What have you learned about yourself while uncluttering?

You can learn a lot about yourself while uncluttering. What’s more, that lesson changes over time based on your circumstances, age, and stage of life. Pay attention as you organize and clean, and you’ll see a bit of who you are.

A thread on the Unclutterer Forums brought this to my attention. Initiated in 2010 by reader AJ, the posting has several insightful and interesting comments from Unclutterer readers like “toberead,” who writes:

Your uncluttering strategy depends a lot on your circumstances. Six months ago I moved into an apartment that has a washing machine, the first time in 18 years that I’ve had my own. And it has made me rethink my wardrobe. When I had to spend 3-4 hours in a noisy laundromat every time I wanted to wash a load of clothes, it made sense to have at least 3 weeks worth of clothes, and I made that work in the most uncluttered way possible. But now I can see much more clearly which clothes I really love, and which ones I wore just because it was better than going to the laundromat.

I had a similar experience when moving from an apartment and into my home. I was able to get rid of a lot of the stuff that I considered temporary, like kitchenware that had seen better days.

Meanwhile, reader “Sky” writes about the appeal of eliminating unwanted stuff:

Decluttering my home has made me look at ‘things’ differently. The more I get rid of, the more I want less and less. I love having space in drawers and closets. I even have some empty drawers!

I’ve realized how few things I really want beyond what’s necessary. No more collecting, storing and shopping. It is freeing beyond belief.

I love throwing stuff away. The house just feels “lighter” once I’ve eliminated a big pile of stuff that I haven’t touched in ages. It’s a mental boost, too, as a tidy, uncluttered work space can actually improve productivity.

Finally, reader “nelliesb” writes, “I am realizing how little most things mean to me.” I really got this lesson in 2012 when my dog chewed a commemorative baseball I had received while visiting Fenway Park barely 24 hours prior:

The ball itself isn’t what was important. All of the memories I relayed in this article I conjured up without it. The ball is now in the trash bin; the memories and emotions of that day are in me. When I realize the ball is chewed, or my life is short, I’m reminded every moment with it was precious.

Yes, a moment can trigger a memory. But it’s the memory we’re after, right? Not the thing. I’ve been able to part with many things because they aren’t what’s meaningful to me. It’s the event, the person or the time and place that brought me to that thing in the first place.

There’s so much more to this topic. Perhaps uncluttering teaches you about your shopping habits, your interests, your habits at large. As you’ve tidied and organized, what have you learned about yourself? Share here or over on our forum.

What to do with old textbooks

As the school year ends, many college students will return home for the summer with new knowledge, and likely a lot of laundry, in tow. Some will also have a stack of used textbooks. The question then becomes, “What do I do with these?” Here are a few ideas.

I’d say that, right off the bat, you’ve got two obvious options. First, sell them back to the school’s book store. That’s what I did back in the day when times were tight. I also bought used books for the same reason (I loved that little yellow “used” tag). If you feel you’re done with a book, sell it back, get some cash and feel good that next year someone will get that volume for less than retail price.

Conversely, you can keep your books, as they do contain a lot of valuable information. Some age more gracefully than others. For example, in 15 years a French textbook will be more useful than a science volume for example – so keep that in mind, too. If you decide to keep a book, be sure you’ll actually get some use out of it, or it will just be clutter in a few years.

Depending on the education level a book us aimed at, you can reach out to a local homeschooling association to see if they have a need your textbooks. The HSLDA can help you find homeschoolers in, or near your town.

Lastly, an organization like Better World Books buys textbooks, resells them online, and then sends some of the proceeds to literacy initiatives.

There’s a few options for you. I hope one fits. If none of these ideas appeal to you, you can always make a secret compartment. But that’s another post entirely.

Bound to clutter and time

A recent study from UCLA-affiliated social scientists paints a bleak picture of modern parents: beholden to clutter, technology, and stuff. Likewise, they found, many (if not most) rarely step foot outdoors and claim that a perceived lack of time drives a lot of daily decisions. It’s a study I can relate to, and that’s really depressing.

