Switch purses often? Don’t miss a thing

Occasionally, I’ll look for something I keep in my bag, and inevitably it’s in my other purse. This can be frustrating. Over ten years ago, the now-expired website Paperclippy.com brought purse organizers to our attention. At that time, they wrote:

Switch purses often? Then you have no doubt been faced with the problem of missing items that results from switching the contents of your handbag in a hurry. Well, here’s the solution. The very clever Purse Organizer has pockets large enough for cell phones, a notepad, sunglasses, lipstick, or just about anything else. Just switch out the organizer and you’re good to go.

Now, there are so many sizes and styles of purse organizers. They have a place for everything and allow you to keep everything in its place. They are great for backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, and diaper bags.

 

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

The landing strip

Although it’s one of the cornerstones of an organized home, I’m amazed how many folks haven’t heard of the “landing strip”. The concept it very simple. Organization comes from things having a place and being in their place and probably the time when this rule is least observed is when we come home. We arrive from work exhausted, often carrying our work bags, groceries, and the mail. All we can think of is changing into jeans and slippers. We just toss down our things and later we’re too preoccupied to tidy up. If instead you have a place to “land,” and a routine for doing so, you’ll avoid disorganization.

A landing strip in your home should be at the entrance you use most often. The idea is that when you come in, you stop here first and unload. A small table, sideboard, or credenza will do. Your landing strip should have a designated place for everything, so when you come in all you have to do is put everything in its place. I like to use a large unbreakable bowl for my wallet, keys, cell phone, and watch. On my way out again, I know exactly where I’ll find them — no wasting time hunting for my keys. Hooks on the wall or on the side of the furniture are great for bags — just drop your bag on the hook and keep going.

An inbox or mail holder is also a must. When you come in with mail, you’ll have a place to put it. Don’t bother sorting through it. Anything that needs your immediate attention would have come certified, so wait until you have time to process it properly. Once a week, grab a cup of coffee and go through all the mail, tossing out the junk mail and paying bills right then and there. By batching the mail sorting to once a week, you save time and you reduce the stress that comes from feeling like you have to address each piece of mail.

 

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

Bedrooms are for sleeping, part 2

In the previous post in this bedroom series, I talked about simplifying your room so that it serves its purpose as a place for rest and rejuvenation, and not an extension of your home or work life. Once you’ve got everything out of your bedroom that doesn’t belong, what should you be left with?

Ideally, the answer is nothing more than your bed, bedside stands, maybe a chair and some soft light source. If you can, avoid clunky bedside tables which encourage clutter collection. Connie Cox and Chris Evatt in 30 Days to a Simpler Life advise us to consider small wall-mounted night-stands. They don’t take up much space and they are easy to vacuum under. If you need a dresser because storage space is a concern, choose one that is not too ornate or distracting and make sure the drawers can shut completely keeping their contents out of sight.

Under-bed storage is a debatable proposition since some claim “it will block the flow of chi.” I say, do whatever feels right to you. Personally, I don’t think having a few containers under my bed as I sleep will affect me one bit. But if you’re going to worry about the possibility, maybe the extra storage is not worth the stress. That said, if you do opt to use the space under your bed for storage, avoid using it for storing things you will need frequently. Don’t put your art supplies or shoes down there if you will be crouching down every other day. Instead, use the space to store your out-of-season wardrobe and linens.

Superman had his Fortress of Solitude (which, as I remember from the movies, was a modernist and sparsely decorated affair) where he went to “get away from it all.” It’s not so hard for you to have your own.

 

This post has been updated since its previous publication in 2007.

Bedrooms are for sleeping, part 1

Simple living shouldn’t be about deprivation, but about avoiding the stress that often comes from too many possessions. One of the best examples of how this philosophy can be applied is in the bedroom.

Ideally, your bedroom is a place for sleeping. That is, it’s a place for rest and relaxation. Anything in your room that doesn’t contribute to the relaxation will likely only keep you from recharging your batteries. A TV will keep you up all night. Piles of books and work will only remind you of things you have to do or read. Clothes strewn about will evoke bad feelings about undone housework.

The first step toward this goal is to take everything out that doesn’t have to do with sleep or sex. Work desk with a computer? Find another room for it. Overflowing hamper? Put it in a closet or other space. For those of us who live in small urban apartments this might not be possible so placing a room dividing screen between the bed and the home office can help. Another tip that might help is taking all those photos off the walls and replacing them with a single big art piece, or maybe nothing at all?

