Getting More Organized is Not the Goal

I have been writing here at Small Notebook for four years now. Four years!

If I was writing this blog twelve years ago, it would sound very different. I was single and living by myself at the time, and I worked a lot, so whenever I organized something at home it would stay that way. Organizing was my hobby that I did sometimes because it made me feel like I was doing a good job. My papers were always neatly filed, and my clothes were always put away. It was easy.

Fast forward a few years, and organizing was no longer something I did to pass my free time, but something I was doing to keep up with an apartment and a family. It was not easy anymore. I also tried to focus on simplifying and having less stuff.

I started writing this blog, and after two years of focusing on simplifying and organizing, I felt frustrated that I was still spending so much of my time taking care of stuff. There was always something we needed to buy or replace, and I was spending time cleaning and picking up. It took time to make donations and keep records for tax purposes and sort through closets. I didn’t feel like there was an end to it.

I started having doubts about this whole process of simplifying.

If the idea of simplifying is to make your life simpler and free up some time, then why does it take so much time? And you’re never done!

Would it be easier, I wondered, simpler even, to just ignore my stuff? Was the process of trying to break free from consumerism and all my stuff actually causing me to think about my stuff more? I was spending a lot of time trying to make careful decisions about what I bought, I was going through closets and photos. What if I just put everything in a closet and pretended it wasn’t there?

At first our simplifying was about clutter removal, but gradually it became about clutter prevention. For example:

  • I didn’t want to buy more clothes after I had just cleaned out my closet and donated several.
  • I opted-out of receiving catalogs, phone books, and junk mail so I would have fewer papers to sort, and I started getting all of my bills and statements via digital download.
  • I bought fewer clothes for the kids because I noticed I was organizing so many outgrown clothes that were not worn enough.

I didn’t see it at the time, but the process of simplifying was helping me. It was like an investment for the future, and it let me do a lot of things last year that would have been more difficult otherwise, such as putting our stuff into a storage unit and going to Europe for three months, convincing my husband to take a year-long work sabbatical after working for twenty-five years, and making it through a home search and renovation. Plus day-to-day life with kids. (Also? We’re about to launch a business. I’ll have to tell you more about that later.)

Simplifying and organizing go together. When you simplify your stuff, you don’t need to spend so much time organizing it. I skipped filing papers for a year while I worked on other things, and nothing bad happened.

Becoming more organized is not the goal. In fact, simplifying is not the goal either. Both are tools to help you reach better goals that involve people, plans, and dreams.

I used to have a nice coworker, and we got along well because we both liked order. He lined up his french fries in a row before he ate them one by one. He loved his wife, and even though his wife didn’t place as much importance on order as he did, he didn’t say anything about that to her because he wanted a happy home more than he cared about  having the plastic wrap and the foil nicely lined up in the kitchen drawer. It just wasn’t that important.

I want my organizing efforts to be beneficial but stop short of crazy lady with color-coded menu plans and label maker. At Small Notebook I’ll try to put my advice on the left side of the organizational bell curve.

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. This is just the kind of thoughtful insight that I need on a daily basis. Thank you, Rachel! The way you choose to focus on what really matters -and I love the way you put it, people, plans and dreams- is exactly why I keep coming back to Small Notebook. I pray God’s blessings for you and your family as you venture with your new business!

  2. Every time I have to pick up and clean our place I’m grateful for the simplicity. When my daughter makes a mess and it doesn’t ruffle my feathers (after all, everything will be back in order after I just pick up the stuff she has been playing with), I realize that if our home wasn’t simple and un-cluttered, I wouldn’t be able to have such a relaxed attitude about her toys migrating to every corner of our home. So while organizing and simplifying can be fun, it’s not the goal, but the means to a more relaxed and easy living.

  3. I love this post and the ideas behind it. You have expressed so well the goal that I’m working towards – clear the clutter from the house as a way of reaching our larger life goals. It’s not about living with 100 things or never spending money on something special, it’s more about being mindful of wisely using what we have in our care and not hanging on to the excess. It’s not about sticking with the “one in, one out” rule, because that gets me no where closer to having less to take care of. However, if I implement “five cheap sweaters that I purchased but never wear because I didn’t actually like anything but the low price – OUT; one more expensive sweater that will last for years and that makes me feel good every time I wear it – IN” – THEN we’re getting somewhere. :-)

  4. Is it okay if I smiled at this?

    “living by myself at the time, and I worked a lot, so whenever I organized something at home it would stay that way”

    But this is the key:

    “Becoming more organized is not the goal”

    I realized recently I was waiting to make art until my studio was organized. Guess what? It will never be organized enough that it looks like a studio in a magazine. If I’m waiting for THAT, I will never make art. BUT I do need to not be physically tripping over things and have a table space for painting and sewing.

