Ask Unclutterer: Helping parents downsize

Reader Amanda submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

After over 40 years in their home, [my 73 year old parents] … have decided to sell and build a house in a nearby community where HOA fees will pay for things like taking care of the yards. I am delighted for them.

… my mother has already expressed:

A) Anxiety about having to clean out their house to get it ready to sell. This also includes having small repairs made and staging the home.

B) Excitement about this being a chance to go through the things that they’ve collected over 40 years and toss/donate/sell the things they no longer want. She sees this as a chance to dump the unwanted and move forward only with what they want, need, and enjoy.

Do you have advice and resources I could pass on to my mother? … Any help you can offer would be welcome! Thanks.

Question A is easy to answer because good real estate agents have contractors and stagers on their staffs who do exactly these types of projects or they have a short list of trusted professionals they recommend using. When we sold our house last year, our agent’s team patched small nail holes, replaced a broken latch on a window, brought in a professional cleaning crew, mulched our flower beds, and staged the whole house. If the agent your parents are considering working with doesn’t have quick access to these services, they may want to interview some more agents to find one who really knows what he/she is doing. Since your parents are planning to move in just six months, now is a great time to start working with an agent.

Question B is terrific news because it means your parents are already thinking about the uncluttering and moving process in a positive way, too. You can help your parents by researching names of local charities and what types of donations the charities accept and how to make donations (drop off times, days of weeks, locations) to those charities. You can research what types of trash your parents’ waste management service collects for those things that really do need to be purged, as well as the area’s hazardous waste policies for any chemicals you parents won’t want to move into their new space. You can set up a Craig’s List account for your folks, if they’re interested in selling items. You can also find out names of local professional organizers who are specifically trained to help move people over age 65 through the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

If your parents are interested, you can also help them to unclutter, drop off items at charities, and pack. Work out a schedule with them so each day a little work can be done, and so you’ll know when you’re welcome to lend a hand and when they would rather privately work. Most of all, be prepared to listen. Downsizing from a family home can be emotionally difficult — even if it is a welcome move — and the difficulty is often alleviated through the sharing of stories about the memories that were made in the home.

Thank you, Amanda, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to your family over the next six months. Also, be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

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.

New paper sorting and filing products

Four days last week, I attended the National Association of Professional Organizers’ 24th annual conference in Baltimore. It was nice to see so many terrific leaders in the industry and catch up on the latest trends and research relating to uncluttering and organizing.

One of my favorite parts of the conference is the exposition hall, which is filled with manufacturers, retailers, and service providers who work closely with the professional organizing industry. Many of these providers use the conference to introduce new items that aren’t yet on the market, as well as to solicit suggestions for how professional organizers think products can be improved.

Today, and then a couple days next week, I want to feature some of these new and yet-to-be released products so you can see the latest trends in organizing. A couple of the items are in the “new-to-me” category, but most of them will also be new to you. To be clear, I’m not getting any sort of payment or kick-backs for writing about these products. These are simply the items I found interesting and helpful for common organizing problems.

I’ve grouped the items into themes, and today I want to feature the new paper sorting and filing products —

Pendaflex has a few new products that caught my attention. The first is their PileSmart View Folders. If you’re someone who insists on piling papers instead of using a filing cabinet, these are folders for important papers that include tabs so you can easily see what you’re searching for in your stack:

Another Pendaflex product I like is their Divide It Up File Folders. These are great for sub-dividing paperwork for small projects:

The final Pendaflex product I thought could be useful are their new Ready-Tab Hanging File Folders. Instead of hunting for plastic tabs to insert into the folder or having those tabs accidentally pop off, the tabs are part of the folder and pull out of the folder itself:

The Smead Company is now making Lockit Pocket Folders that have a tab at the top of the folder to keep papers from sliding out during transport. These are great for important papers you can’t afford to have slip out of their folders:

Next up is Smead’s Vertical Divided File, which is so new you can’t even order them yet. They are vertical folders with interior pockets and tabbed dividers. These would be great for organizing a trip, similar to the Pendaflex Divide It Up Folder, but for folks who prefer vertical folders:

Also related to the topic of paper management was word from the people at Fujitsu that we should expect to see updates coming to the ScanSnap 1300 series of scanners at some point during the summer. They were tight-lipped as to what those updates are, so I imagine they’re going to be good ones.

Unitasker Wednesday: Waterproof Pool Table

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

When I go swimming, I refuse to go anywhere without a Waterproof Pool Table:

It’s just not swimming if I can’t work in a few laps and then hustle some kids out of their allowances when I run a table in Eight Ball. Swimming and billiards are such obvious companions.

