A year ago on Unclutterer



  • Book review: Willpower
    In the recently published book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explore the science behind willpower and self-control. They analyzed findings from hundreds of experiments to see why some people are able to keep their focus and determination after a long day at work and others aren’t.


The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • The dimensions of stuff
    In Peter Walsh’s “It’s All Too Much Workbook” he discusses the physical limitations of storage and how to use math to determine how much you can keep and have your home be clutter free.


  • Combatting backpack clutter
    Reader Lisa, a college student, wrote in to Unclutterer asking if we might be able to help her with her backpack woes.

Make printing less painful and more productive with Google Cloud Print

Years ago, when I worked as an IT Director/help desk for a residential school, the one thing I loathed to hear — more than server issues, backup recovery or Wi-Fi woes — was this simple, three-word sentence: “I can’t print.”

Computers continue to improve by leaps and bounds, while it feels as if printers are just as cumbersome and unreliable as ever.

At least one printing problems appears to have found a fairly simply solution. If you’ve ever had need to print out a document and mail it, now you can skip the mailing step and simply have the document printed at its destination. (The opposite is also true, if you’ve ever needed a document someone can have it printed on your printer.) This act of sharing is possible via Google Cloud Print. This is a solution that lets you connect to a printer via the web, instead of a USB cable or the local network in your home or office. Once you set up your account, you can easily give anyone you want — wherever they are — access to your printer. When it comes to documents that you need to have a physical copy in hand, this is a great and productive option.

My parents will fly to my house from Florida for a visit. Before leaving the house, they use Google Cloud Print to print their return flight boarding passes on the printer here at my house. They don’t have to send me an email, I don’t have to open the email, and I don’t have to print the document. It saves both of us time and improves our productivity.

Another case: You’ve left work and realize you forgot to print a contract for your boss to sign later that evening. No problem, just connect to the work printer from home and fire it off right then and there. You won’t have to drive back to work and your boss won’t be late to her next meeting.

My favorite time-saving advantage is that you can print directly from an iPhone, iPad, or Android device using an app. While we’re on the subject, Google Cloud Print doesn’t care what platform you’re using, so Mac and PC users can both enjoy the service. Earlier today, I was able to print files from my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and my daughter’s Google Chromebook all to our little Epson via Cloud Print. No fussing with drivers, software, installer CDs, or any of that stuff.

Isn’t in nice when technology actually does make our lives easier and save us time?

While nice, Google Cloud Print doesn’t solve everything. Printers are still sub-par devices that eat time, paper, and money. However, consider this as one way to take the sting out of having to print. Now, if only I could remotely remove paper jams …

Get lawn equipment ready for winter

I know it’s only September and the leaves have just begun to display their autumn colors for those of us in the northern hemisphere, but it’s time to prep the yard equipment for winter. Or, at the very least, plan to do so.

This is the time of year when people begin to think about the winter tools, like snow blowers and shovels. It’s great to plan for winter, but don’t forget the equipment that you’ll ignore for the next several months. Your mower, trimmer, and so on need a little prep before they go into hibernation. Being organized about things end of season also helps things to be organized come spring. The following steps are how I get my summer yard equipment ready for winter storage.

Gas-powered tools

It’s important to drain the oil out of a mower before you put it away for the winter. Old oil gets nasty as it sits and gross oil will make your mower run poorly next year. You’ll find a little stopper underneath the engine; pull it out to drain the oil into a container.

Here’s a pro tip: I put a piece of duct tape on the oil cap so that next spring I remember not to try to start it without any oil in the engine.

Additionally, let the mower run until all you’ve used all of the gas that’s in the tank. Old gas can do serious damage to an engine that requires costly repairs. The same goes for the trimmer and other gas-powered tools.

Alternatively, you can pour an additive into the tank that will allow that gas to keep for about six months. If you’ve got some unused, unleaded gas left over in the tank, funnel it into the car and add fresh gas to your tank in the spring.

Right before I put these tools away, I take a look at the spark plugs. These get dirty with use, and it’s easier to clean/replace them now instead of rushing out next spring when you want to use the thing. A wire brush will clean off dirty plugs. If they’re a real mess, just replace them for about five bucks.

Hand tools

Equipment like rakes, trimmers, and such require less TLC, but still appreciate a bit of attention. I like to lubricate moving parts like hedge trimmers (see manufacturer’s instructions) before putting these things away, and give them a good cleaning. Again, you’re doing your future self a favor here and ensuring an easy transition back to spring.

Find a winter storage spot

When the sun is warm I keep the mower, trimmer, wheel barrel, and hand tools right near the door of our shed. During the winter, I take the time to re-arrange things in the shed so that summer items are stored well in the back. That way, I can fit the winter tools right up from where I’ll need them.

Whatever storage spot you choose, make sure your equipment will be protected from the worst of winter weather, like ice, snow, and water.

A year ago on Unclutterer



  • Getting your child out the door in the morning, on time
    If you have school-age children, you’re well aware that some mornings can be difficult. Even highly organized children have a few mornings each month where there is a melt down and things fall apart. Here are a few tips to help get your children (and you) out the door on time.


Becoming a more organized traveler

Years ago, I read some travel planning advice that suggested that you pretend your trip begins three days before it actually does and have everything ready to go ahead of time. That allows you to relax during the final three days, so you begin your trip feeling good.

I’ve always liked this idea, but I’ve come nowhere near following the suggestion. I’ve always wound up doing way too much in the last three days before a vacation, so I started out a bit stressed and definitely sleep deprived.

This year, before my vacation, I resolved to finally follow that old advice, more or less. I didn’t mind having some things left to do in the last few days, as long as they weren’t overwhelming. But I made sure I did the following things ahead of time:

Anything that absolutely had to get done
When I thought about my looming pre-vacation tasks, I realized many of them were actually optional — I’d like to get them done, but it was okay if I didn’t. But there were also a number of must-do items: I had to pay my bills, renew my driver’s license, and meet my commitments to clients. So I took care of all of those items before the last three days.

Another thing that had to be done was a review of my packing list to determine if there was anything I needed to buy either in person or online. And I needed to review my pre-travel checklist of tasks to be done, to make sure I was remembering everything.

Anything involving an appointment or shopping more than 10 minutes from home
I live in a coastal community with a limited number of stores and services — I need to drive at least 20 minutes for many things. Traffic can sometimes be horrible, turning those 20 minutes into 40 minutes or more. To minimize last-minute stress, I wanted to avoid making that drive in the last three days. So I had a haircut scheduled before then, and I had lunch with a dear friend on the fourth day before I left.

Anything involving an online purchase
I made sure that all the important packages arrived before the last three days, so I wasn’t fretting about whether or not they would reach me in time. Those handkerchiefs I wanted to take with me got ordered with time to spare, as did a couple more of my favorite T-shirts and the gift I took for the people I visited.

I was okay with leaving other things until the last three days, though, such as the following:

  • Stocking up on cat food, which I buy locally, and updating the cat care instructions for my cat sitter
  • Getting a current computer backup into my safe deposit box
  • Loading up my tablet with e-books to read on the trip
  • Packing my bags, using my existing packing list
  • Doing some final housecleaning

So how did this work out? It definitely made the last three days less stressful. It also ensured I had some breathing space for when things went wrong, like when my printer stopped working. Because my last three days weren’t tightly scheduled, I had time to handle the unexpected.

Unitasker Wednesday: Knock on Wood Block

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Things are getting out of hand, people! Three of you emailed to let me know that the Knock on Wood Stickers we featured two weeks ago were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the superstitious unitasker market. Apparently, the extremely superstitious have an even more pointless option to waste their money on that comes in the form of the Knock on Wood Block:

Not only is it unitaskery, it’s also a BLOCK OF HARD WOOD. Why in the world would someone walk around with a Knock on Wood Block in their purse or backpack when they could carry a small (free!) stick instead? (Or, I don’t know, walk outside and hit a tree?)

Seriously, things are out of hand.

A year ago on Unclutterer



  • Organizing for emergencies
    Although I hope you never have to go through a crisis, by following these organisational steps, you’ll be able to survive with much less stress.



What to do with an old toothbrush

Over the course of your life, you’ll buy things that are meant to last, like a home, and others that are frequently replaced, like the humble toothbrush. Speaking of the toothbrush, dentists recommend replacing your toothbrush every three months. If you adopt that schedule, four of your toothbrushes will hit landfills every year. If you’re feeling resourceful, however, you can prolong your former toothbrush’s landfill trip by putting it to further use after you’re done using it on your teeth.

Note that you’ll want to give old brushes a good cleaning before taking on these projects. Just run them through the dishwasher and then rise them in a simple bleach solution (5mL bleach / L water or 1 tsp per 4 cups). After that, you’re good to go.

Make a robot!

I did this project with my son’s Cub Scout Troop last year and it was a bit hit. The result is a little buzzing “Bristle Bot” similar to a Hex Bug. All you need is an old toothbrush, some tape, a 1.5V button battery, and a tiny motor. Once it’s assembled, battle your bots for supremacy!

Get the dirt off veggies

Mushrooms often come with a bit of dirt, but they don’t like to be cleaned with water. A soft-bristle brush will let you remove dirt easily and effectively. Don’t stop at mushrooms, either. Other fruits and veggies can be cleaned just as thoroughly with a soft-bristle brush.

Cleaning pesky dishes and tile grout

The lids of sippy cups, stubborn Tupperware containers, and other hard-to-clean kitchen hardware are a perfect use for an old toothbrush. You can get right into the spots that a typical kitchen sponge can’t reach.

This next one is kind of a gimmie but it’s still worth mentioning: A toothbrush is wonderful for cleaning pesky kitchen grout.

Bicycle chains

We live on a dirt road and the chains on my kids’ bikes get dirty pretty quickly. A toothbrush is great for getting that dirt out before it causes problems or builds up excessively.

Working with crafts

A toothbrush can be used to apply paint, glue, polish, and all manner of arts-and-crafts materials. It is a brush, after all. Speaking of arts and crafts…

Make a bracelet

Finally, if your spent brush is of a particularly pretty plastic, and you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can turn it into a quite nice-looking piece of costume jewelry. Just don’t try this with an electric model toothbrush.

When your toothbrush is done cleaning your teeth, its life has only just begun.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Uncluttering the sounds in our lives
    Being an unclutterer doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of things that significantly enhance our lives, like pleasant sounds or elimination of unpleasant ones.




  • We’ve got the technology
    Having the right tools to do a job can increase productivity and greatly improve your overall experience working on a project.


Being considerate when donating

Many of us try our best to keep things out of landfills and find new homes for those items that may still be useful to others. However, please consider the following three points when making donations:

Only donate things the organization has said it can use

My local nonprofit thrift store has a handout with an extensive list of what it accepts and what it will not accept. Small appliances are okay, but not coffee pots. Lamps are okay, if they don’t take halogen bulbs. The store also says this: “All items must be clean and in good working condition. We have no facilities to clean clothing.”

Organizations that accept books often provide guidance about the condition of the books they accept. For example, Housing Works says it won’t accept books with “markings, heavy wear, water damage, missing pages or covers, mildew, or strong odors.”

Many other organizations that depend on donations are equally explicit on their websites — and if you’re not certain about what the group takes, you can always call or send an email to inquire. If you donated to an organization in the past, but not recently, I’d recommend doing a quick check of its current policies about donations, because things change.

Donating something that cannot be used just causes extra work for the organization getting the donation. Furthermore, such items might wind up in the dumpster, causing the group to incur an extra expenditure if it gets too many unacceptable donations and an additional pickup is required — and defeating the whole purpose of donating.

You also don’t want to drive to a donation place only to have your donations turned away because they aren’t accepted, as happened to me when I forgot to check the website for my local Goodwill and found it didn’t accept the skis I had. (Fortunately, another nearby charity was glad to take them.)

If you cannot find a place to donate something that you think might still have value to others, you can always try giving it away on freecycle or the free section of craigslist. If it’s permitted where you live, you can also leave things at the curb.

Disaster relief groups usually need money, not stuff

Jessica Alexander was in the Philippines after the 2004 tsunami, and saw what happened when unwanted clothes got shipped there:

Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Cattle began picking at them and getting sick. Civil servants had to divert their limited time to eliminating the unwanted clothes. Sri Lankans and Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped people’s hand-me-downs.

… Someone has to unload those donations, someone needs to sort through them for customs, someone needs to truck them to affected areas which are hard to reach anyway and where there’s a limited supply of fuel. When old shoes and clothes are sent from the U.S., they just waste people’s time and slow down getting lifesaving medicines and food to affected people.

Alexander encourages all good-hearted people to give money — “not teddy bears, not old shoes” — to agencies that know what’s needed and how to get it to the people in need. If such an agency asks for specific items, that’s the only time you should look at donating stuff.

Protect your items when dropping off donations

I recently dropped off some books for an annual book sale in my city. The church that holds the sale has waterproof plastic bins sitting outside to accept donations. But I saw cardboard boxes filled with books sitting out next to those bins — and some of those boxes had no lids. That’s a problem, because we often get heavy fog and mist overnight, and the books sitting out with no covering are likely to get damaged.

Unless an organization specifically permits it (and has donation receptacles in place), you won’t want to donate after hours. Perfectly fine donations can get ruined not just by the weather, but also by raccoons and other wildlife.

Fragile items should obviously be wrapped to protect them, so you don’t wind up with broken glassware or china. Also, be very careful when donating anything sharp — knives, sewing needles, etc. — to ensure no one gets hurt.