Avoiding “sorry for the late response” emails

If I didn’t email you back it means I set your note aside to consider more carefully later, then didn’t. — Michael Green, on Twitter

I read this tweet and smiled, because I’ve done the same thing, as have so many others. Marissa Miller once tweeted, “adulthood is emailing ‘sorry for the delayed response!’ back and forth until one of you dies” and her tweet got shared 27,000 times, so this obviously resonates with a lot of people.

Susanna Wolff recently wrote a humor column in The New Yorker entitled Sorry For the Delayed Response that is full of imagined way-too-late email responses, starting with the following one:

Sorry for the delayed response. I opened your e-mail on my phone while my date was in the bathroom, but then I saw that it required more than a “yes” or “no” reply, decided that was too much work, marked it as unread, and then forgot about it entirely until just now.

So how can we avoid the delayed response syndrome?

Suggestions for email senders

In an article entitled Let’s All Stop Apologizing for the Delayed Response in Our Emails, Melissa Dahl wrote about what she saw as the “real problem with replying to email”:

When … are you supposed to reply? Sometimes people make this clear, explicitly noting that they need an answer by the end of the day, or week, or whatever. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

So try helping your email recipients by making it clear just how urgently you need a reply: right now, tomorrow, by a specific future date, etc. You can also adopt the practice that Tsh Oxenreider describes on her blog, The Art of Simple: her friend Sarah ends some emails with “No need to reply!” Not every email requires a response, so it helps to make it explicit when no response is expected.

Also, make it easy for your recipients to see exactly what response is needed. A few days ago I got an email from my brother with five numbered questions, and it was extremely easy to respond quickly — and I knew he needed a quick response because he told me that. Each question was brief, including exactly the information I needed in order to answer. Did I want to go to either of two choral performances (with dates and location provided)? How did I feel about a potential family reunion at a specific place on a specific date? If only all my emails were that easy to handle!

Suggestions for email receivers

If it’s not clear when a response is needed, you can write back and ask. This will help you respond appropriately, and it might also train your correspondents to include this information in the future.

As we’ve discussed before on Unclutterer, you can create your reply faster by using a text expansion tool to handle frequently used text.

But the advice I read that I personally found the most meaningful came from Melissa Febos, writing in the Catapult online magazine and addressing her fellow writers: “Stop trying to get an A+ at anything but writing your best work.” The specific thing you’re trying to get an A+ in may be almost anything, but it probably isn’t email replies. Yes, work emails require professionalism and clarity. But I know I’ve sometimes spent way longer on an email response than was necessary. The latent perfectionist in me likes those A+’s, but I know that my time can often be spent more wisely.

An exercise in uncluttering: books and magazines

Some people expect that since I’m a professional organizer my home will be somewhat like that of minimalist Joshua Fields Millburn, and it’s not at all. I get a lot of pleasure from having carefully selected art work on my walls and selected horizontal surfaces. My cats like having a lot of good places to curl up, so my house has lots of baskets, blankets, and plush mats strategically placed for them.

And then there are the books. After writing about minimalism yesterday, I decided it was time to take a look at the bookcase in my home office, because I wasn’t at all sure the books on those shelves still enhanced my life in any way. Sure enough, I found myself freecycling 24 of them right away, with more to come. And one went into my recycling bin when I decided the extensive technology-related information was too dated to be useful to anyone.

None of these books were bad purchases — they served me well when I first bought them. But I no longer need a huge collection of books about organizing, even if I think the books are excellent. I have a few favorites that I do pull out at times, and there are some with specialized information that come in particularly handy. But most of them just sit there, year after year. I had a lot of marketing-related books that never got looked at, too. No more!

It’s easy to get accustomed to having things in your space and to stop really noticing them. In The Organizing Sourcebook, Kathy Waddill wrote about going through your home with the eyes of a stranger, looking at everything as if you’ve never seen any of it before. An exercise like that can get you to question things like those books I had in my office.

