Gadget ‘gas station’

Anthro, an office furniture company, has a product for sale that appeals to both my techie and minimalist sensibilities. The eNook is a “gas station for your gadgets that has channels for you to plug in and charge all your gear.”

Not only does this look like a fantastic docking station, but could easily be used as a fold-away desk. In its compact state, it sticks out only 7″ from the wall. In my mind, this would be perfect in a studio apartment for a traveling consultant or in a busy family’s kitchen.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Routines: Are you for or against?

Do you like having a routine? Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I see the usefulness in them, and when I follow a routine I’m more productive and don’t forget things as often as when I don’t have a routine.

However, I’m a bit like my mother. She loved routines, in theory, but after three or four days of following a routine she would find herself getting dizzy, as if her brain couldn’t cope with being so ordered. While a routine doesn’t make me dizzy, I do find myself looking for excuses to get distracted.

Of course, there are different types of routines to consider. There are regular practice routines, such as exercise, writing, or meditation. And then there are daily routines such as:

  • 7:00 Get up and have breakfast
  • 8:00 Go to the pool
  • 9:00 Write an article for Unclutterer
  • 10:00 Clean one area of the house
  • 10:30 Do some quilting and watch an episode of favourite TV show
  • 11:30 Go for a coffee and do some creative writing
  • 12:30 Prep lunch and tidy the house
  • 13:30 Eat lunch
  • 14:00 Leave for work

The first type of routine works for me. It focuses my mind. It creates momentum. It’s self-motivating. The second type of routine, however, while on paper seems like a great idea, always ends up depressing me, for two reasons: there’s never enough time to get everything I want done and it feels like being in the military or in a super-strict boarding school. Life is not so orderly — it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. Trying to squeeze it into a rigid plan just creates stress when the plan can’t be completed.

That’s why I like using the Bullet Journal system. It focuses more on the idea of regular practice and there’s no pressure to do everything in a single day. By having the “permission” to move tasks forward with a simple arrow takes away the stress of having too many tasks in the to-do list.

But when it comes to deciding how you feel about routines, don’t just take my opinion. Check out the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, with contributions from Unclutterer’s Editor-at-Large, Erin Rooney Doland, as well as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Gretchin Rubin, and 17 other experts in the field.

Storing coffee

If you’re a coffee aficionado, take a few minutes today to evaluate your home coffee situation. Do you have an unnecessary number of mugs? Is counter space for food preparation being unreasonably sacrificed for your coffee supplies? Can you rearrange your current setup to be less cluttered and better contained? A few minutes is all this simple check should take.

While you’re giving your coffee situation some attention, don’t forget to evaluate how you’re storing your coffee beans. Are you using airtight canisters? Are you keeping them at room temperature? Coffee beans you aren’t going to grind and brew within two weeks can be kept in the freezer, but they should not be stored in the refrigerator. Moisture isn’t good for coffee, well, unless you’re actually in the process of brewing. Don’t believe me? Here are a few insights from people much more informed than I am on this issue:

  • From the Joy of Cooking: “The best way to store coffee beans, ground or whole, is in an opaque airtight canister at room temperature.”
  • From Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: “Once roasted, whole coffee beans keep reasonably well for a couple of weeks at room temperature, or a couple of months in the freezer, before becoming noticeably stale. One reason that whole beans keep as long as they do is that they’re filled with carbon dioxide, which helps exclude oxygen from the porous interior. Once the beans have been ground, room temperature shelf life is only a few days.”
  • From Coffee AM: “When to Refrigerate Coffee? Never, unless you are conducting a science experiment on how long it takes to ruin perfectly good coffee. The fridge is one of the absolute worst places to put coffee.”

