Qualities of a good to-do method

We all have our methods for remembering to-do items — Mark Forster’s lined to-do list system, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, notifications on Google calendar, etc. — and these methods work as long as you use them consistently. Every six to eight months, I try out a new method to see if it works better for me than the last. And, after a couple days of using the new method, I usually make a few additions and subtractions and switch out components from other methods that I like better.

After years of auditioning the most popular to-do management methods (and a few obscure methods, as well), I’ve found that it’s incredibly obvious which methods are likely to be helpful and which ones are duds. For a method to be good at actually getting me to do my work, it has to have the following components:

  • Simple way to capture data. New items have to be able to be quickly and smoothly added to the system. The easier it is to add items, the better. If you have to rewrite a list or find a specific type of paper or use a code of some kind, the method creates too many barriers for entries and I’ll stop using it in a matter of days.
  • Helpful reminders. The reminders to do something can be a simple visual or audible cue, but they need to be there. Actions written at a specific time on a calendar are even fine, there just needs to be something to help remember deadlines.
  • Way to delay or postpone items. If there is no way to reschedule an item, the missed to-do task will be forgotten, guaranteed.
  • Separation between do-this-or-suffer-negative-consequences tasks and all other items. A system doesn’t need a detailed prioritization scheme, but there has to be a way to differentiation between “I will get fired if I don’t do this” and “maybe someday” stuff.
  • Ability to overview entire system. If you can’t see all of the to-do items at once (or at least a month’s worth or a project’s worth), you can lose sight of the big picture.
  • Ability to ignore parts of the system. In addition to seeing the big picture, you also need to be able to keep from being overwhelmed and focus on a limited number of items.
  • Portability. Paper or digital doesn’t matter as long as the method easily transports with you wherever you go.

When you are creating or adopting your perfect method for completing to-do items, keep these best practices in mind. Also, know what features are important to you and your work. If you must have a to-do list that can be shared with others, then add “sharing” to your list of best practices. Whatever method you use, be sure it’s the right method for you and that you keep using it.

Unitasker Wednesday: Snazzy Napper

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

This week’s unitasker item falls into the bizarre and dangerous category. Introducing, the Snazzy Napper:

Technically, this product has more than one function — you can block out the light, look really creepy, AND suffocate yourself all at the same time! But, why you would anyone want a small blanket (towel? drool bib?) that doesn’t cover enough of your body to provide warmth combined with a sleep mask? I have absolutely no idea. I’m baffled. And frightened. And extremely worried for mouth breathers. And even more confused by the Snazzy Napper website where I learned the following:

Growing up in an environment filled with music, Snazzy gained his own appreciation for the love of music and more specifically Barry White ballads. Snazzy, The King of Sleep™ can be seen popping up in some of the most unexpected places accompanied by a Barry White serenade and an entourage of Snazzy Lady Lambs.

Does this mean that if you buy the Snazzy Napper that Barry White will show up in an unexpected place in your life with some sheep? If so, this is a truly amazing product since it is capable of bringing Barry White back from the dead. And, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to see zombie Barry White accompanied by an “entourage of Snazzy Lady Lambs?”

Okay, scratch this item as a unitasker. It clearly has magical powers that make it amazing. Zombies! Suffocation! All for $15!

Thanks to reader Maureen for sharing this strange product with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Keep it in rotation
    Evaluate your consumable inventory regularly. This means keeping on top of three primary areas: the refrigerator, the pantry and your toiletries stash.
  • Your stuff isn’t you
    More than half of the people looking at images of celebrities will fail to name the celebrity when their eyebrows are missing. And, since most of us aren’t as famous as Richard Nixon, it’s safe to bet that if we were to remove our eyebrows that most people wouldn’t recognize us, either.
  • Reducing resume clutter

Multifunctional children’s furniture

Now that my son has outgrown his Jumperoo, my husband and I have been on the lookout for a child-size chair. Like most toddlers, my 15-month-old son is insistent upon asserting his independence, and so he wants his own chair. If you try to sit on the same chair or couch he’s on, he’ll go to great lengths to get you to sit somewhere other than his piece of furniture.

