An in-depth look at organizing labels

I’m a big fan of labels. Labels tell everyone where things belong. Labels indicate that only items of a certain type belong in a certain place. Labels help you remember where you put stuff.

There are many different types of labels that can be used and each type has advantages and disadvantages. The following are things to consider when choosing labels for your next organizing project.

Permanent or Removable

Permanent labels are intended for one time use. Peeling off a permanent label will generally destroy the label or the object to which it is attached, or both. Address labels on paper envelopes are a good example of permanent labels.

Removable labels are made with a special adhesive that, rather than sticking to the surface of the object, sticks to the label, and leaves the surface clean. Removable labels do not damage the object to which they are attached and can often be re-used. Post-It Notes are a good example of removable labels.

The object to which a label is attached and the conditions in which it is used can influence whether or not the label is permanent or not. For example, an address label that is designed to be permanently attached to a paper envelope may be easily removed from a plastic bin. It may not even stick to the plastic bin if the conditions are cold or damp. Sometimes removable labels may end up permanently adhered to surfaces if they are left on for a long time or exposed to excessive heat or pressure.

Always evaluate the type of material that you need to adhere the label to prior to purchasing the labels. Consider how long the label will be left in place and what the storage conditions will be.

Handwritten or Computer Printed

If you’ve got terrible handwriting, it may be better to use a computer or label maker to create labels because then everyone can read it. However, it takes time to make labels on a computer but it is easy to print many copies of the same label. Some labels are meant to be only for laser printers and some for only inkjet printers so always confirm that you’ve got the right labels for your printer. Some types of printer ink runs in damp conditions or fades in bright light. In these harsh conditions, it may be better to use a plasticized label.

Label makers print clear, easy-to-read labels that can be used in a variety of conditions. However, they tend to be limited in the sizes and colours of labels. Most label makers do not have a wide variety of fonts.

If the label is permanent on the container but the contents change, dry erase or chalkboard labels might be the best to use for your needs. They are a good choice if you are creative and enjoy making handwritten labels. An alternative is the Identa-label system. It is comprised of transparent plastic pockets that hold index cards. You can use a computer to print the index cards or they can be hand written.

Safety Considerations

While copper labels would look lovely in the garden, they would not be appropriate in a home with small children or pets. Labels can be detached and chewed on or swallowed. Some types of key ring labels may contain parts that could injure children and animals, too. Tag labels with string can be wound around tiny fingers and paws and cause injury.

Colours and Sizes

Once you have taken the above information into consideration, the colour and sizes of labels seems to be limited only by your imagination.

Specialty Stickers

Full page stickers allow you to print your own design or create multiple stickers of any shape, size, or colour.

Tamper-evident hologram warranty void stickers can be placed on bins or boxes to ensure they have not been tampered with. This would be ideal for valuable items sent via mail or courier service. They could also be placed on boxes of paperwork containing sensitive information during a move or in a storage facility.

Iron-on name-tags for clothing are great for identifying children’s clothing for school and camp but they can also be used for labeling the tablecloths you take to the family potluck dinners.

You can purchase pre-printed magnetic labels for toolboxes or create your own with dry-erase magnetic tape. Speaking of toolboxes, “Eye-Saver” big typeface socket labels have imperial and metric stickers in different colours so it is easy to tell which sockets are which.

TrueBlock labels completely hide everything they cover. They are great if you like to reuse shipping and file storage boxes. When you need to get people’s attention, high visibility labels would work well. If you need to see the label in the dark, Epson makes glow-in-the-dark labels for its label makers. You can write on glow in the dark tape to make your own labels.

Plant pot labels can be used to tell your house sitter how and when to water your plants during your vacation.

For holiday parties, reusable cup labels allow each child to have his or her own cup. If all goes as planned, there won’t be any sharing of germs. Adding allergy information to the cup label is a good idea, too. For the grown-ups, there are wine glass labels.

Labels are a wonderful thing, but when they have to be removed, label sticker remover comes in handy.

Selecting the right bulletin board for home or office

I recently admitted that I need a bulletin board in my home office. They really are supremely handy. Bulletin boards can serve several purposes (often more than one at a time) and come in a variety of materials and sizes.

The problem was that a quick online search resulted in several options that were, honestly, pretty ugly. Plain cork board and thin, one-inch plywood borders reminded me of the sad, half-abandoned classroom bulletin boards of my youth. I just didn’t want that hanging in my office, where I’d see it every day.

But before we get to the design options, the first step is to identify what role a new bulletin board will play.

