Uncluttering by selecting containers and setting limits

How much space in your home are you willing to give to books? To memorabilia? To food storage containers?

One way to determine these answers is to select the storage containers and/or areas you’re willing to dedicate to each category of stuff.

Books

I have a number of bookshelves, and if I ever have more books than will fit on these shelves, I will need to do some pruning. It’s not as much of an issue now — I’m shedding more books than I’m buying. But, in the past, I have indeed had to go through the shelves and find the books I was okay with passing along because I have a rule to only have as many books as fit onto the shelves I own.

Memorabilia

I have a box that holds the letters and cards I want to keep — the ones from family and friends with handwritten, heart-felt notes. If I ever get to the point where the letters and cards won’t fit in that box, I’ll need to get rid of some; the box defines how much space I’m willing to give to this type of memorabilia.

I’ve currently got an entire shelf in a closet dedicated to slide wheels, holding photos from a number of wonderful vacations. I was okay giving that shelf to the slides in the past, but now I’m reconsidering. This means I need to sort through the slides and scan the keepers (or use a scanning service to do it for me).

Food storage containers

I have a drawer that holds my food storage containers for leftovers but other people may want more space and perhaps have a cabinet for them. But setting some limit — only as much as easily fits in a specific defined space — makes sense.

Papers

I remember a time when I considered buying another file cabinet, because the ones I had were pretty much full. Then I came to my senses and just got rid of some papers. I didn’t need another container; I needed to unclutter. Which is a good thing, because I didn’t really have room for another file cabinet.

Clothes

Containers for clothes include dressers, closets, clothes trees, and hooks. If our clothes overflow our containers for storing them, we either need fewer clothes or more containers.

Supplies for crafts and hobbies

I knew someone who had a serious quilting hobby, and she chose to dedicate a whole room in her home to her quilting. She had shelves and other storage pieces inside of a larger container: the room itself. This meant she had less space for other things, but it was a trade-off that made sense for her.

The sum of our possessions

At a higher level, our homes are the containers that set the limits on how much we can own. Sometimes a person or family will have another container that extends that limit: an offsite storage unit. But, if all our stuff doesn’t fit comfortably into our spaces, something has to give or we have to move. In many cases, uncluttering will be the better choice.

Duplicates you can donate or trash

It is amazing how quickly certain items can accumulate. You are blind to realize how many of an item you have until you have too many.

Office

  • Report covers: A few years ago we had 65 of them — yes 65! I ended up keeping eight of them for children’s reports for school and donated the rest.
  • Pencil cases: You only need one per child and one spare.
  • Pens: It drives me crazy if pens are one colour on the outside (e.g. red) but write another colour (e.g. black). I try not to even bring them into the house.
  • Staples, elastics, paperclips and pushpins: Keep one small container of each and donate the rest.

Consider donating office supplies to charities. They often work on very tight budgets and may not have extra money for supplies for their own offices. Libraries, schools, and community centres may also appreciate the donation.

Kitchen

  • Plastic cutlery, paper plates, and take-out trays: If you regularly use these disposable items for school/work lunches, keep a week’s worth handy and let go of the rest. You can use the “one-in, one-out” rule. As soon as you get a new one, toss an old one. If you may need them for picnics or parties later in the year, store them in a less frequently used area of the kitchen.
  • Plastic Cups: Recycle plastic cups from amusement parks or sporting events. You really don’t need to save them to make a Beer Snake at the next cricket match.
  • Food storage containers: Get rid of any that are stained, broken, or have missing or ill-fitting lids. About a dozen 500mL containers are enough for the average family of four. Choose identical containers with identical lids to keep things simple.
  • Reusable shopping bags: Keep as many as you need for groceries. You may choose to use a few for carting around hobby and sports equipment. Charity shops, schools, or your local library would likely appreciate any bags that you are not using.

Laundry

  • Hangers: If you’re practicing “one-in, one-out”, there is no need for extra hangers in your closets. Keep a few for guests’ clothing and coats and maybe a few for your laundry room. Charity shops usually accept all types of hangers and many dry cleaners accept wire hangers. I always keep one wire hanger in my toolbox because at some point something valuable will roll under the refrigerator and I’ll need to undo a wire hanger to get it.
  • Towels: Keep only the best ones and keep only those you use. The old ones can be cut into rags or donated to an animal shelter.
  • T-shirts: It’s time to say good-bye to the worn out shirts with sports’ team logos and your favourite T-shirt from high school. Keep the best, let go of the rest.

