Twenty Observations on Organization

Several people have asked me about organization in the last few days, particularly since Mom just helped me get my desk and house in something resembling order. So I’m going to try to explain what Mom did for me, and how you can do it for yourself. It’s long, and rambling. If people want this sort of advice, and comment, I’ll see if I can condense it further.

About every year, Mom comes to my place here in northeast Connecticut, and offers me a few hours of her time to help get things organized. Two years ago, she came in and we did my kitchen. Like most of you, I had a galley kitchen, meaning that it has a stove and fridge on one side, a counter on the opposite side, and a sink at one end. It’s large enough for two people to almost-but-not-quite stay out of each other’s way. Three creates a morass.

My mom’s insight about my kitchen was that my dishes were stored in the cabinet closest to the countertop. I had put them there because they were close to the dishwasher. Yet in order to empty the dishwasher, I had to open and close the cabinet door several times, and banged my head on the door every time. She suggested shifting the dishes to the two cabinets to the left of the sink. This meant that I had to shift my body and turn, but I could remain relatively stable during dishwasher-unloading. Moreover, the cabinets to the left of the sink had the right amount of space for the dishes that I had. This was a revelation. By shifting the dishes, I could make better use of the cabinets by the countertop for food staples — and now the food staples had more space; I could see what I had at a glance to cook; and I knew what dishes went where. All well and good.

Two insights from this:

One: Place tools in easy-to-reach and set locations, and ‘snap-back’ tools to those spots every time.
Two: Put replaceables (nails, staples, food, rubber bands, paper) in storage areas where you can see what you have left, and what needs to be replaced.

Mom also got me a smaller garbage can for the kitchen, and helped me put pots and pans, dish towels, napkins and silverware in some semblance of order. Knives went into one specific drawer right by the sink, while the baking pans went to the back of the most inconvenient kitchen cabinet. She also got some little boxes and compartment dividers for my kitchen junk drawer. Three insights here:

Three: Make the things you use every day most accessible; make the things you use rarelyleast accessible. Revise regularly.
Four: Frequent trash runs force you to throw stuff out more regularly.
Five: Have a junk drawer; empty and organize it regularly.

Wardrobe Organization

That was her last visit. This time, I told Mom that I what I needed help with was my wardrobe and my office and my “art closet”. I don’t like a lot of my clothes, and I feel like I need five sets of clothes — festival clothes, school clothes, school-casual clothes, school-exercise clothes, and hanging-with-friends clothes. Mom disagreed with me about how many sets of clothes I had — she pointed out that I have summer and winter clothes for school-casual and professional work, and that I probably have similar seasonal divisions for the other two groups of clothes. That some of my clothes needed to go to the back of the closet and the bottom drawers of my dresser, while others needed to come closer to the top. Clothes that were ripped, torn, food-stained, needed to be thrown out (certain holey jeans perhaps excepted). She pointed out that as a working professional with students from all over the world, I had an additional obligation to dress in a way that reflected well on my profession, and made parents confident in their choice of school.

I wound up throwing away about six bags of clothes — stained, ripped, damaged, things that make me look or feel fat or ugly, etc.

Insights? You bet.

Six: Clean out your wardrobe every six months; throw away or good-will what you don’t use.
Seven: Store everything in one of five ways: 1) Deep storage for things you won’t use for six months; 2) middle storage for things you use once a month; 3) active storage for things you use every day; 4) collections {CDs, dolls, Bobble-heads, whatever} in a place where they are visible but out of the way; and 5) Paper Trail (more on that shortly).
Eight: Own things that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful; discard or give away what no longer works for you.

Your Office

Then we moved into the Office. For those who have been to my place, my office is a room opposite the kitchen. If I had kids, it would be the second bedroom, or the guest bedroom, but I’m a working man with a love of books — so the books occupy one entire wall, from floor to ceiling. The desk stretched from bookshelves to wall on the wall opposite the window, and it was piled with stuff all around my printer, stapler, and scanner. I hadn’t worked at my desk since I bought a new and larger desk in June. My request was simple: “I need to be able to use my desk.”

Mom’s solution: Turn the desk sideways, so it ran between the door and the window. It increased the amount of light on the desktop during the day, and it allowed me to look out the window at students coming in and out of the building, or watch students coming in to use the microwave in the kitchen.

My lamp didn’t work. It’s one of those goose-neck lamps that clamps to a horizontal surface, only the clamp wasn’t wide enough for the desk. So, Mom changed the lamp on the desk with the lamp on the bedside table. The goose-neck lamp went to the bedroom, the bedroom lamp came to the office. Both lamps now work, where before neither did.

