A year ago on Unclutterer

2009

Three uncluttered activities you can do on a lazy Saturday

All along the east coast of the U.S. today, we’re getting blanketed with snow. As a result, I’ve declared that I’m not leaving the house unless it catches on fire. I’m spending the day in my pajamas, nursing this awful fever-cough-runny-nose ick I’ve caught from my son, and taking care of some unfinished items on my home’s to-do list.

Three of these to-do items are great tasks to complete on a day you’ve decided to stay at home. From my home to yours, I bring you three uncluttered activities you can do on a lazy Saturday:

  1. Sort through your magazines and catalogs. Curl up on a comfy corner of the couch, pull out your giant stack of reading materials, and take an hour to read and then recycle all of these materials. Any articles you want to keep, rip out of the magazine and then scan them to your computer. Farewell, July issue of Vanity Fair!
  2. Backup your home computer. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — There are two types of hard drives: those that have failed, and those that have yet to fail. If you’re not regularly backing up your hard drive, you’re tempting fate. Open up an account at Dropbox.com and securely upload all of your important data. In my opinion, a non-backed up hard drive is clutter because it’s a distraction to your life the same way dirty socks are in the middle of your living room floor.
  3. Clear the clutter from your laundry room. I’m not really sure how it happens, but laundry rooms are clutter magnets. There are piles of loose change, random receipts and pony tail holders pulled out of pockets, errant socks, used fabric softener sheets, and three bottles of partially used detergent haphazardly strewn about the room. Go through the items in this area and create a more organized system. The more you enjoy being in this space, the more likely you will be to keep up with your laundry chores. A nice drawer organizer can be repurposed to hold buttons, safety pins, and change. And, a large plastic shoe box can become the permanent home for your detergents and fabric softeners.

Now you all know how I’ll be spending my Saturday at home. What uncluttered items are on your to-do list for the day?

Ask Unclutterer: Messy mail

Reader Sandra submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Could you please do an article on how to keep mail organized? I considered myself pretty much clear of clutter, except for my mail. It’s driving me crazy. Even thought I toss everyday the junk, some how I have not been able to follow a good system to get rid off my mail clutter on my desk (these are payed bills, insurance stuff, etc). Now it’s taking over my son’s desk. Please help. Love your blog!

Sandra, I love your question!

I want to start by saying that I have every system imaginable in place to handle mail — and there are still times when it all falls apart and I find mail on my dining room table. It’s the constant incoming stream that makes it such a difficult issue for the home. I hope that the following advice, however, keeps these breakdowns in your system less severe and less frequent.

First, start by reducing the amount of mail that comes into your home. Sign up for services like Precycle (formerly GreenDimes and Mailstopper), which stop junk mail before it ever arrives at your door. Try to get as many utility and monthly bills as possible switched to automatic electronic payment. If mail doesn’t come in, it can’t pile up on any desk.

Second, create and use a mail processing station near the door where you get your mail. It should include a trash can, shredder, recycling bin, and pen/pencil. Each day when you come inside with the mail, immediately shred any items that include personal information that might be tempting to identity thieves (a few seconds of shredding can prevent weeks/months/years of fighting legal battles). Toss into the recycling bin any junk mail and mail you only needed to read once (announcements, etc.). And throw into the trash anything that can’t be recycled.

On the items that still remain, write actions on back of envelopes (Pay by 2/10, Complete and return by 2/05, File in Tax Forms folder) and disposal dates on the fronts of catalogs and magazines (Read before 3/1/2010). Nothing should come into your home that doesn’t have a specific to-do note appearing on it somewhere.

Third, since you live with other people, you will also want to have mailboxes of some kind for the other people in your home. These can be cubbies, pockets, baskets, or even file folders. If the mail isn’t for you, you need a place to store their correspondence so they can easily find it and process it themselves.

Fourth, once you’ve put away all of your other items and set things so that they’re ready for the next time you leave (keys on a hook, coat hung in closet, lunch bag out of briefcase), pick up your mail and head straight to your office. Immediately schedule to-do items on your calendar. Store magazines and catalogs in a place where you will read them before their disposal date. File documents that need to be filed, and take care of any action items that can be completed in less than two minutes. Treat your mail the same way you handle your other work.

This routine might take you five minutes from start to finish, but handling your mail in this way will keep you from turning your son’s desk into a mess. Remember that everything in your home needs a place to live — and that includes each piece of your mail.

Thank you, Sandra, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Workspace of the Week: A simple study

This week’s Workspace of the Week is IJMFlickr’s home office:

The simplicity of the desk, well-organized storage, and cable management instantly caught my eye in this office. Definitely check out the additional photos in the set of the media armoire (an impressive setup) and other views of the room. I especially enjoyed the description IJMFlickr provided for why this specific desk was chosen for the room:

The worktable is relatively light and easy to move, making it simple to turn my office into a guest bedroom by moving the worktable to the side and inflating a raised air mattress.

