From clutter... to simplicity

Posted: Monday, January 27, 2003

Jacki's Story

The day Before New Years

The best books and organizing tips I found:

Time Savers:

But I Don't Have the Time ...

Victoria's Secrets

Costly Clutter

The Quiz

Donations: Where, When, What to Bring

Common Household Diseases And the cure

Organizing Wisdom:

Jacki's Story

I rather fancy the idea that I am not a mindless mass consumer or a disorganized slob. I frequently proclaim my distaste for shopping.


This pile of junk may be an eye sore to look at for Jacki Michels, but her son Patrick thinks it's great to play on.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Yet, a few days after Christmas, where was I? At the store -- actually several stores. Doing what? Shopping.

As if I had anywhere to put all the stuff already crowding me out of my happy home, never mind all the great stuff we now had to put away after all the recent wrapping and subsequent unwrapping.

As my mind began to get a little crowded just envisioning my home, I noticed a strange phenomena at the store. Was there a cosmic pattern to all this insanity? Storage containers of every conceivable size and shape were piled everywhere. And you guessed it, they were on sale. Was it part of a master plot to keep consumers in a perpetual loop of buying, then storing away so they could buy more stuff?

A quick review of my lofty intentions for home organization revealed that there were many of these plastic storage units in strategic locations throughout our home, attic and crawl spaces. They were either empty or overflowing with miscellaneous junk. Hmmm.

Then, I got an idea. A awful idea! I got a wonderful, awful idea! Yes, I read the Grinch too many times over the Christmas break. I would charge home and load up all our junk. Maybe the Whos did not really realize what the Grinch was trying to accomplish for them, by helping to relieve all of Whoville of excess materialism.

My husband, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge himself, was completely tuned into this whole downsizing theory and gleefully secured everything we would need to accomplish our task: two large permanent markers, a box of white garbage bags and a mountain of boxes.

On the trip home we reviewed our strategy and by the time we arrived in the driveway our mission was clear.

Less is more and we need more less, desperately. We either had to get rid of half of our belongings or buy a bigger home. Since the latter was out of the question, we went with the first option. We started with one room and did not move on until that room was stripped down to simplicity.

The living room was first as it was the easiest and the room most often seen by non-family members. Over the course of the next several weeks, we reclaimed our home one closet, drawer, rubber band and crayon at a time.

During the process of this big cleanup I lost my mail. It took four days to find it -- it was in the file drawer. I realized this new system was going to take a while to get used to.

Thinking there must be a more logical way to tame this domestic dragon of mine, I headed off to visit the local libraries. Three hours later I hauled 43 pounds of household wisdom into my house. After scouring over the pages I realized what I was doing was right on track.

While cruising around the Internet, I found even more tips. It became apparent that there were about as many strategies for household management as there were recipes calling for hamburger. The point is to try some out -- find what works and what does not Reading recipes does not put dinner on the table and great ideas are worthless if they are not used. Like Nike says, "Just do it."

And we did.

The donation boxes filled up more quickly than the others. It occurred to us that it would be a good idea to find out where they would be the most helpful. After a little sleuthing, I discovered there were many good causes in town. I called them all and made a note of where they were, what they needed and when they were open.

My husband's truck began look like the Grinch's sleigh, but at least we were putting our hard work and no longer needed treasures to good use.

All in all, it has taken 21 years, six months and three weeks to clean my house. The first 251 months were good practice, and in the last few weeks I really believe I am getting the hang of it.

Extra benefits of all this downsizing: I no longer cringe when I get unexpected company. It takes one-fourth of the time it once did to clean up. And I found my son's birth certificate -- in my 1999 tax return, of course!

The day Before New Years

'Twas the day before New Year's when I surveyed our house,

Then in despair, I said to my spouse,

"I know we worked hard to get all this stuff,

"But, I'm feeling claustrophobic; I've just had enough,

"The children's room is something I dread,

"Last time I looked, I couldn't see their beds!

"We have too much junk; we own too much crap,

This is visually disturbing, my eyes need a nap!"

Then from out of my mouth there arose a resolved tone,

"Let's become minimalists, reduce by half what we own."

Away to the closets I flew like a flash,

Tore open the cupboards, and filled up the trash.

