Organizing, straightening up, and cleaning

Organizing. Straightening up. Cleaning. Tidying. Arranging.

These are some of the terms that describe varying levels of what everyone who has possessions does to keep their dwellings from being messy. By their very nature, each term’s definition can vary greatly from person to person, spouse to spouse, or house mate to house mate. In the name of domestic harmony and effective un-messying, I’m opening a dialog on how we define these terms and what we expect from each. A similar conversation like this in your home can ensure everyone is on the same page when talking about establishing and maintaining order. It doesn’t matter if your terms match mine, simply that all of you agree on the definitions of the words and phrases you use.

Defining organizing

For me, organizing is to apply logical structure to an unstructured collection of items. The items can be physical, like books or LEGO bricks, but they also can be intangible, like ideas or plans.

What organizing looks like

If I were to organize something, you can expect to see a collection of items arranged in a neat, systematic order. In other words, a messy pile of [x] becomes a tidy arrangement, sorted by a system that is easily understood.

Defining straightening up

Straightening up is different from organizing in that it implies that organizing has already been done, and only some minor maintenance is needed to restore order.

What straightening up looks like

My kids’ shoes are stored in three wicker baskets near the back door of our house. Three baskets for three kids. The organizing has been done — having baskets for each kids’ shoes. To straighten them up, I’d ask the kids to put their shoes in their basket.

Defining cleaning

Cleaning implies no organizing or straightening up. For me, cleaning means simply: to bust out the window cleaner, mop, broom, vacuum or what-have-you to remove dirt, dust, and the like.

What cleaning looks like

I’ll admit it, I don’t like cleaning. It’s the most labor-intensive of the activities, and involves taking things down, moving furniture, and telling the kids, “Stay off the floors!” We can get nit-picky and differentiate between “cleaning” and “a good clean,” but that’s for another conversation.

Other words

There are even more words in the English language to discuss un-messying your home. Tidying is one that implies the least amount of effort of the bunch. If I’m going to “quickly put these things in to some semblance of order before our dinner guests arrive,” I’ll spend likely less than 10 minutes resetting order. If your home is organized and you take time each evening to straighten up before bed, tidying is usually all you need to do when you have people over to visit.

Now I turn to you, readers. How to do define these un-messying words? What do you expect of each, and, finally, are there any terms specific to your household? I once had a friend from the midwest who said, “This room needs ‘red’ up.” I think that meant cleaning up.

Refrigerator cleaning and organizing

Having a clean and organized refrigerator can help save you time when planning what to eat for meals and money on groceries. We’ve talked about organizing your refrigerator before, but there are additional suggestions that might help you to save even more time and money.

Start organizing your refrigerator by removing all of the food. Toss anything that is no longer edible or is past its expiration date. Place the food you intend to keep in a cooler with a few ice packs to keep it cold while you work.

It is important to clean and sanitize your refrigerator. Cleaning is the process of removing food and grime from a surface. Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of microorganisms (germs) to a safe level. If the surfaces in your refrigerator are not clean, the sanitizer will not have a good contact with the surfaces and it will be impossible for the sanitizer to kill germs. Also, some sanitizers, such as bleach, react with organic matter (food) and will be less effective if the surface is not properly cleaned.

Remove the shelves and scrub them with warm soapy water. An old toothbrush can be useful to clean out small cracks and crannies. Rinse the refrigerator parts well and dry them with a clean towel. Clean and dry the inside walls of the refrigerator as well.

A diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach, 4 parts water) or sanitizing wipes can be used to disinfect the shelves and racks as well as the inside of the refrigerator.

Clean the outsides of bottles and jars before returning them to the refrigerator. Not only do gunky bottles make a mess, bacteria and germs love to grow in the mess. Remember to clean the outside of the refrigerator as well, especially the door handles.

When returning food items to the refrigerator, think about what is used most often and what is used least often. The foods used most often should be put just inside the door to minimize the length of time the door is open. This may save on energy bills but also reduce meal preparation time, as the foods used most often are closest to where you need them.

