Beating the Clutter-Creators: Habits and Strategies

There are many de-cluttering schemes out there, and because I live in a small house with a fairly large family, I have gone through many de-cluttering events, from simple tidying to annual cleaning to outright purges. In her book Making Space, Clutter Free, professional organizer Tracy McCubbin gives a clear and logical procedure for doing a massive de-cluttering project, and I won’t try to replicate that here. If you have found yourself crowded out of your workspace (or your whole living space) by clutter, I recommend reading the whole book.

De-cluttering your workspace can present a number of unique challenges, however. Not only must shops have a lot more storage than practically any other space in the house (other than the kitchen), but workshops are always in flux. Materials are always coming in, and (hopefully) finished products are always coming out. Tools get moved around, upgraded, or even replaced. Complicated projects have to be left in pieces, often for weeks, as you make time to work on them here and there. And homeless objects from the rest of the house tend to migrate toward the workspace.

When I have to do a major de-cluttering job in my workspace, here are the steps I normally take to end up with a workspace I can actually use regularly.

1. Schedule it.

De-cluttering doesn’t happen by accident. I’ve done this enough to know that I need to set aside at least a couple hours for even a small de-cluttering job—such as my workbench or one of my wood storage racks.

It is okay to do the work in stages, a little bit at a time. Especially if you find you’ve got a lot of mental clutter-creators to deal with, you’re going to need to start small. But I’ve also found that starting small is just that—a start. Eventually I need to go through everything. So setting aside a whole day or even a long weekend might be more realistic.

2. Come to terms with your mental blocks as you sort.

Recognize when you’re hanging on to junk because of a “someday” that will likely never come, or when you’re unwilling to let something go just because it’s old or you paid a lot for it. Saying these things out loud to yourself can help you sort out what needs to go and what needs to stay: “I’m only holding onto this because it was given to me.” “Keeping this around is not a bargain.” “Realistically, I’m never going to use this.” “I don’t do this kind of work anymore.”

It really helps to have someone else involved, but be careful who you ask for help. You need someone who has a backbone, not an enabler. You need somebody who can encourage you to let go, not somebody who has just as many (or more) mental clutter-creators as you do. Better to do this alone than with someone who enables clutter.

3. Make sure it doesn’t come back.

This is the hard part–but also the most important! It’s one thing to acknowledge you have a problem, which as we all know is the first step toward recovery. But changing mental habits is a much longer process. I am not the person to give general advice on this, but here are a few things I’m doing now that are helping to keep the clutter at bay.

A. Establishing new routines.

I have begun scheduling in time regularly for cleaning and tidying. I know that it takes me about 30 minutes for me to sharpen up my tools, clean them up, put them away, and sweep up my workspace. So if I want to walk away from my workbench at 5:00, that means I have to be driving in my last nail at 4:30. 

I have also realized that I tend to leave tools out for longer than I need to during a project. Now, when I put down a tool, I ask myself if I’m going to pick it up again within the next hour. If the answer is “no,” then I put it away. The time it takes to get it out again is always less than the time it takes to move it around the workbench five times as things pile up around it.

B. Use what I have.

I am trying to plan more of my projects around wood and hardware I already have on hand, even if that means altering the design in little ways to accommodate my materials. I always check my stash of wood and fasteners as I am planning out a project so I don’t end up buying materials I already own.

C. When something comes in, something else goes out.

This has become my rule for saving off-cuts. If my off-cut box is full, and I have an off-cut I want to save, then I have to find another off-cut that goes in the burn bin. In doing so, I have been able to cull wood from my off-cut box that is not actually worth saving, and I have been able to steadily increase the quality of the wood in my off-cut box—making me all the more happy to use it.

In the same way, I’m trying hard not to adopt a vintage tool to restore until I’ve restored the ones I have. This is harder because sometimes vintage tools come at inopportune times, but I’m trying to admit to myself when I’ve got more than I can deal with in the near future.

D. Lead us not into temptation.

Recovering alcoholics don’t go to bars. And I’ve cut down on the number of antique malls I visit. This happened to me gradually, as I came to the point where I had the tools I needed to build the things I wanted to make.

It’s been harder to say “no thanks” to free wood. But I’ve become more and more picky about the quality of logs I salvage. Turning logs into boards takes a lot of time, and I have only so much space to store wood for the year or three it’s going to take to dry.

E. Usable storage, not Studley storage.

We all love the concept of the Studley tool chest, where every tool is lovingly ensconced in a custom-made niche in a compact but ingeniously-arranged space. But Studley was a professional who did a very specific kind of work for which he needed and owned a fairly specialized set of tools.

Most of us are jacks-of-all-trades. We don’t need each tool French-fit into a custom-built niche. A peg in the wall is good enough to hang a handsaw on. A nailed-together box is good enough to store handplanes. Use your vertical and overhead space, too, especially for things you need to access only occasionally. I use old metal tea tins for hardware.

There are plenty of great organizational schemes in the woodworking books and magazines, but don’t go crazy here. You can get ready-made cabinets at the local salvage warehouse. Screw some plywood onto the top of them and you’ve got yourself a chop-saw station. Shop furniture should not be fine furniture.

Time spent doing practical organizing usually pays dividends—you can start a project immediately; you don’t get frustrated looking for things; you don’t avoid the workspace. Just don’t let shop-building deter you from building other things in your shop.

F. Accept that maintenance is necessary.

You will never de-clutter once and for all time. Because clutter is a product of our habits, and because we tend to slip back into our old habits, we will find the clutter coming back sometimes.

That doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everyone makes mistakes. Establishing new habits and routines takes time, and you will have periods of regression. Just don’t give up. Pick your stuff up and try again.

It helps me to schedule annual shop-cleaning days. Mine is over the New Year holiday. Yours might be over Labor Day or 4th of July or even your birthday.

How to Do It: Four Piles

Let’s backtrack a second. I’ve talked about keeping your workspace clutter-free, but what about doing that big clutter-purge for the first time? You may be staring at your cluttered workspace wondering where to start.

You start by picking up one item. Deal with one thing at a time.

I find it helpful to sort things into four categories, or piles. There’s the “keep” pile, the “sell” pile (which means you will keep it temporarily while it’s being posted for sale), the “give” pile, and the “discard” pile.

Here’s what goes in each:

Keep Pile: Things I actually use. Often these are things that I have merely neglected to put away. These are things I have used in the past year, or things that I will realistically use in the coming year. (Hardwood gets a pass here, especially if it’s still drying out.) If I’m going to keep it, where will it live? If it doesn’t have a place to stay when not in use, then either I have to make space or pass it on.

Sell Pile: Things that have demonstrable monetary value. This is NOT the “I’ll eventually sell this” pile, but the “I am taking photos now, writing down specs, and posting it for sale tonight” pile. I seldom do this myself, as I’d rather just give stuff away. Just remember that your goal here is not to maximize profits. You’re trying to move the merchandise, so price it to sell. Give somebody else a great deal on it. Also make sure you have boxes and packing materials if you’re selling online, and that you’re available at reasonable times for meet-ups and pick-ups if you’re selling locally.  

Give Pile: Things that I can’t keep but will be valuable to someone else. This is NOT the “I’m going to give this to somebody someday” pile, or the “I’m dumping my junk on somebody else because I can’t deal with the thought of my stuff being garbage” pile, but the “Tomorrow I’m trucking this over to the Habitat Restore” or “Next weekend I’m hosting the local woodworking club and letting them take whatever they want from the box” pile. These may be common items that are fully functional but don’t have a lot of resale value. Or they may be larger items that would be difficult to ship, or that you just don’t want to go to the trouble of selling.

A lot of people want to give away stuff but don’t know where to send it. We woodworkers are an introverted lot, and while we have a sense that there are a lot of other people out there doing stuff like this, we don’t actually know many of them personally. So here are a few suggestions of places to check with.

  • Local Woodworkers: There’s probably a local association, club, or guild of woodworkers in your area. Search online until you find the closest one.
  • Habitat for Humanity Restore: They generally take both sound lumber (in reasonable lengths) and tools in working condition.
  • Thrift Stores: Many will accept donations of handheld tools, especially small power tools.
  • Local History Museums: This is a long shot, but if you have antique tools in especially good condition, and if the tools have a documentable connection to the locale (i.e. you can prove they were owned/used by a local historic personage), then a museum might be interested in a few of them.
  • Schools: A few years ago, woodshop programs had almost died out in high schools, but they are starting to see a comeback as demand for skilled tradespeople rises. A lot of community colleges and even larger universities have a woodshop, either in the industrial arts program or the fine arts program. (The set builders in the theater department may also need basic power tools, construction-grade lumber, and fasteners–see below.) If the shop program itself doesn’t need the tools, the instructors might know of promising students who could use them.
  • Community Theaters: Every community theater needs to build sets for shows, and nearly all of them have small woodshops attached. Many would be happy to have your spare hardware, fasteners, tools, sheet goods, and construction-grade lumber in good condition–even if it has paint on it. (They are constantly painting and repainting stuff for each new show.) Getting in touch with a community theater can also be a great way to discover other local woodworkers.

But, I repeat, do NOT use the giveaway pile as a way to prevent broken, worn-out, or otherwise non-functioning items from being discarded. In any case, call the organization first to find out what donations they take, and be willing to take “no thanks” for an answer.

Discard Pile: Get yourself some trash cans with bags. (Some people might even need to rent a small dumpster if the clutter has been severe enough.) I find that throwing away the first few things is the hardest, but after a few items it gets easier. Begin with actual garbage, like cardboard boxes, scraps, broken things. That helps you build up momentum. Remind yourself that you are making space for the work you want to do now. It is okay to throw away things you’ve kept for a long time. It is okay to throw away things you were given. It is okay to throw away hardwood off-cuts. It is okay to throw away rusty metal, such as old fasteners, drill bits, and files. It is even okay to throw away things that technically work but don’t work very well. And it is definitely okay to throw away parts for things you don’t even have anymore.

As you discard things, it can be easiest to put everything into one trash bin. But since you’re dealing with a shop, you might want to sub-sort the trash:

  • Recycle Bin: If you only have a little metal, or if it’s impractical to sort it by metal type, then it’s probably not worth the extra time and effort to recycle it. But if you have a lot, or the recycling center is convenient, go right ahead. Just don’t expect to get much money for scrap metal, unless the market is especially hot at the moment. In my area, there are a few guys who regularly collect scrap metal from the curb for extra cash. I just put out my scrap metal at the curb for them to find. Taking it down to the recycling center is more trouble than it’s worth for me, and I can do them a good turn by leaving the metal for them to haul away.
  • Burn Pile: It can also be fun to celebrate your clean shop by roasting some weenies over a bonfire of scrap wood. If you have a safe place to burn, or if there’s a demand for firewood in your area, go ahead and set aside your wood scraps to burn.
  • Trash Can: Most trash is easy to discard; just toss it in the can. There is nothing wrong with putting small pieces of wood right in the trash and sending them to the landfill. Unlike most of the stuff that ends up there there, wood is actually biodegradable. But discarding other kinds of things can be tricky. For old paints and wood finishes, put the cans outside with the lids off until they solidify, and then discard them as solid waste.

As you proceed, the trash pile may become shockingly large, especially after a big purge. That’s okay. Tie up those trash bags and put the lids on the trash cans so you can’t see it anymore. If your local trash pickup can’t take it all, or can’t take it all at once, you might know somebody who has access to a dumpster and wouldn’t mind you depositing a couple bags of trash in it (legally!).

Finally, you have to be willing to move items down the scale. Everything in your Keep Pile might not fit into your shop. Go through it again and see what you might be able to sell. Stuff you post for sale might not get any offers; be willing to give it away instead. Some of your giveaways items might not be wanted; be willing to send them to the recycling center instead.

Remember This Feeling

Once you have purged your clutter by working through your mental clutter-creators, remember how it feels to work in an uncluttered workspace. Remember how it feels to be able to walk right over to the tool you need, take it out, use it, and put it back again—without having to move piles of junk out of the way.

That is how this hobby is supposed to feel. You are supposed to experience feelings of confidence, competence, accomplishment, and maybe even peacefulness and security in your workspace—at least some of the time.

When you start to see the clutter coming back—and you probably will—remember how it feels to have an uncluttered shop. Remember that an uncluttered workspace always feels better than giving in to lines like “I might use it someday” or “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”

So remember, put your things away, let go of things you don’t need, and enjoy working in a clutter-free workspace.

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3 Responses to Beating the Clutter-Creators: Habits and Strategies

  1. Antonio says:

    Simply…. It’s a great blog series!!!

  2. Peter Oster says:

    Cat litter into paint and finish cans make them acceptable to our waste processing site. It needs to be a solid. Its surprising how little cat litter it takes.
    Went out and bought the book on Abe or Thrift Books after your first post. Sometimes I have to hold it over the barrel, close my eyes, let go and not look down and walk QUICKLY away. I’ve pulled too many things out if I look. LOL.

  3. Tim H says:

    This is one of the best de-clutter articles I’ve ever read, thanks for writing it.

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