Four steps to better decision making

Have you ever wondered why some decisions seem easier to make than others? Even when people appear to know what they want, making the decision to go in one direction or another can be complex. Sometimes having too many choices can hinder you. You might feel anxious because you don’t want to make the wrong choice and feel the accompanying regret. Whatever the reasons are that make deciding so difficult, there are some steps you can take to make the process at arriving at the best choice a little easier.

Remain neutral

Decisions are not always as straight forward as they may theoretically appear. The process of making a particular selection can be tricky because your feelings can play a role what you end up choosing. Dr. Jennifer Lerner, Director of Harvard Laboratory for Decision Science, conducts research on how one’s feelings can affect one’s perception of risk and how emotions influence one’s judgement and ability to make decisions. Though it may seem that having a negative emotion, like anger, would cloud your outlook and therefore influence you to make a more negative decision, Dr. Lerner’s research appears to indicate the opposite.

Anger makes you optimistic and makes you perceive less risk than if you were in a neutral state, and it makes you take more risks. So for example, you’re more likely to choose a gamble over a sure thing when you’re angry. Anger does a lot of other things, as well. It makes you think more heuristically rather than systematically. It automatically activates relative left frontal hemisphere, which is associated with approach. So when you’re mad, it predisposes you toward believing things are going to work out your way, believing that you have some sense of control. It gives you a sense of certainty, makes you take more risks, perceive less risk, think less deeply, a whole series of choices.

Dr. Lerner also found that people who were feeling sad tended to spend more money when shopping than if they weren’t feeling any strong emotion at all. That said, you wouldn’t want to be feeling any emotional extreme as you are at the moment of deciding what action to take. Instead, consider engaging in activities that would get you back to a neutral state. For each person, that activity can vary so take a minute to think about the types of things that help to regulate your emotions (or keep them in check).

Seek an objective opinion

A public declaration can sometimes help you attain important goals you have set for yourself. You’ll often get encouragement from others to keep making progress. In a similar way, seeking the opinion of a non-biased, trusted advisor, friend, or colleague can give you a different perspective or validate your position. You may want to pick one or two people that you’ll consult with so that you don’t get stuck in the process. When too many people are involved, then it becomes a decision by committee. This would likely make the process take longer than necessary, so be strategic about the number of people you seek for counsel.

Analyze the potential outcomes

All decisions have consequences and it helps to know what they are (or could be) no matter which choice you make. Assess the pros and cons of each one and determine if the benefits outweigh the risks. Using a pro vs. con list can help you pinpoint the various aspects of each decision and help you to arrive at the best choice for you. You might also want to “road test” your options (when possible) and live as though you’ve already made a selection so that you see the possible outcomes. Doing this can also help you to solidify your intended goal (change careers, relocate, make a major purchase) and give purpose to the entire process.

Come up with Plan B

As you think through the possible directions you could go in, you’re likely to come up with some options that might qualify as your “Plan B” should you need an alternate option to fall back on. Knowing that you have a secondary plan should put your mind at ease in the event that you need to change course or if something unexpected occurs.

Uncluttering is a lot like running

When you’re looking for inspiration and motivation to accomplish a goal, it can be helpful to look for analogies or similar features with other topics. Doing this can also reinforce the purpose of a goal or even help you to see things a little differently. You’ve probably noticed that losing the weight of clutter is often associated with losing those extra pounds that can creep up on your body. I once likened clutter to armadillos and, recently, it seemed to me that uncluttering can be a lot like running. Both require discipline and strong commitment if you’re to accomplish the results you’re looking for. Often, the tips given to people who are just starting a running program can also be applied to becoming more organized.

Create a plan with action steps

New runners can benefit from setting particular goals they want achieve each time they go running (distance, specific pace) as well as time-based goals (daily, weekly, monthly). Unclutterers need a plan, too, for without one, your activities will be scattered and you won’t have a good way of tracking your progress. To give yourself a better chance of succeeding, break your overall goal into mini-goals or action steps and add deadlines to help keep you accountable.

