Friday, January 15, 2010

Keeping It Tidy

When you have got a thing where you want it, it is a good thing to leave it where it is.

-Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 1949

How can we stay organized? That's the question for most of us. Is there a way to organize so that we can keep our space neat?

To answer the question, yes, I believe there is. I have used 3 basic concepts again and again. They really do work.

1. Store things at the place where they are used or dropped. Notice where the piles are. See the messy areas. The container for storage should go right in that spot. Why? Because it's the natural dumping ground. Shoes at the back door? Put the shoe rack there. Papers on the coffee table? Put the baskets or bins beside it. Keys and mail on the kitchen counter? A few containers right there will absorb that clutter. Lego's on the floor? A special Lego box right at the spot makes clean-up a cinch.

2. The best place for storage containers is right along the traffic flow through your house -- right on the trail people make from the door to the couch to the kitchen. Not so that they trip over the containers, but so that as they pass by they can put things into containers. This is the best way to get consistent results.

In one of our houses, people always came through the back door. There was a sea of shoes on the back porch and kitchen floor. The window sill at the kitchen table filled up with keys, wallets, papers, magazines, books, even jackets. I set shoe racks at the back door. I put a set of various sized baskets on the kitchen island (which I created with a piece of furniture) and baskets on the lower shelves of the island for magazines and newspapers. I put a coat tree near the door. When people came in, I asked them to set their things into these open containers. I only had to ask a few times, and after that it was an easy habit. I never had to deal with that clutter again. On the rare occasions when someone forgot, we scooped up the things and set them in the proper containers. The reason it worked was that the containers were right at the point of use. People wanted to empty their pockets, kick off their shoes, take off their coats, and unload the mail from their arms when they walked in the door. Keeping it neat required no extra steps. The containers caught everything as they peeled it off.

3. Use open containers. Lids are the death of any organizing system for a busy family. Open baskets, bins, boxes, crates, or any other shape you like will work fine. The key is for your family members to be able to put their things away with one movement. I read somewhere years ago that one-motion storage results in people putting things away 90% of the time. I have watched to see if this was true, and I believe it is.

Laundry hampers should be open and at the place where people undress. Attractive, open boxes or baskets should be sitting at the spots where the kids study. Magazine racks should sit beside the chairs and couches where people read them. Shoe racks should sit at the spot where people walk in the door. If you have a pile of objects on a desk or counter which stay in disarray, group them on a tray or in a shallow container, so that they are visible and accessible but in a distinct spot where they are used. This can work well for that pile of stuff that always seems to sit by the kitchen phone. Open boxes should be in the kids rooms beside the places where they like to play to make gathering up toys nearly automatic.

Many times, when I explain these principles, the person I am helping begins to protest. This seems a bit extreme, goes the argument. Why can't family members just walk five steps over to the corner and put things away in that lovely cabinet or closet? To which I answer, because they have to make a point of going there. They have to stop what they are doing and remember. It won't happen. Not consistently.

Look, I know open containers are not thrilling visually. They won't win any design awards. But, if they are the right size and in the right spot and open, your family can be trained in a few days to use them all the time. That's a whole lot better than systems which don't work.

Once you have carefully analyzed the traffic pattern and the messy areas in your home, you are ready to purchase and place open containers in the places where they are needed. In addition to this, every room should have a good-sized trash can and every bedroom should have an open laundry hamper or basket. Wal-mart, Staples, and Dollar stores carry many inexpensive plastic containers of varying sizes and shapes to suit your needs.

For those of you with paper clutter, open baskets and stand-up bins work well for gathering up loose ends. Staples and Wal-mart sell wire-mesh, rectangular boxes of various sizes in their office supply and home decor sections. If you have a lot of paper clutter, that means you want to organize things visually in order to remember where they are. Open containers on your shelves or along the wall or beside the desk will mean you can just drop the paper right there and still see where it is. You might try open boxes with colored files in them, so that papers can be dropped right in as you finish with them. I will give more tips about office order soon, but these are a few ideas you can try.

To me, the best thing about this is the simplicity. You don't need a fancy organization plan. Just notice the mess and put the container right there. Don't fight the traffic. Go with the flow.

I am re-posting this because I thought it might give you some practical tips for organizing your own personal spaces. I encourage you to spend a little time this weekend making one area of your home tidy.

Just try it. See if it gives you a lift.

Oh, and let me know what you did!


  1. I organized all my papers on my kitchen counter and put them in a large plastic bag since i was having company over Christmas. I was so proud of myself. Until....someone thought the bag was trash and out it went. All my notes and addresses and coupons and recipes and little odds and ends all neatly organized in folders to be places in a plastic tub in Januray...all now gone like the wind:) I can laugh now but I was in tears last week.

  2. Oh, Joyce.

    I am so sorry!

    This kind of thing only happens rarely, but it has happened to me before, too.

  3. I have not been commenting but I have been following your blog for a few months now. I really appreciated this post. Thanks for the great tips. I will certainly put some of these in place. And thanks for all your thoughtful posts.


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