With the new year upon us, we’re all thinking about resolutions. While losing weight and getting your finances in order are two popular choices, one resolution many of us make year after year is to get organized, once and for all.
The truth is, no one ever gets organized once and for all; it’s a process, and one all of us have to refine frequently. Still, the beginning of a new year is a good time to look at the tools you use to organize your life and see if there are ways you can make things better.
“A lot of people start the new year as a goal-setting time,” says Audrey Cupo, a professional organizer and owner of A Better Space in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “What I’ve found is that paper and time organization are common struggles.”
Instead of creating a paperless world, computers have added more things we need to organize. But they provide new tools for organizing everything from your to-do list to your photographs. But getting your digital life in order can take as much or more time as finding places for all your physical belongings. And you still need to organize your paper.
The best tools for organizing vary by person. An online grocery list may work great for some families, while others would find it a burden and work better with paper. Part of getting organized requires experimenting with tools to identify the ones that work best for you.
“There’s many aspects to getting and staying organized,” Cupo says. “The first step is to eliminate the clutter, then organize what’s left.”
That clutter can be paper on your kitchen counter, clothes thrown over a chair or random files on your computer. Start by discarding things you don’t need, whether they’re old email messages or clothes that no longer fit.
If getting organized in all aspects of your life sounds overwhelming, pick one area at a time. Maybe you will organize your clothes in January, your paper in February and your electronic files in March, for example.
Here are eight tools to help organize your life in the new year.
Place to put everything. This is old-school, but organizing one’s life is significantly easier if you have a place for everything. That could include a box or bowl for mail or keys near your door, a mudroom with cubbyholes for kids boots or a shelf for extra toiletries. If your space is small, look up and think vertical, Cupo suggests. “When everything has its proper home and makes sense to you, it’s going to make it easier to find it,” Cupo says.
Valerie at Columbus on the Cheap has found a way to keep paper off her kitchen counter and dining table: a magnetic paper holder that sticks to her refrigerator. She uses it for papers she will need soon but not this minute or that she isn’t ready to file yet. This would also be great in a home office if you have a metal file cabinet.
You might discover you an do a lot of organizing with containers you already own.
Calendar or agenda. Some people swear by paper calendars, either in an agenda book or posted on the wall. Others keep their calendars online and on their phones, using apps that synch to all your devices and can be shared with others, such as your significant other or teenage children who need rides. Google Calendar is one of the most popular free online tools. Cozi is one of many free apps that will help you create to-do lists and nail down schedules for everyone in your family.
Offline storage tools. Dropbox, Google Drive and Picasa are three of the most popular online cloud storage tools. All let you create documents on your computer or another device and then store them in the cloud. That’s useful for people who work on the same documents at home and at work, use multiple devices or share documents or photos with others. If your computer crashes, you don’t lose your documents. You can install the free version of Dropbox on your phone, computer and tablet, for example, and take a photo with your phone and pull it up on your computer. Most of these services offer both free and paid versions.
Evernote. Evernote is a cloud storage service that lets you store and access documents, photos, websites and more from any device. You can create notebooks, search by keywords or organize in various ways. If you’re working on a project, for example, you can create a notebook and then save info you find on the Web and notes you think of as you’re watching TV with your phone in hand and keep them all together. It has both free and paid versions.
Online bill pay. One way to make sure all your bills are paid on time next year is to automate the process. While you can authorize your mortgage holder or credit card company to take payments from your bank each month, setting up an automatic bill pay system gives you more control because you can stop it any time. You can set up bill pay through your bank, although some charge for that service. You should be able to find setup instructions on the bank’s website, but you should ask your bank if there is a charge before getting started. Among the free bill pay apps are Finovera, Mint Bills (formerly Check) and MoneyStream. Quicken offers a paid service. Even if you don’t set up online bill pay, you might want to sign up to get email or text alerts when bills are due.
To-do lists. Your best option here, like calendars, depends on what works for you. Some people like to see words on paper, while others prefer an app that travels with them. Remember The Milk and Wunderlist are two of many free apps, and Google Calendar also has an agenda function. The key is to know the difference between a project, which is done over time, and a task that needs to be completed much quicker. Renovating the kitchen is a project, but for a to-do list, you’ll want to list actual tasks, such as “call the contractor” or “visit tile stores.”
