A few years ago, my life was a mess. So was my house, my desk, my mind. Then I learned, one by one, a few habits that got me completely organized.
Am I perfect? Of course not, and I don't aim to be. But I know where everything is, I know what I need to do today, I don't forget things most of the time, and my house is uncluttered and relatively clean (well, as clean as you can get when you have toddlers and big kids running around).
So what's the secret? In truth, there aren't any secrets. There are simple habits that you can develop over time that will get you to where you want to be. These are habits that you can apply to your work, your home, your kids, your hobbies, your life. Instead of giving you specifics for how to organize something specific, like your desk or your closet, I provide principles that you can use over and over in every situation.
Are these obvious principles? Sure, if you stop to think about them. You've read them in various other places. But you might not be applying them to your daily life, and that's where the problem lies. I'm just providing you with a step-by-step guide to what actually works, based on my experience and that of others.
If your life is a mess, like mine was, I don't recommend trying to get organized all in one shot. It's overwhelming. Instead, start with the first habit, and work your way down. Do it a little at a time, one area of your life at a time, one area of your home or office at a time. Work on a habit for a month or so, then move on to the next one. Or adopt two or three if you think you can handle it, but don't do them all at once. I also recommend you set aside some time each day (30 or 60 minutes) for organizing, at least in the beginning, until you are fairly organized and have your system down. Then, you might need 10 minutes a day, just to keep things running smoothly, and every now and then you might need to have a purge session (every 6 months or so) to get rid of accumulated buildup.
So here are the 7 habits:
- Reduce before organizing.
The mistake most people make when trying to organize their stuff or their tasks or their projects is that they have a whole mess of things to organize, and it's too complicated. If you have a closet crammed full of stuff, sure, you can buy a bunch of closet organizers, but in the end, you'll still have a closet crammed full of stuff. Same thing with time management: you can organize a packed schedule, but it'll still be crammed full of tasks. The solution: reduce, eliminate, simplify.
If you take your closet full of 100 things and throw out all but the 10 things you love and use, now you don't need a fancy closet organizer. Same thing with time management: if you have 20 things to do today, and reduce it to just the three most important tasks, you don't need a schedule anymore.
How to reduce: take everything out of a closet or drawer or other container (including your schedule), clean it out, and only put back those items you truly love and really use on a regular basis. This will leave you with a pile of other stuff -- get rid of it by tossing it, donating it, selling it or giving it to somebody who will love it. If you can't bear to part with some of the stuff, put it in a "maybe" box and store it in your attic or basement or other storage space. Label it with a description and date, and six months later, when you haven't needed any of it, toss it.
- Write it down now, always.
Our minds are wonderful things, but they leak like a sieve. We don't remember things when we need to remember them, and they continually come up when we don't need them. Instead of using your mind as storage for things you need to remember, write it down. I carry a small pocket notebook wherever I go, and write things down immediately. Then I process the ideas and tasks later into my calendar or to-do list, so I don't forget.
- Have one inbox & process.
Well, actually you need two inboxes - one for home and one for work. But many people have many more than that -- paper comes to their desk and lands in a number of places. Phone messages get placed everywhere. Notes to self are posted all over the place. Instead, have one inbox, and put all incoming stuff in there. Then, once a day (or once a week at home if that works better for you), process the inbox to empty. Take an item out of the inbox and decide what to do with it, right away: toss it, delegate it, file it, put it on your to-do list, or do it now. Do the same thing to the next item, until your inbox is empty. Don't defer these decisions for later.
- A place for everything.
Related to the above tip is to have a place for each item in your life. Where do your car keys go? You should have one place for them (next to the door is best) and you'll never lose them again. Where do your pens go? How about your magazines? I teach my kids to find a "home" for every toy or other item in their rooms (even still, their toys are mostly homeless wanderers, but they're kids) and that's a concept that works for us grown-ups too: each item should have a home, and if it doesn't, we need to designate one. Labels can help you remember where those homes are. Now, if you find something on your table or counter top or on you bed or on your desk, you know that it doesn't belong there. Find its home -- don't just toss something anywhere. The same concept applies to information: do you have one place where you put all your information? If not, try a personal wiki -- it's accessible from work and home, and you can create pages for each type of information in your life -- schedules, goals, to-dos, movies to watch, books to read, notes on projects, etc.
- Put it away now.
Most people have a habit of putting something on a table or counter top or on their desk with the intention of "putting it away later". Well, this is how things get messy and disorganized. Instead, put it away now -- in its home. It only takes a few seconds, and this one habit will save you a lot of cleaning and sorting and organizing later. When you find yourself putting something down, catch yourself, and force yourself to put it away now. After a little while, it will become second nature.
- Clean as you go.
Closely related to Habit 5, this habit is effective because it's much easier to clean things as you work or as you move through your day than to let them pile up and do a big cleaning session later. So if you're cooking, try to wash your dishes as you use them, and wipe the counter, instead of leaving a huge mess. Same principle applies to everything we do. If it's easier to do it in smaller increments, we are more likely to do it. If there is a huge mess to clean, we are more likely to be intimidated or overwhelmed by it and leave it for later.
- Develop routines & systems.
If you've gotten everything uncluttered and organized, you might sit back and enjoy the pleasantness of it. Being organized and having a simplified working environment or home is tremendously satisfying. But the problem is that after a little while, things tend to start to get disorganized and cluttered again. Things tend to gravitate towards chaos. The solution: you need to develop systems to keep your organization in place. For example, the inbox processing mentioned above is a system: you have specific procedures for processing all incoming papers, and you have a routine for doing it (once a day). All systems follow the same guidelines -- specific procedures and a routine that is done at a set interval (three times a day, once a day, once a week, once a month, etc.). It's important that you identify the systems you have in your life (and they exist, even if you don't know they do -- but they may be complicated and chaotic) and write them out so that you can make them efficient, simple, and organized. Develop systems for dealing with paperwork and mail, with kids schedules, with errands and laundry and chores and exercise and everything else. Once those systems are in place, you need to be vigilant about keeping them going, and then things will stay organized.