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.

Where Does Clutter Come From?

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Clutter comes from many sources; a primary one is what we call delayed decision making.

That’s when things pile up because you haven’t made a decision to move them on to their next stop: being put away, thrown away, taken to the cleaners, returned to their owner, tossed in the Goodwill bag, shredded, mailed back or foisted off on someone else.

Work in progress Clutter can also come from projects in progress.

It’s understandable to want to leave everything out until you finish whatever you’re working on, but if you’re working on more than one thing at once and you’ve got the kitchen table, the dining table, your desk and the living room coffee table covered with projects, there’s no room to eat dinner or set down a tea cup.

Here’s how to combat this problem:

  • Make it easy to put things away
  • Get in the habit of putting things away
  • Embrace the idea of completion

Make it easy to put things away by getting a box or special
case (for jewelry making, for example) to keep your project supplies in. Use a
container if the place you work is different from the place you store
the supplies so you can easily carry them back there. Or set aside some
space on a bookshelf or in a drawer in the room you work in to stash
your project.

Get in the habit of putting things away by remembering and visualizing
how you want the space to look when you’re not working. Think of
putting things away as setting them up for your next session.

These techniques make tidying feel like a positive and beneficial activity, rather than a big drag that you want to avoid.

Completion means that even if your project is unfinished, you still put things away after each session of working on it. Don’t rely on seeing your stuff out on the table to remind you to finish. If you’re busy and have several projects going, that kind of reminder just doesn’t work. It often has the opposite effect; to make you feel guilty that you haven’t finished!

For each session there are three steps: get out your supplies, work on the project, put everything away. Don’t stop after step two!

Neat underbed storage

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Storage bed If you don't have a lot of storage space, you want to maximize it by using every nook and cranny. Under the bed there's a nice hunk of unused real estate, although strangely shaped. You can get shallow boxes and bags that fit underneath, some of which roll out on wheels.

The drawbacks to underbed storage are that you can't really see what's under there till you pull it out, and the containers attract dust bunnies like there's no tomorrow. Plus, the aforementioned oddly shaped space.

In perusing the Bo Concepts catalog I found a nifty solution; a raisable bed with storage underneath. Under the queen bed, it looks like there's a good 15 inches of depth, so you can put boxes and suitcases there. Since the storage section is an enclosed space, you can store pillows and linens and they won't get dusty. You can easily see and access everything in there without lying on the floor and reaching your arm in. Nice!