March wrap up

Let’s take a few moments to remember some of the things that made March 2008 a great month at Unclutterer.com.

March’s most popular posts:

Excerpts from our month of sharing:

Additional highlights:

Simple strategies to clear email clutter — From Gina Trapani of Lifehacker

As the final installment in our Unclutterer month of sharing, I am honored to present Gina Trapani, founding editor of Lifehacker.com, a daily blog about software and personal productivity. We are truly honored to have Gina as our keynote guest post author.

Just like physical clutter creates negative psychic weight, so does clutter in the digital spaces we work in every day—like our email inboxes. Email overload is one of the biggest sources of anxiety and overwhelming for anyone who works on a computer every day. When you’re faced with an inbox stuffed with hundreds of messages—and you’re not sure what you meant to do with each of them—it’s too easy to feel like you’re drowning in stuff and you’ll never catch up. Here are a few simple ways you can clean up your email box and get that wonderful feeling of being free and clear of email overload.

The Big Inbox Dump

If you’re starting out with an inbox full of messages dating back months, it’s time to move them out of your sight and start fresh. The reason why all those messages piled up for so long is that you didn’t handle them as they came in, and that’s the first habit you’re going to get into—starting today. Make a new folder called “Backlog,” and move all the messages in your inbox older than a day into that folder. Phew! I bet you feel lighter already. (Don’t worry—we’ll talk about how you’re going to get to those later.)

Make an Empty Inbox a Habit

Starting right here and right now, you’re going to process your email as it comes in, and as you’re done with each message, you’re going to either delete it or file it away in a folder separate from your inbox. This means your inbox will be completely empty—clutter-free!—on a regular basis. From here on in, think of your inbox as a temporary holding pen for stuff you haven’t dealt with yet. (Which, coincidentally, is the definition of “inbox.”) Once you make a decision or take an action on a message, move it out of your inbox. That way, you can see at a glance what email you have to process, and everything else is out of sight (and out of mind.)

The Fewer Folders, The Better

Since we come from the physical, paper world, we tend to have a “filing cabinet” approach to our digital documents. But you don’t have to make as many digital folders as you do physical folders because you can search digital documents like email in ways you can’t search paper. So when you decide on the folders (or Gmail labels) you want to use to organize your email, don’t go overboard. Use as few filing places as possible to keep things simple. Remember, you don’t want to trade inbox clutter for folder clutter.

I recommend using only three folders to organize your email. You can read more about my three-folder “Trusted Trio” system here. (Gmail users, here’s your version.)

Tackle the Backlog

Now that you’ve processed today’s messages and gotten to an empty inbox and a resolution to keep it that way, it’s time to tackle your backlog folder. First, ask yourself: if an email is older than a month, does the sender really still expect a response? Be honest. Most likely, the answer is no. If it was that important, the sender probably contacted you again more recently, or using another method. This may seem scary to some folks, but I recommend taking all the messages older than a month (or even two or three weeks, for the brave!) and simply moving them into your email archive.

Now you’ve got email backlog from the past month to process. Each day, commit to reducing this pile by half. Start at the oldest messages and respond and file using your new folder system. If you’ve got 500 backlogged messages, after the first day you’ll only have 250. After the second, 125. The third, 62, and so on. Within a couple of weeks, using this new system, you’ll be free and clear from email backlog.

Remember: New messages that come in today get priority over backlog. Your new empty inbox habit will be the key to keeping your inbox clutter-free from day to day. Once you’ve read a message, decide what to do with it on the spot. Don’t leave anything in your inbox, and you’ll thank yourself every time you read the words “You have no new messages.”

Gina Trapani’s new book, Upgrade Your Life, is a compilation of Lifehacker.com’s best tips for working smarter. You can download a free sample chapter of Upgrade Your Life at the book’s official web site.

Weekend Project: Clear clutter from under furniture

I was reading an organization book many years ago that made the suggestion of hiding random possessions like magazines and children’s toys under your couch. It was such a bizarre suggestion to me. How is cramming something under a couch an organized solution? Yes, it may get it out of the pathway and out of sight, but those items shouldn’t be permanently stored in that manner. Magazines belong in magazine racks or on bookshelves, and children’s toys belong in toy chests or bins. I read the suggestion as a way to create clutter, not curb it.

This weekend, I want you to tackle the spaces under furniture in your home. Are you hiding things under dressers? Under table skirts? Under your couch? Pull out the clutter and find it a permanent home that shows that you honor and respect your belongings. Dust mites and other yucky things don’t belong on your possessions.

If the areas under your furniture are clear of clutter, check the spaces behind your furniture. Have books, pens, or other items fallen out of sight? Has a water cup rolled back behind your headboard?

Good luck unearthing the clutter from under your furniture!

Unclutter on The Simple Dollar and a (sort of) new e-mail feed!

Our month of sharing is continuing in full force, and today you can read more information from us on The Simple Dollar. The article, titled The Connections Between Mental, Physical, and Financial Clutter, explores mindful consumption and the benefits of not running on automatic pilot. Please check it out and leave a comment to let us know what you think!

While I have your attention, I also wanted to let you know that you can now Subscribe to Unclutterer by e-mail. If you don’t read our blog through an RSS feed reader, you might think about an e-mail subscription. We’ve added a permanent link to our e-mail feed in the middle column in the group of links immediately under our welcome statement. It actually turns out we’ve had an e-mail feed since we started the site last year, but none of us knew about it. More than 500 of our daily readers, in fact, have been receiving it! It wasn’t until we went to create the feed that we discovered its existence. We’re baffled, but excited that we can publicly share it with everyone. This link might also be good to share with others who you know don’t use a feed reader but could enjoy our site through e-mail, so please feel welcome to share it!

Can someone be a collector and be uncluttered?

The quick answer to the question posed in the headline is yes. Being uncluttered and being a collector are not mutually exclusive states.

I will be the first to admit, however, that being an uncluttered collector is not an easy task. The temptation to collect beyond one’s reasonable limits is high, and can thwart even someone with the best of intentions.

An uncluttered collector, by definition, takes pride in his or her collection and displays it fully and respectfully. A collector wants to enjoy his or her collection and share it with others. Conversely, a collection is clutter when it’s stored out of sight, in a disrespectful manner, and for no other reason than just to have more stuff.

So what does an uncluttered collection look like? Back in September, Jerry wrote about PlasmicSteve’s memorabilia office in our Workspace of the Week feature. I see this office as a perfect example of how someone can be an uncluttered collector and honor the things he or she chooses to collect:

Are you a collector? How do you display fully and respectfully your collection? Or, are you storing your “collection” in boxes in your attic in less-than-desirable conditions?

Workspace of the Week: The non-office office

This week’s Workspace of the Week is TheHappy1’s non-office office:

I like this office because it can fit into any living space of a home. The design elements might not be your style, but the concept can work for anyone. It has a few office items — stapler, pen cup, computer, paper shredder, filing basket — but otherwise it’s just a small table and a chair in a room. The wireless printer sits in another area behind a cabinet door, out of sight. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a whole room to devote to an office, this is a great, uncluttered alternative. Thank you, TheHapp1 for your submission!

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Managing Computer File Clutter Pt. 2: External Storage

Computer ClutterA few weeks ago, I wrote about uncluttering your computer’s file system, and several of you left some great comments about how you have incorporated external storage into your setup.

External storage isn’t just for techies with massive drives full of music, movies, and software. It’s essential for backing up files, or for simply getting older files that you need to keep out of the way. For those of you who haven’t used external storage before today, I’ll offer a brief overview to get you started.

First, the cold hard truth. Computer hard drives fail. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Since they are guaranteed to fail, neglecting to back up your data is one of the quickest routes to an uncluttered computer — but the reality is that it makes about as much sense as uncluttering your home by burning it to the ground. If you’re maintaining an uncluttered file system, you’ve kept files for a reason. Just as we suggest honoring mementos, you should honor the digital files that you don’t delete by keeping them safe.

