A year ago on Unclutterer


Could you wear just six pieces of clothing for a month?

The New York Times article “Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy” looks into two fashion diets that encourage folks to creatively exercise restraint in buying new clothes. The first challenge, called Six Items or Less, required a pledge to only wear six items of clothing for an entire month. The second challenge, known as the Great American Apparel Diet, is a one-year agreement to abstain from buying any clothing.

The article spends most of its column inches focusing on the Six Items or Less challenge, and explores a few of the sets of outfits participants chose to wear. My favorite parts of the article aren’t where they discuss the reasons the people decided to take on the challenge — we’ve talked about all the reasons on Unclutterer numerous times before — what is fun for me are the reactions the challengers mention. From the article:

Nearly a month into what amounted to just such a self-inflicted fast of fashion, Stella Brennan, 31, an insurance sales executive from Kenosha, Wis., realized last week that not even her husband, Kelly, a machinist, had yet figured out that she had been wearing the same six items, over and over, since June 21. The sad punch line is that Mr. Brennan is the one who actually does the laundry in the family.

If you’re looking to curb clutter in your clothes closet, I think the reaction that most people don’t pay extremely close attention to what you’re wearing is something to keep at the back of your mind. You don’t have to trim your wardrobe down to just six pieces, but getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t pass the red velvet rope test likely won’t make you the laughing stock of society. You can be chic and clutter free!

Image from The New York Times.

Ask Unclutterer: Best methods for recycling?

Reader Lynne submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I still love the feel of paper in my hands … real books or magazines. I cycle through my magazines relatively quickly. But yesterday as I was ripping off the address labels so I could pass them along (Purple Heart takes magazines), I had another thought. I recycle almost everything. In passing these along, is it much more likely they will end up in a landfill?

Technically, if you pass along the magazines to someone else and a second person gets use out of a product, you’re recycling. Re=again. Cycle=a full turn. An object doesn’t have to be repurposed to be recycled, it just needs to be used again. If a dairy sanitizes and reuses their glass bottles, they’re recycling (putting the bottle to use again). Simply passing along your magazines to another person is recycling, in the strictest sense of the definition.

However, I think your intention is to keep the item out of the landfill, which means you hope that the paper is repurposed. I would start by asking Purple Heart exactly what happens to the magazines after you donate them. If they’re packaged up and flown somewhere overseas, well, you have to weigh the environmental impact of the oil, exhaust, and other damage the airplane will put on the environment against the environmental impact of the recycling center you normally use to process paper. In this case, my guess is that if your desire is to have the smallest amount of environmental damage, your choices would be: Best–local recycling center, Middle–local landfill, Worst–flying them overseas. Conversely, Purple Heart might just donate them to the local VA Hospital and the hospital may have a paper recycling program of their own. So, donating to Purple Heart might be a great choice all around if the magazines are staying local. You won’t know, though, until you ask.

If you haven’t read the book No Impact Man or seen the documentary, I recommend you do. Colin Beavan talks at length about his struggles to determine what actions have the least amount of impact on the environment. You may not like Beavan’s personality (he rubs some people the wrong way), but the content of his message is still interesting.

Thank you, Lynne, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Workspace of the Week: Basement beautiful

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Aaron’s amazing home office:

This is a real home office. Aaron’s such a good photographer that his pictures look like they’re straight from a catalog — which is where these images belong. This streamlined office is in a walk-out basement, and the light pouring in the windows in the first image make it feel like it’s on a higher floor. The cable management is superb. The desk’s clutter-free work surface gives Aaron lots of room to spread out and tackle what needs to be done. The whole space is truly inspiring. Thank you, Aaron, for submitting it to our Flickr pool.

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.

Uncluttering and trade-offs

I tend to view the world through the eyes of an economist. When I make a decision — small or large — I typically do a cost-benefit analysis first. I know that the world isn’t dichotomous, and that there are unlimited shades of gray, but I still tend to weigh all my decisions as trade-offs. I have to give up X (or a part of X) to get Y.

To buy a car, I have to save money each month for a few years until I have enough in a bank account to buy a car that best suits my needs. Each month when I put money into savings, I’m choosing not to spend that money on something else. I’ve decided that Y (a car) is more valuable to me in the future than X (whatever else I could have spent the money on) is now, and I eagerly make the trade-off.

