Software to help organize your thoughts

When I was young, a phone was a communication device attached to the kitchen wall. Curly wire, a rotary dial, that whole thing. If you were lucky, the wire was long enough to reach the closet for a private conversation (and create an annoying obstacle for everyone else in the house).

A modern phone is more than just a glorified walkie-talkie. It is a camera, game station, note-taker and bane of many a parent’s existence, among other things. For now, let’s look at the phone as a note-taker.

I use my phone to jot down information that would have been relegated to paper a few years ago. My phone is always with me, making it convenient, and often a decent paper substitute. From creating a simple list to managing a full-on brainstorm, there’s an app for your note-taking needs. Here’s a look at some of my favorites.

When I want to brainstorm a new idea or project, I create a mind map. (I’ve written about mind mapping here before). It’s a more formal way to get the flood of ideas down, creating a nice visual that depicts the relationships between each thought. Yet, it’s still unstructured enough to not interfere with the process.

For me, the best option is MindNode. Unfortunately, it’s only available on the Mac and iPhone. If you use those platforms, go and grab this app. It syncs across devices almost instantly and is very easy to use. It also features easy import/export options, so getting your information out is as easy as getting it in.

If you’re an Android user, I recommend MindMeister. Like MindNode it’s easy to use, and makes collaboration easy, so members of your team/group/family can contribute.

Next up is Google Keep, which I’ve talked about it before. I’m happy to report that I still love it. Keep is lightning fast and feels streamlined and unclutterered. It syncs between the mobile app and a browser almost instantly and lets me jot things down nearly as quickly as I do with paper and pen. Plus you can categorize, tag, color-code, and share. It’s a real keeper.

Meanwhile, I know a lot of people who swear by Notebook by Zoho (available for iOS and Android), Notebook – Take Notes, Sync across devices on the App Store. What’s nice here is it lets you sort notes into “Notebooks” with custom titles and covers, making it very easy indeed to find what you’re after.

Dropbox Paper is a direct competitor to Google Docs, (which is in competition with Microsoft’s Office 3650. Like the others, Dropbox Paper goes well beyond simple note-taking and offers a suite of online productivity tools, aiming to be a way to create and share text documents.

It will be overkill for many, but if you’re looking for an alternative to those larger suites, give Dropbox Paper a try.

Is digital better? Yes and no. The near ubiquitous access is nice, and sharing is a lot easier. But I think paper is faster, plus it won’t crash or succumb to a dead battery or weak Wi-Fi connection. For more on the paper/digital debate, check out Reconciling paper and digital productivity and organizing tools.

Birthdays and gift-giving

My birthday is coming up and as always I’m getting asked what I want and as always, I don’t really know what to say. I have everything I need and most things that I want. Well, I never have a enough books, but since I read books via my Kindle, they aren’t an easy gift to give me.

I used to tell people that I wanted experiences. Those gift boxes for hotels or dinners or days at the spa, but then I almost always ended up using them at the last minute and only because they were about to expire.

A recent article in MoneySense magazine talks about the new middle class and how the younger generation wants gift cards so that they can buy themselves exactly what they want, when they want it. Personally, I’m against gift cards because they are impersonal and from my point of view, it means that the gift-card giver has to make very little effort to find a gift that fits with the person receiving the gift.

In fact, between receiving a gift card and not receiving a gift at all, I’d choose the latter. And don’t get me started on buying an acre of rain forest, adopting a wild animal or naming a star. If you want to make a donation to something, make the donation; don’t jazz it up saying that it’s a gift.

My mother had a good rule for birthday gifts: something the person would like but would never buy for themselves.

For example, for me that would be something like a virtual keyboard (I’m a bit of a tech geek) or a session in a tranquility tank (the movie Altered States and the show Fringe had a big impact on me). And, I’ll never say no to shoes or to fun kitchen tools (these days I’m dying for a decent marble rolling pin).

Speaking of the last category, one year a then-boyfriend bought me a rice cooker and I was thrilled! Friends were horrified and one even said that a rice cooker as a birthday present would be grounds for divorce in her house. But that’s what’s so amazing about really considering the person receiving the gift. What you might consider a relationship ender, for another person, might be the best, most awesome thing in the whole wide world!

