Year for Productivity Session 17: Cloud Storage: Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Terabytes

year_productivity_graphic_17Discussing software, hardware, apps, or Web services is difficult as new players, programs, devices, and features appear daily.   The target moves so fast it is impossible to hit – what one writes is out-of-date almost immediately.   The topic of cloud storage is one example.

So this discussion will be fairly brief, provide links to some recent articles, and focus more on factors to consider while choosing cloud storage services.   Factors to consider include cost, security, reliability, integration with other services, and features.

Cost is a no-brainer.   Since the audience for this blog are primarily librarians and academics,  we will not discuss enterprise cloud storage.   So you will want to look at the services that are free or have reasonably-priced tiers for individuals.   There are plenty of these to choose from, see some of the comparison articles for examples.

Security is another factor to consider,  and the most well-known services are not the most highly rated for this feature.  Will your account be vulnerable to hackers?   You are better off not putting files in the cloud that must be secure.  Some services pay more attention to security than others,  including the lyrically-named Spider Oak.  Crystal Renfro covered the security issues and related resources well in a previous post.

Is there one information ecosystem you are particularly comfortable working in?   Most of them now have their own clouds,  including Skydrive for Microsoft, Google Drive, and iCloud for Apple.  However,  some of the ecosystem-agnostic services such as Dropbox are easy to use as they show up in your list of folders.

For a deeper level of integration, there are Web services such as Hojoki that allow you to work across your personal cloud.   Hojoki currently can work across Box, Delicious, DropboxEvernote, Github, Google Drive, RSS, Trello, and more.  With Hojoki you can keep track of your accounts and activities on the different web services.

Features offered change frequently.   What service you choose depends partly on what you are looking for.   Using a free cloud storage service makes sense if you want to quickly backup files you use often and want to access from different devices.   If you need a lot of storage,  for example if you want to backup and access a lot of large multimedia files,  you will wind up paying for more gigabytes.   In that case, given how cheap storage devices have become,  you might want to just buy a terabyte or more portable hard drive that is both accessible and more secure.

Since cloud storage is an ever changing topic,  what sources should you follow most?   A blog we have recommended before,  Ask Bob Rankin,  has good coverage of this as well as other technology topics and is written for the layperson rather than the computer professional.   At least one friend who is a computer professional has said Rankin knows his stuff.   Wikipedia, as usual, has the most comprehensive comparison of online backup services.   PCMag and CNET,  among others,  have daily emails as well as searchable sites one use to useful items.   And of course a web search will turn up lots of articles/blog posts on the topic.   I often use Duck Duck Go as my search engine of choice.   It doesn’t index as many Web pages as Google,  but tends to produce more relevant results at the top and clearly labels as such any official sites matching the search.   For specific articles please see below.

Have not heard of any providers that specifically focus on features geared towards academic providers in the US, although Knowcations seems to be such a network being developed in South Africa for African and European academics.  Many of the research and reference management tools have web storage attached, however, such as OneNote and Skydrive, Mendeley, Zotero, Evernote, and many more.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

1.  Do you use cloud storage for backup?

2.  If so, comment on which service you chose and why.

3.  If you do not have cloud storage, look at some of the comparison articles below.  Choose a service to try and comment below on why you chose it.

Selected Resources:

The Best 10 Cloud Storage.  Despite the name, this site reviews 50 or so cloud storage services, allows you to filter by storage amount and price, has tips and reviews, and more.

Comparison of Online Backup Services.  Wikapedia article mentioned above.

Nine Free Cloud Backup Services.  One of the articles from Ask Bob Rankin.  See also his Is Cloud Storage Secure.

Personal KM: Searching My Clouds.  Article discusses two services for managing multiple cloud accounts.  Neither of them are Hojoki and neither handle as many services as Hojoki.

Best Cloud Storage Services that Protect Your Privacy.  July 2013 LifeHacker article.

Five Best Cloud Storage Services.  June 30, 2013 LifefHacker article that polled readers on not just free storage, but  features such as availability, multi-platform support, security, app integration, and more.


Link Roundups #11

western saddle with a lasso on it


Evernote for Scientists: Mastering the Electronic Lab Notebook. One of the few posts I’ve seen on Evernote for the sciences and for academic research.

Microsoft Unwraps Big OneNote Update for Android, iPad and iPhone.  Look and feel the same across devices in the new OneNote – which is one thing I wish Evernote would do better.

Secure Android Smartphone on Public Wi-Fi Hotspots with PureVPN Android App.  Posting this mainly as a reminder that public Wi-Fi hotspots are really insecure and can be used for identity theft.  Please make the effort to be more secure with this or a similar app.

Researching the sessions for the Year of Productivity course has opened my eyes to the importance of attention and how finite a resource it is.  There is a series on TNT called Perception, about a neuroscientist who is himself a paranoid schizophrenic.  The July 9th episode was about cognitive blindness, how people can miss something important, including murder, if their attention is distracted.  I was amused at the topic because I have been paying so much attention to the concept of attention!

My Google alert on IFTTT today was full of articles about the new iOS app for the services.  A good example is Automation Startup IFTTT’s New iPhone App is Beautiful, Simple, But Still Limited  from TechCrunch.

