54 Easy Ways to Declutter and Organize Your Home

Nesting on 02.01.12
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Photo: See-ming Lee / Creative Commons

It's so easy to think, "We need a bigger space, more room, a larger home." Strike that. You can live comfortably - nay, grandly - in the tiniest of spaces, but only if you limit your possessions to the ones you actually need and love. Here's how to do it.

Part One: Prepare

Let's get pumped up to increase our odds of success. The first eight steps will prepare you to keep going in the face of adversity, and to prime you for neatness over the long haul.

1. Decide to declutter. Repeat after me: "My home is big enough. I have plenty of closet space and containers. My real problem is that I have too much stuff." If a drawer or closet is too cramped, consider how much room you have and edit your things accordingly. There's no point in arranging your clutter in pretty bins and boxes. You can't organize clutter; you can only get rid of it.

2. Visualize. What do you want your home to look like? Whether your style is visually tranquil, adorned with funky mementos, or extremely functional, picture where you're going with this organization effort. Having a clear picture in mind of what you want your home to look like will help you get rid of anything that doesn't fit your vision.

3. Choose a mantra. Think of a nifty phrase to repeat that will conjure up that mental picture of your home at its best. You'll use your mantra to keep you moving towards your goal. What words bring your visualization to mind?

Here are some examples: Zen living. Lean and clean. Orderly quarters. Neat and tidy. My favorite is: "Each room, closet, and cupboard BEAUTIFUL."

4. Donate. Decide what you're going to do with clutter that's not trash. Can you schedule a Salvation Army pick up? Does your grocery store parking lot have a donation bin? Is there a women's shelter where you can drop off donations? Have a destination in mind before you get started -- otherwise your extra stuff will never make it out the door.

5. Be wary of selling. I've tried selling my unwanted items in the past, but my local consignment shop wasn't buying. This resulted in wasted time and energy, plus I hung onto things I never got around to selling. Giving unwanted things away relieves stress and saves time.

6. Acknowledge that this isn't a one-time event. Organization is like hygiene. When you take a shower in the morning, you don't scrub your skin raw thinking that this is the last time you'll ever see water again. Likewise, when it comes to decluttering and organization, take it on knowing you need to make it a part of your daily and seasonal routines.

7. Include organization in your daily routine. There are two components of integrating organization into your daily routine: 1. Cleaning up after yourselves as you and your family move throughout your days: putting away dishes, laundry, toys, shoes, paperwork, etc.; and 2. Resetting your house to the "neat" status each day. This means taking a quick 5 to 15 minutes to breeze through the house while you scan for out-of-place items and tidy up before bed.

8. Schedule your next big organization project. Even when you include organization in your daily routine, you will need to set aside time for the occasional big dejunking and organizing session. You may have files, seasonal clothing, decorations, or sporting equipment that need to be culled and shuffled around. If you schedule a time to get organized every six months, the job stays manageable.  

Part Two: Decluttering Tools

Photo: Mazzali / Creative Commons

Here are the physical tools that you will use throughout the decluttering stage of the organization process.

9. Organize your organizers. You need two receptacles to accompany you on your organization frenzy: one for trash and one for items you plan to donate. Obviously a trash bag works best for trash. For donate, think cardboard box or plastic grocery bags.

10. Use a laundry basket. When you move from room to room and you notice things that don't belong, throw them into a laundry basket. That way you can easily carry things around and put them away more efficiently without making a million trips or running up and downstairs.

11. Use a timer. Whether you've got an overwhelming mountain of a job and you can't imagine the end ever being in sight, or you just plain don't think you have enough time or motivation to get it all done, then a timer is the tool for you.

Flylady says, "You can do anything for 15 minutes." I will extend this sentiment to include that anything can be accomplished in 15-minute increments. Books have been written this way, and your house can become organized, 15 minutes at a time.

