Sunday, February 24, 2008

5 Quick Closet Organizing Tips

Tip of the Week, February 17, 2008

An organized closet isn't necessarily one that looks like it's come out of a catalog, but it is one where your clothes and shoes are stored in a way that's easy to access and that keeps them in good shape. Getting your closet in order doesn't have to be a daunting prospect, either. With these simple, straightforward tips, you can bring a dose of organization to your closet with relatively little time and effort.

#1: Get rid of dry cleaning bags
When you get clothes back from the dry cleaner, leaving them in plastic bags is a bad idea. Plastic can trap vapors and moisture, both of which can damage clothes; in addition, these bags make it harder to see what's what, and can make your closet feel crowded and cluttered.

Most clothes--especially those made of natural fibers like cotton and wool--do best simply hung up uncovered (or folded and put in a drawer). If you have items you really want to protect, such as special occasion clothing or pieces made of very delicate materials, choose sturdy suit bags or shoulder covers made of breathable nylon or cotton.

What to do with all of those plastic bags you take out of the closet? Many dry cleaners will take them back (often along with their accompanying metal hangers) for recycling. You can also try recycling them with other plastic bags (such as grocery sacks) at your local supermarket or recycling center.

#2: Re-hang anything that's fallen
Your closet floor is a fine space for shoes, but not for clothes. Take a few minutes to re-hang anything that has slipped from its hanger. If the clothes on your closet floor need to be laundered, dry cleaned, or repaired, gather them together in bins or bags and then do something with them (e.g., put them near the door so you can bring them to the cleaner's). Don't let the floor serve as a space to store clothes; if something's not worth hanging or folding on a shelf or in a drawer, chances are it's not worth keeping at all.

#3: Standardize your hangers
Most of us will get through life just fine without having a full set of perfectly matching hangers. That said, there are benefits to choosing and sticking with two or three types of hangers: you'll save space, make it easier to find things and put them away, and potentially keep your clothes in better shape.

At the very least, you'll likely want one type of hanger for shirts and jackets and another for pants and skirts. You might also want specialty hangers for things like sweaters and dresses. Rather than choosing several different models of the same type of hanger (several different kinds of shirt hangers, say), find one model you like and stick with it. (Here are a few hanger options to get you started.) While you're at it, get rid of any broken or rough-edged hangers, as well as any of the flimsy metal ones you get from the dry cleaner. Your clothes will thank you.

#4: Keep tabs on what you're wearing
Most of us--yours truly included--have things in our closets we haven't worn in a while, many of which can (and should) probably be weeded out at some point. It can be hard to remember for sure what you have and haven't worn, though.

Give yourself a visual reminder with this simple trick: turn all of the hangers in your closet around so they're hanging backwards, with the open part of the hanger facing the front of the closet rather than the back. Each time you wear something, turn its hanger around so it's facing the back of the closet. Within a few months, you'll have a good sense of what you've actually worn and, judging by the hangers that are still backwards, what you haven't.

#5: Hang like with like
Finally, take a few minutes to sort the clothes in your closet in a way that makes sense to you and will make it easier to get dressed each day. You might choose to hang all of your short-sleeved shirts together, all of your long-sleeved shirts together, all of your pants together, and so on, or you might opt to hang things based on how often you wear them (everyday clothes together, weekend clothes together, special occasion clothes together). Choose categories that work for you, and get into the habit of returning things to where they belong, rather than simply hanging them wherever there's space on the closet rod.

Get your closet more organized and more functional quickly by putting these five tips into practice. You'll keep your clothes in better shape and will shave time off the process of getting dressed in the morning so you can focus on other things.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Organizing for Tax Season

Tip of the Week, February 10, 2008

April 15--the deadline for filing income tax returns here in the U.S. (it's April 30 for Canadians)--is still a few months off, but it's definitely not too early to get yourself organized and ready to prepare your return. Heading into tax season calm, organized, and prepared may not take away the sting of actually paying taxes, but it can significantly decrease your stress level. Here are a few ways to bring more organization to this year's tax prep.

Create a gathering spot for tax-related papers
If you haven't already started seeing tax-related forms (such as 1099s and W-2s) appear in your mailbox, you will soon. Rather than taking the risk of misplacing or accidentally throwing out any of these forms, create a gathering spot to keep them together and easily accessible. Choose a spot that's easy to get to and easy to remember, such as a folder in the front of your filing cabinet or a large envelope tacked to a bulletin board above your desk. Each time a form arrives, put it directly in the gathering spot rather than letting it sit with other mail.

