Getting Organized


Organization matters because it makes us more happy and productive.

Separate the physical objects of your life into exclusive “Zones”.

Disorganization from one domain tends to bleed into other domains.

Organization takes patience because there’s more stuff than you realized.

Get everything you need together for organizing before you dive into it.

Have a mental grasp of where you expect everything will be when you’re done.

Procedurally focus on one area at a time:

  1. Pull everything out.
  2. Group everything into appropriate “piles”.
  3. Organize the order of things by how much they’re likely used.
  4. Distinguish between tools, supplies, and decorations.
  5. Don’t put things away exactly where you pulled them out from.

Rationally work through each item:

  1. Focus on one object at a time.
  2. Ask why you still keep it.
  3. Look at its current or possible future worth, not its past worth.

Worth through each area, bit by bit.

Once you’re done, start implementing routine habits to keep it that way.

Why does organization matter?

We’re constantly scanning our environment, so organization makes life simpler and gives us mental peace.

Organization helps with productivity:
  • An organized space removes distractions from what we’re working on.
  • It’s easier to remember where things are, so we easily find what we need.
    • With everything organized, finding lost things takes less time.
  • When working with supplies, we more quickly understand what we have.
  • Organization skills build mental habits to help us create accurate goals.
    • Good goals are idea-based organization across time (instead of physical organization across space).

Fit your life into Zones

We have a Work Zone, a Daily Zone, an Important Things Zone, a Storage/Later Zone, and so on:
  • The Zones are broken out by the purpose or perceived future purpose for those items.

The Zones split when we fail to maintain everything:
  • A Work Zone might have ideas that belong in a Home Zone, but that Home Zone pile over time will build a Home Zone inside that Work Zone.
  • Disorganization is when our Zones become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed.

Zones split naturally over time:
  • Work always creates messes, things decay and fall down, other people move things.
  • To fight our minds blurring things together, we must physically combine and clarify our Zones.
  • Whenever possible, adapt and shift the Zones so that each object can only logically fit in one Zone (e.g., a hat may qualify for multiple seasons, but is always headwear.)

Disorganization tends to spread

Disorganization fosters more disorganization.

The more clutter you have, the more you will need to reorganize.

While you can often manage in a disorganized environment, you’ll eventually encounter a day when everything will create an insane mess.

Physical and mental disorganization influence each other back-and-forth.

Organizing requires patience

Getting yourself organized can take days, weeks, or even months.

Organization requires getting a feel for everything you possess and defining how each object is useful to you.

Prepare to organize

Keep a notepad with you:
  • While moving things around, you’ll have ideas.
  • To stay focused, write things down for later.

Anything that sits for a while will accumulate dust and filth, so keep cleaning supplies with you:
  • You’ll uncover dirty spots while lifting things, opening containers, and moving furniture.
  • Throughout the process, you’ll accumulate about twice as much trash as you’d expect.

Get plenty of variously sized boxes and containers:
  • Stockpile a variety of cardboard boxes and plastic bins in advance.
  • You’ll likely need more boxes than you’d expect, so get more than you need.
  • Keep a mental note of which boxes can become trash bins as you go.

To give enough room, your workspace should be triple the surface area of the region you’re organizing:
  • It’ll become messier before it becomes cleaner, so expect it to sprawl everywhere until you’re done.
  • Clear enough space to allow multiple piles.
  • If you don’t have room, use a neighboring room.

Predict where everything will go

Your categorization system should be accessible, easy to maintain, and can scale to your possible needs.

Get a feel for what general categorization you want (LATCH):
  1. Location
  2. Alphanumeric
  3. Time/date
  4. Category – grouped by how you think things should be divided up
  5. Hierarchy – effectively, categories inside categories

If you have a lot of things, consider the Johnny.Decimal system:
  1. Subcategorize everything you expect to do into 10 very broad, exclusive categories.
  2. After that, subcategorize each category into up to 10 more subdivisions.
  3. From there, you have a numerical definition for everything (e.g., “42” is “budgeting“), which is easy to remember and categorize when you find new things.
  4. Add more things after the decimal point (“42.15”, for example, is the 15th thing under 42).
  5. If you ever need, expand as necessary.

