Decluttering Solutions for the Most Common Hurdles
It seems everyone wants to get organized, but no one knows quite how to do it—and that includes the staff of Real Simple.
Sure, the editors know all about the newest and niftiest shelving units and storage containers, but they don’t always put the strategies they’ve developed into practice. In an informal office poll, certain stumbling blocks—from spouses who won’t follow house rules to drawers that runneth over with last year’s Halloween costumes—repeatedly surfaced. Sound familiar?
Overcome your own barriers to organizational bliss with the following expert tips for real-life problems from RS staffers.
The Problem: “I Start Projects, But Then I Get Overwhelmed”
“I’ll take everything out of my closet with the goal of sorting, editing, discarding, refolding, and rehanging. Then I’ll look around to find my entire wardrobe scattered all over my (tiny) apartment and it becomes too much to bear.”
The Solution: Slow Down
People tend to get overwhelmed by the emotions that come up during the process of purging their belongings, says professional organizer Steve Webber, owner of Steve’s Organizing LLC, in Tacoma, Washington. His advice? “Don’t work for more than an hour continuously. If you think the task is going to take two days, it will probably take four. Double the amount of time you first imagined it would take so that you are not disappointed.”
The Solution: Avoid Distractions
To stay on track, Katherine Atteberry, owner of Mind Over Matter—MOM, in Bozeman, Montana, suggests placing a “goes elsewhere in the house” box in the doorway of the room you’re decluttering. When you find a misplaced item—say, a corkscrew—while cleaning the living room, toss it in the box rather than strolling to the kitchen and ending up sidetracked (ham sandwich, anyone?). Put the box aside for a day and return items when you have a free 15 minutes.
The Solution: Take Shortcuts
Most people love looking at photos but dread arranging them in albums. Ilene Drexler, who owns the Organizing Wiz, in New York City, says to store images in Kolo photo boxes ($12 each, amazon.com), which feature sturdy plastic dividers that can be easily labeled to sort images by event or date. Or hang a canvas laundry bag in the closet, toss in items, and donate little by little, rather than conducting a massive overhaul.
The Problem: “Nobody Takes My Systems Seriously”
“My rule is to take your shoes off when you walk in the door. I have a shoe hanger in the hall closet for my husband and me and a storage bench for our two girls, but shoes still get strewn all over the entryway. My 2-year-old is young, but my 6-year-old should be doing a better job. And let’s not even discuss my husband.”
The Solution: Think Like Your Family
Identify who in your clan is left-brained (technically oriented) and who is right-brained (creative, free-flowing), then tailor tasks to the individuals. Says Atteberry, “If an artsy, right-brained teen won’t put her keys on a rack, perhaps she’ll place them in a pretty piece of pottery—an object she has created or purchased that will help her buy into the system.”
The Solution: Get the Troops Involved
Kids are more likely to put away their stuff if you work with them to create systems. If your goal is to have your little son hang up his clothes, “ask him how he thinks they should be organized,” says Stephanie Calahan, president of Calahan Solutions, in Bloomington, Illinois. “You may think in terms of item—shorts, shirts—while he thinks in terms of color.” If your child likes to play baseball and soccer, instead of placing all the balls in one bin and the bats in another, “ask her if she’d rather have the gear organized by sport,” says Betsy Fein, president of Clutter Busters, in Rockville, Maryland.
The Solution: Divvy Up the Duties
Your husband might not put mail in the bin, but he sure knows how to arrange his baseball-hat collection. Let him organize the things he finds most important. Don’t assume your way is the right way. Make him your partner in organization and let his solutions surprise you.
The Problem: “I Buy Boxes and Bins, But I Don’t Know What to Do With Them”
“I don’t measure or do all the preparation before I buy containers. I get them on impulse, and then half of them don’t work in my space. Now I have a house full of containers.”
The Solution: Think (Sorry) Outside the Box
What to do with all the containers you don’t know how to fill? “Look for places where you have lots of little items that can be consolidated—linen closets, bathrooms, kitchens,” says Drexler. “Toss travel-size toiletries in a bin so when you go on a trip, you can pull it out and review the contents in one fell swoop rather than lifting up items one at a time. And place small containers in a kitchen cabinet to corral dry-soup packets.”
The Solution: Get Creative With Colors
If, in your frenzied bin binge, you bought containers in all the colors of the rainbow, that might be a good thing. “My clients like to store holiday ornaments in red or green bins,” says Webber. “It helps them remember what’s inside.” If you don’t have colored boxes, use colorful stickers (orange for Halloween, red for Valentine’s Day) to mark what’s inside.
The Solution: Next Time, Do Your Homework
Before hitting the store, measure the width, height, and depth of your closets and shelves. “If the shelves are deep, have two rows with less frequently used items in the back,” says Jill Lawrence, owner of Jill-of-all-Trades, in Washington, D.C. One rule of thumb: “You should be able to reach a hand into the opening of the box without much effort,” she says.
The Problem: “My Life Still Feels Out of Control, Even Though I’m Hyperorganized”
“I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to organize my 5-year-old daughter’s room. But now she’s so used to everything in its own place that she recently demanded a separate drawer just for skorts!”
The Solution: Be Realistic
“Organizing isn’t about being overly disciplined,” says Deb Allert, who owns Clutter-a-Go-Go, in San Diego. “It’s about being structured just enough so that you can find anything within three minutes.” Decide what your top priorities are. (The living room? Your files? Your shoes?) Then “organize to the point where you bring serenity into your life,” she says. “That’s rarely achieved by perfectionism.”
The Solution: Simplify Your Systems
If you’ve grouped all your spices alphabetically only to find that you can’t retrieve the rosemary without reshuffling the entire cabinet, then it’s time for a less cumbersome way of doing things. Easily access kitchen goods with lazy-Susan turntables, says Nancy Heller, president of Goodbye Clutter, in New York City. “People have a tendency to forget what they don’t see; this keeps everything visible.”
The Solution: Take Note of Where You’ve Put Things
Your hats and gloves are stashed in one bin, and your winter jackets fill another. But when you go to look for them, you can’t remember where they are. Nancy McGivney, owner of Getting Things Done, in San Clemente, California, uses this approach: “When I organize a garage, I label each container with a number and a name, then hang a map by the door showing where each box is and what’s inside.”
The Problem: “What I Have Is Organized, But There Is Just Too Much of It”
“I feel like I need to hang on to things. I have an accordion file overflowing with college-tuition bills and credit-card statements. I just don’t want to risk throwing them out.”
The Solution: Tame the Paper Beast
“Tax returns should be kept forever,” says Martin Pospeshil, co-owner of Klutter.org, in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “Backup material, like receipts and statements, can be purged after seven years.” Another way to cut through clutter: “Scan items you want to keep but don’t need to look at often,” says Eileen Roth, who owns Everything in Its Place, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and save the info on your hard drive. The NeatReceipts Scanalizer ($150, amazon.com) is a great option. For more toss-it tips, see 5 Steps to Simpler Record-Keeping.
The Solution: Downsize Your Wardrobe
If you’re hanging on to those short shorts, “ask yourself the three F’s: Does it fit, flatter, and make you feel like a million bucks?” says Liz Canavan, owner of Alchemy of Order, in Boulder, Colorado. If the answer is no, give it to charity. (See Donate Your Used Items for a list of various charitable organizations.)
The Solution: Let It Go
If you have received gifts that you don’t want but feel guilty giving away, “take a picture of yourself holding them,” says Allert. “Then get rid of them! The purpose of a present is for the donor to show her good feelings toward the recipient. The actual item is a side issue.”