Sunday, May 25, 2008

Organizing User Guides and Manuals

Tip of the Week, May 18, 2008

Open a drawer in almost any entertainment center or any kitchen and you're likely to find at least one user guide or warranty card floating around there. Even greater are the chances that these materials will be all but unfindable when they're actually needed.

Some sort of user documentation comes with every appliance or electronic gadget you might buy, from the simplest to the most complex. Getting this paperwork organized will keep it from taking over drawers or flat surfaces and will make it easy to get your hands on the right guide when you need it. Follow these steps to take control.

#1: Go on a manual-finding mission
Start by gathering together all the user guides, manuals, warranty cards, and other product-related documentation from throughout the house. Also include in this mission things like empty software boxes. Bring all of this stuff to one central spot.

#2: Out with the old and unneeded
Next, sort through what you have. Keep a recycling bin handy and feed it with documentation for any appliances or electronics you no longer have, as well as documents you can't identify (such as one-pagers bearing vague warnings about not using electronics in the bathtub) and all of those cards asking you to "register" your warranty; you'll still be covered even if you don't mail them in (and will also prevent piles of junk mail from hitting your mailbox). I also recommend pitching the portions of user manuals written in languages you don't speak. Many electronics now come with instructions in English, Spanish, and French; detatch the pages written in your language of choice and staple them together, then recycle the rest.

Also consider getting rid of any user guide you can get online. Check manufacturers' websites to see what documents they offer as downloadable PDFs or web-based documents.

Finally, pitch any software boxes. In almost every case, the authorization code needed to install and use a piece of software is on the envelope that holds the installation disc instead of (or as well as) on the outer box. If you want to keep the box's bar code for any reason, cut it out and store it with the software disc or manual.

#3: Sort what remains
Once you've weeded, sort what remains into categories. You might break things up by room (stuff in the living room, stuff in the kitchen), by type of electronic (home theater components, food prep electronics, and so on), or by how often you refer to the manuals.

#4: Store it smartly
Your final step will be to create storage for your manuals and guides. I recommend using either a divided accordion file or a 3-ring binder. If you have lots of documents to store, you might create a separate file or binder for each of the categories you came up with above.

If you opt to use an accordion file, divide up your manuals between the file's pockets, and label each pocket with the name of the relevant electronics or with a category. Using a 3-ring binder? Plastic sheet protectors are a great way to keep related documents together, and divider tabs can help keep different categories separate.

Store your file or binder in a convenient spot, such as on a bookshelf or in a drawer. If you have separate binders/files for each room, stash each one in the relevant room. You'll be able to find the manual you need in a snap the next time you're faced with a flashing digital clock or a mysterious blue screen.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Organizing and "Green Guilt"

Tip of the Week, May 11, 2008

An article I read in the May issue of O Magazine gives a name to something I see from time to time with my clients: "green guilt," which the article describes as "beating [yourself] up for formerly mindless infractions like pitching a soda can into the garbage." When it comes to organizing, this particular flavor of guilt manifests itself as a reluctance to weed out things that are of limited use, that you have far too many of, or that are causing clutter and other problems, due to worries about consumerism, the environment, and, on a larger scale, global warming.

This can mean holding on to, say, dozens of empty glass jars, such as those that once held foods like pasta sauce or jam; keeping a stash of return mail envelopes, like those that come with bills and magazine subscription offers; and stockpiling cardboard shipping boxes, even those that have already been used multiple times.

What's behind it
Green guilt stems from an important and understandable impulse: the desire to help care for the global environment, minimize your impact on the world's ecosystems, and bring a sense of mindfulness and care to what and how you consume. As the article in O notes, to a certain degree, guilt can be useful: "'It holds society together,' says David Amodio, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at New York University. 'Without it, people wouldn't be motivated to maintain social norms.'"

But guilt stops being useful and starts being destructive when it becomes all-consuming. It's at this point that the good aspects of green guilt--such as the way it inspires us to recycle as much as possible, or to take steps to limit the number of things we buy and resources we consume--are outweighed by the negatives. Giving your space, time, effort, and attention over to housing and caring for things you're keeping solely to ward off guilt (like those jars, envelopes, or boxes) will almost certainly result in stress, clutter, and possibly even resentment, none of which will do anything to address or improve the underlying issue.

