Sunk costs and discontinuing things you’re doing

Don’t cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it. — Banksy

I’ve written before that it’s perfectly okay to give up on a book. But there are plenty of other cases where you might want to give up on something — a TV series, a craft project, a hobby, a class, etc. — even if you’ve already put a lot of time (and perhaps money) into that thing. The time and money are already gone. The question is whether you now want to spend any more. As Margie Warrell wrote in Forbes, “Continuing down a path that isn’t taking you where you want to go for no other reason than you’ve already walked a long way … is crazy.”

Arianna Huffington spoke of the benefits she found from discontinuing some projects:

“Did you know that you can complete a project by dropping it?” Huffington told a women’s business audience. … She said that in her case, dropping projects — learning to ski and to speak German, for example — led to feelings of relief, not a sense of failure. And by dropping them, she was free to pursue the things she truly cared about.

How do you know when it’s time to give up on an activity, a project, etc.? In Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz suggested a number of questions related to pursuing business opportunities. But one question has broad applicability: “Is there a more enjoyable and productive way I could be investing my time and energy right now?”

Todd VanDerWerff, writing for the Vox website, had some suggestions on when to give up on a TV show. If you’re uncertain about a show, he provided a number of suggestions about how many episodes to watch before you decide to give up. But his number one rule was this:

You can — and should — ditch a show at any time, for any reason. … Sometimes you’ll realize a show is just rubbing you the wrong way, or you don’t like the lead actor, or whatever. And if that’s the case, turn it off. Find something else.

Sometimes you may just need to change tactics rather than give up on a project. For example, if you’re truly interested in learning another language but find yourself getting frustrated by your lack of progress, you may want to change your learning method and see if that helps. Some people do better with classes and some are fine with self-study, and there are many variations in both methods.

But sometimes you’ll find that the activity that sounded good just doesn’t work for you, even after giving it your best effort for a reasonable time. For example, I’ve discovered I have no aptitude for languages — no matter how much I’d like to become a fluent Spanish speaker it isn’t going to happen. So my time is better spent on other pursuits that are more fruitful and rewarding.

What we can learn from potato mashers

We keep a potato masher in a drawer because sometimes it’s fun to not be able to open that drawer. — Simon Holland

When I saw this on Twitter, I grinned. How many of us have struggled with potato mashers at some point? I know I have.

But the possible ways to work around this problem extend beyond this one object. There are a number of questions you might ask yourself about the potato masher that would be equally relevant to other items.

Do I even need to own this thing?

How many times have you used your potato masher recently? Do you have one you got years ago, before you changed your eating style to move away from potatoes (and other mashed vegetables)? If you just make mashed potatoes twice a year at the holidays, could you just borrow a potato masher from someone?

Alternatively, do you already have other tools that would do the job as well or better, such as a ricer or a food mill?

Should I replace my thing with one that would serve me better?

Assuming you feel you do indeed want to own a potato masher, is this the right one? William Morris said you should have nothing in your house that isn’t useful or beautiful, in your estimation. Marie Kondo suggested that everything we own should bring us joy. No matter which way you approach the topic, a potato masher that continually gets stuck in a drawer isn’t as useful as it could be and certainly isn’t bringing you joy.

One way to resolve this would be to get another potato masher that would bring you joy — or at least not make you annoyed. Two options are the folding potato mashers from Prepara and Joseph Joseph. And then remember to donate your old potato masher!

Could I just store the current thing better?

Potato mashers don’t need to be stored in a drawer. If your potato masher is the kind with a stick handle (rather than the kind with a horizontal handle), a utensil holder might be the easy answer. If you don’t already have one and don’t want to buy one, you may have something sitting around your home that would serve that purpose. My utensil holder is a tall ceramic mug. A wall rack for utensils is another option.

You might also be able to store the masher in another drawer that’s deeper, even if that separates it from the other utensils. Of course, then you’ll need to remember where you stashed it, if it’s not obvious.

Sometimes, though, the answer might be to unclutter the drawer that holds the masher and then organize the remaining contents. My potato masher lives in a drawer, but it’s always lying flat, within one section of a drawer organizer. If your masher is in a drawer that’s a jumble of various kitchen utensils, it’s more likely to get positioned in a way that causes the drawer to jam.

