Archives for Decluttering
Many people new to uncluttering will begin the process with a simple technique called “a thing a day.” (I learned about the method a few years ago in the Unclutterer Forum.) There are a couple of positive aspects to using this simple method in an effort to clear clutter. First, it’s not overwhelming. If you choose to focus on one thing, it’s likely to be a lot easier and quicker to complete every day. Second, it’s also a momentum builder. By doing one uncluttering activity each day, you get an opportunity to practice creating order, so that it feels like a typical part of your life, rather than a chore that you dread doing. And, as your space becomes free of unwanted items, you’ll be able to create a plan to keep it organized.
Another benefit of using ATAD is you can begin the process wherever you’d like. Your one daily thing can be retrieved from any room of your home. As this becomes a regular part of your routine, you might look for one thing in several or all rooms, though based on a recent study done by IKEA, you may want to start with your clothes closet. The results showed that despite the fact that the average person owns 88 pieces of clothing, only 25 percent of them are actually worn. This may be because most people are reaching for their favorite (or most comfortable) items frequently and leaving other pieces for another time.
If you find yourself in this situation, you can likely free up a bit of space by selecting specific articles of clothing that you hardly reach for as your first items in your ATAD journey. Sure, you’ll have some things that you may only wear on special (infrequent) occasions, but you may want to take a look in your closet for specific items that you haven’t worn in two seasons or more. You might want to focus on removing one thing every day over the course of several weeks so that you can systematically go through each piece of clothing.
Would you be surprised to learn that the same study also found that a large number of Americans say that having a laundry room is high on their wish list? As it turns out, that’s not the only room that they covet — just about any room with added storage capacity seems to be highly desired.
When looking for new homes, a whopping 93% of Americans want a laundry room, 90% want linen closets in their bathrooms, and 85% want a walk-in pantry.
That’s probably no surprise as many people often feel that a lack of storage is the root cause of overstuffed and cluttered spaces.
While changing the size of your closet (or adding more storage) can be a huge undertaking, selecting one thing that you can part with will be much less daunting. As you start thinking about how you might include ATAD in your day-to-day life, have a look at the rest of the IKEA findings.
Image credit: IKEA
Reader Theo submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
My daughter is in fifth grade with long hair and every *&*^%#! hair accessory you can possibly imagine. Our house is overrun with ponytail holders and barrettes. I threaten to cut her hair off in the middle of the night if she can’t find a way to keep all of these things on her head or in her room or bathroom. Her mother has short hair and is oblivious to my frustration. Help please. — Theo, who is tired of cutting ponytail holders out of the vacuum belt
Theo, are you actually a time-traveling version of my dad writing from the early 1980s? Your email hints of so many fights he and I had when I was a kid — except replace “ponytail holders” with “ribbon braided and beaded barrettes.” It gave me a shiver, actually, when I first read it.
Your email reminiscent of my father spurred me into taking a look at my current hair accessories (yes, adults have them, too) and admitting to myself I haven’t been doing a great job organizing them, either. Everything was crammed haphazardly into a basket in my linen closet and dozens of ponytail holders were on door knobs and drawer knob pulls throughout the house (out of reach of the vacuum, but still not in their proper place).
I decided to spend about an hour this past weekend getting these items under control and what I did might work for your daughter.
The first thing I did was round up all my hair doodads — I searched the house and also grabbed my disorderly basket out of the linen closet and poured it all on my bed. Next, I sorted by type. All ponytail holders were put into one pile, all hard headbands made another pile, all soft headbands made another one, then barrettes, bobby pins, hair clips, bun holders, etc.
After sorting, I threw out all items that were ready for the trash from each of the piles — broken or over-stretched ponytail holders, bent bobby pins, barrettes missing their back clips, etc. Then, I went through the piles again and pulled out any accessories that aren’t my style any longer and put those in a large envelope to send to my toddler niece who loves dressing up and doesn’t care much about current fashion trends at this point. What remained after these two purging cycles was manageable and so I didn’t need to do a third round, but your daughter might want to (these items she could give to friends if they’re in good condition and her friends are amenable).
I decided to recycle some items in my home for storage solutions for the accessories that remained. Since developing a gluten intolerance, I no longer have a need for a wheat flour storage canister. So, I washed mine out and repurposed it for my hard and soft headbands:
If you don’t have a container like this, I recommend heading to your pantry or local grocery store with one of your daughter’s headbands. Try them out on different food canisters — they usually fit well around oatmeal canisters. She can wrap the container in her favorite wrapping paper or contact paper to spruce things up a bit.