And with a price tag of $6,500.00, I can’t believe there are swimming pools without Waterproof Pool Tables. Shocked! Shocked, I tell you.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Ask Unclutterer: Magazine clutter
    Reader Nia: “I am especially guilty of magazine clutter. Why am I unable to throw away magazines? It’s seriously painful for me to get rid of them. The only plausible explanation I’ve come up with is that the magazine has done such a good job marketing themselves (all of them have, mind you) that it embodies a lifestyle and not just a pack of paper.”


Contingency planning for botched work days and deadlines

Anyone who has stepped foot in a corporate work environment in the past 10 years is familiar with the phrase contingency plan. It’s the piece of your project where you try to determine ahead of time what you and/or your team will do when things go wrong. What will you do if a vendor doesn’t provide the quality of product you expected? What will you do if information is not received on time from the client? What will you do if a member of your team is ill and can’t make it to the sales meeting? What will you do if bad weather leads to your flight being cancelled?

You can drive yourself batty if you create a contingency plan for every possible step of the process that can go off course. A good way to determine if a step of the process needs a contingency plan or not is to estimate how much time it will take you to come up with an alternative if something does go wrong and determine which will be less expensive and a better use of your time: Creating a contingency plan during the project planning stage or simply handling the solution on the fly if/when a problem develops? If it is less expensive to create a contingency plan before you start work on a project than it is to solve the problem on the fly, do it. If it is more expensive to create a contingency plan before you start work on a project than it is to solve the problem on the fly, don’t do it. If it will save you time and money to come up with a contingency plan for a backup conference location if a hurricane destroys your conference hotel, create a contingency plan for an alternative site location. If it will waste your time and money to come up with a contingency plan for an alternate restaurant to deliver dinner to you at your desk on Tuesday night when you’re working late, don’t create a contingency plan. In short, the more important the element is to your project, the more likely you are to need a contingency plan.

Large projects aren’t the only areas of your work experience that can benefit from contingency planning. When you sit down at your desk first thing in the morning, you probably review and create a list of tasks you would like to accomplish by the end of the day. This list of action items might include meetings to attend, calls to make, emails to return, research to compile, writing assignments and all the other work specific to your job. To aid in your productivity, it is important to note what actions must get done by the end of the day so you don’t lose your job, and prioritize those important actions.

Even when you’re diligent and focused on getting your entire action list completed, unexpected events can derail you — the fire alarms can sound in the building or your building’s power can be disrupted or another work priority can take top billing. When the actions you must finish don’t get done, you have to go with an alternate plan.

The best contingency plan is one where you never need a contingency plan, but deadlines and botched work days are unavoidable in most workplaces. In lieu of avoidance, these are the common contingency plans I recommend employing when you must get things done and you’re behind schedule —

  • Prevention: Block open time on your schedule. Not all industries allow for this, but in my current job I can usually leave 30 minutes each afternoon blank on my schedule. I almost always have something pressing to finish during this time, but if I don’t I use it for mindless work like filing or brainstorming blog post ideas. These open 30 minutes help me to better handle the unexpected disruptions over the course of the day.
  • Power through. Obviously, you have the option to stay late and work into the night to finish your activities. This isn’t always an option, though, especially if the deadline was earlier in the day or if you need to be somewhere more pressing. It’s also not an option if you have been staying late for weeks and your overall productivity is being hampered by your late nights. Some employers allow you to take work home, and when done occasionally this might be a solution for you.
  • Communicate and negotiate new deadlines. The minute you know you’re behind schedule and likely to miss the deadline, you need to communicate this to the people who are depending on you and negotiate a new deadline. You may need to update your project manager, boss, and/or client so they can adjust their schedules accordingly. The earlier you can notify individuals of your delay, the better. Sometimes estimations for how long something will take are wrong and this isn’t going to change through the entire project. Advanced communication about delays, when done infrequently and when you really are in dismay, can help you to be seen as a valued and trusted worker.
  • Ask for help. If your job and work product allow for it, ask for help from coworkers or assistants. (In most workplace environments, making a request of another’s time does mean that you should help that person at a future point if your assistance is requested.) I’ve been in jobs where we’ve hired temporary employees to help prepare for conferences doing activities that must get done but don’t require special skill sets to complete. Simply requesting your boss help you to set new priorities can be an effective activity if you have a mentoring-style relationship with your boss.
  • Delegate. Similar to asking for help, but in an environment where it is appropriate for you to assign work to others. Or, if you realize you are not the best person to complete the job, you can outsource the work to a person with the right skill set.

What common contingency plans do you employ when your work day and deadlines are blown to bits? Please share your strategies in the comments.

