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.

Organize your smartphone, Pt. II

Back in 2013, I wrote an article about decluttering your smartphone. Today, I’m back with a follow-up that offers even more ideas and techniques to keep the tiny computer in your pocket as tidy and usable as possible.

Review your contacts

I don’t know how this happened, but I have several copies of the same contacts. My dad was listed three times, some colleagues had multiple entries, and more. I’m not sure how that happened, but I replaced that mess with definitive, accurate records.

Also, you might find records for former coworkers or others you haven’t communicated with for a very long time. If you can legitimately delete their information, do so.

Review bookmarks

I’ve gotten better at organizing bookmarks on my desktop computer, and now it’s time to do the same on my phone. Do like I did and take a few minutes to review the bookmarks on your phone’s browser and ditch those you don’t use anymore. This seems like a small step, but any progress leads to reduced clutter.

Go verb-based with your apps

When I wrote this article’s companion piece in 2013, I suggested organizing apps into folders like “Work,” “Travel,” etc. This time, consider combining apps together by action.

For example, create a folder labeled “Watch” for apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and so on. Perhaps make another called “Listen” with your favorite music and podcasting apps. “Shop,” “Read,” and “Travel” are other viable options.

Make use of lock screen widgets

Both Android devices and Apple’s iOS let app developers create little widgets of information that can be used while your phone’s screen is locked. Both offer customizable information that is tremendously useful and quick. iMore.com has a nice overview of what Apple calls its “Notification Center” while Android Authority has a good look from the other side of the aisle.

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

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

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

iPhone

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

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

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

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

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

On Andriod

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

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

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

Build a visual to-do list in Evernote

We’ve written about Evernote several times on Unclutterer, and for good reason — it’s a fantastic service. I use it as my external brain, having it “remember” things for me, same as a scratch pad, text editor, or journal.

Many people, myself included, use Evernote as a to-do manager. I combine the to-do item with the photo notes feature, and I’ve got a visual to-do list.

When you create a new note in Evernote, you’ve got five options: Text, Photo, Reminder, List, and Audio snippet. In the instance of a visual to-do list, create a Photo. Using the Evernote app on your smartphone, simply take a photo of that long-lingering project: the baseboard that needs replacing, the drywall that could use a patch, the past-its-prime laundry basket that needs to be put out to pasture. Now you have an image representing the task that needs to be completed. But you’re not done yet.

You can add text to any note, so be liberal with the notes. “Buy two-by-four to replace this baseboard” or “Get a laundry basket while at the mall” will do nicely. Take it a step further by adding tags. Try tags like “high priority” or “low priority” and then sort when it comes time to do things. Or, tag by context with terms like “errands” or “home.” Perhaps you’ll sort by tasks for work and those for your personal life.

Now, a visual list like this won’t work for everyone, but often times quickly glancing at an image will quickly jog your memory. Also, you don’t always have time to stop and write things down. Snapping a quick reference photo can fix that problem. Additionally, Evernote is so ubiquitous that your list can be instantly synced to almost any device.

Offloading unwanted stuff

Receiving gifts at the holidays is fun, but it also means there’s now more stuff in your home. A few years ago, we outlined what to do with unwanted toys, including donation, repurposing, and selling. This time, we’ll look at options for moving your unwanted items of all kinds out of your home.

Yerdle

The premise is simple: “Post a pic of your unused stuff and swap it for what you want.” Take a nice photo of an item you no longer need (a tutorial on taking great product photos from the folks at Ebay will serve you well). Next, post your photos to Yerdle with a brief description. When someone likes what you have, they’ll request it. The folks at Yerdle will send you a shipping label (as long as your package is under 10 pounds). You then earn “Yerdle Bucks” that you can spend on items that you want.

Gone

Another option is Gone. The goal with Gone is to make the offloading process as easy as possible. In fact, once you’ve listed what you’ve got for sale, the folks at Gone find the best possible price for your item for you, as well as providing shipping labels and getting you paid via check, PayPal, or Amazon.com Gift Card.

OfferUp

OfferUp focuses on what’s available to you locally. It’s got more of a focus on buying than selling (the site looks like store), but you can definitely offload items to OfferUp.

Selling/donating older phones and tablets

Many people use the December holidays as the opportunity to upgrade their smartphones and tablets. While you can find a new role for your old tablet or phone, you’ve also got the option to sell or donate it.

Be sure to prepare a smartphone or table for resale or donation, including:

  1. Removing all data, and
  2. Finding the vendor you’ll use to sell or donate your phone

Companies like Apple, AT&T and Sprint (among others) have buy-back programs, while groups like Cell Phones for Soldiers and Goodwill will accept your donations.

