Ask Unclutterer: Organizing electronic accessories and conquering Mount Techmore

Reader Katie submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do you handle tech clutter? I have an underbed storage box full of old wires, chargers, manuals and remote controls I’ve never used. First, I need some guidance about how to sort through Mount Techmore: I don’t want to throw out adapters for gadgets I’m still using, but I can’t always tell what goes with what. Then I need a strategy for handling new gadget clutter as it comes in. I like to keep the old device around for a bit until the new one is running smoothly. But then I forget to purge the old one until two years later when it’s really no good to anybody anymore. What do you suggest?

Unfortunately, I think everyone reading this post has a Mount Techmore. In the electronic age, it’s difficult to avoid this unpopular storage destination. I’ll explain what we do in our house to keep Mount Techmore from erupting, but be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

New products. A few years ago we realized we had to be diligent with marking cords, adapters, and other electronic accouterments the minute we unwrap an item. We have to do it immediately or we wonder for years what device goes with what peripheral.

If we plan to regularly use the cord that comes with a device, we’ll adhere a cable identification tag to it. If the item has a wall wart, we’ll stick a printed label on its bulky back. If the wall wart is black, sometimes we’ll even just write directly on it with a silver Sharpie. If we plan to store the cable/charger/whatever until we donate the device to charity or sell it, we stuff it inside a zip-top plastic bag and write on the bag with a black Sharpie what is inside and what it belongs to.

All manuals for items we plan to sell or donate go inside a plastic sheet protector of a three-ring binder. If we don’t plan to get rid of the item and simply keep it until it breaks, we go online, find a .PDF of the manual, and link it to a spreadsheet. If the manual isn’t online, we’ll scan it, save it as a .pdf, and link the file to the spreadsheet. Once we have access to a digital copy, we recycle the print version. Learn more about the spreadsheet method in our 2007 article “Organizing digitally scanned data.”

Old products. When we started labeling our new stuff, we took a couple hours and sorted through all the old stuff in Mount Techmore. We labeled everything we wanted to keep as described above, and ultimately got rid of a good amount of electronic accouterments we no longer needed. Do a little each day, or tackle it in one afternoon, but it is important to figure out what all the old stuff is and if you really need it. If you’re like us, you’ll be surprised by how many USB cables you own.

Storing. We store Mount Techmore exactly the same way you do, but we use a Rubbermaid Footlocker because we have so much electronic equipment in our house and for our company. We have zip-top bags grouped into bins inside the footlocker based on type (all cords in one, all adapters in another, all chargers in yet another) and the manual binder is in there, too. There are also hard drives and electronic repair tools in it.

I’ve seen people use over-the-door shoe storage organizers and put a printed label on the pocket, which seems to work very well. I also like when people use drawers for cable storage and use a sock drawer organizers for each cable. I don’t think there is a wrong way to store these things, as long as everything is well marked and can easily be found.

Out with the old. When we replace an item, we dump the old device and all of its accompanying stuff into an electronics recycling bin that we keep in our laundry room. The device and its stuff usually sits in the bin until the bin is full and we have to decide if we want to sell, donate, or simply recycle the items in the bin. The bin we use isn’t very big (it’s kind of like this one, but in navy blue), so we go process it four or five times a year. Since we don’t immediately get rid of the items, we have a crossover period in case the new device doesn’t work. And, if we offer the old device to a friend, we know exactly where it is when the friend comes around to retrieve it.

Even doing the one-in-one-out method, we still wind up with obsolete cables, duplicates, etc. lingering in our footlocker. Because of this, we still go through it once or twice a year and pull out anything we no longer need.

Thank you, Katie, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope something I wrote above will help you. And, again, be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers for how to conquer Mount Techmore.

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.

25 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing electronic accessories and conquering Mount Techmore”

  1. posted by Aunt Marti on

    I love the idea of the cable ID tags — I use plastic bread bag closure-tabs instead of buying tags. Just write on them with a sharpie and clip it to the cable.

