Are You Captive to Clutter?

GOING  UNDER by Jann Alexander ©2014
Are You Going Under? ©2014 Jann Alexander

Here’s my recipe for getting a grip on your chaos-driven, clutter-filled life.

Busting the crap that drags us down in life is akin to inventing a startup: Get motivated by stoking your desire; determine the steps you’ll have to take; set up your system; tweak your system; mine the successes; and continually assess and readjust. Eventually, declare victory! (Or not.)

Like any recipe, you’ll start by getting your ingredients together first. Then comes the prep, and finally, the method.

Assemble the Ingredients

  • Desire (keep reading, it will come)
  • Industrial-grade paper shredder
  • A large recycle bin
  • A cleared, unoccupied closet shelf
  • A shallow but large and attractive desktop or tabletop box (formerly known as an in box)
  • A free subscription to for your cluttered email
  • A free subscription to Other InBox for your chaotic email
  • A free subscription to Pocket, with its apps, for your saved stuff
  • A free subscription to, with its apps, for your financial clutter
  • The free app for Twitter users, Just Unfollow, for your social media clutter
  • An online storage center you can access from anywhere, like iCloud, Dropbox, etc.
  • A system (coming up, under Method)
  • You still need desire (sorry)

Do the Prep

Summon up your desire: If you don’t have it now, don’t worry. Just keep reading and as soon as something resonates with you, desire will follow. Jump right in anywhere to start. For inspiration, observe the chaos as you look around your cluttered environment, and take some before pictures (like I did, to show the emergency situation I was called in on as a nonprofessional organizer, below).

Before | iPhoneography © 2104 by Jann Alexander
This is you, before: A professional organizer’s dream  ©2104 by Jann Alexander

How to use your industrial-grade paper shredder: You’re going to be shoving handfuls of papers through this thing. Don’t buy a cheap one; you’ll regret it later when you replace it, and the cheap one ends up becoming more clutter.

Start with the ripe fruit: Do a quick scan of your mess, and anything that looks like a credit card offer goes right in your shredder. (There! Doesn’t that give you a sense of accomplishment? You’re already firing those positive-reinforcement synapses.)

Notice any bank statements in your pile? Those go in to the shredder next. Unless you balance your account(s) every month. (You don’t, do you?) Even if you do, you ought to be downloading them from the bank website when necessary, right into Quicken or Quickbooks or Excel or whatever software you use. What?? You still balance them by hand on paper? Don’t worry, they are always available as PDFs online. You can stick with your paper-based method, as long as you’re committed to filing them later; and if you must, you can print them out.

Now you’re wondering, how can you get by without ever balancing your checkbook? Easy. Just ignore it. Since you probably do that already, there’s more useful information coming up in the section below, Use Mint to avoid dealing with bank statements. (If you are jumping ahead to find that section now, come back to this part later, as this entire article has your name all over it.)

Now you’re ready to clear the shelf in your closet. You don’t have such a shelf, do you? Of course not. If you did, you wouldn’t still be reading this. So go ahead, man up, clear a shelf somewhere in or near your office.

You’re going to use this shelf as your holding zone for anything you’re not ready to deal with just yet, but you’re also not ready to let go of just yet. (It’s kind of like dealing with your emotions and compartmentalizing them. If you can do that, you can do this.)

Separating your clutter from your life is like dealing with your emotions and compartmentalizing them. If you can do that, you can do this.

Once you’ve cleared your shelf, put the rest of your clutter on it. You may as well put it in tidy piles (by category), because sooner or later you’ll end up filing some of it, or shopping in some of those catalogs, or calling all those people whose business cards you grabbed at the last networking function. If categorizing doesn’t come naturally to you (you’ll know this if you just go take a quick look at your sock drawer), here are a few examples to show you how to group similar things together, just as you’d put the skim milk next to the whole milk in your refrigerator (you do put all of the milk on the same shelf, don’t you?):

  1. Stack all of the loose papers you intend to file in one pile.
  2. Put all of the magazines you think you’ll read in one stack.
  3. Thumbtack any important event invites to the wall above your shelf.
  4. Stick all of your half-used pens and eraserless pencils in one box.
  5. Put all of your shopping catalogs in their own place.
  6. And so on. Have your industrial-grade paper shredder and your recycle bin handy, in case you get the urge to simply toss out all of those papers you intend to file and those magazines you intend to read, while you’re in the act of filling up your closet shelf.

This is your cleared shelf. And this (right) is your cleared shelf, filled with your clutter.

One last important bit of prep: Set up your subscriptions and download the apps for and Other InBox (if you want to get a grip on your email, too); for Pocket (if you want to save every last thing you see online somewhere, and make yourself feel as though you’ll actually read it sometime in the future); for Mint (more on how to set this up to ease your financial clutter follows); for Just Unfollow (if you use Twitter and feel overwhelmed by it); for iCloud or Dropbox (for saving important items, and allowing you universal access from anywhere).

Now comes the part where you sink or swim.

I love seeing clutter cleared away. It clears it from my view, which is critical to clearing it from my mind, which is critical to freeing up space there to dream and create.


Fine Tune the Method

Setting up a system, any system, is the fun part (for some; and for others, not so much). But if you tweak your system to be your own unique beast, you’ll be more likely to use it. So please, take my suggestions as a jumping-off point. Share some of your own here, too. And get ready to put your preparations in to action—and to start enjoy the clutter-free lifestyle you’ve almost created for yourself.

Tackle the daily-paper-shuffle clutter. 

Put your attractive box in any location other than your office. That’s right, it’s not supposed to go on your desk. Nor should it be on the way in to your office. That’s because this attractive box is your safe landing zone for all incoming crap that you will eventually have to deal with, but just not now. Get in the habit of sorting your mail (if the post office still delivers any to you) at the moment it enters your hands. There are three rules to handling your mail:

  1. If it’s junk you don’t want, it goes right in to your recycle bin.
  2. If it’s junk you do want, it goes right in to your attractive in box.
  3. If it’s urgent, or actionable quite soon, it goes on the very top of the pile in your attractive box. Or you just do it instantly, and get it over with.

Day in, day out, follow these steps as the crap of clutter comes and goes, and feel the power.

Tackle the long-term clutter.

Pair the use of your attractive box with your (formerly unoccupied) closet shelf. For example, there’s no reason to fill up your attractive inbox with your shopping catalogs or magazines when they could neatly stack on your shelf. Until you read them or you are ready to neatly chuck them in the recycling bin.

Every now and then, on no particular set schedule but whenever your shelf gets a bit too full, or your attractive box hits the overflow range, throw things in to your recycle bin. If you haven’t needed them by now, chances are slim that you ever will. If you ever do need some important paper you threw out, you can almost certainly recover a copy of it (this even applies to divorce decrees and credit cards, though not to original, signed and notarized wills).

Your attractive box is filling up.  ©2104 by Jann Alexander
Your attractive box is filling up. ©2104 by Jann Alexander

Tackle the email clutter. 

Use and Other InBox to get a grip on your digital clutter. Each of these free (but worth every penny) email solutions offer you a chance to automatically categorize and sort your non-personal email, and will even unsubscribe for you! That is what is especially miraculous about Using both services in tandem gets a huge grip on your email inbox.

With, you’ll get a daily digest of the emails you’ve chosen to “roll up,” and this works best when you “roll up” only those you really want to scan in your daily summary. Then you can look over them quickly from the one daily email digest sends you, or view them singly on the site, or open any of them in your own browser. Or just tell to unsubscibe—you don’t even need to go to the trouble yourself. Email marketers must hate

Simpler = organized = less clutter.

With Other InBox, your non-personal emails will instantly get sorted into new folders the program creates in your email inbox, like Shopping, Social Networking, Recreation, etc. You have the option to alter how the emails are sorted. You can clear out thousands of never-read MySpace and Best Buy emails in one “delete” action from the box they’re all gathered in. What could be sweeter?

Tackle the mental clutter.

Put your Pocket app to use for saving and tagging. See something online you’d like to save to read later? Just add it to your Pocket. Want to give it a tag like recipe, or Lightroom, or iphoneography? You can create and use tags as you go. Pocket’s familiar little red pocket icon has become ubiquitous as a read-it-later type app, so you’re likely to be given the option to save web articles to it. In action, it’s sweet, with several view and sort modes, and its design is very easy on the eyes. If you’ve tagged stories that you save, you can pull articles up by your categories.

Clearing out the mental clutter is just as important, perhaps even more so, than decluttering all of the rest of the crap that’s cluttering up your life.   


The key to using Pocket, or any other save-it type app, is using just one. When it all resides in one place, you’ve removed the feeling of mental clutter, and the need for continually probing your memory about where you saved something. And clearing out the mental clutter is just as important, perhaps even more so, than decluttering all of the rest of the crap that’s cluttering up your life.

You may actually find yourself launching Pocket regularly, just to look for some good reads, once you get the hang of saving to it. Bonus: Feedly, another free app, makes a nice companion to Pocket if you’re in the habit of following blogs, and enjoy discovering new sites. You can collect them all in Feedly, rather than visiting your WordPress, Blogger and other individual readers. Simpler = organized = less clutter.

Tackle the financial pileup.

Use Mint to avoid dealing with bank statements. This one’s easier than it sounds. Just let your account suck in all of your credit card and banking activity (sigh, yes you do have to set it up by manually entering all of those account numbers, usernames, passwords, etc. So grab your strongest cuppa joe, suck it up, and just do it.)

For the initial setup, this is much easier to do from your laptop than from your phone app. You’ll need to accept pre-determined categories that your earnings and spends will allocate to, or create categories of your own; or let Mint take a stab at sorting them for you later (with occasionally comic results). But once you do this . . . ahh, nirvana! Never open or balance a bank statement again!! Avoid your credit card statements, and let Mint remind you when your payment is due!!

There’s a huge caveat to this: You really do need to keep up with Mint. If you’re able to just take a look at the Mint app each day, or even every other day, to be sure you recognize and approve of your financial activity, you’ll succeed. Bonus: If there’s anything fishy going on, you’ll catch it instantly, and not weeks after your (unopened) statement arrives. Pro-user tip: Don’t log into your Mint app using any public wifi. Just don’t.

Day in, day out, follow just a few of the easy steps as the crap of clutter comes and goes, and feel the power.

Tackle the social media clutter.

If you’re a Twitter user, the free app, Just Unfollow, is a true gift. (If you’re a power user, with many social media accounts to sort, you’ll need to pay for a subscription.) Give the free app a try, and use it sparingly—once a week is enough. You’ll have the opportunity to follow and unfollow with its simple interface, and more importantly, to add those you’re following to lists you’ve already created in Twitter. And if you haven’t yet created any lists, here comes another tip: Make lists to group those you follow, and use them.

The real key to getting a grip on Twitter is to create lists of those you follow. That makes it much cleaner to find tweets you care about from among the 15,982 people you follow, when you’ve sorted them into specific audiences, like, say, UK Pixel Pushers, Southwest US Birders, Apple Fan Boys, etc. Pro-user tip: When using Just Unfollow to add someone to one of your lists, be sure to add her/him to your list first, then click follow. Try it the other way, and you’ll see why I’ve added this tip. Bonus: If you are a serial tweeter, you probably already know about the amazing Buffer app, and how nicely it plays with Feedly. If not, give it a try; it’s another free app that’s worth every penny.

Busting the crap that drags us down in life is akin to inventing a startup: Eventually, you’ll declare victory. (Or not.)

This is you, after.  ©2104 by Jann Alexander
This is you, after. Hopefully. ©2104 by Jann Alexander

Tackle the rest of the accumulated stuff.

Here’s where a cloud storage account comes in handy (iCloud and Dropbox work well for me, but you can use any one you prefer): You can store pretty much anything digital here and forget about it. But at least you’ve got it.

Eventually, your Dropbox will fill up with all of the huge photo and music and video files you’ve stored there, and you’ll be asked to pay for more storage. This is where the hard lesson comes in: You’ll get in the habit of not storing things you don’t really need. If this is the kind of learning style that works best for you, then by all means throw it all in your Dropbox.

Another solution is to use your iCloud or Dropbox to save backups of your most critical files or programs that you access regularly. That’s the real criteria to use for online storage, because you want to be able to get to these files from any iPad or laptop or smartphone that’s handy at the time, and because you can also easily share them as needed.

For the rest of what you think you need to save, there are some great deals at Costco for 2T backup drives that are super-tiny and pack a powerful punch. Bonus: If you’re an Apple user, you’ve got built-in free backup software, Time Machine. Use it. Pro-user tip: If you have lots of huge creative files you’d be screwed to lose, try out a continuous online backup cloud system like Crash Plan or Carbonite. These plans are not free, but which would be worse: paying a nominal fee for a continuous backup plan, or losing all of your laborious photo edits with one iMac meltdown?

As for storing paper clutter online, this is one of my favorite tricks. You can use iCloud or Dropbox to store all of those user manuals that have piled up somewhere . . . now where exactly is that, you’re wondering, when you can’t recall how to change the flash strength on the camera you use intermittently? I fell into this happy solution by accident when the most recent Canon camera I bought came with no manual. Unbelievable!

Turned out a manual was available alright, but online only, as a PDF. Which got me thinking . . . why not download the PDF manual for any product I own, and keep it in the cloud where I can access it from any iDevice, any time? Bonus: If you use an iPad and have the iBooks app loaded, you can choose to save your PDFs right into iBooks. For any new purchase with lots of amazing features, you can get a quick understanding of how it works right from the manual PDF you’ve saved in iBooks. Pro-user tip: Now that you’re getting the hang of this paper-clutter-cutting thing, why not just unsubscribe to all of those snail mail magazines and newspapers and resubscribe to them online, where you can read them all on your iPad—and eek out some extra space on your closet shelf where they’ve landed?

