Avoiding clutter by careful purchasing

Poorly chosen purchases are one major source of household and office clutter. While most of us are unlikely to totally eliminate this problem, we can certainly minimize it.

I’ve written before about controlling online purchases, but what about in-store purchases? You could implement a “mandatory waiting time” policy for anything not on your shopping list, but that’s not the only possible approach.

Paco Underhill is an expert in how stores convince people to buy, and he provided the following suggestions in The New York Times:

For consumers, my advice is this: Never shop tired, never shop hungry, and keep a list of shopping objectives. And if the deal looks too good to be true, pay attention to your instincts and just step around it. Don’t buy for “someday” — if you can’t wear it or use it today, chances are it will become clutter in your home instead of in the store.

What else might you do? If you’re going shopping with a friend, be sure that’s a friend who will be useful. You want someone who will give you honest feedback about the wisdom of a purchase: whether something does indeed look great on you, whether it’s something that makes sense for you to buy at this time, etc. I made one of my more useless purchases when I went clothes shopping with someone else. With her encouragement, I bought something I would never have bought if I had been shopping by myself. (Fortunately, it wasn’t an expensive item.) But another friend helped me pick my fantastic sofa, which was somewhat expensive but worth every penny.

Reflecting on prior purchases and seeing where you tend to go wrong can also be useful. Jeff Yaeger wrote on AARP’s “Money Talk” blog about doing an annual “What the Heck was I Thinking” self-audit annually, at tax time.

It’s simple: Just quickly review your credit card statements, canceled checks, receipts, etc. for the larger purchases you’ve made in the past year, particularly the discretionary, “nonessential” things you’ve spent money on. Then ask yourself one question: “If I had it to do over again, would I have bought that?” Make a note of those things that you spent money that you now regret, and then take a few minutes to really study that list once it’s complete.

The idea is to learn from your spending mistakes so that you won’t keep repeating them.

… It’s also helpful to carry your “What the Heck Was I Thinking?” list with you in your wallet or purse, and glance at [it] whenever you’re headed out on a shopping spree. 

Similarly, you could choose to give yourself a different kind of physical reminder to help control impulse purchases. This pocket wallet reminds you to think twice before spending your money.

For those who share its social concerns, The Center For a New American Dream has a wallet buddy you can print out and wrap around your credit or debit card, with the reminder that, “Every dollar I spend is a statement about the kind of world I want & the quality of life I value.” On the reverse side, there are a series of questions, including “Do I need this & do I need it now?” There are also questions about whether the product was made sustainably and whether it has too much packaging.

If you like the idea of a credit/debit card wrapper, you could certainly create your own, with whatever reminders are helpful to you. As an alternative to the wrapper, you could print a short reminder on a label maker and attach that directly to your card.

Banish the Mess and Restore Order in Almost Every Room Right Now: An excerpt from NEVER TOO BUSY TO CURE CLUTTER

Never Too Busy to Cure ClutterThe following is an excerpt from my latest home organizing book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter. If you buy it between now and February 16, fill out this fancy form, and I will send you a FREE audiobook copy of my first book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. So, if you want to tackle clutter, mess, or grime in any room, this is a good way to start. Choose a task based on how much time you have available and get to work.

From pages 68-71:

The following are basic actions you can complete in almost every room of your home. Some of these tasks seem incredibly obvious, but it’s often the simplest and most conspicuous tasks that form the foundation of your cleaning routine. A few of the following tasks are equally important but only need doing at certain times of the year. Pick and choose your way to a clean, uncluttered, and organized home.

When working in any room of your home, ask yourself: Where is clutter accumulating? Is there a reason things are piling up in one (or more) area(s)? What would prevent clutter from being left in this space? What small act would greatly improve this room?

30 SECONDS

  • Dust one of the following: a single shelf, a picture frame or two, the top of a doorjamb, a lamp, or a light fixture.
  • Wipe down a tabletop or other flat surface.
  • Gather wayward pens and pencils and return them to their storage spot.
  • Clean a doorknob with a disinfecting wipe.
  • Replace a burned-out lightbulb (preferable with an LED bulb, so you won’t have to replace it again for years and will save on energy costs).

