Last updated on December 4th, 2021
Knowing how to start organizing a messy house can feel like an elusive skill. After all, if we knew how to organize it, it wouldn’t be messy in the first place, right? Having an organized home can start to feel like a pipe dream to those with busy lives, but these simple steps will help make that dream become a reality.
My mother always used to say that cleaning a house while your kids are small is like mowing the lawn during a hurricane. I didn’t understand what she meant until I had kids of my own. Suddenly, it was all too clear. The moment I cleaned up a spill in one room, another disaster was waiting for me around the corner.
Small children are like adorable mini super villains. They leave a wake of destruction everywhere they go, but they win you over with their charm and chubby cheeks. Luckily, there are sustainable ways to combat the havoc. It turns out, it’s not as difficult as it seems.
Keeping your house organized while your children are young is a challenging but worthwhile endeavor. Starting the habit from the beginning makes it easier to keep the house organized as they grow. Likewise, children who are taught organizational tips from an early age are more likely to stick with them.
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How to Start Organizing a Messy House
The first step to putting a messy house in order is to have a plan. Without a clear plan, you may become so frustrated that you give up before you even start. The following tips will help you to get and stay organized.
The Appearance of a Clean House
Do you want your house to be organized or just look organized? Yes, these are very different things.
Imagine my 11-year-old daughter who “cleans” her room by shoving as much as she can into her closet and tightly closing the door. It can be tempting to go this route, but it doesn’t help with organization.
Some families allow themselves one junk drawer or even a full closet for odds and ends. Others might use a garage or basement as a catch-all.
Whether you decide to give yourself that one area that lacks organization or not is up to you. I recommend against it because it is a slippery slope. Likewise, if you need to find something in the junk drawer/closet/room, you may have to devote a full day to sorting through the stuff.
Isn’t it much easier to simply start with an organized area?
The Difference Between Organized and Sanitized
Organized means that everything has its own place that is sensible and intuitive. Cleanliness means that areas are free from germs and other types of debris. You may want to start cleaning before you organize. You might also wish to do both at the same time. This is mostly a matter of how much cleaning and organization is needed.
I find it easier to start organizing by focusing on one room at a time rather than the entire house. Getting organized might seem overwhelming if you try to do everything at once.
Give yourself a day, a weekend, or even an entire week for each room in the house. If you need more time for rooms that need extra order, like kitchens, that’s okay. Be realistic about how much time you need for each space and you will be successful with your goals.
The living room is often the first room people see when they enter your home. The tidiness and cleanliness of this room set an important first impression. This room may also be the spot where your household spends the bulk of its time. A well-organized area will help everyone in the home feel at ease.
Take a look around the room and assess the clutter. Do you have items that are out of place? Do you have a table that seems to be a catch-all for different items? Seek out those things that don’t serve a purpose or create a messy appearance.
For example, my family loves playing board games. We play them on a regular basis. However, stacking them in the corner of the room was not the best option. Instead, I found a 19th-century storage trunk that fits perfectly with our old library-meets-antique-shop decor. The trunk serves double duty as a coffee table and game storage.
Once you have designated homes for all your belongings, the easiest way to keep common areas organized is to do a quick sweep at the end of each day. Return anything that is out of place and tell each family member to do the same. Even little ones can help by putting their own toys away.
Now more than ever it is vital to have a home office that is organized and easy to use. With so many kids studying from home and so many parents telecommuting, having a dedicated space for undistracted work is of utmost importance.
I have worked from home for over 15 years so I have my office area down to a science. The best way to organize an office is to figure out the supplies that are necessary and those that simply take up space.
Make sure you get input from your family before you move items around if multiple people use the office area. I found that having storage containers for each family member is the easiest way to make sure everyone has what they need without too much clutter getting in the way.
A desk can easily become overburdened with papers and office supplies. Use a paper sorter, labeled if needed, so each piece of paperwork is both out of the way and easy to find. Office supplies can be kept in drawers or cubes instead of covering the desk.
About once or twice a year, I go through all of the pens and markers that have accumulated and test them. I bundle those up and recycle them.
There are a number of places that take old writing instruments and make them new again. My favorite is TerraCycle, but there are plenty of other choices. The program is available to families in the United States and Canada.
Our dining room isn’t used that often anymore. My kids have grown to the age that my husband and I see the pile of dirty dishes and food wrappers more than we actually see the children. Still, sometimes a room like this needs some serious organization.
Some families use the dining table as a catch-all for decidedly non-food-related items. As a matter of fact, right now the surface of my dining table is topped with four placemats, salt and pepper shakers, a pair of dress slacks, a roll of duct tape, a beaded necklace, and a personal, handheld fan.
All of this is not necessarily the sign of a messy home but a busy one. At the end of each evening, I ask the kids to find whatever it is they have left on the table and put those things where they belong. It’s become such a part of the evening ritual that often I don’t even have to remind them to pick up whatever they have left behind.
This didn’t come easily. When my kids were young, I had a time-out box for toys. Anything that was left behind on the table went into the box. The kids could “buy back” their items through chores or with good behavior. Over time, the box became unnecessary and they simply learned to pick up whatever they had previously left behind.
The kitchen is arguably the most difficult room to organize. Between pots and pans, dishes and cups, flatware, cookware, and food, an organized kitchen is usually a multi-day undertaking. On the plus side, you will feel like you have a fully organized home even if all you manage to straighten is your kitchen.
Start by dividing the room into subsections. I recommend planning a day or two for kitchen cabinets, another day for the refrigerator and freezer, and a third day for any extra areas you may have. This might include a pantry, bar area, or nook.
