How to get the house in order?
November 29, 2010 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Help with Home Organization! My boyfriend and I have been living in our three bedroom, two bath house for over a year, and have still not managed to unpack everything. We're looking for books that discuss cleaning and organization plans to help us manage our clutter and start a basic maintenance schedule.

The main areas of trouble in the house are the kitchen, the office, and our bedroom. The kitchen has a large pantry, but otherwise limited cabinet space, and we end up just stacking the pots and canned goods willy-nilly, which makes the kitchen kind of unpleasant to use. We also have a lot of clothes, books, and boxes of old papers and things that we need to go through, but often feel overwhelmed by the lack of clear places to put things. I think if we had a plan in place and knew where we were going with our clutter it would be easier for us to make progress. We're only renting the house, so we don't want to spend a lot on "closet systems" and that sort of thing, but are willing to invest some money on simple shelves or the like if it would make a difference. We could also use help developing a cleaning schedule. We're good about keeping up with the dishes and laundry, but are rarely motivated to dust, wipe down appliances, or do other semi-regular cleaning tasks. We would also be interested in simple decorating ideas.

Can anyone recommend any books that might help with these issues?
posted by odayoday to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, we both work full-time jobs and I travel regularly for work, so quick and easy tips would be welcome!
posted by odayoday at 9:30 AM on November 29, 2010

Books will only add to the clutter. What you need to do is have the two of you just suck it up and get things done. It's a lot easier said than done, but that's what it is.

Pick a room and start there. I'd start with the kitchen. Don't go for making things look pretty, go for how often things are used and how quickly you need to get something when you need it.

I have a similar kitchen. We got one of the Rubbermaid Black & Decker pantries from my wife's mom. We probably would have gotten one anyway. The real pantry has pots and pans and pyrex and stuff like that. The other pantry has the food stuff.

Make sure things are actually put away when you put them away and not just put on the shelf.

Clean the kitchen when you cook. Wipe up after yourself. It's a lot easier to clean small messes as they happen then to clean up a big mess later.

Basically repeat the process for the other rooms.

A lot of people are going to say to just get rid of things if you haven't missed it in the year you left it packed. That's really not bad advice, but I would suggest that you look through the boxes just in case something important is in there. Especially the papers you haven't gone through.

Really though, if you don't have room for your clothes than you have too many clothes.
posted by theichibun at 9:36 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hire some one to clean your place once a month.
posted by chiefthe at 9:44 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

This isn't fixable by reading the right book. The real answer is to take a real assessment of what you own, and pare it down to fit into your space.

When we got our house into shape, it took actually planning out time to organize rooms, and remembering that it was a long process. Over the course of about 6 months, we went through, one room at a time, and opened the boxes that were unpacked, figured out what should stay and what should go, and made a lot of runs to Goodwill and listed stuff on Craigslist.

Once that arduous process was complete, we figured out where we needed bookshelves, and then organized. It wasn't possible for us prior to getting rid of all the extra stuff.

If you can afford it, I definitely second the get a maid to do the deep cleaning recommendation.
posted by Zophi at 9:45 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Martha Stewart Homekeeping Handbook has lists of chores and how often they should be done. It also has instructions for just about any thing you need to clean. I used it as a reference to make my cleaning schedule (i.e. how often do I need to wash my curtains or kitchen rug).
posted by elvissa at 10:04 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding hiring someone for at least a day or two to help you upack and organize. I have a friend who is super-organized and able to look at a space and picture in her mind "if we put shelves here, we could use it to store your X" or "They've got these Rubbermaid widgets that will let me fit all your Ys in this cupboard and they'll be within easy reach." So after we'd been living in our house for over a year and still had boxes stacked everywhere, I hired her. Mr. Adams and I work from home, so we had the advantage of being nearby so she could poke her head in and "How often do you use Z?" or "Do you mind if I go through all these (a huge box of paid bills and medical receipts) and make files for everything?" (I'm totally spatially-impaired; I can't look at a closet and figure out efficient uses of the space.)

