Ask Unclutterer: How do you let things go?

Reader Callum submitted an email to Ask Unclutterer describing his difficulty parting with “I might be able to use this some day” objects and anything he has attached with sentimental value. The email contained the following:

Over the years growing up I always held onto everything I could, and even directly collected things I found or picked up. Like most people I’ve spoken to about this, I have found myself attached to most of my objects … I find it impossible to declutter beyond the very basics! I only just managed to give away some shirts today, which was hard enough as I have had some for a very long time and reminded me of when I was a different person. Luckily I took a picture of them just in case, but I’m not sure if this method will work for some of my more quaint objects.

Callum, right now, your situation feels like it is specific to magazines and t-shirts and electronics and knick knacks, but what you describe is at the heart of almost everyone’s issues with clutter. Simply stated, you are emotionally attached to the things you own. And, as a student who is not extremely wealthy, you fear letting things go because there may be a time when you will need something and not be able to afford buying it again.

Neither the emotional attachment nor your fear of letting things go is wrong. You’re human. You have fears and doubts and you also like to remember happy moments from your past. Everything you’re feeling is normal.

However, things have started to go to the extreme. You have reached a point where you are no longer in control of your stuff. Your stuff is starting to control you and your space. You can’t find the things you need and you can’t let go of the things you don’t want. This happened to me, and it happens to a lot of people. In your case, I think regaining control of your stuff and getting a clear picture of what you want for your life will help to alleviate this extraneous anxiety.

My first suggestion is to take advantage of any mental health services your school may offer its students. Talk through with a therapist why you feel such strong ties to your past and your things. Why are you so interested in making your past a continued part of your present? You may simply have normal levels of nostalgia, but there might be more to it and a therapist can help you make that determination. Since most student mental health services are free, I think it’s a great place to start.

Another action I think would be good for you is to immediately get rid of any item you’re keeping that has negative feelings attached to it. This is usually an easy task, even for the most sentimental of folks. There is no reason in the world to own anything that doesn’t make us happy or, at bare minimum, have no impact on us at all. Your space is limited, you can’t keep everything, so get rid of the bad.

Finally, I think it is important for you — for all of us — to be clear about what kind of a life you really want to lead. Do you have a clear vision of who you are and what is important to you? What does a good day look like to you? What does an ideal home look like to you? Spend some time reflecting on what you want for yourself and your space. Once you know what kind of life you want, you can take actions to create that life. You’ll know what objects in your home represent who you are and who you want to be, and what objects don’t belong in your space any longer. Once you know where you’re going, it will be a lot easier to get there.

This site is full of practical advice on how to organize cables and magazines and all the stuff you may eventually decide you want to keep, as well as has suggestions for where to donate unwanted items. When you are ready to get rid of the clutter, check out those tips. Until then, spend some time in introspection, discover what it is you want for your life, talk through the emotional ties with your past with a therapist, and get rid of the stuff that brings you down. After you’ve done these things, parting with the clutter will be much easier than it would if you tried to do it right now.

Thank you, Callum, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you on the next stage of your uncluttering journey! Also, be sure to check out the comments for additional advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Teaching children organizing skills

Reader Ines asked the following question in the comments’ section of a post:

I would love love love for you share your thoughts about time management, organization, etc. for young kids. I have struggled with toy clean up for years.

One example, despite modeling over a hundred times how we put away a board game (count the pieces, make sure they are in the right spot, put game back on shelf in closet) before moving on to next item. If I am not there to micro manage, it just doesn’t get done.

Ines, you ask a very good question. It is a question we have been struggling with in our home, as we are trying to teach our son — who recently turned four — how to care for his things. Each child is certainly different, and no single method will work for each kid, but that doesn’t mean children can’t learn how to take care of their possessions. The following are some things we do in our house to get toys back in place:

  • Have fewer toys. Our house is not overflowing with toys, and our son does not seem to notice. Like most children, he has an active imagination, and his knights can do battle on the couch or bookshelf as easily as in a castle. He isn’t deprived by any standard, but in comparison to most of his friends, he doesn’t have a great deal. The fewer toys he has, the fewer that can mess up the house.
  • Regular pruning. He has fewer toys than most of his friends because we regularly get rid of toys. Once a quarter we go through his things with him and we all decide what can stay and what can go. Hard toys (not stuffed animals) and books are easy to donate to charity or pass down to a friend or younger relative. Small doodads he got as party favors go straight to the trash. On the same day, we go through the rest of the house and find items to donate so our son can see he’s not the only one expected to clear clutter.
  • Request experience gifts. If someone asks us what to get our son for his birthday or at the holidays, we usually request experiences (movie passes, museum and/or zoo memberships, etc.) or practical goods (clothes, shoes, school supplies). People still give him toys, but his grandparents often give experiences now.
  • Use small containers for small items. My son has a Playmobil police officer set that came with miniature handcuffs and flashlights and such. The pieces are all less than an inch in size. I made the mistake of putting them in a basket with the motorcycles and police cars and … this was awful. He would dump out the entire container onto the floor to look for the itty bitty flashlight. Now he has pillbox containers for his small items and those pillboxes live inside bigger bins. It’s easy to spot and doesn’t require dumping out the whole box to get to it. We also do this with game pieces — we have small storage containers with compartments for pieces so they aren’t just sitting in the box. If you use these, make sure they’re clear so kids can see inside them without having to open the container.
  • Label everything and have a place for everything. My son is just learning to read, so all of his toy storage has pictures on it and words describing what is to be stored there. We label bins as well as the location in the room where the bin is stored. We attach the labels using velcro so we can move them around to different containers/shelves. You can laminate the labels at Kinkos to make them sturdy. Older children probably don’t need images with the words and you can get by with just a standard label maker printout.
  • Instruct and guide. Modeling behavior is very important, but not all children are learners through observation. In addition to modeling, instruct them on how to put things away, ask them questions at each step of the process, and guide them through the behavior. Be clear from the beginning that you are instructing them: “Now we are going to put away the game and return it to the shelf properly. What is the first step to putting away the game?” These lessons may take weeks or months, depending on the age of the child (obviously, more time is required for younger children). Once they can reliably complete the actions and answer all questions correctly, then you know they are able to do the task on their own. If they don’t complete the task after this lesson, you should repeat the lesson the next time the opportunity arises. Don’t assume your child knows what “clean up your room” or “put away your toys” means to you.
  • Remember they’re kids. A reader shared this gem with me — Children are perfectly capable of doing organizing activities, but they’re not yet necessarily capable of doing those activities perfectly. The hope is that by the time they graduate from high school they will do things perfectly … until then, you instruct and guide them so that each day is a little better. My standards for my four year old are much lower than the standards I have for myself. I still expect him to pick up his toys after he plays with them, but I don’t expect him to do it exactly as I do it.
  • Leave time for cleanup. The hardest part of teaching organizing skills — at least for me — is to pad time into the schedule for cleaning up. If we need to be out the door at 10:00 for swim lessons, at 9:45 all playing must stop and the activity has to be put away. That means as a parent, I have to be ready to leave by 9:45. I can’t supervise and instruct my child while I’m running around the house doing other things. We also have 10 minutes before bath time each night where we walk around the house and pick up errant items and review the family chore chart (more on that below).
  • Heavily rely on clocks and/or the Time Timer. First, we have clocks all over the house, which helps with time management. Second, we also regularly use a Time Timer to give our son an idea of how long things take. I’ll set the Time Timer and say, “all the toys have to be put away before the timer sounds in 15 minutes,” and then we work on cleaning up for 15 minutes together. We also use it when there will be a limited time for playing before heading out of the house and for music practice. I love that thing.
  • Get rid of external distractions while cleaning up. When cleaning up with your child, attentions should be on cleaning up. Turn off the tv, iPad, etc. and focus on returning the room to its preferred state. The only exception to this might be to play a “clean up playlist.” I don’t love Barney, but his “Clean Up Song” is pretty catchy and effective with younger kids. Older kids might benefit from music with a fast beat to help motivate them to move around. I recommend using the exact same playlist for six months or more to reinforce that when they hear the song they know it’s time to clean up.
  • Don’t yell or nag, instead participate. Yelling at your children has been found to be as harmful as hitting a child and nagging creates resentment for you and your kids. Instead, work together when motivations are low. My son won’t yet clean his room unless I’m sitting on his bed talking to him while he does it. He can do it, he just doesn’t want to do it. He’s like many adults who prefer to have accountability partners when they clean and organize. I can’t begrudge him this since I like having company when I’m cleaning.
  • Have clear expectations written or charted for your child. We have a chore chart that outlines what everyone in the house is responsible for each day (dirty clothes in hamper, clearing dishes after meals, taking out trash, putting away toys/activities after using them, etc.). Before bedtime, we review the chart together and discuss what was done and what wasn’t. We don’t have consequences for undone chores, we just usually go with him to do the chore if it wasn’t completed or we let it go and make sure it gets done as part of the next day’s chores.
  • Create incentives. Incentives don’t work for everyone, but our son is currently motivated by them. For example, if he practices his violin every day for 30 minutes for a month, he gets a reward — it might be a trip to the zoo or a toy or a pizza party with his best mate. He decides the reward at the beginning of the month and dad and I discuss it before agreeing to it. We then print out a picture of the reward and hang it next to his practice checklist.