The donation pile, it started to grow,

For the first time in years, I saw carpet below.

When what to my determined sight should appear,

Was my sweetheart, with emptied boxes of beer.

I know I'm a slave driver, but I had to work quick,

Getting rid of my treasures made me feel sick.

More quickly than dishes pile up in a day,

Out our junk went and my sweetie did say,

"Just throw it if it's broken, stained or bent.

"Out trash, out donations, out grown and out worn,

"Out clutter, out stuffies, out junk and out torn!

"To the top of the desk to the end of the hall,

"Now trash away, trash away, trash away all!"

Then, I took it all in and twirled all around

And sighed at the simplicity, our home we had found!

The rooms were so spacious, so tidy and bare,

It was like a breath of fresh springtime air.

Our clothes were hung neatly; the books were all stacked,

The Christmas tree stored, and ornaments packed.

Our home how it sparkled, so tidy and neat,

No more junk to trip over, oh what a treat.

I sang to myself, for I felt so darn merry,

"I feel like I've been visited by the housekeeping fairy."

Then my hubby lit up his thick mustached smile,

"Gotta deliver this, I'll be back in awhile."

But I heard him exclaim as he drove down the road,

"Happy New Year to all, and to all a light load!"

The best books and organizing tips I found:

"Household Hints For Dummies" by Janet Sobesky: This was my favorite. It was clear, systematic and suggested a four-box method. The plan is simple and it works.

Get a permanent marker and label four boxes according to the categories below. Bring garbage bags with you.

Trash/Recycle: Put utter trash in the garbage bags. Put newspaper, cardboard, glass bottles, clear plastic and batteries into the recycle box and bring to the dump.

Donation: Just like the name implies, this box should be filled with goods that are still good, but that have overstayed their usefulness in your home. This includes outgrown toys, clothing from several sizes ago, books on pregnancy, the dart board that was never used, excess in general and specifically what your family no longer needs.

Undecided: This box will save an enormous amount of debate, stress and possible family quarrelling. When in doubt, toss undecided items in the box and deal with them at a later date, or when no one is looking. Warning! If this box gets full and none of the others do, it might be time to go out for pizza and rethink the idea of why you started to reorganize in the first place.

File-Store: This box is for things that are simply in the wrong room and need to be filed or legitimately need to be stored. By keeping a box labeled accordingly, many trips around the house playing delivery person can be stalled while the bulk of the organization gets done. Keep close tabs on how much is headed for storage. In many cases storage is only a resting place for junk.

"Sidetracked Home Executives" by Pam Young and Peggy Jones and "It's Here Somewhere" by Alice Fulton and Pauline Hatch: These books tied for second and third place as being the most helpful. Each book outlined a 3-by-5 index card system of organization. I can't imagine keeping my life outlined in a recipe box, but the encouragement, philosophies on materialism and organizational tips were great.

Better Homes and Gardens' "Household Hints and Tips": This is a great all around help. From accordion files to sticky zippers, you'll find it in this book. My favorite tip: "Get your family to pitch in but don't expect children to do everything perfectly." I'd like to add, don't expect perfection from anyone, especially yourself.

Guiding principle: The adage "a place for everything and everything in its place" makes no sense if you don't have the space.

Time Savers:

Take advantage of technology: Use the cordless or hands-free headset and sort junk piles, mail and clothing while chatting. A small voice recorder can take notes while you drive.

Have small children? They can help with small tasks such as matching socks, "driving" the clothes basket to the appropriate room or tossing items into boxes. Think about trading off with another family to free up some focused work time. Investing in childcare for a few hours may also prove to be a good strategy to get a head start.

Two heads are said to be better than one, but six or eight hands can really lighten the load. Swallow your pride, break out the barbecue or order out and declare a work party. If you don't own a family, invite friends. Have boxes, bags and markers ready. Tacky door prizes can be wrapped up ahead of time. (Read, stuff you want to get rid of.)

Veg out in front of the tube while tackling mindlessly mundane tasks. Commercial breaks are a great time to: write a short letter, file a few papers or deliver items in the to file/wrong room/store box. Once things are fairly organized keep the habit up.

An ounce of prevention: Keep extra boxes on hand and fill them as items outgrow their usefulness. Labeling boxes in advance will cut down on future decision time, the biggest time waster of all!

