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.

Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.

The simplicity of alphabetical filing

As the final installment of my exploration of alternative filling systems, I want to look at the simple system that is often overlooked: alphabetical filing.

When I became highly interested in productivity a few years ago, I noticed that my routines grew slowly, but steadily, more complex. On the digital side, I added rules to incoming email messages and later introduced tags, color coding, special mailboxes, and more. On the analog side, I made subfolders, employed more color-coding, and eventually had unique file bins for varying categories of documentation. I thought I was a filing ninja, until I read this old post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits that’s all about the simplicity of alphabetical filing.

I know that ABC filing isn’t exactly an “alternative” system. But for many of us, especially the folks who enjoy the pursuit of clutter-free, efficient organization, it can get overlooked as being too simplistic. Leo makes a great case for the opposite.

“I believe that most people only need one drawer for filing. Now, I’ll admit that there are some jobs that require much more than this, but for the average employee (or self-employed person), one drawer is all you need. And if you limit yourself to one drawer, you force yourself to toss out unnecessary files when the drawer gets full. Don’t overthink this. Just create a file, and file it alphabetically. Keep it simple.”

I like this idea a lot, as it’s incredibly intuitive. For example, say you purchase a new vacuum cleaner: you simply grab the manual, open your file drawer, and place the manual in the “V” folder (“V” for vacuum). No over-thinking, no deliberation, no searching for the right spot. Searching for the manual ends up being just as easy. Everything is in one place and easily found.

Now, a caveat. Many of us have home office situations or, more likely, work requirements, that prevent a simple ABC system. A medical office, for example, couldn’t file all patients whose last names begin with T all in the same T file. This basic system just isn’t for you.

But if the work you do doesn’t need to be subdivided, consider it. I recently bought a simple file box and several manilla envelopes. I labeled each one A through Z and placed them inside the file box. For a few weeks, I’ve been filing according to this system and loving it. One note: make sure your filing box or cabinet is within “swivel distance.” Swivel distance is the distance you can reach without getting up from your chair. Why? Because humans tend toward the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to stack folders than to walk over to the cabinet, you’ll be tempted to stack. And as Leo explained, stacking is not ideal:

[Stacks pile] up and then the pile gets a little intimidating and then before you know it you’ve got a huge pile that you never want to go through. Then you can’t find anything when you need it, and now you no longer have a filing system. I know some people think that their piles are organized into a kind of system, but piles are inefficient (if you’re not working on them at this moment) because you constantly have to re-factor what pile is for what and which documents are in each pile, and when you need a document, it takes too long to find it. Plus, it clutters up your desk, distracting you from your work.

Finally, if you’re going to try this, make sure you have plenty of fresh materials ready to go. A stack of folders, fresh batteries and ink for your label maker, a new marker, and so on. That way you won’t be tempted to “just put this down” until you get said materials from the store.

The Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) system

Two weeks ago, I started an exploration of lesser-know filing systems with the Noguchi system. This method, devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, utilizes manilla envelopes and the frequency with which you work on certain projects to organize your projects. Today, I want to delve into a system close to my heart, a system that uses index cards.

Image credit: Hawk Sugano

Hawk Sugano (you’ll find him on Flickr as “hawkexpress”) has devised a system he calls Pile of Index Cards (PoIC). It’s a combination of a “brain dump” (emptying one’s mind of all important information by writing it down), long-term storage for reference, and David Allen’s GTD method. It’s all managed by a “dock” of 3×5 index cards, and the result is tidy and searchable. The following are instructions for how to set up and use the system.

What you’ll need

The list is a short one. Get some index cards, which you can find almost anywhere (or grab some fancy ones here), a favorite pen, and a storage box with customizable tabs. That is all you need to be ready to use the method.