Looking back over this advice, I think a theme is to be involved until your kids have shown they can consistently complete the tasks independently. Until that time, you either have to be involved to instruct and guide or accept that chores won’t get done the way you want them to. A second theme is to work as a team in your home, not as individuals taking up the same living space. But, if all goes well, our children will leave home with the skills to take responsibility for their things.

Thank you, Ines, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: One person’s gift is your latest frustration

Reader SK submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have recently moved into a smaller apartment and have uncluttered most of our belongings … My problem is that my parents recently gifted us a new vacuum cleaner, complete with cord, attachments, and replaceable belts. We are pretty happy with our little cordless rechargeable vacuum and told my parents so — bookending this information with thanks and appreciation to be polite. My dad insisted that this new vacuum is better — picks up more dirt, etc. We don’t really care. Normally, this is a no brainer, say thank you and quietly return the gift — but Dad comes up every week to watch my daughter and will notice and comment on the new vacuum’s absence. (Mom’s already said she’ll give me the receipt and it’s fine if we want to return it) I’ve already explained the no space situation, but he dismissed the concern. Returning this thing is going to cause some hurt feelings and awkward, difficult conversations — please help!

This is one of those situations where I can’t give you a “do this and be happy” response. But, I’ll give you some ideas that might be able to spark a solution that will be the right one for you and your family.

Option 1: Ask your parents to care and store the vacuum in their home since you don’t have the space in yours. You can borrow it when you really need it for twice-yearly deep cleanings or before a party, but the rest of the time your parents can benefit from having it and using it in their home. Since your dad comes to visit once a week, you must live close to each other, so transporting it shouldn’t be that big of deal. And, if your dad balks and says he already has a vacuum and doesn’t need this fancy one for his house, he’ll at least be more empathetic to your situation.

Option 2: Return it and immediately have a conversation with your dad explaining that you returned it and why. Offer to give him his money back. His feelings will be hurt, but he’s a grownup and will eventually get over it. You’re not returning his love, you’re returning a vacuum.

Option 3: Buck up and keep the vacuum. To find space for the new vacuum, go through your home and decide what you value less than your relationship with your dad, and get rid of that item and the rechargeable vacuum you currently own. Then, let go of your animosity. Use the new vacuum and think fond memories of your father and your relationship with him.

Option 4: Check the comments to this post for even more suggestions from our readers.

Thank you, SK, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m honestly not sure what I would do in this situation. I hope that you find the right solution for you and your family.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Finding a reputable charity when donating your unwanted goods

Reader Len submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Reading through the recent posting of Freecycle, I saw many notes on the negatives of Freecycle. Also notes on the fact that Goodwill is bad since items do not go to people who need them but rather to employees who then sell them on Ebay. Any truth to the latter? I am alway concerned about the many charities who call about having a truck in our area soon and do we have anything to contribute. Are there any reputable charities out there?

I’m pretty much of the opinion that even if the rumors are true and Goodwill employees take donations and sell them on eBay, it happens because the person taking the stuff really needs the money. It is not as if working for Goodwill is a million dollar a year job. In fact, Goodwill is currently under scrutiny for paying less than a minimum wage to their employees.

I see it as I’m making a donation of items to Goodwill because I didn’t want whatever I’m donating. I wanted my things to go to someone who needed them. So, if it actually happens, if people are taking these items to use or sell on eBay, I simply don’t care. They have a need for the stuff or the cash, I have a need to get rid of my stuff, and the interaction successfully brings the two of us together. Again, IF it happens.

However, I empathize with your desire to give to a charity that will get the things you’re donating into the hands of someone who needs the items the way the charity has promised. As a result, I try my best to research before giving to any group.

