Podcast 096: The four tendencies: questioner

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This is podcast 96 and it’s about being a questioner as one of the four tendencies. If you’ve been listening to me for awhile, you know I love to ask questions! I love to ask what I call stupid questions, the ones that people don’t ask because they take the answer for granted and it doesn’t occur them that they even CAN question it.

I’ve always been this way. When I was a kid my dad gave me a book called Can elephants Swim? which answered lots of questions he couldn’t respond to. Whenever I hear someone say, “well, we’ve always done it this way” it drives me nuts. Why, why, why? I want to ask!

This is why I run my own business and it’s a business where questioning is extremely useful and important. I’m not a very good employee, also for this reason. When rules don’t make sense to me, I don’t obey them.

I AM good at following rules if they’re explained to me and make sense, but in so many jobs, rules come down from the top and no one can explain them. On top of that, there’s all the wasted time and energy devoted to such silly rules. Okay, enough ranting.

I’m exploring this because I’m taking the Four Tendencies course with Gretchen Rubin based on her book. The other tendencies are the Upholder, the Obliger and the Rebel. These group are different in their approach to expectations.

In a nutshell, Upholder honor internal and external commitments, Questioners tend to honor mostly internal commitments, Obligers give preference to external commitments and Rebels, as you may have guessed, don’t honor any commitments!

Like knowing your Enneagram number or even your zodiac sign, learning about your tendency can help you identify what techniques will work best for you to be more organized, manage time better, etc. If you’re a questioner as I am, you’ll do a lot of research before selecting a method to try. You’ll want to know why it is the way it is, how those decisions came to be made. And if you adopt it, you’ll probably end up customizing it to suit you better; improving it because you know best and tossing out the bad stuff because it’s obviously stupid and unnecessary.

I haven’t gotten to the part of the course yet where I get to find out details about the other three tendencies. But in general, Upholders can easily come to congruence with internal and external expectations; they fulfill commitments to themselves and have no problem doing what others want as well.

Obligers tend to forsake their own personal commitments in favor of helping others or going along with the program. But if they’re asked to do too much, apparently they snap and make dramatic changes in their lives. Rebels don’t much like to be accountable and highly value their freedom, even it if means procrastination and lack of productivity that doesn’t serve them. I’ll do another episode on this once I get through the course.

But you can start thinking now whether you are more likely to keep commitments to yourself or to others. If you think you’re an Obliger, you’ll probably do better with an off the shelf solution, something that’s been created and offered as a complete solution, or with a coach or teacher who will lay out a program for you to follow.

An Upholder would also do well with a pre-designed package solution, although Upholders are inclined to want to take on too much and possibly burn out. They often want to cross every T and dot every I just because the instructions say so.

A questioner does best with a system of components that can be added to or subtracted from as he or she sees fit. Questioners pay attention to how well something is working for them and looks for ways to improve or replace it.

Rebels, like questioners, want things their way, but they need to be careful not to reject ideas just because someone or some book or some program suggests them. They do better if they can focus on the benefit they’ll get, rather than on who suggested it.

Here’s an example, the to do list. An upholder can’t wait to get to her to do list and start doing the tasks. A questioner reviews his list often to make sure everything on there is there for a good reason. An obliger may get through the to do list, but discover that everything she did was according to someone else’s priorities. A rebel says, “I don’t need any stinking to do list!”

What you can do right now:

Not every organizing method works for everyone. The more you know about yourself, the easier it is to find a solution that does work for you. Put yourself into the to do list descriptions above and see which feels the most like you.

Podcast 095: Prioritizing

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This is podcast 95 and it’s about prioritizing. I’m surprised to look back and see that I haven’t talked about this concept much! It came up last night with my coaching group as we started our month of focusing on time management.

Speaking of the group, May has just begun, so it’s not too late to join the group. You can find out details on my homepage, cluttercoach.net.

Lack of prioritizing is a big reason that people get overwhelmed and do nothing, or they focus on the wrong things because they’re not looking at the big picture. To me, the most important factor in choosing priorities for how to spend your time each day is how well they reflect your life goals. After all, there’s no point in being productive and efficient if you’re spending time on things that don’t matter.

This is an important topic. Many people never write down their goals, for a variety of reasons. It’s said that writing them down is a better indicator of achieving them than not, so it’s a good idea, but at the very least, you should have an idea of what they are.