Unclutter every day

To get in the routine of running, new runners will likely need a bit of practice. Hitting the pavement (or the treadmill) sporadically may not help you develop that routine, so those taking up the activity for the first time are often advised to run for a few minutes every day. The same holds true for uncluttering. Engaging in a few minutes of daily organizing activities will help you to tackle the clutter and solidify a regular set of organizing habits, especially if you’re not feeling very motivated at the outset.

Use the right supplies

To avoid injury, runners must find a shoe that is not too small or too big — it must fit properly from toe to heel. Since sizes differ from brand to brand, it’s important to have your feet measured at the time of each purchase.

Just as runners need the right pair of shoes before they hit the pavement, it’s important for unclutterers to get the right tools. It may be tempting to run out (see what I did there?) and buy containers in multiple sizes and colors without giving any thought to:

  1. The volume of things that you’ll keep
  2. Where you’ll store your items

Avoid that buying temptation by first sorting and indexing the items that you’re keeping. That way, you can then find the right containers to fit the number of things you have in the designated storage location. Otherwise, purchases made without advanced planning can end up adding more clutter to your space.

Track your progress

Some runners keep a journal to look back on past successes and obstacles that they overcame. Journaling can be an inspirational tool and help you to continue reaching your goals. As you unclutter, consider writing down your successes as well as specific strategies that have worked for you. These will be helpful, particularly on days when things don’t go according to plan.

Work with a friend

Running doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. But, new runners may be a bit self-conscious if they don’t have the proper running form yet or are really slow. I suspect that people who decide to get more organized may have similar fears and be worried what their friends may think. But, when you partner with someone, the process can seem more manageable, you can get much needed help, and you may learn new strategies. Working with someone that you trust can not only distract you from the fears you may be feeling, but he/she can also help you stay focused on the uncluttering task at hand.

Remind yourself that you are an unclutterer

On those days when you’re feeling a little discouraged, be sure to keep your negative thoughts in check. If you let them hang about, this can lead to stress. Forcefully push doubts aside and remind yourself that you are an unclutterer. The seasoned runners at RunnersWorld.com recognize newbies can become discouraged in the beginning and use this quote as a reminder to turn those thoughts around: “We are all runners, some just run faster than others. I never met a fake runner.”

The challenge of letting go of books

Do you love books? I mean, do you love books with paper pages? Do you enjoy the feel of turning the pages? Do you relish that experience? While digital books offer the same content as their paper counterparts, the experience is not exactly the same, is it? You can’t smell the paper. You can’t feel the paper’s texture. I used to think that it was these nuances that made books so difficult to let go. But, could it be more than that?

The author of the blog Epic Writer summed up the complex relationship she has with books (and that many people have with books) in her post Show Me Your Book Clutter:

The problem is I have so many books I want to read. Or, that I need to read. It’s funny how varied the genres are–from reference to family history to novels to religious to just about everything. Aside from my cluttered side table, I have digital and paper clutter where I have recorded books I want to read. From my “wants” list on Goodreads.com to titles scribbled on scraps of paper, I am overwhelmed with the amount of books I will get to someday. Even with feeling almost buried by it all, I have no desire to change. I love books. I want to see books everywhere.

I also discovered that how one selects a book to purchase seemed almost as important as the book itself. From Dell Smith’s post on the blog Beyond the Margins, The Psychology of Books: Why We Read What We Read:

Buying and reading books are deeply emotional and personal acts. Your choices of reading material are based on an intricate and truly limitless combination of marketing influences and mercurial emotions. This goes for both buying books and deciding which book to read next. Two different things, but closely related as each is influenced by a mysterious algorithm of instinct and urge, want and need, stimulus both external and internal. Your desire to buy and read a book uncovers the dark hinterland of your soul. Your choices are often a reflection of your id.

Clearly, people love books and everything about them. But, it is possible keep a reasonable number so that they don’t contribute to the clutter in your living spaces. As challenging as it may be to let your books go, if they are truly meaningful to you, you won’t let them languish haphazardly on bookshelves and nightstands. Otherwise, they would simply be taking up space and you wouldn’t benefit from having them.

