by Susan Caplan McCarthy
You might not have a spare room in your home to dedicate as your home office; however, this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to disorganized files and the inability to locate your stapler. You can either set up a corner of a room or a closet as your office space or you can create a portable home office that moves around your home.
The advantage of creating a portable office for your home is that you are dedicating a space for keeping things like pens, scissors, paper clips, staplers, mail that requires action, and files. Your portable office can sit in the corner of a room until you move it where you need it.
While a dedicated office space allows you to keep your computer, printer, current and past files, and office supplies all in one place, a portable home office will consist of a mobile unit and a stabile unit.
How to Set Up a Portable Home Office
Some things to consider when creating a portable home office: do you need to move your files or just your office supplies? How far do you need to move the items?
Create a Command Center for Things You Don’t Need to Move
Whether you use a lap desk, a tackle box-style container, or another type of desk organizer, make certain that you keep all your supplies together – highlighters, pencils and pens, scissors, tape, stapler, paperclips, glue sticks, etc. Also, always park your portable office in the same place when you are finished using it so you can easily locate things like your office supplies when you need them.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Small baskets, boxes, trays, bowls, and bins can help you organize and display small belongings – or, they can become catch-all containers for things you don’t put away (or that you don’t decide where they belong). Chances are, you tossed the item in that basket to give yourself the feeling that you’d done ‘something’ with that item.
However, allowing a basket or bowl to act as a catch-all is giving clutter permission to gather – the very thing that you are working against.
Declutter Your Catch-All Collections
If you are feeling bold, give a quick glance at the jumble contents to look for any money and toss the rest. Feel an obligation to sort through the contents? Follow these steps:
Decide whether you want to keep the containers or not. Keeping them doesn’t mean that you are returning them to use as a catch-all.
Stop the Junk Drawer Mentality
Catch-all containers are like junk drawers. They are filled with items you don’t know where they belong or items that you didn’t take the time to put away.
If you don’t know where to put something – you’ve identified a problem which can allow clutter to accumulate. Decide where things belong – where will you go looking for the item? Where will you use it?
Think about the type of stuff that found its way into the catch-all containers you collected throughout your home. If most of the items were office-related, is it because you go through the mail and pay bills in the kitchen one week and at the dining room table the next because you don’t have (or don’t use) a dedicated office space?
Be strategic about the placement of your catch-all containers. A basket by the door for collecting incoming mail and a bowl for emptying the contents of your pockets can be useful. Just remember to make plans to empty these deliberate catch-all containers every night or once each week so items don’t get out of control.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Next to sentimental items, I think one of the most difficult group of items to declutter are those related to our hobbies and interests. What makes these items so challenging to evaluate with a clear mind? Think about how we talk about our hobbies – I do yoga, I’m a scrapbooker, I golf, I’m into NASCAR, I read science fiction, etc. We identify ourselves by our hobbies and interests.
But, life changes. We may consciously move away from a hobby – you take on new responsibilities at work or you have a baby and your priorities change. Or, we may unconsciously drift away from an interest. The origami club doesn’t meet over the summer and you have a conflict with the September meeting; suddenly, it’s March and you realize you no longer do origami.
Nostalgic Clutter from Hobbies and Interests
Nostalgic clutter belongs to the hobbies and interests you used to have. Again, you may have consciously or unconsciously moved away from these interests. You moved from New Hampshire to Arizona and you took you ski equipment with you, so you’d have it if you went on a ski vacation. But, that hasn’t happened.
This type of clutter is difficult to get rid of because it is connected to our memories and our identity. Gather the supplies and materials from one of these past interests. Take some photos of the items if you wish and spend time reminiscing about the months or years you spent on this activity.
Can you recall how you drifted from this interest? The thoughts may not be happy. You may be sad that you shared this hobby with someone who died or moved away. You may be angry that a change in your health or life meant that you couldn’t enjoy this pastime.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling these emotions. If the emotions feel negative, consider that releasing these hobby items can lighten your heart. You may be thinking that someday you’ll return to this interest and that if you get rid of these items, you’ll regret it. Translate “someday” into a specific date on your calendar.