Bathroom

  • Cosmetic bags: A free cosmetic bag with every cosmetics purchase adds up to clutter. Keep one for the suitcase, one for your gym bag, and maybe a spare one. Donate the rest.
  • Razors: Old, rusty, and broken razors should go directly to the trash. Say good-bye to any razor handles for which you no longer wish to replace the blades.
  • Hair Accessories: Broken hairbrushes and combs that you’re no longer using can go directly into the garbage. Other hair accessories in good condition can be donated after they have been cleaned and sanitized.

Remember that if the item is not in good enough condition to give to a friend, it is best not to donate it to charity. Always check with the recipient charity to ensure they will benefit from the items you would like to donate. Keep clutter out of your space and look for even more items you can donate.

Unclutter your tech with the Rule of One

From time-to-time, I’ll think about this post I read on Apartment Therapy back in 2010. For whatever reason, the post stuck with me. The advice in the post espouses The Rule of One, which breaks down like this:

Keep the things you own (especially technology) down to only one.

I like the idea, but am still trying to figure out if I can apply it to everything in my life. I certainly need to have more than one shirt, for instance. But, in other areas, could it make sense for me? I especially like this insight:

Listening to music? One iPod. One speaker set … Hold on to that one item for as long as possible.

Like I said, it’s impractical for me to apply the Rule of One to all aspects of my possessions. I have several baseball hats and I like to wear them all, so I don’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of all but one of them. But, a quick glance at my iPhone reveals a problem. I have seven weather applications. I’ve also got four note-taking apps and four camera apps. Yes, each does something unique, but honestly none of them is markedly different than the other. I don’t need all four camera apps, for instance, and should decide on one “keeper.” The rest are clutter in that they consume precious storage space on my iPhone and clutter my mind, as I must stop and choose one every time I want to take a picture.

I also like Nguyen’s advice to “hold on to that item for as long as possible.” My Internet buddy Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac has written about this topic several times. In an article called “The Season of Stuff,” he gives good, pre-emptive uncluttering advice for the holiday season:

You can pledge to get rid of an amount of stuff equal to the amount you receive. You can let those who love you know that you do not want more stuff but want something less tangible instead (breakfast in bed, money for a favorite charity, etc.). Ask for specific stuff you really truly need that will add years of value to your life on a daily basis.

Now, if you have superfluous tech that you’d like to get rid of, don’t just bring it to the dump. There are several ways to recycle it responsibly:

  • Donation. Is there a group, organization or school nearby that would love to have it? Give them a call.
  • Best Buy. This American big box store will accept three electronic items per household per day for responsible recycling. It’s free, and no-questions-asked. You didn’t have to buy the item there to recycle it there.
  • Seek a local alternative. For example, Free Geek is an Oregon-based service that takes your electronics, similar to Best Buy’s program. Search around to find something similar in your area.

Look at the tech you use every day and decide, is any of this superfluous? Can I follow the Rule of One in this area of my life? If so, unclutter the extraneous items and enjoy having fewer distractions.

Even professional organizers need to unclutter

People sometimes assume that professional organizers are 100 percent organized and uncluttered, at all times. But every organizer I know has a few problem areas that pop up occasionally. Organizers face the same challenges that everyone faces: unexpected events disrupt our plans, we fall out of our routines, etc. And, sometimes it helps all of us, organizers included, to take another look around our homes to see what no longer serves us.

I’m going to share what I’ve uncluttered this past week, in the hope that it may inspire some of you in your own uncluttering efforts.

Eight cookbooks

These were all good cookbooks, but they weren’t ones I used. The recipes were too complex for how I cook, or they duplicate the kinds of recipes I have in other books that I prefer to regularly use. For example, I have my go-to author for Indian recipes, and I didn’t need another book by another author.

Two books about making presentations

These were both great books: Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design. It’s always a bit hard to give up a great book. But, I don’t do many presentations, and the ones I do are pretty informal, so the books weren’t serving any purpose in my home. I was delighted to see them go to someone who can really benefit from them.

One organizing-related book

I’m working through my collection a bit at a time, figuring out which of the 80+ books I own are worth keeping. They were all worth reading, once upon a time, but that doesn’t mean I still need all of them on my bookshelves.

