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5 Organizing Principles it’s Time to Reconsider

If you follow these 5 rules too closely, they can make your life more difficult.

Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“If we all just rinse off our dishes and put them in the dishwasher as we use them, the kitchen will stay clean.”

Have you ever wondered why the rest of the family isn’t as excited about a new house rule as you are? I have. Part of the problem is that we tend to suggest new rules precisely when we are able to see the liberating promise they offer, but not the oppressive tradeoffs they demand. When someone else is proposing a new house rule, the opposite tends to hold—we will see the problems before the promise.

If we are to keep some semblance of order in our homes, we need good organizing principles. Providing a set of principles that work for everyone is a tall order for a single article. And I’m not going to attempt that here. What I am going to do is call into question some of the organizing principles most people are already using.

This article is subversive. It asks you to re-think some of the organizing rules you might be following right now. It will reveal some of the tradeoffs these rules demand of you, and the tradeoffs they demand of the others in your household. The payoff? You’ll have the power and the freedom you need to follow the rules when they make sense, and violate them when that makes sense.

Problematic Principle #1: Only touch things once

The Rule: When decluttering your living space, once you pick up an item, you should decide then and there where it goes. If you’re keeping it, put it where it goes. If you’re getting rid of it, put it in the trash, or in the pile of things to give away.

What’s good about this rule: The purpose of the rule is to save time, save on the number of decisions you need to make, and get you to the point of having zero clutter. If you pick up stuff and set it back down, because you can’t decide what to do with it, you might wind up deliberating about the item several times before putting it away. And, if you allow yourself to set something aside for the moment, you might not put it away at all. Sometimes it’s best to just do it now.

What’s bad about this rule: There are a couple obvious exceptions to this rule. If you’re decluttering a room, and you find something that needs to go out in the garage, it’s often more efficient to start a pile of things that go in the garage instead of taking it to the garage right way. Once you’re done putting things away in the room you’re decluttering, you can take the piles of other stuff to their homes in other rooms. With this method, you wind up touching some things twice, but allowing yourself to “touch things twice” keeps your from doing a silly amount of walking all around the house with one item at a time.

There’s an even more important reason to allow yourself to touch things more than once. At times you won’t know where you want to put something. Do you want to keep that old baseball mitt that you played with when you were a kid when you visited your grandparents? Is it of enough sentimental value to keep? Or is it just extra clutter in the way. Decide now!

The truth is, we sometimes know we want to get something out of a room, but we’re not sure we’re ready to get rid of it altogether. That’s why it’s a good idea, if you have the space, to have a “limbo bin”. A limbo bin is a place for stuff you don’t want to decide about yet. Put the limbo bin out of view, maybe in the garage, or in the back of a closet. The things inside it won’t hurt anything just sitting there. You won’t think about them very much. And you won’t have any regrets about getting rid of them prematurely either. Then, periodically, maybe once a year, you can go through your limbo bin. You might find that you want to pull one item back into your life, get rid of half of the remaining items, and leave a few items in the bin because you’re still not sure.

In this case, you’re allowing yourself to “touch things twice” or even “many times” before getting them to their final destination. But that’s good, because it saves you from having to make agonizing decisions while you’re in the flow of decluttering. As long as you have the space, and you don’t wind up putting too many items in it, having a limbo bin speeds up your organizing process, and comes with very little downside.

Limbo bins are especially important for those who have children who tend to accumulate many things and whose rooms can get quite messy. If you try to make them decide whether to keep or get rid of every item as you go, you will quickly run through their patience with cleaning their room. If you allow them to have a limbo bin, the process can go relatively quickly.

An alternative rule: Minimize the amount of time and decision fatigue needed to get to zero clutter.

For more on “decision fatigue”, go here.

And on a related note, Sebastian Marshall notes that when decluttering an email inbox, “touch it once” should often also mean “don’t touch it now”.

Problematic Principle #2: Don't have more things than you absolutely need.

The rule: You shouldn’t have more things than you need. And, for the things you need, you should have only one copy.

What’s good about the rule: This rule can help you keep clutter to a minimum. And it can save you money and time. In general, the more stuff you allow yourself to collect, the more time and money you will spend acquiring, organizing, and maintaining it.

What’s bad about the rule: Sometimes it pays to have more than one copy of some items, and to store the different copies in more than one place in your house.