Part 3: Questions to Ask as You Make Decluttering Decisions

Photo: TheUglySweaterShop / Creative Commons

To help you decide what to keep and what to let go of, use the following questions:

12. Keep, trash or donate? This is the basic question that you'll ask about each item. Sometimes an item doesn't readily present itself as a keeper, trash, or a donation, in which case it might be tempting to hang onto things "just in case." Before you give in, ask yourself the rest of these questions.

13. Do I love it? Does the item fit into your vision of how you want your home to look? Is the item beautiful and does it fit your décor and personal style and taste? If not, keep going.

14. Do I need it? Really? Do I use it? Have I used it lately? Will I need it again soon? Don't keep something because you might use it someday. If you don't have the space for it, then let it go. Trust that you can get your hands on another one should the need arise in the future.

15. Does it make me feel guilty? A helpful question to ask is, "If I didn't feel guilty for some reason, would I still be hanging on to this?" Don't feel bad about parting with something you spent money on; the money is already gone, and now you're left with negative emotions. Let go of the item and keep the lesson you learned about future spending.

16. Is it a gift I don't want or need? Speaking of guilt, don't feel bad about getting rid of anything that was given to you. The giver didn't intend to make you keep something long past want or need. Keep the sentiment, be appreciative, but let the item go.

17. Does someone need this more than I do? I love gloves and fuzzy winter scarves, and I would often receive them as gifts. I've also made way too many impulse purchases that needlessly added to my enormous collection.

When I decluttered my collection last week, I thought about how there are people out there who really and truly need gloves and scarves to keep them warm this winter. That helped make my donation to charity feel great.

18. Does it trigger a bad memory? Sometimes we have negative associations with an item. Maybe we wore it to a funeral, it's what we had on when we got mugged or received a piece of very bad news, or we were wearing it when we got into a nasty fight with a loved one. If you see that item and it triggers a bad memory, then please get it out of your house. 

A piece could represent a not-so-great time in your life for any reason. You may not have a particular memory associated with a garment, but you might look at it and feel a wave of guilt, loneliness or sadness. What will make you feel good is freeing up those items to go to a good home where they will be used and cherished.

19. Is it mediocre? When you've got too much stuff, then your reaction to an item doesn't need to be a dramatic "love" or "hate" when choosing to keep it or dump it. Sometimes we keep an item around because we can't find anything particularly wrong with it.

If you're not sure, get rid of it. Someone else will appreciate having it once you donate it.

20. Do I have room for it? This is honestly the premiere question. In a way, it doesn't matter how much you love or need something. If you don't have room for it, then find somebody you trust who will hang onto it until you have room again.

I've used this tactic with an enormous photo and a coffee table. In both instances, it made me feel good to give a friend something they appreciated, and I became far less attached to the items when they were out of sight and I gained space.

Part 4: Tips for Almost Go-Time

Photo: Justin See / Creative Commons

Let's do some last-minute preparations before you really get your hands dirty.

21. Make a plan. Figure out your dejunking schedule. I'm starting with the living room, since I feel it's the most visible and therefore most important to me. For you, it might be creating a more functional kitchen or a more peaceful bedroom.

Choose the order in which you are going to move about the house and on what time frame. My plan is to take it slow and relaxed: one week per room, for a total of about a month's time to declutter and organize my home. Before you get started, look around with a notebook and make a task list for each area.

22. Choose a maintenance plan. Then each week and month thereafter, continue going over the house in the same order to maintain and refine your results.

23. Put it where you use it. Make your space as functional as possible by placing items in the same vicinity where they will be used, especially when it comes to items you use on a daily or weekly basis. If you use something less often than that, then some inconvenience in terms of tucking it away and pulling it out is to be expected.

Part 5: Living Room

Photo: davidd / Creative Commons

In our living room, toys seem to breed like rabbits. Many of these tips are directed at keeping toy chaos under control, but you can substitute the word "toy" with anything you have too much of.

