Shop For The Holidays Without Creating Clutter

Okay! Here it is - the time of year for unbridled shopping. You may have a long list, including co-workers, teachers, friends, relatives and neighbors. Before you load all these fine people up with a lot of extra stuff, think for a moment about whether you are gifting them things they will cherish, or merely contributing to their own potential clutter problems.

Here is my list of 50 (count them, FIFTY!) things you can give that will not take up space and cause clutter-related trauma to the recipients.

  1. Movie tickets

  2. Bottle of whiskey

  3. Cooking lessons

  4. Gift certificate to a hot new restaurant

  5. Plane tickets

  6. Streaming music gift card

  7. Cookies

  8. Bath salts

  9. A wine tasting excursion

  10. Trip to the museum

  11. Zoo membership

  12. Art classes

  13. Housecleaning for a week/month/year

  14. Gym membership

  15. Concert tickets

  16. Meditation app subscription

  17. Fruit of the month club

  18. Massage vouchers

  19. Trip to a natural hot springs

  20. Pet sitting

  21. Gift certificate at the frame shop

  22. Lawn service for next summer

  23. A session with a stylist

  24. Paid dinners from Blue Apron, Sun Basket, Home Chef, etc.

  25. A stunning flower arrangement

  26. Tickets to a lecture series

  27. Top shelf olive oil

  28. A day at the Japanese Gardens, Chinese Gardens, Botanical Gardens, Arboretum, etc.

  29. Coffee shop gift card

  30. Lunch with you at their favorite place

  31. Tickets to a play

  32. Car wash coupons

  33. Paid CSA membership

  34. A night at a remote B&B

  35. Historical tour of your city (or any other)

  36. Audible membership

  37. Yoga classes

  38. Donation to a charity they love

  39. High end chocolate

  40. Netflix for a year

  41. Trip to the beach

  42. Ski lift tickets

  43. Session with a hypnotist, astrologer or psychic healer

  44. Interior design consultation

  45. Pedicure for two

  46. Day at the climbing gym

  47. Tickets to a sporting event

  48. Afternoon at the shooting range

  49. A tattoo

  50. No nagging for a month (or a week, if more realistic)

These are all things I would be thrilled to receive! This year, think experiences, think consumables, think services. Useful AND thoughtful. Now go out there and shop, and try not to burden the people you love with a bunch of clutter.

What's the best way to do this? Answer: any way you can think of.

I have always been terrible at higher math. By which I mean everything past basic arithmetic. Algebra was the worst - I just couldn’t get my head around it. My teachers seemed to rely on repetition as a learning device; they just kept repeating the same explanations over and over, beating my head against the brick wall of my lack of understanding.

Fortunately, my father was not only some kind of math genius, but also a gifted teacher. He’d patiently explain the concept, and if I didn’t get it he’d come at it from a different angle. He’d use analogy and example and just keep talking about the concept until I had that light bulb moment. He’s single-handedly responsible for getting me through high school math. This is just the least of what I owe him - thanks, Father, for helping me so much in so may ways for so many years. I am blessed indeed.

This same method can be applied to just about anything: if one explanation or example doesn’t work, try another. Try talking around the problem until something finally strikes a cord. It’s helpful to remember that one strategy does not fit all, and that a method that works well one day may prove less effective the next. This is as true of home management as algebra, and is why I don’t organize FOR you but WITH you - because my best way might not be your best way.

If you’re struggling with decluttering, don’t despair! There are a lot of strategies out there, so please don’t become discouraged if one doesn’t seem to be doing it for you. I think that for most of us a combination of approaches is a great way to proceed. You may have heard me say that I finally got good at decluttering when I decided to get rid of five things per day. I was determined to lighten my load of possessions, and occasional clear-outs were not getting me the results I wanted. Slow and steady seemed like a good strategy, and for me it really did the trick. I started a blog to keep myself honest - I didn’t really gain much of an audience, but posting every day was the impetus I needed to keep at it. As you can see, some years I really stuck with it and some not so much. It’s another tool in my arsenal, not my only weapon in the war against clutter.

Here are my favorite decluttering actions. Try one, try all, mix and match as you see fit. Just keep working at it, you’ll get there.

