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.

Unclutter your writing with self-imposed limitations

Two ideas recently converged for me in one device. The first idea is the notion of self-imposed limitations, and the second is the concept of retro-computing. The device is the AlphaSmart Neo. Here’s how it all fits together.

Self-imposed limitations

writeroom-color-screens.jpgI’m not the first to note the challenge that modern computing presents to human concentration. Writing is a hard thing to do, and when you have to do it, easy things like email, feeds, and Facebook can tempt and paralyze you.

The name of the game is focus and a cottage industry of apps has sprouted around eliminating distractions. The poster-child for these is WriteRoom, which hides everything on your screen except a monochrome text-editor. Slate has called these programs “zenware,” while the New York Times took a more Western tack and called them “biblical.”

These programs work because they allow users to self-impose limitations in order to concentrate and get more done in less time. Internet-related distractions are not the only target. In large part these tools are a revolt against the tyranny of Word. That was the focus of the New York Times piece, which was inspired by the Steven Poole essay “Goodbye, cruel Word.” In it he explains how the Microsoft flagship long ago gave up the pretense that it was a tool for the art of writing. A good tool disappears in the act of creation. Word might once have been such a thing, but that’s certainly no longer the case. Poole, an author of two books and countless articles, writes:

Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word that Microsoft has ever shipped, combining utility and minimalist elegance with reliability. Sadly for me, although it wasn’t strictly necessary, after a few years and a colour Performa I “upgraded” to Word 98, and somehow the magic was gone. Yes, I turned off all the crappy lurid toolbars and tried to make the compositional space as simple as possible, but by this time Word was stuffed with all kinds of “features” that let you print a pie-chart on the back of a million envelopes or publish your cookery graphs to your “world wide web home-page”, and it already felt to me that Word was only grudgingly letting me write nothing but, you know, words. Trigger Happy got out of Word 98 and onto the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs.

He goes on to say that he’s converted to WriteRoom and Scrivener, but not before giving us a tour of the tools that he’s loved the most. Apart from Word 5.1a, they include a Brother LW-20 electric typewriter with a 6-line LCD screen, and an ultraportable Psion 5. What he likes so much about WriteRoom and the rest, he says, is how much they imitate the single-minded purposefulness of those old tools.


That brings me to the second theme in this story. One way to achieve zen word processing is to hide the fact that your modern computer is a modern computer. (Out there, no doubt, is someone who paid $1,800 for a MacBook Air only to then run WriteRoom on it.) It’s an attempt to travel back to a time before virtual tailfins. Another way to zen, however, is to simply use the tools from that era—the era in which word processing had been perfected.

Writer Paul Ford has said that his weapon against distractions was installing WordPerfect for DOS on his computer—the original that WriteRoom emulates. As a result of switching to the mouse-less, crash-less WordPerfect he says, “My average daily word count has doubled, and my stock of fresh ideas seems to be replenishing.”

Another promoter of retro-computing is Andy Ihnatko who inspired me to look not just to old software, but to old hardware as well. He sings the praises of his NEC MobilePro 790, a Windows CE device he picked up for $10 at the MIT flea market. It doesn’t have the MacBook Air’s 1.6 GHz or good looks, but it matches its weight, comfortable keyboard, and more than serviceable screen. But when distraction-free writing is the goal, the latter matters more than the former.

The AlphaSmart Neo

I think I did Andy one better, though, or at least more retro. I discovered the AlphaSmart Neo, in part thanks to Paul Ford’s writings because the Neo is his companion to WordPerfect. What is the Neo? It’s a full keyboard with six-line LCD attached. That’s it. No distractions. It’s a thing of beauty.


At two pounds, I take it everywhere. I love my MacBook, but it kills my back, and for no good reason since most of the time I just want to write. Instant-on, and automatic save of every keystroke make it even more appealing. Some other retro advantages:

  • At an all-day conference my three-hour battery on my Mac isn’t much help and I have to be on the hunt for limited power outlets. (The NEC MobilePro wouldn’t fare much better.) The Neo’s frugal processor and simple screen, on the other hand, gets me 700 hours from 3 AA batteries. That’s about a year’s worth of normal use.
  • The keyboard is amazing. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness keyboard with satisfying travel and quiet clickitiness. It really feels better than my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which is the same design as the Air’s. It also beats out the MobilePro’s slightly cramped keyboard.
  • AlphaSmart was started by two former Apple engineers and it has overtones of the eMate 300. Like the eMate, the AlphaSmart was designed for the education market, and it shows in the build quality. If it’s tough enough for kindergardeners, it’s tough enough for me.

Most important, though, is that it keeps me focused. If I go to a coffee shop to get some work done, the only thing I can do with my Neo is write. There are no distractions. There isn’t even bold or italics (something I get around with Markdown). When writing is the only thing you can do, you get it done, and it remains an enjoyable activity because it’s not the thing that’s keeping you from Twitter.

At some point in our technological past we perfected word processing. Every feature since then seems to have subtracted from the experience. Do yourself a favor and look into some single-purpose, “underpowered,” and self-limiting tech.

Unitasker Wednesday: Martini shaker

Mary O’Hearn, a reader who promises to be Unclutterer’s number one fan, sent me this unitasker that may be one of the most unitasking items I’ve ever seen. It’s the Waring Pro Electric Martini Shaker from Sur La Table.

From the catalog copy:

“Sure to become the life of the party, our martini maker shakes or stirs the perfect martini with just the push of a button.”

Luckily, the price has been discounted from $190 to only $99!

As Mary notes, “Perhaps it is worth it if you happen to have 2 broken arms.” But, then again, I’m not sure how someone could pour the alcohol into the metal shaker, insert the shaker into the machine, and then press the shake or stir buttons with broken arms?! Also, what happens if you accidentally shake it a little before putting it into the machine? Is it too shaken or too stirred?

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Workspace of the Week: Minimalist Desk

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Lucy’s 10 Lives’s minimalist desk.

This isn’t the most unclutered workspace I’ve ever seen, but there’s still something very charming about it. I like the symmetry bewteen the right side of her desk with the walls and the open desktop on the left for multi-purpose workspace. I find it comforting.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Workspace of the Week: A view of Cinci

This week’s Workspace of the Week is ekalb’s’s tranquil desk.

Spring in Cincinnati

I guess I’m a sucker for views, but man I’d love to have such a nice view from my window. Every time you get stuck working, you can look up for inspiration. Ekalb writes that according to Wikipedia, the big building we see is “The Carew Tower [in Cincinnati], built before the Empire State Building was conceived, served as the basis for the design of the larger Empire State Building.”

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.