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.

    Evaluating your computer backup strategy

    World Backup Day is March 31 — a good reminder to take a moment to think about how you’re doing your backups, and whether or not there’s something you’d like to adjust. Consider the following points:

    Are you backing up all your critical files?

    Some backup tools will back up everything on your computer. Others won’t backup your software programs (Microsoft Office, Evernote, TurboTax, etc.), assuming you can simply reinstall those. Some may depend on you to list exactly which files you want to back up. And you may use an entirely manual process rather than a program, which also means you need to determine the files you include in your backup.

    In the final two cases, especially, be sure you’re thinking about all your important files. I’ve seen people lose extensive collections of bookmarks/favorites from their favorite browser because the relevant files weren’t backed up. (They aren’t stored in the same place as documents and photos.)

    Do your backup programs fit your needs?

    You may choose to run one backup program or multiple ones for added protection (one local backup and one in the cloud, for example). In either case, consider the following guidelines:

    • Make sure at least one backup program runs automatically. Everyone’s busy, and almost everyone is a bit lazy about backups. Having a program that runs automatically can save you from yourself.
    • Make sure at least one program creates an offsite backup. That usually means using a cloud backup service, but it could also involve taking a backup drive and putting it in a safe deposit box. This will protect you if there’s a theft, a fire, or some other tragedy that could affect everything in your home.
    • Make sure at least one program saves files you’ve deleted from your computer as well as older versions of files you still have. If your only backup is one that mirrors your computer as it is at the time of the last backup, you’ll be in trouble if you delete a file by mistake, make an update you didn’t want to make, or wind up with a corrupted file because of a hardware problem.
    • If having a new or repaired computer fully functional as quickly as possible is critical to you, look for a program that will create a bootable external backup drive. This means you can start your computer using an external hard drive as the data source, rather than your computer’s internal hard drive. SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner are two alternatives for those using Macs, and I’ve been very happy with SuperDuper. I’m not as familiar with what’s available for those using PCs.

    Do you check your backup status messages?

    Programs will handle this differently, but all will provide some status indicator. For my cloud backup service, for example, I get daily emails. It’s easy to overlook these repetitive messages, but don’t do that. Take the time to make sure they aren’t alerting you to a problem.

    Have you tested your backups?

    As Gabe Weatherhead of MacDrifter tweeted, “A backup doesn’t count until you’ve done a restore from it at least once.”

    While restoring all files for testing purposes is usually not practical, you can certainly try restoring a file or two and making sure things look okay. I knew someone who had to restore a great many files, and had never tested her backups until that time. Sadly, she found that while that files got restored, the date stamp on the files was not correct, which caused her numerous problems.

    If you’re creating a bootable external backup drive, try booting from that drive and making sure everything seems to work okay.

    Do you have the license keys and/or serial numbers for all your software?

    In order to get your software programs reinstalled or to get them running again after you’ve restored them from a backup, you’re likely to need your license information. Do you have that information readily available? If not, gather it up now so you don’t need to scramble around for it when there’s a problem.

    Unitasker Wednesday: Loose Leaf

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

    My family eats a lot of kale. It’s the one vegetable I can set in front of both my kids that they will devour and ask for more. I don’t know why, but I’m not complaining, especially since they aren’t big on eating red meat and kale is packed with iron. Anyway, a few years ago, I learned a ridiculously simple trick for how to de-stem an entire head of kale in usually less than a minute using only your hands. The trick is so easy that it makes the Loose Leaf wholly unnecessary when de-stemming kale:

    How is the Loose Leaf a unitasker? If you have two hands and have enough grip strength to use the Loose Leaf, you have no need for the Loose Leaf. The device and the simple trick pretty much employ the same concept, except one requires you to spend money on the special tool pictured above, waste time and energy using and cleaning it, and then sacrifice some of your space to store it … and the other doesn’t.

    What’s the simple trick? Let an adorable child demonstrate it for you:

    That’s it, easy peasy! No knife or Loose Leaf needed to de-stem the kale and nothing to buy, clean, or store. Woo hoo, hands!

    Thanks to reader Amy for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

    A year ago on Unclutterer

    2011

    • Unclutterer housekeeping
      I am pleased to announce that these layout errors have finally been corrected by my publisher, and a new Kindle version is available for download.

    2010

    • How much is enough?
      My answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is turning out to be much less than I imagined. My family and I don’t require too many physical objects to be healthy, happy, and comfortable in the modern world.

    2009

    A frugal New Englander and spending on organizing and uncluttering

    Even as a frugal New Englander, I recognize when it’s time to spend some money on my organizing and uncluttering efforts.

