Organized recess? New study reveals it significantly benefits students

I’m of the belief that pretty much anything — no matter how obscure or abstract — can be organized. Dog food? Easily done. Thoughts? With a lot of practice. Worries? Most certainly.


I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never considered organizing recess. In fact, it wasn’t until my friend Martha directed me to the article “Study Weighs Benefits of Organizing Recess” in Education Week (it’s free to register to see the full article) that I was even aware people wanted to organize recess. Why would someone organize recess?

It turns out, through study by researchers at Stanford University and Mathematica Policy Research, that organized recess improves transition times back to classroom learning and reduces bullying. From the article:

The study found that, on average, teachers at participating schools needed about 2.5 fewer minutes of transition time between recess and learning time — a difference that researchers termed statistically significant. Over the course of a school year, that can add up to about a day of class time.


Teachers at schools with the [organized recess] program found that there was significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess than teachers at schools without it, but not a reduction in more general aggressive behavior.

How does one organize recess? Schools start by hiring a “full-time recess coach,” who is usually an Americorps volunteer trained by Playworks (a California-based organization that develops organized recess programs). The full-time coach can also be a member of the school staff who has gone through the training program. Then:

The coaches map the area where students spend recess, setting boundaries for different activities, such as kickball. They help children pick teams using random measures, such as students’ birth months, to circumvent emotionally scarring episodes of being chosen based on skill or popularity. If conflicts arise, coaches teach simple ways to settle disputes and preempt some quibbles by teaching games including rock-paper-scissors.

Forty percent of the surveyed teachers said students used the rock-paper-scissors game to resolve conflicts or make decisions when they were back in class.

Organizing recess is certainly an interesting topic and one I had never considered before reading this article. It seems to make recess more like camp or gym class, which were both things I enjoyed as a kid. Mostly what I thought about as I read the article, though, was how much fun it would be to have the job of recess coordinator — you’d get paid to play at recess.

Overwhelmed? Eight steps to help you regain control of your time

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious when you have too many responsibilities, too many things on your to-do list, and/or too many emotionally-draining situations going on in your life. It’s also easy to believe that if you could just be more organized, you could stop feeling so exhausted and stressed about these things.

Improved organization may be part of the solution, but rarely is it the entire answer. Similar to when organizing a physical space, you usually have to clear clutter before you can organize what remains. You’ll need to eliminate or delegate activities before you can be more organized and regain control of your time.

  1. Start saying “no.” At least for the short term, you need to say “no” to as many new responsibilities as possible. Obviously, you can’t say “no” to every request that comes your way, but try your best to keep from adding to your already massive to-do list. For advice on how to decline incoming requests for your time, check out the article “Saying ‘no’” from 2008.
  2. Get it out of your head. The next thing you need to do is get everything out of your mind and onto a sheet of paper. If you’re like me, you’re not going to remember everything you need to do in a matter of minutes. Carry the paper with you throughout the course of an entire day, and write down things as you remember them. Leave the paper next to your bed as you sleep, and you may even find you wake up with five or ten more items to add to the list the next morning.
  3. Prioritize your list. Sort your list into four groups: 1. Must get done for risk of losing job/life/significant income; 2. Would be nice to get done and I would enjoy doing the task; 3. Would be nice to get done but I don’t really want to do it; 4. Doesn’t need to get done right now/ever and I don’t really want to do it.
  4. Eliminate and delegate. Immediately cross everything in group 4 off your list and clear these tasks from your mind. After letting those items go, get to work on all the items in group 3. You’ll want to create exit strategies for all these items, and the more heavy the responsibility the more detailed your exit strategy will need to be. For the heavier items: Wrap up any parts of the project you can easily (and willingly) do, identify someone who might benefit from taking over this responsibility or is better equipped to handle it, delegate this responsibility to that person or request their help with the responsibility, and graciously resign the responsibility to that person. For the lighter items: Simply cross them off your list like you did with items in group 4.
  5. Create, schedule, and complete action items. Look at the items in group 1 and break them into specific action items. “Clean the house” is a bad action item because it is vague. You want individual items with detailed actions that can be scheduled and completed. For example, “Call Bob the exterminator at (555) 555-5555 to set up an appointment for the afternoon of Saturday, April 21” or “Scrub the bathtub in the guest room.” Put the action items on your schedule so you know when you will complete the tasks. Be realistic with yourself about how much you can accomplish in one day. Finally, do the action items as they appear on your schedule.
  6. Sleep and spend 30 minutes in the sun. It’s scientifically proven that it’s more difficult to handle stress when you’re exhausted. For advice on getting the sleep you need, check out the article “A good night’s sleep improves productivity.” Also, get outside for 30 minutes every day to absorb a little Vitamin D and take a mental break from your responsibilities. If the weather is dismal, sit still for 30 minutes and do absolutely nothing.
  7. Review your progress. After you get some of the group 1 items crossed off your to-do list, you can review your progress and see if you’re at a place to begin adding items from group 2 to your schedule. If you feel significantly less anxious than you did two weeks ago, you may be ready to address one or two items from group 2. If your anxiety levels are still running high, continue to only work on group 1 responsibilities.
  8. Ask for help. If a month passes, you’ve fully implemented the previous steps, and you’re still overwhelmed, it might be time to call in a professional. Only you will know what type of a professional you need — you could need the help of a time management consultant, a professional organizer, a mental health professional, or something as simple as hiring a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn. Get the help you need to regain control of your time.

