“Container Concept” Helps Us Set Limits


I love containers. I love the variety: boxes, baskets, bins, drawers, crates, jars, folders, tins, and…well, you get the idea. I love all of the different shapes and sizes and colors and textures. The Container Store just might be my favorite store. By the way, I really want a Container Store in the Tri-Cities area (the closest one is in Charlotte, NC), so if you have been wanting to open a store, you have my full support and promise of lots of business. As an organizer, my love of containers should come as no surprise. I do spend quite a bit of time figuring out the perfect container in a situation. But when I use the word “container”, I often mean so much more than just a “receptacle in which something is held or carried”. I am referring to a principle called the container concept.

I first heard the term container concept in a podcast called A Slob Comes Clean by author and blogger Dana K. White (click here for one of her podcast episodes on this topic). I use this concept myself and with my clients just about every day. It has been one of the most useful organizing principles of all, and I hope you find it helpful as well.

If the basic definition of a container is something that contains (just as a baker is someone who bakes), then let’s look more closely at the word contain. According to dictionary.com, contain can also mean “To hold or keep within limits; restrain. b. To halt the spread or development of; check.” You may be asking why I am teaching this grammar lesson, but bear with me. When we choose a container, we aren’t just picking something to make a space look good; we are also giving limits on how much of something can fit inside.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example. Let’s say that I am packing for a trip. I choose my suitcase based on how long the trip is and what I think I will need for the trip. The suitcase is my container, and as such, it limits the amount of items I can take. If I pick too many items and they won’t fit, then I have to either choose a bigger container (suitcase) or take a second one.

The container concept doesn’t just apply to a traditional container. Let’s consider this example. I am organizing my kitchen cabinets when I notice that I have 73 coffee mugs that occupy 4 cabinet shelves. I realize that I am running out of room in my cabinets, and I admit that it’s probably unreasonable to use 4 shelves for coffee mugs alone. I decide that one shelf of coffee mugs should be enough, and so I spread out all 73 mugs and make some difficult decisions. I keep only the amount of mugs that can fit on one shelf, and I let the rest go. That one shelf is my container, and it limits how many mugs I can keep.

Now let’s expand the concept even more. If one shelf can be a container, how about a whole room? Consider your kitchen as a container for all food-related items. If all of the items that should be kept in your kitchen can’t fit in the kitchen, then what do you do? You could store some kitchen items in alternate locations. Sometimes this is a reasonable alternative for seldom used items such as a turkey roasting pan. Since you likely only use this at Thanksgiving, it’s not a bad idea to give this item a “home” elsewhere, like a closet or the basement. But what if your kitchen cabinets are completely stuffed full of items and you also have multiple boxes of kitchen items in other locations? Then I think you need to apply the container concept in this situation. It’s probably time to pull everything out of your cabinets, take a hard look at each item, objectively evaluate what you really use, and get rid of some things. (By the way, if you decide you’d like to rearrange things a bit for better kitchen efficiency, click here for a handy reference for organizing your kitchen cabinets.)

Ok, time for another expansion of the concept. If one room could be considered a container, what about your whole house? What if you have too many items to fit into your house? This is a pretty common problem. Most of the time, instead of taking the time to consider whether everything is really needed, we simply expand our home, buy a bigger home, or rent storage space. On average, 10% of Americans rent space in a storage unit. There are some situations in which this makes sense temporarily. If you are in the process of moving to a new home and you have to move out of your current home into a smaller space before the new home is ready, renting a storage unit makes sense. Unfortunately, situations like this are the exception, not the norm. It may not seem that expensive to spend $90 per month for a 4 x 10 ft. storage space (actual price at a local storage facility in Kingsport), but over a year’s time, that cost adds up. I’m sure you can think of a better use for that $1,000 a year. A much better and frugal alternative is to apply the container concept. Your house is one giant container. Limit yourself to what fits in your home.

I’m going to expand the concept one final time, but this time in a theoretical sense. Instead of thinking of a container just in terms of a physical space, consider using the container concept with reference to your time. A 24 hour day or a 7 day week could be considered a container of sorts. There are only a limited amount of activities we can fit into a day. When we try to stuff our days too full, we end up exhausted, stressed, and scrambling for excuses. When our weeks are filled to capacity, we may run out of time to do the things we enjoy that give us fulfillment because we only have enough time to do the things we have to do. If our time is a container, maybe we need to take a hard look at the way we are spending our time. There are probably some optional activities that need to go. Sometimes we need to let go of good to make room for better. Psychologist and personal trainer Jill Conyers expresses this idea well: “Let go of what doesn’t serve you to create space for what does.”

I love hearing from readers! Send me your thoughts on this topic, your organizing challenges, or ideas for future articles.

Happy organizing!


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