When neat and sloppy live together

A big part of why I write for Unclutterer is because an uncluttered life doesn’t come easily to me. I have to work at avoiding stacks of books, piles of clothes, and misplaced lists. Sharing victories and insights with you helps me discover and reinforce my own best practices.

While my default mode is “deal with it later,” my better half likes things neat, tidy, and sensible. I would’t say we’re Oscar and Felix, but my mess threshold is certainly higher than hers and over the years it has caused some friction in our relationship.

Differences in levels of tidiness can be problematic in a relationship, especially if the neat-adverse member is vilified by the tidy one or when the tidy party performs a disproportionate amount of the housework. Tina Tessina, a marriage and family therapist, told the Today Show that one in three couples she sees struggles with this issue, and that it’s most prevalent in young couples.

So what is a couple to do? If you’re one of those young couples and not yet living together, consider the advice from clinical psychologist and marital therapist Sam R. Hamburg: “The earlier you face up to differences like this and talk frankly about them, the better off you are.” In other words, talk about your expectations regarding tidiness before living together.

If you’re already living with someone and you have different levels of tidiness:

Compromise

I know there’s a saying that, “a good compromise leaves nobody happy,” but in this case it’s not necessarily true. One one hand, a drinking glass or two left on the coffee table isn’t the end of the world. Meanwhile, a mountainous pile of laundry on the floor isn’t acceptable. Both parties can learn to give a little. Instead of it being your-way-or-the-highway, discuss what is okay to leave as a little mess and what is absolutely not okay.

Designate messy and clean zones

I’m not suggesting you let one room devolve into the town recycling center, but not every room in your home needs to have the same level of tidiness expectations. The front room and kitchen might be your “always clean” zones and your garage workshop, sewing room, or game room can receive a little leeway and be a “messy” zone.

Motivate

My family has instituted the “hour of clean,” a time dedicated to giving the house a good once-over. Everyone knows when it’s scheduled and can prepare accordingly. Plus, it’s kind of fun with everyone involved and working together. Remember, too, that nagging has never motivated anyone, so leave that off your list of motivating strategies.

Have clear-cut responsibilities

I’m best when working from a specific list. When my wife hands me a list of chores or tasks, that’s great, as I have a clear definition of what needs to be done. For kids, you might take a photo of what an acceptable definition of “clean room” looks like and outline exactly what steps you want the child to take to get the desired result.

If a list would make other people in your home’s heads explode, use a less formal method of divvying up tasks. “I’ll do the laundry and mow the yard today.” “I’ll run the dishwasher and take out the trash.”

Have solutions that work for everyone

What works for one person in your home might not work for all. A three-step process for putting something away might be just fine for an adult, but a one-step process might be more appropriate for a toddler. When discussing your expectations, consider organizing and mess-busting solutions that everyone in your home can follow. You might be able to take off your shoes at the door and immediately walk them down to your clothes closet to be stored in labeled boxes, but your spouse might have trouble doing much more than taking off his or her shoes and not tracking mud through the house. A shoe storage solution by the main entrance of the house might be perfect for him or her, even though you have no use for it, and will help to keep the entrance clean to your specifications.

Updating your legal documents

In prior Unclutterer posts we’ve written about the importance of being organized about estate planning. My attorney says that if you’re over 18 and own stuff, you’ll want a will. Some people will also benefit from having a trust.

And then there are living wills and other medical advance directives. These can indicate what medical interventions you want (and don’t want) and who you want to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. Other documents may allow doctors and care facilities to share information about your medical condition with the people you specify. Similarly, financial powers of attorney can allow others to handle your finances if you’re unable to do so.

The specific documents required vary from state to state, so it’s wise to get legal advice as to what your state requires — or your country and locale, if you live outside the United States.

For the moment, let’s assume you’ve been more organized about your estate planning than the majority of people are, and you have all these documents created and signed. (If you don’t sign them, they are useless. Signatures may need to be witnessed or notarized.) Now, when did you last look at them and make revisions, if necessary?

