Podcast 138: Interview with Elaine Birchall

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This is podcast 138 and, as promised, it’s my interview with Canadian social worker Elaine Birchall, who’s worked for 18 years helping hoarders. She has a book out called Conquer the Clutter. We talk about the three criteria of hoarding, the TV show Hoarders and the paths to becoming a hoarder.

I asked her about myths concerning hoarders and what some warning signs are that people should look for. The thing is, hoarding is more common than we think and it you don’t have to be a cat lady living in squalor to qualify. Finally, we talked about how friends and family can help hoarders.

You can find Elaine at www.hoarding.ca to learn more and to buy her book.

Podcast 137: The emotional cost of clutter, part two

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This is podcast 137 and it’s a follow up to one of my earliest podcasts, the emotional cost of clutter. I’m revisiting this today as a teaser for my next episode, an interview with Elaine Birchall whose new book is called Conquer the Clutter. She’s a social worker who’s helped hoarders release their clutter and become free of guilt, shame and stress for about 17 years. She’s a hero!

I don’t tend to work with hoarders because their issues often require the assistance of trained therapists and psychologists. I’m not that person.

What I say here today is simply my experience as an organizer, but it’s worth sharing because people regularly tell me, only partly joking, that they might be hoarders and they worry about it. This speaks to the relationship people have with their stuff.

Some people call themselves collectors. It’s true that collecting can be a smoke screen for hoarding. One difference is that people who collect like to show off their collections. They install them in vitrines with museum style lighting. They take care of their collections so they aren’t damaged. If their collections grow, they rent storage space for them, which in my mind isn’t ideal, but collectors don’t want to make their homes hard to live in and invite people over to so they can admire the collections.

If you’re worried about the amount of stuff you have, no matter what it is, then it’s an issue. It’s an issue not because you’re a bad person or are mentally ill, but you’ve grasped that your home isn’t so easy to live in anymore, either physically because things are in the way or emotionally because there is too much distraction or too many tasks left undone because of the clutter.

One of the many reasons that I recommend regular tidying up and getting rid of things is so clutter doesn’t creep in unnoticed. And it’s so easy for this to happen. Life events like a serious illness or death in the family can start a downward slide and if you aren’t feeling your very best, tackling the growing clutter that results when you aren’t handling life as well can make you feel worse and then the situation declines further.

You might stop opening your mail temporarily until things quiet down, but then suddenly three months have gone by and you feel incompetent for missing important deadlines. Maybe you feel bad about yourself because you’re chronically late since you can’t find what you need to get out the door in time.

This is a time to seek help, not necessarily from a professional, but from someone you trust to let you know when things seem to be getting out of hand before it’s too late. You may have a lifelong swing back and forth between too much stuff and coming back to a liveable amount. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you can get back in control.

Having too much stuff in too small a space makes for a chaotic space. Chaos is stressful. Even if you aren’t having lots of negative feelings about clutter, the simple stress of chaos will bring you down.

By contrast, if you spend time every day or even every week making sure your stuff is put away and that it’s put away in a place that’s not to hard to get to if you need it often. This is how you stay in control of your possessions instead of having them control you.

At home, you can be in control of your environment and you should be. Our environments affect us deeply. It’s easy to see how a clean, bright living space makes you feel happier. It’s easier to focus and feel grounded, and be free from the burden of too much stuff.

We don’t always think as much about how a less pleasing environment can make us feel sad, depressed and even ashamed. Each item you have wants something from you; to use it, consume it, read it, or care for it in some way. Once the demands of your possessions exceed your capacity to deal with them, negative feelings set in.

What you can do right now: do a quick visual scan of the room you’re in. Does the amount of stuff on tables and shelves seem reasonable, compared to other homes you’ve visited? Do you feel that you could enjoy having guests over after just a brief tidy up? There’s no need to panic. Just realize it may be time to get back in balance for your emotional health.

Podcast 136: I’m not in the mood!

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This is podcast 136 and it’s about not being in the mood, dang it. On this podcast I talk about ways to have less clutter, use your time effectively and be organized with what I hope is a light touch rather than a rigid prescription. I talk about the benefits of habits, but without the regimentation of doing things like clockwork, or else.

My emphasis is much more on how to get back on the habit wagon rather than never fall off. In fact, you’ll be more resilient if you expect to fall off, or be kicked off, or even jump off! Many people assume that organizing requires regimentation and rigidity, but that’s just not true.

