Piled up with old newspapers

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.”
—Aristotle

Ask anyone if they’d like to be more organised, and almost everyone will answer, “Yes!” The benefits of being organised are many. You can manage your time more efficiently, so that you’ll have more of it to do the things you love. And stress levels are reduced since you won’t be racing around your home anxiously looking for misplaced or lost items.

These benefits and others create a path towards true liberation. Not one necessarily free from all material objects, although you could certainly pursue that goal. But freedom and happiness don’t require you to give up all your worldly possessions—merely to hold them more loosely.

If you are willing to relax your grip on the objects that surround you and learn to recognise the stories you tell yourself about these objects and their significance in your life, the stuff of your life will find its proper places and everything around you will open up—literally and figuratively. Even his Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “If you want to practice meditation, first clean up your room.”

And yet, getting and staying organised is often portrayed as the province of uptight, overly fussy and dull people. Naysayers typically reference this quote from Albert Einstein as their defense for clutter and disorganisation: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?”

But it’s a little disingenuous to attribute Einstein’s brilliance solely to his disorganisation or reputation as an absent-minded professor. After all, we don’t have to choose between being an ascetic, renouncing the material world, a creative genius leaving a trail of debris in her wake or a repressed obsessive attempting to control every aspect of life. We can choose the middle path of balance and integration, where everything we surround ourselves with has a practical function, is beautiful in design or application, and serves our greatest sense of self and wellbeing.

Getting and staying organised is often portrayed as the province of uptight, overly fussy and dull people

Fortunately, walking the middle path by getting and staying organised is not as difficult or complicated as most people imagine, and it can be surprisingly easy and fun.

What do you value?

Whether you’re trying to become more fit or learn how to get and stay organised, you need to know if it’s important to you and why. Answering these two questions isn’t some form of whimsical navel-gazing. Rather, it’s the kind of work necessary to build a strong foundation for your desired skills.

New behaviour that isn’t tied to your core values stands little chance of surviving the first setback or distraction. Even the best intentions are often not strong enough to keep us motivated when we run into a bit of resistance or experience an unrealised expectation of the way we thought something would turn out. That’s why it’s essential to rely on your values to keep you aligned with your goals rather than your feelings.

A client of mine, Ruby, struggled for years to get and stay organised. She would allow clutter to build up over time, then force herself into marathon sessions of organising. She had a familiar story she would tell herself—that her time was valuable and she couldn’t afford to put things away consistently. While she didn’t like being disorganised, she saw it as a necessary by-product of how busy she was. She had yet to discover that being busy doesn’t always equate with being productive.

Every few months, she would reluctantly set aside a full day to tidy up, but resented these all-day sessions. Once finished, she would become defiant almost immediately and lapse back into her story about how precious her time was, which would undermine any attempts to maintain her new order. As a result, whatever progress she had achieved would quickly disintegrate. When I began working with her, I suggested she work through the core value exercises so she could find something she valued as much as her time and her story. That way, she could attach the new habits to competing value.

Whether you’re trying to become more fit or learn how to get and stay organised, you need to know if it’s important to you and why

Ruby is an award-winning filmmaker and teacher. She has an editing studio and office in her home, and she is always being sent movies from students and fans to review. This constant flow of mail, coupled with the accumulation of source material for her own films, results in piles and stacks that grow on every available surface. One consequence of this dysfunctional system was that she couldn’t easily find tapes that held raw footage and various revisions of her own work. Yet, even though she had spent thousands of dollars on duplicate efforts, casual labour and replacing lost and damaged equipment, the financial cost of disorganisation wasn’t enough to motivate her.

What finally got her attention were two values she identified while doing the exercises. The first was that she valued home and nesting—she loved to entertain but would seldom have people over because of the condition of her home. The second value was her pursuit of excellence as a filmmaker. Disorganisation had harmed her in several minor ways in the past, but she was finally compelled to act when a disk containing critical footage was misplaced. Its loss resulted in a disappointing cut of her film, and that was a consequence she could not bear to repeat. These two core values became the foundation for organising her home and studio in a way that she could maintain.