And, if your books feel like old friends, then it would seem like a one-sided relationship if they simply lay about your home, untouched and waiting to be read someday. Most people tend to interact with their friends, to call them on the phone, and even meet them for coffee. So, instead of waiting for some far-off day to eventually read (or finish) that book that you will probably never read, why not pass it on to someone else who would appreciate it? Like an interesting movie or new restaurant, books are meant to be shared with others. When you share (let go), you’ll be creating new memories (that you can capture with pictures or record in your journal).

The books you choose to have in your life can indeed be very meaningful to you. They may very well be an extension of who you are, of who you aspire to be. You can honor them by being selective about the ones you purchase and by keeping your collection in order. Then you wouldn’t have to choose between enjoying them and having a uncluttered space.

Uncluttered car safety tips

Over the weekend, I watched Ultimate Armored Car: The Presidential Beast and learned a lot about the security features on the President of the United States’ vehicle. It’s called “The Beast” for many reasons, including armored windows, a fuel tank surrounded by foam (so that it can’t explode), run-flat tires, along with a host of other features — all of which are designed to keep the occupants (up to seven) safe. This special car has been around since the 1930s and I suspect its specifications have improved over the years.

While most people don’t need a car like “The Beast,” you still need to be sure that your vehicle is operating optimally. There are also a few things you should do to ensure that no matter how you travel, you’ll get to your destination safely.

Keep your car properly maintained

If your car is well maintained, it will be safer to drive. You’ll need to make sure that all the parts of your car (like the engine, windows, lights, belts, tires, etc.) are in good working order. Keep with the maintenance schedule as noted in your vehicles’s manual. Not sure where to find your car’s manual? You should be able to find it on your vehicle’s manufacturer’s website if you don’t know where to locate the copy that came with your car. You can also visit Edmunds.com to get the maintenance schedule as well as the estimated costs for your car’s specific make and model (you’ll need to know this information along with the year, current mileage, and a few other details). Also, check for safety recalls at SaferCar.gov.

Plan ahead

Before leaving for your destination, figure where you need to go and how long it will take for you to get there. Google Maps is a good resource for getting directions and alternate routes in advance (even if you will ultimately use a GPS unit). This will help you get ready and arrive on time without feeling stressed and reduce your temptation to speed or drive aggressively.

You should also stock up on emergency supplies (mylar blanket, emergency kit, snacks, water, map) just in case things don’t go as planned.

Drive only when you are alert

This tip is well known but it’s still a good reminder. Drive only when you’re alert and keep in mind that some medications can affect your vision, decision making ability, and reaction time. If you’re feeling sleepy or are otherwise impaired, do not get behind the wheel. Give the keys to someone else (who is unimpaired) or make alternate plans. And, make a habit of putting your mobile phone out of reach so that you’re not tempted to text while driving. The same goes for makeup — put it on before you leave the house, not while you’re driving.

Keep your car uncluttered

What does having an uncluttered car have to do with car safety? Well, when you have lots of things in your car, they can become projectiles in the event of an accident. Use your trunk to store things you’re traveling with (like groceries, gym bag) and keep loose items inside the console and storage compartments. Something else to keep in mind — you can also become a projectile if you’re not buckled in, so you should wear your seat belt at all times.

Fight back! Turn the tables on clutter

Clutter can be a wily and cunning opponent. Sometimes, it just seems to appear as if out of nowhere. It sneaks up behind you and overpowers you with a bit of help from long work hours, too many projects, a busy travel schedule, and a lack of sleep. But, you can turn the tables on clutter and fight your way out of its grip. By gaining a good understanding of all its nuances, you’ll have a better chance of thwarting its attempt at getting control of all your living spaces.

As you probably already know, you will need to craft and execute a plan of attack. In fact, each room in your home may need its own plan. Since the layout and furniture is likely different in each area, clutter can build up in different ways. So, be observant. Look out for how pockets of clutter materialize. Does it happen at night when you’re feeling most tired? Or, perhaps in the morning when you’re not feeling as prepared as you’d like to be? As you notice the particular ways that clutter collects, stage a counterattack. Think of specific steps you can take to stop it from infiltrating your space. For example, you might keep an “out” box for things that need to be mailed, returned, or donated. Or, you can simply use a basket to collect the stuff you bring home from work. Once you find a strategy that works, keep it in your arsenal and use it often. And, if you live with others, encourage them to do the same.

