Getting organized doesn’t happen overnight

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

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

Some of the common situations that lead to disorganization include:

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

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

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

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

1. Focus on one space at a time

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

2. Focus on one type of item at a time

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

3. Focus on one process at a time

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

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

Unitasker Wednesday: LED Faucet Light

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

I’m completely at a loss for words about this week’s unitasker selection. I just. I, um. Uhhhhhhh! Maybe you have words for it because I certainly don’t. The LED Faucet Light:

I guess, if I were to say anything it would be to say it only costs three dollars so at least you wouldn’t be wasting a lot of money if you bought it and turned your home faucets into their own Vegas nightclubs. But, seriously, when did tap water need to be lit by LEDs? When did lit water become a thing we as humans spend our mental energy developing, producing, and buying? Sigh.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

2010

  • Simplifying packed lunches
    Reader Jon wrote to us asking if we had any tips for preparing lunches at home that he can take to eat at work. He has been spending $100 a week on eating out at restaurants, and is hoping to become someone who brings his lunches to work. Since students are already back in the classroom in many states, and other students are getting ready to go, I thought now would be a great time to discuss the humble brown bag lunch.

2009

Technology and games to encourage kids’ organizing skills

It’s a wonderful time of year: Back to school time! Depending on your area’s schedule, children may have already started the 2015-2016 school year, while others have until after Labor Day for classes to begin. In either case, a big part of a student’s success this year will depend on his or her organizational skills.

Every year we buy the typical organizational tools for our kids: binders, folders, calendars for jotting down assignments and other important dates that must not be forgotten. The kids then sort and label their binders and folders by subject matter, actionable items (like permission slips that require signatures), and homework.

Beyond this groundwork, we’ve been looking for ways to help our children continue to gain skills. At ages 10 and 13, they’re capable of stepping up their skill levels. How are we supporting them?

Practice, practice

If a basketball player wants to improve her skills, she practices. The same goes for a violin student, a dancer, or an organized adult. The more you work on any skill, the stronger the skill becomes. With that in mind, we’re giving our daughter plenty of opportunities to practice these new skills.

First, we had her write down her daily routine and her evening routine. “However you want,” went the instructions. “Put them somewhere that you’ll be able to easily see. Again, however you want to do this is fine.” This was the result:

Two lists, taped to the wall above her dresser. I love this because:

  1. It forced her to consider the general contents of a day
  2. It prompted her to think of her day sequentially
  3. It encouraged list-making
  4. It required her to find a spot that could store this information and be easily referenced

Someday she’ll apply these techniques to her career and/or a college student perhaps. Maybe an employee, a spouse, or a parent. There are other, more fun ways to practice organizing skills. Based on your kids’ interests, consider:

  • Creating a playlist of favorite songs
  • Making lists for an upcoming birthday party, road trip, or pending sleepover with some friends
  • Joining a fantasy sports club with some friends: Draft a team, organize meetings of other participating friends, and keep track of all related statistics

Technology options

If your student has a smartphone or tablet, consider an app like Remember the Milk. This to-do list and task manager supports alarms that can remind him or her to start on homework, prepare for the next day, and so on. The Kindle Fire has capabilities for parents to set time limits for how long specific types of programs can be running — videos only for 30 minutes, for example.

Playing games

Yes, games can foster positive, life-long skills. I’m a huge fan of board games, and suggest these titles for sneaking in some life lessons while having fun:

Elementary school

Tokaido: Take a leisurely walk through Japan, and compete to have the “richest” experience by eating food, meeting locals, and visiting hot springs. To do well, players must plan several moves ahead and manage their coins.

Middle school

Fairy Tale, A New Story: This is a card game that has you making sets while being careful not to give opponents the cards they want. Players must pay attention to what they don’t have as well as what is in others’ hands.

High School

Pandemic: This is a cooperative game in which the players play together to identify and defeat a virus that’s spreading across the globe. It requires planning and above all else, team work.

Do you have children and have suggestions for helping them to build their organizing skills in fun and productive ways? If so, sound off in the comments. My family is always on the lookout for more strategies.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Sushi Made Easy
    The Sushi Made Easy requires two additional steps and another piece of equipment for the maki-making process. It’s not Sushi Made Easy, it’s Sushi Made More Complex. It’s also sushi in the style of caulking your bathtub!
  • Get organized for back-to-school
    Help your children get organized and ready to go back to school with these four tips.

2010

2009

Organizing now to save time in the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unitasker Wednesday: Flip-It! cap

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

This week’s unitasker selection is one of those that when you first look at it you think, “oh, that’s not a unitasker.” But then, after a few minutes, you realize how absolutely unnecessary it is. Introducing the Flip-It! cap:

Yes, sometimes liquid gets stuck at the bottom of a container. But you know what? You can turn the bottle upside down without a special cap! Almost all lids are flat, so this isn’t an issue. If the cap is some where round thing, just rest the bottle against something else in your refrigerator, bathroom, laundry room, wherever. Your jar of pickles and applesauce can be multi-taskers. Wheeeeeee!!

Thanks to reader Bry for sharing this unitasker with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

  • New office products: Antimicrobial file folders and bookmark index cards
    My friend and professional organizer Julie Bestry recently headed to Office Depot to see what is new in the back-to-school supplies section. Her recap of the adventure introduced me to two new types of organizing products I wanted to pass along to you.
  • The multitasking sleeper chair
    Sleeper chairs are fantastic additions in small spaces because they work double duty as seating and guest accommodations. One of these multitaskers in a living room or office is perfect when you don’t have a guest room or space for a larger sofa sleeper.

2009

Getting over the guilt of unfinished tasks

As I sit down to write this, I can see the nightstand next to my bed. There are no less than four books piled upon it. Inside each book is a bookmark, noting the page I last read. Next to the stack is a Kindle, itself brimming with books waiting for my attention. I even belong to an informal book club that meets in just a few weeks and I’m not yet finished with this month’s selection.

However, I’m done with “Unfinished Guilt Syndrome.”

Despite the made-up name, Unfinished Guild Syndrome has plagued me for years, especially regarding books. In the past, when I have started reading a book, I’ve felt compelled to finish it, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. More than anything, the guilt associated with putting a book down knowing that I wouldn’t pick it back up was the real deterrent. I’ve never liked giving up on a book.

And it’s not just me. The website Goodreads recently published a list of the most “initiated but unfinished books,” as reported by its users. The top ten were:

  1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  2. The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Ulysses by James Joyce
  4. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  5. Holy Bible: King James Version
  6. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
  10. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

These are all classics and I’m sure individuals are more than willing to argue that the books are worth finishing, but still they are only partially read by the masses. So, is pushing through a book you dislike or have lost interest in really the best course? And, obviously, it’s not just books — is any hobby worth pursuing to the end if you dislike it? The time you waste feeling guilty and begrudgingly finishing the project could be spent doing something than you actually enjoy (reading a book you like better, knitting a scarf you really want, refinishing a chair you will use and enjoy).

Understanding what I have to sacrifice to do something I don’t have to do and don’t enjoy, I’ve finally given up Unfinished Guilt Syndrome. It’s OK to stop reading a book that I’m simply not enjoying. It’ll result in a greater number of books read overall, and prompt me to try again in a year or so, when perhaps the time will be right or to give away the book to someone who might enjoy it more than me.

Are you ready to let go of Unfinished Guilt Syndrome?

What to do with old USB flash drives

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

Encrypted vault of secret files

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

Portable apps

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

Audio books for the car

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

Fun gifts

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

Press kit

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

Donate

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

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2010

  • Ask Unclutterer: What should I do with old awards?
    In sorting old memorabilia, I have found my large collection of award ribbons from the many fairs and shows that I competed in as a youth. There are some that I plan to keep that really meant a lot to me. But I literally have a large Sterilite container full of these. Do you have any suggestions on a nice way for me to store these or some sort of way to use them? I hate to just throw them out.

2009

Uncluttering and other people’s things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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