A Harvesting Lesson for Getting Organized

“And watch the burning sparks that fly

Like chaff from a threshing-floor.”

You may recognize that line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith. Ever wonder what a threshing floor is? It’s an old convention, but it is very helpful in understanding a concept in getting organized, that is valuable today.

The threshing floor goes back to biblical times and beyond. Farmers would bring sheaves of wheat to a stone floor for the purpose of either beating the wheat with flails or driving oxen or horse to trample it. The goal was to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Of course you can find an organizing analogy in this process. When you force the outer part of the kernel (the chaff) away, you leave the more valuable inner part (the “wheat”) behind. The chaff is light and floats away like Longfellow’s sparks. Meanwhile one uses the remaining wheat to make bread, the “staff of life.” This is why purging is such an important part of getting organized. You are removing the less important stuff, so that you can get to the most important stuff.

The Threshing Floor

You can find a less obvious and even more valuable organizing analogy, however,  on the threshing floor itself. Farmers do not attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff in sheaves piled in the field. They know that to focus on this activity and do it more effectively, they must bring the sheaves to a dedicated area. The same holds true when organizing a cluttered room, closet, or drawer.

One of the things, I always tell clients is that, it’s hard to clear a mess IN a mess. If, for example, you have choked your garage with so much stuff that you can’t park a car in it, it will be significantly easier to process everything if you bring it out into your driveway for sorting, reviewing and purging. Without the room to do these things, you very quickly lose track of what decisions you make and  then you get confused and discouraged. So give yourself a “threshing floor.” Here three reasons why it works for getting organized:

1. Surface to focus

I always say that your number one organizing tool is a clear work surface. The idea of having a threshing floor is to dedicate a separate area to a focused activity. The bullseye of this area should be a clear table. With a clear table you can spread out, prioritize and then process items away.

2. New context, new choices

When you look at items in a new context, you may look at them in a new way and make fresh choices that serve your current needs better. For example, maybe you have always stored lumber in the corner of the garage. However when you see  that it fills up a sizable area of your driveway you reconsider. You may realize that you are not doing that much carpentry these days. That corner, which is now empty would be the perfect spot for your new bikes. You couldn’t see this option, with your stuff packed in your garage.  You can see it when you pull everything out on to the threshing floor.

3. Space to rethink quantity

Reserving a threshing floor for decisions, not only gives you the freedom to rethink whether to keep items but also the space to rethink quantities. For example, if you have secured a set of shelves to store back-up kitchen supplies, you can work out the quantities, that need to fit on each shelf. You can do this on the threshing floor, before you commit them to the shelves. If you try to work this out on the shelves, you may not prioritize as effectively and may run out of shelf space.

In many cases, it may not be possible to reserve a separate processing space for a “threshing floor.” In these cases, start by temporarily moving a few pieces of space-hungry furniture to other rooms, to open up a threshing floor.  Whether your threshing floor is in the same room or an outer area, it will make your processing significantly easier. When you think about it, farmers created the threshing floor for prioritizing. It’s really a prioritizing floor. You are sorting out the high priority wheat from the low priority chaff. You may have many more levels of priorities in your home, but it is equally valuable to establish a temporary dedicated space to work them out.