When uncluttering, these trade-offs are sometimes less obvious, but they’re still trade-offs. If I want Y (a clutter-free life focused on what matters most to me) I have to give up X (clutter). Except, it can be difficult to see how an old t-shirt or dusty sports equipment is keeping me from achieving a remarkable life. It’s not until the clutter is gone that the benefits of removing it are so obvious.

In my line of work, I hear a lot of reasons about why someone can’t live clutter free. These are really statements about trade-offs. When someone says, “I can’t unclutter because …” whatever comes after the “because” is what matters more to the person than uncluttering. “I can’t unclutter because I have to cart my kids back and forth to piano lessons, soccer practices, and swim team,” is a statement that the person values her children participating in extra curricular activities more than getting rid of clutter at home. In my opinion, this might be a decent trade-off. Having a clutter-free house might not be a priority for the person. What is important, though, is being honest with yourself about your priorities. If a clutter-free home is what you want (Y), then know you will have to give up clutter (X) to get it and you’ll have to spend your time uncluttering (Y) instead of relaxing (X) to make it happen.

Compare the benefits of an uncluttered life to the life you’re currently living and decide which you value more. Is an uncluttered life your Y? Are you willing to give up X to get Y? Only you can make this decision.

Assorted links for July 22, 2010

Interesting products and articles related to uncluttering and organizing:

  • Not the fastest reader of online content? Want to improve your speed and efficiency? The site Zap Reader helps increase your reading speed — and it’s free.
  • A nice reminder from NPR that libraries “hand you things for free.”
  • BlueLounge has caught our attention recently with two fantastic looking products to help curb cord and cable clutter. For many cables, you might be interested in the CableBox, and for cables that are longer than necessary you might like the CableClip. I want them ALL.
  • If you need some help organizing your briefcase or bag, Lifehacker introduced us to the Cocoon Grid-It Organizer. They’re straps of various lengths in perpendicular and parallel directions to accommodate anything you need to carry.
  • Office furniture designer Mebelux has some amazing, modern roll-top desks in their Angular line. I love the idea of roll-top desks, especially for small spaces where you might not have a separate room for an office. Being able to close up your desk lets you easily keep your work life from invading your home life.
  • Merlin Mann has an interesting (albeit meandering) post “On Future-Proofing Your Passion.” Although it might not seem too related to uncluttering, it has a lot to do with clearing the clutter to focus on what is important.
  • Jeffrey Tang has a wonderful guest post on ZenHabits about “The Clean-Slate Guide to Simplicity.” The premise is to put everything into storage, only pull things out as you need them, and, after a set amount of time, get rid of everything still in storage.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Watermelon Cooler

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

I know about your obsession with watermelon. I’ve seen the way you talk to the blooms in your watermelon patch, the way you care and support each watermelon that crosses your home’s threshold, the way you always show up at potluck dinners with one, and the small tear that rolls down your cheek every time you cut into one. You love watermelons of all shapes and sizes — seeded and seedless.

Because of this deep-flowing passion, I immediately thought of you when I saw on Engadget and CrunchGear the JoyBond company’s greatest creation: The Watermelon Cooler!

Now, I need you to brace yourself, because I have some bad news. Unfortunately, the Watermelon Cooler is only sold in Japan. It’s okay if you cry. I understand. It saddens me, too. Maybe you can plan a vacation?

Thanks go to the more than 100 readers who sent us a link to this unitasker this week. This is a great one!

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Three laws of basement storage
    If you use your basement for storing things other than root vegetables, let me introduce you to my Three Laws of Basement Storage.
  • Off-beat solutions for organizing your mail
    If you don’t immediately process your mail when you come home each evening, then I strongly recommend having a set place to store your mail until you do have time to process it.
  • Behavioral clutter: Texting while driving
    If you’re someone who thinks that it’s completely safe to text while driving, I’d like to suggest you play an eye-opening game in the Technology section of this weekend’s online New York Times.
  • Teaching time management skills to children
    The website WebMD has a terrific video about fostering time management skills in children and helping them get where they need to be, when they need to be there.


  • Ten things to do in 10 minutes
    When you’re looking to feel productive with little effort, try one of the 10 uncluttering tasks that you can do in 10 minutes.

Excerpt: Six tips for organizing your time spent on the telephone

This is an excerpt from my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, pages 129-131. For even more phone tips, check out “Nine tips for efficiently processing voicemail.”

