3 great solutions for overwhelm

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How do you get organized when you’re too overwhelmed to deal with it at all?  Try one of these three ideas, or all of them. These techniques are described in Stephanie Winston’s book Getting Out From Under. The key is that making lots of small changes will really add up and help you significantly. 

The 10% Solution

Take the problem of getting out of the house in the morning. If it’s a frantic rush and you’re often late, then it’s a problem. 

Divide the morning’s events into discrete tasks such as washing, dressing, eating, gathering your stuff, supervising children doing all those things, newspaper reading, lunch packing, etc. Notice for a few days how long each of these tasks takes. Then figure out how you can either do each task 10% more efficiently, perform 10% of it at another time, or omit 10% worth of it. 

Some examples Winston gives are switching from bedspreads to duvet covers to speed up bed making, laying out clothing the night before and gathering needed items near the front door in advance.   

Inventorying

I like this technique because it involves an organizing skill that can be used in other ways. Inventorying the specific tasks you do for any given activity brings them out of the dark, dusty realm of “we’ve just always done it that way” and into the light where you can see clearly how it can be done better, maybe faster, or maybe not at all. 

Inventorying your possessions is an excellent way to start organizing them. It’s one thing to know you have too much stuff, and another to know specifically that you have three tape dispensers and can get rid of two.  

The Chore List

This clarifying exercise can be used to create a family chore list. Winston suggests starting out imagining how your ideal home would look. Beds made, shopping done, mail sorted? 

Include everything on the list at first, even breakfast in bed. After you get in all on paper, you’ll need to pick out what you have the time and resources to get done. This is important: be honest or it won’t work!

Once you define the top priorities, again you’re going to break those things down into the tasks that get you there. Who is going to make the beds, at what time and how often? When is the best time to shop and what exactly are we shopping for? Do we take turns sorting mail or does one person handle it? 

The more specific you can get, even if it means asking questions that seem very obvious, such as what constitutes a “made” bed, the better.

And now, some haiku (by me).

Make some decisions
All these things have their uses
But not in your life

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.

Information Overload? Stop Moving

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I had the pleasure of hearing the charming and witty Karen Salmansohn speak the other night at the Ladies Who Launch monthly meeting. She's promoting her new book, The Bounce Back Book, about "how to thrive in the face of adversity, setbacks, losses, failures, illness, rejection – you name it."

Snowglobe
Karen has a clever way with words. She likened having a case of information overload to being stuck in a snowglobe. You can't see what's going on because all that snow is flying in your face.

What's the cure? Well, with a snowglobe, you set it down and let it sit there awhile and the snow will slowly all fall to the bottom. With your brain, same thing. Sit down and let your brain just be still for awhile until your thoughts become clear again.

[Gorgeous art snowglobe by Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz]

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).

Starting

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.

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

Let the Right Ones In

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Bottles (uncropped)If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find it.

Rummaging around in your kitchen cabinet for that special bottle of vinegar might take a minute or so, but you’re not distracted in your search by the tomato paste cans or the bags of rice. You can filter those out. Your mind is set on finding that specific bottle.

On the other hand, if you’re just poking around to see what kinds of vinegar you have on hand that might work in the recipe you’re making, your search will take longer. You’ll read each label. You’ll read part of the walnut oil label by accident because your search is not so goal directed and you aren’t filtering out any potential candidates. With each likely container (okay, not the bags of rice) you’ll ask “are you what I’m looking for?”

Now, both of these strategies have their place in your kitchen. They’re not as effective when applied to your email inbox. With the first strategy, you are looking for a short list of items. With the second, you’re reading the entire email in case it contains anything that might remotely interest you (and you don’t really have time for that, now do you?). Scanning and filtering is the name of the game here.

How do you do that?

Here’s a tip from Bill Jensen’s book, The Simplicity Survival Handbook (yes, it was published in 2003 (ancient!) but the points are still valuable). You can delete 50% of your email by passing it through this filter: if after reading the subject line and sender’s name, you don’t feel that you MUST read or scan the email TODAY, delete it now.

Whoa, pretty ruthless, isn’t it? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, immediately stash all those emails in a “Hold” folder for a month or a week or however long you can stand it. Then go through them and see if you really missed anything of consequence. Don’t include emails that were resent with better subject lines so that you actually read them (that could mean you successfully trained the sender by not responding!) It’s also an indication that really important messages will keep coming back until you respond. So, relax.

Want to take it further? Your filters need to let in important information about your current projects. That is; deadlines, next steps, desired results, critical resources and pertinent changes. Filter out: nice-to-know information, general email blasts, recaps of meetings where you took your own notes, industry news, requests that are sent to a group (let someone else answer) and company policy memos.

For you information junkies that still might seem too stringent. So, use the Hold folder. If you can make time to read everything in there without compromising your workload, congratulations!

Using a Hold folder is a good way to wean yourself off of indulging in the novelty of new email. We humans seem to be hardwired to crave novelty. It’s not gonna work to prevent email from arriving, so do what you can to remove the temptation to check continually and to be constantly engaged.

Do you have any filtering tricks to stave off email overload? I’d love to hear them.

Your Brain: Distracted

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Candy Your brain craves novelty and will be distracted by it whenever it appears. Period. It's neuroscience.

In his article about why it's hard to focus, David Rock explains that attention uses up brain resources, so it's limited (although more coffee sometimes helps). Also, there is always some kind of neural activity going on in your brain and that contributes to its restlessness and distractibility.

To compound these problems, the effect of distraction tends to accelerate. That means once you start giving in to an urge to, say, check email by opening your email program, it will be much harder to keep yourself from doing it than if you nipped that pesky desire in the bud.

What's the answer? You already know. You have to turn off the distractions. Stop fighting your brain's natural tendencies and work around them instead.

The other, more subtle, answer is to develop mindfulness. Rock has another fascinating article about that topic, where he shows that the brain has two different networks to experience the world. One filters through the self (attributing meaning to events, for example) and the other is direct sensory experience (being present in the moment, for example). It's not surprising to find that people who are good at being mindful have more cognitive control and thus can manage distractions better.

Candy store from D'Arcy Norman's photostream

Brain Dump: Your Turn

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Woo hoo! I’ve already got a couple of overfilled brains interested in my free consultation! There’s room for more; I’ll be doing this all month long (maybe longer if we’re still having fun!).

What is it?
I made an offer at the end of my previous post, about a client’s brain dump. You can use it for your own brain dump. Other juicy topics are:

  • not being able to work at your desk because there’s too much stuff on it
  • going in a million directions without much to show for it except being tired
  • confusion about and/or resistance to standard organizing techniques
  • running out of time for the important stuff
  • getting rid of what’s distracting you from the important stuff

These are just some ways to use the session. What they have in common is setting things up so you can do your best work with ease and fun. You’ll get made-to-order solutions and suggestions on how to make the solutions stick. You’ll also get a new perspective of your habits and behavior that will let you create your own wild schemes for getting things done.

The Customer Love tribe is full of amazing people who have fantastic ideas that need to burst into reality. My little part of helping with that is making sure you use your time and set up your space to support that fabulous work.

The Details

UPDATE, July 12, 2011:
My beta test of this service went fabulously well. My “guinea pigs” walked away feeling clearer and lighter and more focused, and gave me some great reviews. The result is, I now have a Mind Decluttering service.

Get a taste of it with a free, 20 minute, mini brain dump. You can sign up using the link at the bottom.

I’ve decided to make the sessions an hour long so we can get into the specifics. I’m also going to offer a 20 minute follow-up session for troubleshooting and cheering you on.

What I ask from you: willingness to put the ideas into practice. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not magic either. Some persistence and elbow grease will be required. I also ask that if I do help you, you spread the word far and wide so I can help more people. Agreed?

Here’s the link to schedule your session (just do the first one for now): I’m in!

Laughing woman by Έλενα Λαγαρία

Mind Decluttering Mini Sessions

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For those of your who’ve been on tenterhooks wondering what the next incarnation of the brain dump would be, here it is. Keep reading to find out if it’s for you, or for someone you know (and tell them about it!)

Are you too busy and overwhelmed even to think about hiring me? Or even read this entire BLOG POST? 😉 You see a million things in front of you, every item catching your attention. Not one actually MAKING you feel like you’re whittling down your to do list.

And the panic starts to bubble in your chest.

You feel the prickle of frustration bunching your shoulders, and you burst out, “dammit, I have got to get this crap under control!” But there’s no solution to grab, and even THINKING about how to get a handle becomes ANOTHER thing on your to do list, so the idea is shoved to the back burner, again.

Meanwhile, time and money trickle out of your business. And that item you just shoved away could actually be the golden ticket that frees you from to-do-list purgatory.

