Ask Unclutterer: Identifying common uncluttering goals in a relationship

Reader Jay submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My wife and I agree that our house is much, much too cluttered. I have been saying it for years, and now that we have two kids and about 5-kids’ worth of toys, she agrees with me.

The problem is that we don’t see eye-to-eye on how to accomplish our goal, to find our house livable. She thinks we have an appropriate amount of stuff, just that we have nowhere to put it. I think we have much too much stuff. Her solution is to put shelves around the house to store the things that are out. I have at least two problems with that. The first is that we have shelves. They are just already filled with stuff! … the second problem is if I add shelves, we will just acquire more stuff, and they will become like the shelves we have …

The clutter has gotten so bad that I hate coming home from work some days. The house never gets “straightened” and certainly never gets cleaned. (It’s not dirty, just only ever gets surface cleaned – swept, basically) … This can’t be an uncommon problem.

Jay, I think there are many readers who can sympathize with your situation. You are frustrated. The clutter is increasing your stress and anxiety levels, and it has left you feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been there and remember well how it feels. And, if what you say in your first paragraph is true, your wife empathizes with you. You might not yet see the same solution, but you definitely see the same problem — clutter!

Lucky for you both, you have a partner with which to battle the clutter. And I’m not sure how old your kids are, but you might also have two wonderful little helpers to join your team. Right now, you feel like it’s you against the clutter and you against the others in your home. It’s not. The humans are a team, and that team can be victorious against the clutter.

You should start by figuring out exactly what you want. Both of you can head to the library, grab a bunch of home, design, and architecture magazines, and flip through the pictures. With your cell phone or a digital camera, snap images of your favorite rooms. Don’t snap pictures of specific solutions, snap pictures of entire rooms you like. After 30 or 40 minutes, call it quits and head home.

Look at the pictures you both took. Talk about why you like the images. What caught your eye? How do the rooms make you feel? What is it about those spaces that you think could work for you? How much clutter is in the images? How much storage is in each room? Do either of you have images the other person likes, too?

Once you have identified common themes that work for both of you, take pictures of your current space and review them. Then, compare your current space to the images you both like that you found in the magazines. What is different? What changes could you make to your space to give it the feel of the images from the magazines?

You don’t need to remodel, move, or even buy a piece of furniture to move toward your common goal. Aim for recreating the sense of the images you like, not recreating the actual room. You need to have a common goal for how you want the space to be when you’re finished, so you will know how to get to that goal.

Uncluttering your home is going to be something you and your wife and kids tackle together. I recommend setting aside 30 minutes each night after dinner to work on a specific room. Play upbeat music while you work and have fun together. You’re getting rid of clutter — enjoy it! You won’t get rid of all the clutter in 30 minutes, but you’ll make a dent and the next night you can do more and the next night even more. Create piles for keeping and purging (throwing away, recycling, donating to charity, giving to a friend). Just remember, only keep the things that meet the vision of your ideal place. You might get rid of a little or you might get rid of a lot — it doesn’t matter, as long as it meets your goal.

Our site is full of articles about the actual logistics of uncluttering and organizing. Head to the search engine in the middle column and type in words for specific problems you encounter, and it’s likely we have written about that topic already. For a primer on these subjects:

Get a vision of where you want to go together, and you can get there together. If this method doesn’t work, I suggest bringing in a professional. A professional organizer can help you better define your common goals, and if a professional organizer doesn’t work your next step would be to go to some marriage counseling sessions to talk about your goals more in depth. Until you discover a common goal, though, you’re both going to continue to be frustrated by the clutter.

Thank you, Jay, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was was helpful to you and be sure to check the comments for even more great 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: Products for processing paper

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I still stand by the information in our extremely popular 2007 series “Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter” and the three other articles in the paper-begone series. Basically, he wanted to know if I would write the series the same way now that I did then.

Would the fundamental premise of the articles be the same today as it was then? Yes. Would a few specific details change? Definitely.

The most obvious thing I would change is the equipment used to scan and shred the papers we don’t need to retain in physical form. I still love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, but the technology referenced in the article is now about six years old. The ScanSnap line has come a long way since then. Also, I’ve come to adore shredders on wheels because they can be moved around a room to wherever you need them.

