I’ve touched on some digital organization techniques in past posts, but I haven’t discussed how to organize your physical spaces. I’m not a naturally organized person. Here are a few ways I try to become consciously more organized. The following thoughts are focused on creating a life, especially in your home, that is free of unnecessary complexity. This is about more than interior design. It’s about cultivating a mindset of simplicity and efficiency. I won’t make an argument here for the advantageousness of this pursuit because I hope you who are reading a blog called The Optimized Now already value such things.
The difficulty of organizing your possessions is directly correlated to the quantity and size of the items you own. In order to move towards a more organized life, you must disown your non-essentials. Disowning things is more than a physical act of throwing them away. It’s a commitment to be emotionally detached from your stuff. This will free you to live in an uncluttered environment. From contemporary studies in social anthropology and psychology, to the verses of the Bible and other religious texts, you’ll find unabashed agreement that things don’t make us happy.
Make this a habit: every laundry cycle, examine the clothes you haven’t worn during that cycle. Do you need them? If there’s anything you don’t think you’d ever be caught dead wearing again: give it away immediately. If you think you might someday want to wear it again use this test: Have I worn it in the past 3 months? If the answer is no and it’s not a family heirloom, holiday outfit, seasonal outfit (winter coat or shorts) or sports gear, give it away. No matter how much you paid for it, it’s not worth anything to you taking up precious closet space. Constantly think about the clothing you can give away or trash. Be radical about this. Challenge yourself to simplify down the bare essentials. You’ll quickly become less attached to your stuff.
This closet cleansing practice has double value: it frees up physical space in your closet AND it creates a little bit of fear the next time you are about to buy clothing. You won’t want to buy something just to end up throwing it out.
Don’t buy things on impulse that cost more than a few bucks. Always sleep on a purchase and reflect on the true necessity or value of a piece of clothing or any other item. Let purchases sit as ideas on shopping lists or your Amazon Cart for at least one night before you buy. Retailers use fancy deep learning computer algorithms that can beat Chess Grandmasters, don’t believe you won’t succumb. Give yourself a chance to reduce your clutter by creating some temporal and emotional distance between your purchase desires and your wallet. You’ll end up with more intelligent purchases and less stuff to organize. Ask yourself: is this an essential item? Be radically honest with yourself. Assess your purchases based on your actual past behavior. Here’s an example (pardon all the guy’s examples): You see a cool new Allen Iverson jersey at the thrift shop. It’s actually really nice and fits well. You think about how cool you’d look reppin’ the home team and even imagine turning heads on the streets as you sport your sweet new jersey. The colors just pop really nicely. It’s got an old school vintage feel and even has the stitched numbers so you look like you paid a lot of money for it. It’s only $3.50, why not buy it? Seems like a pretty good investment, right? Nope. After emotionally detaching yourself from this daydream, you ask your friend, who happened to accompany you to the store, what he thinks about the item. “Well,” he advises, clearing his throat in preparation for difficult words, “you never really wear jerseys and they’re hardly ever appropriate attire. That one you bought a couple years ago you’ve worn maybe two times. I just don’t think it’s worth it.” He’s right. It’s not.
Where to put everything
I’ve been trying to get everything in its right place in my bedroom. It’s tough. It’s so easy to throw things in random spots. I’ve found a few principles really useful for maintaining an organized space. This has mainly come from observing the arrangement of hotel rooms. I figure hotels have spent millions of dollars on behavioral research to optimize for efficiency and comfort, which is pretty much all I want from my home.
If something isn’t physically used at least daily, it is a storage item.
Place it in storage. Storage should be out of sight. You don’t need items hanging around that you don’t need. They create extra cognitive options when looking for items. For instance, let’s say you have on your bathroom sink rubbing alcohol, hand lotion, chapstick, paper towels, soap, bandaids, facial cream, and contact lens solution. If all you need each day is your solution & soap, you’ve now created all these unnecessary physical and cognitive obstructions to your routine. Store the stuff you don’t use. If it’s probably not going to be used in the next 6 months and isn’t a first aid item, ditch it. You can always buy more if you really need to. Don’t fall into that mental trap of saving everything “just in case”. That’s a recipe for clutter.
That being said, storage can often be a way to prevent the need for constant trips to the store. For instance, I like to keep three sets of backstock soap, deodorant, Advil, sunscreen, mouthwash, toothpaste, dishwashing tabs, and a few other household items. This prevents frequent runs to the store and helps me always have what I need. Consider having a backstock of your commonly used items.