For ponytail holders, I repurposed an old pill travel organizer:
Again, if you don’t have one of these, a lot of different materials could work, even toilet paper rolls but you need to stuff them with something sturdy so they don’t collapse (wrap this one in contact paper — I don’t recommend wrapping paper for this project as it gets ripped pretty easily, but contact paper is much more sturdy).
I put bobby pins in an old box I inherited from my grandmother. Barrettes and clips went into zip-top bags until I find something else to store them in over the longterm:
My point in repurposing these items was to show that you don’t have to go out and buy something just for organizing her accessories. You probably have things already in your home you can use. If you want to spend some money, there are manufactured options available.
Thank you, Theo, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m also thankful for the motivation you gave to me to get my hair accessories in order. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
My colleague at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Chris Rawson, recently explained why most people should think long and hard before installing a beta version of the iPad and iPhone operating system. These betas are typically distributed to developers so that they can test their apps against future updates, but any interested party with $100 can sign up as a developer and get it themselvers. It was a great piece and contained this blurb from a frustrated iPad owner:
I recently bought an iPad right before a trip to Africa for a family vacation. Being right after the release of the iOS 5 beta 2, and being part of the development program, I [installed iOS 5 beta 2]. It worked very well for the first 2 weeks of my trip. Then at exactly the halfway point in my trip, the screen went black … It’s just sitting in my backpack now, useless for the next week until I’m home.
Really a pain, because I’m still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an Internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.
Forget the iOS install and focus on the huge problem illustrated by this user: He’s on vacation in AFRICA — a foreign continent — and can’t find anything to do without his iPad.
There isn’t one single compelling thing to do in all of Africa?
I don’t condemn this reader individually, because he has succumbed to an insidious epidemic. Specifically, we’ve cured boredom. And that’s a real problem. In The Wall Street Journal, Scott Adams wrote back in 2011:
But wait — we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.
I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.
I’ve expressed this idea in less articulate terms myself. The insistent nature of Twitter, Facebook, and a thousand games in your pocket has produced a generation that never experiences a dull moment. That means we also never experience a contemplative moment, a reflective moment, a creative moment. Scott Belsky agrees:
Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world’s information at our fingertips.
I know this makes me sound like a cranky old misanthrope, but I don’t care. It’s impossible to generate a truly creative thought while the incessant barrage pelts us. It’s like complaining that we’re not dry while standing in a rain storm. You won’t dry off until you go inside and get away from the falling water.
Turn off, be quiet, and be comfortable with your thoughts. It’s OK, I promise.
The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past month, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.
As a parent of a toddler with an intrinsic desire to push every button he encounters, we’ve been living the past few years with our shredder unplugged from the wall. Each day when the mail arrived, I had to take the safety plug out of the outlet, plug in the shredder, turn on the shredder, shred any mail with sensitive data on it, turn off the shredder, unplug it, and put the safety plug back into the outlet. I gladly did this because I care more about my son’s safety than the inconvenience of plugging in and then unplugging a shredder, but I kept thinking there has to be an easier way.
I also knew I couldn’t be the only person in this situation and someone had to have found a better solution.
Turns out, shredder manufacturers had thought about folks like me with toddlers and about people with pets as curious as three year olds. For safety-conscious people, they have created shredders that require keys to unlock the shredder’s functionality. In this specific case, I’ve been using the Staples’ 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a Lockout Key. I can keep it plugged in all the time, but it can’t be operated until the Lockout Key is inserted into a lock on the top of the unit. (Removing the Lockout Key actually disconnects the power to the unit.) It’s simple to use and a significant improvement over the unplugging method.
And, if you’re someone (like a grandparent) who doesn’t regularly have young children or pets in your home, there is a discrete switch on the inside of the unit that can override the key functionality for as long as you desire.
Specifically addressing the 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder, it has some additional nice features:
- It automatically turns off if it overheats (something I’ve never had occur, but the manual says it is possible after four minutes of continuous run time)
- If it turns off because of overheating it has a specific indicator light to let you know that is the reason it shut down (so you don’t think the shredder is broken), and that light goes out when the unit cools down and is ready to go again
- It cross-cut shreds, which makes the shred more secure than just a strip shredder
- It eats credit cards and other thin plastics
- It eats staples, so you don’t have to remove them before depositing papers into the shredder
- Another safety feature is it doesn’t operate if the top of the unit isn’t seated securely on the base
- It will eat 10 pieces of paper at a time, which means you often don’t have to open envelopes if you know they’re junk and don’t contain any metal
- The bin that catches the paper shreds pulls out from the front (like a drawer) and you don’t have to take the shredding unit off the top to empty your shreds (this is a nice improvement over our old shredder, too)
- There is a little clear panel on the front of the bin so you can see if you need to empty out the paper shreds from the bin
- As for loudness, it’s not the quietest shredder I’ve ever heard but it is far from the loudest — the manual claims it has about a 70 decibel noise level
Interested in knowing which papers you have that you should shred before purging? I suggest shredding anything with any personal information on it. If an identity thief could use the information to verify himself or herself as you, shred the paper. In my area, paper shreds can be recycled, so I shred unabashedly. If your recycling program doesn’t take shredded paper, you can compost the shreds (just make sure you don’t have any plastic or staples in your bin).
