Those of us who live in small homes usually aren’t blessed with cavernous walk-in closets or even many closets at all! To make the most of the closet space we do have, here is a 7-step closet organization system to  give you a neater, cleaner and more organized closet, no matter how small it is.

#1: Get everything out of the closet

Pull everything out of your closet and sort through it, and make four piles: Trash, Donate, Keep, and Move.

  • Trash: any actual garbage and closet items that are falling to pieces.
  • Donate: Anything that’s remotely useable can be either used or sold to wholesalers for profit by most donation stores, and should be donated.
  • Keep: To keep it, check each item against the following rules
    • If the occasion came up to wear this item, would it be my first or second choice? If it wouldn’t be either, donate it.
    • Does wearing this make me feel unhappy, unattractive, or bring back bad memories?
    • Have I worn this within the past year? (With the exception of special items such as ski clothes or extremely formal wear, you should have worn the item at least within the past 12 months, or you obviously don’t like it as much as you say you do).
  • Move: Anything that doesn’t belong in the closet. When you’re done organizing your closet, return these items to where they’re supposed to go

Trashing and/or donating old, extraneous, and unloved items

So many people form emotional connections with their possessions, especially clothing, because we all have to wear it, and it’s easy to start to think that certain clothing items in and of themselves are the sole source of memories (“I can’t get rid of that outdated dress! My beloved late grandmother gave it to me in 1984!”). Purging clothing clutter is difficult at first, but strangely liberating, and it’s undeniable how much better you will feel looking into a closet that isn’t stuffed full.

  • Go on a shoe purge – shoes are often over-represented in precious closet space, because they can actually function for many years, though by then they’ve gotten so old and worn looking that you would never actually wear them as long as there was any other pair in your closet. Just remember that there are many people who are struggling financially who’d love to pick up a decent pair of tennis shoes or dress shoes from your local charity store, and get rid of duplicate styles of footwear in your closet.
  • Get rid of broken clothes you’re never going to fix – All the clothes you don’t wear because they’re missing a button, need to be hemmed, or have other flaws? Stop and consider each one. If you love the item otherwise, but it needs fixing, put it into a box to take to the tailor’s. If it’s salvageable but not worth the effort to fix, donate it. If it’s a wreck, throw it away.
  • Get rid of items you have an unnecessary amount of – I tend to accumulate athletic socks through a mysterious means I still don’t quite understand, though I only need to wear a pair about three times a week. I also have about a dozen abandoned hoodies from my college years. Do you have any articles of clothing like this? Figure out how many times per week you need to wear a different article of clothing, multiply by 2-4 (depending on how often you want to do laundry), and eliminate the excess.

#2: Clean the empty closet

Vacuum the floor, clean the shelves with an appropriate cleaner, and wipe down the walls and baseboards if necessary. This will ensure that you don’t put newly organized clothes back into a dirty room.

#3: Add in your core items

With all types of organization, the items used most often should be in the most easily accessible locations. Otherwise, it will be too inconvenient or difficult you to put the item back where it’s supposed to go, and your closet will quickly fall into disarray again.

Figure out what items you use the most (almost everyday). For many people, their list may look like this:

  • Work/school clothes
  • 2-3 pairs of shoes
  • Socks/underwear

Whatever your most used items are, they need to be placed in the most easily accessed location: not on shelves that are too high or low to easily reach, not inside boxes or in piles.Your entire organization system depends on getting your “core” items in the most efficient location, so make sure you put some thought into their location.

#4: Store away space-consuming rarely-used items

Items that have legitimate purposes but which are used infrequently, such as bathing suits, tuxedos or ski clothes, should be carefully stored in less accessible places. Formal clothes may be best kept in a far corner of the closet to prevent wrinkling from trying to fold it, but less formal items should be neatly folded and placed in boxes or drawers in the closet. Using different colored boxes or labeling them will help you tell from a glance what each one contains, so you don’t have to dig through all of them to find what you need.

Even if you’ve technically got the space in your closet, looking at items you don’t need is visual clutter, and contributes to make your closet look more full, and is subtly stressful. Find a good spot in your home, and tuck away any clothes you won’t wear for at least three months, as well as the occasionally-used items like linens for guests.

