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.

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.

Tackling the sock drawer

The bane of my existence is the sock drawer.

I’ll take a hundred kitchen junk drawers over one sock drawer. It seems like it’s always a jumbled pile of mismatched and orphaned socks. Socks for work and those for sports mingle, making it difficult to find what I’m after. This past weekend I took control of the sock drawer with a few simple steps.

Dump it all out

This part is no fun, but it’s necessary. Dump the entire contents of your sock drawer onto a flat surface and get ready to sort. Your bed is a good option, as it offers plenty of room and, I assume, is in the same room as your sock drawer.

Start the purge

Sometimes you have to say goodbye. In this case, toss any socks with holes or with elastic that’s clearly shot. Yes, they were faithful little soldiers but it’s time for them to go. Also turn a wary eye towards those ugly socks you never wear as well as any orphans.

Do you really want the ugly ones? If the answer is no, send them to the great big hamper in the sky. As for the orphans, set them aside for a week. If their partners return after a few cycles of laundry, rejoice! If not, it’s bye-bye to them, too.

Sort

Now that we’ve whittled it down to the keepers, it’s time to sort. First, divide by purpose. That is to say, athletic socks, more formal socks for work, no-show socks for the summer and those thick, cozy socks you keep for cold winter days. This is where a sock drawer organizer comes in handy.

What do you really need?

Maybe socks are your thing, I get it. I like wearing bold socks to work, too. But there’s a point where the numbers become overwhelming. Stick to this simple rule: six or seven pairs per category. That way you have plenty of options without generating an unwieldy mass of socks that end up over-stuffing your drawer.

Lastly, here’s a quick tip. The “ball method” of folding that many of us learned as kids wears out the elastic quickly. Instead, simply fold pairs together. They’ll still fit in the organizer very neatly.

Now, go and reclaim your sock drawer! Never again will you dread pulling it open. Now if I only knew where those missing ones disappeared to.

Weekend project: organize the closet

sweater storage boxClosets, like junk drawers, tend to attract all manner of clutter. I think that’s because their contents are largely out of sight and easily shut away. Is that untidy closet stressing you out? Shut the door and walk away. There!

That’s a bit flippant, I admit, and also not the whole story. Many people resist organizing a closet because they assume that means researching and purchasing additional storage solutions. While it’s possible that an untidy closet could be greatly improved with some labeled bins, that’s not the only way to get on top of an untidy project. You can make huge gains in a weekend without spending a thing. Let’s begin with the obvious: uncluttering.

Unclutter the closet

Inside my closet is a dresser with a nice, flat surface. It calls to me when I open the door: “Dave, just plop that sweatshirt right here. Oh and those sweaters? Just pile them up right here.” If I analyze this behavior in myself, I realized that when I place items on top of the dresser vs. inside its drawers not just because I am feeling a little lazy, but because the drawers are often full. Time to unclutter.

Seasonal clothes should be removed and stored properly. What remains is sorted into three categories: what fits right now, what I want to wear, and what projects my desired image (as a guy closer to 50 than 40, I’m making a concerted effort to dress like an adult). You’ll find more on this in our article “Discover your style and keep clutter out of your closet.”

Anything that doesn’t fit into one those categories can be donated or handed down.

Plan out your closet space

Now that you’ve uncluttered, plan out the most effective use of the liberated space. Use a tape measure and confirm all of the dimensions, from top to bottom. If and when you do buy additional storage solutions, you’ll know exactly what will fit and what won’t. Also, plan to put your most frequently used items in the most accessible locations. I’ve organized my dresser the exact same way for years, and I suspect many of you have, too.

Make sure everything works well

Repair that squeaky drawer, busted light bulb and the tie rack that’s just not quite right. It’s possible to live with these minor irritations from day to day, but it’s also very annoying. While you’re at it this weekend, bust out the tool box and fix those problems once and for all.

Shoes and accessories

I don’t have very many accessories. There are a few ties, a few pocket squares, and a couple of belts. I use the top drawer for all of these. That way I know where they are and can see them all at one glance. Organize yours in a dedicated “accessories-only” location that’s easy to access.