1 MINUTE

  • Find two items that aren’t where they belong and return them to where they do.
  • Clean a mirror, window, the glass front on a cabinet, or picture frame.
  • Dust a ceiling light/fan fixture, crown molding, baseboards, or a corner of a room with a telescoping duster.
  • Check your toilet paper and facial tissue inventory throughout the house and replace as necessary.
  • Change your perspective: Lie on the ground or stand on a step stool to see if you can spot hidden clutter.

5 MINUTES

  • Empty the trash cans and/or recycling bins in a room.
  • Round up dirty clothes to start a load of laundry.
  • Check the batteries in a device. Replace them if necessary.
  • Move a piece of furniture and sweep or vacuum under it, or vacuum al the air vents in a room.
  • Fill a basket with wayward items and return those items to the permanent storage locations.

15 MINUTES

  • Vacuum or sweep the floor of a room.
  • Fill a bucket with 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1 gallon water, and mop the uncarpeted floor in a room.
  • Remove all the fabric curtains in a room from their rods and put them in a bag to bring to your dry cleaner.
  • Move furniture off a throw rug or hall runner and take the rug outside. Shake it out and then drape it over something (like a railing) and hit it with a broom handle. Return the rug and replace the furniture.
  • Inspect furniture for damage and wear. Schedule any appointments necessary to have damaged and/or worn items repaired or set aside a block of time to shop for a replacement.

Released today! NEVER TOO BUSY TO CURE CLUTTER (and another awesome giveaway)

Never Too Busy to Cure ClutterI am so excited to announce that today my latest home organizing book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter hits bookstores in the U.S.!

I absolutely adore this book. It is practical, simple to use, and full of great ideas to get your home life organized. If you’re busy — like everyone I know — this book is for you. It breaks down uncluttering, organizing, and cleaning tasks into 30-second, 1-minute, 5-minute, and 15-minute activities so you can get things done on your schedule. There are also fun quizzes and weekend projects and the interior pages are full of orange artwork (my favorite color).

If you read the Tidying Up book and thought it was cool, but it didn’t really work for you since you didn’t have six months to dedicate your life to organizing, my latest book is right up your alley. You don’t have to change who you are or adopt some system or join a support group for this book to help you. I wrote this book based on what I do in my house and with my clients — and I have a full-time job, two kids, and an attempt (although meager) at a social life. But, even if you’re single and unemployed and have never considered having kids, this book will still give you great ideas for clearing your clutter.

And because I LOVE Unclutterer readers, I have worked out an awesome promotion for people who buy this book. In the next three weeks (between now and February 16), if you buy my book and then come back here and fill out this fancy form, I will send you a FREE audiobook copy of my first book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. If you ordered my book during the pre-sale period, I’m going to send you a copy of the audiobook, too, because you all are amazing, as well. So, if you buy Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter, you get a second book FREE. That’s how incredible and thankful I am for all you terrific Unclutterer readers. Now don’t forget to come back and fill out this fancy form by February 16, 2016.

Finally, if you live in the U.K., my book will be released in February or April (my publisher told me one thing and Amazon.co.uk says another). Brits also can check out an interview with me in the February issue of Woman & Home magazine. Additionally, publishing rights have been sold in the UAE and Russia already, so those translations will be out in the coming months. (I’ll keep you posted as more foreign rights are sold, so stay tuned if you’re not in the U.S.)

Thank you to everyone in the Unclutterer community for your support. I really, truly believe that this book can help people and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it and developing it. Thank you, thank you!

Organizing your thoughts

As you may have guessed, the first step for organizing your thoughts is writing them down. (Especially thoughts related to things you need to do.) It’s not hyperbole to say that writing things down can change your life. It helps clear your mind for important work, offers a record of the past, and can foster a sense of achievement. But even beyond that, having things written down, even when the resulting list is huge, can help you feel like you’re on top of things. But simply making a list isn’t all you need.

