Podcast 127: Tidy vs. organized

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Listen or subscribe here: iTunes â‹… Stitcher â‹…
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This is podcast 127 and it’s about tidy vs. organized. A lot of the time, they go together. If your possessions have homes and make sense and they get put back in those homes when not in use, tidiness will usually result. If an item’s home is 2/3rds of the way down a big, precarious pile of paper, it’s organized, but not that tidy.

My dad was a big time piler who was also organized. He could disappear behind stacks of paper and emerge seconds later with the exact thing he was looking for. I often picture him sitting at his desk surrounded by books and papers in front of him, on the table behind and stuffed into the bookshelves next to him. Happy as a clam.

So, you don’t have to be tidy to be organized. I mention tidiness and tidying up a lot in this podcast though, so I want to clarify that what it mean is spending time to put away things you are no longer using to clear space for other activities and to lessen visual distraction. And I mean putting them in the places you’ve designated for them, not simply opening a nearby drawer and shoving everything in so it’s out of sight. No, no, no.

In fact, focusing on tidiness can have almost nothing to do with organizing and everything to do with cluttering. Here’s an example. A client hired me recently to help her organize her home office. We were on the same page with going through papers and filing. When we got to what was in the desk drawers, we diverged.

Each drawer was completely packed. Some looked like lovely, intricate puzzles, with items carefully fitted together to use up every millimeter of space in the drawer. It was impressive actually.

But each drawer contained whatever would fit into it, regardless of what the item was. Yes, they were mostly office oriented things, but there was no other organizing scheme. The box of staples was in with the checks and greeting cards, not near the stapler, because there wasn’t room in that drawer.

Each drawer was also layered, up to the very top, meaning she had to excavate to see what was at the bottom. And then carefully fit the other layers back together on top. It became clear that what she wanted my help with was to get as many things into the drawers, then later the closets and cabinets, as possible.

But first we finished off with paper. We created folders for projects and one for her urgent to do’s, which she’d been collecting on scraps of paper, or using documents to remind her of them. We put the folders into the cabinet above her desk and she started fiddling with them. She thought they looked messy. She didn’t want to see all that paper.

Then she took a plastic file envelope, the kind with a flap and an elastic band to keep it closed, and put all the folders into it and closed it up. There! That’s better! My heart sank because I knew she would put off doing any of those urgent tasks.

There was no clear way to label the envelope when it contained a variety of folders. Instead of easily pulling out the urgent to do’s folder from the cabinet, she’ll have to take the envelope out, undo the elastic and pull out the folder. Then put it away again when she’s done. It’s this kind of inconvenience that proper organizing is designed to do away with.

Here are some other examples of how you can be neat and tidy but not truly organized.

You have an entire bathroom drawer filled with hotel toiletries that you never use. You buy expensive magazine holders to store your complete collection of each magazine you subscribe to, although you never get time to read those magazines. You’ve got a giant collection of anything you received for free that seems like it might be useful taking up space in your cabinets.

These items may be organized by type and beautifully containerized, but they are not truly organized. Why? Because an organized space is one in which you can easily and quickly find what you need. The more quantity you possess, the harder the “easy and quick” part gets.

You want to find a story you saw in one of your magazines? Unless you obsessively made a note somewhere about what issue it’s in, you won’t find it. Of course, you have to be able to find that note first! How many notes can you make? If every issue has interesting things you want to go back to, you’ll be creating an exhaustive index of this magazine so you can find them again. I don’t recommend spending your time that way.

Let me add another part to that definition above. An organized space is one in which you can easily and quickly find what you need, within reason. Everyone has a set point of how much stuff they can keep track of while still leading a happy and productive life. You don’t want your stuff to be the boss.

So what can you do right now to stop confusing tidy with organized? The next time you go to put something in a drawer and it’s a tight fit, ask yourself whether all that stuff is in there because it belongs there and you use it, or simply because it fits.

Podcast 126: Quick tips for tight spots

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Listen or subscribe here: iTunes â‹… Stitcher â‹…
Soundcloud â‹… YouTube â‹… Google Play â‹… iHeartRadio You can leave a review here!

This is podcast 126 and it’s about quick tips to get you out of tight spots. Things you can do when you feel a bit panicked that things are out of control and you don’t know what to do next.

I had that feeling the other day when several situations seemed to be going off the rails at once. It happens. All those situations had lots of moving parts that I needed to keep track of and I felt overwhelmed. On top of that, they all felt stalled. In each case, I was at a point where I couldn’t control what happened next. I had to wait for something. I don’t like to wait!

So I used Tip #1: Tackle just one thing on your to do list. Find one next to-do for a project. Note that you are shifting your attention from the higher priority tasks that are dead in the water for whatever reason.

Choose something on your list that you CAN do, now. There’s always something. This way, you get to be productive despite not making progress on the bigger stuff. It all needs to get done, right? And you’re in the mood to get things done so capitalize on that by knocking some lower level items off your list. That’s Tip #1.

The next two tips are about organizing your stuff. If you have a lot of organizing to do; a whole house, for example; there may be some times when you feel discouraged, or overwhelmed, or as if you really aren’t making any progress. Lots of my podcasts are about how to avoid this problem or solve it, but here I’m offering just quick tips to get you past the stuck spots.

Here’s the first one. Tip #2: Organize one little spot. It could be your desk, a corner of your desk, the kitchen counter, the coffee table or any other smallish spot that has gathered a bunch of stuff that you need to deal with, or at least have out of the way. Again, this isn’t high level stuff. But it’s a task you can focus on right now and see results from. That in turn can either energize you to go further, or put your mind at ease that you’ve done something. You did a thing!

I once suggested that a client who was stuck organizing her home office focus just on one corner of her desk. In particular, the far left corner. This was the one in her line of vision to the doorway. One reason she felt a bit stuck was that family members often stopped at her door to chat or ask a question.

She didn’t want to discourage them, but didn’t want those interruptions to derail her. She could see the small organized section whenever she was talking to someone and then could let her eyes focus on it after they left. That way, she was reminded of the progress she’d made and that the rest of the office would soon look like that corner. It was a little microcosm of order to soothe her.

Tip #3 is a variation on that theme. It’s to organize and put things away for ten minutes. With this one, you focus on a length of time rather than a physical space. Start wherever you are. For so many things we do, where you start just isn’t that important. What’s important is the starting, the getting into action.

Also, for both these tips the goal isn’t to finish anything. It’s merely to inch things along. This is a stopgap till you can get back to your big projects. Set a timer for ten minutes. This is important because you need to have that alarm relieve you of working any longer unless you really want to. You can do another ten minutes later if you wish. Similar to the Pomodoro method where you work for 25 minutes and then take a break. These tips also involve moving, which leads me to the next one.

Tip #4: Move! Move your bah-day. Sit in a different chair, look at a different view, do something to change up your current physical experience. Leave the room and walk somewhere. Doesn’t matter where. Getting into motion can shake loose that icky train of thought that has you stuck. Moving your body can also help defuse nervous energy that is gnawing at your attention.

Sometimes people get stuck before they even try to do anything. They don’t even get out of the gate. In this case, try Tip #5: Do a brain dump. You need to get things out of your head and onto paper to clarify your thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’re going to do all those things but at least you have collected them so you don’t have to keep obsessing over them and get back to focusing.

This might be a long list. A really long list. We don’t care about that because you’re not going to do any of these things right now. I’ve written many times about how much relief you get simply from putting things down on paper. I personally prefer paper, but digital can work too.

David Allen has written about this too. He says that any uncaptured (meaning not written down) tasks and thoughts are like hamsters running on a wheel in your brain. They keep running and running and making that awful squeaking noise just when you’re trying to concentrate. Once those items ARE captured in a safe place, meaning a notebook you can find again, your brain can let go and set those hamsters free.

My last tip, #6, is to ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen if I am stuck on this project? When you take time to think about it, you’ll realize that the worst is really not that bad. As Woody Allen says, 80% of life is showing up. If you’re doing something, anything, you’re doing something.

What you can do right now: choose the tip that feels most doable to you and try it right now. Or file it away for future use.

Organizing as a Practice

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I've been trying to start two new practices recently (I know I shouldn't say "trying;" am I afraid to commit?). One is meditating and the other is writing. Since I used to write fiction I know a practice is important but somehow I didn't think that also applied to non-fiction writing. My friend Deborah assures me that it does (and she gave me some great tips!). So I'm using an online timer and putting in 10 minutes (for now) a day. What I come up with is drivel, of course, but that's not the point.

