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How to sort out a room - and keep it sorted

If your entire house, office and work space are clean, tidy and with everything sorted and in its place, then you can ignore this article.

For the rest of us, here’s how to do it. The principles here can be applied to any room or space, but for the sake of illustration I will use a home office - mainly because I am typing this while sitting in a beautifully clean, tidy and sorted office - which didn’t always use to be that way.

And no doubt you can apply it to other life situations as well, such as sorting out your commitments, your finances, and so on and so forth. But I’ll leave all that up to your imagination.

When sorting a room the ideal is to sort it so you don’t have to spend an entire weekend on it but can do it over a longer period bit by bit without disrupting your work.

Here goes:

Step 1. Start a recurring task “Sort Office”.

Step 2. List every visible part of the office.

We start with the visible parts because it’s highly motivating to have an office that looks tidy and efficient, even if it hides a multitude of horrors behind the drawers and cupboard doors. If you start with the invisible parts, you are going to have to work in a place that look untidy and inefficient for quite a while yet.

As I was saying, list every visible part of the office. That means every piece of furniture, every window sill and other surface, and the floor. Divide the floor up into about six to eight portions, depending on the size of the room.

Number every item on the list, with the floor portions last.

Step 3. Take the first item on the list and sort its exterior thoroughly. Get it exactly the way you want it to look.

Step 4. Start a recurring task “Tidy Office”

This task is used to keep the parts that you have finished sorting in a sorted condition. Do not use it on parts that haven’t been sorted yet.

Step 5. Repeat Step 3 for each part of the office which you have listed.

Step 6. Once you have completed sorting the visible parts of your office, make another list of all the invisible parts. This will include all drawers, filing cabinets, cupboards, etc. Take each item on the list in turn and sort it thoroughly. The easiest way to do this is to tip all the contents onto the floor and sort them there.

There you have it. A complete sort of everything in your office with a recurring task “Tidy Office” to keep it that way.

Reader Comments (27)

Here's a much simpler way to thoroughly sort out a room which gets straight to it and doesn't use lists.

- Work around the room and move all the loose clutter to the floor outside the room. If you have messy drawers, make a pile from each drawer on the floor outside, same with messy filing cabinets and cupboards. The idea is that straight away with minimal work you've purged the room of clutter and it's now sterile, only non-clutter is allowed back in.

- Clean the room, eg vacuum, dust, clean windows, so it's all clean

- Tidy up what's in the room, eg cables, furniture

- The items outside the room, bring them back in one at a time and put them where they need to go. Stuff which belongs in other rooms, put it away in those other rooms now. If those other rooms need similarly sorting, put it in a pile in those rooms for later on. Have a bin handy and don't be afraid to throw stuff away.

Now the room is clean and sorted. Stick some music on while you're doing it and the time flies (I stream trance very loudly from If the room is not that cluttered you can just use part of the room itself as the dumping area, eg a bed. For bonus points, try to cultivate a habit of putting stuff away in its proper place straight away in future, and don't leave it too long between cleaning an tidying and the work is minimal.

March 6, 2016 at 17:35 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I don't know if you have actually tried the way you suggest, but I have. And the problems I found with it are:

1. Because you are moving a quantity of stuff which is at present hidden in myriad drawers, cupboards, etc, to an area outside the room you now have a huge pile sitting in another part of the building which will take possibly weeks to sort out. To say the least this is not going to be popular with your fellow workers or family members.

2. Because you are moving stuff which tends to be roughly sorted already (e.g. the contents of your filing cabinet) to an unsorted pile elsewhere you have given yourself a problem which didn't exist before, i.e. sorting the stuff into related categories.

3. Your office is basically non-functional while all this is going on. If something major comes up while you are in the middle of this sort, you have a serious problem.

My method was developed precisely in order to avoid these problems. You never have to mess up other areas of the building. You have only relatively small sorts of related objects. And your office remains fully functional throughout, however long it takes.
March 6, 2016 at 17:46 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark, yes I've used this approach for around 40 years, it works great at all levels of disarray and room sizes. The less cluttered a room is the easier it is to use because the clutter pile is smaller and you can use part of the room itself to hold it while it's a work in progress.