As I went through the organizing books, I looked at what I had highlighted in each one. If a sentence or two particularly resonated with me, I typed the sentences into a text file for future reference. One of those books I was passing along is Order From Chaos by Liz Davenport, and I noted this line: “If you have more than a three-inch pile of things to read, what you have is a stack of guilt.”

Reading that made me think about the pile of magazines in my bedroom — which was only 2.5 inches tall, but still felt like a stack of guilt. The pile consisted of multiple issues of a single magazine, and that same magazine had recently sent me numerous renewal notices that had piled up in my in box. I decided it was past time to make some decisions here, so I looked through the entire pile and realized that as much as I had enjoyed the magazine in the past, there was nothing in the current issues that I wanted to read. So they went into recycling (being a bit too specialized to be donated to doctors’ offices or such) and the renewal notices will get discarded.

So now I have less guilt and a bunch of spare space on my previously stuffed-to-the-limit bookcase — not bad for a few hours of work! This exercise was a nice example of how even a small uncluttering project can make a noticeable difference.

Is “organizing” a dirty word?

The two men known as The Minimalists wrote an essay entitled Organizing is Well-Planned Hoarding in which they stated, “We need to start thinking of organizing as a dirty word. It is a sneaky little profanity that keeps us from simplifying our lives.”

Well, yes and no.

Certainly putting things away in an organized manner doesn’t do much if the underlying problem is that you need to unclutter. In his book Clutter’s Last Stand, Don Aslett wrote about “junk bunkers” such as shoe organizers (for shoes you never wear) and magazine binders (for magazines you’ll never look at again). That’s why professional organizers will tell you that buying cool containers (if you find you need them) is one of the last steps in organizing, not the first.

I also find that this “elevator pitch” for minimalism makes a lot of sense:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

If you look through the tour of minimalist Joshua Fields Millburn’s home, you’ll see he owns very few things, and that obviously works for him — and a similar approach works for others, too.

But perhaps the things that add value to your life are work or hobbies that require stuff: a carpenter’s tools, an artist or crafter’s supplies, sports gear of various sorts, etc. For example, if you make a contribution by providing quilts to cancer patients and others facing a tough time, you’re going to have a stash of fabric.

Or maybe you’re passionate about music, and you have a large collection of vinyl albums. You’ll want to have some organizing scheme for those.

Another example: You may have family members whose well-being depends on a number of medicines and medical products, which you certainly want to keep organized.

It pays to look through that stuff periodically to make sure you still want all of it. Do all those hobbies still have a meaningful place in your life? Did you buy a package of scrapbook pages but only really like half of them? Do you have old tools that have been replaced by better ones? Did you buy an album on speculation just to find it’s not to your taste at all? Have your prescriptions changed so that you now have medicines you no longer need?

But once you’ve decided what to keep, you’re going to want to have it organized so you can find things when its time to use them.

So yes — the first steps in organizing are to “imagine the life you want to live” (as Peter Walsh says in his book It’s All Too Much) and to discard those items that don’t help you achieve that goal. But after you’ve done the imagining and the uncluttering, you’ll also want to take whatever final organizing steps — giving everything a defined storage space, keeping like with like, containerizing, labeling — will help you store your things so you can find them later.

More thoughts on managing kids’ screen time

I’m not a parent, so I’m always interested in how those who are parents deal with child-related organizing issues: handling school papers, assigning chores, etc. Dave’s recent take on managing screen time gave me one more bit of real-life insight.

It’s an interesting topic, partly because not everyone agrees about what’s best — and sometimes the recommendations change. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend zero screen time for those under the age of 2, and that recommendation became widely known. Less widely known, perhaps, is that the group revised its recommendations a bit last October, so it now suggests the following:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

Some of this makes intuitive sense to me. For example, letting young children Skype or FaceTime with distant grandparents or travelling parents seems like a good thing. And making sure screen time doesn’t take over a child’s life seems like an obvious goal.

But I feel as though some of the limits are overly restrictive. No matter how much a parent might wish things were different, there are times when using a tablet or smartphone as a babysitter for a child age 5 or younger can be a lifesaver to a parent’s sanity and ability to get essential tasks done. Suzanne Janesse described on Babble.com how this works in her family. I’m sure many parents have their own similar tales.

