Monday, July 30, 2007

Take a Break!

Tip of the Week, July 15 and 22, 2007

This morning, I spent two hours lingering over breakfast with a friend. We leisurely sipped coffee, did the Sunday crossword, engaged in a bit of people watching, and generally reveled in doing very little of anything. I realized this was one of the first "real" weekend days I've had in recent memory, in which my obligations were few and I had the luxury of slowing the pace of my schedule and indulging in some true relaxation.

My long, lingering breakfast was a simple pleasure, but it made a significant difference in my day, allowing me the chance to catch my breath and refocus after a series of extremely busy weeks. It also reminded me of the importance of taking a break every once in a while: a break from organizing, from meeting with clients, from e-mail and phone calls, from administrative work, and from the dozens of other tasks that allow me to successfully do the work I do. Without these breaks, I get run down and less effective; with them, I'm able to regroup and recharge, which makes me more efficient and better able to serve my clients.

For the next few weeks, I encourage you to look for places in your life where mini breaks would serve you well. You might hire a sitter to watch the kids for a few hours so you can enjoy a movie with a friend. Consider scheduling a long lunch (or even an extended coffee break) during which you do nothing but read your favorite magazine, write a letter, or simply zone out. Set aside an hour or two during the week or on the weekend and make arrangements to do something you wouldn't otherwise do, whether that's getting a massage, spending time with a friend you haven't seen in a while, visiting a museum, relaxing in a park, or going to the beach.

Recharging your inner batteries doesn't require a long vacation or elaborate preparations; it simply requires a bit of time that you dedicate to yourself and to doing what you find relaxing. Indulge in your equivalent of my long breakfast this morning and I bet you'll find yourself feeling more in control, less stressed, and better able to face the world.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Create Kits to Make Regular Activities More Efficient

Tip of the Week, July 8, 2007

If you’re anything like me, the activities and pastimes you enjoy often involve multiple accouterments; head out for a hike, for example, and you need a backpack, a water bottle, sunscreen, snacks, a simple first aid kit, a map and compass, and so on. Gathering all of these things anew each time you want to take part in a certain activity can be a time waster, and can increase the chances that you’ll accidentally leave something behind.

On the other hand, if you keep them stashed together as a kit, there’s very little prep you need to do before heading out. Kits can make all kinds of regular activities more efficient and more enjoyable, and can take away some of the stress of trying to remember everything you need time and again. Here are a few basic pointers for creating kits, as well as a few kit ideas for common leisure activities.

Kit preparation
Regardless of what kind of kit you’re creating, keep in mind that it should make it easy to do an activity you enjoy. For starters, then, make a list of the things you like doing and what you need for each one; if friends or family members take part in these activities as well, you might ask for their input to make sure you don’t forget anything.

Once you’ve created your list, find a container that’s appropriate for your kit based on the nature of the activity, where the kit will be stored, and how much stuff you need to stash. Ideally, you should be able to take the kit for an out-of-the-house activity with you in its container, rather than having to transfer it to something else when you head out and transfer it again when you get home.

Finally, make it a habit to check your kit regularly and replenish or replace anything that’s been used up or is out of date. This is especially important for kits in which you store food or beverages, which you’re most likely to use first and which are likely to have some sort of expiration date. Store your kit near the other items you use for your activity (say, your hiking kit with your hiking boots) as a reminder to check it every once in a while.

Some simple kit ideas
The kits you create should reflect the things you do most often; that said, there are a few standard kits that are handy to keep around. You can modify and build on these to make them fit your needs.
  • Emergency Kit—This is one kit every home should have, regardless of where you live. A well-stocked emergency kit can make a significant difference in your ability to survive extreme weather, a fire, or other catastrophes. The Department of Homeland Security’s website, Ready.gov, has a good list of emergency kit contents; you can find the list at http://www.ready.gov/america/getakit/index.html. It’s especially important to keep your emergency kit accessible and well stocked, so schedule time once a season to check for expired items and to test things like battery-operated radios and flashlights.
  • Beach Kit—No more forgotten sunblock! Take some time to stash beach essentials in a sturdy, roomy bag: towels, sunblock, hats, non-meltable snacks, water bottles, some small bills and change (for the ice cream truck, parking fees, or other expenses), and perhaps a good beach read or two. This is one kit you’ll need to re-pack after each use, as you’ll want to replace the towels you’ve used, snacks you’ve eaten, and money you’ve spent. (Replenishing your kit as soon as possible after you get back will decrease the chances that you’ll forget to do it!)
  • Party Kit—Create a central spot for informal party supplies like paper cups, plates, and napkins; decorations; tablecloths; balloons and favors; and simple party games. (The fancier stuff—such as table linens, special glassware, and candles—can also be stored together, but it’s best to keep it separate from its informal counterparts.) You might also throw in some non-perishable snacks like cans of mixed nuts and boxes of crackers so you’re ready to throw something together with little notice (and no grocery shopping).
  • Air Travel Kit—Depending on how often and how far you fly, your air travel kit might include things like non-perishable snacks, slippers, earplugs, an eye mask, lightweight reading material, and a small pillow. Keep this kit with your most commonly used luggage, and replenish it after each trip (which is also a good time to restock your toiletries bag).
Though it will take a small investment of time and effort to prepare your kits, they’ll ultimately allow you to engage in the activities you do most frequently with less preparation and less stress.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Get Your Freezer in Order

Tip of the Week, July 1, 2007

As temperatures rise, what better organizing project to tackle than organizing your freezer? The ideas below can help you clear out existing clutter, be more efficient with shopping and food storage, and keep your freezer an organized and stress-free space.