How do you buy gifts? Are they obligations that you grab whatever comes to mind? Do you try to match the gift to the personality, maybe hoping to surprise the person? Or do you pick up something from a very specific list the person has provided you with?

Public clutter: whose responsibility is it?

Two weeks ago my husband and I went out for dinner and a movie with friends, young friends, so we ended up going to Burger King. The place was full of teenagers and apart from the incredible amount of noise they produced, they also produced a horrifying amount of garbage. Half-eaten food on the floor stepped on and smeared across the tiles, drinks spilt across the table, and bags and wrappers strewn everywhere.

When they finished, they got up and walked away.

Then last week we went to Pamplona for its famous festival, and although it’s more known for running with the bulls, the festival itself is really an opportunity to drink obscene amounts of alcohol in public and let loose. The broken plastic cups, plastic bags and bottles of all sorts made walking a challenge and each morning the city’s garbage crews spent hours and hours sweeping up the plastics disaster.

Often, when people are asked why they care so little about public clutter like this, they answer “that’s why the city hires street sweepers” as if they have no responsibility in maintaining the streets litter-free.

I was reminded of a photo I saw once posted online by Canada’s environmental fighter David Suzuki. The photo showed the sea of plastic that was left in a public park after a fundraising concert for the environment. The anti-consumerist website Make Wealth History talks about this problem providing details about the garbage collected one year after the supposedly environmental-friendly Glastonbury Festival:

Glastonbury picked up 6,500 sleeping bags, 5,500 tents, 3,500 airbeds, 2,200 chairs, 950 rolled mats and 400 gazebos.

Fortunately, most of that material could be donated to refugee sites, but what about the rest of the garbage? If attendees left all this behind, how much plastic did they not bother taking away with them?

All of this got me thinking. Whose responsibility is public clutter? Those of you who are parents, what do you do to ensure that your children clutter the world as little as possible?

Four organizing lessons from Hamilton

I was lucky enough to see a performance of Hamilton last weekend, which was marvelous. How does this relate to organizing? The following are four organizing-related messages I took away from my theater experience and from my post-performance reading about the show.

Experiences are some of the best gifts.

I was lucky enough to receive my ticket as a gift. On Unclutterer we often write about how experiences make some of the best gifts, and this was a great example. That ticket was definitely one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

Uncluttering is always important.

The book Hamilton: The Revolution provides some of the back story regarding the creation of the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail didn’t cut many songs from Hamilton as it evolved, but there were a few songs that did get removed. As the book noted, “The most common reason for putting a song aside was to keep the audience focused on the story that Lin and Tommy were trying to tell.” For example, a cabinet battle song about slavery “didn’t shed new light on the characters … so the song had to go.”

And on Twitter, Lin-Manuel explained that he cut a song about Washington’s death “because we sing a whole song about him saying goodbye and even though the moment gave us feels, it was redundant.”

If you’re uncluttering your home or office, you can take inspiration from Hamilton and look for items that don’t support what you want to accomplish in your space and items that are superfluous.

You always need tools with you to capture your thoughts.

One of the points that David Allen makes in Getting Things Done is that you never know when you’re going to have an idea worth remembering, and our minds aren’t the best of tools for storing these random thoughts. So you need some kind of tools (paper or electronic) for capturing those thoughts.

I thought about that when reading an article by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker about one of the Hamilton songs:

The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, “Wait for It,” came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,” he says. “I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.”

Making time for both work and family is never easy.

One constant theme in Hamilton is the man’s devotion to his work (and the amazing amount of important work he got done) at the expense of spending time with his family. As Elizabeth Logan wrote on the HuffPost website about the song One Last Time:

Washington tells Hamilton, hey, sometimes it’s good to give up power and go home and be with your family. And Hamilton is like what why would anyone do that.

On the other hand, there’s Hamilton’s wife Eliza, who sings in Non-Stop, “And if your wife could share a fraction of your time …”

Many people struggle to find enough time for both their work and their personal lives. Hamilton doesn’t provide any answers to this dilemma, but it does bring it to your attention in a new way.

Unitasker Wednesday: THAT! Serrated Warming Butter Knife

A few years ago, we discussed the battery powered, self-heating Toastie Knife. (Un)Fortunately, the Toastie Knife is no longer available. However, there is a new product on the market, THAT! Serrated Warming Butter Knife and it does not need batteries! It is made using heat conducting technology that utilizes your body heat to carve and spread cold butter. It also has a serrated edge designed to curl and soften cold butter easily.