As Athena Tsavliris wrote in Today’s Parent, “Reality sometimes calls for the iNanny.” This doesn’t mean that these parents let their children use electronic devices for hours on end, with no controls on the content. But insisting that all screen time with young children should involve co-viewing seems unrealistic in many family situations.

It’s also worth noting that our scientific knowledge regarding the effects of using apps with young children is still evolving. For example, Greg Toppo reported the following in USA Today in 2014:

A recent small-scale trial by New York University researcher Susan B. Neuman, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, found that giving a group of preschoolers the chance to play for just 15 minutes a day on a popular app called Learn with Homer improved their reading skills 74% in a six-week summer period — without the help of a teacher.

So, as with almost anything related to organizing, there are no absolutes that work for everyone. Just make thoughtful decisions about your family’s use of screen time, based on your individual family members’ needs, and adjust those decisions if they don’t seem to be working.

An April opportunity to recycle old, broken toys

Many parents face the issue of toy clutter. Their children have more toys than they could ever need or want, often gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. Or they just have toys their children have outgrown.

If the toys are in good condition, they can often be passed along to other families. But what do you do with the toys that are broken or missing parts? Sending them to landfill often seems like the only answer.

However, through April 30, those in the U.S. have a cool alternative. Tom’s of Maine and TerraCycle have joined forces to provide free recycling of these toys. Just go to the Tom’s of Maine website and click to get a free shipping label. Then fill a box with up to 10 pounds of toys and ship it off at any UPS location.

TerraCycle has a number of ongoing free recycling programs for Clif Bar wrappers, Brita items, Solo cups, Wellness pet food packets, and more — including Tom’s of Maine toothbrushes and much of the company’s product packaging. Tom’s worked with TerraCycle on a toy recycling program in April 2015, but that one was limited to 500 of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. The boxes were all claimed within four days, so this year’s program was designed to allow more people to participate.

What happens to the items sent in through the Tom’s of Maine Toy Recycling Program? Lauren Taylor of TerraCycle gave me the answer in an email:

The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, and plastics. Fabrics are reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The fibers (such as paper or wood based products) are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.

So if you cringe at sending things to landfill, here’s your opportunity to gather up those dilapidated stuffed animals, the puzzles with missing pieces, the mystery toy pieces, the torn playing cards — and any other broken, worn-out, or incomplete toys — and ship them off for recycling.

Organizing for emergencies and Tsunami Preparedness Week

It’s Tsunami Preparedness Week in California, where I live. Since my home is near the coast, I decided to take another look at what’s recommended for those who live in — or visit — areas which may be impacted by a tsunami.

The Red Cross has a three-step plan describing how to prepare for all sorts of emergencies: fire, hurricane, earthquake, etc. It’s a useful framework that can be tailored to whatever scenario you’re planning for, including a tsunami. If you’ll never face a tsunami risk, you may want to do the same thing for the risks that affect your area.

Get a kit

You can find many resources on preparing a kit for emergency situations: an evacuation or a need to stay at home without access to your normal stores and services. You can buy pre-packaged kits or assemble your own, making sure to accommodate the needs of any children or pets.

If you live or work in a tsunami zone, you’ll probably have hours to evacuate if a tsunami arrives as a result of an earthquake far away. However, a strong local earthquake might cause a tsunami with very little time to prepare. And you may need to evacuate on foot, if at all possible, since roads may be damaged or clogged with traffic. This means you’ll want a portable kit with the real essentials ready to grab and go. A kit for work might need good walking shoes.

One of my two cats is about 18 pounds, so I’m not sure how I’d carry him if I needed to evacuate on foot. (His normal carrying case would be unwieldy to carry for any decent distance.) A wheeled carrier or a backpack, maybe? Fortunately, since I’m just outside a tsunami evacuation zone, I don’t need to worry about that.

Make a plan

Your tsunami plan, if you need one, would include both evacuation and family communication. Be sure to understand what plans are in place for any of your schools or workplaces that may need to evacuate, so your personal plans can incorporate those other plans.