    Magazine titles in January usually say in bold caps, “GET ORGANIZED NOW!!!” but I think what they actually hould say is, “Clear off your countertops today!” ;-)
    Dixie Redmond´s last post…Centering Blog Title Images and Post Titles in Blogspot

  5. What a lovely post. This is sort of what I’ve been working toward the past few years without realizing it. I still find myself thinking about things I want to buy, especially clothing, but I’m looking at it more as a transition into being more intentional about my purchases. I also think a big part of not working so hard at organization is Letting Things Go. Like the toys. Does it really matter that all the SuperHeroes are in one bin, the trains in another, and the cutting food and sandwich set separated? No. If my kids don’t care and it doesn’t hamper their play why should it bug me? Life is too short.

    Although part of me would love a color coded menu planner. Ha ha.

  6. love this and is what i’m striving toward myself. that organization/simplifying is not the end goal, and it should not be taking over my life and stealing the joy and living in the moment. so what that i only get to vacuum and organize closets every so often….i get to play catch with my two year old in gorgeous warm weather in february and that is the gift. thanks for posting this!

  7. The law of diminishing returns. Well played : )

  8. Exactly! Exactly! I also try to stay to the left of that bell curve.

    BTW I really love all your graphs and diagrams :)

  9. I will never be the crazy lady with the color-coded menu plans. For a lot of years, when my children were young, being this organized was my goal. Like you, I finally realized that being organized was NOT the goal. People, circumstances, homes, etc. are ever-changing so the goal of being organized is never done. Now, organization is a tool that allows us to live life.

    I appreciate your “left side” words of advice that encourage us to simplify and organize, but still have room and time for life to happen.

  10. This is just what I needed to hear right now! I have been a victim of over organizing to the point of paralysis. Not healthy, not sustaining. I have chosen to let one spot be “messy” and, oh how freeing. My kids need me to be present when I’m with them, not rethinking the next organizing zone.

  11. This is great stuff. I like things organized and I think I do a pretty fair job with doing so. My house has clutter zones and I hate going through the kids closets and toys. We don’t buy a lot of toys though or clothes so it’s usually not a difficult task if I had to do it. Currently I’m trying to talk myself out of buying one of those big saucers for the newest baby. I’d rather buy a johnny jumper but our house doesn’t have the right kind of door frames.

    I love your blog for inspiration to get organized, but I never feel like you’re judgmental or would chastise me if you ever saw my house (which by the way is in Robinson / Waco Texas…Go Bears!)

  12. I love this blog! I love your writing style! I love how when I’m reading your blog I say, “Yes! Exactly! So true!” You inspire me to think differently. Thank you!
    Paige´s last post…I am…

  13. Congrats on 4 years of blogging and being a true inspiration! :)

  14. This post is a great example of why you are one of my all time favorite bloggers. Your perspective is so clear and helpful and REALISTIC. :) I go through and purge my rss reader periodically but as long as you blog I’ll never delete you. Lol. Thanks for all that you do.

  15. You are even practical in your approach to simplifying/organizing! Love it. I’m passionate about doing less of what I don’t like and more of what I love too, even if it takes some time on the front end.

  16. Urban Cowgirl says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful insight. I am constantly struggling with the balance of simplify/organize/let it be. It’s very good to know others are also experiencing this.

  17. Oh, Rachel, the reason I come here every day is because I already know you will never, ever tell me to color code my menu plans!

  18. I once had a neighbor who arranged her daughter’s crayons and hair bows by color. She even made sure the snow piles after shoveling the driveway were symmetrical. Who has that kind of time?

    I appreciate your realistic advice. As a woman with ADHD, I will never be overly organized – no color coding for me – but I can aspire to simplifying my life.

