Uncluttering the garage

When you’re deciding where to start on a whole-home organizing project, it often makes sense to start with the attic, basement, or garage — whatever space you use as secondary storage for things you don’t use very often. There are two reasons for this:

  • As you clear out the rest of your home, you’ll probably find things you want to move to one of these secondary storage places. Clearing it out first makes room for you to do those moves later.
  • You’re probably less attached to many things in these secondary storage spaces, so it’s often quick and easy to make some real progress.

I’ve been doing my own garage uncluttering project for the past couple weeks. I knew it was time when bags and boxes were accumulating on the floor, making it harder to get into the storage closets. The following are some things I’ve done:

  • Dropped off donations that were just sitting in the garage.
  • Donated some items I had thought I might sell, after realizing I hadn’t done that for years and was unlikely to do it in the future.
  • Recycled the box from my printer. It made sense to keep this for a while, in case I needed to return the printer, but that time has passed.
  • Tossed an old pre-packaged emergency kit that had somehow gotten moldy.
  • Put the lid to a kitty litter box in a dumpster someone let me use — it won’t fit in my garbage can — since I’ve now switched to using an unlidded box.
  • Took a box of packing popcorn my local UPS Store. I rarely package something for mailing, and when I do I’d use something other than packing popcorn.
  • Got rid of random items I’d saved because they might be useful sometime — but which I hadn’t used in years and couldn’t reasonably imagine needing in the near future. And they were all things I could easily get again, pretty inexpensively, if by any chance I did need them.
  • Moved my cat carriers out of the garage and into my front hall closet, per the post-wildfire advice I read.

Now that I’ve done this uncluttering, it’s easy to put away the things I just bought that belong in the garage: spare light bulbs and batteries. I could also find spots for things I’d recently moved to the garage from the house but hadn’t put away for lack of free space.

I’m not done yet — I still need to go through all the old paint, for one thing. But my garage is working a lot better now.

Want to join me in clearing out a space? A friend named Dinah just wrote that instead of joining NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) she would celebrate DiProProMo (Dinah Project Progress Month). That sounds like a nice idea that other non-novel-writers may want to adopt.

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?

How to reduce flat-surface clutter

What is it about flat surfaces that clutter loves so much? In our home, any horizontal plane is a potential landing area for keys, mail, hats, pens, and all manner of paper, receipts, permission slips, and flyers. I find myself plopping things down as often as I say, “Don’t just leave that there.” In this post I’ll try to unravel the siren song of flat surfaces and explore a few ways to keep them clear and clutter free.

The problem

Perhaps this is a familiar scenario: you come home from work or school, and plop your bag, computer, and keys down on the first open spot you see. “I’m glad to be free of that,” you think. Maybe you’ve also got some mail, a newspaper, or a flyer. It’s a lot of stuff and you know you’ll get to it later. So down it goes. No biggie.

Days go by and the pile grows. By the end of the week the original surface is no longer visible. You know you shouldn’t stack stuff there, but it still happens. Why? There are a myriad of potential reasons, of course, but I think there are two in particular that perpetuate this behavior in us.

Homeless stuff

I would wager that much of the stuff that ends up tossed onto any surface doesn’t have a designated “home,” or consistent landing area. At the end of the day, we’re tied of making decisions, the ease of simply placing something down beats the question, “Now where should I put this?” Decision fatigue is real, people.

To combat this in my own life, I bought a a small container for my keys, wallet, pocket notebook and pen, and took a few weeks to train myself on putting those items in that container. Today, this practice has become a habit I don’t even think about.

“A place for everything and everything in its place” offers not just be benefit of reducing random clutter, but it goes a long way towards eliminating those frenzied searches for keys, wallets, or the one phone charger that fits your phone. When you know exactly where it is, you know exactly where to look.

Clutter as prompt

The second likely scenario is that an item is left out to serve as a reminder. When I look at the remote, I remember that it needs batteries. The sight of these envelopes is my prompt to pay the bills, or run to the post office to buy stamps. I understand this — you’re afraid that if you put it away, you’ll forget about it and fail to perform the associated task. Here’s a quick way around that: do it right now. Putting batteries into a remote takes less than three minutes. Ditto paying the bills. If you can’t complete the task within say, two minutes, get it into a trusted system that you know you’ll look at.

If you must keep items out because of convenience, ease or some other reason, consider creating a dropbox — a small container meant to be a temporary holding bin for stuff — but I recommend you do so with caution. I’ve seen dropboxes set up with the best intentions devolve into junk boxes full of who-knows-what. If you adopt this strategy, make sure you 1) get a small container and 2) designate a day or time to empty it out, say every Sunday.

The next time you find yourself dropping items here and there, stop and ask yourself why. Knowing is half the battle, they say, and a little exploration may lead to a lasting solution. Good luck.

Uncluttering before the holidays

I just got word that Coastside Hope, my local social services agency, is collecting items for its annual Thanksgiving turkey and warm clothing distribution. Donations of coats, jackets, and such — and used toys — are being accepted now through Nov. 20. I’ve spread the word to my book club and to some of my organizing clients who are motivated by events such as this.

For anyone else who would like similar motivation, there are numerous other collection events around the holidays. The following are a few examples:

  • Giving Back, Linda’s Legacy runs a Christmas Drive to Help the Homeless, delivering clothing to homeless shelters in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, DC right around Christmas. Besides clothing, the organization is collecting new or gently used toys, linens, and blankets — and travel sized toiletries (like those people take from hotel rooms and never use).
  • One Warm Coat collects gently used coats at drop-off locations throughout much of the United States. I found 33 collection sites within 25 miles of my home, with collections generally beginning in October or early November and running through mid-November to late December.
  • Wrap Up London will be collecting coats from Nov. 9-15. The coats go to 110 organizations that serve the homeless, women fleeing from domestic violence, and more.
  • In parts of British Columbia, Canada, you can donate to the REALTORS Care Blanket Drive from Nov. 14-21. Along with gently used blankets, the drive also accepts sleeping bags, coats, and other warm clothing in good condition.
  • Halloween costumes in good condition can be donated to ‘Ween Dream in Louisiana — and it will gladly take ones you mail in if you don’t live locally. In my own area, I just learned that the County of San Mateo Children’s Fund accepts costume donations, too.
  • Many toy drives focus on new toys, but Play it Forward Pittsburgh is a gently used toy donation drive. Donations can be dropped off Dec. 11-14. The drive collects toys (but no stuffed animals) for children ages 0-16.

If you look around your own area, you may well find similar holiday donation drives.

This is also a good time of year to donate holiday decorations that you no longer use to one of the many thrift stores whose proceeds benefit good causes. They probably won’t want your decorations in January, but they’ll be happy to take them as the holidays approach.


And if you need to unclutter your pantry, consider donating to your local food bank. While holiday season food drives often focus on turkeys, food banks can use a wide range of other items at all times of the year. Check the organization’s website to see what’s on its wish list. If you’re really inspired, you could coordinate a holiday food-and-fund drive to encourage co-workers or others to join you. Most food banks, such as this one in Santa Cruz County, California, have materials available to help you run a successful food drive.

Simple solution for small packets in your kitchen pantry

Card FileHere’s a simple solution for packets of dry goods in your pantry: Store them together in an index card file.

I store packets of yeast in a 3×5 card file and larger packets of taco and stew seasonings in a 4×6 card file. These card files keep small packets from getting lost behind boxes of pasta and cereal and they make inventory simple when creating grocery lists.

An index card file is just a simple, inexpensive way to keep clutter at bay in your pantry!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in October 2007.

Organize for the inevitable with Swedish Death Cleaning

Twelve years ago my parents moved from the Pennsylvania home of my childhood to a smaller, single-floor residence in sunny Florida. A part of that process was scaling down their property to what was essential. A lot of stuff was sold, donated, given away, or just tossed. It was a time-consuming process that would have been avoided entirely with a little “Döstädning” or Swedish Death Cleaning.

No, I don’t mean scrubbing the house while blasting “The Eagle Flies Alone” by ARCH ENEMY on the stereo. Instead, Swedish Death Cleaning refers to the conscious, methodical reduction of clutter over time, typically starting at age 50, and going until the end takes you. It sounds morbid, but it’s actually a very thoughtful thing to do.

In her book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter,” Margareta Magnusson reveals what she calls the “secrets” to effective death cleaning, including:

  1. Speak about it always. Tell others what you’re doing, she says, so they can hold you accountable.
  2. Don’t fear the process. It’s not about the ever-present inevitability of death, she says, but about life itself. It’s about your memories. “The good ones you keep,” she writes. “The bad you expunge.”
  3. Reward your efforts with life-affirming activities. See a movie, attend a concert, enjoy a fantastic meal.

Of course, you need not be in your 50’s — or contemplating mortality — to reap benefits from the mindful reduction of stuff. Fewer possessions mean less worry, less maintenance, and greater ease if and when you have to move (Magnusson notes that she has moved house 17 times). Plus, it puts the focus on one’s most meaningful life events on memories, not the stuff acquired along the way.

I like the idea of Swedish Death Cleaning and I’m going to give it a try. Perhaps I’ll have an update for you all in a few months. Now excuse me while I fire up some ARCH ENEMY on the stereo.

Stair step baskets can help control clutter

I am not a basket person. I’ve never thought that a room in my home could be improved in some way by bowl shaped, woven wood with a handle. My mother, Queen of Baskets, disagrees with me strongly on this point. She believes that baskets make everything better. Everything.

In her home, if you want to blow your nose, you get your tissue from a basket. Toilet paper? Basket. Magazine? Basket. Silverware? Basket. Television remote? Basket. Flour? Sugar? Q-tip? That’s right, baskets. Her house is extremely organized, and its organization system revolves primarily around baskets.

As I said in the beginning, baskets are not my forte. However, amid all of my mother’s baskets, one of them makes complete sense to me: The stair step basket.

This basket sits on the bottom two steps in her house and throughout the day she fills it with items that belong upstairs. When she heads upstairs at some point, she takes it and returns the items in the basket to their proper places. Then, she sets the basket on the top two stairs and fills it with items that belong downstairs as she comes across them. The cycle repeats each time the basket is full. The basket collects out of place items and keeps them from creating clutter. Her system of using the basket is a brilliant clutter-busting and time-saving solution.

Her specific stair step basket is no longer made but it is very similar to this one. Honestly, though, any storage container that is easy to carry would work and could serve the same function. I think this is a wonderful idea for anyone in a multiple-storey home.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in October 2007.

The slow cooker: Uncluttered kitchen cooking

As fall nears and the weather cools, I start looking forward to a good bowl of chili while watching my favorite football team play on a Sunday afternoon. My thoughts of chili then progress into musings of stews and soups and all the wonderful things that can be made in my slow cooker.

I like using a slow cooker because it means that I dirty it and no other pots or pans during meal preparation. There are a few exceptions when an additional pan is needed to brown or sear meat, but these instances are rare. After the meal has been served, cleanup is as simple as moving the empty crock from the slow cooker to the dishwasher. The slow cooker is definitely an uncluttered kitchen solution.

If you don’t currently own a slow cooker, there are really only two features that I see as essential components. The first necessary feature is a separate, removable inner crock. The second feature is a temperature indicator that has at least three settings: Off, Low, and High. I have never found use for any of the other slow cooker features currently on the market. A crock pot with these two features also has the benefit of usually costing less than $30 and will last you many years.

The majority of the recipes I make in my slow cooker are in my head. However, I took a trip recently to my local bookstore and saw that there are now dozens of slow cooker recipe books in publication for people seeking printed recipes. Also, an internet search for “slow cooker recipe” yielded thousands of recipes from online sources. If you’re looking for inspiration, here are some of the slow cooker cookbooks on the market:

Enjoy your uncluttered cooking experience!

 

This post has been updated since it was originally published in September 2007.

Common clutter items: unidentified keys and cords

As a cat lover, I’m fond of the smartphone game called Neko Atsume, where you get various cats to visit you and leave behind some treasures. The treasure that one cat leaves is “a small toy key” — but “no one knows where it goes to.”

Seeing this reminded me of all the keys so many people have stashed away — and they, too, have no idea what many of the keys were ever intended to unlock. I just looked at my own key collection and noticed I have a few of these, also. I carry a limited number of keys with me daily: house key, car key fob, my neighbor’s house key, and the key to my UPS Store mailbox. In my box of other keys should be one for my brother’s house, my safe deposit box, my two lockboxes, and the door to The UPS Store. And there should be a couple spare house keys for my own home.

But I don’t know which key is my brother’s and which goes to The UPS Store — and I have three extra keys that are total mysteries. Furthermore, I’m almost positive that one of the keys in the box is the key to a good friend’s old house, before she moved out of the area. So my to-do list for October includes identifying the useful keys, using colored key caps (with an associated list) so I know which is which, and tossing the mystery keys. In some places such keys can be recycled as scrap metal, which is better than sending them to landfill if you have that option.

And in the future, I’ll make life easier on myself by immediately tossing any keys I don’t need — for example, my current copy of my brother’s house key if he ever changes the locks — and labeling any new ones.

A similar problem happens with cables and cords, where almost everyone I know has a box or a drawer (or maybe multiple boxes and drawers) filled with unidentified items. If all the electronic equipment you have is working fine with the cords you already have in place — and you have found the cords to any electronics you plan to sell, donate, or give away — you may be able to let all those other cords go. In some cases you may want spare cords: for travel, for replacing ones the cat chews through, etc. But many people also have a bunch of cords that go to electronics they haven’t owned in years. Along with the cords you may also have old remotes and charging devices.

Those whose hobbies involve tinkering with computers and electronics may want to keep an array of cords and cables for purposes as yet unknown. But those of us who just want to use our devices don’t need the cords to old computers, monitors, printers, etc. These cords qualify as e-waste, and you can usually find a place to recycle them without too much trouble. For example, in the U.S., they can be dropped off at Best Buy stores, in the recycling kiosks that are just inside the front doors.

Hole in the bucket organizing

When I was a little girl grandmother and aunt taught me Harry Bellefonte’s Hole in the Bucket song and of course I remember watching the classic Sesame Street performance on TV.

 

The Hole in the Bucket is a classic endless loop dilemma that at we all get stuck in at some point. If you’re stuck in an endless loop in your computer program you can simply press CTRL +ALT +DEL to break the cycle. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t have CTRL +ALT +DEL buttons so you’ll need to look for another way to exit the endless loop.

The first step is to recognize that you’re in an endless loop. If you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, write down the list of tasks you need to complete to achieve your goal. If you’ve written a task more than once, you’re likely in an endless loop. In the song, Henry’s problem was the hole in his bucket.

Change focus. Henry was focused on getting a whole bucket of water. If he had focused on another part of his task list, for example sharpening his axe, he would have realized that a small cup would have carried enough water to wet his stone. If you’re trying to organize your home and you keep focusing on the kitchen, consider focusing on the dining room instead. An organized dining room may free up enough space to allow you to easily organize the kitchen.

Working with new people can help escape an endless loop. Henry was working with Liza who was offering no real solutions and seemed to be perpetuating the loop. If Henry had spoken with a neighbour, he could have borrowed a bucket or an axe and had his problem solved. Talking to a friend, family member, or hiring a professional organizer can provide new and insightful clues to resolve your organizational problems.

Using your wildest imagination could provide unique solutions. If buckets didn’t exist, how would Henry get water? What would buckets be made of so they would never get holes? In your own situation, what if you could just wave a magic wand and have the clutter disappear? If you had unlimited funds, how could you solve the problem? Even if the answers are outlandish, they just might just lead to a solution you may not have previously considered.

Have you ever been stuck in an endless loop? What helped you escape? Please share with our readers in the comments.

Tackling office desk clutter

Recently I moved into a new office at work, much to my former office mate’s delight. With two desks, two bookshelves, a filing cabinet and a large printer/scanner all crammed into a small room, he and I felt like we were always in each other’s way. My moving out gave us some breathing room as well as the opportunity to assess what should go where.

My first task stepping into a new, solo office was to figure out what I needed in hardware and systems. I came up with four categories:

  • Inboxes
  • Working areas
  • Storage points
  • Exit points

Inboxes

I made this plural after careful consideration. The idea is to have as many inboxes you need, but no more. Right now, my inboxes are:

  1. A box labeled “In” on my desk
  2. The notebook I carry in my pocket at all times
  3. My email inbox

These three pieces of hardware allow me to capture everything I typically see in a day. Papers, forms, and documents from staff and co-workers are placed in the inbox tray. The notebook captures what I come across during the day, like requests, questions, and ideas I need to follow through on. The email inbox, well…that’s its own thing. Here’s an article on how I handle that particular job.

Working areas

This is obvious but I need to get work done while in my office. That means an adequately-sized, flat surface where I can process all those inboxes and get down to tasks and projects. For me, that’s my desk, which I keep completely free of clutter. The only items allowed to live there long term are:

  1. Computer
  2. Inbox
  3. Outbox
  4. Pens
  5. 3×5 index cards, for jotting down items that need follow-up (These are tossed into the inbox for later processing.)

That’s it. When I’m working on something, the related files come out and are placed on the work surface. When I’m done with that particular project, all related materials go away. Which brings me to…

Storage areas

I’ve got two types of storage: analog and digital.

Analog storage is a good, old-fashioned filing cabinet. Hanging folders don’t work for me as I always knock them off the tracks. I prefer labeled, standard file folders. Sorting by simple alphabetical order is best for me as I can find anything.

Digitally, I use Evernote. It holds information that may be useful in the future, but doesn’t require any action such as policies and procedures, etc.

Exit points

Just like the inbox, the outbox sits on my desk. Anything that isn’t digital and must travel from me to someone else, begins its journey in the outbox.

None of this is new technology or technique, but it works for me. It’s also clutter-free and efficient. While the office I describe here is at work, this setup would benefit a home office, student’s desk, or homework area. See if you can reduce your office system down to what’s necessary and see your efficiency and productivity rise.

Being mindful: National Situational Awareness Day

Did you know that tomorrow is National Situational Awareness Day? September 26th was officially proclaimed in 2016 as the day that we should take a few minutes to really think about and be mindful of our surroundings.

What is situational awareness? According to Pretty Loaded, the organization that developed the day, it is:

Situational awareness is really just another way of being mindful of your surroundings. Developing this skill will make you more present in daily activities, which in turn helps you make better decisions in all aspects of life.

The concept was developed during World War I and focuses on personal safety, as does the site Pretty Loaded. However, situational awareness extends beyond security. We all practice situational awareness without thinking. For example, we don’t cross a busy street because we know that it’s highly likely that we will get hit by a car. Similarly, most people will think twice about walking down a dark alley in an unknown city.

Situational awareness can help you with your organizing challenges as well. Recently in the forums, someone asked how to get started in uncluttering, stating that decision paralysis was causing a block. Let’s take a look at this paralysis from the point of view of situational awareness.

We have in front of us a drawer full of who knows what. Many people who have trouble uncluttering state that what blocks them is the idea that everything they hold onto might come in handy at some point in the future.

First off, let’s forget about everything else in the house. We are focusing on just this current situation, the drawer. Nothing else exists. This helps take off the pressure. We’re not uncluttering the whole house, only one small piece of it.

Next, as we take each thing out of the drawer we ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. In what situation might this item be useful?
  2. What level of probability will this situation actually happen?

We then put the item in one of three piles:

  1. We can’t imagine using the item.
  2. We can imagine using the item, but we don’t think the situation will come to pass.
  3. We can imagine using the item and see a real possibility of the situation arising.

When we finish the drawer, items in pile A get donated or tossed out. Items in pile B get put in a box (with or without an inventory) and  dated six months in the future. If we don’t touch the box in those six months, the contents get donated or tossed out without any more decision agony. And finally, items in pile C go back in the drawer. Later, once everything in the room has been sorted, we can reorganize what’s left for better access.

By approaching uncluttering using the concept of situational awareness, we take a skill we all have (avoiding putting ourselves in front of moving vehicles, for example) and extend it to an area of our lives that causes us confusion and pain (getting rid of things that no longer serve a purpose).

This same technique can be used for any area of organizing, from prioritizing our time to reorganizing the kitchen cupboards for ease of use. As mentioned above, situational awareness is really just another term for being mindful and present in the moment.

So, now over to you. How are you going to use situational awareness day to help you organize one part of your life?