by Susan Caplan McCarthy
It can be easy to think of decluttering and organizing as tasks for our to-do list, but ultimately our desire to get organized is much bigger than a list of chores. Being an organized person isn’t about thinking, “Ah, Saturday morning, time to try to organize the garage. Again.” Instead, being organized is about the little day-to-day things that don’t seem like they’d matter. Until they aren’t done.
This month’s A Year of Decluttering articles are focused on organizing tips from the classroom. Although I was never a classroom teacher, for years I went into preschools, daycares, kindergartens, and elementary school classrooms to do presentations about nature.
While I’d love to see classrooms with less visual clutter (do kids really need so many signs directing them how to write an essay or what questions to ask while reading when they are supposed to be focused on math?), teachers do instill systems in their classrooms to keep things organized.
(Unfortunately, these habits and routines probably don’t carry into the home unless you copy some of the cues that the teachers use. Which you could.)
Organizing Tips from the Classroom You Can Use at Home
Yes, if you have kids, these techniques work. However, even if you are single and retired, these tips will still help you stay organized.
Have a place to hang up your coat and to store your purse, tote bag, backpack, etc. Big family? Consider cubbies like schools have.
When you enter the house, immediately hang up your coat. Then remove any papers or objects from your purse, briefcase, tote bag, shopping bags, etc. and bring them to where they belong in the house.
Have a box, bin, basket, or even a small table (or whatever works for you) to store items that you need to take with you the next day when you leave your house. When you realize that you need to take an item with you (library books, dry cleaning, gym bag), set it in this space. Right away. Teachers set up mailboxes for their students and the kids learn to look in this space when packing up at the end of the day.
Keep similar items together. This tip works whether we’re talking about office supplies, hobby supplies, linens, cookware, etc.
Bins are your friend. They help keep similar items together so you can find what you want when you want it.
Keep your energy high by alternating periods of focus with periods of activity. Teachers keep things moving – reading followed by writing followed by math. Also, teacher have the kids move around the room – maybe they sit on the floor to read, sit in groups at tables to work on their writing and then move to their individual desks to work on their math.
The schedule for the day is posted on the board so kids can look and see what to expect next. As an adult, do you feel that you have to power through a task, tethered to the location, until you’re done as opposed to giving yourself a break?
Practices like the Pomodoro Technique and 52/17 (discussed in future articles this month) encourage you to schedule regular breaks so you stay mentally and physically energized.
I’ll be expanding on some of the tips listed above in this month’s articles. The way I see it, if one adult can wrangle 20+ kids and all their stuff into some semblance of order, then I want to pay attention to the techniques that they use.
Are you a teacher? What techniques do you use in the classroom that could also be used by both kids and adults at home? What does your kids’ or grandkids’ teachers do to help keep the kids organized in the classroom that you’ve thought would be great to try at home? Include your tips in the comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
You don’t become organized by decluttering a room – or even your entire house. You don’t become organized by cleaning your closet in January, sorting through your papers in March, and watching the clutter creep back until you motivate yourself to do more decluttering during fall cleaning.
Becoming organized is a process, and like most processes, there is no finish line. Instead, your consistent effort helps you see yourself as organized. Your actions support this identity.
Creating the identity of an organized person is about small, seemingly insignificant actions that reflect the behaviors of an organized person. Now, there’s no single definition of an organized person. One person may define organized as a near-empty kitchen counter while someone else who cooks a lot feels more organized when they have their blender and food processor on the counter, ready for use.
Pick a Habit
To become the type of person you want to become won’t happen overnight. Small actions repeated until they become automatic will help you in the process of becoming organized.
Please share this article on social media to help inspire others you know who are struggling to get organized. Thank you!
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Clutter hots spots are small spaces where a variety of items can accumulate, usually because it’s convenient to leave items in this prominent location – your bedside table, the area by the front door, the kitchen counter, a chair in the bedroom, the bathroom vanity, the dining room table.
Clearing a hot spot is much easier than keeping it organized. So, before you declutter the space, you’ll want to figure out a few thing –
Why Does Stuff Get Left in this Spot?
Sort through the items in this space, where did they come from and why do you think they were left here?
Is the space convenient? After carrying the mail into the house, it’s dropped on the table by the door.
Does an item have no proper storage space? Your purse gets dropped on the chair by the front door because you’ve never though about where you could keep it.
Do you think the items will get used if kept here? Every winter I set a tube of hand cream on my nightstand so I can apply the cream when I go to bed. Do I? No. Although this seems like the perfect location to keep hand cream, my actions (or lack thereof) tell me it isn’t.
Keep in mind that you aren’t concerned with decluttering individual items so much as wondering why groups of items gravitate to this location. What behaviors (yours and your family’s) have created this hot spot?