If you have specific questions about what papers to shred and purge, you might find this infographic I developed to be helpful, “Shred, Scan, or Store?“
You’ve done it! Your home is uncluttered, with everything in its place.
But then, a few months later, things aren’t quite the same.
How do you maintain that organized space you so enjoyed? The following seven ideas will give you an edge and don’t rely on a magic wand.
Make it super easy to put things away.
Well, OK — it’s fine if your holiday decorations are stored in a place that’s a bit hard to get to. But, with things you use frequently, you’ll want to make it as easy as possible to put them back in their places.
Make sure the containers you use aren’t too full; strive to keep them at least 20 percent empty. Think about how hard it is to file things in an over-stuffed file cabinet. Other overly full containers are also hard to work with.
Consider containers without lids; consider hooks instead of hangers. If you have high shelves you need to access fairly often, have a step stool close at hand.
And, as much as possible, accommodate the way paper and objects naturally tend to flow through your home. If incoming mail gets dropped on the coffee table, put an inbox there. If coats wind up in a pile right by the front door, consider putting hooks or a coat tree in that area.
Make sure everything has a home.
Also, make sure that all family members who share putting-things-away responsibility know where those homes are. You can’t put something in its proper home if it doesn’t have one. Buying something new? Make sure you decide where it’s going to live in your home before you pay for it.
Share a file cabinet with another family member? Make sure you both agree on how things will be filed. I met a woman who filed the house insurance under the name of the insurance agent; her husband had no idea where to find it.
Don’t forget to label your storage containers, especially when it’s not immediately obvious what goes where. You can use pictures to label toy bins and such for young children, so they can help put things away, too.
Use good tools.
I spent way too much time pulling jammed paper out of my shredder before I invested in a new one. Now I’ve got one that works, and life is so much easier.
Look for file cabinets with full-extension drawers — where the drawers pull out far enough that you can easily get to the files at the back.
Develop a routine.
Maybe you and your child take 10 minutes to put toys away each evening. Maybe you sort out junk mail daily, and do your filing weekly. Figure out what routines work for you and your family and stick to them.
If finances allow it, consider hiring help.
Hiring a gardener or a housecleaner to take care of some routine tasks can free up your time for the things that only you can handle. If you have a small home-based business and hate doing the bookkeeping, consider hiring someone for this task, so you don’t get behind.
Or, maybe you have some projects sitting around that are creating clutter because they aren’t getting done — those shelves aren’t getting installed on their own and that thing you were going to repair isn’t getting repaired. It might be worth paying someone else to do those types of projects for you.
You could also consider doing a task swap with a friend. You despise doing Task A, but don’t mind doing Task B? Your friend is fine with doing Task A, but always puts off doing Task B? Maybe you can help each other.
Do a periodic uncluttering.
Tastes changes. Needs change. The lids to food storage containers get lost. Children outgrow things. Schedule some time, every once in a while, to make sure all the things you own are still things you want.
Set an appropriate standard.
Unless your home is on the market with potential buyers coming by any time or unless your home is being used for a photo shoot, immaculate is probably an unnecessarily high standard for daily living in your home. Keep your home safe, functional, and generally uncluttered — but don’t fret that it isn’t perfect. Perfect is an impossible continuous standard.
A creative, productive person has a motor. Much like a car or scooter, that person is driven by his or her motor — driven to do, to make, to create, to find fun things to do with the kids, to build a media room in the basement, to learn French, to pursue innovative carrer goals, or to plant a flower garden.
The problem is that sometimes the motor won’t shut off and you get more ideas than you have time or attention to achieve right now. Many people put these on a “Someday/Maybe” list of goals to consider for another day. I think a list such as that is organized clutter. The someday list can cause a lot of guilt. So, instead I put my own spin on this type of list.
Someday/Maybe is a tenent of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He refers to it as (I’m paraphrasing), a way to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag at your thoughts. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”
My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, emphasizing my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not. The someday list is my personal waiting room.
I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them and taking action.
A few years ago, I attended Macworld | iWorld in San Francisco (it was still called Macworld Expo back then). One of the highlights was hearing Merlin Mann speak. He said, among other things, that one should take a good, hard look at the Someday/Maybe list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch the item completely. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes. But will I ever travel to Japan? That item is much more likely, so it stays.
