I got a text yesterday from a family member, asking for tips on how to start organizing in order to prep her house for sale. I think sometimes the size and scope of a project can be daunting, and people are scared off by what seems to be an insurmountable task. I’m not immune to it, either. I broke down in tears one day after a full day of working at our new home, Idlewild Cottage–with no visible progress.

At times like that, you need to step back and ask yourself one question: “How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time. I know it seems like an oversimplification, but really…how else would you do it?

DECIDING TO START

I find that starting the project can be the hardest part…it’s kind of like exercising. It seems like such a huge chore, but once you start, it’s not as bad as you imagined. Often the decision to overhaul your home is jump-started by a major life event, such as moving, marriage, divorce, having a child, downsizing, etc. The main point is–you have to want to make the change. Even when hiring someone else to make suggestions and do the manual labor [ahem–reach out to me ;)], you will still need to make the final decisions on what to keep and what to get rid of. If you are truly ready for the change, you can do it.

START SMALL

Instead of saying that you’re going to organize the whole kitchen, start with a drawer, then perhaps another day work on a cupboard. Don’t give yourself unreasonable timelines, and remember that organizing one area inevitably messes up another while you’re sifting through the items. Be patient with yourself and the process, and eventually it will turn the corner and the mess will be cleaned.

HAVE A PLAN

Before you start, identify your ultimate goal (i.e., organized closet), and what you are going to do with the items you no longer need. Are you going to donate them? Sell them in a garage sale or online? Give them to friends or family? Knowing where the items are going will help you organize them into the appropriate piles and remove them to their final destination promptly. Do not keep them in your home or in storage unless you have a known use for them in the future (such as Christmas ornaments).

DETERMINE YOUR NEEDS

One single mother I know has a 17 year old son, and she has kept his entire wardrobe since infancy. She had planned on a second child, and didn’t want to have to repurchase any clothes. For years she has bought storage containers; cleaned, organized and packed all the clothes; and then paid to have them moved them to various apartments and two homes over the years. She has wasted time and money for a slim possibility for the better part of two decades. Don’t let some uncertain potential need in the future determine what you require in your daily life today. The single mom felt great when she donated the clothes to a women’s shelter, where all the pieces were able to be utilized right away and were desperately needed.

ASK FOR HELP

I highly recommend either bringing in some friends to help you weed through things (and give you frank feedback), or hiring help. A fresh set of eyes, without emotional attachment to any of the items, will help you identify what is worth keeping. I’m not saying you need to get rid of everything sentimental, but try to pick a few things that are representative of that time, vs. every ticket stub/scrap of paper. Go through everything once, then go through it again more carefully. You’ll find you are able to find even more things that you don’t really need the second time around.

CLEAN AND ORGANIZE

Once you have everything pulled out and culled down, clean the space before putting it all back. Yes, it’s pain in the neck and time consuming, but you will feel so much better about it afterward. After the space is nice and clean, find where you want everything to “live”, and organize accordingly. A quick note: organizing doesn’t mean buying a ton of storage “systems”. Typically you can use just what you have in a different way and make it work for you. For example, in the farmhouse we’re currently staying in, I simply reused Jason’s grandma’s crystal and glass vases and containers for holding essentials in the bathroom and kitchen.

If you’re putting your house on the market, cleaning is especially important, but I’d also add a step of touching up paint during this time. Additionally, it’s important to stage the home so that buyers see it to its maximum potential.

Dr. Oz had organization expert Jeffrey Phillip on his show to help develop a full plan to declutter the home, and it’s a good one. Check out the full article!

MAINTENANCE

I have seen it time and time again–someone spends a lot of time and energy going through all the steps, has a lovely, organized and calm space; but inevitably it dissolves in a few weeks or months. This is because a home doesn’t clean itself, and your lifestyle doesn’t stay static…your interests and needs change. Therefore, you will need to make small tweaks to your organization system as you go along. These will be manageable as long as you keep up on it.

If you absolutely hate cleaning, I recommend just setting a timer each night for 15 minutes and seeing what you get done. I bet by the end of the week, your cleaning will be completed, or mostly so. Many people comment on how clean our home is, but I don’t spend a ton of time on it, just a bit each day. Also, the girls are responsible for picking up their toys each night (all of them–we don’t have a playroom), and Hazel has started helping in making her bed in the morning. Including your kids in maintaining the family home and chores is important–not just for your sanity, but for them to learn the necessity and responsibility of those tasks.

I hope these tips help you as you start downsizing and organizing your home. No need to wait for a New Years resolution–start today and you’ll have a head start on a clean, calm and organized 2018!


Emily Behnke

Formerly a high level professional in a scientific organization, Ms. Behnke now owns and operates an organization and design company focused on living well in small spaces.