Organizing in a shared living space

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My husband insists on keeping various things by his recliner, on a small table, in the living room. Things like scissors, nail file, pens and pencils, two pair of glasses, toothpicks, nail clippers, bottle of water, Kleenex, TV remotes, files he is working on (self-employed), electric razor, vitamins, crossword puzzles, scratch paper, his laptop, current book he is reading … need I say more?

Actually it is an old TV stand that he has repurposed and it has a shelf where he slides the laptop into. And there is some organization to all of the things mentioned. Some aspects of the clutter can be removed easily when company comes over as they are in plastic shoe boxes. Do other women have this problem and what do they do?!

Mary, the living room is a shared space, so it’s important to look for solutions that work for both of you. The following suggestions might help you find some common ground.

Negotiate which items get kept by the recliner

It’s often wise to store things where they are used. So keeping some things by the recliner can be a good strategy for someone who regularly uses that chair to read, work on the computer, do crossword puzzles, watch TV, etc. But I’d suggest you negotiate some limits, based on what activities are appropriately done from the recliner.

Unless your husband has a disability and getting out of the chair is a significant issue, I would think that personal grooming is better done elsewhere. So maybe a book, some scratch paper, a few pens, eyeglasses, and such stay by the recliner, while things like the electric razor do not.

Get better storage tools

Once you’ve agreed which things are reasonably kept beside the recliner, consider whether it makes sense to invest in better ways to keep those items close at hand.

You might want to replace the old TV stand with an end table that provides storage, such as this one from Levenger.

You could also add a storage ottoman. There are many choices, at various price points — the one above comes from Crate and Barrel.

Another approach would be to make that entire furniture piece mobile, so it can be rolled away when company comes. For example, something like the above utility cart from Ikea could work.

It might also help to add a storage product that goes over the arm of the recliner, such as the above remote control pocket from Ikea.

Agree on a maintenance plan

It’s easy for a well-used place in your home to become cluttered, so work with your husband to develop a plan to keep things under control. For example, you might agree that at the end of the day, your husband will:

  • Dispose of all trash.
  • Place any book that’s been finished either on the bookshelf (if it’s a keeper) or in whatever place you’ve defined for things being given away or sold.
  • If anything has accumulated near the recliner besides the things you have agreed belong there, put those items away in their normal storage places.
  • Put everything that does belong near the recliner in its designated storage area: in the drawers or containers on the side table, etc.

An alternative: Follow Marie Kondo’s advice

Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, would say that all your husband’s things should be kept in one place, not scattered around where they are used. If you want to follow her advice, I would suggest (as she would) that you begin by making sure your own things are in order and showing by example how well her approach can work.

A place for everything — but where?

Unclutterer reader Ebbe recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Our problem is the first part of this rule: Finding out where or what that place should be for any given item is an almost insurmountable task. And that is the reason why we still have a lot of clutter in our home.

Ebbe, the following suggestions might help you find good places for your items.

General principles

Usually, you’ll want to keep things you use frequently close at hand, near where you’ll be using them. And you would normally want to keep things that are used together in the same general area. So, if you use a coffee maker every day, it might make sense to leave it out on your kitchen counter and store your coffee mugs in a nearby cabinet.

Things you use less frequently can be stored further away from where they’ll be used. You wouldn’t want to dedicate prime storage space (any space within easy reach) to things you only use once or twice a year. Seldom-used items can go in places such as the kitchen cabinets over the refrigerator or in an attic, basement, or garage if your home has those spaces. You may want to keep a list of what you’ve stored where, since it could be easy to forget.

You’ll normally want to keep like with like. For example, if you have a number of vases, you would probably keep them in one spot. But sometimes, based on the “keep it close to where you’ll use it” principle, it makes sense to store things in two or more places. For example, I keep flashlights in a number of places, so if I lose power at night I’ll always have one close at hand.

When feasible, try not to fight your family’s ingrained habits. For example, if mail always gets dropped on a kitchen table or countertop, maybe that’s the best place for an “inbox” type of container.

When creating homes for frequently used things, make those homes as easy to use as possible. That might mean getting a closet double-hang rod to keep clothes handy for younger children, using hooks rather than hangers in some situations, using a laundry hamper without a lid to make it easier to put dirty clothes away, etc.

Be sure that the storage places you’ve selected are safe. You’ll want to ensure that small children and pets can’t get to things like medicines, laundry detergent pods, toxic pest control products, or sharp things such as knives. It’s usually best to avoid storing heavy things and fragile glass items up high, so you don’t need to worry about hurting yourself or breaking something when you go to retrieve it.

Be careful not to store items that are sensitive to heat, cold, humidity, or bugs in places that face those hazards. That means being careful about what gets stored in places such as attics, basements, and garages.

And finally, don’t expect to get everything right the first time. Try giving things assigned places, and then adjust as you learn more about what works well and what doesn’t.

Dealing with limited storage space

I know people who live in old houses with very small closets. If you have a similar situation, you may need to get creative about adding storage. That could involve buying furniture such as a wardrobe, but it could also involve less expensive (and less space-consuming) ideas such as hanging some shoe pockets on some doors — they can store much more than just shoes. There are many products that make use of wall and back-of-the-door space, as well as under-the-bed space.

