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.

Rehearse

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.

Children

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.

Refrigerators

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.

Keep your home organized even though your partner is not

Long weekends are great for catching up on things you’ve been meaning to do or simply doing nothing at all. Over the three-day-weekend, you probably spent more time with your spouse, partner, roommate, or kids. During that time, you may have also become intensely aware that he/she/they don’t exactly do things the way you do. You may have even started plotting ways to get them to change, to become a bit more orderly.

It has entered my mind on a few (okay, many) occasions that, as the more organized person in my relationship, I should help my husband to be the same. There are many good reasons for this. Here are the three I always reference:

  1. There will be less work to do. If we’re putting in the same effort in keeping our home clean and organized, that means neither of us are burdened by the majority of work to be done.
  2. We’ll find things quickly and easily. I get giddy thinking of all the time we’ll save looking for things because we’ll put things back when we’re finished using them. We would eliminate the dreaded scavenger hunt for important items and documents.
  3. We’ll be happier. People are usually happier when there’s less work to do. We’ll be ecstatic when we realize all the time we’ve saved can be used to do fun and relaxing things. We will actually do those fun, relaxing things.

I know that if I talk with my husband about these three reasons, he will agree with me. He might even try harder to do things my way.

And, he will probably revert to what he’s comfortable doing. I know you can’t make someone be an unclutterer if he doesn’t want to be an unclutterer. He will let me handle the organization of our home. But, that’s okay. I don’t want him to be me AND we can still have a (mostly) organized home even if he doesn’t 100 percent change his ways.

Because, as the unclutterer, I’ll continue to:

  • Respect our differences. His way isn’t wrong, it’s simply not my way. Life would be ridiculously boring if the two of us were exactly the same. It’s good to remember that he possess other qualities I don’t, and we complement each other in different ways.
  • Take the lead on keeping our home organized. Being organized is more important to me, so it makes sense for these responsibilities to lie predominantly in my camp. It’s not that he doesn’t care, he just doesn’t see things the way I do.
  • Ask for help. This means no nagging is allowed on my part, and my husband knows he’ll be called upon to handle his share of the non-organizing household chores.
  • Be specific about the type of help I need. Asking, “Can you clean up the living room?” won’t give me the results I really want. Instead, I’ll say, “Please vacuum the living room carpet and put the pillows back on the sofa.”
  • Agree on simple house rules that match our skills.
    1. I will primarily be responsible for keeping our home organized, in particular the common areas (e.g., living room, kitchen, and dining room).
    2. He’ll be in charge of cleaning the bathrooms. This is not my favorite thing to do, but it doesn’t bother him at all (thank goodness). I’ll take care of making sure the towels are clean and the soap dispenser is filled.
    3. He’ll be in charge of cooking and I’ll clean up. I can hold my own in the kitchen, but he’s a great cook and I love whatever he whips up. Since I’m the queen of clean, this trade off works well for both of us.
    4. I’ll take care of simple household repairs when possible. If it’s not something I can take care of easily, I will hand it off to my husband or call a professional tradesperson.

We won’t be able to avoid getting frustrated with each other at times, but this plan is easy to follow. Would I like him to do more? I think we all dream of having a butler and maid, but my husband is not either (and neither am I). Can our home be comfortable and organized with the the current division of labor? Yes. We’ve reached our happy medium. It might not work for everyone, but if you’re in a similar situation, talk with the other people who live in your home and come up with ground rules that work for you.

Ask Unclutterer: How do I convince my spouse to get rid of unnecessary papers?

Reader Kat submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do I get my husband and stepson to follow the systems I set up? How do I work with other people to attain organization? How can I convince my husband that we don’t need to keep every piece of paper that crosses our threshold??

Full disclosure: Kat’s email was significantly longer than the paragraph of questions quoted here. The gist of the other part of her message was that her family has incredible qualities, they’re truly wonderful people, they just LOVE keeping paper and not doing anything with it except for stacking it. This behavior drives Kat, a newlywed, batty.

Kat, the first thing you need to do is accept that you live with paper keepers and stackers. It’s who they are. They were this way before you married into the family two years ago, and you will never be able to force them into becoming shredders, scanners, and filers. As much as you want to, you can’t force anyone into being an unclutterer.

That being said, you can implement strategies to help you deal with your frustrations about their behavior, and you can also talk with them about your uncluttered and organized preference and hope they choose to adopt them.

The first step is to sit down and have a family meeting about the paper situation in your home. If you can maintain a calm conversation at home, have it there. If voices are likely to be raised, take pictures of the rooms in your house that are cluttered with paper and head with your family to a restaurant to have the conversation in public. People are much more likely to keep level-headed in public spaces.

During your conversation, be specific with how you feel about the paper clutter, the impact the paper clutter is having on your life (don’t over dramatize, state only facts), and describe exactly how you wish the space to look. Then, ask your husband and your son how they feel about the paper clutter in the house, how is it impacting their lives, and how they want their home to look. Try your best to come to an agreement between the three of you for how you want your space to look. You will have to give a little, and they will have to give a little, but the three of you should agree on a state that works for all of you. Then, discuss in detail how you plan to make the vision a reality.

If you cannot agree upon the way you want the house to look, I strongly recommend seeking the help of a therapist. Talking things over with a person who doesn’t live in your house can help significantly in these situations.

After you decide on the desired state of your home, everyone should do a walk through of the entire paper handling process with each other to make sure everyone will work in the same way. Since you already own a shredder and scanner, everyone should practice on the equipment. Don’t be condescending to each other, just walk through the process.

Then, when the walk-through is over, you need to trust your family to stick to the plan. You also have to stick to the plan, no exceptions. If your husband or son do not follow the agreed upon behavior, they have two choices. Ask, “The three of us agreed that we want our home to look a specific way. Do you still agree with this or has something changed and we need to revisit our goals?” As long as the person still agrees with the goals, he will very likely get up and process the papers appropriately. If the person no longer agrees with the goals, you need to sit back down and have the conversation about paper in your home again.

If the paper situation doesn’t bother anyone but you and neither your husband or son have interest in changing their ways, there may be a point where you will want to take over as the paper person for the house. You can’t take over this role without the permission of your husband and son. If everyone is okay with you being the paper person, though, trade it out for chores you don’t want to do but that your husband and son do. Maybe you agree to process paper and your husband agrees to do all the yard work? Maybe you agree to process paper and your son agrees to load and unload the dishwasher every night after dinner? Whatever trade you decide to make, be sure the chores are as close as possible to taking the same amount of time and energy to complete. We do this separation of responsibilities with numerous home maintenance work in our home.

Thank you, Kat, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck getting the paper under control in your home and be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions 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.

Including instructions for handling your online identity in your “In case of …” file

One of my former students died a few years ago, yet her Facebook page remains. Her page has turned into a shrine, and her friends come and leave messages every once in awhile, whenever they miss her.

I’m not sure if her parents left the page up on purpose, or if they didn’t know it existed. For a teenager, though, the Facebook shrine seems appropriate, especially since all of her friends grew up using the service.

However, if something were to happen to me in an accident, I don’t want my Facebook page to stay active. Same applies to my personal Twitter account and Google+ account. Without someone regularly monitoring these pages, they could easily be hacked and the hacked content could be very upsetting to the people who are close to me.

As part of my August resolution to create an “In case of …” file, I’ve decided to include specific instructions on what to do with my social online presence. I really, really, really have not enjoyed thinking about all of this, but I’m putting on my big girl pants and bucking through it. And, my hope is that no one ever has to look at this file.

My friend Craig and I were talking about this subject recently, and he explained to me what he plans to do. Before I get too deep into his explanation, you should know Craig is in his 20s, single, no children, doesn’t own property, and doesn’t necessarily trust his family to carry out his “In case of …” plans exactly as he wishes (although he wholeheartedly trusts many of his friends to do so). He and I are in two very different stages of our lives, which speaks to why our solutions are so varied. Craig doesn’t have an “In case of …” file, but he has something that is close enough. He uses the service Dead Man’s Switch.

The way Dead Man’s Switch works is every few months they send you an email asking you to click on a link. If you click on the link, you’re verifying that you’re alive. If you don’t click on the link, they’ll send you a second email and then a third. If you don’t respond to any of the emails (you choose how much time lapses between the initial and follow-up emails), the service assumes you are dead. At that point, emails will be distributed to people of your choosing with specific instructions on how to carry out your post-death requests. In Craig’s case, he wrote all of the emails in one afternoon and then encrypted them before passing them along to Dead Man’s Switch. He said they are mostly related to shutting down his online presence.

As we were talking, Craig made some very good points about shutting down one’s online identity, which apply to “In case of …” files and services like Dead Man’s Switch:

  • The people reading your file or your email need to be receptive to what you’re saying. If you’re making any kind of requests about how you would like your things handled, it’s important that the recipients be people who are likely to honor your requests.
  • You then have to have a couple of awkward conversations telling folks you will want them to read your file or to wait for an email after you die. It’s a very bad idea to not tell someone, unless you want to scare them with unexpected email from beyond the grave. Thankfully, these conversations are only a quick unpleasantness.
  • Updating passwords and logins in your file or emails is crucial. This information can’t ever be out of date. Personally, I [Craig] have a number of websites up, and there’s at least one that I’d like to think should stay up if I were to die tomorrow. People need to have the ability to log into my hosting accounts and renew domains. People need access to my email. People need access to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, either to take them down entirely or at least update them to reflect my new status. Essentially, any login I have needs to be passed on to someone. If you use something like a password manager, giving the main password needed to access that might be a good way to deal with all of the passwords and logins at once.

Have you thought about your online identity and including instructions for dealing with it in your “In case of …” file? Would a service like Dead Man’s Switch work for you? Are you excited for August to come to an end so you can stop reading such morbid topics on this site?

Ask Unclutterer: Help! My boyfriend moved in and now his stuff is everywhere!

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Boyfriend and I have been dating off and on for two decades and he moved in for good a few weeks ago. I’ve lived comfortably, and in fairly organized fashion, in 1000 square feet for years and years, and now his stuff is EVERYWHERE. I read over ALL of your articles on merging households, working with partners, gauging levels of clutter control, etc., but we both seem stuck in a tower of terrifying stacked boxes so completely overwhelming that even getting to the kitchen is problematic.

Due to outside demands–we both work full-time, and we both have families in need–we’ve only been able to give a couple of hours per day to this albatross of a project, and it devolved into him suggesting I just throw out a bunch of my stuff. I don’t want “his” and “mine” to dominate the conversation, but, honestly, where do we start? Clothing is everywhere, the closets are full, and he has four thousand CDs, five bass guitars, three computers … you get the idea.

Where would you start, short of calling A&E and volunteering to be on Hoarders? We just need a workable starting point and we both realize that Molly Maids can’t solve our organizational problems.

Thanks if you can answer this; if not, I’m calling in for outside reinforcements!!! Be well, and keep writing–I love this website.

For starters, thank you for loving this website. It’s really nice to hear.

From the way you describe it, I see three steps that will immediately help to reduce your stress:

  1. Have a date night. Between your home stress, your family stress, and your job stress, the two of you need a night of relaxation. Make a reservation at your favorite place, put on some fancy clothes, and go out on the town with each other. Don’t talk about the apartment or any of the things that are causing you frustration. Just breathe and be reminded of why you love each other and are joining your lives and your stuff.
  2. Call a professional organizer. The two of you are bright people who could work this out on your own — but you don’t need to. Hire an organizer to meet with you for a few hours on a Saturday morning to give you some suggestions for merging your stuff. Having an independent third party to give guidance is almost always a good idea, and organizers do this type of consulting all the time. If you were sick, you’d go to a doctor, so why not seek the help of a professional organizer when you could really use one? Check out the National Association of Professional Organizers or Angie’s List to find a well-respected professional organizer near you.
  3. Start with your biggest frustration. Walk through your apartment with your boyfriend, don’t have a conversation, just let your eyes get a real look at the situation. Once you’ve gone through every room, examined every cabinet, and inspected under the bed, sit down and talk with each other about what one thing bugged you the most. Was it that your clothes are no longer in the closet? Was it that you can’t sit down at the dining table? Was it the giant stack of boxes right by the front door? Let him voice his biggest frustration, too. Those two areas need to be handled first, before any other projects in the apartment. Work together to find a lasting solution, try to keep from yelling (touching each other in a caring way repeatedly on the arm or hand while you’re working can help keep your tone and volume in check), and commit to getting just those two areas in order. Once they’re in order, your stress level will greatly improve, making the remainder of the work in front of you more manageable.

Right now, you probably feel like he’s trying to cram his stuff into your apartment. He probably feels like you’re not making room for him in your apartment. It’s a tough situation, and that is why I think a night out to relax and remember why you’re moving in together is so important. Heck, take many nights out on the town to remember why you’re together if you have to! Your relationship and your feelings for each other are far more important than battles over CDs, clothes, and computers.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I have faith that you’ll get through this without any long-term repercussions.

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.

Finding solutions to disorder by identifying the causes of disorder

Sometimes the solution for solving a clutter problem is simply identifying the cause of the problem. It sounds obvious, but you may be surprised by how often the cause of the problem isn’t considered when looking for a solution.

I hear complaints all the time that a spouse/partner/roommate/kid (someone else, never the person complaining) leaves items strewn about the house. The complaint usually sounds like, “my husband leaves his dirty clothes on the floor,” or “our son leaves his toys all over the living room.” The spouse/partner/roommates/kids are always named as THE problem.

Granted, the spouse/partner/roommates/kids may be making the mess, but they are not usually the exact cause of the problem. Usually, the problem is caused because:

  1. a convenient storage solution does not exist (the hamper is in the closet, but the husband changes clothes in the bathroom),
  2. no organizing solution exists (there isn’t a hamper),
  3. the person has not properly been trained on how to use the clutter/storage solution (the child has never been shown how to pick up his toys or been expected to pick up after himself),
  4. or the person has a different tolerance level of disorder than the person making the complaint (clothes and toys on the floor may not be perceived as clutter by the person making the mess).

When you properly identify the cause of the problem, it’s much easier to solve it. Based on the examples we’ve been using throughout this post, the problem might be alleviated by:

  1. Getting two more hampers — keep the one already in the closet, but add one to the bathroom and put another in the bedroom next to your husband’s side of the bed.
  2. Buy a hamper and put it where your husband usually drops his clothes on the floor.
  3. Teach your child how to pick up her toys and give her three minutes at the end of every play session to practice this skill. Read more from our archives: here and here.
  4. Have a respectful conversation with your spouse/partner/roommates/kids about your standards of order and their standards of order, and establish agreements and expectations about future behavior. Read more from our archives: here.

Are you identifying the real causes of clutter and disorder in your life? Doing so can help you to more easily find the solution.

Teaching toddlers about organizing

Parents often ask me what chores and responsibilities are applicable for toddlers. They want to start teaching their children about putting away their things, but they also don’t want to bestow unreasonable demands upon two, three, and four year olds.

Young children are eager to be independent, and helping your child learn skills that foster this independence as well as acquire valuable organizing concepts are a great place to start the teaching process. The following are a handful of suggestions for responsibilities that are appropriate for toddlers and some recommendations for teaching these skills:

  • Hanging up her coat. Put a couple 3M removable utility hooks on the back of the coat closet door at a low enough height that your daughter can reach the hook but high enough so her coat won’t drag on the ground. When your daughter comes inside the house, let her be responsible for putting her coat on her hook.
  • Wiping down the bathroom countertop. Get a small step stool for your child to use in the bathroom when he is brushing his teeth, combing his hair, and washing his hands. Have a stack of wash cloths or hand towels within reach that he can use to wipe his face, dry his hands, and then wipe up any spilled and splashed water from the counter top.
  • Making her bed each morning. Pulling up the sheet and pulling up the comforter are tasks that most kids can handle by two and a half.
  • Putting dirty clothes in the hamper. Have a hamper that your child can easily put clothes into and see the clothes inside the basket. After you assist your child in getting out of his clothes and into his pajamas, hand him his clothes and ask him to put them in the hamper. As your child gets older and can dress himself, simply monitor him to ensure that he continues with this responsibility.
  • Setting the table. By age three, most children will be able to set a table with minimum supervision. Place setting placemats are terrific for helping children learn where cups, plates, silverware, and napkins typically go on a table.
  • Returning toys to their storage locations. After playing with toys, toddlers should return them to their proper storage bins or shelves. As a result, storage shelves and bins need to be within your child’s reach. Label bins and lips of shelves with adhesive tags that have an illustration and title of what belongs in each space. Programs like Microsoft Word that include clip art are great for finding toy illustrations. It takes younger children significantly more time to pick up toys than older children, so be sure to leave time in your schedule for your child to pick up her toys before needing to move on to another activity.

At age two and three, most of these chores will need some level of supervision. The closer your child gets to elementary school age, however, the less supervision she will need to successfully carry out the task.

Ask Unclutterer: How to break up with stuff after a breakup

Reader Ellen submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I recently ended a very long-term relationship and I have no idea what to do with the gifts I was given over the last ten years. Some of them (CDs, books) are impersonal and I still use and enjoy them, but other items – some engraved, some very expensive, some very romantic – are causing problems.

I can’t use them without feeling upset. I can’t give them away, as most of them are personalized or unique in some way. Most are made of materials that can’t be recycled. It feels wrong to put an item worth a hundred dollars into the trash.

Do you have any creative suggestions? Or any advice on new ways to think about the problem?

I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t have anything in your life that you don’t need or love, so I don’t see a reason to keep any of the items that make you upset. If it makes your stomach churn when you see it, this is a pretty good sign that it’s time for the item to go.

Gifts that have been engraved can be polished clean by a jeweler. I suggest having these engravings buffed out and then selling these items. Even carvings on wood can be sanded out by a woodworker. Buy something you want with the revenue, invest it, or donate it to charity.

Jewelry stores are also great locations to dispose of jewelry because they can melt down pieces and refashion them into new pieces you want. I actually took diamonds from two different pieces of jewelry boyfriends gave me and had them made into earrings. One diamond had to be tweaked with a little to match the other, but it wasn’t very expensive and it was worth it.

If you’re not interested in having a piece of jewelry refashioned, you can consider selling or swapping it on the site ExBoyfriendJewelry.com.

I’d also consider donating objects to charity or to someone in need, if appropriate. You might not yet have the nerve to sell something, but a homeless person might not have any issue with walking those diamonds into a pawn shop and getting money for a week’s worth of food and some clothes.

Be sure to check out the comments for even more ideas. I’m sure our readers will also have great ideas for you. Thank you, Ellen, 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.