  • Vacuum seal off-season clothes and get them into a storage container outside the closet or out of sight. Seasonal items that you only need to rotate every few months should be packed away so you don’t see them every day. My winter clothes right now are sealed and tucked away in a wooden crate that doubles as our TV stand, and vacuum sealed, the clothes take up about 1/3 of the space they would have otherwise occupied.
  • Pack large, but moderately used items like extra blankets, coats, and pillows, in clear boxes, so that they are kept separate from your normal clothes but you still know exactly where they are and have reasonably easy access to them. I’ve started storing all my extra sheets, comforters, and extra blankets for guests  in a clear mattress bag from the Container Store, It’s nice not having a loose pile of blankets fall on me every time I open the hallway closet door.

Most people’s closets are much smaller than we would prefer, plus they are usually dark and cramped. It’s easy to just shut the closet door and pretend the mess inside doesn’t exist. However, an organized closet can create so much more floor space and make it easier for you to find what you need and get dressed, as well as to keep it clean and organized.

Here’s how you can go from an overflowing closet to one that’s organized and neat, and a pleasure to be in. The closet organization tips below are intended to be a thorough de-cluttering and organization process, and will probably take a few hours. If you don’t have that much time, do the below steps in pieces instead.

#5: Fill in the rest of your closet according to functional groups

Anything that’s neither rarely used nor used everyday should fit in around the core items, organized according to “functional groups”, not type of clothing. For example, many people will have clothes for each of these groups:

  • Exercise clothes
  • Evening outfits
  • Pajamas
  • Casual clothes
  • Extreme weather clothes

This system (versus one where all shirts are together, all pants are together, etc) actually reflects how people access and use their clothes, and can make sorting and selecting clothes much simpler, because you have a specific sub-section that each item of clothing belongs to.

Eliminate stacks of dissimilar items

Stacks of items are usually deceitful: they may look organized, but the minute you’ve got to get something on the bottom of the stack, your neat pile is a jumbled mess. Only stack items that you will remove from the top-down, like underwear, undershirts, or flattened socks. Here are some more tips to create an organized closet and eliminate stacks of miscellaneous clothing everywhere.

  • Install some under-shelf baskets – these shelves are super cheap, and will sub-divide a large shelf into two horizontal shelves for more flat storage space. They’re a simple idea, but you’ll be amazed at how effective they are. Storage that connects to existing shelving in your home is especially good for renters, who usually don’t want to spend money on a customized, wall-mounted solution that will just need to be removed when their lease expires.
  • Add in some drawer dividers – also super cheap, cloth, paper, or plastic drawer dividers are perfect for dividing up underwear, socks, jewelry, ties, bras, scarves, belts, and other small articles of clothing that you don’t have the space to dedicate an individual drawer to.

#6: Have an organization system for dirty clothing

Your closet is only organized so long as you can keep used clothing from being flung everywhere. Arrange your closet in line with your laundry habits

  • If you re-wear clothing, you need a designated area for storing lightly used clothing. A specific shelf or area of the closet might be used.
  • If you sort your laundry between lights and darks when you wash, save yourself an extra step and buy two laundry hampers or a divided hamper to keep the two types separate.
  • If you have items that have special washing or dry cleaning requirements, a separate hamper, box, or storage area should be used to keep these apart from the rest of your laundry.
  • If you have a long walk between your closet and washer/dryer, consider a hamper with wheels to make the journey less difficult.

#7: Envision the closet in use

Tasks you hate doing tend to get done less frequently, with less attentiveness and much more unhappiness. Think about what do you dread most about using your closet, and how you can counteract it.

  • If the lighting is too dim to see everything comfortably, an battery-powered LED lights can quickly provide light without needing any wiring or outlets.
  • If areas are too high for you to reach, a stool you can tuck in the corner can prevent you from straining to reach the top shelf.
  • If you hate searching through piles of clothing or shoes for the exact one you’re looking for, consider closet organization products meant for specific items, such as shoe organizers or drawer organizers.