A tool life coaches use is the Wheel of Life. You can google that and come up with tons of examples. Basically, it’s a pie chart with each slice assigned to an area of your life, such as family. There are basic categories, but you should feel free to add your own or rename them. It’s your life, they’re your categories!

A pie chart is a good technique because it shows you graphically how big each slice is relative to the others. Most wheels have each slice the same size, but it’s worthwhile to draw them to reflect what’s happening in your life and see where you’d like to make changes.

After you have a good idea of what your goals are, ideally in an at-a-glance format such as the Wheel of Life or a short list of evocative phrases, you can refer to it to screen your activities. Note that this is not only for being productive. Fun, recreation and social life should also be in your pie so you have some life balance. But even balance is optional! There’s no rule that says all your slices have to be the same size. They just need to reflect how you want to live your life.

If you think of projects and to do’s associated with your goals that you’re not ready to tackle yet, capture them in a master list. Podcast 35 was about this topic. Use this list for everything that pops into your head that you’d like to do, accomplish, be, have, experience, etc. That way your mind can rest and you don’t have to keep reminding yourself of things you can’t do right now.

Goals and therefore priorities change over time. Don’t be afraid to alter your list if you start down a path that turns out not to be right for you. As I’ve said many times, you don’t necessarily know where a path will go until you walk on it for awhile.

Often you’ll find that the slice that needs some help is one containing a goal you’re procrastinating on. Maybe it seems too big or not do-able at all in your current situation. It qualifies as something that’s important but not urgent and we all know that humans are prone to focusing on urgent tasks at the expense of ones that are actually important. But if you’ve affirmed it as a value in your life, it’s time to prioritize it.

So the sequence is this. Look at your to do list and make sure each to do is related to pushing forward one of your life goals. Screen it using your pie. If you don’t have such a list, make one now! This list is of current stuff, not your daily to do list.

Now you make your daily to do list, making sure to include tasks that are important along with all the urgent ones, although I suggest being honest about what is truly urgent and that only YOU can do. Mark each task as being urgent or important, although some can be both.

Next, prioritize your list so that you are doing as many important tasks as you can while still getting the urgent ones ticked off. Depending on how your particular list looks, you could alternate, starting with an important task. Or you could do only important tasks till lunch, then do the rest in the afternoon. I like this strategy because urgent tasks usually come with an adrenaline rush that can keep you going in the afternoon. You want to save your valuable mental energy time for the important tasks.

Mixing it up a bit can also help lower your resistance to the important tasks, which by definition will be small steps that advance your goals, not entire projects. Refer back to podcast 24 for more detail on that point. Small steps are ones that you are totally clear on and know you are capable of doing. Once you check one off you can go on to the next thing.

It sounds straightforward, but it does require some work and attention; first, to come up with your goals pie and second, to get used to screening your to dos based on your goals and values. But this is how you get to look back over the past year and feel good that you made some progress, however small, on what’s really important to you.

What you can do now: get one of those Wheels of Life and fill it in! If you’ve already done that step, start a master list. If you have that too, look at your current projects and apply the screening technique to the first one.

Podcast 093: Being focused

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This is Podcast 93 and it’s about being focused. Last time I talked about being present. This time, right now, is all that you have. This time I’ll talk about being focused and utilizing that present time.

The kind of focus I mean is related to being present. It isn’t hyperfocus, where the house can be burning down around you and you’re so involved in what you’re doing that you don’t even notice. This may seem like an ideal condition to be in when there’s a task you need to finish.

But hyperfocus usually goes hand in hand with distractibility and stimulation seeking and those are at odds with being present. It also isn’t activated by tasks that don’t seem exciting, so it’s not effective for getting routine work done.

The focus I’m talking about is one flexible enough to remain engaged in the face of distractions. Not to filter them out, like hyperfocus, but to acknowledge them without getting sucked in. Or to indulge them in a limited way, and then return to the object of focus.

If that sounds like a big challenge, you’re right, it is. Humans naturally seek stimulation. We evolved to seek food, mates and shelter, to begin with. Seeking is likely also related to the reasons we explore, discover and learn. We want to expand our worlds.