The study

The longitudinal study entitled, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors,” (currently available at Amazon as a book) observed middle-class families in Los Angeles over four years. The results, according to the authors, are “disheartening,” and include:

  1. Many families rely heavily on prepared and frozen foods even though they only save an average of 11 minutes per meal. “They give me the illusion of saving time and energy,” said one participant, “and that’s almost as important.”
  2. Most families in the study rarely go outdoors, even those who recently spent money on outdoor improvements like a new deck. “That’s the backyard,” one mom said. “I never go out there.”
  3. Leisure time is spent in front of the TV or the computer.

One interesting revelation I found has to do with a family’s refrigerator door. Those that are cluttered with notices, magnets, papers and the like, often indicate a home that is in a similar state. (Read our article on dealing with refrigerator door clutter here).

That’s rough, but the most depressing and relatable bit for me was about 2-year-old Anjellisa Redfern. According to researchers, she has a great many toys. However, “…she doesn’t want to play with them,” said her mother. “She wants to be on the couch watching TV.”

Second screen? Try first.

In 2014, Jeff Bercovici wrote an article for Forbes entitled, “Using A Second Screen While Watching TV Is The New Normal.” He went on to describe the growing habit of glancing at a smartphone or tablet while watching television:

Watching TV while simultaneously using a smartphone, laptop, or tablet is on the verge of becoming a majority behavior worldwide.

Later that year, the New York Times noted the emerging “second screen marketing” efforts that were just beginning to happen, targeted at those who use a smartphone or tablet as the titular “second screen” while watching TV. It is interesting, but that’s not the behavior in 2017. The TV is the second screen, the smartphone is the first.

Every night in my home, a depressing scene plays out. We have dinner, almost never together, almost always within 15 minutes, almost always silently and almost certainly with each in his or her own chair, doing his or her own thing. When this non-family time is complete, everyone retreats to his or her room of choice with his or her preferred screen, not to be seen again until morning.

It’s killing me and I hate it.

I’m partly to blame as I’ve let it go on this long. Extinguishing this pattern will not be easy. There will be loud complaining. There will be rolling of eyes and harsh words. But it must be done.

Childhood is a window that closes at 18 years of age. That’s all you get, those 18 precious years. Then they’re off to work, off to school, off to adulthood, and whatever comes next. There is no time machine. You can’t go back. My kids are 12 and 14 years old. The window is almost closed. I absolutely will not sit with regret years from now because I did not make the most of being their dad. Because I lost out to apps and YouTube stars. Because Snapchat was more appealing.

If the modern American family is succumbing to clutter and technology, it’s time to revisit our priorities. The window on childhood is closing. Be there – really be there – before it does.

What to unclutter when you’re expecting

Recently I was browsing the Unclutterer forums and I came across this older post: “Having a baby in three weeks but need to declutter first!” It immediately brought me back to the days when my wife and I were preparing for our new arrivals. We bought lots of stuff, and even used some of it!

We didn’t have any clothing, bibs, bottles, wipes, diapers, or blankets on our own shopping list because we felt we’d likely receive them as gifts. If you’ve decided to go without a baby shower, then you’ll want to add a few of these to your acquisition list.

As an anxious parent-to-be, you want to do your best for junior. So you hit the store with the best intentions, but end up leaving with a combination bottle warmer/lullaby library/cradle/Diaper-Change-O-Matic 3000. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. Here’s what we found ourselves still using after junior’s first birthday.

Some people use a basic changing table with some storage, not unlike this one from Badger Basket. It’s nice to have everything you’re going to need – diapers, wipes, change of clothes, etc. – in one spot. But honestly, we ended up using a simple changing pad on a bed just as often. It was just quicker and sometimes speed is of the essence when diapers are concerned.

A convertible car seat is great to have as it can go from rear- to forward-facing as your child grows. They are heavy, but a worthwhile investment.

A trusty Pack N Play is versatile. Bring it with you when you visit grandparents, or wheel it into your bedroom if junior isn’t feeling well.

A good stroller is essential. Find the safest one that will still grow with your child, as these are expensive items. The quick-fold umbrella-style models are adequate for when you’re in a pinch, but I don’t recommend using one as your sole stroller. They offer no storage and can often be real hassle to fold up.

