How to Detangle Your Spaces & Mind Through Sorting

(Step 2 of theNeatNiche’s 5-Step ASK ME Process to Organize Anything – read step 1 here)

Is there “stuff” in your way? Maybe it’s physical, and you’re sick of staring at piles. Maybe your “stuff” is mental, cluttering up your mind and stealing your focus. 

No matter what kind of clutter you’re facing, if you feel it’s keeping you from working productively and living organized, it’s time for a change.

Last time around, I introduced theNeatNiche’s fool-proof system to organize anything. This five-step organizing process, represented by the acronym ASK ME, will take you from chaos to calm every time.

ASK ME™ stands for:

A – Assess

S – Sort

K – Keep or let go

M – Make a home

E – Establish a system

No matter how big or small your project, with these steps, you can clear clutter and achieve long-term, systemized success. 

If you read our last post, you already know assessing is the first step of the process (if you haven’t had a chance to check out that post, feel free to hop over, then come back to continue here). It’s about figuring out what you want and comparing it with what’s going on right now

Once you know where you are and what you want, you’re ready for the second step of the ASK ME process: Sorting. This is our focus for today. Let’s take a closer look.

Why Sort Your Stuff?

Next to assessing, sorting is one of the most overlooked steps of the organizing process. But it’s truly essential if you want to avoid overwhelm, decision fatigue, and making choices you may later regret. 

Sorting is also phenomenally helpful in seeing what kinds of stuff you tend to collect, the types of decisions you tend to postpone, and how quickly they accumulate.

But it can be altogether too tempting to dive right into decision-making, especially now that you know clutter is a buildup of postponed decisions. Why not get right to it and start getting rid of stuff?

While quick, one-off decisions can help you clear some clutter, there’s also a risk: Making individual decisions does not give you a chance to see what you really have, which means you are making your choice without seeing the bigger picture.

Usually, this approach leads to keeping waaaaaaay more than you need or will ever use. It also takes significantly more time than making “batched decisions” – which is what you will easily be able to do if you sort first. 

How to Sort Your Stuff (Physical & Mental)

Ready to dig into your stuff and see what you’ve got? The first step of sorting is to identify categories, or types of stuff, in your backlog/piles. 

In a physical space, the easiest way to do this is simply to stand at the door and slowly scan the room, carefully paying attention to the kinds of stuff you see. You might want to make notes on a pad of paper so you don’t have to keep a running list in your head. Writing down what you see can also make it easier to condense down your list to choose your final categories. 

If you’re addressing a mental backlog, your first step is going to be to get that chaos out of your head and onto paper (electronic is fine if you prefer) by way of a brain dump. Set a timer for 20 minutes, and just let it all come out. Then, once you’re feeling like you’ve identified most of what keeps running through your head, review your list to identify similar types of to-dos, ideas, thoughts, or categories.

What you are looking for are common themes, similar types of stuff, or invisible “buckets” into which you could fit the kinds of stuff you see. For example, a workspace or home office might have categories of “files,” “office supplies,” “books,” “technology,” and maybe also “sentimental” (I’ve seen a surprising number of home workspaces that serve as the catch-all place for sentimental stuff for the family, including photos, mementos, kids’ artwork, etc.). 

The key when initially choosing your categories for sorting is to limit the number of categories to no more than five to seven big, encompassing buckets or types of items. More than five to seven categories, and your mind will struggle to keep track of what fits where as you sort. Items will end up belonging in more than one category, and your sorting ability and speed will come to a screeching halt. Overwhelm is likely to kick in, too. 

So, stick with a limited number of categories, and make them as broad as they need to be to fit your project. The bigger your project, the broader you’ll likely need to go: An attic will probably have a far wider array of unrelated things (holiday stuff, sentimental, furniture, etc.) than your desk drawer (which might contain papers, office supplies, and technology). 

If you’re struggling because your broad categories don’t feel specific enough, remember you can always sort again later – called subsorting – if you need to. (More on that in a minute.) But for now, be kind to your brain, and look for big, broad categories that will make for quick, easy sorting.

Once you’ve identified your categories and know what kinds of stuff you have (at least for the most part), you’re ready to get hands-on. Go ahead and put like items together, based on your categories. 

Professional tip: In a physical space, it can help to write your chosen categories on individual sticky notes and place them around the room as visual reminders. Then, start moving items to the correct location, based on where you’ve put the sticky notes. 

For a mental clearing session, you can either start a new electronic note or new piece of paper with a space for each category, then transfer your brain-dumped items into each section as appropriate, or you can move the items on your electronic list around so that like items are together.

Still Overwhelmed? Try Sub-Sorting

Theoretically, by the time you’ve sorted into your five to seven categories, you’re ready to decide what should stay and what should go. 

But if you look around at your piles and still feel overwhelmed by the chaos you see within each category, you may want to repeat the sorting process one more time. 

Sorting again after you’ve already sorted is called subsorting, and it’s particularly useful if you’re tackling a big project, large backlog, or complicated list. 

Sub-sorting means applying the same sorting process we’ve already covered within one or more of your sorted categories. 

For example, if you’re organizing your work-from-home space, and one of your categories is “office supplies,” your first round of sorting will leave you with a big, mishmashed pile of office supplies. You’ll know your total volume of office supplies (probably way more than you need), but you may still not know how many pens you have, how many sticky notes, how many boxes of paper clips, etc. Before you feel ready for decision-making, you may want to sub-sort your pile of office supplies into smaller categories such as writing utensils (pens, pencils, highlighters), notepads (varying sizes of sticky notes and pads of paper), binding tools (paper clips, binder clips, rubber bands), stamps & mailing, etc. Once again, you want to aim for no more than five to seven categories (to help your brain move through the sorting process quickly). 

If you choose, you can continue sub-sorting until every single item is grouped with its friends – pens, pencils, highlighters, small sticky notes, large sticky notes, small paper clips, large paper clips, small binder clips, large binder clips, stamps, return address labels, etc. all have their own little pile, ready for decision-making. But for most people, getting that far into the weeds isn’t necessary or helpful. 

Most of the time, one or two rounds of sub-sorting is sufficient to prepare them for making strong, confident decisions… which is what the third step of the ASK ME process, Keep or Let Go, is all about. More on that next time!

Questions about sorting your stuff, conquering clutter, or the ASK ME™ method? Comment below!


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