I am not an athletic person. I couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle. Basic math evades me. But I am great at organizing. It is a skill I have finely honed for many years. A lot of people ask how I stay on top of it, so I thought I’d share a few practical tips.

Set goals . . .

The power of goal-setting cannot be disputed. I challenge people to spend time really thinking about what they want out of an organized life. I love this as a starting point because, like all good things, getting organized has to start with intent and focus. We need to take time to reflect on what our goals really are. The principle is the same as sales–insurance companies aren’t selling policies; they are selling peace of mind. Organization is not about more shelf-space. It’s about using the space you have more effectively so that you can display items that you love and feel joy when you see them.

When you shift your mindset, tasks like “clean off the countertops” become a positive, hopeful goal like “create more space for Christmas cookie baking.”

All of a sudden, you know what you’re aiming for. And the payoff seems a whole lot sweeter.

. . . and write them down.

Setting goals is a necessary first step, but possibly no more vital than actually writing them down. Use a real pen and paper, and post them in a place you’ll see regularly. I have a personal board on the wall next to my dresser, and another, separate list with separate goals next to my desk at work.

When you know what you’re aiming for, it makes it easier to achieve. Dozens of studies on the power of recording your goals will back me up on that. This method works for big and small goals. You can write down your big organizational goals, like making more cookie space, but take time to record your weekly goals, too, which do tend to be more task-oriented. Check out my goals for this week:

Pro tip: I use check-boxes instead of bullet points to remind myself that an action must be taken.

A place for everything (and everything in its place)

Most of the advice my dad has given me since I was a kid meets two criteria: (1) it came from his dad and (2) it is circular. Take all you want, but eat all you take. Plan your work, and work your plan. This piece of advice–a place for everything, and everything in its place–is no different.

In Dave Rasmey’s financial philosophy, he preaches the importance of assigning every dollar a job. It’s your job to tell your money where it belongs, or else it will own you. The same is true for your things.

If you don’t own your possessions, they will own you.

Do you step over stuff on the floor? Do you push things off the seats of your car when you give someone a ride? Is your day ever put on hold because you cannot find something? I hate to break it to you, but if those situations sound familiar, then your stuff is calling the shots. But don’t get discouraged! Because you have something that your stuff doesn’t have: willpower and intellect. Tell your stuff where to go. Be the boss.

At first, it will take time to assign each item its own home, but once you accomplish it, your life will change and owning your stuff will become very, very easy. And if you can’t find a home for all your stuff–you have too much. Downsize. (I’ll write a blog about that soon! It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds; I promise.)

Baskets! With labels!

You’ve bought into the whole “A place for everything” schtick–yay! But since we don’t live in the kindergarten classroom version of the world, where we are surrounded by beautifully labeled cubbies, it’s not as simple as one-item-per-one-home. That’s where baskets (with labels!) become your saving grace. You can use baskets literally everywhere in your home. Use them in drawers to separate your socks and undies. Use them in your pantry to catalog spices, snacks, canned goods, and seasoning packets. Use them in the laundry room for all of your cleaning supplies. Under your bed, on top of your cabinets, beside your couch–baskets make it insanely simple to contain any mess.

Pro Tip: The dollar store has tons of baskets in all shapes, sizes, materials, and varieties. I bought a bunch of plastic bins and spray painted them a lovely gold for my pantry at my last apartment. #gorgeous

As a matter of fact, I even stamp my approval on a “catch all” basket–a place where you can throw everything in there that you don’t have time to put away right this minute (we do live in the real world, after-all). But the rules for the catch-all basket are unflinchingly rigid:

  • It must be only one designated basket
  • You must empty it and put everything inside of it in their assigned homes once a week.

Aim for Inbox Zero

I am stupidly passionate about Inbox Zero. It’s so simple. Keep your inbox empty. To those of you with 100+ unread emails, this may seem vastly unreasonable at this moment, which is why this tip is just to “aim” for it. Make small changes. Try to unsubscribe from 10 emails you get that you delete every time. That’s your only goal this week. (Coming soon: a detailed blog about how I stay on top of all 3 of my inboxes.)

