Podcast 110: What’s in your cache?

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This is podcast 110 and it’s about algorithms! If you have math fear, please don’t run away. This isn’t going to be about math. An algorithm, as far as I can figure out, is a process to achieve a particular result. It’s not a single rule or formula. It involves a number of steps.

A friend suggested a book to me called Algorithms to Live By which is about the computer science of human decisions. We rely on computers to be rational and logical and not swayed by the messiness of human lives. But we also use them to help with human issues such as when to leave things to chance and how to deal with overwhelming choices.

The chapter I’m reading now is about caching. In computer terms, the cache is a subset of memory where things are stored temporarily and usually the items in there are frequently used. Other data is stored in places that are less accessible than the cache. In your computer, as RAM, random access memory, or storage. This dovetails quite nicely with how you should organize your physical stuff. Keep the things you use a lot close at hand, and the ones you don’t farther away and less accessible. The authors even quote Martha Stewart!

Even with exabytes of memory, computers have to organize their storage space to maximize speed. There are several methods of doing that. The ones in the book are random eviction; First in, first out; and least recently used.

Surprisingly, random eviction works, mainly because managing your cache of stuff at all, whether on your computer or in your closet, is better than not doing it. That means randomly selecting items that don’t get to stay out and close at hand and putting them farther away. Another reason it works is that things you use a lot will end up back in the cache anyway pretty quickly.

First in, first out, means that you toss out stuff you’ve had the longest. Supposedly, Martha Stewart phrased this as “How long have I had it?” I couldn’t find an attribution for this online, other than the quotation in the book. From an organizer’s point of view, I think this is a pointless question. There are many things we keep for a long time, even forever, that we don’t want to get rid of, and sometimes shouldn’t get rid of. Age has nothing to do with utility or value.

The next method makes sense though. That’s the least recently used criteria. You could relate that to the age criteria in that something brand new hasn’t enough history of use to be evaluated yet, while something old that is almost never used (or loved and appreciated) has got a lot of points against it.

How does this work on your desk? It means the files and books and materials that you’re using for a current project are on the desk, but ones you used for a now-completed project, or that you’ve acquired for future use are stored in drawers or cabinets and not on your desk. That applies to supplies also. You keep your stapler on the desk, but the box of staples is in the cabinet.

At home, you have salt and pepper on the table all the time, but the other spices are in a cabinet. You have the towel you’re using on the bathroom rack, but the rest of the towels are in the linen closet. Your daily workout gear is in a bureau drawer but gear for winter sports is in the garage during the summer.

Here’s a variation I found on Wikipedia: Time aware Least Recently Used. This means the data has a time stamp on it because at some point it will no longer be useful and will be replaced or deleted. You could apply this to clothes you realize you just don’t wear anymore, old newspapers and any product that has an expiration date.

Then there’s a variation on least recently used which is Least-frequently used. That’s a helpful criteria to take into account. You might have just used that three hole punch, but it’s the first time in two years. That has a bearing on whether you want to cache it or not. It applies to holiday décor too. You only use it once a year, but you definitely use it.

So what’s in your cache? What are the things that, based on the algorithm of your choice, deserve to stay out and accessible? You’re already naturally using some kind of algorithm, even if it’s random eviction, but you can up your game by thinking of how often and how recently you’ve used things.

You’ve probably been prompted to clear the cache on your computer or browser. It saves things you’ve used recently but it gets full unless you clear it. In that case, it sweeps the cache out completely; no algorithm needed.

You can be more selective, but you need to keep your cache under control or you have everything out all the time. Podcast 9 was about the 10 minute tidy up. That’s cache clearing, plain and simple. Put away the things you’ve used, choosing either nearby or farther away storage spots.

I cautioned against using random eviction in that podcast because you run the risk of shoving a bunch of miscellaneous items into a closet just to get them out of the way, but retrieving them again on demand is much harder than if you put them into assigned spots. In some instances this kind of cache clearing is indicated, such as when guests are coming over and you’ve been too busy to clear off the table.

