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The Ultimate Guide to Organizing Everything In Your Closet

Man choosing clothes at his walk-in closet

Like personal finance or basic kitchen skills, organizing your closet isn’t something that gets taught anymore. And since fall is just around the corner (much as we hate to admit it), now is the perfect time to refresh your drawers and cabinets for a new seasonal wardrobe. If you’re like most guys, your parents (i.e., your mom) did this for you while you were growing up, sneaking into your bedroom while you were out to collect your shit from off the floor and put it back into your closet and drawers where it belonged.

When organization-impaired adults like you and me are transplanted into the wilds of adulthood, it only gets worse. Especially given that we own significantly more stuff than our forebears, while living in much smaller quarters than they ever did. It’s really no wonder than Millennials are, by their own admission, the most cluttered and disorganized generation since the Baby Boom.

But all of that is poised to change thanks to the current public health crisis we’re living through. Now that we’re spending all our time inside, we’re getting very well acquainted with our own mess. With the uncertain fate of lives, politics, the economy, and so much more hanging in the balance, focusing on something you can control — the clutter in your closet — feels like a rare treat.

That’s why thousands of people are using the free time afforded by sheltering-in-place to organize their clothes, shoes, and accessories. Not only is it an undeniably good use of free time, but it’s also an effective means of restoring your sense of personal agency.

We at The Manual are here to support you in this noble enterprise. We’ve consulted a slew of organizational experts, including Yelp Trend Expert Tara Lewis, for their tips on how to reduce clutter and create an organizational system that will satisfy your current needs and serve you well once life has returned to normal.

Before You Start, Consider the Big Picture

As tempting as it might be to go full Marie Kondo and purge your shelves of everything but the bare minimum, that’s not necessarily the best approach to organizing your closet. While at the moment you only need a few t-shirts and perhaps a shirt and tie for those company Zoom meetings, the day will come when you’ll want a multi-functional wardrobe again. Before you get started on your organization project, you’ll want to design a plan of attack around four basic principles that will sustain you for the long term:

Key principles

  • Purpose: Consider what each of your closet items does for you — when, where and how do you wear it?
  • Ease of access: Organization is about more than just an appearance of order. It’s about having what you need at hand when you need it.
  • Time efficiency: One of our experts said it best: “The whole idea of organization is to simplify your life so you can live with more ease.”
  • Consistency: The organizational system that works best is one that works with how you already operate.

If you want to organize, but it feels overwhelming, be assured there’s no need to do the whole thing all at once. The process might be cathartic for some, but for others it might feel overwhelming. It’s perfectly fine to choose just one shelf or section of your closet and work on that, then move on to the next. It might take a little more time to integrate all your organization … but then, that’s not necessarily a bad thing right now.

Take Everything Out

Man throws away clothes

All the organization experts we consulted agree that the precursor to organization is disorganization. “The best way to assess what you’re working with is by emptying your closet and getting a better understanding of the items you own,” says Tara Lewis. This will help you start getting a sense of the natural categories in your belongings. It will also reveal what your biggest challenges are: You own too many pairs of khaki pants, for example, or most of your socks are missing a partner.

There’s another reason this first step is foundational, says Tara. “It’s crucial to see how much you actually own so that you’re less tempted to online shop out of boredom.” (Who? Bored? Us?)

Use The Space You Have

While we’d all love a giant walk-in closet at our disposal, the truth is that most of us don’t need it. Tara says that few people utilize most of the space they do have. And don’t fall for the catalog trick of using a virtually empty closet to represent a triumph of organization. Minimalism is pleasing to the eye, but that’s not really an option for the many people who live full lives out of small spaces these days. Instead, Tara advises, “Fill every bit of your closet space with bins, hooks, organizers, baskets, and drawer dividers.”

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, either. If you can’t find the right solution for your storage needs, get crafty. For example, you can use shower rings to hold ties and belts, repurpose a clothes hanger as a sunglasses rack, or use the tabs from beer cans to make tiered clothing hangers that maximize your closet space. You can even add a shower curtain rod in your closet to double its volume — these are the easiest handyman points you’ll ever score.

