For us, Labor Day weekend was all about bailing ourselves out of the disorganized, cluttery chaos we’d allowed to take root since the birth of our daughter, Cassie, in mid-April. We tried a number of times to stem the tide with limited success; usually we’d reclaim some section of the house only to lose another. Not a satisfying victory.

We’d both read Getting Things Done by David Allen, so we decided to base our approach on that. David might be less than pleased with us, though, as we divided things into 12 categories:

  1. Reference/Aging: things we’ll get rid of when some known period of time has passed; for example, tax records, term contracts, etc. At first we tried to differentiate inside this category, but we ended up with so little in other piles that we decided to just lump it by year and expire it when after 7 years, when we expire our tax records.
  2. Reference/Permanent aka “permaref”: things we’ll keep for the conceivable future or which are attached to some significant item. For example, car maintenance records, a healthcare provider directory, extended warranty information. 
  3. Projects/Now: either can be dealt with in < 2 minutes or must be dealt with in the next seven days
  4. Projects/Later: anything that doesn’t belong in “Now”
  5. Things Which Have A Home In Our House
  6. Things Whice Have A Home Outside Our House
  7. Things Which Need A Home In Our House
  8. Things Which Need A Home Outside Our House
  9. Trash/Shred
  10. Trash/Recycle
  11. Trash/Garbage
  12. Other: The category for “I don’t know what to do with this” aka “You figure it out.”

Note that categories 5-8 are really just a special subset of the two projects categories which we wanted to handle slightly differently; category 12 is just another way of saying “someone else’s inbox.”

What We Did

First, we wandered the house with boxes and grabbed anything that wasn’t where it should be. No stopping to rearrange; you could only put something where it belonged if it took zero steps to get it there (a long reach was okay). We ended up with approximately a cubic yard of stuff; think of that as 27 cubic feet, which is 8 medium moving cubes (18x18x18” or 3.375 cubic feet each), or roughly 18  bankers boxes (12x12x18” or 1.5 cubic feet each). Clutter accumulates quickly.

Next, we sorted it all to categories. Objects sorted quickly; paperwork (the bulk of what had accumulated) sorted slowly. Still, it turns out that you can do a rough sort incredibly fast if you arrange things so you can easily reach a container for each category and resolve to spend no more than a few seconds per item. We did ours on our living room floor with a paper bag labelled for each non-trash category; as we emptied boxes, we’d shift the contents of the most-full bag into that box and keep going. We’d sort for an hour or so, then take a break to play with kids, eat a meal, or just stretch and do something different for a while. At the end of each sorting session, we’d dump the trash and deal with the “Things Which Have A Home” piles as quickly as we could.

We finished our sort in about 8-9 hours split over two days. The net remaining material, by category:

  • Reference/Aging: 3.75 cubic feet, approx. 2.5 banker boxes
  • Reference/Permanent: .38 cubic feet, approx. .25 banker boxes
  • Projects/Now: .75 cubic feet, approx. 0.5 banker boxes
  • Projects/Later: 1.5 cubic feet, approx. 1 banker box
  • Things Which Need A Home: 1.5 cubic feet, approx. 1 banker box
  • Other: 1.5 cubic feet, approx. 1 banker box

So we managed to go from 27 cubic feet to a bit over 9 cubic feet. It’s amazing how much more orderly things feel for it.

Next week: Project Sorting.

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05 September 2006