It helps to practice traveling along any chosen evacuation route so you can travel it without a lot of thought, even if it’s dark or the weather is bad.

For some disaster situations you can take steps to help minimize the risk. There are a number of ways to make your home a less dangerous place in an earthquake. If you live in tornado country, you may be able to build a safe room.

In a tsunami situation, there are no equivalent steps you can take. However, your plan might involve buying flood insurance if your home is at risk.

Be informed

If you live or work near the coast, you’ll want to know if your home, workplace, or school is in an evacuation zone. For those in the U.S., you can find the relevant maps online. You’ll also want to know about any designated evacuation routes and safe gathering spaces, as well as your community’s warning plan.

If you’re a tourist, you’ll want to be aware of evacuation procedures in the area you’re visiting.

And both residents and tourists will want to know the warning signs of a potential tsunami, since warning systems might not have time to alert you about a tsunami generated by a local event. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has a good list of these warning signs: strong long-lasting ground shaking from an earthquake, unusual sea-level fluctuations, an abnormally large wave, or a loud ocean roar.

It took me a couple hours of searching the web and reading reliable information sources to feel like I understood my tsunami risk and what I should be doing, just in case. I think it was time well spent.

Making filing easier

For me, one of the most annoying parts of setting up a filing system is creating the labeled tabs on the hanging file folders. It’s a fussy and time-consuming process, dealing with those paper inserts for the plastic tabs.

One solution is to avoid hanging file folders altogether and just use standard file folders, but that’s awkward for many people, given that many file cabinets are set up for hanging files. But there are other alternatives, and if you get as annoyed as I do with the standard plastic tabs, you may want to consider one of these.

Erasable hanging folder tabs are the ones I’m going to try, myself. You can use them with the hanging folders you already have, although they cost about 25 percent more than the normal 1/3 cut plastic tabs do. (I much prefer the longer 1/3 cut tabs to the shorter 1/5 cut tabs, because you can have more meaningful filenames.) You need to use a permanent marker and a standard white eraser, which could be a minor hassle — but many offices I’m in already have those lying around. Alternatively, I’m guessing you could attach a self-adhesive label made with a label maker to the tab if you prefer that to handwritten labels.

If you don’t already have hanging file folders, you might want to try the folders with built-in erasable tabs. You can get them in this moss color or in assorted colors, and there’s a box-bottom option if you need the extra space. However, these folders may be problematic for those of us who prefer straight-line filing, since the tabs come in sets with three positions: left, right, and center.

If you want to use labels from a label maker, and don’t care about the erasable feature, you could buy similar hanging folders with built-in 2-ply reinforced tabs. You could also write on these with pencil and erase as needed, but penciled labels may be a bit too faint to read easily.

The unusual Find It hanging files have a lower top rail so you can easily see the tabs on the interior folders — so you don’t need any tabs on the hanging folders. These folders can also help those who have file cabinets where normal hanging folder tabs don’t fit because of the drawer height.

This solution assumes you use interior file folders in your hanging files, which not everyone does. (I often don’t.) But for the right person, these can be a great choice. I know someone who gave away all her other hanging file folders and uses these exclusively.

Uncluttering my file cabinets

I’m not as anti-paper as Alex is, but reading his “paperless as possible” post inspired me to re-evaluate what’s in my two file cabinets. I was also inspired by a friend who is doing a major uncluttering — she found a box full of papers (bank statements, utility bills, etc.) from 1999. I didn’t think I had anything that obviously worthless (beyond a few expired coupons), but I sure came close.

See all those lovely lavender-colored folders? Those were all my old client files. Some of those were from clients I haven’t seen since 2005. They were all nicely organized, but they were useless.

Most of those files contained just three things: a printout of the contact information from my digital address book, a map and driving instructions, and a signed client agreement. (I could tell how old each file was by seeing which mapping program I’d used: MapQuest, Google Maps, or Apple Maps.)

