Jennifer Strachan tells the story of a busy friend who once called to say she’d only had time that day to clean a closet, but boy, did that closet look good.

When the woman’s children came home from school and new messes began to rapidly accumulate, she went to the closet, looked in and said with an exhaling breath, “OK.”

“I always though that was cute and funny, kind of goofy and truthful,” said Strachan, a professional organizer and owner of In Its Place Organizing Services in Neenah. “But it’s not only the clutter that’s a problem. Look at what’s going on in our lives. We are all busy.”

And clutter is a sign of postponed decisions. Translated: I don’t know where this goes so I’ll just put it here for now. And there it remains, said nationally renowned home and time management pioneer Deniece Schofield, who is coming to Appleton Tuesday to give seminars.

But the good news is that organizing isn’t an innate skill but a learnable one, said Julie Morgenstern in her book, “Organizing from the Inside Out.” Some people have simply never learned how to organize. Once you learn the tricks of the trade, maintenance takes minutes as opposed to weeks or months.

“Don’t you feel good when you walk into an area of your home that has been cleared out?” Strachan said. “It’s more relaxing when you can see what you need.”

“People don’t have to look for things, don’t have to make a mess looking for things and don’t have to interrupt you, asking where is such and such because they’ve always seen it in the same place and know where the tape is,” Schofield added. “And if you store things where people use them, if you put them away at least they are in the same room, which helps a lot, especially if you have kids.”

Strachan calls it prime real estate.

Getting Down to Work

As a third-grade teacher at Hoover Elementary School in Neenah, Jill Dujardin said she’s naturally organized.

“A lot of people come to me because they can count on me to find things,” the Neenah wife and mother of two said. “But I’m also a pack rat. As a teacher, you’re always like ‘I might use this.’ So you save everything. It’s only starting now that I have too much, and I can’t organize it. So I got to the point I had to start getting rid of things.”

Dujardin met three times over the summer with Strachan to get her home in order. Now that her kids are old enough to be doing chores, she said she couldn’t expect them to, say, empty the dishwasher and stack plates and bowls if they didn’t know where to put them.

“I told my husband, ‘If we want them to be successful, we need to set it up so they know what they need to do,'” Dujardin said.

Strachan follows Morgenstern’s S.P.A.C.E. approach. Standing for sort, purge, assign a home, containerize and equalize, the acronym is said to be a foolproof system for organizing home, office and life.

The first and most important things are to sort and purge, Strachan said.

“Don’t we, a lot of times, go into a room, especially the basement, and say, ‘I have just got to get this cleared out. If I get some shelves and some cupboards and new containers, this will all go away.’ Right? Well you buy the containers and you buy the shelves and you get it all installed, and you still have all that stuff. It’s almost like putting the cart before the horse.”

For those who have a hard time letting go, sorting is key.

“By really sorting things out, you’ve touched it once and kind of gotten through that aspect of, wait a minute, I can let go of this?” Strachan said. “It helps you reduce and takes away the emotion a little bit. Sorting is so important. And I think sometimes people look at me like, huh? But it really makes a difference.”

The first step in organizing Dujardin’s TV and living area, for example, was to have children Evan, 10, and Lindsay, 12, weed out toys no longer age appropriate, which were bleeding into the living room. Now, each child has a storage space and each item has its own specific drawer.

In The Kitchen

In a kitchen, prime real estate areas are closest to the sink and stove. Dujardin has an older kitchen where space and cabinet are tight. Again, the first step was to thin out old or replicated items and then put the remaining items in the most appropriate place.

“Store things where people use them,” Schofield said. “When you pick up something, where do I use it first? If you use it first by the sink, store it by the sink. If you use it first somewhere else, store it close to that area.”

Dujardin housed her cleaning supplies above the stove, which was a good spot when her children were young, but now those items can be removed from the kitchen and stored elsewhere to open up space. Old or expired canned goods also were tossed.

“It’s been handy because we used dividers and made one where we put all my husband’s grilling spices and rubs so now he’ll pull that (drawer) out to look for the chicken or pork rub or whatever,” Dujardin said.

In The Bedroom

Schofield is a big believer that toys don’t belong in a bedroom.

“The best way to do toys is to store them on shelves and bins by category so kids can find what they want without dumping everything, and they can literally toss them back in the bin when it comes to putting them away, she said. “And if you have small children, when organizing toys, you need to keep the big stuff on the bottom and the stuff with all the little pieces on the top. So if they want that stuff, they have to come ask for it … so it’s out of their reach. It’s nice to have everything in one place and you only have to make one decision: The toys go in there.”

Clothes are the biggest mess maker in a bedroom. Again, start by sorting by putting clothes in three piles: Yes, I want it; no, I don’t want it; and maybe I do want it, which probably will be the largest pile.

Next, pare down the maybe pile to half of what it is by asking why you are not wearing a particular item.

“Does it fit? Am I saving this because it’s going to come back into style? And I’m old enough to know now when stuff comes back in style, it comes back a little different,” Schofiled said. “You can tell 1970s bellbottoms from 1990s bellbottoms. It might have a stain or you might be saving it because a certain person gave it to you. Maybe a belt or button is missing so maybe you can repair that.”

What’s not kept can be donated. Expensive outfits can be sold to a consignment stop.

“Keep in your closet the current season, which is hard in the Midwest because our seasons overlap.” Schofield said.

Once a Space is Organized

Once a space is organized, your job is not yet done.

“You have to train yourself and any other person that lives in the house with you,” Strachan said. “You have to follow through … and change their habits.”

By Cheryl Anderson
Post-Crescent staff writer
October 4, 2008

In Its Place Organizing Services