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.

Reconciling paper and digital productivity and organizing tools

I’m a confirmed gadget nut, and therefore many of my preferred tools for productivity and organization are electronic, including hardware and software. Yet, I still keep and use a paper notebook almost every day because I love my paper calendar and notebooks. This can be hard to reconcile. I am continually asking myself questions, such as: Why am I writing things down twice? And, um, where did I do that recent brainstorming session, on my notebook or computer?

Keeping on top of my projects is important, so I’ve begun to formally address the incongruence between my paper and digital tools.

The system I’ve discovered to solve my dilemma was inspired by a recent episode of The Fizzle Show. The Fizzle Show is the podcast of the website Fizzle.co, which offers insight and advice for those working on building a business. Episode 99 featured insights from Mike Vardy and Shawn Blanc, two self-starters whom I admire. It was in listening to their conversation that I came upon a system.

Shawn and Mike discussed the practice of keeping a “productivity journal.” They use it to formally write down progress the’ve made on goals, both little and small. It’s a nice bit of motivation, reinforcement, and history. At the end of a week, month, or year, they can look back at what they accomplished and what was left incomplete. Right away, I wanted to adopt the practice. But how?

I love writing in a notebook. It’s just fun, and I do it every day. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to find entries via electronic search. I’m a big fan of Evernote, which acts as my digital “cold storage.” Fortunately, there’s an easy way to marry the two that doesn’t take a lot of time or require me to write and type the same information.

Enter the Evernote Moleskine. It’s a Moleskine notebook that comes with some Evernote branding and, more importantly, an Evernote Premium subscription. Finally, the Evernote Mobile apps are tuned to recognize a page from the notebook and snap a crystal-clear, searchable image. Now, when I complete my entry in the notebook, I snap a photo of it with the Evernote app, give it an appropriate name and tags, and I’m good. The program recognizes my handwriting and makes it searchable. I had the pleasure of writing in a notebook and I’ve got a searchable, indexed copy in a digital app that I trust and is nearly ubiquitous.

I’ve tried to abandon my notebooks, but I just love them and feel motivated to work when I sit down with a nice, fresh page and a pen. This system of reconciling paper and electronic isn’t perfect — it would be easier to pick just one — but, honestly, it’s working fine and the time it takes to photograph and name an entry digitally is minimal. If you’re like me, straddling the analog and digital worlds, this solution might also work for you.

Tech clutter and cleaning vs. exhaustion

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Today I’ll be looking at two questions: tech clutter and the sheer exhaustion of staying on top of it all. Let’s start with the gadgets.

Bailey asked:

…Since [our kitchen] is by the back door [it has become a] landing pad for the cell phones and their chargers, especially for folks who are visual and need the reminder to take it with them…laptops and tablets end up all over the house, becoming visual clutter in the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

This drives me crazy, too. With four of us living under one roof, I find phones, the iPad, and our laptops all over the place. When we have houseguests it gets even worse, as cables and devices seem to dangle from every available outlet. To combat this issue, I’ve hit everyone where it hurts: battery life.

We have designated charging areas in our house: a so-called “telephone table” (it used to hold our land-line phone back when we had one) and the bedrooms. That’s it. If a device is not in a designated area, it does not get recharged, as moving cables from outlets is not allowed. The threat of a dead battery is enough to keep the digital clutter confined to one area. Smart planning will go a long way, too.

As human beings, we tend toward the path of least resistance. Use this to your advantage when defining a designated charge zone for your electronic goodies. If people like to enter the house through the kitchen and plop their devices down there, choose that location. There are several great options for DIY charging stations that can accommodate several devices and look great in the process. If you’re willing to sacrifice a drawer, you can make a hidden charging station that:

  1. Is where they like to plop stuff down anyway, so the habit change is minimal,
  2. keeps everything completely out of sight,
  3. is easy to access, and
  4. is very inexpensive and easy to set up.

I hope this helps. After a couple weeks of gentle reminders and some careful consideration, I think you’ll have a solution that everyone can use.

Next, reader Kat asked:

But at the end of [my 12-hour day]…I am utterly pooped. I hire someone to do the dusting and bathrooms and floors, but that creates pressure to have the house decluttered before she comes each week. I have boxes still unpacked in the garage from when we moved 3 years ago, and we can barely get into the garage if we need something from them. I have dealt with high pressure decluttering situations by piling high a laundry basket and hiding it in my walk-in closet – now no one can get into the closet. All the usual culprits — junk drawers, bathroom cupboards, closets, sheds, become repositories of clutter.
While I feel we are coping with day-to-day life flow, I just cannot find a way to break this cycle and find the energy to tackle the big projects like the garage or closets.

