Why computer backups matter

160930-externalhddIt’s been over a year since I last encouraged you to have a computer backup strategy in place, and some recent news made me want to emphasize this once again. More than ever, many of us store precious photos and documents on our computers, so taking the time to back them up properly is vital. The following stories illustrate just some of the reasons for having those backups.

Protecting against fire (or other natural disasters)

The following story by Matt Sledge in The New Orleans Advocate had a happy ending, but it could have ended tragically:

Gideon Hodge, 35, describes himself as a playwright, novelist and actor. When his fiancée told him that their apartment was on fire, he left work in Mid-City and rushed to the scene. That’s when he realized that his only copies of two completed novels were on a laptop inside. …

Hodge dashed into the building. He ran past the smoke and the firefighters yelling at him to stop and managed to grab the precious laptop.

“Anybody that’s ever created art, there’s no replacing that,” Hodge said. “It’s got pretty much my life’s work.”

Hodge could have been seriously hurt, and his laptop could have been unsalvageable. Fortunately, everything worked out fine. But if he just had an offsite backup, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to take such a risk.

Protecting against hard drive failures

The Advocate has an eye-catching photo of Hodge running into his home to get his computer. But as Dinah Sanders wrote on Twitter:

No one is going to take dramatic photos of “Writer frowns quizzically as hard drive just up and catastrophically fails one day.”

Such failures are an ongoing risk computer users face every day, and backups mean we’re protected when they happen.

Protecting against accidentally deleted files

Another situation where backups come in very handy is when a computer update goes wrong. Josh Marshall wrote in great detail about his recent experience using a new feature of Apple’s latest operating system for the Mac. He has both a home computer and a work computer, and when he tried using the new feature, things went very wrong. Without going into all the details (some of which are specific to his set-up), the following is one excerpt from his narrative:

In a flash all the files on my desktop disappeared and were replaced by the files from my work desktop.

Arghghgghhgghgh!

Anyone who has had an update go wrong can imagine how this would feel. Fortunately, Marshall had a good up-to-date backup and was able to restore all his files.

Protecting against theft

Michael Zhang wrote about one sad story on the PetaPixel website, where the lack of offsite backups was devastating:

Oakland-based photographer Jennifer Little had her home broken into last week, and her loss was devastating. In addition to stealing 8 of her cameras, the burglars also took 21 hard drives containing Little’s life’s work as a professional photographer.

Our precious computer files are the opposite of clutter. I would hate for any Unclutterer readers to lose any such files, so please take the time to create and implement a thoughtful backup strategy (if you haven’t already) that includes files on your computer and any files you’ve offloaded from your computer to external hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, or DVDs.

An organized way to bring a new gadget into use

Whenever you receive a new goodie, like a new phone or tablet, it’s an exciting time. But don’t just tear into the box! There’s an organized way to bring a new gadget into your life, and the following is advice for making that transition as smooth as possible.

Carefully open the packaging

This might sound ridiculously obvious to you or it might seem just ridiculous. “Dave, it’s the box. Who cares?” There are several reasons to care, and the first is the gadget’s future resale value. I upgrade my iPhone every two years. I always sell my current model to help pay for the new one. Having the pristine original box helps with shipping and final asking price. Also, if you aggressively tear into a box, you could affect the contents. You don’t want to scratch a screen or case before you even turn on the device. Finally, think of returns. There’s always the possibility that your new doo-dad won’t work as advertised. A UPC code, the security tags, and intact contents are essential when trying to make a return.

Take your time, keep things neat and store that box in a safe place if you might return or resell the item.

Read the manual

If you’re not going to read it, at least skim the manual. Some gadgets come with a “quick start” guide. I always review those. Yes, you probably know how this works, but maybe not. Read/skim the manual and then store it in a safe place for future reference. I also recommend making a digital copy after some time has passed and if you’re not planning to return or resell the item.

Register the item

This is the step that nearly everyone skips. I always spend a few minutes registering my products, especially pricey electronics. It will make service easier should you need it someday. Additionally, if there’s an update or other notification that owners need, like a recall, you’re more likely to receive that information if your product has been registered.