I go out of my way not to use the phone, especially at work, and I have found this to be a very effective way to stay on task. If someone calls and leaves a voice mail, I’ll send a text message or e-mail in return summarizing what was said in the voice mail and give my response. There is no record of communication with the phone. You don’t have anything to reference later and you can’t run a search on words used during the conversation. Decisions or instructions can be quickly forgotten. Phones are good for relaying sensitive information to people who aren’t physically close to you (like when a coworker in another division leaves for a new job) but bad for transmitting facts and data points.

Since most of us spend time at work dealing with facts and data, the phone should be taking a backseat to other forms of communication. That being said, it’s impossible to avoid the phone in the workplace. And there are times when picking up the phone is the best way to handle a situation. The following are suggestions for how to use the phone in an organized way during those times when you need to rely on it:

  • Create talking points. Before you make a call, jot down notes about what you need to cover in your discussion. This is especially important before conference calls. Like with meetings, you should never make a call without knowing how you want the conversation to end. If you can’t construct a purpose statement before dialing, don’t dial.
  • Set a timer. Whenever you call someone, you’re interrupting whatever it was the person was doing before you called. Be respectful of this and make the call as brief as possible. When someone calls you, be up front about how much time you have to be on the phone. Most phone calls should begin as follows: You: “Hello, this is NAME.” Caller: “Hello, this is NAME. How are you?” You: “I’m great. I’ve got X minutes to talk, what can I help you with?” If the person on the other end of the line needs to talk to you for more than the number of minutes you said, then he or she can schedule a block of time to talk with you in the future. You: “Hey, can we talk this afternoon at three? I don’t have any afternoon appointments scheduled.”
  • Use a headset if you’re on the phone for more than half an hour a day. From an ergonomic perspective, your neck shouldn’t be cramped for extended periods of time. Plus, your hands will be free to do mindless tasks while you’re on your call — filing papers, putting paper clips away in your drawer, etc. If you’re going to be making a lot of noise, though, be sure to hit the mute button so that you don’t disrupt the other people on the call.
  • Don’t call people and ask whether they received your e-mail. If you are worried someone didn’t receive your initial e-mail, just resend it with a note and the whole content of your previous message. Ask for a confirmation of receipt if you’re afraid the e-mails aren’t arriving. Not everyone checks their e-mail on your schedule, so don’t disrupt them further by calling.
  • Use the do-not-disturb button. Just because you’re sitting at your desk doesn’t mean that you have to answer the phone. If you need to concentrate intently on work, hit the do-not-disturb button and let all calls go to voicemail for that period of time. You shouldn’t leave the button on all the time, because this practice will reflect poorly on you in the workplace. However, doing it from time to time can significantly improve your productivity.
  • Designate a time to return calls. I like to return phone calls from twelve thirty to one in the afternoon, after lunch, when my energy level is low. I get a boost from the people I’m talking to, and it’s a time when most everyone across the U.S. is at work (twelve thirty PM East Coast time is nine thirty AM on the West Coast).

A Thing a Day Challenge

In the Unclutterer Forum, there is an amazing challenge going on that I’ve greatly enjoyed following. Unclutterer reader and Forum member EternalVoyageur started the A Thing a Day Challenge to track daily uncluttering efforts in a fun way.

In less than two months, there are more than 400 posts in the discussion with 59 people already participating in the ATAD Challenge.

An explanation about the challenge from EternalVoyageur:

The challenge is about getting rid of one object a day, for … a month? A year? It’s up to you how long you want your challenge to last.

Whether you give away, trash or donate the object is immaterial, but it must be gone from your life and space. Putting it into storage doesn’t count; though you are allowed to, say, collect the things in a box to donate them at the end of the month.

Oh, and you’re also allowed to cheat and fill your quota ahead of time, like throwing out 7 things on Monday, making that a week’s worth of ATAD.

By telling us on here what you got rid of today will not only help with the accountability issues, you’ll also help others rethink their possessions (He got rid of his xyz? Come to think of it, do I really need mine?)

Want to join in the fun? Check out the ATAD Challenge in the Unclutterer Forum.


Over the years of writing about organizing and working with clients, I continue to be baffled by how to neatly organize a small number of items. Whenever I see these items or hear about them, I cringe. Organizing them successfully is a complete mystery to me. Maybe you have a few, too, in your home or office — a specific item that always seems to be out of place, cumbersome, or impossible to store well?

I’ve listed a handful of difficult storage items here, and I’m looking for some creative, ingenious, and amazing storage solution suggestions from you in the comments. If you are stumped by something in your space, share this frustration in the comments, too, and we can all work to help you find a solution.

