What could be secretly hidden in clutter?

Last week my daughter lost her AirPods. She said she was wearing a particular jacket when she last had them. On examination of the jacket, we found a small hole in one of the pockets and the AirPods had fallen through the hole and were trapped between the jacket and liner. Fortunately, that jacket had not yet passed through the washer and dryer!

This incident made me think about some precautionary measures to take while uncluttering.

Before donating or disposing, we certainly should examine the pockets of clothing but if the pockets have holes, or if we find the pockets have been repaired, we should make sure that nothing is trapped between the layers of fabric. We don’t want to be like the woman who donated her husband’s old shirt in which he had hidden $8000 cash. Luckily, she was able to retrieve the shirt and the money, but what a stressful experience!

When examining clothing, always check inside mittens and gloves. Did a ring slip off a finger and remain trapped inside? Is something trapped in the lining? Look inside the brims of hats as people have been known to stick cash and receipts up there. Due to the notorious lack of pockets in women’s clothing, some ladies have placed money, important receipts, and jewellery inside their bras. Check inside shoes too, underneath the insole and deep into the toes.

Verifying all the compartments of purses and wallets is pretty obvious but again, check between the purse and liner for any items — especially if you find holes in the lining or see that the lining was repaired. Hand stitching on mattresses or other furniture may be a clue that something could be hidden inside.

At a NAPO conference I attended, one professional organizer mentioned she found a diamond tennis bracelet like this one, (but with real diamonds and worth thousands of dollars) in an inside pocket of a suitcase to be donated. As well as pockets, always check the bottoms and lids of suitcases and briefcases for hidden compartments. If suitcases have linings with zippers, open them and check within.

For centuries jewellery boxes had many secret compartments to thwart thieves and the tradition continues today. Completely empty jewellery boxes and give them a good shake to ensure you haven’t missed a hidden niche. Once, when doing an estate clearing, I found cash hidden behind the liner of a jewellery gift box so do check inside all items that may have contained valuables.

Secret safes may be overlooked while uncluttering. There are book safes, safes that look like food containers, hairbrushes, and even surge protectors. This Pinterest board shows some amazingly creative hiding spots for valuables!

When you’re uncluttering someone else’s things, especially elderly people (who may believe their mattress is safer than a bank for storing cash), and anyone with dementia or other mental health issues, it is helpful to think about how a spy would hide their secrets. We don’t mean to suggest that anyone has nefarious motives but there are times when honest, upstanding people put items “away for safe-keeping” and then forget where that is. For example, a recycling plant employee found $100,000 cash hidden in the back of an old television. Fortunately, the money was returned to its rightful owner who had forgotten he had stashed it there many years before.

If you’ve found something interesting or valuable hidden in clutter you were about to donate or dispose, please share it with our readers so they know what to look for.

Dry erase boards for the 21st century

When my brother and I were teenagers, my parents had a dry erase board hanging next to the door we used as our main entry point to the house. All of us, parents included, were to write where we were going and what time we expected to return on the board as we left the house. We didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t get an answering machine until my senior year of high school, so this dry erase board was our way of keeping track of everyone.

If we changed our plans, we either had to first come by the house and write it on the board or call and hopefully reach someone at home to change the information on the board for us. We also kept appointment reminders (Dentist Tues. 2:00) and notes to ourselves (Don’t forget Kara’s math notes!) to help with the flow of life in the house.

Now, in my own home, I find that there are times when I still wish I had a dry erase board next to my door — even with cell phones, voice mail and the like. I’ll write messages on Post-It notes and stick them to the door as reminders for things I shouldn’t forget (Bank!). The Post-It people must have been listening because it has come to my attention that I can have a giant dry erase board next to my door without having an unsightly dry erase board hanging there.

I can now buy dry erase whiteboard film! It is like self-adhesive, dry erase wallpaper except it’s removable! It is rather expensive but I don’t have to worry about drilling holes in my walls and it can be cut to fit the exact space I want.

In my situation, I think it would be great for by our door, but it could be used in kids’ rooms, offices, classrooms, kitchens, and conference rooms. As an organizational tool, I think this is a wonderful idea.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

More benefits of being organized

Dave just wrote about the hidden benefits of uncluttering, and that reminded me of the stories I’ve been collecting that illustrate the benefits of getting organized.

Many of the stories have to do with saving money. Mike Isaac tweeted about having to absorb a $313 airline ticket change fee because he couldn’t find the receipt so he could get reimbursed by his employer. And it can get worse. Mike also tweeted about forgetting to pay a bill for a few months, having it go to collections, and seeing his credit score take a big hit.

A smaller savings comes from not buying things you already own but forgot about — or couldn’t find. Erika Hall tweeted about an all-too-common situation:

Finally attacked and organized the spice cabinet.
If you have a recipe that uses 137 tablespoons of cinnamon and an equal amount of paprika, let me know.

A while back, as I was dropping off donations at my local non-profit thrift store, I saw someone who was buying a tie because he arrived at a wedding site without one. Since it would be odd for someone to walk out of the house on his way to a formal wedding without a tie, I assumed he had arrived the previous night (or earlier) as part of an overnight stay or a longer trip. If he’d had a packing checklist that he consulted, he wouldn’t have needed to make a last-minute tie purchase, saving a bit of time and money — and avoiding owning another tie that he may not need or especially like. (If that was the case, I hope he donated it back to the store or another charitable organization.)

Being organized can make creative work easier because it’s easy to find (and to put away) your supplies. Louise Hornor is a quilter who lives on a boat, and I enjoy reading about how she organizes her materials in such a small space. For her scrap strips, she’d been using a do-it-yourself approach, working with facial tissue boxes, but recognized that the boxes “don’t nest or stack nicely,” making it a bit cumbersome to “pop one or two strips into the right bin without shuffling the whole stack.” So she adjusted her system by getting better tools:

I treated myself to a set of multi-color Akro bins. Oooo! Aaaah! So pretty! So sturdy! So stackable! So open in the front for easy access, no matter how high the stack!

Another benefit comes about in a situation I hope you don’t need to face: evacuating your home. Someone I know had to evacuate when her large apartment complex had a fire. (Fortunately, the fire didn’t reach her unit.) When she had to leave, she was able to grab all her essential items in about a minute because she knew exactly where everything was, and all her most important things were in one of three places. And being an organized person, she immediately reflected on what she overlooked so she could do an even better job if she ever needed to evacuate again.

Unitasker Wednesday: TriceraTaco Taco Holder

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

We’ve written about taco holders on prior Wednesdays: the Taco Truck and the TacoProper. But I just came across the TriceraTaco taco holder, and couldn’t resist revisiting this subject.

There’s no doubt this is a unitasker, but it also made me grin. So if all of the following statements are true, maybe buying a unitasker wouldn’t be so horrible:

  • You make tacos often.
  • You don’t use the flat-bottomed taco shells that stand up fine on their own (and wouldn’t fit in this holder).
  • You have plenty of space to store this taco holder.
  • You (or your family members) would be delighted every time you used it.

However, it’s also worth remembering that what seems cute at first glance will sometimes wear thin in repeated uses. Would you still like the TriceraTaco on the 20th use?

Tool for change

When I set goals for myself, I start by writing them down and then imagining how I want things to look in the future. I often have done this activity by writing myself a letter that I schedule to open on a future date — sometimes two weeks, two months, or even two years in the future.

The other day I stumbled upon a link to the website FutureMe.org. FutureMe is similar to what I was describing above, but instead of writing a tangible letter you create an email. I really like the idea of a future email because you can’t lose it and you don’t have to worry about a physical letter cluttering up your desk. You can set the letter as “private” so that only you receive the message, or “public but anonymous” for all to view.

Consider writing yourself a future email through FutureMe.org as a way to help you keep on track with your uncluttering goals.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Hidden benefits of uncluttering

Here at Unclutterer we espouse the clutter-free lifestyle. The reasons are mostly obvious: a clean, tidy home means less time is spent searching for things, knowing what you actually own, etc.

In this post, I want to look at the less obvious benefits of uncluttering. These less obvious advantages are just as powerful as those listed above. Let’s get started with time. Time, not money, is the only valuable commodity we have. Would you rather lose ten dollars or ten years? Without time, nothing else has value, so the wise person treats it as precious.

Finish small tasks right away. Schedule time to spend on big tasks and stick to it. Clean as you go. Adopt a calendar/planner that fits your lifestyle and use a productivity system you trust. You’ll spend less time on household chores, and more time with family and friends.

Next, and this is a rather specific example but bear with me. Being uncluttered means that unexpected visitors do not elicit a stressful frenzy of straightening up. It might not happen often, but when that unannounced guest is en route to your door, a few minutes of tidying is all that is needed to make the house presentable. Compare that to the frenzy of straightening a cluttered house.

Before I continue, an important note. A working home is not a museum. As I said in 2015:

“These are the years spent in the trenches. The years where my wife and I argue over who gets to be the one to grocery shop, because grocery shopping means you get 25 minutes to yourself. If guests arrive and there’s a stack of papers on a table somewhere or library books strewn about or if our dear visitors have to witness a round of my favorite 7:38 a.m. game, ‘Where Are Your Clean Socks And Why Must We Go Through This Every Blessed Day?’, Fine.

The people who are nice enough to travel and spend money just to be in our company understand where we are at this stage in our lives. They love us, and know that transferring the breakfast cereal into labeled Tupperware containers is just under ‘jewel-encrusted, heated driveway’ on our list of current priorities.”

It’s completely unreasonable, in my opinion, to live in a clutter-free home 24/7/365. That’s not what I’m proposing. Just make an effort to tidy as you go to save some stress.

Next, your family will catch the uncluttering bug. I know, that sounds crazy. I have two teenagers whose favorite activities include sleeping, eating and playing video games. (Perhaps you’re familiar with this scenario.) If the house is routinely tidy, they won’t like it when it isn’t. In fact, they’ll start to organize to keep things on an even, tidy keel. I’ve seen it happen and it’s glorious.

When the tidying starts to happen consistently, you’ll feel more creative. This one is backed by science. Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute demonstrated that a cluttered environment restricts one’s ability to focus. Having trouble finishing that novel or getting some work done? A cluttered desk or office could be a contributing factor.

Lastly, you’ll likely get more sleep. A sleep study conducted in 2015 showed that people who routinely sleep in cluttered rooms are more likely to have sleep disturbances and get less restful sleep than counterparts in tidy rooms. Who doesn’t want better sleep? I sure do.

There you have a few less obvious benefits to pursuing the uncluttered lifestyle. If you’ve discovered any hidden benefits to being uncluttered, please share them with readers in the comments below.

Work hard, not a lot

Gretchen Rubin interviews the most fascinating people over on The Happiness Project blog. Recently, she spoke with Morten Hansen, co-author of Great by Choice and sole author of Great at Work. In the latter book, he reveals something that I have championed for years: working more does not mean achieving more. This is something that I’ve known intuitively and have seen in clients and in myself over and over again: it’s all about how you work, not how long you work.

Hansen has taken this intuitive sensation of mine and proven it with a study. People who work too many hours a week are actually less productive than those who work less.

He doesn’t, however, go so far at Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week. Hansen states that to achieve higher than average productivity, it’s important to work hard and work a bit more than the average, but not to work so much as to damage other areas of your life.

I learned how to focus on quality not quantity back in high school when I played in the school band. I knew I wasn’t ever going to be a full-time musician (because I was a decent technical player, but couldn’t improvise to save my life). There were times when I practiced an hour or more a day and others when I practiced only a few times a week. I discovered that it didn’t matter which of the two levels I practiced at; I remained at the same level, so of course, I stopped wasting my time and made the conscious decision to practice only a few times a week.

For me, it’s a kind of intangible minimalism. Just as a minimalist mindset looks at the home and asks, “What is the least amount of stuff I can have while still maintaining the quality of life I want?” a minimalist attitude to work asks, “What are the least number of hours that I can work to reach my top productivity?”

It sounds like an easy question, but the answer is hard to calculate. Often you don’t have a choice. You’re contracted to work a specific number of hours and have to do that no matter how productive you are in that time period. Or the culture of your company is one where unpaid overtime is a sign of real commitment regardless of productivity levels (hopefully none of you works in that situation!).

According to Hansen, the most productive people put in about 25% time more than the average (50 hours of work instead of the traditional 35), but if someone starts putting in more time, the productivity drops off steeply.

My question for everyone, therefore is: How much do you want to achieve your objectives? Are you willing to invest that 25% more time into them than the average person? Can you even quantify that that average time investment is for your objectives? If not, perhaps you might consider making that calculation your top priority.

More kitchen tips

Here are a few kitchen tips from an article in The Telegraph in 2007:

  • Uncluttering tips: A time study revealed that most people use the same four pots and pans over and over again. Take an objective look at the other seldom used items. Consider eliminating them or storing them elsewhere.
  • Recipes: A three-ring binder with magnetic photo pages can be used to store recipes collected from family and friends, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. Avoid those that require ingredients you will never buy. If your family doesn’t find a recipe to be a hit, then toss it out. Discard unused recipes yearly. It takes only minutes to do this. Consider displaying special cookbooks on your bookshelf or coffee table as a conversation piece.
  • Paper and mail: It’s best to open mail right beside a recycling bin or trashcan. Don’t put it in a pile to “sort later.” This delay tactic only wastes time, as you’ll have to review the mail a second time. It takes seconds to pitch junk mail and unwanted advertisements now. If you can’t get your magazines read, do not renew your subscription, instead use the library, or pick up an occasional copy at the grocery store.

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Creating extra storage and counter space in a small kitchen

You’ve been a good unclutterer and gone through your cabinets and discarded the items you never use. You’ve put away the rarely used appliances that sat on your countertop. For those with a good size kitchen, you’re done. Your kitchen is uncluttered. But what about the rest of us?

If you’re like me and you rent an apartment or own a condo with a tiny kitchen, your counter space still doesn’t offer enough room to cook a complete meal. I have size and poor design to deal with in my kitchen. I can clear my counters completely and still have a difficult time finding space to cut vegetables. To work around this dilemma, I have found a solution: A kitchen cart.

I used to think kitchen carts were silly. That is, until I had a real use for one. Now, I can’t exist without it.

My cart won’t fit inside the kitchen, so I have to store it against the wall across from the kitchen entrance. When it’s time to cook, I just wheel the cart over to the kitchen and, suddenly, I have all the counter space I need. It also blocks off the entrance, keeping my husband and the dog out of my cooking space.

Here is what to look for in a kitchen cart:

  • Sturdy – You need to be able to chop things on it, so go for something that won’t rock or cause you to slice your fingers.
  • Wheels – You should be able to move it where you need to use it.
  • Wire Racks – This feature is great for holding mixing bowls and other items used for cooking.
  • Hooks – If you’re also short on drawer space, the hooks are nice for utensils.

Erasing old cell phones as you unclutter them

If you have a fairly recent cell phone that you want to sell or donate, it’s pretty easy to remove your personal information (address book, messages, photos, etc.) from the phone before disposing of it. You can get the how-to information from your cell phone manufacturer or cellular provider, or you can find information online from various other sources.

In general, the steps will involve removing any SIM cards and SD cards, doing a hard reset (also known as a factory reset), and setting up encryption if needed (especially on Android phones). To be even more secure, you can load junk data onto your phone and then do another factory reset.

But what if it’s an old phone and you don’t have the charger, you don’t know the password, or both? These phones tend to get shoved into drawers or boxes to be dealt with at a later time — which never comes.

How many old phones do people have laying around? To get an idea, look at what Daniel Otis reported in the Motherboard website:

According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which advocates on behalf of the industry, 62 per cent of Canadians have an average of 2.1 phones that they’re not using. That equals more than 47 million unused cell phones collecting dust.

If you’re dealing with phones like this and you’d like to finally unclutter them, the following are a few suggestions.

Missing the password? Try the default lock code or just do a factory reset.

Leaving a default lock code in place is a bad idea, but enough people do it that you might as well try it. Many years ago, the person who used the phone might not have been as security-conscious as most of us are now.

The default code on many Nokia phones is 12345. The code on some LG phones is 0000 (four zeroes) and on other LG phones it’s the last four digits of your phone number. Other phones might use 1234.

But the easiest option might be to do a factory reset (which should be possible even without the password), since you want to remove all of the data on the phone, anyway.

Missing the charger? See if someone else has one.

A vendor’s store may have the charger you’re lacking and might be willing to charge your phone enough that you can follow the standard steps for erasing your phone. Or ask around on sites like Nextdoor, where you might find someone who would be happy to lend you the charger you need.

Still stuck? Physically destroy the phone.

If you can’t get into the phone to erase the data, you can always resort to physically destroying the phone. Some people distrust the software erasing process and prefer hardware destruction, even though it could mean a perfectly usable phone gets destroyed. It’s all a matter of what data you have on the phone and how you evaluate the risks of having that data stolen.

While you could attempt to destroy the phone yourself — if you know what you’re doing — many people will find paying a reputable service provider to shred the phone to be the wiser choice.

Some local shredding companies will shred cell phones, including companies with certification from the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID). You can search for a company through the NAID website, although there’s no way to identify which ones work with cell phones as opposed to just paper and storage media such as computer hard drives. Alternatively, you could just use your favorite search engine.

For example, the following are a few companies that provide cell phone shredding services:

Why do we keep the things we do?

Our family completed two international moves in the space of 14 months and have not really had time to settle in our current house. So, it didn’t take much effort for recent home repairs wreak havoc in our basement. As I was sifting through stuff that I didn’t even remember we had, I started reflecting on why we keep the things we do.

Emotional connections

We keep some things is because we have an emotional attachment to them such as Grandma’s teapot or the toy cars from our youth. We’ve written a lot about sentimental clutter over the years so if you are dealing with sentimental items, reading these posts can help you decide whether or not to keep the items or let them go.

A need to be prepared

It’s great to be prepared. When the smoke detector starts its incessant “I have a dead battery!” beeping in the middle of the night, having a spare battery in the kitchen drawer is certainly handy. But is there a need for keeping a circular saw you use once every two or three years? We’ve written about renting seldom used tools as an option for reducing clutter. What about the huge roasting pan you use only at Thanksgiving? It could be shared among family members and whoever hosts next year’s family dinner, gets to store the pan for the year. Alternatively, you could always use disposable roasting pans.

No one wants to be caught off-guard so think about what you absolutely need in an urgent situation and what you’re keeping for non-urgent, just in case scenarios.

It’s for a special occasion

Many people have items they use only on rare, special occasions. I’m not talking about holiday decorations which are only used during holiday periods (it would be odd to see Christmas decorations in July). I’m talking about the “good dishes” that can only be used during a candlelight supper with dignified guests.

In reality, using special things all the time, or at least more frequently, does not make them less special. By using them, we are acknowledging the privilege of owning them and every time we use them we are creating special memories. Treating your own family members as dignified guests at a candlelight supper every month will give your children something to remember.

There are people, (and I am one of them) that use the term, “saving for special occasion” as an excuse to not use high maintenance items such as a dry-clean only clothing or hand wash only dishes. If this is the case, then it is likely you’re really keeping these things for one of the other reasons listed here.

It was a gift

If there is an emotional connection to the gift, follow the advice on dealing with sentimental clutter. Unclutterer Jeri wrote a great post on how to deal with unwanted gifts that provides some great information as well. Remember, you can keep something if it was a gift, you don’t have to keep it because it was a gift.

Some people keep items because they are going to give them as gifts “when the time comes.” I would suggest “the time” be scheduled in a planner, calendar, or reminder list. If there is more than one gift per person per occasion, then it is probably safe to unclutter those items.

The price

When people say, “It was free!” they really mean they didn’t pay any money for it. That is good deal if you need, want, and use the item. However, factor in a portion of your real-estate costs (mortgage, rent, utility bills) plus any maintenance time and costs for “free” items that you never use you realize that they are not really free. Liberate yourself and unclutter the freebies.

At the opposite end of the scale, it may be hard to part with items that were expensive. In most cases, thanks to mass-produced market goods and depreciation, the longer you own an item, the lower its value. Therefore, selling an item sooner, rather than later will reduce your loss. For example, if you buy a grandfather clock for $5000 in one year it would be worth about $4800 but after five years it would only be worth about $4100. Selling it sooner would result in more cash in your pocket. This depreciation guide may help you determine how quickly your assets decline in value.

Dreams

Sometimes it’s our dreams that cause us to retain clutter. We dream of creating that perfect scrapbook so we head out to the craft store to stock up on supplies. Inspired by the latest sports superstar, we shop at Athletes’ World for all the latest equipment so we too might become the next draft pick. There is nothing wrong with trying something new, but ensure that it is an achievable goal. You may not have the patience for scrapbooking or the time to practice a new sport.

Before you start buying to fulfill a dream, make a plan to achieve it. Schedule time in your planner to practice, take a few lessons with rented equipment, or buy only the minimum amount of supplies. If, after a few months you’re still “really into it,” and practicing regularly, then treat yourself to some extra equipment.

If you’ve got a stash of sporting goods, or craft and hobby supplies lying around that you haven’t touched in months, either make a S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goal to get involved again or let the items go.

It’s not my clutter

There are times when we store items for other people. For example, our children are in university so we are storing many of their things. We don’t mind, but we fully expect they will take their things once they have graduated and settled in their own homes. If you’re storing items that do not belong to you, here is some advice that might help.

Here’s some more advice in case you are uncluttering other people’s things. Remember to get their permission to unclutter and if possible, go through all the items with them when making decisions about whether to keep things or let them go.

Trouble uncluttering

If you’re having trouble uncluttering, you’ve come to the right place. Unclutterer provides plenty of resources and motivation to get you moving. You can check out our Organizing Jump-Start, look through our posts on Resources and Services to learn where and how to dispose of items, and read all of our tips to help you unclutter.

Now I shall return to my basement to unclutter and organize. I should have it completed well before we have to move (again) next year.

Living more simply through eBay

Here’s one way to live more simply: sell all your possessions on eBay. That’s what John Freyer did in 2002. As he was getting ready to leave grad school in Iowa for New York City, he decided to sell everything he owned on eBay and on his site, allmylifeforsale.com. He sold everything, from used socks, to a can of Chunky Soup from his pantry, from his Planet of the Apes LP, to a bag of small, roasted cuttlefish. The result is a book that catalogues his project, which is described on the site as an “explor[ation of] our relationship to the objects around us, their role in the concept of identity, as well as the emerging commercial systems of the Internet.”

You don’t need to be as hip and PoMo as Freyer to see the benefit of eBay as a tool for turning clutter into cash. I saw an article in New York Times back in 2007 about how teens trying to get quick cash are a great source for cheap electronics on eBay and Craigslist. Especially when you’re about to make a life change, like moving to another city, selling a lot of your stuff, instead of packing it up and paying to ship it, can be a great organization strategy.

There’s a moral here for you even if like most of your possessions, thank you very much. Whenever you are uncluttering and you don’t think you can bring yourself to part with some knick-knack, just think of John Freyer and his Star Wars bed sheets.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.