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A little bit of effort will reap huge rewards

Some years ago, during what I will refer to as a life-transition phase (read: relationship break up), I moved from a three bedroom home to a small apartment which, while charming, had just under 500 square feet to house me and my things. Necessity being what it is, I embraced this square footage as a way of taking stock of what I did and didn’t need in my life. One advantage to living in a small space is that you quickly learn to be organized, because if you aren’t you will be swamped. As it turned out, I really enjoyed the challenge of determining the difference between want and need, and finding those objects that fulfilled both. The value of the things I kept had to be pretty high, which meant I was surrounded only by the best of what I had, either in quality or in emotional value of some sort.

And though I am now in a bigger home, the lessons have stuck. I enjoy a good clear out and sometimes I find it hard to stop once I’ve started. So in celebration of spring and the rush of desire many of us feel to organize and de-clutter this time of year, here are some things I have learned in the years since that, um, life-transition phase.

Approach the task systematically

There are enough systems for de-cluttering and organizing your home out there to keep 10,000 blogs and lifestyle gurus in business until the end days are upon us. I like many of them, but don’t ascribe wholly to any one. Recently, the book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up introduced us to the KonMari method from Japan. This has taken the tidying world by storm, with its revolutionary idea of approaching organizing by category, rather than room. Its emphasis on what you keep, rather than what you discard, is also very clever, and we’ll come back to this shortly.

But for now, rather than stress about whether or not we’re following a trademarked method to a T, let’s just look at common sense steps that you can use to approach the chore systematically.

To keep or not to keep

This is the assessment phase where you curate your home or room as if you work at a museum about to launch a show on the Everyday Lives of People in Atlantic Canada. Everything can’t be part of the show, just the most essential or useful pieces. And don’t even think about shopping for storage bins or putting anything away until you have completed this stage, lest you end up tossing everything in bins and feeling like you’ve done your bit. Or even worse, overspending on storage you won’t need. Like most things, putting in a bit of effort up front will save you time, money and frustration in the end.

If you choose the KonMari way of assessing each category of things, (such as books versus clothes) that’s fine. You can also go with the more old-fashioned approach of thinking about it on a room-by-room basis. No matter what room it is, the first thing you must ask and answer is: “do I want to keep this, and if I do, why?”

  • Is it a functional object that I can’t do without (ie. my can opener)?
  • Is it a beautiful object that I love and want to display?
  • Is it a sentimental object that I can’t part with?

Functional objects are important, and we obviously need them, but we don’t need two or three of each one of them. If you have three can openers, put two of them in the discard pile and let someone else benefit from them. If it’s a functional object but you have never used it (I’m looking at you, dip-chilling tray), again, I say free it and allow someone else to enjoy that chilled ranch dip.

Beautiful objects enrich our lives, but too many of them means it is difficult to focus on any one thing. Negative space—the space around things—is often overlooked when arranging a room. Leaving space around objects means our eye is drawn to the object, be it a sofa, a small piece of sculpture or a valued memento. And that’s the point of displaying it, yes? We don’t all want to live a minimalist life in a sparely decorated home, but a little bit less can really be more. Consider this when you evaluate your beautiful objects.

Sentimental objects are the most difficult group to deal with. In some methods, they leave these to last, allowing you to build a good head of steam and some confidence in learning to keep only what you love. I fully support this approach. Discarding gets harder the more attachment you feel to an object, and practice will turn you into the stone-cold organizer you need to be.

For both beautiful and sentimental objects, I suggest ranking your objects and then keeping only those in the top five to ten. If you truly cannot part with sentimental objects, pack them up for long term storage in the attic.

In all cases, focusing on why you want to keep something means you have to defend this decision to yourself. Don’t be afraid to play good cop/bad cop and really question your own motives for keeping things.

To store or not to store

With assessment completed, decide how the objects are to be stored. This is generally a simple task. Functional items that you need at your fingertips may be better left on the countertop or in a nearby drawer, with objects of occasional use being stored in the pantry or basement. Beautiful objects should be displayed, bearing in mind not overwhelming a space with too many of them. And sentimental items may often be displayed as well, or simply packed away to be brought out at special times.

An interesting issue that can crop up with storage is “out of sight, out of mind.” I’m the first to admit I have a fetish for vintage Pyrex, and I love to use them when entertaining. But much like a squirrel storing prized nuts, the minute I put them away in a cupboard, I can forget about them and they become simply a brick in the wall of my stuff. Choosing the most treasured and displaying them can help keep them at the front of my mind and ready for use.

Once you have fully assessed your objects and spaces, and decided what is going to be kept and stored, it’s time to consider how much you want to spend on this. Options run the gamut from free to costly.

If you are looking for something thrifty or free, Pinterest is practically buckling under the weight of the ideas there. A simple search for “storage ideas” will get you hundreds of results, and from there you can whittle down your search. Your local discount store is a great place to source supplies for these ideas. Top Tip: limit yourself to a reasonable amount of time on Pinterest, say 30 to 60 minutes. This will save you from tumbling down a rabbit hole and waking up at your computer in a puddle of drool sometime the next morning, realizing that you have pinned 8,476 ideas on how to store things.

Mid-range, there are a variety shops that specialize in organizing products and systems that now have aisles and aisles of products available in person or online. Large home improvement chains also sell containers and systems that can be installed.

The top of the range would be to consider having an organization or storage system built in. This can be anything from a pantry off your kitchen, to extra storage in your laundry room, or a set of cabinets and cupboards installed in a living room or study. This usually requires contacting a local tradesperson or decorator/designer to explore the options and costs involved. All of these solutions should only be considered after you know what it is you need to store, and how much of it there is.

And finally, here’s a thought for living life after you have managed to get a handle on what you have: if something comes in, something must go out. So if it’s in with the new, then it must be out with the old. Or as our grandmothers always said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of knick knacks.

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