Have you ever found yourself gazing longingly at the spare and tidy living rooms, kitchens, and home offices in a furniture catalog and wishing you could live in that world? No mess, everything neatly in its place — it’s a setup that would last, oh, approximately seven seconds here on planet Earth! Fact is, you have a big, hectic, possibly messy real life — a life that you’ll enjoy a lot more if you can let the dream of rows of color-coded under-the-bed storage boxes die for good.
IT’S TOO MUCH STUFF!
So your junk drawer is more like a junk room. Is that such a crime? Not really — and it’s perfectly understandable. “In a way, having clutter surround you can be a comfort,” says Julie Morgenstern, organizational expert and author of five books, including the upcoming When Organizing Isn’t Enough. She adds, “Clutter can ground you in your past, and partially defines who you are” — which explains why it’s so hard to part with all those tchotchkes and papers, your favorite “skinny” pants, or even your senior prom dress. But, as you know, it’s anything but comforting when you realize that the overdue electric bill is buried under a mound of papers, or that those beloved pants have become wrinkled under a pile of all the other clothes you’re saving for the day you lose 20 pounds.
“The majority of people experience disorganization in some area of their lives, but it becomes a problem when you begin to feel like your clutter is controlling you,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of Fit to Live. How toxic is your stuff situation? Take a clue from the emotions and sensations that hit you when you walk through your front door — do you feel relaxed and comforted (even if things aren’t perfectly in their place), or does the sight of toys scattered on the floor or unread magazines on the coffee table make you want to turn tail and run right back out? “Your home is your emotional and physical base,” explains Peeke. “If you’re coming home to disorganization, you’ll suddenly get a flood of all the wrong emotions — from frustration to panic. And if the clutter is extreme enough, you’re literally living the panic response day in and day out, all the time.”
That out-of-control feeling can affect your relationships, your work life, and, surprisingly, even your waistline. “There’s biological evidence that the stress hormone cortisol can cause an appetite surge,” says Peeke. “If you’re stressing about never being able to find things, it really can lead to weight gain.” Organizational dilemmas can also affect your behavior, like when a confusing jumble of ingredients in the fridge makes you pick up the phone for takeout or when a frustrating hunt for a file drives you to an emergency cookie break. “Pay attention to how you feel about your living space and how that may affect other areas of your life,” suggests Peeke.
To figure out the smartest — and most soulful — solutions to your own clutter conundrums, you need to quit focusing on what might look messiest to outsiders and instead focus on the spaces that make you feel most overwhelmed. If it’s the disorganized dash to cobble together dinner that gives you angst, start in the kitchen. If your sleeping space is anything but restful, begin with the bedroom. “Learn to think of your home as a metaphor for your body,” says Peeke. “If you really tune in to your emotions and sensations, you can begin taking small steps toward healthy change.
Getting a handle on the problem areas that drag you down doesn’t mean you have to turn into Ms. Hospital Corners. In fact, a lived-in living room or a chock-full kids’ playroom can be a source of warmth and connection for you and your family. “The world around us is messy. Mess isn’t a black-and-white war between order and chaos,” says David H. Freedman, coauthor of A Perfect Mess. And you may be more organized than your desk or countertop lets on. “People naturally tend to keep and place things in an order that fits the way they think and do things,” says Freedman. That means that even if the messy piles on your desk are confusing to everyone else, they probably make sense to you in a way a color-coded file system wouldn’t.
More evidence that (some) mess may sometimes be best: Hyper-organizing can get expensive and requires a lot of time. While working on their book, Freedman and his coauthor, Eric Abrahamson, were shocked to discover that people living in ultra-organized homes tended to spend three to four hours per day straightening and organizing. Who has time for that? Besides, living in a comfortably cluttered home can stir up creativity. “If you have a lot of information around you, it’s easy to make connections between things,” says Freedman. For example, a book that’s set at the beach paired with an article about saving money on travel might spur you to plan a vacation. Point is, when you let some of your stuff hang out, you’re giving yourself the mental permission to be flexible, make mistakes, and try new things — and after all, it’s your stuff that makes a house a home. Believing and appreciating this is the first step to identifying — and tackling — those areas that truly do need a new order.
TAMING TROUBLE SPOTS
To take the dread out of de-cluttering, grab your to-do list and follow Morgenstern’s simple (but not always easy!) steps.
- WATCH THE CLOCK Assign a time estimate to each activity. Say, this weekend you plan to organize your vacation photos and put together a spring yard sale for the stuff you no longer need. Next to each item on your list, add a rough guess as to how long the activity will take. “Once you quantify a task, that anchors it into your schedule,” says Morgenstern. “But you have to be honest with yourself.” For example, factor in the time it takes to sort through photos, date them, and put them into albums, and you may discover that what seemed like a two-hour project could take more than five. Knowing that, you can then make the choice to either devote a whole afternoon to the task or break it down into hour-long chunks that would realistically fit into the next several weekends.
- TRIM AWAY TO-DO’S Look through your list for any project you can downsize or outsource. Instead of arranging all your vacation photos, pare down the job to organizing just the ones from the trips you’ve taken in the last year. Feel overwhelmed by the thought of a garage sale? See if you could hire an enterprising teen to run it, and split the proceeds.