    Thank you!
    Brenda Nicholson´s last post…Entertaining with ADHD

  19. I really loved this post. I often get worked up in to a frenzy of inadequacy when I see people that have everything organized in cute bins with artsy labels. Mostly because that’s not me!
    Getting organized/simplifying was one of my New Year’s resolutions this year ( Our larger goal is to stay in our smallish house for as long as possible, which means not accumulating or hanging on to things.
    And obviously the GREATEST goal is to enjoy my family and live well.

  20. Keep it simple. Stay organized. Keep loving people as the priority. Nice!
    Debra Bell´s last post…Infertility, IVF & Grace

  21. Love, love this post – thank you for sharing you honest insight! Can’t wait to see what your business venture is!
    Becky – Clean Mama´s last post…Clean + Organized – Quick Clean

  22. I am interested in hearing about your business. My husband and I are working on my business and it’s great for our marriage and fun to do together!!! Props to you!

  23. Thank you for sharing so authentically about your process. Your honesty makes my world better.

  24. Yes. This.
    For the longest time the paid bills had to be sorted by vendor, newest in front. It only took me 15 mins. to do.

    But, then I stopped doing it (because life got busy) and they just got stacked in a pile. (A pile to be filed.) The most recent paid bills ended up on top because…that’s where they got stacked.

    Then I realized…
    the bills are already paid. I have never needed to go back into the stack. And, if I did, what difference does it make if they are in a stack versus behind sorted behind dividers labeled “Water” and “Gas”?

    If I just stacked them, I got to save those 15 mins. each month – with no downside! I’m pretty sure that’s at the top of your bell curve? Yes?

    ~ Dana
    Cooking at Cafe D
    Dana @ Cooking at Cafe D´s last post…2 Treats for You – Chocolate and Non-Chocolate!

  25. I was just thinking about this yesterday as I was reading a post somewhere else….at what point does it go past useful and cross into crazy, or crazy-making?! THIS post makes so much sense to me and really hit home….will look forward to more thoughts along these lines :) THANKS!

  26. Just found your blog a week ago when I googled “functional decorating”. This couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m pregnant with my 2nd child – they’ll be about 15 months apart. We live in a small apartment that I love, but have to defend often to people who think we need more room. I’m feeling the countdown of things that need to get done before the baby comes, but your blog is a constant reminder to manage my expectations. Thank you, Rachel!

    P.S. We also live in North Texas. I have been loving this mild winter!

  27. I appreciate this post! I oftentimes compare myself to the super well-organized people. However, I have friends who are super clean and order freaks, and they sacrifice peace of mind and relationships for it. I don’t want to be to that extreme. There’s always the “right balance” that must be found for everyone.

  28. I love it all, but the part about “clutter prevention” resonates the most with me. I have often thought that being disorganized is like letting the faucet overflow in the bathtub. You could just take a bucket and try to scoop out all of the extra water (declutter). But wouldn’t it be easier to simply turn the faucet off (ie. don’t bring clutter home)?

    Some organizing blogs get WAY too rigid about how to organize, so I like how you are able to keep the big picture of why we even bother organizing front and center.
    MaryJo @ reSPACEd: Budget Organizing´s last post…A year ago in review: Messiness robs you of your cold hard $, getting organized & doing dreary tasks when you have no time or energy

  29. I am 6 weeks into a year long project on simplifying my life and I have just figured out that this is a mindset change more than a series of tasks to be completed. I am finding that decluttering and prevention have to go hand in hand or it really will be a never ending process! I don’t have big systems in place to “organize”, at the end of the day I don’t really want to have much to be organized. We are not buying anything for a year as part of our project – and preventing unnecessary things from entering our house is more than half the battle. There are times when the process is hard, but the long term goals and being able to live the lifestyle I want is worth it.
    Diane´s last post…Has it really only been 6 weeks?

    • If you’ve already figured out that is really is a mind-set over a series of tasks just six weeks into the project – I’d say you’re WAY ahead in your year. Congrats!

  30. This helped me. Thanks.

  31. So true! I always look forward to you keepin’ it real!
    Danielle´s last post…Thoughts on Cake

  32. Like many other people have said…if you were a crazy menu-color-coding person, I wouldn’t read your blog all the time! I love Small Notebook because you do stay on the left side of the curve…it’s all helpful and eminently do-able.

