Ask Unclutterer: Rituals, mechanisms, habits and traditions to ensure an uncluttered home

Reader Sasha and others submitted questions to Ask Unclutterer that were very similar in content, asking:

The quote at the end of Tuesday’s post by Anthony Graesch has been on my mind: “The inflow of objects is relentless. The outflow is not. We don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.” After an initial uncluttering project is completed, what rituals and/or mechanisms do you suggest to maintain an uncluttered space? When should we unclutter our homes again?

Many groups of people have uncluttering and cleaning as a ritualistic component of their culture. For example, in many south Asian countries in preparation for Diwali the entire house is cleaned and all old clutter removed before a family begins celebrating. This holiday is in the last quarter of the calendar year when temperatures are mild (60ºFs and 70ºFs) and families can work both out and indoors. Some sub-groups even include painting and decorating as part of this ritual, where walls get a fresh coat of paint and older decorative items are replaced with new (pictures are even swapped in frames). There is a religious purpose for this behavior, but even the non-religious observe the secular aspect of uncluttering and cleaning around this holiday.

On the whole, we don’t have such holidays in the U.S. where everyone observes a ritual for annually cleaning and uncluttering our spaces. I’ve noticed most families only go through such whole-home uncluttering activities when moving or right before entertaining guests. And, when entertaining guests, it’s usually more of a pick-up and put-away surface cleaning than a deep uncluttering and cleaning. As a result, I agree with Graesch and his statement that most families bring stuff in but rarely let stuff go. We’re definitely a culture of acquisition.

To maintain an uncluttered home, I think it’s a good idea to have habits and traditions in place to keep the outflow of goods equal to (or greater than) the inflow.

Four good habits to observe every day of the year:

  1. Don’t bring clutter in. Keep a trash can, recycling bin, and shredder near the main entrance to your home so you can immediately trash the trash, recycle what can be recycled, and shred anything you don’t need that contains personal information on it (like those preapproved credit card applications you get in the mail).
  2. One-in-one-out. Try your best to get rid of one item each time you bring in a newer item (this works for most products except for quickly consumable items like food). For example, if you buy a new pair of jeans, get rid of your oldest, hole-iest pair. If you’re starting to notice one-in-one-out isn’t enough, aim for one-in-two-out or one-in-three-out.
  3. Permanent box for charity. I also recommend keeping a Rubbermaid bin in your laundry room for deposits of donation items. I suggest the laundry room because it is incredibly simple to pull a piece of clothing you no longer want out of the dryer, fold it, and then put it straight into the donation bin. A sturdy bin is great because it can also hold non-clothing items you wish to donate to charity. Once the bin is full, toss it in the car and take its contents to your charity of choice.
  4. Put things away after you use them. When you put things away after you use them, you don’t have stray items all over your home and you know when your storage spaces are getting full and ready for uncluttering. It also helps you avoid having more possessions than you can store.

Four traditions to observe during the year:

  1. Spring cleaning. Getting your home ready for the warmer months of the year is good for many reasons. You’ll be able to clean things thoroughly, as well as notice if any damage has taken place to your home over the winter months. For a comprehensive list of spring cleaning tasks, check out pages 185-190 in my book.
  2. Fall cleaning. Just like spring cleaning, it’s always a good idea to get your home ready for the cooler months of the year. For an exhaustive list of fall cleaning tasks, check out pages 100-105 in my book.
  3. Cabin fever uncluttering. There is a point during the winter when you become tired of the snow and ice and cold temperatures that keep you indoors and you are longing for warmer weather. When these days set in, I know I’m mentally ready to do a thorough uncluttering in the house. Go through everything in your home and get rid of all the clutter. (For me, this is usually the first or second week of February.)
  4. Too hot to move uncluttering. When it is too hot to move outside and you start looking forward to fall, this is a good time to do another full-house uncluttering project. You’re inside retreating from the heat, anyway, so you might as well put that indoor time to good use. (Never fails, this happens for me the last week of July or first week of August.)

