Ask Unclutterer: One person’s gift is your latest frustration

Reader SK submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have recently moved into a smaller apartment and have uncluttered most of our belongings … My problem is that my parents recently gifted us a new vacuum cleaner, complete with cord, attachments, and replaceable belts. We are pretty happy with our little cordless rechargeable vacuum and told my parents so — bookending this information with thanks and appreciation to be polite. My dad insisted that this new vacuum is better — picks up more dirt, etc. We don’t really care. Normally, this is a no brainer, say thank you and quietly return the gift — but Dad comes up every week to watch my daughter and will notice and comment on the new vacuum’s absence. (Mom’s already said she’ll give me the receipt and it’s fine if we want to return it) I’ve already explained the no space situation, but he dismissed the concern. Returning this thing is going to cause some hurt feelings and awkward, difficult conversations — please help!

This is one of those situations where I can’t give you a “do this and be happy” response. But, I’ll give you some ideas that might be able to spark a solution that will be the right one for you and your family.

Option 1: Ask your parents to care and store the vacuum in their home since you don’t have the space in yours. You can borrow it when you really need it for twice-yearly deep cleanings or before a party, but the rest of the time your parents can benefit from having it and using it in their home. Since your dad comes to visit once a week, you must live close to each other, so transporting it shouldn’t be that big of deal. And, if your dad balks and says he already has a vacuum and doesn’t need this fancy one for his house, he’ll at least be more empathetic to your situation.

Option 2: Return it and immediately have a conversation with your dad explaining that you returned it and why. Offer to give him his money back. His feelings will be hurt, but he’s a grownup and will eventually get over it. You’re not returning his love, you’re returning a vacuum.

Option 3: Buck up and keep the vacuum. To find space for the new vacuum, go through your home and decide what you value less than your relationship with your dad, and get rid of that item and the rechargeable vacuum you currently own. Then, let go of your animosity. Use the new vacuum and think fond memories of your father and your relationship with him.

Option 4: Check the comments to this post for even more suggestions from our readers.

Thank you, SK, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m honestly not sure what I would do in this situation. I hope that you find the right solution for you and your family.

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.

Putting labels on your rooms

We often talk about the importance of labeling: labeling file folders or labeling all sorts of other storage containers so you know what’s inside of them. But have you ever thought about labeling your rooms?

Not literally, of course. Rather, putting a mental label on a room can help you clarify its purpose and what belongs where. And you can be creative; rooms don’t have to be used for their traditional purposes.

I’m lucky enough to have a home with a guest bedroom, but I don’t get guests all that often. So the bed — a nice big horizontal surface — tends to temporarily store a whole range of items I’m donating or freecycling on behalf of others. That used to stress me out, until I realized there’s really nothing wrong with it. The room is now mentally labeled as my “guest bedroom and donation/freecycling processing room,” which made it clear that this room is also where I need to store the plastic bags I keep for putting freecycle donations on my front porch.

Sometimes people wind up using their family rooms, living rooms, or dining areas as home offices. Laptop computers can make that easy, and sometimes these other rooms are more attractive places to work because of the lighting, the views, etc. If you find yourself working in a place other than your defined home office, maybe it’s time to go with your natural inclinations. If your dining room or other such space adds the label of “home office,” what needs to be kept in that room to support that use? And, how might the more traditional home office space be relabeled?

More dramatically, a room can be used for something totally separate from its original purpose. Some people turn small rooms into closets; some people turn closets into offices or reading nooks. Parents in San Francisco changed a rarely used formal dining room into a playroom for their two young children. The family eats in the “enhanced breakfast nook.” Someone who just doesn’t cook acknowledged that fact, and turned her kitchen into a closet.

Sometimes labeling a room makes it clear what doesn’t belong. I knew someone with a home office, who complained that the room was just too small for everything she needed. But then we found lots of non-office things were stored in that home office, too. Once those non-office items were removed and relocated to other rooms whose purposes also got clarified, her home office was just fine.

