Technology and games to encourage kids’ organizing skills

It’s a wonderful time of year: Back to school time! Depending on your area’s schedule, children may have already started the 2015-2016 school year, while others have until after Labor Day for classes to begin. In either case, a big part of a student’s success this year will depend on his or her organizational skills.

Every year we buy the typical organizational tools for our kids: binders, folders, calendars for jotting down assignments and other important dates that must not be forgotten. The kids then sort and label their binders and folders by subject matter, actionable items (like permission slips that require signatures), and homework.

Beyond this groundwork, we’ve been looking for ways to help our children continue to gain skills. At ages 10 and 13, they’re capable of stepping up their skill levels. How are we supporting them?

Practice, practice

If a basketball player wants to improve her skills, she practices. The same goes for a violin student, a dancer, or an organized adult. The more you work on any skill, the stronger the skill becomes. With that in mind, we’re giving our daughter plenty of opportunities to practice these new skills.

First, we had her write down her daily routine and her evening routine. “However you want,” went the instructions. “Put them somewhere that you’ll be able to easily see. Again, however you want to do this is fine.” This was the result:

Two lists, taped to the wall above her dresser. I love this because:

  1. It forced her to consider the general contents of a day
  2. It prompted her to think of her day sequentially
  3. It encouraged list-making
  4. It required her to find a spot that could store this information and be easily referenced

Someday she’ll apply these techniques to her career and/or a college student perhaps. Maybe an employee, a spouse, or a parent. There are other, more fun ways to practice organizing skills. Based on your kids’ interests, consider:

  • Creating a playlist of favorite songs
  • Making lists for an upcoming birthday party, road trip, or pending sleepover with some friends
  • Joining a fantasy sports club with some friends: Draft a team, organize meetings of other participating friends, and keep track of all related statistics

Technology options

If your student has a smartphone or tablet, consider an app like Remember the Milk. This to-do list and task manager supports alarms that can remind him or her to start on homework, prepare for the next day, and so on. The Kindle Fire has capabilities for parents to set time limits for how long specific types of programs can be running — videos only for 30 minutes, for example.

Playing games

Yes, games can foster positive, life-long skills. I’m a huge fan of board games, and suggest these titles for sneaking in some life lessons while having fun:

Elementary school

Tokaido: Take a leisurely walk through Japan, and compete to have the “richest” experience by eating food, meeting locals, and visiting hot springs. To do well, players must plan several moves ahead and manage their coins.

Middle school

Fairy Tale, A New Story: This is a card game that has you making sets while being careful not to give opponents the cards they want. Players must pay attention to what they don’t have as well as what is in others’ hands.

High School

Pandemic: This is a cooperative game in which the players play together to identify and defeat a virus that’s spreading across the globe. It requires planning and above all else, team work.

Do you have children and have suggestions for helping them to build their organizing skills in fun and productive ways? If so, sound off in the comments. My family is always on the lookout for more strategies.

Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.

Repurposing a room

Organizing and uncluttering are ongoing projects because the needs you have and your goals change with time. In my case, a room in my home that was once very useful has stopped being so, and my wife and I have decided to transform it.

First, a little background: When my wife and I moved into our home, it had a tidy room just off of the back door that we turned into a dining room. We set it up with a small table, a few chairs and we were good. Later, the kids came along and the table was replaced with IKEA bins for toys, and later still, it took on coats and backpacks. We’ve called the room “the playroom” for the last 12 years. But a few weeks ago, we noticed something odd: No one ever plays in it.

In fact, the room was almost completely unused. The kids would hang their coats, hats, and backpacks there, walk into the house proper, and not return until the next time they left the house. In addition to being the drop-off point for these items, it also housed our our wall calendar and some seldom-used toys. We didn’t spend much time in there at all and it was time for a change.

Now, if you ever find yourself in this situation, you might personally want to consider our advice from 2007: buy a smaller house. But, if you’re like me and moving isn’t a possibility or a desire, I recommend considering how else the room can be used. Do so by observing how the room is being used, and build upon that.

We started the repurposing by removing what we no longer wanted in this space:

  1. The IKEA cabinets went upstairs to hold my own collection of board games.
  2. A large IKEA table went to the laundry room as a perfect surface for folding clean clothes.
  3. Toys that the kids no longer played with went to charity or to the trash (if not in good enough condition to donate).

