Be a clutter detective

Years ago, I worked in a group home. It had a big kitchen with flat, spacious counters. My staff and I were very good at keeping the place nice and tidy, however, there was one corner of the countertop that just seemed to attract clutter.

No matter what we did, things would pile up in that corner — notebooks, mail, pens and paper, all sorts of stuff the should’ve lived in the drawer in the kitchen. For a long time, this annoyed me. I’d think, “How hard is it to just put this in the drawer? Why can’t anyone put this stuff away?” It was only after doing some detective work that I discovered the problem. The cabinet where the clutter should have been stored was the same cabinet that held a whole lot of plastic storage containers. The containers were stored in a haphazard fashion, and opening this cabinet almost guaranteed that lids and other bits of plastic would rain down upon you. Once I took care of the plastic storage containers, the countertop remained clean.

Today, you can conduct the same type of clutter detective work in your house. Look at the areas that are typically messy. You’ll want to try your best to see the space with fresh eyes. That is to say, hold a question in your mind as you inspect the space: “What exactly is keeping this area so messy?”

I did some successful detective work around our own house recently. The back door of our house is what we use most often. Just inside this door is a small coat rack we bought for the kids to use years ago. However, the kids come home from school and drop their coats and bags and hats and what-have-you all over the floor. This drove my wife and me crazy, and constant requests to please pick up after yourself after coming home from school seemed to fall on deaf ears. So what was the problem?

Well, one afternoon while putting everything on the rack again, I remembered how wobbly it was. After heaving the last winter coat onto it, the whole thing toppled over. The coat rack was the root of the problem. My kids learned that the rack just was broken and stopped using it entirely. A new coat rack was the solution.

You can apply this investigative strategy to your home office as well. In a previous post, I mentioned something I call swivel distance. This is the distance you can reach things from your chair without having to get up out of your seat. Since human beings will almost always lean toward the path of least resistance, we’re more likely to stack something instead of getting up and putting it in filing cabinet across the room. That stack of papers could be due to simple poor office layout planning.

The takeaway here is to periodically scan your house for persistent clutter spots and try to figure out why clutter loves to accumulate there. Often, the reason isn’t what you think. For example, my kids aren’t lazy or disinterested in following the rules, they just learned that the coat rack wasn’t very effective.

Nine questions to help unclutter your recipes

For people who like to cook, it’s easy to wind up with overflowing recipe files. While this may be more of a problem for those who keep paper files, even those who keep their recipes in a digital format can get overwhelmed at times.

If you would like to unclutter your own recipe collection, the following nine questions may help you to reduce your number and better organize those you wish to keep:

  1. Does this recipe fit with the way I eat? Our food preferences change over time, so our recipe collections should evolve, too. You may also have health reasons — your own, or those of family members you cook for — that lead you to change the type of recipes you cook.
  2. Does this recipe call for things I don’t have? If a recipe calls for a number of ingredients you don’t normally use, the recipe might not be one you want to keep. The ingredients may be hard to find or just things that will linger on your shelves, unused, and taking up space. (Of course, sometimes trying a new ingredient is a fun adventure. If you are feeling adventuresome, buy the smallest container of that ingredient you can.)

    I’ve also found that if a recipe calls for a tool I don’t have and wouldn’t use regularly, such as a tajine, I’ll probably decide it’s not worth keeping unless I can readily borrow that tool from someone else.

  3. Does this recipe take a long time to prepare? Sometimes, a time-consuming recipe is worthwhile — for a special occasion, perhaps. If the recipe will make many servings and it’s something I can refrigerate or freeze for future use, that helps. But some recipes just don’t seem worth my time, and I let them go.
  4. Is this another recipe for something I already cook? If you have a favorite recipe for brownies, do you need another one? For some people, the answer may be yes. But, if you know you’ll always choose your old reliable recipes, you can get rid of the others.
  5. Am I keeping this recipe purely for sentimental reasons? You may have recipes you want to keep but never intend to cook: recipes inherited from your parents, for example. In such cases, you may want to store the recipes with memorabilia rather than with recipes you do use for cooking.
  6. Alternatively, does this recipe bring back unpleasant memories? If a recipe is strongly associated with a person or an event you’d rather forget, you may want to ditch the recipe.
  7. Am I keeping this recipe because I think I should prepare it? Maybe a friend or a health practitioner gave you the recipe. Or maybe you have some other reason why you think you should prepare this recipe. I’m giving you permission to stop should-ing yourself, and let the recipe go if it’s not one you want to make.
  8. Have I kept this recipe for months or years without trying it? If you have many such recipes, you may want to create a plan where you try some of them on a regular schedule: once or twice a week, perhaps. If you don’t plan to ever make it, you may want to let it go.
  9. Why am I accumulating so many recipes? If you subscribe to numerous magazines for the recipes, maybe it’s time to reevaluate at least some of these subscriptions.

