Podcast 086: Design thinking

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This is Podcast 86 and it’s about design thinking. I got reintroduced to this concept by Chris Wilson, the founder of Unstuck School, at a workshop he gave recently. He leads a program called Design Your Year that uses many creative ways to define and achieve your goals, one of which is not calling them goals. I just talked about that in podcast 84, about how scary and intimidating goals can be.

One concept he shared with us that I found really interesting is design thinking. Current design thinking is based on stages defined by Herbert Simon. I quoted Simon unknowingly back in podcast 45 when I talked about the idea of satisficing. Satisfice is a portmanteau of the words satisfy and suffice.

It means that people make decisions based on information and resources they have available and that’s good enough. They can’t have all the information and all the resources or use them properly if they did, so they do without. Satisficers are good at limiting their options in order to make effective, timely decisions and take action.

Okay, back to design thinking. The five stages Simon identified are empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Although they’re called stages, they don’t always happen in order and sometimes they loop around. Each stage informs the others.

The first stage, empathize, is certainly important when I work with clients. To me, it means that I need to get to know what my client values and desires and suggest courses of action based on that. This is the opposite of coming in with a prescribed method and imposing it. Instead of jamming a square peg into a round hole, you discover the shape of the peg, which might not be square OR round, and then carve a hole that fits it.

It also means I strive not to make assumptions about my client’s situation but, as coaches are trained to do, come from a position of curiosity and discovery. That way, my client is free to describe what’s happening without having to define or rationalize it.

But what I want to talk about is how to empathize with yourself. Often, people want to get organized or declutter or be more productive because they see a lack in themselves, or they feel judged by others. While those feelings may motivate you for a bit, they aren’t great for the long run. It involves looking outside yourself for solutions and that’s never going to get you the right solution.

In the design world, if you’re creating a product, for example, you want to approach the issue by finding out what motivates and engages customers instead of developing a product by guesswork and hoping people want it.

Empathy is a great word to use here. When you empathize with yourself, you get out of yourself a bit to observe with compassion. This helps you understand and explain what you feel to someone else. Feeling what you feel is important, but you need to be able to get some objectivity about those feelings in order to express them in a way someone else can understand.

When you empathize with someone else, you try to put yourself into their shoes and experience the world as they do. You see that they have experiences and feelings that are similar to yours, even if you are very different people. Feelings of similarity cause you to want to protect or help others.

With self empathy, you want to help yourself because you have compassion for the situation you are in. The exploration you’ve done leads into the next stage, which is define. You might define the problem as “I need a better system for managing paper so that I get things done on time and don’t waste time looking for what I need.” That’s much different than “I need to organize this desk because it’s a cluttered mess.”

I always say organizing is a means to an end, not a valuable thing in itself. That end is the thing you define yourself. It’s too soon to start uploading apps or embracing techniques or buying containers. People often want to leap into the solution before they clearly define the problem and it makes the process longer and more confusing.

For the above mentioned scenario, you want to explore further what’s happening. Ask: what all this paper is? Where does it come from? Is this a new problem? Is something making it worse? All that information will help with stage 3, ideate.

I’ll talk about the other 3 stages next week. In the meantime, what you can do right now is practice empathizing with your own particular situation and see it as an issue to be resolved to benefit you, not to satisfy others.

Podcast 061: Organizing basics

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I’m going to talk about some fundamental concepts and ideas about organizing. The two I’ll talk about today are: keep things you use often close by and things you seldom use farther away, and keep like things together.

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This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

If you’d like to comment on the podcast, you can leave a review on iTunes. I read all your reviews, and  your positive, creative comments help others find my podcast.

If you have a question for me that you’d like me to address on the podcast, please post it on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.

Start organizing with the easy stuff

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You may be having trouble making much progress with getting organized because you’re starting in the wrong place. 

I recently talked with a client about his frustration that he wasn’t getting anywhere even though he purged and organized regularly. After some discussion, it came out that he was focusing on the things that were hardest to make decisions about.

He works at home, for himself, so he’s used to having to plan his own time and get things done without much external accountability. He’s good at prioritizing the truly important work, even if it’s difficult, and leave the simpler tasks for later.

This is exactly the formula for business success (and critical to master if you work alone), but it doesn’t work for organizing your home. What works is the opposite. 

