If You Can’t Find a Lost Object, Clean Up.

A resolution that I often follow, and that has been surprisingly useful, is “If I can’t find something, clean up.”

This is true figuratively, as well as literally, but here I’m talking about the literal meaning of the resolution.

Over and over, I’ve found, if I can’t find something, I just start tidying up. Almost inevitably, the lost thing turns up, even when I’m convinced that tidying won’t make any difference in the search process.

Maybe I engage more actively with my surroundings, maybe my vision is sharper…I’m not sure why.

Before I hit on this resolution, I often made my apartment messier during a search. For some reason, my search felt more thorough if I was moving things out of their places. Not so!

Also, even if I can’t find what I’m looking for, my apartment is somewhat tidier, so that’s a bonus.

As I’m tidying, I focus my efforts in the area where I last saw the object or where the object is supposed to be kept.

I got this tip from my friend Samantha Ettus. Her book The Experts’ Guide to Doing Things Faster: 100 Ways to Make Life More Efficient includes a section by lost-objects expert Michael Solomon, who reports that most objects are right in the vicinity of where they’re supposed to be, or where you last remember seeing them. This sounds so obvious as to be laughable, but somehow it’s very helpful advice. Repeatedly I’ve found that after turning the apartment upside down looking for something, I eventually find it more or less where I originally thought it should be–but somehow I missed seeing it.

Finding lost objects is such a small aspect of life at home, but it can drive you crazy.  One study estimated that the average American spends 55 minutes a day looking for things they can’t find.

And, as Samuel Johnson observed, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.

How about you? Have you found any good strategies for finding things that are misplaced?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Hersheybarb

    I am constantly misplacing my eyeglasses and I think there are two reasons.  A: I really don’t like them but there aren’t many frames out there that I DO like so subliminally, I WANT to lose them.  B:  I need them for distance and reading but NOT in between so often, when I’m doing this or doing that, I take them off, put them down, and keep going.  I don’t consciously say, “I put down my glasses” so I “lose” them.  There is ONE place, though, that I’ve put them down and literally lose them.  It’s a bit humorous because the glasses are thin, gold frames with “round” lenses.  I have a vanity seat that has a brown ground with a gold curlicue pattern.  Of course, if I put down the glasses on it, I can walk past several times before realizing they’re there.  I just don’t “see” them because of the pattern.  It’s usually my husband who eventually finds them.

  • Peninith1

    This is great advice. I very rarely ‘lose’ anything very far from its intended destination. I sometimes clean up, and sometimes take a moment to do something completely different before going back to look for the lost object in the area where I know it must be. It’s surprising how often whatever I’m looking for seems to ‘materialize’ while my back is turned–right where I thought it was. I also try to ‘use my mind like a camera’ to roll the film from the past and attempt to remember my path and where I may have put something down without stowing it in its usual place.

    A place for everything (and everything IN its place) is a great maxim. I didn’t think I especially practised this until I started enjoying Sunday dinners at my house–the guests clean up the dishes afterwards. They think of the darnedest places to ‘put things away.’ Monday mornings can be quite entertaining as I look for the cinnamon for my coffee, a measuring cup, or the salt and pepper. My friends have taught me to enjoy this fun aspect of having help with the kitchen, and also I’ve learned from them that I am a much more orderly person than I ever knew. Virtually every bowl, plate, pot and pan has a proper place to live in my kitchen, and I’m truly flummoxed when an object goes to hide somewhere else!

    The idea that Americans actually spend 55 minutes a day looking for stuff is pretty awful. This seems to indicate both too much ‘stuff’ and too much disorder. I know that if I have to make an extensive search for something it is usually somewhere in my library or my fabric stash. Both are extensive and only impressionistically organized.

  • PJ Feguson

    Great suggestion, it really does work! I used to tidy up out of sheer frustration from not finding something. I wouldn’t be looking for it and it showed up while I was cleaning. A good incentive to keep things orderly.

    Something that works for me if I’m not in a hurry is just letting it go. When I stop looking and go about my business my subconscious usually reminds me right where something is. 

    • Val

       Like the stupid remote?   Julia is seven and calls it a Ma-Rote.  Where the hell is it? Why is the volume on 32 and I can’t find the MaRote.   Can you hear me starting to screech a little?

      But then when we let go of this problem, suddenly the MaRote is right there on the kitchen table.    Or on the piano.  Or a windowsill.

      Grrrr.  I’m ready to get a cord and tie it to the TV like we had in the olden days.  love, Val

  • My husband’s dear friends sang a song they came up with. Aptly named, it was called “We find things by cleaning.” They’d sing it as they picked up their apartment in search of something. We’ve been known to sing it around our house, too.

    I was missing one of the rings to my daughter’s stacking toy this week and it was driving me crazy! I cleaned and tidied (even behind and beneath the stove, a dreaded job). No luck. Today as I was doing some serious clearing out to donate things I found the blue ring under our bed. Ahh, order. Sweet peace

  • Kissingtoads12

    I had to take a more radical approach with my losing things problem — my keys now hand right by the front door (which coincidentally was the topic of my blog post today http://kissingtoads12.blogspot.ca/). I also keep a basket near the entrance to toss in anything that is “at risk” of getting lost (mail, stamps, cell phone…)

  • PattyLou

    When I do find something I was looking for, I put it back in the first place I searched. I figure that’s where it belongs.

    •  Me too! It feels like I spend less time looking for lost stuff since I’ve been doing this, and my apartment feels more efficient.

  • Val

    Through your blog, I have discovered I’m very, very much a habit person.   So then it’s been much easier to improve my daily life by recognizing the value of habits and trying to create habits wherever I can figure out to.  

    I do need more habits in certain areas, but just knowing that is more than half the battle.  Habits reduce stress for me, create routine, increase efficiency.

    Thank you, Girl.  love, Val

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve been thinking a lot about this aspect of life – I’m the same way.

  • Patti

    I find that when I tidy up, I find things I wasn’t even looking for!  It’s a chance to reconfigure your surroundings to create a more productive way of working/being.  I love the calmness that tidiness brings.

    • Peninith1

      Yep. Just ‘implemented’ the suggestion to look near where I would EXPECT to find something–in this case a matching pillow case that has been mysteriously missing–and found that indeed it had slid down in a basket where I keep throw pillows next to the bed. And there along with it I found a table cloth that has been A.W.O.L. too!

  • That’s true based on my personal experience, if we can’t find the lost object all we need is to clean up. Being organize on our things can help also. 

  • Lynnel

    Love this! Then you get 2 for the price of one! A clean space and a found object…. My life improved exponentially when I installed a key rack right near the door and started putting my purse on it as well as the keys, and then again when I decided where my cell phone lived when it wasn’t near me. Now if I can figure out how to keep my 4 year olds shoes “found”….

  • StephanieWaasdorp

    Cleaning up is one of my favorite hobbies. I do it regularly so I almost never end up searching for something. Besides that, I don’t have so much stuff anyway. That makes a difference as well I think. 

    Again nice to read your post Gretchen. 

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve started to re-frame tidying: instead of a chore, it’s relaxing and calming. Which it IS.

      • Faith

         tidying.  that sounds much better then cleaning or decluttering. 

  • A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind as they say 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      So, so true.

  • Nancie

    I will take this to heart. Calling on Saint Anthony has served me well countless times when I needed help finding something I have lost.

  • ayearinskirts

    My mother used to tell me this and now I tell it to my kids. It’s true and it works! Start cleaning!

  • I try to always have a special place for things. When it is something that I misplace frequently, I will buy multiples of that item and keep one in each place. I try to catch myself when I am setting stuff down.  Today I set my glasses down in an odd place and I said to myself – remember these are here… sure enough, a few minutes later I had to go back there and get them but I knew where they were. 

    My daughter sometimes borrows my iPhone and at first, we lost sight of it a couple of times but then I told her that she had to actually HAND IT TO ME when she was done with it. She does that and now it is always there when I need it or it is with her.

  • I found that cleaning up also helps eliminate stress.  When I see mounds of papers laying around, I feel overwhelmed, but after tidying up, I find my mind becomes more organized!  I wrote about it on my blog http://www.janecpowell.com

  • I will go the other way around. To find make sure you are not loosing. Or make sure loosing is the least possible. Way to do that is just to simplify your life! We are living in the age of distraction (just today I have posted about it on my blog) and by eliminating distraction we can minimize the risk of loosing something in the first place.

  • Dona Hope East

    Not sure why I’m writing. I don’t even belong here. But then I think as I am reading these other posts, what are “they” doing even reading this stuff. Everyone of them talks about how neat and orderly and tidy and simply wonderful their homes are.  I don’t mean to come off as a real b*#^nasty person. Maybe it’s just cause I’m so tired of living this way. Maybe it’s cause I hate myself for being this way. God is a God of order. He likes things in order. So why didn’t he make me orderly? I’ve never been able to understand this. I would like to write how my keys are right there on that hook I nailed by the door. That means I would actually know where my hammer is.  I do have other kinda nice qualities, though I can’t think of even one.  No one has been in my house in years. Yes, I would like to have the book club at my place. Why sure I would like to invite Bible Study to be at my home next week.  Instead I just take the brownies to the other homes. There is not one room that is in any degree of order. There are a couple rooms you can’t even get your big toe in. *Sigh*Big Sigh*. Thanks for listening. You probably got all your silver shined while you were reading this mess.

    • Peninith1

      I know how it feels to be overwhelmed by your living space. Been there! Especially in my years as a single mom of two rowdy boys. Check out http://www.FlyLady.net for some great practical you-can-do-it support that can make it really possible for you to lift your head and start to dig out. You’ll encounter posts from many, many people who really are in your shoes, living in C.H.A.O.S. and not happy about it (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome). Hugs.

      • gretchenrubin

        I was going to mention FlyLady, too! There’s a very helpful book as well as the site.
        Her method is about taking tiny steps forward. TINY. It is extremely practical, and also hilarious.

    • Heather Novak

      Hey Lady Dona!  Please wrap your arms around yourself and HUG hard.  Or get someone to do it.  Then keep reading Gretchen’s stuff  AND look into flylady.com for fun easy ways to start getting more than your toe in!  Easier to start there….they understand you PERFECTLY.  Check it out Dona.  HUGS!!!!

    • Denise Baum

      Dona, I feel like I was reading my life story when I read your post. I am a stay-at-home mom…so this is almost my ONLY job is to keep the house cleaned up (well, that is a gross underestimation of my job, but I wanted to make a point). For years I could not have anyone in my house…at least without excuses and explanations about why the house was the way it was. I tried FlyLady. I’m not saying she’s without merit, because some of her rules really do help. There is, I found, much unexpected bliss to wake up to a clean sink every morning. But FlyLady didn’t solve my issues altogether-but it certainly does help knowing you aren’t alone and there are countless others facing the same issues.

      There are a couple of tactics that really helped me. The first one was to simply make a reasonable list of tasks for each day. I mean REALLY reasonable. I realized I often put way too much on my to-do list and consequently couldn’t accomplish it. Which in turn would make me feel like a big, fat failure. Like if if I didn’t clean up months of laziness in a few hours I was seriously bankrupt in the productivity  department. So, I would start with small things. Very small things. An important key to this tactic is IGNORING all the other stuff that seems to be relentlessly taunting you at the same time. Now, I just look at it and say, “You be quiet. I’ll get to you. It’s not your turn.” And I get those little things done. Like: clean the fridge. CHECK! Match the socks in the Lonely Sock Basket. CHECK! Clean off the top of that table. CHECK! And then pat yourself on the back for a job very well done. Celebrate with a cup of tea, reading your favorite book, browsing mindlessly online…whatever is a reward for you. Tell yourself, “good job!” and go to bed celebrating yourself for whatever you DID get done, no matter how small. 

      For the bigger areas (like those rooms you can’t get your big toe in) the secret weapon I use is a timer. I set it for say, 20 minutes, and I tell myself “I can do anything for 20 minutes. Even deal with this paperwork landslide!” And here’s where the magic starts. Sometimes I get going and before I know it the timer’s dinging but I’m so fired up about the square foot of surface area I uncovered that I keep going. Sometimes I even get it all done! But if that doesn’t happen, celebrate the 20 minutes. And then give it another 20 or even 10 minutes in the next day or so, and then the next day or so after that and then you’ll be amazed at your productivity and how wonderful you really are. 

      Give yourself grace. Beating yourself up about it is only going to delay your progress. Take those little steps and celebrate you. 

      And as far as finding things…we all ask the Holy Spirit, who knows ALL things, to lead us to where the object is. And by the way, I’ve even inquired for help with my house from the Holy Spirit. And every time I get direction and help. 

      Good luck!!!

  • Ginnyrosselli

    I count on St. Anthony or if I think it is in my purse, I have found that asking someone else to look, works…they see what I don’t.

  • Meg R

    I use the Saints, preferably St Jude, St Anthony, or even just ask God to point me in the right direction.  Once I get to that point, if I don’t find it immediately, I can tidy an area and Voila!!  God may be a God of order, but all He can do is give me opportunities to change my ways. 

  • PeterEHall

    Keys. Terrible things to find even when there’s a basket by the door to put them all in. Obvious place to look is every pocket in every coat but how many coats are there in this house!
    Another tactic is to have less stuff. Less to misplace and less of the needle-in-a-haystack when we’re on a lost object search.

  • Heather Novak

    As I get more organized I find literally having a place or creating a place for everything is so helpful.  Especially if it always gets lost or always gets stuck on a counter somewhere.  I also found Mind Organization for Moms based on David Allen’s getting Things Done….Gretchen, you like him too!  Here is the post: http://liveyourloveoutloud.blogspot.com/2012/04/mom-giveaway-before-after-pictures-of.html

  • I’m going to have to try this. My husband’s family are very superstitious and always tell me to turn a glass over when I’ve lost something. It has actually worked more than once. I think it probably follows the same principle as cleaning: Get your mind off of the object so your brain can work out exactly where it is.

  • Lauriestrand

    So true that cleaning up helps locate (most) lost things. Happened to me today in fact. And I’ve also found that if I sit quietly and stop frantically looking sometimes the lost item will “come” to me. I just get up and know exactly where to look – that happened with my safe deposit box key minutes before a very expensive locksmith was due to arrive. But I still can’t find the brand new white sandals I wore once before they disappeared a couple of weeks ago. Maybe if I sit quietly they will appear in my closet again!

  • tinacolangelo