Keep lists.

Have you heard of Bullet Journaling? It’s a very cool way to stay on top of your life, both professionally and personally. I don’t follow it exactly–I adapted it to what works for me–but the premise is that every bullet requires an action. It can either be completed, canceled, or moved. But it cannot disappear. Once you move a task from your Monday list to your Tuesday list to your Wednesday list . . . suddenly you’re like, “Okay, Vacuuming-Out-My-Car, you’re getting done today if it means taking 15 minutes of my lunch break to do it!”

Remember: task lists and goals are not the same thing.

Regular maintenance.

Nothing works unless you do. Implementing systems and structure won’t work if you’re constantly finding a way out of it. I’m that way when it comes to diets. I’m constantly saying, “I mean, it’s celebratory ice cream. I actually didn’t think I would make it until 5:00 today so I earned this chocolate concrete with brownie pieces.” When it comes to me and frozen custard, there’s no excuse I won’t (and haven’t) used. And for a lot of people, cleaning up is their frozen custard. Here are some of the excuses you’ll hear yourself make:

  • The mess will still be there tomorrow.
  • Why clean it when it will just get messy again?
  • I have 25,000 unread messages. It’s obvious that I will never catch up on this inbox. Why even bother?
  • It’s been a long day of cleaning up other people’s messes; I don’t want to focus on mine now.

And so many others. You need to make regular maintenance (aka chores) a committed part of your routine. It needs to be as regular as brushing your teeth. Because I promise, if you work a little on implementing systems on a small scale, it will make a big impact.

Pro Tip: Only you know your personal brand of chaos. Everyone’s chaos is different because everyone’s story is different. That means what matters most to you when it comes to getting organized will be different, too. And that’s okay. Find what works for your unique mess. And own it!

One bite at a time.

Recently my mom found a receipt for a clock radio she bought. In 1986. Before she married my dad. Before I was born. That clock radio died long, long ago. Followed soon after by its memory (I mean, it was a clock radio). But its receipt lived on in my parents’ files. From her parents’ house, to my parents’ first house, second house, and now in their third–150 miles from the second–it still had a place. (In case you were wondering, yes, this story was told with full permission.)

The point is: you didn’t create this chaos overnight. It won’t disappear overnight either. So while it may seem like a great idea to dedicate an entire Saturday to “cleaning up my whole life!”, the reality is that by Sunday morning, you’ll just be surrounded by garbage bags and not sure where any of the stuff you actually wanted to keep ended up after the fray.

Set goals. Write them down. And chip them away the same way you’d eat an elephant. One bite at a time.

Clean the kitchen sink

The most practical way I stay on top of my life? I keep the kitchen sink clean. No joke. When I was very young, my mother read a book by the FlyLady and her first step was to make sure the kitchen sink sparkled. If you could achieve that, you could achieve anything. It stuck with me, and it works. Each night, the last thing I do before I tuck myself under the covers is clean out the kitchen sink. I don’t allow myself to go to bed until it’s done. Even on the longest days, I take 10 minutes to get it done. And I never regret it. Because every morning, I wake up to a clean sink, and I remember what I have the power to accomplish when I focus.

Grace not perfection

One of my inspirations in how I set out to live my life is Emily Ley. She has done what I would do in my wildest dream–created an empire helping people organize their lives. Her book Grace Not Perfection helped reality-check me from a person who was hyper-focused on every toothpick having its own special home to someone who is okay with the fact that since it’s already after 9:00, I’m probably not going to accomplish my “read a chapter of a book” goal tonight. And I’m okay with that.

Whatever your chaos, whatever your mess, whatever your goals–remind yourself every single day who you are and whose you are. Because anything and everything else that matters springs from that exceptionally vital understanding.

 

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