Organizing Your Car in 5 Simple Steps

Do you remember the last time you got a new car? It forces you to clean out your old car for sale or trade-in, and then figure out how to “get organized” again in your new car. Well, that was me just a week or so ago after my husband and I decided to trade in our 10-year old Toyota RAV4 for a brand new Honda Accord.

Whether you'll be replacing your car this year or just know that it's time for some "spring cleaning," as a certified professional organizer, I thought it might be helpful to offer a few tips on how to get it done as easily and painlessly as possible.

There are just a few steps needed to bring your car to beautifully organized in a few hours. Now, I’m being real with you… this is likely not going to take just a couple minutes, but you can organize a car in an afternoon. (Unless you’ve been living in it or using it for overflow storage for your house… then it might take a bit longer.)

Step 1: Remove everything and sort into “like” categories

If you’re going to start fresh with an organized car, then I highly advise that you begin by taking EVERYTHING out.

This can be a great time to drop your car off for detailing or at least drive it over to the car wash and give it a bit of scrubbing inside and out when it’s empty. An optional bonus, of course, to have it cleaned as well as organized, but you might as well if it’s going to be empty for a couple hours. (BTW: this is a great request to make of your teenager or partner while you sort through the stuff at home.)

Meanwhile, you can sort through all the stuff that just got pulled out and figure out what’s been hanging out in your car.

What usually lives in our cars? Most of us have fairly similar categories:

  • Personal care items - bottles of water, hair brush/comb, emergency makeup items, sunscreen, bug spray, nail file, etc.

  • Emergency car tools - ice scraper, shovel, first aid kit, blanket, flashlight, etc.

  • Car-related paperwork - registration, proof of insurance, inspection report, etc.

  • Shopping related items - reusable bags, coupons, items to return to the store, etc.

  • Office supplies - pens, notepads, post-it notes, etc.

Then, there are the additional categories based on your life: Kids' stuff, pet care, gym/workout/sports gear, etc.

Start creating piles by category of all the stuff that’s been living in your car… you’ll likely be surprised at how many things have accumulated.

Step 2: Weed out the Categories

Once you have everything sorted, now it’s time to grab the Trash, Recycling, and Donate boxes. Take each category individually to determine what actually needs to go back into the car, and what’s ready to move on to a new home.

You might surprise yourself that you had 6 nail files in your car, and realize that maybe 1-2 would be fine. And do you really need 3 ice scrapers? Maybe just one really good one and the others could be donated (or maybe keep an extra one in the basement in case the first one breaks.)

Obviously, it’s a great time to pitch any trash… food wrappers, empty bottles, used napkins that have been floating around your car. You could also weed through the coupons and pitch out the expired ones that didn’t get used.

Once you’ve weeded everything out or relocated some things back to the appropriate places in your home (since that book might not really need to live under the seat of your car any more… *grin*), then you’re ready to figure out how it all goes back.

Step 3: Assign Homes for Each Category or Item

You’ll want to pause for a moment and think about how things get used in your car. More than any other space, organizing for ease of use and access in the car is paramount. After all, if you need a tissue, you’re not going to pull over and grab the box out of the trunk.

So, you’ll want to think about what items you definitely want to have:

  • within reach of the driver’s seat,

  • which things can be a bit of a reach (in the glove box or back seat),

  • which stuff belongs in the trunk.

However… don’t just start putting stuff back in yet. If you re-group categories/items into these three strata, and take stock of the little compartments and storage areas in your car, then you might be able to assign whole categories to specific locations based on frequency of use.

For instance, my car-related paperwork lives in a small portfolio inside the glove-box since it only comes out for inspections or if I get pulled over by the cops (thankfully that’s rare.) However, my tissues are within immediate reach in the car door, since I don’t want to hunt for them when I’m about to sneeze.

Step 4: Create Kits for the Car

Often people have tons of random items rolling around their cars. So, this is a great place to create kits for similar items.

Grab an old bag (preferably with a zipper or other closing mechanism) and put whole categories together, like all the pet care stuff. Maybe you have an old dop kit or makeup bag that could hold all your car personal care items in the center console or glove box. Or why not repurpose that shoe box to hold your office supplies or kids stuff.

The containers don’t need to be fancy. You can just reuse items from around your home. However, if you’re in the mood to make things pretty, then you certainly could make a shopping list and pick up a few appropriate containers to keep your car kits more organized.

When choosing containers make sure that you consider both the size of the collection of items to be stored as well as the size of the location where you want the kit to live. You might love that little bag for your personal care items but discover that it’s too big to fit in your center armrest where you want it to live. Remember, form follows function.

Step 5: Setup & Label the Final System

If you’ve had some fun creating kits, then you might want to take a couple extra minutes to label them. Particularly if you share this car with other members of the family, so that folks know where everything is (and where to put it back.)

Then, you can begin the process of returning items to their new homes and setting up your new more organized car system.

I managed to do this entire process to transfer between my old and new cars in a morning. If necessary, you might need to break it into two shorter sessions, and remember that at the beginning it may feel worse before it gets better.

Next Actions

Is your car ready for a spring cleaning? Then, grab your calendar and figure out a good time. Pick a morning, afternoon, or evening when you know you’ll have at least a couple hours to work on it, and book it on your schedule. If appropriate, enlist your family members to help with the process.

You’ll be surprised how much better it will feel getting into your car when it’s not cluttered up with tons of unnecessary, unorganized stuff. Enjoy it!

Erin Elizabeth Wells is the Founder & Senior Productivity Strategist of Chosen Course and the Founder and Owner of Living Peace, LLC. Erin is a Productivity Strategist who works with high performers including corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, and influencers to improve their productivity, focus, and effectiveness in their work and daily life. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School with a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, and she holds the designation of Certified Professional Organizer (CPO®). In 2014, Erin received her certification as a practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which provides many additional skills to support habit formation and behavior change which are key elements of productivity.


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