Effective note-taking

A few years ago, Unclutterer readers started a discussion on effective note-taking. Several of you had great suggestions, and looking at that old thread got me thinking about my own note-taking techniques. They’ve changed quite a bit since I was a young student, though I do still fall back on old techniques now and then.

Best practices

We take notes so we can recall important information later. It’s a real hassle to sit down to a review of your notes only to realize you’ve got overly complex notes that actually hinder your recall process. Avoid this frustration by keeping your note-taking simple. Use clear keywords and avoid the temptation to hurriedly write down everything the teacher, lecturer, or coworker says. I put things into my own words unless I hear a fantastic phrase that I’ll want to recall verbatim. When that happens, I use quotation marks.

That said, a logical flow that works for you is most important. When I was a young student, I learned the hierarchical Arabic system that started with a Roman numeral, and added a capital letter under that, etc. That served me well through high school, but once I was in college I found it was hard to keep up with lectures using this system.

That’s when I adopted a system of dashes and dots. Large dots identified a main topic, with dashes and smaller dots marking sub-categories beneath those (similar to the “Dash Plus” system Patrick Rhone uses on to-do lists). It was quick and effective for me.

Taking notes is only the starting point, of course. Just because you write something down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall/find it later. My system to help me find information later couldn’t be easier. As a matter of course, I write the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page of notes. When a new topic begins, I circle the page number. Then, I make a bold line across the bottom of the final page of those notes to represent the end of that topic. If I’ve got a lot of notes, let’s say more than 12 pages, I’ll write an index for my own reference. For example, “Sample service schedule, page 11.”

You might also benefit from trying to create your index from memory before writing in page numbers. Creating this list mostly from memory will start you on your recall process.

Technology

For many, paper will be the answer for which technology to use for taking notes. If that’s you, I understand. Paper is tremendously flexible. You can capture a grocery list or solve very complex problems with a sheet of paper (or note card or napkin or sticky note) and a pencil. But, if you do use paper, I strongly recommend you scan your paper notes and run them through a hand-writing recognition program (like the one standard in Evernote) so you can easily search your notes later and have a backup of them in the Cloud.

If you’re not a paper person and you want to use something electronic, consider the following:

Mind Mapping. I’ve written about my love of Mind Mapping before on Unclutterer. It’s a non-liner way to capture ideas quickly. It’s especially useful when one aspect or idea will quickly spawn several others. On the Mac side, I love MindNode Pro. Windows users will want to check out Mindmeister.

Evernote. Here’s a great solution that’s platform-agnostic. It’s like working with paper, so you can use any system you like. The real power with Evernote is how searchable everything is. You can find any word or phrase you like and even create saved searches that monitor your notes for criteria you determine in real time.

Sketchnotes. If you’re an extremely visual person, you may benefit from taking Sketchnotes. The app Adobe Ideas (which easily integrates with other Adobe products) and Paper by FiftyThree both have high reviews by Mac users. And INKredible is well-rated for Android users.

I find that note-taking is a personal thing, with people using a wide range of methods. The important take-aways from this article are: keep note-taking simple, stick to important keywords, use a markup system that makes review helpful for you, and don’t be afraid to abandon systems that are no longer effective.

Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.

Dropbox gets serious about digital photos

I’ve written about Dropbox before on Unclutterer and how to use it to keep your digital data more organized and safe. It’s a company that offers web-based or “cloud” storage that is nearly ubiquitous. Now, the company is getting serious about your digital photos and, in my opinion, that is a very good thing.

About Dropbox

Dropbox is a storage service that lets you store files online easily and securely. There’s an app for almost every platform — Mac, Windows, iOS, Android and Linux — plus a browser-based web app for data transfer. You can also mark your favorite or other important files for offline access.

By default, you start off with 2 GB of storage for free. A pro level bumps the limit up to 100 GB for $9.99 per month, and a business account gives you as much space as you want for $15 per user (minimum five users). For many home users, the free level is sufficient.