When I looked in on my coffee supplies last week, I found that I had more than 20 mugs in my cupboard. I donated 12 of those to a local homeless shelter and now have enough space in my cupboard to store all of my coffee supplies. I hope your efforts produce similar positive results.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Tech tools for keeping New Years’ resolutions

As January yields to February, many people find themselves sliding on their commitment to New Years resolutions. Five years ago, I wrote an article on technology to help you keep those goals active. Since technology evolves at such a rapid pace, I thought an update was in order. Back in 2013, I wrote, “When deciding on a resolution(s) for the new year, keep three things in mind: acknowledge your feelings, have a plan, and take your time.” Resolution needn’t be written in stone by January first, so don’t stress if you’re still working on it. (I know someone who makes Groundhog Day Resolutions.)

As for your feelings, do your best to stay positive. Identifying a good support team can help immensely. An action plan will work wonders and help decrease feelings of being overwhelmed. I recommend breaking things down into small steps.

Some of the most popular resolutions are:

  • Get healthy
  • Earn more money
  • Become an active citizen
  • Travel

Here are some current examples of hardware and software to help you achieve each of those goals.

Get Healthy

Every January, millions of people vow to improve their health by either losing weight, adopting a healthier diet, or exercising regularly. For improving physical health I love Couch to 5K. Available for both iOS and Android, this effective, great-looking app can get you running five kilometers in just nine weeks. As a former couch potato, I can confirm that it works.

As for mental well-being, I’ve fallen in love with Headspace. It’s a great introduction to guided meditation in everyday life that is very beneficial. You needn’t be a cloistered monk to meditate effectively, and Headspace is proof of that. Just like Couch to 5K, Headspace is available for iOS and Android.

Earn More Money

Who doesn’t want a few extra dollars? I won’t dive into organizing your finances in this article, but I will recommend Betterment for helping with long and short-term investments. Betterment was founded in 2008 and it’s a quite nice product. They have low fees, a great app and, in my experience, great advice that’s always available.

Become an Active Citizen

This often gets overlooked, but it’s great for your community and sense of self-satisfaction. Countable keeps you up-to-date on what’s happening in U.S. politics, from bills to news from your local representatives. You can call your reps, share video messages with elected officials, read non-partisan news summaries, and prepare for upcoming votes.

Travel

Kayak is still my favorite travel app. It is as close to a portable travel agent as you can get. It handles everything from finding a flight to hotels, car rentals, attractions, things to do, and much more. Kayak polls several top travel sites and airlines for flights that match your criteria. The results can be filtered by airline, number of stops, airport, price, and duration. You can also sort by cost, duration, and departure time. The app is available for the iPhone, iPad, Android phones, Windows phone, and Kindle Fire.

There you have it. I hope there’s something here to inspire you to an exciting, fulfilling year. Good luck!

How to organize your books

If you have a substantial number of physical books you intend to keep, how do you organize them on your bookshelves? There’s no one best approach, but the following are some possibilities to consider:

By genre and/or author

These are the most common approaches, and they are often combined. For example, you might put all science fiction together, organized by author. It’s up to you to define genres (and sub-genres) as you wish, depending on how you classify books in your mind and how many books you have. You could also use one of the library classification systems: the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress system.

I tend to organize by genre and I keep all books by any one author together. However, that’s as detailed as I get — I don’t organize authors or titles alphabetically. But some people find alphabetizing to be helpful, and some will add a chronological component: organizing books by each author in the order they were released, organizing history books from oldest time period to the most recent, etc.

By color

While this can create an interesting look, does it interfere with finding a specific book when you want it? Not always, since some people remember book covers and colors. You could also choose this approach for the books in just one space — it doesn’t have to be the approach taken for all your books.

By height

This is often a compromise from a genre/author approach, when some books just won’t fit with the others. Or it could be a second-tier organizing strategy, where books within a genre get organized by height.

But you might also choose to organize by height — especially for really tall or really short books — to make the best use of limited bookshelf space. This works best when you can adjust the shelves to just the right height. I have one shelf that’s a collection of super-short books.

And as with books organized by color, some people just like the look of books organized by size, and use it as their primary sort.

By read vs. unread

This would be an approach to use in combination with another one, where all the to-be-reads are kept together (and organized however you wish). All the ones you’ve read and are saving would be kept separately (and also organized however you wish).

