Taming Your Basement (as seen in the June issue of the Glebe report)

Dear Martha,

Our basement is literally chockablock with stuff. We have multiple bins of baby clothes down there (and our “kids” no longer live here). We also have more suitcases than we’ll ever need, more tools than we’ll ever use and inherited china that has not entertained anyone since it arrived over a decade ago. I know we need to do something about our basement, but I am so overwhelmed. I have no idea where to start or even what to do with all the items we no longer want. Can you help?

– Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

You are not alone. Basements are one of the key areas in a home where organization goes to die. It’s usually where we keep items we’re just not ready to part with, like baby clothes and other keepsakes. Problem is, items that are not seen regularly are forgotten – out of sight, out of mind. That’s complicated by inaccurate bin labelling and, in many cases, lack of any labelling, which leaves you with mystery bins.

The best approach is to open the bins and take stock of what’s inside. Commit to bringing up a few bins each Saturday and take a look through them while sipping your morning coffee. Not only will you have a wonderful walk down memory lane, but you may also realize you are now ready to pare down the baby clothes and other keepsakes. Keep only those items that evoke the strongest memories. As Ruth Soukup says in her book, Unstuffed – Decluttering Your Home, Mind and Soul, “if everything is special, then nothing is. Let go of the guilt.”

In addition to purging, reorganize the pared-down items more efficiently (i.e. maximum one keepsake bin for each family member) and label them accordingly. No need for any fancy labelling machines. Remember that simple organizing systems and solutions are always the best ones. A roll of masking tape and a Sharpie will serve you well.

For suitcases, I recommend the “Russian nesting doll approach.” Keep three suitcases per family member (preferably only for those currently living in your home). I recommend a large wheeled one, a small wheeled one and a medium sized day bag/backpack. Place the smaller luggage inside the larger luggage, like Russian dolls. If you no longer need some of your luggage, take a photo and measurements and put it on a Buy Nothing online group.

Regarding tools, I can almost guarantee you’ll save time and effort the next time you need a tool if you donate some that you never or rarely use. You will no longer be digging through a variety of screwdrivers just to find the one that you use 90 per cent of the time. By donating excess tools to an organization like Habitat For Humanity’s ReStore program, you’ll be giving them a useful second life.

As for inherited china, unpack it and use it. As Erma Bombeck wrote in her infamous 1979 “If I Had My Life To Live Over” column, use items that are important to you. “I would have burned the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored,” she wrote. Take a good look at all your “good china” and ask if it evokes positive memories. If so, why not use this china as your everyday tableware? Or keep a couple of key items, like a sugar and cream set, and donate the rest to local refugee committees who help set up homes for new arrivals in Canada.

Whatever your clutter, the key is always no waste. No wasted time looking for items, no wasted rooms taken up by unused items, no wasted items in landfills and no wasted days. Just being alive is cause for celebration and thanks. Use the good china and celebrate every day that ends in ‘y’.



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Neighbours of the Glebe -May Issue

For so many of us there has been unparalleled change over the last year; some of it good and some of it not so good.  As a family we were only just getting our footing back after recovering from some big losses when the pandemic hit.   The passing of Mike’s father, my mother and brother all within a few short years left big holes in our hearts and palpable gaps in our lives.  And like so many others we also felt the horrible sting of confinement when our brother in law died unexpectedly in Newfoundland and we could not be there to grieve with family and to honour his life.   

We have spent much of COVID doubling down as a family.  We have kept close.  Very close.  Very scared.  We have zealously protected our family as the thought of one of us going alone into hospital is unimaginable.  

And now one year later with vaccines for all imminent, there is finally hope. And yet, our post-pandemic reality brings with it other anxieties and worries.  How can we alter the future of our planet so that it is healthier and our communities are more connected?  What will our ‘new normal’ look like?  How will we move forward as a society?  How will we recover with so much job loss, so much unemployment and so many industries decimated?   

We are all excited to live in an unmasked, hug-friendly world again but we’re all coming into it as different people now.  We’ve had a long while to take stock of our lives and to think about our ‘reset button’.  We are excited to move forward, blessed to still be here but we recognize that we have been impacted by the pandemic and we want to move forward with a new sense of purpose and intention. 

