The pitfalls of time management

Is time management an idea that’s been oversold? Oliver Burkeman recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled “Why time management is ruining our lives,” which raised a number of interesting points.

Burkeman doesn’t seem to be writing about all time management strategies, but rather the obsession with productivity and getting as much done as possible in any given day, week, month, or year. One problem: When you get incredibly efficient, cramming ever more things into each day, you lose the slack time which allows new, creative ideas to emerge.

Slack time also allows you to respond to unanticipated demands on your time. Burkeman wrote about how this plays out in the workplace and the doctor’s office (where that doctor’s focus on efficiency may cause you to wait way past your appointment time when an earlier appointment runs long). But the same need to deal with the unexpected can happen to any of us. I recently had a dear friend who was facing some medical issues, and I was glad that my schedule was not fully booked so I could readily be there to help her.

Burkeman used the Inbox Zero approach to dealing with email as a specific example of a time management strategy that doesn’t always help the people who implement it. He wrote:

My own dismaying experience with Inbox Zero was that becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on. (By contrast, negligent emailers often discover that forgetting to reply brings certain advantages: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never occurs.)

For another critique of Inbox Zero, Burkeman pointed to an article by Sara Stewart in the New York Post, which begins as follows:

It’s happened to me more than once lately: A friend sees the glaring red number on my iPhone’s email icon (2,052, if you must know) and their eyes do that cartoon thing where they bungee out of their sockets. “How do you live?” they’ll ask in a horrified whisper. “I could never stand to see that every day.”

Really? Because to me, that little number represents the freedom I feel from the compulsion to check and erase, check and erase, like a rat in a lab experiment, all day, every day. …

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Inbox Whatever. As in, who cares?

But more than anything, these sentences in Burkeman’s article are what resonated with me:

We might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible — with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not — we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in.

I certainly want to be reasonably productive so I earn a decent living, serve my clients well, maintain key friendships, give back to my community, etc. But I’ve also decided that I’m not going to try to be a super-achiever, so I can also have time for things like lazing around in bed with my cats on a stormy winter day.

At times we may all need to be that super-achiever for various reasons, and get as much done as possible. But it’s worth stepping back every once in a while to make sure we’re still making time management choices that work well for us.

Uncluttering old computers and phones

I recently got rid of two old laptop computers and I’m very happy to have them gone. I had originally kept them to serve as backups if my current computer — an essential business tool — needed repairs and was unavailable to me for multiple days. But now that I have a tablet, I realized I could get by okay for any repair period just using that tablet.

The following are the steps I followed to dispose of my old computers. Similar steps could work for smart phones, too.

1. Decide whether to sell, give away, or recycle the computers.

I didn’t have anyone in my circle of family and friends who was interested in either of my computers, so I knew I wanted to sell them if possible, and recycle them if not.

2. If selling, recycling or donating, choose your service provider.

While selling the computers on eBay or some similar marketplace would probably have provided more money, I was more interested in having a hassle-free experience. One computer was nine years old, and the other one was five years old and had some problems — so neither was going to be worth much, anyway.

Since these were old Apple laptops I started out looking at Apple’s Renew program. (This program handles PCs and various brands of smartphones, too, not just Apple products.) The older computer wasn’t worth anything but would be accepted for free recycling. I was offered a small sum for the newer one, payable in an Apple gift card. I was fine with the offer, so I didn’t investigate further.

You could also choose to sell through sites like Gazelle (which I’ve used successfully to sell old phones) or do trade-ins at places like Best Buy, where you get a gift card in exchange for your phone, tablet, computer, or gaming hardware. And other manufacturers, such as Dell, have programs similar to Apple’s.

If you’re donating or recycling, there are many options to choose from. One easy-to-use choice is Goodwill, since many Goodwill locations accept old electronics, working or not, for either refurbishment or recycling.

