Ask Unclutterer: Designing a new space that prevents clutter and reduces cleaning time

Reader Howard submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Do you have any tips for remodeling or building a house that would help prevent clutter or reduce cleaning maintenance in the design of the space?

This is a really fun question, Howard, and I’m so glad you asked it. You have a terrific opportunity in front of you to build a space that can help you achieve and maintain an uncluttered lifestyle.

First things first, thoroughly unclutter your existing possessions so your new space is free of things you don’t want in it. Check out “Start a full-room organizing project with a blank canvas” for tips on uncluttering in this style, but apply it to your entire home.

Now that the obvious is out of the way, I highly recommend designing the space with ample storage that can easily be reconfigured. Use elfa shelving (or the competing product from Rubbermaid) in closets and pantries so shelf heights can be adjusted or clothing rods installed or drawers can be added as necessary. Your needs for storage change over time, and your storage solutions should be able to adapt. If they can’t adapt, at some point they will cease to be helpful.

Also, when it comes to storage, think outside the closet. Have drawers set into the risers of your stairs, recess shelving between the studs of your walls, have window seats double as storage cubes, furnish with ottomans that have interior storage, or whatever fits your design style. The idea here is be creative with the elements you use in the space to improve storage instead of hinder it.

Beyond having ample, reconfigurable and creative storage, there are numerous cosmetic things you can do to help with cleaning and preventing clutter. None of these is a perfect solution, but they’re certainly things I do in my homes when I’m not renting:

Paint the walls with washable flat latex interior paint that contains ceramic microspheres. (You can find these in the washable paint section at most home improvement stores. Check the ingredients on the paint cans. The ceramic microspheres are usually in the higher-end washable paints.) Even if you don’t have pets or young children, it’s still very easy to get marks on your walls. With washable paint that has ceramic microspheres mixed into it, these stray marks come off like you’re washing tile instead of your painted walls.

Lay hardwood floors and use throw rugs instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, especially if you have pets. Cleaning and maintaining hardwood floors is exponentially easier, and it’s much less expensive to replace a throw rug than an entire room of carpeting.

If money is no object, install smart glass windows. You’ll never have to clean blinds again. (But, I guess if you can afford smart glass windows, you could probably also afford a cleaning crew to wash you blinds …)

Finally, I’ve never had one, but I’ve always thought a central home vacuum system would speed up cleaning time. Some of the systems have horizontal intakes (I think they’re technically called “sweep inlets”) so in addition to using the vacuum hose, you can also sweep directly into the suction area and not have to use a dustpan.

Thank you, Howard, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. And, like I mentioned earlier, be sure to check the comments for suggestions from our readers on designing spaces to prevent clutter and reduce cleaning time.

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 additions to the Unclutterer family: Introducing Dave Caolo

As I mentioned Tuesday, we have delightedly added two new voices to the Unclutterer content team. Today, I want to introduce you to Dave Caolo, who will be sharing his phenomenal insights on the site twice a month.

You may have seen Dave’s writing at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, where he serves as news editor, or on his personal site 52 Tiger. He’s also published several books, including Using iMovie ’11 and Taking Your OS X Lion to the Max (and he has a new one coming out this fall). When Dave isn’t writing, he can be found spending time with his wife, kids, and Boston Terrier, Batgirl, in Massachusetts.

The amazing Dave Caolo

I was raised in a small, shoebox-shaped house in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Inside was faded linoleum, a 24″ television and my typical American family: middle class, happy enough, and terribly disorganized.
Consider the kitchen. The cabinet above the pink laminate countertop contained my mother’s recipes. Unlike most mom’s collection, Carol’s never saw the inside of a cookbook. Instead, it hung from the back of the door with yellowing strips of tape.

A potato salad recipe dangled next to my grandmother’s hand-written instructions for stuffed squid. There were pages ripped from magazines, supermarket handouts, 3×5 index cards … anything flat enough to write on and light enough to stick to a pine cupboard door was called into service.

Most bore stains acquired in the line of duty. “David, hand me that sheet of paper,” my mother would say. Another Christmas, another batch of lemon squares and another crop of buttery smears. By the time I was in high school, the recipe was nearly illegible.

While the fly-strip method of recipe storage keeps everything accessible, it’s a poor filing system. Linguine with anchovy paste rubbed up against blueberry cheesecake, which is something that should never happen, not even in print.

Like most messes, my mother’s organizational habits migrated through the house. Likewise, my dad’s garage looked like a yard sale, and the basement was a jumble.

What all this means is that I’ve got chaos in my blood. Daily, I must make a concerted effort to keep things in check. It’s a struggle that I’ll share with you on Unclutterer. I look forward to sharing my organizational success and missteps with you. Here’s hoping we both learn something.

