Single socks and how they can help you learn to process what-if clutter

It is rare for all our socks to have mates after we finish folding the laundry. Sometimes a sock will hide inside a fitted sheet and we won’t notice it during folding, but we discover the errant sock when we put the sheet on the bed a few days later. Other times, a sock will have been stuck inside a shirt sleeve or a pant leg. Rarely is the missing sock lost forever, though, so we keep a small basket in the laundry room for single socks and when the mate shows up we immediately know where to find its match.

Even though mates are usually found, invariably one sock will hang out in the lost-mate basket for many months, its mate gone forever. (After seeing Gnomeo and Juliet, I’ve been blaming lawn gnomes for this phenomenon.) If a sock hangs out in the lost-sock basket for more than three months, the sock is moved to the rag pile and recycled for dusting.

I explained our lost-sock basket to a room full of people at a conference recently, and a woman raised her hand and asked, “But what if you find the other sock after you start using its mate as a rag?”

I replied, “It has only happened once, and we just made the newly found sock into a rag, too.”

The woman then let out an audible gasp, almost as if my suggestion had caused her physical pain. My guess is that, like many people, she struggles with making decisions about “what if” items, and these “what if” objects likely cause her difficulty when dealing with clutter.

What if I get rid of this empty yogurt tub and then someone comes over for dinner and I want to send her home with leftovers?

What if I get rid of this piece of wood and then two months from now I need to fix something and this exact piece of wood would have been the perfect solution?

What if I give this coat to charity and then wish I hadn’t?

If you’re someone who regularly plays the “what if” scenario in your mind, try giving this simple lost-sock basket a try in your home. Recycle any sock that remains in the basket for more than three months. Since you know the worst that can happen is you might end up recycling two socks, it’s a relative inexpensive way to practice making these types of uncluttering decisions. You don’t need a single sock hanging around your house for years waiting for a mate.

The more practice you get, the easier it will become to part with things that you do not need that are cluttering up your space. You learn to trust that even if you end up needing an item that you purged that you will be able to buy a replacement or borrow one from a family member or that you will be creative enough to find an alternate solution.

And, if you do find the lost sock in less than three months, you’ll at least know quickly where to find its mate.

A single sweater, 12 ways

While at my local outlet mall a few months ago, I picked up a Long Sleeve Classic Cozy from the Donna Karen New York (DKNY) shop. I was instantly drawn to it because of its versatility, and over the past few months have truly fallen in love with this cashmere and silk sweater:

In theory, I can get 12 looks from the sweater. I’ve only been wearing it for 5 of the looks, however. Even wearing it just 5 ways, I feel like I got a wonderfully uncluttered deal with 5 looks from 1 sweater (and at the outlet store, I paid only $70 for it). It’s also ideal for travel and bringing to the office. Its instructions say to dry clean, but I’ve been very carefully washing it by hand with a little Soak Wash and laying it flat to dry. It’s my new favorite piece of clothing — flexible and fancy.

There are videos for how to create all 12 looks and even a smart phone app. I’ve donated a number of my other sweaters to charity since I haven’t been wearing them. I love this multiple-look addition to my wardrobe.

Ask Unclutterer: Storing large brim hats

Reader Joanna submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

As I was cleaning this weekend I was completely stumped when I tried to figure out how to store the three hats my husband and I own. Not baseball caps or winter hats, but two cowboy hats and my wide-brimmed sunhat. We use these regularly and don’t want to get rid of them. None of our drawers are tall and wide enough, and none of the hats have loops for hanging them on the wall. Any suggestions?

Like you, I have a similar large hat storage requirement. Everyone in our house has at least two cowboy hats (summer and winter), my son has a hard plastic fireman’s hat, and I own two large sun hats. Currently, we each have a large hat box where these hats live in our closets. I covered my hat box with contact paper for fun, but you could easily skip this step and keep the box plain. And, for good measure, I throw some cedar chips into all of the boxes as a precaution against pests.

If you want daily or even weekly access to your hats, you might be interested in a rack that is more suitable for a location beyond your closet.

