Deciding what to donate and what to toss or recycle

Reader Pam sent us an e-mail with some helpful advice about how to decide to trash, recycle, or donate books to charities — such as when donating to libraries, schools, and/or prisons — that I wanted to share with all Unclutterers:

I have been volunteering at our local library used book sale, sorting books. It is astonishing to see the condition of some of the books people “donate.” Water damaged and moldy from floods and spills, pages turned orange and falling out from age, holes from … abuse? etc. I’m pondering why the donors did not just throw the books away, but instead are wasting our time throwing them away, for no one is going to purchase these badly damaged books. The book sale also has a policy to toss travel books and text books older than 5 years, because the information is too dated. I’ve decided it takes courage to throw your own books away, because you feel like you’re tossing the memories away with them. Somehow, donating them seems more
acceptable. I urge everyone to think about this the next time you confront a pile of your own books in bad or outdated condition. Try to summon up the courage to toss them, rather than donate them to an agency that has to toss them for you.

This advice applies to more than just books. Ask yourself, “Would someone pay money to buy this?” If you think someone would pay money for it, then it’s usually in good enough quality to donate to charity. However, if an item is chipped, torn, stained, or damaged in any way, you should usually trash or recycle the item.

Some charities will accept clothing to recycle into rags, but these items should be marked as rags when they are donated instead of expecting the charity to make these decisions. Always call the charity or check their website before making a donation to ensure that they are accepting rags, and to see how the organization prefers the items to be clearly identified as rags. One of the most overlooked areas on clothing is the armpit area of shirts — if there are sweat stains, the items are ready for the rag pile instead of the donation pile.

One exception to Pam’s rule is when donating used linens to animal shelters. Most animal shelters will accept towels, sheets, and blankets with holes or stains on them (but not mold or mildew). The items are often used for cleanups, so perfect condition isn’t necessary. Call your local shelter before making your donation, though, and definitely wash the items before making your donation.

A year ago on Unclutterer


Ask Unclutterer: House falling to pieces after injury

Reader Catherine submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I sprained my ankle yesterday and can’t move without crutches, and I am feeling very overwhelmed. Neither my husband nor my 13-y/o daughter really cook, so he went out and stocked up on TV dinners but already that is getting OLD for me. (OTOH it doesn’t bother them. They honestly don’t notice what is on their plates.) And the mess is already beginning to pile up. E.g. – I hobbled into the kitchen last night and opened the dishwasher – my daughter had just piled stuff in there willy-nilly. Nothing was going to get clean that way, so I stood on one foot and re-loaded the dishwasher. But I can’t keep doing that. Clearly I’ve been protecting her and her dad way too much from household responsibilities – mea culpa – but what do I do to keep things in reasonable shape until I can move again? And get a decent, healthy dinner that they can cook with almost no cooking skills?

I’m sorry to read that you hurt yourself. In addition to dealing with the pain, it also sounds like you’re frustrated to be missing out on your responsibilities. You clearly take pride in the work you usually do around the house, and not being able to do it is grating on your last nerve. That must be aggravating.

Although it’s going to be difficult, you need to stop worrying about the house. The most important thing in your life right now is to heal properly. If you keep trying to take care of everything, you’re going to injure your ankle further and those crutches might become a wheelchair — and a couple months of healing could become years. I know it’s hard to let go of work you feel invested in doing, but you’re going to have to.

It’s okay if your daughter loads the dishwasher willy nilly. Even if none of the dishes get washed, she’ll move things around and run it a couple of times until she gets it. She’s 13, and now is a great time for her to develop these skills. And, she’ll remember the lesson better if she teaches herself. Redoing her work doesn’t help her, and it doesn’t help your foot.

Additionally, people like to feel needed. You’re not letting your husband or your daughter experience this because you want to do it all — even when you shouldn’t. They might not do things your way, but that’s okay. It’s temporary, and you may even find that you like how they do things. If your daughter learns how to run the dishwasher, this is a chore she can continue to do after you’re healed. A win for both of you!

As far as meals go, I recommend encouraging your daughter and husband to be creative. Let them explore cookbooks and recipe websites to find meals that they feel comfortable making. Don’t tell them what to make. Don’t tell them how to make it. Don’t critique what they make. Just encourage them to try their hands at cooking. Right now they’re relying on frozen dinners because they don’t think they can make good meals — and you don’t believe it either. Well, they can. The food might not taste great, but at least they’ll be trying. Your daughter might even grow up to become a world renown chef and this injury of yours could be the inspiration she needs to get started on her path.

Your injury is temporary and it is okay if the house falls to pieces while you’re recovering (but I don’t think it actually will). The more you focus on healing, the faster you can return to the responsibilities you enjoy in your home. In the meantime, trust your family. Enjoy and appreciate everything that they’re doing for you, even though it might not be the way you normally do things. They love you. They’re trying to care for you. Embrace these blessings and focus all of your energy on getting better.