Finally, a diaper bag is a must. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere with my kids without a bag of essential gear, like diapers, wipes, etc. Again, you can go nuts here and get a bag that charges your phone and does a million other things, but a simple canvas tote works perfectly.

Preparing for a new baby can be both stressful and fun. Try to focus on the latter, and leave the Diaper-Change-O-Matic 3000 at the store. After a year, you’ll be changing junior on any flat surface you can find. And that’s OK.

Uncluttering old iPods

Recently I found an old iPod while cleaning out some drawers. It wouldn’t power on as the battery had long since died, so I connected it to my computer and was delighted to find that it worked. The next question was clear: what should I do with it?

If you find one of these things lying around, or if you inherit one from someone else, the first thing to do is identify the model. Apple’s website helps you do just that. I’ve got a third-generation iPod nano, the so-called “fat nano.” This squat little guy can store 8 GB worth of music, photos, and video, plus a few extras like rudimentary games and notes. It acquires all of these things by syncing with iTunes on a computer. For playback it’s great, and the dash of nostalgia is fun too.

Compared to contemporary devices, though, it’s a dinosaur. It can’t connect to the internet so streaming music on Spotify or Apple Music is a no-go. I can’t install apps either. So what is it good for? My solution is audiobooks.

I love to listen to audiobooks while driving, but they take up a lot of storage space on my phone. This little iPod gives me 8 GB of dedicated audiobook storage (minus space that the OS uses). It will remember where I left off and happily sit in my car, ready to play back an audiobook as I drive. Of course there’s no Bluetooth connectivity, so I have to use a cable from the iPod to the care stereo, which is fine.

If you find an iPod that you’d rather get rid of, either through donation, trade or sale, here are some options to consider.

Apple has its own recycling program for electronics. You can participate at an Apple Store or online. Qualifying items can get you Apple Store credit, which is a nice bonus. Many big box stores have similar programs.

You can always donate working devices to local schools, recreation departments, veterans, the Music and Memory Project, and so on. Perhaps you’ve got a friend or relative who’d love to have it. I even heard of two far-flung friends who would mail an old iPod back and forth, each filling it with with their own favorite music for the other to listen to for a while before returning the favor.

And yes, you can sell an old iPod. Ebay is the obvious option, but outlets like Swap.com and Gazelle are also good choices.

Finally, what about the cables and chargers? If you don’t have ones, Apple sells several adapters to get your iPod working with contemporary devices. If you find broken ones bring them to your local big box store for recycling.

Of course, if you can find a way to use it, I say do it. Though limited compared to what we’ve got today, these older iPods are still a lot of fun.

Preparing an organized “summer basket”

As summer approaches, we’re getting ready to spend the season at home with the kids and occasionally welcoming out-of-town guests. It’s also time to round up the accoutrements that allow us to enjoy nice weather and time spent outdoors. Sunscreen, beach towels, snorkels, and so on get a lot of use between June and August, which means these items also have the opportunity to become misplaced or just plain lost. Rather than have this stuff lying around like a bunch of clutter, we’ve devised a simple solution. We place a very big basket right next to the back door of our house — a large, wicker basket. Inside we store all sorts of summer goodies:

  • Sunscreen
  • Snorkels
  • Swim masks
  • Towels
  • Sandals
  • Bug spray
  • and a few dollars for the ice cream truck (it is summer after all)

It all works pretty well, but it can be improved. This summer I want to make some changes to our “summer basket.” Let me know what you think.

First, it is convenient that all of the items are in one place instead of spread all over the house. However, once you get a certain amount of stuff in the basket, finding what you want requires a bit of searching around. My solution for this problem takes inspiration from my hobby: board games.

Many of the games I love come with a lot of components and little pieces, which I keep organized with foam core inserts. While you can buy fancy wooden ones like this one from Broken Token, I prefer to make my own out of foam core. For the summer basket, I think four large pieces will divide the contents into specific categories very nicely.

Next, I want to make some “go bags,” one for each activity (beach, park, car, etc.). It will save time when departing — just grab the one bag that you need. I’m considering sorting go bags by child. That way, we won’t have to go on a hunt for our son’s swim mask or our daughter’s goggles, etc. But I’m not sold on that idea, sorting by activity might be most effective.