The younger generation like our daughters have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic in general and the required isolation in particular.  When the schools closed last March our daughter, Meagan, who had been working part time at the Wild Oat, was graduating from Canterbury’s fine arts program.  Sadly her grade 12 lost all of their well-deserved celebrations that would have brought closure to a formidable high school experience.  The prospect of university residence in the fall of 2020 buoyed her spirits.  But by late summer that dream was sunk when residences were closed and our deposit was returned.  

Like the parents of other university students we grappled with the weight of wondering at what cost we let the pandemic determine the mental and emotional well-being of our children. In the end we decided that Meagan needed a university experience so with mixed emotion, we rented her an apartment in downtown Montreal so that she and her good friend could have some semblance of autonomy while attending Concordia’s Fine Arts and Design program virtually.  We have no regrets and she has blossomed from this tip of the iceberg encounter with university life. 

Our daughter, Emma, in Grade 10 at Glebe Collegiate has also been impacted by the pandemic and like so many other high school students she has had to juggle her days between school online and in person.   And she’s had to become accustomed to only seeing friends either online or outdoors.  The great thing about youth though is their resilience and through it all Emma has grown and adapted.  Knowing where her strengths lay, Emma recently took on the role of Room2Breathe’s social media manager and her support and computer savvy have been a welcome addition to our growing team. 

Supporting each other became paramount for Mike and I too as we were now together day in and day out, working side by side in our home office.   While my career of 31 years was rapidly dissolving, Mike’s career became more relevant and urgent than ever before.  

With planes grounded and new legislation surrounding the closure of our nation’s borders, 

Mike’s work as a senior consultant on contract with the federal government required long hours and many virtual meetings.

On the other side of the career pendulum, my long standing career in the promotional products industry came to an abrupt halt when the schools closed and conferences, conventions, trade shows, AGM’s and golf tournaments were nixed resulting in clients cancelling orders. 

Fast forward a few months and after much soul-searching I decided to follow my passion for organizing and decluttering and started my company, Room2Breathe.  Although commencing any company during lockdown seemed perilous, it was the only option that kept calling to me so I took a leap of faith and happily have never looked back.  And certainly ‘Covid confinement’ has made many realize how much ‘stuff’ they have so that’s certainly kept us busy.

We are a family that likes to be kept busy so living in the Glebe has been an amazing experience.with the Rideau Canal close by and skating, running, walking and biking right on our doorstep.  

Mike and I were both raised in close knit neighbourhoods with Mike coming from Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and me from Montreal West and we wanted that experience for Meagan and Emma.  And certainly we’ve gotten that in spades from the schools and community center to Brown’s Inlet block parties and outstanding neighbours. 

Interestingly enough it was at the Glebe Running Room that Mike and I first met so it’s even more special for us to live in this exceptional area of Ottawa. 

There have been many dark moments during Covid but one of the bright spots has been running into friends out walking and enjoying the beauty that surrounds us in this community we now call home.  



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My COVID Career Change

“The purpose of life is to live it.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

My COVID career change was not so much a leap of faith as it was a good hard shove out of one career and into another.

The day schools closed last March was the beginning of the end of my long career in the promotional products industry. Over the next couple of months, as all conventions, conferences, trade shows, AGMs, golf tournaments and gatherings were cancelled, a huge segment of my business went completely flat. Completely changing gears was not an option but a must.

As it turned out, my catalyst for change came in a book that I was re-reading. The book was called What Colour Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles. As I followed along with the exercises, the penny dropped and I awakened to the realization that my next career would involve organizing and decluttering.

Organizing and decluttering has been a lifelong love of mine. Books, shows and magazine articles on the subject of home design or organizing and any related before-and-after photos have always been my “go to” for unwinding and enjoyment. I am more relaxed, more creative and more in control in rooms that have a calm orderliness to them.

Turns out, though, that organizing and decluttering is a skill and we all have different skill sets. The same way I don’t have a natural affinity for languages, others are not successful with organizing and decluttering. No shame there. Just different strokes for different folks.

When it occurred to me that I could help people who didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to organize and declutter, I reached out to some friends and offered them pro bono work in return for their honest appraisal of my value in this area. Happily, I got an enthusiastic thumbs up and so with equal parts elation and trepidation, Room2Breathe Organizing & Decluttering was born.

Unencumbered by the weight of clutter and unfinished projects, people can be more productive, creative and calm in their safe haven. Purging the “stuff” that no longer owes us anything is liberating and we grow when we are not fenced in or weighed down by our things. By creating space, we have room to breathe and possibility is once again within reach perhaps in the form of a new library or craft room where once resided only dusty boxes and an unused desk. Maybe while decluttering, you unearth your travel journals and a European trip is once again beckoning.

For my part, when I “let go” of the familiarity and dependability of my 31-year career and stepped into uncharted territory to pursue my organizing and decluttering passion, I never would have imagined how closing one door would have opened up another that has completed me, fulfilled me and empowered me to be the very best version of myself. As Maria Shriver writes, “Choose you, and when you do, know that you’ve made the best choice you can make.”



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Decluttering to Downsize: by Martha Tobin

It’s never more obvious how much stuff we have until it’s time to move. As Donna Smallin writes in her book, Clear the Clutter, Find Happiness, “Clutter is what you end up with when you have more stuff than you need”.
Although daunting, decluttering to sell is a priority for several reasons:
-It creates space and buyers pay a premium for space.
-Too many personal effects become a distraction for the buyer.
-A decluttered home is easier to sell than a home that is packed to the gills.
-With home sales you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
-Buyers these days are looking for ‘move in ready’ conditions

Below are steps to keep in mind for decluttering to downsize:
Start early; by starting early you reduce the stress of being rushed at the time of your move
See yourself in your space: Consider what your lifestyle will be like in your new home/residence. Think about what you’ll need there (i.e lawn mower, full dining room set)
Plan your new space: create a floor plan of your new space so you can visualize the rooms and what you hope to put in them
Declutter one room at a time: start first with your least used room and then move on to the other least used rooms.
Sort all items in each room into these categories: Keep-Use Now, Keep-For New Place, and Items to Purge.
For items you want to purge you have a number of options:
-Yard sales
-Online Community marketplaces
-Consignment and second hand stores
-Estate sale/auction companies.
-GIVE SHOP app: online marketplace with proceeds directed to local charities of your choice (i.e. CHEO, Humane society, The Mission etc.)
-Donations: allows you to donate items that ‘no longer owe you anything’ so that they can have a second life with someone who needs them (i.e. old electronics to Compucorps, linens, appliances to Refugee groups, toys to Boys and Girls club, etc.)
-Green disposal of items: stores like Best Buy, Lowes, Staples etc. accept back batteries, paint, lightbulbs, electronics, print cartridges, Pharmacies accept back old medication.
-Trash: last resort for purging your items.

Remember to clear out closets: Buyers will look inside cupboards and closets to ensure there is adequate space for their ‘stuff’ so the less clutter, the better.
Declutter and organize the garage: Buyers want to know they can park their car(s) in this space so purge what you can and move items to the side so that they can visualize this.
Declutter and organize the basement: even if your basement is unfinished, ensure items are neatly stored along the sides so that the buyer can envision what they can do with the space.
Create a moving binder: A moving binder is a great strategy for staying organized during a move and keeps all moving related items and tasks in one easy-to-find place (i.e checklists, receipts, utility company paperwork, etc)
Number each box: as you pack your boxes, make a list of what each box contains. Assign a number to each box. This will help you keep track of your belongings and will help with locating your items upon arriving at your new home.

Decluttering is physically and emotionally exhausting and can be very overwhelming. Depending on the amount of time you have before you move, the time and energy you want to devote to the task or even your age and level of physical ability, you may want to enlist some help. Family and friends can pitch in but as well you may want to look into hiring outside professional help so that they can set up a plan and keep the entire process moving towards your move deadline. As well they often have a team of experts available for any maintenance you require (ie. repairs, painting, landscaping etc.).

Whether you are moving soon or you just realize that you don’t want to leave this daunting task to your loved ones, it’s always a good idea to start the process of decluttering early. As Ruth Soukup talks about in her book, Unstuffed – Declutter Your Home, Mind and Soul, “thinking about our own possessions in the context of our own demise may help to serve as the ultimate decluttering motivator.”



