Home office clutter management

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home office in the living roomIf you’re not lucky enough to have a separate room for your home office, you’ll make do on the dining table, or setting up a desk in a corner of the living room.

This poses a special challenge because any clutter you leave on your desk is also now in the common living area for all to see. If you live with others this can be, well, a problem.

A former client of mine had her desk in what would’ve been the kitchen dining nook. She needed lots of stuff out and around her when she worked, but her partner was less than thrilled to come home and make dinner in a cluttered office.

Like many creative types, my client balked at being orderly and cleaning up.

It went against her desire for inspiration and freedom and felt confining. Yet she wanted to keep harmony in the household so was open to looking at it a new way.

I came up with the idea of expanding and contracting. When she started her work day, she expanded. Stacks of paper came out and the extra leaf of her desk went up to allow her to spread out. Everything she might need was at hand for her to be productive.

At the end of her workday, she contracted the home office.

The leaf went down, making the desktop smaller. Piles went back into drawers and cabinets. The keyboard tray slid back under the desk. The taboret rolled under the desk. The home office disappeared.

The image of contraction was an effective metaphor. It didn’t have to do with tidying. It felt like an organic response to her shift in focus from work to personal time. The work area contracted so that the kitchen could expand and she and her partner could enjoy preparing food together.

If you avoid cleaning up, can you think of a metaphor that would inspire you?

In the photo above, the shelves are open and could look cluttered if anything was on them. A simple solution would be to install bamboo roll up shades. That was, all the shelves could be opened at once for easy home office productivity, instead of having a set of doors on each one. And the rolled down shade would create a streamlined look after hours.

Fighting a Hidden Distraction at Work

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Assembly line Many a blog post has been written about turning off your phone and closing your email program and browser so you can get some work done. Tips about deflecting office visitors and avoiding meetings can combat those in-person distractions. But there's another subtle way that you get off track, and that's by doing other people's work.

The thing is, it's usually easier to solve someone else's problems than your own. When you give advice to a friend, you have no difficulty thinking up ideas to get her out of her predicament. And we all appreciate the more objective point of view of our friends in addressing our own challenges. 

If you do this at work, though, you're usually short changing your own projects. Every time you get sucked into an office crisis or even just volunteer to look up information to respond to a casual request, you're doing a task that someone else should be doing.

I'm not saying you should become a hermit and never offer to help. Just be mindful about whether you are also honoring your own commitments. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Schedule work appointments with yourself and keep them. Putting them on a shared calendar is helpful to let others know you're busy
  • Create an email auto-responder that you can easily activate for the times that you need to be distraction-free. Let correspondents know when you'll be back on line
  • Have office hours. Put a sign on your door that says you're open from 1-4 pm
  • Don't respond to casual requests that are sent to a group. Let someone else respond
  • If necessary, set an hourly timer so you can check in with yourself and make sure you're on track
Cream puff assembly line from misocrazy's photostream

Tips for Taming Distractions at Work

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I often hear from people that they come in to the office early in the morning or on weekends just to get some work done in peace. They don’t particularly like doing it, but they do like the quiet and the lack of interruptions from phone, email and coworkers.

Lifehacker yesterday ran a post about “guerilla tactics” people use to get some distraction-free time at work. This was a favorite:

“A couple colleagues of mine and I schedule fake meetings so we can sit
and get an hours work done. If it’s just the three of us, it’s quiet
and easy because we know why we’re there.”

Over at 43Folders, there were several good ideas for managing emails and meetings, such as “filter any email that contains the string “to unsubscribe.”
Although many of these certainly will be valuable (sign-ups, Google
lists), that string means there’s a good chance they’re also bulk messages
that are being generated automatically. And some folks want to only see
those sorts of emails, again, once or twice a day — and only when they
have extra time”

Email in this category is being referred to these days as bacn. It’s not as bad as spam but it significantly clogs inboxes.

Be Productive in Your Own Time

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Do you live your life by the clock so you can squeeze everything in? Do you anxiously consult your watchBoat_2
while working toward a deadline? Most of us have to live by a schedule part of the time, whether it’s work, school or events. But when you don’t, try leaving the watch on the bureau and forgetting about its constant ticking.

Susan Sabo proposes having a "watch out" day or evening on her Productivity Blog. Remember what it’s like to do something because you’re prompted from within. This is a way to tune into your internal clock. Without the pressure of time, you may find that you’re more productive. Ideas may come more easily.

You might also find yourself lollygagging and daydreaming and feeling unproductive. However, your creativity and thus, your productivity, also needs that kind of time, or timelessness, to really shine.

Dawn in Norway photographed by Maikun.

Managing Time in Your Home Office

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Here’s an interview that one of my coaches, Ann Ronan, did with me about the special problems people who work at home face.

I talk about:

  • How to avoid working all the time (!)
  • How to control distractions like friends calling because you’re not “at work”
  • Why your home office isn’t working for you
  • How to be your own boss

You can listen right here, or download it for later.

[cincopa AILAa-KNrvId]

The Four Poxes Upon Productivity

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I'm starting a new four-part series that will include the Packrat Factor, Procrastinators R Us, Prioritizizing and Paperphobia. Each post will discuss a different obstacle to being productive. Keeping too much stuff, not doing stuff, not knowing which stuff to do first and not knowing where stuff is are all common problems.

Trees The Packrat Factor
This just in: Stuff is not the problem, you are. When you keep doing something that you know doesn’t work for you, well, the problem is all yours to solve. Stuff isn’t going to go away. In fact, there’s more right now than there was a minute ago. Ain’t it grand?

Instead of trying to figure out why you collect stuff, which leads straight to the land of rationalizing and excuses, let’s pause and consider the effect of all this stuff.

A confession: I had to stop writing this article to clear off my desk because I couldn’t focus on it. Now all I see is my coffee cup, my pencil jar, my notebook and the view from my window. Better!

If you can think clearly and act decisively while surrounded by stuff, you don’t have a problem. If you can’t do those things, the good news is, you don’t have ADD, you just have too much stuff. Everyone thinks they have ADD. What they really have is an unwillingness to detach from stimulation.

Show appreciation.

Become an admirer rather than an owner. The world is full of wonderful things that you don’t currently own. Make that world larger by merely appreciating things you see and not buying them. If you need visual stimulation, go window shopping or indulge in glossy magazines (for best results, find a bookstore where you can sit and read the mags. Do not buy them and take them home).

What about stuff from the past?
Distinguish between things you’ve kept just because you’ve had them forever from ones that have strong feelings attached to them. Memorabilia isn’t just old stuff, it’s personal old stuff that you’re attached to. If you’re not really attached to Great grandma’s tea cozy, get over feeling that you have to keep it.

Re-evaluate every year or so. Over time, things can lose their appeal and relevance. Decluttering is a constant process and it’s also an iterative one. Things that made the cut this year might not in three years.

What about stuff that’s valuable or was expensive?
So, you’ve made some mistakes, bought some things you regretted later. Or you just don’t feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth out of them yet, even though in your heart of hearts you would never miss them if they were gone. If you keep these things just because they’re “valuable,” you are letting things be in charge of your life. You’re letting their importance dictate what to do with them. Turn it around and be ruthless in judging their value to you, right now. 

Pass it on.

If that thing really is important, why is it in a moldy box somewhere in your garage? Again, be clear about its current value to you. Then set that thing free to find a new owner who will truly appreciate it. There, doesn’t that feel better?

Let the chi flow.

Just as a room crowded with furniture and stuff prevents people from circulating in it freely, a packratted home prevents energy from flowing. This may seem woo woo to you, but you can feel that it’s true whenever you go into a stranger’s cluttered home. Moving energy around is one reason we go out into nature to refresh ourselves. Nature is well designed, purposeful and balanced. It’s not cluttered up with inessentials. It evokes feelings of harmony and serenity. Your home can be that way too.

I need a lot of stuff that inspires my art.

Have faith in your creativity. What you need is already here for you. If you’re a visual artist craving stimulation, get out and find it. Go to shops with wonderful wares, visit museums, walk in nature. Inspiration is everywhere. Also, “inspiration” is the breath you’re taking right now. Even though you have a trove of treasures, don’t you find that some of them inspired you at first, but when you didn’t use them, their glow faded? Whatever you’re creating now needs the fresh energy of today and what you find here.

Trees from jumpinjimmyjava's photostream

Tricks to Motivate You

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Magician I answered a question on Linked In today about whether it’s possible to become more disciplined. My answer wasn’t really about discipline though, because that word turns me off. It makes me think of following rules, being punished if I don’t, rigidity and fear. Ick.

So my answer was about motivation instead. And tricks. Fun ways to get yourself to do stuff.


If the end result of your work is something you really, really want, it’s not hard to get motivated. If you don’t want the result, why bother? Whatever project you’re putting off, trace it back and find out what the original motivation was and whether it’s still valid.


If it’s valid and you still don’t want to do it, pay someone else to do it! Or, try some of these tricks.
  • Work on your project for just two minutes. Use a timer. If you get inspired, keep going. If not, you got two minutes worth done, more than you had before.
  • Imagine the day is over and you’re looking back over what you got done. What will make you feel like you got something really worthwhile accomplished? Then, do that thing.
  • Make a “Not To Do” list. Put anything that you’re not getting around to and that can go undone without the planet exploding. Keep the list somewhere safe. This tells your brain that it can forget about those things and relieves you of that mental clutter.

What tricks do you use to get yourself going and stay on task?


Rabbit out of a Hat from laneesque’s photostream.

Goals vs. Tasks

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You need both goals and tasks, and they’re easy to confuse. A big reason that people don’t get things on their to do list done isn’t that they procrastinate, but that the list entries aren’t really do-able.

Does your to do list look like this?

  • Design the book
  • Increase sales this month
  • Find an accountant

These are actually all goals, not tasks. A goal is reached via a series of tasks. Once you identify a goal you need to figure out what the first thing to do is. Do that, then figure out the next thing. And so on.

Here’s a real to do list based on the list above:

  • Narrow color schemes down to 2 choices and create palettes
  • Contact top three clients this week and remind them of the new products
  • Ask Maya and Rob if they can recommend an accountant

Notice that to do’s are much more specific. They are active, they have deadlines and they involve particular people. As soon as they’re done, they’re replaced by the next logical step, for example, schedule a meeting to present the color schemes, or follow up the client calls with mailed brochures.

If something is languishing on your list for weeks on end, it might be a goal. To find out, just ask yourself, well, how do I design the book?  You know the answer already; you just need to put that on the list instead.

Tips for To-Do Lists

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I’m giving a talk tonight in San Francisco about optimizing your to-do list. There’s still time to sign up here: Biznik meeting.

To do list tattoo I’ll summarize my talk here, in case you can’t make it. First, there are a bunch of reasons to make daily to-do lists if you don’t already. They help you focus in on the small number of things you need to get done and actually can get done. Everyone is busy and gets distracted by myriad things daily. Put 3-5 tasks on your list.

Writing down those tasks clarifies them. When they’re in your head, they’re a little vague. If you have to write them or tell them to someone, you fill in lots of important details that your mental version overlooks. It’s important to write down projects that only you are responsible for. If you’re not accountable to anyone for them, you’ll often relegate them to your free time, and we all know that “free time” doesn’t really exist.

Make sure your list items are really to do’s and not entire projects. You can’t “do” a project. Projects have multiple steps. If “redecorate the guest room” or “design the new brochure” are on your list, you’ll feel lazy and incompetent for not doing them. Instead, put “look at curtains for the guest room,” or “draft the Services section text for the new brochure” on your list.

If there are undone tasks hanging around on your list, make a “not to do” list. This is where you write down those tasks that you feel guilty that you haven’t done, but you honestly know that you’ll never do them. Things that others want you do to, or that you feel you “should” do. Even when these aren’t written down, they nag at you. Put them on this list and then burn the list! Let go of those tasks forever.

When are you going to do the things on your list? Make sure you know where your time is going, if you find yourself running out. Track your time by setting an alarm to go off every hour. Stop and make brief notes about what you did since the last alarm. Don’t judge yourself, but get curious; when do you get most distracted? By what? How long does it take to do routine tasks? We often underestimate that time because we do them automatically and the time seems short. Until you know where your time is going now, you can’t make effective decisions about changing what you do.

Keep losing your list? Have it tattooed on your arm. Courtesy of robstephaustralia.

How Do You Spend Your Time?

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For clients with time management troubles, I have recommended occasionally that they keep track of what they do all day. It may be startling to find out exactly how much time you spend cruising around the internet or caught up in cross currents of email, but the idea isn't to make you feel bad. The idea is to find out what you're actually doing with your time so that you can change it effectively.

Keeping track can be as simple as having a pad ready to jot down notes at timed intervals. David Seah has an elegant, easy to use version that shows time graphically since you fill in a bubble for each time increment. You can see it immediately; the more bubbles, the more time spent. His tool, the Emergent Task Timer, is available as a free PDF download on his site (which has tons of great productivity information, too).

Benefits of time tracking:

  • Find out what you're doing when you're wasting time
  • Find out how long you spend working on specific tasks; makes it easier to plan for them in the future
  • Get an idea of when your high and low productivity times are during the day
  • Discern patterns to tasks that you can use to your advantage. Email flurries at certain times of day can mean that others are most easily contacted then, for example
  • Find patterns of work time followed by down time. You may find that some aspects of your work need more downtown to recover from
  • Make sure you're taking productive, refreshing downtime; don't count more email checking as an actual break

A key to getting the most out of tracking your time is to do it now, or starting tomorrow morning. Don't wait for a less stressful week, or one with more interesting things going on. Print out enough sheets for the rest of the week and just get started. There won't be a better time.

"Time Disappears" from jtravism's photostream