3. Back up your data and then erase it.

Apple provides pretty clear instructions on how to prepare to sell or give away a Mac, and I followed those instructions. Note that you may need to deactivate some services before you erase your data.

I didn’t need to do a backup of my old computers, since all the data had been migrated from computer to computer as I got new ones — and my current computer is backed up both to a cloud service and to a series of external hard drives.

But I did need to erase my data. Again, Apple provides instructions for doing this, and those worked fine for the newer of my two computers, but not the older one. So I took that older one to an Apple Store and had the staff there do the erasing for me — and they took care of the recycling, too. Erasing the data took about seven hours using the most secure option, but it was worth it to me.

Other vendors may provide similar instructions. For example, Microsoft tells you how to remove information from a computer, phone or gaming device.

4. Ship off or drop off the computer or other electronics.

Now I was ready to actually get the computers out of my home!

When I filled out the online form and got my tentative quote (subject to evaluation when the computer arrived), I also received a shipping label. I took the label and the computer to the closest FedEx store and the staff boxed it up and shipped it off at no cost to me. Gazelle’s service works similarly, using FedEx’s packing services for some items and the U.S. postal service (along with a free shipping box, which is sent to you) for others.

And now I can enjoy having a closet that doesn’t waste space holding old computers I never used.

Uncluttering with the three r’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle

Reduce, reuse, and recycle has been a mantra of the environmental movement for many years. It’s also really good advice for anyone serious about uncluttering.

Reduce

You don’t need to remove clutter if you don’t let it enter your home or office in the first place. The following are some ways “reduce” might apply to your space:

  • Get off mailing lists. Registering with the DMAchoice mail preference service will help eliminate junk mail, while registering your opt-out preferences with OptOutPreScreen.com will help eliminate credit card offers. To get rid of mail from organizations I’ve done business with in the past, I call the catalog companies and charities that send me solicitations, but you could also use a service such as 41pounds.org or Catalog Choice.
  • Consider borrowing or renting things you use only rarely or need for just a short time. For example, my neighbor and I share the use of my high-quality hole punch. Neither of us needs this very often, so it would be silly for us both to own one. I also see requests to borrow things on my freecycle group, and that often works out. (Nextdoor or Facebook groups might also help with this.) Another example: Your library can provide an alternative to buying books, and you can still buy any that you really want to own after reading the library copy.
  • Consider whether your current magazine subscriptions still make sense.
  • When you’re shopping, be a careful purchaser and minimize the number of purchases you later come to regret.
  • Don’t take every free item that you’re offered.

Reuse

When you no longer need or want an item, you can often find it a good new home with someone who does need or want it. You might:

  • Sell it using a local or online consignment store, eBay, Craigslist, a garage sale, etc.
  • Donate it to a charity, which may give you a tax deduction. That charity might be a large organization like Goodwill, a local charity-run thrift store, a pet rescue/adoption agency that can use old towels, a church that gives things away to the needy, etc. Some organizations will pick things up, which is handy when you have big, bulky items. You can also ship off certain donations for free using Give Back Box. You might want to create a list of local donation sites, noting what types of things they accept, so it’s easy to do the donating when the time comes.
  • Give it away to a friend or family member (if you’re sure the person wants it) or pass it along using freecycle, Nextdoor, a Facebook group, etc.

Recycle

If things can’t reasonably be reused, perhaps they can be recycled. Each locale handles recycling differently, so you’ll want to ensure you know how recycling works where you live. My city has curbside recycling, but there are also less convenient organizations that take things my local garbage company does not. When I had a friend getting rid of hundreds of home-recorded VCR tapes, I drove my very full car to a recycling center that takes them.

You’ll also want to know how your locale handles electronic and toxic waste, prescription medications, and medical sharps. These often require special disposal methods.

When the three r’s don’t work

Sometimes things really do need to just go in the trash. If you’ve carefully considered your options and can’t find another reasonable way to discard something, you don’t need to feel bad about just tossing it. And sometimes, even if there are other options, you may be under time pressure or have other constraints that mean you need to be less conscientious about how things get discarded. That’s okay. The three r’s are an ideal, not something that must be followed under every circumstance.

Three tips for New Year’s resolutions

Many people make New Year’s resolutions related to uncluttering, organizing and managing their time — and you may be among them. The following tips might help you stick to your resolutions this year.

1. You don’t have to begin on January 1.

January 1 might be a difficult time to start, coming right after the hectic holiday season. But you can choose to start at a different time, such as Epiphany (Jan. 6) or Groundhog Day (Feb. 2). Or maybe you’d like to start resolutions on your birthday. There’s no one right time, so choose whatever seems best for you.

2. If you tried something last year and it didn’t work, try something a bit different this year.

You may have resolved to get organized in the past, perhaps using books as guidance, and not achieved the results you wanted. If you tried doing it all alone, maybe it would help to include someone else to cheer you on, provide advice, etc.

There are many ways to do that:

  • The Unclutterer Forum is our online discussion section where fellow unclutterers post their challenges and successes as well as tips, tricks, and tools that they use to stay organized.
  • Many people like FlyLady, with her free daily emails (while others think it’s too much). There’s now an iOS app, too.
  • The Apartment Therapy website runs a free group project called January Cure with “one-manageable-step-at-a-time assignments” which are “designed to help you create a cleaner, more organized and peaceful home.” You can sign up now for the emails.
  • You could work with a friend who has a similar goal. But be sure to pick a friend who will provide the encouragement you need, not one who will push you to make choices that make you uncomfortable.
  • If you’re willing to spend a bit of money, Clutter Diet memberships give you access to videos and tutorials as well as access to virtual consulting services from a team of professional organizers.
  • If finances allow, you can hire a professional organizer to work with you in your home, either to jump-start your organizing efforts or to work with you until you’ve accomplished your goals.

3. Consider how you might incorporate helping others into your resolutions.

I just read an article by Paul Sassone on the Chicago Tribune website where he mentioned how self-centered most of our resolutions tend to be. He lists some common resolutions (such as losing weight) and notes:

What’s missing from this list are resolutions to help other people. There are millions of people who are homeless, abused, poor, hungry, sick, infirm. …

It would be nice if at least one of the actions we contemplate doing in the new year was helping to better someone else’s life.

Organizing-related resolutions can have a charitable component, too:

  • Uncluttering can lead to donations of still-good items to local charities (social services agencies, charity-run thrift stores, or even neighbors in need via freecycle or Nextdoor).
  • More thoughtful buying leads to less clutter — but it may also allow you to donate, to the good cause of your choice, some of the money you are no longer spending.
  • Better time management may free up some time to volunteer for one of the many organizations that could use your help.

Maybe that component will give you extra motivation to stick with your resolutions!

The opposite of a unitasker

Each Wednesday, Unclutterer features a unitasker: something that serves a single purpose that could be handled just as easily with a multi-purpose product. These unitaskers are always good for a laugh.

But many single-purpose products are designed to do a single thing very well, and there’s no reason to avoid them. Love to make a wonderful cup of coffee first thing in the morning? You’ll probably want a good coffee maker.

In other situations, dual-purpose products can work well and save space. For example, I have a Switchit silicone spatula that I find quite useful.

But sometimes owning a dual-purpose (or triple-purpose) item means you have something that serves two or three purposes, but doesn’t handle any of them particularly well. I thought about this when listening to a podcast that ridiculed the Nostalgia Family-Size Breakfast Station.

In this case, it seems that the product was simply a poor match for the podcaster’s situation. Many purchasers on Amazon.com seemed to really like the breakfast station for use in campers, dorm rooms, etc. But it’s not the right product for someone who is focused on getting a really good toaster.

The distinction between expert (or demanding) users vs. more amateur users seems to be a key when picking some multi-use vs. single-use products. Australian Hardware Journal has an interesting article on how this plays out in the hand tool and power tool markets. The article notes that there have always been combination tools such as the Leatherman multi-tool and the Swiss army knife, but now manufacturers are also developing power multi-tools.

Multi-tools are getting better, too. Andrew Miller, new product development manager for the Apex Tool Group in Australia and New Zealand, said:

The successful multi-tool systems are able to add functionality without compromising on the performance of the primary task. Separate attachments which can be misplaced are a big negative so minimising attachments is the way forward.

But Miller also noted that unitaskers have their place. “Single purpose hand tools still dominate the market because more often than not, they perform the task in the most efficient way,” he said. And Jamie Costello, national sales manager for Einhell Australia, said, “Professionals are more likely to prefer a specialist tool.”

Consumer electronics is another arena where the multi-purpose vs. single-purpose choice arises. Do you want an e-reader like the Kindle or would you prefer a tablet like the iPad that lets you read books and do much more? It will depend on which reader you prefer, how much you’d use the device for more than just reading — and of course, the price. Do you want a point-and-shoot camera, or is the camera in your cell phone all you need? Reasonable people will come up with different answers.

So when considering the purchase of a well-designed unitasker vs. a multi-use product, consider your needs and pick what fits your situation. Picked poorly, both unitakers and multi-purpose tools can become clutter. Picked wisely, both can be valuable purchases.

Being productive with Nextdoor, for uncluttering and more

About a year ago I joined my local Nextdoor community. For those who aren’t aware of Nextdoor, it’s a “private social network for your neighborhood.” Nextdoor is currently available in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

As a locally focused network, Nextdoor won’t have messages about national politics. The following are the kinds of messages I usually see:

  • Lost and found pets: dogs, cats, and chickens
  • Other lost and found items, including keys, phones, and jewelry
  • Items for sale (or items being given away for free)
  • Items people are looking for (usually free or inexpensive)
  • Requests for a good painter, plumber, handyperson, house cleaner, etc.
  • Notices about local events
  • Notices about local road closures

As with any such network, taking time to use it effectively will pay off. If you’re using Nextdoor (or considering such use in the future), please keep the following suggestions in mind.

Choose your notification options carefully

Nextdoor lets you choose to get emails about every post from your neighborhood (and top posts from nearby neighborhoods), no emails at all, or something in between. You can also choose to get a daily digest, and the contents of that digest can be customized a bit. You can also select which “nearby neighborhoods” you want to see messages from, whether that’s via email or on the Nextdoor website or mobile app.

You can also choose to get mobile alerts about urgent items: missing children, natural disasters, etc.

You may not be sure which messages you want to get at first, so just make your best guess and then adjust as necessary after you’ve been in the network for a while.

Use good subject lines

Just as with email, you will make everyone’s life a bit easier if the subject line makes it obvious what your message is about. I get a lot of Nextdoor emails every day, and I want to be able to quickly scan to see which ones may be of interest.

I saw a message this week with the subject line “Hi all” — which wound up being someone who was looking for a vacuum cleaner. A subject line saying “Wanted: vacuum cleaner” or “Need a vacuum cleaner” would have been a whole lot better.

Similarly, a lost and found message entitled “Lost bracelet at or around Farmers Market” is much better than one that just says “bracelet.”

Include good photos when relevant

Just as you would with Craigslist, be sure to include good photos if you’re offering something for sale (or even for free). Even if it’s something where the looks don’t matter (such as tickets to an event) or something pretty standard (like a Kindle), a photo can help because the message will look better in the online listings.

This is one area where I want to commend my neighbors, who have generally done a good job of this. One person even included a picture of the “free clean dirt” being offered — which got taken pretty quickly!

Also consider photos when posting about lost or found items or pets.

I haven’t yet used Nextdoor to give things away, since my local freecycle group usually works fine for that. But I have some china to get rid of, and I just might try selling it on Nextdoor.

Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Black Friday

2016 gift giving guideYou may be someone who enjoys heading out to the stores on Black Friday. Maybe it’s a family tradition, and maybe some things on your list have great Black Friday prices. (If you’re not a Black Friday fan, it may console you to know that some people expect there will be better deals for many things in December.)

But whether you shop on Black Friday or on other days, the following are some thoughts to consider:

Try to avoid gifts that will become clutter. Over the past few days we’ve provided some suggestions that may help you out with that. But no matter how careful you are with your gift selections, once in a while a gift will not work well for the recipient. So take it in good spirits if a gift you gave winds up getting returned. Make things easy for your gift recipient by including a gift receipt when one is available.

Consider whether or not your gift recipient wants a gift at all. Recently I’ve noticed some people asking that any money that would have been spent on gifts for them be donated to charity instead, with a list of preferred charities being provided.

If you can afford to do so, you may want to participate in a program that gives holiday gifts to low-income households. I really enjoyed shopping for the women I “adopted” this year, going through their wish lists and getting them everything from socks to sweatshirts to nail polish.

Remember that some gifts are best when not bought too far in advance. For example, most chocolates, such as these truffles from Sweet Mona’s, will last quite a while. (I called the store and spoke to Mona about their shelf life.) However, some chocolates need to be eaten fairly quickly: 14 days from shipment, 30 days from receipt, etc.

Look at shopping options beyond the malls and the online choices. I’ve found fine gifts for people on my list at local shops and at some of the many art and gift fairs that are held this time of year. And if you’ve got the time and skills for homemade gifts, they can be wonderful when given to the right people. I just received a handmade quilt, and it’s one of the best gifts ever.

Stock up on thank-you note cards (or general-purpose note cards you can use when writing those thank you notes). If you need help writing a thank-you note, the late Leslie Harpold has good advice.

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

Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Experience Gifts

2016 gift giving guideExperience gifts can be one good way to avoid clutter, although you still need to select them with care to match the recipients’ interests. The following list goes beyond the common gifts (such as a gift certificate for a massage) to give you some more food for thought. Although the examples come from selected U.S. cities, you may be able to find something similar in other areas.

Because some people want to give something tangible, I’ve also suggested books you could match with these experience gifts.

One reminder: If using your gift will cause the recipient to incur significant additional expenses (babysitting, parking, etc.) then consider including some cash to cover these expenses or arranging to have them pre-paid, when possible.

Visits to local attractions

There’s a saying about tourists seeing places that long-term residents never do, and that can certainly be true. In my area, the Winchester Mystery House is a well-known place that I’ve never visited in the 40+ years I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The ticket prices always seemed a bit high, but I’d definitely go if someone got me a ticket. You may know of similar places your gift recipient would like to visit.

It’s always easier on the recipient if you can buy a gift certificate rather than tickets for a specific day. If the website doesn’t mention gift certificates, try calling. That’s what I did for the Winchester Mystery House, and I found out that gift certificates are indeed available.

If you’d like to include a book, one option is Side Walks — a journal that encourages readers to explore their cities.

Museum gift cards

We’ve mentioned museum memberships on Unclutterer in the past, but a gift card (or gift certificate) allows the recipient to purchase a range of things: admission (or a membership), classes, food and beverage at the museum café, etc.

Of course, the gift card can also be used at the museum gift shop, which will result in more stuff, but that’s the recipient’s choice.

These gifts can work for both adults and children. Just a few of the museums that offer gift cards are the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Terre Haute Children’s Museum, and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Appropriate books will depend on the type of museum and the age of the gift recipient. For adults interested in natural history museums, you might choose Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Children ages 8 to 12 might like Animalium: Welcome to the Museum, which has gorgeous illustrations.

