Podcast 128: Time scorpions

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This is podcast 128 and it’s about finding the hidden ways your time is being spent. These are things that are hiding in plain sight but we don’t notice them because they’re always there, or we discount how much time they take, or they are so habitual that we truly can’t see them. But it’s not about rooting them out. It’s about noticing them.

A few years ago in a podcast called “How much time do you really have?” I mentioned the concept of time sharks. I read about it in Lee Silber’s book about organizing for creative folks. It’s an older book, but still great. I recommend it!

The time sharks exercise is to count up the hours in a day you spend doing things. All the time working, sleeping, commuting, eating, cleaning, etc. It’s a great idea. People are usually unpleasantly surprised to find out how little free time they really have.

Sharks are big. They’re easy to count. In fact, they’re pretty hard to miss. However, there are other, smaller, ways we spend time that are easy to miss, but they’re worth searching for because they add up. They are small, yet they deserve to be noticed. Let’s call them time scorpions.

Besides being small, time scorpions occur occasionally, not regularly. As I’ve said before, doing something every day is one of the easiest ways to create a habit. The tasks that occur on an irregular schedule are harder to become habit. That makes them time scorpions. You don’t include them in your bathroom time budget, so it’s easy to forget that you do need SOME time for them.

One time scorpion I’ve started noticing in my life is cutting my fingernails. After I cut them, I usually file them a bit to get the rough edges off. It only takes a few minutes but I count it because it’s not part of my regular bathroom routine.

Nail cutting occurs occasionally. There’s no set schedule. It’s not once a week or once a month. It’s when I look down at them and realize they need cutting. That time has to come from somewhere.

The bathroom category, on the other hand, is a time shark. It includes regular tasks like showering, shaving, and brushing your teeth. Those are things you do every time you’re in the bathroom for your daily routine. You probably have a pretty clear idea of how long this bathroom routine takes every day. Time scorpions are wild cards.

Sometimes I get up and cut my nails on the spot. This is another characteristic of time scorpions, that they’re free-floating tasks not attached to a time of day. Time sharks are single tasks or a continuous sequence of related tasks that generally occur at the same time each day. They don’t randomly interrupt other things you’re doing like scorpions do.

Here are some other scorpions I’ve noticed: cleaning the cat box, taking out the trash and putting gas in the car. I do all those things dependent on the need to do them, not on a regular timetable.

Now here’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you how to eliminate those scorpions or do them more efficiently, but I’m going to take a left turn.

I was happy to notice the scorpions because I want to be aware of how I spend my time. As I’ve said before, there’s no way to improve the way you spend your time unless you know where it’s going to begin with.

When I say “improve” I don’t mean get more done in less time. That’s never been my thing, just as it’s never been my thing to organize stuff before deciding whether it should even be kept.

Here’s the reason to hunt down those scorpions. It’s not to kill them. It’s to refine your attention to where time is going. It’s noticing that you’re standing in the bathroom cutting your fingernails. It’s realizing that this activity takes place over a certain amount of time.

It’s understanding that life is a series of moment that keeps moving forward no matter what you’re doing. Sure, you might look back and feel like you’ve wasted a lot of time. But right now, there’s time happening. In the five minutes since this podcast started, things have happened in your life. Good, bad, happy, sad, neutral, even boring.

These are the moments of your life and they’re valuable just for that reason. They deserve your attention. Isn’t it better to come to the end of a day and know that you worked, walked the dog, cut your nails, talked to a friend and did some laundry, rather than not having any idea where your day went?

What you can do right now: Be in the moment. Whatever you’re doing right now, really own it. Notice that time is passing and that’s perfectly okay.

Podcast 127: Tidy vs. organized

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This is podcast 127 and it’s about tidy vs. organized. A lot of the time, they go together. If your possessions have homes and make sense and they get put back in those homes when not in use, tidiness will usually result. If an item’s home is 2/3rds of the way down a big, precarious pile of paper, it’s organized, but not that tidy.

My dad was a big time piler who was also organized. He could disappear behind stacks of paper and emerge seconds later with the exact thing he was looking for. I often picture him sitting at his desk surrounded by books and papers in front of him, on the table behind and stuffed into the bookshelves next to him. Happy as a clam.

So, you don’t have to be tidy to be organized. I mention tidiness and tidying up a lot in this podcast though, so I want to clarify that what it mean is spending time to put away things you are no longer using to clear space for other activities and to lessen visual distraction. And I mean putting them in the places you’ve designated for them, not simply opening a nearby drawer and shoving everything in so it’s out of sight. No, no, no.

In fact, focusing on tidiness can have almost nothing to do with organizing and everything to do with cluttering. Here’s an example. A client hired me recently to help her organize her home office. We were on the same page with going through papers and filing. When we got to what was in the desk drawers, we diverged.

Each drawer was completely packed. Some looked like lovely, intricate puzzles, with items carefully fitted together to use up every millimeter of space in the drawer. It was impressive actually.

But each drawer contained whatever would fit into it, regardless of what the item was. Yes, they were mostly office oriented things, but there was no other organizing scheme. The box of staples was in with the checks and greeting cards, not near the stapler, because there wasn’t room in that drawer.

Each drawer was also layered, up to the very top, meaning she had to excavate to see what was at the bottom. And then carefully fit the other layers back together on top. It became clear that what she wanted my help with was to get as many things into the drawers, then later the closets and cabinets, as possible.

But first we finished off with paper. We created folders for projects and one for her urgent to do’s, which she’d been collecting on scraps of paper, or using documents to remind her of them. We put the folders into the cabinet above her desk and she started fiddling with them. She thought they looked messy. She didn’t want to see all that paper.

Then she took a plastic file envelope, the kind with a flap and an elastic band to keep it closed, and put all the folders into it and closed it up. There! That’s better! My heart sank because I knew she would put off doing any of those urgent tasks.

There was no clear way to label the envelope when it contained a variety of folders. Instead of easily pulling out the urgent to do’s folder from the cabinet, she’ll have to take the envelope out, undo the elastic and pull out the folder. Then put it away again when she’s done. It’s this kind of inconvenience that proper organizing is designed to do away with.

Here are some other examples of how you can be neat and tidy but not truly organized.

You have an entire bathroom drawer filled with hotel toiletries that you never use. You buy expensive magazine holders to store your complete collection of each magazine you subscribe to, although you never get time to read those magazines. You’ve got a giant collection of anything you received for free that seems like it might be useful taking up space in your cabinets.

These items may be organized by type and beautifully containerized, but they are not truly organized. Why? Because an organized space is one in which you can easily and quickly find what you need. The more quantity you possess, the harder the “easy and quick” part gets.

You want to find a story you saw in one of your magazines? Unless you obsessively made a note somewhere about what issue it’s in, you won’t find it. Of course, you have to be able to find that note first! How many notes can you make? If every issue has interesting things you want to go back to, you’ll be creating an exhaustive index of this magazine so you can find them again. I don’t recommend spending your time that way.

Let me add another part to that definition above. An organized space is one in which you can easily and quickly find what you need, within reason. Everyone has a set point of how much stuff they can keep track of while still leading a happy and productive life. You don’t want your stuff to be the boss.

So what can you do right now to stop confusing tidy with organized? The next time you go to put something in a drawer and it’s a tight fit, ask yourself whether all that stuff is in there because it belongs there and you use it, or simply because it fits.

Podcast 126: Quick tips for tight spots

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This is podcast 126 and it’s about quick tips to get you out of tight spots. Things you can do when you feel a bit panicked that things are out of control and you don’t know what to do next.

I had that feeling the other day when several situations seemed to be going off the rails at once. It happens. All those situations had lots of moving parts that I needed to keep track of and I felt overwhelmed. On top of that, they all felt stalled. In each case, I was at a point where I couldn’t control what happened next. I had to wait for something. I don’t like to wait!

So I used Tip #1: Tackle just one thing on your to do list. Find one next to-do for a project. Note that you are shifting your attention from the higher priority tasks that are dead in the water for whatever reason.

Choose something on your list that you CAN do, now. There’s always something. This way, you get to be productive despite not making progress on the bigger stuff. It all needs to get done, right? And you’re in the mood to get things done so capitalize on that by knocking some lower level items off your list. That’s Tip #1.

The next two tips are about organizing your stuff. If you have a lot of organizing to do; a whole house, for example; there may be some times when you feel discouraged, or overwhelmed, or as if you really aren’t making any progress. Lots of my podcasts are about how to avoid this problem or solve it, but here I’m offering just quick tips to get you past the stuck spots.

Here’s the first one. Tip #2: Organize one little spot. It could be your desk, a corner of your desk, the kitchen counter, the coffee table or any other smallish spot that has gathered a bunch of stuff that you need to deal with, or at least have out of the way. Again, this isn’t high level stuff. But it’s a task you can focus on right now and see results from. That in turn can either energize you to go further, or put your mind at ease that you’ve done something. You did a thing!

I once suggested that a client who was stuck organizing her home office focus just on one corner of her desk. In particular, the far left corner. This was the one in her line of vision to the doorway. One reason she felt a bit stuck was that family members often stopped at her door to chat or ask a question.

She didn’t want to discourage them, but didn’t want those interruptions to derail her. She could see the small organized section whenever she was talking to someone and then could let her eyes focus on it after they left. That way, she was reminded of the progress she’d made and that the rest of the office would soon look like that corner. It was a little microcosm of order to soothe her.

Tip #3 is a variation on that theme. It’s to organize and put things away for ten minutes. With this one, you focus on a length of time rather than a physical space. Start wherever you are. For so many things we do, where you start just isn’t that important. What’s important is the starting, the getting into action.

Also, for both these tips the goal isn’t to finish anything. It’s merely to inch things along. This is a stopgap till you can get back to your big projects. Set a timer for ten minutes. This is important because you need to have that alarm relieve you of working any longer unless you really want to. You can do another ten minutes later if you wish. Similar to the Pomodoro method where you work for 25 minutes and then take a break. These tips also involve moving, which leads me to the next one.

Tip #4: Move! Move your bah-day. Sit in a different chair, look at a different view, do something to change up your current physical experience. Leave the room and walk somewhere. Doesn’t matter where. Getting into motion can shake loose that icky train of thought that has you stuck. Moving your body can also help defuse nervous energy that is gnawing at your attention.

Sometimes people get stuck before they even try to do anything. They don’t even get out of the gate. In this case, try Tip #5: Do a brain dump. You need to get things out of your head and onto paper to clarify your thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’re going to do all those things but at least you have collected them so you don’t have to keep obsessing over them and get back to focusing.

This might be a long list. A really long list. We don’t care about that because you’re not going to do any of these things right now. I’ve written many times about how much relief you get simply from putting things down on paper. I personally prefer paper, but digital can work too.

David Allen has written about this too. He says that any uncaptured (meaning not written down) tasks and thoughts are like hamsters running on a wheel in your brain. They keep running and running and making that awful squeaking noise just when you’re trying to concentrate. Once those items ARE captured in a safe place, meaning a notebook you can find again, your brain can let go and set those hamsters free.

My last tip, #6, is to ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen if I am stuck on this project? When you take time to think about it, you’ll realize that the worst is really not that bad. As Woody Allen says, 80% of life is showing up. If you’re doing something, anything, you’re doing something.

What you can do right now: choose the tip that feels most doable to you and try it right now. Or file it away for future use.