The SIMPLE Method of Organizing Will Help You Tidy Up

Break up organizing into smaller to-dos.

If you’re feeling motivated to declutter right this very moment, your instinct may be to dive into an overflowing dresser drawer or scale the pile of detritus and start tossing with abandon. But you can do a more thorough purge—with longer-lasting results—if you first take the time to sort the jumble of items you’ve collected.

“Making dozens of decisions haphazardly about what to keep, where to keep it, and how to label it will wear you out quickly,” says professional organizer Kathy Jenkins, owner of Come to Order. She teaches clients to use the six-step SIMPLE method for getting organized:

S: Sort like with like.
I: Identify what to keep.
M: Make a home for it.
P: Put it in containers.
L: Label it.
E: Establish a routine.

“The SIMPLE method is all about acting rather than overthinking,” Jenkins says. You’re just following steps, so you don’t need to treat each new item as a separate problem to solve.



Create Categories

Before you touch a thing, scan the cluttered space you’re going to work on and think about the “sort categories” you’ll use to go through the items and place like with like. You might sort your clutter by room, person, function, type, or some other criteria.

Specific spaces often require specific sort categories. In a pantry, for example, you might encounter baking supplies, spices, mixes, snacks, and so on. The sort categories in your garage or guest bedroom will be unique to you and how you use these spaces. Bottom line: Your categories need to make sense only to you and for the items you’re going to sort. One tempting but dubious category? “Miscellaneous.” Try to get more specific, even if your category is “Stuff to store in another room.”

Jenkins recommends writing each sort category on an index card, sticky note, or half-sheet of paper. Spread out these papers on a tabletop, bed, or swath of floor to serve as temporary guideposts for the new piles you’re going to create. Yes, at first, writing down categories may seem obvious or silly, but you’re trying to make things as easy as possible for yourself going forward. Category signs also make it easier to work on decluttering with a helper. With signs in place, everyone can work toward the same goal at his or her own pace, with minimal interruptions to get a second opinion.

Dig Into Those Piles

A good sort leads seamlessly into the next step: identifying what you truly want to keep. Notice that you’re doing more than simply discarding old, broken, or out-of-style things. “The trick here is to remain positive,” Jenkins notes. “Focus on deciding what’s important to you rather than what to purge. Tell yourself that you’re selecting the best of the best.” 

Working with sorted piles eliminates a lot of the anxiety and second-guessing associated with the decluttering process. Go through your piles one by one. If a pile:

  • IS LARGE, further sort it by using subcategories. (Piles for tanks, T’s, and polos are easier to deal with than a single “shirts” pile.)
  • HAS BROKEN OR WORN-OUT ITEMS, repair them immediately or eliminate them.
  • HAS DUPLICATES, edit down to the best or most frequently used version; donate or dispose of the rest.
  • BELONGS ELSEWHERE, move the pile to a more appropriate location and plan to deal with the items later.

“Sorting is the first step on the roller-coaster ride of getting organized. Beginning can be terrifying, slow, and jerky. Having a preestablished starting point minimizes anxiety.” — Kathy Jenkins, Professional Organizer

Sorted Projects (in 15 Minutes or less)

Many quick and extremely satisfying decluttering projects are really exercises in sorting, discarding, and reassembling. The next time you have a free quarter-hour, use the time to address one of your home’s problem spots:

  • Junk drawer
  • Cooking- or eating-utensil drawer
  • Spice rack
  • Freezer
  • Refrigerator
  • Jewelry
  • Cosmetics or grooming supplies
  • Medicine cabinet
  • Linen closet
  • One type of clothing
  • One bookshelf
  • Main desk drawer
  • Undersink area in kitchen, bath, or utility room
  • Storage above or around the washer/dryer
  • Car glove box
  • Car trunk
  • Purse, backpack, or other personal bag
  • Wallet
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