    Also, excited to hear about the business plans! :)
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…Judging Books by Their Covers

  33. Clutter Prevention: YES, that’s it. I did so well ( and am still working on getting rid ) but from time to time, you realise little bits have crept back and an uber cull is needed. The school holidays were an example of my needing to do that..clutter, urgh !
    Tasmanian Minimalist´s last post…Please Read My Guest

  34. I was wondering when you would come to that conclusion, because it IS about striking a balance with this thing called “Homemaking”. Plus, it’s also about relativity — what’s relative for you may not be relative for me, and vice versa.

    But all in all I find it surprising how much stuff you touch on that I’m either dealing with or “been there done that” kind of a thing.

    Ok, I was smitten with your Mister’s handymanship and I kind of dissed you a wee bit with my — ‘Rachel, half-way decent’ comment. But all kidding aside — the truth is I really appreciate where you’re coming from most of the time :)

  35. Its so true, this is a great post. I always think when I’m keeping my home clean and tidy it really is so that we can have guests come over, so we can have the room to play, so we can enjoy our home to the fullest. We host 4 playdates in a month of 16+ moms and kids each time. Keeping my home clean means we get to fill it with people, and laughter and socialization and adult conversations.
    Jen @ a place 2 call home´s last post…Be Flexible in Design

  36. I like it! i’ve been a follower of your blog for quite awhile but never felt compelled to comment. With two little kids (I think mine are close in age to yours, a kinder and a 2 year old) just keeping the household FUNCTIONAL is the real goal. I enjoy the sanity of your blog!

  37. A friend recently introduced me to your blog and I love it!

    My husband and I spend months at a time living on our sailboat. It has freed me from stuff! But then we come home to our condo and there’s all sorts of stuff. The wonderful thing now is I know I don’t need it.

    Keep up the wonderful inspiration for us all!

  38. I so agree! Thanks for putting it so clearly and elegantly. I’m curious about the business.
    Margo´s last post…Pretty, Happy, Funny, Real

  39. Great post, Rachel, and spot on. Even though I’m passionate about organizing, I believe it’s there to serve another purpose – making room in our minds and calendars for the more important things such as relationships and experiences. It is easy for organizing stuff to become a substitute for dealing with other things that we need to deal with. I know because I’ve done it.

  40. I agree wholeheartedly. I’m not as ‘advanced’ in reality as you, but one of my things is keeping the house tidy. But, I refuse to go over the tip of the bell curve in order just to have a tidy home. I live in a REAL family with a REAL life. And I like enjoying both. I don’t want all my time taken away just so my house looks like something out of House & Garden! BTW, most people would say I have a nice home despite it being slightly disheveled.

  41. Refreshing!!! Why do we feel the pressure to make organization so much work. If I can find what I need and my cupboards and closets look tidy – mission accomplished. It may not look like Martha Stewart…but then again…that is her business…and a lucrative one too. BTW…I have a cake basket that all my paid bills go into. Once a year I sort and prepare them for taxes/year end filing…its a crazy system…but it works!!! :D

  42. This reminds me of the post about organizing your kitchen drawer where you got rid of the things you weren’t using and put the most used things in the front. Then you stopped. I think of that often when I’m wavering between stopping at a sustainable level of organization and crossing over into vanity. I like your honest and unpretentious writing.

    • Of all the great comments, Jessica’s was exactly what was going through my mind, so I’ll just say – Me, too.

  43. I love this! So true.

  44. Another great post from one of my fave bloggers!!! I have to say after decluttering and decluttering and decluttering… it never felt like we were simplifying. Somehow things have to get so much worse before they get better… You have to unpack everything to sort and discard and organize… and in the midst of everything simplifying actually seems like chaos creation. In the long run however, our life is much simpler and easier and we know where to find stuff. Even with ten people in our home and everybody packing stuff away… no surplus stuff and everything in its place eventually does work!!!

  45. The goal is living! The goal is loving! The goal is preparing for what comes next!

    Thank you for letting me say that, and amen to all you said.
    Lori´s last post…Unsolicited Advice: Put Your Servants to Work

  46. Thank you for “practicing what you preach”. Your website is uncluttered. You have simple blog posts. You don’t bombard us with messages 5 times a day. I’m happy when I see something new from the Small Notebook. Ahhh.

