One helpful piece of organizing (and life) advice

This year I’ve been working on organizing my spaces, and so I’ve spent a contained but real amount of time scoping out other people’s pantries, fridges, and desk drawers, looking for ideas. I’ve chatted with friends and read (too many) essays by experts on how to create a system that will work for me, which may not be the same system that will work for you.

I’ve learned a lot along the way: which skincare products belong in the medicine cabinet (and which can be stored in the back of the closet), just how high the not-so-healthy snacks should be shelved, how to use “out of sight, out of mind” to my advantage.

But one small bit of advice has made the biggest impact in how I store my stuff: if my systems are to work, I need 20% of gloriously inefficient empty space. Because without a little margin, my system will be impossible to maintain.

My friend passed this rule of thumb along to me, after learning it from a personal stylist, whom she’d hired to impose some sort of order on her closet. The stylist took one look at my friend’s closet and said, You are going to LOVE your space once we give you a little room to breathe. Then the stylist gave my friend a new rule: 20% empty space at all times. No exceptions.

When my friend told me about the 20% rule, it immediately struck me as true—not just because a little white space helps me find my lipstick, but because I see this principle at work in the rest of my life as well.

Last year one of the big things I learned was I cannot function without margin. When I’m operating right up at capacity, I start getting anxious, and cranky. I feel like I can’t think.

Years ago, we had an old PC that didn’t work particularly well, or quickly. We assumed the problem was that it was old. But when our tech-savvy friend did some troubleshooting, he told us we could probably eek a few more years out of it—if we added more memory. I was puzzled, because our computer’s memory wasn’t full.

But you don’t want the memory to be full, he explained. The machine needs some margin to function properly.

I think of that old computer a lot, because I need some margin to function properly as well. I need plenty of blank space, literally and metaphorically. I need room to spare on the pantry shelves and empty slots on my calendar. I need to get in bed at night not having completely depleted my emotional energy tank. I need room to breathe.

One of my 2018 resolutions is to explicitly create more margin in my life. I’m not always successful, but I can tell you this: I feel it when I don’t—which confirms just how important it is to try.

How important is margin—literal or metaphorical—in your life? What are your trusted ways to ensure you get it? Have an organizing tip or nugget of advice that’s meant a lot to you? Please tell us all about it in comments!

P.S. I’m a fan of The Home Edit, and I loved seeing Clea discuss the 20% rule (the 80% rule, to Clea) here. And somebody today needs my favorite best book you’ve never heard of on organizing.

one of the best tips for keeping your home organized


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  1. Suzanne says:

    This resonates with me so much. Especially when it comes to the calendar — sometimes I look at all those blank days and think I need more! fun! But… when it’s overly packed with plans, I get overwhelmed. The 20% rule is definitely one to remember.

  2. Ann Marie says:

    Recently I’ve been considering the “space” that God created. Without it, everything in the universe would collide. Without it, the beauty and majesty would not shine as it does. Even the most simple things in my world look different when they stand alone. Thank you for inviting us to consider this liberating concept.

  3. I definitely agree on white space / margin. My husband and I still laugh about our master closet. When we were looking at the house, the previous owners had it stuffed soooo full. We actually worried the closet might be too small. But it’s a great size and seems much more spacious once it’s not stuffed full to the brim.

  4. Janean says:

    I LOVE this and it’s definitely true for me, too. I’ve also learned over the years that, as a HSP, I need much more margin that most folks. In addition to being a HSP, fibromyalgia and stress-induced migraines add to my need for increased margin. My nervous system is just cranked up higher than most and it takes longer to reset or reboot. I envision it as recharging an iPad vs. an iPhone. The iPad takes a little longer to recharge and it takes even longer if you’re trying to use it while it’s charging. As moms, how often do we shave off our own margin to make other things happen? While that seems virtuous and sacrificial at the time, it isn’t a good trade, because your overall health and productivity declines and that crankiness floats up, which is no fun for anyone. Next year, I’m thinking margin could be a contender for my word of the year! Great post ??

    • Anne says:

      Janean, I love this! (And you’re SO RIGHT about just letting the dang thing charge! Sometimes I treat myself better when I’m able to view myself as a device that needs to be respected in order to function properly. 🙂 )

  5. Laura says:


    You truly have given me some real nuggets of truth that are helping me so much in life! Thank you! I am at capacity and struggling to function. I did not realize how damaging this can be and have been feeling like I’m just getting old and defunct, unable to do as much as I did when I was younger. This is life changing info for me. Thank you so much!
    (The other big help was an article you wrote a few days ago about understanding how to fit tasks into energy slots on our to do lists, not just time slots. Again, my energy level is not what it used to be and understanding that I need to take that finite amount of my energy into consideration has really helped!)

