Sunday, December 23, 2007

Last-Minute Holiday Shortcuts

Tip of the Week, December 16, 2007

During this last week of preparations before Christmas, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all that's left to do and how little time there is to do it. Rather than trying to do everything perfectly, why not take a few shortcuts? These time- and stress-savers will help you keep your sanity and have energy left over to enjoy the holiday.

Stop wrapping gifts
Here's the truth: most gift recipients are far more interested than what's inside the box than what's wrapped around it. Wrapping gifts adds a festive note, but it can suck up a lot of time. Find the middle ground between elaborately wrapped gifts and naked packages by putting presents in gift bags. With a bag, a few sheets of tissue paper, and a bow or ribbon, you've got a lovely presentation with very little work. Plus, you can re-use the bags next year, which means less waste and less expense.

Want to make things a bit more personalized? Grab a stack of paper grocery bags (of various sizes, if you can swing it) and put the kids in your life to work decorating them. Voila--a fun holiday activity for the little ones and unique gift bags for you.

Shop online and ship directly
The window of opportunity for Christmas mailing is starting to close, but there are still a few days to take advantage of expedited shipping. If you're buying gifts for friends or family who don't live nearby, make your purchases online and have the retailer ship directly to your recipients. Many online stores will wrap gifts for you (sorry, no hand-decorated gift bags) and include a message on your behalf. Direct shipping is also convenient if you'll be traveling for the holidays. Buy online, and have things shipped to wherever you're headed.

Send New Year's cards
If you haven't yet sent out holiday cards but intend to, take that task off your To Do list for this week and plan to send the cards as New Year's greetings in January (even if they're Christmas-themed). Write a note to your card recipients explaining that you didn't want your greetings to get lost in the December shuffle so you decided to wait until the turn of the year. As a bonus, any trips you might have to make to the post office to mail your cards will be markedly calmer and less crowded after the turn of the year.

Assign holiday meal homework
If you're in charge of hosting a holiday meal, share the responsibility of getting it on the table by assigning specific tasks to meal guests. You might call each person a few days beforehand and ask him or her to bring something in particular (a salad, a plate of cookies, an appetizer) or ask guests to pitch in and help with specific recipes on the day of the meal. (Reserve this tactic for use with people you won't mind working in your kitchen at the same time you are, and those you trust to get through recipes with no major snafus.)

Give yourself a break this week with these shortcuts. The holidays will be just as bright, and you'll be even merrier.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Charitable Decluttering

Tip of the Week, December 9, 2007

For many of us, the end of the year and the holidays that come along with it means that new things come into our lives--and, of course, our homes. Taking the opportunity to declutter in December is a great way to make room for gifts we'll receive and to let go of things we no longer need, want, or use. It's also a great way of gathering things to donate to charities, many of which serve more clients than usual around the holidays and thus have a greater need for donations.

Here are four ways to share the generosity of the season with those in need, and to put your unneeded items to good use.

Donate coats and jackets
Warm outerwear is something most of us take for granted, but for many, a coat or jacket is a precious commodity. This winter, clear out your closets and donate outerwear you or your family members have outgrown or no longer need to One Warm Coat, which works with agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada to get jackets (as well as sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and mittens) to those who need them. Visit the One Warm Coat website for information on donating to a coat drive near you, or on organizing your own drive.

Donate other clothing
Don't stop with outerwear: there are plenty of agencies that need donations of other types of clothing and shoes this season. Local shelters for women, children, and the homeless often accept clean, gently worn clothing, which they pass along directly to the clients they serve. Organizations like Dress for Success, A Miner Miracle, and Wardrobe for Opportunity provide clothing, coaching, and placement assistance to low-income job seekers; all three groups accept donations of career wear (suits, slacks, jackets, skirts, ties, and the like) and shoes.

