Get organized on a shoestring

Shelving systems, storage boxes, and drawer organizers are convenient, but they also cost money. When you take on an organizing project, sometimes what is convenient isn’t always in the budget. Here are some tips to help cut costs and become a little more organized:

Boxes: Whether they are cereal boxes, shoe boxes, moving boxes, or mystery boxes from long, long ago, you can make use of them in storing just about anything. You can spruce them up with contact paper or wrapping paper to make them more aesthetically pleasing. Make sure you label them accordingly so you know what is inside. You can also use cut larger boxes to a smaller size or use smaller boxes for drawer dividers. By making use of jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, or any other small box you can keep your drawers organized on the cheap.

Shelving: We made use of some old doors for shelving purposes in our basement. They are large, sturdy, and serve the purpose of makeshift shelving. Light-duty shelving units are relatively inexpensive, but taking a look around your home to see what you could repurpose before you head out to shop. In my opinion, basement or garage shelving should be utilitarian. Scrap wood and cinder blocks made sense in college for an entertainment system, surely it can make due as a place for your paint cans and bins of holiday decorations.

Thrift stores: They are a treasure trove of storage possibilities. An old chest of drawers can be used for tools and painting supplies. You can often find discounted desk sets, file storage solutions, and more.

Unclutter first, store later: Take stock of everything you want to organize. You may be surprised at the amount of stuff you don’t actually need. This may cut down on the storage solutions that you may need.

I know our insightful readers have some great ideas to add to this post. Let’s see them in the comments section.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Did you forget about Valentine’s Day?

vday-bearMy wife and I never observe the whole Valentine’s Day thing. Partly because we have an important anniversary date around mid-February and partly because we don’t really find the whole holiday very romantic. That’s just us. To each his own. If you’d like to shower your loved one with romance and terms of endearment go right ahead, but don’t let February 14th give you the excuse to go out and buy anything red just to make it look like you made an effort.

If you don’t put any thought into what you are giving your significant other, then that probably leaves you scrambling to find something at the last minute. That may lead you to purchasing something like the teddy bear pictured with this post. Convenience stores and gas stations love to display this stuff prominently this time of year. If you would like some ideas on what gift to give, check out our Gift Giving Guides. Although most of the posts were intended for the Christmas season, they can still be used for any gift giving occasion.

 

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

This Valentine’s day, make a change

As we talked about in the post Ask Unclutterer: How can I change someone into an unclutterer?” we get many emails asking how unclutterers can live with clutterers. It reminds me of one of those light bulb jokes: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Our clutterful light bulbs — our roommates, significant others — may not want to change. But, there is something that we can change, ourselves.

If you’re up for the challenge, what small unclutterer change or efficiency enhancer are you willing to make? If you’re stumped, think about your partner’s pet peeves. Some examples I’ve seen with couples are:

  • Dropping a jacket on the floor when arriving home
  • Leaving dishes about the house
  • Losing keys frequently

These things may not bug you, but we’re talking about our partners here — the things that bother them. As I got to thinking about Valentine’s Day this year, and realizing that gifts themselves can just contribute to clutter, I thought: how about changing something I do? I ran the idea past my significant other and we agreed it was a good idea. We decided that I will work on keeping the house better stocked with groceries. I’ll make a template with a specific list of items to regularly have on hand (in addition to the staples). It’s the little things that make a difference.

Forming a New Habit

Some experts suggest that takes 21 days to form a new habit. I like to use 30 day blocks, however, to be sure the habit gets locked in.

Start Small: Pick just one daily, do-able thing that you’ll take on for 30 days. For example, you commit to putting your clothes in the hamper before bed for the next 30 days. Selecting one thing will put all of your focus there, rather than trying to tackle several habits at once.

Be Clear: Be sure that you know clearly whether you’ve accomplished the task or not. For example, is your goal to file paper in your home office for 10 minutes each day or is it to file 1/2 an inch of paper each day? Near dinner time each day, mine task will be to check off food items that need to be purchased this week.

Track Progress: Use a calendar, goal-setting software such as Lifetick or create a spreadsheet with 30 boxes to track your progress. A check mark or gold star means you did the task. Leaving the box blank of course means you didn’t do it.

Keep It Visible: Have your document pop up on your screensaver, set reminders in your electronic calendar or place in another visible place, such as on the refrigerator. As you’re forming a new habit, you’ll need prompts.

Be Consistent: When possible, do the task at the same time every day. This will make the action a routine and, in time, you’ll be pulled to complete it automatically. For instance, pop your jacket into the closet right away when you arrive home each day.

Begin: The hardest part is to begin. Pick a start day. Today is a good idea so that you don’t build up resistance to change. And, why wait to surprise your partner with a clean family room or an uncluttered car?

I think creating a productive habit will give you more mileage than your standard Valentine’s Day gifts.

Up for the challenge? What habit do you want to take on for 30 days? Let us know in the comments. And, if you choose to go a more traditional route, check out Matt’s post from last week on uncluttered Valentine’s day gifts.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Valentine’s day gift ideas

vdayValentine’s day is just around the corner and some of us are probably scrambling to find that perfect gift for their loved one. Don’t let your desperation lead you to your local retailer in search of a gift just for the sake of paying attention to the calendar. We highly recommend consumables as gifts. For example, food, tickets to a performance, or an experience gift.

If you need some ideas, here area few that should make the day a little more memorable:

Dinner for two (prepared by you): If you don’t usually cook, do yourself a favor and figure out how to make one dish very well. You can surprise your significant other with an unexpected meal — freshly made and ready to eat.

Movie night: Find and rent the first movie that you watched together, no matter how bad it was. It will bring back some memories and if it was a really bad film it will probably make you laugh.

Be creative: If you are the creative type, create a collage of photos and mementos or write a poem. If you don’t consider yourself creative, give it a try — you may be surprised at your hidden talent.

Organize: Surprise your loved one by organizing a particular problem area of your home. Try to choose an area that really gets under their skin.

Tickets: Print out a set of redeemable tickets for back rubs, foot rubs, or chores that your partner usually takes upon themselves. Whatever you can think of can be printed onto these redeemable tickets.

These are just a handful of ideas, feel free to add your own in the comments section.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Casualties of the format wars

Throwback Thursday

While looking through pasts post, I came across this one from 11 years ago and I had to smile. Format wars were going on long before HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray. As a member of the Generation X cohort, I remember when we were told 8-track tapes for music, and laser discs for movies were the way of the future. Even 11 years ago, it was hard to imagine that music and movies are now distributed via streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Unlimited Music. It will be interesting to see what the future holds. In the meantime enjoy a bit of the past.

 

It is always a risky decision to make when competing formats are at each other’s throats for market dominance, but what if your early adoption choice is on the wrong end of the format wars? If you don’t know what I’m referring to here, you probably haven’t made a choice between Blu-Ray or HD DVD. Recent developments have basically put the nail in HD DVD’s coffin.

What should one do with the HD DVD player and discs that are basically going to become relics of the latest format wars of home entertainment? Well, you could try and return all of your HD DVD merchandise if you have the receipts and are within the return date cut off. But, what if that ship has sailed? Are you supposed to hold on to this dying format only to pull it out in 20 years to impress your technophile friends with this short-lived format?

Should you resort to listing it on eBay or Craigslist? It seems that a lot of people already have that idea. Could you use the discs as coasters for your drinks? Not really a great idea either. Unfortunately, I think you just admit that it’s time to move on and buy a replacement Blu-Ray player. If you choose to dispose of your old player, be sure to read our post on disposing electronics first.

I’m going to hold off buying a new DVD player for a while and rely on digital distribution for my HD movie viewing pleasure. Services like Amazon’s Prime Video and my cable provider’s On Demand make this relatively simple. It is definitely the most uncluttered of all the options, and I’m in no hurry.

For those of you who have all the hardware needed to convert HD DVDs to Blu-Ray, Wired has a tutorial on how to do just that.

Reader suggestion: Staying organized with binder clips

Reader Christine, has a terrific little suggestion for staying on top of paperwork. A traditional tickler file didn’t work for her, so she found a system that did. After learning about her process, I asked if i could share her message to us in the form of a post. Thank you, Christine, for sharing your tip with us!

Like most people, I am constantly battling the paper monster. Though I am making strides in going digital, I had been struggling on how to organize the things I still receive as hard copies. Inevitably, there are things that need to be filed, paid, or acted upon in some way at some time that does not exactly coincide with the moment I first touch them. For me, letter sorters didn’t work — the papers would end up avalanching all over the place or would be sorted incorrectly. I had tried and failed to use a “to do” file folder; I personally benefit from visible reminders and would easily forget about them when I filed the papers.

After seeing small binder clips with “to do” and other similar words printed on them, I was inspired to create my own using regular large binder clips and a label maker. I printed labels on my label maker that read “To Do,” “To File,” and “To Pay,” placed them on the binder clips, and hung the clips on sleek aluminum pushpins on the inside of my coat closet door. The papers are out of sight when I want them to be, but serve as a visual reminder for all my “to dos” each time I open my closet door. The size of the clip also creates a limit to how long I can put off the inevitable.

This idea can be applied in various ways, of course. I can see it working on a bulletin board or wall in a home office, or inside of kitchen cabinets. (These colorful magnetic spring clips could be substituted on a chalk board or other magnetic surface.) You might want to have one by the front door for papers you must bring with you when you travel. This would also be a good way to organize kids’ homework or household information you need to frequently access (for that application, I could see laminated sheets on a ring, with the clips as identifiers). You could also use color-coding — either painting them yourself on regular black binder clips or by purchasing clips in various colors. No matter where, why, or how, it’s a cheap and easy idea that can help you be a little less paper-crazed.

 

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

Of wants and needs

In the first installment in our series of getting started getting organized we went over the steps to uncluttering, which can be summarized as keep the things you use all the time, throw out what you don’t, and “practice living without” the things you’re ambivalent about, as Connie Cox and Cris Evatt, the authors of 30 Days to a Simpler Life, say. Today we’re going to cover the next step in the process, which is avoiding clutter in the first place.

Clutter happens when you have too much stuff. We’re all guilty of acquiring more possessions than we need simply because we can. Sometimes a deal is just too good to pass up. Sometimes we buy something to make us feel better. And sometimes that new knick-knack just seemed like a very good idea at the time, but in retrospect, what were you thinking?

Cox and Evatt share a simple maxim that was a revelation when I first read it. Never let anything cross the threshold of your home unless it’s something that you know you need or that you know you will love and cherish for a long time to come. That bobble-head you got for free for filing up your gas tank doesn’t count. Neither do pasta, bread or ice cream makers in most cases. Before you buy anything, ask yourself, do you really need it? Is it a replacement for something you’re throwing out? Is it another black sweater? Or is it something you don’t already have?

If you’re just buying yourself a treat to reward yourself or cheer yourself up, consider a consumable, like a nice meal. Or, if you’re watching your figure, how about a movie or a concert. How about downloading some music or getting a massage or manicure. You get the picture. The idea is to not let anything into your home that won’t serve a purpose while not leading a monastic life. It takes some conscious effort, but it’s rewarding when you come home to a serene space.

 

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

Organizing food storage wraps

If you’re not lucky enough to have a designated drawer for food storage wraps in your kitchen, you probably have to sacrifice space in your pantry or cupboards for plastic wrap, wax paper, parchment paper, aluminum foil, plastic sandwich bags, freezer paper, cellophane bags, reusable shopping bags, and reusable produce bags. I have to store these items in my pantry, too, and I have been considering the following items to help better organize my space:

Right now, the wrap shelves and the bag holder are what I think I’m going to buy. What do you use to organize your food storage wraps in your kitchen? Or, are you one of the lucky ones with a designated drawer? Tell us about your food storage wrap situation in the comments.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Never again

It is a wise person who can learn as much from failure as success. I try my best to gain what I can from mistakes and botched attempts, but there are times when it takes me more than once to learn a lesson.

Until last week, it never crossed my mind that I could track these failures and learn from them in a more systematic approach. Then, I saw this unique file folder:

The actual paper folder is unnecessary, but the fundamental idea behind it is brilliant. After seeing it, I created a folder on my computer called “Never Again.” Then, inside that folder, I made a series of plain text documents: Restaurants, Books, Websites, Ideas, Hotels, Vacations, Wines, and Gifts. In these documents I recorded important notes to myself about mistakes I’ve made in the past.

An excerpt from my “Never Again: Gifts” file —

  1. Anything with nuts in it for Mary (allergic)
  2. Massage gift certificate for Katie
  3. Scented candles for anyone
  4. Lilies for Dana (allergic)
  5. Smoking items for David (quit September 2008)

The documents I put inside my “Never Again” file are on subjects that I instantly knew I had information to record. I’m sure that in a couple weeks I’ll have even more documents. Learning from mistakes helps improve productivity, saves time, and keeps us from spinning our wheels. Tracking our mistakes in an organized manner can help us to learn (probably best not to buy anyone a gift with nuts in it) and to free space in our mind to think of something else.

If you’re worried about someone gaining access to your “Never Again” file on your computer, make the file password protected. A simple password will keep your mistakes from becoming public information.

What “Never Again” documents would you create? Do you think this is a way that could help you learn from your mistakes and save you time in the future?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Ask Unclutterer: Exhausted after work

Reader Juliana submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do you stay on top of your chores if both members of the household work demanding jobs all day? There’s no way we can afford a housekeeper and we are both exhausted at the end of the day. By the weekend, things have piled up to an overwhelming level and I feel like it’s too much to handle. Help!

Oh, Juliana, I know exactly how you’re feeling, and I’m sure a number of our readers do, too. After a long day of work the last thing you want to do are chores, and when the weekend arrives you want to do something more remarkable than clean. There have been many times when I have wished for a housekeeper.

  • My first piece of advice is to set aside one weekend to simply catch up with all of the stuff around your house. In the days leading up to this weekend, tell everyone that you’re going out of town, stock up on groceries, and clear your entire schedule. Then, wake up early on Saturday morning and get down to business. Clean your place from top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, and do all of the big stuff that just has to get done. On Sunday evening, celebrate your efforts by going out to a dinner where someone else is responsible for doing the dishes.
  • Once you have this clean slate, then you can get started on a daily maintenance routine that takes little effort and leaves your weekends free for your remarkable life.
  • Your routine first needs to include a landing strip. You need an area where you can come in after a long day at work and immediately process items. Put a trash can and recycle bin/paper shredder in this space so that mail and paperwork are immediately handled (especially since you don’t want to sacrifice weekend time doing this). Have hooks for coats and hats, and designated spaces for your keys, bags, etc. Put all of your charging equipment for your cell phone in this space, and plug in your phone the minute you walk in the door. The landing strip provides a space for your things, and also makes it a breeze to leave your house in the morning for work.
  • Next up, commit to doing exactly 30 minutes of cleanup a night. You may do best if you do this 30 minutes right when you get home, or it may work for you right after dinner. Yes, you’re exhausted, but if you remind yourself that 30 minutes now will save you two whole weekend days, it’s pretty easy to keep moving. I have a “cleaning” mix on my iPod that is 30 minutes of fast tempo songs. I play it while I clean to motivate me.
  • Designate specific rooms for specific days, such as Mondays = Kitchen, Tuesdays = Bathrooms, Wednesdays = Bedroom, Thursdays = Living Room, and Fridays = Living/Family Room. Do a general 10 minute pick up around the house, but then spend 20 minutes really focusing on just one room. With both of you working together, you’ll be surprised by how much you accomplish. You’ll also reap the benefit of having your weekends free of chores.
  • If you watch television as a way to relax, invest in a DVR. You can do the cleaning while a favorite show is recording, and then start it half-way into the program and watch the show without commercials.
  • Finally, here are more time-saving tips and suggestions for establishing routines. And, remember to get ready for bed half-an-hour or an hour before you plan to go to sleep. Your clothes are more likely to hit the hamper, and shoes/belts/jackets are more likely to get put away properly.

Thank you, Juliana, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope we helped a little to solve your problem.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, 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 of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Unitasker Wednesday: The unitasker debate

After so many years of Unclutterer, you might think we would run out of unitaskers to make fun of but sadly that is not the case. Our Unitasker Wednesday series is still going strong.

In our first unitasker post, we defined a unitasker as something that:

  • It takes up space in your home and your life but does not give much in return.
  • It only does one thing, and usually that thing is really unnecessary or superfluous.

In order to fulfill the definition of unitasker both of the above criteria must be met for the owner/user of the item.

Let’s take the waffle maker as an example, Unclutterer Matt, insists that a waffle maker is a unitasker. It takes up a lot of cupboard space. It only makes waffles. It is used only a few times a year. Unclutterer’s editor-at-large, Erin disagrees because she uses a waffle maker to make other foods and she enjoys using it. Erin gets lots in return for the item that takes up space in her cupboard! Erin also loves her ice-cream maker even though Matt believes that it too, is a unitasker.

The Banana Saver was declared a unitasker, but I heartily disagree. I gladly sacrifice the space a in the cupboard for the Banana Saver because it allows me to avoid cleaning smashed banana in the children’s backpacks and lunchboxes.

Unclutterer Jeri mentioned that some multi-purpose items may not be as effective as unitaskers. We have mentioned that when unitaskers keep you safe, save you time, effort, and money they can be valuable.

Every week readers chime in and declare their love for the unitaskers we feature. Sometimes it is because their children will only eat tacos in the TriceraTaco taco holder, or the 60 second salad maker really does save them time, or the Flying Screaming Monkey brings them joy. Whatever the reason, if you use it and you love it then for you it is not a unitasker.

We plan to continue with our poking fun at items in Unitasker Wednesday posts and we appreciate each and every comment even if they respectfully disagree with us. Diversity enhances innovation and creativity. It is our strength.

Reader question: How do I recycle broken toys and books?

Reader Angie sends in this question:

I have lots of toys (mostly plastic) that cannot be donated or passed down. They either broken or missing parts. How do I recycle them? Can I just put them in the recycling bin? What about children’s books that are either ripped, missing covers, or stained. Can I put them in the recycling bin as well? One more question: What is a good way to store books for a long time to be passed down?

Many parents struggle with these questions Angie so thank you for asking!

Toy disposal

Before we look at recycling, there are other ways to keep toys out of the waste stream. Many people take toys and parts of toys and create new toys and various types of art. Check out:

I’m not suggesting that you become an artist in your spare time but consider listing the pile of broken toys on Craigslist or Freecycle and see if a creative-type person or artistic group wants them.

One of the more complicated parts about recycling is that every municipality has a different recycling program. The best thing to do is to visit your city’s website and find the information about recycling. Cities may have more recycling options if you are able to drop off at their depot. Earth911 does a great job of explaining the mystery of why toys are so difficult to recycle.

Another option for recycling toys is to contact TerraCycle and purchase a Zero Waste Toy Box. TerraCycle will ship you an empty box, you fill it with broken toys then ship the box back using the pre-paid shipping label. TerraCycle will separate the toy’s components and ensure they get into the correct recycling stream.

The Zero Waste Boxes are expensive ($95 USD for the small toys box) so you may want to collaborate with other parents in your neighbourhood, community centre, school, or house of worship. After all, saving the planet is a good cause.

Book disposal

Most untreated paper can be recycled. Many books — especially children’s books cannot because they have been treated with wax, glues, or plastic coating. Investigate your municipality’s recycling website to see what the options are for recycling books. Earth911 explains the mysteries of book recycling and has some great suggestions for used books including books in “less than prime” condition. TerraCycle also has a Zero Waste Book Box which might be an option for your school or local library.

Book preservation

Reading with children is a great way to form a lasting bond. I kept many of our children’s favourite books including the entire Franklin the Turtle series. To tell the truth, I think I kept them more for me than for my kids. Should I be blessed with grandchildren someday, I would love to share these books with them.

In addition to our best tips on how to store treasured books, I would suggest to do a gentle cleaning of children’s books. Use an old, clean and soft toothbrush to remove any caked-on food or playdough. If the books have been on a shelf for a while, vacuum the edges with a soft brush using the lowest suction setting. Blot any greasy spots with an absorbent cloth. Ensure books are dry before storing.

Thanks for your great question Angie. 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.”