Feel like you’re drowning in stuff? Eager for a fresh start? Now that the holidays are over, it’s a popular time to tackle organization on the home front. But where — and how — to start?
Resolving to “get organized” for the new year can seem like an overwhelming task. Better to break it down room by room, focusing on the problem spots that bug you most, then creating simple solutions for taming them, experts advise.
And if you’re into resolutions, here are a couple of suggestions: Buy less stuff in 2016. And spend less time online, more time organizing the stuff you already have.
“We’re accumulators. It’s an American problem,” said Suzie Stegic, a professional organizer, stylist and blogger (“Profound Change” at tinyletter.com/suziestegic).
Stegic, who lives in Minneapolis, also has lived in Sweden, where people tend to be more careful about what they buy and less emotionally invested in it, she said.
In the United States, where consumers are bombarded with BOGO offers at every turn, people are more likely to indulge in “retail therapy” — buying things to make themselves feel better.
“We have too much stuff, and we don’t take the time to sort and organize it,” Stegic said. “Turn off your computer — make time to work on your home. People who have neat, tidy homes have taken time to make them that way. Instead of pinning pictures on Pinterest, dreaming of the home you want to have, make a happy effort at home.”
“Happy effort” evokes last year’s popular decluttering tome, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, which urged keeping only objects that “spark joy” and discarding the rest.
“It’s a beautiful book,” said Stegic, who agrees with many of its suggestions. But the spartan simplicity espoused by Kondo probably isn’t practical for many Western readers. “She’s Japanese, not American, and Americans have big lives, sports gear, big garages. And she has no children. Children bring a lot of clutter.”
Kids are “clutter magnets,” agreed Geralin Thomas, owner of Metropolitan Organizing in Cary, N.C., and author of a new book, “Decluttering Your Home: Tips, Techniques & Trade Secrets” (Firefly Books, $19.95).
“People say, ‘I don’t have a big enough house’ or I don’t have money to install a system,’ ” she said. But your “system” can be as simple as rethinking where you put things. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you do need to have a place to store everything.”
Then get the family on board. “Retrain everybody, including yourself,” to put things where they belong. “It’s like retraining a dog,” she said. “Reinforce until it becomes a habit.”
Here are some tips for tackling your family’s personal problem areas:
When working with clients, Stegic typically tackles basements first. “They become the zone where everyone dumps stuff,” she said. “It’s a great starting point — then you have a place to move things” from upstairs floors.
Basement decluttering is often “the easy work,” she said, because people tend to be less emotionally invested in items stored there than the ones in their closets.
Still putting away holiday decorations? Make it easier on yourself next year. “Have a shelving unit dedicated to Christmas,” suggested Sarah Eppard, owner of Closets by Design in Plymouth (closetsbydesign.com). Place holiday decorations in clear plastic bins, so “it’s easy to see what’s inside,” with covers so ornaments are protected from moisture. Label them, for easy identification.
And maybe say goodbye to a few festive trinkets. Holiday decorations have multiplied in recent decades, according to Thomas. “A lot of us grew up with just stockings, a wreath on the door and a tree,” she said. “We didn’t have the villages and the giant soldiers. It takes up valuable real estate.”
If you’ve got more holiday stuff than you need, consider a purge. “Ask yourself: Do you really love it? Is it fun putting it up? Is it worth storing it for 11 months?” Thomas said. “One woman said it used to be fun when her kids were little, but now it’s a chore. Let it go.”
Even if it’s a family heirloom. “If it was your grandmother’s but you don’t love it, it’s not illegal to let it go,” Thomas said.
This is another great place to start decluttering, according to Stegic, because “you can finish in one day.” Start with the washing machine, clearing the top off. Work around the room, putting things you want to donate in clear plastic bags and things you want to throw away in black garbage bags. “That way you don’t mix them up,” she said. Get rid of laundry equipment you don’t need, like that rack for delicates that came with your dryer. “If it’s covered in dust sitting in the corner, it’s not sacred. Let it go,” Stegic said. “Let go of things you’re not using.”
And if you’ve fallen behind on laundry to the point that you’re knee-deep in clothes and can’t move freely around the room, consider hauling them to a coin laundry. “You’re not able to do 10 loads in one day at home, and it [laundry] keeps coming,” Stegic said.
