Computer desktop clutter

There are two types of people in the world — those who are okay with this, and those who aren’t:

Computers have been a part of my daily life since about 1994. The machines and technologies we used back then would be almost unrecognizable today, with one exception: files saved on the desktop. When Apple released the first Macintosh in 1984, it featured what we think of as the desktop today, with files, a trash can, a clock, and little program icons.

Since then, people have taken to saving digital files to the desktop, much as one does with a physical desk. We’ll call these people the “desktop group.” Others prefer to keep things sorted by folders tucked inside the hard drive itself, not visible from the desktop. We’ll call this second group of people the “folders group.”

I have a strong opinion on this, but first let me share both sides. The desktop group would claim that their method keeps everything within sight and within reach. Files that are necessary for the task at hand are right there, as are reference materials that will be useful in the future. This is how Erin works: she has all her files for her current project’s work saved to her desktop and then at the end of a project she carefully organizes everything into folders in her Documents area of her computer. For long-term projects, she makes alias folders on her desktop from her Documents area so that she can save directly to her desktop and access the folders from her desktop, but the files aren’t actually stored there. She says that working from the desktop saves her time during the work day but also allows her to delete temporary files easily so that they don’t clutter up her well-organized Documents area of her computer.

The folder group would assert that the desktop group’s method is cluttered, the icons strewn across the desktop a complete mess that can slow down the memory on the computer, and that a series of clearly-labeled folders is the way to go, despite taking a little navigation to reach them.

Unlike Erin, I fall squarely with the folders group. I really dislike the visual clutter of a desktop strewn with icons and must have my desktop free of as much clutter as my computer will allow. It barely takes me any time at all to save information to well-organized folders and it saves me time later from having to go back and clean up everything.

So, which method do you espouse and why? Let’s see what we can learn from each other.

Keep your computer clean with digital decluttering

A few days ago I got a desperate call from a friend. “My computer says ‘disk full’ and basically won’t work. What do I do?” Her laptop’s hard drive was full to capacity. She tried deleting the contents of her downloads folder, some unwanted photos, old emails, and stray files on the desktop and it wasn’t enough. Albeit a good start, I told her, but it’s kind of like using an eyedropper to empty a swimming pool. For real digital de-cluttering, you’ve got to break out the big guns.

While photo and video libraries can take up a lot of storage space, as well as music, backups and more, there are other, space-hungry files on your machine that you can’t see. For keeping those in check, I recommend using a piece of software. I recommend Clean My Mac and Clean My PC by the folks at Macpaw. (Both pieces of software are $40.)

Before I explain why, let me quickly discuss memory vs. storage.

Computer memory vs. computer storage

In the 20 years that I’ve been working with computers professionally, I’ve found that memory vs. storage causes confusion for people more than anything else. One refers to how much your machine can physically hold; the other, how much it can do at once.

Here’s an analogy: Consider an office desk. It’s got a broad worktop and many drawers for storing all sorts of stuff. To work on something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The drawers are your storage. The more drawers you have, or the more spacious they are, the more they can hold. A desk with six drawers can store more stuff than one with four (assuming the drawers are all the same size). The drawers are your computer’s internal hard drive. The larger it is, the more “stuff” — photos, videos, Word docs, music, etc. — it can physically hold. Back to the desk.

To work with something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The bigger the top of your desk is, the more you can spread out and work on at once. The work top is your computer’s memory. The more memory your computer has, the more you can look at one time. There’s a little more to memory than that, but this is a good basic explanation.

Kill digital clutter

As I mentioned, there are big ‘ol files lurking on your machine that many people can’t easily find and drag to the trash. That’s why I recommend using a piece of software to help you find these. As a Mac user, I use Clean My Mac from Macpaw. Clean My PC has a reputation for doing an equally fantastic job on Windows machines. However, since I don’t have a PC, I can’t speak for it directly.

I like Clean My Mac for three reasons: It’s thorough, it’s clear on what’s happening, and it’s safe.