Start with the easy stuff.

This is not cheating! Making decisions is tough work but you get better at it the more you do it. 

  • Doing the easy stuff gives you that sense of accomplishment and progress
  • You can move quickly and blaze through a big chunk of the organizing project
  • Easy decisions have small consequences, so you can be braver
  • You become more aware of what you want and don’t want so decision making is faster
  • You become convinced that the world will not fall apart if you make a wrong decision

You may even find your world comes completely together once all the clutter is gone.

When Do You Need Slow Mode?

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Last month I included a blog post by Leo Babauta who writes Zen Habits. This time I’ll write about slow mode; what it is and when you need it.

To start with, here’s some wisdom from the International Institute of Not Doing Much. 

  1. Put your feet up, and stare idly out of the window. Warning: Do not attempt this while driving.
  2. Do one thing at a time. Remember multitasking is a moral weakness (except for women, who have superior brain function).
  3. Ponder, take your time. Do not be pushed into answering questions. A response is not the same as an answer.
  4. Slowly learn our Slow Manifesto.
  5. Yawn often. Medical studies have shown lots of things, and possibly that yawning may be good for you.
  6. Spend more time in bed. You have a better chance of cultivating your dreams (not your aspirations.)
  7. Read the slow stories.
  8. Spend more time in the bathtub. (See letter from Major Smythe-Blunder.)
  9. Practice doing nothing. (Yes, this is the difficult one.)
  10. Avoid too much seriousness. Laugh, because you’re only alive on Planet Earth for a limited time.

After you’ve refreshed yourself with some slowed down time, you need to add slow mode to your life.

Slow mode is for times when you need to give serious thought to something, or do in-depth planning or start creating something that’s large scale. Slow mode is akin to the important but not urgent tasks that Stephen Covey has written about. Here’s why it’s tough to do these tasks.

  • They don’t supply the satisfaction of crossing a task off a list
  • They generally don’t have a deadline to spur you on
  • They don’t give you immediate results you can point to

Yet these accomplishments are often the ones that have the greatest impact on our lives and our careers.

They are the ones we plug away at year after year and only later look back and see how valuable they were.

They are the ones that contribute directly to our feelings of fulfillment and having done something worth while with our lives.

So, slow down.

It’s all in your mind

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social-1206612_640Even if you keep your desk nice and organized and you process your incoming paper promptly, you may still have clutter lurking where you can’t see it.

That kind of clutter is harder to attack than the physical clutter that’s right in front of you, getting in the way. You have to find it first.

It’s the clutter that’s in your head.

How do you know if you have mental clutter?

You wake up in the middle of the night remembering something important you forgot to do.

You find it hard to focus on one project at a time long enough to get effective work done.

Your desk is full of reminders to do tasks, all of which pester you for your attention all day.

You find yourself in a cold sweat not being able to remember if the big meeting is today or next week.

The problem is that the strategies you’re using to manage your time and tasks only work when you’ve got very little going on. And we know that’s not you.

If you have just a few things to attend to each day, you generally won’t forget to do them.

If you’ve only got one project, you work on it.

If you have a handful of tasks, you can easily prioritize them and get them done.

If there’s only one meeting coming up, you’ll remember what day it is.

Life might have been like that early in your career. Everyone’s life used to be simpler, if only because we’d lived fewer years and had accumulated fewer experiences and obligations (and less stuff).

Now you’re busy, and that’s not going to settle down anytime soon, at least, not in terms of how the world works. What can change, and what must change, is the way you handle it.

Use the tools

It’s simple. You have to write things down. Whether you do it digitally or with a pen, you need to get information out of your head and onto your to do list and calendar.

Use your to do list to record every task you need to accomplish. Be as complete as you can.

Make another list of all the projects you’re working on. These are not the same thing as to do’s. Projects are bigger and contain multiple to do’s.

Pick up each reminder you’re keeping around and briefly define the task it represents. Put that task on your to do list. File or toss the paper.

Add all your meetings, appointments and events to your calendar. It’s better to add them as potential events (code them as such) than to omit them if they’re not confirmed and then forget to add them. Refer to your calendar often during the day and remember to look at the days and weeks ahead, not just today.

Capturing information in locations you can find it again is key. Relying on memory is for amateurs.