I realize I talked about this method in podcast 106 when I mentioned using big trash bags to clear out my college dorm room so I could concentrate on writing a paper. But! I always went back to empty out that bag and get things to where they needed to go.

What you can do right now: take a look at a nearby cluttered surface. What things do you use a lot and can stay? What things have you recently used and most likely will again soon, so they can stay too? Remember that your cache is limited, although you get to choose that limit. Try to be strict about what remains in cache and what needs to go back to storage.

Podcast 100: Completion

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This is podcast 100! Wheee! Today I’m going to talk about completion. Some of my podcasts are about concrete actions you can take to get more organized or use your time better. A lot of them are about the concepts that underlie these actions.

I never like doing something unless I know WHY I should do it. So I won’t ask you to do anything without explaining why. When you understand the why AND you agree that it’s a good idea, following through with action is usually much easier. Of course, we all still have our irrational resistance to things, and we act against our own best interests. Such is being human.

Your best self knows what to do and why, however. Take time to find that voice and listen to it instead of acting impulsively. It takes practice.

Okay, what’s so important about completion? Completion is what stops clutter, mental and physical, from happening. Completion means that you begin a task, you finish it, and then you do the third step to complete it, which is to set everything up so whatever is next can easily occur. I know, that’s a little abstract. Here are some examples.

Shopping. You need to buy things, you go out and you buy them (or order online, doesn’t matter). They arrive. Great. Now they’re on your dining table. Maybe you’ve taken them out of the boxes and bags. Good work. A lot of people stop there.

The purchasing is done, you got the stuff. The hard part is over and now you can go do something else. You’ll take care of putting stuff away later. Right? Not really. This step is deceptively difficult because it involves decision making.

The completion step is getting those purchases to their next destination; the fridge, your closet, your handbag, etc. It sounds simple, but it’s common to omit this part. When you do omit it, you have clutter on your table. Yes, a newly purchased item is clutter on your table if it’s not in the place where you will use it.

I hope you can hear the emphasis in my voice on those last five words. Things you own need to be where you will use them, or stored in their own specific place.

In my experience, people find it hard to put things away. They optimistically put this off, thinking it will take a few minutes, sometime later. But when pressed, they realize that they haven’t put things away because they don’t know where they go. In podcasts 15, 25 and 61, among others, I talk about figuring out where to put things. It’s one of those very simple, yet essential, skills you need to prevent and fix clutter.

Completion extends to tasks like setting up that new phone so you CAN use it, and trying out the new tray tables you bought to make sure they work and you don’t need to return them. That’s for new stuff coming in.

Completion is necessary for any actions you do. Here’s an example. One of my clients complained that although her husband was happy to do the family laundry and she appreciated it, he ended his task with the clean laundry folded neatly in the hamper sitting on top of the dryer. What’s wrong with that picture?

The problem was that now my client had to go through all the clothes; hers, her husband’s and the two kids’; and put them all away where they belonged. Hubby wasn’t doing the completion step, which is putting each item in the spot where it will be used, the appropriate closet or dresser.

Besides not knowing where things go, people tend to resist completion because they think it will take a long time. Putting away a family’s laundry can be time consuming, that’s true. It will save time, though, when you need to get dressed and aren’t rooting through the hamper, or even the dirty clothes, to find what you need.

This is why I keep preaching that you should make putting stuff away as easy as possible. Imagine this scenario. You come home, set your purse on a chair, hang your jacket on a nearby doorknob, kick your shoes off under a table, set your keys down, well, somewhere. We’ll worry about that later.

You pull the ice cream out of one of your bags and put it in the freezer. There! Done! You open the shoe box and realize you need to get inserts before you can wear the shoes. The shoes go back in the box, but the tissue paper gets balled up next to it.

You push those aside to look at the magazine you bought. Ad cards come tumbling out. You gather them and stack them near the shoe box. Next you glance through the mail you’ve brought in. It’s a mix of bills, announcements, mystery items and junk. Too much to think about. You put the stack near the shoe box.