I like the idea of a countertop hat display, like what you might see in a retail store, and one costs less than $30:

In an entryway, you could hang a piece of pegboard, paint it to match your wall color, and then attach hat brackets to the pegboard for less than $2 a piece:

In our previous house, we had an Eames Hang-It-All that was great for hats — but it retails for $200, so you’ll probably want to go with a less expensive option:

Finally, if you’re artistic, maybe a few styrofoam mannequin heads ($10 each) could work with your decor:

Be sure to check the comments for even more hat storage ideas from our readers. Thank you, Joanna, 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.

Get rid of the clutter in your clothes closet

Even if you’re not a student or don’t have students in your house, the start of the school year is a terrific time to sort through your wardrobe and purge the clutter. We recently went through this process in our home, and used some new strategies as we sorted.

First, we started by looking at photo albums from before my husband and I were married (11+ years ago). If we spotted any items of clothing still in our wardrobes that we were wearing in the old pictures, those items of clothing immediately left the closet. I had just two pairs of shoes that met this standard, so I decided to increase the scope by looking at pictures from before I turned 30 (7+ years ago). This strategy yielded better results — getting rid of a fifth to a quarter of my stuff. Items I couldn’t see in pictures but that I remembered had been around this long (many old socks were part of this category), went into the purge pile.

Second, I got rid of all of my summer clothes that I didn’t put on a single time this summer. This isn’t a new strategy, but it’s a good one for this time of year. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, this process would work for your winter clothing.

Third, and this new strategy turned out better than expected, my husband and I gave each other permission to purge the two items we least liked from each other’s wardrobe. He got rid of two pairs of my yoga pants that were what I wore whenever I was sick. He was right, they needed to go. I got rid of two of his shirts that weren’t flattering on him, and he agreed they should go. If you don’t live with someone, you can implement this same strategy with a close friend or family member. Remember, though, to make it about the clothes, not about the person.

Implementing our old strategies also helped a great deal to purge even more clutter from our closets. We kept to our styles and didn’t let any clothes stay that don’t meet our current style. We limited our wardrobes to items that fit right now, things we want to wear, and clothes that project our desired image. Check out our article “Discover your style to keep clutter out of your closet” if you’re looking for more tips on what to keep in your wardrobe and what to purge.

Remember: Most clothing (except for previously worn underwear and socks) can be donated to local charities. However, clothes that someone wouldn’t buy in their current condition should be bundled up and labeled as rags. Groups like Goodwill recycle these well-worn clothes to be used again, but in a different form. Be sure to contact your favorite local charity before making any donations to be sure that they are currently accepting clothing donations.

Love your laundry room

Laundry rooms are often dark corners of basements or narrow closets with barely enough space to fit stacked machines or odd hallways leading to the garage. Rarely are they beautiful rooms that entice us to keep up with the tedious chore.

However, a clean, uncluttered, organized laundry room is welcoming and makes doing laundry much more enjoyable. Additionally, an organized room speeds up the process so you spend less time doing what you may not enjoy.

If your laundry space could use some attention, try these 10 steps to get it in order:

  • Clean it up. Start by removing everything from the space that isn’t attached to the walls. Ironing boards, detergent, hampers — whatever you have in this area needs to be temporarily removed. Once everything is gone, sweep and mop the floors, wipe down the walls, dust, and get the room looking like new. Paint the walls if necessary. Even clean underneath and behind your washing machine and dryer, but be careful not to disconnect your water, drainage, power, and/or gas lines.
  • Sort it. Before returning a single item to the laundry area, decide if it really belongs in the space and if the item meets your needs. You probably don’t need motor oil in your laundry room and you certainly don’t need a bottle of spray starch that is more than a decade old. Get rid of anything you haven’t touched in at least a year and only keep the things you actually use.
  • Be inspired. Head to Google images and do a search for “inspiring laundry rooms.” Pages of gorgeous rooms will appear to give you a laundry list of ideas.
  • Identify your needs. A laundry room that handles the clothes loads of just one person will have different needs than a laundry room for a family of six. Do you need room to fold clothes? Do you need cubbies for each person in the house? Do you need a bag for dry cleaning items that accidentally slipped into the dirty clothes hamper?
  • Make adjustments. If you need a shelf above your washing machine, now is the time to add these fixtures to the room. If you want an ironing board and iron holder that fits on the back of your door, install it. If you have been dreaming about having a clothesline or rolling garment rack, add them now. Make structural additions to the space that will help you on the days you do laundry.
  • Wipe it down. Now is also a good time to wipe down any items that will be returning into the laundry area. Remove the dust and gunk that builds up over time.
  • Store items where you use them. As you begin to return items to the laundry room, be sure to put things where you use them. Detergent and stain treatment products should be within an arm’s extension of the washing machine. A rolling garment rack and extra hangers should be immediately next to your folding area or the dryer. Your iron should be with your ironing board.
  • Label locations. If you aren’t the only person who uses the laundry room, label shelves and cupboards well so everyone can know where to find products and where to return them when they’re finished.
  • Don’t forget donations. Every laundry room should have a box or a bin where you can easily deposit items of clothing that are ready to be donated to charity. Make it as simple as possible to get the unwanted items out of your wardrobe and ready to be passed along to someone else.
  • Use it. Take advantage of your clean, uncluttered, and organized laundry space by keeping on top of your laundry chores. Have set days on the schedule for when you will tackle the wash.

