Uncluttering the garage

When you’re deciding where to start on a whole-home organizing project, it often makes sense to start with the attic, basement, or garage — whatever space you use as secondary storage for things you don’t use very often. There are two reasons for this:

  • As you clear out the rest of your home, you’ll probably find things you want to move to one of these secondary storage places. Clearing it out first makes room for you to do those moves later.
  • You’re probably less attached to many things in these secondary storage spaces, so it’s often quick and easy to make some real progress.

I’ve been doing my own garage uncluttering project for the past couple weeks. I knew it was time when bags and boxes were accumulating on the floor, making it harder to get into the storage closets. The following are some things I’ve done:

  • Dropped off donations that were just sitting in the garage.
  • Donated some items I had thought I might sell, after realizing I hadn’t done that for years and was unlikely to do it in the future.
  • Recycled the box from my printer. It made sense to keep this for a while, in case I needed to return the printer, but that time has passed.
  • Tossed an old pre-packaged emergency kit that had somehow gotten moldy.
  • Put the lid to a kitty litter box in a dumpster someone let me use — it won’t fit in my garbage can — since I’ve now switched to using an unlidded box.
  • Took a box of packing popcorn my local UPS Store. I rarely package something for mailing, and when I do I’d use something other than packing popcorn.
  • Got rid of random items I’d saved because they might be useful sometime — but which I hadn’t used in years and couldn’t reasonably imagine needing in the near future. And they were all things I could easily get again, pretty inexpensively, if by any chance I did need them.
  • Moved my cat carriers out of the garage and into my front hall closet, per the post-wildfire advice I read.

Now that I’ve done this uncluttering, it’s easy to put away the things I just bought that belong in the garage: spare light bulbs and batteries. I could also find spots for things I’d recently moved to the garage from the house but hadn’t put away for lack of free space.

I’m not done yet — I still need to go through all the old paint, for one thing. But my garage is working a lot better now.

Want to join me in clearing out a space? A friend named Dinah just wrote that instead of joining NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) she would celebrate DiProProMo (Dinah Project Progress Month). That sounds like a nice idea that other non-novel-writers may want to adopt.

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.

Easily save and sort Gmail with G-Save

This is no surprise, but Unclutterer readers are a productive, clever bunch. Recently, a reader wrote in with a project that further reinforced this fact. Kate shared a great Google Chrome extension that she and some co-workers created called “G-Save,” which makes the company’s Gmail service just a little more pleasant to use.

Google Chrome Extensions are “…small software programs that can modify and enhance the functionality of the Chrome browser.” Chrome extensions often make a certain website or service easier to use, by adding additional or alternate functionality, etc. There are many extensions available across multiple categories, including productivity-enhancing gems like Papier, which lets you quickly jot down notes and random thoughts, and Taco, which lets you easily enter tasks and other information into the project managers Wunderlist, Evernote, Asana, Basecamp and Trello.

Installation

Kate’s G-Save has a sharper focus. Specifically, it lets you quickly and easily save emails and their attachments to some location outside of you email client, like Google Drive, Drop Box, Outlook…really anywhere you what.

Setup is so minimal it’s barely worth a mention. First, open the Chrome browser on your computer and navigate to G-Save’s home. Next, click the “Add to Chrome” button in the upper-right. You’ll get a confirmation window. Click “Add extension.” That’s it. You’re done. A small, red Gmail icon appears on the right-hand side of your browser’s toolbar.

G-Save is platform-agnostic, so it doesn’t care if you’re using a PC or a Mac. Here’s how to use it.

Use

With installation complete, it’s time to try this out. Open Gmail in Chrome and you’ll see a new button labeled “Save Email” beneath the familiar “Compose” button. To save a message, simply select it in the list and then click Save Email. The message and any attachments it contains are saved in a universal EML file, with any email client can read.

This appealed to me because I’m a huge opponent of using your email client as a filing cabinet/to-do list. G-Save lets you move messages out of Gmail and into relevant folders, be they for a project, reference storage and so on.

When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:

  1. It’s garbage
  2. It’s something I need to do
  3. It’s something I might refer to later

That’s it. Every message you will ever receive will fall into these three categories.

The first one is simple. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all in the garbage category, so trash it — immediately.

The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the camping trip next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Unless your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons, then move it to an archive folder.

The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, (sewing patterns, recipes, etc.) store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. G-Save makes this simple.

Do what must be done

This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.

Congratulations to Kate and her colleagues for creating such a useful tool. Thanks for sharing and I hope you, dear reader, find a place for G-Save on your computer, too. I know it’s on mine.

How do you deal with slips in your projects?

One of the main goals of Unclutterer, apart from helping readers lead a more organized and streamlined life, is to help you create long-lasting change in your routines, habits, and life. Many of our articles revisit similar themes so that you can keep moving forward with your goals, revising what you are doing well, and identify when you need a course correction.

In my case, I am trying to merge my work and home life personalities. At work, I am decisive, productive, proactive, and passionate. At home, I never make decisions, ignore projects, react before thinking, and live with neither ups nor downs.

As regular readers know, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to transfer my work personality to my home one. And while the system has helped me keep my head above water during a stressful period at work, I’ve let my passivity to life stay in control and have pretty much converted my Bullet Journal into a solely work-related tracking system.

So, something needs to be done, and I think I’ve found the trick: the Moleskine app for my iPad Pro. One of the reasons I’ve let the personal life slide is because the work list was taking up a full page, leaving me with no room to add personal stuff and I refused to have a single day in two different pages in my Moleskine notebook. Sure it’s an excuse, but it was enough to derail me.

However, with the Moleskine app (available for iOS) I can have multiple notebooks and yet have only one item to carry. The app is free if you want the basic notebooks of Weekly Planner, Plain Paper, Lined Paper, and Grid Paper. You can buy other notebooks for Photos, Recipe Tracker, Travel Journal, and Wine Journal, but for now I have no interest in those ones. If you are an avid cook, travel writer, or wine lover, these journals might come in handy for organizing your thoughts.

By using the app, I’ve created five different journals:

  • Weekly Planner: to schedule my days and know what’s coming up. This planner looks into the future and includes both work and home.
  • Work Journal: to organize all my work-related tasks. I love the color and pen thickness options in the app and can keep track of all my tasks and priorities in a vibrant, colorful way.
  • Home Journal: to keep my personal-related actions, desires, and ideas front and center. This journal is copied from my work one and will hopefully, over time, instill my home personality with the more active traits from my work personality.
  • Connection Journal: to remind myself to connect with my social circles. As an introvert, I could easily go through a week only talking with work mates, but friends and family need to be taken care of or they won’t be there when my introverted self decides it wants company.
  • Time Tracker: to make sure I take time for myself each day. I can easily be busy, busy, busy, from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep without taking even 15 minutes to read, write some fiction, or just stare at the ceiling. This journal looks at what has actually happened each day and serves as a good reminder that without personal time, I will burn out completely and start cutting myself off from the rest of the world, which is the exact opposite of my goal.

Wait a second… Five different journals? Isn’t that a lot of work?

Yes, it is, but the changes I want to make in my life are big and doing any less has proved too easy for my (nearly) 50 years of habits to take control and derail my plans.

I love my iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil — it’s the closest I’ve ever seen to a digital notebook, and now that I can use my favorite notebooks in digital format, I couldn’t be happier. Productivity and perseverance thanks to technology.

What changes are you trying to make in your life? Are you aware of any slips? What are you doing to correct them and maintain momentum?

 

Reader question: How store loose leaf teas?

Reader Jeni sent us the following question:

I was hoping you might have suggestions for storing loose-leaf teas. I’m a pretty avid collector and drinker of tea, and my collection has gotten to the point where it’s taken over my available pantry space. The traditional tins used for storing tea may keep it fresh, but they’re also big and add to the clutter. Any thoughts? Thanks!

As the weather turns cooler (at least in theory, we’ve had highs of 85 degrees in the Mid-Atlantic region all week), drinking a warm pot of tea is a terrific way to start a morning or settle in at night. Regardless of if you drink loose-leaf or pouch teas, storing the tea can be a cumbersome task.

To maintain its freshness, tea should be kept dry, at room temperature, away from direct light, and in an air-tight container. Additionally, tea should be stored away from other strong scents.

If you typically drink mild aroma teas, then my first suggestion for you is the following low-cost method. Start by moving all of your teas out of their tins and into appropriately sized Ziploc bags. Using a permanent magic marker, label the exterior of the bag with the name of the tea and its purchase date. Finally, put all of the teas into an opaque storage container of your choice. I use a decorative canister for my teas to hide the utilitarian design of the Ziploc-style bags.

If you tend to drink strong aroma teas, then my first suggestion isn’t going to work for you. If you put all of your teas together, their scents will infuse with each other and you’ll have bizarre flavored concoctions. In this situation, I suggest storing all of your mild aroma teas as described previously and then keeping your strong aroma teas in their supplied tins (as long as the supplied tins are air tight). My assumption is that you only have one or two strong aroma teas, so they will take up a limited space in your cupboard.

Another option is to use air-tight spice bottles and a spice rack of your preference. It isn’t as financially friendly, but it will certainly take up less space. You will need to store the spice rack in a dark pantry or drawer to keep the teas out of direct light, but the glass or metal will keep strong aromas from cross infusing.

Good luck, Jeni, with your endeavor to free up space in your pantry!

 

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

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.

Time management and requests to “pick your brain”

“May I pick your brain for 15 minutes?” That’s a common request with some important time management implications, especially for those who get a lot of these requests. The following are a few things to consider:

If you are the person receiving the request

I’ve received “pick your brain” requests and I’ve handled them in different ways at different times. There’s no one right way to respond to such requests.

It’s okay to say no.

Given how many articles have been written about turning down these requests, it seems as though saying no is hard for many people. That’s not surprising, since saying no to all sorts of requests for your time can be a challenge, as we’ve addressed before on Unclutterer.

Adrienne Graham is one of those who says no to pick-your-brain requests. As she wrote for Forbes:

I love giving advice. I write blogs, articles and a newsletter. I host a radio show. I tweet, Facebook and share nuggets of advice almost daily. So what is it in all of that, that would make anyone think they can still have the right to “pick my brain”? …

Your knowledge has value. You’ve invested time and money into learning your craft and it’s not fair for people to expect you to give it away for free. Even friends need to understand there are boundaries.

As she points out, you can always choose to be helpful in other ways. You may well have free resources — a newsletter, a blog, etc. — that you can suggest the person consult. You can recommend a good book.

It’s okay to say yes.

If you have the time and you want to help, it’s perfectly fine to say yes. I’ve heard many people say that others helped them when they were getting started, and now they want to give back by helping others.

Dylan Wilbanks wrote a blog post entitled On Being Generous, where he stated:

I am an introvert. Alone time is everything to me. And yet, I make the time to meet those who want to talk.

Wilbanks works in tech, and he’s found that as he helps others he in turn gets better at what he does.

It’s okay to say yes, but.

Erin Loechner suggested carving out an hour or a half-hour per week that’s truly convenient for you and offering that time to those who ask. “Yes, I would love to help, but I am currently only available from 4-4:30am EST on Tuesday.”

Kaarin Vembar does this by offering 8 a.m. Friday Skype calls. As she explains to those who ask for an alternative, “I’m trying to maintain sanity, be available to cool people and pay my bills at the same time. Fridays at 8 a.m. equates to healthy boundaries.”

It’s okay to yes, for a fee.

As Rachel Sklar wrote:

You can say, “Sure! My rate is $450 per hour, plus snacks. I’d love to help you!” It is amazing how considerate people become with your time once they have to pay for it.

Nicole Jordan wrote about using this approach:

This is what I started doing, especially for people that I do not know well: I tell them I am happy to meet, I am flattered they asked, and that because my time is valuable I don’t do these PYB sessions for free.

If you are the person making the request

If you’re asking someone to make time to answer your questions, be sure to respect that person’s time.

Consider alternatives to in-person meetings.

As Erin Greenawald wrote:

Somewhere along the way, asking to “sit down for coffee” became the status quo for requests like this. … When you count the time commuting, ordering coffee, sitting down and making small talk, and actually answering your questions, most coffee dates will take almost an hour. And that’s a lot of time to give!

Instead, ask for something that’s even easier. Suggest a phone call — it’s often more void of small talk than coffee, and your contact can do it from anywhere.

If for some reason you really feel you need a face-to-face meeting, you can offer to come to the person’s office, which will cut down on the time required.

Be prepared, so you make good use of the time.

Do some research before making the request — and before the brain-picking session if you’ve been granted one — so you aren’t asking for basic information you could readily get elsewhere.

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.

Reader Question: Where should I store stuff?

Reader Peter wrote in with the following question:

My biggest source of clutter is random, one-off, or novel items that don’t correspond to a clear category and that I don’t use often for example, a box of push-pins I use for routing cable, a spare 12V battery, the replacement cleats for my soccer shoes, the replacement blades for my rotary cutter, an extra travel toothbrush (because they come two-to-a-pack but I only need one when I travel), the spare house-key I sometimes give out to guests, or my vacation light timers. We’ve all heard the phrase “A place for everything and everything in its place” so I want to be able to specify what the correct place is for such items so that 9 months from now I’ll be able to find them again. I’m afraid if I put them “away” I’ll forget where I put them. Are there underlying principles that one should use to decide where to store something?

This is a really good question. Let’s start by discussing categories.

The purpose of putting objects into categories is so they can be identified and distinguished from each other. The classical view of categorization, suggests that categories should be clearly defined and mutually exclusive — there should be no similarities between items in each category. Items belong distinctly in one category or another.

The problem arises when distinctive features belonging to only some items of a given category are the same as those belonging items in a different category. For example, if we say birds fly and lay eggs, we have to make exceptions because reptiles also lay eggs and neither ostriches nor penguins can fly. The classical view of categorization then becomes very complicated!

The prototype theory of categorization can help. In this theory, “the task of the category systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort” (Cognition and Categorization). This suggests that some aspects of a category are more important than others. For example, if I was shown a picture of an American robin, I’m not going to examine the minute details of its anatomy and physiology to put it into the genus Turdus. I’d say it has feathers, wings, and a beak, so it would go into the “bird” category.

In other words, you need to establish what specific cues or features must an item have in order to fit into a specific category. The cues that you use may be different from someone else’s cues so you’re welcome to create your own categories that are logical to you. This may seem like a daunting task but there is no need to reinvent the wheel. You could use a set of cues that have already been established and that make sense to you.

Consider your favourite department store. All of the personal care items are located on shelves in the same area of the shop. Creating an area in your bathroom, even just a small bin under the sink, for extra toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss would prompt you to “shop” in your bathroom for those items when you need them.

If it makes sense to you, you could store the push-pins for your routing cable in your home office area with your pens, paper and other office supplies. But if they are special push-pins specific for cables, you could include them in an “electronics” area in a closet or on a shelf to store all of your equipment for that specific purpose. A set of plastic drawers is ideal for keeping all of these items organized.

In a designated “home improvement” area, perhaps in your basement, garage, or hallway closet, you could store items such as tools, electrical items (extension cords, light timers), light bulbs, batteries, etc. A “sports and leisure” section of your home could be created wherever you store your sports gear, in a bedroom closet, hallway closet, or laundry room.

Remember there are no hard and fast rules for how to categorize your stuff. You’re welcome to store things where they make sense to you. You can change the location of items at any time if you’re not happy with the original location where they were stored. However, frequent re-arranging may lead to more chaos so give yourself a bit of time to get used to the new layout before you make extensive changes.

For more advice, check out Jeri’s great post about the many ways to categorize your stuff to see how scientists categorized candy.

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

 

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Uncluttering your digital junk drawers

The proliferation of inexpensive cloud services offer near-ubiquitous access to your files as well as something rather insidious: an out-of-sight, digital junk drawer. That drawer in your kitchen with the pens, receipts, batteries, fortune cookies from the 90’s, and who knows what else, is in your face every day. Its presence is a constant prompt to clean, sort, and organize. You tend to it because you see it.

Your Evernote account, however is hidden, just like your Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive, or iCloud account. Digital files like documents, photos, music, and electronic receipts add up slowly but surely, and soon enough you’ve got a mountain of forgotten stuff just hanging out, taking up storage space.

Typically you’ll know it’s time to organize a digital junk drawer by observing how much time you spend searching for what you need. Instead of finding it right away, you scroll and scroll or use the search function, which may or may not be especially helpful. Suddenly that convenient storage solution is wasting time because it takes too long to find things and wasting money, as the cost of storage increases once you exceed your storage threshold.

The good news is it’s easy to clean out a digital junk drawer, as well as ensure it doesn’t get to a sorry state again. Here’s what we recommend.

Use the delete key

It’s time to get to know the delete key. Do not fear it. Instead, embrace its power and banish unwanted files to the Land of Wind and Ghosts.

I recently started to poke around my Dropbox folders. I found many documents I had not touched in months or years — parts of old projects long abandoned, screenshots I had no need for, old software I no longer wanted, unfinished articles that would never get written, etc. There was so much such stuff just sitting there, acting as clutter, hindering searches, and taking up precious space.

I took the time to go through each document, identify it, and if I no longer needed it, I deleted it. It felt great.

It is possible you’ll find documents that have been stored for a long time that you still need. That’s the difference between “reference” and “junk.” For example, the schedule for my local theatre is reference. It holds information that doesn’t require action, but might be useful in the future. User manuals and some receipts fall into this category, too.

Junk, on the other hand, has no value. That screenshot I took simply to post as a joke on Twitter? I don’t need that anymore so into the trash it goes.

A quick way to identify seldom-touched files is to sort a folder’s contents by “Date last opened” or “Date added.” Doing so gives you a clear picture of which files you use and which are collecting digital dust.

Be ruthless. Find a file, ask what it is, and act accordingly. When that’s done, it’s time to prevent it from happening again.

What’s in a name? Structure.

Many years ago, I came across a fantastic article from PC Magazine that tackled this topic beautifully. It’s about intelligent and purposeful naming. It suggests that file names meet the following criteria:

  • unique
  • indicative of what the file contains
  • in line with how you (or your business) thinks about information
  • “scannable”  (with the human eye) according to how you (or your employees) find information
  • naturally ordered alphabetically (or numerically)
  • consistent

I’ll let you read the whole article — you really should — but I’ll point out a couple of ideas here. First, the second item on the list, “indicative of what the file contains.” Photos are the biggest culprit here. Your camera or smartphone will give images names like “img5468.jpg.” That means nothing when your scanning through a list of files (more on that in a minute). Instead, use something like “201710WineTour.jpg.” That way you know exactly what it is from the title, and sorting is so much easier.

I touched on “scannable” above, but it’s worth repeating. Instead of scrolling while muttering to yourself, “Hold on, it’s in here somewhere,” you can see exactly what you want in an instant.

Also, consistency is key. It may take more time to rename files prior to storing them but it’s worth it when you consider the time saved on the other end.

This weekend, spend a little time with your digital junk drawers, be they a cloud service or even your computer’s own hard drive. It takes time to get sorted, yes, but it’s completely worth it.

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.

Is it possible to unclutter too much?

In a recent post, Dave wrote about the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning, which is the process of uncluttering our lives bit by bit so that when we die we don’t leave a monumental task for those who remain.

My natural minimalist tendencies are drawn to this process and I can see myself doing this naturally. My parents, however, most definitely did not ascribe to this belief, leaving us with a 4000 sq. ft. house and outbuildings full of stuff when they passed away.

And while it was a lot of work to clear out the stuff, I can’t help thinking that it was the least we as children could do for our parents who enjoyed everything they owned right up to their last days.

My parents weren’t packrats. Yes, they had mountains of stuff, but they actually used all of it. For them, the process of Swedish Death Cleaning would have been a sacrifice and a reduction of the pleasures in life. And it would have been selfish on our part to push them to unclutter and get rid of things just to make our lives easier later.

So, we are left with the question, “How much uncluttering is too much?”

I think the answer comes in the form of a couple of questions:

  • Do you use what you have?
  • Does what you have give you deep pleasure?

My husband and I often find ourselves at odds when it comes to what to keep and what to get rid of. He likes things and is very creative so comes up with brilliant ideas for re-purposing items that I think should go into the bin. We find a compromise through the two questions. If we haven’t used something in a year, out it goes. And if we hold onto something only out of a sense of obligation, or because a friend gave it to us as a gift, out it goes. What have left over still fills our house (and truth be told is more than I would hold onto if I lived alone), but everything we own has emotional or practical weight to it.

The same was true for my parents, even though what they had was at least four times more than what I have, and it would have been a cruel and unusual punishment to force them into a Swedish Death Cleaning mindset just so that we could avoid a bit of work at the end of their lives.

And now it’s your turn. Where do you believe the uncluttering line lies? Is there a limit? Can someone unclutter too much?