  • I’m not a basket person, so I don’t have much experience with organizing baskets when they’re not in use. Their handles and shapes keep them from stacking well, some are delicate so you don’t want to stuff them into a box, they take up an absurd amount of space on a shelf, and they don’t hang well (especially those without handles). Even craft stores seem to have a difficult time storing and displaying them.
  • Cupcake and muffin pans drive me nuts. I’m always looking for suggestions for ways to store them if a cupboard isn’t designed to accommodate pans on their sides.
  • Plastic bags, like ones you get from the grocery store, if the person doesn’t like the look or idea of a wall-mounted plastic bag holder. (I’ve been successful at convincing folks to switch to reusable grocery bags to reduce the number of plastic bags, but even then it’s difficult not to accumulate a few plastic bags.) Obviously, any container would keep them under control, but what is really an amazing solution?
  • Light bulbs — they are almost always less expensive to buy more than one at a time, but you usually only need one. You can stack the boxes on a shelf if the person has retained the boxes, but not all bulbs come in boxes these days and not everyone keeps the packaging.
  • Personally, we’re at a loss for what to do with our two amplifiers for my pedal steel guitar, my electric bass, and my husband’s electric guitars. We don’t have a music room, so they’re just out like a piece of furniture. Since they weigh more than 70 pounds, they’re not items I can easily move from space-to-space. I regularly look at them and wish they would magically become less obtrusive in our space.

Okay, let’s get the answers rolling — I’m interested in hearing from you.

Tips for reducing your commitment to unwanted obligations

It’s easy to back out of an obligation if technically it’s not yet an obligation. When someone asks for your help on a project, you can thank him for considering you, explain that you are not the best person for the job, and recommend an alternative person or method for getting the help he needs. However, we don’t always say “no” when we should and sometimes it’s not until we’re involved in a project that we realize it’s the wrong project for us.

For those times when you’re carrying more obligations or the wrong obligations, you need a management (and possibly an exit) strategy to regain control of your time.

  • Ask for help. This could mean going to the project organizer and requesting that he assist you in prioritizing and scheduling your work, or it could mean picking up the phone and asking someone to step in and lend a hand. Know what resources are available to you, and don’t be reluctant to take advantage of them.
  • Identify the problem. Is it the time commitment that is driving you bonkers or that you were misled about what you would be doing? Maybe the problem is that you were once interested in the project, but you’re ready now to move on to something else? Knowing exactly why you want to change your relationship with a project can help you find the solution.
  • Change your mindset. Often times, just deciding to feel differently about an obligation can improve the situation. Instead of believing you have to do something, you change your thoughts to acknowledging you get to do it and the stress goes away.
  • Manage expectations. If you think you’re going to miss an upcoming deadline, tell those who are depending on you about it as early as possible. “We spent all last night in the ER after my kid wiped out on his bicycle. My work today likely won’t be as productive as it normally is. Just giving you a head’s up that this might alter the deadline.” Keeping your team members in the loop has the benefit of reducing your stress levels. Don’t whine or exaggerate or act defensively, just communicate the facts. People understand that life happens.
  • Know exactly what needs to get done. The stress of an obligation is sometimes greater than the actual obligation. Identify exactly what action items you need to take, and maybe your stress levels will reduce.
  • Create a detailed exit strategy. Similar to planning any project, you’ll need a roadmap for where you’re going that is complete with action items and milestones. Want to get off a committee at your daughter’s school? Your plan for how that will happen might look like: 1. Complete all current work assigned to you, 2. Find a replacement committee member or alternative method for getting the work done in the future, 3. Craft your resignation note, 4. Buck up and resign, but be gracious (a small gift of appreciation for the committee chair might be in order).
  • Know your priorities. There are times when the obligation is a good one, it’s just not good right now. I’ve recently been asked to serve on a curriculum committee for an organization that I value. I’m honored they considered me, and would love being on the committee, but can’t do the work right now. I told the organization this and also said that once my son starts pre-school in a couple years that I hope to be able to participate then if they still want/need my help. Spending my free time with my son is more important to me right now than serving on this committee.

No matter what route you take to getting out from under the stress of being over-committed, be respectful of the people who will pick up the work that you are no longer responsible for completing. Even though you might want to burn some bridges, it’s never a good idea to just abandon your obligations. You wouldn’t want someone to do it to you.