Organizing for traffic jams

I live in a small coastal city with only a couple two-lane roads leading into town. On a nice weekend day, traffic on those roads can get very heavy as people head to and from the beach (or the pumpkin farms, in October). And sadly, both of those roads are somewhat twisty and prone to frequent accidents. Even a minor accident with no injuries can cause huge traffic problems.

So I’ve learned to organize for traffic jams, in the following ways:

Plan trips to minimize travel at peak times
Avoiding problems is always nicer than coping with them. I know when traffic will usually be at its worst and plan any discretionary trips to avoid those times.

Leave plenty of time
Sometimes I need to make a trip during a heavy traffic time. Other times there’s roadwork or an accident that makes traffic worse than normal. I check traffic conditions online before I leave home so I can adjust my route if need be. But I also leave lots of extra time if I need to be somewhere at a specific time, so I won’t be stressed out by any unexpected traffic problems. Since this means I often arrive early for a flight, an appointment, or a reservation, I make sure I have a book to read or something else I want to do while I wait.

Have plenty of gas
As part of my emergency preparedness, I aim to always have at least a half tank of gas. This also ensures I’ll be okay if I need to take a more roundabout way home.

Pack the essentials
I always have a water bottle and some energy bars with me so I don’t need to worry about getting thirsty or hungry. And I have a backlog of podcasts loaded to my smartphone to keep me happily occupied while traffic is slow (or stopped). Other people may prefer music, language lessons, or audio books in either CD or digital format.

Use the restroom before heading out
This is self-explanatory.

Have critical phone numbers readily available
I make sure my smartphone has the numbers of everyone I might need to call (while pulled off the road, not while driving) if I’m delayed.

Keep the smartphone fully charged
Since I rely on my phone for communication and entertainment, I need to ensure I don’t run down the battery. I usually leave home with my phone close to 100 percent charged, and I leave it on a charging cable while I’m driving.

Slap on some sunscreen
I’m not as good about this as I should be, but for many daytime car rides it’s wise to put on sunscreen. If the ride is likely to be extended because of traffic, the sunscreen is even more important.

Since I know I’m prepared for being in a traffic jam, I try to not let it bother me too much. There’s nothing I can do about the bad traffic — mentally screaming at it is unproductive, I’ve found — so I consciously get into a “I’ll get there when I get there” mindset.

Unitasker Wednesday: Bathroom Guest Book

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

Have you ever sat down on a toilet and wondered “who has peed here before”? Well, wonder no longer with the Bathroom Guest Book:

Yes, the Bathroom Guest Book takes the guess work out of wondering who has shared your commode. Who left the seat up? Let me check …

But that’s not all! Why stop at the bathroom when you can have guest books for your couch! And even your bed! (Oh my, that can’t end well.)

A year ago on Unclutterer




  • Exercise and focus
    A neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, Arthur Kramer, in “Ageing, Fitness and Neurocognitive Function” in Nature magazine, reports on another way to improve your ability to focus and brain cognition. The answer: Regularly participating in aerobic exercise.


Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Get your keys under control with Key Smart

Every now and then I come across a product that’s so cool and so in line with an uncluttered and organized lifestyle, I think, “I can’t wait to share this with the Unclutterer readers!” Today, that product is the Key Smart. Starting at $38.98), this device is a tidy, effective way to neatly store all of your keys. It’s made of aircraft aluminum, looks great, and easily swaps keys in and out.

I’ve managed to trim the number of keys I carry around to two, but a few years ago I looked like an old-time jailer with my house keys, shed key, various work keys, and keys for the car all in one obnoxious, noisy, and inefficient key ring. Finding what I needed meant a minute of standing and fiddling.

Now, I look at the Key Smart and wish I had had it back then. To attach a key, simply remove the two screws, place your key inside and then replace the screws and aluminum cover. When assembled, the Key Smart looks and operates much like a pocket knife (which I also love). Fold out the key you want, open your lock, and then fold it back into place. The whole unit slips into a pocket without becoming a jangle-y mess.

The manufacturers even sell add-on accessories, like a USB flash drive (by the way, if you have extra USB flash drives, consider ideas for what to do with them) and a quick-release clip if you like to keep your keys on your hip.

