What squirrels can teach us about organization

The next time you see a squirrel running around, give it an appreciative smile. That’s your fellow organizer right there.

As summer yields to autumn, these little fuzzballs are busy gathering nuts that will sustain them during the winter. Scientists from University of California Berkeley recently wondered exactly how they accomplish the life-sustaining feat, including the improbable act of finding each tiny hoard weeks after it’s created.

What they discovered was pretty impressive. Squirrels use chunking. Chunking refers to the practice of sorting information into similar, easily remembered groupings. For example, when learning a new phone number, we don’t memorize an interrupted series of 10 numbers, we (at least here in North America) learn the three-digit area code, the three-digit exchange and then the last four digits.

Likewise, a bookshelf stuffed with no semblance of order would make it very hard to find a certain title. So, we group books into fiction, non-fiction, biographies, etc. It’s much easier to recall where a specific piece of information is when it’s in a chunk of similar items.

Squirrels understand this.

Researchers discovered that squirrels are “scatter hoarders.” That is, they create several caches of nuts, each grouped in the same way. In the study, 45 squirrels were offered a series of nuts from several locations. Upon receiving nuts from a central location, the cute little rodents put the goodies into species-specific groupings: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. This suggests, scientists concluded, that finding the nuts weeks or months later in snow-covered forests, that the squirrels rely on a technique like chunking to recall where each pile (or species) of nut is hidden.

What does that have to do with you and me?

Aside from the obvious “we’re all nuts” joke, chunking is truly an effective strategy. Like the squirrels, it will help you recall where that seldom-used item is stored. For example, if you’re looking for Christmas tree ornaments, they would be “chunked” with the other holiday decorations.

Aside from storage, chunking can apply to productivity, as Mike Vardy explains on Productivityist:

Time chunking – and fine tuning the practice – allows me to work with optimum productivity. It’s worth trying in some form or another because it removes a decision from the process of doing: what to do and when to do it.

Take a lesson from our furry friends. Sort time, items, and effort into definable groups for better recall later. Whether you’re a human or not.

Get organized to help in an emergency

As Florida and Houston deal with the aftermath of devastating storms, I’ve seen messages from good-hearted people on social media opening their homes to those who have been displaced. Countless people are affected by these disasters, and will be for weeks and months to come.

It’s a fantastic act of selfless generosity to open one’s home to someone in need. It also takes a lot of planning and organization. If you plan to have friends and/or family stay with you for an indeterminate amount of time — especially when they’ve lost so much — there are steps you can take to make the experience better for yourself and for them.

First, ensure how many people you can safely and comfortably accommodate. Everyone will need space to sleep, so count up bedrooms as well as couches, air mattresses, cots or sleeping bags. If using the latter, make sure that there’s an opportunity for privacy for all. Not everyone wants to sleep on the living room couch. Maybe you can make a rotating schedule. While you’re at it, make sure there is ample room for the belongings they will bring with them.

If you plan on accepting many people, you might even want to check with your municipality for advice on how many people can safely occupy your home.

Next, stock up on supplies. More people means more food, water, toiletries, etc. If you have time, buy these supplies before your guests’ arrival and designate a tidy an accessible place for storage.

Guests forget stuff at the best of times, and in this instance, they might not have the opportunity to grab essentials. Buy extra toothbrushes, disposable razors, extra towels and so forth and make them available.

Your guests will also have clothing to launder. Providing a few mini pop-up laundry baskets will allow guests to keep their dirty clothes out of their suitcases and transport them to and from the laundry area with ease.

Also make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit on hand, as well as some common over-the-counter medications, even pet food if your guests will be bringing a dog or cat with them.

Have phone chargers for various models available, as theirs may be gone, as well as a mini charging station. Make your Wi-Fi password available if you have one (you should). A crank-powered radio is also useful, especially if your own home is in or near a danger zone.

If you’re opening your home to people in need, our hat is off to you. If you don’t have that opportunity but still want to help, contact the Red Cross.

