Routines: Are you for or against?

Do you like having a routine? Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I see the usefulness in them, and when I follow a routine I’m more productive and don’t forget things as often as when I don’t have a routine.

However, I’m a bit like my mother. She loved routines, in theory, but after three or four days of following a routine she would find herself getting dizzy, as if her brain couldn’t cope with being so ordered. While a routine doesn’t make me dizzy, I do find myself looking for excuses to get distracted.

Of course, there are different types of routines to consider. There are regular practice routines, such as exercise, writing, or meditation. And then there are daily routines such as:

  • 7:00 Get up and have breakfast
  • 8:00 Go to the pool
  • 9:00 Write an article for Unclutterer
  • 10:00 Clean one area of the house
  • 10:30 Do some quilting and watch an episode of favourite TV show
  • 11:30 Go for a coffee and do some creative writing
  • 12:30 Prep lunch and tidy the house
  • 13:30 Eat lunch
  • 14:00 Leave for work

The first type of routine works for me. It focuses my mind. It creates momentum. It’s self-motivating. The second type of routine, however, while on paper seems like a great idea, always ends up depressing me, for two reasons: there’s never enough time to get everything I want done and it feels like being in the military or in a super-strict boarding school. Life is not so orderly — it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. Trying to squeeze it into a rigid plan just creates stress when the plan can’t be completed.

That’s why I like using the Bullet Journal system. It focuses more on the idea of regular practice and there’s no pressure to do everything in a single day. By having the “permission” to move tasks forward with a simple arrow takes away the stress of having too many tasks in the to-do list.

But when it comes to deciding how you feel about routines, don’t just take my opinion. Check out the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, with contributions from Unclutterer’s Editor-at-Large, Erin Rooney Doland, as well as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Gretchin Rubin, and 17 other experts in the field.

How to organize your books

If you have a substantial number of physical books you intend to keep, how do you organize them on your bookshelves? There’s no one best approach, but the following are some possibilities to consider:

By genre and/or author

These are the most common approaches, and they are often combined. For example, you might put all science fiction together, organized by author. It’s up to you to define genres (and sub-genres) as you wish, depending on how you classify books in your mind and how many books you have. You could also use one of the library classification systems: the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress system.

I tend to organize by genre and I keep all books by any one author together. However, that’s as detailed as I get — I don’t organize authors or titles alphabetically. But some people find alphabetizing to be helpful, and some will add a chronological component: organizing books by each author in the order they were released, organizing history books from oldest time period to the most recent, etc.

By color

While this can create an interesting look, does it interfere with finding a specific book when you want it? Not always, since some people remember book covers and colors. You could also choose this approach for the books in just one space — it doesn’t have to be the approach taken for all your books.

By height

This is often a compromise from a genre/author approach, when some books just won’t fit with the others. Or it could be a second-tier organizing strategy, where books within a genre get organized by height.

But you might also choose to organize by height — especially for really tall or really short books — to make the best use of limited bookshelf space. This works best when you can adjust the shelves to just the right height. I have one shelf that’s a collection of super-short books.

And as with books organized by color, some people just like the look of books organized by size, and use it as their primary sort.

By read vs. unread

This would be an approach to use in combination with another one, where all the to-be-reads are kept together (and organized however you wish). All the ones you’ve read and are saving would be kept separately (and also organized however you wish).

By how much you love them

Some readers like to keep all their favorites together, and then use whatever other system they want for the rest. This especially makes sense if you tend to re-read these favorites frequently, or if you often loan them to friends. If you have a guest bedroom, you might want to put some favorites in there.

By language

If you have books in multiple languages, your first sort might be by language. Within each language you could then organize by author/genre or whatever other approach appeals to you.

By personal chronology

I’d never heard of this approach until I saw what James Reynolds wrote about how he organizes books: “by date I got them. simple that way. new books just get added to the end. in this way, you get to trace the story of yr entire reading life – in chronological order.”

Randomly

Some folks know that simply getting books off the floor and onto the shelves is as much as they’re likely to do, so they don’t set up organizational systems they know they’ll never maintain. And other people just enjoy the randomness. For example, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, said:

What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity. When I’m looking over my shelves, trying to figure out what I’m going to read next, I don’t know where everything is and that enables me to be surprised.

And a note about shelving techniques: There’s been some recent attention to the practice of shelving books backward, with the spines inward and pages outward. While I’ve seen many people deride this, it winds up that some neurodiverse people find this a much less stressful look. I had never considered this, and I’m thankful to C. L. McCollum for sharing that perspective.

Making your resolutions a reality

On either the last day of the old year or the first day of the new year, many of us created lists of resolutions. If you’re like me, getting organized appeared in some fashion on this list. For example my specific resolution back in 2008 was to get my laundry mess under control.

Generating the resolution and committing it to paper or a hard drive is a terrific way to start the process. Unfortunately, though, the resolution won’t become a reality unless more work is done. (Wouldn’t it be great if just writing it down was really all it took?!)

If you don’t set a course of action and stick to it, then your resolution will be nothing more than words on paper. I want to walk through my process attack, which is loosely based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, to help you see how lofty goals can easily become experienced reality.

  1. Commit your resolution to writing. It doesn’t matter if you write your resolution on an index card, in a Moleskine notebook, or in an virtual Evernote notebook. Formulating your idea into concrete words helps you define your purpose and gets you started on your path to change.
  2. Reflect on your resolution and identify your motivation for change and where you see yourself once the resolution is complete. If you can’t see where you’re headed or why you want to get there, your resolution is pretty much destined for failure. There is no need to establish any other form of reward system, because you’ll see yourself succeeding! In my case, I need to imagine the calm I will have from not having piles of laundry cluttering up the floor of my laundry room.
  3. Brainstorm methods for completing your resolution. Even if the ideas seem ridiculous, write them down anyway. What are all of the ways that you could possibly reach your goal? What steps could you take? What is currently standing in your way? What resources could you obtain to help you get what you want? Empty all of your thoughts on the matter onto a piece of paper.
  4. Evaluate your brainstormed ideas and create what Allen calls “keys” to organization. “Identify the significant pieces. Sort by (one or more): components, sequences, priorities. Detail to the required degree.” This is the stage where you create your plan.
  5. Once your plan is set, make decisions as to the exact steps you will follow to achieve your goal. Without these concrete steps, you won’t know how to move forward. For my laundry resolution, my exact steps involve a lot of removing current barriers to success. (Buy light bulbs on Saturday morning at the grocery store to replace burned out bulbs in the laundry room.) If you’ve never written an exact step, or what Allen names “next actions,” you may want to read the entry on this topic on Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders GTDwiki here.
  6. Start!

Good luck to everyone with their organization resolutions! Feel welcome to tell us about your process for success in the comments section to this post.

 

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

The only way past is through it

In a recent interview with Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project, author Greer Hendricks hit the nail on the head when it comes to overcoming procrastination. When faced with a task she doesn’t feel like doing she reminds herself that “the only way past is through it.”

This adage doesn’t apply to every task we’d rather not do. In fact, there are many times that the best way to overcome procrastination is to cross the task off your list altogether, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Instead, let’s focus on those tasks we dread but cannot avoid.

I have one of those coming up and if I want to do my day job well, there is no way to avoid it or cross it off my life. I have to face it and go through the experience no matter how unappetizing it feels.

At the beginning of February, I have a conference to go to. The sessions don’t really appeal to me and I have to leave the conference early due to other commitments at home. So, in a discussion with my boss, we decided that my objective for the conference is to meet as many people as possible in similar positions as me.

It’s pure networking and I hate it. When I ran my own business, it was the one thing that would make me want to stay in bed hiding under the covers. It was this weakness that limited the growth of my business. I’m not a meet-and-greeter. I don’t like and have a hard time doing small talk.

But in this case, what’s best for our company is that I get to know my peers in other parts of the country.

Being an introvert, the idea of putting myself in front of total strangers and interacting with them horrifies me. And yet, I know it’s what I need to do. Fortunately, there are many tools to help me. Apart from Rubin’s The Four Tendencies, there are a whole slew of books on being an introvert in an interactive world that can help me push through the dread and reach the other side where satisfaction and success wait.

How do you deal with tasks that you simply can’t put off?

The inefficiency of a cluttered car

We have given some tips on keeping your car uncluttered in the past. Recently, this aspect of clutter popped into my head again when I rode in a car that was unbelievably packed with anything and everything the driver had brought into the car over the years. I’m not exactly sure why some people feel the need to use their vehicle as a trash can, but the back seats of the vehicle I rode in were rendered useless by the amount of junk that was strewn about them.

In this 2007 article, Karen Youso of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune raises some valid concerns that extreme car clutter can cause for a vehicle:

“No matter the reason, however, operating a cluttermobile has some real drawbacks.

‘All that junk adds weight, and that affects fuel economy, especially in town, with its stop-and-go driving,’ said Bruce Jones, professor of automotive engineering technology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. The heavier a car is, the more force or torque is needed to get it going again once it’s stopped, he explained.

And, in turn, it takes more effort to stop a moving junk car. The brakes won’t last as long…

…More important, however, is safety. The stuff inside cars can become ‘weapons’ in a crash, and not just in a roll-over or a serious collision. Hitting something at 30 miles per hour might stop your car, but it doesn’t stop all the stuff inside from flying around. If anything strikes an occupant, it can severely injure and possibly kill them, Marose said.

In addition, when the airbag deploys, it comes out at about 200 miles per hour. Any object in its way is ejected at nearly the same speed, with the same consequences, he added.”

Whether you work out of your vehicle or you have a few children to tote around, make sure your vehicle is clutter free. The safety of yourself and your passengers may one day depend on it.

 

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

Take-out menu filer

Ever wanted to order in something other than pizza, but you can’t think of anything other than the usual Chinese place? Something I’ve done for quite a while is file take-out menus in an Itoya portfolio that I keep on a bookshelf for easy access. Whenever I come home to find a Mexican, Salvadoran, Kabob, or whatever menu slipped under my door, I stick it in my portfolio. I use one pocket for each type of cuisine–all the Chinese menus go together, same goes for the pizza menus, etc.

When we feel like ordering in, we just flip through the pages and pick a cuisine. Then pull out the menus and make our choice. The key here is always dropping in menus when you get them in the mail or with your order, and throwing out obsolete ones when you find them. This beats piling them on a table by a phone, sticking them to your fridge, or cramming them in a drawer. And if you prefer, here’s a binder designed just for menus.

 

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

More little changes that make a big difference

In his post about simple living and labour-saving devices, Unclutterer PJ stated that technology in the service of simple living can help us save time. Unclutterer Jeri showed us that certain tools can help make organizing a little bit easier and how little changes in your home can make a big difference.

Here are a few changes we have made around our house that have helped us save time and effort.

We added wheels to a large, heavy computer cabinet. It took some effort to install the them but it was oh-so-effortless when we needed to move the cabinet to adjust the computer cables behind it, or to retrieve toy cars that had rolled underneath, or even just clean!

Our kitchen garbage pail is inside a cupboard so the dog cannot use it as a luncheon buffet. While it is now safe for the dog, it is a little inconvenient for humans. To solve this problem, I attached a small metal joining plate to the bottom of the cupboard door so that hangs down below the edge. I covered the end with Sugru so it wouldn’t be sharp. This allows me to open the door with my foot — instant hands-free access!

 

Most non-Canadians probably are not familiar with Robertson (square head) screws but I use them exclusively. Robertson screws, do not slip or strip. You can get maximum torque with even if your hands are not very strong (like mine). When I buy something like a curtain rod and the hardware is included, I’ll swap out the screws provided for Robertsons. As a bonus, Robertson screwdrivers are colour-coded — screw size is indicated by handle colour. No longer do I waste time rummaging through my toolbox trying to read worn writing on handles or examining tips to get the proper screwdriver. And because I only need to have one type of screw and screwdriver handy, I have an uncluttered toolbox.

Have you made any simple changes like these that have made your routine tasks easier? Share them with our readers in the comments.

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.

Little changes that make a big difference

Helen Rosner recently asked on Twitter, “What are some tiny things you’ve done this year to make your life immeasurably better?” She got a lot of responses, and I noticed many of them had to do with organizing and uncluttering.

Lots of people wrote about improving their closets. One person bought 100 identical hangers from The Container Store to replace her old mismatched poor-quality ones. Someone else got “the black velvet ones,” which would be the Joy Mangano Huggable Hangers or an equivalent. “Closets fit so much more, it’s easier to see what’s in there, and clothes don’t get stretched in weird ways from hanging,” she wrote.

While I understand the visual appeal of identical hangers, I haven’t yet gone that route myself — although I’ve been tempted. But I did just buy some more Olka hangers, since they’re the best I’ve found for preventing shoulder bumps. Whatever hangers work best for you, so clothes stay put and maintain their shape, can be a worthwhile investment.

Other people wrote about the benefits of owning duplicate toiletry items: one for home and one for the travel bag. For those who travel a lot, this can be a time-saver and a stress-reliever. But while Kirk England wrote, “Best $40 ever,” Bryna Levin wrote, “Except for women it’s $100-$500.” I don’t think it’s just gender that defines how expensive it would be to duplicate the toiletries — I don’t use all that many products so my cost would be well under $100. An alternative approach, for those who don’t want to make the investment, would be to develop a good packing list.

Someone else’s travel organizing change was using packing cubes. As Beth Skwarecki explained, “They let you rummage through your stuff without getting everything mixed up! They take up very little space themselves but help you pack more efficiently. I roll my clothes inside one cube, put underwear and toiletries in another, etc.”

Other small purchases also helped people be organized and save time. Leon Overweel did the often-mentioned trick for avoiding mismatched socks: “I ordered 50 pairs of basic black socks off alibaba for $22 (including shipping) and removed all other socks from my drawer. Now every morning I blindly grab two and just put them on. No more orphan socks or matching socks in the laundry!” While 50 pairs of socks is more than many people would buy, the basic concept is sound — assuming you often wear basic solid-color socks rather than more flamboyant options. Someone else added a towel hook closer to the shower. And a number of people mentioned the benefits of buying long charging cords for their mobile phones, to work around inconvenient outlets. I got a long charging cord back in 2015, and I find it invaluable.

Uncluttering was another big theme. Haley ED Houseman did what she called a “product purchase cleanse” where she used up (or gave away) the consumable products she had before buying any more. (Things that were too old got tossed.) Cathy Lanski said she “donated a bazillion sample sized products to a women’s shelter. They were sitting in a basket stressing me out, but were probably a treat to them.” A lot of these were “not quite right products from subscription boxes.” If you’re one of the many people with a large collection of toiletries, this could be the type of change you’d like to make, too.

For those who get overwhelmed with letters or email asking for donations to worthy causes (and can afford to make some donations), this change might be a good idea: “I set up recurring donations to the charities I feel strongly about, so I don’t feel bad about ignoring most of the fundraising mail I get.”

And I was delighted to see one person write, “We use grandma’s good china.” If you’re going to own “good china” it’s wise to actually use it and enjoy it.

Not everyone agreed about all the suggestions. There are the fervent bed-makers and those who feel that making the bed is a waste of time. There was one person who was delighted with her new honeycomb shaped drawer organizers for her underwear and those who refuse to fold undergarments. That’s only to be expected — organizing solutions are very personal.

My own small change this past year was storing some things more conveniently for my cat sitter — which meant the things were also more convenient for me. I just needed that “cat sitter is coming” push to get me to do some rethinking.

Gift card clutter

Gift CardWith the holidays behind us and the popularity of gift cards increasing every year, make sure you don’t let them go unspent. According to MarketWatch, about $1 billion worth of gift cards’ value will go unspent. Here are some tips so you don’t let your gift cards go to waste.

Keep them all together. If you have gift cards all over the place you’ll end up losing track of them. Keep them in one spot and look through them before you head out shopping.

Re-gift them. If you know someone who would be more likely to use the gift card you received, consider re-gifting it. Just take care you don’t end up giving it back to the person who gave it to you.

eBay them. If you received a gift card to a retailer that you don’t particularly like, eBay is a good way to get rid of the card. Rather than being stuck with a card that you will never use, get some value out of it. (The value is usually around 80%)

Don’t buy just because you can. If you have a gift card, don’t make that an excuse to purchase something. If you don’t like that particular store, don’t feel compelled to purchase their merchandise. Don’t clutter your home with gift-card guilt purchases.

 

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

What to do with holiday cards? Recycle!

Two of our readers provided creative suggestions for how to recycle holiday cards in the comments section of our Holiday gifts: Out with the old in with the new post. Not wanting to have them lost in the shuffle, I wanted to pull them out to everyone’s attention.

From Jan:

I recycle my Christmas cards. They arrive in the mail, I read them, I cut the writing off the back, I turn them into a Christmas post card with a friend’s address, stamp and short message and repost immediately.

From Kate:

Once the holidays are over, I “massacre” [cards] into gift tags for next year using a pair of pinking shears.

For even more great ideas, check out the comments below and our other post on uncluttering holiday greeting cards.

 

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

Avoiding one-size-fits-all uncluttering rules

Apartment Therapy recently ran an article by Shifrah Combiths entitled 9 Things No One Needs Anymore and Should Declutter. The list includes DVDs, DVD cases, CDs, file cabinets, a stockpile of pantry and household items, wall calendars, physical inspiration (mood boards, etc.), paper lists, and take-out menus. The recommended alternatives were almost all digitally focused: streaming services for movies, Amazon’s Subscribe and Save service, scanned papers, etc.

The good part about this list is it can challenge you to think about whether the physical items you have are indeed the best answer for you. Maybe you really do want to eliminate one or more of these things from your space and use other options.

But I can think of many situations where eliminating these items isn’t the best choice. Combiths acknowledges some of these, noting that people may want DVDs for road trips and CDs for playing in the car. Some people’s minds work better with wall calendars, and they also help some families.

But the following are some other reasons people may want to hold onto the items that “no one needs any more:”

  • They aren’t comfortable using digital options. My father, who is in his 90s, is not going to scan his papers and keep them in the cloud, as Combiths suggested.
  • They live somewhere with slow internet connectivity. Streaming movies just isn’t a good option for everyone.
  • They have budget constraints. Streaming services cost money. Keeping some DVDs and CDs (especially ones that children play repeatedly) and borrowing others from the library may be better options for some people. A good scanner costs money that people may not have, too.
  • They just work better with paper, at least in certain circumstances. Some people really like their paper lists, even if they acknowledge the benefits of digital ones. You’ll still find a wide variety of paper lists for sale: to-do lists, shopping lists, and more — as well as paper planners that include both calendars and lists. And not everyone is going to find that a Pinterest board works as well for them as a physical vision board.
  • They have a real need to stockpile at least some items. I stockpile a lot of water, some food items, cat litter, and more because I want to be prepared in case of an earthquake.
  • They are movie fans who like all the supplementary material that comes with DVDs and usually isn’t available from a service like Netflix. They may also like more obscure titles that aren’t readily available through streaming services.
  • They have disabilities that make digital options less attractive. For example, not all websites work well with screen readers. And Hulu was recently sued because it didn’t provide the audio description tracks that are available for many movies and TV shows, describing what’s going on for those who cannot see it.

So yes — you may well find that you don’t need all or most of the items in the Apartment Therapy list. But it’s perfectly okay if you do if you do need or want some of them. Lists like this are useful if they get you to reconsider what you’re saving, but you’re the ultimate authority on what works for your particular situation.