Interior Design

3 Tips from Pro Organizers to Transform Any Space from a 'Before' to an 'After'

The Home Edit, to the rescue.

April 10, 2019

The The Home Edit's Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin are masters not just of eye candy, but of actually useful, doable tips for transforming one's house into tip-top shape. Whether we're revamping a medicine cabinet, overhauling our shoe storage, or tackling an over-crowded pantry, we find ourselves turning time and time again to their prowess.

So when their new book, A Guide to Organizing and Realizing Your House Goals, arrived at Food52's offices, we didn't so much reach for it as we did lunge across the table and grab it greedily, as if it were the last slice of a particularly delicious birthday cake. (The tear-away refrigerator labels that came as an insert in the back of the book never stood a chance.)

Ready for a peek? Us, too. Here are the three steps that make up a proper home edit:

Photo by Clea Shearer

Step 1: Take it All Out

This is where you take the leap of faith. Are things about to get a little messy? Yes. Will you unearth items that give you minor twinges of chest pain? Quite possibly. Do you have to touch every single thing that lives in your drawer/cabinet/closet, pick it up, move it, and arrange it somewhere else? One hundred percent YES. This means that the space you’re organizing should be completely empty by the time you’re done. It’s the only way you’re going to find the dusty purses that have been shoved in the corner of the closet or the expired food in the back of your pantry.

If you leave anything inside the space, you’re saying, “I basically eat all that food” or “I basically wear all those clothes,” but we’re here to tell you that that’s the kind of thinking that got you into this mess in the first place. If you don’t get in there and pull out every single item, then you’re just kicking the can of beans down the road, not to mention building a faulty foundation with your organizing project. It’s a lot more difficult to come up with an efficient and beautiful system if you have to accommodate items you don’t care that much about. The purging part of the process comes later, but you can’t effectively pare down if you don’t know exactly what you have. Assessing each and every item, on the other hand, will help you figure out exactly what you still need/use/love, so you can get rid of the rest.

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Top Comment:
“There are definitely people who will ask where their gift is -- especially if they think it would be nice for the current situation. A person has to decide which will, in Kondo terms, bring more joy -- ridding oneself of useless gifts, or ridding oneself of the grief and guilt given by pushy gift givers.”
— M

So clear off some space on your kitchen counter, bed, or bathroom floor, and strip those shelves and drawers until they are bare. And don’t forget to wipe them down once they’re empty...there’s bound to be some dust and debris.

Photo by Clea Shearer

Step 2: Create Groupings

As you’re taking things out of your space, or after everything’s already out, group your items into general categories: gym clothes, T-shirts, and jeans; or eye makeup, lipstick, and face wash. You don’t need to worry about the organizing piece yet, just pair like items. For example, if you’re cleaning out your fridge, group all the drinks together. You don’t have to worry about whether the milk should be hanging out with the juice or sparkling water. Just stick with drinks.

This step helps with a couple of very important things. First, it keeps the project from devolving into a chaotic mess that makes you wish you never bought this book. Second, it will help you tremendously with the most difficult step: getting rid of anything you don’t wear, use, or want. Instead of going through every item one by one, seeing things in natural groupings will give you a more holistic context for what you own. It will help you see where you have unnecessary duplicates (i.e., thirteen white T-shirts) and decide which items are worthy of keeping.

Photo by Clea Shearer

And we’ll say this again: Don’t be tempted to start organizing yet. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to slap our own hands from putting fruit snacks into a jar right off the bat. We have to remind ourselves not to get carried away, too. If you attempt organization at this stage, you risk getting overwhelmed. We don’t do it that way for a reason: It’s way too hard. For now, avoid thinking about all the labels you’re going to make and stick with this one task.

Step 3: Pare Down

Pour yourself an extra-generous glass of champagne (or if you’re Team Joanna, a cup of tea). Because it’s officially time to edit. Take a hard look at everything sitting in front of you and ask yourself, Are all these things worth my energy? That’s really what this all comes down to—deciding which items are worth your attention, time, and effort when it comes to creating (and maintaining) a gorgeous, clean, Zen-like space that makes you happy every single day. We hereby give you permission to get rid of the things you don’t use or love (or even like). So in case you need to tear this out and tape it on your fridge:


If you spot an item that is no longer serving you—physically or emotionally—it’s okay to let it go. It’s not doing you any favors. In fact, it’s hogging precious space in your house and in your brain.

