Ask the Organizer — Moving and Unpacking

This month’s question is from a reader named Melinda:

Question: Dear Jessica,

My husband just got out of the US Army last year. We moved from a spacious 3 bedroom/1.5 bath duplex into 2 bedrooms in his mother’s house. From there we moved into the basement of a friend’s house where we have been living for 6 months. Just this week (5-8-07) we moved into a 2 bedroom/2 bathroom apartment. Do you have any advice on unpacking?

There isn’t as much room as the duplex, so I’m trying to declutter and go through toys and clothes and junk while I’m unpacking. (We’re having a garage sale next weekend.) Any advice you can give would be appreciated.


Jessica Duquette - Professional OrganizerJessica says:
Greetings, Melinda, my heart goes out to you, I know all too well how stressful moving can be, especially when you are downsizing, but your family is growing! The good news is, the UNpacking is way more fun than the PACKING was. You get to choose where everything goes, you get to let go of some more of the clutter before it gets put away and at the end of the process, you have home.

The best advice I can offer anyone who is unpacking from a move is to be very very very strict with yourself about what to keep as it comes out of the boxes. As you unpack, you’ll have plenty of empty boxes, so why not designate one for donating, one for giving away to friends, family and new neighbors and one for trash. As each item comes out of the box, hold it in your hand and really ask yourself if it belongs in your fresh, new life. REALLY ask yourself. This is the time to stay completely present with your vision for what you are wanting to bring to your family and home. Remember, clutter is always about keeping what you want away.

If you find yourself in an internal battle over something you are holding, ask yourself what is the real ‘need’ you have to keep the item? Many times, there is an underlying emotion that is trapped inside the junk, and we forget that the thing is not the feeling or the memory you have projected into it, it’s just a thing.

Also, I have been to so many people’s homes who have told me that in the rush to get unpacked get resettled, they just stashed things in the first empty space, and there it lived for the next 15 years. I want to encourage you not to do this. Be thoughtful and conscious of where things go and keep these three rules of thumb in mind:

  1. Put like with like. This can mean that all the napkins go in one drawer, or all the table linens go in one drawer, that will depend on your preference and the amount of space you have. All that matters is that you don’t mix batteries and plastic forks and hair clips in with the ‘things that we set the table with’. The categories can be as broad or narrow as you’d like, but I suggest that you say the category out loud to set the intention, to make it clear to yourself what belongs there and to let everyone else in the family know as well.

    (Other examples are coffee-making equipment such as filters, coffee, sweetener, spoons, etc., or hair care items like brushes, combs, hair ties, barrettes, etc., or in the garage tools such as hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.)

    You would be surprised at how many people have these things scattered all over the house! It’s like a miracle when we bring them all together and create a home for them so that they are easy to find. Saves time and money on emergency trips to the store for duplicates, too!

  2. Put things at their point of use. Make sure when you put something in it’s place it is near the spot that you will use it. Using the table linens as an example again, you would put them somewhere in the dining room or eating area in your kitchen. It’s ok to set up a ‘way station’, such as a place to put mail when you walk in the door before it gets to your desk, but that can only work if you have declared that a way-station with a purpose, otherwise it will get cluttered up before you know it!
  3. Save ‘Prime Real Estate’ for Prime Real Estate items. What this means is that you will want to put the most used items in the most accessible places and the less used in more remote locations. It sounds obvious, but most people don’t think that way, especially under stress. They just stash things in the first available space and where there’s no rhyme, there is no reason. That’s how the whole house gets overwhelmed with clutter and things are difficult, if not impossible, to find again.

    How do you do this? Use the arm or eye level shelves (this will depend on your height relative to the height of the cabinets), the top drawers, the front of the file cabinets, etc. for your most used items. Remove anything that is not in every day or at least in every week use and put it up on the higher shelf, or down in a lower, harder to get to drawer, or even out in the garage. If an item’s level of importance should change at some future time, you can always move it.

