The Keystone Demise

Does this ever happen to you: Your home is functioning at its best and chores are getting done when they need to be done. Then, the light bulb burns out in the laundry room (or something similar which is seemingly minor, like you run out of dish detergent or you throw your coat over the back of a chair instead of hanging it up in the closet). Less than a week later, you have dishes piled up on your kitchen counter, clothes spilling out of the hamper, and old newspapers piling up in your driveway. All it took was one itty bitty cog in the machine to break for your entire system to fall apart.

I refer to this breakdown as the Keystone Demise. In architecture, the keystone is the center stone of an arch. It is the piece that is vital to the arch’s success because it makes it possible for the arch to hold its shape and to bear the weight of the ceiling, wall, bridge, and/or doorway. If you remove the keystone, the arch fails, usually bringing down the entire surrounding structure with it.

The Keystone Demise is almost always the cause of an organizing system failure. One small piece is disrupted/broken/compromised and in a matter of days it is as if the organizing system didn’t exist at all. One day’s mail being thrown on the dining table can be all it takes for full-house chaos to erupt.

When you or others who occupy the same space notice the keystone isn’t working properly, its as if the keystone gives license for you and others to abandon your efforts to keep everything organized. In a sense, the Keystone Demise plays a part in the Broken Window theory. The tiny, out-of-place keystone sends a signal that it’s okay for disorder to rule the home or office.

As someone who wants to keep your home and office organized, it’s your job to immediately identify when a keystone is out of place or broken and fix the situation. There are a few easy ways to do this:

  1. Printed closing duties or a chore chart. It seems elementary to write out chores and end-of-day assignments, but these lists can be very beneficial for helping you avoid Keystone Demise. Before leaving the office or heading to bed, review your printed list of closing duties or daily chores to make sure all tasks were completed properly. If they weren’t, quickly do the chore or re-do it. Don’t leave work or go to bed with an essential task undone.
  2. Keep an easily accessible shopping list. Again, this is pretty basic, but having a grocery shopping and errand list can be a huge help in avoiding Keystone Demise. This list needs to be in a place where any of your housemates can effortlessly add to it (right when they notice something is running out or broken, don’t ever expect housemates to have to email you because they won’t), the writing implement needs to be in working order, and you can take the list with you when you go to the store or to run errands.
  3. Having the right tools. This is mentioned constantly on this site, but it needs to be mentioned again in this context. If clothes end up on the floor of your bathroom, then you need to put a hamper in your bathroom. If clothes end up on the floor of your bedroom, you also need a hamper in your bedroom. If you want to shred junk mail by your front door and also shred sensitive documents in your home office, have a shredder by your front door and also a shredder in your office. Having multiples of something isn’t clutter if you actually need multiples of something to stay organized and keep from avoiding Keystone Demise.

In my house, receipts on the top of our bedroom dresser are our broken keystone. If we empty our pockets and just set the receipts down on the top of the dresser, within a week we have absolute chaos in the house. It’s amazing to me how something as small as receipts can cause complete disorder, but time and again they are the culprit. Rather, I should say receipts used to be the constant cause of our Keystone Demise. We now have all the tools necessary to keep this simple type of clutter from accumulating. Plus, getting ready for bed more than an hour before we plan to go to sleep also helps a great deal because we have enough energy to properly process these little slips of paper (and get our dirty clothes into the hamper and all our other end-of-the day chores).

A year ago on Unclutterer



Ask Unclutterer: Help! My boyfriend moved in and now his stuff is everywhere!

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Boyfriend and I have been dating off and on for two decades and he moved in for good a few weeks ago. I’ve lived comfortably, and in fairly organized fashion, in 1000 square feet for years and years, and now his stuff is EVERYWHERE. I read over ALL of your articles on merging households, working with partners, gauging levels of clutter control, etc., but we both seem stuck in a tower of terrifying stacked boxes so completely overwhelming that even getting to the kitchen is problematic.

Due to outside demands–we both work full-time, and we both have families in need–we’ve only been able to give a couple of hours per day to this albatross of a project, and it devolved into him suggesting I just throw out a bunch of my stuff. I don’t want “his” and “mine” to dominate the conversation, but, honestly, where do we start? Clothing is everywhere, the closets are full, and he has four thousand CDs, five bass guitars, three computers … you get the idea.