    Let me preface this by explaining that my definition of frugal doesn’t simply mean cheap. To me, frugal means very little is wasted. Using the cheese rind in soup is the kind of practice I’m referencing. Old t-shirts become dust rags and empty jelly jars are perfect for storing hardware in the garage. Of course, this applies to money, too.

    I’ve shared plenty of DIY tips here on Unclutterer and I love them. There’s nothing a little Sugru can’t keep running. But occasionally, a paid solution is necessary. A recent personal example of this is the video studio I’m setting up at home, which requires spending some cash.

    When I’m not blogging at Unclutterer, I work as a writer at Apple World Today, a site for and by fans of Apple’s products and services. In addition to writing articles, I produce videos. I want the videos to have a professional look, so I purchased a green screen/lighting rig from Amazon. It wasn’t until it arrived that I realized just how big it is.

    We live in a small house that pretty much contains all it can neatly and efficiently hold, and this screen doesn’t fit. I first tried setting it up in our master bedroom, the largest room in our home. There’s a good bit of open carpet between our bed and the TV (an area that is where the kids play video games). When I set everything up in this space, I quickly realized that the video production rig commandeers that whole side of the room. “No problem,” Frugal Dave said. “I’ll just set it up and break it down as needed.” Oh, Frugal Dave. You fool.

    It’s three months later and I either leave it up — making the TV and video games inaccessible — or break it down after each use — which greatly increases production time. Alas, I needed a more organized, time-saving, and practical solution. My thoughts turned to our basement.

    Part of our basement houses random boxes, holiday decorations, and so on. My new, more organized thoughts are that I could use this underground space as my new studio. I’ll clear it out and spend a bit of cash to paint the walls, install a door, and install electrical outlets.

    These three things won’t cost me a lot, either in time or money, but the results will be fantastic. I’ll have a dedicated studio space, I can leave everything up without inconveniencing anyone and since it’s for my business, the expenses can be noted on next year’s taxes.

    Being frugal and living without much stuff doesn’t mean you never spend money or that every solution has to be recycled. Sometimes, spending money and effort can help you to be more organized and comfortable in your space. This isn’t to say you have to buy every organizing solution, either. Perhaps the utensil drawer would benefit from an in-drawer organizer you find online or a set of cubbies will help the kids put their school stuff away neatly. I’m all for frugal living, believe me, but sometimes you’ve got to spend a little to gain a lot.

    Just in time

    Many businesses employ a “just-in-time” (JIT) production method. In the JIT strategy, supplies are ordered just in time for production so items are manufactured just in time for shipping them to the customer. The reason this system is popular is because factories do not have the expenses of maintaining large warehouses. Using funds to purchase and store unused inventory means those funds are not easily available for other opportunities.

    Care must be taken when manufacturers employ the JIT method. If not enough stock is stored then deliveries, and associated delivery charges, increase. Also, the variations of cost prices can affect manufacturers to a greater degree.

    A number of years ago when I realized that I had toilet paper stored in every closet and cupboard (when I counted them, I had over 200 rolls), and I always seemed to run out of shampoo, I realized that I had to start employing the JIT method for my household supplies.

    The JIT process

    Estimate how long it takes to use up the item. To help you estimate, when you open a package, write the date on the lid or underside of the box or bottle with a permanent marker. When you have used up the item, you’ll see the date and get a fairly accurate estimate. For example, depending on your household, you may use 1-2 rolls of toilet paper per week per bathroom. A 250mL (8oz) bottle of shampoo may last a month. It might take 3 months to use up 500m (500yds) of plastic wrap. Consider seasonal and situational changes as well in your estimations. You might use more plastic wrap during the school year when you are making children’s lunches. You might use less shampoo after you get your hair cut.

    Estimate repurchasing time. The time it takes to purchase replacement items may not be an issue if you can easily pick the items up during your weekly grocery shopping. However, if you purchase items from a specialty store that you visit infrequently or order items online and have them delivered, you may need to plan well in advance. For example, our family loves Kraft Caesar salad dressing from Canada. It takes us about two months to use up a bottle. We have an open bottle in the fridge and we store one extra bottle in the cupboard. As soon as I open the bottle from the cupboard, I order another one because it takes about 3-4 weeks to ship from Canada to the UK.

    Allocate storage space. The storage space that you have will determine the amount of product that you purchase and how frequently you need to repurchase. You may determine that you don’t need to store as much as of some items as you thought. (I really didn’t need 200 rolls of toilet paper!) This may allow you to free up some space to store other items that take more time and energy to purchase. For example, storing an extra bottle of your favourite salon shampoo would result in fewer trips across town to the factory outlet.

    Hone your forecasting methods. It isn’t always easy balancing how much of certain items you need with the storage space that you have. Certain changes can affect your forecasting such as changes in household routines as well as changes in the products, such as package size and price. If you keep the JIT method in mind, over time you’ll determine what is right for your needs.