And the answer might be that some things get stored at the store. Buying large quantities and huge sizes of things may not work if your home has limited space.

If there are things you use infrequently, maybe the answer involves getting rid of those things and borrowing or renting them when the need arises. This could be something to consider for rarely used tools, for example.

And if you’ve been as creative as you can be in finding storage places, and you still can’t find a place for everything, you’ll need to decide whether you want to invest in renting a storage unit (which is a reasonable choice in some very specific situations) or whether it makes more sense to just own less.

Accepting imperfect solutions

Sometimes there’s no great place to store something. I have that problem with my bulky Bosu balance trainer. I use it in my living room, which is the only room I have with sufficient space for exercising. But there’s no place to hide the Bosu away in the living room and it didn’t look good just sitting out, so I recently moved it to the guest bedroom (which isn’t far away). Now I just bring it out when I want to use it. There was no ideal place for it, so I settled for an adequate one.

Digital recipe organizing solutions to love

Elaine recently asked Unclutterer:

I have a specific need related to paper management — recipes. I’d like to take all the scraps of paper with notes about recipes I have in books, torn out newspaper clippings, torn out magazine clippings, recipes from the inside of product packaging (like recipes on the inside of the cream cheese box) and get them organized digitally. It needs to be searchable, which is why I haven’t just done some sort of scanning thing … what thoughts/recommendations do people have?

Elaine, I know this problem well. When I was a kid, my mother used what I called the “fly paper method” of organizing her recipe clippings. If you had opened any cabinet door in our kitchen, you would have found soup can labels, magazine pages, newspaper clippings, hand-written index cards, and more, all taped to the inside of the doors. While convenient in that they were all in the kitchen, searchability was a nightmare. There must be a better way. And, in fact, there are several. The following are some digital options to consider.

Paprika. I’m tempted to start and end my list right here, because the Paprika app is such a nice solution. First of all, it’s available on many platforms: Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire, and Nook Color. (Prices vary based on the platform, but it’s just a one-time cost of $4.99 for iPhone to give you an idea of what to expect.) Also, the features are fantastic. It syncs via the cloud, so all of your devices can hold the same information. Entering a recipe manually is easy, and you can download recipes you find online with a single tap. It will generate a shopping list for you, and even sort it by aisle in your grocery store. Finally, the interactive recipe feature allows you to swipe an ingredient to cross it off when you’re done with it, and tap to highlight the current step you’re working on in the recipe. I’m sure you’ll love it (I do). But, for the sake of options, let’s explore a few more.

Plan to Eat. Plan to Eat is an app that focuses on what you’ll cook when, but also stores your recipes and shares them across devices. To get started, you enter your recipes manually. Then, you plan you week’s meals by dragging and dropping the dishes you’d like to make onto a calendar. Plan to Eat then makes a shopping list for you that appears on your phone. Plan to Eat is free for 30 days, then $4.95 per month or $39 per year.

Basil for iPad. I’m not sure what device(s) you’re using, which is why I shared two platform-agnostic solutions so far. However, I’ll go out on a limb and say, if you have an iPad, consider Basil. Not only does it store your recipes beautifully and offer a very capable search function, Basil understands that you might not use it forever. Therefore, it lets you export all of your recipes as plain text. They’re your recipes, after all. It also features timers and easy unit conversion.

Evernote. Not meant specifically for recipes, Evernote is a good candidate because it excels at two things: storage and search. Scan a recipe, add the appropriate tags, and, presto, you’ve got an excellent digital recipe book.

Coping with overwhelming inherited possessions

In April, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader nana2much asked:

I have also “inherited” my parents’ possessions. I have 5 siblings who have already taken what they want. They have helped some but they all live quite far away.

My mother lived with us so everything ended up here. It isn’t just sentimental objects, but very old photos, some books with family history, many old Bibles, (my father was a pastor) some with family obituaries pasted in or notes written in them. So many letters and “artifacts” saved since my parents’ childhoods…some 90 years old. Many “sermons” my father wrote for individual funerals and memorial services. It is overwhelming. Glass figurines, vases etc. etc.

My father died 5 years ago and my mom 2 years ago. I have given away, donated, sold and even threw out so much but I am finding it difficult to figure out what to do with what remains.

I feel like I’m supposed to be the caretaker of all this stuff. Very torn about it all. Any suggestions on how to continue this process?

Nana2much, I’m sorry to read about your loss. Dealing with a parent’s death is never easy, and you’ve had to cope with two in a short time.

But let me reassure you: You do not need to be the caretaker of all this stuff. It is not disrespectful to the memory of your parents to keep the things that you really want and dispose of the rest.

It sounds like you are ready to deal with the remaining stuff. But if you find some things you can’t quite cope with right now, that’s fine; set them aside and just work with the things that don’t make you upset.

How do you continue? Here are some suggestions:

Decide which things are the keepers

Of the many things you have from your parents, which ones do you really want to hold onto? These are very personal choices. Don’t worry about what you “should” want to keep, but focus on which items really speak to you. Ideally, most of these will be things that are either practical or decorative — things you’ll use, not things you’ll stash in the back of a closet.