The same principle goes for the items in your drawers. If you’ve only got room for one dresser in your spot, you can roll thinner garments like underwear and t-shirts to minimize the space they take up. Thicker clothing like jeans and sweaters can also be folded and put into drawers, reserving your closet for hanging your highest quality and delicate items.

Choose Smart Storage Solutions

The Floyd Shelving System

The fact that you’re currently prohibited from an impulsive run to the Container Store or IKEA is actually a good thing. Instead of just grabbing the first storage or shelving unit you see, take some time to research the best storage solutions for your individual space.

Think about what type of structure makes the most sense for you. What will allow you to easily find and access what you’re looking for? If the top of your bureau is a pile of odds and ends, you can use a desk organizer or even a silverware caddy to give everything its own home. If your coats invariably end up on the floor, get yourself a hall tree and put it beside your door. If your collection of bespoke boots shows no sign of slowing down, invest in an expandable shelving system like Floyd (above), that will grow with you.

No matter what structure you choose, commit to your new system by labeling what things go where. “I felt a little crazy when I did it,” said one interviewee, “but it was so great to wake up in the morning and know, even before having coffee, right where to reach for the sweater I wanted to wear.”

Let It Go

“One thing that always helps with organization, but tends to be the hardest part, is getting rid of items you don’t wear,” says Tara. As hard as it is parting with garments and accessories you’ve loved in the past, it doesn’t make sense to hold onto something that you never use. And think of the health of the clothes you do wear — they need air and space around them to stay fresh and last longer.

For organizing professionals, the general rule is to discard anything you haven’t used or looked at in two years. This includes things that don’t fit, things that are falling apart, or things you pass over in favor of better-loved items.

As you’re surveying the clothes you forgot existed, ask yourself whether you truly need/want these items? If the answer is yes, consider the purpose. If it’s something that you only wear a few times per year (i.e., a job interview, a special family occasion, a cultural celebration), maybe it makes sense to put it into storage. If you love it but often pass it up for other favorite items, maybe it can also go into storage for a later date; when you get tired of your current wardrobe, you can “shop” for things you already own but haven’t seen in a long time.

As for things you love that don’t fit, or aren’t fit to be worn, there are a few options:

  • If there’s something you love that doesn’t fit anymore, offer it to a family member or friend who you see fairly often. That way, you’ll get to look at it more often than you would if it was sitting in the back of your closet.
  • If the item is about to fall apart, find a way to display it. Old band tees can be mounted within a frame and hung on the wall. Your grandpa’s watch can live in a case on your mantel or desk.
  • If the item isn’t good for donation or for display, find a photo of yourself wearing it and display that. Framed photos take up hardly any space, plus they don’t give off a weird smell or offer a burrow for moths and mice.

It’s worth noting that the rampant need for essential items during this time offers a great reason to donate your unused stuff. You can look for clothing donation drop-off locations near you, or call local shelters and secondhand stores to ask if they’re picking up donations right now.

Use Categories That Actually Work for You

Man with tattoos selecting clothes from wardrobe

It’s natural to organize clothes by type: All your button-down shirts grouped together, followed by all your pants, etc. While that’s a fine start, it tends to fall apart quickly. (But you knew that already.)

Instead, try grouping your closet items by function. Hang up all your office clothes up in one place together (button-downs, pants, blazers, etc.) then start a separate row for casual shirts, pants, and jackets. This will save you time when you’re getting dressed, and it will focus your attention on the options for each “category” of your routine so that you don’t end up wearing the same two or three familiar items every day.

Get on a Schedule

“If you can regularly spend time supporting the system you’ve put in place, it will support you more and more.” So said one of our organization experts, and we couldn’t agree more. The returns on organization compound over time — by investing more time and effort now in contributing to the organization you’ve done, the less work you’ll have to do in the coming months and years to keep your organization efforts intact.

The best approach to this is making maintenance a part of your schedule. Set calendar notifications in your phone for weekly laundry days, quarterly inventories of what you still like and what still fits, and storage rotations every six months (or when seasonally appropriate).

If technology is your thing, try a home organization app like Sortly, Nest Egg, or BluePlum to keep yourself accountable. Because while you have plenty of time right now to maintain your newly organized closet, you’ll be glad you built this maintenance routine once life returns to normal.

