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.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

  • Using timers to improve productivity
    Timers help you to stay focused and complete tasks — specifically the not-so-fun ones and the ones that have to get done — in reasonable amounts of time.

2011

2010

2009

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.

Unitasker Wednesday: Juicer Pro

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’ll admit, I’ve never understood the purpose of little plastic doodads that you stick into citrus fruit to extract their juice. My husband has one, and it only gets half the juice out of the fruit and it has to be washed in the dishwasher afterward and it never inserts into the fruit easily and he usually still has to cut the fruit open and … I don’t get it. A knife and clean hands are all I need. But, I’ll admit, at least with the one he has, the opening for juice to pour out of it is large so that a single fruit seed doesn’t clog the device. This, however, isn’t even the case with the Juicer Pro:

Seriously, could that spout be any smaller and more cloggable? (Cloggable? Clogable? Clog-able? Able to be clogged?)

I’m starting to feel like the majority of kitchen unitasker purchases could be prevented if people simply checked YouTube first. “Should I buy this gadget? Let me check YouTube first to see if I can do this same thing with tools I already own.”

For example, in this clip, Jamie Oliver can teach you how to juice a lemon using a knife and your hands — two things people who intend on juicing lemons very likely already own:

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

  • Teaching toddlers about organizing
    Young children are eager to be independent, and helping your child learn skills that foster this independence as well as acquire valuable organizing concepts are a great place to start the teaching process.

2010

2009

In praise of the paper wall calendar

I’ve written several articles highlighting the intersection of technology and organization. There are many terrific solutions out there, both simple and complex, to tackle everything from recipes to your draft of the great American novel. Despite all of the advanced technology that’s available to a gadget guy like me, I still love, LOVE my wall-mounted calendar.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in a house with a calendar on the wall. There have been more varieties than I can remember, but if I try I can recall:

  • Calendars advertising banks, take-out restaurants, and churches.
  • Dunkin Donut calendars that featured a pair of coupons each month.
  • Themed calendars that fit the whims of my siblings and me as we grew up: movies, sports, dance, rock stars, etc.
  • Plain, no-nonsense calendars that were all function and little form.

Today I’m a part of a big, busy family with a lot of moving parts: ballet, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, work, weekend activities and so on. All of these obligations have crafted what I look for in a wall calendar. The following are the particulars:

What I look for in a good paper calendar

  1. Size. It’s no fun to try and cram your handwriting into a teeny, tiny square. I want wide, open spaces that can legibly display several appointments.
  2. Single-page months. What I think of “‘fridge calendars” — 12″ x 14″ when opened — won’t do. The boxes are too small and they’re a pain to hang. In the beginning of the year they’re bottom-heavy and pull magnetic clasps down. In the latter months, all that bulk moves up top, requiring a more ample clip.
  3. Wire hanger. Tear-off calendars tend to get messy. A spiral wire spine is best as it allows you to flip each month away cleanly and easily hang the calendar on a nail, screw, or a hook.
  4. Mini reference calendars. It’s a hassle to flip back/forward to quickly reference a past or future date. I like it when a calendar has at least the previous/forthcoming months presented as mini reference calendars. The whole year is even better.
  5. Eighteen month timeframe. These are made with the school year in mind, which I appreciate.

Why I love paper calendars

Unlike their digital counterparts, paper calendars require no learning curve, are compatible with all my other hardware (pens and eyes), never “go down,” and simply work. They’re the very picture of reliability for my family.

Paper calendars in a digital world

I know what you’re thinking: “Dave, what if you need to reference something when you’re nowhere near your calendar?” Well, that’s a valid question, and I don’t have very good answer. You could, of course, buy a pocket-sized planner to take with you or enter your information into a digital calendar as well (that’s what I do). You could even take a picture of the calendar each day and delete the previous day’s image when you do so. All of these solutions require you to double all of your data entry, and, I’ll admit, that’s not ideal.

