Beating midwinter blues with vacation planning

Here in the northern hemisphere, we are in the midst of midwinter blues. At this point in the year the cold and lack of sunshine has started to get me down and without a single break work-wise until Easter, the horizon is indeed bleak.

So, it’s time to cheer myself up — and nothing makes me happier than doing some planning, specifically summer vacation planning.

This year for the first time in a while, my husband and I may actually have the time and money to take a major vacation. In the past few years, we’ve had to book our vacation at the last minute and take what was available.

Being able to organize a longer trip in advance is like heaven for me. Before getting married when I traveled with friends, I would be The Organizer, coming up with the most interesting train routes, looking for quaint places to stay, and finding those off-the-map places that really make a trip memorable.

I’ve never done it, however, with an actual vacation planner in front of me. I just tend to make notes in a document on my computer. Out of curiosity, this time round, I may pick up a planner and see if it helps in any way, because there’s always something I forget and sometimes it is the thing that makes the difference between a good holiday and a great one.

With or without a vacation planner, this is my process for dreaming up ideal holidays:

  • Decide the maximum budget. There’s no point in looking at holidays in the Maldives if we aren’t going to spend more than a thousand euros each.
  • Come to an agreement on what type of vacation we want. If my husband is thinking sun and sand and I start planning a train tour of eastern Europe, no one will end up happy.
  • Look at dates. For us, this is usually what delays planning. My husband often doesn’t know when he has free time in the summer, so in my midwinter plans I need to be flexible about when we can take a trip.
  • Dream. I say dream because it makes me stretch and imagine possibilities that aren’t typical. For example, renting a camper and driving down the center of Italy.
  • Come up with a variety of options. The fun in vacation planning is letting the brain go in various directions at once. Plus having several different destinations means we can spend cold, wet Sunday afternoons discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Since this is only the planning stage, there is no need to make any firm decisions, which is the best part for me. The excitement of what’s possible doesn’t have to end (until the spring when we start firming up our plans).

When it comes to that firm planning stage, I will take a good look at vacation planners. And for that I’ll turn to you: any recommendations on vacation planners (either in print or digital)?tag=unclutterer-20

A double win: uncluttering and helping others

I recently saw a touching story about a previously homeless family that found housing but lacked any home furnishings — until a local charity helped them out. (Click the link to see the short video, including before and after photos.)

Eight-year-old Daerye Neely and mom Dionna Neely walked into their new home in Detroit to find a wonderful surprise – a furnished home decorated for free by charity Humble Design after the co-founders heard about the Neelys’ story of hardship.

Since I’m always looking for good places for people to donate the gently used items they no longer want or need, I wanted to know more — so I started investigating.

Humble Design is “a non-profit helping families transitioning out of homeless shelters by providing furnishings and design services. We turn their empty house into a clean, dignified, and welcoming home.” And given that mission, it takes a wide range of donations: furniture, rugs, artwork, linens, towels, books, toys (excluding stuffed animals), TVs, dish sets, silverware, mugs, and more. Pick-up services are available for large furniture items, although only in certain areas — and there’s a wait list.

I’ve written about furniture banks before, and many of these accept more than just furniture. For example, see the listing for the Furniture Bank serving greater Toronto, Canada. Furniture banks, working with partner agencies, provide a great service for “the previously homeless, unemployed and working poor, battered women and children in retreat, immigrants, individuals with mental or physical disabilities, victims of a fire, robbery, and natural disasters, etc.” And these items are provided at little or no cost.

Organizations like Humble Design don’t identify as furniture banks, but they seem to provide somewhat comparable services. Other charities that seem similar to Humble Design include:

All of these organizations have specific wish lists and standard donation guidelines. None of them want items with stains, odors, rips, or any other major wear. Linens and towels should be washed before donating.

If you have household furnishings to donate — especially furniture, which many organizations don’t handle — furniture banks and organizations like Humble Design are good to keep in mind.