Then, we kept those useful aspects of it (landing space for items coming and going) and added to the room what we needed (like seating and working spaces). We kept a small cabinet in the corner that houses the games we play most often and turned it into the following:

It felt great to rework this room, and it only took a single weekend to get the job done. It isn’t always obvious when something like this needs to change, but try to recognize that feeling when it comes. With a little elbow grease, you can turn an “eh” room into something working that you’ll love.

What to do with unused school supplies

Now that school’s over, the kids are at home and all of their stuff is with them. Having a break from school is great, but what can be done with the half-used notebooks, stubby pencils, worn crayons, and more?

Notebooks

First, and most simply, use them. They’re good practice for your kids and their writing or maybe for keeping a summer journal. Have them draw on the pages or send letters to far-flung family and friends.

Another, less obvious idea is to find every half-used notebook that’s hiding in backpacks, on bookshelves, etc. Go through them and decide: is what’s written in here important? Do I want to save it? If the answer is yes, tear out those pages and scan them into the archive software of your choice (I prefer Evernote). If you’d rather not go digital, a quality three-ring binder will do the job as well. If the notebooks in question still have a decent amount of blank pages inside, consider donating them. Fiends of Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and often accepts donations of school supplies. Likewise, Operation Give helps members of the US military supply those in need with a variety of items, including notebooks, as does Project Smile.

Alternatively, old notebooks can be upcycled into scrap paper notebooks quite easily. Here’s a great tutorial from Instructables for making a handy scrap notebook to keep by your computer, on your desk, in the kitchen, or where ever you typically jot down quick notes. In this video, Martha Stewart describes a similar project that looks great.

Crayons

Kids love crayons until they get too small to use. It seems wasteful to toss them away. Instead, you can make them super appealing all over again. You can follow a tutorial that explains how to use some candy mold, your old crayon numbs and a microwave oven to make great-looking crayon characters.

Alternatively, send them off to Crazy Crayons, a service that essentially uses the above process to upcycle unwanted crayons and make them available again.

Pencils

One idea for those frustrating pencil nubs is to use them with a pencil extender. This clever little device does just what you’re thinking it does: holds the nub in a larger case that lets you continue to write until the thing is completely gone. This might be a unitasker, but if you actually use it then it won’t be a unitasker in your home.

If you’re willing to saw off the eraser, the pencil can be tossed into a fire. Also, the graphite can be a good “dry lubricant” for keys and locks.

Whatever it is you decide to do with old school supplies, just be sure to turn that after-school clutter into something useful or get it out of your house so it’s not still sitting in your kid’s backpack at the start of next school year.

Organize your kids for camp

It’s difficult to believe, but summer begins next week for those of us in the northern hemisphere. My to-do list is long and one of the items on that list is to help get my kids organized for camp. Like countless kids across the country, they’ll join their friends — and make new ones — at camp.

You can help make the experience even more pleasant for them with strategic planning before Jr. walks out the door.

All types of camps

You son or daughter will likely receive a list of requirements and suggestions from the camp itself. Start shopping for these items at least a week in advance, if not longer. This will avoid the last-second rush and allow you to label everything properly. Speaking of labels…

Get some labels for the kids’ clothing and other personal items. There are many of these available: Name Bubbles makes some cute ones, including a whole line meant to “…last all summer long.” Be sure to label items that she or he might take off, like hats, flip-flops, and t-shirts, as well as accessories like sunscreen and lunch boxes. If you don’t want to purchase labels, a permanent marker will do a good job, as well as a laundry marker.

Sleep away camp

It’s a good idea to provide your little camper with a Re-Pack list that he or she can check when preparing to come home. Stick it in your child’s bag and laminate it, if you can.

Also, only pack clothes and other items that can get lost without causing a big deal. That beloved, irreplaceable shirt that Jr. simply adores might not be the best choice for camp, no matter how cool it is.

Pack liquids and anything that might be attractive to pests in zip-top bags. Write on the bags the contents with permanent markers so items have a greater chance of returning to the bags.

