Ask Unclutterer: One person’s gift is your latest frustration

Reader SK submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have recently moved into a smaller apartment and have uncluttered most of our belongings … My problem is that my parents recently gifted us a new vacuum cleaner, complete with cord, attachments, and replaceable belts. We are pretty happy with our little cordless rechargeable vacuum and told my parents so — bookending this information with thanks and appreciation to be polite. My dad insisted that this new vacuum is better — picks up more dirt, etc. We don’t really care. Normally, this is a no brainer, say thank you and quietly return the gift — but Dad comes up every week to watch my daughter and will notice and comment on the new vacuum’s absence. (Mom’s already said she’ll give me the receipt and it’s fine if we want to return it) I’ve already explained the no space situation, but he dismissed the concern. Returning this thing is going to cause some hurt feelings and awkward, difficult conversations — please help!

This is one of those situations where I can’t give you a “do this and be happy” response. But, I’ll give you some ideas that might be able to spark a solution that will be the right one for you and your family.

Option 1: Ask your parents to care and store the vacuum in their home since you don’t have the space in yours. You can borrow it when you really need it for twice-yearly deep cleanings or before a party, but the rest of the time your parents can benefit from having it and using it in their home. Since your dad comes to visit once a week, you must live close to each other, so transporting it shouldn’t be that big of deal. And, if your dad balks and says he already has a vacuum and doesn’t need this fancy one for his house, he’ll at least be more empathetic to your situation.

Option 2: Return it and immediately have a conversation with your dad explaining that you returned it and why. Offer to give him his money back. His feelings will be hurt, but he’s a grownup and will eventually get over it. You’re not returning his love, you’re returning a vacuum.

Option 3: Buck up and keep the vacuum. To find space for the new vacuum, go through your home and decide what you value less than your relationship with your dad, and get rid of that item and the rechargeable vacuum you currently own. Then, let go of your animosity. Use the new vacuum and think fond memories of your father and your relationship with him.

Option 4: Check the comments to this post for even more suggestions from our readers.

Thank you, SK, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m honestly not sure what I would do in this situation. I hope that you find the right solution for you and your family.

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: Finding a reputable charity when donating your unwanted goods

Reader Len submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Reading through the recent posting of Freecycle, I saw many notes on the negatives of Freecycle. Also notes on the fact that Goodwill is bad since items do not go to people who need them but rather to employees who then sell them on Ebay. Any truth to the latter? I am alway concerned about the many charities who call about having a truck in our area soon and do we have anything to contribute. Are there any reputable charities out there?

I’m pretty much of the opinion that even if the rumors are true and Goodwill employees take donations and sell them on eBay, it happens because the person taking the stuff really needs the money. It is not as if working for Goodwill is a million dollar a year job. In fact, Goodwill is currently under scrutiny for paying less than a minimum wage to their employees.

I see it as I’m making a donation of items to Goodwill because I didn’t want whatever I’m donating. I wanted my things to go to someone who needed them. So, if it actually happens, if people are taking these items to use or sell on eBay, I simply don’t care. They have a need for the stuff or the cash, I have a need to get rid of my stuff, and the interaction successfully brings the two of us together. Again, IF it happens.

However, I empathize with your desire to give to a charity that will get the things you’re donating into the hands of someone who needs the items the way the charity has promised. As a result, I try my best to research before giving to any group.

When considering donating to any charity, I start by learning about them on Charity Navigator. Not all charities are rated by the site, but an impressive number are. If the charity isn’t rated, check to see if it has an unrated listing (which they likely do) and also checkout the article “Evaluating Charities Not Currently Rated by Charity Navigator.” (The “Tips and Resources” section in the left-hand sidebar of that page is also helpful.) I really appreciate and recommend the Charity Navigator site.

Forbes magazine also does an annual U.S. Charities review that is very informative. The magazine typically updates it each November. Right now, you can find information about The Largest U.S. Charities for 2012. The List of Charities is extremely helpful for doing side-by-side comparisons and the “Filter by category” drop-down menu in the left-hand column is perfect for identifying specific types of charities to match with your goods.

