Archives for Decluttering
Reader Len submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
Reading through the recent posting of Freecycle, I saw many notes on the negatives of Freecycle. Also notes on the fact that Goodwill is bad since items do not go to people who need them but rather to employees who then sell them on Ebay. Any truth to the latter? I am alway concerned about the many charities who call about having a truck in our area soon and do we have anything to contribute. Are there any reputable charities out there?
I’m pretty much of the opinion that even if the rumors are true and Goodwill employees take donations and sell them on eBay, it happens because the person taking the stuff really needs the money. It is not as if working for Goodwill is a million dollar a year job. In fact, Goodwill is currently under scrutiny for paying less than a minimum wage to their employees.
I see it as I’m making a donation of items to Goodwill because I didn’t want whatever I’m donating. I wanted my things to go to someone who needed them. So, if it actually happens, if people are taking these items to use or sell on eBay, I simply don’t care. They have a need for the stuff or the cash, I have a need to get rid of my stuff, and the interaction successfully brings the two of us together. Again, IF it happens.
However, I empathize with your desire to give to a charity that will get the things you’re donating into the hands of someone who needs the items the way the charity has promised. As a result, I try my best to research before giving to any group.
When considering donating to any charity, I start by learning about them on Charity Navigator. Not all charities are rated by the site, but an impressive number are. If the charity isn’t rated, check to see if it has an unrated listing (which they likely do) and also checkout the article “Evaluating Charities Not Currently Rated by Charity Navigator.” (The “Tips and Resources” section in the left-hand sidebar of that page is also helpful.) I really appreciate and recommend the Charity Navigator site.
Forbes magazine also does an annual U.S. Charities review that is very informative. The magazine typically updates it each November. Right now, you can find information about The Largest U.S. Charities for 2012. The List of Charities is extremely helpful for doing side-by-side comparisons and the “Filter by category” drop-down menu in the left-hand column is perfect for identifying specific types of charities to match with your goods.
Beware, though, that you can easily clutter up your time trying to find the exact right charity for your specific donation. Sometimes, stuff just needs to get out of your house now. In those cases, stop thinking about the ideal, and donate to the charity that is the most convenient for you and is accepting donations. The next time you make a donation you can aim for an exemplary match. To misquote Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Thank you, Len, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I think it is a very important topic, especially for those of us who are in the process of uncluttering our homes. Please also check out the comments for more advice from our readership.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
Earlier this month, the post “Books: To donate or not to donate?” provided insider information on donating books to libraries. Many of us love our books, so pruning the collection can be difficult. Still, it’s sometimes useful to do a little discarding and donate books to your local Friends of the Library or other group — such as when you want to make room for new books. And, you’ll likely have a good feeling when you let go books that no longer serve you.
In my latest round of bookshelf clearing, I found 25 books I really didn’t have any reason to keep. Maybe you have similar books taking up space on your shelves:
Books you won’t read again
Books you won’t ever read
There were a number of books I realized I’m just not going to read. I’m sure Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 is a wonderful book (it won a Pulitzer Prize), but given how long it’s been on my bookshelf, I thought it was time to admit I’m just not going to read it. I had a few other history books in the same category: good books that deserve to have an owner who will read them.
Books that just don’t work for you
The Synonym Finder was recommended to me as an alternative to a thesaurus. While it sounds like a book that a writer would find quite useful, I only tried using it twice in all the years I owned it — and it didn’t really help me. Different tools work for different people, and this was a tool that didn’t work for me.
Books with information you can find online
I had two books related to green cleaning. After writing about uncluttering your cleaning supplies, I realized I can easily find equivalent information on the Web.
These are books that are good, but just not right for me — and I should have realized that before I ever bought them. Home Comforts got rave reviews, but I’m just not the type of person who needs or wants an 837-page book on “the art and science of keeping house.” I’m much more casual about housekeeping than the author is. But, I’m sure someone will love this book, so I’m glad to let it go.
I had some really nice books about places I’ve been — with the kind of information you don’t easily find online. But, I’m highly unlikely to ever go back to those places or refer back to these books (which are likely outdated). Even through they served me well at the time, there’s no reason to keep them now.
Next steps: After I identified the books I was happy to remove from my shelves, I sold some to a local used bookstore and freecycled others. The remainder went to a local charity that is about to have its annual book sale — I’ll get a small itemized tax deduction for that donation.