Dropmark organizes links and digital files

Two years ago I was lousy at organizing web bookmarks. If I found an article I wanted to read later, a recipe or anything else I couldn’t attend to right then and there, it went into Dock in Apple’s Mac operation system, where it sat indistinguishable and forgotten. What a mess.

Determined to rise above that disorganized mess, I explored four solutions: Instapaper, Historious, Pinboard and Ember. Each has its pros and cons, but I eventually landed on Instapaper. It’s quick and easy. Still, that was two years ago and I thought the idea deserved another look. This time, I’ve discovered Dropmark.

What drew me to Dropmark is that it is a lot more than an archive of links. Instead, it sorts things you’d like to save into “collections.” The collections can be customized however you like. To get you started, Dropmark offers six default collections:

  • Inspiration
  • Recipes
  • Playlist
  • Save for Later
  • Video Que
  • Book Club

Each collection has its own permission settings. You can make it private, available to a select few, or public. Once you’ve created a collection, simply drag and drop something from your computer into a browser window to add it. It’s then listed in a tidy grid. You can increase search-ability by adding tags to any item.

Organizing bookmarks (my personal goal) is easy, too. Simply click to add a new item, choose “Link” and paste the URL you’d like to save.

While I’m just looking for a digital organizational tool, Dropbox can do much more than that. You can form teams for collaboration, and share any collection you’ve got.

Lastly, there are browser extensions and mobile apps for iOS and Android that let you manage your collections with ease. It’s simple, good-looking and available both as a free app and a paid service. The pro version ($50/year) lets you add comments, annotations, and choose from several style options. It’s a very nice service and if you, too, struggle with organizing digital bookmarks and files, give Dropmark a try.

What to do when your yard sale fails

Typically people hold a yard sale for one of three reasons:

  1. They want to earn some money.
  2. They want unwanted stuff to go to a good home.
  3. They want to pare-down possessions.

In any case, the organizer hopes for success — a few extra dollars in the pocket, some free space in the house, less clutter — however you define a successful yard sale.

Even if you plan a successful yard sale, sometimes it flops — nothing is sold or huge items such as a sofa or credenza are left. It’s the end of the the final day and you’re standing outside with a pile of unsold merchandise. The inevitable question pops into your head, “Now what?”

Let’s take a look at what you can do when your yard sale bombs.

First and foremost, don’t get frustrated with the leftovers. There are many potential variables that could have affected your sale:

  1. You had more stuff than you had time to sell.
  2. Your prices were higher than the typical customer was willing to spend.
  3. The right people didn’t find you.
  4. The weather or timing was bad.

But today we’re not looking at what when wrong (we’ve got a guide for that). Instead, it’s what to do with all the leftover stuff. There are many options.

Right away, before you bring a single item into the house, divide your goods into the following piles:

  1. Donation
  2. Sell online
  3. Free to whomever wants it
  4. Items for the next sale
  5. Keepers

Now, a look at each category.

Donation is self-explanatory. Often doctors’ offices or hospitals will take magazines. Think of friends or relatives who might want what you’ve got. Perhaps there’s a Scout troop, school, or other charitable organization in your area that will gladly accept certain gently used items.

Selling online is a great way to go. My wife and I have had tremendous success holding a “virtual yard sale” on Facebook. It was pretty easy to do. We took one or two photos of each item, added them to Facebook Marketplace and shared them on our walls. Within two days everything was sold and picked up by the buyers. If Facebook isn’t your thing, consider Varagesale. Creating an account is easy and, in my experience, most items sell quickly. Of course there is also Ebay and Freecycle.

Don’t be afraid to try another yard sale. Maybe the weather was bad, or a holiday weekend meant fewer people in the neighborhood. In any case, try again but make some changes. First, wait a few weeks and mark the prices down. Also, set up a “free” table for items you simply want to get rid of. You can even do a raffle at the end of the day. For example, for $3, visitors get a chance to have their names drawn and then the winners can take as much stuff away as they want.

Finally, acknowledge that there may be some keepers may have popped up during the sale. During our recent sale, my son identified a toy that he really wanted. Limit yourself to one keeper, as the idea is to get rid of stuff, but that single item can earn its way back into the house if you’ve really got a good reason for keeping it.

It’s depressing when a yard sale doesn’t live up to your expectations. But there’s plenty you can do with your remaining items. And remember the positive: you conducted a big purge and organize, you got some stuff at least to people who’ll use and appreciate it and you’ve reduced the clutter in your home. I think that’s a win.

Tips and tricks for Google Keep

About a year ago I wrote a post praising Google Keep, the light, effective note-taking app from Google. At the time I was only a few months into using it but I was already smitten. The fast, lightweight app let me store and find notes easily. Twelve months later, it has become an indispensable part of my day.

Along the way, I’ve picked up some very cool tricks that make it even more useful. If you’re a fan too, I hope you learn something new here. If you haven’t used Google Keep before, consider this your formal invitation to give it a try. It really is useful. Now, the tips.

Transcribe notes from pictures

I learned this trick from Tech Republic and it has become my favorite. If you take a photo of written text with Google Keep, it can extract the text in the photo and turn it into editable copy in a note. Just follow these steps:

  1. Take a photo with the app
  2. Tap the three dots in the upper right-hand corner
  3. Select “Grab image text”

That’s it. Keep will find the text in the photograph and paste it into the body of your note. Super cool.

Drag and drop notes from Keep into Google Docs

Here’s something I tried on a whim. Much to my delighted surprise, it worked. Just follow these steps.

  1. With a Google Doc open, click “Tools” from the menu bar and then “Keep Notepad.”
  2. A list of your notes appears on the right.
  3. Simply drag the one you want out of that list and into your document.

The cool thing here is that the formatting in the note is retained. Drag an ordered list, and you’ve got an ordered list in your doc. Drag an image and it’s an image. Text is text. The lesson here is always poke around the tools menu.

It’s great for social media drafts

Sharing isn’t limited to Google Docs, or course. Open a note on your smartphone (Android or iOS) and hit the three dots or Share Button to send the contents of that note to Twitter, Facebook, Slack, etc.

Create reminders

I only discovered this recently. You can use Keep to send you a reminder. To begin, just create a note and click the icon of a finger wrapped in a string. From there, create your reminder. That reminder will automatically appear on your Google Calendar, the Chrome browser (if it’s signed into Google) and your Android device.

As you can see, Keep is for much more than jotting down shopping lists (though it does that, too). I’ve grown to love it and I bet you will, too. Give it a try.

The power of the plastic inbox

I receive a lot of paper at work. You would think that by 2017 the fantasy of the “paperless office” would have become a reality. While many businesses have reduced their paper consumption, it hasn’t disappeared. I recently tackled the problem at work with a tried-and-true solution: plastic trays (similar to these).

After some rummaging around in the depths of the office supply closet, I found to dusty, unwanted, plastic trays. I cleaned them off and made two labels: “IN” and “OUT”. Triumphant, I put them on my desk. I’ll admit that I felt like an out-of-date 1950’s business man — or at least TV’s depiction of such a creature.

The following morning I told my staff, “Anything you have for me that requires some action — a signature, editing, filing, anything at all — put into my new inbox. You’ll find it on my desk.” Although they scoffed at Grandpa Dave’s request, it’s been a huge success. I’ve realized the following benefits of the good old-fashioned inbox:

  1. Everything that needs my attention is once place. There’s no more searching around for who’s got that paper I need.
  2. Stress levels work are greatly reduced because when you trust your system, your brain stops perseverating, and you can get on with work.
  3. Going through the inbox at the end of the day, when things are quiet and wrapping up, is actually pleasant.
  4. My staff and other colleagues appreciate having a clearly-defined drop point for items that need my attention.
  5. I have more space on my desk to do actual work! No more mini-stacks of paper here and there.
  6. Boy, it sure feels good when that box is empty.