Beware, though, that you can easily clutter up your time trying to find the exact right charity for your specific donation. Sometimes, stuff just needs to get out of your house now. In those cases, stop thinking about the ideal, and donate to the charity that is the most convenient for you and is accepting donations. The next time you make a donation you can aim for an exemplary match. To misquote Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Thank you, Len, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I think it is a very important topic, especially for those of us who are in the process of uncluttering our homes. Please also check out the comments for more advice from our readership.

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.

Uncluttered cleaning supplies

In the comment section of my post “10 suggestions for where to begin uncluttering” reader Anna asked the following question:

I’m in the process of decluttering and streamlining my utility closets and cabinets. I’ve searched the web high and low for a minimalist list of cleaning supplies to use as a loose guideline. I’ve used the search function on this blog to find old articles but I’m coming up empty. I’d appreciate a link if an article comes to mind. Thanks!

Another reader chimed in with a helpful response, but I wanted to chime in with my thoughts in a broader sense. Especially as the Washington Toxics Coalition says: “There are hundreds of cleaning products vying for your dollar. However, you don’t always need a special purpose cleaner for every dirty dilemma.” Since many of us have a number of such special purpose cleaners, there are certainly some uncluttering possibilities.

As with almost any uncluttering situation, there’s no one right answer — no single list of products we should all have. But I’ll present some strategies to consider, with pointers to additional resources.

Strategy 1: Eliminate toxins

The ingredients used in many cleaning products have potential risks; some people will want to avoid products with these ingredients. The Environmental Working Group has extensive information about such toxins and their possible dangers, and it rates a large number of commercially available products on a scale of A to F.

Another list of potentially hazardous chemicals in our cleaning products, in an easy-to-read format, comes from the David Suzuki Foundation. Anna mentioned in another comment that she makes her own, so this first strategy is more for the big-picture perspective.

Strategy 2: Make your own

Many online sources — and a number of books — explain how you can use a limited number of common products to make your own cleaning solutions. As Martha Stewart says: “Many people are conditioned to believe a house is not clean unless it smells of chemicals. In fact, the opposite is true. You can make your house sparkle with just a few simple supplies, many of which are already in your cupboards.”

How few? Kelly A. Smith writes about cleaning her whole home using only vinegar and baking soda. Clean: the humble art of zen-cleansing goes a bit further, but still says you really only need five ingredients: baking soda, borax, lemon, salt, and white vinegar. And the website Wabi Sabi Baby has recipes with only six ingredients — and since one of those is water, it’s really only five.

Many sites include essential oils, such as lavender oil and tea tree oil, in their recipes for homemade cleaners. However, the Environmental Working Group points out that these have some potential risks, too — so you’ll need to consider whether or not you feel OK about using them.

With make-your-own cleaners, you don’t have to make a lot at once. With a little practice you can simply make up what you need for one cleaning and then store the un-mixed ingredients.

Strategy 3: Consider whether you really need antibacterial cleaners

An article in Scientific American challenges the need for antibacterial products in most households, while noting that people with weakened immune systems may have good reason for “targeted use” of such cleaners.

The Environmental Working Group and the Washington Toxics Coalition also argue that such cleaners are usually unnecessary.

Strategy 4: Start with a list from Martha Stewart or Real Simple

With some searching, I’ve found some decent lists of minimum products that you can then customize to your own circumstances and preferences.

Martha Stewart says: “For routine cleaning, less is more. You actually need very few products to clean any given room.” She then provides a universal cleaning list with only six items — but this excludes items such as brooms. Stewart also has other, more comprehensive, lists: a kitchen cleaning kit with 15 items and a window-washing kit with seven items.

And Real Simple has a house-cleaning kit checklist with only 20 items. It includes white vinegar, baking soda, and an all-purpose cleaner — but also microfiber cloths, a toilet brush, a dust mop, and other such items.

