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Tropical Storm

Like a tropical storm, 

I, too, may one day become “better organized.”

          —Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance


There are many theories of organizing, and I like to learn from all of them. I probably will never tire of reading other organizing geeks’ tips and tricks. (See the end of the article for my very favorite resources.) But when MDK asked for a self-care piece on this topic, I really had to stop and ask, How DO I do it, actually?

Well, for one thing, I was raised by a Marine, and have been folding my socks and making my bed just so from a tender age. In a certain mood, I also admire color-coordinated filing systems and associated label-making hijinks. I vibe with those shirt-folding YouTubers, I love me a capsule wardrobe Pinterest board, and I will happily spend all day with you Dewey Decimaling your personal library.

But this style of organizing is kind of a shallow presentation layer and it actually includes, just for fun, a fair bit of needless complication. Which is fine, but at its foundation, organizing is about structure and principles. It’s about simplicity and repetition. (What I imagine are also the design foundations of knitting patterns.)

At the end of the day, organizing for me is about finding ways to do less. When I find myself saying Man, I have simply got to get more organized!, I’m usually trying to achieve one or two things:

  1. To not have to work so hard.
  2. To not have to think. At all.

Rest and recreation—more time to enjoy this precious Earth ride—is the usual motivation for Getting More Organized. But I think the bigger payoff with organizing is less cognitive load. Less dithering. 

The tell-tale shilly shally

If I’m getting tripped up by life basics, and always asking myself things like Should I? Shouldn’t I? Maybe now? Also, golly, how? And is it worth it yet? Maybe it would be more efficient to postpone?, this is a sign that my little world has gotten needlessly complex.

The classic example at Daniels Ranch is trying to figure out the optimal time to run the dishwasher. It sounds like an insane thing to debate, but if you’re operating on a no-waste mandate (see above; raised by a really quite austere Marine), wow, you sure can get hung up. And the consequences of waiting until the dishwasher is truly packed before running it are, d’oh!, you don’t have what you need when you need it. Mornings are DISORGANIZED.

So I have eliminated that cognitive load and the inevitable (mild, but still: a functional drag on the proceedings of life) disorder that results. I willingly suffer a tiny bit of waste—occasionally—and run the dishwasher every night before bed no matter what. 

And if that also sounds insane to you I understand, but the payoff is way out of proportion with the effort. There’s no thinking! No pothering! When dinner’s over, we push the button. Kind of like what a Marine might call “following orders.”

So relaxing. Wherever I can repeat something without thinking about it, life is made easier: laundry, smoke alarm batteries, etc. 

Obviously, this is a way to approach odious tasks that must be done, and must be done regularly. Questioning whether a task really does have to be done is an article for another day. 

But caveat: If it ain’t broke, don’t let some random internet self-care columnist tell you to fix it with a set of nesting baskets. As noted sock-folding enthusiast—not—Einstein said: Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. 

Repeat setting

So if there’s an area of life that’s bugging you—grocery shopping, managing an elder’s medical care, your workout—see if there’s some way you can set that thing on repeat, and get a little more peace for yourself. 

And as always, please share your own hacks for reducing cognitive load below!

Monsters of organization:

And on MDK:

What’s for lunch? 

Self-care: Kitchen Edition

PHOTO CREDIT:  Dekzicht van een VOC-schip naar de grote mast, Jan Brandes, 1778-1787, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.

MDK receives a commission for books purchased through affiliate links in this article.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • 2 dishwashers with CLEAN-DIRTY signs. Think of them as cabinets with benefits. As you need, take things not from a cabinet but from the clean one and when used put in the dirty one. When dirty must be run, empty the few things left in clean into your (smaller) dish cabinet, push the button on dirty. Don’t forget to change the signs.

    Yes it’s pricey, but over 30 years it’s paid off for us!

    • Bravo for you!!! I’ve been met with incredulity and worse for positing this blasphemous theory.

      • I had the same problem with the contractor who groaned and rolled his eyes and made me promise never to run them at the same time! To me it seems like a no-brainer if you have the room, but somehow it seems incomprehensible to many.

    • My mother in law has a fancy two- section dishwasher that works like this! It takes the space of a normal dishwasher but it has two drawers that slide out and run independently. My grandma-in-law (not her mother) pooh-poohs it because you can’t run them both at the same time, but grandma also stuck a nonstick pan in the dishwasher so I’ve learned to filter and organize the things she says to me.

