Monday, April 25, 2011


I've written before about getting magazines and catalogs under control. I'd like to take this concept one step further and suggest that you unsubscribe from as many of these publications as possible--an easy action that's good both for the environment and your simplification journey!

Last week, I spent less than 10 minutes unsubscribing from four publications. I was expecting long hold times and inefficient customer service, but my experience was exactly the opposite. In most cases, your subscription number appears on the back cover along with the corporate phone number. You simply provide your name and subscription number to the representative, and voila! No more mailings from that company.

I snapped a photo of the four publications in question to illustrate how liberating this task can be.

  • My husband and I started receiving Game Informer after we bought a Playstation 3 from Game Stop in 2009. We never so much as cracked open an issue. 
  • The next three items, catalogs from Lehman's, Oriental Trading, and Paper Source, started appearing in our mailbox during our wedding planning in 2008-2009. We had utilized these great companies for decorations, invitations and so forth, but we've never flipped through the catalogs.
Do you receive magazines, catalogs or other publications that you could easily do without? Do you have 10 minutes this week to unsubscribe?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Getting back into the swing of things

I'm back! Recent questions from my husband, neighbors and friends about the status of my blog encouraged me to resume writing. After several months of hard work at my previous job and making a recent transition to a new job, the time is again ripe to pick up the proverbial pen.

So, I'll ease back into simplification mode with a quick tax-prep related tidbit. Once you've collected all of the paperwork necessary to file your 2010 taxes, consider setting aside some extra time to go through all of your important files and documents. My husband and I did this last weekend. I simply could not believe HOW MUCH paper we were able to get rid of. I'm certainly not an expert as to how long you are supposed to hold onto certain documents, but here are two helpful links:
  1. Bankrate suggests a fairly conservative but flexible approach, noting that while bills should be kept "from one year to permanently," bills can be shredded once the canceled check for the paid bill has been returned--but that bills for big purchases "should be kept in an insurance file for proof of their value in the event of loss or damage." And I love that they provide the information in an easy-to-follow chart. 
  2.  This New York Times article by Jennifer Saranow Schultz keeps it real, offering well-researched information while reminding us that "there are two main reasons to keep financial records. 'It’s either for backup to a tax issue or for proof that you did something like make a payment.'" 
What I have not yet figured out is where to shred the mountain of sensitive documents that we no longer need. A small home shredder would take forever. My next step is to see if a local Staples or Kinko's might have a massive shredder available for pay-per-use. A quick Google search revealed that personal shredding services exist online. Due to the apparent ease of this service, the following find was my favorite:

Express Destruction (best name ever--would you consider it redundant or an oxymoron?) quoted me $34.95 to shred up to 30 pounds of paper. This includes shipping.

Do you have any leads on how/where to shred? How many pounds of unneeded documents do you think you have in your home right now?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Neat vs. clean

Every few weeks, my husband and I give our condo a deep clean. While this certainly involves picking things up and putting them in their proper place, it primarily comprises scrubbing, dusting, vaccuuming, and laundering. In between these cleanings, we try to keep the house neat by putting things away where they belong, staying on top of dishes, and taking out the trash.

A wise friend once told me something very simple but poignant about keeping house: There is a big difference between neat and clean. For the most part, Simplified by Sarah focuses on the "neat," or how we can keep things organized and efficient.

However, I would argue that "neat" facilitates "clean." If you have a well-organized and clutter-free home, then it will be much easier to scrub, vaccuum and clean when needed. Simply, you'll have fewer objects in the way to contend with!

Consider both "neat" and "clean" as you continue on your organizing journey. Are you excellent at scrubbing but bad at sorting? Do you hate dusting but enjoy decluttering?  When you clean, try to figure out if there's anything in your way that you can quickly sort through or get rid of. When you tidy, think about what could use a good cleaning.

For example, today I consulted my husband about the big, decorative floor vases we have on either side of the TV stand. I like them just fine, but whenever we vaccuum we have to slide them out of the way--and the vases always need a good dusting. We decided to keep them where they are but it was great to take a minute and ponder whether they were still worth the real estate they take up in the living room.

Likewise, as I cleaned the bathroom today, I decided to go through a basket that we keep in there, which holds a few toiletries and hair brushes. I discovered really old cologne and hair spray, and tossed them. Sweet!

Would you categorize yourself as more "neat," more "clean," or a good combo of the two?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Taming the to-dos

I don't know about you, but I think September's gone by in a flash! Fall is such a busy time of year. School starts, the workforce collectively awakes from its summer slumber, and suddenly lots of things need to happen simultaneously. Organization is a must!