Buy an extra power cord

If your device charges up with a cable, buy an extra one. I keep one in my laptop bag at all times. You might bring an extra to work or simply keep it around for when the first one gets frayed or otherwise stops working. You might want to somehow identify it as your own. My kids love to steal iPhone cables, so I make sure we all know which is mine.

Scan the receipt

Finally, scan the receipt and store it digitally in a place you can easily retrieve it if necessary.

Dig into the product

Now that all this preparation work has been handled, take the product out of the box and use it. Transfer data from your previous gadget and set up preferences.

The internet of things and home organization

Last week, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the world wide web (launched August 23, 1991). The phenomenal convenience — and distraction — we know today has evolved tremendously since then, from massive computers to the gadgets in our pockets. So what’s next? Engineers and computer scientists think it’s the “internet of things.”

What is the internet of things, or “IoT”? For our purposes, a working definition is:

“Every day objects with internet connectivity that are able to send and receive data.”

In other words, objects in your home that can grab information from the internet. It’s a compelling idea that has already spawned several interesting devices. But, will it help or hinder home organization? I looked at a few of the more popular IoT products to find an answer.

The Amazon Echo

Amazon’s voice-controlled, internet-connected speaker is part music box, part storefront, and a Siri-like personal assistant. Once plugged in and set up, the Amazon Echo cylinder knows when you’re talking to it and can provide, among other things, streaming music, weather, news, and the opportunity to buy from Amazon.com. How does it fare as an organizational device?

The benefit is the growing collection of services that are available in one place. You’ll get the news stories and streaming music that I mentioned before, but the Echo can also check your Google calendar, read audio books from Audible, even order you a pizza from Dominos. Mostly, it’s about efficiency and convenience. If you like using Amazon.com and want to talk to a device instead of type, it could save you time and be of assistance. If not, the phone in your pocket most likely already does similar things.

Key Finder Tags

Bluetooth-powered key finder tags like the Tile, the Chipolo and the Duet are cute, unobtrusive little doodads (not a technical term) that you connect to items you’re likely to misplace: keys, purses, backpacks, etc. Once paired with our smartphone via the accompanying app, it helps you find where your times have gone.

These get a ringing endorsement from me for their time-saving capabilities. I include “misplacing things I need” among my hobbies. It’s an annoying hobby, but also all too real. Key finder tags greatly reduce the time I spend stomping around the house in frustration.

Smart Lights

There are many Wi-Fi ready, “smart” lighting systems to choose from, each with varying degrees of functioning. The Switchmate, for example, is a tiny piece of hardware that fits over your existing light switch. Installation is as simple as taking the Switchmate out of the box and placing it over a switch. Install the app and it’s ready to use. From there, you can turn lights on and off with the tap of an app.

Meanwhile, the Philips Hue adds more functionality. These smart bulbs can be controlled by a mobile app to turn on and off when you like, notice when you’re home, and so on. They’ll also change the very hue of the light they put out and let you save the various combinations of reds, blues, etc. to meet your mood.

Perhaps I’m a crotchety old man, but my first impulse is, “Can’t I just hit a switch?” In part this seems like a solution looking for a problem. But I see how it could be handy to have your house illuminate as you approach, or turn lights on and off while you’re out, to make would-be intruders think there’s someone at home. In short, I think smart lighting systems are a fun convenience, but not a massive help. At this point, they seem like one more thing to break or go wrong, especially if your home WiFi is out.

Digital notes to manage kids’ activities

Digital note apps are fantastic for easily taking information with you. I use Evernote as my cold storage for reference material. (That is, information that doesn’t require action, but might be useful in the future.) This has been my primary use for digital tools for years … until I had kids.

Today, I’m constantly recording information into Evernote to help me manage everything related to my kids. For example, I need to remember the address for Jane’s mom’s/dad’s house, or the dance studio, all the soccer fields, and so on, and this recorded information helps me do it. If it weren’t for a digital notes app, I’d end up texting my wife for that information or asking the kids to text their friends and then share the answers with me — a total waste of time.

