Effective note-taking

A few years ago, Unclutterer readers started a discussion on effective note-taking. Several of you had great suggestions, and looking at that old thread got me thinking about my own note-taking techniques. They’ve changed quite a bit since I was a young student, though I do still fall back on old techniques now and then.

Best practices

We take notes so we can recall important information later. It’s a real hassle to sit down to a review of your notes only to realize you’ve got overly complex notes that actually hinder your recall process. Avoid this frustration by keeping your note-taking simple. Use clear keywords and avoid the temptation to hurriedly write down everything the teacher, lecturer, or coworker says. I put things into my own words unless I hear a fantastic phrase that I’ll want to recall verbatim. When that happens, I use quotation marks.

That said, a logical flow that works for you is most important. When I was a young student, I learned the hierarchical Arabic system that started with a Roman numeral, and added a capital letter under that, etc. That served me well through high school, but once I was in college I found it was hard to keep up with lectures using this system.

That’s when I adopted a system of dashes and dots. Large dots identified a main topic, with dashes and smaller dots marking sub-categories beneath those (similar to the “Dash Plus” system Patrick Rhone uses on to-do lists). It was quick and effective for me.

Taking notes is only the starting point, of course. Just because you write something down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall/find it later. My system to help me find information later couldn’t be easier. As a matter of course, I write the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page of notes. When a new topic begins, I circle the page number. Then, I make a bold line across the bottom of the final page of those notes to represent the end of that topic. If I’ve got a lot of notes, let’s say more than 12 pages, I’ll write an index for my own reference. For example, “Sample service schedule, page 11.”

You might also benefit from trying to create your index from memory before writing in page numbers. Creating this list mostly from memory will start you on your recall process.

Technology

For many, paper will be the answer for which technology to use for taking notes. If that’s you, I understand. Paper is tremendously flexible. You can capture a grocery list or solve very complex problems with a sheet of paper (or note card or napkin or sticky note) and a pencil. But, if you do use paper, I strongly recommend you scan your paper notes and run them through a hand-writing recognition program (like the one standard in Evernote) so you can easily search your notes later and have a backup of them in the Cloud.

If you’re not a paper person and you want to use something electronic, consider the following:

Mind Mapping. I’ve written about my love of Mind Mapping before on Unclutterer. It’s a non-liner way to capture ideas quickly. It’s especially useful when one aspect or idea will quickly spawn several others. On the Mac side, I love MindNode Pro. Windows users will want to check out Mindmeister.

Evernote. Here’s a great solution that’s platform-agnostic. It’s like working with paper, so you can use any system you like. The real power with Evernote is how searchable everything is. You can find any word or phrase you like and even create saved searches that monitor your notes for criteria you determine in real time.

Sketchnotes. If you’re an extremely visual person, you may benefit from taking Sketchnotes. The app Adobe Ideas (which easily integrates with other Adobe products) and Paper by FiftyThree both have high reviews by Mac users. And INKredible is well-rated for Android users.

I find that note-taking is a personal thing, with people using a wide range of methods. The important take-aways from this article are: keep note-taking simple, stick to important keywords, use a markup system that makes review helpful for you, and don’t be afraid to abandon systems that are no longer effective.

Book review: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Back in 2009, Brigid Schulte accepted a challenge to keep a time diary. Her new book Overwhelmed covers both that time diary challenge and what Schulte went on to learn afterward. Back then, she explained, things were not going well:

This is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door.

Schulte is an award-winning journalist, and it shows in her book. Overwhelmed is filled with references to research in brain science, sociology, etc. and also with enlightening first-person interviews. It even has copious endnotes. But Schulte is an engaging writer, and the book never drags.

Schulte spends a lot of time describing the cultural and structural issues that help lead to overwhelm — including jobs that expect long days in the office, the lack of high-quality affordable child care, and a society that smiles on busy-ness. (She interviews a scholar who has collected and studied thousands of holiday letters, where busy-ness and crazy schedules are ongoing themes.) But, Schulte also points out “bright spots” where organizations and cultures are moving in directions that help people live less overwhelmed lives.

While many of Schulte’s anecdotes deal with mothers, she’s very clear that the issues of overwhelm applies to all. Fathers also get stressed about work time vs. family time. And “single people want lives, too,” as attorney Melvin White explained to her.

While it’s mostly toward the end, Overwhelmed has many ideas about what others can do now, to help be less overwhelmed. This advice is based on Schulte’s research and what worked for her. She started getting to-do items out of her head and onto paper — a familiar idea to those who know David Allen’s Getting Things Done. She chose three focus areas, which come first as she plans her time; everything else goes under the category Peter Bregman calls “The Other 5 Percent,” because they should only get 5 percent of your time. To make sure that focus happens, her daily to-do list is now short enough to fit onto a standard size Post-it note.

What I found most interesting, though, was:

But by far, the one skill that I have learned that has transformed my experience of time is the power of the pulse …

Working continuously, without breaks, is in fact a surefire way to produce subpar work … Pulsing — deactivating and reactivating the brain — actually makes it pay better attention.

Schulte learned to work in pulses, chunking her time between work and family, rather than continually switching back and forth. She wound up writing most of this book in 90-minute pulses. (A concept we first discussed on Unclutterer in 2009.)

The book has an appendix entitled Do One Thing, which is an 8-page bullet list of things each of us can do to overcome the feeling of overwhelm — but it’s the one part of the book that’s a bit dull. Still, it’s a decent summary of the points made throughout the book, and a good reminder that there are indeed plenty of things we can do to feel less flustered.

Estate planning for your digital assets

Earlier this week, we published a post on estate organizing to help others after you’ve passed. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but an important one that we would like to explore a little more. Today, I want to point out how this applies to your digital life — photos, music, and a variety of documents that we store digitally have sentimental value, monetary value, or significant meaning to surviving family or friends. Who will gain access to them after you’re gone? And how?

Leave your logins

The most obvious thing you can do is also among the most important: leave a list of your login information in a secure location. A simple list of passwords and usernames stored in a safety deposit box, for example, could save your surviving family, friends and colleagues a lot of headache. If you’re like me and change this information regularly, make sure your list is up to date. If you use a program like 1Password, as Jeri recommended Tuesday, be sure your contact person knows how to use this service and won’t be surprised to find only one master password on your list.

Make sure your information will be accessible

You’ll want to “future proof” this list of online credentials. That is to say, ensure (as best you can) that it’ll still be readable in the future. The easiest way to do this, of course, is with a good old pen and a piece of paper.

Plain Text format is a good way to go. As David Sparks explained on his website MacSparky, “There’s something to be said for the use of plain text files. Text is simple. Text files are easy to read on any computer running any operating system and don’t require any proprietary word processor to interpret. Even more important, text files can be read by humans. Keeping your writings in text makes them digitally immortal.” That’s serious future proofing.

Online services

Beyond that, there are services to help you estate plan your digital life. As The New York Times pointed out, Google has a service called the Inactive Account Manager. In short, it monitors your account for inactivity over a custom period of time. You tell Google how long your account must be inactive before the service triggers (Three months? Twelve?) and who should receive a message from Google once the criteria has been met (you can ID up to 10 people). Once Google is satisfied that your account is truly inactive, it lets your recipients know how they can download your images, videos, documents, or other data.

You may also consider a digital “safety deposit box.” SecureSafe lets you store 50 passwords, 10 megabytes of files, and name one beneficiary for free.

You certainly don’t want to put that information in a will. Why? Alexandra Gerson, a lawyer at Helsell Fetterman in Seattle, told The New York Times, “Don’t put user names and passwords in your will, though, as it becomes a public record when you die.”

Regarding your beneficiary or other representative, you’ll want to make sure she or he is tech savvy. This person should have no trouble accessing your information, once provided with the necessary credentials. Also, make sure that she or he understands that digital assets can be just as valuable or meaningful as those in the brick-and-mortar world.

Finally, many digital purchases can be accessed by several authorized devices. For example, Apple lets up to five computers run the same iTunes account and Amazon will let family members use the same ID. Likewise, the Kindle app running on an authorized iPad or iPhone will give your surviving family members access to your books and other relevant purchases.

I hope these two posts help with the organization of your assets, and consideration of who will be in charge of them once you’re gone. It’s not the cheeriest subject in the world, but it will make things a bit easier for your loved ones when you’re gone or unable to care for your affairs.

An improved Unclutterer experience on mobile devices

Over the past couple weeks you may have noticed some exciting changes to the Unclutterer site. Our tech team has been working diligently to bring you a new and improved experience, and we’re all very happy with the transformations.

The biggest change is how the site looks on mobile devices now. Or, rather, I should say the site now looks awesome on mobile devices. If you have a smartphone or tablet, be sure to check out our fancy new appearance. BlackBerry users are going to notice the greatest improvement — no more scrolling through categories to get to the content! Everyone else is going to love the single column of content instead of all three columns appearing. I love, Love, LOVE these changes.

The desktop version of our website also got a minor facelift. The search function is significantly easier to find and sharing articles is much more convenient. We’ve also increased the width of the content column so we can provide larger images.

On the technical side, we’ve upgraded the server. Most everyone should notice a slight improvement in access speed as a result.

If you discover any bugs, please contact us so we can try our best to fix it. We want everyone who comes to our site to have a wonderful experience. If you like the changes, please feel welcome to share your thoughts in the comments — our tech team did a fantastic job and we would love for them to hear it from you, too. Thank you, PJ and Dancing Mammoth, for the work you’ve done to make us better.

Creating a pre-travel checklist

I always find the days before a trip to be hectic, but with a checklist I can take a quick glance at it and make sure I didn’t forget anything I meant to do. It’s great to have a checklist detailing what you want to pack, but a checklist of things to do in the days before a trip is helpful to keep you organized.

The following are some items from my pre-travel checklist. It is based on being a single person with pets but no children, and a neighbor who will bring in the mail when she comes over to feed the cats. I’ve excluded any trip planning — making hotel reservations, deciding what I want to do while there, etc. — because those actions were completed during the travel-planning stage.

Home preparation:

  • Update cat/home care instructions as necessary.
  • Make sure there’s enough cat food and kitty litter.
  • Decide if there are any bills to be paid before leaving (and then pay them). Alternatively, schedule payments electronically to go out at appropriate dates during my trip.
  • Check thermostat levels and adjust as needed.
  • Clean out perishables from refrigerator; use them up or give them away.
  • Take out the trash.

Packing preparation:

  • Makes sure I know the luggage rules for my airline.
  • Get prescription refills as needed.
  • Make sure all the over-the-counter medicines I want to take have not expired; replace if need be.
  • Buy any gifts I want for people I’m visiting.
  • Check the weather forecast for my destination.

Electronic devices preparation:

  • Charge up any electronics I’m taking with me.
  • Load any documents I might want to Dropbox.
  • Get all contact information for my destination into my cell phone.
  • Download any apps I want that are specific to the place I’m visiting.

Additional travel preparation:

  • Arrange transportation to the airport, if needed.
  • Get maintenance done on the car, if needed.
  • Get a haircut, if needed.
  • Remove unnecessary things from my wallet.
  • Remove unnecessary keys from my key ring.
  • Mail off my absentee ballot, if traveling at election time.

Just-in-case preparation:

  • Make sure relevant people have my travel itinerary and know how to reach me.
  • If I’m traveling internationally, make sure those people also have a copy of my passport.
  • Make sure I have a hard drive with a recent full backup in my safe deposit box.

Preparation regarding responsibilities to others:

  • Make sure any roles I serve in organizations will be covered while I’m gone.

Early preparation, for international travel:

  • Make sure I’m OK on passport and visas, if needed.
  • Understand immunization requirements, and get any that I need.
  • Understand any other health issues, and prepare accordingly. (For example, are there any concerns about the drinking water?)
  • Learn a few key phrases in the language of the place I’m visiting, if it’s not English.

Additional preparation for international travel:

  • Call credit card companies and tell them charges will be coming in.
  • Decide if I need to use my cell phone — and if so, figure out how to do that most economically.

Why create such a checklist, especially when it’s all pretty much common sense? Because I’ve had a few close calls when I’ve forgotten to do things that would have seriously disrupted my plans. One time, I didn’t realize my passport was about to expire, right before an international trip. Fortunately, the friend I was traveling with noticed it in time for me to get a renewal. And, I once got a last-minute immunization at the San Francisco International Airport, right before boarding a flight.

There have been less serious incidents, too. Many years ago, I found myself in New Orleans during an unusual cold snap, without warm-enough clothes. I’ve also found myself running around at the last minute getting a new bottle of Advil and a tube of Neosporin.

I got tired of having this type of thing happen, so now I have a checklist. What is on your pre-travel checklist? Share your must-do items in the comments.

What was in Unclutterer’s third Quarterly mailing?

All over the world, subscribers to the Unclutterer shipment from Quarterly have received their third mailing from us. If you didn’t subscribe to the third mailing, but were curious as to what we sent, I’ve detailed the contents below.

Each box is sent with a letter from our team, and I penned the third one. This time I focused on kitchen clutter and space-saving storage solutions. What was in the box?

  • IMCG Fridge Monkey is a simple device for storing round items like bottles and cans. It can be used in the refrigerator or on a pantry shelf. We are using ours in the pantry to store cans of beans.
  • Squish Colander is a collapsible colander that stores flat and then flips open to a 4-quart strainer. It’s also convenient in that like other collapsible colanders it doesn’t collapse when you set it down.
  • Squish Measuring Cups are like the colander but measuring cups. They, too, are BPA-free and save space in kitchen drawers when not in use.
  • Madesmart Expandable Shelf Organizer is a tiered storage device that keeps small items from getting lost at the back of your pantry shelves. We use two in our kitchen — one in our cupboard for spices and one in our pantry for snacks.

If you’re interested, we have a fourth mailing coming out in the next quarter (and then a fifth and a sixth …). Dave Caolo is putting together our next one and we’re excited about how it is coming together. Sign up if you want to subscribe to the organizing shipments. If not, we’re totally cool with that, too.

50 ways to use a basket

“My stuff is all over the place”, she said to me.
The answer is easy, organizationally.
I’d like to help you in your desire to be neat,
There must be fifty ways to use a basket.

Organizing doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Small baskets can be purchased at discount stores and can be used in many ways. Put them in drawers to group similar items together. Put them on counters to stop clutter from spreading. The following is a list with 50 ways to use a small basket.

In the kitchen:

  • to group spice jars together
  • to hold packets of sauce mixes
  • to hold lids for reusable food plastic storage containers
  • to group small, sharp knives together in the drawer
  • to group measuring spoons in the drawer
  • to hold all the parts for the food processor
  • to hold re-usable wine corks
  • to hold twist ties
  • on the counter to hold the plugs for the kitchen sink and the pot scrubber

In the fridge:

  • to group together small round cheeses, cheese slices and cheese sticks
  • to hold mini yogurt containers
  • to contain single use soy sauce, mustard, and ketchup packets for lunches

In the office desk drawer for:

  • paper clips and staples
  • tape, hole punch
  • erasers and correction fluid
  • highlighters, markers
  • pens, pencils
  • batteries and small screwdrivers
  • postage stamps and envelopes

In the bathroom to contain:

  • eye glass cleaning accessories
  • contact lens accessories
  • hair elastics, barrettes, etc.
  • make up and accessories
  • nail polish and nail care accessories
  • razors, shaving accessories
  • bandages, antibiotic cream
  • dental supplies (toothpaste, floss, etc.)
  • feminine hygiene supplies

In the bedroom:

  • to group jewelry on the dresser
  • to hold coins found in pockets
  • beside the bed to hold lip balm, hand cream, etc.

At the front entry to hold:

  • spare change from pockets
  • wallet, keys
  • cell phone and Blackberry
  • shoe polish and rags

In the toolbox for:

  • small screwdrivers
  • drill bits
  • sockets for socket wrench
  • router bits
  • hooks, nails, screws
  • clips and clamps

To contain children’s:

  • paints, brushes
  • beads and thread
  • yarn and knitting needles
  • crayons
  • doll clothes and shoes
  • blocks
  • small parts for board games
  • playing cards

In the car’s glove box to contain:

  • mini measuring tape, pen, cell phone recharging cord, sunglasses

Five organizing myths

Myths abound in the organising world. Don’t let yourself fall for these five common tales:

  1. Sticking to a rigid meal plan for the whole week will save time. What if you’ve planned a 5-course meal on Wednesday then have an emergency orthodontist appointment at 4:00pm? Generally a meal plan will save time but keep the ingredients for a few healthy, easy-to-prepare meals in your pantry at all times. This way, you can eat what you want, when you want.
  2. I only need to touch it once when I am organising something. Many jobs may have to be broken down into smaller tasks (divide and conquer) so they are not so overwhelming. For example, if you have lots of photos that need to be organised, the first step might be to separate them by year into boxes. Step two would be sorting within each box. You’re going to touch things more than once.
  3. Using the latest technology will save time. This may be true if you’re a techno-wiz, but it does take time to learn the new technology and new gadgets can be expensive. Ask yourself if you are willing to invest the time and money in a product so it can actually help you.
  4. Organising is easy and I can do it myself. While you may be able to clear some of your clutter yourself, you may have too much emotional attachment to your own belongings and may need someone with no biases to help you. I often ask my sister for help with my wardrobe or else I would still be wearing the clothes I had in high school. Many people work better with accountability partners.
  5. My house should look like the ones in the magazines. The homes in magazines are staged for pictures. Life is never picture perfect. Daily living is messy and over the course of a day it’s not going to look like a museum installation.

ICYMI: An uncluttered and time-saving HP four-in-one color printer, scanner, fax machine, and photocopier for the office available at Staples

The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we support. We’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on our first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

Back in July, we wrote a review about the HP Officejet Pro X576dw exclusively available at Staples. We’ve continued to use it daily in our office, and we continue to be impressed by its speed and quality.

As a reminder, the HP Officejet Pro X576dw is $799.99 and is intended for active use by small- and medium-size businesses. It’s wireless, so everyone in the office can use the same machine. This means instead of buying each employee a scanner and printer, you can save your company a good amount of money with a shared device. Being wireless, it also means you can store it anywhere that is convenient for all of your employees. The color quality is top notch and we also appreciate it’s special features, like being able to print postage with it through Stamps.com.

Exact product specifications and more technical information on the complete HP Officejet Pro X Series can be found on Staples’ website.

Uncluttered Valentine’s Day gift ideas

We’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day in two days. Haven’t bought your loved ones anything yet? Don’t panic. OK, maybe a little panic. You’ve got 48 hours! The following are some nice gift ideas that will express your feelings and keep you out of the dog house, all without creating a pile of clutter that must be dealt with at some point:

  1. Create an unexpected playlist. Many Gen-X’ers out there remember the labor-intensive, excruciating process of creating a mix tape for a loved one. The careful selection of exactly the right songs, placed in precisely the proper order to create a crescendo of meaning and feeling. Only the right mix of sentiment, fun, humor, and truth would do. And it all had to fit perfectly on a 60-minute cassette. The harder you worked, the more your recipient meant to you.

    Today, the process is less labor intensive (raise your hand if you remember holding a tape recorder up to the radio to capture a song), but just as meaningful. If your loved one has an Mp3 player like an iPod, sneak into his or her iTunes account and create a playlist of songs that speak to your relationship. Give it a fun name and sync the results to her device. Her commute to work, etc. just got that much more pleasant.

  2. Get the car detailed. My wife did this for me last year and I was elated. I keep my car tidy but I can’t get it anywhere near as nice-looking as a well-equipped professional can. Some detailers will even travel to you for on-site cleaning. While the kids did eventually track sand and Goldfish crackers into the car again, it was a nice few weeks before they did and extremely appreciated.
  3. Gather favorite photos. I admit that I still like looking at paper photos more than their digital counterparts. Holding a picture in my hand is nicer than sitting in front of a screen or even holding a tablet or a smartphone. That might be a function of my age, but I suspect some of you feel that, too. It’s also nice to browse a well-ordered album, and there are several companies that produce great-looking photo books. Shutterfly does a great job, as does Apple, if you use its iPhoto software. I’ve ordered several photo books from Apple and they look great.
  4. Get a landscaping consultation. I love “fiddling in the yard” as I call it but I’ll admit that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Last summer, I spent about an hour talking with some folks at a local nursery and learned so much. Most landscaping companies offer free consultations, so consider that if your better half enjoys gardening or landscaping. Also, check with local colleges, universities, or adult education organizations for classes in landscaping or really anything that will encourage an interest or hobby.
  5. Re-live a first date. In 1986, I took my very first date to see Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I’m not eager to see that movie again, but I suspect it’d bring back some pleasant memories if I did. It’d be great fun to take your significant other back to the restaurant, theatre, hot dog stand (etc.) that marked the beginning of your relationship.
  6. Digitize home movies. This one will take some planning, but it’ll be worth it. Many people have boxes of 8mm movies sitting around or old VHS tapes. The simplest method of digitizing them is to set up the projector (many rental stores will have one if you don’t) and a digital camera. Roll the film, record with your digital camera and then import it into your computer.

    When recording, keep these tips in mind. Make sure the room is as dark as possible. Position your digital camera on a tripod and keep it as close to the reel-to-reel projector as possible, so that the angle is nearly identical. Zoom into the projected image as closely as possible. Finally, manually set the camera’s focus, as the auto focus could have trouble in this scenario.

Happy (early) Valentine’s Day!

Front-load important information in your communication

A friend recently reposted the following job listing on his Facebook wall, hoping his friends would refer qualified candidates for the position:

Government affairs firm seeks administrative/executive assistant for firm’s Senior Partner. Main responsibilities will include organizing travel and schedule for Senior Partner, managing correspondence on his behalf, and other as-needed tasks at his request. Other responsibilities will be related to office management and will involve simple bookkeeping. The ideal candidate will be detail-oriented with strong communication and computer skills. Knowledge of Capitol Hill preferable. Spanish fluency required. Please send cover letter and resume to…

As I read through the post, several names immediately came to mind…at least until I made my way to the penultimate sentence which indicated the position required fluency in Spanish. That job requirement obviously restricts the pool of qualified applicants considerably.

Imagine the amount of time collectively wasted by thousands of non-Spanish-speaking job seekers reading almost the entire listing before realizing they were unqualified for the position.

If the person who wrote the listing had included any non-negotiable requirements in the first or second sentence, then it would have given any unqualified job seekers an immediate cue that they could stop and skip directly to the next post. Here is how a revised listing might have read:

Government affairs firm seeks administrative/executive assistant fluent in Spanish for firm’s Senior Partner. Main responsibilities will include organizing travel and schedule for Senior Partner, managing correspondence on his behalf, and other as-needed tasks at his request. Other responsibilities will be related to office management and will involve simple bookkeeping. The ideal candidate will be detail-oriented with strong communication and computer skills. Knowledge of Capitol Hill preferable. Please send cover letter and resume to…

By front-loading important information — whatever it may be — you show respect for other people’s time by giving them the ability to make an early exit. Unless you’re M. Night Shyamalan, this principle can probably be applied to all your writing. It can also be applied to voicemails, where if the person didn’t get your telephone number upon first listen he can go back and only listen to the first few seconds of it again to retrieve what he needs.