One family’s living room looked like a demolition zone until an organization expert hired by Good Housekeeping turned it into an oasis of order. A decluttering plan also worked wonders on a crazy mess of a closet and a packed-to-the-rafters garage. The secret: these three anti-mess mantras, which will help you organize any area of your home.
1. Assess what you have and toss what you don’t need. To keep the job manageable, do a few hours of work each weekend. Recruit a friend. Listen to music or sip some wine while you sort.
2. When sorting, group your possessions into categories. For example, in your closet, hang all the skirts together, all the blouses, etc.
3. Give everything a home. Store your essentials at eye level. Stuff you need once a year? Think basement or attic. Following these rules, you can banish years’ worth of clutter in days. Even better: A month later, the rooms still exude a Zen-like calm.
The Living Room
The problem: Two working parents plus four children equals a family room that’s comfortable but chaotic. Leighann Greco, 37, and her husband, Vincent, 39, of Flanders, New Jersey, had plans to deal with the mess — but when Leighann was confined to a leg cast and her husband had surgery, says Greco, “the project was sidelined.”
The solution: New York City organizing pro Nancy Heller, founder of Goodbye Clutter (goodbyeclutter.com), showed Leighann how to tackle the family room (which the busy mom also used as an office) one area at a time. A key change: Heller moved the gifts that had been stored in a file cabinet into a closet. Then she put the file cabinet — now filled with old files — in the basement.
Board games that were once stashed in the hall closet now have their own shelf in the wall unit. “That created space in the closet for hats, gloves, mittens, and scarves,” says Leighann. While clearing out an old plastic toy chest, she struggled with its sticking drawers and had a revelation: “No wonder the kids never put things away — the drawers were too hard to open!” Heller encouraged Leighann to figure out which toys the four kids, ages five to 11, play with regularly. Some toys were moved upstairs, to the children’s bedrooms, and favorites were assigned accessible storage spots. It’s easier to enforce cleanup now that the kids know where things belong.
Organizing must-have: Wicker bins from Linens ‘n Things and Pier 1 Imports. They hide the toys but keep the room looking grown-up.
Leighann’s lightbulb moment: “I realized that it’s easier to file a bill or put something away immediately than to put it in a ‘do it later’ pile. Because then the pile takes an hour — and I don’t have that kind of time.”
“We couldn’t walk into our walk-in closet!”
The problem: After two pregnancies in four years, Marjorie Steuer, 38, had filled her New York City bedroom closet with a mishmash of her pre-mom wardrobe and her maternity wear. The side belonging to her husband, Jonathan, 39, was almost as jammed. The result: Although the couple’s closet is a spacious walk-in, “you certainly couldn’t tell that when you opened the door,” says Randall Koll, coauthor of The Organized Home: Design Solutions for Clutter-Free Living (Quarry Books), who came to help out.
How to purge like a pro: An interior designer based in San Francisco, Koll teaches that clutter can be controlled in stylish ways. “People treat closets like makeshift storage units, but they’re an extension of your home,” he says. “You don’t want to just cram stuff in there; you want a space that’s functional and fabulous.”
Already crammed? “You must go through every item,” Koll insists, even if you have to do the job in five-minute chunks. The reward: “You’ll discover that a quarter of your clutter is empty hangers and dry-cleaning bags,” he says. Koll’s rule of thumb for sorting clothes: “If it doesn’t fit, get rid of it!”
And he believes there are exceptions to the hard-and-fast standard “if you haven’t worn it in a year, toss it.” For instance, you can keep a rarely worn designer dress or special accessories, as long as they’re still flattering. As for that suit you never wear because the skirt is too snug: Split up the pieces, tossing the skirt but keeping the jacket to wear as a blazer.
Koll likes organizer products but says you shouldn’t overlook the space-saving solutions you already have. Case in point: Marjorie had a bunch of five-skirt hangers in her closet — each holding only one skirt. Koll ultimately helped Steuer fill six large garbage bags with stuff to throw out, plus four bags of giveaways — and that was just one side of the closet. “The weeding-out exercise was invaluable,” says Marjorie, who unearthed a cleanup dividend: a still-usable Tiffany’s merchandise credit.