Now’s a great time to take your after pictures. And to savor your victory.

Freedom! My clutter-free studio by Jann Alexander ©2014
Freedom! My clutter-free studio  ©2014 Jann Alexander

When you slip, and you will slip, no worries. Your system is there, it’s set up, all you need to do is make some adjustments and then get right back in to your system.

So . . . this is my system, and I’m sticking to it.

Not. It’s a great system for me, that has evolved rather than been dreamed up in one fell swoop, just like any great start-up would. And when I slip, and I do slip, no worries. My system is there, it’s set up, all I need to do is make some adjustments and then get right back in to my system.

Nonetheless, it does require tweaking and adapting and adjusting over time. Which I’m game for . . . because I love seeing clutter cleared away. It clears it from my view, which is critical to clearing it from my mind, which is critical to freeing up space there to dream and create.


What do you do to clear the clutter out?

Have I stoked your desire to unclutter your crap? Let me know your reactions, and some of your own solutions, in the comments. When I’m not reorganizing photographs, I’m making them. Take a look HERE

My inspiration for writing this came from the reactions I got to this piece: “Are There Any Advantages to Being Disorganized?” and have stoked another idea for an upcoming piece, Get a Grip on Your Photo Library. Which I’m continually working on here at my blog, Pairings :: Art + What Goes With It.

Click Here to get your free monthly digest of Popular Pairings.

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19 thoughts on “Are You Captive to Clutter?

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  1. Great tips at a timely period—I have just finished clearing my clothes closets and drawers and plan to start on my desk tomorrow. The email apps are new to me and I will check them out.

    Congratulations on your personal victory over clutter. From the before and after photos it looks like you are ready for Better Homes & Gardens to start documenting your house.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to know that you’ve been helped by this, Allan, thank you for commenting. Timing is everything, isn’t it? However, I must hasten to explain that the before and after photographs were not from my own home. I was called in for some nonprofessional assistance to the home of a dear one whose hoarding had gone a bit too far. Maybe I will make that a bit more clear in the captions. Luckily my natural tendency is towards carefully-ministered clutter! Let me know what you think about and Other InBox–hope they help.


      1. I looked at the email apps and balked at giving them my iCloud password. My plan is to do a manual cleanup as stuff I no longer care about rolls in.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, yeah, in that first photo I would want to get a huge can and just sweep everything into it to take out to the dumpster. Good you are a controlled person. Great apps for the online clutter! I’ll be looking in to those.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your great tips, Jann. I am going to check out the apps you mention. Also, I’d recommend Dashlane to store all of your passwords, credit cards, ss#, all of those pesky things you can’t keep track of and need at a your fingertips. This app saves me hours per month.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great suggestion for the password app. I’m not familiar with Dashlane, and am now committed to Last Pass (since the setup is such a process) but every day I thank my lucky stars for that app. And now on my iPhone, Last Pass allows me to log in by my fingerprint! Sweet indeed. I hope the other apps are beneficial, will you update me when you’ve test-driven them? Appreciate the feedback very much.


  4. Groan. At least you showed your cluttered desk office/studio. I had to giggle my workplace was a fundraising white elephant sale where over 50 employees donated unwanted belongings sale. There are 300+ employees in our division (out of 14,000 employees. I work for govn’t.) They made $700.00 in 1 day!!

    There’s a pent-up demand for garage sales!

    My clutter though not as voluminous…but that’s only because my belongings are spread out over 2 cities. Yea.

    So my life means very slowy decluttering. I don’t want to receive any knickknack gifts anymore. I don’t even know where to store my artwork..

    Merry Christmas. 😀 Stay clean. Which means I should clean the bathroom..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heavens! If you think that pano of the cluttered office is mine, then I’ve misled you. Full disclosure: I photographed the before condition of a relative’s home, then cleaned it up and tried to instill my advice with him. Progress so far? My advice went unheeded and the disaster has returned.

      The possessions I hang on to are family treasures, mementoes, inherited photographs, photo books, journals, decades of Kodachrome slides and art supplies (of which I have volumes). I’m lucky to have a large walkin art closet for all of that.

      Paring down is a constant with me, too, especially unneeded paperwork which takes up space anx requires filing! Filing: big dread. Thanks for your comments and have an uncluttered Christmas!


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