Ask a Clean Person: Tackling a Major Clean-up, Part One

To put it mildly, my bedroom is absolutely atrocious! I’m still using the “I just moved in, so it’s okay that my stuff is still in boxes, and I can barely walk through my room” excuse, even though I moved in July. It’s really stressing me out, but I’m so overwhelmed with the amount of stuff strewn about that I don’t even know where to begin.

The main problem is clothing, but I also have trash, dishes, random knick-knacks, and pretty much anything else you can think of lying around. Obviously, I won’t let anyone in my room. This recently became a problem when a guy spent the night. No joke, I put a sleeping bag on the living room floor for the both of us, and wouldn’t let him near my bed. He wasn’t TOO freaked out, because we’ve known each other for a while, but, let’s get real, that’s pretty unacceptable behavior for a lady in her twenties.

I’d like to bring my dates back to a clean, comfy bedroom rather than always going to their houses or banning them from my room. Plus, I’m going a little crazy with all the clutter. Can you give me, a person who’s notoriously messy and horrible at organizing, some advice for getting my room into a more live-able state and keeping it that way? Like, what kinds of organizers do I need, and which could I live without? Do you have some kind of cleaning timeline that would make the whole process a little less painful? If I don’t do something soon, I’m afraid I won’t even be able to open the door.

Is it okay if I hug you? Because I think you might need a hug, and I love that you have a sleeping bag in your room o’ hoard and that you actually thought to bring it to your living room for sexytimes. That is so completely hilarious to me! Also: I am here to help! Readers, this LW was kind enough to provide me with photos of her room in its current state, and yeah, things are pretty serious in there. But! She piped up and admitted that there’s a problem, which is the best and most important thing she could do. Our LW has also agreed to come back to me in a month or so with an update on how she did, which will be fun for all of us. Maybe she’ll even let me run some before-and-after pictures! For the time being, though, they’re our little secret.

To get going, I’ve created a sample two-weekend clean-up plan that I’ve broken down into chunks of 3–4 hours a day. This can and should be tailored to your needs and schedule, and those of you who might be taking on similar but smaller projects can apply the same techniques to whatever situation needs getting-under-controlling in the new year. Next week we’ll go through a whole host of organization solutions and talk about how to keep things tidy going forward. This is a big commitment, but a really great one to make to yourself! I’m a firm believer that coming home to a place you love lifts up all other aspects of your life, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Right, so, let’s get started! First things first: make your bed. I don’t care what’s piled up or strewn over or lurking inside it. Knock everything onto the floor with impunity and make that bed! And every day from the start of this project until your room is the sexy ladyspace you’re envisioning, I want you to make that bed. One, it’s a good habit to get into; two, it will get you into discipline mode without too much work; three, this room isn’t going to get whipped into shape overnight, and coming home each day to a made bed will give you a sense of order that will motivate you to keep on keepin’ on. Lastly, the made bed is going to serve as an important place from which you’ll do much of your organizing work.

The second thing to is to consider what you’re wearing. How fun, a fashion show element! In all seriousness, this is a physical task and you’re going to be on your feet for a few hours so you may want to throw on gym-esque clothes, tie your hair back, and consider wearing sneakers.

The last thing — and this is so hugely important, seriously — is music. I have music on all the time in my house — for cooking, for cleaning, for, um, other things — because it gets my butt moving and makes otherwise mundane tasks kind of fun because who doesn’t love an excuse to bop along to “Two of Hearts”? Anyway. Music!

Execution the Prequel: Planning

Next I want you to get a pen and a few pieces of paper, and then I want you to sit on your bed. From the vantage point of the bed, you’re going to survey the landscape, with an eye toward tackling things in groups. That’s going to be your mantra, contending with one group of things at a time. On your piece of paper you’ll write down the different groupings of things you’re seeing, so something like this:

Dishes & Glassware
Clothes — Drawers
Clothes — Closet
Shoes & Accessories
Make-up & Beauty Supplies
Bedding & Towels
Bills & Paperwork

Okay now, on a fresh sheet of paper, I want you to put the groups in the order that you’ll take them on. Since this is a sample plan, here you may have to use some judgment based on what things you’ll need to acquire from the outside in order to make order out of chaos, i.e. a shoe rack, a bigger dresser, bookcases or wall-mounted shelves. Save those things for the middle of the process, so you can build in time to find, let’s say, the dresser that’s going to be right for you in terms of size and design. However, the first thing on the list should be trash and dishes, immediately followed by any other items/groups on the list that don’t belong in the bedroom. The second thing should be clothes, so that you can put things away and then figure out what additional types of storage you’ll need for your beautiful things.

Once you’ve made your list, which will serve as your gameplan, the blueprint, if you will, for the re-architecting of your bedroom, it’s time to head out of doors for some supplies. You will need the following: a box of trashbags, a kitchen timer, a measuring tape, a bottle of wine. Or vodka, or Diet Coke, or whatever your poison may be. This pre-planning process, including the errand running, shouldn’t have taken you more than an hour.

