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How to tackle a big organization project

How to tackle a big organization project


Many homes have a space that is not a respite for the owner but an indictment.

It’s the cluttered, disorganized room that we’d rather not think about. It might be a garage no longer able to serve its original purpose of containing vehicles because it is filled with junk. Or a guest room not fit for human inhabitants.

In my case, it is the unfinished storage area of the basement, home to large wooden shelves along one wall overflowing with filled plastic totes, empty boxes and stuff that just didn’t fit anywhere else. An adjacent wall is stacked with my husband’s extensive vinyl collection, and one nook houses plastic bin shelving with an odd assortment of discarded toys. In the center of this mess is an old treadmill that has seen better days many, many resolutions ago.

While the rest of the house is streamlined with minimalist décor, this basement area is the home’s feral id. It shares quarters with the washer and dryer, so I try to avoid looking at the stockpile of stuff while doing laundry.

For years, it has felt like too big a project to tackle. There never seems to be a big enough chunk of free time nor a good place to start.

I thought I might gain some insight from professionals who handle such cases routinely. In fact, “the chronically disorganized” can benefit from specialists who organize such clutter in basements and garages.

Janine Adams, with Peace of Mind Organizing, of St. Louis, came to check out the extent of my problem. The first thing she does with clients is to talk to them about their vision for the space and why they want to make a change. It helps guide them about what to keep and what to let go of, she said.

We came up with my vision: I want a more organized basement, so I can find what I need when I need it and easily put stuff away. She told me to come up with a word that conjures a feeling to go with this vision.

“Freedom,” I said, imaging neatly organized and labeled rows of matching boxes.

Adams’ job is to help people get past feeling overwhelmed and break down a large job into doable parts. Too often, people think they need to do it all at once, she said.

“They need a whole weekend to do it,” she said. “Whoever has a whole weekend to work on it?” Frequently, people get interrupted in the middle of this kind of project, so the mess is left behind and can be worse than when you started.

She suggests tackling it in small chunks. “You can pick one of those totes, take it off the shelf, empty it and sort. Put back the stuff you want to keep, and you can call yourself done for the day,” Adams said.

She suggested setting a timer for at least 15 minutes but no longer than 30, and staying focused without taking a break during that time. Do not leave the room to put something away in another room. That’s where distraction lures us, she warned.

Instead, create boxes for things to: keep, donate, trash, recycle or shred (for documents). Keep a separate box for things that need to be moved to another area of the house but don’t head that way until the end of the timed session.

The hardest part of the sorting is deciding which items are truly worth keeping.

“A lot of people have special relationships with their stuff,” she said. “We have to talk through emotions that allow them to let go of stuff.”

She recommends asking yourself: “Do I use it? Do I love it? Does keeping this support my vision for this space?”

If there are holiday decorations that haven’t been displayed in five years, it’s time to let them go.

The length of the project comes down to how quickly her clients can make decisions during the sorting phase.

I almost held my breath while Adams took stock of our storage area. I judged myself for not being able to get the space in order and worried about what she would say.

“I can assure you I’ve seen worse,” she said. It was critical for us to clear the floorspace in the room by deciding what we wanted to do with that old treadmill, she suggested. It was important to include my husband in the discussion of what goes and stays, she added. Adams advises clients against giving away items that belong to another family member without their consent or knowledge. It’s a violation of trust, she said.

It was obvious that she had heard many of the same rationalizations I was offering for hanging on to things we never used.

“It was expensive,” I said.

“Keeping it won’t bring the money back,” she responded.

“What if we get audited?” I asked.

Adams advises keeping IRS 1040s and W2s forever, but other financial records (not available online) for seven years.

She said to set a time limit, such as six months or a year, to use an item. If it hasn’t been used in that amount of time, consider letting it go.

It can be helpful to enlist a clutter buddy with whom to share the decluttering tasks. Ideally, pick an nonjudgmental friend. Relatives tend to bring their own baggage into an already crowded space, she said. You can swap chore times with your friend and help her with her own project.

While looking over the shelves, Adams suggested picking a high-impact area, such as the gift-wrap section, as a useful place to start. It’s easier to sort. Then get bins or risers for items you decide to keep, she said.