How it works

Hawk describes four types of cards in his system:

  1. The Record Card. He describes it as “a diary, note, account, health, weather, cook, any kind of records about us belongs to this class.” I’d say this is the incoming “stuff” of the day: appointments, notes to follow up on, etc.
  2. The Discover Card. Hawk describes the Discover Card as “Things from my brain, mind, spirit, anything emerge from inside me, are classified into this class.” This is the result of a mind dump. Don’t worry about classifying when filling out a Discover Card. Just get whatever is on your mind out and onto paper.
  3. The GTD Card. Here he combines the title of a project and several actions that pertain to it (here’s a look at the template in English). This reminds me of the “Hipstper PDA Template” I used religiously about 10 years ago.
  4. The Cite Card captures other people’s ideas that warrant attention. He says, “Important here is distinguishing ‘your idea (Discovery Card)’ and ‘someone else’s idea (Cite Card).’ Source of the information must be included in the Cite Card. A book, for example, author, year, page(s) are recorded for later use.”

Each card is stored in a box, or “dock.” Note that Hawk makes a mark on the top of each card. It’s position indicates the type of card, so you can easily identify each one while it’s in the dock. Finally, he uses the tabs to keep the types of cards sorted.

Is PoIC for you?

I’ll admit that this method is a bit labor-intensive. For example, Hawk does not throw any cards away. Instead, he buys another dock. One person took steps to improve upon this by adding what he calls the “43 Tabs” system. Basically, older cards that are no longer pertinent are moved to the back of the dock, while those still in action are moved to the front.

The Noguchi filing system

I’ve said this before, and so has fellow Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown: I’m always willing to try a new system if it might turn out to be better than the one I’m using. I was reminded of this earlier when reminiscing about my old job and the Noguchi filing system. It was devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, and for about a year I used it extensively.

The Premise

Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a residential school. There was a lot to manage, from help desk requests to purchasing, maintenance, networking issues, and other administrative tasks. I typically had several projects ongoing at once, large and small. Nearly all of them had support files that needed to be referenced or updated regularly. This is where the Noguchi system was brilliant, as it moves frequently-used files together while creating an archive of seldom used files.

The Setup

Image: Dave Gray, Communicationnation.blogspot.com

Instead of a filing cabinet or set of drawers, you’ll need an open shelf and several 9″ x 12″ (or larger) envelopes. Using scissors, cut the flap off the top of the envelope, as shown above. You cut the top off to make it super easy to get at the envelope’s contents. Next, write the date and title along the side of the envelope. Again, see the image at above for a reference. Make one envelope per project and place the envelopes next to each other on the shelf, with the date and title side facing outward.

In Practice

Don’t attempt to organize, classify, or otherwise sort the envelopes. It will be tempting to do so, but the beauty here is that the system takes care of organizing for you. As you take a folder off the shelf to use it, return it to the far left. Over time, three things happen:

  1. The folders you use most often appear on the left hand side. Because you access them regularly, you always know where they are. With time, the project you work on most often will be in the leftmost envelope. Then the next project in the second left position, and then the next, all the way down the line.
  2. Files you use less frequently will migrate to the middle and right. You know how hard it can be to find a paper or file you seldom use? With the Noguchi system it’s easy because you know it’s not on the left.
  3. The files you never access make it to the far right. These “holy files,” as the system calls them, can be removed from the shelf and safely archived away or purged, thereby preventing the shelf from getting cluttered with countless envelopes.

You can color code your envelopes if you want. This is most useful when archiving, as you can quickly find what you need in that pile, or sort them by color once they’re off the shelf. Finally, since you needn’t spend time organizing the envelopes on the shelf, you save a lot of time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. It can take a couple of weeks to set it up (moving everything into an envelope) and kick in (as you move files right and left and on and off the shelf), but it’s a nice system for managing multiple projects once you get it established.

Book Review: 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business

A couple months ago, I purchased the digital version of 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business by Julie Bestry. Julie is a professional organizer specializing in office and paper organization, and I thought her secrets might be useful for Unclutterer’s readership and for myself. If her name is familiar to you, she has appeared on the site in the past.

While there are 57 short chapters in this book, there are more than 57 secrets for keeping your business organized. Each chapter is packed with useful and easy-to-implement tips that immediately solve organizational problems for anyone who works in an office or maintains an office in their home.

