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


For many of us, I think the real excitement in organizing comes from the opportunity to buy more stuff, namely CONTAINERS.  But how can you choose the right container if you don’t know how much you’re containing?

Twenty-two years ago when I attended the School of Visual Arts we would be fortunate enough to see some of the foremost cartoonists of the day demonstrate their craft.  Invariably there would always be one student who would pipe up and ask, “Ooh, what kind of pen are you using?” as if buying the right tool would turn this kid into the next great cartoonist.  So what does this story from my art school experience have to do with organizing containers? Simply this.  It’s not about buying the right tool, it’s HOW you use it.  Here are five tips for picking the right container.

1. Quantity First.  A question I often hear from clients after we empty one of their containers is “Now what do I do with this?”  The answer is, save that question for later because it’s not what’s important.  In fact, it may turn out you might be better off getting rid of that container entirely.  What IS important is to match your need to the right container, not your container to a need.  To determine your need you must go though the process of sorting and purging all the items in your room. I have found no better way to do this than the S.P.A.C.E. approach described in Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing From the Inside Out.  Once you have determined which like items you are keeping, say office tools for example, find a container that is not only big enough for ALL of them, but also leaves some room for growth.  Otherwise, new additions will be encroaching on your valuable work space OR on your other containers.

2. Bunny with Fangs.  Now there’s a scary image for Halloween, but what the heck am I talking about?  I’m talking about all those “cute” little containers that become nothing more than clutter traps.  Why?  Because there was no need fulfilled other than the need to buy something cute.  This goes back to dealing with quantity first, then matching the right container to the right quantity.  If you want to take a first step to getting organized, grab every little round basket with a handle in your house, empty the contents on a table to sort and purge, use some proper containers, then TOSS these cute little baskets.  In this case I DON’T recommend donating.  Why pass that curse on to someone else?  That would be mean.

3. Reveal Don’t Conceal.  For things you don’t use all the time, “out of sight, out of mind” is the way to go, but for items you want to access easily and often I recommend going for clear plastic containers.  Why not make things as easy on yourself as possible? While you’re at it, clearly identify each of these clear containers with clear labels, so your storage system is so easy it feels like you’re cheating.   Your energy is limited.  Don’t waste any more energy than absolutely necessary on finding your stuff.

4.  A Drawer Gives More.  Clear drawers may cost more than clear boxes, but they are worth it, for two reasons.  First, you can maximize your space in closets with drawers because you can fill the top gaps of shelves that often go wasted.  Second, a box that is stacked under other boxes is less accessible than a bottom drawer.  Closets can be great for storing large amounts of stuff, but they can fall short when it comes to keeping that stuff accessible.  Clear, labeled drawers can make all the difference.

5. Squared Away.  Archives, holiday and other seasonal items that don’t need to be quite so accessible, don’t need drawers, but to maximize your space, corners are your friends.   Round or rounded containers waste space.   Also be aware if a container is tapering downward. That can waste space too.  Finally, for really remote items, I don’t have a problem with cardboard boxes, but don’t underestimate the importance of lids.  Not only do lids keep dirt out of boxes but they allow for stacking, so you can get the most out of your vertical space.  

I probably could have entitled this newsletter “Why I hate decorative baskets for organizing,” but I’m trying to offer some POSITIVE advice here.  I hope you find these tips helpful when choosing the right container.

By the way, if you’re wondering what my verdict is on The Container Store, I’m a fan and I often refer clients there, BUT only AFTER we determine the size of their needs.  If there are any representatives from The Container Store reading this and you’re worrying about me making your customers wait, you should know the good news:  I almost always have to recommend the LARGER containers;-)