How many salad dressings are enough?

Salad DressingNot to pick on my mother or mother-in-law, but they both have an odd habit of collecting salad dressing in their refrigerators. The salad dressings may start out neatly lined up on the refrigerator’s door, but they somehow end up in the back of the main shelves never to see the light of day before they expire. With a quick inventory of my refrigerator, I count two dressings. For our family, that is reasonable. If you’d like the choice of six to ten dressings, go to a restaurant. Stocking your fridge full of dressing is overkill.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to do an inventory of your food supply. You may be a bit embarrassed when you find out how much you actually have in you fridge, but there is an easy way to curb your inventory. Stop buying more dressing. (Heck, make your own.) Before you head to the grocery store take stock of what you need and make a list. If you have more than one dressing per household occupant, then you most likely don’t need any more. So when you head out to buy groceries you may want to skip the salad dressing aisle.

I guess taking aim at salad dressings isn’t fair. I’m sure there are many condiments that can be purchased in over abundance. The main thing to take from this post is to make a shopping list when heading to the grocery store. Making a list and sticking to it will help curb your appetite for more food.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Overcoming procrastination

At the end of last year, I finally did a business-related task I’d been procrastinating on for ages. It was a non-trivial project, but I’d been thinking “I really should do this” for way too long. It felt so good to finally have it completed!

And starting the first week in January I finally started using my Waterpik flosser. I had that thing sitting on my bathroom counter for three months before I read the instructions and began using it. Taking better care of myself was one of my goals for 2018, and this was a nice first step. My dental hygienist can stop bugging me about this, finally. Why did I wait so long?

But procrastination is something almost all of us fight at times. Sometimes we procrastinate for months over something that winds up taking just a few minutes. Laurie Voss tweeted about putting off a phone call for three months that took only three minutes when he finally did it. I relate to that!

I’m very good about taking care of things that are time-critical. But many things on my lists have no real urgency about them. Still, getting them done would have a positive impact on my life.

As I’ve been thinking about the simple to-dos and larger projects that seem to linger on my lists, I’ve decided I’m going to try this approach: Each week, I’ll do one thing I’ve been procrastinating about tackling. If I get inspired and do more than one, that’s great — but one is my minimum.

My lists include substantial projects (get my many boxes of old slides scanned), much smaller things (follow the instructions for fixing my shredder, which has stopped turning off automatically), and things in the middle (update a 400-line spreadsheet listing places to donate and recycle various items). Some of my to-dos are even fun, like seeing some current movies and reading books on my to-be-read shelf. (I mostly read digital books, but in some cases I enjoy having a physical copy.)

For the large projects, I won’t try to do the whole thing in one week — I’ll just take the next meaningful step. For example, the first step on dealing with my slides would be going through the first few trays of slides to decide if they are all ones I want to have scanned.

I also know that making a public declaration of intent is a good way to make sure I really overcome my procrastination. So here’s my declaration — I’ll report back later this year to let you know how things went.

Book Review: Remodelista: the organized home

Remodelista: the organized home is a beautiful book. As the tagline states, the book has “simple, stylish storage ideas for all over the house.”

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, they describe their organizing philosophy which is similar to ours at Unclutterer; eliminate what you do not use and love, designate a home for all items, look for organizing solutions with what you already own, and buy less but when you buy, aim for better quality.

The second section of the book takes readers room by room providing ideas on how to organize and store almost everything and anything. Many of the systems can be adapted for different styles of living whether that be a small apartment or a large family home. Detailed photographs of the designs show not just order and storage, but beauty and serenity. The muted neutral colour palette used throughout the book highlights utilitarianism with elegance.

There are several lists of resources in the third section of the book. There is a list of alternatives to plastic for those that wish to use to sustainable products and a guide to donating, selling, or otherwise off-loading unwanted goods. A list of favourite suppliers is also provided for those who wish to purchase the items used in the designs.

If you’re in the mood to be inspired by minimalism with style, I suggest you take a look through Remodelista: the organized home.

