Simplify Your Life: Order Out of Chaos

You build a pile of rocks, and it collapses because it was a bit unbalanced. The way the rocks end up on the ground may appear to be random. But a mathematician would tell you there’s an underlying natural order at work here – something that can be replicated, and explained, by "chaos theory."

Chaos theory is an attempt by scientists to understand why it’s difficult to predict the way dynamical systems (systems that change over time) will turn out. And why, when you try to impose a particular organization upon a dynamical system that is inconsistent with its underlying nature, it just doesn’t work.

Chaos theory has been applied to everything from the weather to music to psychology to the stock market. Today, I’m going to show you how to take advantage of it to efficiently organize the things you use every day.

Let’s start with your closet. Logic suggests that you should hang like things together. All shirts together. All slacks together. All jackets together… and so on. So that’s what you do. And what happens? Slowly but surely, order turns to chaos.

But wait. When you look closely, you see that the jumble that has evolved in your closet is not random. In fact, it makes sense in a very practical way. The clothes you wear most often have gravitated to the front. Tops and bottoms that you like to wear together are hanging next to or near each other. And the rest of your wardrobe has mysteriously disappeared into dark corners.

Now, on to the kitchen. Your spices are carefully arranged in a cabinet, maybe even alphabetically. Your oils and vinegars are grouped together in the pantry. Condiments – mustards, ketchup, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, etc. – occupy the same shelf in the refrigerator. Pots and pans, dishes, utensils – all neatly organized. How long does that last? Not very. But again, your favorites – the ones you use most – wind up in the most convenient spots.

Same thing happens with your reference books, your CDs, and your medicine cabinet. And that’s a good thing.

The idea is to allow the way things get used to dictate where they go.

I’ve been told that when a college campus or medical complex is being laid out these days, the designers wait until it’s been built before deciding where to put the sidewalks. Then they follow the pathways made by people walking between buildings. When they did it the other way around – putting the sidewalks where they thought they would function (and look) best – people made pathways in the grass anyway.

The trick is not to get hung up on aesthetics. Your closets, kitchen cabinets, bookcases, etc. may look like a mess, but who cares? How many people besides you ever see them?

So fight the urge to tidy things up and put them where they "belong," and you’ll end up with the most efficient way to organize your stuff. As a bonus, when the time comes to have a yard sale or put together a bundle to donate, everything you know you really should get rid of will be right there – neatly collected in the back of your closets and the deep recesses of your cabinets and shelves.