Arboretum and state park gift cards

As with museum gift cards, these are an alternative to memberships or annual passes (which can also be great gifts). The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum notes that its gift cards (which can be used for admission, membership, classes, restaurant meals, etc.) never expire. The Morton Arboretum has a long list of things the cards can be used for, including chamber concert tickets, tram tours, and Mother’s Day brunch. They can be bought in any denomination, so you can spend the amount that works best for you.

Arizona State Parks gift cards can be used for day use, overnight camping, and cave tours (as well as gift shop purchases). Ohio State Parks gift cards and certificates can be used for camping, cabin or lodge rentals, six state park golf courses, boat and bike rentals, etc.

An interesting companion book might be Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails and Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness.

Ball park tours

Most of these tours require you to buy tickets for specific dates and times, but Wrigley Field tours are available via gift certificate. Others might offer gift certificates if you called and asked — if not, you would need to coordinate with your gift recipient. If you want the gift to be a surprise, you could always give a greeting card saying, “Good for a tour of the ball park. Let me know a good time for you and I’ll buy the ticket.”

One possible book to partner with this gift is the novel Bang the Drum Slowly. For children, books from the Ballpark Mystery series might be fun.

City art and architecture tours

There are all sorts of city tours available, many focused on food and beverages and others focused on the city’s history. But some of the most interesting-sounding tours are ones like these:

Of course, there are many wonderful books about art and architecture that could get paired with a gift certificate or tickets for such tours. One book to consider is The Architecture of Happiness.

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

Time management and cognitive biases

Cognitive bias is a term used to describe some ways our brains can lead us to make poor decisions. Dr. Travis Bradberry explained it this way: “Cognitive bias is the tendency to make irrational judgments in consistent patterns.”

Wikipedia lists 175 such biases, which is hard to get your mind around. Buster Benson decided he wanted to understand these biases better, so he created his Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, which condenses those 175 biases into a 20-item list. As I read through that list, I realized at least two of the biases can affect your time management.

Bias: In order to get anything done, we’re motivated to complete things that we’ve already invested time and energy in. The behavioral economist’s version of Newton’s first law of motion: an object in motion stays in motion. This helps us finish things, even if we come across more and more reasons to give up.

This way of thinking can be very useful if you’re working on something important: creating an emergency preparedness kit, for example. But it can also trick you into spending time on things when giving up might be a better option.

The “sunk cost fallacy” fits into this category — that’s the thinking can cause you to hold onto a bad purchase because the item was expensive. The money is gone, whether or not you keep the purchased item. Michael Davidson, writing on the Lifehack website, gave an example of how this same way of thinking can get applied to time, not just money:

“I might as well keep watching this terrible movie because I’ve watched an hour of it already.”

Or reading a terrible book that you are 100 pages into, or continuing a T.V. series on Netflix that has gone downhill, etc.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve already invested time into whatever media you are consuming. If you don’t like the movie, you can walk out of it.

Here’s another example: I’ve had ideas for blog posts here on Unclutterer that just didn’t work out. No matter how much time I had already spent on writing them, at some point I needed to realize the ideas just weren’t as good as I had thought, and move onto other ideas before I wasted any more time. But that can sure be hard to do!

Bias: We favor options that appear simple or that have more complete information over more complex, ambiguous options. We’d rather do the quick, simple thing than the important complicated thing, even if the important complicated thing is ultimately a better use of time and energy.

Information bias falls into this category: “Believing that the more information that can be acquired to make a decision, the better, even if that extra information is irrelevant for the decision.”

I thought about this as I sat with my long California ballot, with 18 propositions and a number of local elections. I tend to want to learn as much as possible about the issues so I can make an informed choice. But in some cases, I’ve realized, I don’t need every bit of information I could potentially gather. Sometimes the candidates’ stands on a few key issues tell me all I really need to know — I don’t need to understand the details of their positions on every last thing.

Other times you just need accept that you can’t get perfect information and become comfortable with the ambiguity. When I needed to replace my year-old printer that stopped working, there was no obvious best choice. But in order to have a functional printer again I needed to make the best decision I could, without taking forever to decide.

Understanding these cognitive biases helps you realize when you’re falling into their traps, so you can make other decisions and use your time more productively.

Being organized about computer security

Decision fatigue is always a potential problem when you’re uncluttering. You can get to the point where you’ve made so many decisions that making any more seems like more than you can handle. When you find yourself at that point, it’s time to take a break.

While I’ve often read about (and had experiences with) decision fatigue over the years, I recently read about a somewhat related concept: security fatigue, defined as “a weariness or reluctance to deal with computer security.”

After updating your password for the umpteenth time, have you resorted to using one you know you’ll remember because you’ve used it before? Have you ever given up on an online purchase because you just didn’t feel like creating a new account?

If you have done any of those things, it might be the result of “security fatigue.” …

A new study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that a majority of the typical computer users they interviewed experienced security fatigue that often leads users to risky computing behavior at work and in their personal lives.

If you give into security fatigue, you really do put your information at risk. The following are some ways to make it a bit easier to use good security:

Prioritize your important accounts

You may have heard the advice that you should never reuse passwords. But in a 2010 interview with Ben Rooney of Tech Europe, security expert Bruce Schneier indicated that might be going a bit overboard:

“I have some very secure passwords for things that matter — like online banking”, he says. “But then I use the same password for all sorts of sites that don’t matter. People say you shouldn’t use the same password. That is wrong.”

Don’t try to remember all your passwords

There are two ways to avoid relying on your memory. The first is to use a password management program. I use 1Password, but other people like LastPass, KeePass, or one of the other available choices. A password manager can store your passwords (and your answers to security questions) so you don’t need to remember them all.

If you don’t want to use a password manager, writing your passwords down can be okay, too — Schneier has actually recommended that. I’ve had my wallet stolen, so I wouldn’t feel good about keeping my list of passwords there (as he recommends) unless I did something to obscure the password, as suggested by Paul Theodoropoulos in a blog post.

But keeping a list of passwords in a file folder with an innocuous name might be fine. Or you could write them inside a random book, as another blogger suggested.

Find an easy way to choose secure passwords

There’s no total agreement on the best formula for secure passwords, but two common approaches are:

  • A long string of random characters including letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols
  • A set of randomly chosen unrelated words

The first type of password is easily created using a password manager. LastPass even has a random password generator anyone can use.

The second type is created using an approach known as Diceware, which is fairly tedious. But there’s at least one website that provides a Diceware app, making it extremely simple to generate these passwords. A Diceware password like doodle-aroma-equinox-spouse-unbolted might be odd, but it’s easier to remember than something like 831M5L17vY*F. (Of course, you can just cut and paste your passwords in many cases, but sometimes you really do want one you can remember.) However, Diceware won’t work on sites that set character limits that are too short.

Treat security questions just like additional passwords

Do you provide your pet’s name as an answer to a security question? On a banking site, you might want that name to be something like Z8#3!dP47#Hx or grill-anthem-tinderbox-baguette-cosmetics. On a less important site you don’t need to be as cautious, but using your pet’s real name is still a poor idea.

More advice for buying a filing cabinet

Dave recently provided some great tips for buying a filing cabinet. The following are a few additional suggestions from my own experiences.

Unclutter first

With any organizing project, buying the containers (in this case, the filing cabinets) is one of the last steps. If you don’t remove the paper clutter first, you may wind up buying more storage than you need.

So much information we used to keep in files can now be found online. And if you’re comfortable with digital files, many papers that you receive which have valuable information can be scanned, reducing what needs to be kept and filed.

But once you’ve decided what to keep, be sure to buy filing cabinets that can store all your papers without overcrowding the drawers. It’s nice to keep each drawer no more than 80 percent full so it’s easy to add and remove files.