Holiday gifts of charitable giving

Etiquette experts may cringe at the idea of donating to a good cause in honor of someone rather than getting that someone a tangible gift. And some people on your holiday shopping list might not like that idea, either.

But some organizations that provide “gift catalogs” of donations are thriving, so enough people must like the idea — and it certainly avoids any clutter issues. Two popular charities with these catalogs are Heifer International and Seva. With Heifer you might choose to send someone in need a water buffalo, a llama, honeybees, etc. — even a heifer. There are also gifts to send a girl to school, provide irrigation pumps, and otherwise help those in need. Seva’s gift catalog focuses on “gifts of sight” where you might decide to fund someone’s cataract surgery, give glasses to a person in need, help sponsor an eye clinic, etc. Both of these organizations will provide a greeting card for your gift recipient.

Another interesting option is Outreach International, a highly rated charity with a diverse gift catalog. As the organization states, “From animals to wells to school supplies to startup loans for businesses, our catalog offers all the things for all the people in all the places where Outreach works every day to help break the cycle of chronic poverty.” That image at the top illustrates one of the many gifts available.

There’s a slightly different gift option available at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where you can foster an orphan elephant as a holiday gift. In this case you aren’t choosing the type of gift — you’re choosing your elephant. There are numerous other programs that work in a similar fashion.

Yet another possible approach is to get your gifts through Changing the Present, which has collected gifts from numerous good causes. You might adopt a polar bear through Defenders of Wildlife, adopt an acre through The Nature Conservancy, provide a patient with a chemo comfort kit, and much more. This group charges for its greeting cards, but you get to select a photo and provide a personal message. Changing the Present also allows you to set up a “gift registry” if you want to encourage people to give you this kind of gift rather than more stuff.

Providing a specific gift (a heifer, some eyeglasses, etc.) can make the donation feel more gift-like than if you just made a normal “in honor of” donation to a charity. Also, many organizations with these gift catalogs allow you to buy a gift card where your gift recipient chooses the specific gifts, which some recipients will appreciate.

However, if you really care that the money is going for the specific item you purchased, you’ll want to check the organization’s policy. For example, Heifer International explains:

As a donor, you are given the opportunity to designate gifts to specific country programs or for specific animals. Gifts are deposited into various animal accounts, such as “llama/alpaca,” “tree seedlings” or “bees.” We have different accounts for every type of Heifer International animal. When any animal fund becomes depleted and there is still a need, monies from any other animal fund can be used where needed most. Meeting the needs of hungry families always comes first, but we do our best to accommodate your wishes, too.

Every gift to Heifer International represents a gift to our total mission. … Again, gifts designated for a particular project or animal are used as requested until that need is fully met. Any remaining money is put to use where it is needed most.

This all makes perfect sense in helping a charitable organization fulfill its purpose, so the chance that your money may not be used exactly as you expected may not matter to you. But one group that promises that the money really will go to the specific purpose you designated is Good Gifts, based in the U.K. It has a wide range of possible gifts, so you could help vaccinate 12 dogs against rabies, buy solar lamps for villagers in Africa, provide a family with five chickens and a cockerel, etc.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you’d like to share another charity with a gift catalog, please add a comment!

Thoughts about passwords on Computer Security Day

According to those online calendars with daily “holiday” listings — Sandwich Day, Love Your Red Hair Day, etc. — today is Computer Security Day. Since computers are vital organizing tools for so many of us, this specific holiday caught my attention.

While I can’t find any computer security organizations promoting this event, I did read this advice on daysoftheyear.com:

One very important thing to do for your online security is to have strong passwords and keep them updated regularly, as this reduces the chances of your personal data falling into the wrong hands. ….

One strategy is to mix upper and lowercase letters with symbols, as this can be harder to guess and also difficult to hack – and passwords increase in difficulty the longer they are. … And don’t use the same password over and over for every online account you have – this ensures that if someone manages to get into one of your accounts, then they can access all of your accounts. Bad idea. So make strong passwords, don’t recycle them, and update them regularly.

However, expert advice on passwords has changed over time — and part of this advice is now dated. As Katie Reilly wrote in Fortune, “The man responsible for the widespread requirement that passwords include letters, numbers and special characters is now walking back that advice.”

