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.

Six ways to successfully manage laundry

People who know me know that I have an intense dislike for doing laundry. Like uncluttering, if you don’t keep up with it, things can quickly get out of control. Because there are several steps to completing the process, I’m always on the look out for ways to make it a little easier and faster to complete. In fact, I was elated when I recently read about a shirt (made by Wool and Prince) that can be worn for 100 days before it needs to be laundered. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like doing laundry (no surprise there) as the shirt is already sold out. And, since it’s for men only, my dreams of collecting a few for my side of the closet quickly faded. I have hope for the future, though.

Image credit: Wool and Prince

I’ve even considered wearing one core piece every day for one year (like Sheena Matheiken did). Though I’d still have to wash my clothing, I’d theoretically have less of it to launder and I could save a bit of time looking for something to wear each day. But, in reality, I’m not sure I could be creative enough to pull this off for 365 days. After a while, I suspect that I’d want to switch things up a bit.

Since these options don’t seem viable for me and my lifestyle, I’ve decided to redouble my efforts and take more practical steps to help ease the pain of doing laundry. If you’re like me and find laundry to be a major thorn in your side, consider these six suggestions:

  1. Reduce your stash. Spring is great time to unclutter your home (or office or car) so why not start with your closet? The less clothing you have, the less volume of washing will be required. And, you’ll gain more space in your closet.
  2. Share laundry duties. Teaming up with your spouse, partner, or housemate to get chores done is not a new idea, and this principle can easily be applied to doing laundry. Decide who will be responsible for specific steps in the process (don’t forget about ironing). You can alternate each step or take on the tasks that you don’t mind doing. For instance, I love folding. It’s a quiet and solitary activity that relaxes me. On the other hand, you might want to do laundry with a friend who’ll help you with all the steps and then on another day, you return the favor.

    Another option is to let everyone in your home be responsible for keeping their own clothing clean. This can be a great option for adults and older children, though you can also get younger children involved. Of course, you can also outsource your laundry. When I lived in NY years ago, I used a service that would pick up, wash, dry, fold, and return my clean clothing to my apartment. It was money well spent as all I had to do was to put everything away.

  3. Wash smaller loads. This may seem counterintuitive, but it may help you get through all the steps if you have fewer clothes to work with at one time. This might mean that adjusting your laundry schedule (increase the number of loads per day or the number of days you wash clothing) so that you can finish the entire process for each load washed.
  4. Keep your laundry area stocked with needed supplies. Nothing stalls the process like not having everything you need. It’s important to have all the supplies you tend to use so that you can start and finish the process. If you’re missing something (or don’t have enough of it), you’ll be frustrated and doing laundry will take longer (or just not happen until the last minute). Keep the supplies you need in your laundry area and be sure they are easily accessible or else you probably won’t put them back where they belong. This also applies to good equipment — if you have a washer and dryer at home, it’s much more enjoyable to do laundry when the equipment is in decent working order.
  5. Use a steamer. If you’re not fond of ironing, you might want to consider using steamer. They seem to be a bit easier to use and don’t require as much effort as a traditional iron does. You can also find portable units that don’t take up a lot of space. You could also purchase wrinkle resistant clothing that requires little or no ironing once you remove it from the dryer, but these items are typically treated with resins that may irritate your skin, so use caution. Clothing made from bamboo fibers may be a good option as they are lightweight (and potentially easier to keep wrinkle-free), tend to be odor resistant, and are quick drying.
  6. Buy the same. This is a tried and true tip — especially when you are laundering socks. Having the all the same socks means that you won’t spend a lot of time pairing them up.

Get a jump start on spring cleaning with 15-minute microtasks

Over the winter months, many people experience cabin fever. When you’re stuck inside for a long period of time, it’s likely you’ll get bored and become a little restless as you await warmer temperatures. Now that we’re in the first full week of March, the end of cold weather is in sight! And, with the few remaining weeks of winter, you can get a jump start on your spring cleaning tasks in just a few minutes of time. You don’t have to wait until spring finally arrives, nor do you have to go all out on a major cleaning binge (though you should plan an in-depth cleaning).

Instead, start some spring cleaning chores now and consider segmenting your home into small projects so they are easier to tackle. Doing this will allow you to reasonably start the process without spending all your time uncluttering and cleaning. Because the tasks are smaller and more manageable, you probably won’t need a lot of time to get them done. In fact, just 15 minutes per day can lead to big results.

