What’s giving you the most trouble right now?

I’ve been writing for Unclutterer for more than three years now. In that time, I’ve covered many aspects of leading a more organized, productive life, both at home and professionally. Often times, I’ll base an article on an experience or question I’ve had. Today, I want to turn that around.

Today I’m asking you: What is giving you the most trouble right now? What’s the aspect of organization or productivity that’s being a pain for you right now? Perhaps the thought of spring cleaning makes you wish we could just skip ahead to October. Maybe the kids’ bedrooms are a constant source of frustration. Maybe your digital photos are “scattered” everywhere, as it were.

Whatever your current sticking point is, describe it in the comments. I want to address your concerns directly in my upcoming posts. Spring is here, a new year is underway, the birds are chirping, and it’s a time for renewal. Fill the comments below with what’s bugging you and we’ll work it all out together, right here at Unclutterer.

Reduce visual clutter

Even when you have a place for everything in your home and everything is in its place, you still might feel like your home (or part of it) continues to appear cluttered. The article “Measuring visual clutter” in the Journal of Vision explains how this is possible and ways you can reduce visual clutter in your already tidy spaces.

How to reduce visual clutter

Create one focal point in each room. When you walk into a room, your eye should be instantly drawn to one object/area in the space and that object/area should be where you want attention to be drawn. In the bedroom, the focal point is most likely the bed. The table is most likely be the focal point in a dining room.

Keep the floor clear. Obviously, keep stray objects from impeding traffic patterns throughout a room. Also, remove small area rugs and replace them with one larger one, which will make the room/area feel more open because the eye sees a large unbroken space. (In other words, don’t have four area rugs in your television watching space, but one large rug under the couch, chair, media center, and coffee table.)

Avoid having too many conflicting patterns in the same room. Patterns draw attention and if there are numerous patterns, it’s difficult to visually process all of them. For instance, if you have patterned wallpaper, do not have a different pattern on your curtains and another on the carpet and yet another on every cushion on your couch.

Display only small groups of collections. If you have a collection of items, keep what is on display small in number. Either keep the collection small or only display a portion of it each season (and be diligent about switching it out, properly storing what isn’t on display, etc.). This will allow individual objects to stand out because they’re not hidden amongst other pieces. Some interior decorators suggest opting for larger, single pieces because decorative accents that are smaller than a cantaloupe can make a room look cluttered.

If for display purposes only, organize books by decorative elements. It is much easier for the eye to look at straight lines and blocks of colour than zigzag lines and bits of colour here and there. At Unclutterer, we don’t recommend people in small spaces store physical books for purely decorative purposes, but if your home is large and you can properly care for a book collection, size and color organizing will create less visual clutter in your space.

Make labels extremely legible. When making labels to identify the contents of bins or binders, use one, easy-to-read typeface. (Such as: Helvetica, size 20, regular, all caps.) Ensure the labels are the same size and shape and aligned at the same height on the bin or binder. The same rule should apply to labels on file folders in your filing cabinet.

Accidents in Uncluttering

A few years ago, Unclutterer’s editor-in-chief Erin Doland described her regret at accidentally disposing of vital documents when uncluttering. While we would all like to have instant clutter-free lives, it is important to take your time to properly sort items before you dispose or donate them. When uncluttering and organizing, think of the process as more like a marathon than a sprint. The following are a few tips to help you avoid accidents when you’re uncluttering.

Take your time and examine every item before disposing it. Often money is forgotten in old purses and coat pockets or between the pages of a Bible. Sometimes expensive jewellery can be mixed in with costume jewellery. Occasionally, a toddler will have a hidden cache of useful items between the sofa cushions or tossed valuables in with Lego bricks. People with dementia or mental health issues may hide money, expensive items, or important documents in places that may not seem logical, such as inside mattresses. Last month, a thrift shop in Nova Scotia turned over to police thousands of dollars in cash that they found in donated curtains.

When organizing paperwork, you do not need to read every scrap of paper, but it is important to scan documents to determine their significance. Tax accountants and lawyers can provide important information regarding which documents are important to keep for legal and tax purposes. Obtaining advice from these professionals is especially important if you are helping someone unclutter whose personal business you’re not familiar with, such as aging family members.

