Ever notice how the relaxing effects of a vacation often go sour on the trip home? While I may not have advice for the stressful return flight or traffic, I can offer some tips for streamlining the unpacking process.

Let’s face it, you may feel compelled to attend to your pet, quench your thirst, filter through the mail, or just take a nap, but no one wants to dive in to unpacking, when you first return home. However, if you don’t get the unpacking out of the way now, it can very easily hang around as a burden for days or even weeks.

As with so many organizing processes, the answer is to divide and conquer.  The point is not to think of your bags’ contents as an endless number of things, but as just five simple categories.  I’ll go through them step by step.

1. Clothes
Bring your suitcase right up to your laundry hamper and start immediately emptying out the largest category.  Then get any clean clothes and shoes into your closet.  Clothes, done.

2. Food
Perishable food definitely shouldn’t wait.  Straight to the fridge or bin.  If possible, a dedicated food bag makes your travel food much easier to unpack quickly.

3. Toiletries
While a toilet kit usually goes without saying, I would recommend a bigger container or drawer to dedicate to just items for travel.   We invariably collect more travel-size items than we can use in each trip, so it pays to make an allowance for this.  I keep the box, pictured above, in my closet.  I’d recommend letting your toothbrush and other damp items air out for a day, but for the rest,  away it goes.

4. Papers
This is a broad category.   Extract any receipts you might need, but toss all the tickets and schedules, that used to be so important.  They’re not now.  The exception would be ticket stubs from events, that you may want to keep for keepsakes.  As with your home papers, it’s important to get clear on exactly why you are keeping it.  Paper should just take a few minutes.

5. Electronics
Your cell phone, laptop/tablet, and camera need to quickly return to their familiar homes for recharging.  I keep international converter plugs in my travel box, because I only need them when I travel.  Focus on just the electronics all at once and they will unload fast.

When traveling with kids, toys/games should be added as a category, but it’s the same idea: singular focus, maximum speed.

As for the suitcase itself, it’s a good idea to air it out, but it doesn’t need to stay out for weeks.  A day should do it.

That’s it! Done in mere minutes.

One of my favorite definitions of organizing is “controlling the controllables.”  You can’t control the traffic home, but you can control  the inevitable unpacking process.  Have a simple plan in place and get the unpacking over with quickly, so you can move on to more important things!