Monday, May 2, 2011

Best Results for Busy People: Organize Yourself for Spring Cleaning

I subscribe to the email newsletter Best Results for Busy People and thought the below would be helpful for everyone. 

The tradition of spring cleaning date back to ancient cultures, and though we tend to think of it as occurring only in locales with cold winters, the act of readying our homes for spring has long been celebrated world-wide. The origins of the ritual vary by culture, with ancient Persians "shaking the house" as part of a New Year's observance of "khouneh tekooni", while observant Jews, in shedding their homes of "chametz" (unleavened foods) in advance of Passover, clean even the tiniest crevices and corners. Members of the Eastern Orthodox Church observe Clean Week, sweeping clean their homes as the week of Great Lent approaches.  In North America, the concept really took hold in the 19th century when homesteaders found the spring air was warm enough to allow for opening doors and windows, cool enough that insects wouldn't be a problem, and windy enough to blow dust away from the homestead.

Cleaning and organizing aren't the same, but they go hand-in-hand. Cleaning is about getting rid of dirt, cobwebs and dust, and organizing creates functional systems that save time and money. But since you can't
clean if clutter is in the way and it's really hard to organize things that are dirty, we're going to look at how you can organize your spring cleaning.

1)      Break It Down To Build It Up
It's important to take baby steps when approaching the spring cleaning process so that you don't get overwhelmed! Just as a room (or house or car) full of clutter does not get that way overnight, one should not
expect to be able to reverse a year (or five years) of clutter or schmutz in one day.
I advise clients to pick just one room, and start
small. Go drawer-by-drawer or cabinet-by-cabinet and take everything out of one small space, and only put back the items you'd choose all over again if you had to acquire them for the very first time. Think of it as
a zero-based budget, where you don't have any assumptions regarding what has a "right" to stay, only this is a budget for your space instead of your money. For example, if you're going to start in the kitchen, take everything out of the freezer (and only the freezer), wash it down (or defrost it, if you must) and then only put back items you can identify and still
want to eat. Be realistic with yourself - it doesn't matter whether they're leftovers from last Thanksgiving or from an expensive restaurant dinner - just ask yourself if you (or your family) will really eat it.  Then, just as we discussed in our March and May 2010
Bonus Room articles on organizing kitchens and deep freezers, group the food types together so that all the chicken, all of the desserts, all of the vegetables, etc. are in their own sub-sections. If you still have energy, do the same with the fridge and pantry, one shelf at a time, until you've eliminated what must go and have sorted and grouped what will stay. For food items, check to learn how long foods are still safe and nutritious. For cabinets and drawers, pull everything out so you can clean and analyze. If you've never used the strawberry pitter or the ricer or fondue pot (but oh, how could you not make fondue if you had the chance?), send them to new homes and stop letting them live rent-free in your space. If you're worn out, stop there, and plan what project you'll do the next day. Spring cleaning need not be completed in one day or weekend as Ma Ingalls might have done it. In fact, you might maintain more enthusiasm for the process if you break it down into smaller steps for each day.

2)      Embrace Dishpanned Hands
Clients and readers often ask me what tools I most recommend people buy to help them get organized. I think they're surprised by how often I advise not going to a store at all, but by "shopping" in one's own home or office. It's amazing how many baskets, tubs and containers we have which go unused (or ill-used) which could serve our needs. Take, for example, the lowly dishpan. It's rubber or
plastic, it's cheap (usually available in dollar stores or Walmart or Target for under $3) and it's a superior solution to myriad household storage problems. Not sure what a dishpan looks like? Here's a traditional 12-quart dishpan in a spiffy red:
Use dishpans as easy-to-slide-out drawers under the sinks in your bathroom or kitchen, and on pantry shelves so that if something spills or leaks, it will drip into the washable dishpan and not onto other food, cleaning items or toiletries. Clients are often amazed
when I take all of the cleaning supplies from
underneath a kitchen sink (dishwashing liquid,
dishwasher detergent, spare sponges and rubber gloves, steel wool pads, floor cleaner, all-purpose cleanser, etc.) and fit it all neatly in one or two dishpans under the sink. It's a tiny change that rids the cabinet of dripping messes and toppling containers, and makes it so simple to identify when you have duplicates
and when you need to restock. Pull everything out of the area under the sinks in the kitchen and bathroom and group them by what they do. When you see each type of item side by side, it's easy to combine three almost-empty bottles of your favorite shampoo to free up space. Keep cleaning supplies in one dishpan, bath & body products in another. Dishpans aren't just great in kitchens, pantries and
bathrooms. A few other ideas:

--Stack toddler books vertically in one or two dishpans on a low table or even the floor. Normally, we array books on shelves, perhaps in alphabetical order. But small children can't read the spines of books, so they need to pull one (or all) down to get meaningful information. By making books stand tall and face outward, children can let their fingers do the walking
and flip each book towards themselves to find the most appealing cover. The rest of the books stay self-contained. Dubious? I worked in a public library as a teenager, and all pre-school picture books were arranged in a few
dozen such dishpans or tubs, sorted only by the first letter of the author's last name, and it definitely saved cleanup time.

--In craft rooms, use dishpans on open shelves for craft items, whether for adults or children. You can sort yarn types, paints vs. markers and crayons, cloth of different weights or colors, and so on. Label the front-facing portion of the dishpans so that you can
delegate "clean-up" time to someone else.

3) Think Outside the Box
Over and over, we professional organizers tell people to "sort like items with like" when we create homes. Indeed, the rules I always share include:

-- Everything should have home, but not everything has to live with you!  The Pareto Rule or 80/20 rule says that 80% of success
comes from 20% of the effort. And 80% of the time you're wearing the same basic 20% of your wardrobe and your kids are playing with the same 20% of their toys. This is why paring things down gives you a much bigger bang for your buck than you expect -- because you
usually don't miss the things you purge, even though you probably think you are going to, which is what blocks you from downsizing in the first place.

--Things should live with others like them.  All your coffee mugs should be in the same cabinet. All your shoes, except the ones on your feet right now, should live together in their little shoe community in your closet. If it seems like it will take too much time to put them away, ask yourself how much more time
it will take to find them when the kids, the pets and midnight stumblings in the dark knock them under the bed.

--Things should live where they're used.  You'd never find your toothbrush in the middle of the garage, right?  The best place to keep something is where you use it, so if your kids never study in the kitchen, don't let them just leave their knapsacks in the kitchen because that's the first room they hit when walking in the house--their stuff should go right to
their study areas. Similarly, you should have one central hub where you pay your bills, and then you should keep a box or tray there with stamps, address labels, a calculator and envelopes.

--Things should live according to the rules of
proximity and utility. Loyal readers know that my fancy way of saying if you need it often, keep it close. If you should be using something all the time, whether it's the dictionary, tax code, or moisturizer, it should be at your
fingertips.  These are the things that deserve Prime Real Estate on your desk or the bulletin board next or your bedside table. The more you use it, or should use it, the closer it should live to you.  If something is hard to get to, you're going to come up with excuses not to use it,
read it, study it or fix it. Conversely, if you only use something once a year, like a serving tray or crock pot you only use at the holidays, put it in less-accessible storage and put a note on your calendar or in your tickler file to get it
out on November 15th.

--Know What's Living Where!
Label where things should go, just like your house number labels the house so the postal carrier knows where to deliver the mail.  Nobody can complain that they didn't put things away because they didn't know where something belonged if the home is labeled. If
that means labeling the inside of the kitchen or
bathroom cabinets, that's OK.  Even if your kids can't read words yet, they can read pictures, so a drawing or photo can tell a child this bin is for Barbie dolls, and that bin is for Matchbox cars. With these five rules in place, you can usually tell your family my golden rule: "Don't put things down, put them away" and they might actually do it.

