Build a time buffer into your schedule

Under-scheduling your day — even by just 30 minutes — can be an effective method for keeping to your schedule all day.

I’ve been working from home, in one capacity or another, since 2009. Six years’ experience has allowed me to come up with many great organizational and productivity tricks, and one of the most effective strategies is essentially accounting for the unpredictable.

I’m a big fan of routine and scheduling. I know when I’m going to work on a given project or area of focus. Before I go to bed at night, I review what must be done the next day. That’s a great way to eliminate the dreaded “what should I work on first/now?” questions. By the time you sit at your desk, you should be ready to go.

But that’s not my favorite trick. I schedule nothing — not a single task — for the last hour of the day. This “time buffer” is handy in so many ways. A last-second appointment come up? No problem. Kids need to be picked up from school? Got it. Even if nothing comes up, you’ve now got to time to process email, work up your schedule for tomorrow, maybe even relax a bit and decompress for the day.

It’s easy to schedule every minute of the day, and even over-schedule. Try building in a time buffer each day for a week to see if it’s beneficial to your effectiveness and productivity. I suspect it will be.

Children and age-appropriate chores

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t give me any household chores. My mother, who handled most of the household activities, hoped I would see her doing housework and offer to help. Being a fairly normal child, I was oblivious and never offered.

As an adult, I look back and think assigning chores to me would have been a much better strategy. I would have learned more about maintaining a home, and my mother would have had some help in keeping the house organized. Everyone would have been better served.

But what chores are appropriate for what ages? I’m not a parent myself, so I went looking for resources to help answer that question. I found some lists in a brochure I bought years ago entitled Ages and Stages of Getting Children Organized (available in PDF format) by organizer Marcia Ramsland. The following is part of what Ramsland recommends (with ages added when needed to make comparisons easier):

Toddler, ages 1-3

  • Pick up toys in a small area (floor, shelf, table) and put them away
  • Put books on shelves, clothes in hamper

Preschool/kindergarten (3-5 years)

  • Make bed daily with help
  • Carry belongings to and from car
  • Help set table and clear dishes

Primary grades (1-3rd grades, which would be 6-8 years)

  • Make bed before breakfast/school
  • Put away own things (backpack, lunch box, coat)
  • Empty dishwasher

Upper grades (4-5th grades, which would be 9-10 years)

  • Put clean laundry away
  • Keep room neat

Middle school

  • Be more self-reliant with homework, activities, carpool rides
  • Clean bathroom, closet, and drawers
  • Vacuum and dust

Organizer Geralin Thomas included the following suggestions (and more) in her book Decluttering Your Home: Tips, Techniques & Trade Secrets:

3 to 5 year olds:

  • Sort laundry by color
  • Pick up dirty clothes from around the house
  • Carry newspapers/old schoolwork/magazines to the recycling bin

5 to 8 year olds:

  • Make the bed
  • Help with folding laundry by matching socks

8 to 11 year olds:

  • Clear the table after meals
  • Load the dishwasher
  • Put dishes away
  • Wheel the trash bin to the curb
  • Do a load of laundry

Jessica Lahey, who wrote The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, suggests that younger children can often do more than we might expect. The following are some of the items on her lists:


  • Put their dirty clothes in a basket or hamper
  • Fold simple items of clothing or linens such as pillowcases or washcloths
  • Put their clothes away in drawers
  • Throw trash and recycling away in the proper place
  • Put toys away in tubs and baskets when they are done playing with them

Kids between ages 3 and 5:

  • Make their bed
  • Straighten their room
  • Sort and categorize items, such as utensils in a drawer or socks in the laundry
  • Clear their place at the table

Between the ages of 6 and 11:

  • Laundry — all of it, from sorting to putting it away
  • Replacing the toilet paper when it’s gone
  • Setting and clearing the table
  • Vacuuming and mopping floors
  • Helping to plan and prepare grocery lists and meals

Suggestions like these can help you develop a chore list that’s right for your family. As you’re deciding what chores you want your children to take on, be sure the scope of each task is clear. Something like “straighten the room” needs to be broken down into specifics, so your children understand exactly what that means.

Of course, children will need to be taught how to do these tasks, and this might well mean repeated lessons. Written how-to reminders will often be helpful. Regarding the laundry, Lahey suggested: “Post a list on the washing machine and dryer after you’ve conducted the requisite one-on-one lessons in order to provide reminders for all the steps. One mom pointed out that dry-erase markers write and erase well on the side of washers and dryers, so she simply writes instructions on the appliance itself.”

Another thing to consider: Leave your children as much latitude as feasible in how tasks get done, as long as the end results are fine. They may approach something a bit differently than you would, but that’s not necessarily a problem!

Organize for a sick day at home

Autumn is that dastardly time of year that gives way to cold and flu season. Sick days can be disruptive, no matter who you are. However, there are a few steps you can take now, while everyone’s feeling fine, to prepare your home for a day on the couch with some tissues and a movie.

For the kids

Keep a list of telephone numbers on your phone but also in a handy binder or taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet or on the refrigerator for their pediatrician and the local pharmacy. You’ll also want the number for their school’s attendance call line and any child care providers. (For adults, it’s also good to have your doctor’s number and your boss’ number in the same location so it’s just as simple to retrieve.)

Be prepared to record information a doctor or nurse might need for your child. Years ago when I worked at a residential school, my colleagues and I were taught to monitor a fever by writing down the patient’s temperature and time it was taken. It’s a good practice to get into, because doctors or nurses will find it quite useful when you’re on the phone or at the clinic. I simply use index cards and a pen.

Regularly check and record your child’s weight. Many medications for children base dosage amounts on this information.

For everyone

Ensure you’ve got a working thermometer in the house. If you use an electric one, it’s a good practice to test the battery twice a year. Daylight Savings Time switches are a good reminder for this.

Multiple boxes of tissues around the house in convenient locations are great to stock up on now. I also love those small, travel-sized packs of tissues. They’re less obtrusive than standard boxes, and easily fit in small spaces (like the car, a bag, and a drawer of the nightstand).


When everyone is feeling better, the work isn’t done. The following are some things to help spreading the germs around the house.

  1. A few spare toothbrushes so it’s easy to replace the sick person’s toothbrush when he/she is feeling better (especially with things like strep throat)
  2. Disinfect surfaces like doorknobs, the TV remote, cell phone, refrigerator door handle, light switches and so forth
  3. Wash the sick person’s bed sheets and blankets alone in hot, hot water.

Finally, consider making a “sick kit.” Tuck it away and save it for a stuffy, achy, rainy day.

Finishing tasks: The key to less mess in your home

In a rare moment of solitude a few weeks ago, I found myself stomping through my house being extremely frustrated. Wood puzzle pieces were strewn across the living room floor where my two-year-old daughter had been playing earlier. Dirty clothes and a wet towel were next to the hamper in my six-year-old son’s bathroom. A lone plate sat on the table in the kitchen from a snack my husband had eaten earlier. And MY makeup was left out on the bathroom counter from that morning. I was annoyed with the mess, and I was as much responsible for it as everyone else in my house.

After I calmed my inner-Hulk down to a constructive level, I immediately identified the problem. No one in the house was properly finishing anything they were doing:

  • Taking a shower isn’t finished until the towel is on the towel bar, the wash cloth is wrung out and hanging on its clip to dry, dirty clothes are in the hamper, the bathroom lights are turned off, in addition to all the other obvious post-shower activities like getting dressed and brushing teeth. For a shower to be finished, everything has to be reset and ready to go for the next time someone comes in to use the bathroom.
  • A snack or dinner isn’t over until all the dirty dishes are loaded into the dishwasher or washed and put away, cupboards are closed and ingredients properly stored, the table and counters have been wiped down, the floor has been swept, all leftovers have been put into the refrigerator, and there are no signs that anyone had eaten a meal there except for maybe a lingering smell. Dinner isn’t over when you stop eating.
  • Playtime isn’t over until all toys are put away in their proper storage areas. This one is tricky because it requires continuous planning — time has to be set aside for picking up before going to the next activity. Until a child’s age is in double digits (and maybe even after that), it may require an adult to give a five-minute warning to allow time for toys to be put away. Or, in the case of small children like in our family, adults may need to participate in the five-minute pick up process.
  • And, obviously, I’m not finished getting ready in the morning until my makeup is back into its storage container and my hair dryer is stored beneath the sink.
  • It seems so obvious, but making sure tasks are finished greatly reduces messes in your home. It’s not rocket science, but the simple shift in perspective results in much less stress and a less messy home.

    Struggling with keeping a journal

    Two things I constantly fail at are keeping a journal and coffee.

    I don’t like coffee. I simply dislike the taste. Oh, I’ll drink a cappa-frappa-pumpkin whatever with whipped cream and more calories than a bacon cheeseburger, but that’s not coffee. That’s a dessert masquerading as coffee. It’s the hot water filtered through ground beans that I just don’t like.

    As someone who’s coffee-averse, I often feel like I’m missing out on a major social activity. People enjoy spending time together over a cup of coffee. Every few years I’ll try it again, hoping my tastes have changed, and every year the results are the same: I can’t finish one cup.

    I have the same relationship with journaling.

    I’ve read many articles and had several conversations with people, colleagues and those who’ve built careers around productivity and personal organization. They all say the same thing: It’s hugely beneficial to keep a journal. They’re not wrong, either.

    A Huffington Post article earlier this year outlined 10 benefits of keeping a journal, including:

    1. Promotes progress toward goals
    2. Boosts memory and comprehension
    3. Strengthens one’s self-discipline

    Academics agree, too. The University of Rochester Mental Health Center published an article on the practice of journaling and mental health, citing additional benefits. And writing down what you eat in your journal can even help you lose weight (if that’s something you want to do).

    I believe in the benefits, yet there’s a disconnect. Each time I try to maintain a journal in earnest, I fizzle out.

    Thinking the issue might be the tools, I’ve purchased very nice paper journals and top-rated software. I even got a special pen and designated a time of day for sitting down to record a journal entry. Despite these best efforts, a few things happened.

    1. I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say. “Drove the kids to ballet and soccer practice” is boring and, as far as I’m concerned, hardly worth putting in writing.
    2. I felt self-conscious, like a teenager keeping a diary.
    3. I decided to skip it because of either reason number one or two. Then I skipped another day, and another and soon enough I’m failing at journaling.

    In many ways, a to-do list and calendar can be similar to a journal. They certainly record what I’m doing and my commitment levels. But it’s not the same. In fact, keeping a journal feels like one more thing cluttering up my to-do list.

    Like so many things in life, keeping a journal requires motivation. So, if you maintain a journal, what keeps you motivated? Have any of you struggled to do the same, perhaps for similar reasons? Last, is it simply that journaling is not for me, and I should move on?

    Perhaps we can discuss it over coffee.

    Uncluttering and organizing odds and ends

    Sometimes we have suggestions for uncluttering and organizing random things in your life, but those tips don’t warrant a full post on their own. When that happens, we save them up for an odds and ends post and dump them all together.

    Fall and winter sports

    My son’s soccer league is in full swing, and I suspect some of you have kids in basketball, hockey, football, and/or ballet, too. Sports means equipment, and equipment needs organizing. It’s no fun scrambling to find a dirty jersey an hour before you need to leave the house.

    In our home, we’ve instituted the “soccer basket.” It’s a medium-sized wicker basket that lives by the back door to our house and stores shin guards, shorts, sweat pants, sweatshirt, cleats, jersey, and anything else soccer related. Once clean, all soccer gear lives in the basket. (The items stored here return to their long-term storage homes during the off season.)

    For more on keeping sports equipment organized and handy, the following might be helpful to you:

    Create Evernote templates

    I attend a lot of meetings at my non-Unclutterer job, and that means taking notes. My preferred app for this task is Evernote, which we’ve discussed extensively here at Unclutterer. However, I only recently found this trick for making reusable templates.

    Typically when I’m in a meeting, I set up my notes the same way: The top of the page is labeled NOTES in bold, 18-point font, and below that, ACTIONS, is set up the same way. It only takes a minute to create this, but I’ve found an easier way.

    As Document Snap describes, I can use the Copy to Notebook command to make a copy of my setup, complete with the styling and tags I want. I love it and it saves me a good amount of time over the course of a week.

    Keyboard shortcuts

    I recently received a nice, new Windows laptop to use at work. Which sounds nice, except I’ve never used a Windows computer before.

    All the wonderful keyboard shortcuts I’ve committed to muscle memory over the last 20 years are suddenly useless to me when I’m on this machine. Fortunately, a list of Mac OS and Windows shortcut equivalents exists. I’ve since printed it and hung it up by my desk.

    For more on keyboard shortcuts:

    Increase your productivity with keyboard shortcuts

    Never underestimate the power of a tray

    We all have that one surface — countertop, dresser, end table — that loves to accumulate clutter. You’ve tried to extinguish the behavior of piling up to no avail. If you can beat ’em, join ’em…with a tray.

    A simple tray in the troublesome spot provides a clearly-defined landing area for whatever likes to accumulate. Plus, it’s self-limiting. If something won’t fit, move on and find it a new home. When the tray is full, put everything on it back to its official storage space. When guests come unexpectedly, hide it. It’s not a long-term solution, but it works better than nothing at all.

    Are there any decluttering and organizing odds and ends you’ve been working out lately? Share your quick tips in the comments.

    Encouraging kids to do chores

    If you’re a parent, the idea of children completing chores likely makes you tense. Getting the young ones to adhere to their given house chores can be like asking a human-size slug to take the trash out. It will eventually happen but, well …. not quickly. My wife and I recently tried something that worked quite well, and I wanted to share it with Unclutterer readers: The Hour of Clean.

    The concept behind the Hour of Clean really couldn’t be simpler, and I was surprised by how effective it was.

    We told the kids, “At 5:00, the ‘Hour of Clean’ will begin.” We listed the available jobs: dust, vacuum, put laundry away, general tidying up, cleaning the bathroom, etc. Everyone made their choices as to which chores they wanted to complete, and at 5:00 we started.

    The best part of the Hour of Clean: there was no complaining. There was no slacking off. The result, after an hour, was a tidy house. The camaraderie from everyone working (mom and dad included) at the same time, was a great motivation. The set time limit also worked well because everyone knew there was a limit to how much of their day would be spent cleaning.

    In subsequent weeks, my daughter made an observation. “If we keep the house tidy all week, the ‘Hour of Clean’ might be the ‘Half-Hour of Clean.'” I tried to hold back the tears of parental joy at this. “Yes,” I simply said, my heart full of parental pride. “Yes it can.”

    A 15-minute House of Clean might also be something to do each day, especially if you have young children who need more supervision while they complete chores or if you need to wear a baby while you work.

    The sense of “we’re all in this together” and the clearly-defined work period have helped it become successful in my house. Give it a try and let us know how it worked for your family.

    Get your keys under control with Key Smart

    Every now and then I come across a product that’s so cool and so in line with an uncluttered and organized lifestyle, I think, “I can’t wait to share this with the Unclutterer readers!” Today, that product is the Key Smart. Starting at $38.98), this device is a tidy, effective way to neatly store all of your keys. It’s made of aircraft aluminum, looks great, and easily swaps keys in and out.

    I’ve managed to trim the number of keys I carry around to two, but a few years ago I looked like an old-time jailer with my house keys, shed key, various work keys, and keys for the car all in one obnoxious, noisy, and inefficient key ring. Finding what I needed meant a minute of standing and fiddling.

    Now, I look at the Key Smart and wish I had had it back then. To attach a key, simply remove the two screws, place your key inside and then replace the screws and aluminum cover. When assembled, the Key Smart looks and operates much like a pocket knife (which I also love). Fold out the key you want, open your lock, and then fold it back into place. The whole unit slips into a pocket without becoming a jangle-y mess.

    The manufacturers even sell add-on accessories, like a USB flash drive (by the way, if you have extra USB flash drives, consider ideas for what to do with them) and a quick-release clip if you like to keep your keys on your hip.

    How getting organized can make you more efficient

    Getting organized isn’t something you do for its own sake — it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier and more pleasant. If you can quickly and easily put your hands on the things you need, tasks get done easier (and often better) and life is less stressful.

    If you regularly use a group of items together, organizing principles suggest that you will usually want to store them together, too. For example, I keep stationery, stamps, and return address labels together. And the lubricating sheets I use for my shredder are stored right next to the shredder. This makes me more efficient when I need to send a letter, and it helps ensure I really do lubricate the shredder periodically.

    I recently read a great example of how this principle can work in the critical setting of a hospital intensive care unit. As Emily Anthes wrote in Nature, Dr. Peter Pronovost saw the problem with more haphazard storage when he was creating a checklist his hospital could use for a specific procedure:

    Logistics are crucial. When Pronovost was first developing his checklist at Johns Hopkins, he noticed that ICU doctors had to go to eight different places to collect all the supplies they needed to perform a sterile central-line insertion. As part of the Keystone programme, hospitals assembled carts that contained all the necessary supplies.

    I’ve seen people try to cope with using the wrong tool (the wrong size screwdriver, for example) because they couldn’t find the right one, even though they knew they owned it. I have also known people who had an incredible stash of books and tools — who still asked to borrow mine sometimes because they couldn’t find theirs amid all the clutter. When a home or office is uncluttered and organized, you can be like Jessamyn West, who wrote on Twitter, “The one time in three years I need a Torx driver and I realize I 1) have one 2) can find it. Happy with this day so far.”

    The same concept applies to paperwork. If you can readily find all your tax-related documents, in either paper or electronic format, tax time becomes a bit less stressful. If there’s a place for all permission slips your children bring home from school, there won’t be last-minute scrambles to find them on the days of the events.

    I recently had a minor organizing slip-up that caused me to waste a bit of time and use less than optimal tools. My packing list included “gifts for people I’m visiting” but neglected to include wrapping materials for those gifts. (I don’t wrap them ahead of time because airport security will sometimes unwrap them if they have any concern about what’s in the package.) That led me to scramble to find wrapping paper and tape in a neighborhood with a very limited selection. (I think I found the store’s only roll of wrapping paper that didn’t have a Christmas theme.) I’m sure my hosts didn’t really care that I used some funky decorative tape instead of normal tape, and I didn’t waste too much time and money buying these items, but I’ve now updated my packing list.

    Using Slack for families

    I enjoy pointing out technologies and tools that can help groups of people to be productive and organized. Every now and then, a great example pops up that seems to have taken on a life of its own. This week, I want to highlight the current tech darling of San Francisco, Slack.

    Slack is a communication tool meant for businesses and groups. It provides real-time conversations between team members, file sharing, a very powerful search, what amounts to topic-focused “chat rooms,” and more. I’ve been using it in a professional sense for months now. Only recently did it dawn me on what an effective family communication tool it could be as well.

    If you’ve ever participated in a group text or a chat room, you’ve got the basic idea of Slack. Once you’ve signed up (there is a free plan as well as paid options, starting at $6.67 per user per month that is billed annually), you’ll get a domain like “” And from there, you can create an account for mom, dad, the kids, etc. You can add as many people as you like.

    You’ll start with a chat room (Slack calls them “channels”) called “General.” Posting a message into the channel is as simple as typing it out and hitting Return. Once you’re all comfortable, start making your own channels. This is where it gets good.

    You could create a channel for activities, like ballet or sports. Perhaps there’s a trip coming up, or an ongoing volunteer activity that some of you do every week. Making a channel for each gives you a destination for conversations on those topics. Those who are interested can follow along. Those who aren’t, don’t. Additionally, if someone who isn’t typically involved with, say, the park clean-up committee suddenly needs to be, he can go in and read the whole history in that channel to get up to speed.

    Sharing files is another area in which Slack shines. You can share all manner of files with Slack, and they remain searchable and easy to find for all involved. Slack indexes the full body of a shared file, not just the title. So, if you know there’s park clean-up this weekend but can’t remember where, simply search “park” to bring up the PDF that was shared a week ago.

    Lastly, Slack can eliminate texting and email. Slack has several notification options, from the fire hose (which alerts you every time something new is posted) to a more controlled approach (like whenever your name is mentioned in a chat). Finally, I’ve found that people begin to communicate in Slack more often than email once they’re used to it, as it lends itself to real-time communication and won’t get your stuff lost in a bottomless inbox.

    There’s so much more to this fantastic service — like free desktop and mobile apps, so you can constantly be in touch with your family if necessary. Yes, Slack is a business tool, but it can certainly have a place with your family, too. And that’s an essential part of organizing: seeing tools that already exist and using them to meet your needs.

    How to remain a disorganized mess

    It’s Monday. We’re in a good mood, and we don’t know why. Instead of a heavy post to bog you down at the start of the week, we wanted to do something fun. Think of the following as an instructional manual for how to be overwhelmed by your clutter. Feel welcome to add to the list in our comments (and try not to take this too seriously, we’re just having some fun).

    • Aspire to unrealistic depictions of “organization” boards on Pinterest.
    • Walk through a model home and stress out about how much more clutter you have than the house where no one lives.
    • Understand that a stack of random school papers on the kitchen table is the end of the world.
    • Make a mental list of how you aren’t as “together” as [person X]. Review it daily.
    • Compare yourself to other parents/workers/neighbors.
    • Blow off the laundry for one day, toss up your hands and say, “Well that’s it, then.”
    • Realize that you’ll never be perfect, so there’s no use in trying.
    • Believe that an “organized person” = “good person.” The opposite is true, obviously.
    • Decide you have to be organized RIGHT NOW. It only takes 30 minutes on television shows!
    • Forget that organizing is a skill, attribute it to genetics.
    • Toss and turn in bed, mentally reviewing all the things you have to do tomorrow, and refuse to write any of those items down.
    • Stop inviting friends over because your house doesn’t look like a magazine.
    • Create a filing system based on a secret code you have to reference to be able to use.

    (Today’s post inspired by Annie Mueller.)

    The importance of having tools you love

    Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

    What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

    Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

    You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

    I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

    Dish towels
    Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

    Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

    Smartphones and their apps
    Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

    If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.