Organizing small spaces: 10 tips to make the most out of your space

Posted February 1st, 2010 by RyanMitchell and filed in Issue 15: Small Space Tricks

1. Use vertical space
After talking with lots of Tiny House folks, I have seen this as a trend: maximize the vertical. Everything above 8 feet is all dead air if you don’t use it, so capitalize on that. You could have a small chest that takes up 2 square feet of floor space. If it is 4 feet tall, you will have around 8 cubic feet of storage. Take that to the ceiling and suddenly you have doubled or tripled your volume, but haven’t given away any more floor space which is a scarcity in a Tiny House.

2. Everything has a place and is in its place
When working with a small space I know that everything needs a place. Without it, your house goes from quaint to cluttered. Make sure every item you have has its own resting place and be sure that it finds its way back once you’re done using it. One lady who lives in a 90 square foot apartment said to me “if it doesn’t have a place, do you really need it?” and that’s a good point. Things that matter and are used are important enough to demand a place.

3. Double duty on items
There are those items which are by their nature, multi functional. You need to capitalize on these types of items. When you consider an item, you should always think if there is something else that can do it already. A perfect example of this is the end table, which transforms to a chair for extra seating. Check it out here.

4. Purpose built – built ins
Built-ins are nice, but built-ins with a purpose are even better. Think specifics. When paring down your possessions, you will identify the 100 or so items that will be contained in your house. Take stock of those items and let them dictate the form of your storage. If you are a ski patrol member, your closet should be able to fit your skis. If you live in colder climates, you will need more room for larger jackets than others might.

5. Go digital / paperless
As if being greener isn’t motivation enough, going digital, as I call it, means that you are able to reduce the tangible items you need. Digital files take up no space if you have them stored online, with the added advantage of being able to access them from anywhere. Combined with backing the files up, they become safer than real world things. The IRS officially accepts all scanned copies of receipts and bank statements. This extends beyond receipts: books on your Kindle, movies on your Roku, music on OpenTape, or recipes in a wiki. See my post about using some of these. Here

6. Less is more
At this point I am preaching to the choir but, the question is not how to organize all your stuff, but on how to reduce the stuff to organize. The mentality needed is the same as you had if/when you went to college. The dorm rooms were tiny and you were broke. You only had what you really needed. Studies have shown that more stuff does not lead to happiness, so focus on the important things in life.

7. One thing in, one thing out
One principle that I like to pull from the Zen/Fung Shui school of thought is this. If you want to add a new item, consider adopting the rule that for every item you bring in, you must give up something else. Now, no cheating – like giving up a pen for an arm chair, but you get the idea.

8. Be intentional
Living with intention will have a profound impact on your life. Be thoughtful in your actions and choices. This extends to your organization and stuff. When you consider purchasing an item, you must first evaluate it and decide if you really need it. I often don’t buy it right then, but next time I am in that store (in a week or two). If I still want it then, I usually go for it if it makes sense.

9. Think inside the box
This is a technique that I use when I feel that a certain space is cluttered or if I start stacking stuff. Take a box, fill it up with everything. Then as you need the items pull them out of the box. Six weeks later, if you still have stuff in the box – no, let me rephrase that, you WILL have stuff in the box – you can evaluate what is left. There is rarely an item that I have that I don’t use within 6 weeks that’s worth keeping. Detailed box theory.

10. Most used items easy to access
This seems pretty obvious, but having the most used items in the front means you are able to access them quicker and without disturbing other things. This ties back to being intentional. You should be intense about organizing your items in this manner. If you notice that there are items in the back that haven’t been touched in a while, it’s time to evaluate whether you still need them.

For more articles like this and other on Tiny Houses visit

14 Responses to “Organizing small spaces: 10 tips to make the most out of your space”

  1. [...] here to read the full article by me:  Small Living Journal [...]

  2. etNo Gravatar says:

    Lots of good points.
    But going digital/paperless with online storage isn’t energy neutral or free.
    See and for some of the impacts of our choices.

  3. Lorri BuraNo Gravatar says:

    I live in a 700sq.ft. home with my husband and teenage son (who is currently 6feet 3 inches and takes up half the room when he is sitting). We use chairs on wheels which double as livingroom and kitchen chairs. This enables us to not only save space, but allows us the opportunity to actually entertain others.

    Also, my husband hurt his back recently and we set up a traction system and used the vertical controls to enhance the pulley system.

  4. RickNo Gravatar says:

    Very straight forward, well put! And digital is free…to a point, and youcan store a great deal online for free. If you are running out of space (25GB on Hotmail, moore on Yahoo and Gmail) then the same organizing rules can and should apply there.


  5. etNo Gravatar says:

    No Rick,
    Digital may be “free” to you but there is a cost even if it’s not in $. It may be out of sight and therefore out of mind. But our electronics have to be made somewhere, by someone, packaged, shipped and fed full of electricity. All the servers that store our data “free” use resources, too.

    We need to face it- stuff has a cost (even digital stuff). Now it’s up to us to decide if we think the cost is worth it.

  6. Deek DNo Gravatar says:

    Ryan did a real decent job/coverage-wise. I actually began writing an article, with a good many of the same points, as well as some others, but missed the deadline! 2 kids, 2 bands, 1 house under self-renovation, and releasin’ an indie book, will do that to ya, I guess….
    Anyway, my only hesitancy point on going fully digital (although it def has its merits!), is that unless any and everything is properly backed up (and THAT’s not even fail-safe) you’re screwed(!) if you lose your files, or computer, ipod, etc….Kinble books and apple’s new ultra-hyped e-book haven’t thrilled me just yet. I guess I’m old fashioned. Somethin’ about laying a emf-emitting computerized book on your groin doesn’t sit well with me.
    Anyway, Def. GOOD ideas from Ryan though. I myself grew up in a small home, and now live in another one- 900 square feet with 2 kids, a dog, and 4 drums sets (my own fault- lol), and a real quick additional recommendation is to use window-wells/recesses, for shelved storage- as long as you don’t go overboard in blocking your natural lighting. Also, code wise (zoning and building permit wise) if you hang external custom-built cabinets (weather proofed) on the unseen side of your home, they function as micro-shed storage, which does not count in your square footage for taxation, and so forth. Obviously, if you have room for a shed, they’re beyond valuable for small home owners!
    Great job though Ryan.