Workspace of the Week: The closer

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Arthelemis’ office in a spare bedroom closet:

Closet offices are phenomenal uses of space if you have a closet to spare. Obviously, the best part about them are they allow you to close the door when you’re finished using the area. This office is for a student whose bedroom is in the basement of the house. An explanation of the space:

I had to make do with a tiny budget (less than 100$), so I reused a lot of material we already had. It might not be pretty but it’s functional. The best part is being able to close the door on the mess.

Arthelemis explains in one of the notes to this image that the power cord for the laptop is hanging down because it regularly has to be unplugged and moved out of the closet. I have the same issue with the power cord on my laptop and I’ve been thinking about getting a second power cable for this exact reason — keep one at the desk and one in my laptop bag. I’m tired of bending under my desk and dealing with it every time I want to be mobile. There was also a note that the arm rests for the office chair (not pictured) had to be removed so the chair could fully slide under the desk to be able to close the door. A simple hack and no new office chair was needed for this special setup.

Anyway, the closet provides a good amount of storage space, even with the desk front and center. Check out Arthelemis’ additional photos in the set for more views of the storage areas.

Have to admit, I also love that the Unclutterer Forums are open on the laptop screen in the picture. A nice touch, Arthelemis, and thank you for submitting your wonderful 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.

Using timers to improve productivity

If you’re a regular visitor to Unclutterer, you know I have a strange obsession with timers. I’m someone who has a meandering mind and am easily distracted. I’ve been tested for ADHD, and I don’t have it. Therefore, I think the technical term for my concentration issues is normal human. Like most people, I would rather do or think about something fun instead of my not-so-fun responsibilities. Thankfully, there are timers to help you (and me) stay focused and complete tasks — specifically the not-so-fun ones and the ones that have to get done — in reasonable amounts of time.

I use a timer when writing to keep me from wandering around the web. I use a timer when doing chores around the house to see how much I can accomplish in a set amount of time. I use a timer when practicing the piano to make sure I get a good 30 minutes in every day. I use a timer when I’m at the gym, running on the treadmill. I also use a timer when I’m goofing off during work hours, to make sure I’m merely taking a break from my work and not wasting an entire afternoon.

My favorite timer right now is the Time Timer app for the iPhone. I think I paid $2 for it about a year ago. It is extremely convenient and simple to use, especially since my iPhone sits on my desk while I work. There are other screens and colors you can use, but these are the main ones I rely on the most:

I also use the timer on my microwave, the timer on the stove, and a stop watch from my days in middle school track (the thing is at least 25 years old and still going strong). If you use a Windows-based PC, I recommend checking out the XNote Stopwatch program that will even import directly to Excel for time tracking work and calls for client billing.

We recently started using an 8″ Time Timer with audible alerts clock for our son who is young enough that he doesn’t fully comprehend time yet. (The timer, made by the same people as the iPhone app, also comes in 3″ and 12″ versions.) We’ve been using it for things like when we tell him he has five more minutes to play with his cars before dinner.

Do you use timers throughout your day to help you stay on track and be more productive? Do you ever race the clock to see if you can get your daily chores finished in less than 30 minutes? What timers do you use and which are your favorites? Share your advice in the comments.

And, as always, none of the companies paid us or rewarded us in any way to write about their products. We just really like them.