While understandable, culling the improbable has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Japan” is a huge project, but there’s a little more likelihood I’ll achieve it than learning an entire language.
Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.
Years ago, I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.
ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.
In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.
First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.
The Research List
What’s really happening here is I’m turning the someday list into research tasks. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”
I’m not going to tell you to ditch your Someday/Maybe list completely. Again, let’s not crush those dreams. However, I will say be very honest with yourself and consider:
- Is this list a dumping ground for the unachievable?
- Am I dropping things here that are too unpleasant to consider for some reason?
- Is there a way to actually make progress on this?
- What is the first tiny baby step I can actually do?
Figure out the answers to these questions and get moving. Avoid the clutter and guilt of a Someday/Maybe list and start working toward these projects in the present.
Only order magazines you really want
Why would people subscribe to magazines they don’t want? Well, have you ever been approached by a child asking you to buy some magazine subscriptions to support the school band? It can be hard to turn down this type of request, but here are two ways to do it:
- Ask if you can just make a direct donation to the cause, rather than buying the subscription.
- See if you can buy a gift subscription that goes to a local library — after making sure the library would indeed appreciate this gift.
Don’t subscribe to a magazine just because you’re getting a deeply discounted price
J.D. Roth got those discounted subscriptions, and then discovered he was “paying $150/year for the added mental stress of having too many magazines around the house.” It’s never a deal to spend any money on something you don’t really want.
Be aware of what you’re subscribing to
Do you really want the magazines that come along with some memberships, like the Costco Connection and the magazine that comes from your auto insurance company?
In The New York Times, Bob Tedeschi writes about his “64 half-read New Yorker magazines” which he is “collecting as part of an extended experiment in self-delusion.” And in the Guardian, Tom Cox writes: “I keep on subscribing to The New Yorker magazine in the expectation of a lengthy, debilitating illness that will allow me to catch up on 15 years’ worth of issues I have hardly skimmed.”
Yes, The New Yorker has some wonderful articles, but it comes every week. Is a magazine like this going to be enjoyable to you, or just a source of when-am-I-going-to-read-this stress? A monthly magazine might be more your speed.
Cancel subscriptions to magazines you no longer enjoy
You don’t need to wait until the subscription expires to cancel a magazine; you can do it any time you wish — and maybe get a refund check! Magazines will have information on how to cancel in each issue, although it may be buried and in some pretty small type. Sometimes it’s as easy as filling out a form online, as with the Costco Connection.
But if you’d prefer to just let the subscription lapse, remember that some magazines do an automatic renewal — and be sure to respond to any notification that your subscription is about to renew.
Decide what to do with your magazines once you’ve read them
The answer here could be to donate them to others or to recycle them. You may have a good reason to keep some, too. You might want to scan selected pages, as Erin does, and then give them away or recycle them.
If you actually read the magazines you subscribe to, you still might want to stop the printed version from coming into your home. Some magazines are now available on DVD. For example, you can get 123 years of National Geographic on CD — and annual updates are available. Some other examples of magazines on DVD are Fine Woodworking and Threads. This might influence your decision on what to keep — or what to subscribe to in the first place.
Also, if you have a tablet or electronic reading device (like an iPad or Kindle), you can subscribe to many magazines digitally. Amazon, iTunes, and Zinio have subscription services for these devices. (Zinio is Erin’s favorite, but the other services are fine, too.)
I’ve written about the benefits of a trusted system before. It can be anything you like, really: index cards in your pocket, project management software, a notepad, audio recorder, whatever. The crucial thing is that your brain knows: 1.) You’ll enter information into it reliably; 2.) You’ll check on it regularly, and 3.) Nothing entered into the system will get lost through the cracks. Some people use Getting Things Done, while some use a home-grown solution. When you trust your system in your bones, your brain will stop nagging you about what needs to be done.
That nagging happens to me when I carry around excessive “mental clutter.” As I’ve said before, I use David Allen’s definition of clutter (I’m paraphrasing here): Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be for all time. For example, sneakers lying under the coffee table are clutter until they’re placed in the shoe basket in the mudroom. Likewise, “Dentist appointment on the 14th at 9:00 AM” is clutter while it’s in my mind until I write it on a calendar that I know I’ll check.
Mental clutter is detrimental to me in several ways. When I my mind is cluttered I remember obligations when it’s impossible to do anything about them (“Finish William’s Pinewood Derby car” is useless to me while doing 60 mph on the highway), and the subsequent distraction causes me to miss other, more important things.
Now, about the snowman.
A year ago, I was in the checkout line with my then-4-year-old son. He clanked his Keds against the steel shopping cart as I moved bottled water, bagels, and potato chips onto the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….