I can’t understand how this product conducts heat differently from any other stainless-steel knife. And conduct heat from my hands? My hands are always cold! If my hands are warm enough to heat a knife, then the room would be hot enough to melt the butter anyway!

No, I’ll save my $16, use one of the knives I already own and heat the butter by putting it in the microwave for a few seconds or leaving it at room temperature for a few minutes.

Thanks goes to reader Kimberly for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

Reader Question: What’s with republishing posts?

Unclutterer fan Kristen wrote to ask,

Just curious, what’s with all the reposts? I don’t mind them, they’re helpful, but I’m curious if the site is in some kind of transition.

Thanks for asking a great question Kristen!

Unclutterer has published a substantial amount about uncluttering, organizing, and productivity over the past ten years. We felt that republishing certain previous posts, usually two or three times per week, may be helpful to our newer readers.

Additionally, many readers contact us and ask us to provide updated information on previous posts, especially those that are related to changing technologies. Sometimes products that we have discussed on previous posts are no longer available on Amazon. By republishing, we are able to modernize our facts and figures and ensure our hyperlinks are directing readers to the correct resources.

Our Unclutterer team, Jeri, David, Alex, and I (Jacki), as well as our guest authors, still continue to publish new information Mondays through Fridays with the exception of certain holidays.

Thank you for your question Kristen. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

 

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Choosing the right luggage tag

Ah, baggage claim. Forget Disney, I want to spend time in the basement of a monstrous building with a hundred other exhausted, bleary-eyed people while we wait for our belongings to pass by on a noisy conveyor belt. The buzz of fluorescent lights and the hard, industrial tile only add to the experience.

If you’re like me, you want to spend as little time in baggage claim as possible. A good tag can help.

It might seem like a minor thing. Most people use the tag that came with the suitcase or rely on the sticky paper one the airline will affix. This is a mistake, as neither meet the requirements of a truly useful luggage tag. Here’s why you need to choose your luggage tag carefully.

  1. The airport prints out that big sticky tag. Is it enough? No, mistakes can happen. Perhaps there was a misprint, maybe the wet ink got smudged or more likely, rough baggage personnel ripped it in two.
  2. The right tag makes it easier to identify your bag at baggage claim. A sticky tag on a black suitcase is hardly a unique look. Something big and bright stands out.
  3. Get a tag that can stand up to some abuse. Your bag will be tossed around. Make sure the tag is durable enough to withstand it.

Choosing the right design

When searching for a luggage tag, select one with a small loop that holds the tag closely to the bag. Large loops are more likely to get snagged as they travel on and off of the plane.

Next, consider construction: where the loop attaches to the tag, stitching that seals in your personal info, and any closures (snaps, zips or clasps). Will they easily fall apart? Are the stitches tight and close together? Can you lift the entire suitcase by the tag without it tearing?

Of course, find a bright, colorful tag or one of unusual design that will stand out on the turnstile. Mine is bright orange and quite large. It’s easy to see from a distance and, being unique, other people don’t mistake it for their own.

Now that we’ve defined a good tag, let’s discuss what you’ll write on it.

Information

You needn’t write the story of your life on the luggage tag. In fact, I don’t think you need to put much personal information at all. For example, I never put my full name, address, phone number, etc. on a tag. Instead I go in the opposite direction: instead of listing where I live and so on, I note where the bag should be going. For example:

“D. Caolo, traveling to Boston, MA on JetBlue #1234 on July 4 2017 – [my-email-address]).”

This way you’re covered if there’s a problem with the tag the airline printed and my personal information isn’t being advertised to everyone in the airport.

What about carry-ons?

Does your carry-on bag need a luggage tag? Yes and yes! If you’ve ever been on a flight that’s booked solid, you’ve probably seen the workers at the gate ask if anyone is willing to check their carry-on to save room on the overhead compartments. I always volunteer my bag in that situation, and I do not want it going into the belly of the plane without a tag.

All of this applies to people going on cruises, too.

It seems like a little thing, a luggage tag. But the right one can be very beneficial, just as the wrong model can be a hindrance. Give it some consideration the next time you travel.

For more on successful, organized travel, check out our recent conversation with an airline pilot.

Who are you?

