Part 3: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

In my opinion, one of the best parts of kids being in school is that it can bring more routine into their lives and yours. Years of research by social scientists strongly concludes that routines help children adjust better to new situations and also improves the overall happiness of a family. For the school year to run smoothly, routines are a valuable key, and schedules and calendars are a great way to get started creating this practice.

Although it might seem a bit cumbersome, I suggest each family have at minimum a shared calendar and a shared routine schedule. Then, each person in the family will likely want a personal calendar (and maybe even a personal routine) to keep track of things like homework, projects, and personal to-do items.

A family calendar

Whether digital or print, there needs to be a calendar everyone in the family can post items to and review together. In our house, we’re currently using a 17-month Chalkboard Wall Grid Calendar that Paper Source sent to me (it’s pictured at right). I’ve embellished extremely important dates with some Washi Tape, but mostly we just write shared events onto the calendar with a black pen — nothing too fancy or a pain to update.

I also continue to love Martha Stewart’s Chalkboard Paint Wall Calendar, and if we owned our home I would immediately paint this up on a wall. A big visual calendar provides lots of room to write important family events, as well as creates decoration for what might otherwise be a plain wall.

If your kids are older, a shared digital calendar like Google Calendar (great for all mobile devices) or Fantastical (for iPhone) might be a good alternative for you.

The most important parts of keeping a family calendar are 1. remembering to add items to the calendar, and 2. reviewing the calendar each evening so everyone in the family is in-tune with tomorrow’s events. In our house, we add important events to the calendar as they pop up and then review the calendar each night as a family before the kids take their baths. Some families choose to review the calendar during the evening family meal, which is also good for keeping conversations going. The only warning about talking about the calendar at dinner time is if you keep the calendar digitally it means everyone will come to the meal with an electronic device (this is a no-no in our house, but I know it’s not the same for all families).

For more information on calendars, read our in-depth article “Family calendars.”

A family routine

If you’ve read my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, you know I’m a detailed routine planner listing specific times and tasks to complete each day. Currently, with a toddler at home full time, two adults who work primarily from our home office, and an elementary schooler with a lot of energy and a handful of extracurricular activities, our house would fall into complete disarray if we didn’t keep to such a regimented schedule.

I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from people saying that routines are dull and kill creativity and fun. I find them to be the exact opposite. Because our family has routines in place for the repeated activities at home, the things that must get done do so without much effort or thought and then leave us free to enjoy ourselves the rest of the time. When we head out to the zoo or a festival or go on vacation, we live purely in those moments. We’re not thinking about dishes or laundry or other things we should be doing — because those things are done or scheduled to be completed at a specific time. Our free time is truly free because our routines make this possible.

I recommend creating a family routine in Excel or a similar grid-style software program. Include all seven days of the week and break down responsibilities to the house by time of day and who will complete the task. For variety, you can switch up who does what on different days, or you may choose to keep the same responsibilities with each person if that is easier for your family. As you crate your routine chart, be realistic about how much you can do and how long tasks take to complete. Time yourself for a number of days to make sure you aren’t underestimating the length of a task.

Our family routine chart includes items like packing lunches, creating weekly meal plans, grocery shopping, feeding and caring for pets, regularly scheduled lessons and appointments, laundry, dishes, chores throughout the house, and even who puts the trash can out on the curb for pickup and who brings it back. We also identify which load of laundry is done each day — clothes on Mondays, towels on Tuesdays, more clothes on Thursdays, and sheets on Fridays.

At the start of each month we review the routine chart as a family and add and subtract and make alterations as necessary. Everyone receives a printed copy of the routine chart on the first day of each month.

For more information on creating routines, read our detailed article “Routines can make even the most unsavory tasks easy” and check out pages 98-99 of my book.

Personal calendars

In addition to the shared family calendar, each person in our home (except for the toddler) has a personal calendar. Our son keeps track of school assignments and violin practice records in his pocket calendar provided by his school. My husband, who loves all things digital, uses Google Calendar. He uses Gmail, so it’s even easier for him to schedule items that come into his inbox because the programs are integrated. I’m a tactile person, so I use the Staples Arc Planner for my appointments and obligations. (And, on the off-chance you’re curious, I use the Emergent Task Planner by David Seah for my to-do list. I have an Arc Planner hole punch, so the pages fit right into my Arc Planner.)

The personal calendars my husband and I keep are primarily full of work-related items, but other activities are included. It can be easy to forget to put family-related items on the family calendar if you also keep a personal calendar, so I recommend scheduling into your daily routines a time to transfer relevant information from your personal calendar to your family calendar. If you keep a digital calendar, this is extremely simple since all you typically have to do is check a box indicating all of the calendars with which you would like to share the appointment.

How do you keep your family on the proverbial “same page”? What routines do you find to be the most helpful? What has worked for your family and what has failed miserably? Thankfully, in our home, we’ve found that the research about routines being beneficial has been accurate. As long as we keep to our routines, life runs much more smoothly than when we don’t. Our home is also at a fairly consistent state of order, which makes having friends over to visit extremely simple and helps to keep our stress levels low.

Be a clutter detective

Years ago, I worked in a group home. It had a big kitchen with flat, spacious counters. My staff and I were very good at keeping the place nice and tidy, however, there was one corner of the countertop that just seemed to attract clutter.

No matter what we did, things would pile up in that corner — notebooks, mail, pens and paper, all sorts of stuff the should’ve lived in the drawer in the kitchen. For a long time, this annoyed me. I’d think, “How hard is it to just put this in the drawer? Why can’t anyone put this stuff away?” It was only after doing some detective work that I discovered the problem. The cabinet where the clutter should have been stored was the same cabinet that held a whole lot of plastic storage containers. The containers were stored in a haphazard fashion, and opening this cabinet almost guaranteed that lids and other bits of plastic would rain down upon you. Once I took care of the plastic storage containers, the countertop remained clean.

Today, you can conduct the same type of clutter detective work in your house. Look at the areas that are typically messy. You’ll want to try your best to see the space with fresh eyes. That is to say, hold a question in your mind as you inspect the space: “What exactly is keeping this area so messy?”

I did some successful detective work around our own house recently. The back door of our house is what we use most often. Just inside this door is a small coat rack we bought for the kids to use years ago. However, the kids come home from school and drop their coats and bags and hats and what-have-you all over the floor. This drove my wife and me crazy, and constant requests to please pick up after yourself after coming home from school seemed to fall on deaf ears. So what was the problem?

Well, one afternoon while putting everything on the rack again, I remembered how wobbly it was. After heaving the last winter coat onto it, the whole thing toppled over. The coat rack was the root of the problem. My kids learned that the rack just was broken and stopped using it entirely. A new coat rack was the solution.

You can apply this investigative strategy to your home office as well. In a previous post, I mentioned something I call swivel distance. This is the distance you can reach things from your chair without having to get up out of your seat. Since human beings will almost always lean toward the path of least resistance, we’re more likely to stack something instead of getting up and putting it in filing cabinet across the room. That stack of papers could be due to simple poor office layout planning.

The takeaway here is to periodically scan your house for persistent clutter spots and try to figure out why clutter loves to accumulate there. Often, the reason isn’t what you think. For example, my kids aren’t lazy or disinterested in following the rules, they just learned that the coat rack wasn’t very effective.

Being organized makes life easier

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to go see a radio show being taped in San Francisco tonight. Seats for the show disappeared within a day, so I was lucky to get one. In addition to luck, I was also prepared to make the necessary quick decision as to whether or not I wanted to attend the event when the tickets became available.

  • I had my goals for the year already defined. One of my goals is to get out more, putting aside work and having fun, and taking advantage of all the area has to offer. So I knew that this opportunity fit within my goals.
  • I had my finances organized, and I knew how much I could afford to spend on a ticket.
  • I had my calendar up to date, and I knew I didn’t have any scheduling conflicts.
  • I’d recently exercised my decision-making skills, and making one more decision was pretty easy.

Being organized has helped in many other areas of my everyday life. I’m having a couple family members over to the house on Saturday. I’ll do some extra cleaning before they arrive — don’t we all do that before company comes? But because the house is basically organized, I don’t have to fret about this being a big deal or plan on throwing a bunch of stuff into a closet or room that no one will see. And, I know I have the supplies I need to do the cleaning.

I moderate a Yahoo Group with over 2,000 members. In this group, the same types of problems come up time and again. These problems require me to write to certain members and explain what they are doing wrong. Since I took the time to set up some snippets in a text expansion tool — I happen to use Typinator, but there are plenty of others — I can respond much more quickly to these repeat problems and be sure I’m saying exactly the right thing.

And this year, I’m up-to-date on my bookkeeping and my scanning of tax-related documents. Next tax season will be much less stressful than in the past, when I’ve let myself fall behind.

I see the same kind of day-to-day benefits when I talk to other people, too. Artists who have their supplies organized can put their fingers on those they want when they begin a new project. Shop owners who are organized can find the inventory they need to restock their shelves. I have a friend who is both a painter and a gallery owner, and she’s always showing off to me when she puts a new organizing tool in place.

I’ve seen people with overflowing kitchen cabinets, full of stuff they don’t use. Once those cabinets were uncluttered and organized, meal preparation became much less stressful since everything needed was easy to find.

Organizing isn’t an end unto itself; it’s a way to make it easier for each of us to live the life we want to live.

A place for everything and everything in its place, well, for the most part

At Unclutterer, we usually support the organizing standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” However, there are occasions when adhering to this motto is inefficient and might best be put on hold.

For example, most of the year our family eats meals in the dining room. During the financial year-end though, the dining room table turns into a horizontal filing cabinet for a couple of days while I prepare our income tax returns. During these few days, our family eats in the kitchen or in the living room on TV trays while the paperwork stays out on the table. This is a minor inconvenience for our family compared to the time-consuming task of packing up all of the paper work and re-filing it into the filing cabinet everyday. All of this paperwork does have a long-term place, but for this period of time it has a short-term place on the dining table.

You may decide there are other times when the standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place” should be temporarily ignored or when a short-term home should be established for specific items.

From time-to-time, your children may take on projects with their toys that are too much fun to go away after just a single play session. If your child is building a space station with blocks, confine the construction to a certain area of the room and let the building continue for a few days. A doll’s excessive wardrobe and shoe collection could be out for a few days and then sent to the “dry cleaners” (cardboard box) that can be easily moved so that housekeeping can be done. If you notice the projects haven’t been worked on in awhile, that is a good indication that the toys are ready to be returned to their permanent homes.

Rather than trying to obtain one those picture perfect houses from the magazines, think about how to manage your projects efficiently. When is it a good idea for you to ignore the “a place for everything and everything in its place” motto?

Being an organized executor

An executor is the person appointed to administer the estate of a person who has died. Being named as an executor is a privilege, but the title also comes with a significant amount of responsibility. Sometimes it may take several years to finalize an estate if it is complicated or if there are disputes among the beneficiaries.

If you feel you cannot adequately perform the duties of the executor (perhaps you live across the country or you have extensive personal commitments), it is important that you do not start. You will need to speak with the lawyer handling the estate as soon as possible so a new estate administrator can be appointed.

If you have chosen to act as an executor, organization and careful record keeping will keep the task from becoming overwhelming.

It is important to set up a good filing system. You will need to keep copies of everything you have sent to and received from banks, the government, creditors, and beneficiaries, etc. It is a good idea to use a small portable filing box to set up the estate’s filing system so it is separate from your own house and business.

The folders should include the following:

  • Vital Records. This includes birth and marriage certificates, citizenship status, divorce decree, social security card, passport, etc. of the deceased.
  • Legal Papers. You will need the original and multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Also keep copies of the will, codicils, and living will, etc.
  • Employment Documents. This folder would contain all of the documents relating to the deceased’s employment and employment benefits. If the deceased was retired at the time of death, retirement and pension documents would be stored here.
  • Financial. The estate must have its own bank account, separate from your personal account and separate from the deceased’s accounts. Keep all deposit and withdrawal records, as well as statements. You will also need to keep proof of account closures and receipts for any debts paid (e.g. for the deceased’s credit cards).
  • Government. This folder would contain all documentation relating to the deceased’s income taxes, government pensions or other benefits.
  • House. If the deceased had a home, it should be made secure and the home insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Keep all bills and receipts pertaining to the house in this file.
  • Automobile. If the deceased had a car, it should be located and secured. The car insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Beneficiaries should not use the vehicle until it is clear that they are entitled to use it and that appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Other Assets. Keep records of other assets. You may wish to have a separate folder for larger assets such as a cottage or recreational vehicle. Smaller assets such as art or jewelry could be combined in the same file.
  • Estate Management Costs. If you have used any of your personal funds to administer the estate, such as purchasing postage stamps or paying for parking while at the lawyer’s office, keep the receipts. You may be able to claim this against the estate.

If you will be doing much of your communication via email, create an email address specifically for the estate. You should also set up a separate section or even a separate account on your computer, specifically to deal with the estate. To simplify organization, the names of the folders on your hard drive should mirror the names of the folders in your filing box.

Remember to save all email attachments to your hard drive especially if they are receipts or proofs of account closures. If the receipt is in the body of the email itself, print the email or save it to permanently readable, but non-editable format such as PDF.

Keep a journal documenting the work you have performed for the estate. A notebook is ideal for capturing this information. Record the dates and times you visited or phoned lawyers, bankers, and other estate advisors. Take notes during meetings. This will help when you need a reminder of what was discussed. You should also write down when death notices were sent and when accounts were marked closed. This alert you to outstanding tasks. Should there be any question about what you did and on which date, you’ll have your notebook to refer to.

Patience is crucial as an executor. You may be held personally liable if you rush and miss crucial legal steps. Many people wish to distribute the assets quickly, but it is usually against the law for you to do this until you have proper legal authorization. This authorization, or probate, varies widely across jurisdictions so it is very important to get advice from the estate lawyers before proceeding.

Although many people think they should pay bills as soon as they come in, they should not necessarily do this. In most cases, creditors (e.g. the electric company) are notified of the death and must wait for payment until the probate court prioritizes the list of creditor claims. Additionally, it’s important to remember not to let Cousin Bertha even take her favorite salt and pepper shakers from the estate until the authorization process is complete, and creditors have been paid.

Having an attorney who knows the rules in the deceased jurisdiction is essential. Attorneys can also help mediate beneficiary disputes, which can sometimes become unpleasant.

The role of executor can be challenging but working with attorneys and other professionals as well as keeping organized and detailed records, can ensure that the estate will be settled smoothly.

Have you had the experience of being an executor? What organizational tips do you suggest?

More organizational systems that changed history

Image circa 1967 from the Special Collections of Queen’s University Library, Kingston, Ontario Canada

Image circa 1967 from the Special Collections of Queen’s University Library, Kingston, Ontario Canada

Up until 150 years ago, only wealthy and well-educated people visited libraries. Librarians, who knew exactly what books were on what shelves, served these privileged patrons. By the mid-1800s, more and more people received an education and libraries became open to the public. Librarians could not serve everyone and patrons were expected to search for their own books.

In that era, libraries placed books on their shelves based on when the library acquired the book and the book’s size. Imagine going into a library and trying to find a book that the library acquired the previous year, that is about 10 inches tall with a blue cover and silver lettering.

In 1873 Melvil Dewey created a classification system to organize published works by fields of study. There are ten main classes (000 – 999), which cover the entirety of human knowledge. Each main class is divided into ten divisions, and each division into ten sections. Each book is assigned a Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) number based on its subject matter. This makes it possible to find a book using its DDC number and return it to its correct place on the shelves.

Classifying a work with the DDC requires determination of the subject and the disciplinary focus, and the author’s intent. This enables works that are used in the same way, to be found in the same area. For example, a book about disease transmission statistics written by a mathematician would be classed in medicine, not mathematics, along with other works on disease control. Librarians use subject keywords, author name, and book title to create the famous card catalogue in which patrons can look for books in which they are interested.

Today the Dewey Decimal Classification system is used across the world. It is continuously revised to keep pace with knowledge and has been translated into over thirty languages. Most people assume that the Dewey name is in the public domain. However, the OCLC Online Computer Library Center holds the trademark on the Dewey name and classification system.

Not so long ago, back in the mid-1990s, only a few technologically savvy people were using the Internet. At that time, tech companies hired human librarians to catalogue the information on the Internet and create directories. This was a slow, cumbersome system that required the end user to click through many pages to find specific information. Additionally, there were billions of web pages and they changed so frequently that librarians could not keep pace.

Two gentlemen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin imagined that computers, not humans, could do a much better and faster job of searching websites all over the world. Page and Brin started looking at patterns of data and how the data were connected to each other. They used that information to create a better search engine and in 1998 introduced the world to Google.

“Searching” may not be considered a “traditional” organizational system but as John Battelle explained, “[Google] clarified and cleared up the clutter of the Internet and made it possible to find what you were looking for quickly and easily.”

Melvil Dewey, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin may have created different organizational systems for information, but the end result was the same, and more knowledge is more easily available to more people.

Two more organizing myths

A while ago, I discussed five common organizing myths in a post on Unclutterer. Since then, I’ve come upon two more myths that you should watch out for when tackling the clutter in your home.

This [insert product or system here] will solve all of your organizing dilemmas.

There are many amazing organizing products available. Some products and systems will benefit almost everyone, but some will only benefit a unique few. Organizing products and systems are dependent on the way a person thinks and in how he/she works. Other factors that influence how well a product or system will function are:

  • The lifestyles of the family members
  • The floor plan of home or office
  • Sense of style and design
  • Fondness of technology

There are as many organizing products and systems as there are people who wish to be organized. Think carefully about your lifestyle and your preferences before you invest in specific products or systems.

This organizing system works perfectly now so it will work perfectly forever.

Can you imagine packing your family and a week’s worth of camping equipment into the sports car you had in college? As your lifestyle changes, your organizing systems will change, too. Some factors that cause current organizing systems to fall apart include:

  • Changes in employment; a new job or a change in daily hours
  • Family members; new babies, children going to, or returning from college
  • Renovations or moving to a new home or office
  • Changes in health

Even small changes such as your municipality changing your trash pick-up day may require you to alter your organizing system. A food company’s decision to change the package size of your favourite cereal box might require you to re-organize your kitchen cupboards for greater efficiency. Whenever your system becomes cumbersome or ineffective, re-evaluate and make adjustments.

If you think you might have fallen for one or both of these myths, consider what steps you can take to get things back on track.

Organizational systems that changed history

When thinking about organizing, you likely don’t consider it to be world changing or revolutionary. However, the history books would suggest differently. For example, there are two scientists who reorganized information and created organizational systems that allowed humans to make significant advancements in the fields of science and technology.

Biology

Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) was not the first scientist to recognize that different species could be grouped together based on some common characteristics. However, until Linnaeus’s time, scientists arbitrarily gave the species they classified complicated Latin names that they changed whenever they wished, depending on what other species they were classifying at the time. This meant that two different scientists could be using different names for the exact same species.

In 1735, Linnaeus published the revolutionary book Systema Naturae. It outlined his scheme for classifying all known and yet-to-be-discovered life forms. His system was simple to understand and apply, and it could be easily modified to accommodate changes and new developments. Linnaeus’s method of organization was accepted as the scientific standard by the early 1800s.

Chemistry

In the early 1800s, scientists attempted to organize chemical elements by listing them in order of atomic mass, but that method didn’t adequately explain the relationships between the elements. And, scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) realized that there was a recurring pattern relating the physical and chemical properties of elements to their atomic number — it wasn’t chaotic.

In 1869, Mendeleev re-arranged the elements. He moved them from a list into a table. He placed the elements into horizontal rows in order of their atomic number and placed those with similar properties into vertical columns. By organizing the elements in this way, Mendeleev allowed scientists to classify, systematize, and compare all the many different forms of chemical behaviour.

In science classrooms all over the world, posters of his Periodic Table of the Elements hang on the wall.

Organizing can change the world. And, although organizing your wardrobe or kitchen cupboards may not win you a Nobel Prize, it just may make your life a little easier.

Six steps to establishing order in your home after an inevitable dip into chaos

This week has been one of those weeks where I never found my rhythm. You’ll notice that Tuesday’s post ran on Wednesday and then there wasn’t a Unitasker Wednesday post. I forgot my son’s weekly swimming lesson, which has been at the same date and time this entire year. All day yesterday, I kept making plans for today as if it were Sunday. There are a handful of other examples, all proving that my head has not been attached to my shoulders this week.

As is the case for most people, as my mental space has become chaotic, so has my physical space. Mt. Laundry has erupted in my laundry room. I’ve been rushed, so things haven’t been put away as I’ve used them. It has also affected my kids, since I’m not giving them time to clean up before we run to the next activity. TMZ could do an expose with intense music and tell-all photographs with the headline “And she calls herself the Unclutterer!”

In the professional organizing industry, we refer to these times as “falling off the wagon.” It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I have to find a way to chase down the wagon and get back on. The following steps are what I do to keep the chaos short lived:

  1. Cut yourself a break. Everyone, even professional organizers, find themselves in a cluttered state occasionally. It’s inevitable because life isn’t predictable. Don’t beat yourself up over the chaotic times or feel guilty about them. Rather, simply recognize you’re off course and then reroute yourself at the first possible opportunity.
  2. Invite people over. When things are in disarray, my usual response is to invite people to my house. This gives me a set deadline for when things need to be back together. Fewer things get me as motivated to clean, organize, and unclutter as knowing my friends will be stepping foot in my house.
  3. Tackle one room at a time. I like checklists, and the floor plan of my house often operates as one. (I do this mentally, I don’t have an actual printed floor plan, but you could if you like.) Kitchen, dining room, living room, office … I work through each room and mark it off as I go. I always start with the common places, where guests will certainly see, and then finish with my bedroom. This is convenient, too, because I’m usually ready for a nap after a whole-house reordering project.
  4. Get rid of stuff. One of the reasons I can do a whole-house reordering project in a couple hours is because I don’t have a lot of stuff and our house is relatively small (<1,300 sq ft). Less stuff equals less mess. As I clean and organize, I also get rid of stuff. If it's out of place, it might be because it doesn't have a permanent storage place. Things without permanent storage places are usually purged (recycled, donated, trashed, etc.) so they don't keep making a mess. If I don't purge it, I find a permanent home for it, no exceptions. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
  5. Take a picture. My eyes tend to gloss over things that have been out of place for awhile. I call this clutter numbness. If I take a picture of a room and study the image, however, all that clutter catches my attention. I do this after I’ve had my nap and I almost always find entire patches of stuff I missed on the first pass.
  6. Call in reinforcements. Whenever things get chaotic, I call in a professional cleaning service to scrub my floors, counters, and bathrooms. They also dust and do any other deep-cleaning work that needs to get done. I schedule them for after I’ve done the whole-house reordering project but before my friends’ arrival. This is my reward to myself for razing Mt. Laundry and getting the house back on track. It’s not an everyday thing, but a couple times a year it’s nice to have someone else clean the toilets.

After these six steps are complete, it’s a lot easier to get my head back on my shoulders. Similar to how mental chaos can lead to physical chaos, physical order can encourage mental order. What do you do to establish order in your home after you’ve fallen off the proverbial organizing wagon? Feel welcome to share your process in the comments so others in our community can get even more ideas.

Organize a personal board of directors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for an organized and fun summer

A friend of mine teaches in a small Kansas town and the school where she works starts summer break today. The school is having major reconstruction done to it, so instead of subjecting the kids and faculty to a dangerous work zone, they put in longer days to get in the required hours this year and ended the school year early.

Our kids don’t begin summer break until the last week of June where I live in the D.C. area. But, irrespective of when it begins for you and/or your family, now is a great time to organize your summer plans (if you haven’t already).

Set a budget

Our first step in summer preparation is to set a budget. Once we know how much money we can spend, we then make decisions about vacations, camps for the kids, concerts, dinners, and other adventures. Working on percentages, we may decide to spend something like 40 percent of our summer fun budget on family vacations, 40 percent on camps, 5 percent on special projects, and the remaining 15 percent on everything else (movie tickets, ice cream, dinners with friends).

Create a plan

In April, we created a large calendar of the months May, June, July, August, and September and hung the pages up on the wall in the hallway by our bedrooms. We used sheets of reusable vinyl whiteboard to make the calendar because it’s easy to move around and stores nicely when not in use. Then, as we have made plans, we have been writing them onto the calendar along with locations and times: camps, weddings, festivals, vacations, etc.

We highlight activities based upon their attendance — who is involved (one person or everyone) and importance (something we could do vs. something we are doing). We also have a plain sheet of vinyl whiteboard where we note things we would like to do but haven’t yet scheduled.

Keep a project jar

This idea came to our family from fellow-Unclutterer contributor Dave Caolo in his post “Charting summer vacation success.” However, instead of calling ours a boredom jar, we’ve made three jars and named ours Project Jars (one jar for each person in the family who can read). We have a dozen or so special projects we all want to accomplish this summer. Mine includes sticks for things like making my daughter’s baby book and sewing a dress for me to wear to my sister-in-law’s wedding. If we owned our home, I’d most certainly have building a firepit in the backyard as one of my items.

Whether a project jar or a boredom jar, both are helpful for answering the question “what can I/we do?”

Make special summer routines

Keeping routines will help you to feel like you have accomplished things at the end of summer — you won’t feel as if the opportunities that come with warmer months simply pass you by. Obviously, keep up with your chores and morning hygiene routines, etc. What I’m mostly suggesting is that you put other routines in place to help you do the fun things of summer — every Friday meet friends for drinks or have another family over for dinner, attend the weekly free concert series provided by your local parks department, go for a run every morning, play basketball with your kids every day after work, take a family walk each night after dinner, etc.

List it, schedule it, and reserve it

Whether packing lists or lists for activity bags, you can get started now making lists of stuff you’ll need to have with you. It’s also a good time to reserve rental cars, make dinner plans, and schedule back-to-school doctor appointments for the kids. If something on your summer schedule requires prep work, you might as well do it now.

I save most of these items to Evernote so I can access them from home or when we’re on the road. I also use the To-do app on my phone that is part of the phone’s standard operating system — it’s nothing fancy, easy to use, and I can email lists to my husband.

Have fun organizing your summer plans and let us know in the comments about the steps you take to have a chaos-free summer.

Estate organization

No one likes to think about dying, but disorganization and lack of planning while you’re alive can lead to family disputes and large tax payments after you’ve passed away. The following are a few tips to help you get organized in case of an emergency.

List what you own

Create a home inventory listing everything you own. Most lawyers suggest you include everything with a value greater than $100. However, if there are sentimental items valued less than $100, list those as well. Non-physical items should also be inventoried. This would include digital music and movie collections and computer software applications.

Include other assets in the inventory such as savings accounts, life insurance policies, investments, and pension plans at various past places of employment.

List what you owe

List all of your debts including car loans, mortgage, and outstanding balances on credit cards. Create a list of any institutions or organizations you pay on a regular basis, for example your monthly payment to your gym or annual donations to a favourite charity. Include on this list any places that may have your credit card information on file such as your iTunes or Netflix accounts.

Simplify and unclutter

Once you’ve completed your inventory, you may decide that it is better to liquidate some of your assets while you’re still alive and well. You will be able to see the joy in people’s faces as you pass along some of your treasured items that you are no longer interested in keeping. If you have a certain collection, (e.g. Star Wars collectibles) ask your family members who would most appreciate receiving it on your death. You don’t want to burden your family members with something they would consider clutter. If you can’t find anyone, consider leaving instructions for selling it.

Get professional financial and legal advice

Each jurisdiction has its own laws, rules and regulations regarding estate planning, so it is extremely important to get professional advice. Lawyers and estate and financial planners can tell you which accounts should be made joint and which ones “transfer-on-death.” They can also provide advice on which accounts beneficiaries need to be listed. These professionals will provide information on what your executor would be expected to do when you pass away and what options are available for beneficiaries.

Choose an executor (estate administrator)

An executor is someone who administers your estate after you’ve passed. This person (or people) is responsible for locating and probating your will, making your funeral arrangements, paying taxes owed by your estate, and distributing your assets to beneficiaries. This can be a daunting task for many people so it is important to choose your executor carefully. Discuss your estate with potential executors. You may decide to choose co-executors, such asa family member and a lawyer.

Ideally, the executor should have enough free time to complete all of the tasks. (It can take up to three years to completely settle an estate). The executor should be organized and be able to keep complete and accurate records of all transactions pertaining to the estate. If you have assets outside of the country, your executor may have to obtain a passport and visas to deal with those assets. If you spend much of your time online (banking and investing), consider choosing an executor who is tech-savvy.

Getting it all organized

All necessary documents should be accessible by your executor when you pass away. I am the executor to my aunt’s estate and she has a folder in her filing cabinet labeled, “What to do when I’m dead (or almost).” I know that I should look in this folder should anything happen to my aunt. This folder contains important information such as:

  • The key for the safety deposit box where the legal documents are stored (Will, Power of Attorney, deeds, passport, birth certificate, etc.)
  • Names and contact information of lawyers, financial advisors, banks.
  • Home inventory list
  • List of people to notify of death (friends and neighbours)
  • Funeral arrangement details and contact information for funeral home

A file folder is a good option if the management of the estate is fairly straightforward, but if your estate is larger and more complicated there are a couple of organizational alternatives.

Portavault is a binder that holds hundreds of pages of documents in easily identifiable categories. It comes with a water-resistant case and lockable zipper that makes it secure and easy to transport in case of emergency. It comes with a list of handy tips and tricks to help you organize your documents.

For those who prefer a non-paper-based solution, The Doc Safe allows you to keep copies of your documents online. The advantage of a cloud-based system is that it is accessible from anywhere there is an Internet connection. If your executor is computer-savvy, this might be the best option to choose. However, you need to ensure your executor can access the system and is comfortable with it while your still alive.

Regardless of which system you choose, an organized estate may be the best legacy you can leave your beneficiaries.