Master Your Mess: 15 Ways Disorganized People Can Tidy Up Their Lives

by Sarah Landrum

Mess is a relative term.

For my grandmother, a single spilled grain of salt on her dining table is a mess of eye-twitching proportions.

For my brother, the mountains of dirty (and clean) clothes taking up every square inch of his room aren't messes unless he can’t find his football cleats.

It doesn’t matter how you define mess.

It’s whether or not it affects your day-to-day life that matters.

If your messiness causes problems at home or work, costs you money or stresses you out, it’s time to make a change.

Take control of your mess instead of letting it control you.

Don’t know where to start? Here are 15 tips to help even the messiest person get more organized:

1. Start small.

Many self-proclaimed messy people want to cut the clutter and get organized, but the mess is too overwhelming.

Since the mess wasn’t made in a day, it can’t be unmade in a day.

The time and energy it would take to overhaul your life can be so daunting, you give up before you even get started.

That’s why starting small can be important.

Pick an area you can fix in an hour or less, like a single drawer in your kitchen or the glovebox of your car.

Give yourself an easy victory to pump you up and provide practice for mastering the bigger messes.

2. Start smart.

The second jumping-off point to consider is starting smart.

Don’t waste time or stress out over random acts of tidiness. Instead, pick an area that will greatly impact your daily life.

Which of your messes is causing you the most trouble?

Is it overdue bills lost in a messy mail pile?

A mold-ridden fridge filled with forgotten food?

A crammed closet that makes your morning routine a nightmare?

Pick your biggest source of "mess stress" and conquer it first.

Starting smart may take more time and effort than starting small, but the key to this tactic is impact, not speed.

Take on a project that will make a tangible, positive impact on your life.

The resulting benefits will help motivate you to tackle more of the mess.

3. Keep a chore chart.

If you’re flashing back to a nagging mom or a control freak roommate, I apologize.

Chore charts can have a bad reputation, but they’re a great tool for the naturally messy.

Some people can keep a mental list of cleaning and tidying chores, and remember them well.

Others aren’t so lucky.

Say goodbye to panic-cleaning the three months' worth of dirt in your bathroom the day your mother-in-law is set to arrive.

Instead, make two lists: one of weekly chores and one of yearly chores.

Keep them on your fridge, smartphone or both.

Weekly chores may include laundry, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, dusting, cleaning out the fridge, putting trash out and other recurring tasks.

Yearly tasks should include items like flipping mattresses, changing smoke alarm batteries and washing windows.

Once you’ve made your weekly list, customize how you use it.

Put it on a dry-erase board or print a new list each week. Mark finished chores with magnets or stickers.

Do all your chores on Saturday morning, or tackle one or two a night.

A chore chart is meant to be a helpful reminder, not a restrictive shackle. Make it your own and, if possible, make it fun.

4. Make it fun.

What’s freakier? How clean neat freaks keep everything, or how they actually enjoy it?

Those of us born without the cleaning gene tend to find chores a pain. Maybe that’s why we put them off so much.

It may seem like an oxymoron, but do your best to make cleaning fun.

Turn it into a game, create a rewards system or turn it into a (friendly) competition with your roommates or family.

Scrubbing toilets and tidying shelves may never be your cup of tea, but a little creativity can help make them more positive experiences.

5. Purge.

One man’s trash may be another man’s treasure. If it’s of no use to you, there’s no reason to keep it, clean it, store it or sort it.

Junk mail, unworn clothing, impulse buys, sentimental keepsakes, bad gifts, broken electronics and duplicate kitchen items are just a few of the types of trash that quickly clutter up your life.

It may sound harsh, but the only solution is to rigorously and routinely purge items that are no longer useful.

Outlaw unhelpful phrases like “but it was a gift,” “but it might fit someday” or “I might need it in a few years.”

These phrases make your clutter control you, instead of the other way around.

If you can, time your first big purge with yard sale season.

Make whatever money you can off your unwanted items and donate the rest to your local thrift or charity store.

But whatever you do, don’t let a purged item migrate back into your home or workspace.

After your first big purge, institute a monthly or quarterly purge to get rid of any junk that has accumulated.

6. You can have only one box for your clutter.

Sentimental items are usually the hardest to part with.

This happens even if you haven’t used, seen or thought of an item in years.

As soon as you unearth it, you find yourself lost down memory lane.

You don’t have to become heartless to develop a clear head about sentimental clutter.

There’s a middle ground between saving every keepsake and trashing all your childhood treasures.

Pick a box. It can be of any size, shape, color or pattern you desire. That’s your keepsake box.

Anything that fits in that box can stay.

Once it gets full, it’s time to go through it again and decide what you really, really can’t do without.

If need be, you can always take pictures of large items.

You get the physical and emotional nostalgia from having something tangible to hold, without the clutter of storing crazy amounts of memorabilia: like every bike you've ever owned, for example.

7. Treat yourself.

Getting rid of stuff is hard. No matter how good it is for your cleanliness, organization or peace of mind, it still downright stinks.

That’s why it's so important to -- in the immortal words of Tom and Donna from "Parks and Recreation" -- treat yo’ self.

After your monthly or quarterly purge, treat yourself to one special reward of choice, whether it's that tasty treat or the fancy kicks you’ve been eyeing.

8. There's a place for everything.

This really is the golden rule of getting organized.

Designate a spot for everything you own. Any time you use an item, return it to its designated home.

This is by far the simplest and most effective way to care for and keep track of your possessions.

No more misplaced items. No more money wasted on duplicate purchases. No more frantic searches. No more weekend-long tidying sessions.

It may seem like a hassle to put everything back where it belongs as soon as you’re done.

But as the cripplingly messy know, “I’ll get to it later” usually turns into “I’ll forget about it until the mess becomes overwhelming.”

It will take a while to get used to this new routine, but once you commit to the golden rule, you’ll find it has a positive effect on all your organization efforts.

9. Behold the power of a bin.

First, a disclaimer: Bins, baskets and other storage options only work if you’re already committed to the rule above.

If not, they become just another disaster area.

Bins, baskets and other containers are perfect for both the rigidly organized and the recovering mess-maker.

They provide an easy way to corral similar items, help maximize your storage space and keep visual clutter to a minimum.

You may never be perfectly organized, but opaque bins cover a multitude of sins.

10. Keep it streamlined and special.

For the most part, you want your storage to match.

Sticking to just a few materials or patterns will cut down on visual clutter and streamline your messy space rehabilitation efforts.

But every now and then, you need to add a little pizazz to keep yourself motivated.

Pick a few unique storage items, like a beautifully carved trunk or a vintage card catalog. They will make you smile every time you use them.

Place special storage items where you can enjoy them every day, or use them as little, built-in rewards for a problem area.

11. Label.

Boxes, bins, drawers, shelves, folders and files: All these organizational tools are great by themselves, but they’re made much more effective with a good label.

Corralling items into baskets is an ineffective solution if you have to look through each and every container whenever you need something. That’s where labeling steps in.

Labeling takes the guesswork out of “everything in its place.” Clearly-marked labels help you find what you’re looking for, and show you where to return your items when you’re done.

There are two keys to labeling: Be clear and be consistent.

Your labels should accurately and concisely describe what’s in each location.

If you find you’re trying to fit too much information into one label, that’s probably a sign you’re trying to fit too many dissimilar items into one location.

Instead of writing smaller or getting a bigger label, try dividing the contents of that bin or basket into two or three different containers.

Your labels should also follow a general pattern. This is useful when it comes to naming and organizing electronic documents or getting your filing cabinet in order.

Establishing a pattern or rule of order for your files makes integrating new folders or documents a breeze.

12. Go paperless.

A good filing and labeling system is a must if you want to reduce paper clutter.

While there are important documents you shouldn’t discard or digitize, there is likely loads of paper you can either scan or send straight to the shredder.

Many printers have a scanner function, so don’t be shy about using it.

Digital files take up far less space than physical ones, and important files can be backed up with external hard drives or cloud storage.

Get in the habit of digitizing as many documents as you can.

Whenever possible, have reports, invoices and other time-sensitive documents emailed to you.

With the right inbox system, you can attend to those important, actionable items in a timely manner, rather than losing them to the black hole of a cluttered, paper-strewn workspace.

13. Harness your inbox.

Your email inbox should not be full or bursting with thousands of emails.

If it is, getting it into shape may take some time and effort. But doing so can greatly improve your productivity.

Any email that doesn’t require further action on your part should be archived or moved to a different folder.

Since you can sync your email to your phone and other devices, your to-do list is constantly on hand.

No more missing bills or forgetting to respond to your boss’s questions.

If you’re competitive or like a challenge, give your inbox a limit.

For a personal email address, try to have five or fewer emails in your inbox at any given time.

For your work email, you might challenge yourself to have 10 or fewer at the end of each day.

If you get your inbox down to zero, give yourself a reward.

14. There’s an app for that.

Whatever your organizational need, chances are, there’s an app that can help.

You can find apps for finances, travel, grocery shopping or making a virtual inventory of your closet.

However, the simplest apps are usually the biggest help.

A good calendar app can help you stay on top of everything, including appointments, special events, work deadlines, bills and personal goals.

Utilize email or pop-up reminders to ensure you’re never late to a meeting or overdue on a bill.

15. Befriend a neat freak.

You might think people who are naturally neat are freaks of nature.

Although that may be true, they tend to be freaks of nature who love sharing their skills with anyone and everyone.

If you’re overwhelmed by your mess and don’t know where or how to begin, call in reinforcements.

Ask an organized family member or friend to help you tackle your mess, institute new routines or even just hold you accountable to your new goals.

They’ll be happy to share their know-how, and will probably be not-so-secretly excited by the chance to finally vanquish your mess.

Even if you get a friend to help, remember: Your organizational goals are about making your life simpler and easier, not about pleasing anyone else.

Just because something worked for a friend (or a blogger or advice columnist), doesn’t mean it will work for you.

Create habits and systems that make sense for your lifestyle and fit your needs.

Above all, believe in yourself.

You can make a change. You can master your mess.