The Joys of Getting Organized

By Leo Babauta

The last couple of months, things have piled up on me: emails, tasks, random notes, a bunch of browser tabs with things I’m interested or need to do, financial stuff, etc.

For the past week, I’ve been allowing myself the joys of getting organized. It’s beautiful, and I just had to share with you.

Let me say a few things first: you don’t need to be organized all the time, or at all. This isn’t a “should” to add to your list of things you’re not doing. Also, there isn’t one way to do this, and my way isn’t the “right” way. Finally, this is about joy, not torture.

How can getting organized be joyful? Here’s what I’ve been noticing:

I’ve started to feel lighter

I’ve been feeling more settled

I have been able to focus more, when I want to focus

Sorting through things and putting them in order is deliciously fun

It quiets my mind

When things are sorted, my love for the world flows more easily

Now, you can get these things in many other ways — but getting organized can be one way! Let’s explore.

The Journey of Getting Organized

Let’s say things have piled up on you, like they have for me. The first thing is not to make that some kind of judgment, but more to ask yourself, “What would be really nice? What would I like here?” For me, what came to me was, “I’d like to sort things out!”

Once you have that intention, then it’s a matter of creating some buckets, and starting to sort. Where will you put things? Find some tools to capture and organize.

Then roll up your sleeves and get started. Start to sort things a bit at a time. As you do so, please do it with a sense of reckless play! Think of how a kid can dive into a toy chest and toss things around recklessly — that’s what you’re doing, except in reverse. You’re tossing toys in your toy chest with abandon and delight! Please don’t make it torture for yourself.

When you start to do it, it will seem like the piles will never get smaller. That’s OK, because you’re having a delightful time! Don’t focus on the end result, just play! Do it for 10-15 minutes at a time, several times a day. You have those times — just check social media or watch Youtube/Netflix a little less today.

Do this for several days, and things will start to feel more sorted. Now there are some empty inboxes and the like that might be in sight — when I got down to the last 7 emails, I knew my inbox would soon be empty. What a thing of beauty! Of course, it won’t stay that way, but the deliciousness of racing towards something so lovely is a joy in and of itself.

At some point, you’ll start to feel much more organized. Maybe 5 days in, maybe a week. Enjoy that feeling. It comes and goes, like warm sunlight in the transition between winter and spring. Eventually the warm light will bring blossoms, and possibly hay fever. This is the life of getting organized.

The Tools I Use

It’s important to have a few buckets to put things in. I don’t care what you choose — find something that you love using.

Here are some ideas, and things I’ve used:

Notes: For me, this is the biggest place to organize everything — a notes app that can have buckets for things like your project plans, things you want to read and watch and listen to, random ideas, etc. There’s an abundance of great notes apps — Notion, Roam Research, Obsidian, Apple Notes, Google Keep, Evernote, are all really popular. There are smaller apps that are amazing as well: Bear, Supernotes, Mem.ai, Tana. Lately I’ve been using Lazy.so, though it’s in beta and invite only. I recommend Roam Research, Supernotes, or the default Apple Notes or Google Keep, depending on what kind of phone you have.

Tasks: A good task management app is a bucket for putting all your tasks, both work and personal. Lately I’ve just been using the notes app with a few files for tasks (Inbox, Today, Next, and Later), where my Today note has about 5 tasks to focus on today. But there are some great task apps: Todoist or Things (Mac/iOS) are my top recommendations.

Email: It’s important to note that email is not a bucket to put things into, it’s an inbox. More on that in the next section. That said, having a good email program makes it quick to sort through the inbox — I use Gmail and Superhuman, but whatever helps you move through your inbox quickly is good.

Browser tabs: If you have dozens of browser tabs open, then having a quick way to send them to your notes and tasks apps is a good thing. I recently cleared a couple dozen browser tabs by simply sending each of them to my notes app inbox. I’ve also been using a browser called Arc, and I love it because it organizes your browsing life into different spaces (Work, Personal, Finances, Messages for me) that you can easily move between. Keeps things in buckets!

Files: How do you organize files on your computer? It’s good to set up some simple buckets — an Inbox (or Downloads) folder, then folders for finances, personal and work stuff (or whatever makes most sense for you).

What other things do you have to organize that I haven’t mentioned? Find a tool or place for them. You’ve got this!

How to Overcome the Overwhelm

The hardest thing about getting organized isn’t choosing the tools or actually figuring out what goes where … it’s the daunting nature of the whole thing. There’s so much to sort through, that we will get overwhelmed and put it all off. Putting it off is often how we got here in the first place!

So how do you deal with that overwhelm? Here’s what works for me:

Work in short bursts: If things feel daunting, I don’t try to get through all of it. I tell myself, “Just clear out 3 emails.” Or, “Just sort through 5 things here.” I do a short burst, I take a break, then I start again.

Don’t aim to finish: If you are hoping to get to empty, it can be discouraging when you work for 30 minutes to clear things out and you still have a lot to go. That’s because success is having things done, in your mind. So I focus on the joy of clearing things out (see next item), and try not to focus on getting to done.

Take pleasure in the clearing out: There’s a certain kind of deliciousness to sorting things, getting things organized. This is the part to focus on. When things pile up, it can be discouraging, because we have some ideal that things shouldn’t pile up. But what if they pile up to give us the gift of the joy of clearing things out? It’s like a pile of autumn leaves, just waiting to be gleefully dived into!