How much family history do you want to retain? Again, this is a very personal decision, and only you will know what feels right. You didn’t mention whether or not you have children. If you do, saving items related to family history may be more important than if you don’t. But in any case, saving a sample of things like memorial sermons may work better for you than saving all of them.

When going through photos, you can make some easy choices to eliminate photos that are poor quality (out of focus, heads cut off, etc.) and photos of scenery, flowers, and such. Since going through photos can be very time-consuming, you may want to leave any detailed review to the end of this project, so you don’t get bogged down.

Save photos instead of things

You can take photos of anything you don’t really want to keep but which still has a sentimental pull. For example, that might include taking photos of selected pages of some of the bibles, if you don’t want to keep them all.

Consider who might appreciate receiving your parents’ things

Since you’ve already consulted with your siblings, consider who else might want some of these things. Would members of your father’s congregation want some things to remember him by? Would the church want anything? A local historical society? Any of your parents’ friends? A more distant relative who is into genealogy?

But please don’t feel like you need to put tremendous effort into this. Do as much as feels right to you. Some people really enjoy playing matchmaker between things and people, and can do it without getting bogged down. Others won’t want to bother. It’s yet another personal choice.

Decide whether to sell or donate the rest

Things like vases and figurines can be donated or sold. If they are donated to Goodwill, a charity thrift store, or some other worthwhile nonprofit, they are helping others. That might be something that would have pleased your parents.

Selling might be a bit traumatic — are you willing to listen to people barter over the price of your parents’ things? If not, go the donation route or find someone who can do the selling for you, for a commission. If your finances allow, you might like to donate some of the proceeds to a nonprofit in memory of your parents.

Welcome to the factory floor

In April, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader Judy asked:

My judgmental brother and sister in law are coming mid September. I have stuff, mostly papers everywhere. Also, I have some sentimental stuff I want to get rid of but feel guilty about. I’m employed full time and it feels overwhelming.

I hear ya, Judy. I always know when we’re getting house guests because the cleaning goes into overdrive. Wait, cleaning is too subtle a word. We give our home a nuke it from space blast of organization and cleaning before people come to visit. Or as I call it, creating the “lie house.”

Why “lie house?” Because the sterile state we create is not how our house actually exists day-to-day.

As part of our preparation for out-of-town guests, we clean the house from top to bottom. I suspect you do the same. It’s not only a matter of pride, but a display of respect for your guests. You want everything to look nice for the people who bothered to travel and spend money just for the pleasure of your company. It makes perfect sense.

And, usually, we go EXTREME.

Vacuuming begets dusting, which begets tidying up the knick-knacks, which leads to reorganizing the living room, buying flowers for vases, scrubbing the floor, dusting the dog, washing the soap, combing the lawn, power-washing the brick fireplace, constructing an altar to the gods and goddesses of cleanliness and preparing to sacrifice the most well-groomed chicken you’ve ever seen.

But lately we’ve stopped and asked ourselves, “Wait, what are we doing?”

The chicken is relieved.

Here’s the fact of the matter. Right now, this is a working house. It’s the factory floor and production is at its peak. We have two adults living here, each with a full-time job. There is a dog whose hobbies include disemboweling her squeaky toys and spreading the nylon innards across the rug. We’ve got three kids in this house, ranging in age from 10 to 13, who spend their time (and ours) on:

  • Girl Scouts
  • Cub Scouts
  • Ballet
  • Soccer
  • After-school science club
  • After-school comedy club (seriously)
  • Friends, playdates, homework, and so on

These are the years spent in the trenches. The years where my wife and I argue over who gets to be the one to grocery shop, because grocery shopping means you get 25 minutes to yourself. If guests arrive and there’s a stack of papers on a table somewhere or library books strewn about or if our dear visitors have to witness a round of my favorite 7:38 a.m. game, “Where Are Your Clean Socks And Why Must We Go Through This Every Blessed Day?” Well, you know what? Fine.

The people who are nice enough to travel and spend money just to be in our company understand where we are at this stage in our lives. They love us, and know that transferring the breakfast cereal into labeled Tupperware containers is just under “jewel-encrusted, heated driveway” on our list of current priorities.

Now, I’m not saying that the active family lifestyle is permission to live in a dumpster, but it is permission to let some things go, even if just for a bit. If I have a choice between creating a pristine library of the kids’ books or planning a fun weekend with the family and our guests, I’ll choose the latter. The books will always be there; my kids’ childhood and this visit won’t.

If you want a museum experience, the MFA is just up the road. Otherwise, our family experience welcomes you. Come on in.

If you’re truly overwhelmed, Judy, give yourself permission to let some of the stress go. Do what you can, use the impending visit as motivation if that is what you need to reach your organizing and uncluttering goals, but also remember that your visitors are going to love you irrespective of your papers and sentimental items. Feeling anxious isn’t good for anyone, especially for four months as you prepare for the visit. Your home can be a museum, but it doesn’t have to be.