Using Dropbox

The various Dropbox applications work seamlessly with your device’s operating system, so much so that it feels like it’s been there all along. On the Mac and Windows machines, it acts like any other folder on your computer. Move items in and out and the app automatically makes a copy on Dropbox’s remote servers. You can create as many files, folders, and nested folders that your plan can handle. If local storage is an issue, Dropbox has you covered. You can tell the application to back up certain folders and not others. Things are even easier as far as photos are concerned.

Grabbing photos from your smartphone

The Dropbox app for iPhone and Android features an option called “Auto Upload.” Once enabled (it’s set to off by default), it sends a copy of each photo you shoot to the “Photos” folder in your Dropbox account. You can opt to restrict photo upload to when Wi-Fi is available, if you’re concerned about data usage, or just let it run. Either way, the process is totally hands-off, and you can shoot knowing that a backup of every photo you shoot is being made instantly.

How do you view these photos? Well, that’s been the problem. Rooting through a folder of photos is less than ideal since it has been going into an everything bucket, where all the pictures are thrown in a heap. I do not like everything buckets. Fortunately, the company has recently gone all in on photos. As of a few weeks ago, Dropbox sorts your photos and video by creation date. You can even make custom albums, and share them with family and friends.

They’ve also introduced Carousel, a free mobile app for the iPhone and Android. It saves your images in full resolution and sorts them by date and location taken. Your photos are very easy to share and you can start a conversation of comments around an image, similar to how services like Instagram work.

What I like with Dropbox’s changes are the automatic backup and the really convenient Carousel app. Managing and backing up digital photos can be a real bear. Dropbox is working to make it a little bit easier.

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.

Unclutter your tech with the Rule of One

From time-to-time, I’ll think about this post I read on Apartment Therapy back in 2010. For whatever reason, the post stuck with me. The advice in the post espouses The Rule of One, which breaks down like this:

Keep the things you own (especially technology) down to only one.

I like the idea, but am still trying to figure out if I can apply it to everything in my life. I certainly need to have more than one shirt, for instance. But, in other areas, could it make sense for me? I especially like this insight:

Listening to music? One iPod. One speaker set … Hold on to that one item for as long as possible.

Like I said, it’s impractical for me to apply the Rule of One to all aspects of my possessions. I have several baseball hats and I like to wear them all, so I don’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of all but one of them. But, a quick glance at my iPhone reveals a problem. I have seven weather applications. I’ve also got four note-taking apps and four camera apps. Yes, each does something unique, but honestly none of them is markedly different than the other. I don’t need all four camera apps, for instance, and should decide on one “keeper.” The rest are clutter in that they consume precious storage space on my iPhone and clutter my mind, as I must stop and choose one every time I want to take a picture.

I also like Nguyen’s advice to “hold on to that item for as long as possible.” My Internet buddy Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac has written about this topic several times. In an article called “The Season of Stuff,” he gives good, pre-emptive uncluttering advice for the holiday season:

You can pledge to get rid of an amount of stuff equal to the amount you receive. You can let those who love you know that you do not want more stuff but want something less tangible instead (breakfast in bed, money for a favorite charity, etc.). Ask for specific stuff you really truly need that will add years of value to your life on a daily basis.

Now, if you have superfluous tech that you’d like to get rid of, don’t just bring it to the dump. There are several ways to recycle it responsibly:

  • Donation. Is there a group, organization or school nearby that would love to have it? Give them a call.
  • Best Buy. This American big box store will accept three electronic items per household per day for responsible recycling. It’s free, and no-questions-asked. You didn’t have to buy the item there to recycle it there.
  • Seek a local alternative. For example, Free Geek is an Oregon-based service that takes your electronics, similar to Best Buy’s program. Search around to find something similar in your area.

Look at the tech you use every day and decide, is any of this superfluous? Can I follow the Rule of One in this area of my life? If so, unclutter the extraneous items and enjoy having fewer distractions.

What’s in your digital junk drawer?

