The Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) system

Two weeks ago, I started an exploration of lesser-know filing systems with the Noguchi system. This method, devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, utilizes manilla envelopes and the frequency with which you work on certain projects to organize your projects. Today, I want to delve into a system close to my heart, a system that uses index cards.

Image credit: Hawk Sugano

Hawk Sugano (you’ll find him on Flickr as “hawkexpress”) has devised a system he calls Pile of Index Cards (PoIC). It’s a combination of a “brain dump” (emptying one’s mind of all important information by writing it down), long-term storage for reference, and David Allen’s GTD method. It’s all managed by a “dock” of 3×5 index cards, and the result is tidy and searchable. The following are instructions for how to set up and use the system.

What you’ll need

The list is a short one. Get some index cards, which you can find almost anywhere (or grab some fancy ones here), a favorite pen, and a storage box with customizable tabs. That is all you need to be ready to use the method.

How it works

Hawk describes four types of cards in his system:

  1. The Record Card. He describes it as “a diary, note, account, health, weather, cook, any kind of records about us belongs to this class.” I’d say this is the incoming “stuff” of the day: appointments, notes to follow up on, etc.
  2. The Discover Card. Hawk describes the Discover Card as “Things from my brain, mind, spirit, anything emerge from inside me, are classified into this class.” This is the result of a mind dump. Don’t worry about classifying when filling out a Discover Card. Just get whatever is on your mind out and onto paper.
  3. The GTD Card. Here he combines the title of a project and several actions that pertain to it (here’s a look at the template in English). This reminds me of the “Hipstper PDA Template” I used religiously about 10 years ago.
  4. The Cite Card captures other people’s ideas that warrant attention. He says, “Important here is distinguishing ‘your idea (Discovery Card)’ and ‘someone else’s idea (Cite Card).’ Source of the information must be included in the Cite Card. A book, for example, author, year, page(s) are recorded for later use.”

Each card is stored in a box, or “dock.” Note that Hawk makes a mark on the top of each card. It’s position indicates the type of card, so you can easily identify each one while it’s in the dock. Finally, he uses the tabs to keep the types of cards sorted.

Is PoIC for you?

I’ll admit that this method is a bit labor-intensive. For example, Hawk does not throw any cards away. Instead, he buys another dock. One person took steps to improve upon this by adding what he calls the “43 Tabs” system. Basically, older cards that are no longer pertinent are moved to the back of the dock, while those still in action are moved to the front.

Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.

Writing emails that won’t be clutter

We’re all deluged with email; it’s a problem of the digital age. Noting this, how do you ensure your email is considered worthy of attention, and not seen as just more inbox clutter?

Be concise

Sometimes your email involves sharing a story with friends, and messages like that don’t always need to be succinct. But, if you’re writing to someone because you want some sort of reply — you’re asking for information, trying to set up an appointment, etc. — make it as easy as possible for the recipient. Don’t make someone wade through a long story to find out what you want.

But don’t be too brief; do include all the information needed for the other person to provide a meaningful response. I’ve seen many people asking for help about some computer-related problem without providing key information, such as what type of computer they’re using, what version of the software they are running, the specific error messages they are seeing, etc. Provide as much as necessary and little or nothing more.

Follow the policies of the group

Are you part of any mailing list, like a Yahoo Group or something else? Many of these groups have guidelines about how members should structure their messages; if your group has such guidelines, be sure to read them and follow them.

Since I’m a moderator of a freecycle group, this is a continual issue for me. We have specific subject line formats, a policy about how often things may be re-offered, etc. It causes more time and work (and frustration) for everyone when the policies are not followed.

Address the email properly

Do you want to reply, or reply all? Think about your recipient list, and whether everyone on that list really needs to see the message.

If you’re sending a message to a group of people, other than in a work situation, please respect everyone’s privacy and do not put all the email addresses in the To: field, where all the recipients can see them. Rather, put those email addresses in the Bcc: field.

Watch what you forward

I’ve seen many a well-intentioned person forward on a message alerting me to some horrifying problem, when a quick check of Snopes.com would show that the information simply isn’t true. If something sounds at all suspicious, please check it out before forwarding.

Also, make sure the people you’re sending those messages with cute animal photos or jokes really want to get them. People are often reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings by asking to get removed from such lists, even if they don’t want the emails — so you might add a note letting your recipients know that you want them to tell you if they’d prefer not to get such emails.

