What Termites Teach Us About How to Be Better Organized

Termite eaten wooden fence. What Termites Teach Us About How to Get Better Organized

One of my summer pleasures is walking outside. The other day, I noticed a wooden fencepost that was under attack from termites. For homeowners, termites represent a threat to be eliminated, and I’m sure this fencepost will need to be replaced.  At the same time, in nature, termites serve the necessary purpose of eating up and getting rid of wood that is no longer useful. As I walked along, I got to thinking more about the lowly termite, and specifically what termites teach us about how to get better organized.

In most homes, belongings are brought in, put to use for a period of time, and potentially set aside to be dealt with “later.” Eventually, these items fall into disrepair or out of fashion, and are stashed away or abandoned. On some level, the idea of having a little critter to come in and magically make the clutter disappear is appealing. Alas, the only responsible way to manage clutter is to perform this function ourselves.

If you are facing a clutter backlog, here are a few lessons from the highly efficient termite:

Nature has a system to keep things from piling up.

If we didn’t have termites, we would be buried underneath dead trees. Just take a moment to imagine what this would look like! Nature flourishes only because it has a way to get rid of the accumulated dead material.

If we don’t have a system for getting rid of items that are no longer functioning or adding value to our lives, we too will become quickly inundated by what we own.

Everyone needs a system for cleansing his/her space. Since we can’t expect items to magically walk out of our spaces, we need to embrace the idea of decluttering as part of normal life. This can and should take a variety of forms, including:

  • A regular day(s) each week to remove trash.
  • Seasonal review of clothing.
  • Quarterly decluttering of heavily used spaces, such as the mudroom/entry, bathroom, family living space, and playroom.
  • Use of a designated donation location.
  • Bi-weekly clear-out of the refrigerator and freezer.
  • Annual “sweep” of storage locations, such as attics, garages, and storage sheds

The key is to set up a system to regularly circulate items out instead of waiting until a space feels out of control.

What you aren’t using could “feed” someone else.

Chewing up old wood is not only work for termites, but also their source of sustenance. They desperately need and want what is no longer required by anyone else.

So much of what we hold onto (and walk around with, and heap into piles, and stash in closets and bins, and trip over…) could be exactly what someone else would love to have right now.

It is tempting to hold onto things for future generations, but remember that items sitting unused often deteriorate. Depreciation sets in, and often by the time you finally get around to trying using a belonging, it is no longer in working order. Leather dries and cracks, rubber stretches, tires go flat, moths do damage, codes and guidelines change, images fade, etc. This reminds me of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says (in a non-scientific nutshell): “Things fall apart.”

Rather than holding onto something you have a low or uncertain likely of using, seriously consider passing it on to someone in need.

New life will spring up when old junk is removed.

Old wood is heavy and opaque. New plants struggle to flourish when they are buried under layers of dead wood. They need oxygen and sunlight to grow. When termites show up and remove fallen trees, seeds can sprout and bring new life to the space.

The same is true for people. It can be difficult to flourish when we are buried under the weight of yesterday’s clutter.

  • Old memories can keep us from pursuing new paths.
  • Ill-fitting clothing can make us feel bad about ourselves.
  • Lack of space keeps us from exploring new hobbies and activities.
  • Anxiety about unsettled paperwork can drive us to procrastination and distraction.
  • Inability to access supplies stymies our motivation.

If we want to grow, flourish, and move forward, we need to break free from things that shackle us to past experiences, struggles, and/or situations.

Steadily eating away a little at a time results in big changes.

Even to a termite, the notion of having to eat through an entire tree in a day would be a bit intimidating. Instead, termites settle in and move at a comfortable pace.

Progress is most effectively achieved through small – but consistent – steps. If you are overwhelmed by the state of your space, don’t allow the size of the task to discourage you. Take your gaze off of the forest and focus on one log to tackle. If you don’t know how to begin, why not try a decluttering challenge, where you work on one area at a time over the course of a month or other period of time. Or, set a timer each day to spend 10-15 minutes working on an area of your space. For example:

  • Work on one kitchen drawer or shelf each day until you’ve refreshed the entire kitchen.
  • Sort through one type of clothing each week (e.g., shirts, pants, shoes, hats, etc.)
  • Review 5 sheets of accumulated paper each day over breakfast.
  • Sort your pen cup while watching TV.
  • Declutter your bulletin board (or the front of the refrigerator) on the first day of the month.

The possibilities are endless, but the key is to make your “bites” small enough that you will maintain your efforts consistently over time.

Don’t work alone on big tasks.

To my knowledge, I’ve never seen one termite. They are always in groups, helping each other tackle the task. In fact, once a year they “swarm,” flying all over the place and creating quite a scene.