Organizing a shed, garage, or basement

Few things seem to collect clutter like a garage, basement, or backyard shed. Since their contents are typically out of sight, it’s easy to stuff something in there and forget about it. To make things worse, the clutter in question is often large: broken lawn mowers, unused tools, old trash bins, rakes, and shovels, partially used cans of paint, and other things deemed not appropriate for storing inside the house. When I need to stop thinking about something bulky, I often think, “Oh, I’ll put it in the shed.” This works until I can’t open the door anymore.

If this sounds familiar to you, check out my favorite organizing tips for these spaces:

First, get rid of the actual clutter. You can trash, recycle, and/or donate the items you no longer need or want. Once the clutter is gone you can work to organize the things you wish to keep. You may find you’ve decided to keep more than you have space to store and may need to go through the uncluttering process a second time.

Next, make use of the ceiling for storage. I bought several large screw hooks and put them along the ceiling rafters in our backyard shed. They’re perfect for hanging beach chairs, small tools, and bikes. I even keep the huge wreath that decorates our home’s front door in December on a hook. It frees up floor space and, if your shed is outdoors in a rural area like mine, foils any resident mice.

Garage owners might not want to screw hooks into the ceiling, but that space is still an option. Overhead shelving is a great way to get seldom-used items (like seasonal ones) off the floor and out of sight: when the garage door is open, the shelving unit is hidden. You could get the unit built in a weekend. If you’re not the DIY type, pre-made shelves are available at stores like Home Depot — all you have to do is install them.

I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into the basement and thought, “Now, where is [x]?” Storing like items together is the practice that eliminates the random search. After buying a few simple shelving units from IKEA, we now have a home for camping equipment, beach stuff, tools, old paint, and more. Now, if someone wants to borrow our Coleman stove, I know exactly where it is.

This is a little off subject, but here’s a quick tip about paint: buy a box of large, white stickers and place them on the lid of each can you open the first time. Next, write the following on the sticker with a permanent marker:

  1. Date purchased
  2. Purchase location
  3. Where in the house you used this paint
  4. Date paint job was finished

If you need to touch up the closet trim in your kid’s room, you’ll know exactly which can to open.

I mentioned shelving earlier because the walls in a garage, basement, or shed are great for storage, too. I found this brilliant re-purposing of a wooden pallet that has me inspired. By removing a few select slats and affixing the unit to the wall, you’ve got a slim, useful storage container that consumes very little space. I’m planning to make one of these for our space.

Of course, you needn’t buy shelves. Some bungie cord will store sports balls beautifully. Again, those who would rather buy than build will find all softs of wall-mounted storage options available. Peg strips are excellent and very useful.

A few final tips: First, put a trash can in each location. This makes it easier than carrying stuff inside your house only to bring it out again on trash day. Next, try your best to throw away things you don’t need as they appear. Check with your local town dump, recycling station, local government center, or fire station to see when they have designated days for collecting hazardous materials, like motor oil. Be sure to write these dates down on your calendar.

Finally, you would be amazed what a little paint can do. A few years ago, I painted our basement floor and added a few rubber work mats and was amazed at how much better the place looked. It’s easier to spend time putting things away in a place that you don’t hate visiting.

The simplicity of alphabetical filing

As the final installment of my exploration of alternative filling systems, I want to look at the simple system that is often overlooked: alphabetical filing.

When I became highly interested in productivity a few years ago, I noticed that my routines grew slowly, but steadily, more complex. On the digital side, I added rules to incoming email messages and later introduced tags, color coding, special mailboxes, and more. On the analog side, I made subfolders, employed more color-coding, and eventually had unique file bins for varying categories of documentation. I thought I was a filing ninja, until I read this old post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits that’s all about the simplicity of alphabetical filing.