Although organisation in other parts of her life still lags behind, Ruby has been successful and diligent about keeping things in their place in both her living room and studio. A once frequent visitor to the locksmith, she hasn’t misplaced her keys since completing the exercises. Perhaps more importantly, Ruby is happier and invokes her story about busy-ness less and less. We both attribute her achievements to an increased clarity around what has significance and value for her and a sincere desire to honour that value rather than denigrate it.

Getting and staying organised

Man in his office that's messed up
Stacks of paper on your desk represent individual choices your didn’t make, that now pile up as clutter

Getting organised and staying organised are not the same thing. Getting organised involves dealing with everything you’ve accumulated up until this point. You may choose to think about it as cleaning up your past. Staying organised is about the present and the future, where good habits consistently applied prevent more clutter from building up.

Here’s the big secret about clutter—it’s nothing more than deferred decisions. Each time you set something down with a promise that you’ll get back to it ‘later’ or ‘someday’, you create clutter. Look around you right now. If you see a stack of newspapers or magazines or mail or clothes or books, each stack represents individual choices you didn’t make then that are now piled up one on top of the other.

Here’s the big secret about clutter—it’s nothing more than deferred decisions

That’s also the way you’ll dispatch clutter. You’ll finally make each of those decisions and assign each object its own home.

The Organisational Triangle®

My discovery, The Organisational Triangle®, is made up of three simple and easy principles or rules. They are: One Home For Everything, Like With Like and Something In, Something Out. These rules are the only rules you need to remember.

One Home For Everything

Everything has one home, and only one home. It doesn’t matter where that home is as long as it is someplace you can get to easily and that you will remember consistently. By applying this rule, things will either be in their home or in the hand being used. There are no universal homes for anything. You may put your keys anywhere that makes sense to you and where you will remember to look for them. Mine are kept in a dish by my front door—yours might be hanging from a hook. Neither is a better choice than the other, the decision is based on convenience and practicality.

Like With Like

Pen stand with two scissors
Having multiples of the same object is a big source of clutter

Along with deferred decisions, clutter accumulates when you have multiples of the same object. It may seem easier in the short run to acquire a new pair of scissors when you can’t find the old pair of scissors, but inevitably when the original pair surfaces, the result is redundancy and waste.

Knowing exactly how much of any one thing or type of thing you have is essential when establishing homes for things. If you don’t know how many office supplies you have, you are likely to assign a place to them that is either too small or too large which wastes space.

Something In, Something Out

Achieving stuff equilibrium occurs when you have enough of everything that serves you, and nothing that doesn’t. There are no rules about what constitutes ‘enough’.

If your resources and space allow for more things, you may have more things. Our physical spaces do an excellent job informing us on what is enough. It’s when we don’t listen carefully to our surroundings that we run into trouble.

My client Stewart ran into this problem when he and his wife downsized their home from a 3-bedroom, 3-bath house to a 2-bedroom, 1.5 bath appartment. Even though the square footage of the homes was only a few 100 feet different, the configuration of the closets and other cabinets in the new apartment was significantly smaller.

Stewart and Tina struggled for several weeks to cram more things into the new space than it could easily accommodate before they called me. By laying everything out on the floor and other surfaces, we were able to group ‘Like With Like’ and get a much more accurate sense of the volume of things they were trying to store. From that point, it was easy to match belongings to containers and cabinets, sifting through categories of things to identify surplus items they could now let go of.

It’s when we don’t listen carefully to our surroundings that we run into trouble

Once you’ve determined what enough is for you, commit yourself to maintaining that level of belongings. You needn’t deprive yourself of anything, if you have room for it. Conversely, you shouldn’t hold onto anything that doesn’t have a place and can’t be assigned one, simply because you want it. If you do, you create clutter.

