Digital organizing and productivity tools

I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

Photo management

I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

Productivity

Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

Kids

My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

Protect your home business computer

Home-based businesses may be small, but they are (hopefully) a significant source of income for their owners and they provide a valuable service to their customers. For this and numerous other reasons, it is essential for these businesses to be able to quickly return to normal operations after a disaster.

One of the more frequent “disasters” in small business is data loss. This often happens when a virus infects the business computer or if the computer’s hard drive fails. The easiest way to protect your business from data loss is by ensuring you have up-to-date anti-virus software and to do regular backups of your computer’s hard drive. Daily backups to an external hard drive is an inexpensive way to ensure you can access your data and continue business operations should your computer crash. However, if your office were destroyed by fire or flood you would also lose your external hard drive, so I strongly recommend a cloud-based data storage solution, too. There are many inexpensive, secure online backup services available.

Protecting your computer system itself is important. Small business owners should purchase a surge protector and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery for each computer. A UPS will prevent electrical power surges from “blowing up” the computer system, and, should there be a loss of power, the battery will provide enough power for the user to back up data and shut the computer down safely.

Fire, flooding and theft are disasters that unfortunately occur all too often in small businesses. Having a detailed inventory of business assets (electronics, furniture, etc.) is essential in order to restore operations as quickly as possible and ensure the insurance company can process the claim promptly. Record the make, model and serial numbers along with receipts of purchase of all your business equipment. Copies of important paper-based records should be available after a disaster. Scan items such as insurance policies, cheques, and signed contracts. If you’ve stored this information on your computer and backed it up to your online storage area, you can access it easily and provide this information to your insurance company.

Disasters do strike, but if you’re organized and prepared your small business will be protected.

Declutter your email subject lines

Long ago in a town far, far away, I was an undergraduate student. I had one teacher, professor O’Brien, who insisted that his students communicate with him via email. Back then, I sent and received at most two messages per week.

Today, you can put a pair of zeros behind that number.

I’m sure I’m not alone. For many, reading emails is more of a chore than a convenience. One thing you can do to make things easier on your recipients is to write clear, uncluttered subject lines. It’s not very difficult, but can go a long way to making this often irksome task more pleasant and efficient.

First and foremost, keep your subject lines short. According to Business Insider, most computer-based email applications only show around 60 characters in email subject lines. On smart phones, mail apps show maybe half that number. Full sentences won’t really work to meet those restrictions, so consider key words or ideas. Focus on the heart of what you’re going to say. And, to be clear, “Hey!” is not a worthwhile subject.

Since mobile phones give you so little to work with, get the most important words out first (often it’s a verb). “Cancel lunch Friday,” for example, is just 19 characters, the crux of the message, and “cancel” is featured first.

With that point made, it’s time for some decluttering. We aren’t shooting for a diagrammable sentence here, so implied words may be sacrificed. This isn’t always a good idea, of course, but if you’re pushing the limit, feel free to jettison an “although” or even an “after,” if you can without changing the meaning.

There are a few people I communicate with regularly who have a habit of indicating whether or I not I need to respond in the subject itself. For example, “no response needed” or “please respond.” I don’t like this practice, though I know many do. I think it’s just extra words for me to process, but I also understand that if you’re skimming your inbox, it can help identify which messages need attention and which can be set aside. I’ll leave this one up to you.

If your recipient understands the meaning, a message that is completely conveyed in a subject line can be ended with an EOM (end of message). This is good for simple status messages like “Finished (EOM)” and “Meet me in lobby in 5 (EOM).” It saves your reader time by knowing they don’t even have to open the email. If you have more than 25 characters, however, it’s best to keep the subject line brief and put a longer message in the body of an email. Anything longer than that and your reader might have to open the email anyway to see the whole subject line.

Finally, I have two pet peeves I want to share with you. Unless you’re aiming to be funny, don’t start a sentence in the subject and then finish it in the body. Typically I din’t know that’s what’s going on, and I read the body as a fragment sentence, which is confusing for a few seconds until I interpret your setup. I’ve seen this work where the subject is the setup and the body is the punchline, but that’s rare.

And, this should go without saying, don’t use all caps. Slogging through email is annoying enough; yelling doesn’t help.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was sitting in the library at Marywood University, that orange cursor blinking at me while I banged out a simple, three-sentence message to Dr. O’Brien. Two messages per week? I could live with that.

Cleaning up your email inbox

Even the most organized among us get behind on basic maintenance tasks at times. One place I’ve recently fallen behind was in clearing out my email inbox. I had been glancing at everything, and dealing with all the most important emails, but was leaving the less-important items to clutter up my email inbox.

On Tuesday, I finally processed and deleted over 800 messages in about six hours, and the following is an explanation of how I did it.

Sort by date

Sorting my emails by date helped me find the obvious items to delete: messages about events that happened months ago, or sales that have long been over.

