cluttered basement full of boxes and bags piled on top of each other

The Missing Manual

Welcome to the introduction of The Missing Manual, a guide to organizing when you don’t know how. In the end, it’ll be a book, but for now it’s a work in progress. I welcome your comments and suggestions, either in the comments section or by email (


Decluttering feels impossible. Whether you grew up in a full house, or your parents kept things spotless, your own house is a mess. You can’t figure out how to fix that, and you’re beginning to think you’ll never will. 

This book is different. I’ll teach you how to declutter and organize your house without assuming you know how to do any of this already. 

By the time we’re done, you’ll be able to find anything you own within five minutes. No more infuriating hours lost hunting for what you know you already have. You’re going to get your life out from under clutter’s clutches and it’s going to feel so good.

When you don’t get how to deal with clutter, it feels like you’re the only one who can’t manage this basic skill. You feel like my daughter, who struggled with math throughout school. Sometimes teachers ignored her, other times they tried to push her to ‘catch up’ with her peers. No matter what anyone tried, nothing worked. 

It wasn’t until 11th grade when she got Ms. Harrow for math that anything changed.

Ms. Harrow explained every last step involved in every lesson she taught. She didn’t skip the ‘easy bits’. Given a complete set of steps to follow, math finally made sense to my daughter. This is what this book is going to do for you and your clutter.

The steps are specific. Follow them and your life will change. 

You and clutter developed this relationship one of two ways. If your parents were hell-bent on doing everything perfectly themselves, they shooed you away while they did it ‘properly’. Or they lived in clutter, and didn’t know how to deal with it anymore than you do.

If you grew up in a full house, you’ve never seen how people make decisions about what to keep and where to store things. 

“One of the only true shortcuts in life is finding an expert and apprenticing under them,” says James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. This book is the closest way to going back and getting to learn those skills now.

You’ll get solutions to the top three organizing problems:

I’ll walk with you through the mess and show you how I work with my organizing clients. You’ll learn what to do with the mementos, how to manage unwanted gifts and how to stop being the family storage unit. 

  1. What goes where.
  1. Dealing with random boxes labeled ‘miscellaneous’ without getting overwhelmed.
  1. How to stay organized once you’ve got things sorted out.

Many people struggle to deal with the sheer volume in their homes. Many people have brains that don’t naturally take easily to the organizing game. We’re all doing the best we can. I know you can do figure this out, because I did. I grew up surrounded by clutter, and I found my way out.

Your Story Is My Story

Although I can’t be sure exactly how you’re feeling right now, I can have a pretty good guess. Unlike most Professional Organizers, I didn’t spring from the womb ready to color code my onesies and get my mom on a sensible feeding schedule. 

My family held onto everything. Clothes, toys and books were everywhere. My dad’s collections covered every surface. Books, lesson plans, shopping lists. Wallpaper sample books, financial and medical paperwork, receipts and scraps of paper. 

By the time I was seven, we’d moved from a cozy two-bedroom starter home to a large Victorian house. The new house had no closets. The dressers were full of fabric scraps, magazine clippings, and thousands of letters. Dad made floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for every room so the books had homes. Everything else fended for itself.

When I left home, I kept a messy home too. My husband liked to hold onto things too, so we maintained a cozy, cluttered vibe. We had people over but there was a mad dash if my mother-in-law was on the way.

Daily cleaning was difficult with so much stuff in the way. I came across Flylady,  who suggested decluttering for 15 minutes a day. I set my timer and watched the magic unfold.

I sorted and I culled. It wasn’t easy. There was always a reason something was in our house, and it felt difficult to send anything on its way. As I kept going, I started to feel lighter and freer. I learned how to find homes for everything, always aiming to make it as easy as possible to put things away. Anyone can take something out, the trick is getting it put back away.

And then my dad died. I flew back to England for a week for the funeral. I hadn’t been inside the family home in almost 10 years and it was shocking to see how nothing had changed. Books still lined the walls, shelved two-deep now. Spiral book towers covered the floors, teetering on the verge of collapse.