  1. Set a timer. This is particularly good for big spaces that are really overwhelming. I like to work in 20 minute increments. When the bell sounds you get to stop. Repeat daily. Or hourly!

  2. Choose a small area or category. Examples: the medicine cabinet, reference books, spices, the nightstand. I offer a weekly prompt via text with a suggestion for a 15-20 minute decluttering project. Sign up for my monthly newsletter to join the #clutteralert program.

  3. Set a daily or weekly number of items to get rid of. The tricky part is that you have to stick with it! This is a great one to do with a buddy - text a list or a picture of the stuff you’ve jettisoned to one another to stay on track. Accountability can really help keep you going.

  4. Make a game of it. There’s a great month-long challenge, apparently invented by dozens of people simultaneously, in which you throw away one thing on the 1st of the month, 2 things on the 2nd, etc. If you stick with it you’ll end up tossing well over 400 items. A great start!

  5. Move 27 things. This is based on a Feng Shui principle of moving energy. I like to use this one for tidying as much as for decluttering - either way, progress will be made.

  6. Take pictures! I’m terrible at this one, but I’m working on it. Before and after pictures remind you of how much you’ve progressed. If you’re feeling down you can remind yourself (and everyone else) that you are good at this, dammit! I hesitate to encourage you to spend MORE time on social media, but the kudos you get online can be very encouraging.

There you have it, my top tips for slow and steady uncluttering. More in the future about speedy overhauls vs. incremental changes - I have LOTS of thoughts about that.

Do You Think It’s Time To Ask For Some Help?

“Help! I need Somebody!” Yeah, easy for you to say, The Beatles. Not as easy for most of us.

I am pretty good at asking for help when it’s really just advice, but I find it much harder to ask someone to actually do things for me. Things that require them to leave their homes, and spend time or money or other resources. You know, things that might require effort.

I was self-employed for a big chunk of my early adult life. One result was that I was in a unique position to offer assistance to my friends during business hours. I could pick them up from the airport at 11:00 am, or get their kids from school at 2:30. I was called upon to wait for the cable guy and to help drop off cars at the repair shop. And I loved it! I have always loved helping people out, sometimes to the detriment of my own business, or family, or sanity.

But the asking muscle was one I really had to develop, and have had to continually exercise. I never want to feel that I’m imposing on someone’s time or good nature. I sometimes feel unworthy of those things. I even feel embarrassed at my inability to DO IT ALL, BY MYSELF, ALL THE TIME.

As with so many things, necessity was the mother of growth.

When my kids were around 7 and 10, my job shifted and I found myself working every Saturday. As a single parent, this proved pretty challenging. As the first weekend approached, I started to panic a little. Urgh, I was going to have to ask for help. And fairly substantial help, at that - would you please take care of my two kids, starting at 8 am on your very precious Saturday? Oh, and they each have a soccer game. In the rain. (Fortunately the soccer season does not last all year.)

But I didn’t have much of a choice, so I sucked it up and asked, and the response I got was exactly what you might expect - a resounding yes! From the family with three small boys: our kids are happier and easier to handle when your girls are here! From my childless sister: I had the best conversation with Maddie’s mom at the soccer field! From my boss: the girls are welcome to come to work with you! Everyone helped, and I was reminded of something I kind of already knew; people like to help. It makes them feel good to be asked.

So, what does this have to do with you? I’m reminding you that it might be time to ask for some help. I’m asking you to think about how you feel when someone asks you for help - and not just the ride-to-the-airport kind of assistance. I’m talking about when you’re asked to describe your career trajectory to a young woman trying to find her way, when a friend asks you to help her make a difficult decision, when someone asks you to use your talent and experience and intuition to help them with a particular problem - it feels good, doesn’t it? It’s validating. It’s a reminder that you have special skills and superpowers.

So let’s remember that asking for help isn’t bothering people; it’s recognizing their inner expert. And then let’s remember that you are likely doing the work of five in your day to day life, and asking for assistance isn’t an admission of failure. It’s embracing the realization that other people are good at things we haven’t gotten around to conquering yet.

My business is based on people getting to a point at which they are willing to ask for help. Sometimes they feel embarrassed about having to ask. Sometimes they feel ashamed of letting someone see how “bad” their homes look. But what it says to me is that they’ve realized that none of us can DO IT ALL, BY OURSELVES, ALL THE TIME.

