When I sit at my desk, I'm constantly confronted by chaos: Post-its in every color, candy wrappers, multiple headphones, books and mugs of tea.
I can never seem to get a handle on my clutter. How can I clean up my space — and keep it that way?
That's a question that Star Hansen thinks a lot about. She's a professional organizer who teaches classes on home organizing and has been featured in over 30 TV shows and online series on the subject.
She believes that keeping your home neat and tidy is a continual process. "Organizing is not a one-and-done task to complete," she says. You have to take the time to "create systems that work for you."
Hansen shares more about her decluttering philosophy — along with useful strategies to keep our messes at bay.
1. Understand your clutter
Hansen says everyone's clutter tells a personal story. "What becomes clutter and where your clutter accumulates can say a lot about what's going on with you."
If you have unwanted piles of stuff accumulating around your house, ask yourself: "What's making this hard to get rid of?" she says. "A lot of times, the trip-up is from holding on to the past or wanting a different reality than the one we're living in."
That blazer that hasn't fit for years? Maybe it reveals a yearning for your former profession. Those 20 pairs of chopsticks in your kitchen drawer? Maybe they're speaking to your guilt around waste and sustainability.
When you understand the reasons behind your clutter, says Hansen, it's a lot easier to know what to keep and what to get rid of.
2. Start small
When it comes to organizing, don't bite off more than you can chew, says Hansen. If you start off with too big a goal, you might get discouraged if the job takes too long.
So don't try to revamp your entire garage in one afternoon. Instead, start with something less challenging, like your purse or one single bathroom drawer. Save more complicated items, like tax paperwork, or sentimental items, like family photos and memorabilia, for last. These kinds of organizational projects often take the most time and emotional energy, says Hansen, so you'll want to build up your decluttering muscle first.
You can also work within short time constraints. Say you only have an hour to declutter your home this week. Hansen says to divide that time into 20-minute intervals. For the first 20 minutes, look for trash to throw away. The next 20 minutes, identify anything you want to give away or donate. Spend the last 20 minutes putting items back where they belong.
Setting realistic goals and breaking tasks up in to manageable portions can help keep you invested in the process, says Hansen. "What we're looking for is small wins."
3. Take the emotion out of it
Once you've chosen an area to declutter, take inventory of everything you have in that space, says Hansen. If you're tackling your kitchen, for example, take every item out of the drawers and cabinets and sort them into organized piles on your kitchen countertop and dining room table.
Then comes the hard part: figuring out what to get rid of. At this stage, Hansen suggests looking at your items with neutral eyes. Go through your things "as though you're helping a friend and none of your stuff means anything to you," she says.
That attitude can help you let go of things you don't need but feel sentimental about, like the dented frying pan you've had since college, or extra items you keep around just in case, like the five wooden spoons in your utensil drawer.
4. Ditch the fancy storage boxes
Decluttering doesn't have to come with a hefty price tag, says Hansen. Most of the time, the containers you need to organize your stuff are already in your clutter somewhere – so shop your own closet first, she says.
Instead of buying new drawer organizers, use old shoeboxes, gift boxes or even Tupperware. Be creative, says Hansen — that's one of the joys of decluttering.
Hansen likes using old iPhone boxes, for example, to store small items. They're sturdy enough to last a long time and can be used for anything from jewelry to office supplies.
5. Make it easy to stay organized
It's easy to be organized the day after decluttering, when tidiness is still top of mind. But what happens when you come home from a trip and are too tired to unpack your luggage? Or when you get the flu and are too sick to clean up?
The key to staying organized is to create practices that can be easily maintained, says Hansen. "Make a system that works for you even when you've got to work, when you've got a cold."
For example, label storage containers on all four sides so they're easier to spot. Make sure your most used items are always the easiest to reach.
Most importantly, she says, celebrate your progress as you go. "Brag to your friend, show your spouse, allow yourself to really enjoy the fact that you've done something," she says. "It's not a small thing to get a handle on our clutter."
More great organizing tips from Life Kit
- Organize your kitchen cabinets. If you spend more time looking at #kitchengoals on Instagram than you do in your own kitchen, it might be time to roll up your sleeves and make friends with your cabinets. Deb Perelman of the blog Smitten Kitchen shares her tips for kitchen organization, especially in small spaces.
- Say goodbye to older garments. It can feel good to whittle down your closet. Consider one of these routes to finding a new home for your old clothes: organize a clothing swap with friends or sell your unneeded items on resale sites like ThredUp, Poshmark, Depop or The Real Real. Here's more advice on cultivating a sustainable closet and mindfully parting with what you no longer need.
- Clean up your camera roll. Feeling overwhelmed by thousands of photos? Here's how to organize your deluge of images — from tagging them to backing them up. We've got tips from tech experts.
The audio portion of this episode was edited by Clare Marie Schneider. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib with art direction by Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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