When it comes to organizing, few people have the internal fortitude to work through a large project in complete isolation. Making decisions alone can be difficult, and the process can feel unpleasant.

Instead, solicit the help of a family member, friend, or professional to make the job more pleasant, productive, and successful. I always have a great time working with my clients. We laugh a lot, and I love hearing their stories and learning about their lives and experiences. In addition, having another person to bounce thoughts off of is often helpful when making decisions about what to keep and where to put things.

*     *     *

While the idea of termites might make your skin crawl, I hope you can see the value of these lessons from the way they operate.

Do you have systems in place to regularly declutter?

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18 thoughts on “What Termites Teach Us About How to Be Better Organized”

  1. I use a Zone Plan in my home. I divide my home into 10 zones. Every month (except July and December) I tackle one zone of my home. I reorganize, declutter, and deep clean that one zone. By the end of the year, I have touched everything I own. I know what I have and why I am keeping it.
    This works well for me and some of my clients.
    Jonda Beattie recently posted…5 Things to Do Before Summer EndsMy Profile

    1. That’s a terrific approach. I can see how that would be so helpful for your clients as well. It provides some undergirding architecture to the idea of regular decluttering!

      1. I think everyone is different on this. If a system is working basically well, we are less likely to review and declutter. Often, it is when the space suddenly is overstuffed or uncomfortable that we decide to act. I do think it is interesting to see that nature seems to start getting rid of unwanted “stuff” right away!

  2. You know how much I love nature and the lessons she teaches us. While I wasn’t sure at first about the termite analogies, I love how you related the ideas to the organizing and decluttering process. I associate termites with a negative connotation, but you’ve highlighted the positive part of their work.

    And perhaps it makes senses too. Because so many people don’t like organizing, decluttering, or maintaining. It feels ‘icky,’ which is how I feel about termites. However, part of creating a good life flow involves engagement in the organizing process. And as you so beautifully said, people can’t flourish when they are buried under the weight of “yesterday’s clutter.” To grow and flourish, we need to let go.

    1. I certainly wouldn’t want termites in my house or, even worse, crawling up my leg. However, I do greatly appreciate the work they do out in nature. Imagine what the world would look like without them, right?

  3. What a wonderful analogy, Seana! I so agree with everything you have written here. Currently, I am in Nevada helping my son unpack and set up a new (to him) home. This has been an interesting few days because we unpacked boxes that had been in storage for about 6 years. We made several trips to Goodwill and one to the dump. He saved a few odds and ends as memorabilia but most things were let go. The house is set up exactly as he wants it and I am so happy to know he has learned some lessons from his organizer mom.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…Getting Organized Can Be An Emotional Process: Top 3 Reasons To Do It AnywayMy Profile

    1. What a gift to help your son! I’m heading to help my daughter set up her now apartment, and it does feel good when we see our advice has rubbed off a bit. She is very excited to set up her space exactly as she wants it, and I think making an investment like that provides excellent motivation for keeping it in order!

  4. I love this analogy. The title for the blog is great. People like to leave the hard work for someone else. That is why we have work. Teaching our clients all these ideas in this fun way is a very appealing approach. It made me laugh and smile. Sending a hard message to let go of things, share things with others that need them to survive and new life will arise in a new space with a sense of humour makes the message digestible.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Julie. It is hard work, but it almost always easier when done with someone else. I love when clients feel “possibilities” bubbling up when we free space. It is so exciting!

  5. What an interesting analogy! While I am not a fan of any insect, I can see your viewpoint. Clearing out regularly is essential. My tasks are done at various times during the year. In January/February, it is paper clutter. From March to May, it’s decluttering for the summer. From Jun to Aug, it’s summertime updating and removing things I don’t want or went bad. Sept-Oct is getting ready for winter. November – December is for party planning.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…7 Games to Help Kids Understand How to OrganizeMy Profile

    1. Others have commented that they have a similar system, which I think is so terrific. What a great idea to have a rhythm for reviewing and resetting your space. Nothing gets too out of control with this approach. Great idea!

  6. I like your systems of decluttering list.
    When you wrote about how nature has a way to declutter I thought about how I’ve helped clients work through spaces in their home that had flooded. They had saved items for many years (just neglecting to get rid of things – making those darn decisions) but seem to have an easy time doing just that once everything was waterlogged. Nature made the decision for them. Discarding seemed easy for them at that point. It really highlighted for me that the decisions are the hard part, not the discarding.

    1. I love this, Janet. Once an item is covered in mold or literally falling apart, the decision gets easier. It is definitely the decision-making that is the hardest part. Terrific comment!

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