A year ago on Unclutterer






  • The Stash for organizing the small stuff
    Organizing small things, specifically small things you regularly need at your fingertips, can be frustrating. Most of the pre-made organizing products for small things aren’t very attractive and/or made exclusively for drawers. While searching for a way to organize my son’s bath supplies, I came across an attractive organizing system that is made specifically for small things that sit out on a counter or hang on the wall. The Stash by Boon.

How getting organized can make you more efficient

Getting organized isn’t something you do for its own sake — it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier and more pleasant. If you can quickly and easily put your hands on the things you need, tasks get done easier (and often better) and life is less stressful.

If you regularly use a group of items together, organizing principles suggest that you will usually want to store them together, too. For example, I keep stationery, stamps, and return address labels together. And the lubricating sheets I use for my shredder are stored right next to the shredder. This makes me more efficient when I need to send a letter, and it helps ensure I really do lubricate the shredder periodically.

I recently read a great example of how this principle can work in the critical setting of a hospital intensive care unit. As Emily Anthes wrote in Nature, Dr. Peter Pronovost saw the problem with more haphazard storage when he was creating a checklist his hospital could use for a specific procedure:

Logistics are crucial. When Pronovost was first developing his checklist at Johns Hopkins, he noticed that ICU doctors had to go to eight different places to collect all the supplies they needed to perform a sterile central-line insertion. As part of the Keystone programme, hospitals assembled carts that contained all the necessary supplies.

I’ve seen people try to cope with using the wrong tool (the wrong size screwdriver, for example) because they couldn’t find the right one, even though they knew they owned it. I have also known people who had an incredible stash of books and tools — who still asked to borrow mine sometimes because they couldn’t find theirs amid all the clutter. When a home or office is uncluttered and organized, you can be like Jessamyn West, who wrote on Twitter, “The one time in three years I need a Torx driver and I realize I 1) have one 2) can find it. Happy with this day so far.”

The same concept applies to paperwork. If you can readily find all your tax-related documents, in either paper or electronic format, tax time becomes a bit less stressful. If there’s a place for all permission slips your children bring home from school, there won’t be last-minute scrambles to find them on the days of the events.

I recently had a minor organizing slip-up that caused me to waste a bit of time and use less than optimal tools. My packing list included “gifts for people I’m visiting” but neglected to include wrapping materials for those gifts. (I don’t wrap them ahead of time because airport security will sometimes unwrap them if they have any concern about what’s in the package.) That led me to scramble to find wrapping paper and tape in a neighborhood with a very limited selection. (I think I found the store’s only roll of wrapping paper that didn’t have a Christmas theme.) I’m sure my hosts didn’t really care that I used some funky decorative tape instead of normal tape, and I didn’t waste too much time and money buying these items, but I’ve now updated my packing list.

Unitasker Wednesday: OnPot Lid Rest

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

This is one of those unitaskers that makes me questions my intellect. I say this because I look at it and have no idea why resting a lid over the top of a pot is a better idea than resting a lid upside-down on the kitchen counter (or stove or island or table or any convenient work surface near a stove). How does the OnPot Lid Rest improve cooking?

I’ll be honest, I’m fairly certain it doesn’t improve cooking. I think it simply adds another gadget to the cooking process. Another step to get it out of the cupboard. Another item to clean. Another thing to store. And another thing to forget you own when you go back to resting lids upside-down on the stove or counter because that is super easy. Heck, sometimes, you don’t even have to set a lid down, you can simply hold it in your non-dominant hand while you stir your food.

And doesn’t it look like at any moment the pot could tip over?

There are just so many gadgets and doodads out there to supposedly help people in the kitchen, yet they don’t seem to do that at all. Now, if you really want to learn how to be a decent home cook, I strongly recommend picking up my new favorite cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The gadgets it recommends in the book actually improve your cooking, not clutter up your kitchen. (I should also mention Alton Brown’s cookbooks are great, too.)

