Book review: Your Digital Afterlife

Some of our most precious possessions are now in digital form. In many cases, email has replaced hand-written or typed letters. Digital photos have largely replaced those taken with film. And then there are the components of our on-line presence: websites, Facebook pages, etc.

Your Digital Afterlife, by Evan Carroll and John Romano, explains how you can help ensure that these items get handled according to your wishes after your death. The book is copyright 2011, which might make you think it’s dated. But while specifics regarding websites may change, most of the book deals with issues and strategies, not the tools you might choose to use. And the legal status of digital executors and digital estate plans, largely undefined at the time the book was written, is still largely undefined — although some states have passed legislation about this.

The first part of the book explains why planning for your digital afterlife is so important and why that can be challenging. For example, the authors wrote, “One of the many issues with preserving your digital content is that much of it does not reside on a computer over which you have direct control.” The service providers you rely on may go out of business or may have terms of service that restrict how others can access your account after your death.

There are also issue related the sheer volume of our digital stuff. The authors wisely suggested:

Do your heirs a favor and think ahead during your life and tend to your date. Curate and weed your collections. Consider tagging your favorites, deleting the duplicates, editing them, and tagging them. … You could certainly keep all of your photos, but be sure that your favorites are kept separately.

The second half of the book deals with creating an inventory of your digital assets and a plan for sharing that inventory so your wishes can be honored.

The inventory is critical because no one can do anything with assets they don’t know exists or that they can’t access. For example, would anyone know I have a subscription to the Associated Press Online Stylebook, that auto-renews, if I didn’t have it in an inventory?

The inventory would include user names and passwords, along with your wishes for how each item should be handled. For example, do you want a social media or photo sharing account to be deleted? Do you want some photos within those accounts to be shared with others?

While the authors show the inventory as a spreadsheet, I realized my item listing in 1Password can serve as my inventory. I would just need to add comments indicating what I’d like done with each item.

Once you have the inventory, you need to determine how the right person gets access to that inventory after your death. If you totally trust the other person, as I trust my brother, you might send that person a copy of the inventory file — or make sure the person knows how to access your computer where the inventory is stored. Otherwise, there are digital estate services that can provide information to the appropriate person once they receive the necessary documentation, including a death certificate.

Your Digital Afterlife is a quick read. Some of the early chapters seemed to be stating the obvious, so I skimmed through them. The inventory forms seemed a bit too simple in some cases — for example, they had no place to enter the answers to the questions that some sites (such as my bank) ask before granting access to your account. But the general concepts are logical and well explained. It’s a good book for getting you started thinking about a complex and sensitive topic.

Book Reviews: Five new releases on simple living and productivity

Five really terrific books have been published in the past few weeks that might be of interest to our readers:

Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do
by Chris Guillebeau

Living an uncluttered life isn’t always about stuff. It’s also about clearing clutter from aspects of your life that keep you from doing what you would rather be doing. Chris’ book is perfect for anyone looking to unclutter a bad job or career from your life to do exactly what you should be doing. This isn’t a “dream big” book that leaves you inspired but without steps and tools to achieve what you want. This book is full of every tool you will need to make your job and/or career change happen. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that I’m a bit of a fangirl when it comes to Chris. One of those reasons is because his advice is based on years of research and includes examples from actual people who have taken his advice and found success with it. If you’re unhappy or disgruntled with your work, his book is exactly what you’ll want to read to move productively in a new direction.

90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more)
by Felice Cohen

A few years ago, we wrote about Felice because she lived such a full life in such an itty-bitty NYC studio apartment. Since that time, she has sat down and written an entire book exploring her strategies for occupying such a tiny place. You don’t have to live in an extremely small space to benefit from the advice in her book, though. I found her text easy to read — it’s mostly lists that are direct and simple to follow. There are 90 “lessons” in the book to go with the 90 square feet theme. If you know any graduates heading to college or a big city with a tiny space, this book would be perfect for him or her.

Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids
by Asha Dornfest

Asha has been writing the ParentHacks website for more than 10 years, and her latest book is a cultivation of all the best advice she’s seen during this time. The book is illustrated and in full color and every page is packed with useful tips to make parenting easier. My favorite thing about this book is how often it transforms objects that on the surface seem to be unitaskers but shows you how they’re really multi-taskers. (16 uses for a baby wipe tub, 13 uses for non-slip shelf liner, 8 uses for a baby bath tub, etc.) If you’re a parent, you will want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is becoming a parent, they will want this book. This book is my new go-to gift for anyone who announces she’s pregnant or becoming a parent in another awesome way. There are so many real-world tips in this book that almost every page contains a piece of advice you can use to make life with kids easier.

