Monday, January 23, 2012

Column: Ten Tricks for Controlling Clutter (and Don’t Forget “Love is Like Oxygen”) by Karen Albright Lin

With the post Christmas mess and other disorderly belongings crowding me out of my home office, I decided to make a game of utilizing specific strategies for staying on top of the clutter that somehow multiplies exponentially, pushing in on me like a throng of rabid groupies around my computer.  It’s ordinary stuff.  I don’t collect dried white out, 3/4 used candles, or ancient computers—remember when the words flashed only in green or orange?  Those might be tempting, but dumpster diving isn’t my thing.

I’m talking about necessary items to a wife, mother, secretary, professional editor, writer, craftswoman, gift preparer, mail carrier, shopper, message relayer, filer, seamstress, lugger, nurse, florist, entrepreneur, speaker, banker, reader, donator, office supplier, card sender, decorator, and captain of the repository of all things necessary for everything from emergency lighting to party preparation to household necessities and a thousand other things…

The avalanche of objects precious to my hoarder self was making me feel claustrophobic.

Enough stuff to make one hyperventilate.  I couldn’t face the clean-up all at once because I didn’t have the time to devote days to the chore.   I couldn’t throw it all out and start over with a fresh clean study; after all, who would keep the nail polish remover that is devoted to rubbing price stickers off?  Who else but me would volunteer to pay and file the bills and create a nest for photos all the family members and friends have sent over the years?  How crazy would I be to think that my sons would actually keep the spare school supplies in their bedrooms rather than next to my stash of gifts for unexpected celebrations?   Sigh.

I had to improve my environment.  Like a juggler in training, I started with small steps, the easiest ones.

I was born with a clutter gene.  I had a tendency to create great piles of paperwork that resembled the Rocky Mountains just outside the window.  I always had the noble intention of sorting through it all--in a week or so.  But digging through them later took time I couldn’t spare.   I had to break that pattern.   

Solution one:  Develop the habit of immediately filing bills, receipts, medical records, even depressing correspondence such as SASE decline-letters from agents.  No more piles allowed.

There were boxes of every shape and size full of gifts I collected throughout the year and Christmas wrapping paper.  It was January.  I hardly needed to look at that stack for eleven more months. 

Solution two:  We all need exercise, right?   So do aerobic stair stepping by finding a little corner in the basement storage area and climbing up and down repeatedly with loads to stash away in well-marked boxes.  Great!  Four square feet of the study freed up for walking.  Make sure you break into a sloppy sweat so you can skip calisthenics for the day.  No time lost. 

The closet and shelves were filled with vases, sewing kits, packing envelopes, even craft items and Halloween costumes that hadn’t been used since my boys were in elementary school.  I suspect other writers who are spouses and parents relate to this.

Solution three:  Every once in a while there’s this obnoxious craving to visit YouTube and listen to favorite 70’s pop songs.  LOVE IS LIKE OXYGEN?  Pure nostalgia.   Let that wonderfully tacky music be background entertainment as you make piles that you then attack, one at a time, each time you come to your study.  BEFORE you check on those email loops take care of one pile.  Reward yourself after the next pile with a visit to Facebook. 

There are tricks to dealing with each of the piles, even the ones that strike fear into your heart. 

Solution four:  Wrap the vases as if you’re moving, nestle them into labeled boxes, and shove those suckers into the basement storage area (that place becomes very handy and crowded, but it’s out of sight, out of mind).  Hooray!  The march up and down with the boxes qualifies as exercise.

Solution five:  Relocate the sewing kits into the hall closet where the towels, Mylanta, and shampoo can keep them company.  The packing envelopes deserve a spot in stacked egg crates along with other office supplies used regularly. 

Solution six:  Those craft items that promise to keep the grandchildren entertained – once you have them in ten years or so?  Time to let them go.  Donate them to local art teachers (they’ll take anything).  The Halloween costumes?  Come on, the scarecrow garb can be offered to friends with kids.  Besides, recycling feels good.      

My desk was scattered with research materials for articles I plan to write, tomes bookmarked for later reference, works in progress, lotion and Burt’s Bees Lip Balm, batteries that may or may not still have juice, lotion infused Kleenex, a computer bag I hadn’t used in several months and lots of office paraphernalia like tape and scissors.  Most of it would be better out of sight.  Others I’d need easy access to.

Solution seven:  Lotion, lip balm, and Kleenex are allowed on the desk.  But in the corner, not in the work space. 

Solution eight:  Tape and scissors go in the desk drawer--If that is too crowded, take half an hour to listen to your favorite talk radio personality discussing politics while you go through the drawers and find better places for that chaotic junk. 

Solution nine:  Materials for articles in progress, lists of books you want to buy, agent-search spreadsheet, etc.  File them.  Are you unable to find room for them because they are crowded with the bills from Solution One?  Next time you are heading home from the critique group meeting, buy lots of file folders and a huge file cabinet from the Habitat For Humanity thrift store.  Use it.   

Solution ten:  That stack of books?  Tuck them into the bookshelf, duh!  Work in progress?  Put it right in the middle of your now-clear workspace where it’s supposed to be.      

Can you guess what my favorite trick to straighten out my office is?  LOVE IS LIKE OXYGEN, of course. 

So there you have ten ideas.  Do you have any other hints to help control the clutter?  I can always use more.

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. What is it about a home office that makes it a magnet for junk? Mine is always full of things that don't belong there, but are on their way to somewhere else. Problem is, once they land in my office, they never go somewhere else. They stick around.

  2. Thanks Karen, for this post. You seem to have a case of early Spring Fever. Clearing your work space indicates you are about to turnout a bunch of really good writing. I look forward to reading whatever you produce.

    The storage industry has done us a disservice. They have made it more difficult to get rid of stuff instead of cramming it into one of their stylish, stackable boxes or closet systems.

    Two things have helped me to dispose, (or not purchase):

    One is a small art piece that says: "The best collection is happy memories."

    The other is a cartoon of someone in their death bed. A younger person is holding their hand while they say, "I wish I had bought more crap!"

    Now that I've enjoyed Karen's online (reward time?) diversion, it's back to my editing project. Although, I am so tempted for some unknown reason, to clean a file drawer.

  3. Yay Karen! I've just figured out the best thing for #1. (for me) It's a calendar that doubles as a file folder for each month. I have a separate workspace, so there's one calendar for *sniff* rejection letters and another in the kitchen for bills paid and whatever else comes up. When the month ends you just pull the file down, throw it in your filing cabinet and voila! No worries. I love it.

  4. I'm giving away my tendency to hoard, but one suggestion for #8 that is no cost, no fuss, no bother--you just recycle the bottom half of your Velveeta (or some such brand) boxes and use them for drawer dividers as they are empty. I haven't found a drawer they didn't fit and they sure are perfect for the tape, scissors, etc. They seem to fit and hold things better than those expensive dividers made for the purpose. The 'clutter' drawer is gradually getting a whole lot less cluttered.

  5. Speaking of files and calendars, I even keep my old calendar pages...which sometimes proves useful when needing to recall when that last mammogram was or which vacations I should mention in my Christmas letters. Ah always some reason to keep these things.

  6. Karen, I'm a declutterer by nature, and agree with your tips about immediately filing everything, etc. Your post struck a chord, though, since I'm deepening the order with a massive reorganization of a lifetime of photos and memorabilia. I've been trying to get to that for years, but when everything had to be moved out of our cabinets and bookshelves during a frozen/burst pipe calamity, I determined they'd go back in new, much more thought-out order. A great tip from Shelby at ServiceMaster of Boulder, who did our water remediation: store all your photo albums, etc., in plastic bins with clamped lids. to protect from water, etc. And the bins are easy to move (even pick up and run with in a disaster) if necessary.

  7. Timely and topical! Though my office looks pristine right now (do you hear the smugness?). We rearranged the bedrooms in our house over the weekend so my office has a new home. Since the crap-laying-everywhere was boxed up and those boxes are in the closet at the moment, my office is beautiful!

  8. And those rubber bands from newspaper that can't be wasted in the landfill: I use them to fold the bacon package and secure it in three spots with rubber bands. I nest boxes for future mailing to take much less room. Science experiments for the kids like creating crystals can be done in old, scratched tupperware. Old tea cans hold pens and pencils. Paper reem boxes work for filing papers you don't need now - store them in the basement in that now crowded declutter area.


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