  2. posted by Mo on

    I tried the cables in one place, chargers in another, but had too many items with odd parts. Now everything gets their own zip-lock bags. Manual(s), charger, cable(s), adapters, etc. all go into the bag. If possible, I store the item itself in the bag as well. There is a bin on the shelf in my home office close and a larger one downstairs that also has computer and household tool manuals. If I’m using, for example, my camera, the ziplock will sit on the shelf next to the bin.

    Note: my general organizing style is to go for easy putting away at the cost of having to dig a bit more to find stuff. What I really don’t want is having to wonder if there are more parts somewhere.

  3. posted by Meg on

    “I don’t want to throw out adapters for gadgets I’m still using, but I can’t always tell what goes with what”.
    If the adapter has any technical info on it, you might be able to look up the specs of your equipment and then use the guidelines here under “Substituting AC Adapters” to see if you have a match.
    I use the what-is-the-worst as a double check and don’t use unknown adapters for my laptop, but did find one for a rechargeable lantern.

  4. posted by JustGail on

    For those that don’t want to deal with labels, use paint markers. Simply pick a color for each item and mark all parts with that color. I’d still put the unused bits and manual in a zip bag though. I’ve use the Sharpie Paint Markers with great success on cables and wall warts. The color codes are especially nice for little kids that don’t read yet, although in my experience, they have less trouble remembering which adapters and remotes go with what than I do.

  5. posted by tba on

    Wow, this is bewildering. May I ask just exactly what tech stuff all you people have that you need so much cables and space for? I am serious about this question, because I have a really hard time relating to this problem – I just can’t think of technical items that might cause so much trouble.

  6. posted by des on

    I work in IT, am a gamer, and have photography as a hobby. So, I have two computers, multiple external HDDs, two cameras, a smart phone, a kindle and various tools for computer maintenance and repair – not to mention spare internal HDDs & memory, and various cables specialised to doing work in an IT datacentre. Technology is my ruling passion so I have deliberately made room for it, but it does mean it’s easy for it all to get a bit tangled up when they all have their own cables and chargers and accessories. I don’t have a problem remembering what cable came with what, but that’s probably a symptom of being a giant nerd 🙂

    I’m sure many would assume that means I am not very minimalist, but I don’t own a car, a television, or more things in total than would comfortably fit in a reasonable size studio, so the only clutter I really have issues with organising is the tech stuff and that’s mostly because I’m always using it and then leaving it around the place.

  7. posted by WilliamB on

    I store together the gadget and all the bits and papers that go with it. If I’m using the gadget now, then I store everything not in current use in a labeled ziploc. This way I just need that one bag when I need to upgrade, sell, or just fiddle.

    But for the just-in-case cabling, I store like with like; each cable tied neatly with a twist-tie, all similar cables in a ziploc.

  8. posted by Anne on

    This is something I have been wondering about for a long time. The cable identification tags are a brilliant idea! What I would suggest, however, is to consolidate, consolidate, consolidate when it comes to electrical devices. At the moment I feel like I have far too many separate devices, so I am planning to get a 64gb iPhone, which will replace my phone, my alarm clock, my iPod, my video camera, and maybe even my camera. It’s pricey, but think of how much all those separate devices cost. You can do the same for other types of devices (BluRay player with built-in Netflix and PVR, for example), but you really need to pay attention to build quality, warranties and insurance, since if it breaks or you lose it, you lose all the functions. Anyway, this way hopefully I will eventually not even have that many cables or chargers to organise or declutter in the first place.

  9. posted by Andrew Mac on

    Don’t forget about Gazelle for donating old tech junk!

  10. posted by Elspeth on

    I love any method that involves using stuff you already have or are going to throw away to make something new. Here is one you can make with TP rolls (for small cables. maybe paper towel rolls for the larger ones?):

  11. posted by Elizabeth H. on

    I use zippered pencil bags – the kind meant to be used in 3 ring binders. like these –
    I put everything pertaining to one gadget into the bag, then label the bag.
    Then I stand the bag in a drawer – like this –
    in alphabetical order. The drawers live in the end of my closet, out of the way.

  12. posted by Another Deb on

    I label each end of cords that are plugged in to my computer so that I don’t have to trace out a cord to see what I am unplugging.

    These labels are created on my electronic labelmaker (battery operated, thank goodness!) and cut with extra length to fold over and form a tab that I can read easily.

  13. posted by Katie on

    Erin and commenters, thank you for all of these helpful suggestions! The outgoing electronic recycling bin is simple, and genius. Just bundling everything up and putting it in the “to be donated” box means it’s there for a few weeks in case the new device is a dud, but on it’s way out of my home while it might still be useful to someone else. Thanks especially to Meg for the link re: AC adaptors and Andrew Mac for the link to Gazelle. Any other Unclutterers have a good experience with Gazelle?

    Peripherals labeled somehow (labelmaker, paint pens, sharpie? so many options … still deciding) A ziploc labeled by gizmo to hold all the peripherals. Bonus: those ziplocs can go right back into my underbed storage box, soon-to-be-former home of Mount Techmore.

    Thanks Unclutterer! I’ll be following this thread closely for more comment goodness.

  14. posted by Kristen on

    Excellent post!

  15. posted by snosie on

    I have a drawer in my kitchen which works of a few levels. It’s sort of my ‘go to’ part of the kitchen when I dump stuff down, or need to sort something out. It is also need a powerpoint (is this a wall wart?!).

    Otherwise, the laptop charger stays near the coffee table/TV, plugged in (but powered off at the wall). The phone charger is always by bed or in kitchen. Otherwise, camera charger etc are in said drawer, and retrieved when needed.

  16. posted by snosie on

    *near (not need!)

  17. posted by Stefan on

    You say:

    Learn more about the spreadsheet method in our 2007 article “Organizing digitally scanned data.”

    Spreadsheets are not mentioned on the linked page. Where should I look, please?

  18. posted by Wanda on

    Decided to use jewelry sack bags to hold my chargers and ear buds. Got tired of having a long cord tangling everything in my purse. The mesh or fabric pouches with drawstring work great and easy to find in my shoulder bag.

  19. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Stefan — The seventh paragraph of the article is where it is discussed.

  20. posted by Stefan on

    @Erin Doland — thanks for your reply and the pointer to
    the relevant paragraph.

    Unfortunately, I still do not see a “spreadsheet method” being mentioned, even upon close inspection… The links in the paragraph all point to various software products.

  21. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Stefan — Yes. Go to the websites of the software products. There, you can see how the best programs on the market structure data, link files, organize information. Watch the product demos. Download a free sample. Then, after studying how others do it, you can decide if you want to build your own spreadsheet with a product you already own or buy a new product. There are some terrific products listed, and they show much better examples of organizing data than I could come up with on my own.

  22. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Stefan — Even click on the image attached to the article. There you can see how I actually organize my manuals digitally in DevonThink. That is a screenshot of my spreadsheet, if I remember correctly.

  23. posted by Stefan on

    @Erin Doland: Well, thanks for that! I obviously didn’t dig deep enough, sorry. Looking forward to exploring these tools.

  24. posted by MG on

    Good info, BUT — you didn’t address HOW TO FIGURE OUT what cords, connectors, etc., go with which pieces of equipment.

    I also have a lot of these strange bits in a box, and don’t know whether some were things that came with the iMac, for instance, but weren’t needed when the tech guy set it up.

    Or they might be for the Windows 7 laptop; an old XP desktop my husband is using (the hand- me-down when I got the Mac); one of several back-up device external drives; an older XP desktop we no longer have; an older laptop we gave away; one of several cell phones we no longer have; other hardware we may or may not have now; things that connect to DVD players; etc.

    Some look like they could be used for several different pieces of equipment, but I remember reading that one could do severe damage to the computer (or whatever) if the wrong charger or connector was used.

    Where can I take the bag of cords and connectors and have someone tell me what I have, what goes with what, etc., — without having to bring all the toys with, or pay a lot of money for a service house call?

    Obviously, right now, none of these things are doing me any good, but if we have a problem and a tech guy comes over and asks if we have the “whatever”, we can at least hand him the box of tangled stuff.

    This is a serious question, from a person who knows enough to be dangerous, but not efficient.


  25. posted by Bob on

    If you just make sure that everything you buy uses standard ports for power and data, then you won’t have to worry about keeping around a bunch of proprietary cables and wall warts.

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