Earlier this week, Jeri asked about the junk drawer that’s probably in your home (it’s okay, almost all of us have one). But junk drawers exist in places beyond your cabinets. There’s another one that’s even more covert, and it’s your computer. There’s all sorts of stuff in there, and much of it can be safely tossed away. I’ll reveal what junk is on mine and give you suggestions for how to deal with similar junk on your machine.

Junk

There’s a of stuff that is, in the strictest sense, junk on my computer. These items can be thrown away with no negative consequences.

What is it?

  • Old software installers
  • Links to web pages I’ve lost interest in
  • Notes on projects long past

Where is it?

For me, most of the junk is in my “Downloads” folder. That’s where my web browser places items I’ve downloaded. For many of you, the folder is probably on your desktop. For me, it’s a folder in my Home folder. To see where your browser is placing downloads, look at its settings or preferences. Then, get in there, go through what you find and delete anything that’s absolutely unnecessary.

I found some true junk in my email software, too. Now I know that many of you like or even have to keep archival email. Still, instructions to the restaurant you visited three years ago is probably safe to throw away (especially if it was a lousy restaurant). Use you own good judgment when making this decision.

Reference material

Here’s a very popular category for a junk-drawer. I’m talking about information that doesn’t require you to do anything, but might be useful in the future.

What is it?

Almost anything:

  • A summer schedule for the local community theatre
  • Operating instructions for that new radio
  • Information from Jr.’s school
  • Material for a meeting

Where is it?

For most people, this reference material is in your email. I know that a huge number of you use your email software as a filing cabinet. I think this is a bad idea, as I explained in my very first post for Unclutterer (was that really two years ago?). If that’s you and you’re happy – perhaps you’ve got a folder system or a method of archiving/search that works – great. For me, Evernote is my digital filing system. It’s where all of my reference material lives, including user manuals.

Memorabilia

Yes, memorabilia can be digital, too. I’ve got quite a bit stashed here and there.

What is it?

  • Photos
  • Pleasant emails
  • Quick videos
  • Scanned sketches from the kids

Where is it?

For me, almost all of the clutter in this category lives in my photo software. You’re probably thinking, “But Dave, that’s what it’s for!” You’re right, and bravo for not piling photos on the desktop or who knows where. But, if you take as many photos as I do, your library will grow unwieldy quickly.

You can keep on top of it by archiving your work. Most computers can burn discs or DVDs and it’s a nice idea to make an archive as the year ends, to be stored away. Just understand that data stored on a CD or DVD won’t last forever, so consider digital storage, too.

An external drive is a good idea, as is a service like Flickr, which gives customers one terabyte of storage. A terabyte can hold a lot of photos. Flickr also lets you tag, categorize, sort and organize to your heart’s content, so that one image you need is easily found.

… and the rest

There’s likely other stuff hanging out your computer that’s prime for more organized storage or outright disposal. Duplicates of files are certainly up for deletion. Occasionally, I’ll find a piece of software I haven’t used in ages, little notes I made while working on an article, images I no longer need and so on. It’s helpful to take an hour or so once in a while to identify and purge this temporary stuff.

Now that you’ve tackled the junk drawer in the kitchen, turn you attention to the one on you’re computer. You’ll be glad you did.

Improve your productivity by reading the manual

I recently saw a comment online that read something like, “All I use the iPhone’s Home button is for is taking screenshots. What else is it for?” Here at Unclutterer, we believe that knowing what your gear is capable of doing improves your productivity and helps to keep you organized. In short, we think you should always read the manual so you get the most of your technology and don’t waste your time and money. With that in mind, the following is a list of the things that simple little Home button can do for iPhone and iPad owners, as described in the products’ manuals.