Day camp

A lesson my family learned the hard way: don’t send your child’s nice school backpack to camp. It will get used, abused, and stuffed with sand, dirt, and who knows what else. Go out (again, well ahead of time) and buy an inexpensive bag that can get beat up because it will.

Similar to the Re-Pack list recommended for sleep-away camp, make a daily checklist for your child’s backpack/bag. Again, laminate the list so that you can write special daily items on it as reminders (like a plain white t-shirt for tie-dyeing one day) in addition to the regular things.

If swimming is a regular part of the camp, pack a large zip-top bag. Get the biggest one you can find so wet swimsuits and towels can be stored away from other items in the bag.

If you or your children regularly attended or attend summer camp, what additional tips would you share to keep kids organized? Feel welcome to leave them in the comments.

Want organized kids? Reward acts of bravery

As a parent, I want my kids to be successful in all they do. I also want them to be safe. Fortunately, I recently learned an important lesson on this, which came from my wife:

“Reward all acts of bravery.”

Let’s take a moment to define bravery. To me, bravery is a reaction to fear, not its absence. Also, the fear needn’t be life-or-death; any event that elicits adequate fear is an opportunity for bravery.

Lately, my kids have been showing much bravery, which has prompted me to hesitantly do the same.

Part of my job as a parent is to lay the groundwork that will produce productive, happy, and fulfilled members of adult society. I hope they’ll be organized, contributing adults with a sense of independence and satisfaction. That starts small and I’m not so hot at letting it happen. Here are a few examples.

My daughter, 12, has taken an interest in cooking. This is great, as it’s precisely the type of life skill I’ve got in mind. She recently made brownies, and I was in the kitchen supervising. I made sure she used pot holders, prepared the mix well, buttered the pan, set the timer correctly, and read the recipe thoroughly. When the task was finished, I told my wife, “Look, she made brownies.”

“No,” my wife said, “you made brownies.”

As a person who must make an effort to stay organized and productive, I assume others do, too. When those “others” are the people I care about most, I’m compelled to make an extra effort to ensure their success. However, I’m seeing, that effort can be more of a hindrance than a help. I’m not letting them actually learn how to do it. If I want them to learn to make brownies, I must let them … make brownies. Not be hovering over them. Yes, the first couple times they do something instruction is involved, but not after they know how to do it.

Brownie-adjacent is not making brownies.

The same goes for keeping a tidy room, putting laundry away, or staying on top of end-of-school projects and responsibilities. When you’re 10 and 12, taking any of this on solo is an act of bravery, especially when they know exactly what to do. It’s time for them to step up and dad to step back.

Instruct, make sure the skills have transferred, and then give your child the opportunity to practice the skills you’ve taught them so they can take ownership of them.

Welcome to the factory floor

In April, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader Judy asked:

My judgmental brother and sister in law are coming mid September. I have stuff, mostly papers everywhere. Also, I have some sentimental stuff I want to get rid of but feel guilty about. I’m employed full time and it feels overwhelming.

I hear ya, Judy. I always know when we’re getting house guests because the cleaning goes into overdrive. Wait, cleaning is too subtle a word. We give our home a nuke it from space blast of organization and cleaning before people come to visit. Or as I call it, creating the “lie house.”

Why “lie house?” Because the sterile state we create is not how our house actually exists day-to-day.

As part of our preparation for out-of-town guests, we clean the house from top to bottom. I suspect you do the same. It’s not only a matter of pride, but a display of respect for your guests. You want everything to look nice for the people who bothered to travel and spend money just for the pleasure of your company. It makes perfect sense.

And, usually, we go EXTREME.

Vacuuming begets dusting, which begets tidying up the knick-knacks, which leads to reorganizing the living room, buying flowers for vases, scrubbing the floor, dusting the dog, washing the soap, combing the lawn, power-washing the brick fireplace, constructing an altar to the gods and goddesses of cleanliness and preparing to sacrifice the most well-groomed chicken you’ve ever seen.

But lately we’ve stopped and asked ourselves, “Wait, what are we doing?”

The chicken is relieved.

Here’s the fact of the matter. Right now, this is a working house. It’s the factory floor and production is at its peak. We have two adults living here, each with a full-time job. There is a dog whose hobbies include disemboweling her squeaky toys and spreading the nylon innards across the rug. We’ve got three kids in this house, ranging in age from 10 to 13, who spend their time (and ours) on:

  • Girl Scouts
  • Cub Scouts
  • Ballet
  • Soccer
  • After-school science club
  • After-school comedy club (seriously)
  • Friends, playdates, homework, and so on

These are the years spent in the trenches. The years where my wife and I argue over who gets to be the one to grocery shop, because grocery shopping means you get 25 minutes to yourself. If guests arrive and there’s a stack of papers on a table somewhere or library books strewn about or if our dear visitors have to witness a round of my favorite 7:38 a.m. game, “Where Are Your Clean Socks And Why Must We Go Through This Every Blessed Day?” Well, you know what? Fine.

The people who are nice enough to travel and spend money just to be in our company understand where we are at this stage in our lives. They love us, and know that transferring the breakfast cereal into labeled Tupperware containers is just under “jewel-encrusted, heated driveway” on our list of current priorities.

Now, I’m not saying that the active family lifestyle is permission to live in a dumpster, but it is permission to let some things go, even if just for a bit. If I have a choice between creating a pristine library of the kids’ books or planning a fun weekend with the family and our guests, I’ll choose the latter. The books will always be there; my kids’ childhood and this visit won’t.

If you want a museum experience, the MFA is just up the road. Otherwise, our family experience welcomes you. Come on in.

If you’re truly overwhelmed, Judy, give yourself permission to let some of the stress go. Do what you can, use the impending visit as motivation if that is what you need to reach your organizing and uncluttering goals, but also remember that your visitors are going to love you irrespective of your papers and sentimental items. Feeling anxious isn’t good for anyone, especially for four months as you prepare for the visit. Your home can be a museum, but it doesn’t have to be.

Keeping essential home work supplies on hand

As spring approaches and winter thaws (it will eventually thaw, right?), my family and I have found ourselves in that dreaded time of the elementary school year: projects. It’s like a perfect storm, when everyone’s energy levels are low, the cold and dark days have all of us down, no one feels like completing anything requiring a great deal of mental effort, and certainly no one wants to doing anything that involves creative depths, pasteboard, stencils, or Papier-mâché.

This is also the time of year that supplies start to run low around the house. None of the pencils have sharp points or erasers. Lined paper is at a minimum, and I assure you the teacher won’t accept a paragraph written on the envelope from the water bill, no matter how neatly it’s written. With that in mind, the following is a list of items you can grab to restock, organize, and survive the second-half of the school year.

Pencils. My kids, at nine and eleven, are not yet to be trusted to complete homework in pen. So, we buy pencils in bulk and store then in mason jars right at their desks. Doing this sure beats the nightly search for a pencil. Speaking of…

An electric pencil sharpener. Spend some money on a heavy-duty sharpener that’s going to last a long time. Remember that hand-crank job that was probably screwed into the wall of your elementary school classroom? Don’t put that nightmare in your house because it will only cause a mess. And please avoid those little handheld jobs that deposit pencil shaving all over the floor. Instead, look for an electric sharpener with a heavy base for one-handed sharpening. We have a Bostitch model at home and it’s dependable.

Erasers. By now, all of our pencil erasers have been worn to mere shadows of their former existence. A large box of pink erasers is a great alternate when erasers detach from their pencils. Divvy them up among your kids’ work spaces and never hear “Does anyone have a pencil with an eraser?” again. Similar to pencils, erasers can be stored in jars, and inside desk drawers in a drawer organizer.

Index cards. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I still think index cards are fantastic homework aides. I use them as flash cards, of course, but their usefulness extends way beyond that. For example, I have the kids use them as to-do lists for larger projects. When attached to all related papers with an office clip, you get a handy, mobile reference packet. They’re also good for scratch paper when working out math problems or outlines. They’re a high utility tool for all offices. Wrap the index cards in a rubber band and store them on top of the spare paper and notebooks mentioned in the next item.

Lined paper and notebooks. We’ve been in the situation in our house where the only available paper is a sketch pad, and that doesn’t pass muster with a teacher. Keep the paper and notebooks (and the index cards mentioned above) in a traditional office desk inbox to keep them organized.