“Daddy, look at the snowman.”
“Look at the snowman.”
“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”
“I see a snowman.”
I looked up, my arms moving items from cart to belt, my eyes scanning the store. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”
He pointed. I looked. I saw it.
A snowman. In the floral department, there was a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.
I hadn’t noticed it. I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. What’s more, he was right. Why would there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed? I wanted to know.
That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Initially I didn’t change them, I just observed. I was stunned at how frequently I invited distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing:
Waking up in the morning, and switching on the news. Dressing while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I was watching the news while barely glancing at the TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes were scanning emails while my brain was running its own acrobatics. What will happen today? What will happen this weekend? I need to do laundry. Why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?
There were constant distractions and a mentally consuming dialogue like this throughout the entire day.
Eventually, I realized something significant — I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress toward getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening, which was selecting clothing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, tightening a belt.
With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I kept doing it. I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.
I also realize that there’s so much good in the ordinary. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this more eloquently that I can:
“[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity or fail to pack the kids’ lunches because it’s time to examine every detail of every moment. I still occasionally write and listen to music at the same time, or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird, or review the day’s schedule in my head. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.
Clutter can be a wily and cunning opponent. Sometimes, it just seems to appear as if out of nowhere. It sneaks up behind you and overpowers you with a bit of help from long work hours, too many projects, a busy travel schedule, and a lack of sleep. But, you can turn the tables on clutter and fight your way out of its grip. By gaining a good understanding of all its nuances, you’ll have a better chance of thwarting its attempt at getting control of all your living spaces.
As you probably already know, you will need to craft and execute a plan of attack. In fact, each room in your home may need its own plan. Since the layout and furniture is likely different in each area, clutter can build up in different ways. So, be observant. Look out for how pockets of clutter materialize. Does it happen at night when you’re feeling most tired? Or, perhaps in the morning when you’re not feeling as prepared as you’d like to be? As you notice the particular ways that clutter collects, stage a counterattack. Think of specific steps you can take to stop it from infiltrating your space. For example, you might keep an “out” box for things that need to be mailed, returned, or donated. Or, you can simply use a basket to collect the stuff you bring home from work. Once you find a strategy that works, keep it in your arsenal and use it often. And, if you live with others, encourage them to do the same.
Now, keep in mind that clutter doesn’t only build up, but it can also hide from you. Somehow it knows that you’ll probably forget that bag of mail that you stashed in the closet when you had company over or the linens you threw inside the closet. It can also hide in plain sight, like under furniture, inside storage chests, and under piles of paper on your desk. Your plan for each room should include a reminder to look in places that may not be so obvious.
In a final stealth move, clutter can lurk in a place that’s perhaps closest to you — your mind. Old arguments, hurt feelings, past mistakes, and fears about the future can take up residence in your thoughts. When these negative thoughts congregate in your head, they make it difficult to follow through on your clutter-busting plans and, more importantly, hamper your ability to just feel happy. Flush them out and replace them with positive thoughts and ideas. But, be cautious. Even seemingly harmless things — like that great business idea or interesting project you’re working on — can take over during times that they need to be quiet (like when you’re on vacation or hanging out with friends). Give them attention when it’s time to focus on work and be sure to put them away when it’s time to relax, to have fun — to just be.
Arm yourself with the right tools so you can turn the tables on clutter, and you’ll soon find yourself reveling in the victory of hard-fought battle.
Reader Heather submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
My “Ask Unclutterer” question has to do with what I call “transient items.” It’s the birthday gift you purchased but you won’t see the recipient for a few days/weeks or the cupcake carrier that usually stays in the pantry, but a friend needs to borrow it, so you get it out so she can come over for it. What is the best way to deal with these items?
In our home, we have an old laundry basket on the floor of our main coat closet where we put these sorts of items. It’s nice because even if one of us isn’t home, if someone stops by to pick up items, other people in the house know where to find whatever is being retrieved. We also put items in it we don’t want to forget when we run errands — like a bag full of dry cleaning.
Other ideas might be to clear the top shelf of your coat closet and use it as your transient area or get a bench with hidden interior storage and put items in it. Benches are nice in hallways because they give guests a place to sit if they’re waiting on someone, as well as a place to park yourself if you want to take off your shoes.
The Red Chair Blog suggests using storage cubes with labeled boxes set out in a hallway, though I would suggest sticking the cubes in a closet if you have a closet near your front door. Or, if you have a garage, this could easily be stored in it next to the house entrance.