Ooof! That was tiring! Time to sit down for a bit. You look around and see purse, jacket and shoes cluttering up the living room, and mail and shopping bags and boxes and random paper filling up the kitchen counter. No wonder you’re tired.

If this is you, go back through the scenario and see where completion needs to occur. The jacket goes in the closet or on a coat rack. The purse goes on the entry hall table, along with your keys. Your shoes go into a rack in the hall or in your clothes closet. Everything has a spot that is fairly easy to get to.

The ice cream is stored, so that’s done. For the shoes, make a note on your to do list to get inserts, then put the box in your closet. They don’t need to stay out as reminders as long as the task is on your list. Put the magazine in the living room or your bedside table; wherever you’ve decided to keep reading material.

Put the mail on your desk or household command center, wherever that is. Even if you don’t get to it for a few days, it will be in a place you can find it again and not cluttering up the counter. Finally, collect all the trash and recyclable paper and put it where it belongs.

Ta da! Now you can take a load off and really relax. It may seem like a lot of piddly little to do’s, but this kind of completion doesn’t take much time, and it will save you from physical and mental clutter.

What you can do right now: look around you for things that are out of place that you know how to put away. Spend a minute or two and just do it.

Organizing Computer Odds and Ends

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What do you do with all that stuff you acquire when you get a new computer? You're overrun with disks, manuals, cords, instruction sheets, warranties, adapters and packaging, all of which is different shapes and sizes. Years ago, I had a client who carefully slipped each disk into a plastic sleeve in a binder. A second binder with still more sleeves held the paper documentation.

Colored cords
The main problem with that kind of storage is that there's a good chance you'll never look at or need any of those things again. So it makes no sense to waste time organizing them. My advice is to use one of my favorite organizing tools: the versatile zip lock bag.

Just take all that stuff you want to keep (you may need it after all, so I don't advise pitching it) and throw it into a bag. Lots of stuff? Use the gallon size. Use two. I like the kind that uses a zipper pull to close it; for me they're much easier to open and close.

Besides being incredibly easy to do, this method lets you keep everything in one place. Otherwise, you'll either spend a lot of time labelling cords and adapters and other miscellaneous parts, or you won't have any idea what they are when you encounter them next year.

I keep my bags in my computer gear drawer upright, like file folders. If the manual has a title on its spine, position it in the bag so that it shows through the side or bottom, then file the bag so that the spine faces up, giving you an instant label. Even without a label, it will be easier to find a particular bag when you can thumb through them. If they're in a horizontal pile, you'll have to take them all out to find what you need.

Colored cords from Jim 5's photostream

Storage Units: Good or Evil?

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My general rule about storage units is this: avoid them at all costs! People rent them and forget ’em and they often turn out to be filled with junk.

Let’s look at why you really might need a storage unit.

There’s a short list of reasons that are acceptable.

  • You are temporarily living in a place that’s too small for your possessions
  • Your temporary living situation will be so short that it doesn’t make sense to move all your stuff in
  • You’ve inherited a large quantity of stuff that will take time to sort through
  • Your home needs repairs due to flood or fire

Notice that all these reasons are valid only because the storage is temporary. There’s no good reason to keep things permanently in storage.

Just as you shouldn’t live beyond your means financially, you shouldn’t live beyond your space means either.

I read this quotation from a storage industry executive: “People turn basements into home theaters or turn garages into family rooms and they need space for storage.” I call that living beyond your space means.

Of course, it’s much more common to fill up the garage with stuff so there’s no room for the car and to fill up the basement too so there’s no room for a workshop or pool table. People also fill up their spare rooms so they aren’t so spare anymore.

Okay, on to bad reasons to have a storage unit:

  • You moved in a hurry and just boxed stuff up and ditched it there
  • You’ve moved a number of times and keep adding to the mystery box collection
  • You inherited stuff 20 years ago and never got around to deciding whether you even like it
  • The stuff that’s in there is not worth a fraction of what it costs to rent the unit
  • You’re storing things for your children to have when they grow up and your kids are babies now
  • Keeping stuff you’re going to sell on eBay someday
  • Saving clothes you’ll fit into someday
  • Hanging on to an exercise machine you’ll use someday

All these reasons involve unmade decisions or hanging onto stuff for future situations that may never come to pass.

They also involve spending money; a lot of it if you keep paying rent year after year.

The year is still young! Make 2012 the year you make those decisions and start living in the present.

Need reasons to clear out the clutter?

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Josh Waldrum from SpareFoot Storage sent me this delightful infographic full of impressive and sometimes scary statistics. Clearing out clutter can literally pay you back; every organizer I know has found uncashed checks, gift cards and money in their clients’ homes.

Having more stuff than fits in your house is NOT a good reason to rent a storage unit. But there are plenty of good reasons. One of my clients downsized recently and uses his unit to keep artwork. There is only enough room for about a quarter of his collection in the new place and he plans to swap out pieces a few times a year.

Clutter Infographic
Produced by SpareFoot. Copyright 2013.


Rename Your Junk Drawer

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It's time to rehabilitate the much-maligned junk drawer. In the unlikely event that you don't have one, this is a drawer, usually in the kitchen, that acts as a catch-all for small items and pieces of other items that you don't have time to put away or don't know where to put.

People are often embarrassed to admit that they have junk drawers, but I say using a drawer for this purpose is a heck of a lot better than letting those doohickeys clutter up the rest of the house. Also, sometimes it doesn't make sense to figure out where else to put something, such as a screw or foot that came off something recently, you just need to remember what.

Many things in the junk drawer really are just junk, or they become junk after a certain amount of time. So, the idea is to rename this receptacle the "ripening drawer." This gives you a way to think about what's in there as green, ripe or rotten. The green items are still waiting to become useful, the ripe ones are useful now, and the rotten ones have lost their usefulness and need to be tossed.

What else goes in a ripening drawer? Semi used batteries, match books (particularly ones with something written on them), take out menus, coupons, business cards, the aforementioned pieces of things that need to be reunited, etc.

Every time you look in there, rummage around and see if you can find some rotten stuff; expired coupons, leaking batteries and parts of things you now realize you've thrown away. This is a good technique if you have a hard time tossing stuff in the moment. Once a little time passes, it's easier to make that decision.

Beautiful fruit from Gilgongo's photostream

Organizing kitchen spices

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I worked with a client unpacking and setting up her kitchen this week. I corralled and sorted all her spice containers; jars, plastic bags, paper bags, plastic boxes, fabric bags; and we saw that there were duplicates and even triplicates of some spices.

One problem is that spices don’t all come in the same kind of container and plastic bags don’t work well in a spice rack. That means that some spices end up packed into a larger container in the pantry, away from the jars in the rack.

They’re usually not very usable there because the bags are rolled up or not labelled clearly. In this case they were also pretty tightly packed together. When it’s hard to find one, it’s easier just to buy more and then you end up with doubles and triples.

With spices, that’s a waste of money because they don’t keep very long. Not many cooks need half a cup of turmeric on hand all the time. I like Spicely brand boxed spices because the quantity is small. So here’s what we did:

  1. We got rid of all the expired spices. Some were dated. Some we judged on their color and smell; lack of either means toss it.
  2. We got rid of extra spices. One average spice jar-full is plenty to keep. We tried to select the newest ones to keep judged as described above.
  3. We now had spare jars to wash and empty the bagged spices into. Even so, the jars aren’t exactly the same size. I recommended that the client either start buying one brand or buy her own jars. Uniform containers with uniform labels make it much easier to find what you need quickly.
  4. We used a labelled to identify the jars and put them in the rack in alphabetical order. Some cooks like to sort by type of cuisine, or by the spices they use most often; those methods are fine too. With alphabetical sorting, I put the blends in their own section at the end.

Other spicy notes:

Don’t keep spices above your stove. The heat will destroy the flavor.

Select a spice container based on your cooking style and preferences. If you have a drawer available, you can get handy inserts to keep the jars in place. To save space, attach a rack or two to the inside of a cabinet. If you like having them on the counter, use a tiered lazy Susan. A graduated riser shelf unit is great if you have cabinet space for one.

Photos courtesy of The Container Store

How to be messy and organized

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How to be messy and organized. At the same time. A contrarian view, perhaps. Organizers get sick of having to inform people that being organized and being tidy do not necessarily co-exist. The organized part refers to an underlying system that helps you function. It can be more or less detailed, depending on how much effort you’re willing to put in and what kind of results you need. The tidy part is about looks.

It’s also about how an environment feels to you.

People who are messy on purpose revel in being immersed in their possessions. They are inspired by seeing all the possibilities around them. People who are tidy get distracted when there’s too much visible at once. They need to shut off all those possibilities when they want to focus on getting a particular task done. This is an important distinction.

A common misconception about tidy people is that they are dry, dull and boring.

My view is that they can get overloaded with ideas and plans provoked by what they see around them because they find it hard to ignore. Messy types seem to be able to tune into the inspiration of stuff and then tune out their environments entirely, so they can happily work at a cluttered desk and not even notice what’s next to them.

So the question is: what kind of environment do you prefer to work in? If it’s a messy one you can still have a system, it just may not be apparent to anyone else. How do you keep everything out but still have access to all of it, not endanger self and others by its placement?

  • Plenty of open shelving, with shelves placed as close together as needed
  • Literature holders with lots of cubbies for paper and other things
  • Apothecary cabinets have many small drawers that can be turned into cubbies by removing the drawers
  • Rolling carts with wire drawers that pull out are handy
  • A big table instead of a desk to give you more horizontal space
  • A laptop computer to save desk real estate. Or a flat screen monitor with the CPU on the floor
  • A big bulletin board

Vertical Storage

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A reporter asked me today, “What’s the best advice you can give to someone who has a lot of stuff and not a lot of space?” “Go vertical!” I replied.

Get shelving that goes up to the ceiling wherever you can fit it in. Add more shelves above the ones you have, even in the back of the closet. Add them above the bathroom door and along the hallway. Some clients of mine did this in their 12 -foot-ceiling San Francisco home to accommodate their extensive book collection. They realize they’re going to need a ladder to get to the books, but they prefer that to having them in storage somewhere or not having them at all.

Because your arm length is fixed, there’s a fixed amount of stuff that you’ll be able to keep within easy reach. The sooner you can make peace with that, the better! The rest of your stuff will be up high or behind other things or in a far corner of your home. The other option is to keep it out where you’ll trip on it or where it will get obscured under the next wave of stuff and you’ll never be able to eat at the dining table. Your choice.Shelves

If you do end up storing a lot at the back of the closet, use transparent
and label them too. If you can’t find the stuff you stored, you might as well not have it. A few years ago I saw TV ads for a color printer (HP, maybe?) that showed people taking photos of objects, putting them in boxes and then taping the printed out photo to the front of the box. Steal that idea!

Shelves from Wrote’s photostream. Ladder from habitatgirl’s photostream.

Three DIY Organizing Solutions

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For today's post, I decided to wander around the Instructables website and see what clever ideas people had for simple household organizing problems. This site always has inspired creations and hacks to improve your daily life. Here are three fun ones I found:

Plastic bags
Plastic Bag Dispenser

This amusing Instructable tells how to make a dispenser out of a sweatshirt sleeve. It hangs on a doorknob with a nylon string that's pinned on. You could probably make the end result look nicer by sewing the string on, but this method is dead simple. Bags are stuffed into the top and then pulled out from the narrower, cuffed end of the sleeve. I suggest using a shirt that you still like even though you're sacrificing it because you'll be looking at that sleeve a lot.

Refrigerator Pen Holder

A round Altoids can with holes punched in the side is attached to the fridge via magnets glued inside. I would consider using one of those cute French fruit drop tins instead. 

Cable organizer
Credit Card Cable Organizer

This ultra simple idea uses the stiffness of a credit card to hold cables in place. Just punch holes in it, slit them to the edge, staple the card unobtrusively under your desk and pop the cords in.