Jewelry, medicine, newspapers, clothes, papers, craft supplies and food. These are just a few of the items I’ve seen stored for weeks — even months or years — in tote bags or reusable grocery bags. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of reusable bags. But they’ve spawned some bad habits.
Let’s be clear: Bags are for transporting items from place to place. They are not storage containers, and no good organizational system uses dozens of them to compartmentalize, hide or keep things contained for an extended amount of time. These are the incorrect ways I see people using bags:
To straighten up the house
If you’re using bags as a quick way to make your house presentable, you’re merely kicking the ball down the road. If you dump a bunch of odds and ends into a bag and shove it in a closet because you’re hosting guests, it is imperative that you retrieve the bag the next day and put the items in their proper places. If you don’t, you will tear your house apart looking for something, be frustrated when you can’t find it, and then go out and buy more of it. While you’re solving one short-term problem, you’re also creating a long-term one — more stuff coming into your house that you don’t need and will have to organize.
As a filing cabinet
If your desk is full of papers and unopened mail, or if your filing cabinet is full, it’s easy to clear off your desk by throwing everything into a bag with a plan to go through it later. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Wrong. Because even though you don’t see those papers anymore, you still know they exist, and that will weigh on you. And they’ll be harder to make sense of if you put sorting through them off for too long and can’t remember what they are and whether you need to keep them. Instead of taking the easy way out, spend 30 minutes sorting, tossing and filing. You’ll thank yourself later — I promise.
As temporary storage bins
This is a pretty legitimate use for a bag. You can see what needs to be stored together and how big a bin you need. Once you’ve consolidated a category of items into a bag, however, you may feel virtuous for managing to get that step done. As a result, the next step feels less urgent and doesn’t happen in a timely manner. In the meantime, the contents of the bag are collecting dust in an opaque, unlabeled and unsealed bag. Not the best way to take care of keepsakes.
To keep items together
For instance, people bring home a bunch of souvenirs from a trip, but because they are tired and need to get back to their daily routines, they dump them in a bag to sort through later. And then later becomes five years from then. It’s better to leave those items out so that you’re forced to deal with them. This is also true for kids’ artwork. Instead of making decisions about what to keep, hurried parents will put everything into a bag in June with plans to deal with it over the summer. But then that bag gets put in a closet, and before you know it, it’s four years later. Better to leave it out and give yourself a deadline to deal with the contents.
As packed travel bags
I’m not talking about large tote bags here, but rather small totes for toiletries. Some people have as many as a dozen toiletry cases, making it unnecessarily difficult to keep track of what you have. I understand it might make sense for people who travel frequently to keep a set of toiletries and other necessities packed. But often people can’t remember if they still have enough of something, so they purchase more just in case, and that purchase turns out to be unnecessary. When this scenario is repeated 10 times, you’ve accidentally accumulated a ton of stuff you don’t need and can’t organize. Unpacking your bag after each trip will make it easier for you to remember what you have and what you don’t. It will also make for a clean end to one trip and new beginning for the next.
There are certain items that can be kept in tote bags, such as knitting supplies that you take to different places or goggles and sunscreen that you regularly take to the pool. The same is true for your work bag. But there should only be one bag used for that purpose. You can’t have knitting supplies in four different bags. If you need multiple bags for one activity, you’ve probably got too much stuff.
The reusable tote is clearly a more sustainable alternative to the single-use bag. But I don’t think anyone envisioned these bags as a way to store our overabundance of possessions. Plus, people have way too many of these bags. Try to limit your collection to 10 or 12 and use them exclusively to transport belongings rather than for permanent storage, which defeats their purpose.
Nicole Anzia is a freelance writer and owner of Neatnik.