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The Other Side of Clutter – Reclaiming Your Dream

“You can’t get there from here but if you prepare the here, there comes here.” (Abraham Hicks)

Ellen’s dream of a basement meditation space and workout room had been on hold for years because of all the dusty boxes that occupied that space. The boxes contained family heirlooms that she had inherited after her parents died. The seemingly monumental task of tackling these ancestral treasures weighed her down and made her dream impossible.
Ellen’s story is not unique. As it turns out, inherited items are one of the biggest culprits of clutter in our homes. There are a few reasons for this: -we are loath to part with items that were beloved by someone who has passed away.
even though other family members don’t want these items, we don’t want to break the generational chain and discard them.
-the time and effort required to determine if we should sell, donate, recycle or trash these items overwhelms us.
Here are a few tips and tricks that might help:
#1. Put aside at least double the time you think it’s going to take. Sorting through inherited items is emotional and takes longer than expected.
#2. Have boxes and bags ready for labelling with these categories: SELL, DONATE, RECYCLE, TRASH, SOMEWHERE ELSE and TO SOMEONE ELSE. Also have a box for PHOTOS and another for DOCUMENTS.
#3. Gather all the inherited items (or any items you’ve chosen to declutter) in one space. Start to sort ‘like with like’. All china, silverware, serving sets and glassware together. Furniture together. Clothing, bedding, and towels together. Tools together. Photos (slides, greeting cards, etc) together. Documents together, etc.
#4. Review each item and decide which category it falls into (i.e. to sell, to donate, recycle, etc. as per #2). Remember that an item that was once important to someone else does not determine its importance to you. Getting rid of these items is not a sign that you loved that person any less. In fact, keeping only a few cherished items will make those treasures more meaningful and you’ll be able to display them (vs. in boxes in your basement). NOTE: save photos, slides, cards and documents till last (see #7).
#5. Take the filled boxes and/or bags labelled for DONATION and TO SOMEONE ELSE directly to the trunk of your car. Drop those off respectively as soon as possible. Take bags for RECYCLE and TRASH to their locations outside your home. Getting all of the filled bags outside your home is key. For items that are going SOMEWHERE ELSE in your home, take these items to those specific places and find them a place to live (i.e. put up that painting, display that figurine on a shelf).
#6. For those items or collections that you want TO SELL, take photos and measurements. Do not rely on family lore regarding their value but rather research these items to determine what others would currently pay. TV programs like Antiques Roadshow have convinced us that our treasures are worth a great deal but often the final negotiated price is substantially less. If the time and energy it takes to sell the item is equal or greater to the price you may receive, consider donating the item and know someone else will love it.
#7. Regarding photos, slides, cards and documents, without spending time doing any review now, sort these items into their respective boxes (see #2). Put these boxes beside your favourite chair. In the next few weeks every time you sit down, commit to reviewing their contents. For any photos, slides or cards only keep those that truly remind you of the best days that they represent and place those in a labelled box. Regarding the documents, only keep what you need for tax purposes, file those and shred the rest.
Congratulations. You did it! Decluttering our homes involves more than just freeing ourselves from those things that are holding us back and weighing us down; decluttering is about transformation and renewal. As Tracy McCubbin writes in Making Space Clutter Free, “making more room for what we want to do in life – and freeing up time and space to actually accomplish those things – always has a positive and inspiring outcome even if the process of letting go can feel overwhelming and daunting.”
Creating a home where you can more fully live and be the best version of yourself, is just one way of creating your ‘here’ so that you can realize your dreams. And if like Ellen, your dream is a workout room and meditation space, they are now possible.

Room2Breathe is a local Glebe company committed to making a difference. We’re happy to answer any questions you might have.



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Conquering Your Home Office Clutter

“Removing clutter makes room for a life focused on the things that matter most. It opens up physical space in our home and mental space in our mind.”(Clear the Clutter -Donna Smallin)

As a society we have a complicated relationship with health.  We know that a truly healthy person is one that thrives in body, mind and spirit but with all the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us, achieving this healthy goal seems unattainable and leaves us feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

How then can organizing and decluttering your home office help you so that you have more space, clarity, intentionality and freedom?  The answer is ultimately about alignment.

