Working in groups productively

We live in a condominium of 15 floors with 4 units per floor. While that might not sound like a lot of units to high-rise dwellers in cities like Toronto or New York, here in the Basque Country, it’s considered a huge number of neighbors.

While normally we are quite happy with the set up, at times having so many neighbors can create friction, such as when work needs to be done on the building as a whole.

Over two years ago, shortly after we moved in, the company that administers the building announced that the government was requiring an inspection of the state of the building (it’s over 50 years old). This study revealed that while the façade is in good shape, many balconies and window sills are in danger of crumbling.

Finally, this year it looks like the work is going to start, but we still have the biggest hurdle to leap — getting neighbors to choose which company will do the work.

When the project was first announced, my husband and I spoke and we decided that I would join the committee that would review the proposals and make recommendations to the neighbors. Once the project is underway, this committee will also meet with the construction company to make sure everything is going as planned and that the building as a whole stays informed about the project.

I could have decided not to bother getting involved, as the majority of the unit owners have done, but we plan on living here for at least a couple of decades more and we care about our home just as much as any homeowner.

And I have to say that I’ve really appreciated my organizing background during the process as it has helped keep everything and everyone on track while minimizing arguments and chaos.

Specifically, being organized has helped me in the following ways:

Short, effective meetings: I hate meetings that constantly go off topic and last forever. For that reason, I have gone to every meeting with the basic tools of paper and pen, and with questions prepared to ask the administrator or the construction company reps. Most of the others on the committee have lived in the building or neighborhood their whole lives, and they can easily get distracted by other topics. Gently, but firmly, I pull them back on topic, and being the “new” neighbor, they realize that they are merely reminiscing and then they get back to business.

Simple visuals: The proposals and budgets we were given to study were twenty pages each and filled with technical details and column after column of numbers. Even the summary the architect gave us was incomprehensible. To make sure I understood the situation correctly and that we weren’t missing information, I created a four-page summary with the following:

  • What will / won’t be done
  • Guarantees
  • Cost comparisons
  • Financing options
  • Optional additional work
  • Pros & cons of each company

I took this summary to subsequent meetings. The administrator and architect corrected a few items that I had confused, and cleared up questions that all of us had.

Only essential information: An even shorter two-page version has been given to every neighbor to be used as the basis for discussion; removing options, personal opinions of the committee, and details of the work to be done. The debate is going to be heated because it involves a lot of money so we decided to remove any extra information that might be used as an excuse to argue more. Basically, the government has declared that the work is necessary, and the only decision to be made is which construction company will do the work. Anything not related to that decision has been cut out completely.

Learning from similar projects: In our area there are twelve towers of the same style that were built at the same time. Several of them have already had this work done. Using the connections that the long-time residents have, we’ve learned what extra work is not worth the effort and what details to pay attention to. For example, in a recent renovation two towers over, the balcony design included tear-shaped posts. When the wind comes down over the mountain, the new balconies now whistle. We will definitely be avoiding fancy balcony designs.

So that’s my situation. But what does this have to with all of you? How can my experience help you?

Whenever working on committees, whether it’s for a renovation in the building you live in, or an upcoming volunteer event, here are the four basic principles that can be applied to any project:

  • Short, effective meetings: Respect people’s time. If meetings go on too long or wander about, volunteers will be more likely to quit. If people want to chat, organize a post-meeting coffee where participants can go as far off topic as they like.
  • Simple visuals: In any project, there is always an insane amount of information to be sifted through and decisions to be made. Reducing the options to simple tables and bullet points filters out extraneous information and focuses the decisions on what’s really important.
  • Only essential information: While transparency is important, very rarely does everyone need to know everything. Create a committee to filter out details that the rest of the stakeholders don’t need. Also, when providing just the essential information, the committee ensures that decisions already made at the committee level aren’t rehashed by everyone else.
  • Learning from similar projects: As the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” implies, we can always learn something by looking for similar situations in the past. What worked, what didn’t, etc…

Am I missing anything? What has your experience working on committees taught you about being productive in groups?

Three little helpers

Here are three little tools that help me do what I need to do, better and faster.