If these winter, spring, summer, and fall times don’t work for you, find times that do — the week before your birthday, the week before Easter, every weekend in October, etc. Attach rewards to the end of these projects so you have something to look forward to, in addition to your uncluttered and cleaned home. Also, be sure everyone in your home is involved in working to get things done. Everyone should feel responsible for and have a stake in the smooth running of the home.

Thank you, Sasha and the others, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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.

Creating a personal strategic plan

Setting goals, working on projects, and tackling action items are three things I do on a regular basis to keep my work and personal life afloat. They’re the backbone of what I refer to as the Daily Grind.

The Daily Grind doesn’t happen by accident, though. I’m not a person who sits around and lets things fall into her lap or wish for the perfect opportunity to open up to me. I try to have purpose to my actions and am proactive in my dealings. Because of my desire to live with purpose, guiding my Daily Grind is a personal Strategic Plan. Much like a Strategic Plan that guides a business, my plan guides who I want to be. It keeps me on track, helps me reach my goals, and keeps me from feeling like I’m in a rut or walking through life as a zombie.

Similar to how a business creates a Strategic Plan, I created a plan for myself. In the book How Organizations Work by Alan Brache, strategy is defined as “the framework of choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization.” If you replace the words “an organization” with “my life” you get a solid idea of a personal Strategic Plan.

Brache continues in his book to discuss how to create an effective Strategic Plan for a business. Building on his ideas, but with a bent toward the personal, I created the following process for how to create my plan and how you can create a plan, too.

Five steps to living with a personal Strategic Plan

  1. Collect data and analyze your current situation. What are your strengths? (The book Now, Discover Your Strengths can help you answer this question.) How do you process information? What in your life do you love? What activities in your life do you look forward to or wish you had more time to complete? What are the activities you loathe and want to get out of your life completely or reduce dramatically? What competes for your attention? What are your core beliefs and how does your life reflect those ideals? Do you like the things you say you like, or is habit guiding your behavior?
  2. Make the tough choices. How far into the future are you willing to work with this Strategy? (I recommend no more than three years.) Review the data you collected and analyzed in the first stage, and put into words your core beliefs that under no circumstance are you willing to break. State what obligations in your life you must fulfill. State your strengths and which of these should continually be highlighted in your life. What stands out the most in your life as being the positive force for your actions? More than anything else, what makes you happy?
  3. Communicate (draft) your personal Strategic Plan. Put into words the plan that will guide your Daily Grind. Write it in words that you understand and trigger memories of why and how you chose your plan. Your Strategic Plan isn’t a mission statement, it can fill more than one sentence of text. It probably won’t be a 20+ page document like many businesses create, but it should be at least a page or two containing the gist of your vision. Be realistic and let the document wholly reflect who you are and who you want to be. This is just for you, not anyone else, so let it speak to and for you.
  4. Work with your Strategic Plan as your guide. Make decisions about how you spend your time and all aspects of your Daily Grind under the guidance of your plan. Try your best to keep from straying outside the bounds of your Strategic Plan. Live with purpose.
  5. Monitor and maintain your Strategic Plan. Sometimes life throws us a wrench when we were looking for puppies and rainbows. Or, something even better than you ever imagined can happen. Update and monitor these changes and see if your Strategic Plan needs to be altered as a result. If no major change has taken place, evaluate your performance within your plan and check to see if you’re getting lazy and letting things slide. Maybe you realize that your plan wasn’t broad enough, or maybe it was too specific. It’s your plan, so work to keep it healthy.

Ideas and Suggestions

What you choose to put into your plan is a deeply personal choice and how your plan looks is as unique as your finger print. If you’re looking for ideas or suggestions to get you started, consider the following:

  • Your relationship with your children, spouse, parents, siblings, friends.
  • Your spiritual and philosophical beliefs, how you practice those beliefs, and how you incorporate them into your daily life.
  • Your career goals and how much energy and focus you choose to commit to these achievements.
  • Your time and how you choose to spend it.
  • Your health and your objectives regarding your health.

Your strategic plan shouldn’t be a list of goals about these topics, but rather the guiding philosophies behind those goals. For instance, if in your Daily Grind you have action items about losing five pounds, those action items might reflect your Strategic Plan: “I enjoy the time and active relationship I have with my growing children. Staying healthy and in good physical condition allows me to have energy for this time with my children and allows me to work when I’m at work. Good health also is one way that I can work to have more years with those I love. It is important to me that I make healthy choices with regard to nutrition and exercise.”

