Organizing with an ADHD mind

Today we welcome guest post author Ryan McRae, who is the founder of the website TheADHDnerd (a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive). If you’re interested in learning more, he has a free book for download, Conquering Your Calendar and Getting More Done.

I’ve had ADHD all of my life and I never had the natural ability to organize; I distinctly remember my third grade teacher dumping my desk out when I couldn’t find something. I remember misplacing my wallet constantly and having clutter surrounding me most of my days.

The amount of time I have wasted letting my ADHD run my organizational life could have earned me a Ph.D.

No more. The following are the strategies I use to get my ADHD to cooperate with my need to have my life in order.

Pick your battles

If you are looking to clean your house, your ADHD mind will quickly attempt to deter you from this enormous project. You have to break it down into manageable pieces and if your ADHD still pressures you to catch up on your Netflix queue, break it down into smaller bits and pieces.

Instead of “cleaning the bathroom” decide to simply tidy up the sink and throw out old, empty containers. Once you do that, you’ll find one more task to do and then do that. Set that strategy on “repeat” and you’ll find you cleaned the entire place without firing up “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Double duty

One task I absolutely detest doing is laundry. The entire spectrum of the task from loading the washer to putting away the folded t-shirts puts me into a fit.

So what I do is put on a movie I’ve seen before or a podcast and listen to it while I do this abhorrent task. If there is ever a Kickstarter project that eliminates this task, I’ll put a lot of money behind it.

If you can couple something you love with something you don’t quite enjoy, you’ll be much better off. As Mary Poppins said, “A little This American Life makes the laundry get put away…”

Develop routines

When I used to get home from work, I’d change out of my work clothes, flop down on the couch, and think about what dinner was going to be. Many times I didn’t get up from the couch. I noticed that the next day I couldn’t remember what I did with my keys and where my shoes were. My mornings didn’t start off great and left me no time for coffee. And who has two thumbs and loves coffee? This guy.

So I had to develop a routine that I would launch into as soon as I went home so I knew where my stuff was as well as leave me room for my beloved nectar, my best friend, coffee.

When I get home now, I simply do the following:

  • Grab the mail and go through it and only take in the house what I need to process. Throw out the rest.
  • Empty my pockets in the container by my front door immediately.
  • Change out of work shirt and evaluate if it can be worn again: hamper or hang it.
  • Wash hands
  • Fix Dinner

I do this every time. This way I know where everything goes and I don’t have to sweat getting my evening going. I’ve built a great morning routine and before-bed routine as well. This minimizes my stress and headaches searching and wondering what I’m doing next.

Maintenance day

I stole this idea from Chris Bailey in The Productivity Project. Having one day, a maintenance day, to do all of your low energy tasks is much wiser than alternating between something that takes a lot of time (cleaning out the garage) and then trying to do something simple (dusting the living room). Batch all of your simple tasks together.

He calls these “low-return” tasks. Instead of doing them throughout the week, depleting some willpower throughout the week, just knock them out all in one day.

For example:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Clean house and office
  • Do laundry
  • Water plants
  • Clear out the inboxes

Since my Thursday is my maintenance day, I will get up early, and attempt to get all these little tasks done before 1:00 p.m. It’s my own personal competition — this way they are cleared out for the week and I can set my mind on other larger projects.

Simplify

ADHD can trick me into being collectors of all kinds of things. My weakness is t-shirts. My t-shirt collection grows due to sales and convention swag every year. I can’t get enough t-shirts.

It becomes a storage issue quite quickly. So I have my own personal Hunger Games when it comes to my t-shirts. Once I can’t fit the folded shirts in the drawer, it’s elimination time.

I use my ADHD to quickly assess which t-shirts will remain and which will be donated to the local thrift store. I simply sort them and if they don’t grab my attention, they must go. If I try it on and it’s a bit of a stretch, it is soon eliminated.

Scan, store, or shred

Paperwork can grow like this overwhelming kudzu, filling the desk and creeping into every bare surface in the house. When it comes to paperwork, there are only three choices.

Paperwork I know that I need in a moment’s notice, I’ll scan using my smartphone. I save everything on Evernote and make sure it’s secure. Examples of what I scan are: travel itineraries, passport information, and my car insurance card.

When I need to store something larger, I have a file folder system — this is for manuals, workbooks, etc.

Otherwise, I shred it and don’t look back.

Avoiding the clutter of free stuff

When you stay at a hotel, you’ll usually be provided with toiletries that are free for you to take along: shampoo, shower gel, hand lotion, etc. However, some people seem to feel compelled to take these at every hotel they visit, and they wind up with huge unused stashes at home.

It makes sense to take the toiletries under specific circumstances:

  • You didn’t open them, and there’s a charity you support that needs such things. And you’ll be able to drop off donations in the near future.
  • You used them, and you really like them. You want to use the remainder and maybe order more — or just enjoy an extra bit of luxury. I rarely take hotel toiletries, but this happened to me on my last stay.
  • You used them, and they were just okay, but there’s enough left that you hate to see the partially used bottles go to waste. You’ll take them home and use them yourself or you’ll give them away using Freecycle or some other organization that accepts open bottles.

That last one can be problematic — will you really use those toiletries or pass them along? Or will they just sit in a cupboard for years? If you already have a collection of such bottles, it’s a good sign that perhaps you should just leave these new ones behind.

Other things you might take if you will use them (or donate them) include sewing kits, note pads, and pens. But this advice from Mikey Rox on Money Crashers seemed odd to me:

While I don’t personally need to shine my shoes, I can still use that small shoeshine kit as a stocking stuffer or to add to a grown-up Easter basket.

I don’t know anyone who would want to get a hotel’s shoeshine kit in a Christmas stocking — but if you do, and you have a place in your home to accumulate stocking stuffers, then taking the kit might make sense. It certainly fits within the list of consumables that hotels expect you to use or take.

If you happen to take long-haul flights or fly in business or first class, you may get an amenity kit with toothpaste, a toothbrush, eyeshades, etc. If you get this on an outbound flight and don’t want to haul unwanted amenities around for the rest of your trip, you might decline to take the kit so things don’t go to waste. But if you want just some of the amenities, there’s often no great option — you either toss the things you don’t want or you let them clutter up your bags until you get home to donate the items you won’t use.

If you do decide you want the hotel toiletries, remember to take time to ensure they won’t leak during the rest of your trip and cause a huge mess. It would be a shame to have a freebie ruin something like your luggage, your clothes, or your electronics.

Book Reviews: Five new releases on simple living and productivity

Five really terrific books have been published in the past few weeks that might be of interest to our readers:

Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do
by Chris Guillebeau

Living an uncluttered life isn’t always about stuff. It’s also about clearing clutter from aspects of your life that keep you from doing what you would rather be doing. Chris’ book is perfect for anyone looking to unclutter a bad job or career from your life to do exactly what you should be doing. This isn’t a “dream big” book that leaves you inspired but without steps and tools to achieve what you want. This book is full of every tool you will need to make your job and/or career change happen. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that I’m a bit of a fangirl when it comes to Chris. One of those reasons is because his advice is based on years of research and includes examples from actual people who have taken his advice and found success with it. If you’re unhappy or disgruntled with your work, his book is exactly what you’ll want to read to move productively in a new direction.

90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more)
by Felice Cohen

A few years ago, we wrote about Felice because she lived such a full life in such an itty-bitty NYC studio apartment. Since that time, she has sat down and written an entire book exploring her strategies for occupying such a tiny place. You don’t have to live in an extremely small space to benefit from the advice in her book, though. I found her text easy to read — it’s mostly lists that are direct and simple to follow. There are 90 “lessons” in the book to go with the 90 square feet theme. If you know any graduates heading to college or a big city with a tiny space, this book would be perfect for him or her.

Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids
by Asha Dornfest

Asha has been writing the ParentHacks website for more than 10 years, and her latest book is a cultivation of all the best advice she’s seen during this time. The book is illustrated and in full color and every page is packed with useful tips to make parenting easier. My favorite thing about this book is how often it transforms objects that on the surface seem to be unitaskers but shows you how they’re really multi-taskers. (16 uses for a baby wipe tub, 13 uses for non-slip shelf liner, 8 uses for a baby bath tub, etc.) If you’re a parent, you will want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is becoming a parent, they will want this book. This book is my new go-to gift for anyone who announces she’s pregnant or becoming a parent in another awesome way. There are so many real-world tips in this book that almost every page contains a piece of advice you can use to make life with kids easier.

The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own
by Joshua Becker

Today is the release of Joshua’s book and it’s perfect for anyone who is coming to uncluttering with the hope of having a more fulfilling life. His book explores the topic of simple living in a much more philosophical manner than what we usually delve into here on Unclutterer. And this minimalist philosophy speaks to a lot of people, so if that sounds like you, pick up this extremely resourceful and guiding text. The advice is solid and practical. It’s not an organizing book — it’s a live with less stuff book. It’s a must-read for anyone looking for a step-by-step guide to minimalism.

The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer
by Helene Segura

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Helene’s book and have been eagerly awaiting its release so I could recommend it to you. If you struggle with productivity and time management, THIS is the book for you. The review I emailed to Helene immediately after finishing reading it sums up my opinions about the helpful text: “The Inefficiency Assassin is a concise, straightforward, and comprehensive plan that provides realistically attainable tactics to solve every major productivity problem. It details precisely how to eliminate these issues so you can have the professional and personal life you desire. With Helene Segura’s help, you can say farewell to guilt and exhaustion and to being overworked and overwhelmed.”

When neat and sloppy live together

A big part of why I write for Unclutterer is because an uncluttered life doesn’t come easily to me. I have to work at avoiding stacks of books, piles of clothes, and misplaced lists. Sharing victories and insights with you helps me discover and reinforce my own best practices.

While my default mode is “deal with it later,” my better half likes things neat, tidy, and sensible. I would’t say we’re Oscar and Felix, but my mess threshold is certainly higher than hers and over the years it has caused some friction in our relationship.

Differences in levels of tidiness can be problematic in a relationship, especially if the neat-adverse member is vilified by the tidy one or when the tidy party performs a disproportionate amount of the housework. Tina Tessina, a marriage and family therapist, told the Today Show that one in three couples she sees struggles with this issue, and that it’s most prevalent in young couples.

So what is a couple to do? If you’re one of those young couples and not yet living together, consider the advice from clinical psychologist and marital therapist Sam R. Hamburg: “The earlier you face up to differences like this and talk frankly about them, the better off you are.” In other words, talk about your expectations regarding tidiness before living together.

If you’re already living with someone and you have different levels of tidiness:

Compromise

I know there’s a saying that, “a good compromise leaves nobody happy,” but in this case it’s not necessarily true. One one hand, a drinking glass or two left on the coffee table isn’t the end of the world. Meanwhile, a mountainous pile of laundry on the floor isn’t acceptable. Both parties can learn to give a little. Instead of it being your-way-or-the-highway, discuss what is okay to leave as a little mess and what is absolutely not okay.

Designate messy and clean zones

I’m not suggesting you let one room devolve into the town recycling center, but not every room in your home needs to have the same level of tidiness expectations. The front room and kitchen might be your “always clean” zones and your garage workshop, sewing room, or game room can receive a little leeway and be a “messy” zone.

Motivate

My family has instituted the “hour of clean,” a time dedicated to giving the house a good once-over. Everyone knows when it’s scheduled and can prepare accordingly. Plus, it’s kind of fun with everyone involved and working together. Remember, too, that nagging has never motivated anyone, so leave that off your list of motivating strategies.

Have clear-cut responsibilities

I’m best when working from a specific list. When my wife hands me a list of chores or tasks, that’s great, as I have a clear definition of what needs to be done. For kids, you might take a photo of what an acceptable definition of “clean room” looks like and outline exactly what steps you want the child to take to get the desired result.

If a list would make other people in your home’s heads explode, use a less formal method of divvying up tasks. “I’ll do the laundry and mow the yard today.” “I’ll run the dishwasher and take out the trash.”

Have solutions that work for everyone

What works for one person in your home might not work for all. A three-step process for putting something away might be just fine for an adult, but a one-step process might be more appropriate for a toddler. When discussing your expectations, consider organizing and mess-busting solutions that everyone in your home can follow. You might be able to take off your shoes at the door and immediately walk them down to your clothes closet to be stored in labeled boxes, but your spouse might have trouble doing much more than taking off his or her shoes and not tracking mud through the house. A shoe storage solution by the main entrance of the house might be perfect for him or her, even though you have no use for it, and will help to keep the entrance clean to your specifications.

How to organize business cards

Do you have a stash of business cards hanging around somewhere? Jon Carroll (a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle) has one, and he wrote:

I have a top drawer in my desk. It’s where I put important things. Alas, a lot of things have seemed important over the last 30 years. So the drawer is jammed full — you have to pat it down just to close it. …

I recently made an [sic] pathetic attempt to, uh, curate the drawer. I got no further than the large pile of business cards I had thrown in there over the years. A lot of them were entirely mysterious, people I had no memory of ever meeting. (I bet you have a similar stash of business cards somewhere; it might be amusing to try to cull them sometime).

Jon also found cards that were meaningful or delightful in one way or another, beyond those from people he does know. For example, there was the card from “Le Bar a Huitres, a restaurant in Paris I have no memory of entering. But I love the maps on the back, with appropriate landmarks and useful data, including Metro stops.”

If you have a collection like Jon’s, what do you do with it? If you just enjoy pulling them out and looking at them — as memorabilia, a source of cool design ideas, etc. — then saving them in a drawer or a box, in no particular order, may be just fine.

But if you actually want to make use of the information on the cards, you’ll want a more systematic approach to dealing with them. The first step would be uncluttering. Get rid of cards from people you don’t recognize, and vow that in the future you’ll make a note on such cards when you get them, to jog your memory. You can also discard cards from businesses that have closed or that you no longer choose to patronize, and cards from stores and restaurants in cities you’ll never visit again. If any of these qualify as memorabilia, you might want to hold onto them but keep them separate from those that have useful information.

Now, what do you do with the cards you’re keeping? If you’re someone who deals best with physical cards rather than digital information, you might keep them in a business card book or file. I’m pleased with the business card file sold by The Container Store.

Another tip: If you have phone numbers just jotted down on pieces of paper, you can tape those papers onto blank business cards (or rewrite the information on the blanks) and file them with the other cards.

The other option is to store the information electronically, and there are many ways to do that. I don’t deal with many cards at a time, so I just enter the information manually into my computer contact list, which syncs with my smartphone. Once I’ve done that, I recycle the physical card.

If you’d prefer to scan the cards, there are many ways to do that. You could use a scanner such as one in the Fujitsu ScanSnap family. Or you could use a business card scanning app on your smartphone; there are many to choose from. Evernote has its own free Scannable app, which may be ideal for Evernote fans. Currently, it’s only available for iPhones and iPads.

One nice thing about digital storage is that you can search and retrieve information in many ways. For example, when I enter cards for doctors, I’ll note their specialties and the names of the people who recommended them, so it’s always easy to search and find the doctors if I forget their names. I also create groups of contacts, which is another way to make them easier to find. If you’re using a paper filing system, consider whether filing by name or by category would make it easiest to find the right card when you want it.

Prepare for spring cleaning

It’s time to get organized for spring (or fall, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), no matter what the thermometer says. So before you put those snow shovels back in the shed, consider doing a bit to prepare for spring now.

A good spring cleaning is a topic for another post. Today, I’ll share a few things I do that will make that process easier when the time comes to embark on it. I’m here to give you a leg up, if you will.

Purge, purge, purge

Winter is the season of accumulation: gifts, clothing (hats, mittens), ice scrapers for the car — all sorts of new stuff arrives between December and the winter thaw. To begin with your purge, pick a room and get started. Those gloves with the holes? Gone. The packets of duck sauce in the refrigerator from the Reagan administration? Toss them. Even gifts you won’t use can be upcycled, donated, or tagged for next year’s Secret Santa at work.

Speaking of the gloves with the holes, perhaps they can be mended? Select an area/box/bin for clothing that can be fixed. The most important thing in this process is to be sure to actually follow through on you commitment to fix those clothes. Put it on your calendar and do it!

Make a playlist

Music makes work easier, at least for me. If I know I’ve got a time-consuming task ahead of me, I’ll make a playlist of songs that always put me in a good mood. Perhaps an audio book is more your speed, or a favorite podcast? In any case, have your favorites queued up and ready to go.

Ensure you’ve got the right supplies

It is no fun to start any project and realize you’re missing something that’s key to its completion. Make a list of what you’ll need and buy the lot well before you begin. Trash bags? Cleaning chemicals? Sponges? Paper towels?

Schedule the time

“Busy” is the American way and it can be tricky to find a full Saturday with nothing to do. Look at the calendar and find a set of hours you can dedicate to the task. You can do 15 minutes one night and an hour the next if you don’t have a full day to dedicate to the process. In fact, you might prefer to do a little at a time even if you have a full day you could devote to it.

A little preparation goes a long way. Spring cleaning is a big task, so be sure you’ve got everything you need before getting started. Just think, in a few weeks the cold weather will be behind us and a clean home will under our feet.

Organizing video games

I really enjoy video games. My favorite one is, “Where am I going to put all this bulky junk?” Wait, that’s real life and it’s far from being a fun game. Along with playing video games comes games boxes, consoles, controllers and more cables than you’d ever want to see spread like locust around the TV, the entertainment center, and the house at large. If you’re a gamer, the following advice may help you to tame the swarm and organize your video games and accessories.

Game boxes

Games sold on physical media (that is to say, not games downloaded from a digital app store) typically come in decorative plastic boxes. They’re stackable, uniform in size, and clearly labeled with the game’s title. Still, finding the one game you want can be a hassle. Here’s what we do at home to keep things straight.

  1. Put all game discs in their proper boxes. It’s so easy to grab a disc and pop it into the nearest box, saying, “Eh, I’ll put it in the right box later.” In my experience, “later” never comes. Take the extra few seconds to store the game properly. Make sure you eject any disc in your console/computer before you begin this task.
  2. Spread out all of the boxes on a large table or even the floor.
  3. Sort alphabetically. Put all games starting with “A” in one pile, “B” in another and so on. And then again within each pile, “Marvel Nemesis” precedes “Medal of Honor.”
  4. Find a home for the alphabetized lot. In our house, we line them up on a shelf like books, but you might find it easier to put them in a box or drawer based on your space.

Those with a lot of games may want to sort by category. For example, after step two above, sort games by type: shooter, racing, educational, etc. Then do the ABC sort. Next, make labels for wherever you store the boxes so you can jump right to the category you’re searching and so it’s easier to put the discs away after use.

Game controllers and accessories

This is most likely where things get messy in your home, at least it’s that way in mine. Controllers are bulky and vary quite a bit. Some have wires, some don’t. Many have replaceable batteries, others don’t. Certain models must be charged regularly and/or require protective cases.

Storage

Video games are often played by kids, so a kid-friendly shelf is a good way to go if this is the situation in your home. An easily accessible shelf puts devices within reach and also out of the way. (A basic, no-frills option on Amazon, if you’re interested.) I also like wall-mounted models, as they’re one less thing on the floor and can hide cords more successfully than a shelf.

There are personalized game controller tubs on Etsy, which are cool, and look great while keeping unwieldy controllers in one place. Additionally, Instructables has a tutorial for wall-hanging your controllers, which is well done.

Charging

As nice as these solutions are, they don’t account for devices that need to be charged. A hidden drawer is a great way to go, as you can charge up the devices without having to look at them in the meantime. You may need to drill a hole in the back of the drawer for cables, if there isn’t enough space to run the cables currently. A converted storage box is another great-looking and effective option.

Game consoles

Xboxes, Playstations, Wiis, and other gaming towers are usually bulky and are stored on a shelf of the media center. There aren’t many options when it comes to disguising them while keeping them useful, however, there are some things you can do to keep them from being an eye sore.

First, keep them clean. A game console is just a powerful computer, and as such they give off a lot of heat. Make sure they’re stored so that all vents are unblocked. Additionally, dust them periodically as a build-up will hinder heat dispersion.

Keep cords in the rear separate. Twist-ties work very well here, and labeled ties are even better for keeping your cables organized.

Try to keep them clear of areas with heavy foot traffic or bounding pets. Gaming systems really don’t like to be suddenly flung onto the floor.

Really, the best thing to do is to get all of the gamers in your house into the habit of cleaning up after saving the universe, offing a zombie, or rescuing the princess. It only takes a minute and is a lot more fun than playing “Now Where Did I Put That?”

I Murdered My Library: A Kindle Short review

Author Linda Grant needed to downsize her personal library when she moved from a place with all sort of nooks and crannies for books — plus some specially installed bookshelves — to a flat with much less space. (Also, her real estate agent saw her huge number of books and told her something had to be done in order for the house to sell.) She wrote a Kindle Short entitled I Murdered My Library about the experience, which perfectly captured the mixed feelings so many people have when they consider downsizing their book collections.

On the one hand, there was a lot of sadness about giving up a library she’d been building since she was a little girl. Since the author is British, American readers may not recognize some of the specific authors and titles she collected back then, but the passion for books is definitely recognizable.

However, there were certainly some issues with that book collection. Some were books she had no need for, such as multiple copies of her own novels, sent to her by her publisher. She had those books in various translations, too. She also mentions the “books I did not particularly care for, but kept anyway” and the “non-fiction which I kept in the era before the internet” in case she ever needed specific nuggets of information.

And then there was the problem with the too-small type:

No-one told me. No-one said, “In the future, you will squint and screw up your face and try to decipher those words you once read so easily. Not because you are going blind, but because in the middle of you life your eyes have betrayed you. They are no longer fit for the purpose of reading.”

Grant is no technophobe, and she embraced her Kindle as a way around the print-size problem. And she reveled in how much easier it was to carry the Kindle than a 900-page book, and how nice it was to have “a library in my pocket.” But while new releases are available in digital format, a lot of backlist books (and much of her collection) are not available yet. And then there was the problem when her Kindle died at the start of a four-hour flight, leaving her with only the airline magazine to read.

Grant also realized that keeping all her many books didn’t make sense, if she was being logical about it all. As she noted:

I’m not going to re-read these books before I die. I am just bequeathing my nephew and his wife the heavy task of removing them at a later date.

What did she do with the books she decided wouldn’t make it to her new home? She gave the multiple copies of her own books to reading groups, charging just for the price of postage. She gave the translated books to libraries. As she noted, “Polish speakers in the London Borough of Haringey now have a choice of books: by me, or by me.” And the rest got donated to an Oxfam shop, where the sale benefits the charity.

But still, the empty shelves bothered her.

In my fear of not having enough room in my new flat for my books, I had got rid of far too many. The truth was, I now had empty shelves. Fewer books than space for them. …

There are not enough books here. The sight of the bare shelves shames me. What have I done?

At just 28 pages, this is a quick read and one that many people struggling with overflowing bookshelves will appreciate.

Let’s talk about keys

Years go by, technology improves yet many of us continue to carry a huge collection of keys. Throw in a few fancy keychains, customer loyalty cards, and next thing you know, you look like an old-time jailer walking around. I even knew someone who damaged the ignition system of her car by having a heavy keychain pulling down on the steering column for months and months. The following are a few ideas for getting an out-of-control key collection under control.

First and foremost: separate your keys into logical groups. Put work keys on their own ring, home on another. Perhaps the garage and the shed can live on their own as well. I keep the shed and basement keys separate from the car keys.

While you’re at it, make it easy to find the key you need at a glance. Your local hardware store probably has decorative blank keys that they’ll use to make copies for you. Use, say, a beach-scene key for the shed. Or, order up a custom key tag (or even a humorous one) that you’ll recognize in an instant.

You might want to consider an alternative to a traditional keychain. The Keysmart is a clever device we looked at in 2015, as is the Keyport. (If you’d rather go the DIY route, you can find a clever tutorial on Reddit.)

Lastly, and this goes without saying, ditch any keys you no longer use. The same goes for customer loyalty cards. If you don’t frequent a store anymore, or if a given promotion is over, you don’t need that card anymore. Smartphone owners can use an app like Keyring (available for iPhone and Android) and keep a digital version of the card and skip putting on your physical keyring completely.

Get those keys under control! Your pocket — and your car — will appreciate it.

A tidy and useful tech bag

A messy tech bag is a nasty thing indeed. You’ve got expensive gadgets bumping around and cables getting tangled, knocked about, and covered in who-knows-what. But there’s no need to fret — you have several options for keeping your tech bags nice and tidy, as well as a few setups for various purposes.

Before I delve into what to put inside a tech bag and how, let’s consider the bag itself. Of course, there are limitless options to make the decision-making process confusing. To limit the field, I prefer something simple with no more little pockets and compartments than I’m going to need. (Less temptation to fill them with clutter.) Where pockets are concerned, it boils down to:

  1. A place for my laptop
  2. Two pockets — one for my laptop’s power cable and a charger for my phone
  3. A spot for headphones
  4. A pocket for a mouse

Envision your bag like a small home: where there is a place for everything and everything has a place.

Comfort is your next consideration, and I love a good shoulder strap. That way I can keep both hands free while I’m moving about.

A quick note! Before I look at individual bags, I’ve got to mention an item that deserves a spot in every setup: cable wraps. Cables love to get tangled up, and for some reason they see the inside of a bag as the prime opportunity to do so. It’s as if they say, “We’re in a bag! Quick, form an impossible rat’s nest!” These simple Velcro models are inexpensive and reusable. I know Erin is also a fan of the Grid-It Organizer, which is different but provides the same results.

The student bag

Students have more to carry around then tech goodies, but the gadgets are often essential. To manage the weight of a laptop and books, I recommend a large and well-made backpack-style laptop bag. Look for one with a padded laptop sleeve.

The traveler

Again, a backpack-style laptop bag is a good choice for travelers, but often you won’t need something as big or bulky as what a college student might use. Ogio’s Covert Shoulder Bag for 13-Inch Tablet/Netbook fits the bill, as it’s tidy, small, and easily carried from bus to plane to train. Add a laptop, charger, map and tickets and you’re all set.

The conference attendee

I love this post from iMore’s Serenity Caldwell, which details exactly what, how, and why she packs for an extended stay at a tech conference. Not only is it an interesting look at how a tech journalist preps for work, it’s a useful description of why.

The remote worker

I occasionally get to work remotely, and it’s great. In my laptop bag I include the usual stuff, but also: some money for the coffee shop, a power strip for sharing an outlet, water for hydration, and a “trash pocket,” usually big zip-to-close plastic bag, for wrappers, etc. should I not find a bin.

There you have a few options for a tidy and useful tech bag. Keep your expensive gadgets safe and organized, folks. And don’t forget one of the most important step in all of this: clean out your bag immediately, every day, upon returning home.

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.

How returnable purchases can lead to clutter

The things you buy and intend to return — but never do — are an all-too-common type of clutter. A recent research study gives some interesting insight into the psychology of return policies and provides one reason why some people wind up with those unreturned items. Somewhat unintuitively, a longer return policy can lead to fewer returns.

As Sarah Halzack wrote in The Washington Post:

Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

“Since they don’t feel pressure to take it right back to the store, they kind of sit with it and live with it and say, ‘Well it’s not that bad,'” Freling said.

(If you’ve ever found a blouse lurking in the back of your closet with the tags on it months after you bought it, this is probably a familiar feeling.)

So if you’re not sure whether or not to keep a purchase, it might be a good idea to give yourself a decision-making deadline that comes well before the store’s return deadline if that deadline is quite far out, like 90 days. Putting the return deadline on your calendar will help you remember to make that decision and handle any returns.

For other people, the problem may simply be making the time to handle the return, especially if it involves going to a store that’s not nearby. And some people have a “returning-things” anxiety which makes any return difficult, even if the item is defective. If you know you’re not going to do the return, for whatever reason, it’s best to get rid of the item (by donating it or whatever) as soon as you determine it’s not going to work for you. Keeping it around just takes up space and reminds you of the wasted money, neither of which is helpful.

Are you curious about what happens to things you do return? If you decide to return something you bought online, there’s a good chance it goes to a liquidator, not the company you bought it from or the manufacturer. Davey Alba wrote in Wired about what she learned from one such company, Shorewood Liquidators.

Major retailers can’t resell returned items, even if they’re still brand new, says Shorewood’s Ringelsten. “You don’t know where the product went after it left your store, so you can’t put it back on your shelf.”

More to the point, people most often return things because they are defective. Retailers simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the suppliers. “It would be very expensive for a company like Amazon to handle returns,” Ringelsten says. “They would have to sort it out — and there are a million manufacturers out there.” What’s more, he says, manufacturers usually supply items to retailers like Amazon through a contract where it’s understood that items that may be returned will simply be liquidated.

If the items can’t be sold or recycled for a profit, they simply go to landfill. About 10 percent of what Shorewood handles falls into that category. That’s a lot, but less than you might expect given that so many returns are defective items. So go ahead and do those returns, knowing that many items will be resold at bargain prices — which might help someone who could really use a bargain purchase. That’s certainly better than having the items stashed in the back of a closet, unused.