Disaster uncluttering

Today, I want to introduce you to Unclutterer programmer Gary DuVall. This post is the first in a series that he has agreed to write for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned.

June 27, 2008, was like any other day. It was early afternoon, the sun was out, I was working from home, and I was on a conference call with a client. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a plume of smoke coming from what seemed to be our building’s roof.

As the plume grew larger, I began to realize the smoke wasn’t an afternoon pre-Cubs-game barbeque on the rooftop by a couple of guys playing hooky from work — this was a real fire. I ran up the stairs toward the rooftop deck to check things out. By the time I got to the door leading outside, the fire had grown large enough that I could hear it blazing, and I knew there were a half-dozen propane grills on the other side of the metal.

It was most certainly time to go.

Luckily, before the fire had spread downward through the floors, I was able to herd our two cats into the carrier, pack up my work laptop in the bag I always had close by, and make it down the smoke-filled stairway and out the building with a couple of minutes to spare. Unfortunately, in the end, we lost almost everything — but we had our pets, our safety, and an emergency line of communication.

Months before, when my wife and I first moved into the building, I insisted that vital items like our cat carrier be stored in easily accessible places in our apartment (rather than the basement storage area) in the — we thought — unlikely case of just such a situation. Only a couple of minutes of planning for what could happen made that split-second decision-making much easier when it did.

This is the crux of what I like to call “disaster uncluttering”: Being prepared for the unlikely, in case it happens. It takes but a little time and thoughtful review to prevent mind clutter from getting in the way of your safety when you have very little time to spare.

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself and suggestions of what can be done to prevent both mind and physical clutter should a disaster strike you out-of-the-blue:

  1. Consider where you store things. You should have almost immediate access to the following items: Pet carrier(s), an emergency line of communication (preferably a laptop, netbook, or advanced PDA), a cell phone, your car keys, a rugged flashlight, and, if at all possible, a copy of your renters or homeowners insurance policy.
  2. Have an escape route ready, and cover your bases. Being on the third level and without a fire escape, our elevator was out and one stairwell had already become dangerously consumed by smoke. Become familiar with every pathway that leads out of your home ahead of time.
  3. If you have pets, consider putting Pet Safety Alert decals on external windows and your front door to alert neighbors and authorities you have animals (in case you aren’t at home when an emergency happens).
  4. Spend the time, and take inventory of your belongings. Even if you don’t use an automated system, a video of everything in your home can help spur your memory. Be sure to backup the video so you can still access it if your home is destroyed.
  5. Are your vital documents protected and organized? Ideally, you’ll want to store them in a fireproof safe and keep a backup copy online. Check out our series on fireproof safes for more information on this subject.
  6. Consider where you’ll temporarily live if you’re unable to inhabit your home. Will you need to stay in a hotel, or will you have access to the home of a friend or relative?

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss what happened after the fire. In many ways, the aftermath was far worse than the fire itself.

The image above is what was left of our oak bedroom floor. In addition to soot, it took only a few hours for mold to begin to grow in the water that helped put out the fire.

Our year without a dresser

dressersAfter living in our new home for just under a year, my wife and I finally have a dresser. It has been a big adjustment to all the new storage space. The year without a dresser went by very quickly and it forced me to take stock of my clothes time and time again.

I purged unnecessary clothes from my wardrobe on numerous occasions last year because I didn’t have room for extra clothes. The first purge was our yard sale in preparation of our move. Then, I made a donation to the Vietnam Veterans. With just these two clothing purges, I easily cut my wardrobe by half.

Living without a dresser in our bedroom was a bit of a pain at times, but it did get my wife and I to live with less clothing clutter in our lives. Now, we’ll need to be mindful and remember not to let the clutter creep in just because we have more storage space than we used to.

Swap baby goods

My daughter is going to be three years old in less than a month. The amount of clothing and other baby products that we have gone through in those 36 months is pretty extensive. We have donated a lot of items to local charities, consignment shops, and friends, but it seems like we still find ourselves behind the curve in the accumulation battle.

Reader Tina wrote us to recommend a website that focuses on swapping baby goods. From the Swap Baby Goods site:

SwapBabyGoods.com is the first web site of its kind, providing a friendly place for parents to swap, buy or sell baby items that are no longer needed. Our philosophy is very simple – Why buy when you can swap? Our product focus is baby items; for this reason, our users can enjoy the website, knowing that they are part of a community. Our primary goal is to provide a platform that brings together willing sellers, buyers and swappers in an online marketplace, benefiting everyone involved.

