How to be a tidy, organized house guest

As I write this post, I’m visiting my parents in sunny Florida. It’s nice to be here just as the air at my Massachusetts home is starting to dip in the 50s at night. As I sit here in my makeshift bedroom, I’m considering how I make myself a tidy houseguest who’s likely to be asked to return. (Granted, they are my parents so they’re likely to ask me back, but I was thinking more in a general sense.) The following are ways to keep your life from overtaking that of your host when you travel.

Prepare a Dopp kit

“Dopp kit” is a fancy way of saying “bag of toiletries.” I keep it stocked with travel-sized, airline-friendly products at all times. That way, it’s ready to go when I am. Inside I’ll pack the usuals:

  1. Toothpaste
  2. Toothbrush
  3. Shampoo
  4. Mouthwash
  5. Deodorant
  6. Disposable razor
  7. Shaving cream

I also include items you might not expect. Specifically, things I might need that my host might not have on hand. Rather then trouble them with a request or even a drive to the drug store, I keep these things on hand:

  1. Tissues
  2. Mini sewing kit
  3. Eyeglasses repair kit
  4. Earplugs (you never know when you’ll be bunking with an Olympic-class snorer)
  5. Lip balm
  6. Sunscreen

All of these items are available in travel sizes and will easy fit inside a nice bag.

Charger cables

I always pack the cables and wall chargers I need, so I don’t end up begging to use someone else’s. If you travel often, acquire a second set of your usual cables so your travel bag is always ready to go and you won’t have to worry about forgetting to pack what you need.

Bring a small gift

This is more of a manners item than an organizing tip, but a small host gift is always appreciated, especially when it’s useful. The gift need not be anything extravagant, but a small thank-you for the hospitality your hosts are showing you is always a good idea.

Aside from items I bring, there are a few things I always do when staying in someone’s home.

Keep your sleeping area neat

In addition to being polite, being organized during your stay also helps you when it’s time to head home. You’re less likely to leave something at a host’s home when you’re tidy than when things are strewn about. Keep your toiletries in your bag and not sprawled across the sink, make your bed every morning and strip the sheets just before you leave, put all your dirty clothes in a hamper or laundry bag, etc. Be sure to give yourself a full hour to pack up when leaving someone’s home, even if you only need 15 or 20 minutes. The extra time will keep you from rushing and allow you to take care of everything you need to do.

Organizing for traffic jams

I live in a small coastal city with only a couple two-lane roads leading into town. On a nice weekend day, traffic on those roads can get very heavy as people head to and from the beach (or the pumpkin farms, in October). And sadly, both of those roads are somewhat twisty and prone to frequent accidents. Even a minor accident with no injuries can cause huge traffic problems.

So I’ve learned to organize for traffic jams, in the following ways:

Plan trips to minimize travel at peak times
Avoiding problems is always nicer than coping with them. I know when traffic will usually be at its worst and plan any discretionary trips to avoid those times.

Leave plenty of time
Sometimes I need to make a trip during a heavy traffic time. Other times there’s roadwork or an accident that makes traffic worse than normal. I check traffic conditions online before I leave home so I can adjust my route if need be. But I also leave lots of extra time if I need to be somewhere at a specific time, so I won’t be stressed out by any unexpected traffic problems. Since this means I often arrive early for a flight, an appointment, or a reservation, I make sure I have a book to read or something else I want to do while I wait.

Have plenty of gas
As part of my emergency preparedness, I aim to always have at least a half tank of gas. This also ensures I’ll be okay if I need to take a more roundabout way home.

Pack the essentials
I always have a water bottle and some energy bars with me so I don’t need to worry about getting thirsty or hungry. And I have a backlog of podcasts loaded to my smartphone to keep me happily occupied while traffic is slow (or stopped). Other people may prefer music, language lessons, or audio books in either CD or digital format.

Use the restroom before heading out
This is self-explanatory.

Have critical phone numbers readily available
I make sure my smartphone has the numbers of everyone I might need to call (while pulled off the road, not while driving) if I’m delayed.

Keep the smartphone fully charged
Since I rely on my phone for communication and entertainment, I need to ensure I don’t run down the battery. I usually leave home with my phone close to 100 percent charged, and I leave it on a charging cable while I’m driving.

Slap on some sunscreen
I’m not as good about this as I should be, but for many daytime car rides it’s wise to put on sunscreen. If the ride is likely to be extended because of traffic, the sunscreen is even more important.

Since I know I’m prepared for being in a traffic jam, I try to not let it bother me too much. There’s nothing I can do about the bad traffic — mentally screaming at it is unproductive, I’ve found — so I consciously get into a “I’ll get there when I get there” mindset.

Get your keys under control with Key Smart

Every now and then I come across a product that’s so cool and so in line with an uncluttered and organized lifestyle, I think, “I can’t wait to share this with the Unclutterer readers!” Today, that product is the Key Smart. Starting at $38.98), this device is a tidy, effective way to neatly store all of your keys. It’s made of aircraft aluminum, looks great, and easily swaps keys in and out.

I’ve managed to trim the number of keys I carry around to two, but a few years ago I looked like an old-time jailer with my house keys, shed key, various work keys, and keys for the car all in one obnoxious, noisy, and inefficient key ring. Finding what I needed meant a minute of standing and fiddling.

Now, I look at the Key Smart and wish I had had it back then. To attach a key, simply remove the two screws, place your key inside and then replace the screws and aluminum cover. When assembled, the Key Smart looks and operates much like a pocket knife (which I also love). Fold out the key you want, open your lock, and then fold it back into place. The whole unit slips into a pocket without becoming a jangle-y mess.

The manufacturers even sell add-on accessories, like a USB flash drive (by the way, if you have extra USB flash drives, consider ideas for what to do with them) and a quick-release clip if you like to keep your keys on your hip.

How getting organized can make you more efficient

Getting organized isn’t something you do for its own sake — it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier and more pleasant. If you can quickly and easily put your hands on the things you need, tasks get done easier (and often better) and life is less stressful.

If you regularly use a group of items together, organizing principles suggest that you will usually want to store them together, too. For example, I keep stationery, stamps, and return address labels together. And the lubricating sheets I use for my shredder are stored right next to the shredder. This makes me more efficient when I need to send a letter, and it helps ensure I really do lubricate the shredder periodically.

I recently read a great example of how this principle can work in the critical setting of a hospital intensive care unit. As Emily Anthes wrote in Nature, Dr. Peter Pronovost saw the problem with more haphazard storage when he was creating a checklist his hospital could use for a specific procedure:

Logistics are crucial. When Pronovost was first developing his checklist at Johns Hopkins, he noticed that ICU doctors had to go to eight different places to collect all the supplies they needed to perform a sterile central-line insertion. As part of the Keystone programme, hospitals assembled carts that contained all the necessary supplies.

I’ve seen people try to cope with using the wrong tool (the wrong size screwdriver, for example) because they couldn’t find the right one, even though they knew they owned it. I have also known people who had an incredible stash of books and tools — who still asked to borrow mine sometimes because they couldn’t find theirs amid all the clutter. When a home or office is uncluttered and organized, you can be like Jessamyn West, who wrote on Twitter, “The one time in three years I need a Torx driver and I realize I 1) have one 2) can find it. Happy with this day so far.”

The same concept applies to paperwork. If you can readily find all your tax-related documents, in either paper or electronic format, tax time becomes a bit less stressful. If there’s a place for all permission slips your children bring home from school, there won’t be last-minute scrambles to find them on the days of the events.

I recently had a minor organizing slip-up that caused me to waste a bit of time and use less than optimal tools. My packing list included “gifts for people I’m visiting” but neglected to include wrapping materials for those gifts. (I don’t wrap them ahead of time because airport security will sometimes unwrap them if they have any concern about what’s in the package.) That led me to scramble to find wrapping paper and tape in a neighborhood with a very limited selection. (I think I found the store’s only roll of wrapping paper that didn’t have a Christmas theme.) I’m sure my hosts didn’t really care that I used some funky decorative tape instead of normal tape, and I didn’t waste too much time and money buying these items, but I’ve now updated my packing list.

The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

Being considerate when donating

Many of us try our best to keep things out of landfills and find new homes for those items that may still be useful to others. However, please consider the following three points when making donations:

Only donate things the organization has said it can use

My local nonprofit thrift store has a handout with an extensive list of what it accepts and what it will not accept. Small appliances are okay, but not coffee pots. Lamps are okay, if they don’t take halogen bulbs. The store also says this: “All items must be clean and in good working condition. We have no facilities to clean clothing.”

Organizations that accept books often provide guidance about the condition of the books they accept. For example, Housing Works says it won’t accept books with “markings, heavy wear, water damage, missing pages or covers, mildew, or strong odors.”

Many other organizations that depend on donations are equally explicit on their websites — and if you’re not certain about what the group takes, you can always call or send an email to inquire. If you donated to an organization in the past, but not recently, I’d recommend doing a quick check of its current policies about donations, because things change.

Donating something that cannot be used just causes extra work for the organization getting the donation. Furthermore, such items might wind up in the dumpster, causing the group to incur an extra expenditure if it gets too many unacceptable donations and an additional pickup is required — and defeating the whole purpose of donating.

You also don’t want to drive to a donation place only to have your donations turned away because they aren’t accepted, as happened to me when I forgot to check the website for my local Goodwill and found it didn’t accept the skis I had. (Fortunately, another nearby charity was glad to take them.)

If you cannot find a place to donate something that you think might still have value to others, you can always try giving it away on freecycle or the free section of craigslist. If it’s permitted where you live, you can also leave things at the curb.

Disaster relief groups usually need money, not stuff

Jessica Alexander was in the Philippines after the 2004 tsunami, and saw what happened when unwanted clothes got shipped there:

Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Cattle began picking at them and getting sick. Civil servants had to divert their limited time to eliminating the unwanted clothes. Sri Lankans and Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped people’s hand-me-downs.

… Someone has to unload those donations, someone needs to sort through them for customs, someone needs to truck them to affected areas which are hard to reach anyway and where there’s a limited supply of fuel. When old shoes and clothes are sent from the U.S., they just waste people’s time and slow down getting lifesaving medicines and food to affected people.

Alexander encourages all good-hearted people to give money — “not teddy bears, not old shoes” — to agencies that know what’s needed and how to get it to the people in need. If such an agency asks for specific items, that’s the only time you should look at donating stuff.

Protect your items when dropping off donations

I recently dropped off some books for an annual book sale in my city. The church that holds the sale has waterproof plastic bins sitting outside to accept donations. But I saw cardboard boxes filled with books sitting out next to those bins — and some of those boxes had no lids. That’s a problem, because we often get heavy fog and mist overnight, and the books sitting out with no covering are likely to get damaged.

Unless an organization specifically permits it (and has donation receptacles in place), you won’t want to donate after hours. Perfectly fine donations can get ruined not just by the weather, but also by raccoons and other wildlife.

Fragile items should obviously be wrapped to protect them, so you don’t wind up with broken glassware or china. Also, be very careful when donating anything sharp — knives, sewing needles, etc. — to ensure no one gets hurt.

10 things you can do right now to be more organized

Here at Unclutterer we often focus on long-term solutions for clutter problems. But this week, I want to focus on the short term. The following are 10 things you can do within the next 10 minutes to help yourself be more organized.

