A strategy for processing out-of-place objects

When uncluttering a space, you typically find a handful of objects that belong someplace else in your home, or don’t even belong to you. In your kitchen you might find a tape dispenser that should be stored in your office, or you’ll find a tool in your garage that actually belongs in your neighbor’s garage.

There is a temptation when you find these out-of-place items to stop what you’re doing and return the object to its far-flung location. Unfortunately, abandoning your work can often result in you sitting on your neighbor’s back porch enjoying a beer and procrastinating instead of keeping on task with your uncluttering activity.

Instead of leaving the room, simply put the out-of-place item into a clean clothes hamper. Then, after you’re finished clearing the clutter and organizing the space, you can attend to the significantly out-of-place objects.

Take care of the items that belong in your home first. Group the items in the hamper by area of your home. Next, starting on the top floor of your home, work your way down to the basement, or, if your home is all on one level, work clockwise from the main entrance. Maintaining this pattern will help you to do as little back-tracking as possible.

After the items in your home are returned to their storage places, you’ll need to create a plan of action for items that belong to other people. If there is just one item, take care of it right then (if it’s a decent hour — but if it’s the middle of the night, you may want to wait). If there are multiple items, pull out your calendar and schedule the times when you’ll return the objects to their owners. Resolve to have all items returned within five days so the objects stop cluttering up your home.

The same thing can be done in an office environment, but instead of a clothes hamper you can just use an empty cardboard box. After you’re finished with your office uncluttering project, walk through your workplace and deliver items to your co-workers.

31 Comments for “A strategy for processing out-of-place objects”

  1. posted by Kelley on

    We did something similar with one of those “stairs baskets”. It worked pretty well. The suggestions in the article are a more refined version and i hope to integrate it soon! Plus, i plan to have the family involved…i’ll sort it, then maybe everyone can take charge putting away the items in a pile…i’ll let u all know how it works!

  2. posted by Karen on

    I have a space in my home office that I use for items that are “in process” – either things that I need to put away later, or that I need to take with me when I leave, etc. I work from home and I find that if I don’t have a specific place for things like that, I will waste too much time dealing with them during the day, or they will get mixed in with my work papers. It works like a “landing strip” only for my office instead of my house. I like having it because it separates my work life from my home life – when I’m not working and I think of something I need to do in my office, I just drop the papers or items onto the landing strip by the door instead of trying to deal with it right away.

  3. posted by Malena on

    I have more baskets of crap around my house from doing this. ADD me can’t focus long enough to empty the baskets.

  4. posted by Kate on

    I love this, in theory. But in practise, I get bogged down half-way through the process.
    And then, a year later, I find myself cleaning my bedroom closet, and haul out 17 over-flowing unsorted laundry baskets worth of clutter from Christmas 2 years ago or from the time we had company and I hid the toys, or from some time when I cleaned out the car… I just never get to the unloading stage of the baskets.

  5. posted by Jude2004 on

    Interestingly, I just started something like this last night. My house is a disaster-area–sort of like a hoarder’s hell, even though I’m not a hoarder. Since it seems so impossible to de-clutter, I designated an area in one portion of one room to put stuff. Now I’m going through each of the worst rooms (7 of them). If something doesn’t belong in a room, I move it to the temporary store room. If it does belong in a room, I put it in a box for that room. Then I spend an extra half hour each day sorting the stuff in the store room and moving those sorted items to the appropriate room (where a box is set up to receive them). With this 15 puzzle of a house (see http://www.archimedes-lab.org/.....uzzle.html), I think I’ve finally hit on a way to finally get everything into the correct room. Eventually, I’ll be able to put it all away (or deal with it otherwise).

  6. posted by CM on

    I agree with Malena and Kate. If you are disciplined enough to actually put everything away at the end, then this is a good tip. Personally, I’m not. It works much better for me to put things away as I go, even if I get distracted along the way. That way, when I’m done with the original task, I have the satisfaction of knowing I’m really done and I don’t have one last step of going around replacing everything.

  7. posted by Malena on

    @CM – we have to look for victory wherever we can find it!

  8. posted by Sarah on

    As I kid, I loved the book “What To Do When Your Mom or Dad Says Clean Your Room.”


    Its suggestion was to make your bed, then start at the door and walk around the room, picking up out-of-place things and putting them on your bed. Theoretically it would mean you had to get everything back off your bed before you went to sleep, but I will admit to using a sleeping bag on a couch a few times when my room was especially cluttered.

    Later, certainly in college, I seriously glommed on to the “touch it once” mentality, where you deal with it immediately—still a popular idea in regard to paperwork, but not so hot with individual dirty socks, you know? Can’t really justify running the washer for just that.

    I think now I do a combination of the two. I definitely create piles on the steps rather than run up and down all day (laziness? No! Efficiency!), but I also group things before picking them up: all the dishes to the dishwasher, then all the stray clothes to the closet or hamper, then all the paperwork to the office. That more or less obviates the baskets, and removes the temptation to hide a full basket of clutter in the closet, untouched. And if something requires action rather than just moving it, I TRY to do that immediately…with the unfortunate exception of mending clothes, which I tend to hang on the back of the closet door until it won’t open anymore. Oops.