That’s the question the Caterpillar asks Alice and she is unsure what to say. In a very short time from the moment she falls down the rabbit hole Alice has been many things: tall, small, assertive, passive, one of many animals, an outsider in an unfamiliar world.

On the Internet, you can find any number of personality quizzes, and if you dig a little bit, you can find a whole bunch of quizzes related to organization and clutter. Are you a collector? Are you a minimalist? A visual person? A logical person?

Forget the quizzes. The answer to the Caterpillar’s question is:

You are you.

You can be organized, disorganized, visual, logical, kinetic, frenetic, calm, and overwhelmed.

When I worked one-on-one with my organizing clients, I never tried to pigeon-hole them. I took them at face-value with the situation they were dealing with at the moment. People are never the same at any point. Over a bridge in Toronto, there’s a paraphrased quote by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “This river I step in is not the river I stand in.” Who we are changes constantly because our circumstances change constantly. If we are tired or stressed we aren’t going to be able to organize ourselves well (unless of course, you are one of those who deals with stress by organizing).

Recently, Unclutterer re-posted an article by Erin Doland from back in 2007 in which she asked What causes clutter in your life? In the list of circumstances she includes, nothing is fixed — each point can change, and depending on how much of one or the other is affecting you, your ability to get and stay organized will change.

Instead of boxing yourself into a corner with the question “Who am I?” ask yourself “Who am I at this moment?”

If the Caterpillar had asked Alice that question, she wouldn’t have had such a tough time answering him.

Bike storage solutions

When you aren’t riding your bike where do you store it? There are many storage solutions available that will keep your bike out of the way when it isn’t in use. Here are some of the the options:

Racor Ceiling Mounted Bike Lift (pictured): Easily lift your bike up and out of the way with this pulley system. The down side is that it only fits one bike so you would have to purchase more than one to accommodate your needs.

Racor Pro Double Folding Bike Rack: This fits two bikes and folds up against the wall when not in use. It also includes a shelf for bike accessory storage.

Dual Bike Storage Rack: It assembles in minutes and requires no mounting or tools and holds two bikes. The pole system adjusts to the height of your ceiling.

Free Standing Four Bike Rack: This rack fits up to four bikes and can be assembled without any tools. The bikes are not quite out of the way with this one, but it does get the bikes in one compact spot.

Monster Bike Hook Set: The cheapest and easiest way to get your bike out of the way is to install hooks into the ceiling. No need for racks or pulley systems.

 

This post was originally published in July 2007.

Download, store, and organize your Google data

Google is a big part of many people’s digital lives. Services like Blogger, Google Photos, the note-taking app Keep (my thoughts on Keep are here) and the Fit app — not to mention the Chrome browser — receive a lot of data every day, in the form of family photos, blog posts, notes, workout data, and more.

That data is safe in the cloud (i.e. Google’s servers), but did you know that you can download a copy of this information to your own computer? With just a few clicks you can retrieve and then store a local copy of your Google data. Here’s how (and why) to get started.

Why should you backup Google data?

So-called “cloud computing,” which is the system that allows you to save information on a network of remote servers hosted on the internet, offers convenient, near-ubiquitous access to our most important digital information. There’s peace of mind in knowing that data is stored and cared for by people who specialize in such things. But according to Jack Schofield, it’s not enough.

Jack has written what are now known as Schofield’s Three Laws of Computing. His Second Law states that data does not really exist unless you have at least two copies of it. In short, never assume that your data is 100% safe. Making two backups doubles your chances of a successful recovery if and when a catastrophe strikes. Are your photos safe at photos.google.com? Of course. Can I guarantee that they are 100% safe? No.

Now that we’ve got a good picture of why you should backup your Google data, let’s look at how.

How to back up your Google data

Before you begin, you’ll have to make two decisions. First, identify specifically what data you’d like to save, and second, where you plan to store it.

Pick your target data by visiting https://www.google.com/settings/takeout. You might have to sign in to your Google account first. From there, you’ll see a list of all the Google services currently associated with your account.

Depending on what services you use, it can be a pretty long list. On the left-hand side of the list, you’ll see each service’s name. To the right you’ll see a small disclosure triangle and a green toggle switch. Click the disclosure triangle to view details on exactly what aspect of that service can be downloaded.

