What is organization? It is being prepared. It is having a home for everything and everything in its home. It is not having color-coded lids or chalkboard labels. It is not making everything magazine-beautiful, but making everything fitting and useful.
Why you organize – your motivation – matters quite a bit. Organizing so that we can take on more and more or impress everyone with our skillz will never last long and always backfire, because pride sets us up for falling and failing. Rather, we should organize our stuff and our actions in order to achieve peace of mind, clarity of thought, and faithful stewardship of our resources.
Arrange for a Humming Home
One thing to keep in mind as you go about organizing is that this really isn’t a process that can happen all at once, even if we did have the time. As you use your system, you’re going to see ways to improve it, so tweak it as you go and don’t get bogged down in setting it up “perfectly” from the outset. Just focus on arranging things so that it is easy for yourself to find what you need when you need it.
Don’t get caught up implementing someone else’s exact set-up, but step back and look at your own home and current systems and way of doing things and set up your system in a way that will complement your style and situation.
As long as you know where to find what you need when you need it, quickly and without stress, you are organized.
There are a few key homes you should consider setting up from the outset:
- An inbox: our inbox is where stuff or notes go before you can process them. Ideally, your inbox(es) are emptied at least once a day or every other day, but honestly, getting it done monthly is pretty good for me. This is a temporary holding spot, not a storage container. Your email inbox is one inbox; that is, it is not a storage spot. File, archive, or delete emails in your inbox if you’re done with them; don’t let them collect. You also need one or two physical inboxes for stuff like church bulletins with dates or info you need, your notes, bills to pay, etc. My inboxes include my email inbox, which I try to keep less than 10 emails in — only emails requiring action stay in the inbox; a magazine file in a “command center” cupboard in the kitchen to hold papers until they can be processed, and my purse is my on-the-go inbox to hold papers until they can be processed. I am still not good about cleaning out my purse, but at least that’s only two places notes to myself or other papers I need might be.
- A launchpad: a launchpad is a magnified outbox. It is some sort of container or shelf near where you leave the house that you keep stuff that needs to leave the house: a bag of stuff to take to Goodwill, a bag of books to return to the library, a bag of hand-me-downs to give to a friend, your purse, etc. It’s crazy how much time it can take to gather stuff up to get out the door some days. Setting up a launch pad means your keys, purse, and whatever else you need to take with you has a place where you can gather stuff ahead of time, as you think of it, where it’s easy to grab on your way out the door.
Most of our stuff that we need to organize falls loosely into the category of “reference”: That is, you only pull it out when you need it. It is useful, but it doesn’t involve or generate tasks (usually). The key principle to use for organizing all this stuff is to put it where it is most often used, and put the most frequently used items in the most convenient spots. Less-often used items should go in the hard-to-reach storage areas, but the things you pull every day should be quick and easy to grab and to put away.
How you set these things up, how much you keep, what you keep, where you keep it, is all a personal logistical issue that you’ll have to figure out for yourself and your own context.
However you set up your stuff, your goal is to make it an under-two-minute task to file incoming stuff or put something away when you’re done.
That means that when something comes in or whenever you use something, you just put it away, you don’t put “file stuff” as an action item on your to-do list or let items stack up on your counters. The goal is to not let a nebulous stack of papers, magazines, or whatever accrue.
Next, go through that list of pending items you made last time and disperse them into their appropriate places. What list does it belong on?
If it has tasks associated with it, make sure the next task that has to be done is on your to do list or tickler list, and date-specific tasks and information is on your calendar or to-do list as you sort and organize your project materials.
A well-kept task list prevents situations like beginning to wash the dishes, getting everything all set and wet and sudsy, then realizing out of the blue, “I have overdue library books!” “I needed to pay the bills today!” “I said I’d call ____ about ____!” and feeling like you have to do that more urgent or higher-priority thing right now before you forget again.
When you can calmly review all things you are responsible for doing, you can make a judgment call and feel confident in your choice.