Out with the old
Freezers, like fridges and pantry cupboards, can sometimes be the place where food goes to die. When something winds up at the back or bottom of the freezer, there's a decent chance it won't make it out again until it's all but inedible. Clearing out the old, freezer burned, forgotten food from your freezer is the first step toward getting things in order.

I recommend taking everything out of the freezer and putting back only those things you're sure you will eat. Everything else should get the heave-ho. While you're purging, pay attention to what you keep and what you toss; if you find that particular things fall into the latter category, be extra mindful of bringing them into the house again. If you didn't eat them this time around, will you eat them in the future?

Plan the space
Once you've cleared out the unwanteds and have a good sense of what's left, think about what normally winds up in your freezer. What do you need space for there? Which of those foods do you use on a regular basis, and which are essentially in deep freeze for long-term storage? Your answers will inform where things should go within the freezer. The deep storage stuff is probably best suited for the back or bottom of the freezer, but make sure you have a way to remind yourself that it's there, perhaps with a freezer inventory sheet on the door. Foods you eat regularly should be easier to grab, either in the front of the freezer or on the door.

If you're pinched for space, consider using some coated metal or sturdy plastic shelf expanders. These are often built for kitchen shelves but can work just as well in the freezer to give you more room for storage.

Also aim to use the smallest storage container you need for foods that aren't pre-packaged. Storing things like leftovers, sauces, and stocks in containers with just enough room and little extra air space will keep them fresher and keep the freezer less cluttered.

Shop strategically
When your freezer is cleared out and you've planned the space, take the time to come up with a strategic shopping plan that will help keep your freezer contents under control moving forward. For starters, get in the habit of checking your freezer contents before you go on a grocery shopping trip to be sure you have an accurate sense of what you already have and what you need more of; this can help you avoid buying things you don't need.

In addition, bring some discipline to your shopping trips. If you shop at a bulk retailer, the draw of multi-packs can be pretty strong, especially if they're well priced. Remember, though, that buying something you don't need and won't use isn't a bargain. Aim to purchase multiples of only the foods you use the most often; limit other things to smaller quantities.

Smart stocking
Finally, when you bring your purchases home, take a tip from grocery stores and store the newest items in back, moving the older ones to the front. This way you'll use up the things that have been around for a while before digging in to the new stock. For items that have a limited freezer life, consider jotting down the date of purchase and/or the throw-away date on the packages before putting them in the freezer. (It's also a smart idea to date foods you put in containers and bags, such as casseroles, stocks, and fruits and veggies you freeze yourself.)

Set aside a few minutes each month to take a look at what's in the freezer, chuck anything that's past its prime, make a note on your shopping list of items that need to be replaced, and move things around as needed.

Take some time this month to cool off and give your freezer a facelift with these simple tips. You'll be glad you did the next time you open the freezer door and see a chilly oasis of calm rather than an avalanche waiting to happen.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Organized Summer Travel by Train

Tip of the Week, June 24, 2007

Over the past few weeks, we've explored ways of organizing yourself for travel by car and by plane. This week, in the final tip in our summer travel series, we'll take a look at getting organized if you'll be traveling by train.

If you're traveling by train
Train travel offers a nice blend of the benefits of traveling by car and by plane: you remain on the ground, quite possibly with scenic views of the surroundings, have some flexibility in terms of when and where you stop, but don't have to worry about being behind the wheel or battling summer traffic on the roads. Use these tips to make the most of your rails adventures.

  • Brush up on the rules and regulations. Though train travel carries far fewer rules and regs (at least in the U.S.), there are still some guidelines to bear in mind. Amtrak's website offers a comprehensive list of information on everything from baggage limits to traveling with children to using cell phones on board; you can read the guidelines here. If you're traveling by rail in another country, take some time to familiarize yourself with the regulations for the relevant rail operator.
  • Pack smart. Train travel offers a bit more leeway in terms of the amount of luggage you're permitted to bring on board, and you also won't have to worry about things like limiting the size of your toiletry bottles or packing certain liquids in checked bags only. That said, as always, you'll travel more pleasantly if you pack reasonably light, refrain from bringing excess baggage on board, and take the time to make a list of what you'll need before you put anything into your suitcase. In addition, make sure any valuables you pack--cameras, laptops, other electronics, jewelry, important papers, and so on--are in bags that will be near you at all times on the train.
  • Bring snacks and entertainment. Remember the days of deluxe rail travel, when it was possible to get a full meal with a bottle of wine in the train's dining car? Neither do I. Though most Amtrak trains do have cafe cars, they're unlikely to serve more than basic sandwiches and beverages. To spare yourself the fate of relying on soggy tuna salad to get you through your trip, pack your own food; this is especially important if you'll be traveling long-distance, with few opportunities to get off the train en route. It's also a good idea to bring along books, magazines, music, games, or whatever else might keep you entertained for the duration of the journey (or snag a window seat and hope for impressive scenery).
  • Familiarize yourself with the stations you'll be using. Finally, it's worth taking some time to get to know the train stations you'll be leaving from, arriving at, and passing through. While some of these stations may literally be one-room buildings with a handful of railway employees to serve passengers, others can seem like small worlds of their own. If you've ever come into or traveled out of New York's Penn Station at a busy time, you know that a familiarity with which rail lines use which tracks can make the difference between making and missing your train. The website for the rail line you'll be traveling, whether in the U.S. or abroad, can usually provide the basic station info you'll need; you might also want to consult a travel guide if you'll be in a large city. Bear in mind, too, that some cities have multiple stations. Be sure you know which one you want to avoid buying the wrong ticket or winding up in the wrong part of town.

Wherever your travels take you this summer, and however you get there, may they be organized and enjoyable. Happy trails!