As a telecommuter, I don’t have the benefit of a boss keeping tabs on me and making sure I do what I need to do. You might think that freedom sounds nice, and it is, but it also means I must be the worker and the supervisor. Ultimately, it’s up to me to sit down and do what needs to be done. My best trick in that regard happens at night. I think of what must be completed the following day and write it down. That way, I’m ready to go when I hit my desk the next morning. Recently, I’ve added a clipboard and some special forms to the mix.
Each night, I list the tasks I must complete the following morning on an Emergent Task Planner (EPT). Persnickety? Yes. But it works. I’ve also taken to keeping my EPT on a clipboard. Behind the EPT are several other forms that let me track what’s going on throughout the day and the week. An inexpensive clipboard keeps everything tidy and portable. Here’s what I’ve got clipped together on my desk every day.
Top sheet — the Emergent Task Planner
On the left hand side, I list what will happen from hour to hour, in 15-minute increments. On the upper right, I list the tasks that must be completed before the day’s end. There’s no particular order to this list. The only important thing is that each item be completed. There’s a notes section on the lower right that I tweak a bit. Specifically, I divide it in half. On top I list what I consider “minor” tasks. These could be completed by day’s end, but the world won’t end of they’re delayed. Below that is the “running commentary.”
The running commentary contains anything: thoughts on the day, ideas, accomplishments, what I did during scheduled breaks (“strawberry patch looks great”), etc. Anything can go there. I created the running commentary section to give my wandering mind an outlet and to give myself an empirical list of the day’s accomplishments. It sure feels good to review the major and minor achievements from the day.
Center sheet — Resource Tracker
This two-parter is fantastic. It lists the major deliverables that will represent progress on a major task, as well as the smaller steps that lead to each deliverable’s completion. I staple both forms together (one lays over the top 1/4 of the other in a clever way) as well as any support files (for instance, I’m using the Fast Book Outliner to prep my next book project). Now, I can flip to each major project and see what needs to be done, my estimate for completion time (as well as actual time spent working), tasks to complete, as well as outstanding (and completed) milestones. Fantastic in a hugely nerdy, paper-centric way.
Last page — Concrete Goals Tracker
Here’s an important one. The Concrete Goals Tracker lets me “score” the tasks I’ve completed on a scale that reflects my working toward goals. For example, “signing a new sponsor” is worth 10 points, “published an article” is worth five points, “new social development” is worth two and “maintaining a relationship” is worth one. At the end of each day, I score anything that meets these criteria, and tally the grand total at the week’s end. If I score higher than I did during the previous week, I know it’s going well. It sounds a bit silly, but the CGT also provides empirical, measurable evidence of progress toward life-sustaining goals.
In this way, my clipboard functions as the manager. It’s pretty handy. Try this: write down the three tasks that must get done by the end of work tomorrow before you go to bed tonight. After 7 days, let me know how it goes.
When cleaning out your kitchen pantry, there is a good chance you’ll find cans of food with date stamps like “Best By 04/2013.” What do you do with those cans?
You may want to keep them.
Obviously, if the cans show signs of problems — bulges, dents along the seams, etc. — you won’t want to keep them. But if the only concern is the date, the food might be safe to eat. As the FDA says, there are surplus grocery stores and food-salvage stores that specialize in such products — and if you buy carefully, those foods can be fine.
The USDA explains: “A ‘Best if Used By (or Before)’ date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.”
NPR interviewed John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologies, who had a lot of interesting things to say on the matter, too.
According to Ruff, most products are safe to eat long after their expiration date. …
That’s because it’s not the food that sat on the shelf too long that makes you sick, Ruff says. It’s the food that got contaminated with salmonella or listeria bacteria, or disease-causing strains of E. coli. And that food might … have arrived in the store only yesterday.
“In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue,” Ruff says.
Canned food, in particular, can stay safe for a really long time.
“Foods can remain safe to consume for some time beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they are handled and stored properly,” says Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. … Canned foods and shelf-stable goods like salad dressings, Labuza adds, can be consumed for years beyond their expiration dates. While their quality might suffer — for example, emulsified dressings may split — they will not pose a safety hazard unless contaminated. Apart from baby formula and certain types of baby foods, product dating is not even required by federal regulations.
You might donate them.
Some food banks will accept these cans, and others won’t — so check what the policy is at your local food bank. And, of course, food banks won’t want those damaged or bulging cans, either.