Ask Unclutterer: A reader is finding it difficult to part with her children’s old stuff

Reader JJ submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I badly need to clear out my loft as it’s full of a lot of my four children’s used things — such as clothes, books, toys, school books, mementos, etc. I try to part with it but am very sentimental about when they were younger and I find it so hard to let things go. Any ideas?

I understand the sentimental mindset, especially when it comes to my son. I have a lock of hair from his first haircut, the shoes he was wearing when he took his first steps, and his baby blanket. These sentimental treasures are just things — and if they were to be destroyed in a fire, all of our lives would continue — but I still want to keep them and that is okay.

It is okay because there is nothing wrong with keeping a few sentimental treasures from our lives and our children’s lives. Problems arise, though, when we start confusing sentimental treasures with sentimental clutter and try to keep everything.

Clutter is all the stuff that gets in the way of the life you would rather be living. And, from your note, it sounds like you are looking for ways to sort out the sentimental treasures from the sentimental clutter so you can have more room in your loft. Think of it this way — you can’t keep everything, so if you’re going to live happily and safely in your space you are going to have to let the clutter go.

The way I control sentimental items is to get two plastic storage tubs per person. The first is for baby stuff — baby book, baby blanket, first walking shoes, etc. The second is for ages 2 to 18. Items that are making their way into the second tub include favorite assignments, art projects, mementos from vacations, etc. The size of the tub or tubs will be determined by the amount of space you have in your loft to devote to this type of storage. My guess is you won’t be able to work with anything over 20 gallons total of storage per kid, if that.

The benefit of using the tubs/bins is that nothing can be kept that can’t fit in the tubs/bins. The size of the bin will force you to decide what items are actually treasures and can be kept and what items are clutter and should leave the loft. If there are one or two toys the kids want to keep to pass along to their kids, great! But, if it doesn’t fit in the box, it doesn’t get kept. With four kids, you may want to only have one tub/bin per child to save on space. And, based on the kids’ ages, they might be wonderful helpers at deciding what goes into the bins and what doesn’t. Remember, eventually, your kids will inherit their bins, so you might as well have them help decide what should go into them.

A few additional tips: Be sure to leave room in the 2 to 18 tub so you can be sure to fit all 17 years worth of stuff into it. Also, if you’re going to keep this stuff for the longterm, please store it appropriately using archival-quality materials. Having a different color of tub for each kid can also be a way to make organizing the items easier. The only exception to the tub rule would be if you want to hang a treasure on the wall and permanently display it in your home, which might be possible with one or two items. (A child’s art gallery: examples 1 and 2.) Follow the container rule and sentimental treasures shouldn’t take over the space.

Finally, anything in good condition that you and the kids decide not to keep can be donated to charity, especially clothes. Toys in really good condition can be given to charity, too, or sold at yard sales (or some equivalent). When you’re able to see that another child can benefit from using the item, it can help to take the sting out of parting with sentimental clutter.

Good luck!

Thank you, JJ, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions 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: Please help, I believe my sibling is a hoarder

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer (some information has been changed to protect privacy):

I have a 60 year old sibling who has been hoarding since her child went off to college. S/he is now sleeping in the bath tub. S/he insists s/he is not a hoarder. The other siblings and I have attempted to help clean, but it is truly overwhelming. My sibling has issues with abandonment, victimization, and discrimination. Can you help?

To let readers of the site know, I responded to J when this question arrived in my inbox and didn’t make her or him wait for me to write about it in a column. It’s a common type of question we receive to the site, however, and so I wanted to address it more publicly for anyone who may come to Unclutterer with similar concerns.

Hoarding is a serious and real illness for those who are plagued by it. It’s not a personality quirk or something they’re able to control at this point in time. The person is not hoarding to upset you, but the stuff is likely upsetting the hoarder and he or she feels completely powerless about it. Similar to other physical and psychological ailments, hoarding is not a condition that goes away on its own. Hoarding requires the treatment of a licensed medical and/or psychological practitioner who has been especially trained to help people who are diagnosed hoarders.