Unitasker Wednesday: Pour some iced coffee on me

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

As a lover of all things coffee, I embraced the tip I got from a friend to freeze coffee in ice cube trays to use in iced coffee drinks. Using frozen coffee cubes instead of frozen water cubes keeps the iced coffee drink from getting too watered down as the cubes melt. Ever since I got this tip, I pour coffee into an ice cube tray, let it come to room temperature, stick the tray in the freezer, and make frozen coffee cubes. When all of the cubes are frozen, I pop them out of the tray and into a zip top bag for storage, freeing up the ice cube tray for regular ice. Then, obviously, I put the frozen coffee cubes into my cup of coffee if I decide I want to drink it iced. If I’m feeling peppy, I’ll make the frozen coffee cubes with flavored creams mixed in with the coffee, so the iced coffee drink changes flavor as I drink it. (I know, I live on the edge!)

No extra coffee making contraptions are necessary. No special or expensive gizmos or doodads required. A basic ice cube tray and standard coffeemaker are all you need to make iced coffee that doesn’t get watered down. (Note: The ice cube trick also works with chai. Kapow! Bet I just rocked your world.)

So, you can imagine my bewilderment when I discovered not only are there special trays that exist for making frozen coffee cubes into the shape of coffee beans, such as the Cool Beans Ice Cube Tray:

BUT there are also special $40 coffeemakers to make iced coffee, such as the Bodum Bean Ice Coffeemaker:

Fascinating. And, after last week’s coffee filter tongs unitasker, I’m starting to think we can fill the entire month of April with only coffee-related unitaskers. I already have an idea for next week’s item, which I actually own!

Thanks to reader Jess for leading us to a whole new world of coffee unitaskers.

Determining if a sentimental item is clutter or a treasure

In January, Bubba Watson bought the General Lee that jumped over the police car at the end of the opening sequence to the television show The Dukes of Hazzard. Watson, who won the Masters golf tournament this weekend, is reported as having said the car was his “dream car” and sought out the car’s auction.

Without a doubt, the General Lee is a sentimental item to Watson. He probably loved the television show. He probably associates the car and The Dukes of Hazzard with very happy memories from his childhood. He treasures it and will likely put it on display and dust it regularly with a cloth diaper. If the mood strikes, he may even drive it.

Conversely, if the General Lee had been in my garage, I would have found it to be sentimental clutter. I have no affinity for the car and never really got into the television show. I wouldn’t want to waste the garage space on it, and I wouldn’t want to pay for its upkeep. I would have eagerly sold it or given it away to get it off my hands.

This example of the car illustrates the most important point with regard to sentimental items — only the owner of the object can determine if something is a treasure or clutter. I’m certain my husband believes my collection of Mold-A-Rama animals is clutter, but to me it’s pure happiness and joy. The animals remind me of the vacations we’ve taken and the fun we’ve had locating the Mold-A-Rama machines. My husband’s favorite stuffed toy from his childhood looks like a germ minefield to me, but to him carries wonderful memories from years past. So what does this point mean for an unclutterer? Only you can sort through your sentimental items. This isn’t a chore you can pass off to someone else.

The second point the car example illustrates is that sentimental treasures are respected and treated as treasures. Watson displays the car, maintains it, pays attention to it, and values it. He doesn’t have it shoved in the back of his garage, under a pile of stuff, collecting dust. If it could fit in a cardboard box, you can bet he wouldn’t store it in such a thing. In fact, he probably has a security system and sprinkler system installed to protect his treasure.

If you’re storing sentimental items in cardboard boxes in your basement or attic or garage, it’s a pretty good sign the items are clutter and not treasures. Cardboard is easily damaged by water, mold, mildew, and pests and doesn’t protect belongings for any length of time. Plus, you can’t see your items or appreciate them through the walls of a box in a corner of a room beneath boxes of holiday decorations. If you truly treasured the items, you would protect them properly and/or display them in your home. It would be clear to a complete stranger what is a sentimental treasure to you. If it’s unclear, it’s likely the item is sentimental clutter.

As you’re sorting through your sentimental items to determine what is a treasure and what is clutter, ask yourself:

  • How will I store this item? If you will store it in a way that shows you value the item (archival quality materials, stored per archival quality recommendations, or cleanly on display to enjoy every day), keep the object as a sentimental treasure. If you plan to store it in a cardboard box in your basement, get rid of the sentimental clutter.
  • Is this item associated with a happy memory? Keep only objects that bring you happiness. Life is too short to surround yourself with sorrow and pain.
  • Is this the best item to evoke the most powerful sentimental memory? If you have five objects associated with the same memory, consider reducing your collection to just the best quality item. When it comes to physical possessions, too many of something can detract from the overall impact. You can stop seeing the proverbial forest for the trees.

The Cubby: An uncluttered coat hook

Well designed, superior quality, visually appealing, utilitarian goods that make life more organized and less complicated are the types of products I look for when shopping for housewares and office supplies. I try to only have things in my spaces that, as William Morris so aptly identified as his ownership goals, are beautiful and useful. When I no longer feel inspired by an item or find it helpful, I get rid of it.

I recently stumbled upon a Kickstarter project for a simple device that meets all of my qualifications for making life more organized and less complicated. The Cubby makes traditional coat hooks look like they’re not living up to their potential:

Key ring, phone, gloves, sunglasses, and/or wallet fit right inside the pouch, and a purse, scarf, laptop bag, and/or coat on the exterior of the pouch. It’s made with some recycled materials and is fully recyclable. It’s easy to use, attractive in a modern space, and would be perfect for a reception station near the primary entry to your home or office.

Have you come across a better mouse trap? Do you know anyone who is designing or has designed a high-quality, visually appealing, utilitarian good that helps to make life more organized and less complicated? Share your finds in the comments.

And, again, I have no affiliation with this product and am not benefitting in any way from talking about it. I simply think it’s an uncluttered and useful product.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Teaching toddlers about organizing
    Young children are eager to be independent, and helping your child learn skills that foster this independence as well as acquire valuable organizing concepts are a great place to start the teaching process.



Simple stress reduction to improve your productivity, focus, and sanity

Last night officially marked the start of the Major League Baseball season. To celebrate, I drove around town running errands with the windows down, the Cardinals-Marlins game playing on the AM radio, and a ridiculously silly smile across my face.

As I went from location to location, I was blissfully content and stress free. There is something incredibly relaxing about listening to baseball games on the radio. I don’t know if it’s the sound of the announcer’s voice, the crack of the bat, the pops of the radio signal over the AM waves, memories of listening to games as a kid, or a mixture of these four things and more that work their magic to calm me. Whatever the reason, a baseball game on the radio has the same restorative result on me as a day at the spa.

My morning coffee-making ritual affects me in a similar way. And, there is a stretch of the Kansas Turnpike when you’re heading south out of Emporia, about 10 miles before passing the Cassoday exit, where the view of the Flint Hills is so breathtaking it’s impossible to experience anxiety until you reach Wichita. These common moments of pure relaxation may seem rare, but their ability to bring calm in an otherwise stressful day are essential to your productivity, competence, and sanity.

When clients mention they are having difficulty focusing because of a stress-filled mind, I ask them what ordinary activities relax them and allow them to regain a sense of calm. Many have no idea. They can name beach vacations, entire days at the spa, and other extraordinary experiences that calm them, but it’s difficult to name simple activities in their regular routines that reduce stress.

If you’re someone who has difficulty finding common activities that help to reduce your stress level, start paying attention to when you have a ridiculously silly smile on your face. Are you listening to a baseball game on the radio? Are you on a short walk back to your office after getting lunch? Are you writing with a favorite pen? When you identify these actions, try your best to incorporate them into your everyday schedule. Take a short walk away from your desk when frustrations flare. Replace the pens in your desk drawer that you dislike with only your favorite brand. Or, if you’re like me, keep a radio app on your smartphone to listen to a baseball game whenever you need to.

I’ll be tuning my radio to the Nationals-Cubs game today at 2:20 pm EDT. What small activity will you do today recharge, regain focus, and relax?

Unitasker Wednesday: Coffee Filter Separator Tool

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

Want to know what is not a problem in search of a solution? Separating paper coffee filters. Want to know what product no one needs to solve this non-problem? An $8 pair of Coffee Filter Separating Tongs:

Want to know why no one needs these tongs? Because a reusable coffee filter costs less than $1.50 and you have no need to use paper coffee filters ever again.

Let’s pretend, though, you are all about the perpetually unnecessary expense of using paper filters and these tongs seem like a good idea. If that is the case, then I’d recommend a $3 Stick ‘n’ Lift style separator. These sticky things take up significantly less space than tongs, have better Amazon reviews, and would be easier to use if you have arthritis. But, since you don’t have any need for the perpetually unnecessary expense of using paper filters because you understand the financial and environmental benefits of using a reusable filter, there is no need to play pretend.