“Don’t go out and buy bins until you’ve done the weeding and sorting,” she said. “The fun part is the shopping. First see what you need to store then select bins appropriate for that.”

Things that we rarely use don’t deserve prime floor or shelf space, she said. Memorabilia and old newspaper clippings can be kept in more remote areas because they are less frequently accessed.

“Clutter is nothing but delayed decisions,” she said. This was insightful. All those boxes of papers seemed like mountains of delayed decision-making on whether they were truly useful or might ever be useful.

She said she would draw up an estimate of how much it would cost if I hired her and a team of organizers to complete the project and left with this philosophical sort of advice: “You don’t want to feel like your stuff owns you. You own your stuff.”

I sought a second opinion from Shannon Tamme, also a local certified organizer.

“Oh, good, you have shelves,” she said, when I led her into the abyss.

That was a much kinder assessment than I had hoped for. She also suggested starting by clearing floorspace and then grabbing boxes most in the way and beginning to sort through them.

I asked her to rate the severity of my basement problem, on a scale of 1 to 10, in the scope of all the cluttered spaces she’s seen. I had to know if this room was truly as bad as it made me feel or if my tolerance level was simply too low.

She laughed, but obliged.

“Maybe a 3. It’s on the lower end of what I’ve seen,” she said.

What a relief.

Still, plenty of work was ahead. Tamme suggested creating broad categories of items while sorting. For example, home décor, luggage, electrical would each have their own shelves or areas. Eventually, the boxes and shelves would be labeled with those categories to help sustain the system once it’s in place.

When clients have trouble deciding whether to part with a particular item, she suggests doing a cost calculation. There is cost per square footage in a home and in any storage facility. Figure out roughly how much it costs to keep an item.

If it’s something you feel you might need later, how much would it cost to replace? Does the replacement cost justify the storage cost?

Tamme helps clients figure out what to do with items they decide they want to donate, sell or recycle. She helps create an action plan and can either connect people to local resources, such as junk haulers, or take care of those details herself. If someone is tackling a larger project on her own, she tells that person to start at a spot closest to them and work clockwise in the room.

“Don’t even think about the entire project,” she said. “Think about this one bin at a time.”

Adams said a key to keeping clutter at bay once a project is complete involves modifying one’s acquisition habits.

“If you buy a lot of stuff, the clutter will just come back,” she said. She advises clients to shop mindfully, asking the same questions they would ask during a sort: Do I love it? Will I use it? Does buying this contribute to my vision?

“My own shopping habits have changed dramatically,” she said. “I used to shop for fun. I don’t anymore. I go shopping for specific things.”

Both organizers said the cost of hiring professionals to tackle my basement project would begin at $900, possibly going up to $1,400, depending how many hours it ended up taking.



The St. Louis chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers is hosting an organizing expo, Get Organized St. Louis.

When • 9 a.m. to noon March 23

Where •  St. Charles Community College, 4601 Mid Rivers Mall Drive, Cottleville.

How much •  $39 until March 17; $49, March 17-22; $59 at the door.

To register •


St. Charles County Residents may use Recycle Works •


Best Buy has now set up Electronics Recycling bins in their stores, but you may also take electronics to be recycled to:


Goodwill • Clothing, household items, furniture;

Salvation Army • Clothing, household items, furniture. They offer pick up;

Little Sisters of the Poor  • Clothing, furniture;

St. Vincent de Paul • Clothing, furniture, household items. They offer pick up;

Children’s Home Society • Children’s clothes, toys, games, books;

Habitat for Humanity • Home building products. They offer pick up;


Local hauling companies that will pick up and dispose of them in an eco-friendly manner.

Rubbish Works •

College Hunks Hauling Junk & Moving Co. •

Expert product picks

Certified organizer Shannon Tamme suggested using these products to organize a basement:

RubberMaid ActionPacker • These are great for camping/outdoor items because they are very durable.

RubberMaid Roughneck Clear •  Use clear bins so you can see what is inside. Include large labels on the bins. The labels are helpful when you remove the items (decorations), so you know what goes back into the labeled bin.

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