Thorough

I cleaned my MacBook Pro earlier today, and Clean My Mac found outdated cache files amounting to nearly 2 GB, as well as iPhone updates that I no longer need. Additionally, much software is “localized” for several languages. I only need English, so Clean My Mac found the superfluous (for me) language files from my software and removed them — to the tune of 2.45 GB.

Safe

Whenever Clean My Mac conducts a scan, it identifies what it calls “Large & Old Files.” These files are not removed without your review and approval. You might find video projects in there, large audio files, and the like. For instance, the scan I recently conducted found several iMovie files that are quite large but not for deletion. Clean My Mac was smart enough to leave them intact for me.

Clear

This software’s help system is fantastic. Deleting files from your computer should not be taken lightly, even when you’re talking about known junk. The help section defines every term and process clearly and concisely, so you’ll know what’s going to happen. Additionally, the software’s main screen is quite legible and logically arranged.

It can be frustrating when your computer is cluttered. Fortunately, you can be safely proactive about it. Grab a good piece of software and stay on top of your digital decluttering before you end up with a virtual mess on your hands.

What to do with old USB flash drives

I’ve got an army of old flash-based thumb drives in a drawer and it’s time to put them to work. The following are ideas for what to do with these drives if you’re like me and now rely mostly on transferring files through the cloud (via Dropbox or similar).

Encrypted vault of secret files

I’m a big fan of Knox for Mac. It does several cool tricks including reformatting thumb drives to be secure, password-protected volumes. Perhaps you’re traveling for business and don’t want to take any chances with sensitive information. Maybe you’ve got info from multiple clients on a single drive and need to ensure they don’t get mixed up. Or, perhaps you want to pretend you’re an international spy. Whatever the reason, Knox keeps that information very secure indeed. You can even put a copy of the Knox app itself on the drive, so if you’re using it on a Mac without Knox installed, you can still open the volume (and Spotlight on that machine won’t index it, either).

Portable apps

So-called “portable apps” are light versions of software that don’t need to be installed on a host computer to run. By installing them on a thumb drive, you know you’ll be able to run the software you need when you’re away from you main computer. Some examples of portable apps include:

Audio books for the car

Many car stereos now feature a USB port for accessing media via the vehicle’s stereo or in-dash entertainment system. If you like listening to audio books like I do, you know that they can take up a lot of space on your digital audio player. Why not put them on a thumb drive and keep it in the car? That way you’ll have several of your favorite audiobooks available during long trips without taking up space on your smartphone or digital audio player.

Fun gifts

Need a gift for a family member or friend? CNET suggests adding music, photos, videos and other files that someone will find meaningful to a drive and then giving it as a gift. The recipient can even take those files off of the drive, put them somewhere for safe keeping and then have a nice thumb drive to use.

Press kit

I’ve received several press kits on customized thumb drives. They’ve contained a working version of a piece of software, a PDF of a press release, high-resolution graphics to use in a review, and more. Often the drives themselves bear a company logo. It’s a nice way to share such information and, like the gift idea, leaves the recipient with a nice drive to use.

Donate

Check with your local school, scout groups, camps, and other non-profit organizations to see if they need any drives. My kids needed them at school and camp recently. Just be sure to erase them thoroughly before handing them over.

Calendly is fantastic for easy, organized scheduling

I recently wrote about a few tech options for busy summer scheduling. After that article was published, I ran across Calendly, and now I’m wishing I could to back in time and mention that app in that post.

Seeing as time travel is not yet possible, I’ve decided to mention the app independently. I’m loving Calendly because it’s a hands-off, passive solution for scheduling. It lets you share a single link with potential collaborators, and it automatically accounts for what you already have on your schedule.

When you first create an account, you can link Calendly to Google Calendar or Microsoft’s Office 365. Once the accounts are linked, the app’s features are pretty impressive.