24. Repurpose bookshelves. Since my living room has become overrun with toys, the lower two shelves of the bookcase became a logical place to store them so my daughter could access what she wanted. Use bins or baskets to group like items or to hide odds and ends to keep the living room from looking like a playroom.

25. Focus on toys that encourage make-believe play. You can get by on far fewer toys if the ones you have are conducive to imaginative play. Kids can come up with endless scenarios around toys like dress-up clothes, cars, dolls, blocks, figurines, Play-Doh and art supplies. Weed out as many toys as you can that don't fit this criteria.

26. Acquire cubbies. This 9-cube organizer by Martha Stewart Living is an affordable storage unit. Buy the fabric drawers that fit the cubbies, and then you've got plenty of space for balls, blocks, stuffed animals and games. You could also use cubbies in the entryway to store shoes or anything else you don't want to forget on your way out the door.

27. Get a storage ottoman. We replaced our coffee table with a tufted faux-leather storage ottoman from Overstock.com. Our new table opens up (the hinges lock open, so no pinched fingers) so we can store some toys inside. You could also throw extra blankets or pillows in there.

28. Get creative with your storage. Use non-traditional items that can double as furniture and storage, like a few vintage suitcases stacked on top of one another or a steamer trunk as a coffee table.

29. Camoflauge your necessities. I don't like having a diaper box in the living room, but I'm not willing to drag my daughter upstairs to the changing station for every diaper change. So I hide her diapers in plain sight using a colorful fabric storage bin.

30. Designate a remote holster. Every day was like a treasure hunt before I finally commandeered a basket to contain our remotes. Now we don't have to rummage for a remote every time we want to turn on the TV or the Xbox.

Part 6: Home Office

Photo: Organizationalbliss / Creative Commons

These tips will help whether you have a separate room for your office, or if like me, your desk is sharing space in a room that serves another function.

31. Create a bill-paying and mail station. Aside from the visual appeal, I can't even tell you what a lifesaver our bill paying and mail station has become. No more searching for bills, stamps, envelopes, address labels or any other random pieces of paperwork that "I just saw lying around here somewhere." Now we keep it tidy all in one spot.

Get a folder holder or any other sectioned paper-holder. Label it according to your own needs (we chose Bills, Stamps, Envelopes, Address Labels, to File, and to Shred, and we each get a folder to contain paperwork to be handled directly by one of us).

32. Keep your desk surface clear. Before creating our mail station, I thought it was a normal and necessary function of an office to have paperwork organized in piles on my desk. I assumed keeping objects and papers in plain sight would serve as visual reminders of what needed to be done.

Aside from completely losing track of what exactly lurked in those piles, it was unsightly and visually stressful, and it didn't spur me to accomplish anything. Now I use my calendar and to-do list and keep my desk clear.

33. Use organizers inside your desk drawers. I repurposed a bamboo cutlery holder to organize my desk drawer. You could also use a clear plastic make-up organizer or a series of shallow plates, bowls or Tupperware.

It doesn't matter what you use, but it's helpful to create sections to hold pens, a stapler, tape, binder clips, tacks, or any other little office doodads that need containing and organizing.

34. Resist the impulse to keep all those pens. This tip actually translates to every single area of your home: only keep what you have room for. I used to hoard pens and markers something fierce. Now I only keep as many as will comfortably fit in my drawer organizer.

35. Use bins or baskets for under-desk storage. Since my "home office" is actually just a desk in our living room, storage is tight. I keep three baskets under my desk for electronics, office supplies, and my collection of journals and notebooks.

Part 7: Closets

Photo: Winston Hearn / Creative Commons

Ah, the heart of organizing. If you declutter and sort well, you can fit everything inside interior storage like closets, drastically minimizing the visual clutter you see while you enjoy each room in your home.