Zafu My meditation practice is also often embarrassingly bad. Wow, is that really me thinking all those incredibly banal thoughts? Then I remind myself that I'm just practicing. I am not very patient and have never understood delayed gratification, so it's a big thing for me to let my practice be a practice and not a path to perfection.

Being organized, clutter-free and in control of your time is also a practice. You're not going to finally get it right one day and be home free. Some days will be better than others. You'll go through busy periods when your system gets a little frayed around the edges and then you'll take the time to get back on track.

I do emphasize having a vision for your organized life, a goal to work towards. However, if that goal is making you feel disappointed in what's happening today, just think of what you're doing as a practice. Instead of thinking, 'my office has to look like that one I saw on Apartment Therapy,' try 'today I'll clear off the top of the file cabinet.' Focus on action today rather than possible futures.

A practice has its own rhythm and is its own rewards. Try it and see.

Kitty with meditation cushion from jakemohan's photostream.

Organizing Computer Odds and Ends

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What do you do with all that stuff you acquire when you get a new computer? You're overrun with disks, manuals, cords, instruction sheets, warranties, adapters and packaging, all of which is different shapes and sizes. Years ago, I had a client who carefully slipped each disk into a plastic sleeve in a binder. A second binder with still more sleeves held the paper documentation.

Colored cords
The main problem with that kind of storage is that there's a good chance you'll never look at or need any of those things again. So it makes no sense to waste time organizing them. My advice is to use one of my favorite organizing tools: the versatile zip lock bag.

Just take all that stuff you want to keep (you may need it after all, so I don't advise pitching it) and throw it into a bag. Lots of stuff? Use the gallon size. Use two. I like the kind that uses a zipper pull to close it; for me they're much easier to open and close.

Besides being incredibly easy to do, this method lets you keep everything in one place. Otherwise, you'll either spend a lot of time labelling cords and adapters and other miscellaneous parts, or you won't have any idea what they are when you encounter them next year.

I keep my bags in my computer gear drawer upright, like file folders. If the manual has a title on its spine, position it in the bag so that it shows through the side or bottom, then file the bag so that the spine faces up, giving you an instant label. Even without a label, it will be easier to find a particular bag when you can thumb through them. If they're in a horizontal pile, you'll have to take them all out to find what you need.

Colored cords from Jim 5's photostream

Technology Made Easy

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I'm not a technology maven. I used to be, back when computers only did about five things. And I was the family genius who could fix the color balance on the TV set. But everything got more complicated and I didn't keep up. So I'm always happy when I can use technology without having to learn anything.

Jott is a fantastic service that allows me to send myself emails via my cellphone, and it doesn't involve texting, which I have not been able to master. I just call a number (I've set it to speed dial because I use it so much) and speak my message and it magically appears as typed text in my email.

There are other applications for the service, but this one is incredibly useful for me since I routinely think of a dozen things I need to do while I'm driving and can't write them down. If I don't have it down in writing, I'll forget it. Jott also has scads of links so you can use it to track expenses, post to Twitter, find products on Amazon and much more.

A recent New York Times article recommended Jott and three other great voice-activated services: GOOG 411, a free business phone directory; ChaCha, a web research service and Reqall, a task reminder service that sends reminders to your phone or email at the requested time. All these services do more than my short description indicates; check them out!

[Helpful reminder from ford's photostream]

Information Overload? Stop Moving

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I had the pleasure of hearing the charming and witty Karen Salmansohn speak the other night at the Ladies Who Launch monthly meeting. She's promoting her new book, The Bounce Back Book, about "how to thrive in the face of adversity, setbacks, losses, failures, illness, rejection – you name it."

Karen has a clever way with words. She likened having a case of information overload to being stuck in a snowglobe. You can't see what's going on because all that snow is flying in your face.

What's the cure? Well, with a snowglobe, you set it down and let it sit there awhile and the snow will slowly all fall to the bottom. With your brain, same thing. Sit down and let your brain just be still for awhile until your thoughts become clear again.

[Gorgeous art snowglobe by Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz]

Password Hints

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I have 170 passwords in my Palm. Some are written in directly, the ones I use for sites where I don’t care about security, like reading the New York Times online. Others I use so often I have them in my head. But there too are many secure passwords for me to remember and those are listed with hints only.

