Improve your productivity by reading the manual

I recently saw a comment online that read something like, “All I use the iPhone’s Home button is for is taking screenshots. What else is it for?” Here at Unclutterer, we believe that knowing what your gear is capable of doing improves your productivity and helps to keep you organized. In short, we think you should always read the manual so you get the most of your technology and don’t waste your time and money. With that in mind, the following is a list of the things that simple little Home button can do for iPhone and iPad owners, as described in the products’ manuals.

  1. Go home. This is the most important feature. No matter where you are, you can get back to home screen with a tap. If he gets frustrated or lost, it’s comforting to know that a single tap of the Home button is the way out. He can start over.
  2. Take screenshots. Yes, it does this and it’s quite useful. Hold down to Home button and the power button (top of the device) for just a second to take a screenshot. You’ll hear a “camera shutter” noise and find the image in your Camera Roll
  3. Multi-Task Bar. A double-tap reveals the apps you’ve opened most recently, in order. Tap any one to jump right to it. Or, swipe the image of the app screen up and it will close the app.
  4. Wake. Tap the Home button to wake your iPhone’s display.
  5. Reset. Force a misbehaving iPhone to shut down by holding down the Home button and power button simultaneously until the screen goes dark. When you see an Apple logo, let go. Note that you only have to do this if your phone is seriously misbehaving.
  6. Siri. Press and hold the Home button to get the attention of Siri, Apple’s automated assistant.
  7. Accessibility functions. The Home button can perform one of five accessibility functions: toggle VoiceOver, switch the display to white-on-black, toggle zoom, toggle AssistiveTouch and ask which function should be performed. You can set this up in the Accessibility Settings.
  8. Exit “Jiggle Mode.” Jiggle Mode refers to the state your iPhone is in when you’re rearranging or removing app icons. To enter Jiggle Mode, tap and hold on any app icon. When you’re done, tap the Home button to resume normal functioning.

By reading the manual we discovered this one button can do eight separate things.

Think about all of the devices you own and all of the buttons on those devices. Do you know what every single one of those buttons does? Can it perform more than one function? If you have technology in your home or office and you don’t know all that it can do, take a few minutes now to read the manual to save you time and money in the future.

Kicking off February with Valentine’s Day resolutions

Last year, I was inspired by David Seah’s post “Ground Hog Day Resolutions.” In the post, he introduces a set of goals that he revisits monthly with standardized check-ins. Each goal is meant to provide a tangible means of fostering success throughout the year. I came across this practice on Valentine’s Day, so my list of Valentine’s Day resolutions (VDR) was born.

Defining a VDR

A Valentine’s Day resolution is a monthly goal. I’ve decided to focus on professional resolutions, not personal ones. To be considered, a goal must meet certain criteria. Specifically, a VDR must (this list is strongly influenced by Seah, as his list is darn-near perfect):

  • Make me more visible.
  • Build a product inventory.
  • Create a reason for people to visit my site.
  • Build a new habit.
  • Build excellence (practice makes perfect).

Review Days

A goal that meets all five criteria will be considered. Once a goal is set, it requires a monthly check-in, so that progress/success/failure can be determined. To make things easy, I’ve made the check-in date for each month equal to that month’s number on the calendar. For example, in April, my VDR review day (VDRR) is on the 4th. In May, the 5th and so forth. Therefore, my schedule looks like this:

March 3 — VDRR #1
April 4 – VDRR #2
May 5 – VDRR #3
June 6 – VDRR #4
July 7 – VDRR #5
August 8 – VDRR #6
September 9 – VDRR #7
October 10 – VDRR #8
November 11 – VDRR #9
December 12 – VDRR #10

There are no goals set for January, as the beginning of the new year is set aside for reflection and relaxation.

My February resolution

My main professional goal for 2014 is to improve my writing skills. This February, I will write one post per day on my personal site. This satisfies all of my criteria: it increases visibility, builds a product inventory, creates a reason for people to visit the site, reinforces a productive new habit, and fosters excellence.

I encourage you to play along. You needn’t adopt professional goals, of course. Anything will work. Define the criteria that will represent success for yourself and set up monthly review periods (that’s the crucial bit). And, by December, I should have accomplished nine awesome monthly goals.

Getting big projects done: best practices from successful writers

Writing a book is a huge project; many people who have a book they would like to write are so daunted by the effort required that they never get that book written. But successful authors have strategies for getting the work done — and these are strategies all of us can apply to our own big projects, regardless of type.

Break the work down into bite-sized pieces

Matt Swanson captures the overwhelmed feeling some potential authors have:

I’d like to write a book, but I don’t have time to do all that work.

But do you have an hour to outline a table of contents? Could you write 500 words today?

As Swanson indicates, focusing on just the next small step can get someone going — and step by step, the big project gets done.

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about focusing on “short assignments.” An example of one short assignment:

All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words.

Michelle Richmond echoes that thought:

Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged chapter in the early stages of novel-writing. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, allow yourself the freedom to think in small bits. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 1200 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator.”

Lamott also quotes E. L. Doctorow:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

What this means for the rest of us: Our big projects could be things such as preparing our tax returns, uncluttering our photos, or getting our files in order. We can emulate these authors, and break each project down into small pieces that feel doable.

Create a daily habit

Over and over, writers talk about the importance of writing every day — or at least five days per week. Some set a goal regarding number of words; others focus on hours spent doing the writing.

Srinivas Rao, who is writing a number of shorter pieces rather than a book, realized he’d never makes his commitments if he waited to be inspired, so he started writing 1,000 words every day:

If I woke up at a place that wasn’t home, I wrote 1,000 words.
If I had no idea what to write, I put my fingers on the keyboard … and I wrote 1,000 words.
If I didn’t feel like it (this one is really important), I wrote 1,000 words.

That meshes with the advice James Clear shares, from Khaled Housseni:

You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.

What this means for the rest of us: We can also create daily practices, with specific goals. We could set the equivalent of a daily word-count goal; for example, we might commit to going through a certain number of files, papers, or photos. Or, we could decide to spend a certain amount of time working on our big project every day. Either way, we don’t have to make a huge time commitment — we’re not doing this for a living, as authors are with their writing! But seeing daily progress might be just what some of us need to keep going and get our projects done.

Here’s a strategy that Darren Rowse shares:

  1. Identify what you want to achieve.
  2. Allocate 15 minutes a day to it.
  3. Over the next year you will will spend 91 hours on your task.

Getting started with a daily routine

A few years ago, I was fed up with the frenzy of realizing something important was due … two hours after I had missed a deadline. After much trial and error, and a little dragging of my feet, I’ve established a workable daily routine. For me, adherence to a routine is especially important. Since I work from home, I’ve only got six hours to myself while my wife and kids are at school, and enough work for much more than that. I keep it all manageable, in part, with a fixed routine. It’s all about knowing what’s coming, preparing ahead of time, and finding a “home” for key items and ideas.

The view from up here – knowing what’s coming

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my routine, I must briefly address projects. I define a project as David Allen does: anything that takes more than one action step to complete. Therefore, “land the new client” is a project, but so is “give Jr. permission to go on the field trip.”

In Getting Things Done, Allen emphasizes the importance of dealing with your stuff “when it shows up, not when it blows up.” If you can get past the Doctor Phil-ness of that rhyme, you see the wisdom in it. Remembering Jr.’s permission slip is no good after he’s been at school for two hours.

With this in mind, I have a running list of what tasks need to be done. My list is a week long, and it lives on a bulletin board behind my desk (I’ve previously written about my search for the perfect bulletin board). Each Sunday, I review what must be done over the next week, write those actions on index cards, and pin them to the board.

Preparing ahead of time

It took me years to learn this lesson. Remember the kid who was always rushing last second to finish that paper in school?

Hello. Nice to see you again.

Today I’ve finally realized that I’m not an adrenaline junkie, and that last-second frenzy is not something I enjoy. As a result, my daily routine actually begins the night before. As evening draws near, I:

  1. Make sure the kids’ bags are packed for school and that all required papers, etc. are inside those bags.
  2. Ensure that clean, weather-appropriate clothing is available for school the next morning.
  3. Review the “home” calendar (I have a separate work calendar) for pressing to-dos (sign permission slips, special pick-up or drop-off arrangements, etc.) and act accordingly.
  4. Review what’s due at work tomorrow, make sure it’s written down, and any necessary materials are ready to go for the morning.

Your evening prep list might look different, but the idea is the same: review what’s due tomorrow — be it a PowerPoint presentation or snow boots and gloves — and get it as ready as you can the night before.

Finding a home

Being who I am (warning: one NSFW word in the title of the linked post) I tend to misplace things. Just like the sun tends to be hot. So, a part of my daily routine has been to ensure that everything is where it needs to be.

This isn’t the same as my evening prep. Instead, I’ve established a “home” for important items when they’re idle. For example, car keys are always in the Roscoe, New York, coffee mug on my night stand. Always. My coat and hat live on the second peg of the closet door. Even when I’m walking around, I know which pocket each doohicky should inhabit (phone is right front, every day).

Following these rules impacts my day significantly. I can’t afford to spend 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there looking for who knows what. I’ve done that and it’s not fun. An ongoing part of my daily routine is to put everything in its proper place as I go.

General guidelines

The website Personal Organizing has shared some good, general tips for establishing and, more importantly, adhering to a daily routine. Some highlights include:

  1. Make breakfast simple. Find something nutritious that you can routinely prepare without much fuss.
  2. Organize the kitchen and pantry cabinets. Meal prep is easier, and everyone living with you can answer, “where does this go?” all on their own.
  3. Have a good mail management system. In regards to paper mail, my wife and I have our own desks for processing this stuff, and that’s been a godsend.
  4. Get the pets on a schedule. It takes some doing, but it’s definitely worth it.

Book review: Joseph Ferrari’s Still Procrastinating

Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done is a book that explains, in an easy-to-read format, the results of the past 20 years of scientific studies on procrastination and procrastinators.

The book defines procrastination as “the purposive delay of the starting or completing a task to the point of subjective discomfort.” More simply, procrastinators voluntarily do not work on important tasks and feel bad or uncomfortable about their delays because they know that this course of action will have negative effects in the future.

Studies cited in the book indicate that although everyone procrastinates about a few things, approximately 20 per cent of adult men and women are chronic procrastinators — they procrastinate habitually in many different areas of their lives. The studies also show that procrastination is a learned behaviour. If people understand why they procrastinate, they can get the support they need and develop strategies to help them learn new behaviours.

There are several types of procrastinators identified in the book.

Thrill-Seekers: These procrastinators claim they do better under pressure, when they feel the deadline is looming. Scientific studies show that these types of people are easily bored and the adrenaline rush of completing the task just before the deadline is a thrill they enjoy. What the studies also show is that even those these types of procrastinators believe they produce better results at the last minute, in reality they make more errors and do not complete all of the task’s components thoroughly.

Indecisives: These types of procrastinators delay making a decision until a choice is made for them. For example, they may wish to purchase tickets for the symphony but they can’t decide which night to attend and they delay so long that there are no tickets available. Studies show that Indecisives may have grown up in situations that did not allow them to acquire good decision-making skills.

Self-Saboteurs: These procrastinators intentionally place obstacles in their paths to prevent successful performance of a task. In this way they can blame external factors, such as not having enough time, to mask their anxiety and self-doubt. However, if this type of procrastinator completes the task successfully despite the obstacle, he/she will protect his/her self-esteem. Many of these self-saboteurs have low self-control. They are unable to delay their need for instant gratification and focus on the task at hand. They do not often reward themselves for a job well done and instead enjoy the “fun stuff” before they get their work done.

Perfectionists: Perfectionist procrastinators maintain impossibly high standards. They delay starting or finishing a task because being perfect is not realistically achievable. These types of procrastinators have a strong desire to be liked by others and show how hard they are working. They often justify their procrastination by saying delays will result in a better quality of work but this is not usually the case.

Regardless of the type of procrastinator with which people identify, Dr. Ferrari is optimistic about procrastinators changing their habits and behaviours. He suggests starting with small changes and gradually progressing. He indicates that getting organized is “Your Secret Weapon in Task Completion.” Do any of these four types of procrastination ring true with you or are you someone who only occasionally puts off tasks?

Professional organizers can certainly help procrastinators in their efforts to become non-procrastinators by helping them declutter, minimize distractions, and improve their time and task management skills. Sometimes consulting a mental health professional such as a cognitive behavioural therapist, may be helpful. Seeking support from family and friends who are non-procrastinators is advisable. These are the people that care for you and will hold you accountable for your changes in behaviour. Checking in daily with an accountability partner or having someone hangout with you as you work on a project at home (like cleaning out your closet) can be beneficial.

Dr. Ferrari states that procrastination is more than just having poor time management skills. Procrastination is an ineffective strategy to cope with the challenges of everyday life. By focusing on the positive aspects of your life and taking action, you can become less stressed and more productive.

Keeping New Year’s resolutions

Have you resolved to get more organized in 2014? The following suggestions are ways to ensure you actually accomplish the goals you’ve set.

Get a buddy or a support group

Here’s what works best for me when I’m trying to keep a resolution: involving other people in helping me reach my goal. One of my goals is to go walking daily. I have been most successful when I had a walking buddy as we’d keep each other going. Another thing that worked, although not quite as well, has been to get a Fitbit. I have friends that also use Fitbits, and we see each other’s daily step counts, and cheer each other on.

I’ve also found that having an accountability partner works well for me. For the past few months, I’ve been exchanging daily emails with a friend, telling her what I accomplished that day, and often mentioning my plans for the next day; she sends similar messages to me. Knowing I’m going to tell someone what I’ve completed inspires me to have good news to report every day. We’re each other’s cheering squad — and who couldn’t use one of those?

Be willing to adjust if necessary

If you find you’re having a hard time with a particular resolution, maybe you need to rethink it. For example, could you reach your goal using a different strategy than you originally had in mind?

Let’s say your goal was to keep up with your mail (or your email) and not let things pile up in your inbox. Maybe you intended to clear out your inbox every day. If that’s not working for you, what could you adjust? Would it work better to tackle this at a different time of day? Would it work better to set this as a weekly goal rather than a daily goal? Would it help to focus on eliminating the incoming mail, so there’s less to go through each day? Could someone else do a part of the “dealing with the mail” work?

You may find the resolution you set was simply overly ambitious. Maybe the answer is to set a new goal that still moves you in the right direction, even if it doesn’t take you quite as far, quite as quickly.

Make things easy; remove barriers

Continuing on the mail example: Do you get a lot of items that require shredding? If so, do you have a good shredder?

More generally, make sure you have the tools you need to support you in reaching your goals. For example, when I needed to get more exercise, one thing I needed was a pair of better shoes than the ones I had.

Understand the science of habits

Stopping bad habits and developing new ones isn’t always easy. If you understand more about how habits work, you may find it easier to get those new habits in place. One place to start would be The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, which looks at some recent research on this subject. Steve Silberman has an informative review of the book, as well as an interview with Duhigg.

It’s also worth realizing, as Margaret Lukens points out, establishing new habits might take longer than the 21 days or 30 days you’ve probably heard about. If it’s taking a while for your new habits to become automatic, that’s normal — and no reason to get discouraged.

Creating New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

After Christmas each year, the search function on our website gets a lot of activity by people looking for articles on “how to get organized” and “be more organized.” This is of little surprise since “Get Organized!” is such a common New Year’s Resolution.

Over the next couple weeks, we are going to address New Year’s Resolutions in a series of posts — how to create them, how to make a plan for achieving them, technology that can help you work on them, and even an alternative perspective on how not to make them. We want to help the thousands of people looking to get rid of clutter and find more organization in the new year, just as we do every day, but also lend a helping hand to those of you creating resolutions that have nothing at all to do with clutter and disorganization.

Brainstorm

Grab a pen and paper, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Spend a few minutes in solitude trying your best to think about nothing. If you’re like most people (myself included) it will be very difficult to clear your mind, especially if this is not an activity you do regularly. Responsibilities, concerns, wishes, dreams, embarrassing situations, and maybe a few random jokes will flood your mind. As they do, write down these thoughts on your paper and then quickly return to trying to clear your mind. Eventually, you’ll either tire of the activity or be successful at having a clear mind, and this is when you can stop the meditation activity and review the list you created.

Do you notice any themes among the items on your list? Do you see items that evoke strong feelings — good or bad? Are there items on your list of things you wish to change or improve upon or achieve?

While reviewing this list, think about how you want to feel in 2014. Like most people, you probably wish to have more energy, more happiness, and less stress. Are there any items on your list that will help you achieve these feelings of contentment?

Work through your notes and begin to draft your resolutions for the new year.

Be precise

After brainstorming, “Get Organized!” may still be at the forefront of your resolutions. Unfortunately, it is an extremely vague resolution, and people who make vague resolutions are more likely to fail at achieving them than people who make precise resolutions.

Do you want to get organized at work or at home? Is there a specific area of your life where, if you were more organized, you would have less stress? Do you have one or two projects that are out of control and a little organizing can help them succeed?

The more exact you are with what you want to change, the more likely you will be to create steps to help you achieve your resolutions. Instead of “Get Organized!” perhaps you want to create precise resolutions like: Better organize the children’s bedtime routine; Organize and file medical records and bills; Unclutter clothes that don’t fit from bedroom closet; Research, acquire, learn how to use, and maintain a new project management system at work.

Be realistic

There are a number of things I would like to change about myself, but I am not super human. I have limitations — limited time, energy, finances, etc. As a result, I’ve never been successful at achieving more than 12 resolutions (one per month) in a given year. And, most years, I’ve only been able to achieve four or five large resolutions. You know yourself best, so be realistic with what you can achieve. If you have a newborn at home, you may only want to have two or three resolutions for 2014. If “Get the proper amount of sleep each night by going to bed by 10:00 pm” is one of your resolutions, as it is one of mine, put it at the top of your list. The more energy you have, the more likely you’ll be to achieve the other resolutions on your list.

Further reading

When creating New Year’s Resolutions, I always think about the brilliant and inspiring Danielle LaPorte. Her book The Desire Map is one of the best books I’ve encountered for helping to decide what new path or paths you wish to take in life.

Uncluttering the project to-do list

I have a few to-do items that have stayed on my project list for way too long, and a few weeks ago I decided to do something about those items before the end of the year. I wasn’t aiming to necessarily complete each project, but I wanted to get each one in motion.

First, though, I had to figure out why I was stuck — why I wasn’t making progress. And in each case, I found that I was stymied by the first step.

Project 1: Getting routine medical work done

I was overdue for my annual lab work and physical exam. Why? My doctor had retired and I hadn’t settled on a new one. I’d asked a few friends for recommendations, but many of them were in the same situation as I was, having used the same doctor.

Once I decided I really needed to tackle this project, I realized I could easily take a few small steps to move past this decision-making logjam:

  1. Expand the geographical range I was willing to consider.
  2. Send an email to a larger group of people whose opinions I trusted, asking for recommendations.

And this worked out perfectly. Two people raved about their doctors; I picked one and had a first appointment, which went well. After that, I got my lab work done last Thursday, and I have my physical exam set for this coming Friday.

Project 2: Dealing with a broken lighting fixture

I love the lighting fixture in my bedroom, but it has a design quirk that has caused some recurring problems, which my handyman has repeatedly fixed. The last time it stopped working, I just brought a basic blah-looking lamp into the room as a temporary measure and lived with that for way too long. I was unsure what to do as a more permanent solution, so I did nothing.

But finally, I decided to decide and my decision was to give up on the fixture I had and buy a new one. I went back to my favorite lighting store, where I’d bought that first fixture, to see what was available. The store has great customer service and a wonderful selection; the only drawback is that it’s not close to my home. Once I got there and explained my problem, I wished I’d made the effort to come in sooner. The owner said that if I brought in my old fixture, the technicians could probably make an adjustment to prevent the problems I was having!

I got someone to remove the fixture from its ceiling mount, and I took the light into the store. The folks there expect to make the fix and install the light for me again shortly after Christmas.

In both of these cases, once I determined my first steps, everything else fell into place. I just needed to get past the first decision-making hump.

Project 3: Replacing some carpet

I have one final big to-do hanging over me: replacing the worn-out carpet in my home office. This is yet another project where I’m stymied by the first step, which is selecting the kind of floor covering I want. Because of my cats and the way the room is used, carpeting seems like a poor solution. The room already has a lot of wood, so wood flooring sounds like a poor choice, too.

This one is a big decision, as the cost will be non-trivial. But, I’ve got the Internet at my fingertips, there are some good flooring stores nearby, and I know some people to consult — so I’ll be off investigating my options before the end of the year. Because I’m determined to not let this project languish any longer because of one decision-making obstacle, I’m sure to get it done.

Staying on top of everything

Being a full-time military wife, mother, and entrepreneur, my life can be very hectic. I’ve got to keep on top of everything so that things get done and my life stays balanced.

A number of years ago, I realized that the method I was using to keep track of my tasks and projects had reached its limit. I started falling behind. I was working inefficiently, spending time on items that were not necessarily the highest priority. Details were falling through the cracks. I kept forgetting to follow-up with people from whom I was expecting information.

I attended a conference in 2009 and learned about a book titled, On Top of Everything: Manage Your Projects and Life With Ease by Laurence Seton. A few weeks later, after hearing some colleagues’ testimonials and reading the reviews, I purchased the book. It is well written and very easy to read. The book introduces a system called “Projecteze®: The Ultimate Organizational System”.

Projecteze® uses tables in Microsoft Word to create a simple, elegant, yet powerful system to track projects and tasks. Most people are familiar with MS Word so there is no need to learn a new software program to implement the Projecteze® system.

Although the author recommends MS Word, I believe that other programs such as Pages for Mac or WordPerfect would work equally well if that is the software you are most comfortable using.

The benefits of using word processing software for Projecteze® include:

  • Low cost — most people already have access to word processing software
  • Ease of use — most people already know how to use word processing software
  • Flexibility — of entering, formatting, and presenting information
  • Accessibility — information can be viewed on almost any computer and easily accessed online
  • Sortable — tables allow information to be sorted by project or by priority so you’re working on the right tasks at the right time
  • Transferable — easy to hand over projects, or parts thereof, to co-workers for completion

On Top Of Everything has many examples of how to use the Projecteze® system in several different types of businesses, for managing school work, and for just following through on personal projects at home. The following is an example of my personal chart to give you somewhat of an idea how the system looks and operates:

When my copy of On Top Of Everything arrived in the post, I read it from cover to cover and immediately put the theory into practice. I designed my Projecteze® table and filled in all of my tasks, projects and plans on which I needed to work.

In less than a week, I was in love and comfortable with this new system. I immediately saw what I had already accomplished, what needed to be done, and where to concentrate my efforts. I could keep track of all my tasks and projects. I was proactive — working on the most important things first instead of reacting to whatever dropped on my desk. I was also able to keep tabs on when I was expecting information from other people — something that I always had trouble with before. I was able to follow up at the appropriate time instead of bothering people constantly or forgetting to contact them at all!

As a professional organizer, I recommended the Projecteze® system to many of my clients and I was pleasantly surprised to read their glowing reviews on Amazon.

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.