Group similar condiments together in baskets. By putting all the salad dressings in one basket you only need to grab that basket from the refrigerator and place it on the table when you make salad for dinner. Small baskets prevent small items from getting lost in the back of the refrigerator. You can also use baskets to contain small round cheeses, cheese slices and cheese sticks, mini yogurt containers and soy sauce, and ketchup packets for lunches.

It is a good idea to group leftovers on one shelf. Use clear plastic containers to store leftovers so it is easy to see what is in each container. Label the leftovers so that family members will know how long the container has been in the refrigerator and when it should be thrown out. A piece of masking tape and a marker make it easy to label containers, so keep these items handy.

Refrigerators are designed to keep foods cold enough to prevent food spoilage. The temperature of your refrigerator should be between 32ºF and 39ºF (0ºC and 4ºC). Freezer temperature should be 0ºF (-18ºC) which stops bacterial growth.

Use a specially designed thermometer and adjust the refrigerator dials to ensure that you’ve reached these temperatures. It may take a day or two of adjusting your refrigerator dials to ensure you’ve achieved the correct temperature.

A few more tips…

  • Clean out the refrigerator before grocery shopping — you’ll be able to get a better sense of what you have and have space to store what you buy.
  • Dispose of old leftovers just before trash day — you won’t smell up your kitchen with the odor of rotting food.
  • If you keep raw meat in the refrigerator, ensure that the drippings do not fall on fresh produce or already cooked foods. If you do not have a “meat drawer,” store or defrost meat on a plastic tray that you can remove and easily clean and disinfect.
  • Use a corner cupboard organizer to stack plates of food and maximize vertical space.

If your refrigerator is organized it is much easier to clean. Remember: Clean refrigerators are healthy refrigerators!

A place for everything and everything in its place, well, for the most part

At Unclutterer, we usually support the organizing standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” However, there are occasions when adhering to this motto is inefficient and might best be put on hold.

For example, most of the year our family eats meals in the dining room. During the financial year-end though, the dining room table turns into a horizontal filing cabinet for a couple of days while I prepare our income tax returns. During these few days, our family eats in the kitchen or in the living room on TV trays while the paperwork stays out on the table. This is a minor inconvenience for our family compared to the time-consuming task of packing up all of the paper work and re-filing it into the filing cabinet everyday. All of this paperwork does have a long-term place, but for this period of time it has a short-term place on the dining table.

You may decide there are other times when the standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place” should be temporarily ignored or when a short-term home should be established for specific items.

From time-to-time, your children may take on projects with their toys that are too much fun to go away after just a single play session. If your child is building a space station with blocks, confine the construction to a certain area of the room and let the building continue for a few days. A doll’s excessive wardrobe and shoe collection could be out for a few days and then sent to the “dry cleaners” (cardboard box) that can be easily moved so that housekeeping can be done. If you notice the projects haven’t been worked on in awhile, that is a good indication that the toys are ready to be returned to their permanent homes.

Rather than trying to obtain one those picture perfect houses from the magazines, think about how to manage your projects efficiently. When is it a good idea for you to ignore the “a place for everything and everything in its place” motto?

Six steps to establishing order in your home after an inevitable dip into chaos

This week has been one of those weeks where I never found my rhythm. You’ll notice that Tuesday’s post ran on Wednesday and then there wasn’t a Unitasker Wednesday post. I forgot my son’s weekly swimming lesson, which has been at the same date and time this entire year. All day yesterday, I kept making plans for today as if it were Sunday. There are a handful of other examples, all proving that my head has not been attached to my shoulders this week.

As is the case for most people, as my mental space has become chaotic, so has my physical space. Mt. Laundry has erupted in my laundry room. I’ve been rushed, so things haven’t been put away as I’ve used them. It has also affected my kids, since I’m not giving them time to clean up before we run to the next activity. TMZ could do an expose with intense music and tell-all photographs with the headline “And she calls herself the Unclutterer!”