This happens to a lot of us: We acquire books when we’re learning about a subject, but after some time we know enough that the books aren’t really helpful anymore.

My email

I’m not going to tell you how many emails I have in my inbox, but I can tell you it’s about 40 percent less than it was a week ago.

It wasn’t as though important emails were being neglected. Rather, my inbox was full of newsletters I hadn’t read, emails from discussion lists, and similar items. Some messages I deleted without a second thought and removed myself from the distribution lists so similar messages won’t clog my email inbox in the future. Others, I’ve reviewed and decided what’s worth reading — and next I’ll be doing that reading. Some of the emails are worth keeping for reference, but many are hitting my electronic trash can.

This is a project where I’m committed to making daily progress. Some days I make much more progress than others, but every day I see the count go down.

Old magazines

I only get three magazines, which should be a very manageable number, but my stack of unread magazines was getting too tall for my comfort. Going through my stack, I discovered one magazine from December 2011. It was the first to get a quick look-through and then hit the recycling bin. With five more gone, I’m currently down to 12 magazines, none of them more than nine months old. Now, I’m inspired to reduce the stack even more, maybe going through one magazine a day.

Next up on my list: Uncluttering my many boxes of slides by scanning the ones I want to save. I’ll finish the email and magazine projects first. Bit by bit, day by day, things are getting better. And that’s how uncluttering tends to go for a professional organizer.

Have an uncluttering party

One of the fun things I’ve done a few times with friends is to have a clothing swap party. During the party, people exchange articles of clothing that are still in good condition but that they no longer use. It gives participants a chance to unclutter their closets, socialize with friends, and pick up a few items that they really will use and enjoy. Although donating can be accomplished through charity drop-offs and services like Freecycle, the Swap Party is a good excuse to get together with friends.

It is fairly straightforward to organize a Swap Party. Send an invitation to your friends indicating the date, time, and location of the party (send it electronically and you won’t even have to worry about the clutter of invitations). You should also lay out the Swap Party rules in the invitation. Here are the rules that I used for my last clothing swap party:

  1. Bring unwanted women’s clothing; clean and in good condition.
  2. Feel free to bring shoes, purses, scarves, jewelry and other accessories.
  3. No arguing over the clothes — remember we are friends!
  4. You may take home as many or as few clothes as you like.
  5. Don’t feel bad if nothing fits you and you don’t get to take home anything. There will always be a next time.
  6. Don’t feel bad if no one takes the clothes you brought. There will always be a next time.
  7. You may return home with the clothes you brought or you can leave them with the hostess to take to a local charity.

Before the party, ensure you have an area that can be used as a changing room. Make sure it has good lighting and good curtains. Ideally, you should set up a full-length mirror in the room. When the party is over, arrange to deliver the leftover clothing to charity.

While women’s clothing swap parties seem to be the most common, there are other types of swap parties you can organize with your friends and neighbours.

Holiday decorations: You can limit this to one specific holiday such as a Christmas Ornament exchange or include all sorts of holidays.

Baby/toddler items: Swap parties of baby and toddler clothes, furniture, and accessories are popular with the parent-tot crowd.

Toiletries: The hairspray you don’t use since you got your hair cut, the hand cream that Aunt Bertha got you for your birthday, and those other personal care products cluttering your cupboards might be of value to your friends.

Pet products: Your pet-loving friends may enjoy a get-together to swap pet clothing, unused pet shampoo, and toys. It could be a chance for the pets to socialize too!

Cleaning products: There is no point storing a can of oven cleaner if you have a self-cleaning oven or carpet shampoo if you have hardwood floors. Prior to spring-cleaning, consider gathering for a neighbourhood cleaning product exchange.

Sports: Sport specific clothing and equipment, especially children’s sizes, as well as specialized cleaning products and accessories, can be swapped within your sports team or club. You could also invite the teams in your league to participate for some pre-season socializing.

Office supplies: Fellow entrepreneurs can get together and trade supplies to get what they need: pens, markers, report covers, binders, even computers.

Hardware: If you have friends who are into building, have a hardware swap. Eliminate the nails, screws, hardware, lumber, and paint cluttering your garage or garden shed. You may get the items you need for that fix-it project.

Hobbies: Whether your hobby is rebuilding cars or scrapbooking, find a group of fellow enthusiasts and “swap ’till ya drop”!

