Book Review: Downsizing the Family Home

A few weeks ago, Alex wrote about dealing with the clutter of previous generations. It took me back to my childhood when my extended family pulled together to sell my great-grandfather’s farm. That was back in the day where you hired an auctioneer, put ads in local newspapers, and all the neighbours in the county showed up to bid on items the family had dragged out onto the lawn.

Times have certainly changed. Family members live all over the country, neighbours don’t necessarily know one another, and online auctions are the norm. Marni Jameson’s book Downsizing the Family Home is very helpful to those of us in the modern world dealing with liquidating a family estate.

I expected this book to be rather dry; a “how-to” book full of instructions and checklists. Instead, this book was a warm and compassionate recounting of the author’s own experience as she cleared out and sold her childhood home, and helped her parents transition to a retirement centre. She writes like she’s talking to her friends. I chuckled to myself when Jameson recounted how she found “bundles of Christmas cards saved by year going back to William the Conqueror” as well as, “…enough baskets to re-create the miracle of the loaves and fishes.” Many families have similar collections that have to be sorted and disposed of.

However, this isn’t a novel. Jameson shares the information she learned from the experts she consulted and provides many hints and tips throughout the book. It is full of useful information on how to dispose of items — whether to sell, recycle, donate, or just take to the dump. There are several chapters dedicated to helping readers find resources to determine the value of antiques, artwork, and other family heirlooms.

One useful thing I learned was that in most families the stories surrounding family heirlooms are often wrong. For example, though generations have been told the story of great-grandma’s Tiffany® lamp, it may actually be just a replica. Some items may not be as valuable as expected but if it is a piece you love and has significant sentimental value, it doesn’t matter what its re-sale value would be.

The book also provides advice and suggestions on preparing and selling a home and tips on dealing with real estate agents and the challenges that occur when the adult children live across the country. One of those challenges being the emotional anguish of letting go of your childhood home.

Downsizing the Family Home was an enjoyable book to read. If there is a downsizing process looming in your future, you’ll find this book extremely helpful.

Saying goodbye to musical instruments, part two

Last week, I shared the story of my inability to let it go of my drum set during our big basement clear out. I had succumbed to sentiment! After much deliberation, I’ve made a decision — the drum set stays — for now. There’s a deal in place, which I’ll describe in a bit.

First off, I’m going to refurbish them. They need new heads, a good tuning, some cleaning, and maybe some new hardware. (The bass pedal is older than my marriage.) Once the upgrades are done, I’m going to play a bit and see how it feels. I’ll adopt a regular practice schedule and see if I can stick to it while working off the years of rust. Perhaps my kids will express an interest. If so, I’ll provide lessons.

Now here’s the deal. If, at the end of one year, the drum set is still satisfying the definition of clutter (an item that is unused and without purpose), then away it goes. What will happen to it? There are several options for an unwanted musical instrument:

  1. Selling is the most obvious choice. These drums are very old and not worth a lot, so I’d give them to a young musician who is looking for his or her very first set. It would be nice to see them inspire a student they way they once inspired me.
  2. Donation is also an option (and I can get a tax write-off too). I’m sure a local community center, church, or school would gladly take a free drum set.

I could get real fancy and turn them into art, but that’s a bit beyond me.

Parting with sentimental clutter is never easy, but it’s something we must do eventually. Memories are more important than the things themselves and great memories are never clutter. Additionally, here’s a good opportunity to practice the concept of non-attachment. It reminds me of this little parable, the origin of which I do not know.

There was a man who kept a glass on his bedside table. He loved the glass and would look at it and think, “How lovely this glass is. When it catches the light it looks so beautiful. When it’s full of water, how lovely it appears. If I tap it with my finger, what a pretty note it plays.”

“But if I bump the table and the glass crashes on the floor, I may think, ‘Oh, of course.’ Or, I can realize the glass is already broken. Then every moment with it is precious.”

In a way, my drum set is already gone. Some day it will fall apart, or be in the dump, or reside in somebody else’s basement, or I’ll be too old or frail to play it. And that’s OK, because every moment I’ve had with it has been precious.