There are other benefits to getting information out of your head. Writing about a project forces you to be specific and detailed. A project may seem clear in your head, but once you go to describe it, you see elements you’ve overlooked, inconsistencies and vagueness.

Those are obstacles that you won’t overcome until you express the ideas in writing. Explaining a project to a colleague can bring this clarity as well.

Another great tool? A coach. A good coach can accelerate your progress in getting mentally decluttered and regaining control of your time and your productivity.

Organizing as a Practice

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I've been trying to start two new practices recently (I know I shouldn't say "trying;" am I afraid to commit?). One is meditating and the other is writing. Since I used to write fiction I know a practice is important but somehow I didn't think that also applied to non-fiction writing. My friend Deborah assures me that it does (and she gave me some great tips!). So I'm using an online timer and putting in 10 minutes (for now) a day. What I come up with is drivel, of course, but that's not the point.

Zafu My meditation practice is also often embarrassingly bad. Wow, is that really me thinking all those incredibly banal thoughts? Then I remind myself that I'm just practicing. I am not very patient and have never understood delayed gratification, so it's a big thing for me to let my practice be a practice and not a path to perfection.

Being organized, clutter-free and in control of your time is also a practice. You're not going to finally get it right one day and be home free. Some days will be better than others. You'll go through busy periods when your system gets a little frayed around the edges and then you'll take the time to get back on track.

I do emphasize having a vision for your organized life, a goal to work towards. However, if that goal is making you feel disappointed in what's happening today, just think of what you're doing as a practice. Instead of thinking, 'my office has to look like that one I saw on Apartment Therapy,' try 'today I'll clear off the top of the file cabinet.' Focus on action today rather than possible futures.

A practice has its own rhythm and is its own rewards. Try it and see.

Kitty with meditation cushion from jakemohan's photostream.

Use a ripening drawer for paper management

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paper management drawer

Does paper management seem overwhelming? All those decisions to make! Here’s a way to get some control before you’re ready to make the decisions.

I wrote about this concept several years ago. I discovered it in the excellent book ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau.

In the book and in my post, the ripening drawer is used for miscellaneous items that aren’t quite junk but that don’t have a place to go, such as battery covers that came off of something that may turn up again soon.

I recently heard a success story from Christine, who used her drawer for paper management. Into it goes paper she didn’t know what to do with. Here’s her story.

It took me a while to consolidate my office supplies to free up a space, but now I’ve got a drawer with a big R on the front. I find I still drop mail and other things on my desk, but I’ve gotten better about going through them periodically and either putting things in the ripening drawer or actually dealing with them (imagine that!).

Although it may take just a few minutes (or even seconds…) for me to decide what to do with an item, these piles have sometimes languished for weeks, even years. So having this drawer is helping me develop a new habit.

I’ve had a few “aha” moments, as I start searching my desk for that event invitation or that paper I need to follow up with and then remember that it’s probably ripening away. Often when I go through the drawer, I find stuff I can now easily throw away – simply due to the passage of time. And my work space is much less cluttered.

Christine is using the drawer as a tool to develop a new habit; dealing with paper management on a regular and timely basis. Having a tool to reinforce a habit is key; none of us is good at changing our behavior without help.

The drawer also works as a container. Instead of having papers floating all over the office, Christine now puts them in the drawer, and thinks to look in there when she can’t find something. She has a specific spot to put things even if they don’t have a permanent home.

The second powerful concept is how paper, and the information it holds, loses its importance with age. Events have passed and questions were answered, so the paper is now irrelevant. That makes it a no-brainer to throw it out.

Lastly, Christine isn’t distracted by so much visual clutter trying to grab her attention. Now she can focus on her work and feel relieved that the paper is under control.

Have you tried this idea? Let me know in the comments what you think!

30 Minutes to Less Clutter

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Want less clutter on your desk? Can you spare half an hour? What if it would make the following half hour twice as productive? And the hour after that too? Spending time on organizing is a great investment because it always gives you a high return (unlike many investments these days).


Figuring out how to start is often the hardest part of decluttering. The big secret is that it really doesn’t matter, just make a decision and do it. I’m going to suggest one of many possible approaches to structure your half hour, and that’s triage. Triage is all about decision making. It provides a simple structure to guide you and it depends on quick, resolute judgments that you act on right away.

