On Organizing

Over the years, I have developed a fairly strong theory of how to organize, and what the end-goal of organizing is. Since people occasionally ask me, I figured I would write it down. Of course, articulating also helps me refine my own understanding. Without further ado,

  1. Organizing a space has two goals:
  • To make it easy to pick up and put everything away.
  • To make it easy to get whatever is needed.

Note that just picking up and putting things somewhere is not organizing: organizing is slower and more painful than picking up, but we do it because it is a long-term investment in making picking up easier. And because picking up without organizing makes finding things later more difficult.

  1. Organizing is about information first:
  • Making whoever picks up know where to put things away.
  • Making whoever needs a thing know where it is.
  • Making whoever may need a thing know which things are available.
  1. Therefore, clarity is paramount.
  • A place is only a “place where something goes” if the boundary separating that place from other places is unmistakable. As you already know, that’s what containers are for: piles separated by air require far more space to make unmistakably distinct than boxes separated by walls.
  • A thing only goes in a place if it can’t go anywhere else. Definitions of what goes in a place must be precise, unambiguous, and exclusive. Some examples from my own household organization: “Interior computer components”; “Data (not power) cables”; “Hooks, except drapery hooks and command hooks”; “Drapery hooks”.
  • Such precise definitions cannot be remembered, so that’s what labels are for.
  • When you hold a thing in your hand, reading the label should unambiguously tell you whether that thing should be put away in that place.
  • When you hold a thing in your mind, reading the label should unambiguously tell you whether that thing is to be found in that place.

Corollary: vague adjectives like “small” are to be avoided on labels, unless the distribution of objects of that type in the household is very strongly bimodal, so that “small” is actually unambigous in context.

  1. Organizing is about flow second:
  • The place where a commonly picked-up thing goes should be easy to reach and close to where that thing tends to get dropped.
  • The place where a commonly used thing is stored should be easy to reach and close to where that thing tends to be needed.
  • Things that are commonly picked up together or commonly used together should be stored together.

This is why categories and containers should be the right size and shape. Fishing for a golf ball at the bottom of a 64-quart tub of “sports equipment” does not qualify as “easy to reach”. Conversely, trying to puzzle-pack a toy airplane into an overflowing bin isn’t “easy” either. Containers will have some extra space in them; that’s ok. The space you get back by being able to put something on top of or beside a container whose lid closes is worth more than the space you lose by making that container big enough to always close its lid.

This, in turn, is why organizing is so personal. The right categories and the right container sizes depend on what you have; and the right places for the containers depend on how and how much you use what you have.

This is also why organizing is so slow. It requires clarity about every single object: what is it, what is it for, and how, when, and where is it used. And when a space is shared, that clarity needs to be shared between whoever is doing the organizing and everyone who uses the space and the objects. And, of course, people’s needs and habits change over time, and with them change their uses of objects. Marie Kondo’s insight is that choosing not to own an object is often less long-term work than continually understanding, supporting, and communicating that object’s evolving purpose.

The rest is technique. A label printer;1 keeping things vertical; stackable containers; shelves vs drawers vs hanging rods vs pegboards; neverending streams of organization products; tradeoffs between storage space and aesthetics. Those are matters of practice and style that will fall into place behind the dual needs of clarity and flow.


  1. Best $100 I ever spent, to this day.