It is officially December, which means a busy month of holiday parties and celebrating.  We’re also nearing the end of the year, which always makes me look forward to starting a new year and thinking about what improvements I want to make to my daily routine.  This year, I’m focusing on finding a new paper-based productivity product.

Whether you’re looking for a new system for yourself or need a good gift to give, here are a few products that I recommend.  These products all can double as planners for the year and as places to store your ideas and various to do lists.

Moleskin Weekly Planner+Notes

This little notebook I used all through college and grad school.  It’s small (3.5″ x 5.5″) and has a soft cover.  On the left hand side of the page is each day of a given week.  The right hand side is a lined page for notes.  There’s a ribbon bookmark and an elastic band to wrap around the book itself – keeping everything nice and tidy.  Moleskin has lots of other calendars as well; there are daily versions, full size planners, and hard covers too, if that’s more your style.

Passion Planner

I just ran across this planner today.  Currently there is a Kickstarter to get it into production, and there are a lot of features I like in this planner.  It’s similar to the Moleskin planner in basic appearance; it has a soft black leather cover with a ribbon bookmark and an elastic band.  This planner is full-sized and contains lots and lots of  room for notes and big picture planning, in addition to calendar planning.  You can also download and print your own two page weekly layout for free.  Print out a copy or two to try it out in your own life.

Emergent Task Planner

This is another downloadable I found recently.  This planner is designed around the notion that you should set 3 main tasks to complete each day.  On each sheet is room to block off time for each task (and includes mandatory break times!) as well as space to make additional notes on other tasks or ideas that come up during the day.  Various sizes of the forms are available from the designer’s Amazon shop.

Circa Notebooks

For the person who wants their planner fully customizable (myself included!) – there is the Circa notebook system.  There’s a couple of key ideas that make these notebooks unique:

  • You can combine any type of paper you like in a single notebook.  Pads are sold pre-punched from the store – including plain lined pages, to do lists, and calendars (monthly, weekly, and daily).  They also sell hole punches, which allows you to use any paper you’d like – including either of the free printables I’ve mentioned above.
  • You can move papers around within the notebook.  I love this feature.  I often find myself tearing pages out of notebooks that I no longer need or wanting to move various lists or project plans from one section of a notebook to another.  These notebooks allow me to do both of these things without making a mess of my notes or notebook.

Levenger.com offers a sampling kit for $40, which includes basic supplies for 3 different size notebooks and get this – a $40 gift certificate to the store.  Shipping is additional, but the deal is pretty close to free!

 

 

The internet (and my calendar I suppose) tell me that the holidays are coming up.  Really, the internet tells me that the holidays are coming up and that means people are about to freak out!  Today I won’t go into any long drawn out list of reasons the holidays are not a time to freak out, instead I will share a list of things I to do to try and calm myself down.

I may not get worked up about the holidays (or at least I haven’t yet), but I am the type of person who can worry about anything and then stress themselves out about any number of things.  Lately I’ve been keeping really busy trying to get my own business up and running.  Besides getting nervous about putting myself out there, there is a ton of things for me to learn about business in general – both of which are stressful!  So, in the spirit of always trying to better myself, I’ve been employing a few techniques to help manage my stress level.

 

Walk It Out.

Change your scenery and take a walk.  The crisp fall air has been great for snapping myself out of a worrying funk.  If my arms and legs are moving, my mind can get moving in the right direction.  I move away from any negative thoughts and work on productive, positive brainstorming.

Get a Coffee.

Or a beer. Or whatever.  Put away your phone/compute/tablet and give yourself a bit of time to sit with your thoughts (and your coffee).  If the walk got your mind moving too much, use this time to refocus your attention on what matters most to you and to your goals.

Make a List.

Of course I recommend making a list! I always feel better after I make a list.  However, if my mind has been racing around on a single topic, I make sure my list includes only concrete next action steps.  I want to end with a plan in hand on how to achieve a goal or solve a particular problem.

Picture your Successful Self.

Ok, bear with me here for a minute.  I recently heard a talk about ways to assess and achieve a goal.  One point that I had never considered before was the power that visualizing yourself having already achieved a goal can have.  You can do this in words or simply in your mind.  The key is focusing on what your life will be like once your goal is achieved.  This is a great push for me – I picture my future, successful self and I’m able to stop worrying and just get things done!

