2009 Gift Giving Guide: All the small things

Today we kick off Unclutterer’s 2009 Holiday Gift Giving Guide. Over the next few weeks, you can expect to read posts in the Guide about giving gifts that hopefully won’t become clutter in their recipients’ homes. Some of these Guides are for experiences, charitable giving, kids’ items, consumables, utilitarian objects, and even a deal or two just for Unclutterer readers. We’ve created an index page for the 2009 Guide, and we hope that it will be a resource for you during the holiday season and any time throughout the year you wish to give a gift.

We’re starting off this year’s Guide talking about stocking stuffers. As a child, Santa filled my stocking with cans of black olives and my brother found cans of sardines in his. We couldn’t have been happier because these were exactly the items we begged Santa to bring to us when we wrote him letters every year. (Little known fact: Santa Claus loves to give salty food stuffs.) Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, not everyone on our holiday shopping list allows us to intercept letters they have written to Santa Claus detailing exactly what they want in their stockings. We have to hunt for small items that can fit in a stocking and still be useful or enjoyed by the recipient.

Gift cards are great stocking stuffers because they are small, allow the recipient to choose exactly what they want, and are easy to carry home if the recipient has to travel. I recommend Amazon Gift Cards or Visa Gift Cards because they can be used on almost anything the recipient might need. (They’re also perfect for teacher gifts if you give such things.)

Consumables — such as artisan chocolate bars or premium coffees — are always a hit for people who enjoy a specific food or drink.

If you want the gift recipient to be able to unwrap an item, I recommend things that have high utility. The following three gift ideas are useful and extremely accessible since they perform a function and attach to your keychain:

The Swiss Tech MPTBS Micro-Plus 8-in-1 Polished Stainless Steel Key Ring Multi-Tool:

The Swiss Tech UKTBS Utili-Key 6-in-1 Polished Stainless Steel Key Ring Multi-Tool:

The LaCie Iamakey 8 GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive:

What small, useful gifts do you recommend for stocking stuffers?

Is ‘user-friendly’ and ‘intuitive’ software really simpler?

The LaTeX CompanionI recently came across this blog post from 2007 comparing the quality of documents typeset with Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org Writer, and LaTeX. Although the post is long, it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. As a longtime user of LaTeX, I wasn’t at all surprised to see it best the competition in terms of the quality of typesetting.

There are a number of things I like about LaTeX, not the least of which is that it’s nice to be able to use a lightweight text editor with a smaller CPU and memory footprint to edit my documents. But LaTeX isn’t for everyone. Most people are far too accustomed to using WYSIWYG word processors to even consider learning how to format documents by marking up raw text with seemingly arcane commands.

Of course, most people don’t really know how to use their current word processing application effectively either. The software industry has placed so much emphasis on designing software to be “user-friendly” and “intuitive” that we now have a large class of users who are content to ham-handedly grope around contextual menus looking for what they think they want. These people have been conditioned to believe that it’s a usability fault in the software if they can’t figure something out in thirty seconds without referring to the documentation.

During college I worked in an office where all word processing was still done on a DOS version of WordPerfect. It definitely placed more demands on the end-user than the office productivity software of today. You really couldn’t get around needing to understand what the function keys did. Despite (or because of?) the steeper learning curve, the people I worked with in that office were much more efficient and productive using WordPerfect than many of my current colleagues are with Microsoft Word 2007. Almost everything becomes much easier when you spend a little time and effort learning how to do it properly first.

Is it better to have “intuitive” software that allows us to accomplish tasks more slowly, but without ever needing to review documentation or feel the frustration that can accompany a learning process? Or would we benefit more by using tools that require more upfront investment in learning but offer to save us substantially more time and effort in the long run?

A year ago on Unclutterer



As seen on Lifehacker

This past week, I encountered two fantastic articles on Lifehacker I wanted to share with you.

First, the article and its corresponding image “Creatively Display Your Cables When Hiding’s Not an Option” made me gasp with delight:

I want to do this someplace in my house right now. Small, adhesive Cable Clamps would be perfect and quick for this project.

Second, “Google Navigation is a Total GPS Replacement–As Long as You’re Connected” is an extremely thorough review of Google Maps vs. a traditional GPS device. I have a Garmin Nuvi and love it with a passion, but it’s good to know that I won’t need to replace it if something happens to it. If you’re in the market for a GPS, you should definitely read the article — you may already have a decent GPS you didn’t know you had.

(Image from Maisie Maud Broadhead.)

Ask Unclutterer: Not yet dirty clothes

Reader Susan submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

OK, this may be a strange question, but it’s one I have not seen addressed anywhere: Where do you put clothes you’ve worn for a short time that are NOT dirty enough to go into the laundry basket or to the dry cleaner’s? I am talking sweaters, blouses, pants, etc. — not underwear.

For instance, I might put on a top & pants for a couple of hours to go to a luncheon, but when I get home I am not going to put those items in the wash (unless I spilled something on them, or they got sweaty due to hot weather, etc.) because they’re still essentially clean, and I can easily wear them again “as is” — but I won’t put them into the drawer or closet with other TOTALLY clean (freshly washed or cleaned) items, because that is an invitation to moth damage, among other things.

In an average week, I might wear several different tops and pairs of pants, but not long enough for any of them to get “dirty” or smelly or sweaty.

My family had no system for dealing with this when I was growing up — we just tended to toss stuff onto a coat-rack in each bedroom, which was far from ideal. For me now, when I take off a piece of “hardly worn” clothing, it gets placed into a neat pile on a chair or ottoman in the bedroom, & then I pull the item out again when I want to wear it. But there must be a better way, and I would love to hear suggestions!