As for choosing a vendor, you have several options if you wish to sell your device. Gazelle and GreenCitizen will both buy your devices if they meet their guidelines.

Old standbys

Of course, you can’t deny old favorites like Ebay and Craigslist. Additionally, a few years ago we looked at four ways to sell unwanted stuff, like yard sales and and consignment shops. Finally, we know it can be hard to part with sentimental items, and we addressed that issue in 2010.

The take-away here is to make room for the wonderful new things that will enter your home this holiday season.

Is organizing email into folders a waste of time?

Recent research conducted by IBM Research [PDF] suggests that people who searched their inboxes found emails slightly faster than those who had filed them by folder. Email management is something I struggle with every day, so this study grabbed my attention. Even after reading it, I don’t know how to feel.

Many years ago I was meeting with a supervisor who wanted me to see an email she had received. “Just a minute,” she said, and opened up her email software. For the next few minutes, I watched as she scrolled through thousands of messages, looking for the one I needed to see. It was frustrating for both of us, and at that moment I swore I’d never be in that position. In the very first post I ever wrote for Unclutterer, I described my reasoning for never storing messages in my email software. But was that the right move?

This study looked at the behavior of 345 subjects. Noting that email “critically affects productivity,” the authors state that “…despite people’s reliance on email, fundamental aspects of its usage are still poorly understood.” They looked at people who simply use their email software’s search function to find what they’re after vs. those who set up folders by topic. The results, surprisingly, were in favor of the former:

“People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.”

In other words, the time spent setting up folders did not improve retrieval. People instead found that they now had multiple inboxes to go through and worse, started using their email software as a to-do manager. That’s definitely a bad idea (calendars, project management programs, and to-do list are more effective).

At work, I receive an obscene amount of email. To combat this, I stated creating topic-specific folders. As of now, I’ve got nearly three dozen folders. Is that helpful? I’m too sure. On one hand, I know where everything is. On the other, I do spend a lot of time working through the various folders. Conversely, Erin reads messages and then files everything into a giant Archive folder that she then uses the search functionality in her email program to look for specific key words, senders, subject lines, dates, attachments, etc. when she needs to retrieve an email. She calls this the “bucket method.” (It all goes into a metaphorical bucket.) The only exception to this are emails about potential unitaskers, which she files in a Unitasker Ideas folder.

I ask you, readers, which method do you use in email? Folders? No folders? Simple search? Something else entirely? Share what you do and how effective you think your method is in the comments. Email is a beast that we all must battle daily, and so far I’ve not found the perfect weapon.

Up your keyboard shortcut game with TextExpander

A few years ago on Unclutterer, we made a couple suggestions for increasing your computing productivity with keyboard shortcuts. I’m a huge fan of this practice and suggest everyone spend less time with the mouse and more time learning the keyboard-based equivalents of the tasks you perform most often. But, if you’re really ready to ramp up your keyboard wizardry, look no further than a program called TextExpander ($49.95).

TextExpander is a Mac utility that lets you replace one string of text with another. And do not fret, Windows users, I have not left you users out in the cold. PhraseExpress (starting at $49.95) is fully compatible with TextExpander, and syncs shortcuts between the two.

Also, I shouldn’t have to state this outright, but I’m going to: I pay for this utility myself, it’s what I use, and I’m not being compensated in anyway to write this product recommendation. Phew, now that’s out of the way …

Why would you want to use a utility like TextExpander? The short answer is that it saves you a lot of typing. Let’s say you own a small business and must produce a boilerplate email to customers who write requesting certain information. The response is just three short paragraphs long, but the time spent writing it over and over adds up. TextExpander lets you define a brief string of text, say “.response”. We’ll call that the trigger snippet. When you type .response, it’s immediately replaced with the three-paragraph email.

Or, let’s say you’re a developer who must use the same bits of code over and over. You can create a trigger snippet that’s replaced with the code in question, saving you time and reducing the likelihood of a typing error. As you use TextEpander you begin to realize its magic simplicity.

Today, I use TextExpander to:

  • Replace commonly misspelled words
  • Replace the surnames I often get wrong
  • Add a lengthy URL when I need to
  • Reduce the potential for human error when pasting complex code

TextExpander offers advanced features that make it even more useful. For example, you can opt to have it place your cursor at any point in the replacement text, which is great for those times when just one part will change. You can also turn it on or off in specific programs, so you don’t have to use it.

Get the most out of Netflix streaming by being organized

Like many of you, I love Netflix. For just a few bucks a month, I can watch a slew of TV shows and movies on demand, across devices. Identifying what I want to watch is easy. So easy that my “queue” of videos gets out of control quickly. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Fortunately, there are things you can do to organize and take control of your Netflix account.

My kids watch shows on Netflix as do I. That’s fine until Netflix starts suggesting I watch Pokemon and Uncle Grandpa. No thanks, Netflix. The solution to keeping what you watch separate from what others in your house watch is to create a specific profile for each person. Thankfully, profiles are pretty easy to create.

In the upper right-hand corner of your screen, you’ll see a link for “manage profiles.” When you click it, a new window will appear with the option to “Add Profile.” Give everyone in your house an icon and a name and you’re good. The new profile will join your list and you can even edit restrictions for kids, which I recommend doing.

If you don’t have kids, or if you’re the only one watching Netflix, you can still make use of profiles. You can make up to five per account, so set them up for genres you like. Comedies, horror, documentaries, etc. That way, you’ll get great genre-specific recommendations … which leads me to my next point.

Rate what you watch. Netflix’s algorithm is pretty good at learning what you like — and dislike — and making recommendations based on those preferences. The best way to improve those results is to rate everything you watch accurately. You can do this in the Netflix viewing app or through their website, if you wish to bulk rate things you have watched in the past.

Next, I recommend using a third-party website to find what you want to watch. Sure, you can scroll through Netflix’s suggestions, but it’s faster to make use of a website that’s designed to help you find something decent. For example, What Is On Netflix lets you browse titles that are top rated by Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and more. Instawatcher is another good choice, as it lists what’s popular as well as each title’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you plan on watching on your computer, learn some keyboard shortcuts. They can save a lot of time:

Enter/Spacebar: Toggle pause/play
Left Arrow: Rewind
Right Arrow: Fast Forward
Up Arrow: Volume Up
Down Arrow: Volume Down
M: Mute

Streaming video services can be quite convenient. I enjoy Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Streaming, and others. (So does Erin, she doesn’t even have a cable television subscription any longer.) With a little effort and organizing, the experience gets even better.

Organize your Facebook friends

For many, Facebook is the primary way they communicate with far-flung family and friends. Keeping those contacts organized is pretty easy, if you know where to look.

Many people complain about Facebook — and it does have its problems — but for no-hassle communication it works easily. One of its biggest issues is organization. After a few weeks, months or even years of casually adding friends, you end up with a big, disorganized list. Thankfully, there are ways to fix this issue.

To get started, visit your account’s page and click “Friends” in the left-hand column. A new page will appear with the full list of every account you’ve marked as a friend. Next to each name and photo, you’ll see a drop-down menu labeled “Friends.” Click it to reveal several options.

Close Friends

Facebook doesn’t put every update that your friends post into your timeline. If they did, the result would be unreadable for anyone with a reasonably large list. Instead, the Facebook software uses an algorithm to guess as to what information you’d most like to see and features those posts based on your previous commenting and liking. You can force this system to see particular people’s posts by adding people to the “Close Friends” list. These folks’ posts will appear in your timeline more often, and you’ll be notified every time they publish something new. It’s best to add people to this list who mean the most to you. Leave acquaintances to be organized by using custom lists.

Custom lists

Next to the name of your friend or acquaintance, hover over the Friends’ drop-down list and click “Add to another list…”. There are two types of lists there. Those with a little lightning bolt icon are “smart lists.” Facebook creates these self-maintaining lists for you. Your friends are sorted by variables like work place, college, geography, etc. As your friends make changes to their own accounts, they’re moved among these lists.

As you scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll see “New list.” Use this function to create a new list manually. Simply create lists and move contacts into them. “Sorority pledge class” or “First cousins” are types of subcategories you might make into lists.

Organizing your friends on Facebook is a bit time-consuming, but usually worth it. Why? Because you can determine who sees what you post. The next time you create a post, click the “Public” drop-down menu, and then “More options.” Now you can pick from the lists you made and send a post directly to one group or another. Don’t want your work colleagues to see your Throwback Thursday pictures? This is simple when you have lists established and can easily exclude everyone in your office from seeing your photo.

Mobile apps for smart, organized travel

A good vacation, like so many other things in life, will be more successful with ample planning. If you have one, your smartphone is more than up to the task of helping you in this area. There are smartphone apps that can help you back up important information about your trip, pack your things in an orderly way, and finally find tickets for a plane, a train, or bus if you plans change mid-journey.

Perform a backup

This next bit of advice isn’t about an app, but it is vitally important for organized traveling: before you leave for vacation (or on a trip for work), back up your smartphone. It’s likely that you won’t be able to do so while you’re away, and possible that your phone could be lost, stolen, or damaged on the road. While most mobile app purchases can be replaced for free, your pictures, home videos, and certain app data cannot. Performing a backup before you leave means you’ll be able to perform a clean restoration, if necessary, when you return home. Refer to your device’s instructions for making a backup.

It’s also a good idea to export your contacts to a separate file (like a .csv to your desktop or the cloud), just to be safe. For example, the utility called Easy Backup (free) can export your iPhone contacts as a .csv (.csv stands for comma separated value and is easily read by Excel).

Create a packing list

Few things are as satisfying as scratching something off a list. Your smartphone lets you ditch the pencil and create an electronic list to use on the go. There are many list apps available, and I encourage you to conduct a search with the terms “List” and “Packing.”

I’m a fan of the Kayak app (free, and pictured above) because in addition to booking transportation and hotels, Kayak lets you create shopping and packing lists. Its approach is unique: list templates are populated with items you might take on one of several types of trips, family, business, romantic and general. It has pre-populated lists and you can create your own lists. Erin is fond of PackingPro ($3), which is good because it allows different groups of lists and is sharable for families.

Make travel arrangements

Flights
I’ll admit I love finding and tracking flights with my smartphone. I can remember the hours I used to spend on the phone and even in front of my computer trying to find a flight. Not to mention scrambling to find my gate and read the information displays at the airport. Now I do all of it with the pocket-sized computer I keep in my pocket.

Again, I primarily use Kayak to look for air travel. The app polls several top travel sites and airlines for flights that match your criteria. The results can be filtered by airline, number of stops, airport, price and duration. You can also sort by cost, duration and departure time (leaving soonest). You can use the app even if you booked your flight with another site.

Individual airlines have apps, too, which may be helpful to you if you are a loyalty member on a specific carrier. A little research before you purchase your tickets can let you know if booking through the airline’s app will get you a better price.

Land travel

Of course, traveling doesn’t always mean flying. I often travel between Boston and New York City by train. Once again, the smartphone replaces time spent at a desk or on the phone with several handy apps. For train travel, I use the Amtrack app (Free), which allows you to
buy tickets, track a train, browse schedules, share your status with waiting family and friends, and more. Some stations in the US are even testing paperless check-in with smartphone customers through the app.

Bus travel is a little less organized right now, so it’s best to do a Google search to find all the carriers in the area where you’ll be visiting and then find their specific apps. Many have mobile apps as robust as the Amtrack one. Same goes for hired cars (like Uber and Lyft), local taxi services, and metropolitan bus and subway systems.

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.

Using Slack for families

I enjoy pointing out technologies and tools that can help groups of people to be productive and organized. Every now and then, a great example pops up that seems to have taken on a life of its own. This week, I want to highlight the current tech darling of San Francisco, Slack.

Slack is a communication tool meant for businesses and groups. It provides real-time conversations between team members, file sharing, a very powerful search, what amounts to topic-focused “chat rooms,” and more. I’ve been using it in a professional sense for months now. Only recently did it dawn me on what an effective family communication tool it could be as well.

If you’ve ever participated in a group text or a chat room, you’ve got the basic idea of Slack. Once you’ve signed up (there is a free plan as well as paid options, starting at $6.67 per user per month that is billed annually), you’ll get a domain like “smith.slack.com.” And from there, you can create an account for mom, dad, the kids, etc. You can add as many people as you like.

You’ll start with a chat room (Slack calls them “channels”) called “General.” Posting a message into the channel is as simple as typing it out and hitting Return. Once you’re all comfortable, start making your own channels. This is where it gets good.

You could create a channel for activities, like ballet or sports. Perhaps there’s a trip coming up, or an ongoing volunteer activity that some of you do every week. Making a channel for each gives you a destination for conversations on those topics. Those who are interested can follow along. Those who aren’t, don’t. Additionally, if someone who isn’t typically involved with, say, the park clean-up committee suddenly needs to be, he can go in and read the whole history in that channel to get up to speed.

Sharing files is another area in which Slack shines. You can share all manner of files with Slack, and they remain searchable and easy to find for all involved. Slack indexes the full body of a shared file, not just the title. So, if you know there’s park clean-up this weekend but can’t remember where, simply search “park” to bring up the PDF that was shared a week ago.

Lastly, Slack can eliminate texting and email. Slack has several notification options, from the fire hose (which alerts you every time something new is posted) to a more controlled approach (like whenever your name is mentioned in a chat). Finally, I’ve found that people begin to communicate in Slack more often than email once they’re used to it, as it lends itself to real-time communication and won’t get your stuff lost in a bottomless inbox.

There’s so much more to this fantastic service — like free desktop and mobile apps, so you can constantly be in touch with your family if necessary. Yes, Slack is a business tool, but it can certainly have a place with your family, too. And that’s an essential part of organizing: seeing tools that already exist and using them to meet your needs.