Unitasker Wednesday: FoldiMate

Our first unitasker of 2018, brought to our attention by reader Sonja, touts itself as the first practical and affordable laundry folding robot. The FoldiMate folds shirts, pants, towels, and virtually anything that will fit inside of it.

You just hang a dry article of clothing on the clips, it is drawn into the machine and within a few minutes, your laundry is neatly folded, treated, and even de-wrinkled! Just watch the video of this machine at work — ZOOM clothes go in the top and BAM they are folded and stacked neatly at the bottom.

Now, here’s the reality check. I timed myself folding a load of laundry the other day. It took me two minutes and the majority of time was used to match socks, not to fold shirts, trousers, or towels. So, I wouldn’t save much time if I had to stand there and feed in each item one by one. Perhaps if I was running a hotel or fitness centre and had to launder dozens of towels every day, this machine might pay for itself. But, with the FoldiMate’s price tag of nearly $1000 USD, I’d have to run a business because I couldn’t justify that cost for my family when everyone who lives here can (and should) fold their own laundry.

The website says the FoldiMate is “closet-ready.” For reference, FoldiMate is almost as big as a dishwasher. If you have a walk-in closet (I don’t) with an electrical outlet (I don’t) then perhaps you’d consider it closet-ready (I don’t).

This is, indeed, a unitasker. It is large and expensive and it does only one thing, folds clothes — or does it?

Quickly unclutter any room in your house

It’s January, but here at Chez Dave we’re already thinking about storing the winter clothes (hats, gloves, etc.), and tools (shovels, ice scrapers, etc.) and pulling out the spring items. It’s an unenviable task but one that can’t be avoided. It’s also a good time to take stock of what we own and identify what can stay and what should go. That process is made so much easier by asking one simple question: If I went shopping today, would I buy this?

Before putting something into storage or taking it out, just pause. Hold an item up and honestly ask the question. If you were standing in a store with that item right now, would you pay full price to bring it home? If the answer is yes, then you’ve found a keeper. If not, then you have a reason to consider your relationship with that item. Is it actually something you want or need?

You can apply this simple technique to any room of the house and nearly every item (not the pets, please):

Kitchen

  • Tools (any unitaskers there?)
  • Plates
  • Flatware
  • Serving bowls
  • Dish towels

Workshop

  • Tape measure
  • Stud finder
  • Hammer
  • Wrenches

You get the idea. If any items are non-functional, obsolete, rarely used, etc., put them aside and consider if they really have a place in your home. Good luck and happy purging.

Gadget ‘gas station’

Anthro, an office furniture company, has a product for sale that appeals to both my techie and minimalist sensibilities. The eNook is a “gas station for your gadgets that has channels for you to plug in and charge all your gear.”

Not only does this look like a fantastic docking station, but could easily be used as a fold-away desk. In its compact state, it sticks out only 7″ from the wall. In my mind, this would be perfect in a studio apartment for a traveling consultant or in a busy family’s kitchen.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Routines: Are you for or against?

Do you like having a routine? Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I see the usefulness in them, and when I follow a routine I’m more productive and don’t forget things as often as when I don’t have a routine.

However, I’m a bit like my mother. She loved routines, in theory, but after three or four days of following a routine she would find herself getting dizzy, as if her brain couldn’t cope with being so ordered. While a routine doesn’t make me dizzy, I do find myself looking for excuses to get distracted.

Of course, there are different types of routines to consider. There are regular practice routines, such as exercise, writing, or meditation. And then there are daily routines such as:

  • 7:00 Get up and have breakfast
  • 8:00 Go to the pool
  • 9:00 Write an article for Unclutterer
  • 10:00 Clean one area of the house
  • 10:30 Do some quilting and watch an episode of favourite TV show
  • 11:30 Go for a coffee and do some creative writing
  • 12:30 Prep lunch and tidy the house
  • 13:30 Eat lunch
  • 14:00 Leave for work

The first type of routine works for me. It focuses my mind. It creates momentum. It’s self-motivating. The second type of routine, however, while on paper seems like a great idea, always ends up depressing me, for two reasons: there’s never enough time to get everything I want done and it feels like being in the military or in a super-strict boarding school. Life is not so orderly — it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. Trying to squeeze it into a rigid plan just creates stress when the plan can’t be completed.

