What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

Protecting and organizing your digital data, the collegiate edition

This fall, my son will be attending university back in Canada (we still live in Britain) and there are number of things we have to do to get him ready. One of those things is to get his electronic gear ready for the transition. Many of the things we are doing to help him get ready are things we can all do to keep our digital information protected and organized.

1Password

On Unclutterer, we’ve talked about using 1Password for estate management by sending your master password to your executor. In the case of my son, he will send us his master password just in case his computer is ever lost or stolen.

1Password is great because users can save their password recovery questions, as well as secure information such as health card, social insurance, and passport numbers. 1Password will also save software registration information. We will also make sure our son has the 1Password app for his iPhone and sync the passwords through iCloud or Dropbox so he has his secure information available when he needs it.

Find my iPhone

As a family, we share our Apple ID information. This allows us to find each other’s iPhones and computers should they be lost or stolen. We’ve also enabled Send Last Location which sends the last known location of the iPhone to Apple when the battery becomes critically low.

Online Banking

Our son already manages his personal finances. iBank is our family’s preferred software system because it works with banks outside of Canada and the US.

Unclutter Computer Files

As we will do with paper files, we will remove digital files from my son’s computer before he goes to university that contain private information someone else might find valuable. Additionally, clearing all clutter will free up space on the drive to save new work. I doubt he’ll need a copy of his 9th Grade history project in digital format.

Backup System

While he is at school, we’ll set up an online back up system for our son through either Dropbox or iCloud so he won’t lose his homework. Fortunately, all of the work he does on the university’s servers will be automatically backed up.

Creating a home inventory

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to lose your possessions to a theft, fire, tornado, or other disaster. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be trying to remember exactly what I owned during such a stressful time. And that’s why I have a home inventory.

A home inventory also helps you decide how much insurance you need for your home’s contents. If you’ve been in your home for a number of years, do you have any idea what it would cost to replace everything in that home? Until I did a home inventory, I certainly didn’t.

And here’s a side benefit: As you go through your home, noting everything in it, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up doing some uncluttering.

How do you create a home inventory? There are lots of options, so you’ll want to pick the one that works best for you. You may also choose to combine two or more techniques.

Photos and/or videos

This may be the quickest and easiest answer, especially if you have a smartphone that records videos. You can walk through your home, capturing images of what you own and narrating what’s what. Be sure to include important details about your items, such as model and/or serial numbers. You might also want photos (or scans) of receipts for your most valuable items.

Organizer Margaret Lukens writes that you can do a video inventory of an average 3-bedroom house in about an hour. The one disadvantage: If you get new things or move things around, you’ll need to create a new video. But given how quick the whole process can be, this may not be a big problem.

Home inventory apps/programs

There are plenty of these, including the following:

Some other programs, such as HomeZada, have a home inventory function as part of a larger home management toolset.

Some of these tools are free; others are not. One concern with tools like these is that there’s always a chance the company behind them will go out of business or decide to stop supporting the program. (I noticed that a number of programs I’d bookmarked years ago are no longer being sold.) You may want to investigate what the company says it will do under such circumstances; will it provide a means for you to export your information?

Generic software programs

You may already own some software that will work just fine for creating an inventory. When I created my home inventory over 10 years ago, I used a simple Excel spreadsheet. Vertex42 even provides a home inventory spreadsheet template, for those who’d like some help getting started. Other people like using Evernote to create a home inventory.

Cataloging/collection management software

When I did my home inventory, I didn’t always list each individual item. For things like CDs, trade paperbacks, basic hardcover books, and bottles of wine I just counted how many items I had in each category. But if you have a collection where you want to know exactly what items you have, you may want to use software that is designed for managing the type of collection you have: books, music, wine, etc.

Paper tools

A home inventory can also be done with paper and pen (or pencil). You can find sample forms online from many home insurance companies. In the U.S., many states have departments of insurance that also provide home inventory forms.