Card holder for smartphones

iphone_card_holderWhenever I go for a walk, I always take my iPhone to listen to music or a podcast, an ID card (in case of emergency) and occasionally my bank card because I’ll stop at the store on my way home. Women’s fitness clothing very rarely has pockets and I do not want to carry a purse with me, so I end up carrying my phone in one hand and tucking my ID and bank card in my sock or other article of clothing. More than once I’ve almost lost my cards because they have fallen out of my makeshift pocket.

The Adhesive Credit Card Holder allows me to carry my cards safely stuck to my phone. I’ve tried everything to “accidentally” remove the cards from this holder. I shook the phone upside down and wiggled and jiggled the pocket but the cards remained stuck until I opened the pocket and removed the cards.

I’ve started keeping my ID card and my bank card in my phone all the time. Because I use the GroceryGadget app to manage my shopping lists, I only need my phone with the card holder to do my shopping. I no longer need to carry a bulky purse around the store! Also, I save time getting ready for a fitness session because I can just simply grab my phone and go.

China markers

When I worked in a food chemistry lab, we used china markers (also known as grease pencils) all the time. We used them to label beakers and flasks in experiments. We used them to write on plastic, glass, and cardboard food containers we stored in the fridges and freezers.

At home I use china markers for writing names on cups at children’s parties (or wine glasses at adult parties) as well as dates and descriptions on containers of food in the fridge and freezer.

China markers are convenient. They do not “dry out” like regular markers nor do they need to be sharpened like pencils. The markings are water resistant and do not fade over time but they are removed easily from non-porous surfaces by wiping with a dry paper towel.

Hoof pick

If anyone asks me if I grew up in a barn, the answer is yes. I spent many years working with horses – and I still do. In the stables, an essential tool that keeps horses’ hooves free from stones, mud and other debris is a hoof pick.

A hoof pick is also useful around our house too. We have one just outside our front door. When our rugby player comes home, she uses the hoof pick to remove the caked-on mud and turf from her cleats. The stiff brush removes any bits of dirt still remaining. Hoof picks can clean up children’s muddy rain boots and dig out ice and snow from winter boots too. It also means there is much less dirt in the house for me to clean!

Organizing for emergencies and Tsunami Preparedness Week

It’s Tsunami Preparedness Week in California, where I live. Since my home is near the coast, I decided to take another look at what’s recommended for those who live in — or visit — areas which may be impacted by a tsunami.

The Red Cross has a three-step plan describing how to prepare for all sorts of emergencies: fire, hurricane, earthquake, etc. It’s a useful framework that can be tailored to whatever scenario you’re planning for, including a tsunami. If you’ll never face a tsunami risk, you may want to do the same thing for the risks that affect your area.

Get a kit

You can find many resources on preparing a kit for emergency situations: an evacuation or a need to stay at home without access to your normal stores and services. You can buy pre-packaged kits or assemble your own, making sure to accommodate the needs of any children or pets.

If you live or work in a tsunami zone, you’ll probably have hours to evacuate if a tsunami arrives as a result of an earthquake far away. However, a strong local earthquake might cause a tsunami with very little time to prepare. And you may need to evacuate on foot, if at all possible, since roads may be damaged or clogged with traffic. This means you’ll want a portable kit with the real essentials ready to grab and go. A kit for work might need good walking shoes.

One of my two cats is about 18 pounds, so I’m not sure how I’d carry him if I needed to evacuate on foot. (His normal carrying case would be unwieldy to carry for any decent distance.) A wheeled carrier or a backpack, maybe? Fortunately, since I’m just outside a tsunami evacuation zone, I don’t need to worry about that.

Make a plan

Your tsunami plan, if you need one, would include both evacuation and family communication. Be sure to understand what plans are in place for any of your schools or workplaces that may need to evacuate, so your personal plans can incorporate those other plans.

It helps to practice traveling along any chosen evacuation route so you can travel it without a lot of thought, even if it’s dark or the weather is bad.

For some disaster situations you can take steps to help minimize the risk. There are a number of ways to make your home a less dangerous place in an earthquake. If you live in tornado country, you may be able to build a safe room.

In a tsunami situation, there are no equivalent steps you can take. However, your plan might involve buying flood insurance if your home is at risk.

Be informed

If you live or work near the coast, you’ll want to know if your home, workplace, or school is in an evacuation zone. For those in the U.S., you can find the relevant maps online. You’ll also want to know about any designated evacuation routes and safe gathering spaces, as well as your community’s warning plan.

