For many, a new year ushers in opportunities for fresh starts. For those hampered by last year’s (or the last decade’s) clutter, decreasing the mess also can reduce stress, according to organizational expert Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a health psychologist at the University of New Hampshire.

“There is a connection between mess and stress. Life is substantially more stressful when chaos reigns. You end up taking longer to do the same amount of work,” Kendall-Tackett says. “When your home or work area is well ordered, people and things get to where they need to be and tasks get done. Organization allows you to have a life.”

While in school, Kendall-Tackett cleaned houses, sold kitchen supplies and worked as a home health aide – jobs that gave her license to open drawers, root around in cupboards and look under sinks.

“The suggestions I offer come from the real world and my own attempts to streamline my work at home,” she says. She is the author or editor of 15 books including “The Well-Ordered Home,” and “The Well-Ordered Office.”

Why is it so difficult to be organized? According to Kendall-Tackett, our lives are quite different than they were a generation ago. People simply have more to deal with.

“The amount of paper that comes into our lives every day is staggering. On an average day, a person handles about 300 sheets of paper. That’s 660 pounds of paper a year,” Kendall-Tackett says.

“In addition, Americans have the longest workweek of any industrialized nation. With limited time, we are often forced to choose” between regular work activities and sorting debris, she says. Faced with this situation, the 5-S activities get put on the back burner.

Kendall-Tackett offers the following tips for getting organized:

Step 1: Have What You Need
Not having what you need will slow you down and waste your time.

Step 2: Use Active Storage
Keep things that you use most often in the most accessible places. Infrequently used items go in the front, on low shelves and in the middle. Items used less often go toward the back, up high and even in a different area of your work area.

Step 3: Get Rid of Clutter
“Clutter is perhaps the single-largest impediment to becoming more organized. Unfortunately, clutter dramatically increases the time you spend in any task,” she says.

But what should you get rid of? Before chucking items, consider the following:

  • If you put it in a handier place, would you use it?

  • Are you missing something you need in order to use it? Can you get what you need?

  • Is it obsolete for you? If so, could someone else use it?

“Going through the clutter can be wonderfully freeing. If you notice that you have made some unwise purchases, become aware of that, resolve to do better next time and then let it go. You’ll save time and be able to share some of your abundance with others,” Kendall-Tackett says.

When just beginning to organize, Kendall-Tackett suggests selecting an area that is used every day. If you organize such an area, “the impact will be immediate and you will know right away that you are making progress,” she says.

She also said novice organizers should give themselves a break. “We often believe that we ‘should know’ how to do things the first time we attempt them. Rubbish! Make mistakes and learn from them. Give yourself room to experiment. Be flexible and adapt as you go,” she says.