Avoiding children’s party clutter

As an adult, you can write “No Gifts Please” on birthday party invitations and guests usually respect these wishes. It doesn’t work this way for children’s parties, however, or for baby showers or even random trips to grandma’s house.

Children love gifts and people love giving children gifts. It’s the way of the world. Gifts, although well intentioned and truly appreciated, can still end up as clutter.

For example, my friend Kristine received 14 baby blankets at a shower her mother threw for her when she was pregnant with her second child. She ended up keeping a couple that were hand knit, one that was quilted, one that could easily be laundered, and then gave the other 10 to charity. She was extremely thankful for the generosity people showed toward her and her future child, but there was no way that she could store or ever use 14 baby blankets.

When having parties for children or baby showers for new parents, there are some things that you can do to help keep gifts from becoming clutter:

Baby Showers

  • Establish a baby registry. Amazon has an online registry where friends and family from across the country can purchase items for expecting parents. These lists help to focus gift giving toward things that new parents need. Yes, it is sterile and soul-less, but it also is considerate and useful.
  • Throw a “help the community” party. When my friends adopted a baby from China, they had a baby shower where people brought gifts for the Chinese orphanage. When the couple traveled to pick up their daughter in China, they took the blankets, books, and clothing to the other orphans in China still waiting to be placed with families.
  • Have a “pamper the parent” party. Before a baby arrives, mothers and fathers are often the last people on everyone’s minds. Remind the parents that you’re thinking of them, too, by having a day at the spa where guests can join the expecting parents in manicures, pedicures, and massages.

Children’s Parties

  • Have a theme party. On a child’s first birthday, have a “stock the library” party where attendees bring their favorite children’s book. If your child can’t get enough of trucks when he’s two, ask for attendees to bring truck gifts to his party. A focused theme helps to target gifts toward things that will be used, and also helps the gift buyer when trying to think of what to bring.
  • Have an adventure party. In lieu of gifts, let party attendees know that there will be a small fee (I’d try to keep it to $15 or less) to white-water raft or ride in a hot air balloon or be admitted to Six Flags. This is probably an approach best suited to older children. Other parents will thank you for not having to buy a gift and for taking their children off of their hands for a few hours. Plus, your child will remember the experience for a lifetime. Remember, too, that family members still will likely give gifts, so there will be presents for your child to unwrap at some point during the day.

Let’s hear from parents about other ideas for good gift-giving parties in the comments.

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

George Carlin’s stuff routine

This post originally appeared on Unclutterer 10 years ago to commemorate the passing of comedian George Carlin.

In 1986, George Carlin first performed his “stuff” routine for Comic Relief, a charity dedicated eradicating poverty. In this routine, Mr. Carlin humorously tells us the hard truth about the things in our homes. There are some choice words in the video clip, so if you are sensitive to harsh language or at work where other people can hear sounds from your speakers, you may not want to click on the link. However, if you’re up for some Friday humor, here is George Carlin on “stuff.”

Thank you to The Excellent Adventure for reminding us of this great sketch.

In case of …

No one enjoys thinking about the macabre. But, as Benjamin Franklin so accurately posited in a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

On Unclutterer, we’ve certainly glossed over the death topic. The truth is that we don’t enjoy thinking about it either. However, if you’re going to take the time to get your life organized, you would be remiss to ignore that there will be a point where you’re no longer here and others will need to find important documents and information to close your estate.

We call these our “In case of …” files. In mine, I include things like contact information for employees, server details, and passwords, and a key to my fire-proof safe where I store my Will and a copy of my birth certificate. The idea is that if something does happen to me, I want things to be easier on my close family and friends who are mourning. I’d rather them have good thoughts of me after my passing, not angry thoughts because they searched for hours trying to find my life insurance policy to pay for the funeral.

If you’ve never put together an “In case of …” file, the best place to start is by visiting a lawyer to draft your Last Will and Testament. This document will include answers to all of the big questions: custody of children, property disbursements, where you want to be buried, etc. After you have this document created, you’ll then need to pass along the name of your lawyer to at least two different people — someone who lives near you (spouse, partner, close friend) and someone who lives in a different part of the country or world — and then store this document safely (such as in a UL 350 fireproof safe).

The rest of your “In case of …” file will be up to you in terms of its contents. Are there people who would need to be contacted at your job? Are you the primary care provider for a child, sibling, or parent who may need to receive immediate attention before the reading of your Will? Do you have bills that have to be paid? Look at your life and identify all of the places that could be stressful for someone to handle if you weren’t there to help. Now, provide information on those issues and put it in your “In case of …” file. It won’t be a fun process while you collect the information, but afterward you’ll have a peace of mind that things will be okay in case something happens.

