The annual uncluttering of the file cabinet

At least once a year I do a clean-up of my file cabinets, and I just finished my latest round. Every time I do this, I’m amazed at the stuff I have kept that I really don’t need.

For your amusement (and inspiration), the following is what I got rid of this time:

Travel information

I tossed a lot of papers in this category, including:

  • Train schedules from 10 years ago
  • Clippings about recommended hotels and restaurants — from the 1990s
  • Brochures I picked up while visiting an area that I’ll probably never return to — and the brochures weren’t even that enticing

Inspirational and sentimental stuff

I worked for Hewlett-Packard Company for many years; the founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, are still two of the people I admire most. I had a lot of information about them, and I narrowed it down to the few things that were especially meaningful to me. I scanned many of those, and got rid of the paper.

Advice from Miss Manners

I really enjoy the Miss Manners columns, and I’d clipped a number of them. The ones I still found useful — maybe a quarter of the one I had saved — got scanned, and all the clippings were recycled.

Medical information

I’m talking here about general information, not my personal health information. Even though I’d discarded much of this before because medical information changes so quickly and so much is available online, I still found a few papers I had kept for no good reason. I really don’t need the newsletter from a local hospital, from 2004, talking about mini-incision hip replacement!

Song lyrics

Why in the world did I keep printouts of song lyrics? I’m not even talking about the nice inserts from old LPs, just computer printouts.

Writing tips

I had kept tips on good writing, which included things I’ve long ago absorbed. So, out went the April 1995 article on using quotes in articles.

Old information about the San Francisco Bay Area

There is a lot being written lately about high-tech companies and their employees ruining San Francisco (or not, depending on your perspective) and about these employees driving up housing prices in the area. These were good for a laugh, before they hit the recycling bin:

  • Three articles about dot-com companies and their employees ruining San Francisco — from 1999
  • An article showing examples of Silicon Valley houses available at the then-current median price, also from 1999

Miscellaneous oddities

Here are some of the other papers I found, and discarded:

  • A clipping from 2003 about how house sizes increased from 1900 to 2000
  • Printouts of documents I have on my computer — things that I probably printed some time ago for easier reading, but that I certainly don’t need in paper form any more
  • The manual for Norton AntiVirus 9.0, from 2004
  • A clothing catalog from Spring 2010, with something I was considering purchasing but never did

In summary, I’m getting rid of everything in my filing cabinet that is out of date, no longer interesting or useful, or readily replaced with online information.

What have you cleared out of your file cabinet lately? Please share your discoveries in the comments.

Unitasker Wednesday: Potato Express

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Have you ever wondered how adorable a potato would look in a sleeping bag? Wonder no longer! Introducing the cutie-patootie Potato Express:

They look precious, don’t they? They are all snuggled up, ready for a night out under the stars. Darling little spuds! Snuggly wuggly wittle ‘taters!

What’s that? The Potato Express isn’t a sleeping bag for potatoes? You say they’re a steam bag for cooking potatoes in the microwave? Way to rain on my parade, especially since all you need to steam potatoes in the microwave is a plate and bowl. Put plate in microwave, poke a few holes in a potato with a fork, set potato on plate, rest inverted bowl over potato, close microwave door, run microwave on high for necessary time (in our current microwave this is five minutes, in our previous microwave it was seven), open microwave door, using oven mitts remove the bowl from over the potato, take cooked potato on plate out of microwave, and eat potato.

But, as a sleeping bag for potatoes, it sure looks cuddly!

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2010

2009

Tips for easy road tripping with the kids

Spring break is taking place this week and my family and I are spending it on the road. By the time you read this, we will have already traveled from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. It’s a drive I’ve done many times over the past 20 years. And, since our oldest is 11 years old, we’ve been taking kids along for the trip for more than a decade. All this driving has taught me a thing or two about getting organized for road trips. The following are lessons I’ve learned on how to manage lengthy road trips with the kids.

I sound like my dad here, but make sure the car is ready to go before you leave. I like to make sure the oil has recently been changed, the wipers are in good condition, and so on. I keep a working set of jumper cables in the back of the car, plus a first aid kit, some blankets, a pocket knife, and a flashlight. I’ve meant to get one of these emergency car kits for a while now, but I keep putting it off. It’s a good investment and I ought to do it.

The next step is packing and gassing up, which I always do the night before we leave. As for packing, there are types of cargo and each has its location in the car.

Luggage

This is the stuff we don’t need during the journey but will need at our destination — clothes, toiletries, stuffed animals, night lights. These items go in what we used to call “the way back,” but what you likely call the bottom of the trunk.

Entertainment

A few years ago we borrowed a portable DVD player for the kids. Now, iPads fill this role for entertaining them. A fully charged iPad will keep the kids occupied for quite a while. Our rule for electronics in the car: the journey must be more than three hours to warrant iPad use. A jaunt to the grocery store does not count. Headphones are also required.

Books, drawing paper, pencils, and portable toys are also packed in the back seat. All of this stuff goes into a sturdy Tupperware bin that fits between the kids’ seats. This way, the kids can retrieve/replace what they want on their own. If you don’t want to use a bin, an over-the-seat organizer might work for your needs. We also keep small pillows within reach of the kids, should they want to take a nap.

Snacks and more

Road food is often expensive (for what it is) and almost never healthy. My wife always packs some healthier snacks and keeps that in a small cooler up front with us. She can dispense snacks and drinks as needed.

And, don’t forget a bin for trash.

A few more quick tips: Magazine holders fit beautifully between mini van seats and hold books so that they’re easy to see. If your kids are older, let them pack and be responsible for their own activity bag. People who travel regularly with kids might benefit from creating a travel go-bag, like Jacki wrote about yesterday. At the very least, keep a list of things to pack in the backseat with the kids so you don’t forget anything and also so you can note afterward what items were a hit and which ones should be left at home next time. Baby wipes and paper towels are a great idea, as somebody is likely going to spill something or need to clean their hands. Finally, if your kids are younger like mine, decide on assigned seating ahead of time. No switching. No upgrading. No changing.

Happy trails!

Go-bags

There are many things I’ve learned about organizing because my husband is in the military. Soldiers keep certain equipment and clothing packed in their rucksacks at all times. If they ever have to “bug-out” (called to duty in an emergency) they just grab their rucksacks and go. In these circumstances, it takes them five minutes to leave the house. Soldiers are provided with a list of what to have in their rucksacks at all times so they have everything they need.

I’ve implemented this system in our household for non-military purposes. When my children were babies, I had a list of items that I always needed in the diaper bag. Every time we arrived at home after being out, I restocked the bag with diapers, wipes, and creams. Then, I quickly looked down the list before heading out the door the next time to ensure I had everything in the bag.

As my children have grown older and are participating in activities, we’ve created a “go-bag” for each activity. Their items for that activity remain always in that bag unless being used or cleaned. We prepared a list of items for the bag, and even used pictures of the items to help them when they were younger.

The list was printed on an index card and laminated. On the reverse side of the index card was emergency contact information (child’s name, parent’s name and phone number, allergy information, etc.). The card was kept in a pocket of the go-bag or sometimes, attached to one of the zippers on the outside of the bag.

On arrival home from swimming lessons, the swimsuit and towel would be washed, shampoo refilled if necessary and the bag stowed on its dedicated hook in the hallway. Once laundered, the swimsuit and towel were returned to the bag.

This system works with sports gear and arts and craft supplies – and even your briefcase for work!

We continue to have a number of “go-bags” hanging in our entryway and I find that being able to get out of the house quickly with all of the necessary equipment is worth it.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Seed-Out
    Warning: This week’s product manufacturer states in all of their marketing materials that their plastic device “will blow your mind with its simplicity and effectiveness!” So if your mind blows out of your head, we want you to know that we are not liable but that we will miss your readership. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
  • Three tips and apps that have improved my productivity
    Dave explores strategies and apps that ensure he can get his work done when it needs to get done — and let him sleep soundly at night.

2012

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Coffee unitaskers continue
    For this week’s unitasker selection, I wanted to keep with the April theme of coffee-inspired unitaskers. And, when looking for such unitaskers, my kitchen seemed like the perfect spot to find candidates.

2011

2010

2009

  • Chalk it up!
    Chalkboards to keep you on track with your goals.

Estate planning for your digital assets

Earlier this week, we published a post on estate organizing to help others after you’ve passed. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but an important one that we would like to explore a little more. Today, I want to point out how this applies to your digital life — photos, music, and a variety of documents that we store digitally have sentimental value, monetary value, or significant meaning to surviving family or friends. Who will gain access to them after you’re gone? And how?

Leave your logins

The most obvious thing you can do is also among the most important: leave a list of your login information in a secure location. A simple list of passwords and usernames stored in a safety deposit box, for example, could save your surviving family, friends and colleagues a lot of headache. If you’re like me and change this information regularly, make sure your list is up to date. If you use a program like 1Password, as Jeri recommended Tuesday, be sure your contact person knows how to use this service and won’t be surprised to find only one master password on your list.

Make sure your information will be accessible

You’ll want to “future proof” this list of online credentials. That is to say, ensure (as best you can) that it’ll still be readable in the future. The easiest way to do this, of course, is with a good old pen and a piece of paper.

Plain Text format is a good way to go. As David Sparks explained on his website MacSparky, “There’s something to be said for the use of plain text files. Text is simple. Text files are easy to read on any computer running any operating system and don’t require any proprietary word processor to interpret. Even more important, text files can be read by humans. Keeping your writings in text makes them digitally immortal.” That’s serious future proofing.

Online services

Beyond that, there are services to help you estate plan your digital life. As The New York Times pointed out, Google has a service called the Inactive Account Manager. In short, it monitors your account for inactivity over a custom period of time. You tell Google how long your account must be inactive before the service triggers (Three months? Twelve?) and who should receive a message from Google once the criteria has been met (you can ID up to 10 people). Once Google is satisfied that your account is truly inactive, it lets your recipients know how they can download your images, videos, documents, or other data.

You may also consider a digital “safety deposit box.” SecureSafe lets you store 50 passwords, 10 megabytes of files, and name one beneficiary for free.

You certainly don’t want to put that information in a will. Why? Alexandra Gerson, a lawyer at Helsell Fetterman in Seattle, told The New York Times, “Don’t put user names and passwords in your will, though, as it becomes a public record when you die.”

Regarding your beneficiary or other representative, you’ll want to make sure she or he is tech savvy. This person should have no trouble accessing your information, once provided with the necessary credentials. Also, make sure that she or he understands that digital assets can be just as valuable or meaningful as those in the brick-and-mortar world.

Finally, many digital purchases can be accessed by several authorized devices. For example, Apple lets up to five computers run the same iTunes account and Amazon will let family members use the same ID. Likewise, the Kindle app running on an authorized iPad or iPhone will give your surviving family members access to your books and other relevant purchases.

I hope these two posts help with the organization of your assets, and consideration of who will be in charge of them once you’re gone. It’s not the cheeriest subject in the world, but it will make things a bit easier for your loved ones when you’re gone or unable to care for your affairs.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Avoiding magazine clutter
    How do you keep from being overwhelmed by magazines coming into your home? Jeri offers tips for keeping magazines from becoming clutter.

2011

  • Staying organized during an office move
    With an office move, your entire office needs to be put away instantly or you could suffer negative repercussions, like losing productivity, clients, income, or even your job.

2010

2009

  • The deep drawer problem
    The deep drawer is a depository for just about every tool in the kitchen. It contains everything from a whisk to a rolling pin.

Being organized about logins and passwords

I’ve been changing a lot of passwords this week because of the major computer security problem known as Heartbleed. While going through this exercise was no fun, there were some good things that happened as a result, too.

Managing passwords

Most importantly, I’m managing passwords better. As I change them, I enter them into 1Password. It’s one of the many password management tools around — and the one Dave recommended a while ago.

Before, I had a few critical passwords in 1Password as an estate organization tool; I could give my executor (and the person with my financial power of attorney) the passwords to my computer and to 1Password, and he had everything he needed to manage my digital life. I also had a file (innocuously named without “password” in the title) with a list of hints and reminders in it to help me remember the passwords I had chosen. As it happened, though, I didn’t always remember the passwords based on the reminders I had created for myself.

As of now, I’m not using all of 1Password’s functionality. I don’t yet use it to login, and I don’t sync it across devices. But even with my limited use, it’s been a big help.

Evaluating accounts

As I went through my list of websites where I had logins and passwords, I found some that I just don’t need any more. For example, I had a login to IFTTT — which is a very useful tool for some people, but not anything I’ve found I need. So instead of changing the password and adding it to 1Password, I just closed the account.

Points of confusion

I found some notes in my password hints file that were confusing, including my notes about Etsy. It winds up I had created two accounts, which I used interchangeably. Since each one has some purchase history, I’m leaving both in place — but now I have two entries in 1Password so I won’t get confused again.

Notes about complicated passwords

I changed my email passwords, and I thought I had updated my computer and my cell phone appropriately — until I found out that I could receive email on my phone, but not send it. I figured out what I had missed, and now I have a note in 1Password reminding me to make this additional update whenever I change passwords again.

Remembering master passwords

Since my password for 1Password is a long, complicated collection of letters and numbers, I do have it written down and tucked away somewhere — a place no one is going to find it. However, I’ve been going into 1Password enough lately that I don’t even need to pull out my reminder any longer.

What about you? Have you taken steps to better password management lately? If so, please share in the comments!

Estate organization

No one likes to think about dying, but disorganization and lack of planning while you’re alive can lead to family disputes and large tax payments after you’ve passed away. The following are a few tips to help you get organized in case of an emergency.

List what you own

Create a home inventory listing everything you own. Most lawyers suggest you include everything with a value greater than $100. However, if there are sentimental items valued less than $100, list those as well. Non-physical items should also be inventoried. This would include digital music and movie collections and computer software applications.

Include other assets in the inventory such as savings accounts, life insurance policies, investments, and pension plans at various past places of employment.

List what you owe

List all of your debts including car loans, mortgage, and outstanding balances on credit cards. Create a list of any institutions or organizations you pay on a regular basis, for example your monthly payment to your gym or annual donations to a favourite charity. Include on this list any places that may have your credit card information on file such as your iTunes or Netflix accounts.

Simplify and unclutter

Once you’ve completed your inventory, you may decide that it is better to liquidate some of your assets while you’re still alive and well. You will be able to see the joy in people’s faces as you pass along some of your treasured items that you are no longer interested in keeping. If you have a certain collection, (e.g. Star Wars collectibles) ask your family members who would most appreciate receiving it on your death. You don’t want to burden your family members with something they would consider clutter. If you can’t find anyone, consider leaving instructions for selling it.

Get professional financial and legal advice

Each jurisdiction has its own laws, rules and regulations regarding estate planning, so it is extremely important to get professional advice. Lawyers and estate and financial planners can tell you which accounts should be made joint and which ones “transfer-on-death.” They can also provide advice on which accounts beneficiaries need to be listed. These professionals will provide information on what your executor would be expected to do when you pass away and what options are available for beneficiaries.

Choose an executor (estate administrator)

An executor is someone who administers your estate after you’ve passed. This person (or people) is responsible for locating and probating your will, making your funeral arrangements, paying taxes owed by your estate, and distributing your assets to beneficiaries. This can be a daunting task for many people so it is important to choose your executor carefully. Discuss your estate with potential executors. You may decide to choose co-executors, such asa family member and a lawyer.

Ideally, the executor should have enough free time to complete all of the tasks. (It can take up to three years to completely settle an estate). The executor should be organized and be able to keep complete and accurate records of all transactions pertaining to the estate. If you have assets outside of the country, your executor may have to obtain a passport and visas to deal with those assets. If you spend much of your time online (banking and investing), consider choosing an executor who is tech-savvy.

Getting it all organized

All necessary documents should be accessible by your executor when you pass away. I am the executor to my aunt’s estate and she has a folder in her filing cabinet labeled, “What to do when I’m dead (or almost).” I know that I should look in this folder should anything happen to my aunt. This folder contains important information such as:

  • The key for the safety deposit box where the legal documents are stored (Will, Power of Attorney, deeds, passport, birth certificate, etc.)
  • Names and contact information of lawyers, financial advisors, banks.
  • Home inventory list
  • List of people to notify of death (friends and neighbours)
  • Funeral arrangement details and contact information for funeral home

A file folder is a good option if the management of the estate is fairly straightforward, but if your estate is larger and more complicated there are a couple of organizational alternatives.

Portavault is a binder that holds hundreds of pages of documents in easily identifiable categories. It comes with a water-resistant case and lockable zipper that makes it secure and easy to transport in case of emergency. It comes with a list of handy tips and tricks to help you organize your documents.

For those who prefer a non-paper-based solution, The Doc Safe allows you to keep copies of your documents online. The advantage of a cloud-based system is that it is accessible from anywhere there is an Internet connection. If your executor is computer-savvy, this might be the best option to choose. However, you need to ensure your executor can access the system and is comfortable with it while your still alive.

Regardless of which system you choose, an organized estate may be the best legacy you can leave your beneficiaries.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Pour some iced coffee on me
    There are special trays to make frozen coffee cubes and special coffeemakers to make only iced coffee. Seriously. These things exists. I’m not making them up. They’re real.
  • Using timers to improve productivity
    Timers help you to stay focused and complete tasks — specifically the not-so-fun ones and the ones that have to get done — in reasonable amounts of time.

2011

2010

Three organizing lessons I learned 30 years ago

I’m not one of those people who obsessively organized her books, clothes, or toys as a child — but I do thank my family, and one of my first bosses, for teaching me some valuable lessons as a child and a young adult. The following are important life lessons they taught me, years before I became a professional organizer:

Perfectionism often doesn’t pay

I have distinct perfectionist tendencies, but over the years I’ve learned that they don’t always serve me well. The story that really highlights this happened when I was in middle school.

I had a homework assignment that involved listing the rivers found in a number of the 50 states. I sat at my desk with a big atlas, and wrote down every single river in those states. There are a lot of rivers, and this was a very time-consuming task.

My parents insisted that the teacher really just wanted the biggest rivers and that I was going overboard — which, in retrospect, I certainly was. But there was no convincing me, and I missed an annual family outing to the local cider mill — something I looked forward to every year — so I could complete the assignment to my ridiculous level of detail. I gave up delicious cider and fresh-cooked doughnuts, and no one cared about my very complete list of rivers except me.

I didn’t learn my lesson back in grade school, but the story has since become my touchstone when I find myself veering back into unnecessary perfectionism. “Are you doing the river thing again?” I’ll ask myself.

Keep up on maintenance

My family lived in Michigan, and I had a beloved aunt, uncle, and three cousins who lived in Florida. Much to my delight as a grade-school kid — and much to my mother’s horror — these relatives would sometimes take road trips, which included coming to visit us with almost zero notice.

I remember getting a phone call from my aunt telling me that all five of them were at a certain intersection, and asking how to get to our house from there. She was about a five-minute drive away.

As I grew older, I understood why my mother went into a tizzy when she got such calls. And the lesson I took away was to always be ready for unexpected (but very welcome) company.

While I’m far from being a neat freak, I do want to keep my life and my home organized enough — no perfectionism here — that I would always be delighted to get a call like the one from my aunt. It requires doing maintenance tasks (like putting things back in their homes) on a regular basis.

Focus on one thing at a time

I remember a day in one of my first jobs when I was feeling totally overwhelmed. My boss came by and coached me through it. “What’s the first thing you need to do?” he asked. Then he had me ignore everything else, and only work on getting that one thing done. Then I moved on to the next thing and the next, until it all got done.

The same strategy can apply to other situations, like an overwhelming backlog of papers to sort. You pick up just one piece of paper and decide what to do with it. And then the next and the next — and after a while, the paperwork is complete.