Sunday, May 29, 2005

Deciding Where to Begin

Tip of the Week, May 22, 2005

Getting organized presents a number of challenges big and small, from choosing what to keep and what to toss to trying to determine where things should be stored. One of the biggest hurdles often comes at the very beginning of the process: when faced with a disorganized desk, room, or house, how do you choose where to start?

There's no magic spot that works for everyone, but the ideas below can help you find the point of attack that works for you.

Option 1: Take easy street
In many organizing projects, there are simple tasks and more complex tasks. If you're faced with a large or multi-part organizing project, starting with the easiest task might be a good way of seeing some results and gaining the motivation you need to keep moving forward.

For example, when contemplating a house-wide project, try starting in an area that's slightly disorganized but has at least some general systems and storage solutions in place. Clear out any clutter, make changes to the systems if you need to, and give the room a good cleaning; it'll look great, you'll see results relatively quickly, and it can serve as inspiration as you move on to other parts of the project.

Option 2: Get the hard stuff out of the way
On the other end of the spectrum, you might consider attacking the most challenging part of your organizing project first, and then moving on to the easier tasks. This is a good way to go if you find yourself motivated by challenges or if you'll have help in the early stages of a project (a professional organizer, family members, or friends, for example) that won't be available later.

Starting with your biggest challenge--your most cluttered room, for example, or the closet that's packed to the hilt with stuff--can bring a great deal of satisfaction and can reassure you that all other parts of the project will be comparatively easy.

Option 3: Go for the biggest annoyance
Sometimes one specific area in your home or office--or even one pile on the floor or a table--can be so frustrating that it's the main motivation to get organized in the first place. Dealing with this annoyance first can be a great way of ridding yourself of some stress and bringing momentum to the project.

Focusing on your annoyance point and making a commitment to get and keep it organized can also help you develop the habits that make organizing easier and less painful over time: the ability to stick with a task until it's done, the habit of doing very small tasks right away, and the habit of regularly sorting and weeding the stuff that tends to accumulate throughout the home and office.

Option 4: Start with the most visible
Finally, if you often have guests in your home or office, or if you're simply sick of looking at a particular area of disorganization (such as the front hallway or the kitchen counter), start with the most highly visible part of your project. You'll get to enjoy looking at the results over and over again, and you'll also get to rid yourself of whatever stress might be caused by the thought of other people seeing your space in disarray, which in turn may be a good source of motivation to stick with the rest of your organizing project.

Figure out what's motivating you to get organized, and then choose one of the options above to help you determine the best place to start. Wherever you begin, be sure to take the time to enjoy your successes and be inspired by the changes you make.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Making Organizing Fun

Tip of the Week, May 15, 2005

Let's face it: while organizing may be many things--such as important, effective, and necessary--it isn't always fun. "Clear out hall closet" and "Sort through old files" probably don't top the list of things you'd most like to do when you have a few moments of free time.

Organizing may never be a great source of amusement, but you can make it seem less like drudgery or a chore. Here are a few ideas to get you on the fun track.

Play at it
Anyone who's ever tried to get a child to eat vegetables by playing the Airplane Game knows that a sense of play can help make less-than-thrilling tasks a little easier to swallow. Looking at organizing as a game, rather than as a chore, can make it more pleasant and easier to stick with.

Try bringing some competition to your next organizing session: set a timer for 10 minutes and see who can put the most stuff back where it belongs or, if you're working on your own, see how much you can accomplish in those 10 minutes. If it's time to do some sorting and purging throughout the house, enlist other family members and offer a prize (like a movie or an ice cream cone) for the person who puts the most stuff in the Give Away box.

Bringing a bit of fun competition to the process of organizing can not only make it more bearable, but can also be a good way of motivating others to get involved, or of giving yourself an extra jolt of motivation if you're working solo.

Create a party atmosphere
Almost anything can be more fun if there's a sense of celebration to it--even organizing! To liven up your next organizing session, approach it as if it were a party.

This doesn't mean making extensive plans and pouring in lots of energy and effort. Simply put on some upbeat music you enjoy, don some clothes that make you feel festive (this works especially well with kids), and set out a few special snacks and drinks. Take breaks often and feel free to enjoy some of the things you come across as you work, such as that high school photo album you found buried in the back of the closet or the bundle of letters from your grandparents you discovered in your desk drawer.

If you're working on a large-scale project, such as clearing out a basement or attic, consider inviting a few friends over to lend a hand. Offer pizza and drinks, turn on the stereo, and plan on a game of volleyball or some other fun activity when the work is done.

Bribe yourself
Associating organizing with something you enjoy can help make the work much more bearable. So consider bribing yourself to get the job done: make a deal with yourself that you can watch a TV show that's a guilty pleasure if (and only if) you also sort through the piles on your desk at the same time. Designate a book on tape/cd you've been wanting to listen to as your organizing companion, and listen to it only as you do organizing work.

Or give yourself fun milestones: after you've finished the front hall closet, take yourself out to a movie. After you've gathered together three bags of stuff to donate to Goodwill and have dropped them off, buy yourself an ice cream cone. Decide what works for you, and then agree to work toward the reward. That way you'll get twice the satisfaction: not only will your organizing tasks get done, you'll also have the chance to treat yourself with something special.

