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.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eliminate word waste: Tip #1

Oddly, I get great satisfaction from slashing words. My previous job required writing that fit into very specific, small word counts. That experience changed my writing style completely. I consider concise writing part of my overall quest to simplify.

Concise writing aims to eliminate "word waste." One way to do this:

Scan your writing for prepositions / common prepositional phrases and replace with a shorter description if possible:
    • In the fullness of time --> Someday
    • Under the management of --> Managed by
    • Due to the fact that --> Because
    • In an attempt to --> To
    • As a result --> Thus
    • Over the moon --> Excited
    • In a rut --> Bored
See if you can identify the wordy prepositional phrases in the following paragraph. How would you simplify? (Don't peek at the answers below!)

Jane wrote me in regards to the lease. She is over the moon about the fact that the rent is so low. In due time, the rate will increase beyond the limits of her rent budget, but at the present time, due to the fact that the rent is within her price range, Jane is happy.

Did you try shortening that?

Jane wrote me in regards to about the lease. She is over the moon about the fact excited about that the low rent is so low. In due time, Eventually, the rate will exceed increase beyond the limits of her rent budget, but for now at the present time, due to the fact that because the rent is affordable within her price range, Jane is happy.

As you write emails, documents and perhaps even your own blog posts, watch for those prepositions and see if they're attached to disposable phrases.

The next post in my periodic "Eliminate word waste" series will discuss passive voice.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Live simply

My friend posted to Facebook a New York Times article on what makes consumers happy. While I can't see myself paring down to just 100 personal items (if you're intrigued, go here), the article contains lots of interesting food for thought on determining how dollars can translate into maximum happiness (e.g., buying "experiences" as opposed to expensive things).

For me, the article is a general reminder about what's important: social interactions with friends and family, and creating meaningful life moments.

I do not advocate for getting rid of nearly everything you own, but I agree with taking stock of your possessions and being conscious of what's a nicety versus a necessity. This will give you the freedom to decide for yourself which of the niceties you want to keep--and ultimately decide how best to organize them along with your necessities.

Organizing often involves introspection about what kinds of items are important to you and therefore worth creating space for. Who knew it could be so deep!

Is there anything in the NYT article that inspires or annoys you?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Doctor yourself

Simplifying is good for your health. Really! Take a little time to check the contents of your medicine cabinet and you'll be safe and ready for all of the little illnesses and aches that come your way.

So, what should you do?
  1. Get rid of expired medicine! Check the expiration dates on all of your over-the-counter and prescription medication. Expired meds lose their potency--and I'm not a physician, but if I don't mess with expired food, why would I mess with meds past their prime? 
  2. Be prepared. Stock up on the essentials now so that you don't have to go shopping later. There's nothing worse than dragging yourself out of bed to buy cold medicine or getting a minor cut only to find that you're out of bandages. Real Simple provides a great, basic checklist to get you started.
  3. Decide whether to separate medicine from toiletries. Depending on the space available in your bathroom, you may wish to dedicate your medicine cabinet entirely to, well, medicine. Toiletries such as shampoo, shaving cream, razors, soap and so forth could be better placed elsewhere in the bathroom if you have the space. At chez moi, we have a tiny bathroom and purposely bought an oversized medicine cabinet to hold meds as well as several toiletries. Use your best judgment; ultimately, keep like things together, no matter where they are in the washroom.
What's the oldest expiration date you can find on the medicines currently in your cabinet? Promise to toss all of the old stuff?

Disclaimer: I have no medical background whatsoever. You should consult a physician for advice on the types of medicines you should and should not take based on your medical needs. Right then!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Let go of old clothes

Keeping clothes organized remains one of my biggest personal simplification challenges. We will discuss my closet transformation in a future post!

For now, I'll state that it's important to do a clothing audit at least once a year. When attempting to purge clothes, ask yourself the following questions for each piece--and answer honestly:
  • Have I worn this in the past year to 18 months? (If not, place in your "give to charity" pile)
  • Is this still in good shape? Are there holes, tears, stains, or buttons missing? (If you or a professional can't fix the item, toss it.)
  • Am I still this size? (If not, place in your "give to charity" pile)
  • Was this part of a fad or is this item classic/still in style? (Old fad = give to charity)
  • Why am I keeping this item of clothing? (Practical reasons = keep. Sentimental reasons or it was expensive = give to charity or sell online)
What one piece of clothing is hanging in your closet that you know you should get rid of, but can't? (Mine is a pair of quality jeans from high school that I am determined to fit into again someday. Oy!)

Put a lid on your manuals

Operational manuals seem to come with everything, don't they? From coffeemakers to cameras to cell phones, every gadget and appliance comes laden with instructions. I have a hate/love relationship with manuals: I hate having to keep them, but I love them when I need to troubleshoot. I hate not being able to find the right manual when I need it (did I put it in a cabinet? a kitchen drawer? did I toss it?).

My simple solution: Create a "manuals" box. When you get a new toaster oven, vacuum or alarm clock, just throw the manual in the box. Once a year, leaf through the box and recycle manuals for those items you've gotten rid of. My manuals box is a little taller and wider than a shoebox, and it sure holds a whole lot of manuals!

Happy reading. :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Take the immediate next step

Here's a great tip I learned from David Allen's excellent book, Getting Things Done.

When you've been procrastinating about completing a task, just ask yourself, "What's the immediate next step needed to move this forward?" By breaking down a seemingly daunting task into its most basic next step, you'll find it a little more surmountable.

  • Clean the basement --> Bring in trash bins
  • Make plans to celebrate Father's Day with Dad --> Call Dad to ask him if there's something specific he'd like to do.
  • Prepare for Friday's meeting --> Review notes from last meeting
  • File auto insurance claim --> Gather information about the accident (involved parties, police report, witnesses' contact info) and have all of it in front of me.
Then, determine the immediate next steps after that:
  • Brought in trash bins --> Create spaces for "trash," "recycle," donate to charity" and put the trash bins in the "trash" space
  • Called Dad --> Find the phone number of the Italian restaurant he would like to go to
  • Reviewed notes from last meeting --> Write down any relevant points from the last meeting that will be important for me to revisit
  • Gathered information about the accident --> Locate the phone number of my insurance representative.
And it goes on until the task is completed. You can see how turning general tasks into little "bites"--even teeny ones such as "call dad"--will get you started moving in the right direction! Take things one immediate next step at a time and before you know it, your to-do list will be all checked off!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Keep like things together

If you were to look in some of my drawers at home, you might be surprised. For the most part, they are not pristinely organized with dividers and labels.

I tried that before in my sock drawer, purchasing those long plastic containers that are supposed to help you keep things neatly arranged, but I never ended up having the time or inclination to maintain that level of order. It's much easier and quicker to just open the drawer and throw in the folded socks. :)

Instead, I've adopted one simple principle: Keep like things together. We have a pen/pencil drawer in our desk, and while the contents may not be organized by "pencil," "red pens," "blue pens," and so forth, we know that the only items that go in that drawer are pens and pencils. They don't belong in any other drawers in the house, and no other items belong in the pen/pencil drawer.

Now, some things do need a little extra help in the drawer, like utensils. It'll just be quicker for you at dinnertime if you can easily reach in and pull out the forks and knives you need. So, it's just a matter of thinking about which things need an additional level of organizing and which things would be overkill to divide further. (Not to worry: we'll delve into this in future posts!)

It may seem elementary but if you apply this principle across your home--books stay with books, socks with socks, take-out menus with take-out menus, tools with tools, spices with spices--and stick with it, you'll find yourself well-organized in a very manageable way.

Other examples from our home: mail, umbrellas, utensils:

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