Photo by Clea Shearer

Bottom line: It’s FINE to get rid of things that are taking up space. No one will ask to see the scarf they gave you for Christmas or wonder where the dish towels with the Audrey Hepburn quotes are, or question why you never use the martini glasses you received for your wedding fifteen years ago. And if you bought yourself an item you never use, remember that we all make mistakes. Don’t double down on the mistake by keeping it.

Here are our tips for low-stress, tears-free purging:

1. Have bags on hand. Designate some bags for trash, some for donations, and some for friends and family. It’s essential to bag up your items as you’re purging—the progress will help you stay motivated. Plus, it feels so satisfying to clear things off the floor or counter and into the bags rather than just moving them from pile to pile.

2. Have a plan for what items you’ll donate or give away. Whether it’s scheduling an appointment for a Salvation Army pickup or making a list of the people you want to give certain items to, knowing the exit strategy for these things strongly decreases the likelihood that your giveaway bags will still be sitting in your trunk a year from now. Be realistic when coming up with your plan—are you really going to schlep fifteen unopened wedding gifts to the UPS Store so you can individually ship them? And that bag of clothes you plan on selling online...are you really going to sell them or just let them sit in a garbage bag graveyard until you forget they exist anyway? If you think you might need some hand-holding in this department, enlist a friend to help!

3. Have a small (small!) project pile. A watch with a missing link, an iPad with a cracked screen, a jacket that needs to be altered— these things can go in their own “special attention” pile. Fix them (sooner rather than later) and then move them back into their newly renovated home.

4. Consider the storing or archiving option. For some items, a binary choice—keep or throw out—isn’t appropriate. These are things you still want in your house but don’t need to look at all the time or have within arm’s reach. Your tax returns don’t need to sit on your desk, but they should be filed away safely in an appropriate place. Sentimental items can be packed away in the attic or basement instead of taking up valuable real estate in a living-room cabinet. Heavy winter clothes don’t need to be front and center in your closet in the summertime, so maybe they go in a seasonal bin on a shelf that you need a step stool to reach.

5. Just keep moving. Once you get into an editing groove, don’t give up and say you’ll come back to it another time. Stopping and restarting is a big reason people tend to lose interest and confidence when tackling an organizing project. Think of it like running (not that we know much about running, but this seems like a good metaphor): If you’re training for a 5K but you let two weeks go by between each run, it’s like you’re starting from scratch every time. We can’t urge you enough to take advantage of the motivation to make a change in your home, harness that momentum, and hang on for dear life. What will go a long way is making sure you give yourself plenty of time for The Edit. You can always come back later for the organizing piece, but make sure you can get through The Edit in one session. This comes back to not biting off more than you can chew, an essential rule for pain-free organizing.

6. Take one more pass. Before moving on to the next steps, take another look at all the items you have left. Make sure every single thing is worth the time and energy it’ll take to physically put it back in your space. If you feel great, then fantastic! You’ve officially completed the editing process. Pat yourself on the back and take a breath. The rest of our methodology is way more fun.

This excerpt, condensed in certain places for clarity, has been reprinted with permission from The Home Edit. Copyright © 2019 by The Home Edit Print, LLC. Photographs copyright © 2019 Clea Shearer. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors, and Food52 may earn an affiliate commission.

When's the last time you did a major home edit? Let us know in the comments!
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • bellw67
  • Sharron Fieber
    Sharron Fieber
  • M

Written by: thehomeedit


bellw67 May 5, 2019
Recently moved from a house to an apartment. I swear I got rid of a house within a house before and during the move. Now I’m still purging, spices I bought because I might need them, duplicate thickeners like guar gum and xanthan gum, 3 different sauces of the same family, etc., clothes that I “might” fit into someday, books that I don’t have room for. As well as going from a 12 place setting down to 8 to fit in my kitchen cupboards. It hurt a bit at first but I’m feeling the love now.
Sharron F. April 21, 2019
I'm in the process of a major move. Old photos are the hardest! I'm not that sentimental, but what to do with the leftovers? Scan into the computer? I'll never do a photo album.
M April 10, 2019
There are definitely people who will ask where their gift is -- especially if they think it would be nice for the current situation. A person has to decide which will, in Kondo terms, bring more joy -- ridding oneself of useless gifts, or ridding oneself of the grief and guilt given by pushy gift givers.