The latest model in the ScanSnap desktop line is the iX500 and it’s an impressive machine. I’ve been test driving one the past two weeks (thank you, ScanSnap!) and it’s amazing — it doesn’t require a desktop computer to launch, it will scan straight to a mobile device or an online storage location over Wifi (so I can save straight to Dropbox), it’s noticeably faster than the S1500M model we own, and I’ve been able to customize it to send scans automatically to whatever program I want, so items like photographs now import straight into iPhoto. I won’t upgrade permanently from the S1500M we already have, but if we didn’t have a scanner I would save up for this one. If you’re in the market for one, the list price is $495. They’re expensive, but they’re really nice. (Full iX500 product details.)

As far as shredders go, I’d recommend the Fellowes PowerShred 79Ci now. The thing is a monster at chewing up stuff you want to shred. And, as I referenced earlier, it’s on wheels, which makes it convenient to use and store. It’s also expensive, but the thing will last you a decade or more if you treat it well. Our PowerShred PS-77Cs is still rocking after seven years of service, and we use it daily. Unlike less expensive shredders, the PowerShred line is built to last.

The list of things to shred and not to shred is still accurate, though a lot of people greatly dislike my advice to destroy old passports. I probably should have written more clearly about waiting to shred the old passport until after you get a new one. Submitting your old one does speed up the renewal process. However, once you get the old one back, if you don’t need it for any legal reason, it’s safe to shred (just be sure to pop out the RFID chip first). My last passport, though used many times, didn’t even have a single stamp in it because so many countries have stopped stamping and my old visa had to be relinquished when I left the country that required me to have the visa. If you want to keep old passports, especially if they have stamps in them, do it but please keep it in a safe or safe-deposit box so it doesn’t end up in the hands of identity thieves.

I still use DevonThink to organize my digital documents and FreedomFiler for my paper files (though, I’ve added a ridiculous number of my own files to the FreedomFiler system in the past six years that resemble what I discuss in my book). Those two products have suited me well all this time.

Even with all of these products and systems, paper continues to be something we have to deal with daily in our home. We’ve unsubscribed from as much junk mail as possible, yet we still get some from businesses and services we use. The shredder, trash can, and recycling bin by our main entrance are essential in dealing with the junk immediately and not letting it come deep inside the house. But, the stuff we let in voluntarily — the bank statements, the receipts, the pay stubs, the contracts — still feels overwhelming at times. We’ve gone so far as to unsubscribe from all print magazines and now subscribe to these publications digitally over Zinio. The only way we’ve been able to keep from being overwhelmed by paper is to clear our desks each day as part of our end-of-day work routines. All papers filed, junk shred, receipts reconciled, documents scanned, etc. It only takes five or ten minutes, but it’s still a chore. I’m looking forward to the day when I only have to spend five or ten minutes a week (or less) dealing with paper clutter.

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 do we avoid occasional chaos?

Reader Anthony submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Single dad. Two kids: one in middle, one in high school. We keep things tidy and organized most of the time. I like schedules, the kids work better on schedules, so we follow a tight schedule. We go along at a good clip for about three months, and then everything falls apart for a week or two. We end up wasting a full Sunday cleaning and getting back in the game. Three months or so are good, and then we devolve into chaos again. How do we not spiral into chaos? How do we end this cycle?

Anthony — Unless you have a full-time housekeeper whose job it is to keep your home continuously running smoothly, I think the situation you’ve described is pretty normal for an active, uncluttered, and organized family. We all encounter chaos in our homes occasionally. I don’t know if it’s every three months and for a week or two in all cases, but disorder happens over the course of the year, even to me. Life can be messy, so it’s not too surprising that mess eventually creeps into our homes.

In other words, if you’re only “devolv[ing] into chaos” 2 out of 12 months each year, I think you’re doing fine.

In our home, chaos tends to erupt when a kink is thrown into our schedule. One of us might travel for work or we’ll all go on vacation, and two weeks later the house will look like it was hit by a miniature tornado and mealtime resembles feral cats hunting for dinner. Another thing that throws us off is illness — if one or more of us get sick, disorder almost always follows (especially if it’s one of the adults who is under the weather). Exhaustion and stress can be culprits, too. The other trigger for us is being spread too thin, which is chaos of our own making because we voluntarily agreed to do too many things.

As I mentioned earlier, life is messy and at some point your home will reflect that. You can’t alleviate it completely, but there are a small handful of things you might be able to do to reduce its frequency.

