The Not-So-Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
How I realized I loved organizing a little too much.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:43 AM
I was raised a minimalist. My parents taught me to get rid of what I didn’t use, donate what I didn’t want, and buy only what I needed. And in my adult life, I’ve been good at doing the first two of those things. Admittedly, I’m also the kind of person who “needs” two types of teddy bear slippers, is proud of her umpteen pairs of seasonally themed socks, and may or may not have a drawerful of Lip Smackers. So to deal with all my stuff, I became a hyper-organized person whose favorite pastime was to obsess over obsessing over whether my space is organized enough. (Phew.)
Spoiler alert: That just led to way more obsessing. For a long time, I thought that to remain ahead of the organizational game, I needed to purchase, well, more. I needed pencil cases and magazine racks and file folders and a planner that cheered me on with its enthusiastic mantras. I needed notebooks (so many notebooks!). I felt an intense need to prove that I was serious about cataloging and categorizing—I had to keep up the appearance of seeming organized.
My room and desk and apartment were tidy, but I’d started to cling to the idea that organizational tools would make me feel like I had my life together—when in reality, I felt anything but that. And that’s a revelation that takes time to come to. After years of habitually trying to change my life using physical things, I melted down one night, when a new set of sheets didn’t make my insomnia miraculously go away. Slowly, I started telling my therapist the truth: That I had thought I could buy my way to serenity and that I believed keeping my home hyper-organized would banish all my anxiety and flaws.
That’s when she reminded me of the crucial lesson that my parents had first taught me as a kid: The key to organization isn’t to ascribe magical properties to my planners and file folders, but to think about what I actually need.
So I confronted my stuff and donated the things that were making my organizing ordeal feel downright Sisyphean. Instead of filing my many notebooks away, I began stacking them on my desk to keep them in arm’s reach, ready to be written in. I stopped buying new hangers, new bins, new boxes, and new organizational tools—because if you don’t buy what you don’t need (or simply buy less), you won’t need them.
Which isn’t to say I won’t succumb to an adorable office supply that evokes the decor of my bedroom circa 1998. (Nostalgia is more powerful than I am, and I understand and respect it accordingly.) I also know that there will be moments when I cave and shop when I don’t need to (like when I spot another pair of seasonal socks) or decide to alphabetize my bookshelf instead of dealing with what I’ve been scared to confront, just so I can feel like I have a better sense of control.
I’ve come to realize that anyone can look organized, but we’re all still a little messy—that’s the thing about being human. And no amount of folders, paper clips, or planners will change that. I wouldn’t want them to anyway. Because now, I have everything I need.