Managing the endless towers of paper

Reader Teri wrote in and asked Unclutterer:

[I’m having trouble with] paper. It is constantly coming in from school, work, mail, receipts, etc. etc. etc. Despite scanning, recycling and shredding it keeps piling up. And trying to figure out what really needs to be kept in paper form is confusing.

This is a common struggle, Teri, and one that many people battle. There are a few steps you can take, and the first one is the biggest: accept the paper.

I, too, struggle with this. Sometimes I dread even opening the kids’ backpacks because I know I’ll find permission slips, reminders, calendars, school menus, and graded homework in there. And that’s just school stuff, never mind the mail, flyers, and everything else. There’s a tendency to want to be free-and-clear of all that paper. But it’s not going to happen and that’s okay.

That’s step one. Accept that the influx of paper will not stop, and that it’s okay to have it in your house. Giving yourself permission to have paper around will alleviate a lot of stress. Once that’s done, it’s time to keep the influx somewhat organized with three simple questions.

What is it?

A new piece of paper arrives. The first question you must ask yourself is, “What is this?” There are three possible answers:

  1. This is something that requires action. A permission slip that must be signed/returned to school, a bill that must be paid, committee minutes that must be reviewed.
  2. This is something that does not require action but contains information that may be useful in the future. The summer concert schedule at a local venue. A repair manual. A rulebook for a game. There’s nothing to do, but these papers do have potentially valuable information that’s worth keeping.
  3. It’s garbage. If a paper is neither number one or number two, it’s likely trash and can go in the shredder or directly into the recycling bin.

Take a minute to process all incoming paper this way. Once you’ve made the determination, it’s time to act accordingly.

Processing after identification

If a piece of paper is one that requires action, decide what the action is. Maybe you need to sign it and put it into Jr.’s backpack or write a check and stuff it into an envelope. If the action will take less than two minutes, do it right then and there. No exceptions. Then it’s done and you can move on to another task and not have that piece of paper taking up space in your mind.

If you can’t process it in less than two minutes, put it in its designated spot (more on that in a minute).

If a piece of paper does not require an action but does hold potentially useful information, it is reference material. Here you have two options. If you need to keep the paper itself for legal reasons or because you’ll be in a load of financial woe if you don’t, file it or store it in a safe. (Check out Jacki’s post “What important documents to keep and how to organize them” for insights on filing.)

If on the other hand you don’t need the paper itself, transfer the data to a digital format (scan it with a scanner or take a digital picture of it and save it to a searchable program like Evernote) and shred or recycle the paper. Toss it in the recycling bin with extreme prejudice! For example, we’ll get reminders of dentist appointments in the form of those little postcards. Write the date on the calendar and toss that card! It’s only clutter at this point. Reference material either goes into your filing cabinet, or, once it’s information is recorded, the original paper is recycled. Speaking of throwing things away…

Anything that satisfies question three above is trash and should go into your paper recycling. See ya, sayonara, adios, thank you for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.

Now, there are a few other things to note. First, you won’t always have time to sit down with a pot of tea to sort your papers while happy birds serenade you. For this reason, designate a permissible “inbox” for a holding space until you can. This physical inbox is a specific spot — table, in/out tray, shelf, drawer — that you’ve identified as the landing spot for all of this stuff that either needs to be acted upon or filed. That’s where the paper lives until you take the time to process it or decide what each piece is according to the questions above. Which brings me to my next point.

If you’re married or living with a partner/other adult, have separate inboxes. For years, my wife and I piled all our stuff on the so-called “telephone table,” and it was a nightmare. We process stuff differently and we store things differently and forcing those systems to cohabitate on the one table was a very bad idea. Today, she has the telephone table and I use an in/out tray from Staples on my desk. We can each work the way we want and yes, we now have two stacks of incoming paper but that’s still a huge improvement of scattered papers all throughout the house.

Now for the most important part about having a physical inbox … you MUST schedule a time for processing the papers. On your calendar, block off five minutes at the end of every workday or five minutes before dinner each night or 10 minutes twice a week to handle the papers. Don’t wait until the pile is out of control. Don’t wait until it’s tipping over and sliding all over your desk. Do a little bit of processing on a regular schedule and you’ll never have a huge pile to overwhelm you.

