You Asked, I Answered: How Can I Stay Organized?

posted by Andrea | 10/23/2013

how can i stay organize

Without a doubt, the most common organizational question I receive (quite regularly) from readers, friends, and family is…

How can I stay organized?

One of the more recent emails I received on this topic stated many examples of how she had organized different areas of her home only to find those spaces would be disorganized again in just a few days. Her email ended by asking:

How can we organize our space so we can actually do something ONCE and not over and over again?

I’m sure many of us (myself included) have been frustrated with similar situations at some point in our lives — especially those of us with multiple other people living in our homes who might not be as neat and tidy as we are :)

Below is the email I sent back to her — omitting some information for privacy reasons.

Hey Jane (fake name),

Thanks so much for your email and for your kind words about my blog. So glad you’re a long-time reader.

Regarding your question… unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer!

In a way, the answer is that you DO have to do it over and over again — because constant and continual maintenance is the #1 key to an organized home and life.

I’m a pretty strong advocate for regular maintenance and being willing to switch up or change a system if the current one isn’t working well. I rarely expect to do something once and then never again (except hopefully renovating our kitchen!)

Yes, maybe you’ll only need to do the full-blown organizing project once, but then every day, every week, and every month, there will almost always be something you need to do to keep things in order to prevent you from needing another full-blown organizing project again.

These little things are what most disorganized people neglect to do — and that’s why I almost ALWAYS need to return to a client’s home over and over again — just because they don’t do the little things that take less than a minute to do.

For example, if you set up a system for your school papers, newspapers, and coupons, you will still need to maintain that system on a regular basis. You’ll need to weed through and recycle school papers and newspapers on a weekly basis. You’ll need to go through your expired coupons monthly and clean out your coupon organizer. You’ll need to file your coupons on a weekly basis so you can actually find them, etc. etc. If you don’t, your paper clutter will quickly spiral out of control once again.

Organization is unfortunately NOT a “once and done” type of thing — and that’s the main reason it’s so frustrating for people. There is also nothing I can personally do to help people with this. I can TELL others what to do (or what I would do) until I’m blue in the face, but it’s up to them to actually buckle down and do it — because we rarely ever WANT to do these things!

I like to tell people that organization is like eating and personal hygiene. You wouldn’t expect to eat a big huge meal once and then not be hungry again for another year. And you certainly wouldn’t expect to take a shower or brush your teeth once and then not again for 6 months. You do these things daily — even multiple times each day.

The same goes for organizing. I pick up toys, hang up clothes, put away papers, throw out trash, wash dishes, manage my emails, etc. on a DAILY basis because otherwise they would get out of control after only a few days. I don’t necessarily love doing these things every day, but I know that doing them daily is so much easier, less overwhelming, and less time-consuming than letting them pile up for weeks at a time.

Daily and weekly maintenance makes my life so much easier, so much simpler, and so much more organized — and because of that, I’m just in the habit of always “doing it now” as much as I possibly can.

I realize this might not be the quick-fix answer you were hoping for (sorry!) but it’s really the best and most honest answer I can give you.

And if you’re wondering what my tips for daily maintenance might be — you can read this post.

Thanks again for your question and happy organizing!

Andrea

So what do you think?

Do you agree with my answers? Do you have anything else to add? 

I know first hand how discouraging it can be to complete a huge organizing project and then feel like everything is messed up the very next day (or the next hour). Sometimes it’s enough to make even me feel like giving up!

However, I also know that regular maintenance really isn’t all that bad if you can just get in the habit of doing it… similar to how we are all in the habit of eating, showering, and brushing our teeth.

If you’re in the same boat with Jane, don’t expect to magically change your habits (and your family’s habits) over night. But over time and with continual effort, you might just be surprised how quickly a few daily maintenance rituals will help to declutter your home and life!

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25 comments

  1. Jennifer

    10/23/2013

    I really struggle with this, too – it’s probably made worse because I enjoy a big once-for-all organising project, but rarely enjoy the daily maintenence of dealing with receipts, odd socks, and stacks of magazines and in-progress projects.

