Organizing guru Alejandra Costello on decluttering and productivity | Home Front

Apr 05, 2012

Alejandra Costello, who was recently named one of the most organized people in the nation by HGTV, joins Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza on the weekly Home Front chat. Together, they give advice about decorating with vintage furniture.

Home Front Live Q&A archive Older Home Front Live Q&As

Good morning, everyone.  Today we have professional organizer Alejandra Costello with us to discuss decluttering our homes and our lives. Alejandra recently came by my house to give me some advice on the problem area in my home: my basement. She was super helpful and gave me lots of great tips and advice. See the story here.  I'm doing the chat from the DC Design House, which we will be featuring in next week's section. Lots of questions, so let's get started.

Hi, I recently read the transcript from your paint chat (very helpful!) and had a question I hope you can help with. We have recently moved into our first house, and I'm excited to try out some different colors on our 3 floors. We have a fairly open staircase though (no walls or doorways into each floor) and I'm not sure how to transition from the pretty gray I want to do on the first floor to the khaki I'd like to do upstairs. Won't that look funny if one suddenly stops and the other picks up? Any advice is appreciated - thanks so much!

If there is no clear visual break, I think I would keep the hallways a consistant color throughout the house. Both colors you are considering are fairly neutral, so sounds like either one would work. 

Hi Alejandra! Is there an average time or recommended amount of time that people should spend organizing every day? I feel like I keep doing it in these marathon 4-hour sessions every month when the clutter gets out of control, and I end up exhausted. But I don't know how to do it in short spurts. Thanks and enjoy Arizona!

Hi! I recommend spending at least 30 minutes each day on getting organized. Whether it's putting stuff away or working on an organizing project, 30 minutes is a good amount of time to dedicate to decluttering. I consistently do this each day so I don't have to spend my whole Saturday "cleaning up." If you do this, use a timer! My favorite timer is Time Timer (

What suggestions do you have if you're living on a tight budget and you're looking for the best organizing items for the dollar?

Alejandra has a YouTube video about all of her favorite organizational dollar store finds. She linked it above.

Alejandra, I saw you on HGTV and loved the closet category separators. Where can I find those in order to add them into my own closet?

Hi! These are the exact closet dividers I use (and showed on HGTV) --> Store Supply Warehouse. They are $.34! When was the last time you saw an organizing product for $.34?! Enjoy!

Your paint chat got me thinking that maybe I should go bold in my bedroom. We redid the master bath and painted the walls BM quiet moments which I love. I was stumped on a color for our bedroom until I saw BM Montpelier. What do you think about those two colors adjacent to each other?

I don't' have access to my paint books because I'm at the Design House, but if you write in again next week, I'll try and get to your question then. Thanks.

As a kid I was very neat, and then something along the way changed, and I became messy... I don't like it! Do you have any insight into this? Thanks!

Has anything major happened in your life? A lot of times "big things" happen in our lives that affect other things in our lives aka physical clutter. For example: getting married, divorce, new baby, illness, going off to college, new home, relocation, new job (stress), etc could all be reasons for the change in habits.

The cabinets in my kitchen are dark wood and look pretty dated (think 1980s). My plan is to paint them white, but there are so many shades of white that it's a little overwhelming! The walls are white and the counter tops are granite with blackish and reddish flecks. What shade of white would you recommend? Or is there another color that I should consider? Thanks!

There are so many things that go into picking the best paint color that it's difficult to say without seeing your space in person.  That said, if you're looking for a nice white, Benjamin Moore's White Dove is always a safe choice; it's a soft and warm white with a bit of gray.

We live in a very small 1940s cape cod with closets the size of a shoeboxes. The bedrooms are also very small, so there's not much room for dressers (and definitely not for an armoire or Ikea closet. We already have double rods in the closet. Do you have any other suggestions to maximize space? Thanks!

Are you using the space underneath the beds? That's prime storage real estate that many people don't maximize. Many retailers, such as Container Store, Pottery Barn, Target and Ikea, sell underbed storage bins, some with casters to make accessing the contents even easier.

Hi Alejandra, my biggest organizational challenge is the abundance of shoes belonging to my family (myself, my husband, daughter age 8, and son age 2). I have tried so many ways to organize them, but nothing seems to work for my family! What is your advice for organizing everyone's shoes?

