Archive for March, 2010

14. Organizing Myths

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

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Today, I’d like to address five organizing myths. These are inaccurate or unrealistic ideas that people have about organizing. If you’ve had trouble getting or staying organized, perhaps it’s because you’re adhering to one of these myths about the organizing process.

The first myth is a belief that some people have adopted about the organizing process called OHIO. OHIO sounds like it might be in organizing technique that was created in Cleveland or Toledo. This is not the case. Instead, it’s an acronym. OHIO is an acronym for the phrase “Only Handle It Once.”

The idea behind OHIO is that every time you touch an item you’ll immediately put it in its final destination. There are situations where this works well. For example, if you already have a working organizational system in place and you want to incorporate new items into that existing system, I have no doubt that OHIO will work well for you. If your possessions already have locations they belong, and you are returning items to their homes in order to maintain an existing system, OHIO is great. It’s ideal for maintenance.

However, if you are starting from being completely disorganized, I would not recommend trying to handle every item only once. If you are starting from chaos you will not be able to create the final destination for each object immediately. Even if you imagine a place that might be a good final destination, it’s likely that that location is already filled with stuff, and you would have to move that stuff before you could put the original object in that location. But then where are you going to put the stuff you removed from that location? If your environment is filled with stuff, you can get into a circular gridlock. It will not be possible to put everything in its final destination immediately. Some intermediate steps are necessary. It will be much more efficient to use temporary sorting containers and then find a home for that stuff after it has been sorted into categories and you have room to move into.

Also, there will be lots of items that will need to go to other locations, other rooms in the house for example. If you try to only handle something once, then you would need to immediately take that item to the other room and come back. Doing this a lot will be very inefficient because you will spend a lot of time traveling. I recommend instead, having a temporary container labeled “Other Rooms,” or “Take To Garage.” Whenever that container gets full, you can make one trip to that location and distribute all the items at one time. Even though you’re handling each item more than once, it’s still a lot more efficient.

Even though Ohio doesn’t work in many situations, there are still good intentions behind the idea. I believe the intention behind Ohio is to avoid what I call thrashing. Thrashing is picking something up, looking at it, and then putting it back down again. If you do this, you have expended time and energy, but you haven’t made any progress. Thrashing is wasteful and ineffective. If you can put everything in its final destination, you’ll avoid thrashing, and I believe this is the intention behind Ohio.

But there’s a way to get the benefits of Ohio without the drawbacks. Even though you may handle items more than once, you still want to avoid thrashing. You can do so by making sure you don’t pick something up, look at it, and just put it back down. Make sure you put it with its category, or in a temporary container that’s labeled for a particular destination. That way it’s moving closer to its final destination, even when its final destination can not yet be known. If every action you take moves you closer to your destination, you will always continue to make progress.

The second myth I’d like to address is that gadgets and products are the answer to an organizational challenge. Many times, when people decide to get organized, the first thing they do is go out and buy drawer dividers, shoe racks, plastic storage bins, shelving units, over-the-door hooks, and desk organizers. I strongly recommend against doing this, especially as the first step, for three reasons.

First, the majority of people are disorganized primarily because they have too much stuff. If you are one of those people, then to go out and buy more stuff is actually moving in the wrong direction. It’s taking you further from where you want to go.

Second, you may already have these items. As I was organizing Natasha in San Francisco, I found, in various locations all over the house, the equivalent of an entire closet full of drawer dividers and plastic baskets, most of them unused. She would go out and buy these items, but they would get mixed in with lots of other stuff and she would forget about them. Then later she would go out and buy more, until she had accumulated more than she could ever use. I have found that if you have a lot of stuff, practically everything you need will show up as you’re going through it. So as you get organized, you may find that you don’t need to buy anything after all.

Third, until you do sorting and simplifying, there’s no way you could know which products will work. If you buy products at the beginning of the organizing process, it’s likely that you won’t spend your money very effectively. If you’ve read this blog before, you know I recommend following “The Three S’s of Organizing,” simplify, sort, and store. You cannot know which products will be effective until after sorting and simplifying, until the third step, store. There are times when products can be useful and effective. However, there’s no way that you can know which products will be effective until late in the organizing process, so please, please, please, do not go out and purchase a bunch of organizing gadgets and products as step one of your organizing process.

The third myth I would like to address is that organizing is synonymous with decluttering. Although decluttering can be an important part of the organizing process, decluttering and organizing are not the same thing; they are different processes with different goals.