 

Oh and please note that I’ve marked this as a BO-pinion post.  As I noted above, this is just something I’ve been working on myself!  I’m happy for more suggestions in the comments!

Ok, so this might sound a little weird coming from a person who writes a lot about organizing her stuff and who is trying to make a career of helping others organize their stuff, but I’m just going to have to say it. Why are we spending so much time dealing with our stuff?  Wouldn’t a great solution be to just have less of all that stuff?

Phew. That felt good to say it out loud.  Owning less is something I’ve been mulling over in my head ever since I started looking into professional organizing (which just happened to coincide with me needing to deal with moving all of my stuff to the east coast).  I often see blog posts or pins on pinterests which have a great end result – a room full of things very neatly hidden away and organized.  More and more though, I stop and look at these “after” pictures and wonder if all of those things are helping that person’s life.

Another thing I need to confess is that I am a bit of a shopper and spender, so it’s not like it’s my natural inclination to not own many things.  It’s the opposite, in fact.  I definitely cannot say today that I subscribe to a minimalist lifestyle.  I doubt I’ll ever show up on this blog, sitting in an empty room, but I do wonder what affect owning less would have on my life and why it seems so difficult to get there.

Today I have no finished product or project to share with you – just this initial thought on having less.  As I process this idea more, I’ll share with you.  As always, if you have your own thoughts, please share them with me in the comments.

fullcloset

 

My husband and I pack our lunches pretty much every day.  Actually, when we first started dating, we ate lunch together every day, so making our lunches together in the morning also became one of our things.  I sadly broke this tradition when I left grad school and got a full time job.  Now we take turns packing lunch and snacks for each other each work day.

Some years back, I started to reconsider what I was using to pack my lunches and started looking for ways to reduce the waste I was producing each day.  Here’s a summary of that process (which has been several years in the making).  Also, just to be clear, this is a summary of the products we’ve used personally.  I didn’t do any additional research for this post, nor did I receive any endorsements from the companies I mention.

Stage 1 – Tiny Plastic Baggies

I have a hunch that there are a two types of families out there – those that use ziplock bags in their school lunches and those that use the fold-over baggies.  My house was the latter, supplemented by waxed paper expertly folded and creased into a sandwich wrap.

As an adult, I used these baggies for my lunch as well.  I started saving and reusing bags over and over, but a bag only lasted so long before you got mustard all over it, or you accidentally mixed up your cheese bag and your carrot bag… And you’d have to toss out the baggies and get a new set, which is why I tried moving on from the tiny plastic baggie.

Stage 2 – Plastic Tupperware

I actually skipped this stage altogether.  These containers work great for some – they are reusable, washable, and lightweight.  I just didn’t want to replace one type of plastic with another.  I won’t even get into the headache of organizing all of the containers and their lids in the dreaded tupperware cabinet.  On a hilarious note – when I first met my husband, he owned one tupperware container.  It held about a gallon of liquid or enough food for a family of 6.  This did not stop him from bringing it in for lunch though.  Some days he ate a LOT of pasta.

Stage 3 – Reusable Lunch Baggies

So, to replace the disposable plastic baggies, I bought two different types of reusable lunch baggies.  One type was made from organic cotton and the other was a coated fabric.  Both used velcro to close.  Both were really disappointing.  Our sandwich bread was always a little dry on the outside by lunch time and completely stale if you forgot to eat your sandwich (which happened to my husband more than one would think).  Chips and pretzels were stale by lunchtime (only 4 hours after packing!) and baby carrots were always dried out by the time I wanted to eat them.  The velcro closure didn’t work for any type of cut fruit – juice just got everywhere.  This was a very sad time for lunches in our household.

Also, these containers were not cheap.  I can’t remember the exact amount, but it was a little less than $50 on the two sets (for about 10 bags in total).  They were both small US companies, so I felt okay spending a bit more on something I was taking a chance on.  Boy, did I learn my lesson.  I did not check the return policy before purchasing and let my impulse win over my typical long, drawn-out process of researching a product before purchasing.

What kills me is that I am seeing more and more of this kind of baggie advertised on the various blogs I read!  These are primarily advertised for kids.  Which is where I think the problem lies.  The adults who buy or make these baggies don’t try them out for themselves.  If they did, they would realize what a poor job they do keeping a lunch fresh and edible.

