Culls clutter: Make place for everything, put everything in place

The fall season brings changes as the pace of life picks up after a slow summer. For many homeowners, autumn also means going back on overload, juggling jobs, kids, social activities, family obligations and pre-winter repairs around the house. In the crush to get it all done, it’s easy to let clutter take over.

Experts who have made careers out of organizing other people’s stuff say fall is a good time to clear out that garage, basement or extra bedroom that Junior just vacated. But most people put off those big projects until they’re forced to face them in a life-altering moment: a divorce, a job transfer, the death of a parent whose clutter is now inherited. Yet tackling clutter problems in key areas pays off with immediate stress reduction.

“It’s particularly important in bedroom closets and baths, the two places where you start your day,” said Laura Ray, owner of the Marietta-based Organize Atlanta and president of the National Association of Professional Organizers’ Atlanta Chapter. “If you have a home for everything, it reduces a lot of strain and stress. In the bath, I like separate drawers or trays for each category: dental, makeup, soaps, medicines, toiletries. A big bin for everything doesn’t work; it’s more helpful to see exactly what you have in the right spot.”

If the prospect of reorganizing seems daunting, Ray suggests whittling it down to one question: What is the most aggravating situation you are trying to solve? Always misplacing your keys? Kids’ backpacks going astray? Losing your laptop?

“Have a home for everything and a simple system,” suggests Ray. “When I walk in the door, I put my backpack here. A dish by the door is where I put my keys. If you move something, put it back before you go to bed, so in the morning it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.”

Organizer Renee Kutner, owner of Peace By Piece Organizing in Toco Hills, says a lot of clutter problems are solved in the entry area most family members use. Whether it’s a mud room, foyer or a corner of the kitchen, having a specific space for gear keeps it contained.

“Create a designated space for each person in the family that they are responsible for,” she said. “Then label where everything should go. Make it accessible: Remove a cabinet door, leave a lid off the box, set up a container for shoes. If you don’t have a lot of space, go vertical: Hang organizers off a door, mount shelves to the walls, add stackable containers.”

Kitchens are magnets for messes because they’re spaces used by everyone in the family. “The magic bullet here,” said Kutner, “is to organize the kitchen into zones with a food-prep area, a cooking area, a cleaning and dishwashing area. That way you won’t have the silverware next to the stove and the spatulas next to the sink. The other problem is that everything gets thrown into drawers here. Buy some inexpensive dividers and give everything a slot.”

And even in this digital age, organizers say the top problem they confront when called on to streamline a residential or commercial space is paper.

“Mail is still coming in at crazy rates, even if it’s junk mail, and if people don’t look at it, it builds up,” said Kutner. “A lot of people may pay their bills online, but they still keep paper statements. If you have kids, you have tons of paper coming in their backpacks.”

Kutner gets her clients’ paper under control by setting up stacking trays labeled with the action each sheet requires. “And there needs to be four to six trays for each action, not just one, big to-do box,” she said.

Ray estimates that about 60 percent of the jobs she tackles involve cleaning up paper. “I create file systems to get it under control and keep track of taxes and other important financial papers,” she said. “Some clients are challenged by the volume of paper that comes in the door, and they aren’t sure how long to keep it or where to keep it. The IRS website has a good list that tells you what you need to keep and for how long.”

If the prospect of sorting through piles of paper or organizing that crammed garage is overwhelming, it may be the time to call in an expert.

“A professional brings an objective eye,” said Kutner. “We’ve seen different houses and lifestyles, and we know what’s going to work and can suggest products you may not have considered before. There’s not one way to organize, but sometimes it’s hard to figure that out on your own. A professional can be a listening ear who can help you get it done. I’m not a trained therapist, but this work is definitely therapeutic for a lot of people.”

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