Home Organizing Basics

Strategies such as labeling and vertical storage will help keep order on the home front.

Hot, Warm or Cold?

It’s a simple but powerful premise: items that are used the most should be easiest to reach. Think of organized spaces as having storage locations that are hot, warm and cold, and store tools and supplies according to how often they’re used.

Hot zones, like the fronts of drawers, shelves at eye level, and storage space on a counter, are home to the most used items. These are areas your hand can reach with little or no effort, such as the tool caddy next to the stove. This is where to store your favorite spoons, whisks and ladles for easy access to these cooking best friends.

Warm zones are a bit harder to reach, like the space at the back of the drawer or the shelf near the top of the cabinet. You’ll need to stretch or bend, or open doors wider to reach a warm zone. Send items you need infrequently, such as once a week or once a month, to the warm climes. Peelers, large pots and baking dishes can all happily live here. You’ll know where they are when you need them, but they won’t impede your work the rest of the time.

Cold zones (otherwise known as Outer Siberia) are those storage places that must have been designed by a chiropractor to encourage business. They’re dark. They’re obscure. They’re hard to reach without a step stool or assuming a posture on your hands and knees. The back recesses of the bottom shelf, or the cabinet above the refrigerator that can only be reached with a ladder, are cold-zone territories. Here’s where you put those items that you use least, such as gelatin molds, seasonal baking pans and serving platters for big parties. Think of it this way: the cold will keep them fresh!

Label, Label, Label

In the middle of a sort-and-toss-it session, an organizer’s design seems obvious, but over time, that data can be lost. Facing a linen closet, our mental outline of “I’ll stack the children’s sheets here, the beach towels over here, and the winter blankets down here ...” lasts only until the first late-night rummage for clean sheets jumbles the tidy piles.

Solution? Labels, labels and still more labels. Picture labels for children. Computer-printed labels. Labels by the sheet, or created one-by-one by electronic label-makers. Repeat after me: "There is no such thing as too many labels."

Labels make any organizing scheme crystal-clear. They show everyone, not just the organizer, where things belong. Babysitters or house guests will always know where to find the towels and where to replace them when the linen closet shelves are labeled.

When moving, labels on boxes help to get the contents to the right place in the new house. For seasonal storage, labels prevent the need to open-and-dig for the holiday lights. On the electrical panel, labels can show exactly which switch to throw to shut down the leaking hot water heater.

Harder to Get Out Than to Put Away

Professional child-wranglers, such as day-care operators, know a simple secret: to keep things neat, make it harder to get something out than to put it away. It’s just human nature. When we want something, we want it, and we’ll work hard to get it, too. But when it comes to putting it back? Take advantage of human nature and make things harder to get out than to put away.

For instance, store children’s books upright in a flip-file — a plastic dishpan in which they can be stood on end. To retrieve a book, the child will need to flip through the titles to find what she is searching for but to put it away, she must only slide it back into the pan.

Go Vertical

For books, files or papers, vertical storage beats horizontal storage every time. What is horizontal storage? It's a pile. A stack. One thin, rectangular object stored on top of another. A stack of books on a coffee table. Files in a tray on a desk. Magazines stacked next to a table, on the floor. To reach one book, one file, one magazine, you must move them all and chances are, you won’t take time to move them all back.

Vertical storage, like that offered by hanging files or bookcases or tabletop file boxes, makes it easy to find the file or letter you need. Simply flip through the hanging files, peeping at the papers within. In a vertical magazine file, it’s easy to find the issue you want and you won’t disturb the rest of the magazines when you pull it from the storage box.

Our child’s book flip-file illustrates the principle perfectly. Finding the right book is a matter of flipping through the covers; replacing it doesn’t require moving the other books. Similarly, sewing enthusiasts know that hanging fabric lengths from clothes hangers makes it much simpler to find the fabric they’re looking for and with no need to disturb other lengths folded in a pile. In geometry, there’s no preference, but when organizing, take the vertical over the horizontal any day!

DVDs, stored vertically in a box with labels facing up, make it easy to find cinema favorites (image 1). Photo labels provide a peep inside closed storage containers and help you find just the right shoes for an evening out (image 2). Hanging file folders allow quick search-and-replace options for stored paperwork (image 3).

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