Years ago, when I had a houseful: two small children, too many papers and too many piles, a menagerie of small animals, and a part-time job with full-time hours, I was desperate for tools that would help me get more organized.
I came across Julie Morgenstern's book Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System For Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life (see Resources). Morgenstern uses something she calls her "Secret Weapon #1: The Kindergarten Model of Organization." She describes how kindergarten classrooms have clearly defined zones of activity: dress-up, arts and crafts, reading corner, etc., making it easy to focus on one activity at a time. Items are stored where they are used. Everything has a home and it's fun to put things away. The room itself provides a visual menu of everything that is important.
That one idea was a revelation and completely changed the way I organized things. Far from over-simplifying the complexities of my life, the 'kindergarten model' helped me to define and focus them.
Today, I apply a version of this method to every room or office I organize. The very first question I ask is "What do you do in this space? People are often surprised by their own answers. For instance, most people say that they use the kitchen to prepare and eat food. But it turns out it's also a place where they like to pay bills, do homework, work on a craft project, bathe a baby, sew on a button, visit with friends, entertain a toddler, arrange flowers, have a meeting, polish shoes, train a new puppy, talk on the phone, write a letter, make-out or make-up, build a webpage, sign school forms... though presumably not all at the same time.
The second question I ask is "What do you need to do in this space? The truth is, there are very few things that actually need to be done in any specific room. We tend to forget that and assume bedrooms must be used for sleeping, kitchens for cooking, etc. Well, maybe and maybe not. Maybe not for you or, maybe not for you right now.
And finally, the third question I ask is "What would you like to do in this space?" Yes, if you live with other people, by all means get their input. But never assume that there is only one way to use a space, especially if that way is the default! Closets can be home offices, living rooms can be yoga rooms, empty fireplaces can be art galleries. Decorating books and magazines, television shows, the home we grew up in, our boss' taste in furniture, as well as our own personal style and budget -- all these things influence how we choose to use a space. If you'd rather use the kitchen table than your beautifully appointed home office to pay your bills, so be it. Turn your office into a gym, a playroom for the kids, a bed & breakfast room! The realization that we can choose differently is extraordinarily liberating.
Once you've defined an area's activity zones (e.g. Office: working at the computer, talking on the phone, accessing the filing cabinet), then it's time to ensure the space is organized to support those activities. For one client, whose office door was see-through, that meant shuffling furniture around to provide more privacy for the one-on-one staff meetings that were a regular and important component of her job.
As you focus your attention on creating these zones of activity, something powerful begins to emerge -- a sense of clarity, and with it a more clearly defined sense of who you are and what you do. Your space suddenly reflects and supports the things that are important to you. And that, after all, is the whole point of getting organized.
I'd love to hear about about your experience using the Three Questions. Feel free to drop me a note.
Posted on Tue, May 11, 2010