    • Someone doing interior design on a flat told me it’s quite usual to put 2 dishwashers into homes now as they are often cheaper to buy and install than equivalent cupboard space.

  • Several years ago I looked at my grocery receipts and pantry staples and put them all on a spread sheet. I organized the list by store layouts. (All freezer together, all produce together, etc.). This allows me to inventory the pantry and fridge then simplifies the store run. I included those items a kitchen must always have – you know – chocolate chips, cream of something soup, etc. and space on the list for adding extras for menu planning. The list has a spot to check what is needed and I managed to get 2 lists to a sheet of paper. The cut sheets are bundled in the kitchen and easy to mark as I use those staples. For me this has been much easier than an app and works especially well when I remember to take the list with me!

  • I’m old enough to have lived through several organizing/decluttering trends. And tried many of them.
    Recently I listened to “Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-ending Battle with Stuff”by Dana White.
    It was a fun listen and I learned a few things. I’d say it was “eye opening” rather than “earth shattering.” No crazy new ways to fold things or line up things on a shelf.
    But her simple, practical ways to look at things have made a difference in my house.

    • I love Dana White! I’ve never read organizing advice from someone whose brain was so much like mine, and I found it ever so comforting to know that other people are baffled by having to [insert daily chore here] AGAIN when you just did it yesterday.

  • My husband has taught me the beauty and grace of following a routine. I am by nature a bit scattered and higgily piggily. Purse, glasses, Kindle anywhere and everywhere In contrast he has always placed his wallet in the same place everyday. Amazingly – its never lost. I’ve followed his lead and have adopted similar habits. What a difference for my life – purse never lost, knitting right where I know it will be, and medicine always where its supposed to be. This has extended to our household routines that we both participate in which make life so much easier – running the dishwasher every night, grocery shopping on Sundays, dinner and vegetable plans written on the fridge. But, for our partnership, its a welcome routine not one we punish ourselves over when its missed. Thanks Max! You are speaking my language.

  • I have just recently “let go” of excess stuff in our apartment. It feels so much better and we still have more to let go. I have a question though, how do others organize their yarn and knitting stuff? I lose track of why I bought yarn, and what patterns go with what. Space is at a premium and I’ve recently realized that I cannot tolerate too much stuff, even if it’s beloved stuff!

    • My yarns are kept in plastic bags, and the bags stored in various bins or totes. It’s a very full closet. Each tote is labeled by yarn weight. Each bag of yarn has a paper inside with: name, type, how many skeins, yardage, sometimes plans for it. Separately there’s a list of each and every one (it was a fun day of organizing all that!) in a folder, each page listing only one weight of yarns available, with all pertinent info, including pattern ideas or plans. So there’s a page for worsted, fingering, sport etc. Once I use a yarn, it’s crossed off the list, or the remaining amount is changed. I guess it’s sort of cross referencing for ease in finding stuff.

      • I’ll have to have a fun afternoon going through my yarn!

    • I like to print out the pattern and put it in a bag with the yarn, or if not the pattern, then an index card or sticky note that has the pattern name. That makes it easier for me to keep track of what the yarn’s destiny was intended to be.

      • I’m with you on this one! Call me old-fashioned, but I’m more comfortable with paper!

      • Thanks, it seems I can’t rely on my memory any longer, lol!

    • If you can still use Ravelry, I’d suggest that you try using it. In your queue, you can pair yarn and pattern without having to purchase the pattern. I have all of my stash catalogued in Rav and I put a note on the yarn. I also have all my intended makes favorited and put a note on the pattern as to which yarn I intend to use. You can also use bundles the same way, although I only tend to do this if I have a couple of patterns I’m thinking of for a certain yarn, or if I have several colorways of the same yarn.

      • Never thought to use Raverly that way. Thanks!

      • This is absolutely true, Tisha! I do the same and when I start a project Ravelry instantly migrates the yarn from stash to on the needles and then when the project is finished I note how much yarn was used and the rest goes back into stash – all digitally. One of many fabulous features on the Ravelry site.

