How To, Lifestyle

Fail Better: Organizing Your Space!

I am not a naturally organized person. I didn’t come out of the womb with a organizer in one hand and a smartphone in the other. But between my day job, school, and running, WWAC, I’ve had to get organized. More or less. Now I’m the kind of person who leaves irate notes to coworkers, reminding them that the pen cup is for pens and the highlighter cup is for highlighters.

My first brush with not being an organizational trainwreck came young. Early on in high school, actually. Like many of you, I’m a bit of a procrastinator. And also like many of you, I’ve had many a late night before a deadline scrambling to even find the assignment sheet. (“Uh, of course I’ve started it ma’am. Almost done, in fact.”) Back then, I had a really small bedroom. Like hobbit-size. And it forced me to learn the first rule of organization:

1. Stuff is bad. Stuff is the worst. STUFF. You don’t need it. Take an inventory of your living space. Do you use that breadmaker everyday? Get it off your counter Do you actually care about that truck stop postcard? Take if off your corkboard. It’s become a decluttering cliche, but take that inventory–if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it–and take control back from stuff.

To get started, check out these not-boring decluttering techniques. Being organized–or disorganized–is a habit, and like any habit, you have to weld it into place with weeks of determined repetition. Decluttering is only the beginning. Staying clutter-free is much harder.

2. Organize your space according to your actual life. They say dress for the job you want, not the one you have, but organization is just the opposite: you need to organize the life you have, so you can have the life that you want. Don’t lean on Pinterest farther than inspiration–chances are your life doesn’t look anything like Pinterest. You can organize your space so that its effective AND pretty, but prettiness is secondary–prioritize quick access. What do you use the most often in your bedroom? Your kitchen? Your office? Put these things in places of prominence. Put away things you use less often. Be realistic about your habits.

Think in terms of hierarchies. If you want to keep your space organized, it’s going to have to feel natural. It needs to be normal. Blah blah life changes, not diets, but–

3. Make organization a habit. Ugh, I know. That sounds like such a drag. But it’s about little things like having a place for your keys when you come home. Taking the time to go through old receipts every once in a while and chucking records you no longer need. On the whole, not a big deal. But when you’re starting out, it looks like a mountain, a molehill, and all the moles in this world and the next. Real talk: start small and expect to fail a few times. So you let things go over the week and now the apartment is a mess? No shame. Just get back at it.

So you’re organized. Awesome. What happens when life gets rough? This is the sticking point. I’ve been through major depression a few times, and one of the first signs of depression and anxiety for me–and for many other people–is that my schedule and I part terms, and my living and working spaces go to shit. But what happens next is that this looming cliff of disorder becomes another reason to be depressed and anxious.

4. Don’t live in shame or guilt over being disorganized. They aren’t the most useful emotions. While they can deliver an effective and immediate shock to the system when you’ve done something wrong, they don’t move you to action. Instead, they lead you to stew. They lead you to sit on the couch contemplating your failures for approximately four hours, eating wavy Lays and imagining how much better your life would be if you had a bowl for your keys. (Maybe that’s just me.)

Bottom line: shame and guilt eat away at you. They sap your will, cloud your thinking, and make it that much harder to build good habits. And not only do shame and guilt create an infinite feedback loop of helplessness and misery–science agrees with me!–but they rarely make much sense. And what’s at the root of them? I am pathetic/defective/weak because I still haven’t bought that damn key bowl. NONE OF WHICH IS TRUE. It’s just a key bowl.

What do about shame? There are many different ways to approach this. I’m all about cognitive behavioural therapy, so my advice is going to be based on that, but if these tips don’t feel right for you, or aren’t working, don’t keep pushing. Instead, look at other options. I’m not going to link you to specific sites, because this is something you should Google yourself. I strongly recommend that you stick with mental health professionals and not self-help gurus (like me!). I can give you tips on organizing and chat with you about my own experiences, but I’m no substitute for a pro.

But the main thing:

5. Challenge your shame. No, seriously. Ask yourself: Am I actually pathetic? Cite your source, self! Have there been times when I’ve been or not been pathetic? Pathetic or not, what’s the use of dwelling on it? Ask yourself: Who’s being hurt by it? (You) Who’s being helped by it? (No one) What’s the worst thing that could happen if you learned to stop worrying about disorder (and love the atom bomb)? Not much. But you might have that damn key bowl.

Megan's home office, April 2014

So this is my home office. As you can see it lacks baseboards and a few floor tiles. NEVER MIND. We’re not sweating the small stuff, right? But let me tell you a bit about what I did here. I needed a space that would double as work and leisure–a den and a home office in one, without one function overtaking the other. I had the luxury of a fairly large space to work with, but even in a smaller room, you can put the same principles to work.

1. Draw a firm line between work space and leisure space. I did this by shelving all of my DVDs in the unit beneath my TV, and by putting all of my fun books (comics, SF/F) in the farther bookshelf. Non-fiction and reference books are all close to hand. Notice that my workout books and DVDs are on top of the shelving unit, reminding me of their existence without looming over me (Woooorrrrk ooooout Megan).

2. Make your work space pleasant and liveable. For me, that means natural light, space to move around, a few things to fiddle with when I’m blocked, and plants. Must have plants. Because I know that I will inevitably get distracted, I made sure to have things to look at: my desk is by the window and I’ve hung three of Michael Cho’s Toronto paintings above it. Because I’m a fidgeter, I took the time to find a table that wouldn’t leave me feel penned in–$30 at Ikea, holla–and littered it with some things I could play with. Stress balls, hourglasses, a toy. Whatever works for you, but keep it simple. Don’t keep so many distractions that you can’t get work done.

Megan's home office, April 20143. Put away everything you don’t need, dammit. Notice I didn’t show you the inside of the closet. THERE’S A REASON. Well, actually the reason is that it’s got ugly carpeting–the closet is organized too, but much less pleasant to look at. It contains: boxes of old files and receipts, craft supplies that I use rarely, wrapping supplies, my toolbox, and anything else I don’t need on a daily basis. In boxes. Labelled. Stacked according to weight and need. Yes, actually. It was worth it.

4. Organize–but make it aesthetically pleasing! The final product should be efficient and happiness-making. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted my office to look like, and how I wanted it to work. And then I spent a bunch more time sourcing everything, and putting everything together on the cheap. This meant tolerating a measure of chaos for a few months, but not only was it worth the hassle, it was a good lesson in chilling the heck out. So I had half a functional office while I figured out the storage situation? So what? As long as I was keeping things neat and getting work done, I didn’t need to be stressed.

And I had something else keeping me going: looking forward to the finished product!

So that’s how I did it–getting organized–but how did you do it, or how do you plan to?