Compartmentalizing or Organizing?

When my friend Joycelyn recently posted this cartoon in her blog,* she added a question. “What do you think, maybe not so much organized as compartmentalized?”

I really like the cartoon, and her question got me thinking about how containers work–and why they sometimes don’t. Maybe there is more to the challenge of organization than simply placing things inside of containers. After considering the possibilities, I ranked the ways I use containers in a hierarchy of increasing complexity: Storing, Compartmentalizing, and Organizing. Based on my list, I have to say that although the items in the cartoon are certainly stored and compartmentalized, they aren’t really organized. Organization might mean something more than dividing things into categories.

A simple packing box can serve as an illustration of my three-step hierarchy of container functions. At the most basic level, boxes simply hold things. The items don’t need to be organized or even sorted. At the compartmentalizing level, the things can be categorized and grouped with similar items. When it comes to organization, the categories are arranged in a way that allows for their contents to be used for their intended purpose, with little hassle. Here is how I use the hierarchy to deal with some of my own clutter issues—a topic I will return to in later posts.

STORING: As much as I hate to admit it, I regularly resort to taking a packing box (or three) and loading them up with all of the papers and odd items that collect on any flat surface throughout the apartment. Once I gather everything up, the boxes are holding the items. The apartment almost looks uncluttered, and I know where things are, even though it would take a LOT of time to find a particular item among the contents of the boxes involved. Out of sight, but never really out of mind. But a visitor to the apartment doesn’t know about the boxes stashed in the corner of the bedroom. Rats! Unless they read this post!

COMPARTMENTALIZING: I make a game out of the sorting so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. In fact, I often start out with five or ten items at a time, something that can be accomplished in just a few minutes. I try not to overthink things; instead focusing on broad categories that can be more specifically organized in the next step. If I am using a block of time, I make some piles outside of the boxes to make room for all of the categories.set up the piles outside of the boxes to divide the items into. Afterwards, the categories can be stacked back in the boxes, ready for the next step–organization. It would still take a lot of time to locate something I wanted, but the odds would be more in my favor.

ORGANIZING: I start with two or three categories of related items–things related to work, things related to household things, things related to my hobbies and interests. I start putting things away in their appropriate locations. Sometimes, the organized items will still be in one of the boxes, but often, their “homes” are in other containers, such as files, or drawers, or shelves, or other boxes—you get the idea! And the bonus is that I often discover ways to make the items more readily available. They are no longer just sitting in containers; they are more likely to get used. Sometimes, organizational ideas build on one another and even cross-pollinate.

Why is this important? Because there is more to life than work. In my next post, I will share how the hierarchy is making a significant contribution to my quilting hobby.

COMING UP NEXT: Quilting in the Hierarchy

*Joycelyn’s blog Nine Paths features all kinds of things about the Enneagram. Since personality obviously has a lot to do with the way we collect, use, and organize things, this can be a good resource for understanding your own take on containers and many other things. Visit her blog at