Is organizing email into folders a waste of time?

Recent research conducted by IBM Research [PDF] suggests that people who searched their inboxes found emails slightly faster than those who had filed them by folder. Email management is something I struggle with every day, so this study grabbed my attention. Even after reading it, I don’t know how to feel.

Many years ago I was meeting with a supervisor who wanted me to see an email she had received. “Just a minute,” she said, and opened up her email software. For the next few minutes, I watched as she scrolled through thousands of messages, looking for the one I needed to see. It was frustrating for both of us, and at that moment I swore I’d never be in that position. In the very first post I ever wrote for Unclutterer, I described my reasoning for never storing messages in my email software. But was that the right move?

This study looked at the behavior of 345 subjects. Noting that email “critically affects productivity,” the authors state that “…despite people’s reliance on email, fundamental aspects of its usage are still poorly understood.” They looked at people who simply use their email software’s search function to find what they’re after vs. those who set up folders by topic. The results, surprisingly, were in favor of the former:

“People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.”

In other words, the time spent setting up folders did not improve retrieval. People instead found that they now had multiple inboxes to go through and worse, started using their email software as a to-do manager. That’s definitely a bad idea (calendars, project management programs, and to-do list are more effective).

At work, I receive an obscene amount of email. To combat this, I stated creating topic-specific folders. As of now, I’ve got nearly three dozen folders. Is that helpful? I’m too sure. On one hand, I know where everything is. On the other, I do spend a lot of time working through the various folders. Conversely, Erin reads messages and then files everything into a giant Archive folder that she then uses the search functionality in her email program to look for specific key words, senders, subject lines, dates, attachments, etc. when she needs to retrieve an email. She calls this the “bucket method.” (It all goes into a metaphorical bucket.) The only exception to this are emails about potential unitaskers, which she files in a Unitasker Ideas folder.

I ask you, readers, which method do you use in email? Folders? No folders? Simple search? Something else entirely? Share what you do and how effective you think your method is in the comments. Email is a beast that we all must battle daily, and so far I’ve not found the perfect weapon.

Organize for outdoor winter exercise

It’s easy to let an exercise routine slide during the winter months. The weather gets unpleasant, there’s so much to do, and those holiday treats just won’t be denied. While we’re not opposed to a little holiday indulgence, we also know that a little forethought can keep you exercising, even outdoors.

The first and probably most important thing is to know how your body reacts to exercise in cold weather. For me, if I’m running or even walking fast when the air is below 50ºF, my lungs get quite uncomfortable. It’s a “burning” feeling that prompts me to end my workout early. To combat this tendency, I bought a neck warmer that goes around my mouth and nose. That way I’m breathing in warmer air.

The point here is to notice what your body says while you’re out there and make accommodations as best you can. Perhaps you feel cold when others don’t, or vice versa.

Gear to consider: neck warmer

Next, consider the shorter days. It gets dark quite quickly here in the northern hemisphere during the winter. In my Massachusetts neighborhood, December means it’s pitch dark by 5:00 p.m. Consider an earlier workout time. Many towns have community centers with lots of options for working out, too. Those who can’t change the hour they spend working out could use these facilities.

Gear to consider: head lamp

Consider the environment. This is winter, so expect rain, snow, and cold air. You’ll likely want to dress in layers and having a winter “workout kit” ready to go will keep you motivated. I know that I often don’t feel like working out…until I don my workout clothes. For an outer layer, consider something that’s lightweight, allows for freedom of movement and will dutifully stand between yourself and the elements.

Gear to consider: Sport-Tek Colorblock Hooded Raglan Jacket

Keep a gear bag. A single bag to hold all your winter exercise stuff will help you stay organized and never leave you wondering where your things are. Just be sure to repack it every time you return home and/or do laundry. One with a compartment for shoes might be perfect for you if you do a sport requiring specialized footwear.

Gear to consider: sports bag

Finally, make sure you’ve got your ID and a phone on yourself. If something goes wrong — a slip and fall — you’ll want to be able to get help. Since you’ll be out in inclement weather, a weatherproof phone case is a good idea.

Gear to consider: weatherproof phone case from Otterbox

With a little preparation and organization, you can successfully exercise outdoors this winter. Just keep your eyes open for ice or fallen branches and go slow if you must.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • 2011 Unclutterer Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Ultimate generosity
    Instead of tangible gifts, which have been the focus of our Guide in 2011, we are recommending a service as the ultimate gift of generosity. We suggest getting your favorite unclutterer a few hours of consultation, uncluttering, and organizing with a professional organizer.