Now, keep in mind that clutter doesn’t only build up, but it can also hide from you. Somehow it knows that you’ll probably forget that bag of mail that you stashed in the closet when you had company over or the linens you threw inside the closet. It can also hide in plain sight, like under furniture, inside storage chests, and under piles of paper on your desk. Your plan for each room should include a reminder to look in places that may not be so obvious.

In a final stealth move, clutter can lurk in a place that’s perhaps closest to you — your mind. Old arguments, hurt feelings, past mistakes, and fears about the future can take up residence in your thoughts. When these negative thoughts congregate in your head, they make it difficult to follow through on your clutter-busting plans and, more importantly, hamper your ability to just feel happy. Flush them out and replace them with positive thoughts and ideas. But, be cautious. Even seemingly harmless things — like that great business idea or interesting project you’re working on — can take over during times that they need to be quiet (like when you’re on vacation or hanging out with friends). Give them attention when it’s time to focus on work and be sure to put them away when it’s time to relax, to have fun — to just be.

Arm yourself with the right tools so you can turn the tables on clutter, and you’ll soon find yourself reveling in the victory of hard-fought battle.

Want to be more productive? Get more sleep.

Do you find that it’s difficult to keep still and do nothing? Even when you’re supposed to be relaxing (and though your body may not be moving), your mind might be running though your task list and the many things that you need to get done. Or, perhaps you decide to stay later at work a few days per week in an effort to “catch up.” Though you may be in the mindset of trying to get things done, if you don’t get enough sleep, this can decrease how much you actually get done and increase your stress. And, when you’re stressed, you won’t sleep very well. This is a vicious cycle.

The fact of the matter is that if you want to get more done, you need to be well rested. Lack of sleep or not enough of it can really hamper how productive you can be. The The New York Times recently reported:

Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.

This connection between sleep and productivity seems to affect you no matter what your job function is. The article goes on to say that when basketball players slept 10 hours per night, “their free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent.”

So, how can you get more sleep — the type of rest that will help you feel energized and well prepared to tackle each workday? To get started:

Stop hitting the snooze button

Though it’s intended to be helpful, the snooze button on your alarm can interrupt your sleep cycle which will in turn make you feel more tired and groggy (this is known as sleep inertia). You’ll feel this way because your body may not be ready to be awake (depending on the stage of the sleep cycle that it’s in) when the alarm sounds. This can translate into poor performance during the day. Instead, implement a consistent sleep schedule so that you are not dependent on the snooze button. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day so that you create a pattern of restorative sleep (you can even use a sleep cycle app on your phone to help).

Schedule recovery time during the workday

Recovery time can include planned breaks from working on your projects. It can also mean taking power naps during the day (whenever possible), particularly if you didn’t sleep well the night before. You’ll want to take relatively short naps so that when you wake up, you’ll feel more alert and energized. Though napping longer than 20 minutes has benefits (like better decision making and being able to recall directions more easily), if you get into a very deep sleep, you may wake up feeling more tired. Consider experimenting with shorter or longer nap times to find the right amount of time that will help you to recover.

Schedule time for energizing movement

While everyone needs downtime, exercise has been proven to have a positive effect on how well you sleep. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, “just 10 minutes of exercise a day could make a difference in the duration and quality of sleep.” The good news is that you don’t have to carve out several hours to exercise, but rather build in a short stints of energetic movement throughout your day to reap the benefits at night.

Keep your sleep space uncluttererd

When there’s clutter build-up in a room, there’s likely to be a good deal of stress felt when you’re in that particular area. So, set the stage for a restful night by uncluttering your space. Put away clothing and keep your nightstands neat and organized. Be sure that you don’t keep receipts, mail, or any other (non-sleep) related items hanging about. One thing you can keep on your nightstand: a sleep journal. Use the journal to track how well you’re sleeping, how much sleep you need to function optimally, as well as specific things (soft music, completely dark room, bath before bed) that help you achieve restorative sleep.