From there, you’re done, and it only took a couple of hours. Now if you want to invest some storage solutions, you’re better equipped to make the right purchase decisions. Good luck.

Tackling office desk clutter

Recently I moved into a new office at work, much to my former office mate’s delight. With two desks, two bookshelves, a filing cabinet and a large printer/scanner all crammed into a small room, he and I felt like we were always in each other’s way. My moving out gave us some breathing room as well as the opportunity to assess what should go where.

My first task stepping into a new, solo office was to figure out what I needed in hardware and systems. I came up with four categories:

  • Inboxes
  • Working areas
  • Storage points
  • Exit points

Inboxes

I made this plural after careful consideration. The idea is to have as many inboxes you need, but no more. Right now, my inboxes are:

  1. A box labeled “In” on my desk
  2. The notebook I carry in my pocket at all times
  3. My email inbox

These three pieces of hardware allow me to capture everything I typically see in a day. Papers, forms, and documents from staff and co-workers are placed in the inbox tray. The notebook captures what I come across during the day, like requests, questions, and ideas I need to follow through on. The email inbox, well…that’s its own thing. Here’s an article on how I handle that particular job.

Working areas

This is obvious but I need to get work done while in my office. That means an adequately-sized, flat surface where I can process all those inboxes and get down to tasks and projects. For me, that’s my desk, which I keep completely free of clutter. The only items allowed to live there long term are:

  1. Computer
  2. Inbox
  3. Outbox
  4. Pens
  5. 3×5 index cards, for jotting down items that need follow-up (These are tossed into the inbox for later processing.)

That’s it. When I’m working on something, the related files come out and are placed on the work surface. When I’m done with that particular project, all related materials go away. Which brings me to…

Storage areas

I’ve got two types of storage: analog and digital.

Analog storage is a good, old-fashioned filing cabinet. Hanging folders don’t work for me as I always knock them off the tracks. I prefer labeled, standard file folders. Sorting by simple alphabetical order is best for me as I can find anything.

Digitally, I use Evernote. It holds information that may be useful in the future, but doesn’t require any action such as policies and procedures, etc.

Exit points

Just like the inbox, the outbox sits on my desk. Anything that isn’t digital and must travel from me to someone else, begins its journey in the outbox.

None of this is new technology or technique, but it works for me. It’s also clutter-free and efficient. While the office I describe here is at work, this setup would benefit a home office, student’s desk, or homework area. See if you can reduce your office system down to what’s necessary and see your efficiency and productivity rise.

What squirrels can teach us about organization

The next time you see a squirrel running around, give it an appreciative smile. That’s your fellow organizer right there.

As summer yields to autumn, these little fuzzballs are busy gathering nuts that will sustain them during the winter. Scientists from University of California Berkeley recently wondered exactly how they accomplish the life-sustaining feat, including the improbable act of finding each tiny hoard weeks after it’s created.

What they discovered was pretty impressive. Squirrels use chunking. Chunking refers to the practice of sorting information into similar, easily remembered groupings. For example, when learning a new phone number, we don’t memorize an interrupted series of 10 numbers, we (at least here in North America) learn the three-digit area code, the three-digit exchange and then the last four digits.

Likewise, a bookshelf stuffed with no semblance of order would make it very hard to find a certain title. So, we group books into fiction, non-fiction, biographies, etc. It’s much easier to recall where a specific piece of information is when it’s in a chunk of similar items.

Squirrels understand this.

Researchers discovered that squirrels are “scatter hoarders.” That is, they create several caches of nuts, each grouped in the same way. In the study, 45 squirrels were offered a series of nuts from several locations. Upon receiving nuts from a central location, the cute little rodents put the goodies into species-specific groupings: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. This suggests, scientists concluded, that finding the nuts weeks or months later in snow-covered forests, that the squirrels rely on a technique like chunking to recall where each pile (or species) of nut is hidden.

What does that have to do with you and me?

Aside from the obvious “we’re all nuts” joke, chunking is truly an effective strategy. Like the squirrels, it will help you recall where that seldom-used item is stored. For example, if you’re looking for Christmas tree ornaments, they would be “chunked” with the other holiday decorations.

