The One Thing You Must Do to Be Organized

number one thing to do to be organized

Have you have ever driven by an abandoned building? If you have, you know that it doesn’t take long for a space to fall apart. To keep an area in good working order requires regular maintenance. When it comes to organizing, this largely consists of putting belongings back where they belong. While the idea of a magic fairy coming behind us and putting things away is appealing, the reality is that we must rise to this responsibility if we want to be organized. 

Here is why:

Spaces naturally move from ordered to disordered. If you ever took physics, you may remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law observes that all closed systems tend toward entropy. [A simple way to think about entropy is as a measure of disorder.] While this law isn’t directly about organizing, I think it certainly applies. The “normal” progression for any space seems to be from order to chaos, sometimes in a matter of minutes!

The law further states that reversing this ever-increasing tendency toward disorder requires the input of energy.

The input of energy…there it is. Being organized requires an input of energy.

Admittedly, decluttering and establishing systems requires energy. I spend most of my time with clients facilitating these two steps. Nonetheless, to enjoy ongoing order requires the less flashy and perhaps tedious commitment to regularly putting things away.

When my children were little, I frequently repeated the mantra, “Put one thing away before you take out another.” In fact, I said it so often that I believe they eventually tuned me out. I understand! Taking things out can feel more fun than putting things back. When we pull things out we are moving toward something. We have a sense of anticipation and the possibility of accomplishment. For example:

  • Deciding what to wear on an outing
  • Beginning work on a project
  • Planning an upcoming event
  • Cooking a soon-to-be-enjoyed meal
  • Heading out on an excursion
  • Getting ready for a competition
  • Preparing to play a game

In contrast, restoring items to their proper “homes” is associated with the ending of activities:

  • Washing and putting away the dishes when dinner is finished
  • Hanging up clothes in the closet after a night out
  • Putting tools back in their various storage locations after completing the project
  • Filing paperwork that has been managed
  • Replacing pieces into the box when the game is over
  • Hanging up sports equipment after practice
  • Carrying supplies back upstairs that were brought down to the kitchen table for use
  • Unpacking items that were tucked away in bin when friends came for a visit
  • Returning shoes to the closet after they have been worn

Much of the time, the excitement of looking ahead has passed and we are left with the need to reset the scene for the future. Restoring order can feel like drudgery, and we often face this task at a time of day when we are depleted. The temptation to simply drop, stash, pile, stack or otherwise dump is powerful.

Unfortunately, the need to regularly restore order is relentless. To date, items are not yet walking themselves back to their resting places and putting themselves away. Someone must repeatedly put things back, and unless you have a personal maid, this person will have to be you.

The good news is, resetting does not need to be an unpleasant process. There are things you can do to improve the way you experience this important discipline.

1. Change your mindset.

We believe what we tell ourselves, so change your inner dialogue. When you feel tempted to complain, “I have to clean up,” switch your vocabulary and say, “Time to get ready for tomorrow.” This restores a future mindset that can be motivating. You aren’t simply completing a past experience, but instead are creating an inviting and productive environment for what is coming next.

2. Work with your biorhythm.

If you are exhausted by the end of the day and can barely get the kids into bed, don’t choose this time to face the task of restoring order. Instead, harness alternative windows when you have the time and energy to complete the task. Maybe you set aside the first 15 minutes after the children are off to school in the morning. Perhaps you and the family do a sweep every day before lunch or dinner. You could even tackle one room of the house each day of the week and not worry about it on the other days. The key is to establish routines to which you (and others in your space) faithfully adhere.

3. Cultivate a positive atmosphere.

The good news is, putting things away is a relatively brainless task. As a result, you can curate a background atmosphere that you find enjoyable. Turn on your favorite music, listen to an audiobook, light a scented candle, track steps on your Fitbit™, wear your most comfortable slippers, chew your favorite gum, etc. Add an element of pleasure to the process to which you look forward.

4. Prioritize “ease of use” in your storage systems.

If you have to pull a box out from beneath a stack, and then remove a lid, and then struggle to fit items inside, you will avoid putting these contents away. The easier it is to use, the more likely you are to use it. Minimize the need to open, lift, transfer, move, climb, or otherwise exert effort. Focus on systems that are “drop easy,” or as easy as opening a drawer and dropping something inside.

5. Communicate the plan.

Often we want people in our space to put things away, but fail to provide sufficient information on how this should be done. The familiar line, “Go clean up your room” can result in a child simply pushing things out of sight. Whenever we have an expectation, we need to be as clear as possible about the what, where, when and how.

  • Have a family meeting to clarify what is expected of each person
  • Review storage locations with all users, and label as much as possible
  • Invest time to make sure everyone is “trained” on what needs to be done
  • Agree to consequences for failure to put things away, and then stick with them.

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Do you procrastinate restoring order in your space? How often do you put things away?

24 thoughts on “The One Thing You Must Do to Be Organized”

    1. I have brainwashed myself into thinking that putting things away is a gift I give to my future self. I actually speak words along these lines out loud as I am restoring order, such as “It will be so nice to walk back in here after work today!” Thanks for the affirmation, Hazel:)

  1. I used to be terrible about putting things away but I’ve gotten better now that I have more room to put things. Your suggestions about attitude is wonderful. I never thought about it that way but I can see it’s true. Thanks for the hints.

    1. Putting things away is NO FUN when you have to push, shove, climb, crawl, etc. It becomes a dreaded task. There is always the balance between keeping enough to have what you need while not keeping too much to clog your spaces. Once you get in the habit of restoring order, it does get easier, and you do come to enjoy the way a tidy space both looks and functions.