Not all people who have excessive numbers of belongings, though, are hoarders (some are chronically disorganized, some have other ailments and hoarding is a side effect, some are situational and will be processed over the course of a year, etc.). That is why it is vital to have the person evaluated so proper help can be given to him or her. What is most important is to get the best care for the person who needs it. And, the best care is rarely a forced cleanout as the first step in the process. Although a forced cleanout would make you feel better — knowing your sibling is no longer living in a dangerous physical environment would most certainly relieve some of your anxiety — it won’t treat the hoarding and the place will just fill up with more stuff in a matter of months. (Or, worse — forced cleanouts have been linked to some suicides among the hoarding population.)

Thankfully, most licensed medical and psychological practitioners also work in combination with professional organizers who have been trained to work with this segment of the population. With treatment, almost all homes and lives of hoarders will see improvements over time.

As someone who loves a hoarder, it also can be difficult to see someone in need — as it is the same as seeing someone you love hurt in a car accident or in the hospital with pneumonia. You want to be able to fix things, and that desire is understandable. For someone on the outside looking in (both literally and figuratively), there are also resources available for you so you can provide the best type of support for your sibling (or spouse or child or parent or friend).

If you suspect you or someone you love may be a hoarder, seek out the help of the following respected organizations:

  • The International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center — This group is led by Randy Frost, PhD, and Gail Steketee, PhD, two of the nation’s most prominent researchers and clinicians in the field. I strongly recommend starting with this site to learn as much as you can.
  • Children of Hoarders — Although their site name implies they only help children of hoarders, they do much more than just help children. They have an incredible support forum for people who love those who struggle with hoarding. Additionally, their Resources section is very helpful.
  • Institute for Challenging Disorganization — The ICD provides superior information to those working daily with hoarders and individuals with chronic disorganization, as well as individuals seeking their support. This is another must-stop site when learning about hoarding and resources available for hoarders and those who love them.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope you are able to find the type of assistance you are searching for through one or more of the previously mentioned organizations. You’re also a wonderful sibling for loving and wanting to help your brother or sister. Please also check the comments for insights from our readership, many of whom have been in a similar situation as yourself. Good luck!

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: Organizing hair accessories

Reader Theo submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My daughter is in fifth grade with long hair and every *&*^%#! hair accessory you can possibly imagine. Our house is overrun with ponytail holders and barrettes. I threaten to cut her hair off in the middle of the night if she can’t find a way to keep all of these things on her head or in her room or bathroom. Her mother has short hair and is oblivious to my frustration. Help please. — Theo, who is tired of cutting ponytail holders out of the vacuum belt

Theo, are you actually a time-traveling version of my dad writing from the early 1980s? Your email hints of so many fights he and I had when I was a kid — except replace “ponytail holders” with “ribbon braided and beaded barrettes.” It gave me a shiver, actually, when I first read it.

Your email reminiscent of my father spurred me into taking a look at my current hair accessories (yes, adults have them, too) and admitting to myself I haven’t been doing a great job organizing them, either. Everything was crammed haphazardly into a basket in my linen closet and dozens of ponytail holders were on door knobs and drawer knob pulls throughout the house (out of reach of the vacuum, but still not in their proper place).

I decided to spend about an hour this past weekend getting these items under control and what I did might work for your daughter.

The first thing I did was round up all my hair doodads — I searched the house and also grabbed my disorderly basket out of the linen closet and poured it all on my bed. Next, I sorted by type. All ponytail holders were put into one pile, all hard headbands made another pile, all soft headbands made another one, then barrettes, bobby pins, hair clips, bun holders, etc.

After sorting, I threw out all items that were ready for the trash from each of the piles — broken or over-stretched ponytail holders, bent bobby pins, barrettes missing their back clips, etc. Then, I went through the piles again and pulled out any accessories that aren’t my style any longer and put those in a large envelope to send to my toddler niece who loves dressing up and doesn’t care much about current fashion trends at this point. What remained after these two purging cycles was manageable and so I didn’t need to do a third round, but your daughter might want to (these items she could give to friends if they’re in good condition and her friends are amenable).

