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

Dedicated Spaces

I know I’m not the first Professional Organizer to talk about dedicated spaces and that’s for a very good reason. While there are many different ways to GET organized there is no better way to STAY organized than to recognize dedicated spaces. Simply put, dedicated spaces are about using specific homes for specific needs. Here are some tips to help you create them.

1. Single location. To reduce confusion, keep all like items stored in just ONE place. In my experience as an Organizer, I have found that there is a minimum of 70 different storage needs in any household. That’s hard enough to stay on top of, but double it or triple it and you are really working against yourself.

2. Store near use. This rule applies perhaps to the kitchen, more than anywhere else. For example, dedicate the drawers and cabinets near the stove to cooking items, like pots, spatulas, and pot holders. If your pot holders are in the dining room with your napkins, your pot roast may burn by the time you get to them.

3. Room to grow. When you dedicate a space to a collection of specific items, it is important to provide those items with a generous allowance of space. This is what is meant by room to grow. Get over the idea that extra space is WASTED space. It’s not. Extra space is what keeps you in control. For example, you know that you will continue to collect more photos, so if you already have your bookcase of photographs packed to the gills, you’re asking for trouble because new photos are bound to pile up in other places. They have nowhere else to go!

4. Freedom in Boundaries. This is a useful paradox. Nobody likes waiting in line, BUT are you more comfortable waiting at delicatessen that asks you to take a number or one that is a free-for-all? It is not only more comfortable, but easier to know where one thing ends and another begins. AFTER your “room to grow” has been filled to capacity, consider it an alarm going off. If your generous allowance is gone reconsider some of the older items in your container. Either toss the older items to make room for new ones, OR reconsider your priorities and allot more space to this area and LESS to another. This is critical in maintaining dedicated spaces, because if you have overflow in one dedicated space, it will affect the allotted space of the other dedicated spaces. When you have dedicated spaces you have control, and when you have control you are free to focus on more important things.

5. Systems you trust. In his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, David Allen states that in order to be truly productive you need to focus on one thing at a time, by getting all the stuff that’s swimming around your brain OUT and “into a system you trust.” For example, do you have a safe place to keep actionable, date-specific items? Allen and other efficiency experts recommend a “Tickler File” for this. I won’t go into the details of how a Tickler File works, but suffice to say I use one and as a result, I now never forget when to pay my quarterly taxes and I never misplace my concert tickets. They are out of my way when I don’t need them and there when I do. Another example, if you are storing your flashlight with your dedicated camping equipment space in the closet, do you trust that you will be able to lay your hands on that flashlight when the lights go out?

6. Be realistic about your needs. This kind of goes back to the point about room to grow. Before you run out and buy a pretty floral accordion file with a bow for all your greeting cards, take an honest look at how many greeting cards you are going to keep. If you know you love to collect greeting cards, gather ALL of them from around your house in ONE pile. If this pile is bigger than your accordion file then reevaluate. Either you need to purge some of the less meaningful cards OR you need a larger container (and don’t forget the room to grow). Otherwise you will have your accordion file busting at the seams, spilling cards on the floor while new cards pile up in various spots around your home. Now how pretty is that?

7. Circulation Prevents accumulation. I have talked a lot about this before, but it is very important to consider when establishing dedicated spaces. Paper is a prime example. Like it or not, you know that you are going to get mail 6 days a week for the rest of your life. Without an easy plan for circulation, accumulation is inevitable. I see paper as having a life cycle which can essentially be broken down into four stages of activity:

A. Running- ongoing projects; most active files out where you can see.

B. Sitting- Anything you want to find readily in a file cabinet.

C. Sleeping- Files you are hanging on to “just in case”; remote archives.

D. Dead- No longer useful. Recycle or Shred.

Rather than treating all paper the same, you need to dedicate spaces for EACH of these four stages. Otherwise it will just accumulate.

8. Frequency merits facility. In other words, the more often you do something the easier it should be. It doesn’t matter if you don’t rate an activity as important or not. The more often you need to do it, the more effort you should dedicate to removing all barriers to its completion. A perfect example is recycling. You may not see it as important, but it is the law and it has to be dealt with daily. Since it is unavoidable, why not make it super easy? Use clearly marked stackable bins and keep them in a convenient location in your kitchen.

9. Labels enable. Once you have established dedicated zones for all your needs, go one step further and label them. A clear plastic container is great for most items because it allows you to see what you have, but add a label to it and it really reinforces its purpose. A label leaves no room for ambiguity. Also if your container is ever emptied, a label will remind you what it had been allotted for. I’m a big fan of the Brother P-Touch for instant laminated labels.

10. Remember forgotten zones. Some needs for dedicated spaces are obvious, like a computer parts bin or a sock drawer, but unless you consider some of your less obvious needs you will have odd bits of clutter piling up throughout your home. Here are some oft-forgotten needs I typically find in client’s households:

  • keepsakes
  • stationery
  • seasonal items
  • gifts
  • luggage/travel
  • items to donate/sell
  • contact information to be entered
  • borrowed items

If these needs don’t belong SOMEWHERE they’ll wind up EVERYWHERE.