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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing for hot desks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receipts: What to keep and what to toss

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

Receipts for small cash purchases

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

Receipts for credit/debit card purchases

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

Receipts for high-value items

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

Receipts for items you might want to return

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

Receipts for tax purposes

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

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

Miscellaneous tips regarding receipts

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

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

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

Hold the mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncluttering old computers and phones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Back up your data and then erase it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three tips for New Year’s resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

There are many ways to do that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader Question: Vintage bedspreads

Reader Delia recently sent us the following question:

What does one do with old, vintage sentimental bed spreads?

If the bedspreads have sentimental value but you no longer wish to keep them, consider asking family members or friends if they would like them. Send an email or letter describing the history of the bedspreads and include a few photos.

If the bedspreads are in good condition, a museum or local historical society may be interested, especially if the quilts handmade by local artisans or citizens of local importance. It always helps if you can provide historical context around the item being donated such as the life of the artisan(s) and the creation of the quilt itself. Occasionally theatre or reenactment groups may need quilts made during a specific time period. They may be willing to accept your donation.

Storing and displaying vintage quilts and bedspreads can be laborious. Antique fabric in general is difficult to handle because it is easily damaged. If you do not have the confidence or ability to manage a project like this, consult a local museum or historical society. They may be able to refer you to someone in your area who can take on your project.

The Great Lakes Quilt Centre provides quite a bit of information on how to clean, store and display antique quilts.

  • Washing can enlarge holes and bunch up batting. Wringing and pulling can break seams and damage fibres, especially when they are wet so do not put quilts in a washing machine or hang them on a clothesline. Dry cleaning should also be avoided.
  • A gentle vacuuming with low suction through a fiberglass screen is recommended to remove dust.
  • In storage, quilts should be folded as few times as possible. Every few months, refold them along different lines to avoid permanent creases. Stuffing the folds with acid-free paper or unbleached muslin can help avoid fold lines.
  • Wood, cardboard and plastic can emit chemicals that cause fabric to break down. Store quilts in unbleached, 100% cotton pillowcases or sheets to protect them from light and dust. Acid-free storage boxes are ideal for storing these types of textiles. Quilts can also be rolled onto acid-free tubes and covered with a cotton or muslin sheath to protect them from dust.
  • Store quilts in an area that is not subject to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Ideal conditions are slightly cooler than room temperature and around 50% relative humidity. Avoid light (sunlight and artificial light) because it can damage fibres as well as cause fading.
  • To capture historic details of the quilt, iron a piece of muslin to a piece of freezer paper and use a typewriter or laser printer to print the historical information about the quilt. Peel the fabric label from the paper and hand stitch the fabric carefully onto the back of the quilt. You could also use indelible ink to write the information on the muslin by hand and stitch it onto the quilt. It can be helpful to create a muslin pocket to hold other important information such as photos of those who made the quilt or a family tree diagram showing the relationship between the quilt maker and the quilt owner.

Finally, if you still have a sentimental attachment to your quilts and bedspreads but do not feel that it is worth the efforts to properly store them, consider taking photos of the entire quilt and close-up shots of specific fabrics. Write the story of the quilt-maker, how the quilt was made and how it came into your possession. “Publish” the story on your own and share it with your family and friends. Donate the quilt itself to charity or to an animal shelter.

The opposite of a unitasker

Each Wednesday, Unclutterer features a unitasker: something that serves a single purpose that could be handled just as easily with a multi-purpose product. These unitaskers are always good for a laugh.

But many single-purpose products are designed to do a single thing very well, and there’s no reason to avoid them. Love to make a wonderful cup of coffee first thing in the morning? You’ll probably want a good coffee maker.

In other situations, dual-purpose products can work well and save space. For example, I have a Switchit silicone spatula that I find quite useful.

But sometimes owning a dual-purpose (or triple-purpose) item means you have something that serves two or three purposes, but doesn’t handle any of them particularly well. I thought about this when listening to a podcast that ridiculed the Nostalgia Family-Size Breakfast Station.

