Story originally appeared in BND’s Lipstik Magazine in Jan 2012.

You should have seen the look on a fellow Lipstik staffer’s face when I told her that all my shoes were piled on top of each other in the bottom of my closet.  I never realized, until speaking with the organized shoe lover, that my storage method was so appalling. Organization is just not my thing, so I don’t mind weeding through piles of flip-flops to find my snow boots. But her reaction made me wonder, what must it be like to have things in order, and how would I go about doing so if it isn’t in my blood?

It turns out some people are so organized that they choose to do it for a living, so I invited one of them into my home for a few pointers. Mara Graff of Valmeyer has owned and operated her business, Put It In Place, for the past two years. She agreed to “coach” me on how to get more organized.

The first thing I learned is that while some home makeover TV shows feature elaborate before and after photos, the average person doesn’t have the money to spend on wall to wall storage systems such as the ones often shown.

“Being organized doesn’t have to be expensive,” said Graff. “It’s about having like things in a place where you can find them quickly and easily.”

Closets

linensbeforeWlinensafterhile my home often appears to be clutter free, my organizational flaws are hidden behind closed doors. On one end of my bedroom closet were sweaters, dresses, and even sweats that I swore I would wear…someday. But Graff asked when the last time was that I wore a certain stretched out purple cardigan, and I couldn’t remember.

“Be hard on yourself,” she said, “If you haven’t worn it this year, you won’t wear it next year either.”

She suggested having a clothing swap with other women who are cleaning out their closets (but to exclude that purple sweater).

“It’s a fun and cheap way to fill your closet back up with new things.”

She suggested hanging the rest of my wardrobe in groups, preferably on plastic hangers which slide better.

“Put all your sweaters next to each other, then pants, then dresses, or whatever makes sense to you,” said Graff. “Or hang tops that you always wear with a particular skirt next to it.”

What about my scattered flip-flops? Since they’re out of season, Graff suggested an under-the-bed storage bag. For the shoes I wear now, there are affordable shoe shelves, boxes, and hanging bags that make finding pairs a lot easier.

“I put all of my shoes in separate stackable plastic boxes with lids and label them,” said Graff. “They’re cheap and it’s easy to keep them in order.”

Since neither of my bathrooms have closets, all of my towels and sheets were stacked in a hall closet. It had been getting so crowded that it was a chore to find a bath towel.

“First, pull everything out and decide what you use,” said Graff. “If your old towels or shower curtains matched your bathroom before you painted it, what are the odds you’re still using them?”

She also suggested storing sheet sets in totes under beds, to de-clutter the linen closet and provide easier access to them when it’s time to change the bedding.

Kids’ Stuff

Like myself, Graff is a mother of two. But unlike me, she knows all about getting kids organized.

kidsroomkidsafter“The secret is knowing your children,” said Graff. “My son is visual – he wants all his things where he can see them, so we have labeled cubbies and bins. My daughter is neat – she wants everything put away in drawers where she doesn’t have to see it, but she knows where it is if she needs it.”

Graff said if you want to get kids involved in picking up, let them organize their things. On my youngest son’s shelves, there were games, puzzles, blocks, and more stacked randomly in different spots. We went through all of them and tossed out anything with missing pieces or broken parts, and replaced broken boxes with sturdier plastic totes.

Next, she suggested getting him to sort it all into groups.

“Tell him to choose which row all the puzzles will go in, and do the same with the games and blocks. Then have him draw a picture to label each row, and let him tape it up. If he’s involved, he’ll be more likely to put things back where they go.”

What about the toys kids have grown tired of? Donate them, Graff said, or rotate them.

“Put Transformers away in the attic for a few months while they play with Bakugans,” said Graff. “Then when you bring the Transformers back down, it’ll be like getting new toys.”

And the precious school papers and art projects?

“Put a plastic box in the top of each child’s closet for every year of school. When that year is through, put the box away with the previous school years and start a new one.”

The Kitchen

cabinetbeforecabinetafterI held my breath when Graff opened my cabinets, for fear she might get hit with a falling object.  But her simple suggestions were well worth the embarrassment of revealing my mess.

“Pull it all out,” said Graff. “Plastic containers and lids should always stay together. If it doesn’t have a lid, you won’t use it.” It was true. After sorting through it, I kept less than half of the Gladware that was scattered around my cabinet, taking up usable space.

She also told me to put things where they’re most accessible.

“Put all your glasses that you use often at eye level,” she said. “If you don’t use wine glasses often, put them up higher.”

Will It Stay That Way?

While it’s certainly satisfying to admire my new orderly digs, I know myself too well to believe that the perfect stacks will stay in place. But Graff reminded me that perfection is not the goal when it comes to getting things in order.

“Being organized is not about looking cute – it’s just knowing where your stuff is.”

Now that, I can handle.

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