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Posted on Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 7:54 a.m.

Organizing tips for people who hate step-by-step tips

By Judy DiForte


photo from stock_xchange

"I don’t know where to start. It’s overwhelming!"

That’s what most clients say when consulting on an organizing project. It can be daunting, but it’s like any large undertaking. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!

No project can be done all at once. But even the process of breaking it down can overwhelm some of us. "Not only do I have this project, I have to outline it first? Like with Roman numerals and phases and stages and steps? AARGH!"

Yep, we hear that all the time. But, you may well wonder, if you can't break it down, how can you hope to achieve your goal? How can you get to California without a map?

Just start walking west!

Same goes for getting organized without clearcut steps. Just start. It’s really that simple. Pick up the item that’s closest to you.

The website throwoutfiftythings advocates asking, "Does it make me happy? Do I really need it? Would I pass it on to my children or other people I love?" If you can't answer yes to at least one of those questions, it has got to go. (By the way, "throw out" here just means to get it out of the house, preferably by selling, donating or recycling it.)

Getting rid of clutter is the crucial beginning of any organizing project — and sometimes the end, as well. There’s an expression, "Clear desk, clear mind." It's hard to sit down at a messy desk and feel inspired to begin working. Space is calming. It invites creativity. Clutter blocks creativity, because it fills in all the gaps with stuff that's already been created.

Here’s another good site:

Here you’ll read how to part with sentimentally charged items by linking your emotions to the memory itself, rather than to the physical symbol of the memory. 

Okay, so back to the mixed metaphor of the edible elephant and walking west to California. Find ways other than outlines, maps or flow charts to measure your progress:

* Use time as your metric. Set a timer for an hour, for example, and go through items, decluttering, until the timer goes off. If you did this every day, by week's end, you'd have really made a dent.

* Use empty boxes and plan, for example, to fill one donation box per day for a week.

* Work outward from where you are. Let's say you’re sitting at your desk. Pick up each item on the desk, asking the above questions — do I need it? Do I love it? Would I pass it along to a loved one? When you’re done with the desk, look at what’s around the desk. Keep moving outward, bit by bit every day for a week.

As professional organizers, we at the Betty Brigade see many homes with unbelievable amounts of clutter. Sometimes the person has passed away, and we're called in to clear out the home and ready it for sale. It's astonishing how much stuff accumulates when you’ve lived somewhere for 50 years and raised a family there.

When I need inspiration to declutter my own home, I imagine my family having to come in and deal with it all. Once I see my own clutter as a burden to my loved ones, I have no trouble parting with it.

That’s the negative push.

The positive motivation for me is knowing the luxury of space. We as a culture undervalue space. We think of it as nothingness, when really it's something very special.

Space has infinite potential. As soon as you put something there, that space is defined and unavailable for anything else. But when protected and left empty, space contains every possibility, and that nurtures our creative selves.

How do you feel when you walk into a clean, clear room and sit down to work? I feel calm and restful. I feel flow. That's because the creative spirit can stretch, move and breathe. There is room for me there.

Something could happen there. Anything could happen there. That’s the inifinite potential in space. It invites flow and stimulates inner energies.

Let this be the year we celebrate space — the final frontier!

I’d love to hear your ideas on de-cluttering. Any tips to share? Special roadblocks you face?

Judy DiForte is a professional organizer for the Betty Brigade, an Ann Arbor-based concierge company specializing in move coordination, organizing and event planning. Email her at, or leave a comment here.


Sarah Rigg

Thu, Jan 12, 2012 : 2:05 p.m.

I use the timer method when I know there's a lot to do but I'm overwhelmed with both de-cluttering and just general cleaning and housekeeping. Set a timer for 10 minutes and challenge myself to, for instance, see how much I can get done in the kitchen or the bathroom. I also will enlist my husband to clean and organize one closet or one bookshelf or one desk and it's kind of fun -and usually faster- to have someone help you with it.

Craig Lounsbury

Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 5:47 p.m.

"How do you eat an elephant?..." I wouldn't recommend eating an elephant. Not in this town. The outrage would be.....outrageous.

Judy DiForte

Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 10:32 p.m.

Oh, I wasn't going to do in THIS town.

Antonia Naten

Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 5:15 p.m.

Great tips here and since I'm cleaning out my apartment and getting ready to move in March, great time as well! I'm actually going to forward this article to my sister since she seems to need all the help she can get when it comes to organizing -- apparently her cubicle at work is the worst. I've helped her constantly keep her apartment as clean as possible and its not too bad since its pretty small, but even then she has such a tendancy to let things pile up. I have a friend who works at her office who is worked she might get written up because of the mess in her cubicle. They've tried to be subtle and even funny as well -- they sent her an entry form to an online contest for messy cubicles called "Pimp My Cubicle" and she still didn't get it. Any office tips maybe?

Judy DiForte

Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 10:31 p.m.

My next blog is going to be on organizing your workspace -- good timing! I don't know your sister's situation, but I wonder, does the messiness bother her? Is she able to find what she wants when she wants it? If so, despite all appearances, she is organized. If not... and it bothers her, the first thing would be to get it organized, but the process can't stop there, or another mess will take the place of the first one. This may sound kind of textbook, but you need a system that really works for you, to keep the mess at bay. Not everyone is a filing cabinet person. The person has to resonate with the system. Otherwise, s/he won't use it, and the mess will return.


Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 4:13 p.m.

commercial breaks. While watching tv and a commercial comes on throw something away or put it in it's place. If you start with one thing you will soon do another and another. or start with one closet or one cupboard. once you clear an area that is it, don't allow yourself to clutter it up again. also for those that find it hard then trying organizing as a Lent thing. Some people say they will refrain from eating out, or will make an effort to pack a lunch. Others give up using thier credit cards. I say try giving up bringing new things into the house and everyday I try to take something out of the house, even if it is a newspaper to put into recycling. I also have a garage sale every year, whether I think I have enough stuff or not to have one, I usually end up finding things to purge and with a friend setting up with me we end up with enough stuff for a sale. challange yourself to fill one or two bags of stuff to take to the Salvation Army. once a month try to eat only from your fridge or cupboard without going out to buy more. if you have kids make organizing, purging, donating a game. Even if you have to bribe them with a treat or a dollar. Hide coins and let them know if they find it while cleaning they can keep it.

Judy DiForte

Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 4:52 p.m.

These are GREAT ideas. I'm going to try the eating only from the fridge and pantry idea. I'm sure I have items that are approaching their expiration dates...