Thank you, Heather, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check our comments for even more ideas from our readers.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
Raise your hand if you think you need more storage space in your home. Anyone think that if they just had more storage areas, their home would be easier to maintain? Sometimes I wish my home had more closets, especially a dedicated linen closet. But, I’ve found a way around that and, honestly, I don’t need a separate space to keep towels and sheets, which means it’s probably more of a want and not a need.
Of course, if you live in a small home, your storage options may be limited. You’ll likely have to use tried-and-true techniques (maximize vertical space, use under bed storage, hooks, armoires, etc.) and take advantage of creative solutions, like using multi-purpose furniture or hiding things in plain sight. You might even come up with some unconvential ways to keep your stuff, like using a car or minivan (that isn’t needed for transportation) as storage space.
In a recent blog post over at Extraordinary Observations, Storing Private Stuff in Public Space, the author started giving this some thought. He reasoned that it would be very convenient (the vehicle would be parked close to his home) and when he crunched the numbers, he found that it would be a cost effective option, too.
… street parking (public space) is used to store automobiles (privately owned things) for little to no cost (it would cost me $35 per year for a residential permit in my neighborhood). Using a van for storage would cost significantly less money than renting a space at one of those self storage warehouses, and it would be a lot more convenient.
It’s an interesting notion and it seems to make sense from a monetary standpoint. For anyone seriously considering this as a solution, another question comes to mind. Why not reduce your stash so that the car isn’t needed for storage? You wouldn’t have to worry about the types of things you could store in your vehicle (since it’s not temperature controlled) nor would you have to be concerned about someone stealing it. With one less spot to maintain, you’d also have less work to do, fewer decisions to make, and more time to focus on other things. And, you’d have the option of selling or donating your car, both of which come with financial benefits.
Though the benefits of living with less are clear, going through the process is not always straightforward or easy, especially when you have to let go of things that you’re emotionally attached to. When faced with the task of uncluttering and downsizing, it’s important to remain focused on the positive outcomes of reducing the number of things you own (particularly if you don’t use or want them). Keep in mind that you can also handpick who receives certain items which can help put your mind at ease. Of course, simplifying doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of everything. You’re simply prioritizing and carefully selecting which items you will bring the most value to your life.
Ultimately, anyone going through this process will need to answer this question: Will a storage unit (of any type) be a regular and permanent part of your life, or would you prefer to find a way to live well with less?
Six years ago, I took a photo of the things I carry around in my pockets every day. I hadn’t thought of that picture in ages, and was surprised when I found it while browsing old photos. Today, some things have changed, others haven’t. To satisfy my curiosity, I compared that photo to what I carry with me today. Here’s what I found:
In 2007, I carried:
- Keys with a LEGO Chewbacca keychain
- A 512MB flash storage
- Pilot G2 05
- Pocket sized Moleskine notebook
- Original iPhone with earbuds (fitted with Griffin Earjams, which are no longer available, unfortunately)
Compare that to what I carry today:
It’s interesting to note what’s missing, and what’s been replaced. For example, online storage offered by services like Dropbox, Box.net and Apple’s iCloud have replaced the flash drive. When I carried that in 2007, “the cloud” didn’t exist as we know it today. Moving files between computers or locations often meant physically carrying it from place to place.
I now work from home, so if I have my keys with me they are usually in the car’s ignition.
I’ve also replaced the Pilot pen for the space pen. Sometimes I must quickly write something down, and the nearest flat surface is a wall or something else that’s not parallel to the ground. Or, I’m out in the rain and the pages are a little wet. Since the Fisher’s ink is in a pressurized capsule, it doesn’t rely on gravity and can write in any position and on almost any surface. Plus it’s smaller, more durable than the Pilot and easier to carry around.
While I love Moleskine notebooks, I replaced it with Field Notes because the Moleskines are too bulky and the hard cover makes them uncomfortable in a back pocket. Yes, there are soft cover Moleskines and they’re great, but at $9.99 for a three pack, the Filed Notes are very affordable.
I’ve also replaced some other things that you can’t see, and I think those are the most interesting:
- Photos of loved ones. Like countless parents before me, I kept photos of the kids in my wallet. Now my iPhone handles that job.
- Maps. Again, my iPhone has replaced the need for pocket-sized travel guides and maps.
- Phone cards. Before mobile phones were as prevalent as they are today, I kept an emergency calling card in my wallet for pay phones and long-distance calls. That’s not necessary anymore.
- Cash. This is the most fascinating one. I rarely carry cash. In fact, I sometimes wonder if paper money really exists anymore. When I get paid, it’s via direct deposit. I never see a check, a bill or a coin. I physically receive no money of any sort. When I purchase something, I swipe a debit card. I hand no money to the cashier and s/he hands nothing back to me other than a slip of paper.