But I Don't Have the Time ...

Trying to get things really organized can seem impossible. Shoveling off the table to find a place to eat or ironing out the misunderstanding with the credit card company can leave mere mortals too tired out to do anything else. The thought of even cleaning out the junk drawer or tackling the "closet of doom" can seem as easy as shoeing a runaway horse that is still running.

Focus on the goal. Keep up a sense of humor. Do what you can each day. Make a list of enjoyable things to do once the clutter is tamed, post the list prominently.

Victoria's Secrets

Trying to track down Victoria Whitney is about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Between her jobs as manager of Charlotte's at River City Books and co-manager, owner and guide of a fishing guide service, in addition to being a North Slope worker's wife, a mother times four and self-described "head cook and bottle washer, dog handler, tutor, pet wrangler, plow pusher, college counselor, community volunteer, Girl Friday and Saturday and so on," there's not much time for Victoria to sit around and chat about household organization strategies.

Finally, at 9 p.m., after a long night at the rink as "hockey mom extraordinaire," after the dogs were watered and fed, and the phone rang three times, we settled in for a short winter's chat.

Ever the gracious hostess, Victoria brought out an elegant chocolate espresso cake with hazelnut butter cream frosting and topped off with espresso bean flakes. Smiling, Victoria announced the cake was freshly baked. Thanks to the Gourmet Garden. She cleared a spot at the dining room table and poured two glasses of homemade raspberry cordial and shared a slice of cake as she shared her story.

"My house is on auto pilot," Victoria said. "My husband piles it, I pile it. Our son Garrett piles it, and when my stepkids visit or my daughter comes home from college, they pile it too. We have crashed and spontaneous combustion has happened.

"Here it is, January15th, my Christmas tree is still up, my house is a fire hazard.

"My days start at six and at midnight I am finishing up the dishes and stacking folded laundry on the couch and I am not the only one in this boat. Most of my friends say that they are dealing with similar pileups. I like to think my tombstone will read 'She was a great laundress.'

"I no longer subscribe to Martha Stewart's magazine. It's just unrealistic, and besides, I like to imagine that she has a tacky overstuffed chair hidden away and overflowing junk drawers."

Victoria has gracefully admitted temporary household defeat, but has resolved to conquer the clutter.

Her reasoning is twofold. With her busy family schedule and with the upcoming fishing season, she does not have time to not be organized and she would like to experience life beyond housekeeping.

Recently an acquaintance remarked to Victoria, "I see you everywhere, where do you live?"

Victoria's response: "In my 1999 Ford Explorer."

The question really got Victoria thinking about her crowded schedule and her crowded home. How was she going to manage it all?

The final confirmation that her clutter needed containment came in the form of a letter from a friend and co- worker.


It has come to my attention that you have a "MINOR OBSESSION" with the saving of containers, both glass and plastic sorts.

I implore you to seek out help for your problem as we simply cannot find any more space to accommodate your "TREASURES." I for one am making a stand and will henceforth dispose of these things in the proper manner.

You must bear in mind that I am only doing this as a concerned friend; I am trying to help you!

Cindy Davis

P.S. I am going to have to refer you to Pack-Rats Anonymous. (For your own good!)

"Boy, she really cleaned things out," Victoria said. "The next day I made an awesome soup stock, and I had no place to store it. Finally, I did find a home for it, and I have worked out just how many containers I really need."

Most folks are quick to share household tidy tips but are reluctant to tell household horror stories publicly. In fact, most folks seem more comfortable airing their dirty laundry on Jerry Springer or coming out of some closet than disclosing the dirt on their home.

Not Victoria, she has bravely admitted her quandary as well as her plan.

A very informal poll reveals that nine out of 10 Alaskans struggle with some form of material mayhem, and my suspicion is that one person, shall I say, underexaggerated?

After a long look around, Victoria paused and stated, "It's only gotten to this point since October. It is the first time in five years that I've worked outside of my home. I'm a type A personality so this is hard for me to deal with. This year I've tried letting things go that were not so important and just focused on now, instead of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

"The thing is that I have a lot of back log. That's the rub. If I just had today's stuff to deal with it I could keep up, but if I catch up, the current stuff will pile up. I do have a pile method that works fairly well for my papers. ... I have four piles: INCOMMING, PAID, TO FILE, and a SCHOOL FILE for Garrett. This prevents stressful mornings searching for that permission slip. My 'to file' pile," Victoria moved her arms outward, as if telling a whopper of a fish story, "well, it still needs filing."

