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.

Andrew Mellon, professional organizer
Credit: 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.

My boys’ rooms look like fields of plane-crash debris. Finding anything is impossible, so getting ready for soccer games or guitar practice is incredibly stressful. They’re teens, so they won’t take advice from me, but this mess is affecting all of us. —Jennifer S.

The best approach is to pick a moment that isn’t rushed and stressful, sit the boys down, and say, “Hey, it seems like it’s been challenging to get out of the house. Can everybody agree on that?” Once you have a consensus, the focus shifts from any conflicts about the state of the rooms to the shared effort of problem solving. If you can get the kids to say, “Yeah, sometimes we’re late because we can’t find stuff,” you’ve identified a common problem and you’re on the same team. Ask them, “Any ideas?” One might say, “Well, I can never find my cleats,” and you might suggest a bin by the door for cleats and shin guards. Make this as easy as possible for the kids. Even if you would prefer to hide gear in covered bins, be realistic and choose open containers, because it’s a pain to remove a lid every time you need something.

Of course, there’s a chance that the boys won’t admit to a problem. In that case, you have to play hardball. Instead of racing around with them as they get ready, and feeling like your head is going to explode, just wait in the car. Leave them to their own devices and let them be late. If and when they complain about it, you can offer to help them organize their rooms so they can get out the door more easily.

We have piles all over the house! How do we get into the habit of regularly tossing stuff or putting things where they belong? —Allison T.

Here’s a simple way to look at it: Everything in a pile is a deferred decision. In the moment that you had the item in your hand, you didn’t decide where it should live. Instead, you set it down, telling yourself that you would come back to it later. Then the next decision that you didn’t make landed on top of that and so on, until you ended up with a stack of indecision that you haven’t found the time to address. Every unmade decision takes you a little further from having a home that you love.

The next time you’re about to drop something in a pile, take another moment to say, “Wait, where should this go?” The answer should be something like “my nightstand drawer” or “the cabinet above the stove.” Not “the dining-room table” or “the entry console” or “the floor next to the sofa”—those are surfaces meant to remain open.

Realistically, sometimes you won’t be able to quickly decide where to put something or whether it’s important enough to keep. Put that object in a basket of “action items” and schedule a time for follow-through that same day. Tell yourself, At 9p.m., after I put the kids to bed, I’m going to make those seven decisions.

What’s best, though, is to make a decision before anything hits a basket. A pile habit is partly about entitlement: We have a conversation in our head about how tired and overworked we are, so we feel justified in going for the short-term fix—drop object in pile—rather than the real solution. But which of these is the better deal for you: the two-minute inconvenience of putting something away or the multiple times you’ll feel that slow burn of disappointment every time you walk by the dining table and see the item lying there? Sure, you’re doing OK if you’re down to a couple of piles here and there, but start taking that extra step to, say, actually put the off-season items away. Or plan an afternoon to make those store returns. You’ll feel a lot better. And how nice would it be to have no piles at all?

The spot that most affects my mood—and determines whether I’ll be on time for work—is my dressing area. It has wall space and a vanity but no drawers. So I have this mess of bottles (lotion, deodorant, perfume, hair products), plus styling tools, makeup, jewelry, get the picture. —Carol A.

Be honest. How many of those items do you regularly use? If you’re not sure, walk yourself through your morning routine to pinpoint essentials. Those can stay out on the vanity. Anything that’s needed only occasionally should go in a clearly labeled container under your bathroom sink: makeup and fragrance in one, hair products in another. Toss or give away items that you never use, no matter how much you spent on them.

Use the wall for jewelry; don’t leave a speck of it on the vanity. For one client, I pinned up a piece of lace with four clear pushpins. She hangs her earrings on the lace. You can use any woven fabric, perhaps a scarf that you never wear, or a bulletin board for necklaces and bracelets, too. It’s so much better than letting pieces get lost on the vanity or tangled up in a jewelry box.

My home desk is covered with papers, USB cables, cameras, and old iPods. I actually have to take my laptop away from there to do any work. I clean the desk every few months, but within days it’s buried again. Help! —Angela G.

Any flat area is a clutter magnet, because we naturally see surfaces as places to set things down. Look at the items cluttering up your desk and think about how all that non–work-related stuff landed there. More than likely, you don’t have designated spots for those items, as you do for your coat or dirty laundry. Give these things a home. I keep random electronics in clear plastic boxes on a closet shelf.

As for the papers, you’re essentially in a game of Whack-A-Mole. You want to get everything put away so there will be no more paper. But there will always be more paper. So you need to set up an ongoing sorting plan. Start by making sure you have these four tools: a scanner, a shredder, a filing cabinet or a file drawer in your desk, and a label maker.

Documents that you’re currently working on can be kept out on the desk in one shallow tray—no more than three inches tall, so it doesn’t invite mess. The rest? Scan, shred, or file. Label files with a unifying category, then a subcategory. For example, instead of writing CAR INSURANCE and HEALTH INSURANCE on folders, mark them INSURANCE: CAR and INSURANCE: HEALTH. That way, they all go under the letter I, and they’ll be easy to find later.

Only files that are somewhat active belong in the filing cabinet or file drawer. Every month or so, do a once-over and move older files to a box in a cabinet or a closet. And annually look at older files and shred anything that’s no longer relevant. Your ultimate goal when organizing should be to find yourself with more free time. The scan-shred-file plan, if maintained, will give you just that. Plus a clear desk.