When considering donating to any charity, I start by learning about them on Charity Navigator. Not all charities are rated by the site, but an impressive number are. If the charity isn’t rated, check to see if it has an unrated listing (which they likely do) and also checkout the article “Evaluating Charities Not Currently Rated by Charity Navigator.” (The “Tips and Resources” section in the left-hand sidebar of that page is also helpful.) I really appreciate and recommend the Charity Navigator site.

Forbes magazine also does an annual U.S. Charities review that is very informative. The magazine typically updates it each November. Right now, you can find information about The Largest U.S. Charities for 2012. The List of Charities is extremely helpful for doing side-by-side comparisons and the “Filter by category” drop-down menu in the left-hand column is perfect for identifying specific types of charities to match with your goods.

Beware, though, that you can easily clutter up your time trying to find the exact right charity for your specific donation. Sometimes, stuff just needs to get out of your house now. In those cases, stop thinking about the ideal, and donate to the charity that is the most convenient for you and is accepting donations. The next time you make a donation you can aim for an exemplary match. To misquote Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Thank you, Len, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I think it is a very important topic, especially for those of us who are in the process of uncluttering our homes. Please also check out the comments for more advice from our readership.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Uncluttered cleaning supplies

In the comment section of my post “10 suggestions for where to begin uncluttering” reader Anna asked the following question:

I’m in the process of decluttering and streamlining my utility closets and cabinets. I’ve searched the web high and low for a minimalist list of cleaning supplies to use as a loose guideline. I’ve used the search function on this blog to find old articles but I’m coming up empty. I’d appreciate a link if an article comes to mind. Thanks!

Another reader chimed in with a helpful response, but I wanted to chime in with my thoughts in a broader sense. Especially as the Washington Toxics Coalition says: “There are hundreds of cleaning products vying for your dollar. However, you don’t always need a special purpose cleaner for every dirty dilemma.” Since many of us have a number of such special purpose cleaners, there are certainly some uncluttering possibilities.

As with almost any uncluttering situation, there’s no one right answer — no single list of products we should all have. But I’ll present some strategies to consider, with pointers to additional resources.

Strategy 1: Eliminate toxins

The ingredients used in many cleaning products have potential risks; some people will want to avoid products with these ingredients. The Environmental Working Group has extensive information about such toxins and their possible dangers, and it rates a large number of commercially available products on a scale of A to F.

Another list of potentially hazardous chemicals in our cleaning products, in an easy-to-read format, comes from the David Suzuki Foundation. Anna mentioned in another comment that she makes her own, so this first strategy is more for the big-picture perspective.

Strategy 2: Make your own

Many online sources — and a number of books — explain how you can use a limited number of common products to make your own cleaning solutions. As Martha Stewart says: “Many people are conditioned to believe a house is not clean unless it smells of chemicals. In fact, the opposite is true. You can make your house sparkle with just a few simple supplies, many of which are already in your cupboards.”

How few? Kelly A. Smith writes about cleaning her whole home using only vinegar and baking soda. Clean: the humble art of zen-cleansing goes a bit further, but still says you really only need five ingredients: baking soda, borax, lemon, salt, and white vinegar. And the website Wabi Sabi Baby has recipes with only six ingredients — and since one of those is water, it’s really only five.

Many sites include essential oils, such as lavender oil and tea tree oil, in their recipes for homemade cleaners. However, the Environmental Working Group points out that these have some potential risks, too — so you’ll need to consider whether or not you feel OK about using them.

With make-your-own cleaners, you don’t have to make a lot at once. With a little practice you can simply make up what you need for one cleaning and then store the un-mixed ingredients.

Strategy 3: Consider whether you really need antibacterial cleaners

An article in Scientific American challenges the need for antibacterial products in most households, while noting that people with weakened immune systems may have good reason for “targeted use” of such cleaners.

The Environmental Working Group and the Washington Toxics Coalition also argue that such cleaners are usually unnecessary.

Strategy 4: Start with a list from Martha Stewart or Real Simple

With some searching, I’ve found some decent lists of minimum products that you can then customize to your own circumstances and preferences.

Martha Stewart says: “For routine cleaning, less is more. You actually need very few products to clean any given room.” She then provides a universal cleaning list with only six items — but this excludes items such as brooms. Stewart also has other, more comprehensive, lists: a kitchen cleaning kit with 15 items and a window-washing kit with seven items.