Stage 4 – Hybrid Approach

I know this sounds silly, but we were pretty bummed out by our experience trying to reduce our lunch waste and we weren’t really sure what to do next.  I remembered my mom’s technique of wrapping sandwiches in waxed paper, so I decided to try that.  Waxed paper is paper, so I thought this was a bit better than the plastic baggies.  At the store, I found a box of waxed paper bags all ready to slide my sandwich in!  They also worked pretty okay for chips and pretzels – if you ate them that same day.

I also introduced bringing food in glass pyrex each day.  I switched away from the daily sandwich around this time as well, so I needed something other than a baggie anyway.  The only downside to Pyrex is their weight.  If you drive into work, this isn’t a big deal.  But lugging a couple of pyrex full of food on the bus and then up a hill (my current commute) actually weighs you down.  Add in DC humidity and I was an unhappy bee by the time I made it into work.

I’ve found mason jars are lighter than Pyrex, so I also use those sometimes for yogurt and granola, or servings of cut up fruit.

Stage 5 – The Bento Box

This brings us to just a couple of months ago.  Our house is doing just okay with lunches.  My husband is still eating sandwiches, so the bread gets sent in the same bag over and over again; the jar of PB is at work, along with some bag of snacks usually.  We’re big on homemade granola bars, so those go in a baggie (same one over and over again).  I am lugging those 2-3 glass containers every day up a really steep hill and I am tired of it.  Did I mention I like snacks?  That’s why I have so many containers with me each day.  Moving on…

Enter the Bento Box.  I had seen some bento boxes on blogs I read.  Some were plastic (which I still didn’t want to buy) and some were stainless steel.  I was concerned with a couple of things about the stainless steel ones:

  1. Would they weigh less than the Pyrex?
  2. Would they hold the right amount of food?
  3. Are they worth the price?

I had seem lots of kids lunches packed in these boxes, so I wasn’t sure if the food I like would fit in the small boxes and I wasn’t sure how many of these boxes I would need to lug up that hill daily.

Luckily, the pain of wasting money on those other bags was still fresh enough in my mind and heart to keep me from making any impulse purchases.  And yes, a lot of time had passed at this point, and yes it still bothered me that I wasted that money.

I looked at two brands closely:  Lunchbots and Planetbox.  Lunchbots has a couple of different types of containers, but generally are on the smaller size.  At Planetbox, their product looks like a cafeteria tray and comes in different sizes for different sized appetites.  Ultimately, the Lunchbots system seemed better suited to my needs.  They would fit into my current lunch bag along with my thermos or in the bottom of a large tote without much trouble.  The weights of the containers were posted on the site, so I was able to weigh my empty Pryex and compare.  The stainless steel containers were, in fact, a good bit lighter than the Pyrex!  Additionally, Lunchbots had a 30 day return policy.  So if they ended up not working, I could send them back.  So I went for it and bought the Stainless Set – three containers in total, each with a different number of compartments.

The verdict? We love them! Here’s what my lunches look like now, everyday! lunchbots-ricebearsJust kidding!  My lunches look pretty much the same as they used to; the foods I like fit fine in the bento boxes.  Whole fruits are too big, but half a banana or apple quarters fit fine. On days I need to reheat my entree, I bring a Pyrex.  While the containers are well constructed, each section is not leak proof, which means putting pickles in the same container as strawberries is not a good idea.  I’ve seen pictures of using lettuce to hold different foods – like these rice bears on the right – but I’ve been using silicon muffin cups to separate foods when I need to.  A little cup holds a serving of nuts or hummus easily.

Below are a couple more (realistic) pictures of what fits in these boxes.  These lunches are still fancier than what I do daily, but they hopefully give you an idea of what you can do with the containers.  All images are courtesy of the Lunchbots site.  They have a gallery full of really nice looking lunches that will put your mom’s brown bag lunches to shame! (Just kidding Mom!)

lunchbots-snackslunchbots-work-lunch

Bo-pinioned!

feature1

Back in February I quit my job in Madison, Wisconsin to prepare for our upcoming move to DC.  For the next month it was my job to:

  1. Figure out what to do with my life career-wise.
  2. Pack up the house and get organized for the big move in March.

What I quickly realized while tackling #2 was that I had too much in my head to keep everything straight and if I ever wanted to get to sleep at night I better get all of those thoughts out of my head.  So I gave myself another project – figure out the best way to keep track of our moving tasks and, in a more general sense, all of those life tasks anyone needs to keep track of on a day to day basis.  That’s right – I set out to find the best To Do list system.

