Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Two Week Clutter-Fest

Every piece of junk mail we leave lying around, every book we can’t part with or memento we don’t know how to deal with can become an avalanche of clutter.

~~ Janice Hunter~~

Last week I was asked to team-teach a class, to about one hundred people, on getting rid of clutter. To prepare for the class, I was asked the week before to read Clutter Be Gone, by Don Aslett.

I am what I call, a reluctant clutterer. Deep down inside, I am a very organized person. B.C. [Before Children,] the books on my shelves were organized alphabetically, by author. The clothes in my closet were arranged by color, in order of the spectrum. [Creepy, huh?] On a team of 25 people, I was the only one who rejoiced when my employer made it mandatory for members of management to use a Franklin Planner. I was in my element.

So clutter annoys me greatly. Does that mean I don’t have any? Au contraire! When I move every 1.3 years (see previous post) I pretty much throw boxes where they land and then get up the next day to go to work or teach school. And those boxes sit, while I prepare lessons, teach school, do laundry, make dinner, clean the house, teach Sunday School, get my son in uniform for Scouts and kyuki-do, attempt a garden, balance the scout checkbook, etc. Does this sound like your life?

We have a storage room in our basement where a few of our packed boxes reside. Last summer, I was able to go through, throw out and de-clutter my way through about half of those boxes. Getting rid of clutter is very freeing. Looking at piles of unpacked boxes is enslaving. The awful part about visible clutter is that you don’t feel guilty about adding to the mess when clutter is everywhere you look anyway. You only feel guilty cluttering a clean room.

I spent some time over the past few weeks reading portions of Clutter Be Gone. I’m going to share with you just a few of Don Aslett’s many tips—those that I found most useful for my situation. Then, I’ll show you what I did to improve my clutter zone.

Use a family calendar. The author says to get the biggest calendar you can find, one with huge spaces to write in, and then put it next to the phone. You can write down appointments as they are made. No looking for that loose piece of paper that you “know” you put on your desk but in reality ended up in your apron pocket. Doctor appointments, ballet class changes, field trips, new phone numbers, all go on that calendar.

Don’t leave junk from the grave. This tip jolted me, in a productive way. Do I really want my loved ones to have to go through all my junk when I die, trying to decide what is important and what is merely clutter? This tip alone spurred me to action, more so than any of the others. If I pass on tomorrow, do I want my daughters going through pile after pile of “important” papers? Will they be able to distinguish between family heirlooms and costume jewelry? [Trick question! In our family it's the same thing!] Will they accidentally throw away something I borrowed? How will they know what had value to me, like a photo of Donny Osmond ripped from a magazine in 1973, and what was merely junk that I never got around to tossing?

Always look at mail before tossing. One of the first things most de-cluttering publications will advise you to do, is to get rid of junk mail. However, the author insists that every piece of junk mail be opened first, a tip I heartily agree with. He says he once almost threw away a large check because it came in an envelope that looked like a piece of junk mail. [Maybe the sender purposely does this, hoping it will never get cashed? I’ve had this happen too.] On other occasions, he missed knowing that he had credits due to him because he was too afraid to open envelopes that came from places where he was behind on his bills. I have opened junk mail to find things such as a notice that I was part of a class-action lawsuit from which I was due $3000, a set of scrapbooking stickers, some cute return address labels, glossy recipe cards and a set of wild animal fact cards that kept my son entertained for days. Look, then toss.

Consider a scrapbook. If you love to keep every ticket stub, “I love you” note, or matchbook cover from the hotel where you spent your first anniversary, at least have a book into which these items go immediately. I used to scrapbook a lot, but have gotten out of the habit. My desk shows it on some days.

Delete junk bunkers. A junk bunker is something we buy so that we can store more junk. These could be things such as shelves, pencil holders, cabinets, and shoe organizers. Before I taught my class, I checked my pencil holder at home to find over thirty dysfunctional pencils, pens and markers. Out they went! The pencil holder had become a stashing place for every writing tool someone picked up from the floor, whether it worked or not.