Do less: Practice single-tasking

So, this isn’t a sleep tip specifically, but it’s good to put it into practice as it can have big results. Though I’m suggesting that you should do less, please don’t throw your to-do list out the window! Doing less doesn’t mean that you should ignore your responsibilities. It simply means that you should focus on one thing at a time, instead of trying to wrap your mind around several tasks and projects simultaneously. This can be tricky at first, but after a bit of practice, you’ll begin to notice that you can get more done and, perhaps more importantly, you’ll have a greater chance of getting things done more completely (and with less stress, too).

Getting enough rest should be at the top of your list if you want to improve your ability to be productive. If after trying some of today’s suggestions you find that there has been no improvement to the quality of your sleep, consider talking with your doctor to see if there are other things that could be having an impact (like certain medications) on your performance.

Do you need more storage space or fewer things?

Raise your hand if you think you need more storage space in your home. Anyone think that if they just had more storage areas, their home would be easier to maintain? Sometimes I wish my home had more closets, especially a dedicated linen closet. But, I’ve found a way around that and, honestly, I don’t need a separate space to keep towels and sheets, which means it’s probably more of a want and not a need.

Of course, if you live in a small home, your storage options may be limited. You’ll likely have to use tried-and-true techniques (maximize vertical space, use under bed storage, hooks, armoires, etc.) and take advantage of creative solutions, like using multi-purpose furniture or hiding things in plain sight. You might even come up with some unconvential ways to keep your stuff, like using a car or minivan (that isn’t needed for transportation) as storage space.

In a recent blog post over at Extraordinary Observations, Storing Private Stuff in Public Space, the author started giving this some thought. He reasoned that it would be very convenient (the vehicle would be parked close to his home) and when he crunched the numbers, he found that it would be a cost effective option, too. 

… street parking (public space) is used to store automobiles (privately owned things) for little to no cost (it would cost me $35 per year for a residential permit in my neighborhood). Using a van for storage would cost significantly less money than renting a space at one of those self storage warehouses, and it would be a lot more convenient.

It’s an interesting notion and it seems to make sense from a monetary standpoint. For anyone seriously considering this as a solution, another question comes to mind. Why not reduce your stash so that the car isn’t needed for storage? You wouldn’t have to worry about the types of things you could store in your vehicle (since it’s not temperature controlled) nor would you have to be concerned about someone stealing it. With one less spot to maintain, you’d also have less work to do, fewer decisions to make, and more time to focus on other things. And, you’d have the option of selling or donating your car, both of which come with financial benefits.

Though the benefits of living with less are clear, going through the process is not always straightforward or easy, especially when you have to let go of things that you’re emotionally attached to. When faced with the task of uncluttering and downsizing, it’s important to remain focused on the positive outcomes of reducing the number of things you own (particularly if you don’t use or want them). Keep in mind that you can also handpick who receives certain items which can help put your mind at ease. Of course, simplifying doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of everything. You’re simply prioritizing and carefully selecting which items you will bring the most value to your life.

Ultimately, anyone going through this process will need to answer this question: Will a storage unit (of any type) be a regular and permanent part of your life, or would you prefer to find a way to live well with less?

A lesson from Roger Federer: Four ways to handle setbacks

Someone on the Unclutterer team is an avid tennis fan (that would be me) and though she isn’t a player herself, she does enjoy watching well fought battles on the court, especially when one of the players is Roger Federer. Unfortunately, Federer was ousted a few days ago in the quaterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open. Since he went into that event as the defending champion, there was high expectations for him to perform well. As the result was less than desired, Federer offered some insights on how he planned to deal with this setback — a lesson that even non-tennis players would do well to pay close attention to.

Look for things that worked

In his post-match interview, Federer reflected on the things that went well during the tournament. Though he acknowledged that he would have liked to have played differently, he also talked about specific things he did well (like fighting from behind to ultimately win one of his matches and serving well). 

When faced with a disappointing situation, finding things you’re proud of is probably not the easiest thing to do. But, give a try anyway. Doing this may help you feel better and lift any negative feelings you may have. Take some time to think about (and perhaps write down) the specific things that worked in your favor. Remember what you need to continue doing when faced with similar situations and build your confidence.

Focus on long-term plans

Federer often talks about his plans over the long-term when he loses a match (stay on tour for several years, stay healthy, win tournaments), and that was a consistent message in his last presser. That’s not to say that he ignores short-term improvements (like how to better deal with balls sent high to his backhand), but he realizes that he can’t get so consumed by the emotions of a disappointing perfomance that he loses sight of his ultimate plans.