Bill Burr came up with those guidelines in 2003, while working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As Robert McMillen wrote in The Wall Street Journal, Burr said, “Much of what I did I now regret.”

Jo Craven McGinty explained the problem in another Wall Street Journal article:

The rule makers didn’t anticipate how people would apply the guidelines when they invented passwords.

If forced to include a number in a password, they tended to tack a “1” onto the end.

If compelled to use a special character, they were inclined to use substitutions like “$” for “s” or “@” for “a.”

If obliged to throw in an uppercase letter, they might lead with it, as if the password were a proper noun.

In short, they were predictable.

Predictable patterns lead to insecure passwords, since hackers know all the patterns. So now the advice has changed, quite radically. The NIST released its new report this past June, with very different recommendations for those creating sites or systems with passwords. They should:

  • Allow passwords as long as 64 characters, with a minimum length of 8 characters for user-selected passwords
  • Allow any combination of characters, with no requirement for upper and lower case letters, numerals, or special characters.
  • Disallow easily compromised passwords: a single dictionary word, repeating characters (such as aaaaa), sequences (such as 1234abcd), etc.
  • Stop requiring passwords to be changed periodically. Only require a change if there has been a security breach.

Now, you probably use sites with password rules that violate these guidelines, and there’s not much you can do about that. If the site requires your password to have at least one letter, one number, and one special character, you’ll have to comply — and, for security’s sake, try not to follow the patterns noted above. And many sites don’t accommodate passwords over 8-15 characters.

But when you have the option, it’s wise to choose a long password — especially if you’re protecting your finances, your email, or critical information of any sort. That password might well be a phrase that’s meaningful to you and no one else, which makes it fairly easy to remember.

“I eat applesauce and pancakes every night in April” is easier to remember than “2zdfY9?bky.” (No, I don’t really eat like that. It’s just an example of a silly phrase that I’d have no problem remembering.)

For more suggestions about organized approaches to passwords and password management tools, you can read our articles from May 2017 and April 2014.

Unclutterer’s 2017 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Practical gifts

Not everyone wants a practical gift, and what’s practical for one person might be useless for another. But for the right person, one of the following might make a great non-clutter gift. These are all things I own and find incredibly useful, so perhaps someone you know would appreciate them, too.

A gift subscription to the AP Stylebook Online

This can be a truly useful gift for the writer or editor in your life. I prefer the online subscription to the physical book because the search function is so useful — and because you can submit questions to the editors if you can’t find an answer to your question. (They usually reply quickly.) You also get updates throughout the year instead of just annual updates.

To purchase a gift, just order as you would for yourself and indicate you have a gift order during checkout. If the gift option doesn’t seem to be working, you can contact the help center to place your order: [email protected] or 800-353-6798 (U.S. phone number).

Really good kitchen shears

I’m not sure these Wüsthof shears are the ones I have, but they are pretty close. I use these all the time, both for cooking and for various other purposes.

An emergency kit for the car

Living in earthquake territory, I put a kit in the trunk of my car to ensure I have some critical supplies with me in case I get trapped away from home. I also got kits as gifts for my brother and sister-in-law when they moved to California. But a kit can be good preparation for all kinds of emergencies. You can create your own or buy one that’s already assembled. If you go for a ready-made kit, you can choose one with just the basics (food, water, ponchos, survival blankets, basic first aid supplies, etc.) or one that’s more comprehensive.

A TubShroom

I got one of these last year and it’s the best hair catcher I’ve ever used in my shower. It’s a little thing that makes my life a bit easier, and I’m glad to have found it.

Spurge item: really good binoculars

These Zeiss binoculars cost a lot, so they would probably be a gift for a special someone, or perhaps a gift from a group rather than an individual. But I got mine 20 years ago and I use them for all sorts of things: watching the birds in my back yard, getting a closer look at the performers at a play or concert, taking a good look at the top of a stained glass window in a cathedral, etc. The compact size makes it easy to carry them with me whenever I might find them useful. This isn’t a gift for someone who tends to misplace things, though!

Old favorites

There are some items we’ve mentioned before that would still make good practical gifts:

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Unclutterer’s 2017 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Consumables

A consumable item — selected with care for the recipient’s tastes, dietary restrictions, scent sensitivity, and other needs and preferences — can be a lovely gift that doesn’t require any long-term storage. The following are just a few such items.

Edible delights

Wine, chocolate, cheese, and similar items can always be good gifts, if well chosen. For example, you would want to know if the person you’re getting chocolates for prefers dark chocolate or milk chocolate.

This year I’d like to suggest wines from Sonoma or Napa counties to support the communities ravaged by wildfires in October. Sparkling wines always seem festive, so a few choices might be Mumm’s Napa brut rose sparkling wine or the J Cuvee sparkling wine from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma.

The possibilities within this category are enormous, though. A few examples:

Personal care products

Some personal care products, such as shampoo, seem hard to buy for someone else — people tend to have favorite brands that work for them. But one fun item for those who use bar soaps could be one of the periodic table soaps. If you want something more traditional, you might consider the soaps from Nesti Dante, including its cypress soap.

And a nice lip balm might be a fine stocking stuffer. Some specific products that I’ve seen people rave about are the Tokyo Milk dark salted caramel lip elixer, the Dr. Hauschka Lip Care Stick, Palmer’s cocoa butter swivel stick, and Crazy Rumors lip balms in a variety of flavors such as spiced chai and orange bergamot.

One more option would be Girl Scout lip smackers in all the flavors you’d expect, including thin mint.

Art supplies

This category is filled with cool choices for kids of all ages — and adults, too. Some that caught my eye are the Color Splash liquid watercolor paints, the Rainy Dayz gel crayons, and the Jolly colored pencils. Copic markers come in various sizes to fit various budgets: six pieces (Ciao or sketch sets), 36 pieces, etc. For serious artists, the Daniel Smith watercolors look intriguing — the only problem would be choosing from the many colors.

And then there’s washi tape, available in value packs with lots of designs — or in smaller, more focused collections. There are also some pretty spectacular individual rolls.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Tools to make organizing a little bit easier

All sorts of physical challenges can make organizing more difficult. Some of the more common challenges are being on the shorter side (like me, at 5 foot 2 inches) and being unable to bend and get down on the floor easily, often as someone ages or has to deal with post-surgical restrictions. Other common issues include declining eyesight and manual dexterity as we get older.

The following are some tools that can help make organizing easier. This is far from a comprehensive list — there are many tools to help people with a wide range of physical limitations. These are unspecialized tools that might help with some of the most common concerns.

Step stools

For people around my height, a step stool is a crucial tool for reaching things on the top shelves of closets, garages, etc. The E-Z Foldz step stool and others that fold take very little storage space. If saving space isn’t an issue, the Stand ‘N Store step stool from Flambeau might be of interest. And for those who feel unsteady getting up or down, there are step stools with handles. Another advantage, for users with trouble bending: These stools can be moved from place to place using the handle.

Reacher grabbers

These simple tools have numerous uses. For example, they can allow you to take something fairly lightweight (boxes of tea, for example) off a top shelf and put it back without using a step stool. You can use one to clean up a cluttered floor, one thing at a time, without sitting on the floor or doing a lot of bending. You can avoid clutter build-up (and misplaced items) by picking up things that are dropped and might otherwise be hard to reach.

The right label makers

Label makers can be useful tools, but some people will find the small keys on most of them too difficult to use due to dexterity or vision issues (or simply because some of the required key combinations are confusing). An alternative might be the P-Touch Cube, which works in combination with Brother’s free app running on a smart phone. With this set-up, a person can use the dictation function to create the text. And even those not using dictation say it’s easier to create labels using the app compared to typing them on a label-maker keyboard. I haven’t tried this label maker myself, but some other professional organizers have used it and are fans.

Roll-out kitchen shelves

Converting the shelves in kitchen base cabinets to roll-out shelving makes access much easier, especially for things in the back. Companies such as ShelfGenie can make that conversion.

But you can also mount pull-out organizers on your existing shelves. This approach won’t make quite as good use of the space, but it’s almost certainly less expensive. Companies such as Rev-a-Shelf and simplehuman have pull-out organizers for various cabinet sizes.

