It’s All About the Labels (not the label makers)

keep tryon donate bags

Use of labels in the organizing process. Black Sharpie on white bags.

I was sorting clothing with a client. Rather, she was sorting and I was managing the rapidly growing piles. We used white kitchen trash bags to contain categories, clearly labeled by me with a black Sharpie, such as: Keep; Donate; Repair; Try On; Wash. We talked about how, in this case, the labeled bags doubled as a To-Do List. Then she observed, “It’s really all about the labels, isn’t it?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Labels make it easier to get organized and stay that way. But they don't have to be fancy. Click To Tweet

Why labels? We were taking clothing out of un-labeled bags and determining their previously-determined but long-forgotten status. Did they fit? Did they need repair or washing? How many times have you forgotten what’s inside an opaque, unlabeled container? That’s why. Labels save time and make life easier. They are as important to the organizing process as they are to a magazine-worthy pantry or craft room.

But… it’s just me, and I know where everything goes. Do you? True, labels are especially useful for families and work groups so that everyone knows where to find the things they need, and where to put things away when they are finished with them. But they are helpful even when you are the only one who uses the space, or the supplies, for the same reason one benefits from labeling clear containers…

Why label clear containers? Even if you use clear plastic shoe boxes, and can see inside, and even if you are the only one who will be using the items, labels provide subliminal cues that make it easier to maintain your organized space. Labels not only remind you (and others) what goes there; they also serve to remind you what does NOT go there. As long as you don’t let your containers overflow, this reduces mystery piles and clutter.

masking tape and sharpie

My personal favorite label maker.

But what if I don’t have a label maker? Well, you could always go buy one, but…labels don’t have to be fancy! And you don’t have to use a label maker! I love my label makers (trusty hand-held PT- 65, and higher-tech PT-2430 PC), but I don’t use either of them nearly as often as you might imagine. I rarely take them to client appointments. There are usually far more pressing issues to deal with than how fancy the labels are. I am more likely to be found with Super-Sticky Post-Its and a black Sharpie. Or blue painter’s tape and a black Sharpie. Always a black Sharpie. Why? SO I CAN READ THE LABELS. These make fantastic and quick temporary labels.

2014-10-31 12.02.27

Temporary Post-It label — the box can be easily re-purposed, and we might decide to keep the kitty.

Why temporary labels? Let’s say you are still sorting and purging and don’t have a final cast-in-concrete home for something yet. You don’t know exactly which container you will be using, or which shelf it’s going to end up on, after you finish organizing. You wouldn’t want to go to a lot of trouble to fancy-label its current container or shelf only to have to re-do it. But you DO need to know what’s in/on that container (box, bag, bin, shelf, drawer, cupboard) where you just took the trouble to gather like items together. Many times, after our organizing efforts are complete, I will offer to make “real” labels for my clients. Sometimes they accept the offer, sometimes they prefer to make their own. Sometimes, though, they claim to actually like the temporary labels!

This article doesn’t address all possible labels for every possible situation (hot/cold attics, damp basements, dirty garages, professional offices, kids rooms)…I just want to get you thinking about labeling things before you are “ready” and to facilitate the process of organizing. An example of temporary labels that are meant to be removed in a week or two are those I use on drawers and cupboards while organizing a new kitchen. Or on sorting boxes when decluttering an office.

Do I have to label everything? No, of course not. There are, indeed, circumstances where you might not want a visible label, such as on fine furniture, or for privacy’s sake. But usually there’s a way to label the inside, or maybe you really do remember what’s inside and more power to you!

My client had previously sorted some random bags of clothing into similar categories. Later she reported that a lot of the “Try On” clothing should really have been “Repair” way back when she first put them into the bag. It would have saved her time, trouble, and a bit of embarrassment when she wore one of the garments which, as it turned out, had holes in the elbows. (One hopefully wouldn’t bother to repair something before determining fit and worthiness, and mistakes happen to all of us, but you see the point, right?)

It’s all about the labels.

How do labels help you in your home and office?

Are they fancy or plain? Permanent or temporary?

What needs labeling?

Please share in the comments below!

Copyright 2015. Updated 2016 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Moreen Torpy on May 14, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    I’ve found that duct tape sticks better to Rubbermaid type bins than painter tape, and it can be removed when the contents change.

    Your idea of using white trash bags and writing on them with a sharpie is excellent!

    • Hazel Thornton on May 16, 2015 at 6:30 am

      Thanks Moreen! Your comment prompted me to add a line: “This post doesn’t address all possible labels for every possible situation (hot/cold attics, damp basements, dirty garages, professional offices, kids rooms)…I just want to get you thinking about labeling things before you are “ready” and to facilitate the process of organizing.”

  2. Seana Turner on May 16, 2015 at 6:40 am

    This is a great story! A friend tells the story of sorting clothes before a move.. one bag for the “take with me” clothes and one for the ” give away” clothes. You can see the end coming, right? She used black trash bags that were NOT labeled. She gets to her new house, opens the bag, and realizes she has given away all the clothes she loved and moved all the clothes she didn’t – not only upsetting, but expensive. Use a label!!!

  3. Sarah Soboleski on May 16, 2015 at 7:33 am

    I couldn’t agree more with your stance on labeling even clear containers. Mystery bins are the worst!

    • Hazel Thornton on May 18, 2015 at 7:56 am

      Sarah, don’t miss Janet’s comment later in this thread, which applies to Mystery bins!