By how much you love them

Some readers like to keep all their favorites together, and then use whatever other system they want for the rest. This especially makes sense if you tend to re-read these favorites frequently, or if you often loan them to friends. If you have a guest bedroom, you might want to put some favorites in there.

By language

If you have books in multiple languages, your first sort might be by language. Within each language you could then organize by author/genre or whatever other approach appeals to you.

By personal chronology

I’d never heard of this approach until I saw what James Reynolds wrote about how he organizes books: “by date I got them. simple that way. new books just get added to the end. in this way, you get to trace the story of yr entire reading life – in chronological order.”

Randomly

Some folks know that simply getting books off the floor and onto the shelves is as much as they’re likely to do, so they don’t set up organizational systems they know they’ll never maintain. And other people just enjoy the randomness. For example, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, said:

What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity. When I’m looking over my shelves, trying to figure out what I’m going to read next, I don’t know where everything is and that enables me to be surprised.

And a note about shelving techniques: There’s been some recent attention to the practice of shelving books backward, with the spines inward and pages outward. While I’ve seen many people deride this, it winds up that some neurodiverse people find this a much less stressful look. I had never considered this, and I’m thankful to C. L. McCollum for sharing that perspective.

Home office in a box

CI DeskIf you are strapped for space and you need a workspace for your house or apartment, you may want to check out the CI Desk from Creative Industrial Objects. Its small design and compact storage drawers offer a welcome alternative to a space-hogging desk.

The CI Desk looks a bit like a storage unit on wheels, but it is more than just a way to store your office supplies. The top flips out to supply you with a solid place for your laptop to rest, instead of using your lap. From Creative Industrial Objects:

A multi-functional home office on wheels, in its handy size and elegant shape, adapting to the flexible working habits of the individual at home or in the office. Through a 180-degree turn of its top, it unfolds into a small workstation for laptop users. The smooth contours of the desk cube in fact reveal the delicately inbuilt wooden drawers that open to the front and sides. CI desk provides mobility and a practical working space for any busy individual.

If one was to go this route in a home office, you would more than likely have to keep all clutter out of your streamlined desk. There just isn’t enough room for a junk drawer or desk top toys and trinkets … which is probably a good thing.

(via Apartment Therapy)

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Ask Unclutterer: Dealing with a prolific gift-giver

A reader who goes by the name of Overwhelmed wrote in with this dilemma.

I am newly married and my mother-in-law and I have a strained relationship. She tends to show her affection by buying things and she goes way overboard. If I tell her specifically not to buy me something, she will buy it anyway.

She buys new clothes for my husband every time she is at the store. (He has several plastic bins full of clothes he has never worn). We do not have space for a dining table because the entire dining room is full of boxes of stuff she bought for my husband that he doesn’t need/want.

My mother-in-law kept telling me that for Christmas she was going to buy me something from our wedding registry that hadn’t already been purchased. I told her it was unnecessary because we were inundated with stuff and had already purchased the extra items we needed. She asked me if I wanted a convection oven that I had listed on our registry. I specifically told her that I no longer wanted it because it would not work in our current apartment.

So, she surprised me by buying the convection oven as a Christmas gift. This item is huge and very expensive which makes me uncomfortable. We have no space for it at all in our apartment.

I want to be grateful for the gifts but I feel disrespected that she didn’t listen to me. What is the polite thing to do with this oven (and all the other gifts) and how can I get through to her to listen to me when I tell her no?

I’m sure Overwhelmed is not the only reader with this dilemma. There are probably many people out there looking at piles of Christmas or birthday gifts asking, “How can I get this to stop?”

Because this is your husband’s mother, the first person you need to have a conversation with is your husband. I mentioned your situation to Unclutterer writer Alex and he strongly recommended the book he reviewed, Crucial Conversations. You may want to read it before you speak with your husband or read it with your husband before you speak with your mother-in-law. Regardless of if or when you read the book, it is important that you and your husband agree on how and when to approach your mother-in-law with your decisions on what to do with the all of the gifts you have received to date, as well as what to do with any future gifts you do not want.