  • Identify the disruptions. This seems obvious, but it is incredibly easy to live in denial and pretend like the disruption isn’t happening. Instead of ignoring the problem, name it as quickly as you notice it and take responsibility for it. “Whoa! Half of our chores didn’t get done today because we’re all exhausted.” When you know what is wrong and why (in this example, probably too much stuff on the schedule for one day), you can address fixing it tomorrow, not two weeks from tomorrow.
  • Tomorrow is a new day. Don’t let the one day of mess provide you with an excuse to abandon your schedule the next day. All hope is not lost. Wake up and face the new day with a positive attitude. Move throughout the day as you normally would, simply compensating for what went awry the previous day when you can. Dishes left on the counter last night? Put breakfast dishes into the dishwasher along with last night’s dinner dishes, don’t set the breakfast dishes on the counter. You know something went wrong yesterday, so fix it today.
  • Have schedules in place. This sounds like something you’re already doing. However, there might be people reading this article who don’t, so I want to discuss it briefly. Have you ever had a boss who waits to do things at the last minute and then thrives on the adrenaline rush? The reason this happens is because the boss has learned that she can get things done well at the last minute. As humans, we like to do things in ways where we know we’ll likely be successful, and the boss feels her chances of success are improved if she waits for the adrenaline to kick in. We are creatures of habit. If that boss knew she could also be successful not waiting until the last minute, she would be a boss who didn’t wait until the last minute. The same is true in our homes. If your family doesn’t know it can operate in an uncluttered and organized way on a schedule, it will primarily operate in a state of chaos — even if that state of living is to everyone’s disadvantage. When there is a regular schedule in place and everyone in the home has practiced the routine and enjoyed its benefits, it can become the standard operating procedure. It will become the way your household prefers because it will be comfortable and rewarding.
  • Rebounding is easier with less stuff. I’m not advocating asceticism. I’m just reminding you that when you have less stuff, you have less mess. There is less to be out of place and messy when you have less stuff to be out of place and messy. It takes less time to put out-of-place things away when there aren’t many things to put away. There is less laundry to do when there are fewer clothes in the house. Again, I’m not saying you should live like a monk without any possessions, I’m simply pointing out that managing less stuff is easier than managing more stuff. YOU get to define what less and more mean for you and your family.
  • Learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes, but the most important thing is that you learn from them and try your best not to repeat them. Are piano lessons, tennis lessons, playing on the basketball team, singing in the city choir, and dancing in the Nutcracker too much for your daughter to do in addition to school in December? Well, you’ve learned this year that she can’t do it all, so next year you can help her be more selective about which activities she chooses to do. I have this year’s and next year’s calendars in my planner and continuously make notes for future me on next year’s calendar. In this example, I would write in September something like, “Auditions for the Nutcracker are this month. If Molly tries out this year, what activity will she NOT do in December so our lives aren’t insane like last year.”
  • Don’t beat yourself up. As I mentioned previously, life is messy. If you get sick, you get sick, and you need to focus on getting better. When you’re better, you’ll re-establish order in your home. There is no need to clutter up your emotions with guilt when you have no rational reason to feel guilty.

Thank you, Anthony, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was helpful to you in my response. Please check out the comments for even more advice from our readers. — Erin

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 under the kitchen sink

Reader Yasmeen submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I currently store all cleaning products in a cupboard underneath my kitchen sink. Products include polishes, all household detergents, sponges, laundry liquids, waste disposal bags, scourers etc. I cant seem to think through a convenient and neat way to store these given the depth and dimensions of this cupboard. Please help.

The area under the kitchen sink (or even a bathroom sink) is a weird area where supplies often go to get leaked upon. If your pipe bursts or drips, all of these products will be soaked. This isn’t such a bad thing for sponges, bags, and scourers, but can ruin detergents and polishes. Additionally, the easy access to this area makes it prime for visits from children and pets who can be poisoned or made very ill by toxic polishes and detergents or could be suffocated by a plastic bag. Even if you don’t have children or pets, there is a strong likelihood at some point in your life there will be one visiting your home.

Noting this, the first thing I recommend doing is sorting through everything under your sink. Make three piles: keep under the sink, store someplace else, and purge. Place items that can’t be ruined in the event of a leak and that are completely safe for children and pets in the pile of things to continue to store under the sink (sponges, scourers). Place items that are dangerous for children and pets (laundry detergent, plastic bags) in the pile of things to be stored someplace else. And then, purge anything that is expired, oozing, or has gone rancid.

