We all know that clearing the clutter improves our health (even though science says messy people are smarter) not to mention our productivity, but with the busy lifestyles we lead, who has the time? According to organizational expert Carly Waters, you need to adopt the “do it as you go” approach (that’s how we keep our home tidy every day) and “edit, edit, edit.” If you think this sounds like a chore, Waters says you have to change your psychology around it and instead “think of organizing as an active sport.” She adds, “Organizing is not the same thing as cleaning; it’s about editing your inventory down to a minimal list of items that you love and use on a daily basis.”
Before you embark on your organizational spree, we tapped Waters for a comprehensive step-by-step approach, along with her favorite storage solutions, for every room of the house. If you’re starting from scratch (and feeling a little overwhelmed at how much there is to clear), we recommend tackling one room at a time. Good luck!
MYDOMAINE: How does an organized home improve people’s lives?
CARLY WATERS: There are four main ways in which an organized space can enhance your life:
Efficiency: Creating order leads to efficiency, and efficiency leads to saving time. Rather than spending 20 minutes looking for your wallet, keys, pens, etc., you can spend that time with your family, pets, or your favorite book. How? Because I create a system where everything in your home has a specific place. Once you have order and efficiency, you are able to relax and enjoy the things that really matter.
Clarity and Control: Do you ever feel like you’re juggling 30 things in your brain? Well, part of that comes from your physical surroundings. If you can’t remember where you put an old clothing receipt or what food you have in the pantry, your brain starts to get overwhelmed. Imagine a system where all food is located in glass jars and all your receipts are sorted in labeled files. Bliss.
Freedom: You will no longer feel weighed down by your stuff. You want to move to San Francisco? No problem—you know exactly what you have and how to easily transport that to a new home.
Tranquility: At the most basic level, organization equals calm. When you walk into your home after a long day and everything is put away in a systematic way, you immediately can relax and decompress.
MD: Our kitchen benches are breeding grounds for piles of paper and clutter. How can we prevent this buildup?
CW: You have to create a system that allows people to immediately distribute what comes into the home—easily. Let’s take the mail as an example. Most people just stack their mail on the table because they want to delay having to “deal with it.” The way to combat that? Immediately attack the mail opening, discarding trash and then distributing the mail to its proper home.
We all get busy and we can’t ignore that. By distributing paperwork immediately, you are giving yourself the freedom to “deal with it” when you’re ready. The best tool I’ve found for families is this Nate Berkus for Target tabletop filling system with the following “active” files labeled: In Progress, To Do, To File, To Reference, To Shred.
MD: Our bathroom shelves/cupboards are always filling up with bottles of product, old soap, and beauty supplies. How can we keep them neat and tidy?
CW: Edit, edit, edit. In order to really keep things neat and tidy, you must get rid of anything you don’t use. Think of organizing as an active sport. Organizing is not the same thing as cleaning; it’s about editing your inventory down to a minimal list of items that you love and use on a daily basis. It’s super easy to keep things neat and tidy when you have less stuff.
It takes time, but I train my clients to ask themselves, Do I need that? Do I love that? Makeup is a great example. Most people have tons of free lipsticks that they acquired when buying another makeup product. Most people never wear these colors. These unused products shouldn’t be competing for valuable real estate in your makeup drawer.
MD: The Marie Kondo style of closet organization has been widely adopted. Do you agree with the Konmari method? What is your personal approach to keeping the wardrobe neat and tidy?
CW: Yes, I whole heartily agree with her method, and I’m ecstatic that it’s become mainstream. The Konmari method is counter to the American way of thinking, yet it really goes to what organization is about: reducing rather than producing. Americans often buy in excess because A) they can’t see half of what they have and, accordingly, B) don’t know what they have because they have so much.
If someone has so many shirts stuffed in a drawer, they will almost always wear the same five to six shirts because they don’t want to even bother digging through the rest. My approach? Hang up all clothes, even workout clothes (if the closet allows for it). This lets them see their entire wardrobe, and it’s super easy to maintain. Hanging clothes also removes the need for an iron since your clothes are no longer squished into a tiny drawer. It’s a win-win.
My favorite closet systems are the Elfa units from the Container Store. I love them because they are transferable to any closet when a person moves, and they fit within most people’s budgets. My favorite component? The pull-out jewelry drawers. I love a valet bar in the closet too. If the space provides for it, wood hangers are my favorite. I love a closet to feel like you are shopping at a boutique.
MD: What are your favorite closet storage items?
CW: For sweaters or closets that lack hanging space, my go-to item is an acrylic shelf divider. A linen drop-front shoebox is a sophisticated storage space that protects them from dust but still allows easy access. I also love drawer bins from IKEA. These literally work in every single project. I don’t know how or why, but they always fit my spaces. I use these for socks, underwear, bras, and anything else that cannot be hung.
MD: The kid’s room seems to be the worst place in the house for accumulating things. How do we keep our children’s spaces free of mess and stylish?
CW: The kids’ rooms require a trifecta attack: Skill number one is creating a barrier. Skill number two is editing. Skill number three is creating a kid-proof system.