I decided to recycle some items in my home for storage solutions for the accessories that remained. Since developing a gluten intolerance, I no longer have a need for a wheat flour storage canister. So, I washed mine out and repurposed it for my hard and soft headbands:

If you don’t have a container like this, I recommend heading to your pantry or local grocery store with one of your daughter’s headbands. Try them out on different food canisters — they usually fit well around oatmeal canisters. She can wrap the container in her favorite wrapping paper or contact paper to spruce things up a bit.

For ponytail holders, I repurposed an old pill travel organizer:

Again, if you don’t have one of these, a lot of different materials could work, even toilet paper rolls but you need to stuff them with something sturdy so they don’t collapse (wrap this one in contact paper — I don’t recommend wrapping paper for this project as it gets ripped pretty easily, but contact paper is much more sturdy).

I put bobby pins in an old box I inherited from my grandmother. Barrettes and clips went into zip-top bags until I find something else to store them in over the longterm:

My point in repurposing these items was to show that you don’t have to go out and buy something just for organizing her accessories. You probably have things already in your home you can use. If you want to spend some money, there are manufactured options available.

Thank you, Theo, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m also thankful for the motivation you gave to me to get my hair accessories in order. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions 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: If something is multifunctional is it always uncluttered?

Reader Bethany emailed this morning, and although it’s not a traditional Ask Unclutterer question I thought it made for a great discussion:

I’m a reader of the Swiss-Miss blog and like her style. In her Friday Link Pack today, she had an item for “It’s a desk. It’s a bed.” When I saw it I thought it was the opposite of a Unitasker and wanted to make sure you saw it. I think it’s a horrible idea, but wondered what you thought of it since it’s a multitasker?

Live-Work Desk images from StudioNL

Oh my word, that is depressing, Bethany! You’re right that it is multifunctional, certainly not a unitasker, but it’s also one of the saddest pieces of furniture I’ve ever seen.

I like the general concept of one piece of furniture having many functions. And, to be fair, this does appear to be a well-made piece of multifunctioning furniture. It has nice lines. But, I don’t like the idea of literally sleeping in your desk. I think there should be a clear division between sleeping and work. Maybe — and this is a really weak maybe — I could see a medical resident who is on call having a need for a desk like this since he or she has to stay at the hospital for ridiculous hours on a regular basis. But for the rest of us normal folks, this feels dismal.

I believe that people should be productive when at work not so they can transform themselves into robotic corporate drones, but so they can really relax when they’re not at work. Work happens between set hours and work stays at work. When not at work, one’s mind should be free to dwell on things other than to-do items and projects that need to be completed at the office. You get more done at the office to enjoy non-work time more fully. This desk doesn’t provide for that at all — it promotes an end to non-work time. We’re humans, not worker bees.

What do the rest of you think about this Live-Work Desk? Are Bethany and I off base thinking it’s a dreary addition to an office? Share your reactions in the comments. And, thank you, Bethany, for inadvertently submitting your question to our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Improving the Unclutterer Forum

Reader Erin submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

A few weeks ago, we released the new Unclutterer Forum. Although the system is powerful and has a lot of new cool features, it isn’t doing everything we would like. We at Unclutterer know what we would like to change — but what about the rest of you?

Dear Erin, Wow! You took the words right out of my mouth! What a great question.

Seriously, though, we really do want your help. We want to know what we need to change to make the Unclutterer Forum everything you desire in a Forum. This is a list of the things we are already planning to send to our techs to have them try to improve:

  • Disable being able to post as “guest.” Or, rather, to leave a comment you should have to create and be logged into an account.
  • Expand the Challenges section to show a list of the different challenges directly on the Home page of the Forum. Then, when click on the specific challenge, it will take the user to a month-by-month listing of the discussions of each challenge.
  • Fix the New Topics listing so that it operates similar to the old Forum. Have the discussion topic appear instead of individual posts. Also, have all new discussions listed, not just those new since the last time the user logged in.
  • Have the Active Topics and the New Topics be the same, so users have two ways to find the most recent discussion activity.
  • Reinstate the RSS that allows users to subscribe by email to new topics that have been started, not just specific discussion threads.
  • Add moderators, which we have already done. There are now four moderators for the Unclutterer Forum.

