"Too many things and no place to put them" is the classic complaint of clutterbugs. Attempts to organize the stream of papers, books, magazines, equipment, clothes and all manner of things that overflow their homes end in frustration.
Now Catherine Rhoads, agent of the Mongtomery County Extension Service of the University of Maryland, has organized a series of clutter clinics that offer concrete help to clutterbugs determined to bring order to chaotic desks, shelves, closets and rooms.
"It doesn't matter if people live in a $300,000 house or an efficiency apartment, clutter is still a problem because we just have so many things in our lives today," says Rhoads. She points out that we have moved away from the fall and spring cleaning of our grandmothers. We no longer have the old barn in the back to cart things out to.
"Once people have made that crucial decision to organize their things, they may be too overwhelmed to know how to start," Rhoads observed. "A master's degree in music or a degree in law is no guarantee of the ability to organize a home. In our groups, people share their anxieties and their successes," she adds.
Each clinic participant is assigned the task of zeroing in on just one cluttered area of his home and analyzing it according to five basic principles of clutter control. Rhoads stresses that it doesn't matter whether one attacks a pile of papers growing on the dining table, a crowded jewelry box or an overflowing closet.
Begin someplace, with principle number one: Group like things with like. If you are attacking a stack of papers, put all clippings together, all unpaid bills in one pile, notices in another, everything relating to children in another. In the hall closet, the everything out and group all hats together, all children's clothes together, all winter coats in one pile, all spring coats in another.
Proceed to principle number two: Decide what in each pile is being used now, what will be used in a different season or an occasional mood, what will never again be used. Apply Rhoads' "two-year rule, which is if you haven't used it in two years, throw it out or give it away. If you can't bring yourself to make this hard decision for some things, retire them to a halfway area in a less used part of your home.
Seasonal items such as beach equipment, or Christmas and Halloween articles, should be grouped in separate containers, labelled and stored in attics, garages or basements.
"At this point, would-be organizers begin to feel some immediate relief from clutter, spurring them on to greater accomplishments," Rhoads has found.
Proceed now to principle number three: Store at point of first use. "We are creatures of habit," says Rhoads. "Day after day we will push through a drawerful of spoons, beaters and miscellneous equipment to fish out that one spatula we love. Instead, we should empty the drawer, take out that spatula and the few other things we often use, store them over, under or near our actual work space. As for the rest, sort them out, put less frequently used items back in the drawer, display decorative ones and give away what's left," she adds.
Thus, the principle of first use would dictate that coats hang near the front door, unpaid bills be stored with accounting book and checks, pans that require water be stored near the sink. Hang the colander in which lettuce is drained over the sink where it is washed.
Put frequently worn jewelry close to dressing area.
Proceed next to principle number four: Store for convenience. Put everyday dishes and glasses in cabinets handy to the diswasher or sink. Move rarely used crystal and china to the less convenient spots. Put spices near food preparation area, hot plates and gloves next to oven. If you are short, do not put often used appliances so high you cannot reach them. If children cannot rech the rack in the front hall closet, get a big basket they can as easily toss coats into as they can onto the floor. The clutterbug who is also an inveterate article clipper should install a cabinet near the clipping area.
Finally comes the fifth principle of storage: flexibility. As life changes, let rooms and storage change. "Analyzing where you are in the life cycle is important," states Rhoads. "Young mothers must not try to have the neat house they can achieve when their children are grown, and they shouldn't feel they have to," she adds.
Thus, toy rooms will give way to studies, bedrooms will become hobby centers. "Everything in your home should come up for periodic review, like a prisoner," counsels Rhoads, quoting from favorite author Peg Bracken.
As the five principles begin to take hold the clutter gives way to organization, clinic participants find that previously hidden storage space begins to reveal itself. Storage possibilities in odd, unused corners become apparent. For instance, the space between the refrigerator and dishwasher may be just large enough to store trays sideways. A shelf hung between countertop and cabinet in the kitchen will store spices so that precious cabinet space is freed for other items. Step shelves in vanities almost double storage space. Rafters in unfinished basements will hold boards, luggage and ladders.
"There is no use in hiring a workman to help you unless you know exactly what you want," advises Rhoads, who suggests that inexpensive help for installing shelves, pegs and other useful storage aids is available through the Over-60 Counseling Service in Chevy Chase.
Recognizing that organizing is a lonesome task, Rhoads suggests that her students advertise their efforts by putting up a sign or giving a tour.
Rhoad's own home is the very model of pleasant, uncluttered space. With two grown sons long since having started their own families, she and her husband converted the fireplace mantel from a showplace for sports trophies into a display area for her dried flower arrangements. One son's bedroom became a sewing and television room, the other's became a guest room. A basket near the front door holds incoming mail. The basement is divided into informal work centers reflecting the Rhoadses' many hobbies. Yet the Rhoadses have been careful not to use up all available space with shelving and storage. "We all need just plain empty space around us, too," she has found.
While the next clutter clinic will be at the White Oak Library, Jan. 11 and 18 from 9:30 to 11:30, Rhoads and other county agents are available at any time to speak to groups interested in home management problems. Numerous pamphlets offering storage suggestions are obtainable at no cost from local extension agents in the Washington area.