To keep things organized and to save me time, I use text documents in Evernote for each new piece of information. I’ve designed what I refer to as a “Kid Info Database.” Any text note I create includes all of the following relevant tags:

  • Daughter’s name
  • Son’s name
  • Friends
  • Address
  • Activity

That’s it. I can search any of those tags and bring up all the relevant notes. For example, “Jane Address Grace Friends” brings up the driving directions to Jane’s house as well as a live link to Google Maps. The same goes for dance, scouts, and sports. It’s easy to set up and is very useful.

I can add to the list at any time simply by adding one of the tags to the notes I create. The link to Google Maps is excellent too, as I can get turn-by-turn directions from any starting point. Leaving Jane’s mom’s house and heading to the dance studio? No problem.

Using Evernote in this way has been a real shift for me as, like I said, I’ve always considered apps like Evernote to be a digital filing cabinet. Now, it’s a dynamic database that I use daily. If you’re like me, give this a try. It’s better than constantly texting people, “What is Jane’s address again?”

Are digital Everything Buckets a good filing system?

Services like Evernote and Pocket make a compelling case in favor of the Everything Bucket: capturing information is easy (simply save information and don’t spend time filing it into a topic-related folder) and finding what you need when you need it is easy with a powerful search engine (search with keywords instead of drilling through folders).

Meanwhile, the idea of all your stuff in a pile, be it digital or physical, makes some people itch. Everything is together! In one place! There is no order!

The choice to use an Everything Bucket versus filing data into subfolders is a personal one and there are advantages and disadvantages to the Bucket system when considering it. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses can help you make a decision for what filing system is right for YOU.

As mentioned above, adding new items to an Everything Bucket is a breeze. Evernote’s web clipper, for example, lets you quickly stash any page you like. You can even grab a specific snippet from a website, if a paragraph is all you need. Meanwhile, desktop shortcuts make it just as easy to add items as you work.

Tagging helps you find items later. Simply attaching a tag like “recipe” or “receipts” to an item, you can make it easy to find information later when you do your search. Speaking of search, that really is the marquee feature of programs like Evernote and Pocket. Simply open the “bucket app” of your choice, enter a word or phrase into its search bar and up pops what you need.

You also can go paperless and have access to your stuff virtually wherever you are, even on a mobile device. It sounds like a good deal, right? But there are downsides.

First up in the strikes against the Everything Bucket: they discourage the use of a structured file system. In exchange for ease and speed, you let the computer make sense of your collection. It will do just that, as computers are more effective with organized data. The program will build an index to make sense of that pile, which takes time and effort. If you’re a Mac owner and you have a slow machine pretty much immediately after updating the operating system, it’s likely because Spotlight is making a new index of your disorganized data.

In the case of an Everything Bucket, you’re inviting an application into your daily workflow that could possibly go out of business in the next couple years. If it does, hopefully you’ll be given notice so you can export your data or, at the very least, operate the existing app but not be able to add more information to it.

There is a middle ground, should these Everything Bucket concepts only partially make your skin crawl.

One thing you can do is use what I think of as dedicated or specialty buckets:

  • Evernote is for reference material I will one-day want but have no immediate need for. (I call this “cold storage.”)
  • Recipes I want to try are handled by Paprika.
  • Web links for things I want to go back and read are saved to Pocket.

Instead of filing into subfolders, it’s as if I’m filing into apps. Within those apps, however, there are no subfolders, only an Everything Bucket.

Organize digital lists with Google Keep

Google Keep is the company’s note-taking app and to-do manager that works on nearly every device you throw at it: computer, iPhone, Andriod phone, or tablet. It gets the job done and is quite pleasant to use. If you’re looking for a digital list manager or to-do app, Keep is one to consider.

Keep didn’t get the recognition it deserved upon launch and that’s because of the inevitable, yet unfair comparison, to Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote. I say unfair because it’s not meant to be the all-encompassing tool that other apps clearly are. Instead, Keep is a synching notepad for Google Drive that lets you quickly record notes, photos, voice memos, lists, and the like to Google Drive, all of which are then accessible via the devices I mentioned earlier. And that’s just the start.

Notes are color-coded and entirely searchable. That means you can search the entire body of a note, not just its title. Speaking of search, that works on notes you’ve deleted, too. That’s because, much like Gmail, notes aren’t deleted but archived out of sight. If you need information you thought you were done with, you can still find it.

Keep is also fast. My yardstick for speed for this type of app is in comparison to pen and paper. While not quite that good, Keep is speedy enough that it will “disappear” as you use it. That is to say, you’re not paying attention to/thinking about the app, you’re just writing down what you need to record.

You can set reminders, create labels, and re-arrange notes, so that similar ones — errands, home, shopping, etc. — are right next to each other.

After more than a week of playing around with Google Keep, I’ve moved it to my iPhone’s home screen (a coveted position). For its speed, simplicity, and cross-device sync, Keep is a keeper.

Ways to take advantage of digital photography advancements and still stay organized

Digital photography is changing the hobby of photography in interesting ways. The most obvious change is the ease with which we can fire off 300 photos in a matter of minutes. As a result, we’ve got bulging digital photo libraries that have tech companies struggling to organize for us. Additionally, The Next Web reminded me of the emerging changes that we’re still working to understand. The following are explanations of some of the changes taking place and possible solutions to issues those changes might create.

Photos as short-term memory

When I park my car in a huge public lot, I always take a shot of my parking space (“5F” for example) to help me remember where I parked. I do the same when driving a rental car, so I don’t forget which car in the lot is mine. And before driving out of the rental lot, I capture all the angles of the car to have proof of pre-existing scratches or issues that existed before I rented the car.

More recently, I took a photo of a poster advertising a walking tour that looked like fun. As with the shot in the garage, the intention wasn’t to capture a moment, it was to capture information.

Photos as file sharing

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from my wife who was at work. “Can you go into my bag and find [Paper X]? I need you to send me a photo of it.” In this situation, she needed the information on a paper she left at home, and a photo of said paper — while not ideal — was the easiest way to get her the information she needed.

Photos as shopping list

I take images of specific shopping items a lot. If I need to buy a special lightbulb or odd battery for something at home, a quick picture of that product saves me from having to lug it with me to the store.

Often times I’m out shopping with my wife when she expresses interest in something that I think will make a great gift. I’ll covertly take a photo of it to remind myself when the time comes to give her something. It’s really handy when, months later, I’m trying to remember exactly which scarf she meant.

How to manage these types of photos?

As Boris Veldhuijzen Van Zanten noted in his article on The Next Web, an ideal situation would feature apps that recognize when we’ve taken a throw-away photo or an image that’s meant for short-term memory, and act accordingly. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Until our phones get smarter about digital photo management, we must be proactive.

First, if you’re backing up your photos to a cloud service like Dropbox, Google, or Apple’s iCloud, save yourself some space and don’t back up these shots. I use an app called Camera+. It allows me to shoot photos that aren’t sent to my phone’s camera roll where they’re automatically synchronized with my remote backup. Temporary photos I take exclusively with this app.

Next, remember to delete those one-offs. This isn’t the best tip, I know, but it will save you storage space as well as those “Why did I take a picture of this?” moments in the future.

Of course, you can turn to dedicated apps to help you manage these photos. Evernote is fantastic for long-term storage and supports photo notes beautifully. Gift Planner (free, iPhone) and Gifty (Android) will let you keep track of presents you’d like to buy. Lastly, Tiny Scanner for iPhone (free) and Smart Receipts (Android) will let you “scan” legible images of receipts and more.

Book review: Your Digital Afterlife

Some of our most precious possessions are now in digital form. In many cases, email has replaced hand-written or typed letters. Digital photos have largely replaced those taken with film. And then there are the components of our on-line presence: websites, Facebook pages, etc.

Your Digital Afterlife, by Evan Carroll and John Romano, explains how you can help ensure that these items get handled according to your wishes after your death. The book is copyright 2011, which might make you think it’s dated. But while specifics regarding websites may change, most of the book deals with issues and strategies, not the tools you might choose to use. And the legal status of digital executors and digital estate plans, largely undefined at the time the book was written, is still largely undefined — although some states have passed legislation about this.

The first part of the book explains why planning for your digital afterlife is so important and why that can be challenging. For example, the authors wrote, “One of the many issues with preserving your digital content is that much of it does not reside on a computer over which you have direct control.” The service providers you rely on may go out of business or may have terms of service that restrict how others can access your account after your death.

There are also issue related the sheer volume of our digital stuff. The authors wisely suggested:

Do your heirs a favor and think ahead during your life and tend to your date. Curate and weed your collections. Consider tagging your favorites, deleting the duplicates, editing them, and tagging them. … You could certainly keep all of your photos, but be sure that your favorites are kept separately.

The second half of the book deals with creating an inventory of your digital assets and a plan for sharing that inventory so your wishes can be honored.

The inventory is critical because no one can do anything with assets they don’t know exists or that they can’t access. For example, would anyone know I have a subscription to the Associated Press Online Stylebook, that auto-renews, if I didn’t have it in an inventory?

The inventory would include user names and passwords, along with your wishes for how each item should be handled. For example, do you want a social media or photo sharing account to be deleted? Do you want some photos within those accounts to be shared with others?

While the authors show the inventory as a spreadsheet, I realized my item listing in 1Password can serve as my inventory. I would just need to add comments indicating what I’d like done with each item.

Once you have the inventory, you need to determine how the right person gets access to that inventory after your death. If you totally trust the other person, as I trust my brother, you might send that person a copy of the inventory file — or make sure the person knows how to access your computer where the inventory is stored. Otherwise, there are digital estate services that can provide information to the appropriate person once they receive the necessary documentation, including a death certificate.

Your Digital Afterlife is a quick read. Some of the early chapters seemed to be stating the obvious, so I skimmed through them. The inventory forms seemed a bit too simple in some cases — for example, they had no place to enter the answers to the questions that some sites (such as my bank) ask before granting access to your account. But the general concepts are logical and well explained. It’s a good book for getting you started thinking about a complex and sensitive topic.

Have a family technology manager

Keeping your tech gadgets in working order is an aspect of general home maintenance. Just like you make sure the refrigerator is running well and the rain gutters are clean, many contemporary home owners must maintain a family’s digital life. To that end, it’s helpful to designate a “family IT manager.”

I want to differentiate this role from that tech-savvy family member who begrudgingly answers computer questions over the holidays. While it’s nice to tap into that person’s knowledge, he or she isn’t a long-term fix for ongoing needs. Plus, it’s easier than you think to adopt this role yourself by focusing on three main areas: passwords, backups, and updates

Family passwords

For many, password management is a bag of hurt. You’ve got yours, your spouse has others, and the kids have theirs. Managing multiple databases is a nightmare, especially when you’re standing in the hotel lobby and the password you need is on a 3×5 index card in a drawer back home. The best thing you can do is get everyone’s passwords and usernames in a centralized, secure, and accessible location.

1Password Family is what I recommend. For $5 per month, a family of five gets an accessible, shared repository of passwords and other critical information. Safely store information like passwords, credit card information, secure notes, and more, including 1GB of secure document storage. Plus, the online tool is so easy to use, and there’s an app for nearly every operating system.

Take charge of backups

Some day you will need to restore something from a backup. It’s going to happen, so be prepared. I talked with Peter Cohen about this, technology writer at Backblaze who also has experience working with Mac users in a retail setting. “My customers generally broke into three categories,” he told me. “Never backed up, never thought it was important; backed up once, a while ago, and then for whatever reason stopped; or came in with a backup ready to go. Of those three customers, only the last one typically walked away happy.”

Peter recommended a two-tiered backup approach. “Back up locally with an external hard drive and an app like Apple’s Time Machine, paired with offsite backup through a cloud service like Backblaze (starting at $5/month) or CrashPlan (free starter plan, as well as paid options). It’s twice the effort but it also eliminates any single point of failure that will keep you from accessing vital data.” Eliminating a single point of failure is something I’ve discussed on Unclutterer before.

If you have lighter backup needs, consider Arq. For a one-time fee of $40, you can backup to your own cloud storage (Dropbox, Amazon web services, etc.).

At the very least, use a cloud service like Dropbox or Box.net as your computer’s “Documents” folder. That way, when your hard drive on your computer dies (and it will), you need only to log into Dropbox for its replacement.

Maintaining the hardware and software

Finally, you’ll need to contend with hardware and software updates. The former is pretty easy, as it becomes obvious when a computer, phone, gaming console, or TV needs to be replaced. I go for a new computer every six or seven years, and I’ll replace a TV, well…when smoke comes out of it. I tend to hang on to TVs.

Likewise, your computer or mobile device will prompt you when an update is available. Designate a person to be in charge of running these updates, either the device’s owner or the family IT manager.

I want to make a special note about Apple’s auto-update feature for iPhones, iPads, and Macs. When enabled, a device can download and install updates on its own. It’s convenient, hands-off, but potentially problematic, as it’s possible to auto-install an update that breaks something. I recommend enabling auto-updates with caveats.

I discussed this topic with Mike Rose, Solution Engineer at Salesforce and a former colleague of mine. Mike noted that if a device is more than four years old, do not enable auto update. Gadgets like iPads, iPhones, and Macs have a ceiling for operating systems. It’s possible for a piece of software to receive an update that renders it unusable. If your device is only a couple of years old, go ahead and enable auto updates. I completely agree with this advice.

I hope this was helpful. Another aspect of this job could be supporting remote family members, like those in another town or state. But that’s another post entirely.

Uncluttering your smartphone apps

“You only really use three apps on your phone.” That was the headline on an article I read a few weeks ago, written by Dan Frommer on the Quartz website. As Frommer goes on to explain, “The average American spends 50% of their app time in their most-used app, and almost 80% in their top three apps, according to comScore.”

Reading that article made me think about my own collection of smartphone apps, so I decided to take a look. And I wound up doing a fair amount of uncluttering after I did. Here’s what I wound up deleting:

Shopping-related apps

I had a number of apps designed to help me buy from companies whose actions align with my values. Similarly, I had an app to help me select seafood that isn’t being overharvested. While this all sounds useful, I realized I never used these apps.

I tend to do any research before I go shopping, and therefore I don’t need an app on my phone. And if I buy the same things repeatedly (the same brand of toilet paper, etc.) I don’t need to research each individual purchase. Also, some of the apps were just too complex to be helpful.

Writing-related apps

Having used a smartphone for a number of years, I realized I just don’t take notes or write documents on my phone, so there’s no need to keep an assortment of apps for this purpose.

Reading-related apps

I tend to get my news from a few specific sources, and I kept the apps that I use for that purpose. But I had six apps from newspapers, magazines, and news-focused websites that I never looked at, so they are gone now. I also don’t read books on my small-screen smartphone — I save that for my tablet — so I deleted the book-reading apps, too.

Multiple apps for the same purpose

Instapaper and Pocket are both apps for saving things from the web to read later, so I didn’t need both. Since I happened to start using Pocket and was satisfied with it, I deleted Instapaper.

I also noticed I had two apps that seemed to serve a similar purpose, but when I investigated I found one was intended for California residents and one was intended for residents of a different state. Since I live in California, that’s the one I kept.

I do have two apps for the weather, but even though they are similar I use both of them at different times, so I kept both.

Outdated apps

One app I had was related to a conference I went to about nine months ago. I sure don’t need that app any more.

Mystery apps

I had two apps that I didn’t even recognize. One wound up being an exercise app and one was a news/social media app. I’m sure they sounded good at some point in time! But I’ll never use either one, so I deleted them.

The results: Once my apps were cleaned up, it was easier to organize them on my phone, just as it’s easier to organize all sorts of things in our homes and offices once the clutter is gone. I notice the difference every day, so I’m glad I took a bit of time to do the cleanup. If you do a similar uncluttering, you may see the same benefit.

I’m also saving space on my phone, which leaves me room to add things I might want — more music or podcasts, for example — in the future. Again, this is like eliminating other clutter: It makes room for new things to enter your space (if you so desire) that align with your current needs and tastes.

Offloading unwanted stuff

Receiving gifts at the holidays is fun, but it also means there’s now more stuff in your home. A few years ago, we outlined what to do with unwanted toys, including donation, repurposing, and selling. This time, we’ll look at options for moving your unwanted items of all kinds out of your home.

Yerdle

The premise is simple: “Post a pic of your unused stuff and swap it for what you want.” Take a nice photo of an item you no longer need (a tutorial on taking great product photos from the folks at Ebay will serve you well). Next, post your photos to Yerdle with a brief description. When someone likes what you have, they’ll request it. The folks at Yerdle will send you a shipping label (as long as your package is under 10 pounds). You then earn “Yerdle Bucks” that you can spend on items that you want.

Gone

Another option is Gone. The goal with Gone is to make the offloading process as easy as possible. In fact, once you’ve listed what you’ve got for sale, the folks at Gone find the best possible price for your item for you, as well as providing shipping labels and getting you paid via check, PayPal, or Amazon.com Gift Card.

OfferUp

OfferUp focuses on what’s available to you locally. It’s got more of a focus on buying than selling (the site looks like store), but you can definitely offload items to OfferUp.

Selling/donating older phones and tablets

Many people use the December holidays as the opportunity to upgrade their smartphones and tablets. While you can find a new role for your old tablet or phone, you’ve also got the option to sell or donate it.

Be sure to prepare a smartphone or table for resale or donation, including:

  1. Removing all data, and
  2. Finding the vendor you’ll use to sell or donate your phone

Companies like Apple, AT&T and Sprint (among others) have buy-back programs, while groups like Cell Phones for Soldiers and Goodwill will accept your donations.

As for choosing a vendor, you have several options if you wish to sell your device. Gazelle and GreenCitizen will both buy your devices if they meet their guidelines.

Old standbys

Of course, you can’t deny old favorites like Ebay and Craigslist. Additionally, a few years ago we looked at four ways to sell unwanted stuff, like yard sales and and consignment shops. Finally, we know it can be hard to part with sentimental items, and we addressed that issue in 2010.

The take-away here is to make room for the wonderful new things that will enter your home this holiday season.

Is organizing email into folders a waste of time?

Recent research conducted by IBM Research [PDF] suggests that people who searched their inboxes found emails slightly faster than those who had filed them by folder. Email management is something I struggle with every day, so this study grabbed my attention. Even after reading it, I don’t know how to feel.

Many years ago I was meeting with a supervisor who wanted me to see an email she had received. “Just a minute,” she said, and opened up her email software. For the next few minutes, I watched as she scrolled through thousands of messages, looking for the one I needed to see. It was frustrating for both of us, and at that moment I swore I’d never be in that position. In the very first post I ever wrote for Unclutterer, I described my reasoning for never storing messages in my email software. But was that the right move?

This study looked at the behavior of 345 subjects. Noting that email “critically affects productivity,” the authors state that “…despite people’s reliance on email, fundamental aspects of its usage are still poorly understood.” They looked at people who simply use their email software’s search function to find what they’re after vs. those who set up folders by topic. The results, surprisingly, were in favor of the former:

“People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.”

In other words, the time spent setting up folders did not improve retrieval. People instead found that they now had multiple inboxes to go through and worse, started using their email software as a to-do manager. That’s definitely a bad idea (calendars, project management programs, and to-do list are more effective).

At work, I receive an obscene amount of email. To combat this, I stated creating topic-specific folders. As of now, I’ve got nearly three dozen folders. Is that helpful? I’m too sure. On one hand, I know where everything is. On the other, I do spend a lot of time working through the various folders. Conversely, Erin reads messages and then files everything into a giant Archive folder that she then uses the search functionality in her email program to look for specific key words, senders, subject lines, dates, attachments, etc. when she needs to retrieve an email. She calls this the “bucket method.” (It all goes into a metaphorical bucket.) The only exception to this are emails about potential unitaskers, which she files in a Unitasker Ideas folder.

I ask you, readers, which method do you use in email? Folders? No folders? Simple search? Something else entirely? Share what you do and how effective you think your method is in the comments. Email is a beast that we all must battle daily, and so far I’ve not found the perfect weapon.