  1. Lay out tomorrow’s outfit tonight. Last week, we wrote about what I think of as doing a favor for your future self. Unless you’re going the Steve Jobs route and wearing the same outfit every day, you probably spend a few minutes each morning staring at the dresser or closet in an early morning fog and the longer you stand there the more you run the risk of being late for work or school or wherever you need to go. Reclaim that time from your morning by doing it the night before. It’s a great feeling to pop out of bed and find your outfit ready to go.
  2. Update the calendar. Once a week I ensure that our family calendar is up-to-date. This is especially crucial now that the new school year is starting. It only takes a few minutes to ensure that every appointment that’s scheduled for the next seven days has been properly recorded. If you live with other people–kids, roommate, spouse, whomever–have everyone participate in this activity to be sure everything is included on the calendar.
  3. Plan the week’s menu. Years ago, I supervised a group home of students with autism and other developmental delays. Something that my staff and I had to do was prepare nightly meals for everyone. Every night we cooked for seven students and five teachers. That was when I learned to keep a weekly menu up on the refrigerator; a habit I continue today. It’s much nicer to see what I’ve planned to prepare, as opposed to wondering, “What can I make tonight?”
  4. Find a pen and some scrap paper. Prep a stack of index cards and a small collection of pens and you’ll be ready the next time you need to jot something down while on the phone, at your computer, or wherever ideas come to you. If note cards won’t work for you, get a small notebook and carry it with you in your pocket so you can capture ideas before putting them down in a more permanent way (like on a to-do list or calendar).
  5. Round up extra batteries. Instead of searching your home for wayward batteries whenever you need them, put together a package of each type — AA, AAA, and so on — in an obvious place. If you don’t have any extra batteries of a type you typically need, consider getting reusable ones and storing those.
  6. End the missing sock nightmare. There are four people in my house. For years, sorting socks was a nightmare. They all ended up in the same laundry basket, and we played Rock Paper Scissors to identify the poor soul who had to sort them. Today, everyone has a mesh laundry bag for socks. Put the socks in the bag, tie it up, and put the bag in the washer. Socks come out clean and more importantly, sorted.
  7. Employ a tray. Not long ago, we abandoned the key hooks we used for hang car keys. Keys then cluttered up the kitchen table until I put a small, unassuming tray right beside the door. Now that there is a key tray it’s where the keys land, without making a cluttered mess. Even a tray full of haphazard contents appears sorted and tidy simply by being a container.
  8. Tidy your work area. The dissonance of visual clutter is real and can adversely affect your work day. Take just 10 minutes to tidy a desk and you’ll feel better and maybe even be more productive.
  9. Label your cables. Raise your hand if you’ve played the “unplug this to find out what it’s connected to” game. It’s no fun. A simple set of cable labels can eliminate that nonsense.
  10. Take 10 minutes to just be. There’s so much going on each day: Work and maybe kids, home life and friends, the constant firehose of social media. Find 10 minutes in each day that you can use to walk in the yard, listen to quiet music, or simply sit and experience the moment. This might sound a little hippy dippy, but it’s a great practice to get into for keeping the rest of your day organized. An organized mind helps a great deal in having an organized life.

Certainly continue to work toward those far-reaching goals, but don’t overlook the power of 10 minutes in the meantime.

Keep your computer clean with digital decluttering

A few days ago I got a desperate call from a friend. “My computer says ‘disk full’ and basically won’t work. What do I do?” Her laptop’s hard drive was full to capacity. She tried deleting the contents of her downloads folder, some unwanted photos, old emails, and stray files on the desktop and it wasn’t enough. Albeit a good start, I told her, but it’s kind of like using an eyedropper to empty a swimming pool. For real digital de-cluttering, you’ve got to break out the big guns.

While photo and video libraries can take up a lot of storage space, as well as music, backups and more, there are other, space-hungry files on your machine that you can’t see. For keeping those in check, I recommend using a piece of software. I recommend Clean My Mac and Clean My PC by the folks at Macpaw. (Both pieces of software are $40.)

Before I explain why, let me quickly discuss memory vs. storage.

Computer memory vs. computer storage

In the 20 years that I’ve been working with computers professionally, I’ve found that memory vs. storage causes confusion for people more than anything else. One refers to how much your machine can physically hold; the other, how much it can do at once.

Here’s an analogy: Consider an office desk. It’s got a broad worktop and many drawers for storing all sorts of stuff. To work on something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The drawers are your storage. The more drawers you have, or the more spacious they are, the more they can hold. A desk with six drawers can store more stuff than one with four (assuming the drawers are all the same size). The drawers are your computer’s internal hard drive. The larger it is, the more “stuff” — photos, videos, Word docs, music, etc. — it can physically hold. Back to the desk.

To work with something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The bigger the top of your desk is, the more you can spread out and work on at once. The work top is your computer’s memory. The more memory your computer has, the more you can look at one time. There’s a little more to memory than that, but this is a good basic explanation.

Kill digital clutter

As I mentioned, there are big ‘ol files lurking on your machine that many people can’t easily find and drag to the trash. That’s why I recommend using a piece of software to help you find these. As a Mac user, I use Clean My Mac from Macpaw. Clean My PC has a reputation for doing an equally fantastic job on Windows machines. However, since I don’t have a PC, I can’t speak for it directly.

I like Clean My Mac for three reasons: It’s thorough, it’s clear on what’s happening, and it’s safe.


I cleaned my MacBook Pro earlier today, and Clean My Mac found outdated cache files amounting to nearly 2 GB, as well as iPhone updates that I no longer need. Additionally, much software is “localized” for several languages. I only need English, so Clean My Mac found the superfluous (for me) language files from my software and removed them — to the tune of 2.45 GB.


Whenever Clean My Mac conducts a scan, it identifies what it calls “Large & Old Files.” These files are not removed without your review and approval. You might find video projects in there, large audio files, and the like. For instance, the scan I recently conducted found several iMovie files that are quite large but not for deletion. Clean My Mac was smart enough to leave them intact for me.


This software’s help system is fantastic. Deleting files from your computer should not be taken lightly, even when you’re talking about known junk. The help section defines every term and process clearly and concisely, so you’ll know what’s going to happen. Additionally, the software’s main screen is quite legible and logically arranged.

It can be frustrating when your computer is cluttered. Fortunately, you can be safely proactive about it. Grab a good piece of software and stay on top of your digital decluttering before you end up with a virtual mess on your hands.

Getting organized doesn’t happen overnight

I’m currently dealing with an annoying problem in my left leg — some muscles are way too tight and make certain motions painful. I ignored the problem for too long, and it only got worse. But now I’m in physical therapy and doing exercises at home every day, and I can feel things gradually getting better. This is very encouraging, and I have faith that if I continue to do those home exercises, I’ll get back to being just fine in a while.

And this is very similar to how things go with many organizing efforts: They require continual work over a period of weeks or months.

Some of the common situations that lead to disorganization include:

  • A change in the household: a move to a new home, a new roommate, a newly combined family, a new baby, etc.
  • Medical issues (your own or those of a family member or close friend)
  • A new job or a crunch time at an existing job

In such situations, when you begin to get organized again, please realize that the problem areas built up over time and it will take some time to fix them. Try not to get discouraged by what’s still undone, but rather take pleasure in your progress — in each small step.

Doing my home exercises only takes about 20 minutes per day, but those 20 minutes are making a huge difference. If you can spend even 5-10 minutes each day on uncluttering and organizing, it will add up, too.

The following are three basic approaches you might take to starting a slow-but-steady uncluttering or organizing effort:

1. Focus on one space at a time

You might pick a room, and then tackle smaller projects within that room, as Dave has written about before. Maybe you can go through one box, or half of a box, or the first inch of a box on one day. Or maybe you can organize one drawer in a desk or in the kitchen.

2. Focus on one type of item at a time

For example, you could decide to deal with all the magazines or all the socks as one mini-project. You may want to start with categories that are easy for you and gradually move on to harder ones. Paperwork takes a long time for the volume of space cleared, so if you want a quick visual win you may not want to begin there — unless you have some buried papers that need attention right away.

3. Focus on one process at a time

Maybe you want to work on how you handle incoming mail, or how you get everyone out of the house in the morning, or how you keep track of your to-do items. This will often involve trying something new and then tweaking that new approach as you see what works well and what doesn’t.

Whatever approach you choose, the thrill of seeing ongoing progress can help keep you motivated to do more. As Harold Taylor of Harold Taylor Time Consultants wrote, “You cannot get organized in a day; but you can get more organized daily.”

Organizing now to save time in the future

I recently heard a podcast where a former high school teacher was talking about how he prepared his lessons. He spent a lot of time preparing PowerPoint slides (with speaker notes) and practicing his delivery so he knew it worked well and fit the time he had. He said other teachers thought he was a bit odd for doing this much work, but his reply was that he’d much rather spend the time up front to save the time later. Once the lesson materials were created, he could pick up the same materials the next day or the next year and be ready to go.

As I listened to this, I thought about how so much organizing involves just this: doing some up-front work so things work smoothly in the future.

  • You create filing systems so you can find the papers (or computer files) you want when you need them.
  • You organize your books on bookshelves so you can find the book you want without too much trouble.
  • You organize your first aid supplies and create disaster preparation plans so you know you’re set for any future emergency.
  • You create to-do lists and checklists so you won’t forget critical things at some future time. For example, a packing list created once saves time on all future trips. It also prevents the trouble you’d have if you forgot your passport, some critical medications, the charger for your cell phone, etc.

Thinking about investing time now to save time in the future helps when trying to decide just how organized is “organized enough.” It makes sense for a teacher to invest extra time in lesson preparation when he knows he’ll be teaching the same lesson many times in the future.

Similarly, sometimes it’s worth spending more time on a filing system than other times. Some papers get accessed frequently, and others (such as insurance policies) are not needed that often — but when you do need them, the situation is critical. With those items it makes sense to spend time creating a well thought out filing system that lets you put your hands on the right papers almost immediately.

But other papers might be much less critical. For example, you may need to keep certain papers for legal reasons, but you don’t expect to ever have to access them — and if you do, the need won’t be all that time-sensitive. In that situation, you may want a much less detailed filing system, because it’s not worth the time to do anything elaborate. For example, a big collection of related papers (such as receipts for a given year) could just go into a Bankers Box. As long as the box was properly labeled, you could always find any papers you might need, in the off chance you do have to find any of them.

And consider your books — how organized do they need to be? My books are arranged by category (history, art, mysteries, science fiction, etc.). I’ll usually keep books by the same author together in a category, but I don’t do any further organizing within a category because I can find a book pretty quickly with just the system I have. If it gives you great pleasure to organize your books quite precisely, that’s fine — organize to your heart’s delight! But the rest of us can choose to be less structured.

As you’re creating each of your organizing systems, stop and think: Are you making a good trade-off between the time you’ll save in the future and the time you’re spending up front?

What to do with old USB flash drives

I’ve got an army of old flash-based thumb drives in a drawer and it’s time to put them to work. The following are ideas for what to do with these drives if you’re like me and now rely mostly on transferring files through the cloud (via Dropbox or similar).

Encrypted vault of secret files

I’m a big fan of Knox for Mac. It does several cool tricks including reformatting thumb drives to be secure, password-protected volumes. Perhaps you’re traveling for business and don’t want to take any chances with sensitive information. Maybe you’ve got info from multiple clients on a single drive and need to ensure they don’t get mixed up. Or, perhaps you want to pretend you’re an international spy. Whatever the reason, Knox keeps that information very secure indeed. You can even put a copy of the Knox app itself on the drive, so if you’re using it on a Mac without Knox installed, you can still open the volume (and Spotlight on that machine won’t index it, either).

Portable apps

So-called “portable apps” are light versions of software that don’t need to be installed on a host computer to run. By installing them on a thumb drive, you know you’ll be able to run the software you need when you’re away from you main computer. Some examples of portable apps include:

Audio books for the car

Many car stereos now feature a USB port for accessing media via the vehicle’s stereo or in-dash entertainment system. If you like listening to audio books like I do, you know that they can take up a lot of space on your digital audio player. Why not put them on a thumb drive and keep it in the car? That way you’ll have several of your favorite audiobooks available during long trips without taking up space on your smartphone or digital audio player.

Fun gifts

Need a gift for a family member or friend? CNET suggests adding music, photos, videos and other files that someone will find meaningful to a drive and then giving it as a gift. The recipient can even take those files off of the drive, put them somewhere for safe keeping and then have a nice thumb drive to use.

Press kit

I’ve received several press kits on customized thumb drives. They’ve contained a working version of a piece of software, a PDF of a press release, high-resolution graphics to use in a review, and more. Often the drives themselves bear a company logo. It’s a nice way to share such information and, like the gift idea, leaves the recipient with a nice drive to use.


Check with your local school, scout groups, camps, and other non-profit organizations to see if they need any drives. My kids needed them at school and camp recently. Just be sure to erase them thoroughly before handing them over.

Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.