I often have clients ask during our first meeting (and sometimes even before!) when they should go out to buy organizing supplies and gadgets--and, truth be told, when I'm working with my own systems, I'm always tempted to dive in and try to find just the right tool or container before anything else.
The reality is that "organizing," to many people, means getting systems in place to corral and manage the stuff we have, whether paper, clothing, information, or something else. It can be frustrating to discover that, in order for these systems to truly function well over the long term, there's a step that needs to happen before organizing. That step is decluttering.
Decluttering: Not So Much Fun
Let's be honest here: decluttering is often a drag, especially when you're faced with doing a lot of it or when it involves making difficult decisions about what to keep and what to let go of (which might be to say, almost always). It's generally far more enjoyable to make a trip to the store or do some searching online for an inbox that will look great on your desk, dividers that will rein in the chaos of your kitchen drawers, boxes that will hold the miscellaneous stuff that haunts the table in your entryway, and other organizing tools.
(True confession: I sometimes have to stop myself from buying gadgets I find at the Container Store or Ikea and fall in love with, because no matter how neat they may be, I don't have a plan for how to use them, and they're bound to end up as clutter as soon as I get them home.)
But here's what often happens: when you jump right to the systems-creation process of organizing, you devise a way of storing things you may not actually need--or even want. It may seem like the solution to your teeming kitchen drawers is installing dividers to keep the contents in check, but if you then fill those dividers with utensils and gadgets you don't use or need, that system isn't really serving you well, and it's bound to break down quickly.
The Root of Disorganization
It's a hard truth that the primary cause of disorganization is not--perhaps surprisingly--a lack of functional systems, but very often simply too much stuff. I've seen clients with amazingly complex and detailed systems, complete with color-coding, labels, and gadgets galore, who struggle with being disorganized because no matter how solid their systems may seem, those systems still can't handle an excess of stuff.
Believing it's possible to get really and truly organized without first engaging in some decluttering is like believing it's possible to lose weight without consuming fewer calories or burning more of them.
That's not to say that it's always necessary to weed out vast quantities of stuff (whatever that stuff might be-things, information, or activities)-in order to reach your organizing goals. Rather, it means that each of us needs to determine how much has to go if we're to achieve the level of organization we're hoping for, just as anyone wanting to shed pounds needs to figure out how many calories they need to cut or expend in order to reach their target weight.
Becoming Aware of the Difference
The next time you find yourself facing an area of your home, office, or even calendar and thinking, "I need to get organized," hold that thought. Yes, creating a system to bring order where there isn't any (or enough) is an important step in the process. But before diving in to that part of the process, take a close and critical look at the stuff you want to organize, with an eye toward weeding out the non-essentials. Containerizing excess stuff won't make you more organized; it'll just get that excess stuff out of your line of sight temporarily. When that clutter resurfaces, it's bound to cause even more stress.
Once you've made conscious, honest decisions about what things (or tasks, or activities) truly deserve to stay, you'll be in a much better position to create organizing systems that will effectively store those things, and that will serve you well over the long term.