Tag: organising

Pink Lotus on a Pond

Seven Realms of Organising

I like to think of organising as a natural, organic process.  As humans we are undoubtedly biological creatures, but many of us a have a sense that we are also more than this. We are complex creatures that defy simple explanations. I sometimes wonder how we can incorporate the many different aspects of what it means to be human into our thinking about what organising really means.

Lets consider seven perspectives on organising based around different aspects of what it means to be human. I like to think of them as realms, as each seems to have its on character and language. We can use these realms to focus our attention on how our living environment supports and reflects our needs, capacities and difficulties in each area.

Organising Questions Using the Seven Realms

Following are questions based on seven realms that I find helpful to consider – physical, social, personal, emotional, thinking (content), thinking (process), and spiritual. I’ve adopted a question format to demonstrate how these areas can be used to focus our thinking.

1. Are basic physical needs being met?

Basic physical needs include food, shelter, clothing, a safe place to sleep, heating, hygiene and sanitation. This is the most primary level of need and is reflected in the very structure and design of our homes. Kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, and toilets, are designed to allow us to meet these fundamental requirements. Many of the objects we purchase, even luxury goods, are also pointing to these essential needs. In affluent societies problems arise with excess, as well as lack. Difficulties in these areas can threaten health, wellbeing and survival at a very basic level.

2. Does the living arrangement allow for social and interpersonal interaction.

The interpersonal level is where people interact with one another. It’s the level of partners, families, children, and flatmates. The living environment is not just a personal space, but a collective habitat which the actions of everyone have an impact. Homes include spaces that are public and private, for collective or personal use. They also include furniture and objects designed for use by more than one person. Difficulties which impact on this level can inhibit social interaction, or lead to interpersonal overwhelm, creating a strain in relationships.

3. Does the home environment allow for personal expression of each individual.

This is the realm of individualty where each person has their own unique character. Here we are considering personal style and preferences as well as the desire for self fulfilment. Its the area of creative expression and self actualisation and manifests itself in spaces and objects involved in hobbies, interests and creative activities. We may also consider how the style of the environment fits the personality of the individual. Difficulties in this area inhibit personal expression or cut across personal styles and preferences. This can lead to a sense of feeling suppressed, unfulfilled, out of step, or out of place.

4. How does this environment support emotional wellbeing?

Now we consider the realm of feelings. Love, attachments and emotions of various kinds burst forth here. Its about having the safe space to be who you are and navigate the sometimes turbulent river of human emotions. Is this an emotionally safe and nourishing place? This is also the realm of memorabilia and sentimental objects; photographs and family heirlooms reside here. Emotional turmoil and strong feelings affect all aspects of our lives. Strong emotional attachments to objects can create difficulties if they start to swamp other needs.

5. Does this environment support and reflect clear thinking and helpful ideas and beliefs.

Here we shining a light on mental constructs in the form of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. It’s the world of rational thinking, logic and systems; the realm of knowledge, education and skills. We may have books, CDs and other material that reflects our thinking and need for education and skill development. Approaches to organising may be very rational and systematic. Difficulties appearing in other realms my have their roots in unhelpful or self-limiting thinking and beliefs. Overly intellectual approaches may fail to recognise the needs and contributions of other realms. A shift in thinking, or away from over-thinking, can have a major impact on other areas of life.

6. Is the way of life supporting strengths in thinking styles and cognitive processes.

Here we are concerned with the process of thinking, rather than the content. It’s about how our neurological systems work to generate thought, initiate action and control how we perform activities. We each have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executive functioning. Difficulty getting started, concentrating, paying attention, making decisions, keeping calm, and maintaining energy levels have an impact on how we organise ourselves. Objects in this realm include clocks, diaries, and alarms that help us manage time and activities. Difficulties in this realm are often not recognised or mistaken for problems in other areas leading to unhelpful labels and misguided solutions.

7. Is this lifestyle reflecting and supporting spiritual beliefs?

This question is about how each person views the world is in its essence, and who they feel they are, at the deepest level. Meaning, consciousness, spirituality and faith belong here. This is a very personal matter and often not talked about in the context of organising, yet for many people this is a fundamental aspect of who they are. What we choose to own and how we choose to live can be deeply impacted by our view of life and its meaning. Our homes may contain objects and spaces related to this realm such as meditation rooms, shrines, religious artifacts, holy books, crystals and incense. A sense of connectedness can support overall harmony across all the aspects. A sense of disconnectness or meaninglessness may express itself the other areas.

All Connected

A list of this nature is not intended to be a complete or perfect representation of reality. It role is to act as a tool for focussing attention, in a similar way to  mediation on different parts of the body shines awareness to each area. It draws attention to the parts within the context of the whole, and the connections between the various aspects. Having given attention to each area in turn, and taken action where needed, the whole benefits.

