Procrastination Strategies

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“Talk of the Nation” did a show about procrastination recently featuring psychology professor Timothy Pychyl and philosophy professor John Perry. I read Perry’s funny article about structured procrastination several years ago and I still laugh every time I read it. Not only that, it’s a good strategy!

A very interesting point that Pychyl brought up is that there’s no evidence of the “arousal procrastinator,” that is, people who work best under pressure and let things wait until the last minute. Arousal types are characterized by extroversion, sensation-seeking and reducing/augmenting behavior (of desired emotional states).

Lots of people believe that they do their best working right up to the deadline but apparently, that’s just an illusion. It can also be learned behavior, if that’s the only way a person has ever approached deadlines.

Another fascinating finding has to do with procrastination and self-forgiveness. A study to discover whether people would procrastinate less the next time if they forgave themselves for the current instance found that, yes, it did work that way.

The unexpected result was that this was much more true for the women in the study. One theory is that “procrastination is related to self-worth or self-esteem for females but not males.” Who knew?

A third interesting point Pychyl made is that all delay is not procrastination. It’s only procrastination when you set an intention to do something by a particular time. So, there’s your loophole…

[photo by ShereenM]

Should I Save or Should It Go?

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People who are collectors love to tell me that things they've held onto for years and years have actually come in handy, so it was worthwhile to keep it. There's often a note of triumph in their voices when they come to the story's punchline, "and I had one!" They assume that I'm against keeping things and they want to head off any suggestions I might have for downsizing.

Sometimes, the story is that they decided to get rid of a bunch of stuff that hadn't been used in decades and "the very next day" they needed one of those things. They reluctantly decide it's a big mistake to get rid of anything at all, although they would like to have less clutter. What to do?

I heard a story like the latter one recently and it occurred to me that the storyteller was asking the wrong questions to determine what to keep and what not to keep. He asked himself if he'd used the item in question in the past few years and the answer was no. So, out it went.

But if he had asked, "what will I do if I need this next week and I don't have it?" he would've gotten more helpful answers. Could he borrow one, rent one or buy a new one? Could he farm out the item on long term loan to a friend with the proviso that he could borrow it back as needed? Could he make do somehow with items he did keep? And how would those options feel? If none were acceptable, keeping the item would be the best answer.

The idea is to look into the future ("what will I do?") and not the past ("I haven't used this in years") to make your decision. The future is where you're going to use it (or not).

[White elephant courtesy of Lenny Montana's photostream]

How to Organize Your Wallet

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It may be small, but your wallet can be chock full of clutter. You don't want to be one of those people who holds up the line trying to find her preferred shopper card, do you? Or the guy with the unsightly rectangular growth on his backside (because we know it's not all money)? Of course not. 

So, empty your wallet and let's see what's in there.Wallet

  • Coupons:  Are they still good?  Are they worthwhile?  If you're not in the habit of using coupons, they can be more trouble than they're worth.
  • Frequent buyer cards:  These can be like coupons.  Only use ones from stores you patronize regularly AND where the clerk asks you for it (otherwise you may forget to present it).
  • Membership cards:  Most establishments will allow you to give your phone number instead of presenting your card.  Much less wallet clutter.
  • Receipts:  Why are you keeping them?  To balance checkbook?  Tax purpose?  Possible return?  Assign a pocket in your wallet for receipts and regularly take them out.
  • Credit cards:  You really only need one, or two if you have a business.  You have to be very organized to take advantage of perks like frequent flyer miles on credit cards.  Make sure using these perks doesn't cause you to buy things you don't need.  And make sure you have time to manage and track your benefits.
  • Scraps of paper:  Dedicate some space in your date book for little notes and ideas.  Reminders should go on a dated page.  Phone numbers into the address book, even if they're only temporary. 
  • Currency:  Keep your bills in denomination order.  Not only is it easier to find the amount you need, but you will have a better idea of how much cash you have at any given time. 
  • Stamps:  Can be handy, but only if you remember they're there.  Otherwise, you'll find them by accident and discover they're 41 centers

See if you can pare down to what you really need and use. The short list:
Driver's license or CA ID card
Health insurance card
Car insurance card
Credit card
Bank or ATM card
BART or other transit ticket

The Costanza Wallet (George, from Seinfeld) wallet courtesy of shareski's Flickr stream

Snail Mail 101

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Ah, the plague of the daily mail. Kind of like death and taxes, it’s inevitable. Here’s what’s in your mailbox: stuff to

  • delegate
  • read
  • act on
  • file
  • trash

Let’s call it DRAFT for short.

