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Ever walk into someone's spotless, clutter-free house and wonder how she does it? The key, experts agree, is to follow a few simple rules (and to bend a few others).
Maintain critical mass. You already own most of what you need, so think of every new item you buy as a replacement, not an addition. When you bring home a fancy new skillet or cute sweater, throw away an old one.
Declutter every single day. When you stay on top of a problem, it doesn't mushroom into a mess requiring a massive cleanup. Devoting 10 or 15 minutes every day to tidying up will save you untold hours down the road.
Cherish memories, not objects. There's no need to hang on to that pint-size table your kids doodled at to remember them as adorable toddlers. Belongings should relate to your life now, not be rooted in the past.
Remember the classic rule. The cliche is (mostly) true: If you haven't worn or used something in two years, toss it. The exception? If it truly motivates you or makes you smile, says Gail Blanke, author of Throw Out Fifty Things. Unloading should be freeing, not forced; otherwise there's no benefit.
Time it right. A sure way to make a cluttered space more so: Start tackling it, only to run out of time halfway through. To avoid letting a chore drag out over several weekends, clear your schedule and double the number of hours you think it will take.
Appreciate the value of order. Streamlining your desk so you have room to think or paring down your Tupperware so you can actually find a container (with a lid) for leftovers is a form of "self-care," says Sara Bereika, a professional organizer in Richmond, Virginia, who appears on the show Hoarders. "Organized people tend to see more clearly how their environment affects their emotional well-being."
Stick to the shopping list. Even if it means (gulp) breezing past the two-for-one laundry detergent display or table of handbags marked 40 percent off. Impulse buying saddles you with a lot of stuff you neither need nor have the room to store.
Keep your eye on the prize. Ask a runner why she loves the sport and she'll mention the endorphin high it gives her. Decluttering produces a similar effect. "Decide to get rid of stuff and you instantly feel lighter, invigorated, more optimistic," promises Blanke.
You're up to your eyeballs in mementos. What to keep, what to dump? Answering these questions will help point the way.
Does it make me happy?
Answer yes to this one and you can make a case for just about anything, says Blanke. But be honest. The garish necklace your husband gave you the first Christmas you were together (which still makes you laugh) might be a keeper, but the following year's holiday sweater (which caused you to seriously question his judgment)? Let it go.
Where will I put it?
Everything you own should have a legitimate home -- a drawer in the china cabinet for Grandma's silver, a shelf for your son's swim trophies. A box in the attic with a bunch of other stuff you don't know what to do with? Doesn't count, says Blanke.
Am I willing to display it?
"Keepsakes are things you should be proud to share with others," says Bereika. If you're not motivated to put it on a wall or in an album, you should question its worth. As for stuff with "potential" (like the antique desk you hauled home two years ago), ask yourself: "Am I really going to restore this?"
Do I have duplicates?
"A collection is one thing. Every piece of paper your child ever scribbled on is another," says New York City-based professional organizer Andrew Mellen, author of Unstuff Your Life! He advocates keeping only the best examples from the different stages of your child's development.
Am I keeping it out of guilt?
The gaudy quilt your mother-in-law insisted you have, the oversize curio cabinet from your aunt. Face it, you're holding on to these purely out of obligation, not sentiment. If, and only if, the item's absence will be noticed, have a tactful conversation with the giver. Then donate it to Goodwill.
Am I saving it for someone else?
Who says the person will actually want it? While your teenage daughter might appreciate your wedding china one day, saddling her with your old Beanie Baby collection is a different story, says Mellen. (See guilt-laden gifts, above.)
Your Home Office
Run bracket shelving around the perimeter of a small room, about a foot below the ceiling, and use the space to display collections: Think books in an office, trophies in a kid's bedroom, and china in a dining room or breakfast nook. Paint the shelves the same color as the trim to create a built-in look.
Your Living Room
A storage ottoman or coffee table with a cabinet or drawers is a no-brainer for stashing video game equipment, DVDs, magazines, and the like, but you can make an open-design table functional, too, by placing a row of baskets beneath it.
Carve out a closet or build in drawers or shelves under stairs, where there's often an open space. Another option? Finish off the area and place a desk or bench below the slope, creating an office or mudroom nook. (Unless you're pretty handy, these are jobs for a carpenter.)
Lay plywood planks between beams to create a surface for light boxes, hang off-season clothes (in bags) from beams, and (in tight spaces) install Attic Trac Plus ($60, homedepot.com), a platform that slides back and forth on a track.
We live in a digital world, so why do papers, CDs, and old VHS tapes continue to accumulate? Here are some items to consign immediately to cyberspace.
Keep financial and medical records, mortgage papers, and other key documents accessible, organized, and safe by scanning them and uploading them to a site like Dropbox.com, which offers two gigabytes of free storage space in virtual folders. Looking for a more sophisticated system? Try Delphivim.com or Siftsort.com ($8 to $10 per month). If you prefer to store and back up the info at home, go to Neatco.com in order to purchase a high-speed scanner and digital filing software.
You could spend hours uploading your CD library to iTunes. Or you could get your tech-savvy teen to do it for you. Another option? Send the whole lot to Riptopia.com and let the techs there put the music on external hard drives or DVDs ($1 per CD; approximately 30 to 70 CDs fit on a single DVD). Want to ditch discs altogether? A company named iPodMeister sells used CDs and DVDs overseas and will digitize your music and mail you a free iPod, iPad, or other device based on the size of your collection in exchange for the discs (ipodmeister.com).
Photos and Home Movies
Before you had a digital camera and high-def camcorder you had zillions of snapshots and videotapes and slides. Streamline your archives (and actually watch those old movies again) by sending them to The Photo Archival Company (archivalcompany.com), which converts many forms of media to digital format on DVDs (photos, 24 cents each; VHS tapes, $11; slides, 44 cents).
Keyingredient.com lets you store your recipes in a virtual "cookbook" on your computer or smartphone, share it with other users, and browse their collections for free. Or simply scan existing recipes into your computer. If cooking with your laptop or iPhone in the kitchen sounds too risky, you can sync the recipes with the Demy digital recipe reader ($200, mydemy.com). This Kindle-size device holds up to 2,500 recipes and is built to withstand spills and splashes.
Scrap the clunky Rolodex and use a scanner to digitize cards and sync them with an electronic address book, such as Outlook. Photograph your cards and load them into your contacts with the CardScan app ($10) for the iPhone or BlackBerry. Not into do-it-yourself? Companies like CloudContacts will do the work for you (prices start at $30 for 100 cards, cloudcontacts.com).
Okay, so it's generally true that buying more stuff only creates more clutter. But these storage solutions earn their keep by consolidating random disorder into a single tidy entity. Do try this at home.
-- Lauren Piro
Cubby-size shelves force you to streamline your knickknack collection and organize items logically. Show off frames, books, or even small storage bins in the square slots. Expedit bookcase, $129, ikea.com
These well-built mix-and-match trays work in any size drawer. Stack them to double storage capacity. Five-piece bamboo organizer box set, $26, organize.com
Stow away extra linens, free weights, or even stray toys in this pretty printed storage bench. Canary storage bench, $179, target.com
Keep office supplies out of sight in beautiful birch boxes like these. Birch storage boxes, $30, cb2.com
This cute hamper is great for stashing dirty duds. Plus its drawstring closure makes for easy toting to the washing machine. Laundry box by Reisenthel, $30, containerstore.com
Neatly arranged in this under-the-bed storage rack, shoes are just a footstep away when you're ready to head out the door. Under-bed rolling shoe rack, $25, bedbathandbeyond.com
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2011.