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!

An April Fools’ Day reminder: backup your digital data

World Backup Day was yesterday, and the day’s motto is: “Don’t be an April Fool. Be prepared. Back up your files on March 31.”

This is good advice, but, of course, you should back up your files all year round, not just on March 31. Hard drives fail. Computers (and smartphones and tablets) get stolen. Phones get dropped into water and become unusable.

If I lost everything on my computer, I’d be awfully unhappy about that. My computer has precious photos, lots of contact information, my calendar, a monstrous collection of website bookmarks, lots of documents I’ve scanned and shredded, etc. But I’m not worried about losing these valuable items, because I’m protected.

The following is what I do for backup, just to give you some ideas about how you might want to backup your digital life.

Incidental backups

My contacts and calendar are synched to my smartphone and tablet, so I have a backup of sorts there. I have some photos on Flickr, but these are just a select few I’ve chosen to share publicly. I also have some files in Dropbox, so I can access them from everywhere. While these are all fine duplications, I also wanted some true backup solutions.

Backups to hard drives

I have a MacBook, and I use SuperDuper to create a bootable hard drive with all my files. This is a Mac-only solution, and for Mac users I think it’s terrific. I’ve restored my entire computer from a SuperDuper backup, when Apple needed to replace a bad hard drive, and everything went just fine. There are plenty of other backup programs for both the Mac and the PC, but I don’t know if they provide quite the same functionality. If you’re a PC user, please leave a comment about your favorite SuperDuper equivalent.

I use LaCie rugged hard discs (with a Firewire connection) for my backups, and I’ve been happy with them, but there are certainly many other choices. I like the LaCie products because I often carry a hard drive in my purse, and so I appreciate the external protection built into these hard drives. It’s also one of the drives tested for compatibility with SuperDuper. I rotate through three different drives, so if one of these fails, I’m still protected.

Why carry one in my purse? It’s a form of off-site backup, and it’s easier to put one in my purse than to take one over to my safe deposit box. If my house were robbed, or if there were a fire, I wouldn’t want to lose both my computer and my back-up. (Yes, I know this may be a bit over the top.)

Backup to the cloud

I also wanted automated, all-the-time backups — and I believe in what organizer Margaret Lukens calls the “belt and suspenders” approach of having multiple types of backups, so you know you’re covered.

My choice for cloud backups is CrashPlan, but, again, there are many such services to choose from. I picked CrashPlan because people I knew used it and successfully restored files when they needed to, and they were very happy with the service.

CrashPlan and other cloud backups are great in that they run continually, and they provide off-site storage. But, if I needed to restore a computer drive quickly, my cloud backup wouldn’t be nearly as useful as my SuperDuper backup.

What about you? If you’re not doing backups, I highly recommend you start — you don’t want to be an April Fool and lose your valuable data. If you are backing up your data, I’d be interested in hearing your backup strategy in the comments.

2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Tech for organization

Do you have a tech-friendly organization devotee on your holiday shopping list? Then you are in luck because this is among the easiest, most fun groups to shop for. A tech geek — for lack of a better term — is always willing to try out a new gadget, system, or tool, just in case it’s an improvement over what she/he is already using. As a tech geek, I’m speaking from experience.

The following are several gift ideas that are likely to make the tech geek in your life happy:

  1. The Doxie Flip Scanner. The newest addition to the Doxie family of scanners (released just a couple of weeks ago), is a delightful little device. This portable (about 6.5 x 10 x 1 inches and 1 lb 7.3 oz.), battery-powered, flatbed scanner is perfect for scanning photos, books, sketches, manuals and so much more. It easily fits into almost any bag and saves scans to an SD card for easy transfer. Here’s a cool tip: If you have a wireless-capable Eye-Fi card, skip the middle man and scan directly to your computer over Wi-Fi.
  2. New Trent Travelpak. The Travelpak is a portable recharging device that can supply extra juice to anything that accepts a charge via USB. That means iPhones, iPods, iPads, tablets, cameras and smartphones of all kinds. It stores enough power to keep most smartphones going for a days under normal use. And, it’s barely bigger than a phone, so it fits into a bag or pocket easily. Useful and portable? That’s a winning combo to me.
  3. BookBook Travel Journal. This one is for the iPad-wielding traveler. The BookBook Travel Journal from Twelve South is a tidy, organized, and absolutely fantastic-looking carrying case for an iPad and myriad of accessories. You can store the tablet plus a charger (like the awesome PlugBug), set of headphones, keyboard case, stylus, notebook, and pen. Twelve South makes fantastic products (check out similar carriers for the iPhone, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air) and the Travel Journal is no exception. Tidy, attractive, and best of all, useful.
  4. CoverBot Dual USB High Output Car Charger. Here’s another wonderfully unobtrusive device that will keep all your favorite tech geek’s devices charged. The CoverBot Duo is a car charger with two USB-ready ports. Each is fully powered, so you can get two devices up and running at the same pace. As with the New Trent Travelpak, the CoverBot Duo works with any device that will accept a charge via USB.
  5. Philips HF3500/60 Wake-Up Light. Now this is just cool. The Wake-Up Light wakes you up by growing gradually brighter over a 30-minute period. This process, according to Phillips, stimulates your body to wake up naturally, as opposed to the jarring audio alert of most alarm clocks. Phillips sent us one to review and we’re glad they did. Additionally, once fully illuminated, it easily lights up a bedroom. Replace that lamp and save some space on your nightstand, too.
  6. BLaNKcraft Cable Manager. With two iPhones and an iPod in the house, I spend way too much time plugging, unplugging, replacing, or searching for cables. It’s worse when we’re traveling, as one pocket of my bag ends up holding a rat’s nest of white cable. The BLaNKcraft Cable Manager can rescue your tech geek from cable chaos. This handmade, leather strap is so simple and so clever that I just love it. Bind your cables with the snap, tuck it into a bag, pocket, or drawer and you’re good to go. As an alternative, the Cord Taco is another great choice.
  7. Tile. This clever little fob attaches to your valuables (up to 10) and lets you track their location with an iOS app. Lose the keys? Misplace a wallet? Don’t know where the kids’ backpacks have gone? You’re a tap away from solving the mystery.
  8. Automatic. This is among my top gadgets of the year. The Automatic is a little device that plugs into your car’s data port (check if your car is supported here) and shares a host of useful information. For example, if you car’s “Check Engine” light comes on, the Automatic will tell you what’s wrong via the companion smartphone app (iOS and Android). If it detects an accident has occurred, it notifies local authorities. It remembers where you parked and even helps you drive in a more economical manner. It even supports multiple drivers.
  9. The Quirky Plug Hub. Finally, here’s another great way to rid yourself of a rat’s nest of cables. Put a power strip inside and use the three holes in the top to thread six plugs through neatly. You don’t have to look at the ugly plug unit once it’s tucked inside. Take things a step further and add some labels to those plugs so you’ll know what’s going where.

Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Get to know Apple’s Siri for better organized communications

Apple released a major update to its mobile operating system two weeks ago, called iOS 7. In addition, the company released two new iPhone models — the iPhone 5c and the iPhone 5s — on September 20. Many customers have already and will upgrade to a new device, and others will purchase an iPhone for the first time. With the latter group in mind, I’ve written this post on how to introduce yourself to Siri, the “electronic assistant” that is one of the iPhone’s marquee features and actually a useful communication organizing device. But first, if you’re an iPhone user, you can share some information with Siri to make working with it more pleasant and productive. Here’s how to get started:

Create a contact record

Tell Siri who you are. You can identify other important people, like a spouse, in this way, too. It’s really better to do this via Contacts. To begin, launch Contacts and create a record for yourself if you don’t have one. Include any phone numbers you use, email addresses, mailing addresses (work vs. home) and so on. Be as thorough as possible. The more info you enter, the more you’re providing to Siri.

Make sure your preferred contacts (spouse, co-workers, kids) have thorough records as well. Once you’ve created all the contact records you need, it’s time to identify who’s who.

Define contact relationships

Here’s the good part. Now that you’ve created a Contacts record for the people you contact most often, it’s time to define their relationship(s) to yourself. Again, this is managed through the Contacts app. When Siri looks at your record, she (or he) will notice these relationships. To set it up, find your record in Contacts, tap Edit and then follow these steps:

  1.  Scroll down a bit until you see a field labeled “spouse.” Tap it the blue arrow on the right-hand side.
  2. A list of contacts appears. Navigate to your spouse’s record and tap it. That person is now identified as your spouse.
  3. A new field appears beneath Spouse, labeled Mother. Again, tap the blue triangle to identify your mother’s record.
  4. A new field appears labeled “Father.” Repeat the process.

There are a couple of things to note here. The first is that you can change a contact’s name at this point. While in edit mode, tap the name to the left of the blue triangle. A cursor appears. Enter the new name (perhaps a maiden name has given way to a married name) and then tap Done.

Also, you can change the label to reflect the nature of your relationship easily. Simply tap the label (“Mother”) to reveal a list of available labels. These are divided into two categories, which I think of as “personal” and “general.”

The personal list contains options like “mother,” “father,” “child,” “friend” and “manager.” The final option, “other,” lets you create your own.

The general list contains options like “Blog,” “Google Talk,” “URL” and “Twitter Handle.” Tap “Add Custom Label” to create your own.

At this point, you’ve created a record for yourself, for your preferred contacts and told the Contacts app how they relate to you. Now it’s time to let Siri in on it.

Give Siri the details

Again, it’s best not to use Siri for this process (though still possible with Siri). To let Siri know who everyone is, launch the Settings app and then follow these steps:

  1. Tap General, then Siri.
  2. The Siri settings page appears. First and foremost, make sure the Siri slider is in the On position.
  3. You’ll find four settings: Language, Voice Feedback, My Info, and Raise to Speak among others. Tap My Info.
  4. A list of all contacts appears. Find your record and tap it. Siri will now consider that “you,” and notice all the relationships you added earlier.

That’s it! You’re done. Now you can tell Siri, “Call my husband” or “Remind me to text my partner when I get home” and it will know what to do.

Bits and bobs

As I said, you can do this with Siri itself, but it’s a bit more time consuming. When I started using Siri, I told it, “Call my wife.” It responded by asking who my wife is, and I told it. It then asked, “Would you like me to remember that [wife's name] is your wife?” “Yes,” I said, and since then, I can use the variable “my wife” and her actual name interchangeably with no problem.

You can also tell Siri directly how you like to be addressed. Simply launch Siri and say, “Call me [your name here].”

One last trick. If one of those identified contacts is also in Find My Friends on your iPhone, you can ask Siri, “Where’s ‘Jane’?” and it will use data from that app to help you find her.

Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.

20130821_ipadscreen2

Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Free up computer disk space

My main computer is a MacBook Air. I love it dearly. The thin little thing has traveled with me, and I wrote my books on it. It’s a super little machine. It’s got 128 GB of internal flash storage, which sounds like a lot, yet I get that “your startup disk is almost full” warning all the time. The fact that I photograph my kids all the time doesn’t help. I also love music, movies, and trying new software. Those are all space-hogging activities. What can I do?

If you’re in the same boat — irrespective if you’re on a Mac or PC — this post is for you. I’ve collected several tips for freeing up disk space on your computer. Put them into practice and reclaim a little bit of that precious storage space.

To the cloud!

First and foremost, take advantage of cloud storage. Flickr offers users one terabyte of storage for free. That’s huge. I use Everpix, which syncs photos taken with my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone automatically. Those shots aren’t stored on my Mac at all, saving me huge amounts of space.

Music is another opportunity to save space. For example, many people buy an external disk and move their music (like iTunes) library to it. That way your computer’s internal storage is free of your huge music library. Apple’s iCloud also lets you store music on their own servers which you can stream on demand, if you own a Mac.

Other stream-only services like Rdio, Spotify and Pandora let customers stream music to their devices for a monthly fee. I’ve been using Rdio for years and love it. I can listen to all the music I want without any of it living on my hard drive.

What about documents? Dropbox is great, but it stores local copies of all your flies. Actually, not all. In the app’s preferences, select “Selective Sync.” This lets you determine which of your Dropbox folders are copied to your computer.

Cleaning house

While researching this article, I came across this post from MacRumors. It lists several great options for freeing up disk space, including:

  1. Empty the trash. You’d be surprised how often I see digital trash cans that are bulging with files. The act of simply moving a file into the trash doesn’t get rid of it. Empty that virtual trash can. Individual applications (like iPhoto on my Mac and my email program) may also have separate Trash cans and Spam folders that should be emptied, too.
  2. Delete software and files you don’t use. I’m the guy who downloads software just to see what it does. That means I accumulate a lot of apps I don’t use. Trash them. AppZapper for the Mac is good at removing an app and all its related files, if you’re on a Mac. If you know of a similar PC product, please share that in the comments.

    It is also good to go through the files you have saved and trash all those you no longer need. The grocery list you made eight months ago can probably go, even if it’s not taking up a lot of room. All those little files are only cluttering up your computer’s hard drive.

  3. Empty your browser caches. Most web browsers will cache sites to improve their performance. These cache files can grow over time. You’ll find an option to clear your cache in your browser’s preferences.

It’s also a good idea to run software that’s designed to find and eliminate unnecessary files. I rely on Clean My Mac. It’s great at finding things like hidden iPhoto duplicates, language files that I don’t use, and a lot more. I’ve reclaimed several gigabytes of space thanks to Clean My Mac. Again, if you rely on a PC product, please share that in the comments. And, if you’re on a PC, don’t forget to defragment your drive after you delete programs to help it run more efficiently.

Add physical storage

You might have an option to add more physical storage to your computer. For example, the cool StorEDGE from PNY is a little flash storage module that fits inside an SDXC slot (provided that it has one, my Air does not) and adds either 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.

There you have a few strategies for reclaiming a little precious disk space. Try them out and de-clutter your computer.

Ten awesome Dropbox tricks

Dropbox is a service that offers online storage of your stuff. It’s tremendously convenient and used by lots of people world wide. Dropbox is a quick-and-dirty sharing and backup tool that many workers (including yours truly) couldn’t work without.

What many people don’t realize is that Dropbox is capable of a lot more than drag-and-drop storage of your files. There are numerous cool things you can do with it, but the following are 10 useful tricks I’ve discovered to help keep me organized and reduce my digital clutter.

Save space with selective sync

My personal computer is a MacBook Air with just 128 GB of storage. I know that sounds like a lot, but with a bulging music collection and photo collection, it gets full pretty quickly. Fortunately, my work computer can hold much more. I can hand pick which files get synchronized to Dropbox and then to my MacBook Air, and which get ignored.

To do this, open the Dropbox preferences on your computer. Select the advanced tab and then click Selective Sync. From there, tell Dropbox which folders to sync to that computer. Those you choose to ignore are still available at dropbox.com, they’re just not automatically synched. You still have access to them.

Access previous versions of files

Dropbox offers one huge benefit that many people overlook. It saves versions of your files for up to 30 days. That means, for example, if you make changes to a Word document you’ve got in Dropbox and then decided you wish you hadn’t, you can restore a version that existed before you made all of those regrettable edits.

Go to dropbox.com and find the file. Right-click on it and select Previous Versions from the resulting menu. A list appears; select the one you want. Easy.

Backup your smartphone photos automatically

This is a very nice feature that was introduced within the last year or so. Dropbox for iPhone and Android can automatically move a copy of every photo you shoot to a folder on the service. Check your mobile app’s preferences for the setting to enable this. It offers real peace of mind.

Mark files as favorites for offline access

I do this one quite a bit, especially when traveling. As you know, Dropbox stores your stuff on its servers. However, if you mark a file as a favorite, a copy will be downloaded to your mobile device, allowing you to view it even when you don’t have Internet access.

To mark an item as a favorite, simply navigate to it on your tablet or smartphone and tap the star icon.

Recover deleted files

“Ack! I didn’t mean to delete that!” No worries. If you delete a file, versions from the last 30 days remain. To get something back, go to dropbox.com and navigate to the folder where it used to be. Find the Show Deleted Files icon and click it. Then select it from the list.

Back up your blog, two ways

I use Dropbox to back up every post I publish to my blog. There are at least two ways to do this. I use a service called IFTTT, or If This Then That. You can use IFTTT to build actions or recipes to accomplish tasks for you. I have one that watches for any new post I publish to my blog. When it finds one, it copies the text to a file in my Dropbox account. If worse came to worst, I’d still have all of my posts.

If you don’t want to fiddle around with IFTTT (and you own a WordPress blog), check out this great plugin for one-click backups.

Print a PDF right to Dropbox

Here’s a great tip that’s reserved for you Mac users. You probably know that you can turn nearly any file into a PDF by choosing Save to PDF when printing something. What you may not know is that you can direct that PDF to save right to Dropbox.

When you click Save to PDF, you’ll see Edit Menu as the very last option. Click it, and then click the “+” in the resulting window. A new list appears. Navigate to your Dropbox (or any folder therein) and then click OK. Now, that folder will appear in the Save to PDF menu every time. Simply click it, and a PDF will be automatically shuffled off to Dropbox.

Back up your Instagram photos

Here’s another IFTTT trick. I’ve created a recipe to monitor my Instagram account for new photos. Whenever it finds one, it moves a copy to a folder on my Dropbox account. The photograph is backed up and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.

Publish a website (pancake)

Pancake.io is a free service that lets you publish a blog or website right from your Dropbox account. It’s quite simple to set up and you can find all the details on how to do it on the Pancake site.

Digitize user manuals for less clutter, easy retrieval

User manuals are a necessary evil. When you bring home that new TV, blender, or printer, you set it up, try it out, and tuck its user manual away somewhere. Chances are you’ll never look at it again. But, you might, and that’s why you can’t throw it away. So, it gets tossed into a junk drawer or set on a shelf in the basement or crammed into the closet with all the other manuals you’ve stashed in there, just in case. These things are the definition of clutter. They sit around and do nothing for years and years. Wouldn’t it be great to store them completely out of sight yet have them instantly available, whenever you need them? Digitizing them is the answer. With a little bit of time and some free software — plus one very cool trick — you can achieve User Manual Nirvana. In this article, I’ll show you how to:

  1. Get manuals into your computer.
  2. Use the nearly ubiquitous Evernote to make your manuals accessible from your digital devices.
  3. Ensure that every manual is ready as soon as you need it with NO searching required (the cool trick).
  4. Reduce frustration and repair time around the house.

Get manuals

The first step, of course, is to find digital versions of your paper manuals and get them into your computer. There are several ways to do this, and I’ll cover three.

Go To The Source

You best bet is to look online, and your first stop should be the manufacturer’s website. For example, here’s a link to the manual for HP’s Officejet 6500 Wireless All-in-One Printer. If you can’t find the manual you’re after by visiting the manufacturer’s site, you’re not out of luck.

Check Third-Party Websites

User-manuals.com offers a large selection of user and service manuals, mostly for large appliances. The manuals on this site aren’t free, and will charge you about $8.99 per manual. The site’s search feature works well, and lets you narrow your inquiry by brand. Another option is theusermanualsite.com. It stores thousands of product manuals and a huge, searchable list of brands and products. What’s really nice is that theusermanualsite.com is supported by an active community of users who will respond to your requests. Theusermanualsite.com requires a free membership. There are other manual sites available, but I’ve had the best luck with these two.

Scan It Yourself

If the manual is not too long, scan it. Many are only long because they contain several languages. You can scan the two, three or four pages that are in your language and disregard the rest. If you don’t have a scanner, don’t worry! There’s a great iPhone app called Piikki that’s useful in this situation. It’s meant for taking photos of receipts, but really you can use it with any piece of paper. Piikki is very good at identifying the edges of paper and grabbing a readable, useful image. From there, send it to your computer.

Of course, you can also take a photo with Evernote and get it right in your database that way. More on Evernote later in this post.

A quick note before I move on to the next section. Don’t overlook “homemade” manuals and similar supplements. A few years ago, I had to replace the belt on our clothes dryer that turns the drum. While I had the machine apart, I sketched how it came apart, where the parts belong, and how it all fits back together. Today, I’ve got a scan of that drawing for future reference (and yes, I got it back together again).

Now that you’ve got your digital user manuals, store them in a fantastic, nearly ubiquitous digital database called Evernote.

Evernote can be your digital database

We’ve written about Evernote before and for good reason. It’s a dead-simple way to store just about anything that’s digital, from manuals to ideas, from music to packing lists. Best of all, it’s nearly ubiquitous. There’s a version for just about any device you own, as well as the web. I treat Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. Evernote stores information in what it calls “notes.” Similar notes can be grouped into a “notebook.” In our case, one note will be one user manual, and all of those notes will be gathered into a single notebook called, you guessed it, “Manuals.” Here’s how to set things up.

Create a Notebook

First, create a notebook. Fortunately, the process couldn’t be simpler. On the left-hand side of your browser window, right-click (that’s Control-click for you Mac users) on the grey area where it says “Notebooks” and select “New Notebook.” Name it “Manuals” and you’re all set.

Create a Note

The exact steps required to create a note depend on the device you’re using (iPhone vs. Mac vs. Android device, etc.). I’ll review how to do it in a web browser, as that’s the same for everyone, and leave you to suss out the (similar) process on your computer/tablet/smartphone of choice.

  1. Navigate to Evernote.com and log in.
  2. Tap “+ New Note”.
  3. The note creation screen appears. Enter a name for you note (like “DVD Player Manual”).
  4. Click “Show details” and enter “manuals” as the tag. This is important as you’ll see.
  5. Click the attachment icon (it resembles a paperclip), navigate to your manual and attach it to the note.
  6. Select “Manuals” from the Notebooks drop-down menu to put it in the proper notebook.
  7. Click “Done”.

That’s it. Repeat the process with all of your manuals. Once you’ve done this on one device, those notes will be available on every other device that you have that runs Evernote. Adding them can be boring, but now for the fun stuff.

Find manuals when you need them

I promised to teach you a cool trick. This isn’t it, though it’s still pretty nifty. You can search for a term in Evernote and then save that search so you don’t have to type it over and over again. Plus, Evernote is smart enough to update the results for you.

In the Evernote app for the desktop, enter “manuals” in the search field and hit Return. Look at the results to make sure they’re accurate, then click on the File menu, and then choose File and then Save Search. Give it a nice name (I suggest “Manuals”) and you’re all done. From now on, all you need to do is click the search field and “Manuals” will appear there for you. Just give it a click.

Here’s another cool bit: saved searches sync across devices. That means, once you’ve created the saved search on your computer, it will be available on your smartphone as well.

OK, here’s the super-cool trick I’ve been promising you.

Access manuals from the appliances themselves

While doing research for this article, I came across this brilliant idea from author Jamie Todd Rubin. His idea is to use QR codes, Evernote, and sticky paper to create almost immediate, no-search access to your digital user manuals.

QR Codes are those funky, square-shaped boxes of scanner code you might have seen, similar to the one at right. A QR Code reader (like this free one for the iPhone), can read the information it contains and perform a resulting action, most often opening a web page.

You can make your own QR Codes for free with a tool like this one at KAYAW QR Code by providing the link you’d like it to point to. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then make a QR Code with that URL, using the free QR Code generator linked above. Once that’s done, print the page, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your printer, blender, DVD player, what have you.

Now, whenever you need the manual for that device, all you need to do is scan it with a free QR reader app and presto! Evernote launches and opens that exact manual for you. No searching, no typing. Ingenious. If you don’t want to use the Note URL from the Evernote app, open the target note in a browser and copy its URL. That will work, too.

There you have it: digitize your user manuals to greatly reduce clutter, keep them close at hand on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and use QR code stickers on your devices to let THEM retrieve your manuals for you. Have fun.

Organize all your cloud services with Jolidrive

As Internet access becomes ubiquitous and bandwidth drops in price, so-called “cloud” services (which store your information on a server that’s accessed via the Internet) are growing in popularity. Many are very useful and help you perform tasks like sharing photos and video, storing files, and keeping up with family and friends. Most cloud services are inexpensive, some are free, and many offer great convenience.

The trouble starts when you subscribe to more than a few. I found myself checking Instagram for photos, Facebook for updates from friends, Dropbox for shared files, Path for updates from family, and Pocket and Instapaper for articles to read. Fortunately, I found Jolidrive, which lets me keep all of those services (and many more) in one, tidy, organized layout.

Jolidrive is free to use. You can create an account by signing in with your Facebook credentials or email address. Once you’ve done that and clicked the link in your confirmation email, you’re all set.

There are several “services” you can have Jolidrive connect to, including:

  1. Exfm
  2. Vimeo
  3. SoundCloud
  4. YouTube
  5. Box
  6. CloudApp
  7. Google Plus
  8. Instapaper
  9. Picasa
  10. SkyDrive
  11. SugarSync
  12. Tumblr
  13. Ubuntu One
  14. Dropbox
  15. Facebook
  16. Flickr
  17. Google Drive (formerly Google Documents)
  18. Instagram
  19. Pocket

As you add each service, you’ll be asked for your login credentials. Once the connection is made, it appears in the sidebar of Jolidrive’s beautifully designed web interface. Tap any one to explore.

For example, I can click the Instagram icon to get a beautiful grid of the latest photos in my feed. I can also browse my own photos and those I’ve liked, as well as the most popular photos across all of Instagram. Finally, I can see who I’m following, as well as who’s following me. All from the one web page. In fact, jolidrive has become my favorite way to browse Instagram.

It works much the same with Facebook. I can see my news feed and my own timeline, my list of friends, photo albums, and videos. Again, there’s no need to visit another site. It’s very convenient and tidy.

I’ve also got Pocket in my account, it lets me browse and read saved articles in a layout that is just as pretty as the Pocket iPad app.

But Jolidrive is not just pictures and articles. I can browse and interact with almost any file I’ve got stored on Dropbox, Box, or SkyDrive. The fact that I don’t have to navigate away to all those different sites or apps is a real time-saver. On top of that, it looks great.

If you’re like me and you subscribe to a large number of cloud services, consider jolidrive. It keeps everything organized into a single, great-looking website. I have and I’m glad I did.

Ask Unclutterer: Implementing GTD paperlessly

Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:

1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.

Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?

I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.

That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.

If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.

I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.

People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)

As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.

In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).

Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.

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.

Your email inbox is not a filing cabinet

“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”

I was recently asked to forward an email I had received to someone else. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the message that I wanted, so I spent a few minutes searching and scrolling. Fortunately, I only had a couple dozen messages in my inbox. I’ve seen people scroll through thousands of messages in a desperate hunt for that one phone number, street address or appointment confirmation. It’s agonizing. Why do we do that to ourselves?

An interesting thing about email is that, for many, it’s both a delivery system and a storage facility. When we “check email,” we often open our email software, browse the many messages contained therein, and then quit the application without removing any of the messages.

Consider the paper mail that reaches your mailbox: you don’t open the box, sort through the envelopes and then close it back up again, leaving everything inside. Nor do you return from the grocery store and leave brimming bags on the kitchen counter. Yet, email is often ignored in this way, to our detriment.

I recommend using a simple four-step process to get your electronic mailbox as close to empty as you can, every day. The steps are:

  1. Decide what each message is.
  2. Decide what must be done.
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message (or archive it in a separate folder, if that is what your employer directs).

It’s an adaptation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for processing email, which is a highly formalized system of productivity improvement. You can read David’s book (and I recommend that you do), but you needn’t follow his instructions in full to reap huge benefits. Here’s a simplified adaptation that I use for managing email.

Defining Work Time

Before we begin exploring the how, let’s define the when. The good news about email access is also the bad news: it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can send and receive email at various points of the day. For those of us with connected smartphones, email is almost available during every waking moment of our day.

As such, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to check it whenever the opportunity arises. Instead, tame that tendency by defining email time. I like to check email at 8:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM. This has several benefits. First, it familiarizes others with my communication schedule. It also helps me stay focused when I do sit down to work through email. Finally, it alleviates the guilt of not checking during off hours. Define a time to sit down with your computer, smart phone, or tablet and work with your email. All set? Now, let’s begin.

What is it?

When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:

  1. It’s garbage
  2. It’s something I need to do
  3. It’s something I might refer to later

That’s it. Every message you ever receive will fall into these three categories. Now that you’ve identified what each message is, proceed to step two.

Decide what must be done

The first one is simple: garbage. As soon as you see it, delete it. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all trash, so trash it. Immediately.

The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the campout next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Yes, delete it. (Unless, again, your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons. In this case, move it to an archive folder.)

The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. On to step three.

Do what must be done (the appropriate place)

This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.

It can be anything you want. You might choose a paper notebook — I carry one around for jotting a daily task list. There’s lots of software available, from simple to involved, which you can use for this purpose. My choice is Evernote, because it’s simple to use, powerful, cross-platform (Mac, Windows, web browsers and an increasing number of mobile devices are supported) and above all, reliable. Evernote works by creating virtual Notebooks, each of which can contain several notes. Notes and notebooks can be sorted, categorized and organized to your heart’s content, and online sync keeps them up-to-date across all you devices. So, if you create a note on your computer, it will show up on your phone or iPad without you having to do a thing.

Evernote is fantastic for storing reference material, or what I call “cold storage.” Receipts from online purchases, how-to’s, restaurant menus, theatre schedules, the kids’ sporting information, contracts and more. Once you have the pertinent information in a reliable system you trust, you can delete the email message.

As for action items, how you handle these is up to you. Evernote will create an action list, if you decide to use it. You can also create a list in a notebook or task-oriented software like Remember The Milk, Teux Deux or even Omnifocus if you want to go hard-core.

The important thing is trust. You must have faith in the system you choose, whatever it is. That way your brain will stop pestering you and, more importantly, you’ll be able to delete those messages. So, to recap. When an email message arrives, follow these steps:

  1. Decide what it is.
  2. Decide what must be done (trash, define a task or place in cold storage).
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message.

Ask Unclutterer: To check or not check email first thing at work?

Reader James submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’ve read productivity books and articles that claim checking email first thing at work is a bad idea. I have been burned by not checking it because my boss and clients sent me important messages overnight and I didn’t get them until two hours later. What is your take on checking email? Is my overall productivity worth the times I’ve been burned?

I can see the reasoning behind not checking your email right when you get to work — you run the risk of getting caught up in work that might not be extremely important to your job responsibilities at a time when you’re likely at your most focused and productive. It would be better if you could use your best brain power on your most demanding and core work.

That being said, I check my email first thing when I get into work. I don’t really address it, though, I simply scan all the “from” and “subject” lines to search for work-altering messages. If I don’t see any indicators that someone sent me an email that will change my most demanding and core work, I immediately close my mail program and wait until I need a break from my demanding work around 10:00 a.m.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it didn’t affect my immediate work day, I mark the message as “unread” so it can hang out until I process email in a couple hours.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it does affect my immediate work, I’ll process the email the same way I do when I’m really handling email. This means I’ll file it as Archived, add related next actions to my to-do list, and/or schedule any related information on my calendar. If I need to reply to the email, I do it at this time. After giving proper attention to the email, I’ll scan the rest of the inbox to see if there is anything else I must check. If I’m done with my quick search, I’ll quit the program and wait to address the other issues at 10:00 a.m.

I chose my times for checking email based on when I do my mindful and mindless work over the course of the day — scan at 8:00 a.m., full check at 10:00 a.m., full check after lunch around 1:00 p.m., a scan around 3:00 p.m., and then a final end-of-workday check at 5:00 p.m. I do not have my new message indicator light on my email program activated, and I actually completely close out of the program when not in use. If your job allows you to behave in this manner, I strongly recommend it. It significantly helps my productivity to not be tempted to check email constantly.

Thank you, James, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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.