When your desire to hold onto something is so strong that letting it go seems inconceivable, the choice becomes finding something else you care less strongly about and letting that go in its place.

Celebrate when you achieve stuff equilibrium as a milestone of your progress. From this point forward, with few exceptions, when something new comes in, it must mean that something old is on its way out. Practising this rule rigorously ensures that you will stay organised for good.

Some core concepts of getting organised

Doing less

If the thought of getting organised, of finally making those deferred decisions, begins to feel overwhelming, remember that getting organised isn’t about doing more, it’s about doing less. You’re already overwhelmed trying to keep up with all your current responsibilities and tasks. It only makes sense that trying to add anything on top of your current obligations will further complicate your life.

That’s why there is so much emphasis placed on returning to your core values. If you don’t know what’s important to you, it will be very easy to be distracted by what is urgent. Sometimes urgent and important are combined, but often urgent is just the louder of the two.

When you create your day based on what is important first, it becomes much easier to allow those things that are not significant to fall away or take their place at the bottom of your to-do list.

Remember that getting organised isn’t about doing more, it’s about doing less

Organising is about taking action

Unlike psychotherapy but every bit as beneficial for your mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, getting organised is not a talking cure but a series of deliberate actions. It means actually interacting with your physical environment and the objects that surround you. No amount of conversation or planning can take the place of handling each possession, assigning it a home and putting it there, or adding it to a pile of items destined to leave your home or office for good.

A client we’ll call Steve works as a fashion photographer. Steve is very friendly and personable, and he gets great results, in part, because he’s so warm and engaging. When on the set, he’s chatty and informal which allows the models to relax. This great quality, however, was a detriment to Steve when it came to clutter. He would tell anyone who’d listen about his disorganisation, even to the point of mis-identifying himself as ‘flaky’ or ’forgetful’. Steve can remember what a particular model was wearing on a shoot five years ago, down to her or his socks—so he’s definitely not flaky or forgetful about things that matter.

That’s where core values come in. Steve values his memory for detail when it comes to his professional efforts but discounts retention when it comes to his home life. Although he lives alone most of the time, his two children spend every other weekend with him. His forgetfulness at home has led to several arguments with his ex-wife over insignificant items one of his children have left behind. She uses these transgressions to fuel her enmity, claiming that this lack of attention was a leading factor in their separation.

Woman standing in front of the closet
With an organised closet, you’ll waste less time deciding what to wear

Steve understands now that talking about his disorganisation wasn’t the same as doing something about it, but at the time he was stuck in a habitual pattern. Although he never whined, at times his constant refrain began to feel like he was complaining rather than describing. It didn’t take long for me to suggest to him that if he spent just a fraction of his time organising rather than talking, he’d have plenty of time to get things in order.

Many of us can easily fall into the same trap of complaining rather than dispassionately describing a situation or even better, actually getting stuff done. If you’re prone to complaining about your current state of affairs, consider using some of that time to actually affect change.

These three questions are also a helpful tool in determining what needs to be shared and when. Ask yourself the following: Does this absolutely need to be said? Does this absolutely need to be said by me? Does this absolutely need to be said by me now?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of these, it may be wiser to remain quiet and redirect your energy into an activity that is more productive.

If you’re prone to complaining about your current state of affairs, consider using some of that time to actually affect change

A side benefit of moving into action is the potential this principle has to change how you feel in the moment. Often, people wait until they feel like organising to begin the process of organising. But that is unreliable at best and dangerous at worst. If you didn’t want to put something away in the first place, it is unlikely you will ever feel like putting it away sometime in the future. The future never arrives without its own agenda and demands on your time and energy, so it’s only wishful thinking imagining that the future will bring with it the motivation to do something you don’t feel like doing today.