This step is all about problem-solving and is much more difficult than tossing some items in a trash bag. However, figuring out why stuff gets left in this space will help you become organized for the long-term as opposed to until tomorrow.
Identify the Purpose for the Space
What do you want from this space? How do you want it to get used?
Imagine there was nothing in this space – what would be its ideal use? What needs to be here so people can see how to use this space? If you want people to leave their shoes by the door, a rack or shoe cubby unit can make this action clearer than the random pile of shoes scattered in the foyer.
If you want to avoid piling paper and clothing on the chair in your bedroom, ask yourself – why do you have that chair there? Honestly, did you think it would be a convenient space to temporarily leave paper and clothing? Or did you think you’d sit in your room and read in the evening?
Maybe, like that chair in your bedroom, or the table by the front door, you thought the space would serve a different purpose than it did. Do you want to hold onto that original purpose? And, if so, what do you need to tweak so the clutter doesn’t come back?
Recreate the Space
The variety of items that you found in this hot spot can make it challenging to decide what belongs there. You can determine your purpose for this space in a couple of ways:
Remove All of It – Remove everything from the space by setting it in a box (or a few) and setting the box on the opposite side of the room from where the stuff had accumulated. You can remove items from the box when you go to use them. Only then, you can keep the item in the space. After a week or so you’ll have a clearer idea of what gets used in that space.
By clearing the location (don’t even put a basket there to “catch” items), you’ll remove some of the cues that encouraged items to be left in this spot. Remove the pile of mail from the kitchen counter and this may prompt the question, “where should this go?” when someone walks in with today’s mail.
Subtract as You Go – Decide what you want to keep in the space, eliminate and move what you don’t, and pay attention to what gets used here so you can continue to add or subtract items until the space works the way you want it to.
If you realize something doesn’t belong in your hot spot, then place it in a more appropriate home. Only keep things in this space that meet the purpose you have for the location.
Make the Space Less Convenient
Can you remove (or move) the chair or table where stuff gets piled?
Can you put a houseplant beside the bathroom sink to discourage the accumulation of grooming supplies on the counter?
If you’re making the hot spot less convenient, you’ll also have to decide where you want these items to end up and make that space more convenient.
Remember, hot spots aren’t large. They are small spaces where a variety of items congregate because this is the space where you thought you’d use the item or where you “temporarily” left the item. In most cases, the items here belong someplace else in your home.
Remember, simply decluttering the space without identifying why items get left there or how you thought you would use the space, will leave you with a temporarily cleared space. Doing problem-solving in this small space helps you in the process of becoming organized in other, larger spaces in your home.
Know someone struggling to become organized? Please share this article with them.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Do you have one (or more) junk drawers in your home? Is it in your kitchen? (This seems to be the centralized room for junk drawers.)
I’m not opposed to junk drawers, although I think most of their issue is in the name. Are you really storing “junk” in this drawer? Chances are that you have a lot of stuff in that drawer that you could toss (while rolling your eyes in disbelief that you ever thought that you should hold onto fifteen inches of gift wrap ribbon).
I stopped calling the drawer in my kitchen a junk drawer when I realized that ninety percent of the drawer contained stationery supplies (since my desk is in the basement and neither my husband or I was going to trek down a flight of stairs for a paperclip or pen).
Others have a drawer in their kitchen with an extra hammer and screwdriver, duct tape, batteries, picture hanging supplies, and other tools they use often enough that they want them handy. While I believe in keeping similar items together, I know in a lot of cases it works out better to have a main storage space and a satellite storage area (often, but not necessarily, a drawer) in another area of the home.
So, for your junk drawer – what types of items do you want to find there? If you emptied it entirely and didn’t return anything to that space without considering if this is the best home for the item, what would end up in that drawer? Stationery supplies? Tools? Games, puzzles, or craft supplies for spur-of-the-moment kid-entertainment?
Would this drawer better serve you with a different, more specific function?
How to Declutter the Junk Drawer
Yep, start by removing everything, even any organizing tools and wipe out the dust.
Toss the weird bits that ended up in this drawer because you thought of it as your junk drawer – short pieces of string, promotional magnets and unused key rings, the pad of paper half-stained with coffee, the wrapped plastic utensils from takeout food, etc.
Group items together – business cards, pens, random screws, push pins, paperclips – and decide if this drawer is the best place for the items.
Don’t thing about storing the items; think about how you want to retrieve (find and use) them. Do you really go into this drawer to look for a screw or do you go to your toolbox? If you’re thinking, “Well, it could be handy to have a few screws in this drawer,” let me tell you, no, it isn’t. If you are looking for a screw, you’ll go where you keep screws before you waste time rooting through a tray of paper clips and dried elastic bands just in case you have the right-sized screw hidden in the mass.