Looking at the big picture and your long-term goals will give you the chance to channel your disappointment in a constructive way. By keeping your eye on the ultimate prize, you take your mind off how you’re currently feeling so you can forge ahead and make strategic adjustments to your plans. Remember that your goals give structure to your planning and remind you why you embarked on the journey in the first place. 

Manage your schedule well

One of Federer’s main goals is to stay injury free, which means he needs to be very particluar about which events he plays. As he mentioned a few days ago, a packed schedule will simply increase the opportunities for injuries to happen and decrease available time for training and recovery. In preparation for the clay court season, he will spend more time training aggressively before his next event in May.

What does this mean for you? If your schedule is always full and there are no straegically placed breaks (or time for refining your plans), you’ll quickly find yourself running on empty and not performing at your best. Before saying “yes,” to the next project that comes your way or adding more voluntary items to your task list, be certain that you will have the time to complete them. And, you should also consider whether or not any new opportunities align with your long-term plans.

Surround yourself with a good team

For a long while, Federer played without a coach but now he has added a coach to his team with positve results. In fact, Federer has acheived success (like reclaiming the number-one ranking and winnning Wimbledon in 2012) that is not typcial for most 31-year old tennis players. I suspect having a coach has also helped him to manage the sting of losses in a more constructive way.

Whether you have large goals or incremental changes you’d like to make, you may need help. Working with a planning partner, coach, or colleague can help you see different perspectives, refine your direction, and maintain a positive attitude. Carefully select someone whose personality and workstyle complement yours, and set up regularly scheduled meetings to assess your progress.

Setbacks are inevitable and happen to everyone, even popular tennis players like Roger Federer. And, like Federer, you can take specific action steps to manage them well. Begin by tuning out negative talk (from yourself and others) and incorporate some of the suggested strategies so you can stay focused on your larger goals.

How many cookbooks do you really need?

It’s been all food, all the time on the television in my house. I’m hooked on food show competitions and I dream about turning into a super cook (a mashup of Aaron Sanchez, Amanda Freitag, and Alton Brown would suit me just fine). I also do my fair share of cooking and I use my phone or tablet to find recipes. Both are super easy to use in the kitchen and don’t take up a lot of space.

And, therein lies the problem. I have several cookbooks that are languishing on a shelf in my kitchen. Since I don’t use them anymore, it’s time to part with them. If you’re faced with a similar situation or have amassed a large collection of cookbooks that go untouched, you might want to sort through them, especially if you find yourself reaching for the same ones all the time.

Getting started:

Gather your cookbooks together

It’s helpful to find out exactly what types and the number of cookbooks you have so you can decide which ones to keep and which ones will get passed on to new owners. That will be hard to do if they’re in a variety of places. So, start by gathering them all together, and then put them in categories that make sense for you.

Here are some ways you can categorize your cookbooks:

  • Alphabetical order
  • Cuisine (Mexican, Chinese, Greek)
  • Author
  • Ease of use (30 minute recipes, advanced cooking techniques)
  • Type (desserts, vegitarian, low sodium, grilling, family recipes)
  • Color and/or size

Decide on a storage location

Have you thought about the best location to store your cookbooks or recipe binders? The number of cookbooks you’ll keep will depend on which ones you use the most as well as storage space available to house them. Ideally, you’ll want to have your favorites close to your kitchen so that you’ll have easy access to them. That might mean storing your most used books on the counter with seasonal or less used books in a separate location (dedicated shelf or cabinet). Test out a few different areas in and around your kitchen to see what would work best based on how you move about in that space.

Trade books that you no longer use

If you don’t use a particular cookbook because you haven’t seen it, then be sure to keep it visible so that you’ll remember to look through it. But, if it is visible and you still haven’t used it (or your recipe holder) within the last 12 months, it’s probably time to part with it. Consider passing on these cookbooks to someone else by trading them with a friend or selling them. Keeping them will only fill up space that could be used for books that you use all the time.