In the professional organizing industry, we refer to these times as “falling off the wagon.” It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I have to find a way to chase down the wagon and get back on. The following steps are what I do to keep the chaos short lived:

  1. Cut yourself a break. Everyone, even professional organizers, find themselves in a cluttered state occasionally. It’s inevitable because life isn’t predictable. Don’t beat yourself up over the chaotic times or feel guilty about them. Rather, simply recognize you’re off course and then reroute yourself at the first possible opportunity.
  2. Invite people over. When things are in disarray, my usual response is to invite people to my house. This gives me a set deadline for when things need to be back together. Fewer things get me as motivated to clean, organize, and unclutter as knowing my friends will be stepping foot in my house.
  3. Tackle one room at a time. I like checklists, and the floor plan of my house often operates as one. (I do this mentally, I don’t have an actual printed floor plan, but you could if you like.) Kitchen, dining room, living room, office … I work through each room and mark it off as I go. I always start with the common places, where guests will certainly see, and then finish with my bedroom. This is convenient, too, because I’m usually ready for a nap after a whole-house reordering project.
  4. Get rid of stuff. One of the reasons I can do a whole-house reordering project in a couple hours is because I don’t have a lot of stuff and our house is relatively small (<1,300 sq ft). Less stuff equals less mess. As I clean and organize, I also get rid of stuff. If it's out of place, it might be because it doesn't have a permanent storage place. Things without permanent storage places are usually purged (recycled, donated, trashed, etc.) so they don't keep making a mess. If I don't purge it, I find a permanent home for it, no exceptions. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
  5. Take a picture. My eyes tend to gloss over things that have been out of place for awhile. I call this clutter numbness. If I take a picture of a room and study the image, however, all that clutter catches my attention. I do this after I’ve had my nap and I almost always find entire patches of stuff I missed on the first pass.
  6. Call in reinforcements. Whenever things get chaotic, I call in a professional cleaning service to scrub my floors, counters, and bathrooms. They also dust and do any other deep-cleaning work that needs to get done. I schedule them for after I’ve done the whole-house reordering project but before my friends’ arrival. This is my reward to myself for razing Mt. Laundry and getting the house back on track. It’s not an everyday thing, but a couple times a year it’s nice to have someone else clean the toilets.

After these six steps are complete, it’s a lot easier to get my head back on my shoulders. Similar to how mental chaos can lead to physical chaos, physical order can encourage mental order. What do you do to establish order in your home after you’ve fallen off the proverbial organizing wagon? Feel welcome to share your process in the comments so others in our community can get even more ideas.

Cleaning up after the holidays

Every great party is followed by a great cleanup. The holidays are a shiny, tinsel-strewn example of this. While I love the holidays, I also recognize that it’s an invitation to mess. First of all, you bring new stuff into your house. There are also get-togethers, lots of newly-emptied boxes, paper all over the place, decorations, and so on. But there’s hope! The following suggestions are a few things you can do to keep the cleanup stress to a minimum.

For many, the holidays include the accumulation of stuff. What’s the best way to handle the influx without creating new piles of clutter? Try the one-in-two-out method. It’s pretty simple: for each new item you received and want to keep, you get rid (donate, recycle, sell) of two items you previously owned. For example, if the kids got new PJs, pass on two older pairs to younger cousins. If new books arrived, pull two from the library to give to loved ones or friends who might like them. Perhaps a local preschool could benefit.

I mentioned the influx of new toys briefly. The one-in-two-out rule works well, but you can expand on it. You can donate older toys that are still in good condition. Consider seeking out a toy drive. Ask your local chamber of commerce for help if you don’t know of any in your area. Police stations and fire stations often take donated toys, too. Stuffed Animals for Emergencies, Inc. looks for stuffed animals in particular.

