10 Organizing Secrets Pros Don’t Usually Share for Free

If the calendar months had personas, January would be the drill sergeant that marches on in, demanding push-ups and tidiness.

Getting organized, after all, is one of the top New Year’s resolutions, according to the most recent survey from Nielsen. It tails behind fitness and budget goals.

But, honest question: Now that we’re more than halfway through the month, how are those New Year’s resolutions actually holding up? The reason we ask is Jan. 17 is known as “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day,” a mid-month slump when people commonly abandon the goals they set. In fact, only 8 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions actually achieve their goals, according to research from the University of Scranton that was published in the “Journal of Clinical Psychology.”

Want to buck the trend and stick to your resolution to get organized? We’ve called in professional organizers for back-up, and they’ve shared some lesser-known organizing secrets that they don’t usually shell out for free.

1. Get your kids involved by playing a “toy store game.”

Oftentimes, the holidays bring a barrage of new toys. Before your house becomes a teddy bear village or a garage for toy cars and trucks, give Ali Wenzke’s “toy store method” a try. Wenzke — a Wilmette mother of three, ages 8, 10, and 12 — blogs about moving, decluttering, and happiness at The Art of Happy Moving. “We set up a toy store in the basement, with each section divided by categories — dolls, cars, puzzles, board games, etc.,” she explains. “Then, the kids shop with sticky notes to decide what they want to keep.” The method feels more like a game and less like a chore, Wenzke says. This year, her kids donated 145 children’s books to Bernie’s Book Bank.

2. Set up “to-go” snacks in the kitchen.

Tackle two resolutions — eating healthy and getting organized — by creating a to-go snack system in the kitchen, suggests Stacey Agin Murray, a New Jersey-based professional organizer with Organized Artistry. Get two bins or boxes and label them “To Go.” One is for the fridge and the other is for the pantry or the kitchen counter, she explains. Then, fill snack bags or small containers with healthy foods in small portion sizes and load them in the bins. Doing this at the beginning of the week will help you make sure you always have a healthy snack that’s easy to find and that you can quickly grab, Agin Murray says. In the perishables bin, you could have carrot and celery sticks with individual hummus cups. In the non-perishable bin, you could include almonds, dry fruit, and crackers, she suggests.

3. Sort your mail before you come inside.

“Never bring any mail into your home that you’re not going to read,” suggests Carrie Kauffmann, an award-winning professional organizer and member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, Greater Philadelphia Chapter. Sort out the junk mail, coupons, free magazines, and flyers that you don’t plan on reading before you come inside, she suggests.

4. Design a vision for your ideal lifestyle and living environment.

Japanese organizing expert Marie Kondo’s techniques have soared in popularity over the past few years, with her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” becoming a New York Times best-seller. For the uninitiated, Kondo encourages you to assess every item you own and determine whether it “sparks joy.”

Here in Chicago, For the Love of Tidy founder Kristyn Ivey is the city’s first certified “KonMari Tidying Consult.” While it’s tempting to jump right into organizing tasks like discarding and donating items, Ivey says, it’s important to sit down and map out the vision of your ideal lifestyle and living environment.

“Skipping the vision mapping step significantly diminishes the chances you’ll maintain a clutter-free lifestyle after the initial tidying is complete,” Ivey says. That’s because clutter is often a symptom of deeper issues that may be crowding your life, she says, so it’s important to start with the tough questions. For example, here are some questions Ivey suggests asking:

  • What does my clutter say about me in this moment?
  • What do I want more of?
  • Less of?
  • What does my ideal day look like?
  • Does tidying up align with my core values?
  • How will I dedicate time in my schedule over the next six months to make my tidying event a high priority?

5. Put donation bags in your closets.

Place a plastic bag over a hanger and add one in every closet in your home, suggests Dawn Falcone, a New York City-based professional organizer known as The Chaos Liberator. Then, once you come across items that, say, don’t fit your children anymore or that you just don’t find flattering on yourself, drop them in the bag. “Once the bags are full, it’s time to make a donation drop,” Falcone says. Here’s where to donate just about everything.

6. Do a makeup cleanse.

Oftentimes, we look first to our closets when we’re ready to get organized. But, don’t overlook your cosmetics, Falcone says, because makeup has a shelf life. Face powders, foundations, lipsticks, and lip liners can last for a year, Falcone says. Eye shadows and eyeliners expire in six to 12 months. Mascara has a short lifespan of about three months. January is a good time to go through your cosmetics and toss the expired beauty products, she says. “You don’t want to be putting stuff on your face that’s loaded with bacteria,” she says.

7. Adopt a “progress not perfection” mantra.

Repeat this phrase: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. “Once you master a small area, you’ll get an itch to re-organize your entire space,” says professional organizer Rachel Brecher of JR William, a collection of acrylic home and office décor with organizational elements. An organized lifestyle is a long road, she says, and it takes time to shake bad habits.

8. Adjust your shelves.

“My favorite tip that isn’t that well known outside of the organizing industry is to adjust the height of your shelves,” says Amy Trager, a certified professional organizer based in Chicago. “Most shelving units and cabinets have adjustable shelves, but few people ever think to adjust the height once they’ve settled in.” But, Trager says, needs change over time as do the types of items we want to store in any given space. “I don’t know how many times I’ve completely altered the usability of a space just by moving the shelves,” she says.

9. Set a timer, and knock out small projects.

Don’t set aside a weekend and tell yourself you’ll organize and clean the whole house, advises Ben Soreff, of House to Home Organizing in Norwalk, Connecticut. That will just lead to a bigger mess than when you started. Instead, set a timer on your phone for 15 minutes here and there and zone in on a specific area in the house. “Focus on one shelf in the closet and if you feel like finishing, or life doesn’t get in the way, then finish the whole closet,” he says. Start with the closets, attic, or basement to free up space to put items from the house that you don’t use very often, Soreff suggests.

10. Create a drop zone.

Entryways tend to be a magnet for clutter. To prevent this, create a well-organized drop zone. Place a shoe rack by the door where shoes get kicked off so you don’t have a pile of shoes in the hallway, suggests Marty Basher, the home organization expert for Modular Closets. To build on this concept, place coat racks, umbrella stands, and trays for keys and wallets at entry points. (That way, there’s no more scrambling to find car keys in the morning.)


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Brittany Anas

Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.