We considered getting the Kapsule Chair because it is cute, inexpensive ($49), and doubles as toy storage. Ultimately, we didn’t buy it because when our son outgrows it in a couple years, the chair becomes another thing cluttering up the house.

In the end, we decided to get the Candu Chair, which can also be transformed into a playtable/desk, bedside table, easel, step stool, rocking chair, and magazine/book rack:

It’s 21″ x 18″ x 18″ and weighs 16 lbs. It’s certainly more expensive than the Kapsule — the Candu Chair is $125 on Amazon — but it’s a piece that should have utility for at least the next 17 years. For families like ours that live in small spaces, the more multi-functional the furniture, the better.

Knowledge as motivation

Many people find no pleasure in routine household chores — cleaning the bathroom, washing the car, paying bills, preparing meals, doing the laundry. These are activities we have to do if we want to take care of our spaces, but I’m certainly not the world’s biggest fan of doing the laundry or dishes or toilets.

However, one thing I’ve learned about myself since I’ve been living as an unclutterer is the more I know about a chore, the more eager I am to do it. If I research sponges to learn which ones are the most durable, least likely to transmit bacteria, and best at cleaning a bathtub, I’m excited to use that sponge when I do the chore. Add to that research about methods for scrubbing and the most effective and safe-for-the-environment cleaner, and I’m downright giddy when I clean the bathroom.

A few years ago while having dinner in New York’s East Village, I saw a sign hanging on the wall of the restaurant that sparked this personal revelation:

“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” — Voltaire

I realized that knowledge about food is what makes eating and preparing meals more pleasurable to me. When I understand the science, the ingredients, the style of preparation, and the choice of pairing foods and drinks together, I actually enjoy making dinner. It was at this point in my life when I started studying cooking and trying to learn as much as possible about food so that preparing the daily meals wouldn’t feel like such an awful burden. Now, I really enjoy cooking because it’s an adventure. Every day I get to put my new skills and understanding to the test.

If you learned more about the daily chores you don’t like to do, would it actually change your perspective on them? Would you appreciate sweeping the floor more if you knew the most efficient style? How about your office work — would you like to file more if you knew the history, details, and styles of filing? If learning more about something isn’t a motivator for you, what is? Discovering this about yourself can go a long way to helping you in your life as an unclutterer.

Resources for fall

It’s starting to get chilly, and I can’t stop thinking about fall. As the cooler weather moves in, here are a handful of resources to keep you organized as you say farewell to the warmer months.

Share your fall resources in the comments.

Make your Mondays (a little) more remarkable

It’s Monday, and a week’s worth of possibilities are in front of you. Do you:

  1. Drag your feet, groan, and wish it were Friday already?
  2. Excitedly jump out of bed, sing in the shower, and rejoice that it is Monday?
  3. Fall somewhere in between option #1 and #2, where you’re glad to have a new week ahead of you but wouldn’t mind crawling back into bed (at least for a few more minutes)?

Even if you chose option #1 this morning, it doesn’t mean you’ll never have a Monday where you feel like option #2. I woke up feeling like option #3 today (fall has come to the Mid-Atlantic and there was a crispness in the air that made me want to stay curled up under the comforter), but am now on track to feeling more like option #2. In addition to all the ways we’ve written about in the past to help you start your week on an organized footing (Plan your perfect week, Streamlining your morning routines, Preparing on Friday for Monday’s workday, to name a few), there are even more strategies you can implement to be excited about your new week. Here are some ideas for you:

  • Fake it. I’m usually the world’s biggest supporter of being authentic in your actions, but when it comes to Monday mornings I don’t see much harm in pretending to be excited for the week ahead. Acting as if you are in a good mood can often put you in a good mood. Your feelings change to match your behavior, and you end up having a positive outlook on your week.
  • Embrace your morning routine. Organize and plan your mornings so they include something you love. I love coffee and a few minutes each morning to sit in silence and enjoy my brew. So, I wake up 20 minutes before my son so I can have that much-needed jolt of caffeine and time to myself. If you love to run, try adding this exercise to your morning routine. If video games are your thing, set a timer for 20 minutes and play your favorite game. Your morning doesn’t have to be filled with getting ready and nothing else.
  • Take the scenic route. Travel to work on a route that takes you past turning leaves (in the northern hemisphere) or budding flowers (for those of you in the southern half of our planet). The different path might help you to see a work problem in a new perspective.
  • Make a list. Take a few minutes to list all of the things you like about your job or whatever you have on your schedule this week. Even if your list is extremely short, refer to it when your mood starts to turn south. You may also find you have more items to add to the list over the course of the week. Keep the list and reference it next Monday, too.