A model like this helps us to remember that these aspects don’t exist in isolation from one another, but are all interconnected. Imbalance in one realm may show itself at another level. Limited thinking or turbulent emotions may display themselves at the physical level in the form of clutter and disorganisation. Cognitive challenges such as difficulties with concentration and staying on task may impede the best of intentions. A sense of stillness and calm at the spiritual level can open the way to clear action. These are just a few of the many interactions between the realms.

Organising solutions (and helpful advice or many kinds) tend to focus on knowledge and techniques drawn from specialised areas. Concentration on specific realms allows the development of specialist expertise, theories, and techniques relevant to that area. This can be a good thing, as a targeted approach can be helpful if the method matches the need. However unless this specialist knowledge resides within a bigger picture, we can get bogged down in narrow or incomplete solutions. Taking a wider perspective that acknowledges the existence of other realms, and the interplay between them, allows for deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation, and opens they way for a common language between different perspectives.

The selection of titles in the Books pages reflect a mix of interests drawing on expertise from the different realms. They may seem like odd companions, but what they share is an interest in how we organise ourselves as complex human beings.


Tree Reflected in a Tea Cup by Linda Aitkin

Organise Kindly

Advice on organising yourself or maintaining a household tends to focus on practical matters. Whether it be a foolproof system  for sorting an entire house or random tips and tricks, the emphasis is on getting the job done. Knowing “how to” perform an activity is certainly useful information. However for many people, it’s not a lack of knowledge and skill that gets in the way of housework harmony. If they are resisted and resented, daily household activities can easily become a chore to be endured, or a guilty omission to be swept under the carpet. The experience of cleaning, sorting and tidying is then regarded as unpleasant – an annoying distraction from the important things in life.

Yet many spiritual traditions make use of everyday activities as teaching tools. Unlike practical advice for getting things done, they focus on the process, rather than the outcome. Perhaps the most famous of these is Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions on dishwashing.

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Doing a task for the experience of doing it, rather than to get it done, turns our expectations on their head. It doesn’t seem feasible to consider the washing up as a pleasurable activity, rather than an annoying impediment to watching TV or surfing the net. Yet there is something alluring about the possibility of any task being pleasurable, if approached with awareness. What is this wondrous reality awaiting us at the kitchen sink?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the idea is to wash the dishes perfectly, as this turns the chore of washing the dishes into the chore of mindfulness. The idea is to be aware of what you are doing with kind attention, without fighting it, resisting it, or resenting it, or being so distracted that you miss it altogether.

What difference would it make if household activities were regarded as an opportunity to bring your attention to the quality of your actions, rather than the quantity of work you can get done. Could the caring attention that you want to bring to your family be right there in the act of folding washing, ironing uniforms, and taking out the garbage? Could the sense of peace, calm and loving attention that you long for be right there in the midst of whatever you are doing?


Quote from The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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The Possibilities of Inner Space

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

~ Lao Tzu 

We can become so focussed on objects that we forget about the space. Houses, rooms, furniture, storage solutions – these are all ways of defining spaces in which activities can take place or things can be kept. The walls we construct provide the limits, but its the space that allows movement and creates possibilities. Once we fill our containers with objects their potential is used up, until we chose to empty them and use them in another way.

Our materialist culture encourages us to focus on the form of our containers and our objects, but often forgets about the possibilities of emptiness. Can we appreciate an empty shelf, a gap in the bookcase, or a clear flat surface? Can we tolerate not filling things up to capacity? In a similar way western culture encourages us to fill our minds with thoughts and ideas, allowing ourselves very little space to just be.

Even two and a half thousand years ago, Lao Tsu used simple objects such as a wheel, a pot and a house to point out the fundamental truth that without space, nothing is possible. He uses physical objects to turn our attention to the power of the ” non-being” aspect – the hole in the wheel, the emptiness of the pot, and the inner space of the house.

Quote taken from Chapter 11 of The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

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The Provisonal Nature of Labels

Labels feature widely in organising. At the most tangible level there are the literal physical labels that go on jars, folders, and boxes. Rice. Beads. Taxes. Memorabilia. Then there are the descriptive labels that are applied to people. Neat freak. Messy. Disorganised. ADHD. Hoarder.

When organising physical objects the act of labeling is a logical extension of the process of sorting and categorizing. For the sake of convenience “like is put with like”. Sometimes the category used for grouping is obvious and easy to remember, but it can be helpful to use a physical tag as a reminder. A clear label saves having to work out the category later, and allows others to understand and follow the system.

For many people there is a sense of satisfaction in creating neatly labelled categories. As humans we love to make  groups. It’s part of understanding the world to notice the similarities and differences between things. At the interpersonal level we want to join groups, and identify others as belonging to groups.

A specialised type of labelling occurs when symptoms or behaviors are grouped together into a diagnosis and applied to individuals. Expressions used to describe the way people organise themselves are often derived from diagnostic terms, such as OCD, ADHD, and Hoarding Disorder, whether or not they strictly apply. For those who understand the definitions, a diagnosis is a shorthand way of sharing information quickly. Giving a name to a confusing collections of symptoms can be helpful, because the name may be a stepping stone to understanding and treatment. However it can also feel like the label consumes the person’s identity. The risk is that we begin to relate to the label rather than the person.