I have met people whose environment was very cluttered, however they were still organized, meaning they knew where everything was, and they were able to find and access everything they needed to do what they wanted to do. I’ve also met people who were uncluttered but disorganized. Their surfaces were all clean and their environment had a Zen simplicity that was beautiful to look at, however, they couldn’t find anything, and, beneath the surface, inside their drawers, random objects were thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

Decluttering is either getting rid of unnecessary objects, what I call simplifying, or clearing surfaces and tidying up. Either of these may be part of organizing, but organizing is much more than decluttering. Organizing is the process by which, through introspection, you become really clear about what is important and what you most want to accomplish at this stage in your life. Then, you arrange your possessions to make it easy to accomplish those things. You want to be able to spend time on what really matters and not be distracted by stuff that doesn’t really matter. You want to be able to find and access items when you need them. So organizing is a larger process than decluttering, and an important part of that process is internal. See earlier posts for more information about that.

The fourth myth is once you get organized, you’re done. In reality, after you are organized, if you continue with the same behavior you had you were disorganized, you are likely to re-create that same disorganization. Staying organized requires a change in habits, a change from the habits that created the disorganization in the first place. I will talk more about this in the future, but for now, just know that after you become organized, you’re not finished, you must still maintain that organization.

The fifth myth is that the ability to organize is genetic — you were born with it, and either you have it or you don’t. I know from personal experience that this is not the case, because I was not born with it. When I was in college, living in a college dorm room, every morning I would wake up and move all the stuff from my desk to my bed so I could study. Then every night, I would move all the stuff from my bed to my desk so I could sleep. Meanwhile, my roommate would watch me and laugh. He was very neat and organized. He had bad eyesight, so he had to have each of his belongings in its place because otherwise, they couldn’t find them. He had become organized out of necessity. Organization is a skill that is learned and can be developed. Organizational ability relates more to habits, choices, and lifestyle than genetics.

In addition to these five myths about the organizing process, I’d also like to address two myths that people have about professional organizers. This comes from a personal place. Sometimes people make assumptions about me because of my profession, and I would like to respond to the ones that are incorrect.

I’ve heard people say, “I want to see your home — it must be immaculate!” I can assure you this is not the case. In fact, right now, there’s a stack of papers and other clutter on my desk. If I have an important project, like taxes, I tend to be very focused on that project and neglect maintaining my organizational system. This is a deliberate choice, because at that time, the taxes are more important than staying organized in other parts of my life. So, I am situationally disorganized, and it really works for me to be that way. I’m not anal and I don’t expect myself to be perfect. So, no, my home is not immaculate.

The second idea that people project onto me as a professional organizer is “You’ll make me get rid of stuff I want to keep.” Well, no, I would never try to coerce someone into doing something they don’t want to do. Not only is that not the person I want to be, but it’s also not effective. Forced interventions do not work. I may invite you to question whether possession is supporting you, how it’s contributing to your life. I may invite you to look at your relationship with that object and the beliefs you have about it, and about yourself. I may challenge you to make different choices than you have in the past, but I will never try to force you to get rid of something you know you want to keep. I will also never shame, criticize, or judge you for the choices you make. I just try to bring as much consciousness and awareness to that decision-making process as I can.

13. “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind”

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

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Previously, I introduced “The Three S’s Of Organizing” and discussed the third ‘S’, store, which is to find a home for this stuff so its well-positioned for future use. There’s a fear that people sometimes have about storing. The fear is, “if I store this somewhere, I’m afraid I’ll forget about it.” “If I put this away, it will be off the radar.” “Out of sight, out of mind.” Someone who would make these statements is depending on visual cues, or visual reminders, to keep track of the things they need to do. They are afraid if they can’t see it, they will forget about it.

We all have a lot of things we need to keep track of. In fact, when you think about it, the number of things you have to do and keep track of on an ongoing basis is really quite extensive: pay bills, buy groceries, change the oil in the car, pick up the kids from school, vacuum, take out the trash, change the burnt out light bulb in the garage, get the mail, arrange to have food on the table, plan for a vacation, plan for retirement, exercise, pay the rent or mortgage, keeping contact with friends. The list goes on and on, and this list doesn’t include all the things we need to do for work. Most of us have more things to do and more projects to keep track of than we could remember in our minds.

Some of these things have a built-in reminder system. For example, if a light bulb goes out, the darkness that I see after I flip the switch is an instant reminder that the light bulb needs to be changed. When I was in college, when I put on my last pair of underwear, I knew I had to do laundry, and soon! We generally notice when the car is running low on gas before we end up being stranded on the roadside.

We have all developed systems of reminders to supplement our own memory in remembering things, and keeping track of which of them are most important. One example of such a memory aid is using visual cues, where there is a physical object you can see to remind you of each thing you want to keep track of. I call this using visual reminders.

