ARTICLE “Fall Cleaning”

Can you believe summer is almost over? A little advance planning now will allow you to sail through the fall and emerge at the holidays with clutter under control. You’ll find that it’s easier to get started if you break up your entire task into manageable projects and work on them over the next several weeks. Once you’ve gotten your environment and life under control, you’ll have lots of time for yourself this fall.

I suggest you draw up a planning sheet with two columns—one marked “Week” and the other marked “Project.” Post it in a prominent place in your home (refrigerator, bulletin board, or calendar) so everyone can see the goals. Select a different project for each week for six weeks. If you plan ahead and prepare for each week in advance, you’ll be ready to jump in and make the best use of your time when it arrives. 

The key to getting organized is FOCUS. Most of us flit from one thing to the next on any given day and wind up with “half-organized” spaces. It generally works like this: you’re cleaning out the hall closet, you get thirsty, go to the kitchen for a drink, see that the kitchen is a mess and begin to clean it. Stop! What’s happening to your closet project? Focus on getting one thing completed before moving to the next area. Act like a postage stamp—stick to one thing until you get there. 

Here’s a sample six-week approach to begin conquering clutter in your home:

1. Week #1, Closets—Clean and organize all the closets in your house. A rule I teach my seminar participants is (1) if someone can use it more than you can, and (2) it doesn’t make you happy, it is clutter. Thus, the “thin section” of our closet is clutter. You certainly aren’t wearing clothes that don’t fit, and your self-esteem takes a nosedive each time you look at them. Take a deep breath and give it all to charity—no regrets. You can buy more clothes later if you do lose that weight. Give away shoes that hurt your feet. Weed out items you haven’t worn in a year, that are threadbare or saggy, or aren’t comfortable. Rearrange the remaining clothes in sections—dresses, pants, suits, etc. Only keep the current season in your closet if possible. Put the rest in a spare bedroom closet or in storage containers. Then go through the closet in the front hall. Either put the junk away or get rid of it so that you can easily retrieve coats. Toss mittens and gloves that have no mate. Give away hats that don’t fit, extra sweaters, and outdoor gear your family doesn’t wear. Lastly, sort through your linen closet, using tattered sheets as rags, and giving away tablecloths and towels you never use.

2. Week #2, Paper—Gather, organize, and toss paper that has accumulated all over your house. Bundle up the daily newspapers that you’ve strewn all over the garage and take them to the recycling center. Go through your warranties and throw away the expired policies. Sort your catalogs and toss those that you never order from. Review your magazine subscriptions and cancel those you never have time to read. Take time to call some companies that routinely send you junk mail and get off their mailing list. Go through your purse and throw away grocery lists and receipts, old film and dry cleaning tickets, receipts for purchases you made six months ago, pictures of people you don’t know, etc. Read any low-priority mail that you’ve been accumulating until you had some time to go through it. Select a few truly original pieces of your kid’s artwork and throw the rest away (when they can’t see you do it). Go through your coupon organizer and toss expired coupons. Spend some time filing the pile of paper that’s been growing as if you poured fertilizer on it. Then go through each file and purge paper you no longer need. Pull out records and receipts for this year you need to save for tax purposes and put them in a storage box marked ‘1996.’ Then you’ll be ahead of the game come January.

3. Week #3, Reading—How should you tackle your reading pile? How about considering a revolutionary step—throw the entire pile away and begin again. Or, if that’s too drastic, throw away all but the current issues of Newsweek or USA Today. The rest is old news. Don’t read magazines cover to cover. The task is simply too overwhelming. Go through the table of contents, allow yourself a maximum of three articles per issue, rip them out, then throw the rest of the magazine away. When you’re through weeding through your stack, the actual task will be much less formidable. Then spend the rest of the weekend catching up on the important reading. You could try the timer technique for each article. Get an egg timer and set it for 15 minutes for each item. When it goes off, toss the article. Another tip comes from Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, speaking in People magazine, “Reading daily newspapers is one of the least cost-efficient things you can the World Almanac once a year. What’s happening you’ll hear by lunch anyway.” To get rid of reading piles permanently, try subscribing to a clipping service, downloading articles to your PC from the internet, or taking a speed-reading course. Or, try a newspaper diet by shifting to liquid television.

4. Week #4, Correspondence—To whom do you owe letters? Use letters, stationery, cards, e-mail, or the phone to return messages to your friends and family that you’ve been neglecting. Make a master list of the birthdays and anniversaries for all your friends and family you plan to buy for next year. Then take a trip to your local card shop and buy ALL (yes, all) of the cards at once. I go so far as to address them. Mark the important date lightly in pencil in the upper right-hand corner, so the stamp will cover it when you mail it. File the cards in folders marked for the months of the year. Order them by date inside each folder. Review the folder each month when you do your planning. Allow a few days for mail and you’ll never miss another birthday again. Stock up on all your stationery, envelopes, postcards, and stamps. Put them in a little basket in your nightstand or next to your easychair so you can dash off a letter when you have a free minute. Take some time to put return address labels and stamps on a stack of blank white envelopes. Then if you’re reading an article you think your mom would enjoy, you can simply rip it out and get it going out the door to her. Or if you have to mail bills that don’t have a pre-addressed envelope, you have envelopes ready to stuff and mail. For holiday cards, tear off the return address label of each card you receive. Tape them to a piece of paper and use that for your mailing list for the following year. Sort through the holiday cards you’ve been keeping for years—you don’t need five years worth!

5. Week #5, Storage—This is generally clutter’s last stand and could include your basement, garage, attic, or shed. The biggest problem I find with most storage spaces is that people stack items on top of one another. Items in the back are usually inaccessible as well. Solve these problems by creating a box storage system. Purchase some industrial gray metal shelving from any home supply store. Get boxes that are all the same size and shape. Use strong, sturdy boxes of corrugated cardboard (moving cartons work best). Repack items you must store in a new box, clearly label the contents on the side, and store alphabetically on the shelves. Now you can retrieve a box from the bottom of the pile. What items qualify for storage? Holiday materials, hand-me-down clothes a child can soon wear, maternity clothes, and infrequently used items such as camping equipment. If you bought a cappuccino machine to have for your grandfather’s visits twice a year, you don’t need to keep it on the kitchen counter between visits. Think about how much memorabilia you really need to keep, perhaps one box or trunk per person. Toss, give away to charity, or have a garage sale to get rid of items you don’t use, need, or want. Get rid of gifts others gave you that you hate. People say, “Well, it’s the thought that counts.” Yes, that’s true. Keep the thought, get rid of the gift. The thought doesn’t take any space!

6. Week #6, Fix-It—Dedicate a week to taking care of loose ends and getting everything repaired that needs it. Change the oil in your car, take your dog to the vet for a shot, and catch up on your mending. Fix the handle that fell off the dresser and put the pedal back on your bike. Then gather all the items in your house that need fixing. Make a master list of all the places you need to go or repairmen you need to bring to the house. Bring that tie tack with the broken pin to the jewelers, the coat with the torn inside pockets to the seamstress, the skirt that needs to be altered to the tailor, and the VCR that isn’t working to the appliance repair shop. Buy a new battery for your watch, a new blade for the lawnmower, and replace that leaky hose. Call the repairman to tune up the dryer and fix the icemaker.

So, you see, the end of summer is a perfect time to get organized for the fall! Use your time effectively and plan for success. If you get some momentum going—keep going! Week 7 could be cabinets, 8 is drawers, 9 is photographs, 10 is visiting friends, 11 is housework, 12 is shopping... Once you get clutter under control in each of these areas, keep on top of it so it doesn’t back up again. You may have to work hard a few weekends in a row to clear the current backlog, but those smart choices will result in more time for you in the months to come.

© 1999 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at 
Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004). Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M. To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401. Visit to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.