Organizing and Selective Complexity

Organizing usually begins with a period of review and decision-making. We don’t want to waste time organizing what we should be shedding. Still, figuring out what to keep and what to shed can be challenging. I have found that people often ask me, “How do I know what to keep?” and, “How many is the ‘right’ number to hold onto?” For instance:

  • Do I have too many shoes?
  • How many golf shirts does my husband really need?
  • How many basketballs is too many?
  • Do I need all of these travel mugs?
  • Is it wrong that I have so many books?

My answer to this question is almost always, “It depends.” When it comes to the concept of figuring out how much to keep, the answer comes down to the priorities and lifestyle of the individual and/or family. Each of us has unique needs and interests, so there isn’t a universal rule of thumb. Instead, it is important to apply the concept of “selective complexity” to the decision-making process. Selective complexity involves proactively identifying top priority areas of interest and aligning the allocation of time and resources accordingly.

Few people have sufficient time, space, and money to keep a limitless supply of all the objects they might possibly ever want or need. Remember, everything we own, owns a piece of us. Possessions – even the ones we hardly touch – require maintenance and care or they will degrade, get lost, or become unusable. Therefore, we want to enjoy the accumulation, display, and use of objects that feed our passions and daily needs, while striving to minimize and simplify our ownership of everything else.

Let’s consider a few examples.

A man who loves music may have a room with twenty guitars hanging on the walls, bookshelves filled with music books, a stash of expensive recording equipment, and a significant collection of old CDs. His desk drawers may be full of audio cables and parts. He may likewise only own three pairs of shoes because fashion is unimportant to him.

In contrast, a young professional woman who works in an upscale office may have a closet full of clothing, including multiple white blouses with slightly different necklines. She may have many shelves of shoes, a scarf collection, and extra cabinets to accommodate her jewelry. Meanwhile, if she ever listens to music, she just streams it from her phone.

A mom has four children who love sports. Her kitchen has an entire cabinet for sports bottles and drawers with “ready-to-go” snacks. She has set up her mudroom with bins for soccer socks, cleats, fencing masks, taekwondo belts, swim goggles, towels, and ballet slippers. She’s installed a stack washer and dryer unit in what had been the butler’s pantry to make laundering athletic clothing quick and easy. Paper plates and utensils are out on the counter so children can grab a plate and eat whenever they have time.

This mom’s neighbor is a gourmet cook who loves to entertain. Her kitchen is full of expensive cookware, internationally sourced spices, and appliances for making everything from homemade pasta to hand-ground pesto. In addition to her everyday dishes, she has four additional sets of dishes in her butler’s pantry that she pulls out at different times of the year. In her garage, she thinks she has a tennis racquet.

A collector has more than 500 corkscrews. He has numbered each one and has them hanging on a display wall that he designed and built. He has a book where he keeps track of each corkscrew’s provenance. He doesn’t own a computer.

This man’s son is a technophile. He has two phones, a tablet, a laptop, and two extra monitors. He is always on the lookout for the latest gadget and serves as a beta tester for new apps and software. He doesn’t own a corkscrew. He and his friends prefer craft beer.

Can you see how priorities have impacted organizational choices? The goal here is to select complexity in the areas of our lives where such complexity has a positive impact. We want to allow ourselves to collect, accumulate, display and enjoy items that align with the areas of our lives which bring us peace, joy, and fulfillment. At the same time, we need to intentionally decide to limit the amount of time and space we allocate to items that do not meet these criteria.

One further point: be aware that over time, our lifestyle and passions evolve. For instance, maybe we used to be heavily involved in scrapbooking and amassed a large supply of stickers, scissors, papers, and adhesives. However, now our interest in scrapbooking has dwindled and we have taken up painting. This is the time to donate the scrapbooking supplies and clear the space for “all things painting.”

*     *     *     *     *

Organizing is not a one-time activity. It is an ongoing process through which we honor the life we are living now. We need to continually be selecting where we want to allow complexity to blossom, while correspondingly simplifying everywhere else. By aligning our environment with our priorities, we maximize our opportunity to live in a way that is efficient and pleasurable.

Where do you select to have complexity in your life? Where might you eliminate complexity to improve your quality of life?

23 thoughts on “Organizing and Selective Complexity”

  1. This is a concept that applies not only to stuff, but also energy. The more complex, the more thought required, time required, and general energy needed. I love to think big about what to keep and why. Thank you!

    1. That is so true, Ellen. We have limited energy, so we want to align where we spend our time with our passions, needs and desires. I actually think that this “stay at home” time has provided some an opportunity to reconsider how they are spending their time, and what they want their schedule to look like going forward!

  2. I love to read as you know and have copies of many books that I have read. But even though I have so many copies, because of my clear love of reading, I recently had to go through my books and got rid of some that I did read and no longer wanted to keep the copies of. I have a few boxes in my garage. I hate to throw away good books, but I know with all going on with the virus no many places taking donations. So, a bit off-topic, but still organized and hope to donate when it is safe to. But overall, I agree with you on selectively organizing when need be.
    Janine Huldie recently posted…Take the 30 Day Kindness Challenge with Printable Bundle IncludedMy Profile

    1. My husband went through the same exercise during this “stay at home” time. We have two cubbies full of books. I’ve been hoping the charities would be opening soon so I can get rid of them, but I’m not sure how that will play out. Whether they end up getting donating or trashed, I think there is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that the books which remain on the shelves are the ones he values.