You might be scratching your head about where to start. One of the easiest ways to select your first micro-project is to look around at your surfaces. Have you noticed that flat surfaces seem to have an open invitation to put things on them? They may start out uncluttered, but then they somehow morph into holders of knick knacks, paper piles, and things that haven’t made it back to their designated storage areas. And, because surfaces are so visible, when they are clutter-free, they can make a room look and feel dramatically improved.

Since you’re using short bursts of activity to clear things up, pick one area or room in your home and decide which surface you will attack first. For example, a master bedroom might have the following surfaces:

  • Two nightstands
  • One vanity
  • One chest of drawers
  • One TV stand
  • The floor

Before you set your timer, think about how long you might need to completely finish one surface. Could you do it all in one 15-minute time block? Or, would you need to schedule two or three micro-blocks? Using the above example, if you scheduled one 15-minute cleaning session per day for each surface, each one could be uncluttered and cleaned within 6 days. If you worked on two surfaces per day (30 minutes/day), the entire list could be done in 3 days. Keep in mind that the floor is also a surface, and depending on the type and number of items you need to sort through before you start vacuuming or sweeping, the floor may require multiple microbursts of activity before it’s completely uncluttered and clean. That said, begin working on the surfaces in your most used spaces. Since you tend to be in those rooms often, you’ll have ample opportunities to work on clearing them.

As you go through this process, remember to check hidden spaces, like your attic. Even in rooms that you use often, you’ll still have spots that are not very visible. These include drawers, under beds and sofa cushions, inside closets (don’t forget the top shelf), cabinets (have you looked in the ones above your refrigerator or stove lately?), closed containers, storage ottomans/benches, and even inside your refrigerator. Of course, spring cleaning isn’t just limited to the spaces throughout your home. Other areas of focus include your garage, shed, barn or other outdoor structures, gutters, your car and trunk, and even the storage cabinets under your grill. As mentioned before, first estimate how long an area will likely take to complete and then schedule your 15-minute time blocks accordingly. Whenever possible, get help from other members of your household. Two or more people working together on microtasks would certainly get each area finished a lot faster.

To keep track of all the spaces you need to unclutter and thoroughly clean, check out the Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home.

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.

A basic spring cleaning plan

Daylight Saving Time in the United States begins on March 10. This is typically the time that people are not only advancing their clocks forward, but also likely thinking about spring cleaning. There are still several weeks before spring actually arrives, so this an oportune time to make plans for what chores you will do around your home.

But, before you dive headfirst into a cleaning frenzy, figure out how you’ll go about cleaning all your living spaces. Create a plan of attack now as you’ll find this very helpful when it’s time to execute it. Keep in mind that you’ll need to unclutter before begin cleaning. It will be difficult to clean rooms that have blocked pathways or a large number of items without designated storage places (especially if you have to move furniture). Once the clutter has been cleared, your plan should include:

  1. Priority areas. No matter how small your home may be, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to clean it all in one weekend. Start thinking about specific rooms (or appliances) that you’d like to work on first, and focus on one or two tasks per room. That doesn’t mean you can’t work on other things, you’ll just be giving your attention to the most important items first. For example, if something is broken and would need to be used often (like your heating and cooling system), it should go to the top of your list. And, of course, you should immediately take care of issues that prevent a room from being used safely.
  2. Specific cleaning days. To stay on top of all your cleaning tasks, try scheduling your spring cleaning activities on specific days and be realistic about how much time you’ll have to work on each area of your home. Use a checklist so you don’t forget to do something. It might also be a good idea to print your list and post it on the door of the room where you’ll be working. This will help you remember the things that still need to get done, and if you assign tasks to others, include names next to specific items so that they know what they’re responsible for.
  3. Cleaning supplies. Will you be making your own cleaning solutions or buying something already made? Do you need special cleaners for particular surfaces? Do you prefer green cleaners? Before you go shopping (or create you own special mixture), check your cabinets to see what you already have (check for cleaning cloths, too) and what you’ll need to acquire.
  4. Other tools and supplies. You may need to borrow, rent, or buy tools and equipment that you don’t use every day, like a ladder to reach high ceilings, long dusters to reach behind and under appliances, or air filters (be sure you have the right size). As you walk through each room, make notes of things you need to help you get the job done.