Of course and unfortunately, simply having the lists doesn’t actually make us in control of ourselves. Sigh.
After you have these lists, you still actually have to do those things, and you still might not even want to. No system is a key to self-control and discipline. I know. I’ve tried. And so far most of my systems have crashed and burned under my lack of self mastery. The focus needs to not be on finding and creating the right system, but setting up a “good enough” one and actually working it.
In Getting Things Done, Allen claims most people have between 30 and 100 projects underway at any given time. If a project is “anything you have a commitment to make happen that involves more than one task,” I’m sure we could all come up with at least 30: birthdays, holidays, outside volunteer projects, planning a homeschool year, each is something about which you are working toward a definite outcome that has multiple tasks associated to it.
Besides the basics, we each have our own pet projects and personal involvement projects like church responsibilities, decorating projects, craft projects, reading or writing projects, and such. However, housekeeping, laundry, meals, household goods & grocery upkeep, lawn, exercise, and budgeting are not projects because they are – I’m sorry to say – never finished.
The first and probably most important step is to define what “finished” means for all your projects. Make sure all your project outcomes are concrete and attainable.
What constitutes “enough” or “finished”? The point is that you want to know when it is accomplished and can be dropped. How many projects have rattled around in your head, not giving you peace, because you had done all you were really going to do on it, but knowing you could do more and do better, you didn’t let it go and call it “finished”?That is what we are out to avoid this time around.
So, what end do you want to reach before crossing it off your project list? Write it down, of course. That’s not to say you can’t change your mind and your list later, but avoid ambiguity as much as possible.
Checklists are also the lists you keep to remind yourself either of steps to a procedure that is not yet habit or of areas of responsibility that you want to keep in front of your face. The trick is to not add unnecessary complexity as we do this.
Even packing lists and shopping lists fit the “checklist” categorization. So are freezer or supply inventories. They aren’t really a task in themselves, they are a reminder, so you can keep such thoughts pinned down and useful rather than jumbled and vague.
These are a reference to use as we learn the routines and habits we want to learn, so make the lists and have the lists, but only use them as needed and as they are helpful to you.
This is where you will keep some of your most creative thinking, your wishful thinking, and the ideas that are still in percolating mode. This is where you can keep an idea without it becoming a pressure or stressor. It’s a place to let thoughts incubate or to hold ideas until their time comes. They don’t need to nag you, because you have acknowledged them and you have said, “Not now. But I will consider it again in the future.”
Maybe you want to keep a list of activities you’d like to consider when all your children can get their own shoes on, get into the car, and buckle themselves up without anything more than a “Go!” from you. Maybe you want to keep a list of people you want to have over, but can’t right now because of short-term circumstances. Maybe you want to keep a list of books you’d like to read or movies you’d like to see or places you’d like to go. This is a no-pressure place to keep them and let your imagination run free. There is no obligation that you ever will do anything on this list, but at one point you had the thought, captured it, and now you can wait and see if the time ever becomes right for that idea.
However, remember that the point is to write it down and let it go. It can be easy for the someday/maybe list (or Pinterest boards) to become a list of how we wish life looked, a list of grievances and discontents all lined out for constant review. Guard your heart and keep a list of future potentialities, not a list of current discontents.
Develop the routine of going over your projects and moving next-action tasks onto your daily radar, and you will dramatically reduce stress and mental drain.
Arranging as a Habit
Organization is more like laundry and dishes than like a craft project: It is never complete. It is like swimming. You are either treading water or slowly sinking; progress is getting yourself back to the surface before you drown, not arriving at a destination. However, treading water at least becomes easier the longer you do it. At first it takes concentration and focus and energy simply to stay afloat, but eventually you get into better shape and can breathe evenly again. However, you never get so good at it that you can stop. Stop, and gravity and entropy will immediately begin pulling you down again.
So jump in, ready to get fit and stay fit, knowing you can make it to the surface now and repeatedly.