five-levelsBeing organized means different things to different people, but I have discovered five essential levels of being organized. These levels are helpful to recognize because they explain why getting organized can be so time consuming and they explain why jumping from level zero to level 5 is pure fantasy.

Level 1- cleared space
My first stage in getting folks organized is to get a handle on the quantity of stuff they are keeping.  To do this, we first need to clear a generous amount of space to work.  Once we have reassigned the contents, we leave a clear floor and clear surfaces.  Our clients very often tell me “Wow, it feels great to be organized!”  Indeed, the openness doe feel great, but this is only the first step to being organized.  Without the next three levels, there is nothing to keep the clutter from returning.

Level 2- dedicated zones
Once you are clear on the quantity and category of stuff you are keeping, it is easier to establish realistic zones to keep them in.  Maybe you have collected a surprisingly large number of photos from around your home and you realize you need to dedicate a larger area to storing and processing them than you had previously thought.  Conversely, you find you need LESS space to store paper.  You feel more organized because now you can call this room a dedicated home office/photo room rather than an all purpose room.  At this level you are more organized because you have established boundaries.

Level 3- fitting things inside
Sometimes people ignore me when I warn them they don’t have enough room in their closet for some items that could be stored more remotely.  They then proceed to shove these items into the closet and declare, “Hah, you see? It fits!”  At this level of organizing a home may appear to be beautifully organized—clear surfaces, dedicated zones—but still it lacks sustainability because you have not reached level 4.

Level 4- usability
Let’s go back to that closet. Say it’s a linen closet. At level 4, you don’t fear opening the door. You look forward to it because you know you are going to instantly find what you need.  If it’s a bottle of shampoo you want, you won’t waste a second looking at the dedicated sheet shelves or dedicated towel shelves.  Your eye goes straight to the bin clearly labeled “soaps” and there it is!  At level 4, it’s like that for EVERYTHING.

Level 5- minimalism
At level 4 you understand that the less stuff you have, the less stuff you have holding you back, but at level 5, the minimalist takes it a step further. There is a growing minimalist movement in America.  Here’s what it looks like.  There is virtually no mail, because all the appropriate “Do not send” centers have been contacted.  All bills are paid online, as soon as they come in the door.  You take the 100 things challenge and triumph.   All paper is scanned and shredded.  The scanned information is securely stored in a cloud that you can access from anywhere.  All reading is done online and on electronic tablets and all books are given away.  Essential conventions like cable TV and cars are given up in favor of renting from Netflix and Zipcar, as needed.

Not quite at the minimalist level yet? Don’t worry.  Me neither.  I’m firmly positioned in level 4, but I have adopted some minimalist practices. For example, I can’t imagine ever paying all my bills with envelope and stamp again.  Whatever level you are in, it’s helpful to understand the next level and what it takes to get there.

If you are organizing your garage this weekend, here’s how you will know what level you are.  If you clear out enough stuff so you can get your car in, you have reached level one.  If you have established dedicated zones for gardening, sports, auto, etc., you have reached level 2.  If you can fit everything into its appropriate zone, you have reached level 3.  If everything in these zones is easily findable and accessible, you have reached level 4.  And if you choose to sell your car and convert the garage into a zen-like work-out room, you have reached level 5!