(Want to know what word I misspelled numerous times while drafting this post? Separator. Maybe I need more coffee …)

Thanks to reader Andrea for sharing this unitasker with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer



  • Ask Unclutterer: Mental clutter
    Reader Stefanie asks for help in dealing with worries about searching for a job and waiting on queries that are cluttering up her mind.



How to manage email when traveling for work

I’m horrible at processing email when I’m traveling for my job. Last month, when I was at the NAPO annual conference, I was once again reminded of my complete inadequacies in this area. I actually thought I had done better this time than usual, but on Monday morning when I sat down at my desk the more than 1,000 emails sitting in my work email account were proof that I had once again failed.

I admitted defeat and immediately sought advice from my friend Nick who works for a hotel chain and travels a good amount for his job. He started by saying, “not gonna lie, it’s tough.”

Want to know what words were oddly comforting to me? It’s tough. If a person who has been on the road a good amount doesn’t have it easy, I guess it makes sense that I wouldn’t have it easy, either.

After talking to Nick, I wrote to more of my friends and eventually posted the following request on Twitter: “Constant work travelers — What are your strategies for processing email when on the road? Share your seasoned advice with me!”

A slew of fantastic advice poured in, and I’m thankful to everyone who responded. Most of the advice identified major themes and philosophies for solving this problem and I’ve summarized this information:

  • Tie yourself to a smartphone. If you want to stay on top of email, you have to keep a smartphone on you. Keep the ringer off and the message alerts set to vibrate.
  • Enable automatic sorting and color coding in your smartphone’s email program. Have a filter that automatically routes all messages out of your inbox and into separate folders where you are copied instead of listed as the main recipient, all newsletters or read-only emails you subscribe to, and all emails from sources you know are not going to be must-respond-now messages. Have your system color code messages from your boss and/or other very important folks so these messages will catch your attention when they come into your main inbox. (If you’re on a Windows-based phone, there are macros and add-ins for Outlook you can install. If you can legally route your work email through Gmail, you can also do this. I was unable to find an app for the iPhone that enables these features.)
  • Check messages during lulls in your schedule. As you wait in the line at the airport, switch between sessions at a conference, or grab a snack, process your priority emails then.
  • Only check work email. If someone needs to contact you about an important personal matter, he/she will text or call you. Check your personal email account on weekends or after you get home from traveling.
  • Only respond to items that can be handled in less than one minute. Delegate as much as possible, delete or archive anything that doesn’t need a response, and only send short messages of less than a paragraph to the priority emails you respond to.
  • Manage expectations. Have an automated out-of-office message enabled on your account that says you will have limited access to emails and no one should expect a response until you are back in the office (be sure to list that specific date). Provide detailed contact information for someone in the office who may be able to handle emergencies, and give that person in the office your cell number so he/she can call you if there is a major event. Also, let your office contact know when you expect to be on flights and/or completely out of connection.
  • Manage more expectations. When you reply to someone from your smartphone, have a “Sent from mobile device, please excuse typos and brevity” signature on the bottom of every message. You might also want to consider posting your return date on your out-of-office message as the day after you return so you have a full day to gather your bearings once you’re back in the office. Under promise, over deliver.
  • Have access to cloud file storage. Not all smartphones allow you to attach documents, so you’ll need to be able to send links to documents stored online with services like Dropbox. If your employer doesn’t allow file posting online and attaching documents to emails is essential to your job, you’ll want to get the smallest, lightest laptop you can because you’re going to have to carry it with you instead of a smartphone.
  • Work on email every night when you get to your hotel room. It will add to your workday, but taking 30 minutes or an hour every night to process the entirety of all your email inboxes and folders will guarantee you don’t have an avalanche of messages when you get back to your office.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that two people said responding to email while traveling for work is futile. One said she looks forward to having days free of the email interruptions and only answers phone calls, and another said he just deletes everything and believes if it’s really important the person will resend the email. I can’t imagine following either method, but certainly understand the sentiment.

Many thanks to Brian Kieffer, Nick Ayres, Tammy Schoch, Jorgen Sundgot, Generating Alpha, Dauerhippo, Courtney Miller-Callihan, Aaron Lilly, Fahryn Hoffman, Zacory Boatright, and Aviva Goldfarb for your advice and contributions to this article. If you’re someone who travels a great amount for work, please share your additional advice in the comments.