We all have different views on how to organize our life. We even define the word neat differently. Yes, some people suffer from types of afflictions, such as hoarding, but this article does not address those extreme cases. No, I am talking about regular people who go through life day by day and find it hard to stay organized. And let me expressly state that being organized is not the same as being inflexible or rigid. Not at all. By putting things in order around you, you give yourself space to be creative and spontaneous. By living a clogged life, your ability to do those things will be stunted. In this article, I will discuss some of the ways that you can use to create order in your life and reap the benefits of being organized.
The Information and Objects in Your Life
First, let’s think about what your life is comprised of from a physical perspective. There are physical objects, and then there are virtual or digital items. Physical objects are things such as your clothes, your dishes, a printed bank statement. Digital items are things like personal documents, emails, or an electronic bank statement. As you can imagine, organizing your digital life is a totally separate sub-set of your life’s organization but shares many similarities with the organizing of your physical life.
These objects can be organized “vertically” by the area of life to which they belong. Now, this classification doesn’t have to be rigid, is not the same for all people, and doesn’t have to be super complicated and multi-layered, although if you chose it so, it might be.
You might divide your life simply into:
- home and family
Or go deeper:
- house & related
And so on… It really doesn’t matter what the split is; it’s all contextual, based on your particular situation. Regardless of how it looks, you should sit down and define these categories for yourself.
When information comes to you, whether physical or electronic, it needs to be classified, at least mentally, into one of these categories. This is because not all categories are equally important, and we will see how this plays out in just a bit.
Now, keep in mind that although an item could technically belong in multiple categories, you should choose and assign it to the category that is most related or relevant.
So, the first two ways we classify the information and objects in your life is by:
- Type: Physical / Digital
- Life Area
The next way you can classify information is by its place in your life. This place can be either a physical place where physical objects go or a virtual place where digital items go.
From that perspective, everything in your life can have two states:
- Known place (items that have a predefined location)
- Unknown place (new items that don’t have a predefined location)
The first category, for example, could include your groceries or your clothes. Even if you go to the supermarket and buy a new vegetable that you’ve never had before, once you get home, you know exactly where to put it—in the vegetable tray. The same goes for your clothes. This is valid for as long as there is sufficient space in the predefined location.
But what if you buy a new bottle of whiskey and there is no room on your alcohol shelf? Where do you put it? On the counter? Near the teapot?
What if you get a letter in the mail from a company advertising roofing services and you know you might need this service in a year or two. What do you do?
So, we need to know what things we have and which areas of life they apply, and what to do with them.
Where Do Things Go?
There are only four places where any object, whether physical or virtual, can wind up after it has come into your possession:
- In an “action” box—this means that you must do something with it at a future point in time. It could be a bill to pay, a book to return, a broken object to fix. Regardless of what it is, you have to do something with it.
- In an “archive” box—this means that you don’t have to do anything with it in the near or even far future, but you do need this information for reference—for example, your mortgage documents or your birth certificate.
- In a “delegate” box—you don’t need to do anything with this; however, something must be done with it. You either cannot do it, don’t want to do it, or don’t have time to do it, so you must give it to somebody else to act on. For example, let’s say your spouse pays the credit card bills. When you get your bill, you give it to him or her to pay.
- In the trash—this is a tough one for many people, but the reality is this: there’s a lot of crap that lands in your lap that you simply don’t need. You don’t. But what do most people do? They put it in box #2), archive. They keep it because… who knows. I know. If you don’t need it, throw it away. Be stingy with the crap you allow to build up around you.
So, we have:
- Do something with it
- Archive it
- Give it to someone else
- Trash it
Let’s look at the common attributes that the items in each category have:
1) Do something with it.
To accomplish this effectively, you must:
- Have easy access to it at all times.
This means that you must not have to perform ten steps to get to the information. It should be at your fingertips. If it’s a physical item, it could be placed in a bin labeled “To Do.” If it’s an electronic item, it can be saved in a local folder or online/cloud folder labeled “Action.” Either way, it must be “in your face.”
- Connect it with a reminder system.
Since you must do something with this information, the activities related to it should be linked to your planning tools. This could be your calendar, your to-do list, or some other kind of reminder system. No matter what it is, don’t leave the “it” to itself if you must do something with it. Instead, connect it right away with an action and make sure that you know when that action needs to happen.
- Be able to assess the progress of the action.
If the action is a one-time thing, such as “pay that bill,” it’s easy to assess with a simple yes/no system. But what if it requires multiple steps? For example, hiring a company to build a wall around your property involves many steps that cannot all be done simultaneously. You need to be able to track the action properly and know when you’re done.
- Reassess once complete. Once you’ve done what you needed to do with the information, put it back into the system. Where does it go now? It can only go to someone else (if it needs further action), archive (if you must), or trash. For instance, once you pay a bill for your lawn mowing company, there is little need to archive their bill. Your bank and whatever money management system you use will keep track of the payment. The bill is probably not needed anymore.
2) Archive it
- The information needs to be accessible, but not necessarily at your fingertips. For instance, your last will and testament might be stored in a secure box at a bank or with your attorney. You need to be able to access it, but not right away.
- The information needs to go through a purge every so often. As your needs change, you need to go through your archives once in a while, maybe annually, and figure out what needs to be trashed.