Babies grow so fast and so do their needs. Before we know it, the cute little outfits, baby toys, and other baby items we once could not live without become outgrown and underused, taking up an inordinate amount of space in our homes. The baby item one family is ready to put in the attic or out in the garage sale might be just what another mom or dad is looking for. Our ultimate goal is to help parents all across the nation save money and the environment by providing them an online venue to swap baby items.

While there are many options to buy, sell, or donate items, this looks like a pretty good resource for tracking down some must-have baby products. It also looks like a place to get rid of clutter that your little one no longer wants or needs.

Do you know of other baby goods swapping websites? Let us know about those resources in the comments.

Is it still tasty?

Lifehacker’s Adam Pash tipped us off to an invaluable resource to use when cleaning out your refrigerator and kitchen pantry: StillTasty.

StillTasty’s tag line is “Your Ultimate Shelf Life Guide – Save Money, Eat Better, Help The Environment.” You can search for a specific food item, or you can browse through the categories to determine how long it is safe to keep a product. The site is easy to navigate and will keep you from wondering if the unopened bottle of ketchup is safe to consume.

There is also a question and answer section. My favorite question so far is “I Left Pizza Out Overnight — Is It Still Safe To Eat?” The answer: No.

The next time you clean out your refrigerator and pantry, keep StillTasty open to help you determine what can stay and what can go.

A year ago on Unclutterer


Is e-mail a flawed form of communication?

In my continuing research for a solution to my e-mail woes, I came across the following video about why e-mail is a difficult medium for communication. “Why Email Starts Fights!” from BNET:

This may be the heart of my issue with e-mail. It’s the fundamental flaw as a medium that keeps me from wanting to use it. I know that for most interactions there are faster and more effective ways to communicate. I’m not convinced the phone or face-to-face are the only solutions, but I think that they are definitely more efficient than some e-mail messages I’ve crafted.

I really like communicating over twitter because it forces brevity. It’s difficult for others to misconstrue “I am running late because my child had to be rushed to the hospital.” It’s plain speech in 140 characters and can be accessed when it’s convenient for the user. I also do most of my communication with the Unclutterer staff over Campfire. It’s a chat room structure that facilitates on-going communication. Since the conversation is continuous, problems rarely arise among members of our team because clarifications can be made throughout the day and people add to the conversation as their schedules permit.

What communication systems do you prefer over e-mail? Do you think the seven percent figure named in the article is accurate based on your experiences? How would you change e-mail if you could?

Workspace of the Week: Angled architecture

This week’s Workspace of the Week is a before and after look at MeAndMyPictures’ peaked platform:



The before image shows a cramped, dismal workspace with few storage options. A little bit of paint, a larger desk, and more storage cabinets (not pictured) transformed this office into a more useful, organized and happier space. From MeAndMyPictures:

[The desk is from] Ikea!! 😉 I purchased kitchen cabinets and countertops and made it so it fits the length of the room. I have another 186 cm to the left of the window (that’s my husband’s desk), that makes the desk 5 meters long in total … Behind me I have more cabinets where some other printers are stored on top.

I really like how the the desktop is separated into distinct work spaces. I also like how moving the storage from the wall into a cabinet provided space for inspiring artwork. Thank you, MeAndMyPictures, for a before and after look into your office.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

DIY charging station

I’ve been thinking a great deal about do-it-yourself projects lately (the economy has that effect on me), and wanted to share a favorite find. Blogger Zakka Life posted directions on her site for creating a cell phone charging station out of an old lotion bottle:

Simple, recycled, and space saving — a trifecta of uncluttering!

Thanks to reader Adora for the initial link.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Hawaii Chair

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

I love products that promise to exercise your body without any of the hard work. Just sit or stand while the “exercise” machine does all the work. The Hawaii Chair brings this concept to new heights by simulating a hula dance while you sit back and go about your daily routine at home or the office.