  9. posted by catherine on

    I like the idea of doing this at the office – maybe someone will return my stapler, hole punch, scissors, tape dispenser… Now there is a topic for RE-cluttering – how to get back stuff you’ve lent other people or the stuff they just helped themselves to.

  10. posted by Tanya on

    Kate, if you have baskets untouched from 2 Christmases ago, surely the contents of the basket need to be discarded / donated etc, not put away.

  11. posted by Sarah on

    Great idea – what I try to do is pile like things together and then if I’m in the living room and know I’ll be going to the bedroom, I’ll take the pile of bedroom stuff with me – and then bring back any living room stuff that’s in the bedroom.
    But what about stuff that doesn’t really *have* a place? I have lots of little bits and pieces, and they don’t really have a permanent home, so they always end up back on the coffee table!

  12. posted by Beth on

    I have four of these (http://www.containerstore.com/.....+mesh+cube), two medium, two large, one on each floor. The larger bin is for things that need to go somewhere else on the same floor. The smaller bin is for things that need to be put away on the other floor. When going between floors, I take the smaller bin with me and dump it into the larger bin on the appropriate floor, then throw the bin up or down the stairs (the fun part!).

  13. posted by Jacquie on

    @ Sarah. The expert unclutterers will tell you that if it doesn’t have “a space” you probably don’t need to keep it. I’m there with you though. There are some things I know I want/need to keep, but I don’t yet have a final home for them. So they get put with similar things, even though I know it’s not their final resting place.

    I am definitely a put-away-as-I-go tidyer. It burns more calories! If I have to stop before I’ve finished the task completely, at least what I have sorted is finished with, and I haven’t emptied a drawer, for example, only to find I still have a basket left to do. I think all of us put-it-away-as-you-go quickly learn to grab similar things so we don’t do too many trips, but if I miss one I will then make a trip for that one alone.

    I have tried in the past to follow Erin’s method, but it doesn’t feel right to me, and I find it discouraging to have a lovely tidy drawer as if you’ve finished, and turn around to find piles of things all around the room that still need to be found a home.

  14. posted by Celeste on

    I clean-as-you-go in the kitchen. I try not to walk around the house empty-handed, when I could be relocating a wayward item. I have a bag for the cleaners, a recycling bag for the school, a library book bag, and a bag for items to take on our next trip to the inlaws’. It helps me a lot to have a destination place.

    The suggestion to box it all up and sort later was something I had tried with toys, but like so many commenters I found the boxes didn’t get processed. While it could mean we have too many toys, I am also not willing to get rid of them until they go unused.

    Last week I had a situation where things were really bad-messy, so for an hour I just “ran laps” around the house picking up whatever needed it and moving it back to the room it needed to be in, and then finally I tackled each room on its own. It helped a LOT that I was home alone for this. Even though I try to keep the house the way I want it, we go through periods where a big mess develops.

  15. posted by Babs on

    catherine… I label my office supplies and I always get them back. If that seems a little grade school you could tape a fortune cookie slip to them.

  16. posted by Lutz on

    I like the idea. When I last decluttered my living room I was running back and forth between rooms a lot. A simple thing such as this would have saved my some time then … But there is always next time 🙂

  17. posted by Ramblings of a Woman on

    I like this idea as I am easily distracted by things. However, I am like a few of the readers who procrastinates getting around to emptying the baskets!
    My current problem is a couple of boxes of papers that have been swiped off my kitchen table when friends dropped by or we had company for dinner. I am going to HAVE to go thru them soon, I am sure there are some important papers that need filing and maybe even a bill that needs paying, lol!

  18. posted by Bill on

    Great advice.

    Even if the items belong to you, it may be better to give them away or sell them. Less is always better.

  19. posted by LoriBeth on

    My biggest problem always comes when I’m tidying my quilting/craft area space. I always come across something that I’ve been looking to use in a project and get totally distracted by immediately working on the project. Or finding something that would make a great project and sit there brainstorming until I totally lose sight of what I was doing in the first place. I have broken down projects into individual storage tubs and that has helped me so much. I have three tubs right now, one for the denim quilt, one for another quilt, and one for my Christmas fabric bags. So much easier to just grab one and know everything I need for that is in there.

    I tackle cleaning with the kids as “pick up everything that is yours and take it to your room AND put it where it belongs there”. Then we move onto “pick up everything that doesn’t belong in this room and put it where it does belong”. The only time I use a box/hamper is when it belongs outside, i.e. screwdrivers.

  20. posted by HH on

    I find when sorting the stray junk the best way to get a handle on it is to do the opposite. Rather than throw it all in a container (which turns into its own pile, as many of our commentors noted), I set up two big old tables in my garage. I set all the stray/spare junk out there to see what it is, and then decide its place after a day or two. For example, when I cleaned out my sideboard, this was the way I realized I had 9 of the same size glass flower vases! The plus side to this method is it’s not in your way if you leave it a day or two. And, since the garage stall is occupied with tables, I’ve found all the incentive I need to finish the job just with the inconvenience of having a car parked outside.

