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.

Uncluttering the sounds in our lives

“The sounds we live with should be useful, spiritually enhancing, or exceedingly beautiful. All the rest is clutter.” — Katherine Gibson, in Unclutter Your Life

When we think about clutter, we rarely think about sounds. But managing the sounds we let into our lives can definitely make our lives better. The following are some of the sounds in many of our homes and offices, along with ideas about how we can control or improve them.

Alarm clocks

For a long time, I woke up to an alarm clock with a pleasant chime. I’ve recently realized that my clock is a unitasker I may no longer need, and I’ve switched to waking up to music selected from a playlist on my iPad. Other people like the Philips wake-up light, which gradually lights up the room over a 30-minute period, so you may wake without an alarm sound at all. (But if the light doesn’t wake you, it’s followed by an alarm: natural sounds such as birdsong, or an FM radio station.) And these are just a few of the many choices available when it comes to alarm clocks.

Some people may need an alarm clock with a jarring sound in order to wake up. However, if you’re not one of those people, why not start the day with sounds you enjoy?

Ring tones and other alerts

I still have a landline, and I don’t like the standard telephone ring sound. Therefore, I’ve installed a Now and Zen Tibetan phone bell, which sounds quite pleasant.

In our digital lives, we have smartphones and other devices that alert us to calls, texts, emails, and more. That means figuring out which items are worth an audible alert, and then picking sounds that work for us. (Like Dave, you might enjoy Cleartones.)

Annoying sounds

Some items are inherently noisy, but we can at least consider the noise factor when making new purchases. When my garbage disposal broke and I had to replace it, I was amazed at how much quieter the new one was. One of the many things I like about my shredder is that it’s quieter than many others.

The sounds of those we live with

Conversation, laughter, song — these are some of the good sounds we might share with those we live with. And some sounds, such as a baby’s cry, are important for us to hear.

But sometimes we don’t want to (or need to) hear our family members. For example, does someone in the family play an instrument, which involves a lot of repetitive practice that drives others to distraction? When possible, try to provide a space where this practice can be done without everyone else having to listen. This might mean a room that’s away from where the rest of the family congregates. Soundproofing is another possibility.

The sounds of our surroundings

Sometimes we can control the sounds from outside our homes. While it’s never a sure thing, landscaping can be designed to attract birds or frogs. At certain times of year, I hear frogs croaking in my yard, and I love it; other people would find it annoying. People who find wind chimes to be “exceedingly beautiful” can often hang them outside their homes; people who don’t can remove any left by prior tenants.

Other sounds we can’t eliminate — such as noisy strangers sitting near us on an airline flight. If such sounds are a frequent problem, investing in noise-canceling headphones might be worthwhile.

Another unavoidable sound for some is ongoing street noise. While we can try to select apartments, homes, and hotel rooms without street noise, sometimes that’s not an option. In such cases, a white noise machine — or sometimes just the white noise of a fan — can be a big help. A more drastic and expensive option would be installing soundproof windows.

Yes, some of these solutions involve adding one more thing to our lives. But if that thing allows us to get a good night’s sleep, or if it allows us to concentrate when concentration is needed, it’s probably a worthwhile addition. Being an unclutterer doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of things that significantly enhance our lives.

The ins-and-outs of using a self-storage unit

Using a storage unit to house clutter is not recommended because it is a waste of money and is only a way to delay making a decision about what to do with the stuff you no longer need. However, storage units can be a useful temporary storage solution when staging your house to sell it or moving for a few years overseas — especially when those units are well organized and you know exactly when you will cease using the unit.

If you fall into the category of someone who temporarily needs a storage unit, the following tips for choosing a storage facility and preparing your goods for storage may be helpful to you.

Create a complete inventory of everything you wish to place into storage. You should also take photographs and/or videos of the items. List the approximate current value of all items and you may also want to list the approximate replacement value (i.e. the cost of buying the item brand new).

Using your inventory as a guide, decide how much storage space you need. Many self-storage companies will provide a guideline of how much “stuff” fits into their storage units. If you are storing items such as wine, wood or leather furniture, artwork, musical instruments, paperwork or photographs you should choose climate-controlled storage.

Obtain insurance quotes. Some self-storage companies will provide insurance with the cost of rental but it may be expensive and not adequate for your needs. Your homeowners’ insurance policy may provide coverage at a better rate. Some insurance policies have specific minimum requirements for the storage facility security system. Some policies require that the owner or owner’s representative verify the contents on a regular basis. It is important to read the fine print of your insurance policy.

Examine the cost of storage and insurance. Decide if there are items that are not worth storing for the intended period of time. For example, when we moved to Britain we had the option of leaving items in storage in Canada for the three years that we are in England. Since our appliances were over 7 years old before our move, we opted to sell them rather than return to Canada and have 10-year-old appliances that may or may not work after being in storage. You should only store items that you will use in the future, and only if it’s less expensive to store them than to replace them.

You should visit two or three different facilities in order to find out which is the best for you. Look for customer reviews of each facility on various websites such as Yelp and the Better Business Bureau.

Additional points to take into consideration:

Price

  • Is the price reasonable after any “move-in promotional discounts” have expired?
  • Are there any hidden add-on fees such as accessing the unit outside normal business hours, multiple daily visits, or move in/out charges?
  • What happens if you miss a payment?
  • What happens if you cause damage to your unit? (E.g. furniture scraping walls.)

Communications

  • How and when does the facility contact you if there is a problem with your storage unit?
  • How do they proceed if you are not available?
  • How and when can you contact the facility?
  • Is there communication to the site manager directly or are calls routed through a call centre?

Site visit

  • Is the unit clean and dry?
  • Are there water or mildew stains on the walls or floor?
  • Are there any “off” odours? Strong smells of bleach or vanilla may indicate the facility is trying to cover the odour of something else.
  • If you’re looking at climate-controlled storage, does each unit have its own climate monitor? Will the company allow you to view the data to see the fluctuations?
  • Is there any overhead ductwork or piping in the unit? Broken pipes could cause damage to your items. Ductwork allows pests (insects and rodents) to travel between units.
  • Is there a pest control system in place? Have there been any pest problems in the past? If so, what measures were taken?
  • Are there any items that are not permitted in storage? Most self-storage units have restrictions on tires, small engines (lawn mowers, motorcycles), firewood, propane tanks, medical or pharmaceutical supplies, perishable products (food, pet food), construction equipment, firearms, ammunition, hazardous household products (cleaners) and explosives.
  • Does the door to the unit close securely? Have someone (partner/ friend) shut you inside the unit. You should not see any light around the door or through the walls or ceiling.
  • Do customers supply their own locks? What type of locks are permitted/recommended?
  • Are there plenty of security cameras surveying the area? Are they live-monitored? Is the feed recorded?
  • Are there alarms on individual units to know the date/time a unit is accessed?
  • What type of background checks/training do the employees receive?
  • Have there been any burglaries at this facility? (You may wish to ask the local police for any incident reports regarding this facility.)
  • Are there hallway intercoms? Could you easily contact security personnel if you were in distress?
  • Is the lighting adequate (indoors and outdoors)? Are there any dark corners or hallways? If you might access your items at night, consider visiting the unit late in the evening (Don’t go alone!) to ensure you are comfortable with the level of security.

Preparing your stuff for storage

It’s a good idea to thoroughly clean your items before they go into storage. After cleaning, appliances should be rinsed with bleach to prevent mould and mildew growth. Drain and flush washing machines and dishwashers. Antifreeze may be required if they are in climate-controlled storage. Prop open appliance doors so air can circulate. A small container of baking soda or DampRid will help keep odours at a minimum.

Ideally, upholstered furniture and mattresses should be wrapped in plastic to keep them clean and pest-free during storage. If you’re moving items from a cold, damp environment to a warm environment, condensation may form. If possible, allow them to become acclimatized to the new environment before wrapping with plastic to avoid mould and mildew build-up.

Storing items on pallets is preferable. It allows for air circulation. Also, if there is ever a spill or minor flooding, your items will be protected.

So that you can easily find your items in storage, but potential thieves cannot, label the boxes with numbers instead of words. You can have a list of all the items in each box or using the inventory list of your items, write down in which box each item is stored. Keep your list in a safe place and leave a copy with a friend or family member, just in case. You can also keep an electronic version in Dropbox or iCloud.

Remember to pack heavy items, such as books, in smaller boxes so they are easy to carry. Lighter, bulky items such as pillows can be packed in smaller boxes. When stacking boxes, put the heavier ones on the bottom, lighter on the top. You may wish to label the boxes with words such as “HEAVY” and “FRAGILE”.

Consider wrapping pallets or individual boxes with stretch film. This will help keep things clean, dry and pest free, and it will let you know if anyone has disturbed the contents of your storage unit.

When filling your storage unit, think about how often you will access certain items. Arrange frequently accessed items near the front. Keep valuable items such as televisions, and other electronics towards the back. You never know who will be looking over your shoulder when you access your goods.

Ensure there is space to move around inside the unit. Consider creating an aisle down middle or a path around the outside. If you plan to stack boxes to the ceiling, ensure the aisle/path is wide enough to fit a ladder.

By keeping in mind these tips, you should have a successful self-storage experience.

Do you have any self-storage tips or tricks? Please share them with our readers in the comments.

Five tips for storing your treasured books

Even with the popularity of e-books, many of us still have collections of treasured physical books. But do we treat those books like the valued possessions we say they are? The following five tips will help you preserve the books you wish to keep.

Pay attention to heat, humidity, and light

In regard to storing books, the Art Institute of Chicago states: “Ideal levels are 68-72° F, with 40-50% relative humidity. Monitor temperature and humidity levels. Excessive fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity can be particularly damaging.” There’s no perfect agreement on the best humidity level, though. The British Library recommends 45-55 percent relative humidity and the Library of Congress recommends 35 percent. The State Archives of Florida provides this commonsense advice: “A good rule of thumb is, if you are hot and sticky, your books are, too.”

Why do temperature and humidity matter so much? As Cornerstone Book Publishers explains, “Hot and dry conditions will desiccate and embrittle leather and paper; damp conditions will encourage mold growth.” And the State Archives of Florida notes that changes in temperature and humidity cause paper and bindings to swell and contract at different rates, which causes warping.

All of this means you probably don’t want to store books in a garage or an attic, unless you have temperature and humidity controls in those spaces. You also want to keep them away from fireplaces, radiators, clothes dryers, and other sources of indoor heat. Bookshelves are best placed away from windows and outer walls because these are the indoor areas most prone to temperature and humidity fluctuations. And, keep books away from heat and air conditioning vents.

Excess light can also damage books. Sunlight and fluorescent light are the biggest culprits when it comes to fading, because of their high UV component. UV coatings for windows are one way to help protect your books.

Watch out for pests

Lots of pests are attracted to books. Keep your books away from any area that gets rats or mice, heeding the words of the Cornell University Library: “Both rats and mice use paper to make their nests, and many fine books have lost chunks of text through their jagged gnawing.”

Insects such as silverfish and carpet beetles are also attracted to books. Silverfish like warm, moist areas — one more reason to avoid such storage areas. Keeping book storage areas clean helps prevent insect problems.

Use good bookshelves

Which bookshelves are best? The Art Institute of Chicago provides this advice: “Book collections should be stored on bookshelves made from metal or sealed wood. Unsealed wood releases damaging acidic vapors into the environment and can accelerate the deterioration of books.”

Also, make sure the bookshelves are deep enough for your books, since books that overhang can warp.

Keep books upright, or in short stacks

In general, books are best stored upright — using bookends, if necessary, to avoid angling. Oversize books might need to be stacked, but keep the stack reasonably short because a tall stack can damage the spines of the books on the bottom. Cornerstone Book Publishers and the Yale University Library (PDF) both recommend a stack of no more than three books. Nora O’Neill, writing on The Bookshop Blog, suggests the stack be no more than 12 inches tall.

Pack books properly

If you have books you are keeping in storage boxes rather than on bookshelves, make sure you’re using boxes that won’t damage the books. Cardboard boxes should be acid-free and lignin-free (though pests can easily eat through cardboard, so keep this in mind). Certain plastics — polyester, polypropylene and polyethylene — are also safe for books. The Library of Congress recommends packing the books flat, with the largest ones on the bottom, or packing them with the spine down.

Once the books have been packed, consider this additional advice from Cornerstone Book Publishers about storing the boxes: “Always allow at least four inches of space between the boxes and the walls, ceilings, and floors (lift the boxes up on wooden pallets).”

Organizing tips from outer space

I just finished reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield and found that it contained some great tips from outer space that we can use to be organized right here on Earth.

The pen just floated away

In space, if you don’t hang on to them, things like spoons, pencils, scissors and test tubes simply drift away, only to turn up a week later, clinging to the filter covering an air intact duct. That’s why there’s Velcro on the back of just about every imaginable item: so it will stay put on a Velco wall.

Things on Earth don’t exactly “float away,” although sometimes it feels like they do! There are several strategies that we can use to help things stay put! Consider using Velcro to stick markers and an eraser to a whiteboard. A Grid-It organizer can be placed in a drawer, backpack, or briefcase to stop smaller items from disappearing to the bottom of a bag.

A pegboard won’t stop items from floating away, but it clearly identifies where items belong. Pegboards are ideal for tools, craft supplies, and even accessories such as jewellery, belts, and purses.

The most useful thing to do

During a mission on the International Space Station, when Commander Hadfield asked, “What’s the most useful thing we could be doing right now?” the answer was “an inventory of the inside of every single locker in the Russian cargo block.”

Previously on Unclutterer, we’ve discussed creating a home inventory. Inventories are important because they indicate how much homeowners insurance you should carry and also help identify items that may be missing or damaged if your home suffers from theft or other disaster.

Inventories done on a regular basis help ensure your items aren’t past their due dates (e.g. fire extinguishers, canned food) or have become obsolete (Do you need to keep the baby gates if your children are teenagers?). Regular inventories help you figure out how much of certain items you are using so you can prevent product shortages and keep just enough inventory on hand without having too much.

I can imagine that an accurate inventory is even more important for the astronauts and cosmonauts since the nearest convenience store is 205 miles away. Items must be ordered in a timely manner so they arrive when needed and there are only a limited number of items that can be sent on each flight to the space station. Planning in advance is essential.

Although being organized may not give you the opportunity to go to the International Space Station, it can certainly help you enjoy your space right here on Earth.

The power of checklists

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande made a strong case for the power of checklists to help us “get things right” — including a checklist’s power to save lives when used by surgeons and airline pilots. But checklists can be useful tools for all of us, in many situations.

On Unclutterer, we’ve written about checklists for moving, packing for travel, preparing for a trip, and requesting tech support. We’ve also provided a how-to guide for having a yard sale, which is basically a large checklist. The following four examples may give you ideas of other types of checklists you’d like to create and use.

Choosing a house or an apartment — or buying almost anything

Many years ago, I almost bought a house with a key flaw: the house had very few walls without windows or doors, and there would have been no good place to put any bookshelves. After that experience, I created a checklist with everything I could think of that mattered to me in a house. I could still choose to buy a home that didn’t have everything I wanted, but at least it would be a conscious choice.

If you want to create your own home checklist, you could use the wishlist and the checklist (PDFs) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a starting point.

The same basic type of checklist could be created for any major purchase: selecting a school or a camp, buying a car, etc. When I was buying a car four years ago, my checklist included price, reliability, miles/gallon, length, turning radius, acceleration, and the opinion of trusted reviewers.

Fixing things

Back in 1993, I read a column by Bill Husted that provided his rules for fixing anything, from a computer file to a motorcycle. I can’t find the article online, but here are his first six rules:

  • Make a carbon copy. As Husted explains, that “copy” could take many forms: a backup of a file, a drawing of some wiring, etc.
  • Take things one at a time.
  • Be lazy. Take a lot of breaks.
  • Try the easiest and most obvious first.
  • Clean up as you go.
  • Keep a diary.
  • All these years later, this still seems like a good checklist to me.

    Packing for frequent activities

    This is the packing list concept applied beyond trips and suitcases: for going to the beach, for attending a class, etc. Even if you keep a packed bag at the ready for such activities, having a checklist is usually a good idea, too. With that checklist, you can quickly confirm the bag has everything on that list so you can replace anything that got used up or misplaced.

    The same type of what-to-pack checklist could be created for diaper bags, school backpacks, first aid kits, etc.

    Visiting a doctor

    It’s easy to forget everything you need to tell a doctor, or everything you’ll want to ask. Organizer Ramona Creel has a checklist to help patients prepare for a visit, so they do remember everything they want to discuss. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also has a checklist (PDF) of questions to ask a healthcare provider, which could certainly be used by patients who aren’t veterans, too. While not all items listed will apply to all visits, the checklist helps to ensure you don’t forget anything important.

    Part 2: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

    Wake the kids and tell them to grab their backpacks: it’s time to go back to school. This can be a stressful time for kids and parents, but a little preparation goes a long way. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series, I’ll highlight some ways technology can ease the transition from summer.

    Go social

    When I was in school, we huddled around the radio on snowy mornings, eager for a closing announcement. Today, many school districts share this information via the web and social media. Get yourself in the loop this school year and visit your district’s website to find the following information:

    • Your school’s and/or district’s Twitter feed
    • Any associated Facebook accounts
    • Classroom-specific websites
    • Classroom Blackboard accounts and mobile applications
    • Teacher blogs

    Of course, some schools will embrace social technology more completely than others. Colleges and universities seem to be the most aggressive, but even elementary schools are using the technologies available to them. If your school/district/child’s teacher is using websites, be sure to bookmark the sites and/or add them to an RSS feed so you can easily access the information for future reference.

    Subscribe to a school calendar

    Most schools publish a calendar for parents and students to review, and many offer the opportunity to subscribe electronically for immediate updates. The Salt Lake City School District is a great example of a digital calendar, with instructions for subscribing to it with Apple’s Calendar, Google Calendar, and Outlook and Yahoo Calendar. Once you’re subscribed, you needn’t depend on the monthly printed calendars you likely have hanging on the refrigerator.

    Make custom notifications

    I’ve written about IFTTT before on Unclutterer, and the start of the school year is another time to use this program. IFTT is an online service that lets you create actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you, including custom notifications.

    For example, let’s say your district or teacher always uses adds a certain hashtag when composing tweets related to your child’s school or class. You could create a recipe that sends you a text message or an email whenever such a tweet is published. Or, you can have all of those tweets pushed to a Google document for a daily review.

    On the other side of the desk, IFTTT is a terrific resource for teachers and schools. Communications with students and parents can easily be automated.

    Here’s hoping you have a successful school year. There’s more to do to get ready, of course, but these technology tips are a good place to start.


    Part 1 of the series

    Part 1: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

    Based on where you live, your kids may have already headed back to the classroom or they’re preparing to go in September. If you’re a student, you might be in the same boat. This transition period doesn’t have to be a stressful time. Households that have established routines are extremely beneficial for children and parents. Being prepared will bring peace of mind and make everyone’s transition from summer days to school days easier.

    Start the school routine a week early

    Practicing the routine in advance is especially important for children who are just starting school or who will be starting a new school. By doing a few trial runs before the school year actually starts, you’ll be able to determine if there are any problems with the new routine before the first day.

    Plot the route

    If your children are starting a new school, walk or bike with them on their route. Point out areas where there is heavy traffic and where drivers may have difficulty seeing pedestrians. Indicate safe havens where children can find assistance or a telephone if needed (e.g. convenience stores, public offices, houses of worship). Map out an alternate route home in case of emergency. If your child takes public transit or a school bus, create a plan in case the buses are late or if your child misses his/her stop.

    Unplug and preset

    Turning off the TVs and computers at least an hour before bedtime will allow you and/or your kids to get organized for the next morning. Make lunches (if you didn’t make them when preparing dinner) and gather school supplies together. You can even set plates, cups, and silverware on the table for breakfast.

    Create a drop zone

    Hang backpacks on hooks near the door so kids will know exactly where to find their stuff and where to put it when they get home. Make an inbox where they can put all the paperwork for you to fill out and sign. You can create one inbox for all the children but one box per child may work better, especially if the children attend different schools.

    Prepare for the paperwork

    Every year the school requires information such as health card numbers, vaccination schedules, emergency contact numbers, etc. If you know where all this information is, you’ll be able to fill out all those forms quickly and easily. Once filled out, make a copy of the paperwork for yourself. It will be easier to find the information for next year.

    Create an in-home supply closet and pharmacy

    Stocking up on supplies will save you from running across town to the 24-hour (expensive) pharmacy. While the sales are still going on at retailers, gather pencils, markers, notebook paper, and other supplies you and/or your children will need this entire school year (that is, if you have the space to store these items in an uncluttered way) Also, don’t forget items such as bandages, cold medication, and even lice shampoo that may be needed during the first weeks back.

    Create a homework zone

    While older children may benefit from doing homework in their bedrooms at a desk or in the home office, younger children who need parental support to do their homework in the kitchen or dining room while their parents are preparing dinner. Wherever the homework zone is located, make it easy to use and easy to put away supplies.

    Make a “fingertip file”

    Use a binder with sheet protectors to contain important information such as the school phone numbers, a list of phone numbers of friends of your children, the list of parents who carpool, menus from the local take-out restaurants, etc. You’ll be able to find what you need this school year exactly when you need it.

    Get your money and tickets ready

     
    Purchase transit tickets and taxi vouchers in advance, if necessary. Fill a jar or bowl with coins and small bills so you won’t be scrounging for lunch money at the last minute.

    Schedule everyone’s activities on a calendar

    Enter all of the school holidays and pedagogical days on the calendar as soon as the information is received from the school so that you can arrange for daycare or other activities as soon as possible. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series we’ll go into more detail about creating a digital calendar and in Part 3 we’ll explore using a paper calendar with younger children.

    Ask Unclutterer: How do you stay motivated when sorting papers?

    Reader John recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post “Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?“:

    The draining emotional impact of sorting through and properly organizing boxes and file cabinets of paper can at times be overwhelming. Could you address in more detail strategies for maintaining or improving personal motivation to get the ongoing task completed?

    John, many people have this concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are strategies that might work to motivate you to keep organizing your papers.

    Work in reasonably small blocks of time

    Organizer Janine Adams wrote on her Peace of Mind Organizing Blog about a women who got through 12 years of accumulated papers by working on them for 15 to 30 minutes a day. It’s often easier to tackle a dreaded task if you know you only have to do it for a short period of time.

    But, if you want to work for a longer stretch of time, that’s fine, too — just be sure to take breaks. You want to avoid decision fatigue. If you find yourself thinking, “I just don’t care any more,” you might start making poor decisions as a result.

    Create a pleasant work environment

    If you’re a person who gets energized from music, try playing some as you sort through those papers. Also, make sure you’re working in an area with sufficient lighting and a comfortable room temperature.

    Have good tools

    I know someone who prefers to keep certain papers in a three-ring binder. However, her three-hole paper punch didn’t work well; she always had to struggle with it. She has decided to invest in a higher quality hole punch that will be easier to use.

    It definitely helps if all your frequently used tools work well. Those tools might include a label maker, a stapler, a staple puller, a letter opener, a shredder, and a scanner. If you are someone who is inspired by beautiful or cute objects, consider investing in those, too.

    Put some things off

    If you’re going through a big stack of papers and find a few you just can’t deal with right now, set them aside. Know that this is both normal and perfectly okay. Don’t let the few papers that are hardest to deal with derail your efforts. And, when you come back to those papers somewhat later, you may find them less challenging.

    Keep the goal in mind

    You’re likely going through papers for some good reason: so you can find things when you need them, so your space supports you in your work and family life, etc. Keep your goal in mind, and celebrate the small victories along the way, such as a critical paper found, or a chair that’s now usable because it no longer has papers stacked on it.

    Enlist some help

    A trusted friend might be able to help by doing a first-pass sort: financial, medical, etc. Or the friend could simply sit with you as you go through the papers, perhaps acting as a sounding board or just as an accountability partner.

    And you can always hire a professional organizer to help. The National Association of Professional Organizers has a website that can help you find someone in your area.

    Thank you, John, for asking such a good question.

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

    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.

    Modified principles of sanitary design

    In the food industry, a high level of hygiene must be maintained and, in order to be profitable, it is beneficial to reduce the amount of effort required to maintain this high level of hygiene. Therefore, before any piece of equipment is purchased or any process started, it is evaluated with the Principles of Sanitary Design.

    In order to reduce clutter and make my days easier and more productive at home, I ask myself these tough questions first and then I apply a modified version of the Principles of Sanitary Design prior to making any purchases. It might seem weird to use a food industry practice in one’s personal life, but I’m willing to do so because it makes my life easier, saves me money, and creates less clutter.

    Easy assembly/disassembly: Items should be easy to disassemble and reassemble. If you need a degree in mechanical engineering to put together and take apart your food processor each time you need to clean it, you probably won’t use it and it will end up as clutter. Pieces of furniture may require some time and effort to assemble, however once built they should be solid. If you live a nomadic lifestyle (e.g. military family) consider purchasing furniture that can withstand being disassembled and reassembled numerous times and is easy to assemble/disassemble with a minimum number of people.

    Compatible materials: Kitchen tools and kitchen appliance parts should be dishwasher safe and easily fit into the dishwasher. Fabrics should be durable and withstand day-to-day wear. Clothing should be machine washable (even if on a cold water, delicate cycle). Furniture should be able to withstand regular vacuuming and it should be easy to do “spot-cleaning” between regular deep cleans. (Purchasing a beige sofa with two children under 5 years old was not one of our family’s better ideas.)

    No niches: Items that have nooks, crannies, and other hard to clean areas are off my list of potential purchases, especially if they are frequently used kitchen appliances. I avoid purchasing glasses with divots in the bottoms and bowls with rims because they collect water in the dishwasher. Furniture, lamps, and light fixtures that have dust-collecting decorative features are off my list, too, especially if I have to get a ladder to clean them.

    Clean operational performance: During normal operations, the equipment should not increase my workload. For example, our hot-air popcorn popper spewed more popcorn on the floor than it did in the bowl. This created more work because we had to make two batches of popcorn to get enough in the bowl and we had to sweep the kitchen floor. A table saw that cuts wood faster than a manual saw but sprays sawdust all over the house may not actually save time or energy when cleaning up efforts are taken into account.

    Hygienic compatibility: We tend not to purchase items that require special cleaners or special cleaning processes. This saves us time and effort, as well as money since we do not have to purchase special cleaners.

    This list may seem restrictive, but we have found when items do pass the test, they last longer, we use them more often, and we have very little mess to clean up afterwards.

    Filing: what’s worth saving?

    One of the questions I ask when tempted to save and file some paper (or save information electronically) is: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

    Some items obviously need to be saved for tax and legal reasons (talk to an accountant, tax lawyer, and/or estate lawyer in your state to know exactly what the law requires you retain). But, what about the other bits of information we tend to save?

    I started thinking about the items I have indeed pulled out and looked at again, and what prompted me to look at those items. I asked the following questions, which have led me to keep specific types of additional documents:

    Large purchase receipts: When did I buy my refrigerator?

    My refrigerator was making strange noises, and I was wondering whether I was going to need to replace it. A starting point in the repair vs. replace question is how old was the refrigerator. To answer this, I looked up the receipt, which I had scanned. Keeping receipts for large purchases can help with returns and warranties — and if the receipt is for a large appliance that will remain in the house when you move, you can pass it on to the next home owner.

    Computer instructions: What apps do I need to update before I update my operating system?

    When I went to update my MacBook to the Mavericks OS, I looked to my computer bookmarks to find the site that had an extensive list answering just this question. I’ve since shared this list with two other people who had the same question.

    Additionally, sometimes when I’m using an application that I use infrequently, I may forget how to do certain actions. I’ve filed away how-to information that was a bit difficult to find, so I have it handy when I need to do the same thing again.

    Local resources: What can I do with this old fur coat I inherited?

    I get questions like this from my organizing clients, and I have bookmarks in my online browser with resources, ready to share. You may wish to keep a similar reference file with business cards, notes you’ve jotted down from friends’ recommendations, etc.

    Travel resources: What did I want to see in a city I’m going to visit?

    For places I’m hoping to visit someday, I keep bookmarks and scanned articles about them in a digital folder; other people may choose to keep such information in Evernote or in paper. While it’s easy to search for major tourist sites in any city, and nothing replaces an up-to-date guidebook, I also like the articles that point me to oddities I might not find otherwise or point me to things worth noticing at those major tourist sites. Visiting places like this have often been a highlight of a trip.

    Looking at these questions, I can see what has been useful is practical information that I can’t necessarily find through a quick online search. Realizing this is the information I reference, it will help me make better decisions in the future about what to keep and what to toss. Now it’s time to ask yourself: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?