We were nearing the end of an organizing session, and I had asked my client to put something away in the space we’d just finished. Walking over to the drawer where we’d decided the item belonged, he jerked it open and casually tossed the item towards the back of the drawer.
It landed near its intended home.
In the general vicinity.
Okay, not really. It was at least inside the right drawer. But it wasn’t where it really belonged.
Watching the scene unfold, I smiled to myself, shaking my head. I’d been here before.
He shoved the drawer shut, then spun back to me. “Okay, what next?”
I knew a younger, more inexperienced me would have struggled in that moment. Thoughts of, “I can’t believe he just did that – after we just organized it. Do I fix it? Tell him to fix it? Leave it and pretend I never noticed? OMG there’s no time left!” would have sped through my mind.
Fortunately, after more than a decade of working with clients with similar habits and challenges, his behavior was nothing new.
“Before we do anything else,” I began, “let’s talk about what just happened.”
The Solution to Staying Tidy
My client looked at me, confusion sweeping across his face. “Did I do something wrong?” he asked.
“No, not wrong,” I reassured him, “just maybe not the way you want to do it to achieve the result you’re looking for.”
“What do you mean?” He glanced over his shoulder, back towards the drawer he’d just closed, his brow furrowed.
“One of the key things I’ve noticed in doing this work,” I explained, “is that people who have spaces that look neat, tidy, and well-put-together generally do things more carefully than those whose spaces appear messy.”
His frown deepened as I paused.
“I’m not sure I follow,” he admitted.
I smiled encouragingly. “Let’s talk about putting things away.” I nodded towards the drawer he’d tossed the item into earlier. “Some people feel like as long as things end up in the general vicinity of where they belong, that’s good enough. But other people take a little extra time and effort to place each item exactly where it belongs, not just near where it belongs. As a result, these folks who invest the extra energy in returning items to their specific homes have spaces that often look organized compared with the ‘general vicinity’ crowd.”
By this point, my client’s forehead had smoothed out, and he was listening intently.
“Here’s an example,” I continued. “In our closet, my partner and I each have shelf space for storing our workout clothes. When I’m putting my clothes away, I carefully place my shirts on the shirt pile, pants on the pants pile, and so forth. I’ll even pause for a moment to make sure the pile is straight and things are facing the same way.
“My partner, on the other hand, is somewhat less careful in his approach. He tends to toss his shirts and shorts in the general direction of the correct pile. Things usually land fairly close to where they belong. But sometimes the shirt hangs part way off the shelf… the shorts end up overlapping the shirts pile… and so on. It’s not that he’s getting it wrong – things are, for the most part, where they belong. But over time, my piles remain fairly orderly, whereas his workout clothes look more jumbled.”
“I think I understand,” my client said. “You both put things away. Your way takes more effort, but your piles stay neater. He takes the slightly quicker and easier route, but that leads to a messier space, and, eventually, he’ll probably have to stop and organize it all, which is definitely more work.”
“You’ve got it!” I exclaimed, grinning. This was my favorite part. “By doing things more precisely upfront, I keep things looking neater for longer.”
Which Way Is the “Right” Way?
“But if you end up organized at the end either way…” he mused, “then which way is the right way?” he asked, frowning again.
“That’s the best part: Both ways are right. The right way of doing things is the way that works for you and delivers the result you want. Personally, I think it’s worth it to do the work along the way. But that may be because it bothers me to look at disorderly piles. My partner feels differently. He thinks it’s too much work to do along the way and would rather have less precise piles, even if it also means he may have to deal with a big organizing project down the road.
“It’s a question of what’s more important for you. But I will say that if you’ve decided you really want your spaces to look tidy and feel organized, the extra effort along the way makes a huge difference. Taking consistent action is part of what it means to live organized.”
“I think I like it,” he replied. “It puts the choice in my hands. If I want, I can intentionally better my spaces and organization by taking little steps along the way. Or I can choose to be less precise and accept that piles will eventually build up as a result, and I’ll need to deal with them. But either way, I know what I’m choosing.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s completely up to you. So… which way will you choose today?”