By Candace Braun Davison
If you've ever worried about unleashing an avalanche when you pop the trunk -- or realized your backseat contains so many discarded sweaters and shoes it could double as a roving closet -- this speedy, tidy-up plan is for you.
Plug The Quarter- And French Fry-Eating Hole
For the most part, you probably don't think about that gap between your seat and the center console -- until you round a corner and swoosh! Your cell phone slides down, trapped in a space too narrow for your fingers to easily grab it. While we're apt to immediately retrieve our iPhones -- though please, resist the urge to lunge for fallen items while driving (distractions like this were responsible for 3,331 deaths in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation) -- certain items tend to nest there indefinitely: crumpled gum wrappers, pens "borrowed" from the bank, the loose change you're always hunting for when you reach a toll. After you've taken a few minutes to clear everything out, the next step is to close the gap.
A foam seal used for insulating a window air conditioning unit can be trimmed to fill the space, though it may shuffle or fall if you readjust the seat. Another alternative is the Drop Stop. This neoprene wedge has a slot that fits around the seatbelt buckle, and it moves with the seat, so it won't become the gap's newest victim if you need to move forward a few inches.
Excavate Under The Seat
Work your way from that dreaded console gap to the space under your seats, and get rid of anything and everything that's under there. The one thing that's safe to keep? A few dryer sheets. Organizing expert Peter Walsh recommends stashing one under your seats to fill the car with a fresh, clean scent.
Upgrade Your Cup Holders
These little beauties aren't just for keeping your hazelnut latte spill-free -- they're the unofficial junk drawer (and cell phone holster) of the car. Thankfully, a range of new organizers help maximize this fist-size space, so you can store your phone without having it butt up against your condensation-dripping Big Gulp. Some models even have compartments for your loose change and sunglasses.
Speaking of dripping drinks, Frugal for Life has an easy fix for preventing that sticky residue that inevitably builds up on your cup holders -- and causes clutter balls of old gum wrappers, pennies and who knows what else -- simply cut sponges (or absorbent coasters) to fit.
Turn Your Door Pocket Into An On-the-Go Cleaning Station
If the cup holder is the car's junk drawer, that little storage slot on each door is a mini Dumpster. It's just so convenient for stashing junk mail and half-full soda bottles while you're on the road. The problem? The trash rarely gets emptied, until it's overfull. Or stinky. That trash nook doesn't have to be reinvented; just streamlined. An empty cleaning-wipes tube can be filled with plastic grocery bags so you can easily grab one, collect any loose garbage in your car, and toss it after you've parked.
This pocket can also be a great place to stash a few reusable shopping bags. (I've found it much easier to remember to take them with me into the store when they're right in my line of vision as I'm getting out of the car.)
Transform Your Glove Compartment into a Mini Filing Cabinet
A thin coupon organizer (or recipe file) is an easy way to have fast access to your car's most vital papers. Registration, insurance information, car repair and maintenance receipts can all have their own tabs, recommends Lorna Kyle Boot of the blog, That's the Coolest Thing!, and most styles fit comfortably inside a glove compartment. You could also stow a few napkins there (read: 3-5, not the two dozen or so that often get crammed there "just in case" after a drive-thru run) and a car charger for your cell phone.
Tame Your Trunk
Watch the throne, Grumpy Cat -- blogger Heidi Castro's minivan could be the next viral star. Okay, that may be a teeny bit of an exaggeration, but Castro's so used to being stopped and quizzed about her organization strategies while loading groceries that she posted a guide on her blog, The Castro Family Happynings, and images of her trunk are repinned endlessly on Pinterest.
You may not need Castro's level of organization, but her trunk illustrates a few key pointers for keeping things in order. If you need as much floor space as possible, you could try attaching plastic organizers to the backs of the seats, like she did. Or, if your biggest problem is items that jumble together everywhere, try using a multiple-compartment, collapsible bin. Velcro attached to the bottom can help keep it from sliding around.
From there, consider giving yourself a "two weeks" rule: If it's not part of your emergency kit and you haven't used it in 14 days, it needs to exit the vehicle.
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Just How Messy Are You?
Soon you might be able to answer that question down to the decimal point. Researchers at MIT, led by cognitive scientist Ruth Rosenholtz, Ph.D., are working on a series of computer programs designed to quantify visual clutter by measuring color, contrast, "feature congestion," and visual complexity in maps and photographs of messy spaces. Rosenholtz's work could end debates over whether your teenager's room really is a pigsty (it is), help streamline Web sites and simplify maps, and maybe even lead to the creation of smart cars that can direct drivers to avoid overly cluttered -- and therefore dangerous -- streets.
Talk about the magic touch: In a 2008 study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, researchers confirmed that the longer we physically hold an item, the more we value it. Two groups of 42 test subjects bid on coffee mugs they'd held in their hands for either ten or 30 seconds; the group that had more physical contact with the objects bid significantly higher. The lesson? When cleaning house, it may be best to enlist a buddy to hold things up as you decide what stays and what goes. That way you can avoid forming new attachments to your junk -- or rekindling old ones.
Her Days Are Numbered
<a href="http://www.quantifiedself.com/" target="_blank">The Quantified Self</a> is a Web site where "self-trackers" -- people who record, and look for patterns in, the empirical data of their lives -- can post their findings. One self-tracker, Hulda Emilsdottir, detailed the methodology she and her husband, Josh Klein, used to clear out their Seattle apartment before moving to Iceland a few years ago. They logged every possession on a spreadsheet, then assigned each item to one of five categories: "I love this thing, and I use it all the time," "I love this thing because it's a good memory," "I love the way this thing looks, and I'm going to keep it," "This is useful but it's lacking somehow," or "This is useful, but I don't love it." Anything in the first three groups stayed; everything else went. "We got rid of about half of what we owned," Emilsdottir says. "And we get more joy out of what we kept," Klein adds. (Watch Emilsdottir's <a href="http://quantifiedself.com/2009/06/hulda-emilsdottir-and-josh-kle/" target="_blank">video</a> about her remarkable seven-month wardrobe-simplifying project.)
An Object Is Worth A Thousand Words
What would a stranger think of you if they examined every item you own? That's the burning question for University of Texas social psychologist Samuel Gosling, Ph.D. Gosling, the author of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Snoop-What-Your-Stuff-About/dp/0465013821/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297986437&sr=1-1" target"_blank"><i>Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You,</i></a> enters a person's home or office, notes all items present, and, based on his findings, completes a "personality inventory," assessing traits like agreeableness and neuroticism. A desk with a dozen framed family pictures might suggest that you value home life -- "but are the photos facing inward (for your enjoyment) or outward (to convey a message to others)?" Gosling asks. Snooping may not be an exact science, but certain truths are well documented. For example: "People assume -- always -- that you're a nicer person if your space is clean."
Forgive A Little Bit
If you have a penchant for procrastination, we've got good news: A 2010 study out of Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, found that to stop putting off onerous tasks, you should... forgive yourself for putting them off. Doing so decreases your chances of delaying similar chores in the future, because it eases the negative emotions surrounding the task. So if you're upset about letting your basement progress beyond disorganized to health hazard, the most useful thing you can do is get over it -- and then get down to work.