Podcast 118: What to do when you’re overwhelmed

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This is podcast 118 and it’s about what to do when you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes, “just do it,” the subject of my previous podcast, isn’t going to work. There are days when stressful situations pile up to the point where you really can’t function, or you can see that you’re operating way below normal and really not getting anything done.

Overwhelm can come from work, your personal life, the world, anywhere. Usually it’s a combination of those things. If you have several big things going on at work, you can get relief at home, where things are orderly and calm. If a relationship issue is stressing you out, diving into work can be a blessing.

Then there are those times when a challenging situation with a colleague is compounded with a cold that won’t go away, depressing headlines in the newspaper and the dog next door that prevented you from sleeping later past 5 am.

Here’s a little sidebar. I just listened to a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal about how stress can be good for you. She wrote a book about this too, called The Upside of Stress. In the talk she mentions a study that showed that the connection between higher risk of death and stress was actually a connection between higher risk of death and the belief that stress is harmful! That’s pretty trippy.

That knowledge alone can help reduce your stress. Your body responds to stress in ways that actually help you get through it rather than harming you. Here are some more ideas to deal with this kind of overwhelm.

Find a way to distract yourself. When you’re at that point where you are no longer contributing, then switch gears. Do something completely different. At the very least, get into motion.

I don’t know about you, but I used to think it was cheating to seek out distractions. Shouldn’t I just keep sitting here and powering through? Gritting my teeth and sticking with it until the thing was done? Stopping felt like giving up, failing even.

Physical activity of any kind is a great distraction from mental or emotional overwhelm. It directs some or all of your attention to your physical body, attention that is now diverted away from the stressful situation. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing, just paying attention to your breath, not breathing in any particular way, will help. That derailment is what we’re looking for.

However, the more demanding the physical activity, the better, because it will occupy more of your attention. A book or movie or TV show that really absorbs you will work too. Ones that take you completely into their world so that your completely forget about the stressful situation.

Here are some specific ideas:

  • Experience nature. Either a walk in the park or a plant or cut flowers to gaze at.
  • Meditate. Close your eyes and do a one minute body scan.
  • Reach out. Call or text someone. Ask how they are, or if they know any good jokes, rather than spending the time talking about your stress. Remember, derailment.
  • Write it out. I’m a huge fan of journaling. Putting thoughts into words and recording them forces me to make my thoughts somewhat coherent and that’s less stressful than the chaotic jumble they feel like in my mind.
  • Shift to a different task. Even if you’ve run out of steam, you may be able to knock out a less important task, and get a boost from checking something off your list.

I suggest keeping a list of overwhelm busters handy; a list on your phone or in Evernote. Or even on a Post It where you’ll see it often. It’s great to have a collection of go-to ideas to relieve stress, but it’s just as important to train yourself to recognize when you’re getting overwhelmed.

In fact, take that a step further and use all these ideas regularly, no matter how you feel. They’re all great ways to maintain your emotional and mental health, not just get it back when overwhelm overtakes you. What you can do right now: start making that list. Tailor it to yourself and your lifestyle. If you have a backyard, that can be your nature option. If you have an upbeat person in your life who’s always happy to hear from you, that person can be your reach out option.

Podcast 117: Just do it!

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This is podcast 117 and it’s called Just do it! I guess I have to mention Nike so they don’t sue me for co-opting their slogan. Here’s some weird trivia for you. That slogan was inspired by murderer Gary Gilmore’s last words before he was executed: “Let’s do it.” Maybe “inspired” isn’t quite the right word there. Anyway, strange, huh?

What I mean by that statement is similar to what I talked about in my podcast “Make decisions, then take action” in January 2017 (if you want to look it up). It’s not enough just to make a decision. If you don’t act on it, you’re still stuck. In The Two Minute Rule episode from September 2016, I talked about getting those little tasks off your list fast instead of procrastinating.

Yesterday I worked with a client on a giant pile of mail she’d put off even opening, much less sorting and processing. She was eager to get to it because the cabinet it was in was now full and a new pile was starting on top of her printer. About a third of the mail went straight to the recycle bin without needing to be opened. By the end we had a small stack to file and a smaller stack of action items. More than 80% was done away with.

I’m making an example of her because of a rebate offer we encountered in the pile. It was for $3 off a bottle of wine. She had the receipt clipped to it but hadn’t filled out the little form. She sighed and said, “I have to do this form, and then I have to get an envelope and then get a stamp.” This was why she’d put it off; it seemed like it would take a bunch of time and energy. Time and energy she predicted she’d have in the future when she saw the form again. Yes, we tend to do this! Unfortunately, we’re usually wrong!

I encouraged her to just fill out the form, stick it in the envelope and put a stamp on it. It would take about two minutes. She wrote out her address. Then she saw she needed the UPC code so she searched around her kitchen for several minutes looking for the bottle. Found it. Added the code. Examined the receipt for the purchase date; not always easy to find, and she’d forgotten by now. Then she dug up an envelope and a stamp; her last one!

