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

Cloud storage makes new computer setup simple and organized

Earlier this week, I set up a new computer and it wasn’t completely horrible, thanks to “cloud storage.” Nearly all of my important information — contacts, photos, music, and more — isn’t stored on my computer. Therefore, once I got the new laptop connected to the Internet, all I had to do was log into the various services I subscribe to and I was back in business.

Years ago, buying a new computer was a bittersweet process. It’s always exciting to get a shiny, new machine, but the process of transferring your data from the old one to the new one was painful. I can remember emailing stuff to myself, using a USB flash drive over and over and even connecting two computers with a cable. Not to mention the hours and hours of time spent waiting for huge collections of photos and music to transfer, and the stress of getting emails and contacts in place.

Today, things have changed.

Photos

For me, the answer is Flickr. I love that it has:

  1. A terabyte of storage for free. If you’re shooting 7 megapixel photos, that’s 499,000 individual, full-resolution shots.
  2. Privacy. It’s easy to determine who gets access to which photo.
  3. Browse and share photos in full resolution.
  4. Mobile apps. There’s a Flickr app for the iPhone and Google Play. I haven’t used the Google Play app, but the iPhone version features auto-upload, meaning every photo you shoot is sent to Flickr automatically (and set to private by default). It’s instant, hands-off backup.

Contacts

Who you stay in touch with is another extremely important set of data. I use Apple’s iCloud for storing all of my contact information. Whenever I add, update, or organize information for a person or business, it’s backed up to Apple’s servers. (And shares that information with all of my Apple iCloud-connected devices.) When I get a new computer, I simply log in and it’s downloaded instantly. If you don’t use Mac products, you can have similar functionality with Google’s Gmail, Yahoo mail, and others.

Calendars

Again, this is mission-critical data that can’t be lost. I can’t imagine the horror of having my calendar information deleted. Fortunately, I needn’t perform any data transfer dark magic because everything lives on Google Calendar. Google Calendar, or Gcal as I call it, works with my Mac and iPhone seamlessly. It’s super easy to share information with others and integrates with other apps that I love. Gcal works on all major operating systems.

Documents

There are several ways to keep almost every other kind of document off your computer and in the cloud. Dropbox is an obvious choice (this is what Erin uses). The company offers 2 GB of online storage for free, and more if you’re interested in paying for it. It works with Macs, Windows machines, iOS, Android and nearly any modern web browser.

Box.net is another popular choice, with much the same functionality. I rely heavily on iCloud again here. Most of my writing is done in a Mac app called Byword, which will automatically upload any document I write to iCloud. When I set up my new computer, all I had to do was install Byword, launch it, sign in, and all of my documents were ready to go.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Single Handed Barber

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

I’ve been doing a little brainstorming and I’ve come up with a couple new taglines for this week’s featured product. My suggestions are: “when the Flowbee is too highfalutin for you” or “it’s a Roomba for your head — now with sharp blades!” Introducing The Single Handed Barber:

It’s a hair trimmer for the small portion of the population who wears a buzz cut, hates going to the barber for a $7 trim, only wants to use products that reference just one hand, and doesn’t already own a much more versatile Wahl Trimmer. Which, and I’m sure this can be backed up by science or math or that thing called statistics, is exactly four people.

A regular trimmer can be used for all different lengths of hair, your beard, your mustache, and on your dog. A regular trimmer also allows you to create multiple styles by having shorter hair on the back and sides of your head and longer hair on top. I’m going to guess that a regular trimmer will also last longer and have a better product warranty. Plus, you can use a regular trimmer with two hands if you want to and you won’t feel like you’re betraying an odd product name.

I’m so sad there isn’t an infomercial for The Single Handed Barber. I’d love to see the distress clips of men flubbing up their hair.

More Fun! Architect and industrial designer Katerina Kamprani of KK Studio in Greece has an incredibly fun gallery of totally useless items she has created called The Uncomfortable. Kamprani says she “decided to create and design for all the wrong reasons. Vindictive and nasty? Or a helpful study of everyday objects? The goal is to re-design useful objects making them uncomfortable but usable and maintain the semiotics of the original item.” Whatever the reason, the objects are quite entertaining. She even has a Facebook page you can like to keep up with her latest Uncomfortable additions.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

  • Managing active files and papers
    Even in the digital age, many people can work with active files and papers. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this mass of paperwork.

2010

  • File your taxes already!
    Since tax time is a little less than a month away, I wanted to nudge everyone to get their papers filed if you haven’t already done so. Especially if the government owes you money, it’s good to get this chore marked off your to-do list earlier than later.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Hide your St. Patrick’s Day hangover
    If you’re planning on heading into work tomorrow with a wicked hangover, let me recommend the following methods for keeping a low-key profile in the office
  • Ask Unclutterer: Simple baby-proofing solutions
    What is a good computer set-up that can also be locked away to keep little fingers away from the keyboard, mouse, and tower? We’re looking for something relatively inexpensive, but we haven’t found a good solution that would also fit in a living room, since our computer/monitor also functions as our TV/DVD player. Any suggestions?

2009

Uncluttering by selecting containers and setting limits

How much space in your home are you willing to give to books? To memorabilia? To food storage containers?

One way to determine these answers is to select the storage containers and/or areas you’re willing to dedicate to each category of stuff.

Books

I have a number of bookshelves, and if I ever have more books than will fit on these shelves, I will need to do some pruning. It’s not as much of an issue now — I’m shedding more books than I’m buying. But, in the past, I have indeed had to go through the shelves and find the books I was okay with passing along because I have a rule to only have as many books as fit onto the shelves I own.

Memorabilia

I have a box that holds the letters and cards I want to keep — the ones from family and friends with handwritten, heart-felt notes. If I ever get to the point where the letters and cards won’t fit in that box, I’ll need to get rid of some; the box defines how much space I’m willing to give to this type of memorabilia.

I’ve currently got an entire shelf in a closet dedicated to slide wheels, holding photos from a number of wonderful vacations. I was okay giving that shelf to the slides in the past, but now I’m reconsidering. This means I need to sort through the slides and scan the keepers (or use a scanning service to do it for me).

Food storage containers

I have a drawer that holds my food storage containers for leftovers but other people may want more space and perhaps have a cabinet for them. But setting some limit — only as much as easily fits in a specific defined space — makes sense.

Papers

I remember a time when I considered buying another file cabinet, because the ones I had were pretty much full. Then I came to my senses and just got rid of some papers. I didn’t need another container; I needed to unclutter. Which is a good thing, because I didn’t really have room for another file cabinet.

Clothes

Containers for clothes include dressers, closets, clothes trees, and hooks. If our clothes overflow our containers for storing them, we either need fewer clothes or more containers.

Supplies for crafts and hobbies

I knew someone who had a serious quilting hobby, and she chose to dedicate a whole room in her home to her quilting. She had shelves and other storage pieces inside of a larger container: the room itself. This meant she had less space for other things, but it was a trade-off that made sense for her.

The sum of our possessions

At a higher level, our homes are the containers that set the limits on how much we can own. Sometimes a person or family will have another container that extends that limit: an offsite storage unit. But, if all our stuff doesn’t fit comfortably into our spaces, something has to give or we have to move. In many cases, uncluttering will be the better choice.

3-D printing: For better or for worse?

You may remember Erin mentioning that I recently attended a Star Trek Convention. One thing I enjoy about Star Trek is that it provides an interesting view into the future. For example, on the original series (1966-1969) the crew of the Enterprise used communicators that resembled cell phones of the mid-1990s. The Enterprise crew of The Next Generation (1987-1994) used tablets that resemble iPads (2010).

On Star Trek, because of the limitations in deep space travel, food and other items such as clothing and tools were created using a device called a “replicator”. Replicators use recycled items and transforms them into new items. Today, this technology is available to us in a limited form — the 3-D printer.

3-D printers are very useful. Dentists can create crowns for teeth without the need for dental moulds. Custom orthotics can be created faster and more easily. 3-D printing allows developing countries to produce everyday items we take for granted using recycled materials readily available, thereby avoiding the costs of production and shipping.

Over the next decade, the cost of 3-D printers will steadily decline and become affordable for the average North American. Owning a 3-D printer could be beneficial as it would be easy to create replacement parts for objects that have broken. This could lead to fewer items being sent to landfill, as it would be easy to make repairs. Also, items could be customized to function better for your specific situation. For example, if you cannot find a shelf at the store to fit your uniquely sized space, a customized shelf could be built with a 3-D printer and that would allow you to become better organized.

However, 3-D printing is a double-edged sword. The cost for raw material is relatively low. Would consumers spend time building items that would create even more clutter in their homes and offices? (Custom bobble-head doll anyone?) Would even more items end up in landfills because it will be too easy for people to create items they don’t really need?

In the Star Trek series Voyager, Captain Janeway refused to share replicator technology with certain alien species because she felt they were not ready to use it wisely. Are we ready to use 3-D printing to reduce clutter and improve our lives?

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • Unitasker Wednesday: The Spaghetti Fork
    It’s usually extremely obvious to me what the inventor of a unitasker was attempting to achieve with his or her product. Even though I don’t have a need for their thing-a-ma-bobs, I at least get what they’re trying to do. This week’s unitasker doesn’t fit into that mold.

2011

  • Super storage closets
    A well-organized storage closet can be a beneficial attribute in any home or office. You can easily find what you need, when you need it, and have an exact space to return an object when you’re finished.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: The Meatballer
    Little did I know, but there is a kitchen gadget especially for the purpose of making meatballs. The Meatballer.

2010

2009