Rather than depending on your feelings for motivation, rely on your values to encourage you to step up and accomplish those things you say are important. And once in motion, it becomes that much easier to stay in motion since being active can also change your mood. As you move around and get the blood and oxygen moving through your system, you feel better and get more accomplished.

A means to an end

It may surprise you that the ultimate goal of getting organised is not a tidy home or the absence of clutter. The real goal is having enough time for the things that are important—and those things are seldom things at all. They tend to be relationships, creative expression, philanthropy, giving back to our community, and caring for others.

Once you achieve stuff equilibrium, you should have plenty of time to stay organised. If you have to spend all of your time interacting with objects even after you’ve got organised, chances are you still have too much stuff. The purpose of getting and staying organised is to remove any obstacle that stands between you and living your passions, engaging with your life and exploring your place in the world. Finding your mobile phone or keys is merely a delightful by-product.

The ultimate goal of getting organised is having enough time for the things that are important—and those things are seldom things at all

Some core concepts of staying organised

Vague is not your friend

Woman with piles of clothes in her hands
Regardless of the quality of your possessions, if it’s more than you can manage, you have a problem of abundance

It’s that unflinching clarity of vision that dispels the myth that, without ever getting into the swimming pool, you might become the next Olympic champion. The same clarity is required when getting and staying organised. Pay attention to the times you feel confused or uncertain which action to take next.

My client Becky was fond of saying, “I’m confused,” whenever she confronted a large task that required several smaller decisions to make progress. She wasn’t really confused about what was involved in moving forward, she was confused with which solution to pick since none of them were ideal. For example, when Becky wanted to re-upholster her sofa, she adopted an attitude of confusion when selecting fabric. Rather than accepting her budgetary limitations upfront, she “confused herself” by reviewing fabrics well beyond her means. Failure to address this financial issue upfront only resulted in frustration and delays.

No doubt there will be times of genuine lack of clarity. However, often you know more than you are willing to admit or acknowledge. We often mask truths we find unpalatable with a general, “I don’t know,” when in fact we do know, we just don’t like what we know and hope it will go away or change if we delay long enough without choosing.

Pay attention to the times you feel confused or uncertain which action to take next

Two kinds of procrastination

‘Someday’ and the undefined ‘later’ don’t exist. There is a later that does exist—that is the later that is assigned a particular date and time. Note whenever you choose the first ‘later’ to get out of doing something you don’t want to do rather than committing to a clear time you’ll reschedule the task to be completed.

Where to start

Once you’ve identified your core value, you’re ready to start doing something physical. The tools you need on hand are a simple timer, a digital camera [the one in your mobile phone will do fine], a stopwatch and The Organizational Triangle®.

The timer

Man with a timer
When de-cluttering, spend no less than 15 minutes and no more than 3 hours at a time

Every task has a beginning and an end and the timer helps you to define when to start and when to finish. If you have any amount of historic accumulation or clutter, chances are dealing with it all will take more than one session. That’s where the timer comes in. Instead of attempting to dispatch all your piles and stacks at one time, you’ll set the timer for a finite amount of time—no less than 15 minutes and no more than three hours at a time. You can schedule more than one 3-hour session in one day, you just need to take a break between each of them to refresh and refocus yourself.

Failure breeds failure and success breeds success. If the last time you tried to tackle an enormous project in one day and were unsuccessful, chances are it became that much more difficult to motivate yourself to try it again. You already imagined failing before you even began. Students often share with me that once they started using a timer to establish limits for work sessions, their enjoyment and success rates improved dramatically.

Every task has a beginning and an end and the timer helps you to define when to start and finish

With the timer, organising for a specific amount of time becomes the goal rather than conquering the closet, the shed, the attic or the office in one sitting. When the timer goes off, you feel satisfied and successful. You actually accomplished what you committed to doing. You begin to feel more confident that when you declare your intention, your word means something. You discover that you do have what it takes to follow through, even one minute at a time.

