Post-holiday cleanup, part 1

Over the course of the next few days, we’re going to explore that sad time after the holidays when decorations and gifts must find a place to be stored or disposed. Putting away a menorah or Christmas tree or New Year’s party hat is never as much fun as bringing it out of storage or buying it. And, for a number of us, it’s cold and cloudy outside and the temptation to procrastinate the whole affair is pretty strong. Our couches and blankets call to us to sit for a while longer and relax while digesting all of those holiday meals.

I want to provide you with some links that you can peruse from the comfort of your couch. No need to be called to action just yet. Consider this “research.”

  • Here is some advice from our readers on handling holiday cards: What to do with holiday cards? Recycle!
  • Jan. 6 is the traditional day for taking down your tree, and here are tips on how to get rid of your real tree: How to dispose of a Christmas tree
  • Want to make space for all of your child’s new toys? Here is some advice on that subject.
  • Too much gift candy sitting around your home tempting you? Freeze it in small zip-top bags and bring it out in small portions over the next few months.
  • Want to regift an item but wonder if it’s horribly tacky? Read these rules for regifting.
  • Need to return or exchange an item because of damage or ill fitting size? Start by doing a Google search of the brand name and the phrase “how to return and exchange an item.” In some cases, you’ll need a gift receipt and tags, so be sure to know what you need before taking on the crowds in the stores.
  • Wondering what to do with leftovers from all of your holiday meals? Wonder no more! has the most helpful advice.
  • Need to replenish your home bar after all of your festive parties? Here’s a great list of essentials.

Check out our other posts in this series:


This post has been updated since its original publication in January 2008.

Little changes that make a big difference

Helen Rosner recently asked on Twitter, “What are some tiny things you’ve done this year to make your life immeasurably better?” She got a lot of responses, and I noticed many of them had to do with organizing and uncluttering.

Lots of people wrote about improving their closets. One person bought 100 identical hangers from The Container Store to replace her old mismatched poor-quality ones. Someone else got “the black velvet ones,” which would be the Joy Mangano Huggable Hangers or an equivalent. “Closets fit so much more, it’s easier to see what’s in there, and clothes don’t get stretched in weird ways from hanging,” she wrote.

While I understand the visual appeal of identical hangers, I haven’t yet gone that route myself — although I’ve been tempted. But I did just buy some more Olka hangers, since they’re the best I’ve found for preventing shoulder bumps. Whatever hangers work best for you, so clothes stay put and maintain their shape, can be a worthwhile investment.

Other people wrote about the benefits of owning duplicate toiletry items: one for home and one for the travel bag. For those who travel a lot, this can be a time-saver and a stress-reliever. But while Kirk England wrote, “Best $40 ever,” Bryna Levin wrote, “Except for women it’s $100-$500.” I don’t think it’s just gender that defines how expensive it would be to duplicate the toiletries — I don’t use all that many products so my cost would be well under $100. An alternative approach, for those who don’t want to make the investment, would be to develop a good packing list.

Someone else’s travel organizing change was using packing cubes. As Beth Skwarecki explained, “They let you rummage through your stuff without getting everything mixed up! They take up very little space themselves but help you pack more efficiently. I roll my clothes inside one cube, put underwear and toiletries in another, etc.”

Other small purchases also helped people be organized and save time. Leon Overweel did the often-mentioned trick for avoiding mismatched socks: “I ordered 50 pairs of basic black socks off alibaba for $22 (including shipping) and removed all other socks from my drawer. Now every morning I blindly grab two and just put them on. No more orphan socks or matching socks in the laundry!” While 50 pairs of socks is more than many people would buy, the basic concept is sound — assuming you often wear basic solid-color socks rather than more flamboyant options. Someone else added a towel hook closer to the shower. And a number of people mentioned the benefits of buying long charging cords for their mobile phones, to work around inconvenient outlets. I got a long charging cord back in 2015, and I find it invaluable.

Uncluttering was another big theme. Haley ED Houseman did what she called a “product purchase cleanse” where she used up (or gave away) the consumable products she had before buying any more. (Things that were too old got tossed.) Cathy Lanski said she “donated a bazillion sample sized products to a women’s shelter. They were sitting in a basket stressing me out, but were probably a treat to them.” A lot of these were “not quite right products from subscription boxes.” If you’re one of the many people with a large collection of toiletries, this could be the type of change you’d like to make, too.

For those who get overwhelmed with letters or email asking for donations to worthy causes (and can afford to make some donations), this change might be a good idea: “I set up recurring donations to the charities I feel strongly about, so I don’t feel bad about ignoring most of the fundraising mail I get.”

And I was delighted to see one person write, “We use grandma’s good china.” If you’re going to own “good china” it’s wise to actually use it and enjoy it.

Not everyone agreed about all the suggestions. There are the fervent bed-makers and those who feel that making the bed is a waste of time. There was one person who was delighted with her new honeycomb shaped drawer organizers for her underwear and those who refuse to fold undergarments. That’s only to be expected — organizing solutions are very personal.

My own small change this past year was storing some things more conveniently for my cat sitter — which meant the things were also more convenient for me. I just needed that “cat sitter is coming” push to get me to do some rethinking.

What to do with holiday cards? Recycle!

Two of our readers provided creative suggestions for how to recycle holiday cards in the comments section of our Holiday gifts: Out with the old in with the new post. Not wanting to have them lost in the shuffle, I wanted to pull them out to everyone’s attention.

From Jan:

I recycle my Christmas cards. They arrive in the mail, I read them, I cut the writing off the back, I turn them into a Christmas post card with a friend’s address, stamp and short message and repost immediately.

From Kate:

Once the holidays are over, I “massacre” [cards] into gift tags for next year using a pair of pinking shears.

For even more great ideas, check out the comments below and our other post on uncluttering holiday greeting cards.


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

Book review: Let It Go

It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh is one of my favorite organizing books, so I was eager to read Walsh’s newest book. I found that Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life started out slow, but by the time I finished it I was glad I read this one.

Walsh deals with two types of downsizing scenarios. The first is if you are downsizing for yourself, and the second is if you need to downsize for a parent. He deals with both the purely practical aspects and the emotional aspects, including the family drama that can arise when dealing with a parent’s stuff.

Walsh identified three categories of things a downsizer owns: Memory items, I-Might-Need-It items, and trash/recycling. I really appreciated how Walsh has you identify the treasures among the various types of Memory items, since these treasures (vs. trinkets and such) are the items worth taking to a new home. Walsh wrote that each treasure “should commemorate a specific memory, event, or person.” He suggested coming up with a list of “bests, greatests, and mosts” from your life and then looking for one treasure related to each item on that list.

While I don’t currently need to downsize, I found it interesting to compare the treasures I identified using Walsh’s process with the short list of items I had identified as things I’d try to save if I ever needed to evacuate from my home. Sure enough, the art pieces I had chosen all fit — they are tied to memories of my mom, a dear friend, a wonderful trip, etc. I have other art I certainly enjoy, but I could leave it behind if I needed to downsize.

And looking at Walsh’s “treasure map” of possible “bests, greatests, and mosts” I saw “my greatest career achievement.” This inspired me to add two things to my evacuation list: a teddy bear I was given from a fantastic project team from my corporate days, and a coffee mug given to me by one of my many amazing organizing clients.

While this was my single biggest insight from the book, I found scattered gems throughout. For example, I appreciated this warning:

Gender-based shortcuts can save time, and they may work for your family. But they also present a well-worn rut that can lead your family away from the best solutions. …

During your downsizing process, avoid assuming that women will wrap the china and men will load the truck. In your family’s case, maybe the best recipient for camouflage clothes is a sister, and the best caretaker of a decorative glass bowl will be a 12-year-old grandson.

I also appreciated how much emphasis Walsh placed on not feeling guilty if you don’t want a loved one’s possessions — and how he encouraged parents to not push things onto their children that the children don’t want. His advice to parents:

If your kids don’t want your treasures, don’t try to guilt them into taking them. These things are important to you. They mark your happy memories, your identity, and your accomplishments. These may not be a meaningful way that your children would choose to remember you. Furthermore, your kids don’t have to have a reason for not wanting your things. They get to choose which items they want in their homes, just like you do.

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.