With the new year approaching, we’re all thinking about resolutions. While losing weight and getting your finances in order are two popular choices, one resolution many of us make year after year is to get organized, once and for all.
The truth is, no one ever gets organized once and for all; it’s a process, and one all of us have to refine frequently. Still, the beginning of a new year is a good time to look at the tools you use to organize your life and see if there are ways you can make things better.
“A lot of people start the new year as a goal-setting time,” says Audrey Cupo, a professional organizer and owner of A Better Space in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “What I’ve found is that paper and time organization are common struggles.”
Instead of creating a paperless world, computers have added more things we need to organize. But they provide new tools for organizing everything from your to-do list to your photographs. But getting your digital life in order can take as much or more time as finding places for all your physical belongings. And you still need to organize your paper.
The best tools for organizing vary by person. An online grocery list may work great for some families, while others would find it a burden and work better with paper. Part of getting organized requires experimenting with tools to identify the ones that work best for you.
“There’s many aspects to getting and staying organized,” Cupo says. “The first step is to eliminate the clutter, then organize what’s left.”
That clutter can be paper on your kitchen counter, clothes thrown over a chair or random files on your computer. Start by discarding things you don’t need, whether they’re old email messages or clothes that no longer fit.
Here are eight tools to help organize your life in the new year.
Place to put everything. This is old-school, but organizing one’s life is significantly easier if you have a place for everything. That could include a box or bowl for mail or keys near your door, a mudroom with cubbyholes for kids boots or a shelf for extra toiletries. If your space is small, look up and think vertical, Cupo suggests. “When everything has its proper home and makes sense to you, it’s going to make it easier to find it,” Cupo says.
Calendar or agenda. Some people swear by paper calendars, either in an agenda book or posted on the wall. Others keep their calendars online and on their phones, using apps that synch to all your devices and can be shared with others, such as your significant other or teenage children who need rides. Google Calendar is one of the most popular free online tools. Cozi is one of many free apps that will help you create to-do lists and nail down schedules for everyone in your family. “What I recommend to people is that they check them out and find out what’s most comfortable for them,” Cupo says of organizing tools, both in real life and digital.
Offline storage tools. Dropbox, Google Drive and Picasa are three of the most popular online cloud storage tools. All let you create documents on your computer or another device and then store them in the cloud. That’s useful for people who work on the same documents at home and at work, use multiple devices or share documents or photos with others. If your computer crashes, you don’t lose your documents. You can install the free version of Dropbox on your phone, computer and tablet, for example, and take a photo with your phone and pull it up on your computer. Most of these services offer both free and paid versions.
Evernote. Evernote is a cloud storage service that lets you store and access documents, photos, websites and more from any device. You can create notebooks, search by keywords or organize in various ways. If you’re working on a project, for example, you can create a notebook and then save info you find on the Web and notes you think of as you’re watching TV with your phone in hand and keep them all together. It has both free and paid versions.
Online bill pay. One way to make sure all your bills are paid on time next year is to automate the process. While you can authorize your mortgage holder or credit card company to take payments from your bank each month, setting up an automatic bill pay system gives you more control because you can stop it any time. You can set up bill pay through your bank, although some charge for that service. You should be able to find setup instructions on the bank’s website, but you should ask your bank if there is a charge before getting started. Among the free bill pay apps are Finovera, Mint Bills (formerly Check) and MoneyStream. Quicken offers a paid service. Even if you don’t set up online bill pay, you might want to sign up to get email or text alerts when bills are due.
To-do lists. Your best option here, like calendars, depends on what works for you. Some people like to see words on paper, while others prefer an app that travels with them. Remember The Milk and Wunderlist are two of many free apps, and Google Calendar also has an agenda function. The key is to know the difference between a project, which is done over time, and a task that needs to be completed much quicker. Renovating the kitchen is a project, but for a to-do list, you’ll want to list actual tasks, such as “call the contractor” or “visit tile stores.”
Filing system. Most people these days keep some important documents online and others on paper. You need a system for both places so you can quickly find what you need when you need it. A filing cabinet or plastic file box works well for most people for paper, and throwing receipts in a shoebox can help you at tax time if you’re consistent about it. Digital bookkeeping tools include Quicken and Mint.
Password book or manager. Life these days includes entirely too many passwords, and reusing the same one everywhere isn’t secure – plus many sites require you to change them from time to time. You can create a file in your computer that stores all your passwords (although this makes you vulnerable if your computer is stolen) or keep them all written down in a notebook at home or in your wallet. Another option is storing them online with a password manager. One of the most popular is LastPass, which has both a free and premium version.
This story appeared previously at U.S. News & World Report.