Suppose you decide you should have only one pair of scissors in your house, and you store them in the kitchen. You use the scissors to open a package of raw meat, and leave them on the counter. Later that night you need them to crop a picture in your office. Now you have to wash the scissors and bring them back to the office. Then you leave them in the office, because you were too tired to bring them back to the kitchen late that night. The next day you need them in the garage. So you go to the kitchen, and they’re not there. Oh yeah, they’re in the office.

Would it really hurt to have a pair of scissors in the kitchen, and another pair in the office? And maybe I’m going too far here, but could you even keep a third utility pair in the laundry room for use in other areas of the house?

Having less stuff usually makes it easier to stay organized. But let’s remember the point of staying organized. We stay organized to save time and hassle. And sometimes the best way to save time and hassle is to have redundant copies of important tools, stored in different places in the house.

You can also save time and trauma by keeping extra inventory of some non-perishable goods. For instance, if you have the space, it wouldn’t be crazy to keep a 6-month supply of toilet paper on hand. You will use it all eventually. You might not need this kind of inventory if you’re super-organized and get things on your shopping list in a timely manner. But, if you’re not that organized, it’s much better to have a crisis twice a year than 12 times per year.

An alternative rule: Acquire things that make your life better, get rid of things that don’t.

Problematic Principle #3: Have just one place for each thing.

The rule: You should have just one “home base” for each thing in your house.

What’s good about this rule: If each item has only one place it should be, then, as long as you always put it back there, you’ll always be able to find it when you need it. It’s pretty easy to associate one place with one thing, especially if it’s something you use frequently.

What’s bad about this rule: Consider some items you likely use every day: your keys, your wallet or purse, your phone, and maybe your glasses. And, lets say you have a little cubby hole in your entryway to keep those things. If you can get yourself to follow a ritual of dropping all that stuff off in the cubby immediately, every time you come in the house, then the rule of having one place for those things might work. But often you will need these things in other areas of your house. You might need to take your wallet down to your office to make a credit card purchase. You might need to wear your glasses during the evening and you finally take them off upstairs in your bedroom. And so on. And, try as you might, you find that you don’t always get these items back to their special spot in the entryway.

And, because the only special place you’ve designated for those things is the one place in the entryway, if you didn’t get them back there, you’ll probably have trouble remembering where you did leave them.

An alternative is to have a special place for your special things in every room you’re likely to leave them, or at least have one place per level of your house. That way, if your wallet isn’t in the entryway cubby, it will be in your bathroom drawer, where you put it while taking a shower, or it’ll be on the special ledge in your basement office where you emptied your pockets before sitting down to do some work.

Having three places to look sure beats looking everywhere.

An alternative rule: For the things you use every day, feel free to have more than one special place to put them when you’re not using them, up to one special place per room.

Problematic Principle #4: Put everything in its place immediately after using it.

The rule: Put things away right after using them. When you’re done with the scissors, put them back in their drawer. When you’re done with a dish, rinse it an put it in the dishwasher.

What’s good about the rule: If you never let clutter accumulate, you never have a mess.

What’s bad about the rule: On the other hand, batch processing can save a considerable amount of time.

We already saw how starting a pile for things that need to be put away in another room can save you time over returning each item, one at a time. But the benefits of batch processing go well beyond that.

Consider doing dishes. When you rinse a dish and just set it on the counter, you save the effort of opening the dishwasher, pulling out a rack, finding a spot for the dish, and closing the dishwasher again. Yes, you will eventually have to open the dishwasher and find a place for the dish, but you can do that one time for all the dishes on the counter instead of 20 or 30 times per load. The door hinge on your washer might even last longer if you make a habit of waiting.

Plus, if you put one dish in the dishwasher at a time, you will spend more time rearranging dishes than you would if you put them all in at once. That’s because, when you put them all in at once, you can plan better. You can start with the larger dishes and fill in around them. If you put the dishes in one at a time in a more or less random order as you use them, once the dishwasher is about half full, you’ll have to rearrange every time you put a larger dish in.

The savings in time and effort associated with batch processing do have to be balanced against other considerations. If you're short on counter space, you might need to put the dishes in the dishwasher more often just so you have room to prepare food. And if having dirty dishes on the counter really bothers you, it might be best to go ahead and put them in the dishwasher right away, regardless of how much time you could save with batch processing. Just realize in that case that that you’re costing yourself time and effort to satisfy your aesthetic preference.