Donate food
Food banks and meal programs serve clients througout the year, but their needs are often most acute during the winter (from November through March). Donations of non-perishable foods (such as canned, jarred, and dried items) allow these programs to keep their clients fed. Take a look through your pantry and put together a donation bag for a local food program. Be sure the items you include aren't expired or damaged, and consider adding a few much-needed foods (like peanut butter and juices). Visit Google's food bank directory for Canada or the United States to find an agency near you.

Donate toys
The need for toys and other kid-friendly items rises dramatically during the holidays. Most toy donation programs, such as Toys for Tots, request new toys. If your kids have toys they haven't used that are still in their original packaging, encourage them to pass the toys along to children in need.

It's also worth researching local agencies to find one that will accept nearly new or gently used toys, books, and other items that appeal to kids. Get your children involved in sorting through their things to find items to donate, reminding them that while they're likely to receive new goodies during the holidays, many less fortunate children won't. To make sure the items you donate are in useable condition, follow the guidelines in this article.

Take time before the end of the year to look through your home for things you don't need that could be put to use right away by others. You'll keep clutter at bay and, more importantly, will make a positive impact on someone else's life this season.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Clutter-Free Holiday Gifts

Tip of the Week, December 2, 2007

This holiday season, challenge yourself (and the friends and family members with whom you exchange presents) to choose gifts that won't end up as clutter by the time New Year's rolls around. There are hundreds of ways to show people you care and to express your generosity without having to spend a lot and without giving things that will end up as more stuff in your recipients' lives. Here are several ideas to get you started.

The gift of time
Though you may not be able to give someone more hours in a day (and if you are, I hope I'm first on your list!), you can give the gift of time. Offer a friend with young children a few hours of babysitting so she can spend some time doing whatever it is she'd like to do. Give the brother who's been meaning to clear out his garage a certificate worth an afternoon of your time and assistance to make the process go more quickly. Present the self-employed person in your life with a voucher redeemable for a few hours of help with whatever entrepreneurial tasks he or she never seems to have enough time for, such as data entry or cleaning out old files.

The gift of your talent
Giving others the things you do well is another great way of sharing. If you're a whiz in the kitchen, offer to cook a week's worth of dinners for a friend and freeze them so she can simply heat and serve. Have an eye for style? Spend an afternoon going through a fashion-challenged relative's closets and drawers with him or her, giving advice on creating outfits and dressing confidently. Know how to set up electronics in a flash and figure out why the computer screen suddenly went blue again? Offer to be the personal technical support department for a friend or family member whose VCR clock has been flashing 12:00 for years.

The gift of an experience
Most giftees will remember a special experience far longer than they'll remember a run-of-the-mill present. As a bonus, experiences don't require any storage space. Plan an experiential gift based on your recipients' likes and interests. A gourmand might appreciate a series of cooking lessons or a gift certificate to a beloved restaurant. For a theater lover, tickets to a show are a good bet. And let a child (especially one who normally shares the spotlight with siblings) create his or her own perfect day, with special meals, a favorite activity, and, best of all, the gift of your undivided attention.

The gift of charity
Finally, consider gifts that give twice: donations to charitable groups that are meaningful to the people on your list. Most charities will allow you to make a donation in someone else's name, and will often send the recipient a card letting him or her know of the gift. Choose groups that support causes your giftee feels strongly about, and consider writing a personal note explaining why you chose the organization you did.

For even more ideas on clutter-free holiday giving, read Grist's article on gifts with an environmental twist and my fellow organizer Monica Ricci's post on creative, useful gifts.

Here's to a meaningful, abundant, and un-cluttered holiday season!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

5 Tips for a Less Stressful Thanksgiving Week

Tip of the Week, November 18 and 25, 2007

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season here in the U.S., and while it’s a joyous time, it’s not without its share of stress. This year, make it a goal to increase the delight of Thanksgiving while keeping the hair-pulling moments to a minimum. These five tips can help. (Not in the U.S., or not celebrating Thanksgiving? Put these ideas to use for the December holidays.)

#1: Travel Smart
Millions of Americans will be hitting the road (and the sky) over the next week to travel to and from their Thanksgiving destinations. If you’re one of them, get a leg up on your fellow travelers by being organized, prepared, and smart. Traveling by air? Arrive at the airport well before your flight—at least an hour and a half, and more if you’re checking luggage or need special assistance. And as for that checked luggage, consider saving yourself the hassle of having to wait for it upon arrival—or, worse yet, not having it arrive at all—by going the carry-on route. Keeping your bags with you on the plane will save you time checking in and leaving the airport, and will eliminate the risk of lost luggage.

If you’re traveling by car, check local sources to see if there are any problems with the roads on which you’ll be driving. Knowing beforehand about construction, road closures, severe traffic, and other obstacles will allow you to choose an alternate route, or at least to allot more time to reach your destination.

Train travelers, try to book a reserved ticket if possible and get to the station early to increase your chances of getting a seat on the train. If your destination is served by a regional or mass transit rail line, consider using it, rather than Amtrak; the ride might not be as plush, but it’ll likely be less crowded, and almost certainly less expensive.

#2: Avoid Big Projects
Unless you’re planning to spend this week at home and won’t be hosting guests, now isn’t the time to attempt to tackle big projects, such as catching up on the filing you haven’t had the opportunity to do for the past several months or finally clearing out and totally reorganizing your front hall closet. Starting a large project this week, when so much else is happening, increases the chances that you won’t be able to finish it, which will leave you worse off, and faced with more disorganization, than you were before you began. Instead, do a few small tasks that will allow you to comfortably entertain guests in your home, or to go away for the week without feeling like something is looming over your head: clear out the hall closet and box up the things you want to sort, weed, and reorganize, for example, or gather all of your papers to be filed in one place. While you’re at it, make a list of your next steps—dealing with the closet contents, getting files into drawers—and schedule time on your calendar for next week or the week following to move forward.

#3: Be Prepared
Thanksgiving hosts are faced with a big challenge: cooking a huge meal for several people, with all of the sub-tasks that go along with it. If you’re hosting, avoid making Thanksgiving day a crazy, busy rush by doing a few small but important prep tasks beforehand, such as on Tuesday or Wednesday. Gather together the serving pieces you’ll use, and label each with a Post-It note so you’ll remember which bowl is for mashed potatoes and which is for stuffing. Also bring out any table linens you’re planning to use to be sure they’re clean and that you have enough napkins or placemats. Check the recipes you’ll be preparing and the contents of your fridge and pantry to see what you need from the grocery store, and do your shopping as early in the week as possible. Finally, and most importantly, be sure to give yourself time to relax and get enough sleep before Thursday.

#4: Ask for—and Offer—Help
If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, put your guests to work with jobs that will help lighten your workload, such as peeling and cutting vegetables, setting the table, serving drinks, and cleaning up after dinner. When guests ask what they can bring, have an answer, and choose something that can contribute to the meal, whether a side dish, a dessert, or wine or other drinks. If you’re a guest at a Thanksgiving meal, offer to pitch in, and take your task out of the kitchen if space is tight so you won’t crowd the other things happening in the room. Overnight guests can offer to help with tasks other than cooking the main meal, such as preparing breakfast on Friday morning or shuttling other guests to and from the airport or train station.

#5: Avoid Stores on Black Friday
Finally, strongly consider avoiding malls and big box stores on the day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday because it was traditionally the day on which retailers finally broke even on their expenses and started to make a profit. Though many stores advertise big sales for Friday, with many opening before dawn, getting the deals you see in the paper or on TV means doing battle with huge crowds, standing in long lines, and quite possibly buying things you neither want nor need simply because they carry discounted price tags. If you feel you absolutely must take advantage of Friday’s sales, consider spending a limited amount of time online to buy what you’re truly interested in via the store’s website. A more pleasant, less stressful, and much less cluttered option, though, is to direct your focus elsewhere on Friday, whether to getting outdoors for a post-Thanksgiving hike, to spending time with friends and family, or simply to relaxing and enjoying a day off.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving, here’s hoping it’s a happy, organized, and stress-free holiday.