Minimalism 101: Modules

modules(Photo: IKEA)

Whenever I pack for a trip, I organize my stuff into modules: for example, I have a toiletry module, a clothing module, a first aid module, and a “long flight” module (earplugs, eye mask, iPod Touch). This system helps me keep everything organized, and prevents me from overpacking.

When I moved overseas with a single duffle bag, I used a similar strategy. I arranged all my possessions in packing cubes: one for pants, one for shirts, one for underwear, one for paperwork, one for kitchen supplies, one for toiletries, etc. It made six weeks of hotel living significantly more pleasant and manageable.

In fact, I loved using modules so much, I made them an integral part of my everyday minimalist life. They’re the sixth step of the STREAMLINE strategy that I outline in my book.

There’s no great mystery to the concept: a module is simply a set of related items that perform a particular task. To make one, all you need to do is:

  • Gather like items together
  • Cull the excess (like duplicates!)
  • Contain them for storage and/or portability

The container can be a drawer, shelf, box, storage bin, or ziplock bag—whatever’s handy and appropriate for the contents.

Modules are particularly beneficial for the following household items:

Craft supplies – dedicate one storage bin to each hobby, like knitting, scrapbooking, or beading
Office supplies – gather together all those pens, paperclips, sticky notes, and rubberbands
Kitchen gadgets
Spices, condiments, and baking supplies
Clothing – assign certain drawers, shelves, and containers to particular items
Sports equipment – use boxes, bins, or hanging bags to corral balls, helmets, pads, and more
Electronics – consolidate those cables, chargers, and headphones
Accessories – like jewelry, scarves, belts, wallets, and bags
Seasonal stuff – like winter hats and gloves, or summer flipflops and beach towels
Holiday decorations
Cleaning supplies
Cosmetics and toiletries

Why are modules so conducive to a minimalist lifestyle? Because they help you pare down in three ways:

1. When you consolidate like items into modules, you see exactly how much you have. Owning sixty-three pens seems more absurd when you see them all together, than when they’re scattered throughout the house. Ditto for twenty white t-shirts, three staplers, or a lifetime supply of yarn.

2. Modules put physical limits on your possessions. For example, once you fill up your box dedicated to video games, you have to toss something old before adding something new. It’s a super-effective way to put a lid on further accumulation.

3. Modules provide a place for everything, and keep everything in its place. The result: you’re much less likely to acquire an extra screwdriver, measuring tape, or bottle of vanilla when you can easily find the one you already have.

(Just a note: be sure to declutter, declutter, and declutter some more, before you put anything in a container–otherwise, you’re just organizing your clutter.)

Modules help you organize your stuff, eliminate the excess, and refrain from accumulating more. They’re one of the easiest and most effective ways to get your stuff under control—and keep it that way!

Let me know what you’re putting into modules in the Comments…

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider buying my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Related posts:

  1. Storage is Not a Solution
  2. Minimalist Workhorse: Mason Jars

37 comments to Minimalism 101: Modules

  • I love the module system. I recently pared down my yarn collection etc and now it will have to fit in one moderate sized plastic container with a lid (to keep moths at bay!). We also have a box for sewing supplies that is easy to take out and place on the table next to the sewing machine while working, and tidying up afterwards is easy. I’m totally a convert for modules! It works for kids toys and games and clothing too! Helps to calm my neat freak perfectionist minimalist self..

  • I like this idea and can think of a couple of things that I will apply this to. Do you use the IKEA modules pictured in your article?

  • Nicole

    So true. My husband and I went travelling a few years ago through without 13 month old daughter. Packing cubes were our saviour. We had a routine of who unpacks what cube and the same with repacking the cubes. Hence nothing was left behind and we always knew where to find what we needed.
    As for using this system in the home – I have found it essential for my girl’s craft items and toys. All stickers in one box, paper in one box, puzzles in another, all teddies in another. Yes we have said goodbye to many a soft toy using this method – you want a new one? Someone else has to go! My oldest child already has a minimalist desk drawer (one eraser, one pencil sharpener, one box of coloured pencils, no scrap paper and clear spaces) – it’s my little hoarding 4 year old that needs a bit more work!

    Thanks for all your help along the way Francine. These posts have been invaluable.

