My rules for decluttering and organizing

Bleh!  Lookit all that stuff!
Ahh, that’s better.
A cheap shelf packed with office supplies and gift wrap stuff.  Hmm.
Put a plain muslin curtain on it and it’s almost fit for Pottery Barn.

After years of shuffling crap around my house (and off to the thrift store) I have learned some things.  Mostly the hard way, but also from a few good books.  Here’s what I keep in mind when I’m working on getting my shit together:

  • Put like things together.  Not only does this make sense strategically (they keep like things together in stores for a reason) but also spatially: like things tend to have like dimensions and like requirements for temperature and humidity (produce likes to be cool and damp — stationery not so much).  When I moved all my magazines to the same shelf I magically freed up a few square feet of shelf space for canning jars — space that didn’t appear to be available a few minutes before.
  • Think vertically.  Looking back on pictures of crappy apartments I’ve lived in I can see clearly now that one of the things that makes the spaces look so dorm-like, so cluttered and immature, is that everything is in copy paper boxes on the floor.  Sometimes the boxes are stacked, but usually not.  (You can see this in one of the “before” pictures from my last post — the one from just after our move to this house in 2006.)  And when look at the pretty storage rooms in Pottery Barn and Martha Stewart Living they are arranged vertically, not horizontally.  Not only do you multiply your storage space when you install shelving or invest in taller bookcases, but it’s pleasing to the eye.
  • Don’t keep multiples.  This is one of those rules, like changing your fire alarm batteries when you reset your clocks for the beginning and end of Daylight Saving Time, that everyone knows but few people enforce.  It can be hard to part with that extra pasta serving spoon or those black pumps that look almost exactly like the ones you favor but that rub your heels.  One of these days you’ll need to serve spaghetti and the other pasta server will be dirty or you’ll be dressed and ready to go out but the heel on your go-to pumps snaps.  Possible, yes.  But . . . does it ever actually happen?  Have you ever used the extra thing?  If you do, then by all means keep it.  But if you’re holding on to it “in case” and don’t use it because you greatly prefer the one you do use or because you feel like having one in reserve acts as a talisman to keep #1 from breaking then maybe you need to say it out loud and listen to yourself.  I know this can be hard.  I just about died paring down my ludicrous collection of half a dozen unused typewriters to two that had sentimental value.  But you know what?  Not only do I not miss my once-beloved collection I now can’t even remember what models they were! (Naturally, I am not referring to consumables like envelopes or overstock foodstuffs that will be used up.)
  • Don’t keep what you don’t use.  Matt and I merged our stuff pretty well when we moved in together.  Really, our stuff fit like puzzle pieces; what I had he didn’t and vice versa.  I had towels and he had sheets.  I had baking dishes and he had stove-top skillets and pans.  But a few months ago, in the back of a drawer, I found an open package of those bags to cook turkeys in.  I have roasted dozens of fowl in this house and never used one.  I considered keeping them (even though they were at least 7 years old, maybe older) just in case I decided to try them out (even though my roasting method hasn’t failed yet) or in case Matt wanted to roast a bird (not bloody likely).  Dude, no.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Things you don’t use or “might” (but really won’t ever) use take up valuable space that could be filled by things you do use.
  • Don’t keep things that make you feel bad.  This piece of advice comes from a book I highly recommend: Throw out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke.  Many organization books advise that you keep only the things that are useful or make you feel good (drawing, I assume, from the William Morris quote “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”) but Ms. Blanke reverses it and gets a totally different reaction.  Now its not about acquiring feel-good stuff, its about purging feel-bad stuff.  She says “if it makes you feel bad, it doesn’t add anything to your life, or you have to agonize over your decision too long, let it go.”
  • Cover it up.  This is like a magic trick.  I love this.  You get everything together and organized and you feel so good about it . . . but it’s still there.  Being all busy and distracting in the corner.  It’s a vast improvement over the leaning tower of dusty boxes but the shelves bulging with stuff are still kind of an eyesore.  Curtains to the rescue!  If you are talented with cabinetry you can get or make doors and install them, making your shelves into a built-in cabinet.  If not you can buy or make a cheap curtain.  Thrift stores, Ikea, and department stores like Kmart frequently have super-cheap simple curtains that you can cut down or sew together to cover your space.  Curtain hardware is generally easy to install.
  • Consolidate.  You don’t need that one tiny bookcase and that one tiny filing cabinet.  You need one shelf that holds both books and files.
  • Do a little each day.  Be like water.  Erode the clutter.  Devote some small bit of time each day– fifteen minutes seems ideal, in my experience — to one room of the house per day. (I have a rotating cleaning schedule that focuses on a different room each day of the week, and when there’s no serious cleaning to be done in said room I spend the time picking at the clutter, instead.)  Fifteen minutes may not result in monumental change, but fifteen minutes a week over the course of a month or two will add up to noticeable results.  And the results will encourage you to continue.
  • Once you’ve streamlined, don’t yo-yo.  Practice balance and the principle of “one in, one out”.  Maintain.

— Amanda

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