For optimal thought organization, consider taking these additional steps. First, and this is the most critical piece in the process, perform a good core dump. Get everything — and I mean everything — out of your mind. When everything is out of your mind, it can stop pestering you about what needs to be done. Your mind is more of a problem solver than a filing cabinet.

Next, find the tool that’s going to work for you for capturing those tasks/ideas and working from them. Notebook? (A Moleskine, a Little List, an Emergent Task Planner) An app? (Evernote, ToDoist, Wunderlist) Desktop software? (OmniFocus, Fantastical, Toodledo) It really doesn’t matter. Just identify the tool that is best for you (a.k.a. that you will actually use over the longterm). One that helps you to prioritize your work and integrates (even manually) with your calendar are also good ideas.

Finally, identify the best time of the day to do the work or tasks you need to accomplish so they stop weighing on you. For years, I was the type who liked to work at night. When the kids were in bed, I could retreat to my home office and work for a few hours. Today, that’s not the case. I find that I like being with my family in the evening and then prepping for the next day in other ways, like making sure backpacks are full, my outfit is ready for the next day, lunches are made, and so on. Instead, I’ve begun doing thoughtful work in the morning, before the rest of the house wakes up and starts their day. The point is: notice what works for you and stick with it.

If you’re looking for ideas for ways to do your core dump, my favorite way is to brainstorm with a mind map. It’s a great way to have a powerful brainstorming session without resulting in a mess that must be sorted before you can get on with the rest of your work.

Now, take the time to find the time and tools that are most amenable for you and enjoy productive thought organization.

Understanding procrastination

Do you tend to procrastinate? I certainly do, at times. But I just read a couple articles about procrastination (thanks to Julie Bestry and Debra Baida, who shared them on Twitter), which provided some valuable insights into how procrastination works and what this means for time management.

Why we procrastinate: time inconsistency

On his personal website, James Clear wrote about time inconsistency: “the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”

As Clear went on to explain:

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

In this article and another one, Clear provides useful strategies for fighting the effects of time inconsistency and overcoming procrastination. Personally, I realized that when I’ve been most successful in fighting procrastination, I’ve actually said to myself, “Future Me is going to be so glad I did this!” And that’s one of the strategies: vividly visualizing the benefits your future self will enjoy.

One tiny example: I ran errands on a lovely Monday, even when I was feeling lazy and could have put them off for a day, because I knew Future Me would be very glad to not have to leave the house in the forecasted downpour the following Tuesday.

Why procrastination can sometimes be useful

Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times was provocatively titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” Grant explained that he tends toward pre-crastination: “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

But what he came to realize is that for creative tasks (preparing a speech, writing a term paper, etc.) a certain amount of procrastination can be useful. Beginning the project but not rushing to complete it gave him a better result than finishing as quickly as he could. As he explained:

Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. … When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.

But even for creative efforts, there can be too much procrastination. Those who wait until the last minute to begin a project have to “rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

So for creative tasks, setting a schedule that allows for some procrastination time may be wise. I know I can write a blog post quickly, but my writing often benefits from taking extra time to ponder the subject. You may well have similar projects that could use that extra time, too.

Organize your smartphone, Pt. II

Back in 2013, I wrote an article about decluttering your smartphone. Today, I’m back with a follow-up that offers even more ideas and techniques to keep the tiny computer in your pocket as tidy and usable as possible.

Review your contacts

I don’t know how this happened, but I have several copies of the same contacts. My dad was listed three times, some colleagues had multiple entries, and more. I’m not sure how that happened, but I replaced that mess with definitive, accurate records.

Also, you might find records for former coworkers or others you haven’t communicated with for a very long time. If you can legitimately delete their information, do so.