- Consumer loyalty cards. Granted, I never carried many of these in the first place, but Apple’s Passbook lets me pay at Starbucks with my phone.
How about you, readers? What do you carry around, and how has the list changed over the last few years? Has technology had an impact? Please share in the comments. Thanks.
And as for Chewbacca, he’s officially been retired.
When I think of avoiding clutter, I often think of my physical surroundings: the car, the office, my kitchen and my kids’ playroom. However, my computer’s screen — or desktop — also gets pretty messy on a regular basis. What’s more, that clutter can be just as distracting as a physical mess, and hinder my willingness to sit down and work. Fortunately, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. Here’s how I manage digital clutter on my virtual desktop.
Make a Mess As You Work
Much like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy while I work. The time you spend meeting obligations, making ends meet, and fulfilling the 9-to–5 is not the time to get fastidious about the location of every file and folder. Do your job, fling clay, and get stuff done.
At the end of my work day, I’ve typically got screenshots and other images, snippets of text, installers and more all over the desktop. This is perfectly acceptable. Leaving them there for all eternity — or worse, treating the desktop as a filing cabinet — is not.
Process As An Inbox
Most of us have several inboxes in our lives. There’s the physical in tray on your desk, but also email, voice mail, notes from school, and so on. When I sit down to go through those things, I follow the same process each time. Specifically, I ask myself what is this item, what needs to be done about it (if anything) and am I the person to do it? Sorting through the files and folders on my computer desktop requires the same process. Some stuff can be thrown away, others spawn ideas or join existing projects, while others go into long-term storage as reference material. Here’s how I separate the three types:
- Screenshots. At work I write, edit and take a lot of screenshots. All of these can go into the trash.
- Text snippets. I also paste bits of text into Apple’s Text Edit as a temporary placeholder. These also get trashed.
- Installers. Occasionally, I install new software, often for testing purposes. Those installers are unnecessary after a piece of software has been properly installed, and they love to pile up. Off to the trash they go.
Occasionally I’ll come across a website that I want to return to, an article I’d like to read during down time, an idea that could spawn or improve a new project or something I’d like to share.
There are many great ways to capture web site addresses for future reference. Pinterest is a popular service, but my favorite is Pinboard. It’s definitely no-frills, and that’s what I like about it. Pinboard costs about $10 to sign up for the service, and offers a place to store your bookmarks that is aways accessible. Multiple computers, smartphones and tablets can all log into your Pinboard account and have access to your saved sites. You can organize your collection with tags, and optionally share select finds with others. Again, I use Pinboard for sites I’ll refer to often.
That collection is different than articles I’d like to read in my free time. There are several great services that offer a super “read-it-later” experience, and my favorites are Instapaper and Pocket. Both store your saved articles for later viewing on a computer, smartphone or tablet. They also strip out the images, ads and so on so that all you get is the article you’re after. Honestly, I like them both and believe you’d be happy with either.
The next category is new ideas and/or information that pertains to a project in progress. This is also where the article takes a geeky turn, though I’ll ease into it slowly.
I like to store ideas, thoughts worth follow-up, etc. in a file format called plain text. Why? My Internet buddy David Sparks explains it beautifully at his site, Mac Sparky:
Text files are easy to read on any computer running any operating system and don’t require any proprietary word processor to interpret. Even more important, text files can be read by humans. Keeping your writings in text makes them digitally immortal.
Moreover, text is internet friendly. The files are small and can jump among connected devices with poor connections like hopped up Disney faeries. It is really easy to work with your text files on any device from anywhere.
Your computer can read and create plain text files right out of the box. There’s nothing to fiddle with or buy. It just works. Plain text files also act as a nice half-way point before going into your formal project manager. So a folder full of plain text files does it for me.
That’s the non-geek version.
Ideas that require developement go into a piece of Mac software that I love called nvALT. I love nvALT because it’s insanely fast, supports keyboard shortcuts so I don’t have to move my hand to the mouse very often, saving time, and has powerful search capabilities. It syncs to my iPhone and iPad almost instantly, thanks to Dropbox and another app called Simplenote.
Finally, when it comes to long-term storage of reference material, I’m a loyalist to one product. This is information that does not require an action but might be useful in the future (a local theatre’s summer schedule, for example). This goes into Evernote.
First, don’t get distracted by trying to stay neat while you work. That’s counterproductive and will leave you frustrated. At the end of the day, process the stuff that has accumulated on your computer’s screen as you would any other inbox. Decided what a file is, what must be done with it (incubate, throw away, delegate or save for later), and then act accordingly by moving that item to the proper location. You’ll be glad you did.