Some great tips to make a bedroom a stress-free sanctuary include getting rid of extra linens. You only really need two sets (one to use while the other is being washed). That’ll cut on clutter beyond the bedroom. I suggest that when it comes to the two linen sets you do have you go for luxury. Most people spend at least eight hours in bed every day, and those eight hours have a big impact on how the rest of your day goes well. Why not outfit your bed with the most comfortable accoutrements you can find?

And don’t go pillow crazy. You only need a pillow or two for each person. A dozen little pillows are only dust-collecting fluffy clutter that you have to shuffle around every day. Avoid it.

 

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

A place for everything. Seriously.

Once you unclutter, the next step in getting organized is, well, getting organized. The key to personal organization, in my experience, is developing processes that take the thinking out of organization and sticking to those processes. What this means is that getting organized once — tidying up everything — won’t do unless you can keep it organized.

We’ve all had the experience of letting our spaces get so cluttered and messy that we had to stop and put everything away, throw out useless items, and make the space clean. This tells us a couple of things. For one, the mind can only take so much messiness in its environment before it rebels and says, “I can’t think until this place is cleaned up!”

Without organization, you can’t be productive. Suppose you’re working on a project that requires certain tools, such as paper, pens, a ruler, scissors. If you have to stop every minute to think were the scissors or pens are in your mess, several things happen. First, and most obvious, you’ll waste time (as the scientific management school showed us). Second, you’ll never get into a productive flow that will allow for creativity.

Organization is having a place for everything and making sure everything is in its place. I know that cliche sounds trite, but think about it. When you cleaned up, where did you put things? You put them in their place, right? That means most things have “their place” (not an objective universal place, just a place you’ve decided is where they belong). Why did you put them in their place? Because you want to be able to — unthinkingly — find them when you need them without interrupting your flow or creativity.

The other thing that has to be unthinking is putting things back in their place after you’ve used them. First, you have to have a place for everything. If you don’t have a drawer or shelf for DVDs, then when you finish watching one, you’re likely to leave it on the coffee table. Some places are better than others, and I hope to get into this in future posts, but for now just make sure you have a place. Also, remember we’re talking about things after you’ve uncluttered, so hopefully all that is left are things that are useful or enjoyable. Second, you need a process for staying organized. Having a place for everything does no good unless you regularly put everything in its place.

Processes can be as simple as a commitment to throw out clutter and put everything in its place in your work area before you leave for the day. When you come in the next day, everything will be calm and you’ll be ready to start the day smoothly without a jarring messy desk looking at you first thing in the morning. What makes this a process, however, is making it a habit and doing it regularly. In the posts to come I hope to look at good places and good processes.

 

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

More kitchen tips

Here are a few kitchen tips from an article in The Telegraph in 2007:

  • Uncluttering tips: A time study revealed that most people use the same four pots and pans over and over again. Take an objective look at the other seldom used items. Consider eliminating them or storing them elsewhere.
  • Recipes: A three-ring binder with magnetic photo pages can be used to store recipes collected from family and friends, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. Avoid those that require ingredients you will never buy. If your family doesn’t find a recipe to be a hit, then toss it out. Discard unused recipes yearly. It takes only minutes to do this. Consider displaying special cookbooks on your bookshelf or coffee table as a conversation piece.
  • Paper and mail: It’s best to open mail right beside a recycling bin or trashcan. Don’t put it in a pile to “sort later.” This delay tactic only wastes time, as you’ll have to review the mail a second time. It takes seconds to pitch junk mail and unwanted advertisements now. If you can’t get your magazines read, do not renew your subscription, instead use the library, or pick up an occasional copy at the grocery store.

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

Living more simply through eBay

Here’s one way to live more simply: sell all your possessions on eBay. That’s what John Freyer did in 2002. As he was getting ready to leave grad school in Iowa for New York City, he decided to sell everything he owned on eBay and on his site, allmylifeforsale.com. He sold everything, from used socks, to a can of Chunky Soup from his pantry, from his Planet of the Apes LP, to a bag of small, roasted cuttlefish. The result is a book that catalogues his project, which is described on the site as an “explor[ation of] our relationship to the objects around us, their role in the concept of identity, as well as the emerging commercial systems of the Internet.”

You don’t need to be as hip and PoMo as Freyer to see the benefit of eBay as a tool for turning clutter into cash. I saw an article in New York Times back in 2007 about how teens trying to get quick cash are a great source for cheap electronics on eBay and Craigslist. Especially when you’re about to make a life change, like moving to another city, selling a lot of your stuff, instead of packing it up and paying to ship it, can be a great organization strategy.