Unitasker Wednesday: Pizza Plates

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

A few years ago, my husband and I got rid of all of our dining ware except for our Wedgwood White bone china. Our friends and family graciously gave us the set when we got married, and in more than 10 years we have only lost one bowl due to breakage (and that happened outside, on a brick patio). We use the china for every meal, including meals we serve to our two-year-old son. The stuff is incredibly versatile (tea with the Queen or holding chips and dip during the big game), goes into the microwave and dishwasher, and it has been in production for so long that replacing pieces is simple. I thought I might miss our every-day pottery, but I haven’t. It’s so nice to be able to use the good stuff all the time. Which, is very likely why, I don’t understand the need to own six triangular shaped plates with pictures of pepperoni pizza on them for the sole purpose of serving slices of restaurant-made pizza. Introducing, the Pizza Plates:

In addition to circular plates being qualified to support a triangular slice of pizza, circular plates can also hold square slices of pizza and entire small, personal pizzas. Circular plates can even support TWO slices of pizza. These triangular plates can’t hold two slices or personal pizzas or even one square slice. And what about jumbo slices or Chicago deep-dish style slices? (Jumbo slices, I think, are a DC style, if you don’t know what they are.) There is no way these plates would ever fit a jumbo slice or contain the innards of a Chicago deep-dish slice. Are there ones decorated for vegetarians without pepperoni slices or ones for people who like hamburger or pineapple for toppings? What about vegans who don’t eat cheese?!

Save space in your cupboards or pantry and stick with regular, circular plates that don’t care one bit what style of pizza you prefer to consume or even what food you prefer to consume in general. Circular plates are inclusive and open to all food eating experiences.

Other favorite pizza unitaskers you may remember: The Pizza Scissors/Spatula, triangular Pizza Saver plastic bags, and the highly specialized Double-Deck pizza oven.

Thanks to reader Jorge for introducing us to Pizza Plates.

Unstuck: An app that helps you achieve your goals

I’m always on the lookout for smart phone and iPad applications that can improve my productivity. It’s probably not a good idea to keep app switching all the time (it certainly makes more sense to stick with what works), but if I did that I wouldn’t have discovered Unstuck, a free iPad app.

Basically, if you’re stuck in a rut, Unstuck can help. It helps you to get rid of said rut, take action, and “live better every day.” I’ve decided to use it for a project that’s been hanging over my head for a bit, and it’s time to get it moving.

But, first, a test run. Here’s the process:

Step One

After downloading and registering, the app asks you to select three emotions in response to “How are you feeling in this stuck moment?” Some of your choices include hazy, high and dry, tired, unprepared, uninformed, indecisive, to name a few. Then, you get to rate how strongly you feel each emotion. I chose conflicted, uninformed, and up in the air, all with medium strength.

Step Two

In this step, you drill down the type of stuck you’re in (personal, professional, or both) and who’s stuck with you (alone, you + another person, or you + other people). For my test, I chose professional and to go it alone, but if you select that you’re working with others, you’ll be asked to name the people in the rut with you.

Step Three

You get to answer why you’re stuck and see examples of what others have written. I entered: “I’m stuck because there’s so much I want to do.” Even though this is a test, that statement is 100 percent true.

Step Four

Now for the fun part. You get to sort your thoughts using these cool thought cards (they look like playing cards except they have words on them) that you drag and drop into two categories: So Me and Not Me.

Here are some of the cards:

  • I thought I knew what to do but now I’m not sure
  • I don’t know why this is not working
  • It doesn’t seem real yet
  • Remind me why this is important to me
  • Maybe I need to ask somebody else what to do
  • I NEED HELP
  • Why is it so hard to decide?
  • Doing a lot but getting nowhere

Can you see how these might be helpful? I really think this app forces you to think about the nuances of why things are not going the way you want them to.

Step Five

Here, you’re asked to pick three (out of twelve) things you’re doing. I randomly chose:

  • Letting yourself get distracted
  • Doing busywork that gets nowhere
  • Debating an issue over and over again

Step Six

You wait a second or two until Unstuck diagnoses your problem. The app decided that based on my entries, I’m a Waffler. I may not like being called wishy-washy, but I like knowing that I’m not the only one in this spot. And, I know this because the app tells me that three other people, like Amy Tan, Ellen Degeneres, and Wallace Stevens, are just like me. Well, if they can get past that … you know the rest. I also learn that 9 percent of the Unstuck community is also having a “waffler” moment.

There’s an explanation of what it means to be a waffler, and I’m asked to confirm if this really sounds like me. I clicked yes, but when you click “no,” you get to start over, save and start a new stuck moment, or keep going. You also get a few tips.

