Part 2: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Wake the kids and tell them to grab their backpacks: it’s time to go back to school. This can be a stressful time for kids and parents, but a little preparation goes a long way. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series, I’ll highlight some ways technology can ease the transition from summer.

Go social

When I was in school, we huddled around the radio on snowy mornings, eager for a closing announcement. Today, many school districts share this information via the web and social media. Get yourself in the loop this school year and visit your district’s website to find the following information:

  • Your school’s and/or district’s Twitter feed
  • Any associated Facebook accounts
  • Classroom-specific websites
  • Classroom Blackboard accounts and mobile applications
  • Teacher blogs

Of course, some schools will embrace social technology more completely than others. Colleges and universities seem to be the most aggressive, but even elementary schools are using the technologies available to them. If your school/district/child’s teacher is using websites, be sure to bookmark the sites and/or add them to an RSS feed so you can easily access the information for future reference.

Subscribe to a school calendar

Most schools publish a calendar for parents and students to review, and many offer the opportunity to subscribe electronically for immediate updates. The Salt Lake City School District is a great example of a digital calendar, with instructions for subscribing to it with Apple’s Calendar, Google Calendar, and Outlook and Yahoo Calendar. Once you’re subscribed, you needn’t depend on the monthly printed calendars you likely have hanging on the refrigerator.

Make custom notifications

I’ve written about IFTTT before on Unclutterer, and the start of the school year is another time to use this program. IFTT is an online service that lets you create actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you, including custom notifications.

For example, let’s say your district or teacher always uses adds a certain hashtag when composing tweets related to your child’s school or class. You could create a recipe that sends you a text message or an email whenever such a tweet is published. Or, you can have all of those tweets pushed to a Google document for a daily review.

On the other side of the desk, IFTTT is a terrific resource for teachers and schools. Communications with students and parents can easily be automated.

Here’s hoping you have a successful school year. There’s more to do to get ready, of course, but these technology tips are a good place to start.


Part 1 of the series

Part 1: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Based on where you live, your kids may have already headed back to the classroom or they’re preparing to go in September. If you’re a student, you might be in the same boat. This transition period doesn’t have to be a stressful time. Households that have established routines are extremely beneficial for children and parents. Being prepared will bring peace of mind and make everyone’s transition from summer days to school days easier.

Start the school routine a week early

Practicing the routine in advance is especially important for children who are just starting school or who will be starting a new school. By doing a few trial runs before the school year actually starts, you’ll be able to determine if there are any problems with the new routine before the first day.

Plot the route

If your children are starting a new school, walk or bike with them on their route. Point out areas where there is heavy traffic and where drivers may have difficulty seeing pedestrians. Indicate safe havens where children can find assistance or a telephone if needed (e.g. convenience stores, public offices, houses of worship). Map out an alternate route home in case of emergency. If your child takes public transit or a school bus, create a plan in case the buses are late or if your child misses his/her stop.

Unplug and preset

Turning off the TVs and computers at least an hour before bedtime will allow you and/or your kids to get organized for the next morning. Make lunches (if you didn’t make them when preparing dinner) and gather school supplies together. You can even set plates, cups, and silverware on the table for breakfast.

Create a drop zone

Hang backpacks on hooks near the door so kids will know exactly where to find their stuff and where to put it when they get home. Make an inbox where they can put all the paperwork for you to fill out and sign. You can create one inbox for all the children but one box per child may work better, especially if the children attend different schools.

Prepare for the paperwork

Every year the school requires information such as health card numbers, vaccination schedules, emergency contact numbers, etc. If you know where all this information is, you’ll be able to fill out all those forms quickly and easily. Once filled out, make a copy of the paperwork for yourself. It will be easier to find the information for next year.