For example, when I click the triangle next to “Google Photos,” I get the following options:

  1. Include all photo albums (selected by default)
  2. Select photo albums

Clicking the latter lets me pick and choose the albums I want to download. All photos and videos are downloaded in their original format.

Finally, the toggle switch is green if a service’s data has been selected for download, and grey if it has not. Once you’re made your selections, scroll to the bottom of the list and click “Next.”

This summary screen presents three options:

  1. File type. Choose between .zip, .tgz and .tbz formats.
  2. Maximum archive size. If your archive is larger than your selection (for example, 2 GB), it will be broken down into parts that are 2 GB (or less) each.
  3. A delivery method.

Number three requires special attention. It’s likely that a backup will be very large, so choose your destination carefully. Google lets you receive a download link via email, or it can send your archive to Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive.

If you choose the email link, make sure your computer has room for the download, as does your eventual local destination (connected hard drive, etc.). A great option is a large, connected drive (like this one) that’s regularly backed up by a service like BackBlaze or CrashPlan. That way your data lives in three locations: Google, your local drive, and the backup service of your choice. Take that, Mr. Schofield!

Cloud computing is convenient and yes, a great way to safely store irreplaceable files. But don’t become too reliant on it. A simple routine like this will help ensure all of that precious data will be available for years to come.

Attack your junk drawer

We all have at least one drawer in our house that has turned into what can be called a junk drawer. It has no real purpose other than being a hodge-podge of items that don’t have any where else to go. The best way to attack a junk drawer is by following these easy steps:

  1. Dump it. The junk drawer is in constant disarray so you have to start with a drastic measure. Simply dump the drawer out onto a flat surface and start going through the miscellaneous debris.
  2. Pitch it. There is bound to be a ton of stuff in there that serves no purpose for you. Go ahead and trash it.
  3. Sort it. Start to separate everything into categories. Office supplies, tools, batteries, pens and pencils, old bills, and old receipts (most likely these need to be thrown away too.)
  4. Divide it. Buy or build your own drawer organizer and keep each pile of stuff separated into its own section.

Now make sure to keep the drawer in a orderly fashion and don’t just throw random items into it.

 

This post was originally published in July 2007.

What decorating books say about clutter

I’m in the midst of another evaluation of my many books, and this time I’m eliminating the home decorating books that I haven’t looked at in ages. But as I was reviewing those books, I noticed that a number of the authors weighed in on clutter and organizing. The following is some of their advice.

In Meditations on Design, John Wheatman wrote:

Some of my most satisfying projects have not involved the purchase of any additional furnishings. I always begin by editing what is already in place. I help people discard the items don’t work and organize the ones that remain so that everything comes together and makes sense — functionally, visually, and financially. …

Weed out unnecessary possessions. Give fresh life to the furnishings you’re tired of by moving them around.

And in his book entitled A Good House is Never Done Wheatman wrote about being creative with storage containers (and he has a number of photos to illustrate his point):

Where do you put a sponge, a scrubbing brush, or a kitchen tool? … There is no need to restrict your choice of storage containers to what you find in the kitchen department of a home decor store. Expand your horizons to embrace antique shops, yard sales, and second-hand shops.

As a firm believer in using spare coffee mugs as pen and pencil holders and as toothbrush holders, I totally agree with Wheatman when it comes to thinking creatively about containers.

Wheatman also wrote about something that I often encounter:

I have yet to hear a good reason why the handsome table in your dining room can’t double as a desk during the day.

I’ve worked with people who thought they had to use their designated office space and the desk in that space for office-type activities, when their natural inclination was to work on the kitchen or dining room table in a more spacious and attractive room, sometimes with a lovely view. Unless you’re doing extended computer work that calls for an ergonomic set-up that the table may not provide, I agree with Wheatman. Go ahead and use that table, as long as you have an easy way to put things away when you want to use the table for eating.

Danny Seo has a clever anonymous quote in his book Conscious Style Home: Eco-Friendly Living for the 21st Century:

A clean desk is the sign of a cluttered desk drawer.

But he goes on to emphasize the importance of uncluttering:

What you’ll begin to notice as clutter is banished from your house is that treasured objects … suddenly reappear once the clutter is gone.

Overaccessorized rooms are too busy, distracting, and unnerving to spend time in. Psychologically, clutter makes us feel weighed down or even overwhelmed. The message is unmistakable: Keep it simple.