Messy Organization

Not all organization effort is equal. Just because you organize something, doesn’t mean it is going to make you any more productive. If you pay attention to the cost benefit of organization, you can keep from wasting time and focus on efforts that are actually beneficial.

Lets talk about silverware as an example. Assume that after you run your silverware through the dishwasher you randomly place each piece somewhere in your house. You put some in the drawers in the bathrooms, others on top of books on the bookshelf, some above the fireplace, some in the refrigerator, etc. In other words your silverware storage is totally disorganized. Is that efficient? No of course not.  Whenever you need a fork, you have no idea where to look and you’ll spend a great deal of time looking for it only to eventually find it in a potted plant–where it is dirty and you’ll have to wash it before using it.

Now assume you do what most people do and you have a little tray in a drawer where you place each item together with like items in their own slot. Is this efficient?  Well, on the retrieval side of things is sure is. You can find a fork very quickly because you know exactly where to look, but you do have a certain amount of time invested in placing each item in its slot.

What if instead of having an organized silverware drawer, we decided to simply dump all the silverware in the drawer–no tray? Sure it would look like a mess, but would it really be less efficient?  We’d save a lot of time putting the silverware in the drawer, but would we lose that much when it came time to getting the silverware back out?  If you have a drawer full of spoons, knives and forks, how much time would you actually waste if they were all there in just a random order?

The answer is of course “it depends.”  If you are single and generally need one utensil at a time, this might be an optimal setup.  It also might work if you have a simple silverware collection with only 3 or 4 different types of items–no salad forks, butter knives, soup spoons, pickle forks, etc.  On the other hand, if you routinely have to set the table for 7 people, there may be an advantage to being able to grab all of your forks in one grasp because the time required to go through and pick out every single fork would be greater than the time required to put them in the organized slot to start with.

The same thing is true of the way we organize socks. If your sock inventory consists of 2 or 3 different types, simply dumping them all in the drawer may be more efficient than trying to match up each pair. (And you probably know from experience that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never match all the socks that come out of the dryer–something will be missing.) If each pair of socks you own is unique, you’ll want to match them before putting them away because the time required to find a match after they are all in the drawer will be greater than when you are doing the laundry.

My point is that some types of “messes” are actually more efficient than rigid organization. It is possible to still have a nice looking living or office area while optimizing your organization for efficiency. Organization needs to be designed around how we actually  use stuff otherwise it can become a time waster just like being disorganized.


  1. says

    VERY well said! First Rule of effective organizing is to figure out what “enough” is. In every dimension. Including emotionally. One reason to make things a little messy looking is to inspire a positive emotional sense of clarity – or a higher level of energy – it may take a little more time, but time spent making yourself feel clear, energetic and focused pays dividends. It’s important in your cost benefit analysis to distinguish whether the time spent organizing is truly a “cost” or an “investment” in your peace of mind, stress reduction,energy levels, sense of accomplishment, and even a sense of self-validation and confidence.

    Another way to look at this is what I call “strategic” wasting of resources. Something always gets wasted…the trick is determining which value to maximize: Time? Energy? Money? Standards? Visual impact? (which for some people greatly impacts energy.)

    Great conversation point…thanks for sharing!


  2. zackrobbin says

    this is great. i’ve recently been thinking about some similar things lately.
    one key idea in “messy efficiency” is that of interchangeability: you find a pair of socks much more easily if many of them are essentially the same sock. i realized that i could throw almost all of my t-shirts into a single box in my closet, unfolded and unsorted. except for a handful of special ones, most of my t-shirts are interchangeable in two groups: white shirts that i’m always wearing under my work (office) shirts, and non-white shirts that i toss on when i’m going to bed, lounging around the house, or doing somewhat messy work outside. t-shirts don’t really benefit from being neatly folded, and i can always at a glance grab a shirt that’s either white or isn’t, and so this portion of doing laundry is now super fast and easy.

    • says

      Good points. I was able to simplify my socks by turning all of them into rags and then buying five pairs of black socks and ten pairs of white socks. This happened after continually matching a navy blue and black sock together and not noticing until I was out in the sunlight.