External storage is also a great way to keep older files from cluttering your search results. I like to archive projects that are over a year old and keep them off of my primary hard drive. This reduces the number of results that come up when I search for files, and also keeps my internal hard drive from becoming full. I also keep all photography and other media files on external storage.

Firewire/USB Drives

These are the simplest of the external storage options. A Firewire/USB drive consists of a normal computer hard drive enclosed in a case that includes Firewire and/or USB connectors. You just plug it in to your computer, and drag-and-drop files to it just like any other folder. Drives like Western Digital’s My Book include one-touch backup to make safeguarding files simple, and smaller USB-powered drives like the Passport let you take lots of files with you without the clutter of extra power cables.

There’s a trade-off for such simplicity, however. External drives, like internal drives, are subject to failure. You should still back up files that you store on an external drive, unless you use the external drive itself only for backup.

Network Attached Storage Devices

Where Firewire/USB drives connect directly to your computer, a network attached storage (NAS) device connects to your home network via a router. Though integrating a NAS into your storage setup adds the complexity of home networking, the additional flexibility can be worth the effort. NAS devices vary from single drives, to multiple drives that offer the benefit of data redundancy; if one drive fails, you can replace it without losing any data.

For my personal storage needs, I invested in a ReadyNAS NV+ loaded with four 750 GB Seagate drives configured in a RAID array. If that seems complicated, it’s much simpler than the half dozen USB drives I’d filled with files, photos and my CDs. If it weren’t for the NAS, I’d have power and USB cables everwhere — talk about clutter!

If you’re comfortable handling hard drives, and don’t need so much storage right away, you can buy your NAS without drives, then get your drives from someplace like NewEgg and install them as you need them. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to install at least two drives to take advantage of drive redundancy.

Online Storage

You’ve got to love the internet. The ubiquity of broadband internet, and declining data storage and bandwidth costs have finally made backing up files online a cost effective alternative to network attached storage. Pricing structures vary among online storage services, but generally a relatively small monthly fee gets you access to enterprise class data centers where your files are protected by the same hardware and geographic redundancy that businesses use to protect their valuable data. The services available are too numerous to list here, but some popular options for you to check out include Mozy, XDrive, Box.net, and Carbonite.

One of my favorite online storage tools is Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk isn’t an online storage service itself, but a program that lets you store and retrieve files on Amazon’s Simple Storage Service just like an external drive on your computer. Jungle Disk is a free download, and you pay Amazon for only the storage space and bandwidth that you use.

If you’ve got a favorite storage or backup solution, please share it with us in the comments!

We hope that everyone has enjoyed Brian’s three-part series on data organization. Brian is one of Unclutterer’s amazing programmers, and we are so happy that he agreed to write this series during our March month of sharing. Thank you, Brian!

San Francisco health workers offer help to hoarders

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article highlights a program that the city of San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services and the nonprofit Mental Health Association of San Francisco have created. They have teamed up to create the Institute on Hoarding and Cluttering. The program will help local hoarders deal with all aspects of their obsessive behavior.

From the article:

Nationally, an estimated 1 million to 2 million people are compulsive hoarders. And while statistics aren’t available for just how many people in San Francisco suffer from the condition, experts say the city has become the center for study of the problem and might have more hoarders per capita than other areas.

The compact, expensive city has many SRO hotels and other small living spaces as well as an aging population that has had years to collect clutter. Dementia also can contribute to hoarding.

The nonprofit Mental Health Association of San Francisco and the city’s Department of Aging and Adult Services have teamed up to create the Institute on Hoarding and Cluttering. That group conducts training of professionals such as nurses and in-home care providers, and last summer officials launched an effort to enhance communication among city agencies that work with hoarders.

The association sees about 250 new hoarding patients a year and runs a support group for them. The Department of Public Health has two inspectors, including Oblena, who visit SRO hotels that are run by nonprofits contracted by the city to provide housing.

If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive hoarding, try and get help from the following resources:

For those of you in the San Francisco area, there will be a 16-week hoarding and cluttering treatment group that will be held starting Monday, April 28, 2008.

The Real Cost of Financial Clutter on the Road to a Remarkable Life

Our latest guest post during our month of sharing comes from Trent Hamm, the writer behind The Simple Dollar, a blog focusing on personal finance and personal development. Be sure to check out his blog after reading this truly inspiring piece.

Every time you spend a dollar, you sacrifice a bit of your future.

Five years ago, I believed the above sentence was foolishness. I was 24 years old, working at a high paying job, and about to get married to a wonderful woman. I had just spent almost ten thousand dollars on a wedding ring and an exorbitant honeymoon in Europe, and I was actively shopping for a new vehicle because, well, my current ride just wasn’t quite good enough.

Roll forward three years. I had $17,000 in credit card debt and literally not enough money to pay my bills. A good chunk of the debt incurred for that honeymoon still sat on the credit cards. My wife, son, and I lived together in a tiny apartment, trying to figure out what we were going to do next.

Everywhere I looked around me in that apartment, I saw stuff I didn’t need. Video game consoles piled high under the television, along with a small mountain of games for the consoles. Over a thousand DVDs. A gigantic television set that dwarfed our living room, looking almost comically out of place. A huge collection of Magic: the Gathering cards. So many books that half of our child’s bedroom consisted of bookshelves. Two nearly-new cars sitting outside.

And yet I felt empty inside. I held my child close, thinking about all of the things I wanted to give to him, but instead I had chosen to spend all of my money on stuff

Every time you spend a dollar, you sacrifice a bit of your future.

Today, not only do I believe deeply in that sentence, it underlines every choice I make in life. I turned that disastrous ship around, realized that all of that stuff was standing in the way of my passions and dreams, and in just two short years, I found enough financial freedom to do what I’ve always wanted to do: quit my nine to five job, stay at home, and focus entirely on my family and on my passion for writing.

The name of this blog, Unclutterer, really underlines the entire idea. Clutter exists in all aspects of our life, not only in the way we arrange items in our office and in our home, but in how we manage our time and manage our money. Clutter is distraction from the big picture, in every way, shape, and form. Clutter can even blind you and choke you if it grows out of control.

Financial clutter is a particularly insidious form of clutter, because it winds through so many aspects of our life. Much of the clutter in our office and home has a financial cost to it, meaning that we actually spent some money to create that clutter. The cluttering of our time is also financial clutter – if we waste our time on things that drain our money or don’t earn as much as we potentially can, we’re draining our financial plans of a great deal of vitality.

Here are six great steps that you can do immediately to reduce the financial clutter in your life – and begin to open the path to a truly remarkable life.

Calculate the true value of your time. Figure up how much you earn in a year. Now, subtract from that the cost of transporting yourself to and from work, the cost of work clothes, the cost of income taxes, and any other costs that your job foists upon you (like entertaining coworkers, for example). Now, figure up how many hours you actually work in a year, and add to that the time spent transporting yourself to and from work, the “extra” time spent working when at home, the time spent buying work-related materials, the time spent schmoozing with coworkers, the time spent on business trips, the time you “need” to spend unwinding after work, and any other time investments you make at work. Then divide the calculated amount you make by the number of hours you work for the year. That’s how much you really value an hour of your life. Know that number. Remember that number. It’s important.

Physically unclutter your living space. Go through all of your possessions and ask yourself whether you actually use it or not. Is it something that has honestly provided value for your life? Look for books you’ve not read, DVDs you’ve only watched a time or two, unplayed games, unlistened music, collections of things that you no longer feel passionate about, and so on. Gather up all of this stuff and estimate how much you’ve spent on it. Then divide it by the value of your time that you calculated above, and if you want to, divide that by 40 (so you can see this in terms of weeks). That’s how much of your life you spent working so you could have this stuff. When I first did this, I estimated that I had spent two years of work accumulating stuff I barely use.

The next step is to get rid of all of this stuff and make a clean break. Eliminate the stuff that you’re not using, haven’t used, and likely won’t use again. Get some degree of financial return out of this stuff in any way you can. Don’t worry about maximizing your return – you rarely will be able to make back the value of your time by seeking out a slightly higher return for the stuff. Then take that money and put it into the bank – it’s now your emergency fund so you don’t have to turn to credit cards when something bad happens.

Set some big goals – and remind yourself of them all the time. This is an effective way to de-clutter your mind. Sit down and figure out what your true big goals are. My goals were to spend more time with my children and write for a living – that’s what I really wanted to do more than anything else. Your goals may differ, but spend some time really searching within yourself to know what they are. Focus in on just one, two, or perhaps three goals that really speak to the core of your life.

Once you’ve figured out what you’re really shooting for, let most of the other stuff in your life melt away. If you’re focused on becoming a full-time writer, don’t burden yourself with chasing promotions at work. If you’re focused on being a great parent, don’t spend your mental energy worrying about social obligations in the neighborhood. Focus in on your goal and use all of your energy to reach that goal.

The best way I’ve found of keeping on focus with the goal is to put visual reminders of the goal all over the place. My desktop wallpaper is a picture of my children, and I keep pictures of them everywhere. I also keep notepads everywhere to make it easy for me to jot down thoughts – and also to remind myself of my writing dreams.

Use the true value of your time – and those visual reminders of your big dreams – every time you consider making a purchase. Let’s say the true value of your time came out to be $5 an hour (it can easily be this low, even at a “good” job). You’re at the store and you’re lusting after buying a Nintendo Wii – it’s $270 after taxes. That’s 54 hours of your life spent working for someone else so you can buy something else to clutter up your home. Even better, that’s $270 – or 54 hours – taken away from your big dream.

This works well for small purchases, too. Is that latte worth an actual hour of your life spent working? Is one latte a week for a year worth 52 hours of your life – more than an entire work week? Might that $270 not go better helping you save to make that dream come true, perhaps by helping you build up the financial cushion you need to quit your job and follow that crazy dream?

Go through every. single. monthly. bill. Many of the bills you receive every month have some sort of extra fee in it. Look at your cell phone bill, for instance. Are all of those features something you really need to pay for, every single month? Figure out what you don’t need – what’s just cluttering up your bill – then ring up your cell phone company and get those “features” dropped. Look at your credit card bill. Is that finance charge ridiculously high? Call up your credit card company and request a rate reduction. If the first person you talk to says no, ask to talk to a supervisor.

Even better are bills you can eliminate entirely. We used to subscribe to Netflix, but we were scarcely watching two movies a month, so we cancelled the service. Now, if we get the itch to watch a movie, we just go rent one or download one — it’s far cheaper than the Netflix grind. We used to be members at a gym, but now we get most of our exercise at home or by jogging around the block, so there goes another substantial chunk of financial clutter.

De-clutter your debt. Make a list of every single debt you have – credit cards, student loans, car loans, mortgages, and anything else you have. Write down the total amount you owe and the interest rate you’re paying on that debt. Order them by interest rate. Then, each month, make the minimum payment on each of them, then make a substantial extra payment on the highest interest debt. When that debt disappears, move on to the next one on the list until they’re all gone.

The best way to do this is to create a “virtual bill” for you to pay each month. Figure out an amount that you can afford without too much hassle – say, $200 – and then each month give yourself a bill for that amount. That bill is payable to whichever debt is on top of the list.

Unitasker Wednesday: Pickle picker and unitaskers explained

We realized last week that we haven’t ever explained the Unitasker feature on our site. So, before we delve into the goodness that is this week’s item, we wanted to take a few seconds and talk about it.

At their most basic elements, all Unitasker posts are intended to be funny. We joke about single-use items to remind us that organizing doesn’t have to be so serious. It’s good to pause and remember that what we discuss on the site isn’t brain surgery or rocket science.

Often times, the things we mention are things that are in our homes. I have an ice cream maker, a juicer, and a few other items that have been discussed. Matt has the snowball maker. We were both oddly tempted by the martini shaker!

When we mention an item as a Unitasker, we do it knowing that someone out there probably finds some use for the item (well, except for the kitty wigs … we’re still completely baffled by those). For most people, though, the items we name wouldn’t be anything but clutter in their homes. It’s totally fine if you choose to own a Unitasker. There aren’t any Unclutterer Police coming to take it away from you or judge you over it. We’re just talking about stuff, things, objects — not people or their choices. We love our readers and hope to entertain you with the Unitaskers. And, we love it when our readers send us ideas. Some of our best items have come from you! — Erin

So, without further ado, we bring you this week’s installment of Unitasker Wednesday:

Pickle PickerPickles can be tough to round up out of a jar. There is no need to use a fork or your fingers when you can buy a utensil specifically designed for the task of picking up a pickle! The Pickle Picker is just what any pickle lover would want:

Forget squeezing your fingers into a jar trying to grasp a pickle to no avail. This nifty pickle picker does the work for you. Simple and easy to use, the picker is great for any jarred item that is difficult to grab. Just push down on the plunger, grab the item out of the jar and release.

Did I mention it can also pick up banana peppers and be used to annoyingly poke your little brother? (Maybe it’s not a unitasker after all?!) Regardless, if something is in a jar and you don’t want to waste a perfectly clean fork or your fingers on such a task, then this is the tool that can get the job done.

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Being organized: A learned behavior

Reasons people give for being disorganized usually align with being too busy or a life changing event (new baby, death of a loved one) or general laziness. These are reasonable explanations and are obstacles that can be overcome.

Every once in a while, however, someone will try to explain to me that they are disorganized because of their genetic makeup. They use phrases such as, “I come from messy people” or “I couldn’t be organized if I wanted to.” Yes, some families are pack rats over the course of multiple generations, but those are learned behaviors. There is not a gene as far as any scientist has found that predetermines a person’s affinity for organization.*

Can growing up in a household of highly disorganized people affect your perceptions and habits? You bet. But does it sentence you to a lifetime of clutter? No!

As with any life skill — time management, cooking, walking — those necessary to maintain an organized life can be learned. You may need to practice these skills, the same way you practice a musical instrument, but you can eventually work to a level of mastery.

I haven’t always been organized. If you’ve read my biography on the About page, you’ve noticed that I used to be the type of person who held onto every object I deemed sentimental. I eventually realized that holding onto so much stuff came with a lot of stress, worry, and financial expense, and that I wanted a different way of life. So, I learned organization skills, practiced them, and implemented them throughout my life. You can learn them, too.

If you’ve convinced yourself that you are destined to a life of disorganization, try changing that attitude! Put in the time, effort, and practice necessary to become the more organized person you desire. No need to go overboard, just find the best level of organization for you that allows you to live the remarkable life you desire.

*I want to note that there is something actually called a Disorganization Gene, but it has nothing to do with clutter. It’s about birth defects and cellular mutations involving the actual genetic code of an animal becoming disorganized. || Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Your boarding pass on your cell phone

As paper becomes less and less important in the digital age, the paper boarding pass may also be a thing of the past. According to this New York Times article, at least six airlines are already allowing travelers to check in with their mobile devices. Although this check-in process results in a paper boarding pass issued at the ticket window, it saves you from having to print an additional copy beforehand at your home or office.

Currently, Continental Airlines has begun testing a completely paperless boarding pass. The Continental electronic pass allows travelers to pass through security and board the plane without handling any paper at all. Continental sends a bar code to your mobile device and it is then scanned by security and gate agents.

Although I love the idea of paperless boarding pass, I have little faith in the TSA agents actually being up to speed on technological advances. I hope to be proven wrong.

Photo courtesy of USA Today