Managing Physical Clutter

“Does it spark joy?” If you’ve done anything in the organization or productivity space you’ve heard this phrase from the popular organizer Marie Kondo. While I haven’t gone down the complete rabbit hole yet I have been making a concerted effort to get my physical clutter challenges under control. A few things have started to work well for me and I thought I’d share them. Your mileage may vary.

Label, label, everywhere

I used to chuckle at my father for years because there wasn’t a thing he had that wasn’t labeled in some way. The drawer, the box, the bag, it didn’t matter, there was always a label to tell you what it should contain. I’ve resisted using labels for years out of a foolish desire to find a way to make things work differently than my father. Since his passing, I’ve learned how foolish I truly was and that labels just make sense.

By breaking things down into categories, providing a container for each category, and then labeling each container, I’ve started to get not only a physical grasp on the clutter but a mental one as well. For example, I used to have a large freezer bag of pens (way too many to ever use them all) kept in a cabinet in my office. I thought that since they were all together in one place, I had them “organized.” To quote the late, great comedian John Pinette, “Oh, nay nay.”

Now what I do is break the pens down into the types of pens as I would need them. Those groupings fit into smaller containers (more about that later) and then I label the containers accordingly. The key is for the label to be relevant to the need. When I need a refill for my Parker pen I know there is a small container labeled “Parker refills”. When I need a cartridge for a fountain pen, it’s in the container labeled “fountain pen refills.” Again, the key is the labels identify the answer to the need rather than just being a description of the contents.

Little boxes

Over the past several months I have been on a quest to try and reuse as much packaging as I can from orders and purchases. If I buy something that comes in a small box, I keep the box. If something comes with a small cloth bag, I keep the bag. The idea is to use these free “little containers” to help subdivide my things into relevant groupings. If you go back to the labeling example, the “Parker Refills” container is actually a small, flat cardboard box from Harry’s shave club. I cleaned the packaging out and labeled it appropriately before putting it in my cabinet. Not only does this help the environment, but the smaller divisions make keeping a grasp on what I have and what I don’t have much easier.

Labeling things as well as containers

There are some things that don’t lend themselves to singular containers as well as others. For example, power supplies. Being a technology guy I have accumulated a large number of stray power supplies over the years. Now each power supply typically marries to only one device (thanks a lot old-school lock-in thinking) so it is important to know what goes to what. Hence the labeling for the power supplies. Rather than putting a label on the wall plug end of the supply (where there is usually a large wall wart to stick it to) I wrap the label around the plug end of the cord like a flag. This way I can easily tell what plugs into what before I damage anything.

USB cables are another excellent use case as to the importance of labeling. Look at this mess I have:

  • USB-A to USB-A
  • USB-C to USB-A
  • USB-A to MicroUSB
  • USB-A to mini USB
  • USB-C to USB-C

In most cases I have multiple of these cables of varying lengths and qualities. This is where I go back to the “little labeled containers” approach, but in this situation rather than hard containers I go with fabric pouches. These make it easy to bundle the cables by type and store them for easy access. It also means I can create “go bags” that are composite of the different cables into one bag so when I need to “go” I can grab one of the bags and know I’ll have all the standard cables I might need.

Only a beginning

There are many types of clutter that still elude me and my new ways. Notebooks for example are going to need some special thought to get them under control. In the end, each step closer to getting the clutter under control is freeing up mental cycles for me and making the quest of being productive move that much closer to success.