Use commonsense. If there's a lot of stuff to sort and it'll be in the way of people, put it somewhere out the way. Tell people to watch out fot it, better still ask them to help. The corollary is that having all the clutter out the room is a great incentive to get it back in tidily and finish the job fully. If there's a function tied to the room which is needed, either schedule some downtime or work the sorting around it its usage. Don't move stuff which is roughly sorted, simply leave it and sort it as part of tidying the room.

In return, I think the problems with your method are it's way overthought, requires making lists instead of getting to work, wastes time making things look nice on the outside without addressing the problem, doesn't deep clean and doesn't get down to business until step 6.

March 6, 2016 at 19:31 | Unregistered CommenterChris
LOL Chris' method is the "manly man's" way of cleaning up: Make a mess (i.e. dumping what's in a messy area into the middle of a clean area) so you'd be forced to clean everything up.

I should know, this is how I clean up too :-D
March 6, 2016 at 19:51 | Registered Commenternuntym

<< Make a mess (i.e. dumping what's in a messy area into the middle of a clean area) so you'd be forced to clean everything up. >>

Well, I have tried Chris's method over many years and all I have usually succeeded in doing has been to end up with a bigger mess than I had before with everything in an unsorted heap.

But the real point is that if Chris has a method that works for him then he should continue using it. And so should anyone else for whom it works.

But if, like me, someone has a method that doesn't work for them, then they should spend time working out why it doesn't work and take steps to put it right. That's not overthinking - it's thinking. And if it needs lists, who cares as long as it works?
March 6, 2016 at 20:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Clean up an area
(visable before invisable)
Maintain it
Clean up another area
Maintain it
March 6, 2016 at 20:53 | Unregistered CommenterTom
"LOL Chris' method is the "manly man's" way of cleaning up: Make a mess (i.e. dumping what's in a messy area into the middle of a clean area) so you'd be forced to clean everything up."

Heh, not exactly. If you've got a room which is a mess it's difficult to sort out while you're surrounded by it because sorting out one part makes another part, which you've just sorted, messy again. And it can be difficult to sort one level of mess if other mess is in the way. The concept of touching things as few times as possible comes into play - move all the mess out the way to one controlled area and restore things efficiently. You've got to touch it all at some point anyway.

The stuff I'm talking about moving out the way is the same calibre of stuff Mark is talking about dumping into a pile. No-one's proposing to make a mess out of something that's mostly tidy.

Mark wrote: "We start with the visible parts because it’s highly motivating to have an office that looks tidy and efficient, even if it hides a multitude of horrors behind the drawers and cupboard doors."

I would find that highly demotivating. It would wind me up knowing it's still a tip underneath, and even more knowing I've been dancing around making it look pretty while not addressing the actual problem.

March 6, 2016 at 21:38 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Mark: <<And if it needs lists, who cares as long as it works? >>

Exactly! To be honest the "manly man" method does not work that well for me; no matter how often I do it to lessen the clutter it does always make a mess at first, which in the end feels too much effort. I think I will try your method because, yeah, in the beginning it will take up to step 6 to work but afterwards you will have a checklist that you just go through.
March 6, 2016 at 22:14 | Registered Commenternuntym
nuntym: I hope I explained why the approach I use isn't what you're calling "the manly method". And do report back on how you get on with making a list in order to tidy a room.

March 6, 2016 at 23:51 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Picking up on nuntym's quote from Mark: "And if it needs lists, who cares as long as it works?"

Because this is a forum where people discuss methods of personal organisation and people try different approaches, so I imagine "everyone here" is the answer to that question. Also "it works" is subjective and open to debate, as with all approaches. AF "works" but that didn't stop discussions on other systems.

March 7, 2016 at 0:12 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Have you read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo? Or her recent book Spark Joy?
I have read a lot of books on organizing over the years but her approach is unique and has been very effective for me (and many others) without the problem of things becoming cluttered again.

She has worked with thousands of clients and her book is a bestseller.

She has interesting ideas about the mind set necessary in order to do the decluttering (thus the joy aspect) and sorts by categories not rooms or drawers,closets,etc. She does address electronics,paperwork,files and much more. It is not minimalism per se but how to use joy,gratitude,and thankfulness as you touch each item. We can thus keep only those things that are beautiful or useful to us. This keeps the process specific to the individual.