Create an in-home supply closet and pharmacy

Stocking up on supplies will save you from running across town to the 24-hour (expensive) pharmacy. While the sales are still going on at retailers, gather pencils, markers, notebook paper, and other supplies you and/or your children will need this entire school year (that is, if you have the space to store these items in an uncluttered way) Also, don’t forget items such as bandages, cold medication, and even lice shampoo that may be needed during the first weeks back.

Create a homework zone

While older children may benefit from doing homework in their bedrooms at a desk or in the home office, younger children who need parental support to do their homework in the kitchen or dining room while their parents are preparing dinner. Wherever the homework zone is located, make it easy to use and easy to put away supplies.

Make a “fingertip file”

Use a binder with sheet protectors to contain important information such as the school phone numbers, a list of phone numbers of friends of your children, the list of parents who carpool, menus from the local take-out restaurants, etc. You’ll be able to find what you need this school year exactly when you need it.

Get your money and tickets ready

 
Purchase transit tickets and taxi vouchers in advance, if necessary. Fill a jar or bowl with coins and small bills so you won’t be scrounging for lunch money at the last minute.

Schedule everyone’s activities on a calendar

Enter all of the school holidays and pedagogical days on the calendar as soon as the information is received from the school so that you can arrange for daycare or other activities as soon as possible. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series we’ll go into more detail about creating a digital calendar and in Part 3 we’ll explore using a paper calendar with younger children.

Be a clutter detective

Years ago, I worked in a group home. It had a big kitchen with flat, spacious counters. My staff and I were very good at keeping the place nice and tidy, however, there was one corner of the countertop that just seemed to attract clutter.

No matter what we did, things would pile up in that corner — notebooks, mail, pens and paper, all sorts of stuff the should’ve lived in the drawer in the kitchen. For a long time, this annoyed me. I’d think, “How hard is it to just put this in the drawer? Why can’t anyone put this stuff away?” It was only after doing some detective work that I discovered the problem. The cabinet where the clutter should have been stored was the same cabinet that held a whole lot of plastic storage containers. The containers were stored in a haphazard fashion, and opening this cabinet almost guaranteed that lids and other bits of plastic would rain down upon you. Once I took care of the plastic storage containers, the countertop remained clean.

Today, you can conduct the same type of clutter detective work in your house. Look at the areas that are typically messy. You’ll want to try your best to see the space with fresh eyes. That is to say, hold a question in your mind as you inspect the space: “What exactly is keeping this area so messy?”

I did some successful detective work around our own house recently. The back door of our house is what we use most often. Just inside this door is a small coat rack we bought for the kids to use years ago. However, the kids come home from school and drop their coats and bags and hats and what-have-you all over the floor. This drove my wife and me crazy, and constant requests to please pick up after yourself after coming home from school seemed to fall on deaf ears. So what was the problem?

Well, one afternoon while putting everything on the rack again, I remembered how wobbly it was. After heaving the last winter coat onto it, the whole thing toppled over. The coat rack was the root of the problem. My kids learned that the rack just was broken and stopped using it entirely. A new coat rack was the solution.

You can apply this investigative strategy to your home office as well. In a previous post, I mentioned something I call swivel distance. This is the distance you can reach things from your chair without having to get up out of your seat. Since human beings will almost always lean toward the path of least resistance, we’re more likely to stack something instead of getting up and putting it in filing cabinet across the room. That stack of papers could be due to simple poor office layout planning.

The takeaway here is to periodically scan your house for persistent clutter spots and try to figure out why clutter loves to accumulate there. Often, the reason isn’t what you think. For example, my kids aren’t lazy or disinterested in following the rules, they just learned that the coat rack wasn’t very effective.

Filing: what’s worth saving?

One of the questions I ask when tempted to save and file some paper (or save information electronically) is: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

Some items obviously need to be saved for tax and legal reasons (talk to an accountant, tax lawyer, and/or estate lawyer in your state to know exactly what the law requires you retain). But, what about the other bits of information we tend to save?

I started thinking about the items I have indeed pulled out and looked at again, and what prompted me to look at those items. I asked the following questions, which have led me to keep specific types of additional documents:

Large purchase receipts: When did I buy my refrigerator?

My refrigerator was making strange noises, and I was wondering whether I was going to need to replace it. A starting point in the repair vs. replace question is how old was the refrigerator. To answer this, I looked up the receipt, which I had scanned. Keeping receipts for large purchases can help with returns and warranties — and if the receipt is for a large appliance that will remain in the house when you move, you can pass it on to the next home owner.

Computer instructions: What apps do I need to update before I update my operating system?

When I went to update my MacBook to the Mavericks OS, I looked to my computer bookmarks to find the site that had an extensive list answering just this question. I’ve since shared this list with two other people who had the same question.

Additionally, sometimes when I’m using an application that I use infrequently, I may forget how to do certain actions. I’ve filed away how-to information that was a bit difficult to find, so I have it handy when I need to do the same thing again.

Local resources: What can I do with this old fur coat I inherited?

I get questions like this from my organizing clients, and I have bookmarks in my online browser with resources, ready to share. You may wish to keep a similar reference file with business cards, notes you’ve jotted down from friends’ recommendations, etc.

Travel resources: What did I want to see in a city I’m going to visit?

For places I’m hoping to visit someday, I keep bookmarks and scanned articles about them in a digital folder; other people may choose to keep such information in Evernote or in paper. While it’s easy to search for major tourist sites in any city, and nothing replaces an up-to-date guidebook, I also like the articles that point me to oddities I might not find otherwise or point me to things worth noticing at those major tourist sites. Visiting places like this have often been a highlight of a trip.

Looking at these questions, I can see what has been useful is practical information that I can’t necessarily find through a quick online search. Realizing this is the information I reference, it will help me make better decisions in the future about what to keep and what to toss. Now it’s time to ask yourself: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

Utility storage alternatives

Of the 16 different homes in which I have lived, 12 of them did not have a designated utility closet. Most of the houses had basements or garages and we were able to our utility items in those areas. However, in a few homes, we had to be creative with our storage space, as in addition to not having a utility closet we didn’t have a basement or garage. The following are some storage solutions we’ve come up with over the years as alternatives for storing utility items in areas other than a utility closet, garage, or basement.

Cleaning products

Start by cutting down on the amount of cleaners you have. Consider using an all-purpose cleaner instead of specific cleaners for bathrooms or kitchens. Also, purchase smaller containers of cleaning products. It is a little more expensive in the longterm, but it is worth a few pennies per ounce not to have crammed cupboards. A small wash bucket can double as a caddy in which to carry the cleaning products around the house.

Here are some possible places to store cleaning products if there is no designated utility closet.

  • Bathroom cupboard
  • Kitchen cupboard (away from food storage and preparation areas)
  • Laundry room cupboard or shelf
  • Hallway or linen closet on an upper shelf

Most cleaning products, even the all-natural, organic ones, can be toxic. It is important to keep them out of the reach of children and pets. Ensure the products are on an upper shelf or cabinet doors are fitted with safety locks.

Paper products

Paper products should be stored close to where they are used. In the bathroom, consider using a multi-roll toilet roll holder so you don’t need shelf storage. Extra rolls of toilet paper can also be stored in a bathroom cabinet, in a basket or bin beside the toilet. A narrow shelf above the toilet can also provide some storage space. Surplus rolls also could be stored in a hallway closet or under a bed.

Paper towels (or kitchen roll as it’s called here in the UK) and paper napkins are often stored in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, however, if there is a leak, all of the paper towels and napkins may get ruined. Since these paper products are lightweight, consider storing them on the top shelf in a hallway closet, above kitchen cabinets, or in the cupboard over the refrigerator. Remember that paper towels are flammable and should not be stored above or near the stove or oven.

Brooms, mops, and vacuum cleaners

Brooms and mops can fit in narrow spaces. Additional storage suggestions:

  • Between the refrigerator and the wall
  • Inside closets or tall cupboards
  • Behind kitchen or bathroom doors

You can even squeeze a folding stepladder in these narrow spaces.

Vacuum cleaners are generally big and bulky. More storage options:

  • In one end of a hallway closet or bedroom clothes closet.
  • In a tall cupboard in the kitchen.
  • Behind a doorway.
  • Under a stairwell.
  • Behind a tall houseplant in the corner of the living room (upright vacuums)
  • In a chest or trunk that doubles as a table or seat (canister vacuums).

Tools

Having a few essential tools handy will help you complete household projects quickly and easily. Ideally tools should be stored in a locked box so little fingers cannot access things they shouldn’t. A toolbox can be stored under a bed, sofa, or chair or it can be stored on a shelf or in the bottom of a closet. A larger toolbox can be stored inside a closet or it can double as a console table in an entryway.

Everything Else

There are many small items that may be kept in a utility closet. These include batteries, extension cords, screws, nails, bolts, extra cable ties, bungee cords, padlocks, keys, and even some UFOs. It is best to sort these items into categories and use small containers to keep them organized. My favourite container is the Professional Organizer by Stanley. It is great for small things like nails and screws. A tower of plastic drawers is ideal for a closet or cupboard and can be used to store larger items such as flashlights, duct tape, and vacuum cleaner attachments. If you’re looking for something a little more aesthetically pleasing than plastic drawers, consider purchasing end tables with drawers and using chests of drawers as console tables and hallway tables to maximize your storage space.

There is no right or wrong way to organize utility items — use whatever method works best for you and the space where you live.

Disappearing office supplies

I often wondered why items disappear from shared spaces, such as pens from the reception desk or coffee mugs from the lunchroom. I read about a group of epidemiologists from Australia who published the results of a study in the British Medical Journal documenting the disappearance of teaspoons from their lunchrooms. They purchased both high and low quality teaspoons and distributed them throughout the lunchrooms of their research centre. They examined teaspoon disappearance in common lunchrooms and private lunchrooms.

They found in private lunchrooms half the teaspoons had permanently disappeared in 11 weeks. However, from communal lunchrooms, it took only 6 weeks for half of the teaspoons to disappear. The researchers concluded that in order to keep their employees satisfied with the amount of teaspoons available, the research centre should purchase over 250 teaspoons per year.

I found this study interesting from an organizing perspective because it indicated items disappear faster when left in a common area where more people who have access to them. This is a problem in office settings as time is wasted looking for items and money is wasted in purchasing extra supplies. In a home setting, items are more likely to be picked up and moved by someone else in your home when left out in a common area instead of being properly stored after use. Organizing and simplifying procedures can minimize loss and misplacement of items.

Suggestions for change:

In an office setting, educate co-workers as to what is happening. Let them know how much the missing items affect the bottom line of the business. Spending a hundred dollars on replacing teaspoons means less money for other things. Encourage co-workers to bring their own personal items such as coffee mugs, water bottles, and teaspoons to use at work instead of stealing from the cafeteria or lunchroom.

Ensure people have the supplies they need. At work, each employee should be issued with a standard set of office supplies as necessary (e.g. stapler, tape dispenser, scissors, hole punch). Also, review common areas to determine what shared items are needed in these work spaces. At home, if your children are in school, they will need their own supplies for their desks instead of needing to take them from the kitchen or from your home desk.

Purchase specialized items for common areas to make them obviously shared items. For example, coffee mugs in the office lunchroom could all be exactly the same size and colour and have the company logo printed on them. The stapler and hole-punch at the photocopier could be bright red and labeled with a gold permanent marker. In your home, you might decide to get supplies for each person/area in specific colors (red for son, green for daughter, purple for mom, brown for dad, black for the kitchen, and yellow for the craft room). If you don’t wish to share an item with a roommate/family member, be sure to put it away after use to reduce the risk it will be picked up by someone else.

Some larger companies are using vending machines to dispense tools and supplies. Employees type in their employee ID code or swipe their pass-cards on the vending machine. This is an ideal solution for companies who cannot afford a full-time stock controller. It also allows management to track employees to find those who routinely misplace, hoard, or even steal tools or other supplies. It may not work with all offices, though, and certainly wouldn’t work well in a home.

While all the systems listed above may work, nothing beats a system where the items have a designated area and people are educated on the importance of returning items to where they belong. At home, a simple walk through the house each night before bed to relocate out-of-place items can also help to return items to their proper storage space so they don’t “get legs” and disappear for long periods of time.

Effective note-taking

A few years ago, Unclutterer readers started a discussion on effective note-taking. Several of you had great suggestions, and looking at that old thread got me thinking about my own note-taking techniques. They’ve changed quite a bit since I was a young student, though I do still fall back on old techniques now and then.

Best practices

We take notes so we can recall important information later. It’s a real hassle to sit down to a review of your notes only to realize you’ve got overly complex notes that actually hinder your recall process. Avoid this frustration by keeping your note-taking simple. Use clear keywords and avoid the temptation to hurriedly write down everything the teacher, lecturer, or coworker says. I put things into my own words unless I hear a fantastic phrase that I’ll want to recall verbatim. When that happens, I use quotation marks.

That said, a logical flow that works for you is most important. When I was a young student, I learned the hierarchical Arabic system that started with a Roman numeral, and added a capital letter under that, etc. That served me well through high school, but once I was in college I found it was hard to keep up with lectures using this system.

That’s when I adopted a system of dashes and dots. Large dots identified a main topic, with dashes and smaller dots marking sub-categories beneath those (similar to the “Dash Plus” system Patrick Rhone uses on to-do lists). It was quick and effective for me.

Taking notes is only the starting point, of course. Just because you write something down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall/find it later. My system to help me find information later couldn’t be easier. As a matter of course, I write the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page of notes. When a new topic begins, I circle the page number. Then, I make a bold line across the bottom of the final page of those notes to represent the end of that topic. If I’ve got a lot of notes, let’s say more than 12 pages, I’ll write an index for my own reference. For example, “Sample service schedule, page 11.”

You might also benefit from trying to create your index from memory before writing in page numbers. Creating this list mostly from memory will start you on your recall process.

Technology

For many, paper will be the answer for which technology to use for taking notes. If that’s you, I understand. Paper is tremendously flexible. You can capture a grocery list or solve very complex problems with a sheet of paper (or note card or napkin or sticky note) and a pencil. But, if you do use paper, I strongly recommend you scan your paper notes and run them through a hand-writing recognition program (like the one standard in Evernote) so you can easily search your notes later and have a backup of them in the Cloud.

If you’re not a paper person and you want to use something electronic, consider the following:

Mind Mapping. I’ve written about my love of Mind Mapping before on Unclutterer. It’s a non-liner way to capture ideas quickly. It’s especially useful when one aspect or idea will quickly spawn several others. On the Mac side, I love MindNode Pro. Windows users will want to check out Mindmeister.

Evernote. Here’s a great solution that’s platform-agnostic. It’s like working with paper, so you can use any system you like. The real power with Evernote is how searchable everything is. You can find any word or phrase you like and even create saved searches that monitor your notes for criteria you determine in real time.

Sketchnotes. If you’re an extremely visual person, you may benefit from taking Sketchnotes. The app Adobe Ideas (which easily integrates with other Adobe products) and Paper by FiftyThree both have high reviews by Mac users. And INKredible is well-rated for Android users.

I find that note-taking is a personal thing, with people using a wide range of methods. The important take-aways from this article are: keep note-taking simple, stick to important keywords, use a markup system that makes review helpful for you, and don’t be afraid to abandon systems that are no longer effective.

Nine questions to help unclutter your recipes

For people who like to cook, it’s easy to wind up with overflowing recipe files. While this may be more of a problem for those who keep paper files, even those who keep their recipes in a digital format can get overwhelmed at times.

If you would like to unclutter your own recipe collection, the following nine questions may help you to reduce your number and better organize those you wish to keep:

  1. Does this recipe fit with the way I eat? Our food preferences change over time, so our recipe collections should evolve, too. You may also have health reasons — your own, or those of family members you cook for — that lead you to change the type of recipes you cook.
  2. Does this recipe call for things I don’t have? If a recipe calls for a number of ingredients you don’t normally use, the recipe might not be one you want to keep. The ingredients may be hard to find or just things that will linger on your shelves, unused, and taking up space. (Of course, sometimes trying a new ingredient is a fun adventure. If you are feeling adventuresome, buy the smallest container of that ingredient you can.)

    I’ve also found that if a recipe calls for a tool I don’t have and wouldn’t use regularly, such as a tajine, I’ll probably decide it’s not worth keeping unless I can readily borrow that tool from someone else.

  3. Does this recipe take a long time to prepare? Sometimes, a time-consuming recipe is worthwhile — for a special occasion, perhaps. If the recipe will make many servings and it’s something I can refrigerate or freeze for future use, that helps. But some recipes just don’t seem worth my time, and I let them go.
  4. Is this another recipe for something I already cook? If you have a favorite recipe for brownies, do you need another one? For some people, the answer may be yes. But, if you know you’ll always choose your old reliable recipes, you can get rid of the others.
  5. Am I keeping this recipe purely for sentimental reasons? You may have recipes you want to keep but never intend to cook: recipes inherited from your parents, for example. In such cases, you may want to store the recipes with memorabilia rather than with recipes you do use for cooking.
  6. Alternatively, does this recipe bring back unpleasant memories? If a recipe is strongly associated with a person or an event you’d rather forget, you may want to ditch the recipe.
  7. Am I keeping this recipe because I think I should prepare it? Maybe a friend or a health practitioner gave you the recipe. Or maybe you have some other reason why you think you should prepare this recipe. I’m giving you permission to stop should-ing yourself, and let the recipe go if it’s not one you want to make.
  8. Have I kept this recipe for months or years without trying it? If you have many such recipes, you may want to create a plan where you try some of them on a regular schedule: once or twice a week, perhaps. If you don’t plan to ever make it, you may want to let it go.
  9. Why am I accumulating so many recipes? If you subscribe to numerous magazines for the recipes, maybe it’s time to reevaluate at least some of these subscriptions.

Organizing: valuable and inexpensive

Getting organized is valuable but it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many ways to create customized organizing solutions with a small budget.

I often look around the house to see what items can be re-purposed. We use chewing gum containers to keep office supplies organized. It is easy to see what is in them. They are easy to refill and they have a little slot so they can dispense one item at a time. These containers are the perfect size for cotton swabs and hair elastics, so we use them in the bathroom to organize cosmetics.

Blister pack chewing gum containers and inserts from boxes of chocolates can be used to organize earrings in a jewelry box or craft supplies such as beads.

CraftSanity has instructions for how to construct magazine holders and a literature sorter out of cereal boxes. Lifehacker has an article describing how Lego minifigures make great computer cord organizers and bits of Lego can be used to make key holders. Lego bricks can also be used to make holders for kitchen utensils and napkins. (Interesting fact: the exterior case for the first Google server was built with Lego bricks.)

Discount and bargain stores have great organizing supplies (Dollartree in the U.S., Dollarama in Canada and Poundland in the U.K.). You can find baskets, bins, file folders, desk caddies, hangers, hooks, and over-the-door pocket organizers. And, not to leave out the most obvious, Amazon has almost 500,000 items in a range of prices to help you get organized.

Purchasing unnecessary or unsuitable organizing supplies is one mistake some of my clients have made while trying to get their houses in order. Creating inexpensive do-it-yourself organizers like those mentioned above will allow you to experiment with different organizing systems. Once you find the products and systems that best suit your lifestyle, you may eventually want to purchase a durable, higher quality version that coordinates with your décor.

Being organized makes life easier

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to go see a radio show being taped in San Francisco tonight. Seats for the show disappeared within a day, so I was lucky to get one. In addition to luck, I was also prepared to make the necessary quick decision as to whether or not I wanted to attend the event when the tickets became available.

  • I had my goals for the year already defined. One of my goals is to get out more, putting aside work and having fun, and taking advantage of all the area has to offer. So I knew that this opportunity fit within my goals.
  • I had my finances organized, and I knew how much I could afford to spend on a ticket.
  • I had my calendar up to date, and I knew I didn’t have any scheduling conflicts.
  • I’d recently exercised my decision-making skills, and making one more decision was pretty easy.

Being organized has helped in many other areas of my everyday life. I’m having a couple family members over to the house on Saturday. I’ll do some extra cleaning before they arrive — don’t we all do that before company comes? But because the house is basically organized, I don’t have to fret about this being a big deal or plan on throwing a bunch of stuff into a closet or room that no one will see. And, I know I have the supplies I need to do the cleaning.

I moderate a Yahoo Group with over 2,000 members. In this group, the same types of problems come up time and again. These problems require me to write to certain members and explain what they are doing wrong. Since I took the time to set up some snippets in a text expansion tool — I happen to use Typinator, but there are plenty of others — I can respond much more quickly to these repeat problems and be sure I’m saying exactly the right thing.

And this year, I’m up-to-date on my bookkeeping and my scanning of tax-related documents. Next tax season will be much less stressful than in the past, when I’ve let myself fall behind.

I see the same kind of day-to-day benefits when I talk to other people, too. Artists who have their supplies organized can put their fingers on those they want when they begin a new project. Shop owners who are organized can find the inventory they need to restock their shelves. I have a friend who is both a painter and a gallery owner, and she’s always showing off to me when she puts a new organizing tool in place.

I’ve seen people with overflowing kitchen cabinets, full of stuff they don’t use. Once those cabinets were uncluttered and organized, meal preparation became much less stressful since everything needed was easy to find.

Organizing isn’t an end unto itself; it’s a way to make it easier for each of us to live the life we want to live.

Organizing a shed, garage, or basement

Few things seem to collect clutter like a garage, basement, or backyard shed. Since their contents are typically out of sight, it’s easy to stuff something in there and forget about it. To make things worse, the clutter in question is often large: broken lawn mowers, unused tools, old trash bins, rakes, and shovels, partially used cans of paint, and other things deemed not appropriate for storing inside the house. When I need to stop thinking about something bulky, I often think, “Oh, I’ll put it in the shed.” This works until I can’t open the door anymore.

If this sounds familiar to you, check out my favorite organizing tips for these spaces:

First, get rid of the actual clutter. You can trash, recycle, and/or donate the items you no longer need or want. Once the clutter is gone you can work to organize the things you wish to keep. You may find you’ve decided to keep more than you have space to store and may need to go through the uncluttering process a second time.

Next, make use of the ceiling for storage. I bought several large screw hooks and put them along the ceiling rafters in our backyard shed. They’re perfect for hanging beach chairs, small tools, and bikes. I even keep the huge wreath that decorates our home’s front door in December on a hook. It frees up floor space and, if your shed is outdoors in a rural area like mine, foils any resident mice.

Garage owners might not want to screw hooks into the ceiling, but that space is still an option. Overhead shelving is a great way to get seldom-used items (like seasonal ones) off the floor and out of sight: when the garage door is open, the shelving unit is hidden. You could get the unit built in a weekend. If you’re not the DIY type, pre-made shelves are available at stores like Home Depot — all you have to do is install them.

I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into the basement and thought, “Now, where is [x]?” Storing like items together is the practice that eliminates the random search. After buying a few simple shelving units from IKEA, we now have a home for camping equipment, beach stuff, tools, old paint, and more. Now, if someone wants to borrow our Coleman stove, I know exactly where it is.

This is a little off subject, but here’s a quick tip about paint: buy a box of large, white stickers and place them on the lid of each can you open the first time. Next, write the following on the sticker with a permanent marker:

  1. Date purchased
  2. Purchase location
  3. Where in the house you used this paint
  4. Date paint job was finished

If you need to touch up the closet trim in your kid’s room, you’ll know exactly which can to open.

I mentioned shelving earlier because the walls in a garage, basement, or shed are great for storage, too. I found this brilliant re-purposing of a wooden pallet that has me inspired. By removing a few select slats and affixing the unit to the wall, you’ve got a slim, useful storage container that consumes very little space. I’m planning to make one of these for our space.

Of course, you needn’t buy shelves. Some bungie cord will store sports balls beautifully. Again, those who would rather buy than build will find all softs of wall-mounted storage options available. Peg strips are excellent and very useful.

A few final tips: First, put a trash can in each location. This makes it easier than carrying stuff inside your house only to bring it out again on trash day. Next, try your best to throw away things you don’t need as they appear. Check with your local town dump, recycling station, local government center, or fire station to see when they have designated days for collecting hazardous materials, like motor oil. Be sure to write these dates down on your calendar.

Finally, you would be amazed what a little paint can do. A few years ago, I painted our basement floor and added a few rubber work mats and was amazed at how much better the place looked. It’s easier to spend time putting things away in a place that you don’t hate visiting.

Organizing for disasters: your emergency preparedness supplies

What goes into an emergency preparedness kit? As Erin has noted before, FEMA can help you with this and the American Red Cross can help, too.

If you’re interested in creating your own kit, the following are three specific things to think about as you assemble it.

Food and water

You may have heard advice like: “A good rule of thumb is to have supplies for about 3 days, or 72 hours.” That advice comes from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. Both ready.gov and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have repeated that advice, recommending at least a three-day supply of water per person.

Other sources indicate that 72 hours worth of supplies is a bare minimum. The Southern California Earthquake Center, in its brochure “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Territory,” recommends that you have enough food and water for “at least 3 days and ideally for 2 weeks.”

FEMA’s guide entitled Food and Water in an Emergency (PDF) advocates for more supplies, too.

If an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days or even weeks. … Store at least one gallon per person, per day. Consider storing at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family. If you are unable to store this quantity, store as much as you can.

The American Red Cross has made a distinction between the supplies you need if you’re evacuating versus the supplies you need if you’re staying where you are. They recommend a “3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home.”

Emergency lighting

I’ve had clients tell me they were holding onto candles as an emergency supply — but that’s a really poor idea. As the CDC has indicated:

Home fires are a threat after a natural disaster and fire trucks may have trouble getting to your home. If the power is out, use flashlights or other battery-powered lights if possible, instead of candles. If you must use them, place candles in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire. Never leave a burning candle unattended.

I’ve heard people suggest getting a headlamp, so you can walk around with your hands free, which sounds like a good suggestion to me.

Landlines with corded phones

In day-to-day use, many of us rely on our cell phones, and many people are getting rid of their landlines. If you’re lacking power, a landline using copper wire, in conjunction with a corded phone, may work when no other phone will. Tara Siegal Bernard wrote in The New York Times about this in more detail. She noted that 911 services works better when the calls come through on a landline rather than a cell phone.

There are additional advantages to having a landline during an emergency. If your local cell phone network is overloaded after an earthquake, your landline calls might still go through. If you need to evacuate your home and you have a landline with an answering machine, you may be able to call home to find out if your power is back on; if the answering machine picks up and your home is still standing, your electricity is back.