I needed to deal with this recently as I prepared for surgery. The person I had designated as my primary agent in my advance health care directive is less available to serve in that role than when I first had the directive created, so I wanted to switch my primary and secondary agents. So I called my lawyer to have the document updated.

But when I reviewed the entire document with him, I saw more changes I wanted to make. In the years since he and I first drafted my directive, I’ve revised my opinions on some aspects of my possible medical care, and those needed to be reflected. They weren’t major changes, but I still feel better knowing my advance care directive now says exactly what I want it to, given how I feel today.

It might be obvious that you would want to review and update your estate documents and advance directives when you go through a major life change such as a marriage or divorce or when you move to a new state.

But you might also want to update your will if your relationship with anyone who is a named as a beneficiary, guardian, or agent has changed. Do you still feel close to all the people named as beneficiaries? Are the people named as your agents still able to serve? Elizabeth O’Brien wrote in MarketWatch about a man who named his wife as his agent, but she had developed dementia by the time he needed her services — which resulted in messy legal situation.

Also, your wishes regarding medical care may change over time, as mine did. Some of that is just due to the passing of time, since what you want when you’re young may not be the same as what we want when you’re older. Sometimes medical technology may change in such a way that new treatment options are available, which may affect your decisions. Sometimes changing religious beliefs may affect the medical care decisions you want to make.

Take some time every few years to review those legal documents, and make sure they still reflect your wishes.

Video game soundtracks for productivity

I’ve found a unlikely source of music to listen to while I’m at work: video games.

The relationship between music and productivity has been demonstrated in several studies. For example, one study has suggested that music increases productivity when workers are engaged in repetitive tasks, while another demonstrated that music has a positive effect on a person’s emotional state and can help with self-motivation.

Tempo and style can affect your productivity, too. If I’m cleaning a room or doing yard work, I want something with a fast tempo, typically rock. It’s easier to feel energized with invigorating music. It’s different when I’m working quietly at my desk, however, and that’s when I listen to video game soundtracks.

When doing quiet work at my desk, I must listen to instrumental music. Lyrics are too distracting because I end up singing along and not getting any work done. Modern video games (not old-school ones like Pac-Man) have lengthy soundtracks and are exactly what I’m looking to listen to. Yes, classical music is also a great choice, but not the only choice. There following are the game soundtracks I love to listen to while doing thoughtful work:

Lost Cities is a card game designed by Reiner Knizia. A version for iPhone and iPad was released a few years ago and it has a fantastic soundtrack (available here from iTunes). It’s like music from a fantasy movie.

Monument Valley is an award-wining game for iPhone and Android. It’s very pretty and so is its soundtrack. I’d describe it as atmospheric and certainly more abstract than that of Lost Cities. This is the album I listen to first thing in the morning with headphones. It really gets me in the mood to work.

Sword and Sworcery is a pixelated beauty of a puzzle game that I quite enjoy. Its soundtrack is just as quirky as the game itself. If bass, drums, and filtered synthesizers are your thing, this is the soundtrack for you. Just like the others, it’s all instrumental to get in the zone and work.

How to organize business cards

Do you have a stash of business cards hanging around somewhere? Jon Carroll (a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle) has one, and he wrote:

I have a top drawer in my desk. It’s where I put important things. Alas, a lot of things have seemed important over the last 30 years. So the drawer is jammed full — you have to pat it down just to close it. …

I recently made an [sic] pathetic attempt to, uh, curate the drawer. I got no further than the large pile of business cards I had thrown in there over the years. A lot of them were entirely mysterious, people I had no memory of ever meeting. (I bet you have a similar stash of business cards somewhere; it might be amusing to try to cull them sometime).

Jon also found cards that were meaningful or delightful in one way or another, beyond those from people he does know. For example, there was the card from “Le Bar a Huitres, a restaurant in Paris I have no memory of entering. But I love the maps on the back, with appropriate landmarks and useful data, including Metro stops.”

If you have a collection like Jon’s, what do you do with it? If you just enjoy pulling them out and looking at them — as memorabilia, a source of cool design ideas, etc. — then saving them in a drawer or a box, in no particular order, may be just fine.