  • My boyfriend’s hyper-organized, so he’s been moving our stuff in this direction. I never had a name for it, but “modules” seems like a good fit. We still have too much stuff, but until we can pare down some more, we can at least get our hands on things when we need them. Still a work-in-progress on the decluttering!

  • I also dig the modular system. I struggle to keep things in their modules:) but that’s another issue. It works, it’s efficient, and it helps take an extra load off your brain. Thanks.

  • I do the same. I have bought the cheap clear/translucent plastic boxes from Container Store and used them as limits as well as organizers. Once the T-Shirt box is full, that’s it. Once the sock box is full, once the office supply box is full, etc. Then I can also go through them easily, clearing out one or several a day, but keeping the system going. I won’t say I have everything figured out like this (not books or shoes, for example, but it’s been very helpful in a lot of ways. I also do the module thing for travel, because I go with a backpack and carry-on.

    • meghan

      Pearl,
      Where do you keep all these boxes? Stacked in the closet? I am just starting the “minimalist lifestyle” and need to go on a major breakup spree with my many different pairs of black lounge pants (some are fleece, some are cotton, some are snug, some are loose, I can rationalize for days, but in reality I have like 9 pairs of black lounge pants for God’s sake).

  • Erin

    When my kids were little I set up an art cabinet that had labeled rectangular gladware containers to hold each item. The kids were able to find what they wanted and return it to the proper place from a very young age. It worked so well that if you need a pen, pencil, tape or anything else of that sort you can go to the art cabinet and easily find it since the cabinet is still organized that way today!

  • When we used to fly for travel we made shirt packs in 2-gallon Ziploc bags. Fold a shirt/blouse, add one set of underwear and accessories (necktie, earrings, clean hankie, whatever) and zip it shut. Every night we’d take out one bag and hang the shirt for the next morning. Everything else we needed was then close to hand. At night, we’d repack that bag with the dirty clothes and take out a new bag for tomorrow. It was wonderful not having to find all the accessories for the next day after a long day of travel or during the next morning’s rush.

  • When it comes to packing clothes for travel we use merino wool clothes made by http://www.icebreaker.com. They can go for very long lengths of time without holding odour. We usually go on photography trips were it would be too hard to bring more clothes anyway. This means we can pack very minimal amounts of clothes wherever we go though. It isn’t just a benefit while packing though, it means we have a very minimal wardrobe in genera; (we don’t actually have a wardrobe or anything to put them in it’s so few).

    Mentioning the pens to makes me think of the Lamy two in ones pens. A pencil and pen in one nicely designed unit that is built to last. Our plan is to own just one of these each and we should be pretty set. http://www.lamy.com

    I do like the storage cube idea though, we need something to organise a few of the things we have. I just hadn’t really worked out how.

  • I’ve always been a fan of the module idea (I call them “kits”). Having a bunch of kits/modules helps me breathe easier – knowing things are contained neatly.

    Am reading your book (loving it!) and the parts that discuss modules are really motivating me to be more precise in my organizing.

  • Oh, I could write a laundry list, but I’ll try to keep it short!

    My clothes and shoes are kept in a canvas sweater rack with shelves (I had a separate one for clothes and shoes, but got rid of the shoe one as I got rid of a lot of other stuff). I have very little clothes hanging up, which saves closet space. Also, I have a small photo box of office supplies, pictures, and awards (I know; an odd mix, but I don’t have much of any of them).

    My make-up and accessories fit into what amounts to a small plastic train case; gloves and scarves in the big cavity at the very bottom, large pendants, necklaces, and glasses in a removable tray, and make-up and smaller jewelry pieces in several separate cubbies in the top. I also have a plastic bin for my Christmas ornaments, and a plastic dish pan for dog toys.

    My work-in-progress dollhouse is doubling as a shelving unit for books and the small number of knick-knacks I have. I even have a shelf in a kitchen cabinet for dog supplies, as well as one in the medicine cabinet (she has almost as much stuff as I do!). Leashes and other things are conviently hung on the wall together.

    Sorry for the long comment; I just love organizing and decluttering way too much!