A year ago on Unclutterer



  • Multifunctional children’s furniture
    The multifunctional WeeCANDU Chair can be transformed into a playtable/desk, bedside table, easel, step stool, rocking chair, regular chair, and magazine/book rack.
  • Qualities of a good to-do method
    After years of auditioning the most popular to-do management methods (and a few obscure methods, as well), I’ve found that it’s incredibly obvious which methods are likely to be helpful and which ones are duds. For a method to be good at actually getting me to do my work, it has to have the following components.

Using Slack for families

I enjoy pointing out technologies and tools that can help groups of people to be productive and organized. Every now and then, a great example pops up that seems to have taken on a life of its own. This week, I want to highlight the current tech darling of San Francisco, Slack.

Slack is a communication tool meant for businesses and groups. It provides real-time conversations between team members, file sharing, a very powerful search, what amounts to topic-focused “chat rooms,” and more. I’ve been using it in a professional sense for months now. Only recently did it dawn me on what an effective family communication tool it could be as well.

If you’ve ever participated in a group text or a chat room, you’ve got the basic idea of Slack. Once you’ve signed up (there is a free plan as well as paid options, starting at $6.67 per user per month that is billed annually), you’ll get a domain like “” And from there, you can create an account for mom, dad, the kids, etc. You can add as many people as you like.

You’ll start with a chat room (Slack calls them “channels”) called “General.” Posting a message into the channel is as simple as typing it out and hitting Return. Once you’re all comfortable, start making your own channels. This is where it gets good.

You could create a channel for activities, like ballet or sports. Perhaps there’s a trip coming up, or an ongoing volunteer activity that some of you do every week. Making a channel for each gives you a destination for conversations on those topics. Those who are interested can follow along. Those who aren’t, don’t. Additionally, if someone who isn’t typically involved with, say, the park clean-up committee suddenly needs to be, he can go in and read the whole history in that channel to get up to speed.

Sharing files is another area in which Slack shines. You can share all manner of files with Slack, and they remain searchable and easy to find for all involved. Slack indexes the full body of a shared file, not just the title. So, if you know there’s park clean-up this weekend but can’t remember where, simply search “park” to bring up the PDF that was shared a week ago.

Lastly, Slack can eliminate texting and email. Slack has several notification options, from the fire hose (which alerts you every time something new is posted) to a more controlled approach (like whenever your name is mentioned in a chat). Finally, I’ve found that people begin to communicate in Slack more often than email once they’re used to it, as it lends itself to real-time communication and won’t get your stuff lost in a bottomless inbox.

There’s so much more to this fantastic service — like free desktop and mobile apps, so you can constantly be in touch with your family if necessary. Yes, Slack is a business tool, but it can certainly have a place with your family, too. And that’s an essential part of organizing: seeing tools that already exist and using them to meet your needs.

How to remain a disorganized mess

It’s Monday. We’re in a good mood, and we don’t know why. Instead of a heavy post to bog you down at the start of the week, we wanted to do something fun. Think of the following as an instructional manual for how to be overwhelmed by your clutter. Feel welcome to add to the list in our comments (and try not to take this too seriously, we’re just having some fun).

  • Aspire to unrealistic depictions of “organization” boards on Pinterest.
  • Walk through a model home and stress out about how much more clutter you have than the house where no one lives.
  • Understand that a stack of random school papers on the kitchen table is the end of the world.
  • Make a mental list of how you aren’t as “together” as [person X]. Review it daily.
  • Compare yourself to other parents/workers/neighbors.
  • Blow off the laundry for one day, toss up your hands and say, “Well that’s it, then.”
  • Realize that you’ll never be perfect, so there’s no use in trying.
  • Believe that an “organized person” = “good person.” The opposite is true, obviously.
  • Decide you have to be organized RIGHT NOW. It only takes 30 minutes on television shows!
  • Forget that organizing is a skill, attribute it to genetics.
  • Toss and turn in bed, mentally reviewing all the things you have to do tomorrow, and refuse to write any of those items down.
  • Stop inviting friends over because your house doesn’t look like a magazine.
  • Create a filing system based on a secret code you have to reference to be able to use.

(Today’s post inspired by Annie Mueller.)

A year ago on Unclutterer



  • Book review: Willpower
    In the recently published book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explore the science behind willpower and self-control. They analyzed findings from hundreds of experiments to see why some people are able to keep their focus and determination after a long day at work and others aren’t.