Avoiding Halloween candy clutter

Halloween used to create clutter in my home; I’d be afraid of running out of candy, so I’d overbuy. Then, because I bought good stuff, I’d be tempted to eat way too much of the leftovers.

I also knew I was creating candy clutter for others. It’s been a long time since I went trick-or-treating, but I know I always came home with more candy than I needed, and more than my parents wanted for themselves.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I’ve got some suggestions: three for getting rid of excess candy, and one for helping to minimize the excess candy glut in the first place.

Donate candy to poll workers (and voters)

When I became self-employed, I lost the easy “take the leftover candy to work” option. But then I noticed there are often elections being held very shortly after Halloween, so I started taking my leftover candy to my polling place — and everyone was delighted to get it. The enjoyment of good candy is a non-partisan issue!

Donate candy to U.S. troops deployed outside the U.S.

If you’re up to shipping off your candy, you could send it to groups such as Operation Shoebox or Operation Gratitude. Some dentists in your area might be participating in Operation Gratitude’s Halloween Candy Buy Back program. In the Washington, D.C. area, there’s MoverMoms’ Treats-4-Troops program.

Donate candy in other ways

In San Francisco, At The Crosroads can use your candy. On Dallasnews.com, I found some more good ideas. Annabel Lugo Hoffman says she donates her leftover candy to her local fire department. Claudia Moore says her church collects leftover candy and “donates it inside Thanksgiving meal baskets that are given to families in need.”

Give books instead of candy

I discovered Books for Treats a few years ago, and I’ve been giving away books ever since. Some of them came from my own bookshelves; as much as I love children’s books, I had some I no longer felt any need to keep. Others I got at a used bookstore where I had a huge store credit from prior uncluttering efforts.

My Halloween book “treats” range from board books to chapter books, so I have something for kids of all ages. Yes, the kids were a bit taken aback when I first offered them their choice of books instead of candy bars. But then they got into it, and I heard things like “Awesome!”

Another advantage: I don’t need to worry about giving children a treat they may not be able to eat, depending on any allergies or dietary restrictions they may have.

My neighborhood doesn’t get many children trick-or-treating any more, so when the evening is done, I just put the remaining books away for the next year, making sure to store them where they won’t get damaged, just as I would pack away holiday decorations. If my book selection for any age group gets low, I note that so I can replenish it before the next Halloween.

Organizing with pets

Over 50% of American homes have pets, so when uncluttering and organising there is a good chance you may have to take into account the needs of your pets.

Surprisingly, sudden changes in a pet’s environment may bring out different behaviour, such as aggression or depression. The following are tips to help you and your pet cope with uncluttering and reorganisation projects safely:

Before the Project

If not already this way, get your pet accustom to wearing ID tags. If people are coming and going with bags of trash and items to be donated, doors and windows may be left open. Pets can easily escape in these conditions. Talk to your veterinarian or local animal control office about types of IDs for your pet. Some pets can have microchips inserted as a second level of precaution. Take photos of your pet and list identifiable markings. Put this information together in a booklet or computer file so it is ready to circulate in the community in case your pet escapes.

If you will be uncluttering and organising in the room where your pet usually sleeps or spends most of his/her time, consider getting your pet accustom to a new area of your home. This will get the pet used to sounds and smells in the new area and make the uncluttering/organising process less stressful. Remember to give your pet some extra attention and affection during this time so he/she is comfortable in the new area.

During the Project

Keep your pet on his/her normal routine as much as possible. If your pet is used to being fed or walked at certain times, keep those times consistent during the organising project. This may require taking breaks from the work, but it will be worth it to keep your pet’s stress levels down.

It may be better to keep the pets away from the area being organised if it is a large project. Pets can be caged or kennelled or simply separated in another room by a door or safety gate. Stick a sign on the door of the room to let everyone know your pet is inside and to remind you to let the pet out later.

Remember to check on your pet every hour or so. Loud banging, thumping and unknown voices my cause some stress in your pet. Comfort your pet with kind words and lots of pats or hugs.

If you’re unable to keep your pet away from the area being organised, take extra care for your pet’s safety.

Birds are attracted to shiny objects and cats love strings and elastics bands, so keep small items such as buttons, coins, and other choke hazards off of the floor and out of reach.

Bones and meat-tainted plastic wrap can cause serious illness in animals if consumed. Foods sweetened with xylitol are very toxic to dogs. Tobacco contains nicotine, which is also toxic to pets. Grease, butter, margarine, and oils can get on bird feathers and damage them and make your bird ill when it tries to clean itself. Keep garbage out of reach!

Pets can suffocate in plastic grocery bags or dry cleaning bags. Roll up bags and plastic wrap into small balls and stash them inside a box to keep them out of reach until they can be disposed.

As you clear the clutter, electrical and phone cables may become more easily accessible. Loose electrical cords can become a chew toy temptation, too. Keep cords tied up so your pets can’t get tangled in them, trip over them or chew on them. You may wish to invest in some wire covering to protect both the cables and the pets.

Many pets are poisoned every year by accidental ingestion of household chemicals, human medications, and some common houseplants (e.g. Easter lilies and mistletoe). Remove unwanted chemicals and medications as soon as possible from the area. Secure the rest of these items in a locked cupboard or cabinet away from your pets. Keep houseplants out of reach before, during, and after the organising process.

Pets, especially cats, love to crawl into boxes. Be careful that you don’t close your pet in boxes, closets, or dresser drawers. If you’re working in a crawl space, keep the door closed as much as possible. If you’re working in an attic, keep the hatch down and move the ladder when you’re not using it. Make sure all heating and air vents have tight fitting covers. Small pets, such as rodents, birds, and reptiles, can easily get lost and stuck in the ductwork.

Don’t allow clothing and shoes to pile up on the floor. Immediately put it into bags and close the bags promptly. Animals love to hide and burrow in piles of fabric. Buttons and strings on shoes and clothing are choke hazards, too. If you are bagging up piles of clothing, do so carefully in case small pets (ferrets, rodents, snakes) have taken refuge in the pile.

Rabbits and rodents love to chew soft materials such as cloth and wood. Some fibres when ingested can cause illness. Keep old bits of carpeting and wood, especially chemically treated wood, away from your pets.

Fish tanks can be affected by organising. The removal of clutter from around the fish tank may change the amount of light to which the tank is exposed. This may change the temperature of the water and could lead to excess algae growth. Fish can be light sensitive just like humans. Gradually increase in light over fifteen minutes to allow fish to adjust to the their new surroundings.

Have you been organising your filing cabinet and shredding all that unwanted paper? Turn off and unplug your paper shredder. Mouse tails, bird feathers, and paws can accidentally start up the “auto-shred” function on some models of paper shredders. This could cause your pet to be injured.

After the Project

Look through the area and think like your pet: What looks tempting? What’s eye-catching? It helps if you get down on the floor and see things from their point of view. Check all those places where your vacuum cleaner may not fit, but your pet will, and look for dangerous items like string, coins, buttons, and electrical cords. Clean out those areas or block access to them.

Look for heavy things that could fall over if your large dog barrelled past. Secure the heavy furniture to the wall. Keep stacks of boxes from becoming too high.

Make sure you haven’t inadvertently created a “staircase” out of stacked boxes. Keep piles of boxes at the same height and away from open windows and skylights.

Some animals are fascinated my moving objects, such as the gears of exercise equipment. Unplug this equipment so it can’t accidentally be turned on and injure your pet.

Now that the clutter has been cleared, your pet may have access to rocking chairs and reclining chairs. These pieces of furniture can easily harm your pets. Consider moving the furniture out of the area your pets are in if these types of chairs are a temptation. The backs and undersides of furniture can have nails and staples that can cause harm to animals. Repair your furniture so that it is pet-safe or block access to these areas.

Mirrors and windows are dangerous for birds because they are often mistaken as places to escape and a strong collision may result in injuries. Keep mirrors and windows covered when birds are flying loose. Special decals can be applied to mirrors and windows to discourage birds from flying into them.

A bird’s respiratory system is very sensitive to impurities in the air, such as carpet powders and household deodorising sprays. If you’re cleaning after uncluttering and organising, keep these airborne chemicals away from your birds.

At the end of the day you can let your pet explore the uncluttered area. There will be many new places to explore and investigate. New and different smells may make your pet feel insecure. It may be best to confine the exploration to a smaller space and a shorter time depending on how your pet is reacting to the changes.

Once you are sure your pet is safe and comfortable in the newly organised space, you’ll be able to enjoy it together.

Three bits of universal organizing advice for traditional office environments

Today we welcome a guest post from Janice Marie Simon, MA, CPO, a Project Director and in-house organizer at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she helps researchers and clinicians with productivity, organizing, technology management, and life management. She has a blog at TheClutterPrincess.com and is the Organized Auntie at SavvyAuntie.com.

As a professional organizer who works inside an academic medical facility, my clients work in offices, cubicles, laboratories, and patient clinics. No matter what their space is, some things are universal to their workplace environments: The look of their workplace matters – especially to the boss. And, too much paper and too many ineffective meetings are a daily part of work life. These three things aren’t relevant only to my clients, but to all employees who find themselves in a traditional office environment.

The Look of Your Space

A Career Builder Study shows two out of five managers are less likely to promote someone with a messy desk. Messy offices were once a sign of creativity or busyness, but shows such as Hoarders and Buried Alive have brought serious clutter issues out in the open. Standards have changed.

Since I began organizing, I’ve always had clients who were encouraged (sometimes very strongly) to call me on the recommendation of their bosses. In the past couple of years, the number of those clients has definitely increased.

In a few cases, the boss may be “hyper-organized” where even an organizer looks like a hoarder to them. In these cases, the boss is judging other’s spaces through a skewed lens.
Most cases, however, the client’s boss identified normal cluttering issues. Since presentation is everything, we focus on making long-term changes to their spaces. Simple steps we take:

  • Remove all sticky notes and papers taped on the computer, printer, overhangs, and walls.
  • Confine any papers and pictures to the borders of bulletin boards and the pushpin space of the cubicle wall.
  • Have only one container for pens and markers. Put the extras in a drawer.
  • Items such as the tape and stapler can go in a drawer if they’re not used every day.
  • Toss any trash, including half-filled coffee cups.

If you look organized, you feel organized. It also makes the boss happy.

Go Digital and Go Paperless

It’s easier than ever to go paperless. You can use a scanner or many office copy machines now come with the ability to scan documents into PDF format.

While converting to digital, start where you are with your current work. There’s no need to go back and scan everything in your office. As you go forward, you can grab a handful of older papers to see what needs to be tossed or shredded and what should be scanned. Remember: not everything is scanworthy.

Detach attachments from your email and keep them with your digital documents. Email systems are not the best way to file documents since the files take up a great deal of space. If it’s important and you want to keep it, save the file to a documents’ folder, and rename it if necessary.

Have More Efficient Meetings

Make meetings more productive by having a detailed agenda you email out beforehand. Outline action items that require decisions so people attending the meeting know what decisions they need to make. This really helps introverts who like to have time to think about decisions ahead of time and be prepared. My fellow extroverts and I talk to think instead of thinking and then talking.

During the meeting, stick to the agenda and keep the action moving. If someone brings up a topic not on the agenda but requires additional time and research, put the item in the “parking lot” to be discussed next time.

Banning smart phones during meetings is becoming popular. This keeps people from multi-tasking and checking email instead of paying attention and participating in the meeting.

When you get back into your office after a meeting, capture action items on your to-do list. Sort the handful of paper you more than likely received, toss the items you don’t need, and scan in the ones you do.

By clearing your desk, ditching the paper and having more effective meetings, you will work smarter, not harder.

Getting rid of unwanted items: when perfect can be the enemy of the good

When going through the uncluttering process, once you’ve decided what to keep and what should go, it can be easy to get hung up on the next step: actually getting rid of the non-keepers.

The following are some things to consider as you approach this step:

Is it worth your time to sell it?

I’ve set a dollar limit for myself; anything that I don’t think I can sell for that amount or more gets donated rather than sold.

I also tend to sell in the ways that are easiest for me. For example, I’ll sell used electronics through services such as Gazelle and GreenCitizen, which offer a fixed price. I could make more money, perhaps, using eBay — but I find eBay to be difficult for a very infrequent seller like me. For items other than electronics, I’ve sometimes used Craigslist.

Some people love yard sales or garage sales — for the social aspect as well as the moneymaking aspect — so such sales make sense for them. For others, giving up a day or two to a yard sale doesn’t make sense. And some people, like many apartment dwellers, have no good place to conduct such a sale.

If you’d like to sell some items and don’t have the time or skills to sell them yourself, would it make sense to use the services of someone such as an eBay specialist to sell them for you or to take them to a consignment store which handles your type of item? You’ll be splitting the proceeds, but at least the sale is actually happening.

Another consideration: Depending on your tax situation, getting a tax deduction for a donation may remove some of the sting of not getting cash in hand from a sale, if you decide against going to sales route.

Is giving it away to family members or friends realistic?

Would the other person really want it? You don’t want to make your clutter problem become someone else’s clutter problem.

If the person you’re thinking of doesn’t live nearby, is shipping the item financially worth it? Some things are easy and inexpensive to ship off to others, but many items aren’t. Unless it’s a sentimental item, you wouldn’t want to spend more in shipping than the item is worth.

And if you’re just thinking it would be a good gift for someone, without having anyone specific in mind, you may want to reconsider. How much gift giving do you do? Do you have an area where you store gifts? Is it already full?

Does it need to be recycled? Or can it be recycled?

Know the laws in your area for hazardous waste and electronic waste disposal. If you live in an area with curbside recycling, be sure you know which items are accepted and which are not. In my area, I’ve seen that the same waste collection company has different rules in different cities, for some reason.

Does freecycle work for you?

Freecycle communities and similar groups are run locally; some communities work really well, while others don’t. Using freecycle might take more time than just dropping things off as donations. Finally, freecycle will be easiest for you if you’re okay with people coming to your home to pick things up. If having strangers know where you live makes you uncomfortable, freecycle may not be your best option.

Are there donation places that are convenient and want what you have?

Many donation places provide lists of what they accept and, of course, you want to honor any restrictions they have in place. Some places will pick things up at your home, which can make things extremely convenient. For some people, the group you’re donating to matters a lot. Do you agree with the group’s mission and values? Do you want a place that gives your items to people in need, rather than just selling them to raise funds?

Is leaving it at the curb a good solution?

This can work really well in some neighborhoods, like those with high foot traffic. Some apartment buildings also have areas where people tend to leave things for other tenants to take, if they want.

Out of all the possible ways to dispose of your items, which ones will you really do?

If you’re doing a massive uncluttering project, you may want to go for the easiest answer, at least for the bulk of your items. Tell your inner perfectionist to be quiet, and realize that you don’t have to find the absolutely perfect new home for every single item you unclutter — a “good enough” solution is just fine in many cases.

Cutting cleaning supply clutter

Today’s guest post is by Amanda Scudder, Organizing Consultant with the company Abundance Organizing. Please give her a nice welcome.

Have you heard the song “The 3 Rs,” the incredibly catchy Jack Johnson tune:

Three it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number …
We’ve got to learn to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle …

This seemingly straightforward ditty holds a profound truth: three little words — reduce, reuse, recycle — are magic. There are endless ways you can apply them to your life — fun, creative ways that can cut clutter while benefitting your health, your budget, and your planet.

Today, I want to apply them to an often-unrecognized source of clutter: cleaning products. An unofficial survey of my Facebook friends revealed that the average American home has somewhere between a bajillion and a gazillion cleaning products stashed in cupboards, under the sink, and in other prime storage areas. Not only do these products create physical clutter, they also create chemical clutter, which can pose significant risks to your health.

The EPA reports that the air inside our homes can be five to ten times more toxic than the air outdoors, containing as many as 150 different pollutants, many of which come from petrochemical cleaners.

Let’s turn to the three Rs to tackle this problem.

Reduce – There are some easy ways to reduce the number of cleaning products you have to store and, more importantly, reduce the number of toxic chemicals in your home.