If you decide to go this route, schedule the organizer on a day when one or both of you will be at home so that they can "go over" things like the kitchen with you and find out what you prepare/cook the most, which determines what type of pots/pans and utensils you'll need closest at hand. Likewise the office - review the available space, the office supplies you use regularly, the ones you use occasionally, etc. (Our organizer was able to place six banker's boxes worth of office supplies neatly and in an ordered fashion in a five-shelf bookcase in a corner of our small home office.) Once the Pro has done the bare-bones organizational work, it's much easier to keep ahead of clutter now that there's a "place" for everything.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:05 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Absolutely anything by Peter Walsh, aka the Australian guy on the TLC show Clean Sweep. It's All Too Much is the main one, and there's a workbook that goes along with it (but you can read the first one alone). He also has a book called How to Organize Just About Everything that deals with organizing stuff as well as events and tasks.

The main idea is, as Zophi mentioned, getting rid of stuff. Watching Peter Walsh on Clean Sweep taught me that it's so much more than just cleaning and figuring out where things go. It's truly about self esteem and moral perception. As I mentioned in this comment, you buy and keep stuff because you don't trust yourself to be prepared.

As for heirlooms and collectibles, or other things that you store away for later, are you really respecting them if you don't take good care of them or don't display and enjoy them? Certainly some people enjoy or collect things in different ways, but that really made an impact on me.

Finally, there's a lot of moral judgment tied up with acquiring/getting rid of things, whether it's because you paid a certain amount of money for something or you did/didn't take care of it or it came from a particular person. It's just stuff. The internet has proven that if you don't want something, someone else does. Give yourself permission to do things with it.

I moved a bunch of times over a couple of years (mostly within the same building), and I can tell you that the constant sorting process made a huge difference for me. Making sure that everything had a clearly defined "home" is the best thing you can do. When you can put things together, you can truly see how many of the same or similar item you have, and proceed from there in terms of either deacquisition or making sure you don't buy duplicates.
posted by Madamina at 10:10 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

This was me two months ago (except that I've been in my place much longer than a year).

Does your house have an unfinished basement or somewhere in which you can store stuff? Maybe you can take the unpacked boxes and just put them there - that would be better than throwing anything out. Or, if all else fails, can you rent storage space and put the unopened boxes there for a bit until you know for sure whether you need what's in them? If you can get that out of the picture first, the rest will seem easier.

For books and things of book size, you can buy simple bookshelves from places such as IKEA (the infamous "Billy" bookshelf has served me well over the years). A lot will depend on what your taste in furniture is, though.

For smaller things, getting a few small storage trays or boxes can be a big help. (I've got trays to put change in, one for empty bottles, one for pens and pencils, etc.) The goal is to make it as easy as possible to keep organized - if it only takes you a few seconds to put something away, it makes it easier to resist the temptation to say "Nah, I'll do it later."

For dusting and whatever, the important thing is to get the tunes going first. And maybe even beer and/or pizza. That might make your cleaning tasks seem a little less like drudgery. :-)
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 10:29 AM on November 29, 2010

I highly recommend the blog Unclutterer and the book Erin Doland wrote, Unclutter Your Life in One Week. The book is excellent for different ways of organizing things, and I would reference the blog history as a secondary resource. Additionally, I have the worksheets that go with the book on pdf; Memail me if you'd like them.
posted by questionsandanchors at 10:46 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think if we had a plan in place and knew where we were going with our clutter it would be easier for us to make progress.

At the risk of sounding a little glib, I think that this sounds exactly like the sort of justification I make when procrastinating. "I can't go through boxes and sort things, I have to RESEARCH a SYSTEM."

So, my system (not the procrastinating one, the real one) is to sift through stuff in small doses, but regularly. An hour or so is a pretty easy amount of time to invest without feeling the burn of drudgery. I like to categorize into Keep, Maybe, Goodwill, and Discard.
posted by desuetude at 10:58 AM on November 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation for Unclutterer's book. I just started using its system for regular cleaning and it's been really helpful.

