Monday, November 20, 2006

Decrease Clutter by Going Digital, Part 1: Music

Tip of the Week, November 12, 2006

Technology can't make you organized any more than nice-looking shelves or bins or gadgets can; that said, it can help you reduce or avoid clutter. Over the next few weeks, we'll look at ways that going digital in various areas of your life can help keep you from being overwhelmed by stuff. First up: music.

The basics
You don't need to have an MP3 player attached to your hip at all times to benefit from digitizing your music collection; indeed, you don't even have to own an iPod. It's easy to transfer cd's to a computer-based music program such as iTunes, which is free to download and works with both PCs and Macs; there are even devices that will allow you to transfer cassette tapes and record albums into MP3 (digital music files). You can also buy MP3s anytime you want to check out new music or fill the gaps in your current collection.

The benefits
Why go through the trouble? First, because music collections can easily become breeding grounds for clutter: how much space are you devoting to storing cd's (or tapes, or albums) that you listen to only once in a while, if at all? How many times have you dug through a stack of cd's in a fruitless search to find the one you wanted? Digitizing your music lets you copy the songs you want to your computer, then sell off, give away, or store out of sight the original cd's.

Digital music can also be easier to access and enjoy. Rather than skipping through tracks on a cd to find just the song you want, do a quick search on iTunes and you'll have it in seconds. You can create mixes and playlists with a few clicks of your mouse, then change them around as often as you'd like. Plus, depending on the source and the equipment you use to play your music, the quality of MP3s can be much higher than that of other formats.

Getting started
Ready to try digitizing your music? Start by downloading iTunes here: http://www.apple.com/itunes/download/. (Though there are other computer-based MP3 programs, most of them only work with specific music subscription services; for general use, iTunes is your best bet.) With iTunes in place, you can start transferring music from your cd's: simply open iTunes, place a cd into your computer's cd drive, and follow the instructions you see on screen. To purchase new music, visit itunes.com or emusic.com, both of which will allow you to legally buy songs that are already in the MP3 format.

If you have an iPod, you can use it not only to store all of your music in a second location (that is, not on your computer), but also to play music. Of course, the player's headphones let you enjoy music when you're on the go, but there's a wide array of speaker systems designed just for iPods so you can use your player as a replacement stereo in your home or office. You can also connect your iPod directly to an existing stereo or entertainment system.

No iPod? If your computer is near a stereo or other A/V components, you can connect it and use iTunes to play your music. You might also consider purchasing a set of good quality computer speakers so your PC or Mac can be a self-contained music source.

However you choose to play your digitized music, you can take extra satisfaction in knowing that you're avoiding the clutter of maintaining a traditional album/cassette/cd collection while gaining easier access to the music you actually want to hear. So create a playlist of your favorites, find a new use for the space you've cleared of cd's, and enjoy.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Four Other November Holidays Worth Celebrating

Tip of the Week, November 5, 2006

Sure, Thanksgiving is the celebration most of us think of when we hear "holiday" and "November" in the same sentence, but there are other occasions worth toasting this month, most of which you've probably never heard of.

Here are four "holidays" near and dear to this organizer's heart.

Clean out Your Refrigerator Month (all of November)
Whoever created this holiday must've had a nightmare of a fridge that required an entire month to clean. Four weeks devoted to tossing old leftovers and unused condiments might be a bit excessive, but it is worth taking some time this month to show your hardworking fridge some love, especially with Thanksgiving fast approaching. Start by taking everything out and getting rid of anything past its prime and anything you haven't used in the past six months (if you haven't used those fancy bottles of mustard by now, you probably aren't going to). Give the inside and outside a wipe-down, then put back whatever foods you want to keep, making sure the stuff you grab most often is the most easily accessible.

It's probably worth repeating this process again at the end of the month if you're hosting a Thanksgiving meal; by the time early December rolls around, any T-Day leftovers should be tossed, both for food safety reasons and to make room for the other food-heavy holidays ahead.

Pursuit of Happiness Week (second week of November)
Hopefully, each of us pursues happiness throughout the year, so there's no need to cram your quest into a single week. That said, this can be a great time to do some serious thinking about what really, truly makes you happy--and, on the flip side, what doesn't. Then take your findings and put them into action: if learning new things is blissful for you, consider signing up for a continuing ed course. Love listening to live music? Make a date with a friend to go see a concert. Realize that you don't often get to do the things that make you happy because you're too overwhelmed by tasks you don't want to do or stuff that's cluttering your life? Start taking concrete steps toward digging out and recommitting yourself to what's really meaningful.

America Recycles Day (November 15)
Whether you're already an avid recycler or practice a one-bin solution (that is, everything goes straight into the trashcan), I challenge you to commit (or recommit) to doing your part to help the earth by celebrating America Recycles Day. Start by getting the lowdown on what is and isn't recyclable in your area (ask your trash collector, city hall, or local landfill), then post those guidelines near the trash/recycling receptacles in your home. If your main refuse containers aren't easy to get at (stored in a basement or a garage, say), set up small recycling bins inside the house to make it easier to separate trash and items that can be recycled; empty these smaller bins on trash day or whenever they fill up.

Finally, celebrate recycling and decluttering at the same time by going through the house in search of unneeded and unwanted stuff you can recycle: how about those empty margarine tubs with ill-fitting lids, or the stack of newspapers two weeks old, or the pile of junk mail lurking on the edge of your desk? They're all great candidates for recycling.

Buy Nothing Day (November 24--the day after Thanksgiving)
Is getting up before the sun to battle crowds, stand in line, and spend much more money than you probably intended really what you want to spend the day after Thanksgiving doing? Yes, stores make it pretty appealing to consume lots of stuff on Black Friday (the "official" first day of the holiday shopping season), what with seemingly low prices and lots of special offers. But to me, devoting the day to consumption cheapens many of the things I like best about this time of the year.