A note: you’re going to be tempted to skip this part of the process. You’ll think, “Oh I can just make a mental list and dive right in!” Do not do that. The 30 minutes you’ll spend writing things down and making a plan for yourself will save you hours down the line. You can — and should! — check things off as they’re completed, and isn’t that so satisfying?! Yes! Please trust me on this one thing, if nothing else.

Execution Phase One: Trash and Kitchenware

Once you’re back home, first things first: the trash and dishes get dealt with. Well, wait. First I want you to set that kitchen timer for 1 hour, then grab a trashbag and go through your entire room throwing away any garbage that doesn’t belong, or items that you already know you can/want to part with. Don’t (don’t don’t don’t, you can’t see me but I’m wagging my finger at you, don’t) spend any time at all agonizing over whether or not to keep something. If it’s at all a question just keep moving. Also set any dishes, glasses, food, etc. on the floor right outside your room.

As you’re going, you’ll probably need to move things out of the way. This is a good opportunity to begin moving items you’ll get to later into their groupings. So let’s say, all the clothes will get tossed over into the far left corner of the room, and all the books will get piled up in the far right corner. Again, I don’t want you to spend any time at all thinking about these things, you’re to focus entirely on getting the trash up and out. Just shuffle them into new places and leave them be.

If you’re still working on the trash when the timer hits an hour, it’s time to stop. You probably will be done before that, in which case you should get all the dishes etc. you’ve stashed into the kitchen sink. Then you’ll take a break and be psyched that you got through a big chunk of clutter-clearing! Building in time for a break is really important, because the task at hand is both physically and mentally tiring. So sit down for 30 minutes, turn the TV on, or read a magazine and have a glass of wine or a Diet Coke or a cup of tea. But set that timer so after 30 minutes you get back up and finish the first part of the project.

The last step of phase one is to wash, dry, and put away all kitchen items. And from here on out, dishes and foodstuffs don’t get left in your room for more than 8 hours. Which means that the water glass you brought to bed the night before gets put in the sink first thing in the morning. The box of cookies you snacked on while watching your late-night episode of Designing Women goes back in the pantry before you leave for work. The empty soda bottle gets tossed in the trash. And so on.

Execution Phase Two: Clothing

In order to begin sorting your clothes, it’s best to start with a totally clean slate. Which means taking everything out — which in your case won’t be hard, since all your clothes are on the floor — and using our theory of groups to get things in order. So! Pile everything up on the floor in the following categories:

Underthings (underwear, bras, lingerie, camis, slips, socks, hosiery, etc.)
Bum-around clothes (yoga pants, sweats, sweatshirts, grungy tees, sports bras, housepants, etc.)
Sleepwear (PJ pants, nightgowns, nightshirts, robes, etc.)
Casual tops (tees, long sleeves, golf shirts, hoodies, etc.)
Dressy tops (blouses, blazers, slinky silky things, etc.)
Casual pants (jeans, leggings, cords, etc.)
Dressy pants

Then, starting at the top of this list, take on each pile one by one. You’re going to fold everything and make piles on your bed. Once an entire category of clothes is folded into piles, you can put them away. Then you’ll start in on the next group of clothes. Underthings, bum-around clothes, sleepwear, casual tops and casual pants can go in your dresser. If you don’t have enough room in the dresser, put your bum-around clothes, which tend to be bulky, in a long flat under-bed box. That way, they’re easily accessible but well contained. We’ll talk about sweater storage in great detail next week, because ugh sweaters. Such a darn hassle.

Once you’ve gotten through the items that belong in your dresser, it’s time to turn your attention to clothes that need to be hung in the closet. Take the same approach and put things away by type. Start with dresses — grab your pile of dresses, get a stack of hangers from your closet, bring them to your bed and hang everything, stacking them flat on the bed as you go. Once that’s done, bring them to the closet and put them away, moving on to skirts, then slacks, the tops, and ending with coats.

Set aside about an hour and a half for each half of this process — go ahead and use that timer you got yourself, building in a 30 minute break to take a load off, have a cold drink, a bite to eat, smoke, whatever. Then take 30 minutes at the end to assess what items didn’t fit in the dresser- and closet-space you have, making a list (sorry, I know already with the lists, but they really work!) of what’s left. Do you need more hangers? You probably need more hangers. Count what’s left so you can be sure to buy the right amount. Do you have a lot of folded clothes that can go in underbed storage boxes? Measure the clearance of your bedframe so you can be sure to buy boxes that will fit under there.

By now things should look much more under control, and it’s time to stop for now. Give yourself a big pat on the back, have a cold drink, start thinking about what little things you can pick off during the week — like stopping after work to grab more hangers and taking 30–45 minutes on a random weeknight to hang the last of the closet items — but give yourself a chance to do other stuff too, like going out with your dude. That was a ton of work you just did!

Execution Phase Three: Shoes, Accessories, Jewelry, Make-up, Bedding & Towels

Week two sees us working through smaller groupings of things, with the focus being on cataloguing what it is you have and then thinking about sensible storage solutions for them. Next week’s column will offer ideas on how to contain your collections, but first you’ve got to figure out what you have! I bet you don’t even know that you’re a scarf hoarder!

