If you can’t find something, clean up!

If you can't find something, clean up

The missing photo album (white binder next to pink binder)

I thought this phrase — If you can’t find something, clean up — was a well-known adage. But random people I’ve queried have never heard it. So, I Googled it. Turns out it’s one of Gretchen Rubin’s many Secrets of Adulthood, which she introduced in her bestselling book The Happiness Project. I guess it made so much sense to me when I read it (years ago) that I thought I’d always known it!

In all fairness, much of what Gretchen talks about is common sense, and she has lots of favorite quotes. I’m happy to give her credit, though, as I’ve been a fan for years and have mentioned her several times in previous blog posts. I would probably say “tidy up”, instead of “clean up”, though (apropos of Those Magic Little Words & How Clean Does Your House Really Need To Be?).

I’ll explain what the phrase means to Gretchen, and to me, and then I’ll add a couple of corollaries of my own.

Gretchen’s Secret of Adulthood: If you can’t find something, clean up.

Gretchen: “If I can’t find something, I clean up — and I almost always find what I was looking for, plus some things that I wanted to find, that I didn’t even know I’d lost.”

Hazel: One of my favorite predictable moments during a decluttering session with an organizing client is when they find something and exclaim, I’ve been looking for that! If everything has been assigned a home, and if you don’t let your containers overflow, and if you maintain your space by putting things away where they belong, you will be able to find your things next time you need them. If, however, you have a pile of clutter because you didn’t put things away (life happens), or they are new things that don’t have a home yet, or they’re trash, then who knows what’s hiding in that mystery pile?

Hazel’s Corollary #1: Keep in mind you might be looking for the wrong thing.

In other words, maybe the thing you are trying to find looks different than the way you remember it. Maybe it’s larger, or smaller, or a different color, or it’s hidden inside something else.

Example: One time I was looking for my college diploma. I thought I knew which bin it was stored in, but I didn’t see it there. It was there, though, and I did eventually find it. The problem was that I was looking for a black leather folder, when I should have been looking for (or at least open to possibly seeing instead) a large manila envelope (with a black leather folder inside).

Hazel’s Corollary #2: If you clean, declutter, or tidy up, and still do not find what you are looking for, it might free your mind to think of another solution.

Many of us have had the experience of hiding something so well we forget where we hid it. But what if we simply put something in what seems to be a temporary, safe-but-not-secret, place and forget? There are lots of ways to find things, and to prevent them from being lost. Here’s a good article about that from Wikihow.

And here’s my own recent experience, which triggered me to write this blog post:

In case you haven’t heard, I’m writing a book. I’m deep into the editing and formatting phase now, which includes gathering all the photos I need and making sure they are scanned at a minimum of 300 DPI. I have low-resolution versions of most of the photos, which are fine for internet usage, but they are not suitable for print purposes.

Things were fine until one day I hit a brick wall. Umm…..where is Dad’s photo album? (This rather quickly escalated to WHERE THE @*%# IS DAD’S PHOTO ALBUM?!) My bookWhat’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy — is not a family history, per se. But I do use several family photos as examples, with one long and several short corresponding stories. A few of them — including the intended cover photo — are from Dad’s album!!!

So what did I do?

I searched my house and Dad searched his. My house is organized in many ways, but I do have a few piles, so I remembered: If you can’t find something, clean up.

I knew it wasn’t a traditional photo album. It was a 3-ring binder, and for some reason I was imagining that the binder might be pink. But Dad said no, it wasn’t pink, and I remembered to keep in mind you might be looking for the wrong thing.

So — and I’m making this long agonizing story a very short one for you — I eventually asked if I could go to Dad’s house to help him search again (because his house is smaller and has less stuff than mine does). He agreed, and we searched, and — it was not there.

Now what? On my drive home, satisfied it was not at Dad’s house, and at a loss to know where else to search in my house, my mind was full of Plans B, C, D, and E. A lost photo album, while very sad, is not a literal life or death matter, but it kind of was looking like possibly the death of this book I’m writing! Also, it had to be somewhere.

When I arrived home, and walked in the door, I was suddenly inspired to walk straight over to the lateral file cabinet in my office. I opened the second drawer, and THERE WAS THE ALBUM!

