Organized doesn’t have to look ‘organized’

I spent a lot of time on airplanes this week. My airline reading brain candy of choice — for those moments when it’s tough to work — is books on decluttering and organization.

I’m not entirely sure why. I don’t know what I’m looking to gain from these books. I just find them vaguely pleasant and not terribly demanding.

Anyway, when I read the books with pretty pictures (or follow such accounts on Instagram) I have a realization. My stuff almost never looks anything like that. But my stuff is organized. One is quite possible without the other.

For instance, my kitchen is now set up in such a way that you can empty 90 percent of the dishwasher without moving more than a step or two from the dishwasher. The only items that require a walk are the mugs. It made more sense to locate them in the cupboard above the built-in coffee maker than a cupboard farther from the coffee maker but closer to the dishwasher. Do the mugs all match? No. They do not. But they’re in the right place.

The pantry, likewise, does not feature snacks organized by color, nor are dry goods decanted into clear canisters. But the cereal is in one place. The snacks for lunches are in another, where the kids can grab them.

The shoes in the mudroom aren’t lined up. The backpacks tend not to get hung up. But they are all in there.

You can organize for function without worrying too much about the aesthetics. My general sense is that you can make yourself crazy trying to get other people to buy into the aesthetics. But if you have a big family, it is highly unlikely that everyone is going to be equally enamored with systems that look pretty but require extra effort. Why decant cereal into other containers when cereal comes in a perfectly useful container — namely, the cereal box? The net result of such a system is that you — or whoever cares most about the aesthetics — is going to spend your time decanting. It will be your job.

Whereas if the system is just that the cereal goes on a certain shelf, then other folks will put away the cereal after the grocery run. So that is the system you need.

Where is your cereal hanging out these days?

In other news: I was excited to see Tranquility by Tuesday mentioned on Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog! Check out his post about building in a back-up slot and creating enough space to work.

I’m also excited that Eric Barker’s Plays Well With Others was chosen as a Next Big Idea Book Club selection. He’s had me on his podcast before and he is always great to talk to. Be sure to check out this book, which is full of counterintuitive insights that will help you navigate relationships.

(Tranquility by Tuesday made the nominee list for October!)

Photo: We eat a lot of Cheerios around here

15 thoughts on “Organized doesn’t have to look ‘organized’

  1. This is SO true, and I think accepting it is one of the secrets to thriving in a larger family. Allocating tasks to other people in the house makes life so much smoother and it requires letting go of controlling HOW everything gets done. Which then frees up time for all kinds of other things!

  2. Yes to all of this.
    I have never decanted cereal – also, the containers they show would never hold the full box? So where does the rest hide out until it’s time to top up the pretty glass bottle!?
    We have a single (small) shelf in our pantry for cereal; we also have a little section of a shelf in our storage room where extra boxes can go (a box of cereal does not last long and I like to stock up when it’s on sale, but don’t want to use all the pantry space for extra boxes, so do have an overflow section elsewhere).

  3. I do decant cereal, but that’s because the big Costco bags sometimes come two bags in one box and asking kids to pour from a bag is a disaster.
    I think functional and organized are sometimes thought of as synonymous, or rather the Instagram influencers would have busy moms think that way. I just want functional. I want “come home at midnight and don’t have to think about it” functional. We have been racking our brain to come up with a shoe storage solution in our foyer- bins, baskets, shelving…. But then one day the ten year old just dumped all the shoes out of the baskets and simply lined them up against the wall, purging any shoes that weren’t been worn. It looks terrible, but has been the most functional solution we have yet to find.

    1. We sort of do this. We have a little mud room/laundry room off of the hallway that comes in from the garage so the shoes are in the hallway, then if ppl come over or I get sick of looking at it I throw them in the laundry room. I still hate how the shoes look, and the laundry room in general is a pain point in it’s appearance, but I guess not enough for me to do anything about it. And it is functional I guess, I know don’t ever have trouble finding what I need in there. Just looks a mess.

    2. You’re conflating organized and beautiful. I personally think that, to be organized (or for the organization to stick), it has to be functional. If the organized is also beautiful, that’s a nice plus if you value it, but that’s above and beyond just organized.

  4. The one thing I ascribe to on the organizational front in a big family is labels. Everyone in our family can now read well enough to put things away in the right place if there is clearly printed lab on the shelf. I find it makes it much more likely my family put things where they go. We do decant certain pantry items like Diane does because we get them at Costco and the packaging they come in is unwieldy.

    1. Or say rather than labels or ownership maybe also sharing clothing or things when say they can be used by more than one person like in some families there is a ny minute where a few people wear the same shoe size or etc .. sometime this can be a fun thing in fashion or other things (ok not toothbrushes) like if you can share shoes or you aren’t sure whose clothing it is you just wear someone else’s etc?

  5. Couldn’t have said it better. I only have 2 kids but simplicity is my motto. Our stuff is organized by function and easy to access. I don’t want to spend mental energy or actual time making things look pretty or coordinated. It just doesn’t matter to me or anyone in my family.

  6. I am pretty well organized and I do like things to look nice. That being said, I’ve never understood the decanting thing, except for perhaps flour, which is sold in the world’s worst container for that product.

  7. I also decant flour, pancake mix, and brown sugar because the original containers make it tough to measure from and those items last several weeks in our house. But the containers don’t match, they’re just what we had around. Function above aestetics, always. I prefer tidy over clean, even, because, to me, tidy is functional and therefore calming to me.

    1. This makes sense that one reason to decant is to be happy in being able to measure the food… Measuring cups or access to easy measures I would see this as a sign of functional happiness.. say organization and function at happiness vs. beauty… like the beauty of is is the happiness in being able to measure the food and the food not going bad… if it looks beautiful that is also good and cool too for sure… like if coffee mugs a certain color make someone happy why not… Also where is it ok for something ot be functional and where is it really necessary to find beauty or ownership say of a space etc

  8. It might be fun to really show or feature someone who considers themselves happy who decants cereal…
    or show what it looks like .. or maybe like a woman would like to go to a place where this is the aesthetic … like sell this as fantasy or romance or for man too? I hadn’t actually ever heard of this term -decanting cereal… Maybe also a room or some place can be a place where one has this aesthetic but say not in the mud room… and what is it for different people.. is it like a lack of clutter or tech or lack of corporate food labels or like mugs all the same color… or no tech… or flowers … be interesting to see this more by real people … what is the say aspirational aesthetic …a driveway itself is kind of an ugly thing often unless it is like stone and brick or non existent etc Also do upper-middle class kids still eat cereal.. this is kind of interesting that say some kinds of cereal are still socially acceptable say in U.S. upper middle class even though so many other foods have been banned in favor of healthier options and more variety than was available say in previous generations …

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