Start with your shoes, again grouping things into types (sneakers, sandals, boots, heels, flats, etc.) and lining them up on the closet floor — for the time being! Again, there are a whole bunch of ways to consider organizing shoes, but, to start, let’s get them put away. Give yourself 45 minutes for this, whipping out your friend the kitchen timer to keep you honest. Once the hour is up go wash your hands because eww you were just handling your footwear, then have a 15 minute break.

Now you’re going to dive back in for a two hour marathon of sorting through all your pretty lady things! Much like with your shoes, my guess is that a lack of proper organizers is a sticking point for you, so starting with accessories (belts, scarves, hats, etc.) and then moving on to your jewelry, sort through things, making notes of what you’ve got, and setting things aside (maybe on the top of your dresser?), ending with your make-up and other beauty products. This is also a good time to take stock of your extra towels and bedding, if those are things you need to store in your bedroom. If you have a linen closet I don’t want to hear about it because I will die of jealousy. And speaking of towels, a tip on using your bed to organize things like jewelry, make-up, hair things, etc.: lay a bath towel down over your made bed so that your bedspread doesn’t get dirty.

Okay, by now maybe you’re feeling pretty psyched about things and want to reward yourself with a little shopping spree! Since your pretty lady items are on the brain, this might be a good time to hit up places like TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Home Goods, Christmas Tree Shop, etc. etc. etc. for storage solutions. I find those type of stores to be invaluable resources for bins, baskets, jewelry organizers, and all manner of inexpensive receptacles for your things. Plus! Discounts! Just remember to measure your spaces, so you don’t, for instance, buy storage bins that are a half inch taller than the shelf in your closet.

Execution Phase Four: Books, Knick-knacks, Electronics, Bills & Paperwork, Boxes

You’re almost there! Aren’t you so excited?? The last thing to take on are your books, knick-knacks, electronics (i.e. laptop, TV, stereo/speakers/dock, etc.); for this part you should have a microfiber cloth on hand to wipe things down before putting them away on shelves, since they are dust magnets. I would also like you to take a moment to compliment me on my restraint thus far because NOT A SINGLE TIME have I told you to “take this opportunity to wipe things down!” and I really, really wanted to. But this is not the time or the place. Those things, though … if they’re dirty, it will show, and your room won’t feel like the sexylady space we’re going for if there’s visible dust. Let’s give you an hour or so for this task.

Once you’ve gotten your books and knick-knacks and electronics dusted and put away on shelves to the extent you can do that, grab all your papers and bills and receipts and sit down to sort through them. Maybe head out to the couch and turn the tube on while you sort. (This is your 30-minute break. A working break!) Throw away or shred anything you don’t need to keep. Stack everything else in a neat pile and put it somewhere safe. The last thing to do is to remove any moving boxes that are left in your room — by now, I hope they’ve been emptied of their contents as you went through the process of sorting your clothes and accessories and books and etc. etc. etc.

Okay so that’s it! Well, not entirely it, but with only a few hours of work a day in just two weekends you can get your room cleaned up such that you won’t be at all embarrassed to bring a dude home! And then! We’re going to do a whole bunch of awesome things to it turn it into a pretty ladyspace that’s easy to keep tidy.


In terms of a real timeline, it should look something like this:

Week 1 — Saturday:

Hour 1 — make bed, write blueprint, buy supplies.
Hour 2 — remove trash and dishes/glasses/food from room.
Hour 3–30 minute wine/Diet Coke break; move dishes to sink, wash, dry and put them away; take out trash.

Week 1 — Sunday:

Hour 1 — sort clothing into piles by type, begin folding and putting away items in dresser.
Hour 2 — finish putting clothes in dresser; take 15–30 minute break.
Hour 3 — sort and hang all clothes that belong in the closet.
Hour 4 — finish putting clothes in closet; take 30 minutes to make a list of what additional storage items you need (underbed boxes, hangers, a second dresser, etc.).

Week 2 — Saturday:

Hour 1 — organize shoes, take a 15 minute break.
Hour 2–3 — sort through accessories, jewelry, make-up and beauty products, bedding and towels.
Afternoon shopping spree!

Week 2 — Sunday:

Hour 1 — dust and put away books, knick-knacks, electronics.
Hour 2 — sort through bills and paperwork, dispose of moving boxes.

You hang in there! This is absolutely doable, you just need someone to hold your hand and help you get over the feeling of panic you’re having. That’s really the hardest part of all. One thing to know about projects like this is that oftentimes things get messier before they get cleaner; this is one of the reasons why it’s so important to work on things in group formation, because you’ll be able to see tangible results during each stage, which will help to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed. Also it’s really, really important to know that trying to tackle it all at once is overwhelming and unrealistic, and you will have to dedicate some time to this — more than just a day’s work. You can, obviously, speed up or slow down the timeline as long as you promise yourself that you’ll stick with it. Just like a diet. Except not nearly as excruciating.

But I can promise that if you commit to it, you’ll be A-OK and back to having bed-based encounters in no time at all.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?

Photo by Charles F McCarthy, via Shutterstock