No, really, is this the best place for that item?
A drawer organizer or a set of plastic or cardboard trays that fit within the depth of the drawer can help prevent items from falling over one another or mixing together. You could group a couple of pencils, pens, a highlighter, and a ruler in one box; a hammer, pliers, and a couple of screwdrivers in another tray. These trays should be open as opposed to covered so items can be accessed and easily returned.
Oddly, trays, even partly filled trays take up space giving the drawer the appearance of being full while staying organized. You know that saying about space abhorring a vacuum? The space that a tray takes up in a drawer can help at eliminating the thought, “Oh, I’ll just toss that in here,” because you’ll open the drawer and think, “Oh, there’s already stuff in here.”
Keep Your Junk Drawer Organized
Instead of thinking of this drawer as a dumping ground for things you’ll never go looking for again, give it a function – often-used tools, office supplies. Then, stop calling it the junk drawer and name its function. Sure, maybe it’s 70-percent tools and 30-percent office supplies – call it the tool drawer. This will make it easier to say, “that’s not a tool, it doesn’t belong there,” instead of, “yeah, I don’t know what to do with that, so just toss it in the junk drawer.”
So, is your junk drawer really a pile of unnecessary, unused stuff? Or, as you pulled out everything did you notice a pattern of what you keep and how you use it? Tell us about your junk drawer in the comment section below.
By Susan McCarthy
As a young adult living in my oh-so-crowded bedroom in my parents’ oh-so-crowded house, I couldn’t store items beneath my bed because the room was so filled with bulky furniture, I would have never been able to get the items from under the bed. (Yes, I could have stored items I wasn’t interested in retrieving, but because I’d convinced myself that I needed everything in the room, not storing items under the bed, in my jam-packed bedroom, somehow made sense.)
If you have limited space, using the area beneath your bed can be a necessity. However, the risk of forgetting the items there or storing things you don’t need but feel you should hold onto “just in case” can cause stuff to accumulate.
Sorting through “just in case” items is another key to becoming organized because you’re asking yourself to finally decide what to do with an item instead of delaying the decision indefinitely.
Declutter Under the Bed
Remember, using a space intentionally is fine. It’s when items get shoved out of the way and end up hidden under the bed that they become clutter. (“Company’s coming, quick, get this stuff out of the way! Shove it under the bed!)
What was the oddest thing you found under your bed? Please share in the comments below. (I should have taken a picture of the mound of fur I scraped off the rug, left behind by my long-haired cat who occasionally sleeps beneath the bed.)
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Decluttering small spaces gives you a quick win. More important than the organized appearance of the space is your feeling of satisfaction and progress at becoming organized. So, why bother decluttering a hidden space?
Because, you know it’s there. I’ve met people with clean, organized homes … until you go into the basement and have to walk sideways through the maze of boxes. These individuals don’t feel organized because their attention is laser-pointed on the basement. And, worse, they feel like they’re living a lie every time someone standing in the immaculate living room or kitchen compliments them on being so organized.
So, even if you feel that cluttered, hidden spaces don’t make a difference, remember that it doesn’t matter whether the clutter is on the kitchen counter or shoved in a drawer, if you know it’s there, then it’s a task waiting for you. Obvious or hidden, decluttering a small space is all about your progress.
Under the Sink Decluttering
Each sink in your home – kitchen, bathroom, laundry room – is its own task. If you don’t have a cabinet beneath a sink, give a quick sort through items that have gathered around this spot. And, it isn’t necessary to organize beneath every cabinet in single day or even on consecutive days.
Why Declutter Under the Sink?
The cabinet (or other organizing tools) beneath your sink not only contains but also hides the items you have stored there, so you may not know what’s in this space. And, bonus, going through the items under the sink can save you money and time.
Money – If you have a lot of supplies beneath your sink – house-cleaning or toiletries – there’s a good chance you have duplicates. Maybe you notice that you’re running low on shampoo so the next time you go to the store you buy more.
Only, you forgot that you already bought a new bottle of shampoo when you saw it on sale a few weeks ago. But, the bottle of shampoo was squeezed in with a lot of other items under the sink and “disappeared.”
Time – Decluttering under the sink can save you time. One, you won’t waste time looking for the bottle of glass cleaner that you’re certain is stored in a particular space. Also, you won’t spend time shopping for supplies that you don’t need. And, after decluttering and organizing, you’ll have an easier time maintaining order (putting things away).
How to Declutter Under a Sink
Don’t focus on the visual appearance of the space – a pretty “after” picture is less important than how you retrieve and then put away the items stored under the sink.