The secret here is to put everything in the inbox. The receipt in your wallet? Inbox. The notes from that meeting? Inbox. The packing slip from this morning’s delivery? Inbox. You can process all of this stuff (decide that it is, what action needs to be taken, and then act accordingly) when time allows.

It’s such a simple, inexpensive thing. Give it a try at work, home, or where ever you collect and process “stuff.” Let your co-workers, family members, or housemates know, too. You’ll be very glad you did.

Options for upcycling clothes

As summer eases into fall, I’m thinking about clothes. Soon I’ll haul my cold-weather wardrobe from its storage spot, and put my shorts and T-shirts in its place. The kids, ever growing, will need some new items for school. Larger sneakers will replace old; hats and gloves will join their smaller counterparts in the mudroom. Several times during the changeover, I’ll hold something up and wonder, “Why do I still have this?” When no satisfactory answer returns, I’ll fold it up and put it away until next year.

We’ve written before about what to do with old, unwanted clothes. Of course you can also donate clothes, hand them down, gift them to young parents, turn them into household rags, or even make interesting keepsakes. In the case of sentimental tshirt, my wife made a quilt from them. Recently, I found another alternative that I wanted to share: upcycling.

An article at CBC appeared in my RSS feed at the perfect time. It begins by pointing out a problem: wasted clothes. While many people donate unwanted clothes in a way that extends their life, “…North Americans [still] discard a mind-boggling amount of apparel — 12 billion kilograms of textiles every year.” That’s a staggering 26 billion pounds!

I think that’s more than a little disheartening, as do twins Lindsay and Alexandra Lorusso. The pair started their own company, Nudnik, which uses scraps of discarded clothing and other textiles, and turns them into re-sellable outfits for kids. It’s a great idea.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Natalie Festa has begun renting outfits and other articles to customers who are either eco-conscious or on a budget, a scenario that should be familiar to fans of NBC’s Parks and Rec.

Of course, you needn’t start a business to upcycle old clothing. Basic sewing skills will let you create new items from scraps. A tshirt can become a little laundry bag when you sew the bottom shut. A shirt can also become a headband if you’re so inclined.

When it comes to old clothes, definitely consider the donate/hand-me-down route. But don’t overlook the various upcycle options available. There’s a lot that can be done.

Preparing for back to school

As August becomes September, it’s time to prepare for the upcoming school year. I know, there are plenty of beach days between now and then and I don’t want to detract from your summer. However, the earlier you get a jump on back-to-school preparations, the less stressful September will be.

Of course there’s a lot to buy from clothing to gadgets to the list of supplies your school provided. That’s important, but today I want to focus an aspect we think of less often, but is just as important — getting the kids back on a school year schedule.

You’ll be met with resistance if you try to move bedtime ahead by 90 minutes the first night. I recommend starting several weeks early. If you’ve got younger kids, get them into bed 5 or 10 minutes early each night for couple of weeks. They’ll barely notice the difference. If your children are older, start to remind them few weeks out: “It’s time to get back on a school schedule. Head to bed a few minutes early tonight.”

It’s also important to review what the morning routine will be. While my wife and I discuss it among ourselves, it’s important to bring the kids into that conversation too, and the sooner the better. Talk about when the day will start, any after-school activities, who can be expected to pick up/drop off (and where), carpool details if applicable, etc. People like predictability.

Next, create a landing area for their school stuff. Find the best spot for them to place bags, coats, important papers, etc. and encourage them to use it. Otherwise — if your kids are like mine — you’ll find a trail of hats, gloves, backpacks, and so on that leads from the door to wherever junior decided to plop himself as he entered the house.

Finally, get yourself a good calendar. I swear by the oversize wall calendar, much like this one. Perhaps you love a digital calendar. That’s cool too. The important thing here is to make your choice, and get it in place, before the school year begins.

There’s more to do to prepare for school, of course, but these tips should get you up and running. Good luck.

Reader question: How to dispose of old knives

Recently, a reader wrote in with a question about disposing of old knives:

Most were cheap knives [with] handles that are in extremely poor shape. The blades don’t look all that great either. A charity would not want any of them for sure. What options are there for safely disposing them?

I’m sure this reader is not alone. Often times knives simply wear out their usefulness and get replaced. Of course, disposal is not as simple as tossing them into the trash. Here are some safe and effective options for safely disposing of unwanted knives.

First, check with your local recycling facility. Here in my neighborhood, it’s the town dump (or “transfer station” if you want to get technical). Often they accept metal including knives. There may be a fee involved, but it’s likely very small.

If recycling is not an option for whatever reason, and you’re not going to donate the knives, you can in fact throw in away, as long as you do some preparation first. Start by contacting the town or company that hauls your trash away, as they probably have guidelines for disposing of “sharps.” If you live in an area that requires you to take trash to the dump yourself, like I do, ask an attendant there for advice.

There are general safety guidelines to follow as well. Find a piece of cardboard that’s longer than the blade and fold it in half. Place the knife inside so that the blade is against the fold. Next, tape it down so that the cardboard won’t slip off.

You can also wrap it in newspaper — five or six sheets will do it — and then again in bubble wrap. Also consider dulling the blade a bit beforehand. The knives are ready for disposal.

I hope this was helpful. Again, my first hope is that you can recycle these knives. If not, contact whoever handles your trash for guidance, and then prepare the knives so that they’ll be safely handled. Good luck.

Readers ask for help with storage and more

Recently, we received a pair of emails from readers who find themselves in unenviable circumstances. Both are dealing with financial and health difficulties that are making it very difficult to maintain and afford a storage space that’s full of precious, sentimental items. It’s not a good situation, and again, one I imagine many readers can relate to. While I don’t have the perfect answer (and I really wish I did), I’ll share my thoughts here, and I encourage you, fellow unclutterers, to do the same in the comments. Hopefully the readers who sparked this post will find something in my words or yours that helps. Let’s start with very small steps.

A thing a day

A few years ago, we wrote about a technique called “A thing a day,” which first came to our attention via the Unclutterer forums. The premise is simple: eliminate one item per day until you reach a manageable cache of stuff.

Of course, it needn’t be a single item. You could do five items per day, or ten. You could wait for the weekend and pick a dozen items to part with on a Sunday. I mention it here for a few reasons. First, it’s not emotionally overwhelming or especially physically demanding. These two readers are dealing with a lot right now, including an urgent need to get on top of some items in storage. Also, the methodical elimination of several items could get you to a place where the storage facility is no longer needed, thus saving you some money. Of course, it’s not always that easy.

Sentimental clutter

Both readers expressed that there are many sentimental items among their stuff. Parting with sentimental clutter can be very difficult. Sentimental items usually don’t fall into the category of “If I haven’t used it in [x] amount of time, I can throw it out.” That’s because utility has very little to do with why you’re keeping that object. So how do we part with these things? I’ll refer you to a post we published in 2011:

Remember that clutter is anything that distracts you from pursuing the life of your dreams. If you have so much sentimental stuff that it is causing a stressful mess or taking up room in your home for things that matter more to you, you will want to cull the clutter. But, you don’t have to get rid of all your sentimental stuff. At least for me, some of the things I keep for sentimental reasons are objects that reflect what I value most. My grandmother is one of my most favorite people on the planet, and having her rocking chair makes me smile and remember all the wonderful times we have shared. So, I keep that exact chair. However, I don’t keep every card she ever sent me or every gift she ever gave me because I don’t have room to keep everything and the chair elicits the happiest of all the memories.

When deciding on sentimental keepsakes, aim for quality over quantity. I loved my grandfather dearly. He was a tremendous artist. Today, I have a pencil sketch that he did hanging on my wall. The same picture hung in his living room when I was a kid, and I always admired it. Today, it’s the perfect — and only — physical thing I have to remind me of my grandfather, and it’s all I need.

Lastly, see if you can employ help from family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers. A person who’s empathetic to your situation could help with reducing the need for a storage facility, the labor of going through a lot of stuff, and the anxiety of keeping it all in line. Even cataloging what you own by writing it all down can help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

I hope this was helpful. Now I turn it over to you, fellow unclutterers. What advice would you give these readers? We welcome your comments below.

