An Organized and Stress-Free Vacation

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We’re finally in the midst of the summer break from school, and all across the country, families are rejoicing. It’s a wonderful time for making family memories. Of course some of the best summer memories are made on vacation. For my family, that usually meant a trip to Myrtle Beach. As a child, I was lucky to not have to worry much about the planning, because my mother pretty much took care of everything. As an adult, it didn’t take long to realize all of the work involved. Great vacations don’t just magically happen. Being organized is always important, but it may be even more important with regards to travel. One careless mistake like forgetting to put your suitcase in the car (me) or forgetting a passport for an international trip (a friend) can ruin a vacation. Here are some of my top tips for traveling.

  • Make a list (and check it twice): Santa’s obsessive habit is a good one because it all starts with a good packing list. A good general packing list is tremendously helpful, but depending on the setting of the trip, the requirements can vary tremendously. I would pack very differently for a beach vacation than I would for a business conference. Thinking through your daily itinerary or likely activities is helpful. A last minute To Do list is a great idea. Include tasks such as taking out trash, emptying refrigerator of foods that will spoil, packing last-minute items such as charging cords, daily medications or toiletries, turning off water to the washing machine, and setting up mail pickup or holding. Your local post office can hold your mail and deliver it on the day you return. They can also send you a scan of all of the items that are in your held mail each day, all at no cost to you. Speaking of medications, be sure to check several days before you go to see if you need any medication refills before you leave.
  • Scout out your location. Take some time to not only plan your activities, but locations of frequently needed services or stores like a grocery store or pharmacy. You can do this online ahead of time or as soon as you arrive. We often look ahead at Google Street View, especially if directions are confusing. Google Maps is the easiest way to get around. Simply type in your desired location, choose whether you will be driving, using public transit, or walking, and Google Maps gives you very detailed directions.
  • Pack lightly. I may have used this Rick Steves quote before, but it bears repeating: “There are two kinds of travelers: those who pack light and those who wish they had.” The more bulky your bag(s), the more difficult it will be to move around. If you’re flying, a heavy bag will cost you extra. How do you pack lightly? When choosing your clothing, pick items that can mix and match with each other. If you’re staying somewhere with a washer and dryer, pack less clothing and plan to do laundry. Packing lightweight, fast-drying, wrinkle-resistant fabrics is helpful. Reduce the number of shoes by picking only a few comfortable pairs that can be used with multiple outfits. Wearing your bulkiest clothes and shoes on travel days can also free up space. I love this idea on Huffington Post (https://bit.ly/2swMJEl) of packing tennis shoes that will work at the gym as well as for daily wear. Keep in mind that most destinations have stores where many things can be purchased. For a long trip, it’s really more advantageous to travel lightly than to pack absolutely everything you could possibly need.
  • Pack wisely. Use every possible inch of space. Rolling clothes instead of folding them uses space more efficiently. Use the space inside of your shoes to pack small items like socks. If you’re taking an empty water bottle, use the space inside it. Throw in some Ziploc bags; they can be very useful for grouping items (a daily outfit, toiletries, snacks) or for wet clothes. Small zippered bags called packing cubes are wonderful (https://amzn.to/2sXOWbi), but a Ziplock bag can work just as well. Pack fragile or valuable items inside of clothing. Think through your morning and evening routines to make sure you bring everything you need. Keeping a toiletries bag already loaded up with everything you use on a daily basis saves a lot of time and hassle.
  • Get there early. If you are flying, get to the airport early. My husband Eric is not a worrier at all, but over 20 years ago, he missed a flight in Europe because he didn’t arrive early enough. Now we always get to the airport early. Really early. If you arrive early, you can absorb unexpected events like traffic or forgotten items. You will also be much less stressed out. You can always find things to do with that extra airport time. By the way, if you fly frequently, it is totally worth the time, effort, and money to sign up for the Global Entry program (https://bit.ly/23KE9e7). You will always be TSA precheck, meaning getting through security is much faster (hooray for not having to remove your shoes), and reentering the country from international travel is a breeze.
  • Anticipate complications. Give everyone on the trip a detailed itinerary list (physical and/or digital) with details of flights, road directions, lodging, restaurants, etc. in case your group gets split up. Share this list with someone staying home in case you need to be reached for an emergency. Ask a neighbor to keep an eye on your house. This person can also check your door for any items you expect to arrive by (thank you, Amazon Prime!). Bring a phone charger and portable battery in case your phone battery gets low. You can download a map in advance in case you don’t have a good signal to get gps directions. Pack medications and a change of clothing into a carry-on bag in case luggage is lost on a flight.
  • Unpack immediately. I can’t stress this enough. I have helped many clients who have multiple unpacked bags from trips. If you have a Monday through Friday work week, I suggest getting back home on Saturday if possible.The best way to assure that this happens is to build some time into your schedule when you return for unpacking, doing laundry, and getting back into your regular routines.

Happy travels!

 

 

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Traveling (Through Life) Lightly

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The best thing about the weather finally turning warmer is the opportunity to get back on bicycle trails and hiking trails. For me, nothing beats spending the day on a trail with family and friends. Plenty of time for conversation, beautiful views, and lots of good exercise are the essential ingredients of my perfect spring day. I was fortunate to have one of those perfect spring days recently with my husband and my younger daughter Lydia while hiking on the Rattlesnake Lodge Trail near Weaverville, NC.

When packing for a hike, I always choose the items for my backpack very carefully. The essentials are pretty easy to determine: water, snacks, sunscreen, a trail map, and my phone (for taking pictures). Beyond that, anything else that I *might* need is optional. I briefly considered a raincoat. There was no rain in the forecast that day. I know that weather can sometimes change unpredictably, but we decided to chance it and didn’t take a raincoat. Thankfully, the weather was absolutely beautiful. I could think of many other items that I could have taken on the off chance that I might need them: a first aid kit in case of injuries, a walking stick, a mirror to signal a plane in case of getting lost, a compass, a hammock, freeze-dried food, salt tablets, a change of clothes in case I fell in the lake, an Ace bandage in case of a twisted ankle, etc. You get the idea. For every item I chose to take, there was a distinct cost involved. Every item increased the weight of my backpack. Even though our hike was a short one, I valued a lightweight backpack over being perhaps overly prepared.

Whenever I hike, I am always thankful that my backpack is so light. When I travel, I try to apply that same principle when packing my suitcase. If I stuff too many items in my suitcase, I end up lugging a very heavy suitcase everywhere. If I’m flying, I would have to pay an extra fee if the suitcase weight is over the 50 pound limit or I would have had to take two suitcases. I don’t want to face any of those consequences, so I make my selections carefully. When it comes to backpacks or suitcases, I definitely agree with American travel writer Rick Steves’ who describes two kinds of travelers, “those who pack light, and those who wish they had.”

What if we evaluated every item in our home just as carefully? What if we were just as discriminating in our choices? I am betting that a large percentage of items wouldn’t “make the cut”. In the case of the backpack or the suitcase, there is a clear negative consequence to taking too much (heavier pack to carry, cost of overweight suitcase, inconvenience of carrying two suitcases). What about the consequences of keeping too much in our homes? You may be thinking that this doesn’t “cost” you anything, I am sorry to break the news to you, my friends, but you are wrong.

Anything that we keep when we don’t need to is clutter. And our clutter definitely costs us. As a country, 1 in 10 of us pay a monthly fee to rent storage space because we have more than we can fit into our homes. 1 in 4 of us have too much stuff in our garages to fit our cars. We buy things we already own because we can’t find them amidst the clutter. We don’t have the peaceful home environment we crave because of the clutter. I could go on, but you get the idea. Clutter costs.

You might be thinking, “But most of the things I have kept are because I might need them!” That might be true, but let’s look at that reasoning a little more closely. I believe that you need to go a little deeper. First of all, you need to be able to separate the possibility of needing something from the probability of needing it. For example, one of the items I decided not to pack was salt tablets. If we had drunk all of the water we brought and needed to use salt tablets to decontaminate lake water to make it safe for drinking, this would have been extremely helpful, perhaps lifesaving. But I was counting on the fact that our hike was relatively short and that we had all brought sufficient water. While there was definitely a possibility that we might need them, the probability was extremely low, so it was an easy choice.

Now, think about an item in your home that you have been debating about whether or not you should keep, and let’s use those same principles. I’ll use an example from my own home. My daughter Lydia just completed her junior year at MTSU. She is living off-campus, and her apartment has a full-sized bed. In her previous two years, both her dorm and her on-campus apartment had a twin-sized bed. When we were getting her things together to take back to school, we realized that she would need a full-sized comforter and sheets and would no longer need her twin-sized ones. What did I do with the twin-sized comforter and sheets? I decided fairly quickly to donate them. Although there might be a possibility I could use them in the future, I think the probability is extremely low. We haven’t had a twin bed in our home for about 10 years. I don’t foresee either of the girls going back into a living situation where they would have a twin-sized bed. Even if we did somehow need one, it wouldn’t be that expensive to buy a new one. Or I could probably borrow one from a friend. Yes, I have room in my linen closet for that comforter, but just because I have room for it is not enough reason for me to keep it.

The next time you are considering whether or not to keep something because you might need it, take a few minutes to consider it more deeply. In what circumstance would you need it? What is the probability of this circumstance occurring? If it did occur and you no longer had the item, what would it cost you to replace it? Be ruthless in your decluttering. Everything you keep costs you in some way.

Getting rid of unneeded things can be incredibly freeing. Trust me—I’ve seen it in my own life, and I have seen it in my clients’ lives. You can start slowly, one space at a time. You will be so thankful for making those hard decisions when you see the benefits in your home.

Happy organizing!

 

“Container Concept” Helps Us Set Limits

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I love containers. I love the variety: boxes, baskets, bins, drawers, crates, jars, folders, tins, and…well, you get the idea. I love all of the different shapes and sizes and colors and textures. The Container Store just might be my favorite store. By the way, I really want a Container Store in the Tri-Cities area (the closest one is in Charlotte, NC), so if you have been wanting to open a store, you have my full support and promise of lots of business. As an organizer, my love of containers should come as no surprise. I do spend quite a bit of time figuring out the perfect container in a situation. But when I use the word “container”, I often mean so much more than just a “receptacle in which something is held or carried”. I am referring to a principle called the container concept.

I first heard the term container concept in a podcast called A Slob Comes Clean by author and blogger Dana K. White (click here for one of her podcast episodes on this topic). I use this concept myself and with my clients just about every day. It has been one of the most useful organizing principles of all, and I hope you find it helpful as well.

If the basic definition of a container is something that contains (just as a baker is someone who bakes), then let’s look more closely at the word contain. According to dictionary.com, contain can also mean “To hold or keep within limits; restrain. b. To halt the spread or development of; check.” You may be asking why I am teaching this grammar lesson, but bear with me. When we choose a container, we aren’t just picking something to make a space look good; we are also giving limits on how much of something can fit inside.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example. Let’s say that I am packing for a trip. I choose my suitcase based on how long the trip is and what I think I will need for the trip. The suitcase is my container, and as such, it limits the amount of items I can take. If I pick too many items and they won’t fit, then I have to either choose a bigger container (suitcase) or take a second one.

The container concept doesn’t just apply to a traditional container. Let’s consider this example. I am organizing my kitchen cabinets when I notice that I have 73 coffee mugs that occupy 4 cabinet shelves. I realize that I am running out of room in my cabinets, and I admit that it’s probably unreasonable to use 4 shelves for coffee mugs alone. I decide that one shelf of coffee mugs should be enough, and so I spread out all 73 mugs and make some difficult decisions. I keep only the amount of mugs that can fit on one shelf, and I let the rest go. That one shelf is my container, and it limits how many mugs I can keep.

Now let’s expand the concept even more. If one shelf can be a container, how about a whole room? Consider your kitchen as a container for all food-related items. If all of the items that should be kept in your kitchen can’t fit in the kitchen, then what do you do? You could store some kitchen items in alternate locations. Sometimes this is a reasonable alternative for seldom used items such as a turkey roasting pan. Since you likely only use this at Thanksgiving, it’s not a bad idea to give this item a “home” elsewhere, like a closet or the basement. But what if your kitchen cabinets are completely stuffed full of items and you also have multiple boxes of kitchen items in other locations? Then I think you need to apply the container concept in this situation. It’s probably time to pull everything out of your cabinets, take a hard look at each item, objectively evaluate what you really use, and get rid of some things. (By the way, if you decide you’d like to rearrange things a bit for better kitchen efficiency, click here for a handy reference for organizing your kitchen cabinets.)

Ok, time for another expansion of the concept. If one room could be considered a container, what about your whole house? What if you have too many items to fit into your house? This is a pretty common problem. Most of the time, instead of taking the time to consider whether everything is really needed, we simply expand our home, buy a bigger home, or rent storage space. On average, 10% of Americans rent space in a storage unit. There are some situations in which this makes sense temporarily. If you are in the process of moving to a new home and you have to move out of your current home into a smaller space before the new home is ready, renting a storage unit makes sense. Unfortunately, situations like this are the exception, not the norm. It may not seem that expensive to spend $90 per month for a 4 x 10 ft. storage space (actual price at a local storage facility in Kingsport), but over a year’s time, that cost adds up. I’m sure you can think of a better use for that $1,000 a year. A much better and frugal alternative is to apply the container concept. Your house is one giant container. Limit yourself to what fits in your home.

I’m going to expand the concept one final time, but this time in a theoretical sense. Instead of thinking of a container just in terms of a physical space, consider using the container concept with reference to your time. A 24 hour day or a 7 day week could be considered a container of sorts. There are only a limited amount of activities we can fit into a day. When we try to stuff our days too full, we end up exhausted, stressed, and scrambling for excuses. When our weeks are filled to capacity, we may run out of time to do the things we enjoy that give us fulfillment because we only have enough time to do the things we have to do. If our time is a container, maybe we need to take a hard look at the way we are spending our time. There are probably some optional activities that need to go. Sometimes we need to let go of good to make room for better. Psychologist and personal trainer Jill Conyers expresses this idea well: “Let go of what doesn’t serve you to create space for what does.”

I love hearing from readers! Send me your thoughts on this topic, your organizing challenges, or ideas for future articles.

Happy organizing!