What to do with old toys

The winter holidays are coming and, for those who celebrate and have kids, it typically means the acquisition of new toys. It’s great for the kids but becomes problematic when the new bounty is piled upon last year’s. And the year before that. Before long, you’ve got clutter on your hands. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to reduce the mess, keep things tidy, and, best of all, keep the kids happy about it. If you’re looking to part with used toys, the following are several ideas for what you can do with older, outgrown or otherwise unused toys.

Donate

It’s always nice to donate a toy to someone who could use it and there are plenty of options. Here are a few that should be available in many communities for very lightly used toys:

  1. Toy drives. To find a toy drive in your area, contact a local church or chamber of commerce. Organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts also organize drives, so seek them out in your neighborhood.
  2. S.A.F.E. Stuffed Animals for Emergencies. This organization delivers donated stuffed animals, toys, books and blankets to hospitals, children’s services, homeless shelters and hospitals across the country. You can find a chapter in your area here.
  3. Goodwill. Goodwill works to foster employment training opportunities for those it serves. The vast majority of funds brought in through its stores serves that purpose.
  4. Local fire department. Firefighters and EMTs often keep stuffed animals around to give to children they must transport to the hospital. Call the department in your area to see if they have such a program.

Repurpose Old Toys

Repurposing is where it gets fun. You and your child can let your creativity run wild and think of fun and useful ways to repurpose old toys. It can soften the blow that comes with giving something away. Often children can have an emotional bond to a toy they haven’t touched in years. Tricks like these allow them to keep that toy around (or a part of it at least).

Repurposing helps kids (and parents) realize that making something can be more fun than buying. It fosters a real sense of ownership and accomplishment. Finally, you’re keeping a hunk of plastic out of the landfill in many cases. Here are some great ideas for re-purposing old toys.

Website Apartment Therapy has gathered 10 fantastic projects for old toys from around the web. My favorites include:

  1. Plastic toy as planter. This fantastic tutorial shows you how to turn a plastic dinosaur into a cute planter.
  2. Wooden block wall hangings. My wife and I bought so many wooden blocks for my children. At 7 and 9 years old, they’ve lost interest. This quick how-to from snug.studio shows how to turn them into wall hangings for book bags, hats, jackets and more. Very clever.
  3. Animal head toy coat rack. A very clever and useful project from Make: Craft uses the heads of discarded plastic animals to make a good-looking coat rack.
  4. Tree ornaments. When I was very young, my mother cut the plastic animals that hung from the mobile above my crib and turned them into Christmas tree ornaments. They’re still among my favorites (wooden peg puzzle pieces also make great ornaments).

I know that kids aren’t thrilled about receiving clothes as gifts, but it happens. Even I have a T-shirt collection that drives my wife a little crazy. Last year, she had several made into the quilt pictured below that has graced my bed ever since.

Honor the Memory

We often fail to part with things not because of the item itself, but with the memory or emotion it represents. This is especially true as kids grow up. One way to honor the memory without incurring clutter is with a shadow box like these from Lawrence Frames. Add an item or two and discard the rest. The memory is intact, and the clutter isn’t.

I also love this wall decoration made from small, unused toys. What a nice way to let Jr. keep some of the items he loves without letting them form a space-hogging pile.

Sell

You won’t be able to sell all of your old toys, of course. But some vintage toys and collectibles can attract buyers. Before you list your little treasures online, you’ll need to take some photos. A good photo can make or break a sale. Here’s a fantastic tutorial on how to photograph your items for the likes of ebay. And, Thomas train sets are very popular this time of year for sale on Craigslist.

There’s a lot that can be done with old toys. If you can, have your kids take part in the process you choose. They’ll feel a part of the decision and enjoy seeing the toy’s new role.

Creating uncluttering and organizing routines: A typical Tuesday

A reader recently emailed asking if I could put together a detail of what my day looks like and how I stay on top of uncluttering and organizing tasks. I’ve written something like this before, but I’ve become a mom since writing the original article, so I thought I’d put together an updated routine. This one-day example shows how a little bit of effort each day can keep most people’s homes in good condition.