Storing the CPAP machine (and other ugly but frequently used stuff)

We recently asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader Mary asked:

C-Pap Machines for sleep apnea … used every nite … sitting on a small table by my husband’s side of the bed and most visible from adjoining living room … long hose and face piece at end of hose … so ugly but so necessary … storage ideas but still convenient?

Mary, there are a number of approaches you might use to address this challenge. While I’m going to list some specific solutions for CPAP machines, the strategies I’ve included could apply to any ugly-but-useful items we need to keep close at hand.

Make the equipment less ugly

Your options here will depend on what CPAP machine you use and how crafty you are. There are some commercial products, but you could also try a do-it-yourself approach. On the commercial side:

The ResMed S9 Autoset comes in pink, which some people think looks less clinical (and therefore more attractive) than the basic machine.

If you use a ResMed S9 device you can also get a skin (a vinyl decal) for it. Skinit has a program where you provide the image and the company turns it into a custom skin.

You can also find a few Skinit ready-made skins (products the company has discontinued) on eBay and other sites.

Cover it up

Building off the idea of the teapot cover called a cozy, some people have created CPAP machine and mask cozies. I’m not finding anyone who sells a CPAP cozy commercially, but you could either make one yourself or have one made for you.

You can buy hose covers, which serve a functional purpose. But a cover also “makes the CPAP look less clinical,” as one Amazon buyer noted.

Place it somewhere handy but less conspicuous

The CPAP machine doesn’t have to live on top of the nightstand in order to be handy. The Bedside CPAP Table keeps the CPAP close by the bed but off the nightstand, freeing up that nightstand space for other things. (This table is also useful for travel to places where there might not be a nightstand next to the bed.)

You can also take the CPAP machine (and the hoses and mask) off the nightstand by putting everything into the nightstand. Perdue Woodworks makes a nightstand specifically for this purpose, but if you’ve got another nightstand where you’re willing to cut holes in the sides, you might be able to create your own.

Denny Allen Cabinets has a different design, with a side-opening drawer, which could also work well.

When you’re dealing with anything that’s unsightly yet useful, you may find a similar creative way to disguise or hide the item.

Tech clutter and cleaning vs. exhaustion

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Today I’ll be looking at two questions: tech clutter and the sheer exhaustion of staying on top of it all. Let’s start with the gadgets.

Bailey asked:

…Since [our kitchen] is by the back door [it has become a] landing pad for the cell phones and their chargers, especially for folks who are visual and need the reminder to take it with them…laptops and tablets end up all over the house, becoming visual clutter in the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

This drives me crazy, too. With four of us living under one roof, I find phones, the iPad, and our laptops all over the place. When we have houseguests it gets even worse, as cables and devices seem to dangle from every available outlet. To combat this issue, I’ve hit everyone where it hurts: battery life.

We have designated charging areas in our house: a so-called “telephone table” (it used to hold our land-line phone back when we had one) and the bedrooms. That’s it. If a device is not in a designated area, it does not get recharged, as moving cables from outlets is not allowed. The threat of a dead battery is enough to keep the digital clutter confined to one area. Smart planning will go a long way, too.

As human beings, we tend toward the path of least resistance. Use this to your advantage when defining a designated charge zone for your electronic goodies. If people like to enter the house through the kitchen and plop their devices down there, choose that location. There are several great options for DIY charging stations that can accommodate several devices and look great in the process. If you’re willing to sacrifice a drawer, you can make a hidden charging station that:

  1. Is where they like to plop stuff down anyway, so the habit change is minimal,
  2. keeps everything completely out of sight,
  3. is easy to access, and
  4. is very inexpensive and easy to set up.

I hope this helps. After a couple weeks of gentle reminders and some careful consideration, I think you’ll have a solution that everyone can use.

Next, reader Kat asked:

But at the end of [my 12-hour day]…I am utterly pooped. I hire someone to do the dusting and bathrooms and floors, but that creates pressure to have the house decluttered before she comes each week. I have boxes still unpacked in the garage from when we moved 3 years ago, and we can barely get into the garage if we need something from them. I have dealt with high pressure decluttering situations by piling high a laundry basket and hiding it in my walk-in closet – now no one can get into the closet. All the usual culprits — junk drawers, bathroom cupboards, closets, sheds, become repositories of clutter.
While I feel we are coping with day-to-day life flow, I just cannot find a way to break this cycle and find the energy to tackle the big projects like the garage or closets.

I think everyone can empathize with this situation in some way. I’ve been meaning to organize our basement for years. There comes a point when a little project becomes a big one, and a big one becomes an insurmountable monster. The answer for me has been to re-define your definition of a “project.”

“Clean the garage” is a project. But at this point, it has become so intimidating that it’s super easy to avoid. Instead of avoiding it, I’ve broken it down into much smaller projects that are achievable. Perhaps this weekend you can find 30 minutes to sit with a pen and paper and list the categories of items you expect to find in the garage, like yard tools, holiday decorations, sports equipment, etc. When you’re done with that, you’re done. You’ve successfully made progress on the garage.