I’ve always been a big fan of To Do lists.  Making a list always makes me feel better. Traditionally I’m a pen and paper girl.  For this life organization project though, I wanted to try out some apps for my phone and see how those measured up to paper lists.

I wanted an app that:

  1. would help plan my day
  2. would keep track of various lists and/or projects over several days/weeks
  3. is super easy to use.
    • I’m a big advocate of friendly UI (User Interface).  This I learned from my life in testing software.  If you can’t figure out how to use a product or if you keep making mistakes while you’re using it, it’s not a problem with YOU, it’s a problem with the design of the product.
    • Is this an interesting topic for you?  Read “The Design of Everyday Things”  and start testing software :)
  4. is fun or looks good
    • I know me.  If I think something’s ugly, I’m not going to enjoy using it.  If I enjoy using it, I’ll use it more. Simple as that.

The List

Here’s the full list of products I installed on my iphone.  (note: I know some of these are available for android phones, but I did not research if all of them are)

  • Evernote
  • Any.Do
  • Wunderlist
  • 30/30
  • Astrid
  • RTM (Remember the Milk)
  • Cozi
  • aCal Lite
  • aNote Lite

Yes – this list is long.  I was serious when I said I sometimes spend WAY too much time figuring out the best way/best product for something.  This is one of those examples.

 The Results

After trying out all of the above listed apps, there were a few that definitely stood out above the rest, each which had their own best features and best use cases.  Here’s a summary of those apps and what I did/did not like about each.

Any.Do

This app is really simple.  Really simple. There’s a single home page, which lists out all of your tasks grouped into either Dates (Today, Tomorrow, Upcoming, Someday) or customize groups (e.g. Home, Work). I found this app really useful for those days where there were a few tasks I needed to get done at some point during the day.  Everything you need is on the home screen, which was nice compared to other apps where you needed to go through three or four screens to get a view of everything. It’s easy to add tasks (by typing or by voice), move a task from day to day (hold and drag), and add a reminder or level of importance.

AnyDo1     AnyDo2

Pros

  • Clean UI, incredibly simple and intuitive to use
  • Easy to add tasks by typing or by voice
  • Easy to move a task from today to tomorrow, etc.  I found this was essential to help with long term planning (or when I got too ambitious in my planning for a given day).
  • The Any.Do Moment of the Day feature is cute.  You set a time to be reminded to plan your day.  In the “moment” you review what’s on your list for the current day, snooze the task until later or set a reminder time for today.  Plus the sounds are pleasant and encouraging!

Cons

  • Minimal/no calendar syncing.  There’s a feature where if you rotate your phone sideways, a widescreen version of the app displays.  On the left hand side of the screen is a month’s calendar and on the right, is you lists of tasks, along with any calendar appointments on that day.  HOWEVER you only know that you have an appointment on a given day, there’s no way to view the time or make any edits to the calendar appointments.
  • Best for a single person’s task list. No family incorporation besides email.  Which may work for your family just fine.

Wunderlist

This is a nice app with a little more flexibility and more features than Any.Do.  Instead of Folders, there are different Category Lists which you can create to sort your tasks.  You can also leave everything in the “Inbox”, which is to be thought of like an email inbox — it’s stuff that you haven’t processed to somewhere else yet.  I personally like leaving everything in the Inbox, then having a separate category list for more specific categories like groceries or trip planning.  There are also “smartlists” which are automatically created based on what tasks you have entered – Starred, Today, This Week.  The main menu contains all of these lists and is easily accessible by swiping to the right.  The app also has a social media/contacts feature, to enable you to easily share lists and sync lists with others.  I didn’t use this feature though.

WunderlistMenu      WunderlistList

Pros

  • There is a clean UI and overall the app is simple to use. Very fast response time
  • Easy to add any future due date to a task
  • The combination of smartlists and regular lists makes it easy to sort and view different tasks quickly
  • There is an AWESOME Subtask feature.  You can add a task – like go to XYZ and then add subtasks to complete at XYZ  This is great for party menu planning, making a quick grocery store list or a list of tasks to complete related to a particular client.
  • You can share a list easily with a contact or fb friend and can both edit it.
  • You can upload a tiny picture of you for the corner!

Cons

  • No calendar syncing or way to view calendar events from inside the app.
  • Slightly more complicated design than Any.Do.  This is a trade-in for more flexibility of your lists.  However, the smartlists feature is done so well, that it really only takes an extra swipe and select to see these additional views.

