Using what you already own

In preparation for a dinner party I threw the other night, I brought down my sugar bowl off the high shelf of my cupboard. The bowl was a wedding gift, and it hasn’t received much use over the years. It’s attractive, though, and durable. I held it in my hands for a few seconds, and then decided that after the dinner I would store it in the same, easily accessible space in my cupboard as the salt and pepper shakers. Since then, I’ve reached into the sugar bowl for my morning coffee’s sugar instead of into the big sugar storage canister as I had been doing.

Reclaiming my sugar bowl started me thinking about other items in my house that I already own and store, but that I don’t use. I like to think of myself as someone who leads an uncluttered life, but I was shocked to find many things I store and don’t regularly use — things I could be using, and want to use.

What’s the point of having good china if it is never used?

I found a beautiful crystal vase in a corner of the cabinet under my sink. I don’t put out cut flowers often because my cats eat them and then puke them up all over the house. Dinner guests often bring flowers as hostess gifts, however, so the vase gets some use but not as much as I would like. The vase’s lines are simple and stunning. It, too, was a wedding gift. When I look at the vase I think of the person who gave it to us and smile. My solution? I went to my local craft shop and bought a gorgeous spray of silk flowers. Fake flowers, I should note, are not what they used to be. Unless you touch these flowers, you have no idea that they’re not real. Now, the vase that I love is out of the cupboard and being used.

I moved a chair out of the bedroom, where it was never utilized, and into the living room. A guitar that I had stored under the bed is now out and on a stand so that it can be picked up and played. I reconfigured my desk so that my sewing machine has a permanent place where I can use it without any effort. And, I also took to my local charity a number of items that I was just apparently storing for the sake of storing.

Are there items in your home that need to be reclaimed? Are you storing anything just to store it? Are you hiding things that you love? An uncluttered home means that there is a place for everything that you own, and that everything is in its place. What I learned from my sugar bowl is that some of the things that I own weren’t in their best places. Spend some time over the next few days evaluating your things and identifying if they are in their best place and if you’re using what you already own.

 

This post was originally published in June 2007.

Bound to clutter and time

A recent study from UCLA-affiliated social scientists paints a bleak picture of modern parents: beholden to clutter, technology, and stuff. Likewise, they found, many (if not most) rarely step foot outdoors and claim that a perceived lack of time drives a lot of daily decisions. It’s a study I can relate to, and that’s really depressing.

The study

The longitudinal study entitled, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors,” (currently available at Amazon as a book) observed middle-class families in Los Angeles over four years. The results, according to the authors, are “disheartening,” and include:

  1. Many families rely heavily on prepared and frozen foods even though they only save an average of 11 minutes per meal. “They give me the illusion of saving time and energy,” said one participant, “and that’s almost as important.”
  2. Most families in the study rarely go outdoors, even those who recently spent money on outdoor improvements like a new deck. “That’s the backyard,” one mom said. “I never go out there.”
  3. Leisure time is spent in front of the TV or the computer.

One interesting revelation I found has to do with a family’s refrigerator door. Those that are cluttered with notices, magnets, papers and the like, often indicate a home that is in a similar state. (Read our article on dealing with refrigerator door clutter here).

That’s rough, but the most depressing and relatable bit for me was about 2-year-old Anjellisa Redfern. According to researchers, she has a great many toys. However, “…she doesn’t want to play with them,” said her mother. “She wants to be on the couch watching TV.”

Second screen? Try first.

In 2014, Jeff Bercovici wrote an article for Forbes entitled, “Using A Second Screen While Watching TV Is The New Normal.” He went on to describe the growing habit of glancing at a smartphone or tablet while watching television:

Watching TV while simultaneously using a smartphone, laptop, or tablet is on the verge of becoming a majority behavior worldwide.

Later that year, the New York Times noted the emerging “second screen marketing” efforts that were just beginning to happen, targeted at those who use a smartphone or tablet as the titular “second screen” while watching TV. It is interesting, but that’s not the behavior in 2017. The TV is the second screen, the smartphone is the first.

Every night in my home, a depressing scene plays out. We have dinner, almost never together, almost always within 15 minutes, almost always silently and almost certainly with each in his or her own chair, doing his or her own thing. When this non-family time is complete, everyone retreats to his or her room of choice with his or her preferred screen, not to be seen again until morning.

It’s killing me and I hate it.

I’m partly to blame as I’ve let it go on this long. Extinguishing this pattern will not be easy. There will be loud complaining. There will be rolling of eyes and harsh words. But it must be done.

Childhood is a window that closes at 18 years of age. That’s all you get, those 18 precious years. Then they’re off to work, off to school, off to adulthood, and whatever comes next. There is no time machine. You can’t go back. My kids are 12 and 14 years old. The window is almost closed. I absolutely will not sit with regret years from now because I did not make the most of being their dad. Because I lost out to apps and YouTube stars. Because Snapchat was more appealing.

If the modern American family is succumbing to clutter and technology, it’s time to revisit our priorities. The window on childhood is closing. Be there – really be there – before it does.

What makes you switch your ways?

For a business course I’ve been taking on change management, I’ve recently read the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It was published back in 2010 and Erin talks about it briefly in relation to a video interview with one of the authors.

Although the book is seven years old, its content is 100% current and presented me with a whole new way of creating change — not just at work but also in my life in general.

The Heath brothers tell us to forget about the reward-punishment dichotomy of the carrot-stick approach to change.

For real lasting change to occur, it needs to be appealing on three levels:

  • It needs to make sense.
  • It needs to resonate emotionally.
  • And it needs to be clearly articulated and have easy-to-implement steps.

They talk about these three points using the analogy of trying to ride an elephant. Logic (the Rider) can only go so far in directing the change. Emotion (the Elephant) is a much stronger element and can’t be forced to go where it doesn’t want to. And finally, if the path isn’t easy, neither the Rider nor the Elephant are going to want to make the change in direction.

As I said, the book opened my eyes to a new way of managing and encouraging change, but as with all methods, you need to take into account your audience. In a work situation, I didn’t do that and had to twist and turn to avoid a staffing disaster.

I’ve been trying to convince staff to adopt a new program, and was facing resistance. After reading Switch, I realized I was neither appealing to the Elephant nor making the path easy. So, armed with a hugely motivating presentation, I held a staff meeting where I was going to do a bang-up job of getting staff excited about the program before diving into the details of how we could all work together to make the transition easier and better for everyone.

Unfortunately, one staff member hates emotional appeals — I mean, despises them! He sees red whenever anything “motivational” floats before his eyes. From the first slide in the presentation, he turned confrontational and spent the rest of the hour-long meeting arguing against something that logically he and I have agreed upon as necessary and practical.

The next day, he and I spoke and we agreed that in the future, any time that I plan on motivating staff, he will be excused from the meeting and I will send him an email logically extolling the virtues of whatever change I am proposing to the rest of the staff.

Although it was an intensely frustrating hour, I learned a great deal from the confrontation, the main point of which is that when you are discussing change with anyone, you need to know what will best appeal to them.

If you want to change teenage behaviour at home, for example, neither logical nor emotional appeals will likely work very well. You need to make the change easier than not changing at all.

No matter your approach, however, if you are looking to make any sort of change in your personal or work life, I highly recommend reading Switch before embarking on the journey.

How much ignorance makes you blissful?

The other day I was looking at a company’s informational brochure about the various programs and services they offer. It was 44 pages long. Seriously, forty-four pages! I understand that they want to cover everything and be able to offer something of interest to everyone, but honestly, 44 pages?

The brochure went into the recycling bin before I’d gotten past the third page, losing the company a potential customer. They just offered me too much information.

The situation reminded me of the books, The Paradox of Choice and Stumbling Upon Happiness, both of which discuss how too many choices make us unhappy. With unlimited choice comes unlimited indecision and increasing unhappiness.

I’m not sure I agree with this idea. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to information. Give me too little information and I feel that I’m being forced into something I don’t agree with. Give me too much information and I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. But give me just enough information that I feel that I’m making an informed choice and away I go, happy with the decision I’ve made.

What’s the key word there?

Feel.

There’s no such thing as too much information or too little. There is just enough to make you feel right about the decision you are making.

When it comes to politics, I know where my heart lies, so I need very little information to convince me that my favorite party is the one to vote for. However, when it comes to buying a house, there’s no end to the information that I collect before making the decision (neighborhood, taxes, possible renovation costs, neighbors, schools, and the list goes on and on).

But, sit me down in a restaurant and give me a one or two page menu, I’m thrilled. (Home-style, no choice restaurants scare me a little, and large chains with ten-page menus kill my appetite.)

When it comes to organizing, the same scale exists. What is your personal comfort level of stuff in different situations? At work, I’m the king of processes, with everything carefully documented and labelled. At home, I’m happy owning only a few things and labelling nothing.

In other words, don’t let anyone tell you what is the “right” amount of stuff or whether it’s well-organized or not.

It all comes down to your level of bliss. What makes you happy? Ignorance? Information-saturation?

It’s up to you.

Where to start organizing your home

Many people are overwhelmed by the idea of organizing their homes. When there is so much to do, it can be difficult to know where to begin. If you’re in such a state, let me suggest four ways you can get started. Hopefully one of the methods will be a perfect match for you!

  1. Start by organizing the area you first see in the morning. If your first activity is to walk into your closet to pick out your clothes, then choose to organize your closet. If you get coffee, organize your kitchen. If you hop into the shower, then tackle your bathroom. The idea is that the first thing you see in the morning can set your mood for the whole day, so you should at least start with a sense of calm and order.
  2. Start by organizing the area you first see when you come home after work. Your home should be an area of rejuvenation and relaxation. If the first thing you see when you get home from a long day at work makes you stressed out, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Is there a mess in the driveway that could be cleared? Do you pull into your garage and curse because you can barely get out of your car? Is your home’s entrance in complete chaos? Whatever is the first place that causes you stress when you come home, start by clearing clutter there.
  3. Start with the area of your home that makes you seethe. Without putting too much thought into it, what is the one area of your home that you avoid because of its mess? Your instincts will quickly call to mind the one space that drives you nuts more than any other area of your home. Get started in that space to get the worst of the worst cleaned first.
  4. Start at the top and work your way down. In the same way that you dust before you sweep, tackle the areas up high in a room and then work your way toward the floor. Think of your work as if you’re completing an archeological dig.

As you’re working, keep in mind that even the smallest steps help your space to be more organized than it was previously and that there is no reason to be overwhelmed by the task in front of you. Good luck with your organization endeavors!

 

This post was originally published in May 2008.

Renting vs Owning a Home: The Eternal Debate

Back in 2006 when I left Canada, I sold my house and thought I’d never buy another one again. The place had been a fixer-upper and my father and I had invested a lot of time and money into it (nine years to be exact) — just in time to sell it.

I know that home-ownership is supposed to be the holy grail of the (North) American Dream, but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to ever get back into the cycle of renovations, repairs, and mortgages. It took a bit of an attitude change because as a simple search on Amazon suggests, mortgage-free home-ownership is what we are all supposed to aim for.

But I knew couples who had been renting for over twenty years and they had more disposable income than I’d ever had. When something went wrong in their place, it was the building owners, not the renters, who had to pay for it. Renters also knew exactly how much they needed to pay every month without any sort of surprise costs like a new roof or plumbing repairs.

That sounded good to me.

Generations ago in Ireland, my father’s family were renters. Yes, they owned property, but they never lived where they owned. They used the extra income from renting out the place to rent something better for themselves. And while they had those emergency expenses that any homeowner had, they considered it as a part of running a business, rather than intruding on their lives directly.

When I settled in the Basque Country, I was convinced that renting was for me. Although it irritated me a little bit that I couldn’t do up the place exactly as I would like, I was pleased to no longer have the temptation to enter into constant rounds of renovations like my parents did. They cycled through the house I grew up in, redoing one room a year, and I can’t count the number of times they completely remodeled the garden.

When my parents died a few months apart from each other then eight months after that my mother-in-law passed away, my husband and I found ourselves with a chunk of money. Given the volatile nature of the markets at that moment, investing did not seem like a good plan.

So, we got back into the home-ownership market, not just once but twice, buying a flat where we live full-time plus a second one in a sunny part of Spain. However, this second time around, owning a home is different from the first time.

  • We chose to live in a tower instead of a detached home, meaning emergency expenses are shared by the whole building and in a recent case, spread out over three years.
  • Our flat is half the size of the (small) house I had in Toronto, and is just the size we need.
  • Renovations happened quickly, before we moved in.
  • Mortgage payments are less than the monthly rent we were paying.

The second flat we bought (mortgage-free) has a double purpose, one as a weekend and summer retreat, and the other as a retirement emergency fund in case one or both of us needs to go into a nursing/retirement home. While medical costs are covered here in Spain, there is a big difference between public and private retirement residences. With the money from selling off the second flat, we will be able to live out our final years in comfort.

My siblings, however, took other routes: my sister invested in a large rambling country home and my brother sold his house and sunk the money into his girlfriend’s place, turning home-ownership into a type of romantic commitment.

When deciding if renting or owning is for you, just as with any project you undertake, it’s imperative you consider your priorities. In this case, the questions that can help you decide which option is better for you include:

  • What type of financial situation do you want to be in? Fixed or variable costs?
  • How important is it to you to put your personal stamp on the space you live in?
  • How much space do you really need? How much do you want to maintain?

The New York Times, has a good rent vs. buy calculator. I plugged in the original numbers for our primary residence and the results confirmed that buying was the right option financially, as we would be paying about three times the amount in rent each month as we do with the mortgage.

Are you a renter or a homeowner? Do you know which is the better option for you financially? Or are there other factors (emotional, familial, etc…) that led you to choose?

What are your organizing priorities?

The other day, a new topic was posted in the Unclutterer Forums asking what people store on their kitchen counters. That got me thinking about when we renovated our apartment and how we really worked hard to get the space organized right before the construction began. So we looked at our priorities and worked from there.

First priority: We have an open-concept kitchen and it’s almost the first thing you see upon entering, so anything that is merely functional and not decorative needed to be stored away.

Second priority: We are addicted to our Thermomix (for those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s like a blender, food processor and cooking tool all in one, but so much more!). We use it at least twice a day — more than any other appliance in the house. It therefore needed its own counter space in the center of the kitchen, but not too obvious because while incredibly functional, it’s not the most beautiful machine in the world.

Third priority: We entertain frequently and have a lot of dishes, plus we keep a wide variety of foods and gadgets on hand for when a cooking whim strikes us (like making sushi from scratch or blow-torching a crême brulé). Easily accessible storage space was imperative. We opted for lower cabinet drawers rather than non-moving shelves so that nothing ever “disappears” in the back of a cupboard. It’s all visible and at hand. For the areas where we could not install drawers, we opted for sliding stainless steel baskets.

Fourth priority: We listened to the professionals, but trusted our intuition. We took our initial plans to a kitchen design shop and they made some really good suggestions such as installing tower-based fridge and oven/microwave units. But, we also knew what we wanted and stood our ground on some issues (such as sacrificing space between the peninsula and the wall in order to keep the full-size peninsula). Coming up with the ideas was based on hours and hours of looking at kitchen designs (mainly through photos posted in the Houzz app).

In the end, the kitchen was the most expensive part of our back-to-the-walls renovation, but given how much time we spend there, we consider it money very well spent.

Organizing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Your home (or work space) won’t stay organized if it doesn’t mesh with your priorities and if you don’t know what those are, you might only get your space “right” by accident. So the next time you’re going to do a major re-organization or renovation, take some time to think about what’s important to you and how you want to use the space before diving into the project.

A tale of two extremes

There’s a TV show in the UK that has recently made its way to Spain and it has quite a different take on the clutter/declutter reality TV market. The Spanish title translates to You get dirty and I’ll clean it up which is much more expressive than the original UK title of Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.

The idea behind the show is that people who spend a large portion of their day cleaning their houses and getting rid of germs, go into houses that haven’t been cleaned in years.

At the end of each episode the narrator tells us what each person has learned from the experience, and more often than not, the cleaners say that they have relaxed their cleaning regime at home and the ones whose house was organized and cleaned say that they have learned the value in keeping their house visitor-presentable.

I’m not going to get into the perception of either side of the equation that the show generates as there is quite a bit of controversy over both sets of images. That’s not what today’s article is about.

No, what I find fascinating is the learning from each other part. I’ve already talked about this in my post about the concept of good enough but I wanted to explore it further.

At work, my former boss was all about the details and I’m a big-picture person. We often clashed (although that’s too harsh a word as conversations were always pleasant with her) about the number of details that needed to be considered before making a decision, as well as what, and how much of something should be kept, and for how long.

We learned a lot from each other. She learned that sometimes details only confused issues and I learned that they also allowed us to make well-informed decisions and gave a sense of history to what we do at work.

On the personal side of things, I come from a family where there’s always a silver-lining to any cloud and so planning wasn’t as important because there’s an opportunity for fun in every situation. My husband believes that more fun can be had if things are planned fully and that plan is kept. We’ve each learned to move a bit more towards the center. I have admitted that a great plan makes for a great day, and he allows that a plan not followed doesn’t mean total disaster.

Those are just two situations where some sort of relationship with an opposite personality type enriches my life.

How about you? How has a relationship of two extremes helped you?

Is good enough the real enemy of good?

Pareto Principle: the 80-20 ruleWhen it comes to productivity, you’ll often see people quote the aphorism often attributed to Voltaire: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” If we worry about being perfect, we won’t get anything done because perfection is impossible to achieve and we will never move on to other projects.

Or alternatively, we fall victim to the Nirvana fallacy, not starting anything because we know it will never be perfect.

One of the supposed cures for perfectionism is to ascribe to a belief in good enough. For most of my life, I’ve been a huge fan of the Pareto Principle, that 80% of the result from 20% of the effort is good enough. For the most part, it has worked too. I’m productive, I clear away to-do lists quickly, and my house is livable.

Then I met my husband. He’s not at all a good enough person. But neither is he a perfectionist. He’s a “do the job well until it’s finished” person. Yes, he does have perfectionist tendencies and believes that everything can always be improved upon, but he doesn’t let his perfectionist ideas get in the way of getting things done.

When facing most household and work projects, I used to get to 80% and say to myself: “Wow, what a difference. It’s mostly functional and much better than before.” And I’d stop. My husband, on the other hand, keeps going until he gets to 95% and everyone who comes into the house says: “Wow! That’s impressive!”

If I’m going to be honest with myself, impressive is much better than mostly functional.

This got me thinking. Why am I really a good enough person? Is it because I want to be productive? That I don’t want to fall into the never finishing or never starting traps? Not in the slightest. It’s because I’m lazy. Saying that good enough is a decent place to stop, allowed me to quit working on something. I didn’t need to put in more effort because I wasn’t really interested in great, only in good enough. And, having made this confession to myself, I realized that perfect is not the enemy of good. The true enemy is good enough.

  • At work, when preparing emails to clients, I’ve had to send out the email a few times because of errors in the mail merge fields.
  • In the kitchen, the plastic containers were mostly accessible, but getting that one we use only rarely was a real pain to reach.
  • On the bookshelf, everything fit but it wasn’t as visually appealing as it could have been.

Since adopting a good (or great) approach to projects instead of the borderline good enough, my productivity is even higher at work, my kitchen is much more usable, and my house always generates a “wow” any time someone new visits.

How about you? Which for you is the bigger enemy of good? Perfect or good enough?

Retailers’ tricks contribute to clutter

We’ve talked before about how to avoid clutter by careful purchasing. It isn’t always easy and sometimes it is downright difficult! Recently, I watched an episode of CBC Television’s Marketplace entitled, Retail tricks: How stores make you spend more which exposed some psychological tricks that retailers use to entice consumers to buy more and to increase their impulse purchases. Many of these persuasion tactics act on the consumer’s subconscious to coax them to buy at emotional level, bypassing logical, rational, decision-making process leading to increased spending.

One of the strategies used to encourage spending is the Gruen effect. This is when consumers enter a shopping mall or store with an intentionally confusing design. They lose track of their original intentions and are more susceptible to making impulse buys. I’m sure anyone who has shopped in a large, wholesale-type store knows the feeling.

The ambiance of the store also influences consumer purchases. “Easy-listening” music, free samples, wide and welcoming spaces all encourage consumers to slow their pace because spending more time in the store directly relates to spending more money in the store.

Other tricks the retailers use:

  • Larger shopping carts and baskets encourage customers to buy more.
  • Placing staples and lower cost items at the back of the store (e.g., milk in grocery stores) forces consumers to walk through many other aisles increasing their likelihood of purchasing premium products.
  • Grouping items together at a marginally lower price such as 3 for $5 instead of $1.75 each influences consumers to buy three instead of just one.
  • Limiting the number of items (for example, “limit of 6 per customer”) creates the illusion of scarcity and consumers tend to buy up to the limit.

One of the most important ways to combat these tricks is to be aware of them. Learn to shop consciously. Avoid shopping when you’re tired, hungry, or pressed for time. Stick to your list and avoid those last-minute sales.

If you’re interested in the psychology behind these retail tricks, watch the Marketplace episode.

Review of the S.P.A.C.E. program

Tomorrow, January 14, is Organize Your Home Day. The first book I ever read about home organization was back in 1999 while I was pregnant for baby #2. The book was Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. The book is as valuable now as it was 17 years ago.

With this book, Morgenstern organizes the approach to organizing. Her acronym S.P.A.C.E. (sort, purge, assign, containerize, and equalize) helps people (including me!) develop a systematic method for uncluttering quickly and easily. Let’s look at each step in a little more depth.

Sort

Group similar items together using common characteristics. You might decide to group clothing by putting all “tops” in one pile, and “bottoms” in another pile. Or you could sort by “work clothes” and “weekend clothes.” The way you group items together may be different from someone else but sort them in a way that makes sense to you.

Purge

Once items are sorted, you can see exactly what you have. Now is the time to physically remove items from the home. Keep only what you love, what you need, and what you use. Reduce the number of unitaskers you own. Consider renting, borrowing, or sharing items you do not use often.

Assign a home

Designate a spot in your home where specific items will “live.” My stapler lives in the second drawer of the cabinet beside my desk. Items that are not used all year-round may need a “vacation home.” For example, the duvet lives on the bed from November to March, then it moves to its vacation home in a zippered bag in the linen closet from April to October.

Containerize

Only after the first three steps have been completed should you choose containers appropriate to the item and the item’s home. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of buying bins large enough to hold my items but they would not fit on the shelves where the items were being stored! Always measure twice so you only have to buy once. You may wish to consider using inexpensive baskets or even cardboard boxes at first. Once you’ve determined that the “home” for the item is in the correct spot, then spend the extra money for high quality containers.

Equalize

The last step is often overlooked but you will need to schedule maintenance time during which you put things back in their homes. You can schedule daily, weekly, and seasonal maintenance. If the maintenance seems to be more work than originally anticipated, consider changing homes for certain items. Keep refining your system until it works well for you.

Morgenstern’s S.P.A.C.E. program won’t get you on a Journey to Mars but it will help you make your home on planet Earth a lot more enjoyable.

Organizing resolution jump-start

We know that many people have chosen “getting organized” as a New Year’s resolution – and some of those people want to get started now! Here is a short-list of Unclutterer posts that can help you get a jump-start.

Setting Organizing Goals

Overwhelmed?

How to Start

Uncluttering

Keeping Motivated

Happy New Year from the Unclutterer Team and all the best to you in your organizing efforts.