Where would you start, short of calling A&E and volunteering to be on Hoarders? We just need a workable starting point and we both realize that Molly Maids can’t solve our organizational problems.

Thanks if you can answer this; if not, I’m calling in for outside reinforcements!!! Be well, and keep writing–I love this website.

For starters, thank you for loving this website. It’s really nice to hear.

From the way you describe it, I see three steps that will immediately help to reduce your stress:

  1. Have a date night. Between your home stress, your family stress, and your job stress, the two of you need a night of relaxation. Make a reservation at your favorite place, put on some fancy clothes, and go out on the town with each other. Don’t talk about the apartment or any of the things that are causing you frustration. Just breathe and be reminded of why you love each other and are joining your lives and your stuff.
  2. Call a professional organizer. The two of you are bright people who could work this out on your own — but you don’t need to. Hire an organizer to meet with you for a few hours on a Saturday morning to give you some suggestions for merging your stuff. Having an independent third party to give guidance is almost always a good idea, and organizers do this type of consulting all the time. If you were sick, you’d go to a doctor, so why not seek the help of a professional organizer when you could really use one? Check out the National Association of Professional Organizers or Angie’s List to find a well-respected professional organizer near you.
  3. Start with your biggest frustration. Walk through your apartment with your boyfriend, don’t have a conversation, just let your eyes get a real look at the situation. Once you’ve gone through every room, examined every cabinet, and inspected under the bed, sit down and talk with each other about what one thing bugged you the most. Was it that your clothes are no longer in the closet? Was it that you can’t sit down at the dining table? Was it the giant stack of boxes right by the front door? Let him voice his biggest frustration, too. Those two areas need to be handled first, before any other projects in the apartment. Work together to find a lasting solution, try to keep from yelling (touching each other in a caring way repeatedly on the arm or hand while you’re working can help keep your tone and volume in check), and commit to getting just those two areas in order. Once they’re in order, your stress level will greatly improve, making the remainder of the work in front of you more manageable.

Right now, you probably feel like he’s trying to cram his stuff into your apartment. He probably feels like you’re not making room for him in your apartment. It’s a tough situation, and that is why I think a night out to relax and remember why you’re moving in together is so important. Heck, take many nights out on the town to remember why you’re together if you have to! Your relationship and your feelings for each other are far more important than battles over CDs, clothes, and computers.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I have faith that you’ll get through this without any long-term repercussions.

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: A designer’s dream

This week’s Workspace of the Week is NKeppol’s home studio:

I love NKeppol’s description for why there are two desks in this space for only one user:

The Aria desk holds two screens hooked up to a Mac Pro for digital work. To keep the Aria from catching the wrath of xacto blades and ink spills, I opted for a two desk setup, using the Ikea desk as the art table.

Knowing how you work is a requirement for setting up an uncluttered and organized space because you know exactly what you need and why. I also appreciate the drafting tools as artwork hanging on the wall, the shelf with a magnetic front is perfect for holding more tools and visual references, and the magazine pockets attached to the wall are another fantastic use of vertical space. I even love how the spray adhesive looks like an art element on the top shelf. NKeppol mentioned in the comments to the image on Flickr that he plans to lay a carpet between the two desks — I think it is a great idea and will protect the gorgeous wood floors. Thank you, NKeppol, 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.

Searching for inspiration for a multipurpose guest room

Our new house has a guest room, which is something completely alien to us. Not really knowing what to do with the space, my husband and I bought a bed and nightstand, hung some artwork, and then closed the door to keep out the cat. (The image at right is the catalog staging of the bed and nightstand we have. Obviously, if our guest room already looked this amazing, I wouldn’t be writing this post.)

Since we moved in March, the room has only been used by guests a few times. The Karen Bussen-inspired entertainer in me loves this idea of having a relaxing room just for guests — make the room like a $400 a night resort hotel room where visitors can truly feel as if they are on a rejuvenating vacation. Conversely, the practical part of me thinks the room should have more utility than a place for visitors to sleep once every couple months.

I’ve been spending a lot of time researching ways to satisfy both of my desires for the space. I’m looking for ways to make it a fabulous guest room and a practical hobby room in one. The solution will have to include storage for the hobby supplies that can be completely closed up when guests are present and using it for their retreat. And, I want it to be extremely practical as a hobby room when guests aren’t visiting.