If you’re a tourist, you’ll want to be aware of evacuation procedures in the area you’re visiting.

And both residents and tourists will want to know the warning signs of a potential tsunami, since warning systems might not have time to alert you about a tsunami generated by a local event. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has a good list of these warning signs: strong long-lasting ground shaking from an earthquake, unusual sea-level fluctuations, an abnormally large wave, or a loud ocean roar.

It took me a couple hours of searching the web and reading reliable information sources to feel like I understood my tsunami risk and what I should be doing, just in case. I think it was time well spent.

Three strategies to avoid losing things

Do you have a problem with losing things? If so, you’re far from alone, as Kathryn Schulz wrote in “When Things Go Missing” in The New Yorker:

Passwords, passports, umbrellas, scarves, earrings, earbuds, musical instruments, W-2s, that letter you meant to answer, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range of things we lose and the readiness with which we do so are staggering. Data from one insurance-company survey suggest that the average person misplaces up to nine objects a day.

I’m a pretty organized person, but I’ve certainly misplaced things. I recently left my iPad behind in the front desk of the organization where I volunteer on Monday mornings. I noticed it was missing on Monday night and knew where I must have left it, but I had jury duty early the next day and couldn’t go pick it up. Fortunately, a neighbor did that for me.

I’ve also sometimes left a sweater or jacket behind after working with a client. And just recently I misplaced a Visa bill and had to call to ask what I owed so I could make the proper payment.

Looking back at these instances of misplaced items, I can see where I went wrong and define strategies to avoid such problems in the future.

Ensure that everything has a “home”

I know this might seem obvious, and I’m normally good at having homes for my things. For example, I don’t lose my glasses or my keys because they always go in the same place. But exceptions to the rule can cause me problems.

I realized that when I take off a jacket at a client’s home or office, I often place it wherever is convenient at the moment: on the back of a chair, on a doorknob, etc. From now on its home is going to be right next to my purse. (I never forget my purse! And I couldn’t get far if I did, since it has my car keys.)

Make sure things get to their defined homes

I have a place for bills to be paid, but I set my Visa bill down somewhere else “just for now” rather than taking the 20 seconds to put it away properly. Bad idea! I know that, but we all mess up occasionally. Misplacing the bill was just a reminder not to get lazy about putting things away properly. This is especially important with things like papers which can so easily get buried.

Limit what gets carried around

When I first started my volunteer work I thought it might be handy to have my iPad with me. Since then I’ve realized it doesn’t really help, so now I leave it at home. I can’t leave something behind if it didn’t come with me in the first place! The fewer things I carry when I’m out and about, the less chance there is I’ll lose something.

Avoiding the clutter of high-maintenance purchases

I first learned about the importance of buying things that were easy to maintain years ago, when I had a vacuum cleaner with a bag that seemed next to impossible to replace. Vacuum cleaner design has improved a lot since then, but the lesson remains. Items that are hard to maintain often are unused — or if they are necessities, like my vacuum cleaner, they take time you’d rather spend elsewhere.

I learned the lesson again when I bought an inadequate shredder and spent way too much time pulling jammed paper out of the shredder with some tweezers. That shredder is now gone, replaced with one that never jams.

What qualifies as “too much maintenance” will differ from person to person. Unlike Alex, I don’t like to iron, so I avoid buying clothes or linens that require ironing. Clothes that require hand washing are items that some people will want to leave in the store. “Dry flat” might also be a problem if you don’t have a good place for doing that.

The kitchen is another place where it’s easy to wind up with high-maintenance items. For many people, anything that can’t go in the dishwasher is too much bother. (On the other hand, my kitchen doesn’t even have a dishwasher, so that’s not an issue for me.)

My book club just read a novel where one of the characters doesn’t want the bother of polishing the good silver her mother passed down to her, so she finds another family member who does want the silver.

And then there are the small appliances that sound good at first, but wear out their welcome. Kristin Wong wrote about her juicer on the Lifehacker website:

It was time-consuming to clean and maintain. (At one point, I said, “I’d rather buy juice than ever clean this thing again.”)

When choosing appliances and other items, easy-to-clean may be something you want to add to your list of criteria. For example, Christine Cyr Clisset at The Sweethome website listed her criteria for picking a kitchen scale, which included this:

Beyond these basics, the buttons on the scale should preferably be covered in a plastic membrane (aka “seamless”), so gunk won’t collect in the cracks and you can clean the machine easily.

For those who dislike dusting, an overabundance of knickknacks might qualify as a high-maintenance item. As Toni Anderson wrote:

When I got married I had boxes full of knickknacks, a few of them I loved, but most of them I just kept because people had given them to me. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t really want to dust these pieces on a regular basis. Over time I kept only the pieces that were truly special to me.

And then there’s the duvet cover. Mine was really lovely, but I struggled with it every time I washed it, and the instructions I found online didn’t help. I finally gave it away. Now I just place a light blanket over my king-size down comforter (and a sheet underneath it) to keep it clean, and a dreaded task is gone from my life.

What items do you find are more trouble than they’re worth? Please share in the comments!

Avoiding an excess of tote bags

When I first started working as a professional organizer I often found people had what seemed to be an excessive number of grocery bags — paper, plastic, or both. If they agreed, I would often take those excess bags and donate them to charities doing food giveaways.

However, starting in 2007, laws in California changed — first in certain cities and counties, and then at the statewide level. California now bans many stores from providing single-use plastic bags at check-out (with a few exceptions), and stores now charge a small fee for paper bags.

There’s good reason for such bans, as Chelsea Harvey explained in The Washington Post:

Plastic bags are infamous non-biodegradable sources of pollution — although they will eventually break down into tiny pieces, scientists believe this process can take hundreds of years, or even up to a millennium, in landfills.

Many scientists are growing particularly concerned about plastic pollution in the oceans. Research suggests that 5 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic may have been dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone. There, the waste is frequently eaten by seabirds and other marine animals — or it breaks down into tiny pieces known as microplastics, which scientists believe can be harmful or even toxic to sea creatures who ingest it.

If you want to know more, Ed Yong wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic explaining why some seabirds are attracted to this plastic. If you still use plastic grocery bags, you’ll want to be sure they get reused (by you or others) or disposed of responsibly so they don’t wind up in the ocean. Bags that are left in the street often get washed into gutters, and go from there into various waterways.

As a result of these new laws restricting single-use bags, reusable tote bags have become popular. And now I often see people with an excess of those bags, partly because tote bags get given away so often. I’ve gotten bags at conferences and received bags as gifts from charities. I got one when I subscribed to a certain newspaper.

I use a lot of bags in my work — they’re handy for hauling away items my clients want to donate, recycle, or give away. But even I wound up with more bags than I could possibly use, without buying a single one. This is a common problem, as Noah Dillon noted in The Atlantic:

In a 2009 article about the bags for Design Observer, the Urban Outfitters designer Dmitri Siegel claimed to have found 23 tote bags in his house, collected from various organizations, stores, and brands. …

He notes that because the bags are large, flat, and easily printed on, they’re great for embellishment and product placement. They’re given away with purchases at galleries, bookstores, eyeglass boutiques, grocers, tattoo parlors.

Besides cluttering our homes, these bags have another problem: They take a lot of resources to produce. Dillon noted that a bag made of recycled polypropylene plastic would need to be reused 26 times to be as environmentally sound (from a resource usage standpoint) as a plastic bag. And a cotton tote bag would need to be used 327 times!

So what can someone trying to live a green and uncluttered life do? For one thing, you can decline to take extra bags you don’t need when they are offered. If you always carry a tote bag with you, it’s easy to tell a store that you don’t need theirs for your purchase. (Small bags that have limited reuse possibilities are especially annoying.) Get in the habit of always having bags in your car or carrying one or more with you when you walk, bicycle, or take public transit to any place where you might do some shopping. Many bags fold up to a very small size and can fit in a backpack, purse, briefcase, etc.

Similarly, if a charity offers a bag as a reward for making a donation, decline that offer if you don’t need any more bags. When you see clever tote bags on sale (and there are certainly many that I’ve found tempting), consider whether it’s something you’ll really use or if will just become clutter — just as you would with any purchase.

Finally, you can give away excess bags. It seems that not everyone has too many, because I successfully freecycled about a dozen a few months ago.

Do you need to toss those old items in your pantry?

In the U.S., there’s no federal law regarding food product dating, except for infant formula where an expiration date is required because the nutrients decline over time. Some states have additional requirements for products such as milk and eggs.

But most commercially produced food items, including shelf-stable items such canned corn, jars of mustard, and packages of pasta, also have date labels: sell by, consume by, use by, best by, best if used before, enjoy by, etc. And sometimes there’s just a date, with no label at all to indicate what the date means.

All of this can be confusing and can lead to food waste. As NPR explained:

Companies use the labels to protect the reputation of their products — they want consumers to see and consume their food in as fresh a state as possible. But those dates often have the perverse effect of convincing over-cautious consumers to throw perfectly good food into the trash.

Now two major trade associations, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have suggested that manufacturers and retailers use just two labels (unless laws require otherwise):

  • Best If Used By: Describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
  • Use By: Applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.

The FMI and GMA press releases on Feb. 15 summed up the situation nicely:

“Eliminating confusion for consumers by using common product date wording is a win-win because it means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error,” said Jack Jeffers, Vice President of Quality at Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen — and out of landfills.”

These are voluntary standards, and you won’t see the new labels immediately, but it’s a move that should (over time) help everyone make more informed keep-or-toss decisions. In the meantime, you can still recognize that a best-by type of date on a non-perishable food item is a flavor indicator, not a food safety indicator. The cans to toss for safety’s sake are those that are bulging or leaking, those that have deep dents, especially if the dents affect the seams, or those with rust along the seams.

If you want to consider donating the items, check with your local food bank or other food donation center as to its rules. My local social services agency accepts non-perishable food up to one year past the “best by” date.

Another note: According to the FDA, that bottled water you’ve stocked up on as a critical part of your emergency supplies will still be safe past any labeled expiration date, as long as it’s in an unopened, properly sealed container. It might have an off-odor or taste, though.

Organizing for hot desks

The terms “hot desks” and “hot desking” have nothing to do with temperature. It a business term used for shared office desks. Instead of assigning each employee a desk, offices will provide spaces with desks that are occupied as required. This is usually done for sales people and remote workers who only occasionally work at the office. A business can save money by implementing this practice because it doesn’t have to maintain unused space.

If you work in an office with hot desks, you’ll need to organize yourself and your belongings a bit differently. No longer can you leave piles of files stacked on the desk or sticky notes on the computer monitor as reminders of what tasks to work on. Alternative solutions include my favourite project managing system, On Top of Everything but you may prefer a combination of paper planners, digital calendars, and/or to-do lists.

In some hot desk offices, employees may have lockers where they can store their computers and a few personal belongings. If you do not have a locker, you should invest in a durable briefcase that is easy to carry around, holds all of your items, and can be locked when needed.

Here are a few things you might wish to carry in your briefcase:

Organizers: A Grid-it (or two) will help keep your computer cables and other items organized and easy to find. Even though your office may provide supplies, a plastic divided container is useful for keeping a small stash of paperclips, staples, etc., close at hand.

Sanitizing wipes: Clean the arms of the chair, telephone, and any other items touched frequently by multiple people. As a courtesy to the next person, use the wipes again before you leave the desk.

Temperature control: I’m always cold while working at my desk. I carry a pashmina type shawl with me to wrap around my shoulders. If you’re always warm, a portable fan may be useful.

Noise control: If you’re more productive when it is quiet, use earmuff-type noise cancelling headphones rather than the smaller ear buds. If your co-workers can see you’re wearing headphones, they will interrupt you only for important matters.

Name tag: Since employees change desks frequently, you may wish to get a simple nameplate to display at your hot desk so your co-workers will know where to find you.

If you have experience hot desking, please chime in with organizing tips for our readers.

Receipts: What to keep and what to toss

When I help people organize their paperwork, we usually come across stacks of receipts. Which ones are worth keeping? The following guidance applies to the U.S., but similar guidelines may apply elsewhere, too.

Receipts for small cash purchases

If you bought a coffee at Starbucks, there’s no need to hold onto that receipt. You don’t even need to shred the receipt since it contains no personally identifying information that could cause problems if someone else saw it.

Receipts for credit/debit card purchases

You may want to keep those until you get your credit card bill/bank statement and can confirm the charges on the bill/statement match up to your receipts.

Receipts for high-value items

These receipts can be useful for insurance purposes if you are unfortunate enough to have a theft, a fire, or other loss. Because paper records would get lost in a fire along with the items on the receipt, it’s good to keep these receipts electronically (with an offsite backup), in a safe deposit box, or in a fireproof safe in your home.

Receipts for items you might want to return

If you’re not sure you want to keep something or if it’s an item under warranty, keeping the receipt until the end of the allowed return time or the end of the warranty period might be useful.

Receipts for tax purposes

If you itemize your deductions, you’ll want to keep receipts for any expenses you can deduct. And if you’re self-employed, there are many receipts that may be important. Check with your tax preparer (or review the information on the IRS website) to identify exactly which expenses are deductible and how long they should be kept. The Cohan rule may help you out if you lack receipts, allowing expenses to be estimated, but life will be much easier if you do have the receipts.

If you own your home, keep the receipts for all home improvements. When you sell your home, the cost of those improvements will reduce your taxable gain. I have friends who are selling their house this year and didn’t keep good records for their many improvements, and now they need to scramble to pull the information together. That’s no fun.

Miscellaneous tips regarding receipts

Cash register receipts printed on thermal paper fade over time. If you have some of those, scan them or make a photocopy as soon as possible, while the receipt is still legible. You may be able to scan such receipts and darken them after they’ve faded, but creating and saving legible copies right away will save you that bother.

If a tax-related receipt doesn’t identify exactly what was purchased, writing that information on the receipt at the time of purchase will save you frustration in the future, as I have found from sad experience.

Some stores offer the option of emailed receipts rather than printed receipts. If you deal well with electronic records, this can reduce the paper clutter. My grocery store offers emailed receipts, and I definitely prefer them to paper.

Hold the mail

On our post Becoming a more organized traveler, Maria, one of our readers, wrote us to say that she always has her postal mail delivery suspended when she goes on vacation. This is a great idea because if mail piles up in your mailbox advertising that you’re not home, it makes you a target for theft and identity fraud.

Even when you’re at home, the “hold mail” option from your postal service can also help keep you organized during short-term events when mail would overflow your home mail centre. These events include:

Stay-cations. On a stay-cation you spend your days zooming around to attractions, restaurants, and treating your house like a hotel. Rather than have important mail get lost in all of the shuffle, have the post office hold it for you until guests have departed and you have returned to your regular mail processing routine.

Special Occasions. Weddings, anniversary parties, and family reunions take time and effort to plan, attend, and especially host. Consider having mail delivery suspended from a few days before, until a few days after the event. When the event is over, you’ll have time to sort through your mail properly and you won’t accidentally send your payment for the electric bill enclosed in a thank-you card.

Home Renovations. The house is being torn apart and work crews are everywhere. Mail can be easily lost (or stolen) in the tumult. Suspending mail delivery during this time may save you from losing important bills and payments. You can always pop-in to the post office and pick up your mail weekly if the renovations are over an extended period.

Some people who travel regularly choose to rent a post office box and have all of their personal mail delivered there. They pick it up every week or so and process it all at the same time. Even if you don’t travel, this option might work for you depending on the quantity of mail you receive and the ease of visiting your post office box.

Have you ever used a “hold-mail” service other than when going away on vacation? We’d love to hear how it worked for you.

Uncluttering old computers and phones

I recently got rid of two old laptop computers and I’m very happy to have them gone. I had originally kept them to serve as backups if my current computer — an essential business tool — needed repairs and was unavailable to me for multiple days. But now that I have a tablet, I realized I could get by okay for any repair period just using that tablet.

The following are the steps I followed to dispose of my old computers. Similar steps could work for smart phones, too.

1. Decide whether to sell, give away, or recycle the computers.

I didn’t have anyone in my circle of family and friends who was interested in either of my computers, so I knew I wanted to sell them if possible, and recycle them if not.

2. If selling, recycling or donating, choose your service provider.

While selling the computers on eBay or some similar marketplace would probably have provided more money, I was more interested in having a hassle-free experience. One computer was nine years old, and the other one was five years old and had some problems — so neither was going to be worth much, anyway.

Since these were old Apple laptops I started out looking at Apple’s Renew program. (This program handles PCs and various brands of smartphones, too, not just Apple products.) The older computer wasn’t worth anything but would be accepted for free recycling. I was offered a small sum for the newer one, payable in an Apple gift card. I was fine with the offer, so I didn’t investigate further.

You could also choose to sell through sites like Gazelle (which I’ve used successfully to sell old phones) or do trade-ins at places like Best Buy, where you get a gift card in exchange for your phone, tablet, computer, or gaming hardware. And other manufacturers, such as Dell, have programs similar to Apple’s.

If you’re donating or recycling, there are many options to choose from. One easy-to-use choice is Goodwill, since many Goodwill locations accept old electronics, working or not, for either refurbishment or recycling.

3. Back up your data and then erase it.

Apple provides pretty clear instructions on how to prepare to sell or give away a Mac, and I followed those instructions. Note that you may need to deactivate some services before you erase your data.

I didn’t need to do a backup of my old computers, since all the data had been migrated from computer to computer as I got new ones — and my current computer is backed up both to a cloud service and to a series of external hard drives.

But I did need to erase my data. Again, Apple provides instructions for doing this, and those worked fine for the newer of my two computers, but not the older one. So I took that older one to an Apple Store and had the staff there do the erasing for me — and they took care of the recycling, too. Erasing the data took about seven hours using the most secure option, but it was worth it to me.

Other vendors may provide similar instructions. For example, Microsoft tells you how to remove information from a computer, phone or gaming device.

4. Ship off or drop off the computer or other electronics.

Now I was ready to actually get the computers out of my home!

When I filled out the online form and got my tentative quote (subject to evaluation when the computer arrived), I also received a shipping label. I took the label and the computer to the closest FedEx store and the staff boxed it up and shipped it off at no cost to me. Gazelle’s service works similarly, using FedEx’s packing services for some items and the U.S. postal service (along with a free shipping box, which is sent to you) for others.

And now I can enjoy having a closet that doesn’t waste space holding old computers I never used.

Three tips for New Year’s resolutions

Many people make New Year’s resolutions related to uncluttering, organizing and managing their time — and you may be among them. The following tips might help you stick to your resolutions this year.

1. You don’t have to begin on January 1.

January 1 might be a difficult time to start, coming right after the hectic holiday season. But you can choose to start at a different time, such as Epiphany (Jan. 6) or Groundhog Day (Feb. 2). Or maybe you’d like to start resolutions on your birthday. There’s no one right time, so choose whatever seems best for you.

2. If you tried something last year and it didn’t work, try something a bit different this year.

You may have resolved to get organized in the past, perhaps using books as guidance, and not achieved the results you wanted. If you tried doing it all alone, maybe it would help to include someone else to cheer you on, provide advice, etc.

There are many ways to do that:

  • The Unclutterer Forum is our online discussion section where fellow unclutterers post their challenges and successes as well as tips, tricks, and tools that they use to stay organized.
  • Many people like FlyLady, with her free daily emails (while others think it’s too much). There’s now an iOS app, too.
  • The Apartment Therapy website runs a free group project called January Cure with “one-manageable-step-at-a-time assignments” which are “designed to help you create a cleaner, more organized and peaceful home.” You can sign up now for the emails.
  • You could work with a friend who has a similar goal. But be sure to pick a friend who will provide the encouragement you need, not one who will push you to make choices that make you uncomfortable.
  • If you’re willing to spend a bit of money, Clutter Diet memberships give you access to videos and tutorials as well as access to virtual consulting services from a team of professional organizers.
  • If finances allow, you can hire a professional organizer to work with you in your home, either to jump-start your organizing efforts or to work with you until you’ve accomplished your goals.

3. Consider how you might incorporate helping others into your resolutions.

I just read an article by Paul Sassone on the Chicago Tribune website where he mentioned how self-centered most of our resolutions tend to be. He lists some common resolutions (such as losing weight) and notes:

What’s missing from this list are resolutions to help other people. There are millions of people who are homeless, abused, poor, hungry, sick, infirm. …

It would be nice if at least one of the actions we contemplate doing in the new year was helping to better someone else’s life.

Organizing-related resolutions can have a charitable component, too:

  • Uncluttering can lead to donations of still-good items to local charities (social services agencies, charity-run thrift stores, or even neighbors in need via freecycle or Nextdoor).
  • More thoughtful buying leads to less clutter — but it may also allow you to donate, to the good cause of your choice, some of the money you are no longer spending.
  • Better time management may free up some time to volunteer for one of the many organizations that could use your help.

Maybe that component will give you extra motivation to stick with your resolutions!