Sort by sender

Sorting by sender grouped together a few sets of newsletters that I had procrastinated reading, as well as some notifications from a LinkedIn group where people post links to interesting stuff. (I know many people set up rules to move these kinds of messages out of the inbox, but if I did that I’d neglect them forever. At least in my inbox, I kept being reminded they needed my attention.)

Once I started skimming through the newsletters and reviewing the LinkedIn updates, I got into decision-making mode: Was there anything in all this material that I wanted to save for reference or act upon it now? In my case, yes, there was — but not that much.

In the act-upon now category, I found reviews of two books that I might want to read; I downloaded their ebook samples. In another case, a book I wanted was only available in paper format, and I ordered it from the author’s website. Note that these were all quick actions. If an email had triggered a more time-consuming action, I would have just added it to my to-do list.

In the save-for-reference category, Brooks Duncan’s DocumentSnap newsletter provided me with three useful articles about going paperless, and I bookmarked those articles. All three are things I anticipate using with clients or referring to in future writings.

I also watched two short videos that the members of my LinkedIn group highly recommended, and both were well worth my time. One of them was a lovely piece from The New York Times called Love and Stuff, about a daughter dealing with her mother’s possessions after her mother’s death. I also bookmarked the article so I can readily find it again.

Sort by subject

I’m a member of a few email discussion groups, and sorting by the subject line allowed me to quickly see all the messages related to each discussion topic. Some entire conversations could be quickly deleted: those dealing with software tools I don’t use, for example. Others dealt with topics I do care about — for example, there was a discussion about the many ways people use cameras as note-taking tools — and I filed those away for future reference.

Sort by size

Sorting emails by size led me to messages with large attachments. In many cases, I could save the attachment (outside of email) and get rid of the message; in some cases, I didn’t need either the email or the attachment.

Commit to making decisions

Organizers often say that clutter represents deferred decisions, and that was certainly true with my email. All these messages had piled up because I hadn’t taken the time to make decisions about them. I was finally able to get through them because I committed to making decisions about each message in my inbox.

Final note

Based on your employer, you may not be able to delete emails except for obvious spam. If this is the case for your company’s policies, where I mention deleting above you may just archive the messages. Be sure to follow your company’s regulations and best practices.

Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.

Organize podcasts with easy-to-use mobile apps

Several years ago, I described a podcast as a radio show that’s delivered to your iPod. That is still an acceptable definition, only the number of devices that can receive the show has grown. Computers, smartphones, some car stereos, Internet radios, and more all grab podcasts for you.

As the format’s popularity has increased, the technology behind it became simpler to use. Today, people around the world produce and share podcasts on all manner of styles and topics. The more shows you subscribe to, the greater the need for good software to keep it all organized. In this post, I’ll discuss two solutions for mobile devices: one for the iPhone and one for Android. There are several others, of course, but these are two standouts to help you get started.

Apple — Podcasts (Free)

I use Apple’s own Podcasts app on my iPhone. It ships with the iPhone, is free, and is easy to use. When Podcasts was introduced in June of 2012, it was divisive to say the least. Apple was in a playful design phase back then, which manifested itself in the Podcasts app with an animated reel-to-reel tape player that was supposedly inspired by a real unit from Braun. (Sure.) Many fans liked it, and many did not. About a year later, Apple nixed the design, and today we have a nice, clean presentation.

The aesthetic shift was accompanied by additional features that are still in place today.

Finding and subscribing to shows

Apple provides three ways to find shows you’ll like — they are Features, Top Charts and Search.

Features. Tap the star icon at the bottom of the screen to browse the podcasts that Apple has deemed worth showing off. Purple buttons at the top of the screen let you view just audio shows, just video shows, or the whole lot at once.

A “New and Noteworthy” section is a grab-bag of shows that are performing well in iTunes. Beyond that, you’ll find shows that fit in rotating themes. As of this writing, Apple is highlighting the great outdoors and the financial markets, as well as featured providers like Slate, Nerdist and Revision3. Finally, you can tap Categories in the upper left to fine-tune your search.

Top Charts. Here you’ll find the most downloaded shows in each category. Again, you can opt to see audio video podcasts.

Search Finally, you can cut to the chase and search for the name of the show you’re seeking. Podcasts lists show titles and episodes that mention your search term.

Once you’ve found a show you’re interested in, tap the Subscribe button. Podcasts will download the latest episode for you. Note that you’ll see two buttons once you tap on a show’s image: My Episodes and Feed. My Episodes lists the episode(s) that have been downloaded to your device. Feed lists the show’s archive of older episodes, which are not on your device. You can download any of these older shows by tapping the cloud icon to the right of its title.

Organization

Apple makes it easy to keep things organized. To begin with, you can choose between a list view, which shows a small thumbnail of each show’s art, its title, the date of the most recent download, and the number of episodes available. Meanwhile, the album view eschews all that information and instead shows big, bold cover art and a number representing the episodes you haven’t heard.

By default, Podcasts lists shows in the order that you subscribed to them. Fortunately, you can change that. Here’s how:

  1. Tap the Edit button in the upper right.
  2. A three-lined “handle” appears next to each show’s title.
  3. Tap and hold on that handle, then drag the shows into your preferred order.
  4. When you’re finished, tap Done.

Finally, you can create what the app calls Stations. Essentially this is like a playlist in a music app. Simply start a new station by tapping Stations at the bottom of the screen and add any shows you like. I have a sci-fi station and an audio drama station. As each episode is played through, it disappears from the station. New ones are added automatically. This saves a lot of scrolling if you have a many subscriptions.

Pocket Casts by ShiftyJelly ($3.99)

On the Android side, I recommend Pocket Casts. This great-looking app is easy to use and, like Apple’s Podcasts, offers nice options for keeping things organized.

Finding and subscribing to shows

ShiftyJelly recently released version 4.0 with a great-looking new user interface. Unlike Apple’s offering, which puts buttons at the bottom of the screen, Pocket Casts has all controls “behind” the main screen, so your shows are front-and-center. It’s a clean look that I appreciate.

To find shows, swipe finger to the right to move the main screen and reveal the controls. Again, Shifty Jelly’s developers did a good job here because the controls are clear and legible. At the top of the screen you’ll see the Discover button. Tap it to view featured shows. Tap any title to get a description and the option to subscribe.

The search works great, too. Just enter a keyword or name of a show and you’re presented with several options.

Organization

Downloaded episodes are presented in a list with the title and description. There’s a playlist option, too, similar to Podcasts. You can view a list of just unplayed episodes across all of your shows, audio podcasts, or video podcasts.

It’s true that you can obtain, listen to, and organize podcasts with a computer. I happen to listen to podcasts almost exclusively while I’m in the car, and that means I’m using my smartphone. Many developers recognize this trend and build strong organization features into their mobile apps. The fact that I can arrange things to my liking on my phone without having to sync or otherwise communicate with my laptop is a huge benefit.

Picking a podcasting app is a personal thing. As I said, there are many worthy options out there. If you have a favorite, let me know. I’m always willing to try something new if it might be better than what I’m already using.

A simple solution to digital photo management

I recently had a bit of a meltdown regarding the state of my digital photo management. Fortunately, a photographer friend set me straight with advice so obvious I never saw it. First, let me describe my meltdown.

I became unhappy when a photo management service that I loved, that I went all-in on, shut its doors. When I retrieved the 14,000 photos I had uploaded to it, I found that all of the EXIF data had been stripped (EXIF data includes metadata and tags that make images searchable), and I had been left with the digital equivalent of a box full of 14,000 photos in random order.

Like I said, I was not happy.

But really, the problem wasn’t with someone’s failed business. The issue was (and continues to be) the sheer number of photos we take. When I was younger, we had up to 32 opportunities to get a decent picture with a single roll of film. I emphasize decent because that dictated the care with which we shot photos. We didn’t want to waste a single frame.

Today, I’ll take the kids to the park and shoot 150 pictures in less than three hours.

This behavior spawns two problems. The first problem is digital clutter. How many of those 150 photos are worth keeping? Maybe a dozen, if I’m lucky. The second problem is backups. What is the best way to preserve the photographs worth keeping? These are modern problems with, I’ve learned, an old-school solution.

My friend CJ Chilvers is a very talented photographer and, I must say, an insightful guy. He responded to my rant (warning: there’s one mildly not-safe-for-work word in my rant) with a brilliant solution: books.

“The best solution I’ve found for all this is the humble book. Making a collection of photos into a book (even if it’s just a year book of miscellaneous shots) solves several problems,” he said. He went on to list the benefits of the good old photo book:

It’s archival. Nothing digital is archival. Even some photographic prints are not archival. But a well-made book will last for as long as anyone could possibly care about your photos and then some … It tells a better story. Instead of relying on fleeting metadata, in a book, you can actually write about what’s going on in the picture … A book doesn’t care if you took your photos with a phone or a DSLR. The resolution of the photo need only be enough for the size you’d like it printed in the book.

Photo books also solve our problem of backing up the keepers, as they’re the ones that make the cut into the photo book.

There are several companies that let you make great-looking, inexpensive photo books. A handful:

Also, books aren’t going to crash, go out of business, run out of battery life, or otherwise be inaccessible. CJ’s final point is probably my favorite: “Fun. It’s more fun holding a book of your own art, than opening a database. That should be enough reason alone.”

Printing books isn’t for everyone, but it’s the organized and archival solution that we have found works for us. I also like handing someone a book of pictures instead of seating them in front of my computer to share in our experiences.

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.