I have a confession: My house is not perfectly organized all the time. My cereal is not arranged by color, I need to do some filing, and my kitchen island has a few items on it that don’t belong there.
But I can find everything, and my family knows where to put their masks, coats and school supplies, because there are designated spaces for each. I also generally know what I have in the house and what we need, and I can usually tidy up in less than 20 minutes when we’re expecting guests (even though that’s not a thing right now).
Sometime in the past decade, home organization morphed into an industry filled with impossibly clean and sterile staged photos of closets, pantries and kitchens curated and set up just so, to be shared on social media. Yes, these images are aspirational. Yes, they are beautiful. But they are not realistic for 99.9% of people, and they should not be what we strive for when we’re organizing our homes.
Those photos capture a moment in time and don’t represent how people live, especially during a pandemic. You’re not seeing the whole house in those pictures or what’s piled up just out of the shot. The photo has also probably been edited with a filter applied to give it an even glossier effect. But the key takeaway is that what you see on social media isn’t reality.
So forget those photos. Here are realistic tips to help you get and stay organized, in a way that makes sense for your family, without creating more work or costing a lot of money for organizing solutions.
Keep it simple
Home organizing is not that different from starting a new diet or exercise routine. Extreme diets may deliver short-term results, but they are difficult to sustain. It’s very hard to go from not exercising one day to running a 10-miler the next month. You can do it, but you probably can’t keep up that pace. Long-term, sustainable weight loss and fitness usually begin with the development of good habits that you can maintain: eat less sugar, add vegetables to your diet and walk three times a week. Once you’ve mastered those goals, you can move on to include more intense exercise or make more changes to your diet.
The same ideas apply to organizing. It’s not realistic to think you can go from a cluttered and disorganized home to one where every surface is barren, the pantry is fully stocked with perfectly positioned, labeled bins, and both your books and clothes are arranged by color. It’s possible to do all of that, but it probably won’t stay that way for very long unless you’re more pragmatic and focused on making small, incremental changes and building good habits.
Keeping things simple is key to an organized home, especially now, when everyone is at home and we’re all struggling to manage our new “normal.” For example, designate one cabinet in your kitchen for mugs. If they don’t all fit, get rid of a few. Put all of your craft supplies in one place: one box for paint, one for colored pencils, one for glue. Don’t buy more supplies unless you need them, and when you do purchase more, put them with the supplies you have.
Do the same for other items in your home. Designate a space, and always put pieces away. You don’t need a fancy battery organizer; just put all of your batteries in the same place. For items you use often, such as pots and pans, spices and cooking utensils, store them in an accessible place where it’s easy to put them away. If you have too many of an item to store in the designated spot, either get rid of some or find a different place where everything will fit.
Many of us are struggling with helping our kids with distance learning, doing our jobs and keeping up with the most necessary household chores. It’s okay to skip decanting cereal into plastic containers or to bypass elaborate refrigerator organizing systems. In my household, with four people home all day, every day, the refrigerator stays organized for about 10 minutes. I’ve stopped trying. The best I can do is clean it out once a week and toss old items and leftovers. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.
Watch your shopping
I cannot emphasize enough how hard it is for people to stay organized when there is a never-ending stream of stuff coming into their house. The uncertainty of this pandemic has meant that people are buying items “just in case” they aren’t available later, as well as pieces they believe will make their homes more functional, beautiful or comfortable.
And I get it: Shopping makes people happy. New gadgets, clothes and decor bring people joy, at least in the short term. But there is a finite amount of space in our homes, and even fancy shelves that maximize our storage spaces fill up quickly. So, yes, shop for items you need and will enjoy, but don’t resort to shopping as a pastime. The serotonin released in your brain when something new arrives will eventually turn to anxiety and stress when pieces you didn’t need and don’t love are piled up around the house.
Some of my clients follow a one in, one out rule to manage the flow of new items into their homes, which you could try if you find you can’t stop shopping. For instance, if you buy a new pair of shoes, you get rid of an old pair. If you buy half a dozen new books, then donate half a dozen, too. In theory, you should not run out of space if you’re replacing items rather than adding more.
Organizing is never finished
Even if your home was organized before everything closed down in the spring, chances are you’ve had to move pieces around to adapt your storage and organization to everyone being home more often. And spaces that are constantly in use, such as your closet, pantry and garage, will always require some maintenance to keep them in order.
Likewise, less frequently used storage areas will periodically need to be cleared out to make room for new items. Do a little straightening up each day. Pick things up off the floor of your closet, throw away expired items in your pantry and regularly get rid of toys your kids have outgrown. A few minutes of tidying here and there can make a big difference. If you have a busy week or feel unmotivated for a few days, it’s no big deal. Just start again.
The organizing process is not about perfection; it’s about consistently keeping your home in order, so you can relax and enjoy it.
Anzia is owner of Neatnik.