These tips aside, however, a reality check is sometimes warranted. For example, I make a lot of pasta - ravioli, pierogies, linguini, etc. I have four nested pots in a lower cabinet. For more than a dozen years, I've stored my strainers and colanders with the pots because these I use them for similar, associated tasks
related to the larger aspect of making a pasta dinner. However, my lower cabinets have half-shelves; thus, the pots are on the bottom and I have always had to bend down to reach halfway back, behind the pots, to get a colander. Recently, while putting away the dishes from the dishwasher, I realized that my most-often-used colander fit perfectly nested underneath my glass mixing bowls, which I use to mix salads... which I often eat with pasta. After more than a dozen years of having a
split-second of unconscious annoyance at having to bend to get the colander, I've had two lovely weeks where making pasta is annoyance-free.

My point? Organizing rules are designed to help guide you. If, while you're spring cleaning your kitchen (or bathroom, or bedroom, or garage...), there's a storage option that makes something easier to access and easier
to put away, and which will incline you to use it more often (and more joyfully), set the rules aside.

4)      Safety Is the Best Medicine
Now that flu season is behind us, it's the perfect time clean out the medicine cabinet and dispose of expired medicines responsibly and safely. However, please take
caution. Generally, you should NOT flush medicines or wash them down the drain. The FDA does recommend flushing a small number of prescription medicines, as indicated by this list: Protect children and animals by taking a few extra steps: pour pills into a sealable plastic bag, add some water to dissolve, then add kitty litter or coffee grounds to the bag to make it unappealing to any little
hands (or paws) that might come across it.
If you're uncertain as to how to dispose of a
particular over-the-counter or prescription medicine, consult your pharmacist or see if there are prescription medicine drop-off locations in your community. And participate in the Drug Enforcement Agency's Second Annual National Prescription Drug
Take-Back Day on April 30th from 10a-2p. To learn more,
and to find a Take-Back Day collection site near you, visit:

5)      Don't Pay the Clutter Tax!
Clutter makes it harder to clean, and when it blocks access to what you want or need, you waste time looking or money on buying duplicates. That's a "clutter tax", which you pay with your hard-earned money and your
always-dwindling supply of time. Like pile of clothes or toys, paper can be quite the
obstacle. But, if you clear the clutter that sometimes prevents you from handling finances quickly and easily, it's like getting a "clutter tax" refund! Spring is the perfect time to shred the old receipts and statements that don't relate to tax records, ownership of big-ticket items or things you're going to return. Office Depot has a Shred-While-You-Wait service for
.99/lb. And on that note, here's a link to a special three-part Office Depot coupon:
Shred up to five pounds of papers (and circumvent those nasty identity thieves), photocopy your tax documents and more...all at no cost. (I love saving you money!) If you're not sure what documents and receipts are safe
to shred, consult a records retention schedule, such as the one in my ebook, "Do I Have To Keep This Piece of Paper?"

6)      Everything should have a home, but not everything has to live with you!
That rule is so important, it appears twice in this article! Just as you clean out the cobwebs and dust, take this opportunity to let go of the excess items you don't need. Whether that's clothing that no longer fits or flatters, furniture that's blocking your space, or kitchen tools you never use, freeing up space in your life can be a blessing to others. Donate to Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity's Re-Store, your house of worship or any non-profit, and you can be thrice-blessed. You'll eliminate the clutter from your own space, give someone the opportunity to extend the life of the item, and perhaps even take a tax deduction (next year) on
your donation.

Organizing your spring cleaning process needn't be overwhelming. Break the tasks down into tiny steps (in tiny spaces), clean (to remove gunk), then clean OUT (i.e., purge), and finally, organize what remains. As you go forward, putting a little spring cleaning in your habits may even put a spring in your step!

Julie Bestry is a professional organizer, speaker and author, who helps individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems. For information on how Julie can turn your chaos into serenity, visit Best Results
Organizing at

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