Here are some of the images I’ve been using as inspiration for what to do with this room:

Have you seen a beautiful guest room that serves more than one purpose? Share a link or describe a solution you’ve seen in the comments. How did someone create a space that effectively met both needs?

Unitasker Wednesday: Coffee Grinder Brush

Regular readers of this website know that I love coffee. I’m addicted and very glad to be. I find comfort in the routine of making and drinking coffee, and I squealed with glee last year when my husband bought me a conical burr coffee grinder for Mother’s Day. Sure, a grinder that only grinds coffee may be a unitasker for some, but it’s one of the loves of my life and I’m only getting rid of it if it breaks. Honestly, even if it breaks, there are no guarantees I’m quickly parting with it.

Other, less addicted (and likely more sane) individuals, probably use a smaller, multipurpose blade grinder that can process spices, coffee beans, tobacco, and nuts somewhat decently. The problem with using one grinder for different types of food stuffs, though, is that your coffee ends up tasting like allspice and your freshly ground cinnamon tastes like cashews. This cross contamination of flavors has spurred a line of grinder cleaner accouterments to attempt to solve the problem. Case in point, the Coffee Grinder Brush:

Sadly, this specialized brush can’t do the job of getting particulates out of your grinder any better than a pastry brush (which you probably already own if you’re grinding your own coffee and spices). Also, the particulates stick to the brush, pretty much defeating its entire purpose. And, with its wood handle and glued-in bristles, this brush isn’t suited for the dishwasher. Possible solutions are to have multiple grinders for separate purposes or to get a manual grinder that completely disassembles for cleaning. I use my conical burr grinder just for coffee, a mortar and pestle for grinding spices (among dozens of other uses), and my blender for larger items like dried chiles. Although this little brush is inexpensive and doesn’t take up much space, it’s not a feasible solution to any grinder-related problem. If you’re still tempted to buy it after my unnecessarily long rambling, go with a dishwasher-safe, stiffer bristle pastry brush instead.

Thanks to reader V for sharing this unitasker with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Organizing your home and family with notebooks
    Notebooks are great because they keep all of your important papers in one place and they are easily portable. In our home, we have a recipe notebook, appliance notebook (instruction manuals, purchase receipts, maintenance and repair receipts, and warranty information), and important information notebooks for all four of us (our cat even has one).


  • The Uniform Project
    We’ve recently stumbled upon The Uniform Project and are amazed at the variety Sheena Matheiken is getting from a single dress and a lot of accessories.

Living as close as possible to your ideal self

My ideal self and my real self aren’t exactly the same person. My ideal self is like this:

I’m driving a Jeep somewhere on the west coast, heading up a trail so I can go running or hiking or do a little rock climbing. My husband and son are with me, and all we see are blue skies. It’s a Tuesday morning and we are stress free and ready for fun.

My real self is more like this:

Well, except that isn’t actually me or my son. The point is that my real Tuesday morning is spent writing at a desk, trying to wrangle a toddler, while also attempting to chug a cup of coffee.

I believe it’s important to live as close to our ideal self as possible. I love my job, but I work because I need to. Working provides me with the means to live as close to my ideal as I can and to be responsible for the things I value.

Even though I’m not spending this Tuesday morning driving up a mountain with my family, I have plans to do exactly that on an upcoming vacation. Like I said, my ideal self is as close as possible to my real self.

Problems arise, however, when someone’s ideal self and real self are separated by a giant chasm. The ideal self is never experienced, and guilt, stress, and clutter accumulate because of this disconnect. Someone might see her ideal self as a golfer who plays the most beautiful courses in the world, and she may even have a set of golf clubs in the basement waiting for her to use. But, if she hasn’t picked up a club in a decade and hasn’t scheduled a tee time or saved any money or researched possible golf trips or done anything to make her vision a reality, there is too much distance between the ideal and the real. The golfing dream is just a dream, and it’s time to make it happen or let it go.

Clutter comes in many forms — physical, mental, emotional, etc. — and all of it is unproductive and distracting. Take a few moments to review your ideal self. Decide if the vision of who you want to be is really who you want to be. If it is, do everything in your power to clear the clutter and get as close to that ideal as possible. If it isn’t, let go of those misperceptions and their associated clutter. Make room for an ideal self you actually desire and have the motivation to pursue.

Life is too short to fill it with clutter. Live as close to your ideal self as possible.

