A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place
Esti Ostrovitsky Shares Her Organizing Secrets
How did all this stuff ever fit in here?
That’s the question I ponder all too often when we return home from a trip or vacation and I begin to unpack our luggage. (If you can’t relate, please do not write a letter to the editor. It will damage my morale.) That question (addressed to no one in particular because the other members of my family seem to disappear when it’s time to unpack) is usually followed by frantic reorganization of drawers or shelves to make room for the items that once fit there.
It would be so nice, I sigh to myself each time I go through the unpacking debacle, if everything was just organized all the time, so I could unpack smoothly and focus my frustration solely on the fact that we had to return to Brooklyn.
Summer is here, which means that various members of this family will be coming and going. I dread the packing, but what I dread at least as much is the unpacking. What I need is a place for everything and everything in its place. What I need is a system that will not allow my shelves and drawers to magically shrink every time we leave this house.
What I need is an organizer.
Esti Ostrovitsky is the most organized person I know, and understandably, her business is called Easy Organizing by Esti.
She comes for a visit one day to offer her tips, but first I want to know a little about how she got started.
“Well,” Esti says, “I was always organized. When I was a teenager, my drawers and closets were always well organized.” She pauses. “There’s a big difference between organized and neat, you know,” she points out.
Yes, I do know, because if you walk into my house it is usually neat as a pin. Just don’t open the junk drawer. Or any drawer, really.
Anyhoo, this is how Esti got started with her business. When her granddaughter was born, she was elated as only a first-time Bubby can be. And, like a good Bubby, she sprang into action. But not in the way you think.
She organized her toy closet.
That project was such a resounding success that Esti went on to organize her kitchen. Then the living room. Followed by the dining room. And the bedrooms.
Two and a half months later, she was finished.
“I realized,” Esti says, “that I am good at organizing. I learned all kinds of methods for folding and storing as I went along, and the result was life changing. I realized that I could help other people achieve that, so I offered my services to a few friends. They were very happy with the results, so I decided to start my own business.”
A friend created her logo, and Esti donated her time as a prize for a local organization’s Chinese Auction. Slowly, she began getting calls through word of mouth, which she says is the best form of advertising.
Where Do I Start?
“The first step,” Esti says, “is to declutter. I always say that you need to choose: space or stuff. You can’t expect to have an organized space if you have too much stuff.”
That’s much easier said than done. We humans amass so much stuff, and as Esti points out, minimalism is not an ideal that most of us grew up with. “Waste not, want not” was the mantra of my grandparents, Holocaust survivors who somehow had immaculate and perfectly organized homes despite their reluctance to throw anything out. That’s the mantra that keeps us from tossing pretty shopping bags and holding on to crayon stubs because they can be melted down to make new crayons (ok, maybe that’s an extreme example, but I really did think it would be a fun project for the kids).
And then there are the items we just can’t bear to part with: the “stiffy bows” basket from Heller ’93, the best summer ever. The teacup with the missing handle from Babi’s kitchen. The pamphlets we got while climbing Masada for the first time.
Esti nods when I tell her this. “Decluttering is an emotional process,” she says. “What I do is ask myself with each item, ‘Why am I keeping this?’ If I don’t have a good answer, I know it is time to get rid of it.”
Esti says there are no shortcuts when it comes to decluttering if you want to do it the right way. “You can’t organize your clothing if you don’t go through all your clothing,” she explains. “You can do it in sections – skirts, then shirts, and so on – but you need to sort through each piece so that you don’t end up with a closet full of pieces you don’t wear. When I did that, I found that I had six denim skirts. Who needs six denim skirts?”
When Esti organized her tool closet, she sorted through every single screw and nail. But even that wasn’t as bad as the mounds of paperwork that had to be organized. “Papers are the hardest things to tackle,” she says.
If you want to keep something, Esti tells me, ask yourself two questions: Does it have a purpose? Does it mean something to me? If the answer to both these questions is “no” it’s probably not an item, you should hold on to.
Esti never tells her clients what to do when it comes to keeping or tossing. She does, however, suggest that they keep a “maybe” pile for the items they aren’t sure about. Those items should go in a bag and be put away for six months or a year. “If you haven’t touched them during that time, you probably don’t need them,” she explains.
Sentimental items may be the exception to that rule, and those are the items that present the greatest challenge. Esti advises me to start with practical items, such as shoes or belts, before moving on to sentimental items which will involve more deliberation.
“I once had a client who had a throw in her living room that served no purpose,” she recalls. “but she’d kept it for the longest time thinking that someday she’d need it. We sat there for 45 minutes discussing that throw until she decided to throw it out.”
Do We Really Need Those Fancy Bins?