 

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

Unitasker Wednesday: RSVP International Deluxe Corn Stripper

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

RSVP International Deluxe Corn Stripper works on a similar principle to an apple corer. You insert the cob in the tube and push down the blade. The kernels are shaved off and the cob remains within the blade tube. You then use a plastic rod to poke out the cob. (The instructional video is here.) The four separate parts are dishwasher safe.

The RSVP International Deluxe Corn Stripper received high reviews on Amazon unlike many of the unitaskers we feature. I suppose if you thought you needed a corn stripper to clutter your cupboards, this would be the one to get — as long as you don’t try to use it for extra-large cobs.

I wonder why people buy corn on the cob when they can’t eat it. When my children were younger and had orthodontic appliances (retainers, braces, etc.) it was just so much easier and less cluttered and unitaskery to buy corn off the cob. When we went to a friend’s home, we used a multi-purpose knife to cut the corn from the cob. It was easy to wash one knife instead of four different parts of a corn stripper.

Thanks to my cousin Lisa for sharing this unitasker on Facebook. Since I know she, and probably many of our readers, are from farming families, I’ll share this video I found for Corn Shelling the Easy Way…Hillbilly Style!

Creating a time-saving grocery list

I love food and cooking but I’m not a big fan of grocery shopping. I would be, if I were the only one in the store and I had an unlimited amount of time and money, but that is never the case. Consequently, I am always searching for new ways to minimize my time in the grocery store.

Over the years, I’ve tried various grocery list apps. Many of them were simply lists. I had to manually type all items, one by one into a list on my phone. Once they were purchased and checked off, I had to either uncheck them manually if I wanted to keep them on the list to buy again next week (milk) or delete them if they were just “once in a while” purchases (ketchup).

Some apps let me choose food items from a database but the database could not be modified. I could not add, delete, or edit to specify a certain brand. Some databases were so large it was time consuming to find items. Some databases were too small or too different from our family’s eating habits to be useful.

For almost a year now, I’ve been using the Grocery Gadget app on my iPhone. It’s also available for Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Nokia, and Amazon Nook. See the promo/demo video here.

If you sign up for a free account with Grocery Gadget you have access their robust and customisable database and can sync it to your phone. For me, this was a real time saver as I could see and edit the entire list on my large computer screen instead of only on my small phone screen.

I spent a few hours updating the database by deleting the foods we never eat, adding items we do eat, and updating the existing items by specifying brands and package sizes we prefer. It allows for both U.S. and metric sizes and will allow you to specify if the item is in a jar, box, bottle, etc.

You can also add the price of each item as well as any applicable taxes. You can edit the tax rates to whatever percentage applies in your area. This allows you to see your total grocery bill before you even head out to the store.

Another great feature of Grocery Gadget is the ability to add photos and UPC bar codes to each item. This is very handy when you are staring at a shelf of razor blades and cannot remember which brand your husband uses and which brand your teenager son uses. I just look at the photo and scan the bar code with my phone!

I do about 95% of my grocery shopping at one specific store, so I went a step further. I renamed the categories based on the aisles in my grocery store. Since the categories are always listed in alphabetical order, I added numbers to the beginning. Produce is the first section in the store when I walk in the door so the category was named 00 Produce. The deli section is at the end of aisles 2 and 3 so it is called 025 Deli.

It took me a few weeks of slightly extended grocery shopping sessions accessing the database on my phone to ensure each food item was in its correct category but the time invested at the beginning has more than paid itself back. Now, I don’t even have to walk down aisle 7 if I don’t have anything to buy in category 07 Sides Asian Canned Veg. This is a big time-saver especially when the store is busy — and a money saver too because I’m not tempted to buy items that are not on my list.

Because my grocery list syncs through the free web portal, everyone in the family uses the app and can add items to the grocery list at any time. Sometimes I will be at the grocery store and all of a sudden “cheese slices” will appear on my list. I know immediately that I need to buy more which saves me a trip to the store later in the week. If my husband and I shop together, we can go to different sections, check off items as we pick them up, and get everything in half the time without duplicating items in our trolleys.

The Grocery Gadget app works very well for our family and the way we shop. But I’d like to hear from our readers to know what they prefer. Please share your grocery list techniques in the comments section below.

What to do if you are organized and your partner isn’t

I have a friend who is a psychologist who specializes in family therapy. One of the reasons I love this friend is because she doesn’t seem to mind my endless supply of psychology of clutter questions. I’ll ask her a question, she’ll think about it for a week, and then she’ll provide me with a brilliant response.