Having kits is a great way to save time, be prepared, and prevent organizational chaos. My primary kit I have ready to go at all times is a travel kit. It has my essentials for overnight stays: contact lens solution, deodorant, toothbrush, earplugs, etc. This makes traveling simple and, more importantly, returning from travel is easy because I don’t have to replace all my items to their original spot.
Think carefully about placement.
You may not think about it, but wandering across your room 15 times back and forth does take time. It makes physical objects you’re trying to get more cognitively burdensome. Avoid random placement of objects in your room. Think about where something is generally used and place it near there. Soap goes as physically close to the faucet as possible. The trashcan goes as physically close to the sink as possible. Another trashcan may go as close to your writing hand as possible at your desk. Learn to think like an engineer. Everything’s placement should be thoughtful. This will make simple tasks easier and hopefully give you more pride in your living space. A few more examples: Pots go near the stove. Baking items near the oven. Handtowels near sinks. Drinking glasses near the faucet. Knives close to the cutting board. Notepads near writing areas. Sleep gear near bed. Socks in drawer near floor. Shirts at shoulder level. The more you need something, the more accessible it should be. This will cut down on unnecessary moves and prevent you from worrying about where things need to go and where they are. It will allow items to serve as physical reminders for the tasks you use them for. For instance, by placing notepads on your desk, you’ve also created an implicit reminder to be thinking creatively and be future-oriented. By placing floss visibly near a faucet you’ve created a reminder to floss.
Consider placing items in groups that make sense. All your shower storage items go in one place. All the first aid items in a bag or an area that you can quickly access but out of the way. All non-daily medicines in a place together. Just think how annoyed you get searching around for things when they are illogically spread out in different places in your room or house.
Inbox and Outbox
Inevitably and frequently things will need to move to and from rooms. There is a cataclysmic danger these moving items clutter up this newly beautifully organized space we just discussed. This need not be the case. Items on the move should be thoughtfully arranged and designated their own places. Create a physical inbox and an outbox. The inbox will be a labeled or unlabeled space where you place everything that needs to be dealt with. It will go near your thinking space: probably your desk. This inbox might contain mail, documents you need to sign, a check, a gift, a painting, or whatever. If you need to think about what to do with it, it goes into your inbox. That is the physical and cognitive space where all incoming items go. I have two. One is for miscellaneous items, the other for clothing that needs to be folded/organized/tried on/etc…
The same goes for outgoing items. Items leaving your bedroom or home go near your door. Whether they are going to your kitchen, your car, or Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, it doesn’t matter. This will be the cognitive and physical space for everything in that room that you want to go somewhere else. You won’t be searching around for it. You won’t forget that it has to go. It’ll be right there at the door waiting for you to assess its priority and carry it with you on the way out. With these inboxing and outboxing techniques, you’ll quickly learn that what used to be many individual tasks of moving items can often be consolidated and brought out together. This is a benefit I refer to as batching.
Work and organize in batches
I have a bad habit of breaking tasks into small, repetitive steps. Let me give an example. When chopping 5 onions I used to chop an onion on my kitchen counter, walk out of the kitchen and throw away the scraps into the trashcan, pull out the 2nd onion and do it all over again. No matter how optimized the cutting board and knife, it’s still hopelessly inefficient. Now I go like this: I pull out a big metal bowl. I pull out 5 onions. I chop off 5 onion roots. I peel 5 onions. I place ALL the peels in the bowl and dump it. 20% of the time and effort with a simple tweak. Develop the habit of batching tasks like this. When folding laundry, don’t fold a shirt, put it away, and then start folding the next shirt. Fold everything, then put it all away in batches based on which items are going where. This is an especially helpful technique in the kitchen, where repetitive tasks are common. Batch processing will save you massive time.
Note on Aesthetics
I do believe in style and I think it’s healthy and good to have some things you don’t need in your space but do like having there. This is fine, as long as your art is not hindering your space constraints or creating clutter, I think it’s great. Art should be intentionally placed and additive to the positive psychological environment you’ve created in your home.
Consider creating a home with thoughtfully placed possessions. Considering being conscious and thoughtful about the things you choose to call your own. Your life will be simpler and you’re mind will be free to focus more on the things you love.