January 03, 2006

Tossing the Junk

One of the things I have had trouble with while dieting is avoiding snacking rather than eating meals. In September I changed my diet to be three meals a day, doing away with snacks in order to save my calories for a really filling meal.

To keep myself on track, I threw away all my snack food.

You know this stuff: it's the mac-n-cheese boxes you bought on sale, brownie mix, cookies, a candy bar or two, crackers and cheese, even bowls of cereal that you can pretend are actually healthy. When you're ranging around the house wanting to chew on something, this stuff is right there, and before you know it you've eaten 350 calories of food you didn't need to eat. A week or so of that and you've gained a pound without really trying.

So I threw it out. All that snack food. It was an enormous waste of food (actually, not so much because I had eaten most of it, but I filled one trash bag). But then it was gone and I made a decision to stop bringing it in the house (if you have a partner who brings this stuff home and won't stop to help you out, I have no help for you; if you have kids, remember that you're the parent, and you're the one who gets to decide what they eat). When I only had food for my three meals, I found myself snacking a lot less. I would feel a little hungry, and check the fridge. There would be makings for a whole meal, but that seemed like too much effort. So instead I would have a glass of water and walk around a bit, or take a break from what I had been doing to read a book or do some knitting. Usually feeling hungry was just being tired of doing work I was not enjoying, or being bored with something tedious.

I also got rid of snack food I used to keep on my desk. I'd find myself eating that all afternoon instead of having lunch and then dinner, so I dumped it and made a ritual out of going to have those meals instead. It actually didn't work out to fewer calories to eat that way, but my digestion improved and I was eating much healthier foods than I had been.

Christmas is the worst. Everybody gives you chocolate and cookies and cake, and you go to cocktail parties with trays of food lying around to graze on. So I set a deadline: anything left after January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany, and the official end of Christmas) goes in the trash or gets given away to somebody who wants the calories. I don't need it, and I don't want the consequences of eating it.

You'd be surprised how easy it is to throw away food. When you make the decision, it feels so freeing, as if you've thrown away some of that body fat. Better, of course, is to not buy the stuff in the first place, but we're not all perfect all the time. Instead of eating your way through your grocery store mishaps, give them to a food bank (now that Christmas is over they will need your donations) or throw them away.

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December 18, 2005

Team Decluttering

We tried out a new way of getting rid of stuff this weekend: Team Decluttering.

Get two people together. Lay down some ground rules, like no personal attacks or mean-spirited comments. You're decluttering stuff, not each other. As you go through stuff, switch off acting as a questioner: "Why do you want to keep that? When was the last time you used it? Can we just rent one when needed?" Be aggressive, but be nice. Sometimes the decluttering person will want to get rid of something the questioner wants to keep; then you switch roles, basically.

Some people find it easier to be the questioner, some people prefer to be the declutterer. Others like both roles. Switch them back and forth.

We filled six grocery bags with stuff to give away in a few hours doing this. And we're hardly at the stage of decluttering where that's routine. The best part is that it's a shared activity, rather than a solitary thing.

December 04, 2005

Rethink Your Systems

When you've been working with a system for a while, it can get bogged down on itself. You'll notice it when you try to use the system: things will be in your way, you'll notice something that you haven't used in forever that's just sitting around in a prime location. Maybe you've changed some way you do things and you use certain tools more often than you did; maybe you've been working on a project that requires different tools than you usually use. It's not that you don't need the stuff around you, per se, but more that you need it to be in a different order.

Find a time when you can sacrifice efficiency and reorganize. For me, that meant that today, after I brought all my studio supplies home, I took them all out of their boxes and drawers and so forth and figured out what I had.

Massive declutter

The first thing I did, as I emptied the containers, was to sort things by type. In the foreground, you can see a pile of cutting tools. There's also a pile I was thinking of as "assorted" running along the back (I was sitting in that clear spot in the middle left). I put some gilding supplies, a pair of scallop scissors, twine, a slide viewer, and the carbon paper there. Most of that stuff will end up being stored somewhere; some of it will be thrown away (I'm considering it for the fake-copper foil from a project last year).

With everything sorted out and in front of me, I threw some stuff out. But not much -- these are working supplies and they've already been decluttered. I'm not concentrating on getting rid of things, just streamlining how I access them.