And this is the dilemma we face every time we assign a label. The very thing that makes labels useful, is also their greatest weakness. When ‘like is grouped with like’ the separate items seem to lose their individuality. Features that caused them to be selected into the group are accentuated, and other features are ignored, or submerged in the group identity. Its a short journey from labelling to judging, and adjectives and expectations are easily attached to groups of individuals based on assumptions about their collective nature.

These problems with labels arise when what began as a tool for understanding starts to take on a fixed quality, as if they represented a permanent or complete truth. We need to remember that the labels began with a sorting process. Like was put with like using abstract criteria for a particular purpose. But this ‘sort’ is always provisional. Things could have been sorted differently, to create an alternative set of categories with a different emphasis. Labels are imperfect representations of reality, and there is always the possibility that categories may include too much or too little, or emphasise some factors at the expense of others, creating a distorted view.

How can we benefit from the information that comes from these grouping and labelling processes without losing sight of what is important? I may be helpful to remember that groups, categories, and labels fall into a intermediate zone between the individual and the totality. This zone is conceptual rather than actual – an idea rather than the essential truth. Ultimately each item, each person, remains unique. At the same time, each is part of a greater whole, that includes everything and everyone.

We can reduce there risk of being trapped in our own mental labelling systems by tuning in to the reality of the situation as it unfolds before us, even while keeping provisional conceptual groupings in mind.  This applies whether you are revising a filing system that doesn’t work, or seeing a person who struggles with clutter with fresh eyes. We can also retain our perspective by zooming in to focus on the inherhant nature of the individual, or zooming out to see the wider context as a whole. In this way we can handle labels with a lighter, gentler touch. Labels can be a tool for making sense of the world in a certain light, but we mustn’t mistake the symbol for the thing itself.


Presence-based Organising

Where are you when you organise things. Are you in the room, or are you in your head? Are you starting with what you see before you, or an idea or belief about how things should be?

If you are asking “Where should I start?” and “What should I keep?” it may be that these “shoulds” are separating you from the task and from yourself. Organising has become a mental exercise, and you are relating to imagined ideas about what an organised person would do, rather than tuning in to the reality of your own needs.

Organising from the head, without reference to the present moment, creates a gap between yourself as you truly are and the situation as it really is right now. While you are relating to the imaginary judge who knows better, you have become cut off from the ability to find your own solutions.

Presence based organising begins not with action, but with stillness. It draws your attention away from the whirl of thoughts in your mind into your own body, and into the room you are standing in. If you feel confused about where to start, take a moment to seek out that still space inside. If you can accept the situation as it is, without judgement or expectation, you create the possibility that a genuine impulse to act will arise.

Perhaps in this quiet moment you will know the first step to take. Perhaps you will understand that you need some help, and that it’s OK to ask. You may not have all the answers, but in a moment of clarity, free of the clutter of unnecessary expectations, you may understand what to do next.


Niagara River Downstream

The Balance of Structure and Flow

When we think about organising in terms of natural systems, there are two factors that contribute to how things unfold. One is structure, and the other is flow. Structure is about the level of containment, and flow is about the level of movement. Managing our living environment effectively requires a healthy balance of each of these factors.


Structure is like the banks of a river. It defines the space and provides containment and separation. The walls of our homes create a boundary from the outside world and rooms further separate areas by function. Inside our living spaces is a sense of safety and containment which can lead to the possibility of intimacy. In managing our belongings, furniture and storage options help us contain our things within a defined space so we know where to look for them. This could be in the form of of a bookshelf, a wardrobe, or a jewellery box. These containers can also act as limits to the volume to be kept of a particular category of item.


Flow is like a water moving in a river. It is about movement and energy. The river has its own momentum and finds its way from source to its destination.  Although it is fluid, a stream has a lot of power and can travel a long way quickly. In organising we can think about how objects flow into, around and out of our homes. Objects cannot move themselves, but contain stored energy from their manufacture, and once in the system their presence and movement needs to be managed.


Structure and flow are not good or bad in themselves, but work together. In order to flow, the river requires the containment of the river bank. If there is too much water, the river bursts its banks and floods. This illustrates how difficulties arise when the levels of structure and flow are out of proportion. Too much structure, and the situation feels rigid, restrictive and inflexible. Too much flow becomes chaotic and out of control.

What we call “clutter” or “mess” may reflect an imbalance of structure and flow in relation to our belongings. Perhaps the flow of objects into the space is greater than the flow out, so things are piling up. Or there maybe there is a lack of structure, so things are not contained and become difficult to find.


The art in organising is to find the level of structure and flow that suits your specific needs. Thats not necessarily in the middle. Some situations benefit from a high degree of structure, and at other times a more fluid arrangement is helpful. A healthy balance offers enough containment to provide clarity, and enough flow to allow for flexibility and comfort.