Saying goodbye to musical instruments

I spent this past weekend cleaning my basement and enduring a life crisis. The two are related.

As it’s the start of school vacation week here in Massachusetts, my wife and I decided to take this time to clean out the basement. I’m not referring to the pedestrian practice of knocking down cobwebs and doing a bit of sweeping. No, this was a full-on, no-prisoners/no-survivors clean. Every single item was hauled out into the yard and sorted into one of three piles:

  1. Keep
  2. Donate
  3. Trash

Once the room was empty, the industrial vacuum came out, cobwebs were swept away, floors were swept and scrubbed, and shelving was dismantled, cleaned, and relocated. Every inch was polished and prepped for the contents of the “keep” pile to be neatly re-introduced. I drove the donate pile to the local donation station and later this week a team of professionals will arrive to haul the trash pile away. That should be all three piles sorted.

Dave's drum setExcept there’s one problem. I lied. There are actually four piles. The fourth pile contains only a single item: my drum set.

I bought this set of drums with money I saved by delivering newspapers when I was 13 years old. I started playing drums when I was seven, and to say that they occupied the first 23 years of my life is an understatement. Music, specifically percussion, was my life for two decades.

In elementary school I played in the orchestra. In high school, it was band, orchestra, and jazz band. Some friends and I formed our own noisy rock band and tormented the neighbors with an endless racket. I took private lessons outside of school, and traveled to district orchestra events. I even attended music camp at our local college. Music was my social circle, my solace when times were tough, and my celebration when everything was going well. After high school I attended Berklee College of Music and gave snare drum lessons to the neighborhood kids in the summer.

Then I finished with school, moved away, and got a job. The drums came with me, but I didn’t have much time for them. A few years passed and I got married. Soon enough we had a daughter, then a son. I had more responsibility at work. I continued to give lessons for about a year but that ended. My drums sat idle in the basement — for years… many years.

Now, here we are with my drums satisfying the very definition of “clutter.”

We’ve written about parting with sentimental clutter before. I know it’s hard, and I know the strategies. I also understand that, in the end, memories are more important than things. But this feels like more to me.

Real musical ability isn’t something that every person has. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I do. I was really good at playing drums. To me, parting with the instrument feels like I’m throwing the gift away, too, and that’s not right. I understand that, if I haven’t touched my drums within the last 15 years, I probably won’t during the next 15 years either. Yet, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

For now, they’re still in the limbo that is “Pile Four.” I’ve got until the end of the week to decided their true fate. Do you have any input, readers? Have I merely succumbed to the emotion of sentimental clutter? Or is there something more at work?

How to spend less time ironing

A couple of months ago, fellow Unclutterer writer Alex wrote about how he uses the chore of ironing to practice active meditation. That works for Alex, but not for me. I do not like ironing. I find it tedious and annoying. It’s something I’d rather not do, but as my mother used to say, I don’t want to “… look like an unmade bed,”  so I try reduce the amount of ironing I have to do with a few simple tricks.

Now, I realize that ironing can’t be avoided entirely. Sometimes you must look neat, tidy and wrinkle-free (job interviews, important meetings, weddings, funerals, and so on). I’m not suggesting you should stop ironing entirely. But you’re an iron-phobic like me (or you’d like to spend less time performing this chore), this post is for you.

Step one: the dryer is your friend

Ironing removes wrinkles from clothes via a combination of heat, steam and pressure. We can harness two of the three with the dryer. When you can, get clothes out of the clothes dryer as soon as the drying cycle is completed and then fold or hang the clothes right away. The residual heat and weight of being folded/hung up will have a similar effect to ironing itself. Speaking of the dryer…

Step two: pay a lot of attention to the dryer

I said that the dryer is your friend. That’s true, but friendship requires give and take. To encourage wrinkle-free results, don’t over dry your clothes. If your machine has a permanent press cycle, use it, as that will inject some cooler air. Also, remove them promptly as mentioned above. If you can’t do that, it’s a good idea to get them out while still slightly damp, as removing all moisture and then letting the load sit in a heap encourages wrinkling. This brings us to the washer.

Step three: the washer is also your friend

Just like we did with the dryer, look for that permanent press cycle. Also, avoid over stuffing the washer. Not only does the weight off all that clothing put a strain on the machine’s inner workings, it results in a wadded, wrinkly mass. (It also puts strain on the fabrics which can reduce the life of your clothes.) Also, try not to wash heavy items like jeans with lighter ones like tops. The former will crease the latter.

…And the rest

Here are a few final tips for ironing less.

  • Fold your clothes carefully so you do not accidentally add more wrinkles.
  • Use good quality hangers to prevent wrinkle formation.
  • Avoid overstuffed drawers and closets.
  • Consider buying wrinkle-free clothes
  • Use products like wrinkle-releaser ( you can also make your own if you’re the DIY type ). I’ve never used either so I can’t recommend them, but I know they exist.

I’ve also read that you can use a hair dryer for quickie wrinkle removal, but I haven’t tested this either although Unclutterer writer Jacki assures me this works. (She’s not a big ironing fan either). She’s also used her daughter’s hair straightening iron to quickly press shirt collars and cuffs, and hung ball gowns and business suits in hotel bathrooms while running a steamy shower in order to remove wrinkles.

It’s true that I can’t avoid ironing entirely. There are certain settings that demand neat, well-pressed clothes. But if you’re like me, follow these few steps to reduce time spend engaged in this boring chore.

Eliminating mid-station clutter

As I write this, there is an overflowing laundry basket behind me. I can’t see it. I can’t hear it or (for now, at least) smell it. But I can sense it. I know it’s there. It’s always there, eyeing me with its passive-aggressive glance. “Dave,” it says. “Daaaave! Look at all this laundry.”

No, I’m not going crazy, nor am I having a conversation with the laundry basket. I am, however, aware of what the laundry basket really is: a mid-station.

What is a mid-station?

Think of a train that leaves Boston for New York City but first stops in Hartford, Connecticut. Partway between its departure point and its final destination. That is the mid-station stop. If you wanted to, you could get off the train at Hartford, have some lunch, do some shopping, and then eventually continue to New York City.

The laundry basket is a mid-station stop — holding the dirty clothes before they get to the washing machine. The trouble is, laundry often gets stuck in the basket. Days go by and the pile gets higher and higher. It’s annoying, and this prompted me to find other mid-stations in my home and I found several.

The dish drainer is a classic mid-station. I’ll clean up after a meal, wash the dishes, and put them in the rack. A couple of days later, we’re all using the rack as if it were the cabinet.

We also have a collection of keys, backpacks, and lunch boxes that come in from work and school every day. In this case, the mid-station is the mudroom. The coats and backpacks have hooks and the keys have a small basket, yet these items often languish on the first flat surface inside the door, or on the floor itself.

What can be done about mid-stations?

Adopt new habits. I live with three other people and laundry builds up quickly. After just 72 hours there’s a mountain piled up. The solution that works for us is to do at least one load per day. If we do this, the clothes don’t pile up as much. Doing one load per day, is manageable, and a lot better than spending three or four hours on the weekend getting caught up.

As for the dishes, diligence is the answer here, too. Simply make it a part of the daily routine to empty the drainer and put the dishes, glasses, and utensils, away.

Continually reminding the guilty parties results in getting the coats and backpacks hung up properly in the mud room.

Eliminating mid-stations. I’ve read about people who’ve addressed mid-stations by eliminating them. In other words, laundry won’t pile up in baskets if there are no baskets. Likewise, there’s no “Leaning Tower of Dishes” to admire without a dish drainer to serve as the foundation. This is true but not often practical. When I was a kid, we didn’t have laundry baskets because my parents’ house had a laundry chute. We tossed the dirty clothes through a little door in the wall and they fell downstairs to the laundry room itself. Most homes don’t have laundry chutes these days.

If you can get away with eliminating a mid-station, give it a try. I don’t think I could do it.

The other point I want to make here is delegation. My kids, my wife and I all share chores. Many hands make for short work, as the saying goes.

If you’ve identified any mid-stations in your home, share your solution (or struggle) in the comments below. Let’s see what we can do about this common problem.

Avoiding the clutter of high-maintenance purchases

I first learned about the importance of buying things that were easy to maintain years ago, when I had a vacuum cleaner with a bag that seemed next to impossible to replace. Vacuum cleaner design has improved a lot since then, but the lesson remains. Items that are hard to maintain often are unused — or if they are necessities, like my vacuum cleaner, they take time you’d rather spend elsewhere.

I learned the lesson again when I bought an inadequate shredder and spent way too much time pulling jammed paper out of the shredder with some tweezers. That shredder is now gone, replaced with one that never jams.

What qualifies as “too much maintenance” will differ from person to person. Unlike Alex, I don’t like to iron, so I avoid buying clothes or linens that require ironing. Clothes that require hand washing are items that some people will want to leave in the store. “Dry flat” might also be a problem if you don’t have a good place for doing that.

The kitchen is another place where it’s easy to wind up with high-maintenance items. For many people, anything that can’t go in the dishwasher is too much bother. (On the other hand, my kitchen doesn’t even have a dishwasher, so that’s not an issue for me.)

My book club just read a novel where one of the characters doesn’t want the bother of polishing the good silver her mother passed down to her, so she finds another family member who does want the silver.

And then there are the small appliances that sound good at first, but wear out their welcome. Kristin Wong wrote about her juicer on the Lifehacker website:

It was time-consuming to clean and maintain. (At one point, I said, “I’d rather buy juice than ever clean this thing again.”)

When choosing appliances and other items, easy-to-clean may be something you want to add to your list of criteria. For example, Christine Cyr Clisset at The Sweethome website listed her criteria for picking a kitchen scale, which included this:

Beyond these basics, the buttons on the scale should preferably be covered in a plastic membrane (aka “seamless”), so gunk won’t collect in the cracks and you can clean the machine easily.

For those who dislike dusting, an overabundance of knickknacks might qualify as a high-maintenance item. As Toni Anderson wrote:

When I got married I had boxes full of knickknacks, a few of them I loved, but most of them I just kept because people had given them to me. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t really want to dust these pieces on a regular basis. Over time I kept only the pieces that were truly special to me.

And then there’s the duvet cover. Mine was really lovely, but I struggled with it every time I washed it, and the instructions I found online didn’t help. I finally gave it away. Now I just place a light blanket over my king-size down comforter (and a sheet underneath it) to keep it clean, and a dreaded task is gone from my life.

What items do you find are more trouble than they’re worth? Please share in the comments!

Reader Question: What to do with digitized CDs and DVDs

Recently, reader Sarah asked us this:

I don’t know if it’s still true, but it certainly was the law in the USA that if you own a music CD and rip it to create mp3 files (or similar), you had to continue to physically possess the CDs from which you did the ripping, otherwise it was considered illegal use. Perhaps someone can update me on that?

That’s a great question – and yes, it still is the law. Copyright law protects the work of artists. If you make unauthorized copies, you are taking the artists’ works without providing payment. This type of theft is called piracy. You may have seen the FBI anti-piracy warning shield on movies you have watched. Although audio recordings may not have a warning label, they are still subject to the same copyright laws. Thanks to the internet, piracy is a world-wide problem and law enforcement agencies in many countries are working together to protect intellectual property.

The Recording Industry Association of America® (RIAA) has a great summary of the different actions that are considered music piracy but they also applies to movies. Piracy can include uploading and downloading unauthorized versions of copyrighted music/movies from peer-to-peer networks as well as ripping CDs/DVDs to your own computer and selling the originals at a garage sale.

What does this mean for uncluttering and organizing if you can’t dispose of the original CDs/DVDs once you’ve converted them to a space-saving digital format?

First of all, you can sell or give away the original CD/DVD, but only as long as you no longer have any copies of the music/movies in any format. Once our children were older, we donated all of the DVDs and CDs that they were no longer interested in. It didn’t take long after that (mere minutes, in fact) for me to delete every digital copy as well. Bye-bye Barney and Friends!

Go through your collection. Are there any movies you will no longer watch or any music you won’t listen to anymore? Delete the digital copies and let the originals go.

DVDs and CDs tend to take up space because of their bulky, and rather breakable “jewel” cases. You could take the disks out of their case and put them into classy storage albums. This type of album also has storage for lyrics sheets or movie notes. It will take up much less space on shelving and allow your disks to be easily accessed whenever you need them.

After we downloaded our music onto our computer, we stored our entire CD collection in “cake boxes,” the spindle-type containers in which you can buy a stack of computer CDs. These are easily stored in the back of the drawer of our filing cabinet. The disadvantages of storing CDs in cake boxes include difficulty finding and accessing a CD if you need it again and lack of storage for movie notes or lyric sheets.CD storage box

Storage boxes like this one, can hold over 300 CDs/DVDs. The advantage of the storage box is that you can store movie notes or lyric sheets with the disks. It’s a good idea to put disks in sleeves to protect them — just in case the box gets tipped over onto the floor. Accidents can happen.

Regardless of how you organize your CDs/DVDs, you should also create an inventory and store it separately from the collection. You may wish to take photos of the disks and original packaging and include a copy of the sales slip. This information would be useful if your collection was ever damaged or stolen.

Clutter and productivity

A few years ago, we pointed out a study conducted by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute which demonstrates how a cluttered environment can negatively affect productivity:

“Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.”

In other words, having lots of “stuff” in your visual field can make it difficult to achieve the focus needed for meaningful work.

It’s a compelling finding and one that I relate to. How often have I delayed the start of a project because my desk is a mess? Many. This is anecdotal of course, but I don’t believe that’s always a function of procrastination. After tidying up, I feel like, “Ahh, now I can work.”

Of course, I don’t want to work in a spartan, decor-free room, either. So what do I keep around my work space? Here’s a quick tour of the few items that I allow in my immediate work space.

Desk

On my desk you’ll find the expected. A computer, keyboard and mouse. There’s a coffee mug fill of pens. The mug has sentimental value to me, as I bought it while on a family vacation. Seeing it makes me smile. Next you’ll find a stack of 3×5 index cards and a desktop “inbox,” much like this one.

Lastly, there’s a coaster for the odd drink (tea, etc.). Notably absent: photos. I know many people feel motivated or happy when looking at photos of loved ones. I understand that, but those images make me wish I was with them and not at work! So no family photos for me.

Wall

To the left of my desk is a bulletin board with quick-reference material. I’ve written about my love of bulletin boards before. Mine stores phone numbers I need to know, policies that must be public and a few other similar items.

Computer screen

I like a tidy computer desktop as well. For me, that means the wallpaper must be either a solid color or depicting a simple image. Also, I can’t handle a screen littered with icons. I know that many people like to keep icons representing oft-used documents and applications on the desktop, and I can respect that. I just prefer folders.

There’s a quick look. For me, visual clutter definitely interferes with my ability to focus on work. With that in mind, these are the few items I’m glad to have around. How about you?

Car accessories that are worth the investment

Frugality is a big part of the uncluttered lifestyle. When I say “frugal,” I mean thrifty and never wasteful. That said, there are certain things I’m willing to spend a little extra money on. While changing a flat tire in the snow last week, a few automotive options came to mind. Here’s a list of auto accessories that I think are worth the expense.

Jack

A compact, portable floor jack is worth the cost. This aluminum, 1.5 ton model from Pittsburgh Automotive could be just what you need. For starters, it’s so much easier to use than the scissor jack that probably shipped with your car. Consider that you’ll have to turn the nut on the scissor model 25–30 times before your car is elevated to an adequate height, while a floor jack will get in there in about five pumps. Likewise, a floor jack will slowly and safely lower your car within a few seconds, while the scissor jack requires 25–30 more twists, this time counter-clockwise.

There are some cons to consider as well. First, it’s heavy. At 31 pounds it’s heavier than your scissor jack. It’s also big; the compact model I’m suggesting is 23 x 10 x 7 inches (the handle can be removed so it’ll fit in your trunk). Lastly, it’s more expensive than the “free” jack that comes with the car.

I fell in love with the portable floor jack the night I was struggling to lift our Mazda. After many minutes of effortful turning, the jack itself slipped and the car came down upon it, crushing it. I called AAA and a worker arrived with a portable floor jack. He had my car raised and the tire off in about 90 seconds. That’s when I was sold.

Spare tire

Speaking of tires, I like to have a full-sized spare. Here in North America, it’s a good purchase decision. But that isn’t the case everywhere. I know that in Europe, for example, many cars don’t come with spares at all – not even a “donut” (half-sized spare) because there are service centers all over the place. In that case I would recommend paying extra for the donut.

Here in the States we get the half-sized spare, or donut. It’s meant to be a temporary fix that gets you to a service station. You shouldn’t exceed 45 m.p.h. with those things and they really aren’t the safest. Since a flat can strike at any time, and service stations are often few and far between here in the U.S., you could be stuck with the donut for several days. I recommend getting a spare rim for your car (find a local junk yard to save some money) and a good quality tire. Your local tire shop will gladly put the tire on the rim for you. Yes, it takes up more room than the donut, is heavier and expensive, but as far as safety and convenience are concerned, it’s well worth it.

Floor mats

Next, I’ll recommend heavy-duty floor mats, if you live in the right region. Here in New England, we have Sand Season, Snow Season and Slush Season. They’d be overkill in Texas, for example but if you experience winter, read on.

Several years ago I purchased these Weather Tech mats for our little Volvo and I love them. Unlike other heavy-duty mats, these are designed for the specific make, model and production year of various vehicles, so they absolutely fit and stay in place. Ours endure summer beach sand, autumn mud and frozen winter nastiness easily. To clean, simply snap them out and hose them off. They aren’t cheap – you’ll pay about a hundred dollars – but I’ve had the same set in my car since 2008 and they look great.

Other suggestions

Here are a few more quickies. An auto-dimming rear-view mirror is a nice upgrade, especially now that so many cars seem to have those weird blue headlights that seek out your retinas and burn them to cinders. This “car cup” charger for long road trips when everyone wants to be fully juiced.

I’ve debated recommending factory-installed GPS with myself and I still don’t have a definitive answer. That’s mostly because I’ve never experienced it. I just used my phone, which is portable and reliable. I bring it into a rental car, for example. Of course, not everyone has a smartphone with GPS capability, so I’ll leave this one hanging. Perhaps some testing is in order.

Lastly, let’s talk about road-side assistance services like AAA, CAA National, OnStar, etc. They day you need help (especially when you’re far from home) is the day you’ll recognize their value.

Remember, “frugal” doesn’t mean “cheap.” It means nothing is wasted, including your money. While these add-ons are expensive, I think they’re worthwhile investments. Let me know if you agree.

Get organized for winter home maintenance

Winter brings its own list of required tasks. I’m not talking about shoveling and salting, though that must be done, too. The colder months are a great time to get the following maintenance done so that you’ll be prepared for the harsh weather and ready for the infamous “spring cleaning.”

First, attend to your best friend during the winter months: the furnace. You really ought to have annual maintenance performed by a pro, and the start of winter is a great time to get that done. With that sorted, there are other tasks you can easily perform yourself:

  1. Change the filter monthly. On mine, it’s a big square filter that easily slides in and out. My local hardware store carries just the size I need. If you’re unsure, ask your service pro or even the nice folks at your hardware store. I use Google Calendar to remind me to change the furnace filter monthly. In the reminder notes, I jotted down the size of the furnace filter so that it’s easy to look up when I get to the hardware store.
  2. Adjust the ducts/dampers. My house uses forced hot air for heating and cooling. Each winter, I adjust the dampers a bit to ensure that hot air is forced to the bedrooms. Just be sure not to close off air completely to any level or room.

Next, step outside, grab the ladder and prepare to clean the gutters. No, it’s not an enviable job but winter storms will fill them with debris from nearby trees quickly. Additionally, heavy show and ice could cause them to pull away from their mountings and fall from the house entirely. While unpleasant, it’s an simple chore to complete:

  1. Wear long sleeves and gloves
  2. Use a good, reliable ladder. When I worked as a custodian I was introduced to the Werner 6 ft. Fiberglass Step Ladder, and I loved it. It is lightweight, reliable, and steady as a rock.
  3. Throw down a plastic tarp or a drop cloth to catch what you clear out. It’s much easier to clear away like that.
  4. Use a scoop. You can buy one if you like, or just use the kids’ beach shovel. They won’t be needing them for weeks.

If you have a fireplace, get the chimney inspected. Flammable creosote builds up and must be removed. Your local chimney sweep can take care of that for you. (When I was a teenager my father had me clean our family’s chimney. It wasn’t pretty. Don’t be like my dad. Hire a professional.)

Finally, clean vents that lead outdoors: the hood above the stove, the clothes dryer, etc. Also, when it does snow and you’re clearing the walkway, make sure to free these openings, too.

Regular home maintenance saves you money in the long run, teaches valuable skills, familiarizes you with how your home works, and helps prevent big issues down the road. Put these things on your calendar and rest easier every winter.

Hold the mail

On our post Becoming a more organized traveler, Maria, one of our readers, wrote us to say that she always has her postal mail delivery suspended when she goes on vacation. This is a great idea because if mail piles up in your mailbox advertising that you’re not home, it makes you a target for theft and identity fraud.

Even when you’re at home, the “hold mail” option from your postal service can also help keep you organized during short-term events when mail would overflow your home mail centre. These events include:

Stay-cations. On a stay-cation you spend your days zooming around to attractions, restaurants, and treating your house like a hotel. Rather than have important mail get lost in all of the shuffle, have the post office hold it for you until guests have departed and you have returned to your regular mail processing routine.

Special Occasions. Weddings, anniversary parties, and family reunions take time and effort to plan, attend, and especially host. Consider having mail delivery suspended from a few days before, until a few days after the event. When the event is over, you’ll have time to sort through your mail properly and you won’t accidentally send your payment for the electric bill enclosed in a thank-you card.

Home Renovations. The house is being torn apart and work crews are everywhere. Mail can be easily lost (or stolen) in the tumult. Suspending mail delivery during this time may save you from losing important bills and payments. You can always pop-in to the post office and pick up your mail weekly if the renovations are over an extended period.

Some people who travel regularly choose to rent a post office box and have all of their personal mail delivered there. They pick it up every week or so and process it all at the same time. Even if you don’t travel, this option might work for you depending on the quantity of mail you receive and the ease of visiting your post office box.

Have you ever used a “hold-mail” service other than when going away on vacation? We’d love to hear how it worked for you.

How do you remind yourself to do something?

As I sat down to write this week’s Unclutterer articles, my smartphone beeped a reminder, “Grace ballet at 12:00.” I was glad to receive the prompt and reflected on how crucial my smartphone has become when it comes to reminding me of what I need to do and where I need to be.

Smartphones didn’t become commonplace until about ten years ago. However, I existed back then and I can’t recall the reminder system I used in the “dark days” before pocket-sized computers.

I realize that not everyone favors electronic reminders that vibrate, beep and flash and that got me wondering. How do you remind yourself of what needs to be done?

We’ve discussed many reminder systems over the last ten years . In 2010 we described a system that uses Google Calendar to prompt future action, and two years ago we pointed out a few ways to get things done while avoiding lists and reminders entirely. There are fantastic apps out there, too, like Due.

I’d be lost without my smartphone when it comes to reminders. I’m curious, what is your chosen reminders system? Sound off!