You can re-purpose old toys, too. For example, these wooden block wall hangings and this animal head coat rack are two great recycling ideas.

I’d be remiss if I neglected addressing ornaments and lights. Storing each can be a real challenge. On one hand, many ornaments are precious and carry much sentimental value. On the other, it’s as if Christmas lights were made to tangle themselves into a frustrating rat’s nest between January 1 and December 1.

Durable Christmas ornament storage boxes are super for organizing what you have, protecting your ornaments, and keeping out pests. They’re made of thick plastic, stackable, and feature a single compartment of each ornament. Here’s a tip: take some of that crumpled-up, leftover wrapping paper and stuff it inside the compartments for jiggle-free storage of your smaller ornaments.

As for the lights, don’t end up like this. To store your lights, first make sure all the bulbs are working. Next, keep the spare bulb with their parent strands. Finally, employ the awesome cloths hanger trick. The idea is to wrap a strand around a coat hanger, tape the end pieces down and then stack them in a plastic bin. I love it. Housekeeping has a few good ideas, too, like the Pringles can trick. Remove the lid, cut out the bottom and wrap the lights around the tube.

Cutting cleaning supply clutter

Today’s guest post is by Amanda Scudder, Organizing Consultant with the company Abundance Organizing. Please give her a nice welcome.

Have you heard the song “The 3 Rs,” the incredibly catchy Jack Johnson tune:

Three it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number …
We’ve got to learn to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle …

This seemingly straightforward ditty holds a profound truth: three little words — reduce, reuse, recycle — are magic. There are endless ways you can apply them to your life — fun, creative ways that can cut clutter while benefitting your health, your budget, and your planet.

Today, I want to apply them to an often-unrecognized source of clutter: cleaning products. An unofficial survey of my Facebook friends revealed that the average American home has somewhere between a bajillion and a gazillion cleaning products stashed in cupboards, under the sink, and in other prime storage areas. Not only do these products create physical clutter, they also create chemical clutter, which can pose significant risks to your health.

The EPA reports that the air inside our homes can be five to ten times more toxic than the air outdoors, containing as many as 150 different pollutants, many of which come from petrochemical cleaners.

Let’s turn to the three Rs to tackle this problem.

Reduce – There are some easy ways to reduce the number of cleaning products you have to store and, more importantly, reduce the number of toxic chemicals in your home.

  • Switch to an environmentally friendly multi-purpose cleaner. There are many on the market, some greener than others, so read the label and beware of green-washing (clever marketing phrases used to make a product appear more eco-friendly than they really are). For Consumer Report’s recommendations, visit GreenerChoices.org’s article “Can one cleaner do it all?”
  • Another great resource is GoodGuide, an online tool to help you find safe, healthy, green and ethical products or to find out how your favorite brands rank.
  • Make your own multi-purpose cleaners using three basic household ingredients: baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice

Unfamiliar with how to use these three ingredients to clean?

Use baking soda to:

  • Deodorize pretty much anything from cat boxes to carpets
  • Clean your shower
  • Scour your sinks
  • Remove grease stains
  • Polish silver or your teeth

Use vinegar to:

  • Wash windows and floors
  • Remove product buildup from your hair
  • Clean the microwave
  • Clean the coffee pot
  • Trap fruit flies

Use lemon juice to:

  • Sanitize cutting boards
  • Boost the effectiveness of dish soap
  • Deodorize drains
  • Remove stains
  • Clean toilet bowls

Reuse – Because you are mixing your own cleaning combinations, you can reuse spray bottles and buckets, cutting down on the amount of plastic heading to landfills. Mild solutions of water and vinegar or lemon juice left over after cleaning can be used to water acid-loving plants like azaleas and rhododendrons. Stronger solutions can be poured on weeds you would like to eliminate.