Switching out seasonal clothing

If you live in an area of the world that experiences four seasons, this is the time of year when you’re switching out your cold weather clothes for your warm weather ones (or the other way around if you live in the southern hemisphere). Before you pack away your winter coat and hat, take a few minutes and make sure you’re keeping clutter out of storage and also protecting your clothes so you won’t be unpacking clutter in the fall.

Ask these questions of the clothing:

  • Did I wear it in the past six months? Any item of clothing you didn’t wear in the past six months should be a strong candidate for the donation pile. Exceptions to this might be a black wool suit you wear to funerals, but you were very lucky not to lose someone close to you in this winter. However, if an item of clothing is trendy and you didn’t once put it on your body, it should probably be donated to charity.
  • Is it clean? Do not pack anything away that has been worn and not cleaned. Pests love to snack on dead skin cells, so clean everything you plan to pack away for the summer.
  • Is it damaged? If an article of clothing is damaged, it needs to be fixed before putting it into storage. Give yourself a week to do the repairs yourself. If you don’t make the repairs in a week, send the clothes out to a tailor to be professionally repaired or get rid of the item of clothing because you may not care enough about it to even have it fixed.
  • Will it still be in style in six or eight months? If you already know the trend has passed, and you care about trends, it’s time to get rid of the piece of clothing.
  • Does it pass the red velvet rope test?

Only donate to charity clothes that are in good condition. Any piece of clothing that has seen better days can be marked as rags. Many charities that accept clothing also collect rags, so you can make both donations at the same time. Just be sure to call ahead to confirm that the charity is currently accepting both types of donations.

When storing clothing:

  • Pack the clothes loosely into an air-tight, thick plastic container. Pests will eat through cardboard and fabric containers in seconds. Plastic containers keep out the smaller pests (like moths) and slow down larger ones (like mice).
  • Pack pest deterrents in with your clothes. Freshly sanded cedar chips or blocks, lavender sachets, and other anti-pest products will help to keep pests out of your stored clothes.
  • Store clothes in pest-free areas, as best as you can. In other words, if you know you have mice in your garage, it’s probably best not to store your clothes in the garage.
  • Clean, clean, clean. Again, remember that pests love dirty clothes. Everything you store for the season should be clean before packing it away for the summer.

Super storage closets

A well-organized storage closet can be a beneficial attribute in any home or office. You can easily find what you need, when you need it, and have an exact space to return an object when you’re finished. On the other hand, a disorganized closet will end up wasting your time and energy when looking for items, and make putting things back after you use them even more difficult.

In our previous home and workspace, we outfitted an existing closet with Elfa shelving to create an ideal storage space. I usually referred to it as our “Mary Poppins Closet” since it held so many things:

It took us one weekend to tear out the old wood shelf and clothing rod, paint the walls and ceiling, install the Elfa shelving system, and put objects into the closet. A week later, we rearranged some items and added a few storage bins (such as the crate holding the records in the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph). We ended up spending a few hundred dollars on the makeover, but for six years it improved the quality of our living and working experience.

