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LifeBalance Blog

Win the Clutter Battle for Good

I have a wonderful mother-in-law who could give tidy June Cleaver from the television series Leave It to Beaver a run for her money. The year I was born, she was nominated for St. Paul Suburban Homemaker of the Year. Even before I heard that, I figured I was in trouble, but after getting over my irrational fear of my tidy and well-organized mother-in-law, I realized she was onto something. Frankly, I wanted what she had, so I set off to learn the secrets of professional organizers.

It is as simple as one, two, three. Primary, secondary and tertiary space and stuff. You can think like a professional organizer in your own home. I teach this organizing principle to my students. This organizing rule of thumb is: Primary stuff goes in primary space. Secondary stuff is kept in secondary space. And, tertiary stuff goes in, well, now you get the idea.

Primary space is space that is easy to get to. Primary stuff is stuff you use frequently. In a kitchen, primary space is from waist to shoulder height. That is why the silverware drawer, which is used several times per day, is in primary space. Primary space is prime real estate—choice locations that you use often because they are easy to reach and you spend your time there. The kitchen counter is prime real estate—only utensils used daily may live on the counter. Secondary stuff like dated crock-pots, stand mixers, dusty decorations, and infrequently used bread machines move elsewhere.

Secondary space is less easily accessible. Reach up into a kitchen cupboard for a platter or bend down and take a pot from a lower cabinet to access secondary stuff stored in secondary space. If you use that crock-pot or bread machine weekly, then, and only then, may it live in secondary space.

Tertiary kitchen storage includes the cabinet above the refrigerator or the dead corner of a base cabinet. I used to go crawling in on my hands and knees into our base cabinet dead corner with a flashlight to look for my crock-pot and other surprises forgotten there.

One clutter problem was tertiary and secondary stuff creeping into my primary space. The bread maker I hadn't used in months lived on my kitchen counter! I wasn't using it, but I regularly had to move it to clean under it and wipe it down. I even had the audacity to complain about not having enough counter space.

I wasn't the only one complaining. My husband complained that his shirts were overcrowded on his side of our small bedroom closet. I discovered they were crushed together because his high school trombone was sitting at one end of his side of the closet. The trombone crowded his shirts and prevented them from hanging straight. I moved his tromboneto a basement storage closet. He didn't notice the trombone was gone, but he quit complaining that his shirts were jammed in and wrinkled up in the closet.

I tell my students that I hope they won't find my husband's trombone in their closet. But, seriously, I do ask them to go home and look for their own “trombones.” Maybe it will be the bocce ball set that crowded the boots all winter in the entryway closet. Maybe it will be the unused doughnut fryer in the kitchen cabinet that limits space for everyday pots and pans. Find your trombones. If you aren't willing to toss them, at least you can move them out of your primary space:

Start small: Work with small spaces or in small amounts of time. Do one drawer or shelf at a time. A drawer could be straightened while you are on the phone. Or, spend only ten minutes a day, perhaps at the end of each day. Your dresser could be completed in a week.

Thin down: How many “extras” do you really need? Less really can be more. Have more peace, energy, and time for what is important to you. Donate your discards and excess. Be happy knowing you are helping someone less fortunate. Be realistic about your life. If you do laundry once a week or more, why would you need thirty pairs of (you fill in the blank)?

Give yourself joy: Discover the pleasure of having only things that fill you with joy instead of guilt or sadness. Get rid of what doesn’t fit, the stuff that you don’t like, and items you probably won’t take the time to repair.

Measure and plan: If you are going to buy or make smaller storage compartments, measure the stuff you want to store and the space you want to store it in. Don’t stand in the store wondering if the cute plastic containers you’ve found will hold what you want, or fit in the drawer you want to put them in!

Organize and maintain: Create a system that will keep things simple for you. The basic rule of organization is to divide to conquer. Smaller spaces, accomplished with drawer dividers, clear storage boxes, or extra shelving, help keep quantities down by being a visual wake-up call when a compartment overflows.

With these simple thoughts, you can think like a professional organizer, have a home as inviting as my mother-in-law’s, and free up time and energy for your priorities!

Barbara Tako is a clutter clearing motivational speaker and author of Clutter Clearing Choices: Clear Clutter, Organize Your Home, & Reclaim Your Life, a seasonally organized book of clutter clearing tips readers may pick and choose from to fit their personal style. She is also a breast cancer and melanoma survivor who wrote Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We’ll get you through this. Her website is

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