Let’s say you’re trying to schedule a time to talk with someone on Skype. All you need to do is send a person your personal Calendly link, and the service looks at your calendar and sees when you’re free. The person you’re trying to get together with can click any day, and Calendly automatically offers your available time slots to that person, based on what’s on your calendar. They click the one that works for them, adding an event to your calendar and sending you a notification.

As you add more calendar events, your availability in Calendly changes in real time. I’ve been using it for a week now and am hooked.

Note that there is both a free and a paid plan. The latter offers features like team scheduling, automated reminders, and an option to remove the Calendly branding, should you be using the service for business.

Get the most out of an older iPad

It’s amazing to think that Apple’s iPad turns five years old this year. It’s so ubiquitous in 2015 that it seems like it has been around for a lot longer. Even old models are still in use, which brings me to my motivation for writing this article.

I own an iPad 2. It was released in March of 2011 and it’s still alive and kicking. Apple has even noted that the next update to its operating system, dubbed “iOS 9”, will run on the aging device. Still, it’s not as zippy as its younger siblings.

If you’ve got an older iPad around and have been wondering about its usefulness, let me point out these great ways to keep it useful and in service. The following are four ways to use an older iPad.

As a cable-free TV

I’ll admit it, I use my iPad 2 to watch TV shows and movies quite often. More often than my actual TV, in fact. There are a slew of apps out there that make this happen, including:

  • Netflix: TV, movies and great original content
  • Hulu: A stronger focus on TV than Netflix, but it has movies, too
  • Crackle: Sony’s streaming service has plenty of movies
  • HBO Go/HBO Now: The former is a free add-on for HBO subscribers, while the latter is a stand-alone subscription at $14.99 per month, and both allow you access to HBO programming
  • Amazon Instant Video: A video streaming service that’s included with the company’s Prime membership at $99 per year
  • Your cable provider: If you have cable television or internet, your service may have an app that lets you stream television to your iPad

As a remote control

Don’t want to cut the cable cord? Or maybe perhaps you prefer to enjoy TV and movies on your actual television? No problem. Most TV manufacturers offer universal remote apps. Additionally, if you use the Apple TV, there’s a free Remote app ready to go.

It might not fit into your “Remote Boat,” but the iPad does a good job of controlling your TV. And it reduces clutter by limiting you to one remote instead of a pile.

Weather Station

A friend of mine has this super-cool wireless weather station at his house that I really like. Realizing that an app is cheaper than a whole new piece of hardware, I went looking for a compatible app and found WunderStation. This great-looking app provides a wealth of weather information that you can browse in real time. You can also customize its presentation so that it’s displayed just how you want. Add a handy wall mount and you’ve got a very cool weather station.

Kitchen Helper

I’ve been using my iPad in the kitchen pretty much from day one. Of course it’s great for storing recipes and keeping them handy for when you want to cook. But you can increase its usefulness with a kitchen-friendly stand. I use a ‘fridge mount from Belkin to keep my iPad 2 away from messy spills while I’m cooking.

Alternatively, you can use a Chef Sleeve or go low-tech (but just as effective) with a zip-top kitchen bag.

It’s funny to think of something that’s only five years old as near the end of its usefulness, but such is the nature of tech. However, I think the iPad is an exception. The usefulness for this device has certainly exceeded its cost at this point, and I plan to use it for many more years to come.

Online tools for easy summer scheduling

Ah, summer. Those three balmy months when school is out and many people are spending their vacation time. It’s great to get away and relax, and potentially tricky to work with collaborators. Instead of playing phone tag — or worse, email tag — consider some of these fantastic online tools that let everyone you wish to participate in a meeting list their schedule availability.

Doodle

A long-time favorite of mine, Doodle lets you pick several potential dates for your meeting or event and invite others to check off what works for them. Once everyone has participated, it’s easy to see what’s going to work and what isn’t. Doodle is free to use, though a paid option is available, which includes a custom domain, custom design options and more. But for quick-and-dirty scheduling, the free version works perfectly.

ScheduleOnce

ScheduleOnce is another option with a very nice feature: Google integration. Once connected to Google Calendar or Gmail, ScheduleOnce will populate those tools with the scheduling information added by your participants. That means one less step in the process of getting your meeting arranged. I like that.

Schedule Thing

I like the robotic name of this app: Schedule Thing! It’s not science fiction, it’s a scheduling application that makes use of what it calls “resources.” A resource can be just about anything, like a meeting space or a person. List when a given resource is available, and then participants click on the option that works for them. After the initial setup, Schedule Thing can save you a lot of time.

When is Good

I love When is Good because it’s super simple and completely free. When you create an event, you highlight or “paint over” the dates and times that work for you, as they appear on a grid. Save the unique URL to share with the rest of your group, as well as the unique results code. After everyone has participated, return to When is Good, enter your results code, and view compatible times in an easy-to-read grid. Like I said, it’s free and very easy to use.

Services like these aren’t unique to work situations, either. Perhaps you’re looking to schedule a fishing trip, a day in the city, or an afternoon at the lake with friends or family. Accommodate everyone’s busy summer schedule by letting them answer your request for info when they can. It’s convenient and easy.

Organize a summer vacation with your smartphone

Last year I traveled to Orlando from Boston and managed every aspect of the trip, from packing to sending a thank-you card, with my iPhone. I rarely touched paper through the planning and traveling process and never felt unprepared or wanting. The following is how I managed a vacation with a smartphone (and you can, too).

Hardware

There are two pieces of hardware I needed for my journey beyond my smartphone. The first was a backup battery case. My choice was the Mophie Juice Pack. It’s sturdy, indicates its available power via LEDs, and has an on/off switch, so you don’t turn it on until you need it. The Juice Pack leaves all the ports and buttons available on a phone and charges up with or without the smartphone inside. I typically switch it on when my iPhone’s battery hit 20 percent, and turned it off once the phone was back up to 80 percent.

Don’t have an iPhone? No worries, Mophie makes battery cases for many makes and models.

I also brought an AC charger for the car. Nothing devours a smartphone’s battery like running a GPS app, so a charger is essential. Save the Juice Pack for later.

Book a flight

Kayak is my favorite smartphone travel app, available for iPhone and Android devices, and it’s what I used to book my flight. I launched the app, tapped Flights, and entered flight details (like originating airport, terminal airport, date, number of passengers and price range). Then, I tapped Search Flights.

Once I selected my flight, I booked through the app (but you don’t have to). Finally, I had the program email the details to me and a travel partner.

If you book your flight outside of the app, you can create a free Kayak account and email any confirmation emails to your special Kayak address. The details will appear in the “My Trips” section and the app does a stellar job of parsing the information into something useable. Having all your flight information in one, well-organized location is very convenient.

Packing list

I also used Kayak to create a packing list. There are many apps that can do this, but I like having things in one place. Kayak offers four list templates by default: Family, Business, Romantic, and General. Each features items that one might take on a family trip, business trip, etc. You can edit these lists or create custom ones.

Book a bus ticket

I live in the boonies, so I must take a bus to the airport. My local bus line isn’t the most technically advanced, but that’s all right. The schedule is available as a PDF, which I put into Evernote tagged: Florida. Now, I’ve got the schedule ready to browse anytime, even if I lose my Internet connection.

At this point, I had to touch paper. My bus line sells tickets with no electronic option.

Finally, I put copies of email confirmation from the airline and a photo of the bus ticket into my Evernote “Florida” notebook. It’s overkill, but it helps me rest easier. Now it’s off to the airport.

En route

Kayak does a great job of monitoring flight information, but there are alternatives. My favorite is Flight Update Pro. This app lets you create a Trip, and each Trip can have several flights. Flight information is very legible, and includes terminal and gate information, weather report flight maps, and even a seating chart. You can store your confirmation number, seat number, and any relevant notes.

The sharing options are great, too. You can send an email or a SMS to a travel partner with a tap of a button. There’s little to type, as the messages are pre-populated with flight information and status. Kayak offers easy emails, but not SMS. It’s a simple way to say, “I’m here,” with almost no effort.

There are other flight apps, and I’ve tried many. Honorable mention goes to Flight Card by Sylion. It’s less capable than the others, but very good looking and certainly well-suited to those who fly less frequently or aren’t as demanding of their flight apps. Again, if you have an Android device, you can do all of this with Kayak.

Driving

After a night at my parents’, it was time to drive to the destination, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. I’d need a turn-by-turn GPS app for the two-hour drive, and Google Maps is my choice, available for Android and iOS. It’s been my go-to GPS app for years.

Park Map

Many amusement parks have apps for customers and some third-party developers have created them, too. Universal’s Islands Of Adventure – GPS Map with HP is a nice example of the latter. It provides a map of the venue with GPS directions, as well as points of interest such as popular attractions, restaurants, and restrooms. It’s not all-inclusive (many Disney apps include ride wait times, for example), but it is better than those oversized paper maps that typically get torn or lost. If you’re heading to an amusement park this summer, be sure to research park-specific apps that might be beneficial for you.

Photographs

Smartphones come with photo software that’s fantastic right out of the box, so you probably won’t need to look elsewhere. I do, however, like Camera+ by Tap Tap Tap for the iPhone. Its editing tools are quite nice.

Don’t forget to back up your photographs automatically so if your phone gets waterlogged or lost, you don’t lose your vacation memories.

Thank you notes

There’s a great app for making greeting cards from Android devices and another for iPhones. On your flight home, you can take care of the thank you cards and be finished with your trip except for your laundry when you get home.

Helpful smartphone apps for people with ADD

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In short, I was thrilled; years of frustration were explained and I got a comprehensive plan for the future. Surprisingly, my smartphone is a part of that plan.

One of the reasons my iPhone is part of my comprehensive ADD plan is because it’s always with me and a lot better at remembering what needs to be done and when than I am on my own. Listed below are some of the apps and other practices that I absolutely depend on to help me focus and get things done. Perhaps they’ll help you or someone you know.

Before I begin, please note that any ADD treatment plan is multi-faceted and individualized, and typically involves input from a trained, experienced professional. This post is presented for your information only and not meant as medical advice. With that said, on to the apps.

Due: I have a terrible time remembering to do those little tasks that must be completed every day. I can write a note to myself, yes, but that’s an incomplete solution. How will I remember to read the list? Most of the time, I don’t. Or I lose the note. Fortunately, the answer is simple; have the list present itself to me at the appropriate time.

Due is that list. It’s a reminder app for iPhone and iPad that’s perfect for quick additions and relentless with the reminders. Due is not a calendar, a GTD solution, or a to-do list. It won’t sort items by context or project. What it does is answer the question, “Will you remind be about ____?” with a resounding “Yes.”

By default, Due pings and produces a dialog box at the designated time and every 60 seconds thereafter until I act upon it by either marking it done or putting it off. Due’s persistence won’t let me forget about the task, so I’m likely to either complete it or delay it if necessary. Also, delaying the deadline doesn’t affect the snooze function. Those pesky but immensely helpful reminders are also pushed ahead.

Evernote: Where Due is my short-term memory, Evernote is for long-term storage. Anything that I don’t need to act upon right away, but might need to refer to in the future, goes into Evernote. I get such a huge sense of relief knowing that I have all that information and, more importantly, that I know where to find it.

MindNode Pro: I’ve written about mind mapping before, as it’s my favorite way to brainstorm. When I get started, ideas just show up for me rapidly and without any organization. A mind map suits this tendency well, as I can just capture these thoughts easily and attach them to other relevant thoughts quickly.