The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own
by Joshua Becker

Today is the release of Joshua’s book and it’s perfect for anyone who is coming to uncluttering with the hope of having a more fulfilling life. His book explores the topic of simple living in a much more philosophical manner than what we usually delve into here on Unclutterer. And this minimalist philosophy speaks to a lot of people, so if that sounds like you, pick up this extremely resourceful and guiding text. The advice is solid and practical. It’s not an organizing book — it’s a live with less stuff book. It’s a must-read for anyone looking for a step-by-step guide to minimalism.

The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer
by Helene Segura

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Helene’s book and have been eagerly awaiting its release so I could recommend it to you. If you struggle with productivity and time management, THIS is the book for you. The review I emailed to Helene immediately after finishing reading it sums up my opinions about the helpful text: “The Inefficiency Assassin is a concise, straightforward, and comprehensive plan that provides realistically attainable tactics to solve every major productivity problem. It details precisely how to eliminate these issues so you can have the professional and personal life you desire. With Helene Segura’s help, you can say farewell to guilt and exhaustion and to being overworked and overwhelmed.”

Sponsored Post: Spring organizing and everyday products from Staples

The following is a sponsored post from Staples. As regular readers know, we don’t often do sponsored posts (our most recent was in 2013). But we agreed to work with Staples again for three posts because they sell so many different organizing and productivity products in their stores and we like so many of the products they carry. Our arrangement with them allows us to review products we have extensively tested and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. And, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

As spring (slowly, very slowly in the part of the country where I live) heats up temperatures outdoors, I’ve been thinking a lot about cleaning and organizing. It’s nice to get the windows open and air out my house and feel empowered by the renewal that comes with the warmer weather. As it always does, these things get me motivated to do some spring cleaning.

One thing I started doing last spring that I’ve felt has made a huge difference in my organizing efforts is to have two filing systems. It sounds like extra work, but it has proven to reduce my workload. In addition to the traditional filing cabinet that holds all of the paperwork I have to keep, I now have a smaller filing box next to my desk that is a temporary holding ground for papers.

Immediately when papers come into the house — bank statements, bills, paperwork from the kids’ school — I file it into the temporary filing box. Twice a year, when I’m doing fall and spring cleaning tasks, I go through the temporary filing box and decide what needs to go to the traditional filing cabinet and what can be purged. Also, having the box keeps papers off my desk, but in a very easily accessible location. It also serves as a working file drawer for papers that will never go into the traditional filing cabinet but that I need for projects I’m working on at that time. If you’re desk doesn’t have a drawer in it like mine doesn’t, I recommend a simple Staples File Box. It has a lid for keeping out pets, most water, and dust and a lip around the upper edge for hanging file folders. It’s inexpensive and I like that best of all.

Along the same lines of there being a temporary filing box, I also have started keeping a temporary holding box that I clean out twice a year (again during spring and fall cleaning). This holding box is where I drop things I’m pretty sure I want to unclutter permanently from my home but that I’m not 100 percent certain I’m ready to let go. Having a temporary location for this stuff makes me more willing to part with it after I have evidence that I didn’t touch something for six whole months. (Because, if I do need something, I take it out of the box and return it to its regular storage location after use.) I rarely access anything in the box and it pretty much goes straight to a charity when I’m doing my spring or fall cleaning.

If you think a temporary holding box for items you wish to unclutter could work for you, the Staples 40 Quart Plastic Containers are great for this. They’re clear (so you can easily see inside to find what you need) and they have a locking lid, which keeps out critters and most water. It’s definitely better than a cardboard box, which I do not recommend using. And, obviously, these same bins are great for longer term storage of anything you want to protect seasonally — winter blankets, coats and hats, gloves and scarves, etc.

I’m a brand loyalist when it comes to everyday objects, like writing pens and markers. I find something that works well for me, and I stick to it. I exert the mental energy and money to determine what I like, and then I typically only revisit those decisions if something changes about the product (discontinued, formula change, significant reduction in quality, etc.).

Recently, however, I noticed that my preferences were changing and some of the products I’d been loyal to for years weren’t doing everything I wished they would. The product that caught my attention first — and ultimately set the stage for this post — was my love affair with the Pilot G2 pen only existed in certain circumstances. The Staples brand equivalent to the G2 is the OptiFlow Fine Point Rollerball Pen and it has a cap. The writing is very smooth, it dries on a sheet of paper quickly (which for left-handed folks means virtually no mess from hand drag), and the pens last as long as the G2s. A dozen of the Staples OptiFlow pens are $10.79, which is a little less expensive than the Pilots, too. So, now I’m loyal to the OptiFlow when I’m on the go.

While thinking about store-brand pens, I decided to see how the Staples brand stood up to the other writing implements I carry with me in my laptop bag. The Staples Hype! Chisel Tip Highlighters came out ahead of the Sharpie brand of highlighter I usually buy. Again, I like that the Staples brand have a cap. But what I really like is that they don’t bleed through paper with typical use, even thin paperback book paper, so what is highlighted on one side of the paper doesn’t interfere with what is highlighted on the backside. It also didn’t smear handwriting, which the Sharpies don’t do but other brands definitely do, which is annoying. They’re solid highlighters and they’re $5.49 for a six pack, which is less than what I usually pay.

Finally, I checked out the Staples DuraMark Black Chisel Tip Permanent Marker and they were as great as the ones I usually buy. They did bleed through a sheet of paper, but all mid-range priced permanent markers do. The stroke was consistent and the marker is an overall good quality. I have yet to throw one away, which also speaks to its longevity. And, at $8.49 per dozen, they’re less expensive than the brand I usually buy.

Organize your email inbox with SaneBox

For many, dealing with email can be a full-time job. New messages arrive before you’ve attended to the old. What’s worse is that messages can be lost, misdirected, or marked as spam and unintentionally end up in the trash, and finding the important emails among so many duds is a real time-waster. In my constant pursuit to get email under control, I’ve found a fantastic service that I’ve been using for months now that is helping me to effectively deal with my email woes, and it is called SaneBox.

To use SaneBox, simply create an account by entering the email address you wish to tame. Right away, SaneBox begins analyzing your email history, noticing the addresses you respond to, and those you don’t.

Right here I want to address the security questions that some of you probably have. When I started researching this software, my first question was, “Wait, they’re accessing my email?” Well, no. First, email never leaves your server. SaneBox does not take possession of your messages. Also, they only look at the email headers, which are composed of the sender, receipt, and subject. They look at the patterns in your email behavior (messages you’ve opened, responded to, etc.). In other words, they’re not reading or downloading your email. Phew.

Back to the service. When the setup process is finished, SaneBox creates a new folder in your email software for you called @SaneLater. The messages flagged as “unimportant” during that initial analysis are moved there. The rest, or the “important” messages, are left right in your main inbox as usual. The result: you only see the messages that mean the most when you glance at your inbox. This has saved me huge amounts of time.

Messages moved to @SaneLater aren’t deleted, so don’t worry. They’re simply in a new folder. While SaneBox is learning, it might place a message in @SaneLater that you consider important. In that case, simply move that message to your Inbox and future messages from that sender will stay in your Inbox. After a few days of training, I just let it go with my full trust. I’ve gone from around 40 messages per day to six or seven.

There are other options beyond the @SaneLater folder, all of which are optional. @SaneBlackhole ensures you never see future messages from a certain sender. @SaneReplies is my favorite folder. It stores messages I’ve sent that haven’t yet elicited a response. @SaneTomorrow and @SaneNextWeek let you defer messages that aren’t important today, but will be.

What’s nice is that SaneLater doesn’t care if you’re using Mac OS X, Windows, iOS or Android. It also sends you a digest (at a frequency you determine) of how messages have been sorted, in case you want to make any adjustments.

SaneBox offers a 14-day free trial. After that, there are several pricing tiers, available on a monthly, yearly or bi-yearly schedule.

Organize goals with the SELF Journal

There are numerous tools on the market to help you organize your goals, and I’ve recently began to use one that might also interest you: The SELF Journal. This little notebook is something I backed on Kickstarter back in 2015. After receiving my journal in December, I used it to successfully plan and implement a new season of my podcast. The experience was so positive, I’ve decided to share it with you.

Are you setting goals effectively?

The problem with goal setting is that many people do it in a way that doesn’t help them to achieve their goals. Many set unrealistic goals (run a marathon next weekend without any training), underestimate completion time, or fail to review progress.

Another big hiccup is not having a plan. Let’s say you set a goal of organizing the garage, top to bottom. Simply saying, “I’m going to organize the garage this weekend,” isn’t enough and probably won’t work. The SELF Journal, aside from being well-made and attractive, features a built-in system for moving toward a goal effectively, day by day.

The SELF Journal method

When my journal arrived last December, I was ready to dive in. I had a project that needed a lot of time and attention, and the journal seemed like a perfect fit for helping me to achieve it. In a nutshell, the book uses these methods:

  1. You create a 13-week roadmap. Many poorly-crafted goals lack a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The SELF Journal helps you to create this timeline and write it down.
  2. A procrastination-busting calendar. You’re encouraged to fill every working time slot with a relevant activity. No, “just checking Twitter real quick” does not count.
  3. Prioritized planning. You’re meant to plan tomorrow’s tasks today, so you’re clear on what’s to be done in the morning.

There are two more aspects that I really like in the journal. The first is tracking and reflection. The journal provides space for you do reflect on your wins for the day and what you’ve learned. The wins emphasize the last aspect of the system — bookending your day with positive psychology — while the opportunity to record lessons learned informs future work.

The book’s morning routine emphasizes the preparation and work, while the evening routine highlights reflection.

I’ve been quite happy with it and I suspect others will also find it beneficial. Its current price is $31.99.

Tech to keep you on-time (and even early)

Yesterday, I wrote about my transition from being chronically late to being perpetually early. This was quite a journey that required some serious reflection, as well as behavior change. There’s a secret I didn’t share with you yesterday that I’ll divulge today, and it’s the little app that’s been a big help: Google Now.

It’s billed as an “intelligent personal assistant,” but really it’s a suite of services that’s closely tied to your Google account. There are free mobile apps for iOS and Android, which I just adore. The following is and explanation of how I use Google Now every day.

The app presents information via what it calls “Cards.” The information you need, like directions, weather, and more, are presented on a series of informative cards. Flip from one to the other to see what’s coming up in your day. Now here’s the cool part: Google presents this information “just when you need it.”

For example, let’s say you have an appointment across town that begins at 12:00. Google Now does so much more than remind you of the pending appointment. It notices where you are, estimates how long you’ll need to get there, and prompts you to leave about five minutes before you need to, based on distance and traffic conditions. It even polls for traffic and picks the quickest route for you.

Here’s my other favorite trick. I can tell Google Now that my daughter has dance class from 12:00 – 3:00 on Saturdays. Not only does it prompt me to leave in time to arrive before noon, it also lets me know when class is about to end, so I can arrive in plenty of time to pick her up.

There are a slew of cards available, which can help you find fun things to do, monitor sports scores, get the latest news, and so much more. For me, it’s all about the scheduling. And, if you use Google Calendar, integration is seamless.

Note that Google Now is most effective when you have a Google account and actively use its mail and calendaring services. That stuff is free, which is another bonus.

I don’t typically gush over software but Google Now is something I use every single day. It helps me do what needs to be done in an elegant, effective, an unobtrusive manner. I recommend checking it out.

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.

Book Review: Minimalist Parenting

As someone without children, I’m always in awe of the many parents I see raising remarkable children — and dealing with the added stresses that parenting can bring to already busy lives. Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest is a book filled with advice intended to help alleviate some of that stress.

While “minimalist” often brings up images of Spartan surroundings, that’s not what the authors are advocating. Rather, they focus on “editing out the unnecessary” — whatever that is for you and your family — in “physical items, activities, expectations and maybe even a few people” so you can focus on the things that are most meaningful.

The book is comprehensive, covering daily routines, meal planning, uncluttering the toys, managing the holidays, and much more. It’s showered with examples from the authors’ lives and from the lives of other parents who’ve commented on their websites. (Both authors have sites that deal with parenting: Boston Mamas from Koh and Parent Hacks from Dornfest.) It has a friendly voice and was easy to read.

While much of the advice in this book is similar to that you’ll find in other books and on websites such as Unclutterer, I still found much to admire. I was delighted to see the emphasis on finding solutions that fit with each family’s values and the personalities of the individual family members. There were some “everyone needs to do this” parts — for example, everyone needs a shared, portable family calendar and a to-do list — but these were kept to a minimum. The authors also emphasized the need to follow your gut feelings, which they referred to as your “inner bus driver.”

I also noted and appreciated the continual emphasis on working toward making children self-sufficient through assigning age-appropriate chores, having kids use an alarm clock, letting them do homework independently, etc. This doesn’t mean children are left to flounder — with homework, for example, you would be available to consult and guide your children, but “the plan is to gradually remove yourself from the process.”

Sometimes there were ideas that I hadn’t heard before, such as the secondhand baby shower. One of the authors found herself pregnant with her second child after giving away all her baby things, and when friends wanted to throw a shower she asked that everything be secondhand. This allowed her friends, who almost all had young children themselves, to unload things they no longer needed and wanted to pass along, anyway. Those who didn’t have little kids and hand-me-downs were welcome to just come and hang out or to bring diapers or gift cards.

The authors continually emphasized that “course correction beats perfection.” Looking for perfect solutions is a waste of time, they say, since perfect solutions simply don’t exist. (The author who spent ages researching cribs found they all had something that made them less than perfect. She could have saved time by just finding three cribs that were highly recommended from reliable sources and then picking one of those.) They recommend you go with something good and adjust as necessary — tweaking new routines, for example, or adjusting a family spending plan. This sounds like solid advice to me.

The one disappointing aspect of this book is that while it’s called Minimalist Parenting, the book is definitely geared toward mothers. Much of the advice applies to any parent, but many of examples are mother-focused. I especially noticed this in the section on self-care. Adding some voices from fathers would have made a good book much stronger.

Google Photos offers convenient storage and search option

Google has offered a new photo management service and set of apps simply named Google Photos. It looks like it could be a good solution for the confounding issue of digital photo management.

I’ve written about my struggles with digital photos several times here on Unclutterer. The ease with which we can take hundreds of photos creates a modern issue: managing mountains of photos. There are several solutions available and now Google is pushing its latest, Google Photos.

Google Photos was once a part of its Google+ service, which has failed to catch on as the company hoped it would. Now free to exist as an independent product, Google Photos is ready for mainstream use if you’re willing to accept a trade-off.

First, it stores all images in the cloud (read: a remote server). Many people are comfortable with cloud-based services in 2015, but people are also protective of their family photos. If it’s any consolation, I store my photos this way. Also, images uploaded to Goole Photos are private by default.

Using a cloud-based storage solution frees up oodles of space on your device (Google Photos supports iPhone, Android, and the Web). Also, you can enjoy unlimited storage … as long as you’re okay with a photo resolution of 16 megapixels and video at 1080p (I am). Otherwise, you have options. You can get 15 GB of Google Drive storage for free, and you can purchase 100 GB for $1.99 per month, or 1 TB a month for $9.99, which isn’t awful.

But it’s not the storage that I find amazing, it’s the search functionality that makes this so cool.

Google is synonymous with searching, so having a strong search function should be no surprise. If you’re looking for a photo of you dog, for instance, you can simply type “dog” into the search field. There’s no need to remember dates or locations. Just “dog” will bring up every image you have of a dog. You can even search for color, like “green,” and Google Photos will bring up your images of grass, leaves, green t-shirts and so on. I’ve been playing with it and it’s impressive. No tagging was involved.

Another cool trick is it will find images that were taken on the same day or at the same location, and group them into “stories” or collages for you. You can opt to browse these once or save them to your camera roll if you want to alter the “stories” it creates.

If you’re someone who finds himself searching for that one photo you have in mind that you took that one time, well Google Photos will likely be able to help you with that. Google Photos isn’t the perfect answer, but it’s a very good one.

Book review: Better Than Before

It’s rare that I come across a book and think, “every Unclutterer reader could benefit from reading this book.” But Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives falls into that exclusive category.

As the title suggests, this book is about creating beneficial life-long habits. The book doesn’t prescribe which habits a person should create, rather it’s a comprehensive exploration of HOW to make lasting habits that YOU want to make. If you want to be more productive, manage your time better, stay current with household chores, live in an organized manner, have better follow through, or any of the other “Essential Seven” changes like exercise regularly or eat and drink more healthfully, this book can help you to make that happen.

First and foremost, Rubin acknowledges that everyone is different and a one-size-fits-all approach to habit formation is ineffective. In the Self Knowledge section, she provides questions and examples to help the reader learn more about him/herself to determine what methods and strategies will actually stick. She points out that most people fall into one of four habit tendencies — she calls them The Four Tendencies — and structures the advice in the book around this concept. (For example: I’m predominantly an Upholder, but have a few Questioner leanings. Therefore, I know her suggestions for Upholders will almost always work for me and if not, the Questioner suggestions are what I should try next.)

From there, Rubin recommends strategies for how to determine which habits you wish to cultivate and why you may wish to introduce specific habits into your life. She believes, as I do, that “How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.” Our daily habits are who we are. She defines habits as “freeing us from decision making and from using self-control,” and more clearly explains this definition of habits a few paragraphs later:

When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

So, once you have clarity of what you wish to do and what habits you wish to incorporate to reflect your identity, you can set forth on your habit creations and life changes. She believes there are four Pillars of Habits: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. You’ve likely encountered these concepts before in terms of goal setting — you need to be able to monitor (in a quantifiable way) the process and outcomes, you need to begin with a foundation of changes that will produce results quickly and in a rewarding way, you need to schedule when the habits will take place, and then have a way to be accountable for your changes. Rubin provides varying types of strategies in each of these Pillars based on your tendency type.

Next, she addresses how to begin the new habits. And then, what I see as the most valuable part of the book, Rubin explores the most common ways people fail at sustaining good habits and how to overcome those problems based on their tendencies. In the chapter “Desire, Ease, and Excuses,” I was most drawn to the sections on Safeguards and Loophole-Spotting.

Safeguards, at least as I interpreted them, are plans you create in advance for when you expect to fail or when you will make exceptions to your habits. It’s knowing yourself well enough to predict how you will fall off the proverbial wagon and then plan what you will do about it when it happens. They’re backup plans formulated in the If-Then method: “If _____ happens, then I will do _____.” For example, I abstain from eating doughnuts — I’m not a huge fan of them and they’re not a healthful food choice. However, based on experience, I know there is one situation where I have virtually no self-control when it comes to consuming them. Therefore, I have a safeguard in place for when I find myself in that specific tempting situation. “If someone offers me a doughnut, then I will eat one ONLY if I am standing in a doughnut shop and the doughnut is hot and fresh off the production line.” I am a person who doesn’t eat doughnuts except in that specific situation, and since I am rarely in that situation, I at least know how I will handle myself if/when I encounter it. In 10 years, I have only encountered that situation twice.

Loophole-Spotting is similar to Safeguards in that it requires you to plan how you will behave when you seek out loopholes. I’m not a huge loophole seeker (I like to finish projects more than start them), but one of the loophole examples Rubin provides was something I do all the time. She names 10 common loopholes (you’ve likely used the “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole when you’re sick or on vacation and the Tomorrow Loophole when you put things off until tomorrow) and the one that screamed at me was the Concern for Others Loophole. This loophole is when we excuse our behavior because we believe our exceptions to our habits are for another person’s benefit, when that actually isn’t the case. She provides numerous examples that I’ve made countless times in my life and one just the other day: “It would be rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of cake.” Similar to doughnuts, I’m not a huge fan of cake and I prefer to abstain, yet I eat a slice of cake at every birthday party I attend because I don’t want to seem rude! Her advice for dealing with loopholes is sound:

By catching ourselves in the act of invoking a loophole, we give ourselves an opportunity to reject it, and stick to the habits that we want to foster.

I personally found this book to be incredibly helpful. If you want to make changes in your life through the adoption of positive habits, I strongly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Again, I truly believe all unclutterers could benefit from the research and analysis contained in it. Establishing uncluttering and organizing habits can simplify one’s life, and Rubin’s methods can show you how to do this effectively.

Apps to track your fitness

Improving fitness and health is a popular New Year’s resolution. And scientists who study such things have found that keeping track of your workouts can help with reaching your goals. Tracking helps you monitor your progress and that is beneficial because increased strength and endurance are often hard to perceive. Also, it is much easier to remember your workouts when you see them rather than trying to remember what exercises you need to do or what weights you need to use.

Pen, paper, and notebooks are ideal for recording and monitoring your progress. You can record as date, time, workout description, weight levels, repetitions with as much or as little information as you wish. There is no special technology required and it is very cost effective. However, your notebook may be too bulky to carry with you back and forth to the gym and it may be time consuming to re-write the same information over and over again. It isn’t easy to see the information in a graphical format either, which is why I recommend apps you can access on your smartphone, tablet, or other digital devices.

Fitbit is a bracelet that tracks your steps, calories burned, and distance travelled. It syncs with your smartphone and provides a daily report of how active you are. There are several models of bracelets. The most basic models track steps, calories burned, and distance. The more advanced models track heart rate, sleep quality, and have a built in GPS tracking system. With the Fitbit website you can set goals, earn badges for reaching your goals, and connect with other Fitbit users to create a support network.

Abvio is a software company that makes three easy-to-use apps for your smartphone that can be used to track your workouts: Cyclemeter, Runmeter, and Walkmeter. All three apps allow you to record splits, intervals, and laps. They also have maps, graphs, announcements, and built-in training plans. These apps will sync with different types of sport watches that monitor heart rates. Cyclemeter can connect to some types of bicycle computers to record cadence as well. Abvio does not have its own website, but the data from the apps can be exported and uploaded into various other social fitness sites.

Those who participate in different types of sports such as yoga, martial arts, or horseback riding, may wish to consider The Athlete’s Diary. It is a multisport computer log, available for both computers and smartphones. It has a special-purpose database program designed for athletes and keeps track of the date, sport, category (training, interval, or race), distance, time, pace, route/workout, and has an area for comments. The Athlete’s Diary syncs with your computer and smartphone through Dropbox so you can use either device to enter your fitness data.

Virtual Trainer Pro is a really unique app for your smartphone. It is a database of hundreds of exercises, each demonstrated in a video by a fitness expert. You can create your own routines easily by dragging and dropping the exercises into the order you wish to follow or you can use one of thousands of ready-to-use workouts. Tracking your score and earning points and medals will help to keep you motivated.

There are many other apps available for monitoring fitness progress. Some are sport specific, others also allow you to track caloric intake and nutritional information. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or you’re a serious fitness pro, being organized and tracking your fitness information will help you to reach your fitness goals.

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

At first glance, I felt that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing was like many of the other organizing books that I have read. The author describes the KonMari method of organizing, which is pretty similar to the S.P.A.C.E. method described in the 1998 book Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern:

  • Sort: Gather all items from one category together (e.g. clothes)
  • Purge: Discard items no longer needed.
  • Assign: Designate a storage place for all items
  • Containerize: Find suitable containers to hold the items
  • Equalize: Consistently return items to their assigned homes every day.

However, Kondo’s approach to the process is more graceful and she describes a deep respect for all items. During the purge process she tells readers not to focus on what to purge, but instead she tells them to focus on what they want to keep. “In this manner you will take the time to cherish the things that you love.”

Kondo believes in making the decision easier on yourself by asking the question, “Does this spark joy?” She instructs her clients to take each item in their hands and note their body’s reaction. She asks, “Are you happy when you hold a piece of clothing that is not comfortable or does not fit? Are you happy to hold a book that does not touch your heart?” If the answer is no, the item should be discarded.

Kondo recommends that clients declutter in the following order:

  • Clothing
  • Books
  • Papers
  • Miscellaneous
  • Mementos (including photos)

In her experience she has found that most people can make decisions easily about clothing (Does it fit?) which will strengthen their decision-making skills for the following, sometimes more difficult, categories. By the time the client is ready to sort through mementos, he/she will have a stronger understanding of the tidying process and be much less stressed when making decisions.

I found Kondo’s suggestions for discarding items helpful. She says to think of the lesson that the object taught you while you owned it. For example, the sweater you bought that was on sale but wasn’t quite your colour, taught you what was not your style. The sweater has served its purpose. It should be thanked for its service and be sent on its way to serve a purpose for someone else. If the item is to be disposed, it should be done in a way that honours the item.

Organizing paperwork is difficult for many people so the KonMari method classifies papers into three categories: papers currently in use, papers that need to be kept for a limited period, and those that need to be kept indefinitely. She states that papers that do not fall into one of these categories can be disposed. Sentimental items that happen to be made of paper (e.g. wedding invitations, love letters) should be classified as mementos and organized within that category.

Kondo provides recommendations as to which documents should be discarded. I would caution all readers to examine their personal situations and, if necessary, discuss with their legal and financial advisors prior to making decisions because laws and regulations between jurisdictions can vary greatly.

While the general methodology of the KonMari method of “tidying” is very much the same as many North American books about organizing, I found the Japanese way of framing our relationships with our possessions quite interesting. If you have had trouble parting with items you know you should really discard, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing may provide a new perspective that will help get you started.