One woman who volunteered at a food bank shared her experience:
I literally, personally had to throw away over 3 huge trash cans, each weighing more than 350 lbs, of dented and expired cans. … What I did learn though was that you can donate expired canned goods up to 6 months from the date on the product.
The Food Bank of Iowa has a list of Food Shelf Extended Dates, listing exactly which “expired” foods, including canned items, it accepts. This same list might also help you decide which products you feel comfortable keeping and using yourself.
You might compost the contents.
I’m no expert in composting, but it seems that canned goods are fine to compost, with a few exceptions. For example, meat and fish products can attract pests, so don’t compost those. Some sources indicate that canned goods with salt may be problematic, too.
You might empty the contents and recycle the can.
Even if you aren’t composting, you could open the cans, dump the contents down the garbage disposer or into a trash bag, and recycle the cans.
You might just throw them away.
Sometimes you may decide to just throw away the cans you don’t want. This is especially true when doing a large uncluttering project, where getting the work done may take precedence over being ecologically conscious. Or, maybe dealing with old food just makes you squirm. As with almost any organizing project, the “right choice” is a very personal thing.
In the comment section of my post “10 suggestions for where to begin uncluttering” reader Anna asked the following question:
I’m in the process of decluttering and streamlining my utility closets and cabinets. I’ve searched the web high and low for a minimalist list of cleaning supplies to use as a loose guideline. I’ve used the search function on this blog to find old articles but I’m coming up empty. I’d appreciate a link if an article comes to mind. Thanks!
Another reader chimed in with a helpful response, but I wanted to chime in with my thoughts in a broader sense. Especially as the Washington Toxics Coalition says: “There are hundreds of cleaning products vying for your dollar. However, you don’t always need a special purpose cleaner for every dirty dilemma.” Since many of us have a number of such special purpose cleaners, there are certainly some uncluttering possibilities.
As with almost any uncluttering situation, there’s no one right answer — no single list of products we should all have. But I’ll present some strategies to consider, with pointers to additional resources.
Strategy 1: Eliminate toxins
The ingredients used in many cleaning products have potential risks; some people will want to avoid products with these ingredients. The Environmental Working Group has extensive information about such toxins and their possible dangers, and it rates a large number of commercially available products on a scale of A to F.
Another list of potentially hazardous chemicals in our cleaning products, in an easy-to-read format, comes from the David Suzuki Foundation. Anna mentioned in another comment that she makes her own, so this first strategy is more for the big-picture perspective.
Strategy 2: Make your own
Many online sources — and a number of books — explain how you can use a limited number of common products to make your own cleaning solutions. As Martha Stewart says: “Many people are conditioned to believe a house is not clean unless it smells of chemicals. In fact, the opposite is true. You can make your house sparkle with just a few simple supplies, many of which are already in your cupboards.”
How few? Kelly A. Smith writes about cleaning her whole home using only vinegar and baking soda. Clean: the humble art of zen-cleansing goes a bit further, but still says you really only need five ingredients: baking soda, borax, lemon, salt, and white vinegar. And the website Wabi Sabi Baby has recipes with only six ingredients — and since one of those is water, it’s really only five.
Many sites include essential oils, such as lavender oil and tea tree oil, in their recipes for homemade cleaners. However, the Environmental Working Group points out that these have some potential risks, too — so you’ll need to consider whether or not you feel OK about using them.
With make-your-own cleaners, you don’t have to make a lot at once. With a little practice you can simply make up what you need for one cleaning and then store the un-mixed ingredients.
Strategy 3: Consider whether you really need antibacterial cleaners
An article in Scientific American challenges the need for antibacterial products in most households, while noting that people with weakened immune systems may have good reason for “targeted use” of such cleaners.
Strategy 4: Start with a list from Martha Stewart or Real Simple
With some searching, I’ve found some decent lists of minimum products that you can then customize to your own circumstances and preferences.
Martha Stewart says: “For routine cleaning, less is more. You actually need very few products to clean any given room.” She then provides a universal cleaning list with only six items — but this excludes items such as brooms. Stewart also has other, more comprehensive, lists: a kitchen cleaning kit with 15 items and a window-washing kit with seven items.
And Real Simple has a house-cleaning kit checklist with only 20 items. It includes white vinegar, baking soda, and an all-purpose cleaner — but also microfiber cloths, a toilet brush, a dust mop, and other such items.
If you’ve got a large uncluttering effort ahead of you, one of your questions may be “Where do I start?” There’s no one right answer, but the following are some ideas for where to begin your project.
