Digital family organizing with Cozi

Recently, I was bemoaning the busy parent life: scouts, ballet, after-school clubs, friends, homework, and all the other things that make scheduling crazy. It’s so easy to make a mistake — forgetting an activity or to pick up a kid — when there’s so much going on. During this conversation, a colleague pointed me toward Cozi. It’s a digital family organizer with mobile apps that can be used for free (though there is a paid “Gold” version that I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs). I’ve only been using it for about a week, but it’s quite encouraging.

The main feature in Cozi is the calendar. You can set one up for each family member, all color-coded and tidy. It’s easy to see who has what happening and when. Additionally, each family member can update his or her own calendar and those appointments automatically show up for everyone else on that account. It will also import Google calendars.

There’s more than calendars in the app as well. A favorite feature of mine is the grocery list. I often get a text from my wife asking me to pick up this or that, which I’m always glad to do. Cozi makes this easy with a built-in shopping list feature that can be updated on the fly. For example, my wife can add a few things she’d like me to get on my way home from work on her phone, and the list is instantly updated on my phone. Pretty cool and nicer than a text.

There’s also a to-do list and a journal. I haven’t used the journal much yet, but the cross-platform to-dos are very nice. The paid Gold version costs $29.99 per year and unlocks a recipe box, birthday tracker, notifications about new events, shared contacts, and removes ads.

There are a few cons here, of course, and the biggest one is getting everyone in the family to agree to use Cozi and actually use it. Unless all family members are on board, it won’t be helpful. Also, and this is rather nit-picky, but it’s not very pretty. Function trumps form in this case, but it’s not awful when my tools to look nice, too.

It’s quite useful and free, and for those reasons I recommend checking it out.

Storing a casual comic book collection

My 10-year-old has taken to comic books in a big way. I never had more than a passing interest as a kid, but my son is a fan. What was once a very small collection of a few issues on his dresser has become a full-on collection that needs organizing attention.

One note before I get too heavily into this topic: my son’s comic book collection bears no resemblance to the investment libraries that many older collectors have amassed over a longer period of time. For those folks, specialty materials and practices are required. In this article, I’m talking about a casual collection that’s maintained for fun. I’m not talking about a super rare Batman comic that’s worth a pile of dough. In my case, these are low-cost comic books that a kid wants to read and show off to friends. A few steps will keep them enjoyable for years to come.

Bags and boards

Even for casual collections, I recommend keeping your comics in protective bags. These thin, plastic coverings will keep books safe from spills, dirt, and grimy “kid hands.” The three most common materials for bags are mylar, polyethylene, and polypropylene. For my uses, polyethylene bags are fine. Reserve mylar bags for your more costly comics ($30+).

Boards slip into a bag with the comics themselves and help prevent bending and corner wear. Just like with the bags, there are several types of boards. For a casual collection, I’d recommend .24 millimeter basic boards. They’re inexpensive and will do the job. Again, if the comic is more valuable, use a better grade of cardboard.

Boxes for storage

Find some good, acid-free storage boxes and be careful about where you store them. A damp basement is a bad idea for storing cardboard. If you can find a storage spot that’s a moderate temperature with low humidity, you’ll be good. Also, make sure the box does not rest directly on the floor. Put it on a shelf, but not a high one. And don’t forget to mark the exterior of the box to list what’s inside.

Organizing systems

How the comics are organized inside the box is up to the user, but instilling a system will definitely save its user time retrieving and returning comics to the storage box. A trip to a few comic book stores might provide ideas for how to organize the issues. Could easily organize by publisher and then subdivide by series and issue number. If the collection is small, could organize by year or series only. And, in addition to bags and boxes, you can also buy dividers and label them to make the organizing system obvious.

Favorites

If you or your kid likes to haul a handful of favorite comics around to enjoy or share with friends, you might wish to invest in a comic notebook. The harder cover helps to protect the comics inside of it. This is also a great option for people who only have a few comics and wish to store them on a bookshelf.

Put things away, right away

The advice “put things away, right away” seems so basic it feels almost ridiculous to share it on Unclutterer. We all know the benefits of spending a few seconds to put something away as soon as we’ve finished using it. So why is it this advice is often so hard to follow?

