Workspace of the Week: Stand up, sit down, work, work, work!

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Mushroom Princess’ dual function workspace:

There are so many things to love about this week’s workspace feature. The most obvious is the way that it combines a standing height desk on the left with a sit-down space on the right. The shelf on the bottom of the desk, when combined with the higher chair, gives space for the worker to rest her feet while working at the sit-down computer. (I’m assuming the desk owner is female only because of the word Princess in the account name. My apologies if this assumption is incorrect.) Beyond the stand-sit combination, the single bookshelf is visually appealing and extremely practical. The wall-mounted speakers behind the larger monitor free up important desk space. All materials stored below the desk are in containers so as not to create a visual mess. There appears to be a metal strip behind the large monitor that papers are adhered to or the wall is painted with magnetic paint — both of which are fantastic ideas. Both workspaces have terrific task lighting. And, my favorite thing about the desk is that the drawers are asymmetrical. It’s an interesting desk that is perfectly sized for the space. Thank you, Mushroom Princess, for submitting your fabulous workspace 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.

Unitasker Wednesday: Pizza Scissors/Spatula–Cut n Serve

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

What I love about this week’s unitasker is that it proudly acknowledges its unitasker-y status. It screams, “I have ONE purpose and I DON’T CARE!”

It doesn’t make any excuses for who it is. It doesn’t claim to work on pie or poultry or paper or anything else that might benefit from the slicing action of two sharp blades. This bad boy is committed to PIZZA. Heck, it’s only committed to round pizza. Forget square pizza or the amoeba-shaped pizzas that come out of my oven, the Pizza Scissors/Spatula-Cut n Serve doesn’t want to work with them. Nice, triangular pieces cut from a perfectly round pizza are all this baby wants to touch. Move over traditional pizza cutter and general use spatula, now there is something with fewer use options that will only replace you in very specific circumstances. High five, Pizza Scissors/Spatula–Cut n Serve. Unitaskers represent!

Thanks to reader Mary for introducing us to this week’s unitasker.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

  • Simple strategies for marking items
    After Saturday’s simple tape suggestion, PJ and I have been talking about our favorite tricks for marking items. Here are a handful more tips for identifying items in your home and workspace.
  • Sleek and streamlined diaper bags
    Diaper bags — like purses and wallets — can be magnets for clutter. I speak from personal experience when I say that things go into them and rarely, if ever, come out. The smaller the bag, usually the easier it is to keep it clutter free and stuffed only with essentials.
  • Organize your writing, J.K. Rowling style
    The website /Film reported on Friday about author J.K. Rowling’s method for organizing her books. Using pen, notebook paper, and a simple grid, she plotted out the direction of her stories.

Productivity tip: Begin with a cleared surface

After seeing our post last week about his book Twenty, Michael Ruhlman sent me a message saying I’d left out one of the essential components of mise en place. He was right, I had left out one of the best parts! (His message was very nice, by the way. And, it means he actually read the post, which is quite flattering to this fangirl.)

The first step of mise en place, before you pull out a single ingredient from the cupboard or turn a dial to heat up your stove, is to:

Put away everything that you don’t need.

Clear your counter top. Get rid of the clutter. Or, to co-opt an artist’s metaphor, start with a blank canvas.

You run a much smaller risk of making a cooking mistake and adding an unwanted ingredient or missing a step if there isn’t anything else out on the counter to distract you. At the end of the cooking process, you’ll know if you forgot to salt the food because you’ll see a little bowl with salt in it sitting next to the stove. If your counter is piled high with junk mail, dirty dishes, and your child’s art projects, you could easily overlook the missing item.

Clearing the counter top also allows you to focus on exactly what you’re doing. There isn’t anything to distract you, at least that you can control.

This concept of putting away everything that you don’t need applies to a lot of projects that you may encounter throughout your day. It’s perfect for working on a project at work — close all programs and windows on your computer screen that aren’t related to your work, clear your desk of all materials that you don’t need — or even your hobby work surfaces at home. Mise en place is a great way to help you be productive even outside your kitchen.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

2009

  • Organizing a party pantry
    I was recently given a copy of the book Simple Stunning Parties at Home by its author Karen Bussen. In the book, Karen suggests organizing a “party pantry” so that “when it’s time to throw a dinner party or a wine and cheese night on the spur of the moment, I look [to it] for design inspiration, and I pull together all the elements I need.” She lives in a small New York City apartment, so her party pantry isn’t large or cluttered. She recommends a “small closet, a cupboard in the kitchen, or an antique hutch — whatever works for you.”
  • DIY everyday camera bag
    How to create a camera bag that will also hold all your equipment.
  • Rethinking the vase for a small space
    I recently learned about the store-flat reusable Vazu vases and instantly thought about our apartment and small-space dwelling readers.

