What squirrels can teach us about organization

The next time you see a squirrel running around, give it an appreciative smile. That’s your fellow organizer right there.

As summer yields to autumn, these little fuzzballs are busy gathering nuts that will sustain them during the winter. Scientists from University of California Berkeley recently wondered exactly how they accomplish the life-sustaining feat, including the improbable act of finding each tiny hoard weeks after it’s created.

What they discovered was pretty impressive. Squirrels use chunking. Chunking refers to the practice of sorting information into similar, easily remembered groupings. For example, when learning a new phone number, we don’t memorize an interrupted series of 10 numbers, we (at least here in North America) learn the three-digit area code, the three-digit exchange and then the last four digits.

Likewise, a bookshelf stuffed with no semblance of order would make it very hard to find a certain title. So, we group books into fiction, non-fiction, biographies, etc. It’s much easier to recall where a specific piece of information is when it’s in a chunk of similar items.

Squirrels understand this.

Researchers discovered that squirrels are “scatter hoarders.” That is, they create several caches of nuts, each grouped in the same way. In the study, 45 squirrels were offered a series of nuts from several locations. Upon receiving nuts from a central location, the cute little rodents put the goodies into species-specific groupings: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. This suggests, scientists concluded, that finding the nuts weeks or months later in snow-covered forests, that the squirrels rely on a technique like chunking to recall where each pile (or species) of nut is hidden.

What does that have to do with you and me?

Aside from the obvious “we’re all nuts” joke, chunking is truly an effective strategy. Like the squirrels, it will help you recall where that seldom-used item is stored. For example, if you’re looking for Christmas tree ornaments, they would be “chunked” with the other holiday decorations.

Aside from storage, chunking can apply to productivity, as Mike Vardy explains on Productivityist:

Time chunking – and fine tuning the practice – allows me to work with optimum productivity. It’s worth trying in some form or another because it removes a decision from the process of doing: what to do and when to do it.

Take a lesson from our furry friends. Sort time, items, and effort into definable groups for better recall later. Whether you’re a human or not.

The organized nightstand

Over the years we’ve written many articles about maintaining an organized bedroom. Today I’ll talk about the faithful nightstand. Other than your bed, the nightstand is likely the piece of bedroom furniture you’ll use most often. Everything from your phone to your current novel rests on this little table, and it can get cluttered. Here’s how to pick a nightstand that’s going to work for you, and keep it tidy in the process.

Drawer or no drawer?

I’m anti-drawer fan when it comes to nightstands. I had a nice old desk next to my bed for years. It had a drawer that I filled with appropriate things: tissues for when I was feeling sick, a book, wallet and keys, and so on. Then I started to put other things in there such as greeting cards, books of stamps, little notebooks, batteries, headphones, small paperback books, and so on.

I’d purge the drawer and start again, only to get the same result. The nightstand drawer became my go-to destination for those “Where do I put this?” items. So, I eliminated the nightstand with the drawer and I haven’t looked back.

Incidentally, if you’re looking to reclaim a junk drawer, we’ve got you covered.

Light source

This is one area I still need to update. Currently I’ve got a small desk lamp on my nightstand. It’s great but the base takes up a too much space. A clip-on model would save space and every little bit counts.

Containers

Many of the items on my nightstand are small, like my keys, pocket flashlight, pocket knife, notebook, wallet, and pens (my Everyday Carry). To keep these bits and bobs from making a mess I use a Sturdy Brothers Catch All. It looks great and keeps all of that stuff together.

Everything else

What else is permitted on my nightstand? My Kindle is there, and my phone, which I use as an alarm clock. Often times I’ll put a bottle of water there as I like to take a drink when I first wake up but that’s it.

I realize that different needs will necessitate more or less on a person’s nightstand, as well as the features of the furniture itself. Please chime in. How do you keep your nightstand organized?

Knowing when to change

150714-room2Our driveway turns in from the road, runs along the western side of our property and ends near the rear of the house. Upon exiting the car, the walk to the back door is shorter than the stroll to the front. As a result, all traffic — and in and out — happens through the back door.

This wasn’t always the case.

When we purchased the house in 2000, the driveway didn’t exist. Cars were parked in front, and I hung a series of hooks by the front door. It made perfect sense: walk in, hang your keys on the hook. That is, it made sense until we stopped using the front door.

I’m a real proponent of “A place for everything and everything in its place,” because my sieve-like brain will forget where I’ve placed the keys (or the wallet or the kids’ snacks…or the kids) if they’re not in their designated home. So I’ve been insisting that keys go on the front-door hooks like a stubborn mule.

I’d find keys on the butcher block, which is quite near the back door, and grumble to myself as I carried them across the house to the front door. Sometimes I’d find them on the kitchen table, an act that was loathsome to me. “Ugh, who put these here?” I’d cry, shaking my fist as if I’d witness an unimaginable injustice. “The keys go on the key hooks!”