Stay-neat solutions: With Marjorie’s wardrobe freshly pruned, Koll hung bright, colorful hangers from The Container Store on either side of the closet — tangerine for her, lime for him. “When you open a closet, your eye goes right to the hangers, so choosing one or two colors creates visual organization,” Koll says. He used orange mesh baskets (also from The Container Store) to hold accessories and T-shirts. (Bonus: These baskets can fold flat when not in use, which gives the Steuers flexibility if they reorganize later on.)
To keep your closet looking attractive, “don’t fill up all the available space,” Koll advises. Leaving some room between the clothes and on the shelves provides visual relief. But if you’re stumped on how you’ll eliminate even more items, try Koll’s easy idea: Buy a few plastic under-the-bed storage bins so you can tuck away clothes that are out of season as well as items that never belonged in the closet to begin with, like wrapping paper, borrowed baby clothes, and old photos.
Organizing must-have: A pal can really help you cope with the purging process. Says Marjorie, “Ask a friend who’s fun but firm — someone who will push you to make yes-or-no decisions.” With Koll’s support, Marjorie says, “I was able to be much more decisive in my decluttering.”
Lightbulb moment: Organizing your closet isn’t just about getting rid of stuff, but gaining a fresh perspective. “You realize things about yourself — like, I will never fit into that again, I don’t need four pairs of overalls, and I never have found that perfect pair of jeans,” says Marjorie.
Our two-car garage couldn’t fit even one car!”
The problem: Donna and Garry Duncan’s garage in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, was jammed with boxes of kids’ toys; automotive, gardening, and carpentry equipment; furniture inherited from parents — and junk left by the previous owner. “When we moved in, we just piled our stuff right on top of it,” admits Donna, 38.
Prioritize like a pro: After a morning throwing away anything that was clearly trash, with help from Philadelphia-based professional organizer Jennifer Donohue, Donna spent the rest of the day sorting out what to keep or toss. “I’m an out-of-sight-out-of-mind person, and that’s how I treated the garage,” says Donna. “I knew I had a rake somewhere, but I wouldn’t see a rake, so I’d buy one. When we cleaned out the garage, I had six rakes!”
Donohue is a firm believer in organizing a space according to each person’s real life and habits, so she and Donna mapped out a new plan for the garage based on the family’s top priorities: a section for kids’ stuff, one for yard equipment and other tools, plus a space for one of Donna’s favorite hobbies, gardening — oh, and space for the cars, of course.
Stay-neat solutions: The principle of “put everyday things within reach and store seasonal things away” worked like a charm for the Duncans. Donohue suggested storing the family’s lightweight patio furniture on industrial hooks up on the rafters. (Donna agreed: “We need to access that stuff only twice a year.”) Bikes were also hung on hooks, but lower down, within easy reach. Things in regular use — e.g., yard equipment, ladders, basic tools — went on pegboards. “And at less than $5 for a two-by-four-foot sheet, it’s cheap,” she says.
A big organizing task like this can be daunting, Donohue acknowledges. “To be successful, stay in one area and sort through everything until it’s done; don’t get distracted by messes elsewhere,” she advises. A common mistake people make, she says, is “scatter organizing” — doing a little of this area, a little of that one. “Then you don’t see any progress, and you’re more likely to throw up your hands and abandon the project.”
Organizing must-have: Donna says buying a labeler was key to organizing her clutter. “Now I don’t have to search through boxes to find something, because each tub is labeled: ‘bubbles, chalk, jump rope,’ ‘outdoor lights and extension cords.’ This also makes it easier to put everything back where it belongs.”
Lightbulb moment: Inspired by her immaculate garage, Donna is now employing Donohue’s system to clean up her home office. “I have decluttered and recluttered that room many times, yet it never occurred to me that the bills need a separate place from our health-care information, which needs a separate home from my coupons, etc.,” she says. “Now I know that you need to identify storage spaces so things are always where you can find them — and put them away again.”