Unfortunately, seeking behavior can lead us to desire more and more stimulation, past the point where our basic needs are met. The thrill of new sensations and an ever faster pace makes us feel that every day life, in contrast, is a bit boring.

We are also primed to be alert to novelty, again dating back to prehistory when we needed to be aware of changes in our environment that could be dangerous and then react to them quickly. Those two ancient responsibilities of your brain continue to be active; sometimes in not-so-productive ways.

Even if you have not been diagnosed with ADHD you’re subject to more stimulation every day than you can handle. So you need to have ways to manage stimulation in order to get things done, since it’s unlikely that stimulating events and things will go away on their own.

Being mindful, as I mentioned last time, is a good practice to help you slow down and be aware of yourself in the present moment. Meditation is a classic way to increase mindfulness, but you can do this at any moment just by bringing your attention to what is happening right now.

If you tend to hyperfocus, remembering to let the present moment in may be hard to do. But there are tools you can use. A simple one is to set a timer to go off at regular intervals, say 15-30 minutes. Make sure to use a timer that has a pleasant sound so it doesn’t startle you. Timed reminders for activities, like having lunch, are also helpful.

How do you know if you’re hyperfocusing? If you’re spending an inordinate amount of time on something that’s not necessary but you feel unable to break away, that’s hyperfocus. Anytime that you haven’t made a conscious decision to continue your focus, that’s hyperfocus.

The opposite of hyperfocus is hypo-focus. Instead of too much, you’ve got too little. It’s hard to get things done because your attention wanders away so quickly. Hypofocusers tend to daydream a lot.

Using timers and other reminders helps with this too. Instead of using them to break out of hyperfocus, you use them to remind yourself to refocus. Use physical distractions to capture your attention enough to stay focused. Doodling or squeezing a ball can help.

A physical distraction should occupy your hands but not your vision or hearing, or you’ll probably not be able to concentrate on anything else. If you’re a visual learner, a ball is better than a drawing you need to look at.

What you can do now: try one of the methods here to increase your focus. As usual, you may have to try a few to see what works best for you.

Podcast 092: Being present

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This is Podcast 92. Last time I announced my group coaching program for productivity, time management, prioritizing, procrastination and decluttering. The format will be virtual so it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can still join in. I’ll conduct a live one hour session once a month about a topic, like procrastination.

Students will share what they are working on and I’ll offer real time help and accountability coaching. There will be a private Facebook group and email check ins. I’m launching this program with a special price of $99 a month with a three month commitment. Registration starts next Wednesday! Go to my website, cluttercoach.net or email me for the link at Claire@cluttercoach.net.

Today’s podcast is about being present. In several podcasts, like the one about emotional clutter, that was #47, I’ve talked about this concept. The present is the place where you are okay. Where life is happening. If you’re not in the present, you’re missing out. Plus, you’re often in a negative emotional state.

Of course, we all have lots of good memories of the past and exciting plans for the future that make us happy. Those aren’t the problem. The problem is when you get stuck in the past too much and start feeling depressed or sad or regretful. Or you get stuck in the future and are full of fear and anxiety.

How does this tie in with organizing and decluttering? One thing I’ve noticed with my clients is that they go on fun vacations and then get bummed out all over again by their disorganization when they get home. On the surface, it would seem that the main reason for this is that the clutter just wasn’t in front of them to worry about while they were traveling.

But another reason is that while they were away from all their things, all their lists, all their worries about not getting things done, they realized they were happy. Happy not to be burdened by all that stuff. Most importantly, they were fine without all that stuff. They were living in the present, enjoying each moment on the beach or each new discovery with loved ones.

They were in the present, without their stuff, and they were fine. Let that sink in a bit. If you could be absolutely fine without all your stuff, what would you do?

Having stuff around causes anxiety because you’re trying to be prepared for events that may never happen. Too much stuff around is stressful because you have so many objects and thoughts (yes, I mean mental clutter too) vying for your attention. Too much in general takes up your time and energy and takes out of the present moment.

Here’s a situation that came up with one of my clients. She has a lot of stuff, particularly clothing. Next month she’s hosting a themed dinner party and the theme is Chinese. It happens that she has 10-12 Chinese jackets to choose from. She joked that each guest could choose one; there are enough for everyone.