I know that ABC filing isn’t exactly an “alternative” system. But for many of us, especially the folks who enjoy the pursuit of clutter-free, efficient organization, it can get overlooked as being too simplistic. Leo makes a great case for the opposite.

“I believe that most people only need one drawer for filing. Now, I’ll admit that there are some jobs that require much more than this, but for the average employee (or self-employed person), one drawer is all you need. And if you limit yourself to one drawer, you force yourself to toss out unnecessary files when the drawer gets full. Don’t overthink this. Just create a file, and file it alphabetically. Keep it simple.”

I like this idea a lot, as it’s incredibly intuitive. For example, say you purchase a new vacuum cleaner: you simply grab the manual, open your file drawer, and place the manual in the “V” folder (“V” for vacuum). No over-thinking, no deliberation, no searching for the right spot. Searching for the manual ends up being just as easy. Everything is in one place and easily found.

Now, a caveat. Many of us have home office situations or, more likely, work requirements, that prevent a simple ABC system. A medical office, for example, couldn’t file all patients whose last names begin with T all in the same T file. This basic system just isn’t for you.

But if the work you do doesn’t need to be subdivided, consider it. I recently bought a simple file box and several manilla envelopes. I labeled each one A through Z and placed them inside the file box. For a few weeks, I’ve been filing according to this system and loving it. One note: make sure your filing box or cabinet is within “swivel distance.” Swivel distance is the distance you can reach without getting up from your chair. Why? Because humans tend toward the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to stack folders than to walk over to the cabinet, you’ll be tempted to stack. And as Leo explained, stacking is not ideal:

[Stacks pile] up and then the pile gets a little intimidating and then before you know it you’ve got a huge pile that you never want to go through. Then you can’t find anything when you need it, and now you no longer have a filing system. I know some people think that their piles are organized into a kind of system, but piles are inefficient (if you’re not working on them at this moment) because you constantly have to re-factor what pile is for what and which documents are in each pile, and when you need a document, it takes too long to find it. Plus, it clutters up your desk, distracting you from your work.

Finally, if you’re going to try this, make sure you have plenty of fresh materials ready to go. A stack of folders, fresh batteries and ink for your label maker, a new marker, and so on. That way you won’t be tempted to “just put this down” until you get said materials from the store.

The Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) system

Two weeks ago, I started an exploration of lesser-know filing systems with the Noguchi system. This method, devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, utilizes manilla envelopes and the frequency with which you work on certain projects to organize your projects. Today, I want to delve into a system close to my heart, a system that uses index cards.

Image credit: Hawk Sugano

Hawk Sugano (you’ll find him on Flickr as “hawkexpress”) has devised a system he calls Pile of Index Cards (PoIC). It’s a combination of a “brain dump” (emptying one’s mind of all important information by writing it down), long-term storage for reference, and David Allen’s GTD method. It’s all managed by a “dock” of 3×5 index cards, and the result is tidy and searchable. The following are instructions for how to set up and use the system.

What you’ll need

The list is a short one. Get some index cards, which you can find almost anywhere (or grab some fancy ones here), a favorite pen, and a storage box with customizable tabs. That is all you need to be ready to use the method.

How it works

Hawk describes four types of cards in his system:

  1. The Record Card. He describes it as “a diary, note, account, health, weather, cook, any kind of records about us belongs to this class.” I’d say this is the incoming “stuff” of the day: appointments, notes to follow up on, etc.
  2. The Discover Card. Hawk describes the Discover Card as “Things from my brain, mind, spirit, anything emerge from inside me, are classified into this class.” This is the result of a mind dump. Don’t worry about classifying when filling out a Discover Card. Just get whatever is on your mind out and onto paper.
  3. The GTD Card. Here he combines the title of a project and several actions that pertain to it (here’s a look at the template in English). This reminds me of the “Hipstper PDA Template” I used religiously about 10 years ago.
  4. The Cite Card captures other people’s ideas that warrant attention. He says, “Important here is distinguishing ‘your idea (Discovery Card)’ and ‘someone else’s idea (Cite Card).’ Source of the information must be included in the Cite Card. A book, for example, author, year, page(s) are recorded for later use.”