Collect paperwork from elsewhere in the house
In addition to forms that arrive in the mail, you'll probably also need other papers and files (such as receipts, canceled checks, and bank statements) to complete your tax return. This is a good time to collect these from wherever they might be and gather them together in one spot--ideally with your other tax forms. As you gather, you might also come across papers you no longer need, such as old credit card statements, receipts you don't use for deductions or other recordkeeping, and old bills that don't impact your taxes in any way. Take the opportunity to recycle or shred whatever papers you don't need to hold onto. (If you're not sure what you do and don't need to keep, check with your CPA or lawyer.)

Create categorized storage for deductions
With all of your tax-related papers in one place, take a look through them and sort out any that contain information about deductions you'll itemize on your tax return, such as donations, rental property expenses, or business expenses. An accordion file with separate pockets (like the one pictured above) can be a great basic tool for keeping papers sorted; use the pockets to divide specific expenses (e.g., one pocket for business office expenses, one for business marketing expenses, and so on) or simply to keep papers for different types of deductions separate, using one pocket for business expenses, one for donations, and so on.

While you're at it, consider setting up another accordion file for your 2008 paperwork, so you'll have at the ready a spot to collect and sort papers as they come in throughout the year. The few minutes it will take to get a 2008 file ready will almost certainly save you significant amounts of time (not to mention stress) down the line.

Get your information in order
Finally, before you start working on your tax return, it's smart to get your information in order, which makes the process of filling out tax forms (relatively) easier and (a bit more) straightforward. You'll find a vast array of info on how to prepare to file at the IRS website (or the CRA site if you're in Canada). A potentially more helpful tool is a basic tax organizer, which walks you through many of the same questions you'll find on tax forms and schedules, though in language that's a bit easier to comprehend.

If you work with a CPA or Enrolled Agent to file your taxes, chances are he or she will give you a tax organizer to fill out; if you don't, you can find a printable tax organizer on the Blue & Co. website. (Scroll to the bottom of the page; the 2007 Tax Guide on this page is also worth a read.)

Heading into tax season organized and in control of your tax-related papers and information may not make the next few months less taxing financially, but it can absolutely make them less taxing on your stress level and sense of well-being--the next best thing, perhaps, to discovering you get a rebate.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

3 Ways to Minimize Distractions

Tip of the Week, February 3, 2008

Every day, we're faced with dozens of potential distractions, from phone calls to e-mails to interruptions from others. These distractions can make it difficult (if not sometimes nearly impossible) to get things done. The good news is that distractions don't have to take over your day; with a few solid strategies, you can keep control over your time and increase your efficiency. Here are three of my favorite ways to minimize distractions.

#1: Limit audio and visual notices
The tools and technology that are part of our everyday lives are designed to keep us on high alert. Phones ring to signal incoming calls; e-mail programs ding and display miniature icons of envelopes to let us know about messages we've received; PDAs jingle to remind us about tasks we're meant to do.

While these notices can be helpful in some situations, in many cases they do little more than distract us from what we really need or want to focus on. Limiting these alerts will allow you to keep your attention on a specific task until you're ready to move on. For starters, try turning off your e-mail program's audio and visual notices. Your program will still collect new messages as they come in, but it won't constantly alert you of them, drawing your focus away from what you're doing each time an e-mail arrives.

You might also try turning off the ringer on your phone (whether a land line or a cell phone) during times when you need to concentrate on specific tasks. Another option is to route calls directly to voicemail so you can work uninterrupted until you're ready to field or return calls.

#2: Take yourself away from distractions
It happens to all of us: when we're faced with a task that's particularly important--and perhaps a bit daunting or slightly overwhelming--it suddenly becomes critical that we turn our attention to things that really don't merit our time or effort at that particular point. Have an important report to write for work? Surely it's time to clear out your pen cup and create new labels for your file folders. Need to tackle some tax prep work at home? It's been ages since you dusted under the bed in the guest room, and there's no time like the present to remedy that.

The fact is that when we're faced with tasks that require a lot of us, it's human nature to look for smaller, more manageable tasks we're sure we can handle and that will bring a sense of accomplishment. At times like these, then, it can be helpful to physically remove yourself from tasks that might distract you from what really needs to be done. If possible, leave your home or workspace when you need to dedicate yourself to something critical, or if you just want focused, uninterrupted work time. At home, head to a library or a cafe; at work, try a conference room or a vacant office. You'll benefit both from the change of scenery and from being away from the other, less important tasks calling to you.

