Is ‘trading up’ your space worth it?

Are you in constant pursuit of a bigger, better home? Do you think that more space will solve your problems or alleviate the stress of storing all your stuff? Are your eyes set on the biggest house you can afford?

If you answered affirmatively to any of the above questions, you may want to take a few minutes to read Daniel McGinn’s article originally published in Newsweek in 2008, “Extreme Downsizing: How moving from a 6,000-square-foot custom home to a 370-square-foot recreational vehicle helped quell one family’s ‘House Lust.’

The family featured in the article was getting ready to buy a home on land and give up their RV after two years on the road. They learned a number of valuable lessons over the two years, but this one stuck out to me:

“Debbie makes it clear that their next home, while smaller, will still be nicely appointed. It’s not as if she’s forsaken the American dream altogether; she has just realized that the endless cycle of ‘trading up’ to nicer homes isn’t very fulfilling. ‘It was this constant “This will be the answer.” Then you’d come up empty at the end,’ she says. ‘It was this searching thing, and I think I’m done with the search.'”

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

A place for everything. Seriously.

Once you unclutter, the next step in getting organized is, well, getting organized. The key to personal organization, in my experience, is developing processes that take the thinking out of organization and sticking to those processes. What this means is that getting organized once — tidying up everything — won’t do unless you can keep it organized.

We’ve all had the experience of letting our spaces get so cluttered and messy that we had to stop and put everything away, throw out useless items, and make the space clean. This tells us a couple of things. For one, the mind can only take so much messiness in its environment before it rebels and says, “I can’t think until this place is cleaned up!”

Without organization, you can’t be productive. Suppose you’re working on a project that requires certain tools, such as paper, pens, a ruler, scissors. If you have to stop every minute to think were the scissors or pens are in your mess, several things happen. First, and most obvious, you’ll waste time (as the scientific management school showed us). Second, you’ll never get into a productive flow that will allow for creativity.

Organization is having a place for everything and making sure everything is in its place. I know that cliche sounds trite, but think about it. When you cleaned up, where did you put things? You put them in their place, right? That means most things have “their place” (not an objective universal place, just a place you’ve decided is where they belong). Why did you put them in their place? Because you want to be able to — unthinkingly — find them when you need them without interrupting your flow or creativity.

The other thing that has to be unthinking is putting things back in their place after you’ve used them. First, you have to have a place for everything. If you don’t have a drawer or shelf for DVDs, then when you finish watching one, you’re likely to leave it on the coffee table. Some places are better than others, and I hope to get into this in future posts, but for now just make sure you have a place. Also, remember we’re talking about things after you’ve uncluttered, so hopefully all that is left are things that are useful or enjoyable. Second, you need a process for staying organized. Having a place for everything does no good unless you regularly put everything in its place.

Processes can be as simple as a commitment to throw out clutter and put everything in its place in your work area before you leave for the day. When you come in the next day, everything will be calm and you’ll be ready to start the day smoothly without a jarring messy desk looking at you first thing in the morning. What makes this a process, however, is making it a habit and doing it regularly. In the posts to come I hope to look at good places and good processes.


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

Letting a corner of clutter slide

The more attuned I am to practicing simple living, the fewer places in my home have hidden corners of clutter. There are some places, though, where disorder thrives and I realize that I am completely okay with it. In fact, these areas serve as little humbling reminders that I am human and am far from perfect.

Case in point: My sock drawer.

Did I just hear you gasp? Are you completely horrified? Are the hairs standing up on the back of your neck as you compose an e-mail to me offering to organize my sock drawer for me? Take a deep breath and move your fingers off the keyboard. It is going to be okay.

You should know that all of the other drawers in my dresser are beautifully organized (imagine the successful use of separators) and contain little to no disarray. It really is just my sock drawer that looks hideous. My husband’s sock drawer is ordered by type of sock (dress or sport) and color coordinated (a helpful activity for those who are color blind), which is strange since I’m the one who often folds and puts away his laundry. My sock drawer is messy, however, and the whole world has not collapsed around me.

I’m mentioning my sock drawer because people can have the misconception that being organized means that every single minute aspect of one’s life is in pristine order. Order is a goal, yes — but so is sanity. Being organized and living simply is about removing distractions that get in the way of a remarkable life. Right now, my sock drawer is not a hindrance to the life I want to lead. Maybe one day it will be, and I will buy some dividers and establish order in my sock drawer. Until then, it is one of a small handful of places where disorder exists in my home, and that’s okay. Really, it is.

Do you have a space where disorder reigns, but the whole of your organization system isn’t collapsing as a result? Feel welcome to tell us about it in the comments. Get it off your chest. You are, after all, only human.


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

Living more simply through eBay

Here’s one way to live more simply: sell all your possessions on eBay. That’s what John Freyer did in 2002. As he was getting ready to leave grad school in Iowa for New York City, he decided to sell everything he owned on eBay and on his site, He sold everything, from used socks, to a can of Chunky Soup from his pantry, from his Planet of the Apes LP, to a bag of small, roasted cuttlefish. The result is a book that catalogues his project, which is described on the site as an “explor[ation of] our relationship to the objects around us, their role in the concept of identity, as well as the emerging commercial systems of the Internet.”

You don’t need to be as hip and PoMo as Freyer to see the benefit of eBay as a tool for turning clutter into cash. I saw an article in New York Times back in 2007 about how teens trying to get quick cash are a great source for cheap electronics on eBay and Craigslist. Especially when you’re about to make a life change, like moving to another city, selling a lot of your stuff, instead of packing it up and paying to ship it, can be a great organization strategy.

There’s a moral here for you even if like most of your possessions, thank you very much. Whenever you are uncluttering and you don’t think you can bring yourself to part with some knick-knack, just think of John Freyer and his Star Wars bed sheets.


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

Keep kids’ POV in mind

In February 2007, Arizona Republic had some great organization tips for parents. My favorites are the kitchen tips which keep in mind the children’s point of view.

Establish a pantry snack shelf at the hand level of little tykes.
Why it works: Children and their friends can serve themselves without having to climb on chairs or interrupt parents to ask. What you need: Matching clear, stackable containers.

Arrange a continental breakfast nook.
Why it works: Little ones can serve themselves in an expedited fashion since bowls, cereal, sugar, fruit, muffins and any other breakfast foods and utensils are kept in the same space. What you need: An hour to rearrange the pantry and cabinets and possibly resize shelving to accommodate cereal boxes.

Are there any tips you can share with other readers on how to make things easier for children?


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

What’s a kitchen for?

Today’s kitchens are used for more than just preparing food. They are often playrooms, offices, mail centers, and TV rooms. When you mix up so many purposes for the same space (or even the same countertop), you’re not going to get good results. Something as simple as making a ham and cheese sandwich is impossible when your countertops are covered with bills and other papers. Instead of succumbing to this fate, set up different spaces for different tasks.

Ideally, your kitchen should only be for cooking, but realistically that’s not going to be the case–especially since kitchens tend to be the center of family activity. Designate some countertop space that’s off-limits to anything but cooking or eating, and make it a point to keep it clear when it’s not being used. That way, when you’re ready to use it again, it’s ready for you.

If you must bring mail and bill-paying paraphernalia into the kitchen, set up a space for just that activity and don’t let it spread out of that area. (A desktop organizer or mini-shelf is a perfect solution.) Even if you can’t dedicate surfaces to specific activities like bill-paying, storage in the kitchen can help. For example, when you finish eating at the kitchen table, you take away the dishes to wash and store in the cupboard. Why not do the same with everything else? If you pay bills, do homework, or play games at the kitchen table, make sure to clean up when you’re done. Keeping a drawer or cupboard for each activity will make it as easy and second-nature to put away your stuff.


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

Home office in a box

CI DeskIf you are strapped for space and you need a workspace for your house or apartment, you may want to check out the CI Desk from Creative Industrial Objects. Its small design and compact storage drawers offer a welcome alternative to a space-hogging desk.

The CI Desk looks a bit like a storage unit on wheels, but it is more than just a way to store your office supplies. The top flips out to supply you with a solid place for your laptop to rest, instead of using your lap. From Creative Industrial Objects:

A multi-functional home office on wheels, in its handy size and elegant shape, adapting to the flexible working habits of the individual at home or in the office. Through a 180-degree turn of its top, it unfolds into a small workstation for laptop users. The smooth contours of the desk cube in fact reveal the delicately inbuilt wooden drawers that open to the front and sides. CI desk provides mobility and a practical working space for any busy individual.

If one was to go this route in a home office, you would more than likely have to keep all clutter out of your streamlined desk. There just isn’t enough room for a junk drawer or desk top toys and trinkets … which is probably a good thing.

(via Apartment Therapy)

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

Getting started with getting organized

If you want to unclutter your space and get organized, I recommend 30 Days to a Simpler Life, by Cris Evatt and Connie Cox. It’s chock full of tips and it will inspire you to get started simplifying. At times the book can be a bit too new-agey for my taste (for example, they recommend that you “say the names of things you see” to become “fully present,” and to eat with your left hand if you’re right-handed so that you eat more slowly and thus better savor your meal), but those parts can be easily overlooked if you don’t care for them. The rest is very good.

What I like about this book is that Evatt and Cox recognize that simplifying has two separate parts: first you unclutter, then you organize. If you just organize, all you’ll accomplish will be neatly stacking piles of garbage — rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, to be dramatic about it. Evatt and Cox propose a three-step method to eliminating clutter that makes so much sense that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. It certainly helped me pare down my cluttered spaces.

Three piles

The first thing you do is that you pick an area you want to unclutter. Don’t try to do too much at once; focus on what’s causing you the most stress. (Let’s say it’s your closet, but it could be your files, or your kitchen, or anything else.) Schedule ample time to dedicate to the task and go through every item in your cluttered space. Place each item into one of three piles: the “love and use” pile, the “recycle” pile, and the “ambivalence” pile.

  1. The “love and use” pile requires little thought because it’s for those things that you immediately know are essential to you and that you use a lot. A pair of jeans that you wear at least once a week would certainly go in there.
  2. The “recycle” pile should also be simple. It’s for those items you immediately know you should get rid of. You’ll ask yourself why you still have the thing. A big elbow-padded sweater from the 80s would be a good example. Anything you haven’t worn or used once in the past year should certainly go in there. It’s called a recycle pile because you can often donate these things or give them to a friend who might be able to use them. For me, however, it’s often just a “garbage” pile. If you don’t want it, what are the chances someone else will? And you won’t believe how satisfying and liberating it is to walk to the garbage chute with a big bag of stuff from your stress area knowing you’ll never have to worry about these things again.
  3. The last pile is the trickiest, but the key to the system. Into the “ambivalence” pile go things that you don’t love, that you don’t use very often, but that you can’t bring yourself for whatever reason to throw away. Many people never wear a particular garment but won’t get rid of it because it was a gift from a loved one. That goes in the ambivalence pile. You’re not going to throw away anything in this pile, so don’t be afraid to be generous with your ambivalence.

Practice living without it

The stuff in your “love and use” pile can go back into the closet or whatever other area you’re organizing. Of course, you’ll use good quality hangers and other thoughtful organizers, but those are posts for another day. The stuff in your “ambivalence” pile, however, you fold neatly and place into attractive storage boxes. Seal up those boxes, label them, and put them in an out of the way storage space where they won’t be clutter. If a month later you realize you want to use or wear one of the things you put away, you know where to find it; no need to worry. However, after six months, or a year, or whatever short period makes you comfortable, take the ambivalence boxes with everything that’s still left in them (which is very often everything you first put into them) and throw them down the chute. You won’t feel bad, I promise. The reason is that, as Evatt and Cox say, you have practiced living without these things and you’ve effectively already thrown them out in your head. Practicing living without things is a great way to transition from a cluttered to an uncluttered space. After a year or six months, if you haven’t used something, you likely never will.

Design systems

The last step is to design simple systems that will keep you from getting cluttered again. This is the part where, once you’ve uncluttered, you can begin to get (and stay) organized. Sharing many of these little systems is much of what I hope Unclutterer does.

When you’re done with these steps, and your ambivalence boxes are tucked away, you will find that your closet is now incredibly simplified. You won’t have such a hard time picking out what to wear because all your favorite things will be readily visible. And you won’t believe how much space you’ll have. The best feeling, though, is the feeling of lightness that comes from getting rid of stuff that just doesn’t belong in your life anymore, combined with the security that it’s all there if you really do need it again. So go nuts doing this with your drawers, your living room, and every other nook.


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

The slow cooker: Uncluttered kitchen cooking

As fall nears and the weather cools, I start looking forward to a good bowl of chili while watching my favorite football team play on a Sunday afternoon. My thoughts of chili then progress into musings of stews and soups and all the wonderful things that can be made in my slow cooker.

I like using a slow cooker because it means that I dirty it and no other pots or pans during meal preparation. There are a few exceptions when an additional pan is needed to brown or sear meat, but these instances are rare. After the meal has been served, cleanup is as simple as moving the empty crock from the slow cooker to the dishwasher. The slow cooker is definitely an uncluttered kitchen solution.

If you don’t currently own a slow cooker, there are really only two features that I see as essential components. The first necessary feature is a separate, removable inner crock. The second feature is a temperature indicator that has at least three settings: Off, Low, and High. I have never found use for any of the other slow cooker features currently on the market. A crock pot with these two features also has the benefit of usually costing less than $30 and will last you many years.

The majority of the recipes I make in my slow cooker are in my head. However, I took a trip recently to my local bookstore and saw that there are now dozens of slow cooker recipe books in publication for people seeking printed recipes. Also, an internet search for “slow cooker recipe” yielded thousands of recipes from online sources. If you’re looking for inspiration, here are some of the slow cooker cookbooks on the market:

Enjoy your uncluttered cooking experience!


This post has been updated since it was originally published in September 2007.

Thinking ahead about simplifying the holidays

As the days get shorter here in the Northern Hemisphere and the nights get chillier, I start thinking about the upcoming holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. And this inspired me go to my bookshelf and take another look at the book entitled Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays, by Elaine St. James.

This is a type of book that often doesn’t appeal to me: a smaller size (for easy grabbing at the bookstore cash register) and the 100-ways format. But this is one I liked, because it puts forth a range of suggestions so you’re quite likely to find at least a few that inspire you to approach things a bit differently. The author isn’t proposing any one-size-fits-all solution.

On a re-read, the chapter that most caught my attention was entitled Stop Trying to Get Organized. Her point is that a long organized holiday to-do list — with tasks starting weeks or months before Christmas — means you’re still doing a whole lot of things. Simplifying, so the long list isn’t so long, would often be a better approach. It reminded me of the standard organizing approach where we unclutter first and then organize what’s left, so we aren’t organizing things we don’t really want or need.

The author emphasizes the importance of identifying what’s special and meaningful to you and your family about the holidays and focusing on those items. This made me think about my own special holiday memories. I remember standing on a friend’s porch in Florida on a warm Christmas Eve, looking at the lights, drinking wine, and singing every Christmas carol we could remember. I remember being lucky enough to spend a Christmas with friends in Germany, who had invited many family members and friends to spend the holiday with them. They opened gifts on Christmas Eve, but the number of gifts and their cost were both much less than what I often see at home. I have amazing memories of a Christmas Eve spent answering calls on an AIDS hotline, many years ago. I love pulling together my Christmas music playlist every December, and buying gifts for my adopted seniors from their wish lists has been part of my holidays for years.

So music, friends, and caring for those less fortunate than me are key parts of my holidays. These all add joy to my life, don’t involve excessive spending, and don’t cause me any stress.

St. James addresses many aspects of holiday celebrations: cards, gift giving, the Christmas tree and other decorations, holiday meals, the office Christmas party, etc. Now, before we’re actually swept up in the holiday season, might be a good time to ponder how you’d like to handle all of this in the coming months. Many of her thoughts about Christmas could apply to other holidays equally well.

And now I’m going to freecycle this book, passing it along so someone else can be inspired to have the holiday celebrations they really want.

Words to keep you motivated

Listed below are the most common pieces of advice I give to people on the topic of uncluttering. With a three-day weekend on the horizon for those of us in the States, I thought that some encouragement might be appropriate. Have a great holiday, everyone!

  1. You don’t have to unclutter in one fell swoop. Many projects, spread out over weeks and months, will get you the same results as if you had tackled it all at once.
  2. Benefits of uncluttering can include being better organized, less stressed, and having fewer things to clean. When you walk into a room, you’re able to relax because there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.
  3. Your motivations and visions for your uncluttered life are your guiding star when taking on uncluttering projects. Keep your eyes on your goals and you’ll find that uncluttering has less to do about the stuff and more about the life you want to lead.
  4. You can do it!
  5. You don’t have to unclutter alone. Seek out friends, family, or organizational professionals to help with motivation and keep you focused on your uncluttering goals.
  6. Keep things in perspective. If you relapse and get bogged down, don’t become frustrated and beat yourself up over it. Start again tomorrow. This is home and office organization, it’s not brain surgery. There are worse things in the world than not succeeding your first time with an uncluttering project.
  7. The person with the most amount of stuff at the end of his or her life doesn’t win an award.
  8. The person with the least amount of stuff at the end of his or her life doesn’t win an award, either. Living an uncluttered life doesn’t mean that you have to live an ascetic life. Simple living is about getting rid of distractions that prevent you from enjoying a modern, luxurious life. It’s about smart consumption, not no consumption. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”

What advice, motivations, or thoughts have helped you to be more organized? Let us know what has influenced you!


This post was originally published in August 2007.

Did you get the most out of summer?

For those of you with kids, summer can be a crazy time. The are very few routines and the kids are off doing some activity or another while you continue working. Or perhaps you had some time off and managed to get away or had a supposedly relaxing stay-cation.

The big question, however, is: Did you have fun? Did the kids have fun?

We don’t have kids, but my holidays are always in August each year, so while I don’t have others relying on me to plan and deliver on fun times, I always reach September and ask myself whether I took advantage of the time off I had, or whether I could have gotten more out of the time away from work.

In July before finishing work, I came up with a list of possible things to do in August. With thirty-one days to fill, I wanted to have something to do every single day if we felt like it. Of course, we allowed ourselves to say “no way, not today!” and spend the day in bed, by the pool or reading a book in a nice patch of sun, but what I didn’t want to happen was what has happened all too often when we both have time off together.

Husband: What do you want to do today?

Me: I don’t know. How about you?

Husband: No idea.

(We both go back to our smartphones and surf around social media.)

Me (an hour later): So what are we going to do?

Husband (looking at the time): We have to go grocery shopping and then there’s that pile of laundry over there…

And nothing fun happens. It’s just another day.

So, to avoid this issue, I came up with thirty-five different things we could do. Some were one-off events, others were repeatable depending on how much we liked them, the weather, and who we were with.

We knew who would be visiting us when and who might invite us out on day-trips or weekends.

I thrilled to tell you that it was a total success. We’ve never had a better summer and it was a sort of stay-cation. Normally we go away on some big trip where we exhaust ourselves squeezing fun and sun out of every second, but this year we divided our time between our two apartments. We went to the beach, took bike rides, put on the rollerblades that have been collecting dust for the past ten years, and visited little towns that we’ve been talking about for ages about seeing. We also made time for friends, including those we rarely get to see except when everyone has time off.

Most importantly, we relaxed with intention. That is, we made the conscious decision to do nothing some days. Rather than falling into a lazy day by accident and feeling like we were missing out on the summer.

And now, I’m ready to go back to work and routines refueled and refreshed.

How about you? What sort of summer have you had?