And Real Simple has a house-cleaning kit checklist with only 20 items. It includes white vinegar, baking soda, and an all-purpose cleaner — but also microfiber cloths, a toilet brush, a dust mop, and other such items.

Ask Unclutterer: A reader is finding it difficult to part with her children’s old stuff

Reader JJ submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I badly need to clear out my loft as it’s full of a lot of my four children’s used things — such as clothes, books, toys, school books, mementos, etc. I try to part with it but am very sentimental about when they were younger and I find it so hard to let things go. Any ideas?

I understand the sentimental mindset, especially when it comes to my son. I have a lock of hair from his first haircut, the shoes he was wearing when he took his first steps, and his baby blanket. These sentimental treasures are just things — and if they were to be destroyed in a fire, all of our lives would continue — but I still want to keep them and that is okay.

It is okay because there is nothing wrong with keeping a few sentimental treasures from our lives and our children’s lives. Problems arise, though, when we start confusing sentimental treasures with sentimental clutter and try to keep everything.

Clutter is all the stuff that gets in the way of the life you would rather be living. And, from your note, it sounds like you are looking for ways to sort out the sentimental treasures from the sentimental clutter so you can have more room in your loft. Think of it this way — you can’t keep everything, so if you’re going to live happily and safely in your space you are going to have to let the clutter go.

The way I control sentimental items is to get two plastic storage tubs per person. The first is for baby stuff — baby book, baby blanket, first walking shoes, etc. The second is for ages 2 to 18. Items that are making their way into the second tub include favorite assignments, art projects, mementos from vacations, etc. The size of the tub or tubs will be determined by the amount of space you have in your loft to devote to this type of storage. My guess is you won’t be able to work with anything over 20 gallons total of storage per kid, if that.

The benefit of using the tubs/bins is that nothing can be kept that can’t fit in the tubs/bins. The size of the bin will force you to decide what items are actually treasures and can be kept and what items are clutter and should leave the loft. If there are one or two toys the kids want to keep to pass along to their kids, great! But, if it doesn’t fit in the box, it doesn’t get kept. With four kids, you may want to only have one tub/bin per child to save on space. And, based on the kids’ ages, they might be wonderful helpers at deciding what goes into the bins and what doesn’t. Remember, eventually, your kids will inherit their bins, so you might as well have them help decide what should go into them.

A few additional tips: Be sure to leave room in the 2 to 18 tub so you can be sure to fit all 17 years worth of stuff into it. Also, if you’re going to keep this stuff for the longterm, please store it appropriately using archival-quality materials. Having a different color of tub for each kid can also be a way to make organizing the items easier. The only exception to the tub rule would be if you want to hang a treasure on the wall and permanently display it in your home, which might be possible with one or two items. (A child’s art gallery: examples 1 and 2.) Follow the container rule and sentimental treasures shouldn’t take over the space.

Finally, anything in good condition that you and the kids decide not to keep can be donated to charity, especially clothes. Toys in really good condition can be given to charity, too, or sold at yard sales (or some equivalent). When you’re able to see that another child can benefit from using the item, it can help to take the sting out of parting with sentimental clutter.

Good luck!

Thank you, JJ, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Please help, I believe my sibling is a hoarder

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer (some information has been changed to protect privacy):

I have a 60 year old sibling who has been hoarding since her child went off to college. S/he is now sleeping in the bath tub. S/he insists s/he is not a hoarder. The other siblings and I have attempted to help clean, but it is truly overwhelming. My sibling has issues with abandonment, victimization, and discrimination. Can you help?

To let readers of the site know, I responded to J when this question arrived in my inbox and didn’t make her or him wait for me to write about it in a column. It’s a common type of question we receive to the site, however, and so I wanted to address it more publicly for anyone who may come to Unclutterer with similar concerns.

Hoarding is a serious and real illness for those who are plagued by it. It’s not a personality quirk or something they’re able to control at this point in time. The person is not hoarding to upset you, but the stuff is likely upsetting the hoarder and he or she feels completely powerless about it. Similar to other physical and psychological ailments, hoarding is not a condition that goes away on its own. Hoarding requires the treatment of a licensed medical and/or psychological practitioner who has been especially trained to help people who are diagnosed hoarders.

