Uncluttering method: Tackling the most annoying thing first

The question I am asked the most is: “Where should I start uncluttering?” I typically respond to this question with the standard “start small” response — a drawer, a purse, a pocket of a coat. Although this is the answer I most often give because starting small is really easy, it’s not actually what I believe is the most rewarding place to start.

When faced with a cluttered home or office, I find that people get the greatest satisfaction from uncluttering the area that annoys them more than any other area. It’s the area of your home or office that makes you curse each time you look at it. Even just thinking about it makes your stomach tighten and jaw clench. If you used a word as strong as hate, you would say you hated it.

Back in my cluttered days, there was a stack of boxes by the front door that drove me bonkers. Worst of all, it was the first thing I saw when I came home after a long day at work. I’d be ready to relax, and then AHHHH! I’d see it and instantly tense up again. “I have to take care of that,” would be the next thought that popped into my mind. And then, I’d walk into the living room and forget about the boxes until the next time I left or came home. I grumbled about those awful boxes of clutter for years.

When I finally sorted through the contents of those boxes and cleared them away from the front door, it was as if I had won the lottery. I took myself out to dinner. I called and told a few friends. I may have pulled a neighbor in from the hallway just to take a look at what I had done. I was elated, and the remainder of my uncluttering work was a breeze after that.

Starting small is easy, and it’s actually how I started my first big uncluttering project. I went through one box at the bottom of a closet. I didn’t get a giant burst of motivation and satisfaction, though, until I tackled those boxes by the front door. It was only after the biggest frustration was gone that I really wanted to get rid of all the clutter and embark on my new, uncluttered life.

If you’re looking for a boost of uncluttering motivation, slay the clutter dragon that is your biggest frustration in your home or office. Stop putting it off, and take care of it. You’ll be glad you did.

Unitasker Wednesday: Tea-Boy Penguin Tea Timer

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

This just may be the cutest, most precious unitasker ever! Introducing the Tea-Boy Penguin Tea Timer:

It’s so cute, I am actually reticent to poke fun at it. So, let me encourage you to have fun with this $30 device in the comments. I’m eager to read what you have to say about this adorable little guy.

And, a big thanks to reader Wendy for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

Assorted links for January 19, 2011

Some great uncluttering and simple living articles from the news and around the web:

SimpliFried round-up

It’s difficult for me to believe, but our sister site SimpliFried has been live for two weeks now. In case you missed our big announcement, we started this new site as a way to help readers relieve stress surrounding mealtimes (because this is the area of life we struggle with the most).

As a quick round-up, these are the posts we’ve had so far on SimpliFried:

If you haven’t check out SimpliFried yet, please do. We’re excited about the community we’ve built there and are loving what’s coming up on the schedule.

Creating a home paper management system

Reader Steve sent us a great solution for keeping mail off his family’s kitchen counter tops and dining table:

Our problem was that every piece of mail, receipt, kids artwork, etc. lands in our kitchen and ends up in endless piles. With everything from tax forms to our 4-year old’s “masterpieces” piled together, we never know where anything is. Since our home office is upstairs in our home, nothing ever seems to make its way there. As a result, I used six mini “Command” removable hooks and six 10″ x 13″ mailing envelopes to create a paperwork organization wall on the inside of a coat closet door, adjacent to our kitchen. I labeled the envelopes for “Bills,” “My paperwork,” “My wife’s paperwork,” “HSA receipts,” “Worthwhile Coupons,” and “SHRED.”

This new system allows my wife and I to easily sort paperwork into its appropriate place and then hide it away by simply closing the door. We can then grab the folders, as necessary, on our way to the office, the store, or the shredder, and bring them back when we are done.

I think this is a wonderful solution that could work for many busy people and families. If you’re someone who might take an envelope up to the office and then forget to immediately return it to the door, you could easily hang two additional empty folders on each hook. Instead of using envelopes, you could also use large binder clips.

Thanks, Steve, for sharing your terrific solution with us.

The tabula rasa method of uncluttering and organizing a room

The Latin phrase tabula rasa translates into English as “blank slate.” Philosopher John Locke described tabula rasa as a person who is similar to a piece of paper void of any characters. Poet William Blake wrote about it as innocence and said its opposite is experience. For our purposes, we’re going to use the phrase to represent a room empty of everything except for its permanent fixtures.

When uncluttering and organizing a room using the tabula rasa method, you start by moving everything — absolutely everything — that isn’t affixed to the walls, floor, or ceiling out of the room. As you’re pulling out the items, group them together by type on your dining room table or on a tarp covering the ground in your garage or back yard (assuming it’s a day when it’s not expected to rain). Shoes should be piled with other shoes or can openers with other can openers.