  6. This is so true. And I had to chuckle–I was just deleting photos this morning to free up space on my hard drive. It’s great to take four or five shots to make sure you have one that’s really good, but then you have to get rid of the others.
    I greatly appreciate your titles. This one: “One helpful piece of … advice”–not “The one organization tip that will change your life” or “The best organization secret” or, the kind I hate most: “If you aren’t doing this, you’re organizing all wrong.” Thank you for being straightforward, upbeat, polite, helpful and humble.

  7. Jerri says:

    Anne, I also love some empty spaces in my cupboards and in my day. Things happen and if there is no wiggle room in the calendar, it all fails apart. Hey, I’m trying to click on the organizing book no one has heard of, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Can I get the name of the book please? Thanks, have a great day!

  8. Linda Stoll says:

    Oh yes please to margins! Great big swaths of sheer white space where you can take a breath and rest your soul in the process.

    My blog has no sidebars and plenty of space between pictures so that your eyes can rest a minute. I purposely share photos with no words layered on top. I want the images to be an invitation, not an advertisement … and the visit to offer a quiet refreshment, no matter what subject’s on the table.

    It all makes me happy and peaceful.

  9. Conni says:

    Yes! This is so true for me (maybe because I’m also a HSP & introvert) and also have ADD. Our church started a “plan” that was helpful )more of a acronym that helped me focus my energies, time, money. SPIRE: spiritual, physical (eating, dental, exercise), intellectual, relational (2-3 layers ideal for focus), & emotional (includes mental health). A plan could be made for each person with their goals and daily or weekly or annual action steps. This has helped. I still have to use it daily and refer back to it (I should put it on the fridge). But yes, without margin I am the blue screen of death.

    • Anne says:

      I haven’t heard that acronym before—thanks for sharing! (And your comment about being the “blue screen of death” cracks me up. I relate to this SO MUCH.)

  10. Diana says:

    Yes!! So much yes!! I purposely don’t leave my house on Fridays (at least during the day, sometimes we have evening plans) for this reason. I need a day I know I will be home all day, even if the rest of the week is crazy! And that applies to so many areas!

  11. Libby Miner says:

    My mother once shared with me using “do you use it, do you need it, do you love it?” criteria for cleaning out! I love neat, clean spaces, and this 20 margin is a great way to think about all of life!

  12. Lauren Trappler says:

    Anne, this is brilliant! I realised it is what I do too with Time but wasn’t even really aware of it! You put it into words so well and loved the analogy with the computer memory!

  13. Annie O says:

    I like the idea of 20% of free space! Last year was a very busy and stressful year with an elderly relative and being secretary for a guild. I gave myself a “gap year” this year, no year-long commitments but the ability to say yes to different projects. It’s been nice. My advice is to turn down events, activities or invitations that may use up more time than I’m willing to spend. I simply say, No, I’m sorry, I can’t”. I guess that’s my20%.

  14. Elvira says:

    Well, this came as an eye-opener. I consider myself a messy person that always aspires to be neat and organised but can’t bring myself to keep up with it. My husband always complains there is almost nothing on the walls, but I think I’m finding the answer here. Everything else is so busy, messy and crammed full that I need those white walls to even it out a little. I am weeding it out though and keep those margins in mind to not stuff it up again, so we can have more things hung up as they should!
    And for the agenda: I crave a lot of margin there, no idea why.

  15. Michelle K says:

    Great advice! Since reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project a couple of years ago, I have been using her “one-minute rule” (do any task immediately if it takes less than one minute to complete. It helps me keep my living space and inbox less cluttered and it prevents small tasks from building up and becoming overwhelming.

  16. Anna says:

    We just moved into a very small house and slowly moved our things in. I assembled various shelving units, not knowing yet what would go on them. Because we moved slowly, I didn’t have all the stuff yet to put on the shelves here. I also wanted to choose slowly and carefully. Then something funny happened. I realized that because of the small space – and lack of much counter space – the empty shelves became like counters, a place to temporarily set things, whether it be just for a few minutes when getting home from the store, a night when important papers were supposed to go out the next day, or a week when I had too much “back stock” of a food item. This kind of margin became something that I decided to incorporate in the house in general. I’m not keeping all the shelves empty that were but am keeping some blank space for maneuvering. I usually fill everything to the best-use gills, but now, I’m keeping some things open. I believe it really has lowered stress in this house!

  17. Suzanne says:

    Anne, I loved your recommendation of Organizing Solutions for People With ADHD. It was so helpful, even though I don’t have ADHD either. I would enjoy seeing (or reading about) some of the organizing solutions you’ve come to over the past year as I am starting to reorganize everything myself!

  18. kristen E says:

    That book sounds perfect for me. I was diagnosed with both Asperger’s Syndrome and ADD at age 42. It makes so much sense now why many “conventional” methods I’ve tried have not stuck, but there are not many geared towards those of us with impulse and executive function differences.
    Thank you for the suggestion.

  19. Jan FIscher says:

    Surely God knew we would need our “margins set” for white space when he gave us one day of seven to
    REST. When I let work and too many activities creep in to Sunday space,the others six days lose focus and purpose. Thanks for the thoughtful hint well-applied.

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