I think everyone can empathize with this situation in some way. I’ve been meaning to organize our basement for years. There comes a point when a little project becomes a big one, and a big one becomes an insurmountable monster. The answer for me has been to re-define your definition of a “project.”

“Clean the garage” is a project. But at this point, it has become so intimidating that it’s super easy to avoid. Instead of avoiding it, I’ve broken it down into much smaller projects that are achievable. Perhaps this weekend you can find 30 minutes to sit with a pen and paper and list the categories of items you expect to find in the garage, like yard tools, holiday decorations, sports equipment, etc. When you’re done with that, you’re done. You’ve successfully made progress on the garage.

Next time you have a fifteen minute block of time, plan out what your’e going to do with stuff that you aren’t going to keep. Will you donate it, sell it, give it away, take it to a consignment shop, the town dump, etc.? Again, getting those decisions made is another project completed.

The week after that, dedicate just fifteen minutes to sorting through one type of category of your stuff in the garage (ONLY yard tools or ONLY holiday decorations). Find items that will be thrown away, for example, and then donate/sell/recycle/trash the items that need to be purged. Put the items you wish to keep in a pile or box out of the way for you to organize on another day. After fifteen minutes, you’re done. Another win.

Do this with all your categories of items and then repeat it with organizing and putting away what you’ve planned to keep. It will take you many weeks, maybe months, to get the garage to your ideal, but you will get there. A little work at a time results in an uncluttered and organized garage, which is better than the chaos that is frustrating you now. Baby steps to success.

This is how I deal with the craziness. My wife and I work full time and we’re raising two kids along with Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, ballet, soccer, homework, and on and on. Even in the house, I break things down. “Today I’ll tidy up the mudroom area.” These small victories compound and I get stuff done without exhausting myself even further.

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!

Keeping your tech gadgets clean

On Sunday, I watched the post-game show after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl. As the victors lifted the shiny Lombardi Trophy high above their heads, I thought, “Wow, that thing is covered in fingerprints.”

Unfortunately, the same can be said for some of my favorite tech gadgets. Like many other tablets and smartphones, Apple’s iPad and iPhone literally require you to touch, tap, and swipe your fingers all over their screens. Even computer screens are occasionally touched or tapped as you try to point out something on the screen. Keeping up with all the fingerprints can feel like a losing battle, but that doesn’t mean you should just give up on cleaning. The following are a few ways you can keep your tech gadgets relatively clean.

Smartphones

Nobody wants a stylus” quipped Steve Jobs when he introduced the iPhone to the world in 2007. Sometimes, when I’m wiping my iPhone’s screen against my jeans, I wonder if he was wrong about this. Ugh!

To give your smartphone (iPhone or otherwise), a good cleaning, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure it’s turned off.
  2. Wipe with a soft, slightly damp, lint-free cloth. Avoid getting any moisture on any of the openings.
  3. Clean the Home Button with a dry, lint-free cloth only.

There are a couple things NOT to do, too:

  1. Do not use household cleaners, sprays, solvents, or any abrasives. All of these could harm your phone. For example, the iPhone’s screen features an oleophobic coating that’s meant to repel oils like those found in fingerprints. Household cleaners can reduce that coating’s effectiveness.
  2. Never spray your phone directly with a cleaner. As I’ve said, apply a slightly damp cloth to the screen.

Follow these steps every other day (less often if your phone is in a case) and your phone should remain relatively clean.

Tablets

A lot of the same rules apply to tablets as cell phones. Use a slightly damp, lint-free cloth, except on the Home Button, power button, or openings like the headphone port. Do not spray any liquids directly onto the tablet, and don’t use the types of cleaners I described earlier. Since a tablet’s screen is made of glass, it’s tempting to use window cleaner. Don’t.

Give your tablet a good wipe-down once per week.

Computers

Desktop and laptop computers are handled much less often than their mobile counterparts. Still, they do need a good cleaning occasionally. As you did with your tablet and phone, make sure your computer is off before giving it a good cleaning. That slightly damp, lint-free cloth is back on duty here, and can be safely used on the screen and chassis of your computer.