Many people give gifts because they love the recipients. For whatever reason, gift-giving may be the only way the giver knows how to express that love. In the eyes of the giver, asking him/her not to give gifts would be like asking them not to love you anymore — an almost impossible task for many mothers.

Your mother-in-law is facing an empty nest now that you have moved out and is probably trying her best to keep a connection to you and her son even if she is going about it in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps you could try and build a connection with her that doesn’t involve material possessions. You could have regular “Sunday Roast,” (a British tradition where extended family gathers together for a mid-day meal) or schedule an outing to a museum or theatre. There may be a leisure activity you might be interested in starting such as yoga or ceramics. You could ask your mother-in-law to join you. You might find that working together at community service/charity events works best for you. This would allow you to show that you appreciate her presence (as opposed to her presents).

After you have made your wishes about gifting known to your mother-in-law, you can start disposing of the things you no longer want. Your mother-in-law will likely ask about certain items and I know it may feel awkward at first, but, with loving kindness, reiterate the decisions you and your husband have made regarding gifts and reassure her that you appreciate and value her thought, effort, love, and generosity.

Note: If you have received an heirloom item and you’re not sure of its significance, ask your mother-in-law to provide a detailed history (written or verbal). It will help you decide if the item is worth keeping or passing along (possibly to another family member).

It’s your home and you can decide what stays and what goes even if it was a gift. Remember that the gift is not only about the recipient but also about the giver, so always show your gratitude then move on.

Thanks for your great question Overwhelmed. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for and all the best of luck with your situation.

 

Do you have a question relating to organizing, 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 as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Organize your medicine chest

Last year we shared some advice on organizing a medicine chest. Now that cold and flu season is upon us, I want to revisit the topic with a few more best-practice tips and tricks.

As Erin previously stated, don’t store medicine in the bathroom. Humidity isn’t good for many medicines and unlocked cabinets can be an invitation to curious kids (or nosy house guests). Instead, invest in a lockable cabinet that can be mounted in a closet or somewhere similar. You’ll find the rest of Erin’s great tips here.

In this post, I’d like to offer some tips on how to organize the items within your medicine cabinet.

First, round up those little cylinders that love to fall over, roll around, and make a general nuisance of themselves. I’m talking about lip balm, sunscreen, and the like. Clear acrylic canisters will keep them tidy and easily identified.

Next, round up small metallic items like bobby pins and tweezers and stick them to a bit of adhesive magnetic strip. It will save you hours of hunting around trying to find them.

Move “leftovers” into smaller containers. You don’t need to store the last four bandages in that gigantic cardboard box that is already falling apart! Move them into something like a zipper lock bag or coupon organizer. The same goes for cotton balls, cotton swabs, etc.

If you keep cosmetics in the medicine chest, consider these stick-on mini-shelves for the inside of the door to keep them organized and separate from medication.

Lastly, give the cabinet a good cleaning. Remove everything, wipe down the entire interior with sanitizing wipes, and properly dispose of anything that is expired or no longer needed. When that is done, re-arrange the contents based on how you live. Put oft-used items front and center while moving the stuff you rarely use on a top shelf. You’ll spend less time digging around.

This is tangentially related, but I keep a dopp kit ready to go at all times, with the following inside:

  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Shampoo
  • Mouthwash
  • Deodorant
  • Disposable razor
  • Shaving cream

That way I don’t need to tear the medicine chest apart to find these things in an emergency or when I’m packing for a trip.

Making your resolutions a reality

On either the last day of the old year or the first day of the new year, many of us created lists of resolutions. If you’re like me, getting organized appeared in some fashion on this list. For example my specific resolution back in 2008 was to get my laundry mess under control.

Generating the resolution and committing it to paper or a hard drive is a terrific way to start the process. Unfortunately, though, the resolution won’t become a reality unless more work is done. (Wouldn’t it be great if just writing it down was really all it took?!)

If you don’t set a course of action and stick to it, then your resolution will be nothing more than words on paper. I want to walk through my process attack, which is loosely based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, to help you see how lofty goals can easily become experienced reality.