I congratulated her for getting that task done, even though with the cost of the stamp she’d really only get about $2.50 back. She looked at the form and smiled but then suddenly frowned and said ‘oh, no!” Turns out the offer expired two weeks ago. So we actually just wasted about ten minutes on it.

And this, my friends, is why you should just do it.

Here are the takeaways. If she’d done it the same day she bought the wine

  • she would have had the bottle handy to get the code from
  • she wouldn’t have had to scrutinize the receipt for the date
  • it never would have gotten into her to do pile
  • she wouldn’t have wasted time over the past three months seeing that form multiple times, pondering filling it out and deciding to pass it over once again. Every time you look at a task and put it off, you create a little anxiety seed that becomes a field of anxiety weeds.
  • Finally, by doing it right away it would only have taken two minutes, or less, without all the searching and agonizing that made it take much, much longer

When you commit to doing tasks the moment they come up, you circumvent resistance. Resistance, according to author Stephen Pressfield, is the strongest force on earth. Resistance comes up when we are confronted with a task that seems hard, or time consuming, or challenging. Every moment we put it off, those negative feelings grow. You may not be entirely conscious of it, but a pile of undone to do’s gnaws at you and erodes your sense of being a productive and competent person.

Conversely, seizing on a task immediately doesn’t give you time to activate resistance. It can also forestall procrastination, the cousin of resistance. According to the Procrastination Research Group (you can look that up online), we suffer from “cognitive distortions” that make us procrastinate, meaning that we routinely misjudge tasks. We think they’ll take longer than they actually will, we believe that we’ll more motivated to do them tomorrow and we’re convinced we have to be in the mood to do them.

What you can do right now: look at your to do list, or an old one that has tasks you’ve been putting off for awhile. Pick the first one that you are capable of doing right now and just plunge in and get through it. Focus on the action of just doing it.

Podcast 116: The perils of storage space

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This is podcast 116 and it’s about the perils of storage space. Are you scared? You should be!

I came across a post on the website Becoming Minimalist, which has some great tips on downsizing for families. This post cited statistics about how much stuff people own and how much room it takes up. Here are some of them.

The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years. That’s from a story on NPR‘s All Things Considered. The story is from 2006 though. From what I’ve seen where I live here in northern California, I think home sizes may have increased even more than triple.

Most of my clients, indeed, most people I know don’t park in their garages because they’re full of stuff. I’ve had people tell me that their perfectly good, medium-sized house is so small that they need the whole garage for storage.

Despite these McMansions, 1 out of every 10 Americans rents offsite storage—this is the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. That’s from the New York Times Magazine. This statistic is now old, ten years old, and once again, I’ll bet the percentage of storage renters could be higher. Here’s why I think that:

On the Spare Foot website, which is a news site about the storage industry, I discovered a US Census Bureau graphic of how much is spent on construction of self storage. In 2015 it was about $1 billion, where it’s been hovering since 2006, and three years later it was $5.5 billion and headed straight upward. Crazy!

The United States has upward of 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. Of those who rent off-site storage, 65 percent have a garage, 47 percent have an attic, and 33 percent a basement. That info is from the Self Storage Association.

No wonder people are overwhelmed!

Do you remember that show from several years ago, Storage Wars? In the show, the contents of storage units that people had stopped paying rent on got auctioned off, sight unseen. In a lot of those cases, this means people paid good money to store things they weren’t even using and then …. they just let them go. All that money they spent, and now they have nothing.

So, I have one thing to say about renting outside storage space: don’t do it! Please! Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I will say that sometimes it’s allowable. Here are a few examples. If your home really is tiny, like a studio apartment, and you need storage for seldom used items such as camping and sports equipment, off season clothes, holiday décor and memorabilia. If you are living somewhere temporarily (maybe you had to move without much notice for a job, or got divorced) but you have concrete plans to move somewhere big enough for your stuff.

I thought I could think of another reason but I can’t. unfortunately, a lot of those temporary situations turn out to drag on and on. The hard decisions that need to be made about what’s in storage get put off and meanwhile, you’re racking up bills.

Here are things you should not be storing; inherited furniture that you don’t like well enough to have it in your own home, clothing that doesn’t fit (unless a child will grow into it soon) and that treadmill you never used. I once had a client who had many pieces of inherited furniture in her garage.

I asked her what her plans were for it and she had none. I suggested that she get rid of her current living room furniture and put these items inside the house. She looked at me with horror. Oh, no, I’d never want this stuff in my house! She said. She didn’t even like it.