I chose one set of storage drawers -- I have three, but two are very heavy and I'd rather not haul them into studio every twelve weeks -- and put the most critical and frequently used items from the piles in there. You can see the bottom of the drawers in the top of the picture: they're garden-variety plastic storage drawers from a household goods store. Lightweight, relatively durable, and on casters to make them easier to move. My studio next quarter is on the third floor.

The bottom drawer is entirely devoted to glue -- I use glue a lot and have lots of different kinds, and I need it at hand pretty much all the time. I used the bottom drawer because it was the tallest and could hold the most bottles of glue upright, which is generally a good way to store glue bottles. It ended up half empty, but half empty is easier to deal with than crammed full.

The next drawer was for papers. They lie flat in there and are easy to leaf through. Actually, I didn't even move the stack that I'd stored in there earlier.

Then a drawer for scraps of wood -- I save these for projects where I need small bits -- and rolls of tape. I spent most of my time this evening sorting out the scraps of wood and throwing away from of the smaller, less obviously useful ones. I am not likely to use those, and I have plenty of others. I can't wait to graduate and throw all of them away. Or give them to an underclassman.

The next drawer was filled with those cutting tools (except the large electric foam cutter, which I don't need very often). I was surprised at how many I had.

Then the top drawer took a pile of hand tools from the center of the photo, plus my safety goggles for the workshop, some twine, and my stash of bandages and ibuprofen.

So, you ask, what of the rest of that stuff?

I've found, over the last couple of quarters, that I need things in batches, and I usually have a day or more of notice for needing them. So my collection of wood, rolls of paper, and other oddments can stay at the house, to be brought in as needed. So can the drawing pencils, coloured pencils, pastels, charcoals, most of the paint, and markers. I'm going to get some easily portable boxes for these, like I have for some other categories of supplies (mold making and wire, for example) and when I need those things, I can just grab the box and bring it in with me. Until then, it can stay in storage at the apartment, out of the way of the heavy work.

There are some things I'm going to need to bring in that didn't fit into the drawers. My drafting tools, for example, and some watercolours and drawing pens. I'll probably put those in their own boxes or containers and just bring them in with everything else at the beginning of the quarter.

Right now, I'm very happy with my streamlined tools. I've been wanting to pare down what I bring to studio, so I have more room to work and the things I need are all together and where I want them. Having this stuff in order makes me feel more productive. If I get started on next quarter and this whole system fails me, I can always gather up my boxes of supplies and haul them into the studio. Then at the end of the quarter I can reassess the system again.

September 04, 2005

Magazine-Perfect Rooms

Pictures of perfect living rooms and other house spaces in magazines and catalogs can be a great source of inspiration for decluttering your home. The magazines and catalogs are really aimed at trying to convince you to buy stuff, but they do it by making rooms that highlight the products, a lesson we can all learn from. Let's analyze this room designed by the Pottery Barn:

Simple parlour by Pottery Barn

The first thing you should look at it the background. The walls are pure white, very clean, and the windows have a lot of light coming through them. That makes the whole scene seem lighter. Most of us would probably not want to spend a lot of time actually living in a room that has no curtains -- especially at night -- but a similar effect is possible with curtains that pull back completely, or blinds that disappear.

The other thing in the background is the bookcase. It's the same colour as the walls, but the inside has been painted a darker colour, to make the books stand out. And the books themselves are not your usual collection of books, but ones that fit a certain range of colours, arranged in a rhythmic pattern.

The first thing I would ask myself about the bookcase and using it in my own home is whether I was willing to either cover every book I own in coordinated book jackets, or whether I was willing to sort my books by colour. I'm definitely not into either option, so my room will look more chaotic than this one, because the background has extra things going on in it.

Also in the background is a table at the window with a bowl and a vase of branches on it. Look at the scale of those items: they're very large, and they bring the window in closer, but they essentially block off that nook from being used as living space: it becomes purely decorative. How would you furnish that nook? Most people would not make a whole space like that decorative, but it's worth considering. Taking a space that would ordinarily get cluttered up with a window seat and a hundred little pillows and reducing it to a strictly formal arrangement of hard furnishings is a bold design move.

Next to the nook are a pair of candle holders. A lot of people abuse the candles. First: the candles are unburnt and the holders are not caked with melted wax. That look went out in 1979, and now it just looks messy. Second, the candles match each other and the room. Third, the holders make a strong, graphical statement on a blank wall: they add two vertical lines to a wall that seems to disappear by being so bright.

