Disorganization that looks like organization

As a person who has been plagued by organization problems all my life, I do have a couple of things to say about it, not in the useful sense of what to do, but one or two things in the possibly-useful sense of what to avoid.

(This is prompted by events at work, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t use details from there.)

My problem with organization has always been that (a) I can’t remember the system from last time and (b) most systems seem exactly as good as each other. So next time I start from first principles (sounds better than “from scratch”) and create a new system, putting stuff away in the new place while everything else is still in the old place for the old system. However, living like this has led to a couple of insights.

First, there are organizational systems that only look organized. They impose some kind of order, but they’re not useful. As a totally silly example, let’s suggest that I have in my garage a new organizational system based on mass. Heavy stuff in one place, light in another, eight or nine gradations in between. This is nonsensical (I think you’ll agree), but it looks good: all the heavy power tools are over here, together, along with the bar fridge and the bicycles; all the light stuff is here in bins: washers and nuts and caps for bicycle inner tubes and gloves and those really small screwdrivers I need once in a while. Over there are most of my wrenches and some screwdrivers, but the rest are over on this other spot with my hammers and the long screwdrivers and some sections of copper pipe I have for plumbing repairs. Over there is my propane torch for sweat-welding.

Looks good and has some kind of organizing principle, but the system doesn’t take into account what I use things for. I mean, wouldn’t you figure that maybe  I want to visit only one or two spots in the garage to gather what I need to fix the bicycle? Or to saw wood?

I could do it by purpose, except there are some common things that get used a lot (the screwdrivers and wrenches, for instance). If we were talking about separate rooms, I might actually buy two different sets (one for upstairs, one for downstairs) to avoid the travelling-and-distracted problem…but we’re talking about my garage. 

So: an organizational system that puts the bulk of the materials in one place is good…that place is the garage. But then you have to subdivide the garage, because there’s just too much stuff. 

Fortunately, stuff doesn’t have to be right the first time, but you have to do two things, both of which I suck at:

  • You have to evaluate whether the current system is working, and be willing to listen to other people if you are not the only one using the system.
  • You have to be willing to make the changes to try something new.


Organization has long been a hassle for me. Almost every organizational scheme seems as good as any other, and when asked where I put something, I often have to figure out what I considered most important at the time in order to figure out what schema I made up…recreating it from scratch, as it were.

I’ve been reading a couple of books on organization and disorganization for the ADHD mind, and one of them had a couple of items that really struck home to me as being important (for me, anyway).

First, emphasize utility over beauty. Having the towels in the hall closet, the shampoo under the sink, and the shower in its own small room looks great–the towels and the shampoo are nicely hidden away–but sucks as an organizational strategy for me because I have to remember where the pieces are if I’m going to take a shower. Better to put the shampoo by the shower and some kind of towel rack in the same room as the shower.

Second, make things easier to put away than to take out. Think about it: when you need something, you have the impetus of that need to get it out; when you don’t need it any more, there is no impetus. So clever stacking arrangements, while they save space, are a pain to reassemble. If you have so much stuff that everything has to be arranged in the cupboard just so, you have too much stuff! Or the stuff is in the wrong cupboard.

Both of these come from Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD, by Susan C. Pinsky. I’m using the electronic edition, and it sometimes freezes up on my Kobo app on iPad, but is generally fixed when I go back in, so I don’t know whether the problem is with the book or the app.