Here's the truth: if you don't get up at 5 a.m. for your favorite mega-store's early bird specials, you might miss that one-time-only deal on a DVD player, or this year's "it" toy, or holiday-themed sweaters. What you won't miss is the chance to sleep in, to have a lazy breakfast with your family, to go for a walk around the neighborhood, to visit with neighbors, to catch up on that novel you haven't had time to read for weeks, to call relatives who live far away, to watch the first of 1500 showings of "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV, to clean out your coat closet and bring the jackets you no longer need to a local shelter--to do, in short, any of dozens and dozens of things that are likely to bring you far more satisfaction than scoring a bargain that's only slightly better than what you might find in a few weeks.

The stores, the stuff, and the sales will be around for long after November 24 has passed, but the chance to bask in Thanksgiving's afterglow won't. This year, skip the harried rush to bring more things into your life in favor of the chance to revel in and give thanks for the people, the stuff, and the experiences you're already lucky to have.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Packaged Filing Systems: Some Pros and Cons

Tip of the Week, October 29, 2006

Paper management and filing are near the top of almost everyone's list of Most Hated Organizing Tasks, often because they involve seemingly endless decisions: what do I have to keep? How long do I have to keep it? Where should it go? What should I call the folder where I store it?

Packaged file system kits can sometimes be a useful way of taking the sting out of paper management, as they tell you right where to file things, how long to keep them, and what to label your folders. However, there are a few downsides, too. Here's a look at some of the pros and cons of one system I tried, the Financial Planning Organizer Kit by Homefile (http://www.homefile.net/).

What's in the kit
Homefile's financial planning kit contains twenty-two file divider cards, a quick-find index, and a handbook with instructions on using the system as well as space to record things like account information, insurance information, and personal data.

How it works
Each of the financial planning kit's file divider cards has a tab listing a specific category--Insurance: Health & Disability, for example; the card itself details what sort of papers should go in that file, what papers should go in another file, and how long to keep the papers you stash there.

You place each file divider card into a hanging file folder, then fill that folder with the papers specified on the card. (Some categories, such as Bank Accounts, are broad enough that the kit recommends using manila file folders within the hanging folders to keep papers for different accounts separated.) The quick index cards and the handbook go in a hanging file folder in front of everything else; whenever you need to file or retrieve a paper, the index will tell you where to look.

What I liked about the system
Though I already have a filing system, I decided to put Homefile's kit to the test. Following the directions in the handbook, I set up a new system and re-filed my papers according to the categories and guidelines in the kit. Because I didn't need to decide where to file things and didn't need to make labels for the hanging folders (that's what the tabs on the cards are for), the process went fairly quickly.

As I moved my papers around, I found that some categories I had stored separately before--such as credit card statements and credit reports--made more sense combined (in this case, under the general Credit heading). I also thought the index was pretty handy: rather than having to remember where I'd put a particular paper, I could simply look it up on the index. (Car maintenance records? Filed under Autos. Car insurance info? Filed under Insurance: Autos.) This could potentially be a time saver.

The workbook points out that this system could be especially useful for people with files in multiple locations (say, a primary residence and a vacation home) and people responsible for multiple sets of files (such as their own and an elderly parent's). I agree: replicating one filing system is much easier than trying to juggle two or more different systems. This kit could eliminate the need to reinvent the wheel in terms of filing.

The downsides
The deeper I got into creating my filing system, the more I became aware of things about the kit that didn't sit well with me. For example, there were some confusing distinctions and crossovers between categories--diplomas are meant to be stored in the Personal folder, for instance, while transcripts go in the Schools & Childcare folder (but I'm not currently in school and don't have any children).

By following the kit's instructions, I had to make several changes that didn't seem logical to me; for example, receipts for large purchases, which I normally store with my Renter's Insurance info (because I'd only refer back to them if I were to make a claim) are meant to be filed with warranties and user guides. And papers related to investments, IRAs, and Social Security all have separate files, though to me they belong together.

I also found some categories lacking. There was no indication, for example, of where to file things like recurring bills (utilities, phone, and so on)--and although the workbook provides space to customize the index when you come across papers that aren't listed in a specific category, this can potentially defeat the purpose of a system in which decisions are made upfront for you.

Finally, I found some of the logistics of the system imperfect. The kit recommends filing Income Tax returns and supporting information in a folder, but anything but the most basic 1040 would likely fill one hanging folder to overflowing. Also, the file cards themselves are slightly too tall: when I placed them in a hanging folder with even one partially full manila file, I couldn't close the top of the file box I was using. And overall, the graphics and colors the system uses feel dated and dull. As someone who processes information visually, how things look matters a good deal to me; the less appealing a system is, the less I'll enjoy using it.

The bottom line
If you already have any sort of filing system in place, you may find it difficult--as I did--to override your natural inclinations when it comes to deciding where to file things. The kit's sometimes-confusing crossovers between categories (Investments/Retirement Savings/Social Security, for example) can be frustrating. You might also be stymied if you have papers that don't fall easily into traditional filing categories.

On the flip side, the kit does a good job of anticipating most of the major filing categories and clearly specifying what goes in each category, what doesn't, and when it's safe to clear out the contents of each folder. It's also easy to set up and doesn't require equipment beyond basic filing supplies. If you're overwhelmed by paper and feel paralyzed by the thought of having to decide where things go, or if you just want a basic, straightforward filing system, the Financial Planning Organizer Kit might be just the ticket.