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 145: Create stabilizing structure

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This is podcast 145 and it’s about creating stabilizing structure. I’ve talked about this before but today I’ll give it a different slant because many people during this pandemic quarantine time have lost their daily regular routines and schedules. This isn’t about being more productive but about not feeling adrift and unstable.

Life is full of uncertainties right now. Having a structure to your days gives you control over what you can control and that feels more grounded. You can control when you go to bed and when you get up, when you eat meals, when you exercise or walk the dog.

Your structure can be as simple as that. Planning to exercise at 11 am right away gives your morning structure because you eat breakfast and shower before that, for example. Now you already have three activities. Setting up a Zoom chat with a friend in the afternoon gives that part of the day structure. You’ll walk the dog before or after. You’ll eat lunch before or after. These events are now a sequence of activities that take you through a day.

I am purposely keeping this very simple. We are all expending more mental and emotional energy these days coping not only with daily news developments, but with keeping our lives together when so many things are upside down. If you’re at home and not able to work,

you’re still likely to feel worn out, and that’s fine.
Try to committing to one thing per day. It could be a phone call, making a shopping list for your next grocery store outing or reading three chapters of a book you’ve started. That’s all you need.

Note the structure you already have, things like meals and personal care. You’re already doing things everyday. Notice how this aligns your day. Structured activities simply need to occur, they don’t have to be on a strict timeline. I find that doing things at a similar time each day is comforting but I like the freedom of changing that when I want to.

As with other time managing methods, you can certainly do more than that one daily thing you commit to. But give yourself this opportunity not to do that, not to feel that you’re cheating if you do only one thing. Remember, you’re using more energy than usual, in ways that you’re not used to.

Here’s another idea I got from a friend; make a procrastination list. This list contains tasks that have been on your to do list for a long time and you keep not getting to them. So the first step is to ask yourself which tasks qualify. First, it’s something you’ve put off for a long time. second, when you see it on your list you have a negative feeling about it; dread, overwhelm, burden, frustration. A task you simply haven’t gotten to yet that you feel neutral about doesn’t count.

I did one of these yesterday. I bought a new laptop back in November and had not gotten around to switching my cloud backup to it from the old laptop. That’s almost six months of procrastination! I had not migrated every single file from the old machine, so that complicated things. I wanted to make sure everything from there was backed up onto a hard drive just in case I need them in the future, but they don’t need to be cluttering up the new laptop. That was another hurdle.

I didn’t know how long it would take or what decisions I’d have to make.
It felt easier to approach when I told myself it would be the one thing I did that day. In the event, it was two days because the backup took ten hours! In cases like this, I recommend not trying to plan out steps in advance. In my experience that tends to cause resistance.

It’s better to let the task unfold and get through it piece by piece. Just do the next thing. Find the hard drive. Plug it in. See what’s on there since I hadn’t used it for a year or so. This is similar to David Allen’s concept of merely defining the next action you need to take. There’s no need to plot everything out in advance.

One step after another feels like more of a flow to me, and that’s calming. If I am thinking ahead too far, it sets off a bunch of thought tangents in my head and that’s un-calming. I’m not in the moment anymore. This moment is always the calmest place to be.

Here’s what you can do right now: decide that you will just do one thing today. Make it something simple. Notice how it adds structure to your day; there’s the time before you do it and the time after you do it. This is good self care.

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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.

Podcast 141: Quarantine organizing

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This is podcast 141 and it’s called quarantine organizing. It’s a bonus episode I decided to record to give you all something to do while we are under quarantine. You’re stuck at home with all your stuff. You can’t get away from it now! Ha, ha!

Seriously, why not use some of the extra time we all have now to do some little organizing projects. Nothing major, unless you want to. I’m a big fan of chipping away at it, and also of doing small, simple tasks that you may even get into the habit of doing without expending too much effort.

My first project idea is to declutter your bathroom. Start on one side and go through all the drawers and cabinets in your bathroom and see what you can find that’s expired, that you don’t use anymore, that you never really liked and stopped using and get rid of it. Note that medications should be separated out and taken to your local pharmacy for disposal, or whatever the recommendation is in your area.

Ladies, it’s likely you’ll find a substantial collection of beauty products and hair goo. You don’t need to throw that stuff out unless it fits the above descriptions, but start using it! That goes double for those cute little sample size products. They don’t last forever and you don’t need to hoard them.

Put a few out near your sink or in the shower right now. Try to resist buying new ones till you use up your current stock. Of course, if it turns out you don’t like them, you can get rid of them. Now you don’t have something you ended up not liking cluttering up your drawer.

Another clutter-y item is hotel lotion, shampoo, etc. Yes, they’re cute. I get that. But aside from a few in your travel toiletry case, you should just use them. They aren’t collectibles. Use them before they get old and icky and you don’t want to anymore.

Part of this exercise is so you can see what you have and how much of it you have. In general, things tend not to get used when you forget about them, or you have so much stuff in the bathroom that things get lost so you can’t use them.

While you’re doing this, notice whether things are adequately organized in the bathroom. There are various ways to do that, but if you can find what you need quickly, you’re fine. My categories are hair products, lotion and sunblock, face products, soap, cosmetics and medications. But I also have smaller collections of things I use every day gathered together. They are different categories, but they are my daily use items so I like to have them handy.

Of course, organizing items by category is the easiest way to discover that you have seven of something and not just the two you thought you had. Then you can decide whether some can go because they’re expired or you don’t like them, or that you’ll keep all of them and remember not to shop for more.