That’s why I like using the Bullet Journal system. It focuses more on the idea of regular practice and there’s no pressure to do everything in a single day. By having the “permission” to move tasks forward with a simple arrow takes away the stress of having too many tasks in the to-do list.

But when it comes to deciding how you feel about routines, don’t just take my opinion. Check out the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, with contributions from Unclutterer’s Editor-at-Large, Erin Rooney Doland, as well as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Gretchin Rubin, and 17 other experts in the field.

Storing coffee

If you’re a coffee aficionado, take a few minutes today to evaluate your home coffee situation. Do you have an unnecessary number of mugs? Is counter space for food preparation being unreasonably sacrificed for your coffee supplies? Can you rearrange your current setup to be less cluttered and better contained? A few minutes is all this simple check should take.

While you’re giving your coffee situation some attention, don’t forget to evaluate how you’re storing your coffee beans. Are you using airtight canisters? Are you keeping them at room temperature? Coffee beans you aren’t going to grind and brew within two weeks can be kept in the freezer, but they should not be stored in the refrigerator. Moisture isn’t good for coffee, well, unless you’re actually in the process of brewing. Don’t believe me? Here are a few insights from people much more informed than I am on this issue:

  • From the Joy of Cooking: “The best way to store coffee beans, ground or whole, is in an opaque airtight canister at room temperature.”
  • From Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: “Once roasted, whole coffee beans keep reasonably well for a couple of weeks at room temperature, or a couple of months in the freezer, before becoming noticeably stale. One reason that whole beans keep as long as they do is that they’re filled with carbon dioxide, which helps exclude oxygen from the porous interior. Once the beans have been ground, room temperature shelf life is only a few days.”
  • From Coffee AM: “When to Refrigerate Coffee? Never, unless you are conducting a science experiment on how long it takes to ruin perfectly good coffee. The fridge is one of the absolute worst places to put coffee.”

When I looked in on my coffee supplies last week, I found that I had more than 20 mugs in my cupboard. I donated 12 of those to a local homeless shelter and now have enough space in my cupboard to store all of my coffee supplies. I hope your efforts produce similar positive results.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Tech tools for keeping New Years’ resolutions

As January yields to February, many people find themselves sliding on their commitment to New Years resolutions. Five years ago, I wrote an article on technology to help you keep those goals active. Since technology evolves at such a rapid pace, I thought an update was in order. Back in 2013, I wrote, “When deciding on a resolution(s) for the new year, keep three things in mind: acknowledge your feelings, have a plan, and take your time.” Resolution needn’t be written in stone by January first, so don’t stress if you’re still working on it. (I know someone who makes Groundhog Day Resolutions.)

As for your feelings, do your best to stay positive. Identifying a good support team can help immensely. An action plan will work wonders and help decrease feelings of being overwhelmed. I recommend breaking things down into small steps.

Some of the most popular resolutions are:

  • Get healthy
  • Earn more money
  • Become an active citizen
  • Travel

Here are some current examples of hardware and software to help you achieve each of those goals.

Get Healthy

Every January, millions of people vow to improve their health by either losing weight, adopting a healthier diet, or exercising regularly. For improving physical health I love Couch to 5K. Available for both iOS and Android, this effective, great-looking app can get you running five kilometers in just nine weeks. As a former couch potato, I can confirm that it works.

As for mental well-being, I’ve fallen in love with Headspace. It’s a great introduction to guided meditation in everyday life that is very beneficial. You needn’t be a cloistered monk to meditate effectively, and Headspace is proof of that. Just like Couch to 5K, Headspace is available for iOS and Android.