Mine your past to create easy-to-remember passwords with letters and numbers. It’s important not to use current information that you might possibly have recorded elsewhere, or that would just be easy for someone to guess. Also, current information that seems memorable now might not stand the test of time. For the letters part, I typically use:

  • Names of former teachers
  • Names of streets I used to live on
  • Names of neighborhoods I used to live in
  • Names of my childhood friends’ pets

For the numbers part, try:

  • Four digit birth dates of friends and relatives (provided these aren’t recorded with the person’s name in your datebook)
  • Previous street addresses, mine and friends’
  • Parts of old phone numbers, mine and friends’ (I actually remember the phone number of my best friend from first grade)

So the hints look like this: "Second grade teacher, Dan’s birthday" or "North Beach Street, Lynn’s phone (last 4 digits)." Easy to use for you, hard to crack for anyone else. Try it!

Use a ripening drawer for paper management

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paper management drawer

Does paper management seem overwhelming? All those decisions to make! Here’s a way to get some control before you’re ready to make the decisions.

I wrote about this concept several years ago. I discovered it in the excellent book ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau.

In the book and in my post, the ripening drawer is used for miscellaneous items that aren’t quite junk but that don’t have a place to go, such as battery covers that came off of something that may turn up again soon.

I recently heard a success story from Christine, who used her drawer for paper management. Into it goes paper she didn’t know what to do with. Here’s her story.

It took me a while to consolidate my office supplies to free up a space, but now I’ve got a drawer with a big R on the front. I find I still drop mail and other things on my desk, but I’ve gotten better about going through them periodically and either putting things in the ripening drawer or actually dealing with them (imagine that!).

Although it may take just a few minutes (or even seconds…) for me to decide what to do with an item, these piles have sometimes languished for weeks, even years. So having this drawer is helping me develop a new habit.

I’ve had a few “aha” moments, as I start searching my desk for that event invitation or that paper I need to follow up with and then remember that it’s probably ripening away. Often when I go through the drawer, I find stuff I can now easily throw away – simply due to the passage of time. And my work space is much less cluttered.

Christine is using the drawer as a tool to develop a new habit; dealing with paper management on a regular and timely basis. Having a tool to reinforce a habit is key; none of us is good at changing our behavior without help.

The drawer also works as a container. Instead of having papers floating all over the office, Christine now puts them in the drawer, and thinks to look in there when she can’t find something. She has a specific spot to put things even if they don’t have a permanent home.

The second powerful concept is how paper, and the information it holds, loses its importance with age. Events have passed and questions were answered, so the paper is now irrelevant. That makes it a no-brainer to throw it out.

Lastly, Christine isn’t distracted by so much visual clutter trying to grab her attention. Now she can focus on her work and feel relieved that the paper is under control.

Have you tried this idea? Let me know in the comments what you think!

Decisions Move the World

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Diving board I write a lot about decision making. So much of clutter and other stuff that's in your way is the result of not making decisions about it. The pile of needed decisions keeps growing till you just get overwhelmed by it and then the simplest decision seems strenuous. That naturally induces procrastination.

Why decide? Here's why:

  • When you don't decide, others do it for you. Are they going to pick the choice you want? Uh-uh.
  • The longer you wait to decide, the more likely your desired option(s) will expire or otherwise go away
  • When you avoid deciding to keep your options open, you still don't have that thing you want. You just have the option to have it. Would you rather have the daydream or the real thing?
  • When you boldly make decisions, you stir up positive energy. You take action. You move. You pull it off.

Decision making is a skill you can learn. I'm almost ready to publish my new info program about decision making and habit building, where I teach you both those vital skills. So, stay tuned, or drop me a line in the comments. What can I help you with today?

Diving board from vauvau's photostream.

30 Minutes to Less Clutter

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Want less clutter on your desk? Can you spare half an hour? What if it would make the following half hour twice as productive? And the hour after that too? Spending time on organizing is a great investment because it always gives you a high return (unlike many investments these days).


Figuring out how to start is often the hardest part of decluttering. The big secret is that it really doesn’t matter, just make a decision and do it. I’m going to suggest one of many possible approaches to structure your half hour, and that’s triage. Triage is all about decision making. It provides a simple structure to guide you and it depends on quick, resolute judgments that you act on right away.

In the medical world, triage is used when there are many patients and limited resources. Care is denied to those who will probably not live, so that those resources can help more patients who probably will live. I can guarantee you that you don’t have enough resources to manage all the stuff that’s currently in your life. Becoming skilled at triage (AKA, ruthless decision making) means more of your time and energy goes to the important stuff.