In my own desk and home office area and all other areas of my home I found the momentum of decision making on what to keep or let go became easier and then I also knew exactly what I had ,where it was and why I kept it.
March 7, 2016 at 4:24 | Unregistered CommenterLora

<< sorts by categories not rooms or drawers,closets,etc >>

Thanks for the recommendation. I've not read the book but I have tried sorting by categories. For me, the physical area approach is far more effective. However different approaches suit different people (and sometimes the same person at different times).
March 7, 2016 at 9:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
At the extremely wimpy end of the spectrum, you can set a rule that whenever you get something out, you must put two things away. I have used this to some effect in the past.
March 7, 2016 at 14:27 | Registered CommenterWill
Mark: I read some of the summaries and reviews of the book suggested by Lora and it seems that it categorizes things by <how much joy each thing gives you>. It is a very interesting concept, I'd buy it if my backlog of books to read was not so full.

Thanks Lora!
March 7, 2016 at 16:46 | Registered Commenternuntym
I'm surprised that Mark didn't mention the essential technique of halving. I always use this when I'm faced with a pile of stuff – not just paper. It works great for sorting a drawer of miscellaneous stuff, mainly by avoiding the problem of picking something up, e.g. an old picture or letter, and contemplating whether to keep it, where you might put it, all the while reminiscing about the times and people involved. If you have a clear yes/no sorting question in mind before you pick up the item, you avoid getting lost down memory lane.

I also recommend doing the sort all in one go, *not* little-and-often. Pick a manageable chunk, e.g. one drawer or cabinet or surface. Estimate the time needed to sort that pile, then double the estimate. Block out that time on your schedule, and let other people know you do not want to be interrupted. Sort via halving until everything is either put back or placed in an identified bin or pile. First sort question should always be "Trash? Y/N."
March 7, 2016 at 17:14 | Registered Commenterubi

<< it seems that it categorizes things by <how much joy each thing gives you> >>

My tax records must be in a class all by themselves then!
March 7, 2016 at 17:49 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< First sort question should always be "Trash? Y/N." >>

I do actually use halving for sorting each individual drawer, etc. But it would have made the post too complicated if I'd included it - and I also didn't want to give the impression that halving is the only method one can use with it

However I wouldn't use the Trash? question with it. The first rule of halving is that one should only throw stuff away in context. To get something in context is a result of the halving procedure.
March 7, 2016 at 17:56 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Is there a link to the halving technique?
March 7, 2016 at 18:49 | Registered CommenterWill
Ditto Will's question. What exactly IS the halving technique?
March 7, 2016 at 19:19 | Unregistered CommenterTom
The halving technique is described in Mark's first book.

It's described by Mark in this forum thread (I don't know how to specify the exact post). Look for the Nov 25 post.
March 7, 2016 at 20:26 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
Halving has been discussed numerous times on this site. Article search is your friend:

Here's one of the explanations from Mark [posted November 25, 2013]:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I think Seraphim's advice is good, but if you want to do a more thorough job on your papers then you might want to consider the halving method.

Find a description that covers about half the papers. In my case it would be "Work Papers". I would then sort all the papers into "Work" and "Everything Else".

Then take the "Work" pile and once more find a description that covers about half the papers in that file. In my case that might be "Coaching". Again sort the papers into "Coaching" and "Everything Else".

Keep doing this until you have a pile of one document only. Delete it or file it, opening a new file if necessary.

Then go back to the previous pile and halve that in the same way. Delete or file in the same file as before.

Keep doing this until you have dealt with all the papers. As you go along, shred or otherwise dispose of any papers which don't need to be kept. Open new files as needed.

If you come across any papers needing action, put a red flag on them when you file them and note the action required in your task management system with the name of the file they are to be found in.

The advantages of doing things this way are:

1. The only decision you need to make is whether each document belongs to the category you are currently sorting.

2. A logical filing system creates itself.

3. Every document is dealt with in context because it is surrounded by the other documents relating to the same subject. This makes it easy to decide which documents can be deleted.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

From my experience, I still think the best first question is "Trash? Y/N." But maybe that's because I resort to halving after I've let stuff pile up for too long.
March 7, 2016 at 20:46 | Registered Commenterubi
Hi All,

I'm back after a cold-turkey drop, and am now trying limited online socializing. It's the first thing to get cut, though, if things go south. I've been reading the blog and comments, but on the tablet, after the computer goes off for the day, so I didn't get caught up responding.