  1. Go home. This is the most important feature. No matter where you are, you can get back to home screen with a tap. If he gets frustrated or lost, it’s comforting to know that a single tap of the Home button is the way out. He can start over.
  2. Take screenshots. Yes, it does this and it’s quite useful. Hold down to Home button and the power button (top of the device) for just a second to take a screenshot. You’ll hear a “camera shutter” noise and find the image in your Camera Roll
  3. Multi-Task Bar. A double-tap reveals the apps you’ve opened most recently, in order. Tap any one to jump right to it. Or, swipe the image of the app screen up and it will close the app.
  4. Wake. Tap the Home button to wake your iPhone’s display.
  5. Reset. Force a misbehaving iPhone to shut down by holding down the Home button and power button simultaneously until the screen goes dark. When you see an Apple logo, let go. Note that you only have to do this if your phone is seriously misbehaving.
  6. Siri. Press and hold the Home button to get the attention of Siri, Apple’s automated assistant.
  7. Accessibility functions. The Home button can perform one of five accessibility functions: toggle VoiceOver, switch the display to white-on-black, toggle zoom, toggle AssistiveTouch and ask which function should be performed. You can set this up in the Accessibility Settings.
  8. Exit “Jiggle Mode.” Jiggle Mode refers to the state your iPhone is in when you’re rearranging or removing app icons. To enter Jiggle Mode, tap and hold on any app icon. When you’re done, tap the Home button to resume normal functioning.

By reading the manual we discovered this one button can do eight separate things.

Think about all of the devices you own and all of the buttons on those devices. Do you know what every single one of those buttons does? Can it perform more than one function? If you have technology in your home or office and you don’t know all that it can do, take a few minutes now to read the manual to save you time and money in the future.

Tech to help keep those New Year’s resolutions

I don’t have a failsafe solution for meeting your 2014 resolutions, but I have a few suggestions for tech gadgets and online resources to help you stay organized while trying to achieve your goals.

The following is a list of common New Year’s resolutions and related gadgets or Internet tools to help you track and/or be organized in your pursuit to achieve each one:

  1. Get fit and/or lose weight. Gym managers around the world await January 1 with great anticipation, as that is when newly-determined customers show up to buy memberships. With or without a gym membership, you can track your day-to-day march toward better health with a Fitbit. It tracks your movement, records your stats, and helps to chart your progress toward fitness goals. Compared to wearing a pedometer and heart monitor and logging and charting your daily steps and constantly fluctuating heart rate by hand, the device is extremely convenient.
  2. Drink less alcohol. If you’re a social drinker who wants to cut down a bit, check out some of the tips at Drinkaware. In addition to helpful articles, the site offers a browser-based app to let you keep track your intake and notice trends.
  3. Learn something new. There are so many great options for this resolution. I love the site Instructables, which has tutorials on making everything from a hockey jersey to a garden bench to an outdoor fire pit. Monkeysee is a similar site with a focus on video tutorials. If you’re keen to learn a foreign language, consider the Rosetta Stone system (I used an extended trial of Japanese and loved it) or any of the tools from Innovative Language Learning (again, I used it with much success for Japanese).
  4. Improved work/life balance. As a person who works from home, I’m very familiar with this daily dance. Something I’ve used is FocusBooster. This browser-based tool lets you set timed, alternating work and break periods. Set it up and when the timer sounds, take a break. After the break period ends, get back to work. It’s similar to the Pomodoro Technique. But in my experience, the best thing to do is commit to work hours and that’s that.
  5. Volunteer. This is definitely a worthwhile resolution, but can be hard to find opportunities in your area. VolunteerMatch.org is a great place to start if you don’t already have a specific project or organization in mind. Enter your location and the type of volunteer work you like to do, and the service will present you the best matches it can find.
  6. Save money. How many times have you said, “That’s it, this year I’m going to increase my savings by [x]”? I’ve said it quite a bit. You Need A Budget has helped me. It’s more than software, though that is a big part of the product. “YNAB,” as it’s called, is a budget-focused software management application for your computer or mobile device. The company also has a very informative blog and hosts frequent webcasts, which I’ve found helpful.
  7. Get organized. My first instinct is to say, “Read Unclutterer,” but you knew that. Since the site is deep with archives, you can find help for organizing pretty much every area of your life. Specifically, one of my favorite data organizing tools is Evernote, which I use as an electronic filing cabinet; a filing cabinet that is almost always available, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. There are many gadgets that work with Evernote, extending its usefulness. To get the most out of the service, check out this ebook, Evernote Essentials.
  8. Read More. My first suggestion is to consider an electronic book reader to help keep book clutter at bay. The current Kindle Paperwhite is a fantastic little device that makes it easy to get books and carry them around. Also consider Scribd, which is described as “Netflix for books.” For less than nine bucks a month, you can read unlimited digital books on your computer or mobile device.

Good luck with whatever New Year’s resolutions you set for 2014.

2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Tech for organization

Do you have a tech-friendly organization devotee on your holiday shopping list? Then you are in luck because this is among the easiest, most fun groups to shop for. A tech geek — for lack of a better term — is always willing to try out a new gadget, system, or tool, just in case it’s an improvement over what she/he is already using. As a tech geek, I’m speaking from experience.

The following are several gift ideas that are likely to make the tech geek in your life happy:

  1. The Doxie Flip Scanner. The newest addition to the Doxie family of scanners (released just a couple of weeks ago), is a delightful little device. This portable (about 6.5 x 10 x 1 inches and 1 lb 7.3 oz.), battery-powered, flatbed scanner is perfect for scanning photos, books, sketches, manuals and so much more. It easily fits into almost any bag and saves scans to an SD card for easy transfer. Here’s a cool tip: If you have a wireless-capable Eye-Fi card, skip the middle man and scan directly to your computer over Wi-Fi.
  2. New Trent Travelpak. The Travelpak is a portable recharging device that can supply extra juice to anything that accepts a charge via USB. That means iPhones, iPods, iPads, tablets, cameras and smartphones of all kinds. It stores enough power to keep most smartphones going for a days under normal use. And, it’s barely bigger than a phone, so it fits into a bag or pocket easily. Useful and portable? That’s a winning combo to me.
  3. BookBook Travel Journal. This one is for the iPad-wielding traveler. The BookBook Travel Journal from Twelve South is a tidy, organized, and absolutely fantastic-looking carrying case for an iPad and myriad of accessories. You can store the tablet plus a charger (like the awesome PlugBug), set of headphones, keyboard case, stylus, notebook, and pen. Twelve South makes fantastic products (check out similar carriers for the iPhone, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air) and the Travel Journal is no exception. Tidy, attractive, and best of all, useful.
  4. CoverBot Dual USB High Output Car Charger. Here’s another wonderfully unobtrusive device that will keep all your favorite tech geek’s devices charged. The CoverBot Duo is a car charger with two USB-ready ports. Each is fully powered, so you can get two devices up and running at the same pace. As with the New Trent Travelpak, the CoverBot Duo works with any device that will accept a charge via USB.
  5. Philips HF3500/60 Wake-Up Light. Now this is just cool. The Wake-Up Light wakes you up by growing gradually brighter over a 30-minute period. This process, according to Phillips, stimulates your body to wake up naturally, as opposed to the jarring audio alert of most alarm clocks. Phillips sent us one to review and we’re glad they did. Additionally, once fully illuminated, it easily lights up a bedroom. Replace that lamp and save some space on your nightstand, too.
  6. BLaNKcraft Cable Manager. With two iPhones and an iPod in the house, I spend way too much time plugging, unplugging, replacing, or searching for cables. It’s worse when we’re traveling, as one pocket of my bag ends up holding a rat’s nest of white cable. The BLaNKcraft Cable Manager can rescue your tech geek from cable chaos. This handmade, leather strap is so simple and so clever that I just love it. Bind your cables with the snap, tuck it into a bag, pocket, or drawer and you’re good to go. As an alternative, the Cord Taco is another great choice.
  7. Tile. This clever little fob attaches to your valuables (up to 10) and lets you track their location with an iOS app. Lose the keys? Misplace a wallet? Don’t know where the kids’ backpacks have gone? You’re a tap away from solving the mystery.
  8. Automatic. This is among my top gadgets of the year. The Automatic is a little device that plugs into your car’s data port (check if your car is supported here) and shares a host of useful information. For example, if you car’s “Check Engine” light comes on, the Automatic will tell you what’s wrong via the companion smartphone app (iOS and Android). If it detects an accident has occurred, it notifies local authorities. It remembers where you parked and even helps you drive in a more economical manner. It even supports multiple drivers.
  9. The Quirky Plug Hub. Finally, here’s another great way to rid yourself of a rat’s nest of cables. Put a power strip inside and use the three holes in the top to thread six plugs through neatly. You don’t have to look at the ugly plug unit once it’s tucked inside. Take things a step further and add some labels to those plugs so you’ll know what’s going where.

Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Ten DIY gadget charging stations

“Where can I plug this in?” is a dilemma of the contemporary age.

As phones and tablets become more popular, two problems arise. First, most wall sockets only accommodate two items each. That’s easily remedied by connecting a power strip. One plug becomes five or six, and you’re good to go.

But the solution to the first problem begets problem number two: the jumble of cables and wires is just ugly. Plus, they get tangled, swapped, and misplaced. You could spend money on a decent-looking solution or whip up your own home charging station. The following are 10 great examples I found while poking around the Internet. Each charges several devices simultaneously and looks a lot better than a power strip and a rat’s nest of wires.

  1. Hidden in a drawer. I first saw this solution on Pinterest. It keeps everything out of sight completely by placing the whole lot inside a drawer. The setup is simple: drill a hole in the back of the drawer, thread the power strip cord through and plug it in. You might want to fasten the power strip to the bottom of the drawer to keep it from wobbling around with double-sided tape or velcro.
  2. Converted storage box. This rig was inspired by ribbon boxes that store the ribbon inside and feed it through a small hole. Here, holes were cut into a storage box that you can find at any craft store. The holes were reinforced with oval bookplates, held in place with small brad nails. From there, the power strip was placed inside and the device cables fed through the new holes. It looks great and there’s really no need to open it.
  3. Night Stand recharging station. This one wins the prize for most dramatic before-and-after photos, as an upturned cardboard box is replaced by a nice-looking end table. Holes will drilled in the rear of the unit and the charging cables fed through. Just don’t look behind it, though. I fear there’s an hidden rat’s nest against that wall.
  4. Super easy plastic bin. This one isn’t long on looks but it’s probably the least expensive solution here. Plus, it gets the job done. Small holes were cut into the rear and lid so that cables could be fed through. Sure, you can see inside but it’s still nice to not have to deal with what’s inside.
  5. Vintage case. Here’s a solution that is long on looks. Ryan at Weekly Geek, who put this together, describes his love of de-tangling electronic cables: “Jaws clenched and temples throbbing the world silently fades as my focus gets narrower and more fierce. That mess is broken, and I have to fix it. Why won’t they let me fix it?” His vintage-valise-as-charging-station is a thing to behold and not for he feint of heart. You can review what’s required here. The results, however, are very nice indeed.
  6. Converted IKEA storage unit. I’ll admit that I love IKEA. Even those little meatballs in the cafeteria are good. In this example, an enterprising soul at IKEA Hackers converted the company’s Estetisk storage unit into a nice-looking charging station. Holes were drilled into the back and the “cubbies” were outfitted with custom plywood inserts. Well done.
  7. Re-purposed plastic bottle. You got me, this only charges a single item. But look at how cute and convenient it is! By deftly cutting a plastic lotion bottle and applying some decoration, Ashley at Make It & Love It has a great-looking holder that hangs on the charger itself and corrals the phone and its cable. Very nice.
  8. Old books. Some of you will balk at the idea of chopping up an old book, but the rest should check this out. Yes, it’s a single-device solution again, but it’s very nice-looking. There are several available in this Etsy shop, but I’m sure you could figure it out for yourself with an X-Acto knife and some time.
  9. Converted shoe box. Here’s another quick-and-dirty solution that works well. This is similar to the storage box – you’re cutting holes in a shoe box, reinforcing them with grommets and feeding the cables through – but less expensive. Plus, since you’re starting with a shoe box, do some decorating to get it looking nice. Time to break out the Mod Podge.
  10. Vintage breadbox. Finally, a converted vintage bread box. This one requires the most work and some basic carpentry skills (and the right decor) but you’d never guess there’s a jumble of wires and charging electronics inside of there.

I hope you found this list inspirational. You do have to charge your gadgets but the process needn’t result in a jumbled mess. Go forth and make a great little charging station.

Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.

20130821_ipadscreen2

Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Free up computer disk space

My main computer is a MacBook Air. I love it dearly. The thin little thing has traveled with me, and I wrote my books on it. It’s a super little machine. It’s got 128 GB of internal flash storage, which sounds like a lot, yet I get that “your startup disk is almost full” warning all the time. The fact that I photograph my kids all the time doesn’t help. I also love music, movies, and trying new software. Those are all space-hogging activities. What can I do?

If you’re in the same boat — irrespective if you’re on a Mac or PC — this post is for you. I’ve collected several tips for freeing up disk space on your computer. Put them into practice and reclaim a little bit of that precious storage space.

To the cloud!

First and foremost, take advantage of cloud storage. Flickr offers users one terabyte of storage for free. That’s huge. I use Everpix, which syncs photos taken with my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone automatically. Those shots aren’t stored on my Mac at all, saving me huge amounts of space.

Music is another opportunity to save space. For example, many people buy an external disk and move their music (like iTunes) library to it. That way your computer’s internal storage is free of your huge music library. Apple’s iCloud also lets you store music on their own servers which you can stream on demand, if you own a Mac.

Other stream-only services like Rdio, Spotify and Pandora let customers stream music to their devices for a monthly fee. I’ve been using Rdio for years and love it. I can listen to all the music I want without any of it living on my hard drive.

What about documents? Dropbox is great, but it stores local copies of all your flies. Actually, not all. In the app’s preferences, select “Selective Sync.” This lets you determine which of your Dropbox folders are copied to your computer.

Cleaning house

While researching this article, I came across this post from MacRumors. It lists several great options for freeing up disk space, including:

  1. Empty the trash. You’d be surprised how often I see digital trash cans that are bulging with files. The act of simply moving a file into the trash doesn’t get rid of it. Empty that virtual trash can. Individual applications (like iPhoto on my Mac and my email program) may also have separate Trash cans and Spam folders that should be emptied, too.
  2. Delete software and files you don’t use. I’m the guy who downloads software just to see what it does. That means I accumulate a lot of apps I don’t use. Trash them. AppZapper for the Mac is good at removing an app and all its related files, if you’re on a Mac. If you know of a similar PC product, please share that in the comments.

    It is also good to go through the files you have saved and trash all those you no longer need. The grocery list you made eight months ago can probably go, even if it’s not taking up a lot of room. All those little files are only cluttering up your computer’s hard drive.

  3. Empty your browser caches. Most web browsers will cache sites to improve their performance. These cache files can grow over time. You’ll find an option to clear your cache in your browser’s preferences.

It’s also a good idea to run software that’s designed to find and eliminate unnecessary files. I rely on Clean My Mac. It’s great at finding things like hidden iPhoto duplicates, language files that I don’t use, and a lot more. I’ve reclaimed several gigabytes of space thanks to Clean My Mac. Again, if you rely on a PC product, please share that in the comments. And, if you’re on a PC, don’t forget to defragment your drive after you delete programs to help it run more efficiently.

Add physical storage

You might have an option to add more physical storage to your computer. For example, the cool StorEDGE from PNY is a little flash storage module that fits inside an SDXC slot (provided that it has one, my Air does not) and adds either 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.

There you have a few strategies for reclaiming a little precious disk space. Try them out and de-clutter your computer.