Sunday, December 1, 2013

5 Steps to Avoid Holiday Stress

There are plenty of things to stress about during the holidays...lots to do and not nearly enough time. Staying organized in any way possible will help you feel on top of things. Online ordering is a great way to shop efficiently, but it creates its own kind of clutter.  These small steps can help you get a handle on online and catalog gift ordering and keep from starting the new year with holiday clutter.

1. Unsubscribe. The easiest way to avoid email clutter is to make sure you don't inadvertently ask for mailings. Whenever you order online or register for a new account, there is often an "opt in" check box to receive future mailings. It's very easy to miss this check box and forget to "uncheck" it, which will result in many emails from each company, cluttering your inbox.  If you do miss this step and receive the emails, unsubscribe as soon as you receive the first email.  There is always an "unsubscribe" option down in the fine print at the bottom of the email. Of course, you then need to delete the message to keep the number of messages in your inbox down.  You'll be surprised how much this cuts down your email count.

2. Organize your email with folders. I know during the holidays, I exchange plenty of emails discussing gift ideas, coordinating who bought what, or sending links to websites. All of this adds to the inbox clutter. Just as with paper, folders help keep things straight. Start online folders in your email for online ordering, gift ideas, etc.  Put all confirmations and order status messages in the "online ordering" folder. It makes it far easier to find the details for shipping dates, missing orders, and returns.

3. Control the catalog pile. Catalog clutter can be tamed if you put unwanted catalogs in the recycling bin right, on the way back from the mailbox. If you must keep catalogs, flip through the pages and find gift ideas, then cut out the pages of interest and put them in "ideas" folder.  Even better, as with email, you can "unsubscribe" from catalogs at: .

4. Keep it together. As packages arrive (or gifts are bought in stores), put all receipts and paperwork in one folder or envelope. Write a little note about who the gift was for, right on the back of the receipt. Very basic, yet very helpful.

5. Get rid of it. Once the holiday is past, returns and exchanges are made, and the bills are paid, there's no need to keep all of those emails, catalogs, or files of receipts. Start next year's holiday season by purging last year's records. Keep the receipts for things under warranty or big-ticket items, like appliances, but toss the rest. You don't need to keep the receipt for socks and pajamas for years. Really.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Keeping the Car Organized

John Gruen -
Between road trips to visit family, shopping, and the overall busyness that comes along with the holidays, does it sometimes feel like you spend more time in your car than in your living room? It's important to treat your car as an extension of your living space. The goal, of course, is to keep that space as organized as the rest of your home...or more organized! Having a place for helpful items in the car means that you can cut down on time preparing to get out the door, have a more pleasant trip with fewer inconveniences, and your car will stay neater since you've planned a home for everything.

The car essentially has 3 distinct areas:

The cockpit - The driver's space is the most important space in the car, right? Everything that needs to be accessed should be within easy reach. Distracted driving is a very serious issue so safety should always be the first priority. The ability to find what you need when it is safe to do so will minimize distractions. I keep the following items in a storage spot inside my car's driver side door.
  • Hand sanitizer. I use it every time I get into my car. I assume I've ALWAYS touched something germy when in public. Overkill? Maybe...but it seems to work to keep me healthy.
  • Mechanical pencil and paper. For all of those times you need to grab a phone number, jot down an address, or heaven forbid, share your insurance information with another driver, it's essential to have these around.. I find that pens dry out easily in the car, and traditional pencils break. Mechanical pencils seem to hang around longer.
  • Extra straws and napkins. Sure, it may be healthier to avoid the drive-thru, but the drive-thru is often a fact of life. Another fact of life is that they will typically forget some key piece of your order there. Missing food aside, I'm certainly not going to turn around for a missing straw or napkin. I keep spares clean in a resealable storage bag.
  • Spare change. This is a given in most cars, but establish a place for it. In my car, change goes in the ashtray, but most vehicles have a spot designated for change. As the change container fills up, keep just a few quarters and bring the rest with you into a store with a coin machine, like Coinstar. Most coin machines don't charge a fee if you receive a gift card as "payment" for the change you put in. It's a great service, and a way to keep the coin situation from getting out of control.
The passenger cabin -  I always think of the front seat as "first class", back seat as "coach", way back as "economy".  Perhaps that's because my family treats it this way.  The amenities vary according to seating class.
  • Snacks. Keep non-perishable, non-melting snacks handy. You may argue that snacks in the car aren't a necessity, but at some point you will be rushing and tired and stressed and in traffic and someone in the car will be ravenous. At that point, snacks will seem more necessary than gasoline. A resealable plastic bag in a pocket behind the seat or in the door works well.
  • Trash receptacle. If you're going to eat in the car, you need a trash receptacle. Actually, you need a trash receptacle no matter what. I have a fancy, yet inexpensive, little trash bin that attaches to the back of my passenger seat. Driver and passengers can all reach it. A more basic trash solution is a plastic shopping bag. The key is to make sure it's secured and doesn't create it's own mess as it rolls around the car. Another interesting option is to use a dry food storage container, lined with a plastic bag. It stays clean and covered.
  • Cleaning supplies. Waiting in the car seems to be an inevitable part of my day, whether it's waiting to pick up one of the kids or waiting for my next client. It make sense to have something to do while waiting in the car, and yes, I clean my windows and car interior while I wait. Window cleaner wipes are a wonderful invention to not only keep the insides of windows clean, but also remove dust and mysterious stickiness from the interior. Cleaning supplies also come in handy for situations that, well, require clean up.