Not every Tuesday works exactly like what I have listed here, but this is a fairly accurate representation of how I move throughout my day. All of the chores I share with my husband, so where the schedule says “load the dishwasher” or “take son to school,” it might be either of us who does this activity.

One thing to note is most weekdays I work until 5:00 p.m. The “After-Work Errand Routine” is special just to Tuesdays and allows me to grocery shop and run errands at a time when the stores and streets aren’t crowded. As a result, most Tuesdays I go back to work from 8:45 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. instead of relaxing during that time.

A Typical Tuesday

Morning Home Routine:
6:30 a.m. Wake up, brush teeth, wash face, put on workout clothes, and make bed.
6:40 a.m. Unload dishwasher, make coffee, feed pets, assemble son’s lunch, get breakfast on the table.
7:00 a.m. Sit and do nothing for 10 or 15 minutes with a cup of coffee.
7:15 a.m. Wake up son, everyone eats breakfast.
7:45 a.m. Load dishwasher, sweep floor.
7:50 a.m. Supervise son getting dressed, teeth brushed and flossed, his face cleaned, and backpack loaded.
8:05 a.m. Take son to school.

Morning Work Routine:
8:30 a.m. Work on most important writing/client project.
9:45 a.m. Check email, social media, and administrative work.
10:00 a.m. Work on second most important writing/client project.
11:15 a.m. Check email, social media, and administrative work.

Mid-day Routine:
11:30 a.m. Make and eat lunch, load dishwasher.
12:00 p.m. Exercise or do yard work (like mowing).
12:45 p.m. Shower and get ready.

Afternoon Work Routine:
1:00 p.m. Work on third most important writing/client project.
2:00 p.m. Make another cup of coffee, check email, social media, and administrative work.
2:15 p.m. Wrap up writing/client projects for the day.
2:30 p.m. End-of-day routine for work: set phone to do not disturb, clear desk, set writing agenda for next day, have everything set and ready to go for tomorow.

After-Work Errand Routine: (Tuesdays only)
2:45 p.m. Pick up son from school.
3:05 p.m. Run errands to grocery store (made shopping list on Sunday), post office, dry cleaner, etc.

Evening Home Routine:
4:00 p.m. Return home and sort and shred mail, put away groceries, scan and shred receipts, unload son’s lunchbox and other items from backpack, load lunchbox items into dishwasher.
4:05 p.m. Spend time with son.
5:20 p.m. Put load of son’s laundry into washer.
5:30 p.m. Make dinner and get son’s lunch ready for tomorrow so it only has to be assembled in the morning. Everyone eats dinner.
6:30 p.m. Load dishwasher, run dishwasher, sweep floor.
6:35 p.m. Move son’s clothes to dryer. Everyone does 20 to 30 minutes of general house clean up with special focus on bathrooms. (Other special focus areas: Mondays are kitchen and dining room; Wednesdays are bedrooms; Thursdays are living rooms; Fridays are remaining spaces like hallways, entryways, and garages; and Sundays are meal planning.)
7:00 p.m. Spend time with family.
8:00 p.m. Bathe son and put him to bed.
8:30 p.m. Fold son’s clothes (will put away tomorrow morning after breakfast), get self ready for bed, brush and floss teeth, feed pets.
8:45 p.m. Hang out with husband or do more writing/editing work.
10:30 p.m. Go to bed.

On pages 98 and 99 of my book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week, there is a routine schedule that covers the full week. We’ve made a few additions to the schedule now that we’re parents, but it is still very similar to what we do in our home. It has worked well for us for many years and keeps our weekends free to have as much fun as we desire.

Also, twice a year we spend a weekend doing major uncluttering work throughout the entire house. Even with daily maintenance, we find we still need to give everything we own a good review every six months. Usually our major uncluttering weekends are held the weekends preceding our fall and spring cleaning weekends. We like to get rid of clutter before doing the spring and fall cleanings so there is less to clean and maintain. You can find our cleaning guides in my book on pages 100 and 185. We usually do the “Dedicated Cleaner” plan.

Finally, we try our best to put things away after we use them and to have a permanent storage space for everything we own. These two simple actions aid us significantly in keeping our home uncluttered and organized.

A lesson on impermanence from a ruined baseball

My dog, an oft-naughty Boston Terrier named Batgirl, recently taught me an important lesson about clinging to clutter, attachment, and the real value of memories. How?