Another recommendation: Organizing Plain and Simple
posted by cadge at 11:49 AM on November 29, 2010

A previous "previously" from me.
posted by jgirl at 12:25 PM on November 29, 2010

Oh, god, NO NO NO do NOT put things in storage. Keep things as close as you can, as visible as you can. I've gone so far as to store my yarn on bookshelves, which is how I found out that I had a "blue problem" and probably never needed to buy yarn of that color ever again.

On the one hand, if you haven't opened a box in a year, you may not need its contents at all. But on the other hand, renting a storage unit is a classic way that many people end up wasting money -- especially if the money comes out of your account automatically and you nearly forget you even have a storage unit!

I hate to sound all USA Today-handwaving-freakoutery here, but [buzzwordy commentator rant] that's the classic American way of doing things: just get something bigger, or more space. That's why we have so many people in ginormous SUVs, or a single couple in a 7-bedroom McMansion.[/rant] You're just creating a new and more complicated version of "normal"; you forget that you can do perfectly well, or even better, with less.

It's not anything like living like a monk; it's just learning to be more conscious about how you interact with the things you have. Forgetting about what you have and what you are capable of with those things is a very slippery slope with many unfortunate repercussions.
posted by Madamina at 12:34 PM on November 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments, everyone! I really like the sound of It's All Too Much, and plan to order it. It's not that we WANT to have as much stuff as we do, it's that we're not sure what to do with it. A big purge to Goodwill would be a really good thing. Also, the cleaning schedule PDFs look very helpful!

Still other suggestions are definitely welcome!
posted by odayoday at 1:11 PM on November 29, 2010

Re: HOW to get rid of the stuff, ain't that always the way? I'm going through this right now with a close friend and former roommate planning to move to another country. This is really where the moral judgments come through (mostly from yourself, unfortunately).

--Craigslist. (The best thing to do is to designate a particular area for the stuff, both so that you don't have to let someone any further into your home than necessary and also so that when they come and pick stuff up you can also say, "Oh yeah, and the rest of this stuff is free. Have at it.")
--Freecycle. People can be flakey, but whatever.
--Put a post on LJ or a blog or something saying, "Hey! Internet garage sale!"

Yes, have a friend help. They don't have the same connection to the stuff and can refocus your perspective. I suck at sorting my own things, but I'm awesome with other people :) If nothing else, I've volunteered to get rid of his books through BookMooch (the catch: he just hands them over to me so he doesn't have to see them or deal with the cranky-making disposal anymore).

Make a schedule so you only have to do one thing at a time. This week is Sort All The Books Day; next week is Sort All The Clothes Day, and so on.

Don't bring anything into the house unless you take at least one similar item out.
posted by Madamina at 1:32 PM on November 29, 2010

As someone who has been fighting this battle for the last 5 years (since I moved from a 1400sf apartment to a 450sf cabin), I have become kind of hard-core on the issue. So keep that in mind when I say:
  1. There is no such thing as "organizational strategy."
  2. Three things that will only make it worse: Buying more shelves or storage tubs, sorting through your boxes, and renting a storage unit.
  3. The only solution is to get rid of it.
When you look at a box you haven't unpacked yet, you're looking at a box of stuff that you haven't needed in an entire year. This means that there is an extremely high probability you'll never need it.

Take those boxes straight to Goodwill. Don't even peek inside.

Put it this way: if you had enough room for all the stuff you own, you wouldn't have clutter. Clutter means that you have more stuff than room. The same goes triple for any unpacked boxes.
posted by ErikaB at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2010

Flylady. Cheesy, hokey, etc - changed my life.
posted by Salamandrous at 3:39 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a successfully-reformed packrat: the ideas in the Apartment Therapy book, particularly the idea of an Outbox, were very helpful to me.

AT also runs a Cure on their website, which is kind of like an 8-week crash course in organizing, clearing, and cleaning your home. I think you would get a lot out of buying the book, signing up for this year's spring Cure, and sharing before & after photos with that community to stay motivated.
posted by squasher at 11:19 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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