Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Get your keys under control with Key Smart

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

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

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

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

The importance of having tools you love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power in 15 minutes

Uncluttering is a lifelong endeavor. Perfection is not the goal, especially in a working home, and time is often a rare commodity in a busy home. Recently, I’ve been working to see how much I can get done in a small amount of time, and how good I can feel about the results. I’ve found that 15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to be productive and not feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment.

I started this experiment by cleaning the closet for half an hour without pause. I went about this logically, as I wanted measurable results. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and got to it.

It went well, but two things happened. First, my interest started to wane around the 20 minute mark. Other tasks — tidying the kitchen or the laundry room — took less than the 30 minutes I set aside, so I either ended early or started a second project that put me over my 30-minute limit.

Next, I dropped it down to 20-minute intervals with a smilier effect. Ultimately, I dropped down to 15 minutes, and it has been exactly what I needed.

I’ve stuck with this number for a few reasons. First, it’s quite easy to work for 15 minutes without getting distracted by something else. Second, I’ve been amazed at how many tasks only take about 15 minutes. I’ve been able to completely organize my desk reducing visual clutter, get laundry folded and put away, organize the kids’ stuff for the next day, and so on.

I also found that 15 minutes is perfect for doing one of my favorite things: a mind dump. I take a pen, a piece of paper, and the time to simply write down everything that’s on my mind — it is so liberating and productive. Even an overwhelming list of to-do items can seem manageable when you’ve got it written down. There’s a sense of being “on top of it” that comes with performing a mind dump, all in 15 minutes.

Find a timer and discover what length of time is good for your for completing most projects. You might find that 10 minutes works for you, or 20. The point is that when you say, “I’m going to work on this and only this for [x] minutes,” you’ll be surprised at what you can get done.

Organizing now to save time in the future

I recently heard a podcast where a former high school teacher was talking about how he prepared his lessons. He spent a lot of time preparing PowerPoint slides (with speaker notes) and practicing his delivery so he knew it worked well and fit the time he had. He said other teachers thought he was a bit odd for doing this much work, but his reply was that he’d much rather spend the time up front to save the time later. Once the lesson materials were created, he could pick up the same materials the next day or the next year and be ready to go.

As I listened to this, I thought about how so much organizing involves just this: doing some up-front work so things work smoothly in the future.

  • You create filing systems so you can find the papers (or computer files) you want when you need them.
  • You organize your books on bookshelves so you can find the book you want without too much trouble.
  • You organize your first aid supplies and create disaster preparation plans so you know you’re set for any future emergency.
  • You create to-do lists and checklists so you won’t forget critical things at some future time. For example, a packing list created once saves time on all future trips. It also prevents the trouble you’d have if you forgot your passport, some critical medications, the charger for your cell phone, etc.

Thinking about investing time now to save time in the future helps when trying to decide just how organized is “organized enough.” It makes sense for a teacher to invest extra time in lesson preparation when he knows he’ll be teaching the same lesson many times in the future.

Similarly, sometimes it’s worth spending more time on a filing system than other times. Some papers get accessed frequently, and others (such as insurance policies) are not needed that often — but when you do need them, the situation is critical. With those items it makes sense to spend time creating a well thought out filing system that lets you put your hands on the right papers almost immediately.

But other papers might be much less critical. For example, you may need to keep certain papers for legal reasons, but you don’t expect to ever have to access them — and if you do, the need won’t be all that time-sensitive. In that situation, you may want a much less detailed filing system, because it’s not worth the time to do anything elaborate. For example, a big collection of related papers (such as receipts for a given year) could just go into a Bankers Box. As long as the box was properly labeled, you could always find any papers you might need, in the off chance you do have to find any of them.

And consider your books — how organized do they need to be? My books are arranged by category (history, art, mysteries, science fiction, etc.). I’ll usually keep books by the same author together in a category, but I don’t do any further organizing within a category because I can find a book pretty quickly with just the system I have. If it gives you great pleasure to organize your books quite precisely, that’s fine — organize to your heart’s delight! But the rest of us can choose to be less structured.

As you’re creating each of your organizing systems, stop and think: Are you making a good trade-off between the time you’ll save in the future and the time you’re spending up front?

What to do with old USB flash drives

I’ve got an army of old flash-based thumb drives in a drawer and it’s time to put them to work. The following are ideas for what to do with these drives if you’re like me and now rely mostly on transferring files through the cloud (via Dropbox or similar).

Encrypted vault of secret files

I’m a big fan of Knox for Mac. It does several cool tricks including reformatting thumb drives to be secure, password-protected volumes. Perhaps you’re traveling for business and don’t want to take any chances with sensitive information. Maybe you’ve got info from multiple clients on a single drive and need to ensure they don’t get mixed up. Or, perhaps you want to pretend you’re an international spy. Whatever the reason, Knox keeps that information very secure indeed. You can even put a copy of the Knox app itself on the drive, so if you’re using it on a Mac without Knox installed, you can still open the volume (and Spotlight on that machine won’t index it, either).

Portable apps

So-called “portable apps” are light versions of software that don’t need to be installed on a host computer to run. By installing them on a thumb drive, you know you’ll be able to run the software you need when you’re away from you main computer. Some examples of portable apps include:

Audio books for the car

Many car stereos now feature a USB port for accessing media via the vehicle’s stereo or in-dash entertainment system. If you like listening to audio books like I do, you know that they can take up a lot of space on your digital audio player. Why not put them on a thumb drive and keep it in the car? That way you’ll have several of your favorite audiobooks available during long trips without taking up space on your smartphone or digital audio player.

Fun gifts

Need a gift for a family member or friend? CNET suggests adding music, photos, videos and other files that someone will find meaningful to a drive and then giving it as a gift. The recipient can even take those files off of the drive, put them somewhere for safe keeping and then have a nice thumb drive to use.

Press kit

I’ve received several press kits on customized thumb drives. They’ve contained a working version of a piece of software, a PDF of a press release, high-resolution graphics to use in a review, and more. Often the drives themselves bear a company logo. It’s a nice way to share such information and, like the gift idea, leaves the recipient with a nice drive to use.


Check with your local school, scout groups, camps, and other non-profit organizations to see if they need any drives. My kids needed them at school and camp recently. Just be sure to erase them thoroughly before handing them over.

Calendly is fantastic for easy, organized scheduling

I recently wrote about a few tech options for busy summer scheduling. After that article was published, I ran across Calendly, and now I’m wishing I could to back in time and mention that app in that post.

Seeing as time travel is not yet possible, I’ve decided to mention the app independently. I’m loving Calendly because it’s a hands-off, passive solution for scheduling. It lets you share a single link with potential collaborators, and it automatically accounts for what you already have on your schedule.

When you first create an account, you can link Calendly to Google Calendar or Microsoft’s Office 365. Once the accounts are linked, the app’s features are pretty impressive.

Let’s say you’re trying to schedule a time to talk with someone on Skype. All you need to do is send a person your personal Calendly link, and the service looks at your calendar and sees when you’re free. The person you’re trying to get together with can click any day, and Calendly automatically offers your available time slots to that person, based on what’s on your calendar. They click the one that works for them, adding an event to your calendar and sending you a notification.

As you add more calendar events, your availability in Calendly changes in real time. I’ve been using it for a week now and am hooked.

Note that there is both a free and a paid plan. The latter offers features like team scheduling, automated reminders, and an option to remove the Calendly branding, should you be using the service for business.

Shuffling cards: a mindless activity to enhance creativity

Many people have mindless activities they engage in when they need to think. Some shoot hoops, others go for a walk, and I shuffle cards. I keep five decks of cards at my desk for the sole purpose of giving me something mindless to do when I need to formulate a post idea, work through a problem, or figure out whatever it is that has me stuck with my writing. I know I’m not alone in my shuffling (or walking or hoops playing) or really wasting time, because scientists have found that a little mindless activity actually enhances creative work.

However, visual clutter distracts me from my work, and can even get me feeling uneasy. As a result, I must have a tidy work area, free of extraneous stuff. Therefore, I have to keep the cards stored nicely in their packs and in a contained area so they don’t interfere when I need to stay focused on my mindful work. (There are organizers that hold as few as two decks to thousands of cards.)

We’ve talked in the past about filing being a good mindless activity to let you accomplish a to-do item on your work list, while not focusing on mindful work. Scanning, sorting, and shredding are other mindless, yet productive tasks. Shuffling cards doesn’t help me get anything else off my to-do list, but it certainly helps me think and solve my work problems, so I’m not about to give it up. What mindless activities do you do to help you think and enhance your creativity and overall productivity at work? Also, how do you organize any stuff related to your mindless activity? Alternating between mindless and mindful activities is great, so if you don’t do something right now, check out comments from our readers to see if there might be a mindless activity that is perfect for you.

Struggles with GTD and possible solutions

Unclutterer reader MrsMack recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My … struggle is with the GTD method. I’ve read the book and I think it could work really well for me, but the required cleared-schedule, back-to-back two days to get started is so intimidating and too overwhelming. I don’t have the liberty to turn my life off for two days to work without interruption. How can I ease into this?

I first discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity when I was an IT Director at a residential school. That was a crazy job, as I was supporting about 80 computers, a network and more, including heading up the help desk for there school’s 100 employees. It was easy to feel overwhelmed and I often did. Fortunately, I discovered David Allen’s method.

Adopting it in earnest took a lot of work, not just in my own behavior but in the materials I was using. I felt it was worth the effort, but I also realized how much effort was involved. Processing everything in my work life to get “clean and clear” took days. Personally, I recommend taking time off and completing the work as he suggests. I found it saved me time and frustration over the longterm. However, I know this isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you genuinely don’t have two days to dedicate to this process, the following are the alternatives I suggest:

Pick the area that’s most in need of attention and focus on it for as long as you can (two hours? four?). You might have enough time to get your desk/work area and your work projects “clean and clear.” Then simply “GTD” (if I may use it as a verb) that aspect of your life. This will reduce the overwhelmed feeling and get you comfortable with the system, so that when you’re ready to tackle the next area, like that pesky garage, you’ll be an experienced machine.

I do believe in David Allen’s method, especially in the very real feeling of being on top of everything that comes from getting “clean and clear.” I also realize that GTD is not the best fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are several alternative methods you might find interesting or appealing.

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done system. Leo created his Zen method specifically to address what he sees as “…the five problems many people have with GTD,” namely:

  1. GTD is a big change of habits
  2. GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is too unstructured for many people
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals

If any of those five issues are ones you’re having with GTD, maybe Zen to Done is an alternative that could work for you.

Another program is Asian Efficiency’s Agile Results. I’m not super familiar with this method, but it’s been popping up on my radar off and on for a while now. Like Leo’s Zen to Done, Agile Results is more goal-focused than process focused.

While working on this article, I reached out to my buddy Mike Vardy of the website Productivityist. His “theming” method is quite compelling. To begin, look at what he calls the certainties in your week. For example, on Sunday, there will be no interruptions and the family will be home. On Monday through Friday, the kids are away, and on Saturday, the family is home. With those certainties identified, he creates themes based on the results:

Sunday: No interruptions, family-home
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Kids at daycare, wife at work
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Kids at daycare, wife home
Saturday: No interruptions, family-home

The final step is to “lock down,” as Mike puts it, the remaining days. His final themed schedule looks like this:

Sunday: Creative Day (Writing)
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Saturday: Family Day

It’s clever, and a part of a larger method of his Now Year formula. His alternate method might work for you.

Getting on top of everything can be a chore, but it’s well worth the effort irrespective of what method you ultimately decide to adopt.

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.

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!

Ask Unclutterer: Clutter at a new office

A reader submitted this question to Ask Unclutterer describing a concern at work:

I recently began a new job. My boss has been with this organization since the mid-1980s, and there is still paper lingering around from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. She is hesitant to discard anything. She currently has three workspaces in the office, plus additional boxes and cabinets around the space that are organized but seem like they should be discarded.

My coworkers have reported that she gets very upset when this topic is brought up. We will likely need some of this space in the future, and waiting for her retirement doesn’t seem like a proactive option. How might I address this with her in a productive manner?

Reader, it sounds like this situation is very aggravating to you. However, unless the clutter is causing a safety problem or seriously interfering with your productivity, I’d suggest you do absolutely nothing right now.

You’re new to the office, and your boss is known to be sensitive about this subject. It doesn’t sound like an issue you’d want to broach until you’ve been there awhile and have proven your value to your boss.

And even then, I’d urge caution. People have varying styles of organization and comfort levels with letting go of things, and trying to get your boss to change her ways might not be easy or appreciated. You may be treading into emotional territory that you know nothing about. Ignoring the situation isn’t being proactive, but this may not be your problem to solve.

However, you might find a way to have a discussion about the papers by using one of the following strategies, which could help keep the discussion less personal:

Address the organization’s record retention policy. Is there one? If not, should there be? Does the organization have an attorney who could explain why such a policy is useful and clarify which records need to be retained?

Address the space concerns. If more space is indeed needed in the future, should some of those records be stored offsite if she feels they must be retained? How much would that cost? Is it worth the cost?

Address your boss’s frustrations. Is there anything about the current situation that causes her distress? If so, you might make suggestions that focus on alleviating her issues.

Use outside experts. If an opportunity presents itself, you might suggest using an attorney (as noted above) or a professional organizer. An uninvolved third party with relevant expertise can often raise issues and make recommendations more effectively than someone within the organization.

Thank you, reader, for submitting your question to Unclutterer.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field or put your inquiry in the comments to a post. If you send an email, please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.