Ask Unclutterer: How can I change someone into an unclutterer?

Since we started asking for submissions to the Ask Unclutterer column, we have received many, many, many questions on the following theme:

I am uncluttered and organized, but my partner/spouse/roommate/sibling/child is not. It drives me crazy! Please tell me how I can change/fix him/her/them.

Each time I see one of these messages, my heart goes out to the people involved. I used to be the partner/spouse/roommate/sibling/child who was making messes and not picking up after myself. My college roommates used to yell at me, my parents hired someone to clean my bedroom, and my husband had to have a serious talk with me that bordered on being an intervention. Although many of you may not believe me, the reality is that being a clutterer living with an unclutterer isn’t the easiest of lives, either.

People can change from clutterbugs into unclutterers — I’m living proof of that — but wanting the change to happen doesn’t necessarily mean that it will. Here are some tips that may help to improve your situation:

  • Put Yourself in Their Shoes. Living a cluttered life is not full of puppies and rainbows. You walk around with the stress of your crap and disorganization on your mind all the time. You want to be organized, but don’t have the knowledge and/or energy to make it happen. If you had enough money to pay someone to clean up after you, you would hire someone in a heartbeat just to get rid of the anxiety. You know that you’re upsetting other people, but something is stopping you from changing your ways.
  • Stop nagging and have a conversation. The worst thing you can do is nag the clutterbug. Nagging sends the message that you have no respect for the person. Instead, have a conversation about the state of your home. Go to a public place (most people don’t yell in public spaces) like a restaurant, coffee shop, or bar, and really get to the heart of the matter.
  • Be honest about what you do around the house. Most people overestimate their contributions to work done around the house. It’s because we focus on just what we’re doing, attach a sense of worth to it, and assume what the other person is doing isn’t as valuable. Keep a list of all that you do and ask your house mate to do the same. They might not know how much you actually do, and vice versa.
  • Plan together. Walk through your home and talk about what you imagine for each space. Have everyone input their ideas equally. How do you envision yourself living together in those rooms? What storage exists? How do you use the space and what do you need to do to keep these areas maintained?
  • Create responsibility lists. Sit down and set a clear plan of action for the future. Divide up chores and layout guidelines for who is responsible for what. Make action items and be realistic with time limits. Consider asking a professional organizer to join you if you want some help with brainstorming. Also, create a daily routine list, similar to what was discussed our “exhausted after work” column. Set clear expectations so that there is no grey area. Do this together — don’t make a list and hand it to your house mate.
  • Avoid criticism in the early weeks. It may take some time for everyone to figure out the nuances of the new responsibilities. Ask if the other person needs help instead of being critical about how the work is completed. Organizing and uncluttering are things we learn, and not everyone is perfect at a task the first time they try it.
  • Use gentle reminders. Turn on music when you clean so that there is an audible cue for cleaning. Or, use the same set of songs in a playlist for cleaning time if you typically have music playing in you’re home. Make it obvious that you are tackling the items on your list. Honestly, this is a more effective encouragement tool to get someone to do their chores than nagging them to help you.
  • Positive speech. It’s important to focus on the end results of your organizing and uncluttering activities. The payoffs one gains from being organized are usually more valuable than the payoffs the person gains from being lazy.

Be sure to check out our post “What to do if you are organized and your partner isn’t” for additional tips and tricks.

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.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Ask Unclutterer: Sell or donate?

Reader Amy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’d love to see some advice on what to donate vs. what to sell when clearing out the clutter!

Amy, this is a great request. Here is the following method I suggest for deciding what to do with home and office items once you determine they no longer belong in your possession:

Step 1: Visit some online auction sites like eBay, MaxSold, or other online classifieds and find out how much money a similar item recently sold for on the site. Look at the closing bids will give you a better idea of the final sale price.

Step 2: If the item sold for an amount that you believe is worth your time and effort to sell (for me, this number is $50+), then sell the item. Websites such as eBay and Craigslist (and kijiji in Canada) are perfect for online sales, and local consignment or pawn shops are wonderful brick and mortar alternatives. Garage sales are also good options.

Step 3: If the item sold for an amount less than your time and effort to sell number (for me this is less than $50), but is greater than zero, consider donating the object to charity or posting it on Freecycle or a neighborhood Buy Nothing site.

