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.

Podcast 101: Stop acquiring

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This is podcast 101 and it’s called stop acquiring. Last time I talked about completion, that is, including time to put away whatever you just brought home or got in the mail or used for some purpose or that’s out because someone else didn’t put it away. Sure, blame someone else. It stands to reason that the more stuff you have, the more completion you need to do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have less to do, so you have more time for fun?

Today I’ll talk about the perils of acquiring. That includes shopping and all the other ways stuff comes into your life: gifts, freebies, hand-me-downs, swaps, white elephant parties, free samples, inheritance, loans you never returned and buy-one-get-one offers. There are lots of ways that things sneak into your life!

I read an article by a consumer psychologist that had some intriguing ideas I haven’t heard before. One of them is that when people spend a lot of money on something that they cherish, they perversely rarely want to use it. They don’t want it to get damaged or dirty or used up. It kind of makes sense, but it’s also nutty. Why buy a thing that you never use?

Even stranger, people buy substitutes for those valuable items that they do allow themselves to use regularly but the substitutes are often cheap and kind of crummy, compared to the original item. That means there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the lower quality item, which in turn makes people want to shop more. Weird, huh?

An example of this is fine china. I’ve done a lot of unpacking for people so I get to see what they have. Bwah ha ha ha. What I see is beautiful, expensive plates, cups, serving ware, etc. that takes up many china cabinet shelves but is only used once a year, if that. What’s in the kitchen cabinets is mismatched, chipped dishware, or just boring plates that are serviceable but that the owner has little affection for. This seems kind of upside down.

Do you ever make a special trip to a mall or shopping district and not find the thing you were looking for, but then feel compelled to buy SOMETHING or else the trip was a waste? That’s another tricky consumer mindset. If you come home empty handed, you may feel unproductive. You didn’t get the thing you set out to buy. But when you think about it, just buying something to justify your trip doesn’t make sense at all.

Free stuff is irresistible to most of us. Me included! A friend recently gave me her old toaster oven. I didn’t have one and my life was terrific without it. Now that I have it I’m thinking up ways to use it. Frankly, besides heating up leftover pizza, I haven’t thought of any reasons that truly justify keeping it. I don’t really have room for it either and it’s cluttering my kitchen counter. But I still have it. Because it was free! It doesn’t seem to matter to me that I could buy one for 30 bucks at Target. I feel trapped by this little toaster oven, so I do understand how this works.

However, I also know that sometime over the next few weeks I will realize that I’m not using the thing much, that I hate how it takes up so much counter space and that I can easily go out and buy one if it turns out I must have one. The dopamine hit of having a free item just drop into my life as if by magic will wear off. Whew. I also know that most of the time I am quite capable of turning down free items that I don’t currently need or want. After I do that, I forget about them entirely.

Note that I mentioned items I CURRENTLY need or want. A big source of acquisition is what I call aspirational buying. I talked about this in podcast #66. Aspirational buying includes fabulous outfits that will look great at that boat deck cocktail party you haven’t been invited to yet. It includes exercise gear that you think will get you to exercise, instead of using the stairmaster to drape clothes on. It includes fancy cookwear or kitchen gadgets for dishes you will make once you take that special cooking class. It includes sports equipment for a sport you don’t know if you even like doing yet. Back in podcast 13 I talked about letting stores store things for you until you need them.

When I help people unpack I see how overwhelmed they feel seeing all their possessions out at once. Most of the time they are shocked to be confronted with so much stuff and truly don’t remember acquiring it.

To get unstuck from your things, reflect on which of them really gives you pleasure or that has a valuable purpose in your life. Be grateful for them and consciously appreciate them. This can increase your satisfaction and lessen your desire to acquire something new.

Imagine being free of the tyranny of stuff you want to hang onto for illogical reasons, the same reasons that marketers target to get you to buy. Protect yourself from offers that are too tempting; emails from stores that offer you deals all the time and, one of my favorites, don’t go shopping unless you actually need something.

What you can do right now. Look around and see if you can find something you got on sale, or for free; something you didn’t intentionally buy and spend decent money for. Ask yourself whether it really deserves a place in your home.

Podcast 100: Completion

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This is podcast 100! Wheee! Today I’m going to talk about completion. Some of my podcasts are about concrete actions you can take to get more organized or use your time better. A lot of them are about the concepts that underlie these actions.