  2. I love how you related the physics law to organizing! That is fascinating. I have to admit that perhaps I’m in the minority, but I enjoy taking things out as much as I enjoy putting them away. For whatever reason, I naturally am a full circle thinker. I understand that many others are not. But for me, I derive great pleasure in completing, in restoring, in getting things back to square one.

    And I’m not 100% sure I understand why. Maybe it was early conditioning by my mom. She made her bed every morning and asked me to do the same- saying it made the entire room look better. She never went to sleep without getting the kitchen cleaned up, and dishes put away. She said that she slept better and made her mornings start more smoothly. I can think of many other examples of how she taught me this concept of completion. It made a big impression. On occasion, I’ll rebel and NOT make my bed or do the dishes before going to bed. But it’s rare.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Make Motivation Effortless by Simplifying Your Big GoalsMy Profile

    1. I even make my bed in a hotel room. I think you, your Mom and I are all of the same ilk. We see the reset as a positive process, a discipline that brings joy. When you think this way, you can actually find the process soothing and pleasant. I am thankful for these feelings, because it really helps me keep my space the way I like it, even though I’m constantly pulling things out to work on. At the moment, I have art supplies all over my dining room because I am making decorations for our church’s Vacation Bible School. Nonetheless, I “tidy” after each work session so that the materials are stored in an ordered fashion until the next time I have a window to work.

  3. The mantra of: a place for everything and everything in its place is what I repeat to my clients. They say they hear me even when I’m not there.

    I agree with Linda. I’m very much a full circle person and I teach that concept to my clients. The job isn’t done until the loop or circle is closed. For me, it’s very settling to know that I’ve done everything I needed to do to complete that task.

    Wonderful post, Seana

    1. I think the beauty of “full circle thinking” is that it helps us to plan that reset time into a project. We know we need to stop early enough to put things away. This is something I find most people don’t do… they tend to work up until the last minute.

  4. I love this post! I am a massive fan of resetting my home. I call it, “tidying up an organized space.” It’s an easy “checkbox” to do each day when nothing else is finishing. The satisfaction of completing a task drives me to do more completions. Of course, not everything gets done promptly. So, doing the tidying up process gives me a small level of success in an otherwise incomplete day.

    1. I completely agree, Sabrina. There is something very calming about the resetting process. Once a space is reset, you mentally acknowledge that you are finished for the time being, and can turn to another activity (or a time of relaxing). When it is time tow work again, having items in order makes it so much easier to get started!

    1. Isn’t that the truth? It is surprising how little it takes to deter us from putting things away! I see it in myself, and I am highly motivated. All the more so for someone who is trying to develop an organized habit for living.

  5. I have a client that really struggles with this issue of tiding up. Thanks for you 5 suggestions I will share them with the client. For me the most important one is biorhythms. Trying to clean up when you are exhausted is very difficult so try to do things when it is a good time for me. Then things get done quickly.

    1. I think putting off any undesirable task until we are tired makes it harder. If you are a night owl, by all means stay up and reset. If morning is your time, maybe get up and put things away before the rest of the house stirs. Or, if you are neither, set a couple times during the day for a quick tidy. It is nice to know there is no single way!

  6. It’s a great perspective shared here about the natural law of physics. sometimes we think not putting things away is more natural. Thanks for adding a new concept to my tools for working with clients.

    1. I think I know lots of people who feel not putting things away feels more natural:) I think it is helpful to think about what feels “right.” How have we come to these feelings? Are they a result of the environment in which we grew up? Have we been influenced by someone we live or work with? Ultimately, the question to ask is whether we are content with the way our things are stored and used. If the answer is “yes,” no need to change the way we are doing things. If the answer is “no,” it might be time to challenge our inherent feelings.

  7. I’ve been putting things away right away for decades now. I don’t remember when I developed the habit at home, but I worked for a few months for a company with a clean desk policy which required us to take everything off our desk at the end of the day other than three permitted items (one of which was the telephone; I don’t remember the others). It made such a difference the next day that the practice stayed with me as long as I worked in a traditional office.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…SEO Strategies for 2019My Profile

    1. Wow, I’ve never heard of a company having a policy like that. That is so interesting! I’m glad to hear that the benefits of that policy stuck with you. I certainly am a believer:)

  8. I love that you work the Second Law of Thermodynamics into your discussion, Seana! I feel my organizing and intellectual muscles strengthening. I will be smiling all day long.

  9. I SO feel that. I believe life itself works on an input of energy. I mean.. some people have the worst luck and circumstances but they succeed at life because of that drive. That energy. I love that.
    Anyway, that was a tangent but the biorhythms really gets to me. I’m learning that a lot with my day to day.

    1. We all really need to “row downstream,” or work in a way that is in synch with our chemistry, biorhythms, and talents. There is value is stretching outside the comfort zone, but it isn’t a good place to put the things we need to do every day.

  10. I’m really good about putting things back in their place once I’m done wth them, but my husband isn’t—especially when it comes to his shed. He is tired after doing yard work, so he tends to just throw stuff back into the shed. Which means that about every two months he has to spend an afternoon cleaning the entire thing out. I keep telling him he needs to put stuff back in its regular place when he is done using it, but, well, you can see how well he listens….

    1. That is very common. The people who just “stash things away” often have to set aside large chunks of time to get things back in order. It is difficult to establish new patterns, but it really does save time. Organized people spend a lot less time organizing than disorganized people, oddly enough!

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