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.

Podcast 107: Get ready to move

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This is podcast 107 and it’s about getting ready to move. I occasionally help people pare down their possessions for a move. In these cases, it’s a corporate move and the company pays for this service. What a great idea! The company saves a bit on moving costs for their employee, and the employee gets to do what almost everyone wants to do before a move, but doesn’t get around to; go through all their stuff and get rid of things.

Has that happened to you? People have the best intentions. They schedule their move three months in advance. They’ve put their house on the market and may even have bought a new house. They’ve scoped out school and shopping in the new neighborhood.

It’s when they ask for moving company quotations that the enormity of moving starts to sink in. Some movers provide an inventory form to fill out. Inventory means a list of all your stuff. Yes, all of it! Unless you want it left behind. So moving is a big reality check on how much stuff you truly have.

You can’t start too early on paring down. It gonna take awhile. As my listeners know, I recommend attacking big projects like this over time, in small increments, so you don’t get overwhelmed and exhausted.

I advise creating a vision of what you want before you start any organizing project. This is how my free email courses starts out. You can find the e-course on my website in the free stuff section. You can do this kind of visioning for a move too.

Think about how you want to live in your new home. Even if the new place is bigger, resist the temptation just to take it all. If clutter is an issue for you, don’t just transplant it. If you don’t want stacks of magazines and newspapers on the living room floor of your new place, first, don’t take the ones you have now and second, don’t transfer those subscriptions. If you want to have a manageable closet full of clothes you love to wear, select those now and get rid of the rest instead of filling up the future guest room closet with them.

You may feel too busy to tackle this now, but chances are excellent that you won’t have any more time to do it after you move. Once you arrive, you’re going to want to unpack and put things away as quickly as possible to resume normal life. Living in a halfway unpacked home is draining and irritating.

Where do you start to find all those things you shouldn’t move? Here are some ideas: boxes you never opened from the previous move, clothes you don’t wear, outdated electronics, toys your kids don’t play with anymore, anything that’s broken and not worth repairing, and anything that will look old or shabby in your new place.

I mentioned before starting way in advance. There are categories of things that you can get packed up long before you actually move, if you’re doing your own packing. This includes books, off season clothes, holiday gear, archive files, memorabilia, photos, off season sports equipment, some craft supplies, and serving ware for entertaining.

Then there’s the category of things you’ve been keeping around because they might come in handy sometime. Ask yourself if they actually have come in handy since you acquired them and, if so, whether it was worth reserving an entire shelf for them. If you come across some of these items that would’ve come in handy if you’d been able to find them when you needed them, well, they have to go. They haven’t been helpful so far and they probably won’t be in the future.

Get yourself some moving boxes and pack those categories, making sure that you need and love all the things you’re packing. Imagine yourself being happy to see them again on the other end of the move. If you don’t, don’t take them. Have some boxes and bags on hand for donations and give aways. Have some trash bags for broken or otherwise undonateable items. And of course if you find some things you can sell, that’s extra money for you. Then go through your home closet by closet, shelf by shelf, at the pace that works for you.

Don’t let this golden opportunity get away! Moving time is the ideal time to review all your possessions and weed out the ones that don’t have a place in your life anymore, particularly in your shiny new home. It’s impractical for most people to do this comprehensive review unless they’re moving. Use this chance to start anew.

What you can do now: start making a mental list of all the things you want to implement in your new home: less clutter, better storage organization, easier to manage housework, more ease with meal prep. As you go through your stuff, judge it with an eye to that new vision.

Podcast 106: College organizing tips

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This is Podcast 106 and it’s about organizing tips from my college days. They involve beer and garbage bags, just so you know.

Before I get to that, I want to announce that I’ve been posting more to Instagram. To find me, go to Instagram and search on clutter Coach. Type it with the space in between the words or not, I should be the first entry that comes up.

I lived in a dorm at college. I was lucky enough to have my own room, a single. It was small but it was all mine. There was room for a twin bed, a small desk and chair and a bureau. Maybe one extra chair for guests. I had a window that overlooked the graveyard next door.

I wasn’t as organized back then as I am now. I wasn’t a slob, exactly, but on campus there were more fun things to do than clean up my room. I’d let things slide until it got to hard to find anything or to move around the room.

This often happened before midterms. The semester would start out slowly and I kept up with my work. But then the assignments piled up AND I had to study for the exam, which meant hours in the library and schlepping stacks of heavy books and readers back to my room (this was a long time ago, youngsters). My room filled up with study materials, in addition to cast off clothing, piles of laundry, empty cans to recycle and whatever else I just set down somewhere and didn’t put away.

There was a tipping point for me where I couldn’t focus on my work with all the junk in my way and filling up my visual field. It was too distracting. I needed to clear the decks so I could focus. If I was writing a paper, I needed to get the final draft done without being sidetracked.