Remember, it should be good stuff, good friends, and good fun at your party. With the extra items going to charity, it is also good for the community and the environment.

Unclutter those little monthly bills

Most of us have two types of monthly bills — the big stuff and the little stuff. For the purposes of this post, I’m not talking about the big ones. I don’t mean the mortgage/rent, car payments, insurance, and so on. Those things are there and you pay them as part of your life responsibilities. No, in this case I mean the little costs, the automatic payments that are so easy to forget and that pile up quickly. You know, that $2.99 a month subscription fee or the $5.00 monthly rental fee. If we remember these at all, the temptation is to say, “Eh, it’s three bucks. I’ll deal with it next month.” Meanwhile, three becomes nine and then 12 and by the end of the year 36 — but for dozens of little things so the total is in the hundreds.

Once a year, I sit down and unclutter these little payments to decide what stays and what goes. If you’re interested, the following is advice on how you can do it, too.

Write it down

The easiest way to get look at what you’re spending is to write it all down. When I do this review, I chart it up on a piece of paper:

There are four columns:

  1. Name: The title of the company or service
  2. Cost: What I’m paying out
  3. Description: A plain-English description of exactly what I’m getting for my money
  4. Stay? After reviewing the information in the three previous column, I decide: “Does it stay?” If yes, I enter a “Y” in the last column. If not, it’s “N.”

In the example above, I’ve entered two services. First is Netflix. It costs me $7.99 per month to stream all the TV shows and movies I want. Is it worth it? For me, yes. My family and I spend more time watching videos on Netflix than we do on cable. For us, it’s worth it. Netflix stays.

Next is Blizzard. Blizzard is a game company that lets me play World of Warcraft online for $14.99 per month. Is it worth it? Well, a few months ago, I was meeting up with several friends so that we could all play together. That was great fun, but it has fizzled out. I don’t enjoy playing solo as much. So, I nixed it. That just saved me $179.88 per year! Hooray!

Why did I sign up for this?

Before you decide if a service stays or goes, concentrate on brainstorming so you get them all down. It’s possible that you’ve completely forgotten about one (or even more). Do you have a transponder in your car that comes with a monthly fee? Do you have a safety deposit box at the bank? Does your bank charge you a monthly fee if your balance falls below a certain dollar limit? Are you renting any large pieces of equipment? Do you subscribe to magazines?

Once you’ve remembered all your little costs, add up the total amount spent. It might be surprising. Once you’ve nixed the services you no longer want, you’ll feel really good about saving that money.

Hold onto your list

Although it’s a little morbid to think about, having all of these subscription services written down in one place would allow for someone else to help close your accounts or suspend them in case of an emergency. Store your list in an “In case of …” file so a loved one can find it. Also, you can reference it in six months or a year to help you brainstorm all the little bills you’re paying each month. You can then replace the old list (shred it) with the new list in the file.

As I said, these small monthly fees are easy to forget and tempting to overlook. This post is your prompt to unclutter them! In less than 30 minutes, you’ll have a good overview of what you’re spending, feel more on top of things, and perhaps save a little money for your trouble.

What’s in your junk drawer?

Many people seem to have a kitchen junk drawer, and these drawers hold a wide variety of stuff. If not in the kitchen, the drawer full of random stuff might be in a utility room or a hallway or a desk. Usually, they’re filled with a few things you need but those things could be surrounded with clutter.

Most items found in junk drawers can be classified into a few categories:

True junk

Becky Harris at Houzz.com wrote that she got rid of these things recently from her junk drawer:

  • Eyeglasses with hideous frames from about 20 prescriptions ago
  • Hardened Liquid Paper (I don’t even have any use for Liquid Paper anymore)
  • 5 sets of Delta Airlines headsets
  • 6 inches of carpet tape, which is perhaps enough to use on a dollhouse area rug.
  • Packaging and headphones for every iPhone and iPod I have ever owned, including some that are no longer in my possession.

An online discussion at Chow.com of junk drawer contents inspired someone else to do a cleanout. She got rid of these items, among others:

  • Halloween cookie cutters (I never really make shaped cookies)?
  • a blunt breadknife with a melted handle

If you take the time to remove the pure junk, you can then consider giving your junk drawer a new name. Laura Gaskill suggested the “really useful stuff” drawer in a post she wrote for Houzz, organizer Monica Ricci calls it the utility drawer, and Becky Harris calls it the catch-all drawer.

