Podcast 146: Tips for supporting staff remotely

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Today I’m talking to Renee Green who is operations manager at a small software company. We’ll talk about the abrupt transition to working at home and how it’s going, and how things may go in the future. In particular, we’ll talk about the challenges of working remotely, especially when there’s been no advance preparation or experience.

You can see the video of this interview here.

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Podcast 144: Organizing to soothe your soul

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This is podcast 144 and it’s about organizing to soothe your soul. If you’ve got the motivation, energy and focus for a project, you’ve probably already started one. I hope you’ve gotten some helpful info from my podcasts.

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If you’ve been feeling too distracted or worried, or busy with work that’s more tiring than usual because you’re doing it remotely, you probably haven’t. And that’s fine. But it occurred to me that some organizing tasks can be relaxing and take your mind off things for awhile.

A homey little activity like sorting socks or alphabetizing your spices is what I’m talking about. Something that doesn’t require decision making at all, so I’m not talking about decluttering. Simply making a category of stuff be more useful and presentable. Take a whiff of each spice as you go. Make it a sensory activity.

A task like this has practical benefits, of course. I once spent almost an hour sorting my embroidery thread by color and putting it into separate bags. It was very helpful going forward to find the color I was looking for. And at the time I did it I found it very pleasing to spread out all the threads and then group them by colors. The colors were so pretty and the thread was soft and pleasant to handle.

The best kind of project for times like this when you want some mental relief is one that involves beauty, one that you feel will make your home look nicer. Forget being productive for now. Forget about using your time efficiently.

Also important is to find a task that involves using your hands or otherwise being physically active. That helps ease the mind. And it should be something simple enough to be almost mindless, so your mind can relax.

I know many of you are busy with work and family trying to juggle in new and different ways. Even so, there are probably periods of what I call spaciousness. Times when you would have been meeting friends, going out for dinner, catching a movie, or otherwise out and about.

I’m doing some projects at home, like learning to play the ukulele from Youtube videos. I can feel a difference in how I’m approaching it since I’m not fitting practice around other professional and social obligations.

I have time to do this.  There’s no reason at all to hurry. There’s no rush to get to the finish line. This spaciousness makes me feel more grounded in the present moment where everything, for this moment, is fine.

I certainly don’t mean to make light of the seriousness of this pandemic, but it’s okay to feel good about some aspects of our current situation. Some of us are cheerful about staying home more. Some of us are finding our calendars agreeably decluttered of events that we are realizing we’re happier doing without. Some of us are happy just doing less, resting, not pushing ourselves and having it be okay not to because we’re all in the same boat. That’s a gift.

My regular listeners will know that I’m against productivity for productivity’s sake. That’s just keeping busy. Being productive should always be at the service of doing something truly worthwhile, just as being organized is at the service of making your life easier and simpler. Let this be a time merely to notice what you don’t mind not doing. Let there be some emptiness, some time just to be.

Here are a few other ideas. Do your shredding. This is a decluttering task people often put off until they have a whole box, and then they start a second box because they don’t want to pay for shredding and can’t spare the time to sit there and feed the shredder.

Play a game with it. Can you feed the paper in continuously enough that the motor doesn’t stop running? You can vary how many sheets you do at a time so the motor’s tone is higher or lower. You can create a rhythm feeding in sheets slowly and then quickly. Or just become mesmerized by the drone of the motor and the movements of your hands.

Organize your jewelry. I don’t know about you, but I’m not dressing up or putting on jewelry much these days. But I love my jewelry and enjoy seeing it and touching it. You can sort earrings by color or length or group them in a way that’s pleasing or fun.

What you can do right now:

Don’t try too hard with this one! It’s meant to be a pleasant, relaxing way to spend a little time away from current events. You can sort anything you have in quantity. Arrange drinking glasses in the cupboard. Hang clothing by color. Sort your collection of shot glasses alphabetically. It’s up to you to decide what that means.

Podcast 143: Tips from work-at-home veterans

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In this podcast I talk to two women, Melissa Kirk and Mimi Heft, who normally work at home to get some tips for the rest of us who are suddenly now doing that.

We discussed the common advice; set up a dedicated work space, work regular hours, get out of you pajamas, resist sleeping in, create productive routines and set boundaries with family and friends so they don’t disturb you when you’re working. That last one is important because people tend to assume that if you work from home, you’re free to chat or visit anytime.

I was curious about whether working at home had changed for them since so many people who aren’t used to it are doing it with varying degrees of success. We also talked about dealing with the stress of the coronavirus situation and how we should go easy on ourselves.

You can see the video version here.

Podcast 142: Divergent thinking with Ryan Rawson

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Today’s podcast is an interview with Ryan Rawson, a self described divergent thinker, who is now working at home due to our current pandemic. We talked about the difficulties of divergent thinking and also the benefits of it, and how that’s affected his ability to work effectively at home.

He describes this kind of thinking as being concrete rather than abstract, meaning that he often notices and looks for important details that others discount or don’t see. We also got into what kind of hacks he’s come up with to cope with living in a mostly convergent thinking world.

You can watch the video version here.

Idea > Decision > Action

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For many people, it’s easier and more fun to think up new ideas than to take action on the ones they already thought of. Buckling down and focusing on one idea and making it happen can make them antsy.

Sometimes the project you take on is very large and there are so many things to address that you’re tempted to start them all at once. When it comes to organizing, this can get you into trouble.

The process is this: have an idea, make a decision, take the action.

For example, the idea could be “organize the bottom shelf,” the decision is “only have notebooks, pads and file folders there,” and the action is getting those items into the spot and finding other homes for anything that doesn’t fit those categories.

Here’s what happens when you leave off the action part.

My client, Annie,* is a big picture kind of gal. She’s very good with coming up with ideas and making decisions. The action part, not so much. She’d rather move on to the top shelf, or the counter above the shelves, or the table on the other side of the room.

She had numerous shopping bags with things sorted into them. Some of them were marked, some not. There were also piles and collections of items on which decisions had been made. This is definitely progress, but it’s not enough.

We needed to spend some time moving the physical stuff around.

For Annie, this was the tedious, low priority part. But not doing it was impeding our progress. It was like having puzzle pieces all over the floor and knowing exactly where each one went, but not assembling them into a completed picture.

Is this a sticking point for you? Look around and see if you’ve collected some piles of decisions that need a nudge to get to the next step. If taking the action seems dreary and monotonous, approach it like washing the dishes. It’s a chore that needs doing and you don’t really need to like it.

The good news is that you’ll stir up some good energy by moving things along. You’ll also see some inspiring progress when you see the results of all that decision making!

* Not her real name. In fact, whenever I write about my clients, I’m usually combining events and compositing people.

Organizing kitchen spices

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I worked with a client unpacking and setting up her kitchen this week. I corralled and sorted all her spice containers; jars, plastic bags, paper bags, plastic boxes, fabric bags; and we saw that there were duplicates and even triplicates of some spices.

One problem is that spices don’t all come in the same kind of container and plastic bags don’t work well in a spice rack. That means that some spices end up packed into a larger container in the pantry, away from the jars in the rack.

They’re usually not very usable there because the bags are rolled up or not labelled clearly. In this case they were also pretty tightly packed together. When it’s hard to find one, it’s easier just to buy more and then you end up with doubles and triples.

With spices, that’s a waste of money because they don’t keep very long. Not many cooks need half a cup of turmeric on hand all the time. I like Spicely brand boxed spices because the quantity is small. So here’s what we did:

  1. We got rid of all the expired spices. Some were dated. Some we judged on their color and smell; lack of either means toss it.
  2. We got rid of extra spices. One average spice jar-full is plenty to keep. We tried to select the newest ones to keep judged as described above.
  3. We now had spare jars to wash and empty the bagged spices into. Even so, the jars aren’t exactly the same size. I recommended that the client either start buying one brand or buy her own jars. Uniform containers with uniform labels make it much easier to find what you need quickly.
  4. We used a labelled to identify the jars and put them in the rack in alphabetical order. Some cooks like to sort by type of cuisine, or by the spices they use most often; those methods are fine too. With alphabetical sorting, I put the blends in their own section at the end.

Other spicy notes:

Don’t keep spices above your stove. The heat will destroy the flavor.

Select a spice container based on your cooking style and preferences. If you have a drawer available, you can get handy inserts to keep the jars in place. To save space, attach a rack or two to the inside of a cabinet. If you like having them on the counter, use a tiered lazy Susan. A graduated riser shelf unit is great if you have cabinet space for one.

Photos courtesy of The Container Store

Power Napping for Productivity

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I love reading articles about the benefits of napping and its increased acceptance as a productivity tool. It helps me feel less guilty when I take a nap (napping is not slacking!).

My mom is a champion napper. When I was in high school, I’d come home and tell her about my day, then she’d settle herself in the big living room armchair for a nap. She’d say, “Honey, wake me up in 15 minutes, would you?” Then she’d close her eyes and within a minute, her mouth would drop open and she’d be asleep.

The classic power nap is 20 minutes long, but naps from 10 seconds to two hours long all qualify and have different uses and outcomes. I’ve often been sitting at my desk and felt overcome by the desire to sleep, but don’t want to actually give in and lie down. But I close my eyes and drift off for a few minutes.

It doesn’t feel quite like sleeping because I manage to remain sitting in my chair, but it’s amazingly refreshing. According to the Globe article, the “mere onset of sleep” can reenergize you. It really works. I can get back to whatever I was working on with renewed vigor in less time than it would take me to make and drink a cup of coffee (also a valid method).

Napper at work courtesy of deadheaduk’s photostream.

A To-Do List by Any Other Name

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. ‘Tis true. If it were called bog shrub we would love it just the same.

It’s not true for your to-do list, however.

A to-do list should have a handful of concrete tasks on it that are related to your projects. Problems start growing when it’s used as a catch-all for everything you have to do.

This is a common problem for creative, expansive thinkers. They have no difficulties filling up to-do lists. When I did a brain dump recently with Nancy, she told me her head was churning out ideas like a popcorn popper.

As we talked about her list, it became clear that some things needed to be done right away so that other things could happen. Some things she really wanted to do now. Then there were other things that could wait a bit.

It was confusing to have all of these on her to-do list. I suggested that, for starters, she put the things that could wait onto a new list and call it the “deep freeze.”

Simply dividing and renaming the list let Nancy mentally set aside those ideas so she could concentrate on today’s work. The ideas don’t get lost or forgotten. They’re safely stored for the future. She can review that list anytime to see what should be moved onto it or off of it.

How can you divide up your too-long to-do list?

Some people use names like “projects,” “work,” or “personal.” Those are fine, but it might motivate and focus you to use more descriptive phrases such as “deep freeze,” “back burner,” “holding pen,” “bucket list,” “next in line,” “crystal ball,” “wait ‘n’ see” or “parking lot” for the things you’re not going to do now.

For the tasks you want to do try “cool stuff,” “dream bag,” “love it,” “empire building,” or “world domination.”

For current stuff, try “right now,” “today,” “just do it,” “on fire,” “yes!” “in progress,” “daily specials,” or “full speed ahead.”

Those phrases all have different feels to them, don’t they? It’s important to choose names that inspire you. If you’re motivated by urgency, for example, go for something like “on fire.” If you like metaphors and themes like Havi does, call it something like “the pony corral.”

Be totally silly and call your list “Debbie.”

There are two points here. First, divide your list into things you will do today and those you’ll do in the future (the latter can be several lists). Second, pick names for your lists that are evocative and meaningful to you.

List names are significant. They help us clarify and categorize our thoughts. Names have attitudes and moods associated with them that we can use to motivate us. Plus, they can be fun, and, ahem, we all need that.

What If You Don't Want to Get Rid of Stuff?

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Organizing doesn’t always mean getting rid of things. It means finding places for them so that you aren’t tripping on them, distracted by them, maneuvering around them or always looking for them.

It means creating a living space that is pleasing and supportive.

You do need space to put things if you’re keeping them, however. I wrote a post back in June about curating your environment. Another aspect of that is cycling your possessions in and out of storage.

To continue the museum metaphor, it’s like treating your home like the Smithsonian Institution (the world’s largest museum collection). With the Smithsonian method, you have a moderate number of things on display at one time, for example. The rest, the majority, is in storage.

Every season, or twice a year, you put those things back in storage and select a new group to bring out and enjoy. There are two nice benefits here: you get to keep your beautiful things and you get to appreciate and get pleasure from them all over again. Even wonderful artwork starts to go unnoticed when it’s always there.

This way, your living space will be more like an art gallery, less like a warehouse.

Imagine visiting the Smithsonian’s basement and looking at objects set three deep on shelves that go up to the ceiling. Compare that with visiting the museum proper, where objects are placed so that you can really see and contemplate them.

The hidden side of getting organized

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How does it feel to be disorganized? Not so good, right? I’ve heard people say embarrassed, overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious and desperate.

Here’s the thing. It can be really hard to make a change when you’re in the grip of such negative emotions.

If you act from those emotions, every decision will be agony and you’ll feel so tired and disheartened that you won’t get very far anyway.

This is one reason why I start my clients off with clarifying their vision of what they want. The vision focuses on the good stuff; the calm, serenity and ease they want to feel. That’s where the power comes from.

Making that emotional journey can be a challenge.


Organizing itself is not so hard. Having a vision and staying motivated to bring it to reality is the hard part.

That’s why many people find it hard or impossible to get organized on their own. It’s not the spice rack alphabetizing that stops them, it’s the habit development, commitment and willingness to keep getting back on the horse.

It’s okay to get help. Organizers know about containers and filing systems, and they also know about how to keep their clients inspired and on track.

The first bits of information you can get from a book. For the others, you need someone who’s on your side, troubleshooting and encouraging you. So, reach out. What’s stopping you?