A few months ago, I asked her to assist me with constructing a post to help mismatched couples. When I say “mismatched couples,” I’m talking about couples where one of the people in the relationship is clean and organized and the other person in the relationship is messy and disorganized AND at least one of the two people has animosity about the difference. (If no one seems to mind, then the pair isn’t mismatched.) The following advice derives from the conversations we’ve had on this topic since I first posed the question to her. If you’re a part of a mismatched couple, hopefully we can be of assistance.

  1. When considering moving in with someone (romantic or otherwise), a person’s level of order and cleanliness should be part of the equation. Similar to how in pre-marriage counseling couples are asked to discuss finances, living arrangements, and household expectations also should be discussed. No one should be surprised six months into a living arrangement that his or her partner/roommate is messier or cleaner than one had hoped.
  2. If you’re already in a living arrangement and are disappointed by your partner/roommate’s level of order, you need to have a conversation. Yelling and passive aggressive behavior is not productive and damages the relationship. Having a calm, sincere, and respectful conversation has the possibility of yielding powerful results.
  3. It is good to have ground rules for what to do when frustration takes hold. Here are some productive rules you might consider establishing:
    • No nagging. Treating someone with disrespect is never a good option. Either the person honors what you say the first time you say it, or they don’t. All nagging says is: “I believe you are an idiot and I think I have the right to constantly tell you that you’re an idiot.” No one responds well to that message.
    • No backpacking. Set a time limit for how long after something happens that it can be discussed (like two weeks). If you don’t bring up the frustration within that time limit, you have to let it go. You can’t fester or stew on a frustration. Also, if you’ve already discussed something, you can’t bring it up again. The reason it’s called backpacking is because it’s like people carry around another person’s wrongs in a backpack and pull every wrong out of the bag when there is a disagreement. Don’t backpack, it isn’t fair.
    • Discuss the real problem. If you’re upset that your spouse repeatedly leaves dirty dishes strewn about the living room your frustration has very little to do with dirty dishes. You’re upset because you believe (s)he doesn’t care about the cleanliness level in the living space. So, talk about the real problem and use the dirty dishes as an example of how that lack of caring is expressed.
  4. Often times, the person who is messier doesn’t care one bit if the living arrangement is disorderly or orderly. When this is the case, and if you’re the one who prefers a more orderly home, prepare to take on full responsibility for cleaning up after the other person. Happily do the work because you’re the one who gets the sense of joy from an organized space. If a pair of shoes in the middle of the living room floor annoys you, just move the shoes to a location that doesn’t annoy you. The five seconds it will take you to move the shoes are less than the time you will be angry over the shoes if you don’t move them. The children’s book Zen Shorts beautifully addresses this topic.
  5. Maybe the problem is that there aren’t any systems in place to deal with the mess where it happens. For instance, my husband stores his wallet in a valet in our bedroom. I store my purse in a cube near the front door. He puts his wallet in his pocket first thing in the morning and takes it out at night before he goes to bed. I only grab my purse as I’m entering and exiting the house. If my purse were supposed to be stored in a valet in our bedroom, I can guarantee you that it would never be in the bedroom. It would be on the dining room table or living room floor or wherever I conveniently dropped it. So, a storage cube near our front door is the best place for my purse because it’s a storage location that works. Think about how you live and find solutions that meet your actual needs.
  6. Designate “clean rooms” or “messy rooms” in your home. In my family, we insist that all public spaces are clean rooms. This means that rooms visitors will see when they come into our house must be free of clutter. Visitors rarely come into our office, though, so the rules for this room are less stringent. Things can’t be dirty (no food or bug-enticing items), but if objects are left out of order in this space it’s less of an issue. A once-a-week cleaning is more typical in our messy spaces.
  7. Finally, if you’ve tried all of the previous options and nothing is working for you, try seeking outside help. This help can be in the form of a professional organizer or maybe a couple’s counselor. If you’re in dire straights, you want to work with someone who isn’t a part of your relationship and can see it more broadly. I don’t recommend using a friend or family member for this task — if you do, the other person will believe that you’re ganging up on him or her, and that won’t be productive. Also, professional help could be in the form of a cleaning service coming into the house twice a month. Let someone else handle the deep cleaning so that the light work is less of a burden.

If you’re a part of a mismatched couple, what effective strategies have you employed? I’m sure that everyone could benefit from reading your positive results in the comments.