Do you have a Strategic Plan? Does it help to keep clutter — especially time and mental clutter — from getting out of control? If you haven’t written a personal Strategic Plan before, do you think this is a tool that can help you?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Book review: Faster Than Normal

Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain by Peter Shankman is a valuable book if you have ADHD. It is packed full of useful, easy-to-implement tips and tricks on how to maximize productivity. Even if you do not have ADD/ADHD, you will find the advice is very helpful.

Mr. Shankman starts out by explaining that ADHD is like having a race car brain while everyone else is on a tricycle. He also indicates that it takes skill and practice to drive a race car; to channel, harness, and use the power. He suggests that ADHD medications are useful (and in many cases essential) but people also need to develop practical life skills to manage their ADHD. The book Faster Than Normal, does just that.

Rituals

We’ve mentioned the benefits of rituals and routines many times on Unclutterer. Rituals and routines, after being practiced, become automatic because your brain becomes comfortable with the associated feelings. Mr. Shankman advises that those with ADHD should concentrate on the “great feeling” or reward and work backwards to create the ritual. For example, if you like the way you feel and you perform your best after you’ve eaten a health breakfast, focus on that aspect when you set your alarm earlier in the morning rather than stressing about waking up earlier.

Exercise

Exercise is important for those with ADHD. Mr. Shankman is an Ironman triathlete who wakes up long before dawn to get in a training session before his day starts. His ritual won’t work for everyone. However, there are many things people can do to build in more exercise into their day such as taking the stairs and walking around the neighbourhood at lunch hour or during coffee breaks. He also advocates getting outdoors as much as possible.

Eat well

Your ADHD race car brain needs functions best with race car fuel. Foods high in nutritional value will help keep you running at peak performance levels. Mr. Shankman suggests meal planning, and not keeping junk foods in your desk or cupboards.

Sleep Well

Mr. Shankman found by experience that improving his sleep significantly improved the quality of his performance and his productivity — something that we’ve talked about on Unclutterer before. Some of his suggestions include creating rituals around bedtime, reducing screen time in the evening hours, and using a sunrise/sunset simulation light.

Simplify

For many with ADHD a chaotic environment at home or at work is detrimental. Uncluttering (the fewer squirrels you can see, the less often you’ll be distracted) and eliminating choice (the fewer shiny things to choose from, the easier it is to choose) will help you be more productive.

Reduce triggers

Mr. Shankman talks about triggers that can set off ADHD. These triggers are like potholes in the road of life. Hitting one while riding a tricycle is no big deal but when you are driving your ADHD race car brain, it may cause you to spin out. Triggers vary by person but can include things like a messy house or office, excessive noise, or proximity to bad vices such as alcohol, tobacco or gambling, etc.

It is important to determine what your triggers are because, “Understanding why you make bad decisions, and how it feels when you do, is a great step in changing your habits to avoid them in the future.”

Employ tools

Mr. Shankman is a big fan of outsourcing tasks such as hiring a personal assistant, housekeeper, professional organizer, travel agent, etc. This may not be an option for everyone and he offers several suggestions for getting the work done when you can’t afford to hire someone.

There are many time management techniques described in Faster Than Normal. These include scheduling meetings for only one day per week, planning mini-tasks for short-burst downtimes (e.g., waiting in the dentist office), and planning out projects by creating deadlines for them.

Many digital tools to help manage ADHD are suggested such as password managers, document and software backup systems, and cloud storage. Mr. Shankman also recommends apps that span a large range from to-do lists to health trackers and explains how to use them with your ADHD to maximize productivity.

Non- ADHD people

At the end of the book, there is a great chapter for those who have a close relationship with someone with ADHD. It explains how we can support our ADHD loved ones in their efforts to be effective and productive by assisting them in their weak areas and helping them recognize their strengths.

If you have read this book, please add a comment letting us know how it affected your ability to unclutter, organize and stay productive. If you have ADD/ADHD or are close to someone who does, feel free to share your tips and tricks with our readers.

