9 Tips for Staying Organized, Reducing Clutter and Getting Rid of Things You Don’t Need
Television offers an endless supply of house cleaning, decorating, purging and remodeling shows. Fashion and home magazines present a plethora of textile ideas, unique room layouts and furniture that multi-tasks even in the now-current trend of downsizing and tiny house living. After decades of consumption and accumulation, at work and at home, many of us have finally declared that we have had enough. How many shoes does one need? (Don’t answer, that’s a rhetorical question.) How many post-it notes, paper clips, t-shirts or (insert pretty much anything here) does it take to fulfill our needs? At a certain point of our lives we stop needing, and we start wanting. Once we arrive at a level of satisfaction, instead of replacing, we default to adding. This is the unidentified tier of Maslow’s hierarchy called clutter. It is the step below guilt and the step above jealousy.
Those who can’t break the cycle of acquiring may develop legitimate envy of those who have. “How do they do it?” they ask in a bewildered state. As one who has never inherited the pack-rat gene, here are some helpful practices to abide by in streamlining your own life.
- Bigger is not better. This is another way of saying live according to your means. Gen X and Y were raised in the era of the McMansions and the overall housing boom. Now that we have all experienced the bust, it is time to level-set expectations and accept our lot in life. Bigger homes mean more space; more space equals more stuff; more stuff equals lots of clutter. This is the general equation that has been the catalyst for small home living (under 1,000 square feet). The benefits of having less room are plentiful. For one, you need to become more selective with what you keep and where you put it. For another, you lack space to just store stuff and deal with it later. For a third, you save on utility bills and save on time spent cleaning and maintaining a house you are barely using.
- Organizing bins and baskets are your enemy. I know people who think that organizing is putting random stuff into a nice container. Sure, there is a short-term high that comes with seeing one nice thing instead of a pile of chaos, but it is short-lived. The irony is that you haven’t done anything except contribute to the issue by buying or adding one more thing — the bin/container. Any open box, bin, basket, container, or storage item will be filled over time. Once you start replacing smaller containers with larger ones, you need to accept that they are part of the problem, not the solution.
- Dedicate zones. Most areas look better and work better when you put similar things together. If you can’t put your stuff completely away (hanging coats in closets, storing shoes in boxes, filing bills, etc.), then create holding or landing pads. Identify what daily things tend to scatter around your space and create a zone to temporarily house them. Try placing hooks outside of closets, a shoe rack by a door, and a letter organizer for mail on your counter or desk. Put hampers in each room for dirty laundry (to prevent floor creep) and remember to add a central one for dry cleaning. Some other items need catch-all space: coins, pens, coupons, keys, electronic chargers. and gift cards (they are only as valuable as you end up using them).
- Get hung up on your hangers. Mixed or mismatched hangers make even the nicest closets look disorganized. Keep your garments on a combination of flocked space-saving hangers and wooden hangers. Use the space saving ones for blouses, shirts, slacks (with rounded bars to prevent creases), and cotton sweaters; use wooden hangers for bulky cardigans, blazers, suits, and dresses. Wool and cashmere should always be stacked and stored in air-tight bags; wire hangers need to be recycled weekly with the dry cleaning. Also, stay with a common color palate, either neutrals or colors. (I prefer neutrals that showcase the wardrobe better.) Random styles, colors, silhouettes and materials will be visually distracting and appear disorganized. If you do nothing else to your closets other than standardize your hangers, you will notice a big difference in the space. Also, make an effort to button top buttons and zip jackets to prevent slippage. Nothing screams chaos more than clothing on the floor of a closet.
- Adopt the one-in, one-out theory. Prevention is the best defense against clutter. Rather than add to your supply of X, practice replacing X instead. If you buy a white shirt, purge an old white shirt. (Chances are you will want to wear the new one anyway.) When you buy a fresh stash of sport socks, throw out the old batch — same with underwear and similar commodity items. Getting into the habit of routinely replenishing standard go-to items will keep your spaces neat and up-to-date. This same practice can be applied to kitchen items, towels, and pretty much anything that wears out over time.
- Keep a donation bag. Keep a bag for donation items at all times, not just seasonally or when you feel the need to clean. Full cabinet? Toss glassware or unused kitchen appliances into the bag. Tried on an outfit and don’t like the way it looks? Toss it into the bag. Tired of a décor item or have one too many pillows on display? Toss them in the bag. After a month, if you have not missed the items, make a trip to Goodwill or another charity. Identify a local organization that is easy to get to and will accept your standard items. This will create a routine that is easy to execute.
- Ban the phrase “but it’s still good.” Similar to the above practice, just because an item has use does not mean it has use to you. Think, instead, that someone else could be using and enjoying this item and probably needs it much more than you do.
- Children multiply clutter. Kids accumulate things at a rapid pace, often acquiring unnecessary or bulky things from well-intentioned gift-givers. Always accept with grace, but don’t feel obligated to store every gift ever given. Also, refrain from kid creep. Allow certain areas of the house to be kid zones, but maintain “adult” spaces. Once you allow one item to break into an unclaimed space, it will multiply. It is an all-or-nothing rule. Having a play room is ideal, but if you don’t have the luxury of an extra space, put the burden on the children to maintain areas in their own rooms for play. This will act as an incentive for them to free up floor space and get more creative in organizing their own stuff. Also, start the three P’s rule early on: 1) Play with toys one at a time. 2) Place them back in spaces from where you took them. 3) Pay — have some form of consequence if the rule is broken.
- It doesn’t have to be perfect. Too many people use perfection as an excuse to not start organizing or to minimize clutter. If you seek utopia, you will live in chaos. Cleaning out one drawer instead of redoing an entire kitchen is still progress. Start with a goal of doing one new space a week. This could be a junk drawer, a sock drawer, laundry space or even just purging mismatched glassware and replacing it with a new coordinated set (the effect will be more dramatic than you would think). The key is to not simply buy new items to feel instant gratification and create the illusion of updating your spaces. This practice, over time, will ruin your decor theme and unintentionally evolve into an eclectic form of clutter (not the good kind you see in antique stores and estate libraries). If you do see an item that you simply must have, make sure you mentally know where you will place it in your home/office before you purchase it. This visualization will validate your desire for the item and will force you to identify space for it, perhaps encouraging you to decide to eliminate something you currently own to have it take its place.
The key is to embrace a few routine practices that you can live with and become more diligent in protecting your spaces. Just like the spirit needs room to breathe, our physical state needs room for calmness. Objects create stimuli, and too much stimuli can create stress. Think of decluttering as distressing, and once you feel its effects, you will be hooked.7