Step Seven

This is where the work really begins as I’m asked to select a tool to help fix my flip-floppy self. But, first, I’m greeted by a lovely note that tells me not to give up and that change is a process. I’m also encouraged to be creative. I’m so in love with this app!

And, it loves me back by telling me to Take a stand, a.k.a., make a decision.

The next three steps really help you to do just that. It’s a very simple process, but that’s the beauty of it. It makes you think things through and gives you several tools (e.g., Map it out, Get your game on, Shake up your routine) so that you’re not just muddling through. If you don’t think that you’re quite through the woods, you can try out other tools.

So far, Unstuck seems different from all other project motivation apps I’ve seen. It seems to ask the right questions and help you to really think through your next steps. It’s similar to having a mentor or coach.

Could this app help you make life-altering decisions? Maybe. Could you get a few steps closer to a project’s goals? Definitely.

And, just to be clear, Unstuck didn’t pay me or reward me in any way for writing this post. I’m just really fond of it and think it can help anyone who is stuck on a project or problem.

New additions to the Unclutterer family: Introducing Deb Lee

We are happy to announce that two writers are joining our content team here at Unclutterer. Starting today, there will be three active voices bringing you advice, reviews, inspiration, and a little bit of humor regarding home, office, and life uncluttering and organizing. Twice a week, Deb Lee will bring her seasoned perspective to the site (she’s a phenomenal professional organizer who knocks my socks off with her depth and breadth of knowledge about how people can improve their lives with order). And, twice a month, Dave Caolo will share his wit and wisdom (he’s a technology wizard who has helped me improve my digital organization more than any other writer out there). I’ll still be here, too, rounding out the content team.

I really respect the work Deb and Dave do and I’m thrilled you’ll be able to get to know their work. In case you aren’t already familiar with them, they have written brief introductions to let you know a bit about themselves. Deb’s is below, and Dave’s will run on Thursday. Welcome, Deb and Dave.

The fabulous Deb Lee

Hello, I’m Deb and I’ve been anal retentive for, well, forever. I thought I’d open with a joke, but it’s really true, most people would describe me as anal retentive. I’m kind of like the husband in Sleeping With The Enemy, but without the evil, violent, murderer traits.

If my name seems familiar, it might be because Erin has mentioned me in a few blog posts. We became friends through the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers, of which we’re both members.

As a professional organizer, I help people kick clutter in the arse and manage their time better. I’m also a first-time mom and I’m learning that all my plans for staying organized are much more difficult with a new baby in the house. This transition into parenthood hasn’t been so easy for a Type-A personality like me, and there have been many times the past few months when the control freak in me has needed a time out.

Although I’m personally obsessed with being organized, I’m not judgmental about how other people are. Being organized works best for me and my life. I enjoy being organized so much, though, that I love to help others who are interested in being organized with their lives, too.

Ok, so now that you know a little about me, tell me more about you.

Five tasks to keep your Monday morning productive

Monday mornings can be tough, especially rainy ones like we’re having in the Mid-Atlantic this morning. Instead of wasting away your morning, try these simple five tasks to keep your productivity from stalling:

  1. Read and sort any stray emails that somehow went unread and processed last Friday when you were thinking about your upcoming weekend.
  2. Inspect your rain gear — umbrellas, boots, rain coats, compact poncho — and look for any damages, proper size and fit, unnecessary duplicate items, etc. Weed out anything that is past its prime, donate to charity any unnecessary duplicate items (if you’re a house of one, do you really need seven umbrellas?), and properly store what you choose to keep.
  3. Thoroughly review your to-do list/next action items list. Cross off any tasks that have been completed or are now obsolete. Add any items you’ve forgotten to write down before now. Do that thing where you write down something you’ve already done and then immediately cross it off so you get an immediate sense of accomplishment (I know I can’t be the only one who does this). Finally, schedule on your calendar any actions that need to take place at a certain time.
  4. Make the phone call you’ve been procrastinating making.
  5. Look at the time, and then give yourself 10 minutes to get a second cup of tea or coffee and ask your coworker if he/she saw the Capitals lose to the Rangers this past weekend (or whatever small talk interests you and your colleagues/friends). When the 10 minutes is up, head back to your desk and start chugging away at your to-do list/next action items list you recently updated (and on that cup of coffee).

