How to Create Spaces For Things

I’m sure you’ve heard your mother (or grandmother, or aunt, or uncle, or grandfather, or other person in your life say “a place for everything, and everything in its place” approximately 1.3 umptillion times. It’s kind of like a Microsoft error message: absolutely true, and not very helpful if you don’t know how to decode it.

The problematic part of that adage for many people is the first part: “a place for everything”. Too often, a thing sits on the dining room table for weeks at a time because you don’t know where it should go, or because its place isn’t in your home. But, how do you determine where it should go?

Questions to Ask

To decide where a thing should go, ask yourself the following questions:

Does it belong in my house?

Is this item even mine? Is it useful to me? Will it be useful to me in the next year? Am I required to keep it? This question often needs to be asked of paperwork, which I’ll talk about in more detail later in the post.

If the item is not yours, it needs to go back to the person to whom it belongs, unless you have permission to borrow the item and are actively using it. If you’re actively using it and have permission to borrow it, proceed to the next question.

If you have a lot of visitors in your home, you might consider a wicker basket or box in your main room or near your front door that serves as a “lost and found”. Anything that someone left behind or that you borrowed and aren’t actively using should go in this box, to be reclaimed the next time that person comes over.

Some people have the habit of collecting items or keeping extras of things that might be useful “someday”. These people are called pack-rats. If you’re a pack-rat, ask yourself this: what are the odds I’ll need or use it in the next year? If you won’t, get rid of it.

Some items you’re required to keep, depending on your situation. This is especially true of paperwork, but might also be true of window blinds, doorknobs, etc,, if you’re renting your property and don’t want to use the ones supplied by your landlord. If you don’t put the ones your landlord supplied back when you leave, you’ll be charged to replace the item. Having a box in your closet for such items might not be a bad idea, if you’re prone to doing this.

What is its function?

Is it an art or craft supply? A personal care item? An entertainment item? To what activity, requirement, or item is this item associated? If you can definitively answer this question, that’s a big help. That means that wherever its space is, it’s most likely near or in the same room as other items associated to that activity, requirement, or item. If it’s associated to an activity, it should go in the room in which you most commonly perform that activity.

Does it have special needs?

If the item is particularly large, heavy, small, or fragile, that may limit where you want to or can put it. An item that needs access to running water (e.g. a coffee machine) should be placed in a room that has running water available (e.g. the kitchen, although I’d forgive anyone who needed coffee so badly that their coffee machine lives in the bathroom).

A small item that is easily lost should be placed in a bin or container with other items that serve a similar function or are also related to the same activity – for example, if you draw or paint, all your paints should be in a bin, your brushes/erasers/pencils/sharpeners in another bin, and so forth. Bins and containers come in every shape and size and don’t have to come from the Container Store. Mason jars make wonderful containers for many kinds of small items. Be sure to decide whether the container in question needs to close before purchasing, and let that inform your choice of container.

Large and/or heavy items may need to be placed on the floor, but you may need to pick and maybe clear a specific space for that item.

Fragile items may need to be placed somewhere specific that is out of reach of pets and children and does not pose a falling risk.

If the item(s) in question need to remain out of public view, be sure to account for that. Choose a container or cover that is opaque and maybe lockable.

Do I have room in the appropriate area for it?

Can I put it with its buddies in the same area? Am I out of space? If so, you might need to designate a new area, possibly nearby. Before you do, though, ask yourself the first question again: do I really need all that I have, and is it all still useful to me? For example, going through your paints and identifying any that have dried up might help you clear enough space to put your new things.

It’s also worth asking yourself this question before you buy a new thing. Doing so might save you both money and clutter headaches.

Finding the Perfect Spot

Once you’ve answered these questions, your own unique situation might guide you in finding a place for an item. For example, if you’re 5’1″, the items you use every day should be on lower shelves, since you’ll need assistance or a stepladder to get to the upper shelves.

Small items should not be loose on counters or surfaces. Find a container that suits the item and the number of items you have.

Think in three dimensions. Think in terms of more than just “on shelves” and “on counters” and “in drawers”. Look at your walls. Do you have wall space that could harbor shelves? (Shameless unsolicited plug: IKEA Kallax shelves are $DEITY’s gift to organizers. The smaller ones can be mounted on walls with appropriate hardware and are sturdy enough to move with you time and again.)

Also consider wall hooks to hang items that are bulky but light such as easels, embroidery hoops, and portable looms.

Don’t forget your closet walls! Items that are large and flat might do well hanging on a closet wall, or a long mounted hook might hang tomorrow’s outfit.

Organizing Paperwork

Paperwork can be a problem all its own, because it’s hard to tell what you need to keep and what you don’t.

What You Need To Keep

There are some items that you should absolutely always keep. Some items need to be kept for a period of time, some should be kept forever, and some should not be kept at all.

  • Keep Forever: Current identification documents (e.g. your current passport and birth certificate), proof of ownership documents for things you own, love letters, medical records
  • Keep For A Period of Time: Expired identification documents, tax-related documents, bank statements, paid bills, old lease documents
  • Don’t Keep: Notifications, ad mail of any kind

You do not need to keep correspondence from any organization with which you do not do business.

Know the statute of limitations on all official correspondence, and keep it for that period of time. For example, if you file taxes in the United States, you should retain a paper copy of your taxes, and all documents associated to your taxes, for ten years, because an IRS audit is allowed to go back through your tax filings for ten years.

What You Need to Dispose of Securely

Identity fraud – the representation of oneself as another person in order to steal money from them or take out credit in their name – is rampant in this day and age. It can ruin your credit, your reputation, and cost you thousands of dollars. It’s a very, very serious problem.

Shred any paper that has any of the following information on it.

  • Your full legal name
  • Your name and address together
  • Your social security number
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Account numbers of any kind
  • Any correspondence from your bank or credit card provider
  • Any correspondence from a government entity
  • Any monetary balances for any account

If it’s a magazine with your name and address on it, just tear the page out and shred it, then trash or recycle the rest.

The Value of Going Paperless

Treeware is a pain in the you-know-what to keep organized. Data storage is cheap. Every bill that you can receive electronically and every receipt you can get by email is one bill that isn’t cluttering up your desk. File your bills on your computer and back them up, and search functions will save you a lot of time and space.

(Just be sure to encrypt your stuff.)

Filing Cabinets

Your filing cabinet does not have to be a bulky thing on wheels, and for most people, it shouldn’t be. Size your filing by how much paper you process (if you go paperless, you’ll have a lot less) and how much space you have. Anything that can accommodate hanging folders will do the job — I had a bright pink milk crate with grooves on the side for hanging folders, and that was my filing from the time I first went to college until I bought my own home.

If you have to keep it and it’s paper, it goes in a filing system, and that filing system should live in a room that is not routinely open to visitors. If you have a lot of visitors, whatever you use for filing should lock with either a combination or a key.

Consider a fire safe for the key documents. These are heavy, but don’t have to be expensive, and will protect the documents you’ll need to restore your life should everything you own burn to the ground or be lost in a flood.

A Final Word

Still can’t figure it out? Some people simply have an eye for organizing a space, and some simply don’t. If you don’t, see if you can bribe a friend who does to help you out. I do this for my friends circle; I barter it for other work that I personally hate doing. Many friends circles have this type of arrangement, so make friends in your new spot.