Organizing Pitfalls #7: Focusing on System Setup, and Ignoring Maintenance Habits

It is not uncommon to hear the following comments when I first meet with a client:

  • “I installed my dream closet system but my room is still a mess.”
  • “I thought once I set up this file system, my desk would be clear of papers and it is not.”
  • “I bought these cute wall pockets for the kids to store their homework but we are still running around the house every morning looking for stuff.”

They show me great organizing systems they installed (including lovely labels) and wonder if I know of a better product that will “make them organized.” I gently have to point out that what they have is great but that they need to work on the habits to actually use the organizing system they have installed. This is usually the last step to getting organized and the hardest. You can have a closet the size of a bedroom but if you don’t have the habits to put dirty clothes in the hamper and clothes that are still clean back up on a hanger, then your space will quickly become a disorganized mess again. We often tell clients in our first visit that containers do not make people organized; it is changing habits that makes a person and their space more organized. 

Here is what I do to help a client start changing their habits to become more organized. For example, a client has a dining room table that is a drop zone for mail, magazines, chargers and cords, and other miscellaneous personal items like earrings and barrettes. Her vision is to have a clear space so that if she wants to host an impromptu dinner, she can do it without having to shove everything into a bag and hiding it in her office. She has already bought several different file trays, letter sorters, and racks to help with the paper piles but she can’t seem to use them consistently. What I do is:

  1. Get her to stop focusing on the containers and to start focusing on the habit. We examine her steps from coming into the house after work to going to bed to waking up in the morning to  leaving for work. What are the papers landing here? How does she sort reading from action items, recycling, shredding, and filing? 
  2. Set up a temporary system of cardboard boxes and sticky notes. We put it right next to the dining table. 
  3. Outline a new habit for her to start practicing from this point forward. She will come into the house, put the mail on her dining table and quickly sort it. The junk mail is automatically thrown in the recycling bag. Catalogs and magazines are put in a bin to read later. Important looking mail is left in a pile next to her place setting to review right after dinner where it will be further sorted into an action pile, shredding pile, or filing pile. 
  4. Put the focus on establishing one habit at a time. I don’t have her focus on filing the paper work immediately or determining if or when she’ll read her magazines/catalogs. We focus on just processing the mail so that it doesn’t pile up on the table. By focusing on the habit of processing the mail, she is able to maintain a clear dining room table for weeks after we begin work.
  5. If I notice any regression, we go through the steps of the new habit again. Each time we focus on the habit, it becomes much easier to bounce back from the disarray and stay organized. 

So if you have an organizing system in place but stuff is still in disarray, stop and look at your habits. Ask yourself:

  • What is collecting here?
  • Does it have a home?
  • If so, how does this item land here and how can I change my habits to put it where it needs to live?

Break down your movements into mini steps. Examine where or when your organizing challenges form so that you can find solutions to fix them and create a new habit. Then practice, practice, practice. By focusing on your organizing habits, you’ll see lasting results.

Image: Katmystiry/www.morguefile.com

About Gabriela Burgman

Gabriela’s mission is to empower her clients with the tools and motivation they need to get and stay organized. Prior to becoming a Professional Organizer, Gabriela worked in a photograph archive as well as several university archives, assisting offices, administrators, and retiring academics to sort through their files for preservation or disposal. She became a professional organizer in 2007 working as an independent consultant before joining Living Peace. When Gabriela is not learning new ways to organize photos or paper both physically and electronically, she is spending time on what matters most to her: visiting with family and friends, reading a good mystery book, or cooking a tasty meal.

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