  • Sue

    I love modules, kits, cubes, etc. I need them all! I love the idea of having physical limits on my possessions. I once cut the top off of an empty egg carton and kept my clip on earrings in the egg holders. For me, it was better than having them all jumbled up in a corner of a dark jewellry box.

  • Glenda

    I am not a minimalist. In fact I have a bit of a hoarding problem. I subscribe to a few minimalist blogs because the ‘other outlook’ on stuff helps me to work through my own issues with ‘stuff’. It was nice to read this particular post because I could find a commonality. Using ‘modules’ is one way I have tried to deal with my stuff–because you are right, if you have it scattered you don’t know what you have. ‘Moduling’ makes it easier for me to let go of items because I can see if I have duplicates (or *shudder* triplicate). The only piece I have to share is for holiday cards. I have a small container I keep all the Christmas cards, stickers, fancy pens, addresses, etc, in. The container is sized perfectly that it can sit on my lap and act as a desk. After I’m done everything gets put back in and put back up. It also helps me control obtaining more cards as I know exactly how many I have an if I need more. Thanks for the insight into the other side of the spectrum.

  • I love this idea! Inspired by Francine, we also have a module for all the baby first-aid supplies (Tylenol, Epi-pen, nail clippers, thermometer, etc.) When we travel, we just grab the module. If we ever leave the children with my mom for any length of time, we bring the module. It’s much easier than, “Do we have this, that, or the other?” It’s completely self-contained!

  • Kim

    I really need to put this into practice. I keep forgetting or getting busy with something else, and never make the time to get it all together. I think that will be my project for December.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • Heather

    I’ve been doing this too, without putting a name to it. At a “free yard sale” a few years ago I picked up a few bright, colorful tech-fabric bags that I think were intended for rock climbers. They are great for organizing and containing medications, socks, etc. We also have small plastic boxes for family scarves, mittens, hats, etc in the entryway. It’s amazing to see the duplication when things are gathered from all corners of even a small house. How did each child end up with 5 baseball caps, for example? A good lesson in choosing the nicest/favorite and lettting at least some of the others go.

  • Thank you for this concept. When I help my clients organize, they tend to want to go out and spend money to buy boxes, bins, or “organizers,” to organize what they have. I help them to clear out clutter first, and they often find they don’t even need to go buy anything new after all. What they are left with has them realize where things are, and keeping all like things in one place is important. I had a client, who is an artist, buy 10 cans of spray adhesive, all because she kept storing them in different places and couldn’t find them when she needed them. Thank you for keeping life simple.

  • Ashley

    Modules are the best!! Since reading about them in your book, I’ve made modules for pet supplies & first aid stuff. I also made a kitchen module — a box of all our utensils, measuring cups, etc. We’re remodeling the kitchen right now (right now…for the last year) so having a kitchen box was perfect. Of course I should mention that because we are remodeling our whole (little) house, the *real* module around here … is the garage. :)

  • I really like this idea. We are about to take a trip, which will be our first minimalist travel experience. I’m going to try the modules approach as we pack our backpacks. Actually, now that I think of it, we’ve kinda packed like this in the past, but with the minimalist approach I’ll be sure to pay attention to duplicate and unnecessary items. Thanks for sharing this idea.

  • I have modules for wrapping paper and for gift bags. In the plastic box of wrapping paper I also keep tape and scissors so I don’t have to do looking for them. When I get more paper or bags than fit in the box, well, out something goes. All spices are on one shelf. All dvds and cds fit in one little cabinet. All my knitting needles and crochet hooks–one lidded wicket basket. Same with thread, sewing material, and sewing supplies. This way, I always know where to find what I need. Thanks for this post, Francine. It reminds me that a couple of areas still need to be ‘modulized’.

  • Kat

    I love this idea and try using it for my crafting / quilting supplies. I have a small closet with storage bins or what you would call modules. When the bins are full nothing new can come in or more likely something has to leave. It really has made me stop and think before purchasing. Tonight I just made the decision NOT to purchase a new storage bin for fabric (I was cheating and thought to move some to my son’s closet) but to rather go through the current bins and purge enough so that they can close properly. I love having limits. Although I find it difficult to be a minimalist when it comes to sewing/crafting/quilting supplies. Modules will do it though!