If you can’t, consider that it is time to release that idea and move forward.
Aspirational Clutter from Dreams and Ideas
Aspirational clutter belongs to the hobbies and interests that you hoped would take hold but never really did. Maybe a friend was so enthusiastic about the class they took on essential oils that you decided to buy a kit with assorted oils. However, you have never taken the time to mix the oils or burn them in a diffuser.
Maybe you wanted to do yoga, or crochet, or lose weight, or decorate cakes, or bake bread, or drink freshly squeezed juice for breakfast. However, although these ideas were appealing, you were never able to carry out the activity enough times to make it a habit or learn enough about the topic to confidently consider it as one of your hobbies.
These items are difficult to let go because you may be thinking about no getting your money’s worth out of the items. However, leaving the items on a shelf or in a box on the floor of your closet doesn’t validate the items’ expense.
You may also still hold the desire to make this hobby your own. Gather up the items from one of these hobbies and consider for how long you’ve owned these items. What has changed about your life since you first thought of making this interest your own? Can you really, truly, say that you still have an interest in this activity? By donating these items, perhaps they will find a use – something you realize won’t happen with you.
Decluttering Hobbies and Interests
Few hobbies have items that stay contained in a single place. Remember to look in your closet and dresser for clothing, accessories, and costuming. Look on your bookshelves for books related to the topic. Have some items made their way into your garage, basement, or attic? Is there artwork, décor, or knickknacks that represent an interest and that you no longer feel a connection to? Do you have bookmarked webpages? Articles you’ve printed from online?
If you know people who engage in this interest, see if they’d like to purchase some of the items you are ready to let go.
By decluttering your nostalgic and aspirational clutter for hobbies you don’t engage in, you are clearing space for new interests and hobbies that reflect your life now.
What experiences have you had with decluttering the items from former hobbies and interests? Comment below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
File things only if you believe you’ll need to refer to the information in the future. If you don’t think you’d need a piece of information in a year, then you don’t need to file it, which means - you don't need to keep it.
There is no right or wrong way to organize your files. If you don’t use the filing system you have (that, maybe, someone else set up for you), then it’s the wrong filing system.
If you are an “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” sort of person, don’t hide your files in file cabinets. Instead consider a milk crate file system or something else that keeps things organize and visible. Many doctors’ offices keep patient files on shelves so that staff look for identification information on the side tab. Would that type of system help you?
If you really hate filing, you might like having a shelf of baskets with very general labels like, “House,” “Car,” “Work,” where you can just toss papers. When the basket is full (or you need to find something), pull down the appropriate basket and look through the box for what you need.
Although color-coding your files sounds super organized, what happens when you run out of green file folders? Anything that would go into that new file now sits in limbo on top of your desk, awaiting your next trip to or order from the office supply store.
Those ‘waiting to receive a file folder’ papers may now encourage other papers to build up (“I’ll just wait for the new file folders and then I’ll file everything at once.”). I’m not saying that color-coding isn’t useful; however, consider if you would really find this beneficial.
If you normally think, “Oh, the receipt for the excise tax on the car is in a yellow folder” or, “The glue sticks are in the second red drawer of the rolling organizer cart,” then color-coding would be a significant organizing tool for you. On the other hand, if you don’t normally locate things in that way, don’t waste your time creating a color-coded file system.
Hanging File Folders
Hanging file folders usually indicate a general topic that is broken down into more specific topics that are organized into file folders.
You know those plastic tabs that you use to label hanging file folders? I remember learning that clear and yellow tabs are much easier to read through than the red, green, or blue plastic tabs.
Move all the tabs so they line up behind one another. According to The Smead Manufacturing Company, your eyes can scan information more quickly this way as opposed to staggering the tabs.
File folders help you break down a general topic, such as Insurance, into more specific topics, such as Car Insurance, House Insurance, Motorcycle Insurance, Health Insurance, etc. When it comes to naming a file, consider what words you use to refer to something in conversation. For example, is it a Car, Auto, Automobile, Vehicle, or Honda?
