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?

Utility storage alternatives

Of the 16 different homes in which I have lived, 12 of them did not have a designated utility closet. Most of the houses had basements or garages and we were able to our utility items in those areas. However, in a few homes, we had to be creative with our storage space, as in addition to not having a utility closet we didn’t have a basement or garage. The following are some storage solutions we’ve come up with over the years as alternatives for storing utility items in areas other than a utility closet, garage, or basement.

Cleaning products

Start by cutting down on the amount of cleaners you have. Consider using an all-purpose cleaner instead of specific cleaners for bathrooms or kitchens. Also, purchase smaller containers of cleaning products. It is a little more expensive in the longterm, but it is worth a few pennies per ounce not to have crammed cupboards. A small wash bucket can double as a caddy in which to carry the cleaning products around the house.

Here are some possible places to store cleaning products if there is no designated utility closet.

  • Bathroom cupboard
  • Kitchen cupboard (away from food storage and preparation areas)
  • Laundry room cupboard or shelf
  • Hallway or linen closet on an upper shelf

Most cleaning products, even the all-natural, organic ones, can be toxic. It is important to keep them out of the reach of children and pets. Ensure the products are on an upper shelf or cabinet doors are fitted with safety locks.

Paper products

Paper products should be stored close to where they are used. In the bathroom, consider using a multi-roll toilet roll holder so you don’t need shelf storage. Extra rolls of toilet paper can also be stored in a bathroom cabinet, in a basket or bin beside the toilet. A narrow shelf above the toilet can also provide some storage space. Surplus rolls also could be stored in a hallway closet or under a bed.

Paper towels (or kitchen roll as it’s called here in the UK) and paper napkins are often stored in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, however, if there is a leak, all of the paper towels and napkins may get ruined. Since these paper products are lightweight, consider storing them on the top shelf in a hallway closet, above kitchen cabinets, or in the cupboard over the refrigerator. Remember that paper towels are flammable and should not be stored above or near the stove or oven.

Brooms, mops, and vacuum cleaners

Brooms and mops can fit in narrow spaces. Additional storage suggestions:

  • Between the refrigerator and the wall
  • Inside closets or tall cupboards
  • Behind kitchen or bathroom doors

You can even squeeze a folding stepladder in these narrow spaces.

Vacuum cleaners are generally big and bulky. More storage options:

  • In one end of a hallway closet or bedroom clothes closet.
  • In a tall cupboard in the kitchen.
  • Behind a doorway.
  • Under a stairwell.
  • Behind a tall houseplant in the corner of the living room (upright vacuums)
  • In a chest or trunk that doubles as a table or seat (canister vacuums).

Tools

Having a few essential tools handy will help you complete household projects quickly and easily. Ideally tools should be stored in a locked box so little fingers cannot access things they shouldn’t. A toolbox can be stored under a bed, sofa, or chair or it can be stored on a shelf or in the bottom of a closet. A larger toolbox can be stored inside a closet or it can double as a console table in an entryway.

Everything Else

There are many small items that may be kept in a utility closet. These include batteries, extension cords, screws, nails, bolts, extra cable ties, bungee cords, padlocks, keys, and even some UFOs. It is best to sort these items into categories and use small containers to keep them organized. My favourite container is the Professional Organizer by Stanley. It is great for small things like nails and screws. A tower of plastic drawers is ideal for a closet or cupboard and can be used to store larger items such as flashlights, duct tape, and vacuum cleaner attachments. If you’re looking for something a little more aesthetically pleasing than plastic drawers, consider purchasing end tables with drawers and using chests of drawers as console tables and hallway tables to maximize your storage space.

There is no right or wrong way to organize utility items — use whatever method works best for you and the space where you live.

Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?

For many people, paper is the hardest type of clutter to process. There are an extraordinary number of reasons why paper is difficult to manage; the following are some of the most common reasons, along with strategies for solving these problems.

Paper is a bunch of small stuff

When I help people sort through a paper backlog, things often go like this: junk, junk, junk, incredibly important paper, junk, junk. Handling paper is time-consuming because you need to look at every piece, so you don’t miss the important stuff.

Then, you need to make a decision about each piece of paper — the same type of decision you would make when evaluating what to do with a hammer or a pair of jeans, except those are larger. You can go though a stack of papers and make hundreds of decisions and not see the same amount of obvious progress you can see with other types of clutter.

Strategy: Tackle the backlog in short-enough bursts of time that you don’t hit decision-making fatigue. And don’t be harsh with yourself if the progress seems slow, as that is just the nature of the paper beast.

More paper keeps coming

In general, we can get control of other types of stuff by doing our uncluttering and then avoiding any more unwise purchases. This isn’t the case with paper because it keeps coming in the mail, often unbidden.

Strategy: Remove yourself from mailing lists you don’t want to be on (for catalogs, charities, etc.) to limit the incoming paper.

Paper represents information

Many of us are addicted to information; it feeds our curiosity or our desire to know as much as we can about the field in which we work. Our paper piles can include huge stacks of things we feel we should read — magazines, professional journals, etc. — or should keep filed away.

Strategy: What-to-read strategies are the same for online information and for paper. The article four questions for preventing information overload may help you decide if something is really worth your time.

When it comes to the toss-or-file decision, imagine under what circumstances you will pull this reference information out of your files. If you’re planning to write a paper or give a speech on a given topic, keeping related articles may make sense. And certain reference papers are just so good that we do find ourselves coming back to them, time and again. But all too often, we file away informational papers that we’ll never use, many of which we could find again if we had an unexpected need for them.

Paper represents an investment in time and/or money

Notes and handouts from classes or conferences often languish in piles or files, never to be seen again, yet we may hesitate to throw them away.

Strategy: As Scott Belsky said, “Separate the wisdom from the action.” If you haven’t already done so, identify the to-do items buried in those notes, and incorporate them into whatever system you use for managing to-dos.

Then, decide what to do with the “wisdom.” For the papers that are keepers, consider how best to store them, so they can be found and used in the future. It may be more helpful to file them by topic, rather than keeping everything from a given conference together. You may also want to scan the article and run it through OCR software so you will easily be able to search its contents later.

Not all papers will be keepers, even from a worthwhile class or conference. Sometimes, the major benefits of a conference are connections made or a few key insights gathered. You don’t need to feel bad about dumping any paper that isn’t useful to you. Also, notes from old classes and conferences may have been useful at the time, but not so useful a number of years later.

Disappearing office supplies

I often wondered why items disappear from shared spaces, such as pens from the reception desk or coffee mugs from the lunchroom. I read about a group of epidemiologists from Australia who published the results of a study in the British Medical Journal documenting the disappearance of teaspoons from their lunchrooms. They purchased both high and low quality teaspoons and distributed them throughout the lunchrooms of their research centre. They examined teaspoon disappearance in common lunchrooms and private lunchrooms.

They found in private lunchrooms half the teaspoons had permanently disappeared in 11 weeks. However, from communal lunchrooms, it took only 6 weeks for half of the teaspoons to disappear. The researchers concluded that in order to keep their employees satisfied with the amount of teaspoons available, the research centre should purchase over 250 teaspoons per year.

I found this study interesting from an organizing perspective because it indicated items disappear faster when left in a common area where more people who have access to them. This is a problem in office settings as time is wasted looking for items and money is wasted in purchasing extra supplies. In a home setting, items are more likely to be picked up and moved by someone else in your home when left out in a common area instead of being properly stored after use. Organizing and simplifying procedures can minimize loss and misplacement of items.

Suggestions for change:

In an office setting, educate co-workers as to what is happening. Let them know how much the missing items affect the bottom line of the business. Spending a hundred dollars on replacing teaspoons means less money for other things. Encourage co-workers to bring their own personal items such as coffee mugs, water bottles, and teaspoons to use at work instead of stealing from the cafeteria or lunchroom.

Ensure people have the supplies they need. At work, each employee should be issued with a standard set of office supplies as necessary (e.g. stapler, tape dispenser, scissors, hole punch). Also, review common areas to determine what shared items are needed in these work spaces. At home, if your children are in school, they will need their own supplies for their desks instead of needing to take them from the kitchen or from your home desk.

Purchase specialized items for common areas to make them obviously shared items. For example, coffee mugs in the office lunchroom could all be exactly the same size and colour and have the company logo printed on them. The stapler and hole-punch at the photocopier could be bright red and labeled with a gold permanent marker. In your home, you might decide to get supplies for each person/area in specific colors (red for son, green for daughter, purple for mom, brown for dad, black for the kitchen, and yellow for the craft room). If you don’t wish to share an item with a roommate/family member, be sure to put it away after use to reduce the risk it will be picked up by someone else.

Some larger companies are using vending machines to dispense tools and supplies. Employees type in their employee ID code or swipe their pass-cards on the vending machine. This is an ideal solution for companies who cannot afford a full-time stock controller. It also allows management to track employees to find those who routinely misplace, hoard, or even steal tools or other supplies. It may not work with all offices, though, and certainly wouldn’t work well in a home.

While all the systems listed above may work, nothing beats a system where the items have a designated area and people are educated on the importance of returning items to where they belong. At home, a simple walk through the house each night before bed to relocate out-of-place items can also help to return items to their proper storage space so they don’t “get legs” and disappear for long periods of time.

Organizing: valuable and inexpensive

Getting organized is valuable but it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many ways to create customized organizing solutions with a small budget.

I often look around the house to see what items can be re-purposed. We use chewing gum containers to keep office supplies organized. It is easy to see what is in them. They are easy to refill and they have a little slot so they can dispense one item at a time. These containers are the perfect size for cotton swabs and hair elastics, so we use them in the bathroom to organize cosmetics.

Blister pack chewing gum containers and inserts from boxes of chocolates can be used to organize earrings in a jewelry box or craft supplies such as beads.

CraftSanity has instructions for how to construct magazine holders and a literature sorter out of cereal boxes. Lifehacker has an article describing how Lego minifigures make great computer cord organizers and bits of Lego can be used to make key holders. Lego bricks can also be used to make holders for kitchen utensils and napkins. (Interesting fact: the exterior case for the first Google server was built with Lego bricks.)

Discount and bargain stores have great organizing supplies (Dollartree in the U.S., Dollarama in Canada and Poundland in the U.K.). You can find baskets, bins, file folders, desk caddies, hangers, hooks, and over-the-door pocket organizers. And, not to leave out the most obvious, Amazon has almost 500,000 items in a range of prices to help you get organized.

Purchasing unnecessary or unsuitable organizing supplies is one mistake some of my clients have made while trying to get their houses in order. Creating inexpensive do-it-yourself organizers like those mentioned above will allow you to experiment with different organizing systems. Once you find the products and systems that best suit your lifestyle, you may eventually want to purchase a durable, higher quality version that coordinates with your décor.

Refrigerator cleaning and organizing

Having a clean and organized refrigerator can help save you time when planning what to eat for meals and money on groceries. We’ve talked about organizing your refrigerator before, but there are additional suggestions that might help you to save even more time and money.

Start organizing your refrigerator by removing all of the food. Toss anything that is no longer edible or is past its expiration date. Place the food you intend to keep in a cooler with a few ice packs to keep it cold while you work.

It is important to clean and sanitize your refrigerator. Cleaning is the process of removing food and grime from a surface. Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of microorganisms (germs) to a safe level. If the surfaces in your refrigerator are not clean, the sanitizer will not have a good contact with the surfaces and it will be impossible for the sanitizer to kill germs. Also, some sanitizers, such as bleach, react with organic matter (food) and will be less effective if the surface is not properly cleaned.

Remove the shelves and scrub them with warm soapy water. An old toothbrush can be useful to clean out small cracks and crannies. Rinse the refrigerator parts well and dry them with a clean towel. Clean and dry the inside walls of the refrigerator as well.

A diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach, 4 parts water) or sanitizing wipes can be used to disinfect the shelves and racks as well as the inside of the refrigerator.

Clean the outsides of bottles and jars before returning them to the refrigerator. Not only do gunky bottles make a mess, bacteria and germs love to grow in the mess. Remember to clean the outside of the refrigerator as well, especially the door handles.

When returning food items to the refrigerator, think about what is used most often and what is used least often. The foods used most often should be put just inside the door to minimize the length of time the door is open. This may save on energy bills but also reduce meal preparation time, as the foods used most often are closest to where you need them.

Group similar condiments together in baskets. By putting all the salad dressings in one basket you only need to grab that basket from the refrigerator and place it on the table when you make salad for dinner. Small baskets prevent small items from getting lost in the back of the refrigerator. You can also use baskets to contain small round cheeses, cheese slices and cheese sticks, mini yogurt containers and soy sauce, and ketchup packets for lunches.

It is a good idea to group leftovers on one shelf. Use clear plastic containers to store leftovers so it is easy to see what is in each container. Label the leftovers so that family members will know how long the container has been in the refrigerator and when it should be thrown out. A piece of masking tape and a marker make it easy to label containers, so keep these items handy.

Refrigerators are designed to keep foods cold enough to prevent food spoilage. The temperature of your refrigerator should be between 32ºF and 39ºF (0ºC and 4ºC). Freezer temperature should be 0ºF (-18ºC) which stops bacterial growth.

Use a specially designed thermometer and adjust the refrigerator dials to ensure that you’ve reached these temperatures. It may take a day or two of adjusting your refrigerator dials to ensure you’ve achieved the correct temperature.

A few more tips…

  • Clean out the refrigerator before grocery shopping — you’ll be able to get a better sense of what you have and have space to store what you buy.
  • Dispose of old leftovers just before trash day — you won’t smell up your kitchen with the odor of rotting food.
  • If you keep raw meat in the refrigerator, ensure that the drippings do not fall on fresh produce or already cooked foods. If you do not have a “meat drawer,” store or defrost meat on a plastic tray that you can remove and easily clean and disinfect.
  • Use a corner cupboard organizer to stack plates of food and maximize vertical space.

If your refrigerator is organized it is much easier to clean. Remember: Clean refrigerators are healthy refrigerators!

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.