Tracey's living room
Dear Peter Walsh,

This is my family room/kitchen combo. This is where the family spends the day until it's time for bed. I can't figure out what to do with all the toys. There are too many big pieces that do not fit into totes, and also I would like my kids (3 years old and 12 months old) to be able to easily see what they can choose to play with. You caught me after I had already stuffed all the things that are usually on the countertops into closets because Thanksgiving was at our house this year. But we have a problem with papers cluttering the countertops and kitchen table too. I've been thinking of making a desk area in the kitchen so I can do bills and be on the computer while the kids are playing in the family room but haven't taken action yet. With the economy the way it is now, we are spending more time at home and less time shopping. So, as I told my husband, I would like to make our home as comfortable and functional as possible for us and the kids.

— Tracey

Tracey, the key to being organized is to have a clear vision for the space then set some limits and establish routines. What you are doing with your papers (cluttering your countertops and the kitchen table), your kids are doing with their toys (cluttering the family room).

First, you need to what you want from each room—family, living and kitchen. Check out this room function chart.

Then, establish the limits for each room: Where do you place your paperwork—a file tray, box, container or on a shelf? Where do the kids place their toys—bins that are large enough accommodate what they play with? Then, establish and stick to routines. Where do you put your mail/paperwork when it comes into the house? Throwing it onto the kitchen counter or table to deal with later is not an option here! Alternatively, where do the kids put their toys at the end of the end of the day?

Things don't put themselves away, and your kids won't learn organization automatically, especially is you're not modeling the behavior you want.

— Peter
Sharon's living room
Dear Peter Walsh,

My husband and I are both artists. We live in a 1,400-square-foot condo that serves as our home and part-time studio. I lived here by myself for 12 years. For three of those years I had to leave because of the earthquake damage. During that time, I moved four times (with friends, family and finally an apartment). I'd packed everything and put it into storage because I thought I'd be back within six months. My closet doubled, I got more furniture and stuff.

Terry, my husband, was building my kitchen so that I could move back in when we fell in love. We got married 10 years ago. There was no room for his stuff, and he didn't have all that much. Then, four years ago, he began working on his first documentary film. You can see some of the equipment in the photos I've included. I purge and the house just swells to fill the empty space. I feel overwhelmed.

— Sharon

Sharon, the word "organized" and the word "organic" come from the same root—to be whole, complete, natural, human, one.

You only have the space you have, and so you have to limit what you own to fit reasonably into your space. That's why it's imperative that you and your husband establish clear "zones" in your home for the different items that you own, then store like items in those zones and, most importantly of all, limit what you own to that space and routinely put things where they belong.

The photos of your apartment suggest that you have no systems in your home for storing things or obvious space for where items belong. Things are strewn all over the place, and it looks like you simply leave items where you last used them. As artists, it's imperative that your space feed your creativity, not hamper
it. Without organization, your space is working against you.

Own your space. Establish zones for like items. Limit what you own to reasonably fit into those zones. Put things away when you're finished with them.

— Peter
Tammy's living room
Dear Peter Walsh,

Our living room is always a mess. The kids come in and strip their clothes off and throw them on the floor. Laundry is always in a holding stage on the couch waiting to be hung. Games and movies have taken over and have overflowed their "place." Our office is off of our living room, and the desk is always a mess and there are toys and my scrapbook stuff everywhere in a pile. This is the room off of our foyer, as well, so that's not good to see when you first come in the front door. I think I have good taste, and I've always said that if I could afford someone to come in and organize my stuff, I could keep it that way. I just get discouraged when I try to organize because I don't have the money to buy all the furniture and things I need to hide the mess and give things their proper "place." I could definitely use some help!

— Tammy

Tammy, you have two common but separate problems with your space.

First, your kids learn from what they see. If your kids strip their clothes and throw them onto the floor, and you let them do that, then you are telling your kids that it's okay. That impression is reinforced by you leaving laundry in the living room. Neither you nor the kids are treating the space with the respect it deserves. Both you and the kids need to start picking up after yourself—toys, clothes, laundry. If there's a moment when something is left lying around, then you need to call a halt to all activity until it's put away. Establish the routine, stick to it yourself and model that behavior for your children.

Second, the furniture in your "office" area is totally unsatisfactory for your needs. The desk and the bookshelf are way too small. You need a space (and furniture) that will work for you and that provides you with the space you need to reasonably stores items. I know you're short on money at the moment, but consider buying an inexpensive, larger and unfinished bookshelf (or finding one at Goodwill) and painting it white to suit your décor. It will serve the purpose in the short term until you can afford the desk/shelving you need or can build in a desk/work area and bookshelves that would look great in this space.

— Peter
Louise's living room
Dear Peter Walsh,

It seems as though I've been fighting this battle since I moved out on my own. My mom always preferred to clean up after us than teach us to do it ourselves, so once I was on my own...

My biggest issue, I think, is that I'm not well organized, I don't have a home for everything and instead of putting things away when I'm done with them, I put it off. Next thing I know, I'm overwhelmed with the amount of things that need to be put away before I can even start my cleaning. By the time I'm done putting stuff away, I've run out of time for the cleaning!

I do have three kids—10, 8 and 5—that I homeschool, which adds a whole new dimension to time management and staying organized. I do have some stuff that needs to be thrown away, given away, but that's not my main issue...
If you can help me change my bad habits and get more organized—if I can get to a place that I am proud of my home when someone comes by unexpectedly (instead of cringing with embarrassment)—I'd love you forever, Peter Walsh!

— Louise

Louise, this will sound harsh, but you are asking me to do the impossible! You already know what the issue is here, and it's not the clutter.

You are an adult and a parent now, and you need to commit to living the best life you can for you and your kids. The organizing skills that you didn't learn from your parents you can learn now, but you have to want to. Without them, your space is cluttered and you are not teaching your own children skills they need to live decluttered and organized lives. Only you can change what you call your "bad habits."

Oprah's Clean Up Your Messy House Tour is just for you! Commit to making a change. Next, sit with your family and decide what your vision is for each space—the kids will really get into this if they can see you're enthusiastic, you're committed to this and that it'll transform your home. Then, follow the tour each month as together we declutter and organize each space. Get on board, kick those bad habits and get organized!

— Peter


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