The number one difference I see between people who are naturally organized and those who aren’t is the ability to categorize items. Categorizing ability is also why a huge pile of amorphous stuff, or even an entire room of randomness, doesn’t (usually) overwhelm me, which, as an organizer, is my superpower. Learning to identify categories and keep them as clear and straightforward as possible is a skill that can be developed.
As I’ve written in past columns, giving language to what you are doing and naming each item you encounter when organizing can’t be overstated as a helpful way to stay focused and on track. You might think you need to know exactly where to start, but just start somewhere and, like the thread leading out of the Labyrinth, you’ll find your way to the bottom of the pile.
Pick up one item—any item will do—and name it. Common things I find in amorphous piles are Van Winden’s green cash cards, dental floss picks, tampons, Opera ticket stubs, receipts, unused stamps, foreign coins, handmade Mother’s Day cards, half empty expired sunscreen tubes, Ricola cough drops, batteries, phone chargers, dog-eared business cards, phone numbers scrawled on torn paper, et cetera, et cetera.
After you’ve named it, identify where it is used or should live. Some of the above might belong in the bathroom or, in the case of the expired sunscreen, in the trash. Or maybe all of it would go into a small bag in the car or into a purse. Things like the Van Winden’s cards and other gift cards could get clipped together and kept in the car so that they can be used the next time you are at that location.
Some categories are obvious, like a twenty dollar bill, which you would probably put right into your wallet. But what category is foreign currency for you? Memorabilia? Something to give a friend who is traveling to that country? Something to take to the bank to cash in? Or does it go into a zip bag with travel supplies or your safe to be used on your next trip?
A concert or sporting event ticket stub might be memorabilia, might be a bookmark or might be trash/recycling. What category is it for you? If it’s memorabilia does it go into a file? A scrapbook? A special display container? Make that decision and put it in its place.
If you tend to get overwhelmed with clutter quickly no matter how often you tackle your mail pile or the heap on your dining room table, maybe you are being too ambitious with your categories. Keep them as broad as possible and only get into the narrow categories when it is really important to do so. For example, I throw away most receipts and keep only those that I will need at tax time for deductions. If you are keeping and categorizing all of your receipts, you may be overwhelming yourself unnecessarily.
Another category that really keeps people stuck is “stuff for other people.” That category often contains a lot of good intentions but usually requires a lot of work, which is why people sometimes go “numb” to their piles. If there is a book a friend might like or a shirt your brother could want or a newspaper article you think your mother might want to read, make the decision to really disperse the items or decide to just clean slate it and let that stuff go.
Furthermore, on the subject of stuff for other people, well-intentioned, big-hearted clutterholics often add the wish to write a special card or gift wrap the item, which creates an even bigger roadblock to moving it along. If this is you, maybe set yourself a time limit of a week or two to actually complete these thoughtful gestures. It’s really not the thought that counts so much as actually getting the package in the mail or to the person’s house.
Keep “stuff for other people” in an area separate from your in-box or personal effects. Put it in a box labeled “Gifts” or something, but don’t let it continue to linger and crowd your living spaces.
Note: the penultimate category to identify first is trash and recycling. If something is trash or to be recycled it requires no more thought and should be dealt with post haste. Always have a trash bag, a shred bag and a recycling bag at the ready when starting an organizing project.