Oh Susan, you have asked such a great question. I think that all of us deal with this issue from time-to-time. Let me start by explaining what it is that I do, and then I hope that others will jump in the comments section and describe how they solve this problem in their homes.

In my closet, I have a Skubb Organizer from Ikea. I have five of the Skubb Drawers in each of the shelves that hold various things (scarves, purses, pajamas, and sweats). The top drawer is labeled for things “Not Yet Dirty.”

You could easily use a dresser drawer in the same way. Once a week, I check the drawer to make sure that something hasn’t gone sour in there. Otherwise, it’s a fairly straightforward system.

Thank you, Susan, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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: Side-by-side desks

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Lady Reynolds’ his and her office:

I like how this office uses the vertical space to keep paperwork and projects off the desk tops. And, the way the projects are displayed is a great solution for visual processors. I think the desks and chairs are from Ikea and the notes on the picture say that all of the clipboards were picked up from a thrift store. The magazine racks on the wall that were repurposed for files are also a great way to free up workspace. Thank you, Lady Reynolds, for your submission to our flickr pool.

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.

A simple Thanksgiving solution

Thanks to Asha at Parent Hacks, I have stumbled upon a simple living suggestion that I will use this Thanksgiving.

Until yesterday, I had no idea that chalk wrote easily on matte-finish oilcloth. The concept is so basic, yet its implications have my head spinning. I’m no longer trying to think of ways to decorate my Thanksgiving table, entertain the kids during mealtime, or am worried about a centerpiece — I have my solution:

Simply buy enough solid-color, matte-finish oilcloth to use as a tablecloth for your dining table. With either regular chalk or chalk pens, write guest names next to their plates. This replaces any need for place setting holders.

Additionally, you can write menu ingredients next to platters, draw seasonal designs down the center of the table, and give young guests chalk pens to play tic-tac-toe and draw pictures with during the meal.

Matte-finish oilcloth is extremely inexpensive (less than $10 a yard most places) and wipes clean with a damp cloth. And, you can redecorate and reuse it again and again. A piece of solid white oilcloth with colored chalk can make it perfect for everyday use — especially in homes with young kids. Just be sure to cure the oilcloth first.

I love simple solutions.

(Anyone know if this works on just regular, glossy-finish oilcloth? If so, the price per yard is significantly less expensive. Image from Yum Sugar.)

Follow the Unclutterer Forums with RSS

If you use an RSS reader to follow your favorite blogs, you can easily keep track of what’s going on in our new forums. Add the feed for latest topics or all the latest posts. You can even follow specific topics using the RSS link just below each topic’s title, or create an RSS feed of your own by adding topics as favorites.

After you add Unclutterer’s forum feeds to your RSS reader, jump in and join one of the following new discussions:

Or start one of your own.

Unitasker Wednesday: USB-Powered Hamster Wheel

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

The list of unitaskers available for your computer’s USB ports just got a little bit longer thanks to the extremely necessary USB-powered Hamster Wheel:

Now, you can waste away electrical energy by simply plugging in this “pet” to your computer. And, it’s not just a form of entertainment, it makes a political statement by telling your boss that you believe your work is like a hamster in a wheel, going nowhere. Wow, it’s not a unitasker after all!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the Hamster Wheel is currently being sold in the U.S. Those of us in the states will simply have to settle for the AAA battery version. (A version, I might add, that specifically claims it is NOT safe for children.)

Thanks to reader Enestor19 for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • The old new is the new old
    If you have furniture items in your home that are clutter because they’re not being used, think about transforming the piece yourself or maybe selling it to a company that transforms furniture — your clutter can become someone else’s treasure.
  • Thanksgiving buffet
    Our Thanksgiving dinners are usually served in a buffet style. This makes the whole process run smoothly and keeps the table free of serving dishes.
  • Unclutter your refrigerator before Thanksgiving
    My wife calls the process of clearing out the ingredients available in the refrigerator as “creative cooking.”
  • Remember the Milk: Now with iPhone and Gmail integration
    Remember the Milk now has integration with the iPhone, iTouch, and Gmail, in addition to its existing Twitter integration, makes this a go-to program for all GTD enthusiasts.


The reasons for lists

Italian author Umberto Eco was interviewed last week by the German publication Spiegel. The interview ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die’ discusses Eco’s recent involvement with curating an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. The exhibition, as the title of the interview suggests, is all about lists.

I think that many unclutterers rely on lists — to-do lists, home inventories, calendars, project management timelines — to stay organized. Personally, lists keep me from worrying about forgetting things. I’d rather think about things I’m passionate about instead of having a constant stream of to-dos bouncing around in my brain.

Eco’s thoughts about lists are much more esoteric than mine. I found his interview on the subject matter to be thought-provoking and worth reading. From the interview:

Umberto Eco: The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

From later in the interview:

Eco: … We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn’t have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone … One could go into great detail.

SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?

Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

What do you think of Eco’s thoughts on lists? Anyone else surprised by his statements or conclusions? Share your reactions in the comments.

(Thanks go to David Allen and Marginal Revolution for bringing this article to our attention. Image of Umberto Eco from the article.)

On the Forums: old t-shirts, personal information managers and childrens’ artwork

There’s already a few very interesting discussions underway on the new Unclutterer Forums that launched this morning:

Be sure to check it out. Remember, you can start your own thread (which our system calls a “topic”) by clicking the “Add New” link under Latest Discussions on the Forum homepage.