- Start where you’ll save money. Are you renting a storage unit (or more than one)? Each unit you can let go of will save you money, and give you that immediate satisfaction of a completed project. You’ll also get a savings if you can move from a larger unit to a smaller one.
- Start with the attic, basement, or garage. Sometimes when you’re uncluttering a space like a bedroom or a kitchen, you’ll find things that don’t really need to be close at hand, and which could be stored without concern in one of these less accessible spots. But if the attic, basement and garage are already filled, there’s no room to store anything else in these spaces.
- Start with the place that bothers you the most. Is there a cluttered place you see every day, and every day it drives you crazy? You may want to start there. You’ll gain momentum for other projects without this big frustration looming over you.
- Start with the quick wins. Do you have things you can unclutter relatively easily, such as old baby clothes when your last child has outgrown them? You might want to start there and see immediate progress, before tackling areas that will be harder for you.
- Start with your own stuff. If you’re living with other family members or roommates who are skeptical about uncluttering, you may want to start with the things that are purely your own. Lead by example.
- Start with areas that benefit the whole family. If you’re living with family members who are more uncluttered than you are, you may want to work on common areas to acknowledge your interest in creating a better space for all of you.
- Start where the weather makes it easy. If you have a nice sunny day that’s not too warm, it may be a good time to work in the garage. If you’re in the middle of a heat wave, you’ll want to work in a room where you can stay reasonably cool.
- For papers, start with the current stuff. The current piles of paper are likely to be more important than the old ones; they are where you’ll find the bills you need to pay, notices about events you want to attend, etc.
- For papers, start with the old filing cabinets. But maybe your current papers aren’t a burning issue, in which case you may want to clear out the old filing cabinets first, to provide room for new papers to be filed. This is similar to the idea of starting with the garage, attic, or basement.
And even though unsorted paper clutter is inherently slow to go through, sorted papers can sometimes provide a quick win. I’ve tossed bunches of file folders full of reference material when I realized the information was outdated, and I could find everything I needed online. Or you may find filing cabinets full of things like old utility bills, which, upon reflection, you find you have no reason to keep.
- Start anywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter where you start — simply that you do. Pick an area at random, on impulse. Or write down each cluttered area on a slip of paper, place the papers in a hat, and pull one out.
An axiom of organizing is that clutter often represents unmade decisions. Since decision-making is often difficult and time-consuming, it helps when we can have basic rules for whole categories of things, so we don’t have to make decisions about each item individually.
Here are some examples, just to get you thinking. Of course, your own basic rules might be very different from the ones I’m listing.
You might decide that news magazines only get kept for a week, because the information is dated very quickly. For other magazines, you might decide that the backlog of unread copies will be no more than five, because you’re never going to have the time to read more than that.
Dinah Sanders lists categories of books you might decide you can discard, ranging from out-of-date reference books to cookbooks that no longer fit the way you eat.
Some discards are obvious: photos that are out of focus, or ones that have people’s heads cut off. But you might also want to discard the ones that are unbecoming shots of yourself or others, the ones of acquaintances or co-workers you can’t even remember, and the shots of scenery when you know you could easily get better photos online. Then there are duplicates, or near duplicates, where you may want to say you’ll keep the best one or two photos. A more all-encompassing rule would be to get rid of all those photos that don’t have either personal sentimental value or great artistic value: the less-than-stunning photos of flowers, sunsets, the neighbor’s dog, etc.
Clothes that don’t fit
If you think you’re likely to lose weight and don’t want to give away all the clothes that don’t fit right now, you can still set rules for which ones are definitely not going to be keepers. Even if you do indeed lose that weight, you won’t want clothes that are going to look dated or that don’t fit the way you dress now. And you probably want to give away those that were never quite right: the color was wrong, the item was uncomfortable, it required too much care, etc. And you might set a simple rule like, “I’ll only keep the things that really inspire me to lose that weight, because I’d really like to wear them again!”
Old greeting cards
My own rules include not keeping cards that don’t have personal messages in them. And here’s a different sort of rule: I give myself a specific amount of space for these cards. Once the box is full, I need to be more selective, and keep fewer cards.
Food storage containers
You might have a favorite brand of storage containers, and decide to only keep those types of containers. Or you might decide to only keep square and rectangular containers, because they use space better than round ones do.
