Monday, September 25, 2006

Organized Packing Update

Tip of the Week, September 3, 10, and 17, 2006

Just when you thought you had the whole packing thing down pat, world events bring about changes to what you can bring on a plane with you, what's newly forbidden in carry-on luggage, and what all of this means to you. Having just done some research in preparation for packing my own bags for vacation, I figured I'd pass my findings along to you, with a few general packing tips thrown in for good measure.

Here, then, is how to be an organized packer now.

Know what is and isn't allowed
What do shampoo, cattle prods, and lip gloss have in common? They're all items you're not allowed to carry in carry-on luggage on flights within, from, or to the United States. Also forbidden: bottles of water, liquid makeup, lotions of any kind, toothpaste, more than 4 ounces of saline solution or eyedrops...the list goes on. Many of the items on the TSA's forbidden list have been there for a while; the recent additions are liquids, creams, and gels, in the wake of the terrorist scare in the UK last month.

Because what is and isn't allowed in carry-on luggage is subject to change at any time, make it a habit to check the TSA's Permitted and Prohibited Items list before each trip.

Be smart about packing checked bags and carry-ons
The TSA's new rules and regs mean that you'll have to check at least one bag if you intend to bring toiletries (or other forbidden-on-board items like baseball bats and kitchen knives) with you on your travels. (Don't want to bother with a checked bag? Consider buying toiletries when you reach your destination, shipping them ahead, or seeking out bar- or powder-based soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and other personal care products.)

That said, it's still worth planning ahead to decide what goes in your checked bag and what goes on the plane with you. The trip on which I leave tomorrow requires me to catch three flights from three different airports, and then to travel five hours by car from the final airport to my destination. So I'm not taking any chances by checking my main suitcase; it's coming on board with me, where it can remain under my watchful gaze. I'm checking a small bag with my toiletries, a bulky fleece jacket, extra reading material for my return trip, and gifts for the friends I'll be visiting. If my checked bag gets mis-routed or delayed, I can live without all of those items for a few days.

However you decide to divvy the contents of your bags, remember that certain things should never go in checked luggage: electronics, money or wallets, passports or other important papers, jewelry, and anything that would be irreplaceable if it were lost or stolen. (In fact, think twice before taking anything irreplaceable with you in the first place.) Some prescription drugs now must be placed in checked bags; refer to the TSA's list for details. If you do need to check your medications, carry copies of your prescriptions in your carry-ons so you can get refills if your luggage is lost or delayed.

Keep on keeping it simple
Whether you're a veteran bag-checker or (like me) a lover of carry-on-only travel, don't let the new requirements for packing fool you into taking more than you need. Remember that the more you take, the more you'll have to deal with while you're traveling, and the more you'll need to worry about bringing home with you. Keep the basic ideas of organized packing in mind: bring items that can do double (or triple) duty, decant toiletries into smaller bottles (even if you have space for the half-gallon jug of shampoo you use every day), and take a few minutes to fold or neatly roll your clothes before placing them in bags. A bit of careful preparation can save you lots of time and stress when it comes time to unpack.

Putting these tips to the test
Tomorrow, I'll get the chance to put my own tips to the test when I head to Europe for a two-week vacation. During that time, the Tip of the Week will also be on vacation; if you need a Tip fix in the meantime, check out the archives, which feature more than two years of organizing goodness. Look for a new Tip of the Week on September 24. In the meantime, happy trails!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Creating and Using a Tickler File

Tip of the Week, August 27, 2006

Though it sounds like an accessory for a circus clown or something you might see on Sesame Street, a tickler file is actually a simple, effective, easy-to-use method of keeping track of important papers. Need a place to put the bills you need to pay next week, the invitation to a birthday party later in the month, or a printout of your airline itinerary for your Thanksgiving trip? A tickler file may be for you.

Here's what you need to know to set up a tickler file, start using it, and make it work for you.

No feathers or Elmo involved...so what is a tickler file?
Quite simply, a tickler file is a set of 43 folders--31 for the days of the month and 12 for the months themselves. These folders, labeled 1 through 31 and January through December, serve as repositories for the various bits of paper you need to deal with at some point in the relatively near future: bills, event reminders, travel plans, and so on. These folders are meant to "tickle" your memory about the things you need to do each day. A tickler file is essentially part two of whatever To Do system you use (part one being your To Do list itself); it's where all of the supporting documents for your tasks and events get stashed before you need to get your hands on them.

Setting up a tickler file
One of the beauties of a tickler file system is that it doesn't require elaborate or expensive supplies or components. At the very least, you need 43 hanging file folders, a pen or pencil to label them, and a file drawer or bin to store them in. You might choose to get a bit more elaborate--adding internal files, for example (the folders that go inside hanging files), or using a label maker to create labels--but your system will still work if you stick with the basics.

To set up your tickler file, make your labels (1-31, January-December) and put one label on each folder. I recommend using what's called straight-line filing, where all of the file folder tabs line up (on the far left of the folders, for example, or smack in the middle), as it makes the whole system neater and easier to read than staggered tab placements.

Once you've labeled your folders, put them in your file drawer or bin in order based on when you're creating the system. In general, your day files should be in front, followed by the month file for the upcoming month. For example, if you were to set up your tickler file on October 15, the first file in the drawer would be 16 (the next day), followed by 17-31, followed by the November folder. The 1-15 day files would follow November, with the December-October files behind.

Filling the tickler file
Once you have your folders in place, start filling them. As you do, it's helpful to keep your To Do list and calendar handy to be sure you're putting items in the right files, and each of the items in your tickler has a corresponding To Do or calendar entry. Things should go into your tickler based on when you need to access them again. For example, if your electric bill is due on the 30th, put it in one of your mid-month folders (17, say); when you empty that folder, you'll pay the bill, with time enough to get it into the mail and to your utility company by the due date. Put party invitations into the folders for the dates on which the events are happening, trip itineraries in a folder for a date a few days ahead of your departure, and greeting cards a week ahead of the occasion you're sending them for.

Put items you won't need for more than four weeks into the relevant month file; that is, if it's October 20 and you won't need to refer to an item until November 20, put it in the November folder. At the beginning of November, remove the contents of the month folder and distribute them to the correct daily folders.

Using the tickler
Here's the most important step: use your tickler file every day. Every. Single. Day. Consistency is one of the most crucial elements of this system. Each day, pull out the folder that corresponds to that day's date, and empty its contents. Either act on those contents (paying bills, sending cards, etc.) or move them into the next day's file if you can't get to them right away. Then put the folder back into the system behind the folder for the upcoming month; for example, on September 1, empty the 1 folder and place it behind October. Do this every day and the system will stay in order regardless of the day or month.

If you fall off the tickler wagon for a few days, all is not lost. Review the contents of the folders for the days you missed, act on or re-file those contents, and renew your resolve to stick with the system. Remember, the tickler's purpose is to track those dozens of notes, reminders, invitations, bills, and cards so you don't have to.

A tickler file may not be the right tool for everyone, but if you find yourself constantly doing battle with To Do-related papers, or if you can never remember where you've put the invite/bill/phone number you need RIGHT NOW, it might be worth a shot. The system may not be quite as much fun as the name suggests, but it's a simple, effective, low-maintenance way of making your life just a little bit easier.