Here’s another project: your junk drawer. A few years ago I did a whole podcast on the junk drawer that you can refer to if you want to really dive into this. A junk drawer is a handy spot, but it should be useful. If you just want a short project, the idea is simply to paw through it and ditch or reassign anything that doesn’t belong there.

Junk drawers typically contain batteries, flashlights, matches, lighters, take out menus, rubber bands, dog poop bags, pens and parts of things, to name a few. Whatever you use fairly regularly that’s small and doesn’t belong to a bigger category that would have its own drawer can go in here.

Now that you have a truly free hour, you can take the time to make sure those batteries actually still work. Figure out if that weird looking battery goes to a device you got rid of two years ago. How about the pens? Do they still write?

Are the dog poop bags new? Or are they your backup supply that’s now old enough that they may break JUST when you don’t want them to? Same goes for rubber bands; they get brittle or gooey pretty quickly. Definitely make sure the flashlight works; that’s why you have it in the junk drawer, for easy emergency access. The lighters should light and the matches should be flammable.

See if you can get serious about dumping those little pieces of plastic that came off of … something. If they’ve been in the drawer a year or more, ask yourself how likely you’ll be to put them back on, provided you can remember what they go to. My guess is the probability is low. Just release them and free up space in that drawer.

My secret agenda here is to offer some little projects with low bar to entry that you might even kind of enjoy. And that would mean you’d do them again in the future, even if you’re not forced to stay home and entertain yourself.

What you can do right now is chose one of these projects and do it right now! Or you may come up with your own variation, like clearing out your nightstand or that section of the kitchen counter that gets things dumped on it. Keep it small and low key. Any progress is good progress.

Podcast 140: Speak clutter aloud

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This is podcast 140 and it’s called speak your clutter aloud. Whenever I start working with a client, the first thing we do is take a tour. This is partly for me to find out what’s going on, but it’s also for the client to become more aware of what’s going on.

The thing is, even if you have clutter that bothers you and you want to do something about it, your awareness of it waxes and wanes. It waxes when you stub your toe on some annoying object that should not be on the floor in that spot or in the house at all, for crying out loud, and now my toe is killing me! When one item of clutter reminds you of its existence, usually in a way that is not pleasant, then you suddenly notice all the clutter that you wish were not there.

Your attention to clutter wanes during the course of every day life when things for the most part stay put and out of your way, or you have accommodated them by not using parts of your home. You are busy doing other things and clutter simply isn’t on your mind.

When a client gives me a tour and I ask her to tell me what’s in all the cabinets and drawers and I ask questions about what I see on shelves and tabletops, clutter awareness comes roaring back. In the kitchen she points to three cabinet shelves devoted to coffee mugs and can’t help thinking to herself (or telling me), wow, that’s a lot of coffee mugs.

Or she hears herself say, about the miscellany of cups and plates on the very top shelf, those are the ones we don’t use. We own them, we let them take up space in our kitchen, yet we don’t use them. Not ever.

If you want to hire me to provide this reality check for you, either in person or remotely, send me an email at claire@cluttercoach.net. If that doesn’t work for you, here’s an idea; just pretend I’m there.

Seriously. Go to whatever room has clutter you’d like to eliminate and act like you’re conducting a tour for me. And you must do this out loud! That’s critical. You’ll be talking to yourself, but that’s fine. In fact, external self talk has been proven to improve memory retention and help people find things faster.

It helps because saying the name focuses your attention on that one thing you’re looking for, brings it up out of the constant stream of thoughts in your mind all the time. As I’ve said before, dealing with clutter is making yourself see the individual trees and not the entire forest. You can’t declutter a forest. You have to do it tree by tree.

Say we’re in your home office. While you would normally go straight to your desk, the tour needs to include everything, so we start with what’s to the left of the door when we walk in. There’s a tote bag, a briefcase, a cardboard box with some books stacked on it and a coiled up power strip before we get to the desk.

Some of those things have been there awhile. The tote bag has an item you need to return to the store. The briefcase contains your partner’s old laptop that you thought you might start using yourself one of these days. The books need to get back to their original owners. The box, well, you can’t remember exactly what’s in the box. Oh, it’s the tax documents you got back from the accountant five months ago. That’s right.

Normally, you don’t even see these things anymore, yet you have a sense that your office is too cluttered. It’s not until they jump back into your awareness, like making you trip on them, that you can see them. Or someone like me makes you see them.

Side note: this is why I discourage people from keeping things out so they are reminded of them. It works for, say 3-5 items, but beyond that your brain will simply tune them out.

Language is the way we give form to our worlds so that we can share them outside our selves. Language describes and identifies things so we can view them more objectively. You activate the language center of your brain which slows your thinking process down so that you can examine it.

Here’s what you can do right now. Choose that cluttered spot you want to tackle but haven’t been able to. Start your audio tour at one edge so you go all the way along the wall or across the surface without leaving anything out. Be specific. Don’t say, here are my clothes. Say, here’s a stack of tee shirts, a stack of sweaters and a stack of workout gear and behind that are three more stacks of tee shirts.

Note that I’m not making a judgment about how many tee shirts anyone should own but I regularly hear people express surprise when they enumerate the number of any single item they own. It’s just for your own information, so that you can make accurate decisions about what you want to declutter.

Podcast 139: Artist Kasey Smith on managing creative and work time

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This is Podcast 139 and it’s an interview with artist Kasey Smith who I met when she was the curator for the Oakland Figment art festival. Kasey creates site specific installations, performances, and art events with a focus on the ephemerality of the cityscape. She’s a busy artist and also works full time so we talked about fitting all that in. We talked about the challenges of working at home, staying focused and battling perfectionism.

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.