Hi! Is the problem with the abundance of shoes and nowhere to put them OR is it getting your family to put their shoes away in the right spot? I've worked with tons of moms and usually the problem is around putting shoes away. My best advice is to make your "shoe system" as EASY as possible. If you're using a big shoe bin, avoid lids. Lids are bottle necks and shoes will never make it inside if a lid has to be removed to put them away. If the problem is around "too many shoes," have you considered down-sizing? Less really is more.

Hi there. In my bedroom, my closest have large spaces between shelves and are deep. How can I best use the space without losing things behind other things and tall stacks of clothes falling? Thanks!

How about using bins in the back of the shelves to store out-of-season items (keeping in season items in front)? You could also get shelf dividers to help keep your folding clothes from toppling over.

Do you think it's imperative to declutter the mind before decluttering physical objects?

YES!!! A lot of times the "physical stuff" is a result of what's going on internally. My best advice is to look within yourself first, identify what's really going on, THEN once you fully understand the root of issue, tackle the physical stuff. If you tackle just the physical stuff without getting to the root cause, you will without a doubt slip back to your old ways. No question about it.

I've noticed some water drip stains on my bathroom walls (flat paint) below the towel bars from people dripping water when they wipe their hands. What's the best way to clean this up - a magic eraser? I'm afraid to wipe with a damp towel. Thanks.

You could always do touch-ups with paint. If you're using flat paint, you won't be able to see where you've done touch-ups.

How can I manage laundry with 3 kids in the home?! We have a 5 person family and it's so frustrating when it gets out of hand. Is there a method to the madness?

This is a common problem! How often do you do laundry? I suggest doing one load per day instead of trying to tackle ALL of it at once and overwhelming yourself (for example- saving Saturday as laundry day). When you do one load per day, make sure you finish it completely meaning washed, dryed, folded AND putting it away. Most of the time people get stuck when it comes to the folding and putting it away (I don't like doing it either!). However, it's more manageable if it's a smaller load :)

I appreciated the article this morning on basement organization. Do you have any ideas/suggestions for sprucing up a basement that is more like a cellar - low clearance (under 6' in spots), uneven floor, poor lighting. It's a large space - 800 sq ft or so - but everything (holiday decorations, sporting equipment, memorabelia, odds and ends) just seems to get thrown down there in no particular order. Thanks in advance.

This was/is my exact problem, and why I called Alejandra for advice. Some of the best ideas I got from our meeting include: using painter's tape to mark off small sections around the room, decluttering one by one; being ruthless when deciding if I really need to keep something and deciding yes or no (no maybes!). 

Hi Alejandra! Like a lot of families in our area, we live in a small townhouse with two kids. Our older child has a lot of art supplies (crayons, paints, scissors, play-doh), that we need to organize and yet keep out of reach of the younger child. Right now they are stashed in our china cabinet, which is not working any longer. Any ideas?

Hi! I suggest using over-the-door shoe pockets for containing art supplies for the kiddos. Anything that needs to be out-of-reach (paint, scissors, play-doh) store  in the top pockets and anything that needs to be accesible, store in the bottom pockets. I LOVE door pockets because they maximize vertical space (space is limited in my house too) and they are super easy to keep organized. My favorite door pockets are made by Simply Stashed (click link above) --they have cute colors and various sizes :)

I have 2 Queen Anne small wingback chairs that are structurally in great shape but which need to be recovered (or have slipcovers). Goodwill and the Salvation Army won't take chairs that need to be recovered. Any suggestions on where to donate them? It seems a shame just to haul them to a dump.

You could post them on Freecycle. I'm sure someone would love to take them off your hands.

I'm redoing my bedroom. Underneath my old carpet is hardwood floors still in good condition. I bought new carpet but haven't laid it down. Do I need to put a coating of polyurethane over the hardwood or can I keep it like it is?

Are you installing wall-to-wall carpeting or area rugs? If it's wall-to-wall, then you dont need to apply any finish on the floors.

Thank you for having these chats. I keep meaning to ask about a cleaning problem I have. My master bathroom has a wall of beautiful wood cabinetry with lots of areas (nooks) in which dust sits. I usually take a damp cloth to wipe down the many, many dusty areas, but even doing that, I can't seem to reach the dust in the corners. Any suggestions. The cabinets are lovely and provide much needed storage, but the dust build-up is unbelievable. Thanks!!!