There’s a moral here for you even if like most of your possessions, thank you very much. Whenever you are uncluttering and you don’t think you can bring yourself to part with some knick-knack, just think of John Freyer and his Star Wars bed sheets.

 

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

Keep kids’ POV in mind

In February 2007, Arizona Republic had some great organization tips for parents. My favorites are the kitchen tips which keep in mind the children’s point of view.

Establish a pantry snack shelf at the hand level of little tykes.
Why it works: Children and their friends can serve themselves without having to climb on chairs or interrupt parents to ask. What you need: Matching clear, stackable containers.

Arrange a continental breakfast nook.
Why it works: Little ones can serve themselves in an expedited fashion since bowls, cereal, sugar, fruit, muffins and any other breakfast foods and utensils are kept in the same space. What you need: An hour to rearrange the pantry and cabinets and possibly resize shelving to accommodate cereal boxes.

Are there any tips you can share with other readers on how to make things easier for children?

 

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

What’s a kitchen for?

Today’s kitchens are used for more than just preparing food. They are often playrooms, offices, mail centers, and TV rooms. When you mix up so many purposes for the same space (or even the same countertop), you’re not going to get good results. Something as simple as making a ham and cheese sandwich is impossible when your countertops are covered with bills and other papers. Instead of succumbing to this fate, set up different spaces for different tasks.

Ideally, your kitchen should only be for cooking, but realistically that’s not going to be the case–especially since kitchens tend to be the center of family activity. Designate some countertop space that’s off-limits to anything but cooking or eating, and make it a point to keep it clear when it’s not being used. That way, when you’re ready to use it again, it’s ready for you.

If you must bring mail and bill-paying paraphernalia into the kitchen, set up a space for just that activity and don’t let it spread out of that area. (A desktop organizer or mini-shelf is a perfect solution.) Even if you can’t dedicate surfaces to specific activities like bill-paying, storage in the kitchen can help. For example, when you finish eating at the kitchen table, you take away the dishes to wash and store in the cupboard. Why not do the same with everything else? If you pay bills, do homework, or play games at the kitchen table, make sure to clean up when you’re done. Keeping a drawer or cupboard for each activity will make it as easy and second-nature to put away your stuff.

 

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

Take-out menu filer

Ever wanted to order in something other than pizza, but you can’t think of anything other than the usual Chinese place? Something I’ve done for quite a while is file take-out menus in an Itoya portfolio that I keep on a bookshelf for easy access. Whenever I come home to find a Mexican, Salvadoran, Kabob, or whatever menu slipped under my door, I stick it in my portfolio. I use one pocket for each type of cuisine–all the Chinese menus go together, same goes for the pizza menus, etc.

When we feel like ordering in, we just flip through the pages and pick a cuisine. Then pull out the menus and make our choice. The key here is always dropping in menus when you get them in the mail or with your order, and throwing out obsolete ones when you find them. This beats piling them on a table by a phone, sticking them to your fridge, or cramming them in a drawer. And if you prefer, here’s a binder designed just for menus.

 

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

Getting started with getting organized

If you want to unclutter your space and get organized, I recommend 30 Days to a Simpler Life, by Cris Evatt and Connie Cox. It’s chock full of tips and it will inspire you to get started simplifying. At times the book can be a bit too new-agey for my taste (for example, they recommend that you “say the names of things you see” to become “fully present,” and to eat with your left hand if you’re right-handed so that you eat more slowly and thus better savor your meal), but those parts can be easily overlooked if you don’t care for them. The rest is very good.

What I like about this book is that Evatt and Cox recognize that simplifying has two separate parts: first you unclutter, then you organize. If you just organize, all you’ll accomplish will be neatly stacking piles of garbage — rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, to be dramatic about it. Evatt and Cox propose a three-step method to eliminating clutter that makes so much sense that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. It certainly helped me pare down my cluttered spaces.

Three piles

The first thing you do is that you pick an area you want to unclutter. Don’t try to do too much at once; focus on what’s causing you the most stress. (Let’s say it’s your closet, but it could be your files, or your kitchen, or anything else.) Schedule ample time to dedicate to the task and go through every item in your cluttered space. Place each item into one of three piles: the “love and use” pile, the “recycle” pile, and the “ambivalence” pile.