Use an app to keep track of recipes

Sure, keep your favorite cookbooks that you refer to often, but if you’re only interested in one or two recipes, you don’t need to buy the entire book. There are several web-based and mobile apps that you can use like Epicurious.com, All Recipes, and Cookstr.com to find and keep track of recipes that you’d like to try out. You can also create a notebook in Evernote or Pinterest with recipes you’d like to test. If you don’t like them, you can always delete them. And, if you decide to keep them, you can create an digital cookbook using Evernote Food.

As you unclutter your collection, keep in mind that you don’t have to let go of all your cookbooks. Just be sure that you’re not holding on to the ones that you no longer use or want. Share them with friends and family members and think about alternative options before buying new books.

Control desktop clutter with the Homework Desk

For the last two months, I’ve challenged myself with the goal of walking every day. I’ve been spending more time with my treadmill and, as a result, I’ve also been doing quite a bit more reading on my iPad while I walk. I’m thrilled that I now have scheduled reading time and that I actually find interesting articles that help make the time pass relatively quickly. During one of my walking and reading sessions, I came across a blog post that asked if having a messy desk is such a terrible thing. My first thought, even before I read the post, was that I wouldn’t be as productive as I am if my desk were cluttered. In fact, I would probably feel compelled to organize it before I started working.

But, I also know that sometimes while I’m working, things can get a little, er, out of control. I like keeping my favorite pen, sticky notes, and notebook on my desk. And, I also have my water bottle and iPad. If there’s something that I don’t want to forget to do, it will probably be on my desk, too. The problem is that when there are too many things strewn about, it affects how well I can get things accomplished. But, if I had the Homework Desk, I might be able to have the best of both worlds — a clear desk and needed items within reach.

Have a look:

Image credit: Tomas Kral

This simple desk (aluminum placed between two slabs of wood) designed by Tomas Kral has no bells and whistles and no drawers. Instead, it has trench-like storage around it’s perimeter (Kral refers to it as a toolbox) to hold papers, pens, books, or documents that you need to have on hand. This leaves you with the entire expanse of the desk to do your work. The photo below shows a cable coming from the back of the desk, so it seems there may be built-in grommets.

Image credit: Thomas Kral

If you like this style but prefer having drawers, here’s a similar model, called my writing desk, designed by Inesa Malafej. It also has open slots on two corners for cables to run through.

Image credit: Design Boom

The drawers are slim but big enough to hold some essentials (like business cards, pens).

Image credit: Design Boom

This desk also has removable legs which would make moving it to a different location relatively easy. Of course, with both models, you’ll need to make sure you don’t clutter your table gutters with rubbish and items you don’t use.

Image credit: Design Boom

Organize your bag: Find things easily and reduce back pain

Have you looked inside your bag lately? I’ve been checking out What’s in your bag?, a regular feature on the website Verge.com, where people open up their bags to show everything they carry around with them. The bags of both men and women are profiled and it’s interesting to see the similarities of the things they normally keep with them (almost all bags contain a pen and a marker). Equally as interesting was that some people carry as many as 60 items on a regular basis, some of which are heavy (like cameras and laptops).

It’s likely that many people select bags not just for function (being able to carry essential items), but also for style (ability to complement most things you wear). But, if you look in the latest fashion magazines and catalogs, you’ll notice that bags seem to be getting bigger and bigger, probably so the people using them can carry more stuff. That may sound like a good thing, but overloading your bag can make it difficult for you to find what you’re looking for when you need it and, more importantly, can be a source of physical pain.

According to the American Chiropractic Association, weighty bags can have a significant impact on your body:

Carrying a bag with detectable weight–more than 10 percent of your body weight–can cause improper balance. When hiked over one shoulder, it interferes with the natural movement of the upper and lower body. The person carrying the bag will hike one shoulder to subconsciously guard against the weight, holding the other shoulder immobile. This results in the unnatural counterbalance movement of one shoulder and little control over the movements of the arms and legs. Even worse, the spine curves toward the shoulder.