Leverage Laundry Day

Putting last week’s clothes in the wash is a great opportunity to rotate your wardrobe. While your duds are whirling through the spin cycle, take a look through your partly emptied closet and drawers and decide which items should be on deck for the coming week. Once your laundry is done and folded, put your newly cleaned clothes at the bottom of the drawer or at the end of the closet lineup. This approach ensures a good rotation so that your clothes wear evenly — plus, it keeps your look fresh.

If you have a few favorite items that see a lot of action, keep two laundry baskets at the ready: One for non-negotiably dirty clothes, and one for items that you plan to “retire” for the week but can still grab if you absolutely need them.

Keep Shoes Off The Floor

Nothing spoils the vibe of an organized closet like a jumble of shoes all over the floor. Tara recommends getting a shoe rack or a hanging shoe organizer to keep your kicks from turning into clutter. (It will also help preserve the life of your shoes.) To maximize space on a shoe rack or shelf, try pointing the shoes in opposite directions, just like the way you find them in a shoe box.

Keep Things Visible

Organized Closet

Closing the closet door on a big pile of your stuff works great for dorm life, but as an adult, it’s a red-flag symptom of arrested development. As one of our organizing wizards told us, “The more of your stuff you can actually see, the more likely you are to keep it tidy.”

This is especially important when you’re living in a small space, where organization is key to maximizing the space you have. One person I spoke with, who lives in a 700-square-foot tiny house, has all their clothes organized into a drawer system, a couple of shelving units, and just one closet. “We can see what we have right in front of us. As soon as it starts to fall out of order, we instinctively fix it because we don’t want to look at the chaos.”

If you want to take a bold step in this direction, try removing your closet doors and installing a rod and curtains instead. Not only does this let you see the whole spectrum of your wardrobe at once, but it also opens up your room by removing a virtual “wall.”

Store Seasonal and Occasional Items

One of the most common causes of closet disorganization is trying to squeeze too much into a small space. While your stuff is in piles, do an inventory of what you’ll need for the next six months (late spring, summer, early fall) and put everything else into a “storage” pile.

Once you’re ready to tackle that pile, separate items that require gentle handling (fine sweaters, wool coats, cultural or ceremonial garments, etc.) and pack them away in vacuum-sealed bags. The rest can go into bins, crates, an old suitcase, even garbage bags if that’s all you’ve got. Put these seasonal items into a garage, attic, or storage space. Just make sure to label them! As one of our consultants reminded us, a few minutes spent labeling now will save you hours of rifling through mystery boxes later.

Get Rid of Your Clothes Crutches

The chair that always ends up covered in clothes. The behind-the-door zone where shoes get kicked off. The only way to break those disorganized habits is to get rid of the things that enable them. Move the chair out of the room and replace it with something like, say, a valet stand that is actually made to hold clothes. You can fill up the corner with a plant stand, or put a big basket there where the shoes will actually live. “After all of your organization efforts,” says Tara, “this will help you keep your hard-earned Feng Shui intact!”

Bring in the (Virtual) Experts

If you’re struggling to rein in the chaos, there’s no harm in bringing in a professional to help. In some ways, shelter-in-place makes this extra easy, as many local businesses are offering virtual consultations. A pro closet organizer can inspect your place and devise a plan of attack. “Having an expert on board to help will ensure you see the project through,” Tara says — she recommends using Yelp’s Request a Quote feature to easily compare quotes from different businesses.

Books for Motivation

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

In typical Scandinavian fashion, this book’s central message can be read as either morbid or humorous: Clean up your stuff before you’re dead and somebody has to do it for you. If you’re feeling daunted by the prospect of diving into your closet, this book will take the sting out of the task.

Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson

Home Comforts

Meticulously researched, surprisingly funny, eminently practical. It will help you understand why your house works the way it does and what things need to be done to make it more functional. It’s like the Joy of Cooking for home organization.

The Ten Foot Square Hut by Kamo no Chōmei

Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike

Written in 1212, this seminal work isn’t exactly a manual on how to tidy up your living space. But it does offer plenty of food for contemplation as you’re doing so. With its enlightening message centered upon the Buddhist concept of impermanence, it’s the perfect text to help anyone who is struggling to let go of things that no longer serve or spark joy.

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