Ask Unclutterer: How should I store sweaters this winter?

Reader Mary Margaret submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do you store your sweaters, and how often do you clean them? Most of my clothes are nicely organized, but sweaters continue to be a problem, especially now that fall is upon us. Here’s the situation: My boyfriend and I share a reach-in closet, and all of our sweaters are stored on the shelf above the closet rod. They start out nice and folded when they’re clean, but after they’ve been worn we usually just toss them back onto the shelf, and it always just ends up as a big messy pile. The issue is compounded by the fact that these garments are worn frequently but not washed (usually the site of folding) very often since a) they don’t get that dirty (no contact with sweaty human skin) and b) it is expensive to dry clean, which many of them require. I know there have been some forum discussions about what to do with “wear again” clothing items, but the issue isn’t so much WHERE to put the sweaters as how to keep them organized when they’re there.

It appears that your closet storage is very similar to the closet I had in my last house. I’ll share with you what I did, and then ask you to check the comments to read even more suggestions from our readers. Every week I’m surprised by how creative and amazing our readers’ suggestions are.

I want to begin by discussing sweaters in a general sense to give you an idea of why I do what I do. Natural fiber sweaters — cotton, sheep’s wool, cashmere (hair from the undercoat of a Cashmere goat), mohair (hair from an Angora goat), angora (hair from an Angora rabbit), silk, etc. — are highly susceptible to being eaten by bugs and little critters. Even natural fibers blended with synthetic materials — polyester, rayon, acetate — aren’t safe from hungry pests. The most famous enemies of the sweater are moth larvae, specifically the larva of the Tineola bisselliella Common Clothes Moth, who make a feast out of the keratin in the fibers. (Keratin is a protein found in hair, and those larvae need energy to eventually become brown winged creatures.)

Clothes Moths love dirty sweaters most of all. If a sweater has dead skin cells, sweat, food, or any other type of organic matter on it, this is the area where they will begin to dine.

Start by having all your dry-clean only sweaters dry cleaned (this chemical process will kill any pests on your sweaters) and washing all your sweaters that can be laundered at home. After you dry the sweaters you washed at home, you will want to toss them into a garbage bag and put that bag into the freezer for three or four days. Freezing the sweaters will kill any pests that may have survived the washing process. If you start by doing this cleaning process you’ll know that your storage system will be pest free going forward.

Next, you’ll want to store your sweaters in clear, thick, air-tight, plastic containers. Clear is great because you can see into the box, and plastic is good because the vast majority of pests won’t eat through it the way they will eat through fabric and cardboard. (Mice will chew through plastic if highly motivated, but you didn’t mention a mouse problem, so you should be fine.) I recommend getting four sweater boxes so you and your boyfriend can each have one box for absolutely clean sweaters and one for clerty sweaters (clerty: sort of clean, sort of dirty). Clothes moths and many other pests aren’t super fond of the oil from cedar wood or the scent of lavender, so get your hands on some freshly sanded cedar chips or blocks, lavender sachets, or other anti-pest products containing camphor. Put these deterrents in your four boxes to help ward off any pests that might sneak in when you have the lid off the box or that you picked up while wearing the sweater.

After wearing sweaters, just toss them in the clerty box (you don’t have to fold the sweaters, just be sure to put the lid on the box every time) until you decide to have the sweaters cleaned. I clean the sweaters that don’t touch my skin usually four times during the winter. Sweaters that touch my skin I clean every time I wear them. After your sweaters are cleaned, you can fold them and return them to the totally clean sweater box. Separating the sweaters reduces the likelihood that all of your sweaters will be destroyed if you accidentally get pests in your clerty bin. Finally, be sure to label all the bins so you don’t mix clerty sweaters with your clean sweaters.

This method is incredibly simple, protects your sweaters, and keeps them from looking messy or falling off the shelf onto the floor.

Thank you, Mary Margaret, 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.

Being productive when you don’t feel completely up for the task

I’m fighting a cold and it’s making writing difficult today. My fingers feel heavy. My mind refuses to focus. And Coffee, my trusted sidekick, isn’t being very helpful. (I expect more from you, Coffee!)

If I worked in a traditional office environment, I would take today off from work or telecommute so as not to share this cold bug with my co-workers. Since I’m already working from home, and my husband is likely the person responsible for giving me this ick, I’m at my desk “working.”