Re-gifting done right

I’ve been a fan of re-gifting ever since I received a well intentioned, expensive, but off-the-mark gift: a large serving bowl. I don’t do the type of entertaining that would require such a bowl and it would have taken a lot of storage space. Just as I was pondering what to do with it — donate it, probably — a dear friend mentioned she was attending the wedding of a relative she wasn’t close to, and she was trying to decide what to bring as a gift. Suddenly, both of our problems were solved.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be like the very embarrassed Tim Gunn, who needed a last-minute present and re-gifted a Tiffany pen he’d been given after judging a design competition. Unfortunately, he didn’t take a good look at the pen, which he learned (when the gift was opened) was inscribed, “Best wishes from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”

But done with care, re-gifting can work just fine. If you feel any guilt about it, let Miss Manners put your mind to rest. In Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior she wrote that returning, donating to charity, and re-gifting are not rude “if the rule is strictly observed about protecting the donor from knowing. This requires fresh wrappings and logs of who gave what, and a ban on yard sales and re-gifting anywhere near the donor.” (If the gift-giver has specifically told you returning or re-gifting is fine, that’s a different situation.)

Paul Michael, writing on the Wise Bread blog, has listed a couple additional cautions:

  • If you suspect the item you got is already a re-gift, you can’t take the risk of re-gifting it again. (I think you could still re-gift if you were giving to someone in an entirely different social circle.)
  • Don’t give outdated items. If you’re going to re-gift things like electronics and clothing, do it while the electronics are still current models and the clothing is still in style. As Michael wrote, “The older the brand new item becomes, the more obvious it becomes that this is a re-gift.”

And you’ll want to match the gift to the recipient just as carefully as you would if you were buying something new. Even for a Secret Santa type of gift situation, where you may not know the recipient well, you want to give something the receiver has a decent chance of appreciating. As Genevieve Shaw Brown wrote for ABC News, “Never re-gift ugly.” (But if you are giving to a white elephant gift exchange, ugly is just fine.)

One final caveat: Don’t keep things around for ages thinking you’ll eventually re-gift them — you don’t need that clutter! If no person or occasion comes to mind within a month or two, you’re probably better off returning, donating, or selling the item.

Unitasker Wednesday: Jello shot makers

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

In college, my over-age-21 friends and I may have thrown the occasional kegger. I’m not saying we did, but if we did, we would have also supplied our guests with Jello shots. Hypothetically, providing this burst of color, booze, sugar, and gelatin took a bit of planning and forethought, as the shots took awhile to solidify and required plastic cups, Jello, vodka, and quite a decent amount of refrigerator shelving to be made successfully.

One thing I could have learned from this experience (if we’d really thrown such parties) is that freezing Jello shots is a bad idea — there is water in a Jello shot and freezing forms crystals instead of the preferred smooth texture of a shot. It’s fine if the alcohol comes from the freezer, but the shot needs to set up in the refrigerator. Which is just one of many reasons the 4-piece Jello Shot Maker is a bad idea from the get-go:

Also, it’s only 4 pieces. Who would ever make just FOUR Jello shots? I find that implausible.

And so do the people at Jevo, who believe Jello shots are in such high demand that you need an Automated Jello Shot Maker:

It’s like a Keurig, but for Jello shots!

Unless you work in a dance club that regularly installs black lighting and provides glo-sticks for patrons, I’m not sure who the target market is for this device. But, I guess if you’re in college and have a spare $650 plus more for supplies, maybe this one is for you?? (Though, I doubt it.)

Honestly, my favorite thing about the Jevo device is that it’s WiFi enabled. Yes, WiFi enabled. That’s certainly one thing it has going for it that our simple stovetop-to-refrigerator Jello shot making method didn’t have. Hypothetically, of course.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
    At first glance, I felt that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was like many of the other organizing books that I have read, but she does provide good advice for people who have intense sentimental attachments to everyday items.


  • 2011 Unclutterer Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Organizing products
    Giving organizing products as gifts can be tricky. If not done in a polite manner, you can end up hurting someone’s feelings. However, if a person on your list has expressed interest in receiving a gift with an organizing theme, it can be a welcomed present.