Again, keep moisture away from all ports and openings, and never spray directly onto the screen. Clean your computer once per month.

Keyboards

When it comes to keyboards, things can get nasty. Many keyboards are overdue for a good cleaning. In fact, it’s a good idea to regularly disinfect your keyboard.

  1. Disconnect your keyboard from your computer or, if it’s a wireless model, remove the batteries.
  2. Use a not-too-wet disinfectant wipe to clean an area, then use a dry, lint-free cloth to dry that area.

Again, there are a few things NOT to do.

  1. Don’t use wipes that contain bleach or any sprays.
  2. Avoid excessively damp wipes.
  3. Don’t let liquid pool.
  4. Avoid rough towels like paper towels.
  5. Clean your keyboards every other week.

Cleaning your gadgets only takes a few minutes and is well worth it.

Create your digital, personal insights journal

Earlier this week, writer Shawn Blanc published what I thought was a rather clever post on his blog, “The Core Curriculum.” In a nutshell, the post is about gathering the insightful lessons, experiences, thoughts, and other notable moments that occur in the course of a year into a single, tidy, and easily-referenced format. I like this idea, especially since we’re only a couple weeks into 2015.

The inspiration, if I’m correct, is the human tendency to forget details over time or otherwise have one’s recollections affected by environment, future experiences, and so on. This practice of capturing the details shortly after they happen not only helps ensure accuracy, it allows you to recall the initial insight after months or even years pass.

I’m going to change this practice in two ways. The first is a semantic change. “Core Curriculum” has become a politically charged term, and, for that reason, I think its use here is not the best choice. Instead, I’ll use “Insights Journal.” Second, since this is a tech-related column, I’ll suggest software as the main repository, where Shawn suggests a notebook.

In his article, Shawn notes:

“…Why not put together a small notebook that contains highlights and summaries from the books, speeches, articles, sermons, teachings, and other things which have most shaped us?…Then, once a year or so, go through the notebook. Read your summaries and highlights to stay familiar with the things that have shaped you.”

The following is software that can help you do just that.

  • Evernote. You might have seen this coming, as I’ve written about Evernote several times on Unclutterer. It’s my external brain, perfect for long-term storage and search. It’s compatible with almost every platform and it is actively being developed. It’s definitely a good way to capture your ideas.
  • Day One. This program is just for Mac and iOS users, but it has a slew of fans. Day One lets you enter text, as well as photos, weather information, location tracking (if you opt for it), and more. It syncs across devices like your Mac, iPad, and iPhone via iCloud or Dropbox. You can even publish certain entries, if you prefer.
  • Red Notebook. If you’re a Windows or Linux user and are looking for something similar to Day One, consider Red Notebook. This “modern notebook” lets you get in and start writing very quickly. You can create several virtual “notebooks,” so making a new Insight Journal at the end of the year will be easy, as will reviewing all you’ve captured.

Of course, there’s always Google Documents, Microsoft Word, Apple’s Text Edit, or even a physical notebook that you could use for this purpose. Just note that, while excellent at accepting text, those options won’t offer as strong of search options for your review as Evernote, Day One, or Red Notebook.

I hope Shawn’s idea inspires you, as it does me. He’s right — we do experience insightful and beneficial moments in our lives that we are quick to forget. An Insights Journal is a great idea to formally capture life’s lessons for future reference.

Eliminate unwanted email subscriptions

One of the things I love to do in January is to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists, newsletters, digital sales fliers, and so on. After spending 11 months ignoring them whenever they show up, it’s time to get rid of them entirely. In this post I’ll explain a few ways to purge electronic mail lists from your email inbox, from one-at-a-time to bulk action.

It’s my fault for subscribing in the first place, of course. Often when I do, my intentions are good. I’ll find a new site or service that I’m interested in and think, “Yes, I do want to keep up to date with this company’s stuff.” Once I’ve done that a dozen times, I’m in trouble. Digital clutter is just as insidious as its real-world counterpart, so it’s time to make a change.

Identify likely candidates

I’m not opposed to email subscriptions. There are many that are quite useful (like the Unclutterer email subscriptions, obviously). Therefore, the first step in this process is to identify the ones you’ll get rid of in your purge versus the ones you wish to keep. I do this via a week of mindful email reading. Each day, I’ll make a mental note of the subscriptions I simply delete without reading. If you like, create a folder for these, mark them with a flag or otherwise tag them for future reference. When I did it, I just wrote a list on a piece of paper.

