20. A Sample Organizing Project (part 1)

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Today we put the theory into practice. We will go right to where the rubber meets the road. We will go through a sample organizing project from start to finish.

First, a few caveats. Every organizing project is unique, and every individual who is organizing is unique also. If I am working with an individual client, I can tailor my suggestion specifically to them. Obviously it’s not possible to do that here, so I will give an example of a typical project, but you will want to customize the example to make it work for you. Feel free to make any changes necessary to customize it for your goals, your stuff, your storage spaces, and the way you use or think about your possessions.

I will assume that you’ve already read my earlier posts which give more background, explanation, and insight into each of the steps that we will take.

This example will not require any purchases. In fact, it can be implemented with supplies that most people already have around the house. In this example I will illustrate how to organize so that you know what you have and where things are. I won’t even attempt to address aesthetics, like what colors are used or how the furniture is arranged. I’m sure you’ll understand why that is beyond the scope of this article.

Also, I’ve really been struggling with what kind of an example to use. On the one hand, I wanted to make the example general enough so that it would apply to many people. On the other hand, I wanted to make it specific enough that it is concrete and practical, so that it gives you tools you can use today. Balancing these two goals turned out to be far more difficult than I expected. I decided to make the example pretty specific. Our sample project today is to organize a garage, but the methodology I will illustrate can be applied to any organizing project, so the example will be beneficial to you even if you don’t even have a garage.

So let’s get started. I’m going to break our sample project into four parts: preparation, setup, implementation, and follow-through.

In the preparation stage, you will look at the big picture of your life. Forget the organizing project for a minute, and go somewhere other than the garage. Now, consider what is most important in your life. What do you most want to accomplish in the next year? What do you most enjoy doing? If you had a free weekend with nothing you had to do, how would you most want to spend that time? What you feel most passionate about? What makes you excited? These are the real reasons you want to get organized. Few people organize the sake of organizing. I think mostly we organize because being disorganized can prevent us from living life to the fullest, can interfere with doing all the things that we most want to do.

Now, let’s continue the preparation by taking a step into the garage. What are your goals with respect to this specific organizing project. And don’t just say “to get organized.” Be more specific. Why do you want to get organized? For example, Deborah wants to convert her garage into a playroom for the kids. Phil wants to be able to park his car in the garage so he doesn’t get as many traffic tickets. Dolores wants to be able to find things in the garage, rather than having it be a black hole that sucks stuff up and never lets it go. David needs to find his sleeping bag for an upcoming camping trip. There are hundreds of reasons to be more organized. What are yours? Be very clear about what you want to accomplish. What would you like the garage to look like when you’re finished?

It’s very important to be clear about your goals, both in organizing and in your life, in order to ensure that the actions you take lead toward those goals. I wouldn’t want you to spend a lot of time on an organizing project only to realize you haven’t accomplished what you most wanted to accomplish.

Next, make sure you have supplies. Now when I say supplies, I don’t mean organizing gadgets and customized containers. Most likely, you’re not ready for them yet, so please don’t go out and buy a bunch of organizing products. The post “Organizing Myths” explains why in more detail. All you need now are some cardboard boxes of different sizes to use as temporary sorting bins and to hold the stuff that’s gonna go away. Other supplies that might be useful are Ziploc bags, stick on labels, Post-it notes, twist ties and rubber bands. Most people already have these common everyday items in their home, but if not, please do not go out and buy them. You may not need them at all, and you may find them as you go through your stuff.

Now, let’s move on to the second stage, set up. Arrange to set aside a certain amount of time where you will be able to focus on the project. You may wish to minimize distractions. This may mean turning off the ringer on your cell phone or doing the project while the kids are at school.

Next, create an infrastructure that will support sorting and simplifying. Take a large, empty cardboard box (or any other container you have available) and label it “Donate.” Take another box and label it “Give Away.” This will be for stuff to go away it won’t be received by the charity where you take your donations. Examples might be office supplies that can go to your local school or other stuff to give away on FreeCycle or on craigslist. If you have big-ticket items that are valuable enough that it would be worthwhile to sell, you may have a “Sell” category as well. I like to use a plastic bag for trash and a paper bag for recyclables. Some municipalities mix all the recycling together, and some require that they be separated. Do whatever will help you unload them most efficiently.

Okay, so far you’ve made containers to hold stuff that’s going to go away. Continue setting up the infrastructure by making containers to hold categories of stuff you want to keep. Look around and see what type of stuff is there. For example, in a typical garage, you may find automotive supplies, sports equipment, and tools. If you use the garage for storage, you’ll also find stuff you don’t use very often, like holiday decorations or old tax returns.