One thing Victoria says really helps is to get rid of the junk mail before it ever lands on her desk.

Victoria's flight plan to organization:

"I have really got to streamline things before fishing season, and I did the math, I cannot afford a housekeeper. So, I am cutting my schedule to four days a week and skipping lunch hours. I'm also taking a week's vacation to get a good head start on my organization.

"My four box method is simple: garage sale box -- nothing goes in the box without a price tag stuck on it -- donation box, garbage box and the find-a-home-for-it box. That is it."

We both ate some more cake and Victoria added, "There has got to be a balance and enough time left over to enjoy a slice of cake."


Costly Clutter

The Catch-22, of course, is that disorganization really costs time, as well as money. It also causes unnecessary stress.

Replacing lost documents or dolling out cash for library fines can get expensive quick. Paying late fees, nonsufficient fund penalties or additional interest for tardy bills can cost hundreds of dollars. Searching for the checkbook, that recently purchased tube of super glue or the latest bank statement can really get crazy!

$ Consider the going cost of a housekeeper -- $15 to $20 an hour. Add up how much is saved by cutting down on cleaning. Not paying a housekeeper and robbing yourself of precious time is no great bargain.

What is your current wage? After eight hours at your job, factor in that you are now on overtime. Then consider how much it really costs to track down that lost item.

Estimates on the value of fulltime domestic help vary and do not include child-care services. The salary could range from $36,000 to $40,000 a year or more. Full-time domestic engineers and household CEOs take note and take heart: Your time and services are valuable.

$ In her book, "Streamlining Your Life," Stephanie Culp reasons that if you pay $1,000 a month for a 1,000-square-foot home and 100 square feet of area is unusable because of clutter, then the storage fee is $100 a month. It doesn't make cents.

$ Stuff is expensive. The initial cost, the cost of storing it and the cost of maintenance really add up to the idea that everything has three price tags. Alice Fulton and Pauline Hatch point out in "It's Here Somewhere": "Almost everything must be maintained in some way." The authors go on to say that it is useful to look at belongings and ask yourself if you really want to pay three times. Often the initial price tag for an item is the smallest.

$ There are hidden costs of clutter, including replacing items because they could not be found, accidents caused directly or indirectly from misplaced belongings and the loss of inner peace, which is a priceless commodity.

Take inventory: Do you own your belongings or do they own you?

The Quiz

Do I need it?

Do I like it?

Do I wear it?

Do I use it? How often?

Do I need 12 _______?

Do I really want to sew, staple, glue, paint, scrub, store or nail it?

Does it add to the value of my life?

What is it?

What not to Donate:

Stained soiled or ripped clothing.

Broken items.

Toys, games or puzzles that have missing pieces or are potentially hazardous.

Use common sense and manners. The idea is to donate, not delegate your trip to the dump.

Keeping it simple

Place four boxes in an accessible area. Label according to the four-box method. Fill boxes regularly. It is much easier to take a box to the dump or a charity than a truckload.

Make a list of legitimate needs. Don't leave home or shop without it.

Final thought

Organization is not an exact science or some magic formula, it is the fine art of letting go and simply living.

Donations: Where, When, What to Bring

ABC Crisis Pregnancy Center: 508 S. Willow St., Kenai. Center hours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Maternity wear, baby items and small children's clothing to size 2 are needed.

Bishop's Attic: 35326 Kenai Spur Highway, Soldotna, 262-5152. Store hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Household and serviceable household goods are needed. At this time, large appliances are not accepted.

Frontier Community Services: Donation bins are located at Big KMart, Bailey's Furniture and the Red Diamond Center. Clothing donations benefit disabled individuals in a variety of ways. For a receipt, call 260-9043.

Kenai Peninsula Food Bank: 33955 Community College Drive, Soldotna, 262-3111. Donations can be made Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gifts of canned, boxed or fresh food, coffee filters, paper plates and plastic ware, egg cartons, seeds and paper or plastic bags are needed.

