Evaluating your computer backup strategy

World Backup Day is March 31 — a good reminder to take a moment to think about how you’re doing your backups, and whether or not there’s something you’d like to adjust. Consider the following points:

Are you backing up all your critical files?

Some backup tools will back up everything on your computer. Others won’t backup your software programs (Microsoft Office, Evernote, TurboTax, etc.), assuming you can simply reinstall those. Some may depend on you to list exactly which files you want to back up. And you may use an entirely manual process rather than a program, which also means you need to determine the files you include in your backup.

In the final two cases, especially, be sure you’re thinking about all your important files. I’ve seen people lose extensive collections of bookmarks/favorites from their favorite browser because the relevant files weren’t backed up. (They aren’t stored in the same place as documents and photos.)

Do your backup programs fit your needs?

You may choose to run one backup program or multiple ones for added protection (one local backup and one in the cloud, for example). In either case, consider the following guidelines:

  • Make sure at least one backup program runs automatically. Everyone’s busy, and almost everyone is a bit lazy about backups. Having a program that runs automatically can save you from yourself.
  • Make sure at least one program creates an offsite backup. That usually means using a cloud backup service, but it could also involve taking a backup drive and putting it in a safe deposit box. This will protect you if there’s a theft, a fire, or some other tragedy that could affect everything in your home.
  • Make sure at least one program saves files you’ve deleted from your computer as well as older versions of files you still have. If your only backup is one that mirrors your computer as it is at the time of the last backup, you’ll be in trouble if you delete a file by mistake, make an update you didn’t want to make, or wind up with a corrupted file because of a hardware problem.
  • If having a new or repaired computer fully functional as quickly as possible is critical to you, look for a program that will create a bootable external backup drive. This means you can start your computer using an external hard drive as the data source, rather than your computer’s internal hard drive. SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner are two alternatives for those using Macs, and I’ve been very happy with SuperDuper. I’m not as familiar with what’s available for those using PCs.

Do you check your backup status messages?

Programs will handle this differently, but all will provide some status indicator. For my cloud backup service, for example, I get daily emails. It’s easy to overlook these repetitive messages, but don’t do that. Take the time to make sure they aren’t alerting you to a problem.

Have you tested your backups?

As Gabe Weatherhead of MacDrifter tweeted, “A backup doesn’t count until you’ve done a restore from it at least once.”

While restoring all files for testing purposes is usually not practical, you can certainly try restoring a file or two and making sure things look okay. I knew someone who had to restore a great many files, and had never tested her backups until that time. Sadly, she found that while that files got restored, the date stamp on the files was not correct, which caused her numerous problems.

If you’re creating a bootable external backup drive, try booting from that drive and making sure everything seems to work okay.

Do you have the license keys and/or serial numbers for all your software?

In order to get your software programs reinstalled or to get them running again after you’ve restored them from a backup, you’re likely to need your license information. Do you have that information readily available? If not, gather it up now so you don’t need to scramble around for it when there’s a problem.

Unitasker Wednesday: Loose Leaf

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 family eats a lot of kale. It’s the one vegetable I can set in front of both my kids that they will devour and ask for more. I don’t know why, but I’m not complaining, especially since they aren’t big on eating red meat and kale is packed with iron. Anyway, a few years ago, I learned a ridiculously simple trick for how to de-stem an entire head of kale in usually less than a minute using only your hands. The trick is so easy that it makes the Loose Leaf wholly unnecessary when de-stemming kale:

How is the Loose Leaf a unitasker? If you have two hands and have enough grip strength to use the Loose Leaf, you have no need for the Loose Leaf. The device and the simple trick pretty much employ the same concept, except one requires you to spend money on the special tool pictured above, waste time and energy using and cleaning it, and then sacrifice some of your space to store it … and the other doesn’t.

What’s the simple trick? Let an adorable child demonstrate it for you:

That’s it, easy peasy! No knife or Loose Leaf needed to de-stem the kale and nothing to buy, clean, or store. Woo hoo, hands!

Thanks to reader Amy for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

A year ago on Unclutterer

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

  • How much is enough?
    My answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is turning out to be much less than I imagined. My family and I don’t require too many physical objects to be healthy, happy, and comfortable in the modern world.

