Getting it together Home: If your home is overflowing with stuff, but you can never find what you want, it's time to make a plan and get organized.

January 11, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Clutter. It fills up our lives and spills out of our kitchen drawers. It arrives at our homes in great stacks of junk mail. It eats up our time as we look for the car keys, the cup measure, the homework assignment, the silk scarf among all the miscellaneous stuff we've collected over the years. Stuff without a proper home. Stuff we never use or might use at some uncertain future time -- if we can put our hands on it or even remember it's there.

Americans waste more than 9 million hours each day looking for misplaced or lost items, the National Association of Professional Organizers reports. Equally worrisome is the stress a chaotic environment causes. And then there's the money we spend when we have to buy duplicates of things we can't find or don't know we have. No wonder "getting organized" is a top New Year's resolution for many of us, year in and year out.

"The world has become too complicated," says Julie Morgenstern, professional organizer and president of the New York company Task Masters. "It's an exciting time to live, but organizing has become a necessary skill for the 21st century."

With that in mind, we asked national and local experts -- people whose work is organizing other people's surroundings -- for advice. How can we organize our homes, reduce clutter and gain peace of mind?

"There is no one right way to organize," says Ann Saunders, president of S.O.S. (Simple Organizing Solutions) in Baltimore. You have to find the system that works for you, she adds.

Still, most professional organizers suggest starting in one of two ways: big or very small.

Macro-Organizing

This is the big-picture theory of organizing. Begin with a pencil and paper. "Most people skip the first step," says Morgenstern. "Taking stock." Do this before you start throwing things out or shopping for containers.

Whether you're organizing your whole house or simply decluttering a closet, figure out the main function of the space, why it's not working and what items are most essential.

Estimate how long the project will take, and then schedule time for it on your calendar. This way you won't be just waiting for when the mood strikes you or you have some extra free time.

Write down what you're going to do with nonessentials in advance, like giving them to a favorite charity or holding a yard sale. If you're not sure you want to get rid of certain things, consider putting them in mini-storage, then try living without them.

"If the stuff is valuable to you," says Morgenstern, "you'll continue to pay the bills. If not, you'll let it go."

Micro-Organizing

The problem with the above method is that it seems like serious work. Some experts suggest starting small. Take one cluttered drawer and clean it out. Having accomplished something is positive reinforcement. Who knows? You may keep going.

Or set a time limit. "I take my kitchen timer," says Melly Kinnard, founder of Get Organized! and author of several books on the subject. "I can do anything for 15 minutes. After all, if we enjoyed organizing things, it wouldn't be a problem."

However you start, and for however long you're willing to work, the next step is the same. And it's the hardest: sorting and discarding.

"Keep anything you love, you use or that makes you money," says Morgenstern.

Many of the home organizing authorities we talked to use the boxes and bags method for sorting -- anywhere from three to five of them. Label them in whatever way works for you: "Give Away," "Yard Sale," "Put Away" (for items that belong elsewhere in the house), "To Be Stored," "Sentimental Value" -- "I've saved every book my children have received," says Kinnard -- and, of course, "Trash." Then, item by item, sort and toss.

Only then should you buy those storage boxes, bags, racks and other organizing aids that promise to make your life easier. "Buy them at a discount store," advises professional organizer Bonnie Blas, whose business, The Organizer, is located in Baltimore. "They don't have to be the fanciest or the most expensive."

Figure out simple systems that work for you and your family when you rearrange that drawer, closet or basement. That might be grouping similar items, keeping things near where they are used, labeling containers clearly. Your aim is to keep those spaces organized.

While the general principles above will get you started, specifics are helpful when you're tackling the clutter centers of your home. Here are some tips from our professional organizers:

Kitchen

* Go through your drawers and cabinets and make sure each item meets the "have I used this in the last year?" test. If not, consider getting rid of it.

* Store frequently used utensils and dishes close to your work area.

* Put away seasonal items like canning jars and turkey platters in harder-to-reach cabinets.

* Consider hanging nice-looking pans to create more cabinet space.

* Install pull-out shelves under the sink to store cleaning supplies.

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