8 Essential Tools for the Digital Hoarder – nice article from MakeUseOf.  Covers Evernote, Pocket, Pinterest, Calibre, Plex, Synology Disktation NAS, TrueCrypt, and 1Password.

Power Up Your GMail! Another good post from Ask Bob Rankin, with useful tips on using the Settings in GMail.

How Good Are Your Communication Skills?  Quiz follwed by a discussion of communication skills, how to craft a message to clearly and concisely communicate as well as how to actively listed to other people.  From the Mind Tools site, which offers both free and premium content oriented towards business and career skills.

Office Comes to Android, but Microsoft Leaves Tablets Out in the Cold.  Subscribers to Office 365 living in the U.S. can now edit Office documents on certain phones, but not yet on tablets.

Evernote + Hootsuite = A Sweet Collaboration – if you need to disseminate information across social media platforms, this could be really useful.

10 Reasons to Love Microsoft OneNote – She hearts OneNote!  Many of the features she mentions are also available in Evernote, but it is nice to have two such full-featured products available for people to choose from.  Many people prefer OneNote for its infinite levels of hierarchy.

Absolutely brilliant and right-on-target cartoon.

Use Google as a Timer with a Simple Search Command. Brings up the question of how many tools exist out there that no one ever heard of?

Roll Your Own RSS Reader with IFTTT – another article on using IFTTT to handle your RSS feeds. I am using a couple of recipes to send feeds to my email, not a good idea, I found, for high traffic feeds. ;-).

Year for Productivity: Session 16: Mindmapping Revisited


Elisabeth did a wonderful job introducing mindmapping and concept mapping in her post on January 14, 2013: .  I will not reinvent that wheel and suggest that everyone takes a second look at her article to supplement this entry.  Instead, I will offer limited comments and place most of my efforts into providing an extensive bibliography that will point readers to books, articles, blogs and websites that focus exclusively on mindmapping and the various software options out there on the web today.

My personal mindmapping experience is limited to one software program at the moment, though I hope to explore alternatives in the not too distant future.  I first tried mindmapping several years ago with the application called SciPlore.  I liked SciPlore because it was targeted to the science community and was an open environment that asked individuals to join them in offering enhancements.  SciPlore is no more; it transformed itself into Docear. Docear is still academically focused, currently being enhanced significantly by several German academics who have grant funding for their work.  I’m impressed by the comprehensive plans they have to make Docear a one-stop shop for supporting the academic research process.

The more I create mindmaps in my work, the more frequently that I see further applications where mindmapping would help me.  I have used them to organize the recruitment process for graduate students for our library board, to capture the brainstorming comments from a meeting, and to compare the benefits and limitations of several different software options that another committee was investigating.  All I needed to understand was how a parent node, sibling node and child node all related to one another and I was able to create a simple map within minutes.  But there is much more power in mindmapping that what I am using with my simple maps.

Power mappers tend to map practically everything in their paths.  They have several techniques that are useful to keep in mind when we begin creating mindmaps for our projects and tasks.  One helpful tip that I’ve seen in several collections of mindmaps is to create one master mindmap that can act as an index to all your other maps.  This can take care of the problem where you can’t quite remember the name of the mindmap you are trying to locate.  Along the same lines, mindmaps can be used to index all the other files and links you have for a particular project.  Take a look at the mindmapping software you have chosen to verify which types of files can be linked to nodes as software capabilities do vary. The more powerful products will allow you to create a project index map and then link your spreadsheets, word documents, articles, images, web links, emails and meeting notes to it for an easy, organized overview of the project.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

  1.  As you go through this week, be aware of opportunities where mindmapping might be used.  Make a note of the situation.  At the end of the week, review your list.  What kinds of features would you need of a software application in order to successfully create maps for your tasks of the week past?
  2. Investigate one or more of the mind mapping applications listed in the Selected Readings.  Does it offer the features that you needed to complete question #1?  Install one application and create a mindmap.


Selected Resources:

Concept Mapping:

The Concept Mapping Homepage

Concept Mapping Resource Guide (doesn’t appear to be updated since 2006)

Concept Mapping Bibliography. (2005)

Novak, Joseph D. and Alberto J. Canas. “The Origins of the Concept Mapping Tool and the Continuing Evolution of the Tool.” Information Visualization (2006) 5, 175-184.

Novak, Joseph D. The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How To Construct Them.

MindMap Libraries:

Biggerplate: is a free library of mindmaps uploaded by mindmap creators in business and education.  With registration, any mindmap can be downloaded and your mindmaps can be uploaded for others.  This is a great resource and a great place to start getting an idea of all the ways mindmaps can be used.

Mind Map Inspiration

Mind Map Art

Mappio: Mind Map Library

Topicscape Mind Maps Directory


Eppler, Martin J. “A comparison between concept maps, mind maps, conceptual diagrams, and visual metaphors as complementary tools for knowledge construction and sharing.” Information Visualization (2006) 5, 202—210.

Okada, Alexandra, Simon Buckingham and Tony Sherborne. Knowledge Cartography: Software Tools and Mapping Techniques. Springer, 2008.

WikIT: An excellent source of information on all types of maps

Best Tools:

Five Best Mindmapping Tools, Lifehacker,  April 21, 2013.

