There’s no right way to organize your home. Whatever strategy you choose just has to work with your lifestyle, habits, and tastes. But there are a few tried-and-true strategies that can enhance the effectiveness of any system.
From being aware of clutter hot spots to identifying red flags that your organizing method isn’t working, we learned some smart approaches to getting organized from the pros so you can save the time, money, and stress that come with living in a den of disorder.
1. MAKE IT EASIER TO PUT THINGS AWAY.
“It always surprises me how difficult people make organizing for themselves,” says Kate Brown, certified professional organizer and owner of Impact Organizing LLC. Her suggestion: “Make everything a one-handed operation.” For example, don’t hide your laundry basket in the back of the closet. Instead, use an open bin that you can throw your clothes into from across the room. “And avoid lids at almost all costs,” she urges. Using open containers for things you use often like toiletries and cooking supplies makes it easier to put them away. This advice even applies to garbage cans. Brown recommends investing in one with a lever you can step on to pop the lid open. “The fewer steps, the better the organizing system,” she says.
2. DON’T BUY STORAGE CONTAINERS UNTIL YOU’VE PURGED.
“When people want to get organized, the first thing they usually do is run out and buy storage supplies,” says Julie Isaacs, a professional organizer and founder of Uncluttered Home. “But that’s actually backwards.” The point, she explains, is to evaluate why you have so much stuff to begin with—not find new ways to house your junk. “You won’t have any idea of what you really need in terms of containers or shelving until you’ve purged.” While deciding what to keep and what to toss, always remember the “80/20 rule.” “It’s the theory that most of us only use 20 percent of what we have. That’s a good starting point to realizing you are surrounded by a lot of things you probably don’t need,” Isaacs says. Plus, not only will slimming down your stuff save you money on storage supplies, but it’ll save you the headache of going through excess items in an emergency or last-minute situation.
3. LOOK FOR SIGNS THAT LET YOUR SYSTEM ISN’T WORKING.
If a room still somehow looks messy after you’ve cleaned, it’s time to improve your organizational system, which, according to Brown, should allow you to tidy up in 15 minutes or less. Once you’ve pulled out what you don’t need—to either throw away or donate—the next step is to group things together based on use or occasion and store them in open containers.
4. DON’T TREAT DRAWERS LIKE CATCHALLS.
“There isn’t a drawer in your house that should not have container organizers in them,” says interior decorator Christopher Lowell, author of Seven Layers of Organization. They can be any material you want—wood, wire mesh or clear plastic—and are available at most home goods stores. “This allows you to separate the drawers into defined areas for specific things verses throwing everything into one big space,” says Lowell. For the bedroom, store everyday items—like underwear and socks—in top drawers, workout clothes in the second or third drawers and pants in the bottom drawers. In the bathroom, keep cotton swabs and other daily use items on the counter within arm’s reach, and tools you use occasionally under the cabinet. “With the things you only use now and then separated out and away from the things you need every day, those daily essentials will be better organized and easier to get to,” Lowell says.
5. ELIMINATE CLUTTER HOT SPOTS.
Flat surfaces like your dining room table, entryway table and kitchen counters tend to accumulate piles faster than any other spot in the house, explains Isaacs, who advises clients to make clearing all flat surfaces part of their nightly routine—right along with washing their face and brushing their teeth. But if that doesn’t work, her last-ditch trick is to physically block any surface that has become a clutter haven. “For instance, if you put a flower arrangement in the middle of the dining room table and set it with placemats, you’re sending the message that the space is no longer a dumping zone,” Isaacs says.
6. STORE A DISCARD BAG IN THE CLOSET.
“I keep a shopping bag with a handle in the front of my closet. Every time I try on a piece of clothing and then take if off again because it’s unflattering, doesn’t fit, is pulled, stained or out of style, I put it in the bag,” Brown says. “If you’ve taken the piece of clothing off for any reason other than that it’s dirty or doesn’t match, that means it’s not right and will probably never be,” she says. When the bag is full, Isaacs explains, donate the clothes or trade them with a friend at a swap party.
7. SORT SMARTLY.
When you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and take on an organizing project, follow these steps to restore (and keep!) order: First, do it in one shot. Set up a staging area, like the dining table, then empty whatever you’re organizing so you can spot doubles, giveaways, and must-saves fast. Then use organizers like clear containers and baskets without lids so you can quickly access what’s left of your pared-down collection. Lastly, label everything—even if you think you’ll remember, mark boxes and bins with easy-to-read descriptions so there’s no second-guessing later on.
8. ARRANGE ITEMS ACCORDING TO HOW FREQUENTLY THEY’RE USED.
Keep the items you use every day in plain sight—or at least at eye level. “The things you use daily should be the easiest to get to,” says Lowell. “While the things you use once in a while should require a step stool.” This is where high shelving comes in handy. “Things you use only once a year should require a ladder,” he adds. (Think attics or out-of-reach shelving in a garage.) Not only will this storage system make it easier for you to find the things you use often, but the items you don’t use regularly will stay organized until you need them.
9. BE PICKY ABOUT ITEMS IN YOUR HOME.
Think carefully about what you allow into your home. Consider your needs before accepting hand-me-downs or agreeing to store a friend’s kayak for the off-season. If shoes aren’t your size, skip ’em. If you do have space to hang on to something temporarily, set a pickup date so your basement doesn’t become a free storage unit.
10. TAKE A STEP BACK.
Often clutter becomes such a fixture, you look right past it. For a new perspective, imagine you’re a guest in your own home. Take note of things a visitor would notice that you’ve been ignoring, like the paper pile that has claimed the corner of the kitchen counter for months or the blankets strewn all over the couch. Then, refresh the room back to its original state by eliminating what’s making it appear disorganized. Still not seeing the junk? Snapping a picture of the room will force you to view your space through a different lens.
11. SET LIMITS FOR EVERYTHING.
Assign things like memorabilia and craft supplies to a single shelf or bin, then let the designated area’s size dictate how much you keep.
12. USE YOUR CALENDAR.
Give yourself real motivation to finally hang those family photos by planning to host a dinner party. Or try creating a deadline for the DIY project sitting in your basement. If the date comes and goes, donate the piece and any materials and move on.
13. LEARN TO MAKE QUICK DECISIONS.
Trying to determine what can stay and what should go? If at least one of the following statements is true about an item, then it’s a keeper:
I’ve used it within the last year. That’s enough time to have gone through all four seasons and special occasions. If you still aren’t sure, put the item in a “Donate Later” box, seal it and mark it with the date of one year from now. If you haven’t opened it by then, drop off the box at Goodwill without peeking inside.
I need it or I love it. If you don’t, there’s no real reason to hang on to it. Resolve to fill your space only with things that really work, give you pleasure or celebrate your family. Remember that you can’t appreciate what you have if it’s hiding in a dark corner of a closet. You should frame or display what you deem worth holding on to.
It fits into the life I want to live. If something supports you and your future goals (think exercise equipment or a book about starting a business), it can stay. If it’s a painful reminder of the past (think clothes that don’t fit anymore or items that belonged to an ex), let it go.