Making email management easy is a good habit to get into. Clean Email, who sponsors my podcast, is a great tool to keep the clutter and noise down in your email inbox, no matter what email provider you use. It has tons of prewritten rules to choose from so you get just the email you actually want.  It’s verified by Yahoo and Google and protects your data and security. You can sign up with my special link here: https://clean.email/clutter.

If your schedule is planned down to the last minute, you’ll be in much worse shape when things go awry. This is why my advice about time management is about noticing and using little pockets of time that you find in your day, and about selecting the right task for the right time when you have the energy, resources and time to do them.

I’ve also talked about how waiting to be in the mood to do something is NOT effective because you won’t get the task done any faster or better if you feel like doing it. In this case though, I want to talk about being in the mood in the sense of how your to do list is getting done over the course of an average day. If there is such a thing.

Also, if items in your home have very specific, finely defined places to live, it will take you much longer to put them away. Even more so if they go in containers with lids, or containers with only their exact kind. Here’s an example. In my home, I have a plastic bin of Tupperware under the sink. I throw the containers and their lids in there willy nilly, knowing that it takes me less time to match them up when needed than it does to keep the lids and containers separate, or to pre-match each one.

This works for me because I live alone and don’t have that many containers. If you have enough for a family of four, this might not work. On the other hand, if you’re a family of four that hates leftovers, you probably don’t need too many containers.

But the point is that I may well not be in the mood to sort containers and lids and match them up, but I’m usually in the mood to toss them cheerfully into one big bin. It’s the work of a few seconds so I don’t even have a moment to think that I might not be in the mood.

Looking at the bigger picture, the fewer home chores I need to be in the mood to do, the better. If I need to be in the mood to do them they either don’t get done, or they make me cranky. Maybe I should make that my business motto: taking the crankiness out of organizing.

Another reason this type of organizing works for me is that I don’t care deeply about things like food storage containers. If you need to have long rectangular ones, small round ones with blue lids, a matched set of nesting ones with flowers painted on the sides and tiny screw type ones for leftover sauces, then, as mentioned above, your container management will be more time consuming.

This is a form of perfectionism. Maybe even a little OCD. If your array of tubs and bowls makes you happy, then you’re fine. Just remember that in the time you spend attending to them, your cat needs to be played with, jokes need to be told and flowers need to be smelled.

It’s probably too much to hope for to be in the mood to do everything one must do. Keeping things as simple as possible and letting them be good enough will help a lot, however. It’s always important to remind yourself WHY you’re doing a certain task. This why should be something that pleases you and/or makes your life easier. Let that take your mind off the business of doing the task.

You are doing the laundry because it feels good to have clean clothes to wear. You are filing your taxes because it feels extra good to know the IRS won’t come after you. You are putting tools away after use because it feels wonderful to run and grab a screwdriver when you need it.

Here’s what you can do right now. Think of a task that you tend to put off, that you don’t really like. Now really focus on what would put you in the mood to do it. What kind of things do put you in a good mood? What kind of results make you feel happy and like something was worth doing? If you can psychologically trick yourself into being in a better mood, your life is going to be better in general not only more organized and less cluttered.

Podcast 135: Organizing a creative, busy life with family

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You can see the video interview on YouTube here.

In this episode I talk to my friend Adam Davis who’s a musician, artist, husband and dad who teaches at a local gym and also gives guitar lessons. How does he juggle all that? We talk about making notes for lyrics on his iPhone, making time for art, using positive self talk to control destructive brain weasels and dealing with constant laundry.

This is the first podcast in a series where I interview people I know. Regular folks instead of “experts.” Not that there’s anything wrong with expert advice! But I want to explore the ways people have successfully invented their own time management, uncluttering and focusing techniques based on their specific needs.

I often say that the cookie cutter approach doesn’t work. Methods you might read about in a book or see online might be great for some people but usually need to be tweaked to really work for you. My interviewees talk about their specific needs and how they’ve created their own solutions.

Podcast 134: Set achievable goals

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This is podcast 134 and it’s about setting achievable goals. We live in a culture where we’re encouraged to set daring goals for ourselves. There’s even an acronym, BHAG, that stands for big, hairy, audacious goal. I approve of goal setting as a way to keep yourself motivated and to be able to tell whether you’ve gotten to the place you want to be so you can stop and acknowledge your progress.

