Clutter Busters : Tips on how people with ‘pack-rat syndrome’ can put their homes in order and organize their lives


The reactions to my announcement ranged from astonishment to disgust.

“I’m taking a week off to organize my house,” I said.

“Why?!” gasped one friend as if in pain.

“Get a life,” snapped a co-worker in exasperation.


“But your house looks so neat,” another friend said with a supportive pat on the arm.

Then my mother said, “It’s about time!”

As only a mom can, she knew the truth: I’m a closet slob. (I wonder if this admission can get me on the cover of People?)

Other than the kitchen counters piled with fairly neat stacks of kids’ school papers, most of my mess is usually hidden. Every drawer is a junk drawer; the closets still have baby rompers hanging in them, and my youngest is a husky 4 year old. After five moves in as many years, the boxes I haven’t sorted through yet have labels like, “Things From Under the Bed at Poppy Peak Drive.” We left that house in 1989.


You’d think moving often would help my affliction. No. The boxes, piles, stuffed dresser drawers arrive intact. Who has time for meaningful sorting when a beefy, perspiring mover is standing over your shoulder demanding, “What’s next, lady?”

For me, the only way to accomplish this repugnant but necessary task was to schedule time off from work to do it. It wasn’t about being fanatical--it was about gaining control of my life and the little things that cluttered it.

So, organizing books and videos in hand, I submerged myself into the expert advice of the potty-trained-too-early.

Here’s what worked for me in my quest for a streamlined household.


--Set a deadline. Most people thrive under a little stress. When I was an active realtor it amazed me how, before the listing date, clients could transform “Animal House” into an abode that could charm Donna Reed. It was the magic of the deadline at work. Or, maybe it was just that strangers would soon be peering into every closet, drawer and cabinet they owned. Another deadline you could set for yourself would be to schedule a garage sale--and place an ad--so your clutter can become someone else’s problem.

--Work within a time limit rather than worry about finishing each organizing project. Smaller areas you’re likely to complete anyway, once you get into it. More daunting tasks--my closet, for instance--seemed less formidable since I could leave my work when the quitting bell rang. Just like Fred Flintstone.

--Finish some projects each day if your organizing “fest” is continuing over several days. I kept going back to my orderly bathroom vanity for inspiration. Even if yours is a single project, divide a larger task into smaller, doable parts so you feel a sense of accomplishment.

--Ignore (sometimes) the organizing experts. A lot of their advice is good, some is beyond reason. Example: Cancel all subscriptions. That’s ridiculous--I like to read and it’s cheaper to subscribe. If you can’t throw away a yellowed newspaper or a several-months-old magazine, then you have more problems than a how-to article can fix.


Or there’s Stephanie Schur of Space Organizers who insists you replace all your hangers, even perfectly good plastic ones, with matching hangers so it looks less “cluttery.” Oh puh-leez.

--Invite a friend to help you. Disciplined pals only; anal retentive preferred. Offer to trade your help with something he or she needs to do. Just having company for some endeavors, like sorting the toy heap, made a huge difference.

--Look on the bright side, organizing your house can be as much fun as shopping--without spending any money! I found the watch I lost in December, new shoes I’d forgotten about, misplaced gift certificates (to Nordstrom, no less). I can now put off schlepping to Toys R Us for months since my kids are enjoying their newfound playthings--with all their sundry parts reunited.

--One of the most useful tips I found is a painless way to streamline my message-taking. Paulette Ensign of Organizing Solutions suggests you put a spiral notebook by your main phone. Place large sticky notes by all others. When you take a message, either write it directly in the book or use the note and stick it into the book ASAP. No more “Where’s that @%*! phone number!” at my house. So simple it’s sickening.


--Kid stuff. The ubiquitous toy chest just doesn’t work as a catchall, say Ronni Eisenberg and Kate Kelly, authors of “Organize Your Family” (Hyperion, 1993). They’re right. Little items sift to the bottom never to resurface again.

But chests are great for storing one category of things like dress-up clothes, blankets and so on. I moved ours to the back door and filled it with bulky, outdoor playthings like balls, bats, rackets, water pistols and sand toys. The rest of the toys are on sorted preschool style, each type of toy in neatly labeled bins.

The theme that was pounded into my head by the experts was to make sure the kids can reach all their belongings.

--Don’t be a yo-yo organizer.


Think about how much time you used to waste frantically searching for misplaced items. Now you can spend a few minutes each night or morning putting things away. Make this as important--and routine--as brushing your teeth. It’s still my daily struggle: There may not be a 12-step program for me, but I’m recovering.

The best advice comes from my grandmother, Lorenza Santana: “Don’t think about it, just do it.” You can apply those words of wisdom to most of life’s distasteful tasks.

Now I’m ready for a vacation.

Hughes edits the Woman’s Pages and Travel sections for L.A. Parent magazine and sister publications Parenting and San Diego Parent. Her next organizing project is her desk at work.