Saying “no”

One of the reasons people frequently claim that their home lives are in disarray and extremely stressful is because they are never home. They would get to the mess in their garages if they just had more time or they would go through their stacks of mail if there were more hours in the day.

If the person is currently the primary caregiver for a sick child, parent, or spouse, I can see his or her point of view. That person is needed in a life-sustaining way and uncluttering the garage may really be an impossible task.

In the majority of cases, however, the “never home” and “not enough time” claims are just excuses. The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough time in a day, the problem is that they can’t say “no.”

Do you really need to be on five civic committees? Does your child have to be involved in every after school enrichment activity? Is there another job out there that is as fulfilling and financially rewarding as your current job, but without the insane work hours or horrendous commute?

Serving on one civic committee allows you to focus your time and efforts more effectively. One music lesson, one team sport, and valuable time with the family will be more rewarding for your child than endless after school activities that reduce family time. Changing jobs to improve your work-life balance is a worthwhile endeavor, especially when it means that you get to keep your sanity and happiness intact.

There are respectful ways to say “no” and then there are disrespectful ways. Obviously, I’m suggesting respectful, thoughtful, considerate ways of expressing regret:

  • I really appreciate the offer to chair X committee at church, but I wouldn’t be able to devote the time and level of interest that you’re seeking to do an effective, mindful job. At this time, I will have to decline.
  • Sally enjoyed being a Girl Scout last year, but this year she has decided to go out for the basketball team instead.
  • I realize that this sounds like passing the buck, and in a sense it is, but have you talked yet to Brian about his interest in project X? He and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about how he is looking to get more involved with your division and this might be a good way for him to learn more about your work.

Living a busy life can give us the sense of being needed and popular. Eventually, though, being the one to always say “yes” can become exhausting and stressful. Never being home in a relaxed state denies you the ability to re-energize and recuperate. Your home life will remain a mess until you take the time to be at home and give it proper attention. Learning to say “no” respectfully and in appropriate situations will help to put things back on track.

 

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

This Valentine’s day, make a change

As we talked about in the post Ask Unclutterer: How can I change someone into an unclutterer?” we get many emails asking how unclutterers can live with clutterers. It reminds me of one of those light bulb jokes: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Our clutterful light bulbs — our roommates, significant others — may not want to change. But, there is something that we can change, ourselves.

If you’re up for the challenge, what small unclutterer change or efficiency enhancer are you willing to make? If you’re stumped, think about your partner’s pet peeves. Some examples I’ve seen with couples are:

  • Dropping a jacket on the floor when arriving home
  • Leaving dishes about the house
  • Losing keys frequently

These things may not bug you, but we’re talking about our partners here — the things that bother them. As I got to thinking about Valentine’s Day this year, and realizing that gifts themselves can just contribute to clutter, I thought: how about changing something I do? I ran the idea past my significant other and we agreed it was a good idea. We decided that I will work on keeping the house better stocked with groceries. I’ll make a template with a specific list of items to regularly have on hand (in addition to the staples). It’s the little things that make a difference.

Forming a New Habit

Some experts suggest that takes 21 days to form a new habit. I like to use 30 day blocks, however, to be sure the habit gets locked in.

Start Small: Pick just one daily, do-able thing that you’ll take on for 30 days. For example, you commit to putting your clothes in the hamper before bed for the next 30 days. Selecting one thing will put all of your focus there, rather than trying to tackle several habits at once.

Be Clear: Be sure that you know clearly whether you’ve accomplished the task or not. For example, is your goal to file paper in your home office for 10 minutes each day or is it to file 1/2 an inch of paper each day? Near dinner time each day, mine task will be to check off food items that need to be purchased this week.

Track Progress: Use a calendar, goal-setting software such as Lifetick or create a spreadsheet with 30 boxes to track your progress. A check mark or gold star means you did the task. Leaving the box blank of course means you didn’t do it.

Keep It Visible: Have your document pop up on your screensaver, set reminders in your electronic calendar or place in another visible place, such as on the refrigerator. As you’re forming a new habit, you’ll need prompts.

Be Consistent: When possible, do the task at the same time every day. This will make the action a routine and, in time, you’ll be pulled to complete it automatically. For instance, pop your jacket into the closet right away when you arrive home each day.

Begin: The hardest part is to begin. Pick a start day. Today is a good idea so that you don’t build up resistance to change. And, why wait to surprise your partner with a clean family room or an uncluttered car?

I think creating a productive habit will give you more mileage than your standard Valentine’s Day gifts.

Up for the challenge? What habit do you want to take on for 30 days? Let us know in the comments. And, if you choose to go a more traditional route, check out Matt’s post from last week on uncluttered Valentine’s day gifts.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Never again

It is a wise person who can learn as much from failure as success. I try my best to gain what I can from mistakes and botched attempts, but there are times when it takes me more than once to learn a lesson.

Until last week, it never crossed my mind that I could track these failures and learn from them in a more systematic approach. Then, I saw this unique file folder:

The actual paper folder is unnecessary, but the fundamental idea behind it is brilliant. After seeing it, I created a folder on my computer called “Never Again.” Then, inside that folder, I made a series of plain text documents: Restaurants, Books, Websites, Ideas, Hotels, Vacations, Wines, and Gifts. In these documents I recorded important notes to myself about mistakes I’ve made in the past.

An excerpt from my “Never Again: Gifts” file —

  1. Anything with nuts in it for Mary (allergic)
  2. Massage gift certificate for Katie
  3. Scented candles for anyone
  4. Lilies for Dana (allergic)
  5. Smoking items for David (quit September 2008)

The documents I put inside my “Never Again” file are on subjects that I instantly knew I had information to record. I’m sure that in a couple weeks I’ll have even more documents. Learning from mistakes helps improve productivity, saves time, and keeps us from spinning our wheels. Tracking our mistakes in an organized manner can help us to learn (probably best not to buy anyone a gift with nuts in it) and to free space in our mind to think of something else.

If you’re worried about someone gaining access to your “Never Again” file on your computer, make the file password protected. A simple password will keep your mistakes from becoming public information.

What “Never Again” documents would you create? Do you think this is a way that could help you learn from your mistakes and save you time in the future?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Happy 12th Anniversary to Unclutterer

On January 6, 2007, we published our first blog post with our manifesto of simple living. It’s hard to believe it was 12 years ago but here we are, still promoting smart consumerism and avoiding distractions that prevent us from enjoying a modern, luxurious life.

Here are some highlights as we approach our “teen years”:

  • We’ve published over 4600 posts and received almost 75,000 comments.
  • Our first Unitasker Wednesday was published in May 2007 and since then we’ve featured almost 500 unitaskers.
  • The Forum was opened in November 2009 to allow fellow unclutterers to connect with each other and share ideas and resources. There are over 2000 topics and over 63,000 replies on our Forum.
  • Unclutter Your Life in One Week was published in November 2009.
  • Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter was published in January 2016.

We would like to thank all of the regular and guest writers that have contributed to Unclutterer over the years but most of all, we’d like to thank YOU, our readers, for your continued comments, ideas, and support, and encouragement.

Unexpected benefits of uncluttering: An interview with editor Erin Doland

Sue Brenner, PCC, PMP, and author of The Naked Desk, sat down with Unclutterer editor Erin Doland to learn about her path to simple living, and decided to let you in on the conversation that took place back in 2008.

Clearing out the excess clutter in your life has parallel benefits, sometimes unexpected. Just as each gotten-rid-of item is one less thing in your physical way, it is also one less thing to occupy your thoughts and emotions. You are freed up to focus on the subjects that matter to you without the weight of all that excess stuff getting in the way.

Erin, Editor-at-Large at Unclutterer says she wasn’t born with the orderly gene. (Me either. I didn’t begin to adopt that habit until well into my 20s.) But when the weight of “too much stuff” got too great, Erin was forced to learn how to lighten her load and create order — now she experiences a more enriching life as a result. Here’s her story:

When Erin was in her 20s, she could pack everything she owned except her mattress into her 2-door hatchback. But when the dreaded call from her mom came telling her, “All of your stuff in my house has to go,” Erin suddenly found herself with boxes filled with childhood memorabilia and college life, along with a desire to hang on to it all.

Not ready to let any of it go, she packed it all with her when she moved to Washington, D.C. Later, when she and her husband moved in together, they blended their lives and their things into an even smaller urban apartment. Every room spilled over with so much stuff they had no room to move.

Concerned, Erin’s husband sat her down. “I can’t even take one step,” he said. “We can’t live our lives together this way.”

Looking at all their stuff, Erin couldn’t imagine how they could organize it, and she couldn’t even think about letting any of it go. Just the thought of dealing with any of it stressed her out, but she agreed with her husband that living this way wasn’t an option.

Out of desperation, Erin had become interested in getting organized to set her married life off on the right foot. But with no built-in, natural propensity for organization or lightening her load, Erin had no idea where to begin.

“I could organize an argument for a paper and that was the extent of it,” she pondered, “but I didn’t know how to apply that idea to my home.”

So, Erin decided to do some research and find out. “That’s where my daily inspiration for Unclutterer comes from,” she explained. “I had to learn and I pass on what I learned to others. After Unclutterer, came my books, Unclutter Your Life in One Week (2010) and Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter (2016).”

Erin’s first step was to begin to assess what everything was that was cluttering up her home. As she’s written about in previous posts, Erin had kept every note from high school and middle school. Like a mouse collecting morsels, she had kept every trinket that came her way, such as various key chains and t-shirts she had been given at fraternity parties. So much stuff that she had no use for but had packed away at the time because the things seemed worth saving.

“Who knows what I thought I was going to do with all that stuff,” she said. Since it was tough to completely let go of all those memories, she decided to photograph a lot of the stuff — a great strategy for hanging onto the sentiment the thing represented without having to store the thing itself. Erin also realized that she was more likely to go through a photo album on a trip down memory lane than she was to ever go through boxes of stuff.

As Erin’s process continued, she came up with some rules to help her purge things: “If I couldn’t even remember where it came from, it was gone.”

Erin realized that letting stuff go wasn’t just lightening her physical load, but she was also beginning to feel lighter; she realized letting go of the past was allowing her to better move forward with her life. She hadn’t realized how much all that stuff was weighing her down as if she was dragging it all around like a ball and chain around her ankle. She explained: “All that stuff represented my past. I’m now focused on the present and the future with my husband.”

Yes, it was a lot of work — it took Erin about six months to fully unclutter her new dwelling — but as the days progressed into weeks and then months, Erin got better and better at purging all that stuff and began to feel more and more invigorated the closer she got to her goal.

“I have peace of mind now,” she said. “I don’t have that old dread when I leave the house that I will have to come home to that. All that weight is gone. Now my home is a place of relaxation and order; When I come home I get to rejuvenate. There’s a sense of calm.”

That is peace of mind. And confidence too, I’d add. A real sense of accomplishment that feeds all the other areas of your life.

So how has getting uncluttered influenced other areas of your life?

 

Editors note: Erin’s pursuit of simple living continues as she shares her adventures traveling across North American in an even smaller residence — a motor home! Find out more at her website Tumbleweed.Life and check out the amazing photos on her Instagram feed.

Generation Z

generation zMy Generation Z children are home from college for the holidays. We’ve had some good conversations about life when I was in college compared to their life now. Many things have changed. While they are lamenting the slow Wi-Fi on campus, I told them how I bought a 40MB internal hard drive for my 286 computer to run the statistics program for my thesis.

Next year will be a busy year for our family. My husband and I will be moving wherever the military sends us. The oldest will be finishing college and moving to wherever a new job takes her. The youngest will be moving out of the dorm and into her own small apartment. While talking about all of these moves, we got into a discussion about stuff, uncluttering, and what the Generation Z wants and doesn’t want.

Here are highlights of our conversations.

Home-ownership may not be a goal. The 3,000 square foot home with a 30-year mortgage may be a ball-and-chain for some Gen-Zers. Many want small, low-maintenance apartments or condos and would rather spend money on travel and adventure experiences. These kids have seen their parents spend holidays and weekends doing home renovations and believe that mowing the lawn is a “soul-crushing timesuck.”

Make it digital. Gen-Zers have no use for DVDs and CDs. They use streaming services like Amazon Video. They might want hard copies of select reference books or storybooks they read as children, but they would rather use a Kindle e-reader for everything else. An ideal holiday/birthday/wedding gift would be digital copies of home movies and family photos.

Less housework is better. Dusting and polishing silver takes effort, but Gen-Zers will do the work if they value and can use the items. They have no use for the figurines and silver-plated coin-banks I received for them at baby showers. Nor are they interested in Grandma’s good china that is neither microwave nor dishwasher-safe. However, they would value one or two serving pieces like the sugar bowl/creamer set, the gravy boat, or serving platters.

Only ‘my’ memorabilia. Gen-Zers have no use for the lobster trap their parents brought home from New England or the sequined sombreros from Mexico. They will keep items that are significant to them or that have important family history such as military medals, specific jewellery pieces, and artwork.

Functional furniture. Large antique dressers with drawers that don’t open easily and oversized sectionals do not fit into the Gen-Zers lifestyle. They want smaller-scale, furniture that can serve more than one purpose such as end tables with storage and ottomans that double as filing cabinets.

What does this all mean for the parents of Generation Z? Keep things because you love them and want them. If you are not enjoying certain things, ask your children if they want them now or will want them in the future (assuming they are old enough to make those decisions). If the children are able to take the items now, let them go. If not, make sure your final wishes are clear to avoid family disputes.

If you are in the Generation Z cohort or have Generation Z children, chime in with your opinions in the comments.

Uncluttering your schedule to keep clear of unnecessary stress

Being human can be difficult some days. I most often notice the difficulties when I’m stressed, full of anxiety, things are chaotic, and/or under pressure. Little problems that are usually dealt with easily turn into big issues because my abilities to see the whole picture or keep my cool are gone.

One time, I completely unhinged in front of one of my colleagues. I was quietly working at my desk one minute, and the next minute I threw a tantrum because a project we were working on took a turn I didn’t expect. Instead of reacting like a normal person, I chose the path of awful person. I used my “outside voice” for at least a full minute before I realized I was being a complete idiot. Thankfully, my colleague burst into laughter (instead of yelling back or quitting) and asked if my outburst helped me feel better.

It took me two hours to calm down and figure out what had happened. Many elements in my life were to blame:

Stress + Anxiety + Disappointment + Poor Planning = Awful Erin.

As full disclosure, one of these elements was completely out of my hands. I had no way to control the event that happened that triggered my disappointment. No matter what the day or how prepared I possibly could have been, I still would have been disappointed.

The other elements were all my fault, however. My poor planning resulted in stresses and anxieties that were wholly unnecessary, and which made me blow the incident with my co-worker completely out of proportion. If I had planned appropriately, I would have been able to move with the ebbs and flows of the day and not let the stress and anxiety overwhelm me. More precisely, I wouldn’t have been experiencing stress and anxiety — at least not at the level I was.

Later that afternoon, I made a heartfelt apology to my colleague, we had a good laugh, and then I went home to re-evaluate my schedule. I needed to be realistic about my abilities.

I revisited my initial estimations and doubled them. What I thought would take one hour, I doubled to two. What I thought would take a day, I scheduled to two days. I made phone calls and adjusted others’ expectations of my timeline accordingly.

With all things in life, the more stress and anxiety you feel, the less able you are to think and respond to the best of your abilities. Proper planning — being honest with yourself about how long it will take to complete action items, setting a schedule, and having the diligence to keep to that schedule — will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and in control of the things you can control.

After my tantrum and retooling of my schedule, I noticed a significant decrease in my stress and anxiety levels. I am not super human, and my new schedule was realistic and maintainable. Unfortunately, it took making a fool out of myself to realize I needed a change. How do you organize your time to keep stress and anxiety at bay, and how do you avoid potential stress meltdowns?

 

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

Sharing space and dealing with moments of chaos

There are many wonderful things about living with others, but dealing with their clutter is most certainly not one of them. Living with my husband (and before that roommates) has always been a special challenge during times of emotional stress.

You see, when I’m sailing through life, everything finds its way back to its place quickly because I put everything away as soon as I use it. However, when I’m feeling chaotic, you can’t see the bedroom floor and nothing goes back where it belongs. I nest using clothes and papers.

When I lived alone, it did not bother me. When I was feeling this way, I would just wade through the clothes to find the bed, knowing that I would get out of the funk and get things cleaned up sooner or later.

Now that I live with my husband in a tiny apartment, I can’t let the chaos take over too much.

We’re both human, though, and the chaos does hit, sometimes at the same time but usually at different moments (meaning one wants to clean while the other is in a nesting mode).

Living with others offers a challenge to staying organized because if one person is feeling chaotic, their clutter encourages others to let their own organizing slack off: “If his stuff is all over the place, why should I clean up mine?”

Say you are in a chaotic moment and your spouse/partner starts ranting at you about the mess you are leaving around. What would you do? In my case, my inner teenager comes out and I want to make the mess even worse just to get back at the unfair authority-figure ranting.

Let’s say however, that you are more mature than I am, and recognize the ranting is not an attack on your intrinsic goodness. Instead, you use it to move yourself out of the chaos, dealing with the physical side first and letting the emotional clutter clear itself out. How wonderful, no?

But what happens if it’s your companion(s) that let the clutter take over? How do you deal with it?

Here are three Definitely Don’t and three Possibly Do actions.

Definitely Don’t:

  1. Don’t nag. It will just bring out the inner teenager and they might rebel and do things on purpose just to annoy you.
  2. Don’t get judgmental. People in a negative state don’t need negative reinforcement. Besides, it’s not like you have never had moments of clutter, hmmm???
  3. You can re-order the place yourself, but don’t do it with a “how great am I?” nor with a martyr attitude. Do it because you want to or not at all. A superiority complex will only cause more problems in the end.

Possibly Do:

  1. Live with the chaos and hope that the person will snap out of it soon. After all, you go through chaotic periods too, I’m sure.
  2. Suggest an order the house day and make it a big fun event. Put on music, dress up in housekeeper outfits (or at least tie funny colored scarves on your head) and do a re-ordering.
  3. Re-order the place on your own and hope that the calm space will bring calm to the other person/people.

Now it’s your turn. How do you deal with the clutter in the home caused by multiple people experiencing the ups and downs of life at different rates.

 

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

Dealing with teenager’s clutter

As a father of a toddler, I can easily clean up the toys that she plays with and eventually leaves strewn about the room. I am not looking forward to her teenage years, however, if she turns out to be as messy during that stage as I was. I’m not exactly sure how I will deal with it, but maybe some of our readers can give me some pointers?

The reason I bring up teenagers and clutter is an old article I stumbled upon from Kevin Duggan of The Coloradoan. An excerpt:

Clutter is as natural to teens as acne and mood swings; it’s as aggravating to parents as gray hair and hearing loss. There lies the conflict.

My home is not immune to this problem. A tour at any time through my daughters’ bedrooms (and nearby rooms, for that matter) will reveal all manner of clothes worn or tried on in recent days strewn about the floor like so many pine needles in the forest.

There’s no telling which clothes are dirty and which were recently washed but never put away. Included in the ground cover are food wrappers, CDs, papers, books and every shoe they own. Prized possessions are mixed in with trash.

So do we have any readers who deal with teenagers and their inevitable clutter? Would any parents be willing to brag about strategies for helping to raise a clutter-free teen? Trust me, I’m all ears!

 

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

Ask Unclutterer: Why is it so hard to let go?

Reader Trish sends in this question:

I grew up with a table with a center post. It came with extra leaves so we could expand it. We bought it second-hand and I have had for 40 years. Over the years, the legs have had to be screwed, or glued back on. I have been looking at center post tables for a while but couldn’t afford one. My son received a beautiful one and since he needs to move, he has offered it to me. I would love it! However, in order to get it, I have to throw my current table with its one loose leg into the garbage. Suddenly, that 40-year-old table is very beautiful and I have great sadness at the thought of tossing it out and have the garbage truck crush it to death. I am almost ready to back out of the deal. His wood center post table is beautiful and would be a great opportunity lost if I can’t detach my heart from my old broken table. HELP!!! I don’t understand why it so hard to let go.

That is a great question Trish. Many of us have a hard time letting go of things. A number of years ago, scientist examined the brains of hoarders and non-hoarders. Researchers found greater activity in a certain part of the brain when hoarders were faced with a decision to dispose of their belongings.1 This same part of the brain is also associated with maintaining a sense of “me.”2

This is not to suggest that you, or any of our readers who have trouble disposing items are hoarders. But, I wonder… if we own an item for a long period of time, will we have conditioned our minds to believe the item is part of us? It certainly seems that way sometimes.

From your submission, it sounds like your table, or parts thereof, could still be put to good use. Have you considered hiring a carpenter to build something from the salvageable parts of the table? Perhaps you could turn the table top into picture frames. Collect a series of photos showing your family around the table at birthdays, holidays, or special events and put them in the frames. You might consider building a shelf or serving trays from the table as well.

If you decide to build something new from the old table, set a time limit. If you have not moved forward with the project in six months, then give yourself permission to let the table go. If you are resistant to having it go in the garbage, consider donating it to a trade school or wood working club where the wood could be re-purposed. You might be able to find someone in a Freecycle or Buy Nothing group that would be happy to have the table and you would know it is going to someone who will appreciate it.

If you decide to let your table go, consider the advice provided by Marie Kondo in her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up. Think of the lessons that the table taught you and all of the wonderful experiences you had while you owned it. Thank the table for its devoted service and send it on its way. I held a funeral for a pair of riding boots that I owned for 30 years. I know it sounds crazy, but it helped.

Allow yourself to feel all the feelings. You are human. It is just a “thing” but the memories around the thing are important so do not feel guilty for acknowledging that.

Thanks for your great question Trish. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, 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 as “Ask Unclutterer.”

  1. Tolin, David F., et al. “Neural Mechanisms of Decision Making in Hoarding Disorder.” Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 69, no. 8, 2012, p. 832., doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1980. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22868937
  2. McGonigal, Kelly. “Why It’s Hard to Let Go of Clutter.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Aug. 2012, psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-science-willpower/201208/why-it-s-hard-let-go-clutter.

Free pass to return or re-gift presents

Gift giving is an art. Some people have an amazing talent at picking out the perfect something. I, however, am not blessed with such a skill. Every now and again I’ll hit one out of the park, but those occasions are rare. I think that it’s my disdain for crowded shopping centers that fuels my ineptitude.

Regardless of the reason, my gifts are often received with a strange facial expression and the question, “What is it?” I’ll never forget the gift I got for my sister-in-law that drew the response, “This is such an interesting … uh … watering can?” It was a purse.

When I give a gift, I want the gift to be exactly what the recipient wants. I want it to be loved. I also want the gift to not end up as clutter or to cause stress. To avoid giving the imperfect gift or to cause stress, I’ve decided to follow David Seah’s suggestion in his post “Print Your Own ‘Re-Gift Receipts’” and create my own re-gift receipts to accompany my future gifts.

I’m not going to write mine up exactly like he has, but the principle is the same: a guilt-free return policy. It seems to be such a nice way to let people know that you will in no way be offended if they decide to return your gift.

Be sure to check out Seah’s template at the bottom of the post to save yourself time creating your re-gift receipts.

 

This post has been updated since its publication in 2008.

The 5-, 10-, and 15-minute unclutterer

When it’s hard to carve out an hour or two (or more) to complete an unclutter mission, sometimes we forgo organizing at all.

That’s where the speed unclutterer comes in handy. When your boss is about to drop by your cube or friends have called to say they’re coming right over, uncluttering has to take on velocity. I have found that this works best when you close off all distractions, focus solely on the targeted area, set the timer for 5-, 10- or 15-minute increments and unclutter until the timer dings.

What you do in your 5-, 10- or 15-minute increments depends, of course, on the degree of disarray in the area you plan to unclutter and the system you use. Here are some ideas to get you started. Adjust them according to your situation.

The 5-minute Unclutterer

To know where to begin on a 5-minute uncluttering project, asking yourself questions will sharpen your focus. As I wrote on page 20 in The Naked Desk:

If you have limited time to organize, ask yourself, “What single action would make the greatest impact right now?” Or, “What can I do in five minutes that will make the biggest difference?” Scan the office and choose the area that is calling out for order the most. Then take action!

These questions will help you quickly home in on the area that if you unclutter it, will bring you the greatest relief, serenity or beauty. Overwhelmed? Put a bull’s eye on one corner of the table to get started, rather than trying to conquer the whole thing.

Zen Habits also has a great list of 5-minute uncluttering actions in the article 18 Five-Minute Decluttering Tips to Start Conquering Your Mess.

I love Leo’s tip #6:

Pick up 5 things, and find places for them. These should be things that you actually use, but that you just seem to put anywhere, because they don’t have good places. If you don’t know exactly where things belong, you have to designate a good spot. Take a minute to think it through where would be a good spot? Then always put those things in those spots when you’re done using them. Do this for everything in your home, a few things at a time.

Make a mental note of the new spots for items so you can retrieve them when you need them.

The 10-minute Unclutterer

You can power through a small uncluttering task in 10 minutes or make progress on a larger project.

Admittedly, the morning dishes in our home sometimes get left unwashed as family members dash out the door for work and school. I set the timer daily for 10-minute dish washing blasts — instant sink and counter uncluttering. Other things you can knock out in 10 minutes include:

  • File one inch of paper
  • Organize a book shelf
  • Start a load of laundry

From home to work, there are many 10-minute uncluttering opportunities. For example, you can reserve the last 10 minutes of the day to unclutter your desk to start fresh and clear the next day.

To fend off return-from-home clutter piles, make it a habit to use your first 10 minutes through the door to put things away, such as your umbrella in the umbrella holder, your jacket in the closet and your keys on the landing strip.

The 15-minute Unclutterer

With all that you can accomplish in five or 10 minutes, 15 minutes can make an even bigger dent in clutter. You won’t streamline a bedraggled garage, but you can clear out one box.

When you find yourself with an unexpected block of 15 minutes, you can use the time to clear out clutter from your home or office. For example, you’ve arrived 15 minutes early for a lunch appointment — unclutter your car. Additional ideas:

  • Remove all broken or obsolete items from a junk drawer
  • Clear out your purse or wallet
  • Organize your monthly receipts

To unclutter and clean, check out About.com’s Sarah Aguirre article”15 Minute Cleanups.” The article provides cleaning checklists for six different rooms, from the kitchen to a kid’s room.

I put the Bedroom Cleanup checklist to the test one evening from 8:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. As I followed each of Aguierre’s steps (except I substituted vacuuming with dusting), the room took on an extra sparkle. (Earrings that had collected on my dresser got returned to their home. I also unpacked my husband’s suitcase from last week’s business trip.) It was fast and easy to run through someone else’s pre-made to-do list. I’m glad I did it and will try her suggestions for other rooms.

Some cluttering projects do take hours, days, or months to finish. But, starting with 5-, 10- or 15-minute uncluttering bursts can give you instant progress. These timed uncluttering sprints are also useful for daily maintenance.

What are you able to get done in 5-, 10- or 15-minute unclutter sprints? Let us know your regular routines in the comments.

 

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