Year-round resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are an ancient ritual, stretching all the way back to the Babylonians and the Romans who made promises to their gods to do things better in the coming year.

However, just because something has been done for a very long time, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessary, or even useful. And, to be honest, how many people do you know actually follow through on their resolutions? Fitness centres rely on resolutions for a influx of income knowing that the majority of new clients will only attend classes for a few weeks, but will actually pay for several months, or even a full year.

One of the main reasons that I don’t like New Year’s resolutions is that they set us up for a fall and create a failure mentality. Despite knowing that we are unlikely to follow through on our resolutions, we promise ourselves quite often outrageous things, possibly even fundamental changes in who we are. (For me that would be resolving to go to networking events in the city and thus go against my introvert nature.)

When we make unrealistic resolutions, we are basically telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough as we are and need to change. All you need to do is look at common resolutions to see how poorly we think of ourselves:

  • Lose weight (I’m fat.)
  • Be more positive (Life sucks.)
  • Get out of debt (I’m not financially responsible.)
  • Improve my career (I hate my job.)
  • Learn something new (I’m ignorant/uncultured/lazy.)
  • Get organized (I’m a disaster.)
  • Be nicer (I’m a grump.)

And the list goes on and on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for introspection and self-improvement, but doing it once a year in a fervor of self-punishment is not the best way to achieve a goal.

I believe a much better way is the following:

  • Know yourself. What type of person are you? What works for you? What doesn’t? Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies is a great book to read if you want a simple and efficient way of answering these questions.
  • Examine your life. What’s working? What isn’t? Don’t look at your perceived faults and failings. Take a look at where you want to be and where you are in that process. By doing so, you remove the personal judgement and make it an objective review of your objectives. Burnett’s and Evans’ The Designing Your Life Workbook is a good tool for that.
  • Monitor your progress and set up regular reviews. As I have been doing with my Bullet Journal experiment, check in regularly with your objectives. Progress needs to be examined on a weekly basis at the very least (if not daily), the circumstances need to be reviewed, and minor alterations in course need to be made. For me the Bullet Journal system has been working very well so far.

So, instead of asking you what you resolutions are, I’ll ask you what goals you are working on and what progress you’re making with them.

Uncluttered and minimalist aren’t the same

Some people are happy living in a minimalist space. I recently read a blog post by Derek Sivers that described his home:

I live in a little pre-furnished apartment with no stuff, and I love it this way. I have no books, knicknacks, decorations, and really no personal items at all. Just some minimal clothing, my laptop, headphones, and not much else. All the kitchenware and furniture just came with the place, and will stay here when I leave.

There are certainly benefits to owning fewer things. Derek moves every year or two, so owning very little makes those moves easy for him. Owning less stuff also means there’s less to collect dust, which can be important to those with allergies. And you can choose to rent or buy a smaller home, thus saving money. Of course, you also save money by buying fewer things — or you might spend the same amount but find you can afford to buy things of higher quality.

But many other people would feel unhappy living as Derek does. They would agree with the woman who created the website entitled Stuff Does Matter, where she wrote, “Stuff has the power to nourish us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.”

And you certainly don’t need to be a minimalist to be uncluttered and organized. If everything you own has a home, can be found when you need it, and makes you happy (or serves a vital purpose), you’re doing just fine.

Some people like a house or apartment that’s sparsely furnished while others enjoy filling their homes with art, books, music, mementos, cherished collections, etc. That’s a matter of personal preference, and people on either end of the spectrum can be organized.

Of course, having fewer things can make it easier to get organized and stay organized. It’s easier to find a place to store everything when there isn’t as much to be stored. It’s easier to put something back into a closet or drawer that has plenty of empty space than into one that’s close to full. If you want to do any home projects such as painting the walls or replacing the carpet, those projects will go quicker if you don’t have as much to box up and move out of the way — and then move back and unbox.

On a now-defunct blog I’ve had bookmarked for years, someone wrote about his approach to his possessions, which he called mediumism. As he explained, “I buy only what I need, but I have no desire to live with just 100 things. I watch very little television. … I still plan to keep my 32-inch LCD for now.” If minimalism feels wrong for you, maybe mediumism will resonate.

