ittle girls can frequently be found playing with Barbie dolls (if you were like me, you’d frequently be found giving them Crayola marker makeovers and cutting their hair off), but Jennifer Young of Chaos Contained, a Cincinnati-based organizing and design service, didn’t play with her Barbies — she organized them.
“Organization is something I’ve always naturally done and never really thought about,” she says. “I do it for myself for fun.”
Five-and-a-half years ago she took her inkling for order to the next level. After seeing the explosion of television programs about professional organization on HGTV and other home networks, she decided to add the title of “professional organizer” to her full-time job as Director of Communications at Mercy Health. So on her birthday she registered her new company, Chaos Contained, as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). Now she’s a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers and spends her down time working with clients (who are also generally full-timers juggling family and work) to whip their spaces into shape on nights and weekends.
Since we all want to start the new year fresh, CityBeat talked with Young to get her top tips and advice on how to start tackling your own home organization — and when to call her if you just can’t do it.
“My biggest thing is that you have to start small,” she says. “There’s no way you’re going to do the whole house in a weekend. ... Pick a small project first, like a junk drawer or a pantry or a hall closet. You need to have a small win that encourages you to keep going.”
Young says it’s much easier to start with a space that contains items your aren’t attached to and one that you can easily organize in an hour or two. For example, if you’re in the pantry and find something that’s past its expiration date, throw it out. There’s no sentimental reason to keep old peanut butter.
Asses how it got this way
Young’s philosophy is to go in and work with her clients rather than going in to organize alone, because she needs to see how you live and use your space in order to understand why it got this way in the first place and then determine how to keep it from getting this way in the future.
“If I can figure out how it got that way, I can help find a solution,” she says.
You should do the same. Is your closet a mess because you travel all the time and you’re constantly packing and unpacking suitcases? Are your emotions getting in the way of you letting go of high school ephemera? Figure out how you use your space, and then make a personalized plan for organization. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. And if your organization doesn’t work the first time, who cares?
“Switch it. There’s no rule that just because you organized it this way that it has to stay this way,” Young says.
If you’re organizing a group space, you need to involve everyone who uses that space. “Say it’s your family room and you have four people in your family,” Young says. “All four people need to be involved on how it’s going to change.”
Everyone needs to know where things go and why they go there so things can return to their proper place.
Trash, recycle, keep
Any time you’re going through a space to start organizing, make three piles: “What you’re trashing, what you’re going to recycle or donate and what is going to stay in that space,” Young says. “Get rid of the first two and only work with what is staying in the space. That’s were the fun begins. It’s a puzzle. How are you going to put the pieces back together to function the best? ... All you have left is that ‘keep’ pile and then you really have to plan how do you want to use the space.”
This is also a time when you need to put a hold on your emotional attachments (and likely why you needed to call in a person like Young). “I’m the objective person …so it’s easier for me to be honest. You have five black turtlenecks. Do you really need all five? How about two? Then we will donate to Dress for Success or Goodwill or something like that.”
Another piece of advice about the trash and donation pile: “Take them out of the space immediately.” Otherwise you’ll start rethinking and reattaching. Get rid of them.
Make organization a habit
“It takes between 14 and 21 days of doing the same thing over and over again for it to become a habit,” Young says.
Don’t get frustrated if you have a slip up and think you can’t do it. “You have to hang the clothes up. You have to put the shoes away. You have to put everything back in the place where it goes. You might have a busy day one day and put your clothes in the corner instead of the closet.”
You can’t punish yourself for this, but you also can’t literally let things pile up. “You’re taking an active role that you’re going to try to do this. You just have to realize it’s going to take a little time.”
“Label everything and compartmentalize as much as possible. Only put a thing back in where it’s supposed to go,” Young says. “Compartmentalize within a drawer. Get a drawer organizer so there’s just a space for rubberbands or spatulas, and then you can say to yourself, ‘Nope. That doesn’t go there. That’s only for the tape or the scissors’ versus ‘this is an empty space I’m just going to chuck this in there.’ ”
Young also compares labeling to a kid’s memory game. Label your boxes, and in big spaces like garages and basements, label your shelves, too. That way you know holiday decorations go in the holiday box on the holiday shelf.
“If you have an ability to put a tag on something or lift up a lid and see a tag, the more you can associate the item with the space the more you’re going to put it back in.”
A special note — if you’re using a hand-held label maker, Young says to make sure you use plastic label refills instead of paper. Paper ones will deteriorate. She also suggests labeling large boxes by making your own large labels out of brightly colored paper and clear packing tape.
Make it clear, if you can
Buy clear bins if you can or if it makes sense within the space. Obviously you don’t want see-through bins sitting in the middle of your living room, but clear means you can see through it and see what’s inside, which helps you know what goes inside. Young’s favorite multipurpose tool? A clear, over-the-door shoe holder. It’s a perfect place for children to stash toys to keep them off the floor, or a great place to keep mittens and scarves in the closet. Give each family member his or her own row.
“Start small and don’t get overwhelmed. Step back and praise yourself. People get frustrated when they see half-hour TV shows. It really took a week, not 30 minutes. ... Even if it’s just your pantry and you have your girlfriends over and they ask what you did this weekend, show them! You’ll feel good about what you did and you’ll want to continue that through all your spaces.”
For more information or to schedule a free one-hour consultation with Professional Organizer Jennifer Young, visit