Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to be on the House Keeping for Nerds panel at Arisia. Among my co-panelists were Jennifer Hunter – a professional organizer who also runs the blog “Weird Stuff I Found While Organizing”; Michelle Driscoll; and Shana Fuqua.
My contribution to the panel was to discuss the use of technology to improve organization. I’ve previously posted general notes from the panel. In this post, I hope to provide more details on the products that I mentioned in the panel and to explain my ideas in more detail. The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of my co-panelists or anyone else. That said, I have a much deeper understanding of this material after presenting it at Arisia and I’d like to give credit to both my co-panelists and the audience for their insightful comments and questions.
My strongest technical house keeping recommendation is to buy a Roomba. The Roomba – the robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot — is probably the single best product you can buy to improve the cleanliness of your home. Clean floors are necessary for a place to feel clean but I’ve always found vacuuming to be tedious and I have really appreciated having a Roomba to do it for me. The Roomba isn’t perfect — it’s not quite as good as an expensive upright but it’s generally good enough. It also has the advantage of being able to easily clean under beds and bookshelves which is difficult to do manually.
The Scooba is similar to the Roomba except it washes the floor instead of vacuuming it. It can be a good investment if you have large amounts of tiled spaces. The only downside of the Scooba is that cleaning and emptying it can be a bit of a hassle. The Roomba and Scooba may seem expensive but consider both that value of your time and the cost of hiring a house cleaning service. There are also deals to be had if you’re willing to buy an older or refurbished model.
Plastic Storage Containers
Plastic stackable storage containers are extremely useful. I typically go with Sterilite Clear Storage Boxes which are available from stores like Target as well as on-line. I prefer the clear kind because you can determine the contents without opening the container or having to rely on a label. They are much easier to work with than cardboard boxes. Because of the way the containers stack, 5 containers stacked nested together don’t take up much more space than a single container.
Storage containers come in very handy for emergency cleaning. If you don’t have time to give your apartment a proper cleaning before company arrives, simply throw the cluttering items into a plastic container and then sort through the container at your leisure after your guests leave. Note: I don’t recommend this type of last minute cleaning as a substitute for planning ahead or general organization. This type of approach can cause you to put off the hard decisions about purging and organizing clutter and I fully acknowledge that it’s suboptimal in the long run. However, sometimes emergency cleaning is necessary. An analogous situation is a college all nighter. It’s usually an unfortunate consequence of procrastination and will not give as good results as planning ahead. That being said it’s likely that there will come a time when it’s the only option and the results are usually good enough.
Japanese Screens are a nice tool for organizing and partitioning an apartment. I first used them as a way of dividing a large studio apartment into separate areas giving clear delineation between the living room, bedroom, and office areas. They can also be useful for hiding things that are less pleasant to look at such as hampers, trash, cans and boxes. Essentially Japanese screens can be used to create make shift closets. This is useful in cases where there is a lack of lack closet space or to create a closet equivalent in a more convent location. (My apartment doesn’t have a closet in the bedroom.) Aesthetically, I also like the simple but decorative style of Japanese screens.
Redundant quantities of small item.
I find that a group of identical items takes less mental energy to deal with than a group of similar but different items and that a large group of identical items only takes marginally more mental energy than a single item. You can use this principle to reduce the complexity of your home. For example, I recently standardized on a single to type of dishes and found that it greatly simplified my cupboard organization (see below). You can also take this principle a step further — using the Internet it is possible to cheaply and easily buy large quantities of easily misplaced items. For example, I was able to buy 50 identical nail clippers and 120 identical combs (each set was under $20). The nail clippers are in a small box of only a few cubic inches. When nail clippers are needed, there are always plenty in the box. When nail clippers are found while cleaning the apartment, they can just be returned to the box.
Note: This suggestion was somewhat controversial and it may not work in all circumstances. The important thing about this approach is that the items are small and that there is a place for them. If someone preferred hair brushes to combs, I won’t recommend buying 100 hair brushes.
If you live in an urban environment, space is at a premium. I recommend using space efficient dishes to conserve cupboard space. Corelle dishes look like regular dishes but they are actually made of Vitrelle — a laminated tempered glass — and are very thin. They stack very nicely and only take up around ⅓ of the space of regular dishes. After moving to an apartment with less cupboard space, I gave away my regular dishes and standardized entirely on a single pattern of Corelle dishes. I appreciate both the extra room in my cupboard and the simplicity of a single pattern.
Wall mounted Shelves
It often seems like there’s never enough storage especially if you live in a small apartment. Wall mounted shelves are a great way to reclaim unused space. Wall mounted shelves can be used where book shelves can not such as above counters, sink, desks, furniture. Rubbermaid wall shelves are relatively easy to install if you have the right equipment (hint snap toggle bolts) and can be adjusted easily. Ikea wall shelves are another good option especially if you already have a lot Ikea furniture.
Growing up in a home with a dishwasher, I’ve always found hand washing dishes to be tedious and time consuming. If you live in an apartment without a dishwasher, and also don’t enjoy washing dishes, portable dishwashers can be a life saver. These units attach to the facet and plug into an electrical outlet. There are counter top and free standing dishwashers. I prefer the free standing variety which have wheels and double as a movable kitchen island such as the Kenmore 18″ Portable.
For fans, geeks, and academics, books are both an object of love and a thing of dread. I love reading books, I love having then and seeing them on my shelves but every time I move I dread packing them and schlepping them to my new place. Although no one book is noticeably large, together a library can be overwhelming. For serious bibliophiles, books and their required shelving often take up an unsustainable amount of space. eReaders are a possible solution. Prices have drop dramatically, eBook readers are now below $200 at regular price (less than the cost of a netbook) and can often be found even cheaper. For example, the Barnes and Noble NOOK eReader was recently on sale for $79 via slickdeals).
I purchased the NOOK last fall and really appreciate it’s convenience. (I went with the NOOK but much of what I’ve saying would also apply to the Kindle.) The eInk display is good enough quality that I actually prefer the experience of reading on the NOOK to reading a physical book. I’m now reluctant to acquire new physical books because I know that after I’m done reading them they’ll become another piece of clutter in my apartment.
NOTE: DRM is a significant problem with eBooks. DRM has been extensively discussed elsewhere so I will not attempt to add to the discussion here. However, if you choose to buy a DRMed eBook please be sure you understand its limitations.
Using the Internet to Purge Clutter
Purging is an important though difficult step in organizing. Fortunately, the Internet can help. Craigslist is a great way to get rid of certain types of items. For items such as furniture, which are impractical to ship. it’s probably the only way to go. I’ve also had some luck selling electronics on Craigslist. If you just want to get rid of stuff or if your main concern is that it’s used by somebody who will appreciate it, the ‘Free’ section of Craigslist is a great resource. I’ve posted items to Craigslist as “free to a good home” and then asked those interested say why they felt they could provide a good home. Most free items posted to Craiglist will be claimed very quickly.
Ebay is other way to get rid of things. The big advantage of Ebay is that if your initial price is reasonable, your item will sell and get out of your life. The downside of ebay is the hassle of packing and shipping individual items.
Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) used to be my preferred way of getting rid of books and other mass produced items. The idea behind FBA is that you put your items in a box and mail them to Amazon at which point Amazon lists them on their site and stores them for you until they sell. (You pay for shipping and pay a small storage fee until the item sells.) The big advantage of this approach is that you can get rid of lots of items at once as a batch job. Unfortunately, recent changes to the fee structure mean that small sellers using FBA will actually lose money when selling very low value items. (Basically unless you pay a monthly fee you’re charged an extra commission and cannot offer the same prices as large sellers without losing money on the transaction). FBA is still worth considering if you have books that are selling on Amazon for over $6.
While this blog post is about technology, there are of course time honored low tech ways to get rid of things. For example, donating them to the Salvation Army or Good Will or simply placing them on the side walk with a sign saying “Free’.
Technology is not a panacea but it can make organizing easier. I don’t pretend to be a model of organization and I’m still trying to purge more items. However, my apartment is a functional livable space that I feel comfortable inviting company to. The products and technologies outlined in this post have helped me reach this point.