One Question to Ask When Organizing

Question Mark

If your life or your space feels out of control, there may be a lot of questions running through your mind:

  • “How did it ever get this bad?” 
  • “Where did all this stuff come from?”
  • “What am I going to do with it?”
  • “Why are the other people in my house so messy?”

While it is normal to wonder about questions like these, asking them typically results in vague resolutions or self-recrimination. Neither of these is helpful.

Fortunately, there is one question that I find always helps when setting up organizing systems.

That question is … Why am I keeping this?

Asking this question is valuable because it immediately identifies a belonging’s purpose. Knowing the “why” of a possession is the precursor to designing the best “where” and “how” storage solutions.

There are many good reasons for keeping an item. Here are a few of the most common.

Why Am I Keeping This?

Common AnswersImplied PurposeStorage ImplicationExamples
“I use it”FunctionStore in a place where the item can be easily accessed. The more frequently you use it, the more accessible the location needs to be. - Hang keys on a key hook right near the entry door
- Keep the scissors in the top drawer
- Store the shoes you wear every day downstairs in the mudroom, and the seldom-worn shoes on a shelf in the bedroom closet
“I like to look at it”DecorativeDisplay the item where you can see and enjoy it.- Hang a favorite photo/piece of art over the kitchen sink
- Print a favorite digital photo and put it on your desk.
- Display your favorite collection
“It has financial value”Investment
Store in a safe, clean, perhaps climate controlled location. Insure the item.
- Store silver in cloth bags
- Protect valuable art behind glass and away from sunlight.
“It brings back good memories”SentimentalStore it with memorabilia. - Give each family member a bin for favorite mementos that can slide under a bed.
- Hang vintage clothing in a cedar closet.
“I might need it”Reference/EventualityPut it in a labeled container in a remote location- Archive tax files in a box in the attic
- Download appliance manuals to a folder on your computer

In some cases, answering this one question reveals that you may not have a good reason for keeping an item. For instance, you might find yourself saying:

  • “It was a gift, but I never really liked it.” 
  • “I inherited this, and even though I don’t have space for it, the family expects me to keep it.” 
  • “It is leftover from a project.”
  • “My child brought it home but she has never played with it.”
  • “We got that at a party/sporting event/conference/etc.”
  • “I used to use this in a previous stage of life, but I honestly don’t anymore.”
  • “That was left here by the previous homeowner.”

When you find yourself giving these answers, the appropriate step is to move the item out of your space, either via donation or disposal.

Similarly, you may come across some items for which you cannot answer the question. Don’t try and find reasons to keep things. If an explanation doesn’t easily come to mind, let it go. Periodically, you may encounter things that belong to a spouse, coworker or other family member. In this case, the best thing you can do is establish a review pile/bin for the owner to assess and make his/her own decisions.

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How we interact with physical belongings is the ultimate defines their value. Asking the “why” question clarifies this relationship and facilitates good decision-making.

Do you think asking this question would be helpful in deciding what to keep and what to shed?