Tidying cabinets often means getting rid of seldom-used items. When was the last time you used that 20-piece fondue set? Do you have a juicer that hasn’t made juice in over a year? It’s also a good time to get rid of mismatched dishes, chipped cups, and old pottery that just takes up space.
There are many options when it comes to getting rid of kitchen supplies. Many families like to have yard sales (sometimes referred to as garage sales or rummage sales).
Others, like mine, have decided to skip the yard sale and donate instead. Any donated items should be in good working order and must be free of chips or cracks.
Before you throw away any broken pottery, check for local artists who may love to use these items for their work. Likewise, small appliances that no longer work should be recycled instead of thrown in the garbage.
Once you have purged unused, unneeded items, it’s time to put everything back in its place. Make sure your new organization system is intuitive to everyone who might use the kitchen. Do your measuring cups belong with mixing bowls or do you think they go with coffee cups like my husband seems to think? Use reason and rationale (and a touch of compromise) when making these decisions.
Organizing a refrigerator and freezer is much easier than it seems. An organized house does not mean that you have to place every food item in alphabetical order. It simply means that you keep condiments, beverages, fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy in their own space.
Every bedroom needs ample storage space. Clothing, shoes, toys, books, and other personal items must have a place to call home. Decide where each type of item will go, and then start placing everything in its spot.
The simplicity of this method of organization is overshadowed when you have too much of a given type of item. For example, I have far too many t-shirts. It seems like I get a new t-shirt every time I take place in an activity. Races, sporting events, volunteering, and my kids’ school activities all seem to come with their own t-shirts.
When I run out of space, I do a purge. Older items and those that have stains and holes may be recycled into cleaning rags. Those that are still in good shape but are seldom worn can be donated. I have also begun making t-shirt quilts out of those shirts that are special to me but don’t necessarily need to stay in my drawers.
Removing clothing that hasn’t been worn in a while is a simple way to free up space. Donate what you can and repurpose what you can’t. The same goes for shoes and bed linens.
A tidy home must have tidy restrooms. Smaller restrooms may not have space for junk but larger restrooms can quickly be taken over by old toiletries, towels, and medicines.
Like the kitchen, start with any cabinets. Go through the medicine cabinet and pull out anything that is no longer used or expired. Many pharmacies offer programs in which your old, unused medicines can be properly disposed of.
Toiletries need to be purged as well. As with pens and many other supplies, TerraCycle offers an option for recycling your unused toiletries. Just because you haven’t ever used that bottle of stinky, but expensive lotion your mother-in-law gave you doesn’t mean you have to hold onto it.
Old towels that take up space but don’t do a great job of actually absorbing water anymore should be removed from linen closets. That doesn’t mean they have to be thrown out. Grab a pair of scissors and cut those towels into dish rags. Old towels also make great mop pads.
What do you keep in your hall closet? Mine is entirely used for coats and shoes, with a shelf that has space for all of the things I will never need because I can’t reach that shelf or even see what’s up there.
Once a year, my husband and I pull all of the coats and shoes out of the closet and get to work removing those things our kids have outgrown or put holes in. It takes several hours but it always clears up a lot of space.
We keep our shoes in a laundry basket that rests on the floor of the closet instead of having a heap of shoes that we have to sift through every time we leave the house. As for other outerwear, like hats and gloves, those are kept in a storage bench near the closet. It’s a system that works great for us.
You might also try putting a coat and shoe storage solution in your entrance to make it super easy for kids to store all of their own things.
I have a tiny laundry room that barely has space to move. I bought a small, rolling cart for storing cleaning supplies and a wall rack with hooks that stores my mop, brooms, and dust pan. Without these items, the room would be a disaster.
You might not need to purchase organizers if you have a laundry or mudroom with space for cabinets. You will need to think about where cleaning supplies go so that they are easy to reach without being accessible to any small, curious hands.
Another tip I recommend for your laundry area is a swinging door. It’s very easy and inexpensive to replace a standard doorknob and hinges that will turn any door into a swinging or butler door. I did it myself in a couple of hours with no outside help whatsoever. The swinging door allows me to carry a laundry basket in and out of the room with ease.
What does your garage look like right now? If you are like most people, you are either thinking about how messy it is or hanging your head in shame as you try to forget about the piles of junk.
Remember that part of a garage’s purpose is storage. You just have to decide what is worth storing and what isn’t. That box of clean dishes that your mom gave you and that you will never, ever use might be better off getting donated.
A spare set of jumper cables and extension cords that are almost never used might be the things that need to stick around.
Keep in mind that shelving is your friend in a garage. Put up shelves along the walls for keeping those items you need to have on hand. Use pegboard and hooks for hanging up yard equipment and tools. Use ceiling- or wall-mounted racks to store bikes, kayaks, and other recreational equipment. Almost anything else can be donated or, as a last resort, thrown into the garbage.
Simple Steps for Busy, Organized Lives
Does all of this sound overwhelming? The important thing to keep in mind is that not all of it needs to be done at once. All you need is a plan for your ideal organizational system and the will to make it happen. Soon enough, you will have less clutter and a happier home.
Remember these four steps as you set about organizing your messy home:
Step 1: Decide which rooms you will declutter first
Step 2: Give yourself a realistic timeframe for completing each room
Step 3: Follow the advice above for clearing space in your home
Step 4: Enjoy your new environment!
Remember, being organized will not automatically make your house clean. However, it does make it easier to maintain a tidy environment. Make the plan to start organizing your home and get started on it today.