Unitasker Wednesday: Taco Truck

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

Who among us doesn’t love a good play on words? I mean, word games are fun — especially when they go from being a cute spoken joke to being molded plastic you can buy to take up space in your kitchen! Thanks, Taco Truck, for going the distance:

Real thanks go to reader Miranda for sharing this unitasker with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Uncluttered car safety tips
    Before you get behind the wheel of your car, follow these four tips to ensure that you will arrive at your destination safely.

2012

  • New storage products for the home
    New storage products that help organize items in the home — Rubbermaid Bento Boxes and Store Clever Trays, DrawerDecor custom drawer organizing system, and Pliio for clothes filing.

2011

2010

2009

An April Fools’ Day reminder: backup your digital data

World Backup Day was yesterday, and the day’s motto is: “Don’t be an April Fool. Be prepared. Back up your files on March 31.”

This is good advice, but, of course, you should back up your files all year round, not just on March 31. Hard drives fail. Computers (and smartphones and tablets) get stolen. Phones get dropped into water and become unusable.

If I lost everything on my computer, I’d be awfully unhappy about that. My computer has precious photos, lots of contact information, my calendar, a monstrous collection of website bookmarks, lots of documents I’ve scanned and shredded, etc. But I’m not worried about losing these valuable items, because I’m protected.

The following is what I do for backup, just to give you some ideas about how you might want to backup your digital life.

Incidental backups

My contacts and calendar are synched to my smartphone and tablet, so I have a backup of sorts there. I have some photos on Flickr, but these are just a select few I’ve chosen to share publicly. I also have some files in Dropbox, so I can access them from everywhere. While these are all fine duplications, I also wanted some true backup solutions.

Backups to hard drives

I have a MacBook, and I use SuperDuper to create a bootable hard drive with all my files. This is a Mac-only solution, and for Mac users I think it’s terrific. I’ve restored my entire computer from a SuperDuper backup, when Apple needed to replace a bad hard drive, and everything went just fine. There are plenty of other backup programs for both the Mac and the PC, but I don’t know if they provide quite the same functionality. If you’re a PC user, please leave a comment about your favorite SuperDuper equivalent.

I use LaCie rugged hard discs (with a Firewire connection) for my backups, and I’ve been happy with them, but there are certainly many other choices. I like the LaCie products because I often carry a hard drive in my purse, and so I appreciate the external protection built into these hard drives. It’s also one of the drives tested for compatibility with SuperDuper. I rotate through three different drives, so if one of these fails, I’m still protected.

Why carry one in my purse? It’s a form of off-site backup, and it’s easier to put one in my purse than to take one over to my safe deposit box. If my house were robbed, or if there were a fire, I wouldn’t want to lose both my computer and my back-up. (Yes, I know this may be a bit over the top.)

Backup to the cloud

I also wanted automated, all-the-time backups — and I believe in what organizer Margaret Lukens calls the “belt and suspenders” approach of having multiple types of backups, so you know you’re covered.

My choice for cloud backups is CrashPlan, but, again, there are many such services to choose from. I picked CrashPlan because people I knew used it and successfully restored files when they needed to, and they were very happy with the service.

CrashPlan and other cloud backups are great in that they run continually, and they provide off-site storage. But, if I needed to restore a computer drive quickly, my cloud backup wouldn’t be nearly as useful as my SuperDuper backup.

What about you? If you’re not doing backups, I highly recommend you start — you don’t want to be an April Fool and lose your valuable data. If you are backing up your data, I’d be interested in hearing your backup strategy in the comments.

Identifying a collection

Collections aren’t inherently bad. The first book collectors helped create libraries and the first collectors of antiquities helped establish museums. Collections help us identify with the world around us and introduce us to like-minded people. However, labelling a group of similar items a “collection” does not automatically make it one. The following are guidelines to help you identify a collection:

Intention. A collection is intentional. There are certain items that meet the criteria for being a part of the collection and others that don’t. For example, when you collect “vintage pig salt and pepper shakers” you wouldn’t have brand new salt and pepper shakers or vintage cow salt and pepper shakers in your collection.

Time. You are able to spend time managing the collection without sacrificing the time you spend on your job or with your family. You take the time to ensure the items are clean, in good condition, and properly stored. You enjoy spending time with other collectors discussing the collectibles, trading, or buying and selling pieces.

Money. Your collection does not put your financial security at risk. You know the value of the items, know how much new pieces cost, and where to find the best deals for new acquisitions. You may also have prepared a budget for your collection and have ranked new pieces in order of priority of purchase.

Space. Your collection does not take up so much space that it impairs the normal functioning of your home. Because your collection reflects your life, you’ve taken the time to arrange the pieces to complement the beauty of your home. There may be many pieces to your collection but each one is has a special place.

Investment. The investment in your collection should be the joy that it brings you. You might be able to sell a few pieces for a profit but you’re not counting on it for your retirement savings plan. The last time I checked there were over 2700 Star Wars figurines for sale on ebay and 95 per cent of them were selling at less than $100 each.

Future Provisions. You’ve made some decisions on what should happen to the collection when you are unable to care for it. If you’re giving it to someone, that person has agreed to take care of the collection and enjoy it as much as you have. If no one wants to take the collection, you’ve made appropriate plans to sell it.

Overall, the collection should be a joy to own. Seeing it should reduce stress and bring peace-of-mind. The collection should bring a feeling of peace and contentment and reflect part of who you are. If your collection is taking up too much time, money, or space and/or if it isn’t bringing joy to your life, it may have crossed into the clutter category and it may be time to let it go.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • New paper sorting and filing products
    Introduced at the 24th National Association of Profesional Organizers’ annual conference, are new paper sorting and filing products to help you keep your paper mess under control.

2010

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.

Unitasker Wednesday: Flower Pot Bristle Brush

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

Each business and organization has its own culture — a mix of personalities and traditions and guidelines, which give the work environment a distinct feel. Since not all of the Unclutterer team works out of our main office, our culture is more collegial than authoritarian and we mostly communicate online. And, when I used the word collegial just then, I meant we spend a lot of time talking about kids and board games and furry friends and laundry and cool stuff we find online.

One of my favorite things about the Unclutterer team is that we all seem to have an eye for spotting unitaskers. “I have no idea what this is” is a common subject line on emails I receive. I get a few each week and I’m always giddy to open up the messages. For instance, this week’s selection was in one of these email exchanges, the Flower Pot Bristle Brush:

While people in other jobs are emailing coworkers about memos and reports, here at Unclutterer we’re discussing the difficult topics like Flower Pot Bristle Brushes. Our interactions cover vital topics as:

It’s a special brush to specifically fit inside a 5″-diameter flower pot. And, the fact that it fits inside just one size flower pot is a red flag, but in theory you could use it on larger flower pots instead of buying other brushes for your larger pots. So, it’s not the size that makes it a unitasker, though certainly something to consider.

Next, it was decided a brush to only clean flower pots isn’t what pushes it into the unitasker category, either. Although, you could easily use any other general purpose bristle brush for the same task and other tasks. You could also use a rag. General purpose bristle brushes and rags are multi-tasking wonders in comparison to a brush made just for cleaning flower pots.

Finally, what convinced us that this brush exists in the realm of unitasker-dom is the fact that its entire purpose — cleaning flower pots — is not something most people do. Flower pots, at their very core, should be dirty since they hold dirt. You buy flower pots and put dirt and plants in them and then throw out the pots when they break. If a plant that was in a flower pot dies, you remove the dead plant, add some more dirt, and put in a healthy new plant. Maybe, if the dirt was the wrong kind of dirt (say it was good for ornamental flowers but not for vegetables) you would remove one type of dirt, tap the bottom of the pot to shake out remaining dirt, and then put in a new type of dirt. In this case, you’re just doing a dirt exchange so cleaning isn’t necessary. But, as stated in the previous paragraph, if you do come up with some need to clean a flower pot like you’re worried about fertilizer contamination or something in a terra cotta pot (not an issue with plastic pots), multi-purpose rags or general purpose brushes along with a swirl of vinegar would certainly do the job and you don’t need to own a single-purpose brush for cleaning your flower pots. (But seriously, what weekend gardener cleans flower pots so often as to need such a specific brush?)

Oh how I love the conversations I get to have with the Unclutterer team. I’m so thankful this is as tough as it gets.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2010

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Cupmen Instant Noodle Figure
    The Cupmen Instant Noodle Figure rests on the lip of your steeping noodles and tells you when they’re “done.” In three minutes, the plastic, heat-sensitive Cupmen Figure transforms from a little blue guy into a little white guy. When he’s all white, you know your noodles are ready to eat. Yay, unnecessary plastic doodads!
  • Ask Unclutterer: Magazine clutter
    Reader Nia: “I am especially guilty of magazine clutter. Why am I unable to throw away magazines? It’s seriously painful for me to get rid of them. The only plausible explanation I’ve come up with is that the magazine has done such a good job marketing themselves (all of them have, mind you) that it embodies a lifestyle and not just a pack of paper.”

2009

DIY lightbox for easy, clutter-free artwork photos

Photographing the kids’ artwork is a great way to keep from having to save everything junior creates in a physical form. Photographs save the memories without sacrificing storage space. Digital images are easy to organize, but getting decent shots of the kids’ work can be difficult. Creating a DIY lightbox can be a cheap, inexpensive solution for getting great, memorable shots.

A couple of years ago, I suggested a few strategies for organizing your kids’ artwork. Once you’ve picked out your favorites, it’s nice to frame them for a home gallery or to create an album, like those from Shutterfly or Apple.

But like I mentioned earlier, taking a good photo of Jr.’s art project isn’t always easy. Lighting and a “noisy” background can be troublesome. Fortunately, the solution is simple, effective, and inexpensive. The following instructions are how I made a simple light box out of materials I (mostly) already had at home.

What is a light box?

A light box, as I’m describing it, is a box that’s open on one end and has light-diffusing material on the sides and top, that lets you take nearly shadow-free photographs of objects. Professional photographers use them to get gorgeous product shots. You can use them for a variety of items. Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A large-ish cardboard box
  2. White tissue paper
  3. Tape
  4. A box cutter
  5. At least two light sources
  6. White poster board
  7. A ruler

Building your light box

To get started, cut the flaps off of the box’s top and then place it on its side. Next, use a ruler to mark one inch from the edge on the side of the box. Then use a strait edge to mark off lines one inch away from the edge. Use the box cutter to cut out that inner square section of cardboard. (You’re making the sides look like three cardboard picture frames attached to the bottom and one side of the box. See the image above.) Repeat that process on two other sides, leaving the bottom intact.

Next, add your light-diffusing material: tissue paper. Cut a sheet of plain white tissue paper so that it’ll cover the three sides of the box that you cut. Tape it into place. Now for the poster board.

This part is a little bit tricky. Cut a piece of poster board that’s as wide as the opening to your box but twice as long. Slide it into the box and up the back so that it’s touching the top. Make sure not to crease the poster board. If you do, that crease will really show up in your photos. The idea is to make an “infinite” background of white.

Test it out

That’s it! The box has been constructed. Now you need two light sources. I’m using two tabletop gooseneck lamps. Position one on each side, aimed directly at the tissue paper. Finally, put your camera on a tripod, stack of books, table, or whatever will keep it still. Finally, position your subject and shoot.

You’ll have to play around a bit to see if you need more tissue paper, to re-position the camera and so on. But really, you’ll see great results right away. When you’re done, upload the photos to your favorite service, do what you want with the digital image, and enjoy your great-looking archive of the kids’ beautiful art.

Additional tips: Above, I photographed a little clay sculpture. If you’re doing something flat like a painting, carefully remove the top piece of tissue paper and shoot down. Also, you can add more light buy putting another source pointing into the box from the top.

This whole project cost me less than twenty dollars (I bought two lamps) and I’m thrilled with the results. Also, if you’re not the DIY type, you can buy a premade lightbox for around $40.

Organizing references and bibliographies

Research papers are the backbone of most every course of study at university and also important in many workplaces. Keeping these projects organized can be tricky, but will significantly help the paper’s reader comprehension and also save the writer time.

Providing a list of references for your project shows that you have done research on the topic. It provides a way for others to easily find the materials you examined. Proper citations also give credit to those who had the original idea and those who did additional research on the topic.

As you are gathering information, it can be difficult to know which details are important to record. Do you need to provide the date a pamphlet was published? What about the date you accessed a website? How do you keep all of this information organized?

EasyBib and CiteThisForMe are two great (and free) websites that let you effortlessly create properly formatted references. You can save projects into folders, easily collaborate with coworkers or classmates, and share references with the public. (I made one for this post so you can see how it works.) The sites are nice for projects such as a presentation at work, a workshop to promote your small business, or a college class you’re taking to upgrade your skills.

If you’re a full-time student or researcher, you may wish to use more powerful reference management software. According to Wikipedia (which you wouldn’t want to cite in a research paper, but is great for this specific purpose), there are over 30 different reference management software applications available. The choice of software should be based on several factors:

  • Style: Humanities and Sciences use different citation styles and within these domains there are also different styles. Companies also have specific needs and might have style preferences. Be sure you know the standard to ensure you select a program that has the correct style for your work.
  • Cost: Some programs are free but have limitations on number of citations or amount of storage space. Some have small monthly or yearly fees. Choose the lowest cost for your basic needs with the ability to upgrade later if required. Also, if you’re a student, talk to your professors or the librarians at your college/university to see if may have free access for a specific program with your student account.
  • Operating system: Be sure the software you want will install on your type of operating system (Mac, PC, etc.). You may wish to select a program that can be used on a mobile device (tablet or smartphone).
  • Availability: Do you need to access your references from anywhere? Will there be an Internet connection everywhere you do research? Does the information need to sync across various computers?
  • Database Connection: Some programs will connect directly to various databases, such as the MEDLINE (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online) database that would be helpful to students and professionals in medical fields.
  • Ease of use: It is important that the system you pick is easy to use. Is it simple to transfer citations from the program to your favourite word processor? Is it easy to collaborate with other students/coworkers and share citations on group projects? Explore two or three options and see how they work for you.

Regardless of the reference management application you choose, providing organized citations to your work will establish expertise and credibility to your project. Using bibliography/reference software will also help you to get all the information you need for your citations, keep you organized, save you time locating the information if you need to review it a second or third time, help other project members access the same information you did, and, ultimately, let your reader know how to get to the information. You’ll save yourself and everyone else time and energy.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Unitasker Wednesday: 2-in-1 iPotty
    Today’s unitasker is quite possibly one of the worst product ideas I can possibly imagine — a holder that puts a $400 (or more) digital product near the stream of pee of a toddler just learning to use the potty.
  • Ask Unclutterer: How to store transient items?
    Reader Heather wants to know what to do with transient items while they’re waiting to be delivered or retrieved.

2012

  • Spring is here and cleaning is in the air
    Around 1:15 this morning, those of us in the northern hemisphere officially started spring. The local weathermen explained to me as I sipped my coffee that because this is a leap year, spring showed up on the calendar a day early. If spring sprung up on you and took you by surprise, the following 10 tasks are what I consider to be the most valuable spring cleaning activities. These are the Firsts, the things to get to before the other activities.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Peel-a-Meal
    this week’s doozy of a unitasker. It doesn’t slice, it doesn’t dice, and it most certainly doesn’t julianne. In fact, the reviews for the Peel-a-Meal indicate it doesn’t even de-skin six to eight potatoes very well in 30 minutes. Oh, and it’s supposed to be really loud.

2011

  • Unclutterer housekeeping
    I am pleased to announce that these layout errors have finally been corrected by my publisher, and a new Kindle version is available for download.

2010