Being disorganized causes huge problems.
• Americans waste nine million hours per day searching for misplaced items, according to the American Demographics Society.
• The Wall Street Journal reported that the average U.S. executive wastes six weeks per year searching for missing information in messy desks and files.
• Cleaning professionals say that getting rid of excess clutter would eliminate 40 percent of the housework in an average home (National Soap and Detergent Association).
• “ Crisis ” purchases related to disorganization could cost as much as 15 to 20 percent of your annual budget— buying duplicates of misplaced or broken items, last-minute shopping at premium prices, and unnecessary interest, rush, and finance charges on late payments.
But figuring out how to get organized is a struggle. How to stay organized can be an even bigger challenge.
Most people have no idea where to start and even if they do get things functional it doesn’t stick because there’s no underlying system that reliably produces results.
But don’t fret — your favorite psychological MacGyver has answers. Organizing can lead to a better understanding of yourself, your goals and what you want. Crazy as it sounds, it can be a road to a better life.
Believe it or not, ancient philosophers and kindergarteners can teach us all we need to know about getting things straight. Let’s get to work.
Marcus Aurelius Beats Martha Stewart
Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius has some thoughts about how to organize your home and office.
Okay, okay — he didn’t actually write about how to structure your linen closet. But some of what he had to say is definitely applicable.
When you look at most anything he suggested you ask a question.
What is this, fundamentally? What is its nature and substance, its reason for being?
And expert organizer Julie Morgenstern says the answer for any room in your house is you need a “theme.”
By theme I don’t mean “country-western.” We’re talking about organizing, not decorating. (I am the last person you want as your interior decorator — unless you love Star Wars posters and sitting on the floor.)
By a theme she means asking, “What’s this room for?”
The reason you’re so disorganized is because most of us don’t answer this question specifically. And I mean specific to you.
Your living room theme could be “a place to entertain friends.” Or “the ultimate spot to watch movies.” Or “where you relax after a hard day.”
Why does this matter? Your theme becomes the filter by which you determine what belongs and what doesn’t. What takes priority. What should be placed next to what. Because now everything has to serve a purpose.
This is why most organization methods never stick: they’re arbitrary. And underneath it all, you know that. So you fall into the same old bad habits of throwing things here or there.
So before you start throwing things out or moving them around ask: what is this room for?
And don’t get stuck on “shoulds.” Your theme must be personal, not what mother would approve of or what decent, upstanding citizens “should” put here. Serving someone else’s purposes is another big reason why systems don’t stick.
Context is a powerful influence on you. The right theme can help you achieve a goal, whether that’s streamlined productivity or hedonistic relaxation.
So which room should you start with? Morgenstern recommends you go with the place you spend the most time in.
…choose a space that you spend a significant amount of time in every single day. You’ll feel the benefits for your efforts immediately. This provides you with the reward, energy, and encouragement you’ll need to undertake the rest of your home or office.
(For more on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Okay, so you have the theme for the room you’re trying to organize. But how do you get started?
You Need SPACE
SPACE is an acronym for:
Let’s break them down:
Start going through the things in that room and ask:
Is this a part of my theme? Will this help me further my goal? Does this make me happy?
All that stuff that doesn’t align with your theme? Throw it out or move it to a room where it will serve a theme.
How often do we hang onto things that served us well at one point in our lives but are no longer relevant or useful? And while our attachment to these items makes sense on a certain level, by continuing to carry them around we limit our ability to invite new and more relevant experiences, opportunities, and growth. The best way to get unstuck is to free up your space and time of the things that are no longer relevant.
Yeah, I know it’s hard to toss stuff. Andy Rooney had a great method for addressing this.
Take the square footage of your place and divide it by the amount of your rent or mortgage payment. Take that number and multiply it by how much space this stuff takes up. That’s how much rent you should “charge” those items every month. Are they worth it? Probably not. Get rid of them.
A huge problem is that a lot of important items have no “home.” The stuff that is related to your theme needs a place where it always goes.
And that place needs to be convenient. Plain and simple: if something is hard to put away, you won’t put it away. (Remember the 20 second rule.)
You don’t need to go moving everything. You always put your glasses next to the lamp and therefore you never lose them? Fine, keep doing that.
Keep what’s working because it’s easier to leverage old habits than to establish new ones. You want to replicate the systems that work for you, not use some method that “should” work but doesn’t click for you.
Morgenstern says this is why a lot of organization attempts fail: you start using a system you don’t trust and you find yourself not putting things away because you’re terrified you’ll never find them again.
So you can never find your keys but you always know where your jacket is because you hang it on that hook? Maybe your keys need a hook, too.
You can’t just cover every flat surface with your stuff. (Okay, you can, but that’s not working, is it?)
Use those drawers, shelves, storage bins. Pretty simple: related things go together. But they’re related by your theme and by how you use them, not by some generic label other people use.
Start using the space. Is it achieving your theme’s goal of productivity or relaxation or whatever? If not, focus on what’s not clicking and do regular tune-ups.
(For more on how the most organized people get things done, click here.)
Okay, I know what some of you are thinking: I don’t have a room for every single goal, Eric. I have rooms that need to serve multiple purposes.
Way ahead of you. Get out your crayons, we’re heading back to kindergarten.
The Kindergarten Method
Remember being at school when you were five? The room was divided into activity zones.
This was where you made macaroni pictures. And this was where you did show-and-tell. And this was where you napped.
You can do the same thing — but without the zones being so obvious and formal.
In a living room, your activities may be entertaining friends, watching television, listening to music, reading, and playing board games and cards. In an office, your activities may be working on the computer, making phone calls, doing paperwork, and assembling mailings. Your core activities comprise the zones of the room. Keep in mind that the average room can accommodate three to five activities.
So for any room with multiple purposes you need to define your zones, with each one getting a mini-theme.
To some degree you already do this. Think about the kitchen. Loosely, you probably have a Food Preparation Zone, a Cooking Zone, a Dishes Zone, a Food Serving Zone, a Food Storage Zone, etc.
Apply this same strategy in other multi-use rooms.
First, try to build them around your natural habits and preferences…Second, think about the relationship of one activity to another in determining where your zones should be.
Once you know your zones, run through the SPACE acronym for each.
Do these items relate to my theme? Does the stuff that does belong have a home? Is it accessible? Containerize things that go together. Use the area, see if it’s working and tweak as necessary.
(For more on how the most productive people get things done, click here.)
Okay, let’s round this all up so we can put it to use.
Here’s how to get organized:
- For rooms with a single purpose decide on a specific, personal theme. “What is this room for?”
- For rooms with multiple purposes, use the Kindergarten Method. Define your zones and their themes.
- Apply the SPACE acronym.
- Sort: Is this item aligned with my theme?
- Purge: The stuff that isn’t serving your theme gets tossed or moved to another room.
- Assign: Cluster by your theme and by how you use things, not where they “should” go.
- Containerize: Like goes with like.
- Equalize: Is it working? If not, tweak the system until it does.
But this will get you on your way not only to a home that’s more organized, but toward a place that helps you get what you want out of life.
Research shows the place you live says a lot about you. Make sure it’s saying what you want.
To quote William Morris:
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email firstname.lastname@example.org.