How to Organise - The Definitive Guide
Updated: May 5, 2022
In this article you'll learn the basic steps and order in which to organise absolutely anything - a fool-proof process I have used as a seasoned Professional Organiser to effectively organise countless spaces in my clients' homes.
Once you understand the four general steps and the order in which to undertake them, you too will feel confident to take on any organising project.
Let's begin with Step One!
There are two parts to this step that will help you prepare for an organising project. The first part of the PREPARE step is to set a vision for how you want the space you are working on to look and function. Without a clear vision in mind, you will not know what you are working towards, and it will be easy to get distracted or overwhelmed.
For example, if your goal is to organise your pantry, write down in a few simple sentences, how you would like your space to look and function and how the achievement of that your goal will improve your life going forward. You might also want to sketch a picture of how you wish it to be set out or pin some photos of some inspiring pantries to a Pinterest board.
You also need to outline what is included in the scope of your 'organising project' for the planned session, so you don't bite off more than you can chew! For example, you might write 'today I will declutter and wipe out the entire pantry' or perhaps if you only have a couple hours, 'today I will makeover my tea and coffee station.'
The second part of the PREPARE step is to ready the area for the job at hand. If we continue with the pantry example, this means clearing the benches (and kitchen table too if need be) so you can empty out the contents of your pantry out onto a clear surface. Also you would prepare by having a clean cloth and tea towel ready to clean the pantry shelves and wipe out containers.
What 'tools' you will need for a project, will depend on the space you are sorting. For most projects, it is useful to set up a 'sorting station' with cardboard boxes and garbage bags ready for donations, bins for recycling and rubbish, and a Sharpie and some post-its on hand to temporarily label categories.
In order to declutter and organise a space effectively, ideally everything should be taken out of the storage space so that it can return to a blank canvas. This helps to reimagine the layout of the space and to consider your belongings in a new light. If the quantity of stuff is too huge to allow this, do an area section by section or category by category. For example, choose just a section of shelves to work on first or if doing a wardrobe, first pull out shirts and then put them away, then pull out pants etc.
As you take everything out begin to make general categories by placing like with like. Keep the categories as broad as you can to begin with so you don't get bogged down; you can always sub-categorise more later when you get into the swing of things.
If you are sorting a bathroom cupboard the categories you make might be: 'make up', 'skin care', 'dental', etc. You can group categories together in piles, or open tubs (particularly if they are numerous small items). On the tubs or next to the categories you have created, stick on temporary labels using post-its & a sharpie, this will help you stay on track and not get overwhelmed.
As you sort, new miscellaneous categories might arise which you can label. Some categories that commonly arise are 'belongs elsewhere', ‘needs repairs’ and 'return to a friend'. Giving these categories a name and destination will help you weed out tricky items!
The reason I recommend categorising or ‘pre-sorting’ before decluttering is it makes decluttering so much easier! Don't declutter as you go unless something is clearly rubbish or doesn't belong and won't take much thought or effort to chuck away or move as you are sorting. It is FAR EASIER on your brain to make decisions about what should stay and what should go when everything similar is already grouped together. If you try to declutter and make decisions about items one by one from a jumbled pile of stuff you will fatigue and become discouraged very quickly.
Making categories allows you to appreciate (sometimes to your shock and dismay) the quantity of each item you have accumulated. It is not unusual for me to hear from my client "Oh my God, I cannot believe I have 5 spatulas - what the!" or a very similar exclamation! Usually I have already done the hard work of pre-sorting their utensils into type for them, so it is a no brainer for them to simply pick their two favourites and chuck the rest in the donations bag. On the other hand, if instead I asked my client to pick up items one at a time, straight from the utensil drawer, the reaction I would likely get is: 'hmm I am really not sure if I need this so I will keep it just in case' at best, and anxiety and a sweating brow at worst, as they struggle over a multitude of decisions with no reference point!
The other benefit of pre-sorting before decluttering, is that it allows you to have things somewhat sorted ready for containment (the last step!) by the time you finish decluttering. I am sorry to harp on about it, but watching people try to declutter without pre-sorting is the probably the biggest mistake I see people make when trying organise and one which causes them a lot of unnecessary overwhelm which makes them want to avoid the task in the future!
The other reason people find decluttering difficult is that people form emotional attachments to stuff. Stuff can be symbolic of money spent, dreams not followed, people we love, an hobbies we plan to pursue. You can also become attached to something simply because it has been in your possession for some time independent of its usefulness to you. The longer we have owned an item, the harder we find it to let it go!
Deciding what to keep and what to toss can be difficult but a lot of the emotional strain is taken out of it when you follow a logical predictable process. When switch off the emotional part of the brain and start thinking logically about what we want in our lives decisions become more straight forward. There are lots of complex criteria you can use to determine whether you should keep or discard an item but when in doubt I try to keep it simple by asking myself 'do I really NEED or LOVE this item?' If the answer isn’t a STRONG yes, then it is a no.
Hopefully, by following these steps, you will already be set up for greater ease and success with your decluttering endeavour. However, if you are still struggling to make decisions, other strategies that may help are to create a relaxing environment with soft music and your favourite oil in the diffuser, taking regular breaks and deep belly breaths to centre yourself, enlist the help of a friend for accountability or hire a Professional Organiser.
Decluttering can be a step some people try to ignore when organising because it can be hard and anxiety-inducing. Some people will skip this essential organising step entirely, instead opting to buy more pretty containers to hide clutter or even contemplate buying a bigger closet or house! These strategies may give some initial relief from clutter but ultimately they will fail because they haven't addressed the root of the problem, which is having TOO MUCH STUFF surplus to one's needs. Taking stock of what you own and letting go of the excess is the only way forward to meaningfully organise your life. If you are struggling with the process reach out for help, so many people find it difficult, you are not alone!
As I just mentioned, many people (understandably) want to skip forward to the fun part of the organising process which is going out to buy pretty matching containers and clever storage solutions but I must burst your bubble by letting you know, this is actually the last step in the organising process and you must do the hard yards to earn that jolly trip to Ikea.
Unless you are quite experienced at organising spaces, buying containers before you know the final quantity (of each type) of item you have to store, can lead to more clutter and a less successful outcome. Sometimes it may even work out that you don’t need any new organising products because decluttering itself has solved all your organisational problems or during the process you emptied out enough containers to reuse!
If you do require more containers or an upgraded storage system, after following the first three steps, you are now able to confidently invest in just the right type, size and quantity of storage containers!
Buying the right storage solutions for your storage space space and the type of items you need to store is actually quite a skill that most professional organiser have perfected over many years. However, here are some really helpful tips to help you:
Take measurements of the storage space (height, width and depth) and determine quantity and size of containers needed (i.e. do you need a 1L or 2L jar for pasta? Using this information write a shopping list. Take a measuring tape with you to the container store to double check whether containers will fit according to your measurements. I actually will sometimes layout a row of containers in different combinations to check (with the measuring tape) what will fit on the shelving. I don't care if people look at me funny lol!
Take photos of your space and items you need to store to refer back to when you are out shopping. This is especially useful if stock is low and you need to think creatively of alternative solutions.
Go for matching containers wherever possible, it will cut down visual clutter and make a more streamlined look.
Overbuy containers and return what you don’t use. In my experience people severely underestimate how many containers they will need and thus end up with a mish-mash because they were one or two short and don't get around to going back for more. It is also good to have some spares because product lines are often discontinued (you may need to store more things at a later stage or some containers may break over time).
Look at pictures of organised spaces on Instagram or Pinterest to see what items experts have used to organise different types of spaces. For example, would a turntable or three-tiered-shelf work best for storing jars in your pantry?
Seek advice and inspiration on organising groups on Facebook.
Borrow an organising book from the library.
If still in doubt, hire a Professional Organiser (check out the services we offer here!)
This simple four step process - prepare, categorise, declutter and contain (say it with me - PCDC, PCDC!) give a predictable order and flow to any organising project. It is my foolproof system and I use for ALL the projects I undertake. It makes the project flow effortlessly and in turn my clients' feel relaxed and confident when they work with me. I am happy to now share this expert knowledge with you so your next project can be as stress-free as possible too : )
If you found this article helpful, please drop a comment below and let me know or if you have any further questions, put them below too and I will endeavour to answer them.
Best of luck and happy organising!