Take a few breaths. Dive in for a short bit. Take a break. Come back and practice returning, with love, over and over.

On Inboxes and Buckets

What you want to do is set up your buckets (you can add to them as you figure out what buckets you need) and then quickly sort items from your inboxes into your buckets. Let’s talk about inboxes and buckets.

Inboxes: Your email inbox is a great example of an inbox, but it’s one of several. For me, each messaging app is also an inbox, as is the team communication app we use at Zen Habits. Then I have an inbox for any notes I make for myself, and another for tasks. Open browser tabs can also be seen as an inbox — when you’ve got a bunch of tabs open, you’re collecting things, not necessarily organizing them. The important thing to note: inboxes are essential, but they are made for collecting and then sorting later.

Sorting the inbox: For each inbox, you’ll have a pile of things that have collected. The mission is to sort through them — and then to sort them regularly. Don’t worry about getting them to empty (though that can happen sometimes). Focus more on collecting and sorting into various buckets (see next item). I like to have an initial focus on sorting through the huge pile in each inbox, and then regular (daily or weekly) times of sorting for ongoing maintenance of these inboxes. We’ll talk how to sort below.

Buckets: If you don’t have a good place for things, make a bucket for it — a place to store things. For example, where will your tasks go? Emails, messages, browser tabs will often all represent tasks you need to do. You can’t close the browser tab unless you have noted that task in your task manager. If you don’t have a place for tasks, make one (could just be a note in your notes app). If you are working on a project and want to collect notes and web pages and other research, you need a note or document or folder that collects all of this. I like to put almost everything into my notes app, with individual notes (like “Fitness” or “To watch”) being buckets for things I want to collect. Don’t overthink this, just create things, it doesn’t have to be perfect or “right.”

How to Sort

For sorting, here’s the general process:

Do one item at a time. I often will start at the top of the inbox and work down, but that’s not important — you can pick anything in the inbox at any time. Just choose one item to sort.

Either take care of it now, or sort it. Some items in the inbox are so easy you can just sort it. David Allen of Getting Things Done fame has a 2-minute rule — if you can do it in 2 minutes or less, just do it now. Otherwise sort it. That’s a pretty good rule, though I’ll often still do it if it takes 3-5 minutes. If you can’t do it quickly (it’ll take 10 minutes or more, for example), just sort it.

Sorting — quickly decide what to do with it. Send it to the appropriate bucket and clear it out of the inbox quickly. Don’t let yourself get too caught up in thinking. For example, with emails, I will send the item to my task manager and then archive the email. Or if it’s a newsletter I want to read later, I’ll send it to a read-later service (Matter, Instapaper, Pocket). Or just archive it if I don’t need it. In my notes program, I will sort everything in the inbox into a number of buckets — tasks, to read, to watch, and then various topics like fitness, mindfulness, projects I’m working on. I do this quickly, it takes a couple of minutes a day.

Move on to the next item. Once you’ve put something in a bucket, clear it out of the inbox. Move to the next item. Repeat.

Practice moving through the inbox with ease. Pick something, either do it quickly or sort it into the appropriate bucket, and clear it out of the inbox. Repeat.

Ongoing: A Daily Flow

Once you’ve done a bunch of organizing, the question becomes how to keep things maintained, and how to use the buckets you’ve sorted things into.

First, it’s important to say that this isn’t about keeping things empty, or having things organized all the time. The nature of things is entropy — every day, you’ll get new emails, tasks, messages, etc. Things will pile up. Don’t create an ideal where you have everything sorted and you have to keep it that way. It’ll just create more stress. This is about the joy of getting organized, not being organized all the time.

With that mindset, here are some notes on how to work with these inboxes and buckets on a regular basis:

Set aside a little time each day for inbox sorting. Don’t live in your inboxes, and make sorting them your top priority. Instead, you can check them once in awhile for important messages, but sorting might be just once or twice a day. You don’t need to get to empty, just do some sorting every day. Once a week or so, do a bigger batch of sorting — getting to empty or at least somewhere in that neighborhood.

Live in a few of the buckets. If you aren’t spending the majority of your time in the inboxes, then there are some other places to focus on. The task manager is one — I like to take a few minutes at the beginning of the day (or at the end of the previous day) to figure out what tasks to focus on for the day, and put them on a Today list. Then I focus on the Today list for most of the day, picking one task at a time to work on. Other than the Today list, I might have a page for each of my bigger projects, and I’ll often go into those and do some work.

Have times for specific buckets. There are some buckets that need regular focus. I mentioned project pages as an example, but another example is finances. I will do a little work on finances (I use YNAB) each day, but have one day a week to do a handful of financial tasks. There might be others for you — admin tasks, chores, errands, etc. that require some regular time, whether it’s daily or weekly.

Every now and then, bring focus back to getting organized. As things have a tendency to pile up, you’ll want to bring in this joyful approach to getting organized whenever you need it. For me, it’s roughly once every few weeks, maybe a month or a bit longer. If I’ve been able to maintain things, then I don’t get this joy as much. So then I’ll take a month off and give myself the gift of shaking out the cobwebs.

This guide is not about stridently having to remain organized all the time. It’s about the natural phenomenon of things falling apart, and how to bring a zeal for organizing to the piles that have accumulated in your life. So don’t make this another thing to try to be perfect at and beat yourself up about. Instead, make it another place to bring play, love, and joy. And just a little deliriousness!

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