  3. Oh, that is such an interesting concept! And really coming about more now that we’re all still pretty much in lockdown here. So it sort of changes. Like I have a lifelong love of reading and always thought there could never be too many books! Although over the years, I thought it would get cluttery and expensive so I started using the library instead.
    Except now there’s no library so it’s a weird conundrum!
    That said, I do love finding these areas of healthy passionate priority! And I love to see it in my kids too.

    1. Isn’t it fun to see your children’s interests and passions unfold? We as parents are wise to sit back and watch them pursue their interests naturally. Perhaps these strange times have had the unexpected “upside” of fewer planned activities and more free time to wonder and be curious:)

  4. “Organizing is not a one-time activity. It is an ongoing process through which we honor the life we are living now.” What beautifully said words. So often, our spaces don’t honor the life we are living now. Instead, our environments represent the past or aspirational future. When I work with my clients, the overarching goal is often to help them create an environment that supports and inspires who they are now. Getting there can be tricky when they want to change yet feel so tied to their past. But the clearer we can get to who they are now and what they want, the closer they get to change. So many influences come into play when editing and organizing. And like most things, it’s a process. As you said, organizing is an ongoing one because we evolve along with our needs and desires.

    1. It truly is an ongoing process. I think it can be hard to let go of items from our past, but they often clog up the space (both physical and time) that we want to use for current interests. It isn’t a failure to switch hobbies, it is growth and exciting exploration! I love when we can come along and help people feel a bit freer through the process of letting go:)

  5. Selective complexity…I really like that concept. Be particular about what you keep. It is not necessarily the amount of stuff but aligning your stuff with your current priorities. The same will go for your calendar. Stephen Covey said that he could tell what was important to any person by looking at your calendar. Be selective. Love it!
    Melissa Gratias recently posted…When your Core Values Flash Before your Very EyesMy Profile

    1. That is a great point you share from Stephen Covey. We can talk a good game about priorities, but how we spend our time reveals what they truly are. It really is all about that alignment!

  6. The examples you gave are perfect for framing the concept of selective complexity. I see myself in the example of the mom with four children.Right now, two large drawers in our kitchen are dedicated to my son’s plastic bowls, cups, water bottles, lunch boxes, etc. They have to be easily accessible all year round–especially now while the boys are currently home all day. I know that someday, I’ll shift those two drawers from storing ‘kid’ stuff to storing something else.. But, I think I think I have a good 5-10 years until I have to use selective complexity again!

    1. At your stage, having these dedicated drawers is so smart. This is what matters to you and your family, and allowing your children to be independent and find their own bowls is smart! You’ll be surprised how quickly things shift, though. I used to have a cabinet full of “kid dishes,” and before I knew it I needed the complexity in the bathrooms for contact lenses, retainer cleaner, acne meds, razors, etc. It feels like a constantly shifting sand sometimes!

  7. I do find that simplicity is my most important goal in our smaller home. Recently, I removed and reorganized my craft items. Next, it’s my scrapbooking supplies. I purchased a Cricut but haven’t used the manual cutters in years. That is my next project. It will remove half of the clutter on one shelf in my craft cabinet. I am just waiting for the donation centers to open before doing this task.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…31 Days to An Organized LifeMy Profile

  8. Organizing is absolutely an ongoing process because life keeps changing and so do we. You really got to the heart of organizing right there and also when you say, “ By aligning our environment with our priorities we maximize our opportunity to live in a way that is efficient and pleasurable.” Our priorities do drive so much of what we do.
    Now, if I could only get my husband to give away some of his golf shirts…

    1. I’ve got another friend whose husband has 85 golf shirts. Now THAT is a hobby, right? But as long as they fit in the closet, I guess you can’t argue:)

  9. This post fascinates me. I will have to start paying attention to what I and others own a lot of!

    I especially liked this sentence: “Remember, everything we own, owns a piece of us.” Great food for thought.

    1. I guess if you keep up with your space and belongings, taking a look around at what you own will really tell you what your priorities are I know you do, so I bet your possessions tell a tale of who you are 🙂

  10. I love your case studies. I have my own. My husband loves vintage stereo equipment and record albums. He stores most of it in the basement, but has working stereos in the family room, his office and his shed. He displays albums in cabinets in the family room and basement. Has has a lot of clothes, but wears just a few things all the time.
    I don’t enjoy listening to music, I own none of these types of items. I’m OK with what he has because he keeps it all in certain areas of the house and it’s (mostly) kept in an organized fashion. I like clothes and change a couple times a day, but I own much less than my husband and use it all.

    1. That is so interesting, Janet. Neat hobby of your husbands. I think these things need to be negotiated between couples so we can each have our interests and corresponding belongings, but also respect the shared space. I put my old albums in frames and hung them in the basement as art;)

    1. We have to align our current interests with our time and belongings. That said, I’m ready for my “now” to go back to a bit more normal. This has been a rough couple of months.

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