  • Chicago book signing and meet and greet
    December 28, 2009. 4-7 pm (come when convenient, we’re just hanging out). The Book Cellar. 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave. Technically, this is the first stop on my Unclutter Your Life in One Week book tour. However, I’m thinking about it as a book signing and an Unclutterer meet and greet. Unclutterer team members PJ, Brian, Gary, and I will all be able to make it to this event.
  • iPhone alarm clocks
    My husband and I need a new alarm clock and, after many deliberations, we have decided to go with a unit that works in conjunction with our iPhones. Since the units are all multi-functional (they’re all chargers, and all but the first include speakers), I thought I would share with you our finalists.
  • PDFs and t-shirts: New in the Unclutterer store
    Introducing the new internal Unclutterer store. Available are two t-shirts: “Simplicity is revolutionary” and “Less is more.” Also available are the seven worksheet PDFs that accompany the book Unclutter Your Life in One Week.

Holiday preparations you might overlook but will save you time and energy

For those who celebrate winter holidays, December is usually time for family, friends, and lots of preparation. A good amount of what is on your to-do list is obvious: shopping, cleaning, and cooking. But not everything is as obvious, so the following are six items that you might overlook but can still plan and organize for during your preparations. Doing this work now can help your holidays (and winter) go more smoothly.

Make room in the coat closet. Incoming guests arrive with bulky coats and hats that must be stored away during their visit. I don’t know about your house, but our coat closet is pretty full before anyone new arrives. Prepare now by making some room and a few extra hangers available. Also consider, if you live in a snowy climate, guests might arrive with wet hats and gloves and slushy boots. You’ll want to have a plan for where you’re going to put those additional items without making a mess, too.

Prepare bad weather gear. Tell me if this sounds familiar: You need to shovel a mountain of snow, but the shovel is across the yard and in the shed? That situation is not ideal. Before the first flakes fall, I get my shovels, bucket of salt, and scrapers for the car out of the basement and into their winter storage locations. Now, when the snow falls, you can start shoveling right away as all of your equipment will be ready and you won’t have to worry about your guests slipping and falling.

Plan ahead for post-holiday light storage. Holiday presents mean, among other things, an influx of cardboard boxes. If you don’t already have an organized light-storage method for after the holidays, keep a few of those boxes because they’re perfect for storing holiday lights. Break the box down flat and then cut the boxes down into their individual sides. Wrap lights around the cardboard squares/rectangles prior to storage. They won’t tangle and you can even leave a note to yourself on the slab of cardboard yourself: “Kitchen window,” “Tree.”

Outfit an ornament repair center. Many people have an eclectic collection of holiday ornaments, from the inexpensive pieces you picked up on a whim to the old, sentimental decorations with high sentimental value. It’s a bummer when they need repair and it’s a real problem when you’re not equipped. A little glass adhesive, some pliers, a wooden stick or a pin-tool (for applying adhesive), a razor blade, and plastic gloves will serve you well.

Make shelves and food easily viewable in your refrigerator and pantry. There’s nothing like opening the spice cabinet and being confronted with the backs of several dozen little plastic containers. Where was the allspice again? It’s like a memory game, and it’s not fun. Turn everything with the label-side out for easy reference or write on the lids with a permanent marker the shaker’s contents if you can’t see all the labels.

Set tables the night before a holiday meal. I’ve spent a whole day cooking only to notice that, just as the final dish has finished cooking, the table is not set or decorated. Before you hit the bed at night, set the table and save yourself a lot of time the next day. This is a great activity for children, too, if you’re looking for ways to get them involved.

Have a great — and organized — holiday season.

Unclutterer’s 2015 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Wrap up

I’m still surprised this was our ninth Gift Guide here on Unclutterer. Regardless, I hope this series of posts inspired you to give uncluttered, organized, and/or useful gifts this year. To recap:

I also meant to include, but somehow it slipped my mind, a useful organizing product that could really help you or someone on your list this year. They’re fireproof storage bags — similar to a safe, but flexible and for items you treasure that don’t need to be locked away. The brand name is ZquaredAway and the bags come in a nice variety of sizes. The company sent me a couple to review (a small one for thumb drives and a much larger one that fits photo albums) and they’re incredible (and they didn’t pay me to say that, they really are great).

I actually threw one on my grill a few weeks ago and everything inside was safe afterward. I’ll be honest, throwing a bag on my grill was a lot of fun and made me briefly wish I’d have pursued a career as a product tester for UL or Consumer Reports.

