On the Theory of Lost Things (or, How to Find Your Missing Sh*t)


The only thing I ever lose is my cool.

This is not just a clever turn of phrase.  My impatience is probably my worst personality trait – the one with the greatest effect on how I relate to the world around me, and how the world relates back as a result.  But all that is a story for another blog post.

For this post, I’m instead talking about lost material items.

Some people are the type, so the cliché goes, who would lose their head were it not attached.

Meanwhile, others – those more like myself, in both my personal and professional lives – are constantly called upon to help locate lost keys, lost clothing, lost paperwork, lost data, lost wallets, lost sandwiches (yes, really), lost phones, lost eyeglasses.

Everything but the proverbial lost kitchen sink, which fortunately for all, is bolted down.

Everything everywhere always

turtleI used to wonder how it is that I manage to be such a finder.  I suspect it has to do with my personality type.

I am a hyper-vigilant sort of person.  Not in a nervous paranoia kind of way; I just notice a lot of things in my surroundings – things that a lot of other people often fail to see.

In the Myers-Briggs typology, I am an S (Sensing) – someone who easily perceives small details, particularly when things are not as they should be.

I also have a constant consciousness of everything that I own.

In a sense, I carry a schema of everything I possess everywhere I go.  Unlike some people who have items in their homes they don’t even know about, I’d say I’m aware of 95% of the things I own.

Not only do I know what I’ve got, I know precisely where it is at any given moment in time.  You could name any of my possessions at any random moment and I could tell you its exact location, right down to which side of the drawer or closet it’s on.

Part of this is because, yes, I’m one if those people for whom everything has to have its proper place.

But the reason I’m this way to begin with is because, since I do retain an awareness of the thousands (if not tens of thousands) of individual things I possess at home and at work, all that would get pretty chaotic pretty fast inside my head without some organization.

Simply put, the more orderly I am in the physical world, the more orderly my mind becomes in response.

The Theory of Lost Things

Not everyone, I’ve eventually come to realize, is like this.

And there’s nothing wrong with that; we all are as we are.  Any gifts we possess – and I do consider my ability to not lose things a gift – should be used for the good of others.

lost-and-foundHence my Theory of Lost Things.

I believe everyone – even the most scattered, disorganized, naturally unsystematic person – will instinctively put possessions away in a location that makes sense to him/her, even if only in that moment.

We all have some form of a mental filing system which, at least temporarily, helps us organize our worldly goods against the backdrop of the world itself.  This is because we are human and it’s in our nature to sort and categorize.

Not counting items that fall out of your pocket or off your person and end up left behind, I believe lost things occur through one of two failures, depending upon the nature of the thing that’s been misplaced.

When it comes to occasional-use possession – things that spend more time stored away than not – it is a failure to understand one’s own mental filing system that causes them to end up lost.   Not only do you not know where the item is, you don’t even have a clear sense of where to look.

You can’t recall what the you of yesterday considered a logical categorization for the item.  All the mental architecture that dictated its place in the world (and hence your home, or whatever other physical location) has eroded away.

Meanwhile, in the case of habitual-use possessions (glasses, keys, wallets) and temporary possessions (that errant sandwich), it is a momentary lapse in self-awareness that causes these things to go missing.

This lapse is invariably caused by some sort of distraction.

It needn’t be anything extraordinary – it could be as mundane as a phone call or a cry for attention from your child – but the end result is the same.  You know where the item is supposed to be, but in that moment of distraction, it got mislaid somewhere that’s completely at odds with your mental filing.

Where it is

Of the two types of lost items (occasional-use vs. habitual-use and temporary), the second group is the sort I’m especially good at locating.

The technique is actually the same for both types.  However, the first type usually takes much longer, for the passage of time tends to erase all but the most enduring of clues, which makes searching more challenging.

Even more challenging is when, through time, a habitual-use or temporary lost item becomes an occasional-use one, either through it never being found or it not immediately being recognized as missing.

I have a saying when it comes to finding lost things that I repeat so often, folks who do frequently request my help probably want to smack me in the mouth when they hear it:

To find something that’s lost, you have to look where it is, not where it isn’t.

I supposed it does have a rather condescending air about it.  But that isn’t by design.  Rather, it’s in reference to the searching behaviour I regularly observe in people.

First they search the place the item should be, to no avail.  They then search another place it could be – again, no dice – only to return to the place it should have been on the chance that they just didn’t see it there the first time.

At this point, they become frustrated and stop putting much thought into the process.  They start searching places at random, regularly returning to the place the item should be but clearly isn’t, unable to understand why it’s not there.

It was Einstein who taught us that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Insanity is what watching someone desperately trying to find their keys before they end up late for work starts to look like.  It’s probably what it starts to feel like as well.