In the medical world, triage is used when there are many patients and limited resources. Care is denied to those who will probably not live, so that those resources can help more patients who probably will live. I can guarantee you that you don’t have enough resources to manage all the stuff that’s currently in your life. Becoming skilled at triage (AKA, ruthless decision making) means more of your time and energy goes to the important stuff.

Triage breaks down into three categories, according to our friends at Wikipedia.

1) Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
2) Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
3) Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

On your desk, this means

Category 1. Stuff you like and need that will be put away;
Category 2. Stuff you don’t like or need that you can immediately decide to ditch;
Category 3. Stuff that you need to deal with right now.

Let’s do half an hour of desk triage. Remember, triage is speedy because lives are at stake. The more quickly you make decisions, the clearer your desk will stay. You may not get through your whole desk in half an hour, but you’ll complete a section rather than just rearranging the piles and you’ll have less clutter.

If you have a lot of paper, choose a small area, perhaps just a section of your desk. Triage will get you through the purging and decision making. I’ve added some post-30 minute clean-up suggestions if you want to keep going.

In a hospital, triage patients are sent to different areas depending on their category. On the battlefield, they are simply marked with colored tags. On your desk, use Post Its to mark your piles. Allow enough room for sorted piles. A card table is great, but the floor will work too.

Phase One

This is the gross sort. You’re deciding whether papers belong to category 1, 2 or 3. You’ll need a timer, 2 piling spots, and containers for recycling and shredding.

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Start with the pile on the left side of your desk and move across to the right without skipping over anything. Don’t let your eyes wander. Each time your gaze passes over the desk, your mind starts to run in different directions and you get distracted. Focus on one thing at a time. Take a pile to your sorting area with your back to your desk so you can’t see the other piles.

Pick up the first item in the first pile. Is it category 1, 2 or 3? Don’t read or think too much about an item; you only need to identify it for now. Quickly define each: Need it? Want it? Ditch it? Too late? If you can’t decide, choose category 1. Put it into the correct pile or bag. Repeat until the timer goes off.

Phase Two

Set the timer for ten minutes. Sort the paper in category 1 by topic. If a topic does not come to mind, ask yourself why you are keeping the item. When you go look for it again, you’ll think, “where is that information about ______?” If someone asked you, “do you know where the ______________ is?” Use that word.

Choose broad topics; it’s easier to look for a particular item in five possible folders rather than 50. Right now, you’ll just create separate piles for each topic. Label the piles with Post-Its. If you run out of room, stack the piles alternating horizontal and vertical to keep them separated.

Post triage

File! If your file cabinet is a disaster area, consider getting a temporary file box to use until you can revamp it. That way your newly sorted papers won’t get lost again. Note: you’ll probably have a stack of keepers that you want to read; those don’t get filed, but they need to go somewhere where you’ll see them and read them.

Phase Three

Set the timer for five minutes. Now we’ve come to category 3. These papers were out on the desk because you’re using them to remind you to do something. This is not an effective strategy. You need a list. A list allows you to see at a glance what all those to-do’s are. When they are piled up or spread out, you can’t get the whole picture.

Your to-do list can be in a notebook, on a pad of paper, in your PDA, a whiteboard, on your phone; wherever you will be most likely to look at it. For each reminder, create a to-do. To do for stack of marketing letters: address envelopes, stuff them (including business cards), stamp and take to mailbox. To do for event flyer: Add event to calendar and make a note to RSVP (if necessary) on calendar several days before. To do for pile of business cards: enter into computer contacts list or put into alphabetized card box. To do for information about you frequent flyer program: read it right now to see if there’s a time limited offer you want or throw it out, knowing you can get the information from their website.

Now, you may be thinking your to-do list will get unmanageably long. Yes, it will. But it’s not any longer than it was in your head, or spread out around the house. Before all these things were on the list, you were by turns overwhelmed and in denial about how much you had to do. Now you can see it in black and white. This is your current reality. When it’s all in one place you can make informed decisions about what you will and will not do.

Post triage

Make looking at your to-do list a habit. Send yourself email reminders if necessary. Where you keep your list is up to you. The important part is having one place to look for your tasks.