Don’t keep something just because you love the person who gave it to you, if it serves no other purpose. This is a hard one. My mom bought me a huge Chicago Cubs nightshirt that has seen better days. The logo has completely faded, there’s an unrepairable hole at the neckline, and the material has worn so thin that it is nearly sheer. My mother passed away in 2001 so I keep it because she gave it to me. I don’t wear it because it has worn so thin that I must wear a bathrobe so I don’t give my son nightmares.

Keep what you need close to the accompanying item. The author gave an example of having a pair of safety goggles. He kept them with his tools, so every time he went to his workshop, they weren’t there. Rather than go back to get his goggles he would work without. He did this until he got a metal sliver in his eye. Then he hung his goggles, right on his machinery and wondered why he never did that before. I used to keep toilet tissue in the bathroom on a high shelf above the toilet. If someone ran out of paper in the middle of a “job” they would have to get up and root around on the shelves looking for paper. I have since put the rolls in a pretty basket, which goes right on the back of the toilet. How easy was that!

There is one thing that the author recommends against, that I disagree with. He says to never give someone a gift in which the packaging will be a temptation to hoard more junk. For example, he says never to give a gift that comes in an attractive basket because the recipient will have heartache about throwing it away. I say—if it helps keep needed items handy, then keep it. Let me give you some examples.

I could never find a paper clip when I needed one. Finally, in keeping with his advice to keep things where they are needed, I put some stickers on an old lid and these now go right by my keyboard.

One of my big irritations is when I go to a website that I have used before, have created an account, and then when I go back, I can’t find the darn post-it note that had my login information. I have had to recreate accounts more than I care to admit. My daughter gave me a watch for Christmas a few years ago and it came in this beautiful tin that I hated to throw away. I embellished it with a pretty sticker and put all my web account information on tiny index cards inside.

Nothing is more enticing to students than a blank whiteboard and a set of dry-erase markers. Nothing is more annoying to a teacher than to try to use a marker whose tip has been “smooshed” by students. I solved that little problem by buying them their own markers. Now they don’t touch mine. A few weeks ago, an anonymous student gave me a gift of chocolate goodies housed in attractive tins. I spruced them up with distressed scrapbook paper and velcroed them to my whiteboard. I added the markers and now--no more markers all over the classroom.

In the past few weeks, since reading the book, I have reorganized, decluttered, or thrown away the following:

*Since paperwork is probably some of the most omnipresent clutter in our house, I made new folders for sorting vital paperwork: Legal items, taxes, church papers, school master copies, pending and past internet orders, and keepsakes all have their own folders now.

*I threw away three bottles of body spray that were over five years old. I have never used them because to me they smelled like a combination of attic dust and mothball.

*I threw away socks that had holes in them, rather than saving them for a day when I could mend them. Really. Have you ever mended socks? Not me. Yet for over twenty years I kept up a saving--feeling guilty over not mending--finally throwing away cycle.

*A stack of Oriental Trading magazines went into the garbage. I order a lot of novelty items to give away to students and so I have an abundance of these catalogues. Do I ever place an order from said catalogues? Oh nay! I go online to place an order, after I go through web page after web page of cheap plastic items. In other words, I look at all the same stuff I looked at in the catalogues again. My new vow is to check each new issue for promo codes, then toss it.

*Over thirty lipsticks met their demise. None of them had been used for over two years because none of them were “my” color. I introduced them to the garbage can.

I have to tell you about the best $100 we have ever spent. I bought my first computer in 1995. It came with a 17-inch monitor. Almost three years later the monitor decided it was through being used by people. It wanted to be a waste of desk space instead. Luckily, Gateway being the macho supremo computer company that it is [I used to work there] had a three-year warranty on their monitors. They sent me a new one. That was 1998. It is now 2010. My monitor was still going strong, twelve years later. That is good. The twelve-year-old 17-inch monstrosity however, took up nearly all of my desk space. I barely had room for my keyboard so I couldn’t actually do any paperwork at my desk. It all had to be done on the kitchen table. The table was the home for my teacher manuals, pens, grading charts, master copies, mail, and attendance records.

Not being a jealous type person, I never cared that my husband had a cool flat screen monitor that allowed him to work right at his desk. But one day, I was lamenting not being able to find something in the morass of my desk or in the pile on the kitchen table. I looked at Computer Geek’s desk and noticed several feet of clean space. I looked at my desk and noticed a cube, 2 ½ foot square, laughing at me. It said, “I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. I’m only twelve.”

We spent $118 to obtain deskual freedom. The new monitor has freed valuable desktop realty. My desk is clean. My table is clean.

Thanks to my new monitor and Don Aslett I am on the path to a clutter-free existence.


  1. Hi Randi
    You are really making me feel guilty here. To the left of me as I type, there is my sorting box...which has been there three years now. I think it's time for action...soon!!
    Nice to hear from you again. It seems a very long time.

  2. Wow Randi this post of yours is really helpful for a lass like me.. coz im someone who appears neat from outside but isn't from deep inside. the scrapbook idea is well appreciated. I liked it. will make one soon maybe today i wll find one scrapbook and stick my large collection of movie tickets in it!

    though i'm finding a cheap stamp book as i have [again] a large collection of stamps which my grandpa then my dad and now I are collecting over 5000 stamps i 've and of all countries big or small.

  3. Great post about an even greater achievement!! I'm so proud of you! With a busy schedule like yours, decluttering can seem like a mountainous task but you did it. And then you go and help hundreds of others through your talk and your blog - you're a phenomenon!

    I'm glad you found a book that inspired you. I have a whole shelf of decluttering and downsizing type books; it's a guilty pleasure! I find the galvanising inspirational effect of even the best ones wears off after a while, so I read new ones as a booster, and rotate my favourites.

    If I were you, I'd have to padlock the storage room in the basement after I'd emptied it or convert it into a room that got used for living. Otherwise, it'd keep calling me, calling me...

  4. You know how to motivate me to get organized!! I need to declutter big time. It's such a big task. Thanks for all the tips.

  5. Ken: But at least you have a spot for your sorting box, right? :) Yes, it has been a long time. Just hanging on until school is out so I can post more frequently...

    Naqvee: I have the opposite problem--neat on the inside, but you couldn't tell it sometimes from the outside! Scrpabooks are fun! I am so behind on mine--but I will blame it on getting a digital camera. Back when my camera took film, I would scrap my pictures as soon as they got developed. But now that I have a digital camera I take 4x as many pictures and I almost never have them printed off. Your stamp collection sounds very interesting!

    Janice: I laughed so hard when I read your comment, because as soon as I get more space in my storage room, my mind immediately starts making plans for the extra space! Oh, such a bad habit.I am so glad you pointed it out [it's so handy having a life coach for a friend] because you are so right. I didn't realize that's what I was doing though until you said that.

    The book was on loan from a friend who organized the decluttering class. She had a bunch of books that I could choose from, but that was one that really called out to me.

    septembermom: Oh, it IS such a huge task. Part of my problem is that I like to only deal with something ONCE. I don't like storing clutter away, just to temporarily get it out of the way. I'll have a pile that I'm "working on" for weeks because I only want to deal with it that one time. I think the problem that most moms have is just lack of time. If you're like me, you throw one task to the side to make way for the new one that must be done immediately. Before you know it, we've got a pile that seems daunting.

  6. I LOVE Your pictures! I had no idea that was a top with stickers. You really got me in the scrapbooking mood after seeing your inventive sticker usage. I feel like attacking the garage the third time in the last two weeks, thanks for the inspiration! :P

  7. juliegoose: Actually that was your lid from the time you brought cinnamon rolls over to bake! Wasn't that New Year's? Gotta love stickers. They can save anything. Ah... the garage...I know how you feel...

  8. Hey! I mend socks!
    At least one of every pair I own has a mend. I wait until there's pretty much no more original material before I turn them into dust rags.
    I also have a J Crew barn jacket that's at least 25 years old, with as many sewn up holes. That's my gardening jacket though.

  9. Jill: I am seriously bowing before you, admitting your superiority as a domestic goddess divine. I need to be thriftier, but then I do a massive clean-up/clean-out and there go the holey socks. You're amazing.


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