Just remember that the idea behind uncluttering is to have a home that pleases you and supports you in achieving your goals. That may mean you own 150 things, 1,500 things, or 15,000 things. There’s no magic number — there’s only the answer that’s right for you.

Winter cleaning and why we keep stuff

Now that January is here, I’ve begun the unenviable task of storing away the holiday decorations. Each year, this ritual propels me into a little winter-time “spring cleaning.” This process is more of a purge really, as the practice of packing and storing so much stuff often reveals those little things here there that I’ve been overlooking for months now.

As I found and trashed things I’m not using and don’t need, I considered what caused me to hang on to items like these in the first place. Perhaps understanding that aspect better would help me keep from accumulating hidden caches in the first place.

Some of the things I tossed:

Wrapping paper scraps. I saved larger pieces, but some were too small to be useful. Out they went to the recycling bin.

Old greeting cards. This one can be tricky, as it’s quite possible for a card to have great sentimental value. But not every card from every person has to be saved. We’ve written about parting with sentimental keepsakes before, and I used this advice to guide me.

Magazines. There are clever ways to avoid magazine clutter, but I wasn’t keeping up with those. Out with the old magazines I’ll never read to the recycling bin.

There’s more of course, but I’ll spare you further details. As I said, this purge prompted me to consider the “why” of it all. I think there are three factors at work here:

  1. Balking at the work involved. I’m talking about small items, but there was a lot of it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of energy a good purge like this will require — realistic and/or imagined.
  2. Panic at the thought of throwing away something necessary. What if I did need that raffle ticket stub? Are the receipts in my wallet important? This concern has prompted me to keep more than a few items unnecessarily.
  3. It’s embarrassing to ask for help. Even though many of us have these hidden caches of stuff, it’s still unpleasant to introduce someone to it, even if the intention is to go through and throw things away.

Perhaps there are more, but these were the reasons that stood out to me. And based on these reasons, my take away from the experience was to consider:

  1. Is the situation as big as I’m making it to be in my head?
  2. What do I actually need?
  3. What can be safely thrown away?
  4. Can’t I just get over myself and ask others to help?
  5. What’s the most common factor that has allowed this stuff to build up?

Related to the last: is if you successfully identify what that is, is there a way to address it?

Answering these questions will go a long way toward staying on top of these often unseen collections of clutter in the future. Happy winter-time spring cleaning!

A different kind of uncluttering

As we approach the end of the year, I know many people who are uncluttering their homes and offices to start the new year fresh. But there’s another kind of uncluttering you may want to consider: old relationships.

Friendships

There’s someone I knew 30 years ago who I used to keep in touch with through periodic phone calls, at least on her birthday. A few years ago I stopped making the calls, because I realized this was mostly just a habit, and maintaining the relationship (even in this minor way) simply wasn’t important to me any more.

How do you know when it might be time to let a friendship fade away? As organizer Monica Ricci wrote:

Ask yourself, “If I met this person TODAY would they be someone I would choose to engage in a friendship or other relationship with?”

We change over time, so it’s not surprising that our friendships might change, too. Some old friendships endure, while others may not.

Our social time is limited, and choosing who we want to spend our time with may be one of the most important choices we make. I’m willing to have some relationships end so I have more time to spend with those people whose presence in my life I truly treasure.

Social media relationships

I often see people complaining about the things their Facebook friends write, which makes me wonder why they keep these people as Facebook friends. You’re under no obligation to stay connected on Facebook (or any other social media) with people whose words only make you angry on a regular basis. So go ahead and unfriend on Facebook or unfollow on Twitter when that makes sense.

For close family members who you feel an obligation to befriend on social media, things are more complicated. You could unfollow them (Facebook) or mute them (Twitter) so you don’t see their posts — they won’t be notified that you’ve done that, and you’ll no longer see their aggravating comments. But this type of action does bring the risk of missing some important news which they are assuming you’d see.

Business relationships

Have you been using the same service providers (doctor, lawyer, accountant, auto mechanic, veterinarian, barber or hair stylist, etc.) for a long time? Sometimes it’s because the service you receive continues to be outstanding, as with the contractor I’ve used since I bought my house 25 years ago. But other times things change in ways that degrade that service. Businesses change hands, lose key employees, move to new locations that aren’t convenient, and so on. If there’s a key service provider you’re using who you’re not enthusiastic about, consider asking for recommendations for someone new.

Groups of people

As with individuals, the groups of people you fill your life with might need to change over time. Such groups would include spiritual communities, book clubs, professional groups, charitable groups where you volunteer, and more. Such communities always change members over time. If you’re a member of one that is no longer feeling right for you, it may be time to part ways and make space for a new community. You may also feel you’re overcommitted as a member of too many groups, and it’s time to pull back.

Uncluttering the sounds in our lives

“The sounds we live with should be useful, spiritually enhancing, or exceedingly beautiful. All the rest is clutter.” — Katherine Gibson, in Unclutter Your Life

When we think about clutter, we rarely think about sounds. But managing the sounds we let into our lives can definitely make our lives better. The following are some of the sounds in many of our homes and offices, along with ideas about how we can control or improve them.

Alarm clocks

For a long time, I woke up to an alarm clock with a pleasant chime. I’ve recently realized that my clock is a unitasker I may no longer need, and I’ve switched to waking up to music selected from a playlist on my iPad. Other people like the Philips wake-up light, which gradually lights up the room over a 30-minute period, so you may wake without an alarm sound at all. (But if the light doesn’t wake you, it’s followed by an alarm: natural sounds such as birdsong, or an FM radio station.) And these are just a few of the many choices available when it comes to alarm clocks.

Some people may need an alarm clock with a jarring sound in order to wake up. However, if you’re not one of those people, why not start the day with sounds you enjoy?

Ring tones and other alerts

I still have a landline, and I don’t like the standard telephone ring sound. Therefore, I’ve installed a Now and Zen Tibetan phone bell, which sounds quite pleasant.

In our digital lives, we have smartphones and other devices that alert us to calls, texts, emails, and more. That means figuring out which items are worth an audible alert, and then picking sounds that work for us. (Like Dave, you might enjoy Cleartones.)

Annoying sounds

Some items are inherently noisy, but we can at least consider the noise factor when making new purchases. When my garbage disposal broke and I had to replace it, I was amazed at how much quieter the new one was. One of the many things I like about my shredder is that it’s quieter than many others.

The sounds of those we live with

Conversation, laughter, song — these are some of the good sounds we might share with those we live with. And some sounds, such as a baby’s cry, are important for us to hear.

But sometimes we don’t want to (or need to) hear our family members. For example, does someone in the family play an instrument, which involves a lot of repetitive practice that drives others to distraction? When possible, try to provide a space where this practice can be done without everyone else having to listen. This might mean a room that’s away from where the rest of the family congregates. Soundproofing is another possibility.

The sounds of our surroundings

Sometimes we can control the sounds from outside our homes. While it’s never a sure thing, landscaping can be designed to attract birds or frogs. At certain times of year, I hear frogs croaking in my yard, and I love it; other people would find it annoying. People who find wind chimes to be “exceedingly beautiful” can often hang them outside their homes; people who don’t can remove any left by prior tenants.

Other sounds we can’t eliminate — such as noisy strangers sitting near us on an airline flight. If such sounds are a frequent problem, investing in noise-canceling headphones might be worthwhile.

Another unavoidable sound for some is ongoing street noise. While we can try to select apartments, homes, and hotel rooms without street noise, sometimes that’s not an option. In such cases, a white noise machine — or sometimes just the white noise of a fan — can be a big help. A more drastic and expensive option would be installing soundproof windows.

Yes, some of these solutions involve adding one more thing to our lives. But if that thing allows us to get a good night’s sleep, or if it allows us to concentrate when concentration is needed, it’s probably a worthwhile addition. Being an unclutterer doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of things that significantly enhance our lives.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

2011

2010

  • Repercussions of uncluttering and organizing
    We often talk about the benefits of uncluttering and organizing, but we rarely even hint of their being downsides. Today, I thought we’d break that trend and discuss all the work that — at least in the short term — uncluttering and organizing create.
  • Stumped!
    Over the years of writing about organizing and working with clients, I continue to be baffled by how to neatly organize a small number of items. Whenever I see these items or hear about them, I cringe. Organizing them successfully is a complete mystery to me. Maybe you have a few, too, in your home or office — a specific item that always seems to be out of place, cumbersome, or impossible to store well?