Let the culling begin!

There are a few ways to unsubscribe from unwanted email. If you’ve only got a few to jettison, you could go the manual route. If you look closely in the footer of the email you receive, you’ll see something along the lines of “click to unsubscribe” or simply “unsubscribe.” You might have to look closely, as it’s sometimes hard to find. The message’s sender wants to keep your attention, after all. Clicking this link will bring you to a webpage that likely has further instructions. Many will unsubscribe you then and there, while others will have you jump through additional hoops. It’s kind of a hassle, but worth it when the result is less junk mail. Of course, this method is too time-consuming if you’ve got a long list of unwanted subscriptions. In that case, consider one of the following:

Unroll.me. Not only does Unroll.me help you kill unwanted subscriptions, it makes the keepers more manageable by presenting them in a single, daily digest email. You can even roll things like messages from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube into that single message. Tidy!

Mailstrom. This is another service that lets you cull hundreds or thousands of messages at once and send them all to the big, virtual trash bin in the sky, while keeping the messages you want to see intact. Plus, it works with the email solution you’re probably already using, as it’s compatible with Gmail, Google Apps Email, Outlook, Apple, Aol, and Exchange IMAP.

A tip for Gmail users. If you’re using Gmail, take a close look at the top of a message. You’ll likely see an “Unsubscribe” link. Google has made this a uniform location for this link, which is great, as it saves you from scouring a message’s footer for the hard-to-find default link.

Unlistr. Finally, this is a service that does the dirty work for you. Simply identify the email senders you don’t want to hear from anymore, and Unlistr does the rest, unsubscribing for you. Thanks, Jeeves!

Todoist is a task manager with two cool tricks

We’ve covered some nice productivity software over the years, like TeuxDeux and Due. Today, I want to point out Todoist, not only because it’s nearly ubiquitous, attractive, and effective, but because it has two features I think are really great. The following reasons are why Todoist is the digital project manager that has my attention these days.

It’s everywhere

Okay, so this isn’t one of the cool tricks but it’s something very much worth mentioning. Todoist boasts that it’s available on 13 platforms and devices. I’ve been using it on my Mac and iPhone, but you’ll also find options for Android and Windows, plus extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Outlook, Gmail and more. In my experience, synchronization between my computer and phone is lightning fast.

Import and export

Todoist lets you make color-coded projects and tasks, complete with tags, due dates, repeating events and so much more. It’s great-looking and effective. What’s really cool is its ability to import and export templates.

Here’s how this time-saving feature works:
When you create a new project, it’ll probably have several steps that must be ticked off before the thing can be marked as done. You can be really thorough, like me, and add due dates, contexts, color coding and more. Sometimes there will be a project that you’ll do over and over. A good example is the podcast I run at 5by5. Each week I go through the exact same steps, from scheduling to research and publication. I could add those steps to a project week after week, or I could just use a template.

Once a project is set up exactly how you like it, select “Export template” from within Todoist. It converts all those steps into a simple text file, with all my customization intact. I can store it wherever I want, and opting to import it sets up that project all over again, and all I had to do was click a single command.

There’s a great post on the Todoist blog that features several templates that are ready to import and use, including holiday gift shopping, pre-Christmas organizing, a holiday party plan, and even one for travel. I’m using the Christmas organization one now, and have saved the travel template for the future. This feature saves me so much time.

Karma points

I promised you two tricks, and the second one is something I should not like as much as I do. As you complete tasks, Todoist awards you with “karma points.” The more you use the app, the more points you receive. There are several ranks to earn and a pretty chart. Ignore the app or fail to complete tasks on time, and you’ll start to lose points. Yes, it’s 100 percent gimmicky and silly, but I totally get excited when I see my point total climb.

There are a huge number of project management apps available, and Todoist is only one of them. But I love its clean looks, near ubiquitous access and fantastic templates. You can use Todoist for free as long as you like, or upgrade to the premium version for $29 per year. I’ve found it to be definitely worth the expense.