Random useful stuff

As commenter Nicole wrote on Be More With Less:

I organized my former junk drawer a few years ago and now it’s the useful drawer. I keep markers, scissors, tape, little screwdrivers, chip clips, that rubber thing you use to open jars, and the manuals for my small appliances (rice cooker, for instance) in there.

Other common things include batteries, binder clips, coins, coupons, gum, hair elastics, matches, postage stamps, reading glasses, receipts being held onto until it’s clear the items won’t need to be returned, rubber bands, sticky notes, and a tape measure.

Some of that random useful stuff might better be kept somewhere else — you probably shouldn’t keep any papers in the junk drawer, for example — but that’s a personal choice.

Memorabilia

The Junk Drawer Project asks participants: “What is your fondest memory surrounding an object in your junk drawer?” The answers show that many people choose to keep bits of memorabilia in their junk drawers.

Marie Irma Matutina said: “I have a bunch of new and used birthday candles, some with glitter, some are alphabets or numbers and they remind me of all the great parties, get togethers and gatherings I’ve had over the years with really great friends.”

And Leah Jackson said: “A birthday card from my mom that I can’t seem to get rid of.”

Other people mentioned cards and candles, too.

Odds and ends

I relate to Michelle W., who said this in another discussion of junk drawer contents: “My junk drawer is full of things I am hiding from the cats — rubber bands, bread bag ties, hairbands, etc.”

And then there’s Randy, who said the oldest thing in his junk drawer is a harmonica. “It just feels wrong to get rid of a harmonica, so it sits there mocking me because I never learned to play it.”

Your individual junk drawers

Erin Thompson, who maintains The Junk Drawer Project, was interviewed by Jillian Steinhauer about the project:

I started asking my friends about their junk drawers and quickly realized that the way that people curated their own junk drawer totally made sense for their personalities. I am finding that you can learn a lot about a person by way of their junk drawer.

What might your junk drawer say about you? If you don’t like the answer — or if your junk drawer just isn’t working right for you any more — maybe it’s worth spending a bit of time to make a change.

Managing the digital to-read pile

How do you deal with all the interesting information we now have available to us on the Internet, from international news to updates on the lives of an acquaintance’s children? There are numerous ways to tackle this flow of information you want to consume in a way so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Chris Miller explored this topic:

Sooner or later you have to sit down and say:

  1. My time and attention are the most valuable things I posses.
  2. There is too much stuff on the Internet for me ever to read it all.
  3. Therefore, I’m going to be super-choosy about what I read and what I do.

Where are the places you may want to be super-choosy?

Social media

Are you trying to be active on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter? Maybe it would help to focus on just a few that best meet your business and/or personal needs.

Within each community, are you engaged with too many people? Are you friends with people on Facebook who you can’t even place? Are you following thousands of people on Twitter? Maybe it’s time to prune the lists.

Have you used whatever filtering tools are available? For example, I use TweetDeck to read Twitter, and I have filters set up to hide any tweets mentioning specific TV shows that tend to get mentioned a lot, and which I just don’t care about.

People who do this type of cleanup often comment on how much better they felt afterward. Kelly O. Sullivan recently wrote: “Unfriended someone on Facebook who was adding no value to my life. Feels good.” And Dennis K. Berman wrote a whole blog post titled “The Purge: I Unfollowed 390 People on Twitter, and I Feel Great.

RSS feeds

If you use RSS to read blogs and other news sources, have you evaluated what you’re reading lately? Maybe it’s time to delete some of those subscriptions.

I just deleted a subscription to the blog of an acclaimed writer, whose articles I found myself skipping over when they appeared in my list. He may indeed be writing wonderful stuff, but it just wasn’t stuff I felt like reading. I had to get over my own case of the “shoulds” — the internal voices telling me I should read his work — and decide it was perfectly okay to decide not to read it.

Email newsletters

Do you tend to ignore these when they hit your inbox? Have you created an email rule to move them to their own mail folder — where they languish, unread? Maybe it’s time to do some unsubscribing.

News and magazine apps

Did you download a bunch of these at some point — only to find you don’t use most of them? This is another area where you might do some cleanup.

Pocket, Instapaper, and other read-it-later tools

Kevin Fox commented on Twitter: “My Instapaper button would be more accurately titled ‘Read it Never.'”

