This Organizing System Won’t Work

The other day, I was walking from where I parked along the street to a client appointment. As I neared the turn, this is what I saw.

path in the grass instead of the sidewalk

You can see in the photo that there is a sidewalk that ends at the place where people are supposed to cross the street. The sidewalk slopes gently downward, making it easier for strollers and wheelchairs. Although you cannot see it in the photo, there is also a crosswalk in the road at this location. Clearly, the plan was for people to walk to the end of the sidewalk and cross at this point.

In spite of this design, it is obvious that most people don’t seem to be walking along the intended course. Instead, as you can see, there is a path worn in the grass where people are stepping off of the sidewalk, walking through the grass, and crossing at a different spot.

There are probably some good reasons why pedestrians are choosing to step off of the designated course. Most likely, it is quicker and easier to take the shortcut. Maybe it takes too long to wait for the “walk” sign to appear, and by walking this way, people can duck behind the line of cars rather than wait for them to drive out onto the main road.

This situation got me thinking about why systems in general, and organizing systems in particular, often fail. At the risk of stating the obvious, for a system to work, we have to use it. We can have beautifully organized spaces, cutting edge containers, pretty labels, and color-coordinated files, but if our belongings are not making their way back into their designated locations, the system is failing.

As with the path in the grass, it is honest to observe that people tend to choose the path of least resistance. We are busy and there is a lot to do, so we often fall into the pattern of putting things in the most convenient location: the pile on the counter, the back of the chair, the treadmill, the floor, etc. Surprisingly, the tiniest of hurdles is often enough to deter us from returning items to their proper homes, such as:

  • Having to remove a lid
  • Needing to walk up a flight of stairs
  • Disliking the process of using a hanger
  • Not being able to reach high enough
  • Needing to lift some items “off” in order to put something back underneath
  • Having to complete more than one step (e.g. first putting the disc back in the case, then putting the case in the cabinet)
  • Having to shove or stuff items to get them to fit
  • Not remembering where things are supposed to go
  • Disliking the process of folding

At the end of the day, the best system is the one you will use.

  • If you won’t walk up the stairs with your paperwork, then having a second floor office might not be a good idea for you.
  • If you hate using hangers, you might be better off with hooks in cubbies than with a closet.
  • If you can’t reach ¾ of your kitchen cabinets, you might need to keep a rolling stool in your kitchen, and/or relocate your dishes to a drawer instead of a high shelf.
  • If you find you are piling items instead of putting them back into original containers, it might make sense to set up a “grouping” solution that skips the interim step. (e.g. a multiple game case/wallet vs. original plastic boxes)
  • If your drawers are so full that you can’t open them, it might be worthwhile to shed a few items
  • If you hate folding clothes, perhaps you might set aside a few drawers for things that really do not need to be folded (bathing suits, underwear, bras, workout shorts, etc.), and be content with simply dropping pieces inside.

Knowing yourself is very important when it comes to getting and staying organized. It is critical to be honest when considering what level of energy you are willing to exert for the purpose of maintaining an organized space. It is also helpful to ask yourself, “Where would my intuition send me if I were trying to find this item?” It might seem logical to store your corkscrew near the wine, but if you are more likely to reach inside the drawer where the can opener is, put it there!

For some people an infatuation with “all things neat and orderly” is sufficiently motivating to spur an investment of time into resetting a space. However, many people find that this payoff isn’t powerful enough to make them put everything away. A good system is less about looking good or “making sense,” and more about getting used.

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Take a look around your room. Do you see any equivalents of the “shortcut in the grass?” Can you identify any storage solutions that you avoid utilizing?

24 thoughts on “This Organizing System Won’t Work”

  1. Clients will frequently ask me what I would do in their space, but I’m constantly reminding them that I don’t live there and whatever system we devise has to be tailored to them. You’re absolutely right when you say the best system is the one YOU will actually use.

    1. I’m glad to hear that others have the same conversation with clients. I mean, we leave, right? I often ask, “Where would you think to look for this?”

  2. I absolutely love this. One thing I have done is to buy a step stool for my own kitchen to place things on higher shelves, especially when my husband isn’t home. Because I am only 5’3″ and usually can’t reach that top shelf. So, I do agree a step stool does indeed help me replace those items to their place even when they are out of reach for little ole me 🙂

    1. I’m the same heigh, Janine, so I completely get it. When we renovated our kitchen years ago, I minimized upper cabinetry in favor of windows, because I found I couldn’t use the cabinets without a hassle. I put in a lot of drawers. This isn’t always an option, I know. That said, I have stools all over my house. I love those collapsible ones that can slide into a narrow space when not in use.