Build your uncluttering and organizing skills by helping others

After being told by a teacher in high school that my writing was “average, at best,” I set out on a mission to improve my writing skills. I studied and practiced during my free time, which was an odd pastime for a teenager, and I pushed myself to learn whatever I could. I found I really enjoyed writing, and ended up pursuing a journalism degree in college. In graduate school, I kept with the writing theme and produced my master’s thesis on how to help non-native English speakers acquire vocabulary words based on morphemes to improve their writing and reading comprehension. Studying texts, taking classes, researching the brain and how it stores and uses languages were all fine methods for acquiring information about writing, and my writing did improve — but it wasn’t until I stepped into a classroom and taught 15-year-old students how to improve their writing that I truly blossomed as a writer.

My first year of teaching, a student wrote on a worksheet the following misquoted phrase from The Great Gatsby: “the cocktail yellow music.”

I knew “the cocktail yellow music” wasn’t grammatically correct (nor was it how Fitzgerald had penned it), but I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to mark it wrong on my student’s worksheet until I was sure I could explain to her why it was wrong. I tracked down an accomplished linguistics professor, and she explained to me that adjectives in English have a preference order. As a native English speaker, I instinctually used adjectives in the correct order but had never once thought about it. The adjectives simply flowed out of me in the way that sounded correct. Obviously, the phrase should be “the yellow cocktail music,” which is how it appears in the original text. The grammatical reason it should be this way is because color adjectives are listed before purpose adjectives. Yellow (a color) needs to come before the purpose for the music (the cocktail party). (If you’re curious: More information on adjective order in English.)

Three or four times a week, a student would ask me questions I couldn’t yet answer or make mistakes with their writing I knew were wrong but didn’t know why. I was pushed to learn why the word it takes the possessive unlike other words in the English language, why we say beef when talking about eating cows but don’t have separate words for eating fish or vegetables, why our brains go blind to overused words like said when we read, why it’s now acceptable to split infinitives but wasn’t always, how the passive voice can sometimes better convey information than the active voice, why it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions, and thousands of other specific quirks related to English communication. Teaching young adults how to improve their writing significantly improved my writing. Then, practicing these skills daily has helped me to retain what I learned.

I’ve found the exact same thing to be true with uncluttering and organizing. The more I help others to unclutter and organize their spaces, the better I become at doing these tasks in my own home and office. When I help others, my skill set benefits.

If you’re having issues in your own spaces with clutter and disorganization, help friends to unclutter and organize their homes and offices. Share what knowledge you have (which is probably more than you give yourself credit for knowing) and be open to learning through the process and from your friend. Seek out answers and solutions, and also absorb what you can from those around you. Practice, practice, practice your skills with your friends. Then, if you have good friends, they will return the favor and help to mentor you as you go through your uncluttering and organizing projects. You also may feel confident after your experiences to simply take on your projects alone.

If your friends aren’t game for such an activity, donate some of your time to a charity to clean out and organize a soup kitchen pantry or a game room at a women’s shelter or a clothing closet for a group that provides clothes for job interviews. Mentor your children by bringing them with you to sort materials at a charity’s donation site. You don’t have to work with people you know to build your skills, and it’s often easier to work with items void of your sentimental attachments.

Get out there and help others, which will in turn help build your uncluttering and organizing skills.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Unclutterer housekeeping
    I am pleased to announce that these layout errors have finally been corrected by my publisher, and a new Kindle version is available for download.



  • Ruthless Simplicity: How to ward off doing more and burning out
    My initial inclination to planning for business growth was to do more. Work more hours. Put my kid into more programs. Just cram more into my life for a period of time. You know, weather the beautiful storm. But this time, I stopped myself.
  • Book review: One Year to an Organized Work Life
    Overall Leeds’ book One Year to an Organized Work Life is an extensive, yet practical resource for those in need of a complete organizational overhaul or others who could use improvement in a few problematic areas.


Workspace of the Week: Kitchen work station

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Romap’s counter office:

If all you do from your home office is check email, surf the web, and take care of a few minutes of work, you probably don’t need a dedicated room for your setup. I like Romap’s workspace because it is incredibly versatile and perfect for a small space. An inexpensive ($36) Ikea Vika table top next to the wall serves as additional kitchen counter space when not being used as a work station. And, the choice to use a laptop instead of a desktop computer makes it simple to fold up shop and put things away. Thank you, Romap, for your wonderful addition 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.

Space-saving solutions for small homes

Although I grew up spending weekends on our family farms shucking corn and talking to Bessie the Cow (all the cows had the same name, it was easier that way), I am a big-city girl at heart. I long to be in a city with a coffee shop right around the corner and pavement under my feet. And for most people, myself included, city living is synonymous with small-space living.

