A clean-slate office

Having recently started a new job, I’ve come into a real treat: a brand new workspace. A complete blank slate. It’s a rarity and a treat.

My first thought, of course, was to populate it with the tech and tools that I’ll need to get my work done. I started making a list when it dawned on me to stop, throw the list away and take an altogether different approach. Let experience dictate what I add. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience.

I started with the bare minimum: pens, some index cards, and a calendar. Big items like a computer and printer were supplied by my employer. Everything else I’ve added only when I’ve needed something.

First, I realized I needed my smartphone and a charging cable for it. Rather than schlep a charging cable back and forth every day between my home and office, I bought a cable to live at my desk. Next, once I knew for certain that wearing headphones was acceptable when working, I added a set of earbuds go my supplies. Nothing says, “Can’t talk, I’m working,” like a pair of headphones. Plus, I’m more productive and happy when listening to music.

(More on keeping wired earbuds under control.)

Next, I added software I wanted as I needed it. Unfortunately, there are strict policies on getting software approved for a corporate computer, so this process wasn’t instantaneous. Eventually, I received approval to to get all of the software I depend on, and they’re all browser-based cloud services. Namely:

Not only can I get to work with my preferred tools, all of my documents, preferences, etc. are in place.

It’s nice to start new and not have any software or equipment cluttering up my work. Instead of assuming I’ll need something, waiting until I actually need it has kept things to an appreciated minimum.

Of course, you don’t have to accept a new job to approach your office or workspace with a clean slate. Take a week or two and notice what you use and what you don’t. Write down what you need but don’t have, and finally observe what you have but never use. Then make adjustments. You just might end up with a tidier, more efficient and more productive work space.

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Technology improves at a rapid pace and the devices we love today are the outdated clunkers of tomorrow.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!

Unclutter those little monthly bills

Most of us have two types of monthly bills — the big stuff and the little stuff. For the purposes of this post, I’m not talking about the big ones. I don’t mean the mortgage/rent, car payments, insurance, and so on. Those things are there and you pay them as part of your life responsibilities. No, in this case I mean the little costs, the automatic payments that are so easy to forget and that pile up quickly. You know, that $2.99 a month subscription fee or the $5.00 monthly rental fee. If we remember these at all, the temptation is to say, “Eh, it’s three bucks. I’ll deal with it next month.” Meanwhile, three becomes nine and then 12 and by the end of the year 36 — but for dozens of little things so the total is in the hundreds.

Once a year, I sit down and unclutter these little payments to decide what stays and what goes. If you’re interested, the following is advice on how you can do it, too.

Write it down

The easiest way to get look at what you’re spending is to write it all down. When I do this review, I chart it up on a piece of paper:

There are four columns:

  1. Name: The title of the company or service
  2. Cost: What I’m paying out
  3. Description: A plain-English description of exactly what I’m getting for my money
  4. Stay? After reviewing the information in the three previous column, I decide: “Does it stay?” If yes, I enter a “Y” in the last column. If not, it’s “N.”

In the example above, I’ve entered two services. First is Netflix. It costs me $7.99 per month to stream all the TV shows and movies I want. Is it worth it? For me, yes. My family and I spend more time watching videos on Netflix than we do on cable. For us, it’s worth it. Netflix stays.

Next is Blizzard. Blizzard is a game company that lets me play World of Warcraft online for $14.99 per month. Is it worth it? Well, a few months ago, I was meeting up with several friends so that we could all play together. That was great fun, but it has fizzled out. I don’t enjoy playing solo as much. So, I nixed it. That just saved me $179.88 per year! Hooray!

Why did I sign up for this?

Before you decide if a service stays or goes, concentrate on brainstorming so you get them all down. It’s possible that you’ve completely forgotten about one (or even more). Do you have a transponder in your car that comes with a monthly fee? Do you have a safety deposit box at the bank? Does your bank charge you a monthly fee if your balance falls below a certain dollar limit? Are you renting any large pieces of equipment? Do you subscribe to magazines?

Once you’ve remembered all your little costs, add up the total amount spent. It might be surprising. Once you’ve nixed the services you no longer want, you’ll feel really good about saving that money.

Hold onto your list

Although it’s a little morbid to think about, having all of these subscription services written down in one place would allow for someone else to help close your accounts or suspend them in case of an emergency. Store your list in an “In case of …” file so a loved one can find it. Also, you can reference it in six months or a year to help you brainstorm all the little bills you’re paying each month. You can then replace the old list (shred it) with the new list in the file.

As I said, these small monthly fees are easy to forget and tempting to overlook. This post is your prompt to unclutter them! In less than 30 minutes, you’ll have a good overview of what you’re spending, feel more on top of things, and perhaps save a little money for your trouble.

Seven simple, useful gadgets for your home office

I’ve been working from home since 2009. The temptation to tweak or add to the gadgets in my office is enormous. I love gadgets to begin with, but give me a personal office to fill — one that’s in my home — and I can get carried away.

