Keeping children’s toys from overwhelming a room

Today we welcome Brett Kelly, who blogs about technology, new media and whatever else the voices tell him to at http://brettkelly.org. He’s also a really swell guy.

A few months back, I was gingerly tip-toeing across the room where my children napped in an effort to get some laundry put away. After taking a few steps into the dark room and reaching the edge of the light cascading in from the hallway, I stepped into the darkness and, instead of finding the soft carpet currently being enjoyed by my other foot, I planted my size 13 squarely onto a plastic ambulance. The ambulance then began loudly announcing that it was on its way to some type of emergency situation and that its ETA was “2 minutes!” And, it wasn’t just dumb luck that brought us to this “look to the heavens and sigh deeply” moment. A quick glance around the now-illuminated room informed me that any next step I took would have caused the same result, but with the help of a different toy. The carpet was barely visible beneath the sea of kid crap.

I wrote the first paragraph in the past tense because things are better now. We managed to institute a few procedures to help ensure we’re slightly less overrun with children’s toys. I honestly couldn’t tell you the origin of these tactics, but somehow they worked their way into our parenting routine and they’ve ended up paying dividends.

Obviously, the sheer number of toys and games in your house will take it’s biannual leap during the holidays and around your child’s birthday. While Junior (age 0-4) is tearing the wrapping off of the newest noise maker, take this opportunity to stealthily pack up what you believe to be the least used toys in the pile of old toys. Put them into a plastic bag and stick them in the garage. Now, wait a couple of months. If by the time the bags have been out of sight for 90 days your child hasn’t asked about the contents, shuffle them over to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army location and get rid of them. Less fortunate kids can benefit from practically new toys that were hardly touched by their original owner and you’ll have some of your precious floor back. With older children (4+), have them participate in the entire process.

Our favorite way to keep the toy supply fresh without having to drop a bunch of money and sanity on more toys is to do a personal “toy swap” with our son’s friends. They come over to play and bring their favorite toy waffle iron or abacus or whatever and they leave with what has historically been a popular toy around our house. The exchange usually lasts a week or two. To turn this tip a little dark (and this requires that you have a pretty close relationship with the other kid’s parents), you can even arrange for a particularly annoying toy that they’ve borrowed to “have an accident” while it’s out of your house. I like to call this maneuver Mafia Toy Management.

It would be quite correct to point out that the best way to handle child clutter is to never let it get out of hand in the first place. Kudos to anybody who has been able to pull this off because we certainly haven’t. It’s especially difficult when generous and caring grandparents, aunts, and uncles are all too happy to help fill out Junior’s apparently dwindling stack of plastic trebuchets. That said, being able to keep your kid’s toy stockade under control without sending anybody into a tantrum is among my most treasured abilities as a parent (besides having them in stitches with my fantastic array of celebrity impressions).

Remember the Milk: Now with iPhone and Gmail integration

Of all of the software-based GTD “solutions” I’ve managed to get my hands on, there’s a fairly common theme among all of those that didn’t really cut the mustard: they simply tried too hard to build something that encompassed each of the main tenets of GTD, but have very little flexibility. In other words, these apps shoehorn you into the “canonical” GTD configuration without giving you room to customize the system to best suit your needs. Thankfully, Remember the Milk has managed to not only hang in there (for 3 years now), but pull ahead of the pack through integration with other products and services. And, as of this past month, these services now include Gmail and the iPhone.

RTM’s new native iPhone application (which requires a Pro account at RTM, which will set you back a scant $25 per year) is what got me to switch from my previous solution (OmniFocus on OSX + iPhone). The app is an excellent first release, much moreso than most of the other 1.0s that appear in the store. Launching and synching are both blazingly fast, unlike most local-storage-heavy iPhone apps. It also supports landscape mode for just about every view, which is a killer feature for me. It lets you fully manage the service, all from the comfort of, well, wherever you are with your iPhone.

The other new feature that really cinched it for me is the availability of an in-Gmail gadget where you can add/edit/complete todo list items without leaving Gmail (where many of my tasks and projects originate, which I’m sure is true for many of you). This is exactly the type of integration that really puts RTM a cut above the rest of the list management applications I’ve used. Couple this with the excellent Twitter integration, and RTM is never more than a few clicks/taps away, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

One great OmniFocus feature that I’d truly love to see in RTM is the ability to incubate tasks or projects until a given date/time. For example, if I know I need to send a birthday card to my Mom in 3 weeks, OmniFocus would let me set a start date for the project, so that it (as well as any associated tasks) wouldn’t show up in my lists until that date. A consistent weekly review would make sure this type of thing doesn’t sit fallow in your task list for weeks before it is actionable, but I’m a lazy programmer who likes to let computers do the thinking that I don’t really feel I have to do.

Honestly, there isn’t much I’d change about RTM’s current set of features, other than perhaps some SMS integration, but that problem is solved easily enough with the Twitter integration. Otherwise, I find it to be quite useful – not to mention a total bargain, and well worth some investigation if you’re a productivity-minded technophile like myself.

Brett Kelly is a sometimes-independent writer, software developer and productivity nerd from California. You can read more about his unending adventures online at brettkelly.org, or you can just follow him on Twitter.