When you can, store things on walls or off the ceiling.

As much as possible, everything should be in boxes, drawers or bins when you’re done.

Build a mental picture of where everything will be once you’ve organized it:
  • Draw a chart to get your mind around how much space you’ll need.
  • Until we’re experienced, we usually overestimate space and underestimate how much stuff have.
    • Be prepared to get rid of stuff.

Focus on one area at a time

Start with a small Zone, then work up to larger projects:
  • You’ll work through smaller areas quickly and will build confidence for larger areas.

Pull everything out of that area:
  • Most disorganized people rearrange before pulling everything out.
  • By pulling things out, you’re prohibiting yourself from leaving something where it doesn’t belong out of laziness.
  • Directly handling everything also helps you feel what you own, which helps you in where it should go.

As you go, pile each item into 2-5 groups:
  1. Goes back where you took it from.
    • This will be the “final” location for it.
    • Anything that’s in that section will be part of a larger “unit”.
  2. Goes to a nearby area you’ve cleared.
    • The item itself is clearly organized, but you don’t have a fixed place for it yet.
  3. Goes to a nearby area you haven’t organized yet.
    • You’re kicking the organization of that thing into the future when you get to it.
  4. Gets sold or given away to someone you know.
    • These items should go to the entryway or somewhere else where you’ll properly deal with them later.
    • As you organize, you will find things to get rid of, so think ahead on who would most benefit from those things.
  5. Goes to the trash.

In each section, sort items by their use:
  1. Frequently accessed items go in convenient locations.
  2. Seasonal or rarely used items go in the far top, back or bottom.
  3. Similar items go together, with one of them possibly in a more convenient spot.

Everything is either a tool, a supply or a decoration:
  • Keep tools if you have a potential practical use for it, but that tool is merely a decoration if it’s not on display.
  • You must have a use for a supply or it’s better to give it away to someone who will need it more.
  • Decorations must be on display, or they’re supplies.

Unless you have a designated place for items, don’t put them away exactly where you took them out, since they need to go with something else.

Stay rational

Focus on one object at a time and ignore the size of the mess:
  • Ignore the size of the clutter zone.
  • Systematically sift through each item until you’re done.

For each item, ask why you still keep it:
  • We always have a reason to keep something.
  • We become hoarders when we focus on past-tense value more than present-tense.
  • If you have many inferior items of something (e.g., knives, pens), then get rid of all the bad ones unless you can specifically think of a reason you’d need that many of them.
    • Often, those items are cheap to replace when you need them, so they’re taking up valuable space.
  • Pay close attention to the space you can’t use by holding onto an item.

Look at its current and calculate its possible future worth:
  • Measure any possible future need against the cost of energy and resources to store it.
  • Unless you consume or repair with the item, duplicate items typically waste space.
  • Only keep things you’d buy again.
  • Only keep broken things with a clear written plan to fix or repurpose them.
  • Giving things away and buying them later will usually make you happier than indefinitely holding onto things.

Managing specific Zones

Immediately visible areas:
  • Don’t let entryways, bedside tables, counter-tops, and surfaces become storage areas.
  • Only leave decorations and today’s tasks in plain sight.
  • If you keep setting practical items on a surface, remove any decorations from it.

  • If you need a clean surface, use contact paper on the drawer.
  • Group items with small baskets or dividers.
  • You can improvise dividers by cutting open and taping a cereal box.
  • If you need a dry environment, set silica bags from electronics in the drawer (which you can bake to reuse).

  • Over time, basements and attics aren’t as climate-controlled, so only store things that don’t need room-temperature storage.
  • To avoid more dust, cover everything with plastic sheets.
  • Only store waterproof things on the basement floor.
  • Getting something into the attic is harder than taking it down, but getting something out of the basement is harder than getting it there.