Now I’ll ask you, dear readers. Do you have a similar setup in place and, if so, how do you keep it all sorted? Happy summer!

What’s on your kitchen counters?

Earlier this week I was browsing the Unclutterer Forums when I found this thread: What’s on your kitchen counters? It’s a conversation that’s been going strong since 2012, with the latest contribution being published just a few days ago. Here are my thoughts.

Our kitchen is very small. Even after a major remodel in 2002, we’ve got precious little counter space. As such, we’ve had to be extremely selective about what earns its way onto the counter. Many products “audition” but few make the cut.

The first to go was the microwave. Yes, we’re a microwave-free household. Really, the stove/oven does everything the microwave manages, albeit more slowly. We can’t afford a huge bulky item that duplicates functionality. Instead, we’ve got a toaster oven.

We’ve got a few books in a bookshelf, a drainer for drying the dishes, and the mixer. Honestly, that’s it. Utensils live in a drawer and dishes, glasses, etc. live in cabinets.

Items that are used only occasionally are stored in the basement until they’re called into duty. This includes the slow cooker, blender, and big mixer. We just don’t use them often enough to warrant long-term storage in the kitchen itself.

Now I’ll ask you: what’s on your kitchen counters, and why? Does “size matter” or is function the deciding factor? Sound off, here or join the conversation on our forum.

Wedding gifts we still use 16 years later

Way back in the year 2000, my then girlfriend and I decided to get married. We created a gift registry, as so many engaged couples to do. As a pair of young people with very little in the way of “real world” possessions, we asked for many things we thought we’d use for years. Fortunately many of our friends and family obliged and a year later we found ourselves happily married with a pile of new stuff.

Sixteen years later, there are items from that registry that we still use every day and others that were donated/tossed/given away long ago. Here’s a list of the few keepers that still see active duty.

Dishes

The first item we registered for was a set of dinnerware from local potter Steve Kemp. We loved Steve’s work and thought, “What the heck. Maybe someone will buy us a setting or two.” We ended up with full service and those very plates and bowls are still in daily use at our house. Yes, I’ve broken a few but that’s what anniversary gifts are for, right?

Flatware

My mother was raised in Oneida, New York, home to Oneida flatware and, before that, The Oneida Community (I’ve been inside the fabled “Mansion House” many times). My maternal grandfather worked for Oneida, designing flatware. Of course, I had to have a set, which we asked for and received.

For the first few years, I kept those utensils tucked away until Christmas other other “special” occasion. Eventually I decided that that was silly and now we use the Oneida flatware every day.

We didn’t ask for things like knifes or pots and pans, as we inherited sets of each, which we’ve since replaced.

Bed

As two single people we had, of course, two twin beds. As a gift we received a queen sized bed with some nifty storage compartments and it’s still in use.

Stuff we asked for, have, and never use.

Wine glasses. My wife and I drink wine maybe once a year. Yet we requested and received a set of wine glasses, figuring we’d be entertaining wine-loving friends. That hasn’t happened yet, and to this day a set of pristine wine glasses sit idle in a cabinet. The same goes for the blender. Again, we’ve used this maybe a dozen times over the past 16 years. The thought of fresh fruit smoothies every morning sounds great until you have to make them and then clean the blender.

Items we no longer own

First things first, if you’re reading this and you’re the person(s) who gave us any of the following, I’m sorry! We tried, honest. Let’s start with the bread machine. At the time when we got married, these things were very popular. Toss the ingredients inside, hit a switch and presto, you’ve got bread. The bread machine we owned was huge and took up a massive amount of counter space. So it sat in the basement until we decided that we wanted to use it. That day never came. The same goes for the ice cream maker. Oh, how charmingly naive young couples are. “We’ll make ice cream! It will be great.” Add a few kids to the mix and you realize there’s no time for that. Away it went.

What I wish we’d asked for

If I had a time machine, I’d go back to the year 2000 and ask for the following:

A decent, basic set of tools. You can get a way with cheap tools for a while, or skipping some essentials entirely, but starting off with a high-quality starter set is well worth the investment.

A rice cooker. We didn’t buy a rice cooker until a few years ago and we’re amazed at how useful, compact and efficient it is. Everybody should own one.

