The Gift of Organizing Differently

Use what comes naturally to develop an organizing plan that works

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

Organization is a tricky concept. Some people feel organized only if their homes and workspaces are entirely free of extraneous items. Others are content to coexist among piles, as long as they know what’s in each one and the piles don’t get too overwhelming.

Would you believe me if I told you that both groups have the right idea?

The key to being organized is being able to find what you need when you need it, even if that means using piles, stacks, and a little bit of clutter as part of the plan. Just as it’s possible to look disorganized and still be organized, the reverse is true as well. A clean, clutter-free workspace is not always an organized workspace. If you’ve ever run around your house frantically picking things up and stashing them away just ahead of last-minute visitors, you know what I mean. Finding a place to put things in a pinch isn’t so hard; remembering where you put them when it’s time to retrieve them is considerably more challenging.

However you organize, your plan needs to work for you. Using your default personal style (who you are when it comes to your “stuff”) and your default organizational style (how you organize your things naturally) allows you to craft a system that works for you.

Craft? Yes. It doesn’t matter if your organizational style is incurable I know I put it somewhere, diehard drop and run, or completely cram and jam. Behind each personal and organizational style is a nugget of wisdom — a gift, if you will — which is what makes each style worth building on.

Let’s start with the personal styles: I love stuff, I love to be busy, and I need to see it.

Those with an I love stuff personal style have a gift for finding beauty in the ordinary. I love stuff kids fill their pockets with rocks, leaves, and bottle caps, which form the foundations of collections to come. As adults, these folks still have dried corsages, programs from plays, a piece of wedding cake in the freezer … and always seem to have just what you need for that impromptu art project you want to do with your class. Where others see trash, they see treasure.

Unabated, this style can pose tremendous organizational challenges, particularly in small spaces. The trick for managing the I love stuff personal style lies in making smart decisions about which beautiful items need to be appreciated from afar, and which ones can be taken home for admiration that’s more up close and personal. And when it comes to culling collections, parting can be sweet sorrow if we avoid forcing the issue and instead help those with this style to to find new homes and new purposes for their things.

While those with the I love stuff personal style have an eye for beauty, those with an I love to be busy personal style have a heart for contributing. I love to be busy people always have something to do and somewhere to be — and they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re the first to volunteer for a project and the people who keep things running. Closely related to true I love to be busy folks are the “I always seem to be busy” folks. While I love to be busy might not be their actual style, they can benefit from the strategies used by those who wholeheartedly embrace busyness as their own.

Those with the I love to be busy personal style can sometimes overdo it and overcommit, leading to stress and exhaustion. In addition, organizational struggles often arise simply because there are only 24 hours in a day, and organizing takes a back seat to doing. From a time-management perspective, those with this style benefit from regularly assessing their schedules to see if everything they’ve committed to is still something they want to do, as well as learning to say “maybe” instead of an automatic “yes” when it comes to new commitments. From a “stuff” perspective, those with this style often benefit from one planner to keep everything straight and separate storage for each activity — preferably a bag of the grab-and-go variety.

Finally, there’s no mistaking someone with the I need to see it personal style. An optimistic bunch, this group really believes they’re going to get through everything that’s in those piles they leave out as reminders. Out of sight is, they fear, out of mind — and so bills, lists, and forms to be completed are usually right there out in the open where they serve as a visual nudge to completion. On a small scale (one pile of things beside the door to be carried to the car in the morning), this I need to see it habit is not so bad. It’s when the piles begin to take over the horizontal surfaces that problems arise.

Because they are visually cued, those with the I need to see it personal style do well when they learn to work this need for visibility into their organizing. Color-coding, labeling, and using clear or unusual containers to keep things organized but in sight can be the key to giving those piles a home; a different color folder for each day of the week can allow their optimistic to-do piles to flow seamlessly from one day to the next.

Each of the three organizational styles (I know I put it somewhere, cram and jam, and drop and run) is similarly gifted, with a basic organizational concept tucked away behind the process that’s not quite working.

Those with an I know I put it somewhere organizational style are experts at putting things away. Flat surfaces are free of extraneous piles, stacks, and clutter, making those with the I know I put it somewhere organizational style look like they’ve got it all together. Unlike those with an actual organizational system in place, however, I know I put it somewhere people run into trouble when it comes time to find what they’re looking for. Because they focus on tidiness instead of a method for putting things in logical places, they often end up tearing apart multiple spaces trying to find what they are looking for. Learning to use visual cues in their organizational systems, store like things together, put things close to where they’re used, and create consistent homes for their belongings can take the I know I put it somewhere organizer from faux organization to the real thing.

What those with the I know I put it somewhere organizational style lack, those with the cram and jam organizational style have in spades. They’ve mastered the art of keeping like things together and creating consistent homes for their belongings. The drawback? Everything is in just one place, which is full to bursting. Helping cram and jammers take their logical locations to the next level by expanding to more than one space can protect the integrity of everything they’re storing, keeping things from getting rumpled, crumpled, or broken. Doing this one step at a time (clothes go here; papers go there) and using soft-sided containers that are more forgiving than their wood or plastic counterparts can help those with this style break the “a place for everything and everything in one place” habit.

Finally, what those with a drop and run organizational style lack in terms of a system, they make up for in logical deduction. One benefit to leaving a trail of belongings or a progressive stack of stuff on surfaces is that it’s relatively easy for drop and run organizers to find what they’re looking for simply by retracing their steps or working their way through the piles. In fact, those with this organizational style are often gifted with a sort of clutter sonar, able to retrieve items they need based on their placement in the trail or pile. Labeled, lidless bins and one-step organizers can help the drop and run organizer to turn their trails and piles into an organizational system.

Some days the gifts behind your style may seem to be completely obscured by the detritus of daily living, but it’s important to look for the sparkle of hope amid the papers to file and the belongings to be put away. Trying to be something you’re not leads to frustration, organizational impasses and, if you continue to struggle to find the beauty in who you are, a lack of confidence in yourself. Learning to embrace the gifts behind the styles — whether yours or your students’ — nurtures the gift of patience. Celebrating what you (or they) do right is the first step to making it the foundation of something that not only works, but also makes you feel good about who you really are.

Image credit: Shutterstock 265432142

Styles and Gifts at a Glance


The style: I love stuff
The gift: Finding beauty in the ordinary
The challenge: Too much stuff, too little space

The style: I love to be busy
The gift: Generosity with time
The challenge: Too much to do, not enough time

The style: I need to see it
The gift: Optimism
The challenge: Avoiding visual overload


The style: I know I put it somewhere
The gift: Tidiness
The challenge: Remembering which something is in which somewhere.

The style: Cram and jam
The gift: Keeping things together.
The challenge: Protecting important items from damage and destruction.

The style: Drop and run
The gift: Cutting through the clutter
The challenge: Putting it away instead of just down

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

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