Oh, my! What a relief! And it was not a pink binder, but it was right next to a pink binder!

I have no memory of putting the binder in that drawer. But it was the perfect place for safekeeping of something that was not my possession and thus didn’t have a permanent home at my house. It’s a drawer that contains other genealogy materials. It’s protected from dust and kitties. It’s handy to my desk. Why did I not think to look there before? I have no idea. But I do believe that once I was satisfied it was not at Dad’s house my mind was freed up to think of another solution.

Have you ever stashed something in the best possible place and then forgotten where it was?

Do you ever intentionally tidy up to find something that is lost?

Have you ever realized you were looking (visually) for the wrong thing?

Please share in the comments! (Asking for a friend.)

Copyright 2021 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. I’ve never heard of this expression either but I’m oh so familiar with the feeling of near-panic when I think I can’t find something and it turns out my infallible memory if in fact fallible!

    As an organizer, this is doubly-infuriating, especially since my guarantee is that by the time we’re finished, you’ll be able to find something within five minutes!

    The expression I grew up with is, Can’t see for looking. And that sums up the way intense focus in searching for something closes the chance of seeing it in slightly the “wrong” place.

  2. I have definitely “lost” something because I put it somewhere special before. My reasoning when I put it there was that it was unusual, so it should be easy to remember. But it was such an unusual place for that item that when it came time to look for it, my eyes didn’t even wander in that direction! I didn’t find it until I tidied up later.

    Consistent places for things are key, and tidying up is always a great idea, whether something’s missing or not : )

  3. Looking for those lost things can create so much anxiety. And when we’re in that stressful state- fight or flight, it’s tough to think, let alone ‘see’ clearly.

    I’ve been there and also been there with clients as they search for ‘that thing.’ Sometimes retracing steps help or asking some questions like, “When was the last time you saw it?”

    But often, what’s needed is to walk away- at least for a brief period to calm down and let your nervous system reset. When we’re so hyped up, sometimes we don’t even see clearly. It’s kind of like what you described having a memory of where something was or what color it was, but that memory isn’t correct. So distance can help.

    Your story of finding your Dad’s album/binder unfolded that way. You eventually found it after you stepped away long enough to let your mind open again in a curious, relaxed way. And there it was! Woohoo!!!!

  4. I don’t often do this, but it definitely has happened. When I can’t find something, it drives me crazy. I have a hard time of thinking about anything else. I think I’ve had this most frequently when I’ve tried to put jewelry away somewhere “less obvious to a thief” and then can’t find it. I have a friend who still can’t find a very valuable necklace. Sigh…

  5. I KNEW the pink binder story was going to show up in this post! 😉

    I like the mental approach for figuring things out. Interestingly, though, I’d have taken the completely opposite approach for putting something away. If something isn’t mine (a library book, a borrowed item from a friend, a gift I’ve purchased that I haven’t yet wrapped), I would never put it away. I have landing strips/staging areas for anything that I don’t own. However, I don’t have cats or housemates, and I’m not so worried about dust, so I’d never have things that aren’t mine out of sight.

    For things that are mine, though, I totally get how you could remember the reference point clearly, just not the exact thing. That happens when I’ve visited too many clients with similar items or layouts in a short period of time.

    But for things that ARE mine but are atypical and the home is not obvious (like which file folder, or which drawer), I’ve learned that I’m better off leaving it out until I’ve got the time to pay attention to making the decision to where to put it.

    All that said, sometimes, when you can’t find something, it’s because on of the Borrowers took it, and you have to close your eyes, walk out of the room, give them time to return it, and go back in!

  6. “Have you ever stashed something in the best possible place and then forgotten where it was?” –> Indeed I have.

    Incredibly frustrating when this happens because you can’t look in the usual place. There is no usual place.

    “Do you ever intentionally tidy up to find something that is lost?” –> Yep, but not very often (thank goodness!)

    It’s one of the best reasons to tidy up and re-organize. It makes you wonder why you didn’t do that *before* you misplaced the thing you’re looking for. And, it sure does feel good to find it AND have a neatened-up space.

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