Each card is stored in a box, or “dock.” Note that Hawk makes a mark on the top of each card. It’s position indicates the type of card, so you can easily identify each one while it’s in the dock. Finally, he uses the tabs to keep the types of cards sorted.

Is PoIC for you?

I’ll admit that this method is a bit labor-intensive. For example, Hawk does not throw any cards away. Instead, he buys another dock. One person took steps to improve upon this by adding what he calls the “43 Tabs” system. Basically, older cards that are no longer pertinent are moved to the back of the dock, while those still in action are moved to the front.

The Noguchi filing system

I’ve said this before, and so has fellow Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown: I’m always willing to try a new system if it might turn out to be better than the one I’m using. I was reminded of this earlier when reminiscing about my old job and the Noguchi filing system. It was devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, and for about a year I used it extensively.

The Premise

Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a residential school. There was a lot to manage, from help desk requests to purchasing, maintenance, networking issues, and other administrative tasks. I typically had several projects ongoing at once, large and small. Nearly all of them had support files that needed to be referenced or updated regularly. This is where the Noguchi system was brilliant, as it moves frequently-used files together while creating an archive of seldom used files.

The Setup

Image: Dave Gray, Communicationnation.blogspot.com

Instead of a filing cabinet or set of drawers, you’ll need an open shelf and several 9″ x 12″ (or larger) envelopes. Using scissors, cut the flap off the top of the envelope, as shown above. You cut the top off to make it super easy to get at the envelope’s contents. Next, write the date and title along the side of the envelope. Again, see the image at above for a reference. Make one envelope per project and place the envelopes next to each other on the shelf, with the date and title side facing outward.

In Practice

Don’t attempt to organize, classify, or otherwise sort the envelopes. It will be tempting to do so, but the beauty here is that the system takes care of organizing for you. As you take a folder off the shelf to use it, return it to the far left. Over time, three things happen:

  1. The folders you use most often appear on the left hand side. Because you access them regularly, you always know where they are. With time, the project you work on most often will be in the leftmost envelope. Then the next project in the second left position, and then the next, all the way down the line.
  2. Files you use less frequently will migrate to the middle and right. You know how hard it can be to find a paper or file you seldom use? With the Noguchi system it’s easy because you know it’s not on the left.
  3. The files you never access make it to the far right. These “holy files,” as the system calls them, can be removed from the shelf and safely archived away or purged, thereby preventing the shelf from getting cluttered with countless envelopes.

You can color code your envelopes if you want. This is most useful when archiving, as you can quickly find what you need in that pile, or sort them by color once they’re off the shelf. Finally, since you needn’t spend time organizing the envelopes on the shelf, you save a lot of time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. It can take a couple of weeks to set it up (moving everything into an envelope) and kick in (as you move files right and left and on and off the shelf), but it’s a nice system for managing multiple projects once you get it established.

Recycling: beyond paper, plastic, and glass

If you’re trying to be an environmentally conscious unclutterer, you probably know that reuse is preferable to recycling. If someone can enjoy the paperback book I’m getting rid of, giving the book to that person (directly, or through a venue such as a used bookstore) is better than tossing the book into my recycling bin. But, sometimes the recycling bin is the right answer. If the book is falling apart or it’s a reference book that’s now seriously outdated, it’s ready to be recycled.

For many of us, recycling is easier than ever because of curbside recycling services provided by our local governments or private trash companies. Databases, such as the one from Earth911, can help you find places to recycle whatever you may have: broken crayons, Tyvek envelopes, etc. In addition to Earth911, the following are a few resources you may not know about that can help you recycle your clutter:

Pantyhose: No Nonsense recycles tights, pantyhose, and knee-highs of any brand; these can be turned into park benches, vehicle insulation, playground equipment, toys, and more. You will have to pay the shipping cost yourself, though.

Styrofoam blocks: Styrofoam is actually a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company; most of what we casually refer to as Styrofoam is not actually Styrofoam, but expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam: the rigid foam often used in packaging. This EPS foam can be hard to recycle, but if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can recycle it at GreenCitizen, for $5 per 30-gallon plastic bag. Waste to Waves lists other places in California that accept EPS foam that gets turned into new products, including surfboard blanks. There are programs in other parts of the country, too.