Aside from storage, chunking can apply to productivity, as Mike Vardy explains on Productivityist:

Time chunking – and fine tuning the practice – allows me to work with optimum productivity. It’s worth trying in some form or another because it removes a decision from the process of doing: what to do and when to do it.

Take a lesson from our furry friends. Sort time, items, and effort into definable groups for better recall later. Whether you’re a human or not.

Get organized to help in an emergency

As Florida and Houston deal with the aftermath of devastating storms, I’ve seen messages from good-hearted people on social media opening their homes to those who have been displaced. Countless people are affected by these disasters, and will be for weeks and months to come.

It’s a fantastic act of selfless generosity to open one’s home to someone in need. It also takes a lot of planning and organization. If you plan to have friends and/or family stay with you for an indeterminate amount of time — especially when they’ve lost so much — there are steps you can take to make the experience better for yourself and for them.

First, ensure how many people you can safely and comfortably accommodate. Everyone will need space to sleep, so count up bedrooms as well as couches, air mattresses, cots or sleeping bags. If using the latter, make sure that there’s an opportunity for privacy for all. Not everyone wants to sleep on the living room couch. Maybe you can make a rotating schedule. While you’re at it, make sure there is ample room for the belongings they will bring with them.

If you plan on accepting many people, you might even want to check with your municipality for advice on how many people can safely occupy your home.

Next, stock up on supplies. More people means more food, water, toiletries, etc. If you have time, buy these supplies before your guests’ arrival and designate a tidy an accessible place for storage.

Guests forget stuff at the best of times, and in this instance, they might not have the opportunity to grab essentials. Buy extra toothbrushes, disposable razors, extra towels and so forth and make them available.

Your guests will also have clothing to launder. Providing a few mini pop-up laundry baskets will allow guests to keep their dirty clothes out of their suitcases and transport them to and from the laundry area with ease.

Also make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit on hand, as well as some common over-the-counter medications, even pet food if your guests will be bringing a dog or cat with them.

Have phone chargers for various models available, as theirs may be gone, as well as a mini charging station. Make your Wi-Fi password available if you have one (you should). A crank-powered radio is also useful, especially if your own home is in or near a danger zone.

If you’re opening your home to people in need, our hat is off to you. If you don’t have that opportunity but still want to help, contact the Red Cross.

Dropmark organizes links and digital files

Two years ago I was lousy at organizing web bookmarks. If I found an article I wanted to read later, a recipe or anything else I couldn’t attend to right then and there, it went into Dock in Apple’s Mac operation system, where it sat indistinguishable and forgotten. What a mess.

Determined to rise above that disorganized mess, I explored four solutions: Instapaper, Historious, Pinboard and Ember. Each has its pros and cons, but I eventually landed on Instapaper. It’s quick and easy. Still, that was two years ago and I thought the idea deserved another look. This time, I’ve discovered Dropmark.

What drew me to Dropmark is that it is a lot more than an archive of links. Instead, it sorts things you’d like to save into “collections.” The collections can be customized however you like. To get you started, Dropmark offers six default collections:

  • Inspiration
  • Recipes
  • Playlist
  • Save for Later
  • Video Que
  • Book Club

Each collection has its own permission settings. You can make it private, available to a select few, or public. Once you’ve created a collection, simply drag and drop something from your computer into a browser window to add it. It’s then listed in a tidy grid. You can increase search-ability by adding tags to any item.

Organizing bookmarks (my personal goal) is easy, too. Simply click to add a new item, choose “Link” and paste the URL you’d like to save.

While I’m just looking for a digital organizational tool, Dropbox can do much more than that. You can form teams for collaboration, and share any collection you’ve got.

Lastly, there are browser extensions and mobile apps for iOS and Android that let you manage your collections with ease. It’s simple, good-looking and available both as a free app and a paid service. The pro version ($50/year) lets you add comments, annotations, and choose from several style options. It’s a very nice service and if you, too, struggle with organizing digital bookmarks and files, give Dropmark a try.

What to do when your yard sale fails

Typically people hold a yard sale for one of three reasons:

  1. They want to earn some money.
  2. They want unwanted stuff to go to a good home.
  3. They want to pare-down possessions.

