Monday, July 26, 2010

5 Quick Summer Organizing Projects

Tip of the Week, July 18, 2010

Mid-July is the perfect time to be outside enjoying the warm weather, long days, and easy-going vibe of summer, so now is probably not when you want to tackle complex, in-depth organizing projects. But when you need a respite--on a rainy or scorchingly hot day, for example--a quick and easy project can be a great way to give yourself an organizational boost without a lot of time or effort.

Here are 5 projects you can do in 30 minutes or less, leaving you free to enjoy the outdoors again when the rain lets up or the thermometer falls below the 3-digit mark again.

#1: Do a Fridge and Freezer Triage
By this point in the summer, chances are good that your fridge and freezer have played host to supplies for--and leftovers from--at least one cookout, picnic, or party. Weeding out stuff that's past its prime or that you no longer need can help declutter your fridge and prevent messier, more unpleasant clean-ups later in the season. Have a few extra minutes to spare? Consider giving the shelves and walls of your fridge a once-over with a sponge and some soapy water.

#2: Clear Out a Junk Drawer
Stop gritting your teeth each time you need to fish for something in your junk drawer! Taking 30 minutes to toss what no longer needs to be here, and to reorganize what does, can be a huge stress-buster. Weed out any outdated take-out menus, old business cards, miscellaneous scraps of paper, non-working pens or broken pencils, and anything that's truly junk. Return to their proper homes any items that belong elsewhere, then use simple containers (zip-top bags, envelopes, checkbook boxes, and so on) to corral and organize the stuff that should remain here.

#3: Go Through Your Summer Clothes
Now that we're midway through the season, you probably have a pretty accurate picture of which of your summer clothes you've worn and which you haven't, making this the perfect time to do a bit of weeding in this department. If you want to start small, pick one type of clothing (t-shirts, say) and sort through it, setting aside for donation or disposal anything that doesn't fit, is damaged beyond repair, or that you simply don't want, like, or need. On the fence about something, or keeping it because you're convinced you'll wear it before the season ends? Give it a probationary period: if you don't wear it before, say, mid-August, out it goes.

#4: Slim Down Your Toiletry Collection
What's lurking in your medicine cabinet, under your bathroom sink, or in your linen closet? Now's the time to find out, and to do some weeding while you're at it. Pull out the various bottles, jars, and containers of toiletries and personal care products you've stored throughout the house. Toss any that have expired or are otherwise unusable. Consolidate multiple containers of the same kind of product (two half-full bottles of Shampoo X, for example). Make it a point in the coming weeks to use up the last little bits of mostly empty containers. Have products you don't use or want but don't want to throw away because they're perfectly usable? Offer them to friends or family members, or bring them to a local homeless or women's shelter.

#5: Tackle Your Reading Pile
Finally, if there's a stack of newspapers, magazines, and newsletters in your life, take a few minutes this month to go through it. Recycle outdated material, especially newspapers more than a few days old and magazines more than a few months old. If you're keeping magazines because they have articles you plan to read, tear out the articles and add them to a To Read folder--and then take that folder with you on your next trip to the pool, the beach, or your backyard hammock. Want to spend some quality time with a newspaper or magazine before you recycle it? Put it in your beach bag or briefcase so it'll be easily accessible when you have time for reading, whether while relaxing in the sun or on your way to work.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When Is a Bargain Not a Bargain?

Tip of the Week, July 11, 2010

The August issue of O: The Oprah Magazine takes as its theme "Big Deals," with articles on how to find bargains in various realms of life (from personal care products to car loans) and literally hundreds of "bargains" available for purchase, most of them clothes, shoes, and makeup.

Reading the magazine was, for me, something of a roller coaster ride: I loved life coach Martha Beck's advice on how to know what not to spend money on, for example, but found myself almost whimpering at the page-after-page emphasis on stuff, and the encouragement to buy it because it's being offered at a discount.

Far too often, clients will show me items--and sometimes bags, closets, or even entire rooms full of items--that they don't use, don't need, and don't especially like, but that they purchased simply because the things were on sale and were "bargains." Almost inevitably, these "bargains" wind up in the Donate pile, or slink back to the bottom of a closet if the client can't bear to part with something he or she spent good money on.