The cargo area - You have to leave room for actual cargo, of course, but these are the items currently in my trunk:
  • Extra rain ponchos in a resealable plastic bag
  • Small, basic tools in a plastic shoe box
  • Reusable grocery bags (all folded and stacked inside one)
  • A large towel (for wet and muddy dog/messy kids)
  • A small first aid kit
  • Depending on the season, I also keep sunscreen, bug spray, and sports equipment contained in bins or boxes. Focus on making things easily removable so you can reconfigure and make space easily.
Car storage spaces vary widely from vehicle to vehicle. Some have tons of little nooks and crannies to stash stuff. My car is bare bones minimum, but it still works pretty well for me. The goal here is to identify what you should keep in the car, find the most likely space in terms of what can be reached from where, and then use bags and containers to keep everything under control. Treat your car like your home...Whenever you have any time at all - even if it's just a minute - use it to pick up trash, put things away in their proper place, and straighten up. Many more ideas can be found on my "organizing the car" board on Pinterest.

Did I miss anything? What else do you keep in the car?

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

3 Tips for Downsizing Your Space

There's nothing quite like downsizing to make you realize how much stuff you actually have, and how much stuff you don't really want. People often equate downsizing with an empty nest or retirement, and while that is often true, the decision to move into a smaller place can happen at any time in your life. Downsizing doesn't always mean moving to a smaller home. Moving in with a significant other after living alone also means downsizing - for both of you - as your space effectively gets smaller and the other person's space is shared with you. Of course, the longer you've lived in your home, the more possessions you've probably accumulated, as well as those of your children, your parents, and other family members.

So, you've decided to downsize. Let's assume you already have the new space identified. Where do you start in your current home? How do you actually fit into that smaller space?

1. Choose a system -  Having a system to sort and label EVERYTHING is key to keeping the chaos under control. The system can be labels, colored dots for each category, or even physical relocation of items to spaces associated with each category (e.g., all the items moved into garage will go to storage) Categories to consider are "Going to the new place", "Give to someone else (adult children, friends, neighbor, etc.)", "Move to storage", "Donate", "Sell", and "Trash". I often suggest clients add another category for "Think about it." Depending on the circumstances of downsizing, it can be a difficult time. If you find that you're overwhelmed or feel like you're getting rid of too many things, and you come across something you're just not sure about, put it in the "Think about it" category and wait until the entire process is essentially complete. By then, you'll have a better idea of what you're keeping and whether you can/should keep the item in question. Be kind to yourself.  If something makes you feel more comfortable, keep it for awhile. You can always revisit that decision when you get to the new place. Sure, it's not the most efficient method, but it can ease the transition and lessen the feeling of losing all of your "stuff."

2. Assess the situation- Using the system you identified in the first step, you can now assess the situation by determining the dimensions of the new space. While it's important to measure each room itself, it's just as important to measure the length of each wall, even the narrow ones. It's also helpful to measure the furniture you have. Write down the dimensions of each piece of furniture. Then, take a good, long look at your furniture to figure out what you want to bring with you. Start by determining where you're going to put it in the new place. Keep only the items for which you actually have a place. Be realistic. You may love all of the chairs in your house, but if you can't fit them all in the new space, something's gotta go. When determining what to keep, view your possessions with a fresh perspective. Try to think of multiple purposes for the same item. Smaller spaces require items to do double duty. For example, can you replace an old dining room hutch and a hall table that you don't really love with an antique dresser that you really want to keep, giving you a place to keep your keys and store entertaining items?

