Giving Away Clutter

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My friend Addie is a connoisseur. She’s also very picky and demanding and on a constant quest for the perfect __________ (fill in the blank). Luckily for her friends, she culls her possessions regularly to get rid of the ones that just aren’t up to snuff (we wear the same size! Wheeee!)

A few times a year, her friends eagerly paw over the bags of goodies she’s brought. She’s happy to see them appreciated and we’re happy to get them. Whatever remains unloved gets taken to the thrift store drop-off.

This is a terrific way to weed out your closet. Two caveats: don’t make it an exchange where others also bring things. If you do that, you’re in the mindset of getting as well as giving. When it’s just you, you’re only thinking about giving stuff away (you can certainly take turns being the giver).

Second, don’t take the leftovers home! You got them out of the house; that’s the hard part. Drive straight to the Goodwill, or leave the bags in your car till you can get there. To prepare for next time, keep a shopping bag in your closet so you can toss things in there the moment you decide you no longer want them.

Have you tried this? Got other ideas to share? Leave a comment below!

Note: I grew up in Mexico City and used to shop at the Liverpool Department Store. Haven’t thought about it in ages!

The Seven Deadly Organizing Sins: Lust

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Just for kicks, I’m going to start a little series based on the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. It’s a way for me to provide some organizing tips in a lighter, more amusing way. So, don’t take it too seriously.

Lust. This would be desiring fancy, expensive organizing gear and spending lots of time, money and energy on it, to the detriment of actually getting things done. It’s lust when you cannot resist the shiny object no matter how little sense it makes to acquire it.

None of us is completely immune to this. We see ads for delectable, sexy, sleek iPhones and we desire them. Advertisers know this, of course. They’re not interested in what we need, they want us to crave the product.

To avoid sin: There’s no harm in looking, but try to curb your shopping impulse until you get to know the device in question well enough to want to go steady, rather than just have a one night stand and then throw it in a drawer.

Swamp Lust from Marxchivist’s photostream

Donating is Green

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Your local Goodwill store, never on the cutting edge of anything at all, has leapt into the spotlight with a campaign to increase donations, complete with Facebook and Twitter buttons. Wow!

They've got a logo that they want to be as ubiquitous as the recycle logo so that people are always reminded to donate. A nifty graphic calculator lets you enter in your donated items and see what services they provide, such as an hour of on-the-job training. You can see the direct link between your unwanted items and helping someone get a better job. Pretty nice. And inspiring.

Keeping usable stuff out of the landfill is what makes donating green. I know my clients are always happier to fill up a bag for Goodwill than they are to throw things in the trash. Here's my tip: keep a shopping bag in your closet so every time you come across something donatable, you can toss it right in. As soon as the bag is full, take it to Goodwill! Your clutter could be someone else's classic.

Pen vs. Keyboard: Which helps you organize better?

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I have a hybrid organizing system that involves pens and keyboard. I use a Palm for my datebook and address book and I write my to do lists by hand. I’ve tried to get the whole system on the Palm, but it just doesn’t work for me. Partly, it’s because of the thinking process that goes into writing my lists.

I noticed back in college that I remembered more about a lecture when I took notes, even when I never looked at them again! I could actually visualize the page where I’d written a particular note and recall what it said without opening the notebook. I also occasionally read that hand writing activates different areas of your brain than typing does.

I’m reading a productivity book that recommends going entirely over to writing by hand and I have to say I’m tempted. I plan to review the book, Todoodlist, when I finish it, but right now I’m just intrigued by why it’s so different to move a pen across paper.

When I write a list by hand, lots is going on. I stop to doodle in the margin, I write smaller or larger, I notice more graphically how long my list is, I make symbols in the margin to group items, I make sublists out on the right margin, I scratch the cat’s head with my pen, etc. I find I’m thinking, planning, visualizing, daydreaming and strategizing much more than I do when putting to do’s into the PDA. It’s also more enjoyable. That’s got to be worth something!

I also prefer writing on unlined paper. Maybe that’s another good blog topic…

What do you prefer and why?

