More advice for buying a filing cabinet

Dave recently provided some great tips for buying a filing cabinet. The following are a few additional suggestions from my own experiences.

Unclutter first

With any organizing project, buying the containers (in this case, the filing cabinets) is one of the last steps. If you don’t remove the paper clutter first, you may wind up buying more storage than you need.

So much information we used to keep in files can now be found online. And if you’re comfortable with digital files, many papers that you receive which have valuable information can be scanned, reducing what needs to be kept and filed.

But once you’ve decided what to keep, be sure to buy filing cabinets that can store all your papers without overcrowding the drawers. It’s nice to keep each drawer no more than 80 percent full so it’s easy to add and remove files.

Consider what size papers you need to keep

Many people just need files for letter-sized paper, but you may have documents you want to keep in paper form that are larger (such as real estate documents in the U.S., which are often on legal size paper). Some filing cabinets can accommodate multiple paper sizes.

Choose to use hanging files — or not

Most filing cabinets come with rails for hanging files (or have high drawer sides designed to accommodate hanging file folders without the use of rails), so that’s what most people use. However, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame used to recommend a different approach:

I recommend you totally do away with the hanging-file hardware and use just plain folders standing up by themselves in the file drawer, held up by the movable metal plate in the back. Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc.

This advice seems to have been removed from the latest edition of Allen’s book, but it might still appeal to you. If you want to go this route, you’ll want a filing cabinet that has those movable metal plates, often called follower blocks.

Make sure the cabinet drawers have full-extension slides

Some filing cabinets have drawers that don’t pull all the way out, making it hard to reach the files in the back. Be sure to look for cabinets with full-extension drawer slides (rather than something like three-quarter extension) so you can easily reach everything without scraping your knuckles.

Don’t create a tipping hazard

If you’re at all concerned about the cabinet falling over — because you have small children or you live in earthquake territory, for example — get the materials needed to anchor the cabinet to the wall.

Be sure a filing cabinet is the right tool for you

Just because so many people use filing cabinets doesn’t mean you need to do the same. There are other options, such as file carts, which may suit your organizing style better. Or you may prefer to keep at least some papers in binders rather than in file folders.

Unitasker Wednesday: Tweexy, the wearable nail polish holder

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

I’ve spent most of my career working in places where painted fingernails were not permitted, consequently I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about how to best to apply nail polish. I innocently assumed that you would place a bottle of nail polish on a flat, stable surface (perhaps in a bathroom at home), and proceed to paint your fingernails.

tweexy nail polish holderBut why look for a flat, stable surface when you have Tweexy, the wearable polish holder. This light-weight, portable gizmo will allow you to easily open your nail polish bottle using one hand and polish your nails in a car, on a train, at the movies, on your bed, or even in the bath!

tweexy nail polish holder in bath

Maybe I’m missing something because I don’t paint my nails that often, but I just can’t imagine my own hand being more steady than a flat, stable surface.

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

Every day carry: weekend getaway

phone watch wipesI’m packing for a weekend getaway as I type this, which has inspired me to write an “Every Day Carry” (EDC) tech guide for weekend getaways. You don’t need to carry a lot in order to be prepared for a weekend away. In fact, pocket clutter is real and should be avoided. My “getaway” EDC varies a little from what’s typically on me, but not by much. Let’s take a look.

Mophie Juice Pack

I use my phone frequently when I’m away, particularly to find directions and taking pictures. That puts a hit on the battery, especially when a map app is receiving GPS data. For that matter, I always have a Mophie Juice Pack charged and ready to go. The Juice Pack is an iPhone case with a built-in battery. When my phone’s battery hits 20%, I flick on the Juice Pack and it’s back at 100% in no time.


This goes with out saying, but the pocket computer called “iPhone” is completely essential. From finding directions and taking photos to calling hotels, restaurants and family, it’s my go-to gadget.