During the break, I've put at least my own areas in order. Not perfect, and some areas still need attention, but the ones I use often are in good shape. The rest are backlogged.

The "dump it all in a pile" method makes things worse for me. Whatever structure I had gets lost, and now I have a big, scary pile.

I prefer little-and-often, and at any time I'm no more than five minutes from an ok stopping point. (Yes, that point might include a small basket of temporarily homeless items.)

As for what first? Whatever stands out, or gets tripped over, or is interefering with keeping something else put away. Hidden messes are usually lower priority than visible. Category and area are usually the same for me. All my dress shirts are in the closet. I sub-categorize, too. Baking pans I use often are upstairs. Ones I use less-often are downstairs.

The two most important questions for me are:

- Why are they not being put where I planned?
- Where are they being put and why?

Those questions, and questions leading from it, are good candiates for Mark's repeating the question method.

For example: The ubiquitous worn-once pile that used to live on my floor.

Why am I not putting them in the closet where they belong? Because the closet is for clean clothes! (If you ignore emotion, it will sabotage you.) So, designate one end of closet for worn-once. Nope, didn't work. Why not? That end of the closet isn't easy to get to. Designate other section. Worked sometimes. Why not all the time? At the end of the day, I'm tired.

Where do they end up? In a pile where they come off. Accept that and put a small basket in that spot. (My husband uses a chair, and folds office-clothes over the back sothey don't wrinkle.) Suddenly, all my worn-once clothes automatically go in the right spot! If the basket over-flows, ask Why is it getting full? Why am I not wearing things in it, and moving them through the system? Because I often need something nicer (or less-nice, or different colour) than is in the basket. Then that item lands on top, and I forget what's on the bottom. Add rule: Always check basket before going to closet.

Result: Still have a worn-once pile, but it's contained and small.

Another thing I realized during the process was clothes I rarely wear (fancy or out-of-season) were still taking up prime space. Yes, they were at the inaccessible end of the closet, but they still took up space. Solution: Remember the filing method where the most recently put-away item is on one end? Use that for clothes. Anything at the far end hasn't been worn in ages. So, start purge from that end. Why haven't I worn it and why am I keeping it? Too small? Don't enjoy wearing? Answer is easy -- get rid of it. Need for fancy occasions, but those are rare? Move to other closet. I keep wearing something else? Why? (I feel bad throwing out anything before it's used up. What will happen if I keep on as I am? (eventually, 30 shirts that have been demoted from nice to housework. Too-full closet. Keep the ones that are most comfortable for housework and ditch the rest. Catastrophizing isn't always bad.)
March 8, 2016 at 14:03 | Registered CommenterCricket
I have also read the book mentioned above by Marie Kondo. The Konmari Method as it is called is a practical example of the Halving method to tidy the home because you go selecting posessions that spark joy and discarding the ones that don't.
I am hopefull that her method will help me downsize my belongings by this first semester. There are still recurring tasks. For example the clothes that my son outgrows and we have to buy new biggger size.
March 10, 2016 at 0:56 | Unregistered CommenterWendydeLee
Thanks, Mike and ubi.

I'm afraid that, for me, Trash is the ONLY category that covers at least half of the documents. Though after the first sort, I'm not sure I would want to keep halving it, rather than simply throwing it away.
March 10, 2016 at 13:34 | Registered CommenterWill

<< Though after the first sort, I'm not sure I would want to keep halving it, rather than simply throwing it away. >>

That's not the halving technique. It's a technique called "throwing stuff away".
March 10, 2016 at 21:37 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<...a technique called "throwing stuff away">

Interesting concept. Must try it some time.
March 11, 2016 at 8:48 | Registered CommenterWill
In my inbox yesterday, a link to this.

(The newsletter recycles articles fairly often. It looks like I'm not the only one who appreciates being reminded of the basics time and again.)
March 12, 2016 at 0:30 | Registered CommenterCricket

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