Uncluttering and supporting veterans

A few years ago, we talked about organizing and donating military memorabilia. This year, in honour of Remembrance Day, we’d like to discuss a few other ways you can unclutter and support the proud veterans that have served their country.

Cell Phones for Soldiers accepts ALL makes, models, and conditions of cell phones and smart phones including new, used, broken, or cracked.

You can donate an RV, boat, motorcycle, or other vehicle to Wounded Warriors Canada. The vehicle will either be recycled or sold at auction depending on its condition and location. The funds go directly to Wounded Warriors Canada and the donor is provided a tax receipt. In the U.S., Vehicles for Veterans offers a similar program.

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) will pick up used clothes and household goods at your convenience and use them to support veterans’ programs. Simply visit their website to schedule a pick-up.

Unclutter all those hotel and travel points you collected and will likely never use before they expire. Donate the points to support veterans! In the United States, Fisher House Hero Miles Program provides round-trip airline tickets to service members (and their families) who are undergoing treatment at a military or VA medical center. They also accept points from various hotel chains. In Canada, the Veterans Transition Network can use your Aeroplan miles help veterans in remote areas get to the services they need.

We have recently learned that the U.S. Military Combat Camera History & Stories Museum is in the process of collecting donations of items such as paintings, drawings, film and still cameras, and video cameras from combat camera soldiers of the United States and NATO countries. If you have these items to unclutter, please connect with them.

If you’re busy uncluttering this weekend, please take a silent two minute break and remember those who served. Je me souviens.

Tools to make organizing a little bit easier

All sorts of physical challenges can make organizing more difficult. Some of the more common challenges are being on the shorter side (like me, at 5 foot 2 inches) and being unable to bend and get down on the floor easily, often as someone ages or has to deal with post-surgical restrictions. Other common issues include declining eyesight and manual dexterity as we get older.

The following are some tools that can help make organizing easier. This is far from a comprehensive list — there are many tools to help people with a wide range of physical limitations. These are unspecialized tools that might help with some of the most common concerns.

Step stools

For people around my height, a step stool is a crucial tool for reaching things on the top shelves of closets, garages, etc. The E-Z Foldz step stool and others that fold take very little storage space. If saving space isn’t an issue, the Stand ‘N Store step stool from Flambeau might be of interest. And for those who feel unsteady getting up or down, there are step stools with handles. Another advantage, for users with trouble bending: These stools can be moved from place to place using the handle.

Reacher grabbers

These simple tools have numerous uses. For example, they can allow you to take something fairly lightweight (boxes of tea, for example) off a top shelf and put it back without using a step stool. You can use one to clean up a cluttered floor, one thing at a time, without sitting on the floor or doing a lot of bending. You can avoid clutter build-up (and misplaced items) by picking up things that are dropped and might otherwise be hard to reach.

The right label makers

Label makers can be useful tools, but some people will find the small keys on most of them too difficult to use due to dexterity or vision issues (or simply because some of the required key combinations are confusing). An alternative might be the P-Touch Cube, which works in combination with Brother’s free app running on a smart phone. With this set-up, a person can use the dictation function to create the text. And even those not using dictation say it’s easier to create labels using the app compared to typing them on a label-maker keyboard. I haven’t tried this label maker myself, but some other professional organizers have used it and are fans.

Roll-out kitchen shelves

Converting the shelves in kitchen base cabinets to roll-out shelving makes access much easier, especially for things in the back. Companies such as ShelfGenie can make that conversion.

But you can also mount pull-out organizers on your existing shelves. This approach won’t make quite as good use of the space, but it’s almost certainly less expensive. Companies such as Rev-a-Shelf and simplehuman have pull-out organizers for various cabinet sizes.

Organizing bathroom towels

The bathroom is one of the hardest-working rooms in your home, and that’s why proper organization is crucial. I’ll leave the medicine cabinet, cleaning supplies, etc. for another time. In this article, I want to look at towels.

In my house, we have three types of towels:

  • Bath towels
  • Hand towels
  • Beach towels

What to buy

When purchasing towels — and this may sound counter-intuitive — ignore your experience with in-store softness. Wise manufacturers add softeners to their products for a great, but temporary, feel. Instead, check the label for 100% water-loving combed cotton. The combing process removes the shorter strands, resulting in a towel of longer fibers that will absorb lots of water and resist pilling.

Give your potential purchase a good visual inspection, too. If you can see the towel’s surface through the fibers, put it back and move on. You’re looking for a dense collection of fibers. Also, pick it up. A great towel will feel heavier than it looks. Finally, look for towels with double stitching on the edges. This will reduce fraying and help ensure a long life.

Most of this applies to buying beach towels, with two exceptions. First, look for selvage edging instead of double stitching. Selvage resists unraveling, which is important as beach towels are subjected to rougher treatment than those used in the bathroom. Also, look for a yarn-dyed pattern, meaning each individual loop is dyed through. It will be less likely to fade.

When you’re choosing towels, consider simplifying your laundry routine as well. As color-saturated towels should be washed separately, consider choosing towels of the same color, or in the same color family.

How many to buy

We suggest three towels per person (one in use, one for the linen closet, and one for the laundry). Although, people who do laundry frequently may just need two (one in use, and one for the laundry). You should also buy two bath and hand towels for each guest, plus two washcloths daily.

Where to store them

I like to keep towels highly visible and accessible. The greatest trick I’ve seen in a while is to use shelf dividers. You’ll easily fit three or four folded towels between brackets and up to six if the towels are rolled.

There needs to be a place to dry towels. I have a peg rack on the back of the door that is a good spot for wet towels to dry off. Our beach towels dry outside.

How to determine what to replace

When towels get frayed, snagged, or begin to fall apart, it’s time to get rid of them. Washcloths can become rags for the household or garage, while larger towels can be donated to an animal shelter.

You can easily stay on top of this area with a little planning and careful shopping. You can check out our other post on managing towels and if you have any tips to share with fellow readers, please add them in the comments below.

Planning for bulk shopping

As we’ve mentioned previously, shopping in bulk can create a cluttered stockpile of unused goods. But it doesn’t have to. There are advantages to bulk shopping.

  • Items may be less expensive in bulk packaging or by purchasing multiples of the same item.
  • If you work in a volatile industry and income is variable throughout the year, stocking up during periods of high income will allow you to cope with periods of low income.
  • If you live far away from discount shopping areas or the weather is unpredictable and you cannot get to shopping areas easily, buying in bulk will save you the time and effort of getting to stores who offer lower prices.

To avoid a cluttered stockpile, you should take a look at what you buy and how much you need taking into account several factors such as, what particular products you use, how long it takes you to use them, how long the product will last, and your available storage space.

What products do you use?

First, look at what products you use and note if you and your family prefer certain brands. There is no point in buying store-brand ketchup in bulk if your family will only eat a particular national brand. Create a master spreadsheet of products and preferred brands. Include all your consumables on the list such as trash bags, feminine hygiene products — even vacuum cleaner bags. Tip: Never buy items in bulk if you haven’t tried them before. You might find that the product (or specific brand) does not meet your needs. If that happens, you’ll be left with a pile of clutter.

How long does it take to use each product?

It is easy to estimate how long it takes to use some items. You may already know that you need to buy a jumbo jar of peanut butter every week and a large bottle of Caesar salad dressing every month. It takes more effort to figure out how long some products such as shampoo and plastic wrap last. For something like shampoo, you can do some calculations. If you use 2mL (1/2 tsp) shampoo per day per person, a 300mL (10oz) bottle would last 150 days or about five months.

For items like plastic wrap, where it may be difficult to calculate how much you use per day, write the date on the package with a wax pencil as soon as you open it. When you finish the package, note the date and you’ll have an idea of how long it takes you to finish the roll.

How long will it last?

If you’ll be buying in bulk, you’ll need to ensure that you use all of a product before it expires. Some products have different date stamps such as “use by” or “best before.” According to the Institute of Food Technologists, these aren’t necessarily the expiry dates but indicate when the quality of the product is likely to decline quickly. Food labelling varies by country so check with your national food standards centre for details.

Also note that the “best before” date does not necessarily apply once the food product has been opened. Stilltasty.com provides information on how long products should last once opened. They also give details on ideal food storage conditions which can help you maximize the life of your bulk purchases.

Remember that personal hygiene products (soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, etc.) may only last from 6-12 months. Many cleaning products (bleach, laundry soap, etc.) only last six months but some products last for up to two years.

Available storage space

Survey your available storage space. How much room do you have in your cupboards and closets for storing bulk items? Are you able to convert some space in a basement or garage to storage? Is the space easily accessible and suitable for the products you wish to store? Many foods, including canned and dried foods, should not be stored in areas with widely varying temperatures. Paper products should be stored in areas of low humidity.

Preparing to shop

The amount of available storage space will give you an idea of how much of each item you can purchase and how often it needs to be purchased. For example, an average family of four will use about 100 rolls of toilet paper a year. If you can store six rolls under the bathroom sink, and 30 rolls in a linen closet, then you should only buy a 36-roll package each time you shop and you’ll only need to buy toilet paper approximately three times per year.

Use your stockpile

Some people use the FIFO (first-in, first-out) method so the items that are purchased first, are used first. However, some retailers will mark down prices on soon-to-expire items. When you bring home your goods, check expiry dates and rotate your stock so that items that will expire soonest are used first.

American investor Mark Cuban’s wealth building tips include buying consumables in bulk and when they are sale. So, feel free to buy that gallon of Frank’s Red Hot sauce if you know your family will use it before it expires.

The Burner List: an interesting approach to to-do lists

“There are a billion to-do list apps and methods out there, and I think I’ve tried 900 million of them,” Jake Knapp wrote. He then went on to describe his own paper-based process, which he calls the Burner List, using a kitchen stove analogy.

He creates two columns on a piece of printer-size paper. The left column — the front burner — is devoted to his single most important project. He lists that project name (for example, “write book”) and then a series of to-dos related to that project. The to-dos are items that can be done in the next few days. The to-dos will not fill the whole column, and that’s fine.

The top of the right column is the back burner — the second most important project — and its to-dos. The bottom part of that column is the kitchen sink, which is where he captures the miscellaneous things he needs to do that aren’t part of either project. Things like “schedule eye exam” and “buy cat food” go here.

You can read more about Knapp’s process on Ideo’s blog or on Medium. He’s an engaging writer, and it’s a quick read.

Two aspects of Knapp’s approach grabbed my attention. The first was the obvious focus on moving his big projects forward — something that often gets neglected amidst all the kitchen-sink type items we all have. Corinne Purtill wrote an article entitled The to-do list is a tyrant that will keep your life and your goals small, which addressed the problem of “a constant focus on short-term tasks.” With Knapp’s to-do list, any lack of progress on the most important longer-term projects becomes painfully obvious.

I also noted Knapp’s comments on how he re-creates his list as items get done.

The Burner List is also disposable. It gets stale fast as you cross off finished to-dos. I “burn” through my list every few days and then recreate it, over and over. This act of recreation is important, because I always discard some unfinished tasks which no longer matter and I reconsider what belongs on the front burner right now.

Colter Reed wrote an interesting blog post about this idea of removing some unfinished tasks from your to-do list. The whole post is worth a look, but the following captures the core idea:

Tasks expire, just like anything in your fridge. It was relevant once, but not now. You missed the deadline. You don’t have as much free time now. It’s not important to you now. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably never was.

A task on your list is not a permanent commitment. … You can renegotiate the commitment at any time, especially if it’s just with yourself.

If the Burner List doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps one of the many of approaches I’ve written about before will be a better fit. There are also a huge number of apps for managing to-do items, one of which might work well for you. Or maybe you’ll want to create your own way of managing to-do items, just as Knapp did.

Taking a binge approach to organizing projects

Today National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts, 30 days of concentrated writing with the goal of producing a 50,000 word novel. Nearly 20 years old now, the month is a way for writers to set themselves a goal and a deadline, producing 1,667 words a day.

Why does it exist?

  • To provide motivation to writers who may find life getting in the way of writing regularly.
  • To provide a community of support in what is considered a rather solitary process.
  • To shut down the internal editor, the voice that blocks forward motion.
  • To gamify the writing process, giving writers the chance to score wins against the final word count.

I’ve done it a few times, although I only won it once. While in principle I think it’s a great idea, for me it creates too much anxiety and pressure. The binary win/lose option stresses me out and then I can’t actually focus on the writing. Author Chuck Wendig does a great job of taking a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the pros and cons of working in this way.

For many people, however, it’s the exact motivation they need to finish something. Many popular authors have used the month to kickstart bestseller novels.

Unclutterer is focused on organizing and productivity not writing novels so why discuss it here? Because maybe for you, a binge approach to an organizing project you’ve been putting off may be just the thing you need to get going — and to reach the end.

Let’s break down NaNoWriMo into its component parts and transfer them to a hypothetical organizing project: unclutter and organize the kitchen cupboards.

NaNoWriMo goal: 50,000 words in 30 days
Organizing goal: 18 cupboards and drawers

NaNoWriMo daily goal: 1,667 words
Organizing daily goal: a little more than 1 cupboard or drawer every two days

NaNoWriMo support network: any number of online or local writing support groups and forums (or of course books and workbooks)
Organizing support network: the Unclutterer Forums, friends or family

NaNoWriMo gamification moment: daily concrete opportunity to “win”
Organizing gamification moment: daily concrete opportunity to “win”

NaNoWriMo internal editor silencer moment: with the daily goal and pressure of winning, there’s no time to allow doubt to creep in — it’s a “just do it” moment
Organizing doubt silencer: with a set two-day goal, there’s no opportunity to doubt decision — they simply have to be made

NaNoWriMo positive peer pressure moment: if a daily word count is missed, it can be spread through the rest of the month, or binge-written one day to catch up
Organizing positive peer pressure moment: if a day goes by without organizing a drawer or cupboard, a day with a double “win” can boost your confidence

NaNoWriMo end result: the first draft of a novel, a beginning-to-end piece of fiction
Organizing end result: a streamlined and organized kitchen

This type of organizing, however, is not for everyone. Just as I no longer do NaNoWriMo because it produces too much pressure-related anxiety, the stress of “having to” organize a drawer or cupboard every two days might produce panic or paralysis instead of motivation. It depends entirely on your personality.

If you think you’ll enjoy this challenge, check out Erin Rooney Doland’s book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. It has great tips and provides a guide for uncluttering any room in your home.

Overcoming task paralysis

Recently I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed at work. With the introduction of a new database and several people off on sick leave my to-do list never gets shorter. Fortunately, I am an organized person and manage to move forward even if it’s just a few priority items. But what if being organized is a challenge for you? That feeling of being overwhelmed becomes so all consuming that paralysis sets in.

Let’s imagine a situation that many people face. Let’s call our test subject Gloria. She’s a single mother with two children and has recently decided that she will pursue her dream of working in television full-time, as a freelance writer and producer. When looking one year into the future she clearly pictures having implemented some of her program ideas, having produced the show she wrote, and being able to support her children financially.

The problem is that she’s so overwhelmed by the normal anxieties of life that she can’t see clearly. There seems to be so much stuff that she’s paralyzed by it all. She’s moved her office in-house so that she could work on things 24/7 but that hasn’t worked (which isn’t surprising). Bringing the office into the home often creates more anxieties not fewer. Without a clear separation of work life and home life, the stress and guilt of working or not working 24/7 multiples exponentially. Every moment at work outside of regular hours takes away from family time and every moment with the family is one less moment striving for the work-related dream.

In our go-go-go world this sense of paralysis is common and it’s something many people suffer from. It happens when you allow your to-do list to get longer and longer which results in panic and paralysis.

Gloria especially feels anxious when she looks at all the day-to-day tasks. That often happens when people keep it all in their heads — it builds and each item seems unrelated to anything else. As well, as I said working on things 24/7, is not the best way to get things done. Time off is important, not just to recharge the batteries, but also to allow ideas and projects to simmer in the back of the brain.

So what should Gloria do?

She needs a plan. She needs to know what she’s working on when. However, she can’t create that plan until she knows exactly what she wants to work on. Yes, in her one-year-in-the-future vision she hints at what she might work on now, but the ideas are still very abstract. They are results, not actions.

When looking into the future, it’s important to focus on actions. Outcomes are great, but they don’t motivate well because they leave a gap between the current state and the future outcome. That gap can only get filled by action. And what actions does Gloria need to focus on? What actions do you need to focus on if you want to achieve your dreams? How can you choose any one thing when the to-do list is longer than a line-up to buy U2 concert tickets?

She might just pick one random item and work on that. Or she might pick the top three things that have reached crisis mode. Or she might take a bit of time to plan out her actions, which first requires some research.

In this case, research doesn’t mean going out and looking up information or talking to others. For this type of research she is going to interview herself. Using a blank piece of paper, Gloria is going to write down the numbers 1 to 100. Next, she will fill in all 100 slots with everything she does during the day, as well as everything she feels she should do and everything that she wants to do, but hasn’t got around to yet.

What will Gloria get out of overwhelming herself even more? How will this exercise help?

Right now Gloria feels overwhelmed by all of her to-dos. These to-dos however are only in her head, which she needs to liberate to allow more focused thought take over. Getting it out on paper does just that. Plus by giving herself a goal of 100 items she’ll likely have a hard time filling in every number, and she’ll realize that she doesn’t actually have as many things to do as she thought, taking off some of the pressure.

So now she has a list of items that she does (or wants to do). How does she take this list of actions and turn them into a plan that works for her, gives her time to relax, and moves her towards her dream? By prioritizing, delegating, and deleting items from the list. And no, it’s not easy. In fact this sort of challenge paralyzes many people.

Gloria will most likely need help. She’ll need the outside objectively of someone who isn’t so intimately connected to the actions, someone who can help her decide priorities and what doesn’t really need to get done after all. That help could come in the form of a friend, a family member, or a professional (like an organizer or a coach).

So, just how short should her list become? That depends on each person. In my case, I can have a very long to-do list without panicking, but others might need short lists, with tasks and projects spread out over stages based on priority.

Finally, Gloria needs to get started. Lists are great tools, but they need to be used. She might decide to use a system like Getting Things Done, or Bullet Journal (as I’ve been doing). But whatever the system, she needs to commit to it and let the lists guide her through the minefield of task-related anxieties.

Is everything in your home in its best place?

Imagine your kitchen for a moment. What is the one thing that you use most every time you’re in it? Your refrigerator? Your stove? Your trash can?

Most people don’t think about their trash can as being an integral aspect of their kitchens, but it is. During the course of preparing a meal, a trash can needs to be accessed numerous times. That is why I am always surprised when I walk into a kitchen and don’t immediately see one easily accessible from all aspects of the room. Even worse, I’m confused by kitchen designs where the trash can is behind a door, under the kitchen sink.

Yes, a trash can hidden behind a cabinet door looks clean, but it is completely impractical. You have to touch a cabinet nob, likely with dirty and full hands, to access it repeatedly. When it’s time to change the garbage bags, you have to strategically pull out the full canister without dropping anything inside the cabinet. A poorly placed trash can doesn’t help you in the kitchen, it hinders you. And, with the sexy, foot controlled, stand-alone models that are on the market, you shouldn’t feel that you need to hide this essential item.

I have a friend who hides her trash can under her sink and she says that she avoids the constant opening and closing of the door by keeping a large bowl on her countertop for trash while she’s cooking. (I think Rachel Ray promotes this idea on her show, too.) That makes some sense, but by doing this she dirties an extra bowl every time she cooks and adds steps to the cleaning process. An accessible trash can seems like the more efficient solution to me.

Think about the rest of your house. Are you creating extra, unnecessary steps for yourself because of poor organization? Are your pot holders in a drawer no where near your stove? Is your vacuum in a basement closet and not in a closet on the floor where it is used? Remember that good organization and design should be based on what you use and how you use it. I continue to support the idea that everything in your home should have a place to live, I just want you to think about if everything is living in its best place.

 

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

Organizing gift wrapping supplies

Tubes of gift wrap are cumbersome and always find a way to cause a mess. If you don’t already have a designated storage system for your gift wrap, then you may want to consider putting one together or purchasing a pre-made system.

I use the Gift Wrap Organizer (pictured), which has served me well over the years. I hang it in my office closet and only pull it out when I use it. I purchased tape and scissors specifically to be stored with the gift wrap so that everything is in one spot when I need it.

I keep five tubes of wrapping paper in the storage sleeves: One roll of heavy, plain white (for wedding and anniversary gifts), two rolls of holiday paper (one with a snowman print and the other a solid gold), a conservative stripe (for father’s day and male birthdays), and a neutral with polka dots (for mother’s day, female birthdays, and baby showers). If I had children, I would probably have a sixth tube of printed, youthful paper. In the front pockets I have stored bows, ribbons, and clear scotch tape. The side pocket holds a pair of scissors. The top back pocket holds white, cream, pink, and blue tissue paper. Finally, the bottom back pocket holds 10 gift bags in varying sizes (most of these are recycled from gifts people gave to me).

I found other pre-made systems that would work well, too:

Keep gift wrap from causing a mess in your home with a self-made or purchased organization system specifically designed for this purpose.

 

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

Bulk food buying may lead to a more cluttered lifestyle

I enjoy taking advantage of my parent’s membership at their local bulk food store every now and again. Some of the items I see in these warehouses, however, make no sense to me for personal use.

Obviously, bulk warehouses like Costco and Sam’s Club cater to small business owners. You need to be careful not to let the prices entice you into purchasing a gallon of Frank’s Red Hot when you will never use all of that hot sauce by the expiration date. The giant condiment aisle should be bypassed unless you are the owner of a restaurant or on the planning committee for the next extended family reunion or school barbecue. There is no rhyme or reason for an individual to buy a tub of mayo. Your family can make due with the regular size condiments at your local grocery store. Don’t clutter your cupboards with drums of mustard, mayo, or whatever else you can purchase at the bulk food stores. Realize that you are getting a great deal per unit price, but the deal is not always worth it for the storage space you have to sacrifice.

Another thing to consider when buying food in bulk is the temptation that all of that food presents when it sits in your home. The more food you have, the more food you eat. If you have a huge supply of snacks cluttering up your cupboards, chances are your family will be more inclined to polish them off simply because they are there. If you are going to buy snacks and treats do so in moderation and don’t buy junk food in bulk. Cluttered arteries are worse than cluttered cupboards.

Bulk buying has its positives and negatives. You can definitely take advantage of prices by buying bulk, but don’t let the deals lead you to buy things that you otherwise would not purchase, cannot physically consume before the expiration date, or have to sacrifice unreasonable amounts of space to store.

 

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

Simple solution for small packets in your kitchen pantry

Card FileHere’s a simple solution for packets of dry goods in your pantry: Store them together in an index card file.

I store packets of yeast in a 3×5 card file and larger packets of taco and stew seasonings in a 4×6 card file. These card files keep small packets from getting lost behind boxes of pasta and cereal and they make inventory simple when creating grocery lists.

An index card file is just a simple, inexpensive way to keep clutter at bay in your pantry!

 

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

Stair step baskets can help control clutter

I am not a basket person. I’ve never thought that a room in my home could be improved in some way by bowl shaped, woven wood with a handle. My mother, Queen of Baskets, disagrees with me strongly on this point. She believes that baskets make everything better. Everything.

In her home, if you want to blow your nose, you get your tissue from a basket. Toilet paper? Basket. Magazine? Basket. Silverware? Basket. Television remote? Basket. Flour? Sugar? Q-tip? That’s right, baskets. Her house is extremely organized, and its organization system revolves primarily around baskets.

As I said in the beginning, baskets are not my forte. However, amid all of my mother’s baskets, one of them makes complete sense to me: The stair step basket.

This basket sits on the bottom two steps in her house and throughout the day she fills it with items that belong upstairs. When she heads upstairs at some point, she takes it and returns the items in the basket to their proper places. Then, she sets the basket on the top two stairs and fills it with items that belong downstairs as she comes across them. The cycle repeats each time the basket is full. The basket collects out of place items and keeps them from creating clutter. Her system of using the basket is a brilliant clutter-busting and time-saving solution.

Her specific stair step basket is no longer made but it is very similar to this one. Honestly, though, any storage container that is easy to carry would work and could serve the same function. I think this is a wonderful idea for anyone in a multiple-storey home.

 

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