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Expert Interview: Workshop Organization

by Jeffrey Zurschmeide

Many people with a great deal of stuff to organize are turning to consultants to help them get their possessions under control. Professional organizers like Teresa Nicola of Collected Spaces ( understand what you’re facing, and they have a strategy to help make your workspace clean and efficient. Interview conducted by Jeff Zurschmeide, author of How to Design, Build & Equip Your Automotive Workshop on a Budget.

Anyone who has ever spent an hour looking for a particular part or tool in a dozen piles of junk understands the truth that Teresa’s telling. Here’s what she has to say about getting your stuff organized:

Q: Car people often end up accumulating huge amounts of parts and accessories for their cars that they think they might someday need, but then it hangs around for decades in some cases. What's your advice for sorting and organizing this stuff?

A: No matter what area you are organizing, it all comes down to what I call the SMART approach. That’s an acronym with five distinct steps. Let’s break it down in terms of automotive workspaces:

Sort: The first step is to find a clear area away from all the clutter and start sorting everything into categories that make sense to you—putting similar items together. Make sure you label the piles. This probably takes the most time, and you should be prepared for that up front, especially if you haven’t really had any system in the past and items are scattered all over. There is no need to get overwhelmed; part by part, the job will get done. Remember, this is not the time to make decisions. Wait until you have everything sorted into categories, so you can take inventory of everything you have.

Make decisions: Next, go through each pile one by one. The main questions to ask are these: Do I need it? Do I use it? Do I love it? You're going to want to answer yes to at least one of those questions to keep an item. Some car parts are harder to find than others and many increase in value as time goes on, so this is one thing to really consider when you are purging and deciding whether to keep or get rid of any part or accessory.

Assign a home: Now that you know what you are going to keep, it is time to find a home for it. Assess the size and accessibility needs of each item. For example, tires are large, heavy, and take up a lot of space, but are only accessed once or twice a year, so these do not have to be stored front and center. Ask yourself, where would this item serve me best?

Refer to outside materials: Now that you have found where it makes the most sense to store all of the items, you want to decide how to store them. Take measurements of the items you want to store and the space where you want to store them. Labels are essential in this process. They help you (and others) locate things and foster a habit of labeling your stuff. They act as addresses.

Label the outside of containers or shelves, and also label and tag individual parts with information such as the vehicle it correlates to, what it is, what it does, and its current condition. That could be “New, Excellent, Good, Fair, Needs Repair, or Core.” Other things to consider: How heavy is the item? Will you benefit from a see-through container? Most workshop areas gather dust easily, so lids on containers are a good idea and help prevent individual parts from getting dirty. Finally, if children have any way of entering your workspace, make sure anything sharp or toxic is out of reach or locked away.

Test drive: This is where you check yourself to see if the new system is working for you. Part of staying organized is creating a personal routine. It's all about consistency and ongoing upkeep. You can put away and inventory as you go, or you can dedicate 15 minutes after you are done working to do a quick pickup. Don’t put it off, or else you’ll see your wonderfully organized system fall apart and you’ll be back to spending 15 minutes searching for a spark-plug wrench. Once a month, you should go for a more in-depth cleaning and organizing session.

Q: One of the frustrations of having a big garage with lots of available parts and tools is the inability to find items that you know you have stashed somewhere. How can people with large inventories of parts and accessories organize their things for quick and easy access?

A: Make life ultra easy and label everything. Inventory parts immediately, so you don’t get confused later on. You can use a peg board to hang the tools you use the most often and, again, you want to label where each one goes. Instead of labeling, you can make an outline of the tool as a visual reminder of where it goes; you’ll also be able to easily see what is missing. Numbering containers and making a list is also helpful: container number-102 = taillight lenses, number-103 = widgets, number-104 = other. Retrieval and put-away will become second nature, and you won’t waste time searching for a misplaced item.

Q: In your presentations, you point out that organized does not equal perfect. I wrote down that  “perfect is the enemy of good enough,” and you talk about finding a balance. What do you mean by that? How can someone know when he’s “organized enough”?

A: Being “organized enough” gives you an ease of mind, less stress, more energy, and more time. All the items you own have a home, and you are able to function in your space. Being perfect is one big pressure headache! This does not mean I condone slacking off or settling for an okay job. It means taking all the knowledge you have at the current time and making the best decision you can.

Invest some time getting organized, set up the best system you can with the time and resources you have, and then build on that and go from there. Perfectionists often fear making mistakes, but life is all about learning, unlearning, and relearning (and having a sense of humor along the way). Commit to something; and if it no longer agrees with you, change. The one thing in life we can always count on is change.

The lack of making decisions leads to clutter. When you know what you want and where you want to go, you only keep things around you that support your goals, hobbies, and life style. I like to analyze the needs and goals of each client I work with and base a system on that.

“Good enough” has a different definition for everyone. I like to aim for close to perfection, which always seems “good enough” to me. It is important to not become consumed or obsessed with organizing.

Q: Is there anything that people might be surprised to learn, or that you'd like to say?

A: Being organized can be fun. It should make your life easier and enable you to enjoy your hobby and passions more. By making it easy to access parts and tools, you’ll have more time under the hood and less hassle hunting down an item you need.


Design, Build & Equip Your Workshop book

Euip your perfect garage with tips from this book, HOW TO DESIGN, BUILD & EQUIP YOUR AUTOMOTIVE WORKSHOP ON A BUDGET.

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