If you need help decluttering and organizing your house, call me. And if you need help doing your taxes, or repainting your living room, or getting back in shape or whatever, then find someone who can help and ASK. Because we are all in this together.

True Confessions of a Closet Clutterer

I am not neat by nature. I enjoy a tidy, sparkling clean space, but it's a struggle to attain and then maintain it. I would happily collect every kind of object, and am prone to stacks of paper on every surface. This is just to say that I get it - the struggle is real.

While minimalism and organization don't come easily to me, I do love their pursuit. I get an endorphin rush each time I fill a bag for the thrift store, or clean out a bulging file folder, or scrub out the refrigerator. A big part of my client work is helping people learn to embrace their inner clutterer and erase the results of unbridled acquisition, one step at a time.

Today I was casting about for a project - you know when you've got a block of free time and no task seems sufficiently motivating? I decided I needed to find an untidy area of my home and take before and after photos. My three-tiered inbox caught my eye - I haven't done anything with it but stuff it to the gills in at least three months.

And here's the magic of starting: I began sorting papers and quickly realized I needed a shredding bin. And more file folders. And perhaps a new color-coding system! I got so excited at the prospect of purging ALL my files and completely reorganizing my life that I almost lost the whole project. 

Because that's the pitfall of organizing for the un-inclined - you may get so excited that you rush off to the office supply store and spend a pile of money, only to return home with the pilot light of your enthusiasm doused. But I persevered (over the course of 2 days) doing the actual work of sorting and recycling and reorganizing, and then rewarded myself with a trip to Office Depot - it's the little things, am I right?

And voilà, a file box that is slim, beautiful and easy to navigate. This project followed all the rules I give to just-starting-out declutterers:

1. Pick something small. Redoing a whole filing system may not seem small, but mine is already pretty lean. If this does not describe your reality, you might want to start with one section of your archive.

2. Don't be seduced by beautiful organizing accessories. Once you've done the work you can purchase new boxes, bins, folders, etc., but you really don't know what you'll need until you've shed a bunch of extraneous stuff. 

3. FINISH this project before you move on to anything else. I recommend taking before and after pictures so you can remember what an amazing job you've done. 

Look, this isn't easy. We live busy and complicated lives and we all have way too much stuff - I mean, even if you are a minimalist you have twice the stuff your grandparents did - that's jus tour current reality. But keep taking on bite-sized projects and you'll get there. Best of all, these little projects can really give you the motivation and confidence you need to take on the larger projects.

Want me to send you a text every Sunday with a 15 to 20 minute decluttering project? Sign up for my newsletter here and get sign-up instructions.

You can do this - I can help!

Lessons I Learned in the Aftermath of Death

The experiences I had this summer were wonderful and terrible. I feel so privileged to have spent this time caring for my mother. It was terrific bonding time for me and my sisters - we don't usually get to spend so much time together. And of course it was very sad as we ultimately had to say goodbye. 

One thing I looked forward to as I started the project of clearing out the house was actually living through the process, so that I could get a better sense of what my clients go through. Guess what? I learned a lot. Though I'm happy to say it didn't change my basic outlook on keeping the clutter at bay.

The first thing I learned is this: the longer you are surrounded by stuff, the more reasonable it seems to take it home and make it your own! I claimed far more by the end of the month than I'd wanted at the beginning. The takeaway? Trust your instincts. And once you've decided what you want for yourself, see if you can give one or two things back. 

I also learned that it's sometimes easier to just take things home than try to figure out what to do with them. This is always an issue during decluttering, and if you're in any kind of time crunch it's exacerbated. In our case there is a large collection of books, many of which are quite valuable, which couldn't be managed in the time we had to dispose of them. We did some research to determine that shipping them would cost far less than they are worth, and committed to finding a dealer to help us sell them.

It's important to do that cost/benefit analysis, otherwise you may be paying for a headache that will never bear fruit. It's also a good idea to think about the emotional cost - how will it feel to have your dead mother's teapot collection cluttering up your dining room until you have the time and energy to dispose of it? Sometimes it makes sense to just give it all to the neighborhood thrift shop to save yourself the trouble and the sorrow.