      • Diana Benton says

        I need to do this for me and my boyfriend, we are always having problems finding matching socks bc they all look the same until we go into the sunlight. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Eain says

    Neat idea, but the amount of stress I feel from having a disorganized drawer is far greater than the time I save by not organizing it. Much like making a bed (“it’ll just get disheveled again, so why bother?” “Because it looks like crap and impinges on my consciousness when it’s messy!”), I will continue to sort my silverware and stack my socks neatly in their drawers, thanks.

    • says

      Obviously don’t do anything that makes you feel unhappy. However, some people feel like it is wrong to have something messy. Recognizing that sometimes a bit of a mess is actually more efficient can be a great stress reliever.

  4. Dan T says

    To a simple notion, I add this nugget …

    I sort the silverware on its way into the dishwasher, spoons in 1 section of the silverware container, forks etc.

    Out of the dishwasher, it goes directly into the sorted tray … many ways to skin the cat, not drop a beat & still be efficient on both input & output.


      • Anke Fleischer says

        With female logic I can’t follow you guys, sorry: What’s better or more efficient about that? Whether on the way in or out doesn’t seem to matter: Fact is you have sorted your silverware.

        • says

          If you are dealing with full place settings for multiple people then yes. However, if you are dealing with the utensils you are likely to use for one or two people, you are likely to be putting them into the dishwasher one at a time. There is not extra cost in time to put the spoon the same holder as the other spoons. However, when you to go to empty the dishwasher you can place them all in the right part of the drawer without sorting because they are already sorted.

    • says

      My basic argument is that some types of organization don’t save us time in the long run vs. a more messy approach. Other examples would be books, CDs, computer files, and bills.

  5. Me says

    I was about to agree with you as I do the same with my socks / underwear, but with utensils I think it’s critical to organize it separately. This is because if you don’t organize your forks, spoons, and knives from each other, it will be harder to tell when you have run out of one utensil type and you will waste time searching for it.

    • says

      True, but this probably depends on how many place settings you have. If you have 6 of each utensil, it probably won’t be too difficult to tell when you have run out. If you have 32 place settings this type of organization is probably going to be a problem.

  6. says

    Great tips here! I throw all of my white, athletic-type socks in a sturdy plastic bag that’s hung by the handles on the clothes rod in my closet, while folding the tops of my matched dress socks together so that those don’t get mixed up. Since white socks and dress socks are so different, I figured it’s worth having two systems for them. Cheers, LH Reader

  7. Nicholas Kronos says

    All time is not equal, however. Part of the reason one organizes is it can be done at leisure, whereas retrieval is often done in haste. Organizing is not just a time saver, but a way of preparing in advance–banking time I now have–in case I need it later.

    • says

      Good point, but I’d still suggest that you need to know if it is actually going to benefit you. There are somethings we do out of habit that will never save us time.

  8. madog says

    Do this with my socks, but not my silverware. I invested several years ago in a sterling silver set (Silver was $7 then it’s now over $22) and want to keep my investment sound. Dumping it in a box or drawer would result in scratches, damaging my investment. Same thing is true of stainless. I suppose if you want to eat off Walmart flatware it wouldn’t matter as much, that’s up to you, but I like a nice eating experience.

    Also if you put knives in there, they will quickly become dull and even nicked, plus eventually you will stab yourself.

    • says

      If you wear $40 socks, you probably wouldn’t want to go with the messy organization either. I guess I should have emphasized more that this solution isn’t for everyone. However, there are some people where it is the perfect solution. The concept behind the example is more of what I’m hoping people will remember–that sometimes organizational energy is wasted on things that simply don’t matter and don’t help you become any more efficient.

      Also I agree that throwing non-butter knives in the silverware drawer is not a good idea.

  9. says

    I recognized this principle as far back as middle school, though I’m still finding new ways to apply it. Back then, I realized that carrying a 3-hole punch and putting everything into a binder was a huge time-waster when I would inevitably get un-punched handouts in the last minute of class, not to mention how over time the holes in things eventually ripped through. By high school I had converted to a system where I had one plain folder per class, and I just dumped things into it freely – which weighed less, occupied less space, and in the end, it took me less time to find things, because they weren’t split up between punched and un-punched.