Moving to the foreground, the first thing you should notice is that the furniture is pulled away from the walls. A lot of people decorate a room by putting pieces of furniture all around the walls, leaving a large hole in the center. Unless you have a dance every night, bring the furniture into the middle of the room, around a rug, like you see here. And don't have too much of it. This room has had half the furniture taken out, to get a better camera angle, but it also really opens the room up. One more chair and this sitting space would be perfectly fine for most social situations.

Another thing to notice is that there's very little STUFF. A few items in the coffee table, carefully chosen to coordinate with the furnishings, a couple of books out for effect (clearly a house without cats), and a weathervane. No photos of family, no little ceramic statues, no piles of mail and catalogs. Oddly enough, in this catalog room, there's no sign of the endless barrage of catalogs you would get if you actually ordered this stuff for your home.

Catalog designers throw away the clutter. They clear it out to highlight a few, important things: their products.

Another important thing to notice about the main seating area: there are a few pillows, but they match everything else perfectly. They coordinate with the rug, the books, the couch, the bowl in the window, the wood of the coffee table, the lamp. They are not cute and useless: they are designed to add punches of colour to the room.

Everything in this room has been carefully chosen to fit with everything else. Nothing extra is brought in, and what is there is kept perfectly clean. A real home is not like that: you bring in the mail or take a book down from the shelf (if you can find it with all those covers over the original spines), and the effect is ruined slightly. But by taking the concepts used by the designer of this room and applying them to your own space, you can make your home look a little more coordinated and highlight the things you value the most.

August 26, 2005

No More Excuses

One of the difficulties people have in decluttering their houses is really, deep-down wanting to get rid of stuff. Because you cannot declutter a house and not take anything out of it; clutter is unnecessary stuff, not critical stuff that is just in the wrong spot or not organized.

Some of the resistance is just low-energy. I know that I've had whole months when I ignored a stack of things I needed to go through and deal with because I just did not feel like it. There are many techniques for learning how to declutter around that sort of depressive energy level, mostly involving breaking the task down into small pieces and making consistent if slow progress.

But some of the resistance is the belief that this stuff is important. There are any number of common justifications for why this stuff has to be sorted and organized rather than thrown away or given away.

The Environment

This is my favourite, because it's so completely ironic. Usually I hear this one about a stack of margarine containers that reaches the ceiling, or a sack of plactic grocery bags. The argument goes like this: "I need to save this to keep it out of the landfill, or because reuse is better than recycling, or some other bogus reason." OK, yeah, I have a bad attitude about this excuse.

Reuse is better than recycling, but reducing is better than reusing. If it bothers you that margarine tubs might end up in the landfill, don't buy margarine in tubs. Buy it in sticks and mash or whip the stick into a tub yourself, if you must have whipped margarine or butter or whatever all that stuff in the tubs is.

The key is to not bring the stuff into the house to begin with.

Once you've got your leaning tower of containers, you have to deal with the consequences of your actions. Find a plastics recycling place or just throw the things out, but get rid of all but a couple, if you actually ever use any. If, for some reason, you should need more plastic containers, you can always buy some more margarine or just buy a plastic container.

Caretaker of the Inheritance

This is another good excuse. It goes like this: "I don't like this armoire, but my kids might need it when they get a home of their own, so I'm keeping it." This is funniest when the kids in question are not born yet, but you also hear it when the kids in question are 35 and obviously have no need or desire to take the armoire.

There are two things at play here. First of all, your house doesn't have to be a storage facility for your children. If you hate the thing, get rid of it. Either sell it, give it away, or store it offsite, although the latter is an extreme measure, only to be used when the item in question is a priceless heirloom. If the kids are grown up and might want it, ask them. If they say they want it, deliver it to them; if they don't want it, get rid of it.

Second, not every piece of furniture or dishware or anything is worthy of being an heirloom. Even a piece with a lot of sentiment attached to it might not stand the test of time; I had a nice little chair that had been in our TV room when I was a kid, and I dragged it around with me for years until it literally fell apart. Yeah, it was part of my childhood. No, it was not worth throwing time and money into repairing.


Which brings me to one of the biggest reasons people have for resisting getting rid of stuff. "It was my grandmother's!" or "that was a wedding present!"

The first step beyond this excuse is to realize that you can love somebody and remember them without filling your house with everything they ever gave you, or trinkets and bric-a-brac that they accumulated in their lifetime. When somebody gives you a gift that is just not your style, thank them kindly and get rid of it discreetly. The worst possible scenario is that every time you look at that ugly vase you are reminded of your favourite aunt and feel guilty for hating it so much. Getting rid of the thing lets all your thoughts of your aunt be happy and fond, rather than bad and guilty.