Then she started thinking about them and realized she wasn’t sure where each one was. She panicked a bit worrying that she wouldn’t be able to find one of her favorites. She remembered regretfully that a few didn’t really fit anymore but she wasn’t ready to give them up because they’re so beautiful.

Then she felt anxious thinking that none of the guests would dress up and she’d feel out of place. THEN she felt weighed down by having all those jackets in the first place.

A whole cascade of negative thoughts could take her away from simply being with her guests and enjoying the party. Being with people she cared about and who cared about her and who didn’t care what she was wearing.

Being present is a handy cure for procrastination and multi tasking too. Back in podcast 26 I talked about the work of the Procrastination Research Group. All the five reasons for procrastinating that he found have to do with worrying about the future and wanting to control the moment. Incorrect time estimates are usually due to the negative emotional cast the task at hand has for you.

Believing that there’s a particular state or mood you need to be in to get something done comes from not checking in to find yourself in the present moment, where you can be peaceful and free of the anxiety and worry and also free of the need to be in a heightened state too. Forgive me if I’m sounding overly Zen here, but being in the present is about being peaceful, not wildly happy.

Practicing being present gives you a safe place to come back to where you can calmly do what needs to be done to solve your organizing and clutter problems, one step at a time. When you’re present, you can truly see what’s in front of you; the clutter won’t be hiding in the background where you can ignore it (but of course you know it’s there). When you’re present, you aren’t feeling crummy about whatever story you tell yourself about why you’re disorganized. That doesn’t matter anymore.

What you can do now: Mindfulness is a great way to get yourself into the present. You can find tons of ways to practice mindfulness online. Keep it simple. Even just paying attention to your breath for 20 seconds helps.

Podcast 091: Make your bed

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This is Podcast 91 and it’s about making your bed. First, I have an announcement. I’m going to start a group coaching program for productivity, time management, prioritizing, procrastination and decluttering. The format will be virtual so it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can still join in. I’ll conduct a live one hour session once a month about a topic, like procrastination.

Students will share what they are working on and I’ll offer real time help and accountability coaching. There will be a private Facebook group and email check ins. I’m launching this program with a special price of $99 a month with a three month commitment. Registration hasn’t started yet, but do contact me if you’re interested and I’ll put you on the list. I’m at Claire@cluttercoach.net.

Okay, on to the podcast. Here’s an excerpt from a commencement address given by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven a few years ago.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

I think that’s pretty inspiring.

Some of you may know that making the bed is one of the five simple steps you can take to create a relaxing bedroom, the subject of one of my books. The full title is Five Steps to a Relaxing Bedroom and you can find it on Amazon and on my website, cluttercoach.net.

First, making your bed really is one of those things that’s easy and quick to do but also has a satisfying payoff. It gives you a pleasing sense of accomplishment. Second, even if your day hasn’t been miserable, it may have been long and tiring. When all you want to do is lie down and rest, you feel more pampered when the bed is already made. It’s an act of kindness to do for yourself.

Third, those little tasks build up and create great progress. Just starting is much easier when it’s just making the bed. Once you’re in motion, it’s easier to keep going. You get over that initial hump, whether it’s resistance based on feeling that a task is too overwhelming or will take too long or isn’t high priority enough. After you start, those concerns drop away and the fulfillment of being in action takes over.

What are other ways you can make your bed, say, sitting at your desk tomorrow morning? To figure that out, look for tasks that are 1) fairly easy to do, 2) don’t take much time, 3) that you do regularly and 4) that you know will be substantially productive, either from past experience or because they need to be done to make progress on a project.

The first bit is important and often overlooked, although it seems so simple. Sometimes people avoid doing tasks because they truly don’t know how to do them, but more often it’s a matter of wording and scope. As I’ve mentioned before, many to do list items are too vague or are actually projects.

Say you have to generate a weekly report. It’s a pain in the neck and you don’t like to do it. It feels like pushing a boulder up a hill. But if you break it down into a series of small tasks, little steps, your resistance will be less. This could be creating a template that you plug information into. You can start gathering that information differently, putting it into a format that will fit into the template without extra work from you. And, one of my favorite time savers, stop relying on memory for what should happen next.

I use a template to do my podcast every week. Sometimes, I confess, I don’t really want to do it. Looking at the list of steps makes it feel much more doable. There are many steps, involving posting in different places and tagging and uploading images. But I know from previous experience that I know how to do all those things and they go quickly once I get started. Focusing on that list instead of letting my resistance take over helps a lot.

