What would you do in a public emergency?

With the recent terrible attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, we thought here at Unclutterer that it would be a good idea to review some basic things to consider when faced with a public emergency.

Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the venue’s layout. Pay attention to the location of medical tents, first aid stations, washrooms, and escape routes. Also pay attention to dead-ends, you don’t want to become trapped in a space where there is no exit.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get the slightest feeling that something may be wrong, you need to listen to your instincts and act fast. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, such as a rapid increase in the crowds in your area or perhaps a suspicious loner that doesn’t seem to belong, it’s probably a good time to find the nearest exit.

If you’re caught in a crowd, think of it as a flowing river — swim with the current and slowly make your way to the edge.

Prior to the event, choose a meeting spot in case anyone gets separated from the group. Ensure everyone has each other’s phone number. It is helpful to have a contact outside the event that can be called to coordinate planning should something go wrong at the event. In large crowds, mobile phones get lost and damaged so being able to contact someone outside the event is helpful.

Take photos of your group or yourself if alone — share them with your friends at the event and your contact outside the event. If you get lost or separated, you can show a photo of your friend and say, “Have you seen this guy/gal?” Authorities will also want to know a detailed description of what your friend was wearing. Your memory may not work so well under stress so having a photo is helpful.

Now for what to do if something horrible does happen.

First off, stay calm. This is probably the hardest thing to do. With chaos around you, it’s human nature to panic and when we panic, we end up doing things that we normally wouldn’t ever consider doing (I knew someone that in an armed robbery started grabbing people and pulling them on top of her, something she was horrified for having done afterwards). As much as possible, try to keep your thoughts clear and practical.

Next, make sure you’re safe, and if as long as you don’t put yourself at risk, help others get safe too. In most cases, this means getting as far away from the situation as possible, but that may not be possible. For example, exits may be blocked or as happened in Charlottesville, there were so many people in the street and there was nowhere to go. After the Barcelona attack, my husband and I had a conversation about how we always know where we would go in case of emergency. We read evacuation plans in hotels and tend not to put ourselves in situations where there are limited exits. We also talked about how the intuitive way out might not be the best. For example, we live on the ocean. If something happened while we were on the beach, intuition would suggest heading inland, but it may be better to head out into the water where it’s less likely we’d be trampled.

Of course, once you are safe and away, let friends and family know that you’re fine. They’ll be worried about you. Facebook, for example, has a function that they turn on in such situations, allowing you to let all your contacts know that you’re safe and sound.

If you’ve had some sort of first aid training, or see something you can do without putting yourself in danger, do it. As I mentioned above about panic, in emergency situations it’s human nature to think of ourselves first and to maybe cause others harm inadvertently. Maybe the best way you can help is to get out of the way, but if you see someone suffering and it’s in your power to do something, take a deep breath and offer assistance.

When the worst of the situation has passed, find out what you can do to help. Whether it’s donating blood, clothing or food, or volunteering in whatever manner is being requested, it is actions that count. It’s all well and good to express your horror and support publicly via social networks and minutes of silence, but real assistance comes from doing something productive, not just making ourselves feel better with words and flowers.

In this age of social media, it’s important to remember to put your smartphone away and do not distribute images or videos of the tragedy unless asked to do so by authorities. Most of us are not reporters and it’s not our job to inform the world of what’s happening. When my father had a terrible swimming accident, I was shocked that I actually had to tell someone to get out of the way of the paramedics and stop gawking. And the man was hovering about with his phone, as if he wanted to take a picture or something. Watching the news about the Barcelona attack, I was horrified to see people taking selfies while the police were cordoning off the area. Remember that the person you’re filming is someone’s mother, brother, or child and imagine how you would feel if it was your loved one.

And finally, check your facts before spreading information. With news and rumors easily confused online, it’s important to take a moment and make sure that what you are about to share is real.

The Unclutterer site has quite a lot of information about emergency preparedness and I suggest taking a moment to check out our archives to make sure that you know what to do when life takes a tragic turn.

Words to keep you motivated

Listed below are the most common pieces of advice I give to people on the topic of uncluttering. With a three-day weekend on the horizon for those of us in the States, I thought that some encouragement might be appropriate. Have a great holiday, everyone!

  1. You don’t have to unclutter in one fell swoop. Many projects, spread out over weeks and months, will get you the same results as if you had tackled it all at once.
  2. Benefits of uncluttering can include being better organized, less stressed, and having fewer things to clean. When you walk into a room, you’re able to relax because there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.
  3. Your motivations and visions for your uncluttered life are your guiding star when taking on uncluttering projects. Keep your eyes on your goals and you’ll find that uncluttering has less to do about the stuff and more about the life you want to lead.
  4. You can do it!
  5. You don’t have to unclutter alone. Seek out friends, family, or organizational professionals to help with motivation and keep you focused on your uncluttering goals.
  6. Keep things in perspective. If you relapse and get bogged down, don’t become frustrated and beat yourself up over it. Start again tomorrow. This is home and office organization, it’s not brain surgery. There are worse things in the world than not succeeding your first time with an uncluttering project.
  7. The person with the most amount of stuff at the end of his or her life doesn’t win an award.
  8. The person with the least amount of stuff at the end of his or her life doesn’t win an award, either. Living an uncluttered life doesn’t mean that you have to live an ascetic life. Simple living is about getting rid of distractions that prevent you from enjoying a modern, luxurious life. It’s about smart consumption, not no consumption. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”

What advice, motivations, or thoughts have helped you to be more organized? Let us know what has influenced you!

 

This post was originally published in August 2007.

Creating your own unique organizing system

One of the most popular time management systems is Getting Things Done, by David Allen. GTD has a lot of strategies, and some people thrive on following the entire system exactly as Allen described it.

But in his August 29 newsletter, he wrote:

I’ve said for years, doing any part of GTD will give you benefit. It’s not an all-or-nothing approach. (I know some people who have only implemented the two-minute rule and it changed their life!).

I was delighted to see Allen write this, because many people do tend to think of GTD as an all-or-nothing system. But when I read this book, or any other book describing an organizing system, I see a collection of ideas from which I will pick the ones that work for me (or for my clients).

The two-minute rule says that if a task can be done in two minutes of less, just do it now rather than putting it on a to-do list. If that concept that works well for you, terrific — go for it! But you could ignore this rule (or shrug your shoulders because you’re already doing this) and still find other parts of GTD that are helpful to you.

Another example is Marie Kondo’s KonMari method, as explained in her books. (I’ve just read the first one, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.) Someone asked me this week if I like her work, and I said I did — because I found many interesting and helpful ideas in her book. For example, I’m never going to fold my clothes her way or unpack my purse every night, but I think “Does this spark joy?” can be a useful question to ask about items you own while you’re uncluttering.

Yet another system that tends to have passionate followers is Merlin Mann’s inbox zero. I do not even attempt to keep my email inbox at zero, but I still find a lot of value in the ideas in this series of blog posts.

Other systems that often influence people are things like “how mom or dad did it” or “how my organized friend does it” or “how we did it at my old office.” Those systems may work for you, too, but they probably will need at least some tweaking to fit your specific needs and preferences. Or they may not work for you at all — and that’s okay, too.

So gather as many ideas as you like — from this site, from organizing books, etc. And then keep the ideas that work for you, combining them into your own personal system, and merrily discard the rest.

Disaster response is not a time for uncluttering

The tragic hurricane and flooding in Texas filled the news in the U.S. this week. And because so many of us want to help however we can, it’s a good time to remember that generally the best thing you can give is money, in whatever amount works for you.

Yes, sometimes relief organization will ask for specific donations, and if you’re in the area that might indeed help, if done well. As Kelly Phillips Erb noted in an article for Forbes:

Check with the organization first. While most organizations prefer cash, there are some soliciting in-kind donations. … Those wish lists may change as needs are assessed and storage for items may be limited. Check with the organization before you send or drop off anything.

I’ve gathered some examples of the wish lists I’ve seen lately regarding efforts to provide relief from the storms in Texas.

When Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio’s mayor, announced some donation collection sites, he was clear about what was wanted:

Nirenberg said that the city council offices will be used as additional drop off locations for donations. They will be collecting any food, new clothes, diapers, pet food and other supplies. The mayor wanted to emphasize that no used clothing will be accepted.

In another example, one of the shelters noted the donations they were seeking as of Tuesday morning:

As of 9:45 a.m., here is an updated list of items needed at the GRB shelter:

  • Toiletries – travel size shampoo, conditioner, soap
  • Wheelchairs
  • Bottled water
  • Individually packaged food
  • Pillows

We do not need additional clothing donations at this time.

KENS 5 TV noted the following wish lists:

Trusted World is looking for the following supplies: New underwear and socks (all sizes), non-perishable food, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, baby diapers, wipes and formula.

SPCA of Texas is looking for the following supplies: cat litter, litter boxes, towels, blankets, large wire crates, toys, treats, pet beds, newspaper and gas gift cards.

You’ll notice that most of the requested things are new items — not (in general) the kind of things you would bundle up from cleaning out your closets. Of course, there are a few exceptions. For example, if you live locally and you can safely get to a shelter that wants toiletries — and you accumulate all those little hotel bottles — this might be a great time to unclutter.

If you want some good insight on why unsolicited donations of stuff is a bad idea, CBC Radio has a great explanatory article, which begins as follows:

It’s called “the second disaster” in emergency management circles — when kind-hearted outsiders send so much “help” to a disaster zone that it gets in the way.

Unwanted donations of physical goods can divert important resources as people on the ground must deal with them — sort and store, for example.

If you live outside the disaster area and you really want to donate something specific, not just send money, you can look for organizations that have Amazon wish lists (or other such lists) and then purchase exactly what’s needed, knowing it will be shipped to the right people to handle your donation.

But otherwise, you might want to heed this thought from Alexandra Erin: “Relief donation tip: money does not have to be cleaned, sorted, stored, or inspected and can be turned into whatever resource is needed.” If you decide to go this route, there are many lists of organizations that would appreciate your support, including one from Texas Monthly.

RIM: Part six, building a filing system

We’ve spent the past few weeks determining which records we have and how long we need to keep them. We’ve eliminated records we don’t need and scanned those we want to convert to electronic format. Now we’re ready to file what is left.

Unclutterer Jeri wrote a great article about creating a personalized filing system. She asks some great questions about where you want to keep your files, as well as what types and colours of file folders you prefer.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about active and inactive records. I suggest you keep your active files close to where you need to process your paperwork. For example, you might get charitable donation receipts you can claim on your income taxes throughout the year. Your “current year” income tax file should be handy so you can place the receipts in the folder easily. Once you’ve filed your income tax, you still need to keep the receipts but you no longer need to process them so you can place the entire folder in another location — perhaps in a filing box in your attic.

Filing paper records

Your filing system should be easy to use. Jeri wrote some great advice for making filing easier. Unclutterer Dave has put together a list of criteria for buying a filing cabinet and Jeri provides even more advice and includes alternatives to the traditional filing cabinet.

For those of you that may not have space for a typical filing cabinet, Erin answered a reader’s question about filing cabinets that can double as end-tables or ottomans. A seagrass filing box is also an alternative for people who may be willing to sacrifice some sturdiness for appearance. For those of you who need something rugged and transportable, I suggest these plastic filing boxes. They are expensive but we’ve had ours for over 15 years. They’re water and insect resistant and they’ve endured six military moves (two of which have been overseas) and they still look and function as good as new.

Filing electronic records

I always suggest that people create a folder structure on their computer similar to their paper filing cabinet. Such as the one shown below.

The default listing of folders is alphabetical order. If this doesn’t work for you, adjust the names of the folders. For example, you could use the names Finance-Banking and Finance-Investment to list these two similar categories together. Some people might choose to create another folder called Finance and put both Banking and Investment as sub-folders. This is an adequate alternative however, too many sub-folders may make it difficult to find files or result in the same file being stored in multiple places. It’s best to keep the folder structure as simple as possible.

Vital Records

You may wish to store your vital records and other hard to replace documents in a fireproof and waterproof box in your home to protect them in case of disaster. Although heavy, this box would be easy enough to transport if you had to quickly evacuate your home. Some people prefer to keep their vital records in a safety deposit box at a bank or other financial institution. This is a good alternative as well.

Having an electronic copy of your hard to replace documents is a good idea. If your documents are ever lost, stolen, or damaged, you’ll have a copy of the original information (registration numbers, certificate numbers, etc.) and authorities can better assist you. From time to time you may be required to submit a copy of your passport or other ID to confirm your identity to authorities. Having an electronic copy will save you from digging out the original — especially important if you have to drive all the way to your bank.

NOTE: The electronic copies of vital records need to be kept secure as they are as valuable as the originals to identity thieves. Use encrypted cloud storage and password protect files and folders to keep these copies safe.

For those of you who are comparing our records management program to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, we have just completed our “containerizing” step. Congratulations! You now have an organized and functional records management system. Next week is our final installment, how to maintain our system so it runs smoothly.

 

Other posts in this series:

Collapsible measuring cups

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to close the utensil drawer in our kitchen when a measuring cup gets caught up in the drawer. The process of fishing the measuring cup out of the partially closed door is maddening.

This collapsible measuring cup set is a great solution to that problem. The silicone cups collapse and nest into each other for a space saving solution that will surely remedy my drawer closing problem. We featured a collapsible colander here a while ago. Why can’t everything in the kitchen be collapsible?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in August 2007.

Tips and tricks for Google Keep

About a year ago I wrote a post praising Google Keep, the light, effective note-taking app from Google. At the time I was only a few months into using it but I was already smitten. The fast, lightweight app let me store and find notes easily. Twelve months later, it has become an indispensable part of my day.

Along the way, I’ve picked up some very cool tricks that make it even more useful. If you’re a fan too, I hope you learn something new here. If you haven’t used Google Keep before, consider this your formal invitation to give it a try. It really is useful. Now, the tips.

Transcribe notes from pictures

I learned this trick from Tech Republic and it has become my favorite. If you take a photo of written text with Google Keep, it can extract the text in the photo and turn it into editable copy in a note. Just follow these steps:

  1. Take a photo with the app
  2. Tap the three dots in the upper right-hand corner
  3. Select “Grab image text”

That’s it. Keep will find the text in the photograph and paste it into the body of your note. Super cool.

Drag and drop notes from Keep into Google Docs

Here’s something I tried on a whim. Much to my delighted surprise, it worked. Just follow these steps.

  1. With a Google Doc open, click “Tools” from the menu bar and then “Keep Notepad.”
  2. A list of your notes appears on the right.
  3. Simply drag the one you want out of that list and into your document.

The cool thing here is that the formatting in the note is retained. Drag an ordered list, and you’ve got an ordered list in your doc. Drag an image and it’s an image. Text is text. The lesson here is always poke around the tools menu.

It’s great for social media drafts

Sharing isn’t limited to Google Docs, or course. Open a note on your smartphone (Android or iOS) and hit the three dots or Share Button to send the contents of that note to Twitter, Facebook, Slack, etc.

Create reminders

I only discovered this recently. You can use Keep to send you a reminder. To begin, just create a note and click the icon of a finger wrapped in a string. From there, create your reminder. That reminder will automatically appear on your Google Calendar, the Chrome browser (if it’s signed into Google) and your Android device.

As you can see, Keep is for much more than jotting down shopping lists (though it does that, too). I’ve grown to love it and I bet you will, too. Give it a try.

Garage storage

Most garages are cluttered near the walls with just enough room to park the cars and let the passengers maneuver through a tiny path to and from the car. There just isn’t enough space to store what you need to store when you take into consideration the space the vehicles occupy. The garage is one of the most common areas for clutter. So take stock of your garage situation and be sure to remove anything that doesn’t serve a purpose in your home.

Here are some garage storage solutions for you to consider:

HyLoft 45-by-45-Inch Overhead Storage System (pictured): The unit attaches to the ceiling of your garage and adds much more storage for things that you use on a limited basis. Our first home had a very small garage that could have definitely used one of these storage systems. Of course, this storage solution shouldn’t be used to store clutter that you need to get rid of in the first place.

Hanging items on the wall is key to keeping your garage uncluttered. The Rubbermaid FastTrack System helps keep your wall in order. Installing a few of these rails with ball racks, baskets, and shelves around your garage will keep your high traffic areas clear of tools, extension cords, and step ladders.

If you have quite a few long handled tools in your garage you may want keep them all in one organized rack. The Suncast Portable Long Handle Tool Rack is equipped with wheels so it can be moved more easily if need be. Or if you just have a few long handled tools this may be right for you.

The most organized garages seem to always be equipped with peg board and a series of hooks for storage of larger tools. If you’d like to mount some peg board to your garage wall you should probably head to your local hardware store. Although, this galvanized pegboard may be more sturdy.

If you have a bike or bikes to stow away check this post out for some bike storage solutions.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in August 2007.

Planning for system breakdowns: a Bullet Journal experiment

This week when I return to work I will officially start my Bullet Journal experiment. While it looks like a good system and has already helped me in some ways, I question whether I will be able to maintain it. Here are some issues that may cause a breakdown in the system, along with some possible solutions to them.

Boredom

Although I love creating systems and routines, I find maintenance of them rather dull. I need constant proof that a system makes my life easier or I abandon it for something new after a few months at the most.

For this Bullet Journal experiment to work, I am going to have to be aware of any imminent boredom and find ways to tweak the system without tossing it aside completely.

Distractions

Good habits aren’t easy to form, but so simple to break. Think about a gym-commitment. How many times do you start some exercise program only to stop because for two days in a row, you are too busy to go to the gym? This happens to me all the time at work. My best intentions get trashed because I arrive and have to solve any number of mini (or not so mini) crises.

A top priority for this experiment, therefore, will be at least five minutes a day updating my journal no matter what else is happening.

Success

How can success cause a system breakdown? Simple, if things are going well, I relax. Who needs to be diligent if everything is going well? The phrase “sitting on one’s laurels” comes to mind in this instance. I pat myself on the back, tell myself how awesome I am, and forget that continued success requires more effort.

To combat this possible error in the system, I will need to be aware of any feelings of overconfidence and remember that success comes from constant work; it doesn’t fall out of the sky randomly.

How about you? What issues have caused blips or breakdowns in your own Bullet Journalling projects?

An idea for inherited china

Since the 1880s, when a woman in my family has raised her children and finds herself getting along in years she has picked up a small paint brush and signed her full name and birth date to the bottom of her china’s tea cups and saucers. Then, as she sees fit, she distributes the tea cups and matching saucers to her family and friends.

My mother has a collection of seven tea cups and saucers on a shelf in her dining room’s china cabinet. As a child, I would ask about the tea cups and my mother would pull them out and tell me the stories of the people to whom they had belonged. Not all of the tea cups and saucers were signed, those had come from my paternal line where signing the china hadn’t been the tradition. My mother had collected the unsigned pieces from my father’s family members so that when she one day passes on the collection to me that I will have a set including pieces from more than her family.

It seems a bit cluttered to collect seven different tea cups and saucers to store on a shelf of a china cabinet, but in comparison to keeping seven complete sets of china it is quite uncluttered. Also, with the sentimentality of past generations being passed on in tea cups, it means that other, more clutter-prone objects, are eliminated guilt-free from the inheritance process.

 

This post was originally published in August 2007.

Did you get the most out of summer?

For those of you with kids, summer can be a crazy time. The are very few routines and the kids are off doing some activity or another while you continue working. Or perhaps you had some time off and managed to get away or had a supposedly relaxing stay-cation.

The big question, however, is: Did you have fun? Did the kids have fun?

We don’t have kids, but my holidays are always in August each year, so while I don’t have others relying on me to plan and deliver on fun times, I always reach September and ask myself whether I took advantage of the time off I had, or whether I could have gotten more out of the time away from work.

In July before finishing work, I came up with a list of possible things to do in August. With thirty-one days to fill, I wanted to have something to do every single day if we felt like it. Of course, we allowed ourselves to say “no way, not today!” and spend the day in bed, by the pool or reading a book in a nice patch of sun, but what I didn’t want to happen was what has happened all too often when we both have time off together.

Husband: What do you want to do today?

Me: I don’t know. How about you?

Husband: No idea.

(We both go back to our smartphones and surf around social media.)

Me (an hour later): So what are we going to do?

Husband (looking at the time): We have to go grocery shopping and then there’s that pile of laundry over there…

And nothing fun happens. It’s just another day.

So, to avoid this issue, I came up with thirty-five different things we could do. Some were one-off events, others were repeatable depending on how much we liked them, the weather, and who we were with.

We knew who would be visiting us when and who might invite us out on day-trips or weekends.

I thrilled to tell you that it was a total success. We’ve never had a better summer and it was a sort of stay-cation. Normally we go away on some big trip where we exhaust ourselves squeezing fun and sun out of every second, but this year we divided our time between our two apartments. We went to the beach, took bike rides, put on the rollerblades that have been collecting dust for the past ten years, and visited little towns that we’ve been talking about for ages about seeing. We also made time for friends, including those we rarely get to see except when everyone has time off.

Most importantly, we relaxed with intention. That is, we made the conscious decision to do nothing some days. Rather than falling into a lazy day by accident and feeling like we were missing out on the summer.

And now, I’m ready to go back to work and routines refueled and refreshed.

How about you? What sort of summer have you had?

Organizing with cats: the litter box challenge

I have two cats, one of which is an 18-pound Maine Coon. And I’m lucky enough to have a space in my bathroom that’s just the right size for a large litter box.

But what if you don’t have such a space? Being organized involves having a home for everything, but sometimes finding a home for the litter box is a challenge. If you have to put the box out in the living room, a bedroom, or a similar space you may want one of the many furniture pieces used to conceal litter boxes. Erin wrote about one such product back in 2007, but now there are numerous options.

The following are just some of your many choices. If you have the right skills and tools, you might be able to make something yourself rather than buying a product, and this may give you some ideas.

The Meow Town litter box cabinet is an attractive piece that definitely does not shout “cat litter box.” The storage drawer might come in handy, although some purchasers chose not to install it to provide their cats with more headroom.

The drawback? It’s made with medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which can off-gas and which might not hold up well if you have a cat like mine that sometimes misses the box. (Some purchasers have chosen to line the cabinet with various materials to avoid this problem.) Also, this cabinet only allows you to put the door on the right-hand side, while some others give you the option of a right or left door.

The litter box from Way Basics is made from zBoard, which is in turn created from recycled paper. It doesn’t have the formaldehyde and the off-gassing that’s associated with MDF — but it would seem to be susceptible to the missing-the-pan problem.

The Litter Loo is made from ecoFLEX — a “non-toxic blend of recycled plastic and reclaimed wood” which does not absorb moisture. It comes in two sizes and four colors. It doesn’t look as lovely as some other choices, but it’s super practical.

If you have enough room for a bench, you might be able to store your spare litter in the bench along with the box, as with this Cat Washroom with its removable partition wall. Alternatively, it can fit larger cat boxes that don’t fit in some smaller cabinets. But yet again, it’s a piece you may want to line so a cat overshooting the litter box doesn’t ruin it.

There are a lot options beyond the various cabinet designs, too — and one of them may fit more naturally into your space. One is the Hidden Litter Box from Good Pet Stuff, designed to look like a plant in a clay pot. It’s made of polypropylene, so it’s easy to clean. A number of purchasers replaced the fake plant with others they liked better.

This cat scratcher carpeted box with its hidden litter box has melamine on the inside.

If your cat is okay with a top-entry litter box, this one from Modern Cat Designs might look nice enough to sit out without any disguise.

Maybe you’re not really worried about people knowing the cat box is indeed a cat box — you just don’t want something ugly sitting out in plain sight. In that case, the Kitty A GoGo litter box (available in six designs) might be easier to place than your average litter box.

You could also hide a lidded cat box with one of the box covers from KattySaks.

One final option for hiding the litter box is to use some sort of screen, such as this one from Kitty Planet.

Besides the cat box itself, you’ll need a storage space for whatever scoop you use. Some boxes have hooks for hanging a scoop, and you might be able to add one to a box that doesn’t have one. But another answer could be the scoop and base from Maison La Queue, which don’t look bad sitting out — and which remind me of some designs for human toilet bowl brushes.