1. You must actively prevent new “stuff” from coming in. Kids come home from school with so much stuff, from goody bags to presents from grandparents. Skill number one is combating the influx of all of this stuff.
2. Despite your best effort with number one, stuff often sneaks into kids’ rooms. What that means is that the parents must do a weekly sweep and pull out any items that kids don’t love or use often. If you have to ask yourself when they last played with a toy, it’s time to send that toy to a new home. I tend to do these sweeps when my child is at school, but as he gets older, I will begin to involve him more in the process (he’s only 3 1/2).
3. I mirror children’s rooms after a Montessori classroom. Everything is accessible to the child, and everything has a home. Toys are kept to a minimum, but all of the toys are high quality and can withstand constant use. My 3 1/2–year-old is able to pull out his puzzles from the shelf but then can easily put them away when he’s done. This is the goal: to make the kids self-sufficient and able to keep up with the system.
MD: The entryway seems to be another trap for clutter. How do we keep this place clear?
CW: Most of us here in California do not have a mudroom or an entry closet. Despite that, all of my clients have clutter-free entryways. The key is having a home for everything coming in and everything you need going out. But the most important aspect of any organization system is that the people living in the house comply. A system is only as good as the people who follow it.
The entryway is the first place you enter and the last place you exit. That means you need homes for hats, jackets, leashes, keys, shoes, and sunglasses (otherwise, these items will find their way to other areas of the home). Install hooks for jackets, leashes, and hats. Add a key bowl nearby and a shoe basket or bench for easy shoe storage.
MD: The junk drawer is everyone’s worst nightmare. How can we prevent it from happening?
CW: Organizers have differing opinions on junk drawers. My personal belief is that they should not exist and do not need to exist. There is no need for a junk drawer when you don’t have any junk. Again, the first step is editing. Get rid of everything you don’t need or love. Once you do that, the second step is to sort the items into categories. Every item that finds its way to the junk drawer—the keys, earphones, pens, scissors, glue, staples, coupons—should have a specific home to live so people know where to put it. If you have the room, my favorite tool to organize all the household junk is in the Container Store shoe box.
MD: How do you make sure the laundry room doesn’t pile up with clothes and get out of control, especially when you have a large family?
CW: The best way to combat laundry room buildup is to do one load of laundry every day. I read this tip ages ago and having personally followed this philosophy, I can tell you that it works. We are only a family of three, yet we create enough laundry for daily loads. The key is to remember that when you procrastinate a household chore, the buildup becomes out of control, and chaos ensues. The goal is to attack the chore when it’s less daunting. Once you let it get out of control, it becomes too overwhelming to deal with.
MD: I’ve known some people to use the guest/spare room for storing things but that can quickly turn it from a sweet place for your friends and family to stay into a chaotic junk room. How do you prevent this from happening?
CW: The first step is to decide the purpose of each room. Just as the foyer acts as the command center of the home, a guest room should act as a home away from home for your guest. No one wants to stay in a room overwhelmed with clutter. So step one: EDIT. Most of the items spilling over into the guest room are likely items that need to be donated.
For the remaining items, ask yourself: What purpose do these items serve? For example, if the item is office related, then it should live in the office (or be taken to an office outside of the home). The key is finding each item its proper home. For those more sentimental items (especially ones you’ve inherited) you must ask yourself: Do I love this? Can I use this? If so, put it to use. Don’t allow things to be put away that you love. If you are feeling sentimental but don’t have room for the item, try taking a photo of it and emailing it to yourself.
MD: What are your staple must-haves every homemaker needs to keep their house organized, even when you’re busy?
CW: I have a few apps that I swear by:
iCal: I cannot imagine not having all my devices all connected to one calendar.TripDoc: I constantly learn about cool new restaurants or shops. This app provides me a way to keep them all in one place.
Evernote: Think electronic three-ring binder.
Google Docs: I do not keep any documents locally on my desktop. I save everything to Google Docs and organize it like a paper file.
BloomThat: As someone who dislikes gifting people with things, BloomThat is my answer. I often use this app to send thank-you flowers to former clients.
MD: After all the hard work of decluttering and organizing, how do we keep it that way? Do you have any hacks/tricks?
CW: Roughly once a year, I do a tune-up with my clients. We all get busy, and even the most organized of us sometimes get overwhelmed. The key is to stop the problem as it starts. For example, work on bringing less stuff into the home. Work on training yourself to only buy the necessities and items you love. Remember: Items must either serve a utilitarian purpose or bring you joy. If they do neither, then you should donate them.
The same is true for purchases: Do you love it? Does it serve a utilitarian purpose? If neither is true, don’t buy it. Retraining our brains is the most challenging aspect of organization. We are all flooded with ads that push us to purchase. Even I, as a professional in the field of minimizing, fall into the urge to purchase. The key is to remind yourself that while it feels good to buy, it will only cause you stress (and cost you money) down the line.
Clear the Clutter: Organization Boosts Health and Vitality. HuffPost. December 6, 2017.
Vohs KD, Redden JP, Rahinel R. Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(9):1860-7. doi:10.1177/0956797613480186