Small productivity tips with large benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing for disasters: your emergency preparedness supplies

What goes into an emergency preparedness kit? As Erin has noted before, FEMA can help you with this and the American Red Cross can help, too.

If you’re interested in creating your own kit, the following are three specific things to think about as you assemble it.

Food and water

You may have heard advice like: “A good rule of thumb is to have supplies for about 3 days, or 72 hours.” That advice comes from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. Both ready.gov and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have repeated that advice, recommending at least a three-day supply of water per person.

Other sources indicate that 72 hours worth of supplies is a bare minimum. The Southern California Earthquake Center, in its brochure “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Territory,” recommends that you have enough food and water for “at least 3 days and ideally for 2 weeks.”

FEMA’s guide entitled Food and Water in an Emergency (PDF) advocates for more supplies, too.

If an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days or even weeks. … Store at least one gallon per person, per day. Consider storing at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family. If you are unable to store this quantity, store as much as you can.

The American Red Cross has made a distinction between the supplies you need if you’re evacuating versus the supplies you need if you’re staying where you are. They recommend a “3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home.”

Emergency lighting

I’ve had clients tell me they were holding onto candles as an emergency supply — but that’s a really poor idea. As the CDC has indicated:

Home fires are a threat after a natural disaster and fire trucks may have trouble getting to your home. If the power is out, use flashlights or other battery-powered lights if possible, instead of candles. If you must use them, place candles in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire. Never leave a burning candle unattended.

I’ve heard people suggest getting a headlamp, so you can walk around with your hands free, which sounds like a good suggestion to me.

Landlines with corded phones

In day-to-day use, many of us rely on our cell phones, and many people are getting rid of their landlines. If you’re lacking power, a landline using copper wire, in conjunction with a corded phone, may work when no other phone will. Tara Siegal Bernard wrote in The New York Times about this in more detail. She noted that 911 services works better when the calls come through on a landline rather than a cell phone.

There are additional advantages to having a landline during an emergency. If your local cell phone network is overloaded after an earthquake, your landline calls might still go through. If you need to evacuate your home and you have a landline with an answering machine, you may be able to call home to find out if your power is back on; if the answering machine picks up and your home is still standing, your electricity is back.

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?

Cleaning up your email inbox

Even the most organized among us get behind on basic maintenance tasks at times. One place I’ve recently fallen behind was in clearing out my email inbox. I had been glancing at everything, and dealing with all the most important emails, but was leaving the less-important items to clutter up my email inbox.

On Tuesday, I finally processed and deleted over 800 messages in about six hours, and the following is an explanation of how I did it.

Sort by date

Sorting my emails by date helped me find the obvious items to delete: messages about events that happened months ago, or sales that have long been over.

Sort by sender

Sorting by sender grouped together a few sets of newsletters that I had procrastinated reading, as well as some notifications from a LinkedIn group where people post links to interesting stuff. (I know many people set up rules to move these kinds of messages out of the inbox, but if I did that I’d neglect them forever. At least in my inbox, I kept being reminded they needed my attention.)

Once I started skimming through the newsletters and reviewing the LinkedIn updates, I got into decision-making mode: Was there anything in all this material that I wanted to save for reference or act upon it now? In my case, yes, there was — but not that much.

In the act-upon now category, I found reviews of two books that I might want to read; I downloaded their ebook samples. In another case, a book I wanted was only available in paper format, and I ordered it from the author’s website. Note that these were all quick actions. If an email had triggered a more time-consuming action, I would have just added it to my to-do list.

In the save-for-reference category, Brooks Duncan’s DocumentSnap newsletter provided me with three useful articles about going paperless, and I bookmarked those articles. All three are things I anticipate using with clients or referring to in future writings.

I also watched two short videos that the members of my LinkedIn group highly recommended, and both were well worth my time. One of them was a lovely piece from The New York Times called Love and Stuff, about a daughter dealing with her mother’s possessions after her mother’s death. I also bookmarked the article so I can readily find it again.

Sort by subject

I’m a member of a few email discussion groups, and sorting by the subject line allowed me to quickly see all the messages related to each discussion topic. Some entire conversations could be quickly deleted: those dealing with software tools I don’t use, for example. Others dealt with topics I do care about — for example, there was a discussion about the many ways people use cameras as note-taking tools — and I filed those away for future reference.

