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Comparing Cloud Photo Services

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My last article described the basic steps for organizing digital photos. I recommended using cloud photo services for storage but didn’t go into much detail. In this article, my husband Eric and I share our experiences using the 3 biggest cloud photo services to complete 3 commonly performed tasks, and we make recommendations for choosing the service that would best meet your needs.

Creating A Shared Photo Album

The first task we compared was creating a shared photo album. Eric and I recently spent the month of September in Oregon. We both took pictures on our phones, but we wanted to upload the best of our individual pictures to the shared album. We wanted our family and friends to be able to see the pictures and our comments about them as we uploaded them.

Using iCloud Photos, we found adding photos a bit clunky. The photos were always shown in the order they were uploaded and not by the date they were taken, which was a big disadvantage. Adding captions was easy, but sharing the album with friends and family proved a little difficult. However, once people successfully joined, they generally had a good experience. They could view the photos either using the iOS Photos app or through their browser. The photo presentation was very slick, and the user could view the photos in collage form or one at a time. Also, they could turn the viewing of photo comments on or off as they pleased.

With Google Photos, you can add photos to a shared album via the iOS app, Android app, their browser interface, or upload-only Mac and Windows apps. Comments can be added from any device and viewed from any device as well. We found adding people to the shared album a bit easier than on iCloud. Photos in the collection are always sorted by the date the photo was taken. One big advantage of Google Photos is the automatic suggestion of albums to create. Once you have several pictures of your vacation already taken, Google Photos will automatically suggest that you might want to create an album, and with one click, you can start that album.

With Amazon Photos, we found that their advantage was in how they managed groups of people. Most of us usually share our photos with pretty much the same set of people. With Amazon Photos, once you define a group, you can share multiple albums with them, which is a big timesaver. Amazon Photos has an iOS app, an Android app, a browser interface, and upload-only Windows and Mac apps. One disadvantage of Amazon Photos is comments – they could be added from the iOS and Android apps, but not from the browser interface. Also, viewing the comments from any device was more difficult than iCloud or Google.

For the task of creating a shared album, we give iCloud a C+, Google an A, and Amazon a B+.

Making A Slideshow

The second task we compared was making a slideshow from a set of photos. These are often used at events like weddings, funerals, and parties. For this comparison, we created a slideshow from our Oregon shared album. Creating a slideshow with iCloud Photos was extremely easy – you right-click on the album, choose one of seven different themes, optionally choose some music, and click Play Slideshow. You can create a slideshow from either the Photos iOS app or the Photos app on your Mac (but you can’t from the iCloud browser interface). Google Photos has the ability to create a slideshow, but only from the browser interface and not the iOS or Android apps. Also, the slideshow is very basic – one full-screen photo at a time with no music. You can’t customize either the speed of the slides or the layout of the photos. Amazon Photos currently does not support showing slideshows from your photos.

For the task of creating a slideshow, we give iCloud an A+, Google a C, and Amazon an F.

Making A Printed Photo Book

The third task we compared was creating a printed photo book from a set of photos. With iCloud Photos, you can only create a photo book from within the Mac Photos app. There is no support for photo books in the iCloud browser interface. Within the Mac Photos app, Apple enables multiple third-party vendors by installing an app extension. With the vendors we tried, we found this process complicated and slow. Of course, the experience may be better with other vendors.

With Google Photos, creating, editing, and ordering are all done from the web interface, and the whole process is extremely easy. Google automatically makes suggestions and groups photos into albums. Examples would be photos from a location (Trip to Italy) or a time of the year (Best of Summer 2018). Google chooses a layout, but you can easily change it to multiple other layouts. A caption can be added to each page but not to multiple photos on the same page. As far as ease of use, Google is much easier than iCloud.

Creating a printed photo book on Amazon Photos is also very easy but not quite as easy as Google. Photos can be autofilled into pages or placed manually. The real strength of Amazon Photos is the abundance of features. As far as captions, you can add text not only to each page but anywhere within the album. There are themes with embellishments that look like a scrapbook. Background colors and textures can be changed. For the creative sort who wants to personalize the album for a specific look, Amazon Photos gives you that capability in spades.