Home inventory companies

You can also pay someone to create a home inventory for you. Some professional organizers provide this service, and I’ve seen other companies that have home inventories as their main service offering.

Reminder: No matter how you create your home inventory, you’ll need to be sure the resulting inventory components (digital files, paper, photos, videos) are safely stored away from your home. And you’ll want to have a process for updating the inventory over time, since things will change.

6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list

Most of us use some sort of to-do list, whether it be a paper one or a digital one. While it’s easy to get fixated on the tool — a notebook and a cool pen, your favorite app, etc. — there are also basic strategies to consider. Just how do you construct and organize your to-do list, using any tool?

The following are some strategies people have used effectively; I’d suggest mixing and matching to find something that works for you. Please note that each strategy has much more to offer than the brief summary I’m providing here; you can read more about any of them, if you’re interested.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology

Fully explaining the GTD methodology takes a whole book; I’m only going to touch on a few key ideas related to to-do lists.

Separate tasks vs. projects. If your list includes a bunch of simple single-step items (call Person A about Subject B, stop at hardware store and buy the items on my list) and a complex multi-step one (remodel the bathroom), can you guess which one will never get done? The answer is to identify the first physical step you’d take on that remodel project, and add it to the task list.

Keep a someday/maybe list for ideas you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on — and that you certainly aren’t going to act on right now.

Subdivide tasks by context. Are there tasks that can only be done under certain circumstances, when you have certain tools available? If so, group those together. For example, I’ve grouped things that can be done at home or in town vs. things that can only be done when I’m going further afield.

Don’t assign priorities, because these are fluid. Review your lists at least weekly, but then decide in real time which items are the highest priority. Add any firm dates — deadlines or appointments — to your calendar, but don’t add your other to-do items.

Capture everything you need to do — or think you may want to do — on your lists; empty your mind.

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Covey explains the urgent/important matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For each task, decide if it’s urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. Try to spend most of your time working on things that are important but not urgent: relationship building, long-term planning, etc.

Various people’s short-list approaches

People who advocate for short lists are not saying you don’t have your long list — just that you don’t focus on that long list every day. Jeff Davidson has a list that’s 12-14 pages, but those are mostly medium-range or long-range activities. The first page is his short-term items, and that’s what he focuses on every day.

Leo Babauta recommends a “Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff).”

Other people recommend short to-do lists that include:

  • The six most important things to do today
  • A 3 + 2 rule: three big things, and two small ones
  • A 1-3-5 rule: One big thing, three medium things, five small things
  • Julie Morgenstern’s “add it up” approach

    In Time Management From the Inside Out, Julie recommends putting a time estimate on each task, so you know when you’re over-committing for your day, your week, etc. You can then decide which tasks to delay, delegate, diminish (scale back), or simply delete from your to-do list entirely.

    Robyn Scott’s melodramatic to-do list

    Robyn organizes her to-do list by emotion. This may or may not appeal to you, but the idea of personalizing your list, including the way you group your items, is a good one.

    Daniel Markovitz’s “living in your calendar” approach

    Daniel says that to-do lists don’t work, and he recommends the exact opposite of David Allen: estimate how long each task will take, and transfer your to-dos off your list and put them in your calendar.

    Organizing household chemicals

    The photograph to the right was taken in 2010 at a client’s home. We called this, “The Scary Cupboard,” and it was in a damp basement laundry room. The constant moisture in the air reacted with the containers. The moisture eventually penetrated and softened the Sani-Flush container and then it started reacting with the Sani-Flush itself.

    We weren’t really sure what had been in the white plastic container next to the Sani-Flush, but the plastic bottle had degraded so badly that the contents leaked all over the bottom of the cupboard and started dissolving the wood and the other containers. The rust cylinder with the orange cap was a spray can of Static Guard. It collapsed and turned to powder when I touched it.

    I donned my personal protective equipment and placed all of the contents into bins destined for the household hazardous waste depot.