Here’s a little sidebar. Another thing that distracted me when I needed to get my final paper printed out to hand in was my desire to keep quote unquote improving it. I’d change a sentence or start elaborating on a minor point and then I’d realize I’d sabotaged my own conclusion and had to go back and start over.

You’ll have to take this recommendation with a grain of salt. I found that the best way for me to stay focused on simply making the edits I’d already written out for myself was to drink a beer or two before I sat down to type. The beer turned off my internal critic and I became absorbed simply in the activity of typing.

I know this solution isn’t for everyone, but it illustrates an important point. We often make more work for ourselves by trying to perfect tiny details that are irrelevant in the long run. This is the law of diminishing returns.

I’ve talked about it before, in podcasts 86 and 90. In order to be effective, you have to get used to doing something that’s good enough rather than perfect. Partly this is realizing that you probably have some really great ideas that could add to the project and that’s terrific. However, there are other projects to tackle and those ideas can be used in the future.

For me, to get this paper out the door I needed to evaluate what I’d written against the assignment. Did I address all the points I was supposed to? Is it the right format? Is my argument supported by the right number of sources? I could give myself a check list. That meant that I either did something or I didn’t. I wouldn’t go into the shades of grey.

Other ways you could distract yourself from trying to achieve perfection if you don’t like the two beer method are listening to music or having a casual conversation with someone (you’ll have to judge what kind of conversation provides just the right amount of distraction). You could also work on one page at a time. Get up and do something else in between. Or work on it from end to beginning. Those ideas work for writing term papers and many other tasks. Basically, you encourage yourself to focus on some other aspect, such as the physical typing, rather than the content.

That turned out to be more than a sidebar! Okay, back to the room clutter. Here’s the technique I used in college. I got a big black trash bag and threw everything into it. Dirty clothes, stray papers, books, readers, personal items I didn’t need at the moment that were out of place, plastic plates and cups. Yup, everything.

The bag was pretty heavy by the time I finished. I’d drag it into the corner and immediately feel better that now it was just me and the term paper. Well, and the beer.

People often don’t believe that they are distracted by clutter. My very first podcast dealt with that topic, the emotional cost of clutter. In that one I talked about feelings of regret and shame and embarrassment that can come from having too much clutter.

This effect is more mental than emotional, but that’s also important. The thing is, we tend to discount it because we’re so used to it that we don’t see it. We do see it though and it does affect us. It’s tiring, even draining. It causes a constant flow of small distractions that derail our trains of thought. Then we have to expend mental energy getting back to that train. It reminds us of things we need to do and haven’t done; more mental sidetracking.

If you don’t believe me, try this. Look around at a cluttered area of your home or office or wherever you are. Really take it in. let your eyes roam over all the different objects, shapes and colors. Really see what all those things are. Now close your eyes. Imagine a peaceful scene such as a beach.

For most people this will be water and sand and sky and that’s about it. Looking at a scene like that makes people feel calm and peaceful and part of the reason for that is the lack of visual distraction. If you want to feel calm, you probably aren’t going to visualize times square or rush-hour traffic, right?

So those are my two best college organizing tips. One is for overcoming perfectionism in completing a task and the other is for at least temporarily clearing your visual field so that you can focus on something important.

Here’s what you can do right now. Either try the beer method or choose a cluttered area to clear temporarily. You don’t have to use a garbage bag. You could use a box or simply move things to another surface where you’re not working, where you won’t see them. Notice how much better your focus is.

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 104: Busy people

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This is podcast 104 and it’s about busy people. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” Busy people get more done. Let’s amend that to busy productive people, since we know that it’s quite possible to be busy about nothing.

That kind of busy person stays in constant motion but doesn’t get things done, certainly not in proportion to the amount of time spent. The busy about nothing person likes the feeling of being in a whirlwind. There’s the adrenaline appeal of rushing around that can prevent you from realizing that you’re just wasting time.

Busy people are goal directed in their use of time. I’ve written about how deadlines focus your attention in podcast 67 and 94. Bp’s, let’s call them, channel their time to fit all the tasks they’re responsible for into the container they need to fit in, one day, for example.

Busy people don’t mind being asked to do more. They don’t seem burdened by such requests. They accomplish so much because they’re are used to fitting a lot in and know how to do it effectively. To me, this is proof that productive people are happier and they enjoy getting things done.

If you feel tired and put upon by all that you have to do in a day, and resentful when anyone asks you to do more, it’s probably time to examine all those commitments and weed out the unpleasant ones. Maybe you don’t have a dream job. Even then there are probably ways you can turn around or reframe tasks that drag you down.

Busy people realize they don’t have time to waste. Although I’ve recommended building contingency time into your schedule for unexpected events, this technique can backfire.