Forum users and those who are interested in joining the Forum community, what do you think about the list above? Is it accurate? Does anything need to be changed before we send it off to our techs? Does anything need to be added?

Please share your thoughts with us. We really do want to make the Unclutterer Forum a fun and exiting place for everyone to gather and discuss their adventures in uncluttering.

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: How to store transient items?

Reader Heather submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My “Ask Unclutterer” question has to do with what I call “transient items.” It’s the birthday gift you purchased but you won’t see the recipient for a few days/weeks or the cupcake carrier that usually stays in the pantry, but a friend needs to borrow it, so you get it out so she can come over for it. What is the best way to deal with these items?

In our home, we have an old laundry basket on the floor of our main coat closet where we put these sorts of items. It’s nice because even if one of us isn’t home, if someone stops by to pick up items, other people in the house know where to find whatever is being retrieved. We also put items in it we don’t want to forget when we run errands — like a bag full of dry cleaning.

Other ideas might be to clear the top shelf of your coat closet and use it as your transient area or get a bench with hidden interior storage and put items in it. Benches are nice in hallways because they give guests a place to sit if they’re waiting on someone, as well as a place to park yourself if you want to take off your shoes.

The Red Chair Blog suggests using storage cubes with labeled boxes set out in a hallway, though I would suggest sticking the cubes in a closet if you have a closet near your front door. Or, if you have a garage, this could easily be stored in it next to the house entrance.

Thank you, Heather, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check our comments for even more ideas 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: How much mess is too much mess?

Reader Cassie submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m uncluttered, but messy. Everything I own has a “proper storage place,” like you recommend in your book, but stuff doesn’t always make it back to its storage place after I use it. How much mess is too much mess? Is there any hope for me to be less messy and [be] better about returning things to their proper storage place?

Cassie, you have two great questions here. Let’s start with your first: “How much mess is too much mess?”

The answer to your question depends on a few variables. Do you live alone or with other people? How much stress and anxiety is your mess causing you? Are you just messy or are you also dirty (by “dirty” I mean are there messes that can attract bugs and pests, like half-eaten bowls of cereal abandoned on the end table in your living room)?

If you live alone, you pretty much get to be the sole decider in how much mess is too much mess. Assuming your mess isn’t violating any laws, neighborhood association rules, or rental agreements, you set the rules for what is okay and what isn’t. However, if you live with other people, you all need to come to an agreement as to what amount of mess is okay and what is unacceptable. There are lots of ways you can reach this agreement, but I recommend meeting in a public place (like a restaurant or coffee shop) and discussing it there. Write down the standards if that suits you, or simply come to a very clear verbal agreement. Remember, too, you can always revisit the standards you set at a later time if they turn out to be too strict or too lenient.

If your mess isn’t causing you any stress or anxiety, it is likely you have found your appropriate tolerance level and are functioning well. We are all a bit messy, especially while working on projects or dealing with more pressing issues and responsibilities. As long as things make it back to their homes eventually, a little mess is fine. But, since you wrote in asking about your mess, my guess is that it’s causing you some stress. In this case, you’ll want to create routines for regularly dealing with your messes so they aren’t a source of anxiety for you. I’ll give some tips for creating these routines in a couple paragraphs.

Next, you’ll just want to be sure that your mess doesn’t include anything that could be labeled as “dirty.” Anything that could invite bugs or pests into your home should be cleaned up right away. For example, an overflowing kitty litter box has to be cleaned now, but a stray pair of socks on the floor can sit until morning if they aren’t causing you any frustration. (Remember, the reason you want to be uncluttered is to get rid of distractions that are getting in the way of the life you desire — and stress, anxiety, frustration, bugs, and pests all qualify as distractions.)

To address your second question, “Is there any hope for me to be less messy and [be] better about returning things to their proper storage place?”

