Podcast 127: Tidy vs. organized

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This is podcast 127 and it’s about tidy vs. organized. A lot of the time, they go together. If your possessions have homes and make sense and they get put back in those homes when not in use, tidiness will usually result. If an item’s home is 2/3rds of the way down a big, precarious pile of paper, it’s organized, but not that tidy.

My dad was a big time piler who was also organized. He could disappear behind stacks of paper and emerge seconds later with the exact thing he was looking for. I often picture him sitting at his desk surrounded by books and papers in front of him, on the table behind and stuffed into the bookshelves next to him. Happy as a clam.

So, you don’t have to be tidy to be organized. I mention tidiness and tidying up a lot in this podcast though, so I want to clarify that what it mean is spending time to put away things you are no longer using to clear space for other activities and to lessen visual distraction. And I mean putting them in the places you’ve designated for them, not simply opening a nearby drawer and shoving everything in so it’s out of sight. No, no, no.

In fact, focusing on tidiness can have almost nothing to do with organizing and everything to do with cluttering. Here’s an example. A client hired me recently to help her organize her home office. We were on the same page with going through papers and filing. When we got to what was in the desk drawers, we diverged.

Each drawer was completely packed. Some looked like lovely, intricate puzzles, with items carefully fitted together to use up every millimeter of space in the drawer. It was impressive actually.

But each drawer contained whatever would fit into it, regardless of what the item was. Yes, they were mostly office oriented things, but there was no other organizing scheme. The box of staples was in with the checks and greeting cards, not near the stapler, because there wasn’t room in that drawer.

Each drawer was also layered, up to the very top, meaning she had to excavate to see what was at the bottom. And then carefully fit the other layers back together on top. It became clear that what she wanted my help with was to get as many things into the drawers, then later the closets and cabinets, as possible.

But first we finished off with paper. We created folders for projects and one for her urgent to do’s, which she’d been collecting on scraps of paper, or using documents to remind her of them. We put the folders into the cabinet above her desk and she started fiddling with them. She thought they looked messy. She didn’t want to see all that paper.

Then she took a plastic file envelope, the kind with a flap and an elastic band to keep it closed, and put all the folders into it and closed it up. There! That’s better! My heart sank because I knew she would put off doing any of those urgent tasks.

There was no clear way to label the envelope when it contained a variety of folders. Instead of easily pulling out the urgent to do’s folder from the cabinet, she’ll have to take the envelope out, undo the elastic and pull out the folder. Then put it away again when she’s done. It’s this kind of inconvenience that proper organizing is designed to do away with.

Here are some other examples of how you can be neat and tidy but not truly organized.

You have an entire bathroom drawer filled with hotel toiletries that you never use. You buy expensive magazine holders to store your complete collection of each magazine you subscribe to, although you never get time to read those magazines. You’ve got a giant collection of anything you received for free that seems like it might be useful taking up space in your cabinets.

These items may be organized by type and beautifully containerized, but they are not truly organized. Why? Because an organized space is one in which you can easily and quickly find what you need. The more quantity you possess, the harder the “easy and quick” part gets.

You want to find a story you saw in one of your magazines? Unless you obsessively made a note somewhere about what issue it’s in, you won’t find it. Of course, you have to be able to find that note first! How many notes can you make? If every issue has interesting things you want to go back to, you’ll be creating an exhaustive index of this magazine so you can find them again. I don’t recommend spending your time that way.

Let me add another part to that definition above. An organized space is one in which you can easily and quickly find what you need, within reason. Everyone has a set point of how much stuff they can keep track of while still leading a happy and productive life. You don’t want your stuff to be the boss.

So what can you do right now to stop confusing tidy with organized? The next time you go to put something in a drawer and it’s a tight fit, ask yourself whether all that stuff is in there because it belongs there and you use it, or simply because it fits.