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How to Avoid Common Organizing Mistakes

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions “Get this place organized this year?” How is that going? Having trouble getting started? Maybe you began, but you’re having trouble making progress? Let me offer some mid-game course corrections to help you achieve that resolution. Here’s my list of the five most common mistakes people make when they undertake the process of getting organized. In the spirit of David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, let’s start from the bottom:

Mistake #5: Products first

What does every American do when she wants to start a project? She goes shopping! Everyone wants to start getting organized by purchasing organizing products first. The result: several hundred dollars added to the credit card balance and a stack of not-quite-right containers in the house, piled on top of the clutter.

Zing!The Clutter Fairy alternative: Sort through the entire contents of one room first, sorting to determine what you will keep and what can be trashed, recycled, put in another room, or given away. When you get down to the real “keep” pile, then you can go shopping with a plan for exactly what and how much you need to contain, and you’ll only buy the products you actually need.

Mistake #4: Clear-time blindness

No one looks forward to clearing out a long-neglected space (except maybe professional organizers). There’s a common mental disconnect between the time it took to create the chaos and the time it’s likely to take to clear it out. So people tend to make a mental adjustment, reducing cleaning time from how long it will actually take to the amount of time they’re willing to put in. If you’ve neglected organization for six months, it’s going to take more than a Saturday afternoon to get your space under control.

Zing!The Clutter Fairy alternative: Be realistic about the time a project will take. Don’t underestimate the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish, or you’ll set yourself up to be disappointed when the project isn’t complete at the end of the afternoon. Take delight in incremental progress, and stick with the plan until it’s complete. Think how proud you’ll be when you’re truly done!

Mistake #3: Premature “keep” decisions

Once you begin sorting, you’ll find yourself touching everything in the room. Each object grabs your attention, and they’re all saying, “Keep me!” It’s easy to get bogged down in trying to decide what to keep as you touch each object. It may seem efficient to make your keep decisions at this stage, but it’s not—for two reasons. First, you’ll tend to get fatigued by continuous decision-making, and you’ll want to shut down. Second, you’ll keep too much because until you get through the initial sorting, you’re not choosing based on the whole picture of everything you own.

Zing!The Clutter Fairy alternative: Don’t confuse sorting with decision-making. Your first step is to sort the whole room, gathering like with like, pulling out items you can readily identify as trash or recycling. Stay focused on the task of sorting the entire contents of the room before you make keep decisions. Then process each pile and make keep decisions, also adding to your trash, recycle, and relocate piles. This sort-first, decide-second process will yield sensible, informed keep decisions, and the volume of what you keep will almost certainly be smaller.

Mistake #2: Keeping things for the wrong reasons

What’s even worse than making keep decisions prematurely? Keeping things for the wrong reason. For example, you throw something on the keep pile “because it was a gift.” Are you sure you want to make space for something not because you like it, or use it, or even want it, but for no other reason than that it was a gift? That’s not a good enough reason for it to take up your valuable space and attention. Another bad reason for keep decisions is cost. You don’t have to compound an expensive buying mistake with a bad keep decision.

Zing!The Clutter Fairy alternative: Your goal is to “thin the herd.” Don’t manufacture reasons to keep things, or you might as well not be trying to organize. Be truthful about what you like, what you will use—not just might use—and what genuinely suits your lifestyle. If something doesn’t make the cut, get rid of it in favor of things that do. Don’t waste your valuable time storing, living with, and working around a bunch of stuff you don’t really love.

Mistake #1: Deciding not to decide

If all you’re doing is putting the same stuff in new places, you’re wasting time and effort. Sometimes you find that you can’t decide whether to keep an item, so you put it back on the pile. All you’ve really done is made an unjustified keep decision, postponing your pain to another day. Do you want to go through this whole process again later? I doubt it!

Zing!The Clutter Fairy alternative: Put aside the item that trips you up for the moment, and move on to something else that you can decide about. Don’t let one problematic item stop the great progress you’re making. Tackle some easy decisions first, and your success will give you strength to make harder choices. At the very least, you’ll reduce the pile that needs your attention from what it would have been if you’d let that one hard decision stop you in your tracks. It’s okay if you have to spread out the tough decisions over a few days. Your ultimate goal is to make good keep decisions based on what’s truly part of your lifestyle—then let the rest go.

This article was featured in our February 2009 e-mail newsletter. To subscribe to our newsletter, please use the “Subscribe” form, above right.

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