36. Implement a system. I'm not one to take the time to fold or hang toddler clothes that don't wrinkle, so I use different bins for playclothes, pajamas and outgrown clothes -- I just toss them in the corresponding bin. When the outgrown clothes bin fills up, I either add them to a vacuum spacesaver bag, or send them to Goodwill. If you don't have a system in place for clothes your kids have outgrown, you can kiss the idea of an organized closet goodbye.

37. Reimagine your wardrobe. Start by weeding out clothes that you haven't worn in a year, don't fit, are out of style, or have seen better days. Then arrange your clothes by season, type, and color.

I keep seeing advice that goes something like, "Donate clothes that are too small. When you lose the weight, you'll be thrilled to purchase new pieces to adorn your thinner figure." I don't know about you, but I'm not thrilled at the idea of getting rid of perfectly good clothes that might actually fit when I'm done with baby making.

For moms whose figures are still ebbing and flowing from childbirth, the exception to the rule: if you truly love some pieces in your wardrobe and fitting back into them serves as inspiration, then keep them for now and reevaluate later.

38. Dress like a French woman. Figure out what simple outfits work for you day in and day out, and get rid of the rest.

Parentables blogger Susan Wagner says:

French women have very small wardrobes, and they wear the same pieces -- the same outfits, even -- over and over...the American impulse is to look in the closet and say, "I can't wear that, I just wore it on Tuesday!" French women, on the other hand, say, "That looked great on Tuesday -- I think I'll wear it again."

39. Tackle your towels. I hate how stacks of washcloths and hand towels seem to fall over and blend together. For smaller items that don't stack neatly or to group linen sets together, use bins and baskets.

Abiding by tip #23, consider storing sheets and towels in the room they will be used. Once I put a bin of hand towels under the sink of our guest bathroom, it became effortless to hang fresh towels every few days -- much healthier in cold and flu season.

Part 8: The Bathroom

Photo: Sarah Nichols / Creative Commons

I used to think my bathroom was always going to be one of those "blah" rooms. I'm starting to think of it more like a retreat since I organized it.

40. Keep the counter clear. I used to think it was normal and necessary to have a bathroom counter as full as its size would allow. Soap, lotion, mouthwash, Q-tips, the list goes on; if I used it daily, I felt it belonged in sight.

Now I rely on the linen closet, under the bathroom sink and the medicine cabinet to store my essentials in a way that's functional, but that doesn't leave me shy about inviting guests to use the master bathroom.

41. Expedite your routine. Clear plastic organizers for bathroom products are inexpensive yet indispensable. Use one organizer for your morning routine to hold things like your toothbrush, lip balm and SPF. If you use a separate organizer for your nighttime routine, even with a newborn in hand, you're more likely to know what time of day or night it is.

42. Empty the medicine cabinet. I don't know about you, but I've never been able to gracefully jam every first aid kit, cold med, tummy soother and pain killer I own into one tiny little medicine cabinet.

Rethink your plans for your medicine cabinet, and instead use it for some of the everyday items that would normally be cluttering your bathroom counter, like toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, and a razor and shaving cream.

43. Separate your medicines. Use small plastic drawers or those clear plastic shoe boxes to store medications, and label the receptacles by category, such as first aid, tummy, children's, and cold and flu. Store them under the bathroom sink (with childproof locks) or high up in a linen closet.

44. Hang your soaps and shampoos. Best idea ever (okay, well, not EVER, but you get my drift): to store bath products like shampoo and bodywash, get a pocket organizer that hangs from your shower curtain rod. I actually bought two organizers to ensure there is absolutely nothing left sitting around my tub.

Cleaning is WAY easier, and there is no threat of a wall-organizer relying on "suction cup technology" falling in the night. Everything I need is right at eye level, and my shower looks totally Zen. A nice feeling each day.

Part 9: The Kitchen

Photo: Jules:stonesoup / Creative Commons

Ah, the kitchen, the modern-day hearth, where the homefire burns. When this space runs smoothly, you are able to fuel your family efficiently.