    What I do in practice (and it may not be the absolute best way) is to designate a couple of spots as ‘holding places’ for items that need dealing with – an inbox of sorts. We have one basket on the table where I stash the clutter that builds up there, so I can deal with it once every couple of days instead of constantly throughout the day, and in the meantime it’s out of the way. Having a single place for clutter also means that, when small things left lying out go missing, I know the first place to look is that basket because that’s where I would automatically shove anything lying around.

    I actually don’t think this is the absolute best practice, because small tasks like entering receipts are often best done often and as they arise to avoid clutter building up. And things are best put where they belong instead of kept in other holding places temporarily. In general, if something is a quick task, it saves time to do it immediatley rather than file it away to do later.

    HOWEVER, in real life, clutter doesn’t always arise when I have time to deal with it: my husband empties his pockets onto the table when he gets home, while I’m cooking, and I only find the crumpled receipts when I come in with hot dishes of food to set down. So having an interim place, in the form of a decorative basket, for some of the daily clutter helps keep us from living in filth until I am able to deal with it!

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  2. Stephanie

    10/23/2013

    I recently found flylady.net. It is one of the most disorganized websites I have ever seen. The program also does a lot of advertising for their products they sell.
    But she stresses small steps to get out of disorganization and build routines to stay organized. Something small such as keeping your sink clean even if there are a pile of dishes on the counter. Start small. She is a big advocate of setting a timer for 15 minutes. It truly is amazing how much one can get done in 15 minutes, even 7 minutes!
    But it is also cheesy and gets slightly annoying too. Especially when she makes us ythe victim somehow. No, like Andrea said we just have to buckle down and do it.
    I think the reason her program works for a lot of people is the daily reminders on what needs to be done. I don’t follow it very much anymore. But use the timer and routines quite a bit. And know that any new organization system will take personal discipline to maintain. It really is no different than budgeting or dieting. It takes self discipline.

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    Angela Reply:

    You nailed it-I never thought about why I found flylady so overwhelming except that the frequent emails overwhelmed me, but yes, her site is so chaotic to me. Like you though I find her techniques so doable! I keep my sink shining and try to keep hot spots (flat surfaces) clear or covered with decor so they don’ become hot spots. It was worth it to me to muddle through her site and read emails for a while a decade ago because the info stuck. I always come back to it when things slide. Maybe her book is better organized.

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  3. Organize 365

    10/23/2013

    My friend and I had this EXACT conversation on the phone yesterday! It’s like you had my phone bugged. :)

    Maintenance is the key.

    :)
    Lisa

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  4. Carolyn

    10/23/2013

    As a professional organizer and a mom of two kids with too many toys, I find that the more we have in life the more we have to take care of. The less you have, the easier it is to stay organized. Now, I need to go convince my kids to let go and my family members not to buy so much. Good luck all!

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  5. alana taylor

    10/23/2013

    I definitely agree, but I don’t always stay on top of things as much as I’d like. So sometimes, things get out of hand again. But, yes, it is important to do the maintenance necessary to keep a space organized. Which means that a maintenance plan after the space has been organized is crucial to its success.

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  6. Stel

    10/23/2013

    My mom used to say “See something and DO something!”…I can still hear her :-) trying to teach my boys the same, but should work a bit harder on setting the example, eh ;-)

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  7. Jen

    10/23/2013

    I think this is FABULOUS! I, like you, am super organized and efficient. My house is clean, my drawers are neat, I know where everything is, I don’t have piles or CRAP laying around. I don’t save anything. I’m not overly sentimental. And you would NOT believe (or maybe you would!) the heat I take for that. Somehow because I make the effort to MAINTAIN a clean and organized house, I’m less of a mom, less of a wife, and more of an anal retentive joy killer! HAHA

    I get so weary of all those people (and blog posts!) who admonish me to live in a mess or I’m not a “good mom”! Why does it have to be an either/or? I don’t assume that the people who DO choose to live in a mess AREN’T good moms or aren’t spending time with their kids or aren’t happy people. Why don’t I get the same consideration??? I think my kids and husband rather enjoy a neat and clean house where they can find what they’re looking for because it’s where it belongs! :-)

    All that to say—–organizing isn’t a “once and one” thing. It’s a habit, a lifestyle. Your house or closet or car or drawer didn’t get messy in one day and one day’s worth of cleaning/organizing won’t keep it that way forever either! Organize is a verb-an action/ activity, meaning that it requires MOVEMENT and regular maintenance.

