Toss It or Not? 5 Organizational Tips from a Chronic Clutter Bug

by Linsey Knerl on 10 August 2009 16 comments
Photo: Wm Jas

Some might say that I have no business giving out organizational tips. My desk is always a mess, I usually look for things for a very long time before finding them, and my neat-and-tidy husband often wonders where he went wrong. I’m a work-in-progress, however, and because the learning is so fresh in my mind, I think other messies might benefit from how I’m managing the struggle to keep my stuff in order. Here are 5 tips that I know work (not because I read them in some book). 

Create your own categories, but limit them to a handful or less. The one thing I hate most about traditional organizing systems is that they limit you to assigning your stuff into one of three categories: Keep, toss, or give away. This frustrates me to no end. Having to give my possessions a life sentence right there on the spot stresses me out. What if I throw something away, only to need it later? What if I don’t know where that odd brackety-looking-thing goes to at the moment? The hurry-up-and-judge aspect of organizing doesn’t have to tie you up. Go ahead and pick a few more categories until you’re certain. For me, I use the following: Keep (and put away right now), keep (and design a place for it to reside permanently), throw away in the trash, toss into recycling or repurpose for kids crafts, give away to friends or family, donate to charity, store for a bit until I decide what to do with it. The last category has a box that I mark with a permanent marker indicating the shelf life. I keep it no longer than three months – tops, and it all has to fit into the designated box. 

Declutter a little every day. I’ll never have 3 straight days to go through my house and get through all the clutter. That’s why I love the FlyLady approach towards decluttering. She advises that you do it in 15 minute increments, focusing on those areas that tend to attract stuff.  For me, it would be the top of the dryer, the mud room floor, and my desk. By focusing on just one each day, it can really be a manageable thing. 

Assign responsibility. With the exception of Don Aslett and his absolutely fabulous cleaning books, I almost never hear anyone admit that clutter isn’t always my fault. I’m fairly certain that the Allen wrench set, Mr. Potato Head ear, and infant toothbrush didn’t get on top of the dryer on their own, but I also know that I didn’t put them there. Unless you live alone, take a look at the kinds of clutter that accumulate, and then head to the source. If your 6-year-old thinks that the back of the toilet is a perfect place for his X-Men cards to reside, retrain him right away.  (And if it is your spouse with the cluttering tendencies, be sure to communicate directly and respectfully. No one is perfect, and I’m guessing that they are overlooking their fair share of issues with you, too.) 

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Don’t give up. It is so easy to look around at the clutter and say, “What’s the point?" I have felt this way when suffering from the flu, after giving birth to a child, or coming back from a business trip and not being able to find a clear spot on the couch. It will only hurt for a little while, and if you truly believe that it needs to be taken care of, the clutter will go (or at least diminish significantly.) 

Admit when you need help. I’ve watched far too many reality “clean your house” shows to know that sometimes the issue is not a household management problem. Sometimes, clutter (especially the extreme or bizarre kind) is a sign of something more significant. Ask yourself why the stuff is piling up. Are you unable to part with anything at all? Do you bring things into the house, but aren’t sure why? If your behavior doesn’t make any sense, and it isn’t just a matter of being overworked or a little bit unmotivated, see about getting some help. It can be a doctor, close friend, or a trusted member of the faith community. When the clutter issue isn’t about stuff, it’s time to find out what it is really about and get it taken care of. (Note: Some "organizational experts" may also be a good source. Before you shell out any money for this service, however, see if they have the background to help with emotional or psychological issues, as well. No sense investing in plastic bins and tubs if it really is something deeper at work.)

Getting rid of clutter is really about prioritization. Some of us do this very well, and others seem to have a harder time with it. The good news is that being decisive about how you value your things will only get easier each time you do it. The skill of prioritization can also positively influence other areas of your life, giving you the confidence to do some of the more difficult tasks you may encounter: setting boundaries within relationships, balancing work and family, and managing your finances. 

Are you organized? How do you handle clutter? Did you learn it from someone, or is it a skill that you’ve painstakingly adapted to? Feel free to share your stories and tips with our Wise Bread community!

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Guest's picture

A low tech solution I've found that works miracles for the organizationally unmotivated is a good old fashioned accordian file. It keeps everything neet and organized in A-Z order, and if you have more than the file can hold, it's time to prioritize and toss!

At the end of one year, put a large rubber band around it, and file it under 2007, 2008, 2009 etc. Neet and easy for simple minds like mine.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I like the accordian file.. my problem is trying to fit it all in one.  Motivating, anyway!

Thanks!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Jadebrooklyn

Try a file cabinet. Baskets are great but get the ones that match your decor and fit on shelves. take everything off your kitchen counters and replace only what you need and what looks nice. That coffeemaker can sit in the cabinet if its not set on a timed start.

Guest's picture
Hanna

...watching a tv show or documentary about people who hoard things always helps.