If you’re looking for recycling options in your area, you might check out the EPS Industry Alliance website. Or go to Earth911, and search for #6 Plastic (Polystyrene). If you find a recycler, be sure to call and confirm whether or not the service takes EPS foam blocks before driving to their facility.

Nespresso capsules: Nespresso has a recycling program for their coffee capsules. You can either drop them off at numerous collection points or mail them to a provided address.

Cosmetics packaging: If you use Origins cosmetics, you can recycle the containers at their store. As the company says: “Starting March 29, 2009, Origins introduced a program in North America that encouraged its customers to bring their empty previously unrecyclable cosmetic tubes, bottles and jars, etc. — regardless of brand — to their nearest Origins retail store or department store counters. All returned packaging is sent back to a central location where products will be recycled or used for energy recovery.” M•A•C Cosmetics, Kiehl’s, Aveda, and others also have packaging recycling program, and some of them reward you with samples or discounts when you recycle their containers.

Even more: TerraCycle has its Brigades, where you sign up to recycle a specific type of item, such as Brita filters, energy bar wrappers, drink pouches, or cheese packaging. You collect your specific item and then mail the collected items in, postage paid (in most cases).

All of these recycling alternatives are more cumbersome than curbside recycling, and not everyone will choose to take advantage of all (or any) of them; we each need to make our own decisions about what we do. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to simply get the items out of the house; recycling just isn’t going to happen. Even ongoing recyclers may have moments when they decide to skip it, just for once.

As the process becomes increasingly easy, more of us will decide it’s worth the small extra effort to recycle items as we unclutter our possessions.

Two more organizing myths

A while ago, I discussed five common organizing myths in a post on Unclutterer. Since then, I’ve come upon two more myths that you should watch out for when tackling the clutter in your home.

This [insert product or system here] will solve all of your organizing dilemmas.

There are many amazing organizing products available. Some products and systems will benefit almost everyone, but some will only benefit a unique few. Organizing products and systems are dependent on the way a person thinks and in how he/she works. Other factors that influence how well a product or system will function are:

  • The lifestyles of the family members
  • The floor plan of home or office
  • Sense of style and design
  • Fondness of technology

There are as many organizing products and systems as there are people who wish to be organized. Think carefully about your lifestyle and your preferences before you invest in specific products or systems.

This organizing system works perfectly now so it will work perfectly forever.

Can you imagine packing your family and a week’s worth of camping equipment into the sports car you had in college? As your lifestyle changes, your organizing systems will change, too. Some factors that cause current organizing systems to fall apart include:

  • Changes in employment; a new job or a change in daily hours
  • Family members; new babies, children going to, or returning from college
  • Renovations or moving to a new home or office
  • Changes in health

Even small changes such as your municipality changing your trash pick-up day may require you to alter your organizing system. A food company’s decision to change the package size of your favourite cereal box might require you to re-organize your kitchen cupboards for greater efficiency. Whenever your system becomes cumbersome or ineffective, re-evaluate and make adjustments.

If you think you might have fallen for one or both of these myths, consider what steps you can take to get things back on track.

Donating unwanted items: going beyond the usual suspects

While there are many organizations, such as Goodwill, that accept donations of all sorts, there are also specialized organizations you might wish to support that collect very specific items for the programs they sponsor. As you’re clearing the clutter from your home, consider the following donation alternatives:

Art and craft supplies: In San Francisco, we have SCRAP, which “collects donations of quality, clean, reusable materials such as fabric, paper, arts and crafts supplies, wood, beads, buttons, and so much more and makes these materials available as supplies for teachers, non-profits, parents, artists, and students.” RAFT in San Jose does something similar, with an emphasis on serving teachers. In New York, there’s Materials for the Arts. In Chicago, there’s Creative Pitch. There’s a second SCRAP in Portland, Oregon. There’s also the Pittsburg Center for Creative Reuse and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse (in Oakland, California). A Google search can help you find if there is a similar program in your area.

Binoculars, birding field guides, digital cameras and more: Birders’ Exchange collects these supplies and sends them to “researchers, educators, and conservationists in Latin America and the Caribbean working to protect birds and their habitats” who lack these basic supplies.

