Organizing for Clutter Addicts

Zen paperworkI’m a big believer in the aesthetic appeal of a bit of clutter. Countertops and coffee tables look naked without a few books or plants; I’m only productive at my desk if I have little piles of notes and research for the task at hand, even if it’s just writing a grocery list. Sometimes, though, it gets out of hand. “A few” books turns into a stack as precarious as a mid-game Jenga tower. The desktop disappears entirely–Was it wood? Metal? I don’t recall.

However, the person with whom I live–my fiancee–basically has a black belt in organizing. Everything has a place, and that place is not on our tables our countertops. She helps keep my clutter habits in check, and she’s taught me a few things.

Stop procrastinating
Put it on your schedule: “Spend afternoon organizing.” Don’t let anything else bump the appointment. Reward yourself with a fun outing afterward.

Start small
You aren’t going to become a neat-freak overnight. Figure out a few areas of the apartment to tackle first. Start with something really easy, like a small bookshelf or anything else you can whip into shape easily. The sense of accomplishment from that first completion will help encourage you to keep going.

Build de-cluttering into your daily routine
Practice makes perfect, right? And making a given task a part of the everyday flow of life will make you better and more efficient at it, as well as ensuring that it’s never too daunting. Clearing a couple the coffee table every day before bed is easy, much more so than letting the mail and random detritus pile up, so that it becomes a terrifying, hours-long chore to sort through it all, and … Hey, let’s watch Netflix instead and worry about this tomorrow.

If you brush your teeth every day, you’re capable of spending the same amount of time de-cluttering every day. Make it a habit.

Figure out your own best format
I have way too many papers. Clippings from magazines. Postcards from friends. Research for writing projects. Reminders to myself to run various errands. I’m more at ease when I can see what I need and it’s not completely hidden away in a filing cabinet. This used to mean that I just had everything sprawled in different piles. But I finally figured out that there are certain things I don’t mind having stored away–copies of paid bills, for example–and other things, like research documents for writing projects, are fine to have filed away as long as I can see the files in a single sweeping glance from my desk. So those documents still get filed, but they’re in file-holders on top of my desk. Other things, like receipts, go into small plastic baskets, and then get filed away on a roughly weekly basis.

This scheme sounds neurotic and complicated, I realize–and it probably is–but it works for me. Everything now has a place–a place is specifically not in a pile on the coffee table–and I try to make sure I put it there quickly, rather than in some intermediate holding spot.

If it belongs in the recycling, put it there right away
Junk mail doesn’t need to live on the kitchen counter for three weeks. It goes straight from the mailbox to the recycle bin. Done. Same goes for pocket scraps (such as train tickets or unneeded receipts): walk in the door and toss it.

Work together with your roommate and hold each other accountable
If our collective clutter starts to pile up, my fiancee and I will sometimes dedicate an hour on a Saturday to just cranking up the radio and dealing with the piles. It’s easier if you’re working on the task with someone else.

Shoving things aside doesn’t actually fix the problem
When the doorbell rings before you’re actually ready for your dinner guests, it’s easy and often necessary to quickly shove everything into a back closet. (Of course, if you’ve been de-cluttering as a matter of everyday habit, there shouldn’t be too much to do …) But don’t just leave it there for weeks, out of sight, out of mind, until it gets buried by more stuff the next time you have company. Again, the accumulation of clutter is what makes organizing so daunting. So, sure, hide it in the back room. But then, as soon as you can, deal with it. Sort it, file it, organize it.

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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