The Mindmapping Software Blog:  Frequently updated reviews of mindmapping software and great blog entries that discuss some of the best ways to maximize their usefulness:

MindMapping Software Reviews

Free/Low Cost Software Options include:

  • FreeMind :  Free Mind Mapping software (writtten in JAVA) for PC or MAC.
    Can only be used by one person at a time. (no simultaneous collaborative work)
  • MindMeister:  Limited free version. Complete version for Academic use only $18/yr.
  • :  A free web application to use for brainstorming with mindmaps
  • Exploratree:   A free web resource where you can access a library of ready-made interactive thinking guides, print them, edit them or make your own. You can share them and work on them in groups too. [beta site]
  • Webspiration :  The online visual thinking, learning and collaboration tool for students, teachers, and thinkers everywhere. [beta site]
  • XMind : Free Open Source mind-mapping tool.
  • Mind42 :  A collaborative browser-based online mind mapping tool.
    ” No installation; Accessible everywhere; Intuitive interface;
    Many node attributes (icons, colors, images, text styles, links);  Collaboration (simultaneous editing);  Easy publishing and distribution of maps”
  • DRichard’s Mindmaps (HTML5 beta) : “This is a prototype of an HTML5 based mind mapping application. It lets you create neat looking mind maps in the browser. Be aware that it is under development and does still lack some essential features. ” (
  • MindManager :  One of the most powerful options, this professional grade product is on the pricey side but has a 30 day free trial.
  • Mindjet Connect : Free, web-based product from the makers or MindManger.
    Allows hyperlinks & fairly extensive notes to be added to nodes.  An export to EverNote is also a nice feature, and a community forum is available.
  • Personal Brain :  The free version provides pretty extensive mindmapping.
  • Visual Understanding Environment  :  Open source from Tufts. ” The VUE project is focused on creating flexible tools for managing and integrating digital resources in support of teaching, learning and research. VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information.” (per site)
  • MindNode Pro (for MAC):  Apps available for purchase for iOS and MAC with sync through iCLOUD
  • Mindomo: Tool for both ipad and android.

MindMapping Communities:


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

How academics use Evernote to make life easier

Evernote LogoThis fall, I will be teaching a new course in the library on using note-taking software, and of course Evernote will be included.   I was just asked the other day how Evernote is different from Dropbox, and I see this question occasionally also on forums.   To be prepared to answer this question when it comes up in the classes, I reviewed my own use of both programs and went looking at how academics and scholars are using Evernote.

My answer to the Evernote/Dropbox question has always been that I use Evernote as a container for all kinds of raw material – the ingredients which I will use to create files.  Files are materials that are well on their way to being in final form, so they are in Word, Excel, or pdf format (or a few others).  Many people do store articles that they are reading in Dropbox, but I don’t – those are stored by Zotero in some mysterious place in the Firefox directory which I don’t pay much attention to (shame, shame!).

Dropbox is fairly orderly, with files stored in folders and retrievable either by my memory of a filename, the approximate date when I saved them, or a Windows Explorer search.  Evernote is a chaotic mix of material in all kinds of media, all thrown in there together.  It’s retrievable by keyword search, tag, notebook, input date, or, in some cases, attribute, like whether the note contains an image.  Tagging is crucial for retrieval in Evernote, but so is the ability to scroll quickly through thumbnails of each note corresponding to the tag or containing the keyword I searched for, rather than opening a file to see if it’s the right one.  A benefit of this is that I often find related notes that are useful to me that I had forgotten about.

And now, here are ways that others use Evernote in academia, in addition to those mentioned by Crystal Renfro in her Year for Productivity post on Notebook Software.  I’ve included students and professors talking about how they use Evernote in their own work, and professors talking about how they see their students using it.

