Part 2: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Wake the kids and tell them to grab their backpacks: it’s time to go back to school. This can be a stressful time for kids and parents, but a little preparation goes a long way. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series, I’ll highlight some ways technology can ease the transition from summer.

Go social

When I was in school, we huddled around the radio on snowy mornings, eager for a closing announcement. Today, many school districts share this information via the web and social media. Get yourself in the loop this school year and visit your district’s website to find the following information:

  • Your school’s and/or district’s Twitter feed
  • Any associated Facebook accounts
  • Classroom-specific websites
  • Classroom Blackboard accounts and mobile applications
  • Teacher blogs

Of course, some schools will embrace social technology more completely than others. Colleges and universities seem to be the most aggressive, but even elementary schools are using the technologies available to them. If your school/district/child’s teacher is using websites, be sure to bookmark the sites and/or add them to an RSS feed so you can easily access the information for future reference.

Subscribe to a school calendar

Most schools publish a calendar for parents and students to review, and many offer the opportunity to subscribe electronically for immediate updates. The Salt Lake City School District is a great example of a digital calendar, with instructions for subscribing to it with Apple’s Calendar, Google Calendar, and Outlook and Yahoo Calendar. Once you’re subscribed, you needn’t depend on the monthly printed calendars you likely have hanging on the refrigerator.

Make custom notifications

I’ve written about IFTTT before on Unclutterer, and the start of the school year is another time to use this program. IFTT is an online service that lets you create actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you, including custom notifications.

For example, let’s say your district or teacher always uses adds a certain hashtag when composing tweets related to your child’s school or class. You could create a recipe that sends you a text message or an email whenever such a tweet is published. Or, you can have all of those tweets pushed to a Google document for a daily review.

On the other side of the desk, IFTTT is a terrific resource for teachers and schools. Communications with students and parents can easily be automated.

Here’s hoping you have a successful school year. There’s more to do to get ready, of course, but these technology tips are a good place to start.

Part 1 of the series

Organizing references and bibliographies

Research papers are the backbone of most every course of study at university and also important in many workplaces. Keeping these projects organized can be tricky, but will significantly help the paper’s reader comprehension and also save the writer time.

Providing a list of references for your project shows that you have done research on the topic. It provides a way for others to easily find the materials you examined. Proper citations also give credit to those who had the original idea and those who did additional research on the topic.

As you are gathering information, it can be difficult to know which details are important to record. Do you need to provide the date a pamphlet was published? What about the date you accessed a website? How do you keep all of this information organized?

EasyBib and CiteThisForMe are two great (and free) websites that let you effortlessly create properly formatted references. You can save projects into folders, easily collaborate with coworkers or classmates, and share references with the public. (I made one for this post so you can see how it works.) The sites are nice for projects such as a presentation at work, a workshop to promote your small business, or a college class you’re taking to upgrade your skills.

If you’re a full-time student or researcher, you may wish to use more powerful reference management software. According to Wikipedia (which you wouldn’t want to cite in a research paper, but is great for this specific purpose), there are over 30 different reference management software applications available. The choice of software should be based on several factors:

  • Style: Humanities and Sciences use different citation styles and within these domains there are also different styles. Companies also have specific needs and might have style preferences. Be sure you know the standard to ensure you select a program that has the correct style for your work.
  • Cost: Some programs are free but have limitations on number of citations or amount of storage space. Some have small monthly or yearly fees. Choose the lowest cost for your basic needs with the ability to upgrade later if required. Also, if you’re a student, talk to your professors or the librarians at your college/university to see if may have free access for a specific program with your student account.
  • Operating system: Be sure the software you want will install on your type of operating system (Mac, PC, etc.). You may wish to select a program that can be used on a mobile device (tablet or smartphone).
  • Availability: Do you need to access your references from anywhere? Will there be an Internet connection everywhere you do research? Does the information need to sync across various computers?
  • Database Connection: Some programs will connect directly to various databases, such as the MEDLINE (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online) database that would be helpful to students and professionals in medical fields.
  • Ease of use: It is important that the system you pick is easy to use. Is it simple to transfer citations from the program to your favourite word processor? Is it easy to collaborate with other students/coworkers and share citations on group projects? Explore two or three options and see how they work for you.

Regardless of the reference management application you choose, providing organized citations to your work will establish expertise and credibility to your project. Using bibliography/reference software will also help you to get all the information you need for your citations, keep you organized, save you time locating the information if you need to review it a second or third time, help other project members access the same information you did, and, ultimately, let your reader know how to get to the information. You’ll save yourself and everyone else time and energy.

Columbus gets creative with clutter recycling program

Anyone who has ever lived in a college town knows that the end of the school year is a trash scavenger’s dream. When students move out of their dorms and apartments, they put on the curb and in large dumpsters anything they don’t wish to take with them to the next chapter of their lives. Anything that isn’t looted, is piled into trash trucks and taken to the city dump.

A lot of these trashed items are in good working order and could be used by someone else. However, after partying it up in celebration of the end of finals, the last thing anyone wants to do is find good homes for their unwanted things.

The Ohio State University has a program that not only helps students responsibly get rid of their clutter at the end of the semester, but it is also available for residents of the Columbus area to use. The program is called “Dump and Run” and The Columbus Dispatch says that the donated items are evaluated, priced, and then sold at the beginning of the semester in a huge yard sale.

For the past six years, dump volunteers have collected hand-me-downs and sold them at thrifty prices to students and bargain-hungry adults in the greater Columbus area. “It’s a great way to reduce waste in landfills, and it has a lot of appeal for students and Columbus residents,” said Podrasky, a junior majoring in environmental policy and management.

Sue Kelly, 54, and husband, Scott Dagenfield, 56, donated her late father’s wooden office desk to make room for a new recliner in her mother’s home.

Nearly 30 years old, the desk is in mint condition.

To encourage students to donate, dump organizers placed bins in each of the college’s residence halls May14. That collection runs until Friday.

Last year, students collected nearly 7 tons of items, said Rachel Gapa, program co-chairwoman.

Thanks to reader Mary for letting us know about this program. Hopefully spreading the word about it will help other college towns learn about this terrific clutter-recycling program.

Combatting backpack clutter

Reader Lisa, a college student, wrote in to Unclutterer asking if we might be able to help her with her backpack woes:

Pens and pencils, chapstick, scissors, flash drives, cell phone, iPod, granola bars, random electronics cables, pens, calculators, flashcards, earrings, more pens … etc, etc. And not only do I wind up with all this unwanted stuff, when I do want something I can never find it! I most definitely need some help.

I thought about saving this question for Friday’s Ask Unclutterer column, but with school starting for so many students I thought earlier might be better than later.

The first thing you’ll want to do is assess what you need to carry with you each day. The list you gave is a good starting point, but you probably also carry notebooks, textbooks, paper, folders, keys, and a few other odds and ends with you. Whatever these things are, set them out on a table so that you can see them all at once.

Next, evaluate these things. Are you missing anything you regularly need? Do you have duplicate items? Are the items in good condition? Are the objects durable for constant travel? Get rid of anything you don’t need and get your hands on those things you do need for the school year.

When evaluating durability, you’ll want to be honest with yourself about how hard you are on things. When I was in school, I found that I couldn’t use paper folders. Three or four weeks into the semester they would be torn and tattered. I had to use three-ring binders for all of my notes and an aluminum portfolio for my artwork (I started college as a painting major). This also meant that I carried a small three-hole punch at the front of each binder so that I could immediately store all of the handouts. (I also loaded 100 or so loose-leaf sheets of notebook paper into each binder for taking class-specific notes.)

Be sure to use sturdy containers for food stuffs, like your granola bars. It’s never fun to find smooshed up food at the bottom of your bag. And, don’t forget to regularly clean this container.

You will also want a backpack organizer of some kind to give all of your tools a proper place to live. I prefer the pocket organizers like the one pictured, but you could easily get a pencil case and put all of your supplies into one zipper pouch.

Finally, set up a routine for when you get home to immediately process all of the contents of your backpack. Much like you would sort mail, you will want to recycle, trash, scan, file, wash, and deal with everything from your bag. Within five minutes of arriving home, your bag should be empty except for your tools stored in your backpack organizer.

Lisa, I hope this advice helps to get your backpack organized. Good luck at school!

Heading back to college in organized style

Last summer, our intern Julia was heading into her junior year of college, lived in a dorm, and had great advice to share on getting a college dorm room organized. This summer, our intern Tim is working on his Ph.D., is married, and is a genius at writing computer code. Tim’s skill set is perfect for the technical needs at Unclutterer and Dancing Mammoth, but he has been away from a dorm room almost as long as I have.

So, we thought we would point you to three wonderful blog posts we have seen this week on Lifehacker on the subject of back-to-school issues for college students instead of asking Tim to stop writing code. Everyone wins. Enjoy!

Getting Things Done explained for students on Lifehacker:

… Contexts are an awesome way of organizing assignment to-dos. Instead of having one daunting list of homework, you separate each item by what materials you need to get it done. That way, when you’re trying do a little HW at your work-study job, you’re not trying to read books you don’t have with you or look up files that are on your desktop at the dorm …

DesignYourDorm takes the guessing out of moving in:

… Just supply your school, residence hall, and room number during registration, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a 3D model of your room. The site doesn’t have replicas of every room in every university in their database, but they allow users to add floor plans, meaning that in time it’ll only get better …

Also, 10 must-dos for the first week of college:

Start your (note-taking) engines: Get in the habit of writing everything down from the very first meeting of the class. Keeping your hands moving (we mean taking notes) will help you actively engage with the lecture, and will pay dividends when you discover that 80 percent of the midterm is based on class lectures.

Have you spotted any college organizing advice in the past few weeks on other blogs? Share them in the comments.