My assumption is that there are two reasons. First, human beings will almost always choose the path of least resistance. It’s just how we’re wired. Putting a book back on a shelf is easy. Placing it on the coffee table is even easier. We choose the easiest option, even when it’s to our detriment.

Second, we have a limited amount of self-control each day. Think of self-control like a pitcher of water you drink from throughout the day. At some point, the pitcher is empty, usually in the evenings. You’ve made tough decisions and focused all day and by the time you get home you’re just done. It’s so easy to just plop the book down when you’re tired.

I’ve come to a compromise with the temptation to not put things away: the “outbox.” I’ve put one by the end table at the bottom of the stairs to the second floor, and another near the door to the basement. The idea is simple: If you’ve got something that needs to go upstairs, put it in the basket by the table. Likewise, if something needs to go downstairs, put it in that outbox. (Don’t put these boxes ON the stairs, though, as you want to be safe.) At some point, when the container is full but before it’s overflowing, you transport it and put everything away at once.

It’s not perfect — ideally, I’d just put the things away — but it’s also a decent solution if you’re truly exhausted and putting things straight away isn’t going to happen: items are neatly organized, out of the way and ready to travel to their final destination.

Banish the Mess and Restore Order in Almost Every Room Right Now: An excerpt from NEVER TOO BUSY TO CURE CLUTTER

Never Too Busy to Cure ClutterThe following is an excerpt from my latest home organizing book Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter. If you buy it between now and February 16, fill out this fancy form, and I will send you a FREE audiobook copy of my first book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. So, if you want to tackle clutter, mess, or grime in any room, this is a good way to start. Choose a task based on how much time you have available and get to work.

From pages 68-71:

The following are basic actions you can complete in almost every room of your home. Some of these tasks seem incredibly obvious, but it’s often the simplest and most conspicuous tasks that form the foundation of your cleaning routine. A few of the following tasks are equally important but only need doing at certain times of the year. Pick and choose your way to a clean, uncluttered, and organized home.

When working in any room of your home, ask yourself: Where is clutter accumulating? Is there a reason things are piling up in one (or more) area(s)? What would prevent clutter from being left in this space? What small act would greatly improve this room?

30 SECONDS

  • Dust one of the following: a single shelf, a picture frame or two, the top of a doorjamb, a lamp, or a light fixture.
  • Wipe down a tabletop or other flat surface.
  • Gather wayward pens and pencils and return them to their storage spot.
  • Clean a doorknob with a disinfecting wipe.
  • Replace a burned-out lightbulb (preferable with an LED bulb, so you won’t have to replace it again for years and will save on energy costs).

1 MINUTE

  • Find two items that aren’t where they belong and return them to where they do.
  • Clean a mirror, window, the glass front on a cabinet, or picture frame.
  • Dust a ceiling light/fan fixture, crown molding, baseboards, or a corner of a room with a telescoping duster.
  • Check your toilet paper and facial tissue inventory throughout the house and replace as necessary.
  • Change your perspective: Lie on the ground or stand on a step stool to see if you can spot hidden clutter.

5 MINUTES

  • Empty the trash cans and/or recycling bins in a room.
  • Round up dirty clothes to start a load of laundry.
  • Check the batteries in a device. Replace them if necessary.
  • Move a piece of furniture and sweep or vacuum under it, or vacuum al the air vents in a room.
  • Fill a basket with wayward items and return those items to the permanent storage locations.

15 MINUTES

  • Vacuum or sweep the floor of a room.
  • Fill a bucket with 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1 gallon water, and mop the uncarpeted floor in a room.
  • Remove all the fabric curtains in a room from their rods and put them in a bag to bring to your dry cleaner.
  • Move furniture off a throw rug or hall runner and take the rug outside. Shake it out and then drape it over something (like a railing) and hit it with a broom handle. Return the rug and replace the furniture.
  • Inspect furniture for damage and wear. Schedule any appointments necessary to have damaged and/or worn items repaired or set aside a block of time to shop for a replacement.

Everything in its place with MOOP

MOOP is an acronym I learned recently, from an essay by Tarin Towers, which immediately caught my attention because of its organizing implications. She wrote:

MOOP is a term coined by hikers and other ecology-minded people who use phrases like “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace.” It stands for Matter Out of Place. In a state park, it might refer to a bottle cap on a forest floor, a cigarette butt on a footpath, a tent peg neglected when the tent got packed up. In a house, it might be a wet towel on a bedroom floor, a coffee mug on top of the TV.