Take a cardboard box and label it with each of the major categories you can see or that you expect to find in the garage. And don’t worry about being too precise about this — you can always change these later on.

As you create boxes to hold categories of stuff, make the categories very general. You don’t want to be micro sorting into 100 categories. See my post on Sorting for more information. Create broad, general categories. If necessary, it will be possible to subdivide these general categories into further refined subcategories as you go on. For example, instead of creating categories for tablets, tape, and Post-it notes, you might create a general category for all office supplies.

Also, take an empty box and label it “Go Elsewhere.” You’ll inevitably encounter stuff that doesn’t belong in the garage — that should go in the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, or elsewhere in the house. You don’t want to be running back and forth with each individual item, so put anything that doesn’t belong in the garage in the “Go Elsewhere” box. At the end of the day, or when the box gets full, you can make one trip throughout the house and distribute all these items to the places where you want them to go.

Find a place to put the boxes you’ve labeled. If there is already room in the garage, either on the floor or on a surface, put the boxes there. You want to place the boxes so that you can see the labels and so that there’s still room to move. If there’s a car in the garage, remove the car to make room. If there’s no room in the garage, find a place close by to put the sorting boxes. Another option is to open the garage door and put the boxes outside on the driveway.

Some TV shows show people starting out by removing everything from the garage and putting it outside. I do not recommend this for two reasons. First, it’s usually not necessary. It may help to remove some items from the garage, but to remove everything is overkill. It’s usually possible, once you create some space, to do the project in place, and in the first step of organizing, we will look for ways to create space. Second, it means you’re either committed to complete the whole project at one time, or else you need to move a bunch of unsorted stuff back into the garage at the end of the day.

You’ve completed all the setup, so now choose an area to start. The goal in choosing a place to start is to find somewhere where you can get to a surface, either the floor, a shelf, a tabletop or some other surface. The goal is to get to the bottom of the stuff, to the surface, clean the surface if necessary, and then use the space you’ve created to put one or more of the sorting boxes.

Start in one area and for every item, ask yourself two simple questions. First, should this item stay or go? Posts #5 through 10 give more insight and specifics about how to answer that question. If it will go away, put it in the box for the destination where it will go.

If you want it to stay, in other words, if you want to keep it, in what category does it belong? If you already have a location for that category, put it there. If that category doesn’t exist yet, create it. Put a label on a box and this will now be the location for all items you encounter in that same category. You can use Ziploc bags for small categories.

Go through all the items, one by one, one after the other. Stay or go? What category? Stay or go? What category? Donate this. Give this away. This goes in tools. This goes with Halloween. This goes with books. Sewing stuff. Donate. Office supplies. Seasonal clothes. Recycle. Sewing stuff. Trash. Go elsewhere.

If one of the boxes gets full, take an empty box and label it with the same label as the box that’s full. Close the full box completely. If it is overflowing, remove items from the full box and place them in the empty box until you can close the full box. After the full box is closed, place the box that is almost empty on top of it. For example, if your office supply box gets full, close up the full box, label an empty box “Office Supplies,” and place the empty box on top of the closed full one. From now on, place any office supplies you encounter into the top box which has lots of room. It won’t matter that it’s now more difficult to get to the bottom box, because they’re both the same category.

If you encounter a box or some other container of stuff already in the garage, take a quick look at the contents. If it’s all one category, slap a label on it that says what’s in it. If it’s a mixture of miscellaneous items, go through the box and sort it into categories.

Continue going through stuff, box by box, item by item. As you get to a surface, clean it off and put your sorting containers there. Eventually, you will have all your sorting containers in the garage.

I’m going to assume you won’t be able to complete the entire project at one time. Start at least 20 minutes before the end of the time you have allotted to wrap things up for the day. Taking the following four steps will allow you to efficiently continue the project when you have more time available.

First, for the stuff you want to go away, arrange to physically remove it from the premises as soon as possible. Put the donate boxes in the car and take them to your favorite charity. Arrange for recycling, trash, and anything else to go away in whatever method is most expedient.

Second, make sure all your containers are closed and labeled. This will ensure that the categories you’ve already sorted will stay separate from the stuff you haven’t looked at yet.

Third, if there are any boxes outside the garage, bring them inside the garage for safekeeping until you can continue the project.

Fourth, for the box labeled “Go Elsewhere,” make a trip through the house and deposit each item in the appropriate location.

Next time, we’ll continue and complete the project. We’ll finish sorting and simplifying and move on to the Third ‘S’, Store. I’ll try to get it to you real soon. Until then, I wish you all the best for fulfillment in life and success in your organizing projects.

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