40 bags in 40 days de-cluttering challenge

Black bag of rubbish

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Tuesday, February 17th is Mardis Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French) and the end of Carnival and a season of excess. For many, a season of excess can mean too much clutter. This is a great time to sign up for White House Black Shutter’s “40 BAGS in 40 DAYS De-cluttering Challenge” starting February 18th. (It lasts until April 4th, and you get Sundays off – just like Lent.) Thousands have participated since 2011 – check it out here!

5 steps using ScanSnap to get organized for taxes

Tax time

It’s already mid-February, and one of the most frequent requests I get from my small business clients is to help them get ready for tax season, which is just around the corner! Here are 5 easy steps you can take to get ready for April 15th with the help of a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner.

  • Scan all your business receipts and save them directly into a Dropbox folder called something like “Business Expenses (Year)”. I like to subdivide my business expenses into folders following the categories used by the IRS on a Schedule C, such as Meals/Entertainment, Supplies, Parking, Contractors, etc.
  • Using the new ScanSnap Receipt software recently released by ScanSnap, you can export the data from your business receipts directly into Quickbooks (if you are using the Windows version) or into a .CSV file (if using a Mac), which is compatible with several accounting software systems, including Quickbooks.
  • If you have email receipts for business expenses, save these as PDFs into the same Dropbox folders using the same categorization method.
  • As your 1099s and other miscellaneous tax forms begin to come in late January and early February, scan them as well and put them in a Dropbox folder called Tax Back Up (Year).
  • Share your relevant Tax and Business Dropbox folders with your accountant – no need to send in shoe boxes of receipts! He or she can only see the data that you have shared with them and nothing else.

That’s it! During the coming year, just make sure to scan your business expenses as they come in, and recreate the same folder categories for the current tax year as you did for last year. You’ll be one step ahead of the game come next tax season!

Evernote: The Power of the Extended Mind

logo-Evernote

This month, I am extremely privileged to have Ray Sidney-Smith as my guest blogger on the topic of Evernote.  Ray is a bonafide Evernote guru, who uses it to enhance his productivity on many levels.  Read on to see how he uses Evernote as his “extended mind”.

The Brain, Memory and GTD

In the late 90’s, long before Evernote was ever conceived, I became interested in the fundamentals of the human mind. I sat for hours rapt in books about the brain’s structure, human and animal behavior, and many of the theories of cognition (the brain’s performance capacity). “Did you know that your brain consumes 20% of your body’s oxygen and blood?” I wryly asked a coworker. “You have taste receptors in your brain,” I practiced repeatedly in the mirror to keep a straight face. I was waiting for just the opportune time to tell a friend at lunch as she put a morsel of food in her mouth. The factoids were endless. I was obsessed with the brain. And more importantly, I was intrigued more by its great limitations. Is it because the brain is made of up 60% fat? Probably not. But the search for why and how to solve this unique problem would plague me for years.

The Development of Cognitive Neuroscience

Source: Wikimedia

Specifically, our brain’s short-term and long-term memories need just the right methods of input engaging with as many different kinds of senses (especially targeting our visual cortex) for us to take things from short-term memory and place them into long-term storage for recall. While I have always had a better-than-average memory, I always wanted it to be better. I studied dozens of different memory techniques, like the memory palace method, but I realized at some point that my mind wasn’t designed for memory in the way that I had imagined. I became fascinated by research on distributed cognition and the possibilities of a technology-facilitated extended mind. I took to writing everything down: in checklists, in journals, in text files on my computer, and calendars. I felt like I was onto something, and I was. Nearly two decades later, I read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, in which John Medina writes about the sensitive environment needed for the mind to remember things. It confirmed my research. At the same time, it took me back to my concern about the fragility of the brain and its capacity to remember only in the most ideal circumstances. I wanted something more dependable. And, I needed a system for being able to support my growing number of tools and places that now made up my extended mind.

In 2001, I happened into a Barnes & Noble and purchased the personal productivity bestseller, Getting Things Done, by veteran coach David Allen. The book’s title spoke to me and so did the first few pages of writing. He talked of externalizing your brain’s thoughts when they come to mind into a “trusted system.” That trusted system couldn’t be your memory, but one facilitated by an external storage–a place outside your head. That system could be paper or digital, but it’s all about getting the ideas out of your head. Why did he suggest this as a core element of the five workflow stages of the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology (see the diagram below)?

gtd-workflow

 

Source: gettingthingsdone.com

 

Simply, Allen said, your mind is for having ideas, not holding ideas. Your brain is really amazing at processing, but it’s really not so great at remembering what you think up and process at the time and place you need those memories. The common example the author gives in his trainings is that you realize the need for new batteries when the power goes out, you pick up the flashlight and it doesn’t work. While, you don’t remember the need when you are at the store after the power outage in preparation of the next, where you could purchase new ones.

Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal, researchers at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels), went so far in their paper, “Getting Things Done: The Science Behind Stress-Free Productivity,” to explain the psychological underpinnings of the core principles of the GTD methodology in 2007 (see the diagram below). Their findings purposefully outlined the faulty nature of the brain’s memory and the virtues of GTD in supporting your personal productivity. Brilliant!

GTD-Heylighen-Vidal-Science-of-GTD

 

Source: cogprints.org

 

But, this takes me back to my original conundrum about the brain and why it’s so important to your understanding of Evernote. Evolution provides us with a good, long time to develop rock-solid memories, no? Why would we forget things so easily and often? Well, I was pleased to learn that this is by design. You see, in the last decade, there has been the birth of a new branch of science called cognitive neuroscience–an interdisciplinary study of the brain, combining parts from neurology, psychology, biology and several other sciences. There is more we’ve learned about the brain since neuroscience has become a field of study than all the combined years of study of the human mind in history! And, one of the concepts we learned is that the brain changes (known as “neuroplasticity”); not just in early childhood development as we grow up, but throughout life and with some degree of control by us. Further, the Transfaculty Research Platform MCN, a joint project of the psychology department faculties at the University of Basel and the Psychiatric University Clinics Basel, has determined that forgetting is an active process in the brain, just as remembering is. We forget because of our ability to change our brain. If it’s not absolutely necessary right now, it’s dismissed. If everything was remembered, nothing could be forgotten. Your brain would become a fixed brick of knowledge and we know that what we know yesterday (“Santa Claus came last night, mommy!”) is not what we know today. Forgetting protects us from delusion and severe mental disorder, in a way. Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to push the boundaries of our memories. However, we shouldn’t try to remember things for which we only need a few times in our life, or that we can put someplace we’re confident we’ll look to find it when needed. My faith in our brains and our need for good systems for our extended minds is so much stronger today for this kind of research.

Brain, Meet Evernote

To live a productive life, we have to focus and that means we have to limit what we remember. Our brains know this by design, but we’ve been trying to force square knowledge into our roundish gray matter. And, that’s where technology can be help particularly well. It can take the stuff we don’t need to remember now–so we can focus–and let us recall that information quickly and conveniently when we need it. The brain need only remember where to access the information, not all the information stored via technology. Let’s take the best of our brains and the best of our technology and merge them together. So, what technology could we do that with? Enter Evernote, the elephant that never forgets.

enote welcome page

 

What is Evernote to Me?

Evernote defines itself as a tool to “save and find everything that’s important to you.” That’s a tall promise! However, I think they do a great job of managing a great deal of the information you’d regularly want to offload from your memory. During the episode, “Evernote All-Star Panel Discussion,” of GTD Virtual Study Group, a podcast for GTD practitioners, each of the panelists were asked to introduce ourselves and define Evernote. As one of the panelists, I said “Evernote is a digital extension of your brain’s memory storage capabilities. If you can think it, Evernote has a way to store it for later and easy retrieval. That’s how I frame Evernote in my mind.” Evernote is a vast part of my extended mind, and hopefully here I can show you how it can be yours too.

The Basics of Evernote

Evernote is a giant box of peace of mind. Do you have a recipe you want to try for a holiday dinner with your family? Save it in Evernote. Do you have a blog post you’re writing with pictures and lots of links (like this one)? Write it in Evernote. Do you have an ebook you found on building a treehouse for the kids? Yup, put that PDF in Evernote. You can set that recipe to pop up a few days before the holiday so it can remind you to grab all the ingredients. You can have your task management system remind you daily to work on that blog post before it’s due. And, you forward via email that PDF ebook to your friend that’s an architect (with promises of copious beer and pizza for his assistance)! In these ways, and so many others, Evernote has you covered because it automagically synchronizes these notes to your computer, mobile tablet and smartphone so it’s with you when you need it.

evernote-signup-screenevernote-account-creation-success

Evernote starts with signing up for a free account by visiting http://evernote.com. Therein, you get 60 megabytes of transfer credit per month to start putting parts of your extended mind into Evernote. You do that most fundamentally by creating a new “note.” This looks similar to a clean sheet of paper, but more functional like a new document in a word processor. You can type (and style, number and bullet-point) text, record audio, drag-and-drop files and pictures, draw freeform, scan business cards and other documents, and clip Web pages with the Evernote Web Clipper browser extension (like you’d clip newspaper articles out of the Sunday Washington Post) into Evernote. The choices are all yours.

evernote-account-screen

A quick review of the account shows how much you’ve used Evernote for the current month, points you to your Evernote “Email Notes to” email address (so you can email directly into Evernote new notes and files), and other functionalities.

  evernote-your-first-note

Evernote Notes

When you visit the Evernote Web interface, you can see that Evernote has given you your first note and provides some helpful instructions. There are three vertical panes to the current Evernote Web interface and from left-to-right the two right panes show your notes and currently-selected note, respectively. Evernote Web beta is currently being tested so this will change the interface but the fundamentals of what I’m discussing here won’t. Here in the rightmost panel, you can manage your individual note. Back in the center column, you can select several notes (i.e., control/cmd+click for multiple, noncontiguous notes, shift+click for a series of connected notes) to manage together. If a note is like an individual sheet of paper, the next level of management would be to put those sheets of paper in a notebook.

evernote-create-new-notebook evernote-new-notebook

Evernote Notebooks

In Evernote, the leftmost pane you’re given the ability to create shortcuts and tags (which I won’t get into in this article), but more importantly to create notebooks. So, keeping with our examples above, I could create new notebooks called Recipes, My Blog and Treehouse. One represents a library of culinary knowledge, another an ongoing workspace for new blog entries and underlying research, and the final is a repository for a specific project that will end where I might put blueprints and supporting documents to share with others. Upon account creation, you have what’s called your “Default Notebook.” If you email something into Evernote via your “Email Notes to” email address, this is where it will go. And, you can direct an email into another note by simply adding “@Notebook” (e.g., @Recipes, @My Blog, or @Treehouse) in the subject line of your email bound for Evernote.

 

evernote-notebook-stack

Evernote Notebook Stacks

So, with several notebooks at your disposal you can now drag one or several notebooks onto another to create your first Notebook Stack. Similar to a physical set of notebooks sitting in a pile, you can create five different notebooks, such as Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert and Beverages, and drag the last four onto Breakfast to create a “Recipes” notebook stack. While you don’t necessarily need stacks, it is one additional way that many Evernote users appreciate the ability to organize their extended minds quickly and easily. One Evernote management tip: if you plan to have project-based notebooks in Evernote, once you have a few completed projects create an “Archived” notebook stack and that way you can tidy up your current view of Evernote. Those completed project notebooks can be pulled out of view, while still be easily accessible for future reference (or as a template for future projects).

evernote-family-of-products

Evernote Everywhere

But, the power of Evernote doesn’t stop at Evernote Web. As I noted earlier, Evernote is available on the major operating systems so you can install it wherever you need your extended mind.

Platforms supported include:

  • Microsoft Windows 8,
  • Microsoft Windows Phone,
  • Apple iOS (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch),
  • Apple Macintosh OS X,
  • Android,
  • BlackBerry,
  • Hewlett-Packard WebOS,
  • Web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Safari all work well), and

evernote-web-clipper

When you are using Evernote to clip Web pages, you can do so by selecting specifically-highlighted text, as well as the whole Web page, article, simplified article and several other filtering options, using Evernote Web Clipper. This fantastic browser extension works in all the aforementioned Web browsers and adds a cool additional benefit of displaying searches of your Evernote notes alongside your Google searches. But Evernote knows how to outclass its competition; it doesn’t end at its own functionality on all your devices.

evernote-other-products

Extending the Power of Evernote

With an ancillary corps of applications that work with Evernote, you can support different areas of your extended mind easily. From saving articles to read later with Evernote Clearly to managing your contacts in Evernote Hello, these additional apps are all available from Evernote. This is not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Evernote’s integrations within the Evernote App Center; if one of the above-pictured Evernote apps doesn’t fit your needs there’s likely one in the App Center that will. There are scanners, Evernote Moleskine weekly paper planners, Evernote Post-It Notes and more in the Evernote Market that are excellent solutions if you have a need in those departments.

evernote-premium-and-business

Evernote Premium and Evernote Business

Speaking of departments, once you have invested in Evernote personally you’ll see how much it starts to support you in your professional world as well. I just started tracking the hundreds of business cards I receive every year in Evernote, because I can annotate each person’s note that I meet for later recall when I’m on the phone with them, or right before I’m about to meet them for lunch. In this way, Evernote starts to amass far more monthly data than the 60MB transfer limit can provide, and that’s where Evernote Premium steps up to the plate. With unlimited uploads and the ability to save notes offline (should you not have Web access available on a regular basis), those are just two reasons you’d want to upgrade to Evernote Premium. And, if you start to convert Evernote users in your company, you might want to upgrade to (or pitch your IT and C-level executives for) Evernote Business so you can work with teams in Evernote.

Final Thoughts on Evernote

While my pursuit of living the good life leads me down an endlessly-intense and thrilling research path into the inner workings of the mind, I hope you don’t have to work so hard. If you want to learn more about the depth with which Evernote can be invested without all the toil, check out Evernote Essentials: The Definitive Guide for New Evernote Users by Bretty Kelly, or How To Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual (which is freely downloadable in PDF and ePub also) by MakeUseOf.com. They’re definitely great resources to get started.

As we come to a close on this journey from studying the mind to forgetting purposefully into Evernote, I leave you with a warning: don’t become a digital hoarder! Create a framework for what is worthy of being saved, and therefore remembered. Not everything deserves saving. Your mental organization, or disorganization for that matter, is what controls your physical world. Typically your physical world will start to show signs of your mental world when it’s either in emotional or logistical turmoil. And, Evernote will reflect that as well. Evernote is part of my extended mind in my trusted system, and I hope that it will be in yours too.

Ray Sidney-Smith is a personal productivity and GTD enthusiast, and the blogger, podcaster and organizer-facilitator behind Two Minute Rule, #ProdChat, ProdPod, Productivity Book Group, GTD-DC Meetup and GTDNYC Meetup, among many other productivity-inspired projects.

The latest, sweetest little ScanSnap

SONY DSC

So I couldn’t imagine what else Fujitsu could come up with to surpass their already amazing line of scanners, when lo and behold, I got an advance sneak peak at their latest product, the iX100 Mobile Wireless Scanner. Yes, mobile AND wireless! This wonderful little scanner (only about 11 inches long, 1.5 inches tall and 14 oz) combines the portability of the S1100 and the wireless capability of the iX500 in one compact package that I can actually put in my briefcase and use anywhere I feel like scanning, including my local coffee shop.

It works like this. The iX100 has a lithium battery that can power the scanner for up to 260 single sided scans. (You can charge it any time by plugging into a USB port or USB charger.) That means no cords at all except when it’s charging and for the initial set-up. In the set-up, which is made extremely easy for both Mac and PC with the included software, the installer will ask if you want to enable wireless scanning. You definitely want to do this!

By turning on the Wi-Fi switch at the back of the scanner, you’ll be able to access your local network. Just follow the software screen instructions and when that is completed, you should be able to scan documents directly to your computer, smartphone or tablet with out plugging in a single cord or wire. You do have to download the free ScanSnap app for your iPhone, Android or other device, of course. And if it can’t find a wireless access point, the iX100 will set up it’s own through something called the Direct Connect mode (don’t even ask me how it does this!) This scanner is also really fast, scanning at 5.2 seconds per page, two seconds faster than the S1100, and almost as fast as the ScanSnap S1300i.

One feature that I was very excited about with the introduction of this latest ScanSnap was the new ScanSnap Receipt application that accompanied it. This has been a long time coming for ScanSnap, and is one of the only things its main competitor had that it did not. Now when you scan a receipt, ScanSnap will recognize it as such, and using OCR, extract the relevant information such as the amount, date, vendor, and even categorize it. It is fairly accurate, and in the event it is not, it is pretty easy to edit the content. All the information can be exported into a CSV file which can be very handy at tax time to hand over to your accountant, rather than a shoe box full of illegible receipts!

All in all, I am very excited to introduce this latest scanner to my business-organizing clients who work out of the office and need to scan documents and business expense receipts on the go. The iX100 is a very welcome addition to the ScanSnap family and I am looking forward to putting it through its paces over the next few months.  If you would like to purchase this scanner or any other Fujitsu ScanSnap, you can do so through my Amazon Shop page here.

A plan for organizing your printed photos

Old photos and photo equipment

This month, I’m very pleased to have Rachel Jenkins, Founder of ScrapMyPix, be my guest blogger on a topic I get asked about a lot – organizing your printed photos! Rachel is my go-to gal when it comes to photo organizing, and I thought she would be the perfect person to give my readers some advice on getting started on this monumental task. 

The hardest part of organizing your printed photos is getting started. It’s one of those nagging tasks that most avoid until they end up wasting hours searching for that one photo for an event or for a school project. And if that’s the precipice that motivates you to organize those plastic bins, let’s make sure you’re investing your time wisely.

I’m going to give you a few tips to help you get started. First off have a large enough work space to lay it all out. I suggest a dining table or large folding table, and don’t worry  – you don’t have to leave it all out till the project is completed. Although for some that might be a motivator.

Collect your supplies….you’ll need a few to make your task a little easier. A pad of sticky notes, maybe some 4×6 index cards, a photo-safe pencil, an archival box to store your organized photos, photo-handling gloves if you want to avoid fingerprints, and a garbage and/or recycle bin. Check your local recycling requirements. In some counties photos are recyclable, and in some they are not.

Relocate all your boxes, envelopes and drawers of photos, framed photos and albums to your work area. If you’re not planning on taking apart old albums to include in this project, you can leave them where they are. The albums I would consider disassembling are the old magnetic ones. Those are the old albums with the sticky pages. They are not archival products and could be damaging your photos.

The next step that goes a long way is a little planning. Think about what you want the end to look like and develop a plan to guide you toward that goal. Do you want to create albums or a photo wall? Or are you looking to digitize your printed photos so you have a backup or a slide show perhaps?

With the end game in mind, you can now create your categories. Will they be chronological or theme-based? This is a personal decision. Chronological order can take longer if you’ve got decades of photos, but if that’s how you recall, it might be your preference. One of the simplest methods is to organize by theme. Again, it’s about how you recall your memories. Theme-based organizing makes it super easy to find a picture of Aunt Jean later. Make your list of the themes that make sense for your family. For instance, one for each of the members of your immediate family, a vacation you take each year, or a holiday you know you’ll have pictures from each year.

Once you’ve got your themes, write each category on a sticky note (sticky surface at the bottom) and spread them out across your workspace. This is where you will start placing your sorted photos. These will also serve as your temporary tab dividers when you’re done sorting for the day. As you process each handful of photos, consider whether it’s a photo worth keeping. It’s okay to throw out photos that are overexposed, underexposed, blurry, duplicates, have people that you can’t identify, or are redundant photos of landscapes from vacations. It’s also okay to add additional themes, remove themes, and combine themes as you work. Organizing your photos is an evolving process.

As you’re sorting, you may want to include identifying information on your photos from the envelopes from which they were removed. Don’t rely on your memory for dates and places, and even people. Use your photo-safe pencil and not ink.

Once you’re done with each session, make another set of sticky notes with your categories for next time. This allows you to file your initial set of photos into your archival box and have a set of stickies to lay out at the start of your next session. Use that first set of stickies as your tabs to divide your photo categories.

A few additional tips I’ve gathered over the years is that everyone has a threshold for productivity and attention. You know your own limits, so set a timer and don’t overdo it. Otherwise you may not be motivated to go back and finish. Ask for help. Family members are a useful and free resource! Just be careful you don’t get caught reminiscing over every photo as it will really hinder your progress. There will be time for that once they’re organized. If you prefer professional assistance to get organized, feel free to contact me to discuss your project and determine if you’d like my help.

RachelJenkinsRachel Jenkins is the founder of ScrapMyPix, LLC, serving MD/DC/VA and virtual clients. She provides photo organizing services specializing in preserving both printed and digital photographic materials.She is a Certified Member of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. You can contact her at rachel@scrapmypix.com or 443-226-9801.

Organizing, storing and sharing your digital photos

3

For many of us, taking pictures on our smartphones and digital cameras has become so easy these days that we often end up with thousands of photos “piled up” in our computers and hand-held devices. To keep them from disappearing into the digital ether, these photos need to be carefully sorted, organized and saved. There are some basic steps you need to take to ensure that this is accomplished properly.

First, make sure that the photos are ones you actually want to keep. Not having to use film anymore makes it ridiculously easy to take as many pictures as you want. However, this doesn’t mean they all need to be saved. If you take a lot of photos on your smartphone, go through them judiciously and get rid of ones that are blurry, crooked, unflattering or downright silly (unless you like silly!) – you don’t need to be cluttering up your phone’s memory with all these unnecessary pics. The same goes for any photos you download from a digital camera’s SD card.

Once you’ve decided on the photos you want to keep, I recommend first backing them up to an external hard drive dedicated solely to that purpose. Hard drives of 1TB usually cost under $100 and are well worth the price for the piece of mind they bring. All you need to do is locate the photo files (JPEGs, TIFFs, PNGs, etc.) that you want to back up, and then drag and drop them into the external hard drive while it’s plugged into your computer. Many hard drives come with automatic backup software that can be scheduled to run when you want it to.

While a local backup device is great, you may want to back up your photos (and other data) offsite in order to keep them safe in the event of a home disaster. There are many options for online backup services, including Carbonite, iDrive, BackBlaze, and CrashPlan, which can run as low as $4 a month. This option is especially important if you have a large number of photos stored on an external hard drive that is right next to your home computer – if one of them goes up in flames, the other one would likely meet the same fate!

Next, there are some great websites dedicated to organizing and sharing your photos (which is really the whole point of taking them). Some of the most popular include Flickr, Photobucket, and Shutterfly. These come with great photo editing capabilities, excellent organizational tools, privacy options, and (often) the option to order prints. You can download as much as 1TB worth of photos for free on Flickr, and then share them with photographers all over the world.

Finally, the most common way of taking photos for the amateur photographer – on your smartphone – is also probably the most commonly used way of storing and organizing them. Apps like iPhoto/Photostream and Google+ Photos (formerly Picasa) are a quick and easy way to keep all your photos organized and available at your fingertips (literally). Each has its pros and cons, but it really comes down to whether you are a Mac/iPhone user or a PC/Android user, and whether you are comfortable with using Google+ (you do have to have an account to use their free Auto Backup system).

So it’s really not too hard to organize your digital photos. Now if you could only get all those physical photos lying in boxes in your attic or basement organized…but that’s the topic of my next blog!

The importance of a home inventory

House Items

I never realized how important it was to have a good home inventory system until earlier this month, when two days of torrential rains in the DC area overcame our sump pump and French drains and we ended up with four inches of water covering our entire basement. Everything on the floor was soaked, and we had to move the entire contents of our basement to the back yard while we frantically tried to drain the water out. Not fun! We were lucky in that nothing really valuable was destroyed (except for a few sentimentally valuable things like some art that our sons made when they were kids), but we still had a lot of accounting to do in order to get reimbursed by our insurance company for the cost of replacing the numerous items that were ruined.

That’s when I wished I had kept better records of all the purchases, both large and small, that we had made over the years. Up to that point, I had been meticulous about keeping receipts for our big-ticket purchases such as electronics, large furniture (sofas, armchairs, etc) and artwork, but not so much with smaller things like area rugs, less expensive furniture, and other accessories. If numerous smaller items are destroyed in a fire, flood, hurricane or other home disaster, the dollars can really add up when insurance reimbursement comes into play.

Nearly 1,000 homes burn down every day (mostly due to kitchen fires), and other disasters strike on a regular basis. Most people (including myself) would not remember what they had in their homes – especially under the duress of a catastrophic event.

The simplest way to do a home inventory is to start by walking around with a smart phone and videotaping or photographing the contents of each room. If you have purchase receipts for any of these items, go ahead and scan them into your computer. Then save them in an application like Dropbox or Evernote, along with the photos you took and any other notes (such as serial numbers).

There are also some great free apps out there to help you catalog your possessions. One example is Know Your Stuff, provided by the Insurance Information Institute, which is available for both iPhone and Android. Several insurance companies have their own apps, including Allstate Digital Locker, State Farm HomeIndex and Liberty Mutual Home Gallery. Each of these apps can be used even if you’re not one of the insurance company’s customers. There are numerous other home inventory apps – many of them free – including ones designed specifically for cataloguing books, clothing, wine and more. Whatever system you end up using, it is vital to have your inventory stored in the cloud: in the terrible event that your entire home is destroyed, you will need to have access to that information from somewhere other than your home computer.

While the task of creating a home inventory may seem daunting, just take it one room at a time and try to get it done over the course of a few weeks. You will thank yourself if the need ever arises – which I hope it won’t!

Making password management a breeze

LastPass

Passwords are a necessary burden for anyone who sends or stores sensitive information on the web – and in this age of hackers and internet viruses, using the same password for everything just doesn’t cut it anymore. The more complicated the password, the more secure it will be. But the more complicated it is, the more likely it is to be forgotten!  Statistics show that 73% of people use the same password for multiple sites, and that it takes 3 minutes to crack the average password.  That’s why it’s so important to have secure passwords, and to change your passwords every 6 months or so.  But how can you keep track of them all?  Should you use spreadsheets? Coded documents?  Hidden notebook pages in a file drawer? All of these work up to a point, but you still have to remember to write the new password down when you change it, and come up with something secure as well.  I have found a solution to all of this with my favorite password manager, LastPass.com.

LastPass is an extremely secure password manager that can do so much more than just store passwords for you.  It also generates new passwords, manages profiles for online shopping sites, and enables you to create secure notes for just about anything you can think of, from your driver’s license number to your insurance policy account details to your home WiFi login info to … well, you get the idea.

To get started, go to LastPass.com, download the free software and create a username and password.  This password is the only one you will ever need to remember.  But you absolutely need to remember it, as LastPass does not have access to it.  Fortunately, you can save a password hint which LastPass will email to you upon request.

Once you set up your account, LastPass will appear as an add-on in your browser, and any passwords you already have stored on your computer can now be imported into LastPass. These passwords are then stored in your unique and secure web-based LastPass vault.

When you go to a password-protected website, LastPass will prompt you to save your username and password; then it will autofill this information when you return to that site (although it will always ask first if you want to have that information autofilled).  The LastPass password generator appears when you’re creating an account or updating an existing one, so you can have unique passwords that follow best security practices. LastPass also alerts you to weak and duplicate passwords as you’re logging in to your accounts, so you can generate new ones immediately.  If you use more than one computer, just download LastPass on each computer and log in with the same account. Your data is securely synced automatically, so you always have access to your latest updates.

One of my favorite Last Pass features is the ability to create secure notes for information like credit cards, insurance policies, memberships, WiFi logins, passports, driver’s licenses, and more.  You can even attach documents and images to your secure notes, and LastPass backs up your files automatically, so you always have a secure digital copy.

If you want to have your LastPass information also available through an app on your smartphone or tablet, you can pay $12 a year for their Premium service – well worth the money in my book.

When news broke recently of the wide-reaching security vulnerability known as the Heartbleed bug (which affects OpenSSL, used by a majority of websites to send and store data securely), I was greatly relieved to learn that LastPass was safe from this virus.   I have been using LastPass for over a year now, and I honestly don’t know what I would do without it – there are only so many passwords anyone’s brain can keep track of!  Start using LastPass now, and you’ll never have to memorize another password again.

Are you ready to go paperless?

Paperless creative sign

“Going Paperless”…it’s such a catch phrase these days.  Everyone talks about “going paperless”, but what we really mean is going paperless, not paper free.  We will never completely get rid of paper, nor should we.  Paper is useful for so many things and still has an important place in our world, but the wrong paper can completely distract you from the important things that need to get done.  Think about your desk  at home or in your office – is it covered in paper?  Is non-essential paper like catalogs, receipts from the dry cleaners and fast food joints, and credit card offers covering up important paper like bills that need to be paid and school forms that need to be filled out?

If:

  • Paper comes in faster than you can process it;
  • You don’t know what to do with the paper you have;
  • You can’t find what you need when you need it;

You may want to think about moving towards a more paperless lifestyle.

Just some of the benefits of going paperless include:

  • Increased productivity (stop wasting time looking for lost paper)
  • Cost savings (in terms of printer ink, toner and paper)
  • Helping the environment  (the average American uses up 6 40 foot tress a year in paper!)
  • Peace of mind (less paper means less to deal with!)

Start by reducing the amount of paper that comes into your home in the first place.

  • Think hard about what unnecessary paper you bring in yourself (flyers, coupons, receipts, etc.)
  • Unsubscribe from magazines you don’t read or read them on your tablet or computer.
  • Use apps like PaperKarma to unsubscribe from catalogs and websites like www.optoutprescreen.com to get off junk mail and credit card offers.
  • Switch to paperless billing and online bill pay.
  • Download your user manuals to PDF from sites like Retrovo.com
  • Save documents as a PDF instead of to paper (save yourself paper and ink!)

Next, you may want to invest in a dedicated document scanner. There are quite a few out there now, but my favorite is the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which comes in several different versions. All are easy to use, work interchangeably with Macs and PCs, and scan directly to apps like Dropbox, Evernote, GoogleDocs, and a lot more. They even scan photos at 600 dpi resolution directly to iPhoto.

Start by scanning all the new paper that comes in that you don’t have control over – medical bills and records, car service records, and school reports.  You can also use your smart phone for scanning smaller items like business cards and receipts on the go.  All of these can be saved into cloud-based services such as Dropbox or Evernote, or onto your hard drive in the Documents folder. Just be sure to back up your computer regularly if you keep your files this way.  Then, just recycle the paper or shred if it has any personal information on it.  Of course, keep the original of anything that is considered a vital document of course, like birth or marriage certificates, citizenship records, or Social Security cards!

Once you stop and really look, you will find that so much of the paper that comes into your home or office is extraneous and distracting.  With the powerful combination of the internet, easy-to-use scanners, and the cloud, you can get rid of your piles, and start focusing on the things that really matter.

Spring Cleaning: Refresh Your Life and Home on RadioMD

I was very happy to be the featured guest on RadioMD.com with Dr. Pamela Peeke and Michelle King Jobson on March 27th, 2014 discussing ways to declutter your home for spring!  Click here to listen to the interview.

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