There was really no need to keep anything except the client agreements — everything else was easily reprinted if I ever needed it. So I started going through the files, pulling out the client agreements and scanning them, and then shredding everything.

See my recycling bin, with paper bags full of shredded paper? And many more bags got added after I took that photo.

I found plenty of other papers that were taking up unnecessary file cabinet space, too. Some were the kind of things so many people have: coupons for services I’ll never use, old restaurant menus, etc. As I’ve noted before, I expect to find (and discard) papers like these when I do a periodic file cabinet cleanup.

But I also found another large group of unnecessary papers. Over 10 years ago I created a bunch of “idea books” with photos showing organized kitchens, entryways, garages, closets, etc. Now everyone (who uses a computer) can find plenty of aspirational examples of organized spaces on Pinterest and elsewhere. And if I wanted to suggest a product to a client, I’d just email a link. I don’t think I ever once used those idea books, and it was way past time to let them go. Since I kept them in hanging files in a file cabinet, getting rid of them freed up a lot of space.

Now I just need to decide what to do with my newly empty Itoya Profolios. They’re very nice products, but I’m not sure I have any use for them.

I’ll also need to decide what to do with the empty file cabinet space. I can’t easily get rid of either file cabinet — there are still too many files that I do want to keep. Also, the cabinets fit nicely into their spaces, so I don’t feel any need to have them disappear. Instead, I’ll probably use the empty space to store a few things that could use better homes than the ones they have now.

This effort was a great reminder of how easy it is to become accustomed to keeping certain things — papers and more — without thinking about why we’re keeping them and if they’ve outlived their purposes.

Three strategies to avoid losing things

Do you have a problem with losing things? If so, you’re far from alone, as Kathryn Schulz wrote in “When Things Go Missing” in The New Yorker:

Passwords, passports, umbrellas, scarves, earrings, earbuds, musical instruments, W-2s, that letter you meant to answer, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range of things we lose and the readiness with which we do so are staggering. Data from one insurance-company survey suggest that the average person misplaces up to nine objects a day.

I’m a pretty organized person, but I’ve certainly misplaced things. I recently left my iPad behind in the front desk of the organization where I volunteer on Monday mornings. I noticed it was missing on Monday night and knew where I must have left it, but I had jury duty early the next day and couldn’t go pick it up. Fortunately, a neighbor did that for me.

I’ve also sometimes left a sweater or jacket behind after working with a client. And just recently I misplaced a Visa bill and had to call to ask what I owed so I could make the proper payment.

Looking back at these instances of misplaced items, I can see where I went wrong and define strategies to avoid such problems in the future.

Ensure that everything has a “home”

I know this might seem obvious, and I’m normally good at having homes for my things. For example, I don’t lose my glasses or my keys because they always go in the same place. But exceptions to the rule can cause me problems.

I realized that when I take off a jacket at a client’s home or office, I often place it wherever is convenient at the moment: on the back of a chair, on a doorknob, etc. From now on its home is going to be right next to my purse. (I never forget my purse! And I couldn’t get far if I did, since it has my car keys.)

Make sure things get to their defined homes

I have a place for bills to be paid, but I set my Visa bill down somewhere else “just for now” rather than taking the 20 seconds to put it away properly. Bad idea! I know that, but we all mess up occasionally. Misplacing the bill was just a reminder not to get lazy about putting things away properly. This is especially important with things like papers which can so easily get buried.

Limit what gets carried around

When I first started my volunteer work I thought it might be handy to have my iPad with me. Since then I’ve realized it doesn’t really help, so now I leave it at home. I can’t leave something behind if it didn’t come with me in the first place! The fewer things I carry when I’m out and about, the less chance there is I’ll lose something.

Avoiding the clutter of high-maintenance purchases

I first learned about the importance of buying things that were easy to maintain years ago, when I had a vacuum cleaner with a bag that seemed next to impossible to replace. Vacuum cleaner design has improved a lot since then, but the lesson remains. Items that are hard to maintain often are unused — or if they are necessities, like my vacuum cleaner, they take time you’d rather spend elsewhere.