Thank you, Catherine, 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: Freeing up floor space

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

This workspace is nice for many reasons — I like the vertically stored laptop, the filing cabinet on wheels that expands the work surface (or slides under the desk), and the overhead storage that doesn’t eat up any floor space. In an alternate photo in the set, it also appears that there are portraits affixed to the front of the cabinets. If done well (with screws or very strong velcro), it is a good way to keep frames off the work surface but still personalizes the office. Thank you, Psleda, for submitting your office 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.

Resolution making and keeping: Reviewing 2010 and looking toward 2011

As the year comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on my 2010 quarterly resolutions. I am glad I broke my resolutions up into quarterly goals, instead of trying to address all of them the entire year. However, I didn’t love it so much to do it again in 2011.

To review, my quarterly resolutions were:

My favorite quarter was, surprisingly, the third set of resolutions: Finish it! The resolutions were very specific. I was able to schedule them on the calendar, and check them off when they were finished. And, at the end of the quarter, I could look at my life and point at my accomplishments — the dryer works! the electrical box is new! stuff I don’t use is out of the house!

The other quarters were less rewarding. Each had some highlights, but it’s difficult for me to evaluate if I have more energy at the end of this year than I did last year — especially since I have a very active toddler now. I’m exhausted every night when I climb into bed, but would I have been more exhausted had I not made the changes to my life in early 2010? There is no way for me to know.

Between now and the end of 2010, I’m going to focus on finding new ways to set resolutions for 2011. I’m committed to keeping resolutions, but I’m not committed to doing them quarterly.

How do you plan your yearly resolutions? How did you fare on accomplishing your 2010 resolutions? If Unclutterer could give you help with your 2011 resolutions, what would we do? What do you plan to do differently with your 2011 resolutions compared to 2010? I’m interested in reading all of your constructive insights into resolution making so that 2011 will be an amazing year for resolution keeping.

Unitasker Wednesday: Inflatable meal

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

In this holiday season, we wanted to invite all of you to join us for a (virtual) meal. Come on in, grab a seat, sit down, and let’s enjoy a meal together.

I’ve always been a fan of eating dessert first — so our first course today will be some Inflatable Fruitcake:

Yummy, yummy! And the Inflatable Fruitcake pairs perfectly with our main course, the Inflatable Turkey:

Doesn’t it look moist!

And, of course, we’ll need some Inflatable Toast to make our inflatable stuffing:

Mmmmm, mmmmmm. Only the best inflatable meal for our guests! We hope you enjoyed it.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Teaching children to fight clutter
    Guest post author Mandi Ehman discusses five tips on helping kids learn to battle clutter.
  • Uncluttering isn’t for everyone
    As much as your uncluttering strategies and techniques have made a positive change in your life, don’t think about your way of living as being better than how other people choose to live their lives. Think of an uncluttered life as being easier for you.
  • Cure your e-mail addiction
    If you’re checking your e-mail 24,000 times a year, what are you sacrificing? What are you not working on during that time? Could you reduce your rate to every 15 minutes (a yearly total of 8,000) and be more productive with other aspects of your job? Could you reduce it to once an hour (2,000)? Three times a day (750)?
  • Suggesting disposal
    Professional organizer Scott Roewer sent me a Christmas card this year with an uncluttered message printed on the inside of the card. After the seasonal greeting and his signature was the phrase: “This card expires January 2, 2010, at which time it should be recycled.”



Getting organized for the new year

I keep a ridiculous number of lists: movies I want to see, books I want to read, groceries I need to buy, recipes I want to try, things I have to do, letters I should write, gifts I wish to give, music I want to have my son hear, my lofty someday goals. These lists are handwritten — I tried to keep them digitally but kept writing things down on sticky notes and then sticking the notes to my iPhone. A key component of being organized is knowing yourself, and I’m a handwritten list maker.

At the start of every year, I get a new notebook and copy the lists from the old notebook into the new. I grab a big cup of coffee, light a fire in the fireplace, and curl up under a warm blanket with the notebook and a good pen. I recopy the lists for a few reasons:

  1. My notebook gets beaten up during the year and I’m ready for a new notebook every 12 months.
  2. The copying process is a tradition I really enjoy.
  3. When going through the lists, I can change my preferences, reorder my lists, and eliminate things I did/saw/tried that I forgot to cross off over the course of the year.
  4. The old lists become recordings of my life over the past year. Since I don’t keep a diary, this is the closest thing I have.

Obviously, the lists also help to keep me organized.

What traditions do you complete at the end of the year or start of the new year that help to keep you organized? How do you enjoy these traditions? Do you keep lists? Share your new year organizing traditions in the comments.