For the task of creating a printed photo book, we give iCloud a C, Google a B, and Amazon an A-.

Our Recommendations

So how do you choose which service to use? Our rules of thumb would be the following. If you live entirely in the Apple ecosystem (your whole family has only iPhones and Macs), then iCloud is your clear choice. On the other hand, if your family has a mix of iPhones, Androids, Macs, and Windows, then Google and Amazon are both good choices. How to choose between them? It probably comes down to how much you are willing to pay for pristine image quality. Google Photos has unlimited photo storage, but only if you are willing to let them limit the resolution of your uploaded photos to 16 megapixels. On the other hand, if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, then you get unlimited photo storage at full resolution.

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Organizing Your Digital Photos

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It’s amazing to consider all of the changes over the years in the way we take and view photos. Although the ability to create photos has only existed for around 200 years, the evolution of the devices to take them and the processes by which they are created is truly astounding. Photography has progressed from a laborious process involving clunky impractical gadgets and corrosive chemicals to a simple process using a device that fits in our palm and instantly creates a photo that can be shared across the globe. These remarkable changes have made taking and viewing photos remarkably easier, and as a result, we are taking more pictures than ever.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, that depends upon your perspective. Today’s smartphones take great quality pictures, and the convenience of not having to carry a camera around is no doubt a plus. It’s certainly wonderful to be able to easily share our pictures with friends and family. But there are also added challenges. Our printed photos take up physical space in our home, reminding us that we need to organize them. Digital photos don’t take up any literal space, so we may not see a need to get them in order (unless we’re running out of storage space for them on our devices). We snap pictures freely, often with no thought as to where they are being stored or what we will do with them long term. I have heard many people lament that this generation of children is the most photographed one ever, but that those photos may not ever be seen by future generations.

Do you know where your digital photos are stored? Are they in multiple locations on multiple devices? Do you know how to find a specific picture when you need it? Do you have a plan for organizing your photos? Read on for some practical ideas and inspiration. Some of these ideas were gleaned from the APPO (Association of Personal Photo Organizers) 2018 Summit, and some are from my own experience. Warning: this is a complicated topic, and these articles will only touch the surface.    

We can use some of the same steps for organizing digital photos as we do for printed photos. The first thing you need to do is to gather all of your photos into one place. Photo organizers call this “place” the Digital Photo Hub (DPH). It’s the home location for all of your digital photos and videos. APPO preaches the necessity of a 3-2-1 backup system, meaning that you have 3 copies of your photo  (1 primary and 2 backups) in 2 different media formats, with 1 being stored offsite (outside your home or business). A sample APPO recommendation of 3-2-1 would be using your computer hard drive as your primary storage, two external hard drives with different manufacturers as your backups, one of them stored in an alternate location, and a cloud-based service as a bonus.

After doing my own research and consulting my tech-savvy husband Eric, I have a different opinion. External hard drives are wonderful and necessary for general computer backups. When it comes to photo storage, however, we are both completely comfortable using a cloud service as our only photo storage. I realize this is contrary to APPO recommendations. When it comes to reliability, cloud storage is infinitely more reliable than a computer hard drive or an external hard drive. Cloud services utilize multiple servers in multiple locations around the world. As long as you have internet service, you can access all of your photos. In addition, many of these services are free, which is an added bonus!

If you are comfortable using a cloud service for photo storage (either as primary storage or backup), how do you choose one? The 3 biggest players in this game for basic photo storage needs are iCloud Photos (Apple), Google Photos, and Amazon Prime Photos. All 3 are great options, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses. If you are completely in the Apple ecosystem (you have an iPhone, iPad, and a Mac), then iCloud Photos makes the most sense for you. If you are an Amazon Prime member and probably always will be but use other devices besides Apple products, then Amazon Prime Photos is your best choice. If neither of these situations applies to you, Google probably makes the most sense for you. Google offers free unlimited photo storage, but only for a compressed version of your photos. You’ll want to do more research on your own before choosing. My next article will go into more detail about cloud-based photo services and will walk you through a few common photo tasks using the features these services offer.  