Step 4: If you cannot find a similar item for sale online and you think the item is junk, recycle, or trash the item. A good rule of thumb is that you should not give to charity any item that no one is willing to pay money to buy. Charities are not depositories for junk.

Note: Some of our readers have been successful uncluttering by listing items for free that they thought were scrap. For example, a wooden bed frame was picked up by a carpenter (to repurpose the wood), a contractor took away a pile of steel rebar and angle iron, and non-functioning electronics were scooped up by an adult learning center/trade school. If you choose to do this, and no one claims the items after a certain period of time (e.g., two weeks) then recycle or trash the items.

Thank you, Amy, for submitting the first 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.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Kick the procrastination habit

A November article in Scientific American magazine explored the topic of procrastination in its controversial article “Procrastinating Again? How to Kick the Habit.” The article concludes, as the subtitle of the article aptly states, “although biology is partly to blame for foot-dragging, anyone can learn to quit.”

The most promising advice it gives to getting past the procrastination habit is to plan time-specific actions into your schedule:

Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer of New York University and the University of Konstanz in Germany advises creating “implementation intentions,” which specify where and when you will perform a specific behavior. So rather than setting a vague goal such as “I will get healthy,” set one with its implementation, including timing, built in—say, “I will go to the health club at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow.”

Setting such specific prescriptions does appear to inhibit the tendency to procrastinate. In 2008 psychologist Shane Owens and his colleagues at Hofstra University demonstrated that procrastinators who formed implementation intentions were nearly eight times as likely to follow through on a commitment than were those who did not create them. “You have to make a specific commitment to a time and place at which to act beforehand,” Owens says. “That will make you more likely to follow through.”

The article also includes some startling information about the percentage of adults who regularly put off tasks:

Almost everyone occasionally procrastinates, which University of Calgary economist Piers Steel defines as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay. But like Raymond [an attorney who is a self-proclaimed procrastinator], a worrisome 15 to 20 percent of adults, the “mañana procrastinators,” routinely put off activities that would be better accomplished ASAP. And according to a 2007 meta-analysis by Steel, procrastination plagues a whopping 80 to 95 percent of college students, whose packed academic schedules and frat-party-style distractions put them at particular risk.

What strategies do you invoke to keep from procrastinating? Share your tips in the comments.

 

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Techniques for taming pet fur tumbleweeds

Reader Jim sent us the following question:

OK, so I like your 30 minutes per day cleaning model…however, with a dog (big chocolate lab) that is constantly shedding, what tools, cleaning devises, ideas, etc., might I use to keep up with the seemingly endless dog-hair dust bunnies? Vacuuming works, but takes time to drag out the vacuum, and the broom just seems to move the hair around.

In my house, we call these gifts from our two cats “tumbleweeds.” I like your use of the word “bunnies,” though, since they do feel as if they are forever multiplying. I completely empathize with your situation and hope that I can help.

Here are a handful of strategies for dealing with pet fur tumbleweeds:

  1. Once a day, armed with a couple slightly damp paper towels, walk through your house and capture the worst offenders. If they’re large enough that you would see them and be stressed or embarrassed if a house guest were to immediately notice them, just scoop them up with the paper towel. This isn’t deep cleaning, this is just peace of mind. At most, this process should take you five minutes and is a great chore for a younger child.
  2. Bathe your pets regularly. When you bathe a pet, a good chunk of loose hair and dander goes down the drain with the water. Now, granted, this task is a bit more difficult with a cat. You have to start bathing the cat when it’s a kitten or you’ll never be able to give it a bath as an adult. We’ve been bathing our cats twice a month since they were first adopted from the shelter and now they just climb into the water. Use a pet-friendly shampoo (not human shampoo) and ask your vet for tips and breed-specific bathing frequency recommendations if you’re new to the pet-washing adventure.
  3. Keep a pet brush handy. When your pet curls up at your feet and wants some snuggles, give him a brush at least once a day. You’ll capture the fur before it can become a tumbleweed.
  4. Install reliable air filters in your heating/air conditioning system and replace them seasonally.
  5. If your pet routinely uses a bed, drape its bed with a fleece blanket. If there is a favorite spot where he likes to curl up, lay a fleece blanket in that location. Fleece blankets act like giant magnets for pet hair because of their inherent static nature. Roll up the blanket and throw it in the washer once a week, and for extra pull, dry it without a dryer sheet.
  6. Although you hate to do it, you should run the vacuum at least once a week. Don’t forget to vacuum under the couch, along baseboards, every stair, and closet floors where pet fur tumbleweeds like to hide.
  7. Feed your pet high-quality food. The healthier your pet’s diet, the healthier your pet and his coat. Talk to your vet about the best diet for your pet. Sometimes, switching to a healthier pet food will greatly reduce the amount your pet sheds.

