In praise of the digital calendar

Dave has declared his love of the wall calendar, and I agree with the points he made. I also know plenty of other people who work well with either paper wall calendars or planners they carry with them. But a digital calendar works best for me, so I thought I’d provide the other perspective.

I have the advantage of being self-employed (so I have no employer-mandated calendar tools) and there are no other family members that I need to share a calendar with, so I have total freedom to select the calendar that works best for me. I happen to use Apple’s built-in calendar app, but there are many options for those who don’t use Apple products or who don’t like that particular app. Google Calendar, for example, is one that has a lot of fans, partly because it allows you to share a calendar with others.

Why I love my digital calendar

  • Since I can sync my desktop calendar to my smartphone, I always have an up-to-date calendar with me. If a client wants to book a next appointment, I know when I’m free. If the dentist needs to book another appointment, I can do that with confidence, too.
  • It’s always backed up. My normal computer backup tools capture my calendar, so I never need to worry about it being lost (because I left it behind somewhere) or having it destroyed in some kind of disaster.
  • I can do searches on it. If I want to know when I last had my car maintenance done, for example, I can find that out in a matter of seconds. If I want to know when my book club read a specific book, I can find that out, too.
  • I can add more notes than I’d have room for on a paper calendar. For example, I can add airline, hotel, and rental car reservation numbers when I’m traveling. And I can include the URL for an event (even if the URL is very long), letting me link to additional information.
  • I can do color-coding without having to worry about having specially colored pens or highlighters sitting around. For example, I use different colors for work appointments vs. personal appointments, and I find that helpful. I also use different colors for FYI items (such as community events that will cause traffic problems) and events I might want to attend but haven’t committed to.
  • Data entry is simplified. All birthdays are added automatically from my address book. I can add repeating events, such as monthly meetings, so I don’t have to enter them individually. And I can easily move an appointment from one day to another if it gets rescheduled.
  • If I enter the address of an appointment, my calendar will link to the Maps app, making it easy to determine the commute time and to navigate to where I’m going.
  • My printing is pretty good, but I never have to worry about whether or not I can read my writing on a digital calendar. I can also cut and paste information, reducing the chance that I’ll make a mistake.

So consider the pros and cons of both types of calendars, and select the one that works best for you.

Getting Things Done: The 2015 revised edition

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was first published in 2001, and Allen released an updated version in March. So, what has changed?

Long-time fans on GTD will be glad to learn that the fundamentals are the same as they’ve ever been. If you have the original edition, there’s no need to rush to get the new one. However, if you’re buying the book for the first time, you’ll want this new version.

There are a number of small changes, all good:

  • Outdated references to phone slips, faxes, answering machines, Rolodexes, and VCRs are gone. Certainly some people still use these things, but they aren’t as central to most people’s lives as they once were. Now there are references to text messages, mobile devices, and scanners.
  • References to specific computer programs (Lotus Notes, etc.) which were used as examples have been removed.
  • U.S.-specific references have been replaced with more international wording. For example, a reference to U.S. K-1 tax forms has been replaced with the more generic “tax documents.” This K-1 change also illustrates the move away from examples that apply mostly to business executives — not everyone, even in the U.S., will know what a K-1 is. (It’s a form showing income from a partnership.)

But there are more substantial changes, too. There’s a new chapter about GTD and cognitive science, talking about studies that support the GTD methodology. However, I found this chapter to be a slog to read, and the connection to GTD seemed tenuous in some cases (although quite obvious in others).

There’s another new chapter entitled “The Path to GTD Mastery,” where Allen acknowledges that it can take some time for people to get proficient at the GTD basics, much less moving beyond that to his other two levels of proficiency. But here’s the part that caught my eye:

Even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold.

The two-minute rule, by the way, says that if a task is going to take two minutes or less, you should just do it now rather than adding it to a list. And it was nice to see Allen say something I’ve long believed: You don’t need to do everything the GTD way to get some benefit from the methodology he proposes.

There is also a new glossary and much more discussion about how the GTD processes work in a world where information is increasingly found in digital forms, and where people may work from a coffee shop, not just an office.

