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.

Organizing, straightening up, and cleaning

Organizing. Straightening up. Cleaning. Tidying. Arranging.

These are some of the terms that describe varying levels of what everyone who has possessions does to keep their dwellings from being messy. By their very nature, each term’s definition can vary greatly from person to person, spouse to spouse, or house mate to house mate. In the name of domestic harmony and effective un-messying, I’m opening a dialog on how we define these terms and what we expect from each. A similar conversation like this in your home can ensure everyone is on the same page when talking about establishing and maintaining order. It doesn’t matter if your terms match mine, simply that all of you agree on the definitions of the words and phrases you use.

Defining organizing

For me, organizing is to apply logical structure to an unstructured collection of items. The items can be physical, like books or LEGO bricks, but they also can be intangible, like ideas or plans.

What organizing looks like

If I were to organize something, you can expect to see a collection of items arranged in a neat, systematic order. In other words, a messy pile of [x] becomes a tidy arrangement, sorted by a system that is easily understood.

Defining straightening up

Straightening up is different from organizing in that it implies that organizing has already been done, and only some minor maintenance is needed to restore order.

What straightening up looks like

My kids’ shoes are stored in three wicker baskets near the back door of our house. Three baskets for three kids. The organizing has been done — having baskets for each kids’ shoes. To straighten them up, I’d ask the kids to put their shoes in their basket.

Defining cleaning

Cleaning implies no organizing or straightening up. For me, cleaning means simply: to bust out the window cleaner, mop, broom, vacuum or what-have-you to remove dirt, dust, and the like.

What cleaning looks like

I’ll admit it, I don’t like cleaning. It’s the most labor-intensive of the activities, and involves taking things down, moving furniture, and telling the kids, “Stay off the floors!” We can get nit-picky and differentiate between “cleaning” and “a good clean,” but that’s for another conversation.

Other words

There are even more words in the English language to discuss un-messying your home. Tidying is one that implies the least amount of effort of the bunch. If I’m going to “quickly put these things in to some semblance of order before our dinner guests arrive,” I’ll spend likely less than 10 minutes resetting order. If your home is organized and you take time each evening to straighten up before bed, tidying is usually all you need to do when you have people over to visit.

Now I turn to you, readers. How to do define these un-messying words? What do you expect of each, and, finally, are there any terms specific to your household? I once had a friend from the midwest who said, “This room needs ‘red’ up.” I think that meant cleaning up.

A little uncluttering goes a long way

Organizing and uncluttering may seem like an overwhelming job, but that is only if you think about your entire house or your entire office as a single project. Instead of feeling anxious about the tasks you have set out for yourself, make a realistic plan you can manage. The following are a few tips to help you keep the momentum and not become discouraged:

Slow and steady wins the race. Clear one small space at a time. Organize just one drawer or one shelf per day. Think about looking at the empty spots and making them bigger. Working for just five or 10 minutes a day will help clear the clutter. Walk around a room with a trash bag. Put everything you see that is trash into the bag. Place the bag by the door and take it out the next time you go. Repeat this task with a bag for items you wish to donate to charity.

A detour does not mean you’re losing! There will be setbacks. You may have a day where you’re just too tired or ill to unclutter. Don’t let it stop you — just start again as soon as possible.

Done is better than perfect. It is okay to make mistakes. It is okay for your uncluttering and organizing efforts to be not quite right. Keep the overall goal in mind and you’ll make it to the finish line.

Think (but not too much). If you’re making long, complicated decisions about each item, you’ll never finish uncluttering. Don’t spend more than a few minutes on any particular item. Ask for help if you need to. Just because you can think of many ways to use an item, does not mean you have to keep it or that you will ever use the item in all the ways you imagined. If you haven’t used the object in a year or haven’t even seen it in ages, you can probably live without it.

Take a risk. The people who gain the most are usually the people who are willing to risk the most. Play a game with yourself by asking, “What’s the worst that can happen if I throw this out? And how bad would that really be?” Chances are, the worst is not as bad as you think.

Make it easy. It may seem like a simple idea, but having the trash can or garbage bag easily accessible makes it easy to get rid of trash. Rather than putting garbage down just anywhere, put it in a trash bag. If you need to, put a trashcan, recycle bin, and donation basket in every room. It may take a little longer to collect up the trash bags on garbage day, but each room will be cleaner.

Sort before discarding. By grouping similar items together as you work, you speed up the organizing process. It is hard to get rid of one white shirt but it is a bit easier to get rid of 18 of the 20 white shirts.

Grand Prix! Give yourself a prize each time you’ve successfully reached a goal. Vow to give yourself a treat such as a special dessert or an evening at the movies if you’ve uncluttered 20 minutes per day for a whole week.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

  • Money saving ideas that can create clutter
    You can turn your clutter into cash. Check out these six money making ideas and tips to keep clutter from infiltrating your space.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Elegant Baby Cup
    At $160, this Elegant Baby Cup signals to all the other babies that your baby knows how to live it up and fine dine with the mucky muck. Even though your baby can’t hold up its head or find its mouth with regular consistency, pay no mind.

2011

2009

When multitasking can be dangerous

In an effort to get more done each day, we’re often tempted to multitask. As Erin has noted before, sometimes this is fine — for example, running a load of laundry while I’m writing this post is unlikely to cause any problems. However, when both tasks require focused attention, multitasking can actually be detrimental to productivity. As Tim Wu wrote in The New Yorker, “The brain is not good at conscious multitasking, or trying to pay active attention to more than one thing at once.”

While this attempted multitasking would usually just make us less efficient, sometimes it can be downright dangerous. The dangers of texting while driving are self-evident, since taking our eyes off the road can’t be a good thing. One study showed that the crash risk when texting was 23 times greater than when not texting. (Another study reported a less drastic figure, with an eight times greater crash risk, but that’s still very high.) Drivers who texted had their eyes off the road for an average of 5 seconds, which is long enough to go the length of a football field for someone driving at 55 miles per hour.

But studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving, even hands-free, is also very dangerous. A white paper from the National Safety Council (PDF) states: “A few states have passed legislation making it illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving. These laws give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.”

In an 18-minute video, Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab explains the problems with talking on a cell phone when driving, noting that:

  • Someone talking on a cell phone, hands-free or not, is about four times more likely to be involved in an accident than someone who isn’t using a cell phone. That’s about the same risk level as a person who is driving drunk at a .08 blood alcohol level.
  • Listening to the radio at normal volume levels doesn’t result in impairment. Neither does talking to a passenger. In fact, talking to a single adult passenger actually lowers the crash risk a bit. (David Teater, the senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, makes this same point in another video.) Passengers will know to stop talking if the driving situation gets difficult, and can serve as a second set of eyes.
  • “Just looking at something doesn’t mean you’ll see it.” When people are talking on cell phones, their attention is diverted from processing traffic-related visual information (pedestrians, cars, traffic signals, etc.) and they “fail to see up to half of the information that they would normally have seen.”
  • People talking on cell phones tend to only look straight ahead, rather than also looking at things in their periphery by using their side mirrors and rear view mirror.

While many U.S. states have restrictions on texting and driving, and some restrict talking on a handheld phone, it’s currently legal in all states for most drivers to talk on the phone hands-free. (Young drivers, novice drivers, and bus drivers are restricted in some states.) However, the studies show it’s a bad idea.

For increased productivity with your work, avoid multitasking when you need focused attention. More importantly, avoid the types of multitasking that can create dangers for yourself and/or others. If you’re driving, pull off the road if you need to make a call or send a text message.