How to deal with it
So what can you do to deal with green guilt? First and foremost, shift your focus to what you can actively do to help the environment: use cloth bags for shopping rather than taking paper or plastic bags from the store; set up a recycling center at home and in the office to make it easy to keep recyclables out of the trash; take steps to eliminate junk mail (see last week's tip for some ideas); invest in a reusable water bottle rather than relying on pre-packaged bottled water; drive less whenever possible; and look for products made of recycled or responsibly produced materials.

Then cut yourself some slack. As the O article notes, "You personally did not cause global warming, and shouldn't feel responsible for fixing it." And even if you do feel responsible, you'll have a more significant impact by putting your time, effort, energy, and attention toward volunteering to plant trees, say, or getting involved with a local branch of your favorite environmental charity than you will by wallowing in guilt and allowing clutter to build up accordingly.

If green guilt has caused you to fill your space with things you feel you must reuse, I encourage you acknowledge the service they've already provided, recycle them responsibly (see my Links and Resources page for more information), and turn your focus toward ways you can contribute to a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable environment in both the world at large and your own home.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Organized Mother's Day Gifts

Tip of the Week, May 4, 2008

Mother's Day is next Sunday, May 11. While candy and flowers aren't a bad way to honor the moms in your life, with a bit of ingenuity and some simple ideas, you can create a gift designed to bring more organization and less stress to the lives of the ladies you love. Here are three gift options to spark your creativity.

#1: Personalized Recipe Book
Not all moms love to cook, but if yours does, chances are she has at least one box overflowing with cards and recipe clippings, and perhaps dozens of recipes bookmarked on cooking websites. Tastebook is a new service that lets you create personalized cookbooks that include both recipes from your own collection (or your mom's) and from the voluminous online archives of Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines. Choose a cover and a theme (you can even upload your own photos), select and organize recipes, and customize your book. Each Tastebook comes with up to 100 recipes, so you (or Mom) can add new favorites over time.

#2: Help in the Fight Against Paper Clutter
This gift may not be quite as glamorous as a fancy box of candy (though you can throw one of those in, too), but it'll do a much better job of taking a bit of stress out of Mom's life each day. By giving your mother a subscription to a service designed to reduce paper clutter, you'll also give her the gift of more time for other things, not to mention less paper to deal with.

If Mom is overwhelmed with junk mail, sign her up for 41 Pounds or Green Dimes, both services designed to significantly reduce unwanted mail. Because both of these require a little bit of work (such as filling out Do Not Mail postcards to send to direct marketing services), you might include in your gift an hour or two of time to help get Mom up and running. (While you're at it, go to Catalog Choice and help her stop unwanted catalogs from cramming her mailbox; the service is free.)

Another clutter-clearer is Shoeboxed, a service that will scan any and all of your receipts and upload them to an account on a private, secure website. From there, you can download the information into Quicken, or simply track your expenses online. Though Shoeboxed will mail the receipts back to you under two of their plans (there are four to choose from altogether), in many cases they can go right into the shredder or the recycling bin. A gift subscription to Shoeboxed and an hour or two of helping Mom gather her receipts is a great way to get her on track toward less paper clutter.

#3: General Organizing Help
Last but not least, consider giving Mom something only you can give: your time. Most people I know (including myself!) have at least one or two organizing projects they'd love to tackle if only they didn't have a dozen--or more--other things on their To Do list. Giving your mother a hand with the project of her choosing is a simple but powerful way of saying thank you.

Remember that, with any project, it's smart to keep things on a reasonable scale (don't try to attack every closet in the house or 20 years' worth of photos at once). If Mom's project of choice is a large one, you might spread your offer of time over a few weeks or months to keep things moving forward without burning out. And at the end of the project, why not take Mom out for a celebratory lunch? You'll both have earned it.

This Mother's Day, think creatively about gifts that will bring more organization--and thus more order, more calm, and less stress--to your mom's life. Those benefits can last all year long.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Stocking the Kitchen A to Z

Tip of the Week, April 27, 2008

A well stocked kitchen makes it easier to plan and prepare healthy, inexpensive meals and snacks, which can save you time, money, and stress. Here's an A to Z list of some of my favorite kitchen staples, along with ideas on how to use them and recipes that highlight them. Choose a few that appeal to you and put them to use in your kitchen.

Avocado: Serve sliced ripe avocado on crusty bread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and sea salt for a simple but delicious appetizer.
Balsamic Vinegar: Good balsamic vinegar is a multi-tasking pantry staple. Try it in Balsamic Mushrooms.
Chutney: Not just for Indian food! Use it as a sauce for chicken or fish, or as a sandwich spread with sharp cheddar.
Dried Fruits: These make great on-the-go snacks; they're also great mixed into oatmeal or tossed with baby lettuces and blue cheese for a simple, delicious salad.
Eggs: Don't stop at breakfast when you think about eggs. Gourmet's Cheese and Chile Quiche makes a great brunch or dinner highlight.
Feta Cheese: Serve a chunk of feta with roasted peppers, Kalamata olives, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and pita triangles for a Mediterranean mezze platter.
Ginger (Fresh): Fresh ginger adds a bright, flavorful note to sauces and marinades; it's also an unexpected addition to gingerbread. Try it in Cooking Light's Longevity Noodles.
Herbs (Fresh & Dried): Herbs add flavor to all sorts of dishes without fat or sodium. Check your local farmers' market or produce stand for fresh seasonal herbs, and keep dried versions of your favorites on hand throughout the year.
Israeli Couscous: Also known as pearl couscous for its round shape. Enjoy it in Grilled Shrimp and Vegetables with Pearl Couscous.
Jicama: Jicama adds crunch and coolness to salads and garnishes. Its subtle flavor means it won't overpower other ingredients. Try it in a salad with oranges and red onions.
Kalamata Olives: These dark, rich olives have an almost fruity taste, and they're great with salads, such as Cooking Light's Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken.
Lemons and Limes: These fruits are great multi-taskers. Use the juice as a bright accent in salad dressings or marinades, the zest in salads or baked goods, and slices or quarters as flavorful garnishes.
Mozzarella (Fresh): Fresh mozzarella, sometimes called bocconcini (little balls) or fior di latte (milk flower) has a smooth, rich taste and texture. Serve it sliced and drizzled with olive oil and chopped herbs.
Nuts: Nuts are heart-healthy and full of nutrients. Great for snacking, they also add crunch to desserts, salads, and mains. Try them in a pilaf.
Oranges: Go beyond navels to Tangelos, Minneolas, and blood oranges, which have a distinctive color and flavor. Try them in Bon Appetit's Blood Orange Compote with Vanilla Ice Cream.
Pomegranate Molasses: Also known as pomegranate paste, this thick syrup adds tang to salad dressings and marinades. Use it in this recipe for Pomegranate-Orange Dressing.
Quinoa: Pronounced keen-wah, this easy-to-cook grain is a great source of protein. Use it as a savory grain at dinner, a hot cereal at breakfast, or as part of dessert, as in these Quinoa, Apricot, and Nut Clusters.
Roasted Peppers: Jarred roasted peppers are quick and easy. Use them as part of an antipasto platter, chopped and tossed with pasta, or as a sandwich filler with fresh mozzarella.
Sea Salt: Sea salt comes in many different varieties, each with a slightly different flavor. Use it in place of table salt to liven up anything from the kitchen.
Tofu: Tofu is a versatile, healthy staple for grilling and stir frying, in its silken form, it's also great in desserts and shakes, such as this smoothie.
Unbleached Flour: Keep unbleached flour on hand for everything from baking bread, cookies, and cakes to thickening sauces and gravies.
Vanilla Beans: Seeds scraped from vanilla beans add a rich, unmistakable flavor to desserts and baked goods, such as Vanilla-Roasted Peaches with Raspberries.
White Beans: Use white beans (canned or dried) in pasta dishes, soups and stews, or spreads and dips, such as White Bean Dip with Rosemary Oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Extra virgin olive oil can lose flavor when it's heated, so reserve it for dishes that aren't cooked, or drizzle it on as a finishing touch before serving. Flavored olive oils can make simple dishes more exciting.
Yogurt (Greek): Greek yogurt is thicker than standard yogurt and tends to be smoother tasting. Use it in place of sour cream as a garnish, or drizzle it with honey and chopped walnuts for a delicious, healthy snack.
Zucchini: Zucchini is versatile enough to use in main dishes, in desserts, and in baked goods. Roasting it brings out its sweetness; try roasted slices on a crusty roll with roasted peppers and sliced provolone.