Organize your notebooks for quick reference

Back in 2013, I wrote the article “Marking up your to do lists for increased productivity” about formal methods of marking up your notes and lists to make them more usable and easier to reference. I was reminded of it recently when I came across a Fast Company article, which introduced yet another trick for organizing a notebook that I like quite a bit.

I carry a little notebook in my pocket all the time. Even though I’m a a professional techie, I still feel that the best way to jot something down I need to remember is with a pen and a piece of paper.

Any problems I encounter with this system come from retrieving the information that I’ve written down. The rapid nature of quickly jotting something down often means poor organization of the captured information. To help solve this issue, this is where Rachel Gillett’s advice in the Fast Company article applies.

Cribbing from Adam Akhtar, Rachel suggests writing a sort of index in the back of your notebook while taking notes or jotting ideas down. This index is comprised of themes or topics that come up while you’re writing things down. In her example, she wrote down the following topics:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Social media
  4. CMS
  5. Analytics
  6. New Staff

She recommends leaving one line between each index topic. Then, when she writes something down that corresponds to one of these topics, she makes a mark on the edge of the page that corresponds to the line on which that word is written. The image at the top of this post illustrates this idea pretty clearly. Then, when she wants to find notes on writing, she can turn to the back page and quickly see the pages with relevant content. Flipping to them is quick and easy.

I think this system is a brilliant solution. It’s easy to see how this will work outside of business, too. Topics like “kids,” “school,” “work,” or whatever applies to your life would be perfect.

Again, check my older article for some additional ideas for adding a bit of organization to your notebooks. Jotting something down is easy. Finding it when you need it later doesn’t have to be a problem.

Protect your home business computer

Home-based businesses may be small, but they are (hopefully) a significant source of income for their owners and they provide a valuable service to their customers. For this and numerous other reasons, it is essential for these businesses to be able to quickly return to normal operations after a disaster.

One of the more frequent “disasters” in small business is data loss. This often happens when a virus infects the business computer or if the computer’s hard drive fails. The easiest way to protect your business from data loss is by ensuring you have up-to-date anti-virus software and to do regular backups of your computer’s hard drive. Daily backups to an external hard drive is an inexpensive way to ensure you can access your data and continue business operations should your computer crash. However, if your office were destroyed by fire or flood you would also lose your external hard drive, so I strongly recommend a cloud-based data storage solution, too. There are many inexpensive, secure online backup services available.

Protecting your computer system itself is important. Small business owners should purchase a surge protector and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery for each computer. A UPS will prevent electrical power surges from “blowing up” the computer system, and, should there be a loss of power, the battery will provide enough power for the user to back up data and shut the computer down safely.

Fire, flooding and theft are disasters that unfortunately occur all too often in small businesses. Having a detailed inventory of business assets (electronics, furniture, etc.) is essential in order to restore operations as quickly as possible and ensure the insurance company can process the claim promptly. Record the make, model and serial numbers along with receipts of purchase of all your business equipment. Copies of important paper-based records should be available after a disaster. Scan items such as insurance policies, cheques, and signed contracts. If you’ve stored this information on your computer and backed it up to your online storage area, you can access it easily and provide this information to your insurance company.

Disasters do strike, but if you’re organized and prepared your small business will be protected.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

2011

  • Can mise en place make your cooking more organized?
    I don’t typically measure out all of my ingredients or get them out of the cupboard before starting the cooking process. This step, referred to as mise en place, has always seemed to me to be unnecessary. I also think measuring thins ahead of time dirties a ridiculous number of bowls. Or, rather, I thought it was ridiculous until reading Michael Ruhlman‘s newest cookbook Twenty.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk
    I have to confess — this week’s unitasker has more than one purpose. Not only is it great for holding your laptop, book, cell phone, and food as you drive, but it’s also perfect for crushing your ribs and/or impaling you when you get into inevitable accidents!

2010

  • Creating a mail center in your home
    One of the easiest ways to keep paper clutter from overwhelming your space is to set up a mail processing center immediately inside the door by your mailbox.

2009

What was in Unclutterer’s fifth Quarterly mailing?

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

Each box is sent with a letter from our team, and I penned the fifth one. This time we focused on safety, since September (when the boxes arrived) was National Emergency Preparedness Month. What was in the box?

A box!

Okay, more accurately, it was an ANSI standard portable first aid kid with almost everything you could possibly need to administer first aid.

As with our previous mailings, if you missed out on this one and are interested in buying the contents now, a few will be made available through the Best of Quarterly Shop in the coming weeks.

If you’re interested in subscribing to our four mailings a year, we have a sixth mailing coming out in the next quarter (and then a seventh and eighth …). I’m 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.

Organizing for two or more

If you share a home or office with others, you’re going to need to consider their needs when setting up your organization systems. The following are some things to consider when putting these systems in place.

File Names

I knew a couple where the wife set up the files, and the husband couldn’t find the insurance policy when he wanted it. His wife had filed it under the name of the insurance company, and he never thought to look there. (He may not have even remembered which company they bought the insurance from.)

Insurance files are a good example of how varied a naming system could be. Would a car insurance policy go under “Insurance — Car” (along with “Insurance — House” and “Insurance — Medical”)? Or would it go under “Car — Insurance” (along with “Car — Purchase” and “Car — Maintenance”)? And would you use the word “car” or “auto” or something else, such as the make of the car, or the car’s name (for those who give their cars names)?

There’s no one right answer, but file names need to work for everyone who might be adding to the files or retrieving items from them. Discuss and agree upon the naming convention so no one wastes time.

Labels

Once you’ve decided what goes where — in the kitchen cabinets, the garage, the linen closet, the office storage cabinets, the toy area, etc. — it helps to label those spaces to ensure that everyone putting things away remembers where they go. If young children are involved, those labels might include pictures. If you are fortunate enough to have housekeeping help, and your helpers speak a different primary language than you do, you may want bilingual labels.

Reachability

If you want children to hang up their clothes, make sure there are hooks or hangers they can reach. A double hang rod can ensure there’s at least one set of clothes closet hangers that kids can reach.

Similarly, a tall adult setting up an organizing system will need to consider the needs of any shorter adults using that system. This might include placing frequently used items where everyone can easily reach them and ensuring there’s a step stool handy for reaching the highest cabinets or shelves.

And if some household members have problems reaching things in low cabinets, installing pull-out shelves might be worthwhile.

Organizing style

There are many different ways to be organized, and two people sharing a home or office may not share organizing styles. Just one example: One person may prefer everything to be put away behind closed doors, while another prefers things to be out and visible.

One way to handle these differences is to let each person have some non-public space to organize according to individual preferences (within certain limits for health and safety), while coming to some compromises on how public areas will be handled. If you prefer to fold your socks and put them away using little drawer dividers, while your spouse or partner prefers to just toss socks into the drawer, there’s no need for either of you to convert the other to your system. Reserve your energy for figuring out a way to organize the kitchen and living room to suit you both.

Unitasker Wednesday: French Toast Stick Maker

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

This week’s selection is a quintessential example of a unitasker. It may very well be the Platonic Form of the unitasker. When discussing unitaskers in the future, it is the French Toast Stick Maker that I shall use as my example:

This is a stand-alone, 44 sq. in. appliance whose sole purpose is to make French toast sticks. Not plain French toast, but French toast sticks. A food you can make with a multipurpose pan and a multipurpose knife with less effort than with this machine. By owning this, you would obviously sacrifice space but you also would waste time — as the plates of the French Toast Stick Maker are not removable so you have to clean them by hand (whereas you can put the pan and knife in a dishwasher).

If this were a Taylor Swift song, she would summarize by pointing out the incontrovertible Truth: unitasker gonna unitask.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

2011

2010

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Cool Cones
    Is eating store-bought ice cream bringing you down? Well, let Cool Cones turn that around!
  • Exercise and focus
    A neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, Arthur Kramer, in “Ageing, Fitness and Neurocognitive Function” in Nature magazine, reports on another way to improve your ability to focus and brain cognition. The answer: Regularly participating in aerobic exercise.

2009

Declutter your email subject lines

Long ago in a town far, far away, I was an undergraduate student. I had one teacher, professor O’Brien, who insisted that his students communicate with him via email. Back then, I sent and received at most two messages per week.

Today, you can put a pair of zeros behind that number.

I’m sure I’m not alone. For many, reading emails is more of a chore than a convenience. One thing you can do to make things easier on your recipients is to write clear, uncluttered subject lines. It’s not very difficult, but can go a long way to making this often irksome task more pleasant and efficient.

First and foremost, keep your subject lines short. According to Business Insider, most computer-based email applications only show around 60 characters in email subject lines. On smart phones, mail apps show maybe half that number. Full sentences won’t really work to meet those restrictions, so consider key words or ideas. Focus on the heart of what you’re going to say. And, to be clear, “Hey!” is not a worthwhile subject.

Since mobile phones give you so little to work with, get the most important words out first (often it’s a verb). “Cancel lunch Friday,” for example, is just 19 characters, the crux of the message, and “cancel” is featured first.

With that point made, it’s time for some decluttering. We aren’t shooting for a diagrammable sentence here, so implied words may be sacrificed. This isn’t always a good idea, of course, but if you’re pushing the limit, feel free to jettison an “although” or even an “after,” if you can without changing the meaning.

There are a few people I communicate with regularly who have a habit of indicating whether or I not I need to respond in the subject itself. For example, “no response needed” or “please respond.” I don’t like this practice, though I know many do. I think it’s just extra words for me to process, but I also understand that if you’re skimming your inbox, it can help identify which messages need attention and which can be set aside. I’ll leave this one up to you.

If your recipient understands the meaning, a message that is completely conveyed in a subject line can be ended with an EOM (end of message). This is good for simple status messages like “Finished (EOM)” and “Meet me in lobby in 5 (EOM).” It saves your reader time by knowing they don’t even have to open the email. If you have more than 25 characters, however, it’s best to keep the subject line brief and put a longer message in the body of an email. Anything longer than that and your reader might have to open the email anyway to see the whole subject line.

Finally, I have two pet peeves I want to share with you. Unless you’re aiming to be funny, don’t start a sentence in the subject and then finish it in the body. Typically I din’t know that’s what’s going on, and I read the body as a fragment sentence, which is confusing for a few seconds until I interpret your setup. I’ve seen this work where the subject is the setup and the body is the punchline, but that’s rare.

And, this should go without saying, don’t use all caps. Slogging through email is annoying enough; yelling doesn’t help.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was sitting in the library at Marywood University, that orange cursor blinking at me while I banged out a simple, three-sentence message to Dr. O’Brien. Two messages per week? I could live with that.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Guacamole bowl
    For many years, I’ve been unable to eat guacamole at home because I did not own this extremely specialized serving device just for guacamole.

2012

2011

  • Clutter can kill creativity and innovation
    Career expert and author Jonathan Fields shares his insights in a guest post on the connection between order and workplace productivity, creativity, and innovation.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Rice Cube
    When using really good sushi rice, you don’t have to use a mat or seaweed. All you need are your hands to make the sushi into any shape you desire. If you want your sushi to look like something other than a circle, just mold it. A rabbit! An hourglass! A snake! A cube … which brings us to today’s unitasker, the Rice Cube

2010

2009

  • Reasons to unclutter
    The September 1 issue of Woman’s Day magazine provides 12 “surprising benefits of getting organized.”

Organized preparation for medical procedures

As you are reading this, I’m at home recuperating from shoulder surgery. As such surgeries go, it was pretty minor, but there was still a reasonable amount of preparation I needed to do.

I never had a pre-surgery checklist before, so I had to think through things fairly carefully. The following were some of the things I had to consider:

Learning how my calendar would be affected

Besides knowing the date of surgery, I had to find out what post-surgery appointments I would have and what physical therapy would be needed. Doctor’s offices often tend to tell you only the next step, but it makes planning easier when you know what’s coming at least for the next month. “So, we’ll see you the Monday after surgery” is not what you want to hear with little notice when your doctor’s office is not nearby, and you need to ask someone for a ride.

I also needed to learn what restrictions I would have that would affect my ability to work, socialize, drive, etc. That’s somewhat hard to tell, because everyone heals differently, but getting at least a usual range allowed for some planning.

Organizing (and stocking up) the house

Medical supplies: I got all my post-surgery prescriptions filled, and made sure I had gel packs and packages of frozen peas to ice my shoulder.

Clothes: When you can’t raise one arm, it affects what you can wear. I had to buy shirts that button rather than go on over my head.

Food: I stocked up on the easy-to-digest items I need post-surgery. Also, since cooking will be a challenge for a while, I got some frozen dinners. And I determined which restaurants in my area do home delivery.

Utensils: I don’t have a dishwasher, and doing the dishes by hand might be difficult for a week or two. So I brought in the paper plates and plastic silverware I had stashed away in the garage.

Heavy items: I bought a large bag of cat food and emptied it into the kitty food storage container. The food comes in a heavy bag, and I usually use two hands when I’m going to refill. That could be awkward for a while after surgery.

Having the right legal documents in place

Since I already had my estate documents done, including a medical power of attorney, the only thing I had to do was bring that power of attorney document with me on the day of surgery.

Arranging for help

As someone who lives alone, this is a big deal for me — but even those living with someone may need help from others.

I knew someone had to drive me to surgery and back, and someone had to stay with me for a while after I came home from surgery later that day. I’m lucky enough to have family members who live in the area (and some helpful neighbors) who could take care of that for me.

But beyond that, I have a list of people I can call on for any other help I may need. I know I’ll need a few rides, but I imagine there will be other things I’ll need that I haven’t thought of, even with all my preparation. Having that list of people who are more than willing to help out means I’ll never need to worry about getting whatever assistance I may need.

Unitasker Wednesday: Roll N Pour

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

My children probably have no idea what gallon milk containers look like because I don’t buy gallon milk containers. The kids can’t lift and pour a gallon yet, so I get 1/2 gallons that the oldest one can manipulate and the younger one eventually will. When we do make the switch to gallon containers, however, I can guarantee we won’t also be purchasing the Roll N Pour:

In the words of Skippyjon Jones, “Holy frijoles!” This plastic rocking chair for your gallon milk jugs is enormous! The product description says it’s “great for kids and seniors” but I don’t understand how — there is no way my 5 year old son or my husband’s 99 year old grandfather could even get this device AND the attached gallon container out of the refrigerator. Putting it back into the refrigerator would be just as disastrous. It adds weight and girth to the milk container, making it heavier and more cumbersome. And no one with limited or developing mobility needs or wants “heavier and more cumbersome.”

Okay, I’ll admit, there is something adorable about a gallon of milk rocking away the hours in the refrigerator. I imagine it would take up knitting and ask me to keep quiet during its stories. But, for the itty bitty amount of help it might give someone with pouring, those benefits would quickly be erased by the amount of storage space you’d have to sacrifice in your refrigerator and in the process of having to carry it in and out of the refrigerator every time you wanted a drink.

If handling large gallon containers is an issue for you or your family, do what we do and simply buy smaller, easier to carry and pour containers (which you’re likely already doing). Or, buy the larger container and have or provide assistance in pouring some of its contents into a more manageable small carafe. If handling gallon containers isn’t an issue for you or anyone in your family, this device is just downright ridiculous. I think we can chalk the Roll N Pour’s unitasker status up to over-engineering that intended to be helpful, but isn’t.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

2011

2010

  • Multifunctional children’s furniture
    The multifunctional WeeCANDU Chair can be transformed into a playtable/desk, bedside table, easel, step stool, rocking chair, regular chair, and magazine/book rack.
  • Qualities of a good to-do method
    After years of auditioning the most popular to-do management methods (and a few obscure methods, as well), I’ve found that it’s incredibly obvious which methods are likely to be helpful and which ones are duds. For a method to be good at actually getting me to do my work, it has to have the following components.
  • Ask Unclutterer: Clutter is causing marriage woes
    Reader Jenny is worried her clutter and lack of house-keeping skills is damaging her marriage.

2009

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Even more elaborate butter cutters
    I am 100 percent serious when I say that I don’t understand why someone would prefer to use one of these butter cutting devices instead of a knife.
  • The Stash for organizing the small stuff
    Organizing small things, specifically small things you regularly need at your fingertips, can be frustrating. Most of the pre-made organizing products for small things aren’t very attractive and/or made exclusively for drawers. While searching for a way to organize my son’s bath supplies, I came across an attractive organizing system that is made specifically for small things that sit out on a counter or hang on the wall. The Stash by Boon.