Mom removed the contents of both desk drawers: “They’re small,” she said, “so they have to hold only what you need desperately to have at your desk.” One drawer now holds a calculator, a USB flash-drive, a connection cord or three, and my address book. The other holds stamps, paper-clips, a highliter and a pen and a pencil, some post-it notes, a penknife, and some tape.

I also bought a bulletin board to go above the desk, so that I can keep useful and important papers immediately at hand.

Thanks to the folks at 43 Folders, I had already tried out a system where you have a separate file folder for every day of the week, and a separate folder for every month of the year (12 folders + 31 day folders = 43 folders). You put letters, notes and memos into the relevant month where you have to make a decision, and when that month begins you transfer the file items to the specific day of the month. However, the stack of folders sat flat on my dining room table, and although stuff got put into the folders, they very rarely made it out. At Mom’s suggestion, I bought a vertical file-holder (three open compartments, clear plastic, $8.95) to stand on my desk, which is now my “Very Active File.” So far, it’s working (I’m also going to stick the paper copy of the school’s Weekly Bulletin into the front of the file-holder). It also has screw mounts so that it can be put up on a wall, which I may have to do.

Mom and I looked over my bookshelves. I explained how I use them, and she thought for a long while before recommending that I start shelving them by Dewey Decimal System. I have to say, she’s probably right. She’s going to make up some cards for me for Christmas that have the DDS on them, that can be mounted on the bookshelf verticals, and we’ll organize the books accordingly. I also shifted some of my fiction out of one shelf in order to group all my reference books together: Columbia Desktop Encyclopedia, Short OED, Shakespeare’s Plays, Latin Dictionary, Greek Lexicon, Bible, Gray’s Anatomy, Field Guide to New England, Timetables of History, Boy Scout Handbook, Odyssey, Iliad, Financial Workbook, Book of Forms, Strunk and White. Now I don’t need to fumble-search for them; they’re all in one place and easy to find.

The last thing that she did was she helped me get my filing cabinets in order. Now, I have SEVEN filing cabinet drawers, and more organizational binders than you can three-ring-hole-punch for in fifteen minutes with a steam-powered Hollerith Machine. Mom pointed out that I really only need one filing cabinet drawer — the one at my desk — to hold whatever is presently current (active vs. deep storage again). It needs this year’s bank statements, this year’s insurance statements and credit card bills, this year’s tax receipts, and this year’s technology purchases. Everything else can go into deep storage in the filing cabinet in the hall closet. And this means that it can be out of sight, out of mind, except during the 3-4 days a year when I destroy old documents.

The final step was something I did on my own. I went through three of my file-boxes, and rid myself of every piece of paper that was dated, related to school. Anything not immediately re-usable? Trash. An incomplete art project more than two years old? Trash. Directions to use a telescope I haven’t owned in two years? Trash. Comments on students from 1997? Trash, except for the ones I wrote in poetry. Suddenly, I have two empty file boxes, and I can re-file some of the more interesting stuff (maps and suchlike) in places where they are likely to be more useful. In the two file boxes, 85% of what I found was trash-worthy, instantly. There were three folders that I saved, intact: a file of old poems, and a file of old photographs, and a file of old school papers. I did not open or read any of them.

Now, I have one (1) file drawer with all the appropriate paperwork in one (1) place. It’s not scattered at 8 different places around the house; it’s in chronological order in that one place, and organized by theme.

Nine: Organization of your physical space and organization of your mental space go hand-in-glove with organization of your time.
Ten: Handle each sheet of paper once: file it, act upon it, record necessary information in your calendar or to-do list, or throw it away. Purge extra papers from your life regularly.
Eleven: Have one file for critical papers all in one place.
Twelve: Put critical working tools close to where you use them.
Thirteen: Organize tools (financial, knowledge) in a way that helps you master them.


The trash bag is your friend during the process of organizing. I’m a school teacher. I get a lot of dated material: list of students going on away trips, lists of teachers doing duty on weekends, lists of seniors being suspended, and so on. I threw away — I kid you not — ten pounds of papers relevant to the way the school operated ten years ago. They had been stacked so deep and so high in places, that I literally could not see them, even though they occupied both mental and physical space. They went into the trash.

Between laundry room, office, filing cabinets and bookshelves, I threw away fifteen trash bags in the past few days, not counting the bags from the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day. It is appalling how much stuff we cart around (, please remember that you want to unload this stuff before you move, and not after). This stuff occupies mental space; even if you think it doesn’t take up much room in your house, in fact it takes up much room in your head. Let it go: there’s no need at all to hold on to it. It is not serving you well.

The mere act of clearing stuff out of your house is a sign that you’re approaching sanity. Living in a mess is no fun, and no animal in nature does it. When a group of grackles took up residence in my grill this summer, I was afraid they were going to make a terrible mess. Nothing doing: their nest was immaculate, they pooped elsewhere before coming in to sleep, and even the eggshells were not left behind when they flew away. All I had to do was pull out the twigs and branches they had used to build the nest, and throw that away; had they built it in a tree, one good storm would have brought it down.

