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Spatial Chunking: What Squirrels Can Teach Us About Being Organized

Wait, whaaaaattttt? That's right, in terms of organization, squirrels are one of the most organized of small species. Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise. If you've ever watched a squirrel eat a nut, you might notice a curious tendency. They take a bite, ROTATE the nut while they're chewing, swallow and continue eating. It's amusing to watch, but there's a very good reason for this.

Squirrels utilize a pneumonic technique known as "spatial chunking." This is a cognitive strategy in which people and other animals organize spatial, linguistic, numeric, or other information into smaller more manageable collections, such as subfolders on a computer. In this case the squirrel organizes nuts based on type, size, taste or other factors when hiding the nuts they want to consume later. This makes it easier for them to find since they can hide a higher volume in a smaller space, as well as making it easier for them to locate by smell at a later time. The lesson here is that fitting more into less space and being able to find something at a later time are too major objectives that are critical to the organizing process. While the number one reason most of my clients tell me they want to get organized is so they don't "have to keep looking at the clutter," saving space and spending less time looking for things easily round out the top 3. So how can we use the "squirrel technique" to get our own possessions more organized? There's a long-standing organizing technique known as putting "like with like." This simply means that putting similar possessions together in the same area is the best way to organize a space if you want to remember where everything is kept. This, in a nutshell (hah!), is spatial chunking for everything that you own. This doesn't just mean that kitchen items go in the kitchen. It means baking products go together, pasta and rice go together, etc. We also commonly refer to this as "sorting" in the organizing world, and it is usually the part that takes the most time to accomplish when random stuff is tossed in a box in a garage or closet.


So why take the time to sort? It may take you an afternoon or even a whole day to organize a space in your home depending on quantity of items and level of disorganization that you're starting with. However, when you think about how much time it will take you to find these items in their current state, the time taken to organize is well spent. The average American spends 5 days of every year trying to locate items...in their own home. If you did the math, that's 120 hours a year, or the equivalent of three work weeks...looking for stuff!

There's another reason this technique has worked well enough for squirrels to thrive in pretty much any environment with a few trees. They are highly disciplined in their organization. If you've ever admired the skill that birds demonstrate in building their own nests, you would likely marvel at a squirrel's food stash. Every nut has been shaved by the squirrel's teeth to fit against the nuts around it like the boxes in a shipping container. For humans, the hardest part of organization is not getting organized, but STAYING that way. This means the discipline to put everything back in its place when you've finished using it. Our busy lives make this a challenge, but organization is a habit that can be formed or broken like any other. Create the habit and sustained organization will follow.

Squirrels aren't the only animals that use organization to increase their chances of survival. Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes typically occupy a small area most of the time. They will use their bodies to clear much of the area of debris and vegetation to help them focus on the space they are moving through and more easily identify prey. In human terms, the advantage of "clearing the space" the same way the Northern Rattler does is the space looks larger. I've worked on many jobs with clients who suffer with harding disorder. Those who can manage to part with the roughly 90% of their stuff to make their home more livable are baffled by the result. They always say something akin to "I don't remember my house being this big."For roughly the last 80 years, new American homes have increasingly been built larger despite the average number of occupants remaining roughly the same. Why? Storage has become an increasingly higher priority in home building, as have more and larger storage solutions for everyone's stuff. This has become a huge problem for those trying to downsize and realizing even after their move that there is no space for everything. A common mantra among efficiency experts and others tasked with addressing this issue: You don't need a bigger home, you need less stuff. If you're in the Phoenix area and would like professional help with your organizing, visit our contact page to set up a free consultation.

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