Shuffling cards: a mindless activity to enhance creativity

Many people have mindless activities they engage in when they need to think. Some shoot hoops, others go for a walk, and I shuffle cards. I keep five decks of cards at my desk for the sole purpose of giving me something mindless to do when I need to formulate a post idea, work through a problem, or figure out whatever it is that has me stuck with my writing. I know I’m not alone in my shuffling (or walking or hoops playing) or really wasting time, because scientists have found that a little mindless activity actually enhances creative work.

However, visual clutter distracts me from my work, and can even get me feeling uneasy. As a result, I must have a tidy work area, free of extraneous stuff. Therefore, I have to keep the cards stored nicely in their packs and in a contained area so they don’t interfere when I need to stay focused on my mindful work. (There are organizers that hold as few as two decks to thousands of cards.)

We’ve talked in the past about filing being a good mindless activity to let you accomplish a to-do item on your work list, while not focusing on mindful work. Scanning, sorting, and shredding are other mindless, yet productive tasks. Shuffling cards doesn’t help me get anything else off my to-do list, but it certainly helps me think and solve my work problems, so I’m not about to give it up. What mindless activities do you do to help you think and enhance your creativity and overall productivity at work? Also, how do you organize any stuff related to your mindless activity? Alternating between mindless and mindful activities is great, so if you don’t do something right now, check out comments from our readers to see if there might be a mindless activity that is perfect for you.

Eliminating single points of failure

Many years ago, I worked as the IT director for a school here in Massachusetts. It was a multi-faceted job that included maintaining a file server, a backup server, well over 100 machines and, finally, a help desk for about 125 people. I have some amusing stories from those years, as well as an important lesson: never have a single point of failure.

Redundancy was the name of the game in my previous job. For example, our file server was connected to something called an “uninterruptible power source,” or UPS. A UPS provides electricity in the event of a power outage. That way, if a storm knocks power out, I still had time to get to our computers and shut them down properly.

I also ran a backup server that saved its daily and monthly backups to several locations. If one of those backups failed for whatever reason, I could rely on one of the alternates to provide what I needed. What does this have to do with daily life? Plenty.

As Leo Babauta once said on Zen Habits: “I’ve seen people pay $1,000 to hear speakers at a conference and only have one pen to take notes.” If that pen breaks or runs out of ink within the first five minutes, you’re out of luck. The simple act of bringing two or even three pens can eliminate a potential problem.

Consider where there might be a single point of failure in your life right now. I did some brainstorming of my own, and came up with this list:

  1. More than one flashlight. Here in semi-rural Cape Cod, we lose power at the drop of a hat. Keeping three inexpensive flashlights in the closet eliminates some stress.
  2. Car keys. Most new cars are sold with a pair of keys. But that’s not always the case with used cars. If you’ve only got one key, spend the money to get a second.
  3. Charger cables. These things aren’t really built to last longer than a couple of years it seems, yet we don’t replace them until they become a frayed fire hazard. Keep a fresh one in a drawer so you can swap it out with the original before plugging it into the wall becomes an act of pure optimism. Additionally, having multiple charging cables in different locations (such as one at your home, one at your office, one in your briefcase) means that you don’t ever have to worry about forgetting a cable when you need it most.
  4. Important documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, etc. My practice is to put the originals in a safe deposit box and keep photo copies on hand. If I lose/damage the copy it’s no big deal, and I can always retrieve the original if I need it.

Finally, and you probably saw this coming, I’ll say please make multiple backups of your important digital files. A solution as simple as Dropbox makes it very easy to have files both on your computer and safely on their servers. Additionally, Carbonite and Crashplan will back up your computer in its entirety. (Erin wants you to know she’s a fan of Backblaze.)

Make a list of the single points of failure in your life right now, and see if you can fix them. Someday you might be very glad you did.

Dealing with house paint in an organized manner

The specks of white on my arms can only mean one thing: I’ve been painting. Summer revitalization around our house has become a little out of hand this year, as my wife and I have decided to re-paint three rooms in our home. When we’re done it’ll look great, but we’ll have some paint left over that we’ll need to handle.

For years, I’d simply toss unused paint containers into the basement until I either needed them again or our town offered a hazardous waste pick-up day. That was fine until I needed to do a touch-up, remember which paint was used where or order something I ran out of long ago. Today, instead of quickly banishing partially used paint cans haphazardly to the basement, I take a few additional steps.