Good luck! And, if ever in doubt about a technique, just ask your vet. He or she will be able to tell you if something is safe for your pet.

Photograph accompanying this post taken by Matt Niemi.

 

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

Productivity and organizing insights found in Lean systems

In October 2008, The Wall Street Journal ran the article “Neatness Counts at Kyocera and at Others in the 5S Club.” The article explores a typical day for Kyocera employee Jay Scovie, whose job it is to patrol offices to make sure they are sorted, straightened, shined, standardized and sustained masterpieces of uncluttered glory:

Kyocera’s version of 5S, which it calls “Perfect 5S,” not only calls for organization in the workplace, but aesthetic uniformity. Sweaters can’t hang on the backs of chairs, personal items can’t be stowed beneath desks and the only decorations allowed on cabinets are official company plaques or certificates.

One thing that bugs me about the article is that it doesn’t explain that the rigid aesthetic standards Kyocera implements are not part of the 5S system. Rules prohibiting a sweater on the back of a chair are unique to Kyocera’s “Perfect” 5S processes and not the standard 5S efficiency program.

As an unclutterer and a fan of productivity improving methods, I’m always disheartened when I see extreme examples of efficiency improvement systems discussed as if they are the norm instead of the exception. Programs that strive to increase productivity in the workplace are usually worthwhile systems that increase morale and creative thinking, instead of stifle it. This 2014 article in Harvard Business Review indicates that employees perform better when they can control their space.

If you work for a company with more than 150 employees, you probably are already familiar with at least one Lean system (“Lean” is the buzzword in the business world to mean a program that trims the fat — unnecessary and wasteful processes, methods, systems, etc.). If you’re unfamiliar with Lean systems on the whole, or are only familiar with one specific program, you might be interested in learning more about them. Even if you don’t implement the full systems, simply knowing about their methods can help to improve the way you do your work. I have definitely gained many helpful tips and tricks studying their processes.

There are numerous Lean systems, and each has a different area of expertise. Some can be used together, some are branches of pre-existing systems, while others are stand-alone programs. Different programs fall in and out of fashion, and these are a number of the current heavy hitters and resources that decently explain them:

What are your thoughts on Lean systems? Do you find that they contain useful productivity and organizing insights?

 

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

Book review: The Power of Less

Editor’s note: Although this post was originally published in 2009, we felt that information in The Power of Less is still relevant today.

Leo Babauta, who writes the inspiring blog ZenHabits, took his productivity and efficiency advice to the printed page in his book The Power of Less. Published in 2009, it is a 170-page guide to shedding the non-essential elements from your life and work so that you can do and achieve more.

His advice is based on six principles, two of which are initially discussed on pages 5 and 6 of his book:

Principle 1: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations.

Principle 2: By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources. Always choose the essential to maximize your time and energy.

He uses the analogy of the haiku to illustrate these principles:

The haiku, as you may know, is usually a nature-related poem of just seventeen syllables, written in three lines (five syllables, then seven, then five). A poet writing a haiku must work with those limitations, must express an entire idea or image in only that number of syllables … He can quickly whip out seventeen syllables and have a completed haiku in a short amount of time; or he can carefully choose only the essential words and images needed to convey his idea. And this second choice is what creates some of the most powerful poetry in such a limited form — choosing only the essential.

He has four other principles, but these first two are really the heart of his system. In my opinion, he accurately explains that if you are going to be productive and efficient in all that you do, you have to make choices. You cannot do everything that comes your way, and you have to make difficult decisions about what filters into your life and what doesn’t.

On page 23 he aptly summarizes why you would want to adopt his system:

Simplifying isn’t meant to leave your life empty — it’s meant to leave space in your life for what you really want to do.

I completely agree with his message, and I think it will resonate well with most Unclutterer readers. If you are looking for sound advice on how to improve your productivity, The Power of Less will help you to be more efficient in all your dealings.

You can also check out Leo’s guest post on Unclutterer “Creating a minimalist workspace.”

 

January is Get Organized and Be Productive Month

The National Association of Professional Organizers has once again declared January Get Organized and Be Productive Month!