Sitter information forms

When you leave your home, you may have a babysitter, pet-sitter, or house-sitter watch over your children, pets, or things. Completing an information sheet with important contact and vital data can keep you and the sitter organized and ready for anything.

You can print and fill out these forms exactly as they are, or use them as inspiration for creating your own.




A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Extreme minimalist living
    Voluntarily living in less than 175 square feet permanently is a skill. It is not a skill I possess or necessarily wish to possess, but I have a respect for the people who do. They find a way to do without traditional conveniences of a home. They sacrifice a great deal of comfort to pursue whatever it is that matters to them more. This week, I’ve been mesmerized by two articles on extreme minimalist living I want to bring to your attention.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: USB-powered eyelash curler
    Why should I safely curl my eyelashes in front of a mirror when I could do it blindly in front of my laptop with 5V current?
  • Status update: How are your 2009 resolutions working?
    What was/were your 2009 resolution(s)? Do you need to get a plan in action now to make sure you achieve it before the end of the year? I’m interested in reading about your successes in the comments.
  • PEEP: A place for everything and everything in its place
    Reader Alexandra introduced us to the post “The NICU goes Lean” on the Running a Hospital blog written by Paul Levy who is the president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. In the article, Levy details how the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in his hospital used Lean 5S process improvements as motivation to organize and streamline their supply room.
  • Workspace of the Week: Just enough

Simple steps to save you time

These tips aren’t revolutionary, but they’re simple ways to save time when working around the house.

  • Open kitchen cabinet doors before putting dishes away, and then close all of them when you’re finished. You won’t waste time opening and closing doors.
  • If you have a dishwasher, wipe crumbs off the counter into the open dishwasher. Keeps your hands and floor clean, and speeds up cleanup.
  • Dust from high to low, and sweep after dusting.
  • Always store your keys in the same place.
  • Replace batteries in clocks, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, and flashlights all on the same day, twice a year.

What simple steps help save you time around your house? Add your tips in the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: Regrets and legacy items

Reader Andrew submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I agree and aspire to be neat, minimalist, the epitome of uncluttered … but I have a couple of high priced items that I haven’t used in some time but feel I would regret if I didn’t have them … primarily because I feel my kids could one day use them. So I wonder:

  1. Have you ever regretted getting rid of something?
  2. What do you do about “legacy” items?

The items are few, but still weigh upon my mind.

Great questions, Andrew!

Addressing the first question: Yes, I have regretted getting rid of something.

In my early days of uncluttering, I wanted to be uncluttered RIGHT THEN. I was ready to live my uncluttered life and I didn’t want to have to sort through all of my possessions. I just wanted the clutter magically gone.

One day my patience grew thin, and I tossed to the curb some boxes I hadn’t unpacked since my previous move. I didn’t even look in the boxes. I figured if I’d lived without the stuff for a year, I couldn’t possibly need it.

Except, in one of the boxes was stuff I needed — my passport, my birth certificate, my immunization records — all my vital documents.

I’ve been able to replace these items, but doing so was an extremely long and frustrating experience. Had I simply opened the boxes, I would have instantly seen the mistake I was making. But, I was in a hurry and didn’t want to take the time to do the project correctly. I regret getting rid of those things.

I’ve never regretted getting rid of something that I took the time to sort through and conscientiously review.

Addressing the second question: I keep a few legacy items for my son.

We have a large Rubbermaid storage box in our office closet with my son’s name on it. There isn’t much in it right now — his baby book, his first pair of shoes. However, this is the box where we plan to store any legacy items we think he might want of ours when he is an adult.

We can’t keep everything we think he might one day want, so we limit ourselves to only storing things we can fit in this very specific space. If it doesn’t fit, we don’t store it. Things we don’t store, we either use or give away. Our goal isn’t to clutter up his future home with our stuff, so we are making the decisions during his childhood instead of forcing him to deal with a giant amount of our things when he’s an adult.

Additionally, in our Wills we have directions for items we regularly use — like the watch my husband wears, which isn’t very expensive but has sentimental value — stating that if he wants these things, we would like for him to have them. The Wills also give him permission to not keep the items if that is his choice. We know he doesn’t need permission, but we want to make it clear that he shouldn’t feel any guilt if he chooses to part with the objects.

Legacy items are reminders that you are part of a family, and the items honor and represent these caring relationships. I think it’s nice to pass on a few things to your children. That being said, don’t go overboard. You don’t want to overwhelm your children with stuff that can clutter up their adult lives. I’ve found that putting space restrictions on storing these items is a good way to keep out the clutter and only store the most treasured items, the items your child will truly cherish and appreciate that you kept.

Thank you, Andrew, 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.