Finally I learned that it all becomes overwhelming and you just want to get to the end and if that means shipping stuff across the country and dealing with it later then FINE. Because eventually you get tired. We did end up making decisions about everything - but there are certainly a few things heading my way that will need further consideration.

I also practiced a lot - practiced saying no to things that I really wanted but have no earthly use for, practiced sharing when more than one of us wanted the same thing. (Note: this is easier to do when there is SO MUCH TO CHOOSE FROM.) I practiced taking a moment to appreciate things that were important to my mother before giving them the heave ho.

All in all, this was an experience that will make me a better coach and helper. In fact, I kind of wish I'd had someone by my side, gently asking me whether the things I grabbed are really going to add value to my life. I guess I'll have to wait and see - a moving van will pull up sometime in the next couple of months and disgorge all the things I claimed - and then I'll decide which ones really get to stay.


A Quick Note About What To Take On The Plane

I spent time on a LOT of airplanes this summer. I flew from Portland to DC. From DC to Boston. From Boston to Portland. From Portland to Toronto. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Here is my final, curated list of what I put in my carry-on bag. This will differ for everyone, but I encourage you to think carefully about every item - life on the plane is so much better when you have a lightweight bag and you don't have to spend time scrabbling around in it to find what you want.

1. Electronics: for me this means a laptop, an iPad and a phone. Which seems like a lot, but I don't feel comfortable putting my laptop in checked luggage. I'd ditch it if possible. Headphones or earbuds to go with these.

2.  A book. Ok, usually two books, since I am invariably right near the end of one when it's time to fly.

3. SNACKS. Need I say more?

4. Glasses. I use an impossible number of pairs of glasses each day. To travel, I wear my "regular" glasses and pack my close-in bifocals, for screens and books. Don't ask - if this is not your reality then thank your lucky stars.

5. Wallet, chapstick, inhaler, any jewelry I'd hate to lose, and prescriptions.

That's it. I've pretty much given up on bringing my own water bottle, because it's too big for the space I have and always ends up rolling around on the floor. I do feel badly about the plastic cups I'm using on the plane, so perhaps there is a small water bottle in my future. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that your packing list should be the same as mine, but do yourself a favor and think about what you want and need to have with you. Put the rest in checked luggage. Or, if you hate to check anything, at least put the rest in a bag that will spend the flight in the overhead, not at your feet.

Worry of the Day: Am I Really Taking ALL This Stuff Home?

I was doing pretty well here at my mother's house, going through things but saying a polite "no" to owning them. Then the glassware came out - I've rarely met a glass I didn't like. But I did pretty well and managed to identify old glasses that would get the heave-ho when the new ones came home. Likewise the furniture - there was really only one piece I wanted. My father's bureau, described as a "campaign chest" - how cool is that?

But bit by bit, my pile got larger. And the longer I've stayed here and looked at the stuff my mother loved, the more these things from my past have seemed like potentially important parts of my future. Now I'm wondering what happened to the woman who hates stuff and is determined not to be weighed down by more possessions.

You may find yourself in this situation, and here is what I suggest:

1. Stop panicking. Because it never helps to panic.

2. Remember - just because you take something home with you (from the store or your best friend's house or the free box) does not mean that you are obligated to keep that thing for more than 10 minutes. 

3. You can keep from having too much stuff if you get rid of one (or two or ten) things for each one that you bring into the house. I'm looking at some of these items as upgrades rather than additions - when the new version comes in the old version is out.

4. Give yourself a little tiny break. Losing people is hard. Losing your second parent is its own kind of difficult, what with dismantling your childhood and all. If holding on to some of those things for some period of time is healing, then go for it. But know that in six months I will be asking you, as I will be asking myself, if those things are really adding value to your life or are just cluttering up the place.

What to do with the forgotten family heirlooms?

heirlooms 1.png

If your family is anything like mine, there is a lot of inherited stuff lingering in cupboards and closets. This may be fine china, silver tea sets, childhood toys, ancient correspondence, favorite mixing bowls... The list goes on.

It's hard to get rid of the things that help inform your identity. And it's hard to keep a lot of moldering or otherwise unlovely stuff that takes up space and never sees the light of day. I'm here to tell you that there are no easy answers - this is an individual journey. There are some strategies, however, for sorting through these things and making decisions you can live with.