Next time you have a fifteen minute block of time, plan out what your’e going to do with stuff that you aren’t going to keep. Will you donate it, sell it, give it away, take it to a consignment shop, the town dump, etc.? Again, getting those decisions made is another project completed.

The week after that, dedicate just fifteen minutes to sorting through one type of category of your stuff in the garage (ONLY yard tools or ONLY holiday decorations). Find items that will be thrown away, for example, and then donate/sell/recycle/trash the items that need to be purged. Put the items you wish to keep in a pile or box out of the way for you to organize on another day. After fifteen minutes, you’re done. Another win.

Do this with all your categories of items and then repeat it with organizing and putting away what you’ve planned to keep. It will take you many weeks, maybe months, to get the garage to your ideal, but you will get there. A little work at a time results in an uncluttered and organized garage, which is better than the chaos that is frustrating you now. Baby steps to success.

This is how I deal with the craziness. My wife and I work full time and we’re raising two kids along with Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, ballet, soccer, homework, and on and on. Even in the house, I break things down. “Today I’ll tidy up the mudroom area.” These small victories compound and I get stuff done without exhausting myself even further.

Answers to a reader’s four questions

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader wrote in and talked about her four main struggles.

1. Finding pockets of time in the day to do large projects when you have small kids around. For example, I am trying to stain our wooden fence on our own, but I have two children under 3 years old. How can I approach this messy process strategically?

I’ve been in this situation before. I had two young children and my husband was deployed for six months straight with the Canadian Forces. One suggestion would be to find some teenagers you can hire. You can ask around to neighbours and friends or visit the local secondary school or community centre if you don’t know any personally. Some teens would appreciate getting paid for a few hours of work per week painting your fence or keeping your children occupied while you work on the household chores.

Another suggestion might be if you have friends with young children, you can do an exchange. One grown-up looks after all of the children and the other grown-up works on a project. The next time, you switch.

Before engaging someone to assist you, it’s always best to have a plan of what you can accomplish during the time you have. Here are some tips I’ve learned from experience:

  • Always underestimate the amount of work you’ll get done in the time that you have. If you think it will take you two hours to paint the fence, it may really take you four hours. Remember to include set-up and cleanup times in your estimate.
  • Always have a Plan B. If you’ve booked a sitter so you can paint the fence, have an alternative project to work on (e.g. sewing curtains) in case it rains that day.
  • Don’t fret if you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

2. Overcoming analysis paralysis … how do I restore my decision-making confidence and JUST DO IT? For example, hanging art on the wall: it feels like a permanent choice! So I delay!

We’ve written before about improving decision-making skills and how to make the process of decision making easier. Reviewing these posts might help you get over your “analysis-paralysis.”

As someone who has moved houses eight times in 23 years, I can say that nothing is “permanent,” some things might just take a little more effort to change than others. As far as hanging art on the walls, try GeckoTech Reusable Hooks. They are made with a unique synthetic rubber technology that allows them to be used again and again. 3M picture strips are also very handy for hanging artwork without damaging walls. You may also wish to consider the STAS cliprail pro Picture Hanging System.

Apartment Therapy has great tips for hanging artwork so go ahead and make your house a home.

3. Thinking long-term about home projects, while on a budget. We plan to stay in our home a long time, but it needs some love. But our wallets are thin! What should we prioritize: remodeling the kitchen, or taking control of the landscaping? New interior paint job or pressure washing and re-glazing the pebble driveway? What house projects are most important and have lasting impact?

Home renovations can make your home more comfortable, improve your living experience, and increase the value of the home. However, shoddy workmanship or too much “unique customization” may actually decrease the value of your home.

Start with the basics by keeping the home safe and livable. Consider projects that involve your home’s structure (roof, windows, doors, etc.) or mechanical systems (furnace, air conditioning, electrics, plumbing). These upgrades make your home more energy efficient and may actually pay for themselves during the time that you live in the home. Insurance companies may also decrease premiums when you improve wiring, install secure windows, or add an alarm system.

Next, think about making you home more livable. High-end countertops may look good in magazines but more cupboard space may be what your family needs right now. Discuss your ideas with a designer and talk to a few contractors to determine prices and see what fits with your budget. You may decide to do the work yourself, but talking about it with a professional is great for brewing ideas.

Try to build the most flexibility and long-term usefulness into your designs. Remember that children grow quickly, so envision the basement toy room becoming a games room and study area in a few years. Installing the required wiring now will save you time and money later, and may also add a selling feature if you decide to move.

You might be able to do some work yourself, such as painting or installing closet systems. However, because of permits and laws/regulations/codes, most people find it best to hire professionals for tasks requiring plumbing, electrical work, specialized carpentry, and work involving altering the structure of your home (supporting walls, roofs, staircases, etc.).

4. How can we encourage others in our life to take care of their clutter before they leave this earth and give all their clutter to us? This is especially a problem when they don’t think what they have is clutter!

Unfortunately, the value of an item is in the eye of the beholder. Items you might consider clutter, might be of significant value to someone else. It would be difficult to ask someone to part with items that are valuable to him or her. You can’t control another person’s desires, wishes, and attachments to their things.

However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your family members’ items are appreciated once they pass on.