Recycle – Turn old sheets, single socks, or stained towels and t-shirts into rags and use them instead of paper towels for cleaning. You can even tuck a dry or damp rag around one of those long handled floor dusters instead of using expensive disposable pads. Wash them and reuse them again the next time. Repurpose a plastic bag holder as a rag dispenser — pull them out through the opening in the bottom and, after they are washed, put them in the top.

So your challenge for today: find one cleaning recipe to try and see if you can eliminate at least two ready-made cleaning products from your cabinets. Be sure to dispose of any toxic products safely (check your local government’s website for where to dispose of hazardous materials in your community).

Staying safe while uncluttering

Sometimes the spaces we want to unclutter aren’t the safest of work environments. Please stay safe while uncluttering, and watch out for these potential hazards.

Note: The following information is just a starting point, to get you thinking about your personal safety; please check with medical professionals and other experts for more detailed, specific advice for your particular situation.

Rodent droppings and hantavirus

Certain rodents carry hantavirus, which can be very serious when transmitted to humans through the rodents’ droppings, urine, or saliva. The CDC — Centers for Disease Control — has information on how to clean up after rodents. Of course, you’ll also want to do all you reasonably can to prevent a future infestation, too.

Insect and spider bites

Watch where you put your hands; don’t reach into areas you can’t see. If you’re working in an area likely to have spider problems, the Mayo Clinic suggests wearing gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and boots, and an insect repellant. In The ICD Guide to Challenging Disorganization, organizer Victoria Roberts says: “Bright lights drive spiders out. Just don’t be in their way. Keep Benadryl in your first aid kit.”

Cuts and Puncture Wounds

Anything from a thumbtack to a sewing needle to a rusty nail can cause an injury. Again, watch where you put your hands, consider wearing gloves, wear appropriate shoes, and have a First Aid Kit nearby. And make sure your tetanus vaccination is up-to-date — always a good idea, anyway.

Mold

If you find mold, see the CDC’s information on cleaning up mold and preventing it from recurring. The Washington State Department of Health also has good information. Note that some moldy items may need to be discarded.

Dust

Even simple dust can cause problems. Dr. Anthony Komaroff of the Harvard Medical School says: “People with respiratory allergies should consider wearing a mask that filters out dust when they clean.” The Mayo Clinic has suggestions on how best to clean dusty areas: “Use a damp or oiled mop or rag rather than dry materials to clean up dust. This prevents dust from becoming airborne and resettling.”

Slips, falls, and strains

Make sure you can safely reach any area where you’re working. Use a sturdy step stool or ladder to reach higher places. Watch for slippery surfaces and wear shoes that provide good traction. Also watch out for common tripping hazards: throw rugs, electrical cords, and pets that can get underfoot.

Paper cuts

Working with lots of papers? According to members of MetaFilter, using finger cots or latex-free finger tips can protect against these cuts, as can archivist’s gloves. Members also recommended using specific hand creams or lotions to keep your hands moisturized, making it less likely that you’ll get paper cuts.

Final Note: If the potential hazards in any cluttered space feel too intimidating to handle on your own, consider hiring help. Try searching for terms such as rodent cleanup services, mold cleanup services, or mold remediation services — or get a referral from a trusted real estate agent or other trusted source.

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.

Six ways to successfully manage laundry

People who know me know that I have an intense dislike for doing laundry. Like uncluttering, if you don’t keep up with it, things can quickly get out of control. Because there are several steps to completing the process, I’m always on the look out for ways to make it a little easier and faster to complete. In fact, I was elated when I recently read about a shirt (made by Wool and Prince) that can be worn for 100 days before it needs to be laundered. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like doing laundry (no surprise there) as the shirt is already sold out. And, since it’s for men only, my dreams of collecting a few for my side of the closet quickly faded. I have hope for the future, though.

Image credit: Wool and Prince

I’ve even considered wearing one core piece every day for one year (like Sheena Matheiken did). Though I’d still have to wash my clothing, I’d theoretically have less of it to launder and I could save a bit of time looking for something to wear each day. But, in reality, I’m not sure I could be creative enough to pull this off for 365 days. After a while, I suspect that I’d want to switch things up a bit.

