Becoming More Organized May Be Easier Than You Think

Getting more organized doesn’t have to be a quest for a holy grail, an exhausting race or an upheaval of your life all at once. Try some of these ideas to create – bit by bit, day by day – a more efficient, streamlined and contented life with fewer frustrations.


Need, use or love are the “big three” criteria for determining whether you should keep something. Question whether an object supports the person you are today. Consider your current interests, occupation, priorities and abilities.

• If you have what you consider to be a reasonable number of possessions, live by the “one in, one out” rule: When a new something-or-other comes in, a similar old one goes out (unless you actually need more of something). If you have what feels like an unreasonable number of possessions, work to whittle them further. 

• Empty and streamline your purse, backpack, briefcase and tote bags. You may find some treasures or stray cash, and you won’t be lugging around so much dead weight.

• When you’re done with something, don’t put it down – put it away. When it’s used up, recycle or throw it away. If you don’t need, use or love it, sell it or give it away.

• Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that would happen if I got rid of this?” If you had to, could you borrow or rent a replacement or come up with a good alternative?

• If you’re hesitant to get rid of something, store it in a box labeled with a date that’s a year from now. Make a note to reconsider it at that time, when you may have developed more emotional distance. 


• At the start of each season, hang your clothing the “wrong way” on the rod – with the open side of the hanger facing you. As you wear and clean each piece, replace it the “right way.” Any item that’s still facing the wrong way at the end of the season is one that you didn’t wear that entire time, and you may be able to get rid of it.

• Do the same with folded clothes: Put the clean ones on the bottom of the stack, and place a piece of paper on top of the first one you put there. Any item that remains above the paper at the end of the season was never worn and may be a candidate for purging.

• Or try this method: Wear what’s at the left end of your clothes rod, then rehang it on the right end after it’s clean. Anytime you resist wearing what comes up next on the left, get rid of it, change it somehow or “audition it”: Wear it once more to understand your resistance. You’ll either figure out your resistance or rediscover a gem.


• Follow these tried-and-true concepts: Store things where you use them; store like items together (or store items together that you use together); and store the most frequently used items in the most accessible places. These may seem like no-brainers, but using them consistently can make a big difference.

Create “zones” in your rooms and closets so that it’s easy to determine what belongs in that space. An object either supports what happens in that zone, or it doesn’t.

• Eliminate unnecessary horizontal surfaces: They’re clutter magnets!

Think vertical. Hanging things from the walls, ceilings and both sides of doors is often a great idea. When it’s not, use very visible or opaque, labeled horizontal storage methods. Label all visible sides of transparent containers because what you see may not accurately represent the contents.


• Create a “pending box” or shelf: a place where you store things that are leaving your home soon, such as objects you’re returning or getting rid of. When the time comes, you’ll know exactly where they are. It also helps to make a note in your planner to remind yourself to take those things along.

• Similarly, create a “pending file” in which you store a list of anything that you’ve ordered or requested, from whom, and the date, plus any related paperwork. Then browse the list every week to see whether anything has fallen through the cracks on its way to you. With the related paperwork handy, you can easily follow up.

• Keep boxes going at all times to hold charitable donations and things you’re going to consign at a resale shop. When they’re full, schedule a drop-off time. Purged is great; gone is better.

• Try the “bin system”: Put bins, baskets, buckets or totes at places such as the tops and bottoms of stairs, at your paper-processing place and near family members’ bedrooms. Each time you pass one of these bins, move the contents on toward their ultimate homes. I don’t believe you have to follow that advice to handle things only once – that can become inefficient – as long as objects make progress each time you handle them.

• Also try a “car bucket”: a basket, bucket or tote that goes between your “launching pad” (a designated spot near the door that holds whatever you need to take with you the next time you leave) and the car. The car bucket holds whatever you need to take and whatever you gather while you’re out. When you return home, empty the car bucket at your launching pad and send the contents on their way through the bin system.


• No matter what you’re shopping for, stick to a prepared list in order to resist impulse purchases that often end up becoming clutter later. Let need guide your shopping, not want.

• Buying nonperishables in bulk can reduce your shopping trips, but don’t overdo it. Make sure you’ll actually use the product within a reasonable amount of time and that you have room to store the excess.


• Commit to very frequent (daily is best) “administrative sessions” when you can TRAF (= Toss, Refer, Act, File) all of the papers that have entered your life in a given day. Despite the predictions, we’re still not living in a paperless world.

• Put things you use daily and weekly within your “wingspan” – your arm’s reach – at the place where you do your administrative sessions. Store things you use less often farther away.

• Place a recycling bin (and even a shredder) near the door, sort your mail and papers there, and get rid of whatever you can right away. But don’t just toss junk mail! Not only will the senders keep sending it, but they may also sell your name to other companies, which compounds the problem. Instead, take the time to ask senders to remove your name from their lists.

• Place reading materials near where you actually do your reading, such as on a nightstand, at your treadmill or in the car to read during times when you’re waiting.


• Maintain a separate tote or duffel bag for each sport, lesson or activity that you and your family members engage in so that equipment and materials are always kept separate, contained, fully stocked and ready to go.

• Consider the “broad side of the barn” principle, by which I mean that you have to make putting things away as easy as hitting the broad side of a barn, or people probably won’t put them away. If they have to lift a lid, open a door, pull out a drawer, unzip a zipper, reach up or squat down, they may not, so keep storage methods very simple.

Train family members where things belong. People can’t put things away properly if there are no designated homes or they don’t know where those homes are.

• Be clear about the many ways in which your family actually uses a space, then outfit it to accommodate all of those uses. For instance, if the dining room is the dining room and the homework/paperwork/arts-and-crafts room, store tools there that support all of those functions.

• Create systems so your kids can save their own artwork and school papers. Display younger children’s art on a clothesline in their bedrooms, rotate new pieces in, then store a limited number of the keepers in labeled binders, files or boxes. Perhaps mail some to interested relatives or make wrapping paper out of the art.

Take your time getting more organized, doing it little by little. The sense of satisfaction, increased motivation and reduced stress are all worth the effort.

Paula Apfelbach – the former owner of Breathing Room Professional Organizing in Madison – is now the Peninsula Pulse’s copy editor.