    This one tip will make a huge difference in your life right away. As you are pulling something out of the box, decide how much you use it and then give it a home according to it’s importance. Ever wonder where to put those party platters and Holiday plates? What about in that hard-to-reach cabinet over the fridge, or tucked way in the recesses of your lower kitchen cabinets or even in the garage in a plastic container labeled ‘Holiday’? If you do this, the stuff you are using all the time won’t get lost back in the ‘black hole’ and since you’ll only be pulling the stuff out once a year, the trouble it takes to access it won’t be a big deal.

    Thinking back, I have another tip: when my daughter was younger (ages 3-7) I always used at least one bottom drawer for her plastic cups and plates as well as one for her (healthy!) snacks. That way she could get her own things as she needed them and put them away once they were clean. She felt like she was contributing and I didn’t have to be at her beckon call!

With the three tips above, plus some judicious purging on the way back in to your new home, I really believe you can make a smaller space work efficiently and smoothly for your family.

What happens is that now each square foot of real estate in your home has become that much more valuable and so your standards must go up of what is important to keep or toss. My clients tell me they always hear my voice in their ear saying, “do I LOVE it? Do I LOVE it?” when they are going through their home. Most people don’t stop to ask themselves this question and so they are held hostage by their stuff.

Keep in mind what it is you really want for your life and your family and have that be the higher purpose, the higher goal, when making decisions.

All the best and warmest blessings to you and your family in your new home.

Remember, I am on your team!

..· ´¨¨)) -:¦:-
¸.·´ .·´¨¨))
((¸¸.·´ ..·´ Jessica -:¦:-
-:¦:- ((¸¸.·´*

Jessica Duquette from
It’s Not About Your Stuff


  1. says

    Wow, what great tips! We just moved from France and did the opposite: moved from a tiny place into a larger one. In our old place, we had one closet! (3 kids, 1 husband, me). I had to ditch a lot of things, but I’m so glad I did. Now in our Texas-sized house, we have empty closets. Oh, the clutter does creep, especially in the garage, but I’m trying to be diligent about keeping it away. I love empty closets!

  2. Melinda says

    Thank you. 😀 I will admit that some things have been “stashed.” But they will be rearranged within the next month! And I really have been asking myself if I need to keep certain things and why. (The garage sale is going to be HUGE!) Thank you for all the great tips. :)


  3. says

    This is coming at just the right time for us – in the next 2 weeks we are moving from a 2 bedroom/1 bath 1300 sq ft house into an 1800 sq ft house with 4 bedrooms and 2 baths. I needed these tips!!

  4. says

    It’s even better if you can purge AS you’re packing; so there will be less to move and less to unpack. The costs to move all of that stuff (whether hiring someone or investing your own spine’s health hefting it all) also goes down dramatically when you purge AS you pack.

    Even better? Purge both as you pack AND as you unpack. :)

  5. says

    Thank you! As a military wife I have made many moves and I have to ask, why did it never occur to me to put those empty boxes to use… donate and trash? We are getting ready to move to Hawaii and we will be definetly be down sizing. I have been working my you know what off getting rid of stuff and I am a regular at Salvation Army Donation Center; but I can no longer do it. I now have a plan for when we move in!

    THANK YOU!!!

    PS: Now can someone get my husband to purge too? :-)

  6. says

    This is great! We’re in the process of buying our first house, and my main goal is reducing clutter and getting organized in the new house. I am specifically looking at houses with several smaller living areas rather than the one giant living/dining room we have here. I want to say, “This is the playroom, this is the school room, this is…” instead of having everything piled up on our dining table! I’ll be sure to take your tips and extend my organizing to what goes in what drawer and what needs to be easiest to reach!

  7. Janice says

    I LOVE these tips! I am not moving, but with the new baby coming, I need to move things around and get rid of TONS of clutter and stuff. I have such a hard time letting go of stuff – but it is ridiculous, because really that extra stuff is hurting my life by stressing me out than doing me any good!

  8. says

    I think there is–a secret FDLS group on Facebook. They say the first step is admitting that you’re powerless over the fear of dirty laundry. Once you take that step, the others are easier… :)

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