A professional organizer shares the small habits that can help you manage clutter for good.

By Kathy Barnes and Jessica Bennett
Updated January 07, 2021
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There is no right way to organize. You can find countless strategies and schedules that promise to give you a perfectly tidy home, but the true answer to getting (and staying) organized lies in developing small habits you can practice every day. For many, the concept of organizing can be overwhelming, so it's important to temper your expectations before you dive in. "Embrace the imperfection of it all, and forget being Pinterest-perfect," says Fay Wolf, a self-described "recovering perfectionist" and author of New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else) ($14, Amazon). You don't need to buy an expensive storage system or throw out half your belongings. Wolf believes most messes can be fixed with recycled containers and common-sense labeling. Start by adopting these organizing rules to help you get your house in order and keep it that way.

Credit: Brie Williams

1. Change your thinking about organizing.

Shed the idea that you are either organized or not, that you have it together or you don't. Organizing is an ongoing practice, which means you're never fully done. Don't let the size of your project stop you from getting started. Doing something, even if it's small, is better than doing nothing. You'll also need to grant yourself permission to let things go. "Once you decide to let go of an item, you free up physical space in your life, as well as inner clutter, because you never have to concern yourself with it again," Wolf says.

Credit: Marty Baldwin

2. Be prepared to get messy.

Getting organized often requires making a mess first. To help you sort through all your clutter, follow Wolf's process for each room. You'll need a staging area and five boxes (or grocery bags or laundry baskets). Label each with one of these categories: donate, trash, recycle, shred, and other rooms. Focus on the items that are out of place or those that weigh you down physically or emotionally. Remember that this process can take time. "It's OK to take your time with decluttering and organization," Wolf says. "We're busy people. There's no need to rush it as long as you do something."

Credit: Adam Albright

3. Group like items.

Once you've let go of the stuff you no longer need, the items leftover are the keepers. It's time to deliver items in your "other rooms" box to where you will use them. Be logical and group like items together, such as electronic chargers and devices, photographs, or crafts supplies, for example. Put binder clips with pencils to create an office supplies category. Merge bandages and ointments with first aid supplies.

Credit: Jay Wilde

4. Get creative with storage containers.

Once you've collected things into narrow, useful categories and determined the room where they ultimately belong, corral them with containers. The good news is you probably have what you need on hand. You can use assorted small boxes, such as those from checkbooks, iPhones, or jewelry, to store desk supplies and pill bottles for tiny items like thumbtacks. Other no-frills containers that do the trick include Mason jars, shoe boxes, shipping boxes, bowls, hinged breath mint tins, and resealable plastic bags (these work especially well for electrical cords).

Credit: Adam Albright

5. Put a Label On It

Labeling is all about making things easy to access. Labels can take the form of a permanent marker on a shoe box or a length of masking tape on a tub. You can also print typed labels from a label-maker ($18, Target). As long as you can see the label and read it, you can find your things and return them when you're done.

Credit: Ann VanderWiel Wilde

6. Stop the paper clutter.

Your first line of defense against paper clutter is opening mail as soon as it comes in the house. It doesn't mean you have to deal with it immediately, but you will be amazed at how much less there is to think about once envelopes, packaging, inserts, junk mail, and catalogs that you don't need are recycled. Go one better, and unsubscribe from as much as possible using sites such as catalogchoice.org and paperkarma.com.

Credit: Adam Albright

7. Make organize your digital clutter.

If you're buried under digital clutter from e-mails, notifications, and social media, try these organizing tips for your technology. "Snooze" e-mails that don't require your attention, and choose when they return to your in-box. Try Boomerang for Gmail to schedule when you send and receive messages. Do a mass unsubscribe to e-mails with sites like clean.email or unroll.me. Turn off social media notifications on your phone, tablet, and computer.

Credit: David Prince

8. Keep a junk drawer.

Even the most organized people have a utility or junk drawer, and "there's no shame in that," Wolf says. This catch-all space allows you to store several different types of items in one convenient spot. Be sure it's located in an easy-to-access spot and beware not to overcrowd the drawer. Make your drawer work better by fitting it with small containers ($30, The Container Store) that bring order to small items.

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