The next step is to purge all the items that belong in the trash. If any of your items are hazardous materials, as some polishes are, be sure to follow your city/county/country’s laws for proper disposal.

After getting rid of the yucky stuff, it’s time to find homes for all of those items that don’t belong in storage under a sink. Polishes and laundry detergents belong on high shelves, preferably in locked rooms or locked cabinets. Regular dish detergent, which isn’t toxic in small doses, can probably just be stored on a higher shelf in your kitchen. If you are limited on space, maybe you’ll decided to continue to store these items under your sink, but if you do please get a childproof cabinet lock that you can put on the door whenever a child or pet comes into your home. However, a cabinet lock won’t protect these items if your water pipes ever leak or burst.

With the remaining items that you plan to continue to store under your kitchen sink, you’ll want a storage device that will be useful and won’t leave things hiding in far back corners of the space. I prefer to use cabinet organizers that have a couple levels to them, attach to the wall of the cabinet, and slide out so you can see everything in the organizer, such as one like this:

There are other styles (ones that don’t attach to the wall but serve the same function, ones that don’t slide but are shallow so nothing gets pushed to the back of your cabinet and that wrap around your pipes) if this particular one doesn’t exactly suit your needs. Just try to find an organizer that takes advantage of the height of the cabinet and makes it easy to access items stored in the space. And, as is the case when storing any items in a cupboard, group like items with like items (all sponges together) so it is visually obvious whenever you open the cabinet how much of any type of thing you have, as well as where it is and where to return it.

Thank you, Yasmeen, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the 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: Other people’s stuff cluttering up our space

Reader Mip submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I checked the archives, but couldn’t find anything quite like this. My boyfriend and I are moving into a room in an apartment that has two other roommates. Despite the consolidating of two people’s stuff into one room, we have a problem: my boyfriend has three siblings, and they’ve accidentally left a lot of their stuff.

There’s very little chance that they’re going to come by and pick stuff up since one’s deployed with the Navy, and the other two live a minimum eight hours away, and are extremely busy. A lot of this stuff is just not useable to us — for example, they left us a guitar that neither of us can play. It’s taken up the whole room, and it’s just a mess. What’s the best way to store this stuff so that we can have a room of our own, but still keep all of their stuff out of the way?

This is one of those times when I will give advice and the majority of the commenters to the post will strongly disagree with me. Mip, you may even have a negative reaction to my response. However, please know I’m not an insensitive troll. I understand how this sort of thing happens, but it’s hard enough to deal with our personal clutter. Voluntarily taking on another person’s (or, in your case people’s) clutter — when that person is alive and well and of sound mind and physical ability to care for his or her own belongings — it is completely unfair, in my opinion.

So what is the advice you’re likely to deem heartless? I believe your boyfriend should contact his siblings and let them know that if the stuff isn’t picked up by X date, he’ll sell the stuff and send them the money minus a small fee for handling the sales. The date he chooses should probably be two months in the future, so his siblings have a realistic amount of time to retrieve the items. And, with the holidays coming up on the calendar, it is more likely their paths will cross in that timeframe.

For the two not in the Navy, if they really want the stuff, they’ll ask him to send it to them (at their expense) or come and pick up the stuff in person. If they don’t retrieve the stuff, they do not want it, irrespective of what they say. No one “accidentally” leaves a bunch of stuff at someone’s house and then makes no effort to get that important stuff back. It is not a priority for them if they cannot figure out a way to get their things or to pay for them to be shipped in a two-month period. (Again, I’m assuming they are mentally and physically healthy and are fully functioning adults. Different standards would apply if one of them were in the hospital or a rehabilitation facility, for example.)

The sibling who is in the Navy is a bit more difficult of a situation, but if he/she is on active duty, it will be years before he/she will likely have room to store the items. The items should be sold or the sibling needs to start paying for a storage facility for the items. Living in the Washington, D.C., area, I know numerous active duty members of the Navy at various ranks and types of enlistment, and all of them use storage units when they are deployed. When my father was on active duty in the Navy, he had one trunk of stuff at his parents’ house — but his parents lived in a giant farm house, and not a single room. If the person in the Navy is responsible enough to protect the people of our nation, he or she is responsible enough to take care of his or her personal possessions in such a way that it doesn’t burden his sibling.

Also, it’s not hard or all that expensive to ship a guitar (usually under $100) to the sibling who left this with your boyfriend. There are numerous sites on the Web that detail how to ship musical instruments safely, if your boyfriend is unaware of how to make this happen.