Finally, clearing stuff out of your house allows new stuff to flow in. I had no time to do shopping for new clothes, so I was afraid to throw out old clothes. However, with the old clothes gone, I realize that I genuinely like the clothes I have left. With all the old papers gone, I have the energy for new work. With the unfinished art projects gone, I have time to start new projects. And with the ugly shit gone, I have time to think about the new and beautiful things I want to have in my house and in my life.

Fourteen: Throw shit away.
Fifteen: The shit you currently own is in the way of what you want to own; throw the shit out.


This morning, I went over to the parish, and brought them some books that had been kicking around my house for more than ten years that I had never once used. They were Seminary books, for the most part: The Pre-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers set, some Biblical commentary series books on the New Testament, some books on Benedictine spirituality, that sort of thing. More than half of them, the folks in the Church were not interested in having. I brought most of them home with me again. THAT WASN’T THE PLAN. They were supposed to take all of them, and they didn’t.

If it’s junk to you, chances are good that it’s junk to someone else, too. Think of one, maybe two, at most three people who might want what you have got. If they don’t take it, throw it away. If you can’t bear to part with it, put it on the sidewalk with a sign that says “FREE!” in big letters some Saturday morning when there are tag sales in your neighborhood.

Sixteen: If you think it’s trash, you’re probably right.
Seventeen: Your poison is not someone else’s mead. Trash is trash to everybody.

Getting Help

Sometimes you need fresh eyes. My laundry room was a messfor months, and I couldn’t bear to walk into it, even to get a t-shirt that I knew was clean. I’d walk in, wince at the piles of clean clothes that I couldn’t bear to fold, grab the socks or shirt I needed, and leave as quickly as I could. I simply had too many clothes.

Mom, and , both helped me look at that pile with fresh eyes, as being full of things that I either hated to wear, or never wore except under something else, or was just too soiled or ugly to bother with any more. We tossed a lot of it. The resulting wardrobe means I’ll have to do laundry more, but I’ll be able to handle it more easily, too.

The best part was the fresh eyes. Mom could say, “that’s soiled, toss it,” and I was in the right state of mind to do so. I wanted to throw things away, and having her (or ) give me permission made it all right. Think of someone you know who has a relatively clean and orderly apartment. Invite them over for coffee, and give them $20.00 for their time (or make them up a stack of business cards with the words “professional organizer” on them). Invite them to pressure you into throwing stuff away. Any excuse will do, as long as it winds up in a trash bag that actually goes out the door. The goal here is not to have him or her say, “Oh, but you look so cute in that,” it’s to have them say, “That’s so 1985” in as mean a way as possible, and get it gone.

Eighteen: Throwing stuff away is a social activity.

Organizing is Emo

Throwing stuff away, and clearing out space in your house, apartment, or room, is traumatic. You’re going to have mental and emotional baggage attached to everything, and you’re not even going to realize it until someone suggests that you throw away those khaki pants you wore to the dance in 2001 when you saw your girl French-kissing someone else. Getting organized is going to trigger memories and emotions, and you’re going to get broken up about it.

Dye your hair black, put on your trashiest baggy jeans, slouch through the apartment for days, listen to Fallout Boy and Death Cab for Cutie while you work, whatever. Simply recognize that the practical aspect, the need to get this junk out of your house, is separate from the emotional aspect. You can have a good cry over the Flock of Seagulls vinyl you listened to with that girl when you first got laid, and that got cracked because you didn’t store it properly — just make sure it winds up in the trash can and not back among your 12-inchers. The emotion can be called up when you need it; the object still needs to go to the dumpster, so it’s not taking up the room destined for that unplayed copy of Abbey Road you found for $0.99 in the rural library’s book sale.

There will be happy memories, too. I found a photograph of my grandmother which I thought I had lost. It’s the happiest photo I have of her from the last twenty years. So I got to haul it out and re-imagine and revise my memories of her, and put the photo in a place where it will do me some regular good.

Nineteen: Cleaning and organizing are cheap therapy.
Twenty: Cleaning and organizing will clear out bad memories and renew good memories.

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  1. If you can’t bear to part with it, put it on the sidewalk with a sign that says “FREE!” in big letters some Saturday morning when there are tag sales in your neighborhood.

    If it’s a book, you can always go to BookCrossing, register it and then release it into the wild someplace.

  2. If you can’t bear to part with it, put it on the sidewalk with a sign that says “FREE!” in big letters some Saturday morning when there are tag sales in your neighborhood.

    If it’s a book, you can always go to BookCrossing, register it and then release it into the wild someplace.

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