 

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

Hire someone to run your errands

My friend is an executive assistant. Over drinks one night, I asked her what an executive assistant does. She responded that during her morning she drove to her boss’ house and fixed a power generator, she picked her boss up some lunch on her way back to the office, she returned phone calls for her boss for an hour in the afternoon, got coffee for her boss and a visiting international celebrity around 3:00 pm, and then dropped off her boss’ dry cleaning on her way home from work.

I told her that I needed an executive assistant, and she agreed that she needed one, too.

Errands tie up a great deal of our time and keep us from living in a stress-free home. In fact, stuff related to errands that I need to run often clutters up around my front door — clothes that need to go to the dry cleaner, books that need to be returned to the library, bikes that need to be serviced, etc. — and sits there nagging at me until I can spend four or five hours doing a bunch of errands I don’t really want to do.

In many large communities, there are companies established to provide personal assistants and errand runners at hourly rates. An internet search of your area might turn up a list of names. Check out customer reviews, and then take advantage of your own personal assistant.

If, like me, you live in a place without these companies, offer to pay the neighborhood high school kid $50 a week (plus fuel for the car) to run all of your errands for you. Open a pay-in-advance credit card with limited funds for the hired hand to use when picking up your dry cleaning and repaired bike. After one week of working for you, I doubt that you’ll even miss the $50.

Think about adding an extra $20 or $30 for the kid to also mow your lawn or shovel your snow. You can spend the free time enjoying the extra time in the company of your family or cleaning out your dusty attic. Regardless of what you do with your time, though, that cluttered pile of “things to do” next to your front door will be gone.

 

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

The big picture: Organizing work files

When I was in college, I served on the International Board of Officers for a community service organization. More than 10,000 kids across the world were members of the organization and 11 of us served on the Board the year I was a Trustee. Being on the Board was an incredible experience and it taught me a great deal about leadership, running a large organization, and time management. I was traveling nearly every weekend and I was constantly struggling to stay on top of my school work and other responsibilities.

A girl named Lisa was one of my fellow Trustees. She is one of the most naturally organized people I’ve ever met. If you say that you need something, she will reach into her purse and retrieve whatever it is you requested. You say that we should schedule a meeting, and her calendar is already open. Nothing is left to chance in Lisa’s world. And, since I was completely disorganized, she was definitely a positive influence on me.

At a meeting early in our year of working together, Lisa chided me for having a horrible filing system. I had four notebooks with pieces of paper shoved into them and referred to them as my “files.” After the meeting finished, she pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received:

“This organization was here before you were a member and will continue on after you graduate. If your files are messy, it’s fine for you now, but you’re not thinking of the people who are to serve after you.”

She was right. At some point, I would have to pass along my “files” to the next group of Trustees. I didn’t plan on being on the Board forever. When I inherited my files from the previous Board, they certainly didn’t look like they did when they were in my possession. I wasn’t inconveniencing myself, I was making things harder on the people who would serve after me.

I went home and immediately organized my files.

Since that day, I’ve always kept organized files for the exact reasons Lisa outlined for me years ago. Eventually, I’ll leave a job and someone else will have to come in to do the work. Or, if I need to take time off, a colleague might need to access the files without me there to point the way. Some files may have personal use, but, on the whole, work files are there to serve as a record for those who come into the job after you leave.

 

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

Unitasker Wednesday: Automatic hands-free sauce stirrer

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

Safe for non-stick pans and able to be used in boiling liquids, this automatic hands-free sauce stirrer is says it is able to stir for up to four hours on one set of AA batteries (not included).

Just think, for the ability to save some energy in your arm, you can create more dead batteries for the local landfill. According to the comments, most of the time this device doesn’t even stir, it just vibrates against the side of the pot which means the device ends up in the landfill too.

Save your money. Keep non-recyclable junk out of our landfills. Use a multi-purpose spoon or whisk.

NOTE: This device, should you purchase one that actually works, may be of value if you have reduced mobility in your hands, arms, or shoulders. Proceed with caution though.

Gift ideas for Father’s Day

Father’s Day is just around the corner. Here are a few items that can help parent figures of all types stay organized.

Grocery shopping is time consuming. Drive to the store, walk up and down the aisles, wait in line to pay the cashier, and drive home. Why not offer the gift of grocery delivery with Amazon Fresh? Log on to the website, select your groceries and a delivery time, and click pay. You can have as many deliveries as you would like for $14.99 per month and if you are an Amazon Prime member, that price drops to $10.99 per month.

Parents, especially fathers, often have a long “to-do” list yet they never seem to have time to get everything done. Why not help out by hiring an expert through Amazon Home Services? From house cleaning to gutter clearing, from furniture assembly to home theatre installation, from tree planting to snow removal, you will be able to find the services you need to allow Dad to relax and enjoy instead of working for yet another weekend.