The next step is to find your positive mementos and make them shine. Ha! Bet you didn't expect that! Yes, you should have things you love and that remind you of people and events you loved around your house. Don't hide them behind lots of stuff you don't love: clear out the clutter and bring them to the front. If you have fourteen thousand photos in a box, and there are two great shots in there, getting rid of the 13,998 photos that are at odd angles or too far away or fuzzy or grainy and then framing and displaying the two you love will make you life and house a lot better.

Last summer I threw away about 2,000 old photos. Not just the photos, but the negatives, too, because why do I need to save the negatives for shots that didn't work out? I saved the 20 or so images that I really loved, and their negatives, for framing and hanging on the wall. I also threw out a few dozen playbills and ticket stubs from events years ago that I barely remembered; I never recheck those or even look at them, and they were taking up space. In their place I put my sketchbooks up on the shelf they had been occupying, where I can take them down to look through for inspiration.

There can only be so many areas of focus in a house. Make yours count.

Archivist for the Ages

The last, and most compulsive, excuse I hear about clutter is that "this has historical value," or worse, "it's a collector's item."

If you want to invest in something that will make you lots of money, buy stock. "Collectibles" are a gamble that other people will not be saving this stuff, and it will be both rare and desirable in your lifetime. From what I can see of the market, if the people who made so much money on Star Trek memorabilia had instead bought Proctor and Gamble stock of the same value and held it as long, they would have made many times over what they made on selling the junk they were toting around, and they would not have had to store it in their living space in the mean time.

So sell off the collectibles now and invest in something of real value. Having a bunch of stuff in your house that you can't use lest it lose value is a horrible thing. The big test is this: will you take it out of the box and throw the box away? If not, it should get out of the house.

The other big trap is the historical items trap, and I know this one well myself, because as we restore our house we keep finding all sorts of detritus left behind by previous owners and even the people who built the house. It's tempting to keep it all and somehow display it in the house, but who wants to live in a museum? And that's what it would be like if we set up glass display cases and filled them with things like rusty square nails and razor wrappers from 1876.

We chose a few things that seemed whimsical to us: a chisel somebody dropped into the wall in the front bay during the original construction on the house, a few nails, some bottles dug out of the trash pits in the yard. The rest we're either giving away or throwing away. After all, we have the house. We don't need to save every bit of ephemera that came with it.

One of the things people who are afflicted with the obsessive need to save ephemera (playbills, ticket stubs, letters, and so forth) forget is that the value of that stuff from the past lies in its very disposable nature. A letter that survived seems more important because it is rare; a huge collection of letters quickly loses any excitement. Our lives, day to day, are actually quite dull, and they only seem exciting when we pick and choose the good parts to save for posterity. So feel free to edit your ephemera: lose the boring letters about what the climate is like in England from your old pen-pal, but keep that love note from your first boyfriend who ended up in a political scandal.

There are a million excuses for keeping clutter around. Most of them are just excuses, not really good, justifiable reasons. When you're not sure whether you're just making excuses, examine why you're justifying keeping the item. Is it because you really love it and can't bear to let it go? Or is it because it's "neat," or you feel guilty about getting rid of it, or you think it has value to some other person? Looking at your reasons for the reasons can help you get rid of stuff.

August 15, 2005

Extreme Decluttering Measures

Sometimes, getting order into a room or house requires some extreme measures. You can spend what feels like forever sifting through drawers trying to decide what can go away, and make very little headway because it's hard to know what you really use on a day-to-day basis. But there's another strategy worth trying, and it only takes a month. I call it the Move or a Fire method.

When I moved to San Luis Obispo to go back to school last year, I took almost nothing with me, except studio supplies that I knew I would need immediately. Every weekend for three weeks, I would make a list of what I needed from home, and bring it down. Eventually I ended up with a stable collection of the bare minimum things I need to maintain a household, without a lot of extras.

If moving 250 miles away from home in a minivan is not on your agenda, you can get the same benefits by creating a mental move. Take everything out of a particular room -- kitchens and bathrooms are the worst culprits for random "I might use this" clutter, in my experience -- and put it in another room.