2009

A frugal New Englander and spending on organizing and uncluttering

Even as a frugal New Englander, I recognize when it’s time to spend some money on my organizing and uncluttering efforts.

Let me preface this by explaining that my definition of frugal doesn’t simply mean cheap. To me, frugal means very little is wasted. Using the cheese rind in soup is the kind of practice I’m referencing. Old t-shirts become dust rags and empty jelly jars are perfect for storing hardware in the garage. Of course, this applies to money, too.

I’ve shared plenty of DIY tips here on Unclutterer and I love them. There’s nothing a little Sugru can’t keep running. But occasionally, a paid solution is necessary. A recent personal example of this is the video studio I’m setting up at home, which requires spending some cash.

When I’m not blogging at Unclutterer, I work as a writer at Apple World Today, a site for and by fans of Apple’s products and services. In addition to writing articles, I produce videos. I want the videos to have a professional look, so I purchased a green screen/lighting rig from Amazon. It wasn’t until it arrived that I realized just how big it is.

We live in a small house that pretty much contains all it can neatly and efficiently hold, and this screen doesn’t fit. I first tried setting it up in our master bedroom, the largest room in our home. There’s a good bit of open carpet between our bed and the TV (an area that is where the kids play video games). When I set everything up in this space, I quickly realized that the video production rig commandeers that whole side of the room. “No problem,” Frugal Dave said. “I’ll just set it up and break it down as needed.” Oh, Frugal Dave. You fool.

It’s three months later and I either leave it up — making the TV and video games inaccessible — or break it down after each use — which greatly increases production time. Alas, I needed a more organized, time-saving, and practical solution. My thoughts turned to our basement.

Part of our basement houses random boxes, holiday decorations, and so on. My new, more organized thoughts are that I could use this underground space as my new studio. I’ll clear it out and spend a bit of cash to paint the walls, install a door, and install electrical outlets.

These three things won’t cost me a lot, either in time or money, but the results will be fantastic. I’ll have a dedicated studio space, I can leave everything up without inconveniencing anyone and since it’s for my business, the expenses can be noted on next year’s taxes.

Being frugal and living without much stuff doesn’t mean you never spend money or that every solution has to be recycled. Sometimes, spending money and effort can help you to be more organized and comfortable in your space. This isn’t to say you have to buy every organizing solution, either. Perhaps the utensil drawer would benefit from an in-drawer organizer you find online or a set of cubbies will help the kids put their school stuff away neatly. I’m all for frugal living, believe me, but sometimes you’ve got to spend a little to gain a lot.

Just in time

Many businesses employ a “just-in-time” (JIT) production method. In the JIT strategy, supplies are ordered just in time for production so items are manufactured just in time for shipping them to the customer. The reason this system is popular is because factories do not have the expenses of maintaining large warehouses. Using funds to purchase and store unused inventory means those funds are not easily available for other opportunities.

Care must be taken when manufacturers employ the JIT method. If not enough stock is stored then deliveries, and associated delivery charges, increase. Also, the variations of cost prices can affect manufacturers to a greater degree.

A number of years ago when I realized that I had toilet paper stored in every closet and cupboard (when I counted them, I had over 200 rolls), and I always seemed to run out of shampoo, I realized that I had to start employing the JIT method for my household supplies.

The JIT process

Estimate how long it takes to use up the item. To help you estimate, when you open a package, write the date on the lid or underside of the box or bottle with a permanent marker. When you have used up the item, you’ll see the date and get a fairly accurate estimate. For example, depending on your household, you may use 1-2 rolls of toilet paper per week per bathroom. A 250mL (8oz) bottle of shampoo may last a month. It might take 3 months to use up 500m (500yds) of plastic wrap. Consider seasonal and situational changes as well in your estimations. You might use more plastic wrap during the school year when you are making children’s lunches. You might use less shampoo after you get your hair cut.

Estimate repurchasing time. The time it takes to purchase replacement items may not be an issue if you can easily pick the items up during your weekly grocery shopping. However, if you purchase items from a specialty store that you visit infrequently or order items online and have them delivered, you may need to plan well in advance. For example, our family loves Kraft Caesar salad dressing from Canada. It takes us about two months to use up a bottle. We have an open bottle in the fridge and we store one extra bottle in the cupboard. As soon as I open the bottle from the cupboard, I order another one because it takes about 3-4 weeks to ship from Canada to the UK.

Allocate storage space. The storage space that you have will determine the amount of product that you purchase and how frequently you need to repurchase. You may determine that you don’t need to store as much as of some items as you thought. (I really didn’t need 200 rolls of toilet paper!) This may allow you to free up some space to store other items that take more time and energy to purchase. For example, storing an extra bottle of your favourite salon shampoo would result in fewer trips across town to the factory outlet.

Hone your forecasting methods. It isn’t always easy balancing how much of certain items you need with the storage space that you have. Certain changes can affect your forecasting such as changes in household routines as well as changes in the products, such as package size and price. If you keep the JIT method in mind, over time you’ll determine what is right for your needs.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

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.
  • 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.

2010

2009

Ask Unclutterer: Clutter at a new office

A reader submitted this question to Ask Unclutterer describing a concern at work:

I recently began a new job. My boss has been with this organization since the mid-1980s, and there is still paper lingering around from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. She is hesitant to discard anything. She currently has three workspaces in the office, plus additional boxes and cabinets around the space that are organized but seem like they should be discarded.

My coworkers have reported that she gets very upset when this topic is brought up. We will likely need some of this space in the future, and waiting for her retirement doesn’t seem like a proactive option. How might I address this with her in a productive manner?

Reader, it sounds like this situation is very aggravating to you. However, unless the clutter is causing a safety problem or seriously interfering with your productivity, I’d suggest you do absolutely nothing right now.

You’re new to the office, and your boss is known to be sensitive about this subject. It doesn’t sound like an issue you’d want to broach until you’ve been there awhile and have proven your value to your boss.

And even then, I’d urge caution. People have varying styles of organization and comfort levels with letting go of things, and trying to get your boss to change her ways might not be easy or appreciated. You may be treading into emotional territory that you know nothing about. Ignoring the situation isn’t being proactive, but this may not be your problem to solve.

However, you might find a way to have a discussion about the papers by using one of the following strategies, which could help keep the discussion less personal:

Address the organization’s record retention policy. Is there one? If not, should there be? Does the organization have an attorney who could explain why such a policy is useful and clarify which records need to be retained?

Address the space concerns. If more space is indeed needed in the future, should some of those records be stored offsite if she feels they must be retained? How much would that cost? Is it worth the cost?

Address your boss’s frustrations. Is there anything about the current situation that causes her distress? If so, you might make suggestions that focus on alleviating her issues.

Use outside experts. If an opportunity presents itself, you might suggest using an attorney (as noted above) or a professional organizer. An uninvolved third party with relevant expertise can often raise issues and make recommendations more effectively than someone within the organization.

Thank you, reader, for submitting your question to Unclutterer.

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

Book review: Better Than Before

It’s rare that I come across a book and think, “every Unclutterer reader could benefit from reading this book.” But Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives falls into that exclusive category.

As the title suggests, this book is about creating beneficial life-long habits. The book doesn’t prescribe which habits a person should create, rather it’s a comprehensive exploration of HOW to make lasting habits that YOU want to make. If you want to be more productive, manage your time better, stay current with household chores, live in an organized manner, have better follow through, or any of the other “Essential Seven” changes like exercise regularly or eat and drink more healthfully, this book can help you to make that happen.

First and foremost, Rubin acknowledges that everyone is different and a one-size-fits-all approach to habit formation is ineffective. In the Self Knowledge section, she provides questions and examples to help the reader learn more about him/herself to determine what methods and strategies will actually stick. She points out that most people fall into one of four habit tendencies — she calls them The Four Tendencies — and structures the advice in the book around this concept. (For example: I’m predominantly an Upholder, but have a few Questioner leanings. Therefore, I know her suggestions for Upholders will almost always work for me and if not, the Questioner suggestions are what I should try next.)

From there, Rubin recommends strategies for how to determine which habits you wish to cultivate and why you may wish to introduce specific habits into your life. She believes, as I do, that “How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.” Our daily habits are who we are. She defines habits as “freeing us from decision making and from using self-control,” and more clearly explains this definition of habits a few paragraphs later:

When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

So, once you have clarity of what you wish to do and what habits you wish to incorporate to reflect your identity, you can set forth on your habit creations and life changes. She believes there are four Pillars of Habits: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. You’ve likely encountered these concepts before in terms of goal setting — you need to be able to monitor (in a quantifiable way) the process and outcomes, you need to begin with a foundation of changes that will produce results quickly and in a rewarding way, you need to schedule when the habits will take place, and then have a way to be accountable for your changes. Rubin provides varying types of strategies in each of these Pillars based on your tendency type.

Next, she addresses how to begin the new habits. And then, what I see as the most valuable part of the book, Rubin explores the most common ways people fail at sustaining good habits and how to overcome those problems based on their tendencies. In the chapter “Desire, Ease, and Excuses,” I was most drawn to the sections on Safeguards and Loophole-Spotting.

Safeguards, at least as I interpreted them, are plans you create in advance for when you expect to fail or when you will make exceptions to your habits. It’s knowing yourself well enough to predict how you will fall off the proverbial wagon and then plan what you will do about it when it happens. They’re backup plans formulated in the If-Then method: “If _____ happens, then I will do _____.” For example, I abstain from eating doughnuts — I’m not a huge fan of them and they’re not a healthful food choice. However, based on experience, I know there is one situation where I have virtually no self-control when it comes to consuming them. Therefore, I have a safeguard in place for when I find myself in that specific tempting situation. “If someone offers me a doughnut, then I will eat one ONLY if I am standing in a doughnut shop and the doughnut is hot and fresh off the production line.” I am a person who doesn’t eat doughnuts except in that specific situation, and since I am rarely in that situation, I at least know how I will handle myself if/when I encounter it. In 10 years, I have only encountered that situation twice.

Loophole-Spotting is similar to Safeguards in that it requires you to plan how you will behave when you seek out loopholes. I’m not a huge loophole seeker (I like to finish projects more than start them), but one of the loophole examples Rubin provides was something I do all the time. She names 10 common loopholes (you’ve likely used the “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole when you’re sick or on vacation and the Tomorrow Loophole when you put things off until tomorrow) and the one that screamed at me was the Concern for Others Loophole. This loophole is when we excuse our behavior because we believe our exceptions to our habits are for another person’s benefit, when that actually isn’t the case. She provides numerous examples that I’ve made countless times in my life and one just the other day: “It would be rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of cake.” Similar to doughnuts, I’m not a huge fan of cake and I prefer to abstain, yet I eat a slice of cake at every birthday party I attend because I don’t want to seem rude! Her advice for dealing with loopholes is sound:

By catching ourselves in the act of invoking a loophole, we give ourselves an opportunity to reject it, and stick to the habits that we want to foster.

I personally found this book to be incredibly helpful. If you want to make changes in your life through the adoption of positive habits, I strongly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Again, I truly believe all unclutterers could benefit from the research and analysis contained in it. Establishing uncluttering and organizing habits can simplify one’s life, and Rubin’s methods can show you how to do this effectively.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2014

2010

  • In praise of the reversible belt
    While they’re not quite as cool as Transformers, I think you’ll agree that reversible belts are much cooler than Gobots.
  • 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.

2009

Using batch processing for your professional social media accounts

Years ago, I learned a lesson from ProBlogger that has helped me effectively and efficiently use Twitter for my work. The lesson is part productivity, part organization, and perfect for Unclutterer: working in batches.

Way back in 2008, blogger Darren Rowse wrote about the benefits of organizing your outstanding tasks into similar batches, and then addressing each batch individually:

In my understanding of the term ‘batch processing’ it was always used to describe systems (usually computerized ones) where data was collected together for a period of time before it was processed. Instead of doing every small ‘job’ as it arrived jobs were ‘queued’ or collected until the computer was ready to process them all at once. This meant that the computer could do these ‘batches’ of jobs all at once when it would otherwise be idle.

Darren started to batch outstanding tasks — writing, processing email, social bookmarking and so on — and found that getting these done in a burst of energy freed up time for other, more taxing activities later. Today, I use that advice to great effect while tweeting for Apple World Today.

I’m in charge of the Twitter account at Apple World Today (among other things). To provide an interesting experience for our followers, I’ve created a list of daily themed tweets, as well as a schedule for when they’ll be published. Over the weekend, I sit down and write what will be our tweets for the week. Getting this done ahead of time frees me up to concentrate on the myriad other things I have to do and, I’ll be honest, it feels so good knowing this task is done.

The following is the theme schedule I follow:

  • Monday: Funny stuff to start the week off right. Amusing photos, videos, etc.
  • Tuesday: Behind the scenes. A look at what my colleagues and I are working on, like articles in progress.
  • Wednesday: Informative or surprising tweets. Quickie how-to tweets or tips that are 140 characters long, or little tips that people can use right away. People love these, and they take the most thought from me.
  • Thursday: Retweet interesting content from followers and share relevant industry news.
  • Friday: A look at our work culture. Unlike on Wednesdays, Friday posts focus on my colleagues and I as people. You’ll see us with our dogs (or cats), at the cafe and so on.

Even if you don’t tweet as part of your job, batch processing tasks can be an extremely effective way to organize your tasks. However, those of us with “Twitter” on our job descriptions will certainly benefit from devising a formal schedule and “batching” time to sit and write the week’s tweets. You’ll get time to formally sit and consider how you’re using social media, you’ll free up time for other tasks during the week, and you can practice your organizing skills, too. As Michael Scott would say, that’s a win/win/win situation.

Reduce visual clutter

Even when you have a place for everything in your home and everything is in its place, you still might feel like your home (or part of it) continues to appear cluttered. The article “Measuring visual clutter” in the Journal of Vision explains how this is possible and ways you can reduce visual clutter in your already tidy spaces.

How to reduce visual clutter

Create one focal point in each room. When you walk into a room, your eye should be instantly drawn to one object/area in the space and that object/area should be where you want attention to be drawn. In the bedroom, the focal point is most likely the bed. The table is most likely be the focal point in a dining room.

Keep the floor clear. Obviously, keep stray objects from impeding traffic patterns throughout a room. Also, remove small area rugs and replace them with one larger one, which will make the room/area feel more open because the eye sees a large unbroken space. (In other words, don’t have four area rugs in your television watching space, but one large rug under the couch, chair, media center, and coffee table.)

Avoid having too many conflicting patterns in the same room. Patterns draw attention and if there are numerous patterns, it’s difficult to visually process all of them. For instance, if you have patterned wallpaper, do not have a different pattern on your curtains and another on the carpet and yet another on every cushion on your couch.

Display only small groups of collections. If you have a collection of items, keep what is on display small in number. Either keep the collection small or only display a portion of it each season (and be diligent about switching it out, properly storing what isn’t on display, etc.). This will allow individual objects to stand out because they’re not hidden amongst other pieces. Some interior decorators suggest opting for larger, single pieces because decorative accents that are smaller than a cantaloupe can make a room look cluttered.

If for display purposes only, organize books by decorative elements. It is much easier for the eye to look at straight lines and blocks of colour than zigzag lines and bits of colour here and there. At Unclutterer, we don’t recommend people in small spaces store physical books for purely decorative purposes, but if your home is large and you can properly care for a book collection, size and color organizing will create less visual clutter in your space.

Make labels extremely legible. When making labels to identify the contents of bins or binders, use one, easy-to-read typeface. (Such as: Helvetica, size 20, regular, all caps.) Ensure the labels are the same size and shape and aligned at the same height on the bin or binder. The same rule should apply to labels on file folders in your filing cabinet.

A year ago on Unclutterer

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.

2010

  • Ask Unclutterer: Putting away laundry
    Your advice on doing the laundry is fantastic. I’ve employed several tips with great success. In particular, I’m a fan of clothing items that need little care (e.g. no ironing, dry cleaning, etc.). However, I’m unable to find usable suggestions on HOW TO PUT THE LAUNDRY AWAY.
  • Embark on new adventures: Erin’s second set of 2010 resolutions
    The theme for my second-quarter resolutions is “Embark on new adventures.” Now that I have the much needed energy I was craving, I’m excited about putting it to use. The following are the resolutions I’ve set for April, May, and June.