Yes, there is hope that you can be less messy if that is what you want to do. The easiest thing you can do is to create a new daily pickup routine for yourself. Choose a time that works best for you and when you have a good amount of energy: in the morning before work, immediately after work, after dinner, or an hour before bed. Set aside 15 minutes — and only 15 minutes, as you don’t want to make it too daunting — to speed through your living space taking care of all the little messes. Use a timer to help keep you on track or an upbeat music playlist to encourage you to move.

Finally, work on changing your mindset about how activities are finished. When you think about doing things, constantly remind yourself that you’re actually not done with something until all items are put away. For example, dinner isn’t finished until all dishes are in the dishwasher and the counter has been wiped down (as opposed to thinking dinner is over when you finish eating). Or that watching your favorite television show isn’t over when the credits roll, but rather after you turn off the television and return the remote control to its storage basket. With months of practice, you’ll train yourself to make fewer messes and this will reduce the time you need for your daily pickup routine.

Thank you, Cassie, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more insights 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: Identifying common uncluttering goals in a relationship

Reader Jay submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My wife and I agree that our house is much, much too cluttered. I have been saying it for years, and now that we have two kids and about 5-kids’ worth of toys, she agrees with me.

The problem is that we don’t see eye-to-eye on how to accomplish our goal, to find our house livable. She thinks we have an appropriate amount of stuff, just that we have nowhere to put it. I think we have much too much stuff. Her solution is to put shelves around the house to store the things that are out. I have at least two problems with that. The first is that we have shelves. They are just already filled with stuff! … the second problem is if I add shelves, we will just acquire more stuff, and they will become like the shelves we have …

The clutter has gotten so bad that I hate coming home from work some days. The house never gets “straightened” and certainly never gets cleaned. (It’s not dirty, just only ever gets surface cleaned – swept, basically) … This can’t be an uncommon problem.

Jay, I think there are many readers who can sympathize with your situation. You are frustrated. The clutter is increasing your stress and anxiety levels, and it has left you feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been there and remember well how it feels. And, if what you say in your first paragraph is true, your wife empathizes with you. You might not yet see the same solution, but you definitely see the same problem — clutter!

Lucky for you both, you have a partner with which to battle the clutter. And I’m not sure how old your kids are, but you might also have two wonderful little helpers to join your team. Right now, you feel like it’s you against the clutter and you against the others in your home. It’s not. The humans are a team, and that team can be victorious against the clutter.

You should start by figuring out exactly what you want. Both of you can head to the library, grab a bunch of home, design, and architecture magazines, and flip through the pictures. With your cell phone or a digital camera, snap images of your favorite rooms. Don’t snap pictures of specific solutions, snap pictures of entire rooms you like. After 30 or 40 minutes, call it quits and head home.

Look at the pictures you both took. Talk about why you like the images. What caught your eye? How do the rooms make you feel? What is it about those spaces that you think could work for you? How much clutter is in the images? How much storage is in each room? Do either of you have images the other person likes, too?

Once you have identified common themes that work for both of you, take pictures of your current space and review them. Then, compare your current space to the images you both like that you found in the magazines. What is different? What changes could you make to your space to give it the feel of the images from the magazines?

You don’t need to remodel, move, or even buy a piece of furniture to move toward your common goal. Aim for recreating the sense of the images you like, not recreating the actual room. You need to have a common goal for how you want the space to be when you’re finished, so you will know how to get to that goal.

Uncluttering your home is going to be something you and your wife and kids tackle together. I recommend setting aside 30 minutes each night after dinner to work on a specific room. Play upbeat music while you work and have fun together. You’re getting rid of clutter — enjoy it! You won’t get rid of all the clutter in 30 minutes, but you’ll make a dent and the next night you can do more and the next night even more. Create piles for keeping and purging (throwing away, recycling, donating to charity, giving to a friend). Just remember, only keep the things that meet the vision of your ideal place. You might get rid of a little or you might get rid of a lot — it doesn’t matter, as long as it meets your goal.