Simply stated, your home is not a place for other people’s clutter. His siblings are being disrespectful and if the stuff really mattered to them, they already would have it with them or in a storage unit.

Thank you, Mip, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for more insights from our readers, as they will very likely be different opinions than mine, and certainly worth considering their viewpoints.

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 cope with a very messy shared office

Reader Suzy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am an adjunct at a community college, and at the beginning of each semester, I have to sign up for one of five offices to use during my office hours. This semester, I ended up with the messy office. Papers and books are everywhere. Some of these are labeled and belong to adjuncts currently using the office, but most of them are unlabeled or belong to adjuncts not in the office this semester (they may be back next semester or they may not). What is the best way to get this space a little neater without disturbing the belongings of others? I would just suck it up, but I also think that I have a right to a neat place to meet with my students, even if it’s just one hour a week.

Suzy (a name I’ve given her, as she didn’t sign the email), I agree that you’re in a frustrating situation. Having to deal with other people’s stuff, especially when it interferes with your ability to do your work, is annoying and unfortunate. But, since you’re not a supervisor or someone in charge of this space, there isn’t a lot you can do about it.

What little you can do is send out an email to the other people who use the office and see if they’re okay with you doing some straightening work in the space. If everyone, including the person who overseas the room assignment, is on board, then maybe you can do some work to organize the office. If anyone objects, which likely someone will, you won’t be able to take care of the clutter on a permanent basis.

However, you aren’t completely out of options. If I were you, I would come into the office five minutes early each time you have your office hour and bring an empty box with you. Snap pictures of the desk, your chair, and the student chair with your cell phone or digital camera. Then, load everything off the desk, your chair, and the student chair into the box and set the box in a corner. Make the space functional and meet with your students for an hour. Then, after your office hour is finished, I’d use the pictures you took as a guide and return everything from the box back onto the desk, your chair, and the student chair so it resembles the pictures.

Is this option ideal? No. Can it help you to stay sane for the hour you use the office each week? Probably.

This type of thing seems to happen a great deal in academia. I remember a lot of my adjunct professors and teaching assistants during college having their office hours at the campus coffee shop because the shared offices they had been assigned were horribly cluttered or multiple people were scheduled to work in the office at the same time or the offices were incredibly difficult to locate. Since you likely listed your office on your syllabus as your location for office hours, you can’t switch to a coffee shop in the middle of the semester. Otherwise, I would have suggested you change locations and leave the mess for everyone else.

Even though your colleagues are being disrespectful and impolite by expecting you to work in the mess they have created, try your best not to feel animosity toward them about the space. They might be contributing to it, but they aren’t wholly responsible. Plus, you may need them as a professional recommendation or connection one day, and you won’t want to burn those bridges. Also, you only have a limited amount of emotional energy each day, and being frustrated and angry will zap that energy quickly. You don’t have to let your emotions be cluttered by this situation. It’s annoying, but you get to choose how annoyed you’ll be.

And, there is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the go-ahead from your colleagues to straighten up the office. If you’re really lucky, some of them might even offer to lend a hand … but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Finally, be sure to put in your request now to your supervisor to be assigned a different office next semester. There is no reason you should be continually inconvenienced by your colleagues. If your request is denied, consider the coffee shop option.

Thank you, Suzy, for submitting your question for 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: Suggestions for easily eliminating messes

Reader Barbara submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m organized and like things to be put away, except it doesn’t always happen. (I’m swamped, just like everyone is these days.) I want to know what I can do to step-up my game. Easy things with big impact, without much effort. I’m single and live in a 1BR apartment.

You say you’re already organized and that picking up is your biggest concern, so these three simple suggestions are tailored toward alleviating messes (not uncluttering) your small space.

