Introducing the 2014 Unclutterer Holiday Gift Giving Guide

Starting Monday and going through the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we will be running our annual Unclutterer Holiday Gift Giving Guide. Each post will focus on uncluttered, useful, and/or organized gifts that you might want to consider giving to others this season.

The holidays are a time when we can easily feel overwhelmed with responsibilities, as well as by stuff. With our Guide, we hope to inspire you to think outside the traditional gift-giving process or to be more aware of how you proceed within its regular bounds.

The next seven weeks, however, aren’t only about gifts. You’ll likely be invited to parties and have special work or school obligations. You may be the host of this year’s Thanksgiving gathering. And you may find yourself packing up a suitcase or two or three and heading across the country to see far-flung friends and family.

So, how do you keep yourself from going mad?

  • Make a plan now. Create a to-do-list of everything that needs to be accomplished. Then, set specific deadlines for shopping and preparations or whatever it is you have to do in the next seven weeks. Mark these on your calendar with blocks of time to work on meeting your deadlines. If playing host for a holiday meal, consult a guide that lists day-by-day and hour-by-hour suggestions for getting food on the table.
  • Take a break. You don’t have to constantly be on the go until the New Year. When scheduling all the things you need to do on your calendar, be sure to include time for reflection and rejuvenation. You’re likely to go bonkers, otherwise. Also try not to be afraid of saying “no” if you feel that your schedule is becoming too much to reasonably handle.
  • Keep it simple. Whether it’s with your decorations, your gift giving, or any other task that could complicate this time, try your best to keep things simple. You don’t have to put out every snow man you own. You don’t have to serve every dish your grandmother did at Thanksgiving. You don’t have to give New Year’s guests four choices of champagne. Have a signature cocktail and make a pitcher of it instead of standing behind a bar all night making custom orders. Santa Claus can bring the kids a single, larger gift instead of 40 little ones. Don’t be overly complicated about things unless you have to.

Stay focused on enjoying time with family and friends and you should be fine this holiday season.

If you’re eager to get started planning your gift giving this season, feel welcome to check out our past Guides for ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Seven ways to manage laundry

If you struggle to keep up with the laundry, you’re not alone. People have different approaches to laundry based on their number of family members, the convenience of laundry facilities, and their personal preferences — but feeling overwhelmed by laundry is common to all types of households. The following suggestions may help make laundry less onerous.

  1. Wear clothes multiple times between washes, assuming they didn’t get dirty and they don’t smell bad. Real Simple has some suggestions on how many times you might wear an item before washing it, as does Consumer Reports. Besides saving time, less frequent washing also saves on water, power, and detergent.

    Steve Boorstein, who wrote a book on clothing care, recommends washing white clothes after each wearing because body oils and time-released stains (such as perfumes) can make even a clean-looking white item begin to turn yellow. But that’s not a concern with dark clothes, which will fade less quickly when washed less frequently.

  2. Consider washing each person’s clothes separately. Doing so avoids the post-laundry sorting problem. (If all family members do their own laundry, this is already how things work.)
  3. Examine your laundry process to see where you get stalled. One person noticed she was always dealing with her young son’s clothes after he was asleep, so the clothes piled up since she didn’t want to enter his room and possibly wake him. As a work-around, she started storing his clothes in the guest bedroom, and the problem disappeared.
  4. If folding is the part that slows you down, minimize the folding. If possible, arrange your storage so you can hang clothes rather than fold them. Many things that don’t get hung will still be fine without any folding. I fold my cloth napkins and my towels, but that’s about it. T-shirts are hung; underwear is tossed in a drawer with no folding. I worked with one person where we stored all her sweatshirts in a large lidded basket — no folding required.
  5. If ironing is the task you despise, you could join Erin and me in giving away our irons. I generally buy clothes that don’t require ironing. The very few that do need ironing get handled at the dry cleaner.
  6. It’s been said before, but it’s worth reiterating: Make sure you have plenty of room to store your clothes. If your closets and dressers are overly full, it will always be a challenge to put clothes away. Either eliminate some clothes or add storage pieces.
  7. To the extent you’re able to do so, have tools that work well for you and that you enjoy using. That would include laundry bags, baskets, hampers, or sorters. It could be a great iron, if you do ironing — The SweetHome recommends the T-fal Ultraglide Easycord FV4495. If you have your own home and your budget allows, it could mean a superb washer and dryer.

    If you’re going to be folding, try to have a large table at a comfortable height. Anita Perr, an occupational therapist, suggests it should be about waist high. Also consider standing on an anti-fatigue mat.

Unitasker Wednesday: Tummy Tats

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Internet, we need to have a talk. THE talk. The one about birds and bees and babies and … pregnant belly tattoos called Tummy Tats:

You know what, now that I’ve thought about it for more than a second, maybe we don’t need to have that talk. Forget I said anything. Especially the part about fake tattoos for a woman’s pregnant belly. We don’t ever need to discuss that topic again. For the love of all that is good and decent in this world, let’s agree to never even think about such things again. And I implore you NOT to follow the product link to look at the additional pictures of Tummy Tats on Amazon because you won’t ever be able to unsee those images. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

“Under Construction” Gah!

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Organizing military memorabilia
    November 11 is the time when we pause and remember the service men and women who serve their country. Over the course of their military careers, they may have accumulated some items that are personally and historically significant and when organising these items you’ll need to decide what to keep, how to store what you keep, what to part with, and where donations and sales of items you’re getting rid of can be made.

2011

2010

2009

Digital organizing and productivity tools

I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

Photo management

I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

Productivity

Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

Kids

My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

Towel management

A friend of mine, who has a family of six, mentioned that she launders loads of bath towels every day. She stated that most of the time, towels are used only once then placed in the hamper for laundering. The damp towels sit in the hamper and, if not washed right away, they start to get a mildew smell. This friend asked me for suggestions on how to get organized and reduce the amount of laundry she had to do.

Start with clean towels. Launder all the towels. Generally people use too much laundry soap which can actually cause towels to take longer to dry. Follow good laundry tips to get fresh, fluffy towels.

Fold and sort the towels into groups once they are clean:

  • Bath Sheet (35” x 60” or 90cm x 150cm): For drying off after a shower. These towels are large enough to wrap around an adult.
  • Bath Towel (27” x 52” or 70cm x 130cm): For drying off or wrapping up long hair after a shower. These towels are large enough to wrap around a child.
  • Hand Towel (16” x 28” or 40cm x 70cm): For drying hands after washing. Can be used to wrap child’s long hair.
  • Washcloth (13” x 13” or 30cm x 30cm): These can be used for washing the face at the sink or in the shower for washing the body.

Assign each person his/her towel set. Each person should have a bath towel, one or two hand towels and a few washcloths. Those with long hair may wish to have an extra towel or a hair towel wrap. You can assign each person their own colour of towels or sew name tags on towels. Remember to set aside at least two sets of towels for guests. Guest towels could be a unique colour or have a different pattern to differentiate them from the family towels.

Storing towels between uses. Storing towels in the bathroom is convenient. If the bathroom is large enough — or the family is small enough — towel racks or hooks can be mounted so that towels can easily hang to dry. Sometimes the bathroom is too small to store the family’s towels or too humid for the towels to dry properly. In this case, family members can store their towels on hooks in their bedrooms. Bedroom storage is a little inconvenient especially when you forget to bring your bath towel to the bathroom with you, but new routines can be learned quickly.

It doesn’t matter whether you store towels in the bathroom or in bedrooms, it is important that towels are hung up properly to allow airflow so that they dry quickly after every use.

Over-the-door towel racks are great because the towels hang flat and are out of the way. However, if the towels are squished between the door and the wall, they may not dry very quickly.

Radiator drying racks also can be useful. Not only can the towels hang on radiators, but they can also be used on some types of windowsills as well as balcony railings.

Freestanding towel racks (pictured above) take up floor space but they can hold multiple towels and can be placed over furnace vents or in front of radiators, windows or fans.

Set up laundry routines. Bath towels should be laundered after every 3 to 5 uses. Depending on the number of people in your home, the size of your washer and dryer and your available time, you may find that washing one or two sets of towels per day works best for you. Alternatively, you could wash all the towels once or twice per week. Pick a day to wash the towels and round ‘em up.

Storage of Extra Towels. You many or may not want to designate an extra set of towels for every person in the household. It depends on your laundry routine as well as your storage space. Towels should be stored in a dry environment, such as a linen closet. Extra sets of towels can be stored in bedroom closets or in an under-bed storage bin, if a linen closet is not available.

If have even more tips on how to manage towels, please share them with our readers in the comments.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Dyeing to love my clothes again
  • A bottle of Rit Dye in denim blue helps guest post author Rebecca Bealmear revitalize her wardrobe without spending much money ($3 for the dye) and keeping the items out of a landfill.

2012

  • Unitasker Wednesday: The Ham Dogger
    Yippee! The election is over and your candidate won/lost. That must feel great/awful. Now is the time to celebrate/mourn with a hamburger in the shape of a hot dog from the Ham Dogger.
  • Effective inbox management
    Dave provides advice on how to manage numerous inboxes — the tools you use to capture all your stuff that needs to be processed.

2011

2010

2009

  • The fictional extreme-minimalist future
    I’m interested in knowing if you wish the extreme-minimalist future in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and THX 1138 would have become a reality, or if you think these depictions went too far.

Uncluttering the scents in our homes

You may have considered uncluttering the sounds in your life, but what about uncluttering the smells?

Have you been given scented items as gifts — candles, soaps, after-shave, etc. — where you just don’t like the smell? Now would be a good time to give them away.

Have you purchased items that wound up having a scent you dislike? That’s happened to me with supposedly unscented sunscreen, so maybe there was just a chemical in the product that reacted poorly with my skin. If you’ve got similar things sitting around, you might want to dispose of them, just as I did with that sunscreen.

Some items, such as vinyl shower curtains, can have a smell (especially when new) that makes some people sick. Other times the off gassing smell is just annoying, as it was with the band on the medical alert watch I bought online. If you’re not going to return the item, you may want to leave it outdoors or in a garage until the smell dissipates. In my case, I wanted the watch but couldn’t stand the watchband, so I simply replaced the band.

Another type of scent that’s often worth uncluttering is one that’s used to cover up an unpleasant smell. When possible, it’s better to deal with the unpleasant odor itself, removing whatever is causing that smell, rather than trying to mask it. This applies to everything from a musty-smelling basement to a smelly cat litter box. The solution may involve cleaning, improving air circulation, etc.

Certain food items, such as some cheeses, are naturally stinky. If you’re storing such cheeses, you’ll want to find a way to keep the cheese smell from taking over the refrigerator and being absorbed by other foods. One person recommended wrapping any such cheese in wax paper and then storing it in a glass jar.

Do you have items, such as perfumes, with a very strong odor? If you’re going to an indoor place where you’ll be in close proximity with others, avoid cluttering other people’s air space by going light on that perfume or choosing another one. I’ve been at too many performances, including one just this week, where I was overwhelmed by someone’s perfume. Also, be sure to honor any “no scent” requests at events that are working to accommodate people with allergies or asthma.

Natural scents can be overpowering, too. Some flowers may be better left in the yard than cut and brought inside. And if an overpowering flower is right outside your bedroom window, you may want to make a landscaping change (if you have that option).

On the other end of the spectrum, you may have scented items you enjoy, such as potpourri or sachets, which have lost their scent over time, and could use to be replaced.

We can become accustomed to the odors in our own spaces, so sometimes it’s worthwhile to ask a trusted, non-judgmental friend if there are any unpleasant smells in our home.

Unitasker Wednesday: TheSelfie

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

This is one of those products where I’m tempted not to write a critique of it because it is so obviously a unitasker that there isn’t really anything to discuss. Introducing TheSelfie:

For starters, this device only works with Apple products (sorry not to tempt you, Droid owners). Second, you still have to hold the iPhone to take a selfie. And, as all iPhone owners are aware, to take a picture with an iPhone all you have to do is touch one of the volume controls. Which, since you’re holding your phone, are literally right beneath your fingers. So … I have no idea how TheSelfie is in anyway useful. In fact, it looks like an additional pain because you have to coordinate everything in such a way as to not get the cord in your picture (like the kids have done in the image above).

Edit: I can’t believe I forgot to mention this, so kudos to reader Darrell who brought it up in the comments, but you can even use the iPhone’s headphones (which ship with every iPhone) in exactly the same way as TheSelfie. To learn how, check out Lifehacker’s article “Use your iPhone’s headset to take pictures from afar.” Another reminder to always read the manual.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

2010

  • Never lose your lens cap again
    It might seem obvious, but it often makes sense for loss-prone items to be physically secured so they won’t end up missing when needed.

2009

  • Official release: Unclutter Your Life in One Week
    If you buy the book or request it at the library or borrow it from a friend, I hope you enjoy reading it and find it helpful and motivating. I tried my best to write the book I needed when I was overwhelmed with clutter, and I hope it speaks to you wherever you are on your uncluttering journey.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: TwitterPeek
    This item was sent to us by many Unclutterer readers, and I specifically liked the humor expressed by those who sent it to us over Twitter. Today’s unitasker is the TwitterPeek.
  • Video tour of Jay Shafer’s 96-square-foot house
    Take a video tour of a house smaller than some people’s closets.
  • Let go of the past from your wardrobe
    In Unclutter Your Life in One Week, I talk about setting guidelines for your wardrobe to help you decide what can stay and what should go. The eighth item on this list is “You should have an occasion in the next year to wear it.” Thankfully, none of the clothes I’m getting rid of meet this definition.

Traveling to see family? Maybe leave these items at your destination

The older I get, the less tolerant I am of the miles that separate the members of my family. My wife and kids live with me, but my extended family is far-flung indeed. I’m here in Massachusetts while my parents are in Florida and my sisters live with their families in New York and Pennsylvania. We get together as often as possible, though scheduling and cost still make our gatherings more rare than I’d like.

Spending time together often means flying. I’ve written about flying before, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. However, I will share a tip for keeping things easy while you pack, at the airport and once you’ve arrived.

Each of the family members I mention are host to some of my belongings. They have agreed, and we have in return, to care for a few things that make traveling to see each other even easier and more organized. Some choices are obvious, while others are not. The following are suggestions for how you can reduce the amount of stuff you have to pack and have to schlep across the country, as well as keep from forgetting the items entirely, when going to visit family.

Toiletries

This one is pretty obvious. TSA restrictions affect these items, so I avoid carrying them on planes and leave a set at my parents’ house, etc. Despite the silly name, I’ve assembled a “Dopp kit” that covers most of the basics, like a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, floss, travel-sized soap and shampoo, and finally a razor, blades, and some shaving cream. And all of these items are in a nice bag.

You can get as fancy (pictured above) or economical as you prefer. The bag isn’t completely necessary, of course, but I like to make it easy for my hosts to put my stuff away when I’m not around. No sense in adding clutter to their lives.

Clothes

This one could be tricky, as clothes are bulky and we don’t want to create a storage nightmare for our generous hosts. Instead of keeping a full wardrobe remotely, I store just a few things like a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, some t-shirts and what my mom calls “lounge pants.” I still have to pack some clothes, but not as much as I would otherwise.

Here’s a tip: leave neutral colors at your destination. That way you don’t have to try to coordinate your packing with items that are in another state.

Small electronics

I admit to being a gadget addict. For me, “fear” can be defined as no Wi-Fi or a dead battery. So, I keep a cable and wall adapter to charge my iPhone at my parents’ house. Both are very small and can be tucked away in a tiny drawer. As someone who has forgotten to pack a cable and who has left one behind, I really enjoy the peace of mind that I get knowing my charging needs will be covered while I’m in the Sunshine State.

Here’s a tip about electronics. The TSA requires smartphones and tablets to be powered up enough to be turned on at the gate, should an agent want to. If you’re leaving a charger at home knowing there’s one at your destination, make sure that phone has enough juice to run between home and the security gate.

Finally, here are a few that are destination-specific. I keep a tube of sunblock at my parents’ home in sunny Florida, because my son has some weird eczema thing going on and needs special sunblock. It’s easiest to just buy it there and leave it instead of constantly transporting travel-size bottles of the stuff. Finally, I keep a charged subway pass at my sister’s New York City apartment. One less thing for me to forget.

As the travel season approaches, I hope this makes things a bit easier for you, assuming your hosts are okay with this arrangement.

More modified principles of sanitary design

I know it seems a little strange to apply food industry practices to one’s personal life, but it does make my life easier. Whenever we move to a new home, I apply all kinds of modified principles of facility design to arrangement and layout. It isn’t always easy because of the architecture of the house, but some simple modifications can be made so that things run smoothly and efficiently.

If you’re interested in doing the same, consider the following:

Create Distinct Zones. Maintaining separations between areas reduces the likelihood of transfer of material from one area to another. When items are kept where they belong, you can quickly and easily find what you need, when you need it. You may not be able to renovate your home to add walls, but a shelving unit could be used to separate a living room from a dining area. Screens or curtains could be used to designate distinct areas in a shared bedroom or to separate a home gym from the family room.

Control Process and Material Flows. Lack of adequate processes or poorly designed processes can cause clutter to build up. Identifying and repairing bad processes can help you save time and effort. Ensure you set up the processes so that the people in your home can move around easily without bumping into one another. For example, if someone is trying to pour his/her breakfast cereal at the same counter space where someone else is making coffee, you could consider relocating the coffee maker or the breakfast cereal. An alternative would be for the coffee drinkers to adjust their morning routines to vacate that particular counter space before the cereal eaters need to prepare their breakfast.

Easy Cleaning. When you are examining your processes, think about general housecleaning. Will the vacuum cleaner easily pass between pieces of furniture? Would the addition of garbage and/or recycling bins help keep clutter at bay in certain areas?

Environmental Control. Ensuring proper airflow in the home improves indoor air quality and makes the home more comfortable with respect to temperature and humidity. Do not block vents, radiators or windows with furniture. Vent deflectors can be used if furniture must be placed over vents. In the winter, temporary curtains can be installed to create a double doorway and prevent cold air from entering all over house.

Plan Exterior Elements. Putting mats and boot brushes at the entryway to the house can prevent dirt and mud from getting deeper into the house. A chair or bench by the door will allow you to set packages down in a clean, dry area while you unlock your door. Be sure to keep the area clean of leaves and dirt so rodents and insects don’t have a place to hide while they wait for you to open your front door.