    Off my soapbox now…………..:-)

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  8. kate

    10/23/2013

    in line with what you are saying above- I’ve built in a habit, after much cognitive effort to remind myself, if i’m going someplace in the house, take something with me. It’s the habit of immediate action.
    For example- if i’m going to the basement to switch out the laundry I will take something that needs to go down there but I haven’t done.
    Or if I’m going to the bedroom to get a pair of shoes- I’ll take the blanket the dog dragged out.
    If i take something out for cooking i put it back as soon as I’m done using it so I don’t have a counter full of stuff to put away, in addition to all the dirty dishes I just made. Or- and i make this a big ALWAYS whenever possible rule- If i’m walking by and see crumpled papers or trash of some sort- i always pick it up and throw it away RIGHT when i see it.
    My house is VERY tiny but this kind of immediate action on things has made it MUCH easier for the small rooms and surfaces to stay mostly tidy. In a small house with such little storage this action really keeps things from getting piled up.

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  9. Kelly @ old blue silo

    10/23/2013

    Love your response, Andrea! Cleaning and organizing is a habit that you must develop. I hate it when people say “I don’t have time to clean” but you know they watch several hours of TV every night and they’re the ones blowing up Facebook everyday.

    I’m a farmer and the last several weeks we have been soooo busy in the field. We finally finished Sunday and it was SOOOO wonderful to walk into a clean organized home after the stress of harvest. My friend who stopped by asked how I kept it so clean while being so busy and I had to explain how we just clean as we go and have developed good habits! It’s no different than taking a shower every day. :)

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    Summer Reply:

    Kelly – I COMPLETELY agree! I love how people complain about not having time for anything, but can list every show they WATCH nightly ON Facebook!!! Whew, offff my soapbox, and that felt great! :)

    I believe EVERYONE has time for what they choose it for! Same with their money, they will spend their time and money where their hearts are. We all have the same options presented to us daily, well not exactly, but you know what I mean. Choose wisely, because you reap what you sow.

    Andrea is bang on with “Do it now.” My youngest practices this and I do as well. (The other five do, but not always!) If something needs to be done, DO IT! Don’t think you will have time later or someone else will do it. Especially if you are the Mommy, everyyyyyone watches what Mommy does. If Mommy cleans and insist on clean and organized, sure they do it and they LOVE being able to find their favorite sweater or book or toy! Of course they don’t LIKE cleaning, who does?! But it’s part of life, like brushing teeth, getting dressed, and flushing the toilet. It’s life, you create what flows around you! Go with Nike’s old theme… “DO IT NOW!”

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  10. Leanne

    10/23/2013

    I think organization comes more naturally for some people… I’ve had to step mine up since I started homeschooling this year :-)
    I think we give priority to the things we think are important! I HAVE to stay organized or I get super grumpy.
    Even just writing a simple to do list can make you instantly more organized and help you take on bigger projects! I think your blog does a great job of helping others do that!

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  11. Amy O

    10/23/2013

    This used to frustrate me a lot too. But then I felt a lot better when I accepted that organizing, just like cleaning, is not something that STAYS done. You have to work on it daily – like cooking or cleaning or daily hygiene.

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  12. Kelly S.

    10/23/2013

    I truly believe many, many people who struggle to stay organized, have a hard time “editing” what comes in to their homes. One of your posts Andrea, included “one in one out” and a few other tips to scale down. I think simplifying is one of the most important steps to staying organized. Shopping, whether it be grocery or retail therapy, is an easy trap to step in when it comes to bringing unnecessary items in to your home. Packaging alone can be a hassle to deal with. I have found that keeping holidays simple, paring down my wardrobe along with my family’s wardrobe and even simplifying my beloved home decor has helped me tremendously.
    The craziest thing…not only does this help me stay organized but it saves time AND money.

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  13. Heather

    10/23/2013

    Definitely agree with setting routines. For as long as I’ve lived in a house other than my parents, I have had a real problem cluttering up the bar in the kitchen with mail. Something about the mail just frustrates & overwhelms me, making me want to put it off until it’s totally out of control & I have no choice but to face it. One day a light bulb went off in my brain, and I started sorting the mail in the car when I get home. It’s still super annoying, but it’s over when I get out of the car. I dump the recycling stack into the bin, walk right past the shredder in the laundry area, and through to the kitchen for the bills/magazines. Since I know my new pile is important or fun stuff that I want or need to deal with, it goes away a lot quicker.