But if you actually want to make use of the information on the cards, you’ll want a more systematic approach to dealing with them. The first step would be uncluttering. Get rid of cards from people you don’t recognize, and vow that in the future you’ll make a note on such cards when you get them, to jog your memory. You can also discard cards from businesses that have closed or that you no longer choose to patronize, and cards from stores and restaurants in cities you’ll never visit again. If any of these qualify as memorabilia, you might want to hold onto them but keep them separate from those that have useful information.

Now, what do you do with the cards you’re keeping? If you’re someone who deals best with physical cards rather than digital information, you might keep them in a business card book or file. I’m pleased with the business card file sold by The Container Store.

Another tip: If you have phone numbers just jotted down on pieces of paper, you can tape those papers onto blank business cards (or rewrite the information on the blanks) and file them with the other cards.

The other option is to store the information electronically, and there are many ways to do that. I don’t deal with many cards at a time, so I just enter the information manually into my computer contact list, which syncs with my smartphone. Once I’ve done that, I recycle the physical card.

If you’d prefer to scan the cards, there are many ways to do that. You could use a scanner such as one in the Fujitsu ScanSnap family. Or you could use a business card scanning app on your smartphone; there are many to choose from. Evernote has its own free Scannable app, which may be ideal for Evernote fans. Currently, it’s only available for iPhones and iPads.

One nice thing about digital storage is that you can search and retrieve information in many ways. For example, when I enter cards for doctors, I’ll note their specialties and the names of the people who recommended them, so it’s always easy to search and find the doctors if I forget their names. I also create groups of contacts, which is another way to make them easier to find. If you’re using a paper filing system, consider whether filing by name or by category would make it easiest to find the right card when you want it.

Last-minute tax day tasks

April 15 is almost here. Are those of you in the U.S. ready to file your income taxes? If not, break out that shoebox full of receipts, because Uncle Sam is waiting. The following are suggestions for ways you can get organized for tax time, relatively painlessly.

Gather up obvious tax documents

I half-jokingly mentioned the shoebox previously because having all of your documents in one place is extremely convenient. Before you sit down to work out your taxes, gather all your relevant tax documents into a folder or bin labeled for “Income taxes.” In addition to your employer-issued forms, don’t forget to print or otherwise assemble any deduction documents you’re going to need. (Go ahead and start a folder now for next year, as your future-self will thank you.) It’s so much easier than fishing around for that one piece of paper you need but just can’t find or, worse yet, having to request a duplicate copy from your employer or contract work site.

Note contributions

They’re easy to forget, so take extra effort to find your end-of-year statements regarding contributions you made to a 401(k), Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, and/or SEP. Have these numbers quickly accessible, too.

Recall the previous year’s experience

Take the time to write down answers to the questions you’ll likely be asked by an accountant or on a tax form, like did you make any charitable donations or perform energy-saving improvements to your home? Is there a home office you can take into consideration? Did you pay for any child care? Again, the 10 minutes you take to do this now will be a big time-saver later.

Schedule a couple hours between now and Friday to DO IT

You’ve procrastinated long enough. Give yourself two or three hours to sit down and take care of this responsibility. The IRS help lines are swarmed this time of year, but if you really get stuck give them a call or set up an appointment with a major tax preparer (if you can somehow get an appointment). Friday is the big day, so do what you need to do right away.

Good luck, and don’t spend that refund all in one place.

When procrastination can be a real problem

Almost all of us procrastinate at times. In many cases that might result in some stress and minor inconvenience, but not any major problems. But here’s one situation where I’d suggest you try to avoid procrastinating: getting medical care when needed.

This was brought home to me when a dear friend (who tends to put off seeing her doctors) had some problems that put her in the hospital. If she had waited one more day to seek care, she might well have died. Fortunately, she’s fine now.

And I made my own mistake in this regard, too. When I had some leg pain last year, my doctor said it might be tight muscles (treated with physical therapy) or it might be a hip problem (diagnosed with an X-ray). But I delayed getting the X-ray — and sure enough, it was a hip problem. I’m now scheduled for hip replacement surgery, but I could have avoided months of pain by getting the X-ray sooner, especially when physical therapy didn’t seem to help.