The Burner List: an interesting approach to to-do lists

“There are a billion to-do list apps and methods out there, and I think I’ve tried 900 million of them,” Jake Knapp wrote. He then went on to describe his own paper-based process, which he calls the Burner List, using a kitchen stove analogy.

He creates two columns on a piece of printer-size paper. The left column — the front burner — is devoted to his single most important project. He lists that project name (for example, “write book”) and then a series of to-dos related to that project. The to-dos are items that can be done in the next few days. The to-dos will not fill the whole column, and that’s fine.

The top of the right column is the back burner — the second most important project — and its to-dos. The bottom part of that column is the kitchen sink, which is where he captures the miscellaneous things he needs to do that aren’t part of either project. Things like “schedule eye exam” and “buy cat food” go here.

You can read more about Knapp’s process on Ideo’s blog or on Medium. He’s an engaging writer, and it’s a quick read.

Two aspects of Knapp’s approach grabbed my attention. The first was the obvious focus on moving his big projects forward — something that often gets neglected amidst all the kitchen-sink type items we all have. Corinne Purtill wrote an article entitled The to-do list is a tyrant that will keep your life and your goals small, which addressed the problem of “a constant focus on short-term tasks.” With Knapp’s to-do list, any lack of progress on the most important longer-term projects becomes painfully obvious.

I also noted Knapp’s comments on how he re-creates his list as items get done.

The Burner List is also disposable. It gets stale fast as you cross off finished to-dos. I “burn” through my list every few days and then recreate it, over and over. This act of recreation is important, because I always discard some unfinished tasks which no longer matter and I reconsider what belongs on the front burner right now.

Colter Reed wrote an interesting blog post about this idea of removing some unfinished tasks from your to-do list. The whole post is worth a look, but the following captures the core idea:

Tasks expire, just like anything in your fridge. It was relevant once, but not now. You missed the deadline. You don’t have as much free time now. It’s not important to you now. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably never was.

A task on your list is not a permanent commitment. … You can renegotiate the commitment at any time, especially if it’s just with yourself.

If the Burner List doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps one of the many of approaches I’ve written about before will be a better fit. There are also a huge number of apps for managing to-do items, one of which might work well for you. Or maybe you’ll want to create your own way of managing to-do items, just as Knapp did.

Uncluttering the garage

When you’re deciding where to start on a whole-home organizing project, it often makes sense to start with the attic, basement, or garage — whatever space you use as secondary storage for things you don’t use very often. There are two reasons for this:

  • As you clear out the rest of your home, you’ll probably find things you want to move to one of these secondary storage places. Clearing it out first makes room for you to do those moves later.
  • You’re probably less attached to many things in these secondary storage spaces, so it’s often quick and easy to make some real progress.

I’ve been doing my own garage uncluttering project for the past couple weeks. I knew it was time when bags and boxes were accumulating on the floor, making it harder to get into the storage closets. The following are some things I’ve done:

  • Dropped off donations that were just sitting in the garage.
  • Donated some items I had thought I might sell, after realizing I hadn’t done that for years and was unlikely to do it in the future.
  • Recycled the box from my printer. It made sense to keep this for a while, in case I needed to return the printer, but that time has passed.
  • Tossed an old pre-packaged emergency kit that had somehow gotten moldy.
  • Put the lid to a kitty litter box in a dumpster someone let me use — it won’t fit in my garbage can — since I’ve now switched to using an unlidded box.
  • Took a box of packing popcorn my local UPS Store. I rarely package something for mailing, and when I do I’d use something other than packing popcorn.
  • Got rid of random items I’d saved because they might be useful sometime — but which I hadn’t used in years and couldn’t reasonably imagine needing in the near future. And they were all things I could easily get again, pretty inexpensively, if by any chance I did need them.
  • Moved my cat carriers out of the garage and into my front hall closet, per the post-wildfire advice I read.

Now that I’ve done this uncluttering, it’s easy to put away the things I just bought that belong in the garage: spare light bulbs and batteries. I could also find spots for things I’d recently moved to the garage from the house but hadn’t put away for lack of free space.

I’m not done yet — I still need to go through all the old paint, for one thing. But my garage is working a lot better now.