Maybe you and I have talked or you’ve read my blog and know that I could help you. Then you think, “I don’t even have time to explain what’s going on! Much less carve out time to fix it.”

I’m going to give you that time.

Click here to schedule a free mini mind decluttering, or brain dump. We’ll talk for 20 minutes and get right into what’s bothering you. I listen. You feel stressed and want to attack everything at once. You can’t think straight and you’re not getting things done.

When you’re in the middle of things, it’s hard to see the way out.

This session will bring spaciousness so you can relax and step back a bit. That allows you to see the larger picture and understand what’s working and what’s not. You choose a next action or two and are confident that they’re do-able. Those holes where the money and time are leaking out will start getting plugged.

You’ll have the clarity and focus to know whether you want to work with me and what I can help you with. That’s going to be things like making more money because you’re working more efficiently and helping your clients more effectively. You’ll get back on track doing your best work with renewed energy and ease.

If you do decide that I’m your gal, we’ll concoct your perfect coaching package of phone sessions and email consultations. I wish I could solve all your problems in a mere 20 minutes, but alas, I can’t. You’ll need to commit some time if you want things to improve.

This can range from a “prepaid card” that entitles you to 15 minute decluttering hotline calls when you need them, or regularly scheduled longer sessions where we go deeper to ferret out clutter causing conditions and correct them (with alliteration!). Or a tailor-made combination thereof.

I’m offering these free sessions through June 10th only (they may come back another day, but I don’t know when, so do it now). If you’re tired of being too overwhelmed to do anything about being overwhelmed, this is your chance.

Brain Dump = Less Clutter in Your Head

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Elaine heard me talk about what I do at a breakfast meeting. She pointed at me across the room and said, “I need that!” We made an appointment for the following week and I could hear the relief in her voice.

Her schedule was full, but that wasn’t the problem. Elaine is a high energy person and likes to stay busy. She has a finger in lots of pies and her calendar was getting kind of messy, with all that cherry juice spilled on it.

What she needed was a brain dump.

She wrote out all that she does on a giant sheet of paper, the kind you use for meeting presentations. There were little notes and arrows added here and there. Some of her projects weren’t getting enough attention. In other areas, she felt she was spending too much time and not getting what she wanted.

Elaine described her days to me, what she did, what she needed to do, what she really wanted to do and how she liked working with various clients.

I helped her step back from the forest of her schedule so she could see the individual trees and how they fit together (or didn’t).

I asked her questions that helped her get even more objective about her schedule. Was her lunch break too short? She agreed it was short, but her priority was to be done with work by 3:30 every day to be with her kids. Was it worthwhile to work for a client she had to commute over an hour to? Yes, because she got a steady stream of new clients there.

She was frustrated that one client wanted more from her than she could do in the four hours a week they contracted. We came up with a couple of ideas to get around that, such as writing a proposal for a new program they could offer that would not only help their clients, but would prevent them from being sued (which had happened more than once) and therefore save them money. She has a lot of passion about this topic and is dying to teach it!

These ideas came out of my asking Elaine questions that she hadn’t asked because she was too close to the situation. Why did the client want her to do the extra work? If it was so important, why wasn’t the regular staff doing it? What would happen if it didn’t get done? What would change for the better if it got done?

What’s all this got to do with managing time?

The brain dump helped Elaine see where she was putting in effort that got great results. She could shift time from one area to another to get more bang for her buck. She realized that she was making a conscious decision to use some time in a way that wasn’t wildly productive, but she was happy with it.

Elaine knows now where her time is going and why. The point isn’t, in her case, to squeeze the utility out of every single minute, but to be intentional about how she spends her time.

Her decisions about time are connected to how she wants to live her life and accomplish her best work.

That leads to her trusting herself more and feeling confident. Investigating her schedule showed her what really matters to her and how to get more of that. Connecting to what’s meaningful to her gives her a sense of ease and assurance so she can get out there and make things happen.

*****

Could you use a brain dump? Well, you’re in luck. I don’t usually do one-off sessions, but for the next month (till May 6) I’m offering these consultations for free. Yes, free. For as many people as I can fit in my schedule.

I’m doing it as a Customer Love thing, first of all. That means I get to find out what will help my people the most so I can do more of that. I’m also doing it to spread the word about how incredibly valuable this service is. I’ll get the details out by Monday, but feel free to ask a question in the comments below.

Brain coral by seanmcgrath