2009

  • Ask Unclutterer: Is something put away if it’s in cardboard?
    In your situation, one of you believes that the cardboard box is in its place against the wall and that the stuff inside of the box is in its place, too. The other of you believes that the cardboard box and the stuff inside of it are all out of place and they need new places to live.
  • Book review: The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook
    Published in 2006, this gem is essential reading for anyone who finds themselves in a cluttered kitchen of any size.
  • Three laws of basement storage
    If you use your basement for storing things other than root vegetables, let me introduce you to my Three Laws of Basement Storage.
  • Off-beat solutions for organizing your mail
    If you don’t immediately process your mail when you come home each evening, then I strongly recommend having a set place to store your mail until you do have time to process it.

Book Review: 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business

A couple months ago, I purchased the digital version of 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business by Julie Bestry. Julie is a professional organizer specializing in office and paper organization, and I thought her secrets might be useful for Unclutterer’s readership and for myself. If her name is familiar to you, she has appeared on the site in the past.

While there are 57 short chapters in this book, there are more than 57 secrets for keeping your business organized. Each chapter is packed with useful and easy-to-implement tips that immediately solve organizational problems for anyone who works in an office or maintains an office in their home.

There are several chapters on time management and how to stop procrastinating. Julie provides information on how to take advantage of technology to reduce your workload by using databases and auto-responders. One of my favourite chapters was “Automate to Levitate.” Julie advises people to:

  • Create checklists and scripts. When meeting with prospective clients or vendors, the same questions are asked each time. By writing these questions down and creating a script or checklist, interviews and meetings will go much more smoothly and you’ll have all of the information you need. These checklists can also be important when training staff to perform these tasks.
  • Design templates. Instead of creating responses to each inquiry from scratch, develop letters (or sections of letters) that can be easily reconfigured to create responses. Simply copy and paste the required sections and customize the key points. For Gmail, templates can be made using “Canned Responses” from Google Labs.
  • Observe and document rituals. Build routines for complex tasks such as bookkeeping or data-entry. Write down each step in detail so that if you had to turn the entire project over to someone else, such as a virtual assistant, the work would be completed correctly and to your standards.

Julie also describes how to write effective emails and make productive phone calls so you get all of the information you need at one time instead of sending dozens of messages back and forth between coworkers.

Like many professional organizers, Julie encourages readers to set goals and become masters of their task list. The advice Julie shares in this book help readers discover which type of “to-do” list is best suited for them. She also talks about goal setting and attainment the “SMARTY SKIRT” way.

Julie teaches readers how to be a “File Whisperer.” She clarifies for how long documents should be kept and offers alternatives to the traditional filing cabinet for document storage. She also describes how to escape the traps that many people fall into when they build a filing system. Julie even shares secrets to building an effective mobile filing system for those who travel for business.

57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business also includes myriad tips on how to improve your writing skills, manage your finances, use social media effectively, prepare for emergencies, and set boundaries between work and home. A few more of my favourite tips were:

  • Schedule specific office hours and share your schedule. By creating specific office hours and sharing your schedule with co-workers, they will know when you are available to answer questions and help solve problems. By leaving a memo-board on your office door people will be able to leave messages for when you are available.
  • Arrange your furniture. Keep the extra chair outside your office door and bring it in only when visitors are expected. A chair could be positioned at a small desk or tucked in a corner so unexpected visitors would be discouraged from staying longer than necessary.
  • Designate gatekeepers. During designated office hours, specify someone else to deal with non-emergency problems. For example, a virtual assistant might respond to all general inquiries or in a home office situation, a spouse or older child might deal with all household related issues.

57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business was a pleasure to read and was peppered with references to pop culture (Does everyone remember Gladys Kravitz?) and famous people such as George Clooney. Julie’s comparison of loose papers to “floozies” made me smile, not only because it was funny but a surprisingly useful comparison.

