Real life Tetris skills: How to have lots of things in a small space and still live comfortably

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Ashta Monogue
Tetris: It'll not only help you organize, but can make for some super-rad shelving units!
Tetris: It'll not only help you organize, but can make for some super-rad shelving units!

My fiancé's father passed away in February 2012. His mother had passed in 2006. His mother had been an Egyptologist, religion scholar, bibliophile, and all around collector of cool things. His father was a carpenter, metal smith, leather smith, and general craftsman of all sorts. That means we were left with a 12-room-house-full of stuff to deal with. And that's not counting the attic, outside storage, and fully equipped wood working shop. I don't think I need to express that we were overwhelmed with how to store, organize, and eventually incorporate some of this stuff into our own home.

Almost a year later, here are some tips that I learned while trying to put my things, my fiancé's things, and the things we salvaged from his parents' home into our small urban apartment.

Shelving is your best friend

Here in Atlanta, Ikea is the go-to place. They have all sorts of shelving units specifically designed to store lots of things in small places. I love those Swedes and their cube shelves that come in multiple colors and styles. Their Expedit shelves are what we use for books since they are sturdier and can hold a couple hundred ancient textbooks on Egyptian mythology. And in a place with tiny closets, Ikea sells canvas drawers that fit into many of their cube shelves to turn them into a clothing storage system.

Put things on the walls

Not every apartment complex will let you hang shelves, clothing hooks, or even pictures with large nails, but some places will. And there is no reason to have empty walls when you can put up hooks, hangers, small shelves, shadow boxes, and of course, display your art.

Learn to play Tetris

My brain is very good at spatial reasoning. I can do shape puzzles all day and have long been the Queen of Tetris among my friends. Don't let anyone tell you that video games will not teach you useful skills. I learned that Tetris is a real life game when I was faced with a hallway closet that had built-in shelves and I had to get a bunch of miscellaneous boxes into it. So the tip here is to use every inch of the space you have. Stack things appropriately (heavier things on the bottom). Never leave an open inch of space when you can slide something else into that space. This lesson lead me to my next challenge…

Label the hell out of everything

Write on your boxes. Get a label maker. Make an inventory list. I don't care how you do it, but if you don't label when you are shoving things into a closet, you will regret it when you go to look for that one thing you never use (the SATA to IDE adapter for my PC).

Purge often

This can be hard sometimes, especially when dealing with departed family members belongings, but I am a firm believer in the saying "I don't use it; therefore, I don't need it." If I have had something in storage for so long that I forgot I had it, it means I don't care enough to miss it, and it becomes useless to me. Of course this excludes sentimental things. I have my grandmother's wedding china in storage and I don't currently use it, but I will not be getting rid of it.

That said, I regularly (at least every six months) go through every room in the apartment and make a pile of things I don't use, don't wear, don't need, and give them to the local Good Will or thrift store. My mom taught me to give things away if they are still in good condition, not throw them in the trash, so I advocate the use of FreeCycle, thrift stores, and clothing swaps among friends.

Most importantly, find what works for you

If you prefer under the bed storage to closets, that's great — put it to use. If you store clothes and extra toiletries in your kitchen cabinets because you never cook, that's fantastic. Figure out what makes you happy and what works for your house/apartment/dorm/hut/etc. Don't let your piles of things take over your life. You don't have to be a slave to your stuff, or someone else's stuff, or some 4,000 books that I have no idea what to do with when we get them out of storage. That might be another post all together.

  1. Yes to all of the above!

    Also, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks about Tetris when I'm organizing, to the point of actually using it as a verb to describe fitting lots of objects into a small closet/shelf/trunk ("man, I sure Tetrised those groceries into the pantry!").

    • I pretty much always use "tetris" as a verb when talking about packing a moving truck. Especially if the truck is none-too-large for its contents.

  2. My husband and I recently stacked the washer and dryer so we could put the cats' litterboxes into the space the washer formerly occupied and regain the use of a door into the garage, which had previously been blocked by the litterboxes.

    The former owners of our house were very, very tall and as such the only storage in the laundry room was a shelf too high for either of us to reach. We realized that the same over-the-door shelving system we got at the Container Store last year for the pantry could be installed on the door to the garage and we'd have a place to put stuff, now that we didn't run the risk of dropping anything into the litterboxes.

    I'm going to sound like a Container Store shill, but we ended up buying three full sets of that shelving system this weekend, as we realized that we had several closets whose shelves didn't span the full depth of the closet, so there was room on the inside of the doors to put wire baskety shelves.

  3. I did a huge purge after reading a minimalist ebook, and was stumped when it came to my hundreds of issues of classic photography magazines. I put them on gumtree (Aussie similar site to Kijiji and craigslist) and labelled to "photography students". I would suggest a similar thing, or maybe putting up signs or listings at universities where people study Egyptology etc.

    You could even contact the professors there and perhaps donate them or organise a time to bring them to a class an sell them. Donating could be cool – they may even set up a little plaque or something in honour of your fiance's father. It would be a great way for his spirit to live on and give back to the study of something that obviously was a life passion of his.

  4. Fantastic advice, thank you!

    One thing I like to do for storage is slip seasonal clothes or evening wear into my luggage. For example, I've noticed that most weddings or "events" are overnight and I was packing most of the same stuff repeatedly. So now all my pantyhose, show bras, and proper jewelry are all in my small passenger bag. I pull out what I won't bring on the trip and when I return it goes back into the bag. Similar things happen with our winter bedding and sweaters. Coats go on top of other coats, two hangers are secured onto a master hanger (this is tricky), and we use a lot of vertical hangers to keep shoes and hats from getting messy. Depending on the shoe/hat we insert needed accessories. Small umbrellas, scarves, gloves, sturdier socks, thinner socks, etc.

  5. I have an uncanny ability to fit things into spaces my husband thinks won't fit. This comes particularly in handy when packing our 2-door Yaris for vacation! What do I call this skill? Tetrising. As in, "It won't fit that way. Flip it over and rotate it 30 degrees. Tetris it!"

  6. When it comes to living in a small space, I often think of a supercheap storage facility. You can simply dump all your belongings there and still have access to them round the clock. The prices are also affordable so it will not burden your finances greatly. That way, you can live comfortably in your small house without the things that you do not use on a regular basis to mess up the area around your living space.

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