If you tend to put a lot of things in your daily bag just in case you might need them, you may want to do things differently. While you might like the idea of being prepared for anything, in reality, you’re simply doing physical harm to yourself and cluttering up your time searching for stuff. As you decide which items you need to carry on a daily basis, consider these three simple things you can do to organize and reduce the weight of your bag:

Use a smaller bag

Using a smaller bag will encourage you to carry around your essential items only. If you have to use a larger one, consider getting one with wider straps, alternate carrying it on both shoulders, or get a bag on wheels. And, when you use a backpack, wear it (use both straps) instead of slinging it over one shoulder. If it helps to see cold, hard numbers, put your bag on a scale to see how much it weighs.

Clean and organize your bag often

It’s a good idea to organize your bag on a regular basis. Take out the non-essential items (like expired coupons, receipts, loose change) and keep only things you need to have with you every day (like keys, wallet, glasses). You’ll also want to vacuum the inside and clean the outside (especially if you place your bag on floors or public restroom counters). Pick a day of the week that you’ll regularly organize your bag to ensure it’s not overloaded with things you don’t need.

Consilidate and keep like items together

Both Erin and I are fond of bags with compartments because you can’t overstuff them and all of your things have a home. But, you don’t need a special bag to achieve the same results. You can create a bit more order in your current bag by downsizing (how many pens do you really need?) and consolidating similar items into pouches or zip top bags. This will keep things easy to find and help you to be more selective about the items you carry around with you.

Get a jump start on spring cleaning with 15-minute microtasks

Over the winter months, many people experience cabin fever. When you’re stuck inside for a long period of time, it’s likely you’ll get bored and become a little restless as you await warmer temperatures. Now that we’re in the first full week of March, the end of cold weather is in sight! And, with the few remaining weeks of winter, you can get a jump start on your spring cleaning tasks in just a few minutes of time. You don’t have to wait until spring finally arrives, nor do you have to go all out on a major cleaning binge (though you should plan an in-depth cleaning).

Instead, start some spring cleaning chores now and consider segmenting your home into small projects so they are easier to tackle. Doing this will allow you to reasonably start the process without spending all your time uncluttering and cleaning. Because the tasks are smaller and more manageable, you probably won’t need a lot of time to get them done. In fact, just 15 minutes per day can lead to big results.

You might be scratching your head about where to start. One of the easiest ways to select your first micro-project is to look around at your surfaces. Have you noticed that flat surfaces seem to have an open invitation to put things on them? They may start out uncluttered, but then they somehow morph into holders of knick knacks, paper piles, and things that haven’t made it back to their designated storage areas. And, because surfaces are so visible, when they are clutter-free, they can make a room look and feel dramatically improved.

Since you’re using short bursts of activity to clear things up, pick one area or room in your home and decide which surface you will attack first. For example, a master bedroom might have the following surfaces:

  • Two nightstands
  • One vanity
  • One chest of drawers
  • One TV stand
  • The floor

Before you set your timer, think about how long you might need to completely finish one surface. Could you do it all in one 15-minute time block? Or, would you need to schedule two or three micro-blocks? Using the above example, if you scheduled one 15-minute cleaning session per day for each surface, each one could be uncluttered and cleaned within 6 days. If you worked on two surfaces per day (30 minutes/day), the entire list could be done in 3 days. Keep in mind that the floor is also a surface, and depending on the type and number of items you need to sort through before you start vacuuming or sweeping, the floor may require multiple microbursts of activity before it’s completely uncluttered and clean. That said, begin working on the surfaces in your most used spaces. Since you tend to be in those rooms often, you’ll have ample opportunities to work on clearing them.

As you go through this process, remember to check hidden spaces, like your attic. Even in rooms that you use often, you’ll still have spots that are not very visible. These include drawers, under beds and sofa cushions, inside closets (don’t forget the top shelf), cabinets (have you looked in the ones above your refrigerator or stove lately?), closed containers, storage ottomans/benches, and even inside your refrigerator. Of course, spring cleaning isn’t just limited to the spaces throughout your home. Other areas of focus include your garage, shed, barn or other outdoor structures, gutters, your car and trunk, and even the storage cabinets under your grill. As mentioned before, first estimate how long an area will likely take to complete and then schedule your 15-minute time blocks accordingly. Whenever possible, get help from other members of your household. Two or more people working together on microtasks would certainly get each area finished a lot faster.

To keep track of all the spaces you need to unclutter and thoroughly clean, check out the Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home.