Stranger places

found-itemsConventional advice for finding lost things is to retrace your steps – to recall every place you went and everything you did from the last moment you remember still having the item in your possession.

This is good advice, but it’s incomplete.

In addition to this, the way I help people find lost things – the way I help myself as well during the very rare occasions I too misplace something – is by further posing the question, “What unanticipated thing happened while you were doing this?  What distracted you?”

Frantically searching for lost things looks and feels like insanity and indeed, on account of the distraction, most lost things are found in bizarre places.

On top of or inside the refrigerator because someone knocked on your door while you were unpacking groceries.

On the back of the toilet because you were washing your hands and the phone rang.

On someone else’s desk in the office because a colleague stopped you with a question as you were walking by.

All the places that your logical mind normally wouldn’t think to look because who in their right mind would purposely put that thing there.

Finding lost occasional-use items can be done in the same way, though it’s often harder, especially if days, months, or even years have gone by since you’ve last seen the item.

Such an item may indeed be gone forever, or at least until some chance occasion that’s completely unrelated brings you face to face with it once more.  Sometimes, at this point, the memories come flooding back – the mental filing that made so much sense at the time, and if applicable, the distraction that saw it misplaced from where it was supposed to end up.

In all honesty, the best defence against lost occasional-use items – against any lost items, in truth – is a strong understanding of your mind and awareness of your actions as you organize and navigate your life.

Good systems of organization, habitual behaviours, and the ability to predict your own self are key.  This may sound boring, but it actually helps you have more fun.  After all, the less time you waste trying to find lost things, the more time you’ll have for anything and everything else.

Do you lose things easily?  If yes, why do you think that is?  If no, are you good at finding lost things?  What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever lost or been asked to help find?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, #3, and #4)

5 thoughts on “On the Theory of Lost Things (or, How to Find Your Missing Sh*t)

  1. I know where everything is. Sometimes I forget, but, unlike most people, when I have a sense that it has to be somewhere – because that’s the only place it COULD be – I go back, and there it is.

    Because I am orderly in my mind (and live with untidy people), I know I have to be vigilant.

    Last night, in the car on the way back from the airplane, I could not locate the baggie with my emergency meds for when I accidentally ingest certain nuts. The bag also contained ibuprofen, and my husband needed some.

    My daughter located some for him, and the matter was temporarily shelved – we were exhausted, the car was full, and it could wait.

    When I got home, I insisted to myself, for the tenth time, that, since we had visually cleared the room before leaving, I hadn’t left it (good, because stupid doctors won’t prescribe prednisone prophylactically, and I was desperately saving those last couple of doses which would keep me from an ER visit). I reached deeper into the pocket where I was SURE it was, and there it was, at the very bottom. At which point I realized I had quit too soon because I sunburned the backs of my hands – and it hurt to dig.

    It happens a fair amount. If I’m convinced the lost object MUST be within 3-6 feet of me, it will turn up there – often in the ‘purloined letter’ state of not looking like itself. But it’s there.

    I love your trick of asking yourself what happened that might have interrupted you while you were doing something different from your usual – that will be a great time-saver.

    As for the rest, I find that having more than one spot in which you habitually put a particular item is deadly – I have to have ONE, and get the item back to its place as quickly as I discover it’s out of place.


    • I agree that having more than one spot can be trouble unless each location is equally habitual. For some things that travel around the house with me (e.g. my phone, my water bottle, my iPad) I do tend to have different spots for them depending upon what room I’m in. But so long as I can recall where I was when I last had these things, finding them again if lost wouldn’t prove any greater challenge.


      • Your brain works – I used to have one of those. I could walk through my image of the house and solve problems like this.

        Now I just pray to St. Anthony – which was always my mother’s solution. He found MORE things for her…


  2. I’m constantly losing my glasses and this is a real pain! Now whenever I take off my glasses I leave them in exactly the same place every time (but if I’m in a hurry I sometimes forget) 😉 I do have a good ‘lost’ story though – one of my friends sold something and was paid $500 cash. She said she put the money in a “very special place” so that she couldn’t lose it. Now five years down the track she still can’t remember where that “very special place” is. I said to her, “If I gave you money today, where would you put it?” She said, “probably between the pages of a book.” I looked at her bookshelf and it’s huge! It’s still in there somewhere 😀


    • Lost glasses is doubly a pain because depending on your prescription, not only might you not be able to find them, you mightn’t even be able to see well enough to conduct a proper search! Maybe you need to wear them on a chain around your neck like some older ladies do. 🙂

      I try to avoid putting things in “very special places” to prevent the very thing your friend is experiencing. But maybe a $500 incentive will motivate her to start riffling pages one of these days.

      Liked by 1 person

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