You’ve seen them in those fancy organizing columns: rows and rows of neatly labeled bins full of everything from pantry items to small toys. They look so pretty, but seriously, must all our rotini go into a clear container labeled “pasta”? Will our Q-tips only stay organized if they are encased in acrylic?
There’s a reason those containers have gained such popularity. “It sounds so simple,” explains Esti, “but when items are contained in a bin they do stay neater and it is easier to maintain that neatness. If everything has a place, ninety percent of the time, it’ll go there.” That said, she explains, the type of storage will depend on what you are storing. Every pantry is different. Every toy closet is different. And while people associate organizing with bins, Esti reminds me that the first step is not to put the things I have into matching things – it’s to declutter.
Vertical storage is practical for things like paperwork, books, and magazines. “I used to organize my papers every year but inevitably, they turned into a mess,” Esti recalls. “I use magazine holders now, with folders for each category, and everything stays neat without the constant piles everywhere.”
Does she recommend storing board games vertically as well? “That will depend on the shelf you are using,” says Esti. “Not every game will stand vertically, and you will usually get more space if you store it horizontally. Whatever you do, avoid deep shelves. Those make it hard to find everything.”
A great toy closet find that Esti picked up along the way is a photo box from Michael’s, which comes in 4×6 and 5×7 sizes. “It looks like a suitcase,” she says, “and it’s perfect for storing card games or puzzles.”
One of the trickiest areas of the house are the cabinets under the bathroom sink. Esti’s suggestion for those is to make use of the vertical space with shelf dividers or drawers that fit around the pipes.
In the kitchen, the pantry is the place that needs the most work. Most pantries are deep, which creates a challenge when it comes to figuring out the right way to store all those cans, boxes, and bags. “Everything should be placed in categories,” Esti instructs. “Put the coffee, tea, and sugar near the urn. One client had the urn and the coffee on opposite sides of the kitchen. Putting the coffee in a nice clear container won’t help that situation. You need to set things up, so they are easily accessed when you need them. You want the placement to help your day run more smoothly.”
To keep things neat in bedrooms, Esti folds clothing vertically in their drawers. She loves rectangle hooks for belts and ties, so they are visible and easily reachable. “You have to be able to see your things,” she explains. “Otherwise, you forget about them.” Her closet is organized by style – skirts in one area, dresses in another – and season.
Kids rooms present their own challenges, and one of those is the amount of stuff they tend to collect – especially their coveted “prizes.” Esti says that it’s important to let kids amass the things that are important to them. The trick, she says, is to give them a limited amount of space in which to store their treasures, and to sort through them each year. “Tell them they can keep whatever fits into their box, but they don’t necessarily have to throw out the things they decide not to keep,” Esti tells me. “They can make a yard sale or give those items away as prizes for other kids. That way, they’ll be less reluctant to part with them.”
Lastly, Esti says, “If you want your kids to maintain their rooms, make sure they can reach their stuff. Hang the hooks at a lower height for them.”
In Esti’s house the coat closet has separate bins for each item, such as hats and gloves, but she says that each person has to find the system that works for them. “I keep all our garment bags in one place,” she says, “but some people prefer to keep each person’s garment bag in separate rooms. That’s fine, too, as long as you have designated spots for each item.”
“If you do it right the first time, it will last,” Esti says of the organizing process, “but you do have to leave room for flexibility. Sometimes you need to rethink a system if it’s not working well for you. And as the kids grow, you’ll have to replace the Legos on their shelf with sefarim. But if you started with an organized space, that won’t be hard to do.”
A Helping Hand
Esti walks into my kitchen and I open the junk drawer. “Can you tell me what to throw out?” I ask, only half joking.
“I can’t,” she answers frankly. “Only you can decide which items are useful or valuable to you.”
It seems Esti has noticed the less-than-proud look on my face when I show her the drawer (which does have some small Lucite holders for paper clips and the like for the record, and I am totally throwing that in here so you don’t judge me), because she says, “Sometimes people are embarrassed to call me or to show me their closets, but there’s no shame in not having a perfectly organized home. Some people are naturally more organized, some less, but many of these tips are learned – and that’s what I’m here for, to teach people how to implement them.”
Esti’s job may not include making the decision about whether we really need 20 black Sharpies, but she can help me sort through them and decide where and how to store the ones I decide to keep. That process – going through each room drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf – takes time, and just how long will depend on how quickly you can make decisions. “A closet can take me half an hour, or it can take three hours,” Esti says. “But you should allow yourself the time you need to make those decisions. It’s an emotional process.
Sometimes, clients will ask Esti to help them with the layout of a room. “I’m not a space planner,” she clarifies, “and I tell them that. But I can give advice on a practical level to help you maximize its space and functionality – so it makes you happy.”
Happiness is the key. “People don’t realize how invigorating it feels to live in a well-organized space,” Esti tells me.
I can’t wait to find out.