Review bookmarks

I’ve gotten better at organizing bookmarks on my desktop computer, and now it’s time to do the same on my phone. Do like I did and take a few minutes to review the bookmarks on your phone’s browser and ditch those you don’t use anymore. This seems like a small step, but any progress leads to reduced clutter.

Go verb-based with your apps

When I wrote this article’s companion piece in 2013, I suggested organizing apps into folders like “Work,” “Travel,” etc. This time, consider combining apps together by action.

For example, create a folder labeled “Watch” for apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and so on. Perhaps make another called “Listen” with your favorite music and podcasting apps. “Shop,” “Read,” and “Travel” are other viable options.

Make use of lock screen widgets

Both Android devices and Apple’s iOS let app developers create little widgets of information that can be used while your phone’s screen is locked. Both offer customizable information that is tremendously useful and quick. iMore.com has a nice overview of what Apple calls its “Notification Center” while Android Authority has a good look from the other side of the aisle.

Eat that frog later?

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

The “frog” in the Mark Twain quote above has been adopted by the business community and productivity advocates to represent the one task or activity you’re least looking forward to completing over the course of your day. The idea being that once the unappealing task is done, the rest of the day is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting idea for sure. But let’s consider a minor alteration: is there a benefit to eating the frog second, or even third?

In May 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “The Power of Small Wins.” In it, author Teresa Amabile describes something called The Progress Principle:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Amabile and her colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people to record details of a “best day” and “worst day” at work, in terms of motivation. The results were interesting. The days labeled as a “best day” were those during which progress was made on a project:

“If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame.”

I’ve noticed this tendency in myself. For that reason, I like to set myself up for early wins with one or two quickie successes early in the morning.

For example, if know I have to sit down at the computer and write a proposal, I might clear a few emails from my inbox first, tackle another small to-do item (like returning an object to a coworker), re-read an article related to my proposal, and then begin writing.

I find that if I clear a few easy items off of my “to-do” list, I experience some of the benefits described in the Progress Principle above, and I can use that momentum to tackle the big project of the day — the frog. A couple little successes can go a long way.

Everything in its place with MOOP

MOOP is an acronym I learned recently, from an essay by Tarin Towers, which immediately caught my attention because of its organizing implications. She wrote:

MOOP is a term coined by hikers and other ecology-minded people who use phrases like “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace.” It stands for Matter Out of Place. In a state park, it might refer to a bottle cap on a forest floor, a cigarette butt on a footpath, a tent peg neglected when the tent got packed up. In a house, it might be a wet towel on a bedroom floor, a coffee mug on top of the TV.

This is a wonderfully useful term for organizing, since it encompasses two key concepts:

  • Everything has a place where it belongs
  • To stay organized, you need to ensure things get put back in those defined places

I had my own experience with MOOP a few weeks ago. My main credit card usually lives in a specific slot in my wallet, but I had pulled it out and put it in my jeans pocket one day when I wanted to make an online donation. But I didn’t put it back in my wallet right away, and somehow it fell out of that pocket. It took me two days to find the card, hidden under a sofa cushion. I knew it was in my house somewhere, so there was no financial risk, but it was still frustrating.

So how do you avoid MOOP? By doing the boring task of ongoing maintenance.

Organizing expert Peter Walsh offered the following advice in the Los Angeles Times:

Eliminate the word “later” from your vocabulary, as in, “I’ll put this away later, I’ll fold this later….” The way to stop clutter from accumulating is to accept the fact that now is the new later.

The Asian Efficiency website uses the term “clear to neutral” to describe all post-activity work, such as cleaning the dishes after a meal and putting supplies away after a craft project. Besides eliminating MOOP, this clear-to-neutral process makes it easier to do the next activity — prepare the next meal, do the next craft project — because everything is ready to go.

However, it may not always be practical to put everything away immediately, although certain things (keys, credit cards, leftover food, etc.) should certainly be dealt with promptly. But if the laundry sits for a day or the suitcase doesn’t get unpacked as soon as you return from a trip, it’s probably not as serious. And it usually makes sense to accumulate donations when you realize some things are “out of place” by being in your home or office at all. (You can think of the donation bag or box as the short-term “place” for such things.)

