There is no right way to organize, says Fay Wolf, a self-described "recovering perfectionist" and author of New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else). In fact, the concept of organizing can be so overwhelming that many people never try. Her advice? "Embrace the imperfection of it all, and forget being Pinterest-perfect." You don't need to buy an expensive storage system. Wolf believes most messes can be fixed with recycled containers and commonsense labeling. Here's how to get your house in order.
Let it 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. 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 done. Don't let the size of your project stop you from getting started. Doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing.
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. Wolf reminds us, "It's OK to take your time with decluttering and organization. We're busy people. There's no need to rush it as long as you do something."
You've let go, and you're still staring at a bunch of stuff. These items are the keepers. It's time to deliver items in your "other rooms" box to where you will use them. Be logical. Group like items together—electronic chargers or photographs or crafts supplies, for example. Put binder clips with pencils, and create an office supplies category. Merge bandages and ointments with first aid supplies.
Once you've collected things into narrow, useful categories and know the room where they ultimately belong, corral them with containers. The good news is you probably have what you need on hand: Use assorted small boxes—checkbook, iPhone, jewelry—to store desk supplies, and pill bottles for tiny items like thumbtacks. Other no-frills containers that do the trick: Mason jars, shoe boxes, shipping boxes, bowls, hinged breath mint tins, and resealable plastic bags (good for electrical cords).
Labeling is all about making things easy to access. It can be a permanent marker on a shoe box, or a length of masking tape on a tub. Or it can be a printed label from a label-maker. As long as you can see the label and read it, you can find your things and return them when you're done.
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. Tip: Go one better, and unsubscribe from as much as possible: Check out catalogchoice.org and paperkarma.com.
If you're buried under digital clutter—e-mail, notifications, and social media—try these tips. "Snooze" e-mails that don't require your attention, and choose when they return to your in-box. Try Boomerang for Gmail. Do a mass unsubscribe to e-mails with mailstrom.co or unroll.me. Turn off social media notifications on your phone, tablet, and computer.
Even the most organized people have a utility drawer, and "there's no shame in that," Wolf says. Make your drawer work better by fitting it with small containers that bring order to loose bits and pieces.
Looking for more ways to organize your life? Pick up a copy of New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else) by Fay Wolf, Ballantine Books; $20.