Organization is one of society’s favorite solutions to a happy life. Do your taxes, pay your bills, clean your house, be organized.

Growing up with this message has molded me into a very organized clutter hater, but the tools I was given to cope with clutter have always seemed a little strange. They are best summarized by the old motto, “A place for everything, and everything in its place”. Who keeps everything?

Containers and Labels

My old coping system should be familiar to many. It consists of containers and labels.

A container might be a box, or a shelf, or that old wicker basket that you just can’t part with. And labels are simply applied to containers where appropriate: A filing cabinet drawer for taxes, a shoebox that advertises photos, or a jar containing flour.

Of course this spans into digital life as well. Bookmarks have folders, emails have labels, directories have sub-directories, files have tags, and photos have albums.

… and this box is for nostalgic wine corks.


The problem with all of this, is that grouping, labeling, and categorizing are all shit work. A whole lot of stuff piles up until it appears unsightly and then over the course of a dreary afternoon it is organized into a collection of boxes – never to be seen again.

Worse, these tools essentially enable us all to become hoarders with method. All these belongings in boxes in the garage or the basement become our life. “We can’t move, we have all of this stuff.” It’s not used or even looked at, but the mere concept of the stuff in those boxes becomes so daunting that we would rather not deal with it.

On the flip side, we spend an awful amount of time and money on making sure our belonging don’t get lost in a fire, or in a flood, or to a cruft-loving burglar. As it turns out, owning things can actually be quite stressful.

Not a Nomad

Unfortunately I can’t afford to go full nomad, but I have found that I can learn to refocus on the fundamentals.

If I haven’t used something in year, maybe it has done its job. Maybe someone else can get more use from it. An item that is never used does not need to be front and center in my living space. Like any good design, sometimes removal is the best option.

I still have a lot of things that I keep just in case or for sentimental reasons. The change that has happened is that I only allow myself to have one small physical box for sentimental items and my dropbox folder for digital archival. The space is limited so I need to choose carefully what I put into it.


I’ve also begun to re-examine the usefulness of the things I own and use; even the things I haven’t purchased yet. Very few things truly retain their usefulness or nostalgic quality over time. This is curating much more than it is organizing. Condensing the things I own – but also the things I choose to spend time on – to the essential. I have a lot of hobbies so this still translates to a lot of items, but they’re items I actually use, and not just dusty old junk.

So for the things I’ve kept Grandma’s old adage still stands, but maybe it needs a refresh that gives a helpful nudge to the modern day consumerist:

A place for the essential, the essential in its place.