Things needing repair
You may want to say that if the repair doesn’t get done in the next three months, you’ll acknowledge it just isn’t likely to ever happen, and the item needs to be discarded. You might also set some basic rules about how much time you’re willing to give to the repairs; sometimes, the time investment might not be worth it to you.
If you have some basic rules that work well for you, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Almost any time I do some uncluttering, I wind up with things that are still in good shape and that would be useful to someone. In many cases, it isn’t worth my time and effort to sell these items. While I sometimes donate such items to charity, I often offer them up on my local freecycle group.
Freecycle groups exist in local communities around the world, and they’re all dedicated to helping keep useful items out of landfill. The communication is usually done via email lists. I’m a huge fan — I’m even a volunteer moderator for my local group — for a number of reasons:
- Freecycle makes things easy. I offer the item, one or more people ask for it, and I pick a recipient. That person comes and just picks it up off my front porch, if that’s what I choose. I don’t need to go anywhere to drop something off; I don’t need to be home when the recipient arrives.
- I can give away things I couldn’t easily donate. What do you do with a bottle of a nice shampoo that you’ve used a few times, but decided it’s not quite right for you? I can freecycle that item pretty easily. I can also give away books with highlighting and marginalia, the plastic hangers that my neighbor was about to toss because Goodwill didn’t want them, a set of inspirational CDs with a few of the CDs missing, and houseplants.
- There’s usually immediate gratification. When I give something away on freecycle, I know it has gone to someone who really wanted it — and that’s a good feeling. I’ve especially enjoyed getting school supplies into the hands of teachers, and getting yarn to people who knit scarves and hats for a local charity.
And if I freecycle on behalf of someone else, I can pass along the sweet thank you notes I often receive. Here’s one example, from someone who took some Christmas ornaments I offered one year: “Thank you very much for passing these onto me. … The gorgeous ornaments will grace our tree and be part of our memories for years to come.”
- I get to know my neighbors. There’s someone I knew in passing before we crossed paths on freecycle, but I never knew he was into cooking until he sent me some requests. One freecycler lives a block away from me, and that’s how we met.And I’ve made some good friends using freecycle, too. One friendship resulted from giving away a single CD — Verdi’s Aida with Placido Domingo — back in 2009. Another friendship started back in 2007 and developed more slowly, as we kept running into each other on freecycle and began to realize the many things we had in common.
Steps you can take: Want to join your local freecycle group? You can go to Freecycle.org and search for groups that are part of The Freecycle Network. Because not all freecycle groups are part of that network, you might just want to use your favorite search engine to find your local group; search for the name of your city and the word freecycle. In the U.K., some freecycling groups have joined together to form Freegle as an alternative to The Freecycle Network, so you might look there.
Today we welcome an illuminating guest post from Elspeth Kursh with a look into how museums decide what, if anything, of your great-grandmother’s stuff is worthy of donating to a museum. Kursh is the Collections and Facilities Manager at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C., which celebrates the history of women’s progress towards equality. You can learn more about the museum at SewallBelmont.org.
You’re calling me about the trunk you found in your great-grandmother’s attic. She kept these old brochures about how crazy it is that women can’t vote in most states in the Union. You found my phone number by Googling for a museum that works with women’s history, and you have called to see if I want these things for our collection. Sadly, the answer is probably “no.”
I’m sure your materials are beautiful. I’m not being sarcastic, either. Some of the most marvelous things I’ve ever seen have come from someone’s attic. But, just like your attic, museums, historical societies, and other repositories of our shared experiences are bursting with stuff. When we accept something into our permanent collection — a process called accessioning — we are making a promise to care for that object for as long we can and as long as our mission supports education. And, because of the commitment involved to the objects we do accept, it likely means we’re not acquiring something else instead. To remove something from the permanent collection — deaccessioning of an object — is also a complex, often legal process that involves far, far more people than you would guess. As a result, we can’t allow things into our permanent collections without a great deal of thought, discussion, and careful measurement of how much storage space and resources we have. (Think of the process you use to decide what objects come in and out of your home, but add committees, boards, mission statements, and budget officials to that decision-making process.)
In order to add an object to our permanent collection, I have to understand where it fits in our historical narrative. Does it offer a new perspective? Is it a unique representation of a historical event? Generally, diaries, pamphlets, photographs of people, or mass produced books do not fit these parameters. Pieces of furniture or clothing have to be what are called “seminal examples” of a period or style; just because something is beautiful and old doesn’t mean it’s important. If I had a penny for every time someone called me with a stupendous find from their basement, my museum wouldn’t be worried about budgeting anymore.