The camera

In addition to the timer, taking pictures of the current state of things before you begin working is the best defense against negative or cynical thoughts and feelings. It’s quite possible that even with the timer’s assistance, you will feel that you’ve made less progress than you expected, or worse, that nothing has changed at all. Though you may intellectually know this to be false, your feelings of frustration and disappointment may be so strong that you tell yourself that for you, getting and staying organised is impossible.

You have the ability to get and stay organised as long as you have the willingness to do the work required. Your feelings may not be the most reliable guide in this process, which is where the camera comes in. If or when you find yourself doubting your progress, just pull out the photographs of what things looked like before you started and you’ll have all the evidence you need to counteract any negative talk or internal bullying or shaming.

There is no such thing as multitasking

Much has been written about multitasking and here’s a radical idea: there is no such thing as multitasking, at least not in the way that people imagine when thinking of juggling multiple complex activities. The next time someone suggests you just get better at multitasking remind them of this: there is no way to bake a cake and perform open-heart surgery at the same time. You can do several complex tasks in rapid succession, sequentially, but it is impossible to do them simultaneously.

Of course, you can wash dishes and talk on the telephone at the same time, but even then, more than a few of us have lost the train of thought or accidentally broken something when distracted or surprised by the conversation.

Some more things to consider

All the organising tools, tips and suggestions above will be less than effective if you remain stuck in a story about specific objects or clutter and disorganisation in general. Stories are essential for building and maintaining intimacy. The trouble begins when you seek to replicate those intimate relationships with inanimate objects. Sometimes, even when confronted with the sad truth that our belongings don’t love us with the same degree of affection we feel for them, we concoct new stories to close the gap between what we know to be true and what we wish were true.

Story, or the stuff behind the stuff

Once you start digging into historic accumulation, particularly when you begin sorting Like With Like, often patterns begin to emerge. Not only of the kinds of things you seem to collect, but also the stories you tell yourself. The deeper you delve into the process, the more you may see that it’s the story, or the stuff behind the stuff, that is driving most of your relationships with objects.

One of the ironies about stuff is that there isn’t necessarily a better reason to hold onto something. You like it or you don’t, it serves you or it doesn’t. Feeling guilty when you consider letting something go is almost always a sign of being caught in the grip of a powerful story, regardless of how current or accurate it may be.

We often feel we must defend our choices to some outside judge, but in most cases that’s merely a form of projection. It’s to oneself we must justify our choices, and it seems easier to imagine that resistance outside rather than inside. This happened to Sarah.

One of the ironies about stuff is that there isn’t necessarily a better reason to hold onto something

Sarah had a stereo system she had received from a former boyfriend. They were not on speaking terms and, in fact, the gift of the stereo had actually been one of the major causes of their break up. She rarely used it to listen to music, preferring to stream audio on her computer or iPod. Yet she held onto it as a symbol of this failed relationship. She would tell herself that it would be a betrayal of their time together if she let the stereo go, but she also admitted that every time she looked at it, it caused her grief and shame.

On the surface, the stereo represented a financial investment since it had been expensive. It also demonstrated that even though her heart had been broken, she didn’t leave the relationship empty-handed. Underneath those two premises lived a painful truth that caused suffering every time she looked at it.

When I asked her what she would advise a friend to do in the same situation, she stated that she would suggest her friend get rid of the stereo immediately. Without her own story informing her choices, Sarah could see the greater value in letting the stereo go. Without story, eliminating a source of pain was more important than money or justification. Once she saw this, she was free to act and donated the stereo to a local children’s centre.

The next time you feel as if you are on trial and searching for a ‘good reason’ to keep something you could let go of, pause for a moment. Unless someone is actually demanding an explanation for your attachment to an object, recognise that this is your way of playing out an internal conflict externally. A little quiet reflection will usually allow you to soften your grip and surrender the argument.

