The Organizing Problem with Labels

In the context of organizing and downsizing, the word label may provoke images of label makers or a method to categorize groups of items. But label has another meaning when we are trying to, yet resist, simplifying our lives. 

Consider for a moment: You look around and call it clutter. You label it which makes it a bit easier to ignore. When we label something, we make the decision not to pay attention to what it really is. We choose not to investigate. We choose not to look deeper.

It is easy to call something clutter just as it’s easy to call someone sensitive or stubborn or to label something impossible. It’s a sort of easy way out. Labels are the human mind’s way of putting things in quick, simple categories. While a useful strategy at times, this often leads to a misunderstanding about the world and ourselves.

When you label something as clutter, you feel badly about it but simultaneously let yourself off the hook. It’s like when you say you need to get up earlier or exercise more. Sure, those things may generally be true but you haven’t investigated why they are true and the real challenges behind them. By labeling so quickly and flippantly, you are almost saying that it doesn’t matter.

Labeling yourself is just as problematic. When you identify as a disorganized person, you may assume that means you can never be organized. We all come with natural proclivities at a young age but if we adhere to the labels, we never give ourselves room to grow or get better. No one is born with the immediate ability to write War and Peace. An author, even with a flair for writing at a young age, still must work diligently to hone their craft, perhaps for decades. Also, we are all organized and disorganized with different things, to different degrees.

I often see clients (and friends and family) who very organized in one or two aspects of their lives or homes, but not in others. There is a spectrum of abilities.

When you identify as a busy person, to the point where everyone around you reinforces that label, taking the time to do something like unpack unopened boxes, get your bills in order, or excavate your attic would be antithetical to your persona. You almost can’t do these important, home-based functions as they would call into question whether you really are this busy person you pose to be. Labels limit more than they simplify.

We all choose how we want to spend our time and what skills we want to hone. We all prioritize (intentionally or not) how we want to divvy up our 24 hours. I’m not encouraging you to become an expert organizer. But if you’ve found yourself labeled or tend to label the stuff around you, reconsider how labels have served you and whether it’s time for a new approach. Labels can be helpful shortcuts but they undercut your ability to make true and lasting change.