This concept can even be extended to self-storage units. I know a woman who ran a business that required her to keep a large number of product samples on hand, to take with her when she visited clients’ homes. Her own home had no place for all these samples, so she rented a self-storage unit and outfitted it with good shelving. While such units can often be a waste of money, depending on what’s stored in them, hers was definitely not. The key factor is that it wasn’t a dumping ground; it was her inventory storage unit. Nothing else went in there.

It can be enlightening to think of all the spaces your family members need or want — for sleeping, grooming, eating, working, playing, exercising, pursuing hobbies, etc. — and compare that to your mental labels for your rooms. You may just find some changes you’d like to make.

Unitasker Wednesday: Space-Saver Shoe Storage Stands

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

At first glance, this week’s unitasker selection seems like it could be helpful. It’s a device to organize shoes, which doesn’t seem like such a bad thing … until you realize a few things about the product that actually make it unhelpful. Let’s take a look at the Space-Saver Shoe Storage Stands:

First, it prices at around $10 a pair of shoes. This isn’t very expensive if you own two pair of shoes. However, I know many people who own 20 or more pair of shoes. So, this shoe storing solution would be at least $200 for them, if not more. Most effective shoe storage solutions are significantly less expensive.

Second, when working with clients, I always recommend they choose a shoe storage solution that they will use every day and that will protect their shoes from pets and pests. One problem with these shoe stands is that they aren’t easy to use — you have to manipulate your shoes and the stands to access the shoes and to put them away. A person who already has a disorganized closet isn’t going to start magically using a complex organizing product. Also, the stands don’t keep dogs from getting into the shoes or cat fur off them the way shoe storage solutions that don’t sit on the floor do.

Third, and this is my biggest hangup with them, the stands aren’t connected or anchored in any way. If one stand falls over (a totally normal expectation), they can all tip over, and then you have a shoe mess on your closet floor. They will keep your shoes paired, but not in any organized fashion, completely negating their purpose.

When organizing your shoes, it’s best to find a solution that actually solves your problem, not creates more problems. If you’re super organized and can come up with a way to anchor these to a shelf out of the reach of pets … maybe these devices can work for you … if you also have a couple hundred or more to spend! Thanks to reader LR for introducing us to this almost-practical unitasker. So close!

If you have a few spare moments and are looking for a hearty laugh, you will likely enjoy Amazon’s recent article “Funniest Reviews.” It features many of the unitaskers we’ve posted over the years along with the ridiculous comments that accompany the products.

A year ago on Unclutterer




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    If only there were clutter vacuums to suck up the absurd bug vacuum!

Charting summer vacation follow-up

Last June, my wife and I decided to save more money and more deeply invest in time we spend with the kids. The result was “Camp Caolo,” our summer-long stay-cation complete with chores, summer rules, goals, a wish list, and more. Now that the summer is over and the kids are about to return to school, I’m taking a look back on what worked, what didn’t, and what we will change next year.

  1. Weekly chores. I’d be lying if I said this went off without a hitch. The kids did their chores, most of the time. Often with protest. But hey, I’m not thrilled about doing my own chores.
  2. The summer rules. “Be nice to everyone or be alone in your room.” “Respect others, their sleep and their stuff.” “No fun until chores are done.” Again, these rules were hit and miss. Following through on number one a few times drove home the notion that we’d do just that: follow through on it. Rule number two was pretty easy to get compliance on, mostly because they slept like logs all summer. Finally, my wife and I did cave on rule number three a few times. Not habitually, but it did happen.
  3. The summer wish list. This was great fun. At the beginning of the summer, we all took sticky notes and wrote down a few things we’d like to do, like visit Boston, establish a family game night, camp out in the back yard, have a movie night, swim in the lake, take a fishing trip, go mini golfing, etc. Really everyone in the family loved moving a “to do” activity to the “We did it!” column. The kids got into figuring out when we might complete a certain activity, and we added a few on the fly. We didn’t get to everything, but now we have goals for long weekends this autumn.
  4. The boredom jar. This was another huge hit. My wife printed many wonderful answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper, glued them onto tongue depressors, and stuck them into a jar. When the kids asked that inevitable question, we pointed them to the jar. Eventually they’d wander over to it on their own. They ended up making several fun projects and spent lots of time in the yard just being kids. We’re going to keep the jar in play for as long as it’s effective. If you have kids, I recommend making one.