#3: Make definite plans for following up on other tasks
One of the greatest causes of distractions is the intrusion of other tasks into what we'd prefer to be time dedicated to one particular To Do. While making your bed, you might realize that you forgot to transfer the laundry to the dryer. In the midst of writing an important e-mail at work, you might have a steady stream of colleagues knocking on your door asking for your help or input. In both cases, the tendency is to stop working on the task at hand and turn your attention to the task that's interrupting, often because you fear that if you don't attend to the interrupting task now, it won't get done.

Of course, chances are that this chain of action will leave you with a half-made bed and half-completed laundry, or with your important e-mail incomplete and unsent and your attention split between multiple colleagues and their requests.

The key to overcoming this roadblock is to make definite plans for following up on interrupting tasks after you finish the task currently at hand. For example, while doing work around the house, keep a piece of scap paper with you and use it to list tasks you think of or remember as you work. When you finish one task completely, refer to your list and move on to the next item on it. If you need uninterrupted time at work, close your office door (or put a chair in front of the entrance to your cubicle) and post a note indicating that you're working on something important and asking anyone who needs you to return at a specific time or submit a request to you by e-mail. And then, of course, do your best to be available when you say you will, and to reply to e-mail messages promptly.

Distractions might be inevitable, but they don't need to drive your day into chaos. Use these three tactics to limit the impact distractions have on your life, and to stay in control of your daily schedule and To Do list.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Celebrate Get Organized Month: Part 3

Tip of the Week, January 27, 2008

The last week of January means the last week of Get Organized Month, so now's the time to round out the start of 2008 with one more organizing project. We've already tackled computer organization and getting your everyday bag and wallet in order; this week, we'll focus on getting junk drawers under control.

GO Month Project #3: Organize your junk drawer
In every home and office, there tends to be at least one junk drawer: a spot where things that otherwise have no homes tend to congregate, sometimes for months or years on end. Believe it or not, it's entirely possible to have an organized junk drawer--one in which you can still stash a random assortment of things, but in which you can actually find what you're looking for when you need it.

Clear it out
The first step in bringing order to your junk drawer is to clear everything out of it. (If you have multiple junk drawers, tackle them one at a time to avoid being overwhelmed by gadgets and tchotchkes.) Designate a clear space, such as a desk or table, as your work area, and carefully empty the contents of your drawer onto it. Keep a trash can and recycling bin handy so you can easily pitch anything that's past its prime, and set aside things that belong elsewhere in your home or office.

Categorize what remains
After you've weeded, take a look at what's left over and start sorting things into categories--writing implements, tools, take-out menus, pads of paper, electronics, gadgets, and so on. With like things grouped together, you'll have a clearer sense of how many of each you have, and will be better able to decide how many of each you actually need to keep in the drawer in question. (Fifteen pens and pencils in a kitchen junk drawer? Probably not.) Dividing things into categories will also help you eyeball what size container you'll need to corral them.

Consider containers
One of the reasons junk drawers tend to be so chaotic is because they're often filled with small things that roll around loose each time the drawer is opened or closed. Using some simple containers makes it much easier to keep your drawer orderly and to prevent stuff maelstroms. The best containers for your junk drawer will vary based on what you want to store there and what the size of the drawer is. Containers should fit snugly inside the drawer; if they move around, they'll be likely to tip, in which case you may have a mess on your hands (and in your drawer).

You can use no-frills containers such as empty margarine tubs, yogurt containers, or checkbook boxes, or can opt for containers designed specifically to be used in drawers, such as utensil holders (handy for anything that's long and narrow, not just for forks and spoons) or drawer dividers. A light adhesive such as double-sided tape or museum wax on the bottom of each container will keep in-drawer shifting to a minimum.

Practice junk drawer vigilance
With your containers in place and your junk drawer refilled, you should find it much easier to get your hands on what you're looking for quickly and easily. Keep things orderly by being vigilant about what goes into the drawer, and by asking anyone else who might also use the drawer to do the same. Rather than thinking of the drawer as a dumping ground, think of it as a place to store things that are truly worth keeping but that don't belong elsewhere. Anything that's not worth keeping doesn't belong in the drawer (or anywhere else, for that matter); things that have homes elsewhere should migrate back to those homes, rather than lingering in your junk drawer. It's also worth taking a minute or two each week to make sure things in your drawer stay orderly. Put back anything that's escaped from its container, weed out anything that doesn't belong, and toss whatever is truly junk.

Getting your junk drawer organized may even inspire you to give the drawer a new name that better reflects its calm, orderly state.