    The homeowners were very lucky because there was only some damage to the cupboard. There was the potential for some very dangerous toxic fumes and the heat buildup from the reactions could have started a fire and injured the homeowners.

    The following tips are suggestions for organizing cleaning and other caustic chemicals in your home so that you don’t encounter a similar, hazardous situation:

    1. Before you purchase a product think about what you already have in your home that could do the job. Baking soda makes an effective scouring powder and vinegar can remove hard water stains. If these products will work, you don’t need to buy anything more caustic.
    2. If you only need to use a small amount of a cleaning product, for example a little bit of silver polish to shine a piece of jewellery, you may be able to find a jewellery store that would do the cleaning for a very small fee. You could also ask friends or neighbours if they have a bit of silver polish to spare. If you do need to purchase a specific product, only purchase the amount you will use in a reasonable period of time.
    3. Read the label and be sure you understand and follow the directions on how to use the product safely, how to protect yourself when using it, and how to properly store it. If you have any doubts about proper usage or storage, do a bit of research on the product to learn more. The manufacturer’s contact information always is on the label if more information is needed.
    4. When using the products in your home, always leave the product in its original container. Empty soda bottles and margarine tubs may not be capable of storing certain hazardous chemicals. Also, there is always the danger that someone may mistake that bright blue cleaning solution for Gatorade! Do not cover up or remove the labels from chemical products.
    5. Never mix products together unless it specifically states on the label that it is safe to do so. When diluting a product with water, always fill the container with water first, and then add the product. If you add the water to the chemical, it may create heat and melt the container or cause injury. Even mixing different brands of the same product can cause reactions, as the formulations may be different.
    6. It is not a good idea to store hazardous chemicals near food or food products because pots, pans, and cooking utensils can become easily contaminated with a hazardous substance. Consider storing items in a hallway closet or locked cabinet elsewhere in the home rather than under the kitchen sink, which is a damp area. Dampness can cause metal containers to rust and explode.
    7. Ideally you should not store materials or chemicals on shelves above shoulder height. However, if you have no other storage area, always get a ladder to access these items. Remember, do not store liquids on shelves above powders or solids in case of leakage. Do not stack containers.
    8. Avoid storing flammable goods or products inside your home that have the potential to release harmful fumes. These items include paints, solvents, gasoline, fuels, and varnishes. Store them in a separate building or in an area that is well vented to the outside.
    9. If you have a swimming pool, be sure your storage area for the pool’s chemicals is well ventilated. Vapours may build up inside containers in high temperatures. On opening, these vapours may be expelled directly in your face, causing eye and mucous tissue injury. Pool chemicals should not be stored near paint, lawn care products, gasoline, solvents, or flammable materials. You may wish to relocate your gas-powered lawn mower from your garden shed to your garage. See the EPA website for more details on pool chemical safety.
    10. Some chemical products actually taste sweet and can be very attractive to pets and small children, so do not leave chemical products unattended. If you must leave the room in the middle of a task, either put the products away or take them with you. It is handy to carry products in a bucket — or two buckets if the products are incompatible.
    11. Know how to properly dispose of chemical products. If you don’t know how to dispose of the products, contact your local waste management authority. Hazardous household chemicals should never be discarded on the ground or poured into storm drains.
    12. Place empty containers in the recycling or trash in accordance with the regulations in your municipality. If they are partly full, consult your local waste management authority for advice. Also remember to never incinerate or puncture pressurized containers (spray cans).
    13. Finally, when storing chemicals, have all containers facing the same direction (such as the front of a shelf) so it is easy to read labels and identify products.

    Evaluating your computer backup strategy

    World Backup Day is March 31 — a good reminder to take a moment to think about how you’re doing your backups, and whether or not there’s something you’d like to adjust. Consider the following points:

    Are you backing up all your critical files?

    Some backup tools will back up everything on your computer. Others won’t backup your software programs (Microsoft Office, Evernote, TurboTax, etc.), assuming you can simply reinstall those. Some may depend on you to list exactly which files you want to back up. And you may use an entirely manual process rather than a program, which also means you need to determine the files you include in your backup.

