The minimalist and the maximalist

When I lived alone, my minimalist tendencies could flourish. Each surface in the house was either bare or had one or two items on it. I regularly went through the house and pared down anything that had found its way onto a shelf or table without a conscious decision to put it there.

I lived this way because I am a naturally disorganized person. The more I have, the less organized I am, and the less I clean. Wiping the dust off a shelf that has two carefully placed items is much easier and faster than removing the ten knick-knacks, wiping them all down, and then placing them back where they are supposed to be.

The less I had also meant the less I bought. I didn’t need to buy anything because I had all I needed. When I travelled I almost never brought back souvenirs and my holiday decorations never grew because I had just the right amount in the exact style I was looking for.

My husband, however, is not like me at all. He believes that if there is a surface free, it needs to be covered with something. He loves reminders of places we’ve been. And he’s an incredibly organized person. He adores organizing in a way that boggles my mind. In fact, he’ll spend an hour moving things about a shelf until he gets the just-right arrangement.

His attention to detail exhausts me, although I have to admit that I love how the place looks, even with all the bits and bobs that I would never have on display if I were living alone. If he were to read Apartment Therapy’s 10 Signs you might be a maximalist, he would agree with almost every point.

So, how do a minimalist and a maximalist live together? By applying the basics. We compromise, we communicate, and we encourage yet moderate each other’s natural tendencies.

For example, in December my husband goes nuts with all the new holiday decorations that come out. If he had more space and money, he would fill shopping carts with cute, stylish, and fun decorations. I, on the other hand, will go out of my way to avoid going into stores at this time of year. Our compromise is this: I promise to show enthusiasm for the few things that really do catch my fancy, even if there is no need to buy them, while he recognizes that finding a few choice pieces increases the likelihood of using and appreciating each item rather than buying everything and using nothing.

And when it comes to cleaning, I focus on the daily surface tasks, while he will do the occasional deep-cleaning and reorganizing that is required with a bookshelf full of books, knick-knacks, and keepsakes.

Whether you are a minimalist or a maximalist, the key is to not to go to extremes. If you are embarrassed to have someone over, perhaps your maximalist tendencies have left you knee-deep in clutter. Or if people ask you if anyone actually lives in your home, perhaps you need to create a sort of moderate minimalism in your life.

Book review: Soulful Simplicity

Soulful Simplicity isn’t a book entirely about uncluttering and minimalism. It is a book about the author’s journey to her ideal life (of which uncluttering and minimalism play a large part).

A number of years ago, Courtney Carver was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She recognized that her lifestyle was exacerbating her symptoms. She needed to reduce high stress levels caused by clutter, debt, overwork, and trying to meet the needs of everyone in the family.

During the first few chapters, Carver she describes her life after her MS diagnosis. She felt that MS was her wake-up call then she goes on to say, “…but had I been really paying attention I would’ve woken up sooner.” Carver explains that the way she was living was difficult but at least it was familiar. Isn’t that the case with so many of us? We cling to our old habits because they are comfortable and we resist change because it makes us feel uneasy.

By following Carver’s journey in Soulful Simplicity readers can learn how to create their own ideal lives. Carver came up with the “Simplicity Summit” — a type of family meeting to discuss, in a supportive environment, why you are simplifying your lives in the first place. Her book provides a guideline on how to hold your own Simplicity Summit. There are lists of questions to ask each other and suggested action steps to achieve your goals.

One idea I liked was Carver’s suggestion to change your lifestyle slowly by using habit stacking — establishing one habit at a time then adding a new one so that each habit triggers and supports the others. For example, if you want to increase your daily water intake, drink a glass of water before every meal. You are already consuming a meal so that habit is already established, adding another habit onto it, will help create a pattern that will stick.

Soulful Simplicity has a chapter on “The Upsides of a Downsize” where Carver discusses her reasons for uncluttering. She hits the nail on the head when she talks about organizing supplies and storage space stating, “When you need to buy things [i.e. storage bins] for your things, it’s time for fewer things.”

Carver doesn’t really delve into the organizing process itself (for example, where to donate shoes or what is the best spot for the coffee maker), but she does discuss a lot of causes and reasons for clutter accumulation. From debunking the myths of ownership to shopping away the pain to dealing with the guilt of letting go, she helps readers wade through the emotional turmoil and come out on the other side with a better idea of the life they want going forwards.

If your New Year’s resolution is to move towards a lifestyle with less stress and less stuff but more joy and more soul, I highly recommend Soulful Simplicity.

Wallets and loyalty cards

Like many people, I use loyalty cards to get deals on products and/or accumulate points to get free products. However, I was running out of space in my wallet (which is similar to this one) to store all of the cards. I worried that I would have to get a new wallet so I asked fellow Unclutterers Jeri and Alex what types of wallets they used and what they carried with them.

Jeri’s answer

I bought my wallet 20 years ago on a trip to Italy — such a useful souvenir — and it’s still going strong. The only thing I regret is that it’s black, making it harder to see inside my purse. It’s a basic bifold design with two slots for bills (one of which is deeper, so it holds bills from various countries just fine), four credit card slots, and a coin purse. There are pockets behind the credit card slots and the coin purse where I can store my insurance cards and my driver’s license. This fits my needs perfectly. I use Apple Pay wherever I can, but I still need to carry two credit cards (business and personal) and a bank card.

If I had to buy another wallet I would go for the same brand, because of the amazing quality: The Nappa Vitello collection by Bosca. I don’t see one exactly like mine — most of them lack a coin purse — but I might go for the one with a zippered coin purse. Or maybe I’d get a basic bifold and adjust to using a separate coin case. And I’d stay reconciled to black, because this specific collection only comes in black.

Alex’s answer

Because I always carry my wallet in the front pocket of my trousers, I never carry much in it, keeping it down to seven different cards (driver’s license, ID, two bank cards, health card, transit card, and a store loyalty card). I also carry money (but not much as I know pay almost everything with my bank card or my smart phone), receipts for things that may need to get returned or that offer a discount on the next purchase, a picture of my husband, and my mother’s library card (in the last few months of her life, I would go to the library for her and it’s a way to keep her memory close to me).

To store all this, I need something lightweight, slim, flexible, yet sturdy. A few years ago, I came across the perfect solution by accident and now I swear by it, only ever buying myself the same brand when the old one wears out. The brand is Mighty Wallet. They are made from Tyvek and apart from being practical, tear-resistant, water-resistant, and expandable, they are fun! I’ve had ones that look like they have been made from Star Trek comic books, a page torn out of a notebook, a NYC subway map, or an American one dollar bill. And there are many other designs to choose from too.

If you don’t like to carry much in your wallet and want something a little distinctive, I would highly recommend trying out a Mighty Wallet.

Jacki’s conclusion

I appreciated the input from Alex and Jeri. It made me realize that I was carrying too much stuff in my wallet — specifically loyalty cards. My iPhone fits into my wallet thus I have it with me when I shop so I started using the Stocard app for my loyalty cards and kept the cards themselves at home. However, if I need a wallet in the future, I’ll certainly take Alex’s and Jeri’s suggestions to heart.

Learning from failure: a Bullet Journal experiment update

After starting my Bullet Journal experiment, I wrote down my worries concerning maintaining the experiment. One worry was boredom, one was letting things slide because success would lead to overconfidence, and the third concern was getting distracted. Specifically I said:

Good habits aren’t easy to form, but so simple to break. Think about a gym-commitment. How many times do you start some exercise program only to stop because for two days in a row, you are too busy to go to the gym? This happens to me all the time at work. My best intentions get trashed because I arrive and have to solve any number of mini (or not so mini) crises.

I promised myself that I would spend at least five minutes a day updating my various Bullet Journals, but in November, things fell apart. I managed to keep up some semblance of lists until mid-November, but after the 20th, I added one entry on the 30th and nothing since then. In my home-related journal, the abandonment happened well before that. And other than medical appointments, I haven’t added anything to my agenda in a long time.

Since things aren’t working, I need to step back and examine what went wrong and I need to go back to my root reasons for creating the Bullet Journal in the first place. Those are simple:

  • to create a record of everything I do at work so that I can plan better each year (as almost everything is repeated annually),
  • to make sure I don’t forget any task or activity due to being busy or distracted, and
  • to learn to blend work-Alex with home-Alex to create better balance.

Okay, so if those are the three objectives, what went wrong?

I got distracted by technology. Remember how I moved from iPad Pro? It allowed me to create an infinite number of journals. Bad idea! I’m a minimalist and need everything in one place.

Each day more than half of my workday was taken up with covering the tasks of an employee on sick leave. When I had time to do my own work, I ran around putting out all the mini fires that were popping up because I wasn’t keeping a watchful eye on the whole bonfire.

By separating out work and home journal, I complete negated the third objective and went back to my comfort zone which is to put my focus and energies into work.

Does that mean the Bullet Journal experiment has been a failure? Only if I let it.

The good thing about calling the project an experiment is that failure is built into the name. Most discoveries are made through systematic trial and error and each failure is considered progress towards the desired result rather than proof that the project isn’t worth pursuing.

J.K. Rowling gave a speech years ago about the power of failure (included in this great list of her successes). Failure is part of the learning process. If we let failure stop us from moving forward then the failure and any related suffering has served us for nothing. Of course, the result may be  abandoning the project. It’s madness and soul-destroying to continue something when it’s obvious that the originally desired result is not possible.

But that is not my case.

With the holiday season upon us, now more than ever, I need to refocus and go back to my original plan — one journal with all my information together. I will stay with the digital version instead of going all the way back to my physical journal (although they are so nice to touch and feel) because the digital version allows me to move pages around and insert images and with ease.

How have you used failure to refocus your projects and find new and better ways to create progress?

How best to be sick: stop worrying about being productive

Over the last few months, I’ve been dealing with the sick leave of one employee after another in my day job. It was, of course, just a matter of time before I fell ill as well.

Fortunately, I’m not bed-bound nor will I have to miss work, but I am moving more slowly, have no energy, and find it hard to concentrate. As a consequence, I’m not able to get nearly as much done as I would like, I have to postpone a bunch of holiday-related projects, and I can’t tackle anything that requires much brain power.

I could be very cranky. I could push myself and end up having to redo the same work later. Or I could take a break and let this cold pass.

Being a naturally lazy person (my main motivation in doing things efficiently), the latter option appeals most to me. However, I can’t be completely unproductive. It’s just not in me. If I can’t tick things off my various lists, I get anxious.

I used to be quite good at completely disconnecting. Over 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (which actually turned out to be intolerance to certain foods), and spent nine years in constant but variable pain. There were days that I could do nothing but stare at the ceiling and hope the next day would be better. It’s when I learned to be a minimalist, both in possessions and actions. I learned the hard way how not to feel guilty about not getting anything done. I wish, however, I’d had the book Say No to Guilt!: The 21 Day Plan for Accepting Your Chronic Illness and Finding Inner Peace and Happiness by Kristi Patrice Carter.

I’m lucky in that I no longer have the chronic pain, but I do need to remember the skills I built up in that period of my life when things like colds hit me. The main trick is to let it happen.

Instead of fighting with myself and making the week even worse, I let myself be sick. I enjoy the day in bed or sprawled on the sofa with mindless TV programs, instead of whining about every moment that I wasn’t sticking to my schedule.

At work, I also treat myself with care. No projects, no meetings, nothing that requires either deep thought or delicate communication skills. I stick to strictly administrative tasks that can be done even while my head floats about in a medication-induced haze.

In the end, even though I don’t complete a lot of tasks, I still accomplish the minimum, and a pamper myself enough to get back to full strength quickly. It is much better to allow the house to become a disaster for a few days, or for work tasks to pile up, so that I don’t experience any sort of setback. By scheduling in plenty of relaxation time I give myself wiggle room to catch up after feeling better. If you don’t give yourself that sort of space, then when you do fall behind, you just keep moving backwards struggling every moment.

So be kind to yourself and stop struggling – plan your time well and give yourself the best chance to achieve success, creatively.

And if you don’t get it all done, don’t worry!

Craft storage without the visual clutter

When I was organizing full-time, I regularly worked with craftspeople. Scrapbooking, textile arts, or traditional visual arts are three fields that use many bits and bobs. And all too often, the creative mind veers towards chaos, meaning an artist’s studio or scrapbookers craft room becomes a pile of pieces of projects and remainders of previous projects that can deter the artist or crafter from moving forward.

Quite often, North American houses have basements or a space over the garage for a studio or craft room, sometimes up to hundreds of square feet to spread out in and organize materials in a meaningful and logical way. But what if you don’t have all that extra space? Or what if you’re like me and you don’t want everything visible creating visual clutter?

Folding furniture might be a solution for you. As long as you have floor space to unfold and use the piece of furniture, and as long as you take the time to tidy up and fold the cabinet or desk back away again, it could be a great way to have your artist studio or craft room in the middle of your regular living space and not have to worry about visual or physical clutter.

Recently I came across what is probably a crafter’s dream storage solution: The Original Scrapbox WorkBox 3.0. When folded up, it uses less than 3 sq ft of floor space, but when opened up, it offers 9 linear feet of shelves, cubbyholes and hanging storage along with a decent sized work space.

When I first saw the video, my heart leapt in my throat and I actually said out loud “I want that!” After posting something to that effect on my Facebook wall, however, one artist friend said it looked wonderful, but with so many storage options, he knew it would devolve into chaos in five minutes. And he’s right. I’m an organized person because I’m a minimalist, and too many options create clutter for me.

If you are a detail-loving person The Original Scrapbox furniture might be a good option for you, but for the rest of us, there are less overwhelming options that can still have the same result: organized craft space with no visual clutter.

Here are just a few of them. If you have a personal favorite that isn’t on the list, tell us about it in the comments.

Unclutterer’s 2017 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Experience gifts

Today begins our annual Holiday Gift Giving Guide. Between now and November 27, we will share numerous articles on uncluttered giving that can be used this season. Most of these ideas also will apply to gift giving throughout the year, irrespective of the occasion.

Every year, experience gifts are some of our most popular suggestions as they don’t take up space, give the gift-recipient something he or she likely would never do for themselves, and can often be accompanied by something like a book or a post-experience photo album to keep the gift in mind forever.

There are some things to consider, however, before giving an experience gift.

Will your gift be used?

Our friends and family know that we love to travel and love to dine out, so we have often received experience gifts for nights in a hotel, or a romantic dinner out. Several times, however, the gift certificate has almost expired for two reasons:

  • A hotel means leaving the city, which requires organizing a weekend (or a weekday as some gift packs don’t accept weekend reservations – it’s a good idea to check).
  • Leaving the city means spending more money in travel costs and unless the destination is a “wow!” for the gift-receiver, that money spent may feel like an obligation.

Are the choices interesting?

Before you give an experience gift, check out the options of where it can be redeemed. A night in a hotel might sound good, but what if the practical options only include hotels that no one would actually want stay at?

If your experience gift is a membership to a museum or cultural venue, really consider how likely that membership is going to be used. I love museums, but not so much that I would visit the local one more than once or twice a year.

Is the experience something the recipient would actually do?

On another note, the experience gift should be something that the recipient would actually follow through on. Be careful with people who talk a lot. For example, I’ve always been curious about a tranquility tank session, but honestly, I doubt I will ever follow through on that.

Taking all of the above into consideration, here are some ideas that might just be the perfect uncluttered gift for those you love.

A day at the spa: a massage or beauty treatment is something that few people buy for themselves, but almost everyone loves.

A night out: most dinner and a movie (plus an offer of babysitting if the gift-receiver has children).

Adventure gifts: if you choose something like a hot air balloon ride or a skydiving trip, don’t forget to make sure that no one suffers from vertigo.

A course: an amateur chef might love a cooking course, someone who loves hugs might appreciate a massage course, or someone who loves taking pictures might get a lot out of a photography course. Again, however, make sure that the person enjoys taking courses, or it may be a gift that never gets redeemed.

Travel gifts: many of this type of experience gifts require getting to and from the location, but if the person is a dedicated traveller, it might be the perfect complement to an already planned trip.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

The minimalist teacher: improve learning while reducing paper

In a recent interview with teachers about organizing the school year, one of the key organizing challenges was that teachers hold onto too much. It’s a challenge for anyone who works with paper, not just teachers, However, teachers have a harder time, as they are provided with so many paper-based resources for the classroom.

Today’s article is perhaps a bit more academic (pardon the pun!) than is usual here on Unclutterer, but if anyone who imparts knowledge (from teachers to coaches, from health professionals to parents) really wants to help others learn and understand, we need to strip away all the books, papers, and government-mandated programs and focus on the learning itself.

In the English language teaching world, more than a decade ago, teachers took up the challenge of being minimalist, of removing the temptation of focusing on the materials, paring down the classroom to the basics, to developing understanding, and to letting the students guide the content.

This teaching movement, called DOGME (based on the stripped-down filmmaking movement from the 1990s) focuses on ten basic principles.

  1. Interactivity: learning happens from conversation, not one-directional speeches
  2. Engagement: people learn better when they are interested in the topics
  3. Dialogic processes: as Plato told us centuries ago, dialogue helps create understanding
  4. Scaffolded conversations: to go from ignorance to knowledge, building blocks are needed to give people confidence
  5. Emergence: understanding develops from within; it’s not transferred
  6. Components: teachers help learners discover meaning on their own through guiding them through the components of a concept
  7. Voice: students need to feel comfortable and safe communicating
  8. Empowerment: knowledge arises from the ability to express oneself, not necessarily from the ability to read or view materials
  9. Relevance: print or audiovisual materials are only offered as support, not as the centerpiece of learning
  10. Critical use: knowledge is cultural and true learning requires an awareness of our biases (personal, cultural, etc…)

As a minimalist, I love these concepts, not just for teaching, but for all areas of life. In short, learning and understanding come from conversation with others, from an awareness of self and of context, and most importantly from extrapolating personal experiences to new understanding.

I would like to issue a challenge to anyone involved in teaching, not just teachers, but anyone who transfers knowledge:

  • How can you adapt your teaching so that the focus is on the learners and on helping those learners discover for themselves a deeper understanding of the topic you’re teaching?

The minimalist vegetable garden: growing things when you have no space

I grew up vegetable gardening. We had a 25 acre property that had been in my family for decades and my mother always planted a huge garden, full of enough squash, beans, potatoes, carrots, and Swiss chard to get us through the entire winter.

As a university student and an apartment dweller, I didn’t vegetable garden at all. When I got my house in Toronto, I tried it given that I had a large backyard and prefer garden to grass, but all I ended up doing was feeding the neighbourhood raccoons.

I’ve been in Spain a decade now and other than helping out a friend in his garden plot a few towns over, I haven’t done any vegetable gardening at all. My husband loves cacti and our balconies are half full of the easy-to-care-for plants, but he’s not into anything at all edible.

Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s looking out the bedroom window and seeing a large garden plot down below, but I’m getting the itch to do some gardening of my own. However, decorative plants are so not my thing. If I’m going to garden, I want it to be useful and productive. I want to be able to eat what I grow.

Our balconies, though, are not that conducive to vegetables. We’re on the ninth floor and face an ocean-side mountain, meaning that no matter what the weather’s like, there’s a strong breeze whipping by all day long. Plus the protected balcony is too small and already occupied by the beloved cacti, so growing any edible plants there is not really an option.

What’s a wannabe apartment gardener to do then?

I thought I’d give vertical gardening a try. While we don’t have a lot of wall space, we do have quite a lot of ceiling and railing space to hang planters. Amazon has several varieties, such as Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planters that hang from the ceiling, or any number of hanging or self-supporting vertical planters.

I’m never going to get a full vegetable garden in, not even if I opt for square-foot gardening, but I think I might just be able to scratch that itchy green thumb of mine with a few dangling tomato plants, some wall-hugging herbs and maybe a zucchini plant or two elegantly hanging off the inside of the balcony railing.

Any suggestions? Do you have postage-stamp balcony gardens? How do you satisfy your urge to cultivate?

Clutter-free patio furniture ideas

My house has a front porch that runs the full length of the front of the house. The view from inside the house is terrific and uncluttered when there isn’t any patio furniture clogging up the porch. However, there are times when I entertain when having furniture out there would be nice.

Faced with this problem of only sort-of wanting patio furniture, I eventually decided to buy two types of furniture for my porch. The first is what I call indoor-outdoor furniture: pieces that I can use inside my house 99 percent of the time, but that I can take outside without fear of damage from the elements. The second type is what I call temporary furniture: pieces that are inflatable, totally kitsch, and easy to store.

The dual-purpose seating I purchased (which is very easy to clean) helps me both inside with much needed seating and outside during social gatherings. The inflatable furniture easily stores flat when not in use on a utility closet shelf, and also has the bonus of being a great conversation starter.

When looking for outdoor furniture, consider keeping your yard or porch typically clutter free by only using outdoor-indoor furniture and temporary, inflatable pieces.

 

This post was originally published in June 2007.

When it comes to an organized home, does size matter?

I’m a longtime fan of TV home design shows, especially the Love or List franchises. I even watch them here in Spain dubbed into Spanish and several years out of date. As much as I love seeing the transformations, my main reason for watching the shows has nothing to do with the home makeovers at all.

I watch the shows because I love seeing the reactions of Spanish friends and family as the homeowners complain about their lack of space.

Having lived in both cultures, I understand both points of view. I grew up in a 14-room (four bedroom) house on a third of an acre lot. My parents retired to a 5000 square foot home with a separate guest house. My own house in downtown Toronto was over a 1000 square feet with 50×50 ft gardens in front and in back of the house. And half the time, I thought my house was too small for just me!

When I moved to Spain and came upon a completely different mindset.

My first apartment (which I shared with my now-husband) was 270 square feet and we lived there quite happily for over five years (after living there for two years and not killing each other, we decided that marriage was a definite possibility).

The flat we live in now is about 600 square feet and, to be quite honest, is more than large enough for the two of us (and whatever guests might be visiting). In fact, I’m now so accustomed to the size of living spaces here that I have no desire for a large place. When buying a second place for weekends and vacations, we looked at a narrow three-story house in the center of a village, but decided that it was too big, and I’m pretty certain it was under 1000 square feet.

In 2013, the website Shrink the Footprint published an article about average home size around the world and it seems to show that countries with lots of space tend to have larger homes (Canada, USA, Australia).

My Spanish friends and family ask me all the time why North Americans need so much space. “Doesn’t it just generate more clutter?” they ask.

Judging by the majority of houses featured in the typical home makeover programs, the answer seems to be yes, more space equals more clutter.

But, I’m not sure how true that really is. I’ve mentioned before the TV show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, and the majority of the people on the show who live in cluttered spaces have small homes in comparison with a typical North American house.

When asked that question, therefore, I explain that it’s all a matter of mindset and attitude. Yes, more space could encourage more clutter, but only if you let it. Just as a small space might cause someone to cram what he owns into every nook and cranny.

In other words, in my opinion, when it comes to being organized, size does not matter in the least. But that could just be me.

What about you? Is there a link between house size and disorganization?

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.