  1. Five minute pick up. If you watch television, use the first commercial break of the evening to do a general clean up around the apartment. Race the commercials to see how much you can get done before your show returns. If you don’t watch television, each night before making dinner set the timer on your microwave for five minutes and race the clock. If your space were larger or there were more people living in your place, I’d suggest using two or three commercial breaks or setting the microwave timer for 15 minutes. A little work each night goes a long way toward keeping your place mess-free.
  2. Shift your mindset. For reasons unknown, most of us think of doing something and putting stuff away afterward as two activities. For instance, we think about “dinner” as making dinner and eating dinner, but we think of cleaning up the dining room and kitchen afterward as another thing to do, “cleaning up after dinner.” If you stop thinking of cleaning up afterward as a separate activity, but rather as part of the activity itself, you’ll get better at putting things away after you use them. Wrapping a gift for a friend doesn’t stop when you put the bow on the package, but is complete when all the wrapping supplies have been returned to storage. You aren’t finished playing a board game with your friends when someone claims victory, but rather after the game is boxed up and returned to its shelf. This also means you don’t ever randomly set stuff down. The act of handling the mail each day includes retrieving it, reviewing it, and processing it (shredding, recycling, filing, etc.). If you set the mail down on the table without processing it, you didn’t complete the project of handling the mail.
  3. Get ready for bed at least an hour before bedtime. I’ve written this nugget of advice numerous times, but I do so because it has such a strong impact on the state of one’s home. Since you’re not overly tired an hour before bedtime, your dirty clothes make it into the hamper and your shoes and accessories get returned to their storage spaces. You have energy to wash your face and brush your teeth and then put away related supplies. You also signal your brain that you need to start winding down, which can make it easier to fall asleep when you eventually go to bed. Your memory is better then, too, so you can set out all the things you’ll need to take with you in the morning without forgetting anything important. The only thing left on your to-do list in the hour before bed should be crawling under the covers and turning out the bedroom light.

Thank you, Barbara, for submitting your question for 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: Storing hockey equipment in a condo

Reader Jen submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My boyfriend and I live in a small-ish condo in Toronto. I’m working very hard on decluttering our home, but one thing I have no idea what to do with is his hockey equipment. Half of our spare room is full of hockey gear, and I’m not sure where to put it. We have no available closet or storage space. Have you seen any creative ideas on how to store hockey gear in small apartments?

Every once in a while, a question comes into my inbox that stumps me completely. I know nothing about hockey or what equipment it requires beyond a stick and a puck and skates. My initial thoughts are that going vertical, and using wall space would be very helpful … but I’m only guessing.

This is one of those times I want to let the readers with experience give advice for how to store hockey gear in an organized fashion. Please, fill the comments with your helpful insights. I’m extremely interested in reading your advice, too.

Thank you, Jen, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m hopeful our readers will be able to help.

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: Is my desire to recycle an excuse to keep stuff?

Reader Sky submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know I should recycle, and I donate unwanted things to a local charity on a regular basis. Sometimes just tossing something in the garbage is easier, but I feel guilty doing that. So clutter “hangs around” until I can dispose of it “correctly.” Can you help? I feel like I’m using my desire to recycle as an excuse to keep stuff.

Deciding exactly how to purge your clutter can be a difficult process. Do you trash it, recycle it at a recycling center, recycle it by repurposing it into something more useful, sell it, or donate the item to charity or to someone you know who wants it? And, like you suggested in your question, recycling, repurposing, donating, and selling items can be an excuse to hold onto clutter if you’re never actually following through and recycling, repurposing, donating, or selling the items.

I try to use the following guidelines when purging items:

  • Trash the trash. If something is trash, it should be trashed. You can compost the environmentally friendly items, but if a product needs to go to the dump, by all means take it to the dump. And, if something is a hazardous material, be sure to take it to your county’s hazardous waste facility. Trash is clutter and you shouldn’t hold onto it a minute longer than necessary.
  • Recycle what can be recycled, but do it now. People who live in city’s with curbside recycling pick up have it the easiest — put your recycling on the curb and be done with your aluminum, glass, paper, and plastic products. If you don’t have curbside pickup in your area (or have larger items, like steel beams) you’ll need to drive to the closest recycling center to make deposits. I recommend incorporating this errand into your weekly schedule so the recycling never builds up beyond seven days. For other recyclable items that aren’t accepted at most recycling centers — eye glasses, electronics, clothing for rags — only recycle these items IF you’ll recycle them in the next seven days. If a week passes and the items are still lingering, trash them. Schedule the recycling action items on your calendar (research to find where you can recycle the item, boxing and shipping of the item or dropping it off), as well as the deadline for trashing the item if you fail to recycle it.
  • Only sell, repurpose, or give an item to a friend if you do it now. You can sell, repurpose, or give an item to a friend, but only do this if you’re actually going to follow through on the action. Similar to recycling, schedule the action items on your calendar and a deadline (I give myself two weeks) for when it will be out of your house. If it has been two weeks and you still haven’t rid your home of the objects, trash them.
  • Only give good items to charity. As Peter Walsh so aptly stated in his book It’s All Too Much:

    Goodwill receives a billion pounds of clothing every year. Ultimately, they use less than half of the clothes they get. Clothing is cheap, and the cost of sorting, cleaning, storing, and transporting the clothes is higher than their value. If you wouldn’t give an article to a family member, it’s probably not good enough for charity. Sure, it’s great to get the tax deduction and it makes you feel like you didn’t waste money buying the clothes, but if you’re truly charitable, be sensitive to the needs of the organization. Charities aren’t dumping grounds for your trash.

