Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.

Answers to a reader’s four questions

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader wrote in and talked about her four main struggles.

1. Finding pockets of time in the day to do large projects when you have small kids around. For example, I am trying to stain our wooden fence on our own, but I have two children under 3 years old. How can I approach this messy process strategically?

I’ve been in this situation before. I had two young children and my husband was deployed for six months straight with the Canadian Forces. One suggestion would be to find some teenagers you can hire. You can ask around to neighbours and friends or visit the local secondary school or community centre if you don’t know any personally. Some teens would appreciate getting paid for a few hours of work per week painting your fence or keeping your children occupied while you work on the household chores.

Another suggestion might be if you have friends with young children, you can do an exchange. One grown-up looks after all of the children and the other grown-up works on a project. The next time, you switch.

Before engaging someone to assist you, it’s always best to have a plan of what you can accomplish during the time you have. Here are some tips I’ve learned from experience:

  • Always underestimate the amount of work you’ll get done in the time that you have. If you think it will take you two hours to paint the fence, it may really take you four hours. Remember to include set-up and cleanup times in your estimate.
  • Always have a Plan B. If you’ve booked a sitter so you can paint the fence, have an alternative project to work on (e.g. sewing curtains) in case it rains that day.
  • Don’t fret if you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

2. Overcoming analysis paralysis … how do I restore my decision-making confidence and JUST DO IT? For example, hanging art on the wall: it feels like a permanent choice! So I delay!

We’ve written before about improving decision-making skills and how to make the process of decision making easier. Reviewing these posts might help you get over your “analysis-paralysis.”

As someone who has moved houses eight times in 23 years, I can say that nothing is “permanent,” some things might just take a little more effort to change than others. As far as hanging art on the walls, try GeckoTech Reusable Hooks. They are made with a unique synthetic rubber technology that allows them to be used again and again. 3M picture strips are also very handy for hanging artwork without damaging walls. You may also wish to consider the STAS cliprail pro Picture Hanging System.

Apartment Therapy has great tips for hanging artwork so go ahead and make your house a home.

3. Thinking long-term about home projects, while on a budget. We plan to stay in our home a long time, but it needs some love. But our wallets are thin! What should we prioritize: remodeling the kitchen, or taking control of the landscaping? New interior paint job or pressure washing and re-glazing the pebble driveway? What house projects are most important and have lasting impact?

Home renovations can make your home more comfortable, improve your living experience, and increase the value of the home. However, shoddy workmanship or too much “unique customization” may actually decrease the value of your home.

Start with the basics by keeping the home safe and livable. Consider projects that involve your home’s structure (roof, windows, doors, etc.) or mechanical systems (furnace, air conditioning, electrics, plumbing). These upgrades make your home more energy efficient and may actually pay for themselves during the time that you live in the home. Insurance companies may also decrease premiums when you improve wiring, install secure windows, or add an alarm system.

Next, think about making you home more livable. High-end countertops may look good in magazines but more cupboard space may be what your family needs right now. Discuss your ideas with a designer and talk to a few contractors to determine prices and see what fits with your budget. You may decide to do the work yourself, but talking about it with a professional is great for brewing ideas.

Try to build the most flexibility and long-term usefulness into your designs. Remember that children grow quickly, so envision the basement toy room becoming a games room and study area in a few years. Installing the required wiring now will save you time and money later, and may also add a selling feature if you decide to move.

You might be able to do some work yourself, such as painting or installing closet systems. However, because of permits and laws/regulations/codes, most people find it best to hire professionals for tasks requiring plumbing, electrical work, specialized carpentry, and work involving altering the structure of your home (supporting walls, roofs, staircases, etc.).

4. How can we encourage others in our life to take care of their clutter before they leave this earth and give all their clutter to us? This is especially a problem when they don’t think what they have is clutter!

Unfortunately, the value of an item is in the eye of the beholder. Items you might consider clutter, might be of significant value to someone else. It would be difficult to ask someone to part with items that are valuable to him or her. You can’t control another person’s desires, wishes, and attachments to their things.

However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your family members’ items are appreciated once they pass on.

Envision what you want for your family. Are you minimalists? Do you prefer art-deco style furniture? Will you travel? What hobbies do you enjoy or do you wish to start a few new hobbies? It helps to write down the lifestyle you want to lead and then act according to these visions when the time comes.

Prepare a respectful “no thank-you” response now. Chances are you will be offered something you don’t want or you will be told that items are being kept for you. If the item will not fit into your envisioned lifestyle, you will be able to turn it down. For example:

I know [item] is very important to you and it means a lot that you want us to have it after you are gone. But [item] will never replace you or our memories of you. Let’s consider how [item] could best be used and appreciated. Perhaps we should:

  • Consider offering [item] to a [name friend or family member] who would truly appreciate it
  • Donate [item] to charity or museum, where it could be used or appreciated by even more people
  • Sell [item] and either enjoy or donate the money

Sometimes once people find they are no longer obligated to hold an item for you, they are more willing to let it go.

Sorting through sentimental keepsakes

Last week, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader asked:

My mother in law recently moved out of her house and into a small place with medical care and more services than her home could provide. In her process of downsizing, many many items were earmarked for my husband and I. In the spirit of not hurting any feelings, we got a U-Haul and took all the items back to our house. Now, my husband is dealing with guilt and doesn’t want to get rid of hardly anything from his mom’s house. Is there a delicate way to handle this? I’d like to encourage my husband to keep a few choice items and ditch the rest, but its a delicate subject.

It’s definitely a delicate subject, and a familiar one for many people. A few years ago, my family was in a similar situation when my grandfather, who had been living alone for several years, had to move into a place that could properly care for his increasing medical needs. To make the process even more difficult, we had to sell his house as well. He passed away shortly thereafter, and we were left with a lot of stuff.

I can remember my extended family sitting in my aunt’s house surrounded by so much stuff and trying to decide, “Now what?” It seemed like an impossible task. At last I asked myself, “What did grandpa mean to me?” The answer came, “He was an artist.” At that point I knew what I would do.

For years, my grandfather had designed flatware and more for Oneida. He was also an accomplished artist in other mediums, like wood and charcoals. I found some items that represented my overarching impression of my grandfather: a sketch I had long admired, a spoon sample, some early product photos taken for the company, and a sketch.

The sketch, entitled “Winter’s First Snow,” is framed and hangs behind my desk. The spoon, photos, and sketches I had professionally mounted in a shadow box that now hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Both look great and are nice reminders of someone I loved.

We wrote about parting with sentimental clutter a few years ago, and that advice is still very good:

  • Only keep items you’ll display and/or use
  • If you insist on not displaying or using the items, limit items to a number that can fit inside a designated space, like a single chest or keepsake box
  • Remember that items don’t have magical properties, memories do — getting rid of something your loved one owned isn’t getting rid of that person

I’ll add this: identify a specific number of items that best represent your fondest feelings of your loved one and treat those items with the respect and love that those memories deserve. By giving the items a place of honor, you’ll feel that you’ve done right by the fond memories you have.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t force your spouse to get rid of his mother’s things, but you can show him what you think might be a nice alternative to keeping everything. This is also a big adjustment for your husband and it may take time before he can let go of some of the items he doesn’t want to keep. So, with a little time and suggestions from you, you both should be able to come to the right solution for your family.

And, you can remind him that a box in the basement full of items you rarely, if ever, look at is not a fitting tribute to an important person from your life. Two or three items tastefully and beautifully displayed or used in your home, however, shows that you care for, respect, and value the relationship.

Situational disorganization, chronic disorganization, and hoarding

There are many forms of disorganization that span from a few things out of place to hoarding disorders. It’s important to understand the complexities of the range so you can identify if you or others may need/want outside assistance. Below, I’ve identified the three types of disorganization that may want or need to seek out assistance from professionals.

Situational disorganization is due to unforeseen events that temporarily change living or working arrangements. Events that may cause one’s life to be situationally disorganized include:

  • Death or severe illness of a family member, friend or co-worker;
  • Marriage, divorce or re-marriage, especially blending families;
  • Birth or adoption of a child;
  • Parent or adult children moving into the home;
  • Change in employment or partner’s employment, either forced or voluntary;
  • A family member or friend is using the home as a storage facility until he/she stabilizes his/her own situation; and
  • Moving into or out of the home or office.

Even though one’s life may never be quite the same afterwards, organization may be restored relatively easily after the event. Based on the situation, an individual may seek the help of a professional organizer to aid in motivation and strategizing, but may be able to handle the situation on one’s own.

Chronic disorganization is disorganization that has had a long history, undermines one’s quality of life on a daily basis, and is constantly present.

According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, someone may be suffering from chronic disorganization if he/she:

  • Accumulates large quantities of objects, documents, papers or possessions beyond apparent necessity or pleasure
  • Has difficulty parting with things and letting go
  • Has a wide range of interests and many uncompleted projects
  • Needs visual “clues” as reminders to take action
  • Tends to be easily distracted or lose concentration
  • Often has weak time management skills

Chronic disorganization can also be created when people who think or work in an unconventional manner try to use conventional methods of organizing. Although being situationally or chronically disorganized can often result in someone having a hoard of things, it does not classify him/her as a “hoarder”. Similar to situational disorganization, an individual may benefit from working with a professional organizer or may be able to go it alone.

The book Buried in Treasures, indicates compulsive hoarding is thought to be present when all three of the following criteria are met:

  • The person accumulates objects that most people would consider of limited value and the person has a great deal of difficulty parting with those objects;
  • The amount of clutter acquired limits the use of living spaces;
  • The acquiring, owning and discarding of the objects causes considerable stress in the person’s life.

A licensed medical professional usually makes the diagnosis of a hoarding disorder and then prescribes a level of care that can (and almost always) includes working with a professional organizer and an on-going relationship with a licensed medical professional (such as a psychiatrist). Note: As hoarding is a medical disorder requiring on-going care, our website does not provide adequate resources to people with these conditions. Please see the resource section below for sites that can be more helpful.

How can you help someone who is disorganized?

If someone’s chronic disorganization or hoarding issues are affecting your life, it is important to explain how the disorganization affects your relationship with him/her without blaming. Indicate that you are concerned about your relationship with him/her and concerned for his/her well-being. Ask what would be the most effective way you can help in the situation, and please abide by the request.

If you are the person in the situation and you wish to seek outside assistance, you can find professional organizers in your area through the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization‘s directories. If you think you might be a hoarder, begin by talking with your physician. You also can find hoarding resources through the International OCD Foundation.

Regardless of which type of disorganization a person is dealing with, offer encouragement and support. Be compassionate if things don’t go as well as expected and help them celebrate their successes.

A different kind of uncluttering

As we approach the end of the year, I know many people who are uncluttering their homes and offices to start the new year fresh. But there’s another kind of uncluttering you may want to consider: old relationships.

Friendships

There’s someone I knew 30 years ago who I used to keep in touch with through periodic phone calls, at least on her birthday. A few years ago I stopped making the calls, because I realized this was mostly just a habit, and maintaining the relationship (even in this minor way) simply wasn’t important to me any more.

How do you know when it might be time to let a friendship fade away? As organizer Monica Ricci wrote:

Ask yourself, “If I met this person TODAY would they be someone I would choose to engage in a friendship or other relationship with?”

We change over time, so it’s not surprising that our friendships might change, too. Some old friendships endure, while others may not.

Our social time is limited, and choosing who we want to spend our time with may be one of the most important choices we make. I’m willing to have some relationships end so I have more time to spend with those people whose presence in my life I truly treasure.

Social media relationships

I often see people complaining about the things their Facebook friends write, which makes me wonder why they keep these people as Facebook friends. You’re under no obligation to stay connected on Facebook (or any other social media) with people whose words only make you angry on a regular basis. So go ahead and unfriend on Facebook or unfollow on Twitter when that makes sense.

For close family members who you feel an obligation to befriend on social media, things are more complicated. You could unfollow them (Facebook) or mute them (Twitter) so you don’t see their posts — they won’t be notified that you’ve done that, and you’ll no longer see their aggravating comments. But this type of action does bring the risk of missing some important news which they are assuming you’d see.

Business relationships

Have you been using the same service providers (doctor, lawyer, accountant, auto mechanic, veterinarian, barber or hair stylist, etc.) for a long time? Sometimes it’s because the service you receive continues to be outstanding, as with the contractor I’ve used since I bought my house 25 years ago. But other times things change in ways that degrade that service. Businesses change hands, lose key employees, move to new locations that aren’t convenient, and so on. If there’s a key service provider you’re using who you’re not enthusiastic about, consider asking for recommendations for someone new.

Groups of people

As with individuals, the groups of people you fill your life with might need to change over time. Such groups would include spiritual communities, book clubs, professional groups, charitable groups where you volunteer, and more. Such communities always change members over time. If you’re a member of one that is no longer feeling right for you, it may be time to part ways and make space for a new community. You may also feel you’re overcommitted as a member of too many groups, and it’s time to pull back.

Staying organized during a deployment or long-term absence

Many types of employment involve travelling and some jobs require extended stays away from home. For a family that is left behind, extended absences can be very difficult. There is an emotional cycle experienced by the spouse/partner that can be nerve-wracking, especially when the emotional distress of children (even pets) is added.

As a military family, we’ve lived through numerous periods when my husband was deployed for several months at a time. The following are a number of ways our family has managed over the years that can be helpful to others in similar situations to stay organized before, during, and after a separation.

Pre-separation

Task assignment: Work together and determine the priority tasks during the separation and who will accomplish these tasks. For example, if the departing partner always ensured the car was serviced, the task may be rescheduled so that it occurs before or after the separation or it could be assigned to the staying-home partner. Contractors could be hired for some tasks such as gardening, pool maintenance, and snow removal.

Contingency plan: Establish plans in case an emergency arises such as an accident or medical emergency. The plan should list whom to call to mind the children or look after pets and how to contact the departing partner. Inform trusted friends, neighbours, and the children’s school of the contingency plan.

Departure

Clear the calendar: A few weeks prior to the separation there may be extra shopping trips to buy last minute items, medical appointments, or business meetings. Avoid taking on additional responsibilities at this time. Examine your calendar and see what non-priority items can be cancelled or rescheduled until after the departure.

Separate stuff: Keep items needed for the departing person separate from the rest of the household goods. This may require the departing person to take over an entire room to ensure all the required items are packed. Keep receipts for any items purchased for the separation in a clearly labelled file. You may be able to claim some expenses through your employer or on your income taxes.

Acknowledge your feelings: During this particularly chaotic time, there may be a lack of organization and a build up of clutter. Recognize this is normal and, as my mother is fond of saying, “This too shall pass.”

Separation

Disorganization: For the staying-home partner, feelings of relief, guilt, and being overwhelmed are common. This emotional turmoil often results in disorganization because decision-making is difficult when feeling these intense emotions. Recognize that these feelings are normal and take steps to get your life back into control. It may be beneficial to call a friend, extended family member, or professional organizer to help you banish the disorganization.

Keep the clutter: The staying-home partner may be very tempted to take advantage of the separation and eliminate the clutter of the travelling partner. DO NOT DO THIS! The staying-home partner has been entrusted with the care and protection of the travelling partner’s goods. To dispose of those goods will undermine the long-term trust of the partnership. If the clutter is truly impairing the effective functioning of the home, communicate with the travelling partner that you will carefully box and label the items and put them in storage. The travelling partner can review and make decisions on the items on his/her return.

Homecoming

Clear the calendar: Just as during the departure preparations, clear time on your calendar for the homecoming preparations. Cancel or reschedule some events to give the travelling partner time to integrate back into the routine. If the travelling partner will be suffering from jet lag, allow him/her at a few days to be fully functional. The returning partner may be required to schedule health appointments or have a few extra business meetings, so allow time for this.

Make a space: The returning partner will need some space to unpack on arrival. Returning items should be cleaned and properly stored or re-integrated into the household. If there is no need for certain items in the foreseeable future, make plans to sell or donate these items. This process may take several weeks. Patience is important.

Task re-assignment: Work together to determine who will accomplish certain tasks now that the partnership has been re-established. Perhaps the travelling partner realized a love of gardening and wishes to continue with that task. The travelling partner may have a renewed interest in preparing foreign cuisine.

Review the clutter: If the staying-home partner packed away items of the travelling partner during the separation, these items should be reviewed. It is best to wait until the travelling partner has had time to adjust to being home and new routines have been established before taking on this task.

The absence of a partner can be stressful, however, by understanding the emotional cycle — and a little bit of planning and organization — the stress can be minimized.

Rules of organized people

Lately, Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown and I have been sending each other links to humorous articles about people who come up as the INTJ type on the Meyers-Briggs personality test. Both Jacki and I are this rare result (fewer than 3 percent of females), and although we don’t put a huge amount of stake in these test results, we both nod our heads and smile when we read articles describing traits that are common to our INTJ type.

It is in this same vein that I present these rules of being organized. Obviously, they aren’t laws and don’t all apply exactly to everyone who is organized. Rather, they’re a trend. They’re a fun way to get a big picture view of how people who are organized live. As we do with the INTJ personality descriptions, feel welcome to nod and smile as you read through this list, but please stop short of printing it out and handing it to someone demanding they adopt each of these rules. (Although, my INTJ personality does love a good checklist …)

Rules for being organized

  1. Know yourself. Organized people typically know themselves very well. They know how they access information and goods and create storage systems that reflect these preferences. They know how many steps is too many for them to maintain order. They know how they prefer to work and live. They know what they need, and what they don’t need. They know their responsibilities. Most importantly, they know what they want in life and what their priorities are.
  2. Being organized is not the goal. People who are organized are not organized for the sake of being organized. They are organized so they can enjoy the benefits of being organized. An organized life is their way of getting rid of distractions so they can focus on what matters most to them.
  3. Expect to fail. No one is organized in every aspect of their life every day of their life. People fall off the organized wagon. The difference between organized and disorganized people, however, is that organized people accept this as part of the process and simply start again. We’re human; we don’t have super powers.
  4. A place for everything, and everything in its place. People who are organized have a place to store every single item they have in their home. If something doesn’t have a storage place, it will always be out of place and in the way. Each shirt needs a hanger or a space in a drawer. If there isn’t enough room to store all of your shirts, there will always be dirty laundry or clean laundry hanging out in a hamper. If shoes don’t have a place to live, they will wind up in the middle of the living room floor or in a heap by the door.
  5. Write it down. This could also be stated as “capture it” or “type it in.” The point is that organized people get their to-do items out of their heads and onto a list or calendar so they don’t worry about dropping the ball. No need to remember you have a dentist appointment on Thursday when you can just look at your calendar and see that it’s scheduled on Thursday. Your mental resources are free to think about important problems/happy thoughts/complex issues instead of when, six months from now, you should be at your dentist’s office.
  6. Routines are the backbone of organization. Organized people have routines worked into their days to take care of the boring, repetitive, and/or undesirable tasks. At the end of a work day, the desk is cleared, tomorrow’s calendar and to-do lists are reviewed, and the desk is set so it is ready to go the next morning so work can begin immediately. After school, the kids pull out their lunch boxes and put them on the kitchen counter and then have a snack high in protein before settling in to do their homework. At bedtime, the kids take a bath, put on their pajamas, have no more than three books read to them (which have been chosen prior to the bath), and then it is lights out at the same time every night. Actions are dependable and familiar and provide stability.
  7. Follow through and don’t delay. Organized people don’t see dinner as being finished when the last bite of food is swallowed. Organized people see dinner as being finished when the table is cleared and wiped down, the floor has been swept, all dirty dishes have been loaded into the dishwasher, and the dishwasher is started. Wrapping a present isn’t finished when the bow is placed on the package but only after all supplies — tape, wrapping paper — have been properly stored. If anything can be done in less than two minutes, it will be done straight away instead of putting it on a to-do list.
  8. Do your part. Organized people tend to see that they are part of a unit or team instead of a lone wolf. This means, if they share a house with someone, they know they have responsibilities about cleaning, caring, and maintaining the home simply because they live there. They try not to make work for other people and do what has been assigned to them. Or, if they are in charge of assigning work, they know that everyone involved has a stake in the project/home/team/etc. and thus make sure everyone has responsibilities reflecting their abilities to contribute.
  9. Don’t own a lot of superfluous stuff. When organized people cease having a need for something, they typically get rid of it. They only keep what they value or use.
  10. Trust in the future. Most organized people trust that in the future they will be able to either buy, borrow, or acquire the tools they will need when they need them. Saving an unnecessary object just in case isn’t really an organized person’s style. That being said, an organized person does tend to have things that are useful and necessary on hand when they are needed. For example, toilet paper rarely runs out in an organized person’s home because systems are in place for storing and replacing toilet paper as demand requires. An organized person will likely have one shelf in a linen closet designated for toilet paper storage and when supply depletes beyond a certain point, toilet paper will be added to the shopping list. Conversely, an organized person doesn’t buy more toilet paper than can fit on the toilet paper storing shelf just because there is a deal. Other deals will come and an organized person trusts that he will take advantage of those other deals when he needs more toilet paper.
  11. You are not your things and your things don’t contain souls. Organized people aren’t heartless creatures who never feel anything sentimental toward a physical object. In fact, they might be sentimental fools. This being said, they are rational enough to know that grandpa is not IN the painting he left them after he died. They know that the baby blanket they saved for their child is not their child. If they get rid of the object or if the object is destroyed in a fire, their memories still exist and they still love grandpa and their child.
  12. It’s better to have a tree than a forest. Sometimes I phrase this as “quality over quantity.” Either way, organized people tend to keep the best object (best, obviously, being subjective to the keeper) instead of all the objects. Instead of keeping a five inch stack of their child’s artwork from kindergarten, they keep their favorite piece and hang it on the wall or store it in an archival quality way. Instead of printing every photograph from a favorite vacation and hanging all 427 images on the wall, they frame their one favorite image or use it as their screensaver on their computer.
  13. Being organized isn’t for everyone, it’s a choice only you can make for yourself. Simply stated, you can’t force someone to be organized. Not everyone has a desire to be organized. There are multiple paths to a happy, fulfilled life, and being organized is just one path to that goal. You can certainly teach others about how to be organized and you can let them see the benefits you garner from being organized, but you can’t force someone into being organized. And, harboring resentment toward others for not being organized only clutters up your time. Accept their decision, no matter how much it frustrates you. Maybe one day they will come around to your way of seeing things and they will be more likely to ask for your help if they’re not mad at you for being a jerk to them when they weren’t.
  14. Anyone can be organized. Being organized is a skill set, it is not a natural ability — it’s nurture, not nature. It certainly comes more easily to some people, but that doesn’t mean an organized life is impossible to achieve if it comes slowly to someone else. Being organized takes practice, same as a sport.

How to deal with unwanted gifts

You’ve done your best to minimize the wrong-for-you gifts. Perhaps you’ve politely discouraged gift-giving in general or you’ve directed people to the types of gifts that would be welcome. But, you still may wind up with well-intentioned gifts that totally miss the mark for you. So, what do you do?

Express your thanks

You may not be thankful for the gift itself, but you are thankful for the love, friendship, and/or camaraderie that was behind the gift.

As Richie Frieman said: “If someone took time to consider, buy, and wrap a gift for you, they deserve your gratitude, regardless of what’s inside the wrapping.”

Don’t feel obligated to keep it

“The bottom of my wardrobe is stuffed with thoughtful but unwanted gifts,” wrote a commenter on The Frugal Graduate.

This is a pretty common situation, and it seems so sad to me. Having a bunch of stuff shoved into closets or buried in basements doesn’t do anything good for anyone. As Deron Bos said on Twitter: “Your friends gave you the gift to bring you joy. If it doesn’t, imagine that their love also grants donating it to others for another try.”

Are you afraid the gift-givers will inquire about those gifts, especially if they don’t see them being used? As Erin noted a few years ago, most givers will never ask you about the item. Some gift recipients choose to have some white lies prepared, in case they are asked. These suggested responses were mentioned by commenters on Apartment Therapy:

“Well, a friend of mine saw it and was absolutely smitten with it, and frankly although it was lovely it wasn’t quite my taste, so I gave it to him/her.”

“It got broken in the last move, unfortunately.”

Here’s a slightly different approach, which tries to prevent future off-the-mark gifts:

“I shamelessly blame my cats for knocking it over or throwing up on it. Then I say, ‘It was such a sweet present, but maybe, given those rascally cats, we should just go out to brunch next year.'”

And another Apartment Therapy reader chose to be more blunt:

“We addressed it head on by saying, when someone asks where that hideously freakish tchotchke they’d gifted happens to reside, that it found a happy home through eBay and the proceeds went to benefit the local animal shelter or food bank in their name.”

Real Simple summarizes it well: “When you receive a present,” says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan “… your duty is to receive it and thank the giver — not to keep the gift forever.”

Remember there are always exceptions.

Example: You enjoy doing extensive holiday decorations. A beloved family member, who usually selects great gifts, buys you a decorative item for your collection. It’s not hideous, but it’s definitely not your taste. But, it’s only going to be on display for a few weeks each year, it doesn’t have to be center stage, and the beloved family member will be delighted to see it gracing your home each year when she stops by at the holidays.

There are no absolutes; sometimes we do choose to keep something because that makes someone else happy or avoids hurting someone’s feelings. But, in most cases, we can keep the warm wishes behind the gift, and exchange the gift itself or move it along to a better home.

One step toward uncluttering: get rid of the things that make you feel bad

The things we own don’t just serve utilitarian or decorative purposes; many of them also have an emotional connection with us.

When I look at the pictures on the walls of my office, they bring back memories of fantastic vacations and they make me smile. I have four coffee mugs that were gifts from people I care about, and they constantly remind me of these wonderful people.

But, sometimes we wind up owning things that don’t have such good associations. Our things might remind of us of sad times, of people who weren’t kind to us, of the company that laid us off, etc.

Often, we haven’t articulated to ourselves just how an item makes us feel. Once we do, it’s much easier to decide if it’s something we want to keep in our lives.

The following is part of a story from Derek Powazek about his relationship with a handmade coffee mug that he had for years, including some years that involved a relationship that ended badly:

I was now living in a new place, with a new love. And a decade and a half later, that old black and purple mug was still in my hand every morning.

But now … it just made me feel bad on a barely conscious level. It reminded me of the failed relationship that nearly broke me.

So one morning, as I waited for the coffeemaker to finish its burbling with that old mug in my hand, I looked around my new kitchen, in my new life, with a new woman who loved me, and I realized it was time to stop holding on to things that hurt.

In Clutter’s Last Stand, Don Aslett wrote about “aftermath junk” — what you get from “keeping something to remind you of a terrible experience, like the knife that cut the tendon in your hand, that old cast, your kidney stones, your ex-boyfriend’s insulting letter and even his frayed jacket, the cleats you were wearing when you scored the goal for the other team and lost the national tournament.”

It isn’t just things with negative associations that can make us feel bad. I once owned a lovely painting of a little girl, given to me by people I love. But, after a number of years, I realized she always looked sad to me, and I didn’t want pictures of sad people in my home. I gave the painting away to someone who didn’t have the same reaction I did and could therefore appreciate it much more.

Sometimes the thing making you feel bad is an unwise purchase, so you have what Gretchen Rubin calls “buyer’s remorse clutter.” However, as Cindy Jobs explained, “Unfortunately, keeping a bad purchase doesn’t make it a better purchase.”

As we move toward the end of the year, consider taking some time to remove anything in your space that makes you feel bad, for whatever reason. As Erin said back in April 2012: “Keep only objects that bring you happiness. Life is too short to surround yourself with sorrow and pain.”

Keeping your head above water when you’re exhausted and/or going through a major life change

As a parent with an infant at home, I haven’t been getting much sleep. Oddly, though, I’m incredibly happy to be exhausted. Even when she’s screaming at 2:00 in the morning for a bottle and a diaper change, I’m smiling. We waited so long for her and having her in our family is an incredible blessing.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the exhaustion is taking its toll, however. I wrote an email to my mom, never hit send, and then wondered for a few days why she didn’t respond — all the while the drafted email was just sitting on my computer’s desktop, staring me in the face. Clean laundry is hanging out on the bed in our guest room, waiting to be put away. And, those of us in the house with teeth, well, we have eaten more pizza for dinner in the last month than we had in the previous six months combined.

Thankfully, I know this exhaustion will pass as our daughter gets older. She’ll start sleeping through the night and I’ll stop trying to open the front door of the house with the car key. In the meantime, there are steps I’ve been taking to keep things from spinning out of control that I thought might be able to help other new parents as well as anyone going through a major life event or bout of exhaustion.

Embrace chaos in the minor priorities

I have an infant, a four year old, a full-time job, and numerous other responsibilities to care for right now, and very little energy. The energy I have is going toward the things that must be done, and pretty much zero energy is being spent on other things. I’ve resigned from a committee I was serving on that I enjoyed but that my participation isn’t essential to the success of the committee. I haven’t made my bed in the last month except for the two times I’ve changed the sheets. My pile of filing and scanning is three inches high. When my energy levels return, I’ll resume taking care of the minor priorities in my life. Until then, oh well …

If you are unclear as to which priorities in your life are major and which are minor, take a few minutes to list them. What deserves your attention right now? What doesn’t? Be honest with yourself and remember you’re only human and you lack super powers.

Hire, accept, and ask for help

My mother-in-law stayed with us the first week after our daughter was born. A cleaning crew has come to the house twice to clean the toilets and floors and to dust. Next week, I’ll be hiring the neighbor boys to rake the leaves in the yard and do the last mowing of the season. I can’t do it all and I’m not about to let pride or having things done my way get in the way of my family’s sanity.

Also, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that people cannot read your mind. If you need help, you have to ask for it. If someone offers to bring your family dinner, you have to respond to the person who made the offer that you think this is a great idea and then provide them a date, time, and information about any food allergies. Now is not the time to be polite for the sake of being polite and decline the offer if you actually would like the help. If you are overwhelmed by a project at work and everything else going on at home, you need to tell your coworkers/boss that you are overwhelmed and ask for help to rectify the situation. Don’t just wish for someone to help you, ask for help if you need it.

Simplify tasks

I have an inbox for each of my children that is collecting stuff I want to keep or remember for later, but don’t have the time to process right this moment. For my daughter, I’ve been writing important milestones on notecards and tossing the notecards in the box to eventually be recorded in her baby book. “Rolled over unassisted first time 10/16” is on one of the cards, for example. Yes, I could just write the information into the baby book now, but getting out and putting the book away each time I want to record something isn’t going to happen. Writing on a note card is more my speed. It’s all about the bare minimum right now.

On the television show Holmes on Homes, host Mike Holmes often points out that other people’s work has been done to “minimum code.” He means the contractor or plumber or whomever only did the work the law required, and nothing else. This phrase has made its way into our family’s regular dialog when we want to refer to doing something as easily as possible, and nothing more. Minimum code is now how we make lunch and dinner — a protein and a vegetable. Minimum code is how we take care of the car — put gas in it when the tank is low. Minimum code is how we maintain the house — put stuff away after using it, but let a cleaning crew take care of the rest. Be realistic about what you will do and simplify tasks to minimal code.

Hit pause

Now is not the time to become commissioner of the softball league or volunteer to spearhead the silent auction for the annual PTA fundraiser. It’s also not a good time to make a major life decision. Get through this period of exhaustion and then start adding new things to your life and contemplating your next move. This wave is temporary and you just need to ride it out.

Obviously, the advice doesn’t stop here. Please feel welcome to share valuable lessons you have learned from being ridiculously exhausted in the post’s comment section. I’m certainly looking for even more ways to reduce stress and streamline processes right now and I know there are many readers out there who could benefit as well.

What to do when one person abhors clutter and the other attracts it

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage “opposites attract.” In my experience with home organizing, I’ve found that opposites do attract more often than not. One person is usually a neatnik — thrilled by clear surfaces and closet organization. The other is a pack rat — inspired by the endless potential of stuff, glorious stuff! When these two extremes live together, sooner or later, conflicts arise. How can you make it work? Surprisingly, it has very little to do with the stuff itself and a lot to do with mindset.

The first trick is to realize that neatniks and pack rats are two completely different species, so to make living together harmonious, you need to think about habitats. A bird and a fish may be able to live comfortably in the same house, but not in the same container. Put the bird in the bowl and she’ll drown. Put the fish in the cage and she’ll asphxiate. To make it work, both parties must agree on a standard for common areas and carve out a place where one can sing and the other can swim.

Nine steps to create a co-habitable household:

  1. Agree to the acceptable uses for shared areas. For example, you might agree that the living room is to be used for watching TV, reading, and playing games.
  2. Remove anything that is not associated with those activities from the shared area. In the example of the living room, this would mean no craft supplies, dishes, laundry, or egg incubators.
  3. Create specific homes for everything that belongs in the shared room — a bookcase for books, a drawer for videos, a cabinet for games. Labeling makes it easier for visual people to remember what goes where.
  4. Return each item to its home after each use. If it doesn’t have a home, it can’t stay.
  5. Make a sign to hang at the entrance of the room:

    THIS ROOM IS FOR WATCHING TV, READING, AND PLAYING GAMES
    Anything not used for these purposes must stay away!

  6. Anyone breaking the rule can be fined. Use the money to hire a cleaner or go out to dinner.
  7. Set aside a few minutes each day to patrol the room. Use a hamper or basket to collect items that don’t belong. If something has a home elsewhere, put it back. If not, hold an “auction” to give household members a chance to bid on it. If they buy it, they have to find a home for it.
  8. Anything not bid on is going … going … gone! Same for anything that repeatedly ends up back in the basket. Take these items to a local charity and feel good about having fewer items to take care of.
  9. Find at least one place in the home for neatniks to live unfettered by clutter and one place for pack rats to stash their collections. Respect these separate spaces!

How to stay positive when the going gets tough:

No matter how successful you are at establishing shared and separate zones, you are still likely to run into differences of opinion about both. Before becoming combative over any stuff-related arguments, remember why you are together — love, money, you lost the key to the handcuffs, whatever. The point is, there is a reason you are living together. Remembering that reason may help you calm down when you are feeling frustrated. Try the practice of gratitude, in which you intentionally focus on the blessings in your life, no matter how small. This makes less room in your head and heart for the negative voices and can improve your patience and sense of well-being. When you are in a good place, you are less likely to say snarky things that will get the other person’s defenses up. Let me assure you, once the defenses are up, change is just not going to happen.

Lastly, consider the fact that objects are like ink blots. Rarely do two people see the same thing and what they do see depends largely on past experiences and perspective. The overflow of crafting supplies looks like crazy-making chaos to one person, but is a beautiful harmony of endless potential to another. The clear counter-tops that make one partner hum with contentment remind the other of a sterile hospital stay when no one came to visit. So you must be patient with each other. Say what you see and ask the other person to do the same. Try to see the space through each other’s eyes, and, please, keep your sense of humor. If you need an outside perspective, ask a neutral third party or hire a home organizer or other professional to be your mediator.

With large doses of patience and humor, you will be able to see the other’s sleek scales or resplendent plumage and recognize how truly glorious our differences make us.

It is important to note that if the health and safety of household members is compromised by behavior at either end of the spectrum, the above strategies are not enough. Please consult a professional with licensed credentials in these extreme circumstances.

Ask Unclutterer: One person’s gift is your latest frustration

Reader SK submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have recently moved into a smaller apartment and have uncluttered most of our belongings … My problem is that my parents recently gifted us a new vacuum cleaner, complete with cord, attachments, and replaceable belts. We are pretty happy with our little cordless rechargeable vacuum and told my parents so — bookending this information with thanks and appreciation to be polite. My dad insisted that this new vacuum is better — picks up more dirt, etc. We don’t really care. Normally, this is a no brainer, say thank you and quietly return the gift — but Dad comes up every week to watch my daughter and will notice and comment on the new vacuum’s absence. (Mom’s already said she’ll give me the receipt and it’s fine if we want to return it) I’ve already explained the no space situation, but he dismissed the concern. Returning this thing is going to cause some hurt feelings and awkward, difficult conversations — please help!

This is one of those situations where I can’t give you a “do this and be happy” response. But, I’ll give you some ideas that might be able to spark a solution that will be the right one for you and your family.

Option 1: Ask your parents to care and store the vacuum in their home since you don’t have the space in yours. You can borrow it when you really need it for twice-yearly deep cleanings or before a party, but the rest of the time your parents can benefit from having it and using it in their home. Since your dad comes to visit once a week, you must live close to each other, so transporting it shouldn’t be that big of deal. And, if your dad balks and says he already has a vacuum and doesn’t need this fancy one for his house, he’ll at least be more empathetic to your situation.

Option 2: Return it and immediately have a conversation with your dad explaining that you returned it and why. Offer to give him his money back. His feelings will be hurt, but he’s a grownup and will eventually get over it. You’re not returning his love, you’re returning a vacuum.

Option 3: Buck up and keep the vacuum. To find space for the new vacuum, go through your home and decide what you value less than your relationship with your dad, and get rid of that item and the rechargeable vacuum you currently own. Then, let go of your animosity. Use the new vacuum and think fond memories of your father and your relationship with him.

Option 4: Check the comments to this post for even more suggestions from our readers.

Thank you, SK, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m honestly not sure what I would do in this situation. I hope that you find the right solution for you and your family.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.