    In the final two cases, especially, be sure you’re thinking about all your important files. I’ve seen people lose extensive collections of bookmarks/favorites from their favorite browser because the relevant files weren’t backed up. (They aren’t stored in the same place as documents and photos.)

    Do your backup programs fit your needs?

    You may choose to run one backup program or multiple ones for added protection (one local backup and one in the cloud, for example). In either case, consider the following guidelines:

    • Make sure at least one backup program runs automatically. Everyone’s busy, and almost everyone is a bit lazy about backups. Having a program that runs automatically can save you from yourself.
    • Make sure at least one program creates an offsite backup. That usually means using a cloud backup service, but it could also involve taking a backup drive and putting it in a safe deposit box. This will protect you if there’s a theft, a fire, or some other tragedy that could affect everything in your home.
    • Make sure at least one program saves files you’ve deleted from your computer as well as older versions of files you still have. If your only backup is one that mirrors your computer as it is at the time of the last backup, you’ll be in trouble if you delete a file by mistake, make an update you didn’t want to make, or wind up with a corrupted file because of a hardware problem.
    • If having a new or repaired computer fully functional as quickly as possible is critical to you, look for a program that will create a bootable external backup drive. This means you can start your computer using an external hard drive as the data source, rather than your computer’s internal hard drive. SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner are two alternatives for those using Macs, and I’ve been very happy with SuperDuper. I’m not as familiar with what’s available for those using PCs.

    Do you check your backup status messages?

    Programs will handle this differently, but all will provide some status indicator. For my cloud backup service, for example, I get daily emails. It’s easy to overlook these repetitive messages, but don’t do that. Take the time to make sure they aren’t alerting you to a problem.

    Have you tested your backups?

    As Gabe Weatherhead of MacDrifter tweeted, “A backup doesn’t count until you’ve done a restore from it at least once.”

    While restoring all files for testing purposes is usually not practical, you can certainly try restoring a file or two and making sure things look okay. I knew someone who had to restore a great many files, and had never tested her backups until that time. Sadly, she found that while that files got restored, the date stamp on the files was not correct, which caused her numerous problems.

    If you’re creating a bootable external backup drive, try booting from that drive and making sure everything seems to work okay.

    Do you have the license keys and/or serial numbers for all your software?

    In order to get your software programs reinstalled or to get them running again after you’ve restored them from a backup, you’re likely to need your license information. Do you have that information readily available? If not, gather it up now so you don’t need to scramble around for it when there’s a problem.

    Just in time

    Many businesses employ a “just-in-time” (JIT) production method. In the JIT strategy, supplies are ordered just in time for production so items are manufactured just in time for shipping them to the customer. The reason this system is popular is because factories do not have the expenses of maintaining large warehouses. Using funds to purchase and store unused inventory means those funds are not easily available for other opportunities.

    Care must be taken when manufacturers employ the JIT method. If not enough stock is stored then deliveries, and associated delivery charges, increase. Also, the variations of cost prices can affect manufacturers to a greater degree.

    A number of years ago when I realized that I had toilet paper stored in every closet and cupboard (when I counted them, I had over 200 rolls), and I always seemed to run out of shampoo, I realized that I had to start employing the JIT method for my household supplies.

    The JIT process

    Estimate how long it takes to use up the item. To help you estimate, when you open a package, write the date on the lid or underside of the box or bottle with a permanent marker. When you have used up the item, you’ll see the date and get a fairly accurate estimate. For example, depending on your household, you may use 1-2 rolls of toilet paper per week per bathroom. A 250mL (8oz) bottle of shampoo may last a month. It might take 3 months to use up 500m (500yds) of plastic wrap. Consider seasonal and situational changes as well in your estimations. You might use more plastic wrap during the school year when you are making children’s lunches. You might use less shampoo after you get your hair cut.

    Estimate repurchasing time. The time it takes to purchase replacement items may not be an issue if you can easily pick the items up during your weekly grocery shopping. However, if you purchase items from a specialty store that you visit infrequently or order items online and have them delivered, you may need to plan well in advance. For example, our family loves Kraft Caesar salad dressing from Canada. It takes us about two months to use up a bottle. We have an open bottle in the fridge and we store one extra bottle in the cupboard. As soon as I open the bottle from the cupboard, I order another one because it takes about 3-4 weeks to ship from Canada to the UK.

    Allocate storage space. The storage space that you have will determine the amount of product that you purchase and how frequently you need to repurchase. You may determine that you don’t need to store as much as of some items as you thought. (I really didn’t need 200 rolls of toilet paper!) This may allow you to free up some space to store other items that take more time and energy to purchase. For example, storing an extra bottle of your favourite salon shampoo would result in fewer trips across town to the factory outlet.

    Hone your forecasting methods. It isn’t always easy balancing how much of certain items you need with the storage space that you have. Certain changes can affect your forecasting such as changes in household routines as well as changes in the products, such as package size and price. If you keep the JIT method in mind, over time you’ll determine what is right for your needs.

    Book review: Better Than Before

    It’s rare that I come across a book and think, “every Unclutterer reader could benefit from reading this book.” But Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives falls into that exclusive category.

    As the title suggests, this book is about creating beneficial life-long habits. The book doesn’t prescribe which habits a person should create, rather it’s a comprehensive exploration of HOW to make lasting habits that YOU want to make. If you want to be more productive, manage your time better, stay current with household chores, live in an organized manner, have better follow through, or any of the other “Essential Seven” changes like exercise regularly or eat and drink more healthfully, this book can help you to make that happen.

    First and foremost, Rubin acknowledges that everyone is different and a one-size-fits-all approach to habit formation is ineffective. In the Self Knowledge section, she provides questions and examples to help the reader learn more about him/herself to determine what methods and strategies will actually stick. She points out that most people fall into one of four habit tendencies — she calls them The Four Tendencies — and structures the advice in the book around this concept. (For example: I’m predominantly an Upholder, but have a few Questioner leanings. Therefore, I know her suggestions for Upholders will almost always work for me and if not, the Questioner suggestions are what I should try next.)

    From there, Rubin recommends strategies for how to determine which habits you wish to cultivate and why you may wish to introduce specific habits into your life. She believes, as I do, that “How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.” Our daily habits are who we are. She defines habits as “freeing us from decision making and from using self-control,” and more clearly explains this definition of habits a few paragraphs later:

    When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

    So, once you have clarity of what you wish to do and what habits you wish to incorporate to reflect your identity, you can set forth on your habit creations and life changes. She believes there are four Pillars of Habits: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. You’ve likely encountered these concepts before in terms of goal setting — you need to be able to monitor (in a quantifiable way) the process and outcomes, you need to begin with a foundation of changes that will produce results quickly and in a rewarding way, you need to schedule when the habits will take place, and then have a way to be accountable for your changes. Rubin provides varying types of strategies in each of these Pillars based on your tendency type.

    Next, she addresses how to begin the new habits. And then, what I see as the most valuable part of the book, Rubin explores the most common ways people fail at sustaining good habits and how to overcome those problems based on their tendencies. In the chapter “Desire, Ease, and Excuses,” I was most drawn to the sections on Safeguards and Loophole-Spotting.

    Safeguards, at least as I interpreted them, are plans you create in advance for when you expect to fail or when you will make exceptions to your habits. It’s knowing yourself well enough to predict how you will fall off the proverbial wagon and then plan what you will do about it when it happens. They’re backup plans formulated in the If-Then method: “If _____ happens, then I will do _____.” For example, I abstain from eating doughnuts — I’m not a huge fan of them and they’re not a healthful food choice. However, based on experience, I know there is one situation where I have virtually no self-control when it comes to consuming them. Therefore, I have a safeguard in place for when I find myself in that specific tempting situation. “If someone offers me a doughnut, then I will eat one ONLY if I am standing in a doughnut shop and the doughnut is hot and fresh off the production line.” I am a person who doesn’t eat doughnuts except in that specific situation, and since I am rarely in that situation, I at least know how I will handle myself if/when I encounter it. In 10 years, I have only encountered that situation twice.

    Loophole-Spotting is similar to Safeguards in that it requires you to plan how you will behave when you seek out loopholes. I’m not a huge loophole seeker (I like to finish projects more than start them), but one of the loophole examples Rubin provides was something I do all the time. She names 10 common loopholes (you’ve likely used the “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole when you’re sick or on vacation and the Tomorrow Loophole when you put things off until tomorrow) and the one that screamed at me was the Concern for Others Loophole. This loophole is when we excuse our behavior because we believe our exceptions to our habits are for another person’s benefit, when that actually isn’t the case. She provides numerous examples that I’ve made countless times in my life and one just the other day: “It would be rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of cake.” Similar to doughnuts, I’m not a huge fan of cake and I prefer to abstain, yet I eat a slice of cake at every birthday party I attend because I don’t want to seem rude! Her advice for dealing with loopholes is sound:

    By catching ourselves in the act of invoking a loophole, we give ourselves an opportunity to reject it, and stick to the habits that we want to foster.

    I personally found this book to be incredibly helpful. If you want to make changes in your life through the adoption of positive habits, I strongly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Again, I truly believe all unclutterers could benefit from the research and analysis contained in it. Establishing uncluttering and organizing habits can simplify one’s life, and Rubin’s methods can show you how to do this effectively.

    Reduce visual clutter

    Even when you have a place for everything in your home and everything is in its place, you still might feel like your home (or part of it) continues to appear cluttered. The article “Measuring visual clutter” in the Journal of Vision explains how this is possible and ways you can reduce visual clutter in your already tidy spaces.

    How to reduce visual clutter

    Create one focal point in each room. When you walk into a room, your eye should be instantly drawn to one object/area in the space and that object/area should be where you want attention to be drawn. In the bedroom, the focal point is most likely the bed. The table is most likely be the focal point in a dining room.

    Keep the floor clear. Obviously, keep stray objects from impeding traffic patterns throughout a room. Also, remove small area rugs and replace them with one larger one, which will make the room/area feel more open because the eye sees a large unbroken space. (In other words, don’t have four area rugs in your television watching space, but one large rug under the couch, chair, media center, and coffee table.)

    Avoid having too many conflicting patterns in the same room. Patterns draw attention and if there are numerous patterns, it’s difficult to visually process all of them. For instance, if you have patterned wallpaper, do not have a different pattern on your curtains and another on the carpet and yet another on every cushion on your couch.

    Display only small groups of collections. If you have a collection of items, keep what is on display small in number. Either keep the collection small or only display a portion of it each season (and be diligent about switching it out, properly storing what isn’t on display, etc.). This will allow individual objects to stand out because they’re not hidden amongst other pieces. Some interior decorators suggest opting for larger, single pieces because decorative accents that are smaller than a cantaloupe can make a room look cluttered.

    If for display purposes only, organize books by decorative elements. It is much easier for the eye to look at straight lines and blocks of colour than zigzag lines and bits of colour here and there. At Unclutterer, we don’t recommend people in small spaces store physical books for purely decorative purposes, but if your home is large and you can properly care for a book collection, size and color organizing will create less visual clutter in your space.

    Make labels extremely legible. When making labels to identify the contents of bins or binders, use one, easy-to-read typeface. (Such as: Helvetica, size 20, regular, all caps.) Ensure the labels are the same size and shape and aligned at the same height on the bin or binder. The same rule should apply to labels on file folders in your filing cabinet.

    Accidents in Uncluttering

    A few years ago, Unclutterer’s editor-in-chief Erin Doland described her regret at accidentally disposing of vital documents when uncluttering. While we would all like to have instant clutter-free lives, it is important to take your time to properly sort items before you dispose or donate them. When uncluttering and organizing, think of the process as more like a marathon than a sprint. The following are a few tips to help you avoid accidents when you’re uncluttering.

    Take your time and examine every item before disposing it. Often money is forgotten in old purses and coat pockets or between the pages of a Bible. Sometimes expensive jewellery can be mixed in with costume jewellery. Occasionally, a toddler will have a hidden cache of useful items between the sofa cushions or tossed valuables in with Lego bricks. People with dementia or mental health issues may hide money, expensive items, or important documents in places that may not seem logical, such as inside mattresses. Last month, a thrift shop in Nova Scotia turned over to police thousands of dollars in cash that they found in donated curtains.

    When organizing paperwork, you do not need to read every scrap of paper, but it is important to scan documents to determine their significance. Tax accountants and lawyers can provide important information regarding which documents are important to keep for legal and tax purposes. Obtaining advice from these professionals is especially important if you are helping someone unclutter whose personal business you’re not familiar with, such as aging family members.

    Consult with family members and friends about sentimental items, documents, and photographs. You might feel that an object has very little value, but it may hold powerful memories for another family member. If your family and friends live far away, it might be difficult for them to stop by the house to view items. Consider setting up a website or a Facebook group to share photos and descriptions of items you wish to pass along to family and friends.

    When uncluttering, clearly separate the garbage from the donations. Use only black or dark green bags for trash and transparent bags or cardboard boxes for donations. If different bags or boxes are going to different charities, clearly label them on both sides of the bag or box. Astronaut Chris Hadfield had intended that a box of memorabilia from his time in space be donated to a science centre but last week his flight suit was found for sale at a Toronto thrift shop due to a mix up with donation boxes during a move.

    Get an expert opinion before you dispose or donate items with which you are not familiar. You may be able to determine the approximate value of items by looking online at sites like eBay or specialized sites for specific collectibles. You may not find a comic book that will pay your mortgage but you may be able to earn a few extra dollars. If you don’t even know what the items are, check out our tips on how to deal with UFOs (unidentified found objects) before you dispose of them.

    Have you ever found an expensive item stashed in a strange place while uncluttering? Have you accidentally donated or disposed of something you wish you hadn’t? Help fellow unclutterers by sharing your stories in the comments section.

    Organizing a small space

    People who live in small spaces have unique organizing challenges. There may be limited storage space (small closets and no garage, attic, or basement) and limited living space (small rooms used for multiple purposes).

    The following are some suggestions for organizing in this kind of small space. The same ideas could be used in any space, but they are more important when space is at a premium.

    Unclutter

    Assuming you’re planning to live in the same tiny space for a number of years, it’s time to be extremely selective about what you let into that space. You probably don’t have room for stuff that’s just okay — as much as feasible, limit yourself to things you love. You’ll want to avoid (or limit) those unitaskers, too.

    Remember the wise words of Peter Walsh in his book It’s all Too Much, where he recommends you begin your uncluttering/organizing project this way: “Imagine the life you want to live.” If you’re holding onto things that don’t fit with your current reality or your realistic imaginings, it may be time to bid them farewell. (You may want to take some photos of special items before you part with them.)

    You’ll also want to give thought to how many of any one thing you need. How many sets of sheets? How many T-shirts?

    Go vertical

    If you have limited floor space, look to the walls. Can you use shelving (freestanding or wall-mounted)? What about hooks and/or wall pockets? Would a hammock for the stuffed animals make sense?

    Consider vertical versions of standard storage pieces, too. For example, a shoe tree may work better than a horizontal shoe rack.

    Try smaller versions of standard items

    Many shelving units are 12-18 inches deep; for example, the Kallax system from Ikea (which replaced the very popular Expedit) is 15 3/8 inches deep. If you don’t need that depth, you could get a shelving system that’s only 10.3 inches deep.

    Look for other situations where a smaller product will meet your needs, saving precious space.

    Consider collapsible and folding items

    You can get collapsible versions of many kitchen items: colanders, whisks, scales, dish drainers, etc. Another example: Gateleg tables fold up into a small space when not in use.

    Look for hidden storage spaces

    Not everyone likes to store things under the bed, but if this doesn’t concern you, consider getting bed risers to provide more under-bed storage space. Paper towel holders can be mounted on the bottom of the upper kitchen cabinets. Shower curtains can have storage pockets. These are just a few of the ways to make use of every bit of space you have.

    Consider dual-purpose furniture

    I’ve visited friends who have no kitchen or dining table in their small home, but their coffee table has an adjustable height and it converts into a dining table quite easily. Some of this dual-purpose furniture is on the expensive side, though.

    Go digital

    If you’re comfortable with digital solutions, you can save a lot of space that used to hold papers, books, CDs, DVDs, etc.

    Avoid most bulk purchases

    Even if it saves money, you’ll probably have to pass on many bulk purchases because you simply won’t have room to store what you’ve bought. Some people manage to find space for a few high-priority bulk purchases (toilet paper, paper towels, cat food cans, etc.) but forego the rest.

    Keeping essential home work supplies on hand

    As spring approaches and winter thaws (it will eventually thaw, right?), my family and I have found ourselves in that dreaded time of the elementary school year: projects. It’s like a perfect storm, when everyone’s energy levels are low, the cold and dark days have all of us down, no one feels like completing anything requiring a great deal of mental effort, and certainly no one wants to doing anything that involves creative depths, pasteboard, stencils, or Papier-mâché.

    This is also the time of year that supplies start to run low around the house. None of the pencils have sharp points or erasers. Lined paper is at a minimum, and I assure you the teacher won’t accept a paragraph written on the envelope from the water bill, no matter how neatly it’s written. With that in mind, the following is a list of items you can grab to restock, organize, and survive the second-half of the school year.

    Pencils. My kids, at nine and eleven, are not yet to be trusted to complete homework in pen. So, we buy pencils in bulk and store then in mason jars right at their desks. Doing this sure beats the nightly search for a pencil. Speaking of…

    An electric pencil sharpener. Spend some money on a heavy-duty sharpener that’s going to last a long time. Remember that hand-crank job that was probably screwed into the wall of your elementary school classroom? Don’t put that nightmare in your house because it will only cause a mess. And please avoid those little handheld jobs that deposit pencil shaving all over the floor. Instead, look for an electric sharpener with a heavy base for one-handed sharpening. We have a Bostitch model at home and it’s dependable.

    Erasers. By now, all of our pencil erasers have been worn to mere shadows of their former existence. A large box of pink erasers is a great alternate when erasers detach from their pencils. Divvy them up among your kids’ work spaces and never hear “Does anyone have a pencil with an eraser?” again. Similar to pencils, erasers can be stored in jars, and inside desk drawers in a drawer organizer.

    Index cards. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I still think index cards are fantastic homework aides. I use them as flash cards, of course, but their usefulness extends way beyond that. For example, I have the kids use them as to-do lists for larger projects. When attached to all related papers with an office clip, you get a handy, mobile reference packet. They’re also good for scratch paper when working out math problems or outlines. They’re a high utility tool for all offices. Wrap the index cards in a rubber band and store them on top of the spare paper and notebooks mentioned in the next item.

    Lined paper and notebooks. We’ve been in the situation in our house where the only available paper is a sketch pad, and that doesn’t pass muster with a teacher. Keep the paper and notebooks (and the index cards mentioned above) in a traditional office desk inbox to keep them organized.

    A designated homework zone. A space dedicated to doing homework will help prevent papers, supplies, and assignments from migrating to the kitchen table. And, as is the case in our house, the kitchen table is where homework quickly transforms into clutter.

    With these essentials on hand and organized so they’re at the ready, you’re prepared to take on any big, winter projects teachers assign.