How to tidy a garage

This is how to tidy a garage – first deal with the overwhelm! I’ve learned a little about taking on oversized and daunting tasks and thought that I might apply it to something very ordinary. I followed my own advice from my motivational speaking and broke the task down into small, very small, steps. Read on for the details. Ahh remote controlled planes. Nothing signifies excitement and danger like the distinctive pungent odour of glow plug fuel. Some say that these noisy, smokey old school engines are dangerous. They may have a point – I set my hand on fire once. I know someone who had the fingers on his right hand trimmed when the engine started unexpectedly. Someone else who had a large plane fly into his crotch. You might like toys that are less likely to give you a manicure or change your religion, but I love remote controlled planes.

So I was thrilled when I got a kitset for my birthday.

But first I need a place to build it. A glance at the dining room table and then the expression on my wife’s face confirmed that that would not be acceptable. What I really needed was the flat table that lies at the back of my man cave.

Some background. Our house has a little detached garage out the front. Given that the house is a hundred years old the garage was probably built before The Great Depression. Possibly before there were any cars in Auckland. Certainly before there were any big cars. Someone suggested that it may in fact have started life as a stable. In that case it was built during that brief period when dwarf horses were all the rage.

Our house having few cupboards my beloved man-cave become the defacto storage shed, garbage bin and toxic waste dumping ground. At first things went in easily – boxes could be carried and placed on the floor. Shelves could be stacked. But then it became full, then crowded, then dangerously, wall-bulgingly stuffed. You could only put more things into it by pulling up the roller door an inch, quickly shoving it underneath and dropping the door again. In the manner of Hagrid feeding his pet dragon.

But I needed to get to that table to build my plane. So, standing to one side, the roller door was fully opened. After the initial explosion it was time to explore. I paused thoughtfully at the threshold. There might be snakes, there will be spiders. Big ones. Angry ones. I felt like Livingstone about to enter the dark steaming jungles of the Congo, or Indiana Jones, at the gateway to a Mayan temple.

You know that there is something valuable at the back, right at the back, just before Narnia. But it’s dark and hard to see. It’s going to take a lot of machete action to get to it and nimble footwork if you are to survive the toppling lawnmowers and being ambushed by cobwebby skeletons dropping down from either side. My man cave had become a man-sized mousetrap.

After much effort I got myself into the middle of the garage and wondered where to start the clean up. It’s impossible to move something without first moving something else and there is nowhere to move that somewhere else too. Some of the things that you can move are under things that can’t be moved. Or if they can be moved, only in a certain order. It’s like dismantling a bomb. I felt the same as Day 3 on the Atlantic or Day 0 in the Antarctic. Overwhelmed. This could not be done. Suddenly everything else on my to do list seemed a more fun alternative. Polishing the pot plants. Licking the windows clean.

Let us skip forward in time. Now my man-cave has been completely transformed. Clean?! You could safely take out an appendix. Dust free? Nasa called and asked if they could assemble a satellite there. Orderly? This makes the inventor of the Dewey Decimal system look like a drunken anarchist.

Wanna know how I did it?

Step 1. Get a vision in your head of a decluttered garage

I don’t mean like the Madonna of Lourdes. You don’t have to assume the lotus position and meditate (although that would help). All you need is to have a shadowy image in the back of your mind about how great it’s going to be when you’re finished. Not just any vision. You need to be excited about the result.

Tidying the man cave doesn’t excite me. But the idea of me building the plane does. More exactly of how wonderful its going to be to walk into the garage and flick on the light and sit down and work on the plane and not be clobbered by a falling fridge.

Step 2. To keep motivation focus on process, not progress.

This is unintuitive. And initially unappealing. You are a successful person. You like to achieve. You want the satisfaction of ticking a task as complete. But here it won’t work. The task is too big. You have to just spend a fixed period of time on it every day. You have to focus on the process rather than the outcome. Besides you have better things to do then spend hours cleaning your garage.

I have a break for about 10min every hour. So I did my cleaning during that time. Its grey time. Junk time. Time I wouldn’t be doing anything anyway.

Another way to do it is not to work on it at all. I call this The wet and forget method. You don’t consciously try to clean up but whenever you do go into the garage you make certain that

  • you don’t make it messier

  • you put something away.

Step 3. To organise your stuff buy plastic boxes. Lots of the SAME plastic boxes.

You want both boxes and drawers. In New Zealand, The Warehouse has a great range. Tip, only buy ones that you can see through. Opaque or coloured ones lead to hesitation and confusion about what’s inside. Buy all the same size.

Don’t put too much stuff in each bin. The lid should sit nicely. The drawers should slide easily. Why this matters I don’t know. Actually I do know. We’re slobs. If something is hard to open we don’t open it. Besides if we know anything about willpower we know that we only have a finite amount of it each day. If something is a little hard to do, it nibbles your willpower biscuit. On the other hand there is very subtle sensual satisfaction in pulling open a well oiled drawer.

Step 4. Don’t label anything by hand. Buy a label maker.

Label the boxes. It’s the same logic. You would think that writing on the boxes would work just as well. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t.

Step 5. Set a rule that every time you go in – you won’t make things worse and you’ll put one thing away

Don’t try and clean up your garage. Have you not seen your garage? It’s impossible to clean. Just have this one rule. Next time you go in don’t make things worse and put one thing away. That’s it. Just one thing. Not two things, one thing. Can you put one thing away? No, just ONE thing.

Pick something up. Will you ever need it? If not then throw it out. If yes then put it in a box. When the box is full put in on a shelf. When the shelves are full, then reprioritise – either find more space, or throw out more things.

That’s it. I’m not saying it was easy. Nor was it exactly a linear process. Items were often packed and re-packed. But the transformation is magical. Here is the reaction when I show my friends.


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