    Anyway, I feel like I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but routines really do work, and setting up my “car mail” routine has then led to Andrea’s “do it now” mentality, and my piles are more manageable & more often gone!

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  14. Holly

    10/23/2013

    I totally agree with everyone’s comments- but would also like to add that some people seem to fail at keeping things organized because their systems are too complex. So many times in my own home I feel like I’ve figured out the perfect system only to realize that the little people in my house, or my husband for that matter, can’t follow along with the system I’ve implemented. For example. I would LOVE to organize my children’s toy room with bright beautiful buckets & containers like I see on so many websites & on pinterest. But my children are at the age where clear bins work better because they can find things easier. I’ve tried all sorts of labels & tags but it just doesn’t work. So I went with a simpler plan. Sometimes it drives me crazy because it’s not quite as pretty as I’d like, or its not “magazine” quality. And I CERTAINLY wouldn’t pin it on Pinterest (lol) but its simple enough that I can send my 2 1/2 year old and my 4 year old in with very little supervision and they can clean things up. So in addition to routines, I find keeping things simple really helps me stay organized.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Yes Holly — you are SOOOOOO right.

    It’s interesting because many times when I organize in people’s homes, I find that they have a super elaborate system that they’re trying to maintain and spend so much time trying to make their system LOOK nice that they never have time to actually organize. So obviously, the end results never look great because although they have a lovely system in place, they have stuff everywhere.

    Keep it simple — always. Life will be so much easier (maybe not as pretty) but SO much easier!

    Thanks for making this very valid point!

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    Emily Reply:

    Holly I totally agree with you! Finding something simple for the whole family is key. We do the same thing here. Definitely not Pinterest worthy but it works for us! :)

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    Becky Reply:

    Love this! Honestly? I wish more people would post the not so pretty
    Organization ideas that work. Because that’s real life. Sometimes the pretty stuff is just that. Pretty, but nonfunctional. :-)l

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  15. Melissa

    10/23/2013

    Hi Andrea- As always, I LOVE this post. I meant to reply to your facebook comment that asked readers if there were any topics they’d like to see, and reading this post reminded me of a suggestion I had. I would love to see any type of list that you have for maintenance tasks, like what you tend to daily/weekly/monthly/semi-annually/annually. Do you have anything like this?

    Also, CONGRATS on your baby boy!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Melissa!
    I’m not sure if this is the type of post you’re looking for, but here’s a post about my “not so routine” cleaning routine. It goes into detail about how often I do regular / normal cleaning tasks around our house.

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  16. Jill

    10/23/2013

    Thank you for this post. I get frustrated because I let things pile up rather than put it right away and the clutter begins. I also like simple but when you let things get out of hand nothing is simple anymore. Anyway I appreciate you doing this post.

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  17. Megan

    10/23/2013

    When I hear “organized once and for all” to me that means you have done the purging, cleaning and implemented the organization systems and are on your way to maintenance. I have been striving for that for years because I haven’t committed myself to purging. It feels very overwhelming and I get stuck.

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  18. Patty@homemakersdaily.com

    10/26/2013

    Absolutely agree – it’s not “once and done”. Things change and so do our systems. Plus I find that when I “organize” something, I don’t necessarily solve the problems causing the disorganization. And in that case, the mess will probably come back (and it usually does).

    Good advice to your reader.

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  19. Maureen

    11/11/2013

    If mail clutter is one of your stress points it really isn’t the mail – it is what/who created all that mail. I know because I felt your pain once but then I allowed magazine subscriptions to lapse (I am still reading and recycling magazines from years ago!), I unsubscribed from mail catalogues and I posted a “no junk mail or flyers” note in my mail box. Now when I go to the mail box only once a week I have a small handful of mail to deal with – mostly bills. Utility bills are opened and immediately filed as they are all paid by direct debit, other bills are set aside for payment. The only other mail I get is cards, letters and gifts from friends and family! Now I am in the process of having all the utility bills emailed to me – eliminating even more paper mail. Almost everything is available online – magazines, catalogues and wonderful sites like this one – you can revisit as often as you like and never have to deal with paper!

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