Podcast 097: Sorting

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Podcast 97, this one, is about sorting. Back in podcast 61 I talked about general sorting principles. I find sorting to be easy and even kind of fun. Do you remember the Sesame Street recurring sketch called “One of these things”? In the sketch, there were four objects and one of them was different from the others. It’s the preschooler’s job to figure out which one is different. In one, Big Bird has four bowls of bird seed that are alike in shape, color and contents, but one is much bigger.

Sometimes the other three weren’t all alike, but at least two objects had a feature in common, so they couldn’t be the one that wasn’t like the others. It made you think about how to categorize things. You had to think about characteristics such as shape, color and size, and also about purpose and use.

I worked with a client and her young daughter the other day organizing the stuffies, of which there were quite a few. We started with type of animal and that worked fine for bears and dogs, but then we had too many one-offs; a dragon, a snake, a giraffe. So we talked about other qualities they had; fur or not, how many legs, solid color or patterned, and tail length.

The point is, there are many ways to categorize almost anything. Your first concept might not work out but you need to start somewhere or you won’t get anywhere. So how can you apply this to non stuffed animal situations? A great spot to apply it is to a box of miscellany or a junk drawer.

The reason those things are hard to sort is that there are too many things to consider at once. I’ve talked before about how decision making gets harder the more choices you have. This is similar.

Next time you have a bunch of miscellaneous items to sort through try this. Scan through it and see if any categories surface for you. Recently, I went through such a box with a client and the first category I spotted was pens. We collected all the pens and put them in a pile. Then, I noticed loose change. We got all that out into a pile. After that was electronic items; chargers, cords and memory sticks. Another pile. And so on.

Every time we removed a category of stuff, there was less to sort through, obviously. Having the quantity reduced meant less sorting work. But there was also less comparing to do because there were fewer things to compare.

When you sort and compare, you look at an item and run it through a series of filters in your mind. It mostly happens so quickly you aren’t aware of it. Sorting out the coins for example. Once you sight a quarter in the box, your mind attunes to round, metal, flat, raised printing and your eyes seek out other objects with those qualities. You don’t consciously do it; you already have a mental image of what a coin looks like. This is pattern recognition. People naturally seek out patterns around them.

But there’s more to organizing than visual patterns. We need to consider uses and purposes as well, and those vary. Once you identify those metal things as coins, the next step is to ask yourself where they go, which is a further characterization. They might go right into your pocket. They might go into your son’s piggy bank. They might go into a cup where you keep the Laundromat change.

This may seem self evident, but when I search online for articles about sorting, mostly what I come up with is clever and adorable containers to put things into. People love containers, I notice. People who hate organizing love containers. It’s kind of funny. You can have all your stuff carefully put away into fabulous containers and be horribly disorganized.

That’s because things go into the containers based on visual criteria like their size or color, or because there are things that need to be off the table and they end up in whatever container is closest. Don’t succumb to this!

Visual categorizing is most helpful when you’re going through a big bunch of stuff. On a daily basis, the stuff you encounter needs to be sorted by its use and purpose. You don’t need to categorize it because you’re not comparing it to something else.

What you can do now: find a surface like the dining table or kitchen counter that has a small collection of items that don’t belong there. As you scan them, see if you can quickly identify where each thing goes; what it’s purpose and use is.