  • Thanks for the great idea! I would’ve never thought about creating modules when traveling too! It makes perfect sense! Thanks Miss Minimalist!

  • I have recently discovered IKEA and love their selection for organizing things. I have Major Depression and over the past couple of months by reading yours and others blogs have discovered that minimalism reduces much of my stress that contributes to my illness. With two kids and a husband I can’t reduce all the items in my house, but I’ve made a big dent. I’ve also started a blog http://www.minimizingdepression.com that has helped me and was encouraged by reading others’ blogs.

  • runi

    I recently applied the “Module Principle” to my Bug-Out Kit. The module lineup parallels the “Rule of 3″ categories–air, shelter/clothing, water, medical, food–with decontamination and “other” added. Items in almost all categories are grouped in heavy mil bags–with the handcrank flashlight loose on the top of the backpack contents (so the other contents can be clearly seen).

    After reading Francine’s article, and these posts, I’m going to tackle my few kitchen things, clothing, etc. next.

  • LOVE the modules!
    i’ve always sorted stuff into modules around the house.
    and now i am consciously doing it with my travel gear.
    and it really does help me travel lighter and faster and happier.
    i got some nylon stuff bags at REI a couple of years ago, and they are just wonderful for organising clothing and other stuff.
    they weigh nothing, they are washable yet waterproof, and they help keep the laundry sorted.

    your book is a marvellous read…..please keep up the good work!

  • Excellent! I started adult life planning to live (and work) on a 28 foot sailboat as I sailed the world, so I used similar techniques to organize what I needed (and only what I needed) so it would be protected and accessible. Alas, romantic affiliation with a Material Girl sunk that dream. Now, many years later, I’m free of that and moving back toward my roots. Sailing the world is out, but compact, clutter free living is again a goal.

  • JarrodHenry

    Question.. I’m going through your process now, and you mention doing it room by room. I have a lot of board games, some in the living room ,some upstairs in the spare bedroom. If I’m wanting to do the “Modules” step in the living room, should I gather ALL the board games and bring them into that room, or should I do them separately and then bring them together? The room for the board gaming is going to be the living room.

    Thanks!

    • miss minimalist

      JarrodHenry, if you intend to use the board games in the living room, I’d gather ALL of them there for consolidation. Might as well keep things as simple as possible. :)

  • Caroline

    Modules are so wonderful that all my life I’ve had the hardest time getting rid of the container for the stuff (always like items placed together for convenient access and easy organization – I was born knowing this trick :P ) even after I got rid of all the stuff in it. My big thing is efficiency, and I always think that I could use the container in some other way so I should hang on to it. Last year I pushed myself and got rid of several languishing empty containers. It was really silly. It’s still my biggest “stuff” problem! I just emptied another one yesterday and I’m thinking, “hmm I could use that for this…or maybe that could go in here and I could change that…” and the other part of me says, “set it freeeeeeee!” We’ll see, because even though my stuff is pared down, my bf still has a lot of stuff in here. I assure you that I am not rearranging and reorganizing my clutter anymore, I am mainly dealing with treasures at this point. Still, I want to do more, and ditching the containers probably helps me more than anything else. I don’t just need limits for stuff, I need limits for my modules themselves!

  • [...] on her storage module system that she outlines in both her book, The Joy of Less, and this post:  http://www.missminimalist.com/2010/11/modules-the-ultimate-minimalist-life-hack/.  Take a look at it.  I’m working on storage modules, especially for my art supplies.  [...]

  • Nata

    thanks again for the great idea!

    I find it very convenient to use furoshiki to pack or store clothes ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furoshiki). In fact furoshiki is just a rectangular piece of cloth, so it’s very easy to make some from say an old sheet. For travel, i use bandanas/cotton headscarves. To know what’s inside, I attach a label to each furoshiki (piece of cardboard and some rope loop). Of course, you can make tranparent furoshikis say from an old see-through curtain.

    When things are grouped and tied down in furoshikis, you can just toss them in one big container or at the back of a deep closet and it will still be very easy to find and retrieve whatever you need.

    I use this method for seasonal things (like woolen socks/scarves etc), special wear (swimwear, children’s dancewear), clothes that are yet too big for kids, headscarves. When travelling, I use furoshikis as a kind of ‘packing cube’.

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