Anyway, I hope you all have a stress-free holiday season and found some inspiration in this year’s Guide. If you’re looking for additional inspiration, feel welcome to check out our past Guides: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

A year ago on Unclutterer




Unclutterer’s 2015 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Experience Gifts

People I know who have received experience gifts — a museum membership, a helicopter ride — say they were some of their favorite gifts ever. The following are a few ideas for such gifts, along with related books for those who like to provide something tangible, too. I’ve provided links to some specific examples, but if any of these catch your eye you can look for similar options in other places.

If you plan to give an experience gift and there will be substantial additional costs involved (for tips or parking, for example), consider including some cash to cover those expenses or arranging a way to prepay them on behalf of your gift recipient.

Food and beverage tours

I’ve mentioned chocolate tours before, but you can find tours that focus on many different consumables. For example, you could give the gift of a pizza tour or a beer tour. To go along with those tours, you could get books such as Pizza: A Global History or The Comic Book Story of Beer.

Surfing, kayaking, and more

For the person on your list who would like to try something new, a gift certificate for kayaking, canoeing or surfing lessons might be perfect. There are private lessons and group lessons, and older children can take classes, too. For others, a gift card for equipment rentals might be welcome.

Possible books to go along with such a gift include One Inch Above the Water and Chasing Waves: A Surfer’s Tale of Obsessive Wandering.

Music and comedy

Lessons that teach someone to play an instrument can be great, but you can also consider a gift certificate for voice or DJ lessons. Comedy classes focused on improv and more could also be a fun gift for the right person. For someone who doesn’t want voice lessons but just wants to sing some karaoke, you might get a gift card for the use of a karaoke room.

Books that might be appreciated along with such gift certificates include The Art of Singing and Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. I was also intrigued by Turn Around Bright Eyes: A Karaoke Journey of Starting Over, Falling in Love, and Finding Your Voice.

Beyond the (basic) massage

A gift certificate for a massage is often a welcome gift, but you can also consider alternatives like the use of a hot tub or a Japanese soaking tub. Another option could be a gift certificate for a specialized massage: a scalp massage, a foot massage (for those without ticklish feet), a pregnancy (or pre-natal) massage, etc.

Body Work: What Kind of Massage to Get And How to Make the Most of It might be a good companion book.

Sponsor an animal — and go visit it

A number of nonprofit organizations allow you to sponsor or “adopt” an animal. And in some cases, one of the benefits is getting to visit the animal you sponsored. For example, you can do a gift adoption at Farm Sanctuary, which entitles the sponsor to a tour to meet the adopted animal.

Many zoos also have adopt-an-animal programs that include a free admission as one of the benefits. You could always do a zoo outing without an adoption, but knowing there’s an animal you’re sponsoring might make the visit extra special.

Books about animals abound, so finding one to go along with the gift should be easy. If you adopted a chicken from Farm Sanctuary — that’s the least expensive option — you might consider getting The Magnificent Chicken: Portraits of the Fairest Fowl.

For additional inspiration, feel welcome to check out our past Guides: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Unclutterer’s 2015 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: A gift not to give

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

Are you eager to be arrested? Been considering ways to destroy the livers and kidneys of those you give gifts to? Well, if breaking the law and your loved ones’ bodies sounds like you, I have the perfect unitasker for you! This holiday season, you can give the gift of moonshine with your very own tabletop Moonshine Still:

Nothing says “happy holidays” quite the same way as blindness caused by bootlegged hooch. Sure, there are faster ways to kill off your friends and family, but none will be quite as much fun as doing it with white lightning you made at home.

The tabletop size of this distillery also makes it convenient for those of you who live in cramped studio apartments! Now THAT’S convenience. And, all for the low, low price of $250!

Sadly, the hot plate in the image above is not included with this still, so you’ll have to order that separately for an extra $60. But, once the still and hot plate are delivered, you’ll be in business breaking the law and making booze.

If you’re looking for real uncluttered and organized gift inspiration, feel welcome to check out our past Guides: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

A year ago on Unclutterer


  • 2011 Unclutterer Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Light and power
    Extremely practical gifts like LED light bulbs, motion sensor switches, very slowly depleting rechargeable batteries, and a deplete, refresh, charge and test battery charger make it into this year’s uncluttered gift giving suggestions.