Our new office doesn’t have a closet as makeover-friendly as the Mary Poppins Closet. For starters, it only has a coat closet that measures a mere 22″ x 36″. Additionally, since we’re renting the new space, we can’t rip out the existing shelf and rod and replace them with Elfa shelving. To create a storage closet that will still meet our needs, we had to make some adjustments:

  1. Got rid of clutter. I had already purged the vast majority of my yarn collection before the move, but we still had to let go of a number of things. The board games were significantly culled, we decided to store the record albums in another room, and we gave away most of the print photographs since we had them all professionally scanned.
  2. Used steel shelving that sits on the floor of the closet and doesn’t need to affix to the walls. It’s not as pretty as the Elfa shelving, but it’s sturdy and does its job well. Plus, we can take the shelving with us when we move.
  3. Labeled the lips of shelves since different types of objects are co-mingled on the shelves. With the help of my trusty label maker, I created category labels to make finding and returning objects easier (media clips, payroll records, etc.).

If you’re looking to create a storage closet that helps instead of hinders your life, try a similar method — get rid of the clutter, have a storage system in place that works best for your needs, and make it as easy as possible to retrieve and return objects. Also, don’t forget to store the objects you use the most often on shelves that are between your knees and shoulders. Heavier objects should be stored on shelves at waist height or lower, and lighter objects should be stored on the shelves above waist height.

Do you have a storage closet that needs organizing? If so, what steps can you take to get rid of the chaos?

Finally, I apologize for not having a picture of the new closet. I have yet to unpack the camera or the cables that make it possible to transfer the images to my computer. When we do a post with a final reveal of the new office, I’ll be sure to have a picture of the new closet at that time.

A woman in uniform: Angelina Jolie

Los Angeles-based professional organizer John Trosko tipped us off to an interview with actress Angelina Jolie in the December issue of Vogue. In the article, “The Other Angelina,” Jolie talks about the monochromatic nature of her wardrobe and how this helps to keep it small:

“As Brad’ll tell you — and my kids — apparently Mommy only wears black,” [Jolie] says. Because she was a Goth, right? No, she says, it’s utilitarian, it’s practical: “I like to get up so every pair of pants goes with every top, every dress goes with every shoe. I’ve a very tiny closet. Brad’s always laughing at me. Some days, yes, I have the nightgown that looks like a dress that I can sleep in and pick the kids up at school. And maybe take a meeting if I switch into heels.”

I don’t know if all four of her closets are small (the article mentions she has four homes around the world), or just the one in L.A., but knowing at least one female celebrity is capable of keeping clutter out of her closet is inspiring. I also don’t know what nightgown can be worn around town without people knowing you’re wearing a nightgown in public, but I think it’s a wonderfully minimalistic idea if it does exist.

Regardless of how many small closets she has or what designer has created a day-to-nightgown, Jolie’s overall strategy for keeping clutter out of your closet makes sense: A wardrobe of all coordinating, multi-functioning pieces is helpful when maintaining a small wardrobe.

What to do with clothes you’ve worn once but want to wear again?

Back on November 3, there was a fun comment thread on Reddit discussing “Where the h*ll do you put clothes you’ve already worn but plan on wearing again??” Many of the commenters agreed that they use:

ks50: the floor.

DJgiantboydetective: my system is even more involved. I’ve got the “worn once but totally good to go” area, and the “kind of questionable but OK if you’re just going to the store” area. the two areas are very clear in my head, but if you looked at them, you’d think my place just got robbed.

VladimirKal: My floordrobe is organised in pretty much the same way. People can never seem to believe that there is actually an organised mess rather than just a mess.

electrostate: FLOORDROBE. You sir are a genius.

I think the “floordrobe” is where a lot of people’s want-to-wear-again clothes end up landing. It’s especially common when the clothes are casual — jeans, t-shirts, shorts — and when their isn’t a system in place to handle these clothes.

Even t-shirts, jeans, and shorts cost money, though. Walking on your clothes and making them susceptible to more dust, dirt, mites, and dander than they would get in a more protective environment significantly shortens the life of your clothing. When you throw your clothes on the floor, you’re wasting money. I guess if you have a never-ending revenue stream, having to buy new clothes earlier than you otherwise would isn’t such a big deal. However, I think most people want their clothing to last them as long as possible, and throwing your clothes on the floor isn’t a way to make that happen.