In this case, it seems that the product was simply a poor match for the podcaster’s situation. Many purchasers on Amazon.com seemed to really like the breakfast station for use in campers, dorm rooms, etc. But it’s not the right product for someone who is focused on getting a really good toaster.

The distinction between expert (or demanding) users vs. more amateur users seems to be a key when picking some multi-use vs. single-use products. Australian Hardware Journal has an interesting article on how this plays out in the hand tool and power tool markets. The article notes that there have always been combination tools such as the Leatherman multi-tool and the Swiss army knife, but now manufacturers are also developing power multi-tools.

Multi-tools are getting better, too. Andrew Miller, new product development manager for the Apex Tool Group in Australia and New Zealand, said:

The successful multi-tool systems are able to add functionality without compromising on the performance of the primary task. Separate attachments which can be misplaced are a big negative so minimising attachments is the way forward.

But Miller also noted that unitaskers have their place. “Single purpose hand tools still dominate the market because more often than not, they perform the task in the most efficient way,” he said. And Jamie Costello, national sales manager for Einhell Australia, said, “Professionals are more likely to prefer a specialist tool.”

Consumer electronics is another arena where the multi-purpose vs. single-purpose choice arises. Do you want an e-reader like the Kindle or would you prefer a tablet like the iPad that lets you read books and do much more? It will depend on which reader you prefer, how much you’d use the device for more than just reading — and of course, the price. Do you want a point-and-shoot camera, or is the camera in your cell phone all you need? Reasonable people will come up with different answers.

So when considering the purchase of a well-designed unitasker vs. a multi-use product, consider your needs and pick what fits your situation. Picked poorly, both unitakers and multi-purpose tools can become clutter. Picked wisely, both can be valuable purchases.

Being organized about computer security

Decision fatigue is always a potential problem when you’re uncluttering. You can get to the point where you’ve made so many decisions that making any more seems like more than you can handle. When you find yourself at that point, it’s time to take a break.

While I’ve often read about (and had experiences with) decision fatigue over the years, I recently read about a somewhat related concept: security fatigue, defined as “a weariness or reluctance to deal with computer security.”

After updating your password for the umpteenth time, have you resorted to using one you know you’ll remember because you’ve used it before? Have you ever given up on an online purchase because you just didn’t feel like creating a new account?

If you have done any of those things, it might be the result of “security fatigue.” …

A new study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that a majority of the typical computer users they interviewed experienced security fatigue that often leads users to risky computing behavior at work and in their personal lives.

If you give into security fatigue, you really do put your information at risk. The following are some ways to make it a bit easier to use good security:

Prioritize your important accounts

You may have heard the advice that you should never reuse passwords. But in a 2010 interview with Ben Rooney of Tech Europe, security expert Bruce Schneier indicated that might be going a bit overboard:

“I have some very secure passwords for things that matter — like online banking”, he says. “But then I use the same password for all sorts of sites that don’t matter. People say you shouldn’t use the same password. That is wrong.”

Don’t try to remember all your passwords

There are two ways to avoid relying on your memory. The first is to use a password management program. I use 1Password, but other people like LastPass, KeePass, or one of the other available choices. A password manager can store your passwords (and your answers to security questions) so you don’t need to remember them all.

If you don’t want to use a password manager, writing your passwords down can be okay, too — Schneier has actually recommended that. I’ve had my wallet stolen, so I wouldn’t feel good about keeping my list of passwords there (as he recommends) unless I did something to obscure the password, as suggested by Paul Theodoropoulos in a blog post.

But keeping a list of passwords in a file folder with an innocuous name might be fine. Or you could write them inside a random book, as another blogger suggested.

Find an easy way to choose secure passwords

There’s no total agreement on the best formula for secure passwords, but two common approaches are:

  • A long string of random characters including letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols
  • A set of randomly chosen unrelated words

The first type of password is easily created using a password manager. LastPass even has a random password generator anyone can use.