Clothes that don’t fit don’t fit in your life anymore. A few boxes of clothes in storage far away probably aren’t going to inspire you to lose weight. If you do lose weight, why not treat yourself to some wonderful brand new clothes? And that treadmill? If the reason you put it in storage is that it was mostly being used to hang clothes on, it’s not faring any better in a storage unit.

The funny, and sad, part of this mania for storage is that people don’t want to be wasteful by getting rid of perfectly good stuff, yet they waste tons of money storing and not using it.

The author of the Becoming Minimalist post I mentioned at the beginning says he was initially motivated to pare down when he was cleaning out his garage on a lovely afternoon and his neighbor commented that maybe he didn’t need to have all that stuff, stuff that was taking his attention away from playing with his kid and enjoying the day.

This is the crux of it. If maintaining your stuff takes time that you’d otherwise use to have fun or do something meaningful, it’s time to reconsider.

What you can do right now: If you have a storage unit, evaluate its contents ruthlessly. Make a list of pros and cons of spending money to stash all that stuff. Consider decluttering your home to make room for what you really want to keep. Treat space as finite, meaning its contents are also finite.

Podcast 114: Organizing systems for growth

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This is Podcast 114 and it’s about organizing systems to cope with growth and change. I’m about to start an office organizing project. This small company is growing fast and they’ve increased their office space by a little more than half. And suddenly chaos is busting out all over.

In fact, they’ll probably have to move out of their current space entirely in a few more months because they’ll outgrow it. I don’t know what the new space will be like, so I’ll focus on creating strategies they can use anywhere.

Where did this chaos come from? Part of it is a common problem that most businesses face when they grow past a certain point. This is the problem of formalizing and codifying.

When a company is small, especially if it’s just one person, procedures and methods happen organically and are easily learned by everyone. Mistakes or gaps in information are caught and corrected quickly. Filing systems can be fairly eccentric when only a few people need to use them.

At a certain point in a company’s growth, that simplicity becomes a complication. New people don’t understand the filing system and there are no written guidelines to help them. Work starts piling up because new people need to be trained to do things that previously everyone just seemed to know how to do. That training takes time that hasn’t been budgeted for and during the growth phase, people aren’t likely to have spare time.

In this particular office, many of the cabinets are empty, yet things are piled on desks and tables. No one knows where to put them or who to ask about it. The office manager is now managing a space and population more than twice the size of the previous one so her capacity is maxed out.

It seems like a simple thing, right? Just figure out a spot to put the copier paper and tell everyone. But there are a lot of variables here. Is there any logical space near the copier? If so, is there room in there? If there’s not, can something be moved to make room?

If it’s a cabinet, with doors, how do new people know where the paper is when they can’t easily see it? Is it easy to access? That last question is really important. If something is difficult to put away, people are inclined not to do it.

There’s also the company culture question of whether it’s okay to have things out and visible or they should be put away. This is another issue that gets worse when populations grow. A handful of people creating a few stacks here and there may not bother anyone, but the more people and things and procedures there are, well, the clutter can grow exponentially.

That means decisions and policies have to be set up for how a space is organized and maintained. Ideally, there’s buy in from all those involved. Again, making it as easy to maintain as possible while still achieving the desired uncluttered look is what you aim for.

Responsibility also needs to be assigned for maintaining this look. If you ask everyone to do something, no one will. They’ll all assume someone else will do it. It will probably fall to the office manager to do the maintenance, or to direct specific other people to do it.

In this case, the facilities manager is emphasizing that employees only keep what they truly need and love to have around, but strive to minimize. This office, like many these days, is open plan. That means that everyone sees everyone else’s stuff, all the time. If you have a cubicle you can get away with more clutter since you’re the main one who sees it, but not when you’re sitting in the open.

Whether people realize it or not, visual clutter is distracting and stressful. Almost every time I do a decluttering session with a client, she looks around in wonder and breathes a sigh of relief. She feels calmer. All the stuff we decluttered had become background noise. she saw it but didn’t really see it, so it was hard for her to grasp how much pleasanter the space would be without it.

Ideally, we’ll be able to come up with a clutter level policy that everyone is happy with, so they’re more likely to comply. Just like organizing in a family or a couple, there will be negotiating to do on either side.

The parallel situation for people at home is any big change: new baby, kids going to college, new career, new house, etc. Such changes often throw your organizing systems into chaos. Maybe it’s time for some formalizing or codifying in your home. A simple example is the family chore chart, which lists chores and assigns them to specific people at specific times.

What you can do right now: think about comparing your home to a company that’s growing. Are there places where it would be helpful to have a system to do things, so they stay more in control and create less work for you?

Podcast 113: Konmari method pros and cons

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This is Podcast 113 and it’s about the Konmari method, Marie Kondo’s magic way of tidying up. There are pros and cons to the method. I’ll talk about why it might not work for you and why that’s okay, and how you can tweak it to suit you.

What’s good about the Konmari method? She wants you to take everything you own out and examine it. Hold it in your hands. Experience it. From her perspective, you are investigating to see whether it sparks joy.