In any case, the organizer hopes for success — a few extra dollars in the pocket, some free space in the house, less clutter — however you define a successful yard sale.

Even if you plan a successful yard sale, sometimes it flops — nothing is sold or huge items such as a sofa or credenza are left. It’s the end of the the final day and you’re standing outside with a pile of unsold merchandise. The inevitable question pops into your head, “Now what?”

Let’s take a look at what you can do when your yard sale bombs.

First and foremost, don’t get frustrated with the leftovers. There are many potential variables that could have affected your sale:

  1. You had more stuff than you had time to sell.
  2. Your prices were higher than the typical customer was willing to spend.
  3. The right people didn’t find you.
  4. The weather or timing was bad.

But today we’re not looking at what when wrong (we’ve got a guide for that). Instead, it’s what to do with all the leftover stuff. There are many options.

Right away, before you bring a single item into the house, divide your goods into the following piles:

  1. Donation
  2. Sell online
  3. Free to whomever wants it
  4. Items for the next sale
  5. Keepers

Now, a look at each category.

Donation is self-explanatory. Often doctors’ offices or hospitals will take magazines. Think of friends or relatives who might want what you’ve got. Perhaps there’s a Scout troop, school, or other charitable organization in your area that will gladly accept certain gently used items.

Selling online is a great way to go. My wife and I have had tremendous success holding a “virtual yard sale” on Facebook. It was pretty easy to do. We took one or two photos of each item, added them to Facebook Marketplace and shared them on our walls. Within two days everything was sold and picked up by the buyers. If Facebook isn’t your thing, consider Varagesale. Creating an account is easy and, in my experience, most items sell quickly. Of course there is also Ebay and Freecycle.

Don’t be afraid to try another yard sale. Maybe the weather was bad, or a holiday weekend meant fewer people in the neighborhood. In any case, try again but make some changes. First, wait a few weeks and mark the prices down. Also, set up a “free” table for items you simply want to get rid of. You can even do a raffle at the end of the day. For example, for $3, visitors get a chance to have their names drawn and then the winners can take as much stuff away as they want.

Finally, acknowledge that there may be some keepers may have popped up during the sale. During our recent sale, my son identified a toy that he really wanted. Limit yourself to one keeper, as the idea is to get rid of stuff, but that single item can earn its way back into the house if you’ve really got a good reason for keeping it.

It’s depressing when a yard sale doesn’t live up to your expectations. But there’s plenty you can do with your remaining items. And remember the positive: you conducted a big purge and organize, you got some stuff at least to people who’ll use and appreciate it and you’ve reduced the clutter in your home. I think that’s a win.

Tips and tricks for Google Keep

About a year ago I wrote a post praising Google Keep, the light, effective note-taking app from Google. At the time I was only a few months into using it but I was already smitten. The fast, lightweight app let me store and find notes easily. Twelve months later, it has become an indispensable part of my day.

Along the way, I’ve picked up some very cool tricks that make it even more useful. If you’re a fan too, I hope you learn something new here. If you haven’t used Google Keep before, consider this your formal invitation to give it a try. It really is useful. Now, the tips.

Transcribe notes from pictures

I learned this trick from Tech Republic and it has become my favorite. If you take a photo of written text with Google Keep, it can extract the text in the photo and turn it into editable copy in a note. Just follow these steps:

  1. Take a photo with the app
  2. Tap the three dots in the upper right-hand corner
  3. Select “Grab image text”

That’s it. Keep will find the text in the photograph and paste it into the body of your note. Super cool.

Drag and drop notes from Keep into Google Docs

Here’s something I tried on a whim. Much to my delighted surprise, it worked. Just follow these steps.

  1. With a Google Doc open, click “Tools” from the menu bar and then “Keep Notepad.”
  2. A list of your notes appears on the right.
  3. Simply drag the one you want out of that list and into your document.

The cool thing here is that the formatting in the note is retained. Drag an ordered list, and you’ve got an ordered list in your doc. Drag an image and it’s an image. Text is text. The lesson here is always poke around the tools menu.

It’s great for social media drafts

Sharing isn’t limited to Google Docs, or course. Open a note on your smartphone (Android or iOS) and hit the three dots or Share Button to send the contents of that note to Twitter, Facebook, Slack, etc.

