Organize a mini office for on-the-go productivity

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home. Despite the battles with distraction, it’s a real luxury that I definitely appreciate. I’d wager that those of you who don’t complete your 9–5 at home still have a home office, computer room, command center, or some such other space that you use to attend to professional and personal management tasks.

Although these home work spaces are helpful, it’s inevitable you’ll be ejected from it at some point. Flaky internet, construction right outside your window, your kid who needs to do research for a school project, your neighbor’s dog that just won’t stop barking … these factors can make your sacred space less than amenable to productivity. Fear not! There are many public options available, and early organization and preparation will make it easy to head out the door and get back to work. The following are insights into how I’ve organized a mini, portable office.

First, identify the equipment you’ll need, and then whittle the list down to the most essential. For example, I’d love to bring my laptop, folding stand, Bluetooth keyboard, and Bluetooth mouse to an off-site work session, but all I need to work is the laptop. Sure the trackpad stinks, but not as badly as hauling all of that stuff around. The idea here is to travel light.

I also bring a notebook and a pen, both small. I know myself well enough at this point to understand that I like to scribble and doodle random thoughts and tasks during my work day. Lastly, I grab a charger for the laptop and a charging cable for my iPhone. I put the lot into a bag and I’m good to go as soon as the jackhammer starts pounding out my window.

Or am I?

In addition to the items listed above, these next few items really make it a killer setup. Consider putting these things into your own bag to reach the next level of mobile office work.

  1. A little cash. Many people use a coffee shop or cafe as a backup office. Most proprietors welcome laptop warriors, as long as they buy some things in their shop. Save yourself a trip to the ATM by popping $5 or $10 in your bag now. Yes, the cafe likely accepts debit cards, but cash makes it easier to tip the staff. As a camper, you want to stay on everyone’s good side.
  2. A power strip. These are bulky, but hear me out on my justification for packing one. I like to work from my local library. It has free WiFi, huge tables, and very few power outlets. When I approach a crowded table and plug a six-socket power strip into the wall, I become The Hero of the Library. Try it yourself and bask in the glory of your appreciative peers.
  3. An extra AC adapter for your laptop. This one is a bit pricey but it’s worth it. The adapter I plug my laptop into at home is entwined in an under-desk cord manager and getting it out is a pain. Keeping one in the bag saves time and aggravation.
  4. A charging cable for your phone. You don’t want your phone to die, and you can’t always predict when you’ll be out or for how long. I don’t pack a wall adapter for my phone, as I’ll just connect it to my laptop which has its own USB adapter.
  5. A pair of headphones. This super useful item is the universal signal for, “Leave me alone, I’m busy.” You needn’t even listen to music if you don’t want to (unless the cafe’s radio station is especially awful).

I recommend packing this stuff into a bag right away and just letting it sit. When it’s time to go, prep time will be minimal and you’ll be on the road to productivity (and maybe a latte) in no time.

Going on a sentimental journey

When uncluttering, it’s quite easy to make decisions on items for which we have no feelings or emotional attachment. But when we have feelings associated with physical items, it can be hard for our heart to let them go even though our lack of usable living space tells us we really need to say goodbye.

There are different types of sentimental clutter (clutter referring to items you don’t necessarily want or have need for; not sentimental objects you value and/or regularly use). Some of the most common items are:

  • Things handed down to us from previous generations
  • Gifts received from important people in our lives
  • Souvenirs and memorabilia

These are some of the most difficult items to deal with because the object reminds us of the person or event, so we keep the item to trigger memories.

A short-term emergency measure of dealing with sentimental items is to box them up and store them. This is ideal if there is a sudden death or downsizing in the family. You must, however, eventually deal with these items because they will eventually fill your storage area and will deteriorate if stored indefinitely.

Sorting and organizing sentimental clutter can be very emotional, so only do a little at a time. Finding a friend or family member to help you sort can be beneficial. Make sure you choose someone who is willing to listen to some stories behind the items. This person should also know whether you need a shoulder to cry on or a kick in the pants when it is time to say good-bye to the sentimental clutter.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • If you had to purchase the item yourself, at full price, would you?
  • If someone you didn’t like gave you the item as a gift, would you still keep it?
  • Does the item invoke happy memories?

If you answered no to any of these questions, consider getting rid of the item.

