Stuff will never make you organized


There's a store near where I live that sells stuff for organizing your other stuff--racks, boxes, cabinets, and shelves for tools and toys, sweaters and shoes, spices and CDs. They've got a perfect container for anything. But there's only one right time to buy any of that stuff: When the stuff you want to store in it is already organized.

At least, that's my experience--both with my own stuff and with stuff that belongs to people I know.

If I've got two tidy row of shoes on the floor of my closet, and buy a shelf that lets me store those rows one over the other, that works fine: I install the rack, move half the shoes, and I'm done.

If, on the other hand, I've got shoes scattered all over the house--some near the door, some in the bedroom, one pair in my gym bag, the pair I just took off next to the chair where I sat to put on the ones I'm wearing now--then buying that shelf will do me no good at all.

I've seen it happen so many times that I'm prepared to call it a general rule. If you've got all your receipts neatly organized in a shoebox, then it may well make sense to buy a handsome wooden receipt box. But if your receipts are scattered among drawers, tucked into envelopes, folders, and purses, and stacked up with unfiled bank statements, then buying a handsome box will do you no good at all. In fact, it's worse than no good at all: next time you need to gather your receipts you'll have to look in all those old places and your box as well.

I suppose some of you will have counter examples--a cousin's brother-in-law whose garage was always cluttered until he bought a new tool chest and pegboard and now it's all tidy, or a great-aunt whose sewing supplies were a mess until she bought a taboret and organized everything neatly into little drawers. But my experience is that any such result is a rare fluke.

Understand this, and you come out ahead two ways. For one thing, there's some money to be saved here, by not wasting money on "storage solutions" for stuff that's not already organized. But that's not the big win.

The big win from internalizing the rule is that it improves your organization.

Here's the key: Before buying a "storage solution," organize the stuff you're buying it for.

At this point, you're doubly ahead of the game: Your stuff is already organized and you haven't spent any money. If you still want to buy the storage solution, go ahead (at least now that you know exactly what's going to go into it, you know exactly what you need). My own experience, though, is that most of the time it turns out to be entirely satisfactory to use a file, folder, shelf, box, or drawer that I've already got.

There's much to be said for handsome boxes, shelves, cabinets, and racks. Don't hesitate to improve the tools you're already using to keep your stuff organized. Just don't imagine that buying new stuff will help you become organized. The only thing that organizes your old stuff is organizing your old stuff. If you haven't already done that, any new stuff you buy is just more stuff to organize.

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Guest's picture

This was a great poast. One in which I thought "This seems perfectly logical" and "I need to think through this". I am so guilting of thinking a system is going to change how I operate. Thanks for giving me a handy way of remembering exactly what is going to make the difference - a behaivor not a thing.

Guest's picture

Just so... no more no less. I am a very organized person and it baffles me when I see programs on TV where consultants come to organize other people's houses, at the very least they should come to teach them how to be organized, which they seldom do.

Guest's picture

This is definitely my problem area. Many books on the subject make the same point: most people rush out to buy organizing solutions, when the real first step should be to declutter AND then to organize. "You can't organize clutter" is the maxim of a famous online declutter site.

Thanks for the reminder. I will now shut off my computer and get some stuff together for the Food Bank Thrift Shop!

Guest's picture

but something about this didn't seem right to me. Obviously, a closet 'system' isn't going to suddenly make everything fit, but I could remember many occasions where the purchase of some organizational item (a shelf, a file cabinet, and yes, hooks for the garage) moved my space from an unintelligible pile to something that could at least be worked on. It was like a breath of air to be able to find the things I used every day.

I think the difference may be where you are in life. An established household with years of accumulated things and habits might see little benefit. But from the perspective of a new grad, with limited possessions, limited routines, and even more limited storage space, getting 'a place for everything' sooner rather than later helps jump start the habit of actually putting it there.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ PlantingOaks:

If all your clothes fit in a couple of suitcases, I'd say it's perfectly reasonable to buy a dresser.  If all your books are stored in a few cardboard boxes, it's a perfectly reasonable time to buy a bookcase or two. 

And, yes, it's possible that a file cabinet and a package of empty manila folders will help turn an unintelligible pile into a neatly organized file drawer.  But if what you've got is two piles, a heap, an overstuffed desk drawer, an old grocery bag, and a box labeled "File these first (June, 2003)," I don't think there's any "storage solution" in the world that will do the trick.  I'd recommend transforming that mess into a pile (preferable an intelligible one) first, and only then deciding if you need another file cabinet.

Guest's picture

I lived with a girlfriend who was totally unorganized. Periodically, she would go to a store like you mention and come back with a carload of organization gadgets. In a mad flurry of activity she would organize everything in sight and then sit and enjoy the sight of it. That would last about a month. Then everything was in the exact same state of disorder as before.

Over time I have developed very strong organizational habits. I asked here if she wanted my help in developing better habits of her own. She said yes. It didn't work. I told here that it didn't help to buy all of those gadgets if she wasn't going to make the effort to develop the habits to go along with them.


Guest's picture

I do much better by just getting rid of stuff. I can fit all of my tools nicely into the tool boxes I already own, but until I make an effort to get rid of the ones I never use, I will perpetually have to reorganize them after every project. I let all of the stuff I don't (or seldom) use get in the way of the stuff I use regularly in the name of organizing it. Then I mess the whole lot up getting at the stuff I want at the time.

Guest's picture

As a pack rat and slob, I agree no amount of pretty boxes helps.

What did: fully organizing my closet space so there was actually a place for everything. A very specific place, not just a rod with hangers.

My desk is a horror but my closet is 100% (ok, 99%) tidy since I did this.

However, my extremely neat engineer boyfriend set up the system for me.

Guest's picture

Organization is so under-rated. Organization creates efficency. Great post Philip. As you organize your life, life typically flows smoother.

Guest's picture

I learned this lesson the hard way. I bought a lot of storage containers for all of my stuff before I finally realized that what I needed wasn't more storage "solutions" but to deal with my clutter problem.

After I downsized, I celebrated by giving away some of my now-empty storage containers on my blog (some of them went to a woman who was moving and said she'd pass them on after she was settled). I do have some storage containers, but just enough for what I now have. I haven't forgotten what I learned. And I haven't bought anything at the Container Store!

Naomi @ Simpler Living

Guest's picture

The only problem storage solutions fix is the problem of genuinely not having any place to put the stuff. If that's not the case, it won't help at all.

Buying a file cabinet was a great idea for me. Why? Because I didn't have one at all. The only place for papers to go was in a giant stack on my desk so that's where they went. Buying a large corner desk with cubbies to hold stuff on the other hand was a horrible idea. I got it because it was the same one my fiance had and he loved it. Except I didn't have anything that needed to go in those cubbies. So I found stuff. Hello clutter. I'm currently planning on replacing it with a simple desk. Four legs, flat surface, keyboard tray, and maybe a couple of drawers to hold spare computer parts, cables and manuals.

Guest's picture

Bravo! One of my definitions of clutter is that it is stuff that is not cared for properly. If you don't put stuff away, a new container isn't going to help. Same with purchasing organizing "systems". No closet organizer is going to work if you throw your clothes on the floor.

If stuff is truly clutter and isn't worth my time and attention and care, I am better off getting rid of it.