If your laundry room lacks organization, even adding a single shelf for detergent and fabric softener will make a big difference, Eppard said. If you have space and budget, add cabinets. “I like to recommend cabinets with doors, above the washer and dryer,” she said.
Even tiny changes can help make laundry chores more pleasant and orderly. “If your laundry basket is cracked, buy a new one,” Eppard said. “It’s 7 or 8 bucks, and you’ll feel a whole lot better about doing laundry.”
Whether it’s in front or in back, the most-used entry to a home often becomes clogged with stuff — especially when you have children. “It’s the drop zone, where they drop their backpacks, sports equipment and lunchboxes,” Thomas said. “It tends to become chaotic and adds to that crazy feeling in the morning.”
Create small storage cubbies for hats, gloves and other winter wear — as opposed to big bins that you have to dig through. “One of my mantras is ‘like lives with like’ — all hats together, all mittens together,” said Stegic.
Take inventory first, Eppard suggested. “Does each child need 10 pairs of mittens? If they’re past their prime, or one is missing, it’s time to get rid of them. Why take up that limited space?”
If your family members typically kick off their shoes when they come inside, put a basket, a storage bench or even a box near the door. “When you’re sweeping or vacuuming, it’s easier to lift a box than 12 pairs of shoes,” Thomas noted.
“I love doing closets!” Thomas said. Many of her female clients change sizes and reinvent themselves and their look, a history that accumulates in their closets. Cleaning out your closet “gives you a chance to make an appointment with yourself to think about who you are, what you want to represent — keeping less and enjoying it more,” she said.
Stegic advises emptying the closet and laying all the clothing on the bed, arranged by category, such as pants in one pile, skirts in another.
“Then people can see the volume they have. Look at what you really wear.” If you’re unsure of what to keep, consider hiring a stylist, she said. “People have the wrong clothes. They don’t know what looks best on them. They buy fads, without a plan.”
Once you’ve curated your wardrobe, it’s easier to maintain an orderly closet. Built-ins and simple additions also help.
Install hooks for belts. “When things look neater, it’s easier to keep them neat,” said Stegic.
If you don’t have designated storage for shoes, consider adding it. “People tend to have a lot of them, sprawling all over the floor,” said Eppard. “It’s a challenge to walk around them or even find them.” Her solution: “Get ’em off the floor” with shelving. “It makes a closet feel less cluttered” when you’re not stepping over shoes. And having them lined up on a shelf makes it easier to find the pair you want.
Add another rod for hanging clothes. “If you have only a single rod, you’re losing capacity,” Eppard said.
And consider upgrading your dresser. “A good dresser is an investment” in an orderly closet, according to Stegic. “When you have an old dresser or a cheap one with wobbly drawers, it’s not inviting to put your things away.”
If you can’t open a cupboard without something falling on your head, it’s time to purge and reorganize. Most people store too much in their kitchens, according to Stegic, including specialty ingredients and gadgets they rarely, if ever, use. Think about the things you actually use and have success with — not the ones you might get around to eventually.
“We tend to acquire things we think we want to project,” Thomas said. One of her clients had a world-class collection of baking tools and gadgets — but never actually baked. “Just owning things doesn’t make you a great baker,” she said.
Take stock of your pantry, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Deeper is not always better when it comes to shelving, Eppard noted. “People tend to lose items in the back. Adjustable shelves help, so you can walk in and see things.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider the non-tangible clutter that also can contribute to a cluttered life. Thomas advises clients to cut down on digital clutter — the old voice messages, texts and superfluous photos that tend to pile up on phones. Look for small windows of time when you can multi-task. “Every time you’re standing in a line, pull out your phone and start deleting,” she said. Ten minutes a day can make a big difference.
And don’t forget to declutter your calendar. “People tend to be optimistic and overcommit their schedules,” she said. “They want to please, so they say yes to commitments they really have no interest in.”
Instead of attending every wedding you’re invited to, for example, “send a gift, a nice note” and your regrets. It will free up time for spending with family or friends you want to see.
Or time for emptying your closet.