Those of us who grew up in certain eras of elementary school education may remember - every year in the first few days of math class being reintroduced (ad nauseam) to the concept of Sets and Subsets. Cute, innocent little graphics that looked something like:
What was up with that? Lulling unsuspecting 3rd or 4th graders into the false sense of security that math was as easy as grouping farm animals together? I wondered why the curriculum gods would ply us with such simple concepts when we all pretty much knew that within a week we would suddenly be plunged into long division and reducing to the least common denominator.*
I’ve come to appreciate those lessons recently, however - and maybe there aren’t as simple as I once thought. For example, how many times have I heard someone say, “I got rid of SO MUCH stuff, so why am I not more organized? I’ve decluttered almost every room! What am I doing wrong?"
Well…decluttering is not organizing. According to Merriam-Webster, decluttering wasn’t even a real word until around 1950 (and spellcheck still wants me to fix it most of the time). Decluttering is, at least in my mind, a subset of organizing. I don’t care how many things you take to the thrift store, how much goes into recycling, how many items you unload on your local Buy-Sell-Trade. It’s not the same as organizing, any more than being neat is being organized. You can have a lot of organized stuff. You can have not much and be disorganized. You can declutter without organizing, but it’s rare that you organize without some decluttering.
I often tell the story of walking into a job from my earliest days as an organizer. It was an office, and it was pretty much spotless. Very atypical - no piles of papers, no sticky notes all over the monitor, not even one excess box of Expo markers. Keeping my composure (but silently thinking, “Oh no, what do I do with this one?!”), I started asking some questions.
As the client and I walked and talked around the room, two issues became apparent. One, they had “cleaned up” for me, and taken lots of things out of the space. Not something I usually recommend, but ok, so far so good. But two, none of what was left was set up in an intuitive layout. Like was not always with like. Items were stored in awkward places. File labels were tough to see. We didn’t get rid of much of anything, but we rearranged and regrouped almost everything. I’ve certainly also witnessed the opposite situation - where someone who had tons of items everywhere was entirely comfortable and knew where everything was.
So while paring down is generally a part of organizing, it isn’t the whole process. Other organizational subsets might be types of planning, prevention or resisting temptation (as in, “No, I’m not going to that garage sale,”), or exploring storage options.
And of course, it's not always about the stuff, it’s about the stuff behind the stuff - not exactly subsets, but maybe rather elements or factors of organization. What’s keeping you from handling items and surroundings efficiently? It could be too many things, but it might also be:
*This post is me going out on a bit of a limb here - I was never really a math girl.
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, and serial list-maker. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?