The more organized you are and the less clutter you have in your way, the easier it is to feel excited about Mondays. Keep working on your uncluttering efforts, and give one or more of these positive mood-boosters a try. The happier you are, the more productive you’ll likely be. I wish all of you a wonderful week.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Combatting backpack clutter
    Reader Lisa, a college student, wrote in to Unclutterer asking if we might be able to help her with her backpack woes.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Hot Potato
    Now you can buy a music playing, batteries required, painted toy to substitute for nature’s fun: The Hot Potato!
  • Organizing your job search
    My super organized sister-in-law gives details on how to organize a job search.
  • Recovering from an e-mail interruption
    Try turning off the notification alert on your e-mail system and only checking e-mail on a schedule and see if it improves your productivity. If the interruption refractory period really is 17 minutes, you should immediately notice significant gains in your focus.
  • Workspace of the Week: Nook office
    Ivy_Style33 used bookshelves to create an office out of a corner of her apartment. The Ikea Expedit Bookshelf was set to the right of the desk to separate the workspace from the living space.
  • Ask Unclutterer: What is clutter?
    Just what kinds of things do most people consider to be “clutter”?
  • Need motivation? Send an invitation
    One of the most fun ways to motivate yourself to unclutter your home and/or office is to invite someone to visit.



Ask Unclutterer: Why do people struggle with clutter?

Reader Juliette submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know why I fight clutter: After a long day at work the last thing I want to do is housework. But is this the same reason as everyone else? Are we all working too hard and too many hours to take care of our stuff?

After years of doing what I do, I’ve found that most people who struggle with clutter fall into one of the eight following categories:

  1. Overwhelmed by the task, don’t know where to begin. Feeling overwhelmed can be paralyzing. When you are plagued with anxiety, it can be tempting to ignore the problem and just hope it goes away.
  2. Fear of being forgotten, their stuff is the only proof they have lived. As humans, we know we’re mortal but wish we weren’t. Since the beginning of human history we have been looking for ways to be remembered. People who fear their mortality often have issues with this, especially sentimental clutter.
  3. Fear of change or of the future. The past may have been a glorious time, and since the future is uncertain, it can be tempting to hold onto everything from the past. Even if the past wasn’t so glorious, it’s at least a known quantity. This also ties in with people who look at objects and think, “I might be able to use this some day.” It stems from a fear that one might not be able to acquire needed items in the future.
  4. Experienced a major life change, such as death of a family member, a marriage, or a new baby. Major life changes can be difficult because they often come with a lot of stuff — a death means you might have to process someone else’s stuff, a marriage could mean you have to merge two households, and a new baby is a combination of exhaustion and new stuff. Usually these influxes of clutter are short term, but they’re still stressful (even if a good stress).
  5. Poor decision-making and/or time-management skills, simply don’t know how. Decision-making and time-management skills are learned, not engrained. They need to be practiced just like a toddler practices walking and a guitarist practices his craft. Michael Phelps didn’t wake up one morning with a new ability to be an Olympic gold medal winner — he spent years practicing. If a person hasn’t practiced and trained to have strong decision-making and time-management skills, she isn’t going to know how to handle everything that comes her way. She’ll often keep something out of guilt or habit.
  6. Lack of energy. Many people call this “being lazy,” but I think it’s really a lack of energy. If you don’t get the right amount of sleep your body needs, eat foods that best fuel the mind and body, and move around a lot during the day, you’re going to have less energy than you need to get things accomplished. And this isn’t a weight issue, either. There are people of all shapes and sizes who don’t eat or sleep well who struggle with insufficient energy.
  7. Side effect of a physical disability or mental disorder. If you’re not of sound body and/or mind, it’s understandably a challenge to get through the day. These people benefit greatly from the help of professionals to assist them.
  8. Don’t want to, don’t see any reason to change. I wouldn’t say that these people actually “struggle” with clutter, though people who come into contact with them probably do. The truth is that being an unclutterer is not the only way to a remarkable life. For some people, clutter isn’t an obstacle. And, as long as the person with the stuff isn’t a danger to himself or others (just messy, not a hoarder), I don’t see this as a problem. People need to do what is the best path for them to achieve the life they desire.

Based on the information in your question, you might have issues with clutter because of insufficient time-management skills. This is just a guess, though, I’m basing on your use of the phrase, “working too hard and too many hours.” You might read through the list and see another category (or two) that suits you better. I was a clutterer because of many of the reasons listed, but mostly because I had awful sleeping and eating habits, poor time-management skills, and didn’t realize clutter was keeping me from living a remarkable life. Throw in my physical disability and a mild fear of being forgotten and I think that sums up all of my reasons for living so many years as a clutterbug.

We all have our reasons for struggling with clutter — and there are certainly a few reasons people fight clutter that don’t conveniently fit into one of these eight categories — so be sure to read the comments to learn about why different readers are here. Additionally, there are hundreds of posts in our archives that address how to handle each of these categories of clutter. Thank you, Juliette, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck in your pursuit of a remarkable life.

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: Computer desk makeover

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Apostrophe Lover’s transformed desk into a baby changing and storage station:

Apostrophe Lover explained the redesign in the comments to the photographs:

It’s actually a repurposed computer desk. I’m a working, first-time parent (as is my spouse), and I wanted to have everything organized and accessible for those bleary-eyed baby changings. The trash can (the step function is essential) sits where the computer once did.

When closed, the baby station just looks like an armoire. The baby’s laundry basket is just to the right (soiled items can be tossed in even when the station is open).

On the inside of the right door is a hanging organizer “For those extra things that don’t get used every day, but that need to be nearby: nasal aspirator, cotton swabs, corn starch, Desitin, and nail clippers.”

Check the Flickr pool for more photos and even the cutie baby boy who “works” here. Thanks to Apostrophe Lover for this great office transformation.

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.

Assorted links for September 16, 2010

A handful of interesting links related to uncluttering, organizing, and simple living from this week’s news:

Use one-sentence purpose statements to be more productive in your communications

Before you pick up the phone, schedule a meeting, or construct an e-mail, you should be able to express the reason for the communication with a one-sentence purpose statement. Similar to a thesis statement in a report or memo, you need to know exactly where you’re going before you begin writing or talking so you can get to your point as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Here are some examples of hideously bad purpose statements:

At the end of this phone call, I will have convinced my co-worker to cover for me on Friday while I’m on vacation.

At the end of this meeting, attendees will have discussed what is on the agenda.

At the end of this e-mail, I will have expressed my anger about this project.

These purpose statements are vague, lack tangible actions, and don’t include much direction for getting you where you want to go with your communication. You’re also not likely to get the response you desire with purpose statements like these because the recipient of the communication could easily be confused by what you’re intending.

A well-constructed purpose statement is concrete and specific, and it also identifies why the specific communication is best achieved through the phone call, meeting, or e-mail.

To develop your purpose statement, complete the following sentence: “At the end of the [communication], [person/people] will …”

Here are some examples of significantly better purpose statements:

At the end of the phone call, Susan will have agreed to change her shift on September 29 with my shift on September 17.

At the end of the meeting, attendees will have drafted a one-page annual strategy statement that will guide our team over the next year.

At the end of this e-mail, Claudia will know I believe purposefully missing the deadline for the project without notifying the client could possibly lead to us losing this client, not being paid in full for our work, or not covering the salaries of those working on the project.

When you know what you want for the final result of your communication, you’re more likely to achieve it and save time for everyone involved in the conversation. Quickly draft these one-sentence statements on your computer or pen them on a notepad before every out-going communication and look at them during your conversations to keep you on track. Say them aloud or print them at the top of your meeting agendas so everyone in the meeting knows why they have been gathered. Know where you’re going, so you’ll be sure to get there.