But for many people, setting a BHAG for everything we want to do in life is just stressful. Big goals demand a lot of attention and energy and if there’s not room in your life for one, you may just end up feeling overwhelmed and disappointed in yourself.

Goals don’t have to be big to be effective. I’m putting out this podcast episode now for all of you who have time off from work during the holidays who may have a big audacious plan to organize the entire garage. I’m here to tell you that if you’re not sure that’s do-able, you can bite off a smaller goal and I will still give you the Clutter Coach seal of approval.

I suggest picking a smaller organizing project. It could be your bedside table, or your kitchen junk drawer. I did a whole episode on the junk drawer a few years ago. There are several reasons I like the idea of picking a smaller, very do-able goal.

First, you will accomplish it! It’s not cheating to pick a project small enough to be totally confident you’ll finish it. Stack the deck in your own favor! Keep those training wheels on your bike until you can pedal without them!

I’m a big believer in being motivated by the carrot and not the stick. I want to feel good about myself because it makes me more receptive to doing things that are harder or that I don’t really want to do. I’ve already succeeded at something so my confidence is high.

Second, working toward a goal you know you can reach is much less stressful. Stress can certainly stimulate people to stick with their goals, but when you can work toward one without stress, you have time to pay more attention to what you’re doing. You have time to reflect on why the things you find on your bedside table are there, whether you want to keep them there and where a better place might be to keep them.

Organizing isn’t a race. It works better when you understand the concepts you’re applying and think carefully about how they work in your life. Maybe you had a plan to read all the books stacked on the nightstand, but it doesn’t seem to be happening and the pile is getting higher. You could choose to renew your commitment to reading, or you could whittle pile down to a less challenging height, or you could give the books away because you realize that you only read on your Kindle now.

Any of those decisions is based on you noticing what’s happening and making a decision about it, even if the decision is to leave things as they are. One of the points I make over and over in this podcast is that you can’t be truly organized if you aren’t aware of all the things you own and have committed to having them in your life.

The third reason I like small goals is that they encourage a regular organizing practice. Organizing isn’t a one time thing, no matter how much we might like it to be. Neither is decluttering. Even if you did that big hairy entire garage organizing and declutter project, you’ll have to do it again next year. Such is the way of stuff.

I find it simpler to do a little here and there on a regular basis, just the way you maintain other parts of your life. Think of little doses of decluttering as being like doing the laundry. It may not be your favorite way to spend time, but you do it anyway. It’s clear to you that it has to happen and has to happen regularly.

You don’t want to keep wearing sweaty clothes or sleep on dirty sheets. It’s not so much that those consequences inspire you to do the laundry; it’s simply an accepted part of life. If you can get to the point of treating organizing and decluttering that way, you are winning.

My advice for spending your time off is first, play and have fun and rest. Then, spend a little time on a small project you know you can finish. Feel good about that. Feel so good about it that you won’t resist doing it again next week, and the week after, etc.

What you can do right now: Pick that little project. Here are some more ideas: kitchen counter, dining table, front hall entryway, linen closet or medicine cabinet. No matter what you pick, you’re getting the Clutter Coach seal of approval!

Podcast 133: How to create good habits

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This is podcast 133 and it’s about how to create good habits. I was inspired by reading a review of a new book called Good Habits, Bad Habits, by psychologist Wendy Wood. The author says what I already knew and have podcasted about before; that willpower has little to do with forming good habits, or being successful, or even having self control. The best way to form a good habit is to set up your environment to make success easy.

Question for you: What about all those dang emails you supposedly subscribed to that are clogging up your inbox? Some evil senders don’t give you the chance to politely unsubscribe, or worse, they just ignore your requests. My sponsor, Clean Email, has a Smart Unsubscriber function to do that cleaning up for you and keep your inbox tidy. You can sign up with my special link here: https://clean.email/clutter

If you don’t have any candy in the house, clearly you aren’t going to be eating candy. Pretty simple. If you turn your phone volume down, or even turn it off for awhile, you won’t be distracted by it as much. If you’ve got your checklist in front of you, it’s pretty seamless to get through your task. I talked about the power of checklists two episodes ago.

True story: my mom quit smoking when she was 84 years old. She’d tried a few times years before without success. After that, she stopped trying. But one day, she ran out of cigarettes. She’d had some health issues by then and driving to the store was not the simple operation that it used to be. It seemed like way too much work to get in the car and go over there and buy the cigarettes.

The next day, she realized she was still out of cigarettes, but also realized she just wasn’t up for going to the store. So she didn’t smoke. This went on for another 4-5 days, noticing there were no cigarettes and noticing that she just didn’t want to go to the store, until she realized that she’d unintentionally quit smoking. Now, I’m not saying that technique would work for everyone. I’m still amazed that she was able to quit so easily after over 60 years of smoking.

But it does illustrate the concept of quitting a bad habit by increasing friction, meaning simply to make it hard, less convenient, to indulge in. Marketers, on the other hand, want to reduce friction in order to get us to consume more. For only a few dollars extra, you can add (fill in the blank) to your order today. Internet cookies tempt you to buy more stuff that’s like stuff you’ve already proved you enjoy just by clicking a button.

Another key element to developing a good habit, whether you’re starting from scratch or replacing a bad habit, is having an immediate reward. Rewards release dopamine and that feels good. According to this book, the dopamine effect is quite short, less than a minute, and this is why an effective reward has to come right after completion of the task. If it’s too late, completing the task won’t be associated in your mind with that dopamine hit.

Delayed gratification isn’t going to work here; that would take willpower. Setting up a reward works with the brain the way it’s wired. In other words, the easy way. I’m all about doing things the easy way.

One way to think about how to get going on a good habit that you’ve had trouble forming is to find a way to like it. Most of us want to be the kind of person who eats sensibly, exercises, doesn’t procrastinate and so on. And we know that willpower isn’t going to get us there and that even admirable people don’t rely on some super human store of willpower to be successful.

Finding a way to like something is how you can discover what kind of reward will work for you. It won’t be the same thing for everyone. You might say that you’d be willing (“like” is too strong a word in this case) to work on your tax return if you only have to do it for 15 minutes. Or you could tell yourself that you’d like filing more if you could talk to a friend on the phone while you do it. For someone else, filing would be likeable if they could watch TV at the same time.

Remember, these are not cheats! These are ways of working with the nature of your brain’s wiring to more easily produce the results you want. Always take the easiest route to your destination.

Even meditation should be approached this way. People assume that you need to force yourself to sit still and think of nothing, but that’s not true, and not even possible. You can count breaths, you can repeat a mantra, you can even walk around. you can find things the body would like to do better than try to think of nothing, while still satisfying the point of meditation, which is to get off the habitual hamster wheel of thoughts.

My two tips for developing good habits today are to structure your environment in a way that reduces the friction to do whatever that new habit entails, and to look for ways to enjoy an activity you want to become a habit, but don’t really feel like doing. You can combine these techniques.

What you can do right now: Identify a habit you want to create. Let’s say it’s taking a walk every morning. First, set up the environment by setting aside time to walk and having the appropriate shoes and clothes handy. Second, pick a route that passes a garden you like to look at or a store you like to window shop at to make it more enticing.

Podcast 132: Decision controls

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This is podcast 132 and it’s about decision controls. This episode is sponsored by Clean Email, the answer to email inbox overload. I’ve written about ways to clear out that clutter, but you can save time by using the Clean Email app. You can set up custom Auto Clean filters to archive, delete or move emails as soon as they arrive so you never have to spend time manually managing them. Sound good? You can use my special link to sign up for Clean Email here with a 30% discount: https://clean.email/clutter

So what the heck are decision controls, you may ask? I happened upon this phrase hearing about Dr. Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, a British fire fighter who’s also a doctor of behavioral neuroscience. She wanted to know if decisions made by fire fighters in the heat of the moment (yeah, I couldn’t resist) were as well informed as they could be, in order to be effective and also safe.

Here’s a quotation from her: “I found 80 per cent of all industrial accidents – including the fire service – are caused by human error. Not inadequate policy or bad procedures, but someone making the wrong choice, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In high-stress environments, we also found ‘situational awareness’ was limited; commanders were operating very much in the here and now rather than anticipating what may happen next.”

Okay, so you’re not a firefighter. This applies to anyone. It applies to any time you’re in a high stress situation. It also applies whenever you’re in a situation where because of boredom, inattention, overwhelm or impatience, you make a decision NOT based on analyzing the situation to come up with the right decision.

Sabrina and her colleagues came up with a list of questions to ask in these situations. The first one is: Why are we doing this? This meaning the solution we’re about to implement. Instead of stopping yourself and saying, wait a sec, is my gut feeling or habitual reaction the right answer, you back up further and ask why you’ve chosen that course of action.

This is important because the first question, is my gut feeling right, is a yes or no answer and in a pinch you may just want to say yes and get on with it. But if the question requires that you explain why your solution is appropriate, that forces you to come up with actual reasons, rather than relying on past experience or your gut. Gut reactions give you valuable information, but they should be confirmed with other evidence. I think this is similar to the phenomenon I mentioned last time, that talking to yourself forces you to string together a coherent argument, not simply spin in your head.

The next question the study came up with is “what do we think will happen?” This question also takes you out of the moment a bit so you can visualize what the result of your action will be. We can get caught up in taking an action, like throwing a bucket of water onto a fire, without thinking any farther than the water hitting the fire. But what happens right after that? Will one bucket make a difference? Is it a fire that will even be affected by water? What else might occur as a result, that might change the whole situation, or even backfire?

Both these questions bring you back to the here and now. Instead of being tempted to do what you did last time, you are encouraged to be more analytical about this particular situation, right now, that may well have significant differences from previous ones.

What you want to develop is that situational awareness I mentioned, which just means knowing what’s going on around you. From a non-fire fighter’s perspective, this can mean taking a look around you and registering that there are dishes to put away, paperwork to take back to your desk and old newspapers to throw out.

It could mean looking at your calendar and to do list and seeing that you have a meeting in two hours, several errands that need to be done and you need to take time to do your arm exercises if you ever want to recover from that injury. You could just leap into action (often a perfectly viable idea) or you could pretend you’re a fire fighter and run through those questions, adding on a third which is: am I confident this is the best practicable solution?

Clearly, when you’re in a burning building you aren’t going to get out a list and a pencil and go through each question. The idea is to internalize them so that they become an easily available decision-making tool. In the study I mentioned, the decision controls were shown to increase situational awareness without slowing down decision making.

The big takeaway here is to stop or at least slow down enough to take in what’s actually going on right now without being tuned out or distracted or overwhelmed. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

What you can do now: Practice for that next volatile situation by using the questions in a more mundane context. Let yourself take time to analyze what’s happening and see how that changes your decision making.

Podcast 131: How to avoid multitasking

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This is podcast 131: how to avoid multitasking. By now you’ve heard, if not from me, then from many others, that multitasking is a bad idea. That’s true. It’s not effective. It makes your work take longer, you’ll make more mistakes and it increases your chances of not finishing the main thing you need to do because you’ve gone down so many rabbit holes.

I’ve also written that there are situations where multitasking can be helpful, such as when you don’t have a time crunch to finish something and being able to spread your attention around makes it easier for you to get some work done on it. You’ll go slower, but it’s better to get something done than nothing, as I talked about in the previous podcast.

For those of you who want more ideas on how to avoid it, or stop it in its tracks, here you go. I work at home most of the time and this first tip may not work for you otherwise. I talk to myself. I narrate what I’m doing. I’ll say, okay, I’m going to write the intro for the podcast. As I write, I realize I want to look something up online to quote in the podcast, so I tell myself I’m doing that. If I see other tabs still open when I go online, I tell myself I’ll look at them later.

I believe this works because our minds kind of encourage us to multitask by constantly throwing new thoughts and ideas in our paths. But we can truly only focus on one thing at a time. Hint: this is why multitasking actually doesn’t even exist, much less work. When you talk to yourself, your words come out of your mouth one after the other in a single coherent stream, ideally. It’s not like in your head where words and ideas can be jumbled together. You verbalize one thought at a time. This makes your current task you’re telling yourself about stand out from all the others rattling around in your brain.

Another method I use is a checklist. A listener asked me to do an episode about multitasking and she gave the example of all the little tasks she needs to create an Instagram post. I have a checklist to do this podcast. I’ve been doing it for a few years now, so I know the ropes. I know every little thing I need to get done to create, record, post and promote my podcast. So, why a checklist?

Back in January of 2017 I did a whole episode about the power of checklists. A surgeon even wrote an entire book about how incredibly important checklists are. He notes that in a busy hospital where life or death situations are common, it’s incredibly easy to have one’s attention diverted and make even the smartest doctor forget to perform a critical routine task. In my case and my listener’s, we’re likely to get our attention scrambled by calls, messages, emails and shiny squirrels that pop up online.

But if we know we have a checklist to consult, we’re less likely to succumb to distraction. Sometimes I use both techniques at once when I complete a step and then tell myself, okay, onto step four!

The other problem checklists address is complexity. Even if you know how to do a job and it doesn’t seem that hard, it may still have many moving parts and if for some reason you omit a step, the end result will be unsatisfactory or even fail.

Complexity also includes change. I’ve changed things I do regarding my podcast over time and my checklist reminds me of those changes so I don’t have to rely on remembering them.

I want to be consistent in the way I do things; that’s important for my business. It would feel stressful to have to remember every tiny thing and do it the same way in the same order each time. The checklist relieves me of that. As soon as I complete item number 1, I go back to my list and see what item number 2 is. There’s no downtime for me to wonder what’s next and leave space for distraction to come in.

My third tip is to use an alarm or some other interrupter that reminds you to check whether what you’re doing right then is the right thing to do. If the alarm finds you doing the work you intended to spend that time on, then you’re good. If it finds you down a rabbit hole, then you can haul yourself back out of it.

An alarm can help you keep track of how often you are getting distracted, percentage-wise, and see if you need to do more to prevent that. If you make notes about what you’re doing when the alarm sounds, you can also get a picture of how your entire day is spent and either pat yourself on the back or comb through my previous podcast episodes for help.

What you can do right now: try one or all of these methods of avoiding multitasking. Talk yourself through the steps of your project. Refer to your checklist to keep your project on track. Use an alarm to confirm that you’re spending your time the way you intended. Try all three or mix and match!

Podcast 130: The danger of all or nothing thinking

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This is Podcast 130 and it’s about the danger of all or nothing thinking. This kind of thinking can get you energized about an organizing project or even ongoing maintenance when you’re on the “all” side of the equation, but it has obvious drawbacks when you end up on the “nothing” side.

Once a client hired me to help her refine her filing system. She showed me four drawers of beautifully color-coordinated folders, with tabs perfectly offset from each other in an unbroken staggered pattern. They were carefully labeled in a cute font. It was total Martha Stewart organizing fabulousness. However, most of the folders were empty. On top of the file cabinet was a tall, unruly stack of paper that needed filing. She’d put off filing for fear of destroying the symmetry and beauty of this filing system.

This podcast isn’t about filing systems, but since I brought it up, let me just say that color coordinating is fun, but makes your system harder to maintain. If you want to add some color or pattern, go ahead and use those pretty folders wherever you want; don’t try to confine them to particular categories.

As for staggering your tabbed folders, forget about that too. If you want your system to be flexible, it needs to be able to accept new folders in between existing ones and that wrecks the pattern. Either stick with all left tab folders, or forget about tab location and just use the next folder in the box. If one folder gets hidden behind another because it has very little in it, here’s a quick fix: take it out, turn it inside out, and use it with the tab on the opposite side. Seriously, the less time you spend on how your files look, the more time you’ll have actually to file.

Back to all or nothing. Have you ever bought an exercise package that has a plan for each day and online check ins with a group? Maybe just 20 minutes a day, but something you have to find time for, and something that’s incremental so you need to stay on track with it? This is an all or nothing situation.

If you miss one day, you’re behind the rest of the folks, plus you’re not getting the exercise benefits. You get back on track the next day, but then you fall off again, due to issues at work or illness or losing your purse; something. When you get off the official program, the onus is all on you to keep track of where you are. That tempts you simply to give up; this is the nothing scenario.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t attempt such a program. It’ll work best if you have control over your schedule and maybe hire a coach to keep you accountable. Setting challenging goals is very worthwhile.

If this kind of thing hasn’t worked for you in the past, though, try scaling down from all or nothing programs. Try just appreciating whatever progress you make. That means some exercise is better than no exercise. Some filing is better than no filing.

I often recommend spending 15 minutes a day tidying up so you can keep your home or office in decent enough shape to live or work comfortable and effectively. Do I do the 15 minutes every single day? No, I don’t. I don’t let things get out of hand though. Sunday night, after a crazy busy weekend, I look around and realize I need to put in some time getting my place back in order so I’m not distracted and annoyed by it come Monday morning. Then I just do it. Usually with music. And probably a cocktail.

What am I suggesting here? This approach, the in-between all or nothing approach, is based on knowing what my baseline is. In the above example, it’s knowing what a tidy apartment means to me, what it looks like and how I get there. Most of us have a sense of our exercise baseline too. If we go for 4-5 days without any exercise, we feel like slugs. We know that a brisk walk around the neighborhood for 20 minutes will help.

Your baseline is the comfortable zone where things are under control but loose enough to accommodate the surprises of everyday life. This is where you want to be. It’s the sweet spot! Things aren’t perfect but they work.

Any of you with kids at home know this is all you can expect. I’ve often worked with fairly new moms who are freaking out about how little time and energy they now have to take care of their previous systems. By necessity, they get used to doing things less perfectly. One of my clients started checking her email in the bathroom because it was the only time she could get three minutes away from her two small kids.

What you can do right now: think of something you’re not doing because you haven’t been able to commit 100% to it. There are situations that require that, but many don’t. Ask yourself if you’d benefit more from doing something. It could be 71% or 45% or 13%, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.

Podcast 129: Track others’ work

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This is podcast 129 and it’s about keeping track of the work of other people.

Recently I consulted with someone about making sure to do’s got done at work. But not his to do’s, his assistant’s. He’s a pretty organized guy. He gets things done and so do others in his office. He trusts his assistant. But every once in a while something slips through the cracks.

His question is: how do I prevent that from happening without micromanaging my assistant? Great question! And great that he’s aware that delegating work means not hovering or controlling. I’ve written before about how difficult delegation is for many people and how to overcome that.

He wondered if his employees were getting stuck and were afraid to ask him questions but he told me that he strives to be available to them, especially early on in a project, so they can ask questions as soon as they have them and not save them up until a week before the deadline.

That’s also a great strategy. Whenever you assign work to someone else, go over all the details, even if employees say they know how to do something. This pre-empts several issues. One, people are afraid to let on what they don’t know. I think that’s natural. They want to appear competent and trust worthy.

Two, some things may have changed recently so procedures have to be different. Sometimes communication about changes gets lost in the shuffle. Everyone gets so much daily email that they might overlook one that seems like a routine company communication.

Three, everyone makes assumptions, especially regarding things they are confident about!

This is the most dangerous of the three. Assumptions, like habits, can be great time savers. You speed through a lot of repetitive steps or skip over parts of a routine you know aren’t totally necessary. But then the law of unintended consequences kicks in and your path to complete your work has deviated enough that you’re not going to cross the finish line in time, or at all.

So good communication is key to get things started. This communications includes the scope and desired result of the project and should also address what problems might come up and what to do about them. That’s another great way to answer questions before they come up. Your employee might be great but not that experienced, so when Dave from accounting can’t give her the info she needs, she may not know who else to try, for example.

There are lots of project tracking apps these days, but not all businesses need that level of tracking. Also, they don’t work unless everyone involved in the project uses them and inputs all their information. All project are a series of tasks. They aren’t necessarily linear and sometimes they overlap, but they proceed toward a desired outcome.

One method for keeping track is to pick several landmarks along the way to the goal and then to check in with staff people about their progress. This works well for a project involving a group where having individual conversations doesn’t work. The project timeline can be outlined on a whiteboard, real or virtual, where everyone can see it and know how their work fits in with everyone else’s.

In the example case, he can ask his assistant to write regular reports on the project. Reports can be daily briefs or more in depth weekly reports, depending on the length and scope of the project. This is a good way for the employer to stay informed so he can supply more information and guidance if necessary. It also provides specific information he can evaluate without micromanaging. In the end of course, employees have to be trusted to do their jobs right.

You can use this idea in your personal life too. If you’re delegating to your kids or to a neighborhood committee member, the same issues apply. Be as clear as possible about what the project entails and what each person’s role in it is. Write or talk out a timeline so people can start to visualize how the project will go and anticipate problems that can be avoided. Go over details even if they seem obvious so everyone is on the same page. Try to expose assumptions that are incorrect. Check in with folks regularly to track progress.

What you can do right now: if you are involved in a project that is suffering from under or miscommunication, try a whiteboard outline or a reporting scheme to see where things can be improved.