Forget the Experts: Getting Organized Is About You

“Preserve order, and order will preserve you” (St. Maximilian Kolbe).


Does the prospect of an afternoon of filing papers with great accuracy give you a thrill of delightful anticipation? Or do you dread the sludge of sorting through documents that have been shoved in a drawer for months?

Wherever you fall on the “joy of getting organized” scale, there’s probably at least one area that poses a challenge. Maybe your desk at the office is tidy, but your pantry at home is a disaster. Maybe your drawers are categorized and labeled, but your hard drive of photos from the last decade sits in a closet, gathering dust.

Whether you work in an office, work from home or just have a normal 21st-century life, you probably have a need for organization. The benefit of being organized in the outward areas of our lives — papers, clothing, smartphone apps — is that it creates space for the inward areas of our lives — our thoughts, our emotions, our souls — to be more settled. Similarly, even if we end up with clutter in our outward spaces, having peace and order on the inside helps us survive the crazy days.

Maybe the very thought of getting organized causes you to break out in a cold sweat. Maybe you’re ever-eager to improve your already excellent methods. Either way, all the life hacks, organizational gurus, color-coded folders, and shiny new planners in the world won’t help if you can’t answer these two simple questions for yourself:

  1. What’s most important to me?

  2. How does my brain naturally reach for things?

What’s Most Important?

First, the most difficult part of getting organized (staying organized is a whole other issue) is the decisions you have to make. You have to decide what to keep, what to throw away, where things go and how long to keep them. And, you have to make that decision for everything you want to organize, whether it’s papers on your desk, random stuff in your drawers or old photos on your hard drive. It can be exhausting and overwhelming, tempting you to give up before you start.

You can avoid decision fatigue by starting with one decision: “What’s my bottom line?” What do you care about the most in this process? Having a record of every important paper? Having only useful things in your drawers? Being able to access photos easily when you want to print them?

Whatever it is, pick your bottom line, and make every organizing decision based on that one most important thing. If a paper’s not important, you can recycle or shred it. If it is, you can scan it and file it for safekeeping. If you have a cute trinket in your drawers that’s of no use to you, you can donate it. If you want to access photos with ease, you can tag them by date or event. (And how you choose to tag them depends on you, not on what the “experts” advise.)

Organizational expert Marie Kondo’s method is so popular, because she’s already determined the bottom line. “Does it spark joy?” is the most important factor in her system. This approach works ... until it doesn’t. My friend recently apologized at a dinner party she hosted: “Sorry there’s no gravy boat for the gravy. I had one, but I gave it away because it didn’t spark joy. It sure would be useful now!”

Work With Your Brain’s Natural Tendencies

Ultimately, no one can decide your bottom line for you. That’s the second thing most organizational systems miss: They’re too generic to account for each person’s natural tendencies, preferences and schedule. With that in mind, here’s the second foundational element of getting organized: Recognize how your own brain works naturally — and work with it, not against it.

If you tend to remember things by dates (“We took that trip to the water park in August of 2017”), then categorizing your photos by date will work best for you. But maybe you remember things better by place (“Remember the Christmas we spent in Georgia? It was lovely. What year was that again?”) or by special event (“the first time I tried sushi” or “the weekend we spent repainting the kitchen”). Whatever your brain reaches for first, make that your primary category.

This technique works for all sorts of areas: documents (Does your brain immediately reach for date? Type of document? Information contained in it?), drawers (Do you want all paper supplies in one drawer and writing utensils in another? Or would you prefer each drawer to be filled with the various things you need for a single project?), and even schedules.

“Batch working” is the latest trend in productivity. Rather than trying to multitask across several areas, “batch work” schedules a designated amount of time for tasks that are related to one another. You might batch all your phone calls in the morning and your emails in the afternoon, or you might devote Tuesdays to project A and Wednesdays to project B. But even in this method, you have to decide what to batch together! Maybe answering all unrelated emails in an afternoon will make you feel more scattered than methodical. Maybe limiting yourself to working on a single type of project at one time will leave you with more work on everything else.

It might feel easier just to buy into popular methods of organization or purchase a crisp new set of office supplies, but the truth is, if we don’t know ourselves, these things can leave us frustrated and broke. Each of us is different. What helps one person to be organized and efficient can leave another feeling stressed and disoriented.

When we know what’s most important, and how we tend to remember things, getting organized in a way that actually works for us becomes much easier.

Kerri Christopher is a life consultant. She helps individuals learn to discern well, discover their priorities, and make plans to move forward. From “what am I doing with my life?” to “why is my closet always a mess?,” she loves helping people sift through the tough questions by integrating the wisdom and truths of the Christian life with the best practices of human “self-help.” Kerri has both an MA and STL in theology and has taught at universities in the US and UK. With her British husband, she lives in London, where she enjoys discovering cozy pubs and beautiful architecture. You can find her online at Clarity Life Consulting.