Monday, February 1, 2010

55 Tips for Waging Your Own War on Clutter

Alright, it's late at night, so I'm not sure how thoughtful/helpful this will be. But I just re-read all of my posts and spent some time reflecting on this past month's experiences, and here's what I have to offer in summary (in no particular order)...

First, here's what I learned this month:
  1. It almost always takes significantly less time to do a chore than I think it will. Which means it's really kind of embarrassing to let dishes pile up in the sink because the dishwasher is full of clean dishes...since it takes LITERALLY two minutes to empty the dishwasher.  Next time you find yourself putting something off, do it anyway and time it.  Maybe you should write it down and stick it on the fridge as a reminder for next time.
  2. It's a good idea to ask your significant other/housemate before you try a new organizing "system."  I was crushed when Michael said he didn't like the idea of a shoe rack, but once he told me why, I found one that he would actually use. And when I emptied out the cup on the bathroom sink so that he'd actually stick his toothbrush in it, he said he didn't like it being empty because then his toothbrush sat in the gross leftover drippy water.  So yeah--good to ask what's working or not working before coming up with brilliant new plans that others won't participate in. Plus, asking for help brainstorming invites participation and buy-in!
  3. When you return from vacation, etc. and upload photos, do something with them right away. Label your favorites, order prints, or put them into a photo book you can add to throughout the year.  It'll save you from having a huge project when you want to do something with them...and will keep your memories in sight.
  4. Just because someone gave you a gift doesn't mean you have to keep it.  Really.  They gave it to you, and you expressed appreciation at their thoughtfulness (whether it was thoughtful or not.) They got the joy of giving it to you.  Now you can give it to someone else, donate it, or trash it.  Because you have a limited amount of space.  You can always say your significant other/housemate accidentally broke it/threw it out/lent it to someone.
  5. When you start your de-cluttering/cleaning efforts, pretend you're moving. Ask yourself: If I had to move tomorrow, would it be worth packing this and finding a space for it in my new, organized, clutter-free, zen home?
  6. It's easier to de-clutter if you know where you can donate things, so that they won't go to waste.  Ask friends and colleagues where you can donate clothes, kitchen items, books, etc. before you start de-cluttering.  Worst comes to worst, you can still trash things. But you'll be more likely to move things out of your home--and feel good about it--if you know of a good home for them ahead of time. (and you won't wind up with 19 bags cluttering your front hallway).
  7. I tend to keep things "just in case" I might need it one day.  The truth is, if I haven't needed it in the past year, I probably won't need it in the next year.  And, if it isn't hard or expensive to replace, I'd really rather have the space and sanity now. Ask yourself, "How likely is it that I'll need this? And if I do need it, how hard will it be to replace?"
  8. Along those same lines, if you haven't figured out HOW to use something in 6 months of owning it...or you've been "meaning to fix something" for 6's been redefined as clutter. Cut your losses and get rid of it.
  9. When buying souvenirs, ask yourself if it will fit in a book. If not, will you want to dust it for the next 15 years? How long will it last? 
  10. Same with those things you've attached sentimental meaning to.  Do you really need 10 t-shirts from college and movie ticket stubs from 1998? Maybe not. Remember--the less you have, the more meaningful the collection will be. If you (or the daughter you imagine will be interested one day) have to sift through huge trunks of trinkets and momentos, they aren't likely to have the same impact as flipping through a few well-organized books or boxes.
  11. Figure out what motivates you. For me, writing down goals and putting them out into the world to hold myself "publicly" accountable helped a lot.  For more internal motivation, I took before and after pictures.  Being able to see the progress I was making inspired me to keep going. Maybe for you, the promise of some alone time or a movie or dinner out might be the motivation you need. If you're counting on your significant other's appreciation to motivate you, you should let them know ahead of time!
  12. Another thing that really helped was having a "declutter buddy."  When others told me what they were de-cluttering, it was inspiring. And when my friend would spend hours on the phone with me while we were both cleaning, the time passed so much faster.  I rarely have time to really catch up with friends, so it was a really great use of the time...and kept me moving.
  13. I was really pleased with creating a "system" for reading magazines. Sounds crazy, I know, but it stops me from holding on to them for months because I know there's something in there I wanted to reference. Now, I fold down the bottom of the page of anything I'm interested in, and as soon as I finish the whole magazine, I go through and re-evaluate the pages I marked. If it was a book I wanted to read, I add it to my amazon wishlist. If it was something to order, I look it up online. If it was a recipe, I find it on their website and email it to myself (and move it to my recipes folder1). I feel like I'm getting more out of my magazines, and I get through them faster and don't find them taking up space all over my house for years!
  14. There are some things really do add joy to my life and home: books, and organizing gadgets, and some gadgets that make my life easier, and games, and cozy blankets, and aesthetically pleasing items like colorful pillows and candles, and certain souvenirs.  But, I'm finding through this exercise, that there's a whole truckload of shit that I buy that I really don't need. The trick is learning to tell the difference before it's too late.  When buying things, ask what it will add to your life and if you'll regret having bought it the next time you de-clutter your home. Better yet, pass it up with the hope that you'll be saving yourself from ever having to de-clutter again!
  15. The "displacement" strategy for de-cluttering/cleaning really works for me, though it can be a bit daunting. First, you take everything off/out of the thing you're cleaning. You clean it, and then only put back the absolutely essential things that are worth keeping AND make sense to be there.  Next, anything you want to keep that doesn't really belong in that space gets further displaced to the room that makes the most sense.  Finally, anything that's left either goes in the trash or the donation pile.  This assures you only keep essential items, and that there's a place that makes sense for them to live, so you can always put your hands on them when you want them.
  16. The displacement system works for maintenance cleaning too.  Start at one end of the house and tidy up that room.  Anything that doesn't belong in that room gets displaced to the room it does go in (but don't worry about taking time to put it away). Continue room by room, tidying and putting things in the room they belong in. If you don't want to keep walking back and forth, use a crate or laundry basket to collect the items as you go from room to room.
  17. De-cluttering and organizing helps you assess what you actually have.  Which saves you from buying things you already have. Like 28 picture frames and 8 chapsticks and 5 bottles of purse-sized lotion. So it actually saves money!
  18. A clean desk really does make all the difference. It's easy to see what needs to be done and where to start, and a clean desk somehow parallels a clear(er) mind.
  19. I really need to work on breaking things into smaller bits, and being satisfied with accomplishing those smaller pieces. Even when I do break things down, I still consider the whole big task as one thing, so I push towards doing the WHOLE thing. Which is most often really unreasonable and leaves me feeling frantic and like a failure. Besides, the more smaller things I do, the more I feel like I'm making progress, and the more inspired I should be to keep going.
  20. Which brings me to what I'm learning from my friends at AimingLow: "perfection is not only over-rated, it’s a big fat whopping lie-burger with cheese…and fries…and onions." Learning to recognize "good enough" is a super useful and necessary life-skill.  More useful than anything else I learned this month.

Here's some more concrete tips for de-cluttering and organizing:
  1. Take the time to unsubscribe from junk emails rather than just deleting them. It takes time, but will save you time and energy in the long run. (And you'll stop getting emails that tempt you into buying stuff you don't need.)
  2. Make a google spreadsheet with all of your contacts. Better than an address book--it'll be accessible from any computer, at home or work, and is easily updated without getting messy. (You might want to download a copy though, or email it to yourself, just in case something crazy happens and google crashes.)
  3. Use a lazy susan in the fridge (or cabinet) to keep all of your condiments in easy reach.
  4. If you have magazines more than 3 months past their publication date, recycle them. Give them to friends or waiting rooms (after cutting out your address).  Spread the love and make room in your house at the same time. If you haven't read them yet, you're not going to, and they'll just continue to mock you.
  5. Find something to organize your jewelry in a way where you can see it all at once and it won't get tangled. I got a great tree to hang pendants from, and a wall rack for earrings and necklaces. Same goes for belts and ties and scarves.
  6. Make a list of organizational/de-cluttering tasks and do one small thing daily. Think small.  Clean out the cup of pens on the counter.  Having the list ensures that when you have time, you can just check the list rather than not knowing where to start.  Doing one small thing each day means that you'll have done 30 things by the end of the month. (More if you get inspired!) Getting started is literally the hardest part. So do one thing. Or set a time for 15 minutes and tell yourself that's ALL you have to do. 8 times out of 10, you'll be on such a roll when the timer goes off that you won't mind doing more or finishing the task you're on. Set yourself up for success--aim low!
  7. Keep a trash can/shredder and filing system near where you open mail. Make it easily accessible and promise yourself you'll deal with it RIGHT AWAY. Don't put it down or stuff it in a basket or bin to come back to later. You won't. Or when you do, you won't know what's what. And you'll probably miss the invitation to your niece's birthday party.
  8. DON'T keep a "mail collector" by the front door. I guarantee it will only serve to collect papers/receipts that you know you should keep but are too lazy to file. You will soon find that you don't remember what's in there and never use that coupon and go crazy looking for that statement. 
  9. Similarly, DON'T put any small tables or flat surfaces near the front door.  You will be tempted to drop your coat, purse, mail, or shopping bags there. If you don't, your significant other/child/housemate will.  The only exception--hooks near the door for your keys, and a small dish to collect pocket change.
  10. Keep only that paper that you NEED to.  Three years of w-2's and tax documents, insurance paperwork, birth certificates, passports, titles, etc.  If you're unsure whether you need to keep it, ask yourself what purpose it serves, when/how frequently you might need it, how hard it would be to replace if you needed to...
  11. Drawer dividers. Rock. Separate socks/undies/bras etc.
  12. Find a laundry/hamper system that you'll actually use. This is worth investing in.
  13. If you get undressed at night and notice a hole in your shirt...or realize that your thongs have been driving you nuts all day...or that the shirt isn't so flattering in this light...trash it or put it in a bag to donate.  Otherwise, you'll put it in the laundry and forget how uncomfortable/unflattering it is until next time you wear it.
  14. Get rid of old make-up. Seriously. We all know you have 5 or 6 "go-to" items that you wear regularly, and a whole drawer/cabinet/bag of stuff you might wear on a certain occasion that you can't name.  The truth is that make-up and perfume have a fairly short shelf-life. If you're not wearing it often, it's going to outlast its shelf-life and take up space. Get rid of it. I promise you won't miss it.
  15. When cleaning out your closet, try on anything you haven't worn recently and ask yourself "If I was trying this on in a dressing room today, would I buy this?" This should help you part with anything that's out of fashion, in disrepair or overly worn, unflattering, doesn't fit, etc.   Also, come to terms with the fact that you can probably only make use of, say, three pairs of black pants, (unless you're a waitress or they are part of your uniform)...and if you have two favorites, you're never going to wear the other three. Get rid of them.
  16. Alternatively, find a friend you trust and let them decide yes or no to each item you try on.  Agree that you can save 3 things from the "donate" pile.
  17. A tip from Erin's mom: hang all the stuff in your closet backwards (so the opening of the hanger faces forward). After you wear something, hang it up normally. Give yourself a set amount of time (3 months?) and then get rid of the stuff you didn't wear.
  18. A similar tip for dealing with everything from clothes to kitchenware: pack it up in a box and label it with the date. Put it in the basement or storage. If you find you need something, go get it. After 3 months (or 6, if you're conservative) chuck it without opening it. You don't need that stuff. You only think you do.
  19. Add important birthdays, anniversaries, etc. to your online calendar or cell phone (with a popup alarm)...about 5 days BEFORE the event so you have time to buy a card or gift and mail it. If you don't use an electronic calendar of any kind, jot it in your planner. If you don't have one of those, ask your type A friend/spouse to put it in theirs. If you've made it this long without a calendar of some sort, you're clearly relying on someone else who uses one.
  20. Make the best use of space in cabinets, especially in the kitchen.  Buy racks and slide-out drawers to give yourself easier access.  This works especially well for a trash can under the sink and for cleaning supplies!
  21. Consider anything you can mount under a cabinet: spice rack, save space on the counter tops and in drawers. Clear space on counter tops gives the illusion of a bigger kitchen.
  22. Edit! How many spatulas do you really need? pots? pens? hangers? magnets? All that extra stuff just adds to the cluttered appearance and takes up space...and makes it harder to put your hands on your favorite spatula, pen, etc.
  23. Treat yourself to scented dish soap and cleaners (I like lavender and eucalyptus mint by METHOD, which is also supposedly non toxic and good for the environment.)  It makes it a bit easier to do the dishes and clean counter tops.
  24. Cleaning your floors really does make a difference. If you can't commit to getting on your hands and knees, opt for a swiffer. (But--if you have kids--they'll love getting to wash the floor. Guaranteed. At least until they're 7 or 8. It might not be done perfectly, but it will be an improvement.)
  25. If you find a simple, hand soap pump that matches your kitchen decor, snatch it up and put dish soap in it.  Now you can put dish soap on a sponge or in a pot one0handed!
  26. Stop saving every little thing to your computer. Seriously, you don't need to keep your friend's resume that you edited or the digital picture of her dog.  Yes, you can fit endless amounts of crap on your computer. But you'll never be able to go through and decide what to keep or not, and it will be harder to find what you do need. While you're on your 'puter, save a copy of your drives on an external drive, especially if there's something important on there. Say, your wedding pictures.
  27. Use less furniture where possible. Hang a magazine rack on the wall and see if a simple shelf can replace your night table. It keeps clean lines and reduces places to store clutter.
  28. Add lighting.  When rooms are brighter, they're more inviting and seem bigger. Of course you can also see the clutter--so do this after de-cluttering!
  29. Keep your cookbooks where you'll actually use them--but not close enough to the stove to get a layer of grime on them.
  30. Use hooks, shelves, etc. to keep things off the floor. Again, it gives the illusion of space, and order, and makes things seem bigger.
  31. Don't buy clear or transparent cubes, baskets, drawers, dressers, cabinets, etc. unless you WANT to display what's in them.  Oftentimes, the ads remind you that it's easy to see what's in them at a glance. Which is helpful only if they're hidden behind curtains or doors.  Otherwise, you're just looking at the clutter you wanted to hide.
  32. Getting rid of things (magazines, books, etc) right after you finish using them is much easier than clearing them out en mass later on.
  33. The more places you have to store stuff, the more stuff you'll store. So stop buying those extra shower caddies, etc. You don't need any more shampoo.
  34. Put the things you use more often in the most accessible place...socks and undies go in the top drawer. The filing system goes near the front door. The clothes steamer can be hidden in the back room. =)
  35. Use vertical space. Tall, skinny bookshelves take less floor-space but store more. (Thus, mens' clothes chests are better uses of space than the typical dresser.) Same thing for shoe racks, and shelves in the laundry room, etc. Think vertical.

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