Organization 101: A Professional Organizer’s Guide to keeping your home clean and decluttered

As we all self-isolate and quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have used this time as an opportunity to finally clean and declutter their homes. And while it seems like a productive and inviting idea, it can also be an overwhelming process. Luckily, we had the chance to speak with Toronto-based Professional Organizer and Owner of Space in the CityNicola Masterson who shared her top tips and advice on how to properly organize your home.

Nicola Masterson, Owner of Space in the City
Nicola Masterson, Owner of Space in the City
With everyone currently staying home, it feels like the ideal time to start organizing. Some, however, may feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. What would your advice be to people on what they should tackle first?
If there was ever a right time to get organized, now is the time! I look at this time as a gift. A time to think, reflect, relax with no pressure from your normal tasks and daily routines. With all this time at home, your house can scream at you from every corner; 'fix me, clean me, organize me'!
Go room by room. Take photos of things that need to be repaired or hung up, make a list of all the things that need to be spring cleaned, decluttered and organized.
So, take a walk around and make a big long list of everything that you see. Go room by room. Take photos of things that need to be repaired or hung up, make a list of all the things that need to be spring cleaned, decluttered and organized. Get it out of your head and put it on paper. Then make a timeline to tackle it bit by bit.
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To begin, what area springs to mind as you read this? What area is driving you the nuttiest but you're too overwhelmed to face? Most people will say their closets. So let's take that as an example.

Start small. Start with your socks. Gather them all up from your laundry room and drawers. Put them all in one big pile in the middle of the living room and start to match them up. Match the socks together, and put them in separate piles; day docks, workout socks. Then separate each by color; black, white, pink. Whatever works for you. Get rid of any socks that have seen better days, that come down over your heels in your shoe when you walk for example and if there's a hole in the toe of one sock, then let them both go! Make sure you end up with a quantity that makes sense for the space you have for your socks. Don't have an overstuffed sock drawer.

Now that you've paired and eliminated, time to organize. Get drawer dividers or sock organizers. Divide your socks by category. Put all your odd socks in a small bag in the back of the drawer because you won't be able to match them all right now. Then come back to the odd socks in a few weeks and you should be able to match the rest. At this stage, it's time to let the remaining lone soldiers go.

Write down a plan of attack and stick 20-minute chunks of time in your diary with 10-minute breaks in between.

So basically use this general strategy throughout! Move on to the next biggest category in your closet, underwear, then nightwear, sportswear, tops pants, shoes etc. Write down a plan of attack and stick 20-minute chunks of time in your diary with 10-minute breaks in between. Do bit by bit. You will make a bigger mess in the process and get overwhelmed, but just keep going, you can do it.

Nicola Masterson with Productivity Book
Nicola Masterson with Productivity Book

Make sure you purge as you go and donate as much as possible, there are lots of people in need right now. Most donation centers are currently not accepting anything at the moment, so put the clothes in a bag and get them out of your closet until after Quarantine. For your designer items, you can sell these in consignment stores once they open up again.

Now, for those of you who are already fairly organized, what a fun time to go to that next level. For me, I'm starting to curate a capsule wardrobe, something I have been wanting to do for a while. I've been carving out mental space and creativity to figure out my style and what pieces function for me that will see me through the season. It's such a great time to let things go and make room for all the new that's coming our way

What is the difference between organizing and decluttering and which one is best to tackle first?
Organizing is taking a curated category of items, making them function well within the space you have, custom to your lifestyle and aesthetic.
Decluttering is what you tackle first, you take each category and ask some serious questions like, do I love it, when did I use it last, what's the cost per wear value, is it sunk cost, am I emotionally attached to this but don't particularly need to see it every day, would I buy it again if I saw it in the stores. Then you either donate it to a good cause, sell it, upcycle it, store it away or keep it and make sure it's taking up prime real estate within your home for good reason and it makes you super happy to see every day.

Stores are currently closed but retailers are still offering online shopping. Where would you say is the best place to shop for organizing solutions?
After you have done all your decluttering in an area you can now see what space you're left to work with and what products you may be able to fit in that area.

Presuming we've first shopped our house for everyday items we can use (more on that later), I recommend trying to support any local stores in your area, most are offering curbside pick up and free delivery and returns at this time.