A full set of Pyrex: 1 cup, 2 cup and quart measuring cups; 8×8 cake pan; 2qt, 3 qt and 4 qt baking dishes. You can’t kill these things. They last forever.

If you’re getting married soon, consider creating your wedding gift registry with Amazon. They have a vast selection of gifts at various prices. Your guests will know exactly what you want and your guests will appreciate that the gifts can be automatically delivered to you.

When shopping for wedding gifts, consider giving something that the couple likely wouldn’t buy themselves. Personally, I lean towards the practical. It’s kind of boring, but let’s be honest. There’s no time for making ice cream.

The calming power of lists

“Hold on, I’ve got to make a list.”

I’ve said this so many times — at the beginning of a project when I know a lot is about to come at me, when I need to go shopping, or when I’m about to tackle some errands for the day. If I have to communicate with a group of people, I make a list so I don’t leave anyone out.

Often, I’ll find a pen and a paper when I’m feeling overwhelmed and want to get everything out of my head. The simple act of writing down what needs to be done, when, and by whom, gives me a sense of being on top of things, even when the resulting list is ridiculously long. I feel a sense of relief, which can be explained by science.

Recently, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, shared his insights with the podcast, Note To Self. He said, among other things:

“I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do, clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home and to check to see if you paid the utility bill and that you have to call back Aunt Tilly because she left a voicemail and she’s going to worry and all this chatter – get it out of your head, write it down, then prioritize things.”

This notion mirrors something that author and productivity expert David Allen has said for years (I’ll paraphrase here), “The mind is not for storage. It’s for problem solving.” When you try to force it to do the former, you create dissonance and tension.

I prefer to outsource the task of remembering of what needs to be done to lists. Long-time readers know that I’ve got a pen and a notebook in my back pocket at all times. What’s inside my notebook? Lists. When I need to refer to what’s next, I just look at the notebook. My mind is free to do the work, not remember what work needs to be done.

It seems there are two types of people in the world: listers and non-listers. Unless you’ve got a mind like a steel trap, I don’t know how you do it. I’ll be a lister forever. Long live lists!

Resisting the call of clutter

Here’s the book I didn’t buy last weekend. Neat, eh? It’s a copy of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual Hardcover from 1979, written by the late Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons. I first played “D&D” in 7th grade with my friend Dave. Today, I still play with a guy named Dave, though it’s a different Dave.

When I found this in the antique store, the nostalgia soaked my whole being. I was immediately transported to Dave’s kitchen table (the original Dave, whom we’ll call “Dave Prime”). Dave Prime introduced me to the game and I instantly fell in love. I wanted to play constantly, and did.

Holding the book last weekend, I recalled all of those amazing memories. I also thought of bringing it to “Current Dave’s” kitchen table and passing it around. I knew that gang would appreciate it and enjoy the same feelings of nostalgia.

But then what?

Well, I’d take it home. I’d show it to my kids, who’d feign interest long enough to get dad to go away, then I’d show it to my wife, who would not offer the same courtesy. Finally it would go onto a shelf or in a drawer where it would sit — for years — doing nothing.

That, my friends, is the definition of clutter.

I certainly have purpose-free items around the house, most of which are part of collections. We’ve written before about identifying a collection and this D&D book did not meet the criteria for being part of any of my collections.

Maintaining and adding to my stamp collection is an active pursuit that helps me relax, and as a bonus I meet new people at the philatelist meetings. My collection of board games provide fun family time.

That book, well, I just knew it would get ignored after an initial week or so of entertainment. Recognizing that fact helped me resist buying it and in turn, kept my home clear of clutter. So I ask the readers, are there any tricks you use to fight purchasing nostalgic items?

Saying goodbye to musical instruments, part two

Last week, I shared the story of my inability to let it go of my drum set during our big basement clear out. I had succumbed to sentiment! After much deliberation, I’ve made a decision — the drum set stays — for now. There’s a deal in place, which I’ll describe in a bit.

First off, I’m going to refurbish them. They need new heads, a good tuning, some cleaning, and maybe some new hardware. (The bass pedal is older than my marriage.) Once the upgrades are done, I’m going to play a bit and see how it feels. I’ll adopt a regular practice schedule and see if I can stick to it while working off the years of rust. Perhaps my kids will express an interest. If so, I’ll provide lessons.

