One Question to Ask When Organizing

Question Mark

If your life or your space feels out of control, there may be a lot of questions running through your mind:

  • “How did it ever get this bad?” 
  • “Where did all this stuff come from?”
  • “What am I going to do with it?”
  • “Why are the other people in my house so messy?”

While it is normal to wonder about questions like these, asking them typically results in vague resolutions or self-recrimination. Neither of these is helpful.

Fortunately, there is one question that I find always helps when setting up organizing systems.

That question is … Why am I keeping this?

Asking this question is valuable because it immediately identifies a belonging’s purpose. Knowing the “why” of a possession is the precursor to designing the best “where” and “how” storage solutions.

There are many good reasons for keeping an item. Here are a few of the most common.

Why Am I Keeping This?

Common AnswersImplied PurposeStorage ImplicationExamples
“I use it”FunctionStore in a place where the item can be easily accessed. The more frequently you use it, the more accessible the location needs to be. - Hang keys on a key hook right near the entry door
- Keep the scissors in the top drawer
- Store the shoes you wear every day downstairs in the mudroom, and the seldom-worn shoes on a shelf in the bedroom closet
“I like to look at it”DecorativeDisplay the item where you can see and enjoy it.- Hang a favorite photo/piece of art over the kitchen sink
- Print a favorite digital photo and put it on your desk.
- Display your favorite collection
“It has financial value”Investment
Store in a safe, clean, perhaps climate controlled location. Insure the item.
- Store silver in cloth bags
- Protect valuable art behind glass and away from sunlight.
“It brings back good memories”SentimentalStore it with memorabilia. - Give each family member a bin for favorite mementos that can slide under a bed.
- Hang vintage clothing in a cedar closet.
“I might need it”Reference/EventualityPut it in a labeled container in a remote location- Archive tax files in a box in the attic
- Download appliance manuals to a folder on your computer

In some cases, answering this one question reveals that you may not have a good reason for keeping an item. For instance, you might find yourself saying:

  • “It was a gift, but I never really liked it.” 
  • “I inherited this, and even though I don’t have space for it, the family expects me to keep it.” 
  • “It is leftover from a project.”
  • “My child brought it home but she has never played with it.”
  • “We got that at a party/sporting event/conference/etc.”
  • “I used to use this in a previous stage of life, but I honestly don’t anymore.”
  • “That was left here by the previous homeowner.”

When you find yourself giving these answers, the appropriate step is to move the item out of your space, either via donation or disposal.

Similarly, you may come across some items for which you cannot answer the question. Don’t try and find reasons to keep things. If an explanation doesn’t easily come to mind, let it go. Periodically, you may encounter things that belong to a spouse, coworker or other family member. In this case, the best thing you can do is establish a review pile/bin for the owner to assess and make his/her own decisions.

*     *     *     *     *

How we interact with physical belongings is the ultimate defines their value. Asking the “why” question clarifies this relationship and facilitates good decision-making.

Do you think asking this question would be helpful in deciding what to keep and what to shed?

20 thoughts on “One Question to Ask When Organizing”

    1. It is a great “go to” question when you are feeling stuck on where to store something. I ask it all the time with clients:)

  1. I, too, like the way you laid out the chart, Seana. When my clients aren’t quite sure why they are keeping something and they’re not ready to let it go I suggest a marinating box. A place to put things while they contemplate this question. We put a post it with a date to return back and once again review the item. Most of the time, when we take a second look my clients has either figured out why they are keeping the item and where it belongs or they are ready to let it go.

    1. I love the idea of a “marinating” box. It is true that 90% of the time, when you go back later and look in, you feel more confident about letting the contents go. So smart to date the box!

  2. Brilliant post! I love the way you organized the question asking with action-oriented responses. The examples you shared are so familiar…these are ones I also hear from my clients. It’s great how you’ve captured and articulated them. I’m reading a book now, “Wait, What? – And Life’s Other Essential Questions,” that speaks to the power of asking questions. It’s in the questions that we grow, learn, discover and decide. The author, James Ryan, also makes a distinction between good and bad questions…which is exactly what you’ve done. Thank you for providing an example of a great “essential” question to accompany the organizing process.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Remove Clutter From Your “Happy Place”My Profile

    1. Yes, that is all true, Janet! That is really a whole other topic for discussion. This is mostly to help figure out where to put the items you are keeping. If you find you are keeping everything, you may need to be a bit more discerning:)

  3. I find that for me the emotions behind the object is what makes me keep an item. If there is no emotion, I don’t feel the need to keep it. Your guide is helpful for anyone who gets stumped with what do with an item. By asking why are you keeping it questions, truly helps you determine how you feel about an object. It’s the best way to decide if an item is necessary. Thanks for sharing this great post.

    1. Emotion often plays a big role as we organize. Such a good point, Sabrina! When decluttering, emotion can make it hard to decide to what to keep and what to shed. Once you’ve decided to keep things, the “why” questions can help you figure out where to store it.

  4. Seana, love the chart! I think that presents the information in an easy to digest format. It’s also easy to keep at your fingertips, because your answer is going to be different with different items. I’d love to have a copy of it. But also please feel free to follow the same line into the topic that Janet Barclay brought up. 😉

    1. I always think everything is easier to understand in a matrix, Debbie:) Again, this post is primarily geared toward items you know you want to keep. Knowing why you are keeping an item helps you figure out where you should store it. That said, it is possible that you may decide to keep too much. If you need to declutter but find yourself keeping everything, you probably need to be asking some other questions. Please feel free to use anything from the blog that you find helpful (with attribution), and thanks for the comment!

  5. The “why”. Is the leading question to deeper understanding. As you explore this, it gives us a pause which also moves us forward. A pause can be an effective way to acknowledge, then release. Thanks for reminding us if the big “why”- why are we organizing?

    1. Often in life we lack answers to “why” questions. It is just as you say, this question forces us deeper into the situation. The answer to this question can be very instructive, however, so it is worth the effort to drill down to an answer.

  6. What a simple yet profound question. I tend to go through cycles of collecting stuff and then purging. I ask myself a variation of your question when I go through my purging phases. I need to ask it more often. 🙂
    Susan recently posted…Hawaiian Beach Glass VaseMy Profile

    1. And even once you have purged, asking this question can be helpful in deciding what to keep where. I agree that purging tends to come and go in phases. I call it, “being in the mood.” When we are ready, we tend to get going and tackle drawer after drawer!

    1. I would love to come over! It is normal for couples to come at this issues from opposite ends of the spectrum, but it is worth working on. It is just stuff, after all.

    1. Gifts are always hard. I believe that when someone gives a git, they are transferring ownership. Part of that means that the recipient can do as he/she pleases with the item. Still, guilt can play a role. But once you’ve decided to keep something, this question will help you figure out where to store it!

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