The Three Phases of Organizing

posted by Aby No Comments

Key to getting organized (and staying that way!) is to understand that organizing is made up of three distinct phases: the project phase, the habits-creation phase, and use and maintenance. Why is this important to understand? Well, organization can begin to unravel during any one of these three phases. When you understand the stages and also where it is that you tend to get hung up, it’s easier to navigate around your true obstacles to getting organized. Recognizing where you tend to get tripped up will help you implement better solutions—solutions that will not only help you in getting organized, but staying organized going forward.

Two of the most common places that we need help getting organized are: in our closets, and with our papers. Let’s discuss how the phases of organizing work, using these as examples.

The Project Phase:

The project phase is what we typically think of when we set out to “get organized.” It’s the Saturday afternoon spent in your closet, sorting your clothes, deciding what to keep and what to let go of, and placing your keepers into nifty storage containers or onto new, matching hangers. For many, the project phase is the most rewarding. You start out with a mess and end with a calm and orderly space—complete with shiny new storage solutions. Complete bliss, right? (Well, it is for me!)

But this step can also trip you up. During the project phase, you set up your organizing systems and, in the process, you make lots of decisions. You decide which items to keep and which to let go of. (This can be tricky!) You decide how to organize or group the items you’re keeping, and then you decide which storage solutions will make it most simple to access and use your items going forward. Each of these decisions, by the way, is distinct and discrete, and works best if made in the order listed. It works best if you pare down and group your items before purchasing storage solutions. Think of it this way: if you buy new hangers before eliminating some of your clothes, you’ll likely end up with an armful of hangers to return to the store when you’re done organizing—assuming you pared down your clothes sufficiently, of course.

The Habits-Creation Phase:

The next phase of organizing involves creating new habits—habits that enable you to consistently use your newly created organizing systems. If you successfully create new habits, your space will stay organized for longer and you won’t have to repeat the project phase as frequently. (Sometimes the project phase does need to be repeated. But it should be easier (and quicker!) after the first time.) Often, however, we fail to recognize that getting organized requires new habits. It feels as if the project phase is the big hoorah—once the closet is organized, we’d like to think our job is done. Truth is, our job has only just begun. Once the project phase ends (or better yet, during the project phase) you need to identify the habits you will need to create to use your new organizing systems most effectively.

Using the closet example again, you may need to create the habits of grouping freshly laundered clothes back into your closet by color and / or garment type. Without such a habit, your new organizing system will unravel before your eyes.

 The Use and Maintenance Phase:

The final stage in organizing is the use and maintenance phase. A functional system occurs when your habits are in place—you’re on auto-pilot. You automatically put your clothes back where they belong without even thinking about it. But here’s the trick: you also need to factor in maintenance. What happens when you buy a new jacket, shirt or pair of pants? Does it go into the closet with the rest of your clothes, or do you pull out a tired and faded garment on the spot? Using this type of one-in-one-out system is just one example of how to maintain your organized space going forward. The use and maintenance phase involves selecting specific strategies that will help you keep up your organized spaces (and enjoy their benefits!), as well as tweak your systems if you find they don’t work for you.

Another thing to keep in mind during this final phase is this: life changes can necessitate a change in organizing systems, too. Let’s say you get a new job. Your old job required you to wear business attire to work every day, and the dress code for your new job is business-casual. This change requires some changes in your closet—new clothes will come in, old clothes will go out, and you may need to rearrange things so the garments you wear most often have prime real estate or are easiest to access in your closet. In a nutshell, this change in employment will ultimately require you to circle back to the project phase, and redefine the organization in your closet. Without recognizing this…you may wonder why your closet organization is unraveling before your eyes.

The Phases Apply to Paper, Too

The need to organize our paper is similar to the need to organize our stuff in a couple of ways – one: it’s the busy-ness of our modern lives that doesn’t always leave us time to keep our paper and our stuff organized, and two: these same three phases of organization apply to both. Let’s take one simple but incredibly helpful paper organizing system, the collection system, and use it as an example.

  • The Project Phase: During the project phase you recognize the need for a collection system—a single spot to corral the new paper that makes its way into your home on a daily basis. Recognizing the need for this (as you gaze upon multiple piles of paper in heaps around your home), setting up your system is the natural next step. First, you select a collection container, such as an in-box, and decide the best location for it. This step, selecting the best location, will aid in the next phase – new habits to support your new system.
  • The Habits-Creation Phase: During the habits-creation phase you begin using your new collection system, placing all the new paper that comes into your home into one container every single day. To effectively use the in-box or whichever collection container you choose, you will need to go through that container every single day, funneling your paper through your paperwork systems (such as the action system, reference system or archive system). (These systems, by the way, are covered in detail in the Paper Clutter workshop.)
  • The Use + Maintenance Phase: During this phase you continue to use your system, evaluate its effectiveness, and refine it. Do you need a secondary collection container for your kid’s schoolwork, instead of mixing the schoolwork with the bills? Is the container in the best spot…or do you find yourself still leaving un-dealt-with papers in piles around your home? Is your collection container too big, allowing you (erroneously) to feel okay about not emptying it every single day? In a nutshell, during this phase, you evaluate whether you need to tweak your system, or focus on creating the habits that will support using the system effectively going forward.

Once you recognize these three distinct phases of organizing, and how they apply to the various projects in your home, you can use this knowledge to troubleshoot what isn’t working for you and, most importantly, why. Did you set up the system in a way that will work best for you during the project phase? Did you create the necessary habits to use the system effectively? So often our first step when things aren’t working is to repeat the project phase, but it could be that your systems are set up perfectly, and you just need to create the habits to use your systems more effectively.

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