Call it Irritating Building Syndrome. It's that low-level burn you feel when you miss the first 10 minutes of your favorite TV show because you can't find the remote. Or when you have trouble cutting up vegetables because too many appliances are crowding out your counter space. A messy, crowded house is a stress factory.
And just how cluttered is too cluttered? Professional organizer Barbara Hemphill, coauthor of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever, offers one yardstick: "If you can't straighten up your house in 20 minutes when a guest calls to say she's coming over, then you have a problem." But ultimately, your best barometer is whether, when you look around, your home feels comfortably orderly or uncomfortably disorderly.
You could lock yourself in for 48 hours and do a marathon cleanup. But for those who find decluttering a daunting task--and that would be most of us--it's easier to tackle the problem in small bites.
"Commit to spending at least 20 to 30 minutes on uncluttering each day, but no more than an hour," says organizing pro Donna Smallin, author of Unclutter Your Home: 7 Simple Steps, 700 Tips and Ideas. "After an hour, you won't be so fresh, and your decision-making ability may falter." Focus on one room, or one part of a room, at a time, so you can see your progress. Here is a four-step strategy.
1. Divide to Conquer
To get a better sense of what you have, and what you want to keep: Dump In whatever room you're tackling, pull out the contents of drawers, closets, and mysterious boxes.
Sort Scrutinize, then relegate every item to one of three piles: keep, store, or remove (i.e., give away or toss in the trash or recycling bin).
Quiz Yourself Found something questionable? Ask yourself: "Is it useful? Is it beautiful? Do I love it?" If you don't answer "yes" at least once, lose it, recommends Hemphill. If you just can't reach a verdict on a particular piece, set it aside, and if after 60 days you haven't missed it, find it another home.
2. Find Spots for Keepers
If something doesn't have a place, it's clutter. (Stacks of things don't count as "a place.") Put objects where they belong by following these ground rules:
Store Stuff Where You Use It Toilet paper under the bathroom sink. Tablecloths in the cabinet near the table. Dishes near the dishwasher. You get the idea.
Keep the Most Useful Things Closest Reserve kitchen counters for items that you use every day, like your toaster. The blender can live in a kitchen cabinet. Clothing that fits and is appropriate for the season goes in the middle of your closet and in your drawers. The rest goes off to the harder-to-reach sides or in the back.
Buy Baskets Put one or two in most rooms to hold small items, storing related things--envelopes, stationery, stamps, pens, etc.--in the same basket. You can get attractive wicker, wood, and metal mesh ones at IKEA, Pier 1, or Pottery Barn, says Toronto interior designer Pat Taylor. Arrange baskets on a set of shelves to create a storage cabinet that's cheaper than one that has doors.
Max Out Closet, Cabinet, and Wall Space Shops such as the Container Store and Hold Everything sell stacking plastic drawers, multipair shoe bags, racks to hang pots from, and other storage innovations. California Closets (toll-free 866-850-6203) offers a free, in-home consultation on increasing storage space and will build an incredibly organized closet for a fee.
Organize Your Entryway "Near the door, you need a cabinet--or set of shelves and baskets--where everyone can put gloves and hats, and a bowl for holding keys and change," says Taylor.
3. Find New Homes for Losers
You'll feel better about getting rid of belongings if you can find good homes for them. Here's how to turn your junk into another's treasure.
Make Some Calls Perhaps that mid-century modern lamp would look better in your niece's contemporary apartment than in crowded exile in the French country guest room of your house.
Be Charitable Organizations such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and churches often accept donations of clothing and furniture. To get a tax deduction, bring an itemized list for a staff member to sign.
Try the Web You can unload unneeded items (such as that pasta maker you had to have and never used) on grateful recipients by joining the nationwide exchange group www.freecycle.org.
4. Maintain Order
An uncluttered home is like a slimmed-down self--it's the maintenance that is the challenge. To meet it, make other members of the household accountable, too. Have a weekly family decluttering meeting. Tack it onto an established family ritual, such as Sunday dinner. After dessert, have everyone gather where clutter--such as homework assignments and grocery store receipts--most often congregates. Get everyone to sort through his or her stuff, deciding what to keep, what to store, and what to toss.