There’s a fine line between having sufficient time to do something and having extra time. The problem is, that extra time can be an expanding sinkhole that not only stretches out longer than it should, but swallows your focus whole, like a house.

They are very aware of what must get done on any given day. They keep that overview in their heads so they aren’t distracted by things that DON’T need to get done. They don’t end the day with unproductive, unaccounted for chunks of time. That kind of clarity about how you need to spend your time is priceless.

It’s very clear to a busy person that there’s no room in the day for _________ (fill in the blank). It’s important to note that I’m not talking about keeping your nose to the grindstone and not taking breaks or enjoying yourself. If you’ve been listening to my podcast, you know that breaks and naps are ninja productivity tools that you neglect at your peril.

Still it seems odd to ask someone who’s already busy to take on more. The reason we do it is that those busy people tend to be very reliable. We’re confident that they’ll do this new task, on time and well. The reason for that could be what productivity author Laura VanderKam writes, that reliable people become busy people, not the other way around.

Are you ready to get busier so you can be more productive and maybe happier? Here’s how.

Schedule more time off. Yes, that’s right. Give yourself less time to do the same amount of work. Leave the office on time. Don’t come in on weekends. It may feel like a challenge, but I’ll bet you find that you didn’t quite as much time after all. It often turns out that some of the time you used was not truly adding value.

Streamline your work. That means don’t invent everything from scratch. Tweak and reuse documents you’ve already written. Use old projects as models for new ones. Recycle things. Create templates.

Most jobs have tasks that don’t require serious brain work or time from you to complete. Determine what’s needed to get the job done and don’t do more than that. This way you’ll spend less time on routine work and more time doing important things.

Take on one more thing. This needs to be something that really jazzes you and makes you feel energized. It may be something you’ve always wanted to do but didn’t feel you had time for. Something that has the potential to be so satisfying that the positive energy spills over to all the rest of the things you have to do.

What you can do now. Try one of the three ideas I mentioned just now to get busier. Keep track of how your time goes, how productive you are and, most importantly, how much better you feel.

Podcast 103: Focus and daydreaming

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This is Podcast 103. In episode 93 I talked about focus and hyperfocus. This time I’ll go into detail about the perils of not focusing and what you can do about it.

We’ll start with a quotation. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” That was written by Blaise Pascal in the 1600’s but it’s even more relevant now. I’ll bet many of you listening right now are terrified by the idea of sitting quietly in a room alone, alone meaning no other people but also no TV, no computer, no phone! Could you do it?

Relax, I won’t make you. Still, the problem of increasing distractibility is serious. We have more and more demands on our attention and those demands have fiendishly evolved to be ever more attention getting, mainly by being small enough to squeeze into your awareness, like texts, tweets, posts and notifications.

We may not stop what we’re doing to read a two paragraph email, but we will glance at a two line text, no matter what we’re doing. But despite its brevity, the two line text disrupts our attention as much as the email would have. Disruption is disruption.

When you do make time to read an actual article online, you have to wade through a barrage of ads that zoom across the screen or slide down and block half the screen, videos that autoplay, and flashing banners. Plus, those hateful popups that you MUST click to turn them off because they are blocking the article. I have resorted to putting post its on my screen to cover those so I can stay focused on what I’m reading. Another good trick is to copy the article text into a Word file so I get just text and no dancing images.

It makes me tired. Whether you’re aware of it or not, it makes you tired too. Your mind is naturally primed for engagement. Your primitive brain is on alert because you need to see that tiger before it sees you. When you let in too many distractions, however, you’re surrounding yourself with tigers. Who could get any work done in those conditions?

Giving in to distraction increases your impulsivity. Impulsivity decreases your focus dramatically. If you never resist distractions, your ability to do so will diminish. It will get worse. You will become unable to produce anything that isn’t a soundbite or a bullet point. Worse, you’ll become one of those annoying people who interrupt conversations when some random thought pops into their heads that they can’t stop themselves from sharing. Please, don’t be that person!

Really, you can’t think without focus. You can’t learn anything, make good decisions, solve problems or plan for the future without focus. These critical life skills are seriously eroded by the habit of giving in to distractions.

It’s up to us now, more than ever, to keep those distractions at bay as much as we can. You can do the usual things, like turning off phone notifications and closing browser tabs. I’ve talked about those solutions before. What I’ll talk about today is how you can train yourself to ignore distractions.

Here’s what I recommend: Daydreaming! Give yourself a break not by going to a favorite distraction, but by gazing out the window. Now, if you’re a sea captain, that won’t work. The idea is to do something very different from what you’re taking a break from.

Since most of us these days work at computers, you want to do something physical, moving your body, and something outside, not in the office, not at your desk. You want to switch gears completely. Going to Instagram isn’t going to hack it.

Even when you’re taking a break, distractions can pop up. If you just get up from your desk and start wandering, you are a target for distraction. To circumvent that, have a plan for your break. A simple, easily executable plan guides your mind and keeps it engaged. I mean, plan to walk around the block, get a cup of tea, and return to work.

The more you focus on the physical, the easier it is for your mind to relax. This can take some practice. At first, your mind will probably still be full of whatever you were working on, or what’s for lunch, or a weird conversation you had yesterday, or stress about a work deadline, etc.

That’s normal. Your practice is to guide your attention to the trees outside, the air temperature, the colors of the cars passing by, the feel of the pavement under your feet. It’s like a mini meditation.

What you’ll find when your mind relaxes is that you get more creative ideas. You can stand back and see the bigger picture because you’re not mired in the daily details. You can make connections between disparate things and come up with inventive solutions.

We already know that focus diminishes over time anyway. Even if you’re really good at it, you must take breaks in order to keep your skill honed. So don’t worry about taking a break. In fact, you need to.

What you can do right now: Whatever you’re doing, stop and take a walk. Notice your surroundings. Let go of the thoughts of the day. If you’re driving, let the podcast end, turn off the music and really see what’s outside your windshield, safely, of course. Notice the landscape, or see how many different car colors you can spot.

Bonus tip for drivers: For me, driving is like showering; I’m involved in a physical task and ideas pop into my head. I have a small notebook in my car that I use to jot down one or two word reminders, again, whenever it’s safe to do so.

Podcast 102: Use information

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This is Podcast 102 and it’s about using information. Are you good at gathering information? How about taking notes, on a seminar or a book? Maybe you write in the margins of the handouts, or maybe you create a dedicated binder for all your fantastic notes. But… what happens next?

Unless you’re in school, there’s not going to be a test on those notes. There won’t be a specific, time-sensitive reason for you to go back and refer to them again. To use them for a particular reason; to get closer to getting your degree, for example. What happens to a lot of these notes is that they molder away in your file cabinet, or even in your in box waiting for you to read them again. Now be honest, do you ever do that? Do you ever look at them again? Use them?

My guess is that most people don’t, no matter how well intentioned they are. Note taking is a valuable activity. You are more likely to retain information if you take notes, especially if you do it by hand. There’s something about moving your pen across paper that cements things better into your memory.

But even that slightly improved retention won’t matter after a few weeks. What’s clear and fascinating and motivating in your mind from the seminar you just took is going to fade and be crowded out by new demands on your attention. The poetically named Curve of Forgetting shows that we will forget about 40% of new learning over the first 24 hours. If we wait another 24 hours before reviewing the information, we have lost 60%. And it’s downhill from there.

The magic bullet is to USE that information. Put it to work. Fit it into your life so it won’t slide off into oblivion. If you learned how to tune up a bike, find a friend and tune her bike up. If you learned to knit a hat, knit another one and another one. It’s pretty straightforward to practice a skill like that. If you learned about renaissance art, go get some library books to deepen your learning.

Much information you absorb is more abstract, for example, what you learn from listening to this podcast. Although I talk about specific techniques for organizing and time management, I also talk about my philosophy and psychology and behavioral trends. Even then, I come up with ways you can put those idea into action. Still, it’s up to you to do that. I’m not coming over to your house to make you do it. Well, I will do that, actually, if you pay me.

In other cases, the information is even more abstract or generalized and it’s up to you to figure out how to apply it to your life. Say you take a class about self care. You learn about how important is and all the wonderful benefits you’ll get if you do it. You’re inspired. Maybe you get some great idea you can try out.

Maybe you get a lot of ideas! That can be almost as bad as getting none because you won’t be able to do them all and you’ll have to choose, which trips people up. A weekend conference where you go to 8-10 workshops is a gold mine for this problem.

How DO you choose? I like to keep things simple. I say, just pick something to try. Pick the one that appeals to you right now. Can’t limit yourself to one? Pick three. Three is plenty. Save the others for another time.

What if the class requires you to design your own project? None of the information you so carefully take notes on will do you any good without that critical element. This is another common situation where you just need to pick something to apply all the learning to. It could be a marketing class where the information is totally abstract until you relate it to your own venture.

Trust me, you will learn much better by choosing something to work with in the class, even if it turns out not to be your ultimate idea. Trying to apply the information at a later date doesn’t work as well, not the least because you don’t have the support of the class structure to help you.

Now, the nitty gritty: how do you use these ideas?

Change is hard. Repeat after me, change is hard! Take advantage of anything and everything that will make it easier. That means blocking out time in your schedule to practice, putting your running shoes near the door, taping a note to your bathroom mirror, etc. It means setting aside time to review and practice, calling your study buddy regularly for months after the class ends and planning out the steps of your project to unfold over time.

What you can do now: Don’t just stockpile those notes! Find some notes from a class or project that you were excited about but didn’t pursue. Review them and see if you can identify a skill to practice and make part of your life.