Organize for the inevitable with Swedish Death Cleaning

Twelve years ago my parents moved from the Pennsylvania home of my childhood to a smaller, single-floor residence in sunny Florida. A part of that process was scaling down their property to what was essential. A lot of stuff was sold, donated, given away, or just tossed. It was a time-consuming process that would have been avoided entirely with a little “Döstädning” or Swedish Death Cleaning.

No, I don’t mean scrubbing the house while blasting “The Eagle Flies Alone” by ARCH ENEMY on the stereo. Instead, Swedish Death Cleaning refers to the conscious, methodical reduction of clutter over time, typically starting at age 50, and going until the end takes you. It sounds morbid, but it’s actually a very thoughtful thing to do.

In her book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter,” Margareta Magnusson reveals what she calls the “secrets” to effective death cleaning, including:

  1. Speak about it always. Tell others what you’re doing, she says, so they can hold you accountable.
  2. Don’t fear the process. It’s not about the ever-present inevitability of death, she says, but about life itself. It’s about your memories. “The good ones you keep,” she writes. “The bad you expunge.”
  3. Reward your efforts with life-affirming activities. See a movie, attend a concert, enjoy a fantastic meal.

Of course, you need not be in your 50’s — or contemplating mortality — to reap benefits from the mindful reduction of stuff. Fewer possessions mean less worry, less maintenance, and greater ease if and when you have to move (Magnusson notes that she has moved house 17 times). Plus, it puts the focus on one’s most meaningful life events on memories, not the stuff acquired along the way.

I like the idea of Swedish Death Cleaning and I’m going to give it a try. Perhaps I’ll have an update for you all in a few months. Now excuse me while I fire up some ARCH ENEMY on the stereo.

Stair step baskets can help control clutter

I am not a basket person. I’ve never thought that a room in my home could be improved in some way by bowl shaped, woven wood with a handle. My mother, Queen of Baskets, disagrees with me strongly on this point. She believes that baskets make everything better. Everything.

In her home, if you want to blow your nose, you get your tissue from a basket. Toilet paper? Basket. Magazine? Basket. Silverware? Basket. Television remote? Basket. Flour? Sugar? Q-tip? That’s right, baskets. Her house is extremely organized, and its organization system revolves primarily around baskets.

As I said in the beginning, baskets are not my forte. However, amid all of my mother’s baskets, one of them makes complete sense to me: The stair step basket.

This basket sits on the bottom two steps in her house and throughout the day she fills it with items that belong upstairs. When she heads upstairs at some point, she takes it and returns the items in the basket to their proper places. Then, she sets the basket on the top two stairs and fills it with items that belong downstairs as she comes across them. The cycle repeats each time the basket is full. The basket collects out of place items and keeps them from creating clutter. Her system of using the basket is a brilliant clutter-busting and time-saving solution.

Her specific stair step basket is no longer made but it is very similar to this one. Honestly, though, any storage container that is easy to carry would work and could serve the same function. I think this is a wonderful idea for anyone in a multiple-storey home.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in October 2007.

Going the distance: maintaining motivation in long projects

At the beginning of September, my husband and I started a new way of thinking about our food with the goal of getting down to a healthier weight. We got professional help and we made the decision that we wanted to succeed.

Now six weeks into the goal, we are on track, having lost an encouraging and healthy amount of weight, despite having birthday parties and Canadian Thanksgiving to tempt us into giving up. My husband continues to be motivated, but I have to recognize that I care much less. I’m now down to my average weight from the past six years and I’m more or less comfortable. My husband, however, has a bit to go before getting down to his usual size.

It’s common part way into a project to lose motivation and make less effort. In fact, I mentioned how in my Bullet Journal experiment, I’ve given up tracking my weekends and how I have to be extra vigilant so as not to let the experiment slide.

When this point in a project arrives, it’s important to re-examine motivations and maybe find new ones.

For example, my husband is still motivated because every day he can get back into a piece of clothing that he hasn’t been able to wear in at least a year. All my clothes fit me, however, so I’m not motivated by the same benchmark. If I want to continue dropping pounds, I’m going to have to find myself a new way to get myself excited about the goal.

In your home or office organizing projects, different family members will have different motivations and over time those motivations will change. And sometimes what seems like a logical motivation won’t carry enough emotional power to influence behaviour.

I’m at this point. I have food issues, being borderline celiac. If I eat gluten, my rosecea flares up, my moods soar all over the place and I get quite distracted and forgetful. It doesn’t work for me as a motivation ignore though because it’s a negative motivator. Yes, I feel better when I stay away from gluten, but it’s hard work, especially when eating outside the home.

I still want to continue to lose weight, ideally getting down to my wedding weight back in 2011. I’m already almost halfway there, but I need to find some sort of motivation that grabs me and drags me along towards success without a fight.

Forbes has a good article about motivation and I’ve always been a fan of Gretchen Rubin, but none of what Forbes suggests excites me, and I really don’t feel like re-reading any of Rubin’s books.

So, I’ve decided to crowdsource my motivation. What tricks and tips do you have for maintaining motivation when the excitement of a new project wears off?

 

Backups aren’t just for computers

I’ve written prior posts urging you to have good computer back-ups, and I’ll take this opportunity to do so one more time. Here’s a reminder that fits the Halloween season:

👻OOOOOooooooOOOOOOO
The ghost of future hard drive failure reminds you to back up your data
oooooOOOOOOooooooo
— Hannah A. Brazeau

But what I mostly want to discuss are two other kinds of backups you may need.

Backups of important paper documents

Some documents you might keep tucked away in a safe deposit box or a home safe, but there are also important papers that you might use regularly and need to keep close at hand. And those papers are susceptible to being lost or damaged.

Author Susan Orlean wrote about the following problem:

Had a small flood in my office. Some handwritten notes are now abstract watercolors. Fortunately I’d typed them up, but yikes.

And then there’s this sad story from Gene Young, who wrote about his Day-Timer:

I accidentally left my little book in my shirt pocket and it got washed and dried but good. My schedules were all in little bitty pieces.

Do you have any similar papers, where losing them would be a significant problem? One way to give yourself a backup for such papers would be to take photos of the important pages or to scan them, perhaps with a scanner app on your smartphone.

Backups for critical technology

Vince Dixon wrote for Eater about a problem that happened last May:

A Square service outage … lasting roughly two hours forced restaurants, coffee shops, and food carts around the country to turn away customers and lose sales, bringing into question whether relying solely on new technology and software to make business transactions is a good idea.

Nate Snell, the owner of one such business, learned his lesson:

He has emergency plans for greasy spills and fires, but was caught off guard by the technical glitch. “I don’t think we realized that the entire Square system nationwide would go down,” Snell says. “I immediately got on Amazon and ordered an old-fashioned [credit card] swiper.”

While this type of contingency planning is critical for businesses, it might also apply beyond the typical business environment.

Do you have any technology you use all the time that could cause a significant problem if it malfunctioned or became unavailable? I rely on my computer and its internet connection for a few things — sometimes a smart phone isn’t enough — and I once lost that connection for a couple days when someone drove into and destroyed a major piece of phone company equipment. Fortunately, my backup plan was as simple as taking my laptop to a local coffee shop — and making regular food and beverage purchases to compensate for using its WiFi. But if I had a desktop computer rather than a laptop, finding a backup solution would have been much harder.

If you rely on a mapping program to provide driving instructions, what would you do if that service went down halfway though your drive? Would you have another way to find your destination?

If you assume any technology might fail at any time, and then plan for working around any significant problems that could cause, you may save yourself some panicked moments in the future.

Organizing for disasters: thoughts after the recent fires in California

The horrendous fires in California aren’t close enough to my city to put me in any danger. But they sure got me thinking, yet again, about how we can be prepared if a disaster sadly comes our way. My latest musings are as follows:

Preparing with pets in mind

Julia Whitty just wrote about getting ready to evacuate if need be. She began her article with the following: “I’m waiting about 10 miles from the nearest fire front with bags packed, my cat carrier ready, and my cat locked inside with me.”

I hope Julia doesn’t need to evacuate — but if she does, I’m glad she’s prepared for both herself and her pet. I was heartbroken to read about someone who left her big Maine Coon cat behind when she evacuated from a hurricane because she didn’t have a carrier. And much sadder still are the stories of people who died going back to their homes to save their pets.

Gary’s article about evacuating when his apartment building caught fire had some good advice about keeping cat carriers close at hand. (He also inspired me to finally order some of those Pet Inside stickers for my home.) And Ileana Paules-Bronet wrote some good advice about evacuating with pets. I know people with multiple cats and just one cat carrier, used for taking a single cat to the vet. That won’t work in an evacuation situation.

Sheltering in place vs. evacuating

Because earthquakes are always a threat where I live, I think a lot about what I’d need if my community were isolated for a while, perhaps without running water or electricity. So I stock up on bottled water, nonperishable food, cat food and litter, etc.

But being prepared to evacuate is a whole different scenario — and the scenario also changes depending on whether it’s a localized problem (a single building fire, for example) or a larger one. If I had to leave immediately, I’d be happy to just get my cats and myself out safely. But if I had a bit more time, what would I want to take? There’s the practical stuff: medicines, food, water, laptop computer, a change of clothes, etc. Would I have room for any irreplaceable art and memorabilia? I think I’ll make myself a checklist so I won’t have to think about it if I ever find myself in the midst of an emergency situation.

And I’m going to re-evaluate the supplies I keep in my car. They were chosen in case I found myself stranded away from home during an earthquake, but it might make sense to add some things I’d want during an evacuation (such as some cat food) just to save precious seconds.

I was also grateful to find a home evacuation checklist with a number of good suggestions that were new to me, such as leaving interior and exterior house lights on to make it easier for firefighters to see your home in smoky conditions or at night.

Staying informed

Making sure you know when to evacuate (or otherwise prepare for an emergencies such as storms) is critical. While TV, radio, and social media can be helpful, it’s also useful to sign up for any emergency notification system your community offers. You can search for the name of your city plus the word “alert” to find what’s available, or you could ask your local officials. Fortunately, the text alerts I’ve received from my own local alert system have only covered major road closures, but I know I’ll be warned if anything more serious happens.

The case for keeping (some) documents

A few weeks ago, we wrote about retention schedules, a list of the documents you have and how long to keep them.

Recently, I was required to complete a background check/security screening for an upcoming contract job. Not only did I have to provide a list of addresses covering the previous five years, I had to provide proof that I actually lived there. Examples of proof could be a lease/rental agreement stating that I was an occupant, or a utility bill or bank statement with my name and address on it for each year I claimed I lived at that address.

Fortunately, I have records dating back five previous years as the Canada Revenue Agency requires that income tax documents (which state my name and address) be kept for six years. However, many people, including young adults, may not have these documents available.

If you’re a young person just starting out on your own, make sure you have a rental contract/lease or at least one bill with your own name on it coming to the address at which you live (not your parents’ home which would be considered a mailing address while you were away at school). Your college/university should be able to give you a copy of a contract if you’re living in a residence/dorm that states your room assignment. If you are sharing off-campus accommodations with a roommate make sure both of your names are on the lease/rental agreement, or that your name is on one of the utility bills.

You could create a file (paper and/or electronic) containing these documents along with a spreadsheet listing your previous addresses. Keep a copy of these documents for at least five years, or at least 10 years if you are considering employment in an industry requiring “TOP SECRET” security clearance.

Having all of these documents handy will make the job application process much faster and easier and you’ll look like a prepared professional when you’re able to submit all the required documentation almost immediately.

Your car’s glove compartment, revisited

About a year ago, I wrote an article on what you ought to keep in your car’s glove compartment. Looking back, I think there was some solid advice there, including proof of auto insurance and registration (as well as a protective sleeve for each), and a list of medications that family members are taking.

Let’s revisit the glove compartment from the perspective of organization. A glove compartment is a small space, and an inconvenient one. It’s at an awkward angle, often poorly lit and if we’re being honest, not user-friendly at all. Here are some tips to help keep everything organized and accessible.

Take every thing out and move it to a flat surface. Your car’s front seat is not the place to be sorting this stuff so I suggest using a tabletop in your garage. If you need to, put everything in one large box and take it into the house to organize.

As I so often do when organizing and purging, I’m going to suggest that you make three piles. Specifically: keep, toss, and relocate. This step is pretty self-explanatory. All of those ketchup packets and napkins can be tossed. The receipts from years ago can be relocated or tossed (depending on your needs), and shred expired registrations and out-of-date insurance cards.

Next, grab the owners’ manual. You know, it’s that thick book the dealer gave you back in 2008 when the car was new. You glanced at it once before deciding to give it the silent treatment for the past nine years. It can be your friend, if you set it up right.

Get yourself some page markers, open up the manual and mark pages for things like:

  • Setting the clock
  • Tuning in radio stations
  • Changing a tire
  • What type of tires your car takes and what the ideal tire pressure is
  • What those weird dashboard lights mean
  • Whatever else you’ve looked up more than once in the past

Now the users’ manual is actually, usable!

Next, make use of the other little cubbies and hideaways in the car to store things that don’t need to be in the glove compartment. The small pockets in the doors and the center console can be used for compact umbrellas, ice scrapers, and window wipes.

Before you put a single thing back inside the glove compartment, give the interior a good cleaning. If the interior is vinyl or plastic, a simple solution of soap and water will do.

Your car’s glove compartment is one of those oft-overlooked, out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations that loves to accumulate clutter. A spare fifteen minutes is all that stands between a chaotic abyss and a user-friendly glove compartment.

Rent large tools, don’t buy them

If you have a big job to do at your home and you’d like to do it yourself, you don’t have to run out and purchase the tools you’ll need to finish the job. There are plenty of rental companies where you can secure the needed tools to complete the work.

For example, maybe you need to pressure wash your deck or patio. Rather than running out to purchase a pressure washer, rent one and you won’t have to worry about storing it at your premises. If you find yourself renting a device multiple times per year, then you may want to consider buying one. But always keep renting as the first option. You will find that often renting is cheaper, easier, and more convenient.

Most likely there are plenty of independent rental proprietors in your area, but here are some national rental companies:

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in September 2007.

Staying on top of tasks: a Bullet Journal update

A couple of months ago, I committed to experimenting with the Bullet Journal process for organizing my time and tasks. I wanted to know several things before deciding if it was a success or not.

Does the system work?

As I’ve said in previous articles about the system, I’m really quite impressed by it. It works because it’s simple. With the amount of work stress I’ve been under the past six weeks, anything that gave me more work would have failed on the second day. I can honestly say that far from creating more work, it has saved me a lot of last minute crisis solving because I got things done before they reached crisis point.

Is it flexible enough to adapt to different situations?

Any system that cannot adapt will never be viable. The Bullet Journal system manages to adapt not only to people’s individual ways of working, but also to the changing needs of the same person.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that in future notebooks, I would get rid of the Future Planning section, put the month-by-month planning first and then add a weekly calendar before my day-to-day lists. The first two items will actually happen, but the weekly calendar is something I need only when I have a lot of appointments. Most of my tasks aren’t tied to specific dates, so I don’t need to plan out my week normally, but when I do, starting with a blank page rather than a pre-designed calendar, I can create a weekly plan only when I need to.

Can it carry me through very stressful times?

September is always a crazy time of year work-wise. This year, it was even more so because we are installing a new client database. Being a bit on the distracted/obsessive side, when faced with huge and/or stressful projects, I tend to focus on them and let the rest slide.

In previous years, my staff (who are the front-line workers in our industry) haven’t received the support or materials they need to do their jobs well because I’ve been to busy focused on the administrative side, forgetting that if we don’t deliver the service well, we won’t get clients.

By writing down all my tasks (and rewriting postponed ones the next day), very few things have slipped through the cracks this year, and staff have been more prepared than ever.

Can I use it to maintain a work/life balance?

My slightly obsessive nature often causes me to forget about my home life when work gets busy. This year, however, despite doing ten or twelve hour days in the office, I’ve managed to avoid the unfortunately all-too-true cries of abandonment at home. We like to stay busy, organizing weekends with friends at home or away.

Normally at this time of year, I leave all of that organizing up to my husband and basically take for granted that he will do what needs doing so that I can relax and have fun on the weekend.

Not so this year, for once!

We have really come together as a team, participating and communicating so much more, so much that two weeks ago when I told my husband that yet again the following week I would be doing morning and afternoon shifts, he answered with a simple “okay” rather than any expression of disappointment.

And can I maintain it?

This is the one thing I’m not sure about. I’ve already pretty much abandoned the system on weekends. But I’m all right with that. Weekends are when I can disconnect and I believe that if I kept up the Bullet Journal on weekends as well, it would turn into a chore and I’d be quicker to abandon it during the work week just out of resentment. Fortunately, however, none of my system breakdown fears has come true.

In my next Bullet Journal experiment update (once my work life has settled into its normal routines) I’ll let you know how well I’ve managed to maintain the system.

Establish a zone in a room with vinyl wall decals

Living in an apartment or dorm room can have some disadvantages. One of the biggest disadvantage, in my opinion, is that you have limited decorating options. Most landlords won’t allow you to paint the walls, and many won’t let you use nails to hang artwork.

This bleak canvas might be appealing to minimalists, but I think that most people enjoy looking at something other than plain, white walls. Additionally, visually identifying where a room begins and ends, or where a zone of a room exists, can help a space feel more put together and less cluttered.

Vinyl wall decals with low-tack adhesive are one way to create interest on a wall without having to pick up a paintbrush or hammer a nail. I also think that these are great solutions for children’s rooms where interests change quickly with age. (Dump trucks were so two weeks ago!) I’m considering using them in my three-story stairwell, and I even have the luxury of being able to paint my walls.

You could opt for wall-sized murals. Various quotations are available. You can even create your own decal with a favorite quote. Holiday themed decals allow you to change decor with ease. Glow-in-the-dark decals will allow you to shed a little bit of light in dark corners — ideal for keeping monsters away in a little one’s room.

A google search for vinyl wall decals or decorations will yield many links. I’ve collected a list of some of what I believe to be the most innovative producers:

  • Acte Deco has numerous designs based on nature and sports themes.
  • Domestic has many interesting cartoons and doilies from French designers (“Shall We Dance” is my favorite).
  • Apple Pie Design has many silhouette options.
  • Blik has Charles and Ray Eames decals that make my heart go pitter patter.

If you’re having trouble creating zones in your home, consider vinyl wall decals as a temporary or permanent option.

Procrastination and deadlines

Do any of the following words sound familiar to you?

  • Me every time: “Should I spend ten minutes completing this task now or stress about it for four days first? The latter seems good.” — Kelly Ellis
  • My most reliable hobby is spending an hour putting off a task that will take two minutes to complete. — Josh Gondelman
  • An hour is amateur. I’ve gone months. Years. — Helen Rosner, replying to Gondelman

I just cleaned my cat fountain, a task that just takes a few minutes but which I’ve been putting off for weeks. I finally did it because I knew I was writing this blog post.

For me, the most useful way to avoid procrastination on tasks of all sizes is to have a deadline or make a public declaration of intent. Last week I wrote about figuring out which of my keys are the ones I need, so this week I finally went to The UPS Store and determined which one opened the store’s front door. I’m in a book club, which gives me a deadline for reading at least 12 books per year. I just volunteered to host the next book club meeting, so I will definitely give the house a good cleaning before then.

Tim Urban did a TED talk on procrastination where he says that even though he’s a master procrastinator, things work out for him. As deadlines approach, his “panic monster” shows up, frightens off the “instant gratification monkey” in his brain, and he meets those deadlines. It’s not a pretty system, but it works. The problem comes with things that don’t have deadlines, so the panic monster never appears.

I wondered if maybe that panic monster can be activated for good even when there’s not a deadline. Those of us in earthquake territory, watching the news about the horrible hurricanes lately, might get inspired to begin creating or updating our stash of emergency supplies since we have no idea when the next major quake will strike.

Eric Jaffe, writing for Co.Design, says that some studies indicate that self-imposed deadlines don’t work to overcome procrastination, and this matches the thinking of scholars in the subject.

Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, one of the leading scholars of procrastination, isn’t surprised that self-imposed deadlines don’t resolve undesirable delays. Procrastinators may need the tension of a looming deadline to get motivated, but when that deadline is self-imposed its authority is corrupted and the motivation never materializes. “The deadline isn’t real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination,” he tells Co.Design.

Jaffe goes on to say that Pyschyl and other researchers think procrastination isn’t actually a time management issue. Rather, the problem is the following: “Procrastinators delay a task because they’re not in the mood to do it and deceive themselves into thinking they will be later on.”

I’m not sure that’s why I procrastinate, but I do know that private self-imposed deadlines frequently don’t work for me. If I find I’m procrastinating on something important that has no hard deadline, I might need to create one by making that commitment known to someone else.

The slow cooker: Uncluttered kitchen cooking

As fall nears and the weather cools, I start looking forward to a good bowl of chili while watching my favorite football team play on a Sunday afternoon. My thoughts of chili then progress into musings of stews and soups and all the wonderful things that can be made in my slow cooker.

I like using a slow cooker because it means that I dirty it and no other pots or pans during meal preparation. There are a few exceptions when an additional pan is needed to brown or sear meat, but these instances are rare. After the meal has been served, cleanup is as simple as moving the empty crock from the slow cooker to the dishwasher. The slow cooker is definitely an uncluttered kitchen solution.

If you don’t currently own a slow cooker, there are really only two features that I see as essential components. The first necessary feature is a separate, removable inner crock. The second feature is a temperature indicator that has at least three settings: Off, Low, and High. I have never found use for any of the other slow cooker features currently on the market. A crock pot with these two features also has the benefit of usually costing less than $30 and will last you many years.

The majority of the recipes I make in my slow cooker are in my head. However, I took a trip recently to my local bookstore and saw that there are now dozens of slow cooker recipe books in publication for people seeking printed recipes. Also, an internet search for “slow cooker recipe” yielded thousands of recipes from online sources. If you’re looking for inspiration, here are some of the slow cooker cookbooks on the market:

Enjoy your uncluttered cooking experience!

 

This post has been updated since it was originally published in September 2007.