Ten Tips to Organizing Your Home Life on Capitol Hill

Once you have organized your things, charitable donation trucks, like Green Drop, is a good way to send your things on their way to a new home. Photo: Rindy O'Brien

By now, almost all of us have heard about anti-clutter superstar Marie Kondo. Her blockbuster book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tiding Up,” and her Netflix series have us all thinking about our own clutter. We’re wondering if we need to organize ourselves more efficiently and neatly. Kondo’s method draws snickers from the cynical types, who probably haven’t cleaned since their mom demanded it. But, for those who have tried it, many find getting rid of physical stuff creates a more healthy and productive overall life.

Kondo has trademarked her approach as the Kon Mari method. You tackle your cleaning by starting with categories rather than rooms, and hold each item and declare whether it gives you joy or not. For many folks, already having trouble with the idea of spending days sifting through their belongings, the idea of making an existential judgment on an old pair of sneakers is simply too much. It becomes another good reason to put off the spring tidying up for another season.

The good news is that there are a lot of different approaches to getting organized that don’t require you to celebrate every spatula in your kitchen. Talking to Capitol Hill professional organizers Jill Lawrence and Judy Tigre and archivist Jan Zastrow, we’ve come up with 10 good tips to organizing possessions that will take you from dread to happy and, best of all, keep you on a path of having your own space clutter free.

Tip 1 – Review and Refresh
Getting started is really wrapping your head around what you have. Professionals say the first step is to walk through and just look at what is there. Do you have piles of clothes, papers and undone art projects? Are there books everywhere? Start looking also for spaces that can do double duty for future storage of your organized stuff. Jill Lawrence says that Capitol Hill homes with their high ceilings offer great found space. “Reviewing my situation” is one way to name it, rather than “decluttering my stuff.”

Tip 2 – Adopt a Plan
There are many ways to tackle organizing. In fact, the two professionals had very different approaches to decluttering. Both agree that you need to adopt a system that fits with your personality. For some, color-coding boxes for keepers, goners and trash works. For others, it is essential to write and label the boxes, and having a “maybe” box is important too. One professional suggests tackling the effort in half-day intervals, since doing a little here and there is too disruptive. The other professional feels two-hour intervals are most doable and less stressful.

Tip 3 – You Cannot Shop for It
The goal here is to reduce what you have collected, and until you have gone through your belongings, either room-by-room or category-by-category, you don’t know what kind of storage you are going to need. Going out to Ikea to buy draw organizers, plastic bins and other storage items is going to put off the hard work and leave you with more things to find space for. Gather all your cleaning supplies before you start: boxes, trash bags, markers and, importantly, snacks and water to keep you going.

Tip 4 – Focus
It is so easy to get distracted. Turn off your phone so texts and calls don’t take you away from your work. Remind yourself that the end game is to be able to find things easier and remove any safety issues from your daily living. Many folks on the Hill have drop-in guests, and reclaiming the guest room from the junk room is another goal. It is amazing how much space you actually have in your small Hill home once you get rid of things you don’t need.

Tip 5 – Okay to Give Your Gifts Away
Grandma’s crocheted afghan is taking up a lot of room; and besides it is too itchy to use. Often these kinds of items keep us from getting started because, really, what can we do? Grandma would be so sad if we threw it out.

If there is real fear that a family member’s feelings will be severely crushed if they know you no longer have this item, you need a way to store it and bring it out only when that family member is visiting. If not, give the item away, maybe taking a photograph of it, and treasure the sentiment behind the gift. Someone else may really love it. It is the love behind the gift you need to hold on to, not the afghan.

Tip 6 – Children’s Art
Capitol Hill school children produce art – lots of it. There are 3-D turtles, paperclip bowls, small drawings, large paintings and notebooks full of stories. How can you throw out Suzie’s first flower painting? Add a couple of children in a small Hill home or apartment, and you may have more art than the Louvre. Judy Tigre suggests you start the school year with a box for each student, and all work goes into the box along the way. At the end of the school year, sit down and select the best of the best to keep. Online book companies will produce a book from photos of the work, including 3-D pieces. A series of books, “Suzie’s First Grade,” “Second Grade,” can be a wonderful way to celebrate each phase of your child’s school life.

Tip 7 – Papers Last
Lawrence suggests that you always tackle papers last. Glance at them but don’t look. Put them in a box called “Paper to Sort.” It really takes time and uses a different part of your brain to go through papers, and it’s key that some papers don’t get thrown out. Isn’t that a good rainy-day project?

Some Capitol Hill residents have had a chance to be a party to history. Papers and photographs that have been kept after leaving Congress or federal agencies should be treated with special archival techniques. There are many tips online on how to preserve these documents.

Tip 8 – Your Computer Assets
In addition to what may be physically taking up space in your home, there is a growing need in protecting your digital space. Jan Zastrow, local archivist, says that inheritance laws are beginning to address the question of digital property.

She says it is important to inventory your digital assets, noting all your accounts, financial, commercial, and websites and email sources. You should include user name, password, PIN and answers to secret questions. She highly recommends a book, “Your Digital Afterlife,” by Evan Carrol and John Romano. It is important to determine what happens to your digital stuff.

She also recommends that developing a good digital archive system is key for finding files and photos.

Tip 9 – Storage Units
One of the easy solutions to cleaning up is to rent one of the storage units found scattered around the area. There was a long pause and deep sigh by the professionals when asked about it. Clearly, it is not the first choice in their decluttering arsenal. As Lawrence says, think through how much you are spending each month for the storage. For instance, if you are using the storage space for Christmas items, could you replace the Christmas things each year for less? It is definitely worth doing the math.

The professionals believe that storage units are fine if you are in a temporary situation. Storage space is okay if you will be moving to larger space in the next few years or you have inherited family furniture that will take a while to properly dispose of. It just shouldn’t be used for storing things because you cannot part with them.

Tip 10 – Hire a Professional
Sometimes it is important to have a third party help you. Capitol Hill residents are pros at outsourcing work. Need your garden spruced up, or lack time to cook the holiday dinner? Hire it out.

Organizing and decluttering is no different. While you will have to adopt a system to go forward, and you will have to keep the party going after the professional leaves, it can be a great way to get started. It also helps when there are disagreements about personal items. The professionals laugh and say they aren’t marriage counselors, and sometimes that is what is really needed. But they can help set up a way to move forward. Always remember that the goal is get to a lifestyle that lets you find things, reclaim your guest room and make life a little easier.


Jill Lawrence started Jill-of-all-Trades in 1996 and can be reached at www.jillofalltradesDC.com.

Judy Tigre started Just that Simple 12 years ago and can be reached at www.just-that-simple.net.

Jan Zastrow, a certified archivist here on the Hill, and more on digital archiving, can be found at http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/jun17/index.shtml.


Rindy O’Brien is a long-time homeowner on Capitol Hill who lives in all her space! She can be reached at rindyobrien@gmail.com.