Say goodbye to perfume clutter

I like the idea of perfume, but have never really supported the whole “signature scent” concept. Wearing the same fragrance day after day isn’t my style, so I usually just go without perfume because it costs a lot to have many options. I also don’t want a whole dresser top full of large glass bottles tempting my cats. I find, too, that after a year or two the perfume goes stale and loses its oomph!

Reader Amanda sent us a terrific idea for men and women wanting to get rid of large bottle cologne and perfume clutter. Similar to the Use it up! advice reader Elena sent us for shampoo, Amanda’s suggestion is to only purchase perfume in very small amounts through websites like LuckyScent and ThePerfumedCourt:

“This keeps the price low, I can try different perfumes (some not available locally), and I hide them in a box in a dresser drawer, freeing (uncluttering) the top of my dresser.”

LuckyScent has an option at the bottom of every page of perfume that gives you the choice to purchase a sample (0.7mL.). They even offer sample packs; groups of popular or seasonal fragrances.

And, ThePerfumedCourt only sells trial sizes:

“What we do is spray, pour, or use sterile pipettes to take perfume from its original large bottle and repackage it in a smaller bottle (we only use brand new sterile glass bottles) so that the consumer can try as many fragrances as they desire before buying a full bottle.”

Thank you, Amanda, for such a terrifically simple idea for men and women who choose to wear a fragrance!

Make your yard easier to maintain

070806-flowers.jpgYard maintenance isn’t my most favorite thing in the world. Luckily, my yard is pretty small and the maintenance is minimal. If you have a larger yard with more landscaping and plants to look after, you may want to try some of these tips to cut your maintenance down as much as possible.

Go native: Ask your local garden center what the easiest native plants are in your area. Make these native plants the foundation for your yard’s landscaping.

Watering: Try and go for drought resistant plants, but you may also want to invest in an automatic watering system that can save you from watering your plants.

Take an hour: For an hour a week, go through your yard and keep the weeds to a minimum. Also, make sure the plants are thriving and in good health.

Mulch: Mulching around your bushes and plants reduces weeds and helps nourish your plants. Mulch also holds in moisture so you don’t have to water your plants as much.

Plant perennials: Plant more perennials and fewer annuals. This will save you time and money every spring.

Hire someone: If you absolutely are not interested in, or unable to do yard work, consider hiring someone to do all these tasks for you. If it is cost-effective, of course.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

College Life: Back-to-school basics

As students everywhere start preparing to head to college this fall, I want to talk about the art of small-space living. College students are a demographic that have particular stock in simple living, as does anyone with more possessions than space. Whether it be a 500 square foot downtown studio apartment or a shared room with a sibling, it can be difficult to live in a space the size of a dorm room.

Most students arrive at campus for the first time, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a minivan containing all of their worldly possessions. This is great until they are affronted with a dorm room approximately the size of a large closet.

If this sounds like it could be you, here are a few basics for maximizing your living space. I want to begin with an obvious tip:

Reassess your stuff.

The best way to fit your stuff into an itty-bitty space is to have less stuff. Only take the essentials with you. You shouldn’t abandon all of your trinkets at your parents’ place, either. Photograph and get rid of the napkin from prom and donate those t-shirts from your middle school musical to a local charity.

If your dorm room is a suite and has a kitchen, do you really need that mini-fridge, toaster oven, and microwave? Are any of your roommates bringing those items? There is no sense in having three blenders, even if you really like smoothies.

Take advantage of movie and music streaming services and let go of your CD and DVD collections.

Unless you are in the business school, do you need that suit?

Do you really need that commemorative Coors Light bobble-head, under any circumstance?

Even if you follow this advice, be prepared to bring a lot of things home for Thanksgiving break. Good luck to everyone heading off to school in the fall and stay tuned for more back-to-school tips.

Work life creeping into personal life? Try a battery-only weekend

I want to start this post by professing my love for the Internet, my computer, and my job. I love the digital age, and shiver with fear at the thought of living without Internet access.

That being said, I spend a significant amount of time on my computer beyond normal work hours doing non-critical work things. It’s a safe estimate that on a weekday I’ll spend one to two hours behind my laptop in the evenings. On a weekend day, bump that number up to three or four hours. Seeing as I officially work somewhere between nine and twelve hours a weekday, I’m surprised I want anything to do with a computer or work in my free time — let alone hours more.

I decided that I was going to take a break from my laptop and from work for a three-day holiday weekend. Unfortunately, I had a few small tasks I needed to do over the weekend, so I knew I couldn’t completely disconnect. I decided instead to unplug my computer at the end of the workday on Thursday and not plug my computer back in until showing up for work Monday morning.

I would survive the holiday only using my laptop’s battery power and nothing else.

I was able to finish the majority of my work on Friday morning and was confident that I would be able to get through the weekend fine. I opened up my laptop a few times throughout the rest of the day, but I didn’t think anything of it since the battery percentages were in the 70s, then the 60s, then the 50s. Saturday morning, however, when I checked my work email, I noticed I only had 35 percent power left!

I was a little stunned that my Saturday morning number was 35 percent. My first thought was that I must have a lame battery. A good battery wouldn’t be on 35 percent in just a day! Except, when I stopped to calculate my usage on Friday, I realized I had easily spent three hours on my laptop. My battery was working fine, it was user consumption that was to blame.

On Sunday, I opened my laptop and saw 8 percent. About half an hour into checking my email and other little site tasks, I got a message on my screen announcing that my computer was operating on reserve power. I immediately closed my laptop and decided to save the last bits of remaining energy in case of a work emergency.

The only problem is that it takes energy to power-up a laptop after its lid has been closed. I discovered this truth after lunch, when I thought I could sqeeze out a few seconds of power just to see if the website was doing okay. But, all I got was a blank screen.

My computer officially died with 20 hours to go before work started on Monday.

I don’t like the idea that I used all of my computer’s battery power before the three-day weekend had come to a close. What I took from it is that I’m having difficulty drawing the line between work and free time. I think about work constantly and would like to be able to turn those thoughts off and relax at least once in a while.

So, for the duration of the month, I’m going to have battery-powered laptop weekends. Work matters a great deal to me, but so does taking advantage of my free time. I hope that this process helps me to better prioritize my time away from work and relax and rejuvenate to make my official work time more productive. Clutter comes in all forms, and, right now, it’s in the form of working through my weekends. If you’re in a similar position, consider joining me in the battery-powered challenge.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Unclutter worries from your mind

Even though I’m a faithful user of David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system, I still find that I will sometimes worry about one or two of my next actions. I don’t worry about how I will complete the item, rather I worry about ridiculous things I cannot control (like if my cold will be over by the time I need to make a presentation).

Experience has taught me that when my thoughts become cluttered my effectiveness decreases. Then, to add insult to injury, I get even more frustrated when a task I know should only take five minutes takes me half an hour. It’s a downward spiral that is best addressed earlier instead of later.

When I find my thoughts are a mess, I answer the following five questions to unclutter my mind.

1. What is my worry? Many times, simply naming my worry is all that I need to do to quell my racing mind.

2. Is my worry rational, illogical, emotional, something I cannot control, or just noise? Identifying what type of worry I’m having can help me to find a solution to stop the cluttered thoughts. A rational fear might be solved with the creation of an action item. A worry about if it might rain is just noise because there is already an umbrella in my car.

3. Am I afraid of failure? When this worry creeps into my mind I remember a quote I found a year ago by a woman named Martha Mangelsdorf: “What would I do if I were not afraid?” The quote inspires me to imagine how I would behave differently in a given situation if I weren’t afraid of failing. Doing so has never failed to relieve me of this type of fear.

4. What good will come from my worrying? The answer to this question is often “no good.” If this is the answer, then squashing the worry in a swift manner is the only solution to uncluttering my mind.

5. How much additional time should I devote to worrying about this issue? There are times when a fear is rationally grounded and deserves my attention. I will schedule the proper amount of time to devote to the worry (five minutes to five hours) and then address the issue and only that issue during that time. I will sit down with a cup of coffee and a notepad and work out a solution. When my scheduled time is completed, I create action items or I wash my hands of the worry. I try not to be consumed with the worry before the scheduled time, as well as afterward. A focused time to worry keeps the worry from slowing me down during times when my mind needs to be working on something else.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Free-up space in your bathroom by getting rid of nail polish

My mother has the most beautiful finger nails a woman could ever dream of having. They’re strong and straight and no one believes her when she says that they’re real. She doesn’t have professional manicures and, even though you won’t believe me, she doesn’t wear finger nail polish.

To let you in on a secret: My nails are not as beautiful as my mother’s, and I don’t wear finger nail polish either. I wouldn’t even know how to put it on if someone gave me a bottle.

I trim and file and put lotion on my cuticles so that my nails always look healthy, clean, and well-maintained. My mom might even buff hers a bit to make hers shiny. But, open up our bathroom cabinets, and you won’t find finger nail polish anywhere.

In my experience, people only notice someone else’s nails when they are dirty, unkempt, or have chipped paint on them. If you’re looking to free up some space in your bathroom cabinets, you might think about getting rid of your finger nail polish supply. In addition to giving you some space, it also has the bonus of saving you money on polish and polish remover. I also don’t experience stress about chipping my finger nail polish right before an important meeting.

If you decide to get rid of your finger nail polish, be sure to dispose of it properly. Remove the nail polish cap and allow it to become a solid (do this in a well-ventilated area, like on your front porch). Once it is a solid, it is safe to throw away in the trash. If you have an extensive finger nail polish collection, then take all of your polish to your local hazardous waste disposal facility. It is unsafe to dispose of liquid polish in your trash. Nail polish remover should also be disposed of at your local hazardous waste disposal facility.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Family heirlooms: Give them away at milestone celebrations

The distribution of family heirlooms is a little creepy in my book: someone dies and I get a present. I like presents, don’t misunderstand, I just wish that a family member didn’t have to die for me to get it.

My grandmother is aware of my aversion to these inheritance practices, and so gave me her set of silver as a wedding present. When she gave it to me, she told me the story about the silver and how she worked to make money to buy it, piece by piece, during the 1930s. Had she waited to give it to me after her death, I likely would have had another set already and would have never known the delightful story of how she purchased it. Now, when I use it, I think about her, that wonderful day, and her generous gift.

My advice is to give family heirlooms away at appropriate milestone celebrations. Grandfather’s college ring should be given to a grandchild on his or her graduation with a note about it and a photo of grandfather wearing it. The rocking chair you used in your daughter’s nursery should be passed on to her the day she brings her first child home. When you give her the chair, include a page from your diary when you talked about rocking her to sleep in it and a photo of her in your arms. Don’t hoard your treasured heirlooms, instead give them away at appropriate times with heart-felt explanations of why they are valued.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Avoiding children’s party clutter

As an adult, you can write “No Gifts Please” on birthday party invitations and guests usually respect these wishes. It doesn’t work this way for children’s parties, however, or for baby showers or even random trips to grandma’s house.

Children love gifts and people love giving children gifts. It’s the way of the world. Gifts, although well intentioned and truly appreciated, can still end up as clutter.

For example, my friend Kristine received 14 baby blankets at a shower her mother threw for her when she was pregnant with her second child. She ended up keeping a couple that were hand knit, one that was quilted, one that could easily be laundered, and then gave the other 10 to charity. She was extremely thankful for the generosity people showed toward her and her future child, but there was no way that she could store or ever use 14 baby blankets.

When having parties for children or baby showers for new parents, there are some things that you can do to help keep gifts from becoming clutter:

Baby Showers

  • Establish a baby registry. Amazon has an online registry where friends and family from across the country can purchase items for expecting parents. These lists help to focus gift giving toward things that new parents need. Yes, it is sterile and soul-less, but it also is considerate and useful.
  • Throw a “help the community” party. When my friends adopted a baby from China, they had a baby shower where people brought gifts for the Chinese orphanage. When the couple traveled to pick up their daughter in China, they took the blankets, books, and clothing to the other orphans in China still waiting to be placed with families.
  • Have a “pamper the parent” party. Before a baby arrives, mothers and fathers are often the last people on everyone’s minds. Remind the parents that you’re thinking of them, too, by having a day at the spa where guests can join the expecting parents in manicures, pedicures, and massages.

Children’s Parties

  • Have a theme party. On a child’s first birthday, have a “stock the library” party where attendees bring their favorite children’s book. If your child can’t get enough of trucks when he’s two, ask for attendees to bring truck gifts to his party. A focused theme helps to target gifts toward things that will be used, and also helps the gift buyer when trying to think of what to bring.
  • Have an adventure party. In lieu of gifts, let party attendees know that there will be a small fee (I’d try to keep it to $15 or less) to white-water raft or ride in a hot air balloon or be admitted to Six Flags. This is probably an approach best suited to older children. Other parents will thank you for not having to buy a gift and for taking their children off of their hands for a few hours. Plus, your child will remember the experience for a lifetime. Remember, too, that family members still will likely give gifts, so there will be presents for your child to unwrap at some point during the day.

Let’s hear from parents about other ideas for good gift-giving parties in the comments.

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

In case of …

No one enjoys thinking about the macabre. But, as Benjamin Franklin so accurately posited in a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

On Unclutterer, we’ve certainly glossed over the death topic. The truth is that we don’t enjoy thinking about it either. However, if you’re going to take the time to get your life organized, you would be remiss to ignore that there will be a point where you’re no longer here and others will need to find important documents and information to close your estate.

We call these our “In case of …” files. In mine, I include things like contact information for employees, server details, and passwords, and a key to my fire-proof safe where I store my Will and a copy of my birth certificate. The idea is that if something does happen to me, I want things to be easier on my close family and friends who are mourning. I’d rather them have good thoughts of me after my passing, not angry thoughts because they searched for hours trying to find my life insurance policy to pay for the funeral.

If you’ve never put together an “In case of …” file, the best place to start is by visiting a lawyer to draft your Last Will and Testament. This document will include answers to all of the big questions: custody of children, property disbursements, where you want to be buried, etc. After you have this document created, you’ll then need to pass along the name of your lawyer to at least two different people — someone who lives near you (spouse, partner, close friend) and someone who lives in a different part of the country or world — and then store this document safely (such as in a UL 350 fireproof safe).

The rest of your “In case of …” file will be up to you in terms of its contents. Are there people who would need to be contacted at your job? Are you the primary care provider for a child, sibling, or parent who may need to receive immediate attention before the reading of your Will? Do you have bills that have to be paid? Look at your life and identify all of the places that could be stressful for someone to handle if you weren’t there to help. Now, provide information on those issues and put it in your “In case of …” file. It won’t be a fun process while you collect the information, but afterward you’ll have a peace of mind that things will be okay in case something happens.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Hire someone to run your errands

My friend is an executive assistant. Over drinks one night, I asked her what an executive assistant does. She responded that during her morning she drove to her boss’ house and fixed a power generator, she picked her boss up some lunch on her way back to the office, she returned phone calls for her boss for an hour in the afternoon, got coffee for her boss and a visiting international celebrity around 3:00 pm, and then dropped off her boss’ dry cleaning on her way home from work.

I told her that I needed an executive assistant, and she agreed that she needed one, too.

Errands tie up a great deal of our time and keep us from living in a stress-free home. In fact, stuff related to errands that I need to run often clutters up around my front door — clothes that need to go to the dry cleaner, books that need to be returned to the library, bikes that need to be serviced, etc. — and sits there nagging at me until I can spend four or five hours doing a bunch of errands I don’t really want to do.

In many large communities, there are companies established to provide personal assistants and errand runners at hourly rates. An internet search of your area might turn up a list of names. Check out customer reviews, and then take advantage of your own personal assistant.

If, like me, you live in a place without these companies, offer to pay the neighborhood high school kid $50 a week (plus fuel for the car) to run all of your errands for you. Open a pay-in-advance credit card with limited funds for the hired hand to use when picking up your dry cleaning and repaired bike. After one week of working for you, I doubt that you’ll even miss the $50.

Think about adding an extra $20 or $30 for the kid to also mow your lawn or shovel your snow. You can spend the free time enjoying the extra time in the company of your family or cleaning out your dusty attic. Regardless of what you do with your time, though, that cluttered pile of “things to do” next to your front door will be gone.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Streamlining your morning routine

My friend Brittany has a problem. She can’t get out of the house in the morning on time. No matter how early she wakes up, she can find a reason to be late. Laundry, phone calls, or lost objects are common time sucks.

“I dawdle,” Brittany reports.

Brittany doesn’t have a big issue with her lack of promptness, but her boyfriend who carpools with her does. Most days he makes her lunch while he waits for her to get her act together. She admits that she doesn’t even figure making her lunch into her morning routine any longer, if she were responsible for it, she’d be even more tardy.

“He likes having something to do while he waits for me,” she rationalizes.

Her lateness is starting to wear thin on her boyfriend, however, so she turned to me for advice. She asked if I could help her streamline her morning routine so that she could start getting out the door on time.

The first step in streamlining your morning routine is to discover how you’re spending your time. In my friend’s case, I think that her boyfriend might be a better person to track her morning processes. Either way, keep a log of how you spend your time from the point you wake up until you arrive at work. Keep this log for two or three weeks so that you get an accurate view of your typical morning. How long does it take to shower? Choose your clothes? Hunt for items you need to drop at the dry cleaners, post office, or child’s school? What throws you off track?

After you have a log of what you do, you’ll need to evaluate the information you’ve collected. What are the activities that you do every day that you can’t avoid (things like showering, teeth brushing, getting dressed, and commuting fall into this category)? List these items and their time requirements on a sheet of paper. If your commute time varies, find the average length of your commute times over the two or three-week period and use that number. Now, do the obvious and add up these numbers to make sure that you’re waking up at least early enough to achieve these essential tasks.

The next step is to evaluate those other tasks that don’t have to be completed in the morning. These are tasks like picking out your clothing, making lunches, collecting things together, or hunting for your daughter’s pony tail holder. Could any of these tasks be relocated to the evening beforehand? Could you make all lunches for a week on Sunday afternoon? How much time are you wasting every morning doing tasks that don’t have to be handled before work?

Here are some other questions to ask yourself:

How many times are you hitting the snooze button on the alarm in the morning? Do you need to move your alarm clock to the other side of the room? Resolve not to hit the snooze at all? Go to bed earlier?

Do you routinely pick out your clothes the night beforehand so that you can make sure your shirt is ironed, you know where both shoes are located, and your socks match? Do your children go through the same process?

Do you have a spot in your home where you put all items that you’ll need for the next day? Do you have a basket where your child puts forms that have to be signed for school so that last-minute tasks are kept to a minimum? Do you keep your keys, wallet, watch, and cell phone in a valet, purse, or on a landing strip so that you don’t have to hunt for them?

Do you take the time to read the paper in physical form when it might be easier to download a digital version and read it on an e-book reader or your iPod/cell phone on the subway/bus? Are you stopping to buy coffee every morning when brewing it at home would reduce the time involved (and the price tag)?

In the drastic measure department, do you need a different job that doesn’t care what time you get in to work? Is there a family in your child’s carpool that routinely makes everyone else late that you could tactfully un-invite from your carpool?

Once you work through this process, you should have a clear view of what is keeping you from arriving at work on time. Now, you have to take the steps to streamline your schedule and get your morning routine running on time.

Good luck to my friend Brittany and to anyone else trying to get your morning routine on the right track!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Establishing routines

One of the best ways, in my experience, to stay ahead of the game and keep your home from being overrun with clutter is to establish routines. Every household works differently, so develop a set of routines that is practical and effective for your living space.

Here are some ideas for routines that you can develop for your home:

Car — Each time you leave your car do a quick check to see if there is anything that doesn’t belong in your car. Then, once a week, do a check under the seats for dropped wrappers, coins, etc. I do the full check on Saturday mornings before I run errands.

Laundry — You’ll want to have a weekly schedule for washing bedroom sheets and bathroom towels (I do these on Thursdays). Additionally, you’ll want to plan for doing the laundry once a week if you’re single, twice a week if there are two or three people in your home, every other day if there are four people, and everyday if five or more people occupy your house. I suggest putting the load of laundry in to wash before work, putting it into the dryer after work, and folding it and putting it away after dinner.

Home Office — You should have routines in place for filing, clearing off your work space, and addressing to-do items. I promote filing items as they need to be filed instead of collecting a pile to file all at once (piles = clutter). Every Friday, I make sure to clean off my desk and review my next week’s goals.

Banking — One day in your schedule needs an hour dedicated to paying bills, organizing receipts, depositing checks and taking care of your finances. Once a month, add in balancing your accounts to your hour of banking responsibilities. I do this on Fridays because my bank has extended hours on this day if I need to contact them.

Deep Cleaning — The best way that I’ve found to tackle cleaning is to give each room a day of the week (Monday is living room, Tuesday is family room, Wednesday is bedroom, Thursday is bathrooms, Friday is kitchen, etc.). I’ll dust, clean the floors, and do other chores for 15 minutes to half an hour everyday per room instead of a five-hour, full-house, cleaning session all on one day.

Yard — During the warmer months, walk through your yard looking for children’s toys, fallen branches, and any other clutter that can find its way into your yard at least twice a week. If you mow your lawn, do this walk before you mow. If you have someone else mow your lawn, do this check the evening before the lawn maintenance people arrive. During the winter, you can probably reduce this check to once a week or once every other week.

Closets — As discussed in previous posts, go through your closets every six months to purge items that shouldn’t be in it any longer. Do this for linens and other storage closets, in addition to your clothing closets.

There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of other routines that you can establish in your home to keep it clutter free. Think about your home and create a schedule that you and your family can work with to keep clutter reduced. Remember, too, that even though it feels like you are doing work on your home everyday, when routines are in place you spend less time overall on organization. Plus, your home will always be in a state of order, which will cause you less stress and will be presentable if an unexpected guest decides to drop by for a visit.

If you have effective routines established in your home, feel welcome to share these in the comments. The Unclutterer team loves to hear about innovative ways people are keeping their homes clutter free.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.