Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How Your Style Can Work For You

Make sure you're living the life you want to live.

- William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life

Using open containers, storing things at the place where they are used, and working with the traffic flow -- these are ideas that benefit every home. Your organizing style can show you how to apply these ideas in ways that suit you and your space. There are a variety of applications that can be the right choice, depending on your lifestyle and your situation. Here's a look at how your style changes your approach to order.

Structured Types organize in a more detailed way. In fact, they organize detail by detail. From the details, they synthesize large amounts of information to gain a grasp of the larger perspective. Drawer dividers, cubby holes, compartments within compartments give them joy and certainty that sings of home. This lets them focus in on one detailed task at the time. They are precise about their activities and feel most comfortable when following a routine. They function best when things are tucked away to expose bare countertops, tables, desks and floors. Open spaces mean space to do things. For them, this is restful to the eye and refreshing to the spirit. They should invest in dividers that let them organize things within their drawers, cabinets, and other containers. Objects used most often should go in the front. Objects used rarely should go in the back. As long as storage takes no more than two movements, they will use it consistently.

However, they need to be more flexible about the rest of the family. Family members may not follow their system, may not even remember it. Structured types can organize a space and return to it days later only to find that they no longer see what they did. Posting small tags or signs to remind family members of where things belong can help. But flexibility is key. The main problem is that people don't remember the same details. Structured types do best when they keep in mind that others don't share their bent for order. They should set up open containers for members of the family right along the flow of traffic in their home, and relax. Compromise is the way to peace.

As a structured person, I want a lot of detail in my attic storage. I like to know exactly where everything is in the attic. My family members don't remember my system -- it's not a priority for them. I solved this through negotiation. First, I put anything that I needed to find at least once a year in a special, smaller storage area that other family members did not use. My Christmas decorations, for example, went into a closet in the basement. Not only did this let me find my Christmas supplies without any fuss, but it meant that I could just focus on one task: Christmas. I didn't have to deal with the entire attic at the same time. Next, I put signs above the stacks of boxes in the attic to identify where things belong or where they can be found. I left empty space at the front of the attic for additions to the attic by other people. I placed couple of open boxes near the front for little odds and ends. Rather than getting tense over where my family members are putting things, I know they will use the front because it's the first open space. And I am grateful they are carrying it all to the attic for me! Every few months, I can put away these newer arrivals and update my signs. I know I can, at any time, find the things I want once a year. We've reached a happy compromise.


Unstructured types organize visually. If they put things away, they may not remember where. It's far better to leave things out in the open in containers without lids. Utensils on the counter in a jar, things hanging on hooks on the wall, a bulletin board holding papers to remember, a stand-up clip board holding the to-do list for the week -- which sits above the pile of current projects. Unstructured types are usually rotating through several activities at once. They need a system that lets them do that comfortably. The best way to organize their space is to skip the detail that is typical of organizing seminars and books. This only weighs them down. They do better with larger containers that hold an array of things associated with big ideas. Grouped according to the type of activity -- carpentry tools, gardening stuff, cooking utensils, school books, cleaning supplies, gift wrapping -- large, generous spaces that hold an eclectic mix of things which come in handy while doing a particular type of activity make more sense for these people who use a big-picture approach to life. Large labels announcing the big idea for the container can help them remember their original vision for it. In every room of the house, there should be at least one empty container of generous size that functions as a catch-all for miscellaneous things that don't have a place yet. The key for these busy, energetic multi-taskers is to organize visually in a big-picture way and leave room for the unexpected.

My husband designed his own space for carpentry. He built a work bench for himself that is long and large. The top shelf sits at the waist. The lower shelf is at the knees. The entire structure is open on all sides. On the lower shelf, he stored the things that he reaches for often. He also had a set of open, cube-shaped shelves next to it. These stored smaller objects. Finally, he hung some larger objects on the wall. This is to me the model of unstructured storage -- generous, visual, and general. His storage idea was simple. These were things he used when working with wood, when building or repairing. He could see in an instant where it all was and reach for it in one movement. There were no doors, no lids, no hidden compartments. When he had several projects in process, he could easily move from one to the other.


Hybrids need permission to experiment. They like to organize visually, but they need to adjust the amount of detail to a level that is appropriate to each area of the house. How they do an activity determines how they need to shape the space around it. If they approach their paper work in a structured routine, then they will want a system of open files and see-through boxes for storage at their finger-tips. If they cook in a spontaneous flow to relax after work, they will be happiest in a kitchen that has less structure -- large storage bins, pots hanging from the ceiling, utensils in a catch-all caddy on the counter, fresh produce in hanging baskets by the sink -- so they don't have to remember where things are stored. If they crave a flat, unadorned surface for art or craft projects, then they will need to put away every scrap of their supplies and keep a list of where everything was stored. Labels will help them find things later. The key for these innovative achievers is to think about what they will do in a space and how they need to do it. In organizing spaces for the rest of the family, they can approach their planning in the same way -- what is going to be done here and how do people need to do it?

I have hybrid friends who have learned to think of their spaces in two big categories: personal and public. They know that their personal spaces where they study, do paper work, embark on creative projects, and spend quiet time need to be organized in every detail. Public spaces are organized like an unstructured person's space. This is because when they are with their families, they tend to function spontaneously, have several things happening at once, and work from the big picture. In their personal, individual pursuits, they need to focus on detail and follow a procedure. This gives them a happy balance in their lives that keeps them from being frustrated by too much order, or becoming exhausted from over-extending themselves in a setting with too little structure. In addition, they have learned the value of a few hard boundaries that are crucial for them personally -- regular bedtime, meals, and simple daily goals. Accountability from a friend or their spouse completes their world like the period on the end of a sentence.


These profiles can help you in a second way. Not only can you find organization that suits you -- your family members can, too. You know what they need for their space and how to support them in creating it. I'm sure that many of you are recognizing the traits of a spouse or child who is very different from you. If family members have room in their personal spaces to express their own preferences, they are happy to work together to find the sweet spot in organizing the shared areas of the house.


  1. Very helpful post,thanks so much! I am most definitely unstructured...and of course, my husband is highly structured to the core. I like the idea of large containers to hold things associated with big ideas. That makes perfect sense to my visual brain, and doesn't overload my brain with too many details.
    Lovely blog, I'll be back soon.
    Many blessings,
    Catherine :)


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