Earn More Money

Who doesn’t want a few extra dollars? I won’t dive into organizing your finances in this article, but I will recommend Betterment for helping with long and short-term investments. Betterment was founded in 2008 and it’s a quite nice product. They have low fees, a great app and, in my experience, great advice that’s always available.

Become an Active Citizen

This often gets overlooked, but it’s great for your community and sense of self-satisfaction. Countable keeps you up-to-date on what’s happening in U.S. politics, from bills to news from your local representatives. You can call your reps, share video messages with elected officials, read non-partisan news summaries, and prepare for upcoming votes.

Travel

Kayak is still my favorite travel app. It is as close to a portable travel agent as you can get. It handles everything from finding a flight to hotels, car rentals, attractions, things to do, and much more. Kayak polls several top travel sites and airlines for flights that match your criteria. The results can be filtered by airline, number of stops, airport, price, and duration. You can also sort by cost, duration, and departure time. The app is available for the iPhone, iPad, Android phones, Windows phone, and Kindle Fire.

There you have it. I hope there’s something here to inspire you to an exciting, fulfilling year. Good luck!

How to organize your books

If you have a substantial number of physical books you intend to keep, how do you organize them on your bookshelves? There’s no one best approach, but the following are some possibilities to consider:

By genre and/or author

These are the most common approaches, and they are often combined. For example, you might put all science fiction together, organized by author. It’s up to you to define genres (and sub-genres) as you wish, depending on how you classify books in your mind and how many books you have. You could also use one of the library classification systems: the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress system.

I tend to organize by genre and I keep all books by any one author together. However, that’s as detailed as I get — I don’t organize authors or titles alphabetically. But some people find alphabetizing to be helpful, and some will add a chronological component: organizing books by each author in the order they were released, organizing history books from oldest time period to the most recent, etc.

By color

While this can create an interesting look, does it interfere with finding a specific book when you want it? Not always, since some people remember book covers and colors. You could also choose this approach for the books in just one space — it doesn’t have to be the approach taken for all your books.

By height

This is often a compromise from a genre/author approach, when some books just won’t fit with the others. Or it could be a second-tier organizing strategy, where books within a genre get organized by height.

But you might also choose to organize by height — especially for really tall or really short books — to make the best use of limited bookshelf space. This works best when you can adjust the shelves to just the right height. I have one shelf that’s a collection of super-short books.

And as with books organized by color, some people just like the look of books organized by size, and use it as their primary sort.

By read vs. unread

This would be an approach to use in combination with another one, where all the to-be-reads are kept together (and organized however you wish). All the ones you’ve read and are saving would be kept separately (and also organized however you wish).

By how much you love them

Some readers like to keep all their favorites together, and then use whatever other system they want for the rest. This especially makes sense if you tend to re-read these favorites frequently, or if you often loan them to friends. If you have a guest bedroom, you might want to put some favorites in there.

By language

If you have books in multiple languages, your first sort might be by language. Within each language you could then organize by author/genre or whatever other approach appeals to you.

By personal chronology

I’d never heard of this approach until I saw what James Reynolds wrote about how he organizes books: “by date I got them. simple that way. new books just get added to the end. in this way, you get to trace the story of yr entire reading life – in chronological order.”

Randomly

Some folks know that simply getting books off the floor and onto the shelves is as much as they’re likely to do, so they don’t set up organizational systems they know they’ll never maintain. And other people just enjoy the randomness. For example, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, said:

What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity. When I’m looking over my shelves, trying to figure out what I’m going to read next, I don’t know where everything is and that enables me to be surprised.

And a note about shelving techniques: There’s been some recent attention to the practice of shelving books backward, with the spines inward and pages outward. While I’ve seen many people deride this, it winds up that some neurodiverse people find this a much less stressful look. I had never considered this, and I’m thankful to C. L. McCollum for sharing that perspective.