Cleaning up after the holidays

Every great party is followed by a great cleanup. The holidays are a shiny, tinsel-strewn example of this. While I love the holidays, I also recognize that it’s an invitation to mess. First of all, you bring new stuff into your house. There are also get-togethers, lots of newly-emptied boxes, paper all over the place, decorations, and so on. But there’s hope! The following suggestions are a few things you can do to keep the cleanup stress to a minimum.

For many, the holidays include the accumulation of stuff. What’s the best way to handle the influx without creating new piles of clutter? Try the one-in-two-out method. It’s pretty simple: for each new item you received and want to keep, you get rid (donate, recycle, sell) of two items you previously owned. For example, if the kids got new PJs, pass on two older pairs to younger cousins. If new books arrived, pull two from the library to give to loved ones or friends who might like them. Perhaps a local preschool could benefit.

I mentioned the influx of new toys briefly. The one-in-two-out rule works well, but you can expand on it. You can donate older toys that are still in good condition. Consider seeking out a toy drive. Ask your local chamber of commerce for help if you don’t know of any in your area. Police stations and fire stations often take donated toys, too. Stuffed Animals for Emergencies, Inc. looks for stuffed animals in particular.

You can re-purpose old toys, too. For example, these wooden block wall hangings and this animal head coat rack are two great recycling ideas.

I’d be remiss if I neglected addressing ornaments and lights. Storing each can be a real challenge. On one hand, many ornaments are precious and carry much sentimental value. On the other, it’s as if Christmas lights were made to tangle themselves into a frustrating rat’s nest between January 1 and December 1.

Durable Christmas ornament storage boxes are super for organizing what you have, protecting your ornaments, and keeping out pests. They’re made of thick plastic, stackable, and feature a single compartment of each ornament. Here’s a tip: take some of that crumpled-up, leftover wrapping paper and stuff it inside the compartments for jiggle-free storage of your smaller ornaments.

As for the lights, don’t end up like this. To store your lights, first make sure all the bulbs are working. Next, keep the spare bulb with their parent strands. Finally, employ the awesome cloths hanger trick. The idea is to wrap a strand around a coat hanger, tape the end pieces down and then stack them in a plastic bin. I love it. Housekeeping has a few good ideas, too, like the Pringles can trick. Remove the lid, cut out the bottom and wrap the lights around the tube.

Preparing for house guests

For those of us who celebrate, the holidays mean that you’re likely to have house guests. Some will stay for a day, while others will be in it for the long haul. My wife and I play host to several far-flung relatives every year, many who stay for a week or more. It’s great to be around everybody, and a little planning makes it even better. The following are a few organized ideas you can employ to make the whole experience better for everyone.

Pre-visit

Before the gang shows up, there’s some preparation that needs to be done. I suggest you begin by delegating. There’s a lot to be done, and taking it all on by yourself is a bad idea. First, write down what needs to be done before everyone arrives. Next, divvy up who’s going to do what. Not only that, but set a start date and deadline for each task. That way, projects like “ensure that all bath towels are clean and available” and “wash all bed linens” not only have a due date, but a person in charge. Make this list public to everyone in your home so that accountability isn’t a mystery to anyone.

Next, prioritize. The lists you generate while working on the above will probably contain many items that must be done, as well as some that would just be nice to get done. From there, I suggest making three lists:

  • Priority A: Do or die, must be done.
  • Priority B: It would be nice if these things happened.
  • Priority C: Aspirational goals. Everyone will have a great time, even if these items are not completed.

After making this list, you’ll have a real good handle on what must be completed to pull off a successful and relatively stress-free hosting, and what’s nice but not crucial. Then, act accordingly.

During the visit

My family is not content with sitting around. They like to go, see, and do. This is a lot easier when the going, seeing, and doing have been defined ahead of time. Make a note of who’s “on point” for a given activity well before the guests arrive. Who will drive to caroling in town? Who’s in charge of dinner? Having those questions (and more) answered ahead of time will benefit everybody.

When my extended family goes on summer vacations together, we create sign-up sheets for determining who wants to do what. It might sound overly formal, but it helps the 13 of us stay on top of things without a doubt.

It’s also important to be flexible. The schedule isn’t the end-all and be-all of your time together. It’s merely a formalized suggestion. There will be times when plans change. Go with it. You’ll have a much better time than trying to stick, unyieldingly, to the itinerary.