Our site is full of articles about the actual logistics of uncluttering and organizing. Head to the search engine in the middle column and type in words for specific problems you encounter, and it’s likely we have written about that topic already. For a primer on these subjects:

Get a vision of where you want to go together, and you can get there together. If this method doesn’t work, I suggest bringing in a professional. A professional organizer can help you better define your common goals, and if a professional organizer doesn’t work your next step would be to go to some marriage counseling sessions to talk about your goals more in depth. Until you discover a common goal, though, you’re both going to continue to be frustrated by the clutter.

Thank you, Jay, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was was helpful to you and be sure to check the comments for even more great ideas 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: Products for processing paper

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I still stand by the information in our extremely popular 2007 series “Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter” and the three other articles in the paper-begone series. Basically, he wanted to know if I would write the series the same way now that I did then.

Would the fundamental premise of the articles be the same today as it was then? Yes. Would a few specific details change? Definitely.

The most obvious thing I would change is the equipment used to scan and shred the papers we don’t need to retain in physical form. I still love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, but the technology referenced in the article is now about six years old. The ScanSnap line has come a long way since then. Also, I’ve come to adore shredders on wheels because they can be moved around a room to wherever you need them.

The latest model in the ScanSnap desktop line is the iX500 and it’s an impressive machine. I’ve been test driving one the past two weeks (thank you, ScanSnap!) and it’s amazing — it doesn’t require a desktop computer to launch, it will scan straight to a mobile device or an online storage location over Wifi (so I can save straight to Dropbox), it’s noticeably faster than the S1500M model we own, and I’ve been able to customize it to send scans automatically to whatever program I want, so items like photographs now import straight into iPhoto. I won’t upgrade permanently from the S1500M we already have, but if we didn’t have a scanner I would save up for this one. If you’re in the market for one, the list price is $495. They’re expensive, but they’re really nice. (Full iX500 product details.)

As far as shredders go, I’d recommend the Fellowes PowerShred 79Ci now. The thing is a monster at chewing up stuff you want to shred. And, as I referenced earlier, it’s on wheels, which makes it convenient to use and store. It’s also expensive, but the thing will last you a decade or more if you treat it well. Our PowerShred PS-77Cs is still rocking after seven years of service, and we use it daily. Unlike less expensive shredders, the PowerShred line is built to last.

The list of things to shred and not to shred is still accurate, though a lot of people greatly dislike my advice to destroy old passports. I probably should have written more clearly about waiting to shred the old passport until after you get a new one. Submitting your old one does speed up the renewal process. However, once you get the old one back, if you don’t need it for any legal reason, it’s safe to shred (just be sure to pop out the RFID chip first). My last passport, though used many times, didn’t even have a single stamp in it because so many countries have stopped stamping and my old visa had to be relinquished when I left the country that required me to have the visa. If you want to keep old passports, especially if they have stamps in them, do it but please keep it in a safe or safe-deposit box so it doesn’t end up in the hands of identity thieves.

I still use DevonThink to organize my digital documents and FreedomFiler for my paper files (though, I’ve added a ridiculous number of my own files to the FreedomFiler system in the past six years that resemble what I discuss in my book). Those two products have suited me well all this time.

Even with all of these products and systems, paper continues to be something we have to deal with daily in our home. We’ve unsubscribed from as much junk mail as possible, yet we still get some from businesses and services we use. The shredder, trash can, and recycling bin by our main entrance are essential in dealing with the junk immediately and not letting it come deep inside the house. But, the stuff we let in voluntarily — the bank statements, the receipts, the pay stubs, the contracts — still feels overwhelming at times. We’ve gone so far as to unsubscribe from all print magazines and now subscribe to these publications digitally over Zinio. The only way we’ve been able to keep from being overwhelmed by paper is to clear our desks each day as part of our end-of-day work routines. All papers filed, junk shred, receipts reconciled, documents scanned, etc. It only takes five or ten minutes, but it’s still a chore. I’m looking forward to the day when I only have to spend five or ten minutes a week (or less) dealing with paper clutter.

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.