  21. posted by Paul on

    My biggest problem is that my partner creates piles of paperwork dotted around the place, or stuff migrates to near where it got last used, which I then try to rationalise. However if I put e.g. all the abandoned piles of paper into one stack, and then – because it’s not my paperwork – put it in the office and ask my partner to deal with it, the pile stays where I left it for several weeks until eventually something goes ‘bang’ in it in the sense of not getting timely attention, or needing to be found, at which point the paperwork ends up scattered again instead of being sorted and filed!

  22. posted by Volker on

    I think that you will always have some (really small) clutter. I think nothing is wrong with it, as long as you have a small clutter area which isn’t growing.

    It makes me sick when I try to have everything declutterd. It just seems not possible. If I’m not in the mood for, i put it in my chaos drawer and don’t have to worry for a while.

  23. posted by Joanne Wright on

    I keep a large picnic basket at the side of the staircase and it all gets chucked in there for sorting later in the day! Only problem is as an ex-hoarder I have to be very careful not to slip into my bad habits of seeing a pile and keep adding to it to the point of inertia! This post has reminded me I have a pile starting at the moment – need to nip it in bud! Thanks Unclutterer…

  24. posted by divajean on

    My partner’s “method” of organization for dang near anything is putting it in a plastic bag, tying it shut, and hanging it on a chair, doorknob or wherever.

    When you ask her where something is- invariably it will be “in a plastic bag somehwere.”

    Meanwhile, I am a nice, organized, labelling boxes kinda gal.

    Oscar and Felix redux. For the millenium.

  25. posted by Sue on

    Unless I’m dealing with a particularly bad area that has a lot of items that belong somewhere else, I find that I have to return items to their proper location the moment I pick them up. Even if the proper location is across the house, the item is much more likely to get put in its proper place if I do it right away.

    If I pile it up by the door, or in a basket, to return later, I will almost always neglect to do it when I’m done and that pile or basket will sit there for days or perhaps months.

    Now, if I’m working in an area that is mostly stuff that belongs elsewhere, I have to use the basket method. I try to have a box, bag, or basket for each location in the house, rather than one for all out-of-place items.

  26. posted by aj on

    I think the key is to only sort once. The entire point is to do it right away, not to fill it then set aside for later.

    I use this technique especially for my kid’s toys. They are stored according to what group they belong in. I go through and shove everything loose in a container then begin sorting through it/putting it away.

  27. posted by Kelly on

    Funny…when I was a kid, my mom had me go though the house with a laundry basket, picking up out of place stuff in each room and putting things in the correct room when I got there. It was a game to me. Mom was smart!

  28. posted by IndyGirl on

    I’m on of those who can’t use this technique as all it will do is make yet another pile in our house. So, I will trek back and fort putting other items in its place. This way, when I have to stop, t even if only little bit of the area I was working on is organized, I don’t have any more piles.

    I think the reason is that that I’m a visual person. If I see objects out of place, I register that something needs to be done. I’ve tried the “containing” technique, but it doesn’t work for me. If a pile is present (especially in a container), then the priority level to work on the pile goes down considerably and the container is put away for “later”. I’ve tried putting the container on a list of things to do, but it never gets done.

    I would be grateful for organizing techniques that work towards me. I did find this article in Real Simple that I found useful.


    If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d be grateful.

  29. posted by Lisa Zaslow on

    It was great to read all the comments on this tip. Proves my point that there is no one organizing system or rule that will work for everyone.

    If you are the type to put-it-away now, do watch out for the tendency to lose sight of your original de-cluttering goal.

    One of David Allen’s tips which many of my clients find useful is the “two minute rule”. If something will take you less than 2 minutes, do it now. e.g. Put the hat that migrated to the kitchen into the hall closet.

    However, if doing something now is going to open up a whole can of worms (while de-cluttering the kitchen you find an old photo and want to re-start your 3-year old scrapbook project, which you have to find in the trunk in the basement …), save it for later.

  30. posted by WilliamB on

    I recognize that in theory Erin’s way is more efficient. It pains me a little that in practice it doesn’t work for me. It usually takes me more time to think about it again than to put it away now, so the inefficient method is actually faster for me. It helps that most of my stuff has a place to go.

    There are some exceptions.
    – If it has to go to a different floor, then it goes in a pile at the staircase.
    – I have a spot for things that need to go out of the house; I don’t have to return borrowed item right then. (That would be very inefficient.)
    – When I unpack from a trip I make piles for “office,” “kitchen,” “bathroom,” “replace,” etc. A hint: put laundry baskets next to the luggage so dirty clothes can go straight in.
    – When I’m unpacking a new place or doing a major org/reorg, I put stuff *about* where it goes. If I’m moving a lot of stuff between rooms, then it goes into the right room. If I’m moving a lot of stuff within a room, it goes into the right corner or on the right shelf. Once it’s all about where it belongs, I can deal with one room/corner/bookshelf at a time.

  31. posted by Nonnahs Driskill on

    @divajean your post made me laugh out loud. Putting things in a plastic bag on the door.(!) That is pure madness.
    Stop using plastic bags (ever) and your battle is mostly over. Plus, you get enviro-brownie points.

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