Workspace of the Week: Dorm room diligence

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Xeraphine’s collegiate corner:

Keeping a desk in a dorm room in an uncluttered state is difficult work, even for the most organized of students. Reader Xeraphine keeps this Yale University space well maintained and efficient. The wireless keyboard gets rid of cord clutter, the dual purpose task lighting and pen cup saves space, and the sliding shelf provides storage for notebooks and paper. To the right of the desk is a printer and stand with four drawers (I imagine Xeraphine’s books are kept in the drawers). Recently, Xeraphine added a DIY cardboard computer stand that hides cables and props up the computer. Thank you, Xeraphine, for sharing your inspiring dorm room office with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Workspace of the Week: A back-to-school space

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Mamichan’s office in aqua and white:

The reason I chose this office this week is because it would be extremely practical for a student in a small space. The deep shelves (which I think are from Ikea) could hold the largest of books. The desk has a small, but satisfactory footprint with a pocket drawer/shelf for supplies. And, the cork board on the right could easily hold schedules, reminders, and inspiration. Thank you, Mamichan, for your submission and I hope it inspires a few students with school at the forefront of their minds!

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

College Life: Invest in a laptop

Today we present Intern Julia’s third installment in her series on back-to-school preparations.

Have you ever lost a notebook or a folder the day before an exam? Do you find yourself recycling pounds of notebooks at the end of the semester? Is there always that one irritating classmate who never goes to class, and then shows up before a test begging for you to Xerox your notes for him?

Taking notes on your laptop eliminates all these problems. If you make sure to backup all your files on an external hard drive or online storage system, you’ll never have to worry about losing your notes at the last minute. You’ll save trees, and you can say goodbye to spirals that eventually warp into wicked metal spikes that get tangled together and slash up your Ultimate Frisbee hand. You also can e-mail the irritating kid your notes, and, in the college bartering system, now he owes you a good turn if you ever happen to miss class yourself.

A laptop at school also eliminates the need for a physical CD collection and a phone in your room with the help of services like Skype. You also can set up an account with Picasa or Flickr and keep all of your photos online instead of littering what little surface area you have.

Get yourself a good lock for your laptop for when it’s in your dorm room, and choose one that is light so that it’s easy to carry with you. A cord that is at least five feet long is also good because you’re not always going to have a fully charged battery and you won’t want to trip people coming into class late. I also suggest that you buy a major brand of computer so that it will be simple to find someone to help you when you inevitably run into technical problems.

Finally, be sure to check out The Unofficial Apple Weblog’s article “Back to School: collecting and organizing information” for many great programs to keep your work organized this year. A number of the programs mentioned in the article have PC counterparts, so don’t be fooled by the site name. The article is a must-read roundup.

Help Evan find the perfect desk

Reader Evan sent us the following question:

I’m an engineering student, with tons of books and papers, so I love having a big open desk to work on, but I won’t have the space in my new flat. I have an idea of using a folding desk so that when it’s not in use, it’s not in the way. Plus, it’ll force me to put away all my junk! The problem is, I can’t find anything that seems to fit the bill — all I see are cheap card tables! Can you help me find something functional, yet attractive? Of course, if you have any other tips, I’d be delighted to hear them!

I immediately thought of numerous possibilities for Evan … and then noticed he said “flat.” An inquiry proved that he, in fact, is in London. Not a single one of the options that came to my mind could be found in the UK.

Instead of sending him a reply of “sorry, I can’t help,” I thought I would open up the comments to our European readers to lend Evan a hand. What suggestions do those of you across the pond have for him? Evan and I are interested in seeing your responses!

A simple reminder

I had a conversation the other day with our summer intern, Julia, that has stayed with me. During the conversation, she talked about how college forces many students to live with very few possessions. That a dorm room can only hold a limited number of things and most kids survive on a couple dollars a day.

I thought about my own experience, and she was right. I had a lot of fun in college even though I didn’t have much money or much stuff. I have a few more responsibilities now, but not many. I had a part-time job, 18 hours of course work most semesters, and a car. Now, I have a full-time job, no classes, a spouse, a house, and a car. The list isn’t drastically different, but I have acquired significantly more stuff since college.

I’ve made a sign and hung it above my desk that reads “Simple living frees you to simply live.” I need it to help me remember that it isn’t stuff that makes me happy, but the people and experiences I choose to bring into my life. Thank you, Intern Julia, for reminding me of this valuable fact.

Workspace of the Week: Student office

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Natasha’s writing, photo-editing, bill-paying, and studying home office:

One of the features I like best about this workspace is how the books in the room are only those Natasha needs for her current semester of school. I also applaud Natasha for posting a picture of the inside of her desk drawer.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Managing collegiate paperwork

Reader Cody wrote to us a few weeks ago asking if we had any back-to-school advice for college students. Matt started our response to this question by addressing ways to organize a dorm room. Now, I’m going to discuss managing the constant flow of paperwork associated with college life.

My first piece of advice is to get your hands on Captio’s CollegeCase or a similar product. I wish I would have had something like this back in my undergraduate days. In times of emergencies, being this organized would have really helped. If you’re ever burglarized, in a car wreck, curious as to which cafeterias your meal plan includes, you can find all of these answers in one well-designed notebook.