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.

Ask Unclutterer: Hesitant to get rid of old computers because may need files off old machines

Reader K submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have a few computers that should be donated, but I’m deathly afraid of losing files that either weren’t migrated to the new machine or were created after the new machine was up and running (and therefore, not on the new machine).

Is there some sort of computer utility program that can compare the directories (and nested subdirectories) of one computer against those of another, to highlight differences (files, newer versions) so I can decide whether or not to keep or delete the files?

I could just recopy the files to the newer machine, but I really want to make a conscious decision to bring over files, not just by default.

After the comparison is done and the files are copied over (assuming there are some), I know it’s important to have the hard drive destroyed so we don’t let our personal data into anyone else’s hands. I also know it’s important to recycle the components, not dump them. We will do those steps only after I’m satisfied that there aren’t files (i.e., older photos, important random documents) that need to be saved first.

Oh, by the way, I’m talking about Windows computers, not Macs.

My assumption is that you are using a Windows 7 operating system since it has been the OS-du jour the past couple years. As a result of this assumption, I’d start by trying SyncToy 2.1, which is a free Microsoft program that works with Windows 7. (Free! Free!) It will help you to transfer documents from multiple old machines to your current machine and also compare all the files to identify duplicates. It’s easy to use and all you do is click on boxes to make decisions about your files.

When the comparison is complete, I recommend spending 15 minutes a day weeding through all the documents on your new computer. You no longer need to worry about duplicate files, but there are likely still files you transferred that you don’t need or want. Eventually, you’ll sort through all these old files, and your machine will be uncluttered. At this point, be sure to do a much needed backup of your computer to an external hard drive or online, or, better yet, both.

For new content you create on your new machine, consider using a method that regularly has you deleting unnecessary and temporary content. I like the method Brian Kieffer uses — it’s the one I detail in my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week — which he describes in detail in “Managing computer file clutter.”

Finally, when it’s time to say farewell to your old machines, check out “How to dispose of old electronics” for advice on how to delete data from your hard drives.

Thank you, K, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas 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.

Ask Unclutterer: Secure password managers

Reader Nutro submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Since my father passed away recently, I’ve had to take care of almost all kinds of family accounts (bills, insurance, car titles, house deeds, etc). Not only is this new to me (I’m really young), my mother never learned how to take care of these things since her English is bad. It helps to do most of it online, but I have to keep track of different usernames, account numbers, and passwords. I can remember my own account information easily but what is the best way to keep track of the others? I thought of writing it down, but was worried of someone finding and taking it since I have to access it quite often. Currently, I have some of the information on a private blog, but worried about what will happen if someone hacked either my computer or the blog. Is there a better, safer way to organize private information that needs to be accessed regularly?

My condolences to you on losing your father. You’re also very kind to help out your mother during this time.

As far as username and password storage is concerned, I strongly recommend the program 1Password. It interfaces with all the major browsers on both the Mac and Windows platforms, and it stores unlimited passwords. It is also great at generating passwords that are very difficult to hack. If you have an iPhone or an Android, it also syncs with these smart phones, too. It is a one-time charge of $40, and it is completely worth the price in terms of providing you and your mom safety online. There is a 30 day free trial if you want to give it a spin before purchasing it.

There are other programs that are similar to 1Password, although I do not have experience with them. SplashID, RoboForm, and KeePass are usually the best reviewed of the alternatives.

Secure password manager programs are a safe and excellent way to store usernames and passwords — certainly better than writing them down and much more convenient than trying to keep everything stored in your head. Even if someone hacks your computer, they’re likely not going to get into your secure password manager since you’ll be able to create a very difficult password for the program since it will be the only password you have to memorize.

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

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

Save disk space by using bestcompress to select the best compression program

As part of my job, I often need to archive and retain copies of very large files for my clients. To help save disk space, I compress these files before they are archived. I could just use the same compression program for every file, but since different compression algorithms excel at dealing with different types of input, I find it’s much better to make use of a particularly useful shell script called bestcompress that I came across several years ago in Wicked Cool Shell Scripts by Dave Taylor. It compares the output sizes of files produced by three different compression programs available on most Unix implementations (including Mac OS X) when applied to the actual file a user needs to compress. After executing the script, the user is left with the smallest resultant compressed file produced by either compress, gzip, or bzip2.

The script is available on the book’s website, along with a detailed explanation of exactly how it works and how to use it.

Use a browser extension to limit the number of open windows and tabs

Browser tabs and windows have a nasty habit of multiplying. It’s easy to find yourself with a half-dozen browser windows open, each one having several tabs active. As you might expect, this has a serious effect on general system performance and stability.

To mitigate this particular problem, I use a Firefox add-on called Window and Tab Limiter. It allows you to set a limit on the number of windows and tabs Firefox will keep open. Depending on the mode that is selected in the add-on’s preference window, one of the following three things will happen when the user exceeds their own specified maximum number of open widows and tabs:

  • Suggestion Mode: The user is presented with a list of active windows and tabs. They can then either select one or more windows or tabs to close, or simply ignore the warning and continue working.
  • Force Mode: The user is presented with a list of active windows and tabs. They must close at least one window from the list to remain under the limit so they can continue working.
  • Silent Mode: Windows are closed automatically without any user interaction.

Although the Silent Mode option may sound dangerously automatic, I find it works quite well, provided the window and tab limit is not set too low. (I keep mine set at 7.)

If you use Chrome, you might want to try No More Tabs. It has fewer options, but it provides the same basic functionality.

Ask Unclutterer: Should my family have more than one computer?

Reader Angela submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I work from home with one laptop (a MacBook), which is all I need — until my two children (10 and 15) come home! Then, it’s a fight over who needs the computer. I am usually finished with work, but I may want to surf and check my email. The kids claim to have homework, but I seriously doubt their teachers are assigning videos from YouTube! Anyway, my question for you and the Unclutterer readers is, “How many computers do you think are normal for a family of three?” I am trying to buy less and save more, but I really want another Mac!

To answer your stated question about how many computers are normal for a family of three, the answer is one computer. The Kaiser Family Foundation (using data from the US Department of Commerce) reports that although 90 percent of children in 2009 have access to a computer at home, only 36 percent of children ages 8-18 have their own computers in their bedrooms. So, most children are using a shared family computer in their homes.

However, these facts are meaningless if you are interested in getting a second computer. Evaluate your situation, save the $1,500 for a new Mac, and then buy one if you decide it is what is best for you and your family. Remember, if an object has utility for you and your family, it’s not clutter.

Before buying a second computer, though, I’d like to recommend an experiment for you to conduct. Tell your children that you realize you all can’t use the computer at the same time when you’re at home and you’ve decided to alleviate this problem. Then, the next day after school, drive them to the public library. Synchronize your watches and tell your children they have 45 minutes to jump on the computers and complete their digital-necessary homework. After a week of spending 45 minutes each evening at the library, you’ll have a good idea as to if your children are using the computers for school work (or socializing) and if you really could benefit from a second home computer.

My guess is that your kids will either complain and whine and tell you that you’re a horrible mom, or they’ll actually appreciate their daily time at the library and enjoy having time on the computers to do their homework without having to share a machine. After years of teaching high school, I can say with absolute certainty that your children are not going to have a vague response — you will know if they need a second computer for school work.

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

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

Assorted links for August 19, 2010

Interesting articles on the subject of simple living:

Evernote Essentials: The definitive guide to using Evernote

Brett Kelly, a champion of simple living and a member of the LifeRemix network, has authored a terrific 80-page guide to using Evernote (one of my all-time favorite digital data applications). Evernote Essentials is a “comprehensive setup guide and a sizable collection of tips, tricks and best practices to help the Evernote newbie get up to speed quickly and show the seasoned Evernote veteran a thing or two about how to become Evernote ninjas.”

I like to think of myself as a hardcore Evernote user, and even I learned a great deal from the guide. I like the conversational tone, the detailed screenshots, and the real-world examples illustrating all the ways Evernote can work for you. Here’s a chapter breakdown of what the guide offers:

  • Evernote Anatomy — Explanation of the basic structure of the service.
  • Installation and Configuration — How to setup and personalize your Evernote account.
  • A Quick Tour of the Main Evernote Window — Navigating your way through the Evernote interface.
  • Adding Stuff to Evernote — Instructions for the myriad ways you can save notes, clips, etc.
  • Evernote Organization 101 — Learn to expertly tag data so that you can quickly retrieve it.
  • Evernote Search: Seek and Ye Shall Find — In my opinion, the best chapter in the document. Kelly gives some amazing tips for retrieving data in this section.
  • Evernote on the Go — Instructions for using Evernote on your smart phone.
  • Evernote, Email and You — Advanced techniques for using Evernote with your email service.
  • Evernote and Satellites in Space — You can save data from satellites and other amazing GPS tricks, and Kelly shows you how.
  • Tagging for Superhumans — Nested tags, sorting, and maintenance tips for the advanced user.
  • Evernote for Bloggers — How to create blog posts directly from Evernote.
  • Evernote for Programmers — Using Evernote as a coding encyclopedia.
  • Evernote for Foodies — Yummy tips for managing recipes, restaurant reviews, equipment information and other topic-specific data saved in Evernote.
  • Evernote for Covert Double Agents — A humorous chapter detailing how to use Evernote to successfully compile information someone or a specific topic.
  • Evernote as an Address Book — How to use Evernote as a personal information manager.
  • Evernote as a Simple Photo Sharing Service — Detailed visuals and explanations for how to create an online photo album you can share with others.
  • Evernote as a Task Manager — One of my favorite uses for Evernote, instructions for creating a GTD-style to-do program.
  • Evernote as a Filing Cabinet — Learn to save scanned documents directly to Evernote.
  • For Longtime Users: Regaining Control of Your Evernote Database — Advice for managing your notes when you have large numbers of data in your account.

If you are a current Evernote user, or are looking for a way to better store your digital data, I recommend checking out Evernote Essentials. The guide is $25 and comes with the guarantee that if you “don’t feel like it delivers the real deal, then contact [the author] within 30 days for a full refund, no questions asked.” Best of all, you can save the guide directly to your Evernote account.

Just to let you know, we don’t receive any kickbacks or revenue from Evernote Essentials or Evernote — I’m really just a huge fan of both. Learning advanced techniques for using Evernote can greatly improve the way you organize the information in your life.