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

  • Book review: Stuff
    Hoarding specialists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee recently published Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that explores the psychological world of hoarding. In the book, the components of the disorder are explained through case studies, and the authors also provide many examples to illustrate where a hoarder’s actions diverge from those of a healthy individual.
  • Parting with sentimental clutter
    We all struggle with sentimental clutter, not just hoarders, and the authors of the book Stuff explain why on page 45: “We can’t help but imagine that some essence of the person or the event symbolized by the objects will magically rub off and become part of us.”
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Tu-Go Travel Coffee Cup Holder
    A decade ago, I might have looked at the Tu-Go Travel Coffee Cup Holder and not considered it for our weekly unitasker feature. But now, thanks to security measures at the airport, I can’t even imagine when a person would have the opportunity to use this.
  • Weigh in: How do you store the tiniest toys in your child’s playroom
    Reader Stephanie is in the process of making over her children’s playroom and wrote to me asking for some organizing help. She is specifically having problems finding ways to store those small, easily misplaced, choke-able pieces of games and toys. She has tried using zip-top bags with very little success and wants a more visually pleasing solution.

2009

  • Not getting things done? Try WSD
    WSD = Find something to write on. Find something to write with. Finally, and most importantly, WRITE STUFF DOWN.
  • Hinge hooks
    Recently, I learned about these simple hooks that fit over the pins of door hinges. You pull out your hinge’s pins, slip the hook onto the hinge, and then slide the hinge pin back into place.
  • Tipke Marine Fold-It Utility Cart
    A folding wheelbarrow can save space in the garage or shed.

2008

  • Built’s cargo laptop sleeve
    Built’s new Cargo Laptop Sleeve is made from neoprene and also includes some very useful pockets to store computer accessories.

Workspace of the Week: Lots of necessary equipment in a fixed space

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Lpvisuals’ computer workstation:

No doubt about it, there is a lot of equipment in this workstation. A setup like this, however, is very common for help desk employees, IT managers, website designers, network security officers, programmers, and quality assurance testers who have to solve problems on numerous computer systems but who work in traditional office environments. They’re given a small desk that is built into the walls, and then must fit their equipment into the space that is provided as if it’s a game of Tetris. Keeping a desk with this much equipment clutter-free and organized can be a tremendous task, and Lpvisuals does it very well. Taking advantage of the arch area of the desk is a good idea, as it reduces time switching between the different platforms. Since there is so much equipment, it’s wise of Lpvisuals to keep the personal items to a minimum to reduce even more visual distractions. Thank you, Lpvisuals, for submitting your office to our Flickr pool — it’s a terrific reminder that a streamlined workspace can be had even if you need a lot of equipment to do your job.

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.

An uncluttered plunger, really

Every once in awhile, I’m truly impressed by what a product can do. The first time I used the Shazam application on my iPhone, I was in disbelief for hours (to this day, if someone told me magic is involved in its operation, I wouldn’t be surprised). I had a similar reaction when I saw a demonstration at the National Association of Professional Organizer’s conference of the new Rubbermaid Clean and Dry Plunger (yes, you just read that correctly, I was impressed by a toilet plunger … and you probably will be, too):

I didn’t over-sell that, right? The plunger has a NeverWet coating on it that prevents anything — water, bacteria, whatever else is in your toilet — from sticking to it. (NeverWet is like Rain-X on steroids, because it repels even more than water.) Which means that after you plunge your toilet, you can’t drip dirty water onto your floor or spread germs to the area where you store your plunger. Oils from your hands can destroy the NeverWet coating, so you can’t touch the plunger, but I’m not really sure that is something people usually do, anyway.

I’ll be honest, I never expected to be dazzled by a toilet plunger, but life is interesting that way. As far as uncluttered home maintenance products go, a plunger that doesn’t drip toilet water through my bathroom or spread germs is an advancement I can support.

And, once again, it should go without saying, but Rubbermaid did not pay me or give me anything to write this post. I sincerely just think it’s awesome.

Unitasker Wednesday: The KAZeKUP

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

We talk a lot on Unclutterer about honoring the things you choose to keep in your life. Put these things up on a (proverbial) pedestal and enjoy the items you value and treasure. But … the KAZeKUP isn’t really what we had in mind:

If you’re someone who goes to the beach every sunny day during the summer and who doesn’t like to twist your cup into the sand to make a drink holder out of nature, today’s item might not be a unitasker for you. For most of us, however, who only spend a few hours each summer lounging on a beach, this monument to drink holding is probably unnecessary. The pole is pretty long and the holder (as is evident in the picture) is significant enough in size to be able to support a Big Gulp. It’s not a small device; the KAZeKUP is the Olympic Torch of drink holders.

If you’re worried about high tide filling your drink with sea water, I recommend doing what I do and put your drink into your cooler during these brief expanses of time. Anyway, high tide is surfing time — you don’t want your drink to get warm while you’re out on the waves.

Thanks to reader Patty who introduced us to an entire series of beach drink holders. We didn’t even know our cups dug in the sand were uncool.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

2009

  • Dusting tips
    If you struggle with dust, learn how to keep it under control.
  • DIY note card task board
    Follow Brian’s instructions to create a note card task board for less than $10.

2008