What you can do right now: think of some ways you can start making your bed tomorrow. Develop those habits and notice how much they help you and set you up for further success.

Podcast 090: Being human

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This is podcast 90 and it’s about being human. “I’m only human, of flesh and blood I’m made. I’m only human, born to make mistakes.” I love 80’s music and that song in particular. Sung by: The Human League! A bunch of humans! And that’s my subject for today.

I AM only human and I assume you are too. We have our systems and our technology but since WE are human we’re fallible. Sometimes our systems will fail because they’re badly designed, but often it’s really operator error, right?

It’s inevitable. That’s why I always recommend finding the simplest and easiest systems, the ones that you can quickly get back on track or rejigger when you, the operator, muck them up for some reason. Any system that has a lot of moving parts or requires a high level of expertise to use is an accident waiting to happen, in my opinion.

Just as the perfect diet can’t make you thinner without help from you, the perfect system can’t keep you organized or on time unless you participate. The BEST diet is the one you stay on! It may not be perfect, but you stayed on it and achieved your goal. The best system is the one that works for the glorious, fallible you, most of the time.

If the perfect system that will keep us organized and on time all the time doesn’t exist, what’s a human to do?

Tricks. Hacks. And being okay with the idea of “good enough.” Which is what most of my podcasts are about.

We humans suffer from akrasia which causes us to do stuff that we know is a bad idea. Akrasia is a Greek word, an ancient Greek word. That means we’ve known this about ourselves for a couple thousand years and probably before that, but before we had philosophers to describe it and be stumped by it. In case you thought the Internet or cell phones were ruining life as we know it, rest assured, it was always ruined. The true source of disruption and distraction lives inside your head.

Akrasia isn’t curable, BUT you can relieve its symptoms by embracing the tricks and hacks I suggest. Those tricks can be as simple as setting your bedside clock 10 minutes fast to fool yourself into getting out of bed on time. You know it’s a trick, but it still works. It works a heck of a lot better than trying to summon up the willpower to be a superior being who always springs out of bed the moment the alarm sounds.

I don’t want to have to live up to that, do you? Talk about stress. When people find out what I do for a living they ask, so, how organized is YOUR house? My answer is, it’s organized enough. And I keep things simple enough so that when I put things away, it’s pretty easy to do and doesn’t take much time.

I’m also willing to satisfice. I mentioned that concept a few podcasts back. It means to choose an acceptable option instead of holding out for a better one, which may not even exist and anyway I don’t have time to wait for it.

Being human means accepting imperfection and moving forward anyway. Is the phone calendar I use the best one? Probably not. But it works as well as I need it to and I don’t have time to research another one, let alone learn how to use it.

This is a big danger zone for many of my clients. They get excited about a brand new app and spend hours reading about it and then learning it and in the meantime, they miss appointments because now they’re using two calendars or they forgot to press a button.

Or worse, they blew off writing a new book chapter or working on their big project proposal in order to fool around with this new gadget. That’s the bigger problem. At the end of the day, are you going to get where you want to go and reach your goals?

Here what you can do right now. Spend some time being human and reflecting on how well you’re doing with this life thing. Not to be judgmental, but to make sure you are directing your time and energy to live the life you want to. This is big picture stuff, sure. But, as I’ve said before, that’s the only reason to be organized and manage your time well.

Set yourself up so that when things go wrong you can recover and keep going. Practice stepping back to check that you are still on course.

Podcast 89: Finding the real truth

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This is podcast 89 and it’s about finding the real truth. I had a breakthrough with a client yesterday. We’ve been talking for months about different storage options. She has a very specific preference, even though it has significant problems. Basically, she wants open shelving instead of cabinets or bins.

But yesterday she suddenly agreed to closed storage. What happened? I asked her some questions and I figured out the answer. Her preference was based solely on reacting to a problem with the current storage, not on what would actually be best. She was still consumed with how ineffective the current system was for her and that made her gravitate toward a system that was the complete opposite in order never to have those problems again.

As I’ve mentioned before, being reactive is not a powerful place to be. It means you’re stuck in the past, or you’re making decisions based on a set of conditions handed to you, rather than envisioning and creating something better. When you are reactive, you respond only to what is currently provoking you instead of the situation as a whole.