Apple Watch

My Apple Watch isn’t as essential as my iPhone, but it’s maturing into the useful accessory that Apple wants it to be (the same can be said of most smart watches). My favorite feature, however, really shines when I’m in a new place: walking directions. The first step, of course, is to get your destination’s address onto the Apple Watch. There are several ways to do this, and the fastest are these:

  1. Ask Siri for directions. The virtual personal assistant will automatically open Apple Maps with the directions ready to go.
  2. Start on Apple Maps on your iPhone. The app will automatically sync with Apple Watch.
  3. After you’ve entered the information on the iPhone app, open the watch app to view the directions.

Following a route Once you’re ready to get moving, just tap Start. The Watch will guide you along, via clever use of Apple’s Taptic Engine:

  1. A series of 12 taps means turn right at the next intersection.
  2. Three pairs of two taps mean turn left.
  3. A steady vibration means you’re at the last direction change.
  4. A more urgent vibration (which I call “the freakout”) indicates your arrival at your destination.

Imagine walking from, say, the train station to a hotel in a city you aren’t familiar with. You’ve got a bag in your hand and a million things on your mind, like check-in, getting settled and whatever brought you there in the first place. Now you can walk with your eyes front and your head up. Perhaps you’ll even note a few landmarks along the way, to make the return stroll easier.

Ursa Major face wipes

I used a face wipe from Ursa Major for the first time a few years ago. I was in NYC visiting family. After a sweaty day of walking through Manhattan, I was given one of these to use.

It was amazing.

The wipe is cool, smells great and not greasy at all. It evaporates quickly and let’s me “wash my face,” if you will, when I can’t do so properly. It seems like a small thing but I really like these things.

That’s the gear I carry when I’m away. It’s a short list, but all very useful. Do you have a special EDC for certain situations? Let me know.

Do you maintain a clutter preserve?

Earlier this week I was reading a nice series of posts at Organized Home on “Decluttering 101.” It’s always good to brush up on the basics. The author, Cynthia Ewer, shared some good advice, as well as a concept I found quite interesting: the “clutter preserve.” I’ll let her explain it.

“Accept reality by establishing dedicated clutter preserves. Like wildlife preserves, these are limited areas where clutter may live freely, so long as it stays within boundaries. In a bedroom, one chair becomes the clutter preserve. Clothing may be thrown with abandon, so long as it’s thrown on the chair.”

A part of me shivers when I read this. If I create a clutter preserve — even one that’s out of the way — I fear it will foster others. As if it is tacit permission to make a tiny, obscure stack here, an unobtrusive pile there, and so on.

I see the logic in it, too. As Cynthia says, no one is squeaky-clean all the time. “Even the tidiest among us tosses clothes on the floor from time to time.” I can even relate this to email processing. Sure, it would be amazing to read and respond to every message every day, but for many of us that is not possible.

Now I want to ask you: do you maintain a clutter preserve, or maybe more than one? If so, do you attack it on a regular basis or is it there to offer sanity-saving permission to not be 100% perfect? Sound off in the comments, I’m eager to read what you think.

When organizing goes too far

Organizing isn’t something you do just for the sake of being organized. Rather, it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier. When you’re organized you can find things when you need them. You have the space to do the things that matter to you: have company over, enjoy your hobbies, cook good meals, etc.

When you look at getting organized, there are always trade-offs to make. How much time do you want to spend organizing your books, your photos, etc.? One thing to consider is whether the time invested in doing the organizing will save you more time over the long run.

I just read an article by Brian X. Chen in The New York Times that touched upon these trade-offs. Chen consulted with Brian Christian, a computer scientist and philosopher, about organizing his digital photos.

Mr. Christian said photo organization illustrates a computer-science principle known as the search-sort trade-off. If you spend tons of time rummaging for a specific photo, then sorting photos may be worthwhile. But if you hunt for a picture infrequently, sorting may be a waste of time.

“If it would take you eight hours to tag all your friends, you should not undertake that until you’ve already wasted eight hours digging up photos of your friends,” said Mr. Christian, co-author of Algorithms to Live By, a book about using algorithmic principles to improve your life.