  1. The “love and use” pile requires little thought because it’s for those things that you immediately know are essential to you and that you use a lot. A pair of jeans that you wear at least once a week would certainly go in there.
  2. The “recycle” pile should also be simple. It’s for those items you immediately know you should get rid of. You’ll ask yourself why you still have the thing. A big elbow-padded sweater from the 80s would be a good example. Anything you haven’t worn or used once in the past year should certainly go in there. It’s called a recycle pile because you can often donate these things or give them to a friend who might be able to use them. For me, however, it’s often just a “garbage” pile. If you don’t want it, what are the chances someone else will? And you won’t believe how satisfying and liberating it is to walk to the garbage chute with a big bag of stuff from your stress area knowing you’ll never have to worry about these things again.
  3. The last pile is the trickiest, but the key to the system. Into the “ambivalence” pile go things that you don’t love, that you don’t use very often, but that you can’t bring yourself for whatever reason to throw away. Many people never wear a particular garment but won’t get rid of it because it was a gift from a loved one. That goes in the ambivalence pile. You’re not going to throw away anything in this pile, so don’t be afraid to be generous with your ambivalence.

Practice living without it

The stuff in your “love and use” pile can go back into the closet or whatever other area you’re organizing. Of course, you’ll use good quality hangers and other thoughtful organizers, but those are posts for another day. The stuff in your “ambivalence” pile, however, you fold neatly and place into attractive storage boxes. Seal up those boxes, label them, and put them in an out of the way storage space where they won’t be clutter. If a month later you realize you want to use or wear one of the things you put away, you know where to find it; no need to worry. However, after six months, or a year, or whatever short period makes you comfortable, take the ambivalence boxes with everything that’s still left in them (which is very often everything you first put into them) and throw them down the chute. You won’t feel bad, I promise. The reason is that, as Evatt and Cox say, you have practiced living without these things and you’ve effectively already thrown them out in your head. Practicing living without things is a great way to transition from a cluttered to an uncluttered space. After a year or six months, if you haven’t used something, you likely never will.

Design systems

The last step is to design simple systems that will keep you from getting cluttered again. This is the part where, once you’ve uncluttered, you can begin to get (and stay) organized. Sharing many of these little systems is much of what I hope Unclutterer does.

When you’re done with these steps, and your ambivalence boxes are tucked away, you will find that your closet is now incredibly simplified. You won’t have such a hard time picking out what to wear because all your favorite things will be readily visible. And you won’t believe how much space you’ll have. The best feeling, though, is the feeling of lightness that comes from getting rid of stuff that just doesn’t belong in your life anymore, combined with the security that it’s all there if you really do need it again. So go nuts doing this with your drawers, your living room, and every other nook.

 

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

How to subscribe to toilet paper

I recently introduced a friend to Amazon’s Subscribe & Save program and his reaction was so positive that I thought I’d share it with the rest of the world.

Unknown to a lot of people, Amazon sells groceries. Obviously nothing perishable or frozen, but pretty much everything that’s not kept along the four walls of a supermarket. Because they don’t have the sort of overhead a supermarket does, they offer very good, Costco-like prices. Shopping online keeps your meat-and-milk trips to the supermarket short and focused so you don’t succumb to cluttering impulse buys. This is pretty awesome in itself, but it gets better.

For a subset of products—a very large subset from what I can tell—Amazon offers a subscription service. If you subscribe to a product you get an additional 15% off over the already low price. So what’s a subscription? Exactly what it sounds like.

To illustrate, I’ll let you know that I’m subscribed to coffee. I drink Café Altura House Blend and I ordered three 12 oz. cans at the subscription rate of $15.99—that’s $5.33 per can. I go through about a can a month, so I set my subscription to recur every three months and then forget it. Automatically from now on, just as I’m nearing the end of my coffee supply, the UPS man knocks at the door with a box of coffee. It’s a wonderful thing.

My subscriptions include dishwashing detergent, deodorant, fabric softener, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, razors, toilet paper, and much more. It’s awesome. I’m never without and I never have to remember to get something.

Some things are available from Amazon but not as a subscription. For example, they offer subscriptions to several Quaker brand granola bars, but not to my favorite, which is peanut butter chocolate chip. Those items you can add to an Amazon shopping list. These are a bit different than a wish list because the items don’t go away once you purchase them. So, once a week I go through the list and hit the “Buy with 1-Click” button on the items I want.

Now, I know what you’re saying, “What about shipping costs?” That’s the even more incredible part. For just $79 a year you can subscribe to Amazon Prime and get free two-day shipping on anything you order. So that’s it. Pay $79 once and don’t worry about how much you use the service. It will more than pay for itself with just a few shipments. And believe me, once you get started, you’ll never want to go to the grocery store again.