She ruined an irreplaceable baseball that I loved.

In late 2011, my brother-in-law and I took a road trip to Boston. We went to watch a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. I love the Sox and typically attend a game or two per season. My brother-in-law is also a die-hard fan, but he hadn’t attended a game since childhood (we’re both in our 40s now). The trip was a big deal; we had never gone together and he hadn’t been in decades.

Plus, my brother-in-law was dealing with stresses at home and the game was an opportunity to shut that off for a while. We wedged our widening backsides into plastic chairs, over paid for hot dogs, and engaged in the overtly American tradition of watching millionaires hit a ball with a stick for our amusement.

Then the game went south.

The opposing team scored early. And often. The Sox answered by not scoring, which, for those unfamiliar with professional sports, is the textbook wrong way of doing things. A Red Sox comeback seemed possible, then improbable, then all but impossible. My brother-in-law joked that every time he visited Fenway as a kid, the Sox lost. It seemed his streak would remain intact, and it did.

As the game came to its inevitable conclusion, it was announced that we were a part of Red Sox history. Although our beloved team had lost, that game was the 700th consecutive sellout at Fenway Park. All attendees would receive a commemorative baseball upon exiting the park. We were thrilled to have a keepsake, even if the team lost, because of this historic accomplishment and our afternoon spent together. The ball I got sat on my desk for months.

Last weekend, my son was tossing it around and left it on the floor. A few hours later, I found it as you see it above. Much like Boston’s 2012 baseball season, the ball is done. My immediate reaction was one of despair. “Oh, that dumb dog! She’s destroyed that ball! How I loved it and that day at the park! Now it’s ruined.”

As I wailed and gnashed my teeth, I paused and remembered a great quote from American psychiatrist Mark Epstein. In his book Thoughts Without A Thinker, he relates a wonderful story about a glass:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

The ball itself isn’t what was important. All of the memories I relayed in this article I conjured up without it. The ball is now in the trash bin; the memories and emotions of that day are in me. When I realize the ball is chewed, or my life is short, I’m reminded every moment with it was precious.

It’s often hard to part with items of important emotional significance. I’m keenly aware of this and struggle with it all the time. I mean, I need every picture my kids drew of the two of us holding hands under a rainbow! Or do I? I can feel the rainbow, the sun, and my girl’s love without the paper and her Crayon art. The drawing is nice to have, but I know it and all of my possessions won’t be around forever.

What’s on your summer to do list? Organizing your car

The summer months are a good time to tackle many projects, including organizing your garage and closets. Today, we’re sharing tips on how to shape up your car. Though some may walk, ride a bike or scooter, or take public transportation to get about town, many people (raising my hand) travel by car. For some, it’s a second home or main “office.” When you spend a lot of time in your vehicle, keeping it organized is a necessity as you’ll need to not only feel comfortable, but also find what you need with relative ease.

To begin a car uncluttering and organizing project, take everything that doesn’t belong in your car out of the car (check under your seats), looking for things that are obviously trash (empty water bottles, food wrappers). Next, categorize the remaining items (chargers with chargers, first aid supplies with first aid supplies). Then …

Be selective about what you need to keep

Depending on your lifestyle, you could have a variety of things you need to regularly keep in your car. If you’re a mobile entrepreneur, you may need office supplies, brochures, or client forms. If you’re a parent, toys, books, or hand sanitizer may be more important things to keep in the car. For people who do a fair amount of long-distance driving, street maps, money for tolls, or audio books are the likely must-have items. Think through all the things you need to have with you on a regular basis so that you can …

Decide what will live inside your car and trunk

You will want to store some things inside your car (e.g. in the glove compartment, center console, pockets on the backs of each seat, side door pockets) and other items inside your trunk. Use frequency of use as a benchmark along with size and volume of specific items. For things you use often, store them inside your car and think of your trunk as archival or large item storage. And, if you live in an area where there are seasonal extremes, you may also want weather appropriate items (ice melt, gloves, sun shades).