In my view, you need to do this in order to consider each possession thoughtfully before making a decision to keep it or not. I believe that everything you own has an effect on you, however small it might be. Each item has a bit of a pull on you, a draw on your energy, because it’s taking up space in your home and in the back of your mind. You are responsible for maintaining, cleaning, repairing and storing all these things, not to mention remembering where they are when you want them.

Now, I know that sounds kind of woo woo, but here’s how I know it’s true. Whenever I finish decluttering a space with a client, the client invariably feels lighter and freer. Really, every time. They may not have been consciously aware of the burden of their clutter, but once it’s gone, boy, they can feel it. They sigh, as if a load’s been lifted off them. So that’s my reasoning behind sorting through absolutely everything.

Clients sometimes tell me, oh, we can skip over that drawer. I know what’s in there. I’m going to keep all that stuff. When they say that, it can mean one of several things. It can mean that the drawer contains items they feel they can’t give me a good reason for keeping and they’re worried I’ll challenge them.

Or the things in there spark emotions other than joy that they don’t want to experience right now. Or they’re not prepared to make decisions about these particular items. Or they actually believe they have vetted everything in the drawer, which most of the time turns out not to be true.

All those reasons are versions of the burdening effect of clutter. Kondo writes about thanking your socks at the end of the day for their service and some readers have been put off by treating their socks as if they’re alive. But I find that people do have strong feelings about their possessions, good and bad.

There are the ones that spark joy and the ones that spark dread or anxiety. Joyful possessions are easy to identify. The others, not so much. That’s because we don’t usually want to dwell on those negative feelings. We learn to navigate around the feelings and the stuff to live our daily lives.

It’s usually the aggregation of stuff that causes those bad feelings, not individual items, so that makes it confusing. You don’t generally pick up one book or one coaster and realize, yes, this is the thing that’s causing clutter in my house! That item needs to be considered in the context of all the other items so the total quantity of items can be reduced to only the items that spark joy.

The other main thing I think is good about the Konmari method is the focus on joy. Of course, the problem with that is our lives are filled with things we simply need to have around, joyful or not. Things like toothbrushes, paperclips, TV remotes and sponges. The spark joy test needs to be accompanied by the usefulness test. My question to clients is twofold: do you need it? Do you love it? Everything you keep should fall into one of those categories. Let’s call that the Konmari Plus method.

What I don’t like about the method is its impracticality. Most people aren’t in a position to go through everything they own in one fell swoop. I think her folding techniques are verging on OCD. Having to empty my purse everyday would mean spending an unrealistic amount of time and effort to put back together each morning. It’s unlikely that your home will stay decluttered forever after doing the Kondo technique once.

However, each of these points does have some reason behind it and you can tweak them to make them work for you. Here’s how.

It’s perfectly okay to do your decluttering over time. Of course, the results will be more dramatic if you spend many consecutive days on it, but if you can’t, you’ll still be fine. If you have a plan to follow and a commitment to execute it, you’ll be successful.

I do fold garments in drawers so that they stand upright. I like this method because nothing gets forgotten by being invisible at the bottom of the drawer. I can see all my athletic tops at once, for example, so I can easily pick the one I want. My folding method is merely adequate, though. I don’t spend any more time folding a t shirt than I would if I laid it flat in the drawer. It looks tidy-ish and that’s fine with me.

I believe in regular purse decluttering. For me, the trigger to declutter is when I have trouble finding something in there because a mass of receipts, tissues, gum wrappers, business cards and whatnot has built up. That inspires me to dump it out and get rid of the junk.

This is an example of organic decluttering. Instead of decluttering on a schedule or doing it all at once, you recognize when an area needs purging because it’s become inconvenient or hard to use. I find this method more motivating because I can start right away solving the problem I just identified.

Finally, your home will probably not stay uncluttered. Lives change, needs change, lifestyles change. That’s okay. If you have embraced decluttering, your attitude toward things has probably changed though. You’ll be more appreciative of the organized space you’ve created. You’ll be more discerning about what you allow into your home. You’ll be more mindful of your patterns of acquiring. Those mindshifts will help a lot in maintaining an uncluttered home.

What you can do now: set aside an amount of time that works in your life, that doesn’t require you to bump other activities or stress you out. Try the Konmari Plus method. Ask if each item inspires joy. If it doesn’t, then ask if you truly need to have it for practical or legal reasons, not just because it might come in handy someday. Limit needed things to what you need now.

Podcast 112: Daily habits

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This is Podcast 112 and it’s about habit development. I recently started coaching through an app called Coach.me. Their approach is to focus on creating small daily habits.

The daily part is key. If you can do your new, positive habit even just for a minute every day, that’s better than doing an hour once a week. Once you get momentum with doing whatever it is every day, you can progress to improving the quality or the time you spend.