  1. Commit your resolution to writing. It doesn’t matter if you write your resolution on an index card, in a Moleskine notebook, or in an virtual Evernote notebook. Formulating your idea into concrete words helps you define your purpose and gets you started on your path to change.
  2. Reflect on your resolution and identify your motivation for change and where you see yourself once the resolution is complete. If you can’t see where you’re headed or why you want to get there, your resolution is pretty much destined for failure. There is no need to establish any other form of reward system, because you’ll see yourself succeeding! In my case, I need to imagine the calm I will have from not having piles of laundry cluttering up the floor of my laundry room.
  3. Brainstorm methods for completing your resolution. Even if the ideas seem ridiculous, write them down anyway. What are all of the ways that you could possibly reach your goal? What steps could you take? What is currently standing in your way? What resources could you obtain to help you get what you want? Empty all of your thoughts on the matter onto a piece of paper.
  4. Evaluate your brainstormed ideas and create what Allen calls “keys” to organization. “Identify the significant pieces. Sort by (one or more): components, sequences, priorities. Detail to the required degree.” This is the stage where you create your plan.
  5. Once your plan is set, make decisions as to the exact steps you will follow to achieve your goal. Without these concrete steps, you won’t know how to move forward. For my laundry resolution, my exact steps involve a lot of removing current barriers to success. (Buy light bulbs on Saturday morning at the grocery store to replace burned out bulbs in the laundry room.) If you’ve never written an exact step, or what Allen names “next actions,” you may want to read the entry on this topic on Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders GTDwiki here.
  6. Start!

Good luck to everyone with their organization resolutions! Feel welcome to tell us about your process for success in the comments section to this post.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

The only way past is through it

In a recent interview with Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project, author Greer Hendricks hit the nail on the head when it comes to overcoming procrastination. When faced with a task she doesn’t feel like doing she reminds herself that “the only way past is through it.”

This adage doesn’t apply to every task we’d rather not do. In fact, there are many times that the best way to overcome procrastination is to cross the task off your list altogether, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Instead, let’s focus on those tasks we dread but cannot avoid.

I have one of those coming up and if I want to do my day job well, there is no way to avoid it or cross it off my life. I have to face it and go through the experience no matter how unappetizing it feels.

At the beginning of February, I have a conference to go to. The sessions don’t really appeal to me and I have to leave the conference early due to other commitments at home. So, in a discussion with my boss, we decided that my objective for the conference is to meet as many people as possible in similar positions as me.

It’s pure networking and I hate it. When I ran my own business, it was the one thing that would make me want to stay in bed hiding under the covers. It was this weakness that limited the growth of my business. I’m not a meet-and-greeter. I don’t like and have a hard time doing small talk.

But in this case, what’s best for our company is that I get to know my peers in other parts of the country.

Being an introvert, the idea of putting myself in front of total strangers and interacting with them horrifies me. And yet, I know it’s what I need to do. Fortunately, there are many tools to help me. Apart from Rubin’s The Four Tendencies, there are a whole slew of books on being an introvert in an interactive world that can help me push through the dread and reach the other side where satisfaction and success wait.

How do you deal with tasks that you simply can’t put off?

The inefficiency of a cluttered car

We have given some tips on keeping your car uncluttered in the past. Recently, this aspect of clutter popped into my head again when I rode in a car that was unbelievably packed with anything and everything the driver had brought into the car over the years. I’m not exactly sure why some people feel the need to use their vehicle as a trash can, but the back seats of the vehicle I rode in were rendered useless by the amount of junk that was strewn about them.

In this 2007 article, Karen Youso of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune raises some valid concerns that extreme car clutter can cause for a vehicle:

“No matter the reason, however, operating a cluttermobile has some real drawbacks.

‘All that junk adds weight, and that affects fuel economy, especially in town, with its stop-and-go driving,’ said Bruce Jones, professor of automotive engineering technology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. The heavier a car is, the more force or torque is needed to get it going again once it’s stopped, he explained.