Now here’s the deal. If, at the end of one year, the drum set is still satisfying the definition of clutter (an item that is unused and without purpose), then away it goes. What will happen to it? There are several options for an unwanted musical instrument:

  1. Selling is the most obvious choice. These drums are very old and not worth a lot, so I’d give them to a young musician who is looking for his or her very first set. It would be nice to see them inspire a student they way they once inspired me.
  2. Donation is also an option (and I can get a tax write-off too). I’m sure a local community center, church, or school would gladly take a free drum set.

I could get real fancy and turn them into art, but that’s a bit beyond me.

Parting with sentimental clutter is never easy, but it’s something we must do eventually. Memories are more important than the things themselves and great memories are never clutter. Additionally, here’s a good opportunity to practice the concept of non-attachment. It reminds me of this little parable, the origin of which I do not know.

There was a man who kept a glass on his bedside table. He loved the glass and would look at it and think, “How lovely this glass is. When it catches the light it looks so beautiful. When it’s full of water, how lovely it appears. If I tap it with my finger, what a pretty note it plays.”

“But if I bump the table and the glass crashes on the floor, I may think, ‘Oh, of course.’ Or, I can realize the glass is already broken. Then every moment with it is precious.”

In a way, my drum set is already gone. Some day it will fall apart, or be in the dump, or reside in somebody else’s basement, or I’ll be too old or frail to play it. And that’s OK, because every moment I’ve had with it has been precious.

Saying goodbye to musical instruments

I spent this past weekend cleaning my basement and enduring a life crisis. The two are related.

As it’s the start of school vacation week here in Massachusetts, my wife and I decided to take this time to clean out the basement. I’m not referring to the pedestrian practice of knocking down cobwebs and doing a bit of sweeping. No, this was a full-on, no-prisoners/no-survivors clean. Every single item was hauled out into the yard and sorted into one of three piles:

  1. Keep
  2. Donate
  3. Trash

Once the room was empty, the industrial vacuum came out, cobwebs were swept away, floors were swept and scrubbed, and shelving was dismantled, cleaned, and relocated. Every inch was polished and prepped for the contents of the “keep” pile to be neatly re-introduced. I drove the donate pile to the local donation station and later this week a team of professionals will arrive to haul the trash pile away. That should be all three piles sorted.

Dave's drum setExcept there’s one problem. I lied. There are actually four piles. The fourth pile contains only a single item: my drum set.

I bought this set of drums with money I saved by delivering newspapers when I was 13 years old. I started playing drums when I was seven, and to say that they occupied the first 23 years of my life is an understatement. Music, specifically percussion, was my life for two decades.

In elementary school I played in the orchestra. In high school, it was band, orchestra, and jazz band. Some friends and I formed our own noisy rock band and tormented the neighbors with an endless racket. I took private lessons outside of school, and traveled to district orchestra events. I even attended music camp at our local college. Music was my social circle, my solace when times were tough, and my celebration when everything was going well. After high school I attended Berklee College of Music and gave snare drum lessons to the neighborhood kids in the summer.

Then I finished with school, moved away, and got a job. The drums came with me, but I didn’t have much time for them. A few years passed and I got married. Soon enough we had a daughter, then a son. I had more responsibility at work. I continued to give lessons for about a year but that ended. My drums sat idle in the basement — for years… many years.

Now, here we are with my drums satisfying the very definition of “clutter.”

We’ve written about parting with sentimental clutter before. I know it’s hard, and I know the strategies. I also understand that, in the end, memories are more important than things. But this feels like more to me.

Real musical ability isn’t something that every person has. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I do. I was really good at playing drums. To me, parting with the instrument feels like I’m throwing the gift away, too, and that’s not right. I understand that, if I haven’t touched my drums within the last 15 years, I probably won’t during the next 15 years either. Yet, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

For now, they’re still in the limbo that is “Pile Four.” I’ve got until the end of the week to decided their true fate. Do you have any input, readers? Have I merely succumbed to the emotion of sentimental clutter? Or is there something more at work?