3. Sort and label -  This is the exhausting step. Sort everything you own. Pictures, wall hangings, tchotchkes, mementos, holiday decorations and other decor items on display will not all have a home in the new place. Ask yourself, "Do I love this? Do I need this?" If you answer yes, these items will find a spot in the new home. If no, it's time to donate or sell it. If there are items that you love and can't part with, but don't need everyday, put these aside for storage/archives. A similar process takes place in the kitchen. If you are no longer throwing large dinner parties, perhaps your collection of serving platters is no longer needed. Not cooking for a crowd? Maybe it's time to donate the extra sets of plates. Finally, go through your clothing. Now is the time to be brutally honest with yourself. If you don't love it, don't keep it. If you're not going to wear it, donate it. When you can afford the extra closet to store old prom gowns and jackets with huge shoulder pads, that's fine, but are they really going to occupy prime closet space in the new home? Probably not.

Of course, continuing this process is the key to keeping your downsized space organized. Before you bring a new item into your home, determine if you love it, if you need it, and where you can keep it. Yes, downsizing can be stressful, but once you get to the point that you have just enough of the things that you want and need and everything has its place, it can actually be quite a relief!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Figuring Out Where to Start

There's a common phenomenon that takes place in our homes. We stop seeing our surroundings. Much like I lived with an unpainted door for more than a year without actually noticing the unpainted door, people live with all kinds of unfinished projects. They simply become part of the surroundings and disappear. So, too, does the pile in the corner, the clutter on the desk, the collection of coats hanging from every possible hook, "stuff" that you don't see on a daily basis. It magically disappears. Unfortunately, it's only invisible to us, the owners of the stuff, and it's often the first thing that visitors will see. When I work with clients they often seem surprised when I want to tackle the piles in the corners (Where did that come from?!) ... and almost everyone has piles in the corners. If you don't, chances are good you're not looking for advice here. 

It can feel overwhelming to know where to start organizing and improving your space. You know you need to start small, but how do you figure out where to start? The good news is that it doesn't take a professional to figure out what needs to be tackled first. Take a picture of your space right now. Take a quick look at that picture, preferably on the computer screen, where it's bigger. What's the first thing that grabs your attention? That should be the first thing you tackle. If your eye is drawn to something in the room, others will be drawn to the same thing. Then take a good long look at that picture. Does the room look balanced? Does it look like there is too much of something? Or not enough? Try to look at your space objectively and think about what would make you like it more. Then take action. It's that easy. Maybe it will lead to asking for help from a professional organizer, handyman, or decorator, but not necessarily. Many projects are much simpler than that.

Taking a picture of an area gives you a better perspective on what needs to be addressed. It allows you to "see" your room more clearly. Just like a candid photo can sometimes shock you into action (I can't possibly look like that! That's it...back to the gym!), your room's candid photo may also inspire you to take on mini-improvement projects. It often goes beyond organizing and into decorating, but it's really all about improving your space. Just take it one step at a time.

The best part? Taking your own "after" picture and giving yourself a pat on the back. Success!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Taming the Paper Piles

Sorting through the mountain of paper that builds in our lives can be intimidating.  When there is no filter on what goes into the pile, it easily gets out of hand. Important papers get mixed in with junk, and the pile grows. When you know there is one important paper in a pile, even if you can't quite tell what's in the rest of the pile, the entire pile is labeled "important" in your mind. That makes sense, until all the piles are important and you can't see the surface of your desk. How do you tell if you should keep a piece of paper? This is where many of us get stuck. Let's work on applying a filter so that the piles stay in control.

Whether you are working your way through your office or starting on the mail pile on the counter, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I need to keep it? Other than tax documentation, the answer to this question is often, "No." Once receipts have been checked against your account, there is no need to keep them. In today's digital age, there is very little paper you need to keep. This question alone will place a good portion of the pile in either trash, recycling or shredding.
  • Do I need to take action on it? Bills to be paid fall into this category. Do you need to sign it? Return it? Give it to someone else? Put it in an "action" pile.  If not, shred it if it contains personal information. Recycle everything else.
  • Do I need it for taxes? If it's paperwork you'll need for taxes, file it with other tax papers and make tax preparation time a breeze.