I’m not saying it’s not difficult to get stuck here. We react emotionally to things and those reactions can guide our actions without our totally being aware of it. Hence the reason I keep mentioning how important it is to develop your objectivity and your ability to notice what’s really happening.

The questions I asked my client were designed to tease out that thought process so we could be clear about what she really wanted. Turns out, she just wants to find things easily.

Why is this important? My ecourse is based on developing a vision for what you want. That’s how it starts. It’s important because if you don’t know what you want, you’ll have a harder time getting it, and may never get it. You may get something and settle for it and think that’s the best there is. Or, more commonly, you accept the popular or clever or cute solution, or the one that’s on sale. Or, also common, you will give up on trying to fix the problem because none of the options you can see seem like they’ll work.

One way to think of this is to focus on the What and Why, not the How. Stick with what’s happening and why you want something different. Don’t race to the How, which is the solution, because you’re not ready yet.

What my client was doing has a name, I discovered. It’s called problem-based thinking and it’s generally thought of as being pretty ineffective. Problem-based thinking keeps you mired in the unpleasant situation.

Solution-based thinking, on the other hand, frees you to get more positive. First of all, just calling it solution-based thinking lets your mind know that a solution is possible, right? Your on the right track already.

Now, often you have to plow through the muck of the current situation and connect with what you don’t like about it before you can get to thinking about solutions or accurately present the issue to another person. Me, in this case.

Once I understood what was going on, I was able to explain specifically how this alternate system we were talking about would work to give her what she needed and wanted, and also avoid some problems with her initial solution.

It was remarkable how easy the conversation became after that. It was as if she had been battling this problem with all her energy and once she stopped, the tension was gone. She’s now researching potential closed storage candidates.

What you can do now. Think of an issue that’s bothering you a lot, one that you have an emotional reaction to. See if you can step back from it, put the problem down for a bit, and explore whether the problem is really what you think it is, or if something more basic is at the heart of it.

Podcast 088: Not seeing what’s in front of you

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This is Podcast 88 and it’s about not being able to see what’s in front of you because of how it’s defined or named. Naming and defining are important. They help us differentiate things from each other. We assign them attributes that contrast them with other things. The other side of that is they become tied to those attributes and so identified with them that we can’t see them in another light.

Here’s how that becomes a problem.

I have some clients who are makers. Boy, are they ever! They’ve got equipment and machinery and supplies for a huge range of activities including forging knives. It’s a challenge to find room for all this stuff and have it stored in a way that it can be easily used.

This is a common problem. The quantity of your stuff comes to a tipping point when you can no longer have everything you own in easy reach. That’s when you have to start putting things in less-than-handy locations, far from where you’ll use them and maybe needing a ladder to get to. But consider yourself lucky if you do have the space to maximize in this way!

In the case of these clients, they’ve dedicated a room for making and crafts and another room for guests and their future children. Although we’ve sorted and purged out a lot from the craft room, it’s becoming clear that there’s not enough room for all that they want to do in there. I suggested they move to the guest room, which is much bigger than the current room.

But that’s the guest room! my clients tell me. And what about the nursery? In my book, guests don’t need a huge guest room. They’re only visiting and ideally, they haven’t brought a whole bunch of stuff. The craft room, on the other hand, is used every week, sometimes every day, for activities that require space for storage and creating.

As for the future baby, which isn’t even a twinkle in her parents eyes yet, she won’t need much space either. Even if my client gets pregnant tomorrow, they’ll have three more years at least in the bigger crafts room. Well, they hadn’t thought about it that way.

It’s a great example of letting the definition of a room tell you what has to happen in there. They probably decided this room was the guest room/ future nursery when they first moved in. And so it became set in stone. Who would think of doing crafts in the guest room? That doesn’t make sense!

This often happens with people’s home offices. I’ve been shown home offices that clearly haven’t been used in years. Turns out that the person works at the coffee table or the kitchen counter. “Home office” and “where you work” aren’t necessarily the same place.

If you don’t see that distinction, you’ll persist in using a subpar coffee table office. The “real” office will get fixed up nicely but the coffee table stopgap office will lack necessary supplies. A former client built a lovely room in her backyard with plenty of sunlight and garden views to use as her office. But all her active paper and computer and other supplies were on the dining table. The garden office was too cold. So she was unable to commit to either one. She worked at the dining table, but went to the office to use the printer, because the printer belongs in the office. All her files were also in the “real” office. So much extra work and schlepping back and forth!

