Cleaning Up

I’ve never been fastidious. My natural state is somewhere around two loads of laundry on the floor and two days stubble. It’s a sink half-full of dishes, or a lawn just on the overgrown edge of shabby. A car that hasn’t quite reached “write wash me in the window grime” level. But recent events took my house from my comfort zone straight down into filth. I watched as it slowly but surely edged into one of those houses that you’d see on a forum thread or watch on a TV special about compulsive hoarders. There was stuff… everywhere. Every horizontal surface was covered, and if a space was ever cleared, it was to put down yet another object. It was a constantly shifting ocean of junk and it bothered me every time I knocked something off a table or had to move stuff to set down some groceries. The computer room was just a massive dumping ground, every object large enough to not be OK on the dining room table, or ready to be ignored for huge lengths of time was just set on whatever patch of floor was available, slowly encroaching all the way to the door. In order to get to the back, you had to pick your way slowly across the floor from one tiny patch of carpet to the next, occasionally crushing some errant computer part or having your foot stabbed by a screw. And you couldn’t even close the door to hide it.You know that hypothetical question : If your house were on fire what would you save? Turns out you have to be able to get at the items if you want to save them. If your memories or valuables are stuck back in some closet under eighty bags of old clothes, you’re never going to be able to save them. In my house, I wouldn’t even know where to START looking for valuables.

Something had to give.

So I decided to clean it up and organize my life. I figured I should blog this for anybody who has had their space consumed by stuff, because fixing this is very simple, but very hard (much like anything worth doing). I’m calling this the “crap snowball” method (many thanks to JD from Get Rich Slowly who introduced me to the Debt Snowball, which has been one of the best ideas I’ve ever been exposed to).

Here are the basics.

  1. Do one room at a time.
    • If you find stuff in that room that needs to go to another room, just take it to that room, and make no attempt to organize it yet. Just put it in the room and leave it there, go back to the room you’re working on. I usually pick the room that is the “cleanest” to start with, that gives me a quick feeling of progress, and it also gives me a clean room to stage things in for Step 2. Don’t designate a junk room, or use your garage for that. If you’re going to be storing stuff, have a storage area planned.
  2. Clear the slate, don’t do it halfway.
    • Clear everything out of the room you reasonably can. This will get easier with each room you conquer. Clearing the things out of a room makes it much easier to clean the floors and walls, and make sure you didn’t miss some box that was just laying under a bed. If you can’t get everything out, at least take all the stuff that isn’t furniture. Take it all out and put it in your staging area.
  3. Trash, then sorting, then trash again.
    • Take everything that is visibly just junk, and throw it away. I made two large rubbermaid bins my “trash” zone (I ended up with much more than two). One was for garbage, the other was for stuff to give away on Craigslist for scrap. Make these bins larger than you think you’ll need, nothing is lamer than having to stop midway and find another bin.
    • When you have the obvious trash out, start going through your mess one bin or shelf or pile at a time, sifting into piles. Here is an example of me sifting through the computer room. I would take one tub, and begin going through it. If there was anything that was obviously just trash (like an old box or piece of paper) it would go into the trash. If it was some computer thing that I knew I would never use but thought somebody might (like an old ZIP drive or a special SCSI cable), it went into the scrapper bucket. If it was a computer thing I needed and/or wanted, it went into a designated pile on the floor, separated by type. When I got to video game systems, I did the same, sorting them into piles of PS2 stuff, piles of Xbox stuff, piles of Gamecube stuff.
    • When I was done with all the bins, I went to the piles, and this is where I found the non-obvious trash. How many PC power cords do I need? You get a new one with every power supply, so basically you just need enough for the computers you have, anything else that uses that type of cord, and then one or two spares. I did a quick inventory, decided on six, and threw the rest into the scrap bucket. How many 1/8″ male to 1/8″ male audio cables could I possibly need? Two, rest go into the bin. And on down the line, dividing useful objects from worthless ones, and then paring down the number of useful things to a reasonable number. This took a lot of time, but it also gave me a chance to designate stuff to sell. Playstation 2 that hasn’t been plugged in in a year? Sold. Gamecube that I haven’t touched in three years? Given to my sister.
  4. Organize it.
    • This part was surprisingly easy once I had the stuff sorted out by type. I could see exactly how much storage room I needed for each thing, and I could allocate drawer or bin space accordingly. Make sure you label it, because you’ll be back later with more stuff and you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel each time. I just zip tied every cable that needed to be tied, and began putting it away. This was extraordinarily satisfying, and now my stuff is organized in an intuitive, useful way. It lets me look at the items on hand, and decide what I can sell or get rid of without having to muck through anything else. The two shelving units that were once woefully inadequate to hold all the items are now only partially full, and there’s even MORE stuff I can get rid of. This was also a great chance to find things that are broken and get rid of them, I spent some down time testing a stack of 10 hard drives that were being kept around. Nine were broken, so they go into the pile for scrapping (there’s a guy at work who disassembles them to recycle the aluminum bodies).
  5. Rooms, then piles, then rooms again.
    • When you get to the next room, you repeat your piles for the stuff you find in there, taking stuff that goes into other rooms there, to be sorted as a new pile. Don’t go back to that old room yet, keep your focus on the room you’re working now. Finish your trash/piles/trash cycle for this room, make that your priority. Once you’re through this room, then you can go back into those other “completed” rooms and sift through their new piles.

That’s it, in the short strokes. Select a room for cleaning, move EVERYTHING out of it. And then analyze what you want to go back in. It sounds ridiculous that this was so hard for me to figure out in 30 years, but it was as if a light bulb turned on. I finally have a system that has enabled me to take back my house. It’s exhilirating freedom to walk into a room, be able to quickly assess where an item you want is, and go straight to it. It’s a relief to be able to walk in and see my coffee table. If you have a room full of junk, you owe it to yourself to fix it. If you have a house full of junk, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s taken a lot of evenings and weekend hours to get my house back into shape, but now it will only take a few hours a week to _keep_ it in shape.

This is not even mentiontioning the money I made. I sold off old game systems I haven’t touched in years, video cards that won’t even fit in a computer I still own, an old paintball gun I never looked at again after buying, and now I have enough cash for a couple trips to the grocery store, and a night out at the movies. All with the added benefit of having less stuff in my house to clean, store, move, or maintain.

Next stop : The great outdoors.

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