These three apps go a long way to keeping me on top of what I need to do and capture the thoughts I have. Most importantly, they give me the peace of mind that I’m not missing something important, which is such an awful feeling (especially when it’s true). If you know of something else I should check out, let me know in the comments below.

Tech to organize each room of the house

As an unclutterer who loves technology, I’m always looking for ways to marry the two. I had this in mind as my wife and I did some light spring cleaning this weekend. Nothing too major, we just made some preparations for the school year’s end like bringing out the beach towels, organizing the shed a bit, and making sure the yard equipment is in good order.

As I moved from room to room, I asked myself, “If I could share one bit of tech from this room with the Unclutterer readers, what would it be?” Behold the answer: one example of useful tech for each room in the house.

Kitchen

There are so many options here I struggled to pick just one, but I landed on the Belkin refrigerator mount for iPad. This device is so easy to install and extremely effective: ours has been in place for years. When affixed at eye level, you get a companion that can help with recipes, run a timer, provide music, stream TV shows, and display a calendar — all without taking up a lick of counter space.

If you have a tablet that isn’t a supported iPad model, consider the Aduro U-Grip Adjustable Universal Fridge/Wall Mount, as it accommodates a variety of tablet makes and models.

Bedroom

You could make an argument that the bedroom should be a sanctuary from the devices that demand our attention all day, like smartphones and laptop computers. I can’t argue with that, because for the most part, I agree.

However, I’ve used my iPhone as an alarm clock for years, and this retro radio-style dock from Areaware has held it beautifully on my nightstand for a long time. It’s more form than function, sure, but it keeps the phone at a readable angle so I needn’t lift up my phone to read the time in the morning. The device also channels my phone’s charging cable toward the wall so I don’t have to see the cable dangling off the edge of my night stand.

Bathroom

The Withings Smart Body Analyzer (SBA) is a very cool tool indeed. When I was a kid, stepping on a scale meant standing stock still as the numbers beneath the needle settled into place. Today, the SBA can track your history and display it via beautiful apps for iOS and Andriod. It also takes your pulse and designs fitness goals for you, based on the data it records.

If that’s not enough, it can store data for multiple users and even share weather information before you leave the house. In short, it replaces a lot of other tools that would otherwise take up room.

Living Room

I feel like “living room” is an outdated concept, but when I was young the term referred to a house’s central gathering place. The room used for socializing and leisure. Since this room is often a house’s entrainment hub there are many uncluttered tech options to consider. My current favorite, though, are media streaming devices.

There are so many to choose from, including the Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Roku and more. Each has similarities and differences, but I’m mentioning it here for one reason: they can replace many of the DVDs and VHS tapes you might have hanging around.

Also, since they depend on your home’s WiFi network instead of IR for communication, like your TV’s remote does, you can place them completely out of sight. They’re useful, fun, and huge clutter reducers.

Closet

Not technically a room in the house, the closet still deserves attention, as they love to accumulate clutter. For those looking to add a bit of tech to a closet, I suggest an app called Closet+. It’s a database of all your clothes that keeps a record of what you have, but also lets you preview outfits with just a few swipes.

You can enter an item’s cost, the number of times you’ve worn it (which breaks down the “cost per wear” statistic. Love it.), date last worn, and more. You can even create packing lists for when you’re going away on vacation.

Storage

Finally, if you’ve got a basement, shed, or other storage area, I’ve previous shared a few ideas for those zones, too.

Google Photos offers convenient storage and search option

Google has offered a new photo management service and set of apps simply named Google Photos. It looks like it could be a good solution for the confounding issue of digital photo management.

I’ve written about my struggles with digital photos several times here on Unclutterer. The ease with which we can take hundreds of photos creates a modern issue: managing mountains of photos. There are several solutions available and now Google is pushing its latest, Google Photos.

Google Photos was once a part of its Google+ service, which has failed to catch on as the company hoped it would. Now free to exist as an independent product, Google Photos is ready for mainstream use if you’re willing to accept a trade-off.