45. Cull your cookware. You can make cooking a true joy by limiting the gadgets and cookware you keep to the ones you actually use. I have one of those fancy mixers that I've never used, yet can't bear to part with, so I boxed it up and stored it in a closet (I have dreams I will use it to bake with my brood one day). My point is that it's no longer littering my tiny kitchen, and that's a relief.

46. Limit countertop appliances. Focus on making your kitchen sleek-yet-functional by moving less-oft used items out of the way. There are a few small appliances you might use often enough to justify a presence on the counter, like a coffee pot. If an item is occupying counterspace, yet you use it less often than daily, consider making room in a cabinet or closet to keep your counters decluttered.

47. Rethink your cabinets. One of the cabinets I find myself accessing the most, day-in and day-out, is the cabinet where we store our plates and coffee mugs. It's the perfect shape and size to hold these items, yet when I am running back and forth to empty the clean dishwasher and I have to crane my body into this weird space to reach the cabinet, I think, "There has to be a better way."

And there is. Consider rearranging your kitchen to best match your foot traffic. I'm considering moving my plates into the easily-accessible pantry and transferring canned goods into this cabinet meant for plates.

48. Go label-less. I once lived in a NYC Tribeca loft with a filmmaker. She had a peculiar rule: no visible logos. This means if there's an item that's stored on the counter because it's used daily, like a bottle of dish soap, then it should be stored in an attractive vessel.

I used to think this was completely insane, but it's soothing to see (or to not even notice) a plain glass bottle rather than dealing with the visual clutter of all those corporate logos competing for your attention. Your kitchen will have a beautiful mystique about it to someone who doesn't know the rule.

49. Keep a bowl of fresh produce on the counter. I've always swung to extemes on this one by either keeping all fruit in the fridge to rot (out of sight out of mind) or keeping all fruit out on the counter so that it was like an eating competition to devour all of the fruit before it rotted. Perhaps I'm an idiot, or maybe this is a common practice.

The answer is to keep a smallish bowl of fruit on the counter because it looks appealing, it calls out to be eaten for a healthy snack, and you can still refill it from the fruit stored in the fridge when the levels dip.

Part 10: The Bedroom

Photo: Mazzali / Creative Commons

Your bedroom serves you best when it's kept free of debris. I'm one of the worst offenders, so learn from my bad example.

50. Clear off your dresser. If I sound like a broken record, so be it: keep the surface clear. The exception is perhaps for a beloved decorative item, a soothing photo, or a jewelry box. 

51. Keep the inside of your dresser tidy. Use a sock or an undie organizer to tame your unmentionables. If you have teetering piles or swirly swamps of t-shirts and sweaters, pare them down to the essentials. Wouldn't it be nice to open a drawer that doesn't even come close to brushing the top of a pile?

52. Don't fill up hidden spaces. I have a huge nightstand and every drawer is full of books and notebooks and pens and magazines. I think there's a heating pad in there. Simply because there was room for it, there's an empty box that long ago housed some product that's now stored elsewhere. There are also appropriately located items like earplugs and an eye mask.

53. Make over your nightstand. Belying the chaos within, the surface of my nightstand only contains a lamp and a clock, most days. However, even this much can seem like too much when in the dead of night I'm feeling around for my water glass or eyeglasses -- it's a disaster waiting to happen. Condense the items on your nightstand to the bare minimum for a truly relaxing night.

54. Forget the hamper. Here's the case against hampers in the bedroom: they're bulky, rarely attractive, and besides -- I know what you're hiding in there. Unless it's ridiculously inconvenient, consider loping on down to your laundry room with your dirties and depositing them there, rather than keeping them in a holding cell in what's supposed to be your nighttime sanctuary.

If you follow some or all of these tips, you can make your home the lean and quiet sanctuary it longs to be. When your home is warm and inviting, you and your family will never want to leave. In a good way.

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