Not all people who have excessive numbers of belongings, though, are hoarders (some are chronically disorganized, some have other ailments and hoarding is a side effect, some are situational and will be processed over the course of a year, etc.). That is why it is vital to have the person evaluated so proper help can be given to him or her. What is most important is to get the best care for the person who needs it. And, the best care is rarely a forced cleanout as the first step in the process. Although a forced cleanout would make you feel better — knowing your sibling is no longer living in a dangerous physical environment would most certainly relieve some of your anxiety — it won’t treat the hoarding and the place will just fill up with more stuff in a matter of months. (Or, worse — forced cleanouts have been linked to some suicides among the hoarding population.)

Thankfully, most licensed medical and psychological practitioners also work in combination with professional organizers who have been trained to work with this segment of the population. With treatment, almost all homes and lives of hoarders will see improvements over time.

As someone who loves a hoarder, it also can be difficult to see someone in need — as it is the same as seeing someone you love hurt in a car accident or in the hospital with pneumonia. You want to be able to fix things, and that desire is understandable. For someone on the outside looking in (both literally and figuratively), there are also resources available for you so you can provide the best type of support for your sibling (or spouse or child or parent or friend).

If you suspect you or someone you love may be a hoarder, seek out the help of the following respected organizations:

  • The International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center — This group is led by Randy Frost, PhD, and Gail Steketee, PhD, two of the nation’s most prominent researchers and clinicians in the field. I strongly recommend starting with this site to learn as much as you can.
  • Children of Hoarders — Although their site name implies they only help children of hoarders, they do much more than just help children. They have an incredible support forum for people who love those who struggle with hoarding. Additionally, their Resources section is very helpful.
  • Institute for Challenging Disorganization — The ICD provides superior information to those working daily with hoarders and individuals with chronic disorganization, as well as individuals seeking their support. This is another must-stop site when learning about hoarding and resources available for hoarders and those who love them.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope you are able to find the type of assistance you are searching for through one or more of the previously mentioned organizations. You’re also a wonderful sibling for loving and wanting to help your brother or sister. Please also check the comments for insights from our readership, many of whom have been in a similar situation as yourself. Good luck!

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Organizing hair accessories

Reader Theo submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My daughter is in fifth grade with long hair and every *&*^%#! hair accessory you can possibly imagine. Our house is overrun with ponytail holders and barrettes. I threaten to cut her hair off in the middle of the night if she can’t find a way to keep all of these things on her head or in her room or bathroom. Her mother has short hair and is oblivious to my frustration. Help please. — Theo, who is tired of cutting ponytail holders out of the vacuum belt

Theo, are you actually a time-traveling version of my dad writing from the early 1980s? Your email hints of so many fights he and I had when I was a kid — except replace “ponytail holders” with “ribbon braided and beaded barrettes.” It gave me a shiver, actually, when I first read it.

Your email reminiscent of my father spurred me into taking a look at my current hair accessories (yes, adults have them, too) and admitting to myself I haven’t been doing a great job organizing them, either. Everything was crammed haphazardly into a basket in my linen closet and dozens of ponytail holders were on door knobs and drawer knob pulls throughout the house (out of reach of the vacuum, but still not in their proper place).

I decided to spend about an hour this past weekend getting these items under control and what I did might work for your daughter.

The first thing I did was round up all my hair doodads — I searched the house and also grabbed my disorderly basket out of the linen closet and poured it all on my bed. Next, I sorted by type. All ponytail holders were put into one pile, all hard headbands made another pile, all soft headbands made another one, then barrettes, bobby pins, hair clips, bun holders, etc.

After sorting, I threw out all items that were ready for the trash from each of the piles — broken or over-stretched ponytail holders, bent bobby pins, barrettes missing their back clips, etc. Then, I went through the piles again and pulled out any accessories that aren’t my style any longer and put those in a large envelope to send to my toddler niece who loves dressing up and doesn’t care much about current fashion trends at this point. What remained after these two purging cycles was manageable and so I didn’t need to do a third round, but your daughter might want to (these items she could give to friends if they’re in good condition and her friends are amenable).

I decided to recycle some items in my home for storage solutions for the accessories that remained. Since developing a gluten intolerance, I no longer have a need for a wheat flour storage canister. So, I washed mine out and repurposed it for my hard and soft headbands:

If you don’t have a container like this, I recommend heading to your pantry or local grocery store with one of your daughter’s headbands. Try them out on different food canisters — they usually fit well around oatmeal canisters. She can wrap the container in her favorite wrapping paper or contact paper to spruce things up a bit.