Since these options don’t seem viable for me and my lifestyle, I’ve decided to redouble my efforts and take more practical steps to help ease the pain of doing laundry. If you’re like me and find laundry to be a major thorn in your side, consider these six suggestions:

  1. Reduce your stash. Spring is great time to unclutter your home (or office or car) so why not start with your closet? The less clothing you have, the less volume of washing will be required. And, you’ll gain more space in your closet.
  2. Share laundry duties. Teaming up with your spouse, partner, or housemate to get chores done is not a new idea, and this principle can easily be applied to doing laundry. Decide who will be responsible for specific steps in the process (don’t forget about ironing). You can alternate each step or take on the tasks that you don’t mind doing. For instance, I love folding. It’s a quiet and solitary activity that relaxes me. On the other hand, you might want to do laundry with a friend who’ll help you with all the steps and then on another day, you return the favor.

    Another option is to let everyone in your home be responsible for keeping their own clothing clean. This can be a great option for adults and older children, though you can also get younger children involved. Of course, you can also outsource your laundry. When I lived in NY years ago, I used a service that would pick up, wash, dry, fold, and return my clean clothing to my apartment. It was money well spent as all I had to do was to put everything away.

  3. Wash smaller loads. This may seem counterintuitive, but it may help you get through all the steps if you have fewer clothes to work with at one time. This might mean that adjusting your laundry schedule (increase the number of loads per day or the number of days you wash clothing) so that you can finish the entire process for each load washed.
  4. Keep your laundry area stocked with needed supplies. Nothing stalls the process like not having everything you need. It’s important to have all the supplies you tend to use so that you can start and finish the process. If you’re missing something (or don’t have enough of it), you’ll be frustrated and doing laundry will take longer (or just not happen until the last minute). Keep the supplies you need in your laundry area and be sure they are easily accessible or else you probably won’t put them back where they belong. This also applies to good equipment — if you have a washer and dryer at home, it’s much more enjoyable to do laundry when the equipment is in decent working order.
  5. Use a steamer. If you’re not fond of ironing, you might want to consider using steamer. They seem to be a bit easier to use and don’t require as much effort as a traditional iron does. You can also find portable units that don’t take up a lot of space. You could also purchase wrinkle resistant clothing that requires little or no ironing once you remove it from the dryer, but these items are typically treated with resins that may irritate your skin, so use caution. Clothing made from bamboo fibers may be a good option as they are lightweight (and potentially easier to keep wrinkle-free), tend to be odor resistant, and are quick drying.
  6. Buy the same. This is a tried and true tip — especially when you are laundering socks. Having the all the same socks means that you won’t spend a lot of time pairing them up.

Get a jump start on spring cleaning with 15-minute microtasks

Over the winter months, many people experience cabin fever. When you’re stuck inside for a long period of time, it’s likely you’ll get bored and become a little restless as you await warmer temperatures. Now that we’re in the first full week of March, the end of cold weather is in sight! And, with the few remaining weeks of winter, you can get a jump start on your spring cleaning tasks in just a few minutes of time. You don’t have to wait until spring finally arrives, nor do you have to go all out on a major cleaning binge (though you should plan an in-depth cleaning).

Instead, start some spring cleaning chores now and consider segmenting your home into small projects so they are easier to tackle. Doing this will allow you to reasonably start the process without spending all your time uncluttering and cleaning. Because the tasks are smaller and more manageable, you probably won’t need a lot of time to get them done. In fact, just 15 minutes per day can lead to big results.

You might be scratching your head about where to start. One of the easiest ways to select your first micro-project is to look around at your surfaces. Have you noticed that flat surfaces seem to have an open invitation to put things on them? They may start out uncluttered, but then they somehow morph into holders of knick knacks, paper piles, and things that haven’t made it back to their designated storage areas. And, because surfaces are so visible, when they are clutter-free, they can make a room look and feel dramatically improved.

