Ask the Organizer

How do you deal with a desk-turned–dumping ground, a buried bedroom, and perpetual pile problems? Andrew Mellen, an expert on order, has the answers.

Photo by Jessica Antola

I buy lots of baskets and boxes, but I just end up hiding stuff in them, not really organizing. How do I set up storage systems that actually work?—Jaheen C.

I see this all the time. People go shopping with the best intentions and grab a bunch of containers without being sure of what it is they’re going to containerize. You can head off this problem by focusing on one area at a time—say, the playroom or the linen closet—and doing some advance work.

Before shopping for storage supplies, remove all the items from your trouble spot and sort them into global categories. For a playroom, that might be art supplies, plush toys, dolls, vehicles, and building toys. Then, and this is the part that people usually skip, go back to those groupings and divide them even further into subcategories—say, small plush toys and large plush toys. Plan to give each subcategory its own container. Now go shopping.

For storage behind closed doors, try clear plastic bins—with covers, when practical—so you can easily see the contents. If the containers will be on display, you’ll want something nice looking, like matching cube-shaped baskets. In either case, it’s more important that the containers be uniform than that they be sized perfectly for the contents. If some containers have extra space, that’s fine. Resist the temptation to fill them. You don’t want to create any “hybrid” zones—that’s how the trouble starts. A client will put dolls in a bin, for example, and then say to herself, Oh, look, there’s some room in there. I’ll put the puzzles on the bottom, because we don’t use them that often. But guess what: You won’t remember that the puzzles are in there, because it’s the doll bin! And now you’ve undermined yourself. Keep subcategories separate and you’ll always know where to put things away and where to find them.