Get a jump on the new year by getting organized. We don't have 10 magical steps that will lead to a magazine-perfect pantry or an immaculate inbox, but we do have lots of tips from experts that will get you started. Try to implement a few (or all) of these hints, and we promise you'll get a better night's sleep -- even if it's just because you didn't leave your wet towel on your pillow.
Keep a giveaway box in your
home or garage
It may seem like bringing in another box would just add to clutter, but an easy-to-access donation bin might be just what you need to keep you from putting off regular trips to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Iyna Bort Caruso, who wrote The Everything Home Storage Solutions Book, keeps a trash bag in her laundry room. "When I do laundry I can look at the clothes and evaluate," she says. "It makes it easier to get rid of ratty clothes when there's a donation bag right there." Keep the bag for a few weeks before dropping it off -- chances are you won't miss any of the items in it, but if you're wavering on one, ditch it and see if you go looking for it later.
Organizing the whole house can seem overwhelming, so Melinda Massie, owner of Organizing With a Side of Fabulous in Fort Worth, says to start with a drawer, desktop or counter. "Start with small, flat surfaces and clean those off first," she says. "Something that is small and contained." She advised organizers to sort like things together (you'll often discover you have seven pairs of scissors and 800 paper clips), and then to ask themselves questions about items: "When is the last time you used it? When you used it, if ever, did it work? Did it accomplish the goal that you needed it to?"
Make the bed every day
Massie stressed the need to make your bed in the morning. "It takes minutes, and it doesn't have to be hospital corners. Just pull up the sheets and smooth it out and you have a nice, clean look to the room," Massie says. Regina Leeds, author of One Year to an Organized Life, agrees. "It puts an end to one day and starts the next," she said.
Set times to check your e-mail
If you're not at a desk all day, schedule time for checking your e-mail when you can not just read your notes, but respond to them. Kay Gallegos, owner of Clutterbusters in Fort Worth, says setting aside time to check and respond to e-mails will keep you on top of your inbox. Take advantage of your e-mail provider's organization tools -- make folders, label and archive so you can easily search for e-vites, bills, etc.
Remove sentimental value from things
One of the easiest ways to stockpile stuff is to attach emotional value to it. Whether it was a gift from a friend or it belonged to a lost loved one, it's tougher to donate or get rid of things that have that kind of weight. Caruso suggests being honest with yourself -- "If you think you need to let it go, do it," she says. For big items, like a set of china, keep a few pieces, like a plate or serving platter, to display, and donate the rest. If it's a tchotchke you think a friend might enjoy, pass it along. "If I give it to someone who's going to really appreciate it, it's honoring the message of that gift," Caruso says. "If I'm going to get a gift and keep it in the closet, it's not honoring that person." Massie agreed, noting that the memory of a loved one is not in an item. "If it's not enhancing your life, then you don't need it," she said.
Create a system to organize paper
Gallegos says the No. 1 problem she encounters with her clients is a paper problem -- there are stacks of meeting agendas, coupons, junk mail, notes from teachers and more. She advises paper hoarders to set up a system that involves three piles: keep, trash and act on. As soon as you finish a meeting, getting the mail or paying bills, sort your paperwork. The keep system should involve a file drawer, where you can categorize with folders for things that relate to appliances, school, finances or whatever you see fit. Just be sure to find time regularly to go through the "act on" pile, so the bills, invitations and forms don't stack up.
One way to avoid stockpiling is to schedule regular closet/drawer/pantry purges. Write them on the calendar if you need to, but taking routine inventory of your stuff will help you to evaluate what you're actually using. Go through your clothes after each season and donate the items you didn't wear. At the end of each month, trash items in the pantry and refrigerator that are expired. For everyday maintenance, develop a one-in, one-out policy: Every time you buy a piece of clothing, put one in the donation bin. Massie noted that once you get started, purging is a breeze. "As my clients start to let go of things, they realize how freeing it is," she said.
Make a designated spot for things you need access to often
Time spent searching for keys, phones and purses can be cut drastically with this one step. Set up a phone charging station and plug in your cell every time you walk in the door. Hang a hook by the door for your purse or backpack and keys. "Hunting for your keys is time wasted," Leeds says. The same goes for other items that may not be easily lost, but will otherwise wind up on the floor. Find hooks for towels, reusable grocery bags, coats and bathrobes, she says.
Get rid of bath products you don't use
Almost everyone is guilty of over-shopping in the "products" department. The desire to try something new often leads to cabinets full of barely used lotions, hair products, medicine and shaving cream. Leeds says it's important to get rid of the ones you don't use -- start with expired products and work your way up to those you just don't use. "If you feel guilty, you can give them to a friend who might want to try them," she said.
Go through your wallet, purse or bag every night
Every night, determine what you'll need the next day and put it in your bag. Not only will you be less likely to forget your work ID, your insurance card for a doctor's appointment or your umbrella if rain is in the forecast, but you'll free yourself of the prior day's necessities, lightening the load for tomorrow. Leeds says it's a good time to go through receipts from the day, store loose change and file business cards.
Keep out clothes hangers for what you're wearing, and keep a hamper handy
People who throw the day's clothes on the floor tend to do it out of convenience -- either they're too lazy to hang them or the hamper is too far away. Caruso suggests removing the obstacles. Move your dirty-clothes hamper to the most convenient place possible, and leave hangers you'll need that night on the closet door or bed. If drawers prevent you from folding and putting away clothes, switch to baskets. "It's all about putting easy solutions in place," she says. Be sure to keep a separate hamper for clothes that need to be dry-cleaned.
Avoid buying organizational materials until you evaluate what you need
When people want to get organized, they typically start with a trip to The Container Store or Target, where they pick up bins, baskets, drawer organizers and the like. Caruso warns that this is a preemptive step that is better left until most of the organizing is actually done. First, you may be able to repurpose things you already have -- odd bowls can become jewelry organizers, an old shelving unit can sort your shoes -- and second, you can't know what you need until you've identified your problem areas.
Sort mail as soon as it comes in
Go straight from the mailbox to your trashcan or recycling bin -- so much of what we receive can be immediately filed there. Trash the junk, and make piles of the rest: to the fridge or bulletin board for postcards or invitations, to the desk for the mail that needs an action, like a payment or RSVP. It's unlikely you'll be able to reply to every invitation and pay every bill as soon as it comes in, but try to schedule a time each week that you go through the week's mail, act on it and then file it away.
Keep a small box for sentimental items
You can't keep every wedding invitation, postcard, birthday card and thank you note you've ever received, but it's OK to keep ones with special meaning. Caruso suggests keeping a small photo box or shoebox for these items -- they'll be out of the way, but you will know where to go when you want to reminisce.
Commit to seeing things through until they're finished
Partly finished projects are the key to clutter, Massie says. She makes her clients commit to seeing things through until the end. "That means showering and putting the towel back where it belongs," she said. It extends to almost every project -- cooking dinner means cooking, eating and then doing the dishes, and that means washing them and putting them away. Checking the mail means checking it, opening it, sorting it and putting it where it belongs. "It's prevention, and that's a huge thing with keeping the home clutter-free," she says.