Unclutterer’s 2014 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Technology gifts

It used to be that I’d ask if you have a techie on your holiday shopping list before beginning a gift-giving post like this, but the truth is, almost everyone is a techie these days with devices, gadgets, and gizmos as part of our everyday lives. Now, you can buy an uncluttered tech gift for nearly everyone.

Earlier this year, I reviewed the the ScanSnap iX100 and it did the impossible: it made me fall in love with a scanner, of all things. This small, portable, fast, and wireless scanner fits on my desk or in a bag. In my continued and extensive testing I have found that its battery holds a charge for a long time and it lets you export your scanned image to a huge array of sources, from your desktop to a shared folder to Evernote and so much more. Gone are the days of cranky flatbed scanners the size of a 1970 Ford Galaxy 500.

The Magnetic Organization System or “MOS,” is one of those why-didn’t-they-think-of-that products. If you’re like me, you’re constantly looking for effective ways to combat cable clutter. Sure, you can take the DIY route, but I encourage you to consider the MOS. The attractive, metallic pad sits on your desk and holds unused cables in place with magnets. It comes in black, silver, and white, so you can find one to accommodate your other hardware. My favorite part: if you have cables that won’t be held in place by a magnet, just use one of the included, magnetic cable ties and you’re all set.

Finally, if you want to use it to store something other than computer cables, have at it (see the image above right).

The Kanex GoBuddy+ is unobtrusive and a brilliant multi-tasking cable organizer that I love. First it has two cables attached — either a USB and a Lightning cable, or a USB and a micro USB. Both tuck out of the way when not and use, and unfold to connect your smartphone or tablet to a computer or USB-based AC adapter for charging. Best of all, it’s got a built-in bottle opener. Yes, please! It comes in black or white.

Here’s one that’s for you and/or the kids. The dreamGEAR Nintendo Wii Induction Power Base Quad adds a rechargeable battery to the Nintendo’s Wiimotes. When the gaming ends, simply plop the controller back into the base and it begins charging. You can either plug it into a wall or make use of that mystery USB port on the back of your TV (what is that for, anyway?) to save a slot on the wall socket. I have one of these at home and love it. The kids never ask for batteries for the Wiimotes anymore.

Last year I recommended the BookBook Travel Journal, and thought I would never fine something I like just as much. Well, I have. The Better Together Note Pouch is a zippered carrier that can accommodate a tablet or a laptop plus a myriad of pens, notebooks, labels, and a host of other things. It comes in several colors.

The Anker® 40W 5-Port High Speed Desktop USB Charger doesn’t have the sexiest name in the world, but it’s great for multi-device families. Once connected to a wall socket, this puppy can charge up to three USB-based devices. Not only that, it eliminates the clutter of “Where’s my cable?” and “Where’s my charger?” I recommend paring it with these great cable labels so everyone knows exactly whose is whose.

Last but not least, a handy little stocking stuffer for the techie on your gift list. The DCI 4-Port USB Power Strip fits into a bag (it measures just 1.1 by 4.4 by 0.75-inches), accepts up to four USB devices, and even has colored covers for each port so you needn’t worry about debris getting inside them when not in use. I’d give this to the tech-friendly traveler, as a full-sized charging station is too unwieldy to pack easily.

Feel welcome to explore our past Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Organize a mini office for on-the-go productivity

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home. Despite the battles with distraction, it’s a real luxury that I definitely appreciate. I’d wager that those of you who don’t complete your 9–5 at home still have a home office, computer room, command center, or some such other space that you use to attend to professional and personal management tasks.

Although these home work spaces are helpful, it’s inevitable you’ll be ejected from it at some point. Flaky internet, construction right outside your window, your kid who needs to do research for a school project, your neighbor’s dog that just won’t stop barking … these factors can make your sacred space less than amenable to productivity. Fear not! There are many public options available, and early organization and preparation will make it easy to head out the door and get back to work. The following are insights into how I’ve organized a mini, portable office.

First, identify the equipment you’ll need, and then whittle the list down to the most essential. For example, I’d love to bring my laptop, folding stand, Bluetooth keyboard, and Bluetooth mouse to an off-site work session, but all I need to work is the laptop. Sure the trackpad stinks, but not as badly as hauling all of that stuff around. The idea here is to travel light.

I also bring a notebook and a pen, both small. I know myself well enough at this point to understand that I like to scribble and doodle random thoughts and tasks during my work day. Lastly, I grab a charger for the laptop and a charging cable for my iPhone. I put the lot into a bag and I’m good to go as soon as the jackhammer starts pounding out my window.

