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.

Get to know Apple’s Siri for better organized communications

Apple released a major update to its mobile operating system two weeks ago, called iOS 7. In addition, the company released two new iPhone models — the iPhone 5c and the iPhone 5s — on September 20. Many customers have already and will upgrade to a new device, and others will purchase an iPhone for the first time. With the latter group in mind, I’ve written this post on how to introduce yourself to Siri, the “electronic assistant” that is one of the iPhone’s marquee features and actually a useful communication organizing device. But first, if you’re an iPhone user, you can share some information with Siri to make working with it more pleasant and productive. Here’s how to get started:

Create a contact record

Tell Siri who you are. You can identify other important people, like a spouse, in this way, too. It’s really better to do this via Contacts. To begin, launch Contacts and create a record for yourself if you don’t have one. Include any phone numbers you use, email addresses, mailing addresses (work vs. home) and so on. Be as thorough as possible. The more info you enter, the more you’re providing to Siri.

Make sure your preferred contacts (spouse, co-workers, kids) have thorough records as well. Once you’ve created all the contact records you need, it’s time to identify who’s who.

Define contact relationships

Here’s the good part. Now that you’ve created a Contacts record for the people you contact most often, it’s time to define their relationship(s) to yourself. Again, this is managed through the Contacts app. When Siri looks at your record, she (or he) will notice these relationships. To set it up, find your record in Contacts, tap Edit and then follow these steps:

  1.  Scroll down a bit until you see a field labeled “spouse.” Tap it the blue arrow on the right-hand side.
  2. A list of contacts appears. Navigate to your spouse’s record and tap it. That person is now identified as your spouse.
  3. A new field appears beneath Spouse, labeled Mother. Again, tap the blue triangle to identify your mother’s record.
  4. A new field appears labeled “Father.” Repeat the process.

There are a couple of things to note here. The first is that you can change a contact’s name at this point. While in edit mode, tap the name to the left of the blue triangle. A cursor appears. Enter the new name (perhaps a maiden name has given way to a married name) and then tap Done.

Also, you can change the label to reflect the nature of your relationship easily. Simply tap the label (“Mother”) to reveal a list of available labels. These are divided into two categories, which I think of as “personal” and “general.”

The personal list contains options like “mother,” “father,” “child,” “friend” and “manager.” The final option, “other,” lets you create your own.

The general list contains options like “Blog,” “Google Talk,” “URL” and “Twitter Handle.” Tap “Add Custom Label” to create your own.

At this point, you’ve created a record for yourself, for your preferred contacts and told the Contacts app how they relate to you. Now it’s time to let Siri in on it.

Give Siri the details

Again, it’s best not to use Siri for this process (though still possible with Siri). To let Siri know who everyone is, launch the Settings app and then follow these steps:

  1. Tap General, then Siri.
  2. The Siri settings page appears. First and foremost, make sure the Siri slider is in the On position.
  3. You’ll find four settings: Language, Voice Feedback, My Info, and Raise to Speak among others. Tap My Info.
  4. A list of all contacts appears. Find your record and tap it. Siri will now consider that “you,” and notice all the relationships you added earlier.

That’s it! You’re done. Now you can tell Siri, “Call my husband” or “Remind me to text my partner when I get home” and it will know what to do.

Bits and bobs

As I said, you can do this with Siri itself, but it’s a bit more time consuming. When I started using Siri, I told it, “Call my wife.” It responded by asking who my wife is, and I told it. It then asked, “Would you like me to remember that [wife's name] is your wife?” “Yes,” I said, and since then, I can use the variable “my wife” and her actual name interchangeably with no problem.

You can also tell Siri directly how you like to be addressed. Simply launch Siri and say, “Call me [your name here].”

One last trick. If one of those identified contacts is also in Find My Friends on your iPhone, you can ask Siri, “Where’s ‘Jane’?” and it will use data from that app to help you find her.

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.

Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.

20130821_ipadscreen2

Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Running Errands

One of my least favourite tasks is running errands. In the winter, the heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures make driving difficult. In the summer, there are always delays and detours due to construction. Errands are time consuming, and if you’ve got lots of errands to run, you can feel like you’re on the go all the time.

To simplify the errand process, make a list before you start of all the places you need to visit: hardware store, dry cleaner, grocery store, etc. Check the websites for business hours. Pre-order items either using the website or calling the shop to make sure they have the items in stock. Sometimes checking the shop’s social media sites such as Facebook or FourSquare can provide you with valuable tips such as the closest car park to the shop.

It can be helpful to choose one day per week and do all of your errands. I used this method when I lived in Montréal. I did not schedule clients on Tuesday mornings and I did all my errands at once. When I moved to Ontario I had a corporate client and was in the office from Monday to Friday. I tried to batch my errands for Saturday mornings but the activities of our two busy teenagers often interfered with my errand-running routine. So, I changed the way I did things and started doing one errand per day on the way to or from work. I planned out 4-5 different routes taking me past various spots such as post office, dry cleaners, and grocery stores. I was only home from work a few minutes later or I had to leave for work slightly earlier, but the result was that I only had to leave the house once per day. I also tried to plan different routes to and from children’s routine activities so that we could quickly pop in and drop something off or pick something up.

It is even more frustrating trying to run errands in a new city when you don’t know where the shops are and you don’t understand the traffic flow. When I first arrived in Montréal, I used a satellite navigation system (GPS or Sat-Nav) to get around town. It kept telling me to make left turns, but in Montréal left turns are not permitted at most intersections. I gave up on the GPS and started using a paper map to plot routes that avoided left turns. This saved me quite a bit of time and made driving easier.

Now there are some great apps, programs, and websites to help you plan your routes to save time and save fuel.

Google Maps is an all-round great tool for plotting a route from Point A to Point B. You can adjust your route by clicking on the highlighted route and dragging it to a different street. Google Maps will tell you the distance traveled in miles or kilometers as well as the time it takes. Google’s Street View lets you see the place you’re going to visit. You’ll be able to familiarize yourself with the area before you even get there.

Driving Route Planner will let you choose multiple stops and optimize routes for you to choose from — shortest, fastest, or as entered. It will print driving directions and maps, email you the route, or save it as a GPX file to load into your own satellite navigation system. You can even add durations to stops so you know how long the total trip will take including stops.

When I was driving back and forth from university to my parent’s home, I had a CB radio in my car (I blame the Dukes of Hazzard). The CB was great because I could listen to other drivers and be able to avoid accidents and traffic jams. Needless to say, one of the most fun driving apps I’ve seen in a long time is Waze, a social networking, traffic and navigation app. Similar to Driving Route Planner, it can optimize your route for you and because it is interactive, taking input from fellow drivers, Waze will instantly update your route to avoid traffic jams. Waze will also learn your preferred routes to different places. Please dear readers, be VERY careful when using Waze because you should be 100 percent focused on driving. Check your local/state/provincial laws regarding handheld devices in vehicles, as the fines can be hefty. It’s best to have a passenger along to help you at least while you’re learning the route. Saving time and fuel is important but keeping the roads safe is even more important.

Free up computer disk space

My main computer is a MacBook Air. I love it dearly. The thin little thing has traveled with me, and I wrote my books on it. It’s a super little machine. It’s got 128 GB of internal flash storage, which sounds like a lot, yet I get that “your startup disk is almost full” warning all the time. The fact that I photograph my kids all the time doesn’t help. I also love music, movies, and trying new software. Those are all space-hogging activities. What can I do?

If you’re in the same boat — irrespective if you’re on a Mac or PC — this post is for you. I’ve collected several tips for freeing up disk space on your computer. Put them into practice and reclaim a little bit of that precious storage space.

To the cloud!

First and foremost, take advantage of cloud storage. Flickr offers users one terabyte of storage for free. That’s huge. I use Everpix, which syncs photos taken with my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone automatically. Those shots aren’t stored on my Mac at all, saving me huge amounts of space.

Music is another opportunity to save space. For example, many people buy an external disk and move their music (like iTunes) library to it. That way your computer’s internal storage is free of your huge music library. Apple’s iCloud also lets you store music on their own servers which you can stream on demand, if you own a Mac.

Other stream-only services like Rdio, Spotify and Pandora let customers stream music to their devices for a monthly fee. I’ve been using Rdio for years and love it. I can listen to all the music I want without any of it living on my hard drive.

What about documents? Dropbox is great, but it stores local copies of all your flies. Actually, not all. In the app’s preferences, select “Selective Sync.” This lets you determine which of your Dropbox folders are copied to your computer.

Cleaning house

While researching this article, I came across this post from MacRumors. It lists several great options for freeing up disk space, including:

  1. Empty the trash. You’d be surprised how often I see digital trash cans that are bulging with files. The act of simply moving a file into the trash doesn’t get rid of it. Empty that virtual trash can. Individual applications (like iPhoto on my Mac and my email program) may also have separate Trash cans and Spam folders that should be emptied, too.
  2. Delete software and files you don’t use. I’m the guy who downloads software just to see what it does. That means I accumulate a lot of apps I don’t use. Trash them. AppZapper for the Mac is good at removing an app and all its related files, if you’re on a Mac. If you know of a similar PC product, please share that in the comments.

    It is also good to go through the files you have saved and trash all those you no longer need. The grocery list you made eight months ago can probably go, even if it’s not taking up a lot of room. All those little files are only cluttering up your computer’s hard drive.

  3. Empty your browser caches. Most web browsers will cache sites to improve their performance. These cache files can grow over time. You’ll find an option to clear your cache in your browser’s preferences.

It’s also a good idea to run software that’s designed to find and eliminate unnecessary files. I rely on Clean My Mac. It’s great at finding things like hidden iPhoto duplicates, language files that I don’t use, and a lot more. I’ve reclaimed several gigabytes of space thanks to Clean My Mac. Again, if you rely on a PC product, please share that in the comments. And, if you’re on a PC, don’t forget to defragment your drive after you delete programs to help it run more efficiently.

Add physical storage

You might have an option to add more physical storage to your computer. For example, the cool StorEDGE from PNY is a little flash storage module that fits inside an SDXC slot (provided that it has one, my Air does not) and adds either 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.

There you have a few strategies for reclaiming a little precious disk space. Try them out and de-clutter your computer.

Steps to unclutter Twitter

I love Twitter. It lets me stay in touch with friends and colleagues, replaces email and text chat in many situations, is a relaxing hangout and the end of the day, and is often a source of entertainment.

It can also be really annoying and a time waster.

Depending on whom you follow (or how many), the social media darling can introduce a lot of clutter into your digital life. Fortunately, you can take steps to make Twitter less annoying and more pleasant to use, and not be a total time suck.

  1. Use an app. Many people use Twitter via a web browser at Twitter.com. Since I’m often using a browser for other things, I dislike jumping back and forth to that window whenever I want to attend to Twitter. So, I use a stand-alone app, which can be hidden, recalled, quit, or ignored as I like, without forcing me to keep a browser tab open. There are so very many apps available, I can’t even begin to list them here. Safe to say, if you use a Mac, Windows, iOS, or Android, you’ll find one to your liking after doing a Google search and reading reviews.
  2. Mute and muffle. Depending on the app you use, you can choose to mute, muffle, or otherwise hide certain tweets from your timeline. You know those people who turn Twitter into a public chatroom with a hashtag like #AnnoyingChat? Mute that tag and you won’t see any of those tweets. You can also mute users (often temporarily), keywords and more. It’s a great way to de-clutter the stream.
  3. Hide the stream entirely. I’m required to do some tweeting at my day job but I don’t always want to see what everyone else is saying. Fortunately there’s Wren for Mac, which lets me publish tweets without seeing anything that anyone else is sharing. Sorry, Windows users. I searched high and low for an equivalent for you but failed.
  4. Pick a time of the day. Twitter is like potato chips: you can’t eat just one. If you tend to binge on the service, pick a time of day to use Twitter and stick to it. Set a timer and don’t let social media eat away at your productivity.
  5. Disable notifications. Many mobile apps will pop up a message when you receive a reply or a mention on Twitter. Others also alert you when one of your tweets has been marked as a favorite by another user. That’s nice to know, but unless you really need that information, consider killing those notifications.
  6. Use lists. Twitter introduced lists a while ago, and you really ought to use them. This feature lets you group users or messages by keyword, and see just the tweets that meet your criteria. This is a great idea if you need to use Twitter for work or just want to turn down the firehose of information a bit.
  7. Don’t go #nuts with #hashtags. Hashtags are those brief bits of text preceded by the pound sign #. They let users group similar tweets or follow a given topic. Some people abuse their hashtag power and go way overboard, though. Don’t be one of those people.

Related to the last, if you have a hashtag abuser among your followers and you use Tweetbot for Mac, check out these instructions from Brett Kelly on how to automatically hide any tweet with more than two hashtags.

My last bit of advice on de-cluttering Twitter is the most powerful: walk away from Twitter. Yes, it’s a lot of fun and often informative but honestly, unless you have a real dependence on that information (work, etc.), take some time off and walk away. It’ll be fine. I #promise.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re already on Twitter, be sure to follow us at @unclutterer.

Uncluttered ringtones for smartphones

20130710_cleartonesLike many of you, I enjoy the convenience and fun of owning a smartphone. However, I detest loud, obnoxious ring tones. It’s jarring to be in a room with someone whose phone suddenly begins blaring a Metallica riff. My iPhone shipped with several options for ring tones, and several are acceptable. But, there is still much to be desired.

I had an opportunity to review Cleartones, which are non-obnoxious and downright minimal ringtones and alert sounds for the iPhone and Android. (Thanks to Cleartones for letting me give these a try.) After a week of testing these sounds, I can safely say they’re the least annoying ringtones I’ve heard.

When I’m picking a ringtone, I’m looking for three things:

  1. It can’t be embarrassing in a professional or more formal setting. Something goofy might amuse my friends over the weekend, but that won’t cut it when with a client.
  2. It must be loud enough to be heard while in a pocket. This might be a function of my age, but I don’t always hear my iPhone ring when it’s in my pocket. I dislike the vibrate function, so the tone I choose must be loud enough for me to hear through clothing from a few feet away.
  3. It can’t be insistent. People think I’m crazy on this one, but hear me out. A ringtone’s job is to let me know when someone is calling. It rings, I hear it, and then I respond. There are many rings out there that repeat almost instantly, over and over. I want a good “five Mississippi” between rings. I know someone’s calling, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.

With these points in in mind, here’s what I found from Cleartones.

The company offers two sets of tones, each with three packaging options. The original set is Cleartones Classic. These are mostly electronic-sounding tones, each super brief. The one called “A Clear Tone” is literally a single, electronic “ping” that repeats every six seconds. It’s like the Cleartone developers were reading my mind when they designed this one. Others, like “Loud & Clear” sound like an old ’90’s portable phone, while “The Friendly Tone” fades in and out quickly. The “Classics” set contains 50 tones for $10. Likewise, the Classics Notifications set offers 50 sounds to use with sms, email, voicemail and other alerts. It also sells for $10. Or, you can buy the lot — 100 sounds — for $17.

The other set of sounds is called Cleartones Organic, which feature acoustic instruments exclusively, like metal bells, glass bowls, a vibraphone, and more. This is my favorite set. “Hello There Wood” is very nice, as it’s three sharp raps on a wooden block, but my favorite is “Gamelong:” two quick taps on a glass bowl that repeats every five seconds. It meets all my criteria.

Just like the Classic set, Cleartones Organics ringtones and notifications sets (50 each) are available for $10, or you can buy all 100 for $17.

I should mention another company that sells pleasant ringtones called iRingPro. Their site was recently hacked, unfortunately, but you can still access their web store. iRingPro focuses more heavily on nature sounds.

They’re all worth checking out and, in most cases, are more pleasant and uncluttered than whatever shipped with your phone. Also, if you have another favorite set of uncluttered ringtones, please share your finds with everyone in the comments.

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.

Trello is a free, effective, family organizer

A couple years ago, my wife and I succumbed to the fact that individual paper planners weren’t doing it for us. As much as I love jotting things down on paper and carrying a notebook of lists in my back pocket, it’s no good when two people are trying to coordinate Cub Scouts and ballet and play practice and Girl Scouts and chorus and homework, etc.

In other words, our Family, Inc., needed an appropriate tool. For us, it’s Trello.

Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that’s meant for teams, but it’s perfect for families. It runs in a browser so it doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC, and it allows you to create “boards” that hold the tasks, assignments, reference materials, and so forth for a given project.

We have a board for each of the kids, as well as for ourselves. In addition to who needs to be where, we add things like what needs to go where (pack the script and change of ballet clothes for Tuesday drop-off) as well as who’s going to do each.

Trello’s emphasis is on speed and no-fuss teamwork. Essentially, a board holds several cards. Each card contains one item in the list of information that becomes the support material for a project. Each board (“William”) holds several boards (“Cub Scouts”). Here’s how we use Trello at Chez Caolo.

The need for quick capture of ideas and news

Items added to Trello from one device show up on another. For example, my wife can update a card on her iPhone and that edit shows up on mine. Likewise, I can make a note from my computer and it shows up on both phones. As we go about our days, it’s comforting and useful to know that we’re in touch and up to date, even on those days when we barley see each other between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Perhaps you know how that goes?)

As I said, Trello works great in a modern web browser. There are apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, too. But, honestly, the website is smart enough to work and look great on a mobile device, so check it out before you install an app.

Trello is really meant to be used by business teams, but we’re getting a lot out of it as busy parents. In the end, we’re pretty happy with it. Trello is a near ubiquitous capture tool that is always in sync. Shortcuts make it fast and cloud sync lets me stay on top of things.

Digitize user manuals for less clutter, easy retrieval

User manuals are a necessary evil. When you bring home that new TV, blender, or printer, you set it up, try it out, and tuck its user manual away somewhere. Chances are you’ll never look at it again. But, you might, and that’s why you can’t throw it away. So, it gets tossed into a junk drawer or set on a shelf in the basement or crammed into the closet with all the other manuals you’ve stashed in there, just in case. These things are the definition of clutter. They sit around and do nothing for years and years. Wouldn’t it be great to store them completely out of sight yet have them instantly available, whenever you need them? Digitizing them is the answer. With a little bit of time and some free software — plus one very cool trick — you can achieve User Manual Nirvana. In this article, I’ll show you how to:

  1. Get manuals into your computer.
  2. Use the nearly ubiquitous Evernote to make your manuals accessible from your digital devices.
  3. Ensure that every manual is ready as soon as you need it with NO searching required (the cool trick).
  4. Reduce frustration and repair time around the house.

Get manuals

The first step, of course, is to find digital versions of your paper manuals and get them into your computer. There are several ways to do this, and I’ll cover three.

Go To The Source

You best bet is to look online, and your first stop should be the manufacturer’s website. For example, here’s a link to the manual for HP’s Officejet 6500 Wireless All-in-One Printer. If you can’t find the manual you’re after by visiting the manufacturer’s site, you’re not out of luck.

Check Third-Party Websites

User-manuals.com offers a large selection of user and service manuals, mostly for large appliances. The manuals on this site aren’t free, and will charge you about $8.99 per manual. The site’s search feature works well, and lets you narrow your inquiry by brand. Another option is theusermanualsite.com. It stores thousands of product manuals and a huge, searchable list of brands and products. What’s really nice is that theusermanualsite.com is supported by an active community of users who will respond to your requests. Theusermanualsite.com requires a free membership. There are other manual sites available, but I’ve had the best luck with these two.

Scan It Yourself

If the manual is not too long, scan it. Many are only long because they contain several languages. You can scan the two, three or four pages that are in your language and disregard the rest. If you don’t have a scanner, don’t worry! There’s a great iPhone app called Piikki that’s useful in this situation. It’s meant for taking photos of receipts, but really you can use it with any piece of paper. Piikki is very good at identifying the edges of paper and grabbing a readable, useful image. From there, send it to your computer.

Of course, you can also take a photo with Evernote and get it right in your database that way. More on Evernote later in this post.

A quick note before I move on to the next section. Don’t overlook “homemade” manuals and similar supplements. A few years ago, I had to replace the belt on our clothes dryer that turns the drum. While I had the machine apart, I sketched how it came apart, where the parts belong, and how it all fits back together. Today, I’ve got a scan of that drawing for future reference (and yes, I got it back together again).

Now that you’ve got your digital user manuals, store them in a fantastic, nearly ubiquitous digital database called Evernote.

Evernote can be your digital database

We’ve written about Evernote before and for good reason. It’s a dead-simple way to store just about anything that’s digital, from manuals to ideas, from music to packing lists. Best of all, it’s nearly ubiquitous. There’s a version for just about any device you own, as well as the web. I treat Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. Evernote stores information in what it calls “notes.” Similar notes can be grouped into a “notebook.” In our case, one note will be one user manual, and all of those notes will be gathered into a single notebook called, you guessed it, “Manuals.” Here’s how to set things up.

Create a Notebook

First, create a notebook. Fortunately, the process couldn’t be simpler. On the left-hand side of your browser window, right-click (that’s Control-click for you Mac users) on the grey area where it says “Notebooks” and select “New Notebook.” Name it “Manuals” and you’re all set.

Create a Note

The exact steps required to create a note depend on the device you’re using (iPhone vs. Mac vs. Android device, etc.). I’ll review how to do it in a web browser, as that’s the same for everyone, and leave you to suss out the (similar) process on your computer/tablet/smartphone of choice.

  1. Navigate to Evernote.com and log in.
  2. Tap “+ New Note”.
  3. The note creation screen appears. Enter a name for you note (like “DVD Player Manual”).
  4. Click “Show details” and enter “manuals” as the tag. This is important as you’ll see.
  5. Click the attachment icon (it resembles a paperclip), navigate to your manual and attach it to the note.
  6. Select “Manuals” from the Notebooks drop-down menu to put it in the proper notebook.
  7. Click “Done”.

That’s it. Repeat the process with all of your manuals. Once you’ve done this on one device, those notes will be available on every other device that you have that runs Evernote. Adding them can be boring, but now for the fun stuff.

Find manuals when you need them

I promised to teach you a cool trick. This isn’t it, though it’s still pretty nifty. You can search for a term in Evernote and then save that search so you don’t have to type it over and over again. Plus, Evernote is smart enough to update the results for you.

In the Evernote app for the desktop, enter “manuals” in the search field and hit Return. Look at the results to make sure they’re accurate, then click on the File menu, and then choose File and then Save Search. Give it a nice name (I suggest “Manuals”) and you’re all done. From now on, all you need to do is click the search field and “Manuals” will appear there for you. Just give it a click.

Here’s another cool bit: saved searches sync across devices. That means, once you’ve created the saved search on your computer, it will be available on your smartphone as well.

OK, here’s the super-cool trick I’ve been promising you.

Access manuals from the appliances themselves

While doing research for this article, I came across this brilliant idea from author Jamie Todd Rubin. His idea is to use QR codes, Evernote, and sticky paper to create almost immediate, no-search access to your digital user manuals.

QR Codes are those funky, square-shaped boxes of scanner code you might have seen, similar to the one at right. A QR Code reader (like this free one for the iPhone), can read the information it contains and perform a resulting action, most often opening a web page.

You can make your own QR Codes for free with a tool like this one at KAYAW QR Code by providing the link you’d like it to point to. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then make a QR Code with that URL, using the free QR Code generator linked above. Once that’s done, print the page, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your printer, blender, DVD player, what have you.

Now, whenever you need the manual for that device, all you need to do is scan it with a free QR reader app and presto! Evernote launches and opens that exact manual for you. No searching, no typing. Ingenious. If you don’t want to use the Note URL from the Evernote app, open the target note in a browser and copy its URL. That will work, too.

There you have it: digitize your user manuals to greatly reduce clutter, keep them close at hand on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and use QR code stickers on your devices to let THEM retrieve your manuals for you. Have fun.