Once everything is out of the room, assess the space: Are any of the fixtures damaged? Does any paint need to be applied? Is every surface as clean as possible? Do any light bulbs need to be replaced? Do you need new storage shelves? When the room is empty, now is the time to address these structural issues.

After making repairs and cleaning, walk through the space and evaluate how you use it: What do you do in this space? How could you arrange the room to best meet your needs? Using sticky notes, label zones based on what you do in that area. If working in your bathroom, the sink area might be labeled “Toothbrushing, makeup application/shaving, hand washing.”

Next, head to your stuff that is in piles. Take with you a trash bag, your recycling bin, and two large boxes with one labeled “Donate/Sell” and the other “Special Attention.” Diligently go through each pile of your stuff and sort its contents into: Keep (simply leave it in the pile), Trash (put it straight into the trash bag), Recycle (put it into the recycling bin), Donate/Sell (put items you will donate to charity or sell into this box), and Special Attention (only put items in this box that need you to do something specific with them that doesn’t fall into the other categories).

After everything has been sorted, return the Keep items to their new storage area closest to their use zone in the room.

When all of the Keep items are in their new homes, you still aren’t finished uncluttering and organizing the room. You still need to address the Trash, Recycle, Donate/Sell, and Special Attention containers you created earlier. Obviously, put Trash with your other trash, and return your Recycle bin to its place. Then, sort through your Donate/Sell box and handle these items as necessary. Schedule times to drop off the charity donations at the collection site and immediately list sell items on eBay, Craigslist, or whatever system you want to use to sell your things. Finally, sort through your Special Attention items and do whatever you need to do to take care of these items. If you need to repair or return objects, do it right now or get it scheduled on your calendar. Don’t let these items continue to clutter up your life, just in another area of your home.

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s easiest to do tabula rasa uncluttering and organizing projects when you have the entire day or weekend to focus on the project. If you schedule only a few hours, you leave out the final step of addressing the Donate/Sell and Special Attention boxes and these items will continue to weigh on you. When you give yourself a day or two, you can complete the project from start to finish.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Ask Unclutterer: Coat control
    I live in Brooklyn on the top floor of a Brownstone and have NO coat closet, which is killing me this winter because our coats just end up all over the kitchen table. Do you have any ideas/suggestions for coat/hat/gloves/boot storage for a small apartment?
  • Uncluttered and inexpensive storage designs from CB2
    Since it’s probably safe to assume that you don’t eventually want to end up watching the buildings around you burn while the Frank Black sings “Where Is My Mind?” consider CB2 next time you’re about to make the drive to IKEA.



Ask Unclutterer: Handling other people’s clutter in your space

Reader Deborah e-mailed the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Deborah: My sister moved across the country eight years ago and left boxes of things at my house because she wasn’t sure if she’d stay out west. They had been stored in an extra bedroom that we weren’t using at the time. Since then, we’ve had two kids and really could use the space. I’ve asked my sister to clean out the room, and she does go through a few boxes when she visits, but basically there are boxes stacked to the ceiling. How do I get this space back in my home without causing a problem between the two of us? If I had the extra money I would just ship the boxes. I’m not working so the cost is prohibitive to me.

Every now and then, I’ll have time in my schedule to respond to readers as e-mals arrive in my inbox. A couple weeks ago, one of those days popped up on the schedule, so I sent Deborah back the following response:

Unclutterer: Explain to her exactly what you just explained to me. Then, tell her that by X date if the boxes aren’t gone, you’ll start going through them for her. You’ll sell the more expensive and not-very-sentimental items on Craigslist, and use that money to ship to her the few boxes of what you believe to be very sentimental stuff (photographs, favorite childhood stuffed animal).

Hopefully, she’ll come and go through the stuff. If she doesn’t, though, you’ll have a way out from under her stuff. I’m sure going through her stuff won’t be fun, but at least you’ll be able to reclaim your space.

Then, to my wonderful surprise, a week later Deborah e-mailed me again:

Deborah: Thank you so much! I have a pile of boxes to ship in my car, and three bags of shredded documents to drop at recycling. I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders!

Clutter can put a lot of strain on relationships, so I am so glad to know that these two women worked things out after eight years. I hope other readers in similar situations can find a way to have comparable conversations to reduce stress and clutter in their homes.

Thank you, Deborah, for e-mailing your question and for letting me know how things turned out in the end.