There are photo-management services such as Google Photos that can do some auto-sorting, and Chen went on to write about those. But the basic trade-off concept applies to all sorts of things beyond just photos. For example, I organize my books into general categories but don’t bother alphabetizing the fiction by author because I can find books quickly enough without taking that next step.

Similarly, as we’ve noted before, many people will find that they don’t need a bunch of folders for email because they can rely on their computer’s search function to find what they need. But others find that using folders works better for them, even if that makes email filing more time-consuming.

Organizer Lorie Marrero wrote on the Lifehack website about being too organized, and she provided this example of when the return on invested time doesn’t pay off:

People think it might look neat to have all matching plastic containers in their pantries that all nest nicely together and present a picture-perfect shelf. But for the ROI of simply having a pretty pantry, you have to spend a lot of time transferring every new food item from its original store packaging into the containers.

But if it really makes you happy to have a pantry with beautiful matching containers, then maybe you’d want to transfer foods into them even though this doesn’t make sense from a purely practical perspective. That’s a perfectly fine choice to make if it works for you.

Color-coding provides one more example what works for one person might be overkill for another. Does it help you to color-code your files? If so, it may well be worth the effort, money, and space to keep file folders in different colors on hand. However, if you’d work just as well with files that are all the same color, why not use the simpler approach?

As you set up your own organizing systems, think about what might be “just enough organizing” to allow you to function well and enjoy your home or office space.

Knowing when to change

150714-room2Our driveway turns in from the road, runs along the western side of our property and ends near the rear of the house. Upon exiting the car, the walk to the back door is shorter than the stroll to the front. As a result, all traffic — and in and out — happens through the back door.

This wasn’t always the case.

When we purchased the house in 2000, the driveway didn’t exist. Cars were parked in front, and I hung a series of hooks by the front door. It made perfect sense: walk in, hang your keys on the hook. That is, it made sense until we stopped using the front door.

I’m a real proponent of “A place for everything and everything in its place,” because my sieve-like brain will forget where I’ve placed the keys (or the wallet or the kids’ snacks…or the kids) if they’re not in their designated home. So I’ve been insisting that keys go on the front-door hooks like a stubborn mule.

I’d find keys on the butcher block, which is quite near the back door, and grumble to myself as I carried them across the house to the front door. Sometimes I’d find them on the kitchen table, an act that was loathsome to me. “Ugh, who put these here?” I’d cry, shaking my fist as if I’d witness an unimaginable injustice. “The keys go on the key hooks!”

The problem wasn’t people ignoring the “rule.” The problem was that the rule no longer made sense.

I learned to let go and succumb to what the situation was trying to tell me when we repurposed the back room. There’s now an old dresser by the back door, onto which I’ve placed a small leather box that is the new home of keys. We’ve regained the enter-and-drop ease of the old days and more importantly, I’ve learned to listen to the situation.

It’s possible to become blindly dedicated to an organizational system. I insisted that we employ a strategy that was no longer effective, simply because I was afraid I’d be lost — or more accurately, my keys would be lost if that system was abandoned. It wasn’t until I stepped back and observed how the situation had changed that I realized the solution should change too.

The point is to look around at the solutions you’re using at home and at work. Are they still the best, most effective answer to a clutter issue? Has a situation changed that should prompt a solution change as well? Perhaps that one thing that drives you crazy — a constantly cluttered kitchen counter, the jam-packed junk drawer, phones and tablets piling up to be charged — is simply a symptom of a broken system. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Finding the schedule that works best for you

Few of us can have complete control over our daily schedules. Work and family obligations, doctor appointments, and various other things will often dictate where we must be at certain times and what we must be doing.

But when there is a chance to make scheduling choices, it’s helpful to recognize when you’re at your best for certain activities (creative work, exercise, etc.) and then build your schedule based on that knowledge.

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics, wrote in an “Ask Me Anything” on the Reddit website:

Your “productive hours” are very important. Think about when those are, and then practice maniacal devotion to work during those hours. …

One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Ariely wrote that those two most productive hours are usually in the morning — the first two hours after you’re fully awake. But people are different, and being aware of what works best for you is what’s key.

A number of people find that starting the day early makes them more productive, and some of them start their days very early, indeed. Hilary Potkewitz had a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about people who choose to wake up around 4 a.m. For example:

Peter Shankman, a 44-year-old entrepreneur and speaker based in New York City, is usually out of bed a few minutes after 4 a.m. Twice a week he meets a buddy for a 10-mile run in the dark around lower Manhattan.

The city’s streets are usually deserted, providing a nearly distraction-free space for thinking. “If I’m busy dodging people or noticing who’s passing me, my ideas won’t come,” Mr. Shankman says.

By 7 a.m., he claims he is “showered, fed, watered and sitting at his desk.” …

The flip side is that he is in bed by 8:30 p.m.

Others find they function better later in the day. On the Lifehacker website, night owl Mike Vardy wrote:

As someone who does a lot of writing, I have found that I’m at my best in a creative sense later in the day, once all of my essential actions and errands have been taken care of. I call it my “Finally Time” — I finally have the clarity of thought, quiet I need and time I want to get my great work done.

That’s my own preferred schedule which is why I’m writing this post around midnight. I also find that trying to exercise early in the day just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve given up trying to force fit myself into that kind of schedule.

Some people work best by breaking up their day. YouTube creator and podcaster CGP Grey has found that afternoon is his worst time for getting his writing done, so he does that work in the morning (starting quite early) and the evening, taking the afternoon off. Such a schedule is obviously much easier to implement when you’re self-employed, but even people who have that flexibility might hesitate to stray so far from the normal workday pattern. But if an unusual schedule works better for you, why not go for it?

How to buy a filing cabinet

blue filing cabinetLast week I brought a filing cabinet to the dump. I was very happy to see it go.

I bought that cabinet on a whim. It was cheap, small and seemed perfect for what I needed. Less than a year later, it had one drawer that wouldn’t close and four others that had become junk drawers. I hated it, ignored it and used its top to stack papers. It had to go and, more importantly, it taught me how to properly buy a filing cabinet.

Today, I know what makes a perfect filing cabinet for me. Here’s what I found.

First and foremost, it must fit all of the documents I wish to file and fit into the allotted space in my home office. My work space is a small, second-floor room in a house with dormers, so there’s not a lot of wall space available. Therefore, a traditional vertical cabinet is for me. Perhaps a horizontal cabinet will work best in your space. This really is a crucial first step, so make this decision your starting point.

When I say “it must fit,” I mean both physically and within my workflow. Vertical and horizontal cabinets are used differently. A vertical cabinet is most traditional and features two to five drawers. Contents run front to back and face the user. There’s a lot of internal space, but files aren’t easy to get at. A vertical cabinet is a good choice for archival or reference files you don’t look at often.

A horizontal cabinet takes up more wall space and offers more interior space than vertical models. The benefit is their contents are much easier to access, so if you’ve got to get at files several times per day, a horizontal cabinet is a great choice.

Finally, I make sure my cabinet is within “swivel distance” of my desk. Human beings tend to follow the path of least resistance, so I make it as easy as possible to put something in my filing cabinet: just swivel my chair.

Next, a cabinet must be durable. That is to say, I don’t want to be stuck with that one drawer that won’t open unless you yank on it (or shut unless you slam it), the wonky wheel or busted handle. Much of this depends on what the cabinet is made of. The most common materials are metal and wood.

A metal cabinet can stand up to years of use and still look good. They are also easy to maintain and come in colors other than the plain beige you’re probably envisioning right now. They’re also easy to paint, so feel free to make it your own. When shopping for a metal cabinet, make sure it has a protective coating to prevent rust and double-walled steel sides for durability. No, metal filing cabinets are not flashy, but they do their job well.

Wooden cabinets look great and come in a huge variety of styles. They’re less durable than their steel counterparts, but if you’re in a low-volume office or a home setting, you’ll have it for years before it shows signs of wear. For a high-volume setting, where you’re in and out of drawers all day, go with a metal model.

If your chosen filing cabinet sits directly on the floor, consider placing it on a wheeled caddy. This can be very helpful when you need to move the cabinet to clean behind it or rescue your favorite pen.

Safety is another consideration. First, I want to keep my documents safe. If you’ll be filing important documents, like a birth certificate or social security card, consider a fire proof cabinet or one that locks (or both). I like to keep these things off-site in a safe deposit box, but if you must store them at home, make sure they’re safe.

I also want to be sure that anyone who uses the cabinet is safe. Look for interlocking drawers that will prevent tipping when multiple drawers are open at once. Additionally, cabinets with ball-bearing suspension systems will open reliably for years, so no wonky drawers that you yank open in frustration, risking injury.

Style, structure and safety are very important when looking for a filing cabinet, but easily overlooked. Like any tool you introduce to your workflow, a filing cabinet should be taken seriously. Happy shopping and let us know what you end up with.

The power of an organized daily routine

After working from home for seven years, I know what determines success more than anything else:

An organized routine.

There’s no project management app, list-making strategy or careful balance of work and home life that can top a proven routine for getting things done. In fact, the absence of a good routine hinders those things. Here’s how you can make a strong, organized routine to depend on. Let’s get started.

But first…

First, a note. The word “routine” implies rigidity. “This is the way it is and that’s that.” Well, no. A structured, organized daily routine is not divorced from flexibility. There will be times when, for whatever reason, things don’t pan out as planned:

  • The internet is down
  • Someone is sick
  • A last-minute cancellation
  • The car decides, “Eh, I think I won’t run today.”

When these things happen, and they will, it’s important not to spiral. Something might have to get moved around, postponed or abandoned entirely. A deadline might come and go. It’s always OK to re-work things a bit. Just be aware of that when the time comes. With that said, on with the show.

Let’s build an organized daily routine

Getting started with a routine that’s going to work is easy. It starts with what I call a “mind dump.” It’s a great way to list everything that’s on your mind, but it’s also a fantastic starting point for establishing a new routine, if you ask the right questions. Get a pen and paper, and answer the following:

“What must I get done each day for (work/school/volunteering/etc.)?”
“How much energy do I have at the start/middle/end of each day?”
“Which days offer more free time? Which ones offer less?”
“What are the errands that must be done daily or weekly?”
“What are the chores that must be completed?”

Don’t censor yourself at this stage. Nothing is too big (paint the mud room) or too small (brush teeth). As you go, you might generate your own questions. Perhaps getting prepped for work each morning or ushering the kids out the door for school.

When that’s done, it’s time for “triage.” Much like the triage nurse at the ER, you’re going to decide who (your tasks) get addressed when. In question two, you identified your energy levels throughout the day. Put the most labor-intensive tasks when you’re ready to tackle them, reserving the rest for later.

For example, I’m at my best in the early morning and afternoon. That’s when I write reports or articles, brainstorm new ideas for upcoming projects, work on the podcasts and so on. Meanwhile, I schedule other tasks, like responding to email, at the end of the day when I don’t want to think anymore.

Next, identify where you can do yourself favors. Before bed, I prep for the next morning: lunch ready for work, kids outfits ready for school, a list of my most important to-dos in front of my keyboard. Maybe you can bring a mission-critical paper out to the car so you won’t forget. Making this prep time a part of your daily routine is a huge time-saver (and headache reducer).

Give your brain a chance to do its thing

Your brain is good at solving problems. Make sure your routine includes a chance for it to do so. Most of the people we’d consider geniuses in their fields adhered to a daily routine that included a walk. According to Harvard Business Review:

“Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.”

Taking a walk can help your brain function well. That deserves a slot in your routine, no?

I hope this was helpful. A good routine will make your life so much easier. Just remember to be flexible. If plays change on the fly, it’s OK! Go with it and adjust tomorrow. Good luck.

Why computer backups matter

160930-externalhddIt’s been over a year since I last encouraged you to have a computer backup strategy in place, and some recent news made me want to emphasize this once again. More than ever, many of us store precious photos and documents on our computers, so taking the time to back them up properly is vital. The following stories illustrate just some of the reasons for having those backups.

Protecting against fire (or other natural disasters)

The following story by Matt Sledge in The New Orleans Advocate had a happy ending, but it could have ended tragically:

Gideon Hodge, 35, describes himself as a playwright, novelist and actor. When his fiancée told him that their apartment was on fire, he left work in Mid-City and rushed to the scene. That’s when he realized that his only copies of two completed novels were on a laptop inside. …

Hodge dashed into the building. He ran past the smoke and the firefighters yelling at him to stop and managed to grab the precious laptop.

“Anybody that’s ever created art, there’s no replacing that,” Hodge said. “It’s got pretty much my life’s work.”

Hodge could have been seriously hurt, and his laptop could have been unsalvageable. Fortunately, everything worked out fine. But if he just had an offsite backup, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to take such a risk.

Protecting against hard drive failures

The Advocate has an eye-catching photo of Hodge running into his home to get his computer. But as Dinah Sanders wrote on Twitter:

No one is going to take dramatic photos of “Writer frowns quizzically as hard drive just up and catastrophically fails one day.”

Such failures are an ongoing risk computer users face every day, and backups mean we’re protected when they happen.

Protecting against accidentally deleted files

Another situation where backups come in very handy is when a computer update goes wrong. Josh Marshall wrote in great detail about his recent experience using a new feature of Apple’s latest operating system for the Mac. He has both a home computer and a work computer, and when he tried using the new feature, things went very wrong. Without going into all the details (some of which are specific to his set-up), the following is one excerpt from his narrative:

In a flash all the files on my desktop disappeared and were replaced by the files from my work desktop.


Anyone who has had an update go wrong can imagine how this would feel. Fortunately, Marshall had a good up-to-date backup and was able to restore all his files.

Protecting against theft

Michael Zhang wrote about one sad story on the PetaPixel website, where the lack of offsite backups was devastating:

Oakland-based photographer Jennifer Little had her home broken into last week, and her loss was devastating. In addition to stealing 8 of her cameras, the burglars also took 21 hard drives containing Little’s life’s work as a professional photographer.

Our precious computer files are the opposite of clutter. I would hate for any Unclutterer readers to lose any such files, so please take the time to create and implement a thoughtful backup strategy (if you haven’t already) that includes files on your computer and any files you’ve offloaded from your computer to external hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, or DVDs.

Tech for winter storm preparedness

As September gives way to October, we enter the heart of hurricane season. We’ve written about organizing your storm supplies before, and today I’ll focus on tech to help you weather a storm. If you haven’t organized your preparedness kit yet, there’s still time.

Stay informed

When a storm hits, it’s important to receive information from authorities. The American Cross ZoneGuard Weather Radio is great for this. It finds and delivers alerts for your area, flashes color-coded warnings and tunes into AM, FM and NOAA digital radio stations. It runs off of AC power or AA batteries.

A good hand-crank radio is also great to have, like this one from Esky. Just 60 seconds of cranking 20 minutes of use. There’s a solar charing option as well, but stormy days aren’t usually very sunny.

Your smartphone

If you own a smartphone, you’ve got a tiny computer that can be tremendously useful in an emergency. When your home’s power goes out, Wi-Fi goes with it. So grab your phone and rely on cell connectivity.

There are several great apps available, including The Red Cross, which offers apps specific to certain disasters, text alerts and first aid information. Of course, none of that matters when your phone’s battery dies. Keep it going with an Eton Boost Turbine. As you may have guessed, it’s a hand-crank charger for your phone and other USB devices. Just plug it in and get cranking.

Of course, don’t forget a good old corded phone. When cell/internet service goes down, or when your your power goes out, a corded landline phone will let you call out.

Shine some light

Finally, I have to identify my favorite flashlight of all time, the Coast HP1 Focusing 190 Lumen LED Flashlight. LED flashlights are brighter than those with traditional bulbs, and the HP1 shines a powerful beam indeed. It takes rechargeable batteries, is water resistant, impact resistant, compact and feels great.

There’s a lot more you should do to prepare for a storm. Today we’ve pointed out a few bits of tech that you can rely on. We hope this was helpful. Be careful out there.

Being more productive by hiring some help

Unclutterer received an email from a reader who had a number of questions, many of which related to hiring people to help with various tasks. There are many reasons you might want to hire some help:

  • You may need to hire help to do things you physically can’t do yourself. I had this situation when I first came home after my hip surgery and had many movement restrictions. I needed someone to come in weekly to do the laundry, vacuum the floors, and run some errands.
  • You may need to hire help with specific expertise that you don’t have. For example, many people hire someone to do their tax returns.
  • You may want to offload time-consuming tasks that you don’t enjoy to free up time for other things that are more important to you.

And sometimes you may want to hire someone for more than one of these reasons. The only ongoing help I have is with my yard. My gardener knows much more about plant care than I do. She can readily climb a ladder to trim tall plants while that would make me uncomfortable. And I just don’t enjoy most gardening work and tend to put it off until it becomes problematic.

How do you best go about hiring the help you need? The following are some suggestions.

Define exactly what you want the person to do

Make sure your expectations are as clear as possible. This will mean writing things down, spending time explaining things verbally, or both. All the things you do by second nature will need to be specified. For example, when I hired household help I had to tell the person how my washing machine worked, what settings I used, how much detergent I used, etc.

Also determine what things you don’t care about. My home helper asked how I wanted my non-slip socks paired up and put away, and I told her to do it any way she liked.

If you make tasks as easy as possible for your helper, things will go more smoothly. When I sent my helper grocery shopping (with a list that included brand names and package sizes), it helped when I could tell her where in the store things were located, especially those that weren’t obvious. I also made sure she had my cell phone number so she could send me a text if she had any questions. If someone is going to unload your dishwasher, put away laundry, or otherwise tidy up, you may want to label the cabinets and closets indicating what goes where.

If someone is working on a project for you, make sure your communication expectations are clear. What kind of status updates do you want, and how often should they be provided? How quick of a response do you expect to calls, texts, or emails?

When relevant, be sure you’re clear about what supplies you’ll provide vs. what supplies the helper will provide. If the helper is providing things like cleaning supplies, do you have any restrictions on what products are used?

And be sure you’re clear about pricing and billing. If there’s an hourly or weekly rate, what’s included and what’s extra? Billing surprises are no fun for anyone!

Sometimes you may not know the specifics of what you need done, since you are hiring help to fill in for your lack of expertise. But even then you probably have some expectations you can define. For example, my gardener knows that I need to keep all plants from touching my house to minimize the risk of termites.

Consider your hiring options

Nolo has a helpful article about hiring household help. As the article explains, you can hire a company, hire a worker through an agency, or hire an individual. I got my home helpers through a company, while I hired my gardener directly.

And be sure you understand the legal aspects of your hiring decisions, including tax and insurance issues. Again, Nolo explains the basics, and you can consult a lawyer for more information.

Don’t be afraid to make course corrections

If you failed to specify some of your expectations (which can easily happen when you first set about hiring help) and now the work isn’t being done as you would like, talk with your helper about making changes. Sometimes just a tiny change can make a big difference.

If the change is too significant and you realize you and your helper are a mismatch, you may want to find someone better suited to your redefined needs. An ongoing mismatch may well make both you and your helper miserable, so ending the relationship can be best for all concerned.