Getting a space or a project organized and thoughtfully arranged is a major accomplishment. There is an elation that comes with viewing the transformation, feeling the clarity and new utility and functionality. For some of my clients, it’s almost like a high (and one personal reason I love to organize - it’s certainly cheaper and healthier than other kinds of buzzes).
Have you ever felt that high when you step back and survey a finished organizing project? Unfortunately after a few days, maybe weeks if you’re lucky, something will happen to set things off-kilter. It might be one small bag of stuff from the car that gets dumped on a countertop and never emptied. It might be someone else (or several someone elses) coming into the space and not leaving it the way they found it. It can be a small as just not feeling the laundry folding, or as big as a death in the family. Whatever it is, it will happen. Like discovering that your big crush routinely talks with their mouth full, you will come down from that original euphoria into the reality of modern, distracting, unpredictable life.
So what now? Do you give up and give in to every surface being piled high from now until the day your grown children place the dumpsters outside your home? Sounds harsh, but this scene does not have to be the end of the story. Let’s assume your organizing system is set up to match your style and strengths. If your strategy involves simply boxing/bagging everything up and hiding it, it's probably not playing to those strengths (and that’s a whole other post). But if you’ve taken the time to think through the way you need to function, it should be a matter of the small, regular effort required to get back into the groove. For me, those small efforts usually involve rituals.
True story: we have a bar counter in our kitchen that gets disorganized. The effects of that disorganization fall into other areas of our family existence. Mail gets dumped, keys are scattered, small purchases collect, and then people start calling out, “Have you seen my _________ (sunglasses, debit card, new hat, permission slip…)?" So when those calls become more frequent, I take a few quiet moments to set things straight again. All of these items do have homes, and they are close by. I don’t necessarily take on this ritual by myself - other items belong to other people who are well aware of their correct homes. If there’s a collection of things that I don’t have jurisdiction over, they are stacked together and put to the side - generally, they disappear a little while later. It is very calming and centering for me to get all of the small things back where they belong.
A ritual requires you to slow down just a bit, take the more mindful, thoughtful approach. It is a repeatable series of actions taken in a prescribed order, with perhaps a bit of symbolism or anchoring activity to set it apart from being completely mundane. The anchor could be a cup of tea, music, open windows, or a special time of day or year for the organizing activity.
Other examples of organizing rituals might include:
* Setting aside a “10-minute tidy” right before bedtime with your kids - 10 minutes of picking up whatever is out that shouldn’t be (parents too!), that becomes a natural part of the winding-down process. We used to sing that ridiculous clean-up song our kids learned in preschool, but hey - it worked.
* Culling, rearranging, and setting straight items in the pantry before getting ready to bake holiday treats - lighting a candle in the kitchen while you work.
* Taking a rainy Saturday afternoon with your teenager (maybe let them pick some music?) to go through the clothing that no longer suits, and then making the trip to donate it. How about a drive-through for a shake or latte after?
You may already have a ceremony of sorts for cleaning out your briefcase, or the trunk of your car, or the refrigerator. If not, what could you devise that would anchor you to the experience, and lower the frustration or self-judgment you might feel because the space got out of whack? Creating an organizing ritual could be just what's needed to keep your maintenance approachable, and on track.
Show of hands - how many folks out there have some sort of a drawer (maybe several...maybe many drawers?) that you routinely “paw" through to find what you need? Like a bear in Yellowstone going through a careless camper’s trash, you push the layers from side to side, front to back, looking for the elusive AAA battery, the lip balm, maybe a stray stick of gum. You’re so accustomed to this process that you don’t even stop to think how incredibly annoying and time-wasting it is. You don’t stop. to. think. You are engaging in what I’ve dubbed small-scale mindless disorganization.
Larger-scale mindless disorganization might be something like having 60+ sweaters stuffed into a smallish space in the closet, and digging around fruitlessly to find a purple one. You’re not keen on purple, but it’s your son’s school color - they made it into the basketball tournament, and the final game is this evening. Not finding it, you rush out to purchase one. You are mildly irritated, but you don’t factor in the time and cost that this excursion takes away from you. Thinking about what could have been done with the money or the time just doesn’t happen. Someday, when you get around to pulling out all of the sweaters (maybe you're moving to another city?) you find not one, but two purple sweaters at the bottom - one of which still has the tags. They might manage to be taken to charity, or they might just end up in the moving box and go with you to Nashville (where you will still hate purple).
Mindless disorganization doesn’t show itself as readily as countertops covered in the mail or a craft room overflowing with supplies that have no containers. It's the kind of thing that hides and hums in the background of our lives and manifests when we’re looking for that thing we know should exist, but apparently doesn’t (because if we can’t see it, it’s not there). Or when we open a closet, sigh, and just shut the door again. Left untreated, it can result in more mindless behavior. It all sounds kind of discouraging, but what if you simply flipped your awareness around? What if you could reorganize a space, mindfully?
Mindfulness is a thing now, of course. It’s actually always been a thing, but we haven’t all been as, well, mindful of it as in recent years now that it’s a popular subject. Here's a definition I like:
Mindfulness - a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
So go back to your drawer. Maybe make this organizing process a bit of an occasion - light a candle? Diffuse some essential oil? Play some music? You don’t have to be “woo-woo” to set the stage for successful organizing, but why not do something that sets the time apart and puts it in a positive light? After that, following some simple steps can make this a meaningful process:
1. Take a few deep breaths, and take note of where you are and what the atmosphere is like.
2. Accept and acknowledge that you allowed the drawer to get cluttered, but that you are now in control of the situation.
3. Pull out every single item from the drawer. Everything from the spare change, to the mechanical pencils with no lead, to the ponytail holders. Lay everything out where you can easily see it.
4. Calmly think about each item. No judgment, if possible. Does the ruler with a company logo on it mean nothing, or is it from your dad’s old hardware store? Was your dad a cool guy, or maybe not? What happens to you physically when you pull out an old flip phone? What sorts of thoughts cross your mind? All of this may sound a little silly, but objects have energy and some sort of meaning - even if that meaning is “that was a waste,” or “don’t know why I kept that," or "I love seeing that here." Maybe if you take a little time to pay attention to that energy and those feelings, you can develop an awareness that allows you to clear unneeded things more frequently, or arrange wanted things more thought-fully.
5. Make your decisions about what belongs in the drawer. What’s the best purpose for the drawer, and what goes in it to support that purpose?
6. On the more pragmatic side of things - don’t fill the drawer back up to the top. As mentioned above, for many of us if objects can’t be seen they don’t exist. If you feel it’s a waste of space, ask yourself, “What’s a bigger waste? The area that isn’t crammed full, or the stuff on the bottom that never gets seen or used?”
7. Once the drawer has what it needs to succeed, discard or relocate the other items. Arrange the needed items in a way that makes sense for pulling out and putting back.
Take a little time to take in what just happened.
And when you go searching again for the gum, or the key to the safe deposit box, or even an ugly purple sweater, pay attention to how it feels to find it quickly and easily. It may even be a little startling if you’re used to a struggle every time you look for something. That’s something to accept as well, and factor into your next mindful organizing adventure.
What kind of mindless disorganization holds you back? If you give this idea a try, I’d love for you to share what came up for you in the comments.
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, coach, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. Excited to be in the long but worthwhile process of becoming a Certified ADHD Organizer Coach. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?