Or am I?

In addition to the items listed above, these next few items really make it a killer setup. Consider putting these things into your own bag to reach the next level of mobile office work.

  1. A little cash. Many people use a coffee shop or cafe as a backup office. Most proprietors welcome laptop warriors, as long as they buy some things in their shop. Save yourself a trip to the ATM by popping $5 or $10 in your bag now. Yes, the cafe likely accepts debit cards, but cash makes it easier to tip the staff. As a camper, you want to stay on everyone’s good side.
  2. A power strip. These are bulky, but hear me out on my justification for packing one. I like to work from my local library. It has free WiFi, huge tables, and very few power outlets. When I approach a crowded table and plug a six-socket power strip into the wall, I become The Hero of the Library. Try it yourself and bask in the glory of your appreciative peers.
  3. An extra AC adapter for your laptop. This one is a bit pricey but it’s worth it. The adapter I plug my laptop into at home is entwined in an under-desk cord manager and getting it out is a pain. Keeping one in the bag saves time and aggravation.
  4. A charging cable for your phone. You don’t want your phone to die, and you can’t always predict when you’ll be out or for how long. I don’t pack a wall adapter for my phone, as I’ll just connect it to my laptop which has its own USB adapter.
  5. A pair of headphones. This super useful item is the universal signal for, “Leave me alone, I’m busy.” You needn’t even listen to music if you don’t want to (unless the cafe’s radio station is especially awful).

I recommend packing this stuff into a bag right away and just letting it sit. When it’s time to go, prep time will be minimal and you’ll be on the road to productivity (and maybe a latte) in no time.

Declutter your email subject lines

Long ago in a town far, far away, I was an undergraduate student. I had one teacher, professor O’Brien, who insisted that his students communicate with him via email. Back then, I sent and received at most two messages per week.

Today, you can put a pair of zeros behind that number.

I’m sure I’m not alone. For many, reading emails is more of a chore than a convenience. One thing you can do to make things easier on your recipients is to write clear, uncluttered subject lines. It’s not very difficult, but can go a long way to making this often irksome task more pleasant and efficient.

First and foremost, keep your subject lines short. According to Business Insider, most computer-based email applications only show around 60 characters in email subject lines. On smart phones, mail apps show maybe half that number. Full sentences won’t really work to meet those restrictions, so consider key words or ideas. Focus on the heart of what you’re going to say. And, to be clear, “Hey!” is not a worthwhile subject.

Since mobile phones give you so little to work with, get the most important words out first (often it’s a verb). “Cancel lunch Friday,” for example, is just 19 characters, the crux of the message, and “cancel” is featured first.

With that point made, it’s time for some decluttering. We aren’t shooting for a diagrammable sentence here, so implied words may be sacrificed. This isn’t always a good idea, of course, but if you’re pushing the limit, feel free to jettison an “although” or even an “after,” if you can without changing the meaning.

There are a few people I communicate with regularly who have a habit of indicating whether or I not I need to respond in the subject itself. For example, “no response needed” or “please respond.” I don’t like this practice, though I know many do. I think it’s just extra words for me to process, but I also understand that if you’re skimming your inbox, it can help identify which messages need attention and which can be set aside. I’ll leave this one up to you.

If your recipient understands the meaning, a message that is completely conveyed in a subject line can be ended with an EOM (end of message). This is good for simple status messages like “Finished (EOM)” and “Meet me in lobby in 5 (EOM).” It saves your reader time by knowing they don’t even have to open the email. If you have more than 25 characters, however, it’s best to keep the subject line brief and put a longer message in the body of an email. Anything longer than that and your reader might have to open the email anyway to see the whole subject line.

Finally, I have two pet peeves I want to share with you. Unless you’re aiming to be funny, don’t start a sentence in the subject and then finish it in the body. Typically I din’t know that’s what’s going on, and I read the body as a fragment sentence, which is confusing for a few seconds until I interpret your setup. I’ve seen this work where the subject is the setup and the body is the punchline, but that’s rare.

And, this should go without saying, don’t use all caps. Slogging through email is annoying enough; yelling doesn’t help.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was sitting in the library at Marywood University, that orange cursor blinking at me while I banged out a simple, three-sentence message to Dr. O’Brien. Two messages per week? I could live with that.