We love the idea of starting off the year on the right foot, and we hope that you get in on the organizing spirit. NAPO has many events scheduled across the country as part of their Get Organized and Be Productive Month.

Also, Amazon is interested in helping you get organized in January with a number of good deals on storage solutions and organizing books.

Do you have plans to get organized in January? Let us know about your plans in the comments. You can help inspire all of us.

 

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Reader suggestion: Cleaning ornaments

It is a great idea to clean and dry ornaments before putting them away for the season. In most cases, a damp cloth will be enough to remove any dust that has accumulated during the season. For ornaments that can’t be washed with water, reader Kerry wrote to us with this tip for cleaning ornaments.

When I take the ornaments off the tree, I hang them on my indoor clothes drying rack which is placed over a towel. Then, I use compressed air to clean the ornaments so they are ready for next year!

Great idea, Kerry!

If you have any ornament cleaning tips you would like to share, let us know in the comments below.

 

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

Uncluttering your schedule to keep clear of unnecessary stress

Being human can be difficult some days. I most often notice the difficulties when I’m stressed, full of anxiety, things are chaotic, and/or under pressure. Little problems that are usually dealt with easily turn into big issues because my abilities to see the whole picture or keep my cool are gone.

One time, I completely unhinged in front of one of my colleagues. I was quietly working at my desk one minute, and the next minute I threw a tantrum because a project we were working on took a turn I didn’t expect. Instead of reacting like a normal person, I chose the path of awful person. I used my “outside voice” for at least a full minute before I realized I was being a complete idiot. Thankfully, my colleague burst into laughter (instead of yelling back or quitting) and asked if my outburst helped me feel better.

It took me two hours to calm down and figure out what had happened. Many elements in my life were to blame:

Stress + Anxiety + Disappointment + Poor Planning = Awful Erin.

As full disclosure, one of these elements was completely out of my hands. I had no way to control the event that happened that triggered my disappointment. No matter what the day or how prepared I possibly could have been, I still would have been disappointed.

The other elements were all my fault, however. My poor planning resulted in stresses and anxieties that were wholly unnecessary, and which made me blow the incident with my co-worker completely out of proportion. If I had planned appropriately, I would have been able to move with the ebbs and flows of the day and not let the stress and anxiety overwhelm me. More precisely, I wouldn’t have been experiencing stress and anxiety — at least not at the level I was.

Later that afternoon, I made a heartfelt apology to my colleague, we had a good laugh, and then I went home to re-evaluate my schedule. I needed to be realistic about my abilities.

I revisited my initial estimations and doubled them. What I thought would take one hour, I doubled to two. What I thought would take a day, I scheduled to two days. I made phone calls and adjusted others’ expectations of my timeline accordingly.

With all things in life, the more stress and anxiety you feel, the less able you are to think and respond to the best of your abilities. Proper planning — being honest with yourself about how long it will take to complete action items, setting a schedule, and having the diligence to keep to that schedule — will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and in control of the things you can control.

After my tantrum and retooling of my schedule, I noticed a significant decrease in my stress and anxiety levels. I am not super human, and my new schedule was realistic and maintainable. Unfortunately, it took making a fool out of myself to realize I needed a change. How do you organize your time to keep stress and anxiety at bay, and how do you avoid potential stress meltdowns?

 

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

Preparing your car for a road trip

Today we welcome John Walton, author of the British travel blog Voyagers, to give us incredibly useful tips for auto travel. Welcome, John!

This holiday season, with prices at the pumps lower but airline prices not really dropping, many of us are taking to the road instead of to the skies. But is your car, truck, or SUV ready for the trip over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house?

If you’re like me, your car is normally pretty clean, but this time of year there’s stuff in it that you don’t need. (I live at Land’s End in Cornwall. That free tourist map of Scotland isn’t much use, so I can take a digital picture of it and throw the paper version away.)

Loose objects in your car can be more than just an eyesore. They’re potentially lethal projectiles if you have to stop suddenly. So use those little nets, compartments, and pockets wisely. Embarrassing holiday incidents shouldn’t include a coffee flask to the back of the head.

Often, a messy car results from not having anywhere to put things away. When I downsized to a smart in 2008 it took me a while to figure out where to put my iPhone, water, and coffee. My tiny car doesn’t really have enough nooks and crannies, so I buckled a daypack-sized backpack into the passenger’s side seat belt so my stuff isn’t going anywhere if I have to slam on the brakes.