There are several chapters on time management and how to stop procrastinating. Julie provides information on how to take advantage of technology to reduce your workload by using databases and auto-responders. One of my favourite chapters was “Automate to Levitate.” Julie advises people to:

  • Create checklists and scripts. When meeting with prospective clients or vendors, the same questions are asked each time. By writing these questions down and creating a script or checklist, interviews and meetings will go much more smoothly and you’ll have all of the information you need. These checklists can also be important when training staff to perform these tasks.
  • Design templates. Instead of creating responses to each inquiry from scratch, develop letters (or sections of letters) that can be easily reconfigured to create responses. Simply copy and paste the required sections and customize the key points. For Gmail, templates can be made using “Canned Responses” from Google Labs.
  • Observe and document rituals. Build routines for complex tasks such as bookkeeping or data-entry. Write down each step in detail so that if you had to turn the entire project over to someone else, such as a virtual assistant, the work would be completed correctly and to your standards.

Julie also describes how to write effective emails and make productive phone calls so you get all of the information you need at one time instead of sending dozens of messages back and forth between coworkers.

Like many professional organizers, Julie encourages readers to set goals and become masters of their task list. The advice Julie shares in this book help readers discover which type of “to-do” list is best suited for them. She also talks about goal setting and attainment the “SMARTY SKIRT” way.

Julie teaches readers how to be a “File Whisperer.” She clarifies for how long documents should be kept and offers alternatives to the traditional filing cabinet for document storage. She also describes how to escape the traps that many people fall into when they build a filing system. Julie even shares secrets to building an effective mobile filing system for those who travel for business.

57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business also includes myriad tips on how to improve your writing skills, manage your finances, use social media effectively, prepare for emergencies, and set boundaries between work and home. A few more of my favourite tips were:

  • Schedule specific office hours and share your schedule. By creating specific office hours and sharing your schedule with co-workers, they will know when you are available to answer questions and help solve problems. By leaving a memo-board on your office door people will be able to leave messages for when you are available.
  • Arrange your furniture. Keep the extra chair outside your office door and bring it in only when visitors are expected. A chair could be positioned at a small desk or tucked in a corner so unexpected visitors would be discouraged from staying longer than necessary.
  • Designate gatekeepers. During designated office hours, specify someone else to deal with non-emergency problems. For example, a virtual assistant might respond to all general inquiries or in a home office situation, a spouse or older child might deal with all household related issues.

57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business was a pleasure to read and was peppered with references to pop culture (Does everyone remember Gladys Kravitz?) and famous people such as George Clooney. Julie’s comparison of loose papers to “floozies” made me smile, not only because it was funny but a surprisingly useful comparison.

Whether you are the owner of a small business, an employee in a large corporation, or head of your own household, I recommend this book for those wishing to make a positive change in their office environments.

Organize podcasts with easy-to-use mobile apps

Several years ago, I described a podcast as a radio show that’s delivered to your iPod. That is still an acceptable definition, only the number of devices that can receive the show has grown. Computers, smartphones, some car stereos, Internet radios, and more all grab podcasts for you.

As the format’s popularity has increased, the technology behind it became simpler to use. Today, people around the world produce and share podcasts on all manner of styles and topics. The more shows you subscribe to, the greater the need for good software to keep it all organized. In this post, I’ll discuss two solutions for mobile devices: one for the iPhone and one for Android. There are several others, of course, but these are two standouts to help you get started.

Apple — Podcasts (Free)

I use Apple’s own Podcasts app on my iPhone. It ships with the iPhone, is free, and is easy to use. When Podcasts was introduced in June of 2012, it was divisive to say the least. Apple was in a playful design phase back then, which manifested itself in the Podcasts app with an animated reel-to-reel tape player that was supposedly inspired by a real unit from Braun. (Sure.) Many fans liked it, and many did not. About a year later, Apple nixed the design, and today we have a nice, clean presentation.

The aesthetic shift was accompanied by additional features that are still in place today.

Finding and subscribing to shows

Apple provides three ways to find shows you’ll like — they are Features, Top Charts and Search.

Features. Tap the star icon at the bottom of the screen to browse the podcasts that Apple has deemed worth showing off. Purple buttons at the top of the screen let you view just audio shows, just video shows, or the whole lot at once.

A “New and Noteworthy” section is a grab-bag of shows that are performing well in iTunes. Beyond that, you’ll find shows that fit in rotating themes. As of this writing, Apple is highlighting the great outdoors and the financial markets, as well as featured providers like Slate, Nerdist and Revision3. Finally, you can tap Categories in the upper left to fine-tune your search.

Top Charts. Here you’ll find the most downloaded shows in each category. Again, you can opt to see audio video podcasts.

Search Finally, you can cut to the chase and search for the name of the show you’re seeking. Podcasts lists show titles and episodes that mention your search term.

Once you’ve found a show you’re interested in, tap the Subscribe button. Podcasts will download the latest episode for you. Note that you’ll see two buttons once you tap on a show’s image: My Episodes and Feed. My Episodes lists the episode(s) that have been downloaded to your device. Feed lists the show’s archive of older episodes, which are not on your device. You can download any of these older shows by tapping the cloud icon to the right of its title.

Organization

Apple makes it easy to keep things organized. To begin with, you can choose between a list view, which shows a small thumbnail of each show’s art, its title, the date of the most recent download, and the number of episodes available. Meanwhile, the album view eschews all that information and instead shows big, bold cover art and a number representing the episodes you haven’t heard.

By default, Podcasts lists shows in the order that you subscribed to them. Fortunately, you can change that. Here’s how:

  1. Tap the Edit button in the upper right.
  2. A three-lined “handle” appears next to each show’s title.
  3. Tap and hold on that handle, then drag the shows into your preferred order.
  4. When you’re finished, tap Done.

Finally, you can create what the app calls Stations. Essentially this is like a playlist in a music app. Simply start a new station by tapping Stations at the bottom of the screen and add any shows you like. I have a sci-fi station and an audio drama station. As each episode is played through, it disappears from the station. New ones are added automatically. This saves a lot of scrolling if you have a many subscriptions.

Pocket Casts by ShiftyJelly ($3.99)

On the Android side, I recommend Pocket Casts. This great-looking app is easy to use and, like Apple’s Podcasts, offers nice options for keeping things organized.

Finding and subscribing to shows

ShiftyJelly recently released version 4.0 with a great-looking new user interface. Unlike Apple’s offering, which puts buttons at the bottom of the screen, Pocket Casts has all controls “behind” the main screen, so your shows are front-and-center. It’s a clean look that I appreciate.

To find shows, swipe finger to the right to move the main screen and reveal the controls. Again, Shifty Jelly’s developers did a good job here because the controls are clear and legible. At the top of the screen you’ll see the Discover button. Tap it to view featured shows. Tap any title to get a description and the option to subscribe.

The search works great, too. Just enter a keyword or name of a show and you’re presented with several options.

Organization

Downloaded episodes are presented in a list with the title and description. There’s a playlist option, too, similar to Podcasts. You can view a list of just unplayed episodes across all of your shows, audio podcasts, or video podcasts.

It’s true that you can obtain, listen to, and organize podcasts with a computer. I happen to listen to podcasts almost exclusively while I’m in the car, and that means I’m using my smartphone. Many developers recognize this trend and build strong organization features into their mobile apps. The fact that I can arrange things to my liking on my phone without having to sync or otherwise communicate with my laptop is a huge benefit.

Picking a podcasting app is a personal thing. As I said, there are many worthy options out there. If you have a favorite, let me know. I’m always willing to try something new if it might be better than what I’m already using.

Using your calendar

My calendar is one of my primary tools for staying organized and I’d be at a total loss without it. I always check it before I end my day, to be sure I remember what’s coming up the next day.

I happen to use an electronic calendar, but I’d put the same things on my calendar if it were a paper one. What is on it?

The basic reasons almost everyone uses a calendar

  • Appointments
  • Due dates
  • Personal celebrations, like birthdays and anniversaries
  • Holidays, including religious ones that don’t always come with the calendar

Unconventional items to track on a calendar

  • Major local events — My small town has three annual events that draw a lot of visitors. I don’t tend to go to these events, but I want to remember that traffic will be horrible on these days.
  • Events I might want to attend — I put these in a different color than any other items, so I have a visual reminder that it’s a possible event when I look at my calendar.
  • Freecycle pickups — Since I freecycle a great deal, I may have lots of people coming to my house after each major offering, staggered over a number of days. I want to quickly remember whose bundles I need to put on my porch on which days.
  • Library book return due dates
  • Dates for canceling special offers — Every once in a while I get an offer for a free month of Amazon Prime, which I accept and then cancel before the automatic payment begins.
  • Reminders to send out email notices — I serve as the secretary of an organization and I need to send out email notices to other board members at specific times.
  • Important dates for close family and friends — It’s common for me to write down when they are on vacation.
  • Flight information, car rental information, and hotel information for my own travels — I’ll have confirmations of all of these in email, which I’ll copy to my Dropbox to have handy when traveling. But, the easiest way for me to quickly see all this information is to check my calendar.
  • Estimated tax due dates
  • Reminder of postage rate increases — I noted this when we had one January 26.
  • Things that happened that I didn’t plan for — For future planning, I like to remember when they happened.

Sometimes I include progress tracking toward a goal. For example, the number of emails in my inbox each day, as I’m working toward inbox zero.

There are a couple things I don’t include, which some other people do. I don’t include anticipated driving time to appointments, although I can see how that could be helpful. I also don’t include blocks of time for getting tasks done. Some time management systems recommend you schedule these on your calendar, to ensure they get done — and if that works for you, that’s great. I follow the Getting Things Done approach, where only items that have fixed times go onto my calendar, and that works better for me.

Each of us will have our own preferences on what goes onto our calendars and my choices won’t work for everyone, but they may give you some ideas. The key factor is to use your calendar consistently, however you choose to use it.

Organizing your Twitter stream

Like some people, I use Twitter to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. I also use Twitter to keep up with news, current events, and exciting changes in the world of technology and sci-fi. I hope to think that now (after the changes I describe in this post) I use it wisely and in such a way that doesn’t clutter up my time.

I had already taken some steps to declutter my Twitter stream, but I felt I hadn’t maximized Twitter’s full potential and that I was missing out on some really great information from fellow users and getting stuff I didn’t always want. I created lists but found it frustrating to go through all of the people I was following one by one, look at their profiles, determine if they were still active Twitter users, then finally add them to a specific list. It didn’t seem like a very good use of my time and I started looking for other ways to make the process more effective.

First, I used the service justunfollow. This helped me identify who was not tweeting regularly any longer. I decided I would unfollow anyone who hadn’t tweeted in more than three months. Then, I looked at who was following me and decided whether or not I should follow them in return. I decided out of my followers, I would not follow anyone who only tweeted spam or sales pitches. I chose not to follow anyone with protected tweets and users without photographs or biographies.

There were some people I was following who were not following me back. I guess I don’t really expect Leonard Nimoy or Sir Patrick Stewart to follow me, but I’m going to keep following them because I’m a fan.

Once I had determined who to follow, I created a few new lists based on area of expertise of Twitter users. I also created some lists based on geographical area. My lists include:

  • Family and friends
  • Business builders
  • Technology experts
  • Organizing and productivity experts
  • Cool people from different areas in which I have lived
  • The famous and the infamous

I used TwitList Manager to find who was not already on a list. It allowed me to add users to specific lists in seconds. I could see who was on more than one list and easily move people to my preferred list. Overall, it took me less than an hour to completely re-organize my Twitter stream. By using justunfollow and Twitlist Manager every few weeks, I’m able to easily maintain this level of organization and get all the information I want in a timely, uncluttered manner.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you use Twitter, consider following us at @Unclutterer.

Organize a personal board of directors

A few years ago I learned two important lessons from a business class. First: I have the natural business sense of a potato. Second: it’s a great idea to organize and maintain a personal board of directors. Years later, I’ve realized this strategy is applicable to much more than business. Home organization, parenting, and, yes, career decisions can all be advised by a qualified team of your own choosing.

When the school I worked for closed in 2009, I found myself jobless in an economy that was not friendly to the unemployed. After failing to quickly find a new job, I decided to peddle my skills and go to work for myself. A friend suggested that I take a class offered by a small business development firm in my neighborhood. It was the best advice I got that year.

This group helped me devise a plan, identify my marketable skills, and refine what I had to offer. It all culminated in making a presentation to a small board of professionals: which I bombed. It was humbling. After the smoke cleared, the group’s leader pulled me aside. “You just need some focus,” she said. “I think I can help.”

She and I spoke a few times and that one-on-one help was terrific. I went on to meet other people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. Five years later, I have a group of five or six people I can call on when I need guidance. Each excels in an area that’s troublesome for me. Most importantly, they’re not afraid to tell me, “Dave, that’s a very bad idea.” You do not want “yes men” on your personal board. You want honest, intelligent people who’ve got your interests in mind.

Now as I said, this needn’t be restricted to business. As it relates to organizing your home, office, or life, hire a professional organizer or look for groups that meet up with some regularity (meetup.com is a great way to do this) or even find a friend who has an extremely good set of organizing skills to help you. Ask questions, discuss your troubled areas, brainstorm, and then try out the suggestions. Search through old posts here on Unclutterer and see if we can spark some ideas to discuss with your organizing board.

Maybe you want to discuss parenting, personal productivity, or whatever section of your life is causing you stress. Calling on your personal board of directors is a great way to go to learn what they’re doing and what strategies they think may be able to help you. Perhaps you’ll even fill that role for someone else and return the favor.

Alternatives to lists and reminders

My memory is terrible. To cope with this, I used to write myself many lists and pages of reminders. Then, I had so many lists and reminders that I had to make a list of the lists to remind me what was on each list. It was a little ridiculous.

Another problem was that I didn’t always have easy access to my lists, especially when we were moving houses. I saved my lists in a notebook and the notebook was packed in a box. I started keeping my lists on the computer and then the computer was packed in a box.

I decided to get some information off of my lists and put it where I needed it. Not only has this reduced the number of lists I have, other people can do certain jobs without asking me for information.

Rotating mattresses

Some mattresses need to be rotated or flipped every few months; others do not. I was losing track of which mattresses needed to be in which positions at which times. Additionally, every time we moved, we would have to look on “the list” to see which position the mattresses should be in.

To solve this problem, I took a Sharpie and wrote right on the mattress the first letters of each month. (A M J = April, May, June). These letters should be on the top of the mattress under the pillows for the duration of these months. At the end of June, the mattress gets flipped/rotated until “J A S” (July, August, September) is at the head of the bed. For mattresses that are only rotated twice per year, I wrote “Jan-Jun” and “Jul-Dec” on the ends.

Now, everyone in the family knows how and when to rotate or flip the mattresses that require flipping.

Off-season linen storage

All my off-season sheets and blankets, as well as any less frequently used guest linens, are stored in vacuum-sealed boxes. From one year to the next, I could never remember how to fold the blankets so that they fit nicely into the vacuum-seal boxes. One fall, I carefully removed a nicely folded blanket and slowly unfolded it. Then, I took a sheet of paper approximately the same dimensions as the blanket, (A4 or 8 ½ x 11) and folded it the same way I had folded the blanket. I leave the piece of paper in the vacuum seal box so I always know where it is. Every spring I use the folded paper as a guide to remind myself how to fold the blankets quickly and easily.

Disassemble and reassemble

Being a military family, we move frequently, but not frequently enough that I remember how to disassemble and reassemble all of our furniture and equipment. The following are things I’ve done to help me remember what to do:

  • Save assembly instructions and copy them to online storage (like Evernote) to be able to access them on my smartphone in case the paper copy is not accessible.
  • Write matching numbers on bits of furniture that go together.
  • Write directly on the equipment what size of socket or hex key is required.

These tricks have reduced the stress on my memory as well as reduced the number of lists and reminders that I keep. What tips and tricks do you use to save time and energy? Feel welcome to share your solutions with other readers in the comments.

Organizing your personal finances

Organizing your personal finances can be time consuming and even a little difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s something you shouldn’t do. The following are a few tips to help you get your personal finances organized so you can save yourself time, stress, and even money over the course of the year.

Online banking

Set up online banking and learn to use a personal finance program. Personal Finance programs allow you to view all of your accounts including:

  • Everyday bank accounts
  • Loans and mortgages
  • Investment accounts
  • Credit card accounts

By being able to see everything in one place you will be able to take control of your finances and make good decisions based on accurate information.

There are several different personal finance programs available. Quicken is a very popular program for both Windows and Mac, but Quicken for Mac is only compatible with American banks. Mac users in other countries may wish to use iBank. Mint, because it is an online service, can be used on almost any computer or mobile device. However, it is currently only compatible with banks in Canada and the United States.

Track spending

Personal finance programs organize transactions into basic pre-defined categories but may not reflect your actual spending habits. Categories can be renamed or combined and new categories can be added depending on your lifestyle. It may take a few months of examining your transactions to determine the ideal categories for you. It is better to use a few broad topics at the beginning and then become more specific with use. After a few months of using online banking, you may choose to use sub-categories.

Shopping with your debit card instead of cash allows online banking to identify in what stores you shop and will help categorize transactions. You also may choose to keep receipts to enter more information about each transaction. Do not get too detailed. If you routinely purchase groceries and household items, such as garbage bags, laundry detergent and shampoo all at the same time from the same store, consider creating a category called “Groceries, Personal and Household Supplies”. This would encompass everything that is used for your home and the people in it.

Other categories to consider.

  • Financial Charges: Many banks charge extra fees for cheques, using another bank’s automated teller machines, or making payments or withdrawals in a foreign currency. If you track this information, you can easily tell how much you’re paying in extra fees. Check the different types of accounts and banking plans offered by your bank. Switching to a different plan may help you reduce these fees.
  • Interest Expense: It’s a bit of a shock to see how much interest is paid out on loans or bank overdrafts but it may also be the incentive you need to pay off any loans.
  • Charitable Donations: By tracking any donations, you can easily generate a list at the end of the year that will tell you how much you have donated and from which organizations you can expect a tax receipt. It will also be easier to report this information to your country’s tax office.

Simplify bill payments

Reduce the number of bills you have to pay by hand. Sign up for online bill payment services when possible.

If you buy things on credit (a highly debated topic here at Unclutterer), use only one or two major credit cards and cancel store credit cards. Most major credit cards have lower interest rates than store cards and great loyalty programs, including cash-back programs. Remember, just because you pay off a credit card and cut it up doesn’t mean the account is cancelled. Inform the credit card company in writing that you wish to cancel the account. Verify your credit score to ensure that the report indicates the credit card account has been closed as paid in full.

You might consider bundling services where possible to reduce the number of bills you need to pay. By consolidating your various insurance policies with one company, you may be eligible for discounted premiums or other bonuses. Utility companies as well as media/communications companies provide discounts for bundling services like phone, cable, and internet access.

Most utility and insurance companies offer equalized billing. By having a fixed amount to pay every month, it will be much easier to set and maintain a budget. Some companies offer a pre-authorized payment plan where the monthly amount is deducted directly from your bank account.

Manage documents

Designate certain days and times each month to manage your finances. Use this time to pay upcoming bills and update your account balances. You may wish to do your finances every Saturday morning or the first weekday after your payday. Whatever day you decide, write it down in your agenda and stick to the schedule.

If you are using traditional paper billing, keep all necessary items for bill paying in one place. Fill a plastic bin/box with your chequebook, envelopes, stamps, address labels, pen, and calculator. Label the bin “BILL PAYMENTS”. You can even put your bills in the bin as soon as they arrive. Once paid, the paper bills can be stored in a filing cabinet for up to 13 months. Thirteen months is a good timeframe because it allows you to compare the current month’s totals to what they were the previous year — this is nice for things like water bills where you may be able to spot a small leak before it becomes a major one.

If you opt for electronic billing download your bill/statement into a folder on your computer labelled, “Bills to Pay”. Once paid, it can be filed in its appropriate electronic folder. Ideally, the folders on your computer should mimic paper files, e.g. “Utilities – Electric”. Ensure that the bill/statement is in an easily readable format, such as a .pdf file.

Whenever you receive receipts that you can use for your income taxes, such as those for charitable donations, place them in an “Income Tax” file. You won’t need to waste time searching for them come tax time. Many agencies send tax receipts via email so set up a folder on your computer’s hard drive labeled “Income Tax”. Save all electronic copies of income tax slips and receipts to this folder as soon as they arrive.

Organizing financial matters takes some time and energy but you’ll reap the rewards financially and come tax time. With low-cost personal finance programs available, it is easier than ever to track your spending and make better decisions about your financial future.