We’ve all had clutter creep into our lives at one point or another. Sometimes it can overwhelm us. Fear not; I bring you tidings of great joy – well, maybe not of great joy, but of hope. No matter how big your clutter issue is, it’s not hopeless.

It might be a month of unopened mail or many years of paper piles, and there comes a point when the idea of tackling it becomes daunting.

Maybe there’s a closet of clothes you may or may not wear or a spare bedroom overflowing with excess clothes, and you can’t muster the energy to separate what fits and is flattering from what’s outdated or no longer appropriate.

Here’s the thing. The longer you wait for the “perfect” time or “enough” time to tackle the entire clutter project – whatever it may be – the longer it’s going to build and build and nothing will get done and trust me when I tell you: clutter has negative energy that affects you mentally, emotionally, and physically. It can damage relationships and sometimes tears families apart.

Instead of making a vague New Year’s resolution to “get more organized” or “tackle all the clutter,” try this: start the year by breaking down those big clutter projects into specific, smaller, manageable projects. Clutter’s ability to overwhelm you diminishes when you chip away and make progress. Remember that fable about the tortoise and the hare? It’s true: Slow and steady can win the race.

Instead of negatively thinking, “I’ll never find the four hours I need to open and process my backlog of mail,” try this: “Each day I will open and process today’s mail PLUS ten pieces from that big ol’ pile.”

If there are paper piles everywhere, gather ‘em up. Fill a bin or two or ten. Start with broad categories:  Shred/Recycle/Toss/File/Pay/To Do and dig in. Put on some music that calms or energizes you and focus for a set period of time. See how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes and try to break your record by doing a little more tomorrow. Instead of just watching your favorite TV show, use that as a timer and sort papers. TV AND progress – win-win!

Don’t focus on the entire closet or roomful of clothing. Get up 15 minutes earlier each morning to try on three or four items. Decide if it’s keep, sell, or donate, then move on with your day. Wash, rinse, repeat.

If it’s a hodgepodge of clutter, choose a category and gather “like with like” – all wrapping paper, all books, all seasonal decor, all toys, all garbage – whatever it is, gather it up and attack that clutter one category at a time. Where should those books live? You can’t put something away if it doesn’t have a home…

By incorporating some of these suggestions into your daily routine rather than making vague, doomed-to-fail resolutions, you’ll be creating new habits that will serve you well in the long run and help keep clutter under control.

Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies. Maybe not intentionally, but still, it happens. We set a common goal like one of these:

  1. “I’m going to lose weight.” 
  2. “I have to save money.”
  3. “It’s time to get organized.”

But before we know it, *poof* the goal falls by the wayside, and we don’t understand why.

Maybe it’s because our goal was kinda wishy-washy, not very realistic, or without a finish line.

The concept of S.M.A.R.T. goals was originally geared towards business management, but it can be applied to everyday life issues just as effectively. As you can see in the graphic, the acronym stands for:

SPECIFIC ~ MEASURABLE ~ ACHIEVABLE ~ REALISTIC ~ TIMELY 

When you apply this to goal #1, rather than saying, “I’m going to lose weight.” a SMART goal could look more like this: “I’m going to lose 10 pounds by October 1st.” It’s specific, it’s measurable, it’s achievable, it’s realistic, and it has an end date. You can then formulate a plan for achieving your SMART goal such as taking a 30-minute walk twice a day.

Goal #2, “I have to save money!” is pretty vague. Are you saving for a new pair of shoes or a new car? How much money will you need, and when do you want it by? Without those details, it’s nearly impossible to formulate an executable plan. Once you figure that out, you decide what money-saving actions can you take. Maybe you’ll make coffee at home and skip the drive-through brew every day.

“I need to get organized!” What exactly does that mean? Is your closet floor covered by a mountainous heap of clothes? Is your kitchen table buried under piles of unopened mail? Could you find a battery or a paperclip if your life depended on it? (← hey, MacGyver could, so can you!) You can make measurable progress by setting SMART goals for yourself.

For example, make a decision about five articles of clothing in that pile on the floor every day after work until the pile is gone, and hang or fold whatever you’re keeping. If you don’t have enough hangers, get some. If you need a dresser, set a SMART goal for obtaining one.

In order to tackle paper piles, you need to systematically chip away at the mail. “I’m going to open and process today’s mail AND take care of ten pieces of the backlog every day.” Start putting junk mail in the recycle bin immediately instead of setting it down in the pile.

You can turn a junk drawer into your “go-to” drawer in about 15 minutes: dump everything out, toss the trash, and use a drawer organizer to sort the “keep” stuff into “like with like” categories.

Positive wording is more motivating, so add a smiley-face phrase as the carrot to dangle when creating your SMART goals:

  • “When I lose ten pounds, my clothes will fit more comfortably!” 
  • “I am looking forward to buying a car next spring when I’ve got the down payment!”
  • “My morning routine will be easier when my clothes closet is organized!”

Being organized isn’t an issue for me, although I recently overhauled my office space to make things flow better.

As for money management, the former accountant in me deals with the finances pretty effectively and efficiently.

But the weight loss issue? Houston, we have a problem. At my annual physical last week, some blood work numbers weren’t good. My doctor threw down the gauntlet: I have six months to make an improvement, which can be accomplished through better diet and exercise. Do I want to deal with it? Ah, no – not really. BUT. Do I want to be healthier? You betcha – for a lot of reasons, and for lots of people in my life.

That’s not to say it’s going to be easy, but by setting SMART goals, I hope to address the problems before they get worse. Here’s a link to an interesting article from Harvard Health about making lifestyle changes. It’s not that we don’t know WHAT we need to do, it’s finding our way to the right HOW, and navigating around our sabotaging habits. Wish me luck, and stay tuned…

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My clients hear that question all the time.

When they complain about the backpacks plopped in the middle of the kitchen floor, or the car keys that can’t be found when needed, or the pile of missing mail from two days ago…whether its backpacks, keys, or the incoming mail – whatever it is – I ask, “Where should that item live? Where is its home? We know where it doesn’t belong – where does it belong?”

This question is usually met with an eerie silence. That’s the problem in a nutshell, folks: you can’t put something away if it doesn’t have a home.

Keys on hooks

So: establishing a home is step one. The right spot should be logical, practical, and doable. Your child can’t slide a backpack into a cubby that’s four feet above her head, and it doesn’t make sense to walk through three rooms of the house to put away your car keys. Remember: logical, practical, and doable.

Step two is developing the habit of actually putting the item where it belongs, and that takes time.

Have faith – we humans are smart cookies. We can be trained to establish new routines so that, over time, hanging keys on a hook by the door will become a habit. Teach your child that the backpack goes on a reachable peg every day when she comes in from school. Put the incoming mail in that one designated spot so you can find it when you’re ready to process it, and in a matter of weeks, maybe even days, some common daily frustrations will actually be eliminated by answering that one simple question: Where should it live?