It’s a big deal to form a new habit. Anything that crowbars you out of your rut takes energy to get started, to overcome that inertia. That’s why it’s totally fair to start your habit small. That minute you spend every day creates the initial push that will soon develop momentum, like rolling a boulder.

This is a great way to form a habit that you may be resisting because it seems too daunting. But anyone can do something for one minute a day. It’s important not to dwell on progress at this point. You’re just developing consistency.

Consistency is what makes habits so easy. They become automatic, meaning you don’t have to spend time and energy on them. You don’t have to feel motivated to do them. It’s as if you’ve off loaded some work onto a robot that does it for you, freeing up your attention for more important things. Consistency is the foundation you need before you can add to your habit.

I’ve talked before about setting up your environment to support your new habit. Common examples are to lay out your exercise clothes the night before so you are ready to hit the treadmill in the morning, or stocking your fridge with healthy food if you’re trying to lose weight.

I’m a big believer in positive motivation. If I have to do something or must do something, I feel an internal tightening up, a resistance to it. Unfortunately, we often think of habits we want to develop as being ways to start doing things we don’t actually want to do, or stop doing things we like to do, like eat food.

The trick here is to structure your habit to entice you, make it something you actively want to do. I recently developed the habit of meditating every morning. I use a timer that includes gong sounds at the beginning and end. I love the sound of them. They feel calming and centering to me and that makes me look forward to sitting down to meditate.

If you want to get better with your to do list, you could write it with a special pen that makes you happy. You could use a special pad. If you use an app, you can often change the colors on the screen and move things around to suit you. Do what you can to make it yours and make it appealing.

Back in podcast 82 I talked about piggybacking your habits. That means pairing the new habit you want to create with one you already have. This could mean building a morning routine, or inserting one more thing into your routine. My meditation session occurs after I feed my cat, Lars. That sequence is important because for the most part it keeps Lars from running around and jumping on my lap while I meditate. My morning begins with opening the living room shade, feeding Lars and then sitting for my meditation.

Note that the paired habit doesn’t have to be related to what you want to add. I’ve also talked about finding interstices of time. I mentioned that in podcast 33. Interstices are gaps between events, places where you transition from one activity to another.

One of them is coming home from work. You probably have a little routine already. Put down your bag and keys, hang up your coat or jacket, take off your shoes and put on slippers. After that maybe you go to the kitchen to figure out dinner, or look at the newspaper or chat with your family.

The interstice happens after the slippers. Before moving on to dinner prep or whatever it is, you have a small period of time that you can expand a bit to add a habit. It could be going to the bedroom to put away clothes and make the bed, as I suggest in my book, Five Minutes to a Relaxing Bedroom. It could be taking ten minutes to review your day at work and jot some notes or even make a to do list for tomorrow.

You could also push it further back and have your gap be between leaving work and arriving home. Start thinking of this time as expandable, a place where you can fit errands on the way home. In this example, the habit is not so much shopping, but regularly asking yourself if there’s an errand you can do before you get home. This is a great way to avoid the honey, you forgot the milk again! Scenario.

Those are six tips to help you make some good habits: do it daily, start small, set up your environment, make it pleasing, pair it with an existing habit, and finding time gaps. Mix and match. Try them all! January is over, but it’s never too late to improve your life for the better.

What you can do now: it’s easiest to begin with the first two: a small habit that you commit to doing every day. Let yourself just do that for as long as it takes to become consistent.

Podcast 111: Quit sorting

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This is Podcast 111 and it’s called quit sorting. Like last time, this podcast is based on what I’ve gotten from reading a book called Algorithms to Live By. There are a bunch of sorting algorithms. Sorting is a common task a computer is asked to do.

I’m not going to discuss all the methods in detail but I’ll tell you that three main ones are bubble sort, insertion sort and merge sort. Since we’re talking about computers, mostly what they are sorting is numbers. With bubble sort, the computer compares two numbers and puts them in order (whatever order is required), then it goes to the numbers in the two and three place and sorts them, and on down the line. This sort repeats until the numbers are in the desired order.

Insertion sort takes numbers individually and puts them in order into a new queue, so it only needs one pass to do so. Merge sort divides up the numbers by halves until it gets to individual numbers. Then it merges them back together in ordered pairs, which combine with other ordered pairs, etc., until all the numbers are sorted. Got it?

Okay! I thought that was worth describing because although computers do this quickly with numbers, when you do it with physical stuff it can be pretty time consuming and tedious. This is why we have piles! No one wants to bubble sort their piles and I don’t blame them.

There are situations where using one of these sort methods makes sense, such as in your clothes closet. I favor insertion sorting for clothing, combined with purging your cache (listen to the previous podcast to learn about that). This means you take all your clothes out of the closet and put them on the bed. Look at the empty hanging bar and assign areas for types of garments. One example is short sleeve tops, long sleeve tops, skirts, pants, dresses and jackets.

Now pick up garments at random and ask yourself first if you still want them. If no, donate or toss. If yes, put them back on the hanging rack in the area you’ve assigned above. If you want to get fancy you can buy clothes rack dividers like the ones you see at stores to separate your categories. Continue discarding and putting away clothes until they’re all back in. Done!

I just watched a video that described the best way for sorting books on a bookshelf but honestly it looks like too much lifting to me. Books can be heavy! This method calls for moving 10 books at a time, sometimes just one spot over. For numbers, that makes sense. For physical things, not so much.

I’d go with bubble sort for books. It’ll take a while, but you only move one book at a time. Plus, with each iteration, your books are more sorted, so you can chip away at the sorting when you have time, since you’re probably not a robot who can stand in front of the bookshelf for 47 hours getting it completely in order.

Time to get to the real topic of this podcast, not sorting at all. There are plenty of areas in your home and office that you should just not bother to sort. It’s a waste of time. One such area is email. I’m not a fan of folders in my email app. I do have a few, but they are basically archive folders, places where I stash stuff that I rarely look at but when I do I want them to be in the same place.

I also see the utility of having folders for work projects if you find yourself constantly referring back to email conversations for information not recorded elsewhere, or it’s important to have an immediately available paper trail. Otherwise, folders often turn into lots of little trash bins that you fritter away time organizing and tending to.

If you never sort any of your email, how do you find a particular one again? Well, there’s the handy dandy search function that lets you find anything on your computer provided you know some key words to search for. It’s not instant. It may take a few searches to get the exact thing you’re looking for.

But! And this is a big but. You have already saved a bunch of time by not sorting up front, so the time it takes you to find this one email is already extra time. That’s the concept I’m getting at. If the chances of needing to find any one thing are small, sorting is not called for. It’s overkill. It’s a waste of time.

You can apply this to physical paper files too. I always recommend broad folder topics because subdividing is too time consuming. In my experience, people like to file their bills into folders by vendor. But ask yourself, when is the last time you looked at any of those bills? I’m talking about garden variety bills like phone or energy provider. Just put them into one big folder that’s naturally arranged by date.

Back to the books. Mine are organized by topic and that’s it. I don’t mind hunting a bit and I can’t be bothered to put a book back exactly where I found it. Another non-sorting spot is holiday décor. Half the fun of decorating is getting all your stuff out and looking at it again! I’d lump keepsakes in here too. Most of the time you won’t be searching for a particular item; you just want to feel some nostalgia.

Here’s what you can do now: Find a spot where you’re doing too much sorting. To determine that, ask yourself what the point of the sorting is. “Because they’re all phone bills” is not a good answer. Your answer needs to be based on why you might want them in the future. Make the search worth the cost.

Podcast 110: What’s in your cache?

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This is podcast 110 and it’s about algorithms! If you have math fear, please don’t run away. This isn’t going to be about math. An algorithm, as far as I can figure out, is a process to achieve a particular result. It’s not a single rule or formula. It involves a number of steps.

A friend suggested a book to me called Algorithms to Live By which is about the computer science of human decisions. We rely on computers to be rational and logical and not swayed by the messiness of human lives. But we also use them to help with human issues such as when to leave things to chance and how to deal with overwhelming choices.

The chapter I’m reading now is about caching. In computer terms, the cache is a subset of memory where things are stored temporarily and usually the items in there are frequently used. Other data is stored in places that are less accessible than the cache. In your computer, as RAM, random access memory, or storage. This dovetails quite nicely with how you should organize your physical stuff. Keep the things you use a lot close at hand, and the ones you don’t farther away and less accessible. The authors even quote Martha Stewart!

Even with exabytes of memory, computers have to organize their storage space to maximize speed. There are several methods of doing that. The ones in the book are random eviction; First in, first out; and least recently used.

Surprisingly, random eviction works, mainly because managing your cache of stuff at all, whether on your computer or in your closet, is better than not doing it. That means randomly selecting items that don’t get to stay out and close at hand and putting them farther away. Another reason it works is that things you use a lot will end up back in the cache anyway pretty quickly.

First in, first out, means that you toss out stuff you’ve had the longest. Supposedly, Martha Stewart phrased this as “How long have I had it?” I couldn’t find an attribution for this online, other than the quotation in the book. From an organizer’s point of view, I think this is a pointless question. There are many things we keep for a long time, even forever, that we don’t want to get rid of, and sometimes shouldn’t get rid of. Age has nothing to do with utility or value.

The next method makes sense though. That’s the least recently used criteria. You could relate that to the age criteria in that something brand new hasn’t enough history of use to be evaluated yet, while something old that is almost never used (or loved and appreciated) has got a lot of points against it.

How does this work on your desk? It means the files and books and materials that you’re using for a current project are on the desk, but ones you used for a now-completed project, or that you’ve acquired for future use are stored in drawers or cabinets and not on your desk. That applies to supplies also. You keep your stapler on the desk, but the box of staples is in the cabinet.

At home, you have salt and pepper on the table all the time, but the other spices are in a cabinet. You have the towel you’re using on the bathroom rack, but the rest of the towels are in the linen closet. Your daily workout gear is in a bureau drawer but gear for winter sports is in the garage during the summer.

Here’s a variation I found on Wikipedia: Time aware Least Recently Used. This means the data has a time stamp on it because at some point it will no longer be useful and will be replaced or deleted. You could apply this to clothes you realize you just don’t wear anymore, old newspapers and any product that has an expiration date.

Then there’s a variation on least recently used which is Least-frequently used. That’s a helpful criteria to take into account. You might have just used that three hole punch, but it’s the first time in two years. That has a bearing on whether you want to cache it or not. It applies to holiday décor too. You only use it once a year, but you definitely use it.

So what’s in your cache? What are the things that, based on the algorithm of your choice, deserve to stay out and accessible? You’re already naturally using some kind of algorithm, even if it’s random eviction, but you can up your game by thinking of how often and how recently you’ve used things.

You’ve probably been prompted to clear the cache on your computer or browser. It saves things you’ve used recently but it gets full unless you clear it. In that case, it sweeps the cache out completely; no algorithm needed.

You can be more selective, but you need to keep your cache under control or you have everything out all the time. Podcast 9 was about the 10 minute tidy up. That’s cache clearing, plain and simple. Put away the things you’ve used, choosing either nearby or farther away storage spots.

I cautioned against using random eviction in that podcast because you run the risk of shoving a bunch of miscellaneous items into a closet just to get them out of the way, but retrieving them again on demand is much harder than if you put them into assigned spots. In some instances this kind of cache clearing is indicated, such as when guests are coming over and you’ve been too busy to clear off the table.

I realize I talked about this method in podcast 106 when I mentioned using big trash bags to clear out my college dorm room so I could concentrate on writing a paper. But! I always went back to empty out that bag and get things to where they needed to go.

What you can do right now: take a look at a nearby cluttered surface. What things do you use a lot and can stay? What things have you recently used and most likely will again soon, so they can stay too? Remember that your cache is limited, although you get to choose that limit. Try to be strict about what remains in cache and what needs to go back to storage.

Podcast 109: Delegating

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Hi, gang! It’s almost the end of the year. I’ve been doing this podcast for two and a half years now. When I look at my stats I see that people are listening to the whole thing! Excellent. I purposely make it short and cut out the fluff so you won’t want to turn it off.

I’m also excited about how many great reviews and ratings I have on itunes. I’m up to 103 ratings, almost all five star, and 24 reviews. Whee! I came up with a sentence that summarizes the podcast that’s ready for you to tweet.

Here it is: Short, do-able tips to manage your time, your stuff and Organize your Life with Clutter Coach Claire #organize #timemanagement #productivity. I am @ClaireTompkins on Twitter. You can find this in the show notes on my blog if you want to copy it from there. Thanks in advance! Okay, onward.

This is podcast 109 and it’s about delegating. Delegating is a critical skill to master if you want to get ahead in your career. It means many things. It means clearly and concisely handing off jobs to employees and mentoring them to work independently and not micromanage them.

If you’re self employed, it could mean hiring a virtual assistant to free up your time for higher level planning and strategizing that only you can do, or purchasing content for your website. At home, it could mean paying people to do things for you such as cleaning, or, my favorite, get the kids to start pitching in at home, not only to give you more time, but to teach them important life skills, even if they break a few dishes along the way.

Delegation is often mentioned as not only one of the most important skills to learn, but one of the most difficult. That’s because it involves soft skills such as trust and releasing control. It gets into fuzzy areas that make people worry about not being valued at work, or losing credibility and respect.

People understandably can get attached to specific jobs that they do. They’re proud of their work and get kudos for it. Then they get that longed for promotion and now they’re thrown into a new pond with new tasks they haven’t mastered and little of the comforting feelings of accomplishment they used to enjoy.

This ownership of a job and reluctance to let it go can bleed into perfectionism. That’s when you are convinced that no one will do a job as well as you can, so you need to keep doing it. The truth is, the first part may be correct, but you still have to let it go. Certainly no one will do it the way you do. But when release control, you may discover that the job gets done in a new, creative way that might even be better than what you used to do.

Lack of delegation holds up the whole parade. It wastes time and overworks the folks who don’t delegate and frustrates the ones who could be delegated to.

To illustrate what I mean and to offer a bit of comic relief, listen to what’s happening down on the farm.

Howdy, Farm Hand Joe! Welcome to the farm. I see you’re ready to do the plowin’. You look plenty strong. But I ain’t decided which field to plant yet, so you can’t plow.

Howdy do, Farm Hand Jill! I know you want to get started cultivatin’ the soil. That’s what I hired ya for. But I ain’t showed you how to do it yet and by golly it’s just easier to do it ma-self.

Well, hey there, Farm Hand Sarah! I know you got the know-how to plant the seeds. That’s mighty fine. But I cain’t give you any seeds till I set down and figure out what to plant.

Our poor farm hands are left to sit on their hands while Farmer Dave struggles to keep the farm going pretty much by himself. That don’t make no sense!

What you can do right now: look around for places in your life, either at work or at home, where you could be delegating tasks that are taking you away from more important jobs, that someone else needs to be mentored to do, or that another person might even do better. Remember that nothing is perfect and you aren’t the ruler of the Universe and that’s a good thing!

Happy holidays and see you next year!

Podcast 108: Passive attention

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This is Podcast 108 and it’s about passive attention. Back in podcast 83 I talked about paying attention, about mindfulness. It’s a critical skill for being more effective and getting things done. It’s related to focus, but it’s a little different.

Focus is goal-oriented and active. Mindfulness is more passive. It’s about experiencing rather than creating. Both are necessary. Focus is what keeps you working steadily on one task instead of scattering your time and energy. Mindfulness is the larger scope of where your time and energy is going in relation to everything else. Focus is about doing and mindfulness is about being.

Doing is invigorating. Even when it’s stressful, we often like the feeling of being in motion and taking action. It’s very satisfying, especially when we see the results of our action right away. In this western culture, we associate success with doing. Notdoing feels like taking time off, or being lazy.

Butnot doing is as beneficial to doing as sleep is to waking. If we didn’t sleep (or skimped on it, as so many people do these days) we wouldn’t be doing much while we’re awake. We need that down time for body rejuvenation and mental and emotional processing. We need the absence of doing while we’re asleep to get anything done.

Mindfulness provides rejuvenation and renewal while we go about our days. Simple things like noticing how the leaves are turning as you drive down the street to work in the morning, or feeling the weight of a door you open against your hand. These are small things. They’re already happening. You don’t need to create them or even look for them. Just let them come in.

It’s not just experiencing those things, but taking another moment to be consciously aware of them, letting that sight of the beautiful trees or that physical sensation of the door’s weights come into your mind and take some space there. It’s turning off the mental soundtrack briefly for another type of experience to come in.

Just as meditation does, this reflection helps ground you and give you perspective on all your activities. If you have a particularly busy day, you can punctuate it with these moments of mindfulness and slow it down a bit.

When I say slow it down, I don’t mean take time with it. The paradoxical thing about these moments is that they can be very brief and still have a great impact. A few seconds of noticing delightful trees along one block can stay with you all day, or all week. It’s a moment of grace you can come back to time and again.

The other paradoxical quality is that these fleeting moments change the quality of the time you spend doing. You may not get more time in your day, but your doing time will be focused in a deeper, more concentrated way. You’ll spend less time getting off track and bringing yourself back again; that’s a time saver right there. Since you’ve allowed yourself to step back and see the larger picture, you can allow yourself to commit fully to whatever you are doing, knowing it’s the right way to spend your time.

But, you say, how do I do this when I’m always so busy? Always running from one thing to the next? Like any habit, it can take time to develop. Make it as easy as possible. Give yourself reminders like alarms, visual aids or written notes. These are ways to provide yourself with a mini meditation before you go on to the next thing.

Try an alarm that goes off every weekday before you have lunch. Alarm is a bad word though, isn’t it? Luckily, with smart phones you can choose the type of sound you want to hear. You can have a soft chime or even a meditation bell as your alarm. When it goes off, take a breath and let the morning go and welcome your break for lunch. That’s all.

A visual aid could be an image that you find relaxing or pleasing, or a crystal or stuffed animal or other small object that makes you happy. Put it in a place where you’ll see it easily, but not constantly. If it’s at your desk, have it in a spot where you need to turn your head to see it, otherwise it’s a visual nag or, worse, it fades into the background and you stop seeing it. When you turn to look at it, you can enter into that small space of stillness for a few moments and then go on with your day.

Put a Post-It on your front door or in a spot where you’ll see it when you leave the house for the day. Find a phrase to write on it that inspires you to pause and take in the words. It could be an intention to have a peaceful day. Here are some more I found online searching for mindfulness quotations: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.” And “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” Those are from Thict nat hahn and Pema Chodron.

Like so many things I podcast about, this is a simple thing to do, but takes a bit of effort to work it into your life regularly. A little bit goes a long way!

What you can do right now: try one of the three suggestions I gave to bring passive attention into your life; audio reminder, object reminder or visual word-based reminder. See how bringing a little ease into every day makes the day more productive and relaxed at the same time.