Since you’re using short bursts of activity to clear things up, pick one area or room in your home and decide which surface you will attack first. For example, a master bedroom might have the following surfaces:

  • Two nightstands
  • One vanity
  • One chest of drawers
  • One TV stand
  • The floor

Before you set your timer, think about how long you might need to completely finish one surface. Could you do it all in one 15-minute time block? Or, would you need to schedule two or three micro-blocks? Using the above example, if you scheduled one 15-minute cleaning session per day for each surface, each one could be uncluttered and cleaned within 6 days. If you worked on two surfaces per day (30 minutes/day), the entire list could be done in 3 days. Keep in mind that the floor is also a surface, and depending on the type and number of items you need to sort through before you start vacuuming or sweeping, the floor may require multiple microbursts of activity before it’s completely uncluttered and clean. That said, begin working on the surfaces in your most used spaces. Since you tend to be in those rooms often, you’ll have ample opportunities to work on clearing them.

As you go through this process, remember to check hidden spaces, like your attic. Even in rooms that you use often, you’ll still have spots that are not very visible. These include drawers, under beds and sofa cushions, inside closets (don’t forget the top shelf), cabinets (have you looked in the ones above your refrigerator or stove lately?), closed containers, storage ottomans/benches, and even inside your refrigerator. Of course, spring cleaning isn’t just limited to the spaces throughout your home. Other areas of focus include your garage, shed, barn or other outdoor structures, gutters, your car and trunk, and even the storage cabinets under your grill. As mentioned before, first estimate how long an area will likely take to complete and then schedule your 15-minute time blocks accordingly. Whenever possible, get help from other members of your household. Two or more people working together on microtasks would certainly get each area finished a lot faster.

To keep track of all the spaces you need to unclutter and thoroughly clean, check out the Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home.

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.

A basic spring cleaning plan

Daylight Saving Time in the United States begins on March 10. This is typically the time that people are not only advancing their clocks forward, but also likely thinking about spring cleaning. There are still several weeks before spring actually arrives, so this an oportune time to make plans for what chores you will do around your home.

But, before you dive headfirst into a cleaning frenzy, figure out how you’ll go about cleaning all your living spaces. Create a plan of attack now as you’ll find this very helpful when it’s time to execute it. Keep in mind that you’ll need to unclutter before begin cleaning. It will be difficult to clean rooms that have blocked pathways or a large number of items without designated storage places (especially if you have to move furniture). Once the clutter has been cleared, your plan should include:

  1. Priority areas. No matter how small your home may be, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to clean it all in one weekend. Start thinking about specific rooms (or appliances) that you’d like to work on first, and focus on one or two tasks per room. That doesn’t mean you can’t work on other things, you’ll just be giving your attention to the most important items first. For example, if something is broken and would need to be used often (like your heating and cooling system), it should go to the top of your list. And, of course, you should immediately take care of issues that prevent a room from being used safely.
  2. Specific cleaning days. To stay on top of all your cleaning tasks, try scheduling your spring cleaning activities on specific days and be realistic about how much time you’ll have to work on each area of your home. Use a checklist so you don’t forget to do something. It might also be a good idea to print your list and post it on the door of the room where you’ll be working. This will help you remember the things that still need to get done, and if you assign tasks to others, include names next to specific items so that they know what they’re responsible for.
  3. Cleaning supplies. Will you be making your own cleaning solutions or buying something already made? Do you need special cleaners for particular surfaces? Do you prefer green cleaners? Before you go shopping (or create you own special mixture), check your cabinets to see what you already have (check for cleaning cloths, too) and what you’ll need to acquire.
  4. Other tools and supplies. You may need to borrow, rent, or buy tools and equipment that you don’t use every day, like a ladder to reach high ceilings, long dusters to reach behind and under appliances, or air filters (be sure you have the right size). As you walk through each room, make notes of things you need to help you get the job done.