Boxes and rusted-out filing cabinets filled the basement.

He told me he didn’t want to leave a messy house for us to have to deal with. But in the end, the clutter had bested him.

I spent a week hunting through the papers. Getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff while mourning my dad’s passing.

Ancient report cards floated to the surface, frowning from the past. This intelligent boy does not apply himself and does not live up to his potential. I knew that someone with undiagnosed ADHD would find organizing boring and difficult. Of course they would put it off until physical limitations made the task impossible.

And so my sister and I sat up until two in the morning, going through it all. Did he imagine sorting the house would bring us all together? We didn’t have that kind of time. It was so difficult not to resent him for leaving it all for us to deal with.

And yet, despite the clutter, I knew my Dad was more than what he left behind. The clutter was evidence of his interests and his experiences, a way to track a life.

Everyone who struggles with clutter is like that too. We’re all so much more than our clutter, and we would all find life easier if we corralled it now.

Do These Three Things First

It’s tempting to head into the garage and start tackling boxes, but we know how well that works. Before you do anything else, take care of these three dull tasks.

Put a Few Boxes Together

I know you have box mountain in the garage. But unless those boxes are all the same size, sturdy and have lids, the search continues. You want them to be able to stack your boxes on top of one another without crushing the bottom box or toppling over.

Invest in a pack of bankers boxes. There’ll be ten in a pack and it’ll cost you around $20.

Google how to put a bankers box together if you haven’t done this before. It takes 30 seconds when you know how to do it, but can be baffling when you don’t.

Put together three boxes and their lids and label each box on all four sides with a heavy duty marker.

  • Kitchen Table
  • Goes Elsewhere
  • Tchotchkes

Why all four sides? So you can immediately see what’s in each box whichever way you stack them.

Now Take Out the Trash

Grab a trash bag and go around the house, searching for obvious trash. Old food containers and wrappers, used paper towels and napkins. Gum wrappers and the fragments of leaves the dogs bring in on their tails.

Pick it all up and put it in the trash bag. If the bag gets full, take it out to the can and start another bag. If you find a lot of things you want to recycle, collect them in the same way.

Ignore anything you’re not immediately sure is trash. If you have to think about it, leave it for now and keep going in search of trash. If you think you might use those old boxes, leave them be. If they’re saggy and ripped and the cat threw up in them, and you can see they’ve become trash, out they go.

Collecting all the trash might take a few minutes or it might take much longer. That’s okay, this is where we start.

And Do Some Dishes

Now go around the house again and collect all the dirty dishes.

Pull the ice cream bowls out from under the couch. Reach for the spoons between the cushions, and under the kids’ beds. Look down the sides of the couch and behind the easy chair. Pick up the spoons behind the headboard and the ice cream dishes next to the bathtub.

Bring it all downstairs. Empty the sink and wipe it out, then run a fresh sink full of soapy hot water and soak all the dirty cutlery.

Run the dishwasher if you have one. If it’s full of clean dishes, most likely you’re not emptying it because the cupboards are full. Stack the clean dishes on the counter and don’t worry about where they’re going to end up.

Fill the dishwasher with the dirty dishes. Go back to the sink and scrub the cutlery, rinse it and dry it with a kitchen towel. Put the clean cutlery out on the counter.

As you run loads in the dishwasher, stack the clean dishes on the counter and make piles. All the dinner plates get stacked together, all the bowls sit near each other.Not very glamorous, right? But sorting dirty dishes is a whole lot less fun than sorting clean dishes.

Next time: Chapter 1: How to declutter.

by Lucy Kelly

DON’T MISS OUT >>> Send It Away Saturday is my email list reserved strictly for people who want to get organized without getting overwhelmed.


  1. I love your columns! I’m highly organized by nature, but I still love to read organizing articles/books in case someone has an idea I haven’t thought of! Thanks for helping those who need help getting organized! 🙂


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