Want to join me in clearing out a space? A friend named Dinah just wrote that instead of joining NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) she would celebrate DiProProMo (Dinah Project Progress Month). That sounds like a nice idea that other non-novel-writers may want to adopt.

Time management and requests to “pick your brain”

“May I pick your brain for 15 minutes?” That’s a common request with some important time management implications, especially for those who get a lot of these requests. The following are a few things to consider:

If you are the person receiving the request

I’ve received “pick your brain” requests and I’ve handled them in different ways at different times. There’s no one right way to respond to such requests.

It’s okay to say no.

Given how many articles have been written about turning down these requests, it seems as though saying no is hard for many people. That’s not surprising, since saying no to all sorts of requests for your time can be a challenge, as we’ve addressed before on Unclutterer.

Adrienne Graham is one of those who says no to pick-your-brain requests. As she wrote for Forbes:

I love giving advice. I write blogs, articles and a newsletter. I host a radio show. I tweet, Facebook and share nuggets of advice almost daily. So what is it in all of that, that would make anyone think they can still have the right to “pick my brain”? …

Your knowledge has value. You’ve invested time and money into learning your craft and it’s not fair for people to expect you to give it away for free. Even friends need to understand there are boundaries.

As she points out, you can always choose to be helpful in other ways. You may well have free resources — a newsletter, a blog, etc. — that you can suggest the person consult. You can recommend a good book.

It’s okay to say yes.

If you have the time and you want to help, it’s perfectly fine to say yes. I’ve heard many people say that others helped them when they were getting started, and now they want to give back by helping others.

Dylan Wilbanks wrote a blog post entitled On Being Generous, where he stated:

I am an introvert. Alone time is everything to me. And yet, I make the time to meet those who want to talk.

Wilbanks works in tech, and he’s found that as he helps others he in turn gets better at what he does.

It’s okay to say yes, but.

Erin Loechner suggested carving out an hour or a half-hour per week that’s truly convenient for you and offering that time to those who ask. “Yes, I would love to help, but I am currently only available from 4-4:30am EST on Tuesday.”

Kaarin Vembar does this by offering 8 a.m. Friday Skype calls. As she explains to those who ask for an alternative, “I’m trying to maintain sanity, be available to cool people and pay my bills at the same time. Fridays at 8 a.m. equates to healthy boundaries.”

It’s okay to yes, for a fee.

As Rachel Sklar wrote:

You can say, “Sure! My rate is $450 per hour, plus snacks. I’d love to help you!” It is amazing how considerate people become with your time once they have to pay for it.

Nicole Jordan wrote about using this approach:

This is what I started doing, especially for people that I do not know well: I tell them I am happy to meet, I am flattered they asked, and that because my time is valuable I don’t do these PYB sessions for free.

If you are the person making the request

If you’re asking someone to make time to answer your questions, be sure to respect that person’s time.

Consider alternatives to in-person meetings.

As Erin Greenawald wrote:

Somewhere along the way, asking to “sit down for coffee” became the status quo for requests like this. … When you count the time commuting, ordering coffee, sitting down and making small talk, and actually answering your questions, most coffee dates will take almost an hour. And that’s a lot of time to give!

Instead, ask for something that’s even easier. Suggest a phone call — it’s often more void of small talk than coffee, and your contact can do it from anywhere.

If for some reason you really feel you need a face-to-face meeting, you can offer to come to the person’s office, which will cut down on the time required.

Be prepared, so you make good use of the time.

Do some research before making the request — and before the brain-picking session if you’ve been granted one — so you aren’t asking for basic information you could readily get elsewhere.

Uncluttering before the holidays

I just got word that Coastside Hope, my local social services agency, is collecting items for its annual Thanksgiving turkey and warm clothing distribution. Donations of coats, jackets, and such — and used toys — are being accepted now through Nov. 20. I’ve spread the word to my book club and to some of my organizing clients who are motivated by events such as this.