What labels have you given things that prevent you from seeing their potential? Instead of accepting that rooms or objects are just what everyone calls them, question that. In past episodes I’ve given ideas for increasing your objectivity regarding your own rooms and objects. Try to see things in new light and ask the obvious questions.

In this case, an obvious question I asked my clients was, why not use the bigger room for the activity that requires more space? Since I don’t live there, it was easy for me to judge the rooms by their size rather than their defined purpose. I saw clearly that the problem was not enough space so I looked for more.

What you can do right now: think of a lack or a problem you want to solve, one that you’ve tried unsuccessfully to deal with. See if you can find any assumptions you’ve made that aren’t necessarily true and are limiting your range of options.

Podcast 087: Design thinking, part 2

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This is Podcast 87 and it’s about the other three stages of design thinking: ideate, prototype and test. This carries on from the previous podcast.

Ideate means coming up with ideas to address the problem you identified in phase 2. This is the time to go wild and think up as many ideas as you can. There are lots of ways to approach this and to get your creative thinking going. Nutty ideas, impossible ideas, bring ’em all on. You don’t want to filter at this stage.

Using specific techniques can help because they give you a structure for generating ideas. Having that structure helps you avoid being negative about your own ideas and shooting them down. Back in podcast 71 I talked about how easy it is to sabotage yourself and the tricks you need to resort to to get over that.

An idea generating technique leads you through specific steps. It opens your thinking but also shapes it so that you aren’t flailing around. If you’re flailing, feeling too open to the universe of ideas, that’s when the negative talk can sneak in. Just stay with the program.

Ideation means getting those ideas out of your head and written down. Regular listeners will know how big I am on that idea. You may think you’re clear in your head about what to do. It’s not until you have to put it into words, or pictures if you prefer that kind of idea creation, that you realize how fuzzy it still is and how many pieces are missing.

Start jotting down the ideas that come to mind first. That’s also important. You need to get beyond the easy, obvious ideas to find something better. Again, until you write them down, they’re lurking in your brain calling your attention, say, choose me, choose me! Write them down and get them out of the way.

The cool thing about thinking up lots of ideas is that you don’t really have to know what you’re doing to be successful. The thing is, quote unquote experts can be so blinded by their expertise that they don’t see the non-obvious solutions. Sometimes they don’t even ask the questions because they believe they’ve already been answered.

Now, that’s not to celebrate ignorance. No, no, no. You’ll see that the following steps put your wacko ideas to the test. They have to prove themselves, not just be alternatives to the norm.

If the problem you defined is something like managing all the paper that accumulates on your desk, and you’ve come up with an idea to test, such as a David Allen style weekly review, that’s your prototype. It’s your version of a weekly review; when you do it, what questions you ask yourself, how you handle the paper you come across. To design your own version, you make notes about where you started, which you gathered in the define stage. How much paper is there? Where does it seem to come from? Is this a new problem? Can I identify what’s in the way of solving it? You need to know where you came from to effectively evaluate where you get to.

To start doing that, you move on to prototyping. If you’re creating physical objects, your prototype will also be a physical object, but made of cardboard or some other cheap, easy-to-work-with material. For our purposes, we’ll be prototyping things like paper management systems or to do list methods.

Next is the testing phase. Testing your prototype is basically you trying it out for a few weeks. Do it scientifically so you get good information to troubleshoot with. Many people get caught up in the prototyping phase. They want to keep designing and refining. But you have to start taking action to see if your design will work in the real world, your world. Just as you need to write down your ideas to clarify them, you need to put your ideas into practice to test them.

Those are the five stages. But they aren’t necessarily linear. Each informs the other. Most commonly, the testing phase usually leads back to one of the previous ones when the test fails. You go back to prototyping and get a new technique to try. Or you go all the way back to define because you solved the wrong problem or only part of the problem, that didn’t reveal itself until you started testing.

Time to get going! What you can do right now is write down all the obvious ideas that occur to you to solve your problem. Once those are out of the way, see what else bubbles up, or go online and look for brainstorming techniques to try.

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.