- Archives must be labeled and categorized properly for easy searching. This is simpler in our digital world but becomes a bit muddy in the physical world. Ensure that all archived items are properly tagged, so it’s obvious to you or anyone else looking for data.
3) Give it to someone else
- If you must follow up on what the other person is doing with the information, you must have a way to enter this follow-up into a reminder system.
4) Trash it
- Nothing. If it’s trash, it’s trash.
By implementing such a system, in organizing every kind of new information or object that comes into your life, you create a live system, moving things into their place and ensuring that any necessary action happens at the right time.
Next, let’s talk about the practical side of doing this.
Organizing Your Life in (Almost) Real-Time
New things come into our lives all the time, usually in overwhelming quantities. In the blink of an eye, our email inbox is filled with unread items, our mailbox is overloaded with paper mail, and we can’t even get to read the news because, by the time we refresh the app, the news from this morning is buried three levels down. Life is fast, and it has a devilish way of generating a lot of crap that piles up around us.
You need a system to deal with this madness, or else it will drown you, and you will fail at important things because you can no longer see the forest for the trees.
So, how can you create a system that prevents this kind of overwhelming pressure? I suggest four steps to it.
1) Inbox by category.
2) Weekly Inbox Organization Day.
3) Physical Reset Day.
4) Monthly Archiving Day.
Have an Inbox
Every piece of information that you gather during a day should go to an inbox:
- Emails should flow into your email inbox
- Physical papers should be in a physical inbox
- Other notes, bookmarks, saved information, scanned data, etc. should go into an electronic/virtual inbox
Basically, every new piece of information that comes your way winds up in an inbox.
The Organization Day
Once a week, and it could be different days for the different types of inboxes, sit down and take everything out of that inbox. With confidence, divide the items into four categories: Act, Archive, Delegate, Trash.
First, trash the damn trash. Do it with no regrets.Don't be afraid to purge your life of the things you don't need. Click To Tweet
Second, take the items that need archiving and move them into an Archive pile. Now, depending on the amount of archiving items you get in a week, you might choose to combine your archiving day with the organization day. In this way, you kill two birds with one stone. If that’s not the case, move the archivable items into the archiving box and let them wait there until your monthly archiving day.
Next, turn to the items that should be delegated. Send them to the responsible parties right away and put a note in your reminder system to follow up if need be. Even if there is no need to follow up, at least make a note that you sent this document or information to that person on this date. It might come in handy.
Lastly, collect all actionable items and enter them all into your task management system. Attach deadlines and link the information for easy access. Make sure that the items that are pending action on your part are not yet archived. Instead, keep them in an easy-to-access place (physical or electronic) until they are complete. This could be a “pending action” box.
Note: since the time of this article, I’ve also written another piece on how to declutter your life, which might be interesting to you, as well.
The Reset Day
If you follow good practices, you shouldn’t have too much to do on a reset day. But, even with good practices, things will slip up. The reset day is a day during the week when you bring all the physical and virtual places to their neutral state. The neutral state is the natural state in which things should be.
For instance, the books you are currently reading should be near the place where you read them, while all other books should be on the bookshelf.
This is a day when you take stock of the places in your life where you are usually active. This could be your desk at home and work, your nightstand, closet, drawers, and car. Basically, any location that is graced by your presence during the week has the potential to get a little messy. During the reset day, you fix that and return all those places to their natural state.
The better you become at keeping items in their natural state by “resetting” on the go, the less work you’ll have during your reset day.
The Archiving Day
Your monthly archiving day is just as it sounds: Empty the archiving bin or direct your mouse to your archiving folder and start putting stuff where it belongs. For electronic archiving, make sure you label things properly, tag them as needed, and put them in the relevant sub-folder. As mentioned above, the most important thing for archived items is for them to be easily discoverable. There is no value in archiving something that you can never find again. Cataloging, proper naming conventions, and smart tagging are critical pieces of a good archive that can grow with you over time.
Don’t forget to give it one more thought during this archiving day—is it really archive material, or should it be trash? When I do my archiving, I inevitably find more things to get rid of.
Once a quarter, or even annually, you should visit your archives, physical and virtual, and identify anything that needs to be purged or may be moved into a more permanent archive. A lot of times, physical information becomes obsolete. Things like user manuals for machines you no longer have, warranty papers for out-of-warranty items, or receipts from your bar-mitzvah. Whatever it is, make a judgment whether that item should continue to be archived or if it should be purged.
Good Practices for the Organized
I will close this article with a list of common-sense best practices that will help you be more organized in all aspects of your life if applied every day consistently.
- Put things back where they belong after you use them.
- Have a dedicated inbox versus your entire house is an inbox.
- Create routines for dealing with the information in your life.
- Don’t be afraid to throw away things that you don’t need.
- Write things down. Use smart to-do lists and checklists.
- Have firm deadlines for major projects.
- Use tools and automation to make things easy.
- Forget perfectionism. Be biased toward action.
- Create logical but simple labels and categories that allow for easy search.
- Teach and work with those who live with you to share the same practices.
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- What are your favorite life organization tips?
- Do you use any apps to help with your day-to-day organization?
- What are some of your biggest struggles with staying organized?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!