I learned the lesson again when I bought an inadequate shredder and spent way too much time pulling jammed paper out of the shredder with some tweezers. That shredder is now gone, replaced with one that never jams.

What qualifies as “too much maintenance” will differ from person to person. Unlike Alex, I don’t like to iron, so I avoid buying clothes or linens that require ironing. Clothes that require hand washing are items that some people will want to leave in the store. “Dry flat” might also be a problem if you don’t have a good place for doing that.

The kitchen is another place where it’s easy to wind up with high-maintenance items. For many people, anything that can’t go in the dishwasher is too much bother. (On the other hand, my kitchen doesn’t even have a dishwasher, so that’s not an issue for me.)

My book club just read a novel where one of the characters doesn’t want the bother of polishing the good silver her mother passed down to her, so she finds another family member who does want the silver.

And then there are the small appliances that sound good at first, but wear out their welcome. Kristin Wong wrote about her juicer on the Lifehacker website:

It was time-consuming to clean and maintain. (At one point, I said, “I’d rather buy juice than ever clean this thing again.”)

When choosing appliances and other items, easy-to-clean may be something you want to add to your list of criteria. For example, Christine Cyr Clisset at The Sweethome website listed her criteria for picking a kitchen scale, which included this:

Beyond these basics, the buttons on the scale should preferably be covered in a plastic membrane (aka “seamless”), so gunk won’t collect in the cracks and you can clean the machine easily.

For those who dislike dusting, an overabundance of knickknacks might qualify as a high-maintenance item. As Toni Anderson wrote:

When I got married I had boxes full of knickknacks, a few of them I loved, but most of them I just kept because people had given them to me. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t really want to dust these pieces on a regular basis. Over time I kept only the pieces that were truly special to me.

And then there’s the duvet cover. Mine was really lovely, but I struggled with it every time I washed it, and the instructions I found online didn’t help. I finally gave it away. Now I just place a light blanket over my king-size down comforter (and a sheet underneath it) to keep it clean, and a dreaded task is gone from my life.

What items do you find are more trouble than they’re worth? Please share in the comments!

Avoiding an excess of tote bags

When I first started working as a professional organizer I often found people had what seemed to be an excessive number of grocery bags — paper, plastic, or both. If they agreed, I would often take those excess bags and donate them to charities doing food giveaways.

However, starting in 2007, laws in California changed — first in certain cities and counties, and then at the statewide level. California now bans many stores from providing single-use plastic bags at check-out (with a few exceptions), and stores now charge a small fee for paper bags.

There’s good reason for such bans, as Chelsea Harvey explained in The Washington Post:

Plastic bags are infamous non-biodegradable sources of pollution — although they will eventually break down into tiny pieces, scientists believe this process can take hundreds of years, or even up to a millennium, in landfills.

Many scientists are growing particularly concerned about plastic pollution in the oceans. Research suggests that 5 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic may have been dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone. There, the waste is frequently eaten by seabirds and other marine animals — or it breaks down into tiny pieces known as microplastics, which scientists believe can be harmful or even toxic to sea creatures who ingest it.

If you want to know more, Ed Yong wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic explaining why some seabirds are attracted to this plastic. If you still use plastic grocery bags, you’ll want to be sure they get reused (by you or others) or disposed of responsibly so they don’t wind up in the ocean. Bags that are left in the street often get washed into gutters, and go from there into various waterways.

As a result of these new laws restricting single-use bags, reusable tote bags have become popular. And now I often see people with an excess of those bags, partly because tote bags get given away so often. I’ve gotten bags at conferences and received bags as gifts from charities. I got one when I subscribed to a certain newspaper.

I use a lot of bags in my work — they’re handy for hauling away items my clients want to donate, recycle, or give away. But even I wound up with more bags than I could possibly use, without buying a single one. This is a common problem, as Noah Dillon noted in The Atlantic:

In a 2009 article about the bags for Design Observer, the Urban Outfitters designer Dmitri Siegel claimed to have found 23 tote bags in his house, collected from various organizations, stores, and brands. …

He notes that because the bags are large, flat, and easily printed on, they’re great for embellishment and product placement. They’re given away with purchases at galleries, bookstores, eyeglass boutiques, grocers, tattoo parlors.