30/30

3030This app has a very specific kind of user in mind.  And for this user, the app is great.  This app is a little different than the others.  There’s basically one list you work off of (although you can create and save other lists to use at a different time), that is comprised of all of the tasks you want to queue up for yourself.  Each task gets assigned a length of time to complete.  Once you’ve made your lists of tasks, you hit start and the timer on the first task starts.  Once that time is up, an alarm sounds and the next task starts.  The design of this app helps you stay on a particular task for a set amount of time before moving on to the next task.  As I mentioned, if you need help getting through a lists of tasks, this might just be your app.  If that style of To Do lists doesn’t work for you, I’m not sure you’ll find much use in this app.

Pros

  • Great design – looks good and is well suited for its designed task
  • Very specific purpose, which is a pro if it works for you!

Cons

  • Very specific purpose, which may not work for you…
  • There are several hand gestures to edit the tasks that need to be learned in order to use the app fully.  If I used this app every day, this wouldn’t be a problem after awhile.  However, for an occasional use and if your memory is like mine, this would be a bit of a setback.

 awesome Note Lite

aNoteThis app is most similar to Wunderlist – there are folders which are akin to Wunderlist’s category lists.  These folder can be named whatever you like and ordered however.  There’s an easy way to view all of your “notes” and a “Quick Memo” feature which allows you to jot something down without needing to figure out the correct folder to put it.  My favorite feature of this app is the Calendar integration.  Not only can you easily view your upcoming appointments on your calendar, but you can create new appointments which are actually saved to your calendar account (!) as well as edit or delete existing appointments.  The app also supports multiple calendar accounts.  There’s a lot of other bells and whistles related to note taking on this app, which I didn’t explore, but they are there if you’re interested in using this as a one-stop note taking shop.

Pros

  • Calendar syncing that’s easy to use!
  • Straightforward to use and customize to your needs.
  • Colorful (in a good way) UI.  This also is customizable to suit your tastes.

Cons

  • Wider scope for product use means more complication.  I didn’t need these extra features, so they felt like just more stuff in the way at times.
  • Lacking the subtask feature that I really loved in Wunderlist.

Evernote

Evernote can be so much more than just your To Do list app, but I wanted to include it here because it is an app I use regularly, but not typically for my daily/weekly To Do list.  I think of Evernote as a place to store more permanent lists.  For example, I have a list of potential blog posts as well as a wish list for myself.  Another good list-specific use is for reoccurring lists you may want regular access to.  For example, I always buy some of the same products at Trader Joes.  So I made a list of these and stored them in Evernote.  When I’m going to TJ’s, I look at this list and make edits based on what I do/do not need that given week as well as what I need additionally that week.  I do prefer using Evernote on my computer – either via their web access or my desktop program on my mac – but that’s primarily because the notes and lists I store in Evernote take a lot of typing, which isn’t so easy on my phone.

 EvernoteMenu     EvernoteNote

Pros

  • Can easily be your one-stop-shop for all notes and lists
  • Additional editing features are available, so your notes and lists can be customized however you like them to look

Cons

  • Customization takes more clicks/selects.  For me, I like using Evernote on my computer rather than phone.

The other apps that I tried out definitely all had their own pros and cons, but for space sake, I won’t review them here.  If you’ve had positive experience with any of them (or another app I didn’t even mention), please share your own bopinions in the comments below!

 Final Note

I am confident that if you want a To Do List app for you phone, the right one is out there for you.  Heck, I found more than one that are great for my needs.

After all of this research, I still feel that pen and paper have their place and I still use this system regularly – in particular for lists that don’t need to “travel”.  For example, in my current job, I keep a scrap notebook in front of me.  At the end of the day I jot down the 3-5 tasks I want to get accomplished the next day.  I only worry about work when I’m in the office, so that’s where my list stays.  Another example is my meal plan for dinner.  After we do the shopping and planning for the week, I quickly jot down our dinner ideas on a scrap of paper and keep it on the fridge.  This way, when me or my husband inevitably say, “What were we going to make for dinner this week?” we can take a quick look at the list on the fridge and figure out what we have enough time/energy to make that evening.

But for the 95% of the time where I need to make a list on the go or I remember some random thing to pick up next time I’m at target, these productivity apps are just what I need!

Bopinion’d!