By decluttering and organizing both your physical and digital space you are able to streamline your efforts and achieve more balance by redirecting your finite resources to those life goals that matter most to you. 

Here are some tips for organizing and decluttering the physical space of your home office to increase efficiency and balance:

#1. Review the furniture in your office and make sure it is functional and in the best location to maximize efficiency.  

#2. Take an afternoon to remove everything from your work space/home office and put it all in an adjacent room or hall (ie. desktop items, contents in drawers, cupboards and shelves).  Sounds like a lot of work but the proven benefits far outweigh the effort as often items that have surrounded you for a while become ‘invisible clutter’ that you no longer notice. This clutter takes up valuable space as well as equally valuable time and energy when you have to sift through it to locate items.  Or you have to purchase duplicates when you can’t find the originals. 

#3.  Divide your office into three spaces:  

Daily space: this is your prime real estate.  This is the area within arms reach as you sit at your desk.  Only have items in this space that are needed on an everyday basis (ie. phone, cables, charger, pens, notebook, computer, headphones, etc.)  Find a ‘home’, on/in your desk for each of these items.  Use drawer dividers dedicated to specific tools.  Use shelf risers in your desk cupboards so that you can easily view and reach items.  

Weekly space: this is for items you only use weekly and that you can reach while standing (ie. reference material). Make sure you have shelving above or beside you that is easily accessible. 

Monthly space: this is for items you use monthly and that you can walk to within your home office (ie. shredder, printer). 

#4.  For all the leftover items that do not fit into these 3 categories above, determine if these items are practical or emotional.  Be brutal.  If an item must be kept in your office and is practical (ie. renovation folder, fundraiser info, etc), then use your walls (ie. three tiered vertical shelving, bulletin board).

If an item is emotional and you really want it in your office (ie. family photo, child’s art, certification) also put it on your walls to save space on your desk and shelves. 

Keep a ‘one in, one out’ rule so that when new items (emotional or other) come into your office, the old items go out.   

For all other leftover home office items that fit none of the above categories and you can’t find a ‘place to live’ elsewhere in your home, donate, sell, or recycle/repurpose them as required (with trash being a last resort).

#5. Paper Clutter.  Gather all paper from your home office into one pile. Sort paper into categories (ie. active, passive, reference, personal, etc.) and then implement the TAPP process:  Toss it, Act on it, Pass it on, or Pile/file it.  Deal with each document accordingly.  Remember that the purpose of filing is to be able to locate that document again quickly so purging unnecessary papers is always a good idea.  Also when filing consider what word you would think about to find this document and label it accordingly. 

Scanning your paper documents into digital files not only saves space but is more efficient on many levels. But with the daily tsunami of online information, it is important to have systems in place so that we don’t drown in this digital clutter.  

The key is to capture, clarify and process digital information quickly and efficiently so it doesn’t ‘pile up’ and become mental clutter (ie. backlog of unread emails etc). 

Here are some tips for organizing and decluttering the digital clutter regarding your home office to decrease distraction and stress: 

#1. Review all the folders on your desktop and determine what you need to keep and what you can delete or move to an external drive (ie. finished projects, vacation photos, past course material, etc.).  This sounds like a lot of work but again, the overall value in decluttering is worth it.

#2. Now create these primary ‘holding’ folders (or similar) in your email program and have them at the top of all your other current folders: URGENT, ACT ON, PASS ON, FOLLOW UP, FILE.  (Note: your current or secondary folders will be the ones you already have set up on your computer for clients, business development, expenses, etc.) 

At the start of each day, review your inbox and immediately sort all emails there into these primary holding folders.

#3. Once done, start with the URGENT folder, deal with each email in that folder completely and then either move it to another secondary folder for reference or delete it as required.  

Move on to the next primary holding folder (ie. ACT ON) and do the same.  Repeat this process until all of these primary folders are empty.  Add incoming emails to these primary folders and deal with accordingly.  In doing so, you will always be directing your energy to priority emails first instead of getting distracted and ‘sucked in’ to other emails of less significance. As well with a quick glance at these primary ‘holding’ folders, you’ll know what remains to be done and be better able to manage your time and effort. 