The following are a few tips to help you get rid of sentimental clutter but keep the memories:

  • Take photos and write stories to capture an item’s significance in your life. You can even tell the story on video and share it with your family. Your children can do this with some of their school projects. Essays, reports and drawings can be scanned and saved in digital format. This will prevent them from getting lost or broken over the years (especially during household moves).
  • Make and display photomontages of your vacations instead of keeping souvenirs. You also can set digital images of your vacations as the screen saver on your computer, if you’re short on wall space.
  • If you’ve inherited a collection of items (pocket watches, salt and pepper shakers, etc.) keep the ones you like best and let the rest go. Offer the other items from the collection to other family members or friends of the family. This holds true for sets of dishes too. You needn’t keep the entire set of china together. For example, if you inherit grandma’s china, one grandchild could have the dessert plates, another could have the platters and another the gravy boat.
  • Display your items so they bring you joy throughout your home. You should limit your items to one or two shelves and keep only items that fit on those shelves. If you can’t display your items, limit them to only one storage bin and keep only the things that fit inside that bin.

Because you have a significant emotional attachment to these sentimental items, it is important to get them out of the house once you’ve made the decision to let them go. If the items are destined for charity, then take them the same day or ask a friend to take them for you (then, return the favor). If the items are to be given to other family members, box them up and tape the box closed. Make arrangements for pick-up or drop-off as soon as you can.

If you’re really feeling bad about an object that is leaving your life, you can have a “funeral” for the item. It helped me out when I really needed it.

Organize wiry earbuds

When not in use, they’re unwieldy and messy. Even when tucked in a drawer, they tend to sprawl out and take over the whole thing. But, even though they create a mess, I still prefer to have them.

I’m talking about earbuds.

When you buy a new smartphone or digital music player, you often get a “free” pair. They don’t usually fit well, so you buy a cheap pair from the drug store or the mall. Perhaps you’re an audiophile, which means you likely ignore the default pair for something you really like. Next thing you know, all your earbuds’ cables are tangled and messy and all over the place and you’re longing for a clutter-free solution.

The starting point, of course, is to give away all your unused pairs. Some folks know they’ll never use the set that shipped with their new device. If that’s the case, don’t even unwrap them. Perhaps there is someone among your family or friends who would love to have them. Ebay and other online auction sites are an option, though you shouldn’t expect to get a lot for them. Freecycle is easy, too.

For the earbuds you choose to keep, having a cable organizer is a must. I recently received a Cord Taco from This Is Ground and I love it. This super-simple circle of leather and closes with a button (it’s pictured above). Once you’ve got the things wrapped up, you can pop them in a drawer or on a desk, tangle-free. They sell in packs of five on Amazon for less than $30. You can keep them all for yourself or keep one and give the rest as gifts to family and friends who could use them.

If you’re the DIY type, your options are many for earbud control. A good, old-fashioned ID clip works in a way that’s very similar. It’s not as pretty as a Cord Taco, but it does have the added benefit of a clip.

There are numerous other options you can buy from online retailers or your local electronics’ store if you’re keen on wrapping up your cables when you’re finished using them. Erin swears by her LG Bluetooth headset, which gets rid of the cable completely, but is significantly more expensive than most earbuds.

Of course, earbud cable management is an excellent opportunity to get tinnovative. The term tinnovations refers to the practice of repurposing or hacking an Altoids tin in a fun, useful way. It’s quite simple to rig up an earbud holder with a tin. You can even make a nice little speaker if you’re up to it.

Finally, lets say you don’t want to buy extra hardware or make something that will itself clutter up the joint. If that’s the case, check out this super clever way to wrap up earbud cords into a tidy package that’s sturdy yet just as easy to take apart. I like this technique.

There you have several ways to tidy up these insidious little things. Now get to it, and enjoy the look of your earbuds for a change.

Schedule a Little Jobs Day to get lingering items off your to-do list

There are many ways to make a to-do list. Tasks can be sorted in order of priority: repairing a broken handrail (safety) would be completed before repainting the bathroom (cosmetic). Some people choose to sort tasks by context or by time and energy available.

I use On Top of Everything to create my to-do list. This system allows me to easily sort by priority. By adding the estimated time it takes to complete each task, I’ve found I can make use of short time periods when they avail themselves. I can easily sew on a button or fix the hem of a skirt in few minutes. It is much more productive than playing Solitaire.

Even though my to-do list system works quite well for me, many of the non-priority items, usually those requiring more than 30 minutes of work, remain on the list week after week because higher priority items take their place.

Seeing uncompleted tasks on my list week after week is a little depressing and at times it becomes overwhelming. In order to cope with this, every few months I schedule a “Little Jobs Day” (LJD) and recommend you do the same.

On LJD, I work on the non-priority jobs requiring less than one hour. I usually choose either a day on a long-weekend or a scheduled day off from work. Long weekend LJDs are great because there are usually people around to help with projects, such as hanging pictures or washing windows. However, shopping for supplies may be difficult on long weekends because stores may be closed. Weekday LJDs can be very productive. Stores are usually less busy, so shopping can take less time. With family members at work or school on weekdays, you are less likely to be interrupted on projects that require concentration — or that require people not touching wet paint.

Regardless of when you schedule your LJD, you’ll feel more relaxed looking at a shorter to-do list.

Book Review: The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, is a mixed bag. Some chapters are packed with interesting information, while others are much less compelling. However, I learned enough from this book that I’m definitely glad I read it. The following are some of the key ideas, organized by the book’s chapters.

The first things to get straight

Levitin begins by describing some basics about how the brain works, with a fascinating explanation of why memory is so fallible. There’s also a nice explanation of how our brains handle categorization. Both of these brain traits affect the recommendations he provides later on for getting organized.

Organizing our homes

One principle that Levitin emphasizes again and again is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” Everyone who has ever done something like leaving the library book that needs to be returned next to the car keys has made use of this principle.

One interesting example that Levitin provides is: “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things. However, the brain is only good at remembering stationary things, not things that move around — so if you put your car keys in a different place every time, your brain is less likely to help you out when you go to find them.

Categorization is also emphasized in the text; since our brains are good at creating categories, using categories well gives us an easy tool for getting organized. Levitin discusses the need to balance category size and category specificity; for example, someone with just a few tools will categorize them very differently than someone with many more. Levitin is also a big fan of the junk drawer for things that simply don’t fit in any category.

Good labels matter, too. As Levitin writes, “A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item. … With mislabeled drawers, you don’t know which ones you can trust and which ones you can’t.”

Levitin also notes that creativity and organization are not antithetical — rather, they go hand in hand. He provides examples from musicians Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Michael Jackson, and John Lennon to drive home this point.

Organizing our time

You’ve certainly heard this before, but Levitin emphasizes it repeatedly: Brains are not designed for multitasking. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” The continual shifting “causes the brain to burn through fuel” and depletes the brain of nutrients. There’s also a study that shows that learning new information while multitasking “causes the information to go to the wrong part of the brain.”

Levitin writes that it’s very tempting to continually check email, because handling email appeals to the novelty-seeking portion of the brain, and each response triggers a “shot of dopamine” that makes us want to do more of the same. But we’ll be more productive if we check email a few times a day, rather than every five minutes.

Levitin also provides considerable information on the importance of getting sufficient sleep. You’ve probably heard that before — but if you ignored the advice, this book might convince you that it really does matter.

Organizing the business world

Levitin provides tips to remember when filing: “File things, either electronic or physical, in a way that will allow you to quickly retrieve them. Ask yourself, ‘Where will I look for this when I need it?’ or ‘How can I tag or label this item so that I’ll be able to find it?'”

There’s also some good advice about scheduling meetings. Rather than scheduling meetings back-to-back, give yourself 10 minutes after each meeting to make sure you’ve captured all relevant information. It also helps to have 10 minutes free before any meeting. “Because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mindset of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way.”

Organizing information for the hardest decisions

Anyone dealing with making a major medical decision will find a lot of useful information here about understanding the probabilities associated with each choice, and balancing risk and reward.

Organize your notebooks for quick reference

Back in 2013, I wrote the article “Marking up your to do lists for increased productivity” about formal methods of marking up your notes and lists to make them more usable and easier to reference. I was reminded of it recently when I came across a Fast Company article, which introduced yet another trick for organizing a notebook that I like quite a bit.

I carry a little notebook in my pocket all the time. Even though I’m a a professional techie, I still feel that the best way to jot something down I need to remember is with a pen and a piece of paper.

Any problems I encounter with this system come from retrieving the information that I’ve written down. The rapid nature of quickly jotting something down often means poor organization of the captured information. To help solve this issue, this is where Rachel Gillett’s advice in the Fast Company article applies.

Cribbing from Adam Akhtar, Rachel suggests writing a sort of index in the back of your notebook while taking notes or jotting ideas down. This index is comprised of themes or topics that come up while you’re writing things down. In her example, she wrote down the following topics:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Social media
  4. CMS
  5. Analytics
  6. New Staff

She recommends leaving one line between each index topic. Then, when she writes something down that corresponds to one of these topics, she makes a mark on the edge of the page that corresponds to the line on which that word is written. The image at the top of this post illustrates this idea pretty clearly. Then, when she wants to find notes on writing, she can turn to the back page and quickly see the pages with relevant content. Flipping to them is quick and easy.

I think this system is a brilliant solution. It’s easy to see how this will work outside of business, too. Topics like “kids,” “school,” “work,” or whatever applies to your life would be perfect.

Again, check my older article for some additional ideas for adding a bit of organization to your notebooks. Jotting something down is easy. Finding it when you need it later doesn’t have to be a problem.

Organizing for two or more

If you share a home or office with others, you’re going to need to consider their needs when setting up your organization systems. The following are some things to consider when putting these systems in place.

File Names

I knew a couple where the wife set up the files, and the husband couldn’t find the insurance policy when he wanted it. His wife had filed it under the name of the insurance company, and he never thought to look there. (He may not have even remembered which company they bought the insurance from.)

Insurance files are a good example of how varied a naming system could be. Would a car insurance policy go under “Insurance — Car” (along with “Insurance — House” and “Insurance — Medical”)? Or would it go under “Car — Insurance” (along with “Car — Purchase” and “Car — Maintenance”)? And would you use the word “car” or “auto” or something else, such as the make of the car, or the car’s name (for those who give their cars names)?

There’s no one right answer, but file names need to work for everyone who might be adding to the files or retrieving items from them. Discuss and agree upon the naming convention so no one wastes time.

Labels

Once you’ve decided what goes where — in the kitchen cabinets, the garage, the linen closet, the office storage cabinets, the toy area, etc. — it helps to label those spaces to ensure that everyone putting things away remembers where they go. If young children are involved, those labels might include pictures. If you are fortunate enough to have housekeeping help, and your helpers speak a different primary language than you do, you may want bilingual labels.

Reachability

If you want children to hang up their clothes, make sure there are hooks or hangers they can reach. A double hang rod can ensure there’s at least one set of clothes closet hangers that kids can reach.

Similarly, a tall adult setting up an organizing system will need to consider the needs of any shorter adults using that system. This might include placing frequently used items where everyone can easily reach them and ensuring there’s a step stool handy for reaching the highest cabinets or shelves.

And if some household members have problems reaching things in low cabinets, installing pull-out shelves might be worthwhile.

Organizing style

There are many different ways to be organized, and two people sharing a home or office may not share organizing styles. Just one example: One person may prefer everything to be put away behind closed doors, while another prefers things to be out and visible.

One way to handle these differences is to let each person have some non-public space to organize according to individual preferences (within certain limits for health and safety), while coming to some compromises on how public areas will be handled. If you prefer to fold your socks and put them away using little drawer dividers, while your spouse or partner prefers to just toss socks into the drawer, there’s no need for either of you to convert the other to your system. Reserve your energy for figuring out a way to organize the kitchen and living room to suit you both.

Organizing, straightening up, and cleaning

Organizing. Straightening up. Cleaning. Tidying. Arranging.

These are some of the terms that describe varying levels of what everyone who has possessions does to keep their dwellings from being messy. By their very nature, each term’s definition can vary greatly from person to person, spouse to spouse, or house mate to house mate. In the name of domestic harmony and effective un-messying, I’m opening a dialog on how we define these terms and what we expect from each. A similar conversation like this in your home can ensure everyone is on the same page when talking about establishing and maintaining order. It doesn’t matter if your terms match mine, simply that all of you agree on the definitions of the words and phrases you use.

Defining organizing

For me, organizing is to apply logical structure to an unstructured collection of items. The items can be physical, like books or LEGO bricks, but they also can be intangible, like ideas or plans.

What organizing looks like

If I were to organize something, you can expect to see a collection of items arranged in a neat, systematic order. In other words, a messy pile of [x] becomes a tidy arrangement, sorted by a system that is easily understood.

Defining straightening up

Straightening up is different from organizing in that it implies that organizing has already been done, and only some minor maintenance is needed to restore order.

What straightening up looks like

My kids’ shoes are stored in three wicker baskets near the back door of our house. Three baskets for three kids. The organizing has been done — having baskets for each kids’ shoes. To straighten them up, I’d ask the kids to put their shoes in their basket.

Defining cleaning

Cleaning implies no organizing or straightening up. For me, cleaning means simply: to bust out the window cleaner, mop, broom, vacuum or what-have-you to remove dirt, dust, and the like.

What cleaning looks like

I’ll admit it, I don’t like cleaning. It’s the most labor-intensive of the activities, and involves taking things down, moving furniture, and telling the kids, “Stay off the floors!” We can get nit-picky and differentiate between “cleaning” and “a good clean,” but that’s for another conversation.

Other words

There are even more words in the English language to discuss un-messying your home. Tidying is one that implies the least amount of effort of the bunch. If I’m going to “quickly put these things in to some semblance of order before our dinner guests arrive,” I’ll spend likely less than 10 minutes resetting order. If your home is organized and you take time each evening to straighten up before bed, tidying is usually all you need to do when you have people over to visit.

Now I turn to you, readers. How to do define these un-messying words? What do you expect of each, and, finally, are there any terms specific to your household? I once had a friend from the midwest who said, “This room needs ‘red’ up.” I think that meant cleaning up.

A little uncluttering goes a long way

Organizing and uncluttering may seem like an overwhelming job, but that is only if you think about your entire house or your entire office as a single project. Instead of feeling anxious about the tasks you have set out for yourself, make a realistic plan you can manage. The following are a few tips to help you keep the momentum and not become discouraged:

Slow and steady wins the race. Clear one small space at a time. Organize just one drawer or one shelf per day. Think about looking at the empty spots and making them bigger. Working for just five or 10 minutes a day will help clear the clutter. Walk around a room with a trash bag. Put everything you see that is trash into the bag. Place the bag by the door and take it out the next time you go. Repeat this task with a bag for items you wish to donate to charity.

A detour does not mean you’re losing! There will be setbacks. You may have a day where you’re just too tired or ill to unclutter. Don’t let it stop you — just start again as soon as possible.

Done is better than perfect. It is okay to make mistakes. It is okay for your uncluttering and organizing efforts to be not quite right. Keep the overall goal in mind and you’ll make it to the finish line.

Think (but not too much). If you’re making long, complicated decisions about each item, you’ll never finish uncluttering. Don’t spend more than a few minutes on any particular item. Ask for help if you need to. Just because you can think of many ways to use an item, does not mean you have to keep it or that you will ever use the item in all the ways you imagined. If you haven’t used the object in a year or haven’t even seen it in ages, you can probably live without it.

Take a risk. The people who gain the most are usually the people who are willing to risk the most. Play a game with yourself by asking, “What’s the worst that can happen if I throw this out? And how bad would that really be?” Chances are, the worst is not as bad as you think.

Make it easy. It may seem like a simple idea, but having the trash can or garbage bag easily accessible makes it easy to get rid of trash. Rather than putting garbage down just anywhere, put it in a trash bag. If you need to, put a trashcan, recycle bin, and donation basket in every room. It may take a little longer to collect up the trash bags on garbage day, but each room will be cleaner.

Sort before discarding. By grouping similar items together as you work, you speed up the organizing process. It is hard to get rid of one white shirt but it is a bit easier to get rid of 18 of the 20 white shirts.

Grand Prix! Give yourself a prize each time you’ve successfully reached a goal. Vow to give yourself a treat such as a special dessert or an evening at the movies if you’ve uncluttered 20 minutes per day for a whole week.

Updating the kids’ school stuff landing area

Back in 2012, I described the “landing area” that my wife and I had created for our kids’ school stuff. After two years of use, experience pointed out aspects of our area that weren’t working well for us. We’ve since re-designed the whole space and the result is more efficient. Sometimes you need a year-long, hands-on trial to work out the kinks.

Making changes

In 2012, I wrote, “My wife and I have identified a small cabinet just inside the back door to our house … Now, the kids enter and just as they’re tempted to shed their backpacks, hats, gloves and coats like molting snakes, they see the table right in their path.”

First change, the cabinet has been replaced. It was bulky and took up a good chuck of the space in our house’s very small entrance. Plus, papers and such were getting shoved into the back of the cabinet where we wouldn’t find them for days. Today, we’re using a broad, flat (and inexpensive) table from IKEA. As you can see in the image below, we’ve used duct tape to mark off three sections: one per child. They know to put their important papers, assignment materials and anything that needs to come out of the backpack onto the table and in their “slot.”

Speaking of backpacks, in 2012 I wrote: “We bought a small, child-sized coat tree from a discount department store to hold two backpacks. It works great and, since the backpacks are all that the tree holds, it handles their bulk easily.”

The coat tree did not survive the year. Heavy bags toppled it over several times, and it was wobbly and unstable before the school year ended. Today, I’ve put sturdy, steel hooks into the wall. I picked these up at the hardware store for next to nothing. We’ve got them lined up vertically, so the tallest kid puts her back on the top hook, and the shortest on the bottom. Plus, since the kids are encouraged to empty the contents of their backpacks onto the table each day, their backpacks are a lot lighter than they were last year.

Three more wall hooks hold sweatshirts and jackets.

Also gone are the “inbox and outboxes” for home/school communication. These eventually got filled with pens and then pencils and then packs of gum and then, well, you get the idea. Today, the table serves that purpose.

Some things stay the same

We haven’t changed everything. I’m sad to report that we’re still assembling lunches and snacks early in the morning (I wish we could get in the habit of doing it the night before). And now, irrespective of when the lunches are made, I place them on the table in the kids’ “slots” with the understanding that the kids will grab them and place them in their bags themselves. Finally, the “library book basket” is still in place. It’s there to hold school library books and school library books only! I’m sure the school is as tired of sending me threatening library letters as I am receiving them.

We’ve also encouraged the kids to use the setup, just as we did last year. That amounted to literally standing them in the room, explaining the components of the landing area, and what they’re expected to do with their stuff in this space. I’m sure they’ll forget every now and again, but, hey, they’re kids, and that is to be expected.

Now that we’re a few weeks into the school year, I’m curious: how do you manage the kids’ landing area? Any improvements over previous years?

Part 3: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

In my opinion, one of the best parts of kids being in school is that it can bring more routine into their lives and yours. Years of research by social scientists strongly concludes that routines help children adjust better to new situations and also improves the overall happiness of a family. For the school year to run smoothly, routines are a valuable key, and schedules and calendars are a great way to get started creating this practice.

Although it might seem a bit cumbersome, I suggest each family have at minimum a shared calendar and a shared routine schedule. Then, each person in the family will likely want a personal calendar (and maybe even a personal routine) to keep track of things like homework, projects, and personal to-do items.

A family calendar

Whether digital or print, there needs to be a calendar everyone in the family can post items to and review together. In our house, we’re currently using a 17-month Chalkboard Wall Grid Calendar that Paper Source sent to me (it’s pictured at right). I’ve embellished extremely important dates with some Washi Tape, but mostly we just write shared events onto the calendar with a black pen — nothing too fancy or a pain to update.

I also continue to love Martha Stewart’s Chalkboard Paint Wall Calendar, and if we owned our home I would immediately paint this up on a wall. A big visual calendar provides lots of room to write important family events, as well as creates decoration for what might otherwise be a plain wall.

If your kids are older, a shared digital calendar like Google Calendar (great for all mobile devices) or Fantastical (for iPhone) might be a good alternative for you.

The most important parts of keeping a family calendar are 1. remembering to add items to the calendar, and 2. reviewing the calendar each evening so everyone in the family is in-tune with tomorrow’s events. In our house, we add important events to the calendar as they pop up and then review the calendar each night as a family before the kids take their baths. Some families choose to review the calendar during the evening family meal, which is also good for keeping conversations going. The only warning about talking about the calendar at dinner time is if you keep the calendar digitally it means everyone will come to the meal with an electronic device (this is a no-no in our house, but I know it’s not the same for all families).

For more information on calendars, read our in-depth article “Family calendars.”

A family routine

If you’ve read my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, you know I’m a detailed routine planner listing specific times and tasks to complete each day. Currently, with a toddler at home full time, two adults who work primarily from our home office, and an elementary schooler with a lot of energy and a handful of extracurricular activities, our house would fall into complete disarray if we didn’t keep to such a regimented schedule.

I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from people saying that routines are dull and kill creativity and fun. I find them to be the exact opposite. Because our family has routines in place for the repeated activities at home, the things that must get done do so without much effort or thought and then leave us free to enjoy ourselves the rest of the time. When we head out to the zoo or a festival or go on vacation, we live purely in those moments. We’re not thinking about dishes or laundry or other things we should be doing — because those things are done or scheduled to be completed at a specific time. Our free time is truly free because our routines make this possible.

I recommend creating a family routine in Excel or a similar grid-style software program. Include all seven days of the week and break down responsibilities to the house by time of day and who will complete the task. For variety, you can switch up who does what on different days, or you may choose to keep the same responsibilities with each person if that is easier for your family. As you crate your routine chart, be realistic about how much you can do and how long tasks take to complete. Time yourself for a number of days to make sure you aren’t underestimating the length of a task.

Our family routine chart includes items like packing lunches, creating weekly meal plans, grocery shopping, feeding and caring for pets, regularly scheduled lessons and appointments, laundry, dishes, chores throughout the house, and even who puts the trash can out on the curb for pickup and who brings it back. We also identify which load of laundry is done each day — clothes on Mondays, towels on Tuesdays, more clothes on Thursdays, and sheets on Fridays.

At the start of each month we review the routine chart as a family and add and subtract and make alterations as necessary. Everyone receives a printed copy of the routine chart on the first day of each month.

For more information on creating routines, read our detailed article “Routines can make even the most unsavory tasks easy” and check out pages 98-99 of my book.

Personal calendars

In addition to the shared family calendar, each person in our home (except for the toddler) has a personal calendar. Our son keeps track of school assignments and violin practice records in his pocket calendar provided by his school. My husband, who loves all things digital, uses Google Calendar. He uses Gmail, so it’s even easier for him to schedule items that come into his inbox because the programs are integrated. I’m a tactile person, so I use the Staples Arc Planner for my appointments and obligations. (And, on the off-chance you’re curious, I use the Emergent Task Planner by David Seah for my to-do list. I have an Arc Planner hole punch, so the pages fit right into my Arc Planner.)

The personal calendars my husband and I keep are primarily full of work-related items, but other activities are included. It can be easy to forget to put family-related items on the family calendar if you also keep a personal calendar, so I recommend scheduling into your daily routines a time to transfer relevant information from your personal calendar to your family calendar. If you keep a digital calendar, this is extremely simple since all you typically have to do is check a box indicating all of the calendars with which you would like to share the appointment.

How do you keep your family on the proverbial “same page”? What routines do you find to be the most helpful? What has worked for your family and what has failed miserably? Thankfully, in our home, we’ve found that the research about routines being beneficial has been accurate. As long as we keep to our routines, life runs much more smoothly than when we don’t. Our home is also at a fairly consistent state of order, which makes having friends over to visit extremely simple and helps to keep our stress levels low.

Where do you stand on digital books?

Since it’s the day after a holiday, I’m thinking maybe a conversation instead of straightforward advice will help us ease back into the week. Today, I’m putting a little mental energy into figuring out where I stand on digital books.

As far as I am concerned, digital books and the devices that we use to read them — smartphones, Kindles, Nooks and other digital readers — are super convenient and reduce physical clutter significantly. A personal library can exist on a device that is 6.7″ x 4.6″ x 0.36″, in the case of the Kindle Paperwhite. Digital books are usually less expensive (and the author may get a higher percentage of each sale), don’t take up anything but virtual space in your home, and don’t require a trip to a bookstore to purchase. Instead of a nightstand full of books to read, you have a few files on a device that you can re-read and reference whenever you wish.

Software features and other services increase the appeal of digital books. For example, both the Nook and Kindle let customers share books with others who have the same device — all you need is the other user’s email address. Some libraries have devised a way to loan out digital books, and services like Oyster and Kindle Unlimited let customers read all the digital books they want for less than $10 per month. That is serious convenience and clutter reduction.

Of course, there are reasons people may want to keep a few physical books around the house — kids books, first editions of rare books, and reference books might be some of those reasons. Also, there are books that are extremely expensive and you might worry that EPUB and other formats won’t be viable for your entire life. Additionally, there’s something nice about having books around, despite the bulk and tendency to stack.

So, where do you stand on digital books? Do your uncluttering preferences win out and are you primarily digital? Or, do you tend to collect the physical kind? There isn’t a right answer, but from an organizing and uncluttering perspective my guess is that most of our readers tend toward the digital type. What say you, readers? What is your preference?