The clothes on your back and not much else

Warning: Today’s post is not a cheery one. It takes minimalism to the terrible extreme.

Recently Jeri wrote an article about being prepared for a tsunami. Never having lived in an earthquake or tsunami zone, I had never thought about it. I have, however, been thinking quite a lot about the refugee situation in Syria and about all the North Africans who take the very dangerous crossing to southern European countries.

Over a decade ago, I sold everything that didn’t fit into two suitcases and a dozen boxes and left Canada for France then Spain. The suitcases came with me and the boxes stayed in my parents’ house in Canada. When my parents passed away, some of those boxes plus twenty more made the trip across the ocean to tie my life here back to my Canadian past.

But what if I’d only had those two suitcases? Or less? What if I had no choice about leaving? That staying meant putting myself and my family in extreme danger? Or that my life where I was so bad that I was willing to face death to find something better?

If I had time, I would scan the family photos that I haven’t yet as well as my father’s artwork that hangs on the walls. I would put it all in a hard drive along with the photos already digitized and protect it as much as I could. I would add legal documents (including the deed to the house in case I could some day come back). I’d pack the extra batteries I have for my phone along with my international charger. The minimum toiletries and the most versatile and durable pieces of clothing I had would fill up the rest of the smallish knapsack (because clearly, anything too big would be hard to carry and easily lost).

Finally, on my way out the door, I would take a stuffed bear, not the one that my grandparents gave me for my first Christmas, nor the stuffed kitty I’ve had since the day after I was born. No, I would take the bear that has accompanied me on almost all my adventures in the past ten years and who has developed a personality of his own, who everyone we know recognizes as another member of the family.

And that’s it.

It’s not a pleasant exercise, nor is it easy, but I think that for those of us who live in relatively safe countries and come from rather privileged situations, it’s an eye-opener and forces us to understand the stress that refugees are under.

What about you? What would your absolute minimum level of extreme minimalism be?

Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?

In my last post, I wrote about inherited family clutter. But there are other places we inherit other people’s clutter and the biggest one is at work.

Let me give you an example. Where I work, my former boss had been in her position for almost twenty years. Her mind worked better in paper. She liked to be able to touch things and look up information in books and files. After retiring this summer, she did me the mega-favor of coming in on her own time in September to clear out her office and leave me with what she considered to be the right amount of information.

I, however, don’t work the same way. As I think I might have mentioned once or twice, I hate paper, filing cabinets and bookcases full of books that nobody references.

This has meant that whenever I’m not focused on daily operations or moving the organization forward, I tackle a shelf or a handful of files. I have also rearranged furniture and eliminated several non-matching pieces that just begged to have unused paper piled on top of them, and in the process taken a sort of informal inventory of what we have.

Some areas of the office are bit chaotic since I haven’t been able to devote whole days to a beginning-to-end purge and reorganization, but I am bit-by-bit transforming the office, bringing it in line with the beliefs and habits of the staff who are paper-haters like me.

This process has raised questions for me about my own work habits and although I have just started in my position with the intention of staying in it a long time, having to go through the inherited clutter of my boss, I have been asking myself about succession planning and what someone who comes in after me will think of the way I’ve left the office.

Before I go any further, therefore, I’ve decided to formalize the organization and to depersonalize it. In other words, I am going to use the organization’s mission statement and objectives as my guide for what we end up keeping, what we get rid of, and even where and how we store it.

In doing so, if and when I move on, my successor will have a clear understanding of what is where and why.

In the end, I will have cleared out four bookcases, two small filing cabinets and what’s left over, the staff will able to use because they know what it is, where it is, and what it can be used for.

So, now my questions for you:

  • What information do you store at work?
  • Are you clear why you are holding onto it?
  • Are you making your organizing decisions based on personal preference or are they tied to the cultural beliefs and mission of the organization?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow and stopped working next week, what would your successor have to deal with? Could he or she sit down at your desk and start working without too much trouble?

An April opportunity to recycle old, broken toys

Many parents face the issue of toy clutter. Their children have more toys than they could ever need or want, often gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. Or they just have toys their children have outgrown.

