There are two types of people: those who love organizing and others who haven’t yet experienced how incredible it feels to live in a well-thought-out space. Six local home-organizing experts share their best tips on getting us all there.
Every organizing project is different, and each person’s definition of “organized” is unique. So think about how you want your space to look, feel and function. Where are the pain points you want to alleviate — the overflowing closet, the mail piled on your countertop, the boxes of keepsakes you inherited? Understand why you want to organize, and visualize the “after” picture compared to your current, cluttered “before,” suggests Miranda Wise, a certified professional organizer at Wisely Organized in Madison. “You can tidy toward that.”
Face the Feelings
The emotions behind why we hang onto our stuff aren’t just real, they’re heavy. But it’s necessary to delve into them if you want to change your unorganized ways. Ashley Hines of the Milwaukee-based Thee Tailored Life often sees clients wrestling with feelings around scarcity (“What if I need that one day?”) and sentimentality (“But Grandma gave me that.”). She flips the focus to the power in the items we choose to keep. “Top of mind for me is not just getting rid of things but keeping things that are serving you,” she says. “Is what’s taking up your real estate benefiting you?”
Be Kind to Yourself
There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment surrounding disorganization, so as you work through your spaces, keep your mental health a priority. It’s easy and common to feel overwhelmed, says Jill Annis, who has run Simply Organized in Madison for nearly 20 years. If you’re not in a good place to let go of something, or you jump into a project and realize you’re not ready to move forward, that’s OK. Find a gentler step, like putting an item in a bin in your basement and checking back in a few months; if you haven’t used or thought about it, maybe it’s time to donate it. And don’t be afraid to ask a nonjudgmental friend or an organizing professional for help.
Find Your Start
“I usually recommend starting with one drawer,” says Kasey Fragoso of Bracket and Bin Organizing in Portage. “It’s not overwhelming and you can empty it all out and not mess up your whole home.” Or consider the spot where taking action will have the most impact, suggests Wise. Remove the old stationary bike clogging up your garage and revel in the room it leaves. “Get rid of stuff that’s the easiest first,” Wise says. “People love the space, the instant gratification.”
Sort it Out
The key to any organizing project is to first remove everything from your drawer, closet or room, lay all the items out and put like with like. “Go through each category so you can decide, ‘Do I need 12 of these sweaters?’ ” says Fragoso. Keep the things that you love and will actually use; donate, recycle or toss the rest.
Just Do You
Each “keeper” item needs its own home. That could be a shelf, a container or a place out in the open. Just be sure your approach is tailored to you. Do you want to organize your pens by color — or simply use a cup for all your writing utensils? How often do you want to sort your mail? Are you the type of person who is really going to fold your underwear? Alphabetize your spices? “It’s not just about how it looks,” Hines says. “It has to feel right for you.”
Perfection is unsustainable, and embracing in-between moments is actually crucial to maintaining tidiness, says Wise. She suggests creating a drop zone near your front door so you can unload when you come home, a spot for “clirty” clothes (apparel that isn’t perfectly clean but not totally dirty) and a place for in-progress projects.
Get a System
Clutter accumulates where you don’t have a plan in place to combat it, says Melanie Juedes, a certified professional organizer at Reset Professional Organizing, which serves Madison and surrounding areas. So build solutions into your daily flow. Create a spot for your keys to go and it’ll become a habit to put them there when you come home. Set up a catch-all basket and a plan for going through it regularly. Drop a hamper where you change your clothes. And keep a grocery bag in your closet, says Sun Prairie-based Stephanie Kujak, founder of Elle Maven Homes serving the greater Madison area. “If something doesn’t fit, put it in the bag, and when the bag is full, take it to Goodwill.”
Tweak the Plan
After a big organizing project, wait a few weeks and then evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Maybe you need to add more dividers to a drawer or lower hooks so kids can hang up their own backpacks. And be willing to alter your methods as your needs change. “It’s always a process,” says Juedes. “We like to say organizing is a journey, not a destination.”
That calm feeling you get when you step into a clutter-free space — it’s not all in your head.
“Physical clutter is noise to the brain,” says certified professional organizer Melanie Juedes, “and that leads to mental clutter.”
It’s the annoyance of tripping over an entryway full of hockey sticks and soccer cleats, for sure, but it’s also the overwhelming feeling of having too much stuff around you, the stress of not knowing where to put something and the lack of time or bandwidth to figure it out.
On the flip side, an organized and functional space is soothing, and it can also be beautiful and inspiring, says Stephanie Kujak, whose company Elle Maven Homes melds design with organization. When you know where things go, tidying up demands less mental energy — and the results feel great.
“Your home should be your sanctuary,” she says. “The world is busy enough, and it means a lot to come home to a clean, calm place.”
And having an organized home should feel empowering, says professional organizer Ashley Hines. “It’s creating a space where you can thrive. Clutter is a distraction, and you can’t be your best self.”
The Gift of Less
If you’re drowning in stuff, chances are your loved ones are, too. But you can still shower them with gifts during the holidays without adding to their clutter.
Organizing professional Jill Annis suggests opting for consumable gifts, like things that can be eaten, sipped or cooked with. Other good options can be tickets, passes or memberships to a museum, trip, lesson, concert or show.
Those experiential gifts will likely create lasting memories — and not become next year’s clutter problem.
Katie Vaughn is a Madison-based arts, home and travel writer.
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