Recently I’ve made an effort to identify what I really need instead of what I think would be cool. The following is a list of gadgets that serve a utilitarian purpose beyond, “Oh man that’s so neat.” Each one actually makes my home office a more pleasant and productive place to be.

  1. The RadTech OmniStand. After a few months of using a laptop all day every day, I noticed that my shoulders and neck were quite sore at the end of the day. The laptop stand lets me get the computer’s screen up off the desk and just about at eye level. After a couple of weeks, the pain was gone. Sure, I had to buy an external keyboard and a mouse, but I’d rather do that then contract a repetitive stress injury.
  2. The Glif for iPhone. I love this little piece of rubber because it can be many things. It’s an iPhone stand with notch on the bottom that will fit into a standard tripod mount. It’s great for shooting photos and video, for talking on FaceTime, for being an alarm clock or a mobile photo frame. I use it to reference quick information while I’m at my desk. I can’t recommend them enough.
  3. Jawbone Jambox bluetooth speaker. Here’s another stellar device that takes up little space and works very well. Since it’s a bluetooth device, it connects to your smartphone wirelessly. It sounds great and looks good, too. I use it all the time.
  4. A Dropbox account. I don’t know why computers don’t just come with Dropbox installed. It makes online backup and sharing so very easy. Plus, it’s supported by almost any platform you can think of: The Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
  5. An Inbox. Don’t scoff. At first I resisted buying one of these, as it seems like such a cubicle thing to own. But it’s so much better than a stack of papers, notes, and who-knows-what cluttering up my desk. Take your pick from Amazon or your local office supply store to find one you like.
  6. A decent filing system. Again, visit your favorite office supply store or look online. Many people have intricate filing systems. I do simple manila folders, labeled A-Z. Nothing fancy.
  7. A backup system. Your office machine is probably backed up by your company’s IT department. At home, you’re on your own. There are several options to choose from, like CrashPlan and Carbonite. Even if you don’t work at home, you likely have work-related information on your home computer (not to mention other irreplaceable files). Back it up!

I have more items in my office, of course, and you likely need other items depending on if you work at home and what kind of work you do. But these are the universal things — beyond my laptop and smartphone — I can’t work without. Pare down to what you need and avoid cluttered items like this that get in the way of the work you need to do.

Stay productive and organized while working from home

I’ve been working from my home office exclusively since 2009. In those four years, I’ve learned a lot about managing home and work life, staying productive while cozy at home, avoiding distractions, and more. Based on these experiences, the following are my ten tips that keep my work on track when I’m at home.

Before I delve into my list, I should define “home worker.” It certainly includes telecommuters, freelancers, and those running a business from home, but that is not where the definition ends. Anyone who runs a household definitely works from home. Also, the number of people who spend 9–5 in an office, school, or at an off-site job, but then take additional tasks home to work on, is increasing. When I was young, I knew one family who had an “office” in their home, and I thought it was the oddest thing. Today, it’s pretty much the norm.

Now that we’ve got that sorted, on with the tips.

  1. Define a workspace. You needn’t have a dedicated room to be a productive home worker. A corner of the kitchen, back porch, or garage will do, as long as it accommodates the tools and space you need. I have an IKEA desk in my bedroom that is my office. Occasionally, I want a change of scenery, so I’ll move my laptop to another part of the house. Other times I’m forced out entirely, which brings me to …
  2. Have an emergency backup office. There will be times when the power is out or your internet connection is down. Or, perhaps, a construction crew is working on The World’s Loudest Project right outside your window. When this happens, you’ll need a backup site to go to. My default remote office is the public library. It’s clean, well-lit, quiet, and has free Wi-Fi. The employees don’t care how long I stay and there are electrical outlets everywhere. Good thing I travel light.
  3. Define a lightweight office-to-go. Figure out the bare minimum of tools you can get away with and remain productive. Something you can fling into a bag and go. Will your computer do? An iPad? A camera? Figuring this out ahead of time will save you a lot of aggravation when you need to vacate your home office pronto.
  4. Make your home office efficient but also pleasing. You’re going to spend a lot of time in your office, so make it a pleasant place to be. I have LEGO projects on my desk, Star Wars toys, and a pencil holder that my daughter made for me. Since I am at home, I need not comply to corporate decorating policies, and neither do you. Find things that you love and make you feel good and add a little style to your space.
  5. Adopt a system you trust. Unless you’re in business with your spouse, partner, or housemate, you likely don’t live with a co-worker or superior. That means that you are both the worker and the supervisor. Conquer the latter role by devising a system you trust. I follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done system and, in effect, that system is my supervisor. Trust is the critical factor here, as that’s the only way your brain will stop nagging about all of your undone tasks.
  6. Don’t be too informal. This one applies mostly to those who are earning their living from home. Since you are in the house, it’s easy to adopt a casual attitude about your day. In my experience, adding a bit of formality helps draw a line between work time and leisure time. I always shower, shave and put on nice clothes. I make a cup of tea and begin the day in the same routine one might in a traditional office. When I’m done with work for the day, I turn my computer off, kick off my shoes and join the family downstairs. That routine also helps me feel like I’m truly “off the clock” when the workday ends.
  7. Get your own inbox. This simple tip has vastly improved my marriage. My wife and I shared an “inbox” (an end table by the front door) for years and it made both of us crazy. My stuff mingled with hers, she liked to store things one way and I another. Now, I have an inbox on my desk and she has one on the end table. I process my inbox items on my schedule and according to my system, and my wife does the same her own way. I cannot recommend splitting this up strongly enough if you live with other people.
  8. Take Breaks.I alternate between work time and break time all day. A great Mac app called Breaktime lets me alternate between 25-minute work times and 5-minute breaks all day. This practice helps me maintain a productive streak and is also a luxury I wouldn’t have in an office.
  9. Take advantage of working from home. You work at home and that means you’re at home! Take advantage of this opportunity that many aren’t able to experience. Sit on the porch, eat lunch in your own kitchen, and never miss an event at your kid’s school.
  10. Be flexible. This lesson was the hardest for me to learn. I’d make a plan for my day, only to see it fall apart thanks to a sick kid, malfunctioning computer, flooding basement, and more. Understand this might happen, and don’t get too stressed when it does. Try again tomorrow.