Organizing advice from classical Greeks

More than 2,000 years ago, famous Greek philosopher Socrates and a man named Isomachus were having a discussion about how Isomachus wished his wife would run their home (the conversation is recorded by Xenophon in chapter eight of his writing Oeconomicus). Isomachus told Socrates he had asked his wife to keep house by finding a place for everything and having everything in its place:

My dear, there is nothing so convenient or so good for human beings as order … An army in disorder is a confused mass … And so- my dear, if you do not want this confusion, and wish to know exactly how to manage our goods, and to find with ease whatever is wanted, and to satisfy me by giving me anything I ask for, let us choose the place that each portion should occupy; and, having put the things in their place, let us instruct the maid to take them from it and put them back again. Thus we shall know what is safe and sound and what is not; for the place itself will miss whatever is not in it, and a glance will reveal anything that wants attention, and the knowledge where each thing is will quickly bring it to hand, so that we can use it without trouble.

It’s delightful to read organizing advice that has been with us since Socrates’ day. There are a number of fun bits and pieces throughout the text that read like they could be straight out of an Unclutterer guest post: “even pots and pans may look fair and graceful when arranged in order.”

However, I should point out that the text was clearly written in a different time. The actual purpose of the text was to help men of Athens institute Socrates’ teachings in their homes, mostly by giving advice on what men should tell their wives and servants to do. The conversation above happened after Isomachus and his wife were just married, and Isomachus believed she would win his respect and esteem if she followed his instructions.

The irony in all of this is that Isomachus’ wife did not approve of his manner for keeping house (Isomachus references that she was messy), and Socrates exclaims: “Upon my word, Isomachus, your wife has a truly masculine mind by your showing.” I must admit, this made me laugh, and reminded me a great deal of our recent post addressing “Gender stereotypes and uncluttering.”

Apparently, nothing is new, not even stereotypes about men being messy or 5S Lean advice on a place for everything and everything in its place.

Thanks to reader MRussula for bringing this gem of Greek literature to our attention.

A year ago on Unclutterer




Ask Unclutterer: Gift bag storage

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We just purchased our first home and we are in the process of organizing everything. One thing that I have no idea how to handle is my large collection of gift bags, gift boxes, ribbons, bows, etc. I had them shoved into plastic bins at the bottom of our guest room closet at the old house, but the bags stick out everywhere, and items jump out of the boxes every time I try to retrieve something, and generally make the entire process of gift wrapping a pain. I need to get to these bags a few times a year for birthdays and holidays.

One of the more creative solutions I’ve seen is a dedicated filing cabinet drawer for storing wrapping supplies. Gift bags were kept upright, like file folders, and so were the flat gift boxes. Spools of ribbon were threaded through a bar that had been cut out of a hanging file folder, and were suspended across the drawer. Bows were stored in a few hanging file pockets, organized by type. Finally, magnetic strips had been attached to the backs of a pair of scissors and a tape dispenser, and these items were suspended from the side of the file drawer. Until the drawer was opened, I had no idea what was contained inside of it.

There are also storage totes made especially for gift bags and boxes. Once you move the bags and boxes into their new storage solution, it might be easier to contain the remaining bows and ribbons in the bins you already have.

You could also hang all the gift bags by their handles from an open ended pants hanger. The bags would take up some space in a closet, but this solution would again free up room in your current storage bins so you could better organize the other items.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Definitely check the comments for additional ideas from our readers. My hope is that one of us will be able to find you a perfect solution.

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: Kitty approved

This week’s Workspace of the Week is DelightfullyHostile’s anything-but-hostile home office:

The office is not in use to the same degree as last week’s featured workspace, but I like how a cat makes an appearance in this week’s selection. It’s a nice reminder that offices are designed and used daily by real people, and, in this case, also a sunny hangout spot for an adorable kitty. I like the floating shelves that aren’t too crammed with items. I like the prominence of the shredder, which looks ready to be used at a moment’s notice. I’m a little confused that there is no scanner, but it could be small and inside one of the drawers. Or, maybe there is a filing cabinet for paperwork not in this image if they don’t keep documents in physical form. Irrespective of scanner or filing cabinet, this small home office is terrific and looks like it is a nice place to sit and check email and maybe pay a few bills. Thank you, DelightfullyHostile, for sharing your workspace with us.

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.