A junk drawer can seem like a helpful storage space, but in reality it’s usually not. That is probably because all drawers with the “junk drawer” moniker house a lot of the stuff that doesn’t have a proper storage space or is clutter. Lots of miscellaneous things get added to the drawer, and because you can close the drawer, it’s easy to to leave it cluttered — until you start frantically searching for something that you need. Sadly, this poor experience doesn’t improve your life or home in any way.
When free of clutter and organized well, though, junk drawers can be the one of the most useful, non-junky storage areas in your home. They can transform from junk drawers into utility drawers. These drawers can hold things that are used frequently (pens, notepads) or items that you need at specific moments (picture hanging kit), and do so in a way that adds utility to your space. Don’t let your junk drawers languish. Unclutter them. Reclaim them. Turn them into areas that let you easily find what you need.
Follow these five steps to get started:
- Determine what’s inside your junk drawer. The first step will be to see exactly what is living in there. Sometimes, there is such a huge variety of things stored in the drawer that you may not know where to begin. So, try starting with an easy step. Remove things that are obviously trash or don’t belong. When you start with things that are easily trash, the uncluttering process will seem less daunting.
- Categorize your items. Dump all the non-obviously-trash items out of the drawer onto a flat surface, like a table. Next, group your items into categories (tools, office supplies, keys, etc.) by putting like objects together. If you have multiples of items, can you get rid of any duplicates? You may want to keep multiple pens, for example, but those without ink or that are dried out can be tossed in the trash.
- Decide what will be kept in the drawer. This is a great time to think about the things you do want to keep in the drawer. What you put inside will depend on the items you need to have available near where the drawer resides. For each of us, this can be different. There are no right or wrong items to keep, however, they should be things you need and they should be easy to access. You shouldn’t have to dig through the drawer to get what you need.
- Use dividers and containers. Just as you sorted like items together when you were uncluttering unnecessary objects from your drawer, you’ll want to keep these items together in your new utility drawer. Drawer organizers (like these from Rubbermaid) can work well, but you probably already have containers that you can use, like ice cube trays, resealable bags, plasticware, or even baby food jars.
- Don’t put anything in the uncluttered drawer that doesn’t belong. Once the drawer is organized, you’ll have to stick with the plan and not put anything into the utility drawer that doesn’t belong in there. Be ruthless. Unless there’s a section of the drawer designated for a specific item(s), don’t put clutter into your drawer. It’s also a good idea to check the drawer every couple of months to make sure that it’s still organized and that no stray things made their way inside your utility drawer.
Can you be too neat and organized? Is it possible that you could be so good at uncluterring that your life becomes devoid of things that are meaningful to you? These are the questions that first popped into my mind as I started listening to an NPR story about Lisa Perry, a woman who decided to sell, in her words, “virtually everything I own.”
As she described her reasons for making this very big change in her life, I began to understand why she (or anyone else) might pursue this possession-less path. Her decision to let go of almost all her belongings was really about taking a journey, about embarking on a process that would allow her focus her gaze forward.
… it’s not about getting rid of things that I don’t want or I don’t like or [that] remind me of bad things. It’s really about who do I want to be and what makes me happy, and keeping the things with me that will allow me to do that. And, right now, it’s moving forward and looking forward, rather than looking back at what I’ve done … where do I want to go and what do I want to be.
Perry began this process by identifying her primary goal: to be happy. She came to this realization and was inspired to make changes after reading two books, The Art of Happiness and The Pathfinder. The latter, in particular, helped her to see that as the number of things she accumulated increased, her life — her vitality — became smaller.
Selling everything one owns on eBay may seem a bit extreme and you certainly don’t have to follow in Perry’s footsteps. However, if you see happiness as an end goal and desire a more fulfilled life, it might be a helpful exercise to think about what specifically would make you truly happy, and to decide on the necessary action steps. You don’t need to part with items that resonate with you nor do you have to live in museum-like home. However, if having a welcoming and more uncluttered abode would contribute to your happiness, begin developing a step-by-step outline that will help you to accomplish that. Instead of randomly keeping or acquiring things, first consider their true value to you. Figure out if you’re holding on to things because you “might need them someday” or because you feel obligated to keep them because a loved one gave them to you. Be more mindful of the items that you allow to co-exist with you. Consider specific actions you can take that will foster happy feelings (and banish negative ones) in your day-to-day life, no matter how small. Perhaps most importantly, figure out why you feel the need to make changes. Doing this will give your plan purpose and help you to stick with it.
That’s not to say that you can’t make adjustments along the way. If you start to notice that your goals need a bit of fine tuning, take the time to polish them. It’s also likely that you will need to seek out others who can help you bring your plan to life, so don’t be shy about asking for help. And, as I mentioned before, as you go through any uncluttering project, stay focused on the reasons you want to make changes in the first place.