    Like the two items before this one, set a specific time on your calendar to take your good items to charity (maybe make a regular errand for charity donations on the 1 and 15 of each month). If the charitable donations are still lingering around your house two weeks later, throw them in the trash.

In short, if clutter sits in your home for more than a week or two after you’ve decided to purge it, you should trash the item. It seems like a harsh statement, but the short deadline is usually enough motivation to get you to handle the items quickly and in the preferred manner (recycle, repurpose, donate to charity, etc.). If you know you’ve set a firm deadline for yourself, clutter won’t hang out in your space because you’ll actually deal with it.

Thank you, Sky, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers, and 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: What to do with your cherished childhood comfort item when you become an adult?

Reader Emily submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am having trouble letting go of my old worn out and resewn Pound Puppy stuffed animal that I have been told to cut up and burn due to allergies and asthma. What should I do with it now that I am thirty eight years old?

I think most of us have a favorite item from our childhood that has traveled the years into our adult lives. For me, it’s a small pillow I got when I moved into my big-girl bed. My husband has a stuffed animal that is missing an arm. My cousin has the tattered remains of a blue gingham blanket. These items provided comfort to us when we were scared or lonely or simply needed another guest at our tea parties.

As long as you don’t have a menagerie of these items taking up unnecessary space in your home, I see no harm in keeping your single favorite comfort item from your childhood. However, there are ways to keep the item without upsetting your allergies or asthma.

It’s more expensive then you might expect, but you can send your Pound Puppy to a stuffed animal repair hospital to be cleaned, restuffed, and repaired. Your Pound Puppy will look different, though, when it emerges from the hospital, so only go this route if you’re okay with your stuffed animal looking like new again. (My mother-in-law had my sister-in-law’s favorite doll repaired after some hair loss, and my sister-in-law was so traumatized she never touched the doll again.) Most importantly, after a makeover at the stuffed animal repair hospital, you should be able to keep and snuggle with your comfort item without having an allergic reaction.

If a restoration isn’t for you, I recommend retiring your comfort item to a display box. This way, you can still look at and admire your stuffed animal, but the dander on it will no longer upset your allergies and asthma. Before putting it into the display box, you may want to first have your Pound Puppy cleaned at a stuffed animal repair shop so the mites on the item don’t continue to feast on it. But, in this case, I wouldn’t go for the full-body makeover, just a cleaning.

If displaying your stuffed animal isn’t a priority, you may want to get an archival box to store your item in for the longterm. Again, you’ll likely want to have the item cleaned before going into storage. Once in the archival box, you can place it in a plastic bin to keep other pests from invading your cherished friend.

Clutter is anything that gets in the way of the life you want to live. In this case, I think the mites and dander on the Pound Puppy are the problem, not the Pound Puppy. I also think that if you got rid of the comfort item entirely, you’d likely spend a significant amount of time regretting your decision and having that regret clutter up your thoughts.

Thank you, Emily, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comment section 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: Organizing physical media

Reader Nancy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m about to finally get a storage unit for music CDs; it resembles an old-fashioned library card catalog. Should I organize the CDs by composer, performer, genre, piece type (symponies, concertos)? What makes the most sense? Almost all are classical but there are some “easy listening.” Many thanks for considering my question.

Your question is about music CDs, but my response can be applied to organizing many other types of physical materials — especially papers and books. And, the answer is simple:

Organize items in the way that makes the most sense to you.

If you’re the person retrieving items and also the person who is putting them away after you use them, you’re much more likely to maintain order in the system if it makes complete sense to you.

How would you want to search for the CDs so you find the exact CD you want exactly when you want it? For me, that would be according to genre (all classical together, all easy listening together, all rock together) and then subdivide according to composer (all Mozart together, all Beethoven, etc.) and then subdivide by work (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) and then alphabetize by performance group or performer or conductor. I’d organize the CDs this way only because I usually have a desire to hear a particular piece of music. If you’re someone who usually desires to hear a particular performer or conductor, you would want to arrange to reflect that search preference.