Consider what size papers you need to keep

Many people just need files for letter-sized paper, but you may have documents you want to keep in paper form that are larger (such as real estate documents in the U.S., which are often on legal size paper). Some filing cabinets can accommodate multiple paper sizes.

Choose to use hanging files — or not

Most filing cabinets come with rails for hanging files (or have high drawer sides designed to accommodate hanging file folders without the use of rails), so that’s what most people use. However, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame used to recommend a different approach:

I recommend you totally do away with the hanging-file hardware and use just plain folders standing up by themselves in the file drawer, held up by the movable metal plate in the back. Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc.

This advice seems to have been removed from the latest edition of Allen’s book, but it might still appeal to you. If you want to go this route, you’ll want a filing cabinet that has those movable metal plates, often called follower blocks.

Make sure the cabinet drawers have full-extension slides

Some filing cabinets have drawers that don’t pull all the way out, making it hard to reach the files in the back. Be sure to look for cabinets with full-extension drawer slides (rather than something like three-quarter extension) so you can easily reach everything without scraping your knuckles.

Don’t create a tipping hazard

If you’re at all concerned about the cabinet falling over — because you have small children or you live in earthquake territory, for example — get the materials needed to anchor the cabinet to the wall.

Be sure a filing cabinet is the right tool for you


Just because so many people use filing cabinets doesn’t mean you need to do the same. There are other options, such as file carts, which may suit your organizing style better. Or you may prefer to keep at least some papers in binders rather than in file folders.

When organizing goes too far

Organizing isn’t something you do just for the sake of being organized. Rather, it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier. When you’re organized you can find things when you need them. You have the space to do the things that matter to you: have company over, enjoy your hobbies, cook good meals, etc.

When you look at getting organized, there are always trade-offs to make. How much time do you want to spend organizing your books, your photos, etc.? One thing to consider is whether the time invested in doing the organizing will save you more time over the long run.

I just read an article by Brian X. Chen in The New York Times that touched upon these trade-offs. Chen consulted with Brian Christian, a computer scientist and philosopher, about organizing his digital photos.

Mr. Christian said photo organization illustrates a computer-science principle known as the search-sort trade-off. If you spend tons of time rummaging for a specific photo, then sorting photos may be worthwhile. But if you hunt for a picture infrequently, sorting may be a waste of time.

“If it would take you eight hours to tag all your friends, you should not undertake that until you’ve already wasted eight hours digging up photos of your friends,” said Mr. Christian, co-author of Algorithms to Live By, a book about using algorithmic principles to improve your life.

There are photo-management services such as Google Photos that can do some auto-sorting, and Chen went on to write about those. But the basic trade-off concept applies to all sorts of things beyond just photos. For example, I organize my books into general categories but don’t bother alphabetizing the fiction by author because I can find books quickly enough without taking that next step.

Similarly, as we’ve noted before, many people will find that they don’t need a bunch of folders for email because they can rely on their computer’s search function to find what they need. But others find that using folders works better for them, even if that makes email filing more time-consuming.

Organizer Lorie Marrero wrote on the Lifehack website about being too organized, and she provided this example of when the return on invested time doesn’t pay off:

People think it might look neat to have all matching plastic containers in their pantries that all nest nicely together and present a picture-perfect shelf. But for the ROI of simply having a pretty pantry, you have to spend a lot of time transferring every new food item from its original store packaging into the containers.

But if it really makes you happy to have a pantry with beautiful matching containers, then maybe you’d want to transfer foods into them even though this doesn’t make sense from a purely practical perspective. That’s a perfectly fine choice to make if it works for you.

Color-coding provides one more example what works for one person might be overkill for another. Does it help you to color-code your files? If so, it may well be worth the effort, money, and space to keep file folders in different colors on hand. However, if you’d work just as well with files that are all the same color, why not use the simpler approach?

As you set up your own organizing systems, think about what might be “just enough organizing” to allow you to function well and enjoy your home or office space.