Create reminders

I only discovered this recently. You can use Keep to send you a reminder. To begin, just create a note and click the icon of a finger wrapped in a string. From there, create your reminder. That reminder will automatically appear on your Google Calendar, the Chrome browser (if it’s signed into Google) and your Android device.

As you can see, Keep is for much more than jotting down shopping lists (though it does that, too). I’ve grown to love it and I bet you will, too. Give it a try.

The power of the plastic inbox

I receive a lot of paper at work. You would think that by 2017 the fantasy of the “paperless office” would have become a reality. While many businesses have reduced their paper consumption, it hasn’t disappeared. I recently tackled the problem at work with a tried-and-true solution: plastic trays (similar to these).

After some rummaging around in the depths of the office supply closet, I found to dusty, unwanted, plastic trays. I cleaned them off and made two labels: “IN” and “OUT”. Triumphant, I put them on my desk. I’ll admit that I felt like an out-of-date 1950’s business man — or at least TV’s depiction of such a creature.

The following morning I told my staff, “Anything you have for me that requires some action — a signature, editing, filing, anything at all — put into my new inbox. You’ll find it on my desk.” Although they scoffed at Grandpa Dave’s request, it’s been a huge success. I’ve realized the following benefits of the good old-fashioned inbox:

  1. Everything that needs my attention is once place. There’s no more searching around for who’s got that paper I need.
  2. Stress levels work are greatly reduced because when you trust your system, your brain stops perseverating, and you can get on with work.
  3. Going through the inbox at the end of the day, when things are quiet and wrapping up, is actually pleasant.
  4. My staff and other colleagues appreciate having a clearly-defined drop point for items that need my attention.
  5. I have more space on my desk to do actual work! No more mini-stacks of paper here and there.
  6. Boy, it sure feels good when that box is empty.

The secret here is to put everything in the inbox. The receipt in your wallet? Inbox. The notes from that meeting? Inbox. The packing slip from this morning’s delivery? Inbox. You can process all of this stuff (decide that it is, what action needs to be taken, and then act accordingly) when time allows.

It’s such a simple, inexpensive thing. Give it a try at work, home, or where ever you collect and process “stuff.” Let your co-workers, family members, or housemates know, too. You’ll be very glad you did.

Options for upcycling clothes

As summer eases into fall, I’m thinking about clothes. Soon I’ll haul my cold-weather wardrobe from its storage spot, and put my shorts and T-shirts in its place. The kids, ever growing, will need some new items for school. Larger sneakers will replace old; hats and gloves will join their smaller counterparts in the mudroom. Several times during the changeover, I’ll hold something up and wonder, “Why do I still have this?” When no satisfactory answer returns, I’ll fold it up and put it away until next year.

We’ve written before about what to do with old, unwanted clothes. Of course you can also donate clothes, hand them down, gift them to young parents, turn them into household rags, or even make interesting keepsakes. In the case of sentimental tshirt, my wife made a quilt from them. Recently, I found another alternative that I wanted to share: upcycling.

An article at CBC appeared in my RSS feed at the perfect time. It begins by pointing out a problem: wasted clothes. While many people donate unwanted clothes in a way that extends their life, “…North Americans [still] discard a mind-boggling amount of apparel — 12 billion kilograms of textiles every year.” That’s a staggering 26 billion pounds!

I think that’s more than a little disheartening, as do twins Lindsay and Alexandra Lorusso. The pair started their own company, Nudnik, which uses scraps of discarded clothing and other textiles, and turns them into re-sellable outfits for kids. It’s a great idea.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Natalie Festa has begun renting outfits and other articles to customers who are either eco-conscious or on a budget, a scenario that should be familiar to fans of NBC’s Parks and Rec.

Of course, you needn’t start a business to upcycle old clothing. Basic sewing skills will let you create new items from scraps. A tshirt can become a little laundry bag when you sew the bottom shut. A shirt can also become a headband if you’re so inclined.

When it comes to old clothes, definitely consider the donate/hand-me-down route. But don’t overlook the various upcycle options available. There’s a lot that can be done.