If you can’t find something because you don’t know what label was used, then you have a filing system fail. Your filing system should allow you to find information with ease.
Always label the folder tab with the contents of the file. Keep it simple, “Electric,” “Kitchen Remodel,” “Flood Insurance.” Off the top of my head, I don’t know the name of the company I have my house insurance through. If I had made a file with that company’s name, it would slow down my retrieval of that information.
If (like me) you hate your handwriting, invest in a label maker which creates a uniform look for your files. Seriously, I got goosebumps when I bought a Dymo LetraTag and labeled my file folders. Soooo neat.
Maintaining Your Files
You can schedule a once-a-year purge where you pull out information that you need for taxes and remove instruction manuals for items you no longer need and pull old policies and so on. Also, when you go into a file to look for some information, sort through the pages and remove anything that you no longer need. Shred or recycle the paper.
Sort through your paper clutter and other type of clutter in your home by joining the free program, A Year of Decluttering. In 2018, you’ll receive daily emails each containing a 15-minute decluttering task. With the start of 2019, the program will be available as a free PDF.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Paper clutter may be one of the most difficult and time-consuming categories of stuff to sort through because paper works its way into your home and then spreads throughout every room. While sorting paper, you want to ask yourself what type of papers have accumulated and consider how that happened (No filing system? No scheduled time to process paperwork each week?).
In most cases, by identifying where the excess paper is coming from, you are taking the first step toward reducing your paper clutter. Do you need to hold onto something for reference or can you go digital? How much paper are you willing to hold onto?
1. Determine When You’ll Sort Papers
If you have piles of papers that you haven’t organized for ages, well, it’s not going to be fun going through everything, However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Use some of the tips below to reduce the amount of paper coming into your house now as opposed to when you’ve gone through old paperwork.
Establish a weekly routine of sorting, filing, recording, and whatever other verbs cover the management of paperwork in your home.
2. OHIO? No!
OHIO stands for Only Handle It Once, a paper management technique that has left some people thinking they couldn’t sort fliers and catalogs from their mail because then they’d be touching envelopes containing bills or invitations that they wouldn’t be ready to handle at that moment.
You don’t have to be this stringent; it isn’t realistic. However, you can be efficient with your paperwork – immediately recycle what isn’t necessary and put the rest in a basket that you’ll deal with at a scheduled time. Deal with the paper and then file it (if necessary). If you find yourself physically holding the same piece of paper over and again, ask, ‘what’s preventing me from finishing with the task related to this piece of paper?’
3. Put a Recycle Bin by the Door
Don’t bring your mail into your home and then put all of it in a basket or on your desk or kitchen counter. Do a quick sort where you toss all obvious junk mail into a recycle bin kept right near your door. This step will take a fraction of a minute and save you from facing down an intimidating stack of mail at the end of the week.
4. Create a Command Center
If you deal with the paperwork associated with multiple members of your family, you may want a central location for incoming paperwork. You could have a main calendar where everybody’s classes, events, meetings, and appointments get recorded.
Have a basket or tray for each person – the stack of birthday party invitations you need to sort through with your son can go in his basket until you have the time to respond to invites. These trays aren’t places to permanently store papers, but to leave them for a week or two until you have the time to act on them.
5. Go Paperless with Bills and Bank Statements
When you receive a paper statement from your bank or utility company, they probably have information printed on both the envelope and the statement directing you to sign up for online mailings. It isn’t difficult to do, and you usually get access to at least a year of past bills or statements without having to call and request this data.
You can pay your bills online and save yourself from mailing out checks.
Here’s the trick – for paperless bills and bank statements to actually eliminate the amount of paper in your home, you can’t print out these statements or bills. If you need the information, look for it online. Unless you need to give someone a copy of a bill or bank statement, keep the data online.
