Is it possible to unclutter too much?

In a recent post, Dave wrote about the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning, which is the process of uncluttering our lives bit by bit so that when we die we don’t leave a monumental task for those who remain.

My natural minimalist tendencies are drawn to this process and I can see myself doing this naturally. My parents, however, most definitely did not ascribe to this belief, leaving us with a 4000 sq. ft. house and outbuildings full of stuff when they passed away.

And while it was a lot of work to clear out the stuff, I can’t help thinking that it was the least we as children could do for our parents who enjoyed everything they owned right up to their last days.

My parents weren’t packrats. Yes, they had mountains of stuff, but they actually used all of it. For them, the process of Swedish Death Cleaning would have been a sacrifice and a reduction of the pleasures in life. And it would have been selfish on our part to push them to unclutter and get rid of things just to make our lives easier later.

So, we are left with the question, “How much uncluttering is too much?”

I think the answer comes in the form of a couple of questions:

  • Do you use what you have?
  • Does what you have give you deep pleasure?

My husband and I often find ourselves at odds when it comes to what to keep and what to get rid of. He likes things and is very creative so comes up with brilliant ideas for re-purposing items that I think should go into the bin. We find a compromise through the two questions. If we haven’t used something in a year, out it goes. And if we hold onto something only out of a sense of obligation, or because a friend gave it to us as a gift, out it goes. What have left over still fills our house (and truth be told is more than I would hold onto if I lived alone), but everything we own has emotional or practical weight to it.

The same was true for my parents, even though what they had was at least four times more than what I have, and it would have been a cruel and unusual punishment to force them into a Swedish Death Cleaning mindset just so that we could avoid a bit of work at the end of their lives.

And now it’s your turn. Where do you believe the uncluttering line lies? Is there a limit? Can someone unclutter too much?

More unconventional organizing solutions

Alex’s post on unconventional organizing solutions inspired me to share some of my creativity with Unclutterer readers.

Organizing bandages

bandages in coupon organizerOur first-aid kit had several half-filled boxes of bandages. They took up a lot of space and made it difficult to find specialty bandages such as those for fingertips and knuckles. To solve this problem, I used a coupon organizer.

Of course, you can use a coupon organizer to keep coupons, receipts, or business cards in order, but it works very well for bandages too.

Paper management

portable file foldersWe had several portable document holders lying around the house (leftovers from children’s school projects) so I decided to put them to work.

Using two folders, I sorted out all of the types of paper we use in our printer — various sizes and types of photo paper, card stock (assorted colours), address labels, business cards, etc. Now we can find exactly what we need when we need it.

In another folder, I sorted our sandpaper. It was always getting bent and torn in the bottom of the tool box. Having the sandpaper rubbing against the tools was neither good for the tools nor the sandpaper. Now that it is organized in the document holder, it’s easy to grab what we need to quickly finish a project.

challenge coin collection

Challenge Coin Collection

Being in the military, my husband has a some challenge coins. We had a display case for his collection but the first time we moved, we had to remove all of the coins from the case, wrap them individually then put them back in the case at our new house (very time consuming). During one move, the display case was broken so we were left with a box of wrapped coins. We needed a way for my husband to quickly see what he had in his collection, yet be able to move the collection quickly and easily. We used a pocket hanging jewelry organizer. The jewelry organizer isn’t really used for display purposes as it hangs in a closet, but it does make it easy for my husband to view his collection and it rolls easily to keep all the coins safe when we move. When he retires and we stop moving every few years, we’ll get a proper display case but until then, we’ll stick with the jewelry organizer.

Now it’s your turn. What other uses can you find for a coupon organizer, portable document holder, or a hanging jewelry organizer? Share your ideas in the comments section or in the Forum.

Unconventional organizing solutions

Years ago for her birthday, my mother wanted an ice cream cone dispenser. Her pantry had no cupboard doors and given the Victorian style of the house, a big ugly cardboard box just didn’t suit. So, I bought her one.

However, before giving it to her, it sat for a few days on my kitchen counter, waiting to get wrapped. One of those days, an fellow organizer came over for dinner and we got chatting about the dispenser, specifically how else it might be used.

Our favorite solution was as a panty dispenser for women wear small, lightweight underwear. Other ideas were cotton ball dispenser in the bathroom, microfiber cloth dispenser in the garage or workshop, and cloth scraps dispenser for those who are into patchwork or other fabric arts.

My father, who had a workshop the envy of master carpenters, bought an antique printer’s cabinet and used the flat drawers with their small dividers to hold screws, nails, nuts and bolts of all sorts of sizes and shapes.

There are a million organizing solutions out there, often very specific to one particular need. However, sometimes these items can be expensive, or may not live up to their promise once you get them home.

In today’s post, we going to have some fun. I am going to give you some common household items and give you one or two out of the box organizing ideas, then it’s up to you to come up with more to share with other Unclutterer readers in the comments or in the Forum.

Also, we’d love to hear about your own unconventional organizing solutions. What have you re-purposed for home or office organizing whose original design had nothing to do with the solution?

Right, let’s get started.

A wine rack:

  • Lay them on their back, put one on top of the other and you have a way to keep rolls of paper (wrapping paper, architectural drawings, etc.) organized.
  • If you weave, sew, or knit a lot and have large spools of thread or yarn, use the wine rack to store them.
  • Put it in a kitchen cupboard, or on the counter even, and stack glass containers with rice, lentils, etc… (with the labels on the lids instead of the bottles themselves)
  • Store rolled up towels in a guest bedroom or bathroom

A hanging shoe bag:

  • A doll sorter in a child’s bedroom
  • Storage for bottles of cleaners and brushes in the laundry room
  • First aid storage (in a shoe bag with transparent pockets)
  • Apartment Therapy also suggested a way of keeping camping items sorted and off the ground

Now it’s your turn.

What other uses can you think of for an ice cream cone dispenser, a wine rack, and a shoe bag? Are there any other unconventional organizing solutions you could suggest?

Planning for system breakdowns: a Bullet Journal experiment

This week when I return to work I will officially start my Bullet Journal experiment. While it looks like a good system and has already helped me in some ways, I question whether I will be able to maintain it. Here are some issues that may cause a breakdown in the system, along with some possible solutions to them.

Boredom

Although I love creating systems and routines, I find maintenance of them rather dull. I need constant proof that a system makes my life easier or I abandon it for something new after a few months at the most.

For this Bullet Journal experiment to work, I am going to have to be aware of any imminent boredom and find ways to tweak the system without tossing it aside completely.

Distractions

Good habits aren’t easy to form, but so simple to break. Think about a gym-commitment. How many times do you start some exercise program only to stop because for two days in a row, you are too busy to go to the gym? This happens to me all the time at work. My best intentions get trashed because I arrive and have to solve any number of mini (or not so mini) crises.

A top priority for this experiment, therefore, will be at least five minutes a day updating my journal no matter what else is happening.

Success

How can success cause a system breakdown? Simple, if things are going well, I relax. Who needs to be diligent if everything is going well? The phrase “sitting on one’s laurels” comes to mind in this instance. I pat myself on the back, tell myself how awesome I am, and forget that continued success requires more effort.

To combat this possible error in the system, I will need to be aware of any feelings of overconfidence and remember that success comes from constant work; it doesn’t fall out of the sky randomly.

How about you? What issues have caused blips or breakdowns in your own Bullet Journalling projects?

When chaos is king

Last week, I wrote about organized chaos and how to work around it. Recently, however, my boss and I were discussing how we always seem to be putting out fires and going from one challenge to another. No matter what we do, we always feel disorganized. We just never have the time to move projects forward or plan events in advance or do anything that an organized successful business should do.

And yet we are an organized successful business.

Every year we grow. We have a reputation of being one of the city’s best companies in the sector to work in. And the ratio of happy to complaining clients is overwhelmingly positive. So, we are doing something right, but despite all the processes and automated solutions we have implemented, we just never seem to have time to do more.

It’s not that we are disorganized. In fact, we are much more organized than most other businesses in our sector. There are just so many last minute issues to resolve that it feels we move forward only by chance.

In looking for a solution to this problem, I found a great article about the impact of being disorganized at work. Unfortunately, we do every single one of these best practices and we still operate in last-minute chaos. Here are some of the good suggestions the article includes:

Time block and leave space for last minute issues: We do that but when a “challenge” absorbs half the day, the rest of the day gets eaten up by daily tasks.

Use task lists: I actually have blocked out all the major and most of the minor tasks that have to happen each year, and yet I miss deadlines all the time and have to scramble to catch up.

Reschedule tasks when you don’t get them done in the assigned block: We also do this, but at some point the task needs to be completed and can’t be rescheduled anymore, which means delaying and rescheduling other tasks.

Plan the whole week on Monday: However, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, three different crises arise and the nothing gets accomplished.

Hold yourself accountable: We are all accountable to each other at the office but are all in the same challenge-to-challenge mode.

Develop processes for the things that need to be done regularly: I am the king of processes and without them nothing would happen ever. We continue to be successful despite the chaos because of the many processes that have been implemented

The article has more points, but as you can see, the daily challenges seem impossible to conquer. This year we even added a new position to deal with a lot of the crises and yet they still occupy too much time in our calendars.

I don’t yet have a solution and to be honest, I think if I did, I’d become a millionaire because this is a problem that most businesses, especially small service-based ones, face. Small companies can’t throw staff at problems the way large ones can.

There are steps we can and will take to minimize the problem, but sometimes you just have to accept that chaos and disorganization are part of your reality and you have to learn to work around both of them.

What do you do when it seems that due to circumstances beyond your control chaos and disorganization do their best to keep you from achieving your goals?

Is it possible to plan for disorganization?

At work we are busy organizing the new year, which for us starts in September. Years ago, we waited until after holidays in August to start planning and organizing, but that left us with only three weeks before we had to launch.

Then slowly, we’ve been convincing clients to make their reservations earlier, first in July, then June and now we start in May. And it’s been incredibly successful! Before, clients saw as something they would fit into their schedule once everything else was organized. Now, we are a priority and if they haven’t booked by June, they reply with apologies. By extending the amount of time dedicated to the task of bookings, we removed the chaos and created calm and orderliness.

There are some things, however, that are impossible to organize early. For example, exact staff schedules. Each year until about a week before the launch mid-September, I cannot confirm anything for staff. They know how many hours they are going to have and we know when they cannot work. As much as I have tried over the past few years to pin staff schedules down in July, I always get back from holidays at the end of August and I have to make at least three changes per staff member. These changes invariably cause a lot of friction, whereas staff are quite willing to accept not knowing until the last minute, so I put up with the uncertainty.

Another thing we cannot organize too far in advance is product ordering. We don’t like to have extra stock because in the end it’s throwing money away on our part, but until we know exactly how many clients we have for the annual launch, we cannot place the orders. This causes chaos and some clients don’t have the materials they need right at the start, but knowing that this chaos will happen, we are able to plan with it in mind and have backup plans ready. Plus, we have discovered that if everything else under our control is well organized and executed, these inevitable chaotic moments don’t have a domino effect.

The Huffington Post has a great article explaining the concept of organized chaos and it’s well worth the read. The hotel reservation site Booking.com has turned organized chaos into a positive force that actually propels the business forward. Not surprisingly, one of the business experts of the millennium, Jim Collins, has a whole book, Great by Choice, devoted to thriving despite (or because of?) chaos.

Can you think of examples of organized chaos in your life? How do you keep it from devolving into chaos pure and simple? Or how do you turn it to your advantage?

When is it all right to be disorganized?

Earlier this week I woke up sick. My stomach was doing acrobatics while simultaneously in a knot. I had no appetite and even the idea of sipping tea made me gag. Luckily, I never did end up in the bathroom, but I did sleep for two days straight.

Fortunately, I have a husband who wasn’t working and so he took care of me. But what if you’re sick at home alone (either because you live alone or because everyone else is out of the house for whatever reason)?

I know what you should do: accept that you’re sick and you aren’t going to be able to maintain any level of organization at home. Use the energy you have to take care of yourself and let the tissues, the dishes, and the clothes collect. It’s okay to let it go for a short while.

An Apartment Therapy post back in 2012 puts it well:

No, I’m just sick, this is highly temporary, and it will all go back to normal in a couple of days. There’s no need to hold yourself to your normal housekeeping standards — be gentle on yourself.

That, for me, is the trick to getting better quickly. Forget all the responsibilities you can, delegate whenever possible to coworkers, family members and if possible friends, then turn inward and focus 100% on yourself.

Learn to let go: if you spend all your energy fighting how sick you are, you won’t have any energy left to get better. Accept it and relax. Learn to stare at the ceiling without any guilt.

See it as a chance to catch up on sleep: I don’t know about you, but with all the things I have to do and the thoughts running around in my head every day all day, I never seem to get enough sleep. In being sick, I found the silver lining and have caught up on all my missed sleep. And if you can’t sleep during the day because of light coming into the room, try a sleep mask, but get one that can be heated or cooled to refresh or relax you at the same time.

Don’t go back to your regular routine too soon: Unfortunately not everyone can take time off work when sick, but if you have a job that allows for decent recovery time, take it. How many times have you gone back to work too soon and ended up prolonging your illness? (Or gifting it to unappreciative coworkers?)

Being organized and living an organized life is not a 24/7 activity. We don’t have to be organized all the time. It’s okay to let it slide every once in a while.

Apart from being sick (or taking care of sick family members), when else do you think it’s okay to let the household organization slip?

How much ignorance makes you blissful?

The other day I was looking at a company’s informational brochure about the various programs and services they offer. It was 44 pages long. Seriously, forty-four pages! I understand that they want to cover everything and be able to offer something of interest to everyone, but honestly, 44 pages?

The brochure went into the recycling bin before I’d gotten past the third page, losing the company a potential customer. They just offered me too much information.

The situation reminded me of the books, The Paradox of Choice and Stumbling Upon Happiness, both of which discuss how too many choices make us unhappy. With unlimited choice comes unlimited indecision and increasing unhappiness.

I’m not sure I agree with this idea. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to information. Give me too little information and I feel that I’m being forced into something I don’t agree with. Give me too much information and I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. But give me just enough information that I feel that I’m making an informed choice and away I go, happy with the decision I’ve made.

What’s the key word there?

Feel.

There’s no such thing as too much information or too little. There is just enough to make you feel right about the decision you are making.

When it comes to politics, I know where my heart lies, so I need very little information to convince me that my favorite party is the one to vote for. However, when it comes to buying a house, there’s no end to the information that I collect before making the decision (neighborhood, taxes, possible renovation costs, neighbors, schools, and the list goes on and on).

But, sit me down in a restaurant and give me a one or two page menu, I’m thrilled. (Home-style, no choice restaurants scare me a little, and large chains with ten-page menus kill my appetite.)

When it comes to organizing, the same scale exists. What is your personal comfort level of stuff in different situations? At work, I’m the king of processes, with everything carefully documented and labelled. At home, I’m happy owning only a few things and labelling nothing.

In other words, don’t let anyone tell you what is the “right” amount of stuff or whether it’s well-organized or not.

It all comes down to your level of bliss. What makes you happy? Ignorance? Information-saturation?

It’s up to you.

Are you able to disconnect?

Here in Spain, today is Labor Day. At this particular moment, instead of being at my desk, I’m in our apartment in La Rioja, Spain’s wine country, recovering from having eaten too much yesterday at a home-style restaurant that keeps serving food until you’re ready to explode — and then they bring out dessert.

But forget about my bout of over-eating; the thing to focus on here is the fact that I’m in the process of completely disconnecting from work and having a bunch of laughs with friends.

Sometimes that disconnection is difficult for me. I love my job and often find myself thinking about it outside of work hours — in the shower, while falling asleep, while watching a movie, when I’m out for dinner. And when I’m not working, I am thinking about articles for Unclutterer, or thinking about how I could squeeze more out of each day.

Shep Hyken, in an article in Forbes, says that working outside working hours is normal, especially the higher up you go. However, he also believes that everyone has the right to disconnect from work and even quotes the cheesy line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

With smartphones and constant connectivity, it’s often hard to leave work at work, or any other passion, for that matter. So what can we do to truly disconnect from the need to be productive?

The Huffington Post offers several ways of organizing disconnection time:

  • Make time off a priority
  • Delegate tasks
  • Meditate mindfully
  • Use your smartphone to remind you to disconnect more
  • Write about your stress in order to release it

And SmartChic goes even further with ten disconnection ideas:

  • Prepare your next day before leaving work
  • Set limits and stick to them
  • Derail work thoughts when you are outside of work with fun distractions
  • Relax with a hot shower when getting home from work
  • Exercise
  • Get hobbies that are not productivity-related
  • Have non-work friends
  • Spend time with (chosen) family
  • Do something creative
  • Turn off electronics

These are all really good ideas, but to be honest, I’m exhausted just reading about all the ways to disconnect.

Let me give you my foolproof way of disconnecting. I learned how to do it when I went through a health crisis decades ago and was forced to do nothing.

Ready?

  1. Sit on the sofa or in a comfy chair
  2. Focus on a blank patch of the wall or the ceiling
  3. Let your mind wander with no judgement about any thoughts that may occur to you

And that’s it. No rules, no disconnection productivity tips, no processes to learn. Disconnecting is about disconnecting. Remember, as En Vogue sings, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.

A tale of two extremes

There’s a TV show in the UK that has recently made its way to Spain and it has quite a different take on the clutter/declutter reality TV market. The Spanish title translates to You get dirty and I’ll clean it up which is much more expressive than the original UK title of Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.

The idea behind the show is that people who spend a large portion of their day cleaning their houses and getting rid of germs, go into houses that haven’t been cleaned in years.

At the end of each episode the narrator tells us what each person has learned from the experience, and more often than not, the cleaners say that they have relaxed their cleaning regime at home and the ones whose house was organized and cleaned say that they have learned the value in keeping their house visitor-presentable.

I’m not going to get into the perception of either side of the equation that the show generates as there is quite a bit of controversy over both sets of images. That’s not what today’s article is about.

No, what I find fascinating is the learning from each other part. I’ve already talked about this in my post about the concept of good enough but I wanted to explore it further.

At work, my former boss was all about the details and I’m a big-picture person. We often clashed (although that’s too harsh a word as conversations were always pleasant with her) about the number of details that needed to be considered before making a decision, as well as what, and how much of something should be kept, and for how long.

We learned a lot from each other. She learned that sometimes details only confused issues and I learned that they also allowed us to make well-informed decisions and gave a sense of history to what we do at work.

On the personal side of things, I come from a family where there’s always a silver-lining to any cloud and so planning wasn’t as important because there’s an opportunity for fun in every situation. My husband believes that more fun can be had if things are planned fully and that plan is kept. We’ve each learned to move a bit more towards the center. I have admitted that a great plan makes for a great day, and he allows that a plan not followed doesn’t mean total disaster.

Those are just two situations where some sort of relationship with an opposite personality type enriches my life.

How about you? How has a relationship of two extremes helped you?

A case against New Year’s Resolutions

I think I’m the only person I know who doesn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I used to when I was younger, but I never followed through on any of them. When I was older I developed strategies for following through on my resolutions. I made plans. I made sure my resolutions were S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). Yet, even with all of this planning and organizing, I still could not keep my resolutions beyond the first week in January.

After a few years of feeling guilty and beating myself up about this, I took a good hard look at why my New Year’s Resolutions may not work.

Why New Year’s resolutions often fail

January is a busy time of year

Usually there is a two-week holiday surrounding Christmas and the New Year. Vacations and visiting family and friends can cause major disruptions in routines and schedules. Getting back on track can be a chore in itself. Trying to re-vamp your life with resolutions during this time can be almost impossible.

December is often the fiscal year end

If you’re running a business and your fiscal year end is December 31, there may be the added work of bookkeeping and accounting to deal with on top of the vacations and visitors. Trying to implement your resolution of re-organizing your home when your business needs more of your time can create frustration and may lead to failure.

In the northern hemisphere, January has bad weather

For those in the north, January is cold and there is lots of snow and ice. There can be major power outages. Local governments may even declare states of emergency. During times like these, resolutions often fall by the wayside and may not be continued afterwards. You’re focused on staying warm and providing for your basic needs, in addition to it often being gloomy.

The date is arbitrary

With celebrations and champagne, the first day of January may feel like a momentous time. However, the celebration could be any day of the year. Except for adding new pages to your daily calendar and nursing a hangover, there isn’t any difference between January 1 and May 1.

Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions

Make your resolutions on another date

Your birthday is the start of another new year of your life. It may be the perfect time to start your resolutions. Many people choose the start of the new school year as a good date to make resolutions. The Chinese New Year or your country’s “National Day” may be ideal dates to start your resolutions. Religious holidays may also work well for you. Consider making resolutions for Ash Wednesday, Rosh Hashanah, or Diwali.

Make monthly resolutions

Choosing one resolution per month may work better for some people. Don’t feel that you must start on the first day of every month, either. If your birthday is on June 25, consider starting your monthly resolution on the 25th of each month.

Avoid resolutions and adopt a better habit

Since I’ve given up on resolutions, I just adopt better habits throughout the year. For example, my previous habit was eating chocolate as an afternoon pick-me-up. My new habit is eating a piece of fruit and drinking a glass of water. This habit took me only two weeks to adopt. It was very easy. Now, I don’t even think about the chocolate.

Some habits take longer to integrate into my life than others, but once it does become a habit then I examine my routines and see what other habits need to be improved.

The following are examples of small habit changes that can make big differences:

  • Clean the dinner dishes right after eating instead of checking email or watching TV.
  • Hang your keys on a hook on entering the house instead of leaving them in your coat pocket.
  • Write events in your planner as soon as they arrive in an email.
  • Hang your coat on a hook/hanger instead of draping it over a chair.
  • Prepare your lunch for work the night before instead of first thing in the morning.

You don’t have to put a dozen resolutions into effect on New Year’s Day to change your life. Just change one habit at a time, as it works best with your schedule. As Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Five organizing myths

Myths abound in the organising world. Don’t let yourself fall for these five common tales:

  1. Sticking to a rigid meal plan for the whole week will save time. What if you’ve planned a 5-course meal on Wednesday then have an emergency orthodontist appointment at 4:00pm? Generally a meal plan will save time but keep the ingredients for a few healthy, easy-to-prepare meals in your pantry at all times. This way, you can eat what you want, when you want.
  2. I only need to touch it once when I am organising something. Many jobs may have to be broken down into smaller tasks (divide and conquer) so they are not so overwhelming. For example, if you have lots of photos that need to be organised, the first step might be to separate them by year into boxes. Step two would be sorting within each box. You’re going to touch things more than once.
  3. Using the latest technology will save time. This may be true if you’re a techno-wiz, but it does take time to learn the new technology and new gadgets can be expensive. Ask yourself if you are willing to invest the time and money in a product so it can actually help you.
  4. Organising is easy and I can do it myself. While you may be able to clear some of your clutter yourself, you may have too much emotional attachment to your own belongings and may need someone with no biases to help you. I often ask my sister for help with my wardrobe or else I would still be wearing the clothes I had in high school. Many people work better with accountability partners.
  5. My house should look like the ones in the magazines. The homes in magazines are staged for pictures. Life is never picture perfect. Daily living is messy and over the course of a day it’s not going to look like a museum installation.