This is mail that you can fob off on someone else. If you’re married, you may decide one partner is responsible for paying the bills, so they go in that person’s in box (don’t have an inbox? Get one). Similarly, one of you may be responsible for social engagements and medical appointments.

If you have a business partner but not an office manager, divide up responsibilities. This really helps things not fall through the cracks. Especially things involving money.

Everyone needs an in box.

As above, each partner needs an inbox. When the question of “where did you put that ________?” the answer is always “In your in box.” Not “on your chair.” Not “somewhere on your desk.”

Reading material includes magazines, newspapers, annual reports, tip sheets from the garden center and professional association bulletins. Keep it near where you read. Don’t read? Then stop subscribing to things.

If you don’t know where your “to reads” are, you can’t read them. Pick a spot, like a basket near your bed or a shelf in your living room, to stash it.

Don’t pick too many spots. You want to know where things are and you also need a reality check about how much there is to read. When it’s all in one place, you can clearly see that it’s not humanly possible to read all that stuff.

The rule is that when the basket or shelf is full, you have to get rid of the older publications. Grab a handful from the bottom of the stack and recycle them. Just do it. I know they have fascinating and important information in them, but you don’t have time to read them and keep up with what came in today.

Information is only useful when you can get at it.

An article buried in a months-old magazine is not accessible to you and therefore irrelevant. Just having all that information is not the same as being able to use it. If you can’t use it, it’s just like not having it at all.

Act On
This category includes bills, medical forms to file, an insurance or telephone plan to compare with what you have now, information about a product you intend to buy and a list of activities put on by a group you belong to. Put in your in box anything that requires you to take some action, whether it’s filling out a form, making a call or adding activities to your calendar.

Avoid decisions you don’t really need to make.

Do you really need to get a better phone plan, or would it just be a nice idea to know what’s out there? If it’s the second one, when are you going to take the time to compare plans?

Be careful about filing too much. Most people’s file cabinets are neglected paper graveyards. Paper goes in and promptly gets forgotten about and never looked at again.

Things you are keeping that you don’t need to:

  • receipts that are not for tax purposes or under-warranty purchases
  • ATM slips
  • old catalogs
  • paid bills*
  • manuals and documentation for stuff you no longer own; electric toothbrush, car, medical insurance plan

Keep files you refer to near your desk. Get a tray to store file-ables until you’re ready to file them. Files you need to maintain for legal reasons (tax returns, legal documents) are archives and should be kept in a less accessible spot, like the attic or the top shelf in the closet.

A lot of your mail shouldn’t even come into the house. Your first pass at mail sorting is to weed out the junk mail and recycle or shred it. No brainer recycling: product and service solicitations you’re not interested in, announcements for things you don’t care about, invitations from groups you aren’t joining.

To cut down on unwanted mail, register with the Direct Marketing Association (you can stop junk email here too). Get off catalog lists here.

Whether you shred or not is up to you. Some people don’t want to toss out magazines with their address labels on them. The rule of thumb is to shred anything with personal information such as account numbers, medical and employment info, ATM slips and travel itineraries. Also shred credit card applications.

Shred every day.

It’s boring and tedious and if you let it pile up, you’ll put it off forever (unless you have a six year old; they love to make a racket with the shredder). Also, if you only shred a few things a day, you won’t jam or overheat the thing.

Start Today
Don’t worry about last week’s mail. It’s getting older by the second and, unless it’s a bill, it doesn’t need your immediate attention. Develop your new mail system with today’s mail and you’ll keep on top of things.

Quick Start

  1. Get an inbox
  2. Designate a reading stash spot
  3. Have a tray for to-be-filed documents
  4. Sort your mail over the recycling bin
  5. Shred as you go
  6. Sign up for electronic bills and statements
  7. Get off junk mail lists

*I heartily recommend receiving and paying bills online. You can download PDF copies and keep them on your computer. Pay them through the biller’s website or your bank’s website; both services are generally free. Go even further and sign up for automatic monthly payments for your bills. Then you don’t have to deal with the bill at all.

Staying Organized

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bridge painter by Noah BergerI live in California near the Golden Gate Bridge (which celebrated its 75th birthday last year). To protect it from corrosive sea salt, it needs to be touched up all the time. As long as the ocean winds blow, the bridge will need new paint.

I’m talking about maintenance, my friends.

There’s really no way to get around it. Once you organize your space, you have to maintain it or, like that bridge, it will fall down. Your bridge is everything that supports you and the systems you’ve taken time to create. Treat them well.

There’s no need to dwell on the horrific consequences of lack of maintenance. You may already be familiar with them. Let’s talk about freshening up instead. Get your hard hat and lunch box and climb up with me.

