Much of this content originally appeared in a post back in March of 2018, but I was inspired to rework and update it by some recent requests and questions from readers. The idea: In this time when many of us are stuck inside, what’s a small project that can be tackled without adding to our collective overwhelm? What’s a way that organizing something small could gently tip us over into taking on something bigger? How could the process of bringing order to a manageable space be a calming, almost meditative act? This idea I had two years ago seemed to fit the bill, so I reworked it a little, and here you go...
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 some small-scale mindless disorganization.
Large-scale mindless disorganization might be something like having 60+ sweaters crammed 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 that season, and the final game was that evening. Not finding anything suitable, you rushed out to purchase one*. You were mildly irritated because you had the vague feeling that you’d done this before, but you pushed that feeling aside. You also didn't factor in the time and cost that this excursion took away from you - you didn’t go anywhere near that feeling. Thinking about what could have been done with the money or the time just didn't happen. Months later, when you got around to pulling out all of the sweaters (in preparation for your move to another city) you found not one, but three purple sweaters at the bottom - one of which still had the tags. You may have managed to take them to the thrift store, or they might have ended up in the moving box and traveled with you to Nashville (where you 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 snowball into more mindless behavior. It all sounds kind of discouraging, but what if you 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 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. Ask any other members of your household to give you a little space for this experiment. 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 go over the top 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. Are you hot, cold, calm, irritated? Is there background noise? Plenty of light? Not enough? See if you can either make slight changes, or...accept the atmosphere as it is.
2. Accept and acknowledge that you allowed the drawer to get cluttered, but that you are now in control of the situation. We’re looking forward here.
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. Business cards, LEGO mini figures, travel lotions…whatever. Lay everything out where you can easily see it.
4. Calmly consider 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 sick waste,” or “don’t know why I kept that," or "I really 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. Allow yourself to trust those decisions (this drawer isn’t high stakes). 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. Where else could this process take you?
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 accustomed 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.
*Ah, remember those days when we could just rush out to the store? Maybe being quarantined gives us an opportunity to practice thinking before we rush. Can we keep that mindset going when things go back to “normal”?
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, dog-lover, author. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?