  • Don’t let clothes sit on the bed or drape over furniture.
  • Keep all dirty laundry in a hamper or basket.
  • Only slide items under the bed in shallow plastic tubs to prevent dust or clutter and allow easy access.
  • Teach your children to pick up their toys every day or they lose them.

Downsizing clothes:
  • Most people only need a few outfits:
    • A nice dress (for women)
    • 2 jackets
    • 3 skirts (for women)
    • 3 sweaters
    • 2 dark pants & two jeans
    • 3 coats
    • 1 white button-down shirt
    • 2-5 T-shirts
    • 5 pairs of shoes
    • 7 sets of socks and undergarments
    • Work-only clothes
  • If you don’t wear it, you don’t need it.
  • To find out what you wear, hang all your clothes with the hangers facing to the back and invert them as you wear them.

Making closet space:
  • Hanging:
    • Hang more clothes by offsetting them with soda can tabs.
    • Hang scarves and belts by linking shower curtain rings over a hanger.
    • To hang sensitive garments, tape a pool noodle or secure clothespins over a hanger.
    • To keep collars stiff, line them with a belt.
    • To prevent silks and dresses from slipping, attach rubber bands or pipe cleaners to hangers.
    • Install a shelf instead of setting things on the floor.
    • Store out-of-season clothes, special occasion outfits, and linens in drawers.
  • Drawers:
    • Neatly fold clothes and group them together by type.
    • To keep shirts from wrinkling, roll them instead of folding.
    • To maximize space, fold clothes into squares.
    • To easily see what you have, stack your clothes vertically.
    • If you don’t have drawers, use suitcases, storage bins, or vacuum-seal bags.
    • To prevent creases, roll bedding and rugs around a pool noodle.
  • Shoes:
    • To make more space, put shoes on a low-hanging coat rack.
    • Keep tall boots upright with pool noodles.
    • Hang shoes on a rod by bending a wire hanger upwards, then securing the center to prevent it from collapsing.
  • Jewelry:
    • Get a larger jewelry box or consider putting jewelry in long-term storage.
    • Stab earrings through a piece of paper to keep them together.

Living/dining room:
  • Keep the dining table cleared except for when you’re using it.
  • Make a coat hanger by hammering nails or spikes onto a board, then hanging it near the entryway.
  • Make sure everything is where it’s most easily used:
    • Keep the dishes near the dining area.
    • Keep entertainment (e.g., video media) near the television.
    • Place board games near the dining table or coffee table.

Under sinks and in bathroom cabinets:
  • Arrange every bathroom’s cleaning supplies for convenience.
  • Double-bag toiletries to prevent spills.
  • Keep razors clean by putting binder clips over them.
  • Store hairpins on a magnetic strip.

Kitchen and pantry:
  • If your kitchen has too many utensils, consider the last time you used each one.
  • Unless you use them, store away duplicate or extra flatware.
  • Throw out or repurpose unmatched plastic containers.
  • Store saucepans inside a cupboard with a shower tension rod and shower hooks.
  • Hang paper towels with a plastic hanger broken at the bottom.
  • Throw out old food and place the oldest food in front.
  • Convert bulky boxes of cereal and pasta into airtight, stackable plastic containers.
  • Throw out bad or mediocre recipes.

Filing cabinets and paperwork:
  • Keep all necessary papers, records, identification, and passwords in one place, preferably near your desk.
  • Categorize files as much as you need to quickly access everything.
  • Your system should mean each document can only be in one location.
  • You can get rid of most of your documents with a flatbed scanner and either an external hard drive or free cloud drive account.
  • Shred or burn obsolete documents when they have information you wouldn’t want a stranger to know.
    • You can usually shred most things after 7-10 years.
    • If you’re at all uneasy about old documents, scan before shredding.
  • Make a filing system to streamline how you manage paperwork:
    1. Action files with tasks connected to it
    2. Routinely accessed necessary files (credit card statements, insurance records, etc.)
    3. Archival files only necessary for specific cases (income tax returns, automobile documents, etc.)
    4. Sort through each letter individually as you receive it.
    5. Take photos of ideas, then throw out the papers.

