How To Get Organized—Finally!

Clutter buster Mia Lotringer gives tips on how to organize your closets and your life.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 8, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When it comes to getting organized, we're our own worst enemies. We keep things because we persuade ourselves we'll need them—even if we haven't used them in five years and don't quite know where we've put them. There seems to be a security factor in just knowing they're around... somewhere.

But that turns out to be misplaced; it's our inner-hoarder talking. What most of us really need is a personal push to get organized, an experienced personal organizer to separate us emotionally from the possessions we no longer need and that clutter our minds as well as our space.

To get some tips on overcoming our worst string-saving instincts, I turned to a top professional organizer, Mia Lotringer, who runs C'est Fini! in Los Angeles (www.cestfini.com). What follows are her suggestions.

  • Open your mail every day. Or make a weekly appointment with yourself—and don't break it!—to open all your mail and pay all your bills.
  • Set up a weekly appointment with yourself to do the food shopping—and create a meal plan for the week with all the necessary groceries—so that you won't need to go to the grocery store all the time.
  • When you pick up your mail, always throw the junk mail out immediately. That leaves a smaller pile to contend with.
  • Shred everything with your name, address, and any personal information, especially credit card offers and anything with your social security number.
  • Once you have looked at a paper, take whatever action is needed right away.
  • Always put the ball in other people's court. The overall goal is to have no papers on your desk at all. In order to do that, act on all your open files; do your part and you won't have to think about the project, task or question—until the others get back to you. Put the papers you have acted on in a Pending File with a note as to the action taken, when and with whom. Then input a date in your calendar with an alert so that you can follow-up if necessary.
  • Get virtual: anything that you can keep as a document on your computer, do! Do not print out anything—unless you will need it outside your home or office. Always back up important information from your computer onto discs or a backup drive!
  • Organize your computer. Try to get files off the desktop—they are visual clutter. Reserve your desktop for the files you access every day. Create folders in your Documents folder to encompass a range of files: Recipes, Events, etcetera. Create categories and subcategories that make sense to you.
  • The biggest obstacle between you and your organized self is your fear of throwing things out. If you are a business, throw out all tax papers older than 11 years; individuals can safely throw out all financial papers older than seven years. Do keep birth and marriage certificates, social security cards, driver's licenses and passports, along with the deed/title to your home, homeowner's insurance in a safety deposit box or in a fireproof lock box and/or with copies with the family lawyer/financial advisor.
  • Get over the emotional roadblock to getting organized. You must be willing to throw things out! As a veteran organizer, I can honestly say that there is no one's home where something can't be thrown out—including mine! If there's an item you haven't used in six months, chances are you won't ever use it; it's only taking up space.
  • Go through your items quickly and make snap judgments—that first inclination is generally a good one. Then repeat the process. Often, you will find more items that you can live without. If you are holding onto something in case you "might" need it in the far off future, get rid of it! You can always buy whatever it is when you actually need it.
  • If you really can't throw things out, I suggest staging those items out of your life. Put the items in a box with a destroy date written onto it—generally about six months from now. If you find yourself needing to go into it to find something—and you end up actually using that item, not just taking it out of the box—put it with the items to keep. Anything left in the box at the end of the time should be thrown out.
  • If you are a frequent traveler, have a travel bag all ready to go, with toothbrush and miniature toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, body cream, liquid body soap, sunscreen; razor; brush/comb. Carry on extra socks for use on the plane, an extra layer, extra medication and prescription, hand cleaner, water mist and a bottle of water. Pack anything liquid, creamy or potentially messy in a Glad bag.
  • Create a To Do or task list, if possible on your PDA. Prioritize items and assign all a due date. If a task needs following up, set a date to take further action.
  • Get a PDA. If you back it up at least once week and back up your computer at least once a month, you will always have a copy of your address book, your calendar, your task list. It is a brain source—once you put it in there you don't have to think about it until it tells you to!
  • Do not get overwhelmed. Pick one thing that needs to get organized—the smaller the better—papers, computer files, clothes, linen closet, kitchen, mail, children's room, and work on that one thing until you are content that it is sufficiently organized. Then move onto the next item. Never attack the whole house at one time.