  • Jennifer Carey (blogging as IndianaJen) introduces it to her students early in her history course as a way to collect all their sources. They can easily add web clippings and pdfs but also scan printed documents and add photos, so they can gather sources of all kinds in one place. Because they can easily add urls, it helps beginning students keep track of source information. “Using Evernote for Research,”  Indiana Jen: Education & Technology (and Some History , Feb. 28).
  • Heather M. Whitney, writing at Profhacker,  started a discussion on July 23 about encouraging students to keep lab notebooks in digital form.  In an advanced physics class, only one of her students stuck with Evernote.  There are a few responses to her post, and not much consensus.  Some wonder if manual sketching is part of the learning process. Another suggested that the greater similarity of One Note to paper notebooks makes it easier for students to modify what they have already learned about keeping paper lab notebooks.  “Digital lab notebooks: What works and what doesn’t?” Profhacker at The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/23/2013. 
  • Chris Crockett has posted a summary of contributions from the Astronomers Facebook Group which includes a lot more detail about how working scientists are using Evernote for lab notebooks at AstroBetter (see Evernote for scientists: mastering the electronic lab notebook, 6/2/2013).  Over time, lab scientists appreciate the ability to search digitally rather than whiffle through paper; to share notebooks; and to save all kinds of material together – as long as they have the ability to enter precise handwritten notes.  Showing screenshots to students, or seeing their screenshots, can be particularly useful to see how they are doing what they are doing.  Some of this requires the premium version of Evernote. Though it’s not very expensive, requires students to purchase it, or purchasing it for them, is problematic.  (Use of the Livescribe pen has been mentioned both here and in the above item at Profhacker. I’d love to use this pen, but it’s a more expensive investment than most of the tools I work with.)  Thanks to Mary Axford for catching this rich resource.
  • Historian Liz Covart talks about how Evernote has become her digital filing cabinet, pulling all her material together.  She can now go to security-conscious archives with a device instead of stacks of paper and writing implements, which makes archive staff much happier. “3 Ways Evernote Makes Research Easier: A Historian’s Notes” at Uncommon Placebook –  An Independent Historian’s Blog, 2/13/2012.
  • Adam Green has lots of very specific suggestions of how to keep notes organized in Evernote; see “My Tribute to Evernote: A Student’s Guide” at his blog The Flannelboard: Theology, Tech, Culture (3/24/2012).  Green has great suggestions for how to keep notes in order; for example, he links them and creates tables of contents for them.  He has a great screenshot of the table of contents he made for an extensive set of notes on a book, organized by chapter. He uses numbers at the beginning of the notes to keep them in order. He also describes a method for uploading annotated pdfs into Evernote so that the annotations are saved and synced. He explains why he prefers this to using Evernote’s own Skitch.  (Since I always have trouble ordering things the way I want them in Evernote, I have used Evernote as a first catch-all on the fly, then used OneNote to process information that I needed to work on further, rather than just keep for quick retrieval.  This process is important to me, because it forces me to review information I collect, rather than just letting it moulder – but it wouldn’t work for everyone).
  • How to Write a Paper Using Evernote” at The Wandering Academic (Greg Clinton) has written up a detailed 13-step process for producing a paper, from creating a new notebook through using a citation manager to add references, creating a table of contents, adding substance, and turning the raw material into a draft.  Clinton suggests including administrative information in your final notebook on where you submit it, feedback you receive (comments, grade, etc.), and a copy of the assignment sheet.
  • James L. Smith takes the view that less organizing offers more serendipitous discovery, however, at Fluid Imaginings: Reflections on and Of Academic Life.  In “Delving the Digital Sack” (7/13/2013), Smith makes a case for the useful re-discovery that occurs from browsing through larger numbers of loosely organized items.  Instead of using many tags and notebooks, Smith relies on keyword searches and fewer, broadly organized notebooks.  He feels he has benefited from the messiness of being “open to random discoveries when one does not entirely know what one is looking for.”
  • Research isn’t the only task in academics’ workflow.  Shawn MIller, an academic technology consultant, wrote about various academic administrative tasks that can be facilitated by Evernote (“Take a Minute to Collect Your Thoughts with Evernote,” Profhacker in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/17/2010).  Miller’s post includes useful organizing ideas, complete with excellent screenshots, for people who keep work and personal projects in Evernote, and he points out the utility of emailing material to Evernote when working on group projects.  This can include research, but grant writing and committee work are also types of work that involve important email components.  Conference travel can also be organized in Evernote.  (Mary reminds me that you can pre-organize material that you email to Evernote  using tags, notebooks, and reminders:  see Evernote’s help articles “Emailing into Evernote just got better“).
  • PhD student Julio Peironcely has even more ideas for using Evernote at conferences. Peironcely has noticed how few people give out handouts these days, so he stores digital photos of posters and business cards in Evernote, along with notes about the presenters and conversations he has with them and any actions he has agreed to take.  Thanks to Evernote’s OCR, you can search for text in the photos of the posters.  See “Get a Second Brain with Evernote for Science” at Next Scientist.
  • I attended ACRL with several colleagues from the Kennesaw State University library.  At and after the conference, I uploaded photos I took of posters as well as everyone’s post-trip report. This notebook has been shared so that anyone at the library can see what I saw at the conference and can read all the trip reports.  It’s not organized as well as I would like – now I can try out some of the tricks I learned reading these suggestions

I’d like to hear from those of you who use Evernote about how you use it in research, teaching and other academic work.  What have you tried?  What works?  What doesn’t?

Year for Productivity Session 15: Current Awareness – or, Keeping Up with the Einsteins

year_productivity_graphic_15Those doing academic research for publication not only have to be aware of past publications in their field, they need to know what is being published now.  They need tools for current awareness.  One can do this by searching the appropriate databases every time that database is updated, of course.   Doing so requires that one be aware of the update schedule for that database and being a person of fearsome organization.  Wouldn’t it be nice if this process was automated?

You, my clever reader, already know or have guessed that it is.  It began years ago when databases allowed users to save searches and provide an email address.  When the database is next updated, an email is automatically sent with new items matching the search.  Alerts can also be created that notify the researcher when a new issue of a journal is published, and includes the table of contents (TOC) for the issue.

This is still how many people keep up-to-date with research.  But for various reasons, some people don’t like it.  Some find it clutters up their inbox too much.  Some don’t like handing out their email address to all and sundry.

When I ask graduate students if they have ever heard of or used RSS, I am always amazed at how few have.  RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and is a way of staying up to date with changes to a website – in practice, with updates to databases or journal TOCs as well. Most major news outlets offer feeds, as do many governments, as well as intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.  RSS feeds require feed reader software, but do not clutter up your inbox, are read on your own schedule, and require you to subscribe to a feed, but not hand over your email address.

If you follow only a few feeds, you can set them up in your browser (see some of the links in the selected readings).  Otherwise choose an RSS reader software.  As usual, Wikipedia has the most in-depth look at feed aggregators, though as is often the case, the sheer numbers they cover are a bit mind-numbing.  The most widely used software in the world was Google Reader, which the company shut down as of June 30th, 2013.  If you are new to using RSS, this has the odd effect that now there are lots of articles/blog posts published in the spring and summer of 2013 discussing the merits of various readers.  Just Google (oh, what delightful irony) “alternatives to google reader” to find one quinzillion articles on the topic.  So far, Feedly seems to be the most commonly-mentioned alternative, and it does have mobile apps available.

So how to know if a website (including blogs) or databases have RSS alerts available?  The most common indication is the orange curved stripe icon to the right. rss_icon_2  Clicking on that will give you the URL of the feed that you can add into your aggregator.  Most databases will generate a feed URL for searches, and some for journal TOCs.  Note that on this blog’s top page you will see RSS feed icons for subscribing to the blog posts or the comments.  If a web page doesn’t offer an RSS feed, you can create one using a tool like Page2RSS, which will “will check any web page for updates and deliver them to your favorite RSS reader”.

Finding the feed for a specific journal is pretty simple.  You can use a web search engine to search for ‘journal name’ and ‘rss’.  There is also a service called JournalTOCs, which has the feeds for 22,271 journals from 1881 publishers (as of this date).  CiteULike Current Issues is next, with over 13,000 journals.

One advantage to Feedly, besides that it offers a mobile app, is that it has a channel in the task automation service IFTTT (see my previous session on IFTTT).  So if you are interested in a web site or database that offers RSS feeds but not email alerts, you can use IFTTT to have feed items sent to your email, and even customize it to match certain keywords.

Another advantage to RSS feeds is that you can add feeds to a website if you can embed the feed.  Librarians who use the popular LibGuides software for creating research guides know that it allows you to easily embed feeds into guides.  Blogging aggregators, such as Science Blogging, use feeds to locate headlines and links for recent articles from popular blogs onto a single page.

Another useful solution for current awareness are social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Diigo, both of which have IFTTT channels.  For example, anything I save to Delicious goes to one of my notebooks in Evernote.  There are also other bookmarking tools that are set up for academic researchers, such as CiteULike.  Social bookmarking for academia has been folded into reference management software such as Zotero and Mendeley, because they allow one to add records for websites as well as citations to articles and books.  Delicious, by the way, has robust support for RSS feeds.  See, for example, the Social Bookmarking page of my Current Awareness Tools guide.  The box in the upper right not only is an illustration of embedding feeds in LibGuides, but of creating an RSS feed in Delicious from a specific user and specific tag.  So when I manually save a site to Delicious using the “research managment tools” tag, it shows up on the LibGuide in the box with the RSS feed.

As always with a discussion of technology, the only constant is change.  For this discussion, the death of Google Reader was a vivid illustration.  It also illustrates the beauty of standard file formats, as both Google Reader and Feedly allowed saving your feed subscriptions to a standard file format, OPML,  which could be exported from one and imported into the other.  Now, if only that would happen more with PDF annotations.

Selected Readings

Chromium Project (2013). Subscribing to Feeds.  Accessed July 21, 2013.Current Awareness Tools –  Accessed July 21, 2013.  My guide to RSS and social bookmarking.

Common Craft (2007).  RSS in Plain English.  THE video (3 minutes, 45 seconds) explaining the basics of RSS.  Uploaded April 2007, accessed July 21, 2013.

Mozilla Firefox: RSS Feeds and Live Bookmarks –  Article on how to use Live Bookmarks to read RSS feeds in Firefox.  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Opera Mail Tutorial:  Using Newsfeeds and Newsgroups.  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Sorrel, C (2012).  Five Ways to Replace Safari’s RSS Reader in Mountain Lion.  Published July 31st, 2012, accessed July 21st, 2013.  Discusses how to handle RSS with the Mac’s Safari browser and alternative RSS readers.

Use RSS Feeds in Internet Explorer –  Accessed July 21, 2013.

Williams, G.  (2013).  How to Send an RSS Feed to Your Email AccountProfHacker, June 18th, 2013, accessed July 21, 2013.

For Further Exploration and Insight

(1)  Select an RSS feed reader if you do not already use one.

(2)  Make a comment answering the following questions:

Are you a new user?

Which reader did you choose?

Name a feed that you subscribe to.






Affluenza, anyone?

When I began this miniseries reviewing self-help books on organizing your physical surroundings, I thought I would organize the posts according to how the books deal with clutterers; that is, with whether a book prescribes one right way to achieve neatness and order, or divides the world into types such as creatives vs analytics, or identifies some more complex set of social, biological, and/or cognitive forces at work.

However, as I got further into these books, I discovered that while almost all address de-cluttering to some degree, some of them only address de-cluttering, or reducing the number of physical objects in one’s space.

This post will deal with this aspect of getting organized, and the different approaches exemplified by these books.

There are excellent reasons to begin with reducing the amount of stuff first:

  • “The average three bedroom home has 350,000 things in it” according to Laura Nakone, Organizing for Your Brain Type, 2005.  (emphasis mine)
  • Without reducing the amount of physical objects, organizing can just be moving around masses of goods that aren’t used, that are too voluminous for the space, and that will  eventually become problematic again due to continued acquisition.  According to
  • If someone is acquiring without regard to considerations of space, the problem will certainly arise again
  • Some understanding of cause is required to undertake proper solutions and prevent recurrence of organizational problems.
    • does the person (or people) involved lack organizing skills?
    • is the person bored by the routines of keeping things organized?
    • does the person have trouble deciding how to properly dispose of things, or lack the time to do so?
    • are there emotional issues at take, such as symbolic attachments or fear of scarcity?
    • is the problem an alternative cognitive processing system that has been overwhelmed by the mass of objects made possible by modern affluence?
    • is the problem chronic, or has it been brought on by en event such as consolidation of households by marriage or inheritance; growth of a family; other drastic changes of circumstance where someone hasn’t been able to adapt quickly and decisively?

Depending on the cause, the situation can be addressed by disposing of excess things and organizing the rest, by teaching the person a system they can adopt, by developing a system in partnership with the person, or by helping them make decisions.  However, setting up a standard organizing system for someone who has trouble making decisions about what to discard is not likely to work.

Most of these books define clutter somewhere near the beginning.  In general, clutter is stuff that gets in the way of accomplishing desired purposes; hence, it can be mental or emotional, though I am dealing only with physical clutter as the starting point.  One can think of information overload as mental clutter and negative stress as emotional clutter.

As I read through this literature, I was struck by the similarities in the discussion of chronic struggles with too much stuff and ongoing struggles with too much weight.  Both have grown in magnitude in the last 30 or so years (sticking to the US); in both cases, the solutions seem obvious yet are very difficult for many people to follow in the long term; some people follow common-sense advice successfully and others go through cycles of finding determination, adopting a new organizing system or diet, adhering to it for a while, and slipping back into old ways; and both have spawned industries that include self-help books; TV shows; coaches, assistants, and organizations; private companies (storage and file systems for the organizing industry; large-sized clothing and furniture, among others, for the weight industry); and health sectors (much smaller for organizational problems, limited, as far as I know, to some specialists dealing with ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and hoarding, which I have seen classified in several ways as a mental health issue).  And then, of course, there is shame as a motivator.  I won’t go further with this, but it certainly has made me wonder about the parallels.

Now, on to the books.

Jeff Campbell’s 1992 Clutter Control is a straightforward example of the traditional approach.  “When in doubt, throw it out” and “use it or lose it” are some of the Campbell’s rules.  Campbell, of The Clean Team, believes that clutterers (my term, for lack of a better) don’t know how to organize.  They know that they should get stuff out of the way and have garage sales, but they don’t know how to get to those endpoints.  Half the book explains how to sort and half offers suggestions for specific issues such as keys and photos (hence, half the book is in organizing, not de-cluttering, territory).

clutter control

So, if you have too much disorganized stuff and no idea how to make decisions about what to keep, a book like this could help.  One suggestion I found useful was number 6: pick a number and stick with it.  Some people feel compelled to stockpile certain items just in case – for me, it’s padded mailing envelopes.  Campbell recommends deciding how many is enough – three should do it for me – and never keeping more than that number.  When I use one, I can save the next one that comes in.

Let Go of Clutter, Harriet Schechter, Mcgraw-Hill, 2001  letgoclutter

In contrast to Campbell’s just-do-it, one-size-fits-all approach, Schechter thinks it’s important for people to understand why they have too much stuff and to stop blaming themselves before they start working on clearing. Let Go of Clutter is a workbook with exercises readers can fill in, working through their own issues.

This was the first book I looked at that discussed the difference between organizing and decluttering: Schechter specifically tells readers that this is not an organizing book.  Organizing books too often help people “putter with the clutter” and may even add to the problem when people run out and buy oodles of organizing supplies they won’t end up using.

Schechter guides us to think about the past, present and future of cluttering behavior.  Past addresses why letting go is difficult. Here she attempts to de-stigmatize clutter issues, seeing what we define into this realm as partly socially and culturally defined.

She starts with clarifications:

  • Cleaning is removing dirt
  • Decluttering is reducing the amount of things
  • Neatening is straightening, tidying, and/or putting things away to give the appearance of orderliness (note that it may not actually be orderliness
  • Organizing is putting things in a logical order for the purpose of making it easy to relocate them

Schechter points out that some decorating styles, such as country or Victorian, are almost defined by large numbers of objects crowded into space.  While minimalists may experience them as cluttered,  many people who find them beautiful, even comforting.  Thus, there are both social and personal aesthetic elements of how clutter is defined.  Clearly there is a continuum , and there is at least one clutter and hoarding scales used by professionals which attempts to distinguish blockage of daily functioning and health issues from aesthetic considerations: see resources at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization  (I found a copy of their Clutter – Hoarding Scale at the National Association of Social Workers which I was unable to access at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization).  Hence, clutter is not some sheer quantification of objects owned, but the relationship of objects, space, and the ability to accomplish functions and reach goals (we don’t normally call rich people clutterers because they usually have enough space to accommodate large amounts of “stuff”, and if someone was rich enough and influential enough, the house may eventually be called a museum.  (Think Sir John Soane – read the Wikipedia article on the museum, or take a video tour.)

In the present, Schechter recommends steps for satisfying results:

  • Visualize desirable outcomes (for example, being able to have guests drop in without embarrassment)
  • Make plans for visible results so that whatever activity you undertake will not feel futile (for example, spend an hour  de-cluttering one area, rather than dispersing your efforts widely.  In an hour, you will have more impact in a limited area).
  • Reward yourself (just don’t add to your problem by buying more stuff)

There’s a separate chapter on the topic of paper, which is what Schechter calls “condensed clutter.”  A foot high stack of paper, she says, could contain a thousand pieces of paper – potentially 1,000 separate decision to make!  (I knew there was a reason this is my weakest point).  She acknowledges that some people have organized piles, but goes on to talk about how to sort and file, including how to use a file index.  This might help people who have never had much success with filing systems.

Another chapter deals with “sentimental clutter” – those items that evoke strong emotions, whether positive or negative.  Schechter differs from some consultants who advise only keeping objects that inspire positive feelings. She recommends inventorying everything, noting what kind of emotion each object or collection evokes and how strong the reaction is.  You keep only those that are the strongest and most special, whether sad or happy.  For the rest, you might keep images, and she has a chapter on photos.

The final section, on your clutter future, deals with staying at your clutter comfort level.  This means developing the ability to be mindful when shopping (like not doing the grocery shopping when you are hungry if you are dieting?).  The other aspect of the future is maintenance of the clutter level, and final chapter on mental clutter suggests effective list-making as a way to stay on top of things.

Cut the Clutter and Stow the Stuff, Lori Baird, Rodale, 2002  Cut clutter

One of the most interesting things about Baird’s approach is that she classifies everyone in terms of their relationship with physical objects – not just the “problem” people.  She also looks at how different types of people interact.  Most clutter and organizing books are directed at the people with the problem – the ones who are not neat, and who therefore not only blame themselves but who are blamed by others.  Baird asks, what happens when an Accumulator partners with a Concealer?  Where others see a cluttered physical environment in terms of one person who needs to be reformed, Baird describes two people with different ways of relating to the physical objects in their environment.

She outlines a five-step process (QUICK) for dealing with these objects.  The pre-step is to identify your reasons for wanting to get rid of any excess – not other people’s reasons; yours.


Quantify:  what do you have, and how much?  What space do you have?  Once you know this, you can start imagining what life would be like without some of it.  When people work together at this stage, curiosity is more important than judgement: “What meaning does this have for you?” rather than “Surely you can toss this ugly [insert name of object]”

Unload Bairs has creative suggestions in case doing this all at once is too overwhelming.  For example, work in increments of 30 minutes in one area, or remove 5 things every time you walk into a room.

The final three steps (isolate, contain, and keep it up) belong to the next post on organizing, so I’ll save those for then.

The last two books for this week embody pure process approaches, where the focus is not on organizing at all, but on the idea that many of us live amid layers of objects from stages of our pasts.  Many of these are unnecessary as we move forward, and indeed they may keep us tethered to past patterns which are now undesirable.  However, we have emotional attachments to the stuff which makes it hard to let go.  Authors of this kind of book never tell you to get rid of things you haven’t used in a year; they will tell you to look inside to understand why you have needed (or thought you have needed) these things until now, to the point where you are tripping over them or renting space for them.  These are books for people who have persistently failed to reduce the amount of things they live with, despite a desire to do so; they are not books for people who just don’t know where to recycle old electronics, and they won’t help much with ordinary paperwork (sentimental papers are another matter: old letters, family documents, etc.)

When Organizing Isn’t Enough: S H E D Your Stuff, Change Your Life, Julie Morgenstern,  shedSimon and Schuster, 2008.

 Morgenstern, who wrote Organizing from the Inside Out and Time Management from the Inside Out, has now produced this for people whose accumulation of possessions has taken them beyond the point where organizing will help.  It’s specifically meant for people moving to new stages in their lives.  As distinct from routine decluttering, S H E D is “a transformative process for letting go of things that represent that past so you can grow and move forward” ( 7).  The process begins with naming the themes from your recent past and foreseeable future.  Understanding these will help you discard but only in line with “self-discovery and healthy growth.”

According to Morgenstern, de-cluttering to get organized, without understanding of these identity issues, often doesn’t work because objects fulfill existential needs.  The objects will be replaced if the reasons and feelings are not identified, and the relationships with the objects understood.  Morgenstern says organizing is a process of identifying priorities and finding ways to access the most important things, and this can work when existential purpose has been scrutinized and physical environment aligned with the current theme.

The first two steps of S H E D fall within the scope of this post:

Separate out what matters for the present and future: what energizes you and has value for what is to come.  Clutter, in this context, is “any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you or depletes your energy” (36).  The “treasures” that you will take forward can be valuable in either of two ways:

  • for their practical contribution to daily life or your new theme
  • as symbolic or sentimental objects which bring joy, inspiration, or energy

You don’t want to do this too quickly; you may need time to reflect to truly understand what objects mean in your life.

If you have collections that reflect important past activities or aspects of your identify, you may want to keep several of the best.  If you have things packed away that you don’t want to give up, how could you bring them, or some representation of them, into the open where they can be enjoyed, rather than burdening you with taking care of space for objects you can’t enjoy?

I suspect the most interesting part of the book is on finding “schedule treasures, ” which deals with habit; however, that belongs to a future post.

Heave the trash  This is familiar stuff: sell, recycle, donate, throw away.

The final elements, Embrace your identity and Drive yourself forward, don’t deal with physical clutter.  I did wonder, however, if our stuff does relate so closely to our identity, what’s to prevent us from accumulating a whole new and overwhelming set of possessions to fit our next identity?  Most books up to this point have included strategies for ending the acquisition habit; that was not included here.

Finally, I looked at Take the U Out of Clutter: The Last Clutter Book You’ll Ever Need (Mark Brunetz and Carmen Renee Berry, Berkley Books, 2010).  Who could resist a title like that?  It’ll be the last book you’ll read about in this post, anyway.

u clutter

If you could imagine the opposite of everything you ever expected to find in clutter control book, this would probably be it.  Here’s the first paragraph:  “Don’t buy another organizer bin!  Don’t plan another yard sale!  Don’t call a local charity to pick up your donations!  In fact, don’t do anything but get a cup of tea and sit with us for a little while!”

Brunetz and Berry promise they won’t make you feel like you have a psychological problem that needs to be fixed, and they point out that in fact there are so many people just like you that a whole industry has grown up around you (well, us).  The manufacturing and retail end of the industry and many of the consultants treat clutter as a problem of method and technology/physical organizing systems.  Brunetz and Berry claim that to be different because they address the inside first, giving clutterers motivation to sustain their ability to work on the clutter.  While others in the industry try to make clutterers dependent on experts, Brunetz and Berry will give us the tools to define our own issues and solve our problems.

Clutter industry experts’ message (according to B&B):

  • your house is a mess, therefore
  • you are a mess, so
  • you couldn’t possibly fix yourself, therefore
  • you need us to fix you!

Brunetz and Berry’s message:

  • you house may be a mess, but
  • you are not your house;
  • yes, we have written a self-help book, but
  • unlike them, we are going to give you tools for necessary internal transformation which will lead to
  • understanding why your house is a mess, which will lead to
  • making good choices about what to get rid of, so that
  • you won’t keep letting stuff back in.

Technologies without deep understanding = lack of motivation = repeated false starts

The first step in achieving understanding is to look at what is really there – just the facts; describe what you see, not what you feel about it (yet).

Then tell the stories of the objects; identify the feelings and assess the stress associated with the objects and stories (or thoughts of getting rid of the objects).

Think about how the objects affect your ability to live the future you want.

Sort the stories, look for patterns, and then retain, release, or rewrite the stories.  Are there stories you now see in a different way, given the current circumstances of your life?

Now you are ready to identify patterns of meaning associated with objects and can assess the places they occupy in your life.  You are also ready to start deciding what to do with them; once you understand how the stories relate you your present, you will have authentic motivation to let go of some of them.

This book may not help you much if you hate filing, but it might be the book for you if you have bundles of letters you haven’t looked at in 15 years, boxes of unfinished craft projects, 257 figurines people have given you since you were eight, or your grandparents’ furniture.

These are just a few of the many books on the subject, but I think they  typify the approaches:

  • direct and no-nonsense, follow the rules and get it done, your feelings are mostly beside the point
  • dismiss self-blame, understand the cultural bases of clutter, you need to be motivated by something more than convention, now that you feel better about yourself here are some ideas, and of course you are especially attached to certain kinds of sentimental objects, here’s what to do about them
  • it’s important to know your type, and once you do, there are actions you should take that work best with your natural inclinations
  • you need a deep understanding of why you have developed these patterns of attachment and behavior, and it takes serious inquiry into your relationships with the stuff you have; ruminate, reflect, allow yourself to feel, and it will become clear.

Whichever of these works best for you, you will still need to organize what you have left and stop even more stuff from coming in.  For the next post, I expect to look at organizing and its systems.  I will revisit parts of two of these books (Schechter and Baird).  There might be a third on maintenance and resistance, or developing new habits.  And I still want to reflect on what it all means, so I am not sure how I will bring this to a close.

I find myself having difficulty balancing the sensible, productivity-oriented side of this discussion with curiosity about cultural significance and gender differences.  Yes, it’s good to be able to find the tax papers, but is it any worse to be a piler (who knows where things are in their piles) than to be an introvert?  I have a rebellious side that just knows that filers shouldn’t dominate the world.  But you have to lock the house before you go to the revolution.

Now, where did I put the keys?

Evaluna cleanup 2

Evaluna ( a Principal Consultant with Interspecies Solutions) ponders the disappearance of the basket of stuff you saw in the last post.  Did it get filed and organized while she was off making a plan?  Not exactly.  We had a dinner party, and I stashed it in the storage room with a few other things.  This is a typical strategy of messy people when faced with company.