  • Switch to an environmentally friendly multi-purpose cleaner. There are many on the market, some greener than others, so read the label and beware of green-washing (clever marketing phrases used to make a product appear more eco-friendly than they really are). For Consumer Report’s recommendations, visit GreenerChoices.org’s article “Can one cleaner do it all?”
  • Another great resource is GoodGuide, an online tool to help you find safe, healthy, green and ethical products or to find out how your favorite brands rank.
  • Make your own multi-purpose cleaners using three basic household ingredients: baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice

Unfamiliar with how to use these three ingredients to clean?

Use baking soda to:

  • Deodorize pretty much anything from cat boxes to carpets
  • Clean your shower
  • Scour your sinks
  • Remove grease stains
  • Polish silver or your teeth

Use vinegar to:

  • Wash windows and floors
  • Remove product buildup from your hair
  • Clean the microwave
  • Clean the coffee pot
  • Trap fruit flies

Use lemon juice to:

  • Sanitize cutting boards
  • Boost the effectiveness of dish soap
  • Deodorize drains
  • Remove stains
  • Clean toilet bowls

Reuse – Because you are mixing your own cleaning combinations, you can reuse spray bottles and buckets, cutting down on the amount of plastic heading to landfills. Mild solutions of water and vinegar or lemon juice left over after cleaning can be used to water acid-loving plants like azaleas and rhododendrons. Stronger solutions can be poured on weeds you would like to eliminate.

Recycle – Turn old sheets, single socks, or stained towels and t-shirts into rags and use them instead of paper towels for cleaning. You can even tuck a dry or damp rag around one of those long handled floor dusters instead of using expensive disposable pads. Wash them and reuse them again the next time. Repurpose a plastic bag holder as a rag dispenser — pull them out through the opening in the bottom and, after they are washed, put them in the top.

So your challenge for today: find one cleaning recipe to try and see if you can eliminate at least two ready-made cleaning products from your cabinets. Be sure to dispose of any toxic products safely (check your local government’s website for where to dispose of hazardous materials in your community).

Ten DIY gadget charging stations

“Where can I plug this in?” is a dilemma of the contemporary age.

As phones and tablets become more popular, two problems arise. First, most wall sockets only accommodate two items each. That’s easily remedied by connecting a power strip. One plug becomes five or six, and you’re good to go.

But the solution to the first problem begets problem number two: the jumble of cables and wires is just ugly. Plus, they get tangled, swapped, and misplaced. You could spend money on a decent-looking solution or whip up your own home charging station. The following are 10 great examples I found while poking around the Internet. Each charges several devices simultaneously and looks a lot better than a power strip and a rat’s nest of wires.

  1. Hidden in a drawer. I first saw this solution on Pinterest. It keeps everything out of sight completely by placing the whole lot inside a drawer. The setup is simple: drill a hole in the back of the drawer, thread the power strip cord through and plug it in. You might want to fasten the power strip to the bottom of the drawer to keep it from wobbling around with double-sided tape or velcro.
  2. Converted storage box. This rig was inspired by ribbon boxes that store the ribbon inside and feed it through a small hole. Here, holes were cut into a storage box that you can find at any craft store. The holes were reinforced with oval bookplates, held in place with small brad nails. From there, the power strip was placed inside and the device cables fed through the new holes. It looks great and there’s really no need to open it.
  3. Night Stand recharging station. This one wins the prize for most dramatic before-and-after photos, as an upturned cardboard box is replaced by a nice-looking end table. Holes will drilled in the rear of the unit and the charging cables fed through. Just don’t look behind it, though. I fear there’s an hidden rat’s nest against that wall.
  4. Super easy plastic bin. This one isn’t long on looks but it’s probably the least expensive solution here. Plus, it gets the job done. Small holes were cut into the rear and lid so that cables could be fed through. Sure, you can see inside but it’s still nice to not have to deal with what’s inside.
  5. Vintage case. Here’s a solution that is long on looks. Ryan at Weekly Geek, who put this together, describes his love of de-tangling electronic cables: “Jaws clenched and temples throbbing the world silently fades as my focus gets narrower and more fierce. That mess is broken, and I have to fix it. Why won’t they let me fix it?” His vintage-valise-as-charging-station is a thing to behold and not for he feint of heart. You can review what’s required here. The results, however, are very nice indeed.
  6. Converted IKEA storage unit. I’ll admit that I love IKEA. Even those little meatballs in the cafeteria are good. In this example, an enterprising soul at IKEA Hackers converted the company’s Estetisk storage unit into a nice-looking charging station. Holes were drilled into the back and the “cubbies” were outfitted with custom plywood inserts. Well done.
  7. Re-purposed plastic bottle. You got me, this only charges a single item. But look at how cute and convenient it is! By deftly cutting a plastic lotion bottle and applying some decoration, Ashley at Make It & Love It has a great-looking holder that hangs on the charger itself and corrals the phone and its cable. Very nice.
  8. Old books. Some of you will balk at the idea of chopping up an old book, but the rest should check this out. Yes, it’s a single-device solution again, but it’s very nice-looking. There are several available in this Etsy shop, but I’m sure you could figure it out for yourself with an X-Acto knife and some time.
  9. Converted shoe box. Here’s another quick-and-dirty solution that works well. This is similar to the storage box – you’re cutting holes in a shoe box, reinforcing them with grommets and feeding the cables through – but less expensive. Plus, since you’re starting with a shoe box, do some decorating to get it looking nice. Time to break out the Mod Podge.
  10. Vintage breadbox. Finally, a converted vintage bread box. This one requires the most work and some basic carpentry skills (and the right decor) but you’d never guess there’s a jumble of wires and charging electronics inside of there.

