Sensational Living®

April 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

This month I start a series of columns featuring organizational ideas. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Gee, Bret, you’re SO organized,” I could be sitting on my well-organized gluteus maximus eating some of this month’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipes (including the variations with caviar and truffle oil!) instead of typing this column. But, I really do want to share some of my organizational hints, so here goes.

Remember, entire books have been written about organizing, so each month I’ll only be touching on a fraction of the Big Picture. Keep the ultimate goal in mind: being organized will increase your free time, it will increase your efficiency, it will enable you to enhance your performance and reputation at your job, and it will streamline your environment, thus reducing stress and enhancing your health and mindset.

My Number One organizational tip is: Start Small, Start Slowly. Number Two is: Group Related Materials Together. Number Three is: Divide and Conquer.

Start Small, Start Slowly: Do you have a drawer that is packed full of stuff, but you don’t know what kind of stuff? Do you have closets that threaten to explode? Do you have piles or mounds or shelves or bowls full of papers, and bills, and coupons, and other “stuff”? Should your garage or attic or storage locker be declared a disaster zone? Are you intimidated by any of these things? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you need to get organized, and you need to Start Small, and Start Slowly. You’ve gone this long without having these areas organized, so you don’t have to complete the whole organization project in a few hours or days. Just make the commitment, select one of these areas, start it, finish it off, and move on to the next area. Most importantly, when you get one area organized, congratulate yourself! Don’t berate yourself for “only” getting one area done. Celebrate that you have one less area to organize, and you are closer to be totally finished organizing (well, at least the “initial” organization).

Group Related Materials Together: We all have certain constant activities in our lives. It’s just a matter of identifying what those are, and grouping similar ones. It can be as simple as identifying the related groups of paperwork: bills, “read” magazines, “unread” magazines, “read” newspapers, “unread” newspapers, coupons, warranties, etc. Sometimes it involves identifying actual activities: materials related to Travel (suitcases, ponchos, satchels, cameras, binoculars, for example), or to Arts and Crafts (painting supplies, pastels, canvases, sketch books, etc.; maybe include gift-wrapping materials here, or create a separate category if you are a big “giver”), or to Sports (balls, bats, gloves, cleats, etc), or to Gardening (flower pots, potting mix, trowels, vases, miscellaneous plant/flower materials), or to Music (whether “active,” as in instruments, sheet music, music stands, or “passive,” as in CDs, cassettes, albums, singles), or to Electronica (video games, remotes, DVDs, video tapes, etc) or whatever you do/like/enjoy. Sit down and make a list of activities, pleasures, fun stuff in your life. Draw lines connecting similar topics. Think about the volume of materials and number of items you have in each category. Think about the amount of space, the form of the space, and the accessibility of the space(s) that will eventually house each group of materials/items. Ultimately, you will be creating “zones” for each of your interests and activities.

Divide and Conquer: Don’t begin dividing and conquering one of your problem areas unless you are prepared to finish that one area; there is something dispiriting about having everything divided but unconquered because of other commitments. Once you are ready to start, select a problem area, and take everything out piece by piece, and create piles (or boxfuls or bowlfuls or other “containerfuls”) of like items (use a table to sort, or the floor, or the bed, or any wide surface). As you move through the problem area, you may even identify new “categories” (for instance, as you move through a pile o’paper, you may decide that “Family History” is a relevant category, to include loose photos, photo albums, and other memorabilia. Be sure to also create areas designated for “discard,” “donate,” and maybe “give to friends” or “to process.” This last category is particularly relevant for those holding onto old magazines and newspapers. (I’ll discuss processing and organizing magazines and other ephemera next month.)

Now we need to talk about storage. If you’ve processed a drawer or shelf of items, return the relevant materials to that drawer or shelf (ie, those that belong in that “zone”), neatly (use containers within the drawer, if needed). Since you’ve identified other necessary “zones,” temporarily move appropriate items to their proper “zone” even if what is already in that zone hasn’t been processed yet. You may even need to “create” a zone (that is, you don’t have a pre-existing furniture. I have done this with my research files (and I have thousands of them to organize the data I rely upon for my consulting, writing and lecturing, as well as my own creations). I have a number of filing cabinets, but file cabinets can be expensive. I solved my file storage problem using data storage boxes. My former employer discarded these boxes by the hundreds, so I retrieved and recycled them at home. They are uniform in size, and can be moved around easily because they have handholds. One, two, three, my files are contained. However, the boxes themselves are not particularly attractive, and since esthetics are important to me, I had to figure out what to do with them. I had quite a bit of unused space, and some unusual nooks and crannies, so I started moving my boxes into those areas. Then I employed a décor idea presented in the March Senses of Living® column. I bought scarves at thrift stores, fabric remnants at garage sales, and sari remnants in my nearby Indian and Pakistani neighborhood (all in colors appropriate for the rooms housing the boxes). I draped these pieces of fabric over the boxes, sometimes overlapping different but related colors and patterns, until the boxes were covered, sometimes cascading gently onto the floor. The effect was a splash of color in each room that could double as a display surface. I stacked several boxes (five high, no more; they’ll topple; I know!) in an unused space between two bookcases, draped them in a piece of bright fabric, and displayed a Mexican mask on top; no one even suspects storage boxes are under the fabric! They just see color, texture and ornament.

I hope that this will inspire you to clear the clutter in your life. This is an ongoing activity for me, as what was necessary last year is clutter today, as I work harder and harder to simplify my life. Simplification and simplicity (voluntary simplicity? Involuntary simplicity?) will be discussed in future columns … we’ll talk! One step at a time, and soon you’ll be well along your Path!