If you can’t put everything in its place immediately, consider what your plan will be. Will you (and your other family members) spend 15 minutes every night putting things away? Will you do a major cleanup on the weekend? When will you do that trip to drop off donations?

Here’s wishing everyone a MOOP-free (or almost MOOP-free) 2016!

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

When emergencies strike, it’s important to have important medical information close at hand. It’s one of those things you usually don’t think about until you have to, but not thinking or doing anything about it ahead of time can cause you serious trouble. One way to keep this information organized and easily accessible is to securely store it on your smartphone.

If you have an iPhone or an Android device, the following information should help you:

iPhone

Apple has made organizing emergency information quite simple. To begin, open the Health app, which is part of the standard iPhone operating system. Next, follow these simple steps:

  1. Tap “Medical ID” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Tap “Edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
  3. Enter pertinent information.

There’s a lot of info you can list here, including any medical conditions, special notes, allergies, potential reactions/interactions, as well as any medication(s) you currently take. There are also fields for adding an emergency contact, blood type, weight, height, and whether or not you’re an organ donor.

At the top of screen, there’s an option to have this information available from the lock screen. If selected, your emergency information is just a swipe way from your iPhone’s lock screen.

This is useful should you have to visit the ER, but that’s not all. I recently had to have a prescription refilled and while at the pharmacy I couldn’t remember the medication’s name (nor could I pronounce it even if I had remembered it), so I simply opened this info on my phone and handed it to the pharmacist. “Wow,” he said. “I wish everybody did this.”

On Andriod

Storing emergency medical information is a little tricker on Android, but not impossible. There may be a field for this information among the phone’s contacts, but that depends on what version of Android you’re running. If it has an In Case of Emergency field in the contact’s app, be sure to fill in this information. But in addition to this, I suggest you download and use an app like ICE: In Case of Emergency. For $3.99, it lets you list:

  1. People to call in an emergency (and it can call them directly from the app)
  2. Insurance information
  3. Doctor names and numbers (again, it can call them directly from the app)
  4. Allergies
  5. Medical Conditions
  6. Medications
  7. Any special instructions or other information you wish to provide

Both of these solutions can be a convenience in any medical situation, especially emergencies. More importantly, this simple bit of organization can greatly help a first-responder when you need help the most. Take some time this week to set it up.

Become a more organized cook with modified mise en place

Years ago, when I was just a lad, I would watch my dad assemble birthday presents, grills, lawn mowers, and whatever else was not assembled at the factory for customers. He always followed the same organized procedure, which I still use today:

  1. Read the instructions all the way through before beginning.
  2. Lay out each part in a tidy row, ensuring that all required pieces are available.
  3. Identify and locate all of the necessary hardware and/or tools.
  4. Find little containers to hold tiny screws, bolts, and other bits that had the potential of getting lost.
  5. Lastly, make sure there’s enough room to spread out and work.

Only after satisfying all five steps would he begin working. It’s how I do things today, and how I recommend working on anything that has “some assembly required.”

I’ve taken this same approach and applied it in the kitchen, through a modified mise en place. When I’m getting ready to cook from a recipe, I:

  1. Read the recipe all the way through. Just like when you’re assembling a bicycle, you don’t want any surprises once you’ve started. Reading the recipe thoroughly before beginning will identify all the techniques, hardware, and ingredients you’re going to need.
  2. Find and prepare all of the hardware. This step is where you’ll find and locate what I think of as hardware: pots, pans, spatulas, whisks, measuring cups and spoons — all of the tools you’ll need during the preparation and cooking process. It’s no fun to read “stir constantly” or “with a slotted spoon” to find you don’t have a spatula or a spoon.
  3. Find all the ingredients. Locate everything your recipe calls for and get it ready.
  4. Practice mise en place. This is a French culinary term that means “putting in place.” It’s the practice of preparing and arranging ingredients that the chef will need to prepare the day’s meals. But you needn’t be a pro to benefit from this practice. If your recipe calls for 1 Tbsp of butter, a cup of milk, or a diced onion, get exactly those amounts ready before you begin. It’s so nice to not have to stop and measure something as you go. Just grab it and toss it in.
  5. Know where you’re going to place hot items. This step is easy to overlook and not usually included in mise en place, but extremely important. I remember my mother saying to me when I was first learning to cook, “Before you take that out of the oven, think: where are you going to put it?” Put out trivets if you like, clear a spot on the table or what-have-you. It’s all better than scanning the kitchen with a hot pot or dish in your hands.
  6. Can you clean as you go? I’ll admit that I’m not very good at this one. Professional kitchens have a dedicated dishwasher, but most home cooks are not that lucky. If you can clean as you go, do it. If not, designate a spot for dirty hardware ahead of time.
  7. What’s needed to set the table? When I cook for the family, the deal is the cook doesn’t have to set the table. I recommend you work this deal, too.

There you have it: kitchen lessons learned while watching my dad assemble bikes, grills, and more. I hope it makes you a more organized and successful cook.

Keeping your organizing resolutions

It’s only January 7, and already I’ve seen people commenting that they’ve broken their New Year’s resolutions. This reminded me of some good advice I heard in a recent podcast regarding making any major change, whether it’s done as part of a resolution or not. CGP Grey said:

I think with anything like health … any kind of long-term change that you want to make I find it very helpful to think about it not in terms of “Oh, I’m doing this thing and I’m going to make a change and then if I fail then that’s bad.”

I think it’s best to focus on it in terms of “getting back on the wagon” is actually the skill that you need to develop. That you should expect that many times, especially when you start something new, you are going to fall off the wagon and the thing that matters is the getting back on. It’s not the falling off.

He went on to say how important it is for people to learn what their own “failure conditions” are: “the kinds of things that cause them to fall off the wagon.”

The following are some common failure conditions for getting organized — things that might derail your efforts:

Perfectionism

Your uncluttering process may result in a large number of things you’re happy to give away. In such situations, some people then try to find the perfect new home for everything — the best charity, the out-of-state friend, etc. This might make sense for some very special items, but for most of them it usually makes more sense to find a convenient place to donate it all: Goodwill, a local charity-run thrift store, etc.

Another example: While it’s important to have tools that you enjoy using and that fit your personality, you can spend forever investigating every to-do app to find the perfect one, rather than just picking one that meets your needs (after a focused investigation) and then getting on with doing things.

Lack of a viable maintenance schedule

Being organized is an ongoing process. Things get used and need to get put away. New things (such as mail) come into your space and need to be properly handled. Not everything needs to be dealt with immediately, but if you go too long without doing this maintenance work, things can get out of control.

Unrealistic time estimates

Getting organized may take longer than you expected. Can you organize your garage (or similar space) on one weekend day? It will depend on many things: how much is stored there, what kind of things are stored there (since papers and sentimental items will be more time-consuming to deal with), how quickly you make decisions, etc.

If you are going to be going through a lot of papers, you may want to time yourself going through one representative stack of a measured size. This will give you a data point for estimating how long the rest will take.

Also, be realistic about how much time it takes to sell things using eBay, craigslist, a garage sale, etc. For valuable things it can be time well spent, but for items of lower value it may make more sense to just donate them. If you find your “to sell” pile sits around month after month, it’s probably time to reconsider the sell-vs.-donate decision.

Life events

Illness (yours or a family member’s) and vacation will temporarily disrupt almost anyone’s efforts to get and stay organized. This is a time to be gentle with yourself. Focus on the most important things first (paying bills, etc.) and get to the rest when you can.

Unitasker Wednesday: Hands Finger Puppets

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

I’m certain there is nothing I could possibly write for this week’s unitasker selection that would be as entertaining (and/or disturbing) as the following image. Introducing Hands Finger Puppets: