Disposing of unused medications

You may find yourself with unused medications for a variety of reasons. For example, your doctor could make a change to your prescription, or you may have medications that have expired.

How do you properly dispose of those medications? You have three options.

Donate them using repository programs

In the U.S., some states have programs for medication redistribution. Many of these are conducted at the facility level, allowing pharmacies and nursing homes, for example, to find alternatives to destroying usable medications.

However, some states have drug repository programs that will accept medications from individuals, as long as the medications are in their original sealed and tamper-evident packaging (such as blister-cards) and won’t expire in the near future. Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin are three of the states that have such programs. You can search online to see if your state has a similar program. Note that these programs cannot accept controlled substances, which include some pain, sleep, and anxiety medications.

Safely dispose of them using medication take-back programs

Take-back programs are a great way to safely dispose of expired or excess medications. In my area, there are drop-off containers at many police stations. Other locales in the U.S. use boxes from the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (with its Rx Drug Drop Box) or MedReturn, which have box locator functions on their websites. Some pharmacies also accept medications, and Dispose My Meds has a pharmacy locator.

You can also search for medications at Earth911 to find a disposal site near you. And you could check with your trash/recycling service provider to see what options are available in your area.

The Drug Enforcement Agency, along with local law enforcement organizations, used to hold an annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Because there are now more options for disposing of these medications — the law was changed in 2014 to allow for more authorized collectors — the DEA has no plans for future take-back days.

Other countries such as Canada and Australia also have take-back programs.

Safely dispose of them at home

The FDA has instructions on how to safely dispose of medications as part of your household trash if no better option is available:

  • Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds.
  • Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag.
  • Throw the container in your household trash.
  • Scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medicine packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container.

The FDA also provides a short list of medications that can be especially harmful if used by anyone other than the person for whom they were prescribed. If these specific medicines cannot be disposed of quickly using a take-back program, the FDA recommends flushing them down the toilet as soon as they are no longer needed. Specific disposal information may have come with the medicine, but the FDA also links to that information if you don’t have it. This is the only time when flushing is recommended. In general, flushing is strongly discouraged for reasons that the Environmental Protection Agency explains (PDF).

Favorite organizing tools for containerizing

Jacki has written about her favorite organizing tools, and Dave has written about his favorite multitasking, utilitarian tool. So I thought I’d chime in and share some of my favorite tools — the ones I find myself recommending continually. The following list skips things like scanners and shredders and focuses on containers.

Handled baskets. Yes, I know that not everyone likes plastic. I often choose to avoid it, too. However, I’ve found these specific baskets come in extremely handy in many situations. The handles make them easy to pull off a shelf, especially one that’s a bit overhead. I’ve used these baskets in kitchens and pantries, in closets where toiletries are being kept, and in garage cabinets. The sides are higher than on many other such baskets, and they are pretty sturdy. They come in both white and clear.

Photo boxes. While many of our photos are digital now, you may still have photos from your pre-digital days that need to be stored carefully, especially if there are no plans to have them scanned. When it comes to storing precious photos, I want to keep them in a container that has passed the Photographic Activity Test, so I know that the photos are well protected. For those who don’t want to fuss with creating photo albums, or who don’t have the space that photo albums require, these photo boxes can work well. They hold up to 1,700 photos that are 4″x6″ or smaller. The envelopes allow you to divide the photos into categories.

Excess coffee mugs. Almost everyone has more coffee mugs than needed for drinking coffee. But these coffee mugs make great desktop pencil cups, and they also work nicely to hold toothpaste and toothbrushes in the bathroom. The mug above is the pencil cup in my own home office.

Anything that makes you happy. Storage containers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, materials, and prices — there’s something for everyone. You can use conventional storage pieces or choose something as unusual as the frog in my office, which is meant to be a planter but works fine as a combination trip memento, piece of art, and storage piece for various electronics.

Being an organized voter

Having just voted in California’s primary election June 3, I’ve got voting on my mind. It can be easy to skip voting if you feel overwhelmed by the process. Being organized can help alleviate that anxiety and get you to the polls prepared and on time.

Get registered, if you’re not already

USA.gov provides information on how to register, how to change your registration information, as well as registration deadlines for each state. The United States Election Assistance Commission will also direct you to election-related information specific to your state.

Be sure to re-register if you’ve changed your name, your address, or if you want to change your party affiliation.

Decide when you’re going to vote

Do you quality for (and need) an absentee ballot? If so, be sure to apply for one within the given time limits.

Does your state provide the option of vote-by-mail ballots? If so, you may want to apply for that option and avoid lines at the polls. Simply request and then mail in your completed ballot by the required dates. In many places, you can still turn in your vote-by-mail ballot at your polling station on election day if you change your mind, which is what I almost always do.

If you’re not going to vote by mail, be sure to know your polling location. And, know when you can vote; some states have early in-person voting, while others are restricted to a single election day. Be sure you know the hours your polling place is open, too.

Decide how to vote

People go about deciding how to vote in a number of ways. Sometimes we don’t need to do any specific research; by election day, we’ve been inundated with information about most high-profile candidates.

But, what about the candidates and issues that aren’t so high-profile? I just had to vote on superior court justices, my county coroner, and two competing propositions regarding a bridge in my city that needs to be repaired or replaced. Information about local and state-wide issues is often more work to obtain — you have to be proactive.

I get information from a number of sources:

  • The Smart Voter website, provided by the League of Women Voters. This gives me the candidates’ official statements, and links to their websites, which are often helpful.
  • The information mailed out by the secretary of state. This gives me the text of all propositions, the impartial analysis from the legislative analyst’s office, and the official arguments for and against those propositions. (Some of this, but not all of it, is also available at Smart Voter.)
  • Newspaper editorials, found online. Here I’m looking for sites that provide the reason why they were endorsing a candidate or a position, so I can decide whether or not their logic makes sense to me. I read at least two endorsements in this past election that helped convince me to vote in the opposite direction from what was being recommended. I like to read a number of editorials, not just one. I have a list of newspapers whose websites I usually check.
  • Knowledgeable people. How much do I know about my local water district and the members of its governing board? I know a bit, but I know someone whose opinions I respect who knows a lot. So I asked him for his recommendation on that election, last fall.
  • Endorsements: Again, when i research endorsements, I’m looking for those who might have specific expertise about issues and candidates that I don’t have. When looking at the candidates for superior court judges, I looked at the endorsements from the existing superior court judges, especially those I know and respect.

Finally, weighing all of the information I’ve gathered, I make my decision and mark my ballot.

Recycling: beyond paper, plastic, and glass

If you’re trying to be an environmentally conscious unclutterer, you probably know that reuse is preferable to recycling. If someone can enjoy the paperback book I’m getting rid of, giving the book to that person (directly, or through a venue such as a used bookstore) is better than tossing the book into my recycling bin. But, sometimes the recycling bin is the right answer. If the book is falling apart or it’s a reference book that’s now seriously outdated, it’s ready to be recycled.

For many of us, recycling is easier than ever because of curbside recycling services provided by our local governments or private trash companies. Databases, such as the one from Earth911, can help you find places to recycle whatever you may have: broken crayons, Tyvek envelopes, etc. In addition to Earth911, the following are a few resources you may not know about that can help you recycle your clutter:

Pantyhose: No Nonsense recycles tights, pantyhose, and knee-highs of any brand; these can be turned into park benches, vehicle insulation, playground equipment, toys, and more. You will have to pay the shipping cost yourself, though.

Styrofoam blocks: Styrofoam is actually a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company; most of what we casually refer to as Styrofoam is not actually Styrofoam, but expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam: the rigid foam often used in packaging. This EPS foam can be hard to recycle, but if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can recycle it at GreenCitizen, for $5 per 30-gallon plastic bag. Waste to Waves lists other places in California that accept EPS foam that gets turned into new products, including surfboard blanks. There are programs in other parts of the country, too.

If you’re looking for recycling options in your area, you might check out the EPS Industry Alliance website. Or go to Earth911, and search for #6 Plastic (Polystyrene). If you find a recycler, be sure to call and confirm whether or not the service takes EPS foam blocks before driving to their facility.

Nespresso capsules: Nespresso has a recycling program for their coffee capsules. You can either drop them off at numerous collection points or mail them to a provided address.

Cosmetics packaging: If you use Origins cosmetics, you can recycle the containers at their store. As the company says: “Starting March 29, 2009, Origins introduced a program in North America that encouraged its customers to bring their empty previously unrecyclable cosmetic tubes, bottles and jars, etc. — regardless of brand — to their nearest Origins retail store or department store counters. All returned packaging is sent back to a central location where products will be recycled or used for energy recovery.” M•A•C Cosmetics, Kiehl’s, Aveda, and others also have packaging recycling program, and some of them reward you with samples or discounts when you recycle their containers.

Even more: TerraCycle has its Brigades, where you sign up to recycle a specific type of item, such as Brita filters, energy bar wrappers, drink pouches, or cheese packaging. You collect your specific item and then mail the collected items in, postage paid (in most cases).

All of these recycling alternatives are more cumbersome than curbside recycling, and not everyone will choose to take advantage of all (or any) of them; we each need to make our own decisions about what we do. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to simply get the items out of the house; recycling just isn’t going to happen. Even ongoing recyclers may have moments when they decide to skip it, just for once.

As the process becomes increasingly easy, more of us will decide it’s worth the small extra effort to recycle items as we unclutter our possessions.

Donating unwanted items: going beyond the usual suspects

While there are many organizations, such as Goodwill, that accept donations of all sorts, there are also specialized organizations you might wish to support that collect very specific items for the programs they sponsor. As you’re clearing the clutter from your home, consider the following donation alternatives:

Art and craft supplies: In San Francisco, we have SCRAP, which “collects donations of quality, clean, reusable materials such as fabric, paper, arts and crafts supplies, wood, beads, buttons, and so much more and makes these materials available as supplies for teachers, non-profits, parents, artists, and students.” RAFT in San Jose does something similar, with an emphasis on serving teachers. In New York, there’s Materials for the Arts. In Chicago, there’s Creative Pitch. There’s a second SCRAP in Portland, Oregon. There’s also the Pittsburg Center for Creative Reuse and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse (in Oakland, California). A Google search can help you find if there is a similar program in your area.

Binoculars, birding field guides, digital cameras and more: Birders’ Exchange collects these supplies and sends them to “researchers, educators, and conservationists in Latin America and the Caribbean working to protect birds and their habitats” who lack these basic supplies.

Furniture: The Furniture Bank Association of North America has a list of furniture banks that accept donations. “Furniture banks are not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organizations whose mission is to provide free furniture to families struggling with poverty and other severe life challenges. … Furniture banks collect donations of gently used furniture, and provide the furniture for free to families in need via referrals from other social service agencies, churches, schools, employers, etc.”

Fur coats: Each year, Buffalo Exchange runs a Coats for Cubs fur drive; the coats are disassembled and shipped to animal rehabilitation centers to serve as bedding. The 2014 drive has ended, but the Humane Society of the United States suggests you contact wildlife rehabilitators in your area to see if they can use the coats. There is also Born Free USA’s “Fur for the Animals” drive, which runs until June 30 this year. However, there are only a couple drop-off points for this program.

Gloves: Glove Love is “a matchmaking service for single gloves who have become separated from their partners.” Sadly, it’s in the U.K., or I would have a lot of donations to send in!

Musical instruments: Various organizations around the country collect instruments for those who can’t afford them. The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation accepts donations of gently used band and orchestral instruments in playable and good cosmetic condition; they need to be shipped to the foundation, in California. The instruments get refurbished, and sent to programs throughout the U.S. The LINKS program — Lonely Instruments for Needy Kids — does something similar specifically for those in the greater Cincinnati area. The Carroll County Arts Council in Maryland has a Musical Instrument Bank. There are other local programs, too, so you can look for one near you.

Pet care supplies: From blankets and towels to pet toys to litter boxes, your local humane society or other animal shelter can probably use it all.

Yoga mats: Various yoga charities — groups that run after-school programs, work with children on the autism spectrum, etc. — can use the yoga mats you no longer need.

Uncluttering old cell phones

A recent survey conducted by Kelton Research for ecoATM reported that 57 percent of American device owners have idle cell phones in their homes, and 39 percent have at least two cell phones collecting dust at home.

If you (or someone you know) has an unused cell phone, the following is a simple, two-step process for getting rid of it:

Step 1: Remove all the data

You don’t want the next owner to get all the data stored on your phone: addresses and phone numbers, calendar appointments, messages, etc. After you’ve backed up all that data, you’ll want to remove it from your phone. You can find out how to remove it —

Step 2: Determine where you want to sell, donate, or recycle the phone

Newer phones can often be sold, even if they are broken or cracked. If your phone can’t be sold, it can certainly be recycled. You have a lot of choices, including:

  • Sell or give away to a friend or relative.
  • Sell in a general marketplace, such as eBay or craigslist.
  • Sell to one of the many online companies buying cell phones for a set price. You may not make as much money as you would selling in eBay, but it’s less hassle. I’ve used both GreenCitizen and Gazelle, and both worked out fine. (Suggestion: Don’t send Gazelle two phones in the same prepaid box, as I once did; it’s too easy for the paperwork to get mixed up.)
  • Sell at an ecoATM.
  • Use the trade-in/buyback program from your cell phone manufacturer or service provider: Apple, AT&T, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc. Note that these will give you gift cards (or billing credits) for their own products and services, rather than cash.
  • Use the Amazon.com Trade-In Store.
  • Donate to one of the many groups that collect phones for good causes. These groups usually don’t give the phones away; rather, the phones are sold to a third party for reuse or recycling, and the proceeds are used to support the organization’s work. For example, Cell Phones for Soldiers says: “The money received from the recycling of cell phones is used to purchase international calling cards for active-duty military deployed overseas to connect with their friends and family back home.”
  • Donate to Goodwill
  • Recycle with cell phone manufacturers, cell phone service providers, retail outlets, etc. Most (if not all) of these will accept any phones for recycling, not just their own. You can find recycling sites through Call2Recycle, which has signed the e-Steward Pledge not to export e-waste to developing countries.

If you can’t erase the data

If you don’t have the charger for your phone, and can’t power it up to remove the data, you may want to go to your cell phone provider and see if that company can help.

Otherwise, you could use a service that will handle that for you, for a fee. For example, I’ve used GreenCitizen, located in the San Francisco Bay Area; I see that Green Tech Recycling does the same thing in Cleveland.

Organize a personal board of directors

A few years ago I learned two important lessons from a business class. First: I have the natural business sense of a potato. Second: it’s a great idea to organize and maintain a personal board of directors. Years later, I’ve realized this strategy is applicable to much more than business. Home organization, parenting, and, yes, career decisions can all be advised by a qualified team of your own choosing.

When the school I worked for closed in 2009, I found myself jobless in an economy that was not friendly to the unemployed. After failing to quickly find a new job, I decided to peddle my skills and go to work for myself. A friend suggested that I take a class offered by a small business development firm in my neighborhood. It was the best advice I got that year.

This group helped me devise a plan, identify my marketable skills, and refine what I had to offer. It all culminated in making a presentation to a small board of professionals: which I bombed. It was humbling. After the smoke cleared, the group’s leader pulled me aside. “You just need some focus,” she said. “I think I can help.”

She and I spoke a few times and that one-on-one help was terrific. I went on to meet other people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. Five years later, I have a group of five or six people I can call on when I need guidance. Each excels in an area that’s troublesome for me. Most importantly, they’re not afraid to tell me, “Dave, that’s a very bad idea.” You do not want “yes men” on your personal board. You want honest, intelligent people who’ve got your interests in mind.

Now as I said, this needn’t be restricted to business. As it relates to organizing your home, office, or life, hire a professional organizer or look for groups that meet up with some regularity (meetup.com is a great way to do this) or even find a friend who has an extremely good set of organizing skills to help you. Ask questions, discuss your troubled areas, brainstorm, and then try out the suggestions. Search through old posts here on Unclutterer and see if we can spark some ideas to discuss with your organizing board.

Maybe you want to discuss parenting, personal productivity, or whatever section of your life is causing you stress. Calling on your personal board of directors is a great way to go to learn what they’re doing and what strategies they think may be able to help you. Perhaps you’ll even fill that role for someone else and return the favor.

Ask Unclutterer: Please help, I believe my sibling is a hoarder

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer (some information has been changed to protect privacy):

I have a 60 year old sibling who has been hoarding since her child went off to college. S/he is now sleeping in the bath tub. S/he insists s/he is not a hoarder. The other siblings and I have attempted to help clean, but it is truly overwhelming. My sibling has issues with abandonment, victimization, and discrimination. Can you help?

To let readers of the site know, I responded to J when this question arrived in my inbox and didn’t make her or him wait for me to write about it in a column. It’s a common type of question we receive to the site, however, and so I wanted to address it more publicly for anyone who may come to Unclutterer with similar concerns.

Hoarding is a serious and real illness for those who are plagued by it. It’s not a personality quirk or something they’re able to control at this point in time. The person is not hoarding to upset you, but the stuff is likely upsetting the hoarder and he or she feels completely powerless about it. Similar to other physical and psychological ailments, hoarding is not a condition that goes away on its own. Hoarding requires the treatment of a licensed medical and/or psychological practitioner who has been especially trained to help people who are diagnosed hoarders.

Not all people who have excessive numbers of belongings, though, are hoarders (some are chronically disorganized, some have other ailments and hoarding is a side effect, some are situational and will be processed over the course of a year, etc.). That is why it is vital to have the person evaluated so proper help can be given to him or her. What is most important is to get the best care for the person who needs it. And, the best care is rarely a forced cleanout as the first step in the process. Although a forced cleanout would make you feel better — knowing your sibling is no longer living in a dangerous physical environment would most certainly relieve some of your anxiety — it won’t treat the hoarding and the place will just fill up with more stuff in a matter of months. (Or, worse — forced cleanouts have been linked to some suicides among the hoarding population.)

Thankfully, most licensed medical and psychological practitioners also work in combination with professional organizers who have been trained to work with this segment of the population. With treatment, almost all homes and lives of hoarders will see improvements over time.

As someone who loves a hoarder, it also can be difficult to see someone in need — as it is the same as seeing someone you love hurt in a car accident or in the hospital with pneumonia. You want to be able to fix things, and that desire is understandable. For someone on the outside looking in (both literally and figuratively), there are also resources available for you so you can provide the best type of support for your sibling (or spouse or child or parent or friend).

If you suspect you or someone you love may be a hoarder, seek out the help of the following respected organizations:

  • The International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center — This group is led by Randy Frost, PhD, and Gail Steketee, PhD, two of the nation’s most prominent researchers and clinicians in the field. I strongly recommend starting with this site to learn as much as you can.
  • Children of Hoarders — Although their site name implies they only help children of hoarders, they do much more than just help children. They have an incredible support forum for people who love those who struggle with hoarding. Additionally, their Resources section is very helpful.
  • Institute for Challenging Disorganization — The ICD provides superior information to those working daily with hoarders and individuals with chronic disorganization, as well as individuals seeking their support. This is another must-stop site when learning about hoarding and resources available for hoarders and those who love them.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope you are able to find the type of assistance you are searching for through one or more of the previously mentioned organizations. You’re also a wonderful sibling for loving and wanting to help your brother or sister. Please also check the comments for insights from our readership, many of whom have been in a similar situation as yourself. Good luck!

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.

Pre-paid postage greeting cards save time

It’s the smallest of improvements that often make the biggest difference in my life. For example, Hallmark made mailing cards significantly easier in February with the release of their postage-paid envelopes.

My sister-in-law sent my son a card in one of these envelopes a few weeks ago and when I saw the envelope with that image printed on it, I actually cheered. (I’m weird, I know.) From Hallmark’s corporate website:

Hallmark Postage-Paid Greetings feature the U.S. Postal Service’s Intelligent Mail barcode on the front of the envelope. When the cards are processed at a Postal Service facility, the barcode automatically indicates to the Postal Service the postage is paid. The postage is treated like a Forever stamp, and its value will always be equal to the price of a standard First-Class stamp, regardless of when it’s mailed.

In the article “Birthday cards and reminder systems” from back in 2007, I wrote about how I buy all my cards for the year at a single time to be more efficient. I’ve also been buying enough Forever stamps to cover all the postage for those cards around the same time. These new pre-paid envelopes make it so I don’t have to worry about the second step in the process. Also, it saves time if I need to pick up a last-minute card at the store — I just sign the card and drop it into any mailbox without having to go to the post office (which, since I haven’t yet bought my supply of cards for the year, I’ve actually done twice in the last week). Hallmark saves me from having to run another errand, and I like not having to run errands.

These new envelopes might not be for everyone, especially if you never mail cards, but for someone like me who sends a lot of cards they’re extremely convenient.

What small improvements have made a big difference in your life recently? Share your finds in the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: Helping parents downsize

Reader Amanda submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

After over 40 years in their home, [my 73 year old parents] … have decided to sell and build a house in a nearby community where HOA fees will pay for things like taking care of the yards. I am delighted for them.

… my mother has already expressed:

A) Anxiety about having to clean out their house to get it ready to sell. This also includes having small repairs made and staging the home.

B) Excitement about this being a chance to go through the things that they’ve collected over 40 years and toss/donate/sell the things they no longer want. She sees this as a chance to dump the unwanted and move forward only with what they want, need, and enjoy.

Do you have advice and resources I could pass on to my mother? … Any help you can offer would be welcome! Thanks.

Question A is easy to answer because good real estate agents have contractors and stagers on their staffs who do exactly these types of projects or they have a short list of trusted professionals they recommend using. When we sold our house last year, our agent’s team patched small nail holes, replaced a broken latch on a window, brought in a professional cleaning crew, mulched our flower beds, and staged the whole house. If the agent your parents are considering working with doesn’t have quick access to these services, they may want to interview some more agents to find one who really knows what he/she is doing. Since your parents are planning to move in just six months, now is a great time to start working with an agent.

Question B is terrific news because it means your parents are already thinking about the uncluttering and moving process in a positive way, too. You can help your parents by researching names of local charities and what types of donations the charities accept and how to make donations (drop off times, days of weeks, locations) to those charities. You can research what types of trash your parents’ waste management service collects for those things that really do need to be purged, as well as the area’s hazardous waste policies for any chemicals you parents won’t want to move into their new space. You can set up a Craig’s List account for your folks, if they’re interested in selling items. You can also find out names of local professional organizers who are specifically trained to help move people over age 65 through the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

If your parents are interested, you can also help them to unclutter, drop off items at charities, and pack. Work out a schedule with them so each day a little work can be done, and so you’ll know when you’re welcome to lend a hand and when they would rather privately work. Most of all, be prepared to listen. Downsizing from a family home can be emotionally difficult — even if it is a welcome move — and the difficulty is often alleviated through the sharing of stories about the memories that were made in the home.

Thank you, Amanda, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to your family over the next six months. Also, be sure to check the comments for even more advice 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.

Build your uncluttering and organizing skills by helping others

After being told by a teacher in high school that my writing was “average, at best,” I set out on a mission to improve my writing skills. I studied and practiced during my free time, which was an odd pastime for a teenager, and I pushed myself to learn whatever I could. I found I really enjoyed writing, and ended up pursuing a journalism degree in college. In graduate school, I kept with the writing theme and produced my master’s thesis on how to help non-native English speakers acquire vocabulary words based on morphemes to improve their writing and reading comprehension. Studying texts, taking classes, researching the brain and how it stores and uses languages were all fine methods for acquiring information about writing, and my writing did improve — but it wasn’t until I stepped into a classroom and taught 15-year-old students how to improve their writing that I truly blossomed as a writer.

My first year of teaching, a student wrote on a worksheet the following misquoted phrase from The Great Gatsby: “the cocktail yellow music.”

I knew “the cocktail yellow music” wasn’t grammatically correct (nor was it how Fitzgerald had penned it), but I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to mark it wrong on my student’s worksheet until I was sure I could explain to her why it was wrong. I tracked down an accomplished linguistics professor, and she explained to me that adjectives in English have a preference order. As a native English speaker, I instinctually used adjectives in the correct order but had never once thought about it. The adjectives simply flowed out of me in the way that sounded correct. Obviously, the phrase should be “the yellow cocktail music,” which is how it appears in the original text. The grammatical reason it should be this way is because color adjectives are listed before purpose adjectives. Yellow (a color) needs to come before the purpose for the music (the cocktail party). (If you’re curious: More information on adjective order in English.)

Three or four times a week, a student would ask me questions I couldn’t yet answer or make mistakes with their writing I knew were wrong but didn’t know why. I was pushed to learn why the word it takes the possessive unlike other words in the English language, why we say beef when talking about eating cows but don’t have separate words for eating fish or vegetables, why our brains go blind to overused words like said when we read, why it’s now acceptable to split infinitives but wasn’t always, how the passive voice can sometimes better convey information than the active voice, why it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions, and thousands of other specific quirks related to English communication. Teaching young adults how to improve their writing significantly improved my writing. Then, practicing these skills daily has helped me to retain what I learned.

I’ve found the exact same thing to be true with uncluttering and organizing. The more I help others to unclutter and organize their spaces, the better I become at doing these tasks in my own home and office. When I help others, my skill set benefits.

If you’re having issues in your own spaces with clutter and disorganization, help friends to unclutter and organize their homes and offices. Share what knowledge you have (which is probably more than you give yourself credit for knowing) and be open to learning through the process and from your friend. Seek out answers and solutions, and also absorb what you can from those around you. Practice, practice, practice your skills with your friends. Then, if you have good friends, they will return the favor and help to mentor you as you go through your uncluttering and organizing projects. You also may feel confident after your experiences to simply take on your projects alone.

If your friends aren’t game for such an activity, donate some of your time to a charity to clean out and organize a soup kitchen pantry or a game room at a women’s shelter or a clothing closet for a group that provides clothes for job interviews. Mentor your children by bringing them with you to sort materials at a charity’s donation site. You don’t have to work with people you know to build your skills, and it’s often easier to work with items void of your sentimental attachments.

Get out there and help others, which will in turn help build your uncluttering and organizing skills.

Introducing: SimpliFried.com

The Unclutterer family is growing, and I am elated to share with you the incredible news. Today, Dancing Mammoth (our parent company) is launching a new website that hopes to end mealtime stress. I would like to introduce you to our new sister site:

SimpliFried’s motto: “If your nerves are fried, we’ll be your simple, delicious, and nutritious cooking guide.” Our goal is to make feeding yourself and your family as painless as possible.

Similar to Unclutterer, there will be daily content posted to the site. Topics will range from simplifying and improving your cooking skills to food science to recipes that get you quickly in and out of the kitchen. Once a month there will be meal plans and shopping lists that make your life in the kitchen easier. Check out SimpliFried’s manifesto and About page to learn more.

I’m on board as the site’s Editor-in-Chief, and Matt Fetissoff joins me as our senior writer. Matt has lived for more than an year in an RV, and he knows a thing or two about cooking incredible meals in small spaces with low-tech equipment. Consulting to the site are a couple farmers (one in a major city and one on a large Midwest family farm), a butcher, a nutritionist, a self-declared foodie, and my very picky husband and even more picky peanut-allergic son who test drive every meal plan and recipe.

You can key in the URL by hand, subscribe to SimpliFried’s RSS feed, or get daily updates by e-mail. We also have a Twitter account @SimpliFried that regularly posts links.

Although there are only four posts currently live on the site, we’ve been working on SimpliFried for more than four months getting ready for the launch. I’m honestly surprised I was able to keep it a secret for so long. I am thrilled to finally be able to introduce it to you. The new logo even makes me smile, and I’m so glad we were able to have the same artist make him.

If you are looking for simplification strategies for your kitchen and cooking, I hope that SimpliFried can be a positive resource for you.