Preventive care, including diagnostic tests, are also important. Janine Adams recently wrote about how she put off having her first colonoscopy for 2 1/2 years. She wrote about why she procrastinated and how good it felt to finally have the test done:

Why was I dragging my feet? Partly because of the horrible things you hear about the prep. … But, in truth, there was also a certain amount of fear that there would be bad news. Irrational, but true. Because of course, if I did have colon cancer, it was better to know than not know. …

Well, it turned out that the prep wasn’t all that bad. Not fun, but not tortuous. And the procedure itself was nothing, because I slept through the whole thing. When it was over the news was good — and immediate. Everything normal. Come back in ten years.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to have that behind me. I didn’t realize the psychic energy I was expending avoiding it.

I’ve known people who procrastinate about going to the dentist, too. That might be because they aren’t aware of any problem, but gum disease can be pretty symptom-free until it’s progressed enough to be serious. People might also fear the pain, but my own experience tells me if I have regular cleanings it’s much less of an issue than if I wait too long. Even procedures like root canals sound worse than they feel, at least for me, since they are done with anesthesia. And I’m a wimp about pain.

I know that sometimes there are financial concerns regarding medical care, and I certainly respect any choices you need to make in such a situation. But if there are no financial constraints (and you can find care providers with evening or weekend hours, if need be), please don’t procrastinate on getting the care you need.

The many ways to categorize your stuff

How do you choose to group things when you’re putting them on shelves, in cabinets, in closets, etc.?

I recently watched a video from the Field Museum’s Brain Scoop series with Emily Graslie where she dives into taxonomy: “a totally complicated, really interesting field of science responsible for the naming and classification of things.”

To do this, she had four taxonomists, who usually deal with things like beetles, discussing the taxonomy of candy.

And the taxonomists had fun with it. Olivier Rieppel said, “Organisms you classify according to their evolutionary relationships. With candy or office furniture or whatever you classify according to similarities.” So they wound up suggesting classification based on contents (chocolate covered or not, for example), by shape, by size, and by color.

Margaret Thayer didn’t think much of using color, though. She said, “That would be like taking a whole bunch of different red birds and putting them all together because they’re red, but one of them is a cardinal and one is some kind of duck.”

But Larry Heaney, who suggested grouping by color, said, “That’s the thing about candy. You can put it together, you can group them any way you want.”

Besides making me crave some candy, the Brain Scoop video made me think about the many ways you might choose to group things in your home of office. Just as with candy, you can use any groupings you want, as long as they work for you.

For example, books can be classified using the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress classification system, or by any other method you like, including:

  • Genre (science fiction, historical fiction, history, art, etc.)
  • Alphabetical order by author
  • Size
  • Color
  • Chronological order, especially for series or any books by a single author
  • Status: read vs. not yet read
  • Owned vs. borrowed: library books, books borrowed from friends, and books you own
  • Language, if you have books in multiple languages
  • Owner, in a multi-person household

These classifications can be nested (by author within a genre, for example) and combined. Sometimes you might need to compromise from your ideal grouping to accommodate the storage space you have, especially when it comes to oversized books.

While some may question your choices — as with the candy, some people mock those who group books by color — whatever helps you find the right book when you want it is the right system for you.

Similarly, clothes might be classified by:

  • Type: pants, T-shirts, coats, etc.
  • Use: work vs. non-work, for example
  • Color (which can make a lot of sense in this situation)
  • Season (winter vs. summer clothes)
  • Fabric (because some fabrics may require different storage solutions)
  • Size (for those whose size tends to fluctuate, or for children’s clothing when you have clothes for both the current size and the next ones, or if you’re storing clothes for a second child)
  • Length (to accommodate items needing a long-hang area)
  • Freshly washed vs. worn but still clean

If the groupings you’re currently using for your books, clothes or other items aren’t working for you, think about what might work better and give it a try.

Making the most of commute time

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF), the average travel time to work (one way) in 2011 was 25.5 minutes. Of those who worked outside the home, 8.1 percent had commutes that were 60 minutes or longer. That means the average person spent 4.25 hours commuting each week, and a significant minority spent 10 hours or more.

If you’re one of those people with a sizable commute, how do you make good use of that time? The answer will vary depending on whether you drive, bike, or take public transit, but the following are some suggestions.

If you’re driving: Don’t use your phone

I’ve already written about how dangerous it is to talk on the phone when driving, even if you’re doing it hands-free. And obviously texting is dangerous, too. If you need to check your messages or reply to a call, please find a safe place to pull over before responding.

Use the time for learning

If you’re driving, you can listen to informative radio shows or put interesting podcasts and audio books on your smartphone or other mobile device. Also, a number of universities provide free audio lectures on a wide range of subjects.

You can also save articles from the web to the Pocket app and then use the “listen” function to have them read to you.

You might also use apps or CDs to help you learn a foreign language. I learned some rudimentary but useful French by listening to a few tapes over and over in the car, until the vocabulary stuck. (Yes, tapes — it was a while ago.)

If you’re using public transit, you can obviously expand your possibilities to include magazines, newspapers, physical books, e-books, etc.

Use the time for relaxation

Podcasts, audio books and such don’t have to be educational — they can be just pure fun. Sometimes it’s nice to just get lost in a good novel. Or you might choose to listen to music, either on the radio or on your mobile device. The right music might put you in a good mood to begin the day or might help take the edge off a not-so-wonderful workday on the way home.

If you’re using public transit and have an Internet connection, you could use the time for reading and updating social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Another idea would be to use the commute to practice mindfulness, as Maria Gonzalez explained in the Harvard Business Review:

The idea is that you are continuously aware of three things: your body, what you see, and what you hear. This is what it is to be mindfully present as you drive.

Use the time for work

If it isn’t feasible to leave work behind, and you’re using public transit, you could use your commute time to handle some of your email. You might also update your to-do lists or take some time for planning and strategizing.

Strike up a conversation

If you’re driving, it can sometimes be nice to have a commute partner. Some years ago, I drove to a yoga class that was a half hour from home with someone else from my area, and we both enjoyed getting to know each other better. It even led to a job for me.

And here’s something that might interest those taking public transit. Kathleen Elkins reported in Business Insider on a study done by two behavioral scientists, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, and published in October 2014:

Epley and Schroeder took their experiment to the subway. They randomly assigned three groups of commuters: One was instructed to connect with a stranger, one was asked to remain disconnected, and the control group commuted as they normally would.

While participants predicted their ride would be more enjoyable sitting in solitude, the research team found the exact opposite — those asked to engage in conversation reported a more positive, and no less productive, experience.

How do you use your commute time? Let us know in the comments.

Five household hacks to save you time and energy

When I was young, my friend Mike excelled at things that everyone else did marginally well. Like Hacky Sack, that little ball you’d kick once or twice before it went careening through the air. Mike was like a magician with that thing. Ditto juggling, Yo-yo tricks, all the stuff I thought was cool.

Today, I feel like Mike every time I use plastic wrap and while completing other assorted hacks around the house.

Plastic wrap tabs

I’m a calm guy normally, but using plastic wrap can make me homicidal. “We can put a man on the moon,” I’d say, waving the box around as if it were the very worst thing on the planet, “but we can’t design a usable box of plastic wrap.” You know the drill: draw out a length of plastic and the whole roll leaves the box, either as you’re pulling or when you attempt to tear it off.

A careful inspection of the box reveals the hidden solution. On each end of the long box, you’ll find a little perforated tab. These are the lock tabs. Push each one into the box, punching out the perforated edges, and they lock the roll into place. It’ll never leap out of the box again.

Laundry tag iconography: Solved

Take a look at this amazing chart from the American Cleaning Institute.

This thorough guide to fabric care symbols has helped me immensely. Many of the little icons convey their meaning instantly, but what the heck is a square surrounding a circle with three dots in the middle? Or a square with three black lines? I want to clean my shirt, not decipher cryptic code.

Print that out, laminate it if you wish, and hang it up near you laundry station.

Shoe tying

“I learned to tie my shoes when I was a kid. I know what I’m doing.” Well, maybe.

Unless you’re tying your shoe like Professor Shoelace, you might be taking way too long to tie your shoes:

The ghost’s toilet

A poltergeist is a “noisy ghost,” known for tossing objects around a room and making a general mess. But what about the ghost who likes to randomly flush the toilet?

The issue of a spontaneously flushing toilet isn’t supernatural in origin. What’s likely happening is that water is leaking from the tank into the bowl. When it reaches a certain level, the toilet flushes. You can fix this by replacing a part called the flapper for about five bucks.

Folding a fitted sheet

This last tip was as mind-blowing for me as the plastic wrap thing. For years, I “folded” a fitted bed sheet by crumpling it into a ball and then shoving it in a drawer, where no one could see that I had crumpled it into a ball. Turns out, that’s not the prettiest way to do it.

This great tip from Jill Cooper at Living on a Dime is perfect. Not only will you save storage space with a properly folded sheet, you’ll have an easier time finding the sheet you need.

As with the shoelaces, this one is better seen than described:

Being early

As the person who was voted by his classmates “most likely to have a tardy slip” in eighth grade, I’ve had a lot to overcome when it comes to punctuality.

If someone were to ask me about why I was often late, my most common answer would have been some variation of “I ran out of time.” Does this sound familiar? Additionally, I thought that arriving earlier than I needed was a waste of time. Why sit in the parking lot and do nothing for 15 minutes? Also, there’s a rush that can accompany sprinting out of the door at the last second.

I believe that I was into that rush for a while, at least subconsciously. Waiting until the last possible second generated an adrenaline release that accompanied the sudden, pressing flurry of activity, and that was something I enjoyed. Once I recognized that’s what was going on, it was time to address it.

And, surprisingly, all I did was create a simple pro and con list regarding my persistent tardiness. On the “pro” side (if you can call it that) was the thrill of adrenaline and the other reasons I already mentioned. The con side was much longer, and much more convincing: chronic stress, disappointing others, disrespecting others’ time, shoddy work, etc. With that in mind, I decided to be chronically early.

Ultimately, I discovered that being early can actually save you time. Here’s how:

  1. You have time to relax and prepare before an event. Arriving 15 minutes early isn’t a waste of 15 minutes, it’s a gain. Look over your papers. Review what you’re going to do or say in your head. Or, just sip your coffee or tea and breathe.
  2. Good things pop up. I’ve been in situations where someone has said to me, “Oh, since you’re early do you want to help me with something?” I was able to provide a little unexpected something extra to someone else, which they won’t forget.
  3. Bust out some email replies. When I pick up my daughter from ballet classes, I like to be a good 15 minutes early. The waiting room is quiet and cozy with lots of comfortable furniture — perfect for replying to a few email messages. Again, that’s 15 minutes gained, not wasted.

Finally, and this is my favorite reason to be early: it gives me time to connect with others. “Why are we so early?” my kids often ask. The answer is so we can talk. Or laugh. Or discuss school or friends. Even 10 quiet minutes in the car or a waiting room can be so nice.

Some organization is required to join the perpetually early. Commit to working on projects well before they’re due. Leave the house earlier than you think you need to, and ensure that bags are packed and ready to go the night before they’re needed. You’ll be sipping tea and chilling out while everyone else is speeding along, stressed to the gills in an attempt to show up on time. Welcome to the early club.

I Murdered My Library: A Kindle Short review

Author Linda Grant needed to downsize her personal library when she moved from a place with all sort of nooks and crannies for books — plus some specially installed bookshelves — to a flat with much less space. (Also, her real estate agent saw her huge number of books and told her something had to be done in order for the house to sell.) She wrote a Kindle Short entitled I Murdered My Library about the experience, which perfectly captured the mixed feelings so many people have when they consider downsizing their book collections.

On the one hand, there was a lot of sadness about giving up a library she’d been building since she was a little girl. Since the author is British, American readers may not recognize some of the specific authors and titles she collected back then, but the passion for books is definitely recognizable.

However, there were certainly some issues with that book collection. Some were books she had no need for, such as multiple copies of her own novels, sent to her by her publisher. She had those books in various translations, too. She also mentions the “books I did not particularly care for, but kept anyway” and the “non-fiction which I kept in the era before the internet” in case she ever needed specific nuggets of information.

And then there was the problem with the too-small type:

No-one told me. No-one said, “In the future, you will squint and screw up your face and try to decipher those words you once read so easily. Not because you are going blind, but because in the middle of you life your eyes have betrayed you. They are no longer fit for the purpose of reading.”

Grant is no technophobe, and she embraced her Kindle as a way around the print-size problem. And she reveled in how much easier it was to carry the Kindle than a 900-page book, and how nice it was to have “a library in my pocket.” But while new releases are available in digital format, a lot of backlist books (and much of her collection) are not available yet. And then there was the problem when her Kindle died at the start of a four-hour flight, leaving her with only the airline magazine to read.

Grant also realized that keeping all her many books didn’t make sense, if she was being logical about it all. As she noted:

I’m not going to re-read these books before I die. I am just bequeathing my nephew and his wife the heavy task of removing them at a later date.

What did she do with the books she decided wouldn’t make it to her new home? She gave the multiple copies of her own books to reading groups, charging just for the price of postage. She gave the translated books to libraries. As she noted, “Polish speakers in the London Borough of Haringey now have a choice of books: by me, or by me.” And the rest got donated to an Oxfam shop, where the sale benefits the charity.

But still, the empty shelves bothered her.

In my fear of not having enough room in my new flat for my books, I had got rid of far too many. The truth was, I now had empty shelves. Fewer books than space for them. …

There are not enough books here. The sight of the bare shelves shames me. What have I done?

At just 28 pages, this is a quick read and one that many people struggling with overflowing bookshelves will appreciate.

Organizing and updating useful data

When you hear the word “maintenance” in regard to organizing, you probably think about putting things back where they belong, going through the mail, catching up on filing, etc.

But I did a different sort of maintenance work this past weekend. I maintain a spreadsheet, used by the professional organizers in my area, which lists 400+ places people can donate, sell, or recycle a wide range of things. I hadn’t updated it for about a year, so it was time to do that again.

And so far, over 50 percent of the entries have needed to be changed. Some places went out of business, and one closed four out of its five sites. One business changed its name. Some no longer accept donations or take different things than they did in the past. And many of them had changed their website’s structure so the URLs I had were out of date. What had been a really valuable resource had become much less valuable, as so much of the information was dated.

The same kind of problem can happen with other types of information collections. For example, there’s your address book, in paper or digital form. Addresses (and sometimes phone numbers) change as people move. People marry, divorce, and have children — all of which might mean you want to update your listings for them. The stores and service providers you use change over time. So it might help to go through your address book periodically to ensure the information is kept up to date.

Another example: I have a Dropbox file listing specific things I sometimes buy — things where I might not remember the brand, model number or size when I’m out and about. One of those is the specific type of ink cartridges I use in my printer. But I just discovered that I never updated that when I replaced my printer five months ago. Oops! That’s fixed now.

I also have a medical history file in my Dropbox that summarizes my vaccinations, surgeries, prescription medicines, etc. New doctors ask for this type of information, and I sure don’t want to rely on my memory. I noticed this file was out of date by over a year — missing a surgery and my last flu shot — and I updated it.

Do you have a home inventory? It’s a good idea to have some sort of inventory (photos, video, spreadsheet, inventory app, etc.) in case you need it for insurance purposes. But it’s all too easy to create that inventory and forget to update it as your possessions change.

Another information collection that some people maintain is a list of payment dates for each of their normal bills. And some people who have restricted food diets keep notes on what they can eat at what restaurants.

Whatever useful information you’ve collected and organized, take some time periodically to make sure that information is up to date, so it can continue to serve your needs.