If you have years of backlog, the whittling down may go slowly. Use triage as often as you need it. Set a timer to help you stay focused and speedy and not find yourself deep in reading an hour later. A timer is also good to reassure you that you’ll be free of this tedium soon.

Make sure to keep up with current paper so it doesn’t become part of the backlog. That is, don’t stack new paper on top of old piles. Spend the first five minutes of triage taking care of the new stuff.
An unexpected benefit to this method is that you may be inspired to keep less stuff once you realize how much work it is to keep it all organized!

Remember: it’s your stuff, you’re in charge.

Hoarding vs. Cluttering

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Hoarding is not the same thing as having too much clutter. I just watched an interesting
video profiling four hoarders called Possessed by Martin Hampton. The cases
are presented in escalating order of severity and the last one is a little hard
to watch because of the extreme level of dust and dirt.

One of the
more confounding things about hoarding is that hoarders don’t know why they keep
stuff when they know it’s useless trash. Even if they are willing to get rid of
things, in most cases, the problem comes right back. The woman in the film described her own thinking as “warped” (the other three subjects are men).

Four qualities that
all the hoarders in the film shared are:

  • On some level, they like
  • They have strong emotional
    ties to inanimate objects
  • They have an overpowering need to
    own things
  • They are adamant that no one else can touch their things

People who just have too much clutter don’t have these same issues. A comfortable and cozy cluttered room means one with lots of knickknacks and pictures, furniture with throws on it, etc. It doesn’t mean a room with full shopping bags and used food containers on the floor. For most people, ties to inanimate objects refers to souvenirs, old teddy bears and heirlooms. It doesn’t refer to chipped coffee mugs or empty toilet paper tubes.

You may have a shopping problem, but a hoarder will buy 300 mobile phones in a year (that’s an example from the movie). You also may not want others pawing your stuff, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have an anxiety attack if they do, or rummage through the garbage to rescue anything someone else throws away that’s yours.

In case you’re worried that you or someone you know is a hoarder, ask these questions:*

  • Are any exits to the home blocked?
  • Is the bedroom or bathroom not fully usable due to clutter, i.e., items stored in shower stall?
  • Is there large-item clutter outdoors, such as sofas and TV sets?
  • Are there poorly maintained pet areas, i.e., pet waste not cleaned up?
  • Have hallways been narrowed due to boxes and clutter?

I don’t accept clients with this issue because I don’t have the skills to handle them. (Update 7/2014: I do work with people into Level 3 on the scale. Generally, when people reach out to me and are motivated to get help, I can help them.) To find professionals who do, contact the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (hoarding is an activity associated with chronic disorganization). This site also provides an eye-opening *Clutter Hoarding Scale with specific examples of what the home of a hoarder looks like.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Early in the book, she tells readers how important it is to start with a vision of how you want your life to be after getting organized. Be specific about what you want and also why you want it. No matter what your answer is, Kondo says the underlying reason is that you want to be happy. 

My free ecourse starts out with that premise too. If you haven’t taken it yet, here’s the link.


IMG_3094I’m on vacation this week, writing my newsletter from my friend’s backyard in the desert. 

Although I have my laptop and my phone with me, I feel unconnected to my life at home, in a good way. Travel is a great way to unclutter the mind of the daily grind and relax.


I’m really enjoying Kondo’s book. Many of her ideas are standard organizing practices, but many are new to me, especially her anthropomorphization of objects and her radical method of organizing everything “in one go.”

The biggest benefit to doing it all at once is that she says her clients rarely backslide, ever. Starting with a clear vision, handling each item and committing to keeping it means that her clients are highly motivated to maintaining their new lives. 

I would love to try out Kondo-style organizing with clients. I am thinking of ways I can offer this cost effectively. If you’re interested, please write me back and tell me what you think. If you’ve already done it on your own, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Another gem from the book:

“When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.”

It’s been said that people hide in their clutter and that constantly managing their stuff allows them not to deal with larger issues. 

On the other hand, finally dealing with the clutter gives you more time and energy to devote to your passions and goals. This post, an interview with Christine Arylo, shares similar views. 

Decluttering and organizing always also has the effect of clearing the mind and calming the spirit. Complete decluttering and organizing on the scale Kondo recommends has even stronger effects. To undertake that, you really need to be ready to lead a different sort of life, the one you’ve been dreaming of.