Envision what you want for your family. Are you minimalists? Do you prefer art-deco style furniture? Will you travel? What hobbies do you enjoy or do you wish to start a few new hobbies? It helps to write down the lifestyle you want to lead and then act according to these visions when the time comes.

Prepare a respectful “no thank-you” response now. Chances are you will be offered something you don’t want or you will be told that items are being kept for you. If the item will not fit into your envisioned lifestyle, you will be able to turn it down. For example:

I know [item] is very important to you and it means a lot that you want us to have it after you are gone. But [item] will never replace you or our memories of you. Let’s consider how [item] could best be used and appreciated. Perhaps we should:

  • Consider offering [item] to a [name friend or family member] who would truly appreciate it
  • Donate [item] to charity or museum, where it could be used or appreciated by even more people
  • Sell [item] and either enjoy or donate the money

Sometimes once people find they are no longer obligated to hold an item for you, they are more willing to let it go.

Sorting through sentimental keepsakes

Last week, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader asked:

My mother in law recently moved out of her house and into a small place with medical care and more services than her home could provide. In her process of downsizing, many many items were earmarked for my husband and I. In the spirit of not hurting any feelings, we got a U-Haul and took all the items back to our house. Now, my husband is dealing with guilt and doesn’t want to get rid of hardly anything from his mom’s house. Is there a delicate way to handle this? I’d like to encourage my husband to keep a few choice items and ditch the rest, but its a delicate subject.

It’s definitely a delicate subject, and a familiar one for many people. A few years ago, my family was in a similar situation when my grandfather, who had been living alone for several years, had to move into a place that could properly care for his increasing medical needs. To make the process even more difficult, we had to sell his house as well. He passed away shortly thereafter, and we were left with a lot of stuff.

I can remember my extended family sitting in my aunt’s house surrounded by so much stuff and trying to decide, “Now what?” It seemed like an impossible task. At last I asked myself, “What did grandpa mean to me?” The answer came, “He was an artist.” At that point I knew what I would do.

For years, my grandfather had designed flatware and more for Oneida. He was also an accomplished artist in other mediums, like wood and charcoals. I found some items that represented my overarching impression of my grandfather: a sketch I had long admired, a spoon sample, some early product photos taken for the company, and a sketch.

The sketch, entitled “Winter’s First Snow,” is framed and hangs behind my desk. The spoon, photos, and sketches I had professionally mounted in a shadow box that now hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Both look great and are nice reminders of someone I loved.

We wrote about parting with sentimental clutter a few years ago, and that advice is still very good:

  • Only keep items you’ll display and/or use
  • If you insist on not displaying or using the items, limit items to a number that can fit inside a designated space, like a single chest or keepsake box
  • Remember that items don’t have magical properties, memories do — getting rid of something your loved one owned isn’t getting rid of that person

I’ll add this: identify a specific number of items that best represent your fondest feelings of your loved one and treat those items with the respect and love that those memories deserve. By giving the items a place of honor, you’ll feel that you’ve done right by the fond memories you have.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t force your spouse to get rid of his mother’s things, but you can show him what you think might be a nice alternative to keeping everything. This is also a big adjustment for your husband and it may take time before he can let go of some of the items he doesn’t want to keep. So, with a little time and suggestions from you, you both should be able to come to the right solution for your family.

And, you can remind him that a box in the basement full of items you rarely, if ever, look at is not a fitting tribute to an important person from your life. Two or three items tastefully and beautifully displayed or used in your home, however, shows that you care for, respect, and value the relationship.

Ask Unclutterer: Clutter at a new office

A reader submitted this question to Ask Unclutterer describing a concern at work:

I recently began a new job. My boss has been with this organization since the mid-1980s, and there is still paper lingering around from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. She is hesitant to discard anything. She currently has three workspaces in the office, plus additional boxes and cabinets around the space that are organized but seem like they should be discarded.

My coworkers have reported that she gets very upset when this topic is brought up. We will likely need some of this space in the future, and waiting for her retirement doesn’t seem like a proactive option. How might I address this with her in a productive manner?

Reader, it sounds like this situation is very aggravating to you. However, unless the clutter is causing a safety problem or seriously interfering with your productivity, I’d suggest you do absolutely nothing right now.

You’re new to the office, and your boss is known to be sensitive about this subject. It doesn’t sound like an issue you’d want to broach until you’ve been there awhile and have proven your value to your boss.

And even then, I’d urge caution. People have varying styles of organization and comfort levels with letting go of things, and trying to get your boss to change her ways might not be easy or appreciated. You may be treading into emotional territory that you know nothing about. Ignoring the situation isn’t being proactive, but this may not be your problem to solve.

However, you might find a way to have a discussion about the papers by using one of the following strategies, which could help keep the discussion less personal:

Address the organization’s record retention policy. Is there one? If not, should there be? Does the organization have an attorney who could explain why such a policy is useful and clarify which records need to be retained?

Address the space concerns. If more space is indeed needed in the future, should some of those records be stored offsite if she feels they must be retained? How much would that cost? Is it worth the cost?

Address your boss’s frustrations. Is there anything about the current situation that causes her distress? If so, you might make suggestions that focus on alleviating her issues.