      • I like to print my Ravelry Stash list whenever I go on an LYS tour or yarn crawl. I know I could just use the ravelry app, but for those of us with vision issues it’s just easier to glance at a piece of paper.

    • I keep a list of yarn I have in the notes app on my iPhone. If I’ve bought yarn for a specific project, the yarn and the pattern are bundled together; if it’s stash (had to have it)it goes into a different container. The containers are labeled (knitting projects #1, Madelinetosh stash, etc). When I’m ready to start a new project I can easily look through what I have. The containers stack neatly on my closet shelf.
      I also learned I’m OK with discarding yarn I no longer want or UFOs that I really don’t want to finish.

      • Thanks, great idea!

  • Years ago I read Time Management for Unmanageable People by Anne McGee Cooper. It did not miraculously change my life but it does offer great ideas for organizing life and stuff for those of us who are somewhat unmanageable. 🙂

    • That sounds like a good one. I would like to manage my time, and I am definitely an unmanageable people.

  • I’d argue that Marie Kondo’s followup book (Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying up) is the one you need to actually get the job done. I have it and love it and refer to it often. The first one was just a bunch of arguments as to why you should declutter and organize and anecdotes proving the same.

    • I’m reading Spark Joy right now. It says “illustrated” in the title but it’s just a few diagrams to show you how to fold clothes etc. It is delightfully practical.

  • I’ve always said all my organization is due to my inherent laziness. When I reach into the silverware drawer, or refrigerator, I don’t want to have to poke around looking, so forks always here, milk always on this shelf, etc. And when I walk through the door wallet, keys, phone in the same spot always. But I also don’t have time for doing things like rolling my clothes into bundles. They have a drawer and that’s as organized as they get. I think, however, that I probably have way fewer articles of clothing than the average American, so finding things is not hard.

  • I got rid of the guilt of starting my not so full dishwasher when I read an article explaining that the dishwasher actually uses less water that hand washing. It is set to start once a day – and no more worrying about whether or not it is really full!

  • The bottom line for my organizing is to Put Things Away. It almost doesn’t matter where it goes, just get it off the flat surfaces and no longer distracting you. I do admit that my shelves and drawers are organized, so things do have their correct locations. But clear that clutter! Drives me batty to have a cluttered house.

  • I always have the same thing for breakfast: coffee with creamer and a Luna protein bar. Always. It makes life so much easier to not have to worry about breakfast!

    • I find it calming not to have to think of what to have for breakfast, so I rotate between cinnamon raisin bagel/applesauce/pistachios, cinnamon raisin toast/applesauce/pistachios, and Multi grain Cheerios/applesauce/pistachios. Pistachios serve as my protein.

  • I have been doing meal kit delivery for about four years now (started with Home Chef and current,y doing Sun Basket). I LOVE it. I get to try different things, it reduces my grocery shopping, and I have much less food waste. As a single person, cooking usually meant eating one thing for days until I’m heartily sick of it or throwing away food, since things aren’t generally packaged in small enough quantities for one person. Best of all, I spend almost no time deciding what to make for dinner, and that reduction in cognitive load has been amazing.

  • For me, I realized I have a ton of yarn, lots of patterns, and it is in two rooms. As I bought patterns I printed them off placed them in a bag then went to the lys to fill the bag. Welp, that works only so far. With lock down etc. I really look at my stash now and look at the patterns and figure out the various patterns that can be knit with this yarn. I realized that I have the ability to knit lots of wraps and use lots of my yarn.

  • David Allen, Getting Things Done. It’s not oriented towards home management, but the key is that it’s integrated. Work + all the rest of life, all together. Not because you never stop working (you should! you must!), but you’re only one person, it’s all your own one life.

  • I love Lydia Davis’ poem and now want to read her book!

  • As someone who worked with dishwasher manufacturers and dishwasher detergent for 15 years …. RUN YOUR DISHWASHER EVERYDAY. While it runs for 2 hrs, it only uses 5 gallons OR LESS of water. DO NOT RINSE YOUR DISHES!!! Scrape, don’t rinse. If you run the dishwasher everyday, you don’t get dried on food. You waste SO MUCH water rinsing. Leaving the soil on the dishes allows the sensors in the dishwasher to work properly. So don’t feel guilty. You are actually doing the right thing by running your dishwasher partially full but EVERYDAY.

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