Bulk food buying may lead to a more cluttered lifestyle

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

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

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

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

 

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

How to reduce flat-surface clutter

What is it about flat surfaces that clutter loves so much? In our home, any horizontal plane is a potential landing area for keys, mail, hats, pens, and all manner of paper, receipts, permission slips, and flyers. I find myself plopping things down as often as I say, “Don’t just leave that there.” In this post I’ll try to unravel the siren song of flat surfaces and explore a few ways to keep them clear and clutter free.

The problem

Perhaps this is a familiar scenario: you come home from work or school, and plop your bag, computer, and keys down on the first open spot you see. “I’m glad to be free of that,” you think. Maybe you’ve also got some mail, a newspaper, or a flyer. It’s a lot of stuff and you know you’ll get to it later. So down it goes. No biggie.

Days go by and the pile grows. By the end of the week the original surface is no longer visible. You know you shouldn’t stack stuff there, but it still happens. Why? There are a myriad of potential reasons, of course, but I think there are two in particular that perpetuate this behavior in us.

Homeless stuff

I would wager that much of the stuff that ends up tossed onto any surface doesn’t have a designated “home,” or consistent landing area. At the end of the day, we’re tied of making decisions, the ease of simply placing something down beats the question, “Now where should I put this?” Decision fatigue is real, people.

To combat this in my own life, I bought a a small container for my keys, wallet, pocket notebook and pen, and took a few weeks to train myself on putting those items in that container. Today, this practice has become a habit I don’t even think about.

“A place for everything and everything in its place” offers not just be benefit of reducing random clutter, but it goes a long way towards eliminating those frenzied searches for keys, wallets, or the one phone charger that fits your phone. When you know exactly where it is, you know exactly where to look.

Clutter as prompt

The second likely scenario is that an item is left out to serve as a reminder. When I look at the remote, I remember that it needs batteries. The sight of these envelopes is my prompt to pay the bills, or run to the post office to buy stamps. I understand this — you’re afraid that if you put it away, you’ll forget about it and fail to perform the associated task. Here’s a quick way around that: do it right now. Putting batteries into a remote takes less than three minutes. Ditto paying the bills. If you can’t complete the task within say, two minutes, get it into a trusted system that you know you’ll look at.

If you must keep items out because of convenience, ease or some other reason, consider creating a dropbox — a small container meant to be a temporary holding bin for stuff — but I recommend you do so with caution. I’ve seen dropboxes set up with the best intentions devolve into junk boxes full of who-knows-what. If you adopt this strategy, make sure you 1) get a small container and 2) designate a day or time to empty it out, say every Sunday.

The next time you find yourself dropping items here and there, stop and ask yourself why. Knowing is half the battle, they say, and a little exploration may lead to a lasting solution. Good luck.

Uncluttering before the holidays

I just got word that Coastside Hope, my local social services agency, is collecting items for its annual Thanksgiving turkey and warm clothing distribution. Donations of coats, jackets, and such — and used toys — are being accepted now through Nov. 20. I’ve spread the word to my book club and to some of my organizing clients who are motivated by events such as this.

For anyone else who would like similar motivation, there are numerous other collection events around the holidays. The following are a few examples:

  • Giving Back, Linda’s Legacy runs a Christmas Drive to Help the Homeless, delivering clothing to homeless shelters in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, DC right around Christmas. Besides clothing, the organization is collecting new or gently used toys, linens, and blankets — and travel sized toiletries (like those people take from hotel rooms and never use).
  • One Warm Coat collects gently used coats at drop-off locations throughout much of the United States. I found 33 collection sites within 25 miles of my home, with collections generally beginning in October or early November and running through mid-November to late December.
  • Wrap Up London will be collecting coats from Nov. 9-15. The coats go to 110 organizations that serve the homeless, women fleeing from domestic violence, and more.
  • In parts of British Columbia, Canada, you can donate to the REALTORS Care Blanket Drive from Nov. 14-21. Along with gently used blankets, the drive also accepts sleeping bags, coats, and other warm clothing in good condition.
  • Halloween costumes in good condition can be donated to ‘Ween Dream in Louisiana — and it will gladly take ones you mail in if you don’t live locally. In my own area, I just learned that the County of San Mateo Children’s Fund accepts costume donations, too.
  • Many toy drives focus on new toys, but Play it Forward Pittsburgh is a gently used toy donation drive. Donations can be dropped off Dec. 11-14. The drive collects toys (but no stuffed animals) for children ages 0-16.

If you look around your own area, you may well find similar holiday donation drives.

This is also a good time of year to donate holiday decorations that you no longer use to one of the many thrift stores whose proceeds benefit good causes. They probably won’t want your decorations in January, but they’ll be happy to take them as the holidays approach.


And if you need to unclutter your pantry, consider donating to your local food bank. While holiday season food drives often focus on turkeys, food banks can use a wide range of other items at all times of the year. Check the organization’s website to see what’s on its wish list. If you’re really inspired, you could coordinate a holiday food-and-fund drive to encourage co-workers or others to join you. Most food banks, such as this one in Santa Cruz County, California, have materials available to help you run a successful food drive.

Simple solution for small packets in your kitchen pantry

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

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

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

 

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

Reader question: Hat storage

Unclutterer reader Kim wrote in with this question:

I have 120 women’s dress hats, some with wide brims. Right now, I store them in boxes. Too many boxes. I would like another way to store them so them remain intact. They are expensive. I already have some stored on the shelf in my closet.

This is a great question Kim. As with all organizing projects, we start with sorting and purging. Are there any hats you can get rid of? If yes, this would be the time. However, we’re going to assume that you curated your collection before you wrote to us and you have 120 women’s dress hats that you love and want to keep.

First of all, it is important to store hats correctly as they are shaped in a certain way to fit properly on your head. Bending, folding, or improperly hanging or storing a hat can ruin it.

On the Houzz website, Ben Goorin, of Goorin Bros., suggested storing hats upside down because the crown is stiffer and stronger than the brim. Alternatively, you could raise the hat up so it is not resting on the brim by making a big ball of tissue paper and setting the hat on that instead.

Most websites we researched indicate the best way to store a hat is inside a hat box in your closet out of direct light. If you have vintage hats, you may wish to consider using an archival quality storage box and acid-free tissue paper for storage. You can take a photograph of the hat and attach it to the outside of the box. This will allow you to quickly determine which hat is stored in which box.

Multiple hats could be stored inside the same box as long as you stack hats of lightweight fabrics (straw, linen, cotton) on the top and hats of heavier fabrics (wool, leather, angora) on the bottom. (See Goorin Hat Care Tips for great info on cleaning and removing stains from hats.)

Square boxes are easier to pack into a closet than round boxes because you can maximize space by stacking. Storing the hats in round decorative boxes can be a design element in a room.

For frequently worn hats, a hat rack with round supports may be useful. You should avoid hat racks and hooks with pointy ends as they can deform the hat quickly.

Finally, consider storing off-season hats off-site. If you have the space in your basement or attic, you could keep some hats there providing they are in sealed containers to protect them from damage due to moisture and pests.

Thanks for your great question Kim. 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.”

Organize for the inevitable with Swedish Death Cleaning

Twelve years ago my parents moved from the Pennsylvania home of my childhood to a smaller, single-floor residence in sunny Florida. A part of that process was scaling down their property to what was essential. A lot of stuff was sold, donated, given away, or just tossed. It was a time-consuming process that would have been avoided entirely with a little “Döstädning” or Swedish Death Cleaning.

No, I don’t mean scrubbing the house while blasting “The Eagle Flies Alone” by ARCH ENEMY on the stereo. Instead, Swedish Death Cleaning refers to the conscious, methodical reduction of clutter over time, typically starting at age 50, and going until the end takes you. It sounds morbid, but it’s actually a very thoughtful thing to do.

In her book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter,” Margareta Magnusson reveals what she calls the “secrets” to effective death cleaning, including:

  1. Speak about it always. Tell others what you’re doing, she says, so they can hold you accountable.
  2. Don’t fear the process. It’s not about the ever-present inevitability of death, she says, but about life itself. It’s about your memories. “The good ones you keep,” she writes. “The bad you expunge.”
  3. Reward your efforts with life-affirming activities. See a movie, attend a concert, enjoy a fantastic meal.

Of course, you need not be in your 50’s — or contemplating mortality — to reap benefits from the mindful reduction of stuff. Fewer possessions mean less worry, less maintenance, and greater ease if and when you have to move (Magnusson notes that she has moved house 17 times). Plus, it puts the focus on one’s most meaningful life events on memories, not the stuff acquired along the way.

I like the idea of Swedish Death Cleaning and I’m going to give it a try. Perhaps I’ll have an update for you all in a few months. Now excuse me while I fire up some ARCH ENEMY on the stereo.

Stair step baskets can help control clutter

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Going the distance: maintaining motivation in long projects

At the beginning of September, my husband and I started a new way of thinking about our food with the goal of getting down to a healthier weight. We got professional help and we made the decision that we wanted to succeed.

Now six weeks into the goal, we are on track, having lost an encouraging and healthy amount of weight, despite having birthday parties and Canadian Thanksgiving to tempt us into giving up. My husband continues to be motivated, but I have to recognize that I care much less. I’m now down to my average weight from the past six years and I’m more or less comfortable. My husband, however, has a bit to go before getting down to his usual size.

It’s common part way into a project to lose motivation and make less effort. In fact, I mentioned how in my Bullet Journal experiment, I’ve given up tracking my weekends and how I have to be extra vigilant so as not to let the experiment slide.

When this point in a project arrives, it’s important to re-examine motivations and maybe find new ones.

For example, my husband is still motivated because every day he can get back into a piece of clothing that he hasn’t been able to wear in at least a year. All my clothes fit me, however, so I’m not motivated by the same benchmark. If I want to continue dropping pounds, I’m going to have to find myself a new way to get myself excited about the goal.

In your home or office organizing projects, different family members will have different motivations and over time those motivations will change. And sometimes what seems like a logical motivation won’t carry enough emotional power to influence behaviour.

I’m at this point. I have food issues, being borderline celiac. If I eat gluten, my rosecea flares up, my moods soar all over the place and I get quite distracted and forgetful. It doesn’t work for me as a motivation ignore though because it’s a negative motivator. Yes, I feel better when I stay away from gluten, but it’s hard work, especially when eating outside the home.

I still want to continue to lose weight, ideally getting down to my wedding weight back in 2011. I’m already almost halfway there, but I need to find some sort of motivation that grabs me and drags me along towards success without a fight.

Forbes has a good article about motivation and I’ve always been a fan of Gretchen Rubin, but none of what Forbes suggests excites me, and I really don’t feel like re-reading any of Rubin’s books.

So, I’ve decided to crowdsource my motivation. What tricks and tips do you have for maintaining motivation when the excitement of a new project wears off?

 

Backups aren’t just for computers

I’ve written prior posts urging you to have good computer back-ups, and I’ll take this opportunity to do so one more time. Here’s a reminder that fits the Halloween season:

👻OOOOOooooooOOOOOOO
The ghost of future hard drive failure reminds you to back up your data
oooooOOOOOOooooooo
— Hannah A. Brazeau

But what I mostly want to discuss are two other kinds of backups you may need.

Backups of important paper documents

Some documents you might keep tucked away in a safe deposit box or a home safe, but there are also important papers that you might use regularly and need to keep close at hand. And those papers are susceptible to being lost or damaged.

Author Susan Orlean wrote about the following problem:

Had a small flood in my office. Some handwritten notes are now abstract watercolors. Fortunately I’d typed them up, but yikes.

And then there’s this sad story from Gene Young, who wrote about his Day-Timer:

I accidentally left my little book in my shirt pocket and it got washed and dried but good. My schedules were all in little bitty pieces.

Do you have any similar papers, where losing them would be a significant problem? One way to give yourself a backup for such papers would be to take photos of the important pages or to scan them, perhaps with a scanner app on your smartphone.

Backups for critical technology

Vince Dixon wrote for Eater about a problem that happened last May:

A Square service outage … lasting roughly two hours forced restaurants, coffee shops, and food carts around the country to turn away customers and lose sales, bringing into question whether relying solely on new technology and software to make business transactions is a good idea.

Nate Snell, the owner of one such business, learned his lesson:

He has emergency plans for greasy spills and fires, but was caught off guard by the technical glitch. “I don’t think we realized that the entire Square system nationwide would go down,” Snell says. “I immediately got on Amazon and ordered an old-fashioned [credit card] swiper.”

While this type of contingency planning is critical for businesses, it might also apply beyond the typical business environment.

Do you have any technology you use all the time that could cause a significant problem if it malfunctioned or became unavailable? I rely on my computer and its internet connection for a few things — sometimes a smart phone isn’t enough — and I once lost that connection for a couple days when someone drove into and destroyed a major piece of phone company equipment. Fortunately, my backup plan was as simple as taking my laptop to a local coffee shop — and making regular food and beverage purchases to compensate for using its WiFi. But if I had a desktop computer rather than a laptop, finding a backup solution would have been much harder.

If you rely on a mapping program to provide driving instructions, what would you do if that service went down halfway though your drive? Would you have another way to find your destination?

If you assume any technology might fail at any time, and then plan for working around any significant problems that could cause, you may save yourself some panicked moments in the future.

Organizing for disasters: thoughts after the recent fires in California

The horrendous fires in California aren’t close enough to my city to put me in any danger. But they sure got me thinking, yet again, about how we can be prepared if a disaster sadly comes our way. My latest musings are as follows:

Preparing with pets in mind

Julia Whitty just wrote about getting ready to evacuate if need be. She began her article with the following: “I’m waiting about 10 miles from the nearest fire front with bags packed, my cat carrier ready, and my cat locked inside with me.”

I hope Julia doesn’t need to evacuate — but if she does, I’m glad she’s prepared for both herself and her pet. I was heartbroken to read about someone who left her big Maine Coon cat behind when she evacuated from a hurricane because she didn’t have a carrier. And much sadder still are the stories of people who died going back to their homes to save their pets.

Gary’s article about evacuating when his apartment building caught fire had some good advice about keeping cat carriers close at hand. (He also inspired me to finally order some of those Pet Inside stickers for my home.) And Ileana Paules-Bronet wrote some good advice about evacuating with pets. I know people with multiple cats and just one cat carrier, used for taking a single cat to the vet. That won’t work in an evacuation situation.

Sheltering in place vs. evacuating

Because earthquakes are always a threat where I live, I think a lot about what I’d need if my community were isolated for a while, perhaps without running water or electricity. So I stock up on bottled water, nonperishable food, cat food and litter, etc.

But being prepared to evacuate is a whole different scenario — and the scenario also changes depending on whether it’s a localized problem (a single building fire, for example) or a larger one. If I had to leave immediately, I’d be happy to just get my cats and myself out safely. But if I had a bit more time, what would I want to take? There’s the practical stuff: medicines, food, water, laptop computer, a change of clothes, etc. Would I have room for any irreplaceable art and memorabilia? I think I’ll make myself a checklist so I won’t have to think about it if I ever find myself in the midst of an emergency situation.

And I’m going to re-evaluate the supplies I keep in my car. They were chosen in case I found myself stranded away from home during an earthquake, but it might make sense to add some things I’d want during an evacuation (such as some cat food) just to save precious seconds.

I was also grateful to find a home evacuation checklist with a number of good suggestions that were new to me, such as leaving interior and exterior house lights on to make it easier for firefighters to see your home in smoky conditions or at night.

Staying informed

Making sure you know when to evacuate (or otherwise prepare for an emergencies such as storms) is critical. While TV, radio, and social media can be helpful, it’s also useful to sign up for any emergency notification system your community offers. You can search for the name of your city plus the word “alert” to find what’s available, or you could ask your local officials. Fortunately, the text alerts I’ve received from my own local alert system have only covered major road closures, but I know I’ll be warned if anything more serious happens.

The case for keeping (some) documents

A few weeks ago, we wrote about retention schedules, a list of the documents you have and how long to keep them.

Recently, I was required to complete a background check/security screening for an upcoming contract job. Not only did I have to provide a list of addresses covering the previous five years, I had to provide proof that I actually lived there. Examples of proof could be a lease/rental agreement stating that I was an occupant, or a utility bill or bank statement with my name and address on it for each year I claimed I lived at that address.

Fortunately, I have records dating back five previous years as the Canada Revenue Agency requires that income tax documents (which state my name and address) be kept for six years. However, many people, including young adults, may not have these documents available.

If you’re a young person just starting out on your own, make sure you have a rental contract/lease or at least one bill with your own name on it coming to the address at which you live (not your parents’ home which would be considered a mailing address while you were away at school). Your college/university should be able to give you a copy of a contract if you’re living in a residence/dorm that states your room assignment. If you are sharing off-campus accommodations with a roommate make sure both of your names are on the lease/rental agreement, or that your name is on one of the utility bills.

You could create a file (paper and/or electronic) containing these documents along with a spreadsheet listing your previous addresses. Keep a copy of these documents for at least five years, or at least 10 years if you are considering employment in an industry requiring “TOP SECRET” security clearance.

Having all of these documents handy will make the job application process much faster and easier and you’ll look like a prepared professional when you’re able to submit all the required documentation almost immediately.

Your car’s glove compartment, revisited

About a year ago, I wrote an article on what you ought to keep in your car’s glove compartment. Looking back, I think there was some solid advice there, including proof of auto insurance and registration (as well as a protective sleeve for each), and a list of medications that family members are taking.

Let’s revisit the glove compartment from the perspective of organization. A glove compartment is a small space, and an inconvenient one. It’s at an awkward angle, often poorly lit and if we’re being honest, not user-friendly at all. Here are some tips to help keep everything organized and accessible.

Take every thing out and move it to a flat surface. Your car’s front seat is not the place to be sorting this stuff so I suggest using a tabletop in your garage. If you need to, put everything in one large box and take it into the house to organize.

As I so often do when organizing and purging, I’m going to suggest that you make three piles. Specifically: keep, toss, and relocate. This step is pretty self-explanatory. All of those ketchup packets and napkins can be tossed. The receipts from years ago can be relocated or tossed (depending on your needs), and shred expired registrations and out-of-date insurance cards.

Next, grab the owners’ manual. You know, it’s that thick book the dealer gave you back in 2008 when the car was new. You glanced at it once before deciding to give it the silent treatment for the past nine years. It can be your friend, if you set it up right.

Get yourself some page markers, open up the manual and mark pages for things like:

  • Setting the clock
  • Tuning in radio stations
  • Changing a tire
  • What type of tires your car takes and what the ideal tire pressure is
  • What those weird dashboard lights mean
  • Whatever else you’ve looked up more than once in the past

Now the users’ manual is actually, usable!

Next, make use of the other little cubbies and hideaways in the car to store things that don’t need to be in the glove compartment. The small pockets in the doors and the center console can be used for compact umbrellas, ice scrapers, and window wipes.

Before you put a single thing back inside the glove compartment, give the interior a good cleaning. If the interior is vinyl or plastic, a simple solution of soap and water will do.

Your car’s glove compartment is one of those oft-overlooked, out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations that loves to accumulate clutter. A spare fifteen minutes is all that stands between a chaotic abyss and a user-friendly glove compartment.