My family of four shares a 950-square-foot apartment with only one (albeit large) closet. Here’s my advice on how to make the most of the space you have while keeping the chaos at bay.

10 Tips for Clutter Control
Thomas J. Story / Sunset Publishing

I am a notorious neat freak at the office. Not in the sense that seeing a speck of dirt on a surface makes me break out in hives, but I do keep my space quite spare and tidy. (And yes, I’m also that person who regularly cleanses her email inbox, doesn’t let notifications pile up on smartphone apps, and doesn’t have all kinds of stuff lying around in her car…minus the layer of Cheerio and Goldfish crumbs littering the floor beneath the two car seats in back.) Ahem. When the women from New Minimalism came to speak to our staff last month in preparation for our office move, my coworkers joked that I could skip the seminar—what could I possibly glean?

I might have an orderly space at work, but what people don’t know is that I deal with considerable clutter issues at home, where my family of four shares a 950-square-foot apartment with only one (albeit large) closet. And with two preschool-aged kids, the ever-increasing flow of artwork coming home—along with the toys that Grandma “just had to” buy—constantly forces me to make hard decisions about what can stay and what can go. (Perhaps this is why my desk stays so neat at work? A person needs balance.)

Anyhow, based on my own experience, and the workshop that we did with Kyle and Cary of New Minimalism, here’s my advice on how to make the most of the space you have while keeping the chaos at bay. Remember, not all tips may apply to you, and you don’t have to adopt all of them at once, but if you follow these suggestions, you’ll be on your way to taming the clutter beast.

Be Proactive

Process mail as it comes in, and file papers immediately. Think of it like another common household task: It’s easier to do each dish as it’s used, rather than wait until there’s a big, overwhelming pile in the sink.

Set Up a Junk Zone

But let’s be real, not every day will lend itself to such efficiency. So forgive yourself and set up a dedicated space for junk. The ideal container or spot will be small, shallow, and highly visible, such as an inbox tray on your desk. Think of this as a concrete version of your to-do list. Build 10-15 minutes into your daily or weekly routine to tackle it—or simply deal with your mail and papers once your “inbox” fills up.

Create Negative Space

Don’t overwhelm every available inch with stuff, but rather allow for breathing room. When special items are crammed into the chaos of a full shelf, they don’t have ample room to shine.

Sort Smartly

When items need a permanent home, either on a shelf or in storage, classify your stuff by category. Start with an easy-to-identify category, e.g. books, to gain momentum. Take out all items in that category, place them where you can see them, and then go through the pile one by one, only keeping the best of the best. When in doubt, evaluate whether you really need the item at all.

Create a Storage System

Make sure it’s sustainable and organized. I’m partial to storing objects by category in clear plastic bins. The Container Store is your friend. If you’re really feeling it, get a label maker.

Limit Influx

If you have a problem category (I have two: artwork and toys), only allow a certain amount of space for items in this category. This is like the larger-scale version of the inbox on your desk. When you reach capacity in that category and you want to add something new, you need to let go of something that you already have to make space for it. This either means rotating older items into deep storage or giving them away. In the case of artwork, consider digitizing.

Digitize, Digitize, Digitize

News flash: It’s the 21st century! If you’re still hanging onto media formats that are borderline obsolete, consider joining a streaming media service or converting your CD and DVD collections into digital files (the latter will require time investment). Apps like Artkive allow you to take photos of your children’s artwork and store it digitally. In the case of digitizing papers especially, you’ll need to think about what’s worth your time and effort—i.e., decide what your priorities are before going on a scanning marathon.

Get Ready to Shred

Not everything needs to be saved or digitized, but if you’re wary of tossing documents with personal info in the recycling bin, invest in a shredder. My husband and I used to hold onto old documents that we thought would be important someday. Old paystubs from two jobs ago? Tax documents from 2005? Car insurance billing statements dating back several years? The reality was that we hadn’t looked at these since we first filed them. All became food for the shredder.

Put Your Closet on Notice

My general rule of thumb when it comes time to purge my wardrobe: If I haven’t looked at it, or thought about it, in 6 months or longer, it can go. I always keep the items that I feel are the most flattering and the most versatile, with a keen eye for eliminating redundant articles of clothing (i.e. too many basic black tops). If you’re hanging onto items that have sentimental value, like your grandmother’s wedding dress or your child’s first pair of shoes, think hard about whether or not you need that piece of clothing in its pure form, or if you can live with a nice photo of it instead.

Pay It Forward

When you’re plagued with doubt about whether something should stay or go, it probably just needs to go. But that doesn’t mean it needs to get tossed in the trash. Re-gifting (when appropriate, of course), donating, or participating in a clothing or toy swap are excellent ways to purge, yet not contribute to landfill, and to potentially do some good. Often, thinking of how happy the item will make the new recipient will ease the letting go.