Furniture: The Furniture Bank Association of North America has a list of furniture banks that accept donations. “Furniture banks are not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organizations whose mission is to provide free furniture to families struggling with poverty and other severe life challenges. … Furniture banks collect donations of gently used furniture, and provide the furniture for free to families in need via referrals from other social service agencies, churches, schools, employers, etc.”

Fur coats: Each year, Buffalo Exchange runs a Coats for Cubs fur drive; the coats are disassembled and shipped to animal rehabilitation centers to serve as bedding. The 2014 drive has ended, but the Humane Society of the United States suggests you contact wildlife rehabilitators in your area to see if they can use the coats. There is also Born Free USA’s “Fur for the Animals” drive, which runs until June 30 this year. However, there are only a couple drop-off points for this program.

Gloves: Glove Love is “a matchmaking service for single gloves who have become separated from their partners.” Sadly, it’s in the U.K., or I would have a lot of donations to send in!

Musical instruments: Various organizations around the country collect instruments for those who can’t afford them. The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation accepts donations of gently used band and orchestral instruments in playable and good cosmetic condition; they need to be shipped to the foundation, in California. The instruments get refurbished, and sent to programs throughout the U.S. The LINKS program — Lonely Instruments for Needy Kids — does something similar specifically for those in the greater Cincinnati area. The Carroll County Arts Council in Maryland has a Musical Instrument Bank. There are other local programs, too, so you can look for one near you.

Pet care supplies: From blankets and towels to pet toys to litter boxes, your local humane society or other animal shelter can probably use it all.

Yoga mats: Various yoga charities — groups that run after-school programs, work with children on the autism spectrum, etc. — can use the yoga mats you no longer need.

Collections: If you’re going to have one, organize and protect it

About two years ago, I got into board games in a serious way. This hobby creates hours of fun and huge storage needs for me. I recently wrote about keeping board games stored and organized, and today I’ll take a look at doing the same with collectible game cards. Like other hobbies and collections, if you’re going to pursue them, it can be a good idea to keep associated items organized and protected for ease of use, less mess, and longevity of the items. Similar principles apply to storing many items, so although this article is about collectible cards it is meant to inspire ideas about storing whatever it is you have decided to collect. Whether you’re into wax Mold-o-Rama figures like Erin or something else entirely, hopefully there are some insights here you can apply to your collections.

A little background for those of you not into card games: there are a huge number of collectible card games in production. Game enthusiast website Board Game Geek lists 47 pages of game titles. Many cards are of a standard playing-card size, but you can find examples that are larger and smaller than a deck you use to play poker. For the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the most common size.

There are three categories of cards: those you actively play with (like you would in a game of Bridge), those you don’t play with but are willing to trade (collectible card games often include trading), and valuable cards that are kept locked away (I’ll explain more about these below).

The Cards You Use

Deck Box

I keep the cards I’m actively using in a single box. If the cards won’t fit in the box, I don’t bring them into the house (following the concept: a place for everything and everything in its place). My current game of choice is Magic: The Gathering. It requires players to build a custom deck to play against their opponents. After testing several brands and types, I like the Ultra Pro Satin Tower (pictured above). It holds up to 100 sleeves of cards (more on sleeves in a minute) and has an additional, snap-off compartment for holding dice, counters or other accouterment that the game requires. With the lid removed, your cards are easily accessible and it looks great. Plus, the lid fits snugly enough that you don’t have to worry about it accidentally opening up and making a mess.

Sleeves

Putting your cards into sleeves is divisive. Casual players spend little on cards and just want the fun of competition and spending time with friends. But with resale value in mind, I’m somewhat more than a casual player. I definitely play the cards I buy, and I want them to look nice for as long as possible. To protect them, I put them in sleeves. The best sleeves I’ve found are from Demkar’s Dragon Shield.

Willing to Trade

Binders

A big part of collectible card games is trading with friends. Binders are a great way to show off your collection and let a friend browse through it easily. This could apply to a number of hobbies and collections where sharing it with others is part of the fun of collecting. For cards specifically, there are several manufacturers out there, but I suggest you pick up one from Ultra Pro or Monster.