I also recommend labeling your system well so if someone else approaches your CDs (or files or books) he or she can locate items and put them back.

If you’re not the only person regularly accessing the CDs, you need to develop the organizing system with the other people who will use it. Find the most agreeable solution and then make sure everyone is trained on how to organize the materials so things are returned after use.

Another good idea is to always leave room for growth and change. You don’t want things so closely packed into a space that it’s difficult to put items away or to move items around, if necessary.

Finally, you might also consider digitizing your CD collection. I realize this would take a considerable amount of time and expense, since I doubt you would want to compress the files. But, it’s definitely something to consider if you plan to expand your collection. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that people are very emotionally attached to their music collections and suggesting digitizing it can be taken as offensive. However, it does make storage and retrieval extremely simple, and you never have to worry about a CD getting scratched or something not being returned to its storage space after it is used.

Thank you, Nancy, for submitting your question for 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: Organizing home office supplies

Reader Vera submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have loads of extra office supplies; like file folders, hanging file folders, envelopes, index cards, note paper, binder clips, glue, pencils, etc. Can you give me suggestions about storing these items that won’t take a lot of space?

I adore office supplies, especially new office supplies. They are possibilities and new ideas. They’re physical representations of all the great things I can create with those folders and clips and pencils. And, like you, if I’m not careful, they can overtake my office and clutter up valuable workspace.

In the past, we’ve written about how to store large numbers of office supplies when in a corporate environment in our posts “Organizing an office supply closet” and “Organizing and operating a central supply room.” There may be a few tips in these larger scale posts that you can apply to your smaller workspace. So, I recommend starting there.

Once you’ve checked out those posts, try these additional methods for containing your personal office supplies:

  • Know thy stuff and thy self. Assess the supplies you have and how you are using them, and if you are actually using them (I have a box of rubber bands in my desk, yet no idea when I last used a rubber band … 2008?). Sort the products into like piles (paper clips with paper clips, pencils with pencils). Identify how often you use the products and what circumstances are you in when you need more of that product. Also evaluate which products are your favorites and which ones you dislike.
  • Be realistic. Is there any way you will use all of those supplies in your lifetime? Any product you’re never going to use can instantly be placed in a box to be donated to someone who can use the product. Then, ask yourself how much stuff you can realistically store? Do you have room to store enough supplies for the next six months? The next year or two or three? Most people in their homes only have enough space to store items they’re going to be able to use in the next one or two years. Additionally, products like glue, ink pens, and rubber bands won’t necessarily make it that long before drying out. Set a use-by date (mine is two years) and keep only those supplies that you’ll use by that date (and be sure the ones you keep are the ones you love). Again, all those supplies you won’t use can go into a donation box.
  • Donate. All the supplies you won’t use up by the timeframe you chose can easily be donated to a school or non-profit organization. Obviously, call before you deliver the supplies to make sure the group wants them, but now is an especially good time to give these types of products to a school.
  • Store. The supplies that you have chosen to keep can be kept in two types of storage areas: immediately accessible and long-term storage. Divide your items into these two categories. Things that should be put into the “immediately accessible” pile are those things that you access more than one time a day. These might be a few pens, sticky notes, and paper clips. The “long-term storage” pile is for all your other supplies that you access as you need them, probably a couple times a week or month.
  • Organize. For your desk, I recommend getting a drawer organizer tray to help you keep those things you need daily in an orderly state. Measure your drawer (length, width, and depth) and then get a piece to fit the space. When putting items into the tray, keep like items together. If you don’t have a desk drawer, get an organizing caddy to keep those necessary supplies within arm’s reach on your desk top. For longer-term storage, you’ll want to contain your supplies in a way that gels with your design aesthetic. If the supplies will be stored in a closet or cupboard where they won’t be seen, you can aim for containers that are purely utilitarian. If the supplies will be stored on shelves where you can see them, you’ll likely want to aim for pretty or classy or industrial. Just be sure you like the containers you select because you’re more likely to repeatedly use something you love. Also, keep the items grouped (binder clips with binder clips) and label everything so you don’t have to open the container to know what resides inside it.

Thank you, Vera, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to be helpful to you today. And, be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions 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.