A popular system is called a Bullet Journal, which combines a to-do list, sketchbook, notebook and diary. It can be customized to your own needs and used to fit your life.
Filing system. Most people these days keep some important documents online and others on paper. You need a system for both places so you can quickly find what you need when you need it. A filing cabinet or plastic file box works well for most people for paper, and throwing receipts in a shoebox can help you at tax time if you’re consistent about it. Digital bookkeeping tools include Quicken and Mint.
My niece is ready to try a new system called the Freedom Filer, which let you mark paperwork with expiration dates when you file it. The color-coded system can be used for home or business.
Password book or manager. Life these days includes entirely too many passwords, and reusing the same one everywhere isn’t secure – plus many sites require you to change them from time to time. You can create a file in your computer that stores all your passwords (although this makes you vulnerable if your computer is stolen) or keep them all written down in a notebook at home or in your wallet. Another option is storing them online with a password manager. One of the most popular is LastPass, which has both a free and premium version.
Helpful books on organizing
If you’re looking for some inspiration and ideas, these three books have inspired millions:
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” by Marie Kondo. Kondo advocates organizing by category rather than by room. And, she says, by organizing your space, you also create a more serene, less frenetic life.
Carole of Greater Seattle on the Cheap was skeptical. But she tried it, and now she’s a convert. She says:
Some people think it’s stupid. I read it not without some skepticism. But, I now fold my underwear neatly in my dresser, which I thought was a ridiculous idea–until I tried it and can’t go back to just tossing it in there. It’s a mind bender that changes how you look at things and find peace in tidiness.
Organizing From the Inside Out, by Julie Morgenstern. This book, first published more than 20 years ago, has been updated for the modern age with some tips on technology (she also has a book called “Never Check E-Mail in the Morning” — ordering now). This practical book will not only help you get organized, but help you stay organized long-term. We will not mention which On the Cheap publisher wants to buy this for her housemates.
“The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” by Margareta Magnusson. This new book is focused on decluttering toward the end of life, but the techniques can (and should) be used at any age. The book, far from being macabre, is both humorous and joyful and helps families embrace necessary conversations, as well as a more minimalist approach to “stuff.”
Favorite products for organizing
I’ve always considered myself good at organizing, but never gave much thought to products that could make that task even easier. My late partner struggled with organizing her entire life, but she did find some great tools, many of which I’m still using today. My other On the Cheap partners had suggestions, too:
- Clear plastic boxes. These come in all shapes and sizes and are good for so many things. And, they’re inexpensive. Because they are clear, you can see your stuff better. I use these to store Christmas decorations, rugs I’m not using, kitchen gadgets, old photos, office supplies and sewing paraphernalia. (I also use them for cat litter boxes, which keeps cats from spreading litter (and more) about their bathroom area.) Carolyn at Wichita on the Cheap likes them, too: “Putting things into those bins doesn’t feel like you’re burying your stuff where you’ll never be able to find it again, which helps psychologically,” she said. Small square plastic boxes also work great in the pantry.
- Clear plastic drawers. The plastic drawer units, with or without wheels, are invaluable. I use them for office supplies, tablecloths and napkins that don’t fit in my tiny kitchen, light bulbs, batteries, stamps and postal supplies, greeting cards, wrapping supplies and more. I have two sets in my office area and two sets in my garage.
- Hanging shoe organizers. I have struggled for years to figure out how to store my shoes so they don’t get dusty and covered with cat hair. The floor of the closet has never been a good option. My last two homes have had an amazing amount of closet space, and I have found hanging shoe organizers the best options I’ve ever tried, and they are so much cheaper than many shoe organizers. The shoes stay clean and I can see them all at a glance. You can also use the organizers for sweaters or accessories.
- Command strips. Valerie at Columbus on the Cheap uses command strips for everything: hanging pictures, cord control, coat hooks, mop hook and other options. “One of our rooms/entries appears to be a converted from the garage and has cement board walls or something, so hanging things isn’t easy,” she says. But command strips work everywhere.
What are your favorite organizing tips, tools and gadgets?