Are you like Kevin? Do you have lots of articles you’ve saved to read later — that you never seem to get to? You may want to review that reading list and see which ones you still want to make time to read, and which you can just delete.

But some people are fine with a long list, and you might be, too. Om Malik spoke to Nate Weiner of Pocket, who noted that people go back to read 10-70 percent of the articles they put into Pocket, with the average being 50 percent. But Weiner went on to add:

The key is to think of it like a Netflix queue. You are never overwhelmed or concerned about the number of items in your Netflix queue. You just keep putting things in there because you know that when you have the time to view something, you can guarantee you’ll have something great in there that you’ve been meaning to check out.

Maybe you don’t need to clean up your saved-for-later reading list — or your RSS feeds, your email newsletters, or your apps. Or maybe you just want to do some limited cleanup. Do you like having a large number of items to choose from when you have some reading time, or does having such a large collection overwhelm you? The answer to that question will help you determine your strategy.

But whether you keep your reading list short, or keep it long (knowing you’ll never read it all), you’ll still need to be super-choosy about what you eventually spend time reading. Because this wish from M.S. Bellows, Jr. probably isn’t going to come true: “I want to be reincarnated in a way that preserves all my bookmarks, pockets, and favorites, so I can spend 80 years simply reading.”

Kids’ backpack essentials

Clutter has a way of accumulating in unexpected places, and my kids’ backpacks are one such surprising place.

This past weekend, I went into my daughter’s bag to find a study guide and pulled out all sorts of interesting things: random pencils, a penguin eraser, box tops, and more. After prompting her to clean it out, I mentally compiled a list of what should be in there, and what shouldn’t.

I should note that my kids are in a public elementary school. An older or younger student might carry around different things. And, a child in an alternative learning environment might have different supplies. Think of the following list as a starting point and adapt as necessary for you or your child’s specific needs.

Both of my kids are now carrying a small pack of tissues in their bags. The weather is still brutally cold here in the northeast, and that means runny noses. Their classrooms have tissues, of course, but they could run out or need one while on the bus. As any parent knows, a kid’s go-to tissue alternative is the sleeve.

A daily calendar is also a good idea. We’re fortunate in that our school provides the kids with an organizer at the beginning of the school year. It’s sorted by subject, and the teachers require the students to write down any assignments that are due in each subject’s slot. I love that they can look at that and know, at a glance, what they’ve got to do each night for homework or review.

If you’re shopping for a planner not issued by the school, bring Jr. along. I tried giving one of my beloved Field Notes notebooks to the kids, but they didn’t take. However, my daughter fell in love with One Direction-themed school supplies. If they love it, they’ll use it.

A good pencil case is another fine idea. My kids have plenty of pencils and erasers, but they were swimming around on the bottom of the bag.

You may or may not want to put emergency information in your child’s bag. For example, if Jr. carries an Epi-Pen, a short note regarding its use might be helpful to those who don’t know your child well, like substitute teachers or field trip chaperones. A non-specific Gmail address you’ve created for the family might be good to write inside the backpack in case it is lost.

Many students keep a refillable water bottle in their school bags, but we found out the hard way how that is not always a good idea. If your child’s bag has an exterior pocket, this might be the safer storage place than in the actual backpack.

Finally, school books and homework storage are all your children likely need. Since Trapper Keepers aren’t cool any longer, nice sturdy pocket folders are great for ensuring work makes it back to the teacher in a decent condition.

Uncluttering toiletries: the shelf life of shampoo, sunscreen, and more

Unclutterer has written about makeup expiration, but what about all those other toiletries that tend to accumulate? Shampoos, lotions, and other products can also clutter up a bathroom.

Expiration date labels

You may find expiration dates on beauty and body care products to help you make a keep-or-toss decision — but not all products have such requirements.

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, writing in the Chicago Tribune, summarized the requirements in the U.S:

The Food and Drug Administration requires that expiration dates be printed on all prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but not on cosmetics — unless the cosmetics are also considered drugs, such as toothpaste with fluoride, anything with sunscreen, anti-dandruff shampoo and antiperspirant. But even then, over-the-counter drugs without dose limitations don’t have to carry expiration dates if tests have proven they’re stable for at least three years, which is why one sunscreen may have a date while another won’t.

Things are different in the European Union, where cosmetic products with a shelf life of 30 months or more must have a Period-After-Opening symbol indicating how many months the product can be used “without any harm to the consumer” after it’s been opened. (Products with a shorter shelf life are labeled with a “best before” date.) Some American products have decided to use this same symbol, but that is voluntary.

Of course, if you’re going to rely on a PAO guideline, you’ll need to remember when you opened the product. You may want to write that date on the product with a permanent marker, or add a label with the date.

Shampoo (non-dandruff)

Real Simple reported shampoo is good for about three years; Jyl Craven Hair Design suggests “no more than three years and an opened bottle for at most 18 months.” Jyl goes on to say that some products — those that avoid using additives and preservatives — might go bad more quickly.

You can also rely on the smell and the feel of a product to alert you if it has gone bad. Amy Corbett Storch wrote:

How can you tell that shampoo is bad? Usually by the smell. An expired bottle of Pureology, for example, smells straight up like wet dog. Other signs: the shampoo appears separated or extra runny when you squirt some into your hands, and a lack of good lather.

How you store your shampoo can make a difference, too. Aubrey Organics said, discussing skin and body care products: “Long-term exposure of products to sunlight and/or heat should be avoided because the resulting oxidation may affect freshness.”

Sunscreen

Real Simple explained: The Food and Drug Administration requires that all sunscreens maintain their optimal strength for at least three years, but you should also check the printed expiration date on the bottom or the side of the product.

But again, you’ll want to pay attention to how the product appears. Real Simple goes on to quote Zoe Draelos, a dermatologist in High Point, North Carolina: “Most commonly, a foul odor indicates that the preservative has failed.”

And Dr. Lawrence Gibson wrote on the Mayo Clinic website, “Discard sunscreen that is more than 3 years old, has been exposed to high temperatures or has obvious changes in color or consistency.”

Toothpaste

Proctor and Gamble explained about the expiration date on toothpaste with fluoride:

Toothpaste past its expiration date may be less effective — some fluoride won’t bind with tooth enamel, reducing the toothpaste’s ability to strengthen teeth and defend them against cavities. Another result may be viscosity issues, such as toothpaste that is more difficult to squeeze through the tube.

Dr. Joel H. Berg, chairman of pediatric dentistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, explained the binding problem and a bit more in The New York Times.

He said depending how long and at what temperatures the tube was stored, the goo inside could separate, meaning less or more fluoride in each squeeze, and less or more flavoring agent, which could be mintily disconcerting.

Some toothpastes provide recommended storage temperatures. I’ve seen two — AquaFresh and Sensodyne — that say they should be stored below 86ºF, while another says below 77ºF.

Lip balm

Real Simple suggested lip balm can be kept unopened for five years, and opened for one to five years.

For more guidance, you might check with the individual company and see what information it provides. For example, Hurraw! Balm: “We recommend using your tube of Hurraw! Balm within a year of opening (fyi, stability tests place expiration at 3 years ‘on the shelf’) and storing it between 40-72F (4-22C).”

That last part is important, because a number of people indicate that lip balm will often go bad — developing clumps and texture problems — if it gets too hot or too cold, because the emulsification of the materials gets broken.

Conclusion

The more careful we are about how we store our toiletries, the longer they’ll last, and the less we’ll have to toss. But careful storage still doesn’t mean the products last forever.

Book Review: Joshua Becker’s Clutterfree with Kids

Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker is not a book of organizing tips. It does not tell you what type of baskets to buy. It does not tell you how to arrange clothes in your closets. This book helps you evaluate the choices you make and develop new habits to lead a life that is full of meaning and free of clutter.

The book begins by introducing the concept of minimalism and leading a minimalist lifestyle. Many people believe that a minimalistic lifestyle is stark and boring but Mr. Becker explains that “minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.”

Mr. Becker describes the empty promises of advertisements and their attempt to convince us that the more we own the happier we will be. He recounts the journey he and his typical American family have taken towards living a minimalist lifestyle and the challenges they faced.

In the first section, “Change Your Thinking”, Mr. Becker presents an alternate way of thinking about uncluttering and organizing. He explains the impact minimalism can have on contentment, generosity, and honesty in one’s life and also debunks many of the myths of living a minimalist lifestyle. It really is not stark and boring!

The section of the book that focuses on parenting states, “the lifestyle of minimalism requires far more inspiration than instruction.” It describes how parents can best model the minimalistic lifestyle. It also outlines the benefits of family life where possessions are deemed less important than self-development and interpersonal relationships.