A designated homework zone. A space dedicated to doing homework will help prevent papers, supplies, and assignments from migrating to the kitchen table. And, as is the case in our house, the kitchen table is where homework quickly transforms into clutter.

With these essentials on hand and organized so they’re at the ready, you’re prepared to take on any big, winter projects teachers assign.

The benefits of uniforms

When our family first moved to England in 2013, our children were concerned about wearing school uniforms –- something they didn’t have to wear in Canada. After living here for almost two years, we’ve come to love school uniforms for many reasons: they save time, help us stay organized, and save us money.

After experiencing the benefits of school uniforms with my kids, I’ve adopted a uniform-style wardrobe for myself. Keeping a few basic pieces (similar styles of slacks, shirts, etc.) and a limited range colour palette, I can mix and match fewer pieces and still have a varied wardrobe. The uniform-style wardrobe is much easier to maintain and organize and is less expensive than my previous numerous-outfit wardrobe.

The following is an explanation of how my children’s school uniforms inspired a change in my closet:

  • In the mornings, little effort is expended deciding what to wear. The children simply put on their uniforms and I select a pant and top (they fit and they all work with each other).
  • When shopping, we know exactly what to buy for school clothing and I have a specific idea of what I need. The school provides the requirements for the kids and lists a few stores that provide quality clothes that meet the dress code.
  • When doing laundry, I don’t spend nearly as much time as I did in Canada separating clothing out by fabric type and colour. Because both children wear the same uniform, we have one load of white dress shirts and one load of black trousers every week. And, since my wardrobe is in a limited colour palette, I experience similar benefits.

We have found that we are spending a lot less on clothing than we did in Canada. The quality of my kids’ school uniforms is very good. They wear like iron and wash like rags so they do not need to be replaced as often as other clothes. This reduction in our overall clothing budget has led to less packed closets that are easier to organize. The uniforms are neatly stored in one area and separated from the (much smaller) selection of non-uniform clothing.

Do you or your kids have a uniform-style wardrobe? Share your strategies for easier wardrobe maintenance with other readers in the comment section.

Unclutterer’s 2014 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for kids

Each year Erin is kind enough to let me write the gift guide for kids. I have such a good time, and often have to whittle my ideas down to the best selections. That’s what I’ve done again this year. In the following post you’ll find great suggestions for little and big kids.

Younger tykes

The POWER A Skylanders SWAP Force Tackle Box. Skylanders is a game for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo 3DS that encourages kids to buy a vast collection of figurines, which become playable characters. Even a small collection can be unwieldily, and if you think stepping on a LEGO brick is bad, try putting your bare foot down on Drobot. This storage box holds up to 20 figures, is stackable, has a lit that latches shut and is transparent. Plus, Jr. can use it to carry his minions to a friend’s house. (It also works with Disney Infinity characters, if your kid is into that one.)

The LEGO Swoop Bag. I mentioned this last year, and I’ve brought it back for 2014 because LEGOS just won’t go away. Between the LEGO Movie, Star Wars tie-ins that are bolstered by a new TV series, those ever-present bricks will be popular again this season. The Swoop Bag holds a huge collection of LEGOs and spreads out during play time, and easily scoops and stores the lot when play is finished. A few other fun ways to keep LEGOS organized:

  1. The LEGO Storage Head offers a fun way to keep LEGOS organized, and gifts should be fun, right? I’d recommend this for smaller collections.
  2. The LEGO ZipBin 1000 Brick Storage Box and Playmat. I love it because it stores 1,000 bricks, comes with a playmat, and features a brick remover! This all-important tool will keep you from using your teeth to separate stubborn bricks. That thing is like gold, so keep it safe.
  3. The Brick Rack Wall Display for LEGO minifigs. As kids get older, they may want to display their favorite LEGOS. This interesting system mounts to the wall and lets kids slide minifigs in and out. The best part is they aren’t in there permanently, so if they want to take a few down to play with them, they can.

Melissa and Doug Trunki Terrance Rolling Kids Luggage. This beautiful little suit case is perfect for the younger child who travels — or doesn’t! For travelers, it’s carry-on sized and features wheels plus handles and a shoulder strap. At home, it’s a cute and sturdy (holds up to 75 lbs) storage container that you won’t mind looking at. It’s available in several colors and patterns, so you can find one that works for you.

The Hot Wheels Basic Car 50-Pack. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia talking, but Hot Wheels are awesome. This set contains 50 vehicles, each individually wrapped, with no duplicates. Plus, it all ships in a cute cardboard storage box. It’s a great way to create an instant Hot Wheels collection or add on to an existing one AND keep them stored nicely when not in use.

Older kids/teens

Gear Pockets. These wall-hanging units feature mesh pockets and straps for storing all sorts of items: sports equipment, hunting supplies, helmets, boots and more. Put one in the garage or your teenager’s room and they’ll have at-a-glance access to their most important gear.

Multi-Device Charging Station. This great-looking bamboo charging station can accommodate three phones/music players of various makes, an iPad, and a laptop computer. There are hidden hook-ups for everything, keeping them charged in a tidy, nice-looking package.

Finally, this one’s a little abstract, but I’d recommend an Evernote Premium subscription for any college students on your list. I’ve sung Evernote’s praises several times on Unclutterer. It really is my external brain. College is a time to run around like a chicken minus its academic head, and Evernote will help students keep everything they need together and accessible.

If you’re like me, you find time spent shopping for kids almost as much fun as watching them open their gifts. I hope there were a few items here that are prefect for the young ones on your list. Have a great holiday season, everybody!

Feel welcome to explore our past Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Digital organizing and productivity tools

I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

Photo management

I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

Productivity

Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

Kids

My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

Updating the kids’ school stuff landing area

Back in 2012, I described the “landing area” that my wife and I had created for our kids’ school stuff. After two years of use, experience pointed out aspects of our area that weren’t working well for us. We’ve since re-designed the whole space and the result is more efficient. Sometimes you need a year-long, hands-on trial to work out the kinks.

Making changes

In 2012, I wrote, “My wife and I have identified a small cabinet just inside the back door to our house … Now, the kids enter and just as they’re tempted to shed their backpacks, hats, gloves and coats like molting snakes, they see the table right in their path.”

First change, the cabinet has been replaced. It was bulky and took up a good chuck of the space in our house’s very small entrance. Plus, papers and such were getting shoved into the back of the cabinet where we wouldn’t find them for days. Today, we’re using a broad, flat (and inexpensive) table from IKEA. As you can see in the image below, we’ve used duct tape to mark off three sections: one per child. They know to put their important papers, assignment materials and anything that needs to come out of the backpack onto the table and in their “slot.”

Speaking of backpacks, in 2012 I wrote: “We bought a small, child-sized coat tree from a discount department store to hold two backpacks. It works great and, since the backpacks are all that the tree holds, it handles their bulk easily.”

The coat tree did not survive the year. Heavy bags toppled it over several times, and it was wobbly and unstable before the school year ended. Today, I’ve put sturdy, steel hooks into the wall. I picked these up at the hardware store for next to nothing. We’ve got them lined up vertically, so the tallest kid puts her back on the top hook, and the shortest on the bottom. Plus, since the kids are encouraged to empty the contents of their backpacks onto the table each day, their backpacks are a lot lighter than they were last year.

Three more wall hooks hold sweatshirts and jackets.

Also gone are the “inbox and outboxes” for home/school communication. These eventually got filled with pens and then pencils and then packs of gum and then, well, you get the idea. Today, the table serves that purpose.

Some things stay the same

We haven’t changed everything. I’m sad to report that we’re still assembling lunches and snacks early in the morning (I wish we could get in the habit of doing it the night before). And now, irrespective of when the lunches are made, I place them on the table in the kids’ “slots” with the understanding that the kids will grab them and place them in their bags themselves. Finally, the “library book basket” is still in place. It’s there to hold school library books and school library books only! I’m sure the school is as tired of sending me threatening library letters as I am receiving them.

We’ve also encouraged the kids to use the setup, just as we did last year. That amounted to literally standing them in the room, explaining the components of the landing area, and what they’re expected to do with their stuff in this space. I’m sure they’ll forget every now and again, but, hey, they’re kids, and that is to be expected.

Now that we’re a few weeks into the school year, I’m curious: how do you manage the kids’ landing area? Any improvements over previous years?