Take a look around your local auto supply store for things that would be helpful. Beware the temptation to acquire things just because they are  unique, though! You almost certainly don’t need a Purple Petal Mirror Muff, but one of those four-port USB chargers  could be a great investment.

If you’re going far, make sure that everybody in the car has something to keep them entertained. Before you leave on your trip is the time to load your gadgets with your favorite music or that thirteen-hour set of The Lord of the Rings.

Lastly, and perhaps most important of all, be sure your vehicle is mechanically prepared for the season — whether you’re below freezing in Norway or Nebraska or sunning yourself in Argentina or Australia. Make sure you are comfortable driving in the weather conditions. Invest in a car emergency kit. Check your local automobile association’s website for tips appropriate to your region — and remember to check for your destination too, if you’re traveling!

Happy travels and happy holidays!

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

Reader suggestion: Storing a George Foreman Grill

Reader Liz sent us the following solution for storing the removable plates and body of her George Foreman Grill:

I got the wonderful George Foreman grill with the changeable plates for Christmas a few years ago. I have since been struggling with how to store the 5 grill plates since they don’t stack conveniently and can get easily scratched. I live in an apartment, so storage space is hard to come by. After several disappointing online searches, I decided to create my own [storage solution]. I used a vertical, metal sorter (similar to this one) placed on top of a locker shelf (similar to this one) so I can store my Foreman grill underneath the plates. The file sorter that is holding the grill plates is coated in plastic so it won’t scratch the plates, which is vital!

In addition to being a great solution for a George Foreman Grill, it would be wonderful for waffle iron plates, lids for reusable storage containers, lids for pots and pans, and even baking pans and cookie sheets. Thank you for such a terrific suggestion, Liz!

 

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

Rolling along with my ZÜCA bag

A few years ago, an employee at ZÜCA, Inc., e-mailed me and asked if I had ever heard of their line of luggage. I hadn’t.

At that time, I was in a hate-hate relationship with my overnight bag. It was a multiple-pocket duffle bag that had the worst strap configuration known to man on it. When I got it, the bag was empty, and I had no idea how much pain the strap could inflict on my shoulder with even the smallest amount of weight in it.

I decided to check out a ZÜCA bag and see if it might be a nice alternative. I’m glad that I did, because the ZÜCA bag is my new best friend for when I need to travel for a week or less.

These are the reasons why I think the ZÜCA bag is great:

  • The wheels. They maneuver better than any luggage with wheels that I’ve ever test driven. Plus, you can order customized ones that look like roller skate or skateboard wheels.
  • The built-in chair. The aluminum frame on the bag allows you to be able to use the piece of luggage as a chair. Often times, at the airport, I find myself waiting in lines. Now, I just sit while I wait.
  • The TSA-compliant zipper pouch. The pouch has a specialized pocket right inside the bag so that I can easily grab it when heading through security and then pop it back into place after putting on my shoes.
  • The laptop pocket. Actually, I’m pretty sure ZÜCA didn’t imagine the side pocket to be a laptop pocket, but mine fits right inside of it. When going through security at the airport, I just slide it out of the pocket without having to unzip or unsnap anything. I have to be careful, however, if I store my bag in the overhead compartment to either take my laptop out of the pocket or store my bag laptop-side on top.
  • The insert bags. I don’t always use each and every one of the insert bags, but I use most of them. I put my shoes and belts in one, my shirts in another, etc. They keep shoe crud from getting on my clothing.
  • The washable exterior. If the ZÜCA bag gets dirty, you can remove the bag from the frame and wash it. It’s also water resistant, so if it rains, your stuff is nice and dry inside. Also, if you decide you want something snazzy, you can change the bag to a different pattern the company sells.

My only problem with the bag is that I have yet to find a way to store a suit coat without it getting wrinkled. My assumption is that this is a failing of mine, and not a problem with the bag design. However, if the bag had a suit pouch that would wrap around the insert bags, I wouldn’t have a concern at all.

Also, the bag isn’t cheap. It retails for close to $300. A quick search through some other luggage websites finds that the price is comparable to similar bags of its size. I believe the price is worth it, though, especially for people who travel a lot for business. If you’re in the market for a new piece of carry-on luggage that holds up to a week’s worth of clothes in an incredibly organized manner, you definitely need to check out the ZÜCA bag.

 

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