Consult with family members and friends about sentimental items, documents, and photographs. You might feel that an object has very little value, but it may hold powerful memories for another family member. If your family and friends live far away, it might be difficult for them to stop by the house to view items. Consider setting up a website or a Facebook group to share photos and descriptions of items you wish to pass along to family and friends.

When uncluttering, clearly separate the garbage from the donations. Use only black or dark green bags for trash and transparent bags or cardboard boxes for donations. If different bags or boxes are going to different charities, clearly label them on both sides of the bag or box. Astronaut Chris Hadfield had intended that a box of memorabilia from his time in space be donated to a science centre but last week his flight suit was found for sale at a Toronto thrift shop due to a mix up with donation boxes during a move.

Get an expert opinion before you dispose or donate items with which you are not familiar. You may be able to determine the approximate value of items by looking online at sites like eBay or specialized sites for specific collectibles. You may not find a comic book that will pay your mortgage but you may be able to earn a few extra dollars. If you don’t even know what the items are, check out our tips on how to deal with UFOs (unidentified found objects) before you dispose of them.

Have you ever found an expensive item stashed in a strange place while uncluttering? Have you accidentally donated or disposed of something you wish you hadn’t? Help fellow unclutterers by sharing your stories in the comments section.

Three organizing tips from recent news

As I read the news for the past couple weeks, I noticed a number of stories that touched on organizing themes. The following subjects caught my eye:

Handling Craigslist exchanges

Would you like to sell some things on Craigslist, but finding a safe place to do the exchange of money and stuff has you concerned? Lily Hay Newman wrote an article for Slate about cities where police stations are offering their lobbies as those safe places.

Saving information before it disappears from the Internet

Many of us are keeping less paper than we used to because the information we want is available online. In some cases, we expect it might disappear and we’re fine with that. We know that stores don’t stock the same products forever, for example.

But what if you find something such as a particularly poignant personal essay that you want to keep for future reference? As Carter Maness wrote:

We assume everything we publish online will be preserved. But websites that pay for writing are businesses. They get sold, forgotten and broken. Eventually, someone flips the switch and pulls it all down.

Maness wrote from the perspective of authors whose work is no longer available to show to editors who may want to hire them. But for those of us who are the readers, it’s a good reminder that we can’t assume that creating a bookmark or favorite will ensure we can retrieve a precious bit of writing. Besides the commercial websites that Maness mentions, there are personal websites and blogs that the owners decide to discontinue (or which get taken down after a death).

You may be able to find a missing article through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, but there’s no certainty about that. Therefore, you may want to keep selected articles in digital form on your own devices by saving them to Evernote, by printing them to PDFs, by saving them as webarchive files (if you use the Safari browser), etc.

Preparing for your digital afterlife

Dave has written before about estate planning for your digital assets, but there’s a new twist. As Rachel Emma Silverman reported in The Wall Street Journal:

A controversial new state law is making it easier for estate executors to access digital data — such as email, photos and social-media postings — after the account holder dies.

Many Internet companies strictly limit access to their customers’ accounts to the account holder, in accordance, they say, with federal privacy law. …

But under a Delaware law passed last summer, executors can now access online accounts without a court order, unless the deceased has instructed otherwise. Similar legislation is under consideration in several other states.

Silverman went on to explain why this may also matter to people in the U.S. who don’t live in Delaware. Her article may inspire you to ensure your own estate-planning documents clearly state your wishes when it comes to accessing your digital files. Consult with your personal estate attorney to get guidance regarding your particular situation.

How to start organizing by setting yourself up for success

According to Statistics Brain, “Getting Organized” is the second most popular New Year’s resolution. If you’ve decided to be better organized in 2015, the following are tips that may help you accomplish your goal.

Check with your municipality to see what types of items they recycle. If your municipality offers special collection dates for pick up of large items, electronics, or household hazardous waste, mark these dates in your calendar. Also, schedule an hour or so the day prior to the special collection date to go through your home and collect all of the items designated for disposal. Place them at the curb or load them into your car to make disposal easy. Knowing when these special dates are makes uncluttering even easier.

Set up a disposal station (i.e. garbage and recycling bins) in the room that you are uncluttering. The work will go much faster if you do not have to walk through the house with each piece of rubbish. If your municipality requires you to separate paper from plastics and metals for recycling, set up two bins in the room, clearly labeling each one. The bins do not have to be fancy, a simple trash bag or a cardboard box will do. The important thing is making it easy to toss the trash.

As mentioned by fellow Unclutterer, Jeri Dansky, check local organizations to see what items they accept for donations. You can set up a central location in the house and have a separate bin for each group that accepts donations or you can set up one bin in each room for items that are destined for donations. Again, the bins do not have to be fancy, a cardboard box will do. The important thing is making it easy to clear the unwanted and unused objects from the room.

Set up a UFO (unidentified found objects) box to keep the items in one place until all family members have had a chance to confirm that the objects can be disposed or donated.

Start uncluttering the easy stuff first — the things you already know you wish to purge. You will see results immediately and it will provide positive encouragement to keep working away until the job is done. Two pasts Unclutterer posts, Things you probably have duplicates of that you can donate and Duplicates that you can donate or trash will help you identify the items easiest to unclutter.

Eliminate unwanted email subscriptions

One of the things I love to do in January is to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists, newsletters, digital sales fliers, and so on. After spending 11 months ignoring them whenever they show up, it’s time to get rid of them entirely. In this post I’ll explain a few ways to purge electronic mail lists from your email inbox, from one-at-a-time to bulk action.

It’s my fault for subscribing in the first place, of course. Often when I do, my intentions are good. I’ll find a new site or service that I’m interested in and think, “Yes, I do want to keep up to date with this company’s stuff.” Once I’ve done that a dozen times, I’m in trouble. Digital clutter is just as insidious as its real-world counterpart, so it’s time to make a change.

Identify likely candidates

I’m not opposed to email subscriptions. There are many that are quite useful (like the Unclutterer email subscriptions, obviously). Therefore, the first step in this process is to identify the ones you’ll get rid of in your purge versus the ones you wish to keep. I do this via a week of mindful email reading. Each day, I’ll make a mental note of the subscriptions I simply delete without reading. If you like, create a folder for these, mark them with a flag or otherwise tag them for future reference. When I did it, I just wrote a list on a piece of paper.

Let the culling begin!

There are a few ways to unsubscribe from unwanted email. If you’ve only got a few to jettison, you could go the manual route. If you look closely in the footer of the email you receive, you’ll see something along the lines of “click to unsubscribe” or simply “unsubscribe.” You might have to look closely, as it’s sometimes hard to find. The message’s sender wants to keep your attention, after all. Clicking this link will bring you to a webpage that likely has further instructions. Many will unsubscribe you then and there, while others will have you jump through additional hoops. It’s kind of a hassle, but worth it when the result is less junk mail. Of course, this method is too time-consuming if you’ve got a long list of unwanted subscriptions. In that case, consider one of the following:

Unroll.me. Not only does Unroll.me help you kill unwanted subscriptions, it makes the keepers more manageable by presenting them in a single, daily digest email. You can even roll things like messages from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube into that single message. Tidy!

Mailstrom. This is another service that lets you cull hundreds or thousands of messages at once and send them all to the big, virtual trash bin in the sky, while keeping the messages you want to see intact. Plus, it works with the email solution you’re probably already using, as it’s compatible with Gmail, Google Apps Email, Outlook, Apple, Aol, and Exchange IMAP.

A tip for Gmail users. If you’re using Gmail, take a close look at the top of a message. You’ll likely see an “Unsubscribe” link. Google has made this a uniform location for this link, which is great, as it saves you from scouring a message’s footer for the hard-to-find default link.

Unlistr. Finally, this is a service that does the dirty work for you. Simply identify the email senders you don’t want to hear from anymore, and Unlistr does the rest, unsubscribing for you. Thanks, Jeeves!