Based on the size and features of your car (or truck or SUV or minivan), place things in the locations that make sense to you — like in a kitchen, store things where you use them. And, consider keeping a container inside your car to collect garbage. Here are suggestions on where to keep some things:

Glove compartment

  • Registration, insurance card, and emergency numbers
  • Car manuals
  • Collision kit
  • First aid kit
  • Cell phone charger (this can also be kept in the center console along with a tire gauge)

Door pockets

  • Maps
  • Container or resealable bag of coins (for tolls or parking)
  • Coupons and gift cards
  • Trash bags

Trunk

Choose your containers

Containers help you keep everything in its place and easily accessible. They also can help keep loose items from shifting and flying about if you have to stop suddenly or in the event of an accident.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Milk crate. A crate is great for keeping sports equipment, toys, and things that you need to do something with (packages to mail, things to return). Consider putting a milk crate (or laundry basket) in your trunk.
  • Trunk organizer. The compartments in a trunk organizer make it easy to keep similar items together and separate them from others. They can hold many things (like groceries and car care supplies) and have outer pockets for papers or maps.
  • Mobile office organizer. Use this mobile unit on the passenger seat to hold hanging file folders and to keep pens and note pads close by if you often work from your car. Some organizers have lids to keep items from slipping out and others forgo file storage and give you enough space for keeping CD’s, tissues, and other items.
  • Plastic envelope. Plastic envelopes are great for keeping coupons and receipts and can easily be stored in door pockets or behind-the-seat pockets. Or, put your registration and insurance card in an envelope in your glove compartment.

Create a maintenance routine

Once everything is arranged in the way that works for you, make a plan to keep your vehicle organized and road-trip ready. A simple way to stop the build up of trash is to empty your garbage container each time you fill up your tank. Because you refuel on a regular basis, combining these tasks will almost guarantee that your ride will be clutter free. What about all those supplies that you need to have all the time? To be sure you don’t run out, check your stash once a week (or once every two weeks) to make sure you have all you need and can restock if you don’t.

As with any maintenance routine, keep it simple. The more complex the steps, the more difficult it will be to maintain. Don’t wait until you get your car detailed to focus on keeping it clean and orderly. Do a little bit each week and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much easier it is to keep everything in its place.

An uncluttered plunger, really

Every once in awhile, I’m truly impressed by what a product can do. The first time I used the Shazam application on my iPhone, I was in disbelief for hours (to this day, if someone told me magic is involved in its operation, I wouldn’t be surprised). I had a similar reaction when I saw a demonstration at the National Association of Professional Organizer’s conference of the new Rubbermaid Clean and Dry Plunger (yes, you just read that correctly, I was impressed by a toilet plunger … and you probably will be, too):

I didn’t over-sell that, right? The plunger has a NeverWet coating on it that prevents anything — water, bacteria, whatever else is in your toilet — from sticking to it. (NeverWet is like Rain-X on steroids, because it repels even more than water.) Which means that after you plunge your toilet, you can’t drip dirty water onto your floor or spread germs to the area where you store your plunger. Oils from your hands can destroy the NeverWet coating, so you can’t touch the plunger, but I’m not really sure that is something people usually do, anyway.

I’ll be honest, I never expected to be dazzled by a toilet plunger, but life is interesting that way. As far as uncluttered home maintenance products go, a plunger that doesn’t drip toilet water through my bathroom or spread germs is an advancement I can support.

And, once again, it should go without saying, but Rubbermaid did not pay me or give me anything to write this post. I sincerely just think it’s awesome.

The dirty truth about messy offices

For good or bad, people make assumptions about you based on the appearance of your office. If they see a framed picture on your desk of you standing on a beach with two children, they instantly assume you like going to the beach on vacation, you have two kids, and you enjoy being reminded of this vacation while you’re at work. If you have a law school diploma and a state bar association certificate framed and hanging on your office walls, people seeing these items assume you’re a lawyer, who graduated from a specific school, who is legal to practice law in your state.

The previously mentioned examples of the family photo and the diploma both resulted in positive assumptions about you and these items were likely placed in the office to elicit the exact responses they received. The bad side of assumptions based solely on appearances is that people can also come to negative conclusions about you. For example, a consistently messy desk (not one that is disrupted for a few hours each day as you plow through a project, but one that is disorganized, dirty, and cluttered over a prolonged period of time) can hurt you professionally because it gives the impression to your coworkers you’re not a good employee, even if your work product proves otherwise.