Brando 4-in-1 desk lamp

When I first read about the multifunctional Brando 4-in-1 desk lamp I was intrigued. I like it when I find items that have utility and can complete more than one task. But, then I studied the product details, and I was underwhelmed. It is hectic and distracting. And, a desktop fan is useless to me. (When was the last time you used a desktop fan?!) It felt like the fan was thrown in just so it could say it had four functions. I also have no use for a webcam or a microphone since both come installed on my laptop.

It is USB powered, which takes away one of your computer’s USB hubs, but it does provide a LED light, fan, webcam, and microphone. I’m not excited about this product, but maybe it’s just me. I’m interested in hearing from our Unclutterer readers in the comments section. Are there other multifunctional items that you had high expectations for and then were disappointed by the reality of the product?

(via Engadget)

Wi-fi printer on sale now

The Brother HL-2170W is now on sale for a very reasonable $99.99. You can get rid of that clutter-inducing USB cord that you currently have attached to your printer. If you are in the market for a new printer, this is a very affordable option that gets rid of cable clutter and streamlines your workspace.

CNET has a pretty decent review of this wireless printer and the Amazon customer reviews are rather positive. For just a penny under $100, you could do a lot worse.

Workspace of the Week: Briefcase office

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Chuck_Notorious’ Gig Bag:

I’m not convinced that a soft-sided briefcase is the best solution for electrical equipment, but I really like the inspiration behind Chuck_Notorious’ design. In one bag, Chuck has assembled everything needed for his job, and the bag is where the equipment permanently lives. He’s not pulling things out of the bag, he’s using the bag as is. Genius! If you have a job where travel is an integral aspect of what you do, consider building yourself a gig bag or briefcase office. Make it so you don’t have to pack and unpack everywhere you go. This is efficient and well organized. Great job, Chuck!

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Workspace of the Week: The non-office office

This week’s Workspace of the Week is TheHappy1’s non-office office:

I like this office because it can fit into any living space of a home. The design elements might not be your style, but the concept can work for anyone. It has a few office items — stapler, pen cup, computer, paper shredder, filing basket — but otherwise it’s just a small table and a chair in a room. The wireless printer sits in another area behind a cabinet door, out of sight. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a whole room to devote to an office, this is a great, uncluttered alternative. Thank you, TheHapp1 for your submission!

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Workspace of the Week: Eames inspiration

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Xtremetothemax’s mid-century Eames office:

One of the things that is unique about this office is that it is completely void of a computer. The Eames desk and storage unit, in combination with the other design elements, work to create a mid-century, clutter-free wonderland. There are so many unique touches in this space, like the game board on top of the filing cabinet and the vertical and horizontal book shelves. Maybe its my love affair with 20th century design, but I look at this office and can’t stop imagining how much I would love to work here.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Workspace of the Week: All about zen

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Normaniac’s zen office:

Filling his space with greenery and glass, Normaniac’s office is tranquil, free of clutter, and awe-inspiring. This office looks like a place where it would be easy to keep your mind focused on the big picture and calmly move from task to task. A space like this makes working from home a very appealing option.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Workspace of the Week: A transformed room

This week’s Workspace of the Week is AimeeRoo’s transformed office:

The area has purpose, structure, and space to move and be creative. What is best of all, is that it used to look like this:

AimeeRoo committed herself to shaping up the space, and even did it without spending a single dollar on the redesign. Other angles of the room include a dedicated arts and craft space and her washer and dryer. Before, it was a disorganized room, and now it’s a wonderful, transformed office. Great work, AimeeRoo!

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.