If the toys are in good condition, they can often be passed along to other families. But what do you do with the toys that are broken or missing parts? Sending them to landfill often seems like the only answer.

However, through April 30, those in the U.S. have a cool alternative. Tom’s of Maine and TerraCycle have joined forces to provide free recycling of these toys. Just go to the Tom’s of Maine website and click to get a free shipping label. Then fill a box with up to 10 pounds of toys and ship it off at any UPS location.

TerraCycle has a number of ongoing free recycling programs for Clif Bar wrappers, Brita items, Solo cups, Wellness pet food packets, and more — including Tom’s of Maine toothbrushes and much of the company’s product packaging. Tom’s worked with TerraCycle on a toy recycling program in April 2015, but that one was limited to 500 of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. The boxes were all claimed within four days, so this year’s program was designed to allow more people to participate.

What happens to the items sent in through the Tom’s of Maine Toy Recycling Program? Lauren Taylor of TerraCycle gave me the answer in an email:

The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, and plastics. Fabrics are reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The fibers (such as paper or wood based products) are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.

So if you cringe at sending things to landfill, here’s your opportunity to gather up those dilapidated stuffed animals, the puzzles with missing pieces, the mystery toy pieces, the torn playing cards — and any other broken, worn-out, or incomplete toys — and ship them off for recycling.

Three little helpers

Here are three little tools that help me do what I need to do, better and faster.

Card holder for smartphones

iphone_card_holderWhenever I go for a walk, I always take my iPhone to listen to music or a podcast, an ID card (in case of emergency) and occasionally my bank card because I’ll stop at the store on my way home. Women’s fitness clothing very rarely has pockets and I do not want to carry a purse with me, so I end up carrying my phone in one hand and tucking my ID and bank card in my sock or other article of clothing. More than once I’ve almost lost my cards because they have fallen out of my makeshift pocket.

The Adhesive Credit Card Holder allows me to carry my cards safely stuck to my phone. I’ve tried everything to “accidentally” remove the cards from this holder. I shook the phone upside down and wiggled and jiggled the pocket but the cards remained stuck until I opened the pocket and removed the cards.

I’ve started keeping my ID card and my bank card in my phone all the time. Because I use the GroceryGadget app to manage my shopping lists, I only need my phone with the card holder to do my shopping. I no longer need to carry a bulky purse around the store! Also, I save time getting ready for a fitness session because I can just simply grab my phone and go.

China markers

When I worked in a food chemistry lab, we used china markers (also known as grease pencils) all the time. We used them to label beakers and flasks in experiments. We used them to write on plastic, glass, and cardboard food containers we stored in the fridges and freezers.

At home I use china markers for writing names on cups at children’s parties (or wine glasses at adult parties) as well as dates and descriptions on containers of food in the fridge and freezer.

China markers are convenient. They do not “dry out” like regular markers nor do they need to be sharpened like pencils. The markings are water resistant and do not fade over time but they are removed easily from non-porous surfaces by wiping with a dry paper towel.

Hoof pick

If anyone asks me if I grew up in a barn, the answer is yes. I spent many years working with horses – and I still do. In the stables, an essential tool that keeps horses’ hooves free from stones, mud and other debris is a hoof pick.

A hoof pick is also useful around our house too. We have one just outside our front door. When our rugby player comes home, she uses the hoof pick to remove the caked-on mud and turf from her cleats. The stiff brush removes any bits of dirt still remaining. Hoof picks can clean up children’s muddy rain boots and dig out ice and snow from winter boots too. It also means there is much less dirt in the house for me to clean!

The power of writing it down

“Keep everything in your head or out of your head. In-between, you won’t trust either one.” ~ David Allen.

We’ve written about David Allen’s Getting Things Done several times at Unclutterer. In a nutshell, it’s a system of best practices around doing what you need to do. It’s easy to get “on the wagon” so to speak, and it’s just as easy to fall off. This weekend I spent five hours getting back on, and it’s been great.

Today, I have 86 open projects between work and home, and I feel great about every one. I haven’t made significant progress on any of them. Nor have I ticked off any major milestones or delegated the more repetitive tasks. What did was to get them out of my head and organize them into a system I trust.