I hope you found this list inspirational. You do have to charge your gadgets but the process needn’t result in a jumbled mess. Go forth and make a great little charging station.

Organize to Eliminate the UFOs

UFOs (unidentified found objects) are always discovered during the decluttering and organising process. Do you keep them or do you throw them away? You don’t want to keep clutter but if you throw out an item that is an important piece of a tool then you end up with broken tool as clutter also – especially if replacement parts are expensive or hard to find.

Here are some ideas on how to manage these UFOs.

Place the UFOs into a small, labelled shoebox or plastic bin. Sort through the box with family members in case they know what the objects are for. One time, shoved in a kitchen drawer, I found a small plastic object that I thought might be some sort of tool or computer part. I put it in my “UFO” box. I asked my husband about it and he had no idea what it was. However, my 8 year old was thrilled that I had found the part to his magic kit that had magically disappeared the previous month.

Once items are identified, they should be stored with the equipment to which they belong. For example, the spigot that screws into the freezer so it can be drained after defrosting could be taped to the back of the freezer in a small, labelled, zipper-seal bag.

Items can be separated based on room locations. Parts to the food processor could be stored in a labelled, decorative tin in the kitchen cupboard. Extra computer parts and cables can be stored in labelled baskets in the home office.

Sometimes the objects may be used in several places or do not belong with specific equipment. They still need a designated storage location. You might choose a kitchen cupboard or drawer or designate a spot in the workshop for these items.

There are different ways to organise these miscellaneous but important items.

Multi-drawer storage units allow the items to be easily accessed. The drawers can be subdivided to create more space. It is easy to see what is in the drawers.

As an alternative, the Stanley Professional Organizer can be used. The little yellow compartments can be rearranged easily. It is easy to see and access the items. It can also be stored upright in small, narrow spaces and each object stays in its own container.

Stanley Professional Organizer

Regardless of how they are organised and stored, it is very important to label all of the items either by writing directly on the object with permanent marker, tying a tag onto the object or placing the object in a labelled tray or bag. If these things are ever misplaced again, they won’t be considered UFOs.

Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.

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Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Ask Unclutterer: Finding a reputable charity when donating your unwanted goods

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.

Uncluttering books: What to let go

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

I really enjoyed reading The To-Do List, but I’m never going to re-read it; someone else may as well enjoy it! I’ll never re-read The Poisonwood Bible or The Tipping Point, either.

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.

What-were-you-thinking books

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.

Travel-related books

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.

A clipboard as my work-from-home supervisor

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.

Uncluttering expired canned goods

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.

And an article by Nadia Arumugam, which appeared in Forbes and The Atlantic, said:

“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.