How do you spot the touch-up areas?

The easiest way to do this is determine what is out of place. An organized space means everything has a place. Further, each place should be as easy as possible to put things away in.

Which touch-up areas do you tackle?

On the bridge, they inspect to find out where the most corrosion is and repaint those spots. Clearly they’re not going to paint the entire bridge in a day. You don’t have to either.

Start with the things that will become bigger problems faster; work you need to do now, bills to be paid, important mail to deal with. Once you do that, just start in a spot and work your way around (like continuously painting the bridge one end to the other, which is what I thought they did).

If you get used to the idea that maintenance is a perennial routine, you can relax and know that you’re going to enjoy that fabulous view every day when you climb up your personal Golden Gate Bridge and know you’re keeping it in tip top shape.

Clutter is Tiring

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It’s exhausting, actually.

It’s hard on the eyes.

It hems you in.

Sometimes it feels like it’s just in the background, just there in case you need it. But then you remember how relieved and calm you felt last time you cleared out that clutter, as if a weight had been lifted.

Clutter niggles at you, subtly draining your energy.

Old magazines whisper “read me!” Piles of clothes coax “come sort me!” Your crafts bag says “come play with me!” This creates a low level of background chatter in your brain that’s more distracting than you realize.

One of my clients has a lot of clothing. More than will fit in her closets. The last time I saw her, the ironing board in the bedroom and the chair next to it were piled high with clothes. We’ve made progress, but it’s a big project.

It seemed to me that she was feeling worn down by constantly seeing the piles and waking up to them every morning. So, we moved them to her office. Now, that’s not a solution, it’s just an interim step in this long project.

Her mood lightened up right away.

She took a big breath and stretched her arms out. The room suddenly felt bigger and more restful to the eyes. I predict she’s sleeping better at night too.

If you have a lot of sorting to do, try to keep it contained or covered in between sessions. You’re not hiding the truth, you’re letting yourself focus on other parts of your life instead of being nagged all the time by this undone project.

Here are a couple of sorting techniques to try: triage and quick declutter.

Organizing Overwhelm Cure

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6523852953_592dddf0e1_nWhen you feel overwhelmed by an organizing project or task, it’s often because you’re looking at the entire forest and not each individual tree. You can’t see the trees for the forest, to bend a common phrase.

Looking at the big picture is worthwhile, but in order to get down to work and sort through things and organize, you need to focus on each individual tree. The forest will just distract you.

I went through tote bags and handbags with a client recently. She has lots, enough to more than cover her dining table. When we dumped them all out, she backed away from the table, feeling overcome by the sheer quantity. It seemed impossible to her that we could make any order out of it.

But soon we were putting the bags into categories. Slowly, some sense emerged from the pile. As long as she was able to concentrate on each bag, recognize it and identify it, she could be complete and move on to the next.

That last part is key. When you look at the entire forest, your mind darts back and forth and never settles anywhere. All these unmade decisions and unfinished plans! Putting attention on one thing, making a decision and moving on is the way to get through.

Green Decluttering

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A common concern I hear from people when they’re decluttering is that they don’t want their stuff just to go to the landfill. They don’t want to be responsible for creating more trash, or they feel that their stuff could be useful to someone. They want to be green!

Here are some options:

Sell your stuff
Craigslist is a good choice if you want to sell things locally such as furniture and other large or hard-to-ship items.

Go with Oakland auction houses such as Michaan’s or Clar’s to sell big lots and expensive items. In this economy, people aren’t buying or collecting the way they used to, so selling is also harder. Both auction houses offer free appraisal services.

Selling on eBay means you’ll have to take care of shipping, so make sure it will be worthwhile for you. Check out what’s been paid for items like yours to find out how to set your price.

While selling your stuff seems like an easy way to make a buck, remember that you’ve got to do the work of posting your ad, including a photo (required on eBay and suggested on Craigslist), answering questions and scheduling pickups. Make sure your asking price is worth the time you’ll spend.

For this reason, I don’t recommend garage sales. They’re often a huge waste of time. Only do one if you publicize it well, get other households involved and don’t mind spending the day sitting in front of your house.

Give stuff away
If you can’t be bothered to sell, just offer up your goods for free on Craigslist or Freecycle. This is the fastest way to unload unwanted items. People want all kinds of wacky things, especially when they’re free!

For larger quantities of household goods, donating to local thrift stores is a good option. In some areas, pick-up services are offered. This varies a lot, so call your local store to find out.

Crafty items find a home at the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. This store caters to artists and teachers. They accept items that you might not think of donating, such as imprinted stationery, maps, popsicle sticks, yarn and film canisters.

If it’s clothing you want to donate, consider getting together with friends for a clothes swap. This is especially good if what you’re donating doesn’t fit anymore. You’ll be able to replace it with cast offs from friends that do fit.

Don’t forget Oakland’s Bulky Waste Pickup program. This is the way to get rid of trash that’s too big to fit in your garbage bin, such as mattresses, broken TVs, tires and furniture.

Next Step
Make sure you actually get the stuff out of the house! Try not to stockpile unwanted items in your garage where they’ll gather dust and be forgotten about, while still taking up precious space.

Build Your Own Organizing System

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I don’t follow a particular organizing method or recommend a specific system. My clients all have their own unique needs, ways of thinking and taste. The challenge is to come up with something that works with the least amount of fuss and bother.

My friend and fellow entrepreneur, Erin Saul, has developed her system by trial and error. The visual aspect is important to her, as is being able to see a whole month at a glance. It’s not, as she says, “elegant,” but it does the job and she likes it. I asked her to share it with my blog readers, so here’s her description:

IMG_0429 When I quit the day job to run two businesses from home, it took me a while to get organized in a new way. I finally came up with a weekly schedule that would apply some kind of — if not routine, then maybe STRUCTURE to my week. But with the way my mind works, it was difficult to find some existing method of keeping me on track. I tried a couple versions of some productivity software, but they didn’t really work. I had to make it myself.

It’s rudimentary, but it made sense to me. And then I found that it didn’t work… but it sure was a good idea at the time!

Instead, now…  I’ll admit it: I keep three calendars:

IMG_0431 1)  The TO-GO PLANNER, which is a dual week-at-a-glance/month-at-a-glance color-coded piece of brilliance I found at The Container Store, and which I take EVERYWHERE with me. The MONTHLY part is what I use when booking events with clients and hang-time with friends. The WEEKLY pages have a timeline/appointment section and also a color-coded section which corresponds nicely to my ‘Business 1’, ‘Business 2’, and ‘Personal’. I can make more granular notes of what to do when, and see how my day is weighted. This weekly part informs my DAILY to-do list…

2)  I make a separate DAILY to-do list on a 3×5 index card, which fits in my pocket, and which I can access easily and frequently throughout the day to check on my progress, and add more things that need doing, as I think of them. Part of that to-do list is the MAKING of it, which is when I consult the WEEKLY color-coded part of the TO-GO PLANNER I carry around with me. That’s when I try to make sure everything matches.

3)  The BIG WALL CALENDAR is mostly for fun, but keeps my head in the game when I’m in my home office, planning my days and weeks and months. I’m a visual learner/rememberer… so the color-coded stickies are for visual reference: Do I have enough pink ones to achieve my goals? Do I have everything done far enough in advance of the yellow events? Did I send birthday cards? And, maybe most importantly, this is where I can see days that have NO events, where I can spend the day on those pesky tasks it takes all day to do (like taxes!).

I realize that this all seems like the OPPOSITE of a simple, elegant system… but it works for me. Digital calendars and PDA solutions don’t help me because I can’t get a good VIEW of a day, week, or month the way my mind needs to see it. When my head starts swimming with random, disorganized things-to-do… that’s when they slip through the cracks, and when I start getting cranky. I’ve learned these things about myself… and also that I’m one of those bizarro organize-y people who just love calendars. This way, I get to use three! The key is to find something that works for you and to be diligent about it. I also found that I love routine. When I get to start my morning making my daily to-do list with some hot tea, that grounds me. Then I’m off and running toward a productive day!

Erin’s company, Namaste Mofo™, designs and sells T-shirts with “irreverently reverent yoga slogans” on them. The company motto is that all human beings are complex and can honestly embrace holistic ideals and still be totally punk rock. She rocks!

Use Email to Stay Organized

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I asked my friend David over dinner one night how he manages to keep on top of all his projects at work. I don't always talk about organizing with friends, but I often discover new ways to do things from them, and that's always fun. He said that he uses his email program.

How does that work? For each project he opens a new email and starts typing in bullet points for all the tasks that need to be done that day. The emails are automatically saved as drafts and he can quickly cycle through them to see at a glance what's happening. He continues to add to them during the day, including notes from conversations and other emails. So he ends up with an outline of all project activity for the day.

He sends the emails to himself using the date and project in the subject line and then keeps them in the appropriate project folder. Sometimes they're also mailed to other people working on the project, saving him the step of copying information from other sources. And he has a chronological, easily accessible log of project activity.

I like this idea because it's simple and fast, it uses a program he already knows (no learning curve) and the information is easily transferred elsewhere, including to other people.

Juggler from jayniebell's photostream