As a museum professional, I am bound by the ethics of my field and the policies outlined by my institution. I spend a lot of time with a long document called a “Collections Management Plan,” which outlines the goals for our collections, how we plan to care for them, and, most importantly, how we decide how to add or subtract objects. This policy is approved by our Board, so it’s not slap-dash; it’s a technical, often binder-sized file that guides nearly every decision I make, and helps us balance public education with the need to store all the cool things we’ve acquired over the years.
Storing and caring for objects amounts to an incredible strain on our limited resources. It requires thousands and thousands of dollars, and that’s just for our small, historic house museum. If you think you’ve got something no-one has ever seen before, do some searching on the internet to learn if you’re correct. We have a selection of collections detailed online, like many museums. Lots of museums have “wish-lists,” which can give you some guidance for what they’re seeking. If we’ve already got something similar, we generally don’t want a second (or tenth) example. In our case, unless you’ve got the banner Alice Paul threw over the balcony when the 19th amendment was ratified, I probably don’t want the items your great-grandmother saved. If you find that banner, though, call me.
Today’s guest post is by Amanda Scudder, Organizing Consultant with the company Abundance Organizing. Please give her a nice welcome.
There is a Yiddish folktale about a man whose house is too small and noisy. Seeking a solution, he consults the wise woman of the village. She advises him to bring a chicken into his house. He does, but it makes his house seem even smaller and louder, so he again seeks her council. She tells him to add a goat. Not surprisingly, the goat makes the situation worse, not better. Each time he returns to complain, she tells him to bring another animal into the house. Finally, in exasperation, he returns to the wise woman and tells her that he can’t stand another minute of living in this increasingly cramped, cluttered, and noisy house. She smiles and tells him to go home and let all the animals out. He does so and as he shoos the last goat and chicken out the door he looks around at his now spacious dwelling and savors the calm quiet that surrounds him.
Not unlike this man, many of us find ourselves living in a space that feels cramped and chaotic. Our closets are overflowing, our children’s toys are everywhere, and our basements are jam-packed. So we add more — bigger closets, a larger house with a playroom, a storage unit to hold the overflow. But the more we add, the more chaotic things seem to get. Take a minute to think about the “animals” that have come into your home over the years, be they more stuffed animals than there are days in the year, clothes that no longer fit or flatter, gadgets that sounded good on TV but now sit in a corner collecting dust, equipment from hobbies long forgotten, or more activities and commitments than you can reasonably accomplish. Some of the “animals” might even be day planners or organizing products you’ve brought home hoping they would make your life less busy and cluttered.
I suggest that today is the day to start shooing those animals out. You don’t need to evict all of them at once. Even a few less chickens and goats will make a big difference. Where to start? Pick a number — any number — and find that many items in your home to let go. You make the rules — it could be 23 things from the junk drawer (bread ties count) or 8 unused condiments from your refrigerator or 16 items of clothing or 5 things from under your sink. The trick is just to do it. I’m willing to bet that when you are done, your drawer or refrigerator or cabinet will seem a little bit bigger. You will feel a little bit lighter. Commit to repeating this exercise on a regular basis and you will soon find that your house is calmer and less cluttered. You might even discover that you don’t need a bigger closet, house, or storage unit once the excess has been removed.
When you first start practicing this exercise, you may worry you will regret giving some of your “animals” the boot. If so, here is a strategy to help: Put the items you are evicting into a bag or box marked with the date. Put the bag or box in a closet, basement, garage, under the bed, or any other out of the way place. On your calendar, mark a date one to three months down the road. If, by that date, you haven’t needed anything in the bag or box, commit to letting it go without looking in it. You may even have forgotten what is in there.
Kids often create an enormous amount of artwork — and then there’s the huge volume of schoolwork they come home with, too. Keeping it all would be overwhelming, but how do you decide which things to keep?
Kids often draw the same thing over and over again. How many nearly identical pictures of cats or superheroes do you need? Consider just keeping representative samples done over the years, which show how your child’s art has evolved.
Jessica Hinton wrote that she used to keep every piece of art her toddler made, but she’s changed her ways:
Today my daughter made 20 portraits of her baby sister, but I only kept one that she called her “favorite.” More likely than not we’ll keep it on the fridge and throw it away when another replaces it tomorrow. Or maybe, just maybe, this will be the one we’ll frame and hold on to for years to come. Maybe.