To avoid using a “floordrobe,” consider the following suggestions:

  1. Get ready for bed an hour before you plan to go to sleep. This way, you have enough energy to put your clothes where they actually belong.
  2. Always hang up expensive clothes on hangers, especially when you plan to wear the item again — suits, ties, dress shirts. If you’re worried about these previously worn items “contaminating” your other clothes, hang them up at one end of your closet with a separator (a robe? a suit bag?) in between the two types of clothes.
  3. Create a permanent storage area for your casual want-to-wear-again clothing. This storage solution might be a separate hamper in a different style than your dirty clothes hamper, a suit valet, an S hook, a hanging shelf/drawer unit, wall hooks, back of door hooks, or even an empty dresser drawer. Invest in whatever solution you will actually use.

Do you use a “floordrobe”? Could one of these alternatives work for you?

Ask Unclutterer: Organizing an office supply closet

Reader Debbie submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have a large storage cabinet and some shelves at my work office that have now become mine to organize. The cabinet is full of small cardboard boxes full of all types of supplies – tape, staples, computer pieces, pens, markers, hanging folders, envelopes, you name it. Lots of small items. I’m looking for some type of storage dividers/ container that will make this stuff more visible and reachable.

Is it weird that I am incredibly excited for you? I’m even a little envious. I love organizing supply closets. You’ve been given a really great project, in my opinion.

Are you familiar with the company ShelvingDirect.com? (Beware: There is a talking guy who appears when you follow that link. He only talks for 30 seconds, though, and you can easily pause him.) Despite the talking ad, this company has a lot of reasonably priced office storage products you might want to consider. There are numerous office supply companies out there that carry similar items, so you can check with your purchasing agent at work to see if the company you use most often has the same items.

Since you already have a cabinet and shelving, I recommend checking out the bin kits or their individual bins if none of the kits exactly meet your needs. The bins come in all different sizes and are formed in a way so you can easily see and access the product stored inside:

The plastic bins are nice because you can insert dividers and bin cups into them (neither the dividers or cups appear on their website, but they’re available through their catalog). The bins are also stackable, so you don’t waste any vertical space. You can easily label them, too.

Stores like The Container Store are really terrific, and carry similar bins, but they price even their smallest ones at a few dollars a piece. Ordering multiple bins from an office supplier is the less expensive way to go, where the smallest ones come out to being less than a dollar a piece. Which, at least in my opinion, makes the office supply companies the better option in this situation.

As you’re organizing the items in the closet, try to put the supplies accessed most often on the shelves that fall between you knees and your chin. Otherwise, you’ll constantly be bending over or reaching above your head to straighten and replenish these materials.

Thank you, Debbie, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope these bins and tips can work for you.

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.

Donate your unwanted shoes to people in need

Do you have shoes you’ve never really worn taking up space in your closet? Are there tennis shoes that are too small for your son’s feet but with life still in them lingering under his bed? Would you be willing to donate these shoes to charity so someone who can’t afford shoes or who has lost all in a natural disaster can have a pair to wear to school or to work or to safely walk down the street?

Soles4Souls is a charity that collects shoes that are cluttering up your closet and distributes them to people in need throughout the world. Search through your shoe collection, and then drop off your and your family’s unwanted shoes at a Soles4Souls collection site near you.

This organization came across my path when my friend and professional organizer Scott Roewer started collecting shoes for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. More than two million people remain homeless in Haiti, and Scott is traveling with Soles4Souls to help deliver the shoes he collects — and thousands more — in an upcoming shipment to the country.

As you put away your summer shoes and shine up your winter boots, check to see if there are any lightly worn shoes cluttering up your closet that could make a difference in the life of someone in need. You can get rid of clutter and help someone at the same time.

Workspace of the Week: No-mayhem mudroom

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Michelle Smyth’s hallway mudroom:

Now that it’s fall, I’ve set near our front door the plastic tray we put snowy, wet, and muddy shoes on during the colder months. Our home doesn’t have a mudroom, but that doesn’t alleviate our need for one. As a result, I was inspired when I came across Michelle Smyth’s solution. In her photograph’s description:

This is a narrow hallway in our cottage that we’ve turned into a mudroom of sorts. The shoe racks are from Ikea and the baskets from Home Outfitters. Really inexpensive way to make the most of what would otherwise have been kind of useless space.

Michelle also shared a picture of the wall that faces the coat and shoe racks:

It’s her family’s wall of fame, which is certainly a fun way to decide where to put diplomas and awards.

And, I know this isn’t a traditional workspace, but it’s still an inspiring space … so this time I made an exception. Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your space with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.