Maybe you could just add a quick dusting of the shelving into your morning routine, that way the dust wont ever have a chance to build-up.

Hi Alejandra, LOVE all your ideas. It has inspired me to get more organized and ultimately happy :) My question is regarding ED and living with a spouse. My husband is the bomb but doesn't always feel my organization and it is hard to stay organized when he come behind me and doesn't put things back or keep things straight. Do you have any suggestions for people like us? If I found easier ways to help him remember he would do it. THANKS

The million dollar question that everybody asks- how to organize your spouse! It's hard to answer this one over chat because I have a lot of suggestions, however, here is something to think about: It's all about having the correct systems in place. However, it isn't always easy to setup the correct systems. Why? Because what works for one person doesn't always work for another person. For example, you might have a system for organizing your mail and while it works for YOU because it suites your "organizing personality," it might not work for your spouse because it wasn't setup around his "organizing personality." And when an organizing system doesn't suite our personalities, we are less likely to use it and follow it (aka leave things on counters, floors, etc).  Does that make sense? My suggestion is to find out what your spouse's organizing style/personality is and then design systems around that. Again, it's all in the systems (the correct systems).

Do you recommend using the clear cannisters for snacks, dry pastas, etc? I had some in my hand at the store the other day to help me organize the nuts & candy I keep now on the countertop, but put them back to do more research. If so, do you have a brand you recommend?

If you go to Alejandra's Web site and watch the video with her home tour, you'll see she uses clear containers to store dry goods in her kitchen.  I think she gets her containers from the Container Store, but watch the video for more info here.

With four active kids and not much time, our house is a DISASTER! Every time I get motivated, I jump from one thing to another and then quit. What is the best way to start if there is just too much to do? I also need to figure out how to get the kids (and husband!) to help. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated!

First off, don't quit. If you continue, you will see results eventually but you can't quit. I know its easier said than done but hang in there. Usually when we are going through a break-down, a break-through is around the corner. 

Have you written everything down that needs to be done? A lot of times we have this long list of stuff to tackle and we keep it inside our head (imagine a hamster running on a wheel). Getting it down on paper is the first step. Once you have your long list of stuff written down (btw- don't let a long list of stuff stress you out- focus on one thing at a time), you have to prioritize. Start with the project that is time-sensitive, absolutely needs to get done OR is bothering you the most. Don't start another project until the first project is 100% complete. When you start multiple projects at once, it's a recipe for disaster because it causes stress from being overwhelmed. The key is one project at a time broken down into small managable tasks. You can do it! :)

Is there a system that truly helps in managing all the paper (mail, magazines, bills, flyers, tax and real estate files, etc.)? My home office is becoming unmanageable.

Check out the Web site of local professional organizer Kacy Paide The Inspired Office, for lots of useful tips.

Aside from using moving as the perfect opportunity to get rid of unused items, do you have any suggestions as to properly organizing yourself during the moving process. The more people in a family the harder it is. Thanks!

Moving is the best time to get organized! My best suggestion is to down-size/purge/etc BEFORE you begin packing and moving. You will save yourself time and money since you won't be moving "extra uneeded stuff." Plus, if you are using a moving company, most of them charge by weight. The less stuff you have, the lower the costs :)

Hia just about to sort out my pantry, any ideas on what I might need to consider? Having shelves fitted and need ideas, should we paint the shelves the same colour as the Walls? Katie

Hi Katie! My favorite spot to organize is the pantry :) Before you begin, ask yourself what types of food do you always buy. Design your pantry around that. For example, we always have lots of snacks in the house, so we have a large snack bin. We never eat cereal so we didn't reserve a "breakfast shelf." Understand what your habits are then design your space. Regarding making the space beautiful: Yes, add paint! Or you could line the back wall with adhesive shelf liner which can be found at Target or Home Depot :)

We're out of time, folks. Thanks to Alejandra for joining us and for all of her great tips and advice. Be sure to tune in next week when Jura and I will be dishing about the DC Design House. Have a nice weekend and chat with you next week.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post's Local Living section.
Alejandra Costello
Alejandra Costello is an Arlington-based Certified professional organizer who teaches people how to become more productive and organized through videos and webinars. She was recently featured on HGTV as one of the most organized people in the nation.
Recent Chats
  • Next: