Podcast 105: Desk triage

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This is podcast 105 and it’s about desk triage. Can you spare half an hour? What if it would make the following half hour twice as productive? And the hour after that too? Spending time on organizing is a great investment because it always gives you a high return, unlike other investments these days. Ahem.

Here’s how to start. Figuring out how to start is often the hardest part of decluttering. The big secret is that it really doesn’t matter, just make a decision and do it. I’m going to suggest one of many possible approaches to structure your half hour, and that’s triage.

Triage is all about decision making.

It provides a simple structure to guide you and it depends on quick, resolute judgments that you act on right away.

In the medical world, triage is used when there are many patients and limited resources. Care is denied to those who will probably not live, so that those resources can help more patients who probably will live.

I can guarantee you that you don’t have enough resources to manage all the stuff that’s currently in your life. Becoming skilled at triage (AKA, ruthless decision making) means more of your time and energy goes to the important stuff.

Triage breaks down into three categories, according to our friends at Wikipedia.

  1. Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  2. Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  3. Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

On your desk, this means

  • Category 1. Stuff you like and need that will be put away;
  • Category 2. Stuff you don’t like or need that you can immediately decide to ditch;
  • Category 3. Stuff that you need to deal with right now.

Remember, triage is speedy because lives are at stake. The more quickly you make decisions, the clearer your desk will stay. You may not get through your whole desk in half an hour, but you’ll complete a section rather than just rearranging the piles.

If you have a lot of paper, choose a small area, perhaps just a section of your desk. Triage will get you through the purging and decision making. I’ve added some post-30 minute clean-up suggestions if you want to keep going.

In a hospital, triage patients are sent to different areas depending on their category. On the battlefield, they are simply marked with colored tags. On your desk, use Post Its to mark your piles. Allow enough room for sorted piles. A card table is great, but the floor will work too.

Here how to do phase one. This is the gross sort. You’re deciding whether papers belong to category 1, 2 or 3. You’ll need a timer, two piling spots, and containers for recycling and shredding.

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Start with the pile on the left side of your desk and move across to the right without skipping over anything. Be a mine sweeper.

Don’t let your eyes wander. Each time your gaze passes over the desk, your mind starts to run in different directions and you get distracted.

Focus on one thing at a time. Idea: Take a pile to your sorting area with your back to your desk so you can’t see the other piles.

Pick up the first item in the first pile. Is it category 1, 2 or 3? Don’t read or think too much about an item; you only need to identify it for now. Quickly define each:

Need it? Want it? Ditch it? Too late?

If you can’t decide, choose category 1. Put it into the correct pile or bag. Repeat until the timer goes off. Now take the category two pile and put it in the recycling. That’s done with.

Here’s how phase two goes. Set the timer for ten minutes. Sort the paper in category 1 by topic. If a topic does not come to mind, ask yourself why you are keeping the item. When you go look for it again, you’ll think, “where is that information about ______?” What if someone asked you, “do you know where the ______________ is?” Use that word.

Choose broad topics; it’s easier to look for a particular item in five possible folders rather than 50. Right now, you’ll just create separate piles for each topic. Label the piles with Post-Its. If you run out of room, stack the piles alternating horizontal and vertical to keep them separated.

Here’s a bonus post triage task: File! File the paper you just sorted. If your file cabinet is a disaster area, consider getting a temporary file box to use until you can revamp it. That way your newly sorted papers won’t get lost again. Note: you’ll probably have a stack of keepers that you want to read; those don’t get filed, but they need to go somewhere where you’ll see them and read them.

Here’s how to do phase three. Set the timer for five minutes. Now we’ve come to category 3. You’re in the home stretch! These papers were out on the desk because you’re using them to remind you to do something. This is not an effective strategy.

You need a list. A list allows you to see at a glance what all those to- do’s are. When they are piled up or spread out, you can’t get the whole picture.

Your to-do list can be in a notebook, on a pad of paper, a whiteboard, on your phone; wherever you will be most likely to look at it. For each reminder, create a to-do.

To do for stack of marketing letters: address envelopes, stuff them (including business cards), stamp and take to mailbox.

To do for event flyer: Add event to calendar and make a note to RSVP (if necessary) on calendar several days before.

To do for pile of business cards: enter into computer contacts list or put into alphabetized card box.

To do for information about you frequent flyer program: read it right now to see if there’s a time limited offer you want or throw it out, knowing you can get the information from their website.

Now, you may be thinking your to-do list will get unmanageably long. Yes, it will. But it’s not any longer than it was in your head, or spread out around the house. Reality check time.

Before all these things were on the list, you were by turns overwhelmed and in denial about how much you had to do. Now you can see it in black and white. This is your current reality. When it’s all in one place you can make informed decisions about what you will and will not do.

Here are your post triage activities.

Make looking at your to-do list a habit. Send yourself email reminders if necessary. Where you keep your list is up to you. The important part is having one place to look for your tasks.

If you have years of backlog, the whittling down may go slowly. Use triage as often as you need it. Set a timer to help you stay focused and speedy and not find yourself deep in reading an hour later. A timer is also good to reassure you that you’ll be free of this tedium soon.

Make sure to keep up with current paper so it doesn’t become part of the backlog. That is, don’t stack new paper on top of old piles. Spend the first five minutes of triage taking care of the new stuff. This will go a long way to keeping you out of trouble.

An unexpected benefit to this method is that you may be inspired to keep less stuff once you realize how much work it is to keep it all organized! Remember: it’s your stuff, you’re in charge.

Take Aways:

Honor the time limits!

If you put off organizing paper because it seems like it’ll take forever, limiting the time you spend is your secret weapon. You really will make progress. And you have permission to stop when the timer goes off.

Stay focused.

People tend to want to attack everything at once. Then they quickly realize they can’t organize the entire desk in 5 minutes and they get discouraged. Use the mine sweeper technique to clear your desk from left to right. Alternatively, take a pile and turn away from the desk so it won’t distract you.

Keep current.

You can certainly use this technique on the box in the corner, but don’t fall behind in your current paperwork. Part of the point of this exercise is to keep you current enough that you’ll have some time to tackle that box.

What you can do right now: set up your triage spot. If you have a lot on your desk, find a separate surface to work with your piles on that’s free of distractions. Set yourself up with a timer, Post-its, a pen and places for recycling and shredding.

Podcast 094: Know your end point

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This is podcast 94 and it’s called “Know your end point.” First, I’ll share with you what we’re working on in my coaching group. In case you haven’t heard, I now offer group coaching for productivity, time management, prioritizing, procrastination and decluttering. There’s a different theme each month. Next month, we’ll be working with time management. Our live session will be on May 2nd, always the first Wednesday of the month. Join us! You can find out more and register on my website, www.cluttercoach.net.

This month, the coaching group topic is procrastination. To that end, I’ve been collecting all my best tips for overcoming it and sharing them with the group in our private Facebook group.

Know your end point. One big reason that people put off doing things is that they seem like they’ll take forever. I’ve talked about this idea before in terms of breaking off small chunks of a project so you’re not overwhelmed by the whole thing.

Even with a small task, though, unless you have a clear idea of how you’ll know when you’re finished, you’ll be resistant to taking it on. In this case, I don’t mean how much time it takes, but how you assess your work and pronounce it complete.

You’ve probably heard the question “how long is a piece of string?” People often ask it in response to the question, “when are you going to be done?” A lot of projects, maybe even all of them, fall into this category. There will always be unexpected events, complications, new decisions made, changes of heart, etc.

This is why deadlines are so important. If you don’t get the project done by the end of the month, the trade show will happen and your project won’t be part of it. End of story. This is why I LOVE deadlines! As I’ve mentioned before, you can improve something infinitely, meaning you never finish with it. Without the external accountability of time, you might never produce anything. And that would be sad.

Let’s take the example of this podcast. I know when I’m finished writing it. I have to fill up one and a half pages on the screen. I’ve timed it and I know that equals five minutes of recording time, more or less. Five minutes in length is what I originally planned for this podcast. If I didn’t have that guideline, I’d have a lot more resistance to doing it.

With the podcast, sometimes there’s a natural ending point before the five minute mark. I feel that I’ve made my point and there’s nothing more to add that wouldn’t be fluff or redundant. So I end it. Sometimes I discover there’s more to say than I thought and then I divide the material into two or three different podcasts.

Sometimes I stop and go back and read what I’ve read so far to see how I’m doing. Am I sticking to the point? Am I adding value? Is it interesting and fun to listen to? If I get stuck I can usually get back into the flow that way.

It’s really hard to start working on something that might turn out to be an uphill slog forever, and you never know whether it will be or not! It would be like running a race that doesn’t have a finish line. Or there might be one, but you don’t know where it is. Wouldn’t that feel stressful and make you not want to participate?

Say you’re running a race and you do know where the finish line is. With that information, you can manage your energy, you can slow down when you need to in order to have enough energy to finish. You know how much water to bring, again so you have enough to get through the race without stress. You’ve got the right gear and the right clothes on.

Let’s compare this to whatever project you’re working on. It’s not a totally fair comparison because, as far as I know, there aren’t any races without set finish lines. Meaning that someone else has decided where the race ends and once you get there, you’re done. You have that satisfying feeling of 100% completion.

With your own projects, you have to decide when they’re done, even if they are assignments from someone else. Even if the project is to pass an exam where you know exactly what you’ll be graded on, you still have to decide how much you’ll prepare for it. You have to arrive at an acceptable mix of how much time and energy you have as well as how much motivation you have, in order to pin down that ending point.

What you can do right now: pick a project that you’re dragging your heels on. See if you understand exactly what the end product will be. This will help crystallize your thinking and aid you in planning your time better.

The coaching group is underway!

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The group is still small so this is a great time to join. Why? More personal coaching from me, which I won’t be able to offer once the group grows. Join now.

Your success in overcoming procrastination (or any other issue the group is for, such as time management, productivity, declutter and organizing) is important to me. I’m active on the private Facebook group every day to give you help, ideas and support.

Making changes, even ones you want very much to make, is not easy. It requires consistent attention and repetition. It’s so much easier with a coach on your side!

Click here for more info and to sign up.

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 084: New Year’s resolutions

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There are still 2 more days to enter my contest! In case you missed it, it’s a contest to win a PDF copy of my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized. Here’s the idea: Go to my Facebook page, find my latest Facebook live post and write a sentence or two in the comments section telling me what idea or technique you’ve learned from my podcast that’s been the most valuable to you. I’ll give away three copies of the ebook to people who write in, randomly chosen. Sound good? Go to Facebook and find me at Clutter Coach Claire.

I’ll also be posting more Facebook live videos in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for those as well.

This is podcast 84 and it’s about new year’s resolutions. Of course it is! It’s January 4 and if you made any resolutions, the holidays are definitely over and you have to face putting them into action.

If you didn’t make any resolutions, or think they are complete baloney, listen in anyway. I know lots of people who hate resolutions, mainly because they think resolutions are a great way to set yourself up for flopping. They entice you to set unreachable goals and just become depressing when the goal gets no closer. They make you feel crummy whenever you fall off the particular wagon you’ve resolved to stay on. That makes a lot of sense.

Even the word resolution is kind of heavy. I prefer to set intentions. Intentions have a little wiggle room built in. You can fail one day and set your intention again the next day and keep moving forward.

Intention is a more positive word too. Being positive about what you intend is crucial. I recently read a new york times article by David DeSteno, who’s written a book called Emotional Success. In a nutshell, he writes that feelings of gratitude, compassion and pride will get you much farther than sheer grit and willpower.

One thing those emotions have in common is that they are directed outward, often toward other people. The connection they bring to others is the main reason they are so effective. This is why it’s so helpful to have someone to be accountable to when you are trying to develop a new habit.

DeSteno comes down a little hard on willpower though. In past podcasts I’ve mentioned Kelly McGonigal’s work on willpower. I took her class a few years ago and I recommend her book, the Willpower Instinct. A lot of what I got from it is that we develop strategies to increase our willpower and, not surprisingly, many of these strategies involve positive emotions. It’s really not a matter of bearing down and sacrificing yourself for a goal.

The image of a successful person being one who can valiantly resist temptation just isn’t accurate. It’s not the resisting, it’s the focusing on something else that the person values more highly, making the decision a no-brainer.

McGonigal and I both recommend starting small with goals that you take action on every day. Making progress every day, or almost every day, gives you a win that you can be proud of and that begets more wins. If you’re losing more than winning, you need to choose a different action, or make it smaller. Don’t keep pushing and chastising yourself.

The every day part is also important and I’ve written quite a bit about that. Doing something everyday ultimately becomes a habit. When it’s a habit, you don’t have to think about it so much, if at all. That means no agonizing, no decision point where you’re going to succeed or fail each time.

If every day doesn’t make sense for whatever you’re doing, make it regular in some other way. Every Friday. Every time you (fill in the blank). Whenever (fill in the blank) happens. That’s when you do that thing. This is the technique of attaching your good new habit to something you are already used to doing and that you don’t resist doing.

Similarly, attaching your new habit to something community oriented works well. That brings in the social element that’s so important for us humans. Feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself, feeling that you are doing something along with others who support you merely by being there too.

For me, there’s the anti-laziness aspect of a community event. I like to dance. The dances I go to are on my calendar. They will occur without me having to plan them. When I go, I dance with people I know and like who look forward to seeing me and vice versa. So there’s that positive accountability, which is a big draw.

There are two ideas you can try. First is the small action. Pick one little thing you can do to further your goal. This can be a discrete task or a recurring one. Just make it small enough to be do-able. If at first you don’t succeed, try again by changing the action.

Second, find a way to take action regularly. Every day works, especially if you do it at the same time everyday because there should be some kind of trigger like eating breakfast, getting in the car, checking your email. Or find a regular place to put it into your weekly calendar, teaming it up with something else you regularly do, or relying on the external accountability of a class or activity you’ve signed up for.

What you can do now: Pick one of those strategies and try it out. Don’t worry that it’s too small or too easy. This isn’t supposed to be hard or make you suffer.

Podcast 079: Work backwards

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This is podcast 79 and it’s based on Simple Way #51 in my book, Work backwards. For the last several months I’ve been talking about other topics that aren’t in the book but today we’re back. Only one more to go after that! Then I need new material again. Don’t be shy, dear listeners, about suggesting subjects you’d like to hear about. You can post them on my Facebook page where you’ll find me as Clutter Coach. Or email me at Claire at cluttercoach.net.

Working backwards is a technique to use when you can’t seem to find a way into your project. It’s similar to the Time Travel concept I talked about in Podcast 64 back in July.

Are you stuck because you don’t know how to do something? You know what the desired end result is. You can imagine it and visualize it. But you can’t figure out how to get from here ….            to there.

Trying working backwards from the result you desire. You’ve achieved the result. It’s done and it worked out great. You’re finished. Let’s say your result is that you got your book published. For this technique you need a specific project. You need to be able to articulate it simply so it’s clear in your mind. And, of course, write it down because putting something into writing clarifies your thoughts about it.

Then start asking questions. What was the last thing you did before the book was in your hands (or on your website)? Probably, it was to give it one last proofreading. What did you do right before that? Let’s say it was sign off on the final cover art. And before that? You get the idea. Write out a backwards timeline and include each step.

You don’t need to get too detailed and add in all the rounds of proofreading. If you’re still scratching your head trying to figure out the steps, ask yourself what some other writer who’s not you would have done. That makes it less personal and more objective. It gives you some distance from the perhaps touchy subject.

It can defuse any emotional sabotaging your brain might be up to, reminding you that you still haven’t published that blasted book and who do you think you are, anyway? All that gremlin stuff. I talked about that a bit in podcast 71 about starting.

Better yet, draw it on a big piece of paper or whiteboard. On the right side, draw a circle and write the end result in it. Draw an arrow that points to the left side of the circle and then draw another circle that connects to the other end of it. That’s where the penultimate step goes. Keep drawing circles connected with arrows from right to left across the paper. Mix it up with colors and different shapes if that helps you stay on task.

Your imagination is powerful. Although you might have trouble seeing ahead into an unknown future, if you project yourself into the future, you can look back and see how you got there. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 vision. You know the whole story when you imagine the ending. Now you just have to get it out of your head and onto the paper.

Also remember that there may be many paths to get somewhere, but you only need one. Don’t let yourself get confused by multiple options. Perfectionists often fall into this trap. Too many good options to choose from.

Focus instead on getting to that final destination. Sometimes it makes sense to choose the simplest option because you have limited time to devote to the project. Other times, it makes sense to choose the fastest route to the end point because you have other places to go after that.

Many times, the way you get somewhere really doesn’t matter very much once you are there. Be wary of stopping to polish up all the little bits along your way when that time and effort will be wasted.

When you review your circle and arrow map from left to right, you can see what parts make sense and what might need revising. Again, you need to get it down on paper (or digitally) before you can start moving the parts around.

What can you do right now?

Draw that first circle with the end result in it. Then ask yourself, What was the very next to last thing you did before you arrived there?

Podcast 078: The iterative process

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This is podcast 78 and it’s about the iterative process. In the design world, an iterative process is one in which a prototype is tested to see if it fulfills its purpose. Feedback from users can show flaws and shortcomings that the designers didn’t notice or didn’t anticipate. They can be fixed for the next iteration.

It can also generate new ideas that only are revealed when the prototype is actually being used. Users ask questions like: why doesn’t it work THIS way? Why are there only two choices here? Why can’t I hold it this way? Those ideas can be analyzed and the good ones added to the next prototype.

For decluttering purposes, iteration helps people see an item in the context of other items, it allows people to review things over time and see that needs and desires have changed.

There are many times that the items you want to organize don’t lend themselves to quick decision-making. This goes for sentimental items and items from your past, heirlooms, kids artwork, anything that provokes an emotional reaction from you.

It could also be things that are on hold or things you haven’t decided on yet. Or a big pile of maybes that keeps growing and never seems to shrink. Or things you never decided on that you regret. again, there’s the emotional angle.

You can’t reason your way through this kind of decision making. You have to consult your feelings. You have to judge these items by particular circumstances. But feelings change over time and so do circumstances. You already know that things you once treasured can sometimes make you scratch your head wondering why you kept them. You can capitalize on this by using an iterative decluttering process.

What I mean by an iterative process is that you go through these items on a regular basis, maybe once a year. On the first pass, you might not get rid of much at all, if anything. It’s worth going through them to become acquainted again though.

If you’re a regular listener to my podcast, you know that it’s not allowed to be unaware of things you own. Anything you’ve forgotten about or don’t even recognize is something you don’t need weighing down your life.

On the second iteration, you may get rid of a few items. Each time you go through the items you’re likely to get rid of more each time. That’s because over time the emotional hold grows weaker. The regret gets farther in the past. The unique memento loses its charge because more of the same have been acquired.

An organizer named Harriet Schecter has a really interesting way of dividing up sentimental items. The categories are good, bad, happy and sad. The good things are keepsakes or souvenirs that are in good condition and maybe even salable. The bad things are angry letters and photos of people you’re alienated from. Happy things are a medal you won doing something meaningful to you and tickets from a show you attended with loved ones. Sad things are trinkets that remind you of deceased loved ones or a loss you shared with someone dear to you.

The intriguing part is that she recommends getting rid of all the bad and good items, not the bad and sad. Why? For the most part, the bad and good things aren’t ones you have a real attachment too. They may seem to be memorabilia but they really aren’t. Sometimes it takes a few iterations to realize that.

What you will find is that items with the lowest happy or sad quotient are the ones you can release the quickest. Their appeal wears off the soonest and you can decide to part with them.

It’s important to distinguish between emotional value and monetary value. If you still want to keep an object because you might be able to sell it, by all means keep it, but don’t keep it with your other sentimental items. It doesn’t belong there anymore and you probably never will sell it if it stays there. Set aside other storage space for those valuable items.

A great feature of using an iterative process is that you can let go of forcing yourself to make decisions to get rid of things. I never want to put my clients in that position. The goal of decluttering has to be tempered by empathy and patience. When you know you can go through a box of mementos and simply reaffirm that you want to keep them, that lessens the stress of doing it immensely.

The other great benefit is that you get to visit with these important things once a year. I’m posting this podcast in November. Winter and the holiday season can be a great time to delve into that memorabilia box and relive the memories that have made you who are today, and share them with family if you wish.

What you can do now: Just contemplate the idea of going through a bag or shelf or box NOT with the idea of clearing it out, but with the idea of making sure you want what is there, and when you find things that no longer have a place in your life, release them.

The killer app for productivity

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One of my clients sent me a list of focus and productivity apps. Some of them sound pretty intriguing. 

Forest gets you to focus on your project for 30 minutes. At the beginning of your work time, you plant a tree. As you continue working, it grows. If you stop, all the leaves fall off and it dies. You’ve selfishly killed off an innocent digital tree!

There are apps that force you to do nothing for two minutes, prevent your access to distracting websites, rewire your brain with subliminal messages and more. I will try out and review some of these in future issues.

The reason I’m bringing them up here is that my wise client commented that no matter how helpful the app, you always are stuck with you. 

There’s no magic bullet. 

Where does that leave you? It’s the old tried-and-true of identifying what you want to change, making sure you choose something do-able, setting up your environment to support that change, and working at it every day. 

Step two is important. Select a change that’s small yet effective, and one that you believe that you can achieve. Setting a goal that’s too high is a big reason that people fail. 

Is there an app for that? I’m sure there is. But don’t get so lost in the search for the killer app that you neglect what you’re trying to do. 

Podcast 077: Stories we tell ourselves

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This is Podcast 77 and it’s about stories we tell ourselves to excuse our behavior. We think they’re helpful because they explain ourselves to us. And that’s true. But these stories can be dangerous too because they prevent us from moving forward and changing things we want to change.

The story I come across most often is The Great Depression story. It goes like this: I have all this stuff because I (or my parents) grew up during the depression. Or, my family kept all these things because they lived through the depression. I’m not making fun of these people or taking this lightly. The great depression was a sad time in our history, but it also is a limiting story for many people.

Another common one is the messy creative person. The story is that if you’re creative, you’re also going to be messy. And maybe crazy and an alcoholic too, but that’s another story. There’s a strong association between artistic talent and having your art supplies scattered everywhere.

Granted, in some cases, creative people are also dyslexic and that makes it hard for them to be organized in conventional ways. But often this story is just an excuse to avoid the boring and dull work of putting stuff away. I get that, but it also makes the person’s life more difficult when they don’t have room to make art or can’t find the supplies they want to use. In that scenario, the romance of a cluttered studio falls away.

But the reason this is a problem isn’t that people are deluded or lazy, it’s that they are so captivated by their stories that they can’t be objective about what’s happening. Stories are compelling. As humans, we naturally search for narratives to explain the world. We want a logical structure, we want things to make sense. We want to make assumptions based on past experience. We want to make educated guesses about the future.

Stories are strong. If enough people believe in something, it becomes harder to dispute. Actually, people don’t even think about disputing it. “But it’s always been this way!” they say. I’m not sure when the Great Depression became associated with hoarding but I can assure you that hoarding existed before that and it exists in people today who don’t have a Great Depression trauma in their family history.

A story like this can be used as an excuse to continue a behavior, or, better, it can illuminate the reason for a behavior and thus make it easier to change. The question is, are you doomed by your history or liberated by it?

Stories give us a place in the world. They make sense of things that otherwise might feel threatening or frightening. But clinging to a story for that reason, despite all the negative reasons, doesn’t serve people. The story that helps explain something can also be a prison.

What does this have to do with decluttering and organizing? Well, when I work with clients, I urge them to be honest about why they want to get organized. It shouldn’t be something they believe is the right thing to do. That’s just another story! It’s not better in an absolute sense to be organized. Being organized needs to be at the service of something else, like making life easier. It has no meaning in itself.

There’s a book called A Perfect Mess in which the authors assert that neatness for its own sake is a waste of time and energy. Well, duh! Of course it is! People who practice neatness for its own sake tend to be obsessive compulsive and that’s nothing to aspire to.

Do you have a story that’s preventing you from making positive changes in your life? It doesn’t matter if the story is true or false, you still have the power to turn it around. Instead of letting the story be an explanation of why you can’t do something, turn it into a limitation that you are going to overcome.

Maybe your parents or grandparents did grow up during the depression and suffered. Now, today, that’s not happening. They have everything they need now. There’s no rational reason to continue scrimping and doing without. That’s good news!

Say you’re a creative person with a clutter issue. It feels validating to you to explain your mess by saying that you think outside the box and can’t be held to conformist standards. But you also notice that your work table isn’t really usable because of all the stuff on it and that’s probably why you haven’t been in the studio lately. Or maybe you can’t get to a piece of equipment you need because it got stuck behind a bunch of other stuff. Hmm, time to reconsider whether you can’t use your creativity to invent new and fun ways to keep your tools and supplies set up in a way that enables your work rather than hindering it.

What you can do right now: think about an organizing or clutter problem you have and be honest with yourself about whether you’re holding yourself back by being too invested in your story.

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This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

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