    About a year ago I dumped all my old socks and bought a bunch of identical black socks and white socks. Now I don’t fold them anymore and it saves me a ton of time.

    Would love to see more examples of how less is more when it comes to organization.

  10. Teresa says

    While I agree with you in theory, I have to say that I think your example is fallacious. I live alone, and use one utensil at a time, and therefore I am exactly the person you quoted as being perfect for the unsorted silverware drawer. However, I put away my silverware from a recent load of dishes; by happenstance, I was re-heating something in the microwave. Despite the fact that I do not sort my silverware going into the dishwasher, I was able to remove all of the silverware, sort it, and put it away in well under the 30 seconds it took my tea to re-heat. If sorting my silverware saves me even a second per utensil, it is therefore more valuable to me to sort it. Since it generally takes me several seconds to select a utensil at my friends’ house, where she keeps all of her utensils upright in a cup, and under a second to select one at my house, where they are kept sorted in a drawer, I posit that it is likely that I achieve net time savings.

    I have a theory as to why it might feel like you save time by not sorting the silverware when in fact you might. You see, every time you retrieve a utensil, the time savings are very very tiny: one second versus three or five. A few seconds is not enough to /feel/ significant, especially for someone who lives alone and uses one utensil at a time: you lose a second here, three seconds there, and you barely notice. However, when you go to put the silverware away, the time is spent in bulk, and so it feels significant.

    Now, of course, if you usually have a few seconds to spare now and then but have trouble finding 30 seconds en masse, it is probably better to still not sort your silverware. One must consider not just the net savings, but also whether one’s time comes in such convenient chunks.

    I will admit, however, that I have spent some years attempting to optimize my silverware-sorting scheme. At present, it goes as so: I lift out the silverware baskets and take them to the drawer. I grab the largest convenient bunch of silverware, and sort it out of my hand. I will usually sub-sort each handful, putting away all the table knives at one go, for example. If one practices, this becomes rather rapid, and to me the benefit of being able to grab a spoon without even looking at the drawer is immense.

    I also must admit that I sort out two sizes of spoons—soup and tea—and that I am picky about my fork sizes (although I do not sort them in the drawer). I find it easier to pick out the fork I want if my forks are all already sorted from the spoons and knives, as I can immediately see which forks are larger, so I have reasons to sort beyond the time convenience. However, I still posit that, if one is efficient about sorting one’s silverware out of the dishwasher, the time savings by /not/ doing so are likely to be negligible if extant.

  11. says

    Quite true in my office desk – the only trick to make this “messy organization” theory is presence of mind and retention.
    Not applicable for the forgetful I guess.

  12. Rick S says

    I stumbled onto this site and it does get the brain thinking. My dishwasher loading is a bit tight and loose. The plates and bowls are loaded per size partly to aid wash cycle, save space, and make unloading/putting away easier. Silverware goes in willy-nilly because I don’t want spoons nesting and coming out dirty. Big time waster.

    Same as figuring out what to hand wash and what to send through DW.

    I handwash some kettles that have cooked on food but usually DW the glass lids because they take little space and come out looking nice.

    One last thing, the time spent putting things away close to where they are used seems to help me.
    It may take time to get it there but saves time and frustration when I need to use it. Such as coffee cups,sugar, creamer, coffee, filters, by coffee maker.

  13. says

    There’s a terrific post on Small Notebook that covers this same concept (ironically, she also talks about a kitchen drawer — only she focuses on kitchen utensils rather than silverware):

    While I try hard to be as organized as possible, I have found that sometimes organizing is more effort than it is worth. So here’s a simple rule I follow: once I get to the point when I can quickly find what I need, when I need it, I stop organizing. This rule means that I never bother to organize my emails into folders. Since I can find any email I need in two seconds with a quick search, there’s really no need (for me personally — you might disagree) to folder emails.

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