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:

    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.

Four ways to manage work-life challenges

It’s Valentine’s Day, and so a lot of people are focused on romance. But, what happens after the day is done? How do you keep focused on an important relationship when “things go back to normal?” A recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggests that finding the right (dare I say) balance between your work and personal lives can be difficult, particularly for entrepreneurs.

When starting a business, managing a relationship with a significant other can be tough. Entrepreneurs often need to work long hours, weekends and holidays. They may have to travel unexpectedly and answer calls in the middle of the night. That kind of dedication — combined with the emotional highs and lows commonly associated with starting a business — can take a toll on an entrepreneur’s love life.

The article goes on to say how frustrating it can be for those in relationships with entrepreneurs, particularly when their partners estimate that “a business task will take just a minute when in reality it takes a few hours.” Sound familiar? Of course, work-life challenges are not unique to business owners.

Whether you work for yourself or someone else, there are specific steps you can take to create some boundaries between your work and personal responsibilities. That’s not to say that there won’t be hiccups along the way, but if you incorporate one or more of the strategies listed below, you’re likely to notice an improvement in how well you manage both your personal and business lives. Where should you begin? A good starting point is to come up with a reasonable plan:

Create ground rules

The hectic nature of one’s job probably will not go away, but you do have some control over the frequency with which business tasks interrupt your personal time. Create and stick to some general rules of thumb that you find reasonable to follow, like putting away your cell phone while having dinner with your family or limiting business calls and emails while you’re on vacation. You can practice unplugging from your mobile phone by turning it off (or leaving it in another room) for short periods and then work your way up to longer time frames.

Create a realistic schedule

It’s not very probable that you can completely turn off all thoughts about work. On the other hand, you can’t realistically spend every waking moment working. Set a reasonable schedule and consider creating blocks of time when you’re “on” and when you’re “off.” It’s also a good idea to test out the schedule that you come up with. Can you stop working at 6 pm, spend time with your significant other for two hours, and then continue working for another two hours? You’ll probably need to try out several scenarios before finding the one that works best for you.

Share your calendar

A calendar (digital or paper) can help keep close friends and family members up to date on times when you’ll be unavailable. If there’s an important project that will require quite a bit of your attention, the calendar is a great way to communicate that. That way, you’ll reduce the possibility of having personal events scheduled during times when your focus needs to primarily be on work tasks. You’ll also be able to pinpoint and block off the best opportunities for personal activities (vacations, daily personal time).

Find alternate ways to get things done

Business owners sometimes get caught in the trap of doing everything themselves. Sure, there may be things that only the company owner can do. But, there are a myriad of other things that can be delegated either to a business partner, virtual assistant, or an intern. You can also use technology tools to streamline processes and automate some tasks. And, of course, there are a number of apps you can rely on to help you be productive once it’s time to get back to work.

Ask Unclutterer: Identifying common uncluttering goals in a relationship

Reader Jay submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My wife and I agree that our house is much, much too cluttered. I have been saying it for years, and now that we have two kids and about 5-kids’ worth of toys, she agrees with me.

The problem is that we don’t see eye-to-eye on how to accomplish our goal, to find our house livable. She thinks we have an appropriate amount of stuff, just that we have nowhere to put it. I think we have much too much stuff. Her solution is to put shelves around the house to store the things that are out. I have at least two problems with that. The first is that we have shelves. They are just already filled with stuff! … the second problem is if I add shelves, we will just acquire more stuff, and they will become like the shelves we have …

The clutter has gotten so bad that I hate coming home from work some days. The house never gets “straightened” and certainly never gets cleaned. (It’s not dirty, just only ever gets surface cleaned – swept, basically) … This can’t be an uncommon problem.

Jay, I think there are many readers who can sympathize with your situation. You are frustrated. The clutter is increasing your stress and anxiety levels, and it has left you feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been there and remember well how it feels. And, if what you say in your first paragraph is true, your wife empathizes with you. You might not yet see the same solution, but you definitely see the same problem — clutter!

Lucky for you both, you have a partner with which to battle the clutter. And I’m not sure how old your kids are, but you might also have two wonderful little helpers to join your team. Right now, you feel like it’s you against the clutter and you against the others in your home. It’s not. The humans are a team, and that team can be victorious against the clutter.

You should start by figuring out exactly what you want. Both of you can head to the library, grab a bunch of home, design, and architecture magazines, and flip through the pictures. With your cell phone or a digital camera, snap images of your favorite rooms. Don’t snap pictures of specific solutions, snap pictures of entire rooms you like. After 30 or 40 minutes, call it quits and head home.

Look at the pictures you both took. Talk about why you like the images. What caught your eye? How do the rooms make you feel? What is it about those spaces that you think could work for you? How much clutter is in the images? How much storage is in each room? Do either of you have images the other person likes, too?

Once you have identified common themes that work for both of you, take pictures of your current space and review them. Then, compare your current space to the images you both like that you found in the magazines. What is different? What changes could you make to your space to give it the feel of the images from the magazines?

You don’t need to remodel, move, or even buy a piece of furniture to move toward your common goal. Aim for recreating the sense of the images you like, not recreating the actual room. You need to have a common goal for how you want the space to be when you’re finished, so you will know how to get to that goal.

Uncluttering your home is going to be something you and your wife and kids tackle together. I recommend setting aside 30 minutes each night after dinner to work on a specific room. Play upbeat music while you work and have fun together. You’re getting rid of clutter — enjoy it! You won’t get rid of all the clutter in 30 minutes, but you’ll make a dent and the next night you can do more and the next night even more. Create piles for keeping and purging (throwing away, recycling, donating to charity, giving to a friend). Just remember, only keep the things that meet the vision of your ideal place. You might get rid of a little or you might get rid of a lot — it doesn’t matter, as long as it meets your goal.

Our site is full of articles about the actual logistics of uncluttering and organizing. Head to the search engine in the middle column and type in words for specific problems you encounter, and it’s likely we have written about that topic already. For a primer on these subjects:

Get a vision of where you want to go together, and you can get there together. If this method doesn’t work, I suggest bringing in a professional. A professional organizer can help you better define your common goals, and if a professional organizer doesn’t work your next step would be to go to some marriage counseling sessions to talk about your goals more in depth. Until you discover a common goal, though, you’re both going to continue to be frustrated by the clutter.

Thank you, Jay, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was was helpful to you and be sure to check the comments for even more great ideas from our readers.

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.

Ask Unclutterer: Other people’s stuff cluttering up our space

Reader Mip submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I checked the archives, but couldn’t find anything quite like this. My boyfriend and I are moving into a room in an apartment that has two other roommates. Despite the consolidating of two people’s stuff into one room, we have a problem: my boyfriend has three siblings, and they’ve accidentally left a lot of their stuff.

There’s very little chance that they’re going to come by and pick stuff up since one’s deployed with the Navy, and the other two live a minimum eight hours away, and are extremely busy. A lot of this stuff is just not useable to us — for example, they left us a guitar that neither of us can play. It’s taken up the whole room, and it’s just a mess. What’s the best way to store this stuff so that we can have a room of our own, but still keep all of their stuff out of the way?

This is one of those times when I will give advice and the majority of the commenters to the post will strongly disagree with me. Mip, you may even have a negative reaction to my response. However, please know I’m not an insensitive troll. I understand how this sort of thing happens, but it’s hard enough to deal with our personal clutter. Voluntarily taking on another person’s (or, in your case people’s) clutter — when that person is alive and well and of sound mind and physical ability to care for his or her own belongings — it is completely unfair, in my opinion.

So what is the advice you’re likely to deem heartless? I believe your boyfriend should contact his siblings and let them know that if the stuff isn’t picked up by X date, he’ll sell the stuff and send them the money minus a small fee for handling the sales. The date he chooses should probably be two months in the future, so his siblings have a realistic amount of time to retrieve the items. And, with the holidays coming up on the calendar, it is more likely their paths will cross in that timeframe.

For the two not in the Navy, if they really want the stuff, they’ll ask him to send it to them (at their expense) or come and pick up the stuff in person. If they don’t retrieve the stuff, they do not want it, irrespective of what they say. No one “accidentally” leaves a bunch of stuff at someone’s house and then makes no effort to get that important stuff back. It is not a priority for them if they cannot figure out a way to get their things or to pay for them to be shipped in a two-month period. (Again, I’m assuming they are mentally and physically healthy and are fully functioning adults. Different standards would apply if one of them were in the hospital or a rehabilitation facility, for example.)

The sibling who is in the Navy is a bit more difficult of a situation, but if he/she is on active duty, it will be years before he/she will likely have room to store the items. The items should be sold or the sibling needs to start paying for a storage facility for the items. Living in the Washington, D.C., area, I know numerous active duty members of the Navy at various ranks and types of enlistment, and all of them use storage units when they are deployed. When my father was on active duty in the Navy, he had one trunk of stuff at his parents’ house — but his parents lived in a giant farm house, and not a single room. If the person in the Navy is responsible enough to protect the people of our nation, he or she is responsible enough to take care of his or her personal possessions in such a way that it doesn’t burden his sibling.

Also, it’s not hard or all that expensive to ship a guitar (usually under $100) to the sibling who left this with your boyfriend. There are numerous sites on the Web that detail how to ship musical instruments safely, if your boyfriend is unaware of how to make this happen.

Simply stated, your home is not a place for other people’s clutter. His siblings are being disrespectful and if the stuff really mattered to them, they already would have it with them or in a storage unit.

Thank you, Mip, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for more insights from our readers, as they will very likely be different opinions than mine, and certainly worth considering their viewpoints.

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.

Four strategies to use when helping someone unclutter

When you need to unclutter, getting help from someone else can make the task seem less daunting. Sometimes, all you might need is another person who can be in the room with you while you actually do the sorting and categorizing of your items, which in the industry we refer to as an accountability partner. You might even be very willing to assist when you’re called upon to help a friend, family member, or colleague with getting more organized. Though it’s helpful to keep rules of thumb in mind, you’ll also want to remember that organizing another person’s items is not exactly the same as sorting through your own belongings.

To give yourself the chance to offer the best help possible, first …

Establish goals

Before embarking on any uncluttering project, you likely come up with one or two goals and then figure out the steps needed to achieve them. When you’re helping someone else unclutter, you will also want to establish goals — not yours, but theirs. Having a goal (or goals) gives you both direction and a path to follow. Since you are there to be supportive, you first need to know what the desired result is (clear the floor around my bed, get rid of paper clutter from my desk and create a desktop filing system, get my car back in the garage).

Helpful strategies:

  • Get a clear picture of what they want to accomplish and consider having a quick meeting over the phone or in person to discuss it. Talking it through can help you both make a solid and reasonable plan of attack.
  • Find out if he/she has a deadline in mind. This will help you understand how much needs to be done and figure out if indeed you have the time to help.

Understand that uncluttering can be an emotional process

When you’re organizing your things, there are times that you probably find yourself feeling motivated, surprised, productive, overwhelmed, and everything in between. You can go through a range of emotions at varying points in the process. Chances are, the friend or family member you’re helping will also take a ride on the same emotional roller coaster. And, those feelings may be heightened because they now have another person (you) present. Yes, they know you care about them, but by sharing the experience with you, it can feel as if they’re exposing their deepest, darkest secret (and perhaps they are).

Helpful strategies:

  • If the person you’re helping begins to feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, reassure them you’re not judging them and you genuinely want to help.
  • If emotions start to run high, stop and take a break so you can both regroup. Before jumping back in, re-focus on the goal(s) that were established. Pause after a reasonable amount of time so you can see which action items you’ve completed and which ones you will move to next.

Be patient as you facilitate the process

When you’re working with someone else, you’ll likely want to exercise more patience than you’re expecting to, particularly if the process doesn’t move along as quickly as you would like. For example, although you may know the person you’re helping very well, you’ll still need to ask if you can throw things away, even if those items seem like trash to you. To help keep yourself from immediately acting on items, think about how you would feel if the roles were reversed and someone else (seemingly) took ownership of your belongings. That’s not the impression you intend to give, but that may be how it is perceived.

Helpful strategies:

  • Before you be being working, come up with ground rules that you both can follow (all magazines prior to August 2012 can be recycled). This will help speed up the process a bit and be in line with the parameters you both agreed to.
  • Be aware of how you’re feeling and take breaks when you need to so that any frustration you may be feeling isn’t conveyed in your actions or words.

Remember that backsliding is possible

Keep in mind that organizing is a process, not an end point. Systems may be created to keep things in order, but they have to be kept up with on a regular basis to make sure that clutter doesn’t return. It will take some practice to do things differently and there’s a possibility that there may be some backsliding. This is not unusual or necessarily a reflection of something you did or didn’t do.

Helpful strategies:

  • If you intend to continue helping, don’t be discouraged. It’s possible that backsliding is situational (something traumatic or dramatic happened) or that they need more time to practice a new way of doing things.
  • Consider using mantras to help you both stay motivated and in a positive state of mind.

Helping someone else unclutter is a very thoughtful thing to do. With a bit of planning before you begin working, patience, and reasonable expectations, you’ll likely end up with more organized space while keeping your relationship intact.

Ask Unclutterer: How to cope with a very messy shared office

Reader Suzy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am an adjunct at a community college, and at the beginning of each semester, I have to sign up for one of five offices to use during my office hours. This semester, I ended up with the messy office. Papers and books are everywhere. Some of these are labeled and belong to adjuncts currently using the office, but most of them are unlabeled or belong to adjuncts not in the office this semester (they may be back next semester or they may not). What is the best way to get this space a little neater without disturbing the belongings of others? I would just suck it up, but I also think that I have a right to a neat place to meet with my students, even if it’s just one hour a week.

Suzy (a name I’ve given her, as she didn’t sign the email), I agree that you’re in a frustrating situation. Having to deal with other people’s stuff, especially when it interferes with your ability to do your work, is annoying and unfortunate. But, since you’re not a supervisor or someone in charge of this space, there isn’t a lot you can do about it.

What little you can do is send out an email to the other people who use the office and see if they’re okay with you doing some straightening work in the space. If everyone, including the person who overseas the room assignment, is on board, then maybe you can do some work to organize the office. If anyone objects, which likely someone will, you won’t be able to take care of the clutter on a permanent basis.

However, you aren’t completely out of options. If I were you, I would come into the office five minutes early each time you have your office hour and bring an empty box with you. Snap pictures of the desk, your chair, and the student chair with your cell phone or digital camera. Then, load everything off the desk, your chair, and the student chair into the box and set the box in a corner. Make the space functional and meet with your students for an hour. Then, after your office hour is finished, I’d use the pictures you took as a guide and return everything from the box back onto the desk, your chair, and the student chair so it resembles the pictures.

Is this option ideal? No. Can it help you to stay sane for the hour you use the office each week? Probably.

This type of thing seems to happen a great deal in academia. I remember a lot of my adjunct professors and teaching assistants during college having their office hours at the campus coffee shop because the shared offices they had been assigned were horribly cluttered or multiple people were scheduled to work in the office at the same time or the offices were incredibly difficult to locate. Since you likely listed your office on your syllabus as your location for office hours, you can’t switch to a coffee shop in the middle of the semester. Otherwise, I would have suggested you change locations and leave the mess for everyone else.

Even though your colleagues are being disrespectful and impolite by expecting you to work in the mess they have created, try your best not to feel animosity toward them about the space. They might be contributing to it, but they aren’t wholly responsible. Plus, you may need them as a professional recommendation or connection one day, and you won’t want to burn those bridges. Also, you only have a limited amount of emotional energy each day, and being frustrated and angry will zap that energy quickly. You don’t have to let your emotions be cluttered by this situation. It’s annoying, but you get to choose how annoyed you’ll be.

And, there is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the go-ahead from your colleagues to straighten up the office. If you’re really lucky, some of them might even offer to lend a hand … but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Finally, be sure to put in your request now to your supervisor to be assigned a different office next semester. There is no reason you should be continually inconvenienced by your colleagues. If your request is denied, consider the coffee shop option.

Thank you, Suzy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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.

Eight ways to cut clutter from your communication

For anyone who’s met me, they know I’m a talker. And, a fast one, too, especially when I’m excited or nervous. The words seem to get bottled up behind my teeth and like bubbles in a shaken soda can, they try to burst out all at once. The result is usually that the person I’m talking to gets a perplexed look on his/her face and I’m asked to repeat myself (slowly, of course). Other emotions can take over, too. For instance, if I’m feeling particularly testy, it’s helpful to wait until I’m in more positive frame of mind before engaging me in conversations (whether in person, on the phone, or via email/text message).

Controlling your emotions so that you can get down to the basics of what you want to say doesn’t have to be difficult, though. All you will likely need is a strategy or two, along with some practice, to help you communicate more clearly and keep conversations uncluttered.

Before figuring out what you want to say, first …

Recognize your triggers

As I mentioned, when my nerves or enthusiasm get the best of me (or both at the same time!), I know I need to take things a bit more slowly. If you make a point of focusing on how you’re feeling at specific times, you’ll be able to decipher which situations make you the most anxious (like public speaking or asking for a raise) so that you can come up with some strategies to remain calm and in control of what you say and how well you say it.

Think about what you want to say

If you have to opportunity to craft a message ahead of time (like when writing an email/letter or leaving a voice message), take it. You’ll be able to gather your thoughts and really think about what you want to say before your say it (even if you’re saying it electronically). This is especially true if you’re annoyed or angry. In those situations, it’s best to wait until you’re feeling more positive, as you run the risk of saying something that you may regret and are unable to retract if you type when you’re mad.

Stay in the moment

Sometimes we trip ourselves up by focusing on things other than our conversation, like what the person we’re talking to thinks about us (like during a job interview). Just like multi-tasking can leave you feeling a bit scattered, so can shifting back and forth from the key points that you’re trying to make. If you start worrying about the impression you’re making, you could find yourself grasping for words, lose focus, and you might not come across the way you intend. Instead, stay in the moment, keep your attention on your discussion, and …

Breathe deeply

… from your diaphram. When you’re feeling nervous and tense, diaphragmatic breathing allows you to take in more oxygen and helps you to relax. This is also a useful technique for the moments leading up to a group presentation, report, or interview. Taking deep breaths will give you some time to think rationally, to put things in perspective, and solidify your talking points.


To get more comfortable with what you want to say, do a trial run, if possible. Say it out loud (and/or record yourself) to hear how you sound. Does your pitch increase or decrease drastically? Are you speaking too quickly or slowly? Does a nervous laugh pop up? Rehearsing can help you fine tune what you want to say in a natural way. It can also help to practice in front of a mirror or with a friend who can give you objective feedback and suggestions for improvement. Recording yourself and playing it back can also be helpful.

Gather pertinent information

You may feel pressured to respond to emails immediately, particularly if the sender indicates they need a quick reply. You could send multiple messages — one that says you received their email, another that actually shares the needed information, and a final follow up. Or, you could gather all the data you need before replying. This will save you some time and reduce inbox clutter.

Block distractions

One way to reduce distractions when you’re on an important phone call is to turn off your call-waiting notification. Turning off call waiting is like turning off email notifications. Both tempt you to stop fully attending to the person you’re talking to, and can make you lose your train of thought (especially when you take your mobile phone from your ear to see who’s calling).

Maintain a positive attitude

Saying the right thing at the right time is important. But, rather than focusing on how poorly you may be feeling, turn your mood around by holding on to your sense of humor and focusing on solutions. Choose strategies that help you feel more comfortable so that you can communicate well.

The less clutter you put out in your communications, typically the less clutter you receive in response.

Study: Physical possessions and U.S. families

According to a recent study released by the UCLA Center on the Everyday Lives of Families, U.S. families have reached “material saturation.” The back areas of our homes (closets, basements, attics, cupboards) are so stuffed with possessions that our things spill out into our front areas (table tops, floors, furniture) and create more visible clutter than ever before in the history of the world. We’re no longer enjoying leisure activities and our children’s stuff is at the top of our clutter piles.

Published July 1, 2012, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century examined the homes of 32 southern California families. The visits took place from 2001 to 2005 and involved families with two parents who worked full-time and who had 2 or 3 children in the home (and at least one of those children was between 7 and 12 years old). The families represented multiple ethnic groups, neighborhoods, occupations, and income levels. Data was collected on each family through week-long in-person site visits, interviews, videos, and surveys.


The study makes one point very clear — clutter and children have a strong correlation.

Our data suggests that each new child in a household leads to a 30 percent increase in a family’s inventory of possessions during the preschool years alone.

How is it that children lead to such a drastic increase (30 percent!) in possessions? The researchers provide two explanations: parental guilt because of working outside the home and generous grandparents.

The United States has 3.1 percent of the world’s children, yet U.S. families annually purchase more than 40 percent of the total toys consumed globally. Spilling out of children’s bedrooms and into living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, and parents’ bedrooms, the playthings of America’s kids are ubiquitous in middle-class homes. … A sense among working parents that they have less time to spend with their children may be spurring them to shower kids with toys to compensate for a perceived loss of quality time at home. Other relatives contribute to children’s material assemblages, including about $500 spent by grandparents each year on toys, clothes, books, and other gifts. Given the high divorce rate in the U.S., many children wind up getting gifts from multiple sets of grandparents.


Another interesting correlation emerged during the study of the 32 families was that the number of items on a family’s refrigerator seemed to have tracked to how much stuff cluttered up the home. The more densely populated the front and sides of the refrigerator, the more crammed the house was with stuff.

… the refrigerator panel may function as a measuring stick for how intensively families are participating in consumer purchasing and how many household goods they retain over their lifetimes.

Imagined Leisure

U.S. families are no longer taking advantage of the bicycles in their garages, the hot tubs or swimming pools in their backyards, their swing sets, or their patio equipment. Items conducive to relaxation were purchased by the families in the study, but rarely or never used.

Leisure is indoors. Most families have cluttered home offices or desk spaces with computers that are visually stress inducing and intrude on indoor leisure time, reminding families of workplace commitments. The material residue of families’ vanishing leisure includes these overused home offices and rarely used back yard patios and play areas.

How Does It Happen?

In a recent interview in The New York Times, Anthony P. Graesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College and one of the researchers of the study, commented that he believes U.S. families are overwhelmed by their stuff. Stress levels are almost as high as the clutter.

In this interview, he provided more reasons for how he believes physical possessions have taken over U.S. families.

We can see how families are trying to cut down on the sheer number of trips to the store by buying bulk goods. How they can come to purchase more, and then not remember, and end up double purchasing.

In short, a family’s desire to save time ended up costing space and creating anxiety. Finally, he postulated families could reclaim their homes and stress levels if they became more comfortable with letting things go.

The inflow of objects is relentless. The outflow is not. We don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.

Let go of the clutter of negative feelings

I recently read a blog post titled, “How to Stop Being Angry” by Peter Shankman. He offered 10 tips for letting go of anger and here’s number three:

Go find an animal. Go sit down on the floor and play with a dog or a cat for 10 minutes. Scientific study after scientific study has shown that playing with animals makes you happy, calmer, and better able to react well to life. Plus, they’re PUPPIES AND KITTENS!!!

This brought a smile to my face (I think I even chuckled out loud), and it also made me think about the similarities between physical and mental clutter. Just as excessive belongings can litter our space, so can emotions that do nothing to enhance our lives or the people around us. A continuous negative or foul mood can hang heavily around our necks like an albatross. When we walk around feeling angry or annoyed for long stretches of time, it can have a negative impact on our well-being, clutter our minds, and immobilize us.

Am I suggesting the only solution to mental clutter is to spend your days thinking about puppy dogs and rainbows? No, but it is helpful to find ways to head off those bad feelings before they take hold of you. And, perhaps more importantly, figuring out what triggers these emotions is a good way to start managing them successfully. These five strategies are often (okay, not always, but usually) successful at keeping emotions in check:

Be aware of your feelings

The first step to controlling your annoyance (or another negative emotion) is being aware of how you’re feeling. While it may seem that one would be very conscious of this, your mind can race and your thoughts can bounce about like electrons inside an atom, making it difficult to think clearly. So, make a concerted effort to think about exactly what you’re feeling in that moment. This can help you figure out what direction or course of action to take. Over time, you may come to notice that there are specific things that “rub you the wrong way,” and you’ll be able to find ways to control your emotions.

Try to remain calm

Instead letting anger boil inside of you, consider 10 reasons why someone would do or say something that gets under your skin. While you’re at it, think about 10 reasons why you may be feeling particularly sensitive. Pausing gives you the benefit of thinking rationally, can stop you from overreacting, and give you some time to calm down.

Step away from the situation

There are some people who are in our lives for the long haul and some we see often (e.g. coworkers) whom we would like to avoid but can’t. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to be in their presence when you’re feeling less-than-positive about them. Remove yourself from the situation, when possible. Excuse yourself for a few moments so you can regain your composure. Perhaps a breath of fresh air or a splash of cold water on your face will help you settle down and feel more prepared to not only deal with the how you’re feeling, but also come up with a strategy to interact well with the person that you’re having difficulty with.

Pretend to be happy

Push yourself to feel better. One way to do that is to put a smile on your face even though you may not want to. The facial feedback hypothesis states that facial movements can affect your emotions. Turning your frown upside down might actually put a positive spin on things. You may start out pretending to be happy, but there’s a possibility that you’ll end up actually feeling better.

Rethink the situation

If you can, re-frame the problem so things don’t seem so awful. Instead of thinking you’re in a conflict, think of the issue as a puzzle to be solved. If you spend more time coming up with ways to stay positive, there won’t be time for anger and frustration to fester.

If there’s someone in your life who repeatedly triggers negative feelings in you, your attempt to turn that around will be a process. You won’t change how you react or feel overnight and it may take a bit of practice. But, by using a combination of reflection and distraction, you’ll give yourself the opportunity to let go of negative thoughts. And, as I said earlier, it might not always work, but often these strategies do help you to let go of negative feelings so you can focus more on what matters to you.