I never like doing something unless I know WHY I should do it. So I won’t ask you to do anything without explaining why. When you understand the why AND you agree that it’s a good idea, following through with action is usually much easier. Of course, we all still have our irrational resistance to things, and we act against our own best interests. Such is being human.

Your best self knows what to do and why, however. Take time to find that voice and listen to it instead of acting impulsively. It takes practice.

Okay, what’s so important about completion? Completion is what stops clutter, mental and physical, from happening. Completion means that you begin a task, you finish it, and then you do the third step to complete it, which is to set everything up so whatever is next can easily occur. I know, that’s a little abstract. Here are some examples.

Shopping. You need to buy things, you go out and you buy them (or order online, doesn’t matter). They arrive. Great. Now they’re on your dining table. Maybe you’ve taken them out of the boxes and bags. Good work. A lot of people stop there.

The purchasing is done, you got the stuff. The hard part is over and now you can go do something else. You’ll take care of putting stuff away later. Right? Not really. This step is deceptively difficult because it involves decision making.

The completion step is getting those purchases to their next destination; the fridge, your closet, your handbag, etc. It sounds simple, but it’s common to omit this part. When you do omit it, you have clutter on your table. Yes, a newly purchased item is clutter on your table if it’s not in the place where you will use it.

I hope you can hear the emphasis in my voice on those last five words. Things you own need to be where you will use them, or stored in their own specific place.

In my experience, people find it hard to put things away. They optimistically put this off, thinking it will take a few minutes, sometime later. But when pressed, they realize that they haven’t put things away because they don’t know where they go. In podcasts 15, 25 and 61, among others, I talk about figuring out where to put things. It’s one of those very simple, yet essential, skills you need to prevent and fix clutter.

Completion extends to tasks like setting up that new phone so you CAN use it, and trying out the new tray tables you bought to make sure they work and you don’t need to return them. That’s for new stuff coming in.

Completion is necessary for any actions you do. Here’s an example. One of my clients complained that although her husband was happy to do the family laundry and she appreciated it, he ended his task with the clean laundry folded neatly in the hamper sitting on top of the dryer. What’s wrong with that picture?

The problem was that now my client had to go through all the clothes; hers, her husband’s and the two kids’; and put them all away where they belonged. Hubby wasn’t doing the completion step, which is putting each item in the spot where it will be used, the appropriate closet or dresser.

Besides not knowing where things go, people tend to resist completion because they think it will take a long time. Putting away a family’s laundry can be time consuming, that’s true. It will save time, though, when you need to get dressed and aren’t rooting through the hamper, or even the dirty clothes, to find what you need.

This is why I keep preaching that you should make putting stuff away as easy as possible. Imagine this scenario. You come home, set your purse on a chair, hang your jacket on a nearby doorknob, kick your shoes off under a table, set your keys down, well, somewhere. We’ll worry about that later.

You pull the ice cream out of one of your bags and put it in the freezer. There! Done! You open the shoe box and realize you need to get inserts before you can wear the shoes. The shoes go back in the box, but the tissue paper gets balled up next to it.

You push those aside to look at the magazine you bought. Ad cards come tumbling out. You gather them and stack them near the shoe box. Next you glance through the mail you’ve brought in. It’s a mix of bills, announcements, mystery items and junk. Too much to think about. You put the stack near the shoe box.

Ooof! That was tiring! Time to sit down for a bit. You look around and see purse, jacket and shoes cluttering up the living room, and mail and shopping bags and boxes and random paper filling up the kitchen counter. No wonder you’re tired.

If this is you, go back through the scenario and see where completion needs to occur. The jacket goes in the closet or on a coat rack. The purse goes on the entry hall table, along with your keys. Your shoes go into a rack in the hall or in your clothes closet. Everything has a spot that is fairly easy to get to.

The ice cream is stored, so that’s done. For the shoes, make a note on your to do list to get inserts, then put the box in your closet. They don’t need to stay out as reminders as long as the task is on your list. Put the magazine in the living room or your bedside table; wherever you’ve decided to keep reading material.

Put the mail on your desk or household command center, wherever that is. Even if you don’t get to it for a few days, it will be in a place you can find it again and not cluttering up the counter. Finally, collect all the trash and recyclable paper and put it where it belongs.

Ta da! Now you can take a load off and really relax. It may seem like a lot of piddly little to do’s, but this kind of completion doesn’t take much time, and it will save you from physical and mental clutter.

What you can do right now: look around you for things that are out of place that you know how to put away. Spend a minute or two and just do it.