    My “Humble Homes, Simple Shacks…” book is now out!

  7. Ryan MitchellNo Gravatar says:

    ET and Rick,

    Both good points! For Rick, while digital options are free or cheap for us, there are costs and resources used external of what we use. The Story of Stuff (google it) talks about the externalization of costs, this is a big issue. The true cost and impact is much more than the dollar sign we pay. That said, in order to still do this solution you should try to buy from companies in good standing, who are sensitive to environmental issues etc. Luckily for us environmental issues have started to merge with business issues, being that they save money.

    ET, very true, it is hard for consumers to truly understand the full impact of our choices, even savvy consumers can have a hard time OR have to choose the least of two evils. Consumerism isn’t just how we spend dollars, it is where we click, download, visit etc.

    That said Luckily – as I mentioned – business has started to be green-er because it saves them green. A relevant example is google and their servers that we mentioned using as storage.

    Recently google shifted from a traditional server farm to a virtualized one. It gets a bit complicated but the end result is that you can cut the number of servers easily in half, probably more. So for example we had 10 servers, we went to virtualized which meant we have 3 now. These three will use slightly more power than they used to, but are doing the work of 10 for the power of about 3.5 servers. Then combined this with managed power grid systems and we are getting closer.

    Each server google virtualized saved roughly 100,000 watts a month PER SERVER.

    This is not the perfect solution but it is a start. The items that you no longer consume because you have gone digital also have a cost. You can compare the two methods true costs and do a Green ROI if you really wanted to get into it.

    I don’t know which approach is truly the best.

  8. Ryan MitchellNo Gravatar says:

    To address Deek’s point about need for redundancy, this is an issue. My rules is for backup, one is none, two is one and three is a backup.

    This should be done on independent sources and mediums.

    My files are saved to:

    1. My server located in California (used to run my website) This has daily backups done of itself
    2. I have a backup on a hard drive that I keep in a 1 hour rated fire box hidden in my room
    3. Once ever 3 months I backup my info to an additional hardrive and keep it in my safe deposit box at the bank
    4. My blog is backed up on 4 servers in different parts of the world ever week automatically

    So I figure if my computer dies, my house burns down, my bank box was robbed (I don’t know why they would take the hard drive) and California falls into the ocean, well I have bigger issues to worry about.

    There are options like google (no cost) or kryptonite (pay) that can do this too. Servers can be rented for $5 a month with little traffic.

    The Tiny Life Blog:
    Follow me on twitter:
    Join in on Facebook:

  9. CathyNo Gravatar says:

    “The IRS officially accepts all scanned copies of receipts and bank statements.”

    Can you please provide your source? I have done a bit of research in this area and I am still am not comfortable recommending this action. I would like too, but the facts and information still don’t support it.

    Receipts you receive digitally, yes. Paper receipts. No. A scan can be easily modified. IRS Publication 552 states, “In addition to your computerized records, you must keep proof of payment, receipts, and other documents to prove the amounts shown on your tax return.” Open to interpretation, don’t you think? So, I contacted all 50 state tax advocates offices a few years back, only a handful were comfortable saying scanned receipts were acceptable. I also contacted the IRS directly, and although you don’t get much directly from them, they refer you back to the publications, most people I spoke with said scans were not acceptable. It would be really, really nice if the IRS would confirm this. Because I read this recommendation everywhere.

    Regardless, make sure you download and store business bank and cc statements for at least 7+ years. Most banks only provide 2 years of old statements online. If you get a letter from the IRS, you are going to want quick access to dated statements. At least I did.

    Just my 2¢. Not wanting to start a debate.

  10. Ryan MitchellNo Gravatar says:


    First off, I am not a lawyer or tax/accounting person, so take this response with that in mind.

    From what I have seen is that they do in fact accept them. The applicable rule is Rev. Proc. 97–22 and it basically mandates that your scanned or electronic receipts must be as accurate as your paper records. Additionally, you must be able to index, store, preserve, retrieve, and reproduce the records. In other words, you need to have your records organized and be able to produce them in a printed in hard copy form if needed. Now to clarify, there are some guidelines on scanning.

    # The digitized or scanned versions of a paper document resemble the paper version. Other than enhancing the image to make it more readable, Pixily does not alter the digital representation of the document
    # If the source paper document is human readable, then the digitized version will be. If on the other hand, you cannot read the source document, we cannot guarantee if the digital version will be readable.
    # All the content of your documents is automatically indexed. That means you can find them just by searching on the content within the documents.
    # If you would like to emulate the idea of labelling folders, you can use the labelling facility within Pixily to label your documents.
    # All documents are stored in our highly available data centers and therefore are preserved forever, unless, you delete them.
    # All the documents are available in PDF form for you to download for offline use or for printing. That means you can reproduce your paper documents.

    So please take these things into consideration, use your best judgment and when possible seek professional advice.


  11. [...] Organizing small spaces: 10 tips to make the most out of your space [...]

  12. [...] Organizing small spaces: 10 tips to make the most out of your space – by Ryan Mitchell [...]

  13. Hugo MoreschiNo Gravatar says:

    I´m writing from México city, a very, very huge city with very little spaces, lots of people in small places, I´m very happy to have found this site. Congratulations for all the team.