As David Allen would say (and I’m paraphrasing here), your brain is not for storing to-dos, it’s for solving problems. When you ask it to do the former, it causes stress. If you’ve ever had a moment when you’ve thought, “Oh no! I need to do [x]!” when there was no chance of doing so, you’ll know it’s the worst. Getting tasks out of your head and into a trusted system can eliminate that feeling.

Last weekend, I sat down and wrote out all of the outstanding projects I need to work on. I define a project as anything that takes more than one step to complete so “draft an outline for volunteer orientation” and “get the oil changed in my car” are both treated as projects.

Once everything is written down, I organize it in a project management system I trust. For me, that system is Todoist (I’ve written about Todoist here before). It’s not the only solution, but it works well for me. I list the project and each step that must be done before the project can be marked as completed.

Once that’s done, I can look at the list of 86 open projects and feel on top of all of it. I know what needs to get done. I know the steps I have to take. I know exactly how to make progress on all of it — and I don’t worry about forgetting things! Finally, nothing feels better than clicking the little checkbox next to a completed task.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take the time to do a “mind dump” and get everything out of your head and into a trusted system, whether it be a piece of software or simply a list. It will help you feel good about all of your projects, no matter how many you have.

Dealing with the clutter of previous generations

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to help a friend clear out the family home that needs to come down before it falls down. The house, which fills half a block in a small northern Spanish town, is a 17th century villa cut up into living quarters, a bar, a garage, and now-inaccessible storage space. My friend grew up with his parents, two uncles, a grandmother, and various other family members at different points over the years. When half the house was renovated and modernized, the unchanged part became a dumping ground for all those things no one quite knew what to do with.

The bar has been shut for over 15 years and yet (apart from the dust) it looked like it could have closed a few weeks ago. Every bedroom still had all the furniture, bedding, leftover clothes, and memorabilia from the last person to occupy it. The two living rooms had wall units that were stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable.

I was curious to see exactly what was in the dumping ground, but my friend told me the floors were not safe to walk on, meaning whatever someone had stored two, three, or ten decades ago was now gone for good more or less (perhaps to be rescued when the demolition starts).

A local charity shop was going to stop by to take furniture, wearable clothing, and “anything that is sellable.” That last category was never quite defined, so when it came to clearing out the house, about 80% of what was in the cupboards, closets, and wall units ended up in garbage bags. After two full days, the main living spaces were cleared out and ready for the charity pickup, but that still left the bar, the accessible storage spaces, and the terraces (I forgot to mention earlier the two large internal terraces full of more stuff).

With the sheer amount of junk to deal with, no one suggested organizing it all for recycling. Everything went into the same garbage bags, meaning it would all end up in landfill. And being non-sentimental types, my friend and his cousin were ruthless — photos, letters, report cards, everything went out. Their thinking was “if we haven’t missed it in ten years, we don’t want to know about it.”

That attitude seems to be one that is growing among people my age. We grew up with parents who were born just before the Second World War (or during the Spanish Civil War) and that generation for the most part, liked to hold onto things. My parents (who lived in Canada) were very organized people, but they had a house of over 4000 sq ft plus about six outbuildings. It gave them a lot of room to hold onto a lot of stuff.

My friend is single and works in an industry that requires him to move quite a bit. He has no interest in collecting anything. His cousin told me that as soon as she was done with the family home, she was going to go through her own house and clear out most of the stuff because she didn’t want to leave the same disaster for her own kids.

My brother and sister had the same reaction after clearing out our parents’ house (having picked up and moved to Europe a few years earlier, I had already purged everything I’d owned).

There are lots of articles on inherited clutter here on Unclutterer, but I wanted to talk about my recent experience because it raised some questions for me:

  1. Are Generation-Xers less sentimental and less interested in holding onto stuff?
  2. For those 40-somethings with parents still alive, have you encouraged them to streamline while they are still around to help give context to some of their collections?
  3. Are our children going to hold onto everything because we don’t?
  4. And finally, on an unrelated note, does having a lot of space always mean building up mounds of unwanted clutter?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these questions. Instead, I’ll leave them open to you to answer them in the comment section.