Finally, don’t forget the little things or the regular routine. Who’s going to make breakfasts? Or take the dog out? Run to the dump or turn the laundry over? Answering these questions ahead of time is a good idea.

Odds and ends

Here are a few tricks that my wife and I have used at home with great success. First, we put a folder full of take-out menus in our guests’ bedrooms. That way, they know what’s around and can make their own plans if they like. Also, make a “Boredom Jar” like the one I described earlier this year. To make one, print many answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper. Next, glue them to popsicle sticks and stick them into a jar. Now, when the kids ask, “What can I do?” just point them to the jar.

Hopefully something here will work for you. Good luck and have a great holiday season.

Tech tips for the holidays

The season for giving is here and that means there is a lot to do. Fortunately, the gadgets are here to help. That’s what they’re supposed to do, right? Make life easier? And, there are several examples of apps that can work for you.

Reaching around to the back of the Christmas tree is a hassle. I’ve knocked ornaments off several times, much to my wife’s chagrin, and even forgotten to turn the thing off at night. The solution is automation, and the easiest way to get started is with the Belkin WeMo switch. It’s a Wi-Fi capable switch that plugs into a wall socket and lets you turn anything plugged into it from almost anywhere. After some easy initial setup, grab the free WeMo app for your iPhone or Android phone and you’re all set. Give it a tap, and the tree is on. Tap again and it’s off. You can keep using it when the holidays are over, of course, for things like televisions, lights, and so on. Plus, you can create schedules with the free apps that will turn devices on and off for you.

My wife and I started to receive Christmas cards this week. If you’re still waiting to send holiday greetings, fear not. There’s still time to make and send great-looking cards from home. Shutterfly is what we use. It’s super easy to put a card together and have it delivered. Or, buy a some labels so you can print labels for them at home. Speaking of labels, Mac users can check out tutorials on creating great-looking address labels with Apple’s Contacts and Pages applications.

No time to wait for physical cards? Then consider this tutorial from Instructables on making and sending ecards with your smartphone. They used an iPhone in the article, but an Android phone will work just as well.

Many of us will travel between now and New Year’s Eve. There are so many great travel apps available, that I could write a whole stand-alone post on the topic. In the interest of time, I’ve picked a few of my favorites.

Kayak has been my top travel app for a long time, as it’s a one-stop shop. It does everything from creating a packing list to finding deals on flights and hotels. Plus, its mobile apps are just beautiful and often dispense flight information faster than the airport. I use it almost every time I travel. It’s so tidy as it keeps everything you need in one app.

If you’ll be road tripping, check out Waze. This service offers turn-by-turn navigation, as many do, but what makes it unique is the crowd-sourced information. As other users travel, they report on time-consuming accidents, road conditions, and map accuracy. If there’s an accident along your route, you’ll be notified in real time, allowing you to make time- and money-saving adjustments. The app even lets you know where you’ll find the cheapest gas along your route.

I assume you’ll be traveling to familiar territory, but just in case you aren’t, check out Field Trip from Google. It’s available for the iPhone and Android. As you move about, it points out interesting things in your vicinity.

Here’s one more quick tip: If you’re traveling with an Apple laptop, here is the best way to pack the power supply and cord.

Last but not least, don’t forget about the far-flung relatives and loved ones who can’t join the festivities in person. Set up a video call and wish them the best while you’re face-to-face. Apple’s Facetime lets you send and receive video calls to and from a Mac, iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, while Skype covers just about every other device.

I hope these tips help you enjoy your holiday more thoroughly. Have a great time, everyone.

Keep your holidays festive and safe

Over the last few weeks, we’ve shared holiday gift ideas (even last-minute ones) and now that there is just one more day until Christmas, today’s tips are geared toward safety. Whether you’re uncluttering or planning a holiday event, it’s important to unclutter potential hazards.

Unclutter decorations that are harmful to pets

Your pets will probably get included in the holiday fun, but there are some things that can be dangerous for them. In a recent interview, local D.C. veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson mentioned that decorations like tinsel and curling ribbon (both are very attractive to cats), can be very problematic to a cat’s digestive tract. She also mentioned that the water your live Christmas tree sits in, though not toxic, can be upsetting to your pets, so make sure that they aren’t drinking it. For more information on ways you can keep your pet safe, check out the ASPCA’s holiday pet care tips and visit WTOP.com to hear the rest of Dr. Nelson’s safety suggestions.

Keep specific plants out of reach

There are several plants that can be harmful when consumed by pets and humans and one popular holiday plant, the Poinsettia, is on the list. Though you’ll probably only feel ill if you eat it, other plants like Mistletoe, Amaryllis, and Holly are seriously poisonous. If you have them in your home, keep them out of reach of children and your four-legged friends. And, since the needles from Christmas trees can also be choking hazards, try to keep little hands interested in other things. To see the full list of plants that can be harmful, read Poisonous Holiday Plants on About.com Chemistry.

Keep entryways clear

Just as you wouldn’t put your tree in front of a fireplace or near a portable heater (this is a fire risk), you’ll also want to keep your entryways accessible. Keep your decorations from blocking doors and hallways so that you can easily exit in the event of an emergency. This is a good, uncluttered idea for all times of the year, not just the holidays.

Attend to fireplaces, candles, and cooking

If you have a fireplace and intend to use it during your celebrations, remove any decor (like stockings) from around it before you light a fire. If you use candles, do not put lit candles on your tree and be sure to blow them out after using them. You’ll also want to keep them away from gifts and place them in an area where they cannot be easily knocked over. At the height of the festivities, you may forget that you have food simmering on the stove or in the oven. Consider designating someone to periodically check in on the kitchen if you can’t do it yourself. For other safety tips, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has a guide that you might find helpful.

Though your holiday plans are probably well underway, take a look around and and use today’s uncluttering tips to ensure that you will have fun and be safe this holiday season.

Stop holiday card clutter in its tracks

What do you do with your cards after the holidays have passed? Do you keep them on display for a while or put them away in a box? Do you throw them out? When the holiday season comes to a close, you may find it difficult to part with them. If you’re not quite ready to let them go or not sure what to do with them, they can easily clutter your space. Instead of them taking over the top of your dining table or whatever surface they’ve landed on, consider using them in different ways so that you an extend their usefulness.

Make digital copies

Digitizing your cards may be a nice option especially since you can use your favorites as desktop screen savers. You can scan them and continue to enjoy them long after the season has ended and not have to worry about them cluttering your home or office. And, when you decide that you no longer want them, uncluttering will just be a few, quick clicks away.

A fun idea I’ve seen linked to numerous times on Pinterest is to snap pictures of family photo cards you receive with your smart phone and link the images to your contacts so the appropriate picture appears when you get a call. Ashley Ann Photography has a tutorial on her site for how to do this project yourself (the tutorial begins halfway down the page, so you’ll need to scroll).

Donate your greeting cards

Did you know that you can donate new and used holiday cards? The St. Jude’s Ranch for Children accepts used all-occasion greeting cards year-round. Children who participate in St. Jude’s Kids’ Corp. program use your old cards to create new cards for sale. Also check with your local community and senior centers, schools, and after-school programs to find out if they have a need for writing and craft projects.

Make something new

Used holiday cards can be transformed into holiday postcards. Whether you’re sending your usual holiday greetings or participating in Holiday Mail for Heroes, you can host card-making parties and involve friends and family in the card-making process.

Last week, I mentioned that you can make something fun with orphaned socks. Well, you can do the same with holiday cards, too. Indulge your creative side and make gift tags (Instructables has a tutorial), paper ornaments, placemats, magnets (using photo cards), book marks, or game and puzzle pieces.

Frame your favorites

Why not frame the cards you love? Pick a spot on a table or wall to display your favorite ones. If you have several cards that are meaningful to you, consider using hinged frames (like the Easy Change Artwork Frame) so that you can easily rotate the cards you’d liked to display. Depending on the size of the frame you use, you may also be able to include multiple cards at one time.

No matter how you choose to repurpose the holiday cards you’ve received, remember that you can be creative with ways to get more enjoyment from them. Just be sure that they don’t end up cluttering your home or office. And, don’t forget, you can always trash and/or recycle them.

2012 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for children

Kids excel at many things, including the acquisition of stuff. From books to LEGO bricks, and dolls to video games, it all piles up and leads to the inevitable question: Where should they put this? There’s a larger question at work here, too: do they need all this stuff? Listed below are a few gift ideas to help children answer both questions. And don’t worry, they’ll enjoy opening these gifts, too.

  1. A notebook. My nine-year-old is a real “Forgetful Flower” (she takes after her father). So I’ve gotten her to adopt a habit of mine: writing things down in a notebook. Filednotes Brand sells this super-cute “Summer Camp” 3-pack of brightly-colored notebooks that comes with a three matching pencils and an oversized rubber band that make a great stocking stuffer. My daughter uses hers to write down classroom assignments.
  2. Labels from Mabel’s Labels. These super-cute labels clearly display your child’s name, come in many sizes, colors and themes (dinosaur, nature, etc.) and stick to just about anything. We’ve placed them on clothes sent to camp, inside baseball hats and other sports equipment, lunch boxes and more. They also make dog-tag style bag tags (older kids won’t be embarrassed to use them) perfect for hockey equipment, laundry, etc. We’ve even put the clothing labels through several washings and they’ve remained intact.
  3. The IRIS LEGO 6-Case Workstation and Storage Unit is awesome. Shallow, color-coded drawers make it easy to find the pieces you want. The top of the unit itself is a LEGO surface, so it doubles as a play area. LEGO bricks seem to reproduce on their own that his unit keeps their population under control.
  4. Wall-mounted sports storage racks. I love these great-looking racks for storing/displaying snowboards, wakeboards, surfboards, skateboards and skis. Teenagers will like them because their gear looks cool presented like this. You’ll like them because it gets that stuff up off the floor.
  5. Nintendo DS game organizer. These game cartridges are so tiny and they love to disappear. This organizer holds 12 cartridges and offers easy access. There are similar storage devices for all handheld gaming systems. Include a new game with the organizer, and it will make most any kid happy.
  6. Lap desks. In dark and bright models, a lap desk can be incredibly useful gift for a kid who likes to do homework on the couch or in a comfy chair. My kids covered theirs with strips of Duck Tape in crazy patterns for a custom look.

Younger children who aren’t yet into skateboarding, gaming systems, or homework might enjoy books that have underlying themes on uncluttering and organizing:

  1. Room Enough for Daisy by Debbie Waldman. Little Daisy has so many toys, she wishes for a larger bedroom to accommodate them all. Eventually, her mom convinces her to donate some items to a rummage sale. Cindy Revell’s illustrations are really cute.
  2. Too Many Toys by David Shannon. David’s books are fantastic, starting with the hilariously relatable “No, David!” Too Many Toys has a similar theme to Room Enough for Daisy, in that David is required to thin his massive collection of toys. It’s a fun story that my kids think is funny and I find quite charming.
  3. Mr. Messy, part of the Mr./Mrs. series by Roger Hargreaves, is an untidy fellow until he meets Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy.
  4. More by I. C. Springman is about a hoarding magpie whose friends teach him the value of “enough.” Again, the illustrations are great and the minimal text great for new readers.

I’ve got one last tip to share. My wife and I have two kids. To make things easy on Christmas morning, we wrap gifts strategically. Presents to Child A from mom and dad are wrapped in Paper A. Those to Kid B are in Paper B. Finally, gifts from Santa are magically in a third paper. This way, we avoid the “Who is this from?” question as well as “Is this mine?” It works very well for us.

The full 2012 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Holiday gifts: Out with the old in with the new

You will undoubtedly receive some gifts this holiday season that you really don’t want, but for the gifts that you do want make sure you get rid of the old items in your home that they replace. If you receive a new pair of jeans, get rid of an old pair. A new coffee maker? Get rid of the old one that hasn’t made a good pot of coffee since the ’90s.

Try and make the holiday season a zero sum gain in the accumulation of stuff. It is also a good idea to remove old toys from your child’s collection when the inevitable influx of new toys that come into the house.

This advice won’t apply to all gifts, such as one of a kind gifts and consumables. However, for clothing and toys, it is an easy way to get rid of old items that have been replaced.

Food donation items may be lurking in your cupboard

With the holiday season upon us, what better time to do an inventory of your cupboard or pantry?! If your cupboards are anything like mine, you likely have duplicate canned goods that you can take to a local charity in time for holiday feasts.

Over the span of a year, canned goods seem to accumulate at the back of the cupboard leaving me with multiple items of the same thing. It seems to be inevitable. So, take some time, unclutter your cupboards, and donate your extra cans to a worthy cause. (Be nice, too, and check to make sure that your cans haven’t passed their expiration dates!) On your way to the donation center, you may want to stop at the grocery store and buy some extra non-perishables for good measure.