If you are someone who does this, I’d first like to ask, “How is it working for you?” Does it help you keep track of and effectively address the things that are most important in your life? As far as I’m concerned, there’s no right or wrong answer, there’s just what works.

And there are instances where using visual cues does work, but in most cases it doesn’t, it doesn’t because a system of using visual reminders has four limitations. First, it is short-lived, and becomes less effective over time. Second, it doesn’t scale well. Third, it results in misplaced priorities, and fourth, it creates stress. Let’s take a closer look at each of these limitations.

I have noticed, from my own experience, and from years of working with other people, that the more we see something, the less we notice it. The more we see a visual cue, the less effective it is as a reminder, so its value as a reminder decreases over time. I used to work with a guy who, when he encountered something he wanted to take home, he would put it right next to the door. His reasoning was that when he was leaving, he would see the item on the way out the door, and remember to take it home. However, throughout the day, he would go out the door several times, and see that item many times, so by the time the reminder was actually needed, the item was completely off the radar. Inevitably, at the end of the day, he would walk out the door leaving that item behind. This illustrates the first limitation of visual reminders, they are short-lived and decrease in effectiveness quickly over time.

Visual cues can work if you have a small number of them, a small number meaning less than ten, for example, but there’s a limit to the number of items that can be visible at any one time. Once you get more than that, the reminders get stacked up, thereby obscuring one another, so they’re not all visible. If they are not visible, they can’t function as a reminder. So the second limitation of visual cues is that they don’t scale well. They work well in small scale, but not in large-scale. A small number of visual reminders can work OK, but once you have a large number of them, the whole system breaks down.

Now, whenever you have a large number of visual cues, how do you choose what is most important? How do you choose what to do first? Typically, people choose based on what happens to be at the top of the pile, or what happens to be the most visible. This is not necessarily the thing which is most important, so you end up doing unimportant things before you get to the important things. So the third drawback of using visual cues is that it tends to lead to incorrect priorities.

The fourth, final, and most important drawback of using visual cues is that they create stress.

A reminder works well when it reminds you about something at a time when you’re able to act on it. With a system of visual cues, however, you are getting these reminders at times when you’re not able to, or don’t want to, act on them. You are getting these reminders all the time. For example, suppose it’s the end of the month, and you have to pay bills. You have a very busy schedule but you’ve set aside enough time to pay your bills, and you absolutely have to complete this task. It’s your most important priority at this time.

However, as you sit down at your desk, you see reminders of other things you have to do. You even have to move reminders to make room to pay your bills. At this point, these other reminders serve no benefit. They are not helping you get things done, instead they are interfering with what you need to get done. The visual reminders have become visual distractions.

The only way for you to succeed in paying the bills is to ignore these reminders — to block them out — and this makes them ineffective as reminders in the future.

Now suppose, on another occasion, you’ve had a long, busy day at work, and you really want to come home and just relax. Relaxation is an important part of a balanced life, and sometimes relaxation is, and should be, the most important priority. In this situation, “Out of sight, out of mind” is a blessing. If your environment is filled with visual reminders, these reminders will interfere with your ability to relax. As you want to escape from all responsibilities and forget everything, you will be reminded that:
• You have library books to return.
• Your father’s birthday is coming up.
• The electric bill is due.
• You haven’t even started on your taxes.
• You need to get more ink for the printer.
• You are behind schedule on the project for work.

All these reminders of things you have to do, at a time when you just want to relax, serve no beneficial purpose. They just create stress. The visual reminders have become visual stressors.

The problem gets compounded if you start beating yourself up for not having done them sooner, or criticizing yourself for being in this situation. This can have a negative impact on your self image and quality of life.

Again, the only way for you to succeed in your goal (which, in this case, is relaxation) is to block all these reminders out, and this makes them ineffective as reminders in the future.

Overall, the only way for a system of visual reminders to work is if, first, you learn to block them out at times you don’t want to be reminded, and second, you still notice them when you do want to be reminded. You must also develop the habit of, when you are ready to act on these reminders, scanning them all, even the ones that are buried, and choosing, out of all of them, the most important ones to act on it that time. This is what must happen for a system of visual reminders to be successful.

If you use visual cues, and it works well for you, then continue to do so. If it doesn’t, you might want to consider developing a different habit. I recommend freeing yourself from a dependence on visual cues. There are other ways to accomplish the same thing. There are other ways that are more effective and take less effort, the simplest of which is a “to do” list.

If you find yourself feeling resistant to establishing a new habit, remember that we all have habits, it’s just a question of how well these habits are working for us. It requires a change to establish a new habit, and any change can be uncomfortable, but if you’re willing to take the risk to face that temporary discomfort, your quality of life will be improved in the long run. You will find yourself more empowered to live the life you have imagined.