For anyone else who would like similar motivation, there are numerous other collection events around the holidays. The following are a few examples:

  • Giving Back, Linda’s Legacy runs a Christmas Drive to Help the Homeless, delivering clothing to homeless shelters in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, DC right around Christmas. Besides clothing, the organization is collecting new or gently used toys, linens, and blankets — and travel sized toiletries (like those people take from hotel rooms and never use).
  • One Warm Coat collects gently used coats at drop-off locations throughout much of the United States. I found 33 collection sites within 25 miles of my home, with collections generally beginning in October or early November and running through mid-November to late December.
  • Wrap Up London will be collecting coats from Nov. 9-15. The coats go to 110 organizations that serve the homeless, women fleeing from domestic violence, and more.
  • In parts of British Columbia, Canada, you can donate to the REALTORS Care Blanket Drive from Nov. 14-21. Along with gently used blankets, the drive also accepts sleeping bags, coats, and other warm clothing in good condition.
  • Halloween costumes in good condition can be donated to ‘Ween Dream in Louisiana — and it will gladly take ones you mail in if you don’t live locally. In my own area, I just learned that the County of San Mateo Children’s Fund accepts costume donations, too.
  • Many toy drives focus on new toys, but Play it Forward Pittsburgh is a gently used toy donation drive. Donations can be dropped off Dec. 11-14. The drive collects toys (but no stuffed animals) for children ages 0-16.

If you look around your own area, you may well find similar holiday donation drives.

This is also a good time of year to donate holiday decorations that you no longer use to one of the many thrift stores whose proceeds benefit good causes. They probably won’t want your decorations in January, but they’ll be happy to take them as the holidays approach.


And if you need to unclutter your pantry, consider donating to your local food bank. While holiday season food drives often focus on turkeys, food banks can use a wide range of other items at all times of the year. Check the organization’s website to see what’s on its wish list. If you’re really inspired, you could coordinate a holiday food-and-fund drive to encourage co-workers or others to join you. Most food banks, such as this one in Santa Cruz County, California, have materials available to help you run a successful food drive.

Backups aren’t just for computers

I’ve written prior posts urging you to have good computer back-ups, and I’ll take this opportunity to do so one more time. Here’s a reminder that fits the Halloween season:

👻OOOOOooooooOOOOOOO
The ghost of future hard drive failure reminds you to back up your data
oooooOOOOOOooooooo
— Hannah A. Brazeau

But what I mostly want to discuss are two other kinds of backups you may need.

Backups of important paper documents

Some documents you might keep tucked away in a safe deposit box or a home safe, but there are also important papers that you might use regularly and need to keep close at hand. And those papers are susceptible to being lost or damaged.

Author Susan Orlean wrote about the following problem:

Had a small flood in my office. Some handwritten notes are now abstract watercolors. Fortunately I’d typed them up, but yikes.

And then there’s this sad story from Gene Young, who wrote about his Day-Timer:

I accidentally left my little book in my shirt pocket and it got washed and dried but good. My schedules were all in little bitty pieces.

Do you have any similar papers, where losing them would be a significant problem? One way to give yourself a backup for such papers would be to take photos of the important pages or to scan them, perhaps with a scanner app on your smartphone.

Backups for critical technology

Vince Dixon wrote for Eater about a problem that happened last May:

A Square service outage … lasting roughly two hours forced restaurants, coffee shops, and food carts around the country to turn away customers and lose sales, bringing into question whether relying solely on new technology and software to make business transactions is a good idea.

Nate Snell, the owner of one such business, learned his lesson:

He has emergency plans for greasy spills and fires, but was caught off guard by the technical glitch. “I don’t think we realized that the entire Square system nationwide would go down,” Snell says. “I immediately got on Amazon and ordered an old-fashioned [credit card] swiper.”

While this type of contingency planning is critical for businesses, it might also apply beyond the typical business environment.

Do you have any technology you use all the time that could cause a significant problem if it malfunctioned or became unavailable? I rely on my computer and its internet connection for a few things — sometimes a smart phone isn’t enough — and I once lost that connection for a couple days when someone drove into and destroyed a major piece of phone company equipment. Fortunately, my backup plan was as simple as taking my laptop to a local coffee shop — and making regular food and beverage purchases to compensate for using its WiFi. But if I had a desktop computer rather than a laptop, finding a backup solution would have been much harder.

If you rely on a mapping program to provide driving instructions, what would you do if that service went down halfway though your drive? Would you have another way to find your destination?

If you assume any technology might fail at any time, and then plan for working around any significant problems that could cause, you may save yourself some panicked moments in the future.