With a permanent marker, I’ll write on the lid:

  1. Where I bought the paint
  2. The date of purchase
  3. The room(s) where it was used

I’ll also put a dab of paint on the lid. This works quite well unless I get rid of the can. So, I started a notebook of this information as well. Each page has a swatch of the paint plus the information listed above the swatch. Now I can tell you that we used “Pale Celery” in our bedroom when we lasted painted it 13 years ago.

Other bits and bobs

While we’re on the subject of paint, the following are a few other things I do to make the painting process less messy:

  1. Use a hammer and nail to poke a few holes around the rim on the paint can. That way, the excess you wipe off of your brush will drip back into the can.
  2. Wrap your roller with plastic when you take a break. I’ve seen plastic containers designed to prevent a wet roller from drying out during a lunch break. That will work, sure, but so will (much cheaper) cling wrap or a zip-to-close bag.
  3. Finally, ditch that paint tray. Those things love to tip over and — I don’t know how they do this — end up right underneath your feet. The alternative? My beloved five-gallon bucket. Get yourself a paint grid, hang it inside the bucket and enjoy a day of painting with fewer breaks to refill and fewer spills. It’s not easy to kick over a bucket this big.

Have any painting tips and tricks? Please share your tips in the comments.

Organizing for pet owners

As someone with two cats, I know that having pets is a joy, but it’s also a responsibility. Part of that responsibility involves organizing with them in mind. The following list shows what that can involve.

Unclutter their stuff

Do you have some pet food that your pets refused to eat? You may be able to return it to the store where you bought it — my local pet store lets me return opened bags of kibble. If not, you can give it away to other pet owners.

You’ll also want to pass along any toys your pets never liked and dispose of any that were so well loved that they’re now in tatters. Other items to unclutter include pet beds they never used and clothes that didn’t work out.

Unclutter things that could be dangerous to them

There are a number of things you’ll want to remove from your pet’s environment because they are dangerous. Just as with children, you’ll want to protect pets from medicines and household toxins, including many cleaning supplies and insecticides. Make sure these aren’t anything your pets can get into.

Also, consider your plants: cut flowers, indoor plants, and yard plants if your pets go outside. A significant number of these are poisonous to cats and dogs. Some human foods are also hazardous to pets, so make sure you store the chocolate, grapes, raisins, and other toxic foods where they can’t get to them.

I know someone who recently spent a lot of money on pet surgery when her cat swallowed some kind of string. So make sure your cats aren’t playing with string unless you’re around to make sure they aren’t eating it. And keep their environment clear of floss, ribbon, rubber bands, etc. The Preventive Vet website provides more information on the problems these items cause and what to do to avoid those problems.

Organize everything you’re keeping

You’ll want to have defined places to keep any food, treats, toys, clothes, leashes, medications, cleaning supplies, etc. As with any other category of stuff, it’s usually best to keep like items together and to store them as close as feasible to where they’ll be used.

Keep good medical records

Jacki wrote about maintaining pet health records and why it’s so important. I handle most of this by scanning all the paperwork from my vet — including any lab work, where I always ask for copies. I keep the scanned documents in Dropbox, while others might prefer Evernote or another such tool. Of course, paper records can work fine, too.

Include them in your disaster plans

Consider what you’d need if you had to shelter in place for a week or so, as well as what you’d need if you had to evacuate.

When I look at what I need to stock in case of emergency, I include cat food and litter. I also ensure that when I decide how much water to store I consider my cats’ needs as well as my own. I also have a carrier for each cat (even though I normally only use one at a time) because I’d need these if we needed to evacuate.

Write up care instructions

When I go on a business trip or on vacation, I have someone come into my home to care for my cats rather than boarding them. If you do something similar, write up any instructions your pet care provider would need. Such instructions can also be useful in case of an emergency, when someone needs to care for your pets unexpectedly. Save these instructions so you don’t have to recreate them any time they might be necessary, and remember to update them as circumstances change.

Being an organized recycler

Sometimes when you unclutter, you come across things that are of no use to you and won’t be of use to anyone else, either. These could be old worksheets from school, plastic folders for those papers that are disintegrating with age, paperback books that are so damaged that no one is ever going to read them, textbooks that are decades out of date, etc.

You may want to recycle as much of this stuff as you can. Those of us who have curbside recycling service have it pretty easy when it comes to recycling, and others have access to convenient recycling centers.

But often when people go to recycle, they aren’t fully aware of what items qualify for recycling in their area. As Susan Carpenter noted in the Los Angeles Times back in 2011, “What’s accepted in L.A.’s blue bins can be vastly different from what’s recyclable in New York or San Diego or even Long Beach.”

Can you put hardcover books in the recycling bin? You can’t in my city, but you can in nearby Palo Alto. And where my mother used to live, there was a nearby recycling yard that took hardcover books. Is shredded paper okay? It’s fine in some places (which may want it placed in a labeled paper bag) but not allowed in others.

So you’ll want to take the time to get familiar with the rules in your locale. These might come in newsletters from the recycling company, or you may find them on the company’s website. Sometimes there isn’t enough detail on the website, and you may want to call the company for clarification. And pay attention to notices about changes in the recycling program, since new technologies (and revised demand for certain materials) can change the list of items accepted for recycling.

Why does this matter so much? Because if you combine recyclable and non-recyclable items, you may wind up recycling none of it. As Aaron C. Davis at The Washington Post wrote about shipping boxes, “Don’t be lazy and leave the Styrofoam, plastic and peanut packaging in with the cardboard — there’s a good chance it will mean the whole box gets directed back to the landfill.”

Also, as Davis further reports, when a lot of non-recyclable materials wind up in the recycling bins, the recycling business becomes less profitable and makes recycling services considerably more expensive to the cities buying those services. In Washington D.C., “so much non-recyclable material was being stuffed into the bins that after an audit by Waste Management last fall, the share of the city’s profit for selling recyclables plummeted by more than 50 percent.”

One final caution: If your locale doesn’t accept plastic bags for recycling, please respect this. The bags can play havoc with the recycler’s sorting machinery. If you use a plastic bag to take things to the recycling bin, empty the bag when you get there rather than putting the filled bag into the bin. Plastic grocery bags can sometimes be recycled at the store where they were acquired.

Productivity with Henry Miller

I’m always eager to learn new ways to stay organized and productive. Often I’ll do what many of you do: read blog posts, listen to podcasts, and read books. Many people are doing great work in these areas today, which I appreciate. However, my focus on contemporary work often causes me to overlook fantastic advice from the past, which is why I wanted to feature a little helpful advice from someone from the past: Henry Miller.

Henry Miller was the American-born writer whose works Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, defined a new style of semi-autobiographical novel. Miller also wrote Henry Miller on Writing, in which he described how he set goals, stayed focused, and got stuff done. It included, among other things, a fantastic list of his “11 Commandments of Writing”:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Henry is taking about writing, of course, but his ideas can be applied to almost any work you do. I also think some of his words could use a little interpretation. Since Henry is no longer around, we can’t ask what he meant, but I’ll do my best to decipher his list.

Number one is self-evident and frankly, something I struggle with. It can be so simple to work on another project to distract yourself from what needs to be finished. Number two was clearly along these same lines, but specific to what he was working on at the time he created the list.

I like number three and four. Recently I was sitting in front of my computer at 11:00 p.m. and, after three unproductive hours, called it quits for the night. I was miserable and producing nothing, so I stopped. The next day I had renewed energy and a new perspective.

Number five is a great point: You can always work, or be productive, even if progress on your intended goal seems to elude you. There is always something to be done, and it doesn’t always have to be creative. Being in a creative slump doesn’t get you off the hook.

I think number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) “Project B” until Project A is complete.

Seven and eight are good perspectives because they remind you not to spend too much time in your head, which is especially easy to do when you’re working on a big and important project.

Nine is similar to his earlier points three and four. And ten is again very similar to one.

Finally, the idea behind eleven is to tackle the most important things first. When you have the most energy, focus that energy on the most important work you need or want to do.

There is solid wisdom to be found from smart folks who are long gone. If you search for it, you might be surprise at what you find.

Organize your kids for camp

It’s difficult to believe, but summer begins next week for those of us in the northern hemisphere. My to-do list is long and one of the items on that list is to help get my kids organized for camp. Like countless kids across the country, they’ll join their friends — and make new ones — at camp.

You can help make the experience even more pleasant for them with strategic planning before Jr. walks out the door.

All types of camps

You son or daughter will likely receive a list of requirements and suggestions from the camp itself. Start shopping for these items at least a week in advance, if not longer. This will avoid the last-second rush and allow you to label everything properly. Speaking of labels…

Get some labels for the kids’ clothing and other personal items. There are many of these available: Name Bubbles makes some cute ones, including a whole line meant to “…last all summer long.” Be sure to label items that she or he might take off, like hats, flip-flops, and t-shirts, as well as accessories like sunscreen and lunch boxes. If you don’t want to purchase labels, a permanent marker will do a good job, as well as a laundry marker.

Sleep away camp

It’s a good idea to provide your little camper with a Re-Pack list that he or she can check when preparing to come home. Stick it in your child’s bag and laminate it, if you can.

Also, only pack clothes and other items that can get lost without causing a big deal. That beloved, irreplaceable shirt that Jr. simply adores might not be the best choice for camp, no matter how cool it is.

Pack liquids and anything that might be attractive to pests in zip-top bags. Write on the bags the contents with permanent markers so items have a greater chance of returning to the bags.

Day camp

A lesson my family learned the hard way: don’t send your child’s nice school backpack to camp. It will get used, abused, and stuffed with sand, dirt, and who knows what else. Go out (again, well ahead of time) and buy an inexpensive bag that can get beat up because it will.

Similar to the Re-Pack list recommended for sleep-away camp, make a daily checklist for your child’s backpack/bag. Again, laminate the list so that you can write special daily items on it as reminders (like a plain white t-shirt for tie-dyeing one day) in addition to the regular things.

If swimming is a regular part of the camp, pack a large zip-top bag. Get the biggest one you can find so wet swimsuits and towels can be stored away from other items in the bag.

If you or your children regularly attended or attend summer camp, what additional tips would you share to keep kids organized? Feel welcome to leave them in the comments.

Scanning the family photo collection

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I have boxes and boxes of family photos (some from the 1920s) I’d like to scan in and put on CDs (is that a good way to save them?) and also put on a website where family members can access them and print out what they’d like to keep. How do I even get started? How do I organize the project? I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. Do I need a special scanner? What’s the fastest and best quality scanner? Can I save the photos on the cloud? Is there a way to record information I have about the photo with the scan? A lot was written on the back of photos — can both sides be scanned at once? Should I get rid of duplicates or bad photos to start off? It’s hard to throw away photos. Any suggestions, including new tech solutions, would be appreciated.

Mary, dealing with photos can be overwhelming. But it’s a very rewarding project, and you can break it down into smaller pieces so it’s not so intimidating. The following are some ideas about how to approach this project, looking at each decision you’ll need to make.

Decide which photos to keep

You won’t want to spend time or money scanning photos you don’t even think are worth keeping, so unclutter first. Photos to consider tossing are:

  • Duplicates. If you have family or friends who would like the duplicate prints, you can certainly pass them along. But why keep duplicates yourself?
  • Bad photos. This would include photos that are out of focus, photos that cut off someone’s head, and photos that are unflattering. You may want to keep some of these if there’s something else especially notable about the photo, but in most cases these are good riddance.
  • Photos of scenery. This is a personal choice, but many times the photos people take of the places they visit just aren’t that remarkable. My parents went to Hawaii years ago and took many photos, but I can find much better photos of those places online. The photos I cherish are the ones of my parents in Hawaii, not the ones of Hawaii itself.

You might think of this as going on a treasure hunt, finding the real gems among the many photos. If you can’t bring yourself to throw away any photos right now, you might simply create two categories of photos: the best ones (which you’ll scan) and all the rest.

Decide whether to scan them yourself or use a scanning service

Many people have happily used scanning services. Erin used ScanMyPhotos, as did a recent commenter, L. Charles. The company takes your prints, negatives and/or slides, does the scanning, and ships you back a DVD with those scans (along with your originals). If mailing off your photos makes you nervous, you may be able to find a company that does the work locally. Using a scanning service will save you a lot of time. I doubt the service will scan the backs of the photos, though.

If you prefer to scan your photos yourself, you’re going to be best off with a scanner that doesn’t require you to put the photos through a paper feed. That’s because every once in a while a photo might get damaged going through that feed. However, if you already have something like a ScanSnap iX500 you may be willing to take that risk. I know people who have used similar scanners with no problems.

If you already have a flatbed scanner as part of an all-in-one printer, that might be all you need. But what if you don’t have an appropriate scanner and want to buy one? I’m not an expert regarding scanners so I can’t tell you which scanner is best, but I can point you to some alternatives.

There are some scanning devices designed specifically for photos, which can sound appealing. But Consumer Reports wasn’t thrilled with the pass-through photo scanners it tested, even though it acknowledged that they have some distinct advantages.

Another option is a flatbed scanner, especially one that’s designed to handle photos, negatives, and slides. I know someone who’s happy with the Canon CanoScan 9000F MKII Color Image Scanner, but there are many other scanners to consider. If any readers have experience with specific photo scanners, I hope they’ll add their comments.

If you’re scanning photos yourself, you can scan the backs of the photos to capture the writing. (If you have a duplex scanner, you can probably scan both at once.) You could even use a scanning service for the photos, and then go through and scan the backs of the photos yourself once the prints are returned to you.

Next week, I’ll address the issue of storing the photos once you have them scanned.

Organizing in a small apartment that lacks storage space

Unclutterer reader Tami recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I just moved from a 2-bedroom, 1200-square-foot apartment into a 1-bedroom, 784-square-foot apartment. I LOVE my new place but to say “lack of storage” is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I have adequate space in the kitchen but I literally have NO linen closet, nowhere medicine cabinet, place for sheets, towels, just STUFF. I have a hall closet (which is where I have put my broom, mop, etc.) and placed a basket up top for sheets to try and organize, and a closet for the washer and dryer (yet another basket system for cleaning supplies, meds, and odds and ends) but I KNOW there has to be a better way!!!

Tami, this is a problem you share with many others. On Unclutterer, we’ve written before about strategies that often work in small spaces, but the following are some more suggestions that may work for you.

Re-evaluate what you own

When you’re in a small space, everything you own really has to earn a place in your home due to how functional it is or how much you care for it, aesthetically or sentimentally. There may be no room for anything that’s just “okay” or “perfectly good” if it isn’t something you need or love.

For example, how many bed linens do you really need? Many people get by with two sets: one on the bed and one spare. (And the same principle might apply to other linens, such as towels.) If you have a number of specialized cleaning products, could you move toward multipurpose cleaners?

Look beyond the (non-existent) closet shelves

You’ll want to be sure you’re storing things safely, where small children and pets can’t get to them (if that’s a concern in your living situation). And remember that medications are often best stored away from the humidity of a bathroom. The following are some alternatives to consider:

Use the backs of doors

Shoe pockets hung over a door can be used to store all sorts of things. Parent Hacks has a great list of ways this versatile product can be used. Elfa also has some door racks that might be worth a look.

You can use the backs of cabinet doors, too, adding baskets or trays.

Use the walls

Your lease may limit your options here, since it may preclude you from adding anything that would put a hole in the wall.

But even then, you have some options. For example, Perch attaches to many walls with damage-free Command Strips. If your lease doesn’t limit you, you can look into shelves and pegboards.

Consider different ways to store linens and towels

I’m assuming that you don’t have space to add a storage piece such as a cabinet, trunk, cart, or shelving unit. If you do have space, that’s one alternative, but certainly not the only one.

Some people store an extra set of linens between the mattress and the box springs. Some linens, such as tablecloths, can be stored on hangers. Placemats can be hung from hangers with clips.

Towels are a different challenge. Perhaps you could store them in an empty suitcase. (An under-the-bed storage box could work, too.) You could also add a towel rack that mounts in the door hinges to store extra towels.

Organizing in a shared living space

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My husband insists on keeping various things by his recliner, on a small table, in the living room. Things like scissors, nail file, pens and pencils, two pair of glasses, toothpicks, nail clippers, bottle of water, Kleenex, TV remotes, files he is working on (self-employed), electric razor, vitamins, crossword puzzles, scratch paper, his laptop, current book he is reading … need I say more?

Actually it is an old TV stand that he has repurposed and it has a shelf where he slides the laptop into. And there is some organization to all of the things mentioned. Some aspects of the clutter can be removed easily when company comes over as they are in plastic shoe boxes. Do other women have this problem and what do they do?!

Mary, the living room is a shared space, so it’s important to look for solutions that work for both of you. The following suggestions might help you find some common ground.

Negotiate which items get kept by the recliner

It’s often wise to store things where they are used. So keeping some things by the recliner can be a good strategy for someone who regularly uses that chair to read, work on the computer, do crossword puzzles, watch TV, etc. But I’d suggest you negotiate some limits, based on what activities are appropriately done from the recliner.

Unless your husband has a disability and getting out of the chair is a significant issue, I would think that personal grooming is better done elsewhere. So maybe a book, some scratch paper, a few pens, eyeglasses, and such stay by the recliner, while things like the electric razor do not.

Get better storage tools

Once you’ve agreed which things are reasonably kept beside the recliner, consider whether it makes sense to invest in better ways to keep those items close at hand.

You might want to replace the old TV stand with an end table that provides storage, such as this one from Levenger.

You could also add a storage ottoman. There are many choices, at various price points — the one above comes from Crate and Barrel.

Another approach would be to make that entire furniture piece mobile, so it can be rolled away when company comes. For example, something like the above utility cart from Ikea could work.

It might also help to add a storage product that goes over the arm of the recliner, such as the above remote control pocket from Ikea.

Agree on a maintenance plan

It’s easy for a well-used place in your home to become cluttered, so work with your husband to develop a plan to keep things under control. For example, you might agree that at the end of the day, your husband will:

  • Dispose of all trash.
  • Place any book that’s been finished either on the bookshelf (if it’s a keeper) or in whatever place you’ve defined for things being given away or sold.
  • If anything has accumulated near the recliner besides the things you have agreed belong there, put those items away in their normal storage places.
  • Put everything that does belong near the recliner in its designated storage area: in the drawers or containers on the side table, etc.

An alternative: Follow Marie Kondo’s advice

Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, would say that all your husband’s things should be kept in one place, not scattered around where they are used. If you want to follow her advice, I would suggest (as she would) that you begin by making sure your own things are in order and showing by example how well her approach can work.

Struggles with GTD and possible solutions

Unclutterer reader MrsMack recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My … struggle is with the GTD method. I’ve read the book and I think it could work really well for me, but the required cleared-schedule, back-to-back two days to get started is so intimidating and too overwhelming. I don’t have the liberty to turn my life off for two days to work without interruption. How can I ease into this?

I first discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity when I was an IT Director at a residential school. That was a crazy job, as I was supporting about 80 computers, a network and more, including heading up the help desk for there school’s 100 employees. It was easy to feel overwhelmed and I often did. Fortunately, I discovered David Allen’s method.

Adopting it in earnest took a lot of work, not just in my own behavior but in the materials I was using. I felt it was worth the effort, but I also realized how much effort was involved. Processing everything in my work life to get “clean and clear” took days. Personally, I recommend taking time off and completing the work as he suggests. I found it saved me time and frustration over the longterm. However, I know this isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you genuinely don’t have two days to dedicate to this process, the following are the alternatives I suggest:

Pick the area that’s most in need of attention and focus on it for as long as you can (two hours? four?). You might have enough time to get your desk/work area and your work projects “clean and clear.” Then simply “GTD” (if I may use it as a verb) that aspect of your life. This will reduce the overwhelmed feeling and get you comfortable with the system, so that when you’re ready to tackle the next area, like that pesky garage, you’ll be an experienced machine.

I do believe in David Allen’s method, especially in the very real feeling of being on top of everything that comes from getting “clean and clear.” I also realize that GTD is not the best fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are several alternative methods you might find interesting or appealing.

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done system. Leo created his Zen method specifically to address what he sees as “…the five problems many people have with GTD,” namely:

  1. GTD is a big change of habits
  2. GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is too unstructured for many people
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals

If any of those five issues are ones you’re having with GTD, maybe Zen to Done is an alternative that could work for you.

Another program is Asian Efficiency’s Agile Results. I’m not super familiar with this method, but it’s been popping up on my radar off and on for a while now. Like Leo’s Zen to Done, Agile Results is more goal-focused than process focused.

While working on this article, I reached out to my buddy Mike Vardy of the website Productivityist. His “theming” method is quite compelling. To begin, look at what he calls the certainties in your week. For example, on Sunday, there will be no interruptions and the family will be home. On Monday through Friday, the kids are away, and on Saturday, the family is home. With those certainties identified, he creates themes based on the results:

Sunday: No interruptions, family-home
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Kids at daycare, wife at work
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Kids at daycare, wife home
Saturday: No interruptions, family-home

The final step is to “lock down,” as Mike puts it, the remaining days. His final themed schedule looks like this:

Sunday: Creative Day (Writing)
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Saturday: Family Day

It’s clever, and a part of a larger method of his Now Year formula. His alternate method might work for you.

Getting on top of everything can be a chore, but it’s well worth the effort irrespective of what method you ultimately decide to adopt.

A place for everything — but where?

Unclutterer reader Ebbe recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Our problem is the first part of this rule: Finding out where or what that place should be for any given item is an almost insurmountable task. And that is the reason why we still have a lot of clutter in our home.

Ebbe, the following suggestions might help you find good places for your items.

General principles

Usually, you’ll want to keep things you use frequently close at hand, near where you’ll be using them. And you would normally want to keep things that are used together in the same general area. So, if you use a coffee maker every day, it might make sense to leave it out on your kitchen counter and store your coffee mugs in a nearby cabinet.

Things you use less frequently can be stored further away from where they’ll be used. You wouldn’t want to dedicate prime storage space (any space within easy reach) to things you only use once or twice a year. Seldom-used items can go in places such as the kitchen cabinets over the refrigerator or in an attic, basement, or garage if your home has those spaces. You may want to keep a list of what you’ve stored where, since it could be easy to forget.

You’ll normally want to keep like with like. For example, if you have a number of vases, you would probably keep them in one spot. But sometimes, based on the “keep it close to where you’ll use it” principle, it makes sense to store things in two or more places. For example, I keep flashlights in a number of places, so if I lose power at night I’ll always have one close at hand.

When feasible, try not to fight your family’s ingrained habits. For example, if mail always gets dropped on a kitchen table or countertop, maybe that’s the best place for an “inbox” type of container.

When creating homes for frequently used things, make those homes as easy to use as possible. That might mean getting a closet double-hang rod to keep clothes handy for younger children, using hooks rather than hangers in some situations, using a laundry hamper without a lid to make it easier to put dirty clothes away, etc.

Be sure that the storage places you’ve selected are safe. You’ll want to ensure that small children and pets can’t get to things like medicines, laundry detergent pods, toxic pest control products, or sharp things such as knives. It’s usually best to avoid storing heavy things and fragile glass items up high, so you don’t need to worry about hurting yourself or breaking something when you go to retrieve it.

Be careful not to store items that are sensitive to heat, cold, humidity, or bugs in places that face those hazards. That means being careful about what gets stored in places such as attics, basements, and garages.

And finally, don’t expect to get everything right the first time. Try giving things assigned places, and then adjust as you learn more about what works well and what doesn’t.

Dealing with limited storage space

I know people who live in old houses with very small closets. If you have a similar situation, you may need to get creative about adding storage. That could involve buying furniture such as a wardrobe, but it could also involve less expensive (and less space-consuming) ideas such as hanging some shoe pockets on some doors — they can store much more than just shoes. There are many products that make use of wall and back-of-the-door space, as well as under-the-bed space.

And the answer might be that some things get stored at the store. Buying large quantities and huge sizes of things may not work if your home has limited space.

If there are things you use infrequently, maybe the answer involves getting rid of those things and borrowing or renting them when the need arises. This could be something to consider for rarely used tools, for example.

And if you’ve been as creative as you can be in finding storage places, and you still can’t find a place for everything, you’ll need to decide whether you want to invest in renting a storage unit (which is a reasonable choice in some very specific situations) or whether it makes more sense to just own less.

Accepting imperfect solutions

Sometimes there’s no great place to store something. I have that problem with my bulky Bosu balance trainer. I use it in my living room, which is the only room I have with sufficient space for exercising. But there’s no place to hide the Bosu away in the living room and it didn’t look good just sitting out, so I recently moved it to the guest bedroom (which isn’t far away). Now I just bring it out when I want to use it. There was no ideal place for it, so I settled for an adequate one.