Thank you, IJMFlickr, for submitting such an inspiring workspace to our pool.

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.

The case against the iPad

Timothy B. Lee is good friend of ours. He is a member of the Center for Information Technology at Princeton University and he blogs at Bottom-Up.

Apple released a new product, called the iPad, yesterday. For those of you who don’t spend your days glued to Twitter, you can view all the details at Apple’s website. I’m not impressed. I’m a lifelong Mac fanboy, so I’m not averse to buying Apple stuff. But I have two problems with the device: first, I don’t understand who this product is marketed to. And second, I’m disappointed that Apple has decided to adopt the iPhone’s locked-down platform strategy.

It’s not clear who has an urgent need for this device. Apple’s existing product lines — Macs, iPods, and iPhones — are all focused on common activities that virtually everyone does. Most people listen to music and make phone calls. Most people need a full-scale computer. In contrast, it’s not clear what the core purpose of an iPad is. It’s too limited to fully replace a laptop — who wants to type long emails on a virtual keyboard? It’s too big and heavy to replace an iPod or an iPhone. And it’s just not clear that someone who already has a MacBook and an iPod will shell out another $500-800 for a third device.

I think the primary intended use of the iPad is as an eBook reader. But here too, the iPad falls short. Dedicated eBook raeders like the Kindle use e-ink which has two key characteristics: phenomenally long battery life and superior readability in bright light. E-Books are a nice “extra” feature for a tablet computer to have, but if that’s the primary thing people want to do, they should buy a Kindle.

My second problem with the iPad is more fundamental: The iPad appears to be Steve Jobs’s attempt to roll back the multi-decade trend toward more open computing platforms. Jobs’s vision of the future is one that revolves around a series of proprietary “stores” — for music, movies, books, and so forth — controlled by Apple. And rather than running the applications of our choice, he wants to limit users to running Apple-approved software from the Apple “app store.”

I’ve written before about the problems created by the iPhone’s top-down “app store.” The store is an unnecessary bottleneck in the app development process that limits the functionality of iPhone applications and discourages developers from adopting the platform. Apple has apparently chosen to extend this policy — as opposed to the more open Mac OS X policy — to the iPad.

With the iPhone, you could at least make the argument that its restrictive application approval rules guaranteed the reliability of the iPhone in the face of tight technical constraints. The decision not to allow third-party apps to multitask, for example, ensures that a misbehaving app won’t drain your iPhone’s battery while it runs in the background. And the approval process makes it less likely that a application crash could interfere with the core telephone functionality.

But these considerations don’t seem to apply to the iPad. Apple is attempting to pioneer a new product category, which suggests that reliability is relatively less important and experimentation more so. If a misbehaving application drains your iPad battery faster than you expected, so what? If you’re reading an e-book on your living room couch, you probably have a charger nearby. And it’s not like you’re going to become stranded if your iPad runs out of batteries the way you might without your phone. On the other hand, if the iPad is to succeed, someone is going to have to come up with a “killer app” for it. There’s a real risk that potential developers will be dissuaded by Apple’s capricious and irritating approval process.

The iPad also has a proprietary dock connector, a headphone jack, and no other ports. The net effect of this is, again, to give Apple complete control over the platform’s evolution, because the only way for third-party devices to connect to the iPad is through the proprietary dock connector. Again, this made a certain amount of sense on the iPhone, where space, weight, and ergonomics are at a premium. But it’s totally unacceptable for a device that aims to largely replace my laptop. Hell, even most video game consoles have USB ports.

The iPad book store looks like it has similar flaws. From all indications, the books you “buy” on an iPad will be every bit as limited as the books you “buy” on the Kindle; if you later decide to switch to another device, there’s no easy (or legal) way to take your books with you. I think this is an issue that a lot of Kindle owners haven’t thought through carefully, and that it will trigger a backlash once a significant number of them decide they’d like to try another device.

This is of a piece with the rest of Apple’s media strategy. Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero. Analysts often point to the strategy as a success, but I think this is a misreading of the last decade. The parts of the iTunes store that have had the most success — music and apps — are tied to devices that are strong products in their own right. Recall that the iPod was introduced 18 months before the iTunes Store, and that the iPhone had no app store for its first year. In contrast, the Apple TV, which is basically limited to only playing content purchased from the iTunes Store, has been a conspicuous failure. People don’t buy iPods and iPhones in order to use the iTunes store. They buy from the iTunes store because it’s an easy way to get stuff onto their iPods and iPhones.

Apple is fighting against powerful and fundamental economic forces. In the short term, Apple’s technological and industrial design prowess can help to prop up dying business models. But before too long, the force of economic gravity will push the price of content down to its marginal cost of zero. And when it does, the walls of Apple’s garden will feel a lot more confining. If “tablets” are the future, which is far from clear, I’d rather wait for a device that gives me full freedom to run the applications and display the content of my choice.

Boxetti: Sleek minimalist furniture

If money were no object and I kept a spectacular flat in London as a second or third home, I would decorate it with furniture like this:

The Boxetti furniture collection (beware of the music that starts playing when clicking on the link) by Rolands Landsbergs is a beautiful feat of minimalism. From the product description:

The capability of the modules to be transformed into compactly solid blocks is essential for the design concept in order to obtain an unobstructed and comfortable space – free of uselessness.

When I see designs like this, I really do wish I had that flat in London.

Unclutterer goes shopping with The New York Times

When I started writing for Unclutterer, I didn’t have many expectations. I simply wanted to share the information I had learned about uncluttering and organizing with people who were seeking it. I knew how stressed and overwhelmed clutter and disorganization had made me feel, and thought I might be able to help a few people discover a more calm and enjoyable life.

Let me tell you what I didn’t expect:

A feature in The New York Times — “Ending the Reign of Chaos

When the reporter contacted me and said she wanted to do a feature, I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me. After a few Google searches, it became obvious that Julie Scelfo was the real thing. She wasn’t kidding. She really wanted to fly to D.C. to spend a day with me.

The piece that ran today in the print edition is marvelous — even helpful to readers — and I am so flattered to have been profiled. Unimaginably flattered. For more information on establishing a family information center in your home, check out the section on Reception Stations in the Monday chapter of Unclutter Your Life in One Week.

(Image by Michael Temchine for The New York Times.)

Unitasker Wednesday: Mini Cupcake Maker

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

Cupcakes are certainly the hip sweet treat these days. Walking through many cities across the U.S., you’re likely to find as many coffee shops as cupcake spots. But, you don’t have to wander in and buy these desserts — make them at home! While you’re at it, don’t even use your oven (which you already own) or a cupcake tin (which usually retails for just $7.00). Instead, purchase and use your extremely specific Mini Cupcake Maker:

After using this confection-specific appliance, store it in your cabinet next to your Muffin Magic, your cupcake batter dispenser, and your Perfect Brownie pan.

Or don’t.

Thanks to reader Janet for introducing us to this kitchen unitasker.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2009

2008

Free yourself from distractions with Concentrate

If you’re a Mac user and often find yourself tempted to goof off when you should be working, I want to introduce you to Concentrate.

Here’s how Concentrate works:
Name an activity you complete at your computer that requires focus. This activity might be something like creating presentations, reading PDFs for class, or laying out a newsletter. Once you’ve identified the activity, you can edit the specifics of how you want your computer to function. Determine what applications you’ll use and which ones you definitely won’t, specific websites or documents you’ll need and ones you won’t, your online status, which spaces to use (if you use the multi-desktop program), customize your desktop image, and even launch scripts. You can also set a timer to help keep you focused for a specific period, with sounds and recorded messages that can cheer you on along the way. You can set your preferences to have an icon automatically appear at start up so turning on the activity environment only takes one-click.

You can get 60 hours for free to try the service, and $29 if you choose to purchase it. My favorite part of the program is its incredibly simple user interface. Setting up the preferences takes very little time and effort, and turning on the activity is even easier. A program that is a breeze to use increases the likelihood that I’ll actually use it. And, I’m using Concentrate as I write this.

Hiding cables in plain sight

Unclutterer Forums member mpoush found a creative solution for concealing cables in plain sight:

We just moved our office into a larger room that does not have a phone jack. That means running wire from the other room for the modem and phone. Two ugly black cables hanging down were not the ideal, however. So I painted them dark green, and made some paper flowers on green pipe cleaners, then wrapped them around both cables, so it looks like a flowering vine. It’s still there, but now it’s decoration instead!

While flowers and pipe-cleaners may not be to your liking, this technique demonstrates how sometimes the best way to draw attention away from unsightly things is to draw attention directly to them.

Live online chat today at 2:00 EST

This afternoon at 2:00 p.m. EST, I’m doing an hour-long live online chat through Canada’s Globe and Mail. You can access the chat when it’s in progress, and I believe you can start submitting questions at 1:55 p.m. The topic of the chat is organizing e-mail, but I expect it also to cover office, home, and life issues.

Anyone in the world can submit questions (please do!) and follow along with the discussion. There is an editor who chooses the questions from those submitted and sends the selected ones to me, and then I type as quickly as I can to enter a response. I’m really looking forward to answering your questions — I expect it to be a lot of fun.

And, if you can’t stay around for the whole hour to watch the chat unfold, you can read the transcript of the chat afterward.

On Monday, I appeared in The Globe and Mail article “Four ways to free yourself from a cluttered inbox.” Check it out for tips to help get your e-mail under control.