Find a place for every item. One reason things pile up on counters, tables, and floors is that they have no “home.” “Make sure everything lives somewhere,” says Sharon Lowenheim, a professional organizer in New York City. Storing items in the room where they’re used helps ensure they get put away when you’re done, and usually it’s best to store similar items together. If it’s something you use frequently, make sure the storage place is easy to access. “If you need to reach to a high shelf and take down a turkey platter just so you can return a bowl to its ‘home,’ odds are it’s not going to get put away very often,” says Standolyn Robertson, a professional organizer in Waltham, Mass.
Play clutter cop. The better you are about keeping things out of your home, the less likely things will pile up inside. Take freebies. It’s nice to get a T-shirt or coffee mug, but will you really use it? Enjoy it? If not, decline it. Or let’s say you’re a voracious reader. You could buy books — but why not borrow (and return!) them from your public library? And take a minute to opt out of mailings from credit card companies and other direct marketers. Bottom line? Always look for ways to block unneeded items before they cross your threshold.
Do some detective work. Periodically scan your home for clutter hot spots, and spend some time figuring out why stuff accumulates there. Often, it’s not what you think. Take that pile of dishes in your kitchen sink. “People often assume that dishes pile up because it’s too much work to load the dishwasher,” says Robertson. “But lots of times it’s that family members hate unloading the dishwasher, and they hate that because it means having to open the cabinet to put away plastic containers — and those plastic containers always rain down on them.” Once you understand the problem, you’ll find it easy to devise a solution.
Hold off on container shopping. Clutter victims often think the solution is to stock up on organizing products, so they head to the nearest superstore and stock up on bins and boxes. Big mistake. “People love to go out and buy containers, but getting organized does not start out with a shopping trip,” says Robertson. She recommends shopping for storage items only after you’ve done some de-cluttering — to understand the scope of the problem, the specific cause, and an appropriate solution.
Dump duplicates. Why have two nonstick spatulas when one is enough? Why have six hairbrushes or 17 coffee mugs? Lowenheim says that throwing out duplicates is one of the easiest ways to quell clutter. Her simple rule: One in, one out. “Anytime you get something new, get rid of something like it that is old,” she says. Or, as Robertson puts it, “Before you bring home that big new flat-screen TV, figure out what you’re going to do with the TV you already have.”
Beware nostalgia. If you’re a doting parent, it’s not easy to discard a child’s creation, whether it’s pastel drawings from the second grade or that cooler-sized medieval castle. But if you’re serious about minimizing clutter, you must. Robertson recommends taking a picture of your child with the creation, and letting that be your keepsake. “After all,” she says, “what would you rather have in 30 years — a photo of that castle, or the mouse-infested castle itself?” Of course, if your child creates something truly special, you’ll want to keep it, maybe even display it in your home.
Weed out your wardrobe. Odds are your clothes closet is chockablock with clothes that are rarely worn. Lowenheim says it’s a case of the familiar 80:20 rule: we wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time. She recommends sorting through your clothes, and your children’s, at the end of each season. Does a particular garment no longer fit, or maybe it’s uncomfortable? Toss it into a box. Then take the box to a favorite charity or a consignment store. And don’t hold onto things because you think you might need them someday. One key to de-cluttering is getting rid of things, not simply rearranging them. Tidying up is not the same as organizing.
Look for simple clutter control solutions. Often, there’s an easy solution to even stubborn clutter problems. “One of my clients could never remember where she put her keys,” says Laura Leist, a professional organizer in Seattle, and president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “I suggested that she put a hook by the front door, so she could hang her keys up every time she walked in the door. And it worked.” Leist is also a fan of lazy Susan turntables for organizing pantries or laundry rooms, can risers, drawer dividers, and bins and baskets to group items in bathrooms and linen closets. To add storage space in a crowded room, consider adding a shelf just below the ceiling. Overrun with CDs? Take them out of their jewel boxes and store them in a CD binder.
Think home organization “kits.” Buy some clear plastic shoebox-sized containers, and use them to create kits where you store all the items you need for a particular task. For instance, you could create a shoeshine kit, a bill-paying kit, a manicure kit, and so on. That way, you can easily find everything you need to accomplish everyday tasks.
Stick to a schedule. Some spaces, like kitchen counters, need daily de-cluttering. Others can be tackled weekly or monthly. When that time comes, be systematic. Take all the items in a defined area (a cabinet, a desk drawer), and spread them out so you can see what you’re facing. If you’re de-cluttering the drawer where you keep kitchen utensils, for example, spread them on the counter, and then sort into two piles: utensils you use regularly and those you don’t use. Be patient — effective de-cluttering takes time. “People tend to underestimate how much time it will take,” says Leist. If it looks like a two-hour job, budget four. And don’t get discouraged if de-cluttering takes longer than you think it should.
Whatever happens, try not to feel embarrassed about clutter. It’s important to remember that organizing need not be perfect, and that “good enough” really is. “When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to wish that you had found the perfect organizing container,” says Robertson. “The important thing is being able to spend more time with family and friends.” De-cluttering helps make that happen.
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