By BIS Contributor Jenny Fowler


We’ve all heard how important is to be organized, but what does that really mean, and how do you get there? Some people may say that being organized is a goal within itself, but I believe that being organized is a vehicle to achieving something better. It could be finding a work-life balance.  It could be financial clarity. It could be setting a good example for your kids.

For me, being organized is about creating clear physical, mental, and emotional space for myself and my clients.

So once you decide you want to get organized, where do you start and how do you fit it in to your already busy schedule?  Everyone I know either has a full-time job, a family, or both. This means there’s very little time (or energy) left at the end of the day to take on a major organizing project. The truth is there is no one way to get organized. In my experience, the most successful organizing system is one that is developed around your real life and natural tendencies. Having said that, there are a few tricks of the trade that can help you get started in any organizing situation. In this article, I’ll give you basic step-by-step instructions, based on Julie Morgenstern’s concept of SPACE, on how to break up the organizing process to fit the time you have.


Step 1: Sort

Sorting is an important first step in organizing for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it helps you understand how much of each item you have.  Secondly, it allows you to focus on one category at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.

The set-up

  • Empty your contents into a different area, where you have clear space to work.  This will help keep you focused on what’s right in front of you rather than being overwhelmed by the entirety of the project.
  • Have your supplies ready ahead of time.
  • Clear plastic bins, with lids, so you can easily see what’s inside
  • Post-it notes and sharpies for labeling each bin

Think big, but start small. 

  • Pick one area of the space you want to organize, i.e. the surface of your desk, or that basket on the floor that you’ve been piling things into since the beginning of the summer.
  • Give yourself permission not to think about any other area than the one you’re working on.
  • Sort each item into a category.  The category could be something like office supplies, paperwork, or even something activity-related, such as sewing or scrapbooking.
  • Work in layers.  When you’re first starting out, you want your categories to be pretty broad so you can make some quick progress.  This will build some momentum!  Once you’ve done a first round sort on the entire space, you can go back and refine each category.  If you feel overwhelmed, you might be going too deep too fast.
  • Another method for sorting is extraction.  In other words, pull all items that belong in a specific category.  For example, pull out anything you see that belongs in the school supply category.
  • Don’t be distracted by trying to decide where something should go.  All you’re doing at this stage is putting like items together.  Finding homes for things comes later.
  • If you have time once you’ve sorted your first area, repeat the process on a second small area.  If you don’t have time, simply lid your bins (make sure they’re labeled), stack them somewhere out of the flow of traffic, and pick back up when you have time.
  • When you come back to it, simply set out your bins and get to work!
  • It’s important to sort every area in your space before moving on to the next part of the process, because knowing how much of each category you have will help you see what you can get let go of.


Step 2: Purge

It seems to be a fact of nature: humans accumulate, especially in our modern world in which shopping is an almost everyday errand.  However, I think we’ve all experienced times when we feel burdened by how much we have.  Here are my some of my favorite tips to kick start your purging:

Give yourself permission to let things go.

Most of my clients have the most trouble purging items that fall into one of two categories: things that are highly functional, or things they’ve gotten from someone else. In the case of the highly functional item, ask yourself, does it serve me to have so many? Am I ever really going to use this? For example, people are reluctant to let go of shopping bags. I know they’re useful for a myriad of purposes, but how many is too many? Will you honestly use 100 shopping bags before you have a chance to replenish your supply? Probably not.  If you’re still having a hard time letting go of something highly functional, let your space be your guide. Keep however many you can fit in your space, and let the rest go. This takes the emotion out of it. If it’s something highly functional that you’ve bought, but you’re never going to use it (and be honest with yourself here), donate it. Chances are someone else would get good use out of it and truly appreciate having it.

In the case of the item that you’ve gotten from someone else, keep this in mind: the item is not the actual person. Letting go of it does not mean you’re letting go of that person. Purging something you’ve gotten from a loved one is not a reflection of your relationship.  Sometimes people simply miss the mark in gift giving. I know I have. I would much rather someone let go of something I gave them that they didn’t really like or need than continue to hold on to it for fear of hurting my feelings. If you believe, however, that it would damage your relationship to purge it, hold on to it. That’s okay, too. If it’s a matter of the item having belonged to someone who has passed away, ask yourself the following questions: is it the only thing I have from that person? Does it truly reflect his or her personality? Do I feel close or connected to that person when I look at it? Again, if you feel strongly about it, it’s okay to keep it.


Space vs. Stuff

  • This simply comes down to a question of balancing the amount of space you have with the amount of stuff you have. Consider this:
  • A room with more space than stuff feels less cluttered, and therefore, lighter. Most people feel less burdened in a room if they have plenty of space.
  • Your stuff will be easier to find if you have less of it. You’ll also end up using more of what you have if you can see it all. If you have eight spatulas, but they’re all crammed in a drawer together, you’ll only end up using the one or two on top because those are the ones you see.
  • Ask yourself: would you rather have the right amount of stuff to fill the space you have, or have to find additional space for all of the stuff you’re not using?

A Few Useful Questions

  • If you’re still feeling stuck, let these questions help guide you:
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it beautiful?
  • Does it bring joy to you or someone else in this home?
  • Would you buy it again?
  • Would you regret it if you never saw it again?
  • Could someone else get more use out of it?

