Oct. 28, 2013 at 8:01 PM ET
Make a date with your clutter
Your first task is to schedule an appointment with your space, says Kim Cosentino, professional organizer and owner of The De-Clutter Box, based in Westmont, Illinois. Most people never get around to clearing the clutter because their schedule is packed. So, just as you would schedule a regular checkup with your doctor, schedule an appointment with your home to begin organizing. Take two hours one morning and set that time aside to start getting things in order.
Pick a target
Look around your home and decide what overwhelms you the most. What frustrates you most often? Is it your disordered wardrobe? Or not being able to find the granola bars in the cupboard in the morning? Or is it the stacks of paper on the floor of your office? Pick the area that is most maddening and start there, says Cosentino. “Don’t go anywhere else while you are working on that space.”
Visualize the end result
When most people decide to get organized, their impulse is to head to the store and buy containers, says Kim Cossette, owner of The Organized Approach in Atlanta, Georgia. “But that is putting the cart before the horse.” The first thing you need to do is to think about your goal. What would you like your space to look like? What function would you like it to serve? Taking action to tackle your chaos is easier when you know where you’re headed. So hold off on the containers for now and work on your vision. Besides, later on when you figure out what containers you need, chances are you already have something in your house that could be repurposed.
Shed the surplus
Go through your target space and remove everything that doesn’t fit with your current needs, goals, and lifestyle, says Cossette. Don’t keep things that might be useful someday—only things that are useful to you today. Be honest with yourself. Do you use this item? Do you need it? Or do you love it? Those are the only three reasons to keep something. “Just because somebody else decides to give you something—including mail—doesn’t mean you have to keep it,” says Cossette. “If you are keeping it out of loyalty, you are doing yourself a disservice and a disservice to the person who gave it to you by not using it, so give it to someone who will.”
Keep three containers handy
As you work to remove the things you no longer need or want, keep three containers beside you: a laundry basket, a bag for donations, and a garbage/recycling bag. Put things that belong elsewhere in the house into the laundry basket. For example, if you are organizing your pantry, put the dog leash, notebook, roller skates, and pantyhose that you find lying around into the basket. Donate as much as you can to charities and recycle or trash the rest.
Gather like things together
If you don’t know where to start, work from left to right in the room, or from top to bottom, sorting things as you go. So, gather all pens and pencils together, pile up all of your pairs of pants together, or place all of your cereals in a group. Don’t stop to worry about whether you will keep an item or where you will put it. This will only slow down the process and overwhelm you.
Examine your groups
Now that all of your similar things are in one pile, you can make decisions about them, says Deb Oppel, a professional organizer and owner of Decluttered by Deb in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Do you really need 20 pairs of black pants? Some people keep pants in so many different closets and drawers that they have no idea they have so many pairs. Seeing them all together can be eye-opening. Get rid of items that are not being used or that are broken. Then narrow each pile down to your favorites. “We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time,” says Oppel. Which jeans do you actually wear? Which pens still work? Which items are you most likely to use? By the end of this winnowing, you can get a group of 20 items down to a few.
Maximize your space
Brainstorm various ways you can make the most of your space. Many kitchens and pantries have adjustable shelving. If the family cook cannot reach the pasta shelf, make it lower. If your pantry shelves are fixed, buy some stackers. These are fiberboard shelves (easy to find at Bed, Bath & Beyond, the Container Store, or Kmart) that can give you more space. Canned goods tend to be short, for example, and so you can create two layers of them with an additional shelf. Things that are used most often should get the prime real estate—the countertop or the lower shelves. If you are working on your closets, you can also add shelves.
Get things off the floor
Whenever possible, keep things off the floor, says Vivian Da Cunha, a professional organizer working in Brazil. This makes them easier to see and keeps the floor free of chaos. This is especially useful in the garage or the garden shed, where you can hang rakes, garden implements, tools, shovels, sleds, and other things, making them much easier to find.
Cure your "flat surface disease"
Many people are visual thinkers and like to have all of their things out where they can see them. The end result: their tables, desks, and countertops are covered with stacks of paperwork and other items. “I call this flat surface disease,” says Cosentino. Fortunately, it’s curable. After you’ve divided all of the countertop clutter into piles of like things, find homes for all of them. If piles of mail are a problem, find a container to put them in. When that container is full, schedule time to sit down and go through it, throwing away as much as you can.
Make rainbows in your closet
When organizing your clothing, hang all of your dresses together, with the lightest-colored ones on the left progressing to the darkest colored dresses on the right, says Cosentino. Do the same with your pants, blouses, skirts, and jackets. When you arrange them by color within their category, it is easy to see where the pants end and the blouses begin.
Light up your space
The rooms where people pile up the most junk tend to be poorly lit, says Cosentino. Dim lighting makes a room uninviting and a good dumping ground. Warm overhead lighting can make a room much more welcoming to people and hostile to junk.
Store items near where you will use them
In the kitchen, keep the things you use every day on lower shelves that are easily accessible, says Oppel. Store items you use less frequently in the higher shelves or elsewhere. For example, if you only use your turkey-roasting pan once a year, don’t give it prime real estate in the kitchen. And if you don’t drink coffee, don’t let a big coffeemaker take up room on your counter, just because guests might drop by someday. Forget about someday—focus on now.
Labeling shelves and other areas decreases the amount of time you spend looking for things, says Beth Giles, professional organizer with NW Organizing Solutions in Portland, Oregon. Labeling also communicates to the entire family where something belongs. In your kitchen, make labels for the canned goods, pasta, and breakfast cereal areas. In the kids’ rooms, make labels with pictures on them to help them keep their toys organized. For example, stick a photo of a stuffed animal on the bin where all of the stuffed animals are kept, or a photo of a train on a bin for trains. You can also use this method to label the drawers in your office.
File essentials in a fireproof box
Essential items such as birth certificates, passports, social security cards, adoption records, marriage certificates, titles to your home and car, and other must-have documents should be kept separately from everything else, in their own file, says Cosentino. Ideally, they should be kept in a fireproof box or in a safety deposit box.
Repurpose your linen closet
When you’re stepping out of the shower and you realize you need a fresh towel, do you really want to run dripping down the hall to the linen cupboard? Instead, store all of your towels in the bathroom, where they will be used, says Cosentino. Also, store your sheets in the rooms in which they will be used. It’s much easier to change sheets when the appropriate clean ones are right on hand and you don’t have to sift through a series of sheets to find the right one. Now that things in the linen closet have migrated closer to where they’re needed, you’ll have more closet space too! Some people choose to use the space for a stacked washer and drier. Or you could keep sleeping bags there for the kids. Or suitcases. You decide.
Involve your family
Reorganizing the house won’t work unless everyone in the family buys into the plan. People won’t change unless they want to, so you need to convince everyone that their lives will be better without clutter. Have your family help you create themed spaces for things and make labels. Show them where paperwork should be filed. Let them know which basket is for fruit and which is for mail. Involve them in every way you can, so they can help maintain order.
Keep wastebaskets handy
Make sure that every room in your house has a wastebasket, says Giles. A lot of clutter piles up because people are too lazy to carry something into another room to throw it out. So keep those baskets handy, as well as a container for donations and a recycling box.
Go through your wardrobe at the end of every season. Weed out clothing that you didn’t wear or didn’t love. Make notes of things you need for next season. For example, if your white T-shirts have been worn to rags, recycle them and make a note to buy some for next year.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.