The seductive organizing system

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Sometimes just making a to-do list makes you feel so productive that you give yourself a break from doing anything on the list. I’m a big fan of to do lists and I encourage people to acknowledge their progress in order to stay on track.

But that’s not always fruitful.

Sometimes looking at the progress we’ve make seduces us into believing we’re done. We look at all the tasks crossed off the to-do list and feel good about ourselves. That’s not a problem usually, but in this case it is because we then let ourselves off the hook, even in pursuing a goal we’ve already identified that we want.

This kind of thinking shows up when people get excited about a new organizing system or a new app. Well, new anything, really. Something bright and shiny.

But there’s a difference when this new organizing system requires putting together and setting up. We get lost in the details of what part goes where and what the sequence is and how it all fits together.

Once it is put together, there’s the further seduction of tweaking. It’s sort of like poking the fire. There’s always more prodding and shifting you can do to a fire to get it perfect.

Then there’s more. And it’s so satisfying! Tweaking a fire is harmless though. The fire is just there for you to enjoy.

When you get stuck in tweaking mode for a productivity app, well, you can see the irony. You aren’t actually using the app. You’re not getting to the productivity part of it.

So, be wary when you get excited about a brand new thingamajig that’s going to streamline your work and skyrocket your efficiency. Read the reviews. Read the good and the bad ones!

Pay attention to what the people who like it are using it for. Maybe it’s great for Task A, but makes little difference for Task B, which is your task. In that case, who cares how great it is? It’s not going to help you enough to be worthwhile.

Be mindful of how much time you need to take away from other tasks to get this puppy up and running. What’s going to languish in the meantime? Is that worth it?

If you are looking at a substitute for something (or various things) you currently do, you need a transition plan. How will things not fall through the cracks? Sometimes people take on a new system just partially.

It’s great, but they still do one part of their work the old way, because it’s familiar and they can do it quickly and easily. Is that going to impair the system as a whole, having this one outlier being done the old way?

New and shiny isn’t necessarily better. Caveat emptor.

In box zero: yea or nay?

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If you’re new to the productivity game, you may not know about Merlin Mann, who invented the game. Well, not exactly. But he did coin “in box zero,” which went viral.

His idea was that instead of idly perusing your email in box, you do it with intent. Answer what needs to be answered. File what needs to be filed. Act on what needs to be acted on. And delete the rest. That’s pretty much it.

Unfortunately, many people interpreted the concept to be that you must never let email build up in your in box at all. That meant they checked email constantly to get it back to zero. As you might imagine, they spent MORE time on email that way.

In favor of in box zero:

  • You don’t waste time just looking; you do something
  • You don’t use your in box as a to do list or a file cabinet
  • You’re decisive about deleting emails
  • You set aside time to deal with email so you don’t have to do it all day

Against in box zero:

  • It takes too long. I have room, but not time
  • Some emails need to hang on for awhile till something else happens
  • Many email problems will go away on their own if you do nothing
  • It’s handy to search for items with keywords

I’m in the nay camp. I have 14,000 emails in my in box and I don’t care.

I do spend time unsubscribing to newsletters when I realize I’ve deleted the fifth one in a row. I keep emails that have to do with an upcoming event in case I need to refer back. Once its past, they can just be subsumed into the pile.

I star emails that may require something from me and then I scroll back and look at them when I have time to take action. If I don’t, I usually get another email. I know, that sounds lazy and inconsiderate, but everyone is busy and forgetful. It’s also true that the problem can get solved without me.

I hate folders. I keep forgetting I have them, so I don’t look in them. It works much better for me simply to search for what I need using the senders name or a keyword. Now, that’s just me. If I had large projects to keep track of, I’d probably use folders. The point is, don’t over organize. Don’t organize stuff that’s fine the way it is.

What you really want is to be productive.

That means having criteria in place to let you know what email to respond to now, what to respond to later, what to delegate and what to just ignore. Don’t get hung up on a number.

My recommendation is to use in box zero but leave out the zero part. Answer what needs to be answered. File what needs to be filed. Act on what needs to be acted on. Then just scroll past the rest.

The other essential element is to look at email when you have time to do those actions listed above. The real reason email is such a time suck is that people glance through it constantly in between other activities, not when they have quality time dedicated to taking care of the important items they receive.

Call it “In box 15.” Don’t even open it unless you have 15 minutes to do something with what you find.

Podcast 043: Boss hat/employee hat

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Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

You can leave a review here!