If you start to feel overwhelmed, step away for a few minutes.  Try not to stay away too long, though, or you’ll lose your motivation.


Step 3: Assign a Home

Now that you have a clear picture of what your categories are and how much you have of each, you can start to think about where everything goes. Here are some common sense ideas to help you find homes for your stuff:

Point of use: Basically, put it where you use it. Keep your skillets in the cabinet right next to the stove. Keep the glasses in the cabinet that’s closest to the refrigerator. If you regularly use a pair of scissors in the garage to open cases of water, keep a pair of scissors in the garage.

Set up zones: Put categories of things you use together close to each other. For example, if you drink coffee every day, it doesn’t make sense to walk across the kitchen to get a mug which you’ve been keeping with glasses, and then go to the pantry to get the coffee, and then back to the coffee maker. Set up a coffee station with mugs, coffee canisters, and sweeteners. Another example is to store your cutting boards under the drawer where you keep your knives.

Let your space be your guide: Use as much space as you need to accommodate a category, rather than cramming it into a too small space. If a category is too big for the space you have for it, is there a natural way to break it up so you can put it in more than one space?

A few words about perfection and consistency: I see people get tripped up on this step all the time because they’re not quite sure where an object’s home should be. The truth is it doesn’t matter if you don’t get an object in the perfect spot. If it turns out to be inconvenient, change the location. The important thing is to be consistent about keeping that item in that place when not in use, and to let anyone else in that know space where it is.


Step 4: Contain

I commonly work with first-time clients who have tried to get organized themselves only to be disappointed they can’t maintain what they’ve set up. This usually happens because they’ve bought a variety of containers without Sorting, Purging, and Assigning a Home first. I know it’s tempting to rush to this step (see my previous note about shopping and over accumulation), but it’s important to hold off on buying containers until you really understand what and how much you have.

Let your space be your guide: If you haven’t noticed, this is a pretty important theme in organizing. In this case, it refers to the amount of space you have and the amount of space you need for each item/category. One very important tip is to measure twice, shop once. It’s so frustrating finding the perfect container only to find out it doesn’t fit in your space. Measure, measure, measure. Also, take into account how much space any other container will take up in that immediate space.

Also, is there additional space you haven’t considered? Can you a hanging a gift wrap system on the back of a door? Can you store off-season clothes in under bed bins? Is there room in a cabinet for stacking bins that are open at the front so you can take advantage of the vertical height?

Ease of access: Another consideration when buying containers is to decide how easily you need to access an item or category. If it’s something you use frequently, I recommend keeping it at the front of the space in an open bin. If you lid a bin that you get into often, undoubtedly you’ll end up not putting the lid back on, which means it will clutter the space. Start with the lid off and avoid the problem. For example, keep the markers in an open container near on a low shelf near the front of the cabinet, so your kids can easily reach in and grab what they want.  When they’re finished, they’ll easily be able to clean up after themselves simply by throwing what they used back into the open bin.

If it’s an item or category you don’t access frequently, it’s okay to store it in a stacked and lidded container so you can make the most of out of reach storage. For example, store family photos or keepsakes in tightly stacked, closed bins. Because those categories probably aren’t part of your everyday life, they don’t need to be easily accessible.

Function vs. aesthetics: If you are containing things in a space that isn’t highly visible, such as a closet or cabinet, it’s better to be as functional as possible.  This is a great time to maximize your space by using space saving, stackable plastic bins.  I recommend clear, so you can easily see what’s inside.  If you want to contain something in a visible space, I recommend using something aesthetically pleasing that matches your décor so it looks like an intentional part of the space.  For example, it’s fine to have a catchall bin in your kitchen if it matches the space.


The Shopping List:

Be as precise as possible. It will save you shopping and returning time if you can be specific about what you need.  If you’re unsure, buy a few more than you think you need. Most stores have easy return policies these days, and it’s quicker to run in some place to return a few things than to have to go back to the store to buy additional items.

Include all of the measurements you’ve taken on your list. Not having to guess will save you time. It will also make your shopping more objective. Even if you like a container, if it doesn’t fit in your space, you know to move on.

The power of the label: There truly is a power to the label. Not only does it make it easier to find something at a glance, but it also creates an intentionality that must be obeyed. It’s harder to cram a random object in a labeled bin because you know it doesn’t belong there. Labeling is also helpful if you have children. You can tell them to put an item in the appropriately labeled bin, which helps them build their organizing habits. Of course, not everything needs a label, but it is important in a shared space so everyone can feel successful in maintaining the system.

You shouldn’t live your life to be organized, you should be organized to better live your life. Remember, action overcomes anxiety, so take that first step, and get to work!


Step 5: Evaluate

Now that your space is beautifully organized, contained, and labeled, you’re finished, right?  Almost. This last step is important because it serves as a reality check. It’s important to take a step back and make sure the space really works for you. The most efficient, beautiful organizing system won’t keep you organized if it doesn’t fit your real life. Of course there is some habit-building required with a new system, but it’s also realistic to expect that your newly organized space will need some tweaking. I recommend living with your new space for a couple of weeks. Anything that isn’t quite right with the space will become obvious simply by living with the space for a while.  It’s your space so it can be whatever you need it to be. You shouldn’t live your life to be organized, you should be organized to better live your life. Remember, action overcomes anxiety, so take that first step, and get to work!