The problem wasn’t people ignoring the “rule.” The problem was that the rule no longer made sense.

I learned to let go and succumb to what the situation was trying to tell me when we repurposed the back room. There’s now an old dresser by the back door, onto which I’ve placed a small leather box that is the new home of keys. We’ve regained the enter-and-drop ease of the old days and more importantly, I’ve learned to listen to the situation.

It’s possible to become blindly dedicated to an organizational system. I insisted that we employ a strategy that was no longer effective, simply because I was afraid I’d be lost — or more accurately, my keys would be lost if that system was abandoned. It wasn’t until I stepped back and observed how the situation had changed that I realized the solution should change too.

The point is to look around at the solutions you’re using at home and at work. Are they still the best, most effective answer to a clutter issue? Has a situation changed that should prompt a solution change as well? Perhaps that one thing that drives you crazy — a constantly cluttered kitchen counter, the jam-packed junk drawer, phones and tablets piling up to be charged — is simply a symptom of a broken system. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Encouraging kids to do chores

If you’re a parent, the idea of children completing chores likely makes you tense. Getting the young ones to adhere to their given house chores can be like asking a human-size slug to take the trash out. It will eventually happen but, well …. not quickly. My wife and I recently tried something that worked quite well, and I wanted to share it with Unclutterer readers: The Hour of Clean.

The concept behind the Hour of Clean really couldn’t be simpler, and I was surprised by how effective it was.

We told the kids, “At 5:00, the ‘Hour of Clean’ will begin.” We listed the available jobs: dust, vacuum, put laundry away, general tidying up, cleaning the bathroom, etc. Everyone made their choices as to which chores they wanted to complete, and at 5:00 we started.

The best part of the Hour of Clean: there was no complaining. There was no slacking off. The result, after an hour, was a tidy house. The camaraderie from everyone working (mom and dad included) at the same time, was a great motivation. The set time limit also worked well because everyone knew there was a limit to how much of their day would be spent cleaning.

In subsequent weeks, my daughter made an observation. “If we keep the house tidy all week, the ‘Hour of Clean’ might be the ‘Half-Hour of Clean.'” I tried to hold back the tears of parental joy at this. “Yes,” I simply said, my heart full of parental pride. “Yes it can.”

A 15-minute House of Clean might also be something to do each day, especially if you have young children who need more supervision while they complete chores or if you need to wear a baby while you work.

The sense of “we’re all in this together” and the clearly-defined work period have helped it become successful in my house. Give it a try and let us know how it worked for your family.

How to remain a disorganized mess

It’s Monday. We’re in a good mood, and we don’t know why. Instead of a heavy post to bog you down at the start of the week, we wanted to do something fun. Think of the following as an instructional manual for how to be overwhelmed by your clutter. Feel welcome to add to the list in our comments (and try not to take this too seriously, we’re just having some fun).

  • Aspire to unrealistic depictions of “organization” boards on Pinterest.
  • Walk through a model home and stress out about how much more clutter you have than the house where no one lives.
  • Understand that a stack of random school papers on the kitchen table is the end of the world.
  • Make a mental list of how you aren’t as “together” as [person X]. Review it daily.
  • Compare yourself to other parents/workers/neighbors.
  • Blow off the laundry for one day, toss up your hands and say, “Well that’s it, then.”
  • Realize that you’ll never be perfect, so there’s no use in trying.
  • Believe that an “organized person” = “good person.” The opposite is true, obviously.
  • Decide you have to be organized RIGHT NOW. It only takes 30 minutes on television shows!
  • Forget that organizing is a skill, attribute it to genetics.
  • Toss and turn in bed, mentally reviewing all the things you have to do tomorrow, and refuse to write any of those items down.
  • Stop inviting friends over because your house doesn’t look like a magazine.
  • Create a filing system based on a secret code you have to reference to be able to use.

(Today’s post inspired by Annie Mueller.)

Untidy and organized

I can’t believe it! There she goes again! She’s tidied up and I can’t find anything! — Thomas Dolby

Things organized neatly is not me. While I appreciate looking at images of precisely organized spaces, I’ve discovered feeling ashamed of my workspace is detrimental to my work. My office is a living thing, not an exhibit. I’m a stacker. About a year ago, I abandoned the guilt I generated by not maintaining a white glove-ready workspace. In doing so, I’ve relieved some stress, became more productive, and realized that untidy and organized are not mutually exclusive.

The Tidal Wave

Every few months I would succumb to an urge to transform my home office into a museum exhibit. I spent hours arranging my office and finding a home for everything. I called my self a neat person. Neat people are highly organized and productive. They’re intellectual and competent. I am one of those people.

Within a week, the piles returned, as did the guilt. Clearly, I’m not one of those tidy, on-top-of-things people.

Evidence, Not Enemy

When I finish a day’s work, I look at my Mac’s desktop. Screenshots, photos, snippets of text, emails and so forth fill the screen, strewn here and there. Before I throw it all way, I consider the jumble. That’s the evidence of a day’s work.

So is the stuff in my office.

I pulled ideas or reference material from those books. The photos reminded me of something or someone I love (like my kitchen from my childhood home in Scranton). The papers hold all sorts of goodies — contracts I’ve signed, drawings from the kids, numbers I’ve called, arrangements I’ve made.

This is the evidence of my work. Some would put the book on a shelf after reading. I’d rather simply put it down and start writing. I like the photos where they are so I can reference them anytime. I work hard, and this stuff is a part of the result.

Untidy and Organized

There’s a very important distinction to make here. Namely, the huge difference between processed and unprocessed stacks. A random pile of stuff that contains items you can’t even identify is not acceptable. I’m not condoning an amorphous heap of who-knows-what, nor should your office become a huge inbox.

Everything in my office has been processed and assigned an appropriate home. That is to say, I look at every item and ask myself:

  1. What is it? A task? A project? Trash or reference material?
  2. What must be done? File it? Toss it? Add to a project or task list?
  3. Where does it live? A folder, cabinet, desk, etc?

Once I’ve determined the answer to each question, I act accordingly. That way, everything is where it ought to be. Even if its home is a small pile on the corner of my desk.

Well Enough

How precisely organized should I be? Enough to pass a white glove test? No. That’s not going to happen, and imposing that ideal on myself is actually counter-productive. So, I stay organized enough to achieve my goals. Today, I achieve what I’m after, stacks and all. I’m okay with it. I have things I love around me, like photos, drawings and Disney Vinylmations. It’s working and, more importantly, I am.

When I was younger, my grandmother’s house was kept like a museum. It was gorgeous and sterile. My office is a working space. Stuff gets done, and dust is raised. Detritus is strewn about. Like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy when I work.

But the result is beautiful.

Own This, Not That

A reader asked if we had ever seen the weight loss books Eat This, Not That and wondered if we might be able to create something similar for uncluttering:

Of course, uncluttering solutions are as varied as there are people, but I have to imagine there’d be a variety of things that would work for everyone.

We often do these types of suggestions in our Unitasker Wednesday posts when we encourage people to own multitaskers instead of 9,000 bizarre unitaskers that lack real utility. And, we thought it might be fun to come up with ideas on this theme for all areas of the home and office. Obviously, as reader Shalin mentioned in the suggesting email, these dichotomous scenarios won’t work for everyone, but they can still be entertaining on this first full day of summer (or winter, if you’re in the southern hemisphere):

What fun additions would you make to this list? Share your Own This, Not That suggestions in the comments.

Pack rats illustrated in comic books

The website Comics Alliance, as its name suggests, covers comic books and all things related to the comic book industry. Reader Haley called our attention to the site to check out the post “Super-Hero Hoarders. The 7 Biggest Pack-Rats In Comics.”

Art often mimics life, so it’s not surprising that fictional characters struggle with clutter the same as everyone else. I really liked #4, Rick Jones’ illustrated mess. From the article:

At first glance, it’s pretty easy to call Rick Jones out for hoarding super-hero contacts. Over the course of his existence in the Marvel Universe, he’s sidekicked for the Hulk, Captain Marvel, Captain America, ROM: Spaceknight and the entire Avengers team, and been singled out as the bearer of the Destiny Force, which was so complicated that even Curt and Chris won’t touch it.

In reality, though — or at least, in one reality — Rick’s a straight up legitimate hoarder: In the alternate universe of “Future Imperfect,” the Hulk ends up killing all of the other super-heroes and super-villains, leaving Rick to amass a pretty hefty collection of memorabilia

Check out the full article to learn who took the top spot.

Assorted links for June 15, 2010

A number of really cool things have moved across my desk this past week, but none of them are necessarily large enough for a post all their own. Enjoy exploring these uncluttering and organizing tidbits:

Saturday’s assorted links

Except for when a kind neighbor drove me to the grocery store in his all-wheel drive station wagon on Monday, I haven’t left my house in 10 days. Since I declared February as Super Simple Month, I guess I should think of this time as Mother Nature’s way of helping me to keep to my plans. (We’ve received about 4′ of snow in the past two weeks.) But, unfortunately, being shut up in my house for so long has negatively affected my creativity. I haven’t been able to run (usually this is my time to be alone with my thoughts each day), and I’m finding nothing in my house inspiring right now.

Instead of reading about my cabin fever, I thought you might enjoy checking out some links that have more valuable insights into uncluttering, organizing, and simple living than I can produce right now. Trust me, this is what is best for all of us: