Get organized: Save time, save money, reduce stress

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February 20, 2010


By Bob Difley

A lot of what I learned when living on my 33-foot sailboat many years ago turned into valuable information when I transformed from ragbagger to RV  fulltimer. Since I wanted to keep my sailboat down to a size easy for me to handle alone, it would limit the storage space for my stuff. I also quickly learned that if I was going to store stuff, I needed to be able to find it when I needed it–or I would end up buying a duplicate. A waste of time searching for a part or tool, a waste of money duplicating the item, and a waste of storage space that could be used for something else.

I purchased specifically-sized clear plastic containers that would stack and fit tightly into my various cabinets and below decks so as not to waste space. I took everything off the boat and organized it on the dock by category. Everything needed to be categorized, even if miscellaneous–though that category I tried to keep small.

My categories of what I needed, like tools, spare engine parts, rigging and sail repair, winter clothes, and canned food were easy categories. I could pile up each category to see how much space it took, find a locker that would fit the items in that category, list them on a page in a three-ring notebook, and pack them in plastic containers that would just fit in their designated locker. That was the easy part. Organizing all that stuff that did not fit easily into a category, and creating ever more categories complicated the reorganization.

But the important part was listing every item in the notebook. It was a lot easier to find my slides of the Wednesday night beer-can race series as a notebook entry, discovering it was in box 3 in the Photographic compartment (which was in locker S-4) than it was to go through all the boxes in the bin labeled Photographic–if I could remember which locker the photographic stuff was in.

But with my motorhome, it was even easier. None of my storage bins was in the bilge below decks, but in the “basement” of my rig and much easier to get to. But when you look in the basement locker compartments of most motorhomes and fifth wheels, even if everything is organized in containers, how many containers have to be pulled out and looked through? And what about that stuff that was difficult to categorize, or ambiguous as to what category it fit into.

That was solvable also when I got my first computer (yes, I was boating and fulltiming before computers were commonplace). I not only listed every item in a container in a file on the hard drive  (most of the time alphabetically because it was an easy two-click operation), but I also taped a label on each box with the category and a box/bin number. Then I took the whole list and sorted it alphabetically. Now all I had to do was search on the computer for what I was looking for and I would be rewarded with the exact location of the item.

When I think about how much time I had spent previously looking for things, the time it took me to organize and categorize all my stuff was well worth it. And for anything new that came aboard, a reverse search would determine just where it would live.

Check out my new eBook, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands, for a guide to boondocking.

Leave a Reply


  1. Gary – I wish I practiced as good as I preached. But I try.

  2. gmas


    I like the old .. its in the box/storage/bin… as you can jam more stuff in one box of everything than you can having all these little boxes only half full… the other half is air… so which waist more space… the throw it in and jam it full or the sorted and boxed items?

    I am sure someone else has already done it but each hole can contain so much weight… when full it has to weigh the right amount or you goofed and didn’t pack it in right…

    and besides its a adventure looking for something.. after all your retired and have lots of time to seek and search with… what else can you do with it?

    Most of the time you start looking for one thing.. and as you root through the stuff you come up with two or three other things you were looking for before… seee ya found ’em…

    If you were orginized how much fun would that be if you could go directly to the box and never root through the others to see what your missing… and it gives you time to throw away things you can’t remember what it was or used for or looks like something from outer space… as it got mold’y and grew new life…

  3. Gary

    Hey Bob,
    I guess organization is in the eye of the beholder. Mrs. G is just like you – little plastic boxes with lids, labeled and numbered and logged. Drives me crazy. I like having my “stuff” handy so when I need it, it’s right there. So far, even though we have been married for 40 years – she is still organizing my stuff and I am still buying 2 of everything.The storage area underneath looks like a war zone but I can find things there. I don’t let Mrs. G touch it – inside, of course is a different story. Neat as a pin, I can’t even leave my shoes by the door. I still try once in a while – I kind of enjoy seeing her cross her eyes and give me the look. I guess that if we were all alike, it would be kind of boring. So here’s to keeping it however you need it. I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good writing…

  4. Bob Difley

    “Going though all that with the containers, the labels and the lists sure makes you sound a little anal.”
    Hi Bill. Yeah, it is a little anal–to some. But others (read the comment from George, above) find it as common sense. But I think the point I would like to make is that if you organize, it will make your life easier. It is up to you to what degree you do that. For instance, I could have gone a step further and chosen colors for the plastic containers according to category. On the other hand, maybe I could go only as far as to create the categories, and not itemize the contents. As long as I understood what category everything I owned fit into, the system would work, and only require me to go through a few containers to find the actual item I was looking for. That was actually closer to what I did in my motorhome, having used the system on my boat, where it was more critical. And until you do this, you don’t realize how much wasted effort you put in to finding things. As Paul Hawes says (above), “The lessons learned in a small boat make RV life far easier.” It’s a good lesson to learn from boaters. Thanks for the comment. Bob

  5. Al Gonzalez

    I am having problim with my fridge, we just bought this class A (1988) Alum.light
    by HR. Everything works except the fridge, I need one its a two door unit. How do I repair or find a new one, this is our first time with A class A.

  6. Great topic Bob. Never before has the expression: “A place for everything, and everything in its’ place” been more appropriate than when living in an RV. Again, thanks for the topic.

  7. gmas

    Bob.. man your older than dirt… if you were sailing before computers. 😀

    You think a sailboat is bad try living in a 31 ft Airstream with all your goodies from life. .. you have to decide what to keep and what won’t be anymore. Things like first wife… throw away. Old wedding pictures.. throw away. Highschool first car pic.. keeper… pics of military travel adventure… keeper… well keep some. If you kept all you would find that their isn’t any room for you. And some things have to do dual purposes to survive in the camper/trailer/boat. After all you only have so much sq footage of floor space.

    Now reverse … going from RV back into house. Wow… lots of dust/dirt and lint space as you have rooms with nothing in them… AT FIRST 🙂

    Moving every 5 years helps to also slim down the storage costs. And as we get older things change. Our preferances and hobbies change with us… so the ammo reloading stuff.. keep… the RC model planes… throw away… etc 😀

    computers are great to keep non paper records on but you have to have some juice to make ’em work… note books are good but also take up room… makes you wonder how them people in the 50’s did it … probably had less junk.

    As George Carlin used to say their is three kinds of things one owns… I am sure you proabably have heard his talk on it… funny thing is .. he was right 😉 😉

    good short Bob.. but what happend to boondocking? I was so looking forward to the commucations part of it… 😀

  8. George

    Thanks for the suggestions, Bob. What seems anal to some people seems like common sense to me – even though I haven’t taken the time yet to get as organized as you. I, too, tend to buy something only to find that I bought it earlier and stored it “in a safe place.” My new(er) RV has little storage space, so your ideas are good ones for me to keep in mind, especially the plastic airtight containers since things tend to absorb moisture in a stored RV. Again, thanks for the insight that comes with long experience.

  9. Paul Hawes

    I have lived (for a brief time) on 27′, 32′, and 47′ sailboats. (We are referred to as “rag sailors”.) I certainly agree that it forces you to be organized. For those who survive, you must learn to put each item away and immediately know where to find it. Of course, the smaller the boat, the more critical this is. An RV is easy in comparison. But, The lessons learned in a small boat make RV fife far easier.

  10. Liz Bard

    Of course, I’m sure you left a copy of the list with someone in case of insurance needs for repacement. It is almost like leaving a list of what is in you luggage, passport number, credit card numbers, etc. with someone at home when you are traveling by air, car, train, hiking, etc. for insurance replacement.

    Also leaving an itenary with license plate number and vehicle description in case of needing to send out a Welfare Check or needing to reach you for Family Emergencies.

  11. Bill

    Going though all that with the containers, the labels and the lists sure makes you sound a little anal. On the other hand it sure is nice to be able to put your hand on something when you want it.

    Maybe being a little anal about your storage isn’t all bad…maybe it’s better just to do it and not tell anyone. That way you have the reward of being able to find stuff and nobody thinks you’re a little strange for going though all that organization.

  12. Joe

    I could have guess that you were a blowboater at one time!

    Living on a boat definitely gives you a healthy understanding of the cost (in time, space, and money) of stuff, and will make any RV leaks you have look tiny.

    Nice tips. Too much stuff is nothing but a drag on the soul.