For ponytail holders, I repurposed an old pill travel organizer:

Again, if you don’t have one of these, a lot of different materials could work, even toilet paper rolls but you need to stuff them with something sturdy so they don’t collapse (wrap this one in contact paper — I don’t recommend wrapping paper for this project as it gets ripped pretty easily, but contact paper is much more sturdy).

I put bobby pins in an old box I inherited from my grandmother. Barrettes and clips went into zip-top bags until I find something else to store them in over the longterm:

My point in repurposing these items was to show that you don’t have to go out and buy something just for organizing her accessories. You probably have things already in your home you can use. If you want to spend some money, there are manufactured options available.

Thank you, Theo, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m also thankful for the motivation you gave to me to get my hair accessories in order. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: If something is multifunctional is it always uncluttered?

Reader Bethany emailed this morning, and although it’s not a traditional Ask Unclutterer question I thought it made for a great discussion:

I’m a reader of the Swiss-Miss blog and like her style. In her Friday Link Pack today, she had an item for “It’s a desk. It’s a bed.” When I saw it I thought it was the opposite of a Unitasker and wanted to make sure you saw it. I think it’s a horrible idea, but wondered what you thought of it since it’s a multitasker?

Live-Work Desk images from StudioNL

Oh my word, that is depressing, Bethany! You’re right that it is multifunctional, certainly not a unitasker, but it’s also one of the saddest pieces of furniture I’ve ever seen.

I like the general concept of one piece of furniture having many functions. And, to be fair, this does appear to be a well-made piece of multifunctioning furniture. It has nice lines. But, I don’t like the idea of literally sleeping in your desk. I think there should be a clear division between sleeping and work. Maybe — and this is a really weak maybe — I could see a medical resident who is on call having a need for a desk like this since he or she has to stay at the hospital for ridiculous hours on a regular basis. But for the rest of us normal folks, this feels dismal.

I believe that people should be productive when at work not so they can transform themselves into robotic corporate drones, but so they can really relax when they’re not at work. Work happens between set hours and work stays at work. When not at work, one’s mind should be free to dwell on things other than to-do items and projects that need to be completed at the office. You get more done at the office to enjoy non-work time more fully. This desk doesn’t provide for that at all — it promotes an end to non-work time. We’re humans, not worker bees.

What do the rest of you think about this Live-Work Desk? Are Bethany and I off base thinking it’s a dreary addition to an office? Share your reactions in the comments. And, thank you, Bethany, for inadvertently submitting your question to our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Improving the Unclutterer Forum

Reader Erin submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

A few weeks ago, we released the new Unclutterer Forum. Although the system is powerful and has a lot of new cool features, it isn’t doing everything we would like. We at Unclutterer know what we would like to change — but what about the rest of you?

Dear Erin, Wow! You took the words right out of my mouth! What a great question.

Seriously, though, we really do want your help. We want to know what we need to change to make the Unclutterer Forum everything you desire in a Forum. This is a list of the things we are already planning to send to our techs to have them try to improve:

  • Disable being able to post as “guest.” Or, rather, to leave a comment you should have to create and be logged into an account.
  • Expand the Challenges section to show a list of the different challenges directly on the Home page of the Forum. Then, when click on the specific challenge, it will take the user to a month-by-month listing of the discussions of each challenge.
  • Fix the New Topics listing so that it operates similar to the old Forum. Have the discussion topic appear instead of individual posts. Also, have all new discussions listed, not just those new since the last time the user logged in.
  • Have the Active Topics and the New Topics be the same, so users have two ways to find the most recent discussion activity.
  • Reinstate the RSS that allows users to subscribe by email to new topics that have been started, not just specific discussion threads.
  • Add moderators, which we have already done. There are now four moderators for the Unclutterer Forum.

Forum users and those who are interested in joining the Forum community, what do you think about the list above? Is it accurate? Does anything need to be changed before we send it off to our techs? Does anything need to be added?

Please share your thoughts with us. We really do want to make the Unclutterer Forum a fun and exiting place for everyone to gather and discuss their adventures in uncluttering.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: How to store transient items?