If you have a huge pile already, tack on five to 10 extra minutes each day to work through the backlog. Eventually, you’ll be caught up with your current and old paperwork. It won’t happen over night, but you’ll get through it.

Welcome to the factory floor

In April, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader Judy asked:

My judgmental brother and sister in law are coming mid September. I have stuff, mostly papers everywhere. Also, I have some sentimental stuff I want to get rid of but feel guilty about. I’m employed full time and it feels overwhelming.

I hear ya, Judy. I always know when we’re getting house guests because the cleaning goes into overdrive. Wait, cleaning is too subtle a word. We give our home a nuke it from space blast of organization and cleaning before people come to visit. Or as I call it, creating the “lie house.”

Why “lie house?” Because the sterile state we create is not how our house actually exists day-to-day.

As part of our preparation for out-of-town guests, we clean the house from top to bottom. I suspect you do the same. It’s not only a matter of pride, but a display of respect for your guests. You want everything to look nice for the people who bothered to travel and spend money just for the pleasure of your company. It makes perfect sense.

And, usually, we go EXTREME.

Vacuuming begets dusting, which begets tidying up the knick-knacks, which leads to reorganizing the living room, buying flowers for vases, scrubbing the floor, dusting the dog, washing the soap, combing the lawn, power-washing the brick fireplace, constructing an altar to the gods and goddesses of cleanliness and preparing to sacrifice the most well-groomed chicken you’ve ever seen.

But lately we’ve stopped and asked ourselves, “Wait, what are we doing?”

The chicken is relieved.

Here’s the fact of the matter. Right now, this is a working house. It’s the factory floor and production is at its peak. We have two adults living here, each with a full-time job. There is a dog whose hobbies include disemboweling her squeaky toys and spreading the nylon innards across the rug. We’ve got three kids in this house, ranging in age from 10 to 13, who spend their time (and ours) on:

  • Girl Scouts
  • Cub Scouts
  • Ballet
  • Soccer
  • After-school science club
  • After-school comedy club (seriously)
  • Friends, playdates, homework, and so on

These are the years spent in the trenches. The years where my wife and I argue over who gets to be the one to grocery shop, because grocery shopping means you get 25 minutes to yourself. If guests arrive and there’s a stack of papers on a table somewhere or library books strewn about or if our dear visitors have to witness a round of my favorite 7:38 a.m. game, “Where Are Your Clean Socks And Why Must We Go Through This Every Blessed Day?” Well, you know what? Fine.

The people who are nice enough to travel and spend money just to be in our company understand where we are at this stage in our lives. They love us, and know that transferring the breakfast cereal into labeled Tupperware containers is just under “jewel-encrusted, heated driveway” on our list of current priorities.

Now, I’m not saying that the active family lifestyle is permission to live in a dumpster, but it is permission to let some things go, even if just for a bit. If I have a choice between creating a pristine library of the kids’ books or planning a fun weekend with the family and our guests, I’ll choose the latter. The books will always be there; my kids’ childhood and this visit won’t.

If you want a museum experience, the MFA is just up the road. Otherwise, our family experience welcomes you. Come on in.

If you’re truly overwhelmed, Judy, give yourself permission to let some of the stress go. Do what you can, use the impending visit as motivation if that is what you need to reach your organizing and uncluttering goals, but also remember that your visitors are going to love you irrespective of your papers and sentimental items. Feeling anxious isn’t good for anyone, especially for four months as you prepare for the visit. Your home can be a museum, but it doesn’t have to be.

Reconciling paper and digital productivity and organizing tools

I’m a confirmed gadget nut, and therefore many of my preferred tools for productivity and organization are electronic, including hardware and software. Yet, I still keep and use a paper notebook almost every day because I love my paper calendar and notebooks. This can be hard to reconcile. I am continually asking myself questions, such as: Why am I writing things down twice? And, um, where did I do that recent brainstorming session, on my notebook or computer?

Keeping on top of my projects is important, so I’ve begun to formally address the incongruence between my paper and digital tools.

The system I’ve discovered to solve my dilemma was inspired by a recent episode of The Fizzle Show. The Fizzle Show is the podcast of the website Fizzle.co, which offers insight and advice for those working on building a business. Episode 99 featured insights from Mike Vardy and Shawn Blanc, two self-starters whom I admire. It was in listening to their conversation that I came upon a system.