After that have a great selection of I-Design products in stores lately, check them out (I just got a delivery of shoe organizers and under the sink organizers from here today actually), are great for larger storage options, with Prime for free delivery is great for anything and everything really.
It's a little harder to choose items online when you are not familiar with the product so make sure you check the reviews
It's a little harder to choose items online when you are not familiar with the product so make sure you check the reviews, you'll get a good idea of what the item is like based on the reviews.
Delivery may take a little longer seeing as it's not essential right now but that's okay. Just go back to your plan and be decluttering a new area while you wait for your delivery. Also, make sure to measure your space first.
Speaking of organizing solutions, what are some ways people can use current items they already have to help keep things sorted and clean?
Some great items I tend to use/upcycle from around the home include a hook like this for my hair elastics which I leave under the bathroom sink and a small cute ceramic dish which is typically for serving sauces which I use for my invisibobbles, which I leave on my nightstand.

iPhone boxes and hair straightener boxes are great for your sock drawer as drawer dividers. It's the perfect time to get creative with what you already have.

Any last tips you'd like to share with our readers?
Go easy on yourself. A lot of homes will get even more cluttered during this time with everyone at home and on top of each other and anxiety can be a bit debilitating for some. I'm actually very inspired by my good friend who is a single mother to two kiddos, she just said 'I don't care about the house right now', she's just having fun with the kids and making messes and showing the videos on social media of them all laughing and playing with a big mess behind them. I love it.
Take time for meditation, my go-to is Sarah Blondin who I listen to at night as I to sleep on my 'Insight Timer' App, which is free, to relax me.

But for those of you who are reading this and are ready to get stuck in. Here are a few tips.

Set a routine for you and the kiddos, so 8:00 AM - 9:00 AM breakfast, 9:00 AM - 10:00 AM schoolwork, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM playtime etc. Colour code it and put it up so everyone knows what's happening next and feel like they have some structure.

Set up work zones in the home, "Here's my office zone, here's Dad's work zone and here are each one of the kids." Point it out to everyone and be respectful of everyone's space.

Make a meal plan based on what food you have already, what food you need to eat next before it spoils, let's aim for zero waste, at this time especially. Maybe you can cook big batches of food and freeze some for the days you don't feel like cooking. Schedule who's cooking what each day. What a great time to learn new recipes! Next on my list is learning how to make Irish soda bread, one of those things I've been putting off for years.

Make a running grocery list for your weekly shop or delivery, you could use Evernote to keep a list on your phone and take photos of your fridge and pantry for when you're shopping too. I do this for spices, I can never remember what ones I'm missing, so I check the photo. While on the topic of spices, organize them by alphabet, so much easier to find.

When it's time to declutter, use music to motivate you
When it's time to declutter, use music to motivate you, I play a playlist on Spotify called 'Songs To Sing in the Shower', I put on some comfy clothes, my best quarantine couture and make myself a nice cup of tea and just follow my list of things to do next.

Here's a trick I used to use with my brother when we were growing up. When we boil the kettle for a cup of tea (which was a lot, we're Irish) we use those four minutes to speed clean. We'd run around the house putting things away and more often than not, we'd get really into it and wouldn't stop until the house is shining. Even now, my partner and I use these 'between times' as triggers for us to do a speed clean. We use triggers like heating food in the microwave for three minutes, when the adverts are on TV or a load of laundry is on for 30 minutes. So get everyone involved, it can be fun, kids love it and you get twice the work done in a few minutes.

Another trick I use is to look around the room from someone else's eyes, you know when someone comes over unexpected, all of a sudden and you see the house through their eyes and you're full of apologies for the mess that you didn't even notice before then. So I always say to myself, 'What if the Queen called and said she was on her way over, is the place presentable?'.
Cause mess = stress, and we don't need any more of that if we can help it.
While you're at home, take a look at your most-used rooms, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, living room and clear the countertops from each one. Cause mess = stress, and we don't need any more of that if we can help it.

Make the bed every morning, this is a great habit to get into, take a look at the video talk 'If you want to change the world, make your bed' by Admiral William H. McRaven.

Get out of your PJs every day and get dressed.

Wash the dishes and polish the sink every night.

Keep the countertops clear of clutter, when you wake up in the morning you will love this.

Clear off the dining room table every night.

Keep the sink area clear and polish it every night.

Keep it tidy by using my mother's trick, every time someone left the living room in our house growing up, Mum would shout 'Get back here, take these shoes (or whatever item was there that didn't belong) up to your room on your way'.

Organizing Toronto's most glamorous closets and homes, Nicola Masterson is a Professional Organizer and Owner of Space in the City.  She has been featured as the Professional Organizer on blogTO's House of the Week. You can find her on Space in the City and on Instagram at @spaceinthecity