Sort by size

Sorting emails by size led me to messages with large attachments. In many cases, I could save the attachment (outside of email) and get rid of the message; in some cases, I didn’t need either the email or the attachment.

Commit to making decisions

Organizers often say that clutter represents deferred decisions, and that was certainly true with my email. All these messages had piled up because I hadn’t taken the time to make decisions about them. I was finally able to get through them because I committed to making decisions about each message in my inbox.

Final note

Based on your employer, you may not be able to delete emails except for obvious spam. If this is the case for your company’s policies, where I mention deleting above you may just archive the messages. Be sure to follow your company’s regulations and best practices.

Small tips to save time and effort

As far as organizing tips are concerned, these are hardly the most revolutionary. However, implementing simple tricks and devices like these you can ultimately save yourself time, effort, and frustration over the longterm.

Window Clings

Use transparent Window Clings to attach parking pass stickers to your car windows. This will save you time from having to later scrape them off. If your jurisdiction requires permanent car licence or registration stickers, please abide by those requirements. Colourful Window Clings can be used to stick to the bathroom mirror to remind children to wash their hands or brush their teeth.

Iron-On Nametags

Schools, daycares, and camps often require that children’s clothing be labeled with their names. Rather than order pre-printed, iron-on labels and wait for them to arrive by post, make your own with iron-on tags from Avery. You can even add a small picture beside the name for children just learning to read. They also pull-off nicely when it’s time to donate your child’s clothing to charity or to use as a rag.

Address Labels

Pre-print address labels and use them for anything that has to be repetitively labeled, such as:

  • Envelopes of lunch money and other correspondence for the children’s teachers
  • Envelopes for babysitter’s payment
  • School/work notebooks with your name and phone number
  • Anyone to whom you regularly send correspondence: parents, children, bill payments.

When you print them at home, you also determine what information you wish to provide on the label. Besides your address, you may want to have your name and email address only or name and cell phone number.

Receipts and Warranties

If you buy an item that has a warranty, staple the purchase receipt inside the front cover of the instruction booklet. If you need to return the item, you will be able to find the original receipt. Also, write the model and serial number of your item on the inside of the cover of the instruction book. Store your instruction/warranty booklets in your filing cabinet or a filing box or a magazine file. If your items are ever stolen or damaged (fire, flood), you will have proof of ownership for your insurance company if you also take a scan of this information or a digital image with your smart phone and have an online backup.

Business Cards

If your doctor sends you for tests at a private clinic, always get a business card from the clinic. On the back of the business card write the type of exam that you had and the date of the exam. Keep the business card in your Health file in your filing cabinet. You will always be able to request the necessary information if another doctor asks for it. You can do the same with other businesses and service providers, as well.

Label Leftovers

Purchase a package of small removable stickers and clip them to your fridge. Whenever you put leftovers in the fridge, write the date on a sticker and stick it onto the container of leftovers. This way, everyone in the family will know how long the container has been in the fridge and when it should be thrown out. Check out Still Tasty to learn about the best way to store leftovers and how long they should be kept.

Are there any simple tips and tricks you’ve developed to save time, effort, and frustration? Share them with Unclutterer readers in the comments.

Twitter accounts to follow for summer travel

For many of us, summer means travel. Those with a smartphone have a real advantage when it comes to keeping your travel plans organized. There are apps available for smartphones that include a tour guide, language translator, travel service, camera, and so much more in your pocket. Additionally, one way to receive wonderful travel tips and advice, information and inspiration is from helpful Twitter accounts. By installing a Twitter app on your phone, you can have a wealth of information available, no matter where you are.

From airlines to travel bloggers to services, the following are some of my favorite travel-related Twitter accounts to follow:

Airlines

Summer storms can disrupt your travel, and spending the night on the floor of an airport is no fun. A great way to stay on top of the latest alerts, changes, and notices from the major airlines is to subscribe to their Twitter accounts.

In these situations, being connected to your airline on Twitter can offer more than simple news delivery. In 2011, brutal winter storms left hundreds of thousands of people without a flight. Many stranded travelers who shared their predicament with their airline via Twitter (along with the reservation number) were rebooked faster than those who waited in the customer service line or called the 800 number. The following is a list of Twitter accounts as used by several major airlines:

Choose a Twitter app for your smartphone that supports notifications (I use Twitterrific, but there are many others available). A day before you travel, enable notifications for mentions. That way, if you send a message to your airline’s account, your phone will let you know when you’ve received a reply.

Travel Bloggers

Who better to offer travel advice than someone who is constantly on the move? There are many travel bloggers online, and the following are some of my favorites. They all offer tips, ideas, photos and more, but each with his or her unique spin:

  • Nomadicchick: Jeannie Mark is a travel writer and the blogger behind NomadChick.com. Her Twitter account is full of beautiful photos and videos, as well as links to her insightful articles. You an search her Twitter stream and her site for information on your destination.
  • Adventurevida. This account is for the adventurer traveler. You’ll also see tweets on gear and, of course, beautiful photos.
  • Heather_Poole. Heather Poole is a former flight attended and author of The New York Times bestseller, Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers. Follow her Twitter account for, among other things, hilarious stories from the flight deck.
  • GaryLeff. For those of you who are serious air travelers and who are always on the lookout for the best point deals, Gary Leff’s Twitter account and his travel column ViewFromTheWing are an enormous resource of information.

Travel Services

I’m continually amazed by the variety of travel services there are to help you get organized and moving before, during, and after a trip. The following are three I love:

  • TravelEditor. The official Twitter account of The Independent Traveler routinely shares great travel tips.
  • FlightView. FlightView, based out of Boston, is not associated with any airline but offers real-time travel information. As the service’s description says, it offers “real-time flight information you can act on.”
  • Budgettravel. Budget Travel offers super tips for getting where you need to go without spending a lot of money. You’ll also see area-specific deals and destination suggestions like these five classic American drives.

Happy traveling!

Organized meetings: agendas and minutes

I spent two years as the secretary of an organization whose board met monthly, and during that time I thought a lot about agendas and minutes. Based on this experience, the following are suggestions for creating agendas and minutes that are organized and both easy to write and easy for others to read and use. With an agenda, your meetings will be shorter and have a defined purpose for all the attendees.

Using a template

Use a template where you can just fill in the spaces. I used Microsoft Word with a series of tables and there are also Microsoft designed ones you can customize. There are many advantages of using a template, saving time and remembering recurring agenda points among them.

Creating an agenda

Not every agenda will need these specific items, but consider including:

  1. Logistics: This section often includes the meeting location along with the meeting date and time. Because WiFi access was an issue for my group, which used hotel meeting rooms, I always noted if WiFi would be available in the room. If WiFi was available, I’d also list the price.
  2. Attendees: This is a simple list of people expected to be in the meeting, and their titles.
  3. Meeting preparation: If meeting participants are expected to do anything before the meeting, these items can be noted in this section. In our case, there were always documents that needed to be reviewed before the meeting.
  4. Agenda items: These are the points to be discussed or have action taken upon them at the meeting. Each of these items should have the name of the person leading that part of the discussion and the anticipated start time for that part of the agenda. Noting the time allotted to each item was critical to our group for ensuring we stayed on schedule. In the meeting, we sometimes chose to run overtime on one item, but we realized that meant something else would need to run shorter, or be cut entirely.
  5. Open to-do items from the prior meeting: Review of these items should be an agenda item if you have any previous or unfinished business.

Email the agenda to people a number of days before the meeting, so everyone has time to prepare. Include attachments along with the agenda for items that will be distributed so that members don’t waste time reading the materials during the meeting.

Writing meeting minutes

Your minutes may include the following sections:

  1. All items from the agenda, with updates: The attendee list notes who actually made it to the meeting. The agenda is adjusted to show the actual time each item started. Also, update the to-do item status (more on to-do items below).
  2. Decisions that involve formal motions and votes: This includes motions and the number of people voting yes and no (as well as how many abstain). Not all decisions require an official motion and a vote, but record those that do.
  3. Other decisions: This section notes anything that is decided that doesn’t need to be put forth for an official vote. I often just captured the decision itself; in some cases, it was useful to also capture the reasoning behind the decision.
  4. To-do items from the current meeting: This includes the item, the owner, and the due date. To-do items without an owner and a due date tend to not get done, so be sure to clarify these points during the meeting.
  5. Critical information that is shared: Relating to our group, as our annual conference was being planned, I might have noted the venue, the date, the keynote speaker, the price, and the registration period as each of these points were finalized and reported by the head of the conference committee. If something was important enough that our members would want to know about it, I captured it in this section.

One thing I did not include in my meeting minutes was all the deliberation that went on in the meeting. If someone prefers to organize minutes around agenda items, and capture more of the discussion, I’d suggest still specifically calling out the decisions and the to-dos, and making them easy to find by using something like bold text for the words “decision” and “to-do.”

Family calendars

When we had young children, it was important for us to have a large calendar on the wall so that everyone could see and prepare for upcoming engagements. It was a good teaching tool for the kids. They learned the days of the week and they learned to count down days until a big event.

We had the calendar posted on the wall in our dining room. This allowed us to see the upcoming day during breakfast, and at dinner we would discuss upcoming events plan for the following days. We used Command picture strips to mount the calendar on the wall. We also had a decorative wall-hanging the same size as the calendar. Whenever we had adult guests for dinner, the calendar came down and the decorative wall hanging went up.

We used a 60-day perpetual calendar. Everyone could see two months. When one month was done, we could add the next month so we would not miss things as one month rolled over to the next. It also allowed us to do longer-term planning.

Before the children could read, I used the computer to print various clip-art drawings for things like dentist and doctor appointments and holidays. I printed the clip-art drawings on removable stickers.

We assigned each person in the family a different colour for his or her events. We decided that because our last name is Brown, we would use a brown marker for events involving the whole family. Using the computer, we printed each person’s repeating events on removable coloured stickers in their assigned colours to save time writing each event over and over.

I included many things on my calendar that fellow Unclutterer, Jeri Dansky, suggests including community events, school events, and when to water and fertilize the houseplants. I also write garbage and recycle collection days on my calendar as well as household hazardous waste and electronics collection events.

As the children grew older, they were encouraged to write their events on the calendar themselves. They learned about budgeting time as well as coordinating with other family members.

I used a paper-based purse-sized planner that mirrored the wall calendar. On Sunday evenings, I would ensure that I had transferred the upcoming weeks events from my planner to the family wall calendar and visa versa. I used the printed removable stickers to quickly and easily put repeating events in my paper planner.

As technology improved and the children got older, our family moved to a shared, online calendar. Because we have Mac computers and iPhones, we decided to use the Mac Calendar app through iCloud. We subscribe to each other’s calendars and have given each other permission to add events to our calendars. Google Calendar is a good alternative. (Mashable has an article on how to set up Google Calendar for your family if you wish to learn more.)

There are several benefits of using an online calendar. Repeating events are easy to add. Any family member can add events to the calendar of other family members anywhere at any time. For example, if one of the children has an appointment and I am not able to take the child, I can add the appointment to my husband’s calendar so he knows he will be busy at that time.

Additional information can be added to an event. If you have a meeting scheduled, you can add the contact information of the person you’re supposed to meet, the address of the meeting venue and a list of documents required for the meeting. Events can have alerts and alarms to remind people where they need to be and when. This is important for teenagers whose eyes never seem to leave their phones.

Using a calendar to which the whole family has access is important in keeping everyone organized and on track. It doesn’t matter if it is a paper-based or electronic system, simply choose what works best for your family.

Being organized about charitable giving

We’ve often talked on the site about donating things you’ve uncluttered, but what about supporting charities in other ways? The following is an organized approach to making other donations, if you feel so inclined.

Decide how much to give

Include charitable giving in any financial budgeting process you have. If you want to donate your time, make sure that time commitment fits into your time “budget,” too.

Decide where to give

I’ve selected a few charities I give to every year, and I sometimes support friends I know doing a charitable walk, run, climb, or bike ride.

Having made this decision, I don’t waste time evaluating all the solicitations that come my way in the mail; they go straight into shredding and recycling. They may be for good causes, but I can’t personally support them all.

When deciding what charities to give to, you may want to look at Charity Navigator, GuideStar, or the BBB Wise Giving Alliance to learn more about the organizations you are considering. All three of these organizations agree on what’s important in selecting a charity, as they say in a joint statement:

The percent of charity expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs — commonly referred to as “overhead” — is a poor measure of a charity’s performance.

We ask you to pay attention to other factors of nonprofit performance: transparency, governance, leadership, and results…

That is not to say that overhead has no role in ensuring charity accountability. At the extremes the overhead ratio can offer insight: it can be a valid data point for rooting out fraud and poor financial management. In most cases, however, focusing on overhead without considering other critical dimensions of a charity’s financial and organizational performance does more damage than good.

Decide when to give

You may want to spread your donations out over the year, or you may prefer to sit down once a year to do all your donations.

You might also want to consider making ongoing automatic monthly donations. Charities love these because they have a revenue stream they can count on — and probably because people seldom change or cancel these donations. If you go this route, make sure you know how to adjust your donation, and don’t hesitate to do so if your financial situation or your donation priorities change. I have one such donation, and I recently called and reduced the amount; it wasn’t difficult at all.

Keep track of your donations

If you itemize deductions on your U.S. individual tax return, you can deduct qualified donations. If you do this, make sure you have proper records of your giving. Those records can include cancelled checks, credit card statements, and acknowledgement letters from the organizations that received your donations. If you give small donations at the along with your purchases from grocery stores or places like PetSmart, be sure to keep those receipts, too. A simple manila file folder, envelope, or even a gallon-size zip-top bag labeled with the calendar year on it can suffice for keeping all your receipts in one location.

Did you make a donation via text message? The IRS says “a telephone bill will meet the record-keeping requirement if it shows the name of the receiving organization, the date of the contribution, and the amount given.”

Also remember that you can deduct “any unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses, such as the cost of gas and oil, directly related to the use of your car in giving services to a charitable organization.” If you’re donating your time and this involves the use of your car, you’ll want to keep the appropriate records to claim that deduction.

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?

Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.

Writing emails that won’t be clutter

We’re all deluged with email; it’s a problem of the digital age. Noting this, how do you ensure your email is considered worthy of attention, and not seen as just more inbox clutter?

Be concise

Sometimes your email involves sharing a story with friends, and messages like that don’t always need to be succinct. But, if you’re writing to someone because you want some sort of reply — you’re asking for information, trying to set up an appointment, etc. — make it as easy as possible for the recipient. Don’t make someone wade through a long story to find out what you want.

But don’t be too brief; do include all the information needed for the other person to provide a meaningful response. I’ve seen many people asking for help about some computer-related problem without providing key information, such as what type of computer they’re using, what version of the software they are running, the specific error messages they are seeing, etc. Provide as much as necessary and little or nothing more.

Follow the policies of the group

Are you part of any mailing list, like a Yahoo Group or something else? Many of these groups have guidelines about how members should structure their messages; if your group has such guidelines, be sure to read them and follow them.

Since I’m a moderator of a freecycle group, this is a continual issue for me. We have specific subject line formats, a policy about how often things may be re-offered, etc. It causes more time and work (and frustration) for everyone when the policies are not followed.

Address the email properly

Do you want to reply, or reply all? Think about your recipient list, and whether everyone on that list really needs to see the message.

If you’re sending a message to a group of people, other than in a work situation, please respect everyone’s privacy and do not put all the email addresses in the To: field, where all the recipients can see them. Rather, put those email addresses in the Bcc: field.

Watch what you forward

I’ve seen many a well-intentioned person forward on a message alerting me to some horrifying problem, when a quick check of Snopes.com would show that the information simply isn’t true. If something sounds at all suspicious, please check it out before forwarding.

Also, make sure the people you’re sending those messages with cute animal photos or jokes really want to get them. People are often reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings by asking to get removed from such lists, even if they don’t want the emails — so you might add a note letting your recipients know that you want them to tell you if they’d prefer not to get such emails.

Avoid long signature files

There is certain information people usually want to see in your signature file, and your contact information is at the top of the list. But many people would prefer you skip your favorite quote, a list of every award you’ve ever won, and an admonishment to not print the email.

Consider that not all emails need the same signature. A reply might not need as much information as the email where you’re initiating a conversation. If you’re going back and forth in an email exchange, and you included your long signature file the first time, you don’t need to include it on every message in the chain.

It also looks a bit silly when you send a two-line message and have a 20-line signature file.

Be considerate with attachments

People might be reading email on a slow connection, so maybe it’s best not to include a 5 MB photo.

Review emails for problematic wording

For casual emails between friends, you can skip this step. But for others, I’d recommend reviewing your emails for points of possible ambiguity. Also, look for anything that might be taken the wrong way; humor and sarcasm often don’t work well in email, and snarky comments might come back to haunt you later.

Remember, too, that if crafting an email might take you 20 minutes, but a phone call only five, picking up the phone could be the least cluttered option available to you.