Shawn and Mike discussed the practice of keeping a “productivity journal.” They use it to formally write down progress the’ve made on goals, both little and small. It’s a nice bit of motivation, reinforcement, and history. At the end of a week, month, or year, they can look back at what they accomplished and what was left incomplete. Right away, I wanted to adopt the practice. But how?

I love writing in a notebook. It’s just fun, and I do it every day. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to find entries via electronic search. I’m a big fan of Evernote, which acts as my digital “cold storage.” Fortunately, there’s an easy way to marry the two that doesn’t take a lot of time or require me to write and type the same information.

Enter the Evernote Moleskine. It’s a Moleskine notebook that comes with some Evernote branding and, more importantly, an Evernote Premium subscription. Finally, the Evernote Mobile apps are tuned to recognize a page from the notebook and snap a crystal-clear, searchable image. Now, when I complete my entry in the notebook, I snap a photo of it with the Evernote app, give it an appropriate name and tags, and I’m good. The program recognizes my handwriting and makes it searchable. I had the pleasure of writing in a notebook and I’ve got a searchable, indexed copy in a digital app that I trust and is nearly ubiquitous.

I’ve tried to abandon my notebooks, but I just love them and feel motivated to work when I sit down with a nice, fresh page and a pen. This system of reconciling paper and electronic isn’t perfect — it would be easier to pick just one — but, honestly, it’s working fine and the time it takes to photograph and name an entry digitally is minimal. If you’re like me, straddling the analog and digital worlds, this solution might also work for you.

Answers to a reader’s four questions

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader wrote in and talked about her four main struggles.

1. Finding pockets of time in the day to do large projects when you have small kids around. For example, I am trying to stain our wooden fence on our own, but I have two children under 3 years old. How can I approach this messy process strategically?

I’ve been in this situation before. I had two young children and my husband was deployed for six months straight with the Canadian Forces. One suggestion would be to find some teenagers you can hire. You can ask around to neighbours and friends or visit the local secondary school or community centre if you don’t know any personally. Some teens would appreciate getting paid for a few hours of work per week painting your fence or keeping your children occupied while you work on the household chores.

Another suggestion might be if you have friends with young children, you can do an exchange. One grown-up looks after all of the children and the other grown-up works on a project. The next time, you switch.

Before engaging someone to assist you, it’s always best to have a plan of what you can accomplish during the time you have. Here are some tips I’ve learned from experience:

  • Always underestimate the amount of work you’ll get done in the time that you have. If you think it will take you two hours to paint the fence, it may really take you four hours. Remember to include set-up and cleanup times in your estimate.
  • Always have a Plan B. If you’ve booked a sitter so you can paint the fence, have an alternative project to work on (e.g. sewing curtains) in case it rains that day.
  • Don’t fret if you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

2. Overcoming analysis paralysis … how do I restore my decision-making confidence and JUST DO IT? For example, hanging art on the wall: it feels like a permanent choice! So I delay!

We’ve written before about improving decision-making skills and how to make the process of decision making easier. Reviewing these posts might help you get over your “analysis-paralysis.”

As someone who has moved houses eight times in 23 years, I can say that nothing is “permanent,” some things might just take a little more effort to change than others. As far as hanging art on the walls, try GeckoTech Reusable Hooks. They are made with a unique synthetic rubber technology that allows them to be used again and again. 3M picture strips are also very handy for hanging artwork without damaging walls. You may also wish to consider the STAS cliprail pro Picture Hanging System.

Apartment Therapy has great tips for hanging artwork so go ahead and make your house a home.

3. Thinking long-term about home projects, while on a budget. We plan to stay in our home a long time, but it needs some love. But our wallets are thin! What should we prioritize: remodeling the kitchen, or taking control of the landscaping? New interior paint job or pressure washing and re-glazing the pebble driveway? What house projects are most important and have lasting impact?

Home renovations can make your home more comfortable, improve your living experience, and increase the value of the home. However, shoddy workmanship or too much “unique customization” may actually decrease the value of your home.

Start with the basics by keeping the home safe and livable. Consider projects that involve your home’s structure (roof, windows, doors, etc.) or mechanical systems (furnace, air conditioning, electrics, plumbing). These upgrades make your home more energy efficient and may actually pay for themselves during the time that you live in the home. Insurance companies may also decrease premiums when you improve wiring, install secure windows, or add an alarm system.

Next, think about making you home more livable. High-end countertops may look good in magazines but more cupboard space may be what your family needs right now. Discuss your ideas with a designer and talk to a few contractors to determine prices and see what fits with your budget. You may decide to do the work yourself, but talking about it with a professional is great for brewing ideas.

Try to build the most flexibility and long-term usefulness into your designs. Remember that children grow quickly, so envision the basement toy room becoming a games room and study area in a few years. Installing the required wiring now will save you time and money later, and may also add a selling feature if you decide to move.

You might be able to do some work yourself, such as painting or installing closet systems. However, because of permits and laws/regulations/codes, most people find it best to hire professionals for tasks requiring plumbing, electrical work, specialized carpentry, and work involving altering the structure of your home (supporting walls, roofs, staircases, etc.).

4. How can we encourage others in our life to take care of their clutter before they leave this earth and give all their clutter to us? This is especially a problem when they don’t think what they have is clutter!

Unfortunately, the value of an item is in the eye of the beholder. Items you might consider clutter, might be of significant value to someone else. It would be difficult to ask someone to part with items that are valuable to him or her. You can’t control another person’s desires, wishes, and attachments to their things.

However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your family members’ items are appreciated once they pass on.

Envision what you want for your family. Are you minimalists? Do you prefer art-deco style furniture? Will you travel? What hobbies do you enjoy or do you wish to start a few new hobbies? It helps to write down the lifestyle you want to lead and then act according to these visions when the time comes.

Prepare a respectful “no thank-you” response now. Chances are you will be offered something you don’t want or you will be told that items are being kept for you. If the item will not fit into your envisioned lifestyle, you will be able to turn it down. For example:

I know [item] is very important to you and it means a lot that you want us to have it after you are gone. But [item] will never replace you or our memories of you. Let’s consider how [item] could best be used and appreciated. Perhaps we should:

  • Consider offering [item] to a [name friend or family member] who would truly appreciate it
  • Donate [item] to charity or museum, where it could be used or appreciated by even more people
  • Sell [item] and either enjoy or donate the money

Sometimes once people find they are no longer obligated to hold an item for you, they are more willing to let it go.

Sorting through sentimental keepsakes

Last week, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader asked:

My mother in law recently moved out of her house and into a small place with medical care and more services than her home could provide. In her process of downsizing, many many items were earmarked for my husband and I. In the spirit of not hurting any feelings, we got a U-Haul and took all the items back to our house. Now, my husband is dealing with guilt and doesn’t want to get rid of hardly anything from his mom’s house. Is there a delicate way to handle this? I’d like to encourage my husband to keep a few choice items and ditch the rest, but its a delicate subject.

It’s definitely a delicate subject, and a familiar one for many people. A few years ago, my family was in a similar situation when my grandfather, who had been living alone for several years, had to move into a place that could properly care for his increasing medical needs. To make the process even more difficult, we had to sell his house as well. He passed away shortly thereafter, and we were left with a lot of stuff.

I can remember my extended family sitting in my aunt’s house surrounded by so much stuff and trying to decide, “Now what?” It seemed like an impossible task. At last I asked myself, “What did grandpa mean to me?” The answer came, “He was an artist.” At that point I knew what I would do.

For years, my grandfather had designed flatware and more for Oneida. He was also an accomplished artist in other mediums, like wood and charcoals. I found some items that represented my overarching impression of my grandfather: a sketch I had long admired, a spoon sample, some early product photos taken for the company, and a sketch.

The sketch, entitled “Winter’s First Snow,” is framed and hangs behind my desk. The spoon, photos, and sketches I had professionally mounted in a shadow box that now hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Both look great and are nice reminders of someone I loved.

We wrote about parting with sentimental clutter a few years ago, and that advice is still very good:

  • Only keep items you’ll display and/or use
  • If you insist on not displaying or using the items, limit items to a number that can fit inside a designated space, like a single chest or keepsake box
  • Remember that items don’t have magical properties, memories do — getting rid of something your loved one owned isn’t getting rid of that person

I’ll add this: identify a specific number of items that best represent your fondest feelings of your loved one and treat those items with the respect and love that those memories deserve. By giving the items a place of honor, you’ll feel that you’ve done right by the fond memories you have.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t force your spouse to get rid of his mother’s things, but you can show him what you think might be a nice alternative to keeping everything. This is also a big adjustment for your husband and it may take time before he can let go of some of the items he doesn’t want to keep. So, with a little time and suggestions from you, you both should be able to come to the right solution for your family.

And, you can remind him that a box in the basement full of items you rarely, if ever, look at is not a fitting tribute to an important person from your life. Two or three items tastefully and beautifully displayed or used in your home, however, shows that you care for, respect, and value the relationship.

What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

Creating a home inventory

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to lose your possessions to a theft, fire, tornado, or other disaster. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be trying to remember exactly what I owned during such a stressful time. And that’s why I have a home inventory.

A home inventory also helps you decide how much insurance you need for your home’s contents. If you’ve been in your home for a number of years, do you have any idea what it would cost to replace everything in that home? Until I did a home inventory, I certainly didn’t.

And here’s a side benefit: As you go through your home, noting everything in it, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up doing some uncluttering.

How do you create a home inventory? There are lots of options, so you’ll want to pick the one that works best for you. You may also choose to combine two or more techniques.

Photos and/or videos

This may be the quickest and easiest answer, especially if you have a smartphone that records videos. You can walk through your home, capturing images of what you own and narrating what’s what. Be sure to include important details about your items, such as model and/or serial numbers. You might also want photos (or scans) of receipts for your most valuable items.

Organizer Margaret Lukens writes that you can do a video inventory of an average 3-bedroom house in about an hour. The one disadvantage: If you get new things or move things around, you’ll need to create a new video. But given how quick the whole process can be, this may not be a big problem.

Home inventory apps/programs

There are plenty of these, including the following:

Some other programs, such as HomeZada, have a home inventory function as part of a larger home management toolset.

Some of these tools are free; others are not. One concern with tools like these is that there’s always a chance the company behind them will go out of business or decide to stop supporting the program. (I noticed that a number of programs I’d bookmarked years ago are no longer being sold.) You may want to investigate what the company says it will do under such circumstances; will it provide a means for you to export your information?

Generic software programs

You may already own some software that will work just fine for creating an inventory. When I created my home inventory over 10 years ago, I used a simple Excel spreadsheet. Vertex42 even provides a home inventory spreadsheet template, for those who’d like some help getting started. Other people like using Evernote to create a home inventory.

Cataloging/collection management software

When I did my home inventory, I didn’t always list each individual item. For things like CDs, trade paperbacks, basic hardcover books, and bottles of wine I just counted how many items I had in each category. But if you have a collection where you want to know exactly what items you have, you may want to use software that is designed for managing the type of collection you have: books, music, wine, etc.

Paper tools

A home inventory can also be done with paper and pen (or pencil). You can find sample forms online from many home insurance companies. In the U.S., many states have departments of insurance that also provide home inventory forms.

Home inventory companies

You can also pay someone to create a home inventory for you. Some professional organizers provide this service, and I’ve seen other companies that have home inventories as their main service offering.

Reminder: No matter how you create your home inventory, you’ll need to be sure the resulting inventory components (digital files, paper, photos, videos) are safely stored away from your home. And you’ll want to have a process for updating the inventory over time, since things will change.

In praise of the paper wall calendar

I’ve written several articles highlighting the intersection of technology and organization. There are many terrific solutions out there, both simple and complex, to tackle everything from recipes to your draft of the great American novel. Despite all of the advanced technology that’s available to a gadget guy like me, I still love, LOVE my wall-mounted calendar.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in a house with a calendar on the wall. There have been more varieties than I can remember, but if I try I can recall:

  • Calendars advertising banks, take-out restaurants, and churches.
  • Dunkin Donut calendars that featured a pair of coupons each month.
  • Themed calendars that fit the whims of my siblings and me as we grew up: movies, sports, dance, rock stars, etc.
  • Plain, no-nonsense calendars that were all function and little form.

Today I’m a part of a big, busy family with a lot of moving parts: ballet, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, work, weekend activities and so on. All of these obligations have crafted what I look for in a wall calendar. The following are the particulars:

What I look for in a good paper calendar

  1. Size. It’s no fun to try and cram your handwriting into a teeny, tiny square. I want wide, open spaces that can legibly display several appointments.
  2. Single-page months. What I think of “‘fridge calendars” — 12″ x 14″ when opened — won’t do. The boxes are too small and they’re a pain to hang. In the beginning of the year they’re bottom-heavy and pull magnetic clasps down. In the latter months, all that bulk moves up top, requiring a more ample clip.
  3. Wire hanger. Tear-off calendars tend to get messy. A spiral wire spine is best as it allows you to flip each month away cleanly and easily hang the calendar on a nail, screw, or a hook.
  4. Mini reference calendars. It’s a hassle to flip back/forward to quickly reference a past or future date. I like it when a calendar has at least the previous/forthcoming months presented as mini reference calendars. The whole year is even better.
  5. Eighteen month timeframe. These are made with the school year in mind, which I appreciate.

Why I love paper calendars

Unlike their digital counterparts, paper calendars require no learning curve, are compatible with all my other hardware (pens and eyes), never “go down,” and simply work. They’re the very picture of reliability for my family.

Paper calendars in a digital world

I know what you’re thinking: “Dave, what if you need to reference something when you’re nowhere near your calendar?” Well, that’s a valid question, and I don’t have very good answer. You could, of course, buy a pocket-sized planner to take with you or enter your information into a digital calendar as well (that’s what I do). You could even take a picture of the calendar each day and delete the previous day’s image when you do so. All of these solutions require you to double all of your data entry, and, I’ll admit, that’s not ideal.

But, one thing it does is keep you from committing to a task on the spot. You always have the excuse, “I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you,” which gives you time to really consider taking on the new obligation. If you do agree to something, you’ll know you are truly willing to take on the additional responsibility.

In case you’re wondering, my ultimate wall calendar is the AT-A-GLANCE Monthly Wall Calendar, Wirebound, 20 x 30 Inch Page Size. It meets all of my criteria and is my absolute favorite.

What to do with old unwanted cables

Technology improves at a rapid pace and the devices we love today are the outdated clunkers of tomorrow. Who’s got a VCR sitting around? I do. And although you may have a plan to replace, donate, or properly dispose of unwanted hardware, you still might have a pile of cables on hand. Fortunately, this often-overlooked pile of clutter is easy to handle.

I recently read an article on MacObserver that’s full of suggestions for managing unwanted cables. Writing for MacObserver, Kelly Guimont begins with practical advice:

Start by making sure your friends and family all have what they need too. Perhaps they need extras for car charging or computer bags or whatever.

The cable you don’t need might be exactly what a relative or friend wants. Gulmont continues, describing various options for recycling: Best Buy and Staples have free programs and “… 1-800-Recycling and the National Center for Electronics Recycling will hook you up with the appropriate local facilities.”

I will add schools and scouting groups to the list of possible cable donation recipients. Many have STEM programs that are always in need of donations, and the cables they need often aren’t the latest and greatest.

Other suggestions: Be sure you know your devices well to know exactly which cables you need for your devices. When you donate or recycle your equipment, include the appropriate cables with the device in your donation — especially duplicates. Also, check with your local municipal and/or county recycling centers to learn where to dispose of the cables so when it is appropriate to trash them (such as broken and unsafe cables) you know the location to drop them off and the process.

Cables are insidious things that love to congregate in homes and never leave. The good news is there are several options for finding them a new place to be. Happy organizing!

Organizing household chemicals

The photograph to the right was taken in 2010 at a client’s home. We called this, “The Scary Cupboard,” and it was in a damp basement laundry room. The constant moisture in the air reacted with the containers. The moisture eventually penetrated and softened the Sani-Flush container and then it started reacting with the Sani-Flush itself.

We weren’t really sure what had been in the white plastic container next to the Sani-Flush, but the plastic bottle had degraded so badly that the contents leaked all over the bottom of the cupboard and started dissolving the wood and the other containers. The rust cylinder with the orange cap was a spray can of Static Guard. It collapsed and turned to powder when I touched it.

I donned my personal protective equipment and placed all of the contents into bins destined for the household hazardous waste depot.

The homeowners were very lucky because there was only some damage to the cupboard. There was the potential for some very dangerous toxic fumes and the heat buildup from the reactions could have started a fire and injured the homeowners.

The following tips are suggestions for organizing cleaning and other caustic chemicals in your home so that you don’t encounter a similar, hazardous situation:

  1. Before you purchase a product think about what you already have in your home that could do the job. Baking soda makes an effective scouring powder and vinegar can remove hard water stains. If these products will work, you don’t need to buy anything more caustic.
  2. If you only need to use a small amount of a cleaning product, for example a little bit of silver polish to shine a piece of jewellery, you may be able to find a jewellery store that would do the cleaning for a very small fee. You could also ask friends or neighbours if they have a bit of silver polish to spare. If you do need to purchase a specific product, only purchase the amount you will use in a reasonable period of time.
  3. Read the label and be sure you understand and follow the directions on how to use the product safely, how to protect yourself when using it, and how to properly store it. If you have any doubts about proper usage or storage, do a bit of research on the product to learn more. The manufacturer’s contact information always is on the label if more information is needed.
  4. When using the products in your home, always leave the product in its original container. Empty soda bottles and margarine tubs may not be capable of storing certain hazardous chemicals. Also, there is always the danger that someone may mistake that bright blue cleaning solution for Gatorade! Do not cover up or remove the labels from chemical products.
  5. Never mix products together unless it specifically states on the label that it is safe to do so. When diluting a product with water, always fill the container with water first, and then add the product. If you add the water to the chemical, it may create heat and melt the container or cause injury. Even mixing different brands of the same product can cause reactions, as the formulations may be different.
  6. It is not a good idea to store hazardous chemicals near food or food products because pots, pans, and cooking utensils can become easily contaminated with a hazardous substance. Consider storing items in a hallway closet or locked cabinet elsewhere in the home rather than under the kitchen sink, which is a damp area. Dampness can cause metal containers to rust and explode.
  7. Ideally you should not store materials or chemicals on shelves above shoulder height. However, if you have no other storage area, always get a ladder to access these items. Remember, do not store liquids on shelves above powders or solids in case of leakage. Do not stack containers.
  8. Avoid storing flammable goods or products inside your home that have the potential to release harmful fumes. These items include paints, solvents, gasoline, fuels, and varnishes. Store them in a separate building or in an area that is well vented to the outside.
  9. If you have a swimming pool, be sure your storage area for the pool’s chemicals is well ventilated. Vapours may build up inside containers in high temperatures. On opening, these vapours may be expelled directly in your face, causing eye and mucous tissue injury. Pool chemicals should not be stored near paint, lawn care products, gasoline, solvents, or flammable materials. You may wish to relocate your gas-powered lawn mower from your garden shed to your garage. See the EPA website for more details on pool chemical safety.
  10. Some chemical products actually taste sweet and can be very attractive to pets and small children, so do not leave chemical products unattended. If you must leave the room in the middle of a task, either put the products away or take them with you. It is handy to carry products in a bucket — or two buckets if the products are incompatible.
  11. Know how to properly dispose of chemical products. If you don’t know how to dispose of the products, contact your local waste management authority. Hazardous household chemicals should never be discarded on the ground or poured into storm drains.
  12. Place empty containers in the recycling or trash in accordance with the regulations in your municipality. If they are partly full, consult your local waste management authority for advice. Also remember to never incinerate or puncture pressurized containers (spray cans).
  13. Finally, when storing chemicals, have all containers facing the same direction (such as the front of a shelf) so it is easy to read labels and identify products.

A frugal New Englander and spending on organizing and uncluttering

Even as a frugal New Englander, I recognize when it’s time to spend some money on my organizing and uncluttering efforts.

Let me preface this by explaining that my definition of frugal doesn’t simply mean cheap. To me, frugal means very little is wasted. Using the cheese rind in soup is the kind of practice I’m referencing. Old t-shirts become dust rags and empty jelly jars are perfect for storing hardware in the garage. Of course, this applies to money, too.

I’ve shared plenty of DIY tips here on Unclutterer and I love them. There’s nothing a little Sugru can’t keep running. But occasionally, a paid solution is necessary. A recent personal example of this is the video studio I’m setting up at home, which requires spending some cash.

When I’m not blogging at Unclutterer, I work as a writer at Apple World Today, a site for and by fans of Apple’s products and services. In addition to writing articles, I produce videos. I want the videos to have a professional look, so I purchased a green screen/lighting rig from Amazon. It wasn’t until it arrived that I realized just how big it is.

We live in a small house that pretty much contains all it can neatly and efficiently hold, and this screen doesn’t fit. I first tried setting it up in our master bedroom, the largest room in our home. There’s a good bit of open carpet between our bed and the TV (an area that is where the kids play video games). When I set everything up in this space, I quickly realized that the video production rig commandeers that whole side of the room. “No problem,” Frugal Dave said. “I’ll just set it up and break it down as needed.” Oh, Frugal Dave. You fool.

It’s three months later and I either leave it up — making the TV and video games inaccessible — or break it down after each use — which greatly increases production time. Alas, I needed a more organized, time-saving, and practical solution. My thoughts turned to our basement.

Part of our basement houses random boxes, holiday decorations, and so on. My new, more organized thoughts are that I could use this underground space as my new studio. I’ll clear it out and spend a bit of cash to paint the walls, install a door, and install electrical outlets.

These three things won’t cost me a lot, either in time or money, but the results will be fantastic. I’ll have a dedicated studio space, I can leave everything up without inconveniencing anyone and since it’s for my business, the expenses can be noted on next year’s taxes.

Being frugal and living without much stuff doesn’t mean you never spend money or that every solution has to be recycled. Sometimes, spending money and effort can help you to be more organized and comfortable in your space. This isn’t to say you have to buy every organizing solution, either. Perhaps the utensil drawer would benefit from an in-drawer organizer you find online or a set of cubbies will help the kids put their school stuff away neatly. I’m all for frugal living, believe me, but sometimes you’ve got to spend a little to gain a lot.

Just in time

Many businesses employ a “just-in-time” (JIT) production method. In the JIT strategy, supplies are ordered just in time for production so items are manufactured just in time for shipping them to the customer. The reason this system is popular is because factories do not have the expenses of maintaining large warehouses. Using funds to purchase and store unused inventory means those funds are not easily available for other opportunities.

Care must be taken when manufacturers employ the JIT method. If not enough stock is stored then deliveries, and associated delivery charges, increase. Also, the variations of cost prices can affect manufacturers to a greater degree.

A number of years ago when I realized that I had toilet paper stored in every closet and cupboard (when I counted them, I had over 200 rolls), and I always seemed to run out of shampoo, I realized that I had to start employing the JIT method for my household supplies.

The JIT process

Estimate how long it takes to use up the item. To help you estimate, when you open a package, write the date on the lid or underside of the box or bottle with a permanent marker. When you have used up the item, you’ll see the date and get a fairly accurate estimate. For example, depending on your household, you may use 1-2 rolls of toilet paper per week per bathroom. A 250mL (8oz) bottle of shampoo may last a month. It might take 3 months to use up 500m (500yds) of plastic wrap. Consider seasonal and situational changes as well in your estimations. You might use more plastic wrap during the school year when you are making children’s lunches. You might use less shampoo after you get your hair cut.

Estimate repurchasing time. The time it takes to purchase replacement items may not be an issue if you can easily pick the items up during your weekly grocery shopping. However, if you purchase items from a specialty store that you visit infrequently or order items online and have them delivered, you may need to plan well in advance. For example, our family loves Kraft Caesar salad dressing from Canada. It takes us about two months to use up a bottle. We have an open bottle in the fridge and we store one extra bottle in the cupboard. As soon as I open the bottle from the cupboard, I order another one because it takes about 3-4 weeks to ship from Canada to the UK.

Allocate storage space. The storage space that you have will determine the amount of product that you purchase and how frequently you need to repurchase. You may determine that you don’t need to store as much as of some items as you thought. (I really didn’t need 200 rolls of toilet paper!) This may allow you to free up some space to store other items that take more time and energy to purchase. For example, storing an extra bottle of your favourite salon shampoo would result in fewer trips across town to the factory outlet.

Hone your forecasting methods. It isn’t always easy balancing how much of certain items you need with the storage space that you have. Certain changes can affect your forecasting such as changes in household routines as well as changes in the products, such as package size and price. If you keep the JIT method in mind, over time you’ll determine what is right for your needs.