Cold and flu are good buddies with the cooler temperatures of fall. In addition to actual illnesses, you may have a bit of malaise that is brought on by grey skies and drizzling, cold rains. Many of us will have days like this in the coming weeks when climbing back into bed instead of suiting up for work is incredibly tempting.

These tips will help you to get back to your regular self as quickly as possible:

  • Prevention — Do your best to keep up your energy levels to avoid getting sick or coming down with a case of the blahs. Get adequate sleep, fuel your body with healthful food, exercise (a 45-minute walk three or four times a week is a good starting point if you don’t already have a regular workout routine), and keep stress to a minimum, if possible.
  • If you are genuinely sick, stay home. There are no awards to be given to the person who comes to work sick and infects the entire staff. And, thanks to technology, most workers can do their jobs completely or partially from home. Even if you don’t check a single voice mail or reply to an email, you’re still benefitting your entire team by not giving them your cold or flu. By taking care of yourself, you’re also improving your chances of getting healthier more quickly.
  • Go to the doctor if you have something that worries you or has been lingering around longer than it should. Doctors are not something to fear, they’re simply people who chose to go to medical school the same way you chose to be a teacher, programmer, project manager, or whatever it is that you do. If you don’t like your doctor, find a new one. Your health should be your top priority — without it, you can’t attend to any other of your responsibilities. And, if you are diagnosed with something major, the earlier you catch it you’re also improving your chances of getting healthier more quickly.
  • If you only have a case of the malaise, doldrums, or the blahs, do something nice for someone else. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture — write a loved one a letter, volunteer at your favorite charity, put quarters in someone’s expired parking meter, take care of a mundane task for a coworker, or surprise your neighbor by mowing his lawn — just a small act of generosity, expecting nothing in return, will do. I’m not sure why it works, but it has always been my perfect cure.
  • When trying to work while not feeling your best, remember to stay properly hydrated, take frequent breaks, and consider using a timer to help keep your focus on work for short bursts of time (10 minutes may be all you can muster). Also, keep as many external distractions to a minimum as possible since your internal distractions will be worse than normal.

Unitasker Wednesday: Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk

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 have to confess — this week’s unitasker has more than one purpose. Not only is it great for holding your laptop, book, cell phone, and food as you drive, but it’s also perfect for crushing your ribs and/or impaling you when you get into inevitable accidents! (Notice I chose to use the plural on accidents.) The Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk:

The 580 customer reviews on Amazon for this $20 product are (for the most part) wonderfully creative and funny. The “other views” product images are pretty irreverent, too. Even if it’s not a true unitasker, it’s certainly a bad idea. Since people can’t refrain from using their cell phones while driving, you know someone would use the Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk while cruising down the highway!

September resolution wrap up and introduction of October’s goal

September passed in the blink of an eye (a very grey and wet blink for those of us in the Mid-Atlantic), and I’m still in shock that it is already October. My resolution for ultra-speedy September was to finish an unfinished project, and I met this goal in the technical sense.

By “technical sense” I mean that half-way through the month I realized I had no desire to continue working on the project and paid someone to finish the work for me. It was $40 well spent, in my opinion. Had the charge been more than $100, I likely would have kept trudging along on the project myself. But, for a one-time cost of $40, I was happy to let someone else take care of it. Now there are just two items on my list of unfinished projects, and my hope is to finish them by the end of the year.

With unfinished items there are usually just two reasons they sit unfinished — a shift in priorities (something else becomes more important) and hitting a wall (don’t have the skills or materials required to continue working). In both cases, you have to decide if you should abandon the project completely or find a way to get the work done. Letting an unfinished project stay unfinished causes stress and guilt, neither of which are complimentary to an uncluttered life. Choosing to have someone else complete an unfinished project for you can be one way to get the item off your to-do list and this decision should be based on a number of factors:

  • Time involved lining up someone to do the work (in this case, I already had a contact so it was only a few minutes). The time involved to line someone up to do the work and your management of that work should not exceed the amount of time it would take you to do the work yourself.
  • Time involved to complete the work (would have been about 12 hours for me, 5 hours for the specialist). If it would take a more qualified person less time than you to complete a project, having that professional do the work may make sense.
  • Your interest in doing the work (very low). Even though you may value the final outcome, you may not be the best person to do the work, especially if you have little desire to do it.
  • Trust that the other person will complete the work to your standards (high, based on previous experience working with this person). The work doesn’t have to be perfect, but you shouldn’t have to hire another person or waste a significant amount of time redoing the outsourced work.
  • Appropriateness of someone else doing the work (fully appropriate for someone else to do it, didn’t have to be me). It may not always be appropriate — especially at your job — to pass the work along to someone else. For example, Senators often have to make their own photocopies because their staffers don’t have the security clearance to see the information being photocopied.
  • Costs involved (it would have been $0 had I done the work, but only $40 for someone else to do it).

Do you have unfinished projects camping out on your to-do list? If you do, now might be the best time to either trash the project or outsource the work to someone else. It could also be the time for you to create action items and get working on the project yourself.

For October, my resolution is to improve my posture. After reading Willpower and learning that something as simple as reminding yourself to stand up straight can increase self-control and resolve in other areas of life, I have decided to try it. My posture is awful and even if my overall willpower doesn’t improve, at least my posture will. But, since willpower is such an essential component for staying uncluttered and organized, I’ll eagerly try something as simple as working on my posture as a monthly resolution.


Erin’s 2011 monthly resolutions: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, and September.

Can mise en place make your cooking more organized?

When cooking from a recipe, I usually:

  1. Read through the entire recipe to get a comprehensive idea of what I’ll be doing.
  2. Read through the recipe again, this time taking notes on the recipe that are helpful to me during the cooking process.
  3. Set out all of the equipment I’ll need to complete the recipe.
  4. Measure, chop, mince, etc. anything that has to be done at a very specific time during the cooking process. (If I’m making soup, I’ll chop all my vegetables first, but I tend to just measure and grab ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry as I go.)
  5. Heat the stove or oven, if applicable.
  6. Cook.

You’ll notice that I don’t typically measure out all of my ingredients or get them out of the cupboard before starting the cooking process. This step, referred to as mise en place, has always seemed to me to be unnecessary. I also think measuring things ahead of time dirties a ridiculous number of bowls. Or, rather, I thought it was ridiculous until reading Michael Ruhlman‘s newest cookbook Twenty.

Before explaining what Ruhlman said to change my mind (or at least think mise en place less ridiculous), let me first give you some of his credentials. He co-wrote Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, been a judge on Iron Chef America, studied at The Culinary Institute of America, wrote Ratio (one of the most useful cookbooks ever written, in my opinion), and has also written books with chefs Eric Ripert, Michael Symon, and Anthony Bourdain. If you like to cook, Ruhlman’s books are valuable companions in the kitchen.

Now that I have my praises for Ruhlman out of my system, let me share with you what he wrote that helped to change my mind about mise en place. From pages 13 and 14 in Twenty:

There are all kinds of home cooks — people who cook to unwind; people who cook as a hobby; people who cook because they want to feed their family healthful, tasty, economical meals; and people who cook because it’s the least objectionable option in fulfilling a daily need. Regardless of what kind of cook you are, the most basic rules apply. First and foremost is that cooking is easier, faster, more efficient, more successful, and more fun when you think first, when you prepare and organize, when you set up your mise en place.

This is not an additional step — it’s simply doing all that you would do throughout the cooking anyway. You’re just doing it ahead of time, spending less time between cupboard and counter, refrigerator and stove. Be sure your counter or work area is completely clear. Go to the refrigerator, pull everything you’re going to need, and set it out. Go to the cupboard, and pull everything there you’ll need. Gather your tools beside your cutting board, set the pans you’ll need on the stove, and get the oven hot if you’re using it. Think about the sequence of your actions. And then being to work, and as you work while you’re doing one thing, think about what you’ll be doing next and next after that.

The past few meals I’ve made, I’ve tried mise en place (Ruhlman defines it as “organize and prepare,” even though it’s exact translated meaning is “put in place”). I’m not convinced it’s something I’ll do in the future for everything I make, especially the favorite recipes I know by heart and could make while wearing a blindfold. However, for all new and tricky recipes, I’m giving it a whirl. Being organized and prepared has served me well in so many other aspects of my life, it’s likely to benefit me in the kitchen.

What are your thoughts on mise en place as a way to help you be more organized in the kitchen? If you thought it was a waste of time, like I did, do Ruhlman’s words change your mind at all? Or, have you been a loyal mise en place preparation guru your entire cooking life? I’m interested in reading people’s thoughts on this cooking habit.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Cool Cones
    Is eating store-bought ice cream bringing you down? Well, let Cool Cones turn that around!
  • Exercise and focus
    A neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, Arthur Kramer, in “Ageing, Fitness and Neurocognitive Function” in Nature magazine, reports on another way to improve your ability to focus and brain cognition. The answer: Regularly participating in aerobic exercise.
  • Gorgeous gifts without all the clutter
    Simply using construction paper and a razor blade, a plain brown package is transformed into a beautiful gift.

2009