Unclutterer’s 2014 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for kids

Each year Erin is kind enough to let me write the gift guide for kids. I have such a good time, and often have to whittle my ideas down to the best selections. That’s what I’ve done again this year. In the following post you’ll find great suggestions for little and big kids.

Younger tykes

The POWER A Skylanders SWAP Force Tackle Box. Skylanders is a game for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo 3DS that encourages kids to buy a vast collection of figurines, which become playable characters. Even a small collection can be unwieldily, and if you think stepping on a LEGO brick is bad, try putting your bare foot down on Drobot. This storage box holds up to 20 figures, is stackable, has a lit that latches shut and is transparent. Plus, Jr. can use it to carry his minions to a friend’s house. (It also works with Disney Infinity characters, if your kid is into that one.)

The LEGO Swoop Bag. I mentioned this last year, and I’ve brought it back for 2014 because LEGOS just won’t go away. Between the LEGO Movie, Star Wars tie-ins that are bolstered by a new TV series, those ever-present bricks will be popular again this season. The Swoop Bag holds a huge collection of LEGOs and spreads out during play time, and easily scoops and stores the lot when play is finished. A few other fun ways to keep LEGOS organized:

  1. The LEGO Storage Head offers a fun way to keep LEGOS organized, and gifts should be fun, right? I’d recommend this for smaller collections.
  2. The LEGO ZipBin 1000 Brick Storage Box and Playmat. I love it because it stores 1,000 bricks, comes with a playmat, and features a brick remover! This all-important tool will keep you from using your teeth to separate stubborn bricks. That thing is like gold, so keep it safe.
  3. The Brick Rack Wall Display for LEGO minifigs. As kids get older, they may want to display their favorite LEGOS. This interesting system mounts to the wall and lets kids slide minifigs in and out. The best part is they aren’t in there permanently, so if they want to take a few down to play with them, they can.

Melissa and Doug Trunki Terrance Rolling Kids Luggage. This beautiful little suit case is perfect for the younger child who travels — or doesn’t! For travelers, it’s carry-on sized and features wheels plus handles and a shoulder strap. At home, it’s a cute and sturdy (holds up to 75 lbs) storage container that you won’t mind looking at. It’s available in several colors and patterns, so you can find one that works for you.

The Hot Wheels Basic Car 50-Pack. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia talking, but Hot Wheels are awesome. This set contains 50 vehicles, each individually wrapped, with no duplicates. Plus, it all ships in a cute cardboard storage box. It’s a great way to create an instant Hot Wheels collection or add on to an existing one AND keep them stored nicely when not in use.

Older kids/teens

Gear Pockets. These wall-hanging units feature mesh pockets and straps for storing all sorts of items: sports equipment, hunting supplies, helmets, boots and more. Put one in the garage or your teenager’s room and they’ll have at-a-glance access to their most important gear.

Multi-Device Charging Station. This great-looking bamboo charging station can accommodate three phones/music players of various makes, an iPad, and a laptop computer. There are hidden hook-ups for everything, keeping them charged in a tidy, nice-looking package.

Finally, this one’s a little abstract, but I’d recommend an Evernote Premium subscription for any college students on your list. I’ve sung Evernote’s praises several times on Unclutterer. It really is my external brain. College is a time to run around like a chicken minus its academic head, and Evernote will help students keep everything they need together and accessible.

If you’re like me, you find time spent shopping for kids almost as much fun as watching them open their gifts. I hope there were a few items here that are prefect for the young ones on your list. Have a great holiday season, everybody!

Feel welcome to explore our past Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Seven ways to manage laundry

If you struggle to keep up with the laundry, you’re not alone. People have different approaches to laundry based on their number of family members, the convenience of laundry facilities, and their personal preferences — but feeling overwhelmed by laundry is common to all types of households. The following suggestions may help make laundry less onerous.

  1. Wear clothes multiple times between washes, assuming they didn’t get dirty and they don’t smell bad. Real Simple has some suggestions on how many times you might wear an item before washing it, as does Consumer Reports. Besides saving time, less frequent washing also saves on water, power, and detergent.

    Steve Boorstein, who wrote a book on clothing care, recommends washing white clothes after each wearing because body oils and time-released stains (such as perfumes) can make even a clean-looking white item begin to turn yellow. But that’s not a concern with dark clothes, which will fade less quickly when washed less frequently.

  2. Consider washing each person’s clothes separately. Doing so avoids the post-laundry sorting problem. (If all family members do their own laundry, this is already how things work.)
  3. Examine your laundry process to see where you get stalled. One person noticed she was always dealing with her young son’s clothes after he was asleep, so the clothes piled up since she didn’t want to enter his room and possibly wake him. As a work-around, she started storing his clothes in the guest bedroom, and the problem disappeared.
  4. If folding is the part that slows you down, minimize the folding. If possible, arrange your storage so you can hang clothes rather than fold them. Many things that don’t get hung will still be fine without any folding. I fold my cloth napkins and my towels, but that’s about it. T-shirts are hung; underwear is tossed in a drawer with no folding. I worked with one person where we stored all her sweatshirts in a large lidded basket — no folding required.
  5. If ironing is the task you despise, you could join Erin and me in giving away our irons. I generally buy clothes that don’t require ironing. The very few that do need ironing get handled at the dry cleaner.
  6. It’s been said before, but it’s worth reiterating: Make sure you have plenty of room to store your clothes. If your closets and dressers are overly full, it will always be a challenge to put clothes away. Either eliminate some clothes or add storage pieces.
  7. To the extent you’re able to do so, have tools that work well for you and that you enjoy using. That would include laundry bags, baskets, hampers, or sorters. It could be a great iron, if you do ironing — The SweetHome recommends the T-fal Ultraglide Easycord FV4495. If you have your own home and your budget allows, it could mean a superb washer and dryer.

    If you’re going to be folding, try to have a large table at a comfortable height. Anita Perr, an occupational therapist, suggests it should be about waist high. Also consider standing on an anti-fatigue mat.

Digital organizing and productivity tools

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

Photo management

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

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

Productivity

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

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

Kids

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

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

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

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

Towel management

A friend of mine, who has a family of six, mentioned that she launders loads of bath towels every day. She stated that most of the time, towels are used only once then placed in the hamper for laundering. The damp towels sit in the hamper and, if not washed right away, they start to get a mildew smell. This friend asked me for suggestions on how to get organized and reduce the amount of laundry she had to do.

Start with clean towels. Launder all the towels. Generally people use too much laundry soap which can actually cause towels to take longer to dry. Follow good laundry tips to get fresh, fluffy towels.

Fold and sort the towels into groups once they are clean:

  • Bath Sheet (35” x 60” or 90cm x 150cm): For drying off after a shower. These towels are large enough to wrap around an adult.
  • Bath Towel (27” x 52” or 70cm x 130cm): For drying off or wrapping up long hair after a shower. These towels are large enough to wrap around a child.
  • Hand Towel (16” x 28” or 40cm x 70cm): For drying hands after washing. Can be used to wrap child’s long hair.
  • Washcloth (13” x 13” or 30cm x 30cm): These can be used for washing the face at the sink or in the shower for washing the body.

Assign each person his/her towel set. Each person should have a bath towel, one or two hand towels and a few washcloths. Those with long hair may wish to have an extra towel or a hair towel wrap. You can assign each person their own colour of towels or sew name tags on towels. Remember to set aside at least two sets of towels for guests. Guest towels could be a unique colour or have a different pattern to differentiate them from the family towels.

Storing towels between uses. Storing towels in the bathroom is convenient. If the bathroom is large enough — or the family is small enough — towel racks or hooks can be mounted so that towels can easily hang to dry. Sometimes the bathroom is too small to store the family’s towels or too humid for the towels to dry properly. In this case, family members can store their towels on hooks in their bedrooms. Bedroom storage is a little inconvenient especially when you forget to bring your bath towel to the bathroom with you, but new routines can be learned quickly.

It doesn’t matter whether you store towels in the bathroom or in bedrooms, it is important that towels are hung up properly to allow airflow so that they dry quickly after every use.

Over-the-door towel racks are great because the towels hang flat and are out of the way. However, if the towels are squished between the door and the wall, they may not dry very quickly.

Radiator drying racks also can be useful. Not only can the towels hang on radiators, but they can also be used on some types of windowsills as well as balcony railings.

Freestanding towel racks (pictured above) take up floor space but they can hold multiple towels and can be placed over furnace vents or in front of radiators, windows or fans.

Set up laundry routines. Bath towels should be laundered after every 3 to 5 uses. Depending on the number of people in your home, the size of your washer and dryer and your available time, you may find that washing one or two sets of towels per day works best for you. Alternatively, you could wash all the towels once or twice per week. Pick a day to wash the towels and round ‘em up.

Storage of Extra Towels. You many or may not want to designate an extra set of towels for every person in the household. It depends on your laundry routine as well as your storage space. Towels should be stored in a dry environment, such as a linen closet. Extra sets of towels can be stored in bedroom closets or in an under-bed storage bin, if a linen closet is not available.

If have even more tips on how to manage towels, please share them with our readers in the comments.

More modified principles of sanitary design

I know it seems a little strange to apply food industry practices to one’s personal life, but it does make my life easier. Whenever we move to a new home, I apply all kinds of modified principles of facility design to arrangement and layout. It isn’t always easy because of the architecture of the house, but some simple modifications can be made so that things run smoothly and efficiently.

If you’re interested in doing the same, consider the following:

Create Distinct Zones. Maintaining separations between areas reduces the likelihood of transfer of material from one area to another. When items are kept where they belong, you can quickly and easily find what you need, when you need it. You may not be able to renovate your home to add walls, but a shelving unit could be used to separate a living room from a dining area. Screens or curtains could be used to designate distinct areas in a shared bedroom or to separate a home gym from the family room.

Control Process and Material Flows. Lack of adequate processes or poorly designed processes can cause clutter to build up. Identifying and repairing bad processes can help you save time and effort. Ensure you set up the processes so that the people in your home can move around easily without bumping into one another. For example, if someone is trying to pour his/her breakfast cereal at the same counter space where someone else is making coffee, you could consider relocating the coffee maker or the breakfast cereal. An alternative would be for the coffee drinkers to adjust their morning routines to vacate that particular counter space before the cereal eaters need to prepare their breakfast.

Easy Cleaning. When you are examining your processes, think about general housecleaning. Will the vacuum cleaner easily pass between pieces of furniture? Would the addition of garbage and/or recycling bins help keep clutter at bay in certain areas?

Environmental Control. Ensuring proper airflow in the home improves indoor air quality and makes the home more comfortable with respect to temperature and humidity. Do not block vents, radiators or windows with furniture. Vent deflectors can be used if furniture must be placed over vents. In the winter, temporary curtains can be installed to create a double doorway and prevent cold air from entering all over house.

Plan Exterior Elements. Putting mats and boot brushes at the entryway to the house can prevent dirt and mud from getting deeper into the house. A chair or bench by the door will allow you to set packages down in a clean, dry area while you unlock your door. Be sure to keep the area clean of leaves and dirt so rodents and insects don’t have a place to hide while they wait for you to open your front door.

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.