In this episode, I’ll talk about alternating between being the boss and being the employee in order to be more effective. Here are some highlights:

  • Why do I have to separate them?
  • What if I’m better at one than the other?
  • I just want to do it.

Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

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.

Photo: tom_bullock

The Smallest Step

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I’ve posted before about the difference between goals and tasks. It’s similar to the difference between projects and to do’s. Goals and projects are not one-shot deals. They need to be broken down into do-able steps.

Sometimes even the next do-able step doesn’t seem to be getting done. In her Success Circle tip today, Ann Ronan pointed out that if you feel resistance to doing something, well, you probably will avoid doing it. She suggests taking the smallest possible step that won’t activate resistance. Say, put on your jogging shoes, but don’t actually jog around the block.

Ann takes this a step further by saying that you shouldn’t do any more than that one small action. If you do, you’re setting an expectation for yourself do keep doing more each day instead of celebrating the success you’ve had. If you persist at taking small steps, however, your resistance will begin to slip away and you’ll soon see real progress.

Sometimes I’ve counseled people to keep going if they’re on a roll, but I can see how this could backfire if you start thinking you’ve got to up the ante each time to sit down to organize. Today, I’ll suggest that if it’s a pile of paper you’re confronted with, take the first sheet off the top (or one from the bottom of the pile; that’s often easier), make a decision on it and act on the decision. Then you’re done. Pat yourself on the back!

Snail from Mr.Bones’ photostream

Fighting a Hidden Distraction at Work

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Assembly line Many a blog post has been written about turning off your phone and closing your email program and browser so you can get some work done. Tips about deflecting office visitors and avoiding meetings can combat those in-person distractions. But there's another subtle way that you get off track, and that's by doing other people's work.

The thing is, it's usually easier to solve someone else's problems than your own. When you give advice to a friend, you have no difficulty thinking up ideas to get her out of her predicament. And we all appreciate the more objective point of view of our friends in addressing our own challenges. 

If you do this at work, though, you're usually short changing your own projects. Every time you get sucked into an office crisis or even just volunteer to look up information to respond to a casual request, you're doing a task that someone else should be doing.

I'm not saying you should become a hermit and never offer to help. Just be mindful about whether you are also honoring your own commitments. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Schedule work appointments with yourself and keep them. Putting them on a shared calendar is helpful to let others know you're busy
  • Create an email auto-responder that you can easily activate for the times that you need to be distraction-free. Let correspondents know when you'll be back on line
  • Have office hours. Put a sign on your door that says you're open from 1-4 pm
  • Don't respond to casual requests that are sent to a group. Let someone else respond
  • If necessary, set an hourly timer so you can check in with yourself and make sure you're on track
Cream puff assembly line from misocrazy's photostream

Why You Shouldn't Read This Blog

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Action figure We know it's important to limit our time online when it involves pointless web surfing. But a lot of what we read and discover online is really interesting, helpful stuff (like this blog!). You could easily spend all day finding treasures on the Internet.

This goes for interviews and videos you download too. Those are more insidious because once they're downloaded, out of sight, out of mind. You think you learned something valuable today because you have the thing, but you haven't actually listened/watched yet.

The problem with doing that is that you don't spend any time incorporating that reading into your life by practicing the new skill, trying out the new idea or using that important thought in your thinking. That's the grunt work of change.

I am guilty of this as much as anyone and it takes willpower for me not to read something that could be interesting. I need to remind myself (out loud, if necessary) that I don't have time to take in this new information because I'm busy with the projects on my whiteboard. I've got time to read it, but not to do anything useful with it.

That's not to say that all reading must be purely practical. There's value to reading for pleasure or intellectual curiosity. It's a good idea to be conscious of your purpose though, so you know how you're spending your time.

If you're reading to develop a new habit or learn a new marketing strategy, you'll need to act on that reading, or else it's a pointless as the aforementioned surfing. Be aware of why you're reading and decide on one thing you'll do to take action.

My aim with this blog is to express one simple idea with each post and suggest a way to put it into action. So here it is. The next time you find yourself knee deep in some fascinating article on the web, ask yourself "what action will I take to make this part of my life?"

Action figure from Fuyoh!'s photostream.

Can You Be Too Organized?

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The keys to my dreams. You're too organized if doing the work of organizing starts taking up half your day. The organizing you do should be at the service of the rest of your life and your work, not the other way around.

People shy away from organizing because they think it's a huge project or it will be enormously time consuming. Now, if they want to organize their entire homes top to bottom and they've been collecting stuff since the dawn of time, this is a realistic fear. For everyone else, it's not.