- SHARE THE RESPONSIBILITY Are you really the only person who has the skills to take used clothes to the donation box? Says Morgenstern, “By asking yourself that question for every task, you can begin to delegate — and focus on what’s really important, like spending time with family.”
News flash: “Most people don’t find organizing fun,” warns Julie Edelman, author of The Ultimate Accidental Housewife. “The key is organizing enough.” Here, Edelman shares her top tricks for heavily trafficked areas — and her tips for preserving those dusty mementos you can’t stand to shed.
BUILD A BETTER BATHROOM
“This is what I call a toxic zone — an area that has the greatest chance of becoming cluttered,” explains Edelman. To begin:
- Corral loose makeup and brushes into simple organizers. Look for ones that are nonporous, like plastic, or well-ventilated, like wire, so moisture won’t ruin your products.
- Bright buckets are a colorful way to stash chunky, grabable items like toilet paper rolls, washcloths, and shampoo bottles.
- Throw out anything that hasn’t been used in the past three months and makeup that’s more than a year old. Store special-occasion makeup in a Ziploc bag so it won’t get lost or damaged.
KEEP UP WITH THE KITCHEN
“The average household uses 20 percent of its kitchen-related tools 80 percent of the time,” says Edelman. “That’s a lot of space-wasters!” Her tips to maximize your meal-prep area:
- Get rid of any items that have been broken for more than three months. Instead, invest in long-lasting and functional appliances that will stand the test of time.
- Hooks or shelves hung over a cooking area can display tools and leave counters and cabinets clear.
- Repurpose sentimental items: A space-hogging fondue pot can hold fruit, and a pretty pitcher can act as a flower vase.
LOVE YOUR LIVING AREAS
“Make a habit of doing a quick daily pickup of these spaces so the clutter doesn’t careen out of control,” suggests Edelman. Her clues for an easy organizational sweep:
- Display magazines in a magazine rack or a repurposed wine rack, and throw out any issues over three months old.
- Use decorative boxes and baskets for instant organization of items like remote controls, gadgets, paperbacks, or toys.
- Put a large bucket or basket in the entryway to use as a shoe dump, or to collect seasonal accessories or sports gear.
CHERISH YOUR CLUTTER
Lose the dust and keep the memories with ideas from Peter Walsh, author of Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?:
- Gather up loose photos by pasting them into a scrapbook. Devote a few pages — annotated with notes — to each event.
- Is Grandma’s frayed wedding gown taking up primo closet space? Cut a strip of material from it and display it in a frame with a photo of her on her big day.
- Create a 3-D “time capsule” by putting photographs, brochures, and souvenirs in an archival photo box.
CLUTTER FOR A CAUSE
Donating to charity is a win-win situation. You’ll turn a chore into a feel-good mission — and get a tax break! While Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and the American Red Cross are great places to donate most items, consider these outside-the-donation-box ways to get rid of space-hoggers.
Donate them to One Warm Coat, which sponsors coat drives around the country.
GO TO: onewarmcoat.org
From piccolos to guitars, Operation Happy Note sends secondhand instruments to soldiers deployed overseas.
GO TO: operationhappynote.com
Computers with at least a Pentium III Processor can be donated to The On It Foundation, which provides computers and Internet access to low-income families.
GO TO: theonitfoundation.org
The International Book Project will ship your old tomes abroad for use in schools, orphanages, and libraries.
GO TO: internationalbookproject.org
Old sneakers can go to the Nike-sponsored Reuse-a-Shoe (the used kicks don’t have to be Nikes). The rubber is used to create play surfaces for kids around the world.
GO TO: letmeplay.com
The National Furniture Bank Association will give your couch to anyone who needs a hand up, including domestic violence victims.
GO TO: help1up.org
At Collective Good, you choose the charity, such as The Center for Domestic Violence Prevention, that your donation of a used phone will support.
GO TO: collectivegood.com
Got something you don’t know what to do with, but you’re sure someone would want? Excess Access matches your items with local nonprofit wish lists.
GO TO: excessaccess.com
We asked REDBOOK readers for their dirty secrets — as well as their sneakiest clutter-busting tips.
“When things get really out of hand, I’ll scare myself clean by inviting friends over. While Idon’t care if laundry is in piles on the floor, I certainly don’t want anyone else to see it!”
ANN ARBOR, MI
“I keep all my tax return documents in the bathroom, interspersed with my makeup. At least that way, I’ll never have trouble finding them!”
“My biggest clutter issue revolves around freebies, like those mini cosmetic samples that are just too cute to get rid of. Now, I make sure they’re stacked in front of my makeup case so I use them up before the regular stuff.”
“I try to give away the clothes my kids have outgrown, but if I can remember a specific event when the outfit was worn, I just have to keep it. Now, I have boxes of too-small clothes stored in my attic!”
“I own more clothes than I’ll ever wear, but I made a rule: Anything that I haven’t worn in a year must go to the local thrift store — and I stay firm by asking my boyfriend to make sure I enforce it!”
NEW YORK CITY
“My desk at work is littered with pink and yellow sticky notes, I have a sea of loose documents dotting my screen, and my email in-box is nearing full. I haven’t lost anything important, but I fear I’m tempting fate.”
“When I get totally fed up with the toys and magazines my kids and husband leave around the kitchen, I go on strike and don’t clean or cook until my husband gets the hint and cleans.