So when is a bargain not a bargain? When it's something we buy not because we truly need it, will use it, or absolutely love it, but because it's on sale. Here's how to identify these un-bargains and prevent them from cluttering your space, causing you guilt, and emptying your wallet.

Identifying Un-Bargains
How will you know when something that seems to be a bargain in fact isn't? Put it to the test.
  • Are you truly attracted to it before you see the price tag? If it's something that catches your eye on a store shelf or rack, in the pages of a catalog or magazine, or online before you see what it costs, it might be worth taking a closer look at. Is only the price tag what draws you in? Take a pass.
  • Can you very, very honestly say you need it or love it? Note that I don't include "want it" on that list--and on purpose, because far too many of the bargains we buy are things we don't especially adore or have a true need for but simply think we want. If you need or love something and it's available at a good price, it might be a bargain. Just want it? Strongly reconsider.
  • Is it in a color, shape, style, design, or size that's actually right for you? Buying a sweater that's a size too big or in a color you don't like simply because it's on sale is as much as waste of money (if not more so) than spending too much on one that's a perfect fit in your favorite shade.
  • Is it a good deal based not on the original price, but on its value to you? If you'd normally spend, say, $80 on a table setting for 4, shelling out $160 for a designer set that's been marked down from $300 isn't a bargain. It's easy to get sucked in by amazement at how much something has been discounted, or how much you're hypothetically "saving" by buying it on sale rather than at full price, but if you're still spending more than you normally would, you're not getting a deal.
So, What Is a Bargain?
Now that you can spot and steer clear of un-bargains, here's how to know what is in fact a good deal.
  • A lower price on something you really need or love. If you're in the market for, say, a new printer, have a budget of $200, and find a model with the features you're looking for on sale for $160, you've scored.
  • Substantial savings on a splurge you've planned for. Waiting until late in the year to buy a new car, for example, can save you thousands of dollars if you opt for that year's model--a great bargain if you've been planning on a new set of wheels.
  • A great price on something you have a definite use for. Some very budget-savvy folks will shop throughout the year for birthday and holiday gifts they know they have recipients for, as they might be more likely to discover a much lower price on something in July than in December. Saving cash on items you know you'll use is a good deal.
Living an organized life doesn't mean being an ascetic, never splurging, or not buying stuff you truly need or love, but it does mean learning to identify and steer clear of bargains that aren't really bargains. Put these tips to use the next time you're tempted to buy something that seems like too good a deal to pass up and you'll avoid making purchases that quickly turn into clutter and disappointment.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Finding Happiness Beyond Stuff

Tip of the Week, July 4, 2010

Warren Buffet, the very well-to-do chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and a noted philanthropist, recently committed to giving away more than 99% of his wealth to charity during his lifetime or at his death.

In an article he wrote for Fortune magazine explaining his decision and encouraging other people of means to do the same, he noted, "Some material things make my life more enjoyable; many, however, would not. I like having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden. Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset I most value, aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends."

Granted, most of us will never be in the position of fretting over the burden of multiple homes and won't get to decide whether or not we enjoy having expensive private planes. But I'm struck by the truth and wisdom of this simple sentence: "Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner."

As a Professional Organizer, I see those words play out time and again; too often, clients who believed they'd find happiness, meaning, or purpose in things have instead discovered quite the opposite--that the stuff in their lives crowds out what would really make them happy or add richness and direction to their existence.

So here's my challenge to you: in this season of independence (Canada, the US, France, and Belgium all celebrate their freedom in July), make a commitment to taking back your life from the possessions in it.

Rather than focusing on things--buying them, caring for them, trying to organize them--give your time, care, and attention to your health, your friends and family, your community, your personal and professional development, a cause that's especially meaningful to you, a place you'd like to explore, a skill you'd like to learn, a person you'd like to connect with, or a memorable experience you'd like to create.

Like Warren Buffet, you might choose to donate the money you'd otherwise spend on things, even if your gift is much smaller than the chairman's. Perhaps you'll save it or put it toward accomplishing a financial goal like paying off a loan.

But don't worry too much about the money. Focus instead on rediscovering all of the non-thing sources of happiness in your life, whatever they might be.

"The best things in life aren't things," wrote Anthony J. D'Angelo. He's right--and Warren Buffet, who, more than most of us, could stuff his life full of things--is right about how what we own too often winds up owning us.

So here's to a season of joy from people, relationships, experiences, connections, accomplishments, sweet moments, and everything else that takes up absolutely no space but does so much to fill up our lives.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Scanning, Paper-Reducing Odyssey

Tip of the Week, June 27, 2010

A few weeks back, while reacquainting myself with some of the stuff I'd stored in various tucked-away spots throughout my house, I came across several 3-ring binders full of handouts and tasting notes from wine education classes I'd taken a few years back. (Learning more about wine? That's my kind of continuing education!)

I didn't want to simply dump this stuff in the recycling, as it's info I can anticipate referring back to, but I also didn't want to hold onto it all in paper form, especially because it took up so much room. So I decided to embark on an experiment: I'd scan the info, save it on my computer, and pitch the hard copies.

Here's how I went about that, what I discovered along the way, and how you can undertake a similar project to reduce the paper in your life.

How I Did It
I started by gathering together all of the papers I wanted to scan so I had a clear sense of the volume I was dealing with (all told, more than a ream). Because of the hefty amount, I opted to use my NeatReceipts scanner for the job, rather than the flatbed scanner that's part of my all-in-one printer, because it's much faster and does almost as good a job.

Before I started, I set up files on my computer for each of the wine classes I'd taken so that it would be easy to save and organize each set of handouts I'd be scanning. For the sake of consistency, I also decided how I'd name each scanned file: with the title of the class, followed by the date or the region we'd studied during each session.

While I was at it, and because I'm a bit of a geek about such things, I also created a library in Bento, my database program, into which I could transcribe my written tasting notes. Getting this info from paper into digital form is an ongoing project, as it requires a fair amount of typing, but setting up the library meant I had a designated place for it to go when I got around to entering it.

Finally, with everything ready to go, I sat down, put on some good music, and scanned away.

What I Discovered
Scanning page after page of these papers gave me time to review them, and to briefly revisit all those classes I had taken. One thing I realized in the process is that having this info digitized and stored on my computer actually makes it much more accessible to me. It takes me just a few seconds to get to the computer folder where I've stored these files and open the one I want--no digging into storage, having to pull out a heavy binder, and flipping through multiple pages required.

In addition, my NeatReceipts scanner does what's called OCR (or Optical Character Recognition) as it scans, so the PDFs that result are searchable: if I want to find the name of a particular winery in a class handout, I can open that document in Preview (the program I use to read PDFs) and search for the winery name, and Preview will highlight it in the document. Pretty cool!

My scanning odyssey not only put me back in touch with information I'd had literally stored away for years, but also made me feel many pounds lighter. Digitizing all of those pages and then recycling the originals was oddly liberating--so much so that I've started looking around for other papers in my files I can scan and store electronically.

Your Own Scanning Project
Ready to undertake your own paper scanning project? Step 1 is to get your hands on a reliable, easy-to-use scanner. Choose one that creates PDFs and, ideally, that offers OCR. I like my NeatReceipts model, but if you anticipate doing a lot of scanning on a regular basis, you might opt for a NeatDesk (a fuller-featured scanner made by the same company) or Fujitsu's ScanSnap, another popular compact scanner. If you're tackling a small-scale scanning project and you have a multi-function printer, its built-in scanner may do the trick.

Next up, choose a manageable selection of papers to scan. Starting relatively small will allow you to get used to how your scanner works and will give you a sense of how quickly you'll be able to scan and store documents. Some good candidates for scanning: articles and reference material, bills and financial statements from past years (check with your CPA to make sure you can safely shred the originals once they're digitized), and notes, projects, and writing assignments from classes you've taken.

(Note: once you start storing documents electronically, it's more important than ever to regularly back up your computer's hard drive, especially if you've digitized things like financial records. I recommend taking the time to get a backup system in place before you embark on your scanning journey.)

When you're all set up, scan away--and then recycle or shred the papers you've digitized. I think you'll discover not only that your documents are more easily accessible when stored and organized on your computer, but also that getting rid of paper without having to get rid of the information it contains is delightfully freeing.