How returnable purchases can lead to clutter

The things you buy and intend to return — but never do — are an all-too-common type of clutter. A recent research study gives some interesting insight into the psychology of return policies and provides one reason why some people wind up with those unreturned items. Somewhat unintuitively, a longer return policy can lead to fewer returns.

As Sarah Halzack wrote in The Washington Post:

Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

“Since they don’t feel pressure to take it right back to the store, they kind of sit with it and live with it and say, ‘Well it’s not that bad,'” Freling said.

(If you’ve ever found a blouse lurking in the back of your closet with the tags on it months after you bought it, this is probably a familiar feeling.)

So if you’re not sure whether or not to keep a purchase, it might be a good idea to give yourself a decision-making deadline that comes well before the store’s return deadline if that deadline is quite far out, like 90 days. Putting the return deadline on your calendar will help you remember to make that decision and handle any returns.

For other people, the problem may simply be making the time to handle the return, especially if it involves going to a store that’s not nearby. And some people have a “returning-things” anxiety which makes any return difficult, even if the item is defective. If you know you’re not going to do the return, for whatever reason, it’s best to get rid of the item (by donating it or whatever) as soon as you determine it’s not going to work for you. Keeping it around just takes up space and reminds you of the wasted money, neither of which is helpful.

Are you curious about what happens to things you do return? If you decide to return something you bought online, there’s a good chance it goes to a liquidator, not the company you bought it from or the manufacturer. Davey Alba wrote in Wired about what she learned from one such company, Shorewood Liquidators.

Major retailers can’t resell returned items, even if they’re still brand new, says Shorewood’s Ringelsten. “You don’t know where the product went after it left your store, so you can’t put it back on your shelf.”

More to the point, people most often return things because they are defective. Retailers simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the suppliers. “It would be very expensive for a company like Amazon to handle returns,” Ringelsten says. “They would have to sort it out — and there are a million manufacturers out there.” What’s more, he says, manufacturers usually supply items to retailers like Amazon through a contract where it’s understood that items that may be returned will simply be liquidated.

If the items can’t be sold or recycled for a profit, they simply go to landfill. About 10 percent of what Shorewood handles falls into that category. That’s a lot, but less than you might expect given that so many returns are defective items. So go ahead and do those returns, knowing that many items will be resold at bargain prices — which might help someone who could really use a bargain purchase. That’s certainly better than having the items stashed in the back of a closet, unused.

Unitasker Wednesday: Aquasonic Wave Jewelry Cleaning System

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

My grandmother and mother both worked for years in jewelry stores. My husband’s uncle and his three sons and their wives own a chain of jewelry stores and are professional jewelry designers. And let me tell you what none of these people would recommend for ways to clean your jewelry: putting it in the dishwasher. Although it may work, there are certainly safer and less expensive ways to get your jewelry cleaned than by using the Aquasonic Wave Jewelry Cleaning System:

The idea of putting jewelry in the dishwasher completely terrifies me. If anything were to happen, your favorite necklace or ring could easily fit right down the drain! Ack!

And at $54, this device is more expensive than many sonic professional jewelry cleaning units and pretty much every at home cleaning method that is safer. The device also comes with a 10-week supply of a proprietary antibacterial gel that you then get to order replacement packs for so the price of the device keeps going up.

I’m going to be stressed out the rest of the day just thinking about this.

Erin on the Today Show

Monday was an exciting day for me as I headed to New York to appear on the Today Show to provide home organizing tips and to talk about my new book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter. I had an incredible time working with everyone on the show — everyone was blow-me-over nice, from the hair, makeup, and wardrobe stylists to the camera operators to the art director to the producer to Hoda and Kathie Lee. This was my first time doing LIVE national television and I was barely nervous at all because of how comfortable everyone on the show made me feel. I pretty much laughed through the entire segment I was having such a good time. And, hopefully, I was able to share some helpful tips with the audience, too.

If you missed it live, you can watch the clip:

And my apologies to anyone outside the U.S. who may not be able to view the video clip. A summary of our discussion is on the Today Show site.

Avoiding clutter by careful purchasing

Poorly chosen purchases are one major source of household and office clutter. While most of us are unlikely to totally eliminate this problem, we can certainly minimize it.

I’ve written before about controlling online purchases, but what about in-store purchases? You could implement a “mandatory waiting time” policy for anything not on your shopping list, but that’s not the only possible approach.

Paco Underhill is an expert in how stores convince people to buy, and he provided the following suggestions in The New York Times:

For consumers, my advice is this: Never shop tired, never shop hungry, and keep a list of shopping objectives. And if the deal looks too good to be true, pay attention to your instincts and just step around it. Don’t buy for “someday” — if you can’t wear it or use it today, chances are it will become clutter in your home instead of in the store.

What else might you do? If you’re going shopping with a friend, be sure that’s a friend who will be useful. You want someone who will give you honest feedback about the wisdom of a purchase: whether something does indeed look great on you, whether it’s something that makes sense for you to buy at this time, etc. I made one of my more useless purchases when I went clothes shopping with someone else. With her encouragement, I bought something I would never have bought if I had been shopping by myself. (Fortunately, it wasn’t an expensive item.) But another friend helped me pick my fantastic sofa, which was somewhat expensive but worth every penny.

Reflecting on prior purchases and seeing where you tend to go wrong can also be useful. Jeff Yaeger wrote on AARP’s “Money Talk” blog about doing an annual “What the Heck was I Thinking” self-audit annually, at tax time.

It’s simple: Just quickly review your credit card statements, canceled checks, receipts, etc. for the larger purchases you’ve made in the past year, particularly the discretionary, “nonessential” things you’ve spent money on. Then ask yourself one question: “If I had it to do over again, would I have bought that?” Make a note of those things that you spent money that you now regret, and then take a few minutes to really study that list once it’s complete.

The idea is to learn from your spending mistakes so that you won’t keep repeating them.

… It’s also helpful to carry your “What the Heck Was I Thinking?” list with you in your wallet or purse, and glance at [it] whenever you’re headed out on a shopping spree. 

Similarly, you could choose to give yourself a different kind of physical reminder to help control impulse purchases. This pocket wallet reminds you to think twice before spending your money.

For those who share its social concerns, The Center For a New American Dream has a wallet buddy you can print out and wrap around your credit or debit card, with the reminder that, “Every dollar I spend is a statement about the kind of world I want & the quality of life I value.” On the reverse side, there are a series of questions, including “Do I need this & do I need it now?” There are also questions about whether the product was made sustainably and whether it has too much packaging.

If you like the idea of a credit/debit card wrapper, you could certainly create your own, with whatever reminders are helpful to you. As an alternative to the wrapper, you could print a short reminder on a label maker and attach that directly to your card.

Banish the Mess and Restore Order in Almost Every Room Right Now: An excerpt from NEVER TOO BUSY TO CURE CLUTTER

Never Too Busy to Cure ClutterThe following is an excerpt from my latest home organizing book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter. If you buy it between now and February 16, fill out this fancy form, and I will send you a FREE audiobook copy of my first book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. So, if you want to tackle clutter, mess, or grime in any room, this is a good way to start. Choose a task based on how much time you have available and get to work.

From pages 68-71:

The following are basic actions you can complete in almost every room of your home. Some of these tasks seem incredibly obvious, but it’s often the simplest and most conspicuous tasks that form the foundation of your cleaning routine. A few of the following tasks are equally important but only need doing at certain times of the year. Pick and choose your way to a clean, uncluttered, and organized home.

When working in any room of your home, ask yourself: Where is clutter accumulating? Is there a reason things are piling up in one (or more) area(s)? What would prevent clutter from being left in this space? What small act would greatly improve this room?

30 SECONDS

  • Dust one of the following: a single shelf, a picture frame or two, the top of a doorjamb, a lamp, or a light fixture.
  • Wipe down a tabletop or other flat surface.
  • Gather wayward pens and pencils and return them to their storage spot.
  • Clean a doorknob with a disinfecting wipe.
  • Replace a burned-out lightbulb (preferable with an LED bulb, so you won’t have to replace it again for years and will save on energy costs).

1 MINUTE

  • Find two items that aren’t where they belong and return them to where they do.
  • Clean a mirror, window, the glass front on a cabinet, or picture frame.
  • Dust a ceiling light/fan fixture, crown molding, baseboards, or a corner of a room with a telescoping duster.
  • Check your toilet paper and facial tissue inventory throughout the house and replace as necessary.
  • Change your perspective: Lie on the ground or stand on a step stool to see if you can spot hidden clutter.

5 MINUTES

  • Empty the trash cans and/or recycling bins in a room.
  • Round up dirty clothes to start a load of laundry.
  • Check the batteries in a device. Replace them if necessary.
  • Move a piece of furniture and sweep or vacuum under it, or vacuum al the air vents in a room.
  • Fill a basket with wayward items and return those items to the permanent storage locations.

15 MINUTES

  • Vacuum or sweep the floor of a room.
  • Fill a bucket with 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1 gallon water, and mop the uncarpeted floor in a room.
  • Remove all the fabric curtains in a room from their rods and put them in a bag to bring to your dry cleaner.
  • Move furniture off a throw rug or hall runner and take the rug outside. Shake it out and then drape it over something (like a railing) and hit it with a broom handle. Return the rug and replace the furniture.
  • Inspect furniture for damage and wear. Schedule any appointments necessary to have damaged and/or worn items repaired or set aside a block of time to shop for a replacement.

Released today! NEVER TOO BUSY TO CURE CLUTTER (and another awesome giveaway)

Never Too Busy to Cure ClutterI am so excited to announce that today my latest home organizing book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter hits bookstores in the U.S.!

I absolutely adore this book. It is practical, simple to use, and full of great ideas to get your home life organized. If you’re busy — like everyone I know — this book is for you. It breaks down uncluttering, organizing, and cleaning tasks into 30-second, 1-minute, 5-minute, and 15-minute activities so you can get things done on your schedule. There are also fun quizzes and weekend projects and the interior pages are full of orange artwork (my favorite color).

If you read the Tidying Up book and thought it was cool, but it didn’t really work for you since you didn’t have six months to dedicate your life to organizing, my latest book is right up your alley. You don’t have to change who you are or adopt some system or join a support group for this book to help you. I wrote this book based on what I do in my house and with my clients — and I have a full-time job, two kids, and an attempt (although meager) at a social life. But, even if you’re single and unemployed and have never considered having kids, this book will still give you great ideas for clearing your clutter.

And because I LOVE Unclutterer readers, I have worked out an awesome promotion for people who buy this book. In the next three weeks (between now and February 16), if you buy my book and then come back here and fill out this fancy form, I will send you a FREE audiobook copy of my first book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. If you ordered my book during the pre-sale period, I’m going to send you a copy of the audiobook, too, because you all are amazing, as well. So, if you buy Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter, you get a second book FREE. That’s how incredible and thankful I am for all you terrific Unclutterer readers. Now don’t forget to come back and fill out this fancy form by February 16, 2016.

Finally, if you live in the U.K., my book will be released in February or April (my publisher told me one thing and Amazon.co.uk says another). Brits also can check out an interview with me in the February issue of Woman & Home magazine. Additionally, publishing rights have been sold in the UAE and Russia already, so those translations will be out in the coming months. (I’ll keep you posted as more foreign rights are sold, so stay tuned if you’re not in the U.S.)

Thank you to everyone in the Unclutterer community for your support. I really, truly believe that this book can help people and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it and developing it. Thank you, thank you!

Organizing your thoughts

As you may have guessed, the first step for organizing your thoughts is writing them down. (Especially thoughts related to things you need to do.) It’s not hyperbole to say that writing things down can change your life. It helps clear your mind for important work, offers a record of the past, and can foster a sense of achievement. But even beyond that, having things written down, even when the resulting list is huge, can help you feel like you’re on top of things. But simply making a list isn’t all you need.

For optimal thought organization, consider taking these additional steps. First, and this is the most critical piece in the process, perform a good core dump. Get everything — and I mean everything — out of your mind. When everything is out of your mind, it can stop pestering you about what needs to be done. Your mind is more of a problem solver than a filing cabinet.

Next, find the tool that’s going to work for you for capturing those tasks/ideas and working from them. Notebook? (A Moleskine, a Little List, an Emergent Task Planner) An app? (Evernote, ToDoist, Wunderlist) Desktop software? (OmniFocus, Fantastical, Toodledo) It really doesn’t matter. Just identify the tool that is best for you (a.k.a. that you will actually use over the longterm). One that helps you to prioritize your work and integrates (even manually) with your calendar are also good ideas.

Finally, identify the best time of the day to do the work or tasks you need to accomplish so they stop weighing on you. For years, I was the type who liked to work at night. When the kids were in bed, I could retreat to my home office and work for a few hours. Today, that’s not the case. I find that I like being with my family in the evening and then prepping for the next day in other ways, like making sure backpacks are full, my outfit is ready for the next day, lunches are made, and so on. Instead, I’ve begun doing thoughtful work in the morning, before the rest of the house wakes up and starts their day. The point is: notice what works for you and stick with it.

If you’re looking for ideas for ways to do your core dump, my favorite way is to brainstorm with a mind map. It’s a great way to have a powerful brainstorming session without resulting in a mess that must be sorted before you can get on with the rest of your work.

Now, take the time to find the time and tools that are most amenable for you and enjoy productive thought organization.

Understanding procrastination

Do you tend to procrastinate? I certainly do, at times. But I just read a couple articles about procrastination (thanks to Julie Bestry and Debra Baida, who shared them on Twitter), which provided some valuable insights into how procrastination works and what this means for time management.

Why we procrastinate: time inconsistency

On his personal website, James Clear wrote about time inconsistency: “the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”

As Clear went on to explain:

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

In this article and another one, Clear provides useful strategies for fighting the effects of time inconsistency and overcoming procrastination. Personally, I realized that when I’ve been most successful in fighting procrastination, I’ve actually said to myself, “Future Me is going to be so glad I did this!” And that’s one of the strategies: vividly visualizing the benefits your future self will enjoy.

One tiny example: I ran errands on a lovely Monday, even when I was feeling lazy and could have put them off for a day, because I knew Future Me would be very glad to not have to leave the house in the forecasted downpour the following Tuesday.

Why procrastination can sometimes be useful

Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times was provocatively titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” Grant explained that he tends toward pre-crastination: “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

But what he came to realize is that for creative tasks (preparing a speech, writing a term paper, etc.) a certain amount of procrastination can be useful. Beginning the project but not rushing to complete it gave him a better result than finishing as quickly as he could. As he explained:

Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. … When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.

But even for creative efforts, there can be too much procrastination. Those who wait until the last minute to begin a project have to “rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

So for creative tasks, setting a schedule that allows for some procrastination time may be wise. I know I can write a blog post quickly, but my writing often benefits from taking extra time to ponder the subject. You may well have similar projects that could use that extra time, too.

Organize your smartphone, Pt. II

Back in 2013, I wrote an article about decluttering your smartphone. Today, I’m back with a follow-up that offers even more ideas and techniques to keep the tiny computer in your pocket as tidy and usable as possible.

Review your contacts

I don’t know how this happened, but I have several copies of the same contacts. My dad was listed three times, some colleagues had multiple entries, and more. I’m not sure how that happened, but I replaced that mess with definitive, accurate records.

Also, you might find records for former coworkers or others you haven’t communicated with for a very long time. If you can legitimately delete their information, do so.

Review bookmarks

I’ve gotten better at organizing bookmarks on my desktop computer, and now it’s time to do the same on my phone. Do like I did and take a few minutes to review the bookmarks on your phone’s browser and ditch those you don’t use anymore. This seems like a small step, but any progress leads to reduced clutter.

Go verb-based with your apps

When I wrote this article’s companion piece in 2013, I suggested organizing apps into folders like “Work,” “Travel,” etc. This time, consider combining apps together by action.

For example, create a folder labeled “Watch” for apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and so on. Perhaps make another called “Listen” with your favorite music and podcasting apps. “Shop,” “Read,” and “Travel” are other viable options.

Make use of lock screen widgets

Both Android devices and Apple’s iOS let app developers create little widgets of information that can be used while your phone’s screen is locked. Both offer customizable information that is tremendously useful and quick. iMore.com has a nice overview of what Apple calls its “Notification Center” while Android Authority has a good look from the other side of the aisle.

Eat that frog later?

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

The “frog” in the Mark Twain quote above has been adopted by the business community and productivity advocates to represent the one task or activity you’re least looking forward to completing over the course of your day. The idea being that once the unappealing task is done, the rest of the day is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting idea for sure. But let’s consider a minor alteration: is there a benefit to eating the frog second, or even third?

In May 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “The Power of Small Wins.” In it, author Teresa Amabile describes something called The Progress Principle:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Amabile and her colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people to record details of a “best day” and “worst day” at work, in terms of motivation. The results were interesting. The days labeled as a “best day” were those during which progress was made on a project:

“If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame.”

I’ve noticed this tendency in myself. For that reason, I like to set myself up for early wins with one or two quickie successes early in the morning.

For example, if know I have to sit down at the computer and write a proposal, I might clear a few emails from my inbox first, tackle another small to-do item (like returning an object to a coworker), re-read an article related to my proposal, and then begin writing.

I find that if I clear a few easy items off of my “to-do” list, I experience some of the benefits described in the Progress Principle above, and I can use that momentum to tackle the big project of the day — the frog. A couple little successes can go a long way.

Everything in its place with MOOP

MOOP is an acronym I learned recently, from an essay by Tarin Towers, which immediately caught my attention because of its organizing implications. She wrote:

MOOP is a term coined by hikers and other ecology-minded people who use phrases like “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace.” It stands for Matter Out of Place. In a state park, it might refer to a bottle cap on a forest floor, a cigarette butt on a footpath, a tent peg neglected when the tent got packed up. In a house, it might be a wet towel on a bedroom floor, a coffee mug on top of the TV.

This is a wonderfully useful term for organizing, since it encompasses two key concepts:

  • Everything has a place where it belongs
  • To stay organized, you need to ensure things get put back in those defined places

I had my own experience with MOOP a few weeks ago. My main credit card usually lives in a specific slot in my wallet, but I had pulled it out and put it in my jeans pocket one day when I wanted to make an online donation. But I didn’t put it back in my wallet right away, and somehow it fell out of that pocket. It took me two days to find the card, hidden under a sofa cushion. I knew it was in my house somewhere, so there was no financial risk, but it was still frustrating.

So how do you avoid MOOP? By doing the boring task of ongoing maintenance.

Organizing expert Peter Walsh offered the following advice in the Los Angeles Times:

Eliminate the word “later” from your vocabulary, as in, “I’ll put this away later, I’ll fold this later….” The way to stop clutter from accumulating is to accept the fact that now is the new later.

The Asian Efficiency website uses the term “clear to neutral” to describe all post-activity work, such as cleaning the dishes after a meal and putting supplies away after a craft project. Besides eliminating MOOP, this clear-to-neutral process makes it easier to do the next activity — prepare the next meal, do the next craft project — because everything is ready to go.

However, it may not always be practical to put everything away immediately, although certain things (keys, credit cards, leftover food, etc.) should certainly be dealt with promptly. But if the laundry sits for a day or the suitcase doesn’t get unpacked as soon as you return from a trip, it’s probably not as serious. And it usually makes sense to accumulate donations when you realize some things are “out of place” by being in your home or office at all. (You can think of the donation bag or box as the short-term “place” for such things.)

If you can’t put everything in its place immediately, consider what your plan will be. Will you (and your other family members) spend 15 minutes every night putting things away? Will you do a major cleanup on the weekend? When will you do that trip to drop off donations?

Here’s wishing everyone a MOOP-free (or almost MOOP-free) 2016!

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

When emergencies strike, it’s important to have important medical information close at hand. It’s one of those things you usually don’t think about until you have to, but not thinking or doing anything about it ahead of time can cause you serious trouble. One way to keep this information organized and easily accessible is to securely store it on your smartphone.

If you have an iPhone or an Android device, the following information should help you:

iPhone

Apple has made organizing emergency information quite simple. To begin, open the Health app, which is part of the standard iPhone operating system. Next, follow these simple steps:

  1. Tap “Medical ID” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Tap “Edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
  3. Enter pertinent information.

There’s a lot of info you can list here, including any medical conditions, special notes, allergies, potential reactions/interactions, as well as any medication(s) you currently take. There are also fields for adding an emergency contact, blood type, weight, height, and whether or not you’re an organ donor.

At the top of screen, there’s an option to have this information available from the lock screen. If selected, your emergency information is just a swipe way from your iPhone’s lock screen.

This is useful should you have to visit the ER, but that’s not all. I recently had to have a prescription refilled and while at the pharmacy I couldn’t remember the medication’s name (nor could I pronounce it even if I had remembered it), so I simply opened this info on my phone and handed it to the pharmacist. “Wow,” he said. “I wish everybody did this.”

On Andriod

Storing emergency medical information is a little tricker on Android, but not impossible. There may be a field for this information among the phone’s contacts, but that depends on what version of Android you’re running. If it has an In Case of Emergency field in the contact’s app, be sure to fill in this information. But in addition to this, I suggest you download and use an app like ICE: In Case of Emergency. For $3.99, it lets you list:

  1. People to call in an emergency (and it can call them directly from the app)
  2. Insurance information
  3. Doctor names and numbers (again, it can call them directly from the app)
  4. Allergies
  5. Medical Conditions
  6. Medications
  7. Any special instructions or other information you wish to provide

Both of these solutions can be a convenience in any medical situation, especially emergencies. More importantly, this simple bit of organization can greatly help a first-responder when you need help the most. Take some time this week to set it up.