The Ultra Pro sleeves can accommodate two cards (though I suggest putting one card per pocket) and it carries up to 360 sleeved cards in total. Additional pages can be purchased for about $0.20 each, and the piece of elastic that surrounds the cover ensures that your cards won’t fall out during storage or transport.

Monster makes a smaller binder that has four pockets per sheet instead of nine. They’re much more portable and have a nice-looking matte finish cover (the Ultra Pro’s is shiny). The build quality is a bit better, and they’re more expensive. Whichever you use, remember that the sheets are not acid-free, so you want to first place your cards into acid-free sleeves, like the Dragon Shields.

Whatever you’re collecting, try your best to store it in a way that doesn’t damage your collection.

Investment Cards

I realize it might seem silly to some to keep a playing card tucked away as an investment. I tend to play with the cards I buy. However, I also realize that there’s a real market for some of these items and that many people treat them as an investment. And, there are other types of collections beyond cards where people do buy items hoping to make money on their sale.

The best advice I can give here comes from Mao Zedong: “The best defense is a good offense.” Meaning, take precautionary steps to protect your darlings. I recommend double-sleeving these cards, putting them into a lock-seal bag that’s as free of air as possible, and then placing that into a fireproof safe. Excessive? Yes. But, if you’ve got cards (or whatever it is you’re hoping to sell for profit) that are worth a significant amount of money, you’ve got good reason to protect them.

The good news is that, with a little thought, you can enjoy your card games and keep them looking great for years to come. If decorative plates are your thing, don’t pile them up in a stack at the bottom of a closet where they can be broken — display them on your wall with secure plate hangers to organize, protect, and display them. If signed baseballs are what you collect, get a UV-protected glass display chest and show them off. Organize, protect, and share your collection so it’s obvious you value it and don’t think of it as clutter. If you want it in your life, take care of it.

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.

A simple solution to digital photo management

I recently had a bit of a meltdown regarding the state of my digital photo management. Fortunately, a photographer friend set me straight with advice so obvious I never saw it. First, let me describe my meltdown.

I became unhappy when a photo management service that I loved, that I went all-in on, shut its doors. When I retrieved the 14,000 photos I had uploaded to it, I found that all of the EXIF data had been stripped (EXIF data includes metadata and tags that make images searchable), and I had been left with the digital equivalent of a box full of 14,000 photos in random order.

Like I said, I was not happy.

But really, the problem wasn’t with someone’s failed business. The issue was (and continues to be) the sheer number of photos we take. When I was younger, we had up to 32 opportunities to get a decent picture with a single roll of film. I emphasize decent because that dictated the care with which we shot photos. We didn’t want to waste a single frame.

Today, I’ll take the kids to the park and shoot 150 pictures in less than three hours.

This behavior spawns two problems. The first problem is digital clutter. How many of those 150 photos are worth keeping? Maybe a dozen, if I’m lucky. The second problem is backups. What is the best way to preserve the photographs worth keeping? These are modern problems with, I’ve learned, an old-school solution.

My friend CJ Chilvers is a very talented photographer and, I must say, an insightful guy. He responded to my rant (warning: there’s one mildly not-safe-for-work word in my rant) with a brilliant solution: books.

“The best solution I’ve found for all this is the humble book. Making a collection of photos into a book (even if it’s just a year book of miscellaneous shots) solves several problems,” he said. He went on to list the benefits of the good old photo book:

It’s archival. Nothing digital is archival. Even some photographic prints are not archival. But a well-made book will last for as long as anyone could possibly care about your photos and then some … It tells a better story. Instead of relying on fleeting metadata, in a book, you can actually write about what’s going on in the picture … A book doesn’t care if you took your photos with a phone or a DSLR. The resolution of the photo need only be enough for the size you’d like it printed in the book.

Photo books also solve our problem of backing up the keepers, as they’re the ones that make the cut into the photo book.

There are several companies that let you make great-looking, inexpensive photo books. A handful:

Also, books aren’t going to crash, go out of business, run out of battery life, or otherwise be inaccessible. CJ’s final point is probably my favorite: “Fun. It’s more fun holding a book of your own art, than opening a database. That should be enough reason alone.”

Printing books isn’t for everyone, but it’s the organized and archival solution that we have found works for us. I also like handing someone a book of pictures instead of seating them in front of my computer to share in our experiences.