Reader Heather submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My “Ask Unclutterer” question has to do with what I call “transient items.” It’s the birthday gift you purchased but you won’t see the recipient for a few days/weeks or the cupcake carrier that usually stays in the pantry, but a friend needs to borrow it, so you get it out so she can come over for it. What is the best way to deal with these items?

In our home, we have an old laundry basket on the floor of our main coat closet where we put these sorts of items. It’s nice because even if one of us isn’t home, if someone stops by to pick up items, other people in the house know where to find whatever is being retrieved. We also put items in it we don’t want to forget when we run errands — like a bag full of dry cleaning.

Other ideas might be to clear the top shelf of your coat closet and use it as your transient area or get a bench with hidden interior storage and put items in it. Benches are nice in hallways because they give guests a place to sit if they’re waiting on someone, as well as a place to park yourself if you want to take off your shoes.

The Red Chair Blog suggests using storage cubes with labeled boxes set out in a hallway, though I would suggest sticking the cubes in a closet if you have a closet near your front door. Or, if you have a garage, this could easily be stored in it next to the house entrance.

Thank you, Heather, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check our comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: How much mess is too much mess?

Reader Cassie submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m uncluttered, but messy. Everything I own has a “proper storage place,” like you recommend in your book, but stuff doesn’t always make it back to its storage place after I use it. How much mess is too much mess? Is there any hope for me to be less messy and [be] better about returning things to their proper storage place?

Cassie, you have two great questions here. Let’s start with your first: “How much mess is too much mess?”

The answer to your question depends on a few variables. Do you live alone or with other people? How much stress and anxiety is your mess causing you? Are you just messy or are you also dirty (by “dirty” I mean are there messes that can attract bugs and pests, like half-eaten bowls of cereal abandoned on the end table in your living room)?

If you live alone, you pretty much get to be the sole decider in how much mess is too much mess. Assuming your mess isn’t violating any laws, neighborhood association rules, or rental agreements, you set the rules for what is okay and what isn’t. However, if you live with other people, you all need to come to an agreement as to what amount of mess is okay and what is unacceptable. There are lots of ways you can reach this agreement, but I recommend meeting in a public place (like a restaurant or coffee shop) and discussing it there. Write down the standards if that suits you, or simply come to a very clear verbal agreement. Remember, too, you can always revisit the standards you set at a later time if they turn out to be too strict or too lenient.

If your mess isn’t causing you any stress or anxiety, it is likely you have found your appropriate tolerance level and are functioning well. We are all a bit messy, especially while working on projects or dealing with more pressing issues and responsibilities. As long as things make it back to their homes eventually, a little mess is fine. But, since you wrote in asking about your mess, my guess is that it’s causing you some stress. In this case, you’ll want to create routines for regularly dealing with your messes so they aren’t a source of anxiety for you. I’ll give some tips for creating these routines in a couple paragraphs.

Next, you’ll just want to be sure that your mess doesn’t include anything that could be labeled as “dirty.” Anything that could invite bugs or pests into your home should be cleaned up right away. For example, an overflowing kitty litter box has to be cleaned now, but a stray pair of socks on the floor can sit until morning if they aren’t causing you any frustration. (Remember, the reason you want to be uncluttered is to get rid of distractions that are getting in the way of the life you desire — and stress, anxiety, frustration, bugs, and pests all qualify as distractions.)

To address your second question, “Is there any hope for me to be less messy and [be] better about returning things to their proper storage place?”

Yes, there is hope that you can be less messy if that is what you want to do. The easiest thing you can do is to create a new daily pickup routine for yourself. Choose a time that works best for you and when you have a good amount of energy: in the morning before work, immediately after work, after dinner, or an hour before bed. Set aside 15 minutes — and only 15 minutes, as you don’t want to make it too daunting — to speed through your living space taking care of all the little messes. Use a timer to help keep you on track or an upbeat music playlist to encourage you to move.

Finally, work on changing your mindset about how activities are finished. When you think about doing things, constantly remind yourself that you’re actually not done with something until all items are put away. For example, dinner isn’t finished until all dishes are in the dishwasher and the counter has been wiped down (as opposed to thinking dinner is over when you finish eating). Or that watching your favorite television show isn’t over when the credits roll, but rather after you turn off the television and return the remote control to its storage basket. With months of practice, you’ll train yourself to make fewer messes and this will reduce the time you need for your daily pickup routine.

Thank you, Cassie, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more insights from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.