Organize your kids for camp

It’s difficult to believe, but summer begins next week for those of us in the northern hemisphere. My to-do list is long and one of the items on that list is to help get my kids organized for camp. Like countless kids across the country, they’ll join their friends — and make new ones — at camp.

You can help make the experience even more pleasant for them with strategic planning before Jr. walks out the door.

All types of camps

You son or daughter will likely receive a list of requirements and suggestions from the camp itself. Start shopping for these items at least a week in advance, if not longer. This will avoid the last-second rush and allow you to label everything properly. Speaking of labels…

Get some labels for the kids’ clothing and other personal items. There are many of these available: Name Bubbles makes some cute ones, including a whole line meant to “…last all summer long.” Be sure to label items that she or he might take off, like hats, flip-flops, and t-shirts, as well as accessories like sunscreen and lunch boxes. If you don’t want to purchase labels, a permanent marker will do a good job, as well as a laundry marker.

Sleep away camp

It’s a good idea to provide your little camper with a Re-Pack list that he or she can check when preparing to come home. Stick it in your child’s bag and laminate it, if you can.

Also, only pack clothes and other items that can get lost without causing a big deal. That beloved, irreplaceable shirt that Jr. simply adores might not be the best choice for camp, no matter how cool it is.

Pack liquids and anything that might be attractive to pests in zip-top bags. Write on the bags the contents with permanent markers so items have a greater chance of returning to the bags.

Day camp

A lesson my family learned the hard way: don’t send your child’s nice school backpack to camp. It will get used, abused, and stuffed with sand, dirt, and who knows what else. Go out (again, well ahead of time) and buy an inexpensive bag that can get beat up because it will.

Similar to the Re-Pack list recommended for sleep-away camp, make a daily checklist for your child’s backpack/bag. Again, laminate the list so that you can write special daily items on it as reminders (like a plain white t-shirt for tie-dyeing one day) in addition to the regular things.

If swimming is a regular part of the camp, pack a large zip-top bag. Get the biggest one you can find so wet swimsuits and towels can be stored away from other items in the bag.

If you or your children regularly attended or attend summer camp, what additional tips would you share to keep kids organized? Feel welcome to leave them in the comments.

Scanning the family photo collection

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I have boxes and boxes of family photos (some from the 1920s) I’d like to scan in and put on CDs (is that a good way to save them?) and also put on a website where family members can access them and print out what they’d like to keep. How do I even get started? How do I organize the project? I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. Do I need a special scanner? What’s the fastest and best quality scanner? Can I save the photos on the cloud? Is there a way to record information I have about the photo with the scan? A lot was written on the back of photos — can both sides be scanned at once? Should I get rid of duplicates or bad photos to start off? It’s hard to throw away photos. Any suggestions, including new tech solutions, would be appreciated.

Mary, dealing with photos can be overwhelming. But it’s a very rewarding project, and you can break it down into smaller pieces so it’s not so intimidating. The following are some ideas about how to approach this project, looking at each decision you’ll need to make.

Decide which photos to keep

You won’t want to spend time or money scanning photos you don’t even think are worth keeping, so unclutter first. Photos to consider tossing are:

  • Duplicates. If you have family or friends who would like the duplicate prints, you can certainly pass them along. But why keep duplicates yourself?
  • Bad photos. This would include photos that are out of focus, photos that cut off someone’s head, and photos that are unflattering. You may want to keep some of these if there’s something else especially notable about the photo, but in most cases these are good riddance.
  • Photos of scenery. This is a personal choice, but many times the photos people take of the places they visit just aren’t that remarkable. My parents went to Hawaii years ago and took many photos, but I can find much better photos of those places online. The photos I cherish are the ones of my parents in Hawaii, not the ones of Hawaii itself.

You might think of this as going on a treasure hunt, finding the real gems among the many photos. If you can’t bring yourself to throw away any photos right now, you might simply create two categories of photos: the best ones (which you’ll scan) and all the rest.

Decide whether to scan them yourself or use a scanning service

Many people have happily used scanning services. Erin used ScanMyPhotos, as did a recent commenter, L. Charles. The company takes your prints, negatives and/or slides, does the scanning, and ships you back a DVD with those scans (along with your originals). If mailing off your photos makes you nervous, you may be able to find a company that does the work locally. Using a scanning service will save you a lot of time. I doubt the service will scan the backs of the photos, though.

If you prefer to scan your photos yourself, you’re going to be best off with a scanner that doesn’t require you to put the photos through a paper feed. That’s because every once in a while a photo might get damaged going through that feed. However, if you already have something like a ScanSnap iX500 you may be willing to take that risk. I know people who have used similar scanners with no problems.

If you already have a flatbed scanner as part of an all-in-one printer, that might be all you need. But what if you don’t have an appropriate scanner and want to buy one? I’m not an expert regarding scanners so I can’t tell you which scanner is best, but I can point you to some alternatives.

There are some scanning devices designed specifically for photos, which can sound appealing. But Consumer Reports wasn’t thrilled with the pass-through photo scanners it tested, even though it acknowledged that they have some distinct advantages.

Another option is a flatbed scanner, especially one that’s designed to handle photos, negatives, and slides. I know someone who’s happy with the Canon CanoScan 9000F MKII Color Image Scanner, but there are many other scanners to consider. If any readers have experience with specific photo scanners, I hope they’ll add their comments.

If you’re scanning photos yourself, you can scan the backs of the photos to capture the writing. (If you have a duplex scanner, you can probably scan both at once.) You could even use a scanning service for the photos, and then go through and scan the backs of the photos yourself once the prints are returned to you.

Next week, I’ll address the issue of storing the photos once you have them scanned.

Organizing in a small apartment that lacks storage space

Unclutterer reader Tami recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I just moved from a 2-bedroom, 1200-square-foot apartment into a 1-bedroom, 784-square-foot apartment. I LOVE my new place but to say “lack of storage” is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I have adequate space in the kitchen but I literally have NO linen closet, nowhere medicine cabinet, place for sheets, towels, just STUFF. I have a hall closet (which is where I have put my broom, mop, etc.) and placed a basket up top for sheets to try and organize, and a closet for the washer and dryer (yet another basket system for cleaning supplies, meds, and odds and ends) but I KNOW there has to be a better way!!!

Tami, this is a problem you share with many others. On Unclutterer, we’ve written before about strategies that often work in small spaces, but the following are some more suggestions that may work for you.

Re-evaluate what you own

When you’re in a small space, everything you own really has to earn a place in your home due to how functional it is or how much you care for it, aesthetically or sentimentally. There may be no room for anything that’s just “okay” or “perfectly good” if it isn’t something you need or love.

For example, how many bed linens do you really need? Many people get by with two sets: one on the bed and one spare. (And the same principle might apply to other linens, such as towels.) If you have a number of specialized cleaning products, could you move toward multipurpose cleaners?

Look beyond the (non-existent) closet shelves

You’ll want to be sure you’re storing things safely, where small children and pets can’t get to them (if that’s a concern in your living situation). And remember that medications are often best stored away from the humidity of a bathroom. The following are some alternatives to consider:

Use the backs of doors

Shoe pockets hung over a door can be used to store all sorts of things. Parent Hacks has a great list of ways this versatile product can be used. Elfa also has some door racks that might be worth a look.

You can use the backs of cabinet doors, too, adding baskets or trays.

Use the walls

Your lease may limit your options here, since it may preclude you from adding anything that would put a hole in the wall.

But even then, you have some options. For example, Perch attaches to many walls with damage-free Command Strips. If your lease doesn’t limit you, you can look into shelves and pegboards.

Consider different ways to store linens and towels

I’m assuming that you don’t have space to add a storage piece such as a cabinet, trunk, cart, or shelving unit. If you do have space, that’s one alternative, but certainly not the only one.

Some people store an extra set of linens between the mattress and the box springs. Some linens, such as tablecloths, can be stored on hangers. Placemats can be hung from hangers with clips.

Towels are a different challenge. Perhaps you could store them in an empty suitcase. (An under-the-bed storage box could work, too.) You could also add a towel rack that mounts in the door hinges to store extra towels.

Organizing in a shared living space

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My husband insists on keeping various things by his recliner, on a small table, in the living room. Things like scissors, nail file, pens and pencils, two pair of glasses, toothpicks, nail clippers, bottle of water, Kleenex, TV remotes, files he is working on (self-employed), electric razor, vitamins, crossword puzzles, scratch paper, his laptop, current book he is reading … need I say more?

Actually it is an old TV stand that he has repurposed and it has a shelf where he slides the laptop into. And there is some organization to all of the things mentioned. Some aspects of the clutter can be removed easily when company comes over as they are in plastic shoe boxes. Do other women have this problem and what do they do?!

Mary, the living room is a shared space, so it’s important to look for solutions that work for both of you. The following suggestions might help you find some common ground.

Negotiate which items get kept by the recliner

It’s often wise to store things where they are used. So keeping some things by the recliner can be a good strategy for someone who regularly uses that chair to read, work on the computer, do crossword puzzles, watch TV, etc. But I’d suggest you negotiate some limits, based on what activities are appropriately done from the recliner.

Unless your husband has a disability and getting out of the chair is a significant issue, I would think that personal grooming is better done elsewhere. So maybe a book, some scratch paper, a few pens, eyeglasses, and such stay by the recliner, while things like the electric razor do not.

Get better storage tools

Once you’ve agreed which things are reasonably kept beside the recliner, consider whether it makes sense to invest in better ways to keep those items close at hand.

You might want to replace the old TV stand with an end table that provides storage, such as this one from Levenger.

You could also add a storage ottoman. There are many choices, at various price points — the one above comes from Crate and Barrel.

Another approach would be to make that entire furniture piece mobile, so it can be rolled away when company comes. For example, something like the above utility cart from Ikea could work.

It might also help to add a storage product that goes over the arm of the recliner, such as the above remote control pocket from Ikea.

Agree on a maintenance plan

It’s easy for a well-used place in your home to become cluttered, so work with your husband to develop a plan to keep things under control. For example, you might agree that at the end of the day, your husband will:

  • Dispose of all trash.
  • Place any book that’s been finished either on the bookshelf (if it’s a keeper) or in whatever place you’ve defined for things being given away or sold.
  • If anything has accumulated near the recliner besides the things you have agreed belong there, put those items away in their normal storage places.
  • Put everything that does belong near the recliner in its designated storage area: in the drawers or containers on the side table, etc.

An alternative: Follow Marie Kondo’s advice

Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, would say that all your husband’s things should be kept in one place, not scattered around where they are used. If you want to follow her advice, I would suggest (as she would) that you begin by making sure your own things are in order and showing by example how well her approach can work.

Struggles with GTD and possible solutions

Unclutterer reader MrsMack recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My … struggle is with the GTD method. I’ve read the book and I think it could work really well for me, but the required cleared-schedule, back-to-back two days to get started is so intimidating and too overwhelming. I don’t have the liberty to turn my life off for two days to work without interruption. How can I ease into this?

I first discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity when I was an IT Director at a residential school. That was a crazy job, as I was supporting about 80 computers, a network and more, including heading up the help desk for there school’s 100 employees. It was easy to feel overwhelmed and I often did. Fortunately, I discovered David Allen’s method.

Adopting it in earnest took a lot of work, not just in my own behavior but in the materials I was using. I felt it was worth the effort, but I also realized how much effort was involved. Processing everything in my work life to get “clean and clear” took days. Personally, I recommend taking time off and completing the work as he suggests. I found it saved me time and frustration over the longterm. However, I know this isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you genuinely don’t have two days to dedicate to this process, the following are the alternatives I suggest:

Pick the area that’s most in need of attention and focus on it for as long as you can (two hours? four?). You might have enough time to get your desk/work area and your work projects “clean and clear.” Then simply “GTD” (if I may use it as a verb) that aspect of your life. This will reduce the overwhelmed feeling and get you comfortable with the system, so that when you’re ready to tackle the next area, like that pesky garage, you’ll be an experienced machine.

I do believe in David Allen’s method, especially in the very real feeling of being on top of everything that comes from getting “clean and clear.” I also realize that GTD is not the best fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are several alternative methods you might find interesting or appealing.

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done system. Leo created his Zen method specifically to address what he sees as “…the five problems many people have with GTD,” namely:

  1. GTD is a big change of habits
  2. GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is too unstructured for many people
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals

If any of those five issues are ones you’re having with GTD, maybe Zen to Done is an alternative that could work for you.

Another program is Asian Efficiency’s Agile Results. I’m not super familiar with this method, but it’s been popping up on my radar off and on for a while now. Like Leo’s Zen to Done, Agile Results is more goal-focused than process focused.

While working on this article, I reached out to my buddy Mike Vardy of the website Productivityist. His “theming” method is quite compelling. To begin, look at what he calls the certainties in your week. For example, on Sunday, there will be no interruptions and the family will be home. On Monday through Friday, the kids are away, and on Saturday, the family is home. With those certainties identified, he creates themes based on the results:

Sunday: No interruptions, family-home
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Kids at daycare, wife at work
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Kids at daycare, wife home
Saturday: No interruptions, family-home

The final step is to “lock down,” as Mike puts it, the remaining days. His final themed schedule looks like this:

Sunday: Creative Day (Writing)
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Saturday: Family Day

It’s clever, and a part of a larger method of his Now Year formula. His alternate method might work for you.

Getting on top of everything can be a chore, but it’s well worth the effort irrespective of what method you ultimately decide to adopt.

A place for everything — but where?

Unclutterer reader Ebbe recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Our problem is the first part of this rule: Finding out where or what that place should be for any given item is an almost insurmountable task. And that is the reason why we still have a lot of clutter in our home.

Ebbe, the following suggestions might help you find good places for your items.

General principles

Usually, you’ll want to keep things you use frequently close at hand, near where you’ll be using them. And you would normally want to keep things that are used together in the same general area. So, if you use a coffee maker every day, it might make sense to leave it out on your kitchen counter and store your coffee mugs in a nearby cabinet.

Things you use less frequently can be stored further away from where they’ll be used. You wouldn’t want to dedicate prime storage space (any space within easy reach) to things you only use once or twice a year. Seldom-used items can go in places such as the kitchen cabinets over the refrigerator or in an attic, basement, or garage if your home has those spaces. You may want to keep a list of what you’ve stored where, since it could be easy to forget.

You’ll normally want to keep like with like. For example, if you have a number of vases, you would probably keep them in one spot. But sometimes, based on the “keep it close to where you’ll use it” principle, it makes sense to store things in two or more places. For example, I keep flashlights in a number of places, so if I lose power at night I’ll always have one close at hand.

When feasible, try not to fight your family’s ingrained habits. For example, if mail always gets dropped on a kitchen table or countertop, maybe that’s the best place for an “inbox” type of container.

When creating homes for frequently used things, make those homes as easy to use as possible. That might mean getting a closet double-hang rod to keep clothes handy for younger children, using hooks rather than hangers in some situations, using a laundry hamper without a lid to make it easier to put dirty clothes away, etc.

Be sure that the storage places you’ve selected are safe. You’ll want to ensure that small children and pets can’t get to things like medicines, laundry detergent pods, toxic pest control products, or sharp things such as knives. It’s usually best to avoid storing heavy things and fragile glass items up high, so you don’t need to worry about hurting yourself or breaking something when you go to retrieve it.

Be careful not to store items that are sensitive to heat, cold, humidity, or bugs in places that face those hazards. That means being careful about what gets stored in places such as attics, basements, and garages.

And finally, don’t expect to get everything right the first time. Try giving things assigned places, and then adjust as you learn more about what works well and what doesn’t.

Dealing with limited storage space

I know people who live in old houses with very small closets. If you have a similar situation, you may need to get creative about adding storage. That could involve buying furniture such as a wardrobe, but it could also involve less expensive (and less space-consuming) ideas such as hanging some shoe pockets on some doors — they can store much more than just shoes. There are many products that make use of wall and back-of-the-door space, as well as under-the-bed space.

And the answer might be that some things get stored at the store. Buying large quantities and huge sizes of things may not work if your home has limited space.

If there are things you use infrequently, maybe the answer involves getting rid of those things and borrowing or renting them when the need arises. This could be something to consider for rarely used tools, for example.

And if you’ve been as creative as you can be in finding storage places, and you still can’t find a place for everything, you’ll need to decide whether you want to invest in renting a storage unit (which is a reasonable choice in some very specific situations) or whether it makes more sense to just own less.

Accepting imperfect solutions

Sometimes there’s no great place to store something. I have that problem with my bulky Bosu balance trainer. I use it in my living room, which is the only room I have with sufficient space for exercising. But there’s no place to hide the Bosu away in the living room and it didn’t look good just sitting out, so I recently moved it to the guest bedroom (which isn’t far away). Now I just bring it out when I want to use it. There was no ideal place for it, so I settled for an adequate one.

Storing the CPAP machine (and other ugly but frequently used stuff)

We recently asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader Mary asked:

C-Pap Machines for sleep apnea … used every nite … sitting on a small table by my husband’s side of the bed and most visible from adjoining living room … long hose and face piece at end of hose … so ugly but so necessary … storage ideas but still convenient?

Mary, there are a number of approaches you might use to address this challenge. While I’m going to list some specific solutions for CPAP machines, the strategies I’ve included could apply to any ugly-but-useful items we need to keep close at hand.

Make the equipment less ugly

Your options here will depend on what CPAP machine you use and how crafty you are. There are some commercial products, but you could also try a do-it-yourself approach. On the commercial side:

The ResMed S9 Autoset comes in pink, which some people think looks less clinical (and therefore more attractive) than the basic machine.

If you use a ResMed S9 device you can also get a skin (a vinyl decal) for it. Skinit has a program where you provide the image and the company turns it into a custom skin.

You can also find a few Skinit ready-made skins (products the company has discontinued) on eBay and other sites.

Cover it up

Building off the idea of the teapot cover called a cozy, some people have created CPAP machine and mask cozies. I’m not finding anyone who sells a CPAP cozy commercially, but you could either make one yourself or have one made for you.

You can buy hose covers, which serve a functional purpose. But a cover also “makes the CPAP look less clinical,” as one Amazon buyer noted.

Place it somewhere handy but less conspicuous

The CPAP machine doesn’t have to live on top of the nightstand in order to be handy. The Bedside CPAP Table keeps the CPAP close by the bed but off the nightstand, freeing up that nightstand space for other things. (This table is also useful for travel to places where there might not be a nightstand next to the bed.)

You can also take the CPAP machine (and the hoses and mask) off the nightstand by putting everything into the nightstand. Perdue Woodworks makes a nightstand specifically for this purpose, but if you’ve got another nightstand where you’re willing to cut holes in the sides, you might be able to create your own.

Denny Allen Cabinets has a different design, with a side-opening drawer, which could also work well.

When you’re dealing with anything that’s unsightly yet useful, you may find a similar creative way to disguise or hide the item.

Tech clutter and cleaning vs. exhaustion

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Today I’ll be looking at two questions: tech clutter and the sheer exhaustion of staying on top of it all. Let’s start with the gadgets.

Bailey asked:

…Since [our kitchen] is by the back door [it has become a] landing pad for the cell phones and their chargers, especially for folks who are visual and need the reminder to take it with them…laptops and tablets end up all over the house, becoming visual clutter in the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

This drives me crazy, too. With four of us living under one roof, I find phones, the iPad, and our laptops all over the place. When we have houseguests it gets even worse, as cables and devices seem to dangle from every available outlet. To combat this issue, I’ve hit everyone where it hurts: battery life.

We have designated charging areas in our house: a so-called “telephone table” (it used to hold our land-line phone back when we had one) and the bedrooms. That’s it. If a device is not in a designated area, it does not get recharged, as moving cables from outlets is not allowed. The threat of a dead battery is enough to keep the digital clutter confined to one area. Smart planning will go a long way, too.

As human beings, we tend toward the path of least resistance. Use this to your advantage when defining a designated charge zone for your electronic goodies. If people like to enter the house through the kitchen and plop their devices down there, choose that location. There are several great options for DIY charging stations that can accommodate several devices and look great in the process. If you’re willing to sacrifice a drawer, you can make a hidden charging station that:

  1. Is where they like to plop stuff down anyway, so the habit change is minimal,
  2. keeps everything completely out of sight,
  3. is easy to access, and
  4. is very inexpensive and easy to set up.

I hope this helps. After a couple weeks of gentle reminders and some careful consideration, I think you’ll have a solution that everyone can use.

Next, reader Kat asked:

But at the end of [my 12-hour day]…I am utterly pooped. I hire someone to do the dusting and bathrooms and floors, but that creates pressure to have the house decluttered before she comes each week. I have boxes still unpacked in the garage from when we moved 3 years ago, and we can barely get into the garage if we need something from them. I have dealt with high pressure decluttering situations by piling high a laundry basket and hiding it in my walk-in closet – now no one can get into the closet. All the usual culprits — junk drawers, bathroom cupboards, closets, sheds, become repositories of clutter.
While I feel we are coping with day-to-day life flow, I just cannot find a way to break this cycle and find the energy to tackle the big projects like the garage or closets.

I think everyone can empathize with this situation in some way. I’ve been meaning to organize our basement for years. There comes a point when a little project becomes a big one, and a big one becomes an insurmountable monster. The answer for me has been to re-define your definition of a “project.”

“Clean the garage” is a project. But at this point, it has become so intimidating that it’s super easy to avoid. Instead of avoiding it, I’ve broken it down into much smaller projects that are achievable. Perhaps this weekend you can find 30 minutes to sit with a pen and paper and list the categories of items you expect to find in the garage, like yard tools, holiday decorations, sports equipment, etc. When you’re done with that, you’re done. You’ve successfully made progress on the garage.

Next time you have a fifteen minute block of time, plan out what your’e going to do with stuff that you aren’t going to keep. Will you donate it, sell it, give it away, take it to a consignment shop, the town dump, etc.? Again, getting those decisions made is another project completed.

The week after that, dedicate just fifteen minutes to sorting through one type of category of your stuff in the garage (ONLY yard tools or ONLY holiday decorations). Find items that will be thrown away, for example, and then donate/sell/recycle/trash the items that need to be purged. Put the items you wish to keep in a pile or box out of the way for you to organize on another day. After fifteen minutes, you’re done. Another win.

Do this with all your categories of items and then repeat it with organizing and putting away what you’ve planned to keep. It will take you many weeks, maybe months, to get the garage to your ideal, but you will get there. A little work at a time results in an uncluttered and organized garage, which is better than the chaos that is frustrating you now. Baby steps to success.

This is how I deal with the craziness. My wife and I work full time and we’re raising two kids along with Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, ballet, soccer, homework, and on and on. Even in the house, I break things down. “Today I’ll tidy up the mudroom area.” These small victories compound and I get stuff done without exhausting myself even further.

Answers to a reader’s four questions

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader wrote in and talked about her four main struggles.

1. Finding pockets of time in the day to do large projects when you have small kids around. For example, I am trying to stain our wooden fence on our own, but I have two children under 3 years old. How can I approach this messy process strategically?

I’ve been in this situation before. I had two young children and my husband was deployed for six months straight with the Canadian Forces. One suggestion would be to find some teenagers you can hire. You can ask around to neighbours and friends or visit the local secondary school or community centre if you don’t know any personally. Some teens would appreciate getting paid for a few hours of work per week painting your fence or keeping your children occupied while you work on the household chores.

Another suggestion might be if you have friends with young children, you can do an exchange. One grown-up looks after all of the children and the other grown-up works on a project. The next time, you switch.

Before engaging someone to assist you, it’s always best to have a plan of what you can accomplish during the time you have. Here are some tips I’ve learned from experience:

  • Always underestimate the amount of work you’ll get done in the time that you have. If you think it will take you two hours to paint the fence, it may really take you four hours. Remember to include set-up and cleanup times in your estimate.
  • Always have a Plan B. If you’ve booked a sitter so you can paint the fence, have an alternative project to work on (e.g. sewing curtains) in case it rains that day.
  • Don’t fret if you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

2. Overcoming analysis paralysis … how do I restore my decision-making confidence and JUST DO IT? For example, hanging art on the wall: it feels like a permanent choice! So I delay!

We’ve written before about improving decision-making skills and how to make the process of decision making easier. Reviewing these posts might help you get over your “analysis-paralysis.”

As someone who has moved houses eight times in 23 years, I can say that nothing is “permanent,” some things might just take a little more effort to change than others. As far as hanging art on the walls, try GeckoTech Reusable Hooks. They are made with a unique synthetic rubber technology that allows them to be used again and again. 3M picture strips are also very handy for hanging artwork without damaging walls. You may also wish to consider the STAS cliprail pro Picture Hanging System.

Apartment Therapy has great tips for hanging artwork so go ahead and make your house a home.

3. Thinking long-term about home projects, while on a budget. We plan to stay in our home a long time, but it needs some love. But our wallets are thin! What should we prioritize: remodeling the kitchen, or taking control of the landscaping? New interior paint job or pressure washing and re-glazing the pebble driveway? What house projects are most important and have lasting impact?

Home renovations can make your home more comfortable, improve your living experience, and increase the value of the home. However, shoddy workmanship or too much “unique customization” may actually decrease the value of your home.

Start with the basics by keeping the home safe and livable. Consider projects that involve your home’s structure (roof, windows, doors, etc.) or mechanical systems (furnace, air conditioning, electrics, plumbing). These upgrades make your home more energy efficient and may actually pay for themselves during the time that you live in the home. Insurance companies may also decrease premiums when you improve wiring, install secure windows, or add an alarm system.

Next, think about making you home more livable. High-end countertops may look good in magazines but more cupboard space may be what your family needs right now. Discuss your ideas with a designer and talk to a few contractors to determine prices and see what fits with your budget. You may decide to do the work yourself, but talking about it with a professional is great for brewing ideas.

Try to build the most flexibility and long-term usefulness into your designs. Remember that children grow quickly, so envision the basement toy room becoming a games room and study area in a few years. Installing the required wiring now will save you time and money later, and may also add a selling feature if you decide to move.

You might be able to do some work yourself, such as painting or installing closet systems. However, because of permits and laws/regulations/codes, most people find it best to hire professionals for tasks requiring plumbing, electrical work, specialized carpentry, and work involving altering the structure of your home (supporting walls, roofs, staircases, etc.).

4. How can we encourage others in our life to take care of their clutter before they leave this earth and give all their clutter to us? This is especially a problem when they don’t think what they have is clutter!

Unfortunately, the value of an item is in the eye of the beholder. Items you might consider clutter, might be of significant value to someone else. It would be difficult to ask someone to part with items that are valuable to him or her. You can’t control another person’s desires, wishes, and attachments to their things.

However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your family members’ items are appreciated once they pass on.

Envision what you want for your family. Are you minimalists? Do you prefer art-deco style furniture? Will you travel? What hobbies do you enjoy or do you wish to start a few new hobbies? It helps to write down the lifestyle you want to lead and then act according to these visions when the time comes.

Prepare a respectful “no thank-you” response now. Chances are you will be offered something you don’t want or you will be told that items are being kept for you. If the item will not fit into your envisioned lifestyle, you will be able to turn it down. For example:

I know [item] is very important to you and it means a lot that you want us to have it after you are gone. But [item] will never replace you or our memories of you. Let’s consider how [item] could best be used and appreciated. Perhaps we should:

  • Consider offering [item] to a [name friend or family member] who would truly appreciate it
  • Donate [item] to charity or museum, where it could be used or appreciated by even more people
  • Sell [item] and either enjoy or donate the money

Sometimes once people find they are no longer obligated to hold an item for you, they are more willing to let it go.

Sorting through sentimental keepsakes

Last week, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader asked:

My mother in law recently moved out of her house and into a small place with medical care and more services than her home could provide. In her process of downsizing, many many items were earmarked for my husband and I. In the spirit of not hurting any feelings, we got a U-Haul and took all the items back to our house. Now, my husband is dealing with guilt and doesn’t want to get rid of hardly anything from his mom’s house. Is there a delicate way to handle this? I’d like to encourage my husband to keep a few choice items and ditch the rest, but its a delicate subject.

It’s definitely a delicate subject, and a familiar one for many people. A few years ago, my family was in a similar situation when my grandfather, who had been living alone for several years, had to move into a place that could properly care for his increasing medical needs. To make the process even more difficult, we had to sell his house as well. He passed away shortly thereafter, and we were left with a lot of stuff.

I can remember my extended family sitting in my aunt’s house surrounded by so much stuff and trying to decide, “Now what?” It seemed like an impossible task. At last I asked myself, “What did grandpa mean to me?” The answer came, “He was an artist.” At that point I knew what I would do.

For years, my grandfather had designed flatware and more for Oneida. He was also an accomplished artist in other mediums, like wood and charcoals. I found some items that represented my overarching impression of my grandfather: a sketch I had long admired, a spoon sample, some early product photos taken for the company, and a sketch.

The sketch, entitled “Winter’s First Snow,” is framed and hangs behind my desk. The spoon, photos, and sketches I had professionally mounted in a shadow box that now hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Both look great and are nice reminders of someone I loved.

We wrote about parting with sentimental clutter a few years ago, and that advice is still very good:

  • Only keep items you’ll display and/or use
  • If you insist on not displaying or using the items, limit items to a number that can fit inside a designated space, like a single chest or keepsake box
  • Remember that items don’t have magical properties, memories do — getting rid of something your loved one owned isn’t getting rid of that person

I’ll add this: identify a specific number of items that best represent your fondest feelings of your loved one and treat those items with the respect and love that those memories deserve. By giving the items a place of honor, you’ll feel that you’ve done right by the fond memories you have.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t force your spouse to get rid of his mother’s things, but you can show him what you think might be a nice alternative to keeping everything. This is also a big adjustment for your husband and it may take time before he can let go of some of the items he doesn’t want to keep. So, with a little time and suggestions from you, you both should be able to come to the right solution for your family.

And, you can remind him that a box in the basement full of items you rarely, if ever, look at is not a fitting tribute to an important person from your life. Two or three items tastefully and beautifully displayed or used in your home, however, shows that you care for, respect, and value the relationship.

What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

Protecting and organizing your digital data, the collegiate edition

This fall, my son will be attending university back in Canada (we still live in Britain) and there are number of things we have to do to get him ready. One of those things is to get his electronic gear ready for the transition. Many of the things we are doing to help him get ready are things we can all do to keep our digital information protected and organized.

1Password

On Unclutterer, we’ve talked about using 1Password for estate management by sending your master password to your executor. In the case of my son, he will send us his master password just in case his computer is ever lost or stolen.

1Password is great because users can save their password recovery questions, as well as secure information such as health card, social insurance, and passport numbers. 1Password will also save software registration information. We will also make sure our son has the 1Password app for his iPhone and sync the passwords through iCloud or Dropbox so he has his secure information available when he needs it.

Find my iPhone

As a family, we share our Apple ID information. This allows us to find each other’s iPhones and computers should they be lost or stolen. We’ve also enabled Send Last Location which sends the last known location of the iPhone to Apple when the battery becomes critically low.

Online Banking

Our son already manages his personal finances. iBank is our family’s preferred software system because it works with banks outside of Canada and the US.

Unclutter Computer Files

As we will do with paper files, we will remove digital files from my son’s computer before he goes to university that contain private information someone else might find valuable. Additionally, clearing all clutter will free up space on the drive to save new work. I doubt he’ll need a copy of his 9th Grade history project in digital format.

Backup System

While he is at school, we’ll set up an online back up system for our son through either Dropbox or iCloud so he won’t lose his homework. Fortunately, all of the work he does on the university’s servers will be automatically backed up.