I'm a huge fan of the to-do list.

Call me old-fashioned, but there is something incredibly gratifying about making a little box, writing a task next to it, and crossing it off upon completion. Here is my work to-do list for this week:

Why I cross out the whole line instead of just putting a check in each box, I'll never know...
 I digress. If handwritten is not your style, I'll offer some alternatives at the end of this post.

Now, some productivity gurus suggest organizing your list into subsections (e.g., Work/Home/School; Project A/Project B; Calls to make/Emails to send/Letters to write; and so forth). I disagree--that's too much work and your list will quickly become a mess!

Instead, I keep a running to-do list for work at the office, and make a home to-do list only as needed, usually on the weekends when I have lots of errands to run and personal projects to complete. Thus, the lists don't get organized by type of task, but rather the task will fall onto one of two lists: the one at work or the one at home.

The key is really to use the list actively, crossing items off upon completion and adding new tasks as they arise. In fact, the golden rule is to honor the to-do list or it's worthless.

Prefer a 21st century method of to-dos? Here are some options and my personal thoughts on them:

1. The Tasks module in Microsoft Outlook
To be fair, I didn't use it long enough to discover all of Tasks' functionality, but for some reason I felt it was more work to enter a task into Outlook than it was to just write it down. The deadline feature is great, but to me, it all felt like enough of an extra effort that I couldn't keep it up.

An alternative in Outlook: Add urgent to-dos to your Calendar so that you will get pop-up reminders about it throughout the day. Going back to the Golden Rule, though, you have to make sure to honor and complete whatever tasks you put into your calendar! "Dismissing" the task will be detrimental as once the next business day starts, you run the risk of forgetting all about the task.

2. Remember the Milk
This service played a critical role in my wedding planning. My husband and I would add tasks on an almost-daily basis, setting deadlines, assigning each task to a specific person (read: him or me), and tagging each task so that we could view our to-dos by category (e.g., reception, ceremony, photography, entertainment, attire, etc.). We could both access it from anywhere. The best part: it's free! The iPhone app does cost money, though.

3. Jott
To describe this simply, Jott transcribes to-dos for you on the go. This free service assigns you a phone number. You call it. It asks you what you want to jott. You tell it, and tell it where to send your jott. It will transcribe your words into an email, text, add it to your electronic list (such as Outlook or Remember the Milk), and more. A couple of years ago, I used this for a few months and found that the transcription was generally quite accurate. Ultimately, though, because I was only using it to jott reminders to myself, I found it more efficient in the end to call my work voicemail and leave myself a message with the reminders. A quick glance at their website today, however, reveals greatly expanded functionality--including jotting your Twitter updates, having your RSS feeds/news read to you and apparently much more!

Finally, if you want to read up on to-do lists and productivity, I highly recommend David Allen's Getting Things Done.  And he's built an organizational fiefdom here if you end up wanting more GTD!

How do you track your to-dos?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Simplified writing, patriotic style

Given that it is the weekend of 9/11, I hope you don’t mind my saying that I have the greatest affection for symbols of American patriotism: our National Anthem, the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, military songs and marches, the monuments and memorials in Washington DC, Ground Zero, the 4th of July, apple pie, and baseball, to name just a few.

Today, I had the deep honor of singing the National Anthem (or one verse of it, anyway) at a wonderful fundraising event in Boston.  It was moving to look out on the crowd of hundreds of cancer survivors, supporters, and uniformed officers saluting the flag and singing along to this important American song.

As I rehearsed the song at home last week, I began to think about why many singers--including me--find it so tough to perform.  I came up with the following reasons:

  • There are few natural places to take a breath because each lyrical phrase (or sentence) is so long. As a result, most singers breathe in between “can you see” and “by the dawn’s,” and again between “star-spangled” and “banner,” which you wouldn’t do if you were speaking the phrases.
  • The tune starts off quite low and ends quite high; you need to be aware of the vocal range required to sing the National Anthem and prepare accordingly. It’s never good if someone starts singing the song really high…that means they’ll need to end on a super high note! 
  • Although beautiful and rife with moving imagery, the words are more poetry than song lyrics. (In fact, the lyrics come from a beautiful poem written by Francis Scott Key.) It takes a solid reading or two of the lyrics to really absorb each word's literal meaning.

 So, what in the world does all of this have to do with simplifying your writing?

I would like to use the treasured National Anthem as an example of how to simplify your writing. Of course, you will see that my “translation” has none of the original’s impact or imagery. Certainly, I’m not saying that the lyrics of this song need to be changed; rather, I encourage you to think about when it’s best to simplify your writing versus when it’s best to provide more descriptive language in order to inspire and engage your reader.

Original song
Simplifed version
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Does the morning sun show what we hailed so proudly during the night?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
The item whose broad stripes and bright stars were seen streaming gallantly over the defense walls?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
The light from the rockets and bombs proved throughout the night that our flag was still there.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Does that star-spangled flag still wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Perhaps the simplified version helps the modern reader to ellicit a quicker understanding of the song, but it clearly lacks the panache and timelessness of the original version.

Is there something you've written recently--a report for work, an essay for school, a blog post--that you'd like to revise to make it more word-efficient OR more elegant in its style? If so, I'd love to see a before and after!

In conclusion, there is certainly a line between elegance and efficiency--though that's not to say you can't achieve both. Here's a parting example:

I don't think my Senior Vice President would want to read a briefing from me that read, "Mr. White's supreme devotion to our institution is worthy of your undying praise and time at next week's luncheon," but instead she'd probably want to see, "You will meet Mr. White for lunch next week to thank him for his involvement with our organization."  An attempted marriage of efficiency and eloquence might be: "Your goal in meeting Mr. White for lunch next week will be to express your deep appreciation for all he has done in support of our institution."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Share your simplification!

Do you have a home or office organization project coming up, be it tackling a junk drawer, closet or entire room? If so, I'd love to feature the transformation here on simplified by sarah!

Simply send before and after photos along with a brief description of the process, including how long it took and what you found to be the most important simplification steps in the project. Featured projects can be anonymous or can contain your name, a link to your blog/website/Facebook page/Twitter feed, and the humble adoration and emulation of many.

Please send submissions to consensa (at)  In the interim, feel free to ask questions or seek tips via the blog's comment feature.

Thanks and happy simplifying! :)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Take advantage of vertical space

We have a tiny kitchen. The cabinets and drawers simply don't offer ample room for our basic gadgets, pots, pans and cooking utensils. So, we got creative and figured out how to maximize the wall space, from eye level all the way up to our ceiling (thankfully, we have high ceilings!). Last year, we took a trip to IKEA, hoping for a fairly cheap and sophisticated-looking fix. As usual, IKEA didn't disappoint. Here are the results:

This wall faces the kitchen entrance and fits between the refrigerator on the left and cabinets on the right.
A nicely hidden storage shelf over the kitchen entrance for items used infrequently.

Directly over the sink, this setup provides convenient access to heavily utilized items.

In case you're wondering, the IKEA products that appear in the above images are as follows (I wish they paid me for this, but alas, I just like sharing info about good organizational deals!):

Photo 1 (kitchen wall):
EKBY shelves/brackets
GRUNDTAL long rail
GRUNDTAL large hooks
GRUNDTAL small hooks

Photo 2 (above kitchen entrance):
LACK wall shelf

Photo 3 (over the sink):
GRUNDTAL short rail
GRUNDTAL wall rack
GRUNDTAL small hooks

We love these organizational improvements but we've still got one or two projects left in the kitchen. For example:


We use the top of our cabinets as storage. This is okay for now, but we would love to find some shelving to run around the top of the three main walls in the kitchen.

I'd also love to organize the inside of our cabinets by installing pull-out shelves and the like. I'm pretty happy with the utensil drawer but most other drawers and cabinets need a little work.

What large or small kitchen project could you tackle today? This weekend? Next month?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Systematize magazine pages

Like all mail, magazines and catalogues accumulate constantly. For me, they make great, lightweight train reading and I recycle them or pass them on once I get to the office.

But what happens when there's that one product you really want to buy from the Crate and Barrel catalogue, or that one fantastic recipe in Cooking Light that you simply must try?

This tip comes from my neighbor Cheryl, who's an organizing queen in her own right: Rip out the page(s) of interest and file them into labeled folders. I'd suggest a "recipe" folder, a "to purchase" folder, and so on.

Once pages have been filed, use the folder actively. For recipes, Cheryl and her husband keep newly ripped pages on top and completed recipes at the bottom of the pile. Recipes they've tried but don't like get tossed immediately.

The "to purchase" folder (my riff on Cheryl's recipe folder concept) must also remain active. First, as a person trying to simplify, I'm sure you'd never add much to this folder in the first place! :)

Second, set a date to make that purchase online or in-store and add a reminder to your calendar. Once the date passes, if you haven't made the purchase, toss the page or reschedule.

Now, if you're saving pages for holiday gift ideas or a big purchase, I'd recommend finding a weblink to the product and starting a spreadsheet or document listing the items to reduce clutter. Then recycle the physical pages.

How do you manage your magazines and catalogues currently, if at all?

We have a plant stand that I coverted into a magazine holder. I go through the basket periodically to recycle or read old issues (and now I will rip out/file/use pages of interest!). The living room is a great place for this--nothing better than some coffee or tea and a magazine on the couch Sunday morning!

P.S. If you found this post via Facebook, I'd love for you to leave a comment here on the blog as well as on the Facebook post. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Storage unit makeover

Glamorous, I know! My husband and I have minimal storage space in our condo, so we rent a small storage unit a couple of miles from home. Three yard sales and lots of charity drops later, we've finally got our storage-unit possessions down to what we truly want to keep: holiday decorations, musical instruments, off-season clothing and shoes, luggage, photo albums, golf clubs, nice picture frames and the like.

Despite our best simplification efforts, the storage unit was not at all organized:

Tsk, tsk. Items thrown into paper bags and shoved into the storage unit randomly. No placement of like with like. Unnavigable, inaccessible heavy boxes stored precariously sky-high.

This past Saturday, we bit the bullet. We took advantage of tax-free weekend here in MA and purchased a set of heavy-duty shelving and an extra plastic storage container just in case it would be needed. We then proceeded straight to the storage unit.

Corey built the (heavy!) shelves, which only required a hammer for assembly. I took bags, boxes et al out of the unit one at a time, examined the contents, threw away what I could (including tons of ripping paper bags holding random items), and clustered like things.

The result:

We were surprised at how little time this project took; it lasted maybe two hours tops. Now items are easily accessible and we know we've kept only those things we truly want and need.

What's your storage situation in your attic, basement, storage unit?

P.S. If you found this post via Facebook, I'd love for you to leave a comment here on the blog as well as on the Facebook post. Thanks!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tackle the toy box

Today I received this email:

Dear Simplified by Sarah:
My toddler's toybox is always a mess. It's hard keeping toys organized within one big box. I would like to find assorted-sized mesh bags in which I could grouped his toys by type. This should make it easier to find various items within the toybox. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Unfortunately, in doing a quick search on Amazon, I come up empty-handed; I'd rather not spend more than a dollar or two per bag. I suppose we could do zip lock bags, but he won't have much chance of opening and closing those on his own.

Do you have any tips on where we might find sheer/mesh organizing bags on the cheap?

Thank you!
A Loyal Reader

This is a great question and I would love for you parents out there to offer your own solutions in the comments.

In the meantime, I'll give it a stab. 

To recap, the reader is looking for some sort of storage containers that are:
  • cheap ($1-2 each) 
  • preferably mesh bags of assorted sizes
  • easy for a toddler to open and close 
  • transparent (I added this! Clearly the parent and child would want to see the contents of each storage container.) 
My first thought: mesh wash bags.  These come in various sizes and are typically used to launder delicate clothing. The example to the left comes from Anna's Linens and includes two bags for $3.99.

I then did a Google search for "mesh storage bags" and got several neat (but expensive) results:
Intended for use by coaches, these bags are color-coded and tabbed for each player on a team. However, this would be a great way to keep like toys organized. Unfortunately, they cost $5.46 each.

Although mesh bags seem like a great and easy idea, I could not find inexpensive bags, nor do I like the thought of having to order multiple unmatched bags from various websites. 

Instead of mesh bags, I'd recommend purchasing various sizes of big Ziploc bags. They're cheap, durable, and come in L, XL and XXL. Purchase gallon sizes and under with the easy zip feature for smaller toy groupings.

If bags are not your speed, I'd go for plastic totes with a hinged lid. The ones I found on Amazon cost $20.80 for a dozen. 

Ideally, though, you'd find plastic boxes that stand vertically and have a lid on top, which would allow for easy access to the toys inside. Kind of like this but bigger:

Or how about clear stacking bins that fit snugly inside of the toy box?
Perhaps I could interest you in not-terribly-cheap IRIS storage bins of assorted sizes intended for pet food? (Casters can be removed.)

Although there's no one solution, I hope some of the above leads help. And I might even suggest placing smaller Ziploc bags into plastic storage containers to further organize items as needed; this is a step beyond the simple notion to keep like things together.

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