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: Out-of-sight, out-of-mind

This week’s Workspace of the Week is TinaFB’s bedroom office:

For the second week in a row, I wanted to highlight how someone has solved the space constraint of needing to put a desk in their bedroom/office/living space. The reason I like this desk so much is because it closes up and goes away when TinaFB wishes to relax. She doesn’t have to stare at responsibilities and bills, she can simply make them disappear. I also like that she took the time to personalize the furniture (it’s a piece from Ikea) with red paint on the back panel and chalkboard paint on the inside of the doors. The chalkboard paint can be very useful for posting important reminders, without having to have an actual chalkboard hanging in the room. Thank you, TinaFB, for submitting your office to our workspace 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.

Uncluttered benefits of learning people’s names

Have you seen the “What’s That Name?” sketch from the Paul Rudd-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live this season? If not, go watch it, it’s pretty funny.

SNL writers got this sketch right when they poked fun at the way people routinely dehumanize each other. When we’re in a hurry and on cruise control, it can be easy to forget that the person driving the bus or handing you dry cleaning or taking your order in a restaurant isn’t an automaton. People in service industry professions are often treated like robots, or, worse yet, like they’re invisible.

I grew up in a small-ish Midwestern town where everyone already knew everybody else’s name. When I moved to a major city, I missed knowing my neighbors and the people where I went. So, a decade ago, I started making it a point to know people’s names. I know the names of the checkout clerks, butchers, and the wine and cheese buyers at the grocery store; I know the names of my regular UPS man, mail carrier, and FedEx lady (and even most of their substitutes); I know the name of the woman who schedules appointments at my hair salon; I know the names of bus drivers, cab drivers, and the women who work at the dry cleaner’s. And, for the most part, these people know my name, too.

Although learning people’s names takes a little bit of time (you must strike up a conversation), I’ve found that the act has incredible uncluttering benefits overall. Had I not started talking with my butcher, I’d have never known that I can order a quarter of a cow (instead of a whole cow) from a local grass-roaming, organic farm each year and that the butcher will cut up the meat for me exactly how I ask him to, free of additional charge (well, I do give him a nice tip). Buying a quarter of a cow has saved me incredible amounts of money (it’s insanely discounted compared to buying separate cuts of meat) and time (I don’t have to run to the store). Twice, I’ve called the receptionist at my hair salon and she has found a way to get me on the schedule at the last minute, and I haven’t had to whine or beg or threaten or do anything other than ask nicely. The mail and package delivery folks always wait for me to answer the bell, instead of slapping a sticker on the door and driving away like I know some of them do. I get my package on the first delivery attempt instead of having to go to a central office to pick something up or wait another day. Bus drivers have waited for me as I’ve hurried down the street. Simply stated, my life runs more smoothly because I’ve taken the time to learn someone’s name and taken a sincere interest in what they do.

I’m not suggesting you learn someone’s name for the singular purpose of getting better service. Rather, I’m suggesting that meeting the people — all the people — who are a regular part of your life can be beneficial in many ways. It is certainly more enjoyable to go to the market when you know you can learn something from the people there, instead of thinking about the errand like a mundane chore and the people who work there as idiots (they’re not). And, as someone who has previously worked in a service industry job, the work day went much more quickly when I was able to help someone who saw me as a person and took an interest in what I did. I enjoyed helping those people most of all.

Even if you have ignored someone you encounter regularly in your life, it’s never too late to extend your arm, shake a hand, apologize for never learning his or her name before, and properly introduce yourself. In my experience, you’ll immediately feel more connected to your corner of the world and see a few uncluttered benefits, too.

Unitasker Wednesday: USB-Powered Foot Warmer

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

Some of my favorite unitaskers are USB powered devices — the USB-powered eyelash curler, the USB pet rock, the USB-powered hamster wheel. This week’s unitasker is USB powered, and quite possibly the most dangerous unitasker we’ve encountered in awhile. Introducing the USB-powered foot warmer:

I appreciate the theory behind this contraption (I certainly don’t enjoy having cold toes), but I can think of a couple scenarios where this isn’t a good idea:

  1. In an office environment the last thing I want to smell is my co-worker’s stinky feet “warming” from the adjacent cubicle.
  2. Standing up, forgetting your slipper is attached to your computer, and pulling your laptop onto the floor, shattering your laptop into a million pieces.

I’m sure I could think of more, but these two seem to be decent arguments against this unitasker. I’m also unsure of why you would need one of these especially since there are high-utility things like socks, shoes, and blankets already in your home. Not to forget you also have to shell out $20 and give up a USB port to use the foot warmer, which make it even less desirable.

Thanks go to reader Erika for introducing us to yet another USB-powered unitasker.

A year ago on Unclutterer