Triage breaks down into three categories, according to our friends at Wikipedia.

1) Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
2) Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
3) Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

On your desk, this means

Category 1. Stuff you like and need that will be put away;
Category 2. Stuff you don’t like or need that you can immediately decide to ditch;
Category 3. Stuff that you need to deal with right now.

Let’s do half an hour of desk triage. Remember, triage is speedy because lives are at stake. The more quickly you make decisions, the clearer your desk will stay. You may not get through your whole desk in half an hour, but you’ll complete a section rather than just rearranging the piles and you’ll have less clutter.

If you have a lot of paper, choose a small area, perhaps just a section of your desk. Triage will get you through the purging and decision making. I’ve added some post-30 minute clean-up suggestions if you want to keep going.

In a hospital, triage patients are sent to different areas depending on their category. On the battlefield, they are simply marked with colored tags. On your desk, use Post Its to mark your piles. Allow enough room for sorted piles. A card table is great, but the floor will work too.

Phase One

This is the gross sort. You’re deciding whether papers belong to category 1, 2 or 3. You’ll need a timer, 2 piling spots, and containers for recycling and shredding.

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Start with the pile on the left side of your desk and move across to the right without skipping over anything. Don’t let your eyes wander. Each time your gaze passes over the desk, your mind starts to run in different directions and you get distracted. Focus on one thing at a time. Take a pile to your sorting area with your back to your desk so you can’t see the other piles.

Pick up the first item in the first pile. Is it category 1, 2 or 3? Don’t read or think too much about an item; you only need to identify it for now. Quickly define each: Need it? Want it? Ditch it? Too late? If you can’t decide, choose category 1. Put it into the correct pile or bag. Repeat until the timer goes off.

Phase Two

Set the timer for ten minutes. Sort the paper in category 1 by topic. If a topic does not come to mind, ask yourself why you are keeping the item. When you go look for it again, you’ll think, “where is that information about ______?” If someone asked you, “do you know where the ______________ is?” Use that word.

Choose broad topics; it’s easier to look for a particular item in five possible folders rather than 50. Right now, you’ll just create separate piles for each topic. Label the piles with Post-Its. If you run out of room, stack the piles alternating horizontal and vertical to keep them separated.

Post triage

File! If your file cabinet is a disaster area, consider getting a temporary file box to use until you can revamp it. That way your newly sorted papers won’t get lost again. Note: you’ll probably have a stack of keepers that you want to read; those don’t get filed, but they need to go somewhere where you’ll see them and read them.

Phase Three

Set the timer for five minutes. Now we’ve come to category 3. These papers were out on the desk because you’re using them to remind you to do something. This is not an effective strategy. You need a list. A list allows you to see at a glance what all those to-do’s are. When they are piled up or spread out, you can’t get the whole picture.

Your to-do list can be in a notebook, on a pad of paper, in your PDA, a whiteboard, on your phone; wherever you will be most likely to look at it. For each reminder, create a to-do. To do for stack of marketing letters: address envelopes, stuff them (including business cards), stamp and take to mailbox. To do for event flyer: Add event to calendar and make a note to RSVP (if necessary) on calendar several days before. To do for pile of business cards: enter into computer contacts list or put into alphabetized card box. To do for information about you frequent flyer program: read it right now to see if there’s a time limited offer you want or throw it out, knowing you can get the information from their website.

Now, you may be thinking your to-do list will get unmanageably long. Yes, it will. But it’s not any longer than it was in your head, or spread out around the house. Before all these things were on the list, you were by turns overwhelmed and in denial about how much you had to do. Now you can see it in black and white. This is your current reality. When it’s all in one place you can make informed decisions about what you will and will not do.

Post triage

Make looking at your to-do list a habit. Send yourself email reminders if necessary. Where you keep your list is up to you. The important part is having one place to look for your tasks.

If you have years of backlog, the whittling down may go slowly. Use triage as often as you need it. Set a timer to help you stay focused and speedy and not find yourself deep in reading an hour later. A timer is also good to reassure you that you’ll be free of this tedium soon.

Make sure to keep up with current paper so it doesn’t become part of the backlog. That is, don’t stack new paper on top of old piles. Spend the first five minutes of triage taking care of the new stuff.
An unexpected benefit to this method is that you may be inspired to keep less stuff once you realize how much work it is to keep it all organized!

Remember: it’s your stuff, you’re in charge.