First, it stores all images in the cloud (read: a remote server). Many people are comfortable with cloud-based services in 2015, but people are also protective of their family photos. If it’s any consolation, I store my photos this way. Also, images uploaded to Goole Photos are private by default.

Using a cloud-based storage solution frees up oodles of space on your device (Google Photos supports iPhone, Android, and the Web). Also, you can enjoy unlimited storage … as long as you’re okay with a photo resolution of 16 megapixels and video at 1080p (I am). Otherwise, you have options. You can get 15 GB of Google Drive storage for free, and you can purchase 100 GB for $1.99 per month, or 1 TB a month for $9.99, which isn’t awful.

But it’s not the storage that I find amazing, it’s the search functionality that makes this so cool.

Google is synonymous with searching, so having a strong search function should be no surprise. If you’re looking for a photo of you dog, for instance, you can simply type “dog” into the search field. There’s no need to remember dates or locations. Just “dog” will bring up every image you have of a dog. You can even search for color, like “green,” and Google Photos will bring up your images of grass, leaves, green t-shirts and so on. I’ve been playing with it and it’s impressive. No tagging was involved.

Another cool trick is it will find images that were taken on the same day or at the same location, and group them into “stories” or collages for you. You can opt to browse these once or save them to your camera roll if you want to alter the “stories” it creates.

If you’re someone who finds himself searching for that one photo you have in mind that you took that one time, well Google Photos will likely be able to help you with that. Google Photos isn’t the perfect answer, but it’s a very good one.

Organize your smartphone for summer travel

For people who own smartphones, one of your phone’s benefits is that it can serve as your mobile computer when you’re traveling. To help facilitate this change in purpose, you may also wish to switch things up on your phone. You can make adjustments to the the apps on your home screen, the alerts your smartphone delivers, and more before departing for a trip. The following suggestions are what I recommend making to your smartphone while preparing to travel.

Re-organize applications

Depending on the model of smartphone you have, you likely have a limited number of apps you can store on your phone’s main screen. With this in mind, consider which apps you’ll want to access most often during a trip, and move them to the main screen. You can move all your other apps to subsequent screens, reducing visual clutter and saving yourself from playing “hide and seek” on your phone when your connectivity may not be as consistent as it is at home. I typically have these apps on my home screen during a trip (I have an iPhone):

  • Mail
  • Phone
  • Safari
  • Maps
  • Messages
  • Camera
  • Evernote
  • Kayak
  • Motion-X GPS Drive
  • Path
  • Rdio
  • Any destination-specific apps

Most of these apps have obvious functions: phone calling, web browsing, navigating, texting, listening to music, and shooting photos and video. The others have specific duties.

Evernote is my database for everything digital. It lets me create and browse a fast, lightweight, and searchable repository of all the specifics I’ll need for my trip: hotel reservations, airport details, parking locations, confirmation numbers, and so much more are all a tap away. In fact, my “everything database” has all but eliminated paper from my travel materials.

Motion-X GPS Drive (iOS only) is my preferred turn-by-turn navigation app for the iPhone. It’s reliable, inexpensive, and easy to use. Advanced features, like saved searches and synthetic voices that are genuinely easy to understand, make it a winner. (Erin would like to note that she’s addicted to Waze, which is available for Mac and Windows phones.)

Path is a social networking application with an interesting premise: unlike Facebook and Twitter, which invite users to broadcast their comings and goings to whoever will listen, Path asks you to invite a handful of family and friends to share your favorite moments. I often use it with my family, most of whom also do a fair amount of traveling.

Finally, I’ll add any destination-specific apps I find. For instance, there are several great apps available for navigating Walt Disney World. In 2011, Macy’s released an official Thanksgiving Day Parade app. Search your favorite App Store for apps related to your destination.

ID your equipment for instant recognition

Not every trip is a vacation. I often travel for work and when I do, my smartphone is in tow, as is a pile of other tech goodies, like wall chargers, cables, keyboards and so on. What’s more, I meet colleagues who also travel with gadgets, often identical to my own. To avoid confusion, I mark my own stuff for easy organizing.

