Simple Living and Labor-Saving Devices

In the comments section of our our post on dishwasher-safe products, there was an interesting debate on the merits of hand washing dishes. Some readers were surprised by the amount of thought and effort we seem to expend trying to avoid hand washing cookware.

I am an advocate of technology in the service of simple living. There is physical clutter in our lives, and there is time clutter. Often, judicious use of technology can help us tame the latter.

The Shakers, known for their focus on simplicity in all aspects of life, believed labor was sacred. To that end, they developed numerous labor-saving devices:

  • metal pen nibs
  • the flat broom
  • a prototype washing machine
  • the circular saw
  • waterproof and wrinkle-free cloth
  • a metal chimney cap that blocked rain

In fact, the Canterbury community in New Hampshire owned one of the first cars in the state. They also embraced the use of electricity long before their non-Shaker neighbors.

Good technology has the capacity to simplify our lives and empower us. It reduces time clutter. The arrivals of the washing machine and the electric iron were landmark events in the history of women’s liberation. By reducing the amount of time women spent on chores, they increased the amount of time women could spend on other activities.

By contrast, it’s easy to see that bad technology just gets in the way. We are seduced by the false promises of a food dehydrator. In the end, we are not only parted from our money, but we are left with a colony of unused unitaskers multiplying in the recesses of our kitchen cabinets. From the very beginning, you didn’t have a chance  — by the time you bought the seemingly innocuous wannabe waffle-maker, the war was already lost.

Simple living is about clearing away the obstacles in our lives, including the unwanted tasks. We can only do this if we are honest with ourselves about whether that labor-saving device really justifies the space it consumes.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

Where to start organizing your home

Many people are overwhelmed by the idea of organizing their homes. When there is so much to do, it can be difficult to know where to begin. If you’re in such a state, let me suggest four ways you can get started. Hopefully one of the methods will be a perfect match for you!

  1. Start by organizing the area you first see in the morning. If your first activity is to walk into your closet to pick out your clothes, then choose to organize your closet. If you get coffee, organize your kitchen. If you hop into the shower, then tackle your bathroom. The idea is that the first thing you see in the morning can set your mood for the whole day, so you should at least start with a sense of calm and order.
  2. Start by organizing the area you first see when you come home after work. Your home should be an area of rejuvenation and relaxation. If the first thing you see when you get home from a long day at work makes you stressed out, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Is there a mess in the driveway that could be cleared? Do you pull into your garage and curse because you can barely get out of your car? Is your home’s entrance in complete chaos? Whatever is the first place that causes you stress when you come home, start by clearing clutter there.
  3. Start with the area of your home that makes you seethe. Without putting too much thought into it, what is the one area of your home that you avoid because of its mess? Your instincts will quickly call to mind the one space that drives you nuts more than any other area of your home. Get started in that space to get the worst of the worst cleaned first.
  4. Start at the top and work your way down. In the same way that you dust before you sweep, tackle the areas up high in a room and then work your way toward the floor. Think of your work as if you’re completing an archeological dig.

As you’re working, keep in mind that even the smallest steps help your space to be more organized than it was previously and that there is no reason to be overwhelmed by the task in front of you. Good luck with your organization endeavors!

 

This post was originally published in May 2008.

Preparing an organized “summer basket”

As summer approaches, we’re getting ready to spend the season at home with the kids and occasionally welcoming out-of-town guests. It’s also time to round up the accoutrements that allow us to enjoy nice weather and time spent outdoors. Sunscreen, beach towels, snorkels, and so on get a lot of use between June and August, which means these items also have the opportunity to become misplaced or just plain lost. Rather than have this stuff lying around like a bunch of clutter, we’ve devised a simple solution. We place a very big basket right next to the back door of our house — a large, wicker basket. Inside we store all sorts of summer goodies:

  • Sunscreen
  • Snorkels
  • Swim masks
  • Towels
  • Sandals
  • Bug spray
  • and a few dollars for the ice cream truck (it is summer after all)

It all works pretty well, but it can be improved. This summer I want to make some changes to our “summer basket.” Let me know what you think.

First, it is convenient that all of the items are in one place instead of spread all over the house. However, once you get a certain amount of stuff in the basket, finding what you want requires a bit of searching around. My solution for this problem takes inspiration from my hobby: board games.

Many of the games I love come with a lot of components and little pieces, which I keep organized with foam core inserts. While you can buy fancy wooden ones like this one from Broken Token, I prefer to make my own out of foam core. For the summer basket, I think four large pieces will divide the contents into specific categories very nicely.

Next, I want to make some “go bags,” one for each activity (beach, park, car, etc.). It will save time when departing — just grab the one bag that you need. I’m considering sorting go bags by child. That way, we won’t have to go on a hunt for our son’s swim mask or our daughter’s goggles, etc. But I’m not sold on that idea, sorting by activity might be most effective.

Now I’ll ask you, dear readers. Do you have a similar setup in place and, if so, how do you keep it all sorted? Happy summer!

Sock Purge: Getting rid of mismatched socks

Hate matching up sock pairs while folding laundry? One way to save you time is to have all socks of the exact same color and style.

Every so often (when most of your socks are worn out), throw away all of your white sports socks and replace them with six pairs of new, identical white sports socks. Be sure to alternate the style or brand between purges so if an old sock accidentally doesn’t get purged, you can identify it when it tries to sneak back in to your drawer. All of your socks will have the same amount of wear, they all will match, and it will save you time during folding.

If you’re a man who works in an office, do the same with black and brown dress socks. Three styles are faster to sort than 18 pairs of different styles.

For your children with similar sized feet, you could buy a dozen pairs of the same sock and split them between the kids. Alternatively, you could buy each child a different brand/style/color of sock. For example, your daughter could have white socks, and your son could have white and grey socks.

Our family has subscribed to this process for many years and we love the simplicity it brings to our laundry days.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

What’s on your kitchen counters?

Earlier this week I was browsing the Unclutterer Forums when I found this thread: What’s on your kitchen counters? It’s a conversation that’s been going strong since 2012, with the latest contribution being published just a few days ago. Here are my thoughts.

Our kitchen is very small. Even after a major remodel in 2002, we’ve got precious little counter space. As such, we’ve had to be extremely selective about what earns its way onto the counter. Many products “audition” but few make the cut.

The first to go was the microwave. Yes, we’re a microwave-free household. Really, the stove/oven does everything the microwave manages, albeit more slowly. We can’t afford a huge bulky item that duplicates functionality. Instead, we’ve got a toaster oven.

We’ve got a few books in a bookshelf, a drainer for drying the dishes, and the mixer. Honestly, that’s it. Utensils live in a drawer and dishes, glasses, etc. live in cabinets.

Items that are used only occasionally are stored in the basement until they’re called into duty. This includes the slow cooker, blender, and big mixer. We just don’t use them often enough to warrant long-term storage in the kitchen itself.

Now I’ll ask you: what’s on your kitchen counters, and why? Does “size matter” or is function the deciding factor? Sound off, here or join the conversation on our forum.

The minimalist kitchen

The New York Times ran an interesting feature in which food columnist Mark Bittman explained how one could outfit a functional, well-equipped kitchen for less than $300. Even though this article was published in 2007, it is still relevant and helpful.

If you’ll be moving out on your own, you could turn this into a shopping list or a source for ideas for your wedding gift registry. If your kitchen counters and cupboards are overflowing, you might consider using this article as a reality check for the things you already own. If you have all kinds of kitchen accessories you don’t use, and they’re not on this list, you might want to consider getting rid of them.

Particularly interesting is a section at the end of the article where Bittman lists several “inessentials”:

STAND MIXER Unless you’re a baking fanatic, it takes up too much room to justify it. A good whisk or a crummy handheld mixer will do fine.

BONING/FILLETING KNIVES Really? You’re a butcher now? Or a fishmonger? If so, go ahead, by all means. But I haven’t used my boning knife in years. (It’s pretty, though.)

WOK Counterproductive without a good wok station equipped with a high-B.T.U. burner. (There’s a nice setup at Bowery Restaurant Supply for $1,400 if you have the cash and the space.)

However, if an item on this “inessential” list is one that you use regularly (be honest here), or saves you time and effort, by all means keep it.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

Wedding gifts we still use 16 years later

Way back in the year 2000, my then girlfriend and I decided to get married. We created a gift registry, as so many engaged couples to do. As a pair of young people with very little in the way of “real world” possessions, we asked for many things we thought we’d use for years. Fortunately many of our friends and family obliged and a year later we found ourselves happily married with a pile of new stuff.

Sixteen years later, there are items from that registry that we still use every day and others that were donated/tossed/given away long ago. Here’s a list of the few keepers that still see active duty.

Dishes

The first item we registered for was a set of dinnerware from local potter Steve Kemp. We loved Steve’s work and thought, “What the heck. Maybe someone will buy us a setting or two.” We ended up with full service and those very plates and bowls are still in daily use at our house. Yes, I’ve broken a few but that’s what anniversary gifts are for, right?

Flatware

My mother was raised in Oneida, New York, home to Oneida flatware and, before that, The Oneida Community (I’ve been inside the fabled “Mansion House” many times). My maternal grandfather worked for Oneida, designing flatware. Of course, I had to have a set, which we asked for and received.

For the first few years, I kept those utensils tucked away until Christmas other other “special” occasion. Eventually I decided that that was silly and now we use the Oneida flatware every day.

We didn’t ask for things like knifes or pots and pans, as we inherited sets of each, which we’ve since replaced.

Bed

As two single people we had, of course, two twin beds. As a gift we received a queen sized bed with some nifty storage compartments and it’s still in use.

Stuff we asked for, have, and never use.

Wine glasses. My wife and I drink wine maybe once a year. Yet we requested and received a set of wine glasses, figuring we’d be entertaining wine-loving friends. That hasn’t happened yet, and to this day a set of pristine wine glasses sit idle in a cabinet. The same goes for the blender. Again, we’ve used this maybe a dozen times over the past 16 years. The thought of fresh fruit smoothies every morning sounds great until you have to make them and then clean the blender.

Items we no longer own

First things first, if you’re reading this and you’re the person(s) who gave us any of the following, I’m sorry! We tried, honest. Let’s start with the bread machine. At the time when we got married, these things were very popular. Toss the ingredients inside, hit a switch and presto, you’ve got bread. The bread machine we owned was huge and took up a massive amount of counter space. So it sat in the basement until we decided that we wanted to use it. That day never came. The same goes for the ice cream maker. Oh, how charmingly naive young couples are. “We’ll make ice cream! It will be great.” Add a few kids to the mix and you realize there’s no time for that. Away it went.

What I wish we’d asked for

If I had a time machine, I’d go back to the year 2000 and ask for the following:

A decent, basic set of tools. You can get a way with cheap tools for a while, or skipping some essentials entirely, but starting off with a high-quality starter set is well worth the investment.

A rice cooker. We didn’t buy a rice cooker until a few years ago and we’re amazed at how useful, compact and efficient it is. Everybody should own one.

A full set of Pyrex: 1 cup, 2 cup and quart measuring cups; 8×8 cake pan; 2qt, 3 qt and 4 qt baking dishes. You can’t kill these things. They last forever.

If you’re getting married soon, consider creating your wedding gift registry with Amazon. They have a vast selection of gifts at various prices. Your guests will know exactly what you want and your guests will appreciate that the gifts can be automatically delivered to you.

When shopping for wedding gifts, consider giving something that the couple likely wouldn’t buy themselves. Personally, I lean towards the practical. It’s kind of boring, but let’s be honest. There’s no time for making ice cream.

What are your organizing priorities?

The other day, a new topic was posted in the Unclutterer Forums asking what people store on their kitchen counters. That got me thinking about when we renovated our apartment and how we really worked hard to get the space organized right before the construction began. So we looked at our priorities and worked from there.

First priority: We have an open-concept kitchen and it’s almost the first thing you see upon entering, so anything that is merely functional and not decorative needed to be stored away.

Second priority: We are addicted to our Thermomix (for those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s like a blender, food processor and cooking tool all in one, but so much more!). We use it at least twice a day — more than any other appliance in the house. It therefore needed its own counter space in the center of the kitchen, but not too obvious because while incredibly functional, it’s not the most beautiful machine in the world.

Third priority: We entertain frequently and have a lot of dishes, plus we keep a wide variety of foods and gadgets on hand for when a cooking whim strikes us (like making sushi from scratch or blow-torching a crême brulé). Easily accessible storage space was imperative. We opted for lower cabinet drawers rather than non-moving shelves so that nothing ever “disappears” in the back of a cupboard. It’s all visible and at hand. For the areas where we could not install drawers, we opted for sliding stainless steel baskets.

Fourth priority: We listened to the professionals, but trusted our intuition. We took our initial plans to a kitchen design shop and they made some really good suggestions such as installing tower-based fridge and oven/microwave units. But, we also knew what we wanted and stood our ground on some issues (such as sacrificing space between the peninsula and the wall in order to keep the full-size peninsula). Coming up with the ideas was based on hours and hours of looking at kitchen designs (mainly through photos posted in the Houzz app).

In the end, the kitchen was the most expensive part of our back-to-the-walls renovation, but given how much time we spend there, we consider it money very well spent.

Organizing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Your home (or work space) won’t stay organized if it doesn’t mesh with your priorities and if you don’t know what those are, you might only get your space “right” by accident. So the next time you’re going to do a major re-organization or renovation, take some time to think about what’s important to you and how you want to use the space before diving into the project.

When was the last time you re-organized?

When we moved into our apartment, we had completely renovated the place, right back to the exterior walls. Being two organized people, we took the time to think through our designs and make sure everything had a place, and we didn’t fill up the house with too much stuff.

Fast forward two years…

The spacious walk-in closet feels cramped. There are expired packages of food in kitchen drawers and cupboards. We can’t see the floor under the sink in the bathroom. CDs have found their way off their shelves and onto various surfaces throughout the house, and random computer cables have snaked their way over the spare bedroom/office.

How could this have happened? We tidy up and clean our flat every week and we both adore being organized!

Well, life happened. Familiarity bred blindness. And so, bit by bit, the house has lost its shiny-new look and feel.

It doesn’t have to stay that way, however.

Some things are simple to re-organize, like the CDs and computer cables. We’ve added them to our weekly cleanup tasks and they no longer threaten to invade spaces not specifically assigned to them.

As for the rest, it’s required a series of weekend projects (or in our case, a series of mid-week projects as we like to keep our weekends free for fun activities).

To start with, my husband tackled the walk-in closet paring down our clothes and reorganizing what we had left. It’s something that needs to be done periodically as clothes come in and out of fashion, our weight goes up and down, and more obviously, the seasons change, requiring different sorts of outfits.

He then cleared out what was below the bathroom sink. It turns out that when we moved in, we put a bunch of things that we weren’t quite sure what to do with down there in baskets and then forgot about them. And in the manner of all disorganized spaces, the clutter attracted more clutter. To find space for what was there, he reorganized the drawers in the bathroom and managed to carve out room for everything else and make it all more accessible in the process.

Our next task is the kitchen. In our house, it’s probably the most used room as we both love to cook. You’d think that would mean that it’s the most organized space, but no. I’m not sure if we’ll attack it one drawer at a time, or go all out and reorganize and clean everything at once. Given how much better the first two spaces turned out, it’s not something we’re going to let slide much longer.

And now you say: “Great, thanks for the personal story, Alex, but what does it have to do with me?”

Well, how long have you lived in your current abode? How long since you’ve taken a look at the various places where things get stored? Can you access everything easily and do you even know what’s there? Because if you’ve forgotten you have something, you might as well not own it.

So tell me, what mini re-organizing project are you going to take on?

Book Review: Downsizing the Family Home

A few weeks ago, Alex wrote about dealing with the clutter of previous generations. It took me back to my childhood when my extended family pulled together to sell my great-grandfather’s farm. That was back in the day where you hired an auctioneer, put ads in local newspapers, and all the neighbours in the county showed up to bid on items the family had dragged out onto the lawn.

Times have certainly changed. Family members live all over the country, neighbours don’t necessarily know one another, and online auctions are the norm. Marni Jameson’s book Downsizing the Family Home is very helpful to those of us in the modern world dealing with liquidating a family estate.

I expected this book to be rather dry; a “how-to” book full of instructions and checklists. Instead, this book was a warm and compassionate recounting of the author’s own experience as she cleared out and sold her childhood home, and helped her parents transition to a retirement centre. She writes like she’s talking to her friends. I chuckled to myself when Jameson recounted how she found “bundles of Christmas cards saved by year going back to William the Conqueror” as well as, “…enough baskets to re-create the miracle of the loaves and fishes.” Many families have similar collections that have to be sorted and disposed of.

However, this isn’t a novel. Jameson shares the information she learned from the experts she consulted and provides many hints and tips throughout the book. It is full of useful information on how to dispose of items — whether to sell, recycle, donate, or just take to the dump. There are several chapters dedicated to helping readers find resources to determine the value of antiques, artwork, and other family heirlooms.

One useful thing I learned was that in most families the stories surrounding family heirlooms are often wrong. For example, though generations have been told the story of great-grandma’s Tiffany® lamp, it may actually be just a replica. Some items may not be as valuable as expected but if it is a piece you love and has significant sentimental value, it doesn’t matter what its re-sale value would be.

The book also provides advice and suggestions on preparing and selling a home and tips on dealing with real estate agents and the challenges that occur when the adult children live across the country. One of those challenges being the emotional anguish of letting go of your childhood home.

Downsizing the Family Home was an enjoyable book to read. If there is a downsizing process looming in your future, you’ll find this book extremely helpful.

Saying goodbye to musical instruments, part two

Last week, I shared the story of my inability to let it go of my drum set during our big basement clear out. I had succumbed to sentiment! After much deliberation, I’ve made a decision — the drum set stays — for now. There’s a deal in place, which I’ll describe in a bit.

First off, I’m going to refurbish them. They need new heads, a good tuning, some cleaning, and maybe some new hardware. (The bass pedal is older than my marriage.) Once the upgrades are done, I’m going to play a bit and see how it feels. I’ll adopt a regular practice schedule and see if I can stick to it while working off the years of rust. Perhaps my kids will express an interest. If so, I’ll provide lessons.

Now here’s the deal. If, at the end of one year, the drum set is still satisfying the definition of clutter (an item that is unused and without purpose), then away it goes. What will happen to it? There are several options for an unwanted musical instrument:

  1. Selling is the most obvious choice. These drums are very old and not worth a lot, so I’d give them to a young musician who is looking for his or her very first set. It would be nice to see them inspire a student they way they once inspired me.
  2. Donation is also an option (and I can get a tax write-off too). I’m sure a local community center, church, or school would gladly take a free drum set.

I could get real fancy and turn them into art, but that’s a bit beyond me.

Parting with sentimental clutter is never easy, but it’s something we must do eventually. Memories are more important than the things themselves and great memories are never clutter. Additionally, here’s a good opportunity to practice the concept of non-attachment. It reminds me of this little parable, the origin of which I do not know.

There was a man who kept a glass on his bedside table. He loved the glass and would look at it and think, “How lovely this glass is. When it catches the light it looks so beautiful. When it’s full of water, how lovely it appears. If I tap it with my finger, what a pretty note it plays.”

“But if I bump the table and the glass crashes on the floor, I may think, ‘Oh, of course.’ Or, I can realize the glass is already broken. Then every moment with it is precious.”

In a way, my drum set is already gone. Some day it will fall apart, or be in the dump, or reside in somebody else’s basement, or I’ll be too old or frail to play it. And that’s OK, because every moment I’ve had with it has been precious.

Saying goodbye to musical instruments

I spent this past weekend cleaning my basement and enduring a life crisis. The two are related.

As it’s the start of school vacation week here in Massachusetts, my wife and I decided to take this time to clean out the basement. I’m not referring to the pedestrian practice of knocking down cobwebs and doing a bit of sweeping. No, this was a full-on, no-prisoners/no-survivors clean. Every single item was hauled out into the yard and sorted into one of three piles:

  1. Keep
  2. Donate
  3. Trash

Once the room was empty, the industrial vacuum came out, cobwebs were swept away, floors were swept and scrubbed, and shelving was dismantled, cleaned, and relocated. Every inch was polished and prepped for the contents of the “keep” pile to be neatly re-introduced. I drove the donate pile to the local donation station and later this week a team of professionals will arrive to haul the trash pile away. That should be all three piles sorted.

Dave's drum setExcept there’s one problem. I lied. There are actually four piles. The fourth pile contains only a single item: my drum set.

I bought this set of drums with money I saved by delivering newspapers when I was 13 years old. I started playing drums when I was seven, and to say that they occupied the first 23 years of my life is an understatement. Music, specifically percussion, was my life for two decades.

In elementary school I played in the orchestra. In high school, it was band, orchestra, and jazz band. Some friends and I formed our own noisy rock band and tormented the neighbors with an endless racket. I took private lessons outside of school, and traveled to district orchestra events. I even attended music camp at our local college. Music was my social circle, my solace when times were tough, and my celebration when everything was going well. After high school I attended Berklee College of Music and gave snare drum lessons to the neighborhood kids in the summer.

Then I finished with school, moved away, and got a job. The drums came with me, but I didn’t have much time for them. A few years passed and I got married. Soon enough we had a daughter, then a son. I had more responsibility at work. I continued to give lessons for about a year but that ended. My drums sat idle in the basement — for years… many years.

Now, here we are with my drums satisfying the very definition of “clutter.”

We’ve written about parting with sentimental clutter before. I know it’s hard, and I know the strategies. I also understand that, in the end, memories are more important than things. But this feels like more to me.

Real musical ability isn’t something that every person has. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I do. I was really good at playing drums. To me, parting with the instrument feels like I’m throwing the gift away, too, and that’s not right. I understand that, if I haven’t touched my drums within the last 15 years, I probably won’t during the next 15 years either. Yet, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

For now, they’re still in the limbo that is “Pile Four.” I’ve got until the end of the week to decided their true fate. Do you have any input, readers? Have I merely succumbed to the emotion of sentimental clutter? Or is there something more at work?