The perfect product for organizing your life may be waiting on a store shelf, but experts recommend starting the job instead with careful planning.
"The last thing you want to do is buy organizers before you start organizing," says Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on TLC's Clean Sweep and author of How to Organize Just About Everything. "I know a lady in Los Angeles who heard about a store closing nearby, so she went out and bought a whole section of containers," he said. "Her house is still chronically disorganized, and now she has a garage full of empty containers."
By every measure, the organizing industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Membership in the National Association of Professional Organizers increased by more than a third in 2004, from 2000 to 3000 members. Experts predict sales of products that help people organize and store stuff will increase by 7 percent annually for the foreseeable future, and television shows like TLC's Clean Sweep are gaining popularity every day.
"People feel overwhelmed," says Walsh. "Clutter sucks energy and can take over your life. We all acquired a ton of stuff thinking it would bring us happiness, but a fundamental fact is that you have a richer life with less stuff and more open space with room to live comfortably and breathe."
The most overwhelming thing about organizing is looking at an entire house, so start small," he says. "My grandmother always said the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Work on a countertop, or a medicine cabinet or a bedside table and commit to organizing that small area. Once you start seeing small advances, it's easier to tackle bigger projects."
He adds, "Small or large jobs require careful purging. Most people have plenty of room for what they need if they get rid of the rest of it.
"Commit to filling two bags of stuff every day, one for trash and one to donate or give away," Walsh said. "Go through clothes, books and shoes and get rid of one item for every four you keep."
Most people wear 20 percent of their clothes 80 percent of the time, he adds. If cleaning out a closet is emotionally challenging, Walsh recommends turning every hanger from front to back at the start of a season. "If you wear something, hang it back correctly, and it will be easy to see what you've worn and what you haven't at the end of the season."
For many families, even worse than a closet is the garage.
The garage is a place where everybody dumps things they don't know what else to do with," says Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers and author of the upcoming book, Organize Your Garage in No Time.
First, get rid of the obvious trash that has no sentimental value for fast and easy impact. Then, remove every item from the spot you are working on. Put each item into one of four piles: "trash," "sell or give away," "short-term storage" or "long-term storage."
"You'll need to make some hard choices here," Izsak said. "It may have been Aunt Sally's or it may have cost $200, but if it's not useful or relevant, then you don't have any logical reason to keep it, and you need to get rid of it now."
Sort again, grouping similar items together, such as sports equipment, cleaning supplies, holiday decorations, etc. Decide where both short- and long-term storage should be, how much space it will take, how accessible it needs to be and the best way to maximize space.
"This is where you start looking at the products," Izsak said. "The best product in the world may be wrong for your personal circumstances." For instance, some people can't handle the clutter on shelves so they're best off with closed systems, whether it's individual containers or cabinets designed specifically for use in a garage. Other people, however, may forget where they put things if they can't see them, so open shelving would be a better option.
"Knowing exactly what and how much stuff needs to be stored also makes it easier to select appropriate organizing equipment," he adds. "Hang things that you can hang to get them up and out of the way, but buy bins for balls and sports equipment that need to stay together."
Plan on storing items used daily or weekly at eye-height or lower, and seasonal items, such as camping equipment and holiday decorations, up higher.
But remember that organizing your life -- or your garage -- is a process, not an event, Izsak adds. "It took years to accumulate all this stuff, so don't expect to organize it in an hour. And don't expect it to stay organized unless you stick with the system. It's easy for stuff to take over our lives if we don't stay on top of it."