What about old printed bills and bank statements? Unless you need them to back up deductions on your taxes, you probably don’t need them. Check with your accountant or at the least someone at your bank to find out if you need to hold onto this information for any reason.
6. Shred Personal Information
Anything with personal information should get shredded. If you own a paper shredder, use it regularly instead of waiting until you have a tall stack of papers.
Because my parents kept everything (I found their checking statements with returned checks from when they got married in 1964!), I found their social security numbers printed on all sorts of paperwork – including the mailing labels for IRS tax forms. So keep your eye on this is you end up clearing your parents’ or grandparents’ papers.
If you have too much stuff for a home shredder, see if your local office supply company has arrangements with a mobile shredding unit. After burning out two home paper shredders, I discovered that I could bring the two large bins of paper I had to OfficeMax where the papers were put in a locked box awaiting the weekly arrival of a truck that would shred the papers. I paid for this service by the pound and it was less expensive than purchasing another shredder and then taking the time to shred the papers myself.
7. Recycle Magazines and Newspapers
Determine how long you will hold onto past issues. Personally, I figure that a magazine or newspaper should be read and disposed of by the time the next issue comes out. That means put the newspapers in the recycle bin each evening and read those magazines when they come in.
If you find that you have three months of unread back issues from a magazine subscription, consider if it’s time to cancel that subscription; something you can do online using the information on the mailing labels.
8. Purge or Save?
Keep menus from local restaurants in one file folder. If you don’t order from a restaurant, don’t keep the menu. Also, if you can just as easily look up the information online, consider that you don’t even need to keep these paper menus.
Instruction manuals are another item you may not need. If you still have the item and using it is tricky enough to warrant holding onto the directions, keep them in a file or scan and save onto the computer. Before you scan, see if you can find the information online; then, you won’t need the manual at all.
What about warranties? Save them with the item’s receipt until the time passes when you can neither return the item to the store or the limited warranty expires, often days or months after purchase.
9. Transfer Events onto Your Calendar
It really isn’t necessary to hold onto that flier telling you about your child’s concert or the invitation to your niece’s bas mitzvah. If you’ll attend, immediately record the information onto your calendar and then toss the paper.
10. Keep Coupons Accessible
If you use the coupons, keep them organized in a binder or in an accordion-style wallet file organizer. Coupons expire shortly after you clip them, so be prepared to go through them frequently so they get used.
11. Store Paperwork in the Proper Place
Don’t store cards, tickets, and photos that you are holding onto for sentimental reasons in with your everyday paperwork. Keep memorabilia in its own box. Put paperwork like past taxes into “deep storage,” which could really just be its own box that you store in the attic or a closet.
Some situations, like a current legal issue or a big project you are working on, may warrant their own file box or tray until the situation is wrapped up.
My Experience with Too Much Paper
Back in June of 2011, my father was diagnosed with dementia and was moved to assisted living. I was faced with trying to get his social security and pension checks deposited automatically into his checking account (a process he hadn’t trusted), trying to sort out which bank accounts and policies were active, and which were no longer valid, find the title to his car and motorcycle, and so on.
Out of the countless boxes and bags and file drawers of paperwork that were crammed throughout the house, I was able to sort it all down to a single file box of necessary paperwork.
Since I quickly learned that I needed certain documents in hand so doctors, bank personnel, and other people would just talk to me, I sorted the most necessary paperwork into an accordion file folder that I carried everywhere in a tote bag.
When my dad died two-and-a-half years after his diagnosis, closing his estate was fairly simple since by then I’d wrangled his paperwork into order.
The process taught me some essential things about paperwork.
Although sorting old paperwork isn’t easy, keep in mind that most of it can be disposed of after the most cursory of glances. And, you’ll probably be able to get rid of 80% of what you’ve been holding onto.
Sort through your paper clutter and other type of clutter in your home by joining the free program, A Year of Decluttering. In 2018, you’ll receive daily emails each containing a 15-minute decluttering task. With the start of 2019, the program will be available as a free PDF. Sign up today.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
With the end of the school year comes some relief, at least until summer camp or vacation plans start. You may want to hold off going through the school stuff; but, look at it this way, it will be easier to do while your minds are still in school-mode than on some rainy July afternoon.
You don’t have to do this yourself. Involve the kids – they did the work, they can decide what to do with the results. Remember, test papers, book reports, and artwork aren’t your child’s memories of school. When in doubt, scan a paper or take a photograph of an item.
Empty the Backpack – Remove everything from every pocket, then tip the bag upside down so to shake out crumbs and anything that’s been overlooked. Check the condition of the bag – do all the zippers work, can it be used for another year?
Gather All the Papers - Have the kids help you on a scavenger hunt by gathering all the papers from the past school year. Look in their bedrooms, your home office or near your command center/family calendar, the dining table, kitchen counters, or anywhere else papers may have been dropped.
Sort the Papers – You can sort through the papers as you gather them if you have no plans on keeping any of the quizzes or reports your child did over the year. In fact, unless an item represents a turning point in your child’s education (this was the first 100% you got!), it isn’t necessary to hold onto these papers. Instead of holding onto the actual paper, consider scanning it into the computer.
No, when your child is 22 they won’t be devastated to discover you tossed their math quizzes from third grade.
Curate Artwork – I’ll include science projects, dioramas, and poster board displays in this category. Have your child select their favorite 3-to-5 pieces to scan, photograph, or display in their bedroom through the summer. If you have your own favorites, scan them and then turn them into your phone’s wallpaper. Don’t force your favorites on your child.
Curating these pieces helps a child notice that not everything they create has the same value for them. The coloring page done on rainy day recess won’t have involved the same amount of thought and effort as the poster they created for a favorite book that they read.
Release the School Year – If you have an outdoor firepit, you could ceremoniously burn the papers from the previous school year. Let the smoke carry away any bad feelings or frustrations while clearing the way for the new school year.
Even tossing all the papers in the recycling bin creates a clear space for new things in the upcoming year.
Deal with a Child Who Wants to Keep Everything – Instead of asking why they want to keep their stuff, consider asking what they will do with it, which requests a physical plan instead of an emotional response.
Create a compromise. For example, the child can keep everything that fits in a file box. Allow the child to take photographs of anything too large to fit in the box. Don’t just photograph the item but include the child in the image. Explain that the box must be emptied on the eve of the new school year, so the box will be ready for the new grade.
Prepare for Next School Year – For next year, toss all flat papers in a file box or milk crate when it comes into the house (if they can’t be immediately recycled). Have a rotating display of current artwork or highest test scores. When your child comes home with a new piece, they need to decide whether it is nice enough to replace one of the pieces on display.
I’ve heard stories of parents who felt the need to hold onto every spelling quiz and report their children created – entire rooms would be devoted to nothing but warehousing schoolwork. When the parents asked their adult children if they wanted any of this stuff; the adult kids responded that they didn’t know why their parents held onto everything, they didn’t want it.
If you have a difficult time release all this stuff, ask yourself, ‘what do these quizzes, reports, dioramas, and posters represent to me?’ and see if you can better understand why you feel you can’t toss any of this stuff. Remember, these aren’t your or your child’s memories.
Know some other parents who are wondering what to do with all their kids' school papers? Please share this article.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
While you’re decluttering, do you ever pick up an item and say, “Well, I should hold onto this just-in-case I need it someday”? You may feel somewhat virtuous that you are planning to use this item. You are keeping them out of a landfill. You will save money someday because you’ll need the item and you won’t have to go out and purchase them.
You return the item to where you found it.
There are a lot of ways to handle ‘just-in-case’ items.
Gentle Decluttering of Just-in-Case Items
I think one of the trickiest parts of holding onto just-in-case items is that with traditional decluttering questions such as, “do I need this?” or “do I want this?” you can answer, “yes.” Even if you ask, “do I use this?” you may say, “well, I could,” thereby justifying holding onto the item.
So, I’m suggesting that when you encounter an item that you feel you should hold onto ‘just-in-case,’ you ask the question, “what could I use this item for?”
Storing Just-in-Case Items
You don’t have to go out and buy storage bins or boxes; when possible, use those you already own. And, this is a case of where bigger isn’t better. You aren’t going to dump all your just-in-case items in a single bin. If you are going to keep at item, consider why you want to keep it. You are moving that item out of the amorphous ‘maybe’ category and deciding how it could be useful to you.
For storage, think cardboard file box and not 18-gallon bin. In most instances, just-in-case items are smaller items. If you filled a large bin with all these little things, it wouldn’t be easy to find anything in there.
Sort just-in-case items into categories – costumes, craft items, school project stuff. Label the box. Store these boxes together in a resource area. This could be a shelf or two in your garage or a corner of your basement.
If you can’t decide how to categorize an item, consider that even if you needed it five years from now, you wouldn’t be able to find it because you won’t know where to put it. Toss items that defy classification. Otherwise, you are holding onto the item because you don’t want to make a decision; not because you think you can use it.
If You Really Can’t Declutter Just-in-Case Items
By sorting your just-in-case items into a labeled box, you are accomplishing a few things:
Sign up for the free program, A Year of Decluttering, to receive daily emails that help you work through the excess stuff in your life.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Making a change to your home, even for the better, is very emotional. To declutter, you must admit that you have clutter. Admitting you have clutter, forces you to acknowledge that you’ve been holding onto the past, clinging to things you wanted to do but never got around to.
While it may be sad or frustrating to admit that some things haven’t worked out (using the treadmill, knitting a baby layette for your first child – who will be heading off to college in the fall, baking fresh bread every morning), by clearing out these items, you make space for your current life.
Why Am I Decluttering?
Complete the following sentences. Although these prompts are open-ended so that they could be used for any problem you are facing in your life, focus on how you feel about the condition of your home. Why ask these questions?
One, you’ve got a big task ahead of you. If your choice for the evening is binge-watching a show on Netflix or spending two or three hours decluttering, connecting to your emotional reason for wanting to declutter will help you get started and keep you going.
Two, at some point, someone may want to know why you are getting rid of stuff. Maybe you’ve decided that the tchotchke your aunt brought back from Hawaii twenty-seven years ago isn’t important to you; your mother is appalled that you would treat a gift from her sister is such a way. Or, your spouse sees you decluttering your stuff and is worried about what this means.
Answering these questions will help you verbalize the unsettled feeling you have when looking at the clutter in your home.
I wish …
I hope …
I’m angry that …
I’m afraid that …
I’m sad about …
I’m happy about …
You might journal these questions for you whole home or for each room.
Asking the Five Whys
Interested in gaining a bit more insight? Which of these feelings was the strongest? Maybe you wrote more in response to one of the prompts. Maybe your heart raced, or your hand shook as you completed one of the sentences. Explore that feeling by asking, ‘why?’.
Then, look at your answer, and ask why. Look at that response and ask why again. This is called the Five Whys Technique because, in theory, questioning a problem this way allows you to examine cause and effect and get to the root cause of a problem. For example,
I want to declutter the house.
Why? I hate having all this useless stuff around.
Why do I find this stuff useless? It’s a bunch of knickknacks that don’t do anything but collect dust.
Why does everything have to have a function? Okay, it doesn’t. I just think about clearing out my parents’ house and tossing this type of stuff into trash bags.
Why did that bother me? Because while clearing my parents’ house I was seething that they’d been so inconsiderate to leave all this stuff for their kids to deal with. If they didn’t know what to do with the stuff, how was I supposed to know? I don’t want to leave my family with that sort of burden.
Transforming Your Why into What You Want to See in Your Life
Clearing the clutter is not just about releasing what is no longer important to you but also about imagining your life after decluttering. Sometimes, it is easier to know what you don’t want than what you do want from your life. Try the exercise in Envision a Clutter-Free Life to get a sense of what you are working toward.
When you take the time to gain clarity, it can help you focus and give you energy for the task ahead.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.