If you think others would find this or any other article on this site useful, please share on social media. Thank you!
by Susan McCarthy
Do you have so many things in your medicine cabinet that items tumble out when you open the door? Can you never find what you’re looking for, go out and purchase the item, only to find that, yes indeed, you did have it squeezed onto the shelves of your medicine cabinet?
This is a fairly quick task that can create moments of calm in the morning and evening when you open the medicine cabinet. And, finding what you want in the cabinet can bolster your feeling of being an organized person.
How to Declutter the Medicine Cabinet
When You Need Other Options
If your medicine cabinet is still burgeoning with items that you need to keep in the bathroom, do you have space under the sink or in a corner of the room where you could keep caddies or drawers for each individual who used the bathroom? Limit the medicine cabinet to shared items like first aid supplies.
Another option could be to keep first aid supplies on a shelf in a kitchen cabinet (what I do) or in a case or bin stored in the linen closet. Make certain that everyone in the home knows where the items have been moved!
Key to decluttering and organizing your medicine cabinet is to consider what your expectation is for this small space. Limiting this space to essentials will make it easier to locate items (and can reduce your stress level when you need a bandage, aspirin, or eye drops).
Creating an organized medicine cabinet isn’t about straightening the items in the cabinet. It’s about helping you and others who store items in this small space to have a calmer experience at times of day when you and they may feel rushed, tired, or stressed. It’s about becoming organized.
Please share this article with a friend who’s talked about feeling scattered and wishes they were more organized. Thank you.
by Susan McCarthy
A “funny” story about how my husband and I have different views on stuff.
He’d invited over a couple that hadn’t been to our home. The day before they arrived, I was cleaning as well as tidying items that could get put away.
I returned to the living room at one point to realize that Mac had decorated (“decorated”) the coffee table and a table set between two chairs with multiple books. While I’d interpreted visitors as incentive for clearing surfaces, my husband saw it as an opportunity to highlight the topics he was interested in by decorating (“decorating”) with books.
Of course, the four of us ended up sitting around the dining table and I don’t know if our guests even noticed the books that had been set out.
Why Bother Clearing Your Coffee Table?
Because couch(es) and chairs circle a coffee table, it can be a focal point for the room and establish your expectation for the space.
Many minimalists admit that they don’t have a coffee table (and/or end tables) because they don’t entertain much, and they don’t feel the need to own a piece of furniture that could accumulate clutter. If you do have a coffee table, how do you want it to get used?
Is it a place to set down a plate of cookies for guests? A spot to assemble the family jigsaw puzzle? A place to set down a book or your knitting when you get up from your seat? A place for your kids or grandkids to play? A space to display your favorite coffee table books that highlight an interest?
Keeping the Coffee Table Clear
Envisioning how you want the coffee table to get used will tell you what belongs in this space and what can be removed. When you remove items from the coffee table (including the surface, shelf, and underneath the table), you’ll need to decide where they belong. If you don’t know where those items belong that may explain why they were left on the coffee table.
Deciding where items belong is a key to becoming organized. Realizing that the coffee table was the unintentional home for an object is frustrating because now you need to take time to decide where you want to store or display something. However, taking the time to give an item a proper place helps you get – and, more important, stay organized.
It could take a few weeks for you and your family to get used to a clear coffee table and get in the habit of putting things away instead of leaving them on the table. If the space is too clear, you could place a plant, unlit candle, or a small cluster of (1-to-3) decorative items to hold the space.
Want to become organized? Small spaces like the coffee table are a great place to start. Share this article with a friend who’s mentioned the desire to get organized and you can be each other’s declutter buddy!
by Susan McCarthy
There are times during the year when you have neither the time nor inclination to get involved in a large decluttering project. Decluttering small spaces – the top of an end table, a single shelf, the area around the bathroom sink – serves the greater purpose of reinforcing your intention to become an organized person.
Some small spaces to consider decluttering (these areas won’t be accompanied by articles this month):
Another advantage to decluttering small spaces is that it takes less time to maintain order in these places. You can quickly notice the dirty coffee mug and magazine set on the previously cleared coffee table. Putting the mug in the dishwasher and the magazine in its basket not only keeps the space clear but also acts as a reminder that this is the type of action an organized person takes.
Devoting 15-to-30-minutes to organizing one small space won’t transform your home. However, if you viewed your entire home as a collection of small spaces to declutter and organize, you’d become organized – all without blocking off an entire Saturday to clean the garage.
Do you want to become organized, but you don’t have a lot of time to declutter? This month’s articles are focused on small spaces; sign up for A Less Cluttered Life’s emails to get these articles delivered to your inbox.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.