Guest's picture

I totally agree with the 'store a bit until I decide what to do' comment. Whilst we need to be ruthless in clearing clutter, sometimes there's *stuff* that needs a little reprieve until later :-)
I also like the 'a bit each day' approach. Too often we can be tempted to jump in and totally de-clutter the entire house in a day. This of course fails (kind of like joining a gym and trying to get fit in a day), and then we lose motivation and the clutter grows.
Make de-cluttering part of the process. It's a means to an end (eg the 'end' being a happier life), not the end itself.

Guest's picture
Olivia

I liked Life Laundry when it was on PBS. "Into the crusher!" Cluttering for me is a sign of oversentimentality and in the case of papers, a fear I'll forget some "vital" bit of information. Tackling one room at a time works. Recently a woman mentioned she tossed one thing a day until she conquered her monster. Both ideas have helped.

Guest's picture
mommydeedee

When fridge clutter gets too bad, of course one goes through and pulls all the old news. Past due dates and events long since over can go right in the recycling bin; but what about the other stuff? Kid art, newspaper clippings, quotes, photos of cousins and all the other stuff you love to look at and can't throw in the garbage?

Start a fridge scrap book! Pull the old news down and put it in a shirt box. Then, with the kids or by yourself, put it in a memory book that will, over time, read like the story of you family fridge's life.

On a related note: It also helps to take a picture of the precious 3d sculpts and constructions the kids make before you toss them out. Putting them in an album will organize them into a gallery, which will keep forever in a tiny fraction of the space the original objects took up.

Might even make a good coffee table book, if you're ambitious enough to make on up online one day.

My $.02
FWIW
: )

Guest's picture

Being a college student my dormitory always seemed to be filled with more clutter then I could imagine. It was absolutely necessary that I keep the things but didn't know what to do with it. When I moved out and into a home I found that I had so many things that I didn't need it was awful.

Guest's picture
Margery

My bete noir is the "decide on this later" pile. Should I renew my membership to the local Arts and Sciences museum? How 'bout the bagel coupons? Will I use them? And the notice from the health insurance -- I need to call and find out why they won't pay the shrink. There just seems to be no good way to control that mess.

Oh, and don't forget the cheap stuff from the happy meals. I swear it reproduces.

Guest's picture

The Decide Later Pile--my achilles heal and the biggest stack on the desk! The problem with that pile is deciding how much later is later...

Guest's picture
Guest

I can't stand piles of stuff. My mother, husband, mother n law, son and daughter are big time "collectors" of everything. My son (9 years old)can't leave a playground or the grocery store without finding a neat rock or broken pencil on the ground that he MUST take home because it may have a purpose to him someday. Last night at 10:30 my husband starting looking through his one of many drawers that has stuff piled in the bottom of looking for an old credit card, I made him regret that big time. I decided to get all three drawers that he uses to stuff full of junk and make him go through it or I would. He did do it, finally it took me 4 years:) Some people say to be truly organized you must have OCD. I find that to be true, at least with me:)

Guest's picture
Guest

What I love about the "decide later" pile is that when I come back across it a year (or years) later, I can go through what seemed agonizing at the time quite quickly (most of it goes).

A method I want to try is the two-box method. Put your "decide later"s into box #1. When that fills up, a lid on it (or tuck the flaps), date and label it, put it on a high shelf, and start filling box #2. When box #2 is full, do not, I repeat, do not start a new box.

Instead, retrieve box #1 and chuck (or put away) as much as you can. Then start filling it with new "decide later"s.

If box #1 is still full after you've gone through it, then the issue is not deciding -- it's either putting things away or hoarding.

Guest's picture
Stephanie

I hate the decide later pile...later never comes...lol

Guest's picture
Slinky

I find that the best way to deal with clutter is to not let it form. For me, this means figuring out WHY it forms.

Some things are just laziness. For those, I try to change one small habit at a time, like putting my purse away instead of dropping it next to the door.

For other clutter, there's a bigger reason. Sometimes it just doesn't have a place and sometimes the existing place isn't working. I used to have a giant stack of papers on my desk....until I got my own file cabinet. It was too difficult to get to my files in the back of the bottom drawer behind the stuff put in front of it. No wonder I had a pile! Sometimes it's hard to figure out what the problem is or what to do about it, but I'm slowly working on it. I still have clutter, but I have LESS clutter!

Guest's picture
Renee

I have a box just for 'What IS this piece of metal/plastic that may be important?' Too often I've thrown out unidentified items only to find that they belonged to something I need! Such as the needle for my blood pressure cuff after a family member dismantled it and I found it on the floor...

Guest's picture
DebraC

Admitting that you may need some declutter help is a good first step to taking action to beat the clutter bug. Sometimes, people just need a helping hand with their home organization. Once they get started, the project will gain momentum and it gets easier.