Purpose

I knew I couldn’t make a successful purchase until I clearly defined what I role I expected my board to play. I came up with several options:

  1. Decorative. My daughter has a small bulletin board in her bedroom, which she uses to display photos, mementos, and other paper-based keepsakes. It’s all fun and no business. Some “files” partially cover others and the contents don’t change very often. Occasionally something is added, but rarely anything is taken away.
  2. Reference. Unlike a decorative board, reference boards are more orderly and purposefully organized. The idea is to store oft-referenced material right out in the open for easy use.
  3. Communication hub. For many of us, I’d bet the family refrigerator fills this role. As I’ve said before, this is a tempting but ultimately ineffective practice. Still, I see the appeal of a public communication hub. When I was a college student, it was a common practice to put a dry erase board on the door to one’s dorm room (note: this was long before texting and smartphones existed). Today, it’s a great idea for busy families.
  4. Short-term memory. I maintain a form of this with 3″ x 5″ index cards. There’s always a stack on my desk and I’m always grabbing them throughout the day to jot down something I need to remember but can’t attend to when it arrives. Again, I see the appeal of a larger version of this hanging on a wall, especially when processing all of that incoming “stuff” at the end of the day.
  5. Combination. Of course, it’s quite possible for a bulletin board to meet any combination of the above listed needs. A communication hub with pictures from that summer at the lake? Sure. A reference board with a corner dedicated to quickie tasks? Absolutely.

Knowing your needs can help you choose the type of board to buy, as some materials are better suited to one function over another.

Types based on purpose

  1. Decorative. In this case, boards with felt straps are a great choice. The straps keep you from having to poke pin holes in treasured mementos. Find one that looks great, as looks are a big part of the experience here.
  2. Reference. Unlike a decorative bulletin board, this one has strictly utilitarian needs. Find something that will stand up to wear-and-tear as you’ll be moving things around a lot. It needn’t be ugly, of course, but aesthetics ins’t your primary concern.
  3. Communication hub. For this bulletin board to work, it’s got to be easy to use. Having a bulletin board with a dry erase board is a great option, as is a DIY chalkboard paint option. You might also want to consider a magnetic and push pin board, so kids can quickly attach notes from school to it, for example.
  4. Short-term memory. Dry erase or chalkboard paint combined with a heavy-duty push pin board is again the way to go here. This is for temporary storage of information that is captured quickly, and then purged when no longer necessary.

And, of course, there are boards that combine all four. Find the one that best suits your plans and go for it. As for me, I want something that will give me an overview of what needs to be done for the week: articles due, school stuff for the kids, un-missable calendar events. A magnetic board will work, but I’m going with something that can accept push pins. My current plan is to buy large sections of cork board and cover it with old, decorative burlap sacks we have with vintage farming graphics. I’ll wrap the result in a nice, painted frame. That way I won’t feel badly about putting pins into it and it won’t look terrible on the wall.

Tech suggestions for dealing with stuff

“That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff.”George Carlin

This week I thought I’d revisit the eternal question of, “what to do with all this stuff?” This time, I’ve paired the four major categories of stuff — actions, projects, reference and trash -– with suggestions of technology to use in taming each category.

The two-minute drill

If you can do something in less than two minutes, do it right then and there. Do not file it or add it to that great to-do app that you love. Don’t even bother to write it down. Just do it and it’s done. If you’ve got time or ambition, move the criteria up to five minutes. Otherwise, stay at two.

Tech to employ: A simple timer will do here. All you need is to set aside 10 minutes (or whatever you have) to do nothing but run two-minute drills. Focus Booster is a great option. It’s free and runs in a web browser. If you prefer to download an application, there’s one available for the Mac and Windows.

Actions

Actions are the verbs of your project. Call Janie. Put the kids’ lunches in their bags. That’s the key here, really. An action is observable, it is something you do. “Call Janie” is a great action. It’s short and describes exactly what must be done. “Figure out the dinner party” is not. That’s a project. “Brainstorm the dinner party” is an action, and a great first step, in fact. Get into the habit of breaking things down into small, achievable steps.

Tech to employ: Where do actions go? That’s a great question, and the answer is varied and wide. As I said in my very first post for Unclutterer, I don’t store actions in my email software. Instead, I use OmniFocus for the Mac. It’s a stellar project manager that’s served me well for years.

Another great option is Wunderlist, as it’s not restricted to the Mac. Wunderlist is a full-featured project and task-manager that works in a browser as well as on the Mac, Windows, iOS, Android and even the Amazon Kindle. There are free and paid versions available. The important thing here isn’t the solution you use, but the act of getting your actions into a reliable, accessible system you trust.

Projects

I use David Allen’s definition of a project: anything that takes more than two action steps to complete. This means that some things we don’t think of as projects do, in fact, qualify. “Get 2014 budget approved” and “buy new windshield wipers” are both projects, and equally important as far as your brain is concerned. All your brain knows is, “I’ve said I’m going to do this thing, so I better do it.” Unfortunately, your brain does not excel at storing projects and their associated tasks and reference information. It’s best to get that out of your head and into a trusted system.

Tech to employ: You can’t go wrong with OmniFocus or Wunderlist, as mentioned above. But don’t think that computer software is the only option here. A reliable notebook — appropriately marked up — is a great solution if that works for you.

I’m also a fan of David Seah’s Task Progress Tracker. It’s a great-looking piece of paper that lets you list all of the actions that are related to a given project, and even track just how long you spend on each.

Reference

A lot of my stuff doesn’t require any action, but might be useful in the future. These types of items are reference material. Again, I don’t let this information sit in email.

Tech to employ: For me, the answer to reference (or “cold storage,” as I call it) is Evernote. This virtual filing cabinet holds everything I’ll want to review some day. It’s available on almost every device I own, so stored data is with me all the time. I love it.

Garbage

Finally, a lot of our stuff is garbage. If you deem something to be truly unnecessary, ditch it. You don’t need it. Stuff that sits around with no purpose or function is the very definition of clutter.

Tech to employ: A trash can and steely resolve.

The Staples Vayder Chair is a cozy, sturdy ride

The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past few weeks, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

When I was younger my grandfather told me, “Man was not meant to sit.” At the time I thought his cheese was slipping off of his cracker, but contemporary medicine backs up his claim. Dr. Camelia Davtyan, clinical professor of medicine and director of women’s health at the UCLA Comprehensive Health Program, recently told the LA Times, “Prolonged sitting is not what nature intended for us.”

Score one for gramps.

Today, my job requires me to spend tremendous amount of time seated behind a desk, so I want a chair that’s comfortable, supportive, well-made, easy to use, and not out to kill me. I’ve been testing the Staples Vayder chair ($399) for a couple of weeks and can say, a couple of quirks aside, it meets my needs and looks great doing it.

Vayder Chair from Staples

Assembly

Seriously, this could not be easier. In fact, I hesitate to call it “assembly,” as “snapping a few pieces together” would be more accurate. The chair ships in eight pieces: the seat, the base, the gas lift (or piece that sits between the seat and the base), and five wheels. It also comes with a small pamphlet that explains the three-step assembly process and usage details in English and French.

The wheels and gas lift snap into the base and the seat fits into the top of the lift. The whole process took me less than 10 minutes to complete. I will note, however, it’s not super easy to line up the bottom of the seat with the top of the lift by yourself, so if possible get someone else to act as your eyes and guide you. Also, one of the wheels only went about 95% of the way into my base, but the first time I sat in the completed chair it popped in the rest of the way.

Controls and adjustments

Of course, I plopped down into the Vayder before reading the instructions, and found myself sitting bolt upright. Fortunately, Staples makes it easy to configure the chairs six adjustment options for a custom feel. The control levers are made of plastic and bear icons that suggest their function. Most are easy to reach from a seated position, so you won’t need to move around to change things.

Seat hight is simple enough and raises or lowers the seat. Tilt Lock lets you lean back or forward and lock the seat back into one of four positions. For me, one click backward is perfect. To use it, just flip the lever down, move your back and then flick the lever back up to lock it into place.

The arm hight adjustment is something I kind of laughed at until I’ve tried it. When I was in college, I had a job filing and my chair’s arms were so tall I couldn’t get my arms on them and under the desk at the same time. The arms on the Vayder chair move up and down by several inches, and the armrests themselves also move forward and back.

Other adjustment options include back height adjustment (this is the adjustment you can’t make while seated), which lets you raise or lower the back support piece, and a slide seat adjustment that lets you move just the “bottom” of the seat, for lack of a better term, forward or back.

Finally, the tension adjustment is the most interesting. Both the chair’s seat and back are made of a mesh upholstery that’s supremely comfortable (more on that in the next section). Tension adjustment is completed by turing a cylindrical handle just beneath the seat. Move it forward for firmer feel, backward for more relaxed.

Comfort

This chair plain-old feels good. The mesh upholstery breathes so you don’t get hot as you would on a typically upholstered seat. I’ve got the mesh set to be pretty firm, and it feels great, especially against my back. The wheels roll nicely without making a lot of noise and I’ve never been uncomfortable, even after two weeks of 10-hour days. Plus, it just feels solid.

In conclusion I like the Staples Vayder a lot. It does have some quirks, like that stubborn wheel and the fact that assembly is a hassle if you’re by yourself, but those are minor quibbles. My real-world experience with the Vayder has been great and I look forward to many, many more hours in it.

And look at that, I got through this whole post without making one “Darth Vayder” pun.

Three bits of universal organizing advice for traditional office environments

Today we welcome a guest post from Janice Marie Simon, MA, CPO, a Project Director and in-house organizer at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she helps researchers and clinicians with productivity, organizing, technology management, and life management. She has a blog at TheClutterPrincess.com and is the Organized Auntie at SavvyAuntie.com.

As a professional organizer who works inside an academic medical facility, my clients work in offices, cubicles, laboratories, and patient clinics. No matter what their space is, some things are universal to their workplace environments: The look of their workplace matters – especially to the boss. And, too much paper and too many ineffective meetings are a daily part of work life. These three things aren’t relevant only to my clients, but to all employees who find themselves in a traditional office environment.

The Look of Your Space

A Career Builder Study shows two out of five managers are less likely to promote someone with a messy desk. Messy offices were once a sign of creativity or busyness, but shows such as Hoarders and Buried Alive have brought serious clutter issues out in the open. Standards have changed.

Since I began organizing, I’ve always had clients who were encouraged (sometimes very strongly) to call me on the recommendation of their bosses. In the past couple of years, the number of those clients has definitely increased.

In a few cases, the boss may be “hyper-organized” where even an organizer looks like a hoarder to them. In these cases, the boss is judging other’s spaces through a skewed lens.
Most cases, however, the client’s boss identified normal cluttering issues. Since presentation is everything, we focus on making long-term changes to their spaces. Simple steps we take:

  • Remove all sticky notes and papers taped on the computer, printer, overhangs, and walls.
  • Confine any papers and pictures to the borders of bulletin boards and the pushpin space of the cubicle wall.
  • Have only one container for pens and markers. Put the extras in a drawer.
  • Items such as the tape and stapler can go in a drawer if they’re not used every day.
  • Toss any trash, including half-filled coffee cups.

If you look organized, you feel organized. It also makes the boss happy.

Go Digital and Go Paperless

It’s easier than ever to go paperless. You can use a scanner or many office copy machines now come with the ability to scan documents into PDF format.

While converting to digital, start where you are with your current work. There’s no need to go back and scan everything in your office. As you go forward, you can grab a handful of older papers to see what needs to be tossed or shredded and what should be scanned. Remember: not everything is scanworthy.

Detach attachments from your email and keep them with your digital documents. Email systems are not the best way to file documents since the files take up a great deal of space. If it’s important and you want to keep it, save the file to a documents’ folder, and rename it if necessary.

Have More Efficient Meetings

Make meetings more productive by having a detailed agenda you email out beforehand. Outline action items that require decisions so people attending the meeting know what decisions they need to make. This really helps introverts who like to have time to think about decisions ahead of time and be prepared. My fellow extroverts and I talk to think instead of thinking and then talking.

During the meeting, stick to the agenda and keep the action moving. If someone brings up a topic not on the agenda but requires additional time and research, put the item in the “parking lot” to be discussed next time.

Banning smart phones during meetings is becoming popular. This keeps people from multi-tasking and checking email instead of paying attention and participating in the meeting.

When you get back into your office after a meeting, capture action items on your to-do list. Sort the handful of paper you more than likely received, toss the items you don’t need, and scan in the ones you do.

By clearing your desk, ditching the paper and having more effective meetings, you will work smarter, not harder.

Ten DIY gadget charging stations

“Where can I plug this in?” is a dilemma of the contemporary age.

As phones and tablets become more popular, two problems arise. First, most wall sockets only accommodate two items each. That’s easily remedied by connecting a power strip. One plug becomes five or six, and you’re good to go.

But the solution to the first problem begets problem number two: the jumble of cables and wires is just ugly. Plus, they get tangled, swapped, and misplaced. You could spend money on a decent-looking solution or whip up your own home charging station. The following are 10 great examples I found while poking around the Internet. Each charges several devices simultaneously and looks a lot better than a power strip and a rat’s nest of wires.

  1. Hidden in a drawer. I first saw this solution on Pinterest. It keeps everything out of sight completely by placing the whole lot inside a drawer. The setup is simple: drill a hole in the back of the drawer, thread the power strip cord through and plug it in. You might want to fasten the power strip to the bottom of the drawer to keep it from wobbling around with double-sided tape or velcro.
  2. Converted storage box. This rig was inspired by ribbon boxes that store the ribbon inside and feed it through a small hole. Here, holes were cut into a storage box that you can find at any craft store. The holes were reinforced with oval bookplates, held in place with small brad nails. From there, the power strip was placed inside and the device cables fed through the new holes. It looks great and there’s really no need to open it.
  3. Night Stand recharging station. This one wins the prize for most dramatic before-and-after photos, as an upturned cardboard box is replaced by a nice-looking end table. Holes will drilled in the rear of the unit and the charging cables fed through. Just don’t look behind it, though. I fear there’s an hidden rat’s nest against that wall.
  4. Super easy plastic bin. This one isn’t long on looks but it’s probably the least expensive solution here. Plus, it gets the job done. Small holes were cut into the rear and lid so that cables could be fed through. Sure, you can see inside but it’s still nice to not have to deal with what’s inside.
  5. Vintage case. Here’s a solution that is long on looks. Ryan at Weekly Geek, who put this together, describes his love of de-tangling electronic cables: “Jaws clenched and temples throbbing the world silently fades as my focus gets narrower and more fierce. That mess is broken, and I have to fix it. Why won’t they let me fix it?” His vintage-valise-as-charging-station is a thing to behold and not for he feint of heart. You can review what’s required here. The results, however, are very nice indeed.
  6. Converted IKEA storage unit. I’ll admit that I love IKEA. Even those little meatballs in the cafeteria are good. In this example, an enterprising soul at IKEA Hackers converted the company’s Estetisk storage unit into a nice-looking charging station. Holes were drilled into the back and the “cubbies” were outfitted with custom plywood inserts. Well done.
  7. Re-purposed plastic bottle. You got me, this only charges a single item. But look at how cute and convenient it is! By deftly cutting a plastic lotion bottle and applying some decoration, Ashley at Make It & Love It has a great-looking holder that hangs on the charger itself and corrals the phone and its cable. Very nice.
  8. Old books. Some of you will balk at the idea of chopping up an old book, but the rest should check this out. Yes, it’s a single-device solution again, but it’s very nice-looking. There are several available in this Etsy shop, but I’m sure you could figure it out for yourself with an X-Acto knife and some time.
  9. Converted shoe box. Here’s another quick-and-dirty solution that works well. This is similar to the storage box – you’re cutting holes in a shoe box, reinforcing them with grommets and feeding the cables through – but less expensive. Plus, since you’re starting with a shoe box, do some decorating to get it looking nice. Time to break out the Mod Podge.
  10. Vintage breadbox. Finally, a converted vintage bread box. This one requires the most work and some basic carpentry skills (and the right decor) but you’d never guess there’s a jumble of wires and charging electronics inside of there.

I hope you found this list inspirational. You do have to charge your gadgets but the process needn’t result in a jumbled mess. Go forth and make a great little charging station.

A clipboard as my work-from-home supervisor

As a telecommuter, I don’t have the benefit of a boss keeping tabs on me and making sure I do what I need to do. You might think that freedom sounds nice, and it is, but it also means I must be the worker and the supervisor. Ultimately, it’s up to me to sit down and do what needs to be done. My best trick in that regard happens at night. I think of what must be completed the following day and write it down. That way, I’m ready to go when I hit my desk the next morning. Recently, I’ve added a clipboard and some special forms to the mix.

Each night, I list the tasks I must complete the following morning on an Emergent Task Planner (EPT). Persnickety? Yes. But it works. I’ve also taken to keeping my EPT on a clipboard. Behind the EPT are several other forms that let me track what’s going on throughout the day and the week. An inexpensive clipboard keeps everything tidy and portable. Here’s what I’ve got clipped together on my desk every day.

Top sheet — the Emergent Task Planner

On the left hand side, I list what will happen from hour to hour, in 15-minute increments. On the upper right, I list the tasks that must be completed before the day’s end. There’s no particular order to this list. The only important thing is that each item be completed. There’s a notes section on the lower right that I tweak a bit. Specifically, I divide it in half. On top I list what I consider “minor” tasks. These could be completed by day’s end, but the world won’t end of they’re delayed. Below that is the “running commentary.”

The running commentary contains anything: thoughts on the day, ideas, accomplishments, what I did during scheduled breaks (“strawberry patch looks great”), etc. Anything can go there. I created the running commentary section to give my wandering mind an outlet and to give myself an empirical list of the day’s accomplishments. It sure feels good to review the major and minor achievements from the day.

Center sheet — Resource Tracker

This two-parter is fantastic. It lists the major deliverables that will represent progress on a major task, as well as the smaller steps that lead to each deliverable’s completion. I staple both forms together (one lays over the top 1/4 of the other in a clever way) as well as any support files (for instance, I’m using the Fast Book Outliner to prep my next book project). Now, I can flip to each major project and see what needs to be done, my estimate for completion time (as well as actual time spent working), tasks to complete, as well as outstanding (and completed) milestones. Fantastic in a hugely nerdy, paper-centric way.

Last page — Concrete Goals Tracker

Here’s an important one. The Concrete Goals Tracker lets me “score” the tasks I’ve completed on a scale that reflects my working toward goals. For example, “signing a new sponsor” is worth 10 points, “published an article” is worth five points, “new social development” is worth two and “maintaining a relationship” is worth one. At the end of each day, I score anything that meets these criteria, and tally the grand total at the week’s end. If I score higher than I did during the previous week, I know it’s going well. It sounds a bit silly, but the CGT also provides empirical, measurable evidence of progress toward life-sustaining goals.

In this way, my clipboard functions as the manager. It’s pretty handy. Try this: write down the three tasks that must get done by the end of work tomorrow before you go to bed tonight. After 7 days, let me know how it goes.

Workspace of the Week: Shipping department

This week’s Workspace of the Week is My_OCD’s standing desk:

There are so many things I love about this office setup that I am downright giddy. I’ll start with the Macbook Pro mounted to be standing height, which is genius. Workers in this space are on their feet when they’re working. I’m assuming they use the computer to mark orders as received, filled, and shipped, so it makes sense for the computer to be located next to where they are working but in a way that is suitable for their workflow. Secondly, the mount brings the computer up off the table that is used for wrapping, so it won’t easily get damaged or lost in packing materials. A really terrific idea. Third, and what made my heart swoon, are the shelves and shelves of well labeled and stored supplies in the back right section of the office photograph. There is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. When an order comes in, the people who work here know exactly where to find the items to fill the order.

Thank you, My_OCD, you and Spencer Aircraft are doing things beautifully. We truly appreciate you sharing your images with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Seven simple, useful gadgets for your home office

I’ve been working from home since 2009. The temptation to tweak or add to the gadgets in my office is enormous. I love gadgets to begin with, but give me a personal office to fill — one that’s in my home — and I can get carried away.

Recently I’ve made an effort to identify what I really need instead of what I think would be cool. The following is a list of gadgets that serve a utilitarian purpose beyond, “Oh man that’s so neat.” Each one actually makes my home office a more pleasant and productive place to be.

  1. The RadTech OmniStand. After a few months of using a laptop all day every day, I noticed that my shoulders and neck were quite sore at the end of the day. The laptop stand lets me get the computer’s screen up off the desk and just about at eye level. After a couple of weeks, the pain was gone. Sure, I had to buy an external keyboard and a mouse, but I’d rather do that then contract a repetitive stress injury.
  2. The Glif for iPhone. I love this little piece of rubber because it can be many things. It’s an iPhone stand with notch on the bottom that will fit into a standard tripod mount. It’s great for shooting photos and video, for talking on FaceTime, for being an alarm clock or a mobile photo frame. I use it to reference quick information while I’m at my desk. I can’t recommend them enough.
  3. Jawbone Jambox bluetooth speaker. Here’s another stellar device that takes up little space and works very well. Since it’s a bluetooth device, it connects to your smartphone wirelessly. It sounds great and looks good, too. I use it all the time.
  4. A Dropbox account. I don’t know why computers don’t just come with Dropbox installed. It makes online backup and sharing so very easy. Plus, it’s supported by almost any platform you can think of: The Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
  5. An Inbox. Don’t scoff. At first I resisted buying one of these, as it seems like such a cubicle thing to own. But it’s so much better than a stack of papers, notes, and who-knows-what cluttering up my desk. Take your pick from Amazon or your local office supply store to find one you like.
  6. A decent filing system. Again, visit your favorite office supply store or look online. Many people have intricate filing systems. I do simple manila folders, labeled A-Z. Nothing fancy.
  7. A backup system. Your office machine is probably backed up by your company’s IT department. At home, you’re on your own. There are several options to choose from, like CrashPlan and Carbonite. Even if you don’t work at home, you likely have work-related information on your home computer (not to mention other irreplaceable files). Back it up!

I have more items in my office, of course, and you likely need other items depending on if you work at home and what kind of work you do. But these are the universal things — beyond my laptop and smartphone — I can’t work without. Pare down to what you need and avoid cluttered items like this that get in the way of the work you need to do.

Ten awesome Dropbox tricks

Dropbox is a service that offers online storage of your stuff. It’s tremendously convenient and used by lots of people world wide. Dropbox is a quick-and-dirty sharing and backup tool that many workers (including yours truly) couldn’t work without.

What many people don’t realize is that Dropbox is capable of a lot more than drag-and-drop storage of your files. There are numerous cool things you can do with it, but the following are 10 useful tricks I’ve discovered to help keep me organized and reduce my digital clutter.

Save space with selective sync

My personal computer is a MacBook Air with just 128 GB of storage. I know that sounds like a lot, but with a bulging music collection and photo collection, it gets full pretty quickly. Fortunately, my work computer can hold much more. I can hand pick which files get synchronized to Dropbox and then to my MacBook Air, and which get ignored.

To do this, open the Dropbox preferences on your computer. Select the advanced tab and then click Selective Sync. From there, tell Dropbox which folders to sync to that computer. Those you choose to ignore are still available at dropbox.com, they’re just not automatically synched. You still have access to them.

Access previous versions of files

Dropbox offers one huge benefit that many people overlook. It saves versions of your files for up to 30 days. That means, for example, if you make changes to a Word document you’ve got in Dropbox and then decided you wish you hadn’t, you can restore a version that existed before you made all of those regrettable edits.

Go to dropbox.com and find the file. Right-click on it and select Previous Versions from the resulting menu. A list appears; select the one you want. Easy.

Backup your smartphone photos automatically

This is a very nice feature that was introduced within the last year or so. Dropbox for iPhone and Android can automatically move a copy of every photo you shoot to a folder on the service. Check your mobile app’s preferences for the setting to enable this. It offers real peace of mind.

Mark files as favorites for offline access

I do this one quite a bit, especially when traveling. As you know, Dropbox stores your stuff on its servers. However, if you mark a file as a favorite, a copy will be downloaded to your mobile device, allowing you to view it even when you don’t have Internet access.

To mark an item as a favorite, simply navigate to it on your tablet or smartphone and tap the star icon.

Recover deleted files

“Ack! I didn’t mean to delete that!” No worries. If you delete a file, versions from the last 30 days remain. To get something back, go to dropbox.com and navigate to the folder where it used to be. Find the Show Deleted Files icon and click it. Then select it from the list.

Back up your blog, two ways

I use Dropbox to back up every post I publish to my blog. There are at least two ways to do this. I use a service called IFTTT, or If This Then That. You can use IFTTT to build actions or recipes to accomplish tasks for you. I have one that watches for any new post I publish to my blog. When it finds one, it copies the text to a file in my Dropbox account. If worse came to worst, I’d still have all of my posts.

If you don’t want to fiddle around with IFTTT (and you own a WordPress blog), check out this great plugin for one-click backups.

Print a PDF right to Dropbox

Here’s a great tip that’s reserved for you Mac users. You probably know that you can turn nearly any file into a PDF by choosing Save to PDF when printing something. What you may not know is that you can direct that PDF to save right to Dropbox.

When you click Save to PDF, you’ll see Edit Menu as the very last option. Click it, and then click the “+” in the resulting window. A new list appears. Navigate to your Dropbox (or any folder therein) and then click OK. Now, that folder will appear in the Save to PDF menu every time. Simply click it, and a PDF will be automatically shuffled off to Dropbox.

Back up your Instagram photos

Here’s another IFTTT trick. I’ve created a recipe to monitor my Instagram account for new photos. Whenever it finds one, it moves a copy to a folder on my Dropbox account. The photograph is backed up and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.

Publish a website (pancake)

Pancake.io is a free service that lets you publish a blog or website right from your Dropbox account. It’s quite simple to set up and you can find all the details on how to do it on the Pancake site.

Essential organizing tools: The Staples 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder

The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past month, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

As a parent of a toddler with an intrinsic desire to push every button he encounters, we’ve been living the past few years with our shredder unplugged from the wall. Each day when the mail arrived, I had to take the safety plug out of the outlet, plug in the shredder, turn on the shredder, shred any mail with sensitive data on it, turn off the shredder, unplug it, and put the safety plug back into the outlet. I gladly did this because I care more about my son’s safety than the inconvenience of plugging in and then unplugging a shredder, but I kept thinking there has to be an easier way.

I also knew I couldn’t be the only person in this situation and someone had to have found a better solution.

Turns out, shredder manufacturers had thought about folks like me with toddlers and about people with pets as curious as three year olds. For safety-conscious people, they have created shredders that require keys to unlock the shredder’s functionality. In this specific case, I’ve been using the Staples’ 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a Lockout Key. I can keep it plugged in all the time, but it can’t be operated until the Lockout Key is inserted into a lock on the top of the unit. (Removing the Lockout Key actually disconnects the power to the unit.) It’s simple to use and a significant improvement over the unplugging method.

And, if you’re someone (like a grandparent) who doesn’t regularly have young children or pets in your home, there is a discrete switch on the inside of the unit that can override the key functionality for as long as you desire.

Specifically addressing the 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder, it has some additional nice features:

  • It automatically turns off if it overheats (something I’ve never had occur, but the manual says it is possible after four minutes of continuous run time)
  • If it turns off because of overheating it has a specific indicator light to let you know that is the reason it shut down (so you don’t think the shredder is broken), and that light goes out when the unit cools down and is ready to go again
  • It cross-cut shreds, which makes the shred more secure than just a strip shredder
  • It eats credit cards and other thin plastics
  • It eats staples, so you don’t have to remove them before depositing papers into the shredder
  • Another safety feature is it doesn’t operate if the top of the unit isn’t seated securely on the base
  • It will eat 10 pieces of paper at a time, which means you often don’t have to open envelopes if you know they’re junk and don’t contain any metal
  • The bin that catches the paper shreds pulls out from the front (like a drawer) and you don’t have to take the shredding unit off the top to empty your shreds (this is a nice improvement over our old shredder, too)
  • There is a little clear panel on the front of the bin so you can see if you need to empty out the paper shreds from the bin
  • As for loudness, it’s not the quietest shredder I’ve ever heard but it is far from the loudest — the manual claims it has about a 70 decibel noise level

Interested in knowing which papers you have that you should shred before purging? I suggest shredding anything with any personal information on it. If an identity thief could use the information to verify himself or herself as you, shred the paper. In my area, paper shreds can be recycled, so I shred unabashedly. If your recycling program doesn’t take shredded paper, you can compost the shreds (just make sure you don’t have any plastic or staples in your bin).

If you have specific questions about what papers to shred and purge, you might find this infographic I developed to be helpful, “Shred, Scan, or Store?

Ask Unclutterer: If something is multifunctional is it always uncluttered?

Reader Bethany emailed this morning, and although it’s not a traditional Ask Unclutterer question I thought it made for a great discussion:

I’m a reader of the Swiss-Miss blog and like her style. In her Friday Link Pack today, she had an item for “It’s a desk. It’s a bed.” When I saw it I thought it was the opposite of a Unitasker and wanted to make sure you saw it. I think it’s a horrible idea, but wondered what you thought of it since it’s a multitasker?

Live-Work Desk images from StudioNL

Oh my word, that is depressing, Bethany! You’re right that it is multifunctional, certainly not a unitasker, but it’s also one of the saddest pieces of furniture I’ve ever seen.

I like the general concept of one piece of furniture having many functions. And, to be fair, this does appear to be a well-made piece of multifunctioning furniture. It has nice lines. But, I don’t like the idea of literally sleeping in your desk. I think there should be a clear division between sleeping and work. Maybe — and this is a really weak maybe — I could see a medical resident who is on call having a need for a desk like this since he or she has to stay at the hospital for ridiculous hours on a regular basis. But for the rest of us normal folks, this feels dismal.

I believe that people should be productive when at work not so they can transform themselves into robotic corporate drones, but so they can really relax when they’re not at work. Work happens between set hours and work stays at work. When not at work, one’s mind should be free to dwell on things other than to-do items and projects that need to be completed at the office. You get more done at the office to enjoy non-work time more fully. This desk doesn’t provide for that at all — it promotes an end to non-work time. We’re humans, not worker bees.

What do the rest of you think about this Live-Work Desk? Are Bethany and I off base thinking it’s a dreary addition to an office? Share your reactions in the comments. And, thank you, Bethany, for inadvertently submitting your question to our Ask Unclutterer column.

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