These are the rules:

  1. Choose a small amount of stuff to keep in the room: maybe a bowl and two sets of silverware, or one place setting for every member of the household -- something very small. Definitely no appliances.
  2. Everything else gets boxed up and moved to "offsite storage" -- another room or the garage or somewhere out of the way. If you have a storage locker and put it there, you have the right idea, but don't go rent one just for this.
  3. Give the room a thorough cleaning. Start out on the right foot.
  4. Live in the room for a couple days. If you need something, write it down on a piece of paper and get it the next day. The only exception is first-aid supplies or fire extinguishers. For everything else make yourself wait to get it.
  5. At the end of each week, go through the boxes left behind. Be honest with yourself: there's plenty there that you never use and should get rid of. Nothing can come back at that time: it can only leave the house altogether.
  6. After a month, go through the boxes and sort out the stuff that gets used only seasonally: turkey pans, christmas cookie cutters, that sort of thing. This does not belong in the room you use everyday. Put it away in a box marked with what it's used for and get it out of a main traffic path.
  7. Everything else gets thrown away or donated.

Like all decluttering efforts, this one requires two things of you, and they are not easy. The first is that you have the will and energy to keep at it, to not give up and drag those boxes into the kitchen and make a bigger mess than you had to begin with. The other is that you be honest. If you can't do the whole room honestly, do one drawer, or do one cabinet. Don't try to do the whole kitchen and then keep cheating by sneaking stuff back in. The person you are cheating is yourself; I don't have any reason to care whether your room is clutter-free and easy to work in, but you do.

Most decluttering advice urges slow and sane work, eating away at clutter the way you built it up. There's a lot to be said for that, and in the long run it works really well. But if you want to make a huge difference in one room in a relatively short amount of time, the Move or a Fire method works well.

August 04, 2005

Simple Rules for Crafters

I've been a crafty person since I was a small child. I love making things, learning new crafts and skills, and trying stuff out. But that can really play havoc on a household. Just about everybody knows the perpetual crafter whose projects are all over the house, most of them damaged from being left out in an unfinished state. In every house where I have ever helped anybody declutter, there has been at least one box full of random bits and bobs for making stuff from.

Crafty doesn't have to equal messy, and it certainly doesn't have to equal disorderly. If you want to make things, being organized about it will actually help you make more things, and enjoy them when you do.

Several years ago I sat myself down and had a nice long talk about all the sewing pins in the couch, and how I wanted to live my life. I came up with a set of simple rules for craft projects.

  1. I buy materials for a project I am about to start, not for possible future projects or because I like them. No stashing!
  2. I keep materials with the patterns/diagrams for the project. I have a bunch of canvas grocery bags that are useful for corraling a project, or if it's something big like sewing a dress, I keep everything on the table where I'm working. We have a large house, so I can afford to take over a whole table every now and then for a project, especially because I have the next rule to help me get it done faster.
  3. I work on one project of any type at a time, no matter how tempting starting another one is. Which means that if I'm knitting something and want to start another project, I have to finish the knitted thing first. This is to keep UFOs (un-finished objects) from proliferating around the house.
  4. I work in one place on the project (though sometimes that place is anywhere there the knitting bag is) and do not carry materials or patterns or anything to another place for any reason, so I don't end up losing bits and losing ground.
  5. If I get bored of a project and decide to stop, I throw it away or give it away to somebody who does want to finish it. If I'm not prepared to do that, I stop working on anything for a while until I'm ready to finish again.
  6. When a project is done, it either goes to the intended recipient or gets put on the gifts shelf for a future holiday gift (or gets worn or used by me!). I had to take a good hard look at the things I was making and whether I wanted them or just wanted to make them, and ended up dropping a lot of projects because while making them would be fun, having them was not as interesting to me.

Don't get me wrong: these rules are hard to keep to. But it's worth it to me to not have stashed supplies poking out of every corner, and to not be stuck with pins on the couch when I want to read a book, and mostly to have the satisfaction of finishing a project rather than having two hundred half-done things lying around. I find I get a lot more done this way than I did with the Old Way (start everything as soon as you get the idea, work until you're bored, then toss under the bed and ignore for ten years).

To get started, I had to de-stash a ton of fabric and yarn, and throw away or in a couple cases give away projects in process. I also gave away a bunch of things I had finished, like a pair of ball gowns I had hand-sewn for fun, but never wore, which I donated to a charity auction. Some other projects that I definitely wanted to finish I lined up in order and finished one by one.

As far as difficulty in decluttering, craft items are a hard one. It's hard to accept that you're not going to finish everything, or even that you don't want to. But if you make some rules like mine that are acceptable to you, it really will help you be a better crafter.