Writing from tosaytheleast’s photostream

Snail Mail 101

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Ah, the plague of the daily mail. Kind of like death and taxes, it’s inevitable. Here’s what’s in your mailbox: stuff to

  • delegate
  • read
  • act on
  • file
  • trash

Let’s call it DRAFT for short.

This is mail that you can fob off on someone else. If you’re married, you may decide one partner is responsible for paying the bills, so they go in that person’s in box (don’t have an inbox? Get one). Similarly, one of you may be responsible for social engagements and medical appointments.

If you have a business partner but not an office manager, divide up responsibilities. This really helps things not fall through the cracks. Especially things involving money.

Everyone needs an in box.

As above, each partner needs an inbox. When the question of “where did you put that ________?” the answer is always “In your in box.” Not “on your chair.” Not “somewhere on your desk.”

Reading material includes magazines, newspapers, annual reports, tip sheets from the garden center and professional association bulletins. Keep it near where you read. Don’t read? Then stop subscribing to things.

If you don’t know where your “to reads” are, you can’t read them. Pick a spot, like a basket near your bed or a shelf in your living room, to stash it.

Don’t pick too many spots. You want to know where things are and you also need a reality check about how much there is to read. When it’s all in one place, you can clearly see that it’s not humanly possible to read all that stuff.

The rule is that when the basket or shelf is full, you have to get rid of the older publications. Grab a handful from the bottom of the stack and recycle them. Just do it. I know they have fascinating and important information in them, but you don’t have time to read them and keep up with what came in today.

Information is only useful when you can get at it.

An article buried in a months-old magazine is not accessible to you and therefore irrelevant. Just having all that information is not the same as being able to use it. If you can’t use it, it’s just like not having it at all.

Act On
This category includes bills, medical forms to file, an insurance or telephone plan to compare with what you have now, information about a product you intend to buy and a list of activities put on by a group you belong to. Put in your in box anything that requires you to take some action, whether it’s filling out a form, making a call or adding activities to your calendar.

Avoid decisions you don’t really need to make.

Do you really need to get a better phone plan, or would it just be a nice idea to know what’s out there? If it’s the second one, when are you going to take the time to compare plans?

Be careful about filing too much. Most people’s file cabinets are neglected paper graveyards. Paper goes in and promptly gets forgotten about and never looked at again.

Things you are keeping that you don’t need to:

  • receipts that are not for tax purposes or under-warranty purchases
  • ATM slips
  • old catalogs
  • paid bills*
  • manuals and documentation for stuff you no longer own; electric toothbrush, car, medical insurance plan

Keep files you refer to near your desk. Get a tray to store file-ables until you’re ready to file them. Files you need to maintain for legal reasons (tax returns, legal documents) are archives and should be kept in a less accessible spot, like the attic or the top shelf in the closet.

A lot of your mail shouldn’t even come into the house. Your first pass at mail sorting is to weed out the junk mail and recycle or shred it. No brainer recycling: product and service solicitations you’re not interested in, announcements for things you don’t care about, invitations from groups you aren’t joining.

To cut down on unwanted mail, register with the Direct Marketing Association (you can stop junk email here too). Get off catalog lists here.

Whether you shred or not is up to you. Some people don’t want to toss out magazines with their address labels on them. The rule of thumb is to shred anything with personal information such as account numbers, medical and employment info, ATM slips and travel itineraries. Also shred credit card applications.

Shred every day.

It’s boring and tedious and if you let it pile up, you’ll put it off forever (unless you have a six year old; they love to make a racket with the shredder). Also, if you only shred a few things a day, you won’t jam or overheat the thing.

Start Today
Don’t worry about last week’s mail. It’s getting older by the second and, unless it’s a bill, it doesn’t need your immediate attention. Develop your new mail system with today’s mail and you’ll keep on top of things.

Quick Start

  1. Get an inbox
  2. Designate a reading stash spot
  3. Have a tray for to-be-filed documents
  4. Sort your mail over the recycling bin
  5. Shred as you go
  6. Sign up for electronic bills and statements
  7. Get off junk mail lists

*I heartily recommend receiving and paying bills online. You can download PDF copies and keep them on your computer. Pay them through the biller’s website or your bank’s website; both services are generally free. Go even further and sign up for automatic monthly payments for your bills. Then you don’t have to deal with the bill at all.

Get My Organizing Book for Free

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Cover design2 Get my book one chapter at a time for free! I've written the second draft of my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized. I could start on draft number three, but I want to get it out there where it can help people (that why I wrote it). This will be kind of a beta version of my book because I'll be asking for your feedback as I go. 

The deal is that I'll post a new chapter here on the blog every week, probably on Wednesday (I'm making this up as I go along). I will also offer a subscription program so you can sign up to get a new chapter every week via email (should be up by next week). After a year, you'll have the whole thing!

I can’t guarantee that what you'll have will be the same as the finished book because 1) I will use reader feedback to make it better as I go along and 2) I find it very hard not to rewrite things when I get a brainstorm to do so. Ideally, the final version will be even better.

The book is made up of 52 short chapters. Each chapter is about an organizing tip or technique, briefly introduced, with an action step you can take right now. It could be used as a year-long program to gradually create your perfect organizing system. It can also work if you open it at random when you just want to know one quick improvement you can make right now.

My style is more Heloise than Proust (i.e., short, not long). I like to address a specific problem with an immediate solution so that you can get back to whatever you were doing, and be doing it more easily. Without further ado, here's chapter one.

Simple Way #1

Feeling overwhelmed by those piles
of paper everywhere? It can be a challenge to figure out how to tackle
them. My suggestion: start at the bottom of the pile. The stuff on the
bottom is older and by now most of it is irrelevant. Isn’t that handy?

It’s usually much easier to make a
decision about something that’s been hanging around for a long time.
Sometimes the decision gets made for you because you’ve missed a
deadline or an offer. Sometimes you’re just not interested anymore so
the energy has gone out of it. Just say goodbye and toss it.

Right now:
Go find a pile, pull out the
bottom piece of paper and see if you can get rid of it. If not, put it
where it belongs. If for some reason you can’t do that right now, at
least stick a Post-It on there telling you where to put it.



Greatest Hits

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Greatest hits Sentimental clutter is hard to get rid of. The watch, the birthday card and the piano all bring back memories of people we loved and good times we had. Throwing those things away seems like an affront, a cold detachment from our feelings. However, if you kept (or are keeping) every nostalgia-inducing item, you'll run out of room for anything else.

Try this. Get all that stuff together either physically or on a list. Categorize it by type (letters and cards, furniture, jewelry, dishware, etc.). In each category, pick the best one or two. By best I mean the most meaningful, most beautiful, most pleasurable ones. The rest you give away, donate or toss out. You're creating a "greatest hits" collection.

The beauty of this is that it not only winnows down your collection, but it concentrates it. Say you only have your grandma's engagement ring and not her flower pots, old slippers, dining table, teacups, wall clock, set of quilting magazines, closetful of fabric and painting of a cow.

That ring is eight times more precious. That ring is the pure, distilled essence of your feelings. Don't dilute your memories by spreading them all over the place.

Greatest Hits from wrestlingentropy's photostream

Ways to Make Decluttering Easier

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Getting stuff is easy. No one has a problem with that. So why is getting rid of stuff so hard? Mainly because no one reminds you to do it.

So here are some quick ideas to make disposing of unwanted items easier:

  • Have waste baskets in every room. More than one if necessary. It may seem like a no-brainer, but I have witnessed people putting junk back on their desk because there was no waste basket handy.
  • Put donation bags in your closets. Every time you come across something you don't want, toss it in the bag. When it's full, take it to the Goodwill. Repeat.
  • Be generous with recycling containers. Put them wherever you need them; under your desk, in the kitchen, by the mail sorting center.
  • Make use of and the free section of It's amazing what people will take off your hands for free.

Other ideas are having a clothing swap with your friends or starting a white elephant table for your club or organization meetings. Get creative! The easier it is to get things out of your life, the more you'll do it.

Bonus hint: free stuff is still stuff! Don't take stuff just because you didn't have to pay for it. It can become clutter even faster than store-bought stuff.

Crumpled wastebasket via Apartment Therapy.