The easiest and least permanent way to label cables and equipment is with a small sticker. I prefer the colorful circles people often use in retail to identify sale items, etc. You’ll find them at most big-box office supply stores. I’ll put a red circle, for instance, on all of my chargers, cables, iPhone and iPad case, keyboards, and so on. That way if there’s a question about who owns what, I can ask, “Is there a red sticker?”

Stickers are impermanent, too, and I like that. Someday I might want to sell or give away some of my gear and no one will want it if it’s got “Dave Caolo” written on it in black permanent marker. The stickers are easy to remove and don’t leave any residue.

While stickers work, they’re not always the most elegant solution. For something a little better-looking, consider Buoy Tags (or similar). These customizable plastic tags clip onto USB cables. You can add your own initials, name, phone number, etc. Tags like this are very handy.

Disable alerts

I’ll admit, I check email during trips with my family. However, I reduce the temptation to spend too much time on this app by making it less attractive. First, I disable the alert sound/vibration completely. Next, I disable the alert icon that appears whenever there is a new message. And finally, I move the app into a folder so it is more difficult to access and see. When I get on my phone to pull up a hotel reservation, I’m not lured into email–on, off, and back to my relaxing trip.

Digital recipe organizing solutions to love

Elaine recently asked Unclutterer:

I have a specific need related to paper management — recipes. I’d like to take all the scraps of paper with notes about recipes I have in books, torn out newspaper clippings, torn out magazine clippings, recipes from the inside of product packaging (like recipes on the inside of the cream cheese box) and get them organized digitally. It needs to be searchable, which is why I haven’t just done some sort of scanning thing … what thoughts/recommendations do people have?

Elaine, I know this problem well. When I was a kid, my mother used what I called the “fly paper method” of organizing her recipe clippings. If you had opened any cabinet door in our kitchen, you would have found soup can labels, magazine pages, newspaper clippings, hand-written index cards, and more, all taped to the inside of the doors. While convenient in that they were all in the kitchen, searchability was a nightmare. There must be a better way. And, in fact, there are several. The following are some digital options to consider.

Paprika. I’m tempted to start and end my list right here, because the Paprika app is such a nice solution. First of all, it’s available on many platforms: Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire, and Nook Color. (Prices vary based on the platform, but it’s just a one-time cost of $4.99 for iPhone to give you an idea of what to expect.) Also, the features are fantastic. It syncs via the cloud, so all of your devices can hold the same information. Entering a recipe manually is easy, and you can download recipes you find online with a single tap. It will generate a shopping list for you, and even sort it by aisle in your grocery store. Finally, the interactive recipe feature allows you to swipe an ingredient to cross it off when you’re done with it, and tap to highlight the current step you’re working on in the recipe. I’m sure you’ll love it (I do). But, for the sake of options, let’s explore a few more.

Plan to Eat. Plan to Eat is an app that focuses on what you’ll cook when, but also stores your recipes and shares them across devices. To get started, you enter your recipes manually. Then, you plan you week’s meals by dragging and dropping the dishes you’d like to make onto a calendar. Plan to Eat then makes a shopping list for you that appears on your phone. Plan to Eat is free for 30 days, then $4.95 per month or $39 per year.

Basil for iPad. I’m not sure what device(s) you’re using, which is why I shared two platform-agnostic solutions so far. However, I’ll go out on a limb and say, if you have an iPad, consider Basil. Not only does it store your recipes beautifully and offer a very capable search function, Basil understands that you might not use it forever. Therefore, it lets you export all of your recipes as plain text. They’re your recipes, after all. It also features timers and easy unit conversion.

Evernote. Not meant specifically for recipes, Evernote is a good candidate because it excels at two things: storage and search. Scan a recipe, add the appropriate tags, and, presto, you’ve got an excellent digital recipe book.