And, in turn, it takes more effort to stop a moving junk car. The brakes won’t last as long…

…More important, however, is safety. The stuff inside cars can become ‘weapons’ in a crash, and not just in a roll-over or a serious collision. Hitting something at 30 miles per hour might stop your car, but it doesn’t stop all the stuff inside from flying around. If anything strikes an occupant, it can severely injure and possibly kill them, Marose said.

In addition, when the airbag deploys, it comes out at about 200 miles per hour. Any object in its way is ejected at nearly the same speed, with the same consequences, he added.”

Whether you work out of your vehicle or you have a few children to tote around, make sure your vehicle is clutter free. The safety of yourself and your passengers may one day depend on it.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

How consistent are you?

I have a great app, called TimeHop, that reminds me each day of what I’ve posted on social media one year ago, two years ago, and so on. The other day it reminded me of a word I’d chosen to represent all my good intentions for one particular year: consistency.

The promise included running regularly, writing daily, doing a better job of avoiding the foods that make me feel unwell, etc…

However, I obviously didn’t pay much attention to the promise to myself because years later consistency is still my weakness. Other than yoga classes, exercise is an on-and-off thing. Writing regularly became writing almost never. And I still battle daily the urge to eat foods that cause me health problems.

Why is this so?

Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits wrote a great article about this issue in his post 10 Reasons Why We Don’t Stick to Things. In summary, the ten reasons are:

  1. We don’t take it seriously.
  2. We just forget.
  3. We run from discomfort or uncertainty.
  4. We give in to temptation, out of habit.
  5. We rationalize.
  6. We renegotiate.
  7. We dislike the experience and avoid things we dislike.
  8. We forget why it’s important.
  9. We get down on ourselves or give up in disappointment.
  10. There are too many barriers.

I’m guilty of all ten reasons. Let’s take my health as an example: While do not have celiac disease, I am very sensitive to gluten. When I include gluten in my diet, I suffer from fibromyalgia-like symptoms (I get brain fog, I hurt all over, and I become increasingly inflexible), my rosacea flares up, and I gain weight as if I were eating double the calories I’m consuming.

  1. And yet, when faced with eating better, I say “m’eh, tomorrow” as if my health wasn’t important.
  2. Put a shortbread cookie in front of me and it’s in my mouth before I remember that I’m not supposed to eat it.
  3. Given that the anti-gluten craze is at an all-time high, I feel uncomfortable telling people I can’t eat it because I don’t want them to think I’m some sort of food fad follower.
  4. I adore anything that is wheat-based: bread, cake, pie, cookies, pizza — you name it; if it has wheat it in, I love it.
  5. My favorite rationalization is that “one day won’t hurt me” but then one becomes two, or three and then a month.
  6. I also tell my body that it’s overreacting and that a little gluten won’t hurt it, that tomorrow I’ll do better.
  7. I’m not a fruit fan, and hate having to make myself other food, or choose not to eat out. It’s too awkward and uncomfortable to make healthy choices.
  8. And once I’m off gluten for a while and feeling fantastic, I completely forget what it’s like to be in pain and fuzzy-headed.
  9. When all of the above reasons for not avoiding gluten don’t work and I indulge on pizza and sandwiches, I tell myself that it’s impossible and I should just learn to live in discomfort.
  10. And finally, Spain has a bread-based culinary culture. While there are more and more non-gluten options available, they are usually more expensive and rather cardboard-like in taste and texture. As a foodie, eating healthily is a nigh impossible task.

I could run through the same exercise with my fitness regime, my writing, and to be honest, with any goal I’ve set myself. When it comes down to the word consistency, however, all ten reasons are excuses. There’s only one question I have to ask myself.

How much do I really want this?

I’ve achieved a lot of goals in my life, and difficult ones at that. And in every case, the success has come from being able to answer this question with the following:

I don’t just want this, I am driven to follow this path to the end.

If consistency is a challenge for you as well, perhaps the words of others might help you create that drive for success that you’re currently lacking.