Holly jolly clutter

While it’s such a fantastic privilege to be able to share gifts with friends and family this time of year, this privilege often comes with the side-effect of discovering clutter in your home. I’ve found several options for dealing with holiday clutter, some of which come from Unclutterer readers, and I’d like to share them with you.

Way back in 2007, we suggested you use the “one for one” rule. That is to say, if you receive a coffee maker, get rid of the old one. Love that new pair of jeans? Eliminate an existing tattered pair. For many items this rule is a good one to follow, but it’s not always practical. For instance, you can’t swap out consumables, like one-of-a-kind homemade items or cards.

Speaking of cards, readers Jan and Kate have shared some awesome suggestions for processing greeting cards. Jan cuts the front of cards off and reuses the colorful cover as a post card. Kate massacres (her word) the cards to use their images as gift tags. Those are both good ideas.

While you’re at it, this is also a good time to do a general purge of the items and decorations you typically only see once a year. If something is worn beyond repair or no longer working correctly, get rid of it. Decorations that are faded or looking a little long in the tooth should go, too. Resist the urge to just pack them away and get them out of sight until next year. And, if you have ornaments or decorations that need to be repaired, do that work now so you can enjoy the items this season.

If there are any items you didn’t unpack this year and left in the holiday decorations box, it might be a sign that it’s time to get rid of those things. Items you simply don’t like any longer can always be donated to charities and organizations that decorate for the holidays. You’ll enjoy freeing up some space and the eventual recipients will have the benefit of your generosity.

Gift giving is a tricky business and you may receive some items you appreciate but aren’t interested in keeping. If you’re thinking of re-gifting the item, check out Clementine Daily’s interview “Regifting: Yay or Nay?” with a modern manners and etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. She provides tips for doing this in such a way as to be considerate to everyone involved.

I’m sure several of you also have inventive and effective ways to manage holiday clutter. So, share your favorites with everyone in the comments below. How do you deal with the holly jolly clutter?

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

At first glance, I felt that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing was like many of the other organizing books that I have read. The author describes the KonMari method of organizing, which is pretty similar to the S.P.A.C.E. method described in the 1998 book Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern:

  • Sort: Gather all items from one category together (e.g. clothes)
  • Purge: Discard items no longer needed.
  • Assign: Designate a storage place for all items
  • Containerize: Find suitable containers to hold the items
  • Equalize: Consistently return items to their assigned homes every day.

However, Kondo’s approach to the process is more graceful and she describes a deep respect for all items. During the purge process she tells readers not to focus on what to purge, but instead she tells them to focus on what they want to keep. “In this manner you will take the time to cherish the things that you love.”

Kondo believes in making the decision easier on yourself by asking the question, “Does this spark joy?” She instructs her clients to take each item in their hands and note their body’s reaction. She asks, “Are you happy when you hold a piece of clothing that is not comfortable or does not fit? Are you happy to hold a book that does not touch your heart?” If the answer is no, the item should be discarded.

Kondo recommends that clients declutter in the following order:

  • Clothing
  • Books
  • Papers
  • Miscellaneous
  • Mementos (including photos)

In her experience she has found that most people can make decisions easily about clothing (Does it fit?) which will strengthen their decision-making skills for the following, sometimes more difficult, categories. By the time the client is ready to sort through mementos, he/she will have a stronger understanding of the tidying process and be much less stressed when making decisions.

I found Kondo’s suggestions for discarding items helpful. She says to think of the lesson that the object taught you while you owned it. For example, the sweater you bought that was on sale but wasn’t quite your colour, taught you what was not your style. The sweater has served its purpose. It should be thanked for its service and be sent on its way to serve a purpose for someone else. If the item is to be disposed, it should be done in a way that honours the item.

Organizing paperwork is difficult for many people so the KonMari method classifies papers into three categories: papers currently in use, papers that need to be kept for a limited period, and those that need to be kept indefinitely. She states that papers that do not fall into one of these categories can be disposed. Sentimental items that happen to be made of paper (e.g. wedding invitations, love letters) should be classified as mementos and organized within that category.

Kondo provides recommendations as to which documents should be discarded. I would caution all readers to examine their personal situations and, if necessary, discuss with their legal and financial advisors prior to making decisions because laws and regulations between jurisdictions can vary greatly.

While the general methodology of the KonMari method of “tidying” is very much the same as many North American books about organizing, I found the Japanese way of framing our relationships with our possessions quite interesting. If you have had trouble parting with items you know you should really discard, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing may provide a new perspective that will help get you started.

Uncluttering for the holidays

For many, this time of year is associated with gift giving. And gift giving is usually associated with gift receiving, which can mean new things coming into your home. Therefore, this is a great time of year to do some uncluttering. Donating or giving away items that are no longer useful to you might make someone else’s holidays brighter. If you’re having guests for the holidays, you have another incentive to unclutter, especially if you’ve been using the guest room as a storage space.

The following are suggestions for what you might want to unclutter right now.

Holiday decorations

Do you have seasonal holiday decorations that you’re no longer using? Maybe you’ve grown tired of some items, or you’ve accumulated more than you have room to store, or you’ve just decided to simplify your decorating over the years. You might also have things such as holiday cookie cutters and wrapping supplies that just aren’t getting used.

This is a great time of year to donate or freecycle all of these items. I keep a box in my garage that says “freecycle at Christmas,” because things that are hard to place in May get claimed quickly in early December.

Warm clothing

Do you have warm clothing that isn’t getting worn any more? If you’re in the United States or Canada, you might check to see if there’s a One Warm Coat drive going on in your area. Despite the name, these drives also accept other outerwear that helps keep people warm: sweaters, sweatshirts, scarves, hats, mittens, etc.


Since toys are such a popular holiday gift, it makes sense to clear out any that have been outgrown or gone out of favor. Some popular toy-focused charities such as Toys for Tots only accept new toys, but other charities will take used ones that are in good condition and not missing any parts. Consider organizations that work with foster children (such as the Foster Care Support Foundation in Georgia) and daycare centers (such as Helping Hands Childcare in California). Organizations such as Goodwill often accept toys, too — you can check to see if your local Goodwill is one that does, like mine.

Intended gifts that were never given

If you have items you picked up years ago, thinking they would surely be a good gift for someone, it may be time to donate them if you still have no specific recipients in mind.

Things on a local charity’s wish list

Homeless shelters and many other charities have wish lists on their websites, or you can call and ask what they need. A charity near me that helps homeless families has an extensive wish list, including arts and crafts supplies, backpacks, clothes for all ages, linens and bedding, and household items like lamps, alarm clocks, and flashlights. You could identify a specific charity and see how many items on its list you could provide from things you’re no longer using.

Be sure to pay attention to which items must be new in order to be accepted. Also, please respect an organization’s wishes when it asks for items that are “gently used” or “like new.”

My humble shoebox museum

Last year, I received a subscription to Birchbox as a Christmas gift. Birchbox is a nice little subscription service; every month, you receive a box full of sample-size health and beauty aid products. So, in addition to my new collection of shaving creams and such, I also have 12 sturdy little cardboard boxes.

The boxes that were used to ship products to customers are great — they’re made of sturdy cardboard and feature a slide-out drawer. I haven’t thrown a single one away, as they seem so darn useful. Yet, until very recently, they were still stacked on my dresser, unused. In other words, they were clutter. I didn’t like that I was keeping them around only for their potential, so I came up with a useful idea for what I could actually do with them.

For many years, I’ve been a fan of David Seah. He’s a designer and developer whose productivity tools I use regularly. Recently David wrote on his blog about what he called “Project Shoebox,” and it struck me as the perfect application for my collection of boxes.

David recalls an excerpt from Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. In the book she explains that when she begins a new endeavor, she puts all of the inspirational, related material into a big box. Could this practice be applied to productivity or personal organization?

After ordering several boxes and a shelving unit, David began filling the boxes. However, he didn’t simply create the categories you might expect, like “electronics,” “photos” or “office supplies.” Instead, he took a different approach. Hey explained:

“I started with a heap of old boxes filled with gew-gaws and trinkets, and just started moving similar things into the new boxes. It took about three hours to collect everything, box, then label with Post-It® notes. I didn’t think too hard about the categories, making them up based on my own sense of whimsy.”

Sound haphazard? I tried it myself, and was pleased with the results. My boxes now contain things like travel treasures, notebooks, stamps, other desktop paper goods, and things that remind me of the kids. I even have a box labeled “flying things” that contains a tiny RC helicopter, its repair kit, a wind-up duck, and a balsa wood plane kit.

Like David, I’m happy to have a place to keep my “gadgets and gizmos in one place.” My stack of boxes reside in my office so they’re not cluttering up the house. Most importantly, they allow me to keep the personal things that I love off my desk and taking up room, yet still organized and accessible. While going through what I put together my daughter remarked, “It’s like a dad museum!” I thought that was sweet, and entirely accurate.

I’m glad to finally be putting my Birchbox boxes to use. Some folks are more clever with these things than I am, but that’s okay. I think my new filing/storage system/personal museum is going to work out fine.

Happy Thanksgiving from Unclutterer

Unclutterer is taking the day off to celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones. We hope you’re having a great, restful day, too. In the meantime, here are some posts from Thanksgivings past to review at your leisure.

Have a great day and we’ll be back in full swing next week.

Have a great day, folks! We’ll see you next week.

Going on a sentimental journey

When uncluttering, it’s quite easy to make decisions on items for which we have no feelings or emotional attachment. But when we have feelings associated with physical items, it can be hard for our heart to let them go even though our lack of usable living space tells us we really need to say goodbye.

There are different types of sentimental clutter (clutter referring to items you don’t necessarily want or have need for; not sentimental objects you value and/or regularly use). Some of the most common items are:

  • Things handed down to us from previous generations
  • Gifts received from important people in our lives
  • Souvenirs and memorabilia

These are some of the most difficult items to deal with because the object reminds us of the person or event, so we keep the item to trigger memories.

A short-term emergency measure of dealing with sentimental items is to box them up and store them. This is ideal if there is a sudden death or downsizing in the family. You must, however, eventually deal with these items because they will eventually fill your storage area and will deteriorate if stored indefinitely.

Sorting and organizing sentimental clutter can be very emotional, so only do a little at a time. Finding a friend or family member to help you sort can be beneficial. Make sure you choose someone who is willing to listen to some stories behind the items. This person should also know whether you need a shoulder to cry on or a kick in the pants when it is time to say good-bye to the sentimental clutter.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • If you had to purchase the item yourself, at full price, would you?
  • If someone you didn’t like gave you the item as a gift, would you still keep it?
  • Does the item invoke happy memories?

If you answered no to any of these questions, consider getting rid of the item.

The following are a few tips to help you get rid of sentimental clutter but keep the memories:

  • Take photos and write stories to capture an item’s significance in your life. You can even tell the story on video and share it with your family. Your children can do this with some of their school projects. Essays, reports and drawings can be scanned and saved in digital format. This will prevent them from getting lost or broken over the years (especially during household moves).
  • Make and display photomontages of your vacations instead of keeping souvenirs. You also can set digital images of your vacations as the screen saver on your computer, if you’re short on wall space.
  • If you’ve inherited a collection of items (pocket watches, salt and pepper shakers, etc.) keep the ones you like best and let the rest go. Offer the other items from the collection to other family members or friends of the family. This holds true for sets of dishes too. You needn’t keep the entire set of china together. For example, if you inherit grandma’s china, one grandchild could have the dessert plates, another could have the platters and another the gravy boat.
  • Display your items so they bring you joy throughout your home. You should limit your items to one or two shelves and keep only items that fit on those shelves. If you can’t display your items, limit them to only one storage bin and keep only the things that fit inside that bin.

Because you have a significant emotional attachment to these sentimental items, it is important to get them out of the house once you’ve made the decision to let them go. If the items are destined for charity, then take them the same day or ask a friend to take them for you (then, return the favor). If the items are to be given to other family members, box them up and tape the box closed. Make arrangements for pick-up or drop-off as soon as you can.

If you’re really feeling bad about an object that is leaving your life, you can have a “funeral” for the item. It helped me out when I really needed it.