  3. I’m with Sarah. When clients ask me my opinion I tell them that mine is not the one that matters. We have a conversation about their habits and what isn’t working. Sometimes we try a variety of strategies – even combining a few before we find the method that the client is willing and able to use.

    1. I agree that sometimes it is helpful to have a bit of trial and error. That is one of the first things I assess when I return to a client setting. “Okay, what is working and what is not?” I want to keep pushing to the best solution, the one they will use.

  4. I have been taking my cues from Pioneer Woman of blogging and FoodTV fame. Her newest shows are called Quick Easy and 5 ingredient. That’s likely the secret to organizing success too! While a more complicated system, with lots of details might seem appropriate, it’s often an obstacle. Think about making the short cuts like this photo the organizing system itself.

    1. I love Ree:) Simple is always the best. Admittedly, we have to work with the space we have, so sometimes we will have to use spaces that require a stool. BUT, we can do our best to put systems in place that are easy for the things we use the most.

  5. I love your observation about the path at the crosswalk (although being a rule follower I’d probably ignore the path and take the sidewalk!).. I always tell clients that while it’s certainly important to find a home for things, if it isn’t intuitively, effortless, and ridiculously EASY to put the item back that home likely won’t work for very long. Great post!

    1. It is so true, Sara. We think, “How hard is it to remove the lid and put it away?” and then we don’t do it. So funny! Knowing this about ourselves makes us keep pushing to that ridiculously easy solution, right? We want it to work!!

  6. I totally agree! Finding the right place with the least resistance to keep items is the main job of Professional Organizers. I found that working with their personality and their habits were very enlightening and showed me where to place the item. They may not want items to be seen but if their nature is “out of sight out of mind” they will never remember where the item is stored. Keeping systems organized and retrievable for a client allows them to keep their system usable.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Before and After Bedroom Organizing TipsMy Profile

    1. I had to learn that lesson about “out of sight, out of mind” with a client. I prefer all the paper go into files in a drawer, but she just didn’t want to open drawers. Couldn’t find anything after I left, even though it was all labeled. So, in the interest of having a happy client, we moved a lot of the files to folders in desktop sorters. She likes it, and that is what matters most!

    1. I always try to figure out how a client’s brain works, and also what intuitive systems are already in place. For example, this morning I had a client who kept a certain type of supplement in the downstairs bathroom. My brain thought it should be kept with all the other supplements, but the client said, “Everyone knows to look in the bathroom for this.” So, we left it where it was1

  7. Great observations! I agree that the best system is the one that you will use, which varies based on each individual client. On another note, there was a path like you’ve pictured on my college campus. We referred to it as the “desire path”. When I went back years later, the path had been paved…it was clear that was the best system for the students!

  8. I love that that’s something you’d notice. I don’t know if I would and I’m super detail oriented!
    We have systems at home that don’t work. And it’s funny that we don’t change them. Like where our wallets and jackets go! And the dogs get loose because our containment system keeps failing!

    1. My children always tell me how observant I am. I think I am just curious about the world, especially when I allow myself the chance to slow down and look around. I try and arrive early to client visits so I won’t be rushed, but I don’t walk up to the door until the arranged time. These small snips of time are actually very pleasant. It is never enough time to feel that I should be diving into a big project, so I let myself breathe, relax, observe, rest, etc.

  9. Always look for the simplest way to get items back in their homes is the best way to stay organized. If it takes only one step than you are more likely to do it then it takes two steps.

    1. Isn’t it crazy? Two steps don’t sound like a lot, but they are actually legion! I see it in myself, and I am pretty disciplined. Certainly for the stuff every day, we need to have that “one step” mindset for storage!

    1. I always ask my clients after we’ve worked together and set up a system, “Ok, what isn’t working?” I want them to know that tweaks are healthy, and almost always worth the effort. It may not be possible for the town to put concrete on the shortcut, but maybe a walkway of mulch? There is usually a way to listen and design around what is coming naturally.

  10. I am also a rule follower. I do not walk on the grass ever if there is a designated path. I also drive on the driving lanes in a parking lot and don’t cut across parking spaces. My children always tease me about this, but I am quite comfortable with it-avoids accidents also. Your advise about doing what works is so true. I find if I have a space for something, I use it. My problem comes when the space is full or I don’t have a pace for it. I’m working on that.

    1. You are right not to cut through parking lots. Visibility is always bad between parked cars! When a space is full, that is sort of a signal to dump out the contents and see if there is anything you can clear away!

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