For Dad’s who like things organized, consider a smartphone label maker. Use the app to create labels on your smartphone and print them on a small printer that connects using Bluetooth. Remember to give Dad a few extra replacement cartridges too.

Keep your gardening tools together

Since we moved to our new home, there are still things that aren’t organized the way I want them. I’m not a huge gardener, but I do have a handful of tools that I use to keep my yard in order. Those tools are scattered throughout a few locations and tracking them down is rather annoying. I then remembered seeing a couple of gardening tool organizers that would probably solve this problem.

As a very novice gardener I don’t need anything too extensive so this Bucket Caddy is probably the right thing for me. It is a simple solution that will keep all of my tools in one place for easy access.

For those of you who have a larger garden or spend more time gardening, check out the Sunnydaze Rolling Cart. It has a lovely seat so you don’t have to kneel all the time, two spaces for tool storage, and it is easy to move around due to the wheels.

I will most likely go with the Bucket Caddy. It will take up less space when not in use and I can hang it on a hook or place it on a shelf. Although, if I were a gardening enthusiast, it would be nice to have a seat on the Sunnydaze Rolling Cart.

 

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

Streamlining your morning routine

My friend Brittany has a problem. She can’t get out of the house in the morning on time. No matter how early she wakes up, she can find a reason to be late. Laundry, phone calls, or lost objects are common time sucks.

“I dawdle,” Brittany reports.

Brittany doesn’t have a big issue with her lack of promptness, but her boyfriend who carpools with her does. Most days he makes her lunch while he waits for her to get her act together. She admits that she doesn’t even figure making her lunch into her morning routine any longer, if she were responsible for it, she’d be even more tardy.

“He likes having something to do while he waits for me,” she rationalizes.

Her lateness is starting to wear thin on her boyfriend, however, so she turned to me for advice. She asked if I could help her streamline her morning routine so that she could start getting out the door on time.

The first step in streamlining your morning routine is to discover how you’re spending your time. In my friend’s case, I think that her boyfriend might be a better person to track her morning processes. Either way, keep a log of how you spend your time from the point you wake up until you arrive at work. Keep this log for two or three weeks so that you get an accurate view of your typical morning. How long does it take to shower? Choose your clothes? Hunt for items you need to drop at the dry cleaners, post office, or child’s school? What throws you off track?

After you have a log of what you do, you’ll need to evaluate the information you’ve collected. What are the activities that you do every day that you can’t avoid (things like showering, teeth brushing, getting dressed, and commuting fall into this category)? List these items and their time requirements on a sheet of paper. If your commute time varies, find the average length of your commute times over the two or three-week period and use that number. Now, do the obvious and add up these numbers to make sure that you’re waking up at least early enough to achieve these essential tasks.

The next step is to evaluate those other tasks that don’t have to be completed in the morning. These are tasks like picking out your clothing, making lunches, collecting things together, or hunting for your daughter’s pony tail holder. Could any of these tasks be relocated to the evening beforehand? Could you make all lunches for a week on Sunday afternoon? How much time are you wasting every morning doing tasks that don’t have to be handled before work?

Here are some other questions to ask yourself:

How many times are you hitting the snooze button on the alarm in the morning? Do you need to move your alarm clock to the other side of the room? Resolve not to hit the snooze at all? Go to bed earlier?

Do you routinely pick out your clothes the night beforehand so that you can make sure your shirt is ironed, you know where both shoes are located, and your socks match? Do your children go through the same process?

Do you have a spot in your home where you put all items that you’ll need for the next day? Do you have a basket where your child puts forms that have to be signed for school so that last-minute tasks are kept to a minimum? Do you keep your keys, wallet, watch, and cell phone in a valet, purse, or on a landing strip so that you don’t have to hunt for them?

Do you take the time to read the paper in physical form when it might be easier to download a digital version and read it on an e-book reader or your iPod/cell phone on the subway/bus? Are you stopping to buy coffee every morning when brewing it at home would reduce the time involved (and the price tag)?

In the drastic measure department, do you need a different job that doesn’t care what time you get in to work? Is there a family in your child’s carpool that routinely makes everyone else late that you could tactfully un-invite from your carpool?

Once you work through this process, you should have a clear view of what is keeping you from arriving at work on time. Now, you have to take the steps to streamline your schedule and get your morning routine running on time.

Good luck to my friend Brittany and to anyone else trying to get your morning routine on the right track!

 

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