First things first: heirlooms you love

First, sort out the stuff you really adore. Don't worry about whether it's valuable, just choose those things that you'd like to use or look at regularly. These go in the keep pile. Then - USE THEM. I'm a big believer in using the things you love. I've just inherited the family Wedgewood, which during my childhood we only used on very special occasions. As a result, the set is almost complete, but has been used rarely. I intend to use it every day. Who cares if it's valuable - I'm not planning to sell it! I'd rather risk breaking or chipping it than leaving it wrapped up for another generation to worry about.

Likewise, if there are family letters you love to look at, put them in an album or otherwise make them accessible (paying attention to using archival materials to keep them safe). Hang the art, put your great-grandmother's wedding dress in a shadow box and hang it in your bedroom! Revel in these inherited treasures.

What not to do? Keep everything, in the name of history! We live in such a disposable society that artifacts from our family's past can seem like rare antiquities. Unless you are very fortunate, they are not. Resist the temptation to keep every item your ancestors touched. Keep the ones that are important to you, the ones you will use, the ones that really do have historical significance, but don't keep it all. I believe in an incremental strategy when if this gets difficult. Set aside a few boxes and revisit them over the next several months. As time goes by you will likely recognize that many of the items that seemed so special have lost their magic, and then you'll find it easier to let go of them. 

next: the inheritance you just don't want

Inevitably you will inherit stuff you have no use for, and which is not interesting to you. What to do? This stuff is harder, but take heart - you can work your way through it. First, you want to determine whether the items are valuable - either on the market or as historical objects. Letters and other archival information might be of interest to a museum or library, depending on the writer/owner and the contents. My aunt is a historian, and as she's into her 80's she's managed to donate lots of books and drawings to various libraries. My favorite? She won a wooden paddle as a camper back in the early 1940's. She just returned it to the camp, still in operation, for their archives! 

If you've inherited items that may be valuable, work on getting a real valuation. For some things, this is as easy as checking online. If you use ebay, make sure to look at the listings that have already sold, to get an idea of what things really go for. If you think your stuff is valuable, especially if there is a lot of it, hire an appraiser. You want someone who is certified, and never hire someone who wants to buy your stuff (conflict of interest). You can use these sites to find someone in your area: International Society of AppraisersAmerican Society of Appraisers, or Appraisers Association of America. You can use a local auction house or try to sell it yourself online.

I'm sorry to report that many fine antiques have lost value over the last decade or so. Just because they're nice, sadly, does not mean they are worth money. Buck up! Use what you can, sell what you can, release the rest with love and gratitude.

and then, the junk

Realistically there is going to be a lot of stuff that is old but not valuable, or that had sentimental value to the deceased but not to anyone else. It's hard to just dump stuff that was important to your loved one, but be strong! I find that people hate to throw things into the trash - we all want to feel that we are being responsible stewards of the earth, and that we're not tossing out things that still have value. To this I say: recycle what you can, but don't let sentimentality allow you to keep things you really don't want. The landfill is there for a reason. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: keeping stuff in your house that belongs in the trash isn't saving the planet. It's just moving a tiny part of the landfill into your home.


Death In The Family: Uncluttering With Love

My mother died recently. It happened a lot more quickly than we'd expected, so we've all been caught off guard; everyone figured she'd go on and on. Here are the things I'm grateful for: she lived a long (84 years) and healthy life. She was active, curious and committed to her community and her interests. My sisters and I got to spend lots of time with her, taking care of her in her last month. She suffered very little and laughed a lot. 

That said, we miss her very much and are now faced with the task of dismantling her home, which feels a little like taking apart her legacy. My mother was an aesthete - every item in her home was purchased and placed intentionally, from the wooden spoons to the face cream to the lamps. She saw the beauty in everyday things and always purchased the well-designed item over its more pedestrian counterpart. How to begin to pull apart each small vignette, to throw out the utensils her hands so lovingly touched?

That's what I'll be sharing with you over the next few weeks - how the Unclutter Coach manages to talk her talk and walk her walk. Are you on Instagram? Here was our very first tearful challenge: what to do with the tapioca bowl.

 Mom in Paris with Archer, sharing her love of travel.

Mom in Paris with Archer, sharing her love of travel.