It's tempting to spend lots of money in the pursuit of organization. Binders, boxes, entire closet systems, apps, and more are sold as the solution to messiness. But if a purchase were all that was needed, everyone would have amazingly tidy homes and offices.The reality is that some small purchases can help, but many of the habits and practices that lead to an organized life or space are completely free. Cheapism reached out to experts and asked how they stay organized while leading a busy life.
The most prevalent response we got: to-do lists. It's not always easy to stick to and complete tasks on a list, but everyone seems to have a trick. Some people prefer a paper list because they relish the satisfaction of drawing a line through a completed task or crumpling a list and throwing it in the trash. Others use online programs such as Evernote so they can pull up previous lists, such as "what to take camping." Sometimes two lists can be used to maximize effectiveness -- one for the day's tasks and a second for long-term tasks. It's often best to create the next day's list before going to bed, being able to wake up with a sense of what the day entails.
Some find it important to keep a list front and center throughout the day. To do this, put high-priority or repeated items on Sticky Notes that can go on the bathroom mirror or near the front door. A magnetic whiteboard on the fridge can serve double duty, listing to-do items as well as a grocery list.
Prioritizing items on to-do lists can be the difference between having an organized and productive day and jumping back and forth between tasks. Tim Ferriss, a New York Times best-selling author, entrepreneur, and angel investor, says on his website that it's good to focus on the tasks that can make others easier or unimportant or on a task that is so significant that completing just that one would feel fulfilling. It also might make sense to start with the things that are the most uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing, as they could be the most significant (or the ones that have been put off longest).
A mother of twin toddlers with a third child on the way, Cris Ruffolo juggles being mother, blogger, newspaper and online correspondent, president of a volunteer group, and partner to an equally busy husband. She has found a small investment in clear, expandable folders from the dollar store has helped her stay on track. She uses them to organize bills and appointments, and maintains monthly calendars for her several writing jobs and volunteer work.
Blake Connoy, co-founder and managing director of cleaning-services startup Helpling, shares one tip for keeping a calendar organized despite a hectic schedule: He schedules in buffer time because he knows emergencies will happen. This way, a few unexpected incidents will not throw the whole day off. Some people have also found scheduling time to rest or play helps them avoid overworking and anxiety.
Julie Stobbe, a professional organizer in Ontario, Canada, has her morning scheduled so that within two hours of waking she has exercised, eaten, responded to high-priority email, and set up her social media posts for the day. Others highlight the importance of making the bed, tackling the day's hardest task right away, or incorporating meditation or journaling into their morning routine. Although the morning should be tailored to individual needs and personality, having a set schedule can add order to anyone's day.
One way to stay organized is to give everything a place -- and after something is used, returned to where it belongs. Filing cabinets, clear boxes, and tack boards can help, but this is not a solution for everyone. University of Minnesota professor of marketing Kathleen Vohs conducted a study and found that a messy room can actually lead to more creative ideas.
Unneeded items should be tossed to keep an area from becoming too cluttered. This is what Amanda Bowles, a corporate consultant and project manager, does. At the end of the day, she throws out every scrap of paper that is not relevant to ongoing work. Cleaning out the closet or kitchen every six months and donating all the unneeded items also reduces clutter. If the same item has stayed put through several cleaning days but has yet to be worn or used, it almost definitely can go.
With a focus on frugality, self-help author and consultant M.A. Haley shares some tips for staying organized while reusing items. Used jars and glass containers (e.g., the kind left after a candle has burned down), for example, can serve as drawer or cabinet organizers for beauty items. People who use their car a lot during the workday can make the most of the interior: Door pockets can hold everything from self-seal envelopes to a small umbrella, and visors can hold stamps, pens, and Post-Its. Many items can be repurposed to help get organized.
It may be tempting to try every new organizational app or program, and many do offer tested and helpful ways to stay organized. But beware that this doesn't lead to the scattered, messy opposite: to-do lists spread between apps; hundreds of helpful links that will never actually be read; and an emphasis on trying out every new productivity tip rather than mastering one or two that work well enough.