Whether you are the owner of a small business, an employee in a large corporation, or head of your own household, I recommend this book for those wishing to make a positive change in their office environments.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

2011

2010

  • Repercussions of uncluttering and organizing
    We often talk about the benefits of uncluttering and organizing, but we rarely even hint of their being downsides. Today, I thought we’d break that trend and discuss all the work that — at least in the short term — uncluttering and organizing create.
  • Stumped!
    Over the years of writing about organizing and working with clients, I continue to be baffled by how to neatly organize a small number of items. Whenever I see these items or hear about them, I cringe. Organizing them successfully is a complete mystery to me. Maybe you have a few, too, in your home or office — a specific item that always seems to be out of place, cumbersome, or impossible to store well?
  • Excerpt: Six tips for organizing your time spent on the telephone
    Since most of us spend time at work dealing with facts and data, the phone should be taking a backseat to other forms of communication. That being said, it’s impossible to avoid the phone in the workplace. And there are times when picking up the phone is the best way to handle a situation. The following are suggestions for how to use the phone in an organized way during those times when you need to rely on it.

2009

Prepare the yard tools for spring

Spring has arrived here in the northern hemisphere (at least on the calendar) and that means yard work is about to begin in earnest. Here are a few simple steps that you can perform now so that you’ll be ready when the weather really warms.

The Lawn Mower

Hopefully you didn’t let the mower sit all winter with gas in the tank. Right? If you did, remember to let it run until it’s empty this autumn (or add a stabilizer), and hope it will start this year.

You’ll also want to change the spark plug and put in a new air filter, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s also a good idea to keep the blade sharp, so remove it and sharpen it. Again, the manufacturer likely supplied instructions for this, too. If not, hop online and search for digital copies of those instructions from the manufacturer. Finally, make sure the wheels are on securely and moving freely, and inspect the rope pull (if it has one). Eventually, it will wear and snap in your hand. That’s not fun.

The Gas Trimmer

Again, hopefully you added gas stabilizer or ran it until empty last year if you have a gas-powered one. During your inspection, replace the spark plug and ensure that you’ve got enough trim cable on the trimmer, as well as an extra. Getting part way through the yard only to run out is a hassle (it always happens to me after the hardware store has closed).

As you did with the mower, make sure the moving parts are operating as expected. Adjust the handle, for example, to see that it moves smoothly. If there’s dried grass and who-knows-what caked underneath the guard from last season, clean it off per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Other Tools

Many other lawn tools don’t require much maintenance, but now is the time to check on them anyway. Things like shovels, trowels, and rakes require only a quick once-over. I also confirm that my extension cords are working and not torn, as well as the garden hose. Finally, move tools that you won’t be using, like snow shovels, out of the way and store them for the warmer months. I move mine from the shed to the basement for the spring and summer.

Last year my wheelbarrow had a flat tire, so I filled it with air. It was flat again within a week, so I simply replaced it with a solid tire, much like this one from True Temper. Now a flat tire is no longer an issue. Speaking of the wheelbarrow, this is the time to hit it with some rust-proof paint if you find it needs it.

Outdoor Furniture

I don’t know about you, but my outdoor furniture takes a beating. Between the blazing sun, occasional rain and — worst of all — my children, those cushions start showing their age after just a few seasons. A discount big box store is a good place to find replacements if yours are in need of an updating. Also, keep that can of rust-proof paint and/or a scrub brush handy.

The Lawn

So much has been written about spring lawn prep. This tutorial from Lowe’s is similar to what I do. I think the most important take-aways are to clean up any debris that was deposited during the winter, cut everything nice and short, and then note any problem areas like bald spots. Next, aerate it. You can likely rent one of these for a day or even a few hours from a local hardware or home improvement store or a garden nursery. This breaks up the soil and lets water and beneficial nutrients get down in there. Plus, lawn aerators are just fun to use.

Those are the basics. If you have something like an outdoor shower or in-ground irrigation system, wait for it to warm up a bit before turning them on. Then test each zone to ensure proper working order. With as cold as it has been so far this spring in the northeast, I’m also waiting to turn on my outdoor water spigots.

Do you have any springtime yard rituals? Share your routines in the comments.