Organizing Fads (and why I dislike them)

A friend recently asked me what I thought about an organizing fad that's been pretty popular recently. According to this fad - and I'll explain why I call it a fad in a minute - the best way to downsize your stuff is simple. You pull every "thing" of one kind out of wherever it is. You put it all together. You get rid of half(ish) of what's in the pile. And then you put the smaller amount of stuff you're keeping back in its closet again.

This is a terrible approach.

If you're like most of my clients, you'd hire me because you find organizing painful and difficult. Pulling something like shirts out to look at - that won't be too bad. All the shirts. On the bed. Let's look through them.

Actually, let's sort them into piles of long-sleeved and short-sleeved first. Oh, plus a pile for the button-downs. Ok. Three piles. Go!


I have never worked with a client who could get rid of half of their shirts - or anything else - in a short period of time. People who can do this easily don't need help with organizing. I can hear my clients' reasoning, and it makes perfect sense. For some - they travel. They need multiple sets of clothing ready when they come back and head right into a work marathon. For some it's sentimental - the clothes that they don't wear mean something, and there aren't that many they really do wear. Some have already been winnowing their possessions. Some are in the middle of weight loss or weight gain and don't want to have to go shopping when their size changes, just to follow the rules of some over-simplified one-size-fits-all fad. Some have just lost a parent or sibling and the problem is that all the stuff cluttering up their home isn't theirs, and they have no idea where to begin.

I call this a fad because it misses one truth, known by all people who own Stuff: the stuff that's hardest to sort and get rid of is always the stuff that doesn't fit neatly into any category. Shirts aren't that bad - but what do you do with the contents of THAT DRAWER? Everybody has one. In my house, it's a combination of office supplies, hardware, memorabilia, and junk that should really just get tossed. And what if half of your clothes are in storage for winter? What if your parents' entire house-worth of stuff is in storage? What if, like most people who have trouble organizing, you see each of your possessions as unique, irreplaceable, and emotionally charged? What if you have art supplies - does this mean it's time to say goodbye to all the warm colors, or should you get rid of all the subtle ones?

Even if you're nowhere near being a hoarder, sorting most stuff into a few simple categories and getting rid of half of each category probably won't work for you. That's why I think this method won't be around for long. Basically, it won't work unless you're already reasonably well-organized, or don't own that much to begin with.

If you're *not* already well-organized, there is no cookie-cutter way to get there. I prefer tackling things one space at a time - a room, or a closet, are pretty easy to sift through in a few hours, in most cases. I try to keep things neat while they're being sorted or winnowed, so you don't have a lot of cleanup to do after organizing just one kind of thing. What I prefer, though - well, it doesn't much matter unless you decide to work with me.

There is one thing I can tell you. Getting organized is going to take time - your time - because you'll have to develop and get comfortable with an organizing method that actually works for you. And that's the really important thing: make it work for you. Don't listen to people telling you there's only one way to organize your stuff - they're wrong. You can organize it, or leave it disorganized, in thousands of different ways. The entire point of organizing should be to make your space easier to navigate - and more enjoyable to inhabit - FOR YOU. 

Taking the debris of a life, or several lives, and imposing some kind of order on it is simple... in concept. It only takes your time to get it done. If you go in expecting the process to be easy and fast, you will be disappointed. Working with a professional organizer can make it easier to start with, but maintaining organization is a challenge that will always, always take your commitment and your time. Minimizing that time is useful. Minimizing your stuff is also useful, in some cases. But if you rush in with a set of abstract rules and no understanding of what you need from your space, you'll end up with a bigger mess than you had when you started. Don't do that to yourself.

It's up to you whether you make a commitment to yourself and your space to be more organized. For some people, it's worth it. For others, it isn't. But rigid systems that claim to be The One Right Way are only useful if they happen to work for you. If they don't, ditch them. Do things your way. It may not be easy, but in the long run it will work for you - and that's what matters.

More organization isn't always a good thing. This pantry would drive me crazy.

More organization isn't always a good thing. This pantry would drive me crazy.