Though none of these tips and tricks will likely propel organizing to the top of your "Things I'd Love to Do" list, they can make the task seem a bit less like a chore and a bit more like fun.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Earth-Friendly Organizing (Part 3)

Tip of the Week, May 8, 2005

To round out our series on ways of getting organized while helping the environment at the same time, this week's tip focuses on ideas for stemming the flow of junk mail and cutting back on unread magazines and newspapers.

De-junking your mailbox
Junk mail is more than just advertising and offers for products or services you're not interested in; it can also be credit card applications, solicitations from charities, unwanted newsletters, and catalogs from companies don't buy from. Though there's not one single way of making all junk mail disappear, a few simple steps can help limit the amount you receive.

First, request that the Mail Preference Service, the mailing list brokerage division of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), remove your name and address from the lists they sell to advertisers and charities. This won't prevent mail from companies that already have you on their address lists, but it will stop your name from being shared with others in the future. For information on how to get your name and address removed from the DMA's lists, visit their Web site (

To cut down on the number of credit card offers you receive, call the Credit Reporting Industry Pre-Screening Opt Out Number at (888) 567-8688. If you own a home and have a mortgage, ask your mortgage broker not to share your name or information with others.

You can also prevent an influx of unwanted mail by being extra vigilant about who you disclose your address to. For example, avoid filling out warranty cards for new products you buy; any warranty a company offers will be valid whether or not you send in this card, as long as you have your original receipt and the warranty information. Also, when registering with Web sites or placing online orders, look for a checkbox that allows you to opt out of receiving mail or offers from other companies.

Stopping solicitations
Charitable solicitations can be harder to deal with than other types of junk mail; because many non-profits are working with limited fundraising budgets, sharing and renting address lists with other organizations is fairly standard practice.

Start by asking the charities you do give to not to share your address with others and to limit the appeals they send you; most organizations will comply with requests like these, as it's in their interest to keep their donors happy.

If you receive unwanted solicitations from other groups, return them unopened (if they're sent First class or Bulk rate marked with "Return postage guaranteed" or "Address service requested") and write "Return to sender--Remove from mailing list and do not sell or trade name or address" on the envelope.

Dealing with catalogs, magazines, and newspapers
Catalogs can be entertaining and useful to a degree, but once they start flooding your mailbox and piling up in your home, it's time to rein them in. To request to be removed from a catalog mailing list (and/or to request that the company not share your information with others), call the 800 number on the catalog; have the catalog in front of you so you can give the customer service rep you speak to the exact info that appears on your address label.

Magazines and newspapers can be harder to give up, since they're informative, interesting, and, of course, not free. Wanting to learn more, read widely, and keep up on the latest news are all great goals; however, if you find yourself surrounded by months' worth of magazines or more than a week's worth of newspapers, it's probably time to cut back.

Consider canceling any magazines or newspapers you don't have time to read on a regular basis, especially if they're available elsewhere (at work, in the library, or online). You can often get a refund on the unused portion of a magazine or pre-paid newspaper subscription, which means you can both save money and reduce clutter build-up in your reading pile.

Keep at it
Reducing the amount of mail that comes in takes time and a bit of effort, and you may not see a noticeable difference for a few weeks. However, by taking control of who gets your address, what sort of mail you'll accept, and how many periodicals you allow in the door, you'll help conserve natural resources while you help keep your space clear and organized.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Earth-Friendly Organizing (Part 2)

Tip of the Week, May 1, 2005

Last week's tip covered environmentally smart ways of getting rid of unwanted and unneeded stuff. This week, we'll take a look at another important (and easy) way of getting organized in an earth-friendly manner: reducing what comes into your home or office.

Finding balance
First off, it's important to note that "reduce" doesn't mean "sacrifice" or "do without." Aiming to bring less into your space doesn't require going without the basics (like groceries, office supplies, and toiletries) or living a spartan existence in which the things you love and find useful have no place.

What reducing does require is an awareness of how much tends to come into your home or office, how much of it is truly important and worthwhile, and how much ends up as stress-inducing clutter or waste. Remember, a truly well organized home or office has space for what you need, is enjoyable to be in, and isn't brimming with extraneous stuff.

Think before you take
For many of us, certain kinds of things seem to hold an irresistible allure: things that are free, are good bargains, have some sort of sentimental value, or hold some sort of novelty. We might, for example, find ourselves buying stuff we don't really need because it's on sale (70% off is hard to resist!) or seems economical (36 rolls of paper towels in one huge bundle). This is a powerful and totally normal instinct.

Living an organized life, however, requires learning how to say no to some of the temptations that are thrown our way. Again, the purpose here isn't to deprive yourself of what you truly want or need, but rather to prevent the buildup of stuff that's likely to end up as little more than clutter or excess.

