If we’re being honest, most of us are not tidy people. At best, our desks and houses are clean but slightly disheveled, the contents always varying slightly. We only get the neat-freak tingle when people are coming over (or when we’re putting off doing something more important). This is because, most of the time, when you spend your hours occupied by your own affairs, it seems tedious and boring to worry about keeping things perfectly in order. It takes time to be organized, you think, and beyond the basics, who has time for that?
Turns out, it doesn’t really require any time to keep yourself organized—at least, not when you simplify the standards. This week, we’re giving you the world’s simplest guide to organization—just two steps. We thought about all of our little tips, tricks, and principles and distilled them down as far as we could. You could also call these two rules, if you wanted—but there’s just two, and as you'll see, there’s plenty of room for you to decide details for yourself.
Step 1: Make Sure Everything Has a Home
First of all, what is an item's “home”? Well, just like yours, it’s a permanent place of residence; it’s where the item belongs when it doesn’t need to be out. On an ideal desk, as in an ideal city, there’s a home for everything; the more things on your desk that don’t have places, or that don’t belong entirely, the more disorderly the space becomes. Then it’s hard to get work done.
As you clear space and give things homes, you'll remember another thing about homes: they’re where families live. Like things live together, right? By putting together sensible places for your things to live, you wind up following one of the widely-recognized principles of organization, which is to put similar items together.
Most likely, your house or apartment is as close as possible to where you work and socialize. Similarly, the homes you choose for items should reflect where they’re used, or how frequently they’re used. As a working example: if you ever have the chance, take a look at a good restaurant’s kitchen. There aren’t many drawers or cabinets in the workspace. Everything the kitchen staff needs is in front of them, or next to them, or above them. This way, when the kitchen gets busy, they can move as little as possible while working. (You’ll also notice that a chef rarely has anything they don’t need in front of them, or even near them.)
While we’re on the subject of locations, here’s another reason to give everything a home: because if something has a home, you can always find it. Once again, think about your own home; in terms of its address and location, your home is included in systems designed to make it easy to find you. And, for the purposes of organization, that’s absolutely a good thing; that’s how mail and Amazon Prime packages get to us reliably. Being “on the grid” is, by virtue of its name, a state of being organized. It’s the same when you give objects homes; if you give things homes purposefully, and according to your own system, it will be easy for you to find them later.
Something to bear in mind: it’s always harder to put away something if you’ve haven’t put it away before. Because… where should it go, right? This is where the problem-solving territory is yours, and yours alone. Remember, as with all things creative and brainy, that organizing is entirely a matter of what works for you. Whether your “system" is literal, like a labeling system, or mnemonic—that you have a clever way to remember everything—your "system" will allow you to stay focused and reach for things, where before you had to consciously go find them. But remember: all you had to do to create this “systematic” way of thinking was to give everything a home. You will have your own ways of micromanaging the decisions, buying organizers, whatever—but whether you’re talking about your desk or house, you’re the city planner, and you make every decision about zoning every little street corner of your city, however you want it to function.
It may be the case on your desk, like in a major city, that there is never perfect order, that you can never put everything away. But hopefully, you’ll find that your main spaces are less congested, that you can think with less clutter, that there’s a better rhythm in your work—and if there are a few piles that are allowed to stay, that at least all of your disorder can be relegated to them.
Step 2: Get Rid of Everything Else
Relax—we’re oversimplifying. But not by too much, because the not-too-complicated reality is that, if something can’t be given a home—or never gets enough attention to get a home—it’s probably not useful to you. If it’s not useful to you, and if it’s still on your desk or in your house, it’s just taking up space. Worse, it could be getting in your way, distracting you, or bothering you. Be more Spartan than most people, for just one moment, and ask yourself if you couldn’t just get rid of it. Could you?
You just have to entertain the thought. What comes next is what’s useful to you.
If you trash the item, that means that you officially don’t need it, and you’ll never see it again—and congratulations, you’ve just gotten a little stronger. If you give it away, you decided the item had value, just not to you—a fair concession. If you put it away, it means that you’re keeping it for a reason—and now you don’t have to see it, think about it, or do anything with it until you want it. But then there are the piles we make—sometimes, instead of putting something away, we add it to a pile.
In a bit we’ve referenced before, George Carlin jokes (NSFW) that everything lost goes to a big, constantly-changing Pile in Heaven. When you lose something, the Pile gets bigger; when you find it, the Pile shrinks again. Well, that’s what happens on our desks, too: piles form with random documents and half-discarded notes. Sometimes the piles shrink, sometimes they grow, but invariably they’re full of lost things, things that don’t quite belong right now yet aren’t quite condemned to the trash. To an extent, piles are necessary—not everything belongs somewhere all the time—but, dangerously, piles are easy to ignore. They become part of the dull landscape; they don’t grab our attention after a while.
There are two reasons that this second step—the enforcement of the “everything has a home” policy—is so important. It helps you remain vigilant about putting things away, but also, it spurs you to get things done—because sometimes, the only way to get something off your desk and out of your life is to do something about it. By requiring yourself to assign significance to the items in your view, and then move them to where they belong, you’re forced to take the action they deserve. Piles and errant papers often represent the decisions we’ve been putting off or the tasks we haven’t completed—and, especially if it needed to be done eventually, seizing a good moment and getting it off your desk proves its own reward, whenever you can do it.
Even though there are only two “rules,” you can see the rudiments of a functioning system between them. Everything plays a part; everything belongs somewhere. It’s worth thinking about what the word organization means: the sensible arrangement of parts into a whole. There’s a second part implied: that something is organized for a purpose, that it is made to do something. To organize something is to give it organs, to make it into a functional instrument for that purpose.
You were made to do something, you functional instrument you. So get organized and get back to doing your thing in bold fashion—and, hopefully, with a clearer head.
Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we'll be talking about continuous improvement and its application to startups and small companies. (Last week, we talked about our productivity strategy called "pressurizing the system", so click here to take a glance if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page.