Returning to the third leg of The Organizational Triangle®, Something In, Something Out, we remember that our goal is to achieve stuff equilibrium, not to win a debate. Have enough of everything that serves you and nothing that doesn’t. From there, rather than struggling with should, would or could, the only real question becomes, ‘does this object still serve you on any level—physical, emotional or spiritual?’

Whenever the answer to the question is no, it becomes easier to release the object, particularly if you can see that the thing you’re now letting go of will soon benefit someone else.

Have enough of everything that serves you and nothing that doesn’t

When everything is precious, nothing is precious

Women doing work in her laptop at her tidy house
An organised home = less stress and more time

Similar to being able to distinguish between urgent and important, it’s essential to recognise the difference between trash and treasure. I believe we have a moral and ethical obligation to keep as much out of landfill as possible—there is almost always a way to recycle, repurpose or reuse our cast-offs without them becoming trash.

Assuming responsibility for the entire lifecycle of each and every object you bring home will accomplish at least two things. First, it will slow down consumption when you consider the consequences of caring for each item from its first introduction into your life until its final departure. Second, it will guide your choices of materials and encourage you to seek out greener and lower-impact versions to maximise your options when letting things go.

Practically speaking, whenever you feel stuck in determining the value of any item, remember it takes two people for something to have objective value—you as the owner and the other person as the buyer or recipient. If you cannot find one other person who agrees with you that the object in question has value, it only has subjective value—it only matters to you. That in and of itself doesn’t mean you have to let it go. It just means you have to let go of the story you’re telling yourself about the object’s intrinsic value. This is particularly useful for people who like to collect things.

There are no exceptions when it comes to stuff

You may be quite exceptional in many ways. You may be a Nobel laureate, a brilliant artist, an extraordinary homemaker, or perhaps even all three—but when it comes to stuff, we are all equal. You may tell yourself a story that you believe would convince any listener that you have an exceptional reason for keeping something, but as I mentioned above, there are no better reasons. Either you like it and have room for it, or you don’t.

If you cannot find one other person who agrees with you that the object in question has value, it only has subjective value

Gratitude and abundance

Recognising the passive nature of things is essential when it comes to staying organised. For those of you who have tried and failed to get organised, you may see that you approached the process with a degree of frustration, anger or haste. I’m going to make a radical suggestion. Instead of fighting with stuff, say thank you.

Regardless of the quantity or quality of things you have around you, if you have more than you need or more than you can manage, you have a problem of abundance. You have too much of a good thing. It’s safe to assume that you brought each item into your life for a particular purpose, even if you or the object has long since outgrown that purpose. Even inherited items are not just dropped on your doorstep without your consent.

Acknowledging this abundance and expressing gratitude for its presence in your life allows you to soften your stance and release the compressed emotions of anger, fear, confusion, or frustration. Since stuff is inanimate, it stands to reason that it will outlast you in any battle. It will lie exactly were you placed it for as long as you leave it there. It will never get up and move itself, regardless of how desperately you implore it to or want it to.

A simple sentence acknowledging your previous desire and attachment followed by your desire to now release this object will do wonders to move you forward in your process. The small act of stating, “Thank you for being in my life. I am now finished with you and release you,” seems to unlock resistance and make letting go of something suddenly eminently doable.

Since stuff is inanimate, it stands to reason that it will outlast you in any battle

Final words

Art, textiles, tools, furniture, and dwellings—all these things make our lives more comfortable, convenient and/or beautiful. Stuff in and of itself is neither good nor bad. The problem, as is so often the case, lies within us.

It is our desperation, our clinging or our greed that, when unchecked, leads us astray and creates the perfect conditions for clutter to accumulate. Fortunately, it is our calmness, our kindness and our generosity that is the perfect antidote and solution.

No one ever lied on their deathbed wishing they had only spent a few more minutes rearranging the contents of their closet. How fortunate then, that simply by opening our hands and hearts, we have access to lasting, sustainable freedom.


A version of this was first published in the December 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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