Organizing can be a few simple things you do to make your life run more smoothly. Things like putting your bag in a place where you can find it again or jotting an event onto your calendar so you don't rely on (cursed) memory.

To find your perfect organizing level, observe what's working and what's not. What bothers you and what's fine the way it is. If what's not working is being able to get out of the house on time in the mornings, figure out what the specific obstacles are. Can't find the keys? Forgot some important information? Trying to squish too many tasks into the morning?

Now you've got something to work with. If you're really bugged by running around the house searching for keys, you'll be motivated to find a special place to stash them when you come in the door. You might not do it every time. Even if you do it half the time, you're ahead of the game.

Analyze what is working for you. Maybe you've got a "don't forget" list on the wall right next to the front door that you see when you leave the house. You always look at it and it helps. How can you use that technique in other ways? You might make a list of morning routine tasks and attach it to the fridge or the bathroom mirror.

It's the little things, people. Small things that help your life work better.

Found keys from Otacon_85's photostream

Multitasking: Not

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The word has been going around for years now that multitasking does not make you work faster or more effectively. Still, the myth persists, maybe because people have so much to do that they can’t imagine getting it done unless they do many things at once.Goddess multitasking

I wrote about this a few years ago in my previous blog, with a link to some of the scientific research. A new book is coming out on the subject this month called The Myth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw. There’s a link to it in my Amazon store in the left sidebar.

According to the video on his website, the book goes over all that evidence that multitasking doesn’t work. He then adds a new wrinkle, which is that people can always tell if you’re doing something else while talking to them (that includes driving). This is bad for your personal relationships and for your business relationships. If your relationships suffer, your business and your life suffer too.

The Goddess of Multitasking from jurvetson’s photostream.

Organizing and Creativity

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organizing paintbrushesCreative people often shun organizing. Putting their supplies away and having a clear desktop are for accountants, not artists. Inspiration can strike anytime and materials must be out and ready (all of them).

Many creatives don’t produce a whole lot, though, and that’s because they are focussing all their attention on the muse and the flow of ideas, and not enough on how to get those ideas into the world.

Supply chain management is how companies get their products into the world. It includes inventory management and other dull sounding tasks. In the book Making Ideas Happen, I learned that Apple Computer has been in the top five of global supply chain leaders since 2007. Apple, a company known for its gorgeous product design and commitment to thinking outside the box.

In other words, a company known for creativity.

This creativity is followed up by an organizing system to making it happen. So the question is, do you want to simply enjoy the flow of ideas, or do you want to seize one and give it life? Remember Thomas Edison’s quotation: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Try thinking of having an organized work space as a tool for enhancing your imagination. Your supplies are always ready for you and you know exactly where they are. You have plenty of room to work without pushing things out of the way.

This doesn’t mean you have to hide things away.

It’s quite possible to organize your stuff and still have it out where you can see it. It just requires more horizontal space. Piles are allowed. Using the wall and the floor is also allowed.

Creatives can get bogged down in designing systems instead of doing their work so be careful not to fall into that trap. Keep your system simple. Don’t overthink piles.

How Do You Spend Your Time?

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For clients with time management troubles, I have recommended occasionally that they keep track of what they do all day. It may be startling to find out exactly how much time you spend cruising around the internet or caught up in cross currents of email, but the idea isn’t to make you feel bad. The idea is to find out what you’re actually doing with your time so that you can change it effectively.

Keeping track can be as simple as having a pad ready to jot down notes at timed intervals. David Seah has an elegant, easy to use version that shows time graphically since you fill in a bubble for each time increment. You can see it immediately; the more bubbles, the more time spent. His tool, the Emergent Task Timer, is available as a free PDF download on his site (which has tons of great productivity information, too).

Benefits of time tracking:

  • Find out what you’re doing when you’re wasting time
  • Find out how long you spend working on specific tasks; makes it easier to plan for them in the future
  • Get an idea of when your high and low productivity times are during the day
  • Discern patterns to tasks that you can use to your advantage. Email flurries at certain times of day can mean that others are most easily contacted then, for example
  • Find patterns of work time followed by down time. You may find that some aspects of your work need more downtown to recover from
  • Make sure you’re taking productive, refreshing downtime; don’t count more email checking as an actual break

A key to getting the most out of tracking your time is to do it now, or starting tomorrow morning. Don’t wait for a less stressful week, or one with more interesting things going on. Print out enough sheets for the rest of the week and just get started. There won’t be a better time.

Time Disappears” from jtravism’s photostream