Even though I’m currently living in Suburbia, I’m looking forward to our next home that will hopefully be in a more metropolitan location. As a result, I am constantly on the lookout for space-saving solutions to use in our next big-city dwelling. The following are some of the terrific ideas that have recently caught my attention:

The website Apartment Therapy featured D.C. residents’ Josh and Lauren’s dining table artwork. It’s a table that hangs on the wall when not in use —

The now-defunct magazine Ready Made included a formica countertop on wheels in its article “Southern Comfort.” The countertop rolls into the kitchen for food preparation space and then rolls out into the remainder of the room to create a dining table —

Continuing with dining solutions, back in 2010, Dwell showcased a wall hiding a bookshelf that folded down to create a table set atop a rolling island —

Short walls are also called pony walls or knee walls and Better Homes and Garden suggests cutting into them to create untapped storage space in their article “26 Great Bathroom Storage Ideas” —

Have you spotted any small-space fixes recently? Share links to more space-saving ideas in the comments. I’m always searching for uncluttered and efficient solutions.

Unitasker Wednesday: Peel-a-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!

First things first, go and read this wonderful article from yesterday’s New York Times about professional chefs and the unitaskers that languish in their home kitchens, “Must-Have Gadgets for the Kitchen? Think Again.” It is so comforting to know that even the highly trained get sucked into buying unnecessary gadgets and gizmos. Also, don’t forget to come back!

Welcome back, and now onto this week’s doozy of a unitasker. It doesn’t slice, it doesn’t dice, and it most certainly doesn’t julianne. In fact, the reviews for the Peel-a-Meal indicate it doesn’t even de-skin six to eight potatoes very well in 30 minutes:

The Amazon reviews are pretty tough on this device, and I kind of felt bad for it after reading all of them. (I have a soft spot in my heart for poor designs. It’s a good thing I don’t work at the US patent office.) Apparently, it only works on perfectly round potatoes, like Yukon Golds. It doesn’t work with Russets or even on Yukon Golds that have dimples in them — you still have to pull out your hand peeler and labor away on the indented areas. Since it only does six or eight at a time and it takes close to 30 minutes to peel that small amount of potatoes and you still have to touch-up the potatoes after the machine runs AND it’s supposedly really loud … a regular peeler hardly seems like much work in comparison. Plus, a hand potato peeler is super easy to clean in the dishwasher.

If you have a large family, everyone can pitch in and peel their own potatoes in less than 30 minutes. If you run a restaurant, you should really be using a professional grade peeler to process the load and be up to code with your equipment. People who have arthritis could probably benefit from a Rotato Potato Peeler, which at least looks like it takes up less counter space and has significantly more positive reviews. Oh, Peel-a-Meal, you have such a cute name that I’m sorry you don’t work quickly or efficiently or really do much of anything except for take up space and make a lot of noise.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Ask Unclutterer: Simple baby-proofing solutions
    What is a good computer set-up that can also be locked away to keep little fingers away from the keyboard, mouse, and tower? We’re looking for something relatively inexpensive, but we haven’t found a good solution that would also fit in a living room, since our computer/monitor also functions as our TV/DVD player. Any suggestions?


Spring is here and cleaning is in the air

Around 1:15 this morning, those of us in the northern hemisphere officially started spring. The local weathermen explained to me as I sipped my coffee that because this is a leap year, spring showed up on the calendar a day early. As we did yard work and waved to our neighbors over the weekend, it was obvious — at least in our part of the country — that winter had ended.

If spring sprung up on you and took you by surprise, the following 10 tasks are what I consider to be the most valuable spring cleaning activities. These are the Firsts, the things to get to before the other activities:

  1. Check fire extinguishers, furnace filters, and batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (if you didn’t do these tasks when you moved your clocks ahead an hour). Remember, safety first.
  2. Purge all expired food from your refrigerator and pantry. If you’re unsure of an item’s freshness, check and/or the product’s website (especially good for condiments that take up near-permanent residence in the door of your refrigerator).
  3. Clean gunk out of your gutters if you have gutters.
  4. Rake the last batch of dead leaves out of your yard and pick up sticks and debris that fell during the last few months of winter.
  5. Inspect any lawn maintenance chemicals you had stored for the winter, such as pesticides or fertilizers. Make sure none of these items are leaking or expired.
  6. Have your law mower serviced so it’s ready and working when your yard is ready to mow.
  7. Dust. I like to carry a hand vacuum with me as I go to suck the grime off the cloth.
  8. Move furniture (including your bed and bookshelves) and vacuum or sweep every inch of your floors.
  9. If you have pets, bring out the Furminator and start the regular task of brushing to get rid of that heavy winter coat.
  10. Sort through your clothing and coat closets and donate to charity all items you never plan to wear again. Clean heavy sweaters you intend to keep and take steps to properly store them to prevent pest invasions over the summer. Clean and put away heavy winter boots and shoes. Finally, bring out any stored warmer weather clothes and get your wardrobe ready for the next six months.

What must-do items are on your spring cleaning list? If I don’t do the items listed above, I feel like I’m not ready for spring. How about you?

More spring cleaning tips and advice from our archives: