Stop Giving (Meaningless) Christmas Gifts


I fully expect some controversy with this article. I may even be likened to Ebenezer Scrooge, that archetype of misers, for daring to write it. Though I don’t relish negative reactions, I believe Joel Waldfogel’s 2009 book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holiday is worthy of inclusion in a discussion of holiday gift giving. (By the way, I am only scratching the surface of this well-written, interesting, and comical book. I recommend a full read.) I promise to also include practical tips outside the scope of this book. My ultimate goal is to lead you to smarter purchases that could decrease clutter, increase the satisfaction of your gift recipients, and even contribute to world well-being. A lofty goal indeed. 

We’ve all given and received non-ideal Christmas gifts. Some of them may have been regifted or donated, and others may still be contributing to the clutter in our homes years later. No one ever intends to give an unwanted gift. Certainly none of us enjoys that awkward moment of publicly unwrapping such a gift. But year after year, those uncomfortable scenes repeat in households everywhere. Can we do better? I believe we can and should. If we’re going to give Christmas gifts (and despite this book’s title, I believe we will), why not strive to do it well?

In the early 90’s, Waldfogel, an economist and college professor, having observed the trend of unwanted gifts responded by doing some research. He surveyed his students about the gifts they had received, how much they valued them, and what the giver had paid. Not surprisingly, he found that gifts others buy for us are usually poorly matched to our preferences and are rarely valued equally to the amount paid. Add to that the fact that many of us go into debt to finance Christmas purchases, and you’ve got a recipe for vast economic waste. This trend isn’t limited to America, and it doesn’t show many signs of slowing. Despite the bleak reality, Waldfogel offers hope. 

“OK, Mr. Smart-Guy economist. They don’t call it the ‘dismal science’ for nothing. Thanks a lot for ruining Christmas. Do you at least have any sage advice?” 

Indeed, he does. Here are some of his suggestions: 

  • The better we know the recipient, the more likely we are to hit the mark on choosing gifts. Since we know our young children so well, of course we should continue giving to them. They expect and love Christmas gifts and would be very disappointed to lose them. 
  • The same applies to close friends and immediate family members if we know their preferences well. If you don’t have to surprise the recipient, a wish list or gift registry can be a lifesaver. 
  • For people you don’t know well, the best hope is for your gift to be as close to cash as possible. Gift cards are a great solution in this situation, especially if you know where the person likes to shop. Ditto on the wish list. 
  • Regarding gift cards: 
    • One problem the author discusses with regard to gift cards is the large number of unused or lost gift cards, resulting in economic loss. The author’s novel solution is a great one. He proposes that stores issue gift cards that at time of expiration, the remaining balance is given to charity. While I don’t think that exists yet, there are many charities that will accept unused or partially used gift cards. 
    • Some companies donate a small percentage of the sale or make a separate donation to charity for every purchased gift card. For example, through the end of 2019, Williams-Sonoma will contribute $5 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for every eGift card purchased with the design featuring artwork by a St. Jude patient. 
    • There are also gift cards such as Charity Choice where the recipient gets to choose the charity that receives the money from the purchase. The author recommends a purchase such as this (or simply a donation to a charity in their name) for recipients that either have everything they want or are very self-disciplined and don’t want to receive gifts. 
    • Although most people like getting a gift card, many people don’t like giving them, claiming they feel too impersonal. One way I recommend to combat this is for the buyer to purchase an item that can be easily exchanged, either online or in a store. In that way, it can function in a similar way to a gift card. 

Following are some of my own additional suggestions: 

  • The more I help people organize and declutter, the more I live by the motto of experiences over things. Giving experiences instead of physical gifts provides the priceless intangibles of time and memories. How about gifts like these: a ticket to a concert, a play, a movie, or other performance; membership to a gym, a zoo, or a museum; money towards a special vacation; contributions to art or music lessons? There are so many great possibilities for thinking outside the (gift) box. 
  • In a similar vein, what if a couple or a group of people decided to spend the money they would have used to purchase gifts to enjoy an experience together? Eric’s extended family still talks about the year we stayed at a cabin together relaxing, talking, and playing games over the holidays. Again, while no one opens any physical gifts in this scenario, everyone enjoys the gift of relaxation and time together, truly gifts that keep on giving with the special memories created. 
  • I love this wonderful idea from a friend. Every Christmas, each member of their extended family chooses a charity and puts the charity’s name into the hat. They draw the charity names out one by one, and the person who entered that charity explains what the charity does and why they chose it. Each person donates a set amount of money, and the last charity drawn wins the pot. When asked about the rationale and effects of this family choice, my friend explained, “It just didn’t make sense to financially overburden extended family members to buy presents for people they only see once or twice a year. Everybody gives a little bit and the gift is compounded with other’s gifts ‘for good’ rather than wasteful gifts that may get re-gifted later. Plus it gives the ‘winning’ family member a chance to explain their charity and why they think it is worthy. It causes us to reflect on our blessings and shifts the focus away from self-centered to community-centered.”

Here’s to a Merry Christmas and better gifting!  


The Declutterer Declutters: What I Learned from my Downsize


My husband Eric and I recently moved from our home in Preston Forest in Kingsport to a downtown loft. While our daughters were living with us, this home was perfect. But when we became empty nesters, we realized we had much more space than needed. So we started discussing what kind of space would best suit our future needs. We wanted a space just big enough for the two of us and occasional guests, but no bigger. We wanted to walk and bike instead of driving as much as possible, and we didn’t want a yard. A downtown loft met all these requirements.

The timing of our downsize correlated almost perfectly with the launch of my organizing business. In the spring of 2016, while still on the fence about starting my business, I listened to the audiobook version of Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I was so inspired that I immediately began the tidying process in our home. It was great preparation for our downsize. Not only that, it would prepare me to help clients declutter and give me experience in using Kondo’s methods. I followed her process exactly and loved every minute of it. We got rid of quite a bit of unneeded belongings. This was Declutter #1

Preparations began in earnest in early 2018. We put our house on the market and began another round of decluttering. Since we knew our new home would be much smaller, we knew that we would have to get rid of a lot. Fortunately, we had two extended family members in need of furniture, so we were able to give them much of our unneeded furniture. Although our daughters didn’t live with us anymore, they still had some items at the house. We told them we would only have room to keep one bin of mementos and a few books for each of them. We went through everything we owned and got rid of even more. This was Declutter #2

When our house finally sold and we began packing, we entered another round of decluttering. We got even more ruthless with each stage, comparing the levels to DEFCON levels. It was amazing how much we were still able to shed in Declutter #3 as we started putting everything into bins and boxes. We had to consider every single item individually and ascertain whether its value was worth the space it would occupy. 

I am sharing the most important lessons I learned because I believe they are applicable to almost everyone. 

It’s never too early to start decluttering.

I believe this advice is true even if you don’t plan on moving soon (or ever)! We started decluttering 2-3 years before we moved. Neither Eric nor I have a bad habit of keeping things unnecessarily. So I really didn’t think we had much clutter. I now wish I had measured the number and/or weight of items we discarded because it was much more than I would have predicted. 

You don’t have to be planning a move in order to declutter like you’re moving. A friend from high school has a very effective annual decluttering practice. In late spring of every year, she and her family walk around the house and look at every item, asking only one question: If we were moving, would this item survive the move? If not, they let it go. I love this technique! 

The best time to declutter is always now. Even if you only followed this one tip, you’d make a great start. Put an empty box in an easily accessible location near your most used rooms in your house. As soon as you see anything that you don’t need, put it in the box. When the box is full, take it to the donation center of your choice. Repeat the process over and over. This practice alone takes very little time but pays huge dividends.  

Getting money from your belongings feels right, but it’s usually not worth the effort. 

We generally donate most items we don’t need, but we occasionally make exceptions. Eric had a jacket from every Apple Worldwide Developer Conference from 2012-2019. He had seen these jackets sell for $200 each on ebay, so he listed them. They didn’t sell as a set, so he listed them individually. They still didn’t sell. 

Often when someone intends to sell something, they don’t even know how, so it sits untouched. Rarely does an item bring the financial reward we think it deserves. You also have to consider the time to price it, take and post photos, respond to queries, and ship it. 

I sometimes made the same excuses as my clients. 

For the most part, I didn’t have much trouble shedding my possessions, but it wasn’t always easy. I found myself saying exactly the same things as my clients say when they struggle in their decluttering efforts. Here are a few phrases that I recall saying during this process: “But ____(special person)___ gave it to me!”, “I worked really hard on that!”, “But I might need it,” and my personal favorite, “But it’s special!” 

When in doubt, err on the side of letting go. 

Eric and I have had some practice living in a space of this size. We took advantage of flexible jobs and our empty nest by living in a different part of the country for one month of 2018 (Bend, Oregon) and 2019 (Missoula, Montana). We rented a small home or loft, taking only a very small amount of clothing, basic toiletries, and a few items for leisure activities. Even then, we ended up having more than we needed. I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed having just a few options as far as clothing. Living with a minimal amount of stuff was very satisfying. 

We need so much less than we think we need! It might be a very eye-opening experience to list your absolute requirements to get by on a daily basis. Then walk around your house and compare what you see with your list. 

Letting go brings freedom. 

I have seen this principle to be true not only personally, but also for my clients. Everything you own requires time to purchase, store, clean, and maintain. In the words of Tyler Durden in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, “The things you own end up owning you.”

After 3 years of decluttering, I have rarely thought twice about anything I let go. Even then, I have no regrets. I love this more simple lifestyle. 


Process Your Paper to Prevent Piles


Now that most communication occurs digitally, you would think paper disorganization would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In my experience, almost every person who struggles with organization of any type also struggles with keeping papers in order. It’s not unusual to find piles of paper throughout the home as well as multiple containers of paper when I visit a client. Without a good system for organizing and maintaining paper, there is little hope of change. The system of paper organization I have used for many years and have helped clients establish is extremely effective. This article gives step by step instructions for implementing this system.

First, you need to understand the difference between active papers and archive papers. Archive papers are usually long-term, don’t need to be consulted often, and are often filed. Examples of archive papers include social security cards, insurance forms, mortgage information, tax files, and birth certificates. Active papers are usually short-term, need to be consulted frequently, and often require action. Examples of active papers include coupons, invitations, receipts, bills, and forms. This system of paper organization is for active papers only. Organizing archive papers is also extremely important but won’t be included in this article.

Gather your household paper 

Gather ALL of the papers around your house. Look everywhere. Paper can hide in unusual places! (drawers, cabinets, family Bible, behind or under furniture, etc.) If you have files of archive paper, don’t include those papers in this step. Put all papers into one container if possible. 

I call this step Paper Palooza. The word palooza is often used for big festivals. It denotes an exaggerated one-time event. If you use this system correctly, you shouldn’t need to complete this step again!

Sort all papers into archive or active

You will need 4 containers: one for recycling or trash, one for shredding, one for archive paper, and one for active paper. Start sorting through the container(s) one paper at a time, dividing into archive or active. As you complete this first simple sort, discard any unneeded paper. Save shredding for later. I have found that using an identity theft prevention roller stamp (about $20 on Amazon) is much quicker than shredding. You can also take advantage of bank free shred days or outsource the shredding to an office supply store.

I am convinced that we don’t need 80-90% of the paper we keep! If you are doing this sort correctly, your recycling container should fill up very quickly. How do you determine whether you need to keep a paper? Here are a few criteria:

  • Does this require action?
    Just because you receive information—even if it’s from your boss—doesn’t mean you need to keep it!
  • Does this exist elsewhere?
    • Finding the same information online is most likely going to be easier than finding this paper later!
    • Library
    • A home file 
    • Book or manual
  • Is this information recent enough to be useful?
    • Information quickly becomes outdated. 
  • Can I identify specific circumstances when I’d use this information?
    • “Just in case” is not good enough! 
    • How likely is it that you will need it? 
  • Are there tax or legal implications?
    • Here’s where “just in case” works. 
    • What is the worst thing that could happen if I did not have it?
  • Does anyone else need this information?

If you end up with only a few archive papers and have a good filing system, go ahead and add these papers. If you have a lot of archive papers, save organizing them for a later time. 

Set Up Your Paper Processing System

Now it’s time to set up your paper processing system. Sort all active papers into categories. Your categories will be determined by your preferences and your life stage. You can choose action words like Pay (bills), Contact (people you need to contact), Complete (forms), File (papers for archives), and Wait (pending items). You can choose any categories that work for you. Other examples include Church, Neighborhood, Upcoming Events, Coupons, etc. You’ll be able to figure out your categories as you go. I like to use Post-It notes or index cards to write down categories as I sort. I will sometimes add, subtract, or combine categories as I go. Group each category (I suggest about 5-10) into a labeled file folder. 

This paper organizing system has two basic critical components: one container and one day a week. 

  1. Keep all active paper into one container. A vertical tabletop file box is ideal. Whatever you use needs to be able to hold 5-10 letter-sized file folders. Don’t use a much larger container because you will be tempted to store papers that don’t belong in it. This container should be kept in an easily accessible area, ideally the room in which papers usually accumulate or the room where you usually work on papers. 
  2. Go through papers one day a week.
    1. Choose one day a week that will be easiest for you to commit 30 minutes to 1 hour. Committing to this one day a week is of paramount importance to maintaining the organization. If you will be traveling that day, take the container with you if possible. If you get behind, catch up as quickly as possible and recommit to one day a week. I can’t stress this point enough. 
    2. On your scheduled day, empty the container completely and go through every paper one at a time. 
      1. For each piece of paper, ask, “Can this wait until next week?”
      2. If no action is needed now but you still need to keep it, replace it into the folder.
      3. If action needs to be taken this week, set the paper aside into a To-Do pile. 
    3. When you have gone through every paper, you should wind up with one To-Do pile for the week, with the rest of the papers back in the container in their proper folders. 
    4. With each paper in the To-Do pile, either act on it now or schedule it. This is an ideal time to plan your weekly schedule. Examples of actions from the week’s To-Do pile: bills (pay), invitation (RSVP, schedule on calendar, schedule gift buying), forms (fill out and mail), errands (schedule), appointment slip (make sure appointment is on the calendar), solicitation for charity donation (pay online or mail check), etc. 

I guarantee that if you set up this system and are diligent with weekly paper processing, you will see a tremendous improvement. Feel free to contact me with questions. If you have more papers than you know what to do with, contact me. I’d love to help you! 


A Recipe for Organizing Your Recipes


In 3 years of professional organizing, I have observed that many clients have a large collection of rarely used cookbooks, hundreds of recipe cards, and countless photocopied or handwritten recipes scattered in multiple locations. This is the perfect timing to write about this topic because my husband Eric and I just finished organizing our own recipes. 

My own recipes weren’t in terrible shape before we started. From a previous organizing attempt a few years ago, I had two binders with dividers for different categories containing recipes on matching cards. It looked great but was neither comprehensive nor sustainable. I also had several rarely used cookbooks, a folder with printed recipes, and lots of disorganized recipes from websites. When it was time to cook, I couldn’t remember where to find the recipe I needed. Often I would just search online for a recipe because it was easier. I decided that I needed one place for all of my recipes. Since we are downsizing and space will be at a premium, we chose an all-digital organizing system. 

I imagine some of you are rolling your eyes already, thinking there’s no way you would choose to go all-digital. Before you disregard that possibility, consider the advantages of using a digital system: 

  • All your recipes in one place 
  • No more valuable space taken up by cookbooks, binders, card boxes, etc.
  • Easily add online recipes
  • Easy sharing of recipes
  • Easy searchability 
  • Access your recipes from anywhere on any device

Here’s a real-life example of how having your recipes organized digitally could benefit you: You’re at the grocery and want to make a particular dish. You don’t remember the recipe’s name, only that it has mango in it. You pull up the app and search with “mango”. Within seconds, you find the recipe, add all ingredients to your grocery list, and begin shopping for those ingredients. 

There are multiple digital solutions for organizing your recipes, including Paprika, BigOven, and Yummly. I have used the app AnyList for years. Upon learning that AnyList also has extensive features for recipe organizing, the choice was easy. As with any choice, each app has its own unique features, advantages, and disadvantages, so you might want to do a little research before choosing. I highly recommend AnyList for ease of use, connecting to your grocery list, ease of sharing, ease of importing recipes from websites, and the ability to add or remove items from your grocery list using your smart home device, such as Amazon Alexa. 

If you’re ready to organize your recipes digitally, here’s a step-by-step plan using the same 3 steps (reduce, arrange, maintain) that I use to organize anything:  

    1. Reduce (discard unnecessary recipes): 
      1. Cookbooks: Find any recipe you routinely use and mark it in some way. Be honest with yourself – if you haven’t looked for other recipes from this book in years, you aren’t likely to in the future either. 
      2. Recipes cards and paper recipes: There is no shortcut; you’ll have to sort through these one at a time. This is good “TV work” as I call it – turn on a mindless Netflix series and quickly sort them, keeping only those that you recognize, have tried before and loved, or that you are drying to try. If you’re doing this correctly, the stack of saved recipes should be much smaller than the discarded ones. 
    2. Arrange (put recipes in order): 
      1. Choose the digital tool you will use, whether it’s AnyList, Paprika, or another, and set up an account. 
      2. Cookbooks: For the recipes you’ve saved from cookbooks, it’s likely you can find them online by searching under the name of the cookbook and recipe. If you’re using AnyList or a tool with easy recipe import, this is a breeze. Sometimes this step requires an additional tool (for example, with AnyList, if you’re using a Mac, you’ll need a free Chrome extension). Once you’ve imported a recipe, you can choose a category (or multiple categories) for the recipe (dessert, salad, bread, etc.). If you can’t find the recipe online, you can enter it manually. Although this is more time-intensive, it doesn’t take as long as you might think. And I promise it will be worth it! After entering all the recipes, donate the cookbooks.
      3. Recipes cards and paper recipes: For those you have saved, unless you know it’s a unique recipe, try searching online first. It may surprise you to learn that Aunt Ginny got “her” famous cinnamon roll recipe from Betty Crocker. If you can’t find it online, enter manually and put it into the appropriate categories.
      4. Online recipes that you’ve saved: This is the easiest category of all. Simply import and categorize only the recipes you recognize, have tried before and loved, or that you are planning to try soon. 
  • Maintain (keep recipes in order):  
    1. When you get a new recipe, simply enter into your digital tool and categorize it as you did the others.
    2. Every once in a while, scan through your recipes and delete any you still haven’t tried, tried but didn’t like, or can’t use anymore because of changes in preference or diet. 

What if you prefer not to go all digital? I still highly recommend that you go through the step of reducing. Then figure out one system for all recipes, whether it’s recipe cards, a binder(s), or files. You can still incorporate cookbooks and online recipes into this system. Include a card or page in the appropriate category with the name of these recipes and where to find them (which cookbook or website). 

I’d love to hear about any recipe organizing success stories or challenges. If you need assistance, I’d love to help you! 


Organizing Your Car



Photo by Kirsi Färm on Unsplash


Most of us spend so much time in our car that it can sometimes seem like a second home! AAA’s most recent American Driving Survey* found that during 2016 and 2017, on average, drivers spent 51 minutes driving approximately 31.5 miles each day, making an average of 2.2 driving trips. That’s a lot of car time! In the summer, this is even more true. Summer vacations and long car rides go hand in hand, not to mention trips back and forth to camp, the pool, picnics, and family reunions. 

Since we spend so much time in our cars, it only makes sense that we would want to keep them neat and organized! This will make your car time more enjoyable, and you’ll be spared the embarrassment of someone hopping into your car for those last minute rides only to be greeted by a disorganized mess. Keeping your car organized will also lead to safer driving conditions. We can all probably recall a time when what we needed while driving was just out of reach. And of course there are a myriad of issues related to cell phone use and driving. Clearly, time spent organizing your car is time well spent.

Just like any area of the home or office, organizing requires a deliberate effort and regular maintenance. I use the same 3 simple steps whether I’m organizing a closet, garage, desk, or car: reduce, arrange, and maintain. This article includes a step by step plan for organizing your car using these 3 steps, including suggestions of helpful items to keep in your car and where to keep them. 

Step 1: Reduce/Declutter

The best way to do this initial decluttering is to take everything out of the car, and only put back in the essentials. Carefully examine each item that you’ve removed. Before replacing, make each item “earn” its spot. Yes, you want to be prepared, but keep it realistic. Don’t forget to declutter the glove compartment, trunk, console, side door pockets, built in ashtrays/small holders, and visor! While you’re at it, be sure to check your spare tire to make sure it’s properly inflated and that you have all the tools necessary for installing it. If you don’t have a lot of time, you can do this several small time segments for different areas (glove compartment, console, front seat area, back seat area, trunk, etc.). 

Your car is NOT a mobile storage cabinet, so don’t use it that way! If you are storing items that need to be delivered somewhere, don’t put them back in the car unless you know you will be able to deliver them in the next couple of days. Put it on your calendar or set a reminder. Keep in mind that what you need to keep in the car changes with each life stage. Think about your family and your lifestyle to make the best decisions. 

Step 2: Arrange 

From the front of the car to the back, here are some ideas for items you might want to keep there and how to best organize them. The glove compartment is a good location for small items. A few items that might be stored here includes:  owner’s manual, proof of car insurance and registration (make the information is current), gloves, emergency contact information (this could come in very handy in case of an accident), small flashlight, tire pressure gauge, first aid kit, fuses for vehicle interior lights, and napkins (you only need to keep a few). 

Other items that are useful in the console and front seat area: drinks and snacks, tissues, hand sanitizer, wipes, car freshener, cosmetic bag with personal care items, spare coins, phone charging cord, notepad and pen, and coupons. 

I cannot overemphasize the need to follow safe practices with your cell phone. Get your driving directions set up before you start driving. If you’re going to be listening to something while you drive, get that set up as well. I love listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks while I drive, but I need to remember to set them up before I drive or to pull over to make adjustments. The safest location for your phone is to keep it out of reach so you won’t touch it while driving. The next best solution is a hands free system (Car Play, bluetooth headset, etc.). Not only will these practices keep you safe, they may also keep you out of trouble. Beginning July 1, drivers could face a fine up to $200 for using their cellphone while driving.* 

In the main car interior, I highly recommend having a trash can, preferably one that is attached, since moving objects can be a hazard in a car. You can also utilize the back of the front seat for entertainment and comfort items for backseat passengers. In the main car interior, I also highly recommend an emergency escape and rescue device. I only found out this tool existed while researching this topic. The original tool is called a Lifehammer and is available on Amazon for around $15. If you are trapped inside your car, the Lifehammer has a tool that can cut the seatbelt and a tool that can easily shatter the windshield so that you can escape. 

The main function of the trunk is to transport items, so don’t keep it filled up all of the time. That being said, there are quite a few items for which the trunk is the best storage area. I recommend some sort of container or trunk organizer for them so that you can remove them quickly if needed. Emergency trunk items might include a spare tire with tools, jumper cables, first aid kit, car fire extinguisher, and LED road flares. 

Other helpful trunk items might include reusable shopping bags, umbrella, scraper, light jacket, portable chairs and blanket (you may want to load on the day you need them), water bottles (although plastic ones may melt with heat). Families with children may need to also include a stroller, extra diaper bag supplies, and extra outfits. Pet owners may also need plastic bags for pet waste and a collapsible pet bowl. 

Step 3: Maintain 

Maintaining organization is always the most difficult part. However, spending a few minutes on a regular basis saves you from spending hours on it later! Commit to taking out trash daily! Adding a small trash can to the garage right beside the door into the house has helped us.  Make it a daily practice when you pull into the garage or driveway to unload the car. Get the family to help. This is an important life skill for children. Reassess your organization occasionally. Assess what’s working or not working, what you need to add or subtract to the car, and make adjustments as necessary.

I hope these tips help you make your car safer and more organized!

Prevent a Cluttered Calendar: Learn to Say ‘No’


Anyone who knows me well might be laughing that I am writing an article about saying “no”. I frequently talk about the need to decline commitments that don’t support my priorities. But honestly, the reality is that I talk a good game, but I often overcommit. I am terrible at saying “no”. My family knows this all too well. I have a “Stop me before I volunteer again” refrigerator magnet that Eric bought me years ago, hoping it would help. I must confess that too often, I don’t heed it.

I believe that organizing our time is the most important organizing we need to do. We all have the same amount of time each day. We all have numerous responsibilities and lead busy lives. The choices we make about how to spend that time are critical. If we don’t make those choices thoughtfully and carefully, we can end up with an overloaded schedule and its resultant stress.

The most important principle in making decisions about our time is to consider our priorities. What is important to you? What are you most passionate about? What kind of legacy do you want to leave? These big life questions require deep contemplation. I realized recently that one of the reasons I stayed constantly busy is that I was avoiding these tough questions. It was easier to just keep going, running from one activity to the next. But my busyness had such an adverse effect on my family and on my emotional health that I was forced to confront these questions. It has been well worth the time I have spent in reflection, and I am getting better at making sensible choices about my time.

I recently watched an interview between writer and life coach Marie Forleo and author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam (watch it on YouTube at Vanderkam has written several bestselling books on time management, including What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast  and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.  During the interview, Vanderkam remarked that we tend to have more trouble saying “no” if the event is several weeks or months away. Because we don’t have as many time commitments that far in advance, it’s as if we think our future self will have a completely clear calendar. Logically we know that by the time that event rolls around, our calendar will be much more full. But for now, it’s far too easy to say “yes”.

Vanderkam gives some excellent advice for viewing future commitments, advising us to ask ourselves if we would say “yes” to this same activity if it were scheduled for tomorrow. It’s very likely we already have plans for tomorrow and would have to reschedule something. If the opportunity was a perfect one, we might be willing to do that. But if it’s something about which we’re indecisive or even reluctant to commit, we wouldn’t consider changing our schedule to include it. If we feel reluctant or indecisive about it now, we will feel the same way about it weeks or months from now. So the best option is to go ahead and say “no” now.

An excerpt from Derek Sivers’ book Anything You Want explains well the reasoning that can help you make rational decisions about upcoming commitments. Sivers asserts that if we can’t give an enthusiastic “yes” to something, our answer should be “no”. If we feel “anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely!’”, then we should say “no”. If we are saying “no” to most things, it frees us up to say “yes” to the things we really want to do. Think about this reasoning every time you’re invited to an event or asked to start a project. If your answer isn’t an enthusiastic “yes”, say “no”.

Obviously there are limits to this strategy. We can’t say “no” to everything we aren’t enthusiastic about. After all, someone has to wash the dishes, do the laundry, and scrub the toilet. And we can’t just say “no” to a task that our boss asks us to do that is in line with our job responsibilities. What I’m referring to in this article are optional activities, ones in which we have free choice.

One of my favorite songs is “Stop This Train” by John Mayer. When my schedule is out of control, these lyrics really hit home:

Stop this train

I want to get off and go home again

I can’t take the speed it’s moving in

I know I can’t

But, honestly, won’t someone stop this train?”

Have you ever felt this way, wishing desperately that someone would just stop the speeding train of your life? Well, I’ve got news for you: You are the only one who controls the speed of the train. We may like to think we are at the mercy of others’ demands on us and that we don’t really have control over our schedule. But our schedule is under our control. Yes, we have some commitments that we can’t change, but we have much more control than we like to think we do.

Armed with deep reflection about your priorities and these pieces of advice, take a look at your calendar and your To Do list. Do you see an activity (or a bunch of them) that don’t align with your priorities? Are there some tasks that you wish you hadn’t said “yes” to? Make some changes now to prevent stress later.

Clearly, we can’t suddenly back out of everything. But there is a big difference between backing out of a commitment to a PTA luncheon next month and deserting your post at Guantanamo. If it’s far enough in advance and you’re not going to leave someone in a difficult position, it’s ok to change your mind.

Make a pledge that starting now, you’re going to be more proactive about how you spend your time. Communicate that decision to your spouse, close friends, and family members. Our personal decisions about the way we spend our time have a huge effect on the people we love. If we’re either too busy or too stressed over our own commitments, we’re not going to be as patient, kind, and giving to our loved ones as we’d like.

Alright my fellow Type-A over-committed friends, are you ready to do some real soul searching? Will you really commit to saying “no” to a few things? Here’s to saying “no” to a few good things so that we can say “yes” to the best things.


How Messy is Your Desk?

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My husband Eric and I are preparing to downsize to a much smaller home. As we are planning what we will take to our new space, we are getting rid of quite a bit of furniture. One of the most difficult pieces of furniture for me to part with so far has been an antique oak spinet desk. It has a cover that unfolds to reveal many small cubby holes and a writing surface that can be pulled out for more workspace. Although I don’t think I ever used the writing surface or the cubby holes very much, I just loved that desk! Come to think of it, I pretty much love all desks. Maybe it’s because I always loved being a student, and desks reminds me of that time in my life.

I’ve been thinking about all of the different types of desks I have used throughout my life and how much desks have evolved in general. Remember those early desks with a cavity in the side for storage, a built in chair, and a wooden writing surface with a groove for your pencil? While it’s true that desks have changed drastically over the years, they are still an essential part of a functional office space. Whether or not your desk is organized can have a huge bearing on how effectively you work. The true measure of an organized desk isn’t just how it looks, but whether or not it is functional for you. Can you find what you need quickly? Do you have adequate space on which to work?

I use the same steps and principles for organizing a desk and an office as I do for any other space. I start by considering how the space is used and by making an overall plan. The next step is to reduce by removing any unneeded item. When decluttering a desk, if you have time, empty out each drawer and sort the contents into categories, either one at a time or all at once. You may be surprised to discover that you have 3 staplers, 5 pairs of scissors, or more pens than you could ever use in a lifetime! This decluttering step includes removing unnecessary paper. Very few of us go through their paper files frequently enough, so you can probably reduce that paper volume quite a bit. You might also consider scanning some or all of the papers you need to keep, either as a backup to the physical paper or so that you can dispose of the physical paper. Get rid of any item that you don’t need or use now. Be ruthless!

Before placing office supplies back into the desk drawers, take a few minutes to consider what items you use frequently. These frequent use items should be placed in an easy to reach location. If your desk is cluttered, you might consider moving items that you use only occasionally to a different location altogether. It is very helpful to separate drawer contents into categories, especially if the items are small, like paper clips or staples. You can use small boxes, bins, baskets, or trays with divided sections. Although trays can be handy, they’re not always the best choice because the number and size of sections may not be well suited to the drawer’s contents.

When it comes to arranging papers, we all have different needs and preferences. Some people, like me, prefer to have a desk surface with very few items on top and everything else hidden away. Keeping important papers in an alphabetized file system in a file drawer works well for this type of person. When I need a particular paper, I can open the drawer and quickly find the appropriate file. Others need to have everything visible, so keeping important papers in a file drawer doesn’t work for them. In their minds, if they can’t see something, they may forget it’s there. For this person, a good solution might be a tabletop vertical file, a tall tabletop organizer with labeled horizontal slots, or wall-mounted trays or files.

Companies like Workspace Interiors, Inc. that provide office furniture and equipment of all kinds argue that the most important piece of furniture in your office isn’t your desk, but your chair. A comfortable chair that is fitted especially for your needs is essential for your work health. If you are comfortable while you work and you have all of the tools you need organized in a way that works perfectly for you, you are a lot more likely to enjoy your work and to perform your job well.

How messy is your desk? If you work in a business that is a member of the Kingsport Chamber and you have a messy desk, you might want to consider entering our Messiest Desk in the Chamber Contest. I am excited to be partnering with Workspace Interiors for this contest. Here is their description of their company and its products and services:

“Workspace Interiors, Inc., the area’s sole Steelcase dealership, is the leading commercial interiors and furnishings company in the northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia regions. Our turn-key services include: Office Furniture including ergonomic and organizational worktools, Commercial Interior Design; Technology, Architectural Solutions, Flooring, Branding, just to name a few. Our expertise extends beyond the corporate world by offering solutions for:  Healthcare; Education (K-12); Higher Ed; Hospitality; Retail Banking; Government/GSA; Legal; Industrial/Manufacturing; Home Office, and Outdoor. With WorkLife Centers conveniently located in Kingsport and Knoxville, our goal is to help you make your job easier. Whether you design work spaces, manage them, or work in them — we’re passionate about creating spaces you love to work in.” (

The winner will receive 1 day of free organizing services from Shipshape Solutions and up to $1,000 value of worktools and ergonomic tools from Workspace Interiors. Our goal is to transform a messy office with suboptimal equipment into an organized and comfortable space that lends itself to efficient work. For details, entry requirements, and an application, visit my website at and look under the Messy Desk Contest tab. Applications will be accepted until the end of May 2019. The contest winner’s project, including before and after pictures, will be featured in an upcoming article, as well as on our social media pages. We can’t wait to help transform one lucky Chamber member’s office!

Spring Cleaning: What Do I Do with This?

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Happy spring, readers! I hope you’ve been able to spend some time outdoors and are enjoying the warmer temperatures and beautiful blooming trees and flowers. Spring is a great time to get outside, but it’s also a great time to declutter and clean! Have you felt the urge to do some spring cleaning?

If you do a thorough job of decluttering, you’ll likely end up with a whole lot of things you don’t need. For most of these items, deciding what to do with them is relatively easy. Those that aren’t worthy of donating may need to be just thrown into the trash or recycling container. Of the items that are in good enough shape to donate, the majority can be taken to the local donation center of your choice. But there are quite a few items that are a little more problematic. You may not be able to simply drop these special items into the trash can or the recycling container. They may require some sort of preparation to properly dispose of them. Some items may not be accepted at donation centers for various reasons. This article provides pointers for these special cases. This list is by no means exhaustive. I couldn’t include every special case or every Tri-Cities location, but this will at least give you some options.

We are fortunate that two special cleanup events are just around the corner! For Kingsport City residents, April 1-12 is the annual spring clean-up service. During this time, you can place extra items on the curb for garbage crews to haul away. Items included in this free service include: appliances, tires (limit of 4, off the rim), furniture, small amounts of building materials, yard debris, mattresses, bagged grass, bagged or loose leaves, brush, and general junk.

For Sullivan County residents, the biannual Sullivan County Hazardous Waste Collection day is on Saturday, May 4th from 9am to 1pm at the Sullivan Central High School parking lot. The following items will be accepted: automotive and marine products (fuel, oil, solvents, fluids, antifreeze), home improvement products (strippers, thinners, adhesives, sealants, tar), lawn and garden products (pesticides, fertilizers) and miscellaneous products (pool chemicals, photo processing chemicals, mercury thermostats and thermometers, fluorescent tubes/bulbs, aerosols).

Paint is not accepted at the Hazardous Waste Collection, but it can be easily disposed of at home with this method: use cat litter or packets of paint hardener to solidify the paint, then simply place the paint cans into the trash. Other items that require special disposal include batteries (can be taken to Batteries Plus or Lowe’s), light bulbs (can be taken to Lowe’s), and plastic bags (can be recycled at Walmart, Food City, or Kroger). Medication (either prescription or over the counter) should not be thrown into the trash can, poured down the drain or flushed in the toilet. Drop boxes for proper disposal are located at the Justice Center in downtown Kingsport and at the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in Blountville.

A few categories of items are more difficult because many donation centers don’t accept them. Baby items such as car seats, strollers, and bouncer seats have strict rules that prevent many organizations from accepting them. They can, however, be accepted at Hope House (maternity home and crisis pregnancy resource center) in Kingsport (call for specific requirements and available space). Household cleaners and personal care items are usually accepted at homeless shelters like Hope Haven Ministries in Kingsport or Oasis (a women’s ministry in Kingsport). Oasis also accepts laundry supplies and donations of pre-packaged snacks and individual microwave frozen meals. Some medical and dental equipment is accepted by Healing Hands Health Center in Bristol, Hope Community Church (multiple locations), and Shepherd Center in Kingsport. Unopened and unexpired medications are accepted at Friends in Need in Kingsport. For the medical supplies, it’s best to call beforehand to make sure they can be accepted. Pet supplies and food and old linens are accepted at animal shelters.

Used electronics are a rapidly increasing form of waste. Of One Accord Ministry accepts donations of working electronics for their thrift store. Goodwill has a program called E-cycle which is dedicated to reusing or recycling computer and other electronic components instead of discarding them. You can also drop off old electronics at the Kingsport Transfer Station.

There are a few items that are accepted at donation centers, but you may want to choose a different destination to benefit a specific group of people. Used working cell phones can be donated to Cell Phones for Soldiers. There are local drop-off locations, or they can be mailed. Prom dresses can be donated to the YWCA in Bristol or Becca’s Closet; these dresses are given to young women who might not be able to afford them. Eyeglasses can be dropped off at many vision centers, including Walmart, LensCrafters in the Fort Henry Mall, and others. They are picked up by Lions Club International, which repairs and cleans them to donate to the needy. New or gently used shoes can be taken to Fleet Feet (given to organizations that benefit the needy locally) or mailed to Soles4Souls (benefit the needy in developing countries). Toy donations can be given to Marine Corps Toys for Tots for distribution (see website for specifics). Old vehicles can be donated to the Make-A-Wish East Tennessee, which benefits children who are facing critical illnesses or to the National Kidney Foundation, which benefits patients with kidney disease.

What if an item is too large for you to deliver for donation, such as appliances, building materials, or furniture? Many organizations will schedule donation pickups, including Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, Good Samaritan Ministries. If you have a trash item too large to put in your trash container, you can call to schedule pickup through the Kingsport Sanitation department. If you have a large amount of items that are mostly junk, there are even companies such as JDog Junk Removal and Hauling that can pick it up, dispose of it properly with minimal distribution to the landfill, and clean up afterwards.

With all of these resources at your disposal, I hope you’re feeling motivated and ready to do some spring cleaning. Feel free to email me with questions or if you would like my help. Decluttering is my specialty!

Happy organizing!


I Love NAPO!


From Thursday, April 4 to Sunday, April 7, Laurie and I were thrilled to meet with hundreds of professional organizers from around the country (and around the world) for the annual convention of NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) in Fort Worth, Texas. What an amazing weekend! I attended presentations on topics as diverse as “From IDEA to Death Cleaning: Swedish Concepts in Organizing”, “Let’s Make a Shidduch” (I bet you’re curious about that one!), “Tech Tools for Writing”, “Branding and Monetizing Your Business”, and “Helping Clients Identify the Value in their Objects” and many more. We discussed tips that work well for our businesses and how to best meet all of our clients’ needs. We ate a lot, laughed at our obsessive tendencies, and enjoyed being with likeminded people. We even danced to 80’s music together! Although organizers tend to be a very serious and focused group that is  passionate about order, we also love to have fun!

NAPO has been invaluable from before I even launched Shipshape Solutions. I have learned so much from not only the conferences, but also the online classes, the daily email and Facebook discussions, online classes, and consulting with other NAPO organizers. NAPO gives me a standard of quality and exemplary ethics in all aspects of my business and gives me all of the tools and encouragement I need to deliver excellent organizing services. I can’t wait to share the ideas I learned at the NAPO conference with my clients.

*By the way, in case you can’t read it, our matching shirts say, “Fill your life with adventures. Have stories to show, not stuff to show.” Laurie and I are passionate about this concept. We have seen our clients enjoy the freedom that can come from living clutter-free, and we want to help more people achieve that goal.

The Myth of Making Money from Collectibles


Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

You can learn a lot about someone by looking at their stuff. While I have always found that to be true of my clients, I am realizing it is also true for my own family. My husband Eric and I are preparing to downsize. We’re closely scrutinizing every item we own. We won’t have nearly as much space (we consider this a positive, not a negative), so we have very strict criteria for deciding what items will survive the move.

In going through our belongings, we have become reacquainted with a few collections. We have decided to let go of most of these collections, either through donating them or selling them. Examples of collections we aren’t keeping include baseball and football cards, trophies, ceramic figurines, coins, yearbooks, and stuffed animals. Each collection represents a stage of our lives, something that brought us joy at the time. None of these items were originally collected for the purpose of earning money. And the few that we did sell definitely didn’t earn much.

In working with clients and talking with people about their belongings, I encounter many people with a large amount of collectibles. Often, they have collected things because they think that at some point, they will be able to make a lot of money from them. But like the stock market, you almost never know the precise time to sell a collectible for a big profit. So you keep them a little longer, thinking they will be “worth something” soon. The reality is that windfall almost never happens.

There are two very different measures of an item’s value. One measure of value is the amount the owner thinks the item is worth This value is influenced by both the amount the owner originally paid for it and their emotional attachment to it. The second measure of value, and the most important one financially, is market value. The market value of an item is the amount someone is willing to pay you for it. Rarely does someone else think your collectible is worth as much as you do. That is partially due to the fact that our emotional attachment causes us to inflate its value. Throw in a lack of research on the item’s real value and a bit of wishful thinking, and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment.

To put it bluntly, no matter how much you think your Beanie Baby collection (with tags!) is worth, any item is worth only what you can get for it. So if you’re counting on selling your collectibles to fund your retirement, I’ve got bad news for you. Those collections probably aren’t worth what you think they are worth. And their value is likely only going to decrease with more time. Not to mention the fact that they are cluttering up your home. Your best choice is probably to go ahead and get rid of them now.

How do you find out how much someone will pay for an item? One simple way is to look at online selling venues like eBay. But don’t just check the regular eBay listings. You need to look at only the average of the sold items (on the left hand side of the screen, scroll down to “Show Only” and check the box next to “Sold Items”). This will show you how much someone actually paid for the item. When I searched eBay to see how much an antique water pitcher and basin is worth, the listed prices ranged from $20 to $750. But when I checked for sold items only, the prices ranged from $3.75 to $99. That’s a big difference! You also need to factor in the amount of time, effort, and expense needed to list and ship the item. In addition to online selling venues like eBay, Craigslist, and Etsy, there are local options like Facebook Marketplace.

What I find so often is that people have every intention of selling items, but they have never taken the time to research their value or to list them. Or they don’t need to try to recoup any money from them and are willing to donate them, but they haven’t done it. So the items continue to clutter up their homes year after year.

Here are just a few common collections that you should consider eliminating from your home:

  1. Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch dolls: With very rare exceptions, these are practically worthless now.
  2. Any items from Franklin Mint: Whether it’s coins, dolls, china, or toys, most anything that is produced as a collectible isn’t rare enough to be a true collectible.  
  3. Hummel and Precious Moments figurines: So many are available now, and the younger generations just aren’t interested in them.
  4. Comic books: Unless they’re really early Superman, Batman, or Marvel comics, they probably aren’t worth much.
  5. Barbie dolls: While there are always exceptions, the vast majority of the Barbie dolls that people have kept are not worth keeping.
  6. Collectible plates like Norman Rockwell aren’t worth much more than $5, and that’s only if they’re pre-1980.
  7. Longaberger baskets: These were hot collectibles in the 1990’s, but since then, the resale market has declined significantly.

*References: “It’s Time to Get Rid of these Worthless Collectibles” on, “10 Collectibles NOT Worth Collecting Anymore” on, and “30 Collectibles that are Now Worthless” on

What if you have items that you believe might bring some cash value, but you don’t have the time or expertise to sell them? You might consider hiring someone. One local resource is Nancy Morrell of A to Z Craigslist Shopping and Sales. Nancy writes, “When I started this business, I had no idea what type items people would bring me to sell. Many items do not bring the kind of money that was even paid for them. When items are brought to me for sale, I take your price and add my fee on top of your price. I take the photos, measurements, and details of your items and list them on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Tri Cities Yard Sales, and Buy, Sell, and Trade. I take the calls and schedule the appointments to show your items. Once sold, I mail you a check.”

Is it time to face the facts about some collections in your home? Yes, it’s disappointing to find out that an item you highly valued isn’t going to bring the return you expected. But I can promise you that finally coming to terms with your clutter reaps huge dividends. Contact me if you need some help bringing more order to your home.

Happy organizing!