Use outside experts. If an opportunity presents itself, you might suggest using an attorney (as noted above) or a professional organizer. An uninvolved third party with relevant expertise can often raise issues and make recommendations more effectively than someone within the organization.

Thank you, reader, for submitting your question to Unclutterer.

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 or put your inquiry in the comments to a post. If you send an email, 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.

Ask Unclutterer: How do you let things go?

Reader Callum submitted an email to Ask Unclutterer describing his difficulty parting with “I might be able to use this some day” objects and anything he has attached with sentimental value. The email contained the following:

Over the years growing up I always held onto everything I could, and even directly collected things I found or picked up. Like most people I’ve spoken to about this, I have found myself attached to most of my objects … I find it impossible to declutter beyond the very basics! I only just managed to give away some shirts today, which was hard enough as I have had some for a very long time and reminded me of when I was a different person. Luckily I took a picture of them just in case, but I’m not sure if this method will work for some of my more quaint objects.

Callum, right now, your situation feels like it is specific to magazines and t-shirts and electronics and knick knacks, but what you describe is at the heart of almost everyone’s issues with clutter. Simply stated, you are emotionally attached to the things you own. And, as a student who is not extremely wealthy, you fear letting things go because there may be a time when you will need something and not be able to afford buying it again.

Neither the emotional attachment nor your fear of letting things go is wrong. You’re human. You have fears and doubts and you also like to remember happy moments from your past. Everything you’re feeling is normal.

However, things have started to go to the extreme. You have reached a point where you are no longer in control of your stuff. Your stuff is starting to control you and your space. You can’t find the things you need and you can’t let go of the things you don’t want. This happened to me, and it happens to a lot of people. In your case, I think regaining control of your stuff and getting a clear picture of what you want for your life will help to alleviate this extraneous anxiety.

My first suggestion is to take advantage of any mental health services your school may offer its students. Talk through with a therapist why you feel such strong ties to your past and your things. Why are you so interested in making your past a continued part of your present? You may simply have normal levels of nostalgia, but there might be more to it and a therapist can help you make that determination. Since most student mental health services are free, I think it’s a great place to start.

Another action I think would be good for you is to immediately get rid of any item you’re keeping that has negative feelings attached to it. This is usually an easy task, even for the most sentimental of folks. There is no reason in the world to own anything that doesn’t make us happy or, at bare minimum, have no impact on us at all. Your space is limited, you can’t keep everything, so get rid of the bad.

Finally, I think it is important for you — for all of us — to be clear about what kind of a life you really want to lead. Do you have a clear vision of who you are and what is important to you? What does a good day look like to you? What does an ideal home look like to you? Spend some time reflecting on what you want for yourself and your space. Once you know what kind of life you want, you can take actions to create that life. You’ll know what objects in your home represent who you are and who you want to be, and what objects don’t belong in your space any longer. Once you know where you’re going, it will be a lot easier to get there.

This site is full of practical advice on how to organize cables and magazines and all the stuff you may eventually decide you want to keep, as well as has suggestions for where to donate unwanted items. When you are ready to get rid of the clutter, check out those tips. Until then, spend some time in introspection, discover what it is you want for your life, talk through the emotional ties with your past with a therapist, and get rid of the stuff that brings you down. After you’ve done these things, parting with the clutter will be much easier than it would if you tried to do it right now.

Thank you, Callum, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you on the next stage of your uncluttering journey! Also, be sure to check out the comments for additional advice from our readers.

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.

Ask Unclutterer: Teaching children organizing skills

Reader Ines asked the following question in the comments’ section of a post:

I would love love love for you share your thoughts about time management, organization, etc. for young kids. I have struggled with toy clean up for years.

One example, despite modeling over a hundred times how we put away a board game (count the pieces, make sure they are in the right spot, put game back on shelf in closet) before moving on to next item. If I am not there to micro manage, it just doesn’t get done.

Ines, you ask a very good question. It is a question we have been struggling with in our home, as we are trying to teach our son — who recently turned four — how to care for his things. Each child is certainly different, and no single method will work for each kid, but that doesn’t mean children can’t learn how to take care of their possessions. The following are some things we do in our house to get toys back in place:

  • Have fewer toys. Our house is not overflowing with toys, and our son does not seem to notice. Like most children, he has an active imagination, and his knights can do battle on the couch or bookshelf as easily as in a castle. He isn’t deprived by any standard, but in comparison to most of his friends, he doesn’t have a great deal. The fewer toys he has, the fewer that can mess up the house.
  • Regular pruning. He has fewer toys than most of his friends because we regularly get rid of toys. Once a quarter we go through his things with him and we all decide what can stay and what can go. Hard toys (not stuffed animals) and books are easy to donate to charity or pass down to a friend or younger relative. Small doodads he got as party favors go straight to the trash. On the same day, we go through the rest of the house and find items to donate so our son can see he’s not the only one expected to clear clutter.
  • Request experience gifts. If someone asks us what to get our son for his birthday or at the holidays, we usually request experiences (movie passes, museum and/or zoo memberships, etc.) or practical goods (clothes, shoes, school supplies). People still give him toys, but his grandparents often give experiences now.
  • Use small containers for small items. My son has a Playmobil police officer set that came with miniature handcuffs and flashlights and such. The pieces are all less than an inch in size. I made the mistake of putting them in a basket with the motorcycles and police cars and … this was awful. He would dump out the entire container onto the floor to look for the itty bitty flashlight. Now he has pillbox containers for his small items and those pillboxes live inside bigger bins. It’s easy to spot and doesn’t require dumping out the whole box to get to it. We also do this with game pieces — we have small storage containers with compartments for pieces so they aren’t just sitting in the box. If you use these, make sure they’re clear so kids can see inside them without having to open the container.
  • Label everything and have a place for everything. My son is just learning to read, so all of his toy storage has pictures on it and words describing what is to be stored there. We label bins as well as the location in the room where the bin is stored. We attach the labels using velcro so we can move them around to different containers/shelves. You can laminate the labels at Kinkos to make them sturdy. Older children probably don’t need images with the words and you can get by with just a standard label maker printout.
  • Instruct and guide. Modeling behavior is very important, but not all children are learners through observation. In addition to modeling, instruct them on how to put things away, ask them questions at each step of the process, and guide them through the behavior. Be clear from the beginning that you are instructing them: “Now we are going to put away the game and return it to the shelf properly. What is the first step to putting away the game?” These lessons may take weeks or months, depending on the age of the child (obviously, more time is required for younger children). Once they can reliably complete the actions and answer all questions correctly, then you know they are able to do the task on their own. If they don’t complete the task after this lesson, you should repeat the lesson the next time the opportunity arises. Don’t assume your child knows what “clean up your room” or “put away your toys” means to you.
  • Remember they’re kids. A reader shared this gem with me — Children are perfectly capable of doing organizing activities, but they’re not yet necessarily capable of doing those activities perfectly. The hope is that by the time they graduate from high school they will do things perfectly … until then, you instruct and guide them so that each day is a little better. My standards for my four year old are much lower than the standards I have for myself. I still expect him to pick up his toys after he plays with them, but I don’t expect him to do it exactly as I do it.
  • Leave time for cleanup. The hardest part of teaching organizing skills — at least for me — is to pad time into the schedule for cleaning up. If we need to be out the door at 10:00 for swim lessons, at 9:45 all playing must stop and the activity has to be put away. That means as a parent, I have to be ready to leave by 9:45. I can’t supervise and instruct my child while I’m running around the house doing other things. We also have 10 minutes before bath time each night where we walk around the house and pick up errant items and review the family chore chart (more on that below).
  • Heavily rely on clocks and/or the Time Timer. First, we have clocks all over the house, which helps with time management. Second, we also regularly use a Time Timer to give our son an idea of how long things take. I’ll set the Time Timer and say, “all the toys have to be put away before the timer sounds in 15 minutes,” and then we work on cleaning up for 15 minutes together. We also use it when there will be a limited time for playing before heading out of the house and for music practice. I love that thing.
  • Get rid of external distractions while cleaning up. When cleaning up with your child, attentions should be on cleaning up. Turn off the tv, iPad, etc. and focus on returning the room to its preferred state. The only exception to this might be to play a “clean up playlist.” I don’t love Barney, but his “Clean Up Song” is pretty catchy and effective with younger kids. Older kids might benefit from music with a fast beat to help motivate them to move around. I recommend using the exact same playlist for six months or more to reinforce that when they hear the song they know it’s time to clean up.
  • Don’t yell or nag, instead participate. Yelling at your children has been found to be as harmful as hitting a child and nagging creates resentment for you and your kids. Instead, work together when motivations are low. My son won’t yet clean his room unless I’m sitting on his bed talking to him while he does it. He can do it, he just doesn’t want to do it. He’s like many adults who prefer to have accountability partners when they clean and organize. I can’t begrudge him this since I like having company when I’m cleaning.
  • Have clear expectations written or charted for your child. We have a chore chart that outlines what everyone in the house is responsible for each day (dirty clothes in hamper, clearing dishes after meals, taking out trash, putting away toys/activities after using them, etc.). Before bedtime, we review the chart together and discuss what was done and what wasn’t. We don’t have consequences for undone chores, we just usually go with him to do the chore if it wasn’t completed or we let it go and make sure it gets done as part of the next day’s chores.
  • Create incentives. Incentives don’t work for everyone, but our son is currently motivated by them. For example, if he practices his violin every day for 30 minutes for a month, he gets a reward — it might be a trip to the zoo or a toy or a pizza party with his best mate. He decides the reward at the beginning of the month and dad and I discuss it before agreeing to it. We then print out a picture of the reward and hang it next to his practice checklist.

Looking back over this advice, I think a theme is to be involved until your kids have shown they can consistently complete the tasks independently. Until that time, you either have to be involved to instruct and guide or accept that chores won’t get done the way you want them to. A second theme is to work as a team in your home, not as individuals taking up the same living space. But, if all goes well, our children will leave home with the skills to take responsibility for their things.

Thank you, Ines, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

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.