Mr. Becker outlines a roadmap to becoming clutter free and explains how to include your children on this journey. He does not stick to hard and fast rules but asks questions that allow the reader to choose the minimalistic path that is right for his/her family.

Clutterfree with Kids will show readers new ways of thinking about, and establishing better habits, regarding children’s toys, clothes, artwork, and collections. There is advice on how to adjust schedules to spend more time participating in developmental activities and reducing the amount of ‘screen time’ – be it computer or television.

Some other practical advice provided in the book includes how to:

  • Become clutterfree with a reluctant family member
  • Deal with gifts and excessive gift-givers
  • Resist the influence of advertisements in our consumer-driven culture
  • Prepare for a new baby
  • Pack for holidays and vacations

Clutterfree with Kids is an enjoyable, refreshing, easy-to-read book. Mr. Becker provides practical advice in a non-judgemental way. He encourages readers to adopt a level of minimalism with which they are comfortable. Whether you are new to minimalism or you are new to parenting, this book can help you move toward a happier and more minimalist life.

Benefits of being organized

Every day at Unclutterer, we share tips, tricks, thoughts, and strategies for a clutter-free lifestyle. As 2014 begins, I want to step back and see the proverbial forest instead of the trees. Just what are the benefits of being organized? It’s potentially a long list, but I’ve narrowed it down to what has affected me the most. Read on for what I consider the benefits of an organized life, at home and at work.

  1. Less stress. Above anything else, this is the number one reason I burn calories to stay on top of things. Here’s a great example: This year, I’m making a concerted effort to keep my office neat and tidy (I work from home and my office is also my bedroom). I added a bulletin board and have designated a home for everything: inbox, keys, wallet, office supplies, charger cables, and more. Now, when I need something, I know exactly where it is. This fact reduces stress and allows me to …
  2. Relax more. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Organized people are just too lazy to search for stuff.” That’s cute, but I’d rather be the “lazy” one mentioned in the punchline. Less time spent running around means more time. Just, more time to do what I want to do, like …
  3. Spend time with my family. Getting clean and clear professionally and personally means I’ve got more time to spend with the kids and my wife. For example, my workday ends at 2:00, just as I drive to the school bus. I know that I’ll be spending the next six hours with my family. That’s easy to do when I took care of all my work stuff before then.
  4. I’m ready for a curveball. I’m sure you know how this goes: life throws a kink into the works that interrupts your plans in a major way. Being prepared ahead of time lessens the impact. For example, I have a designated “emergency” office and ultra-portable setup ready. That way, if my Internet connection goes down at home, or a construction crew sets up outside my window, I already know where I’m going to go to work and what I need to bring.
  5. The overwhelming seems manageable. I never would have believed this if I hadn’t experienced it myself. I don’t care if you’re talking about work, the kids, or home management, but it’s a great feeling to have every project defined, and every action step that stands between you and “done” clearly identified. When I do this, I can look at a daunting to-do list and feel like I’m on top of it and capable of doing what needs to be done.
  6. Improved health. The stress I mentioned earlier, which I feel when things start to get out of control, does not promote good health. There are numerous studies that demonstrate a link between sustained high levels of stress and a variety of health problems.
  7. I’m a better example for my kids. There was a time when I spent most of my time behind my computer, working on this or that. I felt productive, sure, but I also worried about the message I was sending to the kids. Adults work all the time? My job is more important than them? I want my kids to become productive, contributing adults, of course, but I want them to enjoy life, too, and that absolutely includes time spent not working.
  8. Fewer little jobs. There are four people in my house. If we miss a day or two of laundry, we’re behind. That means that, some day this week, someone has to spend an inordinate amount of time digging out from Mt. Clothing in the basement. However, just turning over a single load per day makes all the difference. Little things like making sure the kids put their hats and boots away each day after school improves our family’s ability to easily function.
  9. Greater productivity. When you know where things are, what your goals are, and take care of the piddley busy work as it appears, you’ve got significantly more time and energy for the big goals in life.

An organized life takes some doing, and you’re going to slip up. No one is clean and clear all day, every day! But when you strive to do the best you can, you’ll experience the benefits listed above … and more. Here’s to an organized and rewarding 2014, unclutterers! May you experience the best of an organized life.