As the jingle for the Hawaii Chair sings, “Take the work out of your workout.” Is it too good to be true? Why don’t you take a look at this video and judge for yourself:

The constant hula motion is supposed to tighten up your flabby mid-section and “promotes vigor without strenuous activity.” I have my doubts, but the people in the commercial are all so skinny — so it has to work! From Perfect USA’s site:

Hawaii Chair combines the ancient art of the Hula of the Hawaiians with an easy-to-use fun exercise machine. The Hawaii Chair is an automatic exercise machine; you don’t have to exercise, the Hawaii Chair will do it all for you! The Hawaii Chair’s exercises strongly affect your waist, buttocks and thighs to thaw and loosen redundant fat. After using the Hawaii Chair you will have a narrow and well-defined waist. Old men can use the Hawaii Chair easily to help improve the operation of digestive and cardiovascular systems.

I’m sold. This thing is a steal at $300. No strenuous activity while getting fit and shapely? I’m going to have to take their word for it. I can’t wait to sit in a meeting across from someone in a Hula Chair!

A year ago on Unclutterer


A couple’s clutter frustrations resolved

When two people live together and have different standards for cleanliness, frustration often ensues. Redbook magazine addresses this subject in this month’s issue in the article “We’re Constantly at War Over Chores.”

The article follows the couple Sally Cumberland and Paul Schmidt as they argue over when and how to do household chores. Expert Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., offers the couple sage advice throughout the article. Most of her advice is based on improving their communication:

“Sally and Paul have to sit down after the kids are put to bed and talk about what needs to get done,” Tessina explains. “For example, Paul should say, ‘Let’s create a solution about the pileup of newspapers in the front hall,’ and Sally needs to add, ‘I need you to appreciate all the things I did while you were at work instead of needling me for the things I didn’t do.’ This will ultimately take the criticism and accusations away and replace on-the-spot reactive fighting with a calm conversation.”

Sally and Paul will never quite see eye-to-eye about housework, but if they can learn to respect each other’s perspective, their marriage — and their house — will keep running smoothly for years to come.

At the end of the article, the couple admits that things have been better since they met with Dr. Tessina. Sally said:

“I feel relieved. We’ve always been too busy to talk to an expert, but it’s nice to hear a third party tell us that our issues aren’t so unusual.”

I agree that talking to a professional who can see the issues from a caring and outside perspective can do wonders for partners who are struggling with clutter issues in the home. Check out our previous articles for even more advice. And be sure to give the whole of the Redbook article a read!

Photo by Greg Ruffing for Redbook.

Book review: One Year to an Organized Work Life

organized-work-lifeAs an semi-organized person, I wasn’t sure if Regina Leeds’ book, One Year to an Organized Work Life, would apply to me. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that even the most organized person has something to learn from Leeds.

She talks about how organizing can bring about a Zen work life. She states:

“It doesn’t require more energy to get organized. In fact, chaos is a demanding taskmaster and time waster. Getting organized requires a redirection of energy away from one type of experience to another.”

Leeds breaks her book down into manageable chunks by months. Each month has a “work habit of the month” and a “daily home habit of the month” (e.g., January: Start Fresh). I’ll admit that the pre-determined monthly habits stifle her Zen mantra that runs throughout the book. Having a choice in the monthly habit would make it more personal, individualized and productive in the event the habit is already in place. But, if you don’t yet have all of the habits, it could work for you.

In order to reap the benefits of Zen organizing, Leeds says that journaling is essential. She uses prompting questions to get the thought process started. In addition, there are lots of examples to help with writer’s block and encourage thoughtfulness.

By March, much of the physical work environment has been organized, and the remainder of the book covers new habits. There is little reflection upon maintenance of the newly organized space. There is a monthly summary to reinforce the new habit, but there is no reflecting on prior months.

Leeds expands upon the benefits of meditation, exercise, and diet, as well as a greater psychological awareness that will contribute to increasing one’s self confidence and positivity. This book may not be for everyone, especially if you are strictly interested in workplace organization. The personal journaling required to reach organization goals is a part of all 52 weeks. Also, her Zen connections strongly connect home and work, thus you’re just not overhauling your office, but your home and personal life as well. She may lose readers in the introduction with her ideas on diet, exercise, dream board, work life journal, etc. Leeds believes that all of these factors directly impact work organization.

The theme of the book is best summarized with a reminder from Leeds at the year’s end of “Keeping your home life balanced with your work obligations isn’t always easy. There is no question that being organized will take you to the finish line, but being organized isn’t a destination you reach. It’s a journey you take.”

Overall, Leeds’ book One Year to an Organized Work Life is a practical resource for those in need of a complete organizational overhaul and for others who could use improvement in a few problematic areas.