Besides cluttering our homes, these bags have another problem: They take a lot of resources to produce. Dillon noted that a bag made of recycled polypropylene plastic would need to be reused 26 times to be as environmentally sound (from a resource usage standpoint) as a plastic bag. And a cotton tote bag would need to be used 327 times!

So what can someone trying to live a green and uncluttered life do? For one thing, you can decline to take extra bags you don’t need when they are offered. If you always carry a tote bag with you, it’s easy to tell a store that you don’t need theirs for your purchase. (Small bags that have limited reuse possibilities are especially annoying.) Get in the habit of always having bags in your car or carrying one or more with you when you walk, bicycle, or take public transit to any place where you might do some shopping. Many bags fold up to a very small size and can fit in a backpack, purse, briefcase, etc.

Similarly, if a charity offers a bag as a reward for making a donation, decline that offer if you don’t need any more bags. When you see clever tote bags on sale (and there are certainly many that I’ve found tempting), consider whether it’s something you’ll really use or if will just become clutter — just as you would with any purchase.

Finally, you can give away excess bags. It seems that not everyone has too many, because I successfully freecycled about a dozen a few months ago.

The inherited-photos dilemma

Do you struggle with a collection of old photos? If so, you may relate to the following question I got via email, which the sender agreed I could answer here since this situation is not uncommon:

I have a ton of old pictures that I ended up with when my mom passed away three years ago. Sadly, some of them I have no idea who they are. I dread organizing them and wonder if you have any tips to help me. Many of them are in old photo albums on black paper with those little edges.

I’m wondering if I should save those as is or take them all apart and scan and get rid of them. I’ve put this off for three years now. Help me before I put it off for another three years — or more!

I also have slides that my parents took and have no way of looking at them to see if I even want to keep them.

First of all, you are under no obligation to keep old photos that have no meaning to you, which would be the case with photos of unknown people. Just as with anything else you inherit, you can decide which items you want to keep and then find appropriate homes for the rest.

What would be an appropriate home for those photos of mystery people? If anyone in your family is into genealogy, that person might well appreciate getting the photos. My brother began researching our family tree over the past few years and has identified many of the mystery people in the photos we inherited from my mother. You might bring the photos to a family gathering and see if anyone wants some.

If no family members have any interest, you could check to see if a local historical society would be interested in them. An art school — or any school’s art class — might enjoy working with them. Some people have had luck using freeycle groups, Craigslist, or eBay to sell or give away old photos.

If none of these ideas work out for you, it’s okay to just toss the photos that aren’t meaningful to you. As Earth911 explains, many older photos have a chemical coating that keeps them from being recyclable, so they may just need to go into the trash bin.

For the photos you do want to keep, scanning at least the best of them is a good idea. Digital photos can be stored and backed up so they won’t be lost if you were unlucky enough to have a flood, a fire, etc. Also, digital photos can be easily shared with other family members. You could scan them yourself, using a flatbed scanner, or pay one of the many photo scanning services to do this for you.

You can then decide whether you want to keep the originals of the photos you’ve scanned. For any you do want to keep, using an album or box that has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) will help ensure the photos don’t deteriorate over time. Albums can make for nicer viewing, but photo boxes take a lot less space.

You are lucky that your photos are in albums with the little corner holders, so it will be easy to remove them as needed. If you have any hard-to-remove photos in those magnetic sticky albums, you can follow the advice from the Smithsonian Institution Archives about safely removing those photos.

For dealing with the slides, you can buy a slide viewer fairly inexpensively to allow you to look through the slides. Slides you would like to keep can also be scanned for easier viewing in the future. If you don’t want to pay a service to scan them, you could consider renting a slide scanner rather than buying one for just a one-time project.

Finally, work at a pace that is comfortable for you. Some people like to set aside a whole day or more for a project like this, while others prefer to do a little bit every day or every week.