#3. Delete spam/junk mail immediately.  Make it a habit to quickly unsubscribe.

#4. Set up canned responses (i.e Thank you for your email.  I’ll get back to you before the end of day).  These emails can still be customized but a stock response is a good starting point and makes the overall response quicker and allows you time for other projects. 

In our increasingly distracted world, decluttering is a mindset.  By sorting, evaluating and purging our ‘stuff’ we increase our mental well-being and ultimately gain more balance and time.  With this alignment comes more clarity, intentionality and creative energy.

Make the effort to declutter and organize the physical and digital ‘stuff’ in your home office everyday and create an environment that increases your mental health and encourages the best version of yourself.

Martha Tobin is the owner of Room2Breathe, an Ottawa organizing and decluttering company committed to making a difference in the lives of others. 



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How to Conquer Your Clutter

We’ve all been staring at the same 4 walls for many months now. And staring daily at 4 walls is one thing; staring at those 4 walls and your clutter every day is quite another. 

Unopened boxes filled with memorabilia stacked in the back of your basement. Mystery bins in the pantry. A coat closet with a black hole that swallows mitts, gloves and the occasional boot. A guest room that has become the family dumping zone for all-things-with-no-home. A garage that is more of an additional storage shed than a place to park your car. And kitchen cupboards that repeatedly defy your organizational attempts. Sound familiar? You are not alone. 

Many people think that the issue is that they don’t have enough storage space. Interestingly enough, the problem is rarely about the amount of storage space and more about the amount of stuff. Whether you live in an apartment, a condo or a 3 storey home, the problem of clutter is the same – people think about it, worry about it, move it around and repeatedly try to organize it. In short, clutter causes stress. 

And it turns out clutter is not only stressful, it’s also costly. Think about all the storage bins, containers and shelving you’ve bought over time. What about the duplicates you’ve had to purchase when you couldn’t find the original? And think about the money made by storage companies every month. (There’s a very good business reason why these companies are popping up on every corner). 

Clutter is also costly in terms of time. Time wasted to be exact. Time spent looking for the library book you wanted to return, the shoes you wanted to reheel, the stamps you bought last week and the tupperware you borrowed. According to R. Eisenberg and Kate Kelly in their book, Organize Your Life, “Clutter is the number one impediment to having more free time. We are drowning in our possessions”. 

So if clutter is so stressful, time-consuming and costly why can’t we get a handle on it? Two reasons: over-purchasing and the lack of maintainable systems that work with our busy lives. 

Here are a few tips and tricks that might help you conquer your clutter: 

One in, one out. For every item you purchase, make a pact with yourself that you’ll discard or donate another item that you no longer need or want. 

Would you move with it? If you were to move right now would it be worth packing up and unpacking that box, bag or bin again? Similar to Marie Kondo’s question “does it spark joy”, this question about moving also tries to get to the root of the reason. Why are you hanging on to items that you’ve not looked at in years? The answer will help you discover those items that are truly meaningful and those that you can take a photo of and let go. 

Donations that do good. It’s difficult to let some items go because of our sentimental attachment to them. By donating them though you avoid them going into a landfill while giving them a second life with someone less fortunate in our community who really needs those items. With the colder season upon us, coats, scarves, mitts, boots, blankets, and sleeping bags are just some of the items desperately required. You can also sell your items on the GIVESHOP app, receive a tax receipt and have all the proceeds directed to local charities. 

The Sunday Sweep. Each Sunday take a bin and walk through each room picking up items that belong somewhere else and then distribute those items accordingly. This 15 minute exercise will not only save you time regarding clean up in general but it will also save your sanity when you are trying to locate an item in the future. 

While we are all staring at the same four walls of our homes it’s a great time to take stock of the stuff we have. Perhaps try and declutter one room at a time. Or if you are finding the thought of conquering your clutter too overwhelming, reach out to a professional organizer and declutterer. In a surprisingly short period of time, they will help you determine what to keep and what to let go of. Best of all they’ll create order, give you back functional space and you’ll be able to take big, deep breaths again in those rooms. 



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