Start simple: Spiff up a few low-traffic rooms quickly and easily, so that you’re motivated to tackle bigger cleaning tasks in high-traffic areas like the kitchen and bathrooms. “You’ll be inspired to finish the rest of your home,” says Leslie Reichert, aka The Cleaning Coach. Depending on your household, the dining room, living room, or a home office are good places to start.
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Start at the root—think about what is keeping you from staying neat. We have found that it’s often the spot where you are storing clothes. If you find yourself constantly wrestling with drawers—they're too shallow or too heavy, they stick, or they're broken—replace the dresser and the task won’t be nearly as taxing. The replacement does not have to cost you an arm and a leg—try Ikea. We tend to avoid things that are physically difficult and therefore a fully functioning replacement piece will save you time and energy for many years to come.
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Choose Uniform Containers
Using a set of the same containers will instantly neaten up a space and help create a uniform and organized cabinet or pantry. RS editors prefer square containers as opposed to round ones so there isn't any wasted space on the shelf when nestled up against each other. Don’t worry about having vessels sized exactly to fit the contents, either—it’s more important to have the same ones, even if they are a little tall or wide. And, when appropriate, choose clear bins so that the contents can be easily found. If you opt for opaque containers, be sure to label them for the same reason. Biggest tip of all: If there’s empty space, leave it. “Hybrid” zones are trouble and will only lead to more clutter and require more work down the road.
To buy: OXO Good Grips 10-Piece POP Container Set, $100, amazon.com
It’s tempting to drop a stack of mail on the counter and walk away—promising yourself that you will deal with it later. Instead, try going straight from your mailbox to the recycling bin. Once there, quickly sift through and toss out unsolicited junk mailers, flyers, and postcards. Then file the rest as they are dealt with: school forms, bills, etc. Reduce the paper floating around your home by immediately marking events on the calendar, and then recycle the invitations. Overwhelmed by bills and receipts? Put them into a letter sorter to handle at the end of each week, so they are streamlined and accessible.
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Have a Donation Bin on Hand
Designating a place where you can put items you want to donate will prompt you to eliminate clutter before it has a chance to pile up. Try keeping a bin easily accessible. You could keep it tucked away in a hall closet or consider stowing it in the trunk of your car—then you won’t have to do any heavy lifting when the bin is filled and it’s time to donate. Toss in old toys, ill-fitting clothing, and other unused items regularly; when the bin is full, give the items away and start over.
Giving yourself easy access to essentials keeps your house orderly on a day-to-day basis. Place sets of folded sheets inside pillowcases, and stow each in the room where it will be used. If they are too far away, you’ll forget where you’ve hidden them and will waste time searching. Keep a bottle of glass cleaner under your sink in the bathroom to make quick clean ups easier. If the solution is not easily accessible, you’ll likely get distracted before you make it back to the bathroom to complete the task. Better yet, if you’ve got a multi-level house, stash a full cleaning caddy on each floor so you don’t have to lug one up and down the stairs.
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If you have a pile problem, tell yourself this: “Everything in a pile is a deferred decision.” When you had the item in your hand, you did not decide where it should live so you set it down. The next “decision” landed on top of that one, and so on, leading to a stack of indecision. Change the habit: stop and think, “Wait, where should this go?” The extra seconds spent putting it in its correct spot will save you many minutes down the road. And nobody’s perfect: It’s okay to have a basket of “action items” so long as you also schedule a time to put them away.
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Attach a Guilty Pleasure to a Chore
Plan an organizing session right before an activity you enjoy, like watching a movie or reading a book. It takes away some of the negative charge and motivates you to get the task done efficiently. If the task does not require your undivided attention (say folding clean laundry), you can watch your favorite show at the same time. You might even get so engulfed in the plotline that you won’t notice the time passing. If you do chores this way, you are being productive and checking something tedious items off of your to-do list for the day—it’s a win-win.
For times when you’re just too tired or busy to put things away: have one (and only one!) drop spot in each room for that stuff. Use a collapsible bin as a “loading dock” and keep it tucked away in a nearby closet. But be careful not to just let your things sit there for days on end. It’s important to set a deadline to put those pieces away (at night when the kids are brushing their teeth or in the morning when you’re starting a new load of laundry), because you don’t want your stuff collecting dust.