But, one thing it does is keep you from committing to a task on the spot. You always have the excuse, “I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you,” which gives you time to really consider taking on the new obligation. If you do agree to something, you’ll know you are truly willing to take on the additional responsibility.

In case you’re wondering, my ultimate wall calendar is the AT-A-GLANCE Monthly Wall Calendar, Wirebound, 20 x 30 Inch Page Size. It meets all of my criteria and is my absolute favorite.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

  • New storage products for the home
    New storage products that help organize items in the home — Rubbermaid Bento Boxes and Store Clever Trays, DrawerDecor custom drawer organizing system, and Pliio for clothes filing.

2011

2010

  • Ask Unclutterer: Mental clutter
    Reader Stefanie asks for help in dealing with worries about searching for a job and waiting on queries that are cluttering up her mind.

2009

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.

    A year ago on Unclutterer

    2014

    • Identifying a collection
      Collections aren’t inherently bad. The first book collectors helped create libraries and the first collectors of antiquities helped establish museums. Collections help us identify with the world around us and introduce us to like-minded people. However, labelling a group of similar items a “collection” does not automatically make it one. The following are guidelines to help you identify a collection

    2013

    • Uncluttered car safety tips
      Before you get behind the wheel of your car, follow these four tips to ensure that you will arrive at your destination safely.

    2011

    2010

    What to do with old unwanted cables

    Technology improves at a rapid pace and the devices we love today are the outdated clunkers of tomorrow. Who’s got a VCR sitting around? I do. And although you may have a plan to replace, donate, or properly dispose of unwanted hardware, you still might have a pile of cables on hand. Fortunately, this often-overlooked pile of clutter is easy to handle.

    I recently read an article on MacObserver that’s full of suggestions for managing unwanted cables. Writing for MacObserver, Kelly Guimont begins with practical advice:

    Start by making sure your friends and family all have what they need too. Perhaps they need extras for car charging or computer bags or whatever.

    The cable you don’t need might be exactly what a relative or friend wants. Gulmont continues, describing various options for recycling: Best Buy and Staples have free programs and “… 1-800-Recycling and the National Center for Electronics Recycling will hook you up with the appropriate local facilities.”

    I will add schools and scouting groups to the list of possible cable donation recipients. Many have STEM programs that are always in need of donations, and the cables they need often aren’t the latest and greatest.

    Other suggestions: Be sure you know your devices well to know exactly which cables you need for your devices. When you donate or recycle your equipment, include the appropriate cables with the device in your donation — especially duplicates. Also, check with your local municipal and/or county recycling centers to learn where to dispose of the cables so when it is appropriate to trash them (such as broken and unsafe cables) you know the location to drop them off and the process.

    Cables are insidious things that love to congregate in homes and never leave. The good news is there are several options for finding them a new place to be. Happy organizing!

    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.

    A year ago on Unclutterer

    2012

    • New paper sorting and filing products
      Introduced at the 24th National Association of Profesional Organizers’ annual conference, are new paper sorting and filing products to help you keep your paper mess under control.

    2010

    • Ask Unclutterer: Magazine clutter
      Reader Nia: “I am especially guilty of magazine clutter. Why am I unable to throw away magazines? It’s seriously painful for me to get rid of them. The only plausible explanation I’ve come up with is that the magazine has done such a good job marketing themselves (all of them have, mind you) that it embodies a lifestyle and not just a pack of paper.”
    • Review of Your Money: The missing manual
      J.D. Roth, who writes the educational and extremely valuable personal finance blog GetRichSlowly.org, just published Your Money: The missing manual with O’Reilly books. The book is filled with charts, graphs, checklists, guides, and explanations that explore the basics and advanced methods of personal finance — all with Roth’s simple ease and charm.
    • Unclutterer giving away four Fujitsu ScanSnaps in April
      April 22 this year marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and we wanted to do something big to commemorate the event. We’ve teamed up with Fujitsu to help our readers cut back on paper waste, digitize clutter, and better organize work/home offices. We will give away one ScanSnap S1300 scanner on April 1, April 8, April 15, and April 22 (four scanners total) to celebrate.