How returnable purchases can lead to clutter

The things you buy and intend to return — but never do — are an all-too-common type of clutter. A recent research study gives some interesting insight into the psychology of return policies and provides one reason why some people wind up with those unreturned items. Somewhat unintuitively, a longer return policy can lead to fewer returns.

As Sarah Halzack wrote in The Washington Post:

Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

“Since they don’t feel pressure to take it right back to the store, they kind of sit with it and live with it and say, ‘Well it’s not that bad,'” Freling said.

(If you’ve ever found a blouse lurking in the back of your closet with the tags on it months after you bought it, this is probably a familiar feeling.)

So if you’re not sure whether or not to keep a purchase, it might be a good idea to give yourself a decision-making deadline that comes well before the store’s return deadline if that deadline is quite far out, like 90 days. Putting the return deadline on your calendar will help you remember to make that decision and handle any returns.

For other people, the problem may simply be making the time to handle the return, especially if it involves going to a store that’s not nearby. And some people have a “returning-things” anxiety which makes any return difficult, even if the item is defective. If you know you’re not going to do the return, for whatever reason, it’s best to get rid of the item (by donating it or whatever) as soon as you determine it’s not going to work for you. Keeping it around just takes up space and reminds you of the wasted money, neither of which is helpful.

Are you curious about what happens to things you do return? If you decide to return something you bought online, there’s a good chance it goes to a liquidator, not the company you bought it from or the manufacturer. Davey Alba wrote in Wired about what she learned from one such company, Shorewood Liquidators.

Major retailers can’t resell returned items, even if they’re still brand new, says Shorewood’s Ringelsten. “You don’t know where the product went after it left your store, so you can’t put it back on your shelf.”

More to the point, people most often return things because they are defective. Retailers simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the suppliers. “It would be very expensive for a company like Amazon to handle returns,” Ringelsten says. “They would have to sort it out — and there are a million manufacturers out there.” What’s more, he says, manufacturers usually supply items to retailers like Amazon through a contract where it’s understood that items that may be returned will simply be liquidated.

If the items can’t be sold or recycled for a profit, they simply go to landfill. About 10 percent of what Shorewood handles falls into that category. That’s a lot, but less than you might expect given that so many returns are defective items. So go ahead and do those returns, knowing that many items will be resold at bargain prices — which might help someone who could really use a bargain purchase. That’s certainly better than having the items stashed in the back of a closet, unused.

Banish the Mess and Restore Order in Almost Every Room Right Now: An excerpt from NEVER TOO BUSY TO CURE CLUTTER

Never Too Busy to Cure ClutterThe following is an excerpt from my latest home organizing book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter. If you buy it between now and February 16, fill out this fancy form, and I will send you a FREE audiobook copy of my first book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. So, if you want to tackle clutter, mess, or grime in any room, this is a good way to start. Choose a task based on how much time you have available and get to work.

From pages 68-71:

The following are basic actions you can complete in almost every room of your home. Some of these tasks seem incredibly obvious, but it’s often the simplest and most conspicuous tasks that form the foundation of your cleaning routine. A few of the following tasks are equally important but only need doing at certain times of the year. Pick and choose your way to a clean, uncluttered, and organized home.

When working in any room of your home, ask yourself: Where is clutter accumulating? Is there a reason things are piling up in one (or more) area(s)? What would prevent clutter from being left in this space? What small act would greatly improve this room?

30 SECONDS

  • Dust one of the following: a single shelf, a picture frame or two, the top of a doorjamb, a lamp, or a light fixture.
  • Wipe down a tabletop or other flat surface.
  • Gather wayward pens and pencils and return them to their storage spot.
  • Clean a doorknob with a disinfecting wipe.
  • Replace a burned-out lightbulb (preferable with an LED bulb, so you won’t have to replace it again for years and will save on energy costs).

1 MINUTE

  • Find two items that aren’t where they belong and return them to where they do.
  • Clean a mirror, window, the glass front on a cabinet, or picture frame.
  • Dust a ceiling light/fan fixture, crown molding, baseboards, or a corner of a room with a telescoping duster.
  • Check your toilet paper and facial tissue inventory throughout the house and replace as necessary.
  • Change your perspective: Lie on the ground or stand on a step stool to see if you can spot hidden clutter.

5 MINUTES

  • Empty the trash cans and/or recycling bins in a room.
  • Round up dirty clothes to start a load of laundry.
  • Check the batteries in a device. Replace them if necessary.
  • Move a piece of furniture and sweep or vacuum under it, or vacuum al the air vents in a room.
  • Fill a basket with wayward items and return those items to the permanent storage locations.

15 MINUTES

  • Vacuum or sweep the floor of a room.
  • Fill a bucket with 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1 gallon water, and mop the uncarpeted floor in a room.
  • Remove all the fabric curtains in a room from their rods and put them in a bag to bring to your dry cleaner.
  • Move furniture off a throw rug or hall runner and take the rug outside. Shake it out and then drape it over something (like a railing) and hit it with a broom handle. Return the rug and replace the furniture.
  • Inspect furniture for damage and wear. Schedule any appointments necessary to have damaged and/or worn items repaired or set aside a block of time to shop for a replacement.

Organizing your thoughts

As you may have guessed, the first step for organizing your thoughts is writing them down. (Especially thoughts related to things you need to do.) It’s not hyperbole to say that writing things down can change your life. It helps clear your mind for important work, offers a record of the past, and can foster a sense of achievement. But even beyond that, having things written down, even when the resulting list is huge, can help you feel like you’re on top of things. But simply making a list isn’t all you need.

For optimal thought organization, consider taking these additional steps. First, and this is the most critical piece in the process, perform a good core dump. Get everything — and I mean everything — out of your mind. When everything is out of your mind, it can stop pestering you about what needs to be done. Your mind is more of a problem solver than a filing cabinet.

Next, find the tool that’s going to work for you for capturing those tasks/ideas and working from them. Notebook? (A Moleskine, a Little List, an Emergent Task Planner) An app? (Evernote, ToDoist, Wunderlist) Desktop software? (OmniFocus, Fantastical, Toodledo) It really doesn’t matter. Just identify the tool that is best for you (a.k.a. that you will actually use over the longterm). One that helps you to prioritize your work and integrates (even manually) with your calendar are also good ideas.

Finally, identify the best time of the day to do the work or tasks you need to accomplish so they stop weighing on you. For years, I was the type who liked to work at night. When the kids were in bed, I could retreat to my home office and work for a few hours. Today, that’s not the case. I find that I like being with my family in the evening and then prepping for the next day in other ways, like making sure backpacks are full, my outfit is ready for the next day, lunches are made, and so on. Instead, I’ve begun doing thoughtful work in the morning, before the rest of the house wakes up and starts their day. The point is: notice what works for you and stick with it.

If you’re looking for ideas for ways to do your core dump, my favorite way is to brainstorm with a mind map. It’s a great way to have a powerful brainstorming session without resulting in a mess that must be sorted before you can get on with the rest of your work.

Now, take the time to find the time and tools that are most amenable for you and enjoy productive thought organization.

Everything in its place with MOOP

MOOP is an acronym I learned recently, from an essay by Tarin Towers, which immediately caught my attention because of its organizing implications. She wrote:

MOOP is a term coined by hikers and other ecology-minded people who use phrases like “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace.” It stands for Matter Out of Place. In a state park, it might refer to a bottle cap on a forest floor, a cigarette butt on a footpath, a tent peg neglected when the tent got packed up. In a house, it might be a wet towel on a bedroom floor, a coffee mug on top of the TV.

This is a wonderfully useful term for organizing, since it encompasses two key concepts:

  • Everything has a place where it belongs
  • To stay organized, you need to ensure things get put back in those defined places

I had my own experience with MOOP a few weeks ago. My main credit card usually lives in a specific slot in my wallet, but I had pulled it out and put it in my jeans pocket one day when I wanted to make an online donation. But I didn’t put it back in my wallet right away, and somehow it fell out of that pocket. It took me two days to find the card, hidden under a sofa cushion. I knew it was in my house somewhere, so there was no financial risk, but it was still frustrating.

So how do you avoid MOOP? By doing the boring task of ongoing maintenance.

Organizing expert Peter Walsh offered the following advice in the Los Angeles Times:

Eliminate the word “later” from your vocabulary, as in, “I’ll put this away later, I’ll fold this later….” The way to stop clutter from accumulating is to accept the fact that now is the new later.

The Asian Efficiency website uses the term “clear to neutral” to describe all post-activity work, such as cleaning the dishes after a meal and putting supplies away after a craft project. Besides eliminating MOOP, this clear-to-neutral process makes it easier to do the next activity — prepare the next meal, do the next craft project — because everything is ready to go.

However, it may not always be practical to put everything away immediately, although certain things (keys, credit cards, leftover food, etc.) should certainly be dealt with promptly. But if the laundry sits for a day or the suitcase doesn’t get unpacked as soon as you return from a trip, it’s probably not as serious. And it usually makes sense to accumulate donations when you realize some things are “out of place” by being in your home or office at all. (You can think of the donation bag or box as the short-term “place” for such things.)

If you can’t put everything in its place immediately, consider what your plan will be. Will you (and your other family members) spend 15 minutes every night putting things away? Will you do a major cleanup on the weekend? When will you do that trip to drop off donations?

Here’s wishing everyone a MOOP-free (or almost MOOP-free) 2016!

Keeping your organizing resolutions

It’s only January 7, and already I’ve seen people commenting that they’ve broken their New Year’s resolutions. This reminded me of some good advice I heard in a recent podcast regarding making any major change, whether it’s done as part of a resolution or not. CGP Grey said:

I think with anything like health … any kind of long-term change that you want to make I find it very helpful to think about it not in terms of “Oh, I’m doing this thing and I’m going to make a change and then if I fail then that’s bad.”

I think it’s best to focus on it in terms of “getting back on the wagon” is actually the skill that you need to develop. That you should expect that many times, especially when you start something new, you are going to fall off the wagon and the thing that matters is the getting back on. It’s not the falling off.

He went on to say how important it is for people to learn what their own “failure conditions” are: “the kinds of things that cause them to fall off the wagon.”

The following are some common failure conditions for getting organized — things that might derail your efforts:

Perfectionism

Your uncluttering process may result in a large number of things you’re happy to give away. In such situations, some people then try to find the perfect new home for everything — the best charity, the out-of-state friend, etc. This might make sense for some very special items, but for most of them it usually makes more sense to find a convenient place to donate it all: Goodwill, a local charity-run thrift store, etc.

Another example: While it’s important to have tools that you enjoy using and that fit your personality, you can spend forever investigating every to-do app to find the perfect one, rather than just picking one that meets your needs (after a focused investigation) and then getting on with doing things.

Lack of a viable maintenance schedule

Being organized is an ongoing process. Things get used and need to get put away. New things (such as mail) come into your space and need to be properly handled. Not everything needs to be dealt with immediately, but if you go too long without doing this maintenance work, things can get out of control.

Unrealistic time estimates

Getting organized may take longer than you expected. Can you organize your garage (or similar space) on one weekend day? It will depend on many things: how much is stored there, what kind of things are stored there (since papers and sentimental items will be more time-consuming to deal with), how quickly you make decisions, etc.

If you are going to be going through a lot of papers, you may want to time yourself going through one representative stack of a measured size. This will give you a data point for estimating how long the rest will take.

Also, be realistic about how much time it takes to sell things using eBay, craigslist, a garage sale, etc. For valuable things it can be time well spent, but for items of lower value it may make more sense to just donate them. If you find your “to sell” pile sits around month after month, it’s probably time to reconsider the sell-vs.-donate decision.

Life events

Illness (yours or a family member’s) and vacation will temporarily disrupt almost anyone’s efforts to get and stay organized. This is a time to be gentle with yourself. Focus on the most important things first (paying bills, etc.) and get to the rest when you can.

Winter cleaning and why we keep stuff

Now that January is here, I’ve begun the unenviable task of storing away the holiday decorations. Each year, this ritual propels me into a little winter-time “spring cleaning.” This process is more of a purge really, as the practice of packing and storing so much stuff often reveals those little things here there that I’ve been overlooking for months now.

As I found and trashed things I’m not using and don’t need, I considered what caused me to hang on to items like these in the first place. Perhaps understanding that aspect better would help me keep from accumulating hidden caches in the first place.

Some of the things I tossed:

Wrapping paper scraps. I saved larger pieces, but some were too small to be useful. Out they went to the recycling bin.

Old greeting cards. This one can be tricky, as it’s quite possible for a card to have great sentimental value. But not every card from every person has to be saved. We’ve written about parting with sentimental keepsakes before, and I used this advice to guide me.

Magazines. There are clever ways to avoid magazine clutter, but I wasn’t keeping up with those. Out with the old magazines I’ll never read to the recycling bin.

There’s more of course, but I’ll spare you further details. As I said, this purge prompted me to consider the “why” of it all. I think there are three factors at work here:

  1. Balking at the work involved. I’m talking about small items, but there was a lot of it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of energy a good purge like this will require — realistic and/or imagined.
  2. Panic at the thought of throwing away something necessary. What if I did need that raffle ticket stub? Are the receipts in my wallet important? This concern has prompted me to keep more than a few items unnecessarily.
  3. It’s embarrassing to ask for help. Even though many of us have these hidden caches of stuff, it’s still unpleasant to introduce someone to it, even if the intention is to go through and throw things away.

Perhaps there are more, but these were the reasons that stood out to me. And based on these reasons, my take away from the experience was to consider:

  1. Is the situation as big as I’m making it to be in my head?
  2. What do I actually need?
  3. What can be safely thrown away?
  4. Can’t I just get over myself and ask others to help?
  5. What’s the most common factor that has allowed this stuff to build up?

Related to the last: is if you successfully identify what that is, is there a way to address it?

Answering these questions will go a long way toward staying on top of these often unseen collections of clutter in the future. Happy winter-time spring cleaning!

Offloading unwanted stuff

Receiving gifts at the holidays is fun, but it also means there’s now more stuff in your home. A few years ago, we outlined what to do with unwanted toys, including donation, repurposing, and selling. This time, we’ll look at options for moving your unwanted items of all kinds out of your home.

Yerdle

The premise is simple: “Post a pic of your unused stuff and swap it for what you want.” Take a nice photo of an item you no longer need (a tutorial on taking great product photos from the folks at Ebay will serve you well). Next, post your photos to Yerdle with a brief description. When someone likes what you have, they’ll request it. The folks at Yerdle will send you a shipping label (as long as your package is under 10 pounds). You then earn “Yerdle Bucks” that you can spend on items that you want.

Gone

Another option is Gone. The goal with Gone is to make the offloading process as easy as possible. In fact, once you’ve listed what you’ve got for sale, the folks at Gone find the best possible price for your item for you, as well as providing shipping labels and getting you paid via check, PayPal, or Amazon.com Gift Card.

OfferUp

OfferUp focuses on what’s available to you locally. It’s got more of a focus on buying than selling (the site looks like store), but you can definitely offload items to OfferUp.

Selling/donating older phones and tablets

Many people use the December holidays as the opportunity to upgrade their smartphones and tablets. While you can find a new role for your old tablet or phone, you’ve also got the option to sell or donate it.

Be sure to prepare a smartphone or table for resale or donation, including:

  1. Removing all data, and
  2. Finding the vendor you’ll use to sell or donate your phone

Companies like Apple, AT&T and Sprint (among others) have buy-back programs, while groups like Cell Phones for Soldiers and Goodwill will accept your donations.

As for choosing a vendor, you have several options if you wish to sell your device. Gazelle and GreenCitizen will both buy your devices if they meet their guidelines.

Old standbys

Of course, you can’t deny old favorites like Ebay and Craigslist. Additionally, a few years ago we looked at four ways to sell unwanted stuff, like yard sales and and consignment shops. Finally, we know it can be hard to part with sentimental items, and we addressed that issue in 2010.

The take-away here is to make room for the wonderful new things that will enter your home this holiday season.

Re-gifting done right

I’ve been a fan of re-gifting ever since I received a well intentioned, expensive, but off-the-mark gift: a large serving bowl. I don’t do the type of entertaining that would require such a bowl and it would have taken a lot of storage space. Just as I was pondering what to do with it — donate it, probably — a dear friend mentioned she was attending the wedding of a relative she wasn’t close to, and she was trying to decide what to bring as a gift. Suddenly, both of our problems were solved.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be like the very embarrassed Tim Gunn, who needed a last-minute present and re-gifted a Tiffany pen he’d been given after judging a design competition. Unfortunately, he didn’t take a good look at the pen, which he learned (when the gift was opened) was inscribed, “Best wishes from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”

But done with care, re-gifting can work just fine. If you feel any guilt about it, let Miss Manners put your mind to rest. In Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior she wrote that returning, donating to charity, and re-gifting are not rude “if the rule is strictly observed about protecting the donor from knowing. This requires fresh wrappings and logs of who gave what, and a ban on yard sales and re-gifting anywhere near the donor.” (If the gift-giver has specifically told you returning or re-gifting is fine, that’s a different situation.)

Paul Michael, writing on the Wise Bread blog, has listed a couple additional cautions:

  • If you suspect the item you got is already a re-gift, you can’t take the risk of re-gifting it again. (I think you could still re-gift if you were giving to someone in an entirely different social circle.)
  • Don’t give outdated items. If you’re going to re-gift things like electronics and clothing, do it while the electronics are still current models and the clothing is still in style. As Michael wrote, “The older the brand new item becomes, the more obvious it becomes that this is a re-gift.”

And you’ll want to match the gift to the recipient just as carefully as you would if you were buying something new. Even for a Secret Santa type of gift situation, where you may not know the recipient well, you want to give something the receiver has a decent chance of appreciating. As Genevieve Shaw Brown wrote for ABC News, “Never re-gift ugly.” (But if you are giving to a white elephant gift exchange, ugly is just fine.)

One final caveat: Don’t keep things around for ages thinking you’ll eventually re-gift them — you don’t need that clutter! If no person or occasion comes to mind within a month or two, you’re probably better off returning, donating, or selling the item.

Recycling made easy


I was lucky enough to be in France recently, and I was pleased to see garbage cans in public places that had two sections: one for recyclables and one for pure trash. This led me to reflect on how much easier basic recycling has become over the years, with public recycling containers in many venues, curbside recycling for homes in many U.S. cities, etc.

Root Solutions notes that making a recycling initiative (or any behavioral change) easy can be critical for its success, and that involves making things physically easy and cognitively easy. Making something physically easy involves three things, per Root Solutions:

  • Reduce the number of steps
  • Make each step as simple and convenient as possible
  • Keep the distance, time, and effort required to a minimum

For example, Root Solutions cited a study showing that giving employees individual recycling bins rather than relying on a centrally located unit increased the recycling rate from 28 percent to 98 percent. It’s a nice reminder to provide sufficient recycling containers within the home, too (assuming you live somewhere where it’s reasonably easy to recycle).

On the cognitive side, it helps to provide easy-to-use reminders as to what can be recycled, and which bin is used for which recyclables. As Joe Franses wrote in The Guardian, “When in doubt, materials tend to be discarded rather than recycled.” Recycle Across America has a wide range of labels that can be used on recycling bins — a nice complement to more detailed information that might be available on flyers or websites.

A few weeks ago, at my local grocery store, I found a new super-easy recycling option: The Crayon Initiative. This program takes unwanted crayons, recycles them into new ones, and donates these new crayons to hospitals that care for kids.

I’d heard about the program before — through a video — but it seemed focused on collecting crayons at restaurants that hand them out to children. I was delighted to see the program expanding, making it simple for parents and kids to drop off excess crayons, including those that are broken (and therefore not easily donated elsewhere).

Crayon Collection is another program that collects crayons, but it doesn’t remanufacture them; it just distributes them to schools. And as Dave has mentioned, Crazy Crayons (in conjunction with the Crayon Recycle Program) also collects crayons. But it’s so much easier to do the recycling when there’s a handy bin at a store you go to regularly.


Another extremely easy recycling/re-use idea doesn’t require you to leave home at all and doesn’t require any crafting skills. If you have a dog — and you have old blankets, towels, or clothes — you can get a Molly Mutt dog bed duvet and stuff it with those items. (If you’re craftier than I am and have the time to spare, you could make a duvet like that yourself.)

Have you found any ways to make recycling easy? If so, please share them in the comments.

Saving stuff for possible future use

Are you holding onto a bunch of things that you think might be useful in the future, for you or others? You may want to reevaluate which of those things are really worth keeping. The following are some factors to take into consideration.

Saved things need to be stored properly

I’ve seen heat-sensitive items stored in attics with no insulation and various items (clothes, books, etc.) stored in containers that allowed mice and other critters to get to them. I’ve also seen fragile Christmas ornaments stored without proper packaging, so they broke.

If you’re going to save things for the future, make sure you have a good place to keep them and the proper storage materials to keep them from getting harmed. If not, it makes sense to sell them or give them away before they get ruined.

Many saved things could be readily replaced

I recently read an online query where someone was asking for advice about storing moving boxes. He had a two-year lease, and wasn’t sure whether or not it made sense to store the boxes. He was in a small apartment and would be putting the boxes under the bed and in the closets.

Almost everyone replying recommended he dispose of the boxes, which would be taking up a lot of room in a small space. Many such boxes can attract insects such as silverfish. And it’s frequently pretty simple to get new boxes at little or no cost when the time comes. For example, I see moving boxes being offered up on freecycle all the time.

The same thing can apply to children’s clothes and toys. It’s often easy to get these from other parents whose children have outgrown them.

Other people can use your things right now

You may be holding onto stuff for your own potential future use (such as those moving boxes) or for your children’s or grandchildren’s use. But many times the things parents save for their children never get used by them.

Items that have sentimental value to you may not have that same value to your children. Also, your children (and their partners) may not have the same tastes in furniture and décor that you do. They may also live in spaces that don’t accommodate large furniture pieces, family heirlooms or not.

And I’ve known people who saved lots of clothes and toys for their grandkids, only to realize at some point that they probably weren’t going to have grandkids. (Would all those 30-year-old items even be welcome, if grandkids did come along? Some clothes are timeless, but others get dated.)

So if you’re saving things for others, be sure to check with them and ensure that you are keeping things they would want you to keep.

And remember that there are almost certainly people who can use these things right now. You could make someone’s day by giving something away on Craigslist, Nextdoor, or freecycle. Or you could help out some favorite charities by donating things they can use.

Uncluttering and organizing odds and ends

Sometimes we have suggestions for uncluttering and organizing random things in your life, but those tips don’t warrant a full post on their own. When that happens, we save them up for an odds and ends post and dump them all together.

Fall and winter sports

My son’s soccer league is in full swing, and I suspect some of you have kids in basketball, hockey, football, and/or ballet, too. Sports means equipment, and equipment needs organizing. It’s no fun scrambling to find a dirty jersey an hour before you need to leave the house.

In our home, we’ve instituted the “soccer basket.” It’s a medium-sized wicker basket that lives by the back door to our house and stores shin guards, shorts, sweat pants, sweatshirt, cleats, jersey, and anything else soccer related. Once clean, all soccer gear lives in the basket. (The items stored here return to their long-term storage homes during the off season.)

For more on keeping sports equipment organized and handy, the following might be helpful to you:

Create Evernote templates

I attend a lot of meetings at my non-Unclutterer job, and that means taking notes. My preferred app for this task is Evernote, which we’ve discussed extensively here at Unclutterer. However, I only recently found this trick for making reusable templates.

Typically when I’m in a meeting, I set up my notes the same way: The top of the page is labeled NOTES in bold, 18-point font, and below that, ACTIONS, is set up the same way. It only takes a minute to create this, but I’ve found an easier way.

As Document Snap describes, I can use the Copy to Notebook command to make a copy of my setup, complete with the styling and tags I want. I love it and it saves me a good amount of time over the course of a week.

Keyboard shortcuts

I recently received a nice, new Windows laptop to use at work. Which sounds nice, except I’ve never used a Windows computer before.

All the wonderful keyboard shortcuts I’ve committed to muscle memory over the last 20 years are suddenly useless to me when I’m on this machine. Fortunately, a list of Mac OS and Windows shortcut equivalents exists. I’ve since printed it and hung it up by my desk.

For more on keyboard shortcuts:

Increase your productivity with keyboard shortcuts

Never underestimate the power of a tray

We all have that one surface — countertop, dresser, end table — that loves to accumulate clutter. You’ve tried to extinguish the behavior of piling up to no avail. If you can beat ’em, join ’em…with a tray.

A simple tray in the troublesome spot provides a clearly-defined landing area for whatever likes to accumulate. Plus, it’s self-limiting. If something won’t fit, move on and find it a new home. When the tray is full, put everything on it back to its official storage space. When guests come unexpectedly, hide it. It’s not a long-term solution, but it works better than nothing at all.

Are there any decluttering and organizing odds and ends you’ve been working out lately? Share your quick tips in the comments.

Uncluttering your reading material

Do you have a huge backlog of things you want to read sometime? Does that sometime never seem to come? The following are some steps you might take to unclutter that reading backlog — and keep it from building up again. I’m going to ignore books for now and focus on some of the more ephemeral materials: newsletters and magazines.

Consider general guidelines for the reading materials you keep

You’ve probably heard the famous words of William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I look for the equivalent in my nonfiction reading matter: useful information or engaging writing on a topic of interest. Useful information, to me, is something new that I can definitely see myself using in the near future, usually in my work — not something that might be useful, someday, in some unspecified way.

Manage your online newsletter subscriptions

It’s easy to wind up oversubscribed to online newsletters because it just takes a click to subscribe and so many of them are free. But they can just as easily overwhelm your email and create a huge reading backlog. And I should know, since I recently noticed some newsletters I had sitting around from October of last year. (They are gone now.)

Because of that backlog, I’ve been re-evaluating the newsletters I get. There’s one I subscribed to a couple months ago, knowing I wasn’t sure about it but wanting to give it a try. I just unsubscribed from that one because the content simply wasn’t compelling enough to give it my time. I also dropped a long-term subscription because my interests have changed, and another one because the author’s style no longer appeals to me.

One of my newsletters is purely a current news update so I make sure to delete it daily, even if I don’t get around to reading it the day it arrived. There’s always more news, and the stories in yesterday’s news digest may well have been updated by today. So I get rid of that newsletter the same way I would recycle a day-old newspaper.

My remaining four newsletters (two daily, two weekly) are either useful in my work or just really fun to read, so I feel fine about keeping those subscriptions and letting the newsletters accumulate in my email for a little while — a week or two, perhaps — if my schedule is too crowded for me to read them right away.

Manage your magazine (and paper newsletter) subscriptions

Again, it’s easy to wind up with subscriptions you don’t really need or want. For example, I know people who have bought magazine subscriptions in order to support a fundraising effort, even though they didn’t really care about the magazines. (In such cases, it might be wise to ask if you can just donate to the cause directly, rather than through buying the subscription.)

It’s also easy to wind up with a subscription that expires many years out, because those renewal notices sometimes keep coming, and you may forget you’ve already renewed. If you have subscriptions to magazines you no longer care about, you may want to cancel them now (and perhaps get a refund) rather than just waiting for the subscription to expire.

Other magazines that can cause trouble are those that come every week, especially if they are not light reading. The New Yorker may be a fine magazine, but it’s very easy to develop a large pile of unread New Yorkers. Be honest with yourself about how many magazines you can reasonably keep up with, and you’ll enjoy your subscriptions more.

Personally, I’ve realized I’m not good at making time to read magazines, so before this week I was down to two subscriptions: one I chose and one that comes along with from my auto club membership. As I went to write this post, I realized that I don’t really want the auto club magazine, so I just called and got that one cancelled.