Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rumination: The teeth brushing view of organizing

One concept I hear a lot as a professional organizer is the idea that anyone is capable of creating an organized routine, since we are all capable of brushing our teeth at about the same time every day, using materials that have a dedicated home that is near the place where we use them.

This makes a lot of sense. What’s so different about keeping your toothbrush and toothpaste near the sink and making the time to perform maintenance on your teeth and keeping your filing cabinet near your desk and making the time to perform the maintenance of filing away your papers every day? Not much, except a mental block. We don’t want rotting teeth, so we do what we have to do prevent that. Just a few minutes a day, and voila, our dental hygienist doesn’t give us a lecture at our next cleaning. We probably don’t want a messy office where we can’t find anything, either, but somehow it’s harder to find the three or four minutes to put the day’s forms, receipts and bills away.

How hard is it to store things next to where we use them? Why put toilet paper in the basement, when you know that is not where you’re going to happen to be when the roll runs out? We know to keep our toothbrush next to the sink, so what’s stopping us from keeping napkins in the dining room, shoe polish near the shoes, and cookbooks in the kitchen?

Also, when was the last time you consciously remember brushing your teeth? For most of us, it is a habit so ingrained we do it mechanically, after all we’ve been doing it since we were kids. While I’m all for being present in the moment, it is also nice to realize that we can make habits and stick to them, even if the task isn’t super exciting, simply by knowing we have to do it every day (at least twice). 

I’d like to take this metaphor one step further. Some people think that if you can’t see the disorganized mess, it doesn’t count, so drawers and cabinets and even entire rooms (if they have closable doors) can fall victim to clutter, as long as the surfaces look clear. If we apply the tooth brushing model to organizing, let’s think about what would happen if we only brushed the teeth that people could see. Our front teeth would be shiny and clean, and our back teeth would be grimy and disgusting. Sure, it might save a few seconds of brushing time (to what end?), but we would be able to feel how gross those teeth felt even if no one else could. So it is with organizing. Maybe your guests can’t see the piles of paper stashed in your credenza or the disaster area of a closet, but you know, and you won’t be able to enjoy the parts of your space that are organized as much as a result. That’s why I think it is important to take a holistic approach to organizing. You can accomplish it in chunks, but if you don’t try to tackle the whole problem, you won’t be able to reap as much of the reward. As Karen Kingston teaches us in Clearing Your Clutter With Feng Shui, there is no good place to have clutter build up, since each area of your home affects the energy of a different part of your life.

So the next time you are brushing your teeth, you can congratulate yourself on creating a functioning, organized system for dental hygiene and realize you can make that happen in other areas of your life.

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