Do I want to keep it?  This is tricky. You put the paper in the pile in the first place because you thought you wanted to keep it, right? What's interesting is that what you thought you wanted to keep a month ago, or a year or more ago, sometimes doesn't make sense today. There are some follow up questions that go with this.
  • Is it still relevant? Instructions for items you no longer own, sign up sheets for last year's summer camp, and expired coupons are perfect examples. Straight to recycling.
  • Can I find this easily elsewhere? Keeping papers for reference does makes sense in some cases. If it's the only copy you have of something or it's not easily found elsewhere, keep it, either in your files or in your Command Center. If you can easily look up directions, recipes, or instructions online, you don't need to keep the printout. Straight to recycling.
  • Is it a memento?  Papers that you're keeping for sentimental reasons are perfectly fine, but not in your files. They are better kept with your mementos, and you have a place for mementos, right? Straight to storage.
If you answer these questions and you still want to keep the paper, that's fine. It's time to file. If you're not much of a filer, your file categories should be as general as possible. Get related papers into a file folder. The "relation" can be whatever makes sense to you. Maybe it's everything having to do with your health, or school, or each of your children. It doesn't have to be terribly specific at first. It gets the pile off the desk and into the drawer. From an access point of view, yes, you may need to spend a little more time searching, but you'll be starting from the right spot and you only need to go through one folder. If you find that you are accessing the same types of papers often, pull them out and give them their own category. If the folder is getting out of control, then work on subcategories. It's a gradual process of developing files. I recommend you don't jump right into specific subcategories if you've never had a filing system. Trust me on this one. You will end up with many, many folders that each have one or two pieces of paper in them.

Finally, if you're going through a major file clean-out, consider a shredding service. For a fee (roughly $10/box), companies will come and pick up your shredding and provide you with a certificate of destruction. If you have a shredder, and you've been holding on to shredding because the task is too overwhelming, this service could be perfect for you. Be already have a pile somewhere of things waiting to be shredded "when you have time", don't you? When you consider how long it takes to shred multiple boxes of paper, the value of this service is obvious. Not only do you save time, the boxes are immediately removed and your space is clear. No more paper piles? Priceless.

Monday, February 4, 2013

3 Steps To Conquer Pantry Mayhem

Kitchen layouts vary, cabinets vary, and where people keep their food varies, but most kitchens have one thing in common: pantry mayhem. Food is notoriously hard to keep track of in the pantry. Whether it's re-buying items that you didn't realize you already had, or finding that the item you need is way past its expiration date, having a well-organized pantry will save you time, money and aggravation. Follow these easy steps to an organized space:

1. Clean - Take everything out of the cabinet. If you have more than one cabinet with food items in it, empty all of them. Wipe down the shelves. I'm always amazed at how messy the food shelves become. How did all of those crumbs get there? And what's so sticky? If you have wire shelving, you are already aware of the aggravation of bottles falling over and small items becoming unbalanced on the wire openings. It's hard to keep things neat if you can't keep them upright. Now is a good time to put something over the shelf surface to smooth it out, especially where bottle are kept. Inexpensive plastic placemats work well.

2. Inventory -  Check expiration dates. I recommend you do this little project before trash day, because you will generate a lot of trash and recycling here. If items are close to their "best by"date, plan on using them right away. Make a list of meals/recipes you can create with these ingredients. As a bonus, you'll have that nagging "What's for dinner?" question handled, at least this week. This is a good time to take inventory and make a shopping list for what you need to complete the meals. Make a note of the fact that you have 12 cans of soup but no crackers. Buy crackers and hold off on the soup for a while. Simple.

3. Organize -  Whenever possible, consolidate open packages. Consider keeping an open container of loose snack bars and granola bars for quick access. You can use a plastic container that is missing its lid (another mystery for another blog post), or a shoe box or basket would work as well. Group like items, such as soups, other canned goods, baking goods, cereals, snacks, etc. Place these items in the cabinets that make the most sense. Snacks and frequently used items should be at eye level if possible. Less frequently used items can go in a lower cabinet. As much as your kitchen allows, group items in a logical way in logical places. Sounds obvious, I know, but you'd be amazed how often this simple concept isn't put into practice.

One note about containers and canisters. They can be a fantastic way to have an organized pantry, but you need to be realistic. If you and your family will keep them filled, go ahead. It's a perfect way to keep items fresh. Sometimes these storage options actually create more headaches and take up more space. In my house, the three cereal containers I have are rarely emptied since the "end of the box" phenomenon is in play. For some reason once a new package is opened in my house, it's rare that the last of the old package will ever be eaten. I have no idea why this is, but you will typically find three mostly-empty cereal containers and three open cereal boxes. It's crazy, I know. Six boxes of cereal may be overkill, but the fact that they all take up so much space is what really makes me nuts. Try to find solutions you can live with and maintain.

That's all there is to it. If you repeat these steps every few months, it will take no time at all to conquer the mayhem and keep your food cabinets under control.

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