You’re standing in a room in chaos and you are asking yourself where do I start…If you are truly going to be successful the first thing you need to do is set realistic expectations. Despite your ambition, you must accept and embrace that this is not a process that will happen overnight, or even in a week. More importantly (and counter to what you may think) the goal isn’t to end up with a tidy space where everything is always in its place. I often tell my clients that being organized does not mean being a minimalist. The key to an effectively organized environment isn’t just about tossing most of your stuff and stashing the rest in cute containers (although they do help when the time is right) – it’s more about recognizing and replacing bad practices with better habits that’ll help you dig out from the mess on a daily basis.
The best part about the organizing process is that no matter what room you’re wanting to straighten up, the rules are essentially the same – here are four basic rules to use to help you get started along with strategies to prevent you from procrastinating along the way.
Rule One: Define Your Space
The first rule with any journey is knowing where you are headed. A roadmap or plan (even a very simple one) essential. For each room you want to organize to take a notebook and sit down in each space, making notes on the following questions:
- What is your goal for the room? Are you simply wanting to restore order? Are you redefining the purpose?
- How will the room be used? Will the space be a shared family space for games, toys and movies? An office for one or all? Be sure to account for all the various activities because it will dictate what stays and what will be eliminated when it comes time to sort the room’s contents.
- What storage is available in the room? Built-in shelves, drawers, cabinets, a closet, baskets and bins? An ottoman with storage? A coffee table with drawers? Is this storage sufficient?
- What needs to be stored in the room to support its use? Toys, video games? Books, magazines? Computer equipment?
- Does the furniture suit the room, or should it be rearranged or cleared out?
Rule Two: Sort! Sort! Sort!
Once you have a plan, tackle only one room at a time and if you’re still overwhelmed, narrow it down to one corner at a time. When people are overwhelmed I often have them break things down into tasks that can take 30 minutes or less. As you progress you will develop a rhythm and things will move along faster than when you start. You’ll likely make a few mistakes and make changes to your plan – but that is normal. When I organize something – or am helping someone – my method is to always start by sorting contents. You want to know what you have before you start implementing your system. I start by categorizing things into these basic groups:
Keep: Items used on a regular basis.
Donate/Sell: Items that are no longer used or are duplicates – things that you can do without and would rather give it to someone else for them to benefit from.
Store: These are sentimental things that you want to hold on to but don’t need to have cluttering up your daily living space.
Trash/Recyle: Things that are no longer usable. Worried about how to decide what gets tossed? If you spend more than 15 seconds thinking about what something is, or when you last used it, or why you even have it, then you probably don’t need it.
Repurpose: Consider a secondary use for things you’re thinking of pitching. Plastic ware can be turned into storage in drawers and cabinets and even old towels can be used for cushioning in a dog bed. (I will caution that you must be careful with repurposing items – be sure that you truly have a valid use for the item and do not simply keep things because you think you may have a need for them in the future.)
Rule Three: Set Up Your System(s)
Once you have completed your sorting you are now left with only the items you intend to keep. It’s important to set up “homes” or “zones” to maintain organization. This is often what I call the “Place for everything and everything in its place,” rule. Setting up a system is creating a process that establishes an effective routine that will keep you organized. A great way to illustrate this is as simple as finding your car keys. If you are forever misplacing your car keys, create a home for them hang hooks near the door, or put an attractive box in a convenient place – whatever works for you. Try to establish a routine of always placing the keys in the designated spot. The simple act of establishing a routine will lessen the chances of your misplacing an item.
Use well-labeled containers to create a storage system, and let your family know where things are located (a critical step!). If space is at a premium, add shelves inside closets to make use of the vertical wall space. If you have small children, attach hooks at lower heights so they can hang up their jackets and bags. Adjustable shelving, such as a closet system, is ideal because it can be moved to accommodate various storage needs. Use plastic shoeboxes – or again, even extra plastic ware normally used for food storage – to create kits for things such as sewing items, shoe repair and extension cords.
Rule Four: Stay Focused
Procrastination can have a snowball effect – the little things you put off each day can pile up to the point where you’re at a loss as to how you’ll ever whittle down your perpetually growing to-do list. I find it helps to set one to three priorities for each time you work on organizing. Again, it often keeps things more manageable to break tasks down into tasks that can be completed in twenty to thirty minutes. To help you avoid the inevitable moment when your organizing efforts begin to slide here are some additional strategies to prevent procrastination.
- Vividly imagine the way you’ll feel inside after the task or project is complete.
- Focus on your desired result, not your fear or inaction.
- Imagine yourself completing the task or project easily, quickly and with no setbacks.
- Tune into your procrastination language in your head and derail it with positive thoughts of “I want to,” “I can,” and “I enjoy” instead.
- Let go of perfectionism. Many things aren’t worth doing perfectly, so just start and do your best.
- Get an accountability buddy to keep you on task along the way.
- Work out the steps to the project on paper in advance to clarify your thoughts and eliminate all the emotional whirlwind around why you don’t want to begin the task or project.
- Master the art of starting. Over and over again.
- Do the hard parts first. Or…
- Do the easy parts first. Whichever motivates you more is the one you should choose.
- Keep a progress log so you don’t lose sight of how much you’ve accomplished.
- Break your project into small, manageable chunks and create interim deadlines for yourself along the way.
- Build in rewards for yourself as you finish each step or as you complete the project.