But some of my favorite changes were random comments added throughout the book. For example, here’s the new quotation, from Mark Van Doren, which opens the book:

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give … our attention to the opportunity before us.

Of course, I noticed what Allen wrote about being organized:

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you. If you decide you want to keep something as reference and you put it where your reference material needs to be, that’s organized. If you think you need a reminder about a call you need to make, as long as you put that reminder where you want reminders of phone calls to make, you’re organized.

And here’s his advice on uncluttering (or not):

People often mistake my advice as an advocacy for radical minimalism. On the contrary, if throwing something away is uncomfortable for you, you should keep it. Otherwise you would have attention on the fact that you now don’t have something you might want or need. …

You like having and keeping your twelve boxes of old journals and notes from college? You like keeping all kinds of nutty toys and artwork and gadgets around your office to spur creative thinking? No problem, as long as they are where you want them to be, in the form they’re in, and you have anything you want or need to do about that captured and processed in your system.

Note: There’s a footnote explaining this advice is not intended for those with a hoarding disorder.

While Getting Things Done is still a ponderous read in some places, I think there are enough good ideas that it remains my favorite book on time management.

In praise of the paper wall calendar

I’ve written several articles highlighting the intersection of technology and organization. There are many terrific solutions out there, both simple and complex, to tackle everything from recipes to your draft of the great American novel. Despite all of the advanced technology that’s available to a gadget guy like me, I still love, LOVE my wall-mounted calendar.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in a house with a calendar on the wall. There have been more varieties than I can remember, but if I try I can recall:

  • Calendars advertising banks, take-out restaurants, and churches.
  • Dunkin Donut calendars that featured a pair of coupons each month.
  • Themed calendars that fit the whims of my siblings and me as we grew up: movies, sports, dance, rock stars, etc.
  • Plain, no-nonsense calendars that were all function and little form.

Today I’m a part of a big, busy family with a lot of moving parts: ballet, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, work, weekend activities and so on. All of these obligations have crafted what I look for in a wall calendar. The following are the particulars:

What I look for in a good paper calendar

  1. Size. It’s no fun to try and cram your handwriting into a teeny, tiny square. I want wide, open spaces that can legibly display several appointments.
  2. Single-page months. What I think of “‘fridge calendars” — 12″ x 14″ when opened — won’t do. The boxes are too small and they’re a pain to hang. In the beginning of the year they’re bottom-heavy and pull magnetic clasps down. In the latter months, all that bulk moves up top, requiring a more ample clip.
  3. Wire hanger. Tear-off calendars tend to get messy. A spiral wire spine is best as it allows you to flip each month away cleanly and easily hang the calendar on a nail, screw, or a hook.
  4. Mini reference calendars. It’s a hassle to flip back/forward to quickly reference a past or future date. I like it when a calendar has at least the previous/forthcoming months presented as mini reference calendars. The whole year is even better.
  5. Eighteen month timeframe. These are made with the school year in mind, which I appreciate.

Why I love paper calendars

Unlike their digital counterparts, paper calendars require no learning curve, are compatible with all my other hardware (pens and eyes), never “go down,” and simply work. They’re the very picture of reliability for my family.

Paper calendars in a digital world

I know what you’re thinking: “Dave, what if you need to reference something when you’re nowhere near your calendar?” Well, that’s a valid question, and I don’t have very good answer. You could, of course, buy a pocket-sized planner to take with you or enter your information into a digital calendar as well (that’s what I do). You could even take a picture of the calendar each day and delete the previous day’s image when you do so. All of these solutions require you to double all of your data entry, and, I’ll admit, that’s not ideal.

But, one thing it does is keep you from committing to a task on the spot. You always have the excuse, “I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you,” which gives you time to really consider taking on the new obligation. If you do agree to something, you’ll know you are truly willing to take on the additional responsibility.

In case you’re wondering, my ultimate wall calendar is the AT-A-GLANCE Monthly Wall Calendar, Wirebound, 20 x 30 Inch Page Size. It meets all of my criteria and is my absolute favorite.

6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list

Most of us use some sort of to-do list, whether it be a paper one or a digital one. While it’s easy to get fixated on the tool — a notebook and a cool pen, your favorite app, etc. — there are also basic strategies to consider. Just how do you construct and organize your to-do list, using any tool?

The following are some strategies people have used effectively; I’d suggest mixing and matching to find something that works for you. Please note that each strategy has much more to offer than the brief summary I’m providing here; you can read more about any of them, if you’re interested.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology

Fully explaining the GTD methodology takes a whole book; I’m only going to touch on a few key ideas related to to-do lists.

Separate tasks vs. projects. If your list includes a bunch of simple single-step items (call Person A about Subject B, stop at hardware store and buy the items on my list) and a complex multi-step one (remodel the bathroom), can you guess which one will never get done? The answer is to identify the first physical step you’d take on that remodel project, and add it to the task list.

Keep a someday/maybe list for ideas you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on — and that you certainly aren’t going to act on right now.

Subdivide tasks by context. Are there tasks that can only be done under certain circumstances, when you have certain tools available? If so, group those together. For example, I’ve grouped things that can be done at home or in town vs. things that can only be done when I’m going further afield.

Don’t assign priorities, because these are fluid. Review your lists at least weekly, but then decide in real time which items are the highest priority. Add any firm dates — deadlines or appointments — to your calendar, but don’t add your other to-do items.

Capture everything you need to do — or think you may want to do — on your lists; empty your mind.

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Covey explains the urgent/important matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For each task, decide if it’s urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. Try to spend most of your time working on things that are important but not urgent: relationship building, long-term planning, etc.

Various people’s short-list approaches

People who advocate for short lists are not saying you don’t have your long list — just that you don’t focus on that long list every day. Jeff Davidson has a list that’s 12-14 pages, but those are mostly medium-range or long-range activities. The first page is his short-term items, and that’s what he focuses on every day.

Leo Babauta recommends a “Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff).”

Other people recommend short to-do lists that include:

  • The six most important things to do today
  • A 3 + 2 rule: three big things, and two small ones
  • A 1-3-5 rule: One big thing, three medium things, five small things
  • Julie Morgenstern’s “add it up” approach

    In Time Management From the Inside Out, Julie recommends putting a time estimate on each task, so you know when you’re over-committing for your day, your week, etc. You can then decide which tasks to delay, delegate, diminish (scale back), or simply delete from your to-do list entirely.

    Robyn Scott’s melodramatic to-do list

    Robyn organizes her to-do list by emotion. This may or may not appeal to you, but the idea of personalizing your list, including the way you group your items, is a good one.

    Daniel Markovitz’s “living in your calendar” approach

    Daniel says that to-do lists don’t work, and he recommends the exact opposite of David Allen: estimate how long each task will take, and transfer your to-dos off your list and put them in your calendar.

    Getting work done using time blocking techniques

    If you’re having trouble getting work done — because you procrastinate, because you lose focus, or because of your perfectionistic tendencies — a time blocking approach to managing your time might help. The Pomodoro Technique, developed back in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, is the best-known approach but certainly not the only one.

    The Pomodoro Technique

    The Pomodoro Technique has you work on a specific task for a 25-minute block, called a Pomodoro, with no interruptions. You set a timer to let you know when each Pomodoro is done. After each Pomodoro, you put a check mark on your log sheet and take a 5-minute break. (You also note how many times you were tempted to break the Pomodoro.) After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break, around 20-30 minutes.

    The 5-minute breaks are not meant for anything requiring a lot of brainpower. Getting up and walking around is recommended. You could also do desk exercises or start a load of laundry (if you work at home). The idea is to give your mind a rest.

    One thing I really like about this technique is how it gets you to understand how long a task takes, which is very helpful for anything you do repeatedly. Is something a one-Pomodoro task, a two-Pomodoro task, etc.? You may also choose to limit yourself, only allowing a specific number of Pomodoros to complete a task, and thus keeping perfectionistic tendencies at bay.

    Fans note that this technique helps them get going on a dreaded task, since deciding to do just one Pomodoro isn’t so intimidating. It helps them stay focused, since they know that doing something like checking social media is off the table until the Pomodoro is done.

    Shared Pomodoros

    For those working in teams that require a lot of interaction, Pomodoros can be a problem unless everyone starts in unison. If they don’t, team members may never be free at the same time to have discussions. As Ben Northrup wrote, what’s needed in this situation is a “shared Pomodoro.” His project team solved this problem by having two shared Power Hours per day, when everyone agreed to do focused work.

    The Rule of 52 and 17

    Julia Gifford looked at the data in a time-tracking and productivity app and found that the most productive 10 percent of users worked on average for 52 minutes at a time, and then took a 17-minute break before getting back to work. So if you like the idea of Pomodoros, you may want to play with the times and see what works best for you.

    90-minute blocks of work

    As Tony Schwartz noted in The New York Times, a study of elite performers (musicians, athletes, chess players, etc.) found they practiced in uninterrupted sessions of no more than 90 minutes. They took breaks between these sessions, and seldom worked for more than four and a half hours every day.

    Schwartz said he changed his own writing practice to work in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions. He found that he finished writing his books in less than half the time he took for his previous books, when he worked for 10 hours a day.

    While many people can’t work for just four and a half hours each day, this approach may work for those who have more control of their time, especially those who are focusing on building their skills.

    Do you use any time blocking technique? If so, please add a comment to let us know what you do and how it’s worked for you.

    Is following the news a waste of time?

    When we consider how to spend our time, how much time is it reasonable to allocate to keeping up with the news? C.G.P. Grey, one of the two people on the podcast Hello Internet, would argue for almost zero. As he has mentioned on the podcast, he basically ignores the news — he doesn’t watch it on TV, doesn’t read a newspaper, and doesn’t visit online news sites. Rolf Dobelli, writing in The Guardian, also makes a case for ignoring the news. Some of the reasons Grey and Dobelli put forward are:

    • The news is (almost entirely) irrelevant to our lives.
    • News reporting can be inaccurate, much more often than we may suspect. Follow the news on a topic you know well, and you’ll see the inaccuracies. Breaking news is especially prone to error.
    • The news focuses on what will grab the reader or viewer, which is often the most sensationalistic stories. This can lead us to have a distorted picture of the world.
    • The news often does a horrible job of explaining a subject with any complexity.

    I tend to read a fair amount of news, and I recently started keeping track of the articles I read so I could see how I was spending my time. My reading tends to fall into the following categories, which I expect will resonate with many others who follow the news:

    News that affects what I do, day to day
    When the Golden Gate Bridge was closing for a weekend, it was important for me to know about the closure when planning my activities for that weekend. Traffic and weather reports would also fall into this category.

    News that inspires action
    Sometimes a news story may inspire me to write to my legislators. This means I need to delve into the subject matter in some depth, being sure to choose reliable sources, to ensure I understand the issues. That can be time-consuming, but sometimes it feels worth the investment. The news, pursued in some depth, can also inform how I vote and how I make my charitable donations. On a more trivial level, the news may get me to see a new movie or try out a new restaurant.

    News that’s relevant to my work
    As a professional organizer, it helps me to know about things such as the new products Ikea is rolling out. Being aware a new book about organizing that’s getting a lot of attention is useful, too.

    News that’s relevant to people around me
    I live in an area where many people work in technology, including some of my clients, friends, and family members. Therefore, it’s good for me to know about the latest industry news, at least at a high level. So I glance at the latest news about things such as Google Glass and 23andMe’s DNA analysis, to cite two recent examples.

    Other subjects are important to me on a more personal level. For example, I know someone who has suffered with Lyme disease, so news about the treatment of Lyme catches my attention.

    News that serves as entertainment
    Sometimes I’ll read things just because they interest me. For example, I used to live in the Detroit area, and I still follow some of the news about what’s happening there.

    And then there are articles by favorite writers — those who both write well and are reliable sources of information. For example, I enjoy the science articles by Ed Yong. (How could I resist Here’s Looking at You, Squid?) In these cases, reading the news serves the same purpose as watching a TV show or reading a novel.

    News that everyone will be talking about
    Sometimes I pay attention to these stories (often at a very high level) and sometimes I just decide it’s okay to not know what’s going on. For example, about all I knew about a recent championship football game was who won, that the winner came from behind, and that the game went into overtime. When it comes to breaking stories, I try to avoid wasting time on news reports that are purely speculation.

    Conclusion: Looking at all this, I’m pretty satisfied with my news reading habits. Is following the news a waste of time? I don’t think so, as long as we make smart, conscious choices about what we read or watch (and the time we spend doing so). Would evaluating your news consumption be a valuable exercise?

    Home maintenance

    Buying a house is the biggest expense many people make. In order to keep the property’s value from depreciating, regular upkeep is important. Even if you do not own your own home, you may be required to perform specific maintenance tasks as part of your rental agreement.

    If you have recently moved to a new area, you may find that some tasks that you may have done in your previous home may not be applicable in the new home or may need to be done at a different time of the year. There also may be tasks you’ve never done that you now have to complete.

    The former owners of your home or your landlord may be able to provide you with a list of required maintenance. The staff at your local hardware store may also be able to provide you with beneficial information since they know the area and materials. Your municipality or town council will often provide details on outdoor maintenance such as maximum heights of trees and hedges and during what periods of the year these plants should be trimmed.

    Neighbours who have homes of similar age and design can be a valuable resource, too. For example, in one town where we lived, our neighbour told us that we needed to clear leaves and debris to ensure water would flow freely through the culvert under our driveway because if the water started to accumulate, it would cause flooding in our basement. We were very grateful for this information.

    It can be hard to keep track of maintenance tasks because many of them are done only once per year. Checklists can help ensure these important jobs are completed. Both Microsoft and The Art of Manliness offer thorough home maintenance checklist templates. You will probably need to modify these checklists for your climate and to suit the type of home you have.

    If you need to hire a professional trades person to perform specific services, such as furnace or chimney cleaning, you may find that during certain times of the year it can be almost impossible to get an appointment. Lifehacker provides a Google calendar to which you can subscribe and get reminders of what needs to be done and when. With the Google calendar, you can also add in reminders to book service personnel.

    Home appliances, including lawn mowers, snow blowers, barbeques, and automatic garage door openers need maintenance, too. Most instruction/warranty books for your appliances will explain routine maintenance tasks that you can add to your spreadsheet. If you do not have the instruction/warranty book you can usually download it from the manufacturer’s website. It’s also very nice to keep these maintenance records in perpetuity for reference, remembering who serviced items if you used a company and if you were happy with that service, budget planning, and to eventually pass along to the next owner of your home.

    Remember to include routine safety and security maintenance to your schedules. Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, emergency escape ladder, and your home alarm system.

    One tip for organized travel: leave extra time

    Getting to your travel destination can be a frustrating experience, especially during busy times of the year when lots of other people are traveling and joining you on the roads or at the airport. There are lots of apps, websites, and Twitter accounts that can help make travel easier, but my primary travel strategy is simply to leave plenty of spare time, whenever possible. This gives me the best chance of arriving at my destination unfrazzled and ready to go.

    Leaving extra time when driving

    I live in an area where the two roads out of town are both twisty ones with a single lane in each direction. If there’s an accident on either one, traffic is horrible. On top of that, the area can get ground-hugging fog that makes it difficult to see. Therefore, I learned long ago to leave plenty of extra time if I need to get somewhere by a specific time.

    Other people might not have quite the road situation I have, but anyone can be delayed by bad traffic or bad weather. Leaving some contingency time helps ensure those delays don’t cause problems.

    Leaving extra time when flying

    I get to airports early, partly because I’ve left plenty of spare driving time to allow for problems that usually don’t materialize. But I also like to be prepared for things going wrong at the airport, especially the extra long lines that you sometimes encounter when going through security.

    I also like to book connections that aren’t too tight, because flights do get delayed. I check the on-time performance of my possible flights and try to choose those least likely to be delayed, but there’s never any guarantee.

    And, when possible, I try to book flights that get me to my destination somewhat earlier than necessary (if there’s a specific event that I’m attending) so that if a flight is delayed or a connection missed, I have a chance to rebook and still get to the event on time.

    Using extra airport time productively

    As an adult traveling without children, I have it easy. Many airports have free WiFi, so if I have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone with me, there’s always plenty to do. Sometimes I’ll just use the time for reading: a magazine, a book, or an e-book. Without any of the distractions of home (cats demanding attention, laundry to be done, etc.). I can have a bit of focused time to do some work or enjoy some leisure.

    I know others who use spare airport time for exercise, making sure they get their 10,000 steps (or whatever their personal goals are) for the day.

    And some airports actually have interesting attractions you can visit. For example, the San Francisco airport has its own museum, with exhibits at every terminal.

    For those traveling with children, extra airport time might be used to just move around before the enforced airplane sitting begins. Some airports have play areas to help younger children pass the time.

    And, of course, there’s food. I’ll often grab a meal at the airport, or pick up something tasty (and not stinky) to eat on the plane. I’ve used the GateGuru app to help me choose an eatery at an unfamiliar airport.

    Staying organized during a deployment or long-term absence

    Many types of employment involve travelling and some jobs require extended stays away from home. For a family that is left behind, extended absences can be very difficult. There is an emotional cycle experienced by the spouse/partner that can be nerve-wracking, especially when the emotional distress of children (even pets) is added.

    As a military family, we’ve lived through numerous periods when my husband was deployed for several months at a time. The following are a number of ways our family has managed over the years that can be helpful to others in similar situations to stay organized before, during, and after a separation.

    Pre-separation

    Task assignment: Work together and determine the priority tasks during the separation and who will accomplish these tasks. For example, if the departing partner always ensured the car was serviced, the task may be rescheduled so that it occurs before or after the separation or it could be assigned to the staying-home partner. Contractors could be hired for some tasks such as gardening, pool maintenance, and snow removal.

    Contingency plan: Establish plans in case an emergency arises such as an accident or medical emergency. The plan should list whom to call to mind the children or look after pets and how to contact the departing partner. Inform trusted friends, neighbours, and the children’s school of the contingency plan.

    Departure

    Clear the calendar: A few weeks prior to the separation there may be extra shopping trips to buy last minute items, medical appointments, or business meetings. Avoid taking on additional responsibilities at this time. Examine your calendar and see what non-priority items can be cancelled or rescheduled until after the departure.

    Separate stuff: Keep items needed for the departing person separate from the rest of the household goods. This may require the departing person to take over an entire room to ensure all the required items are packed. Keep receipts for any items purchased for the separation in a clearly labelled file. You may be able to claim some expenses through your employer or on your income taxes.

    Acknowledge your feelings: During this particularly chaotic time, there may be a lack of organization and a build up of clutter. Recognize this is normal and, as my mother is fond of saying, “This too shall pass.”

    Separation

    Disorganization: For the staying-home partner, feelings of relief, guilt, and being overwhelmed are common. This emotional turmoil often results in disorganization because decision-making is difficult when feeling these intense emotions. Recognize that these feelings are normal and take steps to get your life back into control. It may be beneficial to call a friend, extended family member, or professional organizer to help you banish the disorganization.

    Keep the clutter: The staying-home partner may be very tempted to take advantage of the separation and eliminate the clutter of the travelling partner. DO NOT DO THIS! The staying-home partner has been entrusted with the care and protection of the travelling partner’s goods. To dispose of those goods will undermine the long-term trust of the partnership. If the clutter is truly impairing the effective functioning of the home, communicate with the travelling partner that you will carefully box and label the items and put them in storage. The travelling partner can review and make decisions on the items on his/her return.

    Homecoming

    Clear the calendar: Just as during the departure preparations, clear time on your calendar for the homecoming preparations. Cancel or reschedule some events to give the travelling partner time to integrate back into the routine. If the travelling partner will be suffering from jet lag, allow him/her at a few days to be fully functional. The returning partner may be required to schedule health appointments or have a few extra business meetings, so allow time for this.

    Make a space: The returning partner will need some space to unpack on arrival. Returning items should be cleaned and properly stored or re-integrated into the household. If there is no need for certain items in the foreseeable future, make plans to sell or donate these items. This process may take several weeks. Patience is important.

    Task re-assignment: Work together to determine who will accomplish certain tasks now that the partnership has been re-established. Perhaps the travelling partner realized a love of gardening and wishes to continue with that task. The travelling partner may have a renewed interest in preparing foreign cuisine.

    Review the clutter: If the staying-home partner packed away items of the travelling partner during the separation, these items should be reviewed. It is best to wait until the travelling partner has had time to adjust to being home and new routines have been established before taking on this task.

    The absence of a partner can be stressful, however, by understanding the emotional cycle — and a little bit of planning and organization — the stress can be minimized.

    Happy Thanksgiving from Unclutterer

    Unclutterer is taking the day off to celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones. We hope you’re having a great, restful day, too. In the meantime, here are some posts from Thanksgivings past to review at your leisure.

    Have a great day and we’ll be back in full swing next week.

    Have a great day, folks! We’ll see you next week.

    Digital organizing and productivity tools

    I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

    Photo management

    I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

    Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

    Productivity

    Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

    Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

    Kids

    My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

    One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

    Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

    Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

    Get organized to run meetings effectively

    There are a lot of things I like to do in this world, but running a meeting isn’t one of them. Years ago, I had a boss who would call me into his office and talk for a good half hour. As I walked back to my desk, I’d think, “So, what just happened in there?” Now, when I’m in charge of a meeting, I worry: will my attendees walk away with a clear idea of what was said and what, if anything, needs to be done?

    I recently found myself in the unenviable position of sitting at the head of the table, as it were, but not until I had done some research on effective ways to run a meeting. There are a lot of articles out there on the topic, and here I’ve collected the best advice I could find. Now, please come to order and review these tips for running an effective meeting.

    WikiHow provided advice that I’ve been advocating for a long time. Partly because of my admitted meeting anxiety, and partly because I really don’t like wasting time. Specifically, determine if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary at all. There are instances when you simply must sit down in the same room to have a conversation or spark collaboration. But, if the agenda is something that can be accomplished with an email thread or a quick conference call, do that instead. You’ll save everyone a lot of time.

    They also suggest distributing the meeting’s clear goals in advance. I’ll admit that I’ve never done this. Instead, I hand out a paper agenda as people are sitting down to the table. This throwback behavior from the ’80s is distracting, as everyone sits and reads the paper or thinks ahead to the topic they’re most or least interested in. From now on, I’ll distribute the agenda a day or two ahead of time, so people can show up ready to go.

    Forbes also has some great advice for meetings. For example, “spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would.” In other words, the clearer and more tightly-defined each item is on the agenda, the more efficient your meeting will be. I also like their suggestion to allot half the time you initially think the meeting will need. “Meetings are like accordions,” says Victor Lipman, “they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space.”

    I used a similar trick on myself when I was in college, after learning about Parkinson’s Law, which states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a professor told me I had 3 weeks to complete an assignment, I’d tell myself I had two. Otherwise, I knew I’d be at my desk working feverishly on day 20.

    Inc. has advice that addresses types of meetings. One type, the Action Meeting, is the format I’m probably most familiar with. The goal is to devise and implement a solution to a pressing problem or outstanding project. One trick I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is to end each of this type of meeting by saying, “OK, so my next actions are …” Stating this out loud confirms that you are clear on your assignment(s), and that your bosses are clear on that fact, too. Inc. also emphasizes the importance of keeping in touch after the meeting has ended. This is an area that I’ve struggled with in the past. While I’ll make a list of actions that I’ve delegated (my “Waiting For” list), I don’t always follow up with people responsible for these tasks on a regular basis. That’s something I’ll start doing.

    Of course, a meeting isn’t restricted to the board room. You might be on a council or committee at your kids’ school or a church. Less formally, you may even have family meetings to discuss finances or monthly schedules or vacations. These lessons may apply there, too. If you have tips for running an effective meeting, let me know. I’m always willing to improve in this area.