On April 13, Businessweek published the article “Clean Your Messy Desk, Lest Ye Be Judged.” The article, as you probably assume based on its title, explains the downsides of having a perpetually messy office. From the article:

… according to a survey of U.S. workers by hiring firm Adecco, 57 percent of people have judged a co-worker based on the state of his or her workspace. A clean desk sends the message that you’re organized and accomplished, while a disheveled one implies that the rest of your life is in a similar state.

Katherine Trezise, the president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (you may know ICD by its former name, the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) comments on the survey’s findings in the Businessweek article:

Trezise says that a little mess is OK, but that “the problem comes in when it affects other people. Can you do your job? Maintain relationships with colleagues?” If the answer is no, you might need to rethink your habits.

To keep your coworkers from making negative, and probably inaccurate, judgments about your job performance, spend five to ten minutes each day cleaning and straightening your workspace before heading home. Return dirty dishes to the break room, wipe up any spills, process the papers in your inbox, throw away trash, put away current projects to their active file boxes, and set your desk so it is ready for you to work from it immediately when you arrive to your office the next morning. Not only will these simple steps send a positive message to your coworkers, but they will also help you to be more productive. For larger projects, such as waist-high stacks of papers and towers of boxes cluttering up your office, schedule 30 minutes each day to chip away at these piles. Your coworkers will notice your efforts and start to reassess their negative assumptions.

For the rare few of you who work for bosses who believe a messy desk is proof of your competency, I recommend keeping a fake stack of papers on your desk for the purpose of looking disorganized. To create your fake mess: assemble five inches of papers from the office recycling bin and wrap a large rubber band around the stack. The bundling will make the stack of papers simple to pull out of a drawer when you need it to influence your boss, and it will also make sure you don’t get any important papers mixed in with the decoy stack. Think of the stack of papers similar to a potted plant (which, oddly enough, researchers have discovered gives the impression to your coworkers that you’re a team player, so put a single plant in your office if you don’t already have one).

Like most of you, I don’t love that assumptions about job performance are influenced by the appearance of one’s office, but feelings about assumptions aren’t important. If you want a promotion and/or raise, if you want your coworkers and boss to have positive opinions about your work, and you want to give the accurate impression that you value your job and place of employment, then keeping your office organized and clean can’t hurt you in your pursuit of these goals. My opinion is that in this economy you do what you can to keep a job you love, so it’s a good idea to spend the five or ten minutes each day helping yourself in a positive way.

Spring is here and cleaning is in the air

Around 1:15 this morning, those of us in the northern hemisphere officially started spring. The local weathermen explained to me as I sipped my coffee that because this is a leap year, spring showed up on the calendar a day early. As we did yard work and waved to our neighbors over the weekend, it was obvious — at least in our part of the country — that winter had ended.

If spring sprung up on you and took you by surprise, the following 10 tasks are what I consider to be the most valuable spring cleaning activities. These are the Firsts, the things to get to before the other activities:

  1. Check fire extinguishers, furnace filters, and batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (if you didn’t do these tasks when you moved your clocks ahead an hour). Remember, safety first.
  2. Purge all expired food from your refrigerator and pantry. If you’re unsure of an item’s freshness, check StillTasty.com and/or the product’s website (especially good for condiments that take up near-permanent residence in the door of your refrigerator).
  3. Clean gunk out of your gutters if you have gutters.
  4. Rake the last batch of dead leaves out of your yard and pick up sticks and debris that fell during the last few months of winter.
  5. Inspect any lawn maintenance chemicals you had stored for the winter, such as pesticides or fertilizers. Make sure none of these items are leaking or expired.
  6. Have your law mower serviced so it’s ready and working when your yard is ready to mow.
  7. Dust. I like to carry a hand vacuum with me as I go to suck the grime off the cloth.
  8. Move furniture (including your bed and bookshelves) and vacuum or sweep every inch of your floors.
  9. If you have pets, bring out the Furminator and start the regular task of brushing to get rid of that heavy winter coat.
  10. Sort through your clothing and coat closets and donate to charity all items you never plan to wear again. Clean heavy sweaters you intend to keep and take steps to properly store them to prevent pest invasions over the summer. Clean and put away heavy winter boots and shoes. Finally, bring out any stored warmer weather clothes and get your wardrobe ready for the next six months.

What must-do items are on your spring cleaning list? If I don’t do the items listed above, I feel like I’m not ready for spring. How about you?

More spring cleaning tips and advice from our archives: