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.

Thorough

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.

Safe

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.

Clear

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.

Donate

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.

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.