Ask Unclutterer: Blog post ideas

Reader Gwen submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do you come up with something new to write every day?

Gwen, this is the question I get asked the most often. Unfortunately, the answer is a wee-bit complicated, so please bear with me on this journey.

First thing to know, is made up of several people. I’m just the one steering the organized ship, so to speak. We have programmers and project managers and an intern (everyone say “hi” to Tim) and a publisher and me. Everyone except for me spends most of their time on other programming and design projects (building websites for corporate and non-profit clients), but I’m full-time on Unclutterer business.

Several times a year, we have meetings to plan our content. Some of those meetings decide the content for the months and one of those meetings is a strategic planning meeting where we look at the whole of the next year.

We have these meetings during the second week of each month, so we planned for August in mid-July. Our planning isn’t necessarily specific, but it guides my writing. Take for example the plan for this past week as we planned it in mid-June:

Monday: Uncluttered speech, bathroom organizing
Tuesday: Update on photo scanning project, something from the news
Wednesday: Something book related, A Year Ago, Unitasker
Thursday: Closet organizing, something book or news related
Friday: Workspace of the Week, Ask Unclutterer

You’ll notice that not everything went exactly as planned (Thursday’s closet organizing piece became a piece on general uncluttering), but that is fine. The goal of the plan is to give me ideas, not a strict law that must be followed.

Everyone on the team has a different way of capturing their ideas (I use Evernote, some people just use pen and paper), and not everyone on the team participates in all of the planning meetings.

If you are looking for ways to generate ideas for your blog, I highly recommend the team approach. Get a group of friends together or find people who are interested in the same topic and brainstorm ideas. You can do it over the phone or in person, just get talking about your topic. Even if people don’t come to the meeting with prepared suggestions, they can still add ideas and feedback during the meeting. Our meetings are usually 15 minutes long and I wouldn’t be able to come up with so many ideas without them.

Readers e-mail, twitter, and save links to that give me ideas, too. I carry my iPhone with me everywhere I go and take pictures of things I think would make good posts. I’m a member of a couple professional organizations that have newsletters about industry trends. I re-read diary entries from when I was going through my transformation from a clutterbug into an unclutterer and get ideas from my notes. I read a lot of business and science journals. I have news searches saved on JSTOR and through Google news. I’m always on the lookout for ideas — I can’t turn it off.

Thank you, Gwen, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers about how they generate post ideas for their blogs.

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. 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.

Workspace of the Week: Give it the ol’ college try

College dorm rooms are notoriously limited on space. This week’s workspace is Aarondfrancis’ lofted bed-above-desk solution to this problem:

From the photo description:

I mounted my external monitor up in my bed so that I could watch Hulu (The Office, primarily) before I go to bed. It works remarkably well. The cable runs through the wall and comes out of a grommet on both ends. I use Air Mouse to control my MBP while in bed.

I have about 18 inches between the bed and the ceiling, which is just about right. I haven’t hit my head yet (2 years running.)

There are additional images of the full room if you’re interested in seeing how the remainder of his space has been organized. All, very impressive.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Do it now

Fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (and the updated Making It All Work system) are familiar with his advice to immediately act on a task that requires less than two minutes to complete. It seems obvious, especially in a work setting, to follow this two-minute rule, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean that it happens.

It is so easy to think, “I’ll get to that later,” and let whatever the action is fall through the cracks. It doesn’t get written down on your list of next actions, it isn’t delegated to anyone else, and it slips right out of your mind. (At least that is how it works with me when I procrastinate.) You forget about it until someone comes seeking your response again, wasting your and the other person’s time.

I try to hold true to the two-minute “Do it now” policy at work, and an extended five-minute “Do it now” policy at home. Home-related tasks, in my opinion, seem to take a bit longer than office tasks. Unloading the dishwasher is a simple five-minute task that can be delayed if I don’t remind myself to “Do it now.” Clearing diner dishes, putting away items after getting ready in the morning, and dumping a load of laundry into the washer all seem to take about five minutes.

Do you use the two-minute “Do it now” policy at work? Have you tried a five-minute “Do it now” system at home? If you haven’t, I recommend giving it a try and watching your productivity improve.

Tough calls and hard decisions

When you work to clear the clutter from a space, I recommend that you sort objects into three piles: keep, purge, and other. The keep pile is filled with things you plan to keep, the purge pile is filled with things you wish to get rid of (trash, recycle, donate to charity), and the other pile is for things that require additional action (return to library, take to tailor to be hemmed, take to cobbler to be resoled, etc.). Unfortunately, there is usually a fourth category of items — the tough calls.

I’m of the opinion that it’s okay to keep tough calls, at least in the short term. When it comes time to put things back to their permanent homes (a place for everything, and everything in its place), you’ll know if you have space to store the item. If you don’t have space, get rid of the object. If you have space, put the object in a box and seal up the box with tape. Write the date on the top of the box and what you would do with the item if you got rid of it (sell on Craigslist, give to Aunt Lynda). At some point in the future, six months is usually a good length of time, if you haven’t opened the box just do whatever the directions on the box tell you to do. Except for items you plan to sell, you don’t even need to open up the box and look at the item before getting rid of it.

As far as tough calls are concerned, I’ve found that they reduce in number the more uncluttering you do. The temporary holding box is a reassuring safety net when you’re first getting your footing. I think it’s an excellent way to help others ease into uncluttering, too.

Unitasker Wednesday: Frozen Food Safety Monitor

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

When I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having my freezer break on me, I’ve simply noticed the smell of rotting food and ice cube trays filled with water to tell me that such a tragedy has taken place. I was unaware that in addition to this effective method of identifying a broken freezer, I also could have had a device tell me the exact same thing! Introducing the Frozen Food Safety Monitor:

Yes, the Frozen Food Safety Monitor tells you when your freezer is no longer working based on a complicated series of colorful liquids. When the colorful liquids are in the bottom of the device and not the top of it, then your freezer is no longer working! So, in addition to having rotten food, you also have a monitor to tell you that your food is rotten — how about that! Rotten food and a monitor. Fantastic!

(Seriously, if the device could somehow make a beeping noise or posses some way to alert you before your food went bad, well, that might have some sort of a purpose. Would it really be all that difficult to fashion a sensor, alarm, and battery to this contraption to give it an alarm?? Sigh.)

Thanks to reader Bluenewts for introducing us to the gem.

A year ago on Unclutterer



Simplicity and sincerity

My friend Harry gave me a copy of an out-of-print book from the 1950s that includes a chapter called “Simplicity and Sincerity.” The chapter is actually very short and doesn’t explain much, but the title of the chapter has stuck with me since the first time I saw it.

After taking notice of it, I’ve come to see how simplicity and sincerity are profoundly connected. The choice to live simply isn’t one of denial or exclusion, but rather one of being sincere in all of your actions.

Take for example an offer to sit on the board of a local charity. You might think that the charity does good work. You might want the charity to succeed. You might feel honored that the organization thought of you as a leader. You might even volunteer in single-day events a few times a year. But, if you don’t sincerely wish to partake in all of the meetings, planning, cultivating, and financial development that a position on a board requires, then you would decline the offer. Accepting the position would be insincere, both to you and the organization. In addition to wishing that you were doing something else with your time, you’d be depriving the organization of a board member who would be sincerely committed to participating.

I think about physical objects in a similar fashion. If I sincerely do not wish to put forth the effort to properly maintain and care for the item, then I don’t bring it into my home.

Being sincere with your actions makes it easier to live simply.

Stop that!

Mark at Productivity501 has a helpful post on 17 Things you Should Stop Doing. The 17 items he suggests will save you time in your day and open the way for more productive behavior. A few of my favorites:

5. Unpacking your Laptop Power Adaptor — If you go from work to home with your laptop, get an extra adaptor for each work area so you don’t have to unpack and crawl under the desk each time.

11. Dialing into Voice Mail — Get your voicemail setup to send you messages as email attachments that way you only have to check one mailbox.

17. Clubbing Baby Seals — Just in case this applies to you, this would be a good thing to stop as well.

Check out his full list, and then head back here and share your time-saving tips in the comments.

Print photographs have been scanned: Now what?

Earlier this year, I had all of my old print photographs professionally scanned (I used and it was around $150 per box of 2,250 pics). Next, I uploaded all of my digital scans to my Flickr pro account and to iPhoto (so far, I have decided not to upgrade to Aperture) on my laptop so that I have the files backed up in multiple locations in addition to having them on DVD. As far as these processes were concerned, the process was easy as pie. (Mmmmmm, pie.)

I am now comfortable with knowing that if my house burns to the ground, decades of photographic memories will not be lost.

However, I am a bit frustrated about the next step in my photo organizing process and I’m looking for some advice. I wish to enter all of the text that I have written on the back of the photographs into the corresponding image’s Notes/Description field. And, I wish to categorize the sets of images into meaningful groups. Doing these two steps, however, seems to be Herculean.

Does anyone out in the Unclutterer readership have a suggestion for how to speed up this process?

  • What is the fastest way to enter data from the back of a photograph into a Notes/Description field? Should I enlist the help of a friend? Hire a neighborhood kid to do it? Streamline the process in some way?
  • What is the most meaningful way to categorize groups of photographs? Is date order always the best method? What other systems do people use that have proven to be worthwhile?

Let me say, “thank you,” ahead of time, because this has been a bit of a nightmare for me. I look at the box of photographs that have been scanned and feel overwhelmed by the next step in the process.

Color-coded storage solves bathroom confusion

Sharing a bathroom with a roommate, parent, spouse, or sibling can be a difficult task even for the most organized. One person might leave his things strewn about the counter, you might have more stuff than your allotted storage space, and your bathroom might look messier than any other area in your home.

The Rubbermaid company offers some terrific advice on their website for sharing a bathroom in their Back-to-School section. The article “Room for Two” talks about the whole dorm room, but one of their tips caught my attention and is perfect for anyone sharing a bathroom:

What’s mine is…blue
Identify what’s yours at a glance and avoid confusion by stashing supplies in color-coded containers.

One roommate can go black/blue and the other brown. Everyone who shares the space should go through their things to first make sure that only necessary items are being stored in the shared space, and then organize what is left into color-coded containers. It’s so simple I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it before reading this article.

Musings on apologies and uncluttered speech

Last Thursday, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos made an Kindles.

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

When I read Bezos’ apology, I was impressed by how direct, sincere, and uncluttered it was. It didn’t contain an excuse. It didn’t shift blame to someone else. And the statement in its final sentence wasn’t an over-promise or an out-of-proportion exaggeration, it simply said that they will try to do better in the future. The apology also came pretty quickly, while consumer feelings were still riled.

Everyone makes mistakes. Apologizing when those mistakes are made isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of personal responsibility. I try to apologize when I mess up or hurt someone’s feelings or forget something important, but I don’t always get the apology right. So, I’m going to take a few lessons from Jeff Bezos and try my best to give uncluttered apologies when they’re necessary:

  • Be sincere with your contrition. If you don’t feel sorry and you say that you are, you’re just lying to the person — which is yet another wrong.
  • Be prompt. The longer you wait, usually the worse a situation spirals out of control.
  • Take responsibility. If you are responsible, say so.
  • Leave out the excuses. If the other person wants to know why you chose to do what you did, he or she will ask. An excuse doesn’t belong in your apology.
  • Match the apology to the mistake. If you wrecked your friend’s car while you were borrowing it, offer to fix your friend’s car when you apologize (and do it). If you yelled at your child without warrant, apologize and explain what you will do in the future to try to prevent it from happening again.

What do you think about apologies (in general, not necessarily Bezos’) and their ability to be uncluttered? Are they better with or without excuses? What do you think of this example? I’m interested in reading your musings in the comments.

A year ago on Unclutterer