Weekend project: Organize under the bed

Many home projects can be completed in under 30 minutes, yet have a big impact on your day-to-day life. With that in mind, I like to tackle a good Weekend Project. Anything from organizing the tool shed to creating a daily routine is well worth the time and effort. Today we’re going to take a peek somewhere that most people avoid: under the bed.

Feng Shui practitioners know that nothing should be stored underneath one’s bed. My practice is lacking then, as I keep a lot of stuff under there. I suspect many of you do, too. If that’s the case, here’s a look at how you can take an afternoon this weekend to get control over what’s stored underneath your bed. The first step is identifying what’s down there in the first place.

Dare to explore

The area underneath one’s bed is often a dark and scary place, full of hidden surprises, and I don’t mean just the dust bunnies. A great way to start is to pull everything out. For each item, decide to put it in either the “keep” pile, the “donate” pile or the “toss” pile. This won’t take long as there’s only so much stuff that can fit underneath your average bed. When that’s done, send anything in “donate” or “toss” to the appropriate destination and turn back to the “keep” pile.

Proper, convenient storage

First, make sure everything is in a labeled bin, with the label facing out. In my experience, anything tossed under there loosely will gravitate to the center, never to be seen again. You’ll probably need several transparent or semi-transparent containers with lids. If you can, find some that also have casters or wheels, even better (this one from Sterilite is ideal).

Before you buy any, take measurements of the space underneath your bed. Write it down somewhere so you can refer to it while at the store.

What to put under the bed

I’ve got a few solutions, depending on whose bed we’re talking about:

  1. Your own — Out-of-season clothing, shoes, and extra linens are a great choice.
  2. The kids — Their books, board games, puzzles, and so on.
  3. The guest room — Guest linens, extra blankets (make sure they’re freshly washed before guess arrive). We also keep gift wrapping supplies under there.

Yes, it’s a drag to haul everything out from under there and sort it. But it’s worth the effort believe me. Feng Shui or not, you’ll be glad you spent some time organizing underneath the bed.

Organize a first aid kit for the car

A first aid kit isn’t one of those things you think about until you need it and when you do, boy do you need it! You can avoid making a stressful time even more difficult by planning and buying a roadside first aid kit now. They’re inexpensive, easy to maintain, and compact. Here is what every driver should have tucked away in the car.

The right container

There are a lot of pre-made first aid kits available. Most are great, but I recommend building your own from scratch. Why? You’re more likely to know exactly what is inside a homemade first aid kit as you think about, buy, and place each item. You might glance at a pre-made kit’s contents, but the steps required for building your own force you to really think about what is inside.

Also, when you build your own kit you have more control over the container. Find something that has clear compartments, so you can see where items are. Also, if you can find something waterproof, that is ideal. This MTM Dry Box is a great example, as it’s durable, brightly-colored, and water resistant. Plus it’s small enough and study enough to live in the car’s trunk for a long time.

Supplies

When it comes to supplies, I defer to the professionals at the Red Cross. This comprehensive list, entitled “Anatomy of a First Aid Kit,” includes:

  • 2 absorbent compress dressings (5 x 9 inches)
  • 25 adhesive bandages (assorted sizes)
  • 1 adhesive cloth tape (10 yards x 1 inch)
  • 5 antibiotic ointment packets (approximately 1 gram)
  • 5 antiseptic wipe packets
  • 2 packets of aspirin (81 mg each)

There is a lot more, and I’ll let you read their full recommendations. If you’ve got a baby or kids who travel with you, make sure you have children’s versions of the listed medications.

You might also consider adding a basic first aid manual. Again, I look to our friends at the Red Cross for this. Lastly, consider things like a flashlight, blanket, tool to break a window, Here’s a look at what else to keep in your car.

As I said, a first aid kit is often overlooked. Take some time this weekend to get one organized. I hope you never need it!