In your computer:
  • Keep all your private documents in one place.
  • Set up a password-protected master file of every password you own.
  • Make as many folders as you need to sub-categorize what you have.
  • Remove computer programs that take up too much space or you don’t use anymore.
  • Clear out your email inbox regularly and unsubscribe from weekly newsletters.
  • Remove social media ties and phone contacts with people you no longer connect with.
  • If you’re not sure whether to delete a phone number, store it in a computer file like a spreadsheet or text document.

  • Clear out the trunk and beneath the seats.
  • Keep emergency supplies and tools stocked in the vehicle.

Hobbies/office supplies:
  • Even when they overlap, group supplies for your hobbies separately.
  • Hold small objects like rolls of tape or string in Tic Tac containers.
  • Make pencil/marker cases by cutting up milk cartons.
  • Hold paper clips on a magnetic strip.

Behind and under furniture:
  • You’ll discover many, many things you thought you’d lost under/in couches and behind furniture.
  • Label cables with bread clips.
  • Keep everything organized with cable ties, tape, binder clips, hair clips, toilet paper rolls, and velcro ties.
  • Make a fixed cable holder by holding the wires parallel to each other, wrapping a cable tie around all of them, then tie the gaps in between.

  • Move your clutter to let your comparatively more expensive car fit in your garage.
    • Screw a pool noodle half into the garage wall to park more closely to the wall
    • Keep balls and other small items away from the parking area by putting them in a mesh sports hammock.
  • Cover saw blades to keep yourself safe and to put items around them.
  • Hold fishing rods and pool cues in pool noodles.
  • Try to expand your storage space:
    • Use hole board and plastic drawers.
    • Screw handles to plastic containers to make sliding drawers under shelving.
    • Secure screw clamps to a board on a wall, then tighten the clamps around mason jars.

Holiday storage:
  • Label separate boxes for each holiday.
  • Separate and store decorations in egg cartons.
  • Make a wrapping paper cuff by cutting a toilet paper or paper towel roll lengthwise.
  • Keep decorative lights untangled by wrapping around a coat hanger.

Other miscellaneous:
  • Label keys with different colors of nail polish or paint.
  • If you have a large sentimental item that’s taking too much room, consider taking a piece off it as a memento or taking a photo.

Keep it up!

Organization, done right, isn’t a one-time experience:
  • After you’ve cleared areas, clutter will slowly reappear.
    • If it helps your focus, tape a picture of each perfectly cleaned room to your wall.
  • Only a few minutes of maintenance every day, with a little more every week or month as needed, will keep your space organized.
    • Spend five minutes each day maintaining a room.
    • Set a monthly or seasonal calendar task to tidy up.
    • At least once a year, systematically go through everything you own.
  • Pay close attention to what causes your clutter, then take preventative steps the next time you see it.

Cut back on disorganization with daily habits:
  • Make your bed every day.
  • Wipe down your dining table after every meal.
  • Don’t let clothes pile up or clutter to stay out for long.
  • Avoid setting items on convenient flat spaces for long.
  • If your home has multiple tenants, set each person’s clutter in a specified bin.
  • Establish clear rules for when you’ll get rid of things or reorganize.

If you like staying organized, use the Japanese 5S method to continually manage your space:
  1. Sort (seiri) – get rid of unnecessary items and maximize free space.
  2. Set in order (seiton) – place things in their most easily-accessible locations for your purposes.
  3. Shine (seiso) – sweep, clean, and dust to avoid overlooking anything out-of-place or broken.
  4. Standardize (seiketsu) – create habits and schedules that repeat the first 3 steps.
  5. Sustain/self-discipline (shitsuke) – do it without anyone telling you, and before any possible emergencies.