seem to be falling through the cracks, or taking longer than you would like.
- Understand what you are doing now that is working for you, and what isn’t. Don’t worry if you write your to-do list in a pocket notebook while everyone around you seems to be using a smartphone app; if the items on your list get done, then your system is working okay for you. Think about how you are approaching things right now, and where the breakdown seems to be happening.
- Prioritize. Don’t try to tackle everything all at once. Identify the biggest problem area, and address that first. Look at everything that you previously identified as not working, and ask yourself “How much does this bother me?” Don’t worry right now about whether it should or not.
Remember that you can do it; there’s no such thing as “naturally organized”. It comes easier to some than others, but everyone can improve from where they start.
Remember that you don’t have to (and can’t) do it all at once; small steps are still progress. Just like losing ten pounds provides measurable benefits – even if you need to lose 100 – getting one area of your life in order provides a calming, positive impact even if five other areas are still in chaos.
Remember that, if what you’ve done in the past didn’t work, it isn’t a failure; it just means that it wasn’t the right approach for you. Success is less about finding the “one right solution” than about working with your strengths, and being motivated.
“Spring is the time of plans and projects.”
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
–noun. In temperate zones, the season of the year following winter and characterized by the budding of trees, growth of plants, the onset of warmer weather, etc.
Of course, it is also the season that motivates so many of us to make changes; to start fresh. Why not make the most of it, and go beyond just ‘spring cleaning’ this year, and do something that will bring order to your life all year long?
Here are a few ideas:
- Start by remembering your ‘why’. Cleaning out the pantry, organizing the garage, or purging the bathroom cabinets, is not an end in and of itself. It is the means by which you will create more order in your life.
- Start with a few small projects. Allot 30 minutes or an hour, and go all out during that time. Make sure you pick something that you can reasonably accomplish in that time. It may not seem like much, but you will be amazed after just a few weeks at what a difference you have made!
- Pick a larger project that is meaningful to you. Tackle something that’s been weighing on you for months (maybe years, or ever since you moved in), and that will provide a real sense of accomplishment when it’s completed.
- Make it a family affair. Have a family meeting and brainstorm a few projects. Write them down on pieces of paper, and pick one each week. In a separate jar, make a list of fun family activities. For each project you complete as a family, choose a reward and enjoy the time together.
- Utilize everyone’s strengths. Your spouse is aces at spatial relations? Let them design the shelving system for the garage. Your 8-year old loves to play with the label maker? Let her type up all of the labels for the pantry. Your 14-year old wants no part of any of this? Let him make a playlist to listen to while you’re working; or just let him put his headphones in and bag up the trash, or carry donations to the car.
- Plan a get-together or party with friends in a few weeks. Have that date be the deadline by which you want to finish your project. It will serve as both motivation and reward.