Avoid long signature files

There is certain information people usually want to see in your signature file, and your contact information is at the top of the list. But many people would prefer you skip your favorite quote, a list of every award you’ve ever won, and an admonishment to not print the email.

Consider that not all emails need the same signature. A reply might not need as much information as the email where you’re initiating a conversation. If you’re going back and forth in an email exchange, and you included your long signature file the first time, you don’t need to include it on every message in the chain.

It also looks a bit silly when you send a two-line message and have a 20-line signature file.

Be considerate with attachments

People might be reading email on a slow connection, so maybe it’s best not to include a 5 MB photo.

Review emails for problematic wording

For casual emails between friends, you can skip this step. But for others, I’d recommend reviewing your emails for points of possible ambiguity. Also, look for anything that might be taken the wrong way; humor and sarcasm often don’t work well in email, and snarky comments might come back to haunt you later.

Remember, too, that if crafting an email might take you 20 minutes, but a phone call only five, picking up the phone could be the least cluttered option available to you.

The Noguchi filing system

I’ve said this before, and so has fellow Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown: I’m always willing to try a new system if it might turn out to be better than the one I’m using. I was reminded of this earlier when reminiscing about my old job and the Noguchi filing system. It was devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, and for about a year I used it extensively.

The Premise

Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a residential school. There was a lot to manage, from help desk requests to purchasing, maintenance, networking issues, and other administrative tasks. I typically had several projects ongoing at once, large and small. Nearly all of them had support files that needed to be referenced or updated regularly. This is where the Noguchi system was brilliant, as it moves frequently-used files together while creating an archive of seldom used files.

The Setup

Image: Dave Gray, Communicationnation.blogspot.com

Instead of a filing cabinet or set of drawers, you’ll need an open shelf and several 9″ x 12″ (or larger) envelopes. Using scissors, cut the flap off the top of the envelope, as shown above. You cut the top off to make it super easy to get at the envelope’s contents. Next, write the date and title along the side of the envelope. Again, see the image at above for a reference. Make one envelope per project and place the envelopes next to each other on the shelf, with the date and title side facing outward.

In Practice

Don’t attempt to organize, classify, or otherwise sort the envelopes. It will be tempting to do so, but the beauty here is that the system takes care of organizing for you. As you take a folder off the shelf to use it, return it to the far left. Over time, three things happen:

  1. The folders you use most often appear on the left hand side. Because you access them regularly, you always know where they are. With time, the project you work on most often will be in the leftmost envelope. Then the next project in the second left position, and then the next, all the way down the line.
  2. Files you use less frequently will migrate to the middle and right. You know how hard it can be to find a paper or file you seldom use? With the Noguchi system it’s easy because you know it’s not on the left.
  3. The files you never access make it to the far right. These “holy files,” as the system calls them, can be removed from the shelf and safely archived away or purged, thereby preventing the shelf from getting cluttered with countless envelopes.

You can color code your envelopes if you want. This is most useful when archiving, as you can quickly find what you need in that pile, or sort them by color once they’re off the shelf. Finally, since you needn’t spend time organizing the envelopes on the shelf, you save a lot of time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. It can take a couple of weeks to set it up (moving everything into an envelope) and kick in (as you move files right and left and on and off the shelf), but it’s a nice system for managing multiple projects once you get it established.

Book Review: 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business

A couple months ago, I purchased the digital version of 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business by Julie Bestry. Julie is a professional organizer specializing in office and paper organization, and I thought her secrets might be useful for Unclutterer’s readership and for myself. If her name is familiar to you, she has appeared on the site in the past.

While there are 57 short chapters in this book, there are more than 57 secrets for keeping your business organized. Each chapter is packed with useful and easy-to-implement tips that immediately solve organizational problems for anyone who works in an office or maintains an office in their home.

There are several chapters on time management and how to stop procrastinating. Julie provides information on how to take advantage of technology to reduce your workload by using databases and auto-responders. One of my favourite chapters was “Automate to Levitate.” Julie advises people to:

  • Create checklists and scripts. When meeting with prospective clients or vendors, the same questions are asked each time. By writing these questions down and creating a script or checklist, interviews and meetings will go much more smoothly and you’ll have all of the information you need. These checklists can also be important when training staff to perform these tasks.
  • Design templates. Instead of creating responses to each inquiry from scratch, develop letters (or sections of letters) that can be easily reconfigured to create responses. Simply copy and paste the required sections and customize the key points. For Gmail, templates can be made using “Canned Responses” from Google Labs.
  • Observe and document rituals. Build routines for complex tasks such as bookkeeping or data-entry. Write down each step in detail so that if you had to turn the entire project over to someone else, such as a virtual assistant, the work would be completed correctly and to your standards.

Julie also describes how to write effective emails and make productive phone calls so you get all of the information you need at one time instead of sending dozens of messages back and forth between coworkers.

Like many professional organizers, Julie encourages readers to set goals and become masters of their task list. The advice Julie shares in this book help readers discover which type of “to-do” list is best suited for them. She also talks about goal setting and attainment the “SMARTY SKIRT” way.

Julie teaches readers how to be a “File Whisperer.” She clarifies for how long documents should be kept and offers alternatives to the traditional filing cabinet for document storage. She also describes how to escape the traps that many people fall into when they build a filing system. Julie even shares secrets to building an effective mobile filing system for those who travel for business.

57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business also includes myriad tips on how to improve your writing skills, manage your finances, use social media effectively, prepare for emergencies, and set boundaries between work and home. A few more of my favourite tips were:

  • Schedule specific office hours and share your schedule. By creating specific office hours and sharing your schedule with co-workers, they will know when you are available to answer questions and help solve problems. By leaving a memo-board on your office door people will be able to leave messages for when you are available.
  • Arrange your furniture. Keep the extra chair outside your office door and bring it in only when visitors are expected. A chair could be positioned at a small desk or tucked in a corner so unexpected visitors would be discouraged from staying longer than necessary.
  • Designate gatekeepers. During designated office hours, specify someone else to deal with non-emergency problems. For example, a virtual assistant might respond to all general inquiries or in a home office situation, a spouse or older child might deal with all household related issues.

57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business was a pleasure to read and was peppered with references to pop culture (Does everyone remember Gladys Kravitz?) and famous people such as George Clooney. Julie’s comparison of loose papers to “floozies” made me smile, not only because it was funny but a surprisingly useful comparison.

Whether you are the owner of a small business, an employee in a large corporation, or head of your own household, I recommend this book for those wishing to make a positive change in their office environments.

Organize a personal board of directors

A few years ago I learned two important lessons from a business class. First: I have the natural business sense of a potato. Second: it’s a great idea to organize and maintain a personal board of directors. Years later, I’ve realized this strategy is applicable to much more than business. Home organization, parenting, and, yes, career decisions can all be advised by a qualified team of your own choosing.

When the school I worked for closed in 2009, I found myself jobless in an economy that was not friendly to the unemployed. After failing to quickly find a new job, I decided to peddle my skills and go to work for myself. A friend suggested that I take a class offered by a small business development firm in my neighborhood. It was the best advice I got that year.

This group helped me devise a plan, identify my marketable skills, and refine what I had to offer. It all culminated in making a presentation to a small board of professionals: which I bombed. It was humbling. After the smoke cleared, the group’s leader pulled me aside. “You just need some focus,” she said. “I think I can help.”

She and I spoke a few times and that one-on-one help was terrific. I went on to meet other people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. Five years later, I have a group of five or six people I can call on when I need guidance. Each excels in an area that’s troublesome for me. Most importantly, they’re not afraid to tell me, “Dave, that’s a very bad idea.” You do not want “yes men” on your personal board. You want honest, intelligent people who’ve got your interests in mind.

Now as I said, this needn’t be restricted to business. As it relates to organizing your home, office, or life, hire a professional organizer or look for groups that meet up with some regularity (meetup.com is a great way to do this) or even find a friend who has an extremely good set of organizing skills to help you. Ask questions, discuss your troubled areas, brainstorm, and then try out the suggestions. Search through old posts here on Unclutterer and see if we can spark some ideas to discuss with your organizing board.

Maybe you want to discuss parenting, personal productivity, or whatever section of your life is causing you stress. Calling on your personal board of directors is a great way to go to learn what they’re doing and what strategies they think may be able to help you. Perhaps you’ll even fill that role for someone else and return the favor.

Hobonichi Techo is my new favorite notebook

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — Han Solo

Han Solo accidentally gave great productivity advice when he made the statement above in the film Star Wars. Google “productivity” and you’ll find a seemingly endless supply of methods, systems (the “hokey religions”), tools, and gadgets (the “ancient weapons”) seemingly required to help you. Han understood that while those things have their place, they can’t compare to a tool that is reliable, tried, and true. In my case, my blaster is a Hobonichi Techo notebook.

I love working with paper and I’ve used plenty of notebooks over the years. Currently I’m in love with the Hobonichi Techo. This pocket-sized book is so pleasant that I find myself making excuses to write in it. It’s my planner, scratch work area, journal, and scrapbook. It even has an interesting history.

It’s a popular notebook/planner from Japan. The company, Hobonichi, began selling an English-language version in 2012. Each year, Hobonichi asks its customers for ideas and feedback that influences the next year’s production model, which is pretty neat.

It’s available in several sizes. I use A6, which is slightly larger than my hand. This is a good choice for me, as it’s large enough to write in comfortably, yet small enough to fit into the back pocket of my jeans.

The Techo is divided into several sections. First is a yearly overview, followed by eight pages of monthly overview (two months per page). Next you’ll find several pages that look like a typical wall calendar, two pages for each month. What follows is the heart of the Techo.

The notebook has one page per day of the year. Each contains the date, day, moon phase, and an anecdote. Of course, there’s plenty of room to write on color-coded grid paper (one color per month). Also, there are five slots for to-do actions at the top of each page. I’ve been using these pages to outline articles, record to-dos, capture incoming stuff like “schedule that appointment” and jot down fun stuff the kids have done. This book has become a real companion.

In the back there are several completely blank pages, followed by sections to recored special dates to remember; restaurants, movies, music or stores that you love or want to visit/see; measurement conversion charts, and other random information.

I love devices that can handle more than one task and the Techo does so gracefully. I’m not as artistic as these folks, but I’m getting a lot done and that is good enough for me.

Are you a paper planner person, too? If so, what is your favorite and why? Finally, just to be transparent, I wasn’t paid or provided with any product in exchange for this review. It is genuinely what I use and spend my own money to buy.

Unclutter your tech with the Rule of One

From time-to-time, I’ll think about this post I read on Apartment Therapy back in 2010. For whatever reason, the post stuck with me. The advice in the post espouses The Rule of One, which breaks down like this:

Keep the things you own (especially technology) down to only one.

I like the idea, but am still trying to figure out if I can apply it to everything in my life. I certainly need to have more than one shirt, for instance. But, in other areas, could it make sense for me? I especially like this insight:

Listening to music? One iPod. One speaker set … Hold on to that one item for as long as possible.

Like I said, it’s impractical for me to apply the Rule of One to all aspects of my possessions. I have several baseball hats and I like to wear them all, so I don’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of all but one of them. But, a quick glance at my iPhone reveals a problem. I have seven weather applications. I’ve also got four note-taking apps and four camera apps. Yes, each does something unique, but honestly none of them is markedly different than the other. I don’t need all four camera apps, for instance, and should decide on one “keeper.” The rest are clutter in that they consume precious storage space on my iPhone and clutter my mind, as I must stop and choose one every time I want to take a picture.

I also like Nguyen’s advice to “hold on to that item for as long as possible.” My Internet buddy Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac has written about this topic several times. In an article called “The Season of Stuff,” he gives good, pre-emptive uncluttering advice for the holiday season:

You can pledge to get rid of an amount of stuff equal to the amount you receive. You can let those who love you know that you do not want more stuff but want something less tangible instead (breakfast in bed, money for a favorite charity, etc.). Ask for specific stuff you really truly need that will add years of value to your life on a daily basis.

Now, if you have superfluous tech that you’d like to get rid of, don’t just bring it to the dump. There are several ways to recycle it responsibly:

  • Donation. Is there a group, organization or school nearby that would love to have it? Give them a call.
  • Best Buy. This American big box store will accept three electronic items per household per day for responsible recycling. It’s free, and no-questions-asked. You didn’t have to buy the item there to recycle it there.
  • Seek a local alternative. For example, Free Geek is an Oregon-based service that takes your electronics, similar to Best Buy’s program. Search around to find something similar in your area.

Look at the tech you use every day and decide, is any of this superfluous? Can I follow the Rule of One in this area of my life? If so, unclutter the extraneous items and enjoy having fewer distractions.

Organizing your employment history

Sometimes you may leave your current job by choice and sometimes you don’t have an option but in today’s fast-paced economy it is best to be prepared for a job search at any time. When you’re applying for a new job, you need accurate records of where and when you worked because almost all employers perform background checks. If you have had many jobs over the years, it may be difficult to remember exact dates of employments.

The following tips explore what type of information you need to collect and how to organize it for quick reference:

Information you should collect

Company contact information: Obtain the postal address, phone number, and website of all your previous places of employment if they still exist. Additionally, if these people are still employed at the company, have your direct supervisor’s name, company email address, and telephone extension, his/her supervisor’s contact information, and this same information for a key member of the Human Resources department. If they’re not still at the company, note this in your records and try your best to obtain a private email address for your former supervisors. Future employers usually wish to verify your previous employment with the company as well as discuss your performance with a supervisor, irrespective of where that person is currently employed.

Employment record: Most large companies keep employment records that include employee training, qualifications, and performance reviews. Review this information on an annual basis to ensure that it is up-to-date and obtain a copy prior to leaving the company.

Smaller companies may not keep detailed employment records so you may have to create your own. It should include the job titles you had at the company, dates you held those positions, and the rates of your pay. It should also list any training courses you took to improve your job performance.

Compensation: In addition to your pay rate/salary, note if you earned any bonuses or commissions. This gives you a benchmark to negotiate your salary at your next place of employment. List any benefits you received such as health and dental plans, maternity benefits, holidays, family, and compassionate leave.

NOTE: You can request a statement of your employment history from your government’s employment or taxation department (Social Security in the United States). This statement will provide you with details about your places of employment, dates, and earnings. You can also find this information on your old tax returns. However, these documents do not provide job descriptions or details about supplementary training during the periods of employment.

Job descriptions: If a detailed job description is not available from the company’s Human Resources department, create your own. List all the tasks for which you were responsible, to whom you reported, and who reported to you.

NOTE: If you used acronyms in at your company, always write out the words in full. You might not remember what those letters mean a few years from now. This is especially important with proprietary software programs used within a company. No one knows what “SADC-DB” means but future employers would understand “Systematic Approach to Document Control database.”

Challenges and achievements: Using the job description, write down a few problems that you encountered during your time on the job and how you solved this problems. Make note of your achievements and awards, too. It is easier to recollect this sort of thing when you are in your current job rather than when you are updating your résumé for the next job. You can use it as leverage when discussing your salary at your next performance review or at your next job interview.

Likes and dislikes: Write down what you liked and did not like about the tasks you performed. This information should never be put on a job application or résumé, but it can definitely help you decide the types of roles in which you excel and it will save you the trouble of applying for jobs you probably wouldn’t enjoy. It may be helpful to write this information in a style that would be a suitable answer for interviewers who are going to want to know what you liked and did not like about a previous job.

Contracts: If you signed a contract for employment or a confidentiality agreement, keep a copy for your records. Ask your employer how long they recommend you keep these documents and be clear, especially with any non-compete clauses, how long they apply to you. If you work with proprietary, copyrighted, or patented material, you may be obliged to maintain confidentiality for many years after you’ve ceased working for that company. You also may be prohibited from working for a competitor for a number of years.

Certificates: If you took any specialized training (WHIMS, First Aid, computer skills) in order to do your job, make sure you keep the certificates. They are the proof of having successfully completed the training.

Reference Letters: If you’re preparing to leave a job, it will be much easier for your supervisor to provide you with a letter of reference now when he/she is familiar with your work. The letter should state things like your relationship to the letter writer and a couple examples of how you contributed to the team and helped solve problems. It can also outline your positive character traits such as being punctual, hard working, and ability to adjust to the corporate culture. Obtain several original signed copies if possible.

Organizing your employment information

A simple form (the document is in Word and works on both Mac and PC) can be used to capture the details (company, contact information, job description, likes and dislikes) of each job. You can fill out the form and save it on your computer or print a paper copy.

It is helpful to organize your employment history on your computer as many documents are now only in electronic format. It may be worthwhile to scan the original certificates and letters of reference in case the originals are lost or damaged.

Ideally, the folders on your computer and your paper files should have the same names so it is easy to cross-reference and find the information you need. For example:

Keep original copies of certificates and reference letters in file folders or binders. You may be required to provide proof of training at a job interview, so storing documents in acid-free sheet protectors will keep them in good condition.

Career transition experts indicate that résumés and cover letters should be customized for each job application for best results. By having your employment history organized and easily accessible it will eliminate some of the stress in applying for a new job or promotion.

Finally, special thanks goes to TORI Award winning career transition expert Audrey Prenzel for her guidance on this topic.

Buy, organize, and store household batteries wisely

Modern life is jam-packed with two things: cables and batteries. So many things must be plugged in or charged up regularly that it’s hard to keep up. Rechargeable batteries are especially burdensome because you’ve got to keep track of which are charged, which aren’t, where the charger is, and so on. Isn’t technology supposed to make life easier?

Last year I wrote about organizing, storing and buying cables wisely, and today I’m going to look at batteries. Let’s begin by looking at the different types and the best use for each, as outlined by Michael Bluejay.

Battery types and their best uses

Two are two main categories of household batteries: rechargeable and disposable. Each category has four main types. Let’s begin with rechargeable batteries, as they’re becoming more prevalent, both as a source of power and clutter.

Rechargeable Batteries

  1. Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH). These are good for most applications, but don’t have the longest shelf life.
  2. LSD (low self discharge) NiMH. Again, good for general use, with the added benefit of longer shelf life than non-LSD NiMH. Meaning that, once out of the charger and sitting on a shelf, they hold their charge longer.
  3. Nickel-Zinc (NiZn). Use these with devices that will benefit from extra voltage like a digital camera. Note that with devices that don’t need the extra juice (say a Bluetooth computer mouse or keyboard), you should stay away from NiZn. Also, this group of batteries has a short shelf life.
  4. Rechargeable Alkaline. Now we’re talking about the longest shelf life of any rechargeable battery, including LSD NiMH. Use with devices whose batteries aren’t replaced often, like radios or clocks.

If rechargeables aren’t your thing, good old disposables are still around.

Disposable Batteries

  1. Alkaline. These are the inexpensive batteries that you see everywhere. Reserve for low-drain devices like remote controls.
  2. High-Drain Alkaline. These are disposables meant for high-drain devices like a digital camera. Seriously though, it’s much more economical to use a rechargeable battery in this situation.
  3. Lithium. These are powerful little batteries but, of course, you can’t recharge them. However, they are good for smoke detectors as the small amount of drain the detectors put on them means they’ll last a long time (but change your smoke detectors batteries twice a year, okay?).
  4. Carbon Zinc, Zinc Chloride. Often the least expensive, these are good for low-drain devices. That tiny night light in Jr.’s bedroom? Here you go.

At this point, you’ve identified the type(s) of battery you need and now it’s time to store them. Perhaps you know how much fun it is to go on a hunting expedition for a working battery, or take batteries out of one device just so you can add them to another. My personal favorite is picking up a rechargeable and thinking, “Hm, is this charged? I don’t know.” Let’s eliminate all of that nonsense.

Super battery storage solutions

The Range Kleen organizer is pretty nice. I like this because it accommodates all sizes of household batteries and presents them so you can see instantly what is available. It also comes with a built-in tester, so you can know how “good” a battery is before installing it. It’s a little big, which is its only real downside.

Arts and crafts bins also work well and often have the benefit of a lid, are semi-opaque, and stackable. A few minutes with your label maker helps a lot, too.

If you’d rather save a few bucks and go DIY, consider those disposable deli containers. They don’t hold as many batteries as the larger cases, but cost a lot less. You can even get crafty and use vintage coin purses and labels, if you’d prefer not to see a big, ugly plastic bin of batteries. Chunky diner mugs work well, too.

Ninja level battery management

When you’re ready for world-class battery organization, read insights from Quentin Stafford-Fraser. Quentin recommends you do five things:

  1. Spend some money on an initial cache of batteries. You’ll eliminate that last-second hunt that keeps everybody waiting.
  2. Dedicate space for battery storage. Quentin uses a series of hardware bins with labels like “AAA Flat” and “AAA Charged” for easy reference. When the “flat” bins get full, he begins recharging.
  3. Invest in good batteries. Quentin recommends the Sanyo Eneloop. Incidentally, that’s the same brand of battery that Apple ships with its own charger. I can attest to the fact that they last a long time. Erin uses the Amazon Basics rechargeables, which many users believe to be rebranded second-generation Eneloops.
  4. Buy a decent charger. I’ve fiddled with chargers from brands you’d recognize that failed to perform to my expectations. Get yourself a good one. Again, Erin has a personal recommendation here, and suggests the La Crosse Technology recharger for AAs and AAAs.
  5. Get a good tester. The Range Kleen I mentioned above ships with a tester. A stand-alone model like the ZTS MBT–1 Pulse Load Multi Battery Tester will set you back a few bucks but last a good, long time.

Disposing of old batteries properly

Even the best batteries will eventually give up the ghost. Unfortunately, there’s no single solution for getting rid of them. The process depends on the type.

According to Duracell, common alkaline batteries can be tossed into your household trash. The company notes that it hasn’t used mercury in its batteries since 1993, which is a good thing. Check with your preferred manufacturer to see how the’ve addressed concerns over their products’ chemistry.

Rechargeable, lithium, and zinc batteries should be recycled. You can find a compatible recycling center in your area via the Battery Recycling Corporation’s Call2Recycle program. You can also check the website for your local county and/or municipality’s hazardous waste program. These governmental jurisdictions almost always have a program just for battery collection.

With some planning, proper storage, and knowledge of what you need, you can eliminate a lot of battery hassles and reduce the clutter they produce at the same time.

An in-depth look at organizing labels

I’m a big fan of labels. Labels tell everyone where things belong. Labels indicate that only items of a certain type belong in a certain place. Labels help you remember where you put stuff.

There are many different types of labels that can be used and each type has advantages and disadvantages. The following are things to consider when choosing labels for your next organizing project.

Permanent or Removable

Permanent labels are intended for one time use. Peeling off a permanent label will generally destroy the label or the object to which it is attached, or both. Address labels on paper envelopes are a good example of permanent labels.

Removable labels are made with a special adhesive that, rather than sticking to the surface of the object, sticks to the label, and leaves the surface clean. Removable labels do not damage the object to which they are attached and can often be re-used. Post-It Notes are a good example of removable labels.

The object to which a label is attached and the conditions in which it is used can influence whether or not the label is permanent or not. For example, an address label that is designed to be permanently attached to a paper envelope may be easily removed from a plastic bin. It may not even stick to the plastic bin if the conditions are cold or damp. Sometimes removable labels may end up permanently adhered to surfaces if they are left on for a long time or exposed to excessive heat or pressure.

Always evaluate the type of material that you need to adhere the label to prior to purchasing the labels. Consider how long the label will be left in place and what the storage conditions will be.

Handwritten or Computer Printed

If you’ve got terrible handwriting, it may be better to use a computer or label maker to create labels because then everyone can read it. However, it takes time to make labels on a computer but it is easy to print many copies of the same label. Some labels are meant to be only for laser printers and some for only inkjet printers so always confirm that you’ve got the right labels for your printer. Some types of printer ink runs in damp conditions or fades in bright light. In these harsh conditions, it may be better to use a plasticized label.

Label makers print clear, easy-to-read labels that can be used in a variety of conditions. However, they tend to be limited in the sizes and colours of labels. Most label makers do not have a wide variety of fonts.

If the label is permanent on the container but the contents change, dry erase or chalkboard labels might be the best to use for your needs. They are a good choice if you are creative and enjoy making handwritten labels. An alternative is the Identa-label system. It is comprised of transparent plastic pockets that hold index cards. You can use a computer to print the index cards or they can be hand written.

Safety Considerations

While copper labels would look lovely in the garden, they would not be appropriate in a home with small children or pets. Labels can be detached and chewed on or swallowed. Some types of key ring labels may contain parts that could injure children and animals, too. Tag labels with string can be wound around tiny fingers and paws and cause injury.

Colours and Sizes

Once you have taken the above information into consideration, the colour and sizes of labels seems to be limited only by your imagination.

Specialty Stickers

Full page stickers allow you to print your own design or create multiple stickers of any shape, size, or colour.

Tamper-evident hologram warranty void stickers can be placed on bins or boxes to ensure they have not been tampered with. This would be ideal for valuable items sent via mail or courier service. They could also be placed on boxes of paperwork containing sensitive information during a move or in a storage facility.

Iron-on name-tags for clothing are great for identifying children’s clothing for school and camp but they can also be used for labeling the tablecloths you take to the family potluck dinners.

You can purchase pre-printed magnetic labels for toolboxes or create your own with dry-erase magnetic tape. Speaking of toolboxes, “Eye-Saver” big typeface socket labels have imperial and metric stickers in different colours so it is easy to tell which sockets are which.

TrueBlock labels completely hide everything they cover. They are great if you like to reuse shipping and file storage boxes. When you need to get people’s attention, high visibility labels would work well. If you need to see the label in the dark, Epson makes glow-in-the-dark labels for its label makers. You can write on glow in the dark tape to make your own labels.

Plant pot labels can be used to tell your house sitter how and when to water your plants during your vacation.

For holiday parties, reusable cup labels allow each child to have his or her own cup. If all goes as planned, there won’t be any sharing of germs. Adding allergy information to the cup label is a good idea, too. For the grown-ups, there are wine glass labels.

Labels are a wonderful thing, but when they have to be removed, label sticker remover comes in handy.

Selecting the right bulletin board for home or office

I recently admitted that I need a bulletin board in my home office. They really are supremely handy. Bulletin boards can serve several purposes (often more than one at a time) and come in a variety of materials and sizes.

The problem was that a quick online search resulted in several options that were, honestly, pretty ugly. Plain cork board and thin, one-inch plywood borders reminded me of the sad, half-abandoned classroom bulletin boards of my youth. I just didn’t want that hanging in my office, where I’d see it every day.

But before we get to the design options, the first step is to identify what role a new bulletin board will play.

Purpose

I knew I couldn’t make a successful purchase until I clearly defined what I role I expected my board to play. I came up with several options:

  1. Decorative. My daughter has a small bulletin board in her bedroom, which she uses to display photos, mementos, and other paper-based keepsakes. It’s all fun and no business. Some “files” partially cover others and the contents don’t change very often. Occasionally something is added, but rarely anything is taken away.
  2. Reference. Unlike a decorative board, reference boards are more orderly and purposefully organized. The idea is to store oft-referenced material right out in the open for easy use.
  3. Communication hub. For many of us, I’d bet the family refrigerator fills this role. As I’ve said before, this is a tempting but ultimately ineffective practice. Still, I see the appeal of a public communication hub. When I was a college student, it was a common practice to put a dry erase board on the door to one’s dorm room (note: this was long before texting and smartphones existed). Today, it’s a great idea for busy families.
  4. Short-term memory. I maintain a form of this with 3″ x 5″ index cards. There’s always a stack on my desk and I’m always grabbing them throughout the day to jot down something I need to remember but can’t attend to when it arrives. Again, I see the appeal of a larger version of this hanging on a wall, especially when processing all of that incoming “stuff” at the end of the day.
  5. Combination. Of course, it’s quite possible for a bulletin board to meet any combination of the above listed needs. A communication hub with pictures from that summer at the lake? Sure. A reference board with a corner dedicated to quickie tasks? Absolutely.

Knowing your needs can help you choose the type of board to buy, as some materials are better suited to one function over another.

Types based on purpose

  1. Decorative. In this case, boards with felt straps are a great choice. The straps keep you from having to poke pin holes in treasured mementos. Find one that looks great, as looks are a big part of the experience here.
  2. Reference. Unlike a decorative bulletin board, this one has strictly utilitarian needs. Find something that will stand up to wear-and-tear as you’ll be moving things around a lot. It needn’t be ugly, of course, but aesthetics ins’t your primary concern.
  3. Communication hub. For this bulletin board to work, it’s got to be easy to use. Having a bulletin board with a dry erase board is a great option, as is a DIY chalkboard paint option. You might also want to consider a magnetic and push pin board, so kids can quickly attach notes from school to it, for example.
  4. Short-term memory. Dry erase or chalkboard paint combined with a heavy-duty push pin board is again the way to go here. This is for temporary storage of information that is captured quickly, and then purged when no longer necessary.

And, of course, there are boards that combine all four. Find the one that best suits your plans and go for it. As for me, I want something that will give me an overview of what needs to be done for the week: articles due, school stuff for the kids, un-missable calendar events. A magnetic board will work, but I’m going with something that can accept push pins. My current plan is to buy large sections of cork board and cover it with old, decorative burlap sacks we have with vintage farming graphics. I’ll wrap the result in a nice, painted frame. That way I won’t feel badly about putting pins into it and it won’t look terrible on the wall.