The food bank regularly constructs birthday bags for needy children. Beanie babies, cake mixes, candles, festive party favors, little surprises and greeting cards are needed for this project.

Love INC: This is a clearinghouse ministry coordinating the efforts of several community churches and agencies. It accepts and will pick up large items such as couches and tables. For more details on donations, call 283-5252.

Kenai and Soldotna libraries: Magazines, books and puzzles are accepted.

New to You Clothing Closet: This is an outreach of the First Baptist Church of Soldotna. For more details on donations, call Joy at 262-0641.

Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church: 225 S. Spruce St., Kenai, 283-4555. Store hours to drop off donations are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and 11a.m. to 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of the month. Clothing and footwear are appreciated. There is a donation receptacle adjacent to "Clothes Quarters" building.

Salvation Army: 405 Overland Ave.. Kenai, 283-4356, or 35125 Spur Highway, Soldotna, 260-5926. Donation receptacles are located outside of both building locations for 24-hour dropoff. Operating hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Anything that is working or wearable is appreciated.

Women's Resource and Crisis Center: 325 S. Spruce St., Kenai, 283-9479. Donations are accepted from 9 a.m to 3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. (Ring the doorbell.) Anything from household goods to blankets, curtains and car seats are appreciated. Call ahead regarding food donations. Due to health regulations, please do not donate stuffed animals.

Keep an open eye and an open mind: Throughout the year many fund-raisers are held for special people or projects. Lightly used goods can be a real hit at an auction or benefit yard sale. Consider having a garage sale and donating proceeds to a favorite charitable cause.

Common Household Diseases And the cure

CLINGONTOITIS: The irrational fear that if you get rid of something you may need it some day. Sufferers may clog up rooms, even entire homes and storage sheds, as they hold tightly to the idea that they may have to repurchase a particular item 14 years from now. Offering cash or garage sale proceeds for the disposal of said items can help clingons let go. Reassure a hostile clingon that separation from their items of affliction will not cause finances travel at warp speed toward final doom if an item some day needs to be replaced. Further reasoning can convince even the most difficult clingtoit warrior to take the cash offer and put it in a fixed rate CD.

SENTIMENTALANOYIA: Feelings of guilt overwhelm individuals when they try and break away from objects associated with the past. Thousands of Americans struggle with this disorder. Symptoms can be reduced by holding thoughtful rituals designed to honorably dispose of items securely attached to heartstrings. Indulging the sentimentally prone with plenty of photo albums and a treasure box will, in most cases, relive the most annoying symptoms. Full recovery is not documented, but many have learned to live a full and productive life long past diagnosis.

DOMESTICEUPHORICOSIS: An extreme state of euphoria experienced when the phone rings and there is more than a crayon to take a message with. Everything has a place, and for the most part, most things are there, and it is Saturday morning!

LOADECTOMY: A painful procedure recommended to relieve stress and reduce confusion.

"I get a big trash big trash can and throw stuff away when it gets to be too much of a hassle. That's what I do with my locker anyway. When I clean out my room, I just throw it out the back door, that is where the trash can is, then me and Brad load up the truck and drive to the dump."

--Michael Meyers, 15, freshman at Skyview High school

Organizing Wisdom:

"It amazes me how well the kids work it out. The girls really get along well. They seem to have figured out how to pick up their own mess. Each girl has her own container of her personal things under the bed, a ... storage container for their make-up and such and the bedrooms have mirrors so they can free up the bathrooms. I'm really, really lucky."

-- Rhonda Giles of Soldotna, mother of 9 girls -- "yours, mine and ours"

"When my kids were growing up my motto was, 'God made doors for a reason.' I did not nag them to keep their rooms clean. They had to keep their junk in their space, not in general family space. Of course, they could not keep food in the rooms. I also pretend we are moving every few years, it really keeps things paired down."

--Helena Moses, office manager at Love INC, mother of three grown children and two grandchildren.

"Once every two weeks I dump all of Sammy's junk out into the middle of her bedroom floor, junk piles, toy box, everything. She's pretty good about it and it's not a big job if I don't allow the mess to pile up. I also try to keep my apartment free of excess. We go together to bring donations to the Salvation Army or Bishop's Attic."

--Cindy Hall, office manager and mother of 6-year-old Sammy

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