The second type is created using an approach known as Diceware, which is fairly tedious. But there’s at least one website that provides a Diceware app, making it extremely simple to generate these passwords. A Diceware password like doodle-aroma-equinox-spouse-unbolted might be odd, but it’s easier to remember than something like 831M5L17vY*F. (Of course, you can just cut and paste your passwords in many cases, but sometimes you really do want one you can remember.) However, Diceware won’t work on sites that set character limits that are too short.

Treat security questions just like additional passwords

Do you provide your pet’s name as an answer to a security question? On a banking site, you might want that name to be something like Z8#3!dP47#Hx or grill-anthem-tinderbox-baguette-cosmetics. On a less important site you don’t need to be as cautious, but using your pet’s real name is still a poor idea.

More advice for buying a filing cabinet

Dave recently provided some great tips for buying a filing cabinet. The following are a few additional suggestions from my own experiences.

Unclutter first

With any organizing project, buying the containers (in this case, the filing cabinets) is one of the last steps. If you don’t remove the paper clutter first, you may wind up buying more storage than you need.

So much information we used to keep in files can now be found online. And if you’re comfortable with digital files, many papers that you receive which have valuable information can be scanned, reducing what needs to be kept and filed.

But once you’ve decided what to keep, be sure to buy filing cabinets that can store all your papers without overcrowding the drawers. It’s nice to keep each drawer no more than 80 percent full so it’s easy to add and remove files.

Consider what size papers you need to keep

Many people just need files for letter-sized paper, but you may have documents you want to keep in paper form that are larger (such as real estate documents in the U.S., which are often on legal size paper). Some filing cabinets can accommodate multiple paper sizes.

Choose to use hanging files — or not

Most filing cabinets come with rails for hanging files (or have high drawer sides designed to accommodate hanging file folders without the use of rails), so that’s what most people use. However, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame used to recommend a different approach:

I recommend you totally do away with the hanging-file hardware and use just plain folders standing up by themselves in the file drawer, held up by the movable metal plate in the back. Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc.

This advice seems to have been removed from the latest edition of Allen’s book, but it might still appeal to you. If you want to go this route, you’ll want a filing cabinet that has those movable metal plates, often called follower blocks.

Make sure the cabinet drawers have full-extension slides

Some filing cabinets have drawers that don’t pull all the way out, making it hard to reach the files in the back. Be sure to look for cabinets with full-extension drawer slides (rather than something like three-quarter extension) so you can easily reach everything without scraping your knuckles.

Don’t create a tipping hazard

If you’re at all concerned about the cabinet falling over — because you have small children or you live in earthquake territory, for example — get the materials needed to anchor the cabinet to the wall.

Be sure a filing cabinet is the right tool for you


Just because so many people use filing cabinets doesn’t mean you need to do the same. There are other options, such as file carts, which may suit your organizing style better. Or you may prefer to keep at least some papers in binders rather than in file folders.

When organizing goes too far

Organizing isn’t something you do just for the sake of being organized. Rather, it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier. When you’re organized you can find things when you need them. You have the space to do the things that matter to you: have company over, enjoy your hobbies, cook good meals, etc.

When you look at getting organized, there are always trade-offs to make. How much time do you want to spend organizing your books, your photos, etc.? One thing to consider is whether the time invested in doing the organizing will save you more time over the long run.

I just read an article by Brian X. Chen in The New York Times that touched upon these trade-offs. Chen consulted with Brian Christian, a computer scientist and philosopher, about organizing his digital photos.

Mr. Christian said photo organization illustrates a computer-science principle known as the search-sort trade-off. If you spend tons of time rummaging for a specific photo, then sorting photos may be worthwhile. But if you hunt for a picture infrequently, sorting may be a waste of time.

“If it would take you eight hours to tag all your friends, you should not undertake that until you’ve already wasted eight hours digging up photos of your friends,” said Mr. Christian, co-author of Algorithms to Live By, a book about using algorithmic principles to improve your life.

There are photo-management services such as Google Photos that can do some auto-sorting, and Chen went on to write about those. But the basic trade-off concept applies to all sorts of things beyond just photos. For example, I organize my books into general categories but don’t bother alphabetizing the fiction by author because I can find books quickly enough without taking that next step.

Similarly, as we’ve noted before, many people will find that they don’t need a bunch of folders for email because they can rely on their computer’s search function to find what they need. But others find that using folders works better for them, even if that makes email filing more time-consuming.

Organizer Lorie Marrero wrote on the Lifehack website about being too organized, and she provided this example of when the return on invested time doesn’t pay off:

People think it might look neat to have all matching plastic containers in their pantries that all nest nicely together and present a picture-perfect shelf. But for the ROI of simply having a pretty pantry, you have to spend a lot of time transferring every new food item from its original store packaging into the containers.

But if it really makes you happy to have a pantry with beautiful matching containers, then maybe you’d want to transfer foods into them even though this doesn’t make sense from a purely practical perspective. That’s a perfectly fine choice to make if it works for you.

Color-coding provides one more example what works for one person might be overkill for another. Does it help you to color-code your files? If so, it may well be worth the effort, money, and space to keep file folders in different colors on hand. However, if you’d work just as well with files that are all the same color, why not use the simpler approach?

As you set up your own organizing systems, think about what might be “just enough organizing” to allow you to function well and enjoy your home or office space.

Why computer backups matter

160930-externalhddIt’s been over a year since I last encouraged you to have a computer backup strategy in place, and some recent news made me want to emphasize this once again. More than ever, many of us store precious photos and documents on our computers, so taking the time to back them up properly is vital. The following stories illustrate just some of the reasons for having those backups.

Protecting against fire (or other natural disasters)

The following story by Matt Sledge in The New Orleans Advocate had a happy ending, but it could have ended tragically:

Gideon Hodge, 35, describes himself as a playwright, novelist and actor. When his fiancée told him that their apartment was on fire, he left work in Mid-City and rushed to the scene. That’s when he realized that his only copies of two completed novels were on a laptop inside. …

Hodge dashed into the building. He ran past the smoke and the firefighters yelling at him to stop and managed to grab the precious laptop.

“Anybody that’s ever created art, there’s no replacing that,” Hodge said. “It’s got pretty much my life’s work.”

Hodge could have been seriously hurt, and his laptop could have been unsalvageable. Fortunately, everything worked out fine. But if he just had an offsite backup, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to take such a risk.

Protecting against hard drive failures

The Advocate has an eye-catching photo of Hodge running into his home to get his computer. But as Dinah Sanders wrote on Twitter:

No one is going to take dramatic photos of “Writer frowns quizzically as hard drive just up and catastrophically fails one day.”

Such failures are an ongoing risk computer users face every day, and backups mean we’re protected when they happen.

Protecting against accidentally deleted files

Another situation where backups come in very handy is when a computer update goes wrong. Josh Marshall wrote in great detail about his recent experience using a new feature of Apple’s latest operating system for the Mac. He has both a home computer and a work computer, and when he tried using the new feature, things went very wrong. Without going into all the details (some of which are specific to his set-up), the following is one excerpt from his narrative:

In a flash all the files on my desktop disappeared and were replaced by the files from my work desktop.

Arghghgghhgghgh!

Anyone who has had an update go wrong can imagine how this would feel. Fortunately, Marshall had a good up-to-date backup and was able to restore all his files.

Protecting against theft

Michael Zhang wrote about one sad story on the PetaPixel website, where the lack of offsite backups was devastating:

Oakland-based photographer Jennifer Little had her home broken into last week, and her loss was devastating. In addition to stealing 8 of her cameras, the burglars also took 21 hard drives containing Little’s life’s work as a professional photographer.

Our precious computer files are the opposite of clutter. I would hate for any Unclutterer readers to lose any such files, so please take the time to create and implement a thoughtful backup strategy (if you haven’t already) that includes files on your computer and any files you’ve offloaded from your computer to external hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, or DVDs.