A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

  • Ask Unclutterer: Organizing hair styling doo-dads
    I have a 9-yr-old girl with long hair. She has zillions of barrettes, headbands, clips, bobby pins, etc. and I need some good ideas how to organize these! Any suggestions??
  • To-Do Tattoos
    You can be sure your child makes it wherever he needs to go with everything on his list. It’s novel, and I like when organizing can be fun.

The power of checklists

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande made a strong case for the power of checklists to help us “get things right” — including a checklist’s power to save lives when used by surgeons and airline pilots. But checklists can be useful tools for all of us, in many situations.

On Unclutterer, we’ve written about checklists for moving, packing for travel, preparing for a trip, and requesting tech support. We’ve also provided a how-to guide for having a yard sale, which is basically a large checklist. The following four examples may give you ideas of other types of checklists you’d like to create and use.

Choosing a house or an apartment — or buying almost anything

Many years ago, I almost bought a house with a key flaw: the house had very few walls without windows or doors, and there would have been no good place to put any bookshelves. After that experience, I created a checklist with everything I could think of that mattered to me in a house. I could still choose to buy a home that didn’t have everything I wanted, but at least it would be a conscious choice.

If you want to create your own home checklist, you could use the wishlist and the checklist (PDFs) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a starting point.

The same basic type of checklist could be created for any major purchase: selecting a school or a camp, buying a car, etc. When I was buying a car four years ago, my checklist included price, reliability, miles/gallon, length, turning radius, acceleration, and the opinion of trusted reviewers.

Fixing things

Back in 1993, I read a column by Bill Husted that provided his rules for fixing anything, from a computer file to a motorcycle. I can’t find the article online, but here are his first six rules:

  • Make a carbon copy. As Husted explains, that “copy” could take many forms: a backup of a file, a drawing of some wiring, etc.
  • Take things one at a time.
  • Be lazy. Take a lot of breaks.
  • Try the easiest and most obvious first.
  • Clean up as you go.
  • Keep a diary.
  • All these years later, this still seems like a good checklist to me.

    Packing for frequent activities

    This is the packing list concept applied beyond trips and suitcases: for going to the beach, for attending a class, etc. Even if you keep a packed bag at the ready for such activities, having a checklist is usually a good idea, too. With that checklist, you can quickly confirm the bag has everything on that list so you can replace anything that got used up or misplaced.

    The same type of what-to-pack checklist could be created for diaper bags, school backpacks, first aid kits, etc.

    Visiting a doctor

    It’s easy to forget everything you need to tell a doctor, or everything you’ll want to ask. Organizer Ramona Creel has a checklist to help patients prepare for a visit, so they do remember everything they want to discuss. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also has a checklist (PDF) of questions to ask a healthcare provider, which could certainly be used by patients who aren’t veterans, too. While not all items listed will apply to all visits, the checklist helps to ensure you don’t forget anything important.

    Unitasker Wednesday: DestapaBanana

    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 is one of the more bizarre unitaskers we have encountered here at Unclutterer. Dave possibly described it best when he said, “if this isn’t a unitasker, I don’t know what is.” He was right in that this may be the most unitaskery unitasker of all time. Introducing the DestapaBanana from Argentina:

    In case the images didn’t give you enough information, I’ll explain the device in a bit more detail. The DestapaBanana bores a hole through the length of your banana and then you pour a sweet filling (like caramel, chocolate, or strawberry sauce) into the reservoir. Once sauced, you can eat the banana right away or you can put it in the freezer and eat it frozen later.

    For starters, this device does nothing else and won’t work with bananas that have a lot of curve to them. Additionally, I think a straw would do the same thing if you really are fond of this idea. Or, you could dip the banana in a sauce and not waste part of your banana. And, finally, let’s not forget the most obvious thing here that injecting sauce into a banana transforms it from a health food into a tube of pure sugar.

    Anyone else craving a banana split now?

    A year ago on Unclutterer

    2012

    2011

    2010

    • Unitasker Wednesday: The bananarama continues
      We’ve written in the past about the Banana Saver and the Banana Slicer, but did you know you could also get your hands on so many more banana unitaskers?
    • Simplifying packed lunches
      Reader Jon wrote to us asking if we had any tips for preparing lunches at home that he can take to eat at work. He has been spending $100 a week on eating out at restaurants, and is hoping to become someone who brings his lunches to work. Since students are already back in the classroom in many states, and other students are getting ready to go, I thought now would be a great time to discuss the humble brown bag lunch.

    2009

    Part 2: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

    Wake the kids and tell them to grab their backpacks: it’s time to go back to school. This can be a stressful time for kids and parents, but a little preparation goes a long way. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series, I’ll highlight some ways technology can ease the transition from summer.

    Go social

    When I was in school, we huddled around the radio on snowy mornings, eager for a closing announcement. Today, many school districts share this information via the web and social media. Get yourself in the loop this school year and visit your district’s website to find the following information:

    • Your school’s and/or district’s Twitter feed
    • Any associated Facebook accounts
    • Classroom-specific websites
    • Classroom Blackboard accounts and mobile applications
    • Teacher blogs

    Of course, some schools will embrace social technology more completely than others. Colleges and universities seem to be the most aggressive, but even elementary schools are using the technologies available to them. If your school/district/child’s teacher is using websites, be sure to bookmark the sites and/or add them to an RSS feed so you can easily access the information for future reference.

    Subscribe to a school calendar

    Most schools publish a calendar for parents and students to review, and many offer the opportunity to subscribe electronically for immediate updates. The Salt Lake City School District is a great example of a digital calendar, with instructions for subscribing to it with Apple’s Calendar, Google Calendar, and Outlook and Yahoo Calendar. Once you’re subscribed, you needn’t depend on the monthly printed calendars you likely have hanging on the refrigerator.

    Make custom notifications

    I’ve written about IFTTT before on Unclutterer, and the start of the school year is another time to use this program. IFTT is an online service that lets you create actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you, including custom notifications.

    For example, let’s say your district or teacher always uses adds a certain hashtag when composing tweets related to your child’s school or class. You could create a recipe that sends you a text message or an email whenever such a tweet is published. Or, you can have all of those tweets pushed to a Google document for a daily review.

    On the other side of the desk, IFTTT is a terrific resource for teachers and schools. Communications with students and parents can easily be automated.

    Here’s hoping you have a successful school year. There’s more to do to get ready, of course, but these technology tips are a good place to start.


    Part 1 of the series

    Part 1: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

    Based on where you live, your kids may have already headed back to the classroom or they’re preparing to go in September. If you’re a student, you might be in the same boat. This transition period doesn’t have to be a stressful time. Households that have established routines are extremely beneficial for children and parents. Being prepared will bring peace of mind and make everyone’s transition from summer days to school days easier.

    Start the school routine a week early

    Practicing the routine in advance is especially important for children who are just starting school or who will be starting a new school. By doing a few trial runs before the school year actually starts, you’ll be able to determine if there are any problems with the new routine before the first day.

    Plot the route

    If your children are starting a new school, walk or bike with them on their route. Point out areas where there is heavy traffic and where drivers may have difficulty seeing pedestrians. Indicate safe havens where children can find assistance or a telephone if needed (e.g. convenience stores, public offices, houses of worship). Map out an alternate route home in case of emergency. If your child takes public transit or a school bus, create a plan in case the buses are late or if your child misses his/her stop.

    Unplug and preset

    Turning off the TVs and computers at least an hour before bedtime will allow you and/or your kids to get organized for the next morning. Make lunches (if you didn’t make them when preparing dinner) and gather school supplies together. You can even set plates, cups, and silverware on the table for breakfast.

    Create a drop zone

    Hang backpacks on hooks near the door so kids will know exactly where to find their stuff and where to put it when they get home. Make an inbox where they can put all the paperwork for you to fill out and sign. You can create one inbox for all the children but one box per child may work better, especially if the children attend different schools.

    Prepare for the paperwork

    Every year the school requires information such as health card numbers, vaccination schedules, emergency contact numbers, etc. If you know where all this information is, you’ll be able to fill out all those forms quickly and easily. Once filled out, make a copy of the paperwork for yourself. It will be easier to find the information for next year.

    Create an in-home supply closet and pharmacy

    Stocking up on supplies will save you from running across town to the 24-hour (expensive) pharmacy. While the sales are still going on at retailers, gather pencils, markers, notebook paper, and other supplies you and/or your children will need this entire school year (that is, if you have the space to store these items in an uncluttered way) Also, don’t forget items such as bandages, cold medication, and even lice shampoo that may be needed during the first weeks back.

    Create a homework zone

    While older children may benefit from doing homework in their bedrooms at a desk or in the home office, younger children who need parental support to do their homework in the kitchen or dining room while their parents are preparing dinner. Wherever the homework zone is located, make it easy to use and easy to put away supplies.

    Make a “fingertip file”

    Use a binder with sheet protectors to contain important information such as the school phone numbers, a list of phone numbers of friends of your children, the list of parents who carpool, menus from the local take-out restaurants, etc. You’ll be able to find what you need this school year exactly when you need it.

    Get your money and tickets ready

     
    Purchase transit tickets and taxi vouchers in advance, if necessary. Fill a jar or bowl with coins and small bills so you won’t be scrounging for lunch money at the last minute.

    Schedule everyone’s activities on a calendar

    Enter all of the school holidays and pedagogical days on the calendar as soon as the information is received from the school so that you can arrange for daycare or other activities as soon as possible. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series we’ll go into more detail about creating a digital calendar and in Part 3 we’ll explore using a paper calendar with younger children.

    A year ago on Unclutterer

    2013

    2012

    • Unitasker Wednesday: Sushi Made Easy
      The Sushi Made Easy requires two additional steps and another piece of equipment for the maki-making process. It’s not Sushi Made Easy, it’s Sushi Made More Complex. It’s also sushi in the style of caulking your bathtub!
    • Get organized for back-to-school
      Help your children get organized and ready to go back to school with these four tips.

    2011

    2010

    • Marketing to Unclutterers-In-Name-Only
      Regardless of if you have read or your opinion of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love and the recently released movie of the same name, the show Marketplace on National Public Radio had a very poignant piece this Friday about the business, marketing, and branding of simplification and uncluttering.

    Ask Unclutterer: How do you stay motivated when sorting papers?

    Reader John recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post “Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?“:

    The draining emotional impact of sorting through and properly organizing boxes and file cabinets of paper can at times be overwhelming. Could you address in more detail strategies for maintaining or improving personal motivation to get the ongoing task completed?

    John, many people have this concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are strategies that might work to motivate you to keep organizing your papers.

    Work in reasonably small blocks of time

    Organizer Janine Adams wrote on her Peace of Mind Organizing Blog about a women who got through 12 years of accumulated papers by working on them for 15 to 30 minutes a day. It’s often easier to tackle a dreaded task if you know you only have to do it for a short period of time.

    But, if you want to work for a longer stretch of time, that’s fine, too — just be sure to take breaks. You want to avoid decision fatigue. If you find yourself thinking, “I just don’t care any more,” you might start making poor decisions as a result.

    Create a pleasant work environment

    If you’re a person who gets energized from music, try playing some as you sort through those papers. Also, make sure you’re working in an area with sufficient lighting and a comfortable room temperature.

    Have good tools

    I know someone who prefers to keep certain papers in a three-ring binder. However, her three-hole paper punch didn’t work well; she always had to struggle with it. She has decided to invest in a higher quality hole punch that will be easier to use.

    It definitely helps if all your frequently used tools work well. Those tools might include a label maker, a stapler, a staple puller, a letter opener, a shredder, and a scanner. If you are someone who is inspired by beautiful or cute objects, consider investing in those, too.

    Put some things off

    If you’re going through a big stack of papers and find a few you just can’t deal with right now, set them aside. Know that this is both normal and perfectly okay. Don’t let the few papers that are hardest to deal with derail your efforts. And, when you come back to those papers somewhat later, you may find them less challenging.

    Keep the goal in mind

    You’re likely going through papers for some good reason: so you can find things when you need them, so your space supports you in your work and family life, etc. Keep your goal in mind, and celebrate the small victories along the way, such as a critical paper found, or a chair that’s now usable because it no longer has papers stacked on it.

    Enlist some help

    A trusted friend might be able to help by doing a first-pass sort: financial, medical, etc. Or the friend could simply sit with you as you go through the papers, perhaps acting as a sounding board or just as an accountability partner.

    And you can always hire a professional organizer to help. The National Association of Professional Organizers has a website that can help you find someone in your area.

    Thank you, John, for asking such a good question.

    Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field or put your inquiry in the comments to a post. If you send an email, please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

    Unitasker Wednesday: Bottle Opener Cap Catcher

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

    As longtime readers are aware, I don’t understand the desire to keep trash as a hobby — I’m referring to things like wine corks and baby teeth. I’m cool with dropping these items into a trash can or recycling bin, because that is where trash belongs. But displaying trash or hoarding it in a drawer doesn’t sit right with me. Trash, waste, rubbish is clutter.

    This week’s unitasker selection falls into the trash-as-hobby category, it’s the Bottle Opener Cap Catcher:

    This device removes bottle caps, and then stores them for you. Instead of removing a bottle cap and instantly putting it into the trash or recycling bin, you get to save it … for reasons I cannot not imagine.

    Maybe if you are an artist and bottle caps are your medium I could understand the desire to save bottle caps. However, my guess is that the vast majority of Unclutterer readers are not artists who are paid to create sculptures from bottle caps. Just a hunch.

    Per Jacki’s post about “Modified principles of sanitary design” on Monday, try to avoid buying things that create additional work and unsanitary conditions for you and your family. If your intention is to throw away the bottle caps after collecting them, don’t add the extra step of collecting them in the first place. Throw them right away. Save space in your drawers/cupboards for things that are worth taking up that space. A small bottle opener is uncluttered and doesn’t tempt you to keep trash as a hobby — this device is the opposite of those things.

    To be fair, this is far from being the worst unitasker we’ve featured. However, I think it’s important to really think about the items we buy. Are we creating extra work for ourselves? Are we keeping something that really belongs in the trash? Good questions to ask about everything, even something as simple as bottle openers.

    A year ago on Unclutterer

    2013

    2012

    2010

    • New office products: Antimicrobial file folders and bookmark index cards
      My friend and professional organizer Julie Bestry recently headed to Office Depot to see what is new in the back-to-school supplies section. Her recap of the adventure introduced me to two new types of organizing products I wanted to pass along to you.
    • Unitasker Wednesday: The Mayo Knife — Spreader
      I think my favorite part about this unitasker is how it mentions an alternative multitasking object that can do the job just as well in the product’s name. The name of the product reminds you about a knife! A knife you already own! A knife that makes this product completely unnecessary!
    • The multitasking sleeper chair
      Sleeper chairs are fantastic additions in small spaces because they work double duty as seating and guest accommodations. One of these multitaskers in a living room or office is perfect when you don’t have a guest room or space for a larger sofa sleeper.
    • Ask Unclutterer: Trash or treasure old stuffed animals?
      Reader Kay wants to know what she should do with all of her old stuffed animals that have been in storage for decades in cardboard boxes in her basement.

    2009

    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.