And as Susan Ward noted, even handprint art — something parents tend to keep — can be overdone:
You probably don’t need to keep two different handprint crafts made during the same week. Your child’s hand has not grown in 48 hours. Pick the cutest one and toss the other.
Choose original art
Drawings your children create out of their imagination will be more meaningful than those where they just filled in the colors in a coloring book.
Keep papers with a personal connection
The essay entitled “My Summer Vacation” or “My Family” is probably more meaningful than the essay on George Washington. Weekly spelling tests can probably be tossed, but a few samples of your child’s handwriting over the years might be fun to keep.
Other likely keepers are the papers (artwork or schoolwork) that showcase your child’s personality and talents. If your child decided to write the essay about George Washington in haiku, it might well become a keeper.
Consider ditching the macaroni art
Anything that’s three-dimensional is going to be harder to store than simple pieces of paper. You may well want to save some of these projects, but for others, it may work fine to just take a photograph of the art. Consider having your child hold that artwork when you take the photo.
Ask your children what to keep
Your children may have their own ideas about what is worth saving. If a particular piece is especially meaningful to your child, it’s probably a keeper, along with a note explaining the significance, if it’s not obvious.
Parents often have more difficulty in parting with the art than their children do. Michael Tortorello, in an article for The New York Times, quoted David Burton, a professor of art education, talking about kids and their art:
Once they’re through with it, they may lose interest in it very quickly. The process is more important than the product for the child.
But Burton also notes that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to see you toss the art into the trash hours after they create it.
Remember that your children, when they’re adults, will thank you for not keeping everything
Most people enjoy seeing a representative sample of the work they did as children. But too many papers takes away that joy.
As a commenter wrote on Apartment Therapy:
A friend of mine was just given a GIANT box of old art and school papers and she cried. Not from joy or sentiment, but from the burden of having to deal with it. It’s now collecting dust in her basement.
Aby Garvey summarizes things nicely:
I use the “ahhh …” test, and keep things that really tug at my heartstrings. It’s the original artwork or the creative writing stories that are most special to me. Spelling tests and math worksheets just don’t have the same tug, but we might keep one or two of those, just so we can see how things change from year to year. By including my child in the process, I also make sure we keep items that are meaningful to her.
You see, I believe that should is one of the most damaging words in our language. Every time we use should, we are, in effect, saying “wrong.” Either we are wrong or we were wrong or we are going to be wrong. I don’t think we need more wrong in our life. — Louise Hay, quoted by Jim Hughes
When we go to make organizing decisions, we often know, deep down, what’s right for us. But then sometimes we listen to the “shoulds” — from other people or from ourselves — and veer away from those right-for-us decisions.
I need to keep these books because I should read them
Unless you’re in school, you can probably let go of this “should.” If you have absolutely no interest in reading some of the classics, you can give the books away; you really don’t have to read them. You only have so much reading time available in your life, so why not use that time to read the things you truly want to read?
I should convert from my paper planner, address book, or to-do list to a digital system
Digital tools certainly have their advantages — but if paper works for you, there’s really no need to change. You may want to look at how you could back up these physical copies just in case they get lost or damaged, but there’s no reason you need to switch from what’s working well.
I should keep this sentimental thing
Well, perhaps you should keep it. Is it actually sentimental to you or is it the kind of thing most people find sentimental? I got rid of all but a few pages of my high school yearbook because I just didn’t care about it, even thought this act would horrify other people.
Alison Hodgson wrote about the collection of love letters from her husband that she held onto because, when she asked her siblings for their advice, two of the three said she should. Here’s what came next:
I tucked the letters back into their box, and there they remained, untouched, until the day they burned in a house fire. And I have never given them a second thought.
Looking back I can see I really wanted to get rid of them but didn’t think I ought to — that was the tension. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, it was that what I wished to do conflicted with what I thought I should.
I should never check email in the morning; that’s what Julie Morgenstern says
That’s advice that works for many people, but not for everyone. If you give it a try and it’s interfering with your workflow or just doesn’t suit your personality, it’s fine to ignore this suggestion. The same goes for the advice from any organizing expert. What is most important is finding the productivity system that works best for you.
So take a minute to ponder: Are you holding onto something or making any other organizing decision just because it’s what you think you should do? If so, maybe it’s time to reconsider.