That’s not to say that every part of a given task is best done in batches. While putting the dishes into the dishwasher in a big batch can save time and effort, waiting to rinse them off in one big batch can cost you time and effort. If you give food a chance to harden and cake onto the dishes, the time you might save in overhead costs will be dwarfed by the extra time it takes to get the caked-on food off the dishes. In terms of time and effort (leaving aside concerns for aesthetic preference) the best policy is probably “rinse each dish when done, but put them in the dishwasher in batches”.

An alternative rule: Balance the aesthetic value of neatness against the savings in time and effort that come with batch processing.

Problematic Principle #5: Store things in as little space as possible.

The rule: Store things in as little space as possible.

What’s good about the rule: If you are more efficient with your space, you can have more stuff in less space, or get by with a smaller house or apartment and save money.

What’s bad about the rule: Have you ever tried to put plastic food containers away in a bin, and found that there wasn’t room for the containers you were putting away unless you first stacked the existing containers together to make room for the new ones? This extra stacking and sub-sorting takes time and effort. Or have you tried to find the one container you needed and, in order to wade through all the other containers to find it, you wound up either having to once again stack the containers together, or had to take some containers out of the bin so you had room to wade through the remaining containers to find the one you want?

The thing is, if your bin were only half full (or maybe even two-thirds full), you could just “throw and go” on the way in, and “grab and go” on the way out, saving a lot of time and hassle.

Or have you ever puzzled over your ever-expanding miscellaneous bins and realized that a lot of the miscellaneous items could form a new category? But you didn’t have a spare drawer, cubby, or spot on a shelf to accommodate the new category?

If you had originally set up your organizing system with some empty cubbies, empty drawers, and empty shelf space, that could buy you a lot of time before having to do another global re-factoring of all your stuff.

An alternative rule: When you first design your system, fill most bins only half to two thirds full. And leave some dead space in your organizing system to accommodate new categories as needed.

What Now?

So what should you do with this advice? I just challenged five very common rules of thumb for organizing stuff in a house. And I suggested new, and generally more complicated, rules. You probably rely on dozens of rules of thumb for organizing your stuff and your life. Do you need to challenge each one and remember a more complicated version?

And do you have to follow my suggestions, even if you prefer the original rules?

No. And no. There’s a theme here. The theme is tradeoffs.

Consider the ideal organizing system. The ideal organizing system would:

  • require no time to put things away (throw and go)
  • require no time to find things (grab and go)
  • remove all distraction
  • be aesthetically pleasing
  • require zero energy and no time to decide where things should go
  • accommodate all the stuff you have now
  • accommodate all the stuff you will ever get
  • be flexible without limit
  • cost no money
  • use no extra space
  • risk no negative judgments
  • work perfectly for every member of the family

Wouldn’t that be nice? But you can already see where this is going. No organizing system can do all those things. So we have to make tradeoffs.

We saw with the dishes example that trying to keep the kitchen clutter-free at all times makes it more aesthetically pleasing, and less distracting. But it also costs us time and effort. I can’t tell you which side of that tradeoff is more important. Keeping a clutter-free kitchen at all times might add value to your life that I can’t even imagine. On the other hand, you might secretly resent the extra steps required every time you open the dishwasher to put a single cup inside.

If you live alone, just realize the possibility that you’ll have to make tradeoffs. And if you find yourself bristling against one of your own rules, consider a new rule, weigh the costs and benefits of both rules, and switch rules if it makes sense to do so.

If you live with others, things are more complicated.

Not only do the rules require tradeoffs, but each member of the household will value the different factors in different ways. You might value time and effort more, and your housemate might find a cluttered counter distracting or even embarrassing. You will value your things and your time more, and they will value their things and their time more.

Conflict over house rules is probably inevitable. But it’s much easier to strike creative compromises when everyone feels understood.

This means you need to

  1. understand how each member of the household experiences the costs and benefits of a given organizing rule.
  2. be honest with yourself and the others about what you get out of a given rule. If it saves you time, be honest about that. If it keeps you from feeling embarrassed, be honest about that.
  3. be willing to advocate for your values
  4. be willing to respect their values
  5. compromise

You don’t need to anticipate every possible kind of conflict ahead of time. Just propose some rules and let conflict and pushback be your guide. When you get pushback, elicit everyone’s perceived costs and benefits, and come up with a new solution if needed.