The next time you're faced with something that seems irresistible, step back for a moment and think about what would happen if you didn't take it: would you really long for or need it, or would you realize that you were actually better off without it? If it's something that will add pleasure or value to your life, it may be worth taking home; otherwise, seriously consider leaving it where it is. Developing this kind of consciousness is an easy and effective way of increasing the quality of things in your life while reducing the quantity.

Dealing with gifts
Sometimes you don't have total control over what comes into your space: gifts from others are a common form of potential clutter that tend to show up unbidden. While they can be a bit harder to reduce, there are simple steps you can take to stem the flow.

Gifts can be wonderful things, and they usually bear a generous and heartfelt sentiment; however, when they're unwanted, too abundant or ill-suited, they can pile up and cause undue stress. Because there are many different dynamics among families and friends, no single way of requesting fewer or different types of gifts will work for everyone, but these tactics are worth a try:
  • Ask for alternative gifts. Before gift-giving occasions, let your friends and families know that you'd prefer to receive gifts such as gift certificates, experiences (like a night at the movies), or donations in your name to a favorite charity.
  • Create wish lists. They're not just for weddings and baby showers anymore; wish lists are now a popular way of letting gift-givers know the things you'd like to receive, regardless of the occasion.
  • Share your goals. Rather than just telling people you don't want to receive gifts, explain to them that you're working on clearing the excess from your house and your life. Let them know that you appreciate their generosity and desire to celebrate with you, and then give them concrete suggestions on how to mark special occasions without unwanted gifts.

Though gift giving is a deeply ingrained tradition, with time, gentleness, and effort, you can help make exchanging presents more meaningful and enjoyable while reducing the amount of unwanted or unneeded items you accumulate.

Coming up
Next week, we'll look at ways of saving trees and saving your sanity by clearing your mailbox of unwanted mail and unread magazines, newspapers, and catalogs.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Earth-Friendly Organizing (Part 1)

Tip of the Week, April 24, 2005

This year's Earth Day has officially come and gone, but it's not too late to incorporate some environmentally friendly practices into your life. Over the next few weeks, we'll look at some quick and painless ways to get organized while lending the Earth a hand at the same time. First up: safe and responsible disposal.

To trash or not to trash
A big part of creating and maintaining organization in a home or office is culling things you no longer want or need, which results in piles of stuff to either be disposed of or given away. Some of the items in the disposal pile are easy to know what to do with: for example, most communities now have some sort of mixed paper recycling program, so the stacks of old newspaper you're giving the boot can be dumped in your recycling bin for pick-up.

Other items, though, aren't nearly as clear cut: can old prescription drugs go in the trash? Can empty paint cans be recycled? What's the best way to dispose of broken glass?

Rather than taking the risk of putting something potentially hazardous into your local landfill or recycling center--or trashing something that safely could be recycled--find out what your community waste disposal program recommends (or requires) for each type of item. Most communities have detailed guidelines on how, when, and where to dispose of things like drugs, household cleaners, batteries, paints, insecticides, and other potential toxins.

In addition, recycling programs vary widely, so what's recyclable in one community may not be in another. By taking a few moments to call your town hall or waste disposal company (or doing an online search), you'll get the lowdown on how to safely dispose of the stuff you're ready to part with.

Making the most of giveaways
Of course, not everything you decide to get rid of will be destined for the trash can or recycling bin; much of it will likely be in good shape and could potentially be useful to someone else. Giving--rather than throwing--things away is a great way to clear clutter and give your items a new life at the same time.

For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we think of making donations is a large organization such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Groups like these are often a great way to pass your stuff on: they take a wide variety of things, have central drop-off locations in many towns and cities, and even offer to pick up large items such as furniture. However, they're by no means the only way to find new homes for your stuff.

If you want the assurance that things you donate will be used directly by the recipient (rather than sold as a means of fundraising), consider donating them to other service organizations. For example, gently used toys, games, and stuffed animals are often welcomed by after school programs, battered women's shelters, and other groups providing services to underprivileged children. Sample sized toiletries are great for homeless shelters, as are outgrown clothes that are still in good condition. And many hospitals, long-term care facilities, and retirement homes will gladly accept donations of books and magazines.

Another reuse option that's gaining in popularity is using online bulletin boards to make free offers of items you want to get rid of. The two largest and best-known of these boards are Freecycle ( and Craigslist (

Freecycle, which now boasts over 2,600 participating communities around the world and more than a million members, lets members post e-mail messages offering whatever it is they want to give away--from curtains to gas grills to luggage to old remote controls; other members can then respond to the offer. Your stuff finds a home with someone who can use it, and you avoid relegating it to the landfill.

Craigslist's Free category (part of the For Sale lists) follows a similar model: folks with stuff to give away post an offer on the Craigslist Web site, and those who are interested respond. As with Freecycle, almost anything goes here (with a few exceptions, such as firearms, adult materials, and live animals), so even items that seem to odd to be desirable (yucca plants, old washing machines, owner's manuals for 1977 VW Rabbits) have a shot at finding a home.

Take the time to investigate the disposal, recycling, and reuse resources available in your area; you'll likely find that with a modest amount of effort, you can reap the benefits of both clearing out the stuff that's cluttering your life and knowing that you're doing something good for the planet.