Finally, we bought journals for the kids to update as summer went by with notes and mementos from our activities. This fell by the wayside rather quickly. There was so much other stuff to do that we would forget about it for weeks at a time, and then the thought of getting “caught up” was enough for us to abandon the idea entirely.

Next year we’ll make a few changes. No journals and a little more leeway on chores. They are helpful kids and they do pitch in. So, if there’s an occasional pile-up of flip-flops on the kitchen floor – as there is as I write this – that’s not a big deal as long as it isn’t constant.

I want to say we’ll be less ambitious with proposed activities, but I’m not sure. We missed out on a few and really good ones and that’s disappointing, but not for lack of effort. Plus, we can carry them over to the school year, even though there’s a lot less time to get them done.

The days are getting cooler, the tourists are going home and the summer vacation chart is coming down off of the wall. Next stop is school, scouts, ballet, and so on. Summer 2013 was a good run. Here’s to a safe, fun, and productive autumn for all.

Organize to Eliminate the UFOs

UFOs (unidentified found objects) are always discovered during the decluttering and organising process. Do you keep them or do you throw them away? You don’t want to keep clutter but if you throw out an item that is an important piece of a tool then you end up with broken tool as clutter also – especially if replacement parts are expensive or hard to find.

Here are some ideas on how to manage these UFOs.

Place the UFOs into a small, labelled shoebox or plastic bin. Sort through the box with family members in case they know what the objects are for. One time, shoved in a kitchen drawer, I found a small plastic object that I thought might be some sort of tool or computer part. I put it in my “UFO” box. I asked my husband about it and he had no idea what it was. However, my 8 year old was thrilled that I had found the part to his magic kit that had magically disappeared the previous month.

Once items are identified, they should be stored with the equipment to which they belong. For example, the spigot that screws into the freezer so it can be drained after defrosting could be taped to the back of the freezer in a small, labelled, zipper-seal bag.

Items can be separated based on room locations. Parts to the food processor could be stored in a labelled, decorative tin in the kitchen cupboard. Extra computer parts and cables can be stored in labelled baskets in the home office.

Sometimes the objects may be used in several places or do not belong with specific equipment. They still need a designated storage location. You might choose a kitchen cupboard or drawer or designate a spot in the workshop for these items.

There are different ways to organise these miscellaneous but important items.

Multi-drawer storage units allow the items to be easily accessed. The drawers can be subdivided to create more space. It is easy to see what is in the drawers.

As an alternative, the Stanley Professional Organizer can be used. The little yellow compartments can be rearranged easily. It is easy to see and access the items. It can also be stored upright in small, narrow spaces and each object stays in its own container.

Stanley Professional Organizer

Regardless of how they are organised and stored, it is very important to label all of the items either by writing directly on the object with permanent marker, tying a tag onto the object or placing the object in a labelled tray or bag. If these things are ever misplaced again, they won’t be considered UFOs.

A year ago on Unclutterer





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Workspace of the Week: Mid-century modern shared home workspace for parents and child

This week’s Workspace of the Week is localARC’s Steelcase desk-inspired home office for the family:

On the wall opposite the office desk is storage for equipment (like the printer) and supplies:

But then, on the wall to the left of the office desk, next to the door to the room, is this awesome kid’s coloring desk:

This office is full of clean lines and empty of clutter. It is a space where parents and children can work side-by-side and get things done. I find the space incredibly inspiring. Thank you, localARC, for sharing your space 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.

Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.


Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Unitasker Wednesday: Treat Launcher

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

You know what is super hard? Giving your pet treats. I mean it. You have to drop them on the ground and … WOW, I am worn out just thinking about it. EXHAUSTING! Thankfully, there is a new product to help with this unbelievably difficult task of dropping treats on the ground, the Unique Petz Treat Launcher:

Now, you can shoot treats at your pet. Loading the treats into the gun and pulling the trigger is so much easier than the agonizing work of dropping treats onto the ground. Thank YOU, Unique Petz, for doing the tiring work for us. Phew!

And thanks to reader Alex for sharing this awesome unitasker with us.