Originally from Matt Baier’s Organizing Works Newsletter, January 2008


“Never mind all this ‘Sort-and-Purge’ nonsense, just give me some SYSTEMS to keep me organized!”  O.K., no one has ever actually spoken these words to me, but I hear this sentiment all the time in questions like:

“What can I buy?”

“Where does this go?”

“Why can’t I stay organized?”

I’m sure that many of you have been frustrated when I answer these questions by saying things like:

  • Systems come at the END of the organizing process.
  • Don’t ask WHERE to put something.  Ask WHY you are keeping it.
  • You can’t hope to STAY organized without user-friendly systems.


Organizing systems consist of a simple formula:

Appropriate STRUCTURE + Easy HABIT = Effective SYSTEM

BOTH structure and habit are necessary for a system to work well.

This formula applies to all organizing systems, but let’s look at the example of laundry.  Every good organizing solution allows for easy circulation, because, as I’ve often said, CIRCULATION prevents ACCUMULATION.  So let’s consider how easily your laundry is circulating.  Do you have an effective system? Does it go easily to hamper, to washer, to dryer, to folding, to closet, to wearer and around again? Here are some tips:

1. Don’t depend on just the habit.  Demanding to “pick your clothes up off the floor!’  is not going to create a lasting habit.  Is it clear EXACTLY where the clothes are supposed to go? Is it something that can be done quickly, easily and accurately? A small investment in a convenient structure will go a long way to advancing the wish for good habits into a reality.

2. No room for ambiguity.  Would you like some help separating the darks from the whites? Buy one laundry basket that is blue and another that is white.  Still confusing?  Put a bold label that clearly reads “darks” on the blue basket and “whites” on the white basket.  If you think adding a name label will help, then do it.

3. Recognize ALL Barriers.  It doesn’t take much to be a barrier.  If your laundry system is a hamper with a lid, inside a closet, blocked by a pile of clothes on the floor, in the opposite corner of the room, then there are FOUR barriers compromising your progress with the laundry.  Given that we are capable of forming MENTAL barriers to getting even the simplest things done, it only makes sense to remove all PHYSICAL barriers. 

4. Dedicate a zone.  If laundry collection is no place in particular, it’s that much harder to be automatic about delivering it where it needs to go.  Since clothes are removed more often than they are washed, try to locate your basket or hamper close to where you get undressed.

5. Don’t settle for just the structure.  So, let’s say you’ve got a dark basket labeled “DARKS” and a white basket labeled “WHITES,” each located within arm’s reach of where you undress, unlidded, with ample room to toss clothes into.  Is you system for collecting laundry complete?  Of course not.  Now it’s in your hands to develop the HABIT to use it.  Those handy baskets won’t fill themselves.  Without your participation, there is no system.

6. So easy it feels like cheating.  Perhaps you are thinking if the structure is THAT easy, then it’s impossible NOT to practice the right habit.  That’s the whole point.  The best organizing systems are structured to require habits that are SO EASY, IT FEELS LIKE YOU ARE CHEATING.  Perhaps you even ENJOY tossing your dark socks in the “darks” basket, like a basketball.  That’s pure organizing gold, because “when it’s fun, it gets done.”

I have stuck with the laundry example to be thorough, but the same rules apply everywhere, whether it’s your kitchen, garage, or office.  If there’s any room for ambiguity in your STRUCTURE, push it further, as I have described.  Only then will you generate the HABIT to create a truly effective organizing SYSTEM.