Many people approach organizing their digital photos the same way as their printed photos. They like to create albums arranged chronologically, by person, or by event. That technique certainly works, but depending on how you want to use your photos, it may not be necessary. One of the best features of digital photos is that they are embedded with information (metadata) that make searching incredibly easy. You can search by date, facial recognition, geographical location, keywords, etc. It’s truly amazing and sometimes a little spooky. I can search my photos using the keyword “bridge”, and iCloud will pull up pictures from all over the world with a bridge in them. I can type “California” to see any pictures I have taken in that state. If I want to find a picture of my younger daughter in 3rd grade, I simply need to figure out what year that is because iCloud (all of the cloud photo services) sorts the pictures by date. No more digging through boxes of photos the night before a school project is due.  

You may have more ambitious organizing goals in mind. You may want to create digital albums, printed photo books, or video montages that you can enjoy yourself and share with family and friends. Figure out what you want and what you have time to accomplish. You might choose to complete that first step (getting all of your photos into your DPH) now so that you can easily find what you need, and then think about other possible projects later. Regardless of your ultimate goal, the time spent organizing your photos is worth it. Your efforts will not only benefit you now, but can also help your family preserve and pass along your photos for generations to come.

Happy organizing!

 

Organizing your Printed Photos (Part 2)

Photo organizingAt the end of my blog post, “How to Organize your Printed Photos”, I promised that my next would discuss organizing digital photos. I lied. Sort of. I’ve been learning so much from the Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO) free Save Your Photos Summit that I wanted to add some additional tips. You can get all of these resources free with this link: https://bit.ly/2wShkhy. Even if you don’t have time to organize your photos now, if you sign up for the Summit, you will have lifetime access to the materials. So go sign up (after you read this article, of course)!

If you didn’t read the last article or need to review just a bit, you can read it on my website at https://beshipshape.com/blog/. This article will expand on the last article and add some new information.

    • Step 1: Gather all your photos into one space.
      • If possible, choose a room where photos can be left out during the organizing process.
      • The APPO Summit listed a few places to search for your photos that you might not have thought about: albums, frames (don’t forget to look behind the front one!), photo boxes, scrapbooks, wallet, relatives’ homes, bins, on the refrigerator, in various drawers, closets, within the pages of books like the family Bible, under furniture, undeveloped film, unpacked boxes, memory box, hope chest, safe, file folders, secret hiding spot, attic, garage, storage unit, yearbooks.
      • Photos that are still in frames take up a lot of space. Even if it’s a great photo you plan to keep, unless you plan to display it again in that frame or use that frame to display another picture, you’re better off removing the photo from the frame.
    • Step 2: Decide on your end goal(s). What do you want to do with your printed photos? There are so many possibilities. Really think through this goal before you begin, because it will guide the whole process.
    • Step 3: Start sorting through your photos. I love the way the APPO Summit describes this process by using the ABC model. Separate your photos into A, B, and C categories as you sort. You may want to wear cotton gloves as you sort to prevent damage to your photos, especially if you are working with older photos.
      • A photos are the cream of the crop. They are album or frame worthy photos that tell a story or bring back a treasured memory.  You would mourn the loss of these photos. You will be using the A photos to create the end goal you decided on. As you sort, you may end up with more than one A pile. For example, if you are creating themed albums or boxes, you may have a Vacations pile and a Holidays pile.
      • B photos are are not necessarily the best of the best, but you aren’t ready to part with them. These are good candidates to be kept in a photo safe box, possibly grouped into categories.
      • C photos are ones that need to be tossed into the trash can. C photos might include duplicates, blurry or poor quality photos, photos that you can’t remember who/what is in them, etc.

 

  • Step 3: Scan your best photos.  For your A photos (and perhaps your B photos as well), you definitely need to have digital copies. I have heard way too many horror stories of priceless printed photos being destroyed by fire, flood, or other catastrophic events. Don’t let this happen to you! Also, it is much easier to share photos if you have a digital copy of them. If you have a lot of photos to scan, you may want to outsource this task. I used Bays Media in Johnson City for this task because I didn’t want to send them off, and I was very pleased with their service.
  • Step 4: Create your desired project(s). With your end goals in mind, use those A photos to create your project(s).
  • Choose supplies made specifically for protecting photos. Whether you choose physical albums, boxes, or folders, you should definitely use photo-safe supplies. Look for these terms: acid-free, lignin-free, PAT tested, and buffered. Additionally, photos need to be stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Remember, you want these photos to last so that future generations can enjoy them. 
  • Document information about the pictures as you go. You may know by looking at a photo that it was taken at your middle child’s kindergarten graduation, but you will eventually forget that, and others that view that same photo won’t know that information. I highly recommend that you include a way to figure out a way to include a few details, whether through written notes on the back of the photo using a photo safe writing instrument, a note attached to it or beside it, or an audio or video recording. Our photos tell stories, and if you can include the story with the photo, it makes that photo all the more valuable.
  • Step 5: Consider other photo safety issues: What about photo albums you’ve already created with older, non-photo safe materials? What about photos that are already organized into non-photo safe containers? This question is one that I’ve thought about a lot since I have shelves full of these albums that represent many many hours of work. You’ll have to make your own judgement call about this question. The only way you can guarantee the long-term survival of the photos is to transfer them into photo-safe albums and boxes. It is a laborious task, and you may not personally benefit from the work. But you can be reassured that you have done all that you can to assure their safety.

 

I hope that you have found this article helpful and that you are now motivated to begin organizing your photos. Remember, sign up for the free APPO Save Your Photos Summit if you haven’t already. Organizing your printed photos may be a big project, but it is worthy of your time.

Happy organizing!

 

Organizing your Printed Photos

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“A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.”

Eudora Welty

Since I started working as a professional organizer, I have helped a lot of people organize a huge variety of spaces and items. One common denominator of most of them is that their physical photos are a hot mess. It is not unusual for clients to show me a huge stack of boxes or bins full of photos, or even an entire closet. They are usually very overwhelmed and anxious about the sheer volume of photos that need to be organized, they don’t know where to start, and they don’t have a plan for getting it accomplished. They just keep adding to the pile, hoping that “someday” when they retire, are recovering from surgery, get snowed in one winter, etc. they will have time to tackle this huge project. Does this sound familiar? Fear not, readers. I’m here to help you get started! This article will give you a simple plan to get started with organizing your printed photos. My next article will address digital photos.

The first thing you need to do is face the fact that “someday” may never come, and that the longer you wait to get started, the worse it’s going to get. It’s taken years to get into this situation with your photos, and it’s not going to be a quick fix. But with determination and a clear game plan, you can be successful. September is an especially good time to work on your photos. September is Save Your Photos Month, and the Association of Personal Photograph Organizers (APPO) has a special program called The Summit in which you can sign up to receive emails chock full of helpful free resources. You can sign up and find out more details at this website: https://www.saveyourphotos.org/.

Step 1: Get all of your photos into one location. Gather them all and put them somewhere you can access them during this organizing process without being in the way of normal day to day activities. Don’t worry for now about putting them into any particular container; your only job at this point is to get them into the same location.

Step 2: This is the most important step. Remember the phrase “Begin with the end in mind”? You need to decide what you really want at the end of this process. Fill in this blank: When I am finished organizing all of these photos, what I’d really like to have is ________________. There are so many possible outcomes, and only you know what is ideal for you and your family. There is no right or wrong answer. Really take the time to think about this question, and be realistic about it.

I have spent many many hours over the years taking photos, printing them, and documenting information about them. As a result, I have most of a bookshelf full of albums. I actually feel like it’s overkill at this point. The albums take up a lot of space, are heavy to move, and although they have come in handy for special projects, we don’t look at them as often as I had thought. So I recommend going with a plan more limited in scope.

Here are a few photo project ideas that are more limited in scope:

  • Make an album with older family photos. This could be limited to those classic photos of earlier generations. The fear of not organizing and documenting these pictures now is that eventually no one will remember the people in the photos. This would make a good extended family project.
  • Consider making an album using only school portraits in chronological order. Most of us have extra 5 x 7 or 8 x 10 school photos, so this is an easy album to make for each child.  
  • Many families go on a summer vacation every year, and these vacations almost always include photos. Similarly, most families take pictures as they celebrate Christmas or other seasonal holidays. Both of these albums would be relatively easy and could be organized chronologically.  
  • For both of my children, I made a printed photo album at the time of their high school graduation. I gathered the best photos from birth to their high school years to create this album. I had extra copies made for each set of grandparents.
  • You may not want any physical albums, but just the ability to more easily find the photos you need. Common events that require us to search for photos include high school or college graduation, weddings, and funerals. Whether we’re setting up a physical display of photos or creating a slideshow, organizing your photos now will prevent many frustrating hours of searching. For this goal, you’ll probably want to choose either organizing chronologically or by person and storing the photos in photo boxes.  

Step 3: Now that you have decided your end goal, it’s time to start sorting all of your photos. I’m afraid there is no substitute for going through them one by one. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it must be done. I suggest that you just do a few at a time to prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed. Try spending 20 minutes three times a week or so. Don’t too much pressure on yourself to get it done quickly. You might try combining it with binge watching mindless TV or listening to relaxing music. Work on it with a family member, and have fun reliving some memories and laughing at photos from that awkward middle school stage. Keeping in mind your end goal, quickly sort through your photos. For example, if your goal is to create school portrait albums for each child, you will want to put these into one spot.

If you are starting with a huge amount of photos, you will need to be especially ruthless in purging. The pile of photos you’re keeping should be much smaller than the ones you’re discarding. It’s not illegal to discard photos. Don’t guilt yourself into keeping photos that you don’t need! Keep in mind how freeing it will be to only keep the best and to be able to enjoy the ones you keep!

Here are some categories that should be discarded:

  • Multiple copies of the same photo
  • Blurry or otherwise poor quality photos
  • Damaged photos
  • Photos in which you can’t identify either the person, event, or location
  • Most photos of animals at a zoo or geographical locations. These photos can be easily found through a web search.

Step 4: Now that you’ve sorted through and chosen the best photos, it’s time to create your desired project. You can find loads of creative ideas and specific how to’s on Pinterest or other websites. Have fun with it!

Happy organizing!

 

  

How to Organize Your Bathroom

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How organized is your bathroom? And if the bathroom is such a small room in the house anyway, why should you even care? We all spend the first and last part of every day in the bathroom getting ready for the day or getting ready for bed. The level of organization in your bathroom can make these two time periods either quick, easy, and peaceful or slow, complicated, and stressful. I know that I would definitely prefer the former to the latter, and I’m pretty sure you would too.

Before you answer my question about how organized your bathroom is, take a moment to go and look. What does your bathroom sink look like? How many items are on the bathroom counter, and how many of them do you actually use every day? When it’s time to clean your bathroom sink, how long does it take you to clear off the counter? What about your bathtub and shower? How many toiletries are in there, and how many do you use every day? If you’re feeling brave, take a peek in all of the drawers and cabinets. Do you even know what’s in there? Can you quickly find what you need? Now try the medicine cabinet. Are there medicines that are expired or that you can’t even identify?

If you’re still reading, I assume you now see a need to get your bathroom organized. You’re in luck! This article will give you a step by step guide to finally get this room in order. So grab some trash bags and cleaning supplies, and get ready to get organized!

  1. Start with the sink. Identify a large flat surface(s) for sorting. The counter spaces in the bathroom alone probably won’t be enough space. If you decide to use your bed, you might want to put a sheet over it to protect the bedspread from any toiletries or makeup that might spill. You could use a small portable table in addition to the counters.
  2. Pull everything off the counter, out of the drawers, and out of the cabinets and start sorting into categories. Some categories would include soap, lotion, makeup, hair care, nail care, shaving, dental care, etc.
  3. Pick a category, and look at every item.
  4. Yes, there will probably be a lot of items. No, there really is no shortcut. Yes, you have to look at each item individually. Ok, now proceed.
  5. Be realistic. Do you really use this item? Don’t ask yourself whether you should use it or whether you might use it. If you don’t use it, it’s clutter, and it needs to be removed. If it’s empty or near empty, throw it away and recycle the container if possible. If there is still product remaining, donate it.
  6. Go through this same process with each category, looking through each item and removing anything you aren’t using.
  7. There are a few items that you will want to keep on the counter. Most likely, you will want to keep hand soap right beside the sink. You’ll probably want to keep your toothbrush, toothpaste, and a cup on the counter. If possible, the rest of the counter should be kept mostly clear.
  8. Before you start replacing the rest of the items, think through each step of your morning routine. Pull out the items that you use every single morning. Put these items either into one container or into one drawer. I always prefer clear labeled containers, but you can use anything that holds all of the items and fits in the space. Ideally, this container could be stored in an easily accessed drawer or cabinet, and not on the counter. If it must be kept on the counter, at least it can be moved quickly for cleaning.
  9. Think through your evening routine and repeat the last step with those items you use every evening.
  10. Clean every counter, drawer, and cabinet really well. Chances are it hasn’t been done in a while.
  11. As you begin to replace the rest, keep in mind that items used more frequently need to be easier to access. Try to utilize all available space. Most bathroom cabinets are tall, and if we store items directly on the bottom of the cabinet, we are often left with empty space above them. To solve this problem, you can use either a shelf riser (a U-shaped device that extends above the objects and turns one shelf into two), a storage unit with drawers, or stacked bins.
  12. Replace all items into drawers and cabinets, preferably in clear labeled bins.
  13. Hopefully you will quickly see the value of your newly organized space. As you use it, you might need to make slight adjustments until it is most efficient and pleasing to the eye.
  14. Use these same steps for other areas of your bathroom: medicine cabinet, tub/shower and linen cabinet or closet. Be realistic about what you really use, keep only a reasonable number of items (no one needs 47 shades of lipstick or 23 towels), and be ruthless.
  15. *Special instructions for medications: medication needs to be disposed of as quickly and safely as possible to prevent misuse and to reduce the amount of drugs entering the environment. The best option for safe medication disposal is to use a medicine take-back option. There is a drug drop box at the Justice Center at 200 Shelby Street in Kingsport, and at West Towne Pharmacy, 1619 W. Market St.in Johnson City. Only if this option does not exist in your area should you consider throwing the medication into the trash can or flushing it down the toilet, and even then, there are specific instructions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website is a helpful resource (https://bit.ly/2lvl836).
  16. Now that your bathroom is organized, you have a new and even bigger challenge. How will you keep it that way? Maintaining order is just as important (or maybe more) as organizing it in the first place.
    1. Be extremely choosy about bringing in anything new. Remember how many unused toiletries you got rid of? Keep that in mind as you’re shopping, and don’t buy it unless you are sure you will use it.
    2. As soon as you identify something else you’re not using, get rid of it. It may have survived the first purging session, but now that you’ve seen the benefits of an organized space, be even more ruthless.
    3. Be determined to return items to their home as soon as you use them. Yes, there will be days when you’re in too much of a hurry. But don’t wait too long to restore the order.

I hope you have found this article helpful. I’d love to hear your questions or suggestions for future articles.

Happy organizing!

 

Better Organizing=Better Grades

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The first day of school is fast approaching. Some families are trying to squeeze out every bit of summer fun in these last few days by heading to the pool or sleeping late just one more time. Some are busy shopping for school supplies and making plans for that first day. There are so many mixed emotions about the beginning of a school year. Parents are worried about everything from paperwork and packing lunches to bullying and report cards. Children can feel excited one minute and terrified the next about meeting their first day in a new grade. Teachers are finishing up getting their rooms ready and frantically planning those crucial first few days. Clearly this is a busy time packed with activity and planning.

Even though my children are grown, I still get excited about the beginning of a school year. It takes every bit of restraint I can muster to not go out and buy things I really don’t need. As a student, I took the selection of item on the school supply list very seriously, making sure that the color of the notebook corresponded in some way with the class subject. I wrote especially neatly on the first page of a spiral notebook, knowing that I would be looking at that page all year. After the first few days of school though, the excitement of new supplies was soon replaced by anxiety as I began to worry about my grades. I was (and still am) very driven and competitive, so good grades meant everything to me.

For many students and parents alike, grades are the biggest worry throughout the school year. This worry starts early and continues throughout all grade levels, even into the college years. It can often seem like so much is riding on these scores. So many factors can influence grades, and volumes of research have been done to find the magic formula to produce top marks. When I think back over my school years and those of my children, I am convinced that the most important factor in achieving good grades was simply being organized. While intellect, creativity, and study methods definitely played a part, basic organizing skills were pivotal in achieving good results.

In light of this observation, here are my top suggestions for staying organized during the school year. Keep in mind that depending on the age of the student, parents’ assistance may be needed. The older the child, the more responsibility should be transferred to them. I strongly advise parents, grandparents, or anyone who is working with a child to teach them basic organizing skills. These principles will serve them well throughout their lives. I would like to thank my daughters Emma and Lydia (both college students) and my husband Eric for their input.

    • Check backpacks before leaving school. Nobody enjoys finding out at 9:30 pm that your child forgot the textbook they need to complete their homework. If you pick up your child from school, this isn’t too difficult, but if they ride the bus or with someone else, you’ll have to train your child to do this. We learned this lesson the hard way.
    • Establish and reinforce routines for papers. Students come home with a LOT of papers, some of utmost importance and some that go straight to the recycling bin. Make it a habit from day one to have a designated spot for papers. Establish a drop zone for backpacks with a container (one per child) nearby for all papers to go into as soon as children arrive home. This container can be wall-mounted to save counter space. If possible, a parent should look through these immediately to identify anything urgent (forms to be returned, homework to be completed). At the end of the evening, check again to make sure all papers that need to be returned are in the backpack.

 

  • Declutter backpacks regularly. At least once a week, every single item in the backpacks needs to be taken out and everything unnecessary removed. I have heard many stories of children getting a 0 on a homework assignment that was completed on time but not turned in because the backpack was a disaster area. Don’t be that family!

 

    • Keep an updated checklist. Each child needs one central location to keep track of dates, deadlines, homework, etc. You might try using a different color for each class. There are some wonderful student planners that are perfect for this. Or it may be that a digital solutions work better for your family. Either way, I can’t overstate the importance of this strategy.
    • It’s never too early to start an assignment. Look over assignment sheets and descriptions early to avoid last-minute issues. For a large assignment, use a technique called “backwards planning”,  which is working backwards from the desired result to figure out all the steps needed to achieve it, and creating mini-deadlines to break big tasks up. For a long-range assignment, one good strategy is to work a little on it each day after finishing homework that is due the next day.

 

  • When your child says they don’t have any homework, don’t believe them. I’m not implying that your child is a liar. I’m simply suggesting that perhaps they have forgotten it. Either way, it’s better to just double check before assuming they have the night off. There is always something to work on (see above point about long range assignments).

 

  • When your child says they don’t have any homework, don’t believe them. Yes, I meant to repeat that sentence. Did you catch it? So many times when asked about homework, I was assured me there was none. Then I would find out there was a test the next day. Studying for a test definitely counts as homework! There are many effective methods of studying for a test: looking over notes, working problems, making note cards, having a group study session, creating a practice test (this was my favorite), outlining material, etc. Different methods work better for different subjects and learning styles. Teachers are great resources for best study habits.

I’d love to hear from you, readers! Do you agree that organization is the biggest factor in student success? What has worked well for your family?

Here’s hoping for a wonderful and organized school year!

 

How to Pack Bags for Frequent Activities

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Now that we’re in the heart (and heat) of the summer, most of us are really on the move! Not only are we traveling more, but we are likely also headed to the pool, summer camp, rehearsal, sports practice, hiking or biking, and the gym, among others. Most of these activities require you to bring along supplies of some sort. Don’t you hate remembering at the last minute that you need to bring something but you can’t find it? How about arriving for an activity only to find out that you’ve forgotten something essential? Moments like this sure can turn a relaxing summer day into a stressful one quickly. How can you be assured that you will always arrive to these activities on time with everything you need? By planning ahead and organizing, of course! Here are my top suggestions for packing bags for frequent activities:

    • Get a bag for each person for each activity. If you have 3 children who each participate in a different sport or activity, all 3 children need a different bag. Even if more than one child participates in the same activity, they each need their own bag. Not only will this assure that every person has what they need, but it will also allow each child to take responsibility for their own belongings.
    • Pick the perfect bag. For most activities, a simple tote bag should suffice, but some activities require a special bag. Golf is a perfect example of this. If your child (or you) have participated in an activity for several years, it’s probably time to buy the special bag. It might be more expensive, but it will also be much more effective at storing the supplies. Even with a simple tote bag, there are many different sizes and varieties, and you want to choose the bag that is best for the activity. In some cases, a storage bin might actually work better than a bag. My husband and I go on frequent bike day trips. All of our biking supplies fit in one large bin that we can easily put in our vehicle before we leave.
    • Create a different checklist for each bag, and attach it to the bag.
      • I almost always prefer to store information digitally only. But I have found that if a list isn’t right in front of me, I might not consult it. By having a physical list attached to the bag, you’re a lot more likely to consult it. A luggage tag works well for attaching the checklist to the bag.
      • If you’re new to an activity, ask the coach/instructor for suggestions on what you will need. It’s also helpful to ask the people (or parents of children) who have been participating in the activity for several years. And don’t forget to ask your children what they think they will need.
      • As soon as you think of something you need that isn’t on your list, either add it to the bag immediately and add it to the checklist or give yourself a reminder to do that when you get home. I love the reminders app on my iphone for scheduling reminders at a certain time or upon arrival at my home (as long as you’ve included your home address in your iphone).
      • If you have young children, you might want to include pictures of the items that need to be packed. This will allow them to share the responsibility of packing it.
    • Leave as many things as possible prepacked in the bag. This may require buying multiples of a few inexpensive items, but the time and stress saved will be well worth it.
    • Check the bag contents the night before the activity. I always like to plan ahead for the next day the night before. This will avoid those last minute panic scenarios. For example, if you realize the night before that all of your uniforms are dirty, you’ve still got time to wash them.
    • Don’t forget a spectator bag. I love this idea that I found on the Organize 365 website (https://bit.ly/2lKQWR4) and additions to the list found on this website (https://bit.ly/2lIu9oX). The items in this bag can make all the difference for your comfort and enjoyment as a spectator. If you’re attending an all day event, these items will also be invaluable to the participant and their friends. There is almost always some down time in long events, and you want your child to be able to refuel, relax, and enjoy the time. Suggestions include:
      • Snacks and drinks
      • Cash (including small bills and coins) for concessions
      • Cell phone charger with cord and portable battery in case an outlet isn’t available
      • Pad and pencil or pen
      • Items for entertainment: deck of cards, small game, coloring books and colored pencils/crayons
      • Gum, candy, or mints
      • Blanket
      • Plastic bags for wet or dirty clothes or equipment or trash if a can isn’t nearby
      • Umbrella
      • Jackets
      • Towel
      • Sunscreen
      • Bug repellant
      • Elastic hair bands
      • Bandages, anti-itch cream, and antibiotic cream
      • Scissors (to cut open snack bags, cut a string on a uniform)
      • Disinfectant wipes
      • Hand sanitizer for before and after snacks
      • Spray bottle with water (this feels great on a hot day!)

 

  • Don’t assume that you will be able to run out and pick up something you’ve forgotten. Sometimes during those all day events, there simply may not be time to leave the venue. Parents are often required to help out with responsibilities like working concessions, officiating, judging, scorekeeping, etc. and may need to stay. It’s possible that you may be in a remote location with no quick options available for food or supplies.

 

    • Pick a strategic location for the bags. If you are making frequent trips, you may want to keep the spectator bag in the car. The bags for each person might be kept in the garage or a common household area. If a child is responsible enough, you might consider keeping it in his/her room. Wherever you choose, make sure everyone knows the location and that it always stays in this location.

 

  • Don’t forget the portable chairs. These probably won’t fit in the bag, but you definitely don’t want to forget them if you are headed to an outdoor event.
  • Pack extra supplies and you might just be a hero. We’ve all been there: despite your best attempts at planning ahead, you’ve left without something essential and you’re up a creek without a paddle (at the soccer field without a portable chair, or at the all day theatre tech day rehearsal without any snacks, you get the idea). Bring along extras and help a friend. It’s a great way to contribute to team spirit and build camaraderie.

 

I hope you find this article helpful. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

 

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!

 

 

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!