  4. Linda Samuels on May 16, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Hazel- As a HUGE fan of labels (on things, not people with the exception of name tags,) I really enjoyed reading your post. You’re client’s observation is golden: “It’s really all about the labels, isn’t it?” Of course labels don’t work in every situation or for every person as you pointed out, but when they DO work, they can make all the difference between feeling organized and less overwhelmed. Labels are chaos-tamers.

    I also really appreciate how you took addressed the practicality of using labels. Sure. Pretty labels are awesome. And I always bring my label-maker. But they aren’t always appropriate to use…especially in the sorting/deciding process. Organizing IS a process. So in the earlier stages, the temporary, inexpensive, easily changeable labels are the way to go.

    • Hazel Thornton on May 16, 2015 at 8:06 am

      Fancy labels are like decorating the cake. But first you have to find a recipe you like, gather the ingredients together, mix, bake, and frost the cake. I just thought of that, do you like it?

  5. Andi Willis on May 17, 2015 at 5:58 am

    I love using the blue painters tape as a label. Easy and temporary and the only thing that will stay on the black contractors bags that I usually use with clients.

    I have one drawer in my kitchen that holds the top 10-15 utensils we use. Each spot is labelled – can opener, small measuring cup, etc. This allows me to quickly realize the measuring spoons must be in the dishwasher, instead of spending time rifling through the drawer. This has been one of the best uses of labels in my kitchen.

    • Hazel Thornton on May 18, 2015 at 7:55 am

      Hi Andi, I’ve seen that for tools and “junk drawers”…..why not kitchen utensils? Great idea!

  6. Janet Barclay on May 18, 2015 at 5:11 am

    I think labels are important even if you’re the only one using the stuff and you have the best memory in the world. If something happens to you, it will make things that much easier for whoever has the task of going through your things if the mystery bag is labelled “fabric scraps for quilting” or “used clothing for donation” or “dresses for my future granddaughter.”

    • Hazel Thornton on May 18, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Janet, this is so true it might warrant its own blog post! I have a spreadsheet that lists items in my home (some lumped together as being less important than others and candidates for donation or selling) and what I want to have happen with them if something happens to me. Many of the items are bins and boxes which are not labeled except for a number (for privacy purposes). So in order for the spreadsheet to do anyone any good I have filed it with my will, and my executor knows where that is. I also refer to it when I want to find something.

  7. Sharon Lowenheim on June 1, 2015 at 9:11 am

    I’ve labeled all the shelves in my closets. It helps me remember what goes on what shelf, and also lets my family know so that I don’t find things in weird places. 🙂

    • Hazel Thornton on June 1, 2015 at 12:46 pm

      The more people sharing a space, the more important the labels are!

  8. Nancy J Ryan on June 22, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    I can not emphasize enough: if you are putting clothes in garbage bags, white or otherwise, that they are labelled clearly so anyone who deals with them understands what they are. I was helping a friend pack but she had to leave to catch her airplane. My job was to throw away trash and ship the rest of her belongings. You can guess what happened! Some bags weren’t labelled clearly & I accidentally threw out a couple of bags of expensive clothes, jewelry, etc. My friend was furious and I try not to touch garbage bags, unless VERY well labelled.

    • Hazel Thornton on June 24, 2016 at 7:39 am

      Oh, Nancy, that’s a tough way to learn a lesson! (No matter if it was your fault or your friend’s.)

  9. Janet Barclay on June 23, 2016 at 4:59 am

    I used to have a label maker, but it became a bother to type on the teeny little keyboard and pry the backing off, so when it finally bit the dust, I reverted to using a Sharpie.

    • Hazel Thornton on June 24, 2016 at 7:40 am

      I can’t tell you how many times my clients DO have labels, but you have to really be up close and have your reading glasses ready to actually read them. (Not just me, but them too!) Hence my love of black Sharpies.

  10. Sue West on June 27, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Labels – “What does go there and does NOT go there.” Loved that line because basically, the label is making a decision FOR you. How easy is that for maintenance ! I have often said “Labels are the brain’s last way to say “Not here, but over here.”

    I’m about to use erasable refrigerator labels, which some might say sounds “too organized.”

    This is different though: For my lunch at work, sometimes, when I gaze into the refrigerator, it seems as if there is “nothing” for lunch. I forget about the leftovers made from dinner the night before, or the takeout we hadn’t finished, or the delicious fruit sitting somewhere in there. So my labels will say “Sue – lunch.” I confess to borrowing the idea from a restaurant, where on their leftovers they boxed for me, was what the leftovers were and what the date was the food was made!

  11. Maureen DeGarmo on June 27, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Your client observed, “It’s really all about the labels, isn’t it?”

    Love those lightbulb moments!

  12. Andi Willis on June 27, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I love my label maker. That being said I also love using painters tape. Sometimes I will use that as a temporary label, similar to how I might use post-it notes as temporary labels on file folders. I tell clients that labels mean you don’t have to think as hard.

  13. Sabrina Quairoli on July 5, 2016 at 4:57 am

    Great tips on labels. My favorite is temporary labels. They are so versatile. I like to bring my own color coded labels to a client. After we decide on the permanent home, then I use my handy label maker. =)

  14. Olive Wagar on August 4, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Yes, life is easier with labels!! I probably use sharpies more than fancy labels. Every cabinet and drawer in our church kitchen has labels–and that means everyone can be a kitchen helper!! Thanks for posting this to P.O.B.C.
    p.s. hope to visit your beautiful state one day!

    • Hazel Thornton on August 7, 2016 at 5:41 pm

      Yes, the more people involved, the more important the labels!

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