  47. Amazing. Thank you so much for this perspective. I think that “color coded meal planning” has been lodged in my head as the ultimate goal. A goal that I’ve never been close to achieving…leaving me feeling like a failure. The approach you describe leaves me feeling… peaceful. Aaaaah…
    I love your ideas and your writing. Thank you so much for being here.

  48. I absolutely agree. I feel like the crazy organizing with bright colors and stickers and curly fonts isn’t really organized. I know it probably works for some people, but I don’t think that organizing needs to be cute. Its purpose is to be effective and make it so you don’t have to think about it all the time.

    If I’m spending more time making things to organize than actually organizing, then I’m definitely on the wrong side of the bell curve.
    Jennie´s last post…Simply Life

  49. I consider myself pretty organized, but still have lots of clutter (but I always know where everything is!). Since my hours got increased at work (because we let someone go, so now I do 2 people’s jobs), I just cannot face coming home and doing more work, so not sure when all the superfluous paperwork will get purged, etc.

    Plus, I like to shop, and especially enjoy going to thrift stores and garage sales, so I am forever bringing more stuff in. Unless I lose my job and really have to tighten my belt, I don’t think anyone is going to be able to deprogram me from liking to shop.

    Still, if any one of you were to drop in for a surprise visit, I don’t think you’d think my house was untidy or cluttered.

    At any rate, I will keep reading your blog and try to follow the advice when I can, so keep up the good work!

  50. I like your stand on organization. I try to be but still remain not as organized as I would like to be. Three kids and a busy schedule prevent me from having the perfectly organized home. I’ve learned to become a little more flexible and live with some disorganization in my home.
    My biggest weapon on the war of disorganization in my home has been simplifying my belongings as much as possible!
    Thanks for another great post!
    Christyn@StrivingforSimple´s last post…New Coupon Codes

  51. I have papers in a stack that were put there to file at some later time. It’s been more than 2 years for some of those papers and I wonder what would happen if I just tossed them all? Then I need something and go thru the stack to get it and realize I better not toss it OUT, but maybe into a box that can be put away. As I go thru the stack looking for the needed paper, I realize many of the ones I saved don’t really need to be saved. I toss those as I come across them, but it also helps me see what to keep and what to toss.

  52. love this post! and i love your writing/advising style, rachel!

  53. I had to chuckle on your “label maker” comment. I used to be the Label Queen. Everything had a label, title, tab or tag. Not that it needed one. The objects spoke for themselves. It just LOOKED more organized, I told myself.

    My attitude now is.. can’t find it?… keep looking. No more labels everywhere on everything. And no more long list of To-Do’s. Fix it when you see “it” needs fixing. Can’t fix it on the fly? Well, fix it the next time you see it needs fixing. I live with much less stress now. I am in a better place mentally than I was before I retired. I like myself again.
    Donna´s last post…Cathedral Window Pincushion

  54. I love this so much. I have a bunch of kitchen stuff I use all the time–dish rags, kid snacks, fruit–scattered all over an exposed shelf in my kitchen. Yesterday I was thinking how bad it looked, but then I realized it looks that way because I am constantly using what is on it. The lack of a cohesive look doesn’t make it any less organized. The stuff looks that way because that’s the way it is most convenient for me to use. I constantly have to remind myself that because stuff isn’t organized into cute baskets doesn’t make it less organized.

    I also love your blog so much :)

  55. So true! I went from being an organizer to a minimalist in the making, still a long way to go but that’s a long story. My daily lifestyle is minimalist and it’s so much easier than organizing!

    I found you over at “You can’t take it with you” and so glad I stopped by!

  56. I like the bit about your coworker and how he knew his priorities. “Things are things after all and not people” I read somewhere. And it so rings true here.

  57. I always wanted to be “that” organized person, whose house they use for Real Simple and BHG. For a long time I was that person in my head, and I would frustrate myself trying to make my real life line up with what was in my head. And while I believe we can make most anything happen that we want bad enough, I finally realized that even though the thought of having that beautifully organized home was nice, it was not worth the time or effort it would have taken to maintain and keep it that way. And my poor children would have been miserable!
    I love organizing and prioritizing and simplifying, but I always try to remember, and point this out to my readers as well, WHY are you doing these things? Hopefully so you will have more time for spending with the ones you love, doing the things you love, instead of color-coding your menu plans. ;)
    Great post Rachel!

  58. Inspiring. Thank you.