This is a wonderfully useful term for organizing, since it encompasses two key concepts:

  • Everything has a place where it belongs
  • To stay organized, you need to ensure things get put back in those defined places

I had my own experience with MOOP a few weeks ago. My main credit card usually lives in a specific slot in my wallet, but I had pulled it out and put it in my jeans pocket one day when I wanted to make an online donation. But I didn’t put it back in my wallet right away, and somehow it fell out of that pocket. It took me two days to find the card, hidden under a sofa cushion. I knew it was in my house somewhere, so there was no financial risk, but it was still frustrating.

So how do you avoid MOOP? By doing the boring task of ongoing maintenance.

Organizing expert Peter Walsh offered the following advice in the Los Angeles Times:

Eliminate the word “later” from your vocabulary, as in, “I’ll put this away later, I’ll fold this later….” The way to stop clutter from accumulating is to accept the fact that now is the new later.

The Asian Efficiency website uses the term “clear to neutral” to describe all post-activity work, such as cleaning the dishes after a meal and putting supplies away after a craft project. Besides eliminating MOOP, this clear-to-neutral process makes it easier to do the next activity — prepare the next meal, do the next craft project — because everything is ready to go.

However, it may not always be practical to put everything away immediately, although certain things (keys, credit cards, leftover food, etc.) should certainly be dealt with promptly. But if the laundry sits for a day or the suitcase doesn’t get unpacked as soon as you return from a trip, it’s probably not as serious. And it usually makes sense to accumulate donations when you realize some things are “out of place” by being in your home or office at all. (You can think of the donation bag or box as the short-term “place” for such things.)

If you can’t put everything in its place immediately, consider what your plan will be. Will you (and your other family members) spend 15 minutes every night putting things away? Will you do a major cleanup on the weekend? When will you do that trip to drop off donations?

Here’s wishing everyone a MOOP-free (or almost MOOP-free) 2016!

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

When emergencies strike, it’s important to have important medical information close at hand. It’s one of those things you usually don’t think about until you have to, but not thinking or doing anything about it ahead of time can cause you serious trouble. One way to keep this information organized and easily accessible is to securely store it on your smartphone.

If you have an iPhone or an Android device, the following information should help you:

iPhone

Apple has made organizing emergency information quite simple. To begin, open the Health app, which is part of the standard iPhone operating system. Next, follow these simple steps:

  1. Tap “Medical ID” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Tap “Edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
  3. Enter pertinent information.

There’s a lot of info you can list here, including any medical conditions, special notes, allergies, potential reactions/interactions, as well as any medication(s) you currently take. There are also fields for adding an emergency contact, blood type, weight, height, and whether or not you’re an organ donor.

At the top of screen, there’s an option to have this information available from the lock screen. If selected, your emergency information is just a swipe way from your iPhone’s lock screen.

This is useful should you have to visit the ER, but that’s not all. I recently had to have a prescription refilled and while at the pharmacy I couldn’t remember the medication’s name (nor could I pronounce it even if I had remembered it), so I simply opened this info on my phone and handed it to the pharmacist. “Wow,” he said. “I wish everybody did this.”

On Andriod

Storing emergency medical information is a little tricker on Android, but not impossible. There may be a field for this information among the phone’s contacts, but that depends on what version of Android you’re running. If it has an In Case of Emergency field in the contact’s app, be sure to fill in this information. But in addition to this, I suggest you download and use an app like ICE: In Case of Emergency. For $3.99, it lets you list:

  1. People to call in an emergency (and it can call them directly from the app)
  2. Insurance information
  3. Doctor names and numbers (again, it can call them directly from the app)
  4. Allergies
  5. Medical Conditions
  6. Medications
  7. Any special instructions or other information you wish to provide

Both of these solutions can be a convenience in any medical situation, especially emergencies. More importantly, this simple bit of organization can greatly help a first-responder when you need help the most. Take some time this week to set it up.

Become a more organized cook with modified mise en place

Years ago, when I was just a lad, I would watch my dad assemble birthday presents, grills, lawn mowers, and whatever else was not assembled at the factory for customers. He always followed the same organized procedure, which I still use today:

  1. Read the instructions all the way through before beginning.
  2. Lay out each part in a tidy row, ensuring that all required pieces are available.
  3. Identify and locate all of the necessary hardware and/or tools.
  4. Find little containers to hold tiny screws, bolts, and other bits that had the potential of getting lost.
  5. Lastly, make sure there’s enough room to spread out and work.

Only after satisfying all five steps would he begin working. It’s how I do things today, and how I recommend working on anything that has “some assembly required.”

I’ve taken this same approach and applied it in the kitchen, through a modified mise en place. When I’m getting ready to cook from a recipe, I:

  1. Read the recipe all the way through. Just like when you’re assembling a bicycle, you don’t want any surprises once you’ve started. Reading the recipe thoroughly before beginning will identify all the techniques, hardware, and ingredients you’re going to need.
  2. Find and prepare all of the hardware. This step is where you’ll find and locate what I think of as hardware: pots, pans, spatulas, whisks, measuring cups and spoons — all of the tools you’ll need during the preparation and cooking process. It’s no fun to read “stir constantly” or “with a slotted spoon” to find you don’t have a spatula or a spoon.
  3. Find all the ingredients. Locate everything your recipe calls for and get it ready.
  4. Practice mise en place. This is a French culinary term that means “putting in place.” It’s the practice of preparing and arranging ingredients that the chef will need to prepare the day’s meals. But you needn’t be a pro to benefit from this practice. If your recipe calls for 1 Tbsp of butter, a cup of milk, or a diced onion, get exactly those amounts ready before you begin. It’s so nice to not have to stop and measure something as you go. Just grab it and toss it in.
  5. Know where you’re going to place hot items. This step is easy to overlook and not usually included in mise en place, but extremely important. I remember my mother saying to me when I was first learning to cook, “Before you take that out of the oven, think: where are you going to put it?” Put out trivets if you like, clear a spot on the table or what-have-you. It’s all better than scanning the kitchen with a hot pot or dish in your hands.
  6. Can you clean as you go? I’ll admit that I’m not very good at this one. Professional kitchens have a dedicated dishwasher, but most home cooks are not that lucky. If you can clean as you go, do it. If not, designate a spot for dirty hardware ahead of time.
  7. What’s needed to set the table? When I cook for the family, the deal is the cook doesn’t have to set the table. I recommend you work this deal, too.

There you have it: kitchen lessons learned while watching my dad assemble bikes, grills, and more. I hope it makes you a more organized and successful cook.

Winter cleaning and why we keep stuff

Now that January is here, I’ve begun the unenviable task of storing away the holiday decorations. Each year, this ritual propels me into a little winter-time “spring cleaning.” This process is more of a purge really, as the practice of packing and storing so much stuff often reveals those little things here there that I’ve been overlooking for months now.

As I found and trashed things I’m not using and don’t need, I considered what caused me to hang on to items like these in the first place. Perhaps understanding that aspect better would help me keep from accumulating hidden caches in the first place.

Some of the things I tossed:

Wrapping paper scraps. I saved larger pieces, but some were too small to be useful. Out they went to the recycling bin.

Old greeting cards. This one can be tricky, as it’s quite possible for a card to have great sentimental value. But not every card from every person has to be saved. We’ve written about parting with sentimental keepsakes before, and I used this advice to guide me.

Magazines. There are clever ways to avoid magazine clutter, but I wasn’t keeping up with those. Out with the old magazines I’ll never read to the recycling bin.

There’s more of course, but I’ll spare you further details. As I said, this purge prompted me to consider the “why” of it all. I think there are three factors at work here:

  1. Balking at the work involved. I’m talking about small items, but there was a lot of it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of energy a good purge like this will require — realistic and/or imagined.
  2. Panic at the thought of throwing away something necessary. What if I did need that raffle ticket stub? Are the receipts in my wallet important? This concern has prompted me to keep more than a few items unnecessarily.
  3. It’s embarrassing to ask for help. Even though many of us have these hidden caches of stuff, it’s still unpleasant to introduce someone to it, even if the intention is to go through and throw things away.

Perhaps there are more, but these were the reasons that stood out to me. And based on these reasons, my take away from the experience was to consider:

  1. Is the situation as big as I’m making it to be in my head?
  2. What do I actually need?
  3. What can be safely thrown away?
  4. Can’t I just get over myself and ask others to help?
  5. What’s the most common factor that has allowed this stuff to build up?

Related to the last: is if you successfully identify what that is, is there a way to address it?

Answering these questions will go a long way toward staying on top of these often unseen collections of clutter in the future. Happy winter-time spring cleaning!

Open vs. hidden storage

I recently saw a video where Adam Savage from Mythbusters shared his homemade tool storage rack. Savage is someone who needs open storage. As he said:

I tend to find that … drawers are where things go to die. Drawers are evil.

Toolboxes, drawers — you put something in there, something else gets on top of them, and you never see it again. Or in the case of drawers, it goes back to the back of the thing, and it’s just gone.

He’s far from alone — many people work best with open storage. If you’re one of them, the following are examples of tools that may work better than drawers.

Pegboards

Of course pegboards work nicely in the garage for tools. If there’s no wall to put one on, you can use a pegboard cart.

Pegboards can work nicely in other rooms, too. Julia Child famously had one for her pots and pans. But they can also hold craft supplies, kitchen tools, and much more.

Magnetic options

Magnetic knife racks are one way to use magnets for open storage. But magnetic racks (or dots) can also be used to hold tools.

Joseph Joseph makes magnetic measuring spoons that can be kept out on a refrigerator or other metal surface.

Magnetic clips can also be helpful. The Endo clips can hold up to a pound, allowing all sorts of things to be stored on a metal surface.

Miscellaneous wall-mounted storage tools

Uten.silo and the smaller Uten.silo II are great (if expensive) examples of wall-mounted organizers. But you can find less expensive options, such as products from Urbio.

Another option is something like the Strap from Droog: an elastic belt that keeps things in place and very visible. Loopits is a similar product.

In the kitchen, rail systems can work nicely.

Shelves and cubbies

For some people, dresser drawers just don’t work. If hangers aren’t an option, shelves or cubbies can be used for clothes storage.

Office organizers

Instead of using a pencil drawer, you might choose one of the many neat desktop organizers available for holding pencils, pens, scissors, etc.

And a filing cart may work better than a filing cabinet.

A tidy method for wrapping gifts

“Will you wrap this gift for me? Just don’t look inside. It’s for you.”

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve spoken this sentence. More than once.

There are many things I can do in this world. For example, I can set up a wireless printer and play the ukulele. But until recently, I could not wrap a present well. And it is all thanks to Japan.

A few days ago I was spread out on the floor with boxes, paper, tape and bows surrounding me. Despite my sustained concentration, I was turning out one lousy gift-wrap job after another. Frustrated, I turned to YouTube. A search for “gift wrapping easy” eventually led me to the “Japanese method” of wrapping a gift.

I’ve never been to Japan and don’t know if this is how most Japanese people wrap gifts, but in any case, this method is fascinating. By placing your package on a piece of paper cut just bigger that the box meant to be wrapped, slightly off center, sets you up for this unique method. The whole thing is a few, precise, neat folds to memorize and execute. With a bit of practice it shouldn’t be too hard.

This “diagonal” gift wrapping can be done quite quickly once you’ve got the hang of it and only requires three pieces of tape. I’ve even seen it done with a beautiful cloth instead of paper, which looked fantastic.

Have you tried this method? Is there another clever, atypical and ultimately effective gift-wrapping method I should know about? Please share, because I need all the help I can get.

Organize for outdoor winter exercise

It’s easy to let an exercise routine slide during the winter months. The weather gets unpleasant, there’s so much to do, and those holiday treats just won’t be denied. While we’re not opposed to a little holiday indulgence, we also know that a little forethought can keep you exercising, even outdoors.

The first and probably most important thing is to know how your body reacts to exercise in cold weather. For me, if I’m running or even walking fast when the air is below 50ºF, my lungs get quite uncomfortable. It’s a “burning” feeling that prompts me to end my workout early. To combat this tendency, I bought a neck warmer that goes around my mouth and nose. That way I’m breathing in warmer air.

The point here is to notice what your body says while you’re out there and make accommodations as best you can. Perhaps you feel cold when others don’t, or vice versa.

Gear to consider: neck warmer

Next, consider the shorter days. It gets dark quite quickly here in the northern hemisphere during the winter. In my Massachusetts neighborhood, December means it’s pitch dark by 5:00 p.m. Consider an earlier workout time. Many towns have community centers with lots of options for working out, too. Those who can’t change the hour they spend working out could use these facilities.

Gear to consider: head lamp

Consider the environment. This is winter, so expect rain, snow, and cold air. You’ll likely want to dress in layers and having a winter “workout kit” ready to go will keep you motivated. I know that I often don’t feel like working out…until I don my workout clothes. For an outer layer, consider something that’s lightweight, allows for freedom of movement and will dutifully stand between yourself and the elements.

Gear to consider: Sport-Tek Colorblock Hooded Raglan Jacket

Keep a gear bag. A single bag to hold all your winter exercise stuff will help you stay organized and never leave you wondering where your things are. Just be sure to repack it every time you return home and/or do laundry. One with a compartment for shoes might be perfect for you if you do a sport requiring specialized footwear.

Gear to consider: sports bag

Finally, make sure you’ve got your ID and a phone on yourself. If something goes wrong — a slip and fall — you’ll want to be able to get help. Since you’ll be out in inclement weather, a weatherproof phone case is a good idea.

Gear to consider: weatherproof phone case from Otterbox

With a little preparation and organization, you can successfully exercise outdoors this winter. Just keep your eyes open for ice or fallen branches and go slow if you must.

Holiday preparations you might overlook but will save you time and energy

For those who celebrate winter holidays, December is usually time for family, friends, and lots of preparation. A good amount of what is on your to-do list is obvious: shopping, cleaning, and cooking. But not everything is as obvious, so the following are six items that you might overlook but can still plan and organize for during your preparations. Doing this work now can help your holidays (and winter) go more smoothly.

Make room in the coat closet. Incoming guests arrive with bulky coats and hats that must be stored away during their visit. I don’t know about your house, but our coat closet is pretty full before anyone new arrives. Prepare now by making some room and a few extra hangers available. Also consider, if you live in a snowy climate, guests might arrive with wet hats and gloves and slushy boots. You’ll want to have a plan for where you’re going to put those additional items without making a mess, too.

Prepare bad weather gear. Tell me if this sounds familiar: You need to shovel a mountain of snow, but the shovel is across the yard and in the shed? That situation is not ideal. Before the first flakes fall, I get my shovels, bucket of salt, and scrapers for the car out of the basement and into their winter storage locations. Now, when the snow falls, you can start shoveling right away as all of your equipment will be ready and you won’t have to worry about your guests slipping and falling.

Plan ahead for post-holiday light storage. Holiday presents mean, among other things, an influx of cardboard boxes. If you don’t already have an organized light-storage method for after the holidays, keep a few of those boxes because they’re perfect for storing holiday lights. Break the box down flat and then cut the boxes down into their individual sides. Wrap lights around the cardboard squares/rectangles prior to storage. They won’t tangle and you can even leave a note to yourself on the slab of cardboard yourself: “Kitchen window,” “Tree.”

Outfit an ornament repair center. Many people have an eclectic collection of holiday ornaments, from the inexpensive pieces you picked up on a whim to the old, sentimental decorations with high sentimental value. It’s a bummer when they need repair and it’s a real problem when you’re not equipped. A little glass adhesive, some pliers, a wooden stick or a pin-tool (for applying adhesive), a razor blade, and plastic gloves will serve you well.

Make shelves and food easily viewable in your refrigerator and pantry. There’s nothing like opening the spice cabinet and being confronted with the backs of several dozen little plastic